It started with the tune the Doctor had strummed out in that American diner, but of course it didn’t stop there. The gap in his memory was too large to be contained by one song, his grief too complex for a simple progression of chords. The ache he felt for something lost and just out of reach poured through his guitar and out the TARDIS’s amps, reverberating against the walls, muffled here by books, reflected there by metal, until the sound surrounded him. Consumed him. And still the anguish persisted.
His memory faded until there was nothing left but the grief and the music, even the waitress and the story he’d told her reduced to vague impressions, but the pain only compounded. As that ache continued to grow, so did the music, adding up to reams of songs, all sharing a melody, a single theme tying one to the next, that lilting tune he’d first discovered in that diner that was in Nevada but should have been in Utah. Maybe some of them become songs, the waitress had said, in a voice he no longer remembered. Those chords felt like the closest thing to memory he had left, the nearest thing to truth in the shattered shambles of his life.
Clara. Maybe the melody was the shape of her smile, or the sway in her step, the spark of adventure in her eye, or her courage and kindness. Was that some edge of true memory there, or was it just that all those dear to him were kind and courageous? He’d lost companions before, people he’d loved, mourned them for years, and yet never felt this kind of hole. Never felt the need for a neural block, either.
Eventually the console room became too small for the size of the music, the speakers not able to sufficiently convey the depth of his feelings. So he donned his ‘space hobo’ look — who had called it that originally? the song was his only answer — and went looking for larger venues, bigger sound systems. Jammed with a few old friends, made a few more, but always the Clara shaped hole, always the melody just under his breath, like something he didn’t quite get to say before the neural block went into effect. Like something he never meant to stop saying.
He played the large festivals. The classics on Earth, naturally, and then followed humanity through the ages, through the star systems across the galaxy, as they found new and bigger and louder ways to experience music. He was an opening act, sometimes, or just the weird vagrant at sound check. He’d show up, connect his guitar, and strum out those chords, make the air quake with the shape of what he’d lost.
So of course he attracted a following eventually. He was late enough in the human civilization that time travel wasn’t so strange an idea anymore, and the single tune carrying across the planets and star systems, across centuries... Well, there’d always been a romantic streak in the human race, part of what he liked about them. And for some, that melody was the ultimate expression.
He’d done such a job erasing all knowledge of the Doctor from every database in the universe, back when River’s life had depended on it, that he’d forgotten what it was to be known, what it was to show up somewhere and see the spark of recognition on someone’s face. It took him ages to stop searching those faces for one that would fit the Clara shaped hole. They came for the music, for the romance and mystery and longing of it, not for him. They invented names for him, backstories of a tragic lost love that he could neither confirm nor deny. They defined him through the music, through the lilting chords that were meant to be her, not him. None of them truly knew the Doctor. None of them even knew that name.
The fan groups, then, were a mild annoyance, but not much of a surprise. The TARDIS and his guitar were strictly off limits, and he didn’t sign anything, and beyond that he didn’t much care for the milling crowd of familiar-ish faces that started to pop up along his stops through the galaxy, half of them with vortex manipulators strapped to their wrists. The opening acts had given way to featured performances, solo ‘tours’ retroactively dubbed thus by human time travellers who could pop back to a favourite event at their leisure.
Once upon a time he’d travelled like that, gone wherever the whim had taken him, a mad man and his blue box off to see the universe. He’d given it up after Amy and Rory, right around the time the hole in his memory started. All the faces before this one he could remember clearly, but sometime during his last face, the gap he called Clara began. A stationary life on Trenzalore slowly faded in somewhere around his 1300th birthday, and even that time was littered with holes. Through it all, he’d been convinced he was going to die there. He shouldn’t have regenerated again, it shouldn’t have been possible, and yet he remembered glimpses of it. He remembered taking off the bowtie for the last time, he remembered being incredibly sad to say goodbye.
It all just disappears, doesn't it? Everything you are, gone in a moment, like breath on a mirror.
He remembered Clara being there with him, but not her face or her eyes or her smile, not what she’d said or done. He remembered the sensation of the First Face settling in, so much stronger at the beginning of a new regeneration cycle, and she was seared to his hearts still, with everything but the memory of who she was. He thought Kidneys! might have been the first word he’d said to her, though he couldn’t imagine why.
It covered more than a thousand years, that Clara shaped hole. But sometimes an amp would produce a particular type of feedback, and it would feel like the gaps were peppered throughout his memory, back and back and back to his childhood, like this mystery woman had tiptoed through his life, leaving little footprints his mind tried desperately to forget. And sometimes a chord would reverberate against the backs of his teeth, and his body would suddenly be convinced that the gap was not a thousand years, but four and a half billion years.
He thought of losing her, tried to imagine their last day together, and his mind strayed to the stars going out, to the heat-death of the universe. I watched as time ran out, moment by moment, until nothing remained. No time. No space. Just me.
It was sad. And it was beautiful. And it is over.
Nothing’s sad ‘til it’s over. Then everything is.
Sad, or over, he wondered, and went in search of a venue the size of a planet, speakers that could drown out the disembodied voices drifting anchorless in his mind. He made his guitar sing and the air quake and the crowds roar, and still he ached. The size of it was too overwhelming, the scale of what he’d lost, not just the person but the time itself, almost half his lifetime, pieces of himself he couldn’t get back without breaking free of the neural block.
There were ways to cheat it, he knew, to short circuit the artificial amnesia put in place by Time Lord technology — and how was that even possible? where had he been? — tactics practiced in official espionage circles as well as by TARDIS operators and paranoid Academy students. He had, at one point or another, been all three, so he knew the sidesteps of logic one could take to subvert the programming, the more drastic measures that could be taken to disable it. If something could be remembered it could be brought back, all of it, and the neural block would cease to function.
But it had to have been put there for a purpose, hadn’t it? If the size of the forgetting was this overwhelming, how overpowering must the experience have been? What must it have been like, to know this woman who had to be torn from his mind so completely he could only identify his feelings for her by what was left behind? What had he done to try to save her to justify this large of a wipe?
Stopping by familiar stomping grounds to buy guitar strings, he checked in on Donna Noble. He kept his distance, only too aware of the harm he could cause her if he sparked her memory. But she looked well, happy, brash as ever, and he smiled to himself, imagining the two of them knocking around together now, hollering over each other, only ever speaking in acerbic endearments.
Oh, don’t worry, daft old man, I’m not going anywhere.
He missed her with a more manageable hurt, an echo of the Clara. He wondered if Donna ever felt this kind of sourceless longing, ever dreamed of someone she could almost remember, as he did. He hoped not. She seemed happy, and what else could he ask for, for his companions, for the people he loved? Amy had said she and Rory had lived a long and happy life together — fifty years, if tombstones were to be believed. River had repeatedly emphasised what each and every line of their relationship meant to her, Martha and Rose had each married for love and gone on to do great things, even Sarah Jane had eventually forgiven him for dropping her off in the wrong place, and she, too, had lived a happy and impactful life.
He had lost companions, yes, and so many more during the Time War, but against all the good he had wrought, all his long years of trying to help where he could, what had he done to deserve this? Couldn’t he, just for once, get to keep someone? After all this time, after everything I've done, don't you think the universe owes me this?
But a thousand years, off and on his entire life, four and a half billion years, what would you call that if not ‘keeping’ someone, he argued with himself. They’d had their time, and apparently he had been so unwilling to give Clara up, it had to be taken from him by force, ripped out at the root. Everything’s got to end sometime. Otherwise nothing would ever get started.
No. Stop it. You're saying goodbye. Don't say goodbye!
He suspected one of the contextless voices in his head was hers, but he had no way of knowing which. Not without breaking the neural block. So he buried himself in the music, let the chords speak where she could not.
He was mid-performance on an enormous stage on an artificial moon called Woodstock when he realised he’d once again locked eyes with one of a pair of brunettes who fit vaguely into his time travelling fans folder, into that group of pseudo-familiar people who seemed to always show up these days, no matter when or where he played. Two young women — though it was impossible to tell, really, he was visiting a century where everyone looked perpetually twenty-seven — short and thus often nearest the stage, nearly mistakable for sisters, though their noses set them apart. One with light eyes and the other with wide brown eyes, their honeyed depths calling to him out of the crowd.
The Doctor didn't make a habit of studying humans' facial expressions, but he found himself cataloguing all her little tells: the exact angle of her eyebrows, the set of her jaw, the slight sheen in her eyes. As soon as he realised he was doing it, he looked away, dropped his gaze and broke the connection. He pulled on his sonic-sunglasses, grinning at the crowd's roar of approval as he turned his attention to the particularly complex bridge of the current version of the Clara song. He could feel the woman’s gaze on him still, like a waver in gravity, and had to grit his teeth to keep from looking back at her.
Who the woman was hardly mattered, much less the precise shade of heartbreak in her eyes. He was sure, if he were to look around at the other faces in the audience, that he'd find many such expressions. It was the music, the way they experienced it and the stories they wove to explain it, nothing to do with him. He had watched the crowd plenty in the past, he’d seen how the music affected them, and then promptly forgotten each and every one of their faces. He would forget this one, too — in fact, the brunette’s face was already gone from his memory, it was that inconsequential.
The Clara melody flowed smoothly into something slower and softer, longing made audible, and he heard the audience sigh along with the music. He looked up at them again, watching it ripple outwards through the crowd, the echo of what he had lost flickering across thousands of faces in a microsecond. And still too small, still only a shadow of his grief.
Unconsciously his gaze was drawn to her again, over the heads of the handful of people that separated them. He truly had forgotten her face in those moments when he looked away, but there, there in her brown eyes, he saw it now. It set her apart from the rest of the crowd, the depth of longing held in her eyes, outweighing all the rest put together. And he wondered, in the fleeting moment their gazes met and held, if she was the only one who understood what the melody really meant, who might understand the carved-out pain inside him, the ache that not even the music could accurately convey.
But she dropped her gaze, a tear streaking down her cheek, and the moment was lost. Strangely desperate to hold onto the connection just a little longer, he reflected it back to her again the only way he could, through the music. The crowd roared along with the unexpected crescendo, but when he looked up next, she was gone, her face already fading from his memory.
Don’t run. Stay with me.
It tore out of him then, the Clara song, raw and aching and new all over again, the tune morphing beneath his fingertips as he played. The audience surged but he was deaf to them, a being of pure longing, his entire existence suspended between the pulsing soundwaves of the music. It felt real, suddenly, in a way it hadn’t even when he’d first woken up disoriented in Nevada. Clara was gone, and she was never, ever coming back. No matter how far he travelled, or how he called out to her in his music, or longed for her in silence, she was never going to come back to him.
And you'll still be gone. Whatever I do, you still won't be there.
Look how far I went for fear of losing you.
She'll die on you, you know. She'll blow away like smoke.
He blew out an amp, to the audience’s immense satisfaction, then disconnected his guitar and walked off stage without looking back, breath ragged and hearts aching.
He’d parked the TARDIS a good distance from the stage, experience having taught him that there was more safety and anonymity in quietly slipping off to the edges of the crowd than in trying to keep the TARDIS close at hand. Without the music to identify him, he was just an old man with a guitar case, hardly notable, rarely recognised. He was more grateful for it today than most. The last thing he needed was a run-in with his fan club. All he wanted was to be alone with his grief.
Look at you, with your eyes, and your never giving up, and your anger, and your kindness. One day, the memory of that will hurt so much that I won't be able to breathe, and I'll do what I always do. I'll get in my box and I'll run and I'll run, in case all the pain ever catches up. And every place I go, it will be there.
He almost didn’t see her there, leaned against a tree trunk ahead of him, the woman with the wide brown eyes and the face he’d forgotten so easily, but something drew his gaze to her while he was still far enough away that she hadn’t noticed him yet. She was staring at the TARDIS with a kind of sad affection on her face. The Doctor paused in his tracks, taking a moment to consider her without her eyes on him, as the music started up again on the distant stage.
She looked human enough, no flicker or glimmer of a holographic shell, but there was something distinctly other about her, something that set her apart from the hordes of humans that followed him through time and space. Her clothing fit into the sort of non-descript style that many time travellers preferred, nothing to link her to any particular era, and both her shoes and her hair were practical, but she didn’t appear to be wearing a vortex manipulator.
It was clear she’d been crying, and as she gazed at the TARDIS, another tear slipped down her cheek. When she reached up to brush it away, she seemed to notice him from the corner of her eye and turned to look at him more properly, her expression still mired in grief.
Feeling caught out, the Doctor resumed walking towards the TARDIS, offering the strange woman a tentative half-smile as he drew near. Emotions rippled across her face too quickly for him to name, landing on a muffled determination. She pushed away from the tree and wrapped her arms around herself, something about her body language telling him she meant to speak even before she opened her mouth.
“You’re him, aren’t you?” she asked. “From the stage?”
It had to be rhetorical, since she clearly already knew the answer, but he stopped a few feet from the TARDIS and faced her. “Yeah, guilty as charged.”
“That was quite a performance you gave.”
He attempted something like a smile. “You didn’t even stay for the grand finale.”
“Oh, I heard it well enough from here,” she replied softly, and he wondered again at her red-rimmed eyes.
“What’s your name?” he asked her, glancing at her and noting the precise tilt of her nose.
She hesitated half a moment. “Oswin,” she finally said, smiling slightly as she did. It didn’t reach her eyes. It's a smile but you're sad. It's confusing. It's like two emotions at once. It's like you're malfunctioning.
Oswin. Odd name. Odder still for him to be disappointed in it.
“Nice to meet you, Oswin,” he said, feeling like he was reciting some long-ago lesson on polite manners, drilled into him by a woman he could no longer remember. “Come to these sorts of things often?”
She smiled softly and looked down at her feet. “I have made a bit of a habit out of it, if we’re being honest. It’s hard to stay away.”
“And your friend?” he asked, without really knowing why. “The blue-eyed one?”
“Ash,” Oswin confirmed, nodding. “It’s not really her thing. She humours me, lets me drag her along, but I think she’s mostly here to make sure I stay out of trouble.”
She grinned at that, and it looked genuine. “Not usually.”
“Me, either,” he said, smiling back at her.
“Oh, I can just imagine.”
Talking with her had only increased his sense that there was something distinctly strange about this woman. He fiddled with the sonicglasses, debating putting them on and running an inconspicuous diagnostic on her.
Somehow she seemed to know exactly what he was thinking and said, “Yeah, I wouldn’t look too closely at either Ash or I. We’re both HIPOAT.”
“Humans In Possession Of Alien Technology,” she clarified, shooting him a sidelong look. “Thought you’d’ve known that one.”
“I’m not overly familiar with this century’s lingo,” he said, smirking at her and lifting the guitar case as evidence. “I’m just passing through.”
“Ah yes, the Eternal Traveller,” she said ruefully, invoking one of the names the pudding brains had given him. “It’s quite a path you cut through the centuries, you know.”
He shrugged. “That’s the nature of time travel. Scar tissue is always the price.”
“Scars for you or for the universe?” she asked.
“Is there a difference?”
She smiled sadly and shook her head, brown hair just barely brushing her shoulders. “Most of us make it through life with only person-sized scars.”
“But not you,” he murmured, thinking back on the way her eyes had seemed to mimic his grief, while the Clara song had echoed around them.
Oswin shrugged stiffly, not meeting his gaze. “It’s as true for me as for anyone.”
Doctor, you are not the only person who ever lost someone. It's the story of everybody. Get over it. Beat it. Break free.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” he blurted out before he could think better of it.
She eyed him suspiciously. “I suppose.”
“Are you, by any chance, bio-looped?”
For a fraction of a second she looked terrified, but a fake anger quickly covered over. “Oi!” she said, hitting his arm lightly. “What did I say about HIPOAT? Don’t look too closely!”
“Sorry, sorry, couldn’t help but notice.”
“Of course not,” she sighed, sounding resigned.
“A bit like Cinderella, with the clock paused at eleven-fifty-nine, isn’t it?” he asked.
Eleven’s hour is over now, the clock is striking twelve’s...
She smiled, but it was sad. “Something like that, yeah.”
“So what is it? An age-trigger, maybe? Go out and see the universe, have your adventures, then make it back like no time has passed at all, your supper still warm?” She was watching him with something he thought might be affection in her brown eyes, so he continued on, his tone teasing, lighter than he’d felt in ages. “Are you running from an impending marriage? I had a friend who did that once. Oh, or a prison sentence? Had another friend who did that — well, she took the sentence, but kept slipping out. Come to think of it, the two of them were related, maybe the running away was genetic...”
She was grinning at his antics, but her eyes were still sad. “No, no, nothing as exciting as that! Though I wonder, sometimes, at your friends.” She considered him for a long moment. “And who are you travelling with these days? Any other exciting friends recently?”
You're going to be alone now, and you're very bad at that.
He looked away, fiddled with the lock of the guitar case. “Nah, just me and the guitar, lately. I’ve got loads of good memories to keep me company, though,” he added, glancing back up at her.
Her eyebrows had drawn together, but he couldn’t quite name the emotion on her face. “Do you?” she asked, voice serious, gaze searching.
“Well, I’m older than I look, did a lot of travelling before I embarked on my musical career.”
“I’ve done a fair bit of that myself, now,” she replied. “I’ve seen so much, sometimes it’s hard to keep track. Hard to remember it all.”
I will not forget one line of this, not one day. I swear.
Her statement felt loaded, though he wasn’t sure she meant it to be. She couldn’t really know about the Clara shaped hole, of course — and besides, memories formed while bio-looped were notoriously finicky. Plenty of races had figured out how to bio-loop a living creature, but only the Time Lords had really perfected the memory side of that sort of technology. She was surely just referring to her own issues with missing memories, not his.
“Still,” he said after just a beat too long, “there are moments that stand out.”
“‘You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again,’” she quoted to him, looking up at the stars that blazed above them, her arms wrapped around her middle again.
The pieces clicked together in his head almost audibly. “Ah, so it’s terminal, then?” he asked before he could stop himself.
She looked away sharply, but it didn’t hide the sheen of tears in her eyes. “Everything ends,” she said, shrugging.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and realised he meant it.
“Why?” she asked, swallowing back tears. “It’s not your fault.”
I did this, do you hear me? I did this. This is my fault.
“One last hurrah, then,” he said, and Oswin hiccupped beside him. “I’m honoured that you’d include so many of my performances in your itinerary.”
She snorted damply, her large dark eyes again fixed on the stars overhead as though that would keep her tears from falling. “You’re one of the Wonders of the Universe,” she teased him, her tears barely held at bay. “There’s hardly a time travellers’ guidebook out there that doesn’t list your concert series as a do-not-miss.”
“Which ones don’t? I’ll send a sternly-worded letter to their publishers,” he said, and won the genuine laugh he’d hoped for.
“Buy you a drink?” he asked as her laughter died away.
What do you say to lunch, followed by breakfast? Because we're time travellers and that's how we roll. Then cocktails with Moses!
She returned her gaze from the sight above them and turned to him. For half a second she looked unspeakably sad, but then she was smiling over it, through it. And there's that smile again. I don't even know how you do that.
“I don’t think they’ve got ‘round to building a concessions stand on this moon yet, much less a decent pub,” she said, shaking her head.
“Oh.” He really wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting.
“Not to worry, you daft old man,” she said, smiling fondly and blinking back her tears. “My ship is parked just behind that hill there. Fully equipped kitchen, though I think lemonade might be the strongest thing we have on tap. My treat.”
“You’re sure your friend won’t mind?”
Oswin shook her head. “Nah, Ash wanted to stay for the next act, so the place will be ours for a bit. Come on, it’s not far,” she said, then turned and led the way, past the TARDIS and over the hill she’d indicated.
They paused at the top of the rise, and she pointed to the structure below them, blockier than he would have expected. “There,” she said. “What’d I tell you? Not far.” Something about her body language made him think she was gathering her courage for something, and he knew distantly that should put him on guard, but he followed after her anyway.
“Your ship is a diner?” he asked in confusion as they neared.
“Sometimes,” she answered coyly, shooting him a small smile as she unlocked the flimsy-looking door.
It was all too familiar, ringing too many bells in his mind that sounded far too much like the TARDIS’s Cloister Bell, but he couldn’t have stopped himself from following her through the door if he’d tried. You’d go to hell if she asked. And she would.
The interior of her ship looked as much like an anachronistic American diner as the exterior did, like something pulled directly out of his patchy memory, and the radio was playing a soft jazz tune that he almost recognised. He should leave, the Doctor knew, turn around and walk away and forget this strange woman with her inexplicable ship and her sad eyes. But when had he ever done the smart thing, the safe thing? When had he ever turned his back on a mystery? You are the only mystery worth solving.
“Lemonade, then?” she called over her shoulder as she headed towards the kitchen tucked behind the bar. “Or I make a mean chocolate shake.”
Do you want to go and get some coffee, or chips, or something? Or chips and coffee?
“Chips and coffee?” he suggested, before he could think better of it.
She shot him a guarded look from behind the counter but nodded. “I can do that.”
“So this thing actually flies, then?” he asked, sitting down at the bar and settling the guitar case at his feet.
“When I can convince her to do,” Oswin said ruefully as she worked. “Got a mind of her own sometimes, you know how it is.”
He did know, which was exactly the problem. It was like watching a galaxy come into focus down the barrel of a telescope, the longer he sat there. He knew this sort of ship, knew precisely the sort of negotiating Oswin would have to do to fly it.
But more than that, he was certain he’d seen it before, sat at this bar with this same strange woman across from him. The memory was hazy now, formed too soon after the neural block to really stick, but as the smells of chips and coffee filled the brightly decorated room, he was sure he’d done this all before. He fiddled with his sonicglasses, debating using them to try to bolster his scattered memories.
Oswin passed him his coffee across the bar, then scooped up her own and a basket of freshly cooked chips and made her way out from behind the counter and over to a vinyl-upholstered booth, tilting her head at him to indicate that he should join her. He sat across from her and took an experimental sip of his coffee. As he suspected it contained at least six sugars and a dash of heavy cream, just to his liking. She hadn’t even asked him about his preferences.
She hadn’t needed to ask.
“Who are you?” he blurted out before he could stop himself.
She glanced up at him over the rim of her coffee cup, eyes wide with surprise, then shrugged stiffly. “I’m no one. Just me, just Oswin. A traveller passing through, like you.”
He glared at her, immediately certain she was lying — as certain as he was that he had been here before, with her. There was something she was deliberately not telling him, something obvious he was missing. Something that wasn’t adding up. “Why is it I can read your emotions better than my own, but when I look away, I can’t remember your face?”
She dropped her gaze and shrugged again, overplaying her casualness. “Perception filter.”
The Doctor bit down on the urge to tell her that that’s not how perception filters work; he suspected she already knew that, anyway. “Neural block,” he countered instead.
She jerked her gaze back up to his, brown eyes wide.
“Sonic,” he went on, indicating his glasses on the tabletop. “TARDIS,” he said with a glance around the diner. “Bio-loop,” he added with a significant nod towards her. “Oh, I’m sorry, are we not just naming off out-of-place bits of Time Lord tech?” he asked acerbically.
She looked shaken but said, “HIPOAT, I told you—”
“No one has Time Lord technology!”
“Because I’m—!” He cut himself off, staring at her. “Who are you?”
She watched him in disbelief for a long moment, panic growing behind her brown eyes. “The Hybrid,” she choked out finally, another lie. “I’m the Hybrid. There’s an old Gallifreyan prophecy—”
“—about the end of the universe. Yes there is!”
“I know the prophecy!” he snapped. “But you aren’t the Hybrid, that’s not possible!”
“I assure you I am!”
“Then why are you here, instead of out there, destroying the universe?”
That brought her up short, and she stared back at him, aghast. “It’s balanced on a knife’s edge, Doctor, it always has been!”
She realised her mistake before he could call her out on it, her mouth forming a little o of horror. He hadn’t told her his name, she hadn’t asked for it. But the moment it tumbled out into the air between them, he was certain, certain he had heard her say it a hundred times before — a thousand times, four and a half billion times.
There's one thing I know about her. Just one thing. If I met her again, I would absolutely know.
“Clara,” he named her, and to his disappointment and relief, his memories did not come rushing back to him.
She stared up at him with those big, sad eyes, tears beginning to slip silently down her face. The face the neural block would steal from him again the moment he turned his back on her. The source of the ache in his hearts, the meaning behind the chords, the black hole his entire universe had come to orbit. Clara.
“I tried to stay away,” she said, sniffling and swiping at her tears. “You didn’t make it easy.”
If you love me in any way, you’ll come back.
“I wasn’t trying to find you,” he told her honestly. “I didn’t realise it was an option.”
She searched his face for a long moment, Clara, this person shaped like the absence in his life. “It’s still there, isn’t it?” she asked. “The neural block? You don’t actually know me.”
I’d know you anywhere.
“Oh, I know you, my Clara,” he said, smiling at her with a bitter twist. “I know your shadow, I know the negative you left behind. What do you think the music’s about?”
She closed her eyes, and tears slipped from beneath her lashes. “Ash said we should keep our distance, that I was being stupid. But I— I had to see you.”
“I could break it, you know,” he said, and waited for her to look at him again before continuing. “The neural block. There are techniques to sidestep it, short it out.”
“But you haven’t,” she said. “All this time and you haven’t broken it.”
“I didn’t know what was at stake, why I had to forget you in the first place.”
“The Hybrid prophecy,” she told him, holding his gaze with nothing but absolute honesty in her eyes this time. “We were going to unravel the Web of Time. Something had to be done.”
“Time seems to be healing itself. It always does.”
“Because we did something to stop it unravelling. We did this.”
“Somehow I don’t think this is what we intended,” the Doctor said. “What good is forgetting if our feelings for each other haven’t changed?”
Clara flinched, closed her eyes and shook her head. “‘The Hybrid will break a billion billion hearts to heal its own.’ That’s what’s at stake here, Doctor. We were going to destroy the universe to chase one more moment of happiness.”
“So, what, we’re not allowed any happiness? Not even the memory of happiness?”
“It’s too dangerous. Even this— Ash was right, I’m being stupid, and the fate of the universe hangs in the balance. I should’ve stayed away.” She looked up at him, her eyes inflating with tears in a way he almost, almost remembered. “You can’t break the neural block. It has to stay.”
He couldn’t lose her again. He wouldn’t. “I insist upon my past. I am entitled to that. It’s mine,” he said.
Clara shook her head, tears flowing down her face. “Your past means the destruction of the universe, the death of everything that has ever or will ever live!”
“Tomorrow is promised to no one—”
“Don’t throw my own words back in my face!” she snapped, bringing him up short. “I know I messed up! I didn’t mean for this to happen, Doctor, really I didn’t.”
What did you do?
What else? What else do you think I did? I reversed the polarity. Push that button, Doctor, and the neural block will go off in your own face.
He sighed and shook his head. “I know you didn’t. I know you wouldn’t have hurt me deliberately. I remember you well enough to know that, at least.” Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?
Clara clutched at her coffee cup, to keep herself from reaching out to grasp his hand, he thought. “I’m sorry I hurt you at all,” she murmured. “If there was any other way, Doctor...”
“So what do we do now?”
She smiled at him tremulously, bravely. Let me be brave. “You are going to drink your coffee and eat your chips. And then you’re going to fly away from here, fly away and forget me, let time get back to healing. You’re going to find someone new, someone to travel with properly, run off and see the universe like you used to do. And someday — I don’t know when, but someday — Ash will find you, and tell you it’s safe to break the neural block. And then you can have all your happy yesterdays back.”
“Because you’ll be gone,” he said, hearing what she wasn’t saying. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.
She took a shaky breath and sighed it out. “Yes.”
“That isn’t what I want,” he told her bluntly. Please, I don't want this.
“The universe doesn’t care what we want, Doctor. Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones, but you still have to choose.”
“We could make the other choice,” he suggested, pain lancing through him at the thought of giving her up again.
“And risk the damage we might do to the universe? Break a billion billion hearts to heal our own?”
“Time hasn’t unravelled. We’re all still here, you, me, and the universe. We don’t have to say goodbye. So how about we just don't? Why don't we just fly away somewhere, together?” he said, echoing the anchorless voice from his scattered, shattered memories.
“Oh, that'd be great, wouldn't it?” she whispered back, like an ancient call and answer.
This is as brave as I know how to be. I know it's going to hurt you, but, please, be a little proud of me.
She was doing this to save everyone else, he realised, and him most of all. Putting on a brave face, making the hard choice, so he wouldn’t have to do. Would she never be done saving him, this impossible woman? “You're right,” he murmured, knowing he’d said it before. “You're always, always right.”
“I am so sorry, Doctor,” she said softly.
“This is right,” he said, hoping to reassure her even though this felt anything but right. “I accept it.”
Tears fell down her face unchecked. He thought about asking her to smile for him one last time, but—
How could I smile?
It's okay. Don't you worry. I'll remember it.
“Goodbye, my Clara,” he said instead, as he climbed to his feet. “Live well.”
He gathered up his sonicglasses and his guitar case and left without looking back, the sound of her quiet sobs following him all the way out into the starlight. He didn’t stop when he hit the fresh air, just kept putting one foot in front of the other, up the steep hill they’d descended together. Already Clara’s face was fading from his mind’s eye, but he clung to the memory of her bravery, her sacrifice to save him. To save the universe.
I will die, and no one else, here or anywhere, will suffer.
What about me?
If there was something I could do about that, I would. I guess we're both just going to have to be brave.
His TARDIS came into view all too soon, before the neural block had had a chance to steal away the details of their conversation. There was a woman leaned against the corner of it, one ankle crossed over the other in an exaggerated show of nonchalance. The Doctor recognised her, and quickly enough to feel bitter about it: Ash, Clara’s travelling companion.
“What the hell do you want?” he demanded as he approached.
“I suppose you don’t remember me, either?” she asked.
He paused, considering how much to tell her, then said, “Clara called you Ash.”
“So that’s a no, then.”
“Should I remember you?”
“You saved my life,” she said. “A very long time ago now. I was called Ashildr in those days. I stopped using that name eons ago, but Clara insisted. She told me once that it was your fear of losing her that made you save me, despite worrying about the ripples it would cause.”
There's nothing I can't do. Nothing. But I'm not supposed to. Ripples, tidal waves, rules.
“More of a tidal wave than a ripple, I think,” he said.
“And yet the universe is still standing. Your splashing about hasn’t brought the whole system down, and I’ve been in a hell of a lot of places I shouldn’t have been over the years.” Ash shrugged. “The universe adjusts. It gets over it. One extra immortal here or there isn’t enough to tear reality apart.”
“What’s your point?” he demanded irritably.
“My point is, Doctor, that the Hybrid prophecy is shit. ‘Break a billion billion hearts to heal its own.’” She snorted. “That could be the title of this little rock tour of yours. Maybe that’s all the prophecy meant in the first place: ‘Heaven help the idiot who separates Clara and the Doctor, for she shall have to endure vicarious heartbreak for centuries on end.’ I should have known it was really about me all along.” She sighed and leveled a serious look at him. “My point is that you already know the answer, but you’ve let Clara convince you that you’re wrong. She has wiggle room. Infinite wiggle room, and you’re treating that like it means nothing.”
“You think I should break the neural block,” he surmised. “And what, exactly, makes you qualified to make that sort of assessment?”
“Of the two of us, you’re the ‘Time Lord,’” she said, and he could nearly hear the quotes around the name, “but I am older than you,” she went on, smiling snidely. “I’ve travelled a lot, seen more than a few things. Wonderful things, monstrous things. Do you know what I haven’t seen? Any evidence that Clara’s continued existence is unravelling the Web of Time. Or any sign that the Time Lords are tracking her, or mean to force her to go back to Gallifrey and be re-inserted into her timeline so that she can die a death that, no matter how you look at it, has already happened. The universe isn’t collapsing in on itself, there’ve been no paradoxes that the Temporal Powers have had to rush to fix.
“There’s just you. And her. Being idiots,” she continued, enunciating the words sharply. “Everywhere she goes, her guilt and her grief and her need to ‘honour your memory’ drive her to interfere in the affairs of mortals. Save a life here, a civilisation there. Ripples, tidal waves, a whole goddamned ocean. And your path through spacetime can literally be purchased printed onto the back of a concert tshirt. If the Time Lords were worried, if they wanted to stop you, they would have done by now. If the universe was going unravel or implode or whatever the hell, it would have done by now.
“So stop being an idiot, Doctor. Go back to Clara. Spend the rest of your immortal lives together. Just stop making me wallow in your combined angst, because frankly? I’m over it. And so is the universe.” With that, she pushed off the corner of the TARDIS and sauntered away, back towards the stage and the distant music.
The Doctor stood for a long moment, watching her go. He should leave, like Clara said. Get in his TARDIS and fly away and let the neural block take every last moment of this day. Maybe Ashildr was right, maybe she wasn’t, but he knew if he gave himself the chance to really consider it, he’d never be able to stop himself from returning to Clara, against her wishes and better judgement.
He sighed and turned away, resting his forehead against the TARDIS. Let me be brave, let me be brave. Unprompted, the door opened, swinging inwards and inviting him home. He forced his feet to move, each step carrying him further from the woman he loved but could not remember, further from the future he wanted but could not claim. The TARDIS interior was as it had been, but felt large and cavernous now, with the almost-memory of Clara’s voice still clinging to the insides of his ears.
He walked in and closed the door. Set down the guitar case. Braced his arms against the console. All he had to do was go. All he had to do was send the TARDIS into the vortex and give the neural block enough time to finish erasing the events of the day from his memory. All he had to do was leave Clara behind.
‘You are being an idiot,’ the TARDIS whirled at him telepathically.
“When am I not?” he asked out loud, with no one else to hear him but his dear old girl. I am an idiot with a box and a screwdriver. Just passing through, helping out, learning.
‘Don’t be an idiot,’ the TARDIS replied sternly. ‘Be a Thief.’
“As easy as that?” he said, huffing out a bitter laugh.
‘The door is open for you,’ the rotors wheezed, ‘as mine was. Go. Steal an immortal and run away.’
“I can’t,” he said, squeezing his eyes shut and trying to hold to his resolve. “Clara’s right, there’s too much at risk.” You're willing to risk all of time and space because you miss her. One wonders what the pair of you will get up to next.
The TARDIS huffed, irritated with him. ‘Have I not always shown you the path you need to take?’ the sentient ship demanded. ‘Perhaps not the safest path, but the right path?’
The Doctor sighed shakily. “Yes.”
‘Then don’t argue. Go to her.’
Behind him, the doors swung open of their own accord, and above him the lights dimmed, the rotor stilling into silence. He knew a dismissal when he saw one. There was no hope of heading off into the vortex now, not when the TARDIS had so clearly expressed her opinion on the matter. He supposed he could stay right where he was, wait for the neural block to kick in and steal even his desire to go back to the woman in the diner. But even the thought had the silent presence of the TARDIS balking inside his head, urging him more forcefully out the door.
And really, how many more times did he need to be told? Ashildr was right, the universe wasn’t unravelling, the Time Lords weren’t hunting for them. The TARDIS ought to have been the last word on the subject, with her pan-dimensional view of time and space, and her utter loyalty to him. But still he hesitated.
It was what he wanted, unquestionably, the knowledge that he could fill the Clara shaped hole in his life pulling at him like a magnet. But it was selfish, and reckless, and everything Clara had argued against. I'm scared and I'm alone. Alone, and very, very scared.
I guess we're both just going to have to be brave.
That was her voice in his head, his Clara, though the memory of why she’d said those words still eluded him. He could have that back, the memory of that day and every other, he could have her back, he could stop breaking himself against the wall of the neural block and just live.
Tell her that you're in love with her and that you always have been. Tell her there is no point wasting time, because things happen and then it's too late. Tell her I wish someone had given me that advice.
The Doctor was out the door before he could change his mind again, tripping on his own feet, retracing his path over the hill with his mind a single blur of Clara Clara Clara, set to the melody he hadn’t stopped hearing since the day he lost her.
Her TARDIS was still there, and he knew the woman he would find inside would be Clara, but he had forgotten her face, her eyes, her voice. Already their conversation was beginning to fade, but he held to it fiercely, refusing to give in to the neural block. Never again, he would never forget her again.
The diner’s door was locked, of course, but he rested his palm against it and reached out to the consciousness of the foreign TARDIS, asking for entry by projecting his emotion and intention. I used to know a trick, back when I was young and telepathic...
Beneath his hand, the lock clicked open and the door swung inwards, communicating back a feeling something like relief and approval. He stepped inside, immediately spotting the brunette woman sitting alone at the bar, hunched over her coffee cup and crying openly. She heard the door, and sniffed loudly, hiding her tear-stained face with a hand to her forehead.
“I’m really not in the mood, Ash,” she said, not looking at him.
“She’s not here,” the Doctor replied, watching as Clara jerked her head up, her gaze instantly finding his. And how could he have forgotten her, the colour of her eyes, the wave in her hair, the slope of her nose? How had the neural block ever managed to steal something so vital and precious from him?
“Don’t run,” he said, as she watched him with eyes like galaxies colliding. “Stay with me.”
“Doctor,” Clara said in warning.
“No, please, just, just listen. I think we need to reconsider this.” He approached her carefully and slid onto the barstool next to hers, almost afraid she would bolt before he could make his case. “I got a bit of a talking to,” he said, offering her a lopsided smile. “First from your travelling companion, then mine.”
“I thought you said you weren’t— oh, the TARDIS, of course. What did she have to say? No, wait, back up, what did Ash say to you?”
“That both she and the universe are over living with our combined heartbreak. And she made some excellent arguments about how the universe isn’t unravelling, that I couldn’t help but agree with—”
“Because they were your arguments in the first place,” Clara huffed, unable to keep the fondness out of her brown eyes.
“And several good points about how the Time Lords could have intervened ages ago, if they’d a mind to do. She said we have wiggle room, but that we’re being idiots, and she’s sick of having to put up with it.”
“You believe her?” Clara asked, watching him closely. “Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Ash’s company, but she does have a history of being a bit self-serving at times.”
“I think she’s right about the Time Lords, and the Web of Time, yes.” He searched her face for a moment then added, “And the idiot thing. I think we are definitely being idiots.”
“What if she’s wrong? We can’t eliminate the threat we pose to the universe just by wishing it away, Doctor.”
“If there is a threat to the universe, it’s the same whether we’re together or not. So I vote ‘together.’ How about you?”
She looked up at him with those huge eyes of hers. “As easy as that?” she asked, the same he had asked of the TARDIS.
He smiled softly at her. “The TARDIS also told me I was being an idiot, insisted I come find you. She reminded me that she’s always shown me the path I needed, and I shouldn’t start doubting her now.”
Clara flicked her gaze to his face and away again, chewing on her bottom lip, and something cold settled into the pit of his stomach.
“If this isn’t what you want,” he said carefully. “If I’m not what you want, we can split the difference. I’ll reclaim my memories and we can go our separate ways. I won’t bother you, you don’t owe me anything.”
“Of course it’s what I want, you daft old man,” she said immediately, and his hearts flipped over. “I’ve just convinced myself for so long that there was no possibility of this, no hope for us, that it’s difficult to accept that we could have this, that the universe could let us have this.” She looked back up at him again, brown eyes pleading. “You really can break the neural block?”
“Easily,” he said, and held out his hand for hers in silent question. Please, don’t even argue.
Clara placed her small hand in his, her eyes never leaving his face, and he gently pulled her to her feet, stood in front of her, his hearts pounding against his ribs.
“There are lots of ways to break the neural block,” he said. “Sidesteps of logic, brute force, electric shock, regeneration, probably. They’ve all got their downsides. But the cleanest way? Fill in the gap with no jagged edges, no fuzzy spots? Telepathic transference from someone who hasn’t forgotten.”
She took a deep breath. “Well, you’re the touch-telepath,” she said, gazing up at him. “And I don’t think I could ever forget you.”
He smiled down at her, his Clara, saving him once again. Would it even be possible for him to love her more than he did in this moment, even once he remembered everything he’d forgotten? He needn’t wait any longer to find out, he realised. Cradling her face in his hands and opening up the telepathic barriers on his consciousness, he leaned down and kissed her.
The Clara song in his mind swelled, shifted, took on a new harmony that somehow seemed as though it had been there all along. He could feel it racing through his brain, feel the neural block start to give way, as Clara wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back like their world was ending, like the universe was beginning all over again.
Not everything ends. Not love. Not always.
If you love me, in any way, you’ll come back.
Everything you’re going to say, I already know.
I had a duty of care.
People like me and you, we should say things to one another.
“Clara,” he breathed when they finally broke apart, pressing his forehead to hers. “It’s all back. My memories, they’re all back where they ought to be.”
He paused as it suddenly hit him what memory he didn’t have. He had no other memory of her lips on his. Hugs, yes, the rare kiss to the cheek, but never like this. “Uh,” he said eloquently, floundering and starting to pull away. “I didn’t mean for that to be a first. Sorry.”
She tightened her arms around him and laughed through her tears, and didn’t sound sad at all. “We’ve had a lot of bad timing, the two of us. The first kiss was always going to be under strange circumstances. Just don’t let it be the last.”
The Doctor wasn’t sure if he leaned down or if Clara reached up, but her lips were pressed to his again, soft and warm and real. He gave himself over to it, to this new reality of the two of them, together. She beamed up at him when they broke apart, and he realised he’d been wrong: it was possible for him to love her even more, now that he remembered.
“The TARDIS is just outside,” he said, knowing she knew but unable to keep from echoing the newly-fresh memory of their last Christmas together. Please, don’t even argue.
She huffed out a little laugh, and he knew without needing to reach for the telepathy that she was reliving the same shared memory. “This time I think I’ll take a moment to pack,” she told him, smiling broadly, the tracks of dried tears crinkling around her dimple. “I don’t think I’ll be coming back, this time.”
“Running away with a spaceman in a box. Anything could happen to you.”
“That’s what I’m counting on,” she said, then pushed up on her toes and kissed him, as the music in his head faded away to one last, resonating note.