The woman stumbles into the diner enveloped in a cloud of stardust, her coattails suffused with the golden glow of myriad nebulae from a distant galaxy. There’s starlight in her smile and sunshine in her hair, but something of the moon in her too; something which waxes and wanes as she looks around, wavering and unsure.
Despite the elements of space settled around her, it’s not that which gives her away, and it’s not the look in her eyes either, although there’s something about them which is distinctly… searching. Not in the way that humans do, obsessed with biological urges and ‘necessary’ impulses; no, this woman is searching for something else. Searching for something that Clara knows, even before the stranger has drawn a breath or said a word or so much as moved from the spot on the gleaming tiles where she has come to a halt in her coffee-coloured boots.
She knows what the stranger is searching for, because what she is searching for is her.
Clara is still stood behind the counter, half-concealed by the till, when she realises she knows who the stranger is; realises she knows because her atoms have re-aligned themselves to orbit her very physical being around a new focal point in a way that has happened to her before, but not for many, many years. The centre of her universe has shifted in a way that has only ever happened to her inside a blue box with… him. Or rather, not ‘him,’ not anymore, because this is new, and it’s different, and it’s…
She’s on her feet before she can think anything more of the change and what it means, or of the difference where there was once familiarity, because her body is carrying her across the chequered floor on Converse-clad feet faster than she can process, bringing her to a halt in front of the woman and robbing her of breath – not that she needs to breathe, per se, but her body is sure that now is the sort of time when she should be acutely aware of what it used to feel like to be breathless.
“Hello,” she manages, and it’s not until the mundane greeting has passed her lips that she remembers it all – the last time the stranger was here, so much more familiar then, and the way that she might as well have not existed at all as he looked straight through her without so much as a spark of recollection. Automatically, as she did then, she reaches for her pocket, fingers closing around the binding of her notebook, determined to uphold a semblance of the fiction she strives daily to uphold, but before she can draw it free of the blue-and-white trappings of her uniform, the stranger is looking her in the eye.
Clara feels a brief surge of disappointment that the eyes looking back at her are not the same eyes she had once carefully memorised in idle moments of boredom, before a rush of elation suffuses her chest nonetheless at the warmth of the stranger’s expression. These eyes are not crowned by the furious eyebrows she fondly recalls, and the colour of the summer sky has faded from them, but they’re alight with life and laughter and… recognition.
“Hello,” the Doctor says, and her voice – her new voice – is soft and uncertain, as though afraid she may not be wanted, and Clara realises then that she is not the only terrified immortal standing in this diner. “My Clara.”
Clara doesn’t think; she just acts. She rises onto her tiptoes before realising that’s no longer necessary; rocks back on her heels instead, and flings her arms around the Time Lady’s shoulders, sobs tearing at her chest as she clings onto her Doctor and finally, for the first time in a century, feels complete.
“Does it… matter to you?” the Doctor asks that evening, as they lie atop the roof of Clara’s TARDIS and stare up at the night sky above the planet Clara picked out for herself months before. Twin blue moons are tracking a path across the heavens overhead, and Clara takes the Doctor’s hand in her own, catching her breath as the Gallifreyan’s hyper-awareness of the satellites’ orbit settles over her like a mantle. There’s the sudden sensation of an immeasurable pressure, and Clara realises that not all of it stems from the orbs following their heavenly path above them.
The Doctor’s words take on a tangible form and hover over the two of them, demanding her attention, and once she recalls how to breathe as the Doctor’s feelings of fear flow symbiotically through her palm, she responds.
“This?” Clara lifts their clasped hands questioningly, arching an eyebrow in a way she knows the Doctor will find familiar.
“No,” the Time Lady lets go of her, and the heightened sensitivity drops away from Clara, leaving her disoriented as she readjusts to what it means to be… well, more than human, and yet still only human. “You know what I mean.”
“The change?” Clara rolls onto her side, dragging her attention from the night sky and focusing it on the woman beside her – the woman who is both a stranger and yet anything but. “Why would it matter?”
“Clara, I remember you… before. When this happened the last time; when I changed the last time. I remember how it affected you.”
“You remember me before I knew…” she breaks off, unable to finish her sentence. “Never mind.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she feels a fool to say it aloud, even after all of this time. Feels even more of a fool to say it to this new face, who would surely be perplexed by the notion given their lack of familiarity and their period of separation. Clara doesn’t know how long it’s been for the Time Lady, and she doesn’t want to ask; after four and a half billion years, she supposes any measure of time fades into inconsequentiality by comparison. “It honestly doesn’t matter.”
“Tell me,” the Doctor implores her, her voice somehow both gentle and demanding all at once, and Clara feels a phantom heat creep up her neck and colour her cheeks. She prays that the night covers her embarrassment, but edges backwards nonetheless, away from the Time Lady and her probing curiosity. “Clara?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she reiterates, swinging herself back into the TARDIS and disappearing into its maze of tunnels before the Doctor can speak again. Instinctually, she’s running, something which is both familiar and alien since she made her vow to settle on this planet. Her body settles into the motion easily, her chest no longer constricting with the need for oxygen, and yet she thinks she feels the faint ache of her lungs burning, a memory of the time before.
She doesn’t know what she’s running from, be it herself or the old friend she is now sharing a time machine with, and thus over time, she allows her speed to lessen, first to a jog and then to a walk. When she finally comes to a halt she is alone, and half-lost, and she places both hands against the wall of her ship, resting her forehead on the cool metal and fighting to keep herself from hyperventilating as she loses her composure.
“How could it ever matter to you, Doctor?” she whispers to herself, a single tear bisecting her cheek. “How could you ever understand?”
The next day, Clara sets the Doctor to work. It’s difficult to manage the diner alone, she explains succinctly, looking anywhere in the room but at the Time Lady, and so the Doctor can earn her keep in the same way that her previous companions have done: manual labour.
She thinks the Doctor’s mouth quirks up into a fond smile at the word ‘companion,’ but she can’t be sure – the movement is that fleeting. There’s something pleasing about the subversion of it all, but she knows now isn’t the time to be smug; the Doctor is looking at her with something akin to concern, and Clara could never stand to be fussed over, even less so now. She doesn’t breathe, she doesn’t eat, she doesn’t sleep; she doesn’t need a similarly dysfunctional being to feel compassion for her over her perceived emotional turmoil. She may be in turmoil, but that’s her business and her business alone – the stranger looking at her uncertainly now has been in turn goofy and aloof, panicked and composed, fire and ice, but one thing she has never been is empathic.
“What about Ashildr? Can’t she help out?” the Time Lady asks in a small, nervous voice, and Clara turns away with a shrug that she knows poorly disguises the familiar tug of loss she feels whenever she thinks of the Viking girl.
“Gone. Wanted to do her own thing.”
“So, now it’s just you? On your own?”
“Yes, it’s just me. All on my own.”
“But you…” the Doctor falls silent for a long moment, dropping her gaze to the floor and murmuring, half to herself: “It isn’t good to be alone.”
The Doctor isn’t a bad waitress, Clara is forced to admit.
Today, she is weaving between customers with minimal physical coordination, as usual, but it’s amusing to watch, and the diners don’t seem to mind her slightly chaotic manner or lack of spatial awareness. The Time Lady’s hips or shins or hands seem invariably to catch the chrome edges of chairs or tables as she moves around the diner, sometimes stumbling over coats or handbags or unwitting customers’ feet, but she always manages to right herself and never fails in her task of delivering food and beverages to hungry diners, regardless of mishaps along the way. A duty of care, yes, but not the right kind for Clara’s liking. The thought sours her mood irrevocably.
“You’re miles away,” the Doctor teases, setting down a tray of empty glasses beside her and jolting her from her thoughts. “Penny for them.”
“Why are you here?” Clara blurts, and the words sit uncomfortably between them, accusatory and defensive all at once, as the Doctor blinks at her in bafflement. “Why did you come and find me?”
“I…” the Time Lady is about to speak when the bell above the door clatters and Clara twists away from her, plastering a smile on her face which doesn’t quite reach her eyes and finding herself to never have been more grateful for a distraction.
“I just… need to find my bearings,” the Doctor mumbles that evening as they close up, looking down at the table she’s been wiping for the last ten minutes. Clara wants to swear at her for the admission, and swear at her again for dallying when it comes to cleaning, and swear at her again for the obliviousness that the Time Lady is concertedly displaying – although she isn’t sure why she expected any different from the evasive figure she’s come to know over the years. Human emotions have never been the Gallifreyan’s strong point.
“Your bearings,” Clara repeats in a flat tone, and the Doctor looks up at her with an expression that takes Clara’s breath away. Fear and uncertainty and self-loathing and… something else she can’t put a name to, because she’s never seen it on a Time Lord’s face before.
Clara gives a curt little nod to signal that she understands, although inwardly she doesn’t understand at all.
“Well. That table is clean enough, so ah… move on.”
They both know she isn’t only talking about the Formica.
The days stretch into weeks; weeks filled with long periods of terse silence and uncomfortable looks, punctuated by moments of intense calamity. The Doctor won’t leave the diner, but nor will she engage with Clara any longer; she seems afflicted by a clumsiness that is no longer limited to her actions, but extends now to her words and her manner. The physical aspect inevitably worsens, and worsens again.
The Doctor trips over a half-obstructed handbag and ends up in a woman’s lap, her tray hitting the floor with a clatter and chips flying across the tiles.
The Doctor trips over her own feet and spills two milkshakes over several small children, who burst into inconsolable tears and have to be placated with large amounts of free ice cream.
The Doctor trips over someone else’s feet and drops the burger she’s holding, which lands in someone’s very expensive new handbag, and Clara ends up writing a cheque for an inordinate sum of money with gritted teeth.
Clara apologising to customers becomes the new normal, as does the Doctor apologising to Clara.
They both know she isn’t only referring to the accidents.
It’s not until the Doctor trips over the mop bucket one evening and lands heavily against the edge of a table, gasping with pain as she sinks down onto a chair, that Clara finds her old instincts kicking in. She’s on her knees in front of the Time Lady in an instant, hands skimming over the other woman’s hips in an attempt to ascertain the severity of the injury, and she forgets for a moment where she is and the circumstances that have brought them here. She’s vaguely aware that the hem of her dress is getting damp and that she’s kneeling in a puddle of tepid dirty water, but that’s irrelevant – she is needed. For the first time in so long, the Doctor needs her, and that’s enough to override the uncertainty that has been plaguing her for the last few weeks.
“Doctor?” she says, her voice low and urgent as she takes the Time Lady’s hands and squeezes, her brow furrowing with concern.
“I’m alright, don’t worry so much,” the Doctor assures her, snatching her hands away and pushing past Clara with a sense of frustrated casualness that breaks Clara’s heart. The feeling of rejection is crushing, and she scrubs at her eyes with the back of her hands as the Time Lady vanishes into the kitchen in search of paper towels.
“But you’re not,” Clara whispers to herself, clenching her hands into fists. “Doctor, you’re not.”
Despite the strangeness of whatever it is between them, Clara spends her days in fear of the Doctor leaving the diner for good. She’s a time traveller, after all. A wanderer of the cosmos, a voyager of worlds; she’s not one to remain still, which makes her stay with Clara all the more unusual. Roaming the universe is as much a part of the Time Lady as the TARDIS, or the sonic screwdriver, or the need to help others, and asking her to give it up would be akin to asking her not to breathe.
Clara knows that one day soon, the Doctor will leave, and when that day comes, it will break her heart for the… well, she is no longer sure of the number to bestow on this heartache, not after all the sorrow that she has already experienced in her time with the Doctor.
There was the confusion and terror of the first regeneration, and all that came after: having to reacquaint herself with a new man and his quirks and foibles, having to wonder if he still cared about her in the same way. There was the loss of Danny, and her foolishly impulsive, selfish, human decisions that came after, fuelled by desperation and a depression so deep she had thought she would never feel alive again. There was her decision to die, and then her improbable post-death decision to meddle with technology beyond her pitiful human understanding, and…
Then there was their last parting, here in this very diner. Her most recent heartbreak, and one that she is still not fully recovered from, even with all she has now. The pain of it crawls up her throat some days as she looks over at the woman working by her side, and she wonders whether she should have done things differently all those years ago.
She is certain that when the Doctor leaves this time – because she always leaves in the end; it is the sad fact of her very nature – it will destroy her. The magnitude of the loss will be too much to bear, and, unwilling to spend any more of her immortality under the weight of that sorrow, she will face her end with nothing but gladness and resignation.
It will be time to return to Gallifrey. She will lose the Doctor, and the Doctor – this new Doctor, this unknown quantity – will lose her. A bittersweet ending, but an ending nonetheless.
Clara is acutely aware of the Doctor’s presence at all times, but never more so than when the Time Lady is waiting tables. Her perpetual clumsiness combined with the impracticality of Clara’s choice of uniforms renders her hyper-alert in more ways than one.
Today she watches as her companion leans over to serve a customer, and for the first time, Clara notices the bruises up and down her ephemerally-white legs. Something about it makes her chest ache, although at first, she isn’t sure why. Bruises are nothing unusual, nothing sinister – and that’s when she realises. Bruises are commonplace, domestic, dull… human. Bruises are, by their very nature, the juxtaposition of a Time Lord – the Doctor may be many things, but she’s fantastical, alien, and unique. She is capable of so much, and yet here she is, wearing the marks of poor human coordination.
Clara casts her mind back over her previous experiences with the Doctor. Had her young man in a bow-tie ever had such a mark? Had her angry Scottish magician?
She feels the panic rising in her chest, feels her fragile equilibrium shatter, and she barely makes it into the safety of the kitchen before she comprehends the truth of the matter and begins to sob. The cloying domesticity of the diner is eating away at the Doctor, and she’s becoming… Clara hesitates to think the words more human, but she’s sacrificing part of who she is. Remaining injured for the sake of it all. Refusing to travel. Settling down. Changing her very nature.
The Doctor is the last person she wants to talk to at that moment, and Clara raises her head to send her away, but all her fury falls away when she sees the genuine concern laid bare in the Time Lady’s gaze.
“I…” she manages, gesturing at the purple-and-yellow marks on the other woman’s legs. “I’m holding you back!”
“I…” the Doctor frowns, looking down at herself then back at Clara. “Clara, I don’t understand.”
“You’re giving up all of time and space to be more human for me, and I… I never asked you for that! I can’t let you-”
“-do that for me! I can’t let you give up who you are, just so you can settle down and be boring and work in a diner because you feel like you owe me. You can’t-”
“-give up your incredible life among the stars for my sake, especially when you aren’t happy and-”
“-I want you, more than anything, to be happy, so you can go. Please, Doctor, it’ll hurt me, but you can go, because I can’t keep clipping your wings like this, it isn’t-”
“Clara,” the Doctor said more firmly, reaching over and taking her by the hands, and that in itself is enough to silence her panic-stricken monologue. “Oh, my impossible girl, I thought you knew.”
“That when I said finding my bearings, I didn’t mean a map reading.”
“Or how to look after this body.”
“I meant you.”
Clara has imagined their first kiss many times, in many different ways, yet never with the Doctor… well, never with this Doctor, but she remembers once their lips have met how nice it is to kiss another woman, and realises how completely right this feels. Their noses bump together as the Doctor moves her mouth towards Clara’s, their teeth clack together like awkward pre-teens, then there’s some nervous giggling before their lips finally meet and Clara allows herself, at last, to exhale.
Later that day, when the customers have gone, they curl up together on a sofa in the library with their arms around each other, Clara’s head on the Doctor’s chest, listening to the Time Lady’s twin heartbeats and imagining one to be her own.
“Try not to land us both on the floor,” Clara mumbles, placing her arm across the Doctor’s stomach and snuggling into her side more securely. “Please.”
“I’ll do my best,” the Doctor says solemnly, and then there is a long silence, more comfortable than all of those which had preceded it in the days and weeks and months that came before. When she speaks again, her tone has changed: it is more serious, but less confident too. “Clara, when I first arrived, you said that when I changed the last time, I remembered you before you knew… something. What was it? The thing that you knew?”
Clara blushes. “Before I knew…” she begins, then rolls over, burying her face in the sofa cushions as she finally finds the courage to speak the words aloud, but only on the condition she not be looking at their intended object. “Before I knew I loved you.”
“You loved me?”
“It’s really more…” she bites her lip, thankful that the Doctor can’t see her scarlet cheeks as she clarifies: “Present tense.”
“You love me?”
“And you’re quite sure about that?”
“Absolutely, completely certain.”
The Doctor tries to roll her over and fails, and they find themselves falling onto the floor, Clara landing atop the Time Lady, who groans in complaint, and fighting the urge to laugh. Instead, she works on making their second kiss less awkward than the first, determined to pour all of her heart and soul into it.
“I love you,” the Doctor whispers when she pulls away, and Clara’s heart soars.
Clara watches her partner weave between tables, her coordination still not entirely perfect, but infinitely better. She understands, now, the Time Lady’s previous awkwardness – understands that under her own gaze, the Doctor had struggled to be perfect, and had struggled so hard that quite the opposite effect had occurred.
Now, she looks on with fondness as the Doctor steps over a handbag, turns a neat 180 degrees and shoves the offending article more securely under a table with her foot before crossing the floor to where Clara is stood.
“Hey,” she says softly, setting her tray down on the counter. “OK?”
“More than OK,” Clara says softly, placing a hand on the Time Lady’s waist and drawing her closer, craving her touch. “Nice moves.”
“I’m learning,” the Doctor beams, bumping Clara’s hip with her own, and both women giggle. “And then, when I’m safe enough to unleash…”
“I promise we’ll go exploring,” Clara vows, standing on the balls of her feet and pressing a kiss to the corner of the Doctor’s mouth. “But until then…”
“This is the order of the day.”