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you're just a memory, now

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Funnily enough, it’s a Wednesday the next time Clara sees the Doctor. 

It’s a cold day in Glasgow, someplace and sometime dangerously close to a place she can never go back to: home. She wants more than anything to just make the trip, spend a few hours with her family, her dad. Say goodbye. Tie up loose ends, if that were at all possible.

But she can’t allow herself that. It’d be addicting; she wouldn’t be able to limit herself to just the one visit. She’s accepted at this point that she’s doomed to a lifetime of loose ends.

Clara was prepared to say goodbye to her life the moment that raven had swooped down to claim it. She’s still ready to go back to that moment frozen in time, though she can’t say she’s not just the teensiest bit heartbroken at the way things had turned out.

A small part of her is still holding out hope that she’ll be able to fix things, to piece her life back to normal someday. She can’t help the thoughts from creeping into her mind, but she isn’t willing to embrace them, instead forcing them into the back of her mind where they can’t bother her too much (only late at night when she and Ashildr part ways in their infinite machine and she is alone).

For the most part, her life has continued with business as usual. Her new roommate isn’t all that bad — she’s had quite a bit of time to grow up in the billions of years since they last met. Even with a child’s face, she is wise and practical, and quite fun when it comes down to it. They’ve gone on their fair share of adventures in the short time they’ve been together, and saved quite a few people.

The Doctor would be proud

It’s that thought that ruins her day. They've just finished reuniting a long-separated alien family after a very strange sequence of events had led them to Scotland. Ashildr is useful in these situations but not as clever as the Doctor (of course), so Clara has to use her brain on this one. After she’s figured it out, after she’s solved it all and saved the day, the thought just slips across her mind and devastates her .

The Doctor would be proud

It hurts because she knows it’s not really true, not anymore. After all, how could he be proud of a girl he does not know?

You’ve given me something else to be, she’d told him. What she had stopped herself from saying was that he had given her something else to live for. Providing that for herself now was difficult. The constant reminders that the Doctor is no longer here with her, and that no matter how essential he has become to her, no matter how badly she wants and needs him, he will never return — yeah, those were not helping.

Not one bit.  

Clara told Ashildr that she’d meet her back at their Tarids.  It’d taken the other woman a little while to learn to trust her, to believe that Clara wasn’t going to run off in the time machine on her own the first chance she got, dooming the immortal to billions of more years on Earth, but she thinks Ashildr is warming up to the idea that Clara may be a friend after all. 

She’s just about halfway back to the old empty street where they’d parked the diner when something catches her attention.

Did someone just — 

She turns. Yes, someone had just called her name, she could swear — 

“Clara?!” 

She stops.

She would recognize that voice anywhere.

When she turns it seems as if everything is slow motion. Her eyes glance from face to face, but it doesn’t take long for her to find his. He’s standing not twenty feet away, peering over the crowd.

She should run. Or turn and act like she can’t hear him. Maybe she could pretend to be an incarnation, that could work, couldn’t it? Anything to avoid this conversation, to avoid the man making his way through the crowd right towards her. But she’s frozen in place, and the Doctor’s long stride doesn’t take long to reach her. 

“Clara?” he calls again once he’s near. His brow is furrowed, deep lines etching through his forward as he looks at her. He scratches at his head. “But I’ve just dropped you off at Coal Hill. You shouldn’t be here!” 

He’s wearing the jacket she likes, the velvety one. Very Doctor, she can’t help but think. There’s nothing else about him to tell her what time he might be from, except one, glaringly obvious fact: he knows who Clara is. 

Her mouth opens as if to explain, but she can’t force herself to form the words. She knows she should tell him to leave, that he shouldn’t be here, but she can’t help it. He’s staring at her like he knows her, like he’s expecting her to chime in with something quick and witty and Clara. The familiarity in his eyes, the fondness in his smile, these are things she thought she’d never get to see again and it takes her a long second to compose herself enough to speak.

“That may be,” Clara says, her voice tight against her throat. “But you shouldn’t be here either, Doctor.”

His head tilts to the side. “Oh I see, crossing my own timeline again am I?” he says with a quick smile. “Not to worry, I’ll just pop back in my Tardis and be on my way. How long do you think you’ll be? A day, two?” He’s still talking as he steps backwards towards the blue box she can now see peaking out from an alley. She tries not to follow, knows she should probably just let him walk away, but her feet don’t listen.

“Wait!” The cry falls out of her mouth before she gets a chance to stop it. Her hand reaches for him, and he halts in his tracks. The Doctor stares at her outstretched arm for a moment before Clara drops it, realizing what she’s done, but it’s too late. He’s already understood the implications. 

After a moment he sighs, the breath leaving his lungs with a heavy sound, as if pressed out by a sudden weight upon his chest. “Oh, my Clara,” he says softly, too softly, and she has to stop herself from running forward and wrapping his arms around him, desperate to keep the sadness in his voice from leaking out any further. She stays instead, her arms hanging uselessly by her side, and he frowns. “Guess I’m not crossing my own time stream, am I?”  

Clara’s lips form a strong line, her chin setting as he confirms what she already knew: none of her life as she knows it now has happened yet, for him. The man standing before her is billions of years younger from the man she had left in that American diner weeks ago.

She shakes her head, slowly, watching the pain flash before his eyes. 

After a moment the Doctor speaks. “I’ve lost you then,” he says, voice uncharacteristically gravely.

She doesn’t respond this time. Just watches him as he moves, his hands clenching into balls at his sides, his head dropping, his shoulders hunching. He turns, taking a few steps towards the alley, and she waits for a moment before following. He doesn’t seem to be heading for the Tardis, just wandering. He settles near the alleyway against a brick building where there aren’t many people around, so when he speaks a minute later his voice comes out soft and sad. 

“Would it make any difference if I said I’m sorry?” he asks.

“You wouldn’t even know what you’d be sorry for,” she points out.

He gives her a forced smile. “So it is something I’ve done?” He laughs, and it seems even more disingenuous than his smile. “Stupid Doctor,” he mutters to himself. 

His eyes won’t leave Clara's, and she shifts uncomfortably under his gaze. “You know I can’t say,” she says.

It doesn’t make him stop staring. Instead, his eyes seem to bore further into hers, as if looking for some hint as to where he will go wrong in the future. She allows it, mesmerized by the blue of his eyes and how a storm seems to constantly be stirring within them.  She wants to reach out, to touch him, but she won’t let herself.

He doesn’t know how you feel, she reminds herself. Yeah, they’d had that conversation a little late. Not that it was much of a conversation. More of a confession, one that he had taken well, if not a bit too quietly.

“Right then. I’ll just be going,” he says suddenly, pushing against the wall as he turns towards his Tardis. She stands frozen in place for a second as she watches his back retreat before she’s moving, small white sneakers scraping against the pavement as she takes long strides to catch up to him.

“Doctor, wait. Please,” Clara says, and she hates to beg but god she isn’t ready for this again. They’ve had too many goodbyes, each harder than the last, and this one feels like it might rip her apart if she isn’t prepared for it. It’s not fair, she thinks, but who said anything ever had to be fair, anyway? It’s not fair that she had to lose the Doctor, after all they had been through together. It’s not fair for her to beg him to stay, even though he knows he can’t. But if the universe wouldn’t be fair to her, she wouldn’t be fair to it, either. “Don’t go. Not just yet. You can stay a minute, yeah?”

He doesn’t really answer, but stops walking and instead stands, looking down at her with sad eyes.“Been a while?” he asks, voice filled with sympathy.

She snorts in spite of herself, because it really hasn’t been. A month, maybe, if that. But maybe it’s worse for that, maybe the wound is fresher, and having it reopened so soon after it had barely begun to heal hurts far worse than scratching at an old scar. “No, not really,” she answers truthfully. “Gonna get a lot longer,” she adds quietly after a second. 

He frowns, his gaze dropping from hers before he begins to walk quickly in the opposite direction.

“Doctor?” she calls. He twirls, looking back at her with a bewildered look on his face.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” he asks. “Let’s get a coffee.” 

//

She follows him to a cafe on the next block over. She manages to resist grabbing his hand as she follows him, trying to ignore the way he's postured it so it stays just behind him, fingers outstretched as if reaching for her. She can’t help but brush against him a few times, once as they come to a stop at a crossing, and again when he holds the door to the coffee shop open for her. 

She sits at a table near the window at his insistence. He places their orders after waiting in a short line and returns a few minutes later with drinks in hand. 

“Thanks,” she says as he hands it to her. Her hands wrap around it, thankful for a warm drink in the brisk cold of — what month is it now, February? 

“Anytime,” he says, face falling just after the words come out. No, not quite anytime, not for much longer, he seems to be realizing, and Clara takes a long sip of her drink. 

She wonders how long he’ll let the silence hang between them.

It turns out he doesn’t even wait for her to finish her sip.

“So, it’s coming soon? The end of me and you,” he gestures between them, adding a dramatic emphasis that doesn’t quite mask the pain in his expression. It’s a reminder of all the reasons why they shouldn’t be doing this, talking like as they are. She can’t tell him too much about his future. She’s already pushing the limits of time just by her very existence. 

“I shouldn’t have told you that,” she frowns.

“Wouldn’t have taken me long to figure out anyway,” he admits. “Same hair,” he says, nodding towards her. 

“Thought you didn’t notice those sorts of things?” Clara says, tilting her head as she looks at him.

The Doctor doesn’t respond, just leans back in his chair as he takes her in. 

“You know I've only just gotten you back?” he says suddenly. 

There’s something about the way that he says it that makes her heart stall in her chest for a moment.

“What do you mean?”

“Christmas. It's only just passed. We've barely had any time together.” He sighs, his hand coming up to run roughly through his hair. “Thought I'd been given a second chance.”

“Doctor, we really shouldn’t talk about —” she begins to say, but he holds up his hand.

“No, you shouldn’t. You’re the one with all the secrets. You’ve already seen my future,” the Doctor says. She considers him and then nods. 

Part of her is a tiny bit relieved that he is here in front of her. Not only was she afraid she she would never see him again —  worse, she feared that if she did, he would wear a different face, one that still wouldn’t recognize her, and they would pass each other by without a second glance. 

“I thought I’d have more time,” he continues. He doesn’t seem to be expecting a response so she doesn’t give him one, just watches as he twiddles his thumbs in front of him, frown deepening on his face. “Do things stay… good?” he asks, glancing up nervously at her. 

She tugs at her lip with her teeth, considering whether this information was too much to reveal to the Doctor. He wouldn’t be asking for anything he couldn’t handle, right? She gives him a small smile. “Things stay good, Doctor,” she affirms, deciding it best not to elaborate. 

He returns her smile, leaning back against his chair. “We’ve just gotten back from Astruana. Remember that sunset?” 

She does, and fondly. For a second, she can almost recreate the way she felt in that exact moment. It was a sandy planet, with long stretches of shallow water covering most of its surface. The Doctor had been particularly nice that Wednesday — but that had been true of pretty much every trip with him since they’d been reunited that December. He’d been gentler, sweeter, his eyes lingering longer against hers. He didn’t flinch away when she’d leaned against his shoulder that night as they watched the purple skies darken.

The sunset lasted for more than a half hour, and they didn’t speak for most of it. She listened to his heartbeats, only looking up at him right before the last of the light disappeared behind the horizon. He’d returned her gaze for a moment before dropping a kiss against her forehead, the most affectionate he’d been with her since he’d switched faces. 

It was probably a sign that she could have kissed him, she realizes now. She should have, of course she should have. She’ll never stop regretting all the should-haves she had with him.

For time travelers, they couldn’t ever quite get the timing right.

“It was beautiful,” she says. “I’ll never forget it.” 

“Me neither,” he replies easily, his voice sad for reasons he can’t possibly understand. Her breath catches in her throat as she quickly forces herself to look anywhere but into the Doctor’s eyes, focusing instead on the drink half-empty before her. He notices, clearing his throat awkwardly before changing the subject. “Are you alone?” 

It’s not a subject she’s expecting him to pick. But of course the Doctor would be worried for her wellbeing. “I’ve got a friend,” she answers honestly. 

His eyebrows shoot up. “Oh?” 

She nods. “You’d approve,” she says, not wanting to give away too much. He considers her words then smiles. 

“I wouldn’t be so sure. Maybe I should be the judge of that for myself?” he suggests. 

Clara gives him a long look before glancing down at her watch. Another twenty minutes to spend with the Doctor was more than she could have ever asked for, but by some miracle it had been given to her. But she’s afraid to push the limits, afraid of what consequences it could have. Time around her is fragile, fractured, and the Doctor can't be caught up in any of that. He has to leave. 

“I’d love that, Doctor, I really would, but… I’m almost out of coffee,” she says. 

“Ah,” he nods. “Out of time, then.” 

“Yeah, I think we might be,” she agrees. 

//

The block between the coffee house and the alley with the Tardis seems even shorter on the way back, and somehow the walk manages to be even quieter the second time around. There’s so much between them that can’t be said, and yet far too much to say, and so they don’t end up saying anything at all. 

“I think I left her just over there,” he points out as they near the crossing where they’d met. He pauses for a moment, waits to see if she’s going to follow him all the way there. She doesn’t miss a step, and when she glances at him she sees his features have softened into something quite like the sad smile she’s been lectured for in the past. She follows him all the way to the alley, wishing more than anything that she could be strong enough to watch him leave from a distance with dignity. She blames it on the look on his face that she can’t seem to stop her feet from moving.

He slows as they reach the alley entrance. The Tardis is set a few feet back, and Clara stares at it, eyes growing glossy. What she would give to go inside the old girl again, take one last trip within her doors. 

The Doctor pauses, turns towards her slowly, his hands clasped together the way they do when he’s deep in thought. She can’t help but smile a little at the mannerism, just one of the many small things she’s grown to miss about him over the past month. 

“Doctor?” she asks when he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t respond immediately, but begins to pace.

He stops in front of the Tardis doors. “Maybe you could come with me now,” he suggests, glancing up at her. “I could bring you right back here after. One last hurrah. What do you say?” 

She gives him the sad smile that he will soon grow to hate. “And what, delay the inevitable? We’ve already said our goodbyes,” she reminds him. He doesn’t seem persuaded by her answer, his eyes still hopeful as he looks at her, so she continues. “Eventually Doctor, you’ll have to leave me and go back to the Clara you’ve just left at school this afternoon. Otherwise, none of this will happen, and —” 

“You don’t have to explain paradoxes to me, Clara. I know the rules.” 

“And I know you’d break them,” she says without missing a beat. He straightens at this, eyes narrowing as he considers the meaning of what she’s just revealed.  “But let’s break another one for now, shall we?”

They’re words she’s said to him before. She’s hoping to distract him, and doesn’t wait for an answer before surging forward into him. Her arms quickly circle around his middle and pull him tight. He doesn’t resist for more than a second, for once, and she tries not to count the heartbeats she hears with her ear pressed against his chest, counting down the few seconds that he’ll allow her this close. 

He doesn’t move away, but he doesn’t pull her closer, either, and after another few seconds pass she begins to feel as if she’s overstaying her welcome. She pulls back, beginning to step away when the Doctor’s hands on her shoulders stop her. 

“Clara,” he says, his voice choked by an emotion she wasn’t quite familiar with on him. 

“Don’t look so sad,” she nudges him. “It’s not goodbye for you, not yet.” 

He shakes his head. “No, but it is soon. And there are things that I am afraid I never quite got around to... saying. Not to you.” 

Her lips turn up at the corners in a smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “Some things go without saying. I’ve never needed the words.”

If you love me in any way, you'll come back, she’d insisted.

I’ll come back for you, I swear, he’d promised. And against all odds, he did. He’d always find a way to do it, she realizes now, to bend time to his will so that he could get back to her. In the end, that turned out to be their downfall, but at the same time it is the way that she knows he cares for her.

Cared, she corrects. 

“Maybe you’re right,” he says, his brow furrowing the slightest bit. Clara’s too focused on the movement, concerned with the frustration there, that she misses the way his eyes drop to her mouth. She lowers her eyes to his a moment later when his hands squeeze a little stronger against her arms, and she catches his stare. Her lips part instinctually, and her breath suddenly feels scarce in her lungs even though she’s pretty sure she doesn’t need to breathe anymore. 

“Doctor?” she says, voice shaky (and only slightly breathless, she tells herself). He seems to regain his senses at the sound of her voice, blinking twice before pulling back ever so slightly. But she sees the darkness still there, can still feel the heat in her face from his stare. Her hand reaches for his cheek and stops him from pulling back further. At her touch, he seems to reconsider, his eyes focusing back to where her tongue darts out to wet her lips. 

“Just in case I am always stupid. In case… in case I never get the chance,” he says, his voice barely a whisper. She watches as his eyes flutter closed just before his lips are ghosting against hers, the lightest brush that leaves them tingling when he moves away just a heartbeat later. She doesn’t let him leave, pulls his forehead down so it’s resting against her own. She closes her eyes, willing the tears forming there not to fall, though she knows she doesn’t stand a chance against the force of them pushing against her lids. 

She lets out a long, wavering breath before she tilts her head and leans back in, her lips much more firm against his as she presses against him. She tries to ignore the feeling of the tears falling down her face, tries to focus on the way the Doctor responds to her kiss, the slight gasp of air he lets out when she opens her mouth against his. His hand comes to rest against her jaw and suddenly he’s in control, kissing her slowly and sweetly in a way that makes her knees want to buckle. 

They pull apart a few seconds later, the Doctor breathing heavily. Clara realizes for the first time since she’s had the option, she might not be breathing at all, and lets out a shaky laugh. 

“That wasn’t too bad,” he says, a smirk on his face. “Seems like maybe we’ve had some practice?”

She scoffs. “In your dreams, maybe,” she says, and her grin leaves him uncertain as to whether or not she’s joking. 

“Yeah, maybe,” he says. The smile slowly falls off his face as he glances behind him at his Tardis. “I guess it’s time.” 

“I think it might be, yeah,” she says, her words rushed and a little too unsteady in her opinion. “I’ll see you around?” she offers, and he scoffs.

“Don’t joke,” he admonishes her. The small smile remains bright on her face, determined not to let him know how sad he’s left her, and he drops the scowl after just a second. “I’ll miss you,” he admits. 

Clara breaks a little then, her lips drawing together as she blinks back tears. Any hope she’d had at convincing the Doctor she’ll be fine has gone out the window, and he looks at her with wide, scared eyes. He takes a step forward but she holds him off with a raised hand. 

“No, no, it’s fine, I’m sorry,” she says, her voice not all that convincing. She sniffles, lets out a small breath of a sob and continues. “I’m just not used to you being so…” she tries to explain, tries to give him a reason that he might believe. 

He gives her a grim smile. “Maybe you should give me another chance then?” 

She laughs a little through her tears. “Yeah, maybe, Doctor.” If only it were that simple. 

This seems to satisfy him a little, shoulders finally relaxing as he takes another step towards his Tardis. 

“Then maybe I’ll see you around, Clara.” 

He gives her one more long look before getting in his Tardis, the door snapping shut behind him. She waits until the Tardis begins to disappear, when she’s sure he’s no longer watching her through the screen before she lets herself start to cry. 

It’s not the first time Clara has been left behind, watching as the Tardis has whirred away without her in it. But this time, it’s different, and it isn’t because of the heartbreak that’s begun to spread its low ache throughout her chest. This time, she’s terrified at the thought that it may be the last time, the certainty of their goodbye. 

She folds her arms around herself once the machine has completely disappeared, moving slowly to lean against the corner of the building. She gets lost for a little while in watching the cars go by, the people walking past on the sidewalk in front of her. She thinks about how in the entire universe, in all of space and time, Missy had picked her to be the Doctor’s match. 

The realization of Missy’s master plan hadn’t shocked Clara too much. She had figured out long ago that she and the Doctor were brought together for a reason, that they were meant to meet in some way. There was no other way to explain her deep friendship with him, the desperation she feels at the thought of being apart from him. It’s more than just a friendship, with them, and it always has been. And not necessarily in a romantic way, although there was certainly plenty of that to go around, too. But it was like they completed each other in a way that they couldn’t even begin to understand. 

Even without the memory of her, the Doctor still told her he felt the absence of her memory. There is a part of his being that she is meant to fill, and she’s been forcibly removed from it. He’s happy this way, though, and Clara can’t bring herself to wish that it had turned out any different, that she had been the one to forget. 

As it was, no one is ever going to live up to the Doctor. They hadn’t always gotten along, but there was something about him that she craved more than anything in the universe. Not that it matters, anymore. In all likelihood she doesn’t have much living to do, not any amount of time she could really bet on, anyway. 

“Clara? Is that you?” A voice calls, and she quickly wipes at her tears before turning her head. She relaxes when she sees it’s Ashildr, who frowns when she sees the streaks of tears across her new friend’s face. “I thought you were going back to the diner?” she asks, taking a few steps closer. 

“Yeah, well I uh— stopped off for a cup of coffee, and, well.” Clara looks nervously around her, trying to come up with a good reason why she would be standing alone in an alleyway, crying. She fidgets with the now-empty coffee cup in her hand. “I guess I just got a bit… overwhelmed?”

“By coffee?”

“Right.”

“Nothing to do with the name on the cup, then?”

Clara glances down, grimacing when she see’s the Doctor’s name scrawled in permanent marker on the paper cup. 

“Maybe just a bit, yeah,” she admits. 

Ashildr barely resists the urge to roll her eyes, instead beginning to walk down the street towards the block where they’d left their Tardis. 

“Come on, let’s get back to it,” she calls. “We’ve things to do, planets to save.”

Clara glances back once more to where the Tardis had just stood, taking in the empty space it left behind before she follows.