Clara Oswald was dead. That was an inescapable fact that no one in the building before her could deny – she’d been found dead in her flat months before, they’d mourned her, and they’d moved on.
The only problem was, she wasn’t dead. And she hadn’t moved on.
She looked up at the glass-and-chrome structure before her, muttering under her breath about the gentrification of Shoreditch and the destruction of the old, draughty red-brick buildings she’d so loved teaching in. She’d never have admitted it to anyone, but Coal Hill had been the perfect match for her in so many ways: local, not too large, diverse range of challenges presented… plus the building met her aesthetic standards. She tilted her head to the side and wrinkled her nose. This building didn’t meet anyone’s, surely? No one except perhaps Steve Jobs, and he wasn’t around to ask.
Beside her, the expensive new school sign proclaimed what she’d read on the internet: Coal Hill Academy. They’d secured the funding, sold the old buildings to developers, and moved here. Clara wasn’t usually one for sentiment, but there was a tight feeling in her throat when she thought about people knocking about the room she’d so loved teaching in, with its wide, south-facing windows and polished parquet floor. She’d loved that room and all it had represented to her: her personal growth, Danny, the Doctor, happiness. A place where she shone, and helped others to shine. It had been more than a room to her, and Coal Hill had been more than a school. Which was why she’d spent so long arguing with Ashildr about coming back here, until finally she’d dropped the Viking girl off at a spa retreat two galaxies over and then snuck over here in disguise.
She adjusted the uncomfortable blonde wig she’d slipped on that morning, squinting past the blue contacts that irritated her eyes. She wasn’t sure how different she looked, but she was hopeful that it was different enough to avoid traumatising any of her former pupils. Looking around at the bustling playground, she saw a few familiar faces, and she fought back the urge to go and speak to them, wary of blowing her cover. Instead, she took a deep – albeit unnecessary – breath and stepped through the doors, allowing the flow of students to carry her inside the Barbara Wright building, her mouth twisting into a sad smile as she recognised the name. Everything looked so different to her now. She didn’t know her way around, and she couldn’t begin to pretend to, so she simply let herself be carried along in the midst of the students, coming to a halt at a central hallway, where she broke away from the crowd and froze in stunned silence.
Pink, R. D.
Her name was picked out in neat golden letters against the dark wood, and she took a couple of steps towards the old-fashioned memorial board, her eyes scanning down the list and alighting on another name that she recognised.
She knew enough of the school to know what was likely to have happened to him, and she felt phantom tears burn her eyes, wiping them reflexively and finding them dry. An old reflex, still to unlearn. She was incapable of crying, but that didn’t mean she was incapable of feeling his loss. He had been kind to her, warm and understanding when she needed it the most. He had made allowances for her at every opportunity, offering her gentle words when she was struggling, and she sighed deeply, looking to the four bunches of fresh flowers that were wilting below the memorial wall and hoping that they were for him. She had seen staff and students alike go missing from the school, and she felt fractionally reassured that students were not allowing his disappearance to go unmarked.
“You know,” came an acerbic voice from beside her. “That’s a really bad disguise.”
“Andrea,” Clara retorted, looking up at the blonde woman who had appeared at her side and inwardly sighing in resignation. “How… pleasant to see you again.”
“You’re not dead.”
“You’ve still got a job. It’s a day of surprises all round really, isn’t it?”
“My point was more surprising,” Miss Quill narrowed her eyes at the shorter woman in an accusatory manner. “Why aren’t you dead?”
“That’s nice, isn’t it? No ‘hi Clara, lovely to see you haven’t actually popped your clogs.’ Nope, straight in there with demanding to know why I haven’t shuffled off this mortal coil yet. Thanks.” Clara rolled her eyes. “If you want to talk about this, how about not here? Let’s try to avoid traumatising anyone.”
“Fine, my office,” Quill proposed bluntly, turning and sweeping away before Clara could respond, the immortal almost jogging to keep up with her former colleague’s long strides. “You haven’t grown, so you’re not a ghost. If you were a ghost, you’d have fixed all those physical flaws you have.”
“If you were a human, you’d have fixed that nasty attitude problem.”
Quill turned sharply on her heel to look at Clara, a snarl on her face. “How did you…”
“Please. I’ve had more than enough experience. Is this your office?” she reached behind Quill for the door handle, letting them in to what was little more than a large broom cupboard, a desk crammed into the small space alongside two chairs. She sank into one, the hard plastic uncomfortable against her back. “Nice. Cosy.”
“Yes, yes, great. Yours. I can’t believe you still have a job.”
“I can’t believe you aren’t dead, or that you’re stupid enough to still turn up here in that terrible disguise,” Quill replied, arching one eyebrow in a silent challenge. “So. How did you manage it? Faking it?”
“Oh, I died,” Clara corrected, matter-of-fact about the events to feel unruffled discussing them. “I really did. That was me that they found. Just… well. Someone did a very clever thing, and now I’m not-dead. And also dead. A bit like Schrödinger’s cat.”
“Don’t try to physics at me.”
“Don’t try and create new verbs at me,” Clara shot back, poking her tongue out childishly. “I’m stuck like this until such a time that I choose to go back and be really, really dead. Which isn’t going to be soon. Living like this has some benefits.”
“Yes, the lack of heartbeat is concerning though,” Quill mused, shrugging lightly at Clara’s surprise. “Advanced hearing. Don’t look so surprised. How did you manage that?”
“I’m time looped at the moment of my death,” Clara explained, shortening the story as much as possible. “Trapped between one heartbeat and the next.”
“Don’t be such an English teacher. It’s not that romantic.”
“I’m not,” Clara snapped, irritated by the other woman’s attitude. “That’s what it is. I can’t be injured; I don’t even really need to breathe. Never aging, never dying.”
“So why come back here? You’re what, functionally immortal? And yet you’ve come crawling back to this mediocre little school. Why?”
“Sentimentality. They probably don’t have that on your planet, but here it’s a thing. I miss working here. I miss being normal. I miss my life on earth as a human.”
“So come back. Admit you faked your own death, claim you had a psychotic break, freak the kids out,” Quill suggested lightly. “Easy.”
“Not that easy,” Clara admitted, chewing her lip and wondering how much to reveal. “There’s people after me-”
“Oh, great, like I didn’t have enough to worry about,” Quill threw her hands up in the air in exasperation. “Now I’ve got a galactic criminal on top of the bunghole of time. Brilliant. Just brilliant.”
“On top of the what?” Clara asked, confused. “Do you mean the spatiotemporal rift that’s causing disturbances to my T- vehicle?”
“That,” Quill snapped, irritated that she had slipped up in her language use. “It’s just what the kids call it, the bunghole of-”
“The kids?” Clara asked in horror, feeling her stomach drop. “You mean there’s kids involved with this? Is this some kind of insane physics project?!”
“No, no, no, they got involved mostly of their own accord,” Quill assured her, twisting the truth only fractionally. “Though it’s probably broadly educational, fighting aliens and saving the world. I’m sure someone could work that into an essay title or a PE lesson.”
Clara narrowed her eyes warningly, refusing to be swayed. “You have kids fighting aliens here?”
“They’re not children, they’re teenagers.”
“Big difference. They’re coping. They are doing just fine, busy with their texting and their partners and their Netflix and not doing my homework.”
“Yeah, because that’s the issue here. Missed homework. You’ve recruited children to guard who-knows what…”
“What is this, a morality lecture? Because I get enough of that from Bonnie Prince Charlie, and I don’t need a pint-sized immortal getting on her ridiculously high horse and giving me shit for trying to keep this miserable little planet safe from nastier aliens than me. Yes, some people are going to get hurt. Stupid people always will. You did. Danny boy did. Mr Armitage did. But we’re trying to stop this entire ridiculous planet from going to the dogs. God knows why, but-”
“You care,” Clara said quietly, realising the truth. “Don’t you? You care about the kids; you care about this school. You want to keep them safe.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Quill scoffed, refusing to meet Clara’s gaze. “No I don’t.”
“Liar,” Clara told her simply. “I can see it in your eyes. You care about those kids and making sure they’re safe. More than you’d like to admit to anyone, including yourself.”
“Caring isn’t a crime,” Quill said defensively, casting her eyes down and examining her nails to avoid looking at Clara. “Though god knows, I’m sure someone could argue it to be. Take me to task for that on top of everything else.”
“I’m not criticising you for caring, or for trying to keep anyone safe. You just… look after them for me. Can you do that?”
“That’s what the Doctor said, and rest assured, I promised the Lord of all Time that I would do my level best. God knows why I did, they’re bloody annoying, whiny, lacking in practical skills… no help at all really.”
“The… Doctor?” Clara asked, attempting a casual tone and falling only fractionally short. She flicked her hair to one side and tried again. “You know him?”
“Of course I do, you ludicrous midget. How do you think I got here? How do you think Charlie did? The Doctor swooped in like so many white knights of your ridiculous earth literature, whisked us off and dumped us here. God knows why, it’s a backward civilisation compared to home. Would have told him as such when he dropped in a couple of weeks ago to give the kids a pep talk, but we were rather distracted by more pressing concerns.”
“He… was here?”
“You know, I’m not an expert on this but conversational norms usually don’t involve repeating back everything one person is saying. Yes, he was here. Why do you care?”
“Did he mention me?” Clara asked, looking to Quill with urgency, no longer caring about seeming desperate. “Did he see my name on the board? Did he read it?”
“I guess. Did you know him? Because he didn’t mention you. Looked a bit spaced out, lost his train of thought, nothing more. Didn’t start bawling, if that’s what you were after.”
“Oh,” Clara’s shoulders slumped, and she got to her feet abruptly, dusting herself off and pasting a smile onto her face. “I should ah… I should go. Places to see, people to save, that sort of thing.”
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on? Or do I have to piece this together myself?”
“No, I’m going to leave. You can do what you like after that. I shouldn’t have come back, you’re right. I was stupid to. Take care of the kids, and this school. There’s nowhere else quite like it, believe me; I’ve looked.”
Before Quill could protest further, Clara had swept from the room, racing back towards where she had parked her TARDIS innocuously on a back street. She had known that there was the risk of the Doctor going back to Coal Hill, but she had never imagined that he wouldn’t remember her. The possibility had never occurred to her that he might witness her name and still feel no sense of recollection.
She stumbled through the front doors of the TARDIS, disengaging the handbrake and throwing them back into the vortex before she did something she could regret. “No more,” she vowed aloud. “No more chasing his ghost.”
She almost believed herself.