Clara watched in giddy amusement as the strange, angular man bounced about the many-sided console that dominated the room. Levers flipped, lights blinked, beeps beeped as the Doctor manipulated the controls of his technological marvel with a dexterity that seemed simultaneously graceful and awkward.
Like a baby swan, she thought to herself, or a huge floppy puppy, only much more… chinny.
She wasn’t sure where to look. Only minutes ago she’d been sitting on her stairs – well, not her stairs, but the stairs of the house she lived in and that was almost the same thing – both hoping and dreading that he’d turn up. Now everywhere she turned there was something new. Her gaze slid from the oscillating column in the centre of the console to the rotating… things above, adorned with curious symbols that seemed both familiar and not. That column was almost like a heartbeat, Clara imagined, in the chest of an incredible being. An alien being.
As alien as the man in his… ridiculously normal clothes. The Doctor, a self-proclaimed ‘alien from outer space’, both fit into the setting and was jarringly out of place. Everything about him seemed a dichotomy – old eyes in a young face, maladroit manner hiding a curious elegance, razor-sharp intellect colliding haphazardly with confusion over the simplest, most everyday things.
She wasn’t sure what to think of him. No, that wasn’t true – she liked him. She trusted him. She just wasn’t entirely sure why.
Clara came across, she knew, as being both bubbly and approachable. She knew because she had no shortage of people approaching her. That was one of the reasons she found being a nanny such a comforting pastime (she couldn’t really call it a ‘profession’) – it was normal, safe. Plus she simply liked being around people. But for all of her gregariousness she wasn’t one to trust quickly.
That she trusted the Doctor so completely – and she could feel that she did – was something that worried her, a tiny worm of concern in her mind that she wanted to ignore.
He was impossible.
He was also looking at her, a sideways glance, keen eyes assessing her, scanning her. Playful amusement sprang up in her but she knew, almost instinctively, that he had no interest in her in that way. She supposed she probably didn’t mind. That wasn’t something she was clear on, either, and she pushed the thought away.
“What?” she asked, returning his stare.
The Doctor looked away, covering the moment with a flourish as he flicked something on the console, Clara was fairly sure, completely at random.
Around them the ship shuddered. The Doctor whispered something, as if speaking to the ship itself, and eased the toggle back into its original place before giving the icy-grey metal of the console a proprietary pat.
“What? Oh,” he said, utterly failing to sound casual. “The old girl’s just a bit twitchy from time to time, that’s all.”
“Right,” Clara grinned, “you were staring at me because your magic snog-box is ‘twitchy’?”
The ship shuddered again. Clara had the strangest feeling it had heard her. She didn’t think it was a good shudder.
“It’s… It’s really not a snog-box,” the Doctor tried, but clearly gave up before he began. “But no, that isn’t why I was looking. Not that I was,” he hastened to add, raising a hand and not quite meeting her eyes. “Of course not, that would be…”
“Yes. No! Maybe,” he allowed. His forehead crinkled, then, and he leaned against the console to peer at her, so serious that it was outright comical. “I’m not creepy. Am I creepy? Creepy’s not good, I don’t like that.”
Clara laughed easily and the Doctor frowned more.
“Oh… shush,” he grumbled.
“So where are we?” Clara asked, pulling the console’s screen around on its arm so that she could stare at it. What she saw, of course, made no sense. She hadn’t expected that it would.
The Doctor pulled the screen back around and tapped it. “Oh, we’re on the way,” he nodded, the seriousness gone in an instant. “Definitely that. You said you wanted something awesome.”
“It’s taking a lot longer than before.”
“Well of course it is,” the Doctor huffed. “It’s not like we’re jumping a day here or there, going a few hundred miles in space, we’re not even on Earth any more.”
“Not on Earth?” Clara sounded breathless. Her heart thumped. “I mean… You said it’s a space ship -“
“And a time-ship. She’s the TARDIS. Nothing in the Universe like her. Not any more.” He patted the console again, putting Clara in mind of a man and his beloved car. This thing, though – this ‘TARDIS’ – was a bit more elaborate than your average Jag.
“Yes, right, TARDIS. So… space and time, I get that, but. I mean.” She stopped talking, shrugging in frustration, not quite able to put it into words.
The Doctor smiled, a warm and secret smile. “But knowing it’s possible isn’t the same as hearing that it’s happening.”
Clara nodded. He was exactly right. “Yes. That.”
He grinned. He gleamed.
“You’re getting off on this,” she remarked.
“I beg your pardon?” Shock flooded the Doctor’s expressive face. “I’m what?”
“It’s an expression. You’re enjoying this.” She waved a hand expansively. “Taking me off somewhere, watching me try and work it all out in my head. Is that what this is? Getting some kind of amusement over watching someone’s brain pop?”
He shook his head firmly, frowning once more. Nobody could frown quite like the Doctor.
“No, nonono, that’s a bad thing. Brains shouldn’t pop. It’s never a good thing when they do. Not that I’ve ever seen, anyway.” For a moment Clara thought he wasn’t going to answer her question but then, after a pause, he continued. “It’s… joy, I suppose. You’re finding out something new, something fun. It’s a pleasure to be able to help you find that.”
“There’s something else, though.”
“How do you mean?” He straightened, shifted where he was standing, fiddled with his bow tie.
Struck a nerve, Clara noted, with more than a little satisfaction. “There’s more.”
“There’s always more,” the Doctor answered defensively. “It’s a big Universe. Infinite, technically, except when it’s not. Sometimes it’s not,” he added.
“No, I mean, there’s more to this than just watching me stagger about being the new girl on the block.”
“Oh, Clara,” the Doctor said, shaking his head, seeming to revel in her name, “you don’t stagger. Stumble, maybe, but not stagger.”
“Wow. You really know how to charm a girl,” she noted wryly.
“I wasn’t trying to -“
“Obviously,” Clara commented, archly. “But you’re not answering my question.”
He shrugged and checked a few instruments. The guilt on his face was answer enough. For a moment he looked very old, impossibly sad, and despite herself Clara felt her heart twinge in sympathy.
“It’s not as if I mind, I mean, I get it.” She tilted her head to one side. “I’m not a kid. Nobody comes without baggage. People say they do but it’s never true. Are you really a thousand years old?”
“Give or take,” the Doctor nodded, his voice tight with forced cheerfulness. Whatever was eating at him was still an open wound, or at least a very fresh scar. “Look, we’re almost there!” He swung the screen around to face her. It still made no sense to her. Clara knew it was a distraction. She also knew that if she pushed too hard he’d clam up more, so she let herself be distracted.
“Almost where?” she asked. The excitement in her voice wasn’t feigned and, out of the corner of her wide eyes, she saw him smile.
“Somewhere awesome,” the Doctor grinned widely.
There was a grinding thump and the TARDIS shook slightly. The time rotor (or, as Clara thought of it, the ‘big up-and-down columny thing’) stopped moving and dimmed; even before it has ceased to move the Doctor was headed for the door.
“Come along, Pond!” he said grandly.
Clara frowned. “You what? Pond?”
He stopped dead, his back to her. “Clara. Sorry.”
“Wait, ‘Pond’ is a person?” Her eyebrows rose. “Is this like yelling out your ex-girlfriend’s name in the middle of -“
“Clara! No!” He turned to face her, his expression one of scandal.
She cocked an eyebrow at him, staring up at the man who wasn’t what he seemed.
“So she’s not a girlfriend.”
His mouth moved a bit as if trying to find the right words. “Eurgh.”
“That’s a ‘no,’ then,” she smirked. “Then -“
“Can this wait?” he asked abruptly, shifting awkwardly. “Adventure just outside, big surprise, very exciting -“
Clara snorted. “You just called me someone else’s name. You really don’t think I’m going to leave this alone, do you?”
The Doctor rubbed a hand over his face and sighed. “She was -“
“Oh, so she’s a she? This gets better.”
He fidgeted. “ Can’t tell if you’re actually upset or you’re just teasing me.”
“Neither can I,” she admitted. “So who is she?”
“She was,” he began, the very slight emphasis on the past tense carrying enough weight to make Clara’s heart sink with sudden guilt, “a friend. My best friend,” he admitted.
I’m not your best friend? The thought was irrational and it surfaced unbidden. Clara pushed it aside and crossed her arms over her chest, giving him her best ‘Go on,’ expression.
The Doctor sighed quietly and that, somehow was worse.
“Did… Did she die?” Clara asked hesitantly.
“Yes, of course she did,” he said irritably, “eventually.”
“Does it matter?”
Clara let out another snort and tightened her arms determinedly. “You’ve whisked me away from the life I knew and I can imagine that there’s a lot out there that isn’t all that safe. So yeah,” she continued, glaring at him. “I think it’s safe to say I’ve got a vested interest in it.”
He nodded as if he’d heard that line before. “She… died… Well, of old age, I guess.”
“You what?” Clara blinked a few times. The guilt was still obvious in his stance, displayed all over his charming, disarming face. This wasn’t what she’d expected. “She died of old age? Was she miserable her whole life or something?”
“Well… No,” he admitted. “She had her husband. Wrote books, made a bit of a name for herself.”
“Yes? Different decade, though.”
“With her husband. She wrote books and lived a long life with her husband and then she died.”
The Doctor shifted, his guilt giving way to confusion. “Er… yes. They adopted, too.”
Clara shook her head. “So… Let me get this straight. She lived a long life on Earth with her husband, adopted a kid, grew old with her family and then dropped dead of old age.”
He opened his mouth, nodded, closed it again.
“Well I can see why you’re wracked with guilt,” she scoffed. “Living a long, happy life with your family and then dying, sounds just awful. How could you.”
The Doctor blinked and opened his mouth a couple more times before finding words. “It’s not as simple as that.”
“Life isn’t,” Clara shrugged. “Sounds like there’s plenty of worse things to happen to a person.”
“Well…” He looked uncomfortable admitting it but, finally, he nodded. “Yes. There are.”
Clara shifted, uncrossed her arms, put one hand on her hip. “So did you visit often?”
He shook his head, looking glum. “Can’t. There’s a thing. I’d explain but without understanding space-time causality -“
“Yeah, I get the picture. There’s a thing. So… you’re mostly upset you can’t visit her.”
The Doctor considered this and then nodded mutely, eyes downcast.
“Sounds like you’ve got post-Pond depression,” Clara smirked. “I get it, it’s not that simple and there’s a thing, but if you know she lived a good life then that’s something, right?” She smiled encouragingly as he nodded and put a hand on his elbow. “Now where’s this awesome thing I wanted to see?”
He stared at her, a grin slowly breaking across his face. She could see it in his eyes, that lingering sadness, but a little of it had lifted. For a time, at least. The Doctor raised a finger and pressed it gently against the very tip of her nose.
“It’s just outside those doors,” he murmured quietly, “but you have to close your eyes.”
“It’ll make the surprise better,” the Doctor grinned cheekily. “You trust me, don’t you, Clara?”
She didn’t answer him. Instead she simply closed her eyes. She did trust him and he knew it. She wondered if it confused him as much as it did her.
“That’s it. Take my hand.”
Together they went to the doors, Clara with her eyes firmly shut, the Doctor guiding her along gently, carefully. She felt air whoosh past her gently as the doors opened and something new pressed against her body, her face. Warmth.
Brown boots edged down the step of the TARDIS and felt their way along what felt and sounded to Clara like a rock path. She felt light, lighter than normal, and she could sense a glow even with her eyes shut.
“Can you feel the light on your eyelids?”
“Mmm-hmm,” she said, giving him the tiniest of nods.
“That is the light,” he told her, “of an alien sun…”
© Scott Thornby, 2013