Prompt: # 088 - Control
Claim: The Time War
Spoilers: Series 10, Episode 6: Extremis
Characters: Clara Oswald, the Doctor (12), Ashildr/Lady Me
Summary: Lady Me is looking for information. Clara isn't looking for anything in particular, but she does find the Doctor, sitting on the roof of a university building, playing guitar.
Words: ca. 3700
Something happened, and then something else happened, and now the entire city is suffering a blackout. The reason is mundane, nothing to worry about. Not everything that happens is sinister and alien. The result is darkness.
Clara steps outside the Diner into air that is crisp with the first hint of winter. Her breath doesn't show in front of her face. It does, when she remembers to breathe. She doesn't feel cold.
“I need to check something,” Me said when she left the Diner. “Talk to someone. You should wait here. I won't be long.”
Clara didn't ask what her friend could possibly need to ask about. Me lived through this century, with enough time to learn all there was to learn about it. She lived through it millions of years ago. Her diaries can hold only so much.
Clara didn't ask why she was supposed to stay inside.
“Don't hurry on my account,” she said.
The light falls softly through the windows of the Diner, like a beacon to attract too many questions. Clara takes out her key and presses a button and the lights switch off, leaving more darkness in their wake. Above her, the stars are clear in a way they never are in a populated area. How lucky, she thinks, that the blackout happened on a night with a clear sky. She imagines there are countless people wandering the streets now, looking up to the stars now and wondering if there have ever been this many.
Somewhere in this country, in this time, is a grave marked with Clara Oswald's name, containing Clara Oswald's body. Me didn't want her to leave because it wouldn't do for her to be seen. Clara being here would not do anyone any favours. Not her, not any grieving friends trying to leave her in the ground. It wouldn't negate her death to anyone, least of all her.
Stepping out onto the streets of the world where she left it, Clara feels her own loss more clearly than ever before since the first days. She's walking through a dream. No, no. That would make her more real than everything else. She's an echo that has escaped its canyon, wandering lost until it accepts defeat and fades away.
Me didn't want her to come because Clara isn't needed for whatever she's planning to do. So Clara is free to do whatever she wants in her absence. It's not like she needs permission to to leave, anyway. Me's words were a recommendation.
Clara turns a corner or two and eventually finds herself on the campus of a university. It reminds her of her own teaching days that she has left behind with more wistfulness than she experienced in a while. Maybe it's being back in this time that is doing this to her. There are so many connections. It's always been easier on distant worlds, or in the far future when she's been long gone and no one is left to remember who she used to be.
She thinks of Danny Pink who is buried nowhere and smiles a sad smile. She thinks of the Doctor and smiles the same smile.
Maybe Me is somewhere in this university. It's a place of knowledge, of learning, and she wanted to learn something. It's not unlikely. With the blackout, there is little risk of running into anyone in the library, although Me would not look out of place there in the daylight either.
Clara doesn't know how late it is or if the university building is even open still. With the lack of power, it's hard to say. There are people around, though – young people, students. Clara used to teach children, had nightmares in which they would resist her authority and do whatever they wanted and she was powerless to get them back under control. These people are all calm and well behaved and not much younger than her. Cigarettes are gleaming in the dark, but that's really not something she would be able to scold them for, even if she were their teacher. In the distance, someone is laughing loudly. Even further away, someone is playing music on an electric guitar, the sound reaching her only when everything else is quiet for a second or two.
It can't be that late, then. Clara looks at the sky again, but the stars tell her nothing. She knows people who can tell the exact time (hour, day, year and planet) by the stars, but she's not one of them and they aren't with her.
Two young women are walking past her, off the campus, walking very close, and dressed nicely, and very obviously on a date. One of them is telling the other, from what Clara catches from her words, that her tutor is an alien from outer space, and Clara rolls her eyes and thinks about all the weird teachers she had in her life – all of which, to the best of her knowledge, outlived her.
The music gets louder the closer she gets to the building. She tries the doors of the main entrance and they open to her without protest. There are people inside. She can locate them by the glow of their smart phones.
Me does not seem to be among them. Clara does not call for her. She does not look for her. She looks for a way onto the roof instead and finds it soon enough.
The stars seem even closer up here, but they are exactly as far away as they have been before. The moon is very bright, reflecting off the pale ground. The Doctor is sitting on a block of concrete with his back to her, playing a melody so full of love and longing that she wonders what ended in his life for it to be so sad.
His hair has grown even longer than the last time she saw it, evoking the urge to run her fingers through it, but other than that, for all she can tell, he hasn't changed. No way of telling how much time has passed for him since their ways parted, or if any time has passed at all. Perhaps this is somewhere in his time stream before the trap street and the raven. Perhaps he will look at her in a moment and will remember her and won't know that she's dead.
The music trails off and he shifts a little, and Clara's breath stops for a second. Sometimes she thinks she's only still breathing for it to do that, every now and then, when the situation calls for it.
“That was beautiful,” she says into the cool air. The Doctor turns her way, putting on his sunglasses in the same movement, hiding his eyes before she can see them.
“Ah.” He gives her a quick, loop sided smile. “Sorry. I didn't see you there.” He puts his guitar away as she comes closer and doesn't seem surprised she's here, nor does he show any sign of recognizing someone not supposed to be. Clara doesn't know where they are.
“Don't let me interrupt you,” she tells him. “No need to stop playing.”
He shrugs vaguely and doesn't pick the instrument up again. “It's over.”
Clara is as close to him now as he would tolerate a stranger being, and yet he doesn't seem to mind. She needs to know, so she crouches down in front of him and trails her fingers over the guitar. “How does it work?” she asks. “I thought these things need electric power to function.”
She's ready to turn it into a joke should he wonder why the hell she'd expect his electric guitar to follow the rules of real-world instruments. But he just looks at her with a frown that she can see over the rim of his glasses and then he looks over the dark city surrounding them as if seeing it for the first time. “Ah,” he says again, and then, “It's magic.”
“A magic guitar?”
“Yeah. It pretends to be electric, but it's really just loud.”
“And what about the sunglasses?” Clara wonders what he is doing here. Where the TARDIS is parked. Who is travelling with him. She really wants to see his eyes, because something about him reminds her of their last day together, when he was raw and at least half-insane after an eternity of torture. She needs to look into his eyes and make sure he isn't broken still, or again, even if he'll look right through her.
“Ah, they are magic, too.” He takes them off now and smiles, and looks right through her.
“Are they, now?” She's aiming for a light tone. Me was right, she shouldn't have come.
“More than you think.”
“Well, I don't know. Mostly they just go very well with my magic guitar, don't you think?”
Clara really should go. “What are you doing on the roof?”
He makes a vague gesture. Never knowing what to do with his hands. “I live here.”
“On the roof?”
“In the building. I teach at this university. Physics, mostly.”
“Really?” Clara can't suppress a smile, wondering what crazy undercover thing he has going on now, feeling wistful that she's not a part of it. Sad even. This hurts more than she thought it would, but she smiles anyway. “For how long?”
“Oh, about seventy years, give or take,” the Doctor tells her. “What's with your eyes?”
“Yes, they are all weird. Your face is doing strange things. Just pick an expression, it's confusing.”
Oh, God, this hurts. Clara has to turn her head away lest he sees way more on her face than she can ever allow now. It's like travelling in time in the most painful way ever; seeing the past, as something she used to own and no longer does. He used to get so worked up over her expressions once, but after everything they went through together, he learned them, learned her, and now he should know what to do with them. But he doesn't.
“Sorry, did I say something wrong?” he asks her, still sitting on his concrete block, not touching her even though she is so close. She doesn't touch him either. “I'm not really good with people,” he lets her know. “Always seem to say the wrong thing. To be fair, I'm not normally trying very hard. To be pleasant company, I mean. I'm not trying hard to be rude, either, that just comes naturally. And I don't even have the hair colour to go with it. Well, at least the eyebrows match. You can get away with a lot with these eyebrows,” he rambles, and Clara wants to tell him to shut up before she starts to cry.
“Is that why you are practising music alone on a roof?” she asks when she trust her voice again.
The Doctor makes a thoughtful face and leans back, no longer looking at her. “Hm, yeah, that sounds like a good reason. I'll take it. I'm reclusive, because I am unbearably rude.”
“And here I thought it was because you are blind and don't want anyone to find out,” Me says, stepping out from the shadow beside the door. Clara didn't notice her presence, but she's not surprised to see her here. Right now, she doesn't feel anything at all.
“Ah, Ashildr,” the Doctor greets her, apparently not surprised either. He puts his sunglasses back on and half-turns in the direction of Clara's friend. “I was wondering when you would sneak up on me. No longer any point to placing yourself in the background of people's selfies, so you decided to pop up in person?”
“My name is Me,” Me reminds him.
“No, it's not,” the Doctor insists. “Really, do you even listen to yourself when you make your introduction? 'I'm Me.' Well, duh. So am I. It's ridiculous.”
“I've come to discuss something more important with you,” Me tells him, with a hint of impatience.
“You've got to have a good reason, yeah, considering I still don't like you. Or do you think that just because I'm blind I won't be able to throw you off this roof if you annoy me too much?”
“Straight up murder, Doctor?” Me sounds a little amused now, as if appreciating how ridiculous the idea is. “Right here in front of my friend? What is she supposed to think, then?”
“Oh, I can't see her, can I? I'll just pretend there were no witnesses.”
“Do you even remember what you're hating me for?”
“Do you? How long has it been for you?”
“A long, long time, since she died. Not so long since the two of us met the last time. And you? Something tells me you've seen a lot since then.” Then Me flinches a little, as if becoming aware of her poor choice of words, but if the Doctor minds, he doesn't let it show.
“Over a hundred years,” he informs her. Informs them. Clara is still there, though she feels like she wasn't. This conversation seems to be drifting further and further away from where she is frozen on the ground. “And so very long since the trap street. And of course I don't remember my friend, but I know that you killed her, and I know that I will never forgive you for that.”
'I'm right here, Doctor,' Clara wants to say.
“If it's of any interest to you, she got over it,” Me lets him know, quite coolly.
“Well, I didn't,” the Doctor snaps. “So you'd better hurry and tell me what you want from me, before I lose my temper and throw you off the roof after all.”
“You won't,” Me insists, unconcerned. “But very well. I have come to ask about the planet Meleon Six. It's in the Sombrero galaxy.”
“I know where it is. Don't go there.”
“I might have something to help with our friend's problem. Make her fully alive again.”
“That won't work. Believe me, I know.”
“All readings indicate differently. There are legends-”
“Legends about the miracles their technicians could work, I know. I heard them. They are true, too. Stay away from there. If I know anything about my people – and I do” – his face twists into something bitter for the fraction of a second – “then they are watching this world more closely than any other planet in the universe. And they are looking for you, aren't they? You wouldn't get anywhere near there before they caught you.”
“Isn't it worth the risk?” Me asks. Isn't it? Clara is hearing about this world for the first time. She doesn't know how to feel about it. Too many things are happening at once, and the conversation has long since left her behind, even when it is about her.
At some point she has taken the Doctor's hand, and he has let her, and she doesn't remember when it happened. His fingers are cold, but that's because he's an alien. Hers are warm, but that's because she's frozen between heartbeats.
Can he feel it? Her lack of pulse?
“If you really thought that, you wouldn't be here, asking me,” the Doctor says over his shoulder. Me is still behind him; perhaps she doesn't want to face him after all. “No. The planet was important in the war. They developed technology that could break time. That's what you'd get there: a tool to break the history of Earth and ultimately the universe for one life.”
“Just like you were willing to do,” Me points out, with challenge in her voice. Clara wonders what is going on. This isn't, she is beginning to feel, about her at all.
“Yes, and I deleted my memories of her just to get the clarity back that I needed to remember why it was a terrible idea. So if that's what your plan is, a neuro block would be the better choice for you. If you wait a second, I'm sure I can find one somewhere in the TARDIS.”
Clara's breath does that thing again, where it stops. She knows the Doctor isn't serious. She knows Me isn't. But the mere idea of being forgotten by yet another friend, by losing the last person in the cosmos who can be with her, is terrifying.
She must have pressed the Doctor's hand in her horror, because he presses hers back, and it calms her unbeating heart. “Besides,” he says. “The planet is gone. It never existed. But it was in the centre of the war, and its history is fractured. All you can see is a distorted echo. Landing strongly discouraged.”
“I see.” Me nods. Clara can see it over the Doctor's shoulder. “Well then. Thank you.”
“For telling me what I need to know.”
The Doctor snorts. “I'd advice you to leave soon.”
“Before you throw me off the roof?”
“Before bad things happen. Something is about to go down, and I don't know what, but I wouldn't recommend getting caught in it if you can avoid it.”
“And you're blind,” Clara whispers. The Doctor turns to face her and shrugs.
“Well, yeah. But I got these,” he says, tapping against his glasses.
“They make you see again?”
He makes one of his vague gestures. “Sort of. I get outlines. People are invisible, but I get a nice information sheet about their biological data. Yours is all over the place, Ashildr,” he calls over his shoulder. “Human-Mire hybrid, female, no age. I could give you your weight, though.”
“What about me?” Clara can't help asking. Does he know? He has given no sign of knowing.
Is it the neuro block, blinding him to everything that has to do with her even now?
“According to my glasses, you're not even here,” the Doctor lets her know, sounding like that were perfectly normal. “For all I know I am talking to thin air.”
So she isn't even that. There is no point in not crying, except somehow her hand has taken his and placed it against her cheek, like a comfort blanket made of old memories. “At least you still got your music,” she says with the best smile she can muster.
“Ah, yeah.” He pats his guitar with the hand she isn't holding. “I was playing by memory.”
“Of the notes?” she asks.
“Of the stars.”
She does cry then, and lets go of his hand before he can feel her tears. “How did it happen?” Me asks behind him. Clara suspects that she already knows, wonders why she wasn't warned. What kind of game this is.
Wonders if she could have prevented it had she been there.
“An adventure gone wrong,” the Doctor tells them. “I recklessly endangered a friend. That probably won't surprise you.”
“Not at all,” Me confirms. “And then you shouldered the consequences and saved her.”
“And there were repercussions. It happens.”
It probably wouldn't have made a difference if she'd been there. Clara has always known there were others before her, that there would be others following her departure. Now she wonders if she was ever all that special.
Is there anyone out there the Doctor would not sacrifice himself for?
“It was my fault in the first place,” he adds now. “But we did save the day in the end, if anybody's interested.”
“And now you're stuck here,” Me speculates. “With a job and an address, instead of saving worlds as a cosmic vagabond.”
For seventy years? Clara should have asked when it had happened, though now she isn't sure she wants to know the answer. She is about it ask anyway, when the Doctor makes a dismissive gesture. “Naw, had those before. This is a recent thing, as I'm sure you know. Why would it leave me stuck here?”
“Because you're blind.”
“So? What kind of reason is that? Blind people save the world all the time. Well,” he amends. “They do save the day, in any case. Or the moment. Or invent something that might save something one day. Very few people ever actively save the entire world, and not just because I'm there so often to do it first. That's just a lot to save at once, regardless of your physical abilites. Although, the things that they do all the time eventually contribute to the saving of the world, so if they hadn't done them in the first place the world wouldn't be saved. So I guess you can say that they do save the world, a lot. Forget everything I said after that, it was rubbish.”
Clara closes her eyes and lets her tears drop. She isn't sad. Not only. Right now, she is angry, but not at the Doctor.
“So they world is still safe?” Me asks, while Clara stands. Her joints do not hurt, even though she has been crouching for a while.
“Nothing is ever safe,” the Doctor replies. “But it's no less safe than it was before.”
And Clara supposes that is what this has really been about. Me said something, long ago, about checking in on the Doctor, to make sure he doesn't stray from the path he has chosen for himself when he picked his name. This might just have been one of those moments, and Clara was coincidental to it, and the Doctor doesn't turn to look after her when she walks away from him, not saying anything. No goodbye that he wouldn't know what to do with. Me doesn't speak either. There will be words, soon enough, and they will be loud. Clara holds them in now, because the Doctor doesn't need to hear them.
He seems perfectly happy to forget about them as soon as they stopped talking. The last thing Clara sees of him is him taking off his glasses and picking up his guitar again.
The last thing she hears, before the heavy door falls shut behind her, are the first notes of the song he he once played for her in the Diner, more than a hundred years ago.
27 August 2017