Danny Pink sat in a coffee shop. He was grading homework—pen in one hand, laptop keyboard in the other (in a manner of speaking). He had his favorite latte by his side, and he would have been listening to some background music if his earbuds hadn't broken again. Clara kept telling him to get a pair of decent headphones, but he didn't have all the money in the world. And it wasn't like they wouldn't get broken in a month or two anyway, knowing him. Still, he was tempted. These were the second pair this month.
He glanced at his phone. The knot in his stomach, the one forming within stress of work outside work, loosened. Clara Oswald. Before the old-fashioned tone could ring a second time, he picked up. “Clara!”
Danny laughed. “Is that how we communicate now?”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up! I need to talk to you.”
Danny frowned. Talk to him? This sounded serious. He hoped it was serious, or she would be scaring him unnecessarily, and he couldn't...
He couldn't stay mad at her, not after everything she must have been through. He moved to close his laptop. “All right, I'm not far. I can be there in a couple of minutes.”
“No, no, not in person.”
“Oh, stupid me.” Danny finished shutting the laptop and leaned back with a bemused smile. “The very idea.”
“Stay shut up.”
“Okay,” he repeated, wondering if this was one of her Doctor things. If it was, at least she was telling him about it. Hurrah for their relationship!
“Things to say. Not all of them... good.”
Danny leaned his chair back, hooking an ankle around the stem of his table for balance. It was easier for him to talk on the phone like this: eyes away from the rest of the room. Concern level low, he replied, “Well, wouldn't it be better if I was actually there?”
“Oh, Danny, everything is better when you're here,” Clara said breathlessly. He almost would have taken it as a flirtation if not for the tone of the conversation. “But maybe... maybe not this. Anyway, I'm sort of... walking and talking. The Doctor said I should try that. 'Walk and talk,' he said, 'gets the blood flowing, heart racing something to do other than worry your brain to death,' he said, back when—” She paused. She murmured, “Okay,” and then paused again.
Danny was patient. He knew that Clara needed time to get her thoughts together. As he listened to the silence, he glanced through the window at the passing traffic. The day was still young, sunlight still shining, society running. You wouldn't think there had been a forest out there not too long ago. You wouldn't think that parts of the road were new, or that many people were making up lost hours at work or at school—as if the administration couldn't give them a break.
Danny smiled. He was tempted to say, You're cute when you stammer, but he'd learned the hard way that would only distract her, keep her from saying what she meant to. If this was a Doctor thing, he wanted to hear it.
“Okay, before all of that stuff I did wrong...” She paused again. There was a sound on the other end like a breeze moving by the phone speaker. Was she looking at her phone? Had she made notes? Another moment passed, and then another whoosh of air as she (possibly) brought the phone back up to her face and said, “I love you.”
“I love you,” Danny replied automatically. He opened his mouth to say more, possibly ask about what she'd done wrong, but Clara wouldn't let him speak.
“No, not like that. Not like it's automatic, not how you end the phone call, the sign off, the pat on the back—”
Danny blinked. “Clara,” he began, defensive and worried and maybe a little bit put-off, but still—
“I will never say those words again—not to anybody else. Ever. Those words, from me, are... yours now.”
A pause, and Danny knew that this pause was for him. He was supposed to say something back, something just as perfect as...
No wonder she couldn't say this in person. Or was it that he couldn't believe she hadn't said this in person? Clara Oswald... such a wonderful woman, so impossible to pin down. What had he done to deserve her?
Another moment passed. It was too long a moment. Danny had assumed she would fill the space if he left it, but—oh, what a cowardly thing that was for him to do. She wouldn't allow it, of course. He had to respond. How could he possibly respond?
Like an idiot, he began with, “Clara, I love you too.”
Wow. That was so stupid. Hadn't she just said not to speak on automatic? Danny closed his eyes and groaned. “No, that's not what I meant. I mean, of course I mean it, of course I love you, but how am I supposed to compete with that?” He laughed. “I-I... God, I don't know what to...”
Danny froze. “Clar—hold on, you're not Clara.”
“I—oh, God. I just picked up the phone—it must have flown—”
Danny's chair legs hit the floor with a bang as he leaned forward again. “Who is this? What happened to Clara?”
Silence on the other end. Somewhere outside, maybe a few blocks down, a car honked. The sound came out closer through the phone speaker. At the same time, sirens blared, and the voice on the other end murmured, “I'm sorry.”
Danny leapt to his feet and bolted. Time seemed to slow down, speed up, warp around him like some kind of horrible fairground ride as he tried to tell himself those sounds were just a coincidence. Those words were just a coincidence. Clara had to be okay. He was on the sidewalk, running across the street; his heart raced; his vision blurred. He thought he heard gunshots, explosions, screaming—
Someone stopped him, and he shoved them away, but whoever it was grabbed him. He struggled. They twisted his arms behind his back. His phone dropped to the sidewalk. Distantly, Danny Pink heard his own voice cry out, “Clara! That's Clara—oh my God, Clara!”
Clara's phone had a lot of contacts in it, but it wasn't hard to find his. Danny should have been relieved to find it as “The Doctor” and not something less literal, like—
He couldn't get mad. He couldn't get bitter. It wasn't her fault. None of it was. Danny would never be upset with her again.
She loved him.
She'd loved Danny.
Danny was surrounded in his daily life. He was never alone, but he felt isolated without Clara in a way he had never felt before. He'd have thought, at the very least, people wouldn't exacerbate that. He'd have thought, perhaps, that his students would be respectful. He'd have thought they wouldn't whisper during class.
He'd have thought they wouldn't whisper about her death, ask questions like “you've killed, though, haven't you?” as if that wouldn't make it so much worse.
He'd have thought, maybe, that the school would understand.
“It's temporary, of course. We know what you must be going through, but you can't shout at the children. There'll be more complaints. You understand.”
Danny had no one.
He had family, of course, but he couldn't talk to them about it.
They couldn't bring her back.
They didn't have a time machine.
That voice. Danny closed his eyes and tried to control his breathing.
He would never hurt her. Of course he would never hurt her. He was like a father to her. Only...
“Clara, you know I can't carry a conversation on my own. Well, I can, but I'll start talking about bees, and you know how I get when I talk about bees—”
The Doctor's breath caught audibly in his throat. There was silence, then a very bitter, “P.E.”
If his eyes hadn't been closed, Danny would have closed them again. Still, still, that hypocrite—
“What are you doing with Clara's phone? Are you worried she's cheating? Think she's still in love with me?”
“STILL?” Danny barked. His voice cracked, ripping through more than his vocal chords. “You are an old man, and she—don't you dare make jokes like that to me.” He stopped. He didn't want to stop, but his throat had closed up. He struggled to breathe. “Clara's dead," he croaked.
Immediately, a new sound tore through the air. It didn't come from the phone, but the corner of his bedroom. Danny stood and watched as the now-familiar blue box wheezed into being. The door opened, and the old General stepped into Danny Pink's house.
Danny hung up the phone.
“What did you do?” demanded the alien. He moved right up into Danny's personal space, eyebrows lowered, stark blue irises burning into his. He lowered his voice, and he spoke as if to a worm. “What the hell did you do?”
Danny Pink's body resolutely continued to function normally. His heart didn't stop, his vision didn't go red, and he simply could not punch the man in the face no matter how much he wanted to. Perhaps he was already too tense for it to get any worse. Perhaps his teeth were already too firmly grit for his jaw to clench any tighter. No matter the reason, it took immense effort just to inhale enough to force out three, desperate words: “Bring her back.”
The General's brow furrowed even more. His eyes moved from one to another on Danny's face. He stepped back. The simple fury there was almost gratifying. The pain that Danny knew would follow was fully deserved, if not for making Clara's life so hard then for what he'd just said to Danny himself. How dare he come in here asking what Danny had done?
How dare he?
“I can't—” the General began. At a loss for words, he turned in a circle. When he came back 'round, that pain was in his eyes. “What happened to her?”
The alien shook his head. “No.”
“She was crossin' the road.”
“I was on the phone with her.”
“She was tryin' to tell me something.”
The General blinked. “Tell you—tell you something?”
Danny nodded. It was a stiff nod, as a soldier to a commanding officer.
The General stepped up close to him again. “What did she say?”
“It was personal,” Danny breathed. “But she'd said she did somethin' wrong. And I think it's your fault.”
“Yes, sir, your fault,” he growled. “I think she was trying to apologize for you—”
“Don't you dare,” the General growled. “Don't you dare.”
“You can bring her back,” Danny snapped.
“You know I can't,” the alien exclaimed, turning as if to re-enter his ship. He turned back. “I can't go back and save her. That's not how it works.”
“That's not true. Time can be rewritten. She told me.”
“She—” The General stopped himself. He smiled bitterly. He turned again, and then he stopped turning with his face to the open door of his box. When he finally spoke, his voice was hushed. “Every culture in the universe has some concept of an afterlife.”
Danny was taken aback. “An afterlife?”
“Yes, an afterlife. Pay attention.” The General turned with one hand outstretched, pointing vaguely at Danny as if he were a nigh incorrigible student. “Every culture. Every one. Why is that? I've always wondered, but I never had reason enough to put aside the shame of skepticism and find out. Come on.”
Danny stood still as the alien whirled around and stalked into his time machine. He left the doors open, presumably for Danny to follow, which was enough of an incongruency to ward the maths teacher off. “Come where?” he called from the safety of his room.
The General stopped by the central hub of the ship and spread his hands. “To hell of course. We're going to find Clara Oswald.”