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Breathe Again

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In all her long years of travelling, Clara had learned that the universe had a strange, twisted sense of humour.

The clanging of the Cloister Bell informed her, unnecessarily, that her TARDIS was crashing. The console was lit up in flashing lights and warnings as the timeship shook too violently for the artificial gravity to fight. The exterior scanners were down, the navigation system blinkered, the shields completely gone. She was alone in a dying TARDIS with no idea where she was or what she might crash into, and no hope of anyone coming to her rescue — and in that moment, sharply terrified of what might happen to her if she found herself unable to return to Trap Street, if she was flung out into space, or into the Vortex, or crash-landed with no way to repair her TARDIS.

The console shrieked a piercing proximity alert half a second before her ship violently collided with something. Clara was flung backwards from the console, catching herself on the railing behind her, dazed for the space of a single heartbeat.

She could feel the TARDIS continuing to shift beneath her feet, and the Cloister Bell was still ringing ominously, but she looked up to find that the console room had dimmed considerably and grown in size, the white walls replaced with familiar grey metal and blue lights.

And she was no longer alone.

“What’s happening?” Clara blurted out before she could think better of it.

From the other side of the console, like something out of a dream, the Doctor replied, “We’re probably crashing!”

“Into what?” she asked reflexively, and then it hit her, the utter familiarity of this scene. The Doctor’s grey hair was shorter than she’d last seen it, and he was wearing the purple tweed coat she associated with his last face. A quick glance down at herself confirmed it: in place of the sensible jeans and trainers she had been wearing, she was now wearing a red plaid skirt, and a black jumper over a white collared shirt — the outfit she’d picked out for Christmas dinner, all those years ago.

“Stay calm,” the Doctor was saying to her, sounding anything but calm himself as he jabbed randomly at buttons. “Just one question: do you happen to know how to fly this thing?” he asked, looking at up her across the console. His face was full of what she could now recognise as open terror, begging her to know the answer.

The first time she’d seen that expression, she’d had no idea what to make of it, how to interpret this stranger wearing the Doctor’s clothing. But now, now...

She realised with a jolt that this really was happening, right now, somehow. In some quirk of the universe, she’d been thrown back through her own timeline, memories intact, to the moment it all began — with a crashing TARDIS and a stark fear of what the future might bring.

It had been nearly two hundred years for her since her last goodbye to the Doctor, two hundred years of living between one heartbeat and her last, of travelling time and space, sometimes with Me or someone else who had crossed her path, but more often on her own. She’d learned a lot in that time, about herself and her feelings for the Doctor, and time travel and temporal physics, and the care and operation of a TARDIS. The memories were distant now, but she remembered living this the first time, and knew in retrospect that she had reacted badly to the Doctor’s changed face, had hurt him deeply in his first hours of life by not yet knowing how to love him.

She also knew, with the wisdom of an experienced time traveller who had encountered her fair share of timeloops, that if she tried to repeat her actions exactly, change nothing about her own perceived past, she would only create a closed loop that would land her right back here again, years down the road. But if she fought the instinct to preserve the timeline, if she changed everything, she could keep that future from ever happening.

All that flashed through her mind in the space of two heartbeats — and it was the visceral thudding of her heart against her ribs, alive and frantic and nearly foreign after so very long without it, that made the decision for her.

“Yes,” she answered the Doctor’s question, swallowing down her fear and squaring her shoulders. “Yes, I know how to fly the TARDIS, let me help,” she said, rushing to join him at the console and reaching for the controls without hesitation.

He sighed in relief, taking half a step back to give her space to work. “Clara,” he said, as if the name had only just occurred to him. “Clara, Clara, Clara. You are my Clara, aren’t you?”

She blinked away the tears that tried to gather in her eyes; she hadn’t thought she would ever hear him say her name again. “Yes, Doctor, it’s me, it’s your Clara.” Reaching blindly behind her, she squeezed his hand. He gasped quietly but didn’t pull away in the brief second she held onto him. But she needed both hands on the console and all her concentration to keep them from crashing, so she could only spare him a moment.

When she’d lived this before, she hadn’t had two centuries of experience flying a TARDIS solo, and she hadn’t been able to help, hadn’t been able to do anything but answer the Doctor’s panic with more of her own. They had only narrowly managed not to crash-land, and there had been a wayward visit to Earth’s Cretaceous period and a dinosaur inadvertently brought along for the ride and led to its death in Victorian London.

Clara hoped to avoid that at all costs.

It took her a few minutes of concerted effort, but she managed to stabilise the TARDIS’s systems and get them back into the Vortex. The Doctor hovered at her shoulder as though he expected he would have to swoop in and take the controls at any moment, rescue her from herself, but that sort of manoeuvre was second nature to her by now. The Cloister Bell ceased its clanging, and the warning lights on the console flickered off one by one as her heart rate began to slow.

“We should probably try to land someplace safe, somewhere you feel comfortable, yeah?” she said to the Doctor without looking up from the navigation controls, thinking back on how much rest he’d needed at Vastra’s. “Where should we go?”

“I... don’t know,” he told her, open fear and raw honesty in his familiar, brand-new voice. “The whole system’s still rebooting,” he said, waving his arms about in her peripheral vision in a way she thought was probably meant to indicate either his head or his entire being. “I haven’t any names right now at all. Except yours. Clara.”

She shot him a short, fond look. “That’s alright, I know a place or two.” She paged through her memories quickly, narrowing down on likely candidates, the perfect spot finally popping into her mind. Without hesitation she plugged the coordinates into the TARDIS’s navigation system, glad to find it was more or less identical to the TARDIS interface she’d grown so used to in the years since Trap Street.

She grabbed for the Doctor with one hand and the ignition lever with the other, holding tight to both as she pulled the lever home. The TARDIS hurdled through the Time Vortex and after a breathless moment, landed them with a wheeze and a thump exactly where Clara had asked her to take them.

The Doctor stumbled against her as the gravity renormalised, and she steadied him with a hand on his shoulder. Looking up, she found him gazing down at her, that same expression of intense study as she remembered from his very first moments with this face, brows drawn together, eyes wide, as though he was trying to decipher her.

“It’s alright, Doctor, I’ve got you,” she said softly, hand still on his shoulder.

He stared at her a moment longer, and then promptly collapsed at her feet. She caught him under the arms before his knees could hit the hard floor and eased him down with her. Sitting beside him, she cradled his head in her lap and ran her fingers through his hair. Given the way she remembered him being early in this face, she worried for half a moment that he would cringe away from her, but instead he closed his eyes and leaned into her touch like an attention-starved cat.

“There now, everything’s okay,” she told him soothingly. “You must be exhausted,” she said, remembering how he had slept, the first time ‘round. “Whole new regeneration cycle, yeah?”

He coughed out a little golden cloud of regeneration energy. “Yeah. Whole new everything.”

“You’re going to need to sleep, and probably ought to eat something.”

“Nah, I’m fine,” he said, not opening his eyes. “Just stay with me.” He pawed at her a moment before finally catching her wrist in his long fingers and pulling her hand down to leave a kiss in the centre of her palm. He was so awkward, unused to this body, and Clara had to remind herself how very new all of this was to him.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said, forcing back her tears — of relief, of joy, of sheer overwhelming emotion — and resumed running her fingers through his short grey curls.

It only took him a few minutes to drift off to sleep in her lap, breaths coming slow and even. She stayed with him a little longer to be sure he was really out, then carefully shrugged out of her jumper and balled it up to place beneath his head. If her memories of the first time around were anything to go by, it’d be close to eighteen hours before he was feeling anything like himself, and she certainly couldn’t sit on the cold floor of the console room the whole time.

Easing his head out of her lap and onto the pillow of her jumper, she silently stood and toed off her shoes to let her move around more quietly. The TARDIS’s kitchen was her first stop, and she found the items she had been thinking about sitting out on the worktop: a thermos of tea, large stack of sandwiches, various sweet confectioneries she knew this Doctor enjoyed. Clara sent a mental thank you at the TARDIS, pleased and relieved to find that the time machine seemed to be on her side in this. The first cabinet she opened contained a picnic basket with linens already inside, and she quickly packed up the meal the TARDIS had prepared for them and made her way back to the console room.

The Doctor was still sleeping, though he’d rolled onto his side and half buried his face in her jumper. She left the picnic basket beside him and ventured back down the hall for the rest of the supplies she meant to gather. The Doctor’s bedroom was nowhere to be found — and besides, he’d mentioned once that he redesigned it from scratch after his regeneration, so she doubted that this new Doctor would find much comfort in the belongings of his last face — but the TARDIS had helpfully put Clara’s bedroom within a short walk from the console room.

She dashed inside, having to mentally recalibrate when she saw the state of the room: it was as she’d left it two Christmases with the Doctor and more than two hundred years ago, no momentos from adventures she remembered, no photos of her and the grey-haired stick insect she’d left asleep in the console room. It was still strange enough to send her reeling for a moment, her all-too-real heartbeat pounding in her chest. Her past had become her present, and she was actively, intentionally making different choices than she had the first time around. And so far it seemed to be working.

Clara shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts, and gathered the pillows and blankets from her bed. Returning to the console room, she dropped these beside the picnic basket and the sleeping Time Lord, then turned back for her final errand: the TARDIS wardrobe room. She tried to project her thoughts clearly at the TARDIS, and hoped the oddly looped nature of her timeline wouldn’t throw the sentient machine. The Doctor would want new clothes when he woke, he wouldn’t want to keep wearing what would feel, to him, like clothing borrowed from his last face. She focused on the memory of his softest layers, well-worn tshirts, thick hoodies, soft jumpers inexplicably peppered with holes.

Around her the TARDIS hummed approvingly, and she entered the wardrobe room to find the requested items hung on a rack just inside the door, along with other more formal items she associated with this Doctor, waistcoats and starched white shirts and coats that looked like they ought to belong to a magician. She touched the red velvet one fondly, but gathered up a collection of just the most comfortable pieces, snagged his Doc Martens from beneath the rack, and made her way back to the console room.

The Doctor was still sleeping, so she set his clothing down quietly and double checked their location on the console monitor. The planet was as she remembered it, all huge undisturbed proto-pine trees and fields of waving grasses, lit by a blazing, endless sunset. A planet so young, insect life hadn’t yet evolved, much less anything larger and more threatening that might necessitate running in the Doctor’s first hours of this life. It had been a favourite restful spot of hers, when she’d travelled alone, and she was glad to find she had timed things well enough that she hadn’t inadvertently parked them next to her past self.

Of course, if she was changing the timeline as much as she thought she was, perhaps she would never be the version of Clara Oswald who travelled time and space alone for two hundred years, suspended in the last moment before her death. Perhaps that version of her couldn’t exist in this universe.

She gathered up the bedding and the basket and made her way outside as quietly as she could. The air was fresh and the breeze warm and pleasant, and Clara took a moment to enjoy it before laying out her supplies on the dry grasses outside the TARDIS. She was just finishing up when from inside the TARDIS she heard a distant, concerned, “...Clara?”

“Right here, Doctor,” she called back, scrambling towards the open door as quickly as she could. Over the years she had had plenty to regret and more than enough time to think about it, and the distance she had put between herself and the Doctor that day he regenerated was high on her list. She didn’t intend to make the same mistakes again.

He is lost in the ruin of himself, and you must bring him home, Vastra had said, so long ago. Whatever it took, that was exactly what Clara meant to do.

She stumbled through the door to find him sitting up on his heels, examining the pile of clothing she’d left nearby. His gaze shot to hers as she entered, and she watched his face relax visibly. “Oh, good,” he sighed, relieved. “I thought you’d somehow transformed into—” he flapped his hand at the pile of clothes, seemingly unaware of how silly that statement sounded.

“Nah, just setting up a little picnic for us. Come on out and see the view,” she said, motioning to him to follow.

He got shakily to his feet, gripping the console for balance, and she resisted the urge to go to him and help him up. Already he seemed softer towards her than she remembered, less closed off, but she still knew him well enough to know that he wouldn’t appreciate that kind of coddling. She held out her hand to him as he reached her at the door and he took it hesitantly, allowing himself to be pulled out of the TARDIS and into the grassy field beyond.

“Where are we?” he asked, looking around in wonder.

“Obtaxia Four,” she replied confidently. “Or it will be, in a couple million years. Evolution’s only gotten as far as grass and one kind of tree in this time period. Still, the atmosphere makes for some impressive sunsets, and the planet rotates slowly enough to make them really last.”

She led him to where she’d spread out the picnic blanket, food in one corner and pillows and the comforter from her bed in another. The Doctor sank down next to the basket gratefully.

“Clara, Clara, Clara,” he said, still holding her hand. “Picnic on Obtaxia Four, not a bad choice at all.”

Following the gentle tug on her hand, she sat down beside him, curling her stockinged feet beneath her. She looked up to find him watching her closely again with that same intense, focused look, and forced herself into action.

“Right,” she said, voice business-like. “Whole new cycle, which means regeneration sickness is likely to be worse than usual. We’ve got tea and sandwiches and sweets, so eat up before sleep catches up with you again.”

The Doctor narrowed his gaze at her. “Were you always this bossy?” he demanded, blunt in a way she no longer found off-putting.

She grinned back at him, too overwhelmingly happy in that moment to even fake offense. “Yep, that’s me, I’m the boss. So do as you’re told, the TARDIS prepared this all especially for you.”

He harrumphed a little grumpily but poured himself a cup of tea before investigating the pile of sandwiches.

“You certainly do seem to know what you’re about,” he allowed grudgingly after a few minutes of quiet eating. “Though I wonder if I should perhaps be concerned that you and the TARDIS are ganging up against me.”

Clara finished her bite of sandwich before speaking. “Get used to it,” she said, her voice light and teasing. She watched him a moment, knowing her adoration of him was probably written clearly across her face, but being utterly unable to do anything about it.

His gaze soften as he stared back at her. “When did you get so wise, Clara Oswald?” he asked, sounding fond.

She clamped down on the momentary bolt of panic that he might have realised something was different with her, and answered cheekily, “I jumped into your timestream, remember? I’ve known all of your faces. This isn’t the first regeneration I’ve seen.” Both statements were true, if not quite as causally-linked as she had implied.

The Doctor tilted his head to one side, eyebrows drawing together as he considered her, and she wondered for a brief second if he had seen straight through her attempt at cover. “What’s gone wrong with your voice?” he asked instead, sounding irritable. “Or is it my ears? Have my ears gone wrong this time?” He reached up to scratch at his ears, and she caught his hand, easing it away.

“Your ears are fine,” she said, smiling at him kindly. “But have you stopped to consider that you might be, just a little, Scottish?”

“What?” he asked, scowling at her. “Of course I’m not Scottish! I’m not human, Clara, I can’t very well be from Scotland now can I?”

“No, of course,” she allowed, laughing. “Not proper Scottish, no. But can you hear yourself, and hear me? You’ve definitely gone a tiny bit Scottish.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, then stopped to chew over the words. “Oh, I do sound a bit like Amy, don’t I?” he murmured to himself.

“Amy Pond was Scottish?” Clara asked with genuine curiosity before she could think better of it.

The Doctor’s gaze jumped to hers, startled. “I’ve mentioned Amy before?”

“Yeah, couple of times now,” she shrugged, trying to play it casual. “Right before you changed, in fact, you said her name. Said she was the first face that face saw.”

“She was,” he said thoughtfully, gaze drifting down to his lap again. “She was.”

Clara hesitated, then asked, “And now?”

He met her eyes from underneath his brows, intense in a way she once would have interpreted as angry with her, and she was thankful all over again for the practice she had now at reading this face. “New regeneration cycle, new me,” he said. “First everything.”

She smiled softly at him and reached over to lace her fingers with his. He didn’t pull away.

They ate in companionable quiet, watching the sunset colours shift on the distant clouds. He devoured more than half the sandwiches, all the pastries, and every bit of the tea besides what Clara had claimed for herself, before finally leaning back on his elbows with a satisfied sigh.

“If you’re going to sleep out here,” he said to her, eyes on the sunset, “where should I sleep? Do you think the TARDIS has made a new room for me yet?”

“Why would I sleep out here?” she asked, bemused.

“Well, that’s your bedding there, isn’t it? It follows that you would be the one sleeping here.”

Clara huffed a laugh and dusted the crumbs off her hands. “I’m not the one renewing every cell in my body all at once,” she said. “You sleep here, and I’ll stick around and keep an eye on things.”

The Doctor shot her a wary glance, though the rest of him still looked relaxed. “Not going to take the TARDIS out joyriding and leave me here to sleep it off, are you?”

“I think my joyriding days are behind me,” she told him truthfully, smiling.

“That pile of clothing in the TARDIS that turned out not to be you,” he said, switching lines of thought abruptly. “Were those for me?”

She nodded. “I dropped by the wardrobe room and the TARDIS had set out a rack of new clothes for you. Bunch of stuff, I only took what looked most comfortable.”

Gaze on the fading sunset, the Doctor scowled. “That’s unusually helpful of her,” he said. “Typically she makes me go digging through the wardrobe room on my own until I can figure out what clothes go with the new face.”

Clara shrugged, unwilling to let on as to her own involvement. She was beginning to realise that she would eventually have to tell the Doctor about her past, about having lived another version of these events already. But not today, not while he was still in the throes of regeneration sickness. They would have that conversation, but it could wait. “Maybe she has a look in mind for you,” she suggested, when it seemed that the Doctor expected a response.

He snorted in disbelief. “Of the two of you, who is the bigger egomaniacal control freak?” he asked without malice. “Actually, scratch that, in that contest I think you and the TARDIS might be in a dead-heat until the end of the universe.”

“Which is why you love us,” Clara chirped back at him, not thinking about the words until they were hanging in the air between them. They had only ever said it explicitly the one time, in the Cloisters beneath the Capital on Gallifrey four and a half billion years after her death, and then only because they’d known they would never have another chance. It was something they’d danced around the edges of, both before and after Danny died, but never joked about, never referred to it as flippantly as she’d just done.

The Doctor shot her a surprised look, eyebrows raised, before quickly looking away. As she watched, he closed in on himself, posture becoming defensive. “I’m not your boyfriend, Clara,” he said, voice low and gruff, not allowing her enough warning to prepare herself to hear those words again.

She swallowed down the hurt, shoved away the memory of how she’d responded the first time around. This was important, this would decide their trajectory for the rest of her newly-restored life, and she had to get it right.

“No, you’re not,” she agreed, reaching over to tangle her fingers with his again, grateful when he didn’t pull away. “You’re something so much more than that. There isn’t a word big enough for what you are to me.”

He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye but maintained his defensive posture. “There are a lot of words out there.”

“And not a one of them big enough,” Clara reiterated, her voice level and sincere.

The Doctor made a sour face, still not looking at her. “Have I gone and gotten terribly handsome in this regeneration?” he demanded. “I haven’t even had the chance to properly look in a mirror yet, but I was under the impression I’d gotten old and all— eyebrow-y,” he said, waving his free hand vaguely at his face.

She smiled at him fondly and squeezed his hand. “I know you, you silly man. The real you, the one that’s always in there, under the surface. I’ve known all of your faces, but this one might be my favourite.”

The Doctor was silent a long moment, his body language telling her that he wanted to believe her but couldn’t bring himself to do. “But you miss him, the bowtie one,” he said finally, not phrasing it as a question.

“A bowtie is a fashion accessory, not a person,” Clara replied evenly.

“You know what I mean,” the Doctor huffed.

“Do I?” She fixed him with a steady look, cataloguing his expression. “If I were to shave off your eyebrows, would that change who you are?” she asked.

The aforementioned eyebrows drew together in a threatening glare. “You wouldn’t!”

“I only mean theoretically, for the sake of discussion.”

“I don’t think I like the direction this discussion is moving in,” the Doctor shot back.

She raised her eyebrows and waited for him to give her a real answer, a teacher prompting a reluctant student.

“It’s a ridiculous question!” he finally said, rather than play her rhetorical game.

Clara rolled her eyes at him. “Eyebrows or no, bowtie or long scarf or whatever the hell that rainbow clown coat was, you are you. The exterior is just window dressing. The bowtie is gone, but you are still here, underneath all those surface details.”

See me, he had said to her once, so long ago in a timeline he would never remember. Please, just see me.

“I see you in there, Doctor,” Clara said softly. “I can’t exactly miss you when you’re sitting right beside me.”

“But—”

“I’ve spent more than enough time missing you when you’re not here. I know the difference.”

He eyed her warily out of the corner of his vision but didn’t shift away. “I think maybe you’re taking advantage of my exhausted state to get your emotions all over me.”

Clara laughed in spite of herself. “You’re probably right. You should rest.”

“No joyriding?” he confirmed.

“No joyriding,” she promised. “Not until you feel up to taking the controls yourself.”

The Doctor disentangled himself from her and she let him go, watching as he moved to the other side of the picnic blanket and arranged the pillows to his particular liking before lying back against them. He seemed to sense her gaze on him and looked over at her, scowling.

“Don’t you have something else you should be doing?” he asked, sounding almost accusatory. “Somewhere you’re supposed to be?”

Clara had long-since learned to interpret this particular tone of his, and it didn’t sting the way it would have done the first time around. “Christmas dinner with the family,” she confirmed. “You were there, remember? You were naked.”

He made a face like that couldn’t possibly be true, but said, “I think I flashed your granny?”

A laugh bubbled up out of her at that. “You did, in fact. Not that she seemed to mind. But Dad and Linda might need a little more of an explanation, once I get back.”

“Ah, so you’re avoiding going home and having that conversation,” the Doctor said.

Clara raised an eyebrow, almost surprised he could read her so well so quickly. Under his incisive gaze, her cover quickly crumbled, and she sighed, giving in. “So much has happened since I left,” she told him, picking at a loose thread on the picnic blanket. It was true, if also a massive understatement. “I have to go back and face them eventually, I just want to get my head right first.”

“Well, that’s the benefit of a time machine, isn’t it?” he said, shifting the pillows into another configuration. “You can avoid your awkward conversations as long as you like, and come back to them with your supper still warm. Or something.”

“Supper was that turkey we cooked using the heart of the TARDIS,” Clara reminded him. “It’s possible it won’t ever get cold.”

When the Doctor didn’t respond, she glanced over to find that he had fallen asleep, burrowed in amongst the pillows, long legs stretched out towards the dwindling sunset.

“Goodnight, Doctor,” she murmured quietly. Love you, she added in her head, but didn’t say.

She would have to go home eventually, Clara knew, back to what her life had been that fateful Christmas. She’d long ago said her goodbyes to her family, to the life she’d led on Earth, knowing that in her undead state, she could never return. But now it was all in front of her again, waiting for her to pick right back up where she’d left off — four months into teaching at Coal Hill, another month before she’d meet Danny, bills and lesson plans and half-dead houseplants and a whole normal life just waiting for her.

If she wanted it, which she wasn’t sure she did.

She had changed so much since then, learned so much about herself and what she wanted out of life. She had seen wonders, and not a one of them as dear to her as the man softly snoring on the other side of the blanket. The universe in its infinite weirdness had decided to gift her with this second chance with him, and she didn’t intend to waste it.

But she wouldn’t just up and disappear on her friends and family, she decided, and she wouldn’t put it off indefinitely the way she’d put off her return to Gallifrey. Once the Doctor was feeling up to to travelling, she would take them back to that long-ago Christmas, give her family some sort of explanation, and start the process of wrapping up the loose ends of her life. And then, well...

All of time and space is sitting out there in a blue box, the Doctor had said to her, the first time the universe had offered them a second chance. Please, don’t even argue.

All of time and space with her daft old man, the one person she had missed for two hundred years with such a visceral ache that at times she’d thought the pain of it might be enough to restart her nearly-dead heart. She looked over at him again, taking in how peaceful he looked when he slept, and suddenly a wave of exhaustion rippled through her. She couldn’t even properly say when the last time was that she’d slept. In her bio-looped state, she hadn’t really needed sleep and hadn’t made much of a habit of it. For this version of her body, she’d last slept on Christmas Eve, at home in her flat, but it seemed impossible to count up the hours that had passed since then, in between a hectic Christmas day and bouncing back and forth to Trenzalore. Wrapping her quilt around her, she snuggled into a corner of one of the pillows the Doctor had claimed, and let herself drift off into a peaceful and thankfully dreamless sleep.

When she woke, it was to blazing starlight and muttered words from the Doctor.

“What are you playing at, old girl?” she caught, as he dropped his Doc Martens onto the blanket with a soft thud and a sour look. “These don’t fit at all.” He’d changed into the clothes she’d set out for him, all but the apparently vexing boots.

Clara levered herself up on her elbow to get a better view of the problem, and confirmed her suspicion. “Can’t tell your left from your right, yet?” she asked, keeping her voice kind. “Here,” she added, reaching out and swapping the positions of the boots. “Should fit better now.”

The Doctor looked at her as if she’d just told him the moon was made of cheese, but tried the boots again, to much better success. He stood up and took a couple of long strides around the edge of the picnic blanket, testing the fit.

“What do you think?” he asked, turning back to her with his hands in the pockets of his trousers, so that the red lining of his coat was on display.

“It suits you,” she said with a smile, sitting up and running a hand through her hair. Her fringe was constantly in her face, how had she ever lived with this before? At least now that her hair was growing again, she could fix this particular mistake within a few months.

“I’m not so sure about the trousers,” the Doctor said. “Haven’t been much given to plaid the last several regenerations.”

“Yeah, but— Scottish,” Clara pointed out with a grin.

He sighed and rolled his eyes. “Not every plaid is a tartan, Clara,” he said, voice longsuffering. “And if you and the TARDIS think you’re going to bully me into a kilt—”

Clara laughed at that mental image, cutting him off. “Wouldn’t dream of it, Doctor,” she told him honestly.

“In fact, it’s probably best if you let me choose the wardrobe from now on,” he added.

“Naturally.”

“Because I am over two thousand years old, you know. I can dress myself.”

“Evidence with the boots to the contrary.”

“Oh, don’t congratulate yourself,” he said sourly, “I’d have figured it out eventually.”

She grinned at him, unable to help the way her happiness spilled out onto her face. “Well, until then,” she said, climbing to her feet, “you’d best stick with me, in case of any other boot-related confusion.”

“You’ll stay, then?” he asked, trying to cover his hopefulness with a gruff tone. He looked away, scuffed the toe of his boot in the dirt. “I could take you home, if you’d rather. Well— I’m afraid the boot-related confusion may still extend to flying the TARDIS, but you got us here well enough, so I suppose you could take yourself home.”

Clara crossed the blanket towards him and held out her hand, waited for him to tentatively take it before answering him. “I should get home, get that conversation with my family out of the way. But after that... Show me some planets?” she asked, smiling up at him.

He looked at her then, searching her face for something. “Are you sure?” he asked, sounding wary.

She nodded. “Never been more sure of anything in my life,” she told him honestly. “But first, Christmas dinner with the family. Come on, let’s get all this back inside. Nights on Obtaxia Four are long and start to get seriously cold.”

Once they’d loaded everything back into the TARDIS, Clara made her way to the console, the Doctor trailing after her. The navigation system in this TARDIS was a bit more patched together than the one in her TARDIS had been, but she easily located the Recent Trips list and used that to set their destination for the field outside her flat, five minutes after the TARDIS had last landed there, then sent them into the Vortex.

“When did you get so good at that?” the Doctor asked, voice laced with suspicion.

She shrugged with deliberate casualness. Soon, she would tell him soon, but not right this moment. “I’ve travelled with you a long time, haven’t I? Picked up a few things is all.”

The Doctor didn’t answer, and around them the TARDIS wheezed and groaned, then came to stop with a soft thump.

“Right, so,” she said, throwing the TARDIS into park, “no joyriding without me. I’m just going to run upstairs and make my excuses, grab a change of clothes, and I’ll be right back down. Ten minutes, tops.”

“Yes, boss,” the Doctor said, oddly subdued.

Clara shot him a look as she made her way to the door, wondering what had brought on his shift in mood. “I’ll be right back,” she said again, hoping to reassure him.

“Of course,” he replied, and she could tell he was bracing himself for something, though what she didn’t know.

She eyed him with growing worry. “Seriously, don’t go leaving without me. Ten minutes. Stay put.”

He nodded, but followed her to the door anyway, lingering in the doorway as she stepped out into the brisk December sunshine outside.

In the pocket of her skirt, her phone buzzed.

And oh, oh, she had forgotten this part. Not truly forgotten, not ever, but she had been so caught up in getting these first few hours right that she had completely forgotten to expect this call, this one last moment with her long gone past.

She looked down at her phone’s screen as she paced a few steps away, needing a moment to gather her courage. “Hello?” she answered the call, despite knowing exactly who was on the other end.

“It’s me,” the Doctor’s old voice sighed through the speaker pressed to her ear, a ghost reaching out through the ages to tweak at her heartstrings.

She couldn’t help the way tears sprung to her eyes, and she took a few more steps away from the TARDIS before saying, “Doctor?”

“Yeah,” he breathed out, and she could imagine the regeneration energy escaping him, like warm breath on a cold day. “It’s me, Clara. I’m phoning you from Trenzalore.”

She pressed her free hand to her mouth, not trusting her voice as tears continued to threaten to fall.

“From before I changed,” he went on. “I mean it’s all still to happen for me. It’s coming. Oh, it’s a-coming. Not long now, I can feel it.”

A tear slipped down her cheek and she squared her shoulders, mind made up.

“Listen to me,” she said into the phone, turning and pacing further away from the TARDIS. “I know you don’t have much time, and there are things that need said. I don’t know if this will make any difference, if you’ll remember this at all, but it doesn’t matter. People like me and you, we should say things to one another. And I'm going to say them now.”

Clara,” the Doctor breathed through the phone, half warning and half plea.

“No, you listen to me. I love you, you impossible man. I have loved this face of yours so fiercely and I always, always will. And I know the man I’m with now, I know he’s you, and I love him too.” She choked on the words, swallowed past it, soldiered on. “So don’t be afraid because I am never, ever going to leave you.”

“Good,” he said shakily, and she thought she could hear tears in his voice too. “That’s, that’s good. Because I think this regeneration is going to be a whopper, and however scared you are of this change, believe me, he is more scared than anything you can imagine right now and he, he needs you.”

“So who is it?” her Doctor called from over her shoulder, having followed her out of the TARDIS, and she shut her eyes against the pain of how unbelievably blind she had been the first time around.

Over the phone, the other Doctor asked, “Is that the Doctor?”

Behind her, his new face echoed the same question.

“Yes,” she answered them both, turning to look at her Doctor.

“He sounds old,” his voice came through the phone. “Please tell me I didn't get old. Anything but old. I was young. Oh, is he grey?”

She huffed a little laugh in spite of herself. “Yes.”

“Clara, please, hey, for me, help him,” the Doctor sighed. “Go on. And don't be afraid. Goodbye, Clara. Miss ya.”

The line went dead, and she lowered her phone, eyes squeezed shut for a moment. She would never, ever hear that voice again, and as thankful as she was to have the rest of her life laid out in front of her again, the hurt of that was sharp and poignant.

“Clara?” the Doctor called to her, more uncertainty in his voice now than she’d heard since his first moments.

Squaring her shoulders and pocketing her phone, she turned back to him and found that same uncertainty on his face.

“Thank you,” she told him sincerely.

“For what?” he asked, sounding lost.

“Phoning,” she said, as tears threatened again.

He didn’t answer, but instead cocked his head to one side, scowling at her like she was a mystery in need of deciphering.

“What?” she asked, taken aback by this reaction.

“How did you do that?” the Doctor demanded, eyeing her suspiciously. “You changed it. I remember two different versions of that conversation, how, how did you do that?”

Oh. Apparently they were going to have that conversation right now, no more putting it off, no more lies by omission. This and then her family, best to get it all done in one go, and then start fresh on this second chance the universe gifted her.

Taking a deep breath, she moved a few steps closer to him, holding his gaze. “Because I’ve lived this twice, Doctor,” she told him gently. “I need to tell you a story. It’s long, but it’s got a happy ending.”

“A story about what?” he asked warily.

“About coming home,” she told him, reaching out to take his hand in hers and smiling up at his familiar, beloved face. “The long way ‘round.”