"Tasha Lem?" exclaimed Clara, somewhere between amusement and dismay, as the Doctor entered the console room with a high-cheekboned, black-haired beauty on his arm. "Tasha Lem is River Song? Oh, now that explains a lot."
"Hello, Clara," said River Song serenely. "Have we met yet?"
Clara ducked her head, remembering a little too late that, since River alias Tasha´s time in the Library computer had never happened, she couldn´t have spoken to her ghost on Trenzalore. Come to think of it, since the Doctor hadn´t died there, the whole encounter with the Whispermen couldn´t have happened, including Clara´s own jump into the Doctor´s time stream. So why did she still remember it? She suspected the TARDIS, but since thinking about it only gave her a headache, it was best to let it go.
"Spoilers," the Doctor declared, holding up his free hand like a policeman directing traffic. "She hasn´t. She's only just regenerated. You might thank Clara, love, by the way, since that's her vortex manipulator you're wearing."
"Well then, I'm much obliged." River dropped a little curtsy, the black silk gown she had hunted up from the wardrobe rippling like water. "So – Amy? Rory? How do you like the makeover? Refreshing, don't you think?"
She posed gracefully, like a model on a runway, but it was clear that her heart was not quite in it. Amy and Rory, who had not said a single word since setting eyes on her, were frozen to the spot.
For just a moment, Clara pitied River. But soon that moment passed away, as the young parents converged on their centuries-old daughter with the same frantic joy with which they had welcomed back the Doctor.
"Jesus, River," was Amy's first coherent exclamation, as she ran a purple-nail-polished hand along River's ballerina bun."Where'd you get the genes for all that gorgeous hair? It's not from my side of the family, that's for sure!"
River smacked her mother's hand away, laughing, a childlike gesture poignantly at odds with the rest of her. Clara turned her face away.
"How long were you in there?" Rory demanded. "Trapped in a computer – Doctor, how long did you let this happen?"
"Too long," said the Doctor evenly. "I agree. I deserve everything you throw at me, Centurion. But let it be noted that I did, after all, rewrite time and bring her back."
"You did," said Rory, softening. "Thanks for that, mate. We owe you one."
"Don't be ridiculous. I stopped keeping track between us a long time ago."
Clara wandered slowly down the stairs, giving them privacy, noting wistfully that even the cool blue light of the TARDIS seemed warmer today, the hum of her engines lighter. Had the TARDIS ever locked out River Song? Don't be childish, she scolded herself. Be happy for them. From everything the Doctor told me, haven't they suffered enough?
She was happy for them, and yet …
"Bit overwhelming, aren't they?"
Rory's Oxfords appeared on the top stair above her head at the same time his wry, kind voice drifted down to her. By the time his face came into view, even though his eyes still shone from the reunion with his daughter, they found themselves wearing a rather similar patient smile.
"You could say that," said Clara. "Aren't you … " She gestured up the curve of the staircase.
"Oh, sure." He shrugged. "But there'll be time to catch up later, once those three have got all the drama out of their systems. Meanwhile, I'm following tradition."
"Oh, just … I was the newest on board before you, so it's kind of my responsibility to make sure you're okay."
"The Doctor sent you?"
Nevertheless, Clara was moved – not only that the Doctor had thought of this, but that Rory took it seriously. This quiet, mousy-haired man in his button-down shirt and reading glasses had a truly kind heart.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"Oh, yes. Yes." He peered at her through his glasses, unconvinced. "The four of you are just so … married."
To his credit, he did not laugh at her. Instead he nodded, as if he knew perfectly what she meant.
"Believe it or not, that's just how I used to feel," he said. "When I was first here with Amy and the Doctor. I was her fiance, but people we met used to think it was him."
"Yeah." Rory shrugged again, a gesture she was beginning to think of as his habit. "He has that effect on people, especially women. He doesn't mean to, but he does. For Amy, it went away when she saw me in danger … also because she does know, deep down, that I'm right for her in a way he's not. But for you … look, no offense. All I'm saying is, be careful."
Clara blushed, reading easily between the lines of that plain statement. "Is it that obvious?"
"Not to everyone, but I'm a nurse. I read people."
"Okay." She raised her head, determined to meet his eyes despite her visibly red face. "Then you can also read that I'm a grown-up, right? I understand that the 'effect', whatever you call it, goes away in time, and it's the friendship that lasts. Also, I don't date married men. That's not a place I want to go. Are we clear?"
"Clear." He clapped her on the shoulder, in the manner of a proud commanding officer praising a cadet. "You're really something else, Clara, you know that?"
"So are you," she replied sincerely, making him let out a good-natured "tch!" of disbelief. "No, I mean it. You were wrong just now at your flat. You're every bit as special as those three up there, and don't you forget it."
"If you say so. We're both lucky, I suppose, Amy and me." He smiled up at the ceiling where his wife stood with concentrated warmth. "Someday I hope you find that for herself."
He started back up the stairs, gesturing for her to follow him, and so she did.
Despite her worries of being left out, she was greeted warmly from all sides. Amy beamed radiantly at her as she swept past to kiss Rory; the Doctor tipped his top hat to her; even River's face was kind.
"I believe this is yours, dear," said the Doctor's wife, unbuckling her vortex manipulator.
"Oh no," Clara demurred. "It belongs to UNIT, really. You keep it. You probably need it much more than I do."
"Thank you, Clara." The older woman kissed her gently on the cheek, no doubt leaving a lipstick mark, but it did not both her. "I'm sure I will."
"Oh, and thanks for that idea of yours about time management," added Amy. "Schedules were never my thing, so between the Doctor and my other life, I used to get awfully mixed up. He says you have it down to once a week, is that it? Same time?"
"Can the TARDIS manage that?"
"Oi! Not another word about my old girl," the Doctor broke in, patting the console in a reassuring way. "She's a time machine. Her timing was perfect millenia before you were born."
"Let's make it Saturday evenings then," said Amy, whipping a black diary out of her purse and beginning to write. "Rory, what do you think?"
"Saturday at eight," said her sensible husband. "After supper. I'm not running from aliens on an empty stomach."
Amid their laughter and chatter, there was a sudden jolt. Clara, who like her fellow passengers recognized it as the TARDIS landing, clung to the railing with practiced strength.
"Leadworth, April ninth, two thousand thirteen AD. Outside temperature, fifteen degrees celsius. Sunny but variable. Unfasten your seatbelts, return all chairs to an upright position, and … since we have neither seatbelts nor chairs, I really should find something more appropriate to say."
The cool and professional airline pilot impression fooled nobody; he was positively glowing.
"Big hand for the captain," Amy suggested, and they all clapped.
"You do realize I'll be turning up again and again, don't you?" said the Doctor. "Can't get rid of me now."
"Well, babes," River drawled, kissing him on the cheek. "That's a drawback we're just going to have to live with."
"Look after him, Clara, won't you?" said Amy, and "Look after her," Rory added sternly to the Doctor, who saluted in response.
They were almost at the doorframe when Clara, seeing her last chance before it disappeared, pulled her mobile phone from her skirt pocket and hurried forward with a face as red as the pleated tartan.
"Amy, wait," she blurted out. "Can I – can I take your picture? I wouldn't show it to anyone. Besides, they'd all think it was photoshopped anyway."
And that was how Amelia Williams, author of Summer Falls, godmother of Clara's highest hopes and dreams, wrapped a sisterly arm around her shoulders and snapped a casual, smiling "selfie" of them both.
Clara would keep it for the rest of her life.
The Doctor snapped his fingers. Silence fell as the doors flew open.
A cool spring breeze was wafting in from outside, scented with fresh green and dust after rain. Th TARDIS faced a small townhouse with a bright blue door, and a garden in front about the size of a twin bed. A man was working there with grim concentration, crouching on his knees, digging in a flowerbed with his back to them. He wore a plaid shirt with a blue vest over it, and his thin white hair was plastered to the back of his head with sweat. He did not seem to have noticed their arrival; it was only then that Clara noticed that the TARDIS engines had been silent all along.
Rory was the first to step outside. A twig snapped under his shoe. The old man straightened up, brushed dirt from his jeans, and turned around.
"Hi, Dad," said Rory. "Thanks for, uh … taking care of the plants."
The old man – Mr. Williams – blossomed. There was no other word for it. Decades seemed to fall away from him as his hunched shoulders straightened, his withered face flushed, and his eyes began to shine. The trowel dropped, unnoticed, from his hand.
Rory grabbed Amy's hand and pulled her forward; Amy, in turn, gestured to River, saying something over her shoulder that sounded like "about time". River, smoothing her femme-fatale gown with uncharacteristic shyness, followed her parents out.
With another snap, the doors closed softly on the family reunion, leaving Clara and the Doctor alone. He stood with that controlled kind of stillness she was learning to get used to, one hand on the TARDIS console, his ancient eyes staring into space. Was he remembering past adventures with his family, or dreaming of the future they would have? Most likely it was both.
"So," she said brightly. "That was nice."
"Nice?" He raised a heavy eyebrow at her.
"Oh, all right, it was absolutely lovely."
"That's more like it."
"We should do this more often. Hang out with your family, I mean. Instead of getting trapped in Soviet submarines or naked in the snow."
"Your wife's gorgeous, by the way, in both her bodies. You have good taste."
"Present company included, is that it?"
"If you say so, Doctor."
He shot her a sly sideways look, catching her just as she tucked her mobile back into her pocket. "Careful with that, aye? I had no idea you were such a … what do they call it in your time? … fangirl of my mother-in-law. It was very entertaining."
"Can I take your picture?" he mimicked, in a squeaky falsetto that made Clara put her hands over her ears, then ducked out of the way very neatly for his age as she aimed a punch at his shoulder. Teasing each other like teenagers, they chased each other around and around the console room while the TARDIS chimed with laughter.
It was not until later, thinking over the day at home, that Clara would realize the subtle shift that had taken place. She hadn't missed his bow tie, his tweed jacket, his handsome face and boyish energy for a moment. She had been there, with this Doctor, every step of the way – this Doctor who, even in the middle of a joyful reunion with the family he'd thought was lost forever, had still stopped to make sure she wasn't left out. The hurt she'd felt since Christmas had been well and truly healed.
Which is, of course, she thought with a secret smile, exactly what he wanted.