A/n: Based on a prompt in the whouffle tag on tumblr. Brief mentions and/or excerpts from the following: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, and the Classic Who serial Timelash.
"When she was fifteen if you'd told her
that when she was twenty she'd be going
to bed with bald-headed men and liking it,
she would have thought you very abstract."
― H.G. Wells, The Time Machine
He enjoyed reading about as much as he enjoyed crowded airports. And he'd been anxious in tight places since he was little.
There wasn't much reason for it. His mother read to him when he was a boy—whenever she could—and he'd never been harassed by a librarian or any of the sort. He just never could feel comfortable with the heavy weight of a book, with all the unknowns and all the potential between the covers, like some sort of uneasy portal into another world he wasn't even sure he wanted part of. Sometimes it was difficult for him to feel grounded in the actual reality of the world he was in, so the idea of opening his mind to another was nothing sort of triggering.
Of course, he had weaknesses beyond his anxieties. The main being brunette women with kindhearted smiles. He was fourteen and smitten on the first day he met his English teacher and things never got much better from then.
The first book assignment of the year was Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson, and even Ms. Oswald's glittering eyes couldn't persuade him to pick it up.
It wasn't too big and it didn't look too intimidating, but something in the passionate way she spoke of it was. It was almost like the book was an intimate relation of hers and when he touched the cover, it felt almost like coveting something personal. He sat in the back of the room and sank down in his chair whenever she called on pupils, praying she'd never call on him, because he would have nothing of substance to offer to the conversation. To say he learned nothing would be a lie: he picked up the general basis of the story just from Ms. Oswald's discussions with the class. But he had nothing original to add. Nothing relevant to the story, at least. He could have talked for the entire class period about the curve of Ms. Oswald's bottom lip when she smiled, but no one wanted to hear about that. That was his own intimate story.
Of course, she was clever. She picked up on his silence only a week into the term. He was walking from the room (always perfectly in the middle of the group filing out, so as to not draw attention to himself. He'd mastered the art of keeping attention off himself. Having a stepfather like he did required it) when she set a gentle hand on his shoulder, drawing him to a stop.
The way his stomach plummeted was almost painful. His cheeks grew hot and his palms grew sweaty almost instantly as he turned and looked up, finding her big eyes looking straight into his. She was smiling calmly, reassuringly. She let her hand fall off his shoulder.
"Could you stay after a moment?" She asked him.
The words fell from his mouth almost desperately. "Yes, of course, yeah, no problem at all, I've nowhere else to be. Last class of the day!"
Her eyebrows furrowed ever so slightly, and the corners of her mouth twitched, but then she was turning with a swish to her dress and crossing back to the blackboard.
He nervously walked and stood in front of her desk, waiting for the last few students to walk out, and he couldn't help but tug anxiously at his shirt as he waited for what was to come. He knew it was going to be a scolding, but he didn't much care. He saw his friend Anthony shooting him a curious look before he walked out, but all he could do was shrug and grin a little sheepishly.
When the last student walked from the room, Ms. Oswald turned around to face him, her hands falling absentmindedly to her hips where she wiped the chalk off her fingers. His eyes darted to the white, chalky lines left on her black skirt and then back up to her face, his cheeks pinking even more. He shifted awkwardly.
"Sit?" She offered warmly, nodding towards one of the desks in the front row.
"Yeah. Definitely." He said. He practically stumbled back and fell down into the seat, accidentally slamming his knees hard into the underside. He winced and casually rubbed his knees, trying to keep his face nonchalant. He expected Ms. Oswald to sit behind her desk, but she came and sat in the desk beside his, turning it slightly to face him. She was still smiling kindly and it was always that smile that did him in.
"Atlas, right?" She asked.
His heart jumped at the sound of his name falling from her lips. His laugh was a bit more high-pitched than usual.
"Yeah." He said. His voice broke near the end and he cleared his throat, turning his eyes to the top of the desk and away from her brown ones.
"It's a brilliant name." He looked up at that, and when he glanced back to her, she was smiling almost coyly like she was thinking of a private joke. She looked back at him a moment later. "You should definitely keep it."
He felt his own eyebrows drawing down with confusion. Of course he'd keep his name, what was the alternative? But Ms. Oswald was continuing after a slight shake of her head. He braced himself for the question he knew was coming—the question as to why he wasn't doing his assignments—but what came next threw him off completely.
"Did your parents travel a lot?" She asked curiously. There was a spark to her eyes that made his lips twitch, a sort of hopeful curiosity that made his own heart swell ever so slightly. And he wondered, just for a moment as a lovesick fourteen year old, if this is what love felt like.
His expression must have publicized his confusion.
"Uh…" he started, but she laughed and continued before he had to think of a response.
"Sorry. Just—your name? Seems the name two travelers might pick for a baby." She explained.
Atlas watched her expectant smile grow and realized, all at once, that she was both stranger and lovelier than he'd ever before thought. He'd only been watching her talk about books—watching her talk about anything else was infinitely better.
"They didn't travel." He finally said honestly. "Wanted to though. Never got the chance, really."
She nodded understandingly, her eyes shifting easily from curiosity to compassion. He wondered if she related to that—if she had dreams she had yet to fulfill, dreams she thought she might not ever. But surely not. She was young anyway. Not young enough, his lovesick heart complained, but young enough that her dreams weren't soaked and torn like his mother's. She was the furthest thing from his mother.
"My mum was like that," she told him with a nod. "She had this book with all the places she wanted to see, and—well, anyway, maybe you'll get to see the places she didn't get to one day." She cocked her head to the side just slightly, her smile fading from her face gradually until she was looking at him seriously. "Why aren't you doing your readings, Atlas?"
Atlas dropped his eyes to the desk immediately, his ears burning with embarrassment this time.
"I—" he considered lying, but when he glanced back up at her eyes, he couldn't do it. He was sure no one in the world could lie to those eyes, to that face. He was certain no one could bear to. "I hate reading. A lot."
She nodded at that and leaned back slightly, her knuckle coming up to trace her bottom lip thoughtfully. He watched the path it took, wondering if she knew how pretty she was. She was so much prettier than any girl his age and anyone on the television and anyone in the movies. She was nicer and smarter, too. She was everything he thought every woman should be, and he would have sat in that classroom with her all day.
"Okay." She finally said. Her hand fell down into her lap. "So what can we do about that?"
"I—I dunno. I don't think it's something that can be changed. I just—I just hate it. Always have." He said nervously.
Her eyes studied him for a brief moment and then she was rising from the desk. She crossed to the bookshelf on the far wall in just a few, confident strides. She threw some words over her shoulder as she traced her fingers over the book spines.
"That's because you haven't found the right book." She told him firmly. She turned around after that, her eyes sparkling with excitement. "What kind of movies do you watch?"
He blinked. "Erm…I dunno. Action, I guess. Adventurey?"
She beamed. "Science fiction-y, perhaps?"
He thought to Star Trek and The Matrix and shrugged.
"It's all right, I guess."
Her grin grew. She turned her back on him, her fingers searching with more authority this time.
"It's better than all right. I've got just the thing. Ah-ha, that's the ticket." She turned around, this time with a book in her hand. He watched apprehensively as she crossed the space between them and set the book down gently on the desk. The cover was worn and dusty blue, and it looked very raggedy, but Ms. Oswald looked at it with affectionate eyes like it was the best thing she owned.
"The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. Published in 1895, first coined the term "time machine" for a machine that travels through time. Well, according to record, anyway." She shot off the facts rapid fire, leaving Atlas both impressed and intimidated. "It's full of adventure and loss and love. And history. And traveling, of course."
She waited for him to take it, nodding towards it encouragingly. He picked it up dubiously, giving it a slightly fearful look. It didn't look easy to read in the slightest. He was about to tell her no thank you, but when he glanced back up, she had that spark in her eye. The one she got whenever she went on passionate tangents in class.
"You have to wonder what made Wells want to write something like this," she said casually. "It must have been something or someone amazing."
Even the endearing flush to her cheeks couldn't sell Atlas on this one.
"I'll try." He said hesitantly. "But I couldn't even read Harry Potter."
She grinned. "Might not want to say that to an English teacher."
He couldn't help but grin back a little uneasily. "Oops."
She smiled at him for moment longer and then leaned forward, tapping the cover of the book.
"Give it a chance. You'll be surprised where books can take you." She said.
He didn't want to be surprised. But he'd take the book with him, if only for her dimpled smile.
It took him two months to get into the book.
It was difficult and excruciating at first. He kept nodding off over the chapters and gave up multiple times. But Ms. Oswald asked him how far in he was every few days, and he hated the look of disappointment when he said he'd barely started, so he forced himself to do it.
It was only twenty pages in that he saw the first footnote. It wasn't Ms. Oswald's handwriting, that much he knew for sure. And it was a peculiar sentence. Terrible dress sense, Clara. Herbert had terrible dress sense. And that's coming from number six.
Atlas knew his teacher's first name was Clara—she'd said they could call her either Clara or Ms. Oswald but he'd never felt comfortable enough to do so—but he couldn't make head nor tail of the note. And as he read he found other notes in the margins, notes about someone named Peri and a place called Karfel and plenty of other things that made no sense to him. It got to a point where he was reading simply to see if those notes would eventually make sense, but sooner than he'd realized, he'd finished the book and he still had no idea what the person's notes meant.
It was the first time he'd felt absorbed by a book. It was a miracle to him when he surfaced back into reality, unscathed. But he thought about the things he'd read for the next few days, realizing with astonishment that he'd actually been interested in what he was reading.
He always meant to ask Ms. Oswald about the margin notes, but he never had the guts. He couldn't speak to her unless she addressed him first, and she never mentioned them.
They were reading Pride and Prejudice and he got the impression—more than once—that she knew exactly what Elizabeth felt.
He actually read this one and—while it wasn't his favorite—he did the assignments and he spoke up in class every now and then.
He hadn't thought much about The Time Machine in a while, but one morning his unspoken questions were answered. But not by Ms. Oswald.
He was early to class (part of him hopeful that Ms. Oswald would be early too, as he'd gotten into the routine of arriving early and chatting with her), but she wasn't behind her desk or at the board. Atlas walked in, feeling pretty crestfallen, only to spot someone he'd never seen before sitting in the last desk in the back of the room. There were stacks and stacks of books surrounding the desk and Ms. Oswald's bookshelf was relatively empty. Atlas hesitated in the doorway.
"Morning," he said uneasily. The man jumped and turned to look towards the doorway, grinning broadly.
"Ah! Good morning!" He said. He had a pretty prominent chin and—was he wearing a bowtie? "You must be a student. Great thing to be, a student. Even better to be Clara's student. Probably, I don't know. Is she bossy with you? She's bossy with me. And I suppose, if she is bossy, that you'd rather be someone else's student. But that's life, isn't it? We must carry on. Well, why are you just standing there? Sit down, sit down! Join me! I'm having a party!"
Atlas jumped slightly at the man's overexcited voice and hesitantly crossed to his desk, which happened to be in the back beside where the man was sitting. He sat down awkwardly and busied himself with pulling his notebook from his bag, lest the man say something else to him. Atlas assumed it was a substitute.
He didn't mean to ask the question, but after he'd tucked his bag back underneath his desk, it slipped out.
"Is Ms. Oswald all right?" He asked worriedly.
"Hmm?" The man asked absentmindedly. He was leaning over a book, a pen held in his hands as his eyes scanned the page quicker than Atlas thought even possible. After a moment, he replied. "Oh, yes, yes. She's perfectly fine. Always fine, that one." He hesitated and then looked up, his practically non-existent eyebrows furrowed in concern. "Why? Does she not seem all right? Does she seem upset? Forlorn? Anxious? Unhappy?"
With each word the man leaned closer to Atlas, until he was practically falling out of the desk. Atlas shrank away slowly.
"Um…not…really?" Atlas practically squeaked.
The man relaxed immediately. "Oh, lovely."
He went back to the books like nothing had happened, leaving Atlas both confused and a bit worried. He wondered if this man was safe to be around. He seemed a bit unstable.
"Are you the substitute?" He asked hesitantly.
"What? No. I'm the Doctor. Who's the Substitute?" He asked suspiciously. His eyes darted around the room. "What's he smell like?"
Atlas carefully leaned over and grabbed the strap of his bag, in case he needed to flee quickly.
"It's…you're not the teacher teaching us today? Because Ms. Oswald's gone?" He asked nervously.
The man looked stricken. "What? Ms. Oswald's gone? Where's she gone? What do you mean?"
He was back to leaning over the desk, practically in Atlas' face, and it was that precise moment that someone else walked into the classroom.
"Oh dear God."
Both Atlas's and the man's heads flew towards the doorway, the man with a gleeful grin and Atlas with a confused grimace. Ms. Oswald was standing in the doorway with a mug of tea and tired shadows underneath her eyes, like it was early in the morning instead of the afternoon. She looked like she hadn't slept in weeks.
The man jumped to his feet immediately, leaving Atlas confused and uneasy. He practically bounced across the room and leaned towards Ms. Oswald. Atlas's stomach lurched when he started leaning forward, like this strange man was going to kiss her, but then Ms. Oswald held out her hand.
"No. You. In my classroom. Why?" She demanded. She leaned forward a second later and hissed something Atlas could only just make out. "I told you no Doctor-time during school-time!"
The man looked crestfallen. He rocked back onto his heels and huffed.
"Yes, I know, but Clara!" He whined. "It's been a whole three months—I got caught up in a thing with some cybermen and a ferret and a smelly pair of socks—and the TARDIS landed me here early and I was afraid if I tried to go forward she'd—"
Ms. Oswald leaned to her side, peering past the man called the Doctor and towards Atlas.
"Atlas! Hello. Could you just—we'll be right back." She reached up and hooked a finger underneath the man's bowtie, giving him a tug towards the door. "You. Shut up before I make you."
The man let out a laugh that was almost a giggle. "Hello to you too!" He said cheekily.
Ms. Oswald stepped purposely on the man's foot, eliciting a gasp of pain, and Atlas was left staring at the empty door once they'd left the room.
He thought he'd seen the weirdest of her, but he was certain now that he hadn't, and was that man her boyfriend? Husband? She wore a lot of rings on her fingers—none on her ring finger, but he guessed that didn't mean much. He felt jealously bubbling up in the pit of his stomach even though he knew he had no right to. He'd never have a chance with her, but he couldn't help but think that that man could never love her the way he did.
It was his curiosity that caused him to sit at the desk that man had just vacated, and when he did, everything made a bit more sense. The man had been writing footnotes in almost every book, and it was the same handwriting as the notes in The Time Machine.
His brain said the man was mad, but his gut told him there was more to it.
It was like once he saw the man once, he kept cropping up everywhere.
The next time he saw him was a month later. He was late leaving school and he saw Ms. Oswald hoping onto the motorbike she drove, that man sitting behind her. He wrapped his arms around Ms. Oswald and the two were laughing about something—and then they were off. To where, he didn't know. He wished he did.
The next time he saw him the man was in the classroom again, but this time it was early in the morning, and Atlas knew then just what the man was to Ms. Oswald. He was sitting in her chair and Ms. Oswald was sitting across his lap, her legs thrown over the right arm of the desk chair and her head leaning against his shoulder. She was in the same thing she'd worn the day prior—a red dress with a floral-type print and a leather jacket—looking more exhausted than Atlas had ever seen. And the man himself was looking down at her closed eyes and tranquil face with an expression that he could only think to describe as adoring. He looked at Ms. Oswald like she had saved his entire world, and despite his youthful jealousy, Atlas smiled. Maybe it was the peace of the picture. Or perhaps it was the slight upward tilt of the corners of Ms. Oswald's lips and the tight hold her fingers had on the front of the man's jacket, like it was crucial to her happiness that he stay exactly where he was in that very moment.
He hesitated just long enough to hear them share a few words ("Will you take me to the correct place now?" "The TARDIS was confused—she's had a rough time with all this timey-wimey business. But at least she got us back here! Besides, I thought you were getting TARDIS-sick." "I was, but I can't teach today's lesson in the same thing I wore yesterday. Imagine the gossip." "Oh! Right. Wouldn't want them to think you have only one dress." "…oh, Doctor."), but then he was hurrying away, burning with jealousy and heartache and a strange, self-sacrificing sense of contentment. It was an unsettling feeling. So the man was obviously mad—but if Ms. Oswald liked madness, Atlas was glad she had it.
Of course, Ms. Oswald was human. He knew that, so Atlas wasn't sure why he was so surprised when he came to class one day and found her off-color for the first time.
It was the first day back after Christmas holidays and everyone was happy, even if a bit tired, except for his English teacher.
He was the first one in the classroom as always, and Ms. Oswald was sitting at the desk, her face drawn and pale. She didn't say anything until he'd already sat down, like she didn't even notice he'd walked in. Her greeting was half-hearted.
"Good afternoon, Atlas."
Atlas felt his stomach dropping bit by bit as he examined her face. Her hair was limp and her cheekbones more pronounced than usual, like she'd spent the majority of the break too upset to even eat. He felt sick.
"Hi, Ms. Oswald." He said carefully.
Normally she'd ask him how his break was, but she didn't say anything else this time. She just turned and stared out the window at the bare trees, her gaze so intent that Atlas was certain she was seeing something he couldn't.
Everyone in the class noticed Ms. Oswald's shift and adjusted their behavior accordingly. No one seemed to know what to do with this version of their teacher, whose eyes were so pained that it was difficult to even look in them. No one talked and no one dared to cut up or make jokes about skipping today's lesson because it was "the day after break". Everyone pulled their books out immediately.
"We have a change in the schedule." Ms. Oswald greeted the class. Her voice was thin. "We're not reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy until March. We're reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy for the next few weeks."
No one said anything. Anthony shot Atlas a confused look, but Atlas merely shrugged. To be honest, he'd been looking forward to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, as Ms. Oswald had always made it seem like science fiction was her forte (next to the classics, of course). And the plot summary had seemed interesting—the end of Earth and a protagonist who finds out their best friend is really an alien. He'd looked forward to her excited discussions and glittering observations. But he was like everyone else: too stunned by her big, sad eyes to say anything about it at all.
It became clear to him, very quickly, why she'd switched books.
The Road offered nothing but hopelessness.
The discussions of the book were empty and aching. It wasn't until page fifty-eight that he saw anything in her at all.
"'She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift.'" Ms. Oswald read off.
And then she stopped reading, her eyes rising from the page and staring out at the sea of students. Atlas watched her eyes dart from the window to the bookshelf to the door and then back to the people watching her expectantly.
"The wife—she tells the man: 'I don't care. I don't care if you cry. It doesn't mean anything to me.' Right after he pleads with her to stay, to live." Ms. Oswald said. Her eyes drifted from Sara to Anthony to Atlas to Sam. "Why do you think that is?"
No one said anything. Not even Marcus, who always had some input to give.
Ms. Oswald looked back towards the book and began flipping pages.
"Diane," she called. "Read the second paragraph on page two-hundred and nineteen, please. Start at the third sentence."
Atlas turned his eyes from his book to Diane, who quickly turned to the page Ms. Oswald indicated. Diane was an actress and took great joy in reading passages aloud, something Ms. Oswald took advantage of at least a few times each class period. Diane cleared her throat and lifted the book up in her right hand as she began reading.
"'Lying under such a myriad of stars. The sea's black horizon. He rose and walked out and stood barefoot in the sand and watched the pale surf appear all down the shore and roll and crash and darken again. When he went back to the fire, he knelt and smoothed her hair as she slept, and he said if he were God, he would have made the world just so and no different.'" Diane read softly.
She looked up to Ms. Oswald and Atlas did too. She was staring at the page with a look he couldn't describe.
"He loved her." Ms. Oswald stated. The hush over the classroom was complete and eerie. It made the hairs on the back of Atlas's neck rise. "We're left wondering how it could be possible that she'd ever loved him too. How it could have been possible that he'd ever believed even for a second that she did. All he has left are his memories and even those…well, I would think that those last moments with her and her cold heart would have tainted them."
It took Marcus a moment, but he dared to speak.
"I don't think we can say for certain that she didn't love him, though." He said hesitantly.
Ms. Oswald turned to him. "I have that argument with myself each time I read this book. It makes you wonder, though, doesn't it? Makes you wonder how you can love someone and treat them like that. How you could abandon them like that."
Atlas didn't know where he found the bravery to speak up. Between Ms. Oswald's bitter tone and Marcus' command of the discussion, he was certain he'd never have the guts to. But it was his voice hesitantly rising.
"But she was scared." He said. Ms. Oswald turned her eyes to Atlas's quickly and waited for the words she could sense were coming. He continued. "She thought for certain that they were all going to die cruelly and she didn't want that. She wanted them all to go together. She was selfish to leave him, but I think…I think the fear of dying had broken her. She didn't want to stay and watch them die." Atlas took a deep breath and continued, his words slowly stringing together. "So, I mean, it's obvious that she was horribly selfish. But maybe it was because she loved him so much."
For a moment, his teacher's eyes just stayed glued to his. And then Atlas tore his from hers as an odd sound drifted into the room, through the window Ms. Oswald always left cracked. He—as well as the rest—turned and looked out the window in confusion. It sounded a bit like an airplane flying low to the ground, but if it was that, the airplane was surely having technical issues.
When he glanced automatically back towards his teacher, he was shocked to find her trembling. She smoothed her skirt and bit her lip, glancing towards the window. Her words were frantic.
"That's all for today." She told the class.
She began gathering her materials quickly, glancing up at the window every few seconds. The students slowly filed from the room, mumbling things about how weird Ms. Oswald had gotten, and Atlas lingered just a bit. He was about to rise from his desk—the last to leave—when he heard someone clear their throat.
He glanced up to see an older man in the doorway, wearing a steel blue suit. He lips were pursed tightly.
"I'm late. I know I'm late. I thought I would be late. I didn't try to be late—"
Ms. Oswald's back was to the door and to the classroom. Atlas was sure she didn't know he was still there. When she spoke, her voice was tight with what sounded like oncoming tears.
"I should hate you." She said.
Atlas shrank back towards the wall automatically, the awkward situation rendering him immobile. The need to flee the room before some sort of crying session began was immense, but the man was still standing in the doorway, looking solely at Ms. Oswald's back.
"You should." The man agreed. His Scottish accent was arresting. He paused. "Why don't you?"
His teacher's voice was anguished. "I don't know," she whispered thickly. She leaned slightly to her right and let the book fall heavily onto her desk. She sniffed. "I don't know." She repeated. Atlas had never heard anyone sound more lost.
"I didn't mean for—"
"You lied to me. Twice." She interrupted. Her voice was teetering with weak anger. "You sent me back—you made me think I would never see you ever again. And then after you changed…after you changed, you took me home again, and you said you'd be right back after it stopped. But you didn't come back."
The man took a slight step towards her, his forehead wrinkling with regret. "I know. I know, Clara."
She turned around all at once, her face drawn with fury. "If you know—if you truly do—then there's only one thing you have to say to me. I don't want to hear anything else."
Atlas shrank further back into the shadows, swallowing nervously. The longer he stayed the worse it got, but he was afraid to draw attention to himself. The man was looking at Ms. Oswald with similar uneasiness, like he wasn't sure whether to take a step forward or back.
After a few long moments of looking at her in silence, Ms. Oswald turned her tear-filled eyes down. She shook her head.
"Figures." She said. She lifted her bag, as if to flee the room.
"No. Don't go, please." The man pleaded. He took another slight step towards her, but his entire body was tense like he wanted nothing but to run straight up to her. Atlas would have thought it was her father by their ages and familiarity, but something didn't seem quite right with that either. There was a passion there, a possessiveness almost, something that didn't seem strictly platonic. He couldn't ever make sense of Ms. Oswald and her life.
"I'm sorry." The man finally said. And once he said it once, it kept coming. "I'm so sorry. I don't know what that man was thinking. I never would have done it like that—I never could have sent you away. Maybe he's stronger than I am—I don't know. I don't know who I am yet, but I know that I don't want to be without you. He had to live so long without you and I can still feel all those years inside of me. They're heavy, Clara. I don't want them. I hoped you could take them away. I hoped you'd…forgive me." He reached up and kneaded his forehead, his eyes dropping from Ms. Oswald's. "I was selfish to hope for it."
Atlas was horrified when Ms. Oswald began taking steps toward the man, her face twisted with pain. It was obvious by the compassionate way she lifted her hand and touched his cheek that the pain was from his agony. He could tell she loved the man deeply, whoever he was. In a way that he couldn't comprehend yet, but could only hope that one day he would.
"You've still got those big, sad eyes," she said softly.
The man lifted his eyes and looked at her, the briefest and smallest of smiles playing out on his face for a moment. He shrugged.
"I'm silver now." He said.
Atlas wasn't sure what that meant—maybe his way of complaining about grey hair? But it made his teacher laugh, and that was good. Even if the laugh was a bit sad.
"That's all right. I like silver." Ms. Oswald said. Her hand dropped carefully from his face, her fingers quivering slightly. "If you ever lie to me, or send me away like that again…"
She didn't have to finish. The man shook his head.
"No. I will not. I wouldn't. Honestly, I don't think I could." He said quietly. He turned his head to the side, his eyes almost intense in the way they studied her. "How could anyone lie to you, Clara? Those eyes…I never saw you like this before."
His teacher's eyes widened slightly. "Like what?"
They drew nearer to each other, bit by bit, and Atlas wanted to die because they were completely blocking the exit. He knew if he even moved slightly they'd catch the movement from the corners of their eyes. If they weren't so absorbed in each other.
"Like…the colors." He said with amazement. "You're so—you're like a sunrise. You were the first thing I ever saw."
Her mocking laugh was a bit watery. "A sunrise? Are you soppy this time around, then?"
He blinked a bit in surprise. "I dunno. Maybe. Am I?" He didn't give her time to reply. "I just know that these old eyes don't see anything quite like they see you."
She was quiet for a moment. She touched his tie, her hand dropping quickly like she'd been burned.
"This is harder than I thought it'd be. But I don't want to say goodbye again." She finally whispered.
His voice was thick with relief. "No. No, I don't want to, either. You're my impossible girl."
Atlas was horrified when they drew even closer together. He watched as his teacher smiled softly and then rose up onto her tiptoes, nearing the man's face, and then he squeaked out a plea.
"Sorry—can I leave now!?" He pleaded.
Both adults started and turned to look his way. Ms. Oswald's cheeks pinked slightly and the man looked a little angry.
"Don't you see we're talking?" He barked crossly.
Atlas jumped. "I—yes, I see, and I didn't mean to—"
"What all did you hear? Hm?" The man demanded angrily. Atlas shook slightly with fear at the concentrated fury in the man's grey eyes.
"I…nothing! Just stuff about feelings!" He hurriedly said defensively.
"You'd better not tell any of your little 'friends' about Ms. Oswald's personal business or I'll—"
Ms. Oswald saved him. She stepped back from the doorway, hesitantly tugging the angry man with her.
"Sorry, Atlas. I didn't know you were here. I'll see you tomorrow." She said. She looked up at the man. "And you, calm down."
The man exhaled heavily. He seemed to soften completely when he looked back at Ms. Oswald. He even smiled slightly. "Fancy a trip?"
Atlas was already scrambling out of the room when he heard her reply.
Things were different then.
Discussions were bubbly and optimistic again, no matter the reading material, and Ms. Oswald smiled. There was only one other time he saw her look lost, and that was during the spring, when that man with the big chin and bowtie walked right into the classroom during a discussion. Ms. Oswald had stopped midsentence, her words choked, and stared at him with the biggest eyes Atlas had ever seen.
The man was sheepish. "I think I'm late. Am I late? For our trip to Barcelona?" He stage-whispered. He hurried over to her and bent over so his mouth was level to her ear. But Atlas—as well as the rest of the class—could make out what he was saying just fine. "I've been fiddling with a few features and the TARDIS isn't adapting well. Tried to visit Jenny and Vastra and I ended up in a trench during World War—"
Clara set a hand on his shoulder. And then her fingers curved so she was gripping him tightly. Her other hand rose so she was gripping his left as well, and then she stared at him, her eyes actually swimming with tears. The class was stunned.
"No, you're not late. You're just on a detour." She finally whispered back. She lifted her hand and touched his neck and then his cheek, her palms eventually cupping his face. "You're going to be early. I'll still be in bed when you arrive. You overshot by…a while." She trailed off, her eyes getting a faraway look. "Barcelona was a long time ago."
His eyebrows furrowed. "Are you all right?"
She reached down and looped her arms around his neck, lifting herself up on her tiptoes as she pulled him in for a tight hug. She clung close to him, her face buried in his shoulder, and Diane shot Atlas a confused look while a few other students giggled.
"I am for right now," she whispered.
"Her boyfriend's mad." Anthony decided. "Actually, I think they both might be. None of that made any sense today."
Atlas looked up from his lunch and to his friend, his mind slowly churning out an idea he was too embarrassed to say. He'd heard more than Anthony had, anyway. Things about something called a TARDIS.
"I'm sure they know exactly what they're talking about." He defended.
Anthony rolled his eyes. "You're just saying that because you fancy her. Can't say I blame you, but at least my infatuation is limited to the odd wank—"
"Gross, Anthony." Diane snapped, shooting him a cross look. "You should respect your teachers. Anyway, did you see the way she looked at that man? They're definitely going to get married."
Atlas didn't say anything in response to that, because he wasn't sure if that was true. He'd seen her look at another man that same exact way, but it wasn't the big-chinned one. It was the older one with the cross attitude. He'd never pinned Ms. Oswald to be someone unfaithful, but that's what it looked like by all accounts.
"Well, she'll marry someone all right." Atlas finally murmured.
"And it won't be you." Anthony piped up helpfully.
He spent weeks rereading The Time Machine (he'd asked Ms. Oswald if he could borrow it again and she'd been more than happy to oblige) and studying the notes in the margins. And then he studied the notes in the other books as well. By the time he sat down and processed all he'd read alongside the memories he had of the words each mysterious man had said, he was more confused than ever.
"What's a TARDIS?" He asked her. All of his other classmates were at an assembly, but he'd elected to locate his English teacher for a chat instead.
She had been writing a quote up on the board, but that question made her jump and turn around, her eyes wide.
"What?" She asked. She paused. "You're supposed to be at the assembly, you know."
He held his ground. "I know." He said. He took a deep breath. "A TARDIS. I've seen it mentioned in the notes jotted down in a lot of the books on your shelf. And I heard your boyfriend saying it."
Ms. Oswald stiffened. "My what?"
Atlas pointed at his own chin. "The bloke with the defined chin and bowtie."
Ms. Oswald swallowed and averted her eyes, glancing down at the desk. "He's not my boyfriend. Not anymore."
Atlas had to tuck his sweaty hands in his pockets, but he got the courage to ask the question again. "So what is it? A TARDIS. He was saying funny things. You told him he'd arrive days early…how could you know he'd arrive early if he hadn't yet? And he said something about being in a trench during a World War."
When Ms. Oswald didn't respond, he continued.
"And these books. The things written in the margins to you. In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea that man wrote during one part that it was like the time you two were stuck in a sinking Soviet submarine?"
She stared at him, her lips parted and her eyes widened.
"What things in the margins?" She breathed finally.
Atlas blinked. "You know. He's written things in all the books, things to you. I saw him doing it that morning he was in the classroom before you."
She didn't move. She didn't even blink. "The man with the bowtie?"
Atlas nodded. And just like that she was hurrying over to the bookshelf, her hands shaking. She pulled a book from the shelf and began turning through the pages. She did the same thing with three others, eventually letting out something between a groan and a laugh. Atlas watched her pick up the copy of Jane Eyre, her hands searching for something she must have known was there. He still remembered some of the line that had been thoughtfully underlined, with the man's words sitting just beside it. He'd written how impossibly wonderful. 'I have for the first time found what I can truly love–I have found you.'
Ms. Oswald swallowed thickly and glanced back up at Atlas, the book clutched tightly in her hands.
"He's trying to get me fired, that man." She breathed, probably more to herself than to him, and then she shook her head a little. She smiled tightly at him. "The TARDIS is just his name for his car. He's a bit silly."
Atlas eyed her uncertainly. He was about to walk back to his desk, unsatisfied with her answer, when she spoke up again.
"I never did ask you, Atlas," she started. When he glanced back at her, her eyes were twinkling with what he could only describe as adventure. "What did you think of The Time Machine?"
He hesitated, his eyes glued to hers, and felt the double-meaning in their conversation even if he didn't understand it. He eyed her warily.
"It was…mad." He decided.
"A bit out of this world, probably." She agreed airily.
He nodded slowly. "Yeah, a bit."
She turned her back to him as she carefully began placing the books back on the shelf. He could hear the smile in her voice when she spoke next.
"Every book's a time machine and every man's a traveler." She decided. There was a pause. "And some more than others."
The words slipped out of him, confused and slightly awe-struck.
"You're kind of weird, Ms. Oswald." He said. "I mean…not in a bad way. Just…you're the weirdest teacher I've ever had."
She turned around at that, her eyebrows lifted.
"Am I?" She asked in surprise. "Always thought I was a bit dull."
He felt himself smiling at those words. "You got me to read a novel from 1895. Definitely not average."
She beamed back. He was about to try and decide whether to let her mad boyfriend go or to keep asking her, because he knew something wasn't entirely normal there and he was deeply curious despite the fact that he had to right to be, when he heard a Scottish accent fill the room.
"I've got to get an office here, Clara. Some place to think, to read, to file! While I wait for you. Why are the school days so long?" He complained.
Atlas turned around immediately, not that surprised to see the older man in the doorway. He looked exhausted and he was walking with a slight limp to his right side, something that Atlas's teacher picked up on. She was blind to everything else as she immediately hurried to his side, her lips turned down in a frown. The man nodded towards Atlas while Ms. Oswald stared at his right leg with a frown.
"You again. Hello." He greeted gruffly. He narrowed his eyes thoughtfully a moment later. "Do you have a crush?" Atlas felt his cheeks sear at that question and he stuttered around an answer for a moment. The man looked down at Ms. Oswald. "Hey. Clara. Does he have a crush on you? He's always around, isn't he?"
Ms. Oswald's voice was reproachful. "Doctor, leave him alone."
Atlas thought it was probably time to get back to the assembly. "I—I've got to…um…bye."
He started for the doorway, but Ms. Oswald's words stopped him.
"He came by early to ask me about something he heard the man in the bowtie saying before." She explained. "About a TARDIS."
It took Atlas a moment, but finally he caught onto something he'd missed in his embarrassment.
"You're a doctor, too?" He demanded. Did Ms. Oswald just have a thing for doctors?
The older man smirked and glanced to Clara before looking back at Atlas. "Yes, as a matter of fact I am."
"All right, all right," Ms. Oswald sighed. "Atlas, you'd best get to the assembly now before you're even later. And you," she leaned in close to the Scottish man, rising up on her tip toes and aiming her words towards his ear. "You have to stop coming to my work!"
This doctor didn't make an effort to cloak his words with whispers. "Well, I know that, and trust me I don't particularly like coming here either—far too many adolescents—" he shot Atlas a vaguely annoyed look—"But I think the bloody android broke my leg and it really hurts and the TARDIS is still not listening to me and I needed…"
He trailed off abruptly, his eyes widening suddenly with affront like he himself was surprised at the words he hadn't said. Ms. Oswald straightened and peered at him carefully, her lips rising into a small smile.
"Needed…?" She pressed.
He looked away from her almost angrily, his eyes falling once more on Atlas.
"Did you forget how to walk?" He snapped. Atlas jumped and hurried for the door. The last thing he heard was the man's soft, embarrassed admission.
"You. I needed you."
To say the class was surprised would be an understatement.
The first person walking through the doorway after the boring assembly stopped dead in her tracks, her eyes widened and her hand rising to her mouth, and the next few people crashed into her back after her sudden stop. Soon everyone was craning to glance in the doorway and whispering rapid-fire. By the time Atlas glanced in, the two adults were leaning against the chalkboard, hands gently grasping each other's faces. Their lips were, to put it lightly, quite busy with one another's.
"Ew!" Charlie breathed, close to Atlas' ear. "Is that the physics teacher?!"
"No, he retired last year," Diane supplied helpfully.
Atlas's voice was startled.
"It's her doctor!" He shared in surprise.
"Her doctor?!" Anthony demanded. He paused. "That's a bit kinky. Never would have guessed Ms. Oswald was a kink. This changes everything."
Marcus took it upon himself to break up the two adults. He cleared his throat loudly and then knocked once on the open door. For a moment, everyone was sure the adults were just going to ignore them, but after another knock Ms. Oswald took a shuddering breath and pulled back from the man, her cheeks redder than Atlas had ever seen and her eyes wide and glassy.
"Oh…damn it." She muttered. Several people in class giggled.
Her doctor turned and looked at the students in the doorway.
"Get lost! We're busy!" He said in annoyance.
Ms. Oswald nudged his shoulder. "They're my students, Doctor."
He faltered. "Oh, right." He lowered the volume of his voice just a bit. "Get lost! Go to the library!"
Ms. Oswald took a side step towards the door and awkwardly tugged at her skirt, which was suspiciously bunched up a little higher than normal. Atlas heard Anthony inhale sharply.
"Lucky bastard," Anthony said, staring hatefully towards her doctor.
"I'm…really, really, really sorry about that." She said. "No homework assignments for a week if you don't tell?"
It might not have worked with any other teacher, but if there was one thing that was unanimous, it was the class's love for Ms. Oswald. And Atlas was sure that everyone—even Anthony—was glad to see her in better spirits than she'd been right after Christmas. Even if the reason for her higher spirits was a bit unorthodox.
The class filed in—still giggling and whispering amongst themselves—and Atlas might have been the only one to see the brief kiss Clara pressed to the man's cheek. Or the lingering way their hands stayed clasped even as he was walking backwards. Once he was gone, Ms. Oswald attempted to continue class like nothing had happened, but she was smiley and bouncy and everyone knew why. Class ended twenty minutes early and Atlas watched her run from the classroom before the students did, her hair flying out behind her as she headed for places he didn't know.
You can't understand a teacher's true impact on your life until years and years later.
Atlas was almost out of university before he understood what a difference Ms. Oswald had made on his life.
He'd kept up with her throughout the years—he watched from afar as she left each day on her motorbike, sometimes with the old man and sometimes without. That went on for years and years. Atlas was three years into his degree when he heard from Anthony that she'd quit teaching—she left one afternoon at five and never came back. The position was filled after weeks of attempting to contact her to no avail.
Half of the friends Atlas still kept in touch with thought she'd had some sort of mental breakdown and fled the country and the other half thought she must have been murdered. Atlas believed neither tale. Instead he found himself thinking of The Time Machine and the ways in which people can disappear in one reality without ever having left in another. More than anything, he hoped she was happy. She had been the biggest mystery of his education and the biggest inspiration. As he grew, he was able to view his infatuation for what it really was (an outlet for his boyish fantasies), but he never did forget the warmth of her smile. And he was able to view all of the strange encounters through sharper eyes, and even though he was full of plenty of explanations for her weird friends both called the Doctor, he never quite lost that curious spark inside of him when he thought of it. The one that insisted that there was more to it, that he was looking at something larger than life when he was watching Ms. Oswald with the bowtie-man or the angry one. The one that insisted that he'd been close enough to greatness to touch it.
He knew she hadn't been heard from in years, but he mailed an invitation to his graduation to her father's address anyway. It was something he did in a fit of nostalgia; she'd been the one to first open the book and now it was closing, and he wanted her to be there to see it. He was graduating with a degree in literature and he knew that she'd understand. She'd be prouder of him than even his mother would, because she'd seen the struggle, and she'd helped him overcome it.
And perhaps he wasn't all that surprised when he saw her sitting in the audience, right beside that same old man. She'd always been the most unpredictable thing about education, anyway. She clapped loudly when his name was called and beamed so happily when they announced his major, turning and tugging on the man's suit and whispering something excitedly to him. She hadn't aged a day.
Atlas might have imagined it—the entire room was a blur of clapping hands and smiling faces—but he could have sworn he saw the old man wink at him.
"The fact is, the Time Traveller was one of those men who are too clever to be believed:
you never felt that you saw all round him; you always suspected
some subtle reserve, some ingenuity in ambush, behind his lucid frankness."
― H.G. Wells, The Time Machine