He doesn’t take her home straight away. Sometimes after moments like this, all he wants is to be able to hide his face from her, and sometimes all he wants is to keep her in his sight, for if she stays in his sight she is still with him. He can see her draw breath, and smile, and flit around the TARDIS as if she had no patience with the flow of time.
Tonight she’s more still than her wont, and it makes his stomach feel strange. He’s told her more than he usually does about how he feels, what he thinks about in the quiet moments when she’s not there, what he fears at night when he can’t sleep. He’s bared himself to her. Always dangerous, with someone as quick as Clara, as quick to see the implications.
“Where are we?” she says.
“In orbit around Eta Carinae, about a hundred years after the event that caused the nebula to form. I felt like looking at something bright and shiny.”
“Nebulae are bright and shiny?”
“Sometimes, yes. When you are far away from the catastrophe that created them.”
Eta Carinae is particularly beautiful. So bright, reflecting the light of a thousand supernovae in a moment. A lightning strike, a moment of pure beauty. It’s beautiful and life-affirming and everything a sentient being might find joy in. They could look at that beauty now, if they wanted.
he doesn’t want. He doesn’t open the TARDIS door, doesn’t even bother looking at the view on his monitors. He’s seen it. He turns from her and marches up to the top level of the console room, then out. Does he hope that she’ll follow? Hope that she won’t? Damned if he can tell. He wants to be alone and he wants never to be alone. If he’s honest-- which he never, ever is-- he will admit that he hopes she follows. This is why he didn’t bring her home. Make up your mind, Doctor, fool, Theta Sigma, whatever his name is now-- make up your mind whether you want to brood in solitude or warm yourself against the fire that is Clara. But he’s chosen, of course he has chosen, exactly as he always does.
Clara follows him, and he wonders what she’ll say to him this time, which of his protective lies she’ll strip away from him.
To the TARDIS library, to one of the little private corners, his quiet place, his thinking place through many lives. He sits on the carpet before the hearth, arms wrapped around his knees. Warmth, safety, more comfort than many beings ever experience in a lifetime. He’s sulking. Brooding, as she’d said. Why is he so sad? The curse of the Timelords. He’s visited it upon another living being today. Is it forgivable?
If he were on Gallifrey he’d be surrounded by beings like him. Immortal, or as close to it as makes no difference. There’d be no grieving there. Not by one Timelord for another. For an ordinary Gallifreyan? Oh them, yes, if the Timelords condescended to notice. His first wife-- his first taste of that pain. His own fault, they told him, for loving someone who hadn’t been given the curse of Rassilon, for giving into the base desires of the physical body.
But he gave himself and he loved, and then he ran from the loss, and therefore he is here, on his back staring at the ceiling far above, with a human woman sitting beside him gazing at him so solemnly. Has he done right by the universe? Has he saved all the lives he might? Will Ashildr curse him or bless him? He has cursed Rassilon many times. He’ll curse Rassilon again before he’s done. He will live to hold Clara’s body in his arms, her mind, her soul, whatever one called it, gone. The things that made Clara dear to him, gone. He knows it. It is his curse.
She is here now, gazing at him, the weight of her stare on him, but she will not always be. He knows. He cannot forget.
“Clara,” he whispers, to the ghost that will forever be with him. With Rose, with Ace, with River, with so many others. Haunting him, bodies he can no longer touch. Minds he can no longer commune with.
“Don’t,” she says. “I’m here with you now. I’m real. I’m not a memory. I’m here.”
She rubs his chest. A soft touch, through the layers of his clothing, but it burns his hearts anyway. Clara, palm flat on his chest, soothing him. Crooning to him. Telling him it’s okay, it’ll be okay, he’ll be okay. Does he look like he’s not? Well, there are tears on his face, so perhaps he’s given her cause.
“Clara,” he says, pleading with something. The universe.
“Why am I here? I don’t understand.”
“Why do I feel like this?”
“What do you feel?”
“I never know what you feel. I know you care, but sometimes you’re so, so–”
She shrugs. “Distant? Abrupt? Difficult?”
“You want to know what I feel.”
“Of course I want to know.”
“I love you in every way that a man has ever loved a woman.”
She says nothing, looks down at her hand resting over his hearts. She sees the implications, of course she sees them; she is his Clara, and her mind is quicksilver and lightning.
Her hand moves to the zipper of his hoodie. Pulls it down. He holds perfectly still, holds his breath. She lifts his t-shirt. Her hand touches his belly, just under his navel. His whole body thrills; his mind freezes. She lifts his shirt. Touches his belt buckle. Undoes it. Slowly, so slowly, giving him every chance to object, to stop her. He doesn’t. He cooperates. Layers, so many layers of clothing. He helps her remove them. He lies back on the carpet, the warmth of the fire on his shoulder. He is bare, completely exposed to her. When has he been hidden from her? Never. Let her look at him. Let her see his absolute ordinariness. Let her see what she does to him.
She doesn’t touch him. She just looks. Committing him to memory? That’s what he would do, in her place. Do humans think as he does? Do they consider their brief lives the way he considers his? Scale is relative. The thought undoes him, in that moment, as Clara looks at his nude body gravely, as she takes him in.
“In case you were wondering,” she says.
“It’s the same for me.”
She kneels up and undoes the buttons of her shirt. He watches her undress herself. He should help. He wants to. But he watches, with the entirety of his self behind his eyes. He watches and waits. Clara, his Clara, taking off her shirt, her jeans, wriggling out of her bra. A thousand years from now, he will see this moment again, see her unbuttoning her shirt, see her casting aside all pretensions. Her breasts, pink nipples erect. She looks exactly as he knows she would, the sight doing exactly what he knows it will do to him. He is hers. He is lost. A thousand years from now, he will be able to close his eyes and see Clara, a living sculpture, breathing, warm.
She touches him. He closes his eyes. He still sees her. It hurts. “Please, Clara.”
“I’m going to give you this. I’m going to give us this. You need it. We need it.”
He opens his eyes. She is there, luminous, blinding. “It’ll end. It’ll end and I’ll be alone.”
“That’s true whether or not we do this. If we do it, if we let ourselves have this, then at least you’ll have that memory too. And some day it’ll help. One day you’ll wake up and it’ll make you feel better instead of worse to remember this.”
“How can you know?”
“Believe me, I know. Oh, I know.”
He squeezes his eyes shut. A moment of shame floods over him; she knows, and he knows how she knows. Danny Pink, who sacrificed himself for humanity. Her weight is over him, a warm weight across his hips. She shifts over him, slides against him. An instant of base pleasure, another flood of shame, and then her lips brush against his nose.
“Open your eyes,” Clara says, in a whisper. He opens them, finds her nose against his, her great dark doe-eyes swimming before him. Lashes wet, but her face is resolved. Her hand reaches down, touches him. He shivers.
“Be here now,” she tells him. “There’s nothing different about you, nothing you have that I don’t. No gift you have that I don’t. I outlived Danny. There’s no telling what’s going to happen. Stop looking ahead and imagining things. There are rosebuds here, now. Gather them. You can’t do anything else.”
“Be here. Now.”
Her fingers close around him and he whimpers. She’s over him, on him, around him, encompassing him. He holds time suspended in his mind for this moment. He commits it to memory, Clara Oswald touching him for the first time, a single instant seized, their bodies frozen in this moment together yet warm and alive, like breathing sculptures. He releases his hold, and time moves again for him, Clara moves over him, around him. He moves with her and yields himself to her.
This is him, giving in, giving what remains to be given to her. He yielded himself to her long ago and this is him admitting it now. Oh, how he loves her. A hand on her hip, a thumb touching her just there, his eyes open, her eyes closed, brows furrowed in concentration. His lovely Clara, in deep thought even now, even as her breath comes fast.
He lets himself love her. She is beautifully responsive to his touch. He knows this before he touches her. He knows everything she wants, knows how to please her, knows how to love her. Has he not watched her through a million echoes? Has he not known her in every life he’s lived? Clara, Clara, Clara, his life, his love, his soul.
Clara above him, around him, grounding him, completing him, allowing him to complete her with his body, his touch, his pleading. Her name, on his lips, as he watches her, feels her in her moment of crisis. Clara, he says, again and again, Clara. His light in darkness, motionless above him for a long instant, then he hears her cry out. His name, his secret name, how does she know? Does he have no secrets?
Oh, how he loves her, in every way that man has loved woman, from the beginning.
“Come for me,” she says to him, “let it happen for me.”
“For you,” he says, breathless, and goes still. Breathes in. It’s upon him. A lightning flash. Clara illuminates everything for him, sears him with delight. He is held in this moment of time. He knows it. It will happen over and over in an eternal now, then only in memory. Clara. His Clara. He feels himself lost, feels himself suspended weightless, the convulsion of the lightning strike, and then he falls. The little death, the unbearable sadness of loss, all virtue leaving him as he comes inside her, oh Clara, why can’t we? why can’t I?
“It’s okay,” she is saying to him, “hush now.”
But he’s weeping because no matter what she says, no matter how many people he saves, it will never be enough. The fire follows the lightning; the breath leaves the body; the mortals die and he lives on.