Clara and the Doctor, hand-in-hand, running from her father’s house to the TARDIS, in nightie and robe, slippers on her feet, sliding through the snow. They were eloping, that was the only way Clara could describe it, though she wasn’t sure that the odd brain in the Time Lord clutching her hand would describe it the same way. But they were in the TARDIS now, giggling, hovering over the console together, and he was still clinging onto her hand. In the dream, she’d woken on the base floor with her hand in his, held painfully tight. It had been the only thing she’d trusted in any of the dreams, his hand on hers.
She squeezed his fingers and he squeezed back.
“Where to?” he said.
“All of time and space?”
He smiled, so warmly her heart went squidgy and she had to close her eyes for a moment. “All of time. All of space. Yours.”
Clara opened her eyes. He was still smiling at her, and he still had hold of her hand. “I still feel in a Christmas-y mood, but I don’t want snow. If that makes any sense. Something pretty. Lots of colored lights.”
He smirked, as if he’d been expecting that response. “I know just the thing.”
The Doctor typed one-handed on the TARDIS console and primed the navigation system. He set his hand on the lever, turned to her, and raised his eyebrows. Clara knew her cue. She set her free hand on the second lever and they pulled home together. The TARDIS lights flashed, the column moved, and they were in the vortex.
“Clara,” he said. His eyes were hooded and he was smiling faintly. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it. And then he turned it over and kissed her palm. Her breath caught. He’d never done anything like this before, not with this face. Never any flirting, never any casual gestures. This meant–this mean that everything had changed. She stepped closer to him and brushed her fingertips against his cheek. He didn’t flinch back, didn’t protest, but looked down at her with that little smile. His eyes seemed intensely blue in the console lights, so blue, under those furrowed eyebrows, as he leaned closer to her.
The TARDIS chose that moment to spin to a halt. Clara startled and stepped back from the Doctor. “Where are we?”
He smirked again, obviously pleased with himself. “A system with three gas giants, all with rings. And they are coming into conjunction in the next two hours.”
Clara made an undignified noise. She made for the TARDIS door, but the Doctor tugged gently at her hand to stop her.
“If you will indulge me?”
That was oddly formal language from this brusque man. She nodded to him graciously, playing along, trying to match his formality. He led her from the control room down below stairs, along the first hallway of the TARDIS maze, to a carved wooden door she’d seen before but never found open. It swung open now at a touch from him. He paused at its threshold and bowed her over it.
It was a bedroom–his, she guessed. A Turkey carpet covered the floor, and there was an armchair the twin of the one in the console room. The bed was huge, with heavy wood posts. It was piled with pillows and covered in heavy dark blankets.
The Doctor paused at the door and did something with a control panel on the wall. The lights dimmed and the ceiling and walls vanished: they were suspended in space, below a gas giant and its flaring rings.
Clara gasped. She let her head tilt back. It was like being in space, except that gravity was firm against her feet. She turned around slowly, taking it all in.
The Doctor came up close behind her. “Watch from here?”
“You’ve been keeping secrets.”
“Ah, the TARDIS has many secrets.”
“Good old girl, the TARDIS.”
It was warm enough in his bedroom that she finally felt like taking off her robe. The Doctor took it from her and set it aside. He took off his own jacket and boots. He led her to the bed and arranged them so he was sitting with his back against the headboard, legs on either side of her.
“Lie back,” he whispered.
Clara lay back against his chest. His arms closed around her. She let her head tip back. This was the most intimate she’d been with him in this body, and now that she thought about it, the most intimate she’d ever been with him at all. He was holding her, actually cuddling her, nuzzling the nape of her neck, warm against her, breathing, touching her more in these moments than in the entire year previous. And she had only half of her attention to give to him, because of the view.
Oh, the view. The conjunction was in progress and it was gorgeous. They were too close to the gas giant to see many stars, but the rings were astonishing. And the planet itself: all roiling red and yellow, bands of color, a vast thing below them, occupying maybe a quarter of the view. Beyond it, a second planet, close enough that she could see its disk, green and blue, with its own rings a pale arch in the darkness. And beyond that, a third planet, barely visible as a disk, a bright orange dot.
“Where are we?”
“A star in the Pegasus Galaxy. Neither one of us can pronounce the name. Haven’t got two throats.”
Clara smiled to herself. Two throats. She could recall only one species that had two throats. Probably the Doctor could name dozens. “Three gas giants, with names we can’t say, in conjunction.“
“Three bodies, so it’s a syzygy. We’re near to the inmost in the system, the smallest. I was afraid we’d have a hard time seeing the third one, but it’s clear. I suspect the TARDIS of enhancing the view for us.” He said the last fondly; Clara smiled.
“No complaints. Best planetarium visit ever.”
The Doctor’s lips brushed against her ear. Clara shivered. He said, “If you look carefully, you’ll see other spacecraft. This was a popular moment. See? There’s one.”
He pointed. Clara could see a little flare of something behind a needle-shaped thing that moved fast across their field of view. While she watched, it tumbled around and fired another burst of engines and slowed to a stop relative to them. Like them, watching the conjunction from a good spot.
This. This was what her dream-self had missed, during those sixty-two years without the Doctor. The man himself, yes, keenly, but also the cosmos. The universe. Time and space and conjunctions and eclipses and solar flares and black holes swirling. His hand clasping hers, his voice saying run! This was exactly what she’d missed most during those mundane months of teaching and grief for Danny.
She laid her hand over his at her waist and twined her fingers through his. “Thank you. This is perfect. Right down to the hugging from Mister not the hugging sort.”
He tightened his arms for a moment. “Clara–”
“I never had a vote about that. Not with you.”
Clara squeezed her fingers in his. “I know.”
“I thought you didn’t want… somebody who wasn’t him. Earlier me.”
Her heart constricted in her chest. She hadn’t wanted him at first. She’d seen the crow’s feet and the graying hair and how different he’d been. That owlish face, peering at hers after her Doctor had vanished forever–she’d taken a long time to love this new version of him. He’d begged her and still she’d struggled. A whole lot of time wasted. She’d known all along she’d wanted to be where she was now.
“Sorry,” was all she managed to say. “I couldn’t see you.”
He was quiet for a long while behind her. Clara let herself rest against him. She breathed, and watched the lights move in the starscape above them. The Doctor freed a hand from her grip and stroked her hair. She was floating in the vastness of space with an alien, hovering above a gas giant, following the sweep of its rings around. She was lying in a bed in a space ship being held by her best friend, a near-immortal alien. She was seeing wonders. Her life was back to normal, for her, back to what she loved best. Except not. Their relationship had changed. Was changing. That pleading invitation he’d made to her, his hand offered to her, was one she would never have accepted before. One he’d never have made before. Not like that.
So here they were. If this was the only difference, if they cuddled now as well as bickered and explored and ran, Clara would be happy.
The planets above them moved, imperceptibly slowly, closer to alignment. Another spacecraft zoomed across their view, close enough that she could see light flash off its viewports. Somewhere across the vacuum from them were other people, aliens or humans or both, there to watch the same conjunction, to see the same wonders.
At last the Doctor spoke. “Clara? Do you see me now?”
She squeezed his hands again. “I think so.”
“Good. Because I need to say something to you.” His voice was so quiet, so deep and raspy. He was emotional, that’s what that meant, emotional but containing it. Bottling it all up inside.
“I want you to know my intentions.”
“Your intentions?” There was that odd formality again, even odder because the man was lying in bed with her, cuddled up with her, his legs tangled with hers, though he was still in shirt and trousers.
“My intentions. Clara, I–”
She wanted to blurt something out to fill the silence, but instead she squeezed his hands where they were linked around her middle. Talking over him hadn’t done her any good back in that cafe, had it. Shut up and listen, Oswald. Give him space. Give him time. He was so awkward and uncomfortable with feelings, whether they were hers or his.
“Clara. I keep not saying things right. I want to get this right.”
“What do you know about regeneration?”
Clara blinked. Regeneration. Okay. He could, as far as she was concerned, talk about anything he wanted. The solar system they were in, the history of the people in the spacecraft they’d seen moving past, the finer points of brewing tea, or the intricacies of the three-body problem. Whatever he wanted. She’d missed the sound of his voice so much. The off-kilter scent of his clothes, of his body. The way his thumb caressed her whenever he took her hand. He could talk about regeneration so long as he kept holding her.
She said, “Not much. I know it happens. That you keep the memories but feel like a different person. Sort of.”
“There’s too much to go into right now. Most of it doesn’t matter to anyone except a Time Lord, someone blessed or cursed with the ability. I’ve never been sure which it is. But-- the thing you need to know is about the first minutes.”
“When you were confused and crashed the TARDIS.”
“I crash it every time.”
“Maybe you should stop regenerating in it?”
Clara felt him shaking his head behind her, as if she’d said something absurd. “Memories, sense of self-- all a mess in the first hours. It’s the first minutes that matter most. When the regeneration energy is still rebuilding me. The first experiences-- the first face I see. That first face is special.”
She’d been his first face. Her floppy-haired friend had fallen backward, and when he straightened up again he’d been this man, this owlish man, with the angry eyebrows and the curling graying hair. He’d stared into her eyes and she’d stared back, frightened, confused, in shock.
“The first face, the first face.” He tightened his arms around her for a moment. “So many times it means nothing. You see it too late, days or hours after regenerating. Or you mean nothing to the other person and you never see them again. But when it’s in the first seconds, when the other person cares–”
“When you saw me?”
“You’re seared into me. You’re part of me. I will always–” He broke off. His voice had gone rough again. “I will always run to you. Clara.”
She needed to see his face. She untangled herself from him and turned around. He watched her warily. She edged herself right up against him and hooked her legs over his. His eyes went wide, but he didn’t shrink away. Clara laid a hand against his cheek. He leaned into it. Now she could see it. Now she could see the need in his face, how desperate he was for her touch, the same touches he used to complain about. Oh, how she must have hurt him. When she’d told him she didn’t know who he was any more, it must have been a knife in his hearts. Clara’s own heart ached in sympathy. She hadn’t known, hadn’t understood. And he had been too-- something-- to explain. Proud? Stubborn? Alien? Hurt? What a mess. What a long mess. Why hadn’t he told her? She’d never have tried to send him away.
“I’m sorry,” she began, but he cut her off.
“The past doesn’t matter.”
“It matters. Your feelings matter. I know you have them, so don’t you try and tell me otherwise.”
He shook his head. “Clara. It doesn’t matter any more. What matters is that you understand now.”
“This means something to me.”
“What does it mean?”
“Everything,” she said. He nodded. “That’s a lot.”
He nodded again. “I’m not leaving you again. Not so long as we both live.”
And that was her heart racing in her chest and a feeling like free-fall in her stomach. Those words had to be deliberate. She rested her hands on his shoulders. Narrow shoulders; it looked like there was nothing to him, but somehow he was the most solid being she’d ever touched. More present than anybody else had ever been. A concentrated being, there, tense under her hands, his eyes locked with hers.
He said, “Is it the same for you?"
He was gazing at her, with those anxious eyes. Waiting for her answer, it seemed. Hadn’t she been clear enough before, when she’d taken his hand? Only one thing to do. She leaned into him and kissed him, on the lips this time. Pulled back and saw him staring at her again, wide-eyed, like he had in her bedroom when she’d kissed his cheek.
“Oh,” he said.
He took her face in his hands and kissed her. Cool hands, soft lips, a little stubble on his chin, her hands on his shoulders, and a long gentle kiss. Almost chaste, except for how close they were on the bed. And then his hand was behind her head, and his fingers in her hair, her fingers digging into his shoulders, and they met in a kiss that was not chaste in the least. Then he was pulling back and staring at her. She was breathing hard. So was he, those blue eyes looking into hers, pupils wide.
The Doctor had just kissed her.
More than that, if she understood him, and she thought she did. He’d eloped with her, then proposed marriage to her, then kissed her. In that order. What came next, their first date? Except they’d been dating all along: bickering while chained to posts in the desert, drinking champagne with strawberries in a space train, robbing banks together-- one long courtship. A bizarre one, but unique to him. And she had to admit it, the way to her heart. Poor Danny. She’d miss him five minutes a day, keenly, but she had never had the time to miss him when she’d been with this man.
Another regret. She could yet remember what it had felt like, in that dream, to have a lifetime of regrets, each one cherished somehow. Had she really lived that life and been given youth back by Santa? How would she ever tell? It was as if she’d lived it. She was changed by that memory. She could, now, look at the Doctor, and remember what it was like to grieve for him as well, to ache for him, for so many years. Remember what it had been like to make mistakes, to learn, to grow, to let things go. To lose loved ones to time.
Another way that she understood this man holding her.
The Doctor touched his forehead to hers. “That’s settled, then,” he said.
He kissed her again and Clara let herself relax into him. Warm on his bed, under the most beautiful starscape she’d ever seen, kissing the Doctor, tilting her head back to allow him to kiss her neck. He was gentle, relaxed, patient. All the time in world to kiss her and smile at her and stroke her hair. And to be caressed. Clara was pleased to confirm at last that his hair was indeed soft to the touch. She rumpled it and it stuck straight up endearingly.
“I know what you’re doing,” he said, grumpily, but it was all for show, because he couldn’t stop smiling.
They lay side by side on his great bed, holding hands again, looking up at the stars. At the three planets, now in perfect alignment from their vantage point.
“That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Clara said.
He made a noise that sounded like agreement. Then he rolled over onto his side and leaned his head on a hand. When he spoke, his voice was uncertain. “Clara? I would like to make love with you. If you’ll have me.”
Clara’s heart turned over. She tried to say something, but couldn’t. He looked alarmed again, and the words poured out. “I don’t need to. I offered because I thought it’s the sort of thing you like. If you’d prefer to stop at the hugging, I’m fine.”
“Doctor. Shut up.”
“Yes. I’ll have you.”
He looked like he was going to keep talking, so she kissed him, hard this time, trying to signal as clearly as she could that yes, she wanted him, yes, he could make love with her, yes, he had better start with the love-making right this second if he knew was was good for him.
He kissed her back eagerly enough, hands cupped against her face, mouth open. But he was slow to follow up. It wasn’t that he was shy. It was more that he was hesitant, uncertain. He followed her lead easily, but wouldn’t initiate anything. He allowed her to remove his shirt, quietly lay back and watched her while she undid his cuff links and made her way down all those buttons. Buttons on his flies as well, buttons on everything. He was thin, so thin, with graying hair on his chest and stomach. And underneath those wool trousers, a man who was human in all the ways that mattered. Or maybe she was Gallifreyan in the ways that mattered. It was all perspective, wasn’t it.
He was shy, no idea why, but at last there he was, the Time Lord, bare before her, and she at last, kneeling beside him. Another kiss, oddly chaste, and he was still hesitating, though she could see how excited he was.
“What do you like?” she said, and he shook his head.
“I don’t know.”
“How do you not know?”
“This body-- I’ve never done this before as me. It’s always different. Every time. No idea what it’s going to feel like.”
“Shall we find out what you like?”
He smiled shyly. “Please.”
It wasn’t merely that he hadn’t done this with her before, or even with another person. He hadn’t experienced sex in this regeneration at all. When he said he didn’t know, he meant it literally. Did he like being touched that way? He had no idea. Clara touched him and they both learned. She was awe-struck and terrified at once. She’d never been with somebody so raw, so utterly new to the reactions of their own body. She remembered her first time, with Nina, what it had been like figuring things out, though she’d already known things about her own body. Her first time with a boy, at university, had been with somebody who’d done it before. The Doctor knew how it all worked, had done it countless times in his long life, but in different bodies, in past lives. Not this one.
She was his first.
He liked being kissed. His nipples were ticklish, but that was distracting. He liked it when she took him in hand gently, not when she was rough. He loved being licked, but couldn’t bear to stop kissing her long enough for Clara to explore that further. He liked touching her while kissing her and looking into her eyes, so much that he brought her to her first orgasm that way, surprising both of them. Her orgasm excited him so much that he was at last willing to move to the next step. He was uncertain and tentative when he entered her, but he gained confidence when she coaxed him into going deeper. He loved lying beside her, his forehead touching hers, her legs wrapped around his, moving gently against her.
Gentle. That was the word for him. Tender. Patient. Quiet, for once in his long lives, save for little gasps and wordless sighs. She came the second time this way, his clever fingers touching her, his face against her neck, his body inside hers. It was so easy to let herself go with him, so easy to relax and let it happen.
“Clara,” he said. “My Clara.” He rolled himself on top of her. Clara wrapped herself around him and urged him on.
He went to pieces when he came. No other way to describe it. He was emotional in a way she hadn’t thought possible for this man, weepy and raw and open, telling her that he loved her. Three simple words, words she’d never heard from him or expected to hear or dreamed of hearing, not like that, not repeated so desperately. And then she was saying it back to him, and tearing up herself, because she remembered promising Danny that those words were his, if he’d been alive to hear her, and now she’d said them to the Doctor, and this meant she’d moved on.
Afterwards he held her, inside her still, his weight on her, his face pressed against her neck. Clara would have let him stay there forever. Finally he sighed, and rolled away from her. Clara laid her head on his shoulder.
It was so strange to lie in that wide bed with him, so warm and cozy, with nothing but space visible overhead. Somebody else in this situation might feel cold, or frightened, or exposed. But she didn’t feel that way at all. She was in the safest place in the universe, with the safest man in the universe. For her. For others, perhaps not so much. But he was here, with her, and he’d just made love to her. He was dozing off, in fact, something she saw so rarely that she was overcome with tenderness. His face and hands were relaxed, for once. His hair was a mess, dark with sweat at the temples. Clara had never loved him more than at that moment.
She slipped out of bed and found her robe. She made her way toward where she’d remembered a door was. The TARDIS helpfully faded out the star field view as she got closer. Bathroom, yes, with a ridiculous giant tub in it that made the one in her room look silly and she’d always been embarrassed by that. A quick wash and a brush through her hair, a look in the mirror. Yes, he’d marked her throat. Were human-Gallifreyan kids a thing? She’d have to ask him, because if it was possible it might be a thing now. Or she’d have to go back on the pill. Or do something. Maybe he wanted kids. Did she?
She wanted to stop leaping forward to big decisions, that’s what. Enjoy this moment. Christmas morning with the Doctor. Whatever time of day it was for her. Maybe it was morning. She was feeling hungry like it was morning.
The Doctor stirred when she came back into the bedroom. She sat on the bed next to him and stroked his hair. He snagged her hand and kissed it.
“You hungry? Was going to grab something from the kitchen and bring it back. Breakfast in bed.”
“Sounds lovely.” His eyes went unfocused for a moment. “There’ll be a bottle of champagne there. And some orange juice.”
The TARDIS had moved the kitchen to right next to the Doctor’s door, which was thoughtful of her. Or of the Doctor, or some combination of the two of them. That relationship was complicated, and Clara had mostly stopped trying to puzzle it out. The other complicated question she’d stopped trying to answer was where the bottle of champagne had come from, and whether it had existed before the Doctor had told her to look for it. It existed now, and had a label that claimed it was Dom Pérignon 1921. That meant it was probably a sin to drink it in a Buck’s Fizz, but Clara wasn’t going to fuss too much. They were drinking it on Christmas morning. Or whatever time of day it was.
When she got back, the Doctor had got out of bed and put on a robe himself. Black, of course. His knobby knees were shockingly pale below the hem. The man needed to get some sunshine now and then.
Clara handed him the tray and he set it in the middle of the bed. He pressed his thumb against the head of the cork and out it popped, no fuss, no drama. Champagne into the glasses, orange juice to chase, and he was smirking as if he’d been very clever as he handed a glass to her.
“To us,” she said.
They touched glasses, drank. It was ridiculously good. Decadent, to be drinking this in the morning, eating cheese and grapes and slices of peach, while sitting under a starscape. Her life, she decided, was absurd. She had no idea what she’d done to deserve it.
“I was thinking,” he said. Clara’s eyes widened in alarm. “We should do something formal. To mark the occasion.”
Clara braced herself for, well, she couldn’t guess what he was about to say, which was the fun and the terror of this man.
“We could get tattoos.”
“Like they do on Coreward Palestra. Or ear piercings like on Respiregan Twelve. Matching body modifications are popular there. Feathers, for instance. Or functional tails. Or we could–”
Clara silenced him with a fast kiss, lest the list of possibilities get worse. “What would you like to do?”
The Doctor was silent. Clara took the opportunity to kiss him again, which he cooperated with for a while. He was thinking, probably. More than probably. She wasn’t certain he ever stopped thinking, even when sleeping.
Eventually he shifted away from her. He said, “Rings. There’s a place-- the Satanic Nebula had jewel-smiths that were–But until then, please. This.”
And then he took the ring from his finger, the one with the gem on it, and slid it onto her hand. He had such slim long fingers that it fit on her ring finger and was only a tiny bit loose.
Clara couldn’t help it. It had been such a long day, a long night, a long set of hallucinations while under attack from Dream Crabs–whatever. She couldn’t help bursting into tears.
“Are you–what–Did I do something wrong? Clara?”
“Shut up. You idiot. You didn’t do anything wrong. You did something very right.”
He mercifully shut his mouth and let her hold onto him, and his arms went right around her without any hesitation at all. Sometimes he was so completely alien, and sometimes he wasn’t. He had learned, somewhere, how to comfort her when she was upset. He tipped her back, laid her down on the great bed, and lay beside her, wrapped around her. Clara pushed her face into his shoulder and cried, and he didn’t complain or grumble or say anything inappropriate at all, merely held her tight.
She got control of herself again, and he handed her a handkerchief. It was monogrammed with the initials “JS” and ridiculously large. She dried her face on acres of linen.
“You okay now?”
“Yeah. Sorry. Wow. Did not see this coming when I went to bed last night. Christmas Eve, I said, sleep in as late as I can get away with, pretend to like my presents, and now you’re back and we’re–”
“Yeah.” He took her hand and brought it to his lips again. A ridiculous, antique, courtly gesture, that she now understood was how he would tell her he loved her when not making love to her.
“Merry Christmas, Doctor.”
“We should be opening presents,” he said. “Eating tangerines.”
“Feel like I got the best present possible.”
He smiled at that, in a way that lit up his whole face. “Yeah.”