In they ran, through the TARDIS door, hand in hand, stumbling as the gravity changed, laughing and coughing in equal measures, waving goodbye to their latest set of best friends ever whom they’d never see again. The Doctor pulled Clara through, waited until she’d turned from the door, then snapped his fingers. The door swung shut; the air cleaner whisked away the last of the smoke. It was over at last. His smiled died. He ran his hand over his face. That had been a long and weary combat with the Venturi navy; ultimately successful, with the war at a likely end for this pass of the comet, but it had been a close thing. They’d lost their engines and had only been saved by eighteen hours of hard labor from him and the engineering crew. And it had been tricky, figuring out how their engines were powered, what the best way to redesign them on the fly was, and then fabricating the parts.
He held the railing on his way down toward the console, for otherwise he might have stumbled. He was weary down to his bones, and his mind was nearly as weary. Not quite weary enough, though, not weary enough to close his eyes and find what dreams may come. He had more days left in him. Another adventure with Clara, perhaps two. He braced himself with his left hand on the console, let his right dance over the buttons. The TARDIS lights shifted to oranges and reds. One lever thrown, and the rotors turned over his head, sending shadows in motion over the console. They dematerialized into the Vortex. No destination as yet, but they didn’t need one. He would eat something, drink some tea, and plan the next distraction for when Clara was ready for it.
Clara, sweet Clara, was still on the upper level, leaning over the railing. She lifted her hair up into an impromptu ponytail. She had soot on her face. The Doctor crooked a finger over his mouth to hide his smile. She was lovely as ever, and she’d been clever five times at least during the combat.
She said, “That was a tough one. I’m shattered. Going to go say some very nice things to my pillows and hug them a lot.”
He jabbed a finger at her. “Might want to have a wash first. Not that I’m criticizing. Maybe all those black marks are normal for you. You do color your face in every morning, after all.”
Clara grimaced at him, as he’d predicted, and swiped at her face. She looked at the soot on her fingers and frowned. “What about you? That was, what, three days straight in that star frigate? I cat-napped but you–”
“Right,” she said again, drawling it out, and that voice meant that he had trespassed beyond some boundary in her head and had aroused her suspicion. What had he said? He could recall nothing.
She came down the steps toward the console. He glowered at her but she kept coming. He turned his back on her, stood up straight, and gestured extravagantly.
“Go rest. I’ll have a planet waiting for you when you wake up.”
“And you? Are you going to rest?”
“Too much to do,” he said. He busied himself at the console, pulling the viewscreen toward himself, pressing buttons rather more emphatically than necessary. Readings to be taken, data to feed into the memory banks. Repairs to be made somewhere, always.
“Doctor.” Her voice, from directly behind him. “I know you sleep less than I do, but that doesn’t mean not at all.”
He waved his hand in dismissal. “Course not. Don’t happen to need to sleep right now.”
“Yeah? 'Cause I haven’t seen you sleep since I got on board with you. Three months ago.”
“There’s a lot you haven’t seen. When you sleep, for instance, I do all sorts of things. Catnap. Repair the TARDIS. Read the entire literature of ancient civilizations.”
Clara made a non-committal noise. Her arms came around him from behind. He let himself lean into her, let his hand rest on her arm apparently casually.
She said, “When’s the last time you slept? Properly. In a bed.”
He shrugged. This was becoming uncomfortable; he was going to have to start outright lying in another moment. “Can’t remember. Recently.”
“Can’t remember or won’t say?”
He flashed a rueful smile at the console. She always knew when he was dissembling. Sometimes she let him get away with it, but not now apparently. “What’s this about?” he said.
“I’m worried about you. You look like you’re exhausted. If you were a human, you’d be unconscious on the floor right now. You’ve looked like that for weeks. So tell me. The truth.”
“Doctor. You said no more lies. You said interrogate everything.”
“Everything. All the time. The truth, Doctor.”
He sighed. “The truth is-- The truth is I can’t. Can’t sleep.”
She hugged him closer for a moment. Her head came to rest against his back. He shifted his hand to find hers. Warm, as she always was to his touch. He let his thumb caress hers.
“Can’t,” she said. “Tell me?”
“I try, but I wake up. From dreams. Quite bad ones. So bad I’d rather not.”
“Predates them, by quite a while. In fact-- In fact I think they got to me so easily because I was-- because I was so sleep-deprived.”
Admitting that was rather painful. It was a bad sign and he knew it. It meant he was weakened. Which meant he had to find a way to cope. There were drugs. There were always drugs. But they had side effects on Gallifreyans, worse ones on Time Lords, and he hated those. He sighed, and hung his head, clung a little tighter to that arm around his waist.
“What is it, Doctor?” she said. There was no lecture in her voice, just sympathy and something that made him soften a little inside to hear. Clara. Clara, holding him. Clara, asking him because she cared. Tell her, you fool. Why not?
“Trenzalore. The Time War. Everything. But mostly Trenzalore. The attacks came at any time, you see.”
“Can I do anything to help?”
He shrugged again and said, “I’ll eventually collapse. I go until I can’t any longer. I can keep going right now, so I will.”
“That’s not acceptable. You know that. You know-- Oh damn you.”
Silence. His thumb caressing hers, her body pressed up against his back. Did she know how much even this helped? Probably not.
“Can I help at all?”
“Yeah. You, you help. Being near you. Can’t explain it.”
She shifted against his back. Clara had come to a decision, apparently. The Doctor braced himself for whatever she might say.
“This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to go to my room, and we’re going to get into my bed, and you’re going to sleep with me right next to you. I’m going to wake you whenever you have nightmares and tell you it’s okay.”
She squeezed him around his middle for a moment, then stepped back. She held out her hand. He took it-- this was getting easier, so much easier, since that night of shared dreams-- and allowed her to lead him down the TARDIS corridors toward her room. He had a bedroom that he never spent time in; he took his catnaps in his armchair in the console room. Clara’s room, however, was a place she spent time in. It was a cozy space, created specially by the TARDIS in response to her wishes and dreams and secret needs, without reference to anything she said she wanted. Which was how the TARDIS did everything she did with Clara, sometimes to her frustration.
The result was that the room felt wonderful to him, always, on the few occasions he’d been in it. It was essentially Clara in its heart. Plants, colorful objects, a wall of books, battered-looking leather furniture, a carved wooden sleigh bed mounded high with blankets. It made him feel better just to walk into it, to stand in its center. He breathed in in a hint of lavender, book paper, leather, roses. Flowers and books, his Clara, oh Clara.
He wandered toward the bookshelves, touched a finger to the spines. Perhaps he could read himself to sleep. Something soothing.
“Get undressed,” she said. He turned to her, arms folded, glaring. “Not like that, you idiot. Take off some layers. Down to one shirt and your trousers. No jacket, no hoodie, no jumper, no boots. Like you were a sensible person about to take a nap.”
He shed more of his clothing than he was comfortable with and piled it neatly on the chest at the end of the bed. He then climbed into the middle of it and sat cross-legged, watching her move around her bedroom. She cleaned off her face and changed herself out of her smoke-stained clothes. She was now in leggings and a pullover shirt. Bare feet. She had colored in her toes, he saw, this time with a rainbow glitter. It was pretty. He liked it. He wriggled his own toes in their warm socks.
She padded over to the wall and touched some controls. The light in the room dimmed down, changed color. The walls and ceilings changed. The shadows of trees against a starlight sky; moonlight shining through. The sound of running water and leaves rustling. An owl hooting. A woodland park at night–a night of quiet. He’d made the recording himself, untold ages ago. England before its industrial revolution. Before the machines came. Not a perfect place, but a safe place. He’d come across deer in a glade, grazing, sleeping, he remembered. The owl had swooped across feet away from him, utterly silently, intent on something that was not him. The TARDIS must have remembered this recording, as she remembered everything, and given it to Clara.
Clara climbed into bed next to him. She nudged him around until he was on his side, facing away from her. She moved close up behind him and wrapped an arm around his waist.
“Need a blanket?” she asked.
“Let me know if there’s anything.”
Close, he could feel her close to him, but not yet part of him. Not yet joined with him. Joining might help. Would she? He could ask. He could let her in. If he was going to be truly safe, he would need someone joined with him, the way he used to when his people had been around, when he’d felt like he was one of them. If he was going to yield to this hunger, he was going to surrender completely.
“Touch me?” he said. “Skin on skin. I don’t mean-- I just-- I told you once, I think–”
“Hush. How would you like me to touch you?”
“A hand on me. Somewhere. Doesn’t matter where.”
Clara pulled up his t-shirt and let her hand rest on his belly. The Doctor felt warmth spread out from the place where she touched him. Touch. Joining. The whisper of her mind nearer to his than it had yet been. He whimpered and laid his hand over hers and pressed it tight. Throttled it down to just the barest trickle of feeling, so he couldn’t accuse himself of weakness. Of hurting her by flooding her with himself. How long had it been since he’d let himself feel this? Years and decades and centuries. So alone for so long.
Trenzalore. Nobody had stayed with him. Ever. They were a flicker-- growing changing aging-- and then gone. He’d been unable to tell them apart after a while. After the first few decades. He hadn’t wanted to. There and gone, killed by his failures or by simple old age. Clara. Clara had come for him. Had pleaded for him. Regeneration energy, her doing, and he’d regenerated with her face before him.
“Hey hey hey,” she was saying. “It’s okay. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Right,” he said, “didn’t think you were.”
She made a soothing clucking noise at him that might have offended him in other circumstances. But he was here to be soothed, wasn’t he. Here to to have his head petted, here to let his friend hold him and comfort him so he could sleep. So he wouldn’t go mad.
“Breathe with me. Slowly. In. Out. I want you to concentrate on the palms of your hands. Let the tension in them just melt away. Let them relax. Let the tension flow out, through your fingers.”
He knew what she was doing, knew the trick. He’d used it himself on the unsuspecting. Put his children to sleep this way himself, so long ago. He could fight it, but why? Relax his palms, relax his fingers, one at a time, let the ease flow up and through him, radiating out from the place where her hand rested against him, so warm. From the soles of his feet to the crown of his head, let the warmth flow.
Dreams, he was sliding into dreams, and she was with him still. His telepathy was no longer in his control. She took his hand. Dream Clara, walking with him into the war zone of Gallifrey, bombed out cities, dreaming spires in rubble, the burning pits that were all that was left of the highest civilization of all. The great Time Lords with their great machines, locked away in their towers watching the universe, until the treasures of their technology were too valuable to be ignored. Until the Daleks feared them enough to rival them.
He turned to Clara, standing by his side in his dream, and said, “The horror of war. That’s what we call it. It’s a euphemism. No word would be enough for this. Look at it.”
Here, the burned bodies of a family caught by a death beam. There, the corpse of a family pet, dead from starvation. The stench of death thick in his nose, of things burning that ought not, of metal and plastics and flesh. This was the reality that he had preserved. He did not kill them all, as he’d once thought, to spare the rest of the universe, but the war had still happened. His people had still died.
Around a corner, and into the cold and snow. A town called Christmas. Attacks in progress, a dozen attacks in a dozen places, and he couldn’t stop them all, couldn’t get to them all in time. They would win and it would be over and they would all be dead and that would be the end of it all.
A blast, and a body flying past. Barnaby? A child. Perhaps Barnaby. He took a step closer, to see. Clara caught his arm and tugged him to a halt.
She said, “Is this what dreaming is like for you?”
He shrugged, looked away from her. Flinched at what he saw, looked at his feet instead.
“This dream-- it’s very detailed.”
“Lucid dreams. Time Lord dreams.” He smiled at her briefly, bitterly. “My brain is a lot like yours at the core. It processes memory the same way. It clears away the clutter and sweeps the floors in dream. It’s just that I collect more-- clutter.”
Clara’s face was intent. Thinking. “If it’s lucid, that means we can do something different.”
She reached out for his hand and took it, firmly. He let her lace her fingers through his, without a single flinch. She led him down an alleyway, dodging the fallen beams and rubble, and around a corner to-- to a field. A grassy field, sweeping down a gentle hill away from them. In the distance was a city. A breeze swept away the charnel smell of burned flesh and brought the smell of mown grass. The sun was warm on his face. Somewhere nearby a blackbird sang.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“I was trying for Hampstead Heath on a summer day.”
“Good. Right. Okay.”
Clara sat down on the grass, decisively, and pulled him down with her. She settled him so he was on his back with his head in her lap, with her hand clasped in his over his hearts. He stretched out his legs and looked up past her face. A few clouds in the sky, deep blues, the grass lush and green. Nobody there with them. Hampstead Heath it was. And the city in the distance was London. London at a peaceful, prosperous moment in its long history. No planes in the sky. No rockets. No–
“Shh,” Clara said. “It’s a lovely summer day in 2013, because that’s when I had my picnic, and nothing interesting is going to happen. At all. Some ants will investigate our tea. That’s the worst.”
“You can nap if you want. I’ve got this.”
Sleep, in a dream? But he knew what she meant. “Okay.”
He was safe in Clara’s lap. Safe. She had him. He was on the heath with her, and nothing would happen. He let his eyes close.
When he opened them again, it was dark. They were in a deep and quiet forest, curled up in moss in the roots of a great oak. An owl hooted. It was his forest, the one he’d recorded, in neolithic Britain. The name of it was lost to time and he hadn’t wanted to disturb anyone to ask. He sat up. Clara stirred and woke, sat up. She rubbed her face.
“We’re in the forest,” he said to her, happily. “There’s an owl. Can I show you?”
He took her hand and walked with her along the deer track. There was a copse ahead, the copse where he’d seen the owl. It was exactly as he had remembered. Moonlight, silver light and deep shadows, magic and mystery lurking. The deep and lovely dark of the night.
The owl swept past, and he ducked. It was gone, into the trees, in pursuit of something that was not him. The universe reeled and spun onward, supremely indifferent to him. It was and would ever be.
He opened his eyes. He was in Clara’s bedroom, and time had passed. He had slept. Clara was holding him, warm against his back. She was breathing slowly, but was waking, swimming up toward the surface of her mind. His mind and hers were still joined, and his waking had drawn her with him. She stirred, whimpered out a sleepy protest, then came awake. He felt her tighten against him, still for a moment, and then relax.
“Clara,” he said.
“Hey. Did you sleep?”
He turned around in her arms and pressed his face into her shoulder. One hand was on his hair, stroking him, the other against his back, pulling him closer. So much warmth coming from her, not just the physical warmth, but the waves of emotion coming to him, through his awakened empathic sense. Telepathy, empathy-- they were the same, but one was deeper than the other. The one frightened him. Had frightened him. Now he knew what she felt. Love, he was bathed in love.
He wanted to kiss her, and he knew she would accept it, so he kissed her-- a feather touch of his lips against her. Then he turned in her arms again, tugged her hand until it rested on his bare belly once more, and curled himself up. Made himself as small as he could, so he could feel her all around him. Her lips touched the back of his neck. He shivered but it was a good shiver, a sweet shiver. She had him, she was holding him safe.