The Doctor stepped into the TARDIS, hand-in-hand with Clara, which was how they always were these days. He turned and squeezed and smiled at her. She’d been clever at least five times over just then, and as a result it had gone the best way it possibly could. Only one life lost, and that was the life of the man who’d built the machine with the intent of killing others, and he found that acceptable.
Clara. Clever sweet Clara. He looked into her eyes and smiled at her and was lost.
“Clara,” he said, dreamily.
“Are you okay?”
“Never better.” Beautiful eyes. Strange things happening in their depths. Oh, Clara.
“Because you look-- your eyes look funny.”
“Yours look lovely.”
“And now I’m definitely worried. You never say things like that.”
He felt marvelous, though. Simply wonderful. Suffused with certainty and purpose and focus and adoration and excitement. Arousal, even. He clung to her hand and stared and stared and let her eyes overwhelm him. He hadn’t felt this good since, since-- Oh bugger.
He said a very bad word to himself. There was only one thing this could be. He’d Recognized her. A human.
“That’s impossible,” he said. “I can’t be doing this. Not with, with–”
He stared at her, wide-eyed. This feeling, oh this feeling, it was happening, it was real, it was on him, it was something that could happen to him, even though his people were locked away from him, it could happen with a human. He’d Recognized a human.
He let go of her hand and scrabbled at his shirt collar. He unbuttoned it and breathed deliberately, deeply.
“What?” she said. “Doctor?”
It was her. It was happening again despite anything he had ever been told and it was her. She would never understand this. No one who wasn’t Gallifreyan would ever understand it. It would be one thing if she were sharing this feeling, but she couldn’t ever. It was him. One-sided. Misery. Oh damn him to hell, he couldn’t do this to her. Couldn’t.
“Doctor, you’re scaring me. What’s happening?”
“Sorry. Sorry. I just-- it’s-- I’m ill.”
“You don’t get ill.”
“I do. And I’m ill. Stay away.” To punctuate this, he let go of her hand and marched up to the console. His knees buckled under him and he clung to the edge for life. He drew a deep breath, centered himself. The controls that sent the TARDIS into the vortex were something he could manage in his sleep. He managed them. Drew another breath. She was beside him now, looking at him with some concern. He had to get away, or he would give in.
He flailed a hand at the flight lever. “Here. Take yourself home. First solo flight. You’ll do perfectly well.”
“Yeah, I know. But you’re ill.”
“I’m going to my room to rest. Sleep. Take my vitamins. No need to follow!”
He jabbed a finger in her general direction to punctuate this announcement, then marched out of the console room. It took every bit of concentration he had to manage it. He was moving away from her. Away. His body knew it-- body, brain, they were one, united on the topic of the need to take Clara Oswald, rip her clothing from her, and make her his.
“Zero room, old girl. Please make it easy.”
She complied, thank goodness, and he had only two corridors to stagger along until the round door of the zero room presented itself. In. Door closed. Gravity off. Fields adjusted to nudge his mass into the exact center of the room.
He floated there curled into a ball. Neutral light, neutral temperature, all sensory input damped down. He spoke a few commands at the TARDIS and the lights dimmed further. Blessed peace. No sensations to keep him aware, awake, active. Nothing but his own mind, which was full enough of nonsense.
He reviewed their time together on the planet of brass, and the signs were clear. It had been building for days. It had happened when she’d taken off the goggles, welding torch in hand, and smiled at him. Something had shifted in him, but he’d ignored it. Told himself it was mere exhaustion after several sleepless weeks.
He’d been lying to himself from the very first moment.
Couldn’t lie to himself any more. The changes had already begun. Hyper-sensitivity, everywhere. His trousers confined him. His shirt collar choked him. His whole body was remaking itself, betraying his mind in service to brute biology. It would consume itself doing this if he didn’t give it what it wanted. The curse of the Gallifreyans. The curse of the Time Lords, the ascetics in their high towers, self-inflicted. They refused to cure it in themselves. And so his body would eat itself until he scented his mate-- his gravid mate, as the oh-so-romantic textbook of his youth had put it. Something to be endured for the sake of the species. One didn’t speak of it. One mated, did one’s duty, handed the resulting child over to the creche if one wanted it to be a Time Lord, lived.
Heat rippled over his skin. Desire, arousal. Had it been this bad last time? No. It had been rather boring last time. Mild. Well-mannered. Decorous. Controlled. Quite odd considering who it had been with. This-- this was going to be wild. It had begun and it wouldn’t stop until he’d acted or was dead.
It had been joyous when it happened before, the handful of times. The first time, he’d been fortunate enough to share it with someone he cared about, his first wife, someone who was already his partner, someone with whom he was already considering having children, outré and old-fashioned though it would have been. Several frantic sweet nights of coupling, and then a year later a child, the joy of their lives together. This time nothing like that could happen. Clara, it was Clara, but she was human and she was not his partner and she couldn’t feel it and he couldn’t ask this of her. Could not rut with her unwilling, get a child on her, just to save his worthless life. Save his face. His sense of self.
He would die and another man would walk away with his memories, in his TARDIS, and probably with his Clara. And that would be better than the alternative.
Save the feeling sorry for himself for later, when his body had truly begun to fail him.
He floated, allowed time to pass. The TARDIS shifted around him, swam through time and space. Clara was obedient for once, then, taking herself home. Good. He felt it come to a halt in a pocket of space-time he knew well, a place this face had called home. She would be leaving him now. He should send the TARDIS back into the vortex. Should, if he could bring himself to leave the safety of the zero room.
A knock on the door: unbearably loud in the muffled quiet of the zero room. He flinched. Then Clara’s voice, calling for him.
“Not until I know you’re okay.”
Another bang at the door.
“Don’t let her in,” he said, to the TARDIS, in their shared language.
“I’m coming in.”
“Is it contagious?”
“Then I’m coming in.”
The door hissed open. The TARDIS had betrayed him. The lights came up. He blinked painfully. Light, noise, but worst of all her scent. Clara had changed her clothes, he saw, done something different with her hair. No! He squeezed his eyes shut. It was no help; he could still smell her. Perfume, soap, her body, her being. Heat washed over his skin again. Profound arousal.
A touch on his shoulder. He flinched away, but she gripped his coat and steadied herself next to him in the center of the room. A warble, distinctive: Clara’s sonic screwdriver. A screwdriver he’d helped her build, explaining in careful detail what it did and why, piece by piece, attuning it to her mind. Their deepest project together thus far, their most intimate. Working on a gadget. She seemed completely content with their relationship as it was. She wanted no more from him. She wouldn’t want this. Courage, old man.
He opened his eyes. She was frowning at her sonic.
“You’re-- you’re-- these readings.”
Last chance at misdirection. “I’m ill.”
“Recognition,” Clara said. “That’s what it says. What does that mean?”
“An incurable ailment of Time Lords. I’ll weaken, I’ll die, I’ll regenerate, and I’ll be fine again. All right? You got it out of me! Now just leave me alone until it’s over.”
“We’ll see about that,” she said. And she was out of the room again. The door eased shut and there was blessed silence around him. A blessed easing of the urge to seize her and have his way with her. Over and over and over until–
Pin-pricks all over his palms and the soles of his feet, running up and down his legs in waves of pain. Like brambles stuck into him. It would ease if he touched her. It was like addiction, like when he had tried the human custom of smoking tobacco. Ah, the buzz, the rush, the pleasure of blowing smoke through his lips. He’d come down and craved more, made excuses to get more. More. Until he’d locked himself in the zero room for a fortnight and emerged half-starved and clean, rational.
He’d emerge from the room this time a different man.
Time passed. He floated.
The door sighed open again. Her scent, more powerful than before. Sweat sprang out on his temples from the effort it took to remain where he was. Clara pushed herself through cautiously, swam in through the zero-G more gracefully this time. She used her sonic on him again, frowned at it.
“Yeah,” she said. “So. Recognition.”
“What about it.”
“The library data banks on it were locked, but the TARDIS helped me break them.”
He jerked out from his ball of of misery, jabbed a finger at her. “You invaded my privacy! What gives you the right?”
“My best friend is dying. That gives me the right. You idiot. You stupid idiot.”
Her face, her face. Pity and something else. He cupped his hands over his face. Her pity was humiliating. That’s what it was. His people did not reveal this to outsiders and for good reason.
“Leave me. Please. If you read about it, you know how seeing you makes me suffer.”
“Did it occur to you to ask, you idiot? You stupid, stupid man? You can ask.”
“No! No, I can not ask you to do this! I cannot have you do something stupid to save my life.”
“Me. Me do something stupid to save you. Me, the person who split herself into a zillion copies in your timeline and died over and over saving you. Me. The person who begged the Council to give you more regenerations. Me. Do something stupid. Yeah, okay, you got me there.”
“No. You stop. You big bloody idiot. You don’t get to make decisions for me any more. You know this.”
“I can’t ask this of you. It’s monstrous.”
“I decide that. Ask me. Ask me now.”
He looked at her feet, floating there so near him, not at her face. If he looked at her face, if he looked into her eyes again, he would be gone.
“Dear Clara, my friend, I am in rut. Will you consent to be raped by an alien over and over until you get pregnant with his child? No? Right. That’s what I thought. Leave.”
He wrapped his arms around his head so he couldn’t see her. He could smell her, though. He knew exactly where she was. Knew she wasn’t fertile, not yet. Shame and misery and longing washed through him, left him limp and dripping with sweat.
Clara did not leave, did not give him any reprieve. She was there, floating next to him, silent, for long minutes.
“The TARDIS has a lot of information about this. About Recognition. I read quite a lot,” she said, eventually. “It was… surprising. I think that’s the best word.”
That was one way to put it. He smiled bitterly into his sleeve.
“I didn’t know you bonded like this. Life matches. Like, like–”
“Don’t compare me to an animal.”
“I was going to compare you to elves.”
“Based on us. I knew him.”
Clara made a huffing sound and cuffed his head gently. “Yeah, so if that’s accurate, then you know you’re trying to mislead me. But you can’t. I read it. You don’t just go into heat. Your brain knows when you find a potential life partner. It does this to you because you already feel it.”
More humiliation, and a sort of grief. “A feeling I am well aware you don’t return.”
“Are you aware of that. Are you really.”
“Yes. Really. It’s been months we’ve been together again, and you’ve given me no sign.”
“You idiot. I told you at Christmas. I told you you were the one other man I’d even considered marrying.”
Oh. Right. She had said that.
“I thought you were the one who was giving no signs. Affection, yes, hugging me back, holding my hand, but zero interest in sex. I thought you might even be asexual in this regeneration.”
“It’s the usual thing for us. No interest. Until this happens.” Or until he fell in love, which did happen every few decades, usually to his utter heartbreak.
“Jesus, you idiot.”
“You’re using that word a lot.”
“You deserve it.”
“I deserve to be left alone until this is over.”
“No! You deserve-- I’m exactly what you deserve. Isn’t that what you said to me once? Well, it’s true now too. We deserve each other.”
She sounded as if she were near tears, and that ripped at him in a way he couldn’t endure. She was hurting. He had hurt her. His beloved. “Clara–” he said.
“You’re my best friend. More than that. It’s more. So complicated. You’re the most important person in my life. You drive me crazy and sometimes I hate you but I love you and I understand you and alien as you are sometimes I think you’re the only person in the universe who understands me.”
“Clara. Clara, please.”
“I don’t want to lose you now that I’ve found you again.”
“It isn’t fair to you.”
“What if I wanted to? What if I would have done it if you’d asked me properly, the way a human might do?”
“You wouldn’t have.”
“I would have. You’re everything to me.”
“Clara Oswald. You are everything to me too.”
He reached out a hand to her, hesitantly. She grasped it and laced her fingers together with his.
She said, with a shaky voice, “Ask me again. Ask me properly.”
“Clara. Will you recognize me? Will you accept me?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I will. I’ll have a child with you. It’s okay.”
He closed his eyes. “Say the word. I need to hear the word.”
“I recognize you.”
He shaped the Gallifreyan word in his mouth, said it to her, let it roll out into the room untranslated, so his youngest self, his innermost Gallifreyan being, would understand it. Recognition. They had seen and accepted each other. There was something more-- He opened his eyes to see hers, her face so close to his. Wet eyes, wet lashes, wet cheeks, oh Clara.
“Traditionally I tell you my soul-name now,” he said. “My secret name.”
“Are you going to?”
“I’m not sure. That is-- I’m not sure it’s my soul name any more. It’s secret, but–”
“It’s changed,” he whispered. It had changed. It was not what the schism had told him. It was something else. Something he’d learned on Skaro. On Trenzalore. At the Heart of the TARDIS. He couldn’t say it even to himself, not yet. But he had to give her something.
Her eyebrows came together. “Theta Sigma. The Greek letters?”
“Translated. The name I chose for myself as a boy. Not my soul name, but a name only a very few know. Now you know.” Now she had as many of his secrets as the Master had-- Missy. He hadn’t told her the name that had come to him in the Untempered Schism either. “Now you.”
“Me? I don’t have a soul name.”
“You do. Everyone does. How do you know yourself inside? Clara, maybe it’s Clara–”
She shook her head. “Oswin. I’m Clara Oswin Oswald. Oswin. I called myself that as a kid. When I had adventures. Before my mom-- I called myself Oswin the Brave. Oswin the Clever.”
The Doctor closed his eyes. Oswin. The very first of her echoes, to him, the screaming genius who’d rescued him from the graveyard of the Daleks, the girl who had retreated into her mind rather than live in the horror of reality. No wonder he loved her. No wonder she was the one his body had chosen. He opened his eyes and let the tears spill out.
“Oswin,” he said.
“Theta Sigma.” Hesitation in her voice, then she repeated it, more certainly.
He reached for her hand, touched her, and was lost. He kissed her frantically, messily, fingers dug into her hair, legs wrapped around her. They tumbled, bounced, drifted across the room, while he pulled at her shirt, ripped it until it was open and he could nuzzle his face into her neck, breathe in her scent, taste her. His body knew that he had consented, as it always did, and he felt a flood of something rush through him. Energy, well-being. Adrenaline. Enough to get him through it. His body knew he was trying. He wrapped himself around her tighter.
“Hey hey hey, slow down.”
“Can’t.” He licked at her. Bit. Pushed his hips against her. He needed to be inside her.
“Can you hold off long enough for us to get to a bedroom? Not sure I can do it here without losing my cookies.”
“Yeah. Yeah. She’ll move it next door.”
He said a word to the TARDIS, but the gravity had already begun to return. They came to rest on what the TARDIS had chosen as the floor, more or less facing the doorway to the corridor. Clara untangled herself from him and took his hand. He stood, with her help, and clung to her. He was trembling head to toe. He’d let it go a long time, far longer his body was happy with.
She led them out and into the corridor. The door of his room was there before them. It swung open as they approached. His bedroom, a place where he spent very little time in this form, because he slept as little as he could manage. Book cases, quiet lighting, wall covered in plants, all surprised him. She’d changed it since the last time he’d been in, perhaps in the last few hours. The bed was huge and covered in deep red silk sheets. Clara laughed and he scowled.
“It’s the TARDIS, not me,” he said.
“Of course it’s her,” Clara. “Because nobody would ever mistake you for a romantic.”
She had taken her shoes off already. He watched her undressing for a few breaths, dumbfounded, then came to himself. He should undress as well. He reached for his coat buttons and could not control the shaking of his hands enough to undo them. He stamped his foot. “Can’t. Dammit, I simply can’t.”
“I recognize you, Theta Sigma. We’re going to do this. Breathe.”
Breathe. In. Out. “Okay. Okay.”
She had to unbutton his jacket for him, unzip his hoodie. He stood there like a child, hands trembling, while she stripped his clothing from him, layer after layer, until he stood before her in pants. Blue pants with stars on them. He couldn’t even remember putting them on. Days ago. He must be a mess. These he could manage on his own. He pushed them down to his ankles and kicked them away. He’d once feared her face if she saw him, saw how gaunt he was this time around, saw his narrow shoulders. Now he knew she wouldn’t mind him. He kissed her hair, got in her way as she removed the last of her own clothing. He whimpered to see her. Closed his eyes and breathed and tried to hold onto the last of his self control.
The bed, sheets pulled back. He crawled up onto it, following her.
“Let me control this,” Clara said.
“Yes, boss,” he murmured.
He lay back obediently and waited for her. His hands were wet and trembling. Those ripples of fire ran over his skin again, from his sex out to his fingertips, the soles of his feet. He had been aroused since the moment she had touched him. He was beyond aroused now. His body, his whole body, awake and on fire and tense and nerves sending shocks of pleasure through him every time her fingers touched his skin. She straddled him, rose over him. He took himself in hand to guide himself into her. Her face was intent on something, not him, as she descended over him. She was somewhere else. He was not going to notice or complain or say anything at all; the gift she was giving him must not be caviled at.
How did it feel? He’d loved sex with River, so very long ago. He’d loved sex with all of his partners, his lovers, his companions. The ones who’d coaxed him into it. This was not merely sex. This was Recognition. It was compulsion. It was bonding. It was the universe showing two people that they might be soulmates if they wanted. And it was sex, yes. Mind-blowing sex, with a body that had spent days reconfiguring itself into a sexual being.
It felt bloody amazing.
Clara, riding him gently at first, with two fingers touching herself. Clara, who was his soulmate. Clara, who he loved in simpler ways. The simplest. The most complex. Otherworldly. Spiritual. Base. Bodies joined, moving against each other. A steady rhythm, slow, building. He reached up and touched her face. Sweat on her temples, under her arms. He got his feet under himself and rose to meet her on her way down. More friction. More. The first moan from her. Her eyes were closed. He needed-- he needed–
“Clara, my Oswin, look at me, please. I need to see you. I need to.”
Brown eyes, endless depths in her pupils. His soulmate. He accepted her. He recognized her. She was his and he was hers and his name would be hers and everything that made him a unique being in the universe would be hers. She would bear his child and his people would not be lost.
He let himself go, yielded himself to pleasure at last. Cried out, emptied his soul into her. She brought herself off while he was still gasping, and it sent him over again, tumbled by a wave of pleasure, rising and cresting and rolling and crashing and leaving him limp and wet on the beach in its wake. Oh, he’d forgotten what this was like, coming over and over, his body tuned for one thing, one thing only, his one reason for living.
He laughed. He turned into a maudlin purple sentimental idiot when he was in the throes. He remembered that much from his last time, at least, little as he wanted to remember that incident. Mindless biology was a fool. He was a fool. A satisfied fool.
He closed his eyes and slept.
When he woke again, Clara was there, dressed in a robe. Her hair was wet. She’d showered, then. He sniffed and knew one thing, that she was not yet carrying his child.
“Hey,” she said. “You hungry? You’re supposed to be, according to the books.”
He was. She’d brought him a tray with breakfast: porridge with cream and sugar, ripe figs, yogurt, pulpy orange juice, tea. Breakfast.
“Is it ship’s morning?” he said.
“It’s Clara’s morning. I have my phone set to remind me when meals are supposed to be. More or less. Phone says it’s breakfast time, so breakfast is what you get.”
He made no answer, for he was far too occupied shoveling porridge into his mouth. He’d been in the zero room long enough that he’d have been starving ordinarily, never mind with Recognition upon him.
“Much. So much,” he said. He poured himself tea with hands that were almost steady. But then, they would be. He’d accepted the recognition, joined with her, and he would be able to function almost normally. Tea, delicious sweet tea. He drank, look up over his mug, and saw Clara watching him. Her arms were folded and her robe done up tight. He regretted it. He hadn’t been able to pay attention to anything earlier, hadn’t been able to look at her and appreciate her the way she deserved.
She smiled at him, seeming relaxed. “What happens next?”
“We do this again until you’re pregnant. Sex, sleep, food, repeat.”
“You can tell I’m not pregnant. How is that even possible?” Ah, there was his Clara, intent on understanding everything around her.
“The cascade of hormone release starts within a few hours.”
She said a series of extremely bad words and he furrowed his eyebrows at her. “No. You don’t get to lecture me. Not after that.”
He grinned. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Are you going to be okay if I don’t get pregnant right away?”
“I’ll stay alive so long as I’m trying. My body knows. It knows what we just did. That you are potentially, potentially-- a breeding partner.” That word, again from that textbook. Odd how it came up in his memory now. Terrible word, given how he felt about her.
“You’re lucky I went off the Pill a while ago.”
Her face changed at that. A moment of sadness. Oh. Danny. She hadn’t been planning on – she’d been staying celibate while mourning him. Perhaps forever. Humans could do that too, though not as maniacally as Time Lords. Ascetic idiots. Like him. He was an idiot. He bit into a fig. Sweet, delicious. He licked his fingers.
Clara was watching him, smiling at him oddly.
“You will be fertile,” he said. “If you spend time with me like this. I am pumping out pheromones.”
He saw her nose wrinkle as she sniffed, but she would detect nothing. Human nose, numb nose. She said, “This is crazy. Crazy. The whole thing.”
“Sorry.” He ate the rest of the fig. He was craving protein now, however. He’d have to have the TARDIS make him something later.
“And after I’m, I’m pregnant? Will you be okay again?”
“I’ll be in protector mode. Difficult to describe. More testosterone than usual. Hyper-masculine. For the duration of the gestation. Which, by the way, is likely to be close on to a year.”
“That sounds like–”
“Like you’ll hate every moment of it.”
Clara laughed. “Yeah. You’re gonna be intolerable. Macho idiot.”
“After you give birth and the child is safe, I’ll collapse back into my usual hollow-chested self. What did you call me? A space hobo.”
“Evolution is weird.”
“It works with what it has. In our case, children were rare. The gestation takes so long. Predators, food-- many challenges. Later on, when we had the power to meddle with our genome, we chose not to edit it out. Instead we-- they-- intensified it.”
“Why? Why put yourself through this?”
“Not enough babies without it. A disease of civilization. If you don’t choose Singularity, if you stay in these meat bodies, you tend to dwindle. We Gallifreyans denied the Singularity. We stayed to watch.” To watch the Universe thrash and burn.
“I’m not sure I like your people.”
He laughed bitterly. “I know I don’t.”
“You hate this?”
“Not this. There are-- other things about them. But still–”
“Still you saved them.”
“Most of them are not to blame. And some of them are my family.”
Clara was pensive. “How many times have you done this?”
He squeezed his eyes shut, remembered them. Three faces, two beloved. One… more complicated than that. “Three times. You can’t predict it. For some of us it never happens. For some, over and over.”
It had never happened with River or Rose, both of whom he’d loved deeply, and that was why he’d been convinced it couldn’t happen with humans. But maybe there had been another reason. Biological? No. He would not let himself dwell on that now. Later. Now his attention was for Clara, his beloved. His soulmate, until one or the other of them should yield to the end that all mortal beings must eventually meet.
He kissed Clara Oswin Oswald. What would their children be like? Straight hair, curly? Short or tall? Would they have her nose or his? He rather hoped they’d look like her. Somewhere on Gallifrey was a skinny girl with a coxcomb of brown hair, the one good thing that had come from that year of paradox. Their daughter, still alive, possibly. The creches were protected as if they were Gallifrey’s most precious treasures. Which they were. He would cherish his child with Clara as fiercely.
He kissed Clara Oswin Oswald tenderly. He slipped his hand into her robe and cupped her breast possessively. He would be calm enough this next time that he would be able to help with her pleasure, which would be lovely. Her nipple stiffened under his fingers. Yes, it was rising in him again.
He pushed her back onto the bed and tugged her robe open. She held out her arms to him. He rolled himself onto her. Oh, sweet feeling, his heart’s ease, knowing he was inside her, would soon be bringing them both to orgasm. He felt no urgency to move just yet, though. He lay over her, around her, inside her, and kissed her. His name. His name was not what it was. Once it had been a secret that would shatter the universe, open gateways, destroy everything. Now it was nothing. Now it was something he could choose again.
He said, “I think my soul name is the name you call me when we’re alone.”
And now she knew that secret, his greatest thus far.
He kissed her forehead. “I think that’s it. I’m an idiot.”