This wasn’t how it was supposed to end. Throat raw from screaming, body battered and bleeding, Clara hung limply from the stone pillar as the uncaring stars shed their feeble light onto the mountaintop. She was going to die here. The Doctor would find her, she knew, but it would be too late. She was done fighting; there was no more left in her. Death was coming. All she could do was make peace with herself, with her life, with the ghosts of everyone she’d known.
Regrets? Hundreds. Right now she regretted most that he’d find her like this, and know what had happened before she died.
“I’m sorry,” she said, with what remained of her voice.
He was here. He was here. She might yet live. Clara wanted to laugh, but it hurt too much. His arms were around her, taking the weight off her arms. She could breathe again.
“Ribs broken,” she rasped out.
“Hush.” The sonic whirred and the chains fell. The Doctor took her over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. “Clara, hold on. Just a few steps to the TARDIS. Hold on, love.”
Clara tried, but it hurt too much, and she let go of everything and slipped away.
She woke in the TARDIS medical bay, on her back on one of the treatment beds. Her body was covered in a blue shell from her chest down. She couldn’t feel anything. The Doctor was there, touching her shoulder.
“Hey.” Voice still pretty bad. Didn’t hurt to talk, at least. She tried to wiggle her toes, but had no idea if she’d managed.
“You’re going to be fine. The TARDIS is repairing everything.”
Oh. “They did things.”
“You can, Clara. I’m here.” He kissed her forehead.
Clara slipped away again.
She woke on the treatment bed again, this time without the shell over her. She wiggled her toes; they seemed fine. Her ribs, also fine. Nothing hurt, particularly. She cleared her throat, and there was a clatter and the sound of boots on the floor, and the Doctor was there, taking her hand in his. He kissed her forehead, as he had before, and Clara found she could smile again. If it felt hollow, it wasn’t his fault. He’d come. He’d found her. Sooner than she’d thought possible.
“How long?” she said. Her voice sounded normal.
“Tell the old girl thanks for me.”
“I already have.” The Doctor pressed her hand between his. “You’re cleared to leave the treatment bed if you want.”
Out of bed. Out of the TARDIS. Back out into-- something. Did she want? Did she have a choice? The only way out was through. She’d said that to herself when they’d first chained her up, when the leader had, had-- Her mind skipped away.
“Yeah, I’d like to get out of bed.”
He helped her sit up. Everything was working, but she was oddly shaky. After-effect of anesthesia? Or the repairs? She didn’t ask. She swung her feet cautiously out of bed. She was wearing a soft blue gown, something like a hospital gown. The Doctor must have dressed her. Not much had been left of her clothes by the end. Her mind skipped away again, to better places. She watched it go.
“Are you okay?” the Doctor said. He stroked her hair back from her face. Clara gave him a little smile.
“It’s okay not to be okay. There are some things that take time.”
“Touchy-feely of you.”
The Doctor’s arm steadied her as she stood. Her head spun then righted itself.
He said, “I, um, read a few books on trauma recovery in humans. While you were unconscious.”
“Are you going to be sending me to counseling or something?”
He smiled at her and it was so tender she nearly wept. “Not unless you want to go. But I would like you to tell me about it. When you’re ready.”
“Not sure I want you to know.”
“You can, er, assume that I know everything that-- anything that left traces on your body. I had to, so I could program the–” The Doctor broke off. He wasn’t looking at her straight on. “The TARDIS reported it all.”
“Oh.” Not really a surprise, and it was strangely comforting to know that he understood most of what had happened. Of course he couldn’t look at her directly. Made sense. She was broken now.
“Clara, I-- I understand. I went through something similar. Not quite the same, but–”
He didn’t offer any explanation, and Clara didn’t ask. But she had to readjust. He knew what it was like. He was broken the same way. He understood. It was, again, strangely comforting. Though he was so different from her, had lived so long, that there was a chance it wasn’t the same at all. Maybe. He was trying. That mattered.
She leaned hard on him as they made their way out into the hallway. The TARDIS had moved her bedroom to right across from the medical bay. The old girl didn’t hate her much any more, it seemed, or the Doctor had planned out this trip before she woke.
“Why am I so tired?” she said.
“The TARDIS uses some of your own energy to heal you. The worse the injury, the more energy.”
“How close was it?”
He shook his head and would say no more. He handed her a bundle of clothes and turned his back politely. Pajamas. He’d picked the ones with little kittens all over them. Clara pulled off the blue medical gown. She looked down at herself, at her bare body. Ribs intact. No burns. No scars from the knife. No gouges from the manacles on her wrists, from how she’d fought to escape. No sign that it had happened. Wiped clean away. Had it happened? She remembered those things, but had it been real?
“Clara. Let me help with that.”
The Doctor had her pajamas in his hand. He held the top over her head and dropped it into place. Clara stepped into the bottoms on her own. It wasn’t the first time the Doctor had seen her naked; there had been the time in the prison that had been convinced the wrappings on their bodies were armor. They’d really freaked out about her bra. Clara had been mortified until they’d both started giggling. They’d laughed so hard the guard had come to check and the Doctor had rather casually relieved him of his keys. The memory was soothing. That was before. Before the troop of men on the mountain.
“I really don’t want to go to sleep right now,” Clara said. “I just spent four days in bed. Can’t we go somewhere?”
“You need real sleep. The brain needs its time, to dream. The medical machine suppressed all that.”
“Don’t want to dream.”
The Doctor pulled back the blankets and gestured her toward the bed. “You need to. To make sense of what happened. It’s the way brains work.” He wriggled his fingers at his temple.
Clara frowned. Clearly he was going to insist on this until she gave in. But the thought of it made her sick in ways she couldn’t talk about. The thought of being left alone in the room made her even sicker. “Stay with me?”
A shrug, as if were nothing to him. “Yeah. Was planning to do some more reading anyway.” But he was here, and he was hovering.
She climbed into bed. The TARDIS had constructed a sleigh bed for her, after that Christmas, with an elaborately carved headboard. Feather pillows, fluffy blankets, a faint smell of lavender, everything she had learned to associate with safety and comfort. She was safe now. The Doctor was there. It helped, feeling his hand on her shoulder, feeling his weight on the bed next to her as he settled himself on top of the blankets.
The Doctor stroked her hair. “Sleep, Clara. Finish healing.”
He touched the control panel on the wall and the lights dimmed down through the shades of sunset. Bedtime on the TARDIS, just as she’d set it up for herself months ago. The only difference now was that the Doctor was with her, lying on top of the blankets beside her, with a book in his hands and a nanobot reading light floating just over the pages. She smiled at the absurdity of it, the low-tech book with the gadget from an almost unimaginable future, and let herself sleep.
Dreams. The usual dreams at first, running through corridors, chasing or being chased, trying to solve the puzzle before people died. Puzzles, mazes, traps. She was trapped. She was bound. A mountain top. Sun beating down. They were going to kill her. She had to get out. The flames were rising and they’d heated their knives.
She came awake gasping, hands raised to protect her face. The Doctor was there, taking her hands, kissing her forehead, as he never had before with this face, so tenderly. He wrapped his arms around her and Clara let her head rest on his shoulder. He was here. He hadn’t abandoned her. Hadn’t forgotten about her. Hadn’t left her to die.
She slept again, and dreamed again. Woke again, screaming.
He was there every time, next to her, holding her gently, kissing her forehead, saying soft things that she wasn’t sure made sense or were in English at all. Once she woke up to find that she’d been beating his chest with her fists, as if he’d been the worst of them, Bran, the leader, the one who’d held her down on the slab and-- Her mind skipped away again. She knew she had to go there. She had to think about it. Tell the Doctor, probably, so somebody else could know. He knew already, but not the details, and the details mattered.
No. This was not how Clara Oswald dealt with things. Clara Oswald got on with it.
The next day or so she spent on the TARDIS, in the vortex, not in her own timeline. More physical healing, gentle exercise walking the corridors, as recommended by the Doctor. She was shaky for the first day of that, not that she admitted this, but then she woke up from a night of fitful sleep feeling like herself again. She went to the gym the TARDIS had constructed for her and ran on the treadmill. It felt good to be moving again, good to be sweating, but the course was boring. She was bored. She needed to get outside and do things.
She marched to the console room afterwards and proclaimed herself ready to see some more planets. The Doctor eyed her sidelong, with his forefinger curled over his mouth, but he did not contradict her. He offered her a choice of nebulas, pulling the viewscreen around to her with a flourish. She picked the Horsehead gleefully.
“Ha! Good choice. A sculptor is missing. Her three-dimensional touch sculptures are the talk of the nebula in its 37th century, but she’s vanished, along with her masterpiece. Shall we find her?”
And so they did. The next few places they visited were on the high-tech, highly-civilized end of the range, with problems that they solved through cleverness or negotiations at parties. No running, no being locked up in prisons, no dangers at all. Completely safe, and completely boring.
“I know what you’re up to,” she said to him, as they Charleston-ed their way through a fancy dress ball.
“Oh? What am I up to?”
“Keeping me safe.”
“Am I?” Said vaguely, as he glanced back over his shoulder to spot their host, the man with the artifact that was making him most distressed. The one they had to quietly relieve him of.
“You are. And you don’t have to. I’m over it.”
“You might not be the only one with issues to recover from,” he said, and let go of her to do the hands on knees part. Clara mirrored him. Lindy hops had never been her favorite, but it was worth it to see the stick insect wobble his knees around. He was disturbingly good at it for a man who ran like he had no shoulders.
They had made their way to the back of the room, and next they had to sneak down the staircase, into the vault, so Clara let it drop.
But he’d heard her message, and their next jaunt put them in more interesting territory: alien interference, a propped-up despot, and future technology that shouldn’t be in the hands of somebody quite that unethical. They had made their way deep into the despot’s fortress when they were, as usual, captured. The Doctor rolled his eyes at Clara, and she rolled her eyes back. The plan was so obvious they didn’t bother talking about it: be dragged before the despot, talk fast while thinking faster, and improvise.
But that was not what the guard with the shock pistol had in mind. He waggled it at them and directed them downward, down and down a spiral staircase, to a dank cell with bars and a suspicious drain in the floor.
Clara’s breathing went strange. Beyond strange. Her vision was narrowed down. The guard. The manacles on the wall. The pile of straw underneath. Manacles. Dark-stained wood, blood, a pit.
Manacles. He was going to chain her up.
Clara kicked the guard in the crotch. She went for baton hanging from his belt. Got it. Swung it. Once, twice. And then the Doctor was between them, hands raised.
Clara dropped the baton. She covered her mouth with her hand. The guard was unconscious. Worse: his face was a mass of blood. The Doctor tipped him over onto his side and checked his airways; blood was running freely from his smashed mouth and his nose.
“Let’s run,” he said, and they ran back up the stairs, and they got back to the TARDIS, and they shut the door behind themselves.
Safely in the vortex, far away from that place in space and in time, Clara found herself dizzy. Breathing oddly. The guard’s blood had spattered on the white sleeves of her shirt. She sat in the Doctor’s chair and stared at it. Blood stains. She’d hit him. Over and over.
The Doctor perched himself on the arm of the chair beside her, and touched her arm. He said nothing, but he didn’t need to.
“That wasn’t good,” Clara said.
“I freaked out. I completely freaked out. I–”
He was silent for a while. His hand rested on her arm still. This level of contact with him would have surprised her once, but he’d been unusually tactile with her in the last few weeks. Since, since-- Clara shook herself a little bit.
The Doctor gazed at her sidelong. The weight of that gaze made her feel uncomfortable. It was too knowing. Too aware. He knew what was wrong. She wasn’t going to be able to lie to him about this. Not after doing that to the guard.
Eventually he spoke. “There’s something I’d like to do for you.”
“I would like to help you sort through what happened that day.”
Clara shook her head. “I can’t talk about it.” Couldn’t even think about it straight on.
“You don’t need to. I can–” He pointed to his head, then gestured toward her temple. “We can join minds.”
Clara stared, then remembered. “You’re a telepath. You said once. Previous you.”
“Not a very good one, but good enough for this.”
Quiet between them for a little bit. She’d hit the guard. Beaten the guard. She might have killed him, if the Doctor hadn’t stopped her. He probably hadn’t been on their side, but he hadn’t deserved that. She’d been back there, on the mountaintop, and she hadn’t been in control of herself.
That couldn’t happen again.
“Okay,” she said.
He stretched out his hand for hers. She took it, as she had so many times before. Cool dry fingers, slim, squeezing her tight for an instant. Then he drew her up the console steps, toward the deeper parts of the ship. His thumb caressed the back of her hand. So tender he was. He wouldn’t be after this. After he knew everything.
He led her to the library, to a comfortable broad couch where they could sit close enough to each other to get the physical contact he needed. They sat facing each other, crosslegged. The Doctor took her hands in his. He leaned toward her and touched his forehead to hers.
“Close your eyes,” he said.
Clara closed her eyes.
He was there, a presence just outside her mind. She had a impression of him knocking, politely, and waiting for her express invitation to enter. Come in, she said, and held out a hand. He took her hand and then he was there, with her. His mind was with hers, and he was all around her. He greeted her and she could hear him and feel him.
Will you show me what happened?
She was afraid to. Afraid he would think less of her.
His reply was to open himself to her and show her what he felt for her: Fierce tenderness. Absolute devotion. If she had ever had cause to doubt the strength of his regard for her, she would never doubt it again. It was there in a more confused state in his earlier self, the chinny floppy-haired self, but in this self it was written on his hearts with fire. His metaphor for it, she saw.
Nothing she showed him could shake that regard.
Not even that. Never that.
“Shall we go?” he said, in her mind. Clara nodded.
He took her hand and they walked into the temple together. Her memories were there, but as if they were in a holocube, a movie she was watching happen to someone else. His doing, his mind helping her keep some distance from that day. The temple: there it was again, the huge pillars flanking the wide doors, the ceiling vanishing into darkness high overhead, the smell of smoke and strange herbs burning. The brightly-dyed feather robes of the Illiturian king, the honor guard of soldiers in dark leather flanking him, the shy girl with the diadem who was the high king’s daughter.
Clara had smiled at her, and the girl had taken her hand. They’d talked while the Doctor made friends with the king, and when the girl had wanted to lead her away to show her the secrets of the palace, Clara had readily agreed. The Doctor had said these people were friendly, and they seemed friendly. They had been friendly right up until the moment three axe-wielding soldiers had marched in and seized her.
Clara opened her eyes. The memory receded. She was in the TARDIS library, sitting on a couch with the Doctor before her, holding her hands. His mind was still with hers, a living warm thing like his body was, oddly comforting.
“You didn’t show up when they took me.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize the danger. I thought you were safe with the princess.”
“I know. She sold me out. She was one of them. You couldn’t have known. To be honest–” She laughed for a moment, bitterly. “You figured it out faster than I thought you would.”
“They kept saying the wrong things to me. The questions were off. Then I asked about the flower festival, and the answers were definitely wrong. I knew right then that these people had conquered the Illiturians. The king was a captive. They were using the temple for their own purposes.”
“The mountain was important to them for different reasons,” Clara said. Her jaw hurt from clenching her teeth.
“Yes. They tried to capture me and take the TARDIS. And then I realized you’d been gone far too long.”
The Doctor touched his forehead to hers, and she felt the gentle suggestion that they go back in. Clara sighed, but led them back down into that room, with the axe men and the oddly triumphant girl.
“I’ve found a sacrifice for you,” she’d said. “This one has the power to feed our god, so much power.”
The axemen had been pleased.
They seized Clara and tried to drag her away. Captured. Carried off. She fought, of course. She did not go willingly. She even managed to take one of them down with a broken arm; those classes in tae-kwon-do had been effective. But one of them shouted, and more of the men came into the room, and she was grasped from behind.
“The sacrifice is feisty. Bran likes feisty.”
Clara twisted free and launched a kick, but the man who grabbed her laughed. He simply backhanded her. Clara went over hard and when she came up she was dizzy. Her cheek was bleeding but she could barely feel it. Adrenaline; fury. The righteous certainty that the Doctor was going to kick them to the curb. If only he came. Which he would. All she had to do was make enough noise.
When they gagged her, she did her best to struggle and kick. So they bound her hand and foot to a pole and carried her out the back of the temple, through the sacred grounds, to a path that wound up the mountain to the place holy to their god.
It was uncomfortable and her face had begun to sting, but she was even then more angry than afraid, such was her faith in the Doctor. And then they reached the holy place at the top, the place of sacrifice to the sun god. The place where they sacrificed the powerful, the ones who were special, the ones with the blood the god liked.
Bran was there, waiting for them, in the black leather of the axemen. He wore a flower crown, so bright and pretty, and he looked noble, with fair hair flowing in the wind. Clara had felt hope for a moment, absurd hope, to see a man so upright, so handsome, smiling at her. He undid her bonds. Clara rubbed at her wrists and sat up. She was on something that looked like an altar, set before a great fissure in the rock. Over the altar was a post with manacles dangling down. The wood of the post was stained with something dark. Around the fissure: bones. Human bones. Clara swallowed, and looked up at Bran’s handsome face, his blue eyes.
“The god of the mountain will be so very pleased by your blood,” he said, still smiling. “So much power in it. So many strange places you have been. So much you have seen. It is an honor. It will be an honor to send you to him.”
And he smiled, showing off his white teeth in a fair face.
“There are no such things as gods,” Clara said, thinking back to the god who ate memories. “Just stories you tell yourself. Excuses you make for your evil.”
“Oh, my god exists. I have seen his face and been suffered to live.”
“Yeah? Show me. Let me talk to him.”
Bran smiled. “You will. But first, you will lure him to us. Your blood will call him. Your suffering will be sweet smoke in his nostrils.”
Even then Clara hadn’t believed it. Hadn’t thought it would happen. She’d laughed and waited for that sound, the sound that meant the Doctor had her back, as he always did. But she didn’t hear it, and they chained her down on the slab, and Bran ripped off her skirt with his own hands. The first moment of real fear came then. Bran climbed on top of her and–
She was back in the library, her hands clutching the Doctor’s so hard her knuckles were white. He said nothing, but sat with her quietly, holding her. Present in mind and body, with that affection unwavering, flowing all around her. His mind, linked to hers. Clara looked at him. Blue eyes, red rimmed, but resolute.
“Stay with it, Clara,” he said. “Just once. That’s all I ask of you. Once.”
Clara gritted her teeth. The only way out was through.
It had hurt. Bran hadn’t cared that it hurt, of course. He’d just climbed onto her and penetrated her and rutted until he was done. And then Clara had laughed at him. “Is that all?” she’d said. “An inexperienced boy. Tiny. Finished in a minute, leaving his woman unsatisfied. Are there any men here among the boys?”
The man who’d knocked her to the ground back in the palace strode forward. He laughed and said something to Bran that made him scowl. Then he shoved Bran aside and took his place on top of her. It went on for a while this time, while Clara ground out insults. That was a mistake, because he beat her with his fists when he was finished.
The next man had a whip. The fourth had a knife and had wanted her chained to the post before he used it. Then something had happened, someone had arrived shouting something that excited them, and they swore and laughed. The entire troop marched back down the road. They’d left her there, chained up by her arms, bleeding into the pit, slowly asphyxiating. She had known she was going to die.
Clara came out of the memory again. The Doctor was still there, still holding her hands, not flinching away.
“That’s when you came,” she said, and her voice sounded strange in her own ears. “You came.”
“Oh, Clara, Clara, my Clara. How brave and clever you are. You bought me the time I needed to find you.”
She had lived. She was alive. With that realization she burst into tears. He pulled her into his lap and held onto her. No flinching away, no spluttering about human emotions. He just held her while she cried.
Afterward, the Doctor gave her water to drink and a wet cloth for her face. She wiped at her eyes. They felt raw. Her whole body felt raw, except for the places where he was near. And he was near her still, a hand on her arm, her shoulder. Touching her so much more than he ever had. His mind was still there as well, hovering close. It was the strangest sensation, but Clara found it comforting.
He kissed her forehead again. She breathed in a long shaky breath and let it out again.
“That’s what happened,” she said. “I was stalling for time.”
“My clever Clara.”
“It was obvious how it was going to end. The stake. The blood. The pile of bones under the altar, around the hole. I thought if I could keep them distracted you would–”
“I feel dirty.”
“You are not dirty. They were. They were evil.”
“They got away with it. They did it. To how many people? So many bones. And they walked away afterward.”
“They did not get away with it.”
“All of them?”
“I may have gone into a towering rage after I got you into the TARDIS.” He was looking down at his hands, clasped over hers.
“The temple collapsed on them when I killed the alien at the heart of the mountain. Unavoidable accident. Couldn’t be helped.”
His voice was odd. Clara understood what he could never say, would never say. She ought to have felt something more about that, some sort of regret because killing anybody, even people who would torture somebody as a sacrifice to a blood god, was wrong, she couldn’t bring herself to feel anything but relief.
“Could you show me?”
And so he did. He led her into his own memories and showed her how he’d destroyed the temple, using Bran’s greed to lure him in and then unleashing a tiny part of the TARDIS’s energy to destroy the pillars. They all died there, and the Doctor had stood over the ruin of the temple and smiled. And then he’d run back into the TARDIS and wept over her still form in the medical bed, under the bubble. His guilt had almost overwhelmed him. Almost. He’d kept himself focused on her recovery almost monomaniacally.
“I feel-- conflicted.”
An unusual thing for him to say, anything about his feelings, but Clara was linked with him and knew it. He had feelings, many of them, some quite strong, some she was aware he was shielding from her. But that was okay. There were things they both had to keep private. How they felt about each other, what they wanted when they were alone at night, what they were scared of. But this he let her see: that it wasn’t the first time he’d killed sentient beings on purpose; that it wouldn’t be the last; that he regretted it even when he felt it was the only way to prevent more death. That he knew there’d be an accounting some day, and his judgment would itself be judged.
“Thank you,” she said. “It helps to know they can’t ever find me again.”
He sighed out and kissed her forehead yet again, lingering this time. When he pulled away from her the touch of his mind was gone. He had withdrawn. But Clara knew now, knew what he felt, would always know what he felt. And he had been right: she felt better. Not good, but better. She gone through it once, she’d told him. She didn’t have to do it again, at least not like that.
“Come along, Clara,” he said. “Let’s go look at some stars being born.”