The Doctor pulled the lever home. Gears spun and slotted into place and the TARDIS lit up. He looked over at Clara, intending to watch her smile up at the spinning rotors in delight as she always did, reveling in the feeling of moving in time. But this time she didn’t look up, didn’t smile. She wrapped her arms around herself, tight, and bit her lip. Something was wrong. He took one step closer to her, touched her shoulder. Clara burst into tears. He stood frozen for a moment-- had he upset her? and then he understood. He caught her in his arms, sank down to the console room floor cradling her.
Some things you should never feel good about, and being trapped inside a Dalek casing was one of them, being unable to speak what you were feeling, having every impulse twisted on its way out into hatred and destruction.
Almost being killed by your best friend, because he couldn’t recognize you. That was another.
The Doctor held her and stroked the hair back from her face. A little blood oozed at her temples still, where he’d had to pull the probes free. How had he allowed her to stay injured like this? He touched the earpiece of his glasses and summoned nanobots, healing nanites, everything the TARDIS had on hand. Repair, reknit. Heal the flesh and the bone. The brain tissue. The heart was another task. The mind. The being that remembered.
“I’m okay,” Clara said. “I’m okay.”
He slipped the glasses into a jacket pocket. Some things one wanted one’s own eyes for. Seeing sunrises. Seeing the face of your best friend, streaked with tears, but whole, alive. Okay, maybe. Not bleeding any more. Tears dry for the moment.
Clara rubbed her face with her sleeve. “Do you think-- could I–?”
“Could we make tea?”
He smiled at her. “Yeah. Tea. Tea would be good.” And he took her hand and led her away from the console room.
Tea in the library, in his favorite nook-- her favorite nook-- their favorite nook. It was their favorite place to sit and talk or sit and be silent. A plush leather couch, a fireplace with a fire that licked up into being as they approached, a table with a tea service set waiting for them. The TARDIS, doing what she did for them, taking care of them. They would do whatever they needed to do now, sit and drink tea. He poured for them both.
The Doctor wrapped his hands around his teacup and inhaled the scent. “Assam this time,” he said.
“The magic TARDIS teapot. The mad tea party.”
“Hardly. The cups are always clean.”
More nano-technology, or something like it. Something rather beyond it, if he was honest. The history of a species was punctuated by certain specific discoveries that either propelled them forward or destroyed them: how to split the atom, the concept of a generalized computing device, how to assemble new beings using DNA, generalized matter assemblers, how to harness black holes, time travel. The TARDIS was the embodiment of several of the more advanced punctuation marks. Exclamation points, he liked to think of them as. The Time Lords had written a sentence for themselves with all of those punctuation marks. Then they had sat alone at the pinnacle of the universe, at the climax of that sentence for a very long time. Then the Daleks had joined them. Full stop.
The Daleks. Davros. That moment of hell, watching them fire on her. Believing he’d done it, he’d created Davros in a moment of cowardice, and Davros in turn had created them.
She was sitting close up against him, her knee brushing his, and he couldn’t have borne it if she’d kept her distance. He’d do anything to comfort her but stay away. That he couldn’t do. He needed too badly to touch her, to feel the whisper of her mind near his. He’d believed her dead. She’d believed herself doomed to die as a Dalek. She’d thought he was going off willingly to his death. He had been going off willingly. So much guilt. He’d botched it. Muffed it utterly. Seen Davros and run.
Once again Clara had inspired him to find a better way. Over and over, Clara Oswald showed him how to solve the problem with mercy and forgiveness and compassion and-- His hearts squeezed in his chest. Love. Love. He buried his face in his teacup as that word came to him, because he wasn’t sure what would escape his mouth if he spoke. Something completely different. Some complaint about her, or about humanity, or about the universe as a whole. Not what he was feeling.
Were there words for what he was feeling? Probably. Three words. Famous ones. Not words he could allow himself to say. They weren’t the words that would come out of his mouth if he thought them anyway. Think of something else. Think of tea. Tea. Tea was comforting.
“Yeah, tea is good,” Clara said.
He’d spoken aloud, apparently. He smiled into his cup, as if he’d meant to speak.
“Do Gallifreyans make tea?”
“Yeah. Every species has tea, or something like tea. Hot water, dried leaves put in to soak. Not all of them sweeten it, but many do. Milk, ah, milk is a more unusual choice. Not even all humans put milk in.” Babble, babble, babble about tea.
“I like it with milk in.”
“I like it with sugar in.”
“Seven lumps. I counted.”
“I metabolize it differently to you.”
He did like sweet things. Tea, chocolate, jelly babies, Clara. He looked over at her carefully to be sure he hadn’t said that out loud, but she wasn’t looking at him oddly so he must not have. His cup was empty save for a little bit of sugar-thick tea at the bottom. He tipped it up and drank the last of it. Clara set her own cup down on the tray, and then bent to take her shoes off. She pulled her feet up onto the sofa beside him. He looked at her sidelong. A little blood dried on her temples, a little redness in her eyes-- the only signs on the surface that she’d been through something horrible.
And what signs on him? something in him asked. None. Never. Never show weakness. The universe had no patience with his weakness. He was in no position to complain about anything ever, not he, not the man who had the power of universes at his hand. He felt the tears inside, but held onto them.
“Are we doing hugging now?” Clara said, into his silence.
“Yeah, I do that now.” With you, and you alone, he thought, but did not choose to say.
“I mean, can we do hugging now. As in now.”
“Yeah, we can do that.”
He settled them so they were stretched along the couch with her back against his chest, her head tucked under his chin, his arm around her waist. The contact was good. Full-body contact, all his weak telepathic senses engaged. It would be better skin to skin, but he would have difficulty explaining that to her. As it was, this was more contact than he’d had with anybody in this regeneration, and it was enough. Warmth, closeness, grief, fear, affection. So much going on in her. He nuzzled into her hair. Jasmine. She liked jasmine shampoo. She also smelled like ozone and copper and blood and mud. He was as bad. It didn’t matter.
“You’re humming,” she said.
“It’s kinda nice.”
Her weight felt good against his chest. His arms tucked around her waist perfectly. Such a wee thing, his Clara was. So fragile, so strong, so bright, so dark. He felt fragile when he held her sometimes, as if he were the one in danger. A teacup that could be dropped. He knew it because he’d been dropped before. He was a teacup that had been mended over and over. He wouldn’t break precisely the same way, not on those exact lines, but he would break again when she fell.
The shell of a Dalek cracking open to reveal Clara. The blood on her temples. The pain in her voice when it was hers at last. He’d wanted to weep, right in front of her, kiss her face, mingle his tears with hers. But he hadn’t. He’d held on, got her out, returned her body to herself.
“Not a good day,” Clara said.
“Will you tell me why all that happened?” Clara said. “And where you went after we escaped? How long were you bracing to be captured by Davros?”
He sighed. “A couple of months. I was hiding from it, but I knew I’d have to go eventually.”
So he told her. The whole sorry story, from his initial cowardly flinch, to his return to the battlefield, the word “exterminate” on his lips. He’d created the Daleks, in some sense, created them by refusing to kill their creator, and in that act had given them the idea of mercy, which had in turn allowed Clara to be known to him. His cowardice, his desperation, his whistling in the dark before what he thought to be his most-justified death: all these things he told Clara. He thought he understood the prophecy of the hybrid now, but he kept that locked away, deep down, out of centuries of habit. It had indeed been his fault, and Gallifrey had indeed been in ruins, and he’d made some kind of amends. At least to them.
Or that was a lie too. But he resolutely turned his thoughts away from that, and toward Clara, who was shivering in his arms again, as she once again relived the experience of being trapped inside a Dalek.
“You’re not inside it,” he said. “You’re free. You are yourself.”
“It was horrible. What it does to you, being inside that thing. Everything you feel, perverted. Everything you try to do. Missy knew it. She knew it. She knew what she was doing.”
“The shell is an astonishing piece of technology.” It was the full stop in the Dalek’s story of themselves, the end of their story as whole beings. After that it was another kind of story.
“I was trying to say my name and I couldn’t. Missy made me say I love you and it came out exterminate. She knew. She planned it. She wanted me dead.”
He flinched. If only he were surprised. He could remember a time when it hadn’t been like that. Koschei had been brave; he’d been the timid one. Somewhere along the way he’d found the courage to stand up to them all, and Koschei had found the courage to let what had been inside all along out. It hadn’t been a good idea, had it, for either one of them. Death. So much death. Daleks, Time Lords.
“She was at your wedding. Your stag night. You were friends.”
“He-- at the time she was a he-- was my best man, yes.”
“I kept wondering why you let her live. Why she would try to rescue you despite being completely insane.”
“It was a deep friendship, once.”
He let his fingers trail down her arm, found the end of her sleeve, and curled his fingers inside it. Touch. Skin on skin. The whisper of her mind came a little clearer. This talking was good. Clara was curious, not angry, feeling more soothed than she had been.
“It still is,” Clara said. “You gave her your confession dial.”
“She’s the only Timelord left, besides me. There are things in it that only a Timelord can act on.” Things only a Timelord would understand; things only his childhood friend would understand. He loved Clara, but she could not do those things for him.
“I get that. I do. But it hurt.”
Her voice was so matter-of-fact, as if the pain of that hadn’t mattered much, and she was simply reporting from a distance. But he knew better. He was touching her and he felt the pain. “I’m sorry.”
“She rubbed my face in it, called me a puppy. So far below you that you think of me like a pet.”
“A pet? I–” It was so absurd an idea that it skittered around his in his head like a blob of quicksilver flitting across the floor. Then he got some purchase on it. “She’s jealous.”
“Of me? But we aren’t–”
“Our friendship. She sees what our friendship is.”
A friendship close enough that they could lie here spooned up together, talking, in perfect harmony. Or as close to perfect harmony as any two minds could reach. He could feel the pulse of her thoughts next to him, and it was as close to safety as he could ever feel.
He said, “She knows how I feel, and she can’t bear-- She’s lost me to you. She daren’t kill you herself, but she tried to lure me into killing you.”
“Does she think it would break you? Make you turn to her?”
“Never,” he said. “I would never.”
His voice was not right. His hearts were not right. The idea of it-- it undid him. Her death would break him. Utterly break him. He had nearly broken today. There were tears in his eyes that he was grateful Clara couldn’t see. He buried his face in her hair and tried to get control of himself. Emotions, so many emotions. This regeneration they were all so fierce, so close to the surface, so inexpressible. He never had the right words for them. Showing them felt shameful for reasons he was no longer sure about. Clara showed hers, didn’t she? She cried.
“Clara,” he said. It was the only word that got anywhere near what he felt.
“Are you okay?”
So much went through him in that moment: he was in the TARDIS; he had tea; he was holding Clara. Of course he was okay. If anyone had asked him what he wanted most, what a perfect moment was, it would be this. He was okay. Except he wasn’t and she wasn’t and it couldn’t go on like this. He couldn’t pretend anything any more, couldn’t simply send them off to their next planet. Not after this. He wanted time to think, time to hold her, time never to let go.
What came out of his mouth was a half-slurred half-keened out plea to the universe in Gallifreyan to never take her from him, to grant him his heart’s desire this once.
“What–” she said, and she was pulling away from him, breaking the loose threads that wound her mind with his. He grasped after her. She turned and sat up and took his hands in hers. She was with him again, thready and distant but there brushing up against his mind. “What was that?”
“I wasn’t expecting to live,” he said. “I failed the universe. I failed. And then you came and I wanted to live again and then–”
“I saw them shoot you.”
“They did. Missy had a plan. She even explained it to me.”
He smiled through his bitterness. Of course she’d had a plan. Shot by Daleks on Skaro was no way for Koschei to go. It would take nothing less than the destruction of the universe to end her. He ought to have known; he ought to have braced himself; he ought not to have become as desperate as he did. Or perhaps she would allow herself to be killed by his hand and no other, knowing that the next thing he would do was end himself.
He shuddered from head to toe. That would have been what he’d done, if she’d-- if he’d-- He lunged forward and got his arms around Clara’s waist and buried his face against her breasts. She made a sound of surprise and then she was holding him tight, pulling him even closer. He breathed. The shreds of his self-control were somewhere.
“You,” Clara said, “are even more of a basket case than I am, and I am a wreck.”
“We’re okay. We’ll be okay. We made it.”
He shook his head. Survival, yes. The universe spun on as it had, all its shattered pieces fitting together in his head once more. He wasn’t sure if he’d created Davros. Probably he hadn’t created Davros. Probably he’d helped the universe by softening Davros. He couldn’t have killed him. Not after that. Never. Mercy, forgiveness, love. The things Clara gave him daily, what he owed the universe. Koschei, even Davros. Fixed points didn’t matter here. He couldn’t have done it. Even when he’d been frozen in horror those first seconds, recognizing the boy for who he’d become, he hadn’t been able to do it. He couldn’t have gone back there, even, without knowing that he must to save Clara.
He always had saved her. Always had, always would, because the Daleks had always known mercy.
Time time time time-- time was a twisty looping tangled thing. Sometimes he thought of it as string, looped around on itself, passing through itself. Not a thing you could push, but sometimes you could tug on it. He was the string, wound through reality, the fabric of time and space, an eternal golden braid of paradox.
“A Gordian knot,” he said.
“Time. To me. A tangle. Could sort it out. Not worth it most of the time.”
“It’s like you to chop through things. You don’t do subtle.”
“I can do subtle!”
“Says the man who rode into a medieval arena on a tank playing guitar.”
He laughed, and she did too. He shifted himself, relaxed his hold on her and stretched out his legs. “Admit it, you were impressed.”
“Depends on what you mean by impressed.”
“You didn’t know I could do that.”
“Didn’t know it was the kind of thing you did.”
“I can still surprise you after all this time.”
“The hug surprised me. This hug right now surprises me.”
“I’m not letting go of you ever again,” he said.
“Not even if I have to go to the loo?”
“Perhaps then. Briefly.”
She laughed. Her fingers moved in his hair. She said, “Do you ever want to hide in your TARDIS for a week? Find some safe spot and just do nothing?”
“Often. I do it whenever I need to. Park it, sit on the roof, play my guitar at the stars. Or I go the other way round, hide here in the library and drink tea.”
“Like we’re doing now.”
“Can I hide with you?”
He clasped her tighter. “Oh, Clara. Always.”
She made a thoughtful sound over him. She was still stroking his hair. He hoped she would never stop. Then she said, “Tea. We’ll need more tea.”
“The TARDIS has all the tea there ever was.”
“More tea now?” Her voice was plaintive, and he could not resist it. He disentangled himself from her, reluctantly, let the warmth of her mind slip away from him. He sat up and prodded the teapot. There was more inside, of course, and it was hot. He poured. Her cup, room for milk; his cup, all the way up. Lumps in, teaspoon spun round. He tasted.
“Darjeeling this time,” he told her. “No milk for you.”
“Earth tea. Always with the earth tea.”
He shrugged. “It’s where I’ve been getting my tea recently.”
“Chocolate ones, I think.” He pulled open a drawer in the table and found a packet. Clara took one. A dunker, that Clara was. He preferred to alternate biscuit with tea. Or simply to eat the biscuit and then have another.
Clara scooted over next to him on the couch. He set his teacup down and slipped an arm around her. She leaned her head against his shoulder. He closed his eyes for a moment and let his mind re-establish its contact with her. Just the barest touch, not enough to read her in any way she’d object to, barely enough to feel her present with him. He ought to confess this to her. He would, eventually. It had only started that day when they’d reunited, Christmas day. He knew why but was not yet ready to face it yet. No matter. Hold her, feel her near him, protect her from the universe.
“You’re humming again,” Clara said.
“No, it’s nice. You hum when you hug, I guess.”
He supposed he did. It was an odd thing, this regeneration. He hadn’t played an instrument in a very long time, but now he had music in his head all the time. Always a thread of something going. It had taken him a while to figure out what it was, though. Longer than usual this time, settling into his new skin. His new senses. Now he was comfortable in himself, comfortable with his foibles. Comfortable with Clara, who was the first face he’d seen, and who was therefore precious. She’d never know, if he could help it, exactly how much he was wrapped around her little finger. Koschei had had him right. Not that it mattered. She deserved it.
Clara shifted in his arms, stretched, yawned. “I’m tired. Long day. Days. I have no idea how long it was.”
He consulted his inner senses, did the arithmetic. “A day and a half, all told.”
“No wonder. I’ll find where she’s put my room this time and take a nap.”
She tried to stand up but he clasped his arms tighter around her. “Clara. Ah. We can nap here. The couch is big enough.”
He braced himself for her reaction, for rejection, for some comment about him sleeping for once. But Clara didn’t say anything at all, just nodded and gave him a little smile. He returned it.
“Are you going to take off any of those layers?”
He shook his head. Clara huffed at him.
“You’re losing the jacket. And the boots. Three weeks in a medieval castle? You’re losing those boots.”
He grumbled, but took the jacket off obediently, folded it, and laid it over the arm of the chair. Clara unlaced his boots, left, right. Tugged at the right until he cooperated and pointed his foot. It slid off and she tossed it aside. The other boot followed. He pulled the afghan from the back of the couch. It had been knitted by Ace, years ago, when she’d had a phase of trying to learn traditionally feminine crafts. The phase had been followed by trebuchet-building. He’d enjoyed the trebuchets. He’d also enjoyed the crocheting. His own quilt was somewhere in the library, on an armchair. It was rather messy and haphazard. This one was Ace’s, though, all green and white with black bits in. Slytherin colors, Clara had said once. She would probably have been sorted into Slytherin. He, of course, was Ravenclaw, no matter what Clara said.
Quilt spread over them. The Doctor made sure to cover Clara’s feet. He tucked himself up behind her, arm over her waist. Perfect. He’d been awake for three weeks. Longer. He would sleep now, let himself drift, let his mind do what it needed to do with what it had experienced over the last while. He would, perhaps, share dreams with Clara.
“Sleep,” he said. “I’m here.”