The Thief

This is what happened in between the Doctor's visit to Gallifrey's coordinates and the meeting in the cafe.

 

The Doctor straightened up and reached out for the levers, painfully. He had to get away from there, away from the great gulf of nothingness where she’d said Gallifrey would be. The levers were broken. Sparks shot from the console rhythmically. His doing, of course. He tugged the stubs of the levers over, using his good hand. Nothing happened.

The telepathic matrix. He staggered around the console and shoved his fingers into it. Clear his mind and think of what? Damned if he cared. Something, anything, anything that wasn’t this. He wanted Clara but he was afraid to go to her, because he was just selfish enough to not want to bear seeing her happiness with another man while he dealt with this last blow from his dear friend. It couldn’t be Clara. Somewhere else.

Blood dripped onto the cells of the matrix. The TARDIS creaked and shuddered into motion. The universe wheeled around him; the TARDIS lights flickered and faded. They had arrived. The Doctor pulled his fingers out of the matrix with some effort. It hurt to move. His knuckles were bleeding. His little finger wouldn’t bend. He needed to go to the medical bay. He needed a stiff drink. Several stiff drinks, and a fistful of painkillers to chase them. He needed an entire bottle of painkillers. He needed to be unconscious.

He had no idea where the TARDIS had taken him. He didn’t care. If he regenerated, at least he wouldn’t feel this way any more. He hadn’t felt this way about her before, when he was the floppy-haired giant with the chin, so surely a change of self would change his feelings again. He’d fancied her, yes, in a frivolous way, but his chest hadn’t been a solid mass of ache like it was now. Didn’t much matter that he wouldn’t be himself any more. Gallifrey would still be missing, but he might care less about that, too.

He swung the door open without looking out first and stumbled out into-- Clara’s bedroom. Exactly where he always emerged, the TARDIS improbably tucked into a corner.

He stood with hand curled up against his chest, looking around. The bed was made. Everything tidy and ship-shape. No sign of Clara in the flat. Full daylight, no idea what day of the week it was. She’d be at the school, or with the returned Pink, assuming the fellow had figured it out. He’d left the seeds of his own undoing in Pink’s hands. He’d known he was doing it. He’d promised he bring Pink back if he could, and damned if he hadn’t do his best to make it happen. Though it was a thousand knives in his hearts, he owed her not one whit less. Love was a promise.

She would be happy. He had to hope that would be true. One of them deserved it. And that meant he had to leave. Now. Before she came home.

He turned to head back into the TARDIS to beg her to take him somewhere else, but the door refused to open to him. Having a sulking fit; he had hurt her, after all. Damn and blast her for choosing now to do it. He sank down onto the chair before Clara’s three mirrors and avoided his own face. His hand throbbed in the complex rhythm of his heartbeats. He ought to look at it. His knuckles were still bleeding, that much he could feel. The stabbing pains when he tried to close his fist told him he’d done worse than that.

He closed his eyes rather than look.

What was he to do? Wait. Face his fate. Endure his punishment.

The sound of a key in the lock shook him out of his funk. The light had changed; time had passed. He sprang to his feet and leapt out of the bedroom, in case it was PE. The door opened: Clara, his Clara, arms full of papers, her nose adorably smudged with black marker. She was startled to find him in her flat. “Doctor! What are you doing here so soon?”

He studied her: no signs of recent crying. She looked distracted but cheerful. That meant the worst. He’d best find out for sure. “Have you heard from PE?”

“Who?”

“PE,” he said, slowly, watching her carefully for either a stab of pain he’d have to soothe or a flash of joy he’d have to hide from. But she stayed puzzled but politely curious.

“No idea what you’re talking about. Are you all right? You look odd.”

She pressed a hand against his forehead and frowned. The Doctor suffered it to remain there, because an urgent question had come to him. He said, “What’s the last thing we did together?”

Clara’s frown intensified. “You want to know what happened yesterday?”

“Tell me.”

“You took me to see Robin Hood. I got macked on by the sheriff who turned out to be a robot and–”

“Right.”

“And Robin called you a hero.”

He frowned at her. “And I told him I wasn’t one.”

“But you are. Except-- what’s up? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Clara. I’m from your future. Months from now. I’ve been with you for months now and I know what’s going to happen to you and I must leave before I reveal anything to you.”

With those words he whirled back into her bedroom and leapt toward the TARDIS. He snapped the fingers of his left hand; nothing. He laid his hand on the TARDIS door. It still refused to open for him. Curse words came to him in several languages; he would have pounded the door if his hand were not a swollen mess.

Clara touched his shoulder. "Doctor-- " She sucked in a breath and gripped his arm. “What’s wrong with your hand?”

He tried to pull it away. She held on. “Got into an argument.”

“Yeah? What does the other fellow look like?”

He bared his teeth in a bitter grin. “Smashed to little bits. Pulverized. Non-functional.”

Clara’s mouth quirked. “The other fellow was a robot?”

“Not exactly.”

She touched his knuckles and he found himself looking at his hand despite his resolution not to. Dried blood, oozing blood, swelling, bruising starting to show itself. No wonder it hurt. How long had he sat there? She said, “You should get this looked after by a doctor.”

He extracted his hand back from her and shoved it into his jacket pocket. “I am a doctor.”

“Not for your own injuries you aren’t. The TARDIS medical bay. Now.” Clara snapped her fingers. The TARDIS reacted, he felt it and possibly Clara did as well, but she did not open to them. Stubborn beast.

Clara looked her question at him. He shrugged. “My punishment. She’s shut me out. This.” He held up his hand. “This is why the TARDIS is angry. I smashed up the console. Needs repair. Can’t repair it with my fingers like this. Can’t repair it until she’s ready to take me back.”

“You smashed-- Doctor. What’s happened?”

He shrugged. He was not about to explain; the time stream was in enough danger from the TARDIS’s meddling. “It doesn’t matter to you.”

“You came here to me. It matters to me. But-- Why not to me in your timeline?”

He looked down. “It was the TARDIS’s decision, not mine.” It was painful to say that, but also more painful to speculate about why the TARDIS chose to jump him backwards. He’d used the matrix. She’d have known whom he was longing for most. Apparently the Clara of his timeline was closed off to him.

“Tell me what happened.”

“No.”

Clara sighed. She studied his hand for a moment, then he saw the resolve flow into her. “Don’t think for a minute that I’m accepting that answer, but I’ll let it rest for now. Let’s get this sorted. How badly does it hurt? No lying now.”

“Hurts like the devil.” He said it as carelessly as he could. Never show weakness.

“Got some leftover painkillers from when I had my wisdom teeth out. Never took them because I hated them. Can you take oxycodone?”

Bodies. Human bodies had many similarities to Gallifreyan bodies; the two species shared a common recent ancestor. He was the product of genetic manipulation, tinkering with the phenotype to improve it. To improve intelligence, mostly, but also certain other aspects. Reliability. Resilience. Longevity. Healing.

He reviewed what he remembered of synthetic opiates. Wouldn’t kill him; might make him hurt less. He nodded. “Should have roughly the same effect on me as you.”

“Come on.”

She led him into her little washroom and sat him down with his hand on the porcelain of her sink. With the lights on it looked worse, so he didn’t look.

Clara laid a pill on the palm of his good hand and held a cup of water ready for him. He swallowed and felt a twinge of guilt. He ought to be hurting when she did this. He ought not to be here.

She filled the sink with warm water and coaxed him into submerging his hand. Dried blood, fresh blood, floating away into the water, revealing how much skin he’d ripped from his knuckles. He bit his lip and did not make any noise about how much it stung. She washed his hand clean and dried it, then smeared antibiotic on it. She was, he thought, over-prepared. And confident with his injuries. Clara, his Clara, so many unexpected depths.

“Your finger,” she said. “Not sure what to do about it.”

“Just pull it into place. It will heal properly on its own.”

“If you say so.”

He knew so; he’d healed from much worse without intervention. Genetic manipulation by an advanced civilization was a wonderful, damnable thing. They’d never done anything about the pain, though. He’d waxed rhapsodic about pain and its value at PE. She had probably been listening. Her future self, that is. This one-- he wasn’t sure what this one understood. More than he had given her credit for. He watched her face, to keep his attention away from what it felt like as she straightened his finger with a tug and how the bleeding had started again.

“I think you only dislocated the one finger,” she said. “But your hand is sort of all grinding against itself. You broke something else.”

“It’ll heal,” he said, curtly.

“If you say so.” She turned away from him to rummage around in her first aid kit.

“Immobilize it, if you would. It’ll be faster if I’m not constantly re-injuring it.”

“Which you wouldn’t do if you weren’t so stubborn,” she said, but it was half under her breath. She wrapped gauze around his skinned knuckles, layer upon layer, hiding all the damage away. Wrapped up like that he wouldn’t be tempted to use his hand for all the myriad things one used hands for: gesturing, using tools, holding, caressing. A wave of something warm flooded over him. Sentiment? Affection? The drug taking effect. His head swam.

Clara wrapped her arms around him and kissed the top of his head. “There. That’s done. You coped pretty well.”

“Thanks.”

“And you’re not complaining about the hug.”

“I have come 'round on hugs.”

“Something to look forward to.”

She kissed his hair again. He turned toward her and slipped his arm around her waist. It meant nothing that he was accepting this caress, of course. It was just the painkiller. He went so far as to let his forehead rest on her shoulder. The TARDIS, he understood now, was taking care of him even after his assault upon her. She’d sent him to exactly the version of Clara to comfort him best.

Clara walked him into her bedroom and sat him down on her bed. He watched from a fuzzy distance while she unlaced his boots and tugged them off his feet. He held up his arms obediently so she could strip him of coat and waistcoat, broadcloth shirt.

“So many layers,” she said.

He folded his arms across his bare chest. PE was muscled, wasn’t he? Clara didn’t like them scrawny. This body was nothing like what she liked. He suffered her to coax him into one of her t-shirts, a baggy thing with the name of an American city on it that flapped around his middle. It probably went down to her knees when she wore it.

She pushed him flat onto his back in her bed and vanished. He stared at her ceiling. Boring ceiling. It wanted painting, preferably with time-aware paint that showed the constellations above it. He could do that for her. He raised his good hand and sketched them: Polaris there, Ursa Major there. Gallifrey’s star not visible. Never visible. It was gone. He’d done it, and they were safe, but it meant he was barred from them. Forever alone. Except for Clara.

Then she was in the room again, with a bag of ice. She laid it over his bad hand and stuck it in place with a stretchy bandage. The ice felt good. Everything felt good, rather.

“Your ceiling needs work,” he said to her. “I’ve got just the thing for it.”

“No. You just lie there like a good boy. No glaring, not that you are even glaring at me, which I do not understand because yesterday you were glaring a lot. What the hell happened?”

Her voice had softened and become almost tender. He squeezed his eyes shut because he was going to weep and it would be impossible. This Clara has not yet fought with him and then come to understand him. This Clara didn’t yet love him. This Clara had not yet left him for another man.

“I had a bad day.”

“Very bad?”

“The worst.”

“I can see that,” Clara said, and she stroked his forehead.

He let his eyes fall shut. A hellish day. Letting himself trust Koschei again, like a prize fool. Hopes up then utterly smashed. He’d done what he had to, he and his previous selves, and he was still living with the consequences. Death, death, so much death, all on his head. Gallifrey lost. Koschei lost. Clara about to be lost. To him, at least, and he was selfish enough to care about that.

Fever dreams, restless dreams, eased now and then by his awareness of how close she was to him. He imagined her stroking his hair. He spoke to her in Gallifreyan, and she answered him in the same language. They floated in space above their home and it was not Gallifrey but Earth because Gallifrey was gone. He had sent it away.

He woke with a start. He was in Clara’s bed, under the covers. Clara was in it as well, sitting up against a pile of pillows, with a bedside light on. She was reading a book, a paperback. She was in pajamas, some peach-colored satin-smooth affair that clung to her. She was, as ever, impossibly lovely.

Even Time Lords needed to use a loo sometimes, and this was one of those times. He was going to have to move. He cautiously pushed himself up.

“Hey, you.”

“Hey.”

“Bad dreams?”

He scowled. “Time Lords never dream.” He swung his legs out of bed with more vigor than was perhaps wise.

Clara’s little washroom, with the bathtub he could barely fit inside, and shelves covered with little jars and pots. He’d been here before, washed his hands with her scented soap and been dizzy with feelings he shouldn’t have about it all. The painkillers were set out on the sink. He considered it, for his hand was starting to ache again inside the gauze. The price was too high, however. He’d gone emotionally wobbly. He went back to her bedroom and leaned against the door jamb.

“Have you a blanket for your couch?”

Clara studied him and frowned. “Just-- just sleep here. We’ve been in the same bed before.”

Not with this painful new self-awareness he had, that he too could want to embrace someone. But he was weak and selfish and in pain and he would take what the universe had offered him. He slid himself into bed again next to her.

Clara tucked a marker into her book and set it aside. She leaned over him, a hand on his forehead, and made a thoughtful noise. Then she pressed her lips to his forehead. He endured it for a moment then shifted away from her.

She said, “You’re a little feverish.”

“A normal body temperature for me is a couple of degrees cooler than yours.”

“Which is exactly why I think you’re a little feverish. Are you sure you won’t see a doctor?”

“Two heartbeats,” was all he said. She sighed. There really was no rejoinder that could be made to that objection.

Clara switched off the light and settled herself under the blankets, facing away from him. The Doctor lay on his back, looking at the ceiling again. How could he sleep like this, next to her? Surely he had already slept enough for his body’s demands. He would wait until she slept and then get up and do something useful with himself. Read something. Tinker with something. Her breathing was slowing. The Doctor breathed with her, waiting for her to sleep.

He drifted and dreamed. Of Rose, holding his hand, which burned because she was made of light. Of Rose, watching him while he sent Gallifrey away forever, never to be found. Of Clara, stroking his hair and telling him it was only a dream.


The next time he woke, he was wrapped around Clara, one arm over her waist, the other under her head, his legs tangled with hers. The dull ache of his knuckles was still there, a distraction. He was in danger of another sort of distraction, this close to her. If he moved, he would wake her. He clenched his hand viciously, deliberately, to yank his mind away from it, and overdid it. He sucked in a breath and waited for the pain to ebb. It had done what he needed, however.

“You awake?” Clara said, softly.

“Mmm.” His lips were against her hair. She was so small in his arms. He encompassed her, cradled her head to toe. It was not enough for him, but more than he should have allowed himself.

“Who knew you were a cuddler?” Her voice was playful, not angry or tense.

He left out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. He stayed as light as she. “Anyone foolish enough to sleep with me.”

“How many people have you lured into your cuddle trap?”

The question startled him. “You’re the only one.”

Her fingers were stroking his, where they emerged from the gauze. She was otherwise still.

He said, “Do you have to teach today?”

“Yeah. Alarm will go off in about ten minutes.”

Ten minutes. He could stretch this indulgence out for ten minutes of heaven, ten minutes of warmth, ten minutes of self-control.

“You know, I’m not letting you get away with claiming you don’t like hugs after this.”

“Oh?”

“You’re getting hugged any time I feel like it.”

“Anything you say,” he murmured. He stayed where he was, breathing her in, until the alarm shrilled and she muttered a curse and slid away from him.

He spent the day fiddling with her appliances with the sonic and a pile of spare parts he’d left in a corner on a previous visit. Her toaster was now slightly psychic and would brown the toast exactly as much as desired, no matter what it was set to. A simple trick, easily accomplished even with only his off hand to use on the tools, and subtle enough that she wouldn’t notice and protest, as she had with his modifications to her television.

Koschei’s taunt was on his mind as he worked, no doubt exactly as the monster had wanted. She’d done a right proper job on his head. He knew this to be true even as he was utterly unable to straighten his head back out again. She’d lied. Of course she’d lied. She would always lie. He’d wept over Koschei’s body so many times and thought their long war over, but it had not ever been over. She’d won. Dead now, and he mourned her and the boyhood friend he’d lost. How many lives had been lost because he’d failed to execute justice on his friend? He’d tried. He’d thought he had succeeded, so many times. All lies.

Danny Pink had not been one of those lives. Danny Pink was offered another chance thanks to her. And thus she tormented him one last time from beyond the grave. Danny Pink would not have existed any more in any form without her scheme. But he did exist, would exist. His Clara would not accept his advances.

His mind went around and around that point, worrying at it though it hurt.

Every moment with Clara was stolen. He’d have to return it. He’d have to pay. She had never mentioned this appearance to him. Did that mean he’d managed to slip away quickly? One night spent holding her he could perhaps get away with. One night of letting himself taste what he wanted and what she didn’t wish to give.

It all depended on his recalcitrant semi-sentient beloved ship, which was not speaking to him. Which he deserved. How long would she hold out? He stood with his hand on her door, seeking that connection he sometimes felt. Nothing.

The Doctor remembered Clara’s schedule perfectly well. Classes through the late afternoon; staff meeting on Tuesdays; some time in her classroom spent prepping for the next day’s lessons; home by five if the buses cooperated. He had some time to fill, which he would occupy with another scheme for pleasing her. He investigated her cupboards and icebox and rustled up an improvised dinner for the two of them. Human cooking was something one of his previous selves had spent considerable time learning. Humanity had occupied an inordinate amount of his life, when he thought to weigh it all out. He might not enjoy cooking much in this regeneration, but he could still follow a recipe.

He was rewarded with a brilliant smile from Clara when she arrived home, once again laden with student papers to grade. He held a chair for her, poured her wine, and asked her how her day had been.

“Domesticated Doctor,” she said. “I like this future you.”

“Don’t get used to it,” he said. It didn’t come out as tartly as he’d intended, for she smiled at him brilliantly. The kitchen timer went off and he turned away from her to finish off the sauce.

He served, and she ate. He hovered and watched.

“This isn’t half bad.” She was smiling when she said it, so he decided to take it as high praise. “And I really appreciate not having to cook tonight. I have more grading than I can believe.”

“I am imposing on you. The least I could do.”

“You know it’s fine by me.” She continued to eat and he continued to watch. Eventually she looked up at him. “So. You’re not injured or loopy from painkillers. Time to talk.”

“Ah. Can’t we just skip that and move right along to the part where we run away from something?”

“No. We are not skipping it.” She set her fork down. The Doctor shifted in his chair. He could yet run. “The big question. Why are you here instead of with your own Clara? Is she, am I time-locked?”

Not the question he was expecting. It had an easy answer, fortunately. “No.”

“Then why me?”

The Doctor drank some wine to give himself time to construct an answer to this question, which was nowhere near as easy. He didn’t know, though he suspected. “The TARDIS made the decision, as I said. I wanted to go-- I wanted to go someplace safe where I could heal. And she took me here.”

“But not to me in your proper timeline.”

“You are… otherwise occupied.”

“But you and future me are cuddlier than you and current me. No! No denying it. I was in that bed last night too.”

There it was, the topic he’d been hoping to avoid. The Doctor could only shake his head; yes, they might hold hands, but no, his Clara would not have put up with him in her bed like that. “Things have shifted between us, over time,” was all he could manage to say about it.

“So I get to know you better over the next few months.”

“Hardly a surprise, when one spends so much time with a person.”

“To be honest, it is a surprise. You’re hard to get close to. Going to be different between us after this.”

That alarmed him. “Clara! I won’t remember this when you see me next, because it won’t have happened for me. But you never mentioned this to me. You never said a word. You must never say a word.”

Clara leaned forward, toward him. “I’m pretty good at keeping secrets,” she said.

At lying, he carefully did not say. But he’d always known when she had been lying. It had suited him to behave as if the lies were truth. It had been as much his fault as hers. All he said was, “Promise me you won’t speak of this. It could damage the timeline. You could create a paradox.”

“I promise. Don’t worry.”

He subsided into his chair, watching her carefully for signs of scheming. But he could see nothing. The problem was-- could he trust her not to speak of this? Clara could be trusted about the big things. Time, space, and the safety of others, of her students: Clara would hold firm to the death. But would she slip up about something so small, from inattention? He could not remember her doing so, but then, he wouldn’t. It would become a closed loop in the timestream, a bubble of events that he would forget, because the self that came here would no longer exist.

What happened then was a matter of argument among mathematicians.

He knew what had to be done to ensure the integrity of his timeline, but he could not bear to think about it. Not yet. Once he’d repaired his TARDIS and could leave-- then he would burn that bridge with this Clara. Perhaps he wouldn’t need to. Nothing had happened of note: a few more hugs than usual, which he could dismiss as the painkillers affecting him.

After dinner Clara led him into her washroom, where she undid all the gauze wrapped around his hand. Bloodstained, messy, particularly on the layers nearest the skin, but the hand itself was on the mend. There was pink skin over his knuckles already, and his finger was bending properly once more. The bruising had lightened to sickly greens and yellows.

“You weren’t kidding about the healing.”

“Advantages of being a Time Lord,” he said.

“There are a lot of those.” She stroked his hand and gave a little pat. He smiled at her briefly and tucked his hand safely away in his coat pocket.

They spent the evening in domestic quiet: he washed up while she did her marking. He then sat near her and read the novel she’d been reading the night before: a detective story, well enough written, with a cipher puzzle in it that he sighed at. When he was done with that, he rummaged through her bookshelves and discovered a stash of sudoku puzzle books shoved into the back of a high shelf. He snorted and then found himself absorbed for the next hour.

He had a minor struggle with her at bedtime over where he was to sleep. In her bed again, she wanted, for reasons he could not imagine.

“The couch is fine.”

“The couch is too short for you.” He shrugged. “And we managed to share a bed last night without anything apocalyptic or embarrassing happening.” He opened his mouth to protest, but she swept right along. “It’ll be fine. Go. Change. I’ve laid out pajamas for you.”

He stomped off into the bedroom to inspect whatever she had decided was appropriate sleepwear for a man. This consisted of a t-shirt–this time with the emblem of a football team–and a ragged pair of sweatpants with a drawstring around the middle. Detritus from a past boyfriend, perhaps. They were far too wide and short for him. He felt ridiculous. But she smiled on him when she came back into the bedroom, wrapped in a powder blue robe.

“You know I only sleep an hour or two.”

“That’s fine. You can do whatever you usually do when you’re awake. Read. Break things.”

He scowled, but there was no heat in it.

He lay awake listening to her breathing for a while, until he was certain she was in deep sleep. He then allowed himself to slide downward into sleep. He would possibly need more than usual because of the drain on his body from rebuilding bone and bruised flesh. Down, down into sleep and the dreams that would come no matter what he did. Dreams of a great planet-wide forest consumed in flame, and Clara burning with it, clinging to Danny Pink while she burned and he hovered above it all in the TARDIS, untouched.

“Hey hey hey,” Clara was saying to him. “You’re dreaming again.”

He blinked his eyes open. Darkness, Clara’s face looming over him, feet tangled in blankets. He was sweating. “Was not.”

“Okay. You’re shouting in your sleep again.”

“Oh.”

She made a noise that was half exasperation, half something else. “You had the worst day ever, didn’t you.”

“Yeah.” He was already shying away from thinking about it. Heap dead leaves over it. Pretend he hadn’t hoped.

“Are you ever going to tell me about it?”

“No.”

She sighed. “Turn around. Face away.”

It was hideously inappropriate, and yet he wasn’t going to reject it. Another thing to feel bad about afterward, another item on the giant pile. Another gesture he received desperately: her legs tucked behind his, her arm over his waist. But if he dreamed, he didn’t remember it.


On Saturday he went out with her and carried her shopping home, grousing only as much as expected to keep her from staring at him and asking if he’d lost his mind. He was in fact restless. His usual modus would be to explode about it like a petulant boy, or to invent something to do, preferably something reckless. Somehow he couldn’t bring himself to behave like that just now. Impatience was for a version of himself who had not lost his best friend, not for the version who’d stolen a last few days with her. He was going to enjoy them, and make sure she enjoyed them as well, and not try her patience as he knew his past self would try it soon.

He had decided that the TARDIS was playing a game with him. She required some sign that he had recovered himself, not just physically but emotionally, and then she would open her doors to him again. If he convinced her she had won, he could shorten his time here and reduce the chance of damage to everything.

The trouble was that he didn’t want to cut his visit short. He had until Wednesday night, when his prior self would appear and whisk her off to-- where had he taken her directly after Robin Hood? Oh, yes, Trantor, the planet entirely covered in city, where statisticians pretended to be able to predict the course of their history. They couldn’t, of course, which was why he’d dropped by. She’d enjoyed that one. And he needed to be out of the way before it happened. The TARDIS knew this as well. It was probably going to make him wait right up until that moment. Infuriating thing.

They went out to her local that night, for a couple of pints and a basket of chips she picked at rather than ate. She was watching him with an attention he found unnerving, and a little smile that he both craved and feared. He never knew what those smiles meant. Several things at once. He’d learned he could smile like that too, and it hadn’t been pleasant. But she seemed happy, so he drank beer and told a rambling story about Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart in his youth.

It was raining when they left the pub, of course, a warm late spring shower from clouds moving fast in the evening sky. She pulled a collapsing umbrella from her jacket pocket and unfurled it. The Doctor took it from her to hold it over them both. Clara snagged his free hand and laced her fingers through his. Oh, sweet feeling, her hand in his. It didn’t burn his hearts any more to touch her. He ached, yes, but it was almost a sweet ache. She looked at him sideways then moved in closer. To be under the umbrella, of course, but it was lovely to be so casually close to her.

He allowed her to lead him to bed without protest. He would hold her while she fell asleep, sleep as much as his own body needed, then spend the rest of the night reading. Or walking outside. Or rewiring her microwave. Whatever came to mind.

Clara came in wearing a negligee this time, sheer, in a soft pink that looked lovely on her. He opened his mouth to say something about it, but she raised her hand.

“No insults.”

“I wasn’t going to–”

“Do yourself a favor and don’t talk for a little bit. Just get into bed and do what I tell you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, under his breath. He got into bed, expecting and, if he were honest with himself, looking forward to being cuddled by her wearing that. Face to face this time, apparently, which made him a little anxious, but she was determined. Face to face, pressed together in the dark. Why was his breath coming short?

Clara was wearing scent of some kind. Roses, musk, something a little sharp under that. The Doctor found himself moving closer to it to identify it.

“You okay with this?” she said.

“You smell nice,” he said, because she did.

She petted his hair. It was soothing; he liked it. He petted Clara’s hair in return. She made a sound that probably meant she liked it, and then she leaned in and brushed her lips over his. The kiss was soothing too, to his surprise. So he kissed her back.

The next kiss her lips were parted and so he parted his.

He could stop at any time. It would be the wise thing to do, to stop. But she was kissing him and it felt as if his blood had been carbonated. His head wasn’t right, somehow. It was swimming around and he felt as if he might burst from joy. He could do this all night. He would do this all night if she wanted. Every place he kissed her made him happy. Every place he touched her. Every sound she made. Every caress.

It was far too late to stop now.

She eased herself out of his grasp and knelt on the bed next to him.

He reached up. “Clara?”

“Hush, you. It’s okay.”

He subsided and watched her. The negligee went over her head and she tossed it away. She had on red lace knickers and nothing else. His first instinct was to avert his eyes politely, then he remembered that this sight was intended for him. She was giving this to him. She nudged him over onto his back and tugged impatiently at his sweatpants. He took them off for her and laid himself back down where she wanted him. Now her gaze was on his body, roving all over. He hoped she liked it. He wasn’t sure about it himself. Not a lot of hair, and what there was was gray.

Her hand brushed over his erection. He trembled. Nobody had ever touched him like that. Not in this body. He could barely tolerate being hugged, but that was her hand, on him again, stroking. He held himself as still as he could. Gripped the sheets so he wouldn’t yield to the wild urge to cover himself.

“Breathe,” she said, and he breathed. “It’s just me. You’ve done this before.”

He laughed at that. Not like this he hadn’t. “Still nervous,” he said.

“Lie back. Let me do all the work.”

He laughed to cover his nerves. First time for this body. First time, with the woman who was the first face he’d seen as a living, breathing being in this body. Imprinting. Sworn to her from the first moment. Five feet one and crying and he’d never stood a chance.

She rose over him and reached down to take him in hand. He kept his eyes open to watch, despite the urge to close them and moan. He watched her face, not her hand on him, not her spread thighs, just her face, the look of concentration, the little smile on her lips. She sank down on him slowly. Tight, soft, wet, so warm around him. Not yet open fully, and next time he would ensure she was, he would bring her to the brink with lips and fingers before he lay over her and became one with her. Why was she going so slowly? It was torment and that expression on her face said she knew it.

The moan finally broke free from him and her face lit up. Joy, that was joy on her face, and he could not help but respond.

She said, “Yeah, that’s–”

“That’s good,” he said, the burr he could not explain as thick as it ever was.

She settled on him, leaned down and kissed him. He kissed her back. Then she sat up again and began to move. There it was, that rhythm, that feeling building. He didn’t deserve this. It didn’t belong to him. She wasn’t for him. He’d do anything if she asked, even incredibly stupid things. Koschei had said it.

She stilled over him. “Stop thinking. I can tell you’re thinking. Stop. Open your eyes. Look at me.”

“Lookin’.” Clara, nude, astride him, hands on either side of his head, looking down into his eyes, hair framing her face. “Beautiful,” he said.

“Yeah? Keep talkin’.”

“Can’t.” For she was moving again over him, and it had been so long since he’d felt these things. This feeling, this tension, this hunger. His hearts beating, his breath coming faster. The feeling of his body inside someone else’s, someone he loved. Her face, flushed and sweating. Moving with intent, now, hard and fast over him. He reached down and held his thumb against her. There was her moan, and yes, she was close already. She shuddered around him. It was too much and not enough and he could not reach his own crisis yet.

He let his instincts take over, did what he had used to do in previous lives: rolled them over and lay over her and entered her again, this time easily, oh sweet feeling, and thrust hard. Turned off his mind, let himself feel it, feel her, hear her gasping underneath him, and opened himself to it. To her. Let himself shatter.

He collapsed onto her afterward, all awkward elbows and knees. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and tugged him up, closer. She had tiny breasts, hardly a handful, sensitive nipples. He licked and kissed and sighed against them and laid his head between them. She ran fingers through his sweaty hair.

“Okay?” she said.

“Yeah.”

“Your face goes all red, just like a human.”

“Happy to have provided you with amusement.”

“Shut up. Not allowed be sarcastic when you’re naked in bed with somebody.”

“Lyin’ on top of somebody,” he said. She was warm beneath him. He could feel the sweat on his temples, on the back of his neck. Sex was a lot of work. Joyous work, but draining. He rolled onto his back and tugged her over against him. She pulled the blankets up and he let himself slide down into sleep.

Dreams again, unruffled on the surface but with roiling currents below, creatures in the depths waiting their time to breach and be known. And yet he did not dream of Gallifrey slipping away, and he was grateful.

He woke in the small hours. She was cuddled against him, sleeping. The stars wheeled overhead, unseen. The earth spun and revolved. He felt it all. Everything was centered on her. His entire being, all wrapped around her. He remembered this feeling. He’d had it before, in previous lives. It had destroyed him utterly every time. And no matter how he warned himself against it, he would let it keep happening. Rose, now Clara. Both of them in the arms of other men.

He’d stolen this time. It was not his by rights. He lay awake staring at the bare ceiling wondering what he was going to do when he had to leave.

He extricated himself from her gently and slid out of bed. Found his sweatpants on the floor, pulled them on. He would make himself a cup of tea and read, perhaps. And then he saw it: the TARDIS door was open.

He went up to it cautiously and peeked inside. All seemed normal. He rubbed a hand against her to express his contrition, then slipped inside. He had that moment of relief he always felt when he came through that door. He was home; he was safe. The sounds of the machinery humming around him, the awareness of the size, the mass, the power around him. His to command, or rather, to coax into cooperation with his mad schemes.

He laid his hands on the console. “I’m sorry, old girl.” There it was, a flare of response somewhere inside. Now he would make his amends by repairing what he had broken. He took himself down into stores to find parts for what he wanted for that facet of the console: something more more modern and clean, something less Edwardian. Something special, to make his apology as concrete as he could. Tools, parts, carried up in boxes. And now to clear away the smashed panel.

He became aware of time when he hear Clara’s voice calling out for him from the bedroom. She came running into the TARDIS in a robe and bare feet. He set the synesthic down and ran up the steps to meet her. He took her in his arms and kissed her.

“I was afraid you’d just leave,” she said.

“Can’t. Need to repair the console.” He gestured toward it; she went all the way in to take a look. He came up behind her and slipped his arms around her waist. She looked at the bent levers, the levers she would be pulling so often with him. Had pulled.

“It’s a wonder you only broke one finger.”

He kissed her shoulder. “I’m sure I broke more.”

“Still not going to tell me why?”

“No.”

He followed her out of the TARDIS for morning tea and a bit of breakfast. Clara had a school event; her day waited for no one. He made her a cuppa and some perfect toast, then kissed her goodbye at the door, a lingering kiss with passion in it, a promise for the evening to come. He had cast the die; the Rubicon was crossed. Taste joy while he could.

He worked in the TARDIS for hours, aware it would take him days to complete. And through it all, he was careful to keep track of time so he was ready when Clara came home in the mid-afternoon, dressed all in black with his hair brushed and his hands clean.

“Do you want to go out again?” she asked. “Drink at my local, film?”

“Anything you want.”

But her hand was on his chest, her fingers slipping inside his shirt, caressing him. “Or maybe we could stay in,” she said.

He would have answered but his mouth was better occupied with her throat, with the line of her neck down to her shoulder.

He dreamed that night of time loops and paradoxes, the uncountably many terrible things that could happen when one meddled with one’s own past. Reapers. Entire timelines vanishing. Rips in time. He woke covered in sweat. No sense forcing himself to endure sleep he didn’t need, dreams he didn’t want. He dressed and slipped into the TARDIS to work, leaving the door open so he could hear Clara if she called.

He needed to work. He had a deadline. On Wednesday evening his earlier self would appear. On time or maybe even early, eager for reasons he did not yet understand. Or admit to himself. He himself must be gone before then, gone and all the mess he’d made of Clara’s life cleaned up. Tuesday evening would be safest. Tomorrow evening. So he repaired the TARDIS console while she was at school, working with a concentration and intensity he only brought to bear when desperate. And yet he did not want to leave. Every moment he could he spent with her, in bed, kissing, embracing, sweating, crying out, and then sleeping.

By Tuesday afternoon the TARDIS control console was functioning perfectly again, with some new features even; he took her out for a shakedown run to Jupiter and back just to be sure. He landed in Clara’s bedroom again, in precisely the same place. He was tempted to run, run run run away from the consequences of his selfishness, his utter pudding-brained self-indulgence, but he knew better. He had to clean up his mess. He had to do it now, before his past self arrived to take her on her weekly adventure.

When she came back from school he’d do it. He’d talk her into it. And then he’d go. Where, he wasn’t sure. He’d have to face his Clara again, the future Clara, the one who loved Danny so much she’d betrayed him. Not right away, at least. He would give himself as much time as he needed.

He paced her kitchen, arguing with himself about what to do. There was only one path out of this thorny thicket. He knew what he had to do to fix it. He’d known from that first evening, when he’d allowed himself to fall asleep in her bed, what he’d have to do to repair the damage. Wipe her memory straight away? Give her no choice about it? The idea of that nauseated him. Some of his past selves might have been able to do that, but he remembered what it had been like for Jamie and Zoe. For Donna. It was a crime. Not without her permission. Could he talk her into it? He had to.

When she came home from school, he was no closer to knowing how to go about it than he had been earlier. She knew something was up. She knew it was his last night with her; she knew his past self was due tomorrow. He took her hand and sat down with her in the living room, and braced himself to do it.

The TARDIS phone rang in her bedroom. He raised his eyebrow at Clara, who shrugged as if to say, search me. He ran in, snatched up the receiver, and it was Clara, his Clara, the one he hadn’t meddled with.

“Clara! What-- are you okay?”

“Hey. Doctor. Look. There’s something I need to tell you. Something happened. Meet me at our usual cafe at 8:30 Saturday morning.”

He drew a calmer breath. There was nothing urgent in her voice. “Which Saturday?”

“The one in two days. Look, I’ll just show up there every Saturday until you figure it out.”

“Okay.”

He heard the click on her end, then hung up the phone. Clara, past Clara, the Clara he had to leave, was in the doorway of her bedroom, watching him.

He said, “That was you.”

“I could tell. Your face went all soft and happy and then worried.”

He scowled, to counteract whatever it was she thought she’d seen in him. He was not a soppy mess. Not. “You are summoning me. I am to meet you at our usual cafe on Saturday morning.”

“We have a usual cafe?”

“We do.”

Clara smiled at him. She’d taken him to mean something other than what he meant, but he could not bear to correct her. “Also, I’m still alive. That was something I was worried about. You let slip that we were together, but I was seriously afraid you’d come back here because I was dead.”

“I let slip-- That was why you–” He broke off. Something he’d said. She’d believed they were together.

“I’d been wanting to, but you were so standoffish I didn’t even dare hint. When you showed up and started hugging me it was the best news in the world.”

The Doctor turned away to hide his face. He’d let slip more than that, he’d wager. He hardened himself as much as he could and turned back to her.

“Clara. I can’t let this wait any longer.”

“Let what wait?” She was already suspicious.

“Can’t let you remember this week. It’s too dangerous.”

“Dangerous?”

“There’s nothing in my memory about this-- you never said a word. We never so much as kissed.”

“No. I refuse to believe that. There’s no way I didn’t tell you how I feel. No matter how prickly you are, I can see right through you.”

“You don’t tell me. And, and other things get in the way.”

She folded her arms. “You won’t tell me what.”

“No.”

“I can’t believe it.”

“Believe what you like. You didn’t. That is fixed time for me.”

“No.”

He grasped her hands and pulled her to face him. “Clara. This is critical. You must not speak of this. No matter what. You’ll create a paradox and I canna tell what may happen then. Reapers? Worse. We’ll lose even this, this, this week. It’ll be locked off in a time loop.”

“I’m not letting you wipe my memories with the sonic. It’s, it’s horrible. The idea.”

He let go of her and turned away. He chewed on his thumb. “That’s not what I want to do. I can bury your memories. Bury them deep. So they can be recovered later. A trigger phrase, a gesture.”

“What’s the catch?”

“No catch. You have to, to let me into your mind.”

Now it was her turn to pace. Back and forth, across the kitchen floor, one arm tight across her chest, the other raised so she could chew on her nails.

She stopped. “If I say no. Could you do this anyway?”

He was silent for a moment. “Yes. For a little while. Then it unravels. The mind wants to remember. A mind that hasn’t consented will fight to remember. It will remember eventually.”

“Would you wipe my memories if I said no?”

He shook his head. His younger self might have been able to, but not he. Not to her. Not to his Clara. “I will not force you. Ever.” No matter the consequences. He would let the universe burn. He took her hand and squeezed.

“It’s not a wipe. Just until our timelines are synced again. I’ll use a trigger phrase and you’ll remember everything.”

“You’ll use it? You promise?”

His hearts stabbed him then: love is a promise, he’d said. “I promise.” Then an idea occurred to him. “Not a phrase. A gesture. A kiss. I’ll kiss you. It will all come back.”

Clara smiled at him, so heartbreakingly sweet and trusting and pleased that his hearts ached. “A fairytale wake up.”

“Yeah. A fairy tale.”

“Okay. I’ll let you. Now?”

“Now.”

He touched fingertips to her temples and roused an ability he had left untouched completely in this regeneration. Touch telepathy was merely a burden when he could hardly tolerate being touched by anyone. Anyone who wasn’t Clara.

She welcomed him in. Oh, what a mind. Quick, alert, searching, questioning, never at rest. A mind he had loved even without the fire of regeneration burning a connection between them.

The affection for him was wound everywhere in her mind, tangled up in everything they’d done together, a single strand from the moment of that phone call from his past self to now. Undoing it took all of his concentration. He had to leave her as she ought to be, as he remembered her, friendly but irritated with him, impatient with him, willing to haul off and slap him when she was angry, unwilling to get into bed with him. And he had to bury the memories of this week.

She cooperated with that, true to her word, but she resisted his attempts to bury the love, the longing. He had to insist, pushed himself a little deeper in than he wanted, and ruthlessly took it all away and hid it. He left her with the impatience he remembered, the searching for somebody to be with, somebody who wasn’t him. It would unravel eventually, as he had warned her, but it should last long enough to get them to the waiting meeting in a cafe.

He withdrew from her mind slowly. Of all the things he had done to her, from leading her into living his life with him, lying for him, and growing heartless with him, this was perhaps the worst.

And now to finish it.

“Forgive me, Clara, when you remember this. Be angry, and then forgive me.”

He cupped her face in his hands and kissed her deeply. Her eyes fluttered closed. She was deep in trance state now. He let himself linger, touching her one last time. He released her, took one step back, two. Steeled himself. He snapped his fingers. Her eyes opened and she shook herself. Her eyes focused on him and she smiled for a heart-stopping instant. Then her brow furrowed.

“What are you doing here?” Bright, happy, a puzzled: no caress in it. She was as she had been. “And what is the TARDIS doing in my bedroom?”

“Isn’t it Wednesday?” he said, plaintively, as if he were the same man he’d been before this week.

“It’s Tuesday night! I have marking to do. Shoo! Come back tomorrow.” She made brushing gestures at him, kindly enough but firm.

He wheedled half-heartedly then sulked, because it was what he would have done. “I’ll just jump forward a day, see if I’m troubled by your petty calendars,” he said.

“Fine. Just-- fine. Begone.”

He backed into the TARDIS, his eyes locked with hers all the way, and closed the door. Closed his eyes. It hurt again, as badly as it had hurt when he’d landed. Worse. He’d tasted what he’d merely longed for before. Now he knew what he was denied. Paradise lost.

Well and truly punished for his theft.

He let his fingers run over the new console, the stark new sleek black levers. Austere, minimal, all black and silver, not a single touch of magician in it. He liked it. He set the time for when her phone call had come from, then pulled the levers to send himself into the vortex. The TARDIS was taking pity on him, it seemed, for she shuddered into motion more quietly than was her wont. Off to his own timeline, to the cafe, to their cafe, for coffee and news.

Not yet.

“Not a good man,” he said to the TARDIS. “An idiot. Give me a little time before we go to her. I can’t. In this state I can’t do right by her. I need time.”

Time to spend sitting on the floor, back against the console, arms clasped around his knees, thinking. Brooding, he knew, but there was no one there to point it out to him and laugh him into better humor. He didn’t want anyone there. He wanted Clara. He would always want Clara. That was the trouble. Regeneration came with barbed hooks.

Maybe Pink hadn’t worked it out. Maybe he’d declined to return. Maybe the databank had lost power too quickly. In that case his Clara would need him. He would play it by ear. If Danny had not worked it out, he’d kiss her. If Danny had returned, he’d hug her, bestow his blessings on her, and go. He wouldn’t be able to bear it, seeing them together, not after this week. Not after learning what he wanted. The thought of her in Pink’s arms again-- he couldn’t grudge it her. He wanted to see her happy. He could not let himself be in the way. He would not. He wouldn’t touch what they had. He shouldn’t have touched her. Shouldn’t have let himself. He’d poisoned the timestream, nearly, with his selfishness.

He pushed himself to his feet painfully. How long had he sat there? Long enough to stiffen up. He set his coat and hair to rights. Had to look good for her. A calm and unruffled exterior.

A hand on the levers, and the TARDIS shifted out of the vortex at the time and place specified. A cafe they’d been at before, a cheerful place. Mid-summer rain, light early morning custom. She was there already, looking a little grim and determined.

He strode in and sat down, bantered with her. Looked at her straight on. The bracelet was on her wrist. And she had bad news. She looked at him sadly, and that was pity on her face, he knew it. The Doctor clenched his hand once, to remind himself that he didn’t deserve her, that she would never have touched him on her own, and smiled.

“I’ve found Gallifrey,” he said.