The floor of the control room was cold under her bare feet. Lights pulsed gently in the dim, phantom circles of gold and blue. Clara wasn't sure she was ever going to get used to the new arrangement. She had in fact spent the last three days trying to lean on railings that no longer existed and banging her shins on ones that had sprung up out of nowhere.
She was sure the floor had never been this cold before.
Clara tugged her dressing gown a little tighter around her shoulders, listening again to the soft, plaintive wailing that seemed by all accounts to be coming from the walls themselves, seeping through the cracks like a draft. Whale song, it sounded like. Strange. Alien, almost. But soothing.
The Doctor was a faint outline in a wingback chair, long fingers folded on his chest. The profile she had grown so fond of was changed now. Chin smaller, forehead higher, the nose aquiline and the eyes deep set and distant. Gone was the giddy, boyish face. Here in its stead was a face that looked like a lost Roman emperor, all severe angles carved in alabaster.
He did not stir as she mounted the stairs, and in a ripple of red-gold light she saw his eyes were closed, chest rising and falling gently. Sleep slackened his face, softening its lines and hollows. Clara fancied she could almost imagine what that new face might've looked like young, then chastised herself for the thought.
He looked like your young gentleman friend. Your lover, even.
Madam Vastra's words still buzzed in her brain like an angry wasp, stinging her whenever she let her mind linger too much on that face she would never see again. She missed him, would always miss him, she supposed, but couldn't stop the sting of shame that came on the heels of it.
You can't see me, can you? You look at me and you can't see me. I'm not on the phone, I'm right here, standing in front of you.
Of course she knew that. She had known what regeneration was, what it meant. Some of it he had told her, but the rest of it...the rest was buried deeply in the back of her mind, dream-like snapshots of past lives and past deaths that she could never grasp in daylight. But here in the half-light, here with this new Doctor, the cobwebs of sleep still clinging to her mind, here it was still close. Long ago that leaf had carried her into the world, and the Doctor had carried her back out. A lifetime ago in that graveyard on Trenzalore....
Please, just see me.
And she wanted to, desperately, but every time she tried she seemed to snag on a new hook, some facet of this new Doctor that clashed so violently with the one she had known and very nearly loved.
She slipped her hand around his, a desperate bid to connect the ghost of memory with reality, vainly hoping for something, anything that would help her see something familiar in his new face. Something she could cling to. Something of her Doctor.
The warmth of his skin was like an electric shock, and the circuit closed.
She could feel the slow gallop beat of his pulse under her fingers, the one-two-three-four rhythm of a double heartbeat. A rush of air slipped from her lips, a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. For a moment, a long moment, the lights swelled in a golden flare. Everything was expanding. Time itself seemed suddenly pliant, the moment giving and stretching and pulling the finite into the infinite.
Clara's mind teetered on the brink of some unimaginable gulf for what seemed like forever before plunging over the edge. Her consciousness ripped open and everything rushed in, the Big Bang in microcosm. The air rippled and recoiled as she splintered and fragmented and echoed, living and dying a million times across the universe. She had chased after the Doctor again and again, always a different face, a different time, but always him. The scared little boy and the wounded old man, coward and killer, hero and villain, plunging off across the stars, too frightened to look back. So many faces, old and young, strange and wonderful, over and over again.
The Doctor fled across the stars and Clara saw everything, Clara was everything, every atom of her existence spread across the stars in an unending spiral winding back and forth through time, blazing up and winking out ceaselessly, like stars going nova, like fireflies in the dark.
Clara saw, Clara saw, and seeing was blinding infinity.
A ripple across the gulf. A shudder in the sub-atomic void. Somewhere under alien stars the Doctor's long-fingered hand laced with hers, squeezing tight. His voice chasing out after her as she had chased after him. To find her, to save her, to call her home.
- Come back, Clara. You're too far out. Come back to me.
- I see. I see everything. All of it. I see you...I remember. The time stream tore me apart and blew me across the universe. I see..... I see. Oh god Doctor help me I SEE.
- Close your eyes, Clara. Close your eyes and turn away.
Fear clawed at her, a sudden certainty that to close her eyes, close her mind to this now would cut the tenuous thread to her body and leave her just another reflection of a shattered mirror, winking in the darkness.
- I can't. I'm afraid. Doctor I'm afraid. It's too much I see too much and I'm afraid and I can't I can't....
- Trust me, Clara, please. Close your eyes. I won't let you go, I promise, but I need you to focus. Focus on this moment, focus everything you have on this moment.You are here with me in the TARDIS. I'm right here next to you. Focus on that. Focus on right NOW.
A distant thrumming under her palm. One-two-three-four. One-two-three-four. Strong fingers held her hand to his chest. Her body was there in that slowly unraveling moment, frozen stock-still and staring at nothing, at everything, at the infinite and the finite and the infinitesimal. She could feel him there, too, a solid weight at the end of the thread that still bound her mind and body. A thread that felt perilously thin and taut, like an over-wound guitar string trembling and ready to break.
She wheeled in the dark, in her periphery a myriad of echoes wheeled in response, dim reflections in a wilderness of mirrors.
- Here. Now. Quickly, Clara.
Clara seized the thread and the Doctor pulled. Her spectral body lashed like a whip crack and suddenly she was plunging upward like a fish on a line, everything winding back. Darkness gave way to a blinding golden light. Behind her she felt some great door swing shut, time snapping back into place like an overstretched rubber band. The flare dimmed and then she was crashing back into her own body with enough force to drive her to her knees, her teeth coming together with a painful click.
The Doctor fell with her, sliding from the chair with his left hand still clutching her right to his chest, catching her around the waist in the crook of his elbow when she began to tip backwards.
"Ug," was all she could manage.
"Ok. Good. Ug is good, at least for a start. I'm afraid I need a little more than that." When she didn't respond, he gave her a firm but gentle shake. "Clara. Clara. Hey, I know unconsciousness is going to feel very tempting right now but I need you to fight that temptation. You've got to stay awake, Clara, you hear me? C'mon Clara, talk to me."
"Oh yes, much better," he said. "I hope you don't use that sort of language in front of your students."
"Room," she mumbled, dropping her head onto his shoulder. Even in her daze she felt him go suddenly stiff-backed. "Spinnin'. Tell it to stop spinning."
"Yes ma'am. How do you feel?"
Clara swallowed hard, pressing her face into the lapels of his jacket. "Like Timothy Leary slipped me a mickey an' took my brain on a magical mystery tour." She paused to take stock. Thinking hurt. "Dizzy. Head hurts." Then. "What the hell was that?"
"I think you triggered a memory," he said. "Actually, no, that's a bit simple, isn't it? I think you managed to open a floodgate of memories in your head that washed your consciousness out of your body and into the ether. Not a terribly good idea. What were you trying to do something like that for?"
She sniffled. "What makes you think I was trying to do anything?"
"Because I have met you, Clara Oswald. You're a very trying woman - and I say that with the highest regard. And because the door to those memories is buried so far back in your subconscious you'd have to be digging around with a pickaxe to dislodge it."
"It's a fair cop," she grumbled. "I wanted to remember. Trenzalore, the first time 'round. There's a hole in my head. I know that I know what happened, but I can't ever remember."
"You're not supposed to. That's a dangerous memory, Clara. You lived a million lives at once, it's a bit much for a human brain to process. You lot aren't exactly built for it. Tiny things. Cute but breakable. No offense."
She slapped his chest weakly. "Can we do the 'ha-ha my species is better than your species' thing another time?"
He muttered an apology into her hair, and for a moment was silent. The wobble and waver started to ebb and the room steadied, the racket in her head dying down and fading like only dreams can do. Their closeness urged a synchronicity, and her breathing slowed to match the rising and falling of his chest beneath her cheek. Not a hugging person these days, he insisted, and yet though his posture remained stiff and awkward, he did not shift or try to push her away.
She was very near to drowsing when he spoke again.
"Why?" he repeated softly, confused.
Clara pushed herself up, looking into his face as the last of those ghost memories slipped away. Bright blue eyes searched her own and suddenly there was a near-audible click and she could see him for the first time since he'd taken this new face, like a picture from one of those Magic Eye books she'd had as a child, his features snapping into a new focus, a new depth. Suddenly, inexorably, he was as he'd always been, through every face right back to the beginning.
He was the Doctor.
"You said I couldn't see you," she said slowly, "and you were right. I couldn't. When I looked at you all I could see was..." she trailed off, marking the hurt on his face.
"An old man," he finished, smiling ruefully. It was the same look he'd worn days ago, standing safely on the other side of the TARDIS console. Yeah, you better get that. Might be your boyfriend.
Clara squeezed his hand, and he gave a startled jerk in response. "A stranger," she said. "You look different, you sound different, you even act different. It's hard to imagine you're the same man under all that."
"Just a bit more true to form these days, that's all," he said, absently ruffling his graying hair. "The cover finally suits the book."
She shifted onto her knees in front of him, pressing his shoulders against the leather chair, and he looked at her with something like incredulity. "You wanted me to see you, Doctor. I wanted to see you. I thought maybe I owed you that much."
She leaned toward him slightly, meaning to kiss him, and the Doctor pulled away, a sudden flash of coldness in his eyes. Something like steel striking chips from a glacier. "You owe me nothing," he said, and the ice in his voice chilled her.
Clara blinked, unsettled. The steel in him ran deep, always had, but it was closer to the surface now. She could see it in his eyes. Feel it in the sharp set of his shoulders. It was as if he was trying to grow a suit of armor from it. I've lived almost two thousand years, he'd said, and not all of them were good. She knew a taste of what he had endured. The unending loss. The breaking of not just one heart, but two. Clara thought of his first moments with that new face, blue eyes boring into her with such confusion. He had reached for her then, and she had recoiled.
He trusted you.
The thought was like a knife in her belly. Was it any wonder, then, that he recoiled from her? Was it any real wonder the Doctor would call up that streak of steel and gird himself with it? Better to not feel. Better to not care. Because the alternative was to feel everything until his hearts broke and it burned him up from the inside out.
Clara slumped, eyes burning with unshed tears, and she took the Doctor's face in her hands.
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
He softened, covering one of her hands with his. "You don't have to be sorry," he said.
"Clara, I am not a responsibility. You are not obligated to be with me. Or to...to want to...," his eyes flicked down to her mouth, the briefest glance but impossibly tangled in guilt and longing. "Just because...I was...before I..." he trailed off, stammering, frustration coloring his face.
Clara stood on her knees and peered down into the Doctor's face - an unusual but somehow satisfying angle. "Now you listen to me, Doctor. My being here with you has nothing to do with obligations, so you can just put that idea right out of your mind. I am here because I want to be here. You are not an obligation to me." She laughed softly. "You're actually more of a hobby."
He gave her a look that strove for reprehension, but his harshness was quickly fading.
"I can see you now, and you are still my Doctor. Always will be."
And at that, at last, he smiled, hesitant and sweet. "Thank you," he whispered, and pressed a grateful kiss to the inside of her wrist. "Clara," he spoke against her skin. "My Clara."