There he is, just like she told him, in no uncertain terms, to not be. Maybe reverse psychology would have worked better. Maybe she should have begged him to come round more often. Maybe that would have chased him off. But no, here he is, and all she’s done to deserve this is wake from a dream, open her eyes, and find him standing, leaning against his bloody time ship, leaning in that bloody insouciant way of his, with his bloody arms folded and his bloody face and his bloody, bloody great eyebrows.
“No,” she says.
“I haven’t said anything yet.”
“Whatever you’re about to say, the answer is going to be no. I’m practicing for the inevitable.”
But she’s throwing her covers aside, regardless, even though she knows she should have just turned over on her other side and gone back to sleep. Pretended to go back to sleep, anyway, because the idea of him watching her from just the other side of her bed gave her the shivers in a way she couldn’t quite put a name to. “What are you doing here?”
“You asked me a question,” he says, somewhat peevishly. “I’m trying to answer it. If this conversation fails, it’s gonna be your fault, Clara, not mine.”
He’s nervous, she thinks. Well, so is she.
“You can’t be here.”
“But I am.”
“But I told you to shut up.”
“So I heard.”
“I told you to go away.”
“Yes, I caught that too.”
“So what are you doing here?”
His eyes catch hers for a moment, and the words in them are not what come out of his mouth.
“Distraction,” he says, looking away at last. “A detour.”
“A detour on the way to what?”
“Away,” he says, flitting a smile at her that could cut glass. “I did what I was told.”
“Oh, yeah?” she says, folding her arms. “How does that explain your presence here, exactly?”
“I’m still doing it, Clara. When have you ever known me to go from point A to point B with no points in between? I’m not about to change the habit of a lifetime just because some silly little human requests it.”
Is he trying to tick her off? If this is a stab at making amends, he’s doing a bang-up job of it. No, strike that, because that is exactly what this feels like. A stab, messy and imprecise, flailing about with something sharp edged, in the vicinity of her vital organs. It strikes her then, the way it has never struck her before: she has hurt the Doctor. His wound is grievous, and something in him makes him want to strike back at his aggressor. That’s how he sees this, she thinks, and then has to rethink this idea immediately when she catches his eyes fixed on hers. His eyes are soft like they have rarely been soft before in this incarnation; they are soft the way the old him used to be soft. This newer, older Doctor looks at the world from behind a windowpane, bullet proof, daring them to take a hit. But when he looks at Clara, sometimes, he is open and warm and he is hers for the hitting. He looks at her very much as though he wants to take her in both hands and teach her tenderly how to walk, and only refrains because she’s been running circles around him for the last few years. These are wildly polar-opposite views to take of him, and especially in such a short time, and she feels overwhelmed by it, not least because both of them are equally as likely to be true. She puts a hand to her forehead.
“Alright?” he asks her, concern evident in his voice, and she shakes her head.
“No,” she says. “Not alright.”
His hand reaches out to her and almost touches her before he aborts, abruptly, and leaves his elegant fingers stranded in space, artfully arranged but apparently pointless. “What is it? What can I do?”
“I don’t know,” she says, “maybe you can stop confusing me? For a change? Just as a novelty, I’m not asking you to make a habit of it.” She leans against the TARDIS. She fancies that she can hear it from out here. But that’s probably just wishful thinking. She’s missed the hum, the way she misses the purring of the cat she had when she was a child, the way she misses the familiar sound of the refrigerator when she’s away from home, or the blinking of the digital clock radio in her bedroom from when she was a teenager.
“What’s confusing?” he says, allowing his hands to corral themselves back closer in to him. “We were ending, and we were ending badly, so I thought—”
“You thought the way to fix that was to ignore my expressed desire to never see you again?”
“No,” he says, voice gravelly, “I thought you had probably lashed out at me in a moment of residual panic, and would come to regret your decision later on when you had time to think it over. And I realize, in light of what you’ve told me, that you will think this is patronizing and disrespectful of me. So go on. Tell me I’m wrong.” He dipped his head a little as he spoke, squaring off. It was a dare. She hovers there for a moment, words piling up unspoken on her tongue, her eyes growing bright. She has never been able to resist dares.
She says, her voice thick, “You think all you have to do is crook your little finger and I’ll—”
“—jump in my snog box and fly away,” he finishes for her, quoting words she’s never said to him, or never to this him, anyway. “No, I don’t think that. Yes, I am hoping it. And yes, if you feel the need to kiss me in order to make it worth your while, you’re welcome to me. Please, Clara.”
The brightness in her eyes is taking shape, taking form. Beginning to escape.
“I made a mistake,” he says. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, and I can see that I did. Please tell me that you’ve punished me enough.”
How long have you been traveling on your own?
Fear makes companions of us all.
His fear is palpable; his loneliness too. He’s afraid that she’s going to send him away empty-handed— well, she is, she thinks resolutely. She isn’t about to jump into his open palms, not just to take away the fear. He wouldn’t offer her the same courtesy, after all.
“I’m not changing my mind.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to.”
She says, “A last hurrah? Is that all you want?”
He looks her in the eyes and he lies. “Yes. That’s all I want.”
She’ll give Danny a call in the morning, she thinks. Whenever she figures out what morning is. If they have morning wherever they’re going.
He doesn’t even ask her not to cry; doesn’t say a word about her eyes, or her face, or her hair, or her clothing. He follows her wordlessly into the TARDIS, and she is not imagining the relief in his eyes. It give her a kind of power, she supposes, and in turn it makes her shy. She hangs about the console for a moment before sitting primly on the armchair, her hands folded in her lap. She clears her throat.
“So where are we going?”
“On a trip,” he says, pulling a lever with less flourish than usual. “On a train. A famous train. You’ll want to dress up.”
“Dress up how?”
“The TARDIS will show you. She’s got a better eye for a pretty dress than I do.”
Clara snorts at this— it’s probably the truest thing she’s heard him say in a long time— and takes it as a cue to stand up and wander down the stairs in the general direction of the wardrobe room.
“Won’t be long,” she tosses over her shoulder, and it takes a moment and several steps before she hears him faintly reply.
“Take your time.”
The TARDIS seems eager to put her in a flapper dress, the sort that she pictures on wide-eyed starlets in New York City in the Roaring Twenties. Train, she thinks, a famous train, and it tells her very little, next to nothing in fact, so she takes time ship’s advice, and picks out something that she thinks at first will be a tad too small. She just wants the fun of trying it on, but by the time she’s admiring herself in the mirror and fiddling with the beaded fringe, she realizes the Doctor has come into the room. He’s changed from when she saw him last— he wears a black suit and a white button-up, and a tie hangs loose at his collar— and he seems oddly preoccupied with the robe and nightie she’s discarded in the corner.
She steps away from him, and rearranges her straps self-consciously.
“I wanted to say,” she begins. The Doctor says nothing, and she is forced to continue rather more quickly than she had hoped. “I wanted to say, thank you.”
“Mm?” says the Doctor, setting the sleeve of her robe down neatly and turning more or less in her direction.
“For apologizing,” she says. “Very clever of you. That was a master stroke. It was exactly what I needed to hear.”
“All part of the plan,” he says, vaguely.
“Yeah.” Clara smiles at the floor, trying to think of how she wants to put things. It isn’t easy. “It’s nice,” she ventures at last.
“To know that our friendship means— meant something to you. That you didn’t want to just leave it behind, first chance you got. It’s nice that you made the effort to give us a proper send off.”
He’s still not looking at her. She wonders if he ever really will again.
“Sometimes it got a little hard to tell,” she says, since he probably isn’t even paying attention anyway. “If you cared about it. About us. Bein’ friends, I mean. I don’t know. Maybe this face just doesn’t show it like the old one did.”
She maybe shouldn’t have said it; but she has, and now it’s out. It doesn’t matter, anyway, does it? Last hurrah, and all that.
“Book covers,” says the Doctor, still vaguely, “judging them by, and the unwiseness thereof.”
“Ah,” says Clara. “Yeah. Still.”
She’s said nice a few too many times. It doesn’t feel nice, though she has no doubt he’s trying to be, in his own way. It feels a little calculating, which should unnerve her but doesn’t. It feels as though he’s on a detour he doesn’t like, and is trying to get back on the main path. It feels as though there’s something up his sleeve; another universe, possibly. It doesn’t matter.
She tugs a last time at the skirt of her dress and stops fidgeting with it at last.
“Will I do?” she says.
He is busily folding the tie around his neck in a complicated bow, and seems scarcely able to spare her a glance.
“Suits you,” he says, and turns back to the mirror. This is as much of compliment as she is likely to get, it seems— but then, it’s more of a compliment than he has ever given her before, so she warms her hands at it and straps her feet into the heels she’s found. They’ll give her a little height, in case of dancing. Will there be dancing? She stops for a moment and stares into space. She can see them now, though they’re only in silhouette. She doesn’t even know for certain that it’s them, but she feels that it is. Clara and the Doctor— all Doctors, any Doctor— dancing in the semi-darkness. Elegant lines and his hands on her waist. A glass of champagne in her hand.
She feels him watching in the mirror.
What would happen, she wonders, if she went to him now? And took his hands, so much larger than hers, and pulled them around to her back? And put her own hands on his shoulders, or wound her arms around his neck, and pressed up close?
Question mark, she thinks, dramatic trail-off, and let that be an end to the sentence.
When she looks at him again, his eyes are watching her feet in their vintage heels, tiny and not-yet-dancing. He looks as though he’s seen visions, as though he knows what she looks like, on a space train in the middle of a black hole, waltzing down the corridors. He looks as though he knows what she looks like, running away from him.