A/n: Thank you all so, so much for all the reviews and support throughout this story. I've said it before but I'll say it again: the Doctor Who fandom is the kindest and most generous fandom I've ever been part of :) I hope you've enjoyed the story thus far and I hope you enjoy this last chapter. Thanks for reading!
She watched him pace the floor, his strides tight and quick like the way anxiety wrings out a tired heart. He tugged at his gray curls and pulled at his face, constantly in nervous motion, his eyes hesitant to meet Clara's. And she could do nothing but sit tensely on the edge of his cushion-less sofa, her eyes trained on his tense form.
"I bribed Dalek's hitmen to take him out." He started, his words chipped and sharp like broken ice. He stopped walking and stood still with his back to her, his hands back up in his hair. His voice was teetering with fear. "Dalek said he was going to hurt you. Dalek said a lot of things, and I was so angry, and I told the hitmen that I wanted—"
He stopped and started again, his words jutting up sharply into the air.
"I wanted them to burn him alive." He said. He turned around slowly and met Clara's slightly-widened eyes, his damp and aching. "I didn't—I was just so angry with him, Clara. I was furious because he didn't care about you. He didn't care about how lovely you are, or how strong, or how clever. He just wanted you dead and he was willing to do terrible things to make that happen, things that you don't deserve, that you never deserved—and…and I was in a place to stop it from happening. I wanted to burn him to death like you burn me, but I wanted it to be everything from pleasant. I wanted him to suffer."
She watched warily as he crossed the space between them quickly, slowly lowering down until he could take her hands in his. His hands were almost as cold as hers, even as he clutched her fingers tightly. His eyes pierced hers.
"I never wanted anyone else to be hurt." He whispered. His eyes studied hers desperately, the lines on his forehead carving deeper in his distress. "I didn't want this. I just wanted to see you mend."
And it was all clear then, so he needn't have worried. Clara watched him and she understood. All those innocent people hadn't burned alive by any fault of his. They'd burned alive because of her. Over a hundred innocent people were ashes, and it was because she lived. Because she wasn't strong enough to accept her punishments (however vile they might have been) and bow out. She wasn't brave enough to realize that perhaps her life was this hard for a reason (that reason being she wasn't meant to still be here). For a moment life felt like a wild horse she'd seen once on the Travel channel, bucking frantically to throw the rider off his back, and the tighter the man clung the angrier the horse got and the worse the final fall ended up. She'd never had the right tact.
She slid slightly to the left, watching her hands slip from the Doctor's loose grasp. She stood slowly and listened to the frenzied pounding of her heart. She tried to count them, tried to pretend each beat was a person's life, but by the time she got to fifty only twenty-seconds had passed and she was sick.
"I think I want to go home now." She whispered. Suddenly she couldn't imagine lying anywhere but her four poster bed that she hadn't been in in months. The coldness that had once seeped into those sheets was now encasing her heart.
The room was tilting and she wasn't sure if it was from the sudden rush of blood from her head to her heart or from her distress. She watched the Doctor's face crumble and he stood too quickly, eliciting painful-sounding cracks from his lower spine. He hardly seemed to notice. She called Noel to her and put her leash on. She backed up towards the door as he retraced her steps. He shook his head slowly and hardly seemed to notice he was doing it.
"No. Clara, please don't go." He whispered. She could hear genuine tears in his voice as his words shivered and shook. He reached out for her as she reached the door, his cold palm pressing to her shoulders as his fingers curved to grip her. His eyes were hot and watery, boiling with anxiety and terror. "I didn't want those people to die. I didn't want to do this. I didn't want it!"
She remembered hazily how it felt to plead almost the same thing when she was high and he was retreating back from her in disappointment and horror. She remembered her paralyzing fear, remembered how just the thought of living life without him seemed a cruel torture. She reached up and set her hand over his.
"I'm not mad at you," she said softly. She licked her dry lips and struggled to find the words. "I'm—I need to think. I'll call you, okay? I promise. I swear."
When she pulled her hand from his, he moved it over to his mouth. She watched him take a strangled breath in and blink against the tears building in his eyes. She could see that he didn't quite believe her, and that only made her sadder. What had she done in their time together to make him think her a liar?
She would have liked to have stayed. But the walls were shifting closer to her and her heart was racing and her own body was betraying her. The need to flee was instinctive, but as she raced down the stairwell of the building, she remembered an old lesson. You can't flee from yourself.
It took her the entire walk to her brownstone to understand what it was that set off that panic. She unlocked the small gate in the fence first and led Noel back there, who seemed more than ecstatic to be in familiar domain. Clara closed the gate and walked back to the front door afterwards. She inserted the key with shaking fingers and realized that she'd suddenly become bad again. After all those weeks of learning through touch and words that she was not what that stranger had insisted, she'd felt it again in that flat. Because she'd become responsible for something dirty. It was difficult to talk sense into herself when her chest was crushed with anxiety.
Her home was in similar disarray. She couldn't even push the door open all the way due to the piles of belongings strewn wildly across the floor, like dozens of people had been ripping through every drawer and cabinet for something that wasn't even there in the first place. Clara slid through the barely-opened door and stepped into the foyer, sidestepping a pile of what looked like John's best suits. She stood there for a long moment just scanning her eyes over the destroyed room, at all the frames shattered on the floor and mountains of teetering things, things that had been hers and John's, and she felt like something sharp was shaving bits and pieces off of her heart. She stood and she stared and her heart was shaved down until it was nothing at all. Just an echoing space in her chest.
She was methodical and pained as she slowly picked everything up. She started right there in the foyer and worked her way through every shambled room, putting everything back where it had once belonged. It took her four hours to get her home back to the way it'd been when she left it, but even then there was nothing much inside of her.
She sat quietly on the edge of her and John's bed, her palms cupping her knee caps. She scanned her eyes over their steel blue room, over John's opened closet door displaying his wild arrangement of bowties, over their chest of drawers and cobwebbed skylight and framed pictures. Their bed had once been the most comfortable place in the world. It'd once conformed perfectly to their quiet bodies and retained their warmth. But it was hard and cold beneath her thighs, the sheets dusty and stale. The home had died with him. So many things had died with him.
She shut her eyes and she breathed. There was a thin blade and it was trying to take more from her, but there was nothing left to take. Was that what it meant to be hopeless? Hopelessness wasn't hurting to the point of physical illness, nor was it running fast from something for ten years. It was nothing at all.
It was unfair that nothing could hurt you so much. It was unfair that someone could take so much from you, could dismantle your very being in the worst way possible, without even meaning to. There was no one to blame at all, and in those red days after his death she'd tried so hard to blame him. She'd needed someone to blame and he seemed to fit it if only she tried enough. He'd opened her up with soft, clumsy hands and he'd held her heart and he'd warmed it, mended it. And then he died and he left her wide open and gaping. And she'd let someone else in, someone with coarser hands with more lines, and he'd cradled her heart close to his own. But now she was closing herself back up. She stitched her own skin closed and let him keep the heart, because she didn't feel he needed to be inside of her dark chest, and she would surely only corrupt the heart anyway.
She was made up of odds and ends and roaring water as she slowly reclined back. Her head rested hesitantly on John's pillow and for a moment she couldn't move and she couldn't breathe, but then she turned over onto her stomach and it was real again. She thought to the many nights she'd cried on his shoulder over the same thing and she remembered how gentle his green eyes had been. He'd loved her so much. He'd loved her and it had all gone to waste.
When she began sobbing, she knew it was for more things than just the aching pain of missing her husband. She clutched his pillow and wept, tangled up in anxiety's web. The decade-old words were sticky in her memory. Don't you know it, girl? Pretty girls get their dues. This is your fault—this is all you. This is what you are. Bad. She'd taught herself never to believe words spoken from liquored lips, but even the strongest lessons can collapse. She'd never been an exception.
She wasn't sure how long she cried, but by the time the doorbell rang, her body was aching from lying in the same place for so long.
She spent a minute entertaining the idea of never getting off that bed, but she knew eventually her chest would be torn back open and her heart would be returned, and she'd be horrifically stunned that she could have ever wanted that.
Confusion mingled with deep relief when she opened the door wide. It was the first time in over a month she'd been free to open it without undoing chains and deadbolts and checking the peephole three times, but oddly, she didn't feel any freer because of that shift.
Rose and David looked down at her, David in concern and Rose with overwhelming relief. She leaned forward and wrapped her arms around Clara, bringing her close to her chest. Clara was stiff and shaking, but after a moment of inhaling Rose's shampoo she slowly began unknotting. It happened bit by bit until she was gripping Rose tightly, her nose pressed into the crook of her neck as she struggled to breathe. Rose rubbed her hand up and down Clara's back as she explained.
"I've been trying to contact you for weeks, Clara." She said softly. "At first you just weren't answering, and then this past week it went straight to voicemail, and I—"
"Panicked." David supplied. Clara was certain Rose aimed an annoyed glance his way, but she couldn't see anything but the insides of her eyelids. She preferred it that way.
"Let's go inside, yeah?" Rose suggested. "David, get our bags from the car, please."
Clara listened to David's heavy footfalls as he walked away, and she couldn't help but feel a brief flash of irritation. She wished he hadn't come. She wished it could have been just her and Rose, because she needed an exodus from all the awful feelings inside of her, and she was sure the only way to do that would be to share them with someone else. But her sister's husband was not someone she would have picked. She loved David, but he was a lot like John in a multitude of ways, and she hadn't been able to look at him since John's death. Much less speak to him.
Clara leaned into Rose's side as she wrapped her arm around her shoulders, leading Clara down the familiar path to the living room. If she noticed the shattered glass of the frame holding John's police box print, she didn't say anything. Nor did she mention the similarly cracked glass of the picture of them lying together in a snowdrift on their honeymoon. Broken glass had trailed after Clara her entire life.
They sat down together on the plush sofa. While Rose contemplated what to say, Clara clenched her eyes and her fists and struggled to hold back the violent panic inside of her.
"You look better," Rose complimented gently. "You look healthier."
Clara turned to look at Rose. She blinked back her tears and pushed the heavy words forward.
"I was better." She admitted. The words were drawn tight like strings on an instrument. As Rose's face fell behind a shadow of concern, the strings tightened and tightened and tightened. When she reached over and took Clara's hand, they all snapped in synchrony.
"I did a terrible thing." Clara whispered. She felt hot tears building in her eyes and they boiled over quickly, sliding slowly down her cheeks. She felt it was only Rose who could have reached up and gently brushed them away without Clara feeling the taut urge to pull away in the pit of her stomach. She cried even harder at that.
"Whatever it was, it wasn't your fault, and I forgive you." Rose said immediately.
Clara shook her head. She wanted to tell Rose what she'd done, but she couldn't find a way to string together the words in a way that made sense. It all ended up a frenzied gush of: I loved a man who wasn't my husband with every bit of light and dark inside of myself, and I ruined him. I sucked the goodness from him. He did an awful thing, a terrible thing, and he did it for my sake. His life is forever changed and it's because of me. I was the temptation.
But Rose couldn't understand those words without understanding Clara. She couldn't understand them unless she understood the other set of slurred words that haunted Clara even a decade afterwards, that weaved their way into her subconscious mind and tainted every thought if she didn't consciously fight against it. The Doctor had been a warrior. He'd been fighting it away for her for weeks, and it had seemed almost effortless on both their parts. But now she was seeing the toll it'd taken on him and her and she was destroyed because of it.
"I'm sorry I haven't been answering or calling," Clara said. The need to apologize was stifling. Rose was the closest thing to unconditional love she had. "I was swept up. I was selfish."
Rose curled her hand around Clara's upper arm and brought her close to her side. Clara could feel the warmth of her body and it made her cry even harder, though she wasn't entirely sure why. She just knew she felt she'd never be warm like that again.
"You don't have to apologize. I was just worried." Rose reassured her. "What's going on, Clara?"
David chose that moment to walk through the doorway, his and Rose's bags slung over his shoulders. He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Clara's tear-streaked face. Rose jerked her head towards the doorway and he wordlessly turned on the spot, mumbling something about taking the bags to the guest room. Clara was sure he'd sit up there until Rose came up and told him it was okay to go down, and she was glad for it. She couldn't let another heart witness any of this.
Clara could have lied. She knew Rose wouldn't push her. If she asked her to just sit with her and hold her, she would do it, and neither of them would have to explain a thing. But all the years of lying and deception had built up inside of Clara. They'd formed a dark world she didn't want to host any longer. She'd been giving that hour-long terror so much power over the past few years, just by shoving it away. The power it took to restrain it might have been double the amount of strength it took to face it. She was always making things harder for herself.
She shifted closer and turned her face, tucking it away against Rose's cream sweater. It took a few deep inhalations of Rose's floral scent to get the words free.
"Rose, I need to tell you something." She whispered.
Rose's fingers pulled almost mindlessly through Clara's tangled hair. Rose had always believed that love could fix anything, so Clara imagined this wasn't very scary for her. She sometimes wished they had been biologically related; she would have liked to have inherited that optimism.
"I'm listening. I always am."
It had been years since she'd said the words aloud. She hadn't had to tell the Doctor, which had turned out to be a miracle in itself. He knew what he read from that interrupted letter and he hadn't asked much else, and she hadn't offered it. It worked well like that. She'd told John the entire story, because it'd been the first time she'd really told someone and it'd all fallen from her once she said anything at all. And at that moment, she had no idea what she was going to say. She just knew that it'd be true and she hated so much that it was.
"Something happened to me when I was eighteen. A week before my birthday." She said quietly. She lifted her head only to turn it, so her cheek was pressed just below Rose's shoulder and her words were directed outwards. She took a shuddering breath. "I didn't tell you because…"
She stopped. She could suddenly feel every opportunity she'd had to talk to Rose about it, all the Christmas dinners, all the shopping trips, all the birthday dinners. They were heavy on her shoulders. Ten years' worth. Why hadn't she?
"I didn't want to burden you." She realized. She thought to John and how it'd weighed him down just a bit more, like the mere fact that someone's hands had mishandled her caused him irreversible scaring. And she remembered how it'd locked the Doctor into the corner and made him do this. "I didn't want you to have to live with it. Like I have to every day."
She could feel her muscles slowly knotting up with tension. Rose was less sure then.
"What happened?" She asked finally, but she asked it with the terrified air of someone who instinctively sensed exactly what was about to come.
For the first time in her life, there was no dancing around the matter. She forced herself to confront it bluntly and coldly. She forced herself to realize that letting those who loved her help her was never making herself a burden.
"I was raped and I spent a long time trying to pretend that it didn't happen. I think that made it even harder, because I buried it like something I was ashamed of, and for a long time I was. I felt so humiliated. I still feel like that."
She felt Rose's fingers still in her hair and she felt her breath get lodged somewhere inside of her chest. Clara would have retreated back from her, but she couldn't do it anymore. She couldn't punish herself by denying comfort and understanding from those she loved most.
"Oh, Clara." She whispered. The two words were broken and disjointed, the cadence split. She moved her hand to Clara's back and rested it there, her cheek resting lightly on top of her head. "I'm so sorry. I had no idea."
That was because that was exactly how Clara wanted it. She wanted her to have no idea at all.
"It's my fault. I should have told you." Clara admitted tearfully.
"No. No. You don't owe me anything. The only thing you should have done was take care of yourself." Rose reassured her. She was quiet for a moment longer. "Did you know him?"
Clara shut her eyes and thought of the black type of his name, the string of numbers on the hotel room keycard, the monogram on his cufflinks. She'd stored it all away in her memory like it might matter, like there was justice to be had, but there was none.
"I didn't before it happened. But I will never forget his name now." She paused. "It's funny. I don't think he even glanced at my nametag."
She had printed black letters engraved in her skin like they were carved with a scalpel, letters that felt scarred over and permanent, and he had no idea her name was Clara or that she sometimes had nightmares about leather belts and the sound of giving up.
Rose's voice was thick. "That's not funny at all."
"Very few things actually are, when you think about it." She admitted.
Rose moved her arms down and wrapped them around Clara, hugging her tightly. Clara exhaled deeply, and for a moment she was certain she'd just exhaled stale air she'd sucked in that very night in his hotel room. It was finally free from her lungs and all it'd taken was her sister's hug.
She could have told her what she'd inadvertently done to all those people.
But she was afraid her loving touch would turn into disgust.
Rose filled Noel's water bowl and let her back into the house while Clara stretched out on the couch, her eyes trained on the broken glass of John's police box print. She pet Noel when she flocked to her side, her lips turning up into a small grin despite everything at how pleased Noel looked to be back home. She sensed that something wasn't quite right, though. She kept sniffing the floor and cocking her head to the side.
"David," Rose called up the stairs. "Will you run to the story and pick up some dog food? And can you take Noel too, she keeps looking at her leash like she wants another walk."
David hadn't ventured downstairs yet. Clara could hear the TV in the upstairs theater. He paused it to respond to his wife.
"I'm more of a cat person, really."
Rose lifted her eyebrows, still looking up at the ceiling like she could glare a hole into the floor beneath her husband's feet.
"You're going to be a couch person tonight if you don't start being more of a help!"
"..but dogs are okay, too."
Clara listened as Rose told David what to get ("Get any bag for large dogs but the blue bag." "Got it. Blue bag." "I said not blue!") and kissed the top of Noel's head to tell her goodbye. David had only been gone for a few moments when Rose turned back to Clara.
"I'm still listening." She urged gently.
Clara found it easier than she thought it would be to tell her about her drug addiction. Rose must have suspected it, because if she was surprised, she didn't show it. She stuttered some when talking about Dalek, and by the time she was whispering an edited version of what had just occurred in Dalek's building, she was crying into her hands. She wanted to explain to Rose why it scared her, and why it made her hate herself so much, but she was realizing that perhaps that was something she didn't want to talk to anyone but the Doctor about. And she'd left him alone with his fear.
"It's all right," Rose murmured. She stroked Clara's hair and seemed to be at a loss for words. "It's not your fault at all. Whatever the CEO chose to do to protect himself doesn't affect you. It's okay. God, Clara, mom and I could have helped you with the drugs. We could have helped you with that man, Dalek. Why are you so insistent that you're alone? You have so many people who love you, who'd do anything for you."
Clara sobbed until she felt she was breaking open.
"Because I felt alone." She replied. "And it doesn't just affect him. It doesn't. It affects me, too, because I'm the reason he did it. Dalek was threatening to hurt me, and he did it for me. To protect me. I ruined him. It affects me because I love him and I don't want him to go away—I don't want to be without him!"
Her words curved up hysterically towards the end as the full weight of that possibility sank into her. He could get a life sentence for this. He could get locked away in jail and leave her forever. Clara pressed her face into her hands and quivered.
"What?" Rose asked carefully, her tone colored with surprise. "Are you saying that you and that man are…together? Jesus Christ, Clara. How long has that been going on? Last time I was with you two he was treating you like a complete asshole!"
Clara couldn't look at her. It wasn't that she was ashamed of the Doctor; it was just that she was ashamed that she hadn't told Rose. She'd been swept away and that was the only way she knew how to explain it.
"When Dalek locked us up in my office…and the Doctor helped me…" she stopped, her words halting. She leaned back and looked up at Rose's face. She was made up of blurred edges through Clara's haze of tears. "I thought I'd never be able to love anyone else ever again. You can't imagine how terrifyingly lonely that feels."
Rose was struggling to understand. "So…okay. So you've been dating him? It's official, like—you're committed?"
Clara was quiet for a beat. "We've been living together, basically."
Rose leaned back slightly, her blonde eyebrows lifted high with surprise. "Jesus Christ," she repeated.
Clara looked down and swallowed. "Yeah."
She didn't look up until she felt Rose's fingertips lightly touch her forearm. She glanced back up at her, her eyes still leaking. She wondered if they'd ever be dry again.
"Does he make you happy?" Rose asked.
Clara watched her image of Rose blur completely and then gradually clear as the tears spilled over, trailing hot down her cheeks. She reached up and grasped Rose's shoulder with shaking fingers. She couldn't determine why, but she felt suddenly that she'd been emptied out and filled back up. The sun had risen after years of being roped down—and her heart was going up with it. It was hard to speak around it.
"He reminds me how to make myself happy."
Rose smiled and it was the sun mounting after years of downpour—beautiful and forgiving.
"You'll have to thank him for me, then."
Clara smiled a bit bemusedly and laughed, reaching up to wipe her damp cheeks. Rose shook her head and then pulled her in for a tight hug. She whispered her next words into Clara's hair.
"When you came to us you were white as a sheet and you smelled like blood." She remembered. Clara didn't have to think very far to remember standing in their doorway on shaking legs, stooped over from the pain of the poorly-healing wound on her back, blood already seeping through her bandage and shirt. "I was afraid you'd leave that way, too."
Nothing left to bleed out, she almost said. And then she stopped.
There was nothing left to bleed out.
She called the Doctor in the morning. He was curt and wavering, with clipped responses and tight words. She caught a cab and sat on the edge of the seat the entire ride to the office, her legs bouncing up and down in anticipation. She streaked through the lobby and up the stairs, winding around and around until she finally reached their floor. Donna called something out to her as she ran through the lobby towards the Doctor's office, but she couldn't hear a thing.
He'd expected her, but not this wind-swept version. She watched his eyes widen as she shut the door behind her quickly, her legs carrying her over to him without any hesitation. He turned his chair to the side so he was facing her and she noted the slight shaking in his fingertips as she leaned down and gripped the lapels of his suit, dragging his mouth up to hers. She poured it all into the kiss: all her apologies, her regret, her fear, her sun. He caught flame and reached up hesitantly to grasp her face, hands clammy and lips weaker than usual. Clara parted their lips and rolled her forehead over his for a moment as she caught her breath, and then she let it all out.
"I'm so sorry for walking out—"
His lips pressed back to hers almost angrily and he gave her hair a gentle tug. His words were scattered between kisses, each word shoved into the brief pauses between their shared breaths.
"I'm sorry—it wasn't what I wanted—I just wanted—to protect you—"
Clara let go of his jacket all at once and watched him sink back against the chair, looking up at her with the most vulnerable expression she'd ever seen. She was towering over him for the first time, but she realized that's never where she wanted to be. Not really.
"I know." She told him. She turned and sat on the edge of his desk, her eyes trained on his face. He glanced from her to her heaving chest, his expression torn. "It's not your fault. And I forgive you."
He shook his head. He rose unsteadily to his feet and stood right in front of her, her knees pressing against his thighs. "All those people, Clara. How can you—"
She grabbed his jacket and pulled him back down to her, intent to consume his words and swallow them before he could burden either of them with any of it.
"I forgive you."
After all, if anyone knew about actions done in desperation, it was the girl who'd lied and destroyed for what felt like the majority of her life. And hadn't she too done it all with the best in mind? Perhaps that was the real tragedy of humanity; that even when you tried your hardest to do the best you could, to always treat people gently and with love, you ended up harming someone. There was no way around it. To live was to scar and be scarred and no amount of isolation or drugs could defer that, could make it any different. Clara just knew she wanted the rest of her scars to be from love and love only, and she'd do the best she could.
"You're a good man, Doctor." She told him. She scooted back on the desk, indifferent to the items she was knocking onto the floor, and she watched him as she reclined back onto the wooden surface. She gave his jacket a gentle tug and felt the lightness of relief weighing on her as he stepped between her parted thighs and leaned over her, pressing his lips back to hers. She absorbed the love communicated in the touch of his lips to hers, and when she pulled back, the words evaporated from her lips. "This is what you are. Good."
She thrived on his kisses and grew strong from the feeling of his skin beneath his clothes. Her heart raced and soon her hands did too, and he was flushed and senseless as he shoved the rest of the items off his desk and scooted them up onto it. Clara heard the thuds of books hitting the carpet and the light taps of pens hitting the books, but all she cared about was the Doctor's quick unbuttoning of her jeans and his lips on her neck. She touched him and she thought: I am good. At so many things, for so many people. And I can be better, too.
That was where to find your self-worth. Inside the goodness you did for others.
He had given her so much already. He'd given her far more than she'd ever anticipated receiving. But as he pushed into her, his face tucked against her neck, he breathed out a confession.
"You can be the boss, Clara."
Her body accommodated his far easier than her mind could make room for those words. She pressed her lips to his gray curls and it took a moment to reply, because when she opened her mouth, a short gasp left her instead. She felt the words forming somewhere far away in her mind as her body sparked with a consuming pleasure that slowly built in every corner, stars igniting in an endlessly black sky. She thought of floating with him amongst the planets, underneath warmth so perfect it felt like safety, each star born for her own veins and created by his hands. Perhaps the stars filling her soul were made in his image.
She pressed against his body and he caught on to what she wanted, a hand scooping beneath her head as another grasped her hip, and then he flipped them over. He was taller than her, so the few items still hanging on the edge of the desk were pressed beneath his shoulder blades and must have been hurting him, but he hardly seemed to mind. She could be the boss now, but as she'd realized the night before, she no longer needed to be. She paused long enough to lean forward and kiss him, and that's where she gave the words life.
"I'd rather be a team." She whispered.
And if their sex life was anything, it was absolutely a testament to the benefits of working together instead of against one another. Together they could reinvent the cosmos, and apart—well, she'd already tried that.
She was cleaning up in the bathroom when he spoke.
"Martha and Sarah Jane want to turn themselves in." He said lightly. Clara paused, her hand extended forward to shut off the faucet. She watched the water run and felt her muscles locking into place.
"But if they turn themselves in—"
"They turn me in, too." He completed.
She shut her eyes tightly. The water spiraling down the drain was suddenly emotionally taxing. She could have believed this was where it all went to shit again, but for once, she was adamant.
"No." She said. She reached forward and turned the water off and then she shook out her wet hands, her expression set. "They won't."
Martha and Sarah Jane were distraught, even if they both showed it in their own ways.
Clara watched Sarah Jane gnaw at her bottom lip and Martha wring her hands and she understood this was their way to search for inner peace. They were haunted by what they'd done.
"We never should have led the Doctor to those men." Martha deadpanned. She couldn't meet Clara's eyes. "We never should have gotten into this mess. It's our fault, and we should be held responsible for it. As should he."
Clara looked out at the grass, her chest compressed with fear she couldn't let herself succumb to. She watched a little girl chase after her brother, her hair trailing after her in a strawberry blonde streak. She had the sudden, irrational urge to run over and take the little girl's hand and tell her: if you do a bad thing, that doesn't make you bad. If bad things happen to you, that doesn't make you bad, either. You can always be new. She glanced back at Martha.
"None of you wanted this to happen. The Doctor said he told them to just take care of Dalek. He's been calling them almost nonstop, but their phones go straight to voicemail. Why do you think that is?"
Sarah Jane caught on quickly. "You think they're dead?"
"I think they burned, too. I think it all went terribly wrong, and I think Dalek was the one who made sure that it did. Whether to protect information or to punish us—I don't know. But why would these men do so much work and put themselves at so much risk, only to disappear and never even try to claim the money they were doing it for in the first place?" She asked.
She'd had many nights to think about it. It'd been almost two weeks since the fire, and even though the arson investigators were still declaring the cause "inconclusive", she knew something must have been off by the silence of the media. And she knew those men wouldn't have done something so damning without coming for their payment. She watched the Doctor wake in a cold sweat, tormented and stricken, night after night. Sometimes it only took a kiss, but sometimes he couldn't go back to sleep. She'd spent many pale dawns with him on the living room sofa, playing pointless games or reading together or watching shit TV, anything to get his mind off it.
"Do you have any evidence to prove that Dalek murdered those people?" Martha asked.
Clara had expected that question.
"No. Not yet."
Rose and David had stayed for a week, and after they left, Clara and Noel went back to the Doctor's apartment. He'd gotten a king-sized bed and Clara would have enjoyed the nights they spent in it more if he didn't wake up in such a calamitous mood most nights. He was suffocating and she had no idea how to provide him with oxygen.
He felt what Martha and Sarah Jane felt, what Clara had been suffocated by after she'd first learned of what happened. They felt themselves responsible for the painful death of all those innocent people.
But Clara didn't see the capacity for such evil in any of them. She had, however, seen it inside of Dalek.
Her first boyfriend was Randy Elks and he'd had a soft spot for her. She hadn't spoken to him in years, but she'd watched him climb to the top from afar. He'd been chief of police for five years before he got into politics, and now he was running for senate. He'd left her in the lurch once his infatuation died down, and she'd always felt he'd owed her something for that. And now she was in his office to get her due.
"Coffee? I can have my assistant fetch some for you." Randy proposed.
He kept looking at her with consuming eyes. Clara couldn't stop feeling the stare of his wife and children from the photo atop his desk. She crossed her legs and smiled politely.
"No, thank you anyway." She said. "How have you been?"
He leaned back in his chair and reached up, tugging some at his tie. She could hear the firm leather of his shoes squeaking as he flexed his feet.
"Great," he nodded. "Really great. I've got everything I ever wanted. How about you? I heard you're COO- congratulations. You must be very happy."
Her smile was small. She inclined her head. "Well, I'm getting there."
A heavy silence fell over them. He clapped his calloused hands together.
"So, Clara, would you be interested in catching up over drinks? I've—"
"No, actually, I'm here to ask you for a favor." Clara interrupted.
His words jammed in his throat. His eyes bulged slightly with surprise, like it hadn't occurred to him that little Clara would have grown up enough to not only turn down his affections, but to also ask something of him. She leveled a look his way that always made her clients cave and accept lower prices than previously agreed upon, and predictably, it worked.
"Oh. Yes, of course. What is it you need?" He asked.
Clara took a deep breath. "I need a recommendation."
He paused. She watched his face crease.
"For…a job? Clara, we never even went to school together, I don't think I'm qualified to speak of your work ethic."
"Not for a job. For information." She clarified.
He shook his head. "I'm not sure I understand."
The lies were natural. She even felt her eyes grow damp. "One of the men who died in that fire was my friend. The media isn't telling us anything at all, and I'm—so torn up. I can't sleep at night. I wake up constantly, and sometimes I can't even go back to sleep. I feel like it's all my fault because he was supposed to be out of town with me that week, but someone else ended up going in his place instead. I just want to know what happened. I want to know why my friend is dead. Please. You used to be chief of police, they all trust you. Tell them to tell me. I'd just like to know what they've unearthed. I'll sign anything you want promising I won't go to the press. This is for me."
He looked reluctant. "Well…"
She leaned forward slightly. "You could even call them now. You could write down what they say, let me read it, and then tear it all up. We can pretend it never happened." She widened her eyes and made her lip tremble. "Please, Randy."
He considered her. She knew he must have been thinking of the fumbling of his hands on her skin when they were teenagers.
"Okay." He caved. It was as easy as she'd figured it'd be. He sagged underneath the weight of her pleas. "I'll see what I can find out. Give me a moment."
She sat in the chair while he paced the room and talked with the present chief of the squad handling the investigation. She looked at his blonde-haired wife, at the diamonds on her neck and the blinding white of her smile. She wondered if she knew her husband leered at exes and asked them out for drinks after only a few shared words.
Her contemplation was interrupted as Randy sat back down, ending the call on his phone. He spat out all the information in a quick rush.
"The fire was believed to have been started in a metal trashcan in Andrew Dalek's office. The flame spread to the sofa and curtains and engulfed the room from there. Andrew Dalek left the office and walked out into the main lobby of floor twenty-one. They've recovered one witness from the lower floors who's come forward saying that Dalek called him and insisted he bar the stairwells for floors twenty and twenty-one. Officials are unsure why it was those two floors, but they believe it's because they mainly handled the finances. The doors were locked and all those people were unsuccessful in their attempts to break free, because the smoke made it impossible for them to breathe. Right now they're ruling it arson by Dalek's hand. The man who locked the doors is being charged with one hundred and two counts of second-degree murder, although his attorney is trying to plea it down to voluntary manslaughter. He says his client was brainwashed. Bull shit, in my opinion. He was probably just as guilty as Dalek of extortion."
Clara looked to the side and exhaled deeply, her eyelids fluttering shut. Her lips played up in a brief smile, one that she had to work to keep off her face. Her heart was warm with relief, and she felt terribly for it, because all of those people were dead. But the man she loved was on his way to being able to sleep at night. She'd make sure of it.
"I figured. He was always an odd man, Dalek. A fucking bastard if I ever knew one." Clara bit out. She paused and glanced toward Randy. The words left her before she could second guess them. "He had a way of keeping his employees underneath his thumb. I have reason to believe he threatened many people. I would be willing to testify to that." She stood up and extended her hand for Randy to take. He took it gently, his expression mildly confused.
"Thanks, Randy." She smiled.
He smiled back tightly. "Sure thing, Clara."
The Doctor had already known what really went on inside of Dalek's building by the time the news ran a story about the nameless, corrupt man who went by "Andrew Dalek", but his face still evened out with relief anyway.
It wasn't all fine. Martha and Sarah Jane felt themselves less responsible and promised to put it in the past, but the Doctor and Clara still thought about it far too much. It was true that Dalek had intentionally murdered all of those people, but those hitmen had sparked the flame, and the Doctor had given them the matches. And Clara had pressed them into his palm.
They were all victims of their circumstances. But Clara was trying every day to be more of a survivor.
ONE YEAR LATER
The Doctor stood up from the mattress and took a few steps back over the worn carpet, watching expectantly as Clara lowered herself down onto it. She relaxed back slowly, her eyes finding the ceiling as she thought. He felt his expression turn into a grimace when she frowned.
"Too soft." She declared dismissively.
The Doctor narrowed his eyes.
"So not at all like your heart, then," he growled lowly.
Clara lifted herself up onto her elbows and stared at him with irritation.
"I know how fond you are of these overrated prototype mattresses, but I told you! These are no good on my back!"
He crossed his arms. "Clara, you're barely fucking thirty-one years old, I swear you go on like an eighty-year-old woman half of the time."
She pointed at him. "I've got back problems; you don't have to be a certain age to have back problems, you grumpy—"
A shop attendant slid up to the foot of the display bed, face stretched in a false smile.
"May I offer some assistance?" She asked cheerfully.
"Unless you know how to stop a domestic, probably not." The Doctor muttered.
Clara rolled her eyes. He watched as she collapsed back onto the mattress. She looked to the worker.
"Mattresses without proper support make my back hurt. He says firm mattress make his hips hurt. We're looking for a mattress for our vacation home and this is the third week we've been looking."
The woman's smile turned awkward. "Yes, I've noticed. You come in here at lunch time every day and argue. That's why I've figured out a solution."
The Doctor examined her slightly concerned expression and realized that she probably didn't understand the way their relationship worked. To her, they probably seemed on the brink of splitting up. She had no idea that they argued this angrily at lunch only to head right back to their flat or office to fuck and make up. It had turned into a surprisingly pleasant routine. The Doctor was halfway convinced that they were both making themselves hate each mattress just so they could keep it up. It was more a game at this point than anything.
"A solution? Christ, I'd love to hear it!" The Doctor spat, but when he glanced quickly at Clara from the corner of his eyes, he saw the glow to her skin. She knew he loved this just as much as she did.
"We make custom-made mattress. Surely you've seen the posters?" She gestured towards the wall, where the poster towered from the floor to the warehouse ceiling. "You simply go through here, write down the mattress each of you like, and we'll make you one to your preferred size with each half to your liking."
The Doctor had seen the posters. He just hadn't said anything, because it was the solution, and he was certain they were having too much fun to have it end now. But their two week holiday was coming up and time was dwindling.
One look at his girlfriend tipped him off to the fact that she too had noticed. She looked at them with exaggerated surprise.
"Oh! Well, that's lovely. Isn't that lovely, dear?" She cooed.
He glared at her. He hated her "pleasant housewife" routine. She only did it because she knew it flustered him. While the woman looked back to him with a pleasant smile, Clara had the nerve to wink suggestively.
He turned to the woman to reply when he heard Clara's phone ding. He felt his heart sink and he lifted his wrist, glancing quickly at his watch. Damn.
Clara stood up from the bed and straightened her skirt, turning to the woman with a polite smile.
"We'll be back this time tomorrow, thanks!" She said hurriedly.
The Doctor reached over and took her hand as they walked from the shop. Her fingers melded between his and he was so caught up in the warmth of her that he hardly noticed the slap of the cold early-December wind.
"I'll try to get back to the office in time for the meeting, but you know how Nina talks." Clara said. He glanced down at her and admired the way the weak sun lit up a multitude of colors in her hair.
"I can stall, if need be. Take your time." He replied. He felt a pang of longing in his chest as he brought them to a stop and pulled them to the side of the sidewalk. He folded her into his arms and rubbed his hand up and down her back, his lips pressing briefly to the side of her face. "Don't forget to pick up our clothes from the cleaners on the way over. We should probably get ready at the office; we'll be cutting it close if we go all the way home."
"Yeah, all right." She grumbled into his shirt. He felt her fingers play with the buttons for a moment. "We don't have anything to do tonight or tomorrow morning, do we?"
He tightened his arms around her, content to absorb as many minutes as he could into their moment of stolen time together.
"No. As soon as the party is over, we're free." He promised.
She popped open the three bottom buttons on his shirt, cheekily sliding her hands up it. He felt her palm settle over his heart as she pulled back and puckered, imploring him to lean down. He obliged and kissed her deeply, his hands gripping her ass. Her lips curved up in amusement against his.
"Thank God." She said, once she lowered back down. "We've got to make up from our quarrel. I'm very angry with you."
He leaned down and kissed the slight crease on her nose. He worked his own face into a scowl.
"I'm so cross I can't even stand to look at your face." He insisted.
She scoffed. "Asshole. Get your hands off me."
"Get your hands off me." He challenged.
She grimaced. "With pleasure!"
He gently pushed her back as she took a step backwards. He redid the bottom buttons while she worked bravely to keep her glare in place.
"Don't even bother apologizing right now. I'm too angry to accept it." He told her lowly.
She looked up at the sky, huffing dramatically with anger. "I can't even talk to you right now. In fact, I don't know if I can talk to you ever again."
He crossed his arms. "Fine. Leave then. See if I care."
She pointed at him. "Fuck you, Doctor."
They glared fiercely, cheeks red, and then the Doctor glanced back at his watch. Their stolen time had run over considerably. She was going to be late if she didn't hurry.
"So I'll see you at two-thirty?" He asked, just to make sure. He liked to have a certain time to look forward to.
Clara grinned and bounced a bit on her feet. She nodded. "Absolutely! Fucker."
"Bye. Be safe."
"You too. As if I care."
But he hesitated long enough to make sure she got into her cab safely, because he did care. That was one of the few things he knew without any doubts at all. He strolled back to the office with a smile on his face.
"I was under the impression that the COO would be joining us for this meeting as well."
The Doctor glanced from the door back to the client. He nodded with surety.
"She will be. She had a meeting before this and it must have run over." He explained for the thousandth time. "We both appreciate your patience. I'm sure you understand why I don't want to discuss this without her input."
The man nodded politely. "Yes, it seems quite logical."
A heavy silence weight awkwardly on them. The Doctor almost jumped from his seat with relief when he heard the door open. He turned and watched Clara hurry in, her cheeks flushed from running. She sank down beside him immediately. She carried the scent of the church- all incense and bad coffee.
"I apologize for my tardiness." She told the client, but when she reached over and touched the Doctor's thigh from underneath the table, he knew the words were directed towards him more than anything. He took comfort in knowing when to expect her, and it always made him nervous when she was late. No one had threatened them since Dalek was gone, but those fears would live inside of him forever. She was his greatest asset, after all.
"No problem at all." The man replied curtly. "Now, I understand you're looking into merging with our travelling agency…"
The Doctor wouldn't have admitted it to her, but he spent a good amount of the meeting focusing on the skin of her thighs. He kept his eyes on the man and nodded at the right times, adding input where input was needed, but for the majority of the time he was busy tracing Clara's inner-thigh with his fingertips, his heart relaxed and content. There were very few days when he didn't feel relaxed and content. They'd decided to bury their pasts and they'd dedicated themselves to that decision, even if sometimes the past rose from the grave and had to be reburied. It was all part of the cycle.
They shook the man's hand, promised to stay in contact to work out the fine details, and then they rushed up to Clara's office. They had an hour to get ready before they had to be at the annual dinner venue. They were doing it months earlier this year, due to their business plans. If everything went well with the traveling agency joining on, Clara and the Doctor would be spending the majority of the next year traveling and picking venues for vacation packages.
Clara did her makeup in the bathroom while the Doctor replied to a few emails. He'd pulled his suit on and was in the process of pulling his socks on when Clara stepped out, a sight in her strapless red gown. She'd knotted her hair at the back of her head.
"Lady in red," he said fondly. He finished tugging his sock up and sat up straight, smiling at her. He motioned for her to come over and she sat down beside him. She slid a hand down his navy jacket.
"I can't wait to take this off of you."
He smiled down at her. She was mad, but it was a madness he cherished. He caught her hand and brought it up to his lips. Underneath the scent of the soap in the bathroom he could smell that over-brewed coffee.
"How was your NA meeting?" He asked her. He dropped her hand back down and she leaned against his side.
"Oh, same as always. A lot of people cried. Nina brought three bags full of McDonalds French fries and poured them out on this giant tray during snack break—you should have seen how happy everyone got. Then we had to write down all the reasons we started using drugs and then put the sheets of paper through this huge paper shredder—that was actually kind of fun, though." She mused.
He laughed. "Sounds more eventful than the meeting we just had was, anyway. Does Nina still want you to speak at that convention?"
"She's still asking, yeah. I'm not so sure about it, though."
He reached over and rubbed her leg reassuringly. "You've got time to decide."
She shrugged, but he caught the smile on her face as she leaned over to pick up her heels. He watched her slip them on her feet and the words billowed in the air around them. He wanted to catch them and give them to her, but he knew he didn't need to. I'm proud of you.
This time, he had no speech prepared for him.
He smiled at the audience and they smiled back at him, watching him calmly. He was no longer a terrifying uncertainty to those working at Everest. He had Clara to thank for that.
His eyes sought her out, a bright beacon in the audience. She was beaming and he watched her lean over to whisper something to Rose, her eyes still chained on him. He smiled at her and then looked back to the audience.
"Tonight is about all of our successes over the past year, financially and otherwise, but it's also about the future." He started. He spotted Amy rolling her eyes theatrically, and he didn't have to imagine what she was leaning over to her husband to hiss. Like he's any better at this than me! He should have let me write it!
"And when I look to my future, I find myself thinking quite a lot about Dr. John Smith. I never knew him. I will never pretend that I did. But I feel the need to thank him every single day, because everything I have in life was once made better by his life. He did so much for this corporation. We've had a run of successful seasons since I've started, but a lot of that is simply because the corporation was in such a good position when I took over, all thanks to John Smith. More than anything, I wish I could thank him for all the love he extended to Clara Oswald, because she is what I cherish most and anyone who made her life joyful is a man I wish I'd known."
Clara's eyes were shimmering when he glanced at her. She'd taken Rose's hand and he paused, worried he was upsetting her. She gave him a small smile and nodded her head. He looked back to the audience.
"I'm more proud than I can say of each and every one of you. We've earned more this year than we've earned in the past three years combined, and it's all because of your dedication and brilliant minds. We've got great things planned for this corporation, but tonight, I think it's fair to say we've earned the right to just celebrate all the good we've done. Great job, everybody."
The applause was roaring and odd somehow. He had to look down at himself as he walked back to the table to make sure it was still him. He'd never been applauded so genuinely in his life, and he realized that it was because he was genuine himself now. All it'd taken was getting broken up by love.
He watched Clara walk up to the stage. Her step stool was missing, as it always was, and the audience laughed as Jack ran across the room with his chair. He carried up on stage and set it down beside the podium. He detached the microphone and gave it to Clara, and she pressed it to her dress for a moment as they shared a few words. The Doctor watched her happy smile as she sat down in the chair and let Jack have the microphone.
"This gentleman you see before you goes by the name of Jack Harkness, and for any curious men or women in the audience, my phone number is 212-83—"
Clara stood from the chair and snatched the microphone from Jack's hands, giving him a sour look. He scoffed and reached behind her, lifting the chair clean off the floor. He stuck his nose into the air as he carried it right back to the table.
Clara looked out into the audience incredulously.
"Well, I had an entire speech planned, but now it's slipped my mind." She admitted. There was scattered laughter and talking throughout the audience as Jack made a scene of grinning proudly and propping his feet up on the back of Ianto's chair.
"There's not much to say that the Doctor hasn't already said perfectly. Thank you all for your hard work and I hope the next year is just as wonderful. All my love to the Doctor, who is doing a magnificent job as CEO, no matter how complicated of a job I've made it at times. Honestly, all my love to the Doctor for sticking with me, no matter how complicated of a life I've made it. Life can sometimes seem like a flame; it's so easy to get out of hand, and things can spread places you never meant for them too. But in the end everything ends up exactly the way it was meant to be, and something wonderful can always come from the ashes." She paused and grimaced, meeting the Doctor's eyes. "Yeah. Thank you!"
She leaned into his side once she was back in her chair. She reached over and gripped his knee.
"I've been spending way too much time listening to inspirational spiels, haven't I?" She hissed.
He bit back his laughter. "Little, tiny bit."
They were halfway through dinner when Jack stumbled up to the table, bright pink lipstick on his neck. The Doctor had been so wrapped up in his conversation with Clara, Rose, and David that he hadn't even noticed Jack's absence. He leaned between the Doctor and Clara's chairs.
"You'll never believe what I've been doing for the past thirty minutes." He bragged.
The Doctor looked back at him. "You couldn't even wait until the actual party?"
"Men like me don't have to wait until the actual party." Jack said. He reached forward for Clara's wine, frowning when she smacked his hand away. "Are we still going to London for Christmas shopping tomorrow?"
Clara spun around in her chair quickly, her expression set. The Doctor felt similar horror in his gut at that idea.
"No! That's next weekend, remember? Tonight's the only night the Doctor and I have to stay up as late as we want to." Clara reminded Jack.
He reached for the Doctor's wine glass this time. The Doctor glared at him until he slowly pulled his hand back.
"That's your own fault for being so busy all of the time. Just have sex at the party like I am. No need to make a big deal out it. You're scheduling it like married couples and it's gross and I hate it."
"Fuck off, Jack." The Doctor and Clara said in unison.
He glared. "I almost liked you better when you hated each other."
"Next weekend. We'll go and shop for as long as you like. I'll pay for your airfare and everything." Clara promised.
Jack perked up considerably. "Deal!"
During the party, the Doctor couldn't help but think about the first one he'd been to. He'd spent the entire time sitting alone in a corner, miserable. He thought about it with humor for a while, but after his third drink, he forgot about it entirely. He spent most of the night curled up in a corner with Clara, her head resting on his chest and her laughter filling the noisy air around them. She was sober and he was drunk, but she was still as beautiful as she always was. He leaned down and kissed her after she made some comment or another about how hilarious he was while intoxicated, and when he pulled back and stared down at her star-filled eyes, he was filled with so much love that he was sure it would destroy him.
He knew it then.
This job was not his victory. This job had been his gift. And he had never been more thankful.