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Betwixt the stars and the unaccomplished fate

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“Clara! I have a problem.”

Clara didn’t bother looking up from the essays she was marking as the TARDIS materialized in the corner space she left cleared in her flat and the Doctor burst out, coat flapping about him. She fervently hoped that whatever problem the Doctor had wasn’t as bad as the time he ran out of the TARDIS holding an alien egg and ruined her best sheets and her tea kettle in the process of ensuring that it hatched. OK, so it had been a cute baby. Still. She had liked that kettle.

He began pacing in front of her desk, and she scratched a note on the essay. “Do I have time to finish marking this?” She waved her pen at the paper in front of her. When he didn’t respond, she shrugged and went back to work.

“I actually need your advice,” he finally admitted.

“About what?”

“About sex.”

Clara’s hand slipped, leaving a giant red mark across the essay as she dropped both it and the pen. “I’m sorry, what?”

“I said I need your advice about sex.” He finally faced her, those high cheekbones flushed with color. “You really need your hearing checked.”

“Oh no. No, no, no, no. No.” Clara pushed back from her desk. “There are limits to friendship, and you just hit it. No, not hit it. Bowled across it, and that doesn’t even count the time you informed Danny that my hips weren’t suited for childbearing and that he should consider alternatives.”

“Well, they really aren’t. All skinny and narrow and small. You’d really have quite the issue there. There’s some really safe Caesarean surgeries in the 27th century, and you wouldn’t even have a-”

Doctor!” Clara pinched the bridge of her nose and wondered if she had a new bottle of paracetamol in the loo. “Back to the issue at hand. I am not giving you sex advice. I will do a great many things for you, but you’re on your own in the bedroom. Which, how is it even possible?”

“What? Sex? You’re a teacher, you should know about it.”

“I do,” Clara said through gritted teeth. “But you’re an alien!”

Now the Doctor goggled at her. “Aliens do have sex, Clara. You’ve seen that often enough.”

“Naturally, considering that procreation is a thing that happens! But you don’t.”

He scoffed. “Of course I have! I was married! Twice officially, we won’t count the others.”

“But that still doesn’t mean you’ve had sex.”

“One can’t be married to River Song and not have sex!” With that, his cheeks turned scarlet and he stalked into her kitchen.

Clara stood by her desk for a few shocked moments, digesting what the Doctor had just admitted. She swallowed, rubbed her eyes, and suddenly missed Danny with a sharp ache that she hadn’t felt in months. She followed the Doctor into the kitchen to find him tinkering with various old appliances she found in charity shops and brought home just for that purpose. “You’re not kidding, are you?”

The Doctor grunted as he methodically took apart a hand blender.

“I didn’t think … I thought you two just sat about discussing quantum physics or playing chess. You can’t even stand to hug people or even hold their hand! How could you possibly have sex?” She shook her head and leaned on the counter, watching him work. “Doctor, I’m not the right person to talk about this with.”

“Well, whom am I supposed to talk about it with?”

“You know loads of people! You probably know Freud himself!”

He pulled his sonic out of his pocket and waved it at her before using it on the blender. “I did teach a form of hypnotism to him …”

“See? Quite frankly, Doctor, I am not in any sort of position to discuss sex with you.”

“But, surely you and P.E. …”

“Don’t even finish that sentence,” Clara cut in, her cheeks nearly as red the lining of his jacket.

The Doctor sighed and inspected one of the parts he held. “How can I be with River if I can’t even touch her?”

Clara started to give a flippant response, but the look in his eyes as he avoided her gaze gave her enough pause that she hesitated. She’d only seen it once before, in his bow tie and tweed days, when she informed him about meeting an echo of River Song just before they first went to Trenzalore. He hid his pain and longing for his wife so well that he barely spoke about her until he’d given into tears at the mention of her name. She swallowed. Hard. “Doctor, is this some sort of convoluted way of telling me that River’s alive?”

“I may have found a way to get her out of the Library,” he admitted. “To do that, well … there’s something I have to do first. But once I do, she’ll be there. And alive. And well … It’s River.”

“Maybe we should worry more about getting her out of the Library than worrying about the sex part,” she gently told him.

The Doctor abandoned his fiddling and shoved his hands into his pockets. “But that’s just it. With the timelines the way they are, she can’t go back to bow tie me. Well, she could, but there’s not many parts of his timeline she can revisit now without rewriting everything. So there’s me. What can I offer her other than a broken man who’s too skittish to touch her?”

Clara worried her lip and prayed fervently that she didn’t somehow make things worse. After the previous Christmas, she and the Doctor had finally gotten past all their secrets and developed a true friendship that was akin to master and apprentice. Her gaze fell on the Doctor’s left hand and the two rings he wore there. A thick signet ring and plain band beneath. “What’re the rings for? You put them on shortly after you regenerated. You never said why.”

The Doctor glanced down at the rings and fiddled them absently. “They’re just rings. They don’t mean anything.”

“Bollocks.”

“You shouldn’t swear like that. I thought teachers weren’t supposed to swear?”

Clara snatched the Doctor’s hand and tapped the signet ring. “This is pretty. Which, yes, you’re a vain man. I get that. But this,” she slid her finger over the plain band beneath, “is your standard wedding band you can pick up in any shop. You’re not human, but this is a very human custom. You never wore this before you regenerated, but you got it from somewhere. You put it on because it felt right. You keep it on because it didn’t stop feeling right.”

He snatched his hand back from her, scowling.

“Love it when I’m right. Go on, then. Tell me.” She gestured to the rings. “When’d she give those to you?”

“The gemstone ring was from my granddaughter actually,” the Doctor said.

Clara’s eyes widened. “The one you took to Akhaten?”

He grunted. “We got it there. I don’t want to forget her.”

Clara smiled. “Fair enough. And the wedding band?”

The Doctor averted her gaze. “It was a private moment with River, and that’s all I’m telling you.”

“Right, anything that involves the two of you with a distinct lack of clothes is nothing I want to hear about. Well, come on.” Clara moved into the front hall and scooped up her handbag and perused her coats. She shrugged, decided she would take whatever she needed from the TARDIS wardrobe, and slung the handbag over her shoulder. “Let’s go rescue your wife. Make sure I’m back in time to finish grading these essays.”

-----

He hadn’t been trying to look for a way to rescue River Song from the Library. With all the centuries on Trenzalore and his subsequent regeneration, the debilitating pain had managed to compartmentalize itself away in the portion of his brain reserved for bow ties, tweed, and Ponds. The Doctor missed his wife in a way he had never missed Rose Tyler or even his first wife. But the mere mention of River no longer threatened to send him into tears or caused his hearts to ache and ache for days. He could talk about her now, rub the wedding band she’d given him during one of their numerous wedding ceremonies, smile fondly over their adventures, and finally move on with his life. It’s what River would have wanted.

But suddenly the opportunity was there, and he couldn’t pass it up. Except …

It was a curious thing, his inability to withstand touch in this regeneration. His tenth self had been very touchy-feely, his eleventh self even more so. He had probably hit some sort of limit capacity when it came to physical contact in his last regeneration, he decided, and the Doctor was OK with this. There wasn’t the overwhelming drive to hold someone’s hand or give him or her a hug. Except …

“All right.” Clara’s voice shook him from his thoughts, and the Doctor stared blankly at her across the console. She had one eyebrow raised, in full teacher mode. “So, considering our last foray into resurrecting the dead turned out spectacularly horrible, what’s your grand idea?”

“It’s not like with Danny,” the Doctor replied, guilt tugging at his hearts because he really had done his best to bring Danny back to Clara. But in the end, it had been Danny’s choice to remain in the collapsing Nethersphere. “He chose to remain there when given the chance to get out. River never got that. I made the choice for her on both ends.”

“Yeah, don’t remind me,” Clara muttered and crossed her arms over her chest. “Like a book on a shelf, if I remember right.”

The Doctor nearly flinched. Instead, he scowled. “If it’s going to be that hard for you, I’ll take you home.”

She shook her head. “No. Well. It’s just …” She bit her lip. “I don’t understand why Danny stayed. He had the chance to live, to lead a full life. Instead, he sent some boy through that he never even told me about. It took me weeks to discover this was a kid that he accidentally killed in Afghanistan.”

“He gave the boy another chance at life.”

“But why didn’t he give himself that chance? He claimed he loved me, but if he really had, he’d come back.”

The Doctor was full of opinions about Danny Pink, approximately 78.2% of them not very complimentary. He normally was very happy to inform Clara about all of them, but the abruptness from the first few months of his rocky regeneration had settled and the last thing he wanted was an even more angry Clara. “You won’t take it out on her, will you?”

“What? Who? River?” Clara strode around the console so she could stare him in the eye. “Only if she refuses to come back to you. If she does, I’ll never forgive her. I’ll delete her from the database myself.”

Because Clara would very likely do that, the Doctor nodded. “I doubt she would pass up the chance to leave. I didn’t give her much choice to go there to begin with. But, there’s a catch, and it’s a big one.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and watched the time rotor move lazily. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“The catch involves you.”

------

Clara squinted at the monitor, watching as her doppelganger moved around a room stuffed full of books and various treasures from trips around the galaxy. Professor River Song’s office at Luna University. The time, according to the stamp on the bottom right corner and from what the Doctor told her, was approximately two weeks before Lux returned from the Library to inform everyone of what happened to River and her team.

“OK. This is all sorts of strange. Is that really me?” She frowned at the monitor.

“It’s an echo of you, one of the splinters from when you went into my timeline on Trenzalore,” the Doctor said as he poked through one of the bookcases ringing the console room.

“But why is it here? I thought they all went away once we came out of your timeline.”

“That’s what I thought. You see, I was on my way to check out an exhibit of Waxam sapphires when I spotted her. I shouldn’t have seen her. Shouldn’t even know she was there. Your echoes were only relevant to my earlier incarnations. Not this one.”

“Maybe she’s involved in something you forgot about. You are pretty old.”

“Shut up,” the Doctor muttered and joined Clara at the console. “No, I’ve checked into her.”

She shot him a disbelieving stare. “Are you stalking my echoes across time and space in your spare time?”

No. Why do I need an echo now when the real you’s here? Plus, all the echoes disappeared after Trenzalore. All but this one. What is this particular echo doing that you can’t do yourself?” He motioned to the monitor. “Take a look at the paper she’s holding.”

Clara sighed and froze the monitor, using the hand controls on the TARDIS console to zoom into see what the Clara echo held. “The Missing 4,022: Theories of What Happened in The Library. She’s doing a paper on the Library? Why?”

“Right now, a younger version of myself has River Song on their last date.” His voice trembled slightly. They both ignored it. “River and her team leave tomorrow. But here’s the thing: I don’t remember anyone resembling you in the Library. Since Trenzalore, I’ve been able to place a good many of your echoes in earlier parts of my timeline. But not this one.”

“Because her purpose isn’t to save you. It’s to save River?”

“Saving River saves me, apparently. In your eyes, that is. There’s a way for her out of the Library, but it involves making a switch. She’ll get out, but you’re going in her place. Your echo that is.”

Clara spun away from the monitor to jab a finger in the Doctor’s face. “No! You’re not condemning me … her to the same sort of existence that River’s in!”

“She’s an echo. She'll fade the moment she's uploaded, mission in life fulfilled. She won’t know what she’s missing. Not like River does. She’s part-Time Lord. She senses time and space much like I do, and being confined in a database is worse than death for a Time Lord. So, why did I do it? Why did I preserve her, knowing that?”

“Because somehow, you knew that a future you would get her out?”

“Exactly!”

“Then why did you bring me here?” Clara punched his arm.

“Ow!” The Doctor jerked away, rubbing the injured limb. “That was uncalled for.”

“No, what was uncalled for was dragging me along to see a version of me be seduced by you to die to save your wife. You couldn’t even save Danny, but you’re using me to get what you want.” Tears burned, and she refused to let them fall.  Not in front of him. “It’s perfectly OK for you to have your wife, but not for me to have Danny.”

“Danny made his own choice to stay. Don’t blame me because he wasn’t enough of a man to stay alive for you.”

Clara’s slap echoed through the console room. She stormed away, dashing her hand furiously at her eyes as the battle against tears became too much. With a sob, she pushed into the first door she saw and vaguely noticed the plush sofas and overstuffed pillows piled atop them. She sank onto one, pulling a pillow into her lap and burying her face in it as she cried for everything she had lost.

-----

It was almost painfully easy. The Clara echoes he’d met in the past were naturally feisty women, much like the one he left on the TARDIS. All answered to a higher calling that appeared to be saving him. It’d taken little work for the Doctor to befriend one Ellie Oswin, telling her that he was River Song’s spouse. Ellie, it turned out, was River’s graduate assistant who had missed the trip to the Library to work on her thesis and was willing to do anything to get her mentor back among the living – even take her place in the Library.

The solution was painfully simple, and one that Ellie had devised herself over the months that he had cultivated the relationship from her point of view. On his end, it’d taken a matter of hours and several strategic hops forward in the TARDIS and ignoring the Clara-sounding voice in his head that maybe he shouldn’t be doing this.

The Doctor lingered in the doorway, one hand wrapped around the frame as he flicked a gaze back to the hall where the real Clara had disappeared. His thumb ran over the wedding ring on his fourth finger, and he could hear Amelia Pond’s voice in his head. It’s called marriage, you numpty. He’d always been a rubbish husband. Did he really think he could be any better if given a second chance? He closed his eyes and started to close the door, to walk away and forget all this. Let Ellie Oswin live a normal, boring, human life.

“Doctor?”

He let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding when he heard Ellie’s voice. Well, then. He stepped out to greet her.

“I’ve been reading up on the systems there, and I talked extensively with Mr. Lux,” she said as the Doctor escorted her back to the TARDIS. “It’s a basic data transfer that you could accomplish with ease. Upload me and download her, body intact. Easy peasey.”

The Doctor set the controls and eyed the young woman. Too easy peasey, he thought, and he wondered where the real Clara was hiding. Guilt ate at him, and he hated that. Hated that Clara had a very good point and that he was using this echo of hers just to get something so selfish, something he had no right whatsoever to obtain. His days with River were finished, filed away. He had to let her go.  He had to.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked Ellie. “There’s no reversal to the process unless someone else wants to eventually take your place.” Except there won’t be anyone else, he silently added. Ellie would fade as soon as she entered the Library’s database, her existence as an echo fulfilled.

“Maybe. Perhaps. I feel like it’s my calling.” Ellie was too busy taking in the TARDIS to be listening closely. “All my life, this is what I’ve meant to do. And now I can really walk among the stories, all the ones saved to the Library. Not a bad way to do a thesis, eh? Besides, Professor Song wouldn’t leave me there. Pop back in a year or two and swap in a new grad student. I’ll use the interface to maintain contact with Luna.”

No, you won’t, no, you won’t, no, you won’t. With a dawning horror, the Doctor watched as Ellie detailed her plans. She thought she was going to come back. “You don’t realize what River was actually doing there, do you?”

“Of course I do!” Ellie beamed at him. “Mr. Lux informed the University that she had managed to teleport into the library’s archives and was conducting a throughout research of the contents. One-of-a-kind access, and think of all the knowledge! The Board was quite pleased, and they’re used to Professor Song’s prolonged absences during excavations. Didn’t he tell you that?”

No. No, of course not. He hadn’t bothered to check as his tenth self, and his eleventh self had been too much of an emotional wreck to even begin to handle the aftermath of River’s trip to the Library. “What else did he say?” he asked as the TARDIS landed.

“Are we here?” Ellie rushed to the doors and peeked outside.

“Ellie, this is important! What did Lux say?” the Doctor demanded as Ellie threw the door open to reveal the main database of the Library, bathed in sunlight. She rushed out of the TARDIS and he followed. He skidded to a halt, hearts lodged in his throat as he gazed at the place where he had left his wife so many centuries earlier.

Ellie strode to the terminal and sat, booting into the system. “Won’t take but a second!”

“Ellie!” The Doctor remembered how to move and rushed out after her. “Ellie, don’t do it! Tell me, what did Lux tell you?”

“Well, he didn’t tell me exactly,” Ellie said as her fingers flew over the keyboard. “He sent a message to the university through his new assistant.” She tapped her chin. “Ah … Missy! That’s the name. Missy. She said that Professor Song had found the promised land.”

His eyes went wide with shock. With utter panic. “Ellie, don’t do this! It’s a trap!”

Ellie ignored him, merely flashed a smile over her shoulder. “Oh, you clever boy. Remember me, won’t you?” She hit a key and disappeared in a flash of light.

Ellie Oswin has been saved …

The announcement echoed through the room as Clara stepped out of the TARDIS. She folded her arms over her chest as the Doctor stared at the spot where Ellie had been. She flitted her gaze about. “Is it done then?”

He wasn’t quite sure if he could speak without breaking to pieces.

Clara pushed off the door. “So, is she coming or not?”

“Shut up,” he bit out.

“I really will delete her-”

You will not do a thing to my wife, Clara Oswald,” he roared, the unleashed anger cutting her off and causing her to take a step back in reflex. He closed his eyes and took several measured breaths before he was reasonably sure he could speak in a normal voice. “It was a trap. It was Missy. Missy engineered this.”

Clara sucked in a breath and, blessed all the fates, didn’t say anything more. “I’m sorry,” she finally managed. “Is there anything I can do?”

He gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head. Feeling every inch of his age, he turned away from the mainframe and started toward the TARDIS. He would take Clara home. Then he wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do. First Gallifrey, now River. If Missy wasn’t already gone, he’d-

Initiating download.

“What?” Clara asked as the Doctor halted. She looked over his shoulder, her jaw dropping. “Oh my God. Doctor!”

He pivoted in time to see a flash of light. He threw an arm over his eyes to shield them from the intense glow, Clara turning her head away next to him. The glow radiated for several seconds, then began to retract. He dropped his arm as the light reformed into small particles, whirling around and around as they started to take a form. A humanoid one. Legs, arms, a face … his breath caught. And hair. A halo of curls going every whichway. The light solidified. Green eyes, blonde curls, oh god. He felt the telepathic hum in the back of his mind as it connected with the person in front of him.

“Oh!” Clara shook out of her stun, sprinting forward as the light faded to reveal River Song as he’d last seen her on Trenzalore, billowing white dress and all. She caught River as she stumbled forward on wobbling legs. “There now, take it easy. You’re all right now. You’re safe.”

River steadied herself as Clara wrapped an arm around her waist. She licked her lips and swallowed, casting her gaze about before focusing on Clara. “Clara.”

“Yeah,” she nodded, smiling brightly. “Yeah, you remember me?”

“Hard to forget the impossible girl.” River gave Clara a wan smile, patting the younger woman on the back as she found her balance. She straightened, posture growing straighter as her gaze met the Doctor’s. If she was surprised at the version of him that was standing there, she was hiding it. Instead, her smile grew wide and warm, her eyes sparkling. “Hello, sweetie.”

Beaming, Clara looked up to take in the Doctor’s reaction. She wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but she certainly didn’t plan to see the stunned look in his eyes. His face had gone a sickly white, and his fists were balled into his side. He swallowed once, spun on his heel and walked away. His steps grew faster and faster until he was nearly running from them, disappearing around a corner.