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This Life We Choose

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Mountains and valleys, and all that will come in between

Desert and ocean

You pulled me in and together we're lost in a dream

Always in motion

So I risk it all just to be with you

And I risk it all for this life we choose

—The Greatest Showman, “Tightrope”


 

“Can you really see no difference in me?” Clara Oswald asked. Her voice trembled now—part of getting old, she supposed—and yet it held a half-amused, half-skeptical note as she gazed up at the considerably-younger-looking man in front of her. And he was no Adonis. The flickering shadows generated by fireplace played tricks in the silver of his hair and accentuated the lines of his long, weathered face. 

     Still, he looked pretty much the same as he had when they said goodbye in that sad little coffee shop some sixty years ago, except that his hair was a bit longer—she liked that—and he seemed more comfortable in his own skin now. The Doctor used to be so rigid. Bit frigid, too. 

     Come to think of it, though, that had been melting out of him by the time we said goodbye. He did let me hug him, after all. Let me tell you, that was a major step in the right direction. 

     Looks like he’s kept moving in that direction, too. 

     “Clara Oswald,” he said, his thick Scottish brogue so gentle that just saying her name sounded like an endearment, “you’ll never look any different to me.”

     Clara felt the smile creep across her wrinkled face. Oh, so we’re charming now, are we? And yet…oh, and yet. If anyone was going to say such a thing, it would be him, wouldn’t it?

     Maybe it’s a Time Lord thing. Maybe because they see time as just a bunch of non-linear wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey stuff, it really makes no difference how old we petty humans look. All that matters is the age of your soul.

     “So how was it, then?” the Doctor asked, breaking eye contact and wandering to the hearth.  

     “How was what?”

     “The sixty-two years that I missed.”

     “Oh!” she chuckled. “ ‘How was my life,’ you mean?”

     He took a frame from the mantlepiece, a photo of her with a couple of Czech students in 2031 on the shores of the Danube. “Is there a Mr. Clara?”

     “No. But there were plenty of proposals.”

     The Doctor blinked those large, owlish eyes of his. “They all turned you down?”

     Clara snorted, shot him a look of mock indignation. “I turned them down!”

     He smiled a little but said nothing as he looked away again, his narrow shoulders slumping so subtly that she probably wouldn’t have noticed it if she weren’t practically drinking him in. She may have been old but she wasn’t blind. She’d always thought the Doctor was quite distinguished, but now (to her admittedly biased eyes) he was the handsomest man she’d ever seen.  

     And yet she was also so, so afraid that he might vanish if she looked away just for a second. 

     Clara didn’t think she could bear that. Not again.  

     “I traveled,” she said softly. “I taught in every country in Europe. I learned to fly a plane!”

     He persisted with that sad smile of his. “You’ll know what to do, then, the next time the Great Intelligence takes over the WiFi on a jumbo jet.”

     Clara smirked. “It was a little private plane, Doctor, not a jumbo jet.”

     “Learn to fly one, you can fly the other in a pinch,” he teased. 

     She shrugged gingerly—all her muscles seemed to ache these days, especially with the cold—and waited as he lowered himself to a seat on the arm of the sofa.

     “Regrets?” he asked.

     “Oh, hundreds,” she chuckled. “I just wish there were time for a few more.”

     “Yeah, those are the best ones,” he said softly, his gaze drifting down to the holiday paraphernalia scattered over the table in front of her. “Ah. A Christmas cracker—we should do one!”

     Clara nodded, eagerly reaching for one end of the glimmering cracker. As he gripped the other end a memory flashed through her slowing mind…a windowless room on a faraway wintry planet, where strange voices whispered through a shimmering crack in the wall and war raged outside and two hands—one old, one young—grasped at a Christmas cracker.

     I was so young then, wasn’t I? Quite the innocent. And I loved him so.

     Some things never change, do they? 

     “No one ever matched up to Danny, eh?” the Doctor asked, his eyes on the bright foil paper.

     Clara looked up, her frail heart beating just a little faster at the question. The question seemed a bit too…pointed. Very unlike him, too. The Doctor rarely posed a question this significant without looking his subject dead in the eye with his unflinching, unnerving honesty. 

     “There was one other man,” she murmured. “But that would’ve never worked out.”

     The Doctor glanced up. “Why not?”

     Clara hesitated just a beat before tipping her head back. “He was impossible.”

     Painful comprehension flashed over his face. Part of her ached to see it; another part felt oddly relieved that she wouldn’t have to explain herself any further. The word “impossible” had been enough. 

     “My Impossible Girl…Clara, my Clara…”

     The Doctor covered her hand with his own. His palm felt warm and smooth over her papery, blue-veined skin. 

     “We should do this every Christmas,” he murmured, a gentle twinkle in his eye. 

     “Because every Christmas is ‘Last Christmas.’ ” 

     It came out of her mouth like a recitation; she wasn’t quite sure where it came from. The Doctor looked as if he once again understood, yet wished he didn’t. Gently, he helped her pull her side of the cracker. It came apart with a loud pop and Clara gave a soft cry of delight, but the Doctor leaned back as if the sound had hurt him. His shoulders hunched in pain and Clara was suddenly afraid that he might start crying. 

     “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I was stupid. I should’ve come back earlier. I wish I had.”

     Oh, Doctor. Clara’s throat burned. What a full, amazing life she’d lived, and yet right now she wished bitterly that she was young again—young enough to spring out of the chair and and wrap her arms around him and rest his head against her heartbeat and bury her face in his silver hair and beg him to forgive her for all her stupid, stupid mistakes. For lying about Danny…for lying to myself…for being such a control freak—

     “Do you, Doctor?” a voice boomed from the doorway. “How much do you wish that?”

     Clara glanced away from the Doctor and almost screamed at the sight of Santa Claus himself —because who else walks around with a white beard and rosy cheeks and dresses all in red and white?— in her living room, looking impishly between the aging Human and the speechless Time Lord. The Doctor sat up very straight, his eyebrows doing something akin to gymnastics.  

     “No,” he rasped. “You mean I’m still—”

     “Wakey-wakey!” Santa chuckled. 

     Dreaming. You’re just dreaming. 

     Clara blinked and the house started to crumble. Or rather, it started to fade. The fire sputtered, the Christmas cracker turned to dust beneath her gnarled fingers, and a sleepy warmth began to envelop her as her head slumped forward and…

     “Clara! Clara!”

     Something huge and warm and living and squishy ripped off her face and Clara bolted upright with a ragged gasp. A soft mattress stretched beneath her, warm blankets covered her flailing legs, she was still in her pyjamas, her hair clung to her sweating face—

     And the Doctor leaned over the end of her bed, his eyes wide and wild with desperation. Clara swallowed, pressed a hand to her pounding chest.

     “Doctor? Am I…young?” she whispered.

     “No idea!” he cried. He raced to the chest of drawers before she could process and grabbed a little handheld mirror. Clara snatched it from him and peeled her hair away from her face. 

     “Is that any good?” the Doctor asked eagerly.

     “Oh, that’s good,” Clara whispered. There it was, all there, all good: dark hair, oversized eyes, the much-too-round face with just a few wrinkles yet at the corners of her eyes and mouth. She was twenty-eight again, not ninety-one. 

     Oh, thank God. Not that I’ll mind being old when it comes to that but ohhhhhh, don’t age me like that again without some time to get used to i—

     Clara glanced up, did a double-take. The Doctor stared at her, his long, slender hands clasped anxiously in front of him. It was the way he looked at her, though, that made her heart start thumping in a way it hadn’t done in months. 

     “The TARDIS is outside,” he whispered. 

     Her heartbeat decided to kick it up a notch. “S-so?”

     “So,” the Doctor replied, moving slowly back to the end of her bed. “All of time and all of space is sittin’ out there in a big blue box. Please. Don’t even argue.”

     Don’t even argue. Don’t even try to say you don’t deserve this, don’t even try to bring up the past and all the angry, bitter words and the mistakes we both regret. 

     The TARDIS is waiting. 

     Don’t waste her time, or ours. 

     Clara smiled so wide, her cheeks hurt. The Doctor raised his eyebrows and held out his hand in a hopeful, pleading gesture. Clara slipped her palm against his, bounced forward on the mattress, and pressed her lips to his cheek. 

     He didn’t lurch back. Didn’t start bellowing about how he wasn’t a hugging or kissing person anymore. He just looked at her like he couldn’t get enough of her. 

     Like he’s been just as lonely for me as I’ve been for him these past six months.

     “Merry Christmas, Doctor,” she said—firm, decided, joyful

     “Merry Christmas, Clara Oswald,” the Doctor replied—relieved, determined…and very, very joyful himself. 

     And then he flicked his gaze to the side, all mischievous and daring and oh, how she’d missed that look. Clara giggled and scrambled off the bed, tugging him towards the door. She didn’t even bother to grab her shoes as they raced out of her flat, down the stairs, and out into the big grassy field where he’d parked the big blue box in the snow. Its pale lights twinkled cheerfully, as if whispering its very own Welcome home. 

     And still the Doctor held her hand—tightly, as if he never wanted to let go. 

 

————

 

“Well, look at you, all happy!” Clara squealed. “That’s rare!”

     “You know what’s rarer?” the Doctor rejoined, wearing a grin the likes of which she’d never seen before on this face. “Second chances! I never get a second chance, so what happened this time? I don’t even know who to thank.”

     Clara threw open the TARDIS door. “Santa Claus?”

     The Doctor shot her a playful look. “Do you believe in Santa Claus?”

     “After tonight? Yeah, ‘course I do!” Clara cried, letting go of his hand and running as fast as she could to the TARDIS console. “If only for one reason.”

     “And what’s that?” the Doctor asked, shutting the door behind him.

     Clara twirled the pad of her bare foot, tingling now from running in the snow, and faced him. “Because he obviously knew what I was wishin’ for.”

     The Doctor smiled a warm, mysterious smile that made her insides do weird things and came closer. “Be careful what you wish for, Clara Oswald. You might get more than you bargained for.”

     “Oh, I’m countin’ on it,” Clara whispered.  

     He chuckled. He was so close now, she could touch him if she wanted to—and oh, she wanted to—she wanted to hug the daylights out of him—but she clamped her hands on the console behind her and tipped her head back. The Doctor placed himself right in front of her, jammed his hands into the pockets of his trim black trousers, and smirked.

     “So. I’m impossible, am I?”

     Clara quirked an eyebrow. “Who says I was talking about you?” 

     Poor Doctor. His bravado faltered in a moment of abashed confusion before Clara had mercy on him and burst out laughing 

     “Of course I was talking about you, you daft old man! And yes--you are absolutely, positively, one-hundred-percent impossible.”

     The Doctor recovered himself, flashing a grin that she found irresistible. “Ah, but you love it,” he drawled, sauntering off to one side of the console. 

     “I know I love it,” Clara replied, following him. “And I have missed you so much.”

     The Doctor turned towards her again as she stopped in front of him, a gentle look settling into his face. “Not as much as I’ve missed you, Clara Oswald.” 

     Normally she’d think up some sassy retort, something to fluster him and keep the mood light, but with him looking at her like that coherent sentences were next to impossible. Clara contented herself with beaming up at him instead, wondering if she looked as stupidly happy as she felt, hoping he didn’t think she’d finally gone and lost her head. He smiled back, looking away only when the TARDIS made a questioning noise overhead. He reached for one of the levers on the console. 

     Clara drew an excited breath. Here we go…off to find something awesome, just like old times. Even the TARDIS warbled in anticipation—but the Doctor paused, his eyes skimming over the sentient console and the flashing lights and the doors on the other side of the room. Concerned by the sudden change in his mood she stepped closer, touched his sleeve. 

     “Doctor? What is it?”

     The Doctor pressed his lips into a thin, firm line. He turned abruptly, looking her in the eye. 

     “Did you mean it?” he asked.

     Clara shook her head, confused. “Mean what?”

     “About the Mr. Clara business. About how there was only one other man who could match up to Danny, but it would’ve never worked out.”

     Clara blinked, all the color rushing to her face. “Oh…”

     “Because if you did mean it…” The Doctor paused, and her heart jumped into her throat as he took a step closer and reached for her hand. “I’m sure that that one other man would do everything in his power to make sure it did work, even if he can be an absolute idiot sometimes. Because he knows…now…that he can hardly breathe if he doesn’t have you beside him every step of the way.”

     Either the TARDIS had upped the temperature in the console room by thirty degrees, or Clara was blushing like mad. She gulped, rubbed her thumb nervously along his skin.

     “Is this, umm…is this a proposal, Doctor?” she asked, trying to keep her voice steady.

     “I—”

     “Because I’ll have you know, I’d say ‘yes’ in a heartbeat.”

     This time, the Doctor blinked in surprise. “You would?”

     Clara nodded once, then nodded again more fiercely and made herself smile before he could misinterpret the tears springing to her eyes. For the second time that evening the Doctor raised his eyebrows in disbelief, and then—

     He laughed. He laughed, as loud and clear and heartfelt as if he’d finally accepted the ways of Robin Hood and his merry men, and the sound echoed in the chamber like music. Clara laughed, too, in utter disbelief—and the next thing she knew she was shrieking with glee and locking her arms around his neck as he lifted her off the floor and spun her around in front of the console. When he finally set her back on her feet neither of them let go. They just looked at each other for a moment, maybe two, gasping for breath…

     And then he bent low and caught her lips in a long, hard, hungry kiss. Clara inhaled sharp and held on tight. She felt like floating, singing, jumping over a couple waterfalls, running half a dozen marathons, laughing until her ribs cracked—because when in the name of all that’s good and holy did he learn how to kiss like that?!

     When he finally let her go she shuddered for air. He rested his forehead against hers.

     “Okay?” he rasped. 

     “Mm-hmm,” she whimpered, nodding with her eyes closed. “Are…are you a kissing person now?”

     “May have re-read the manual a few weeks ago out of sheer curiosity.”

     “Must’ve been quite a manual.”

     The Doctor chuckled. Clara opened her eyes as he smoothed her hair back from her face. 

     “No more secrets,” he whispered. “And no more lies.”

     “No more lies,” Clara whispered back. “Oh, Doctor, I’m so sorry—”

     “And no more apologies.” His blue eyes sharpened as the old, firm edge crept back into his voice. “From this moment on, we start over. Reset button, back to the beginnin’. Clear?”

     Clara choked out a tearful laugh. “Clear.”

     The Doctor gave a single nod and relaxed, holding her gently while she closed her eyes and sighed with her arms still around his neck. This wasn’t a dream—this was real. She was back in the TARDIS. The Doctor who’d claimed he wasn’t a hugging person had just kissed her, he’d just asked her to marry him in his own round-about, Doctor-ish way, they’d forgiven each other for all their lies, and they had all of time and space ahead of them.

     Beat that for any old present underneath any old tree.  

     “I love you,” she whispered, so softly that she almost didn’t hear herself and only felt her lips forming the words. 

     But he must’ve heard it, because his response left her no reason to doubt that the feeling was mutual.