The Doctor had vanished somewhere after he’d sent them into the vortex. He’d slammed the levers over and then stomped off without saying a word to her. It wasn’t about her; she knew that. That wasn’t what was hurting. It had been the whole day. That place. The things they’d seen. He needed time alone. She needed time alone. And she’d spent it alone, sitting on his armchair on the upper deck, staring with unfocused eyes at the lights of the rotor.
It was cold in the control room, always a few degrees cooler than what a human would call comfortable. Definitely cooler than Clara called comfortable, which was why she kept a throw handy. Was she sitting on it? No. She was sitting on the Doctor’s jumper, the one with the holes in it. She pulled it over her head. The arms were hopelessly long, but it was warm. And it smelled like him, like sandalwood and leather and tea with lemon.
She was tired. She should get some rest while she could. She didn’t want to sleep, though. Too soon for that. The dreams that would come would be horrible. The TARDIS library. There had to be a quiet corner there where the Doctor wouldn’t find her and where she could sit and think or read something or maybe just cry until she was too exhausted to cry any more. Crying was useless. Crying wouldn’t fix anything.
Might as well try the library.
The TARDIS had thoughtfully decided to shorten her trip there by moving the door three corridors closer. Clara laid a hand on the door and it swung silently open. She stepped into the space, her favorite place in the TARDIS by far. It had high walls, a vaulted ceiling, tall bronze-colored ladders that slid on rails along the walls. Persian carpets striped the spaces between shelves. In odd corners were little nooks with comfy chairs, where one could read or sleep or just think.
Clara trailed her right hand along the wall in search of her favorite spot, the one with the stained glass window above it. The light was always better there, as if a little bit of sunset were always shining through the colored glass.
She came around the corner quietly, so quietly that she didn’t disturb the man already sitting in her favorite spot. He’d taken his shoes off and was sitting cross-legged on the leather love seat; his socks had kittens on them. Clara put her hand to her mouth. He was absorbed in reading the book that rested on his lap, something paperback-sized.
He looked up suddenly, though she hadn’t moved. “Clara?”
“Hey.” It came out watery and sniffly, and the Doctor’s face changed.
“Are you okay?”
Clara couldn’t make any answer other than a shrug, because she’d burst into tears again.
The Doctor set his book aside and patted the sofa cushion next to him. “Come here.”
Clara almost flung herself at him. He hauled her onto his lap and wrapped his arms around her and held on tight, as tightly as she needed just then. She clung to him and sobbed into his shoulder.
The outburst was over as quickly as it started. Clara blew her nose on the handkerchief he produced for her and let a long breath out.
“Sorry,” she said.
He tapped her nose. Her red, sniffly nose, and said, “The girl today, in the marketplace?”
Clara knew he did. She’d seen his reaction. She’d seen what he did to the flesh merchant. She’d seen the anger and the despair. And then he’d been able to move on, as he had to. If he didn’t move on, he’d stop being able to do what he did. And she understood that all the way down, truly she did, because she had to do it too if she wanted to save people. And she did it. Every time. And they were more effective as a pair doing it than he was alone. But today–
Clara wiped at her face. Today had got to her. It had slipped under her guard and stuck her right in the heart. Today was a right bastard.
“Is that my sweater?” he said, with the faintest hint of outrage in his voice, under the tenderness.
“Mine now,” she said.
“The things I endure.”
“I must be putting your legs to sleep–”
He tightened his arms around her and pulled her back down. “Shush. You’re fine.”
Clara relaxed into him. She had no idea why he was putting up with this but he was. He was more than putting up with it: he was stroking her hair. She let her head rest on his shoulder and closed her eyes. He pressed a kiss against the top of her head. Was that the first time he’d kissed her? It was.
She let herself relax a little more. It was warm here in his arms, on this sofa, in a quiet corner of the library. The ship hummed around her, the quiet thrum that meant safety. The TARDIS held them in its arms just as tenderly as the Doctor held her. Where did that thought come from? She was certain it was true, however it had come to her. She was safe. She was understood. She was loved. It had been bad, but they had stopped it from happening again. It wasn’t okay; it would never be okay; but she was with someone who understood.
She let herself drift.
Clara woke to find her head on the Doctor’s lap and a rough wool blanket over her. She was warm and cozy. The Doctor’s hand rested on her shoulder. She felt better. The grief was still there, but it wasn’t sharp any more. She opened her eyes and rolled onto her back.
The Doctor cupped her cheek. “Hello,” he said.
“I fell asleep on you.”
“Didn’t mind. Gave me a chance to finish.” He held the book up where she could see it: The Wind in the Willows.
“You weren’t the only one feeling rough,” he said. He set the book aside and glowered at it, as if it were to blame for his admission of emotion to her.
Clara sat up and kissed him on the corner of his mouth in sympathy and thanks. He held still for it, as he did these days, but didn’t respond. Not yet; he would soon. She could feel it in him, see it in the warmth on his face, in the way he squeezed her hand afterward.
She slid off his lap and stretched, wriggling her toes in the deep carpet. There was one more thing she needed.
“There’s hope for that brain of yours yet.”
They left the library in search of the kitchen, hand in hand.