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red pens and parents' nights

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The TARDIS hums in the background. Clara has paper scattered across a rug that appeared sometime between Christmas and New Year’s when she was groaning to the Doctor that she’d need a spot to grade all her essays once term started up again. He had stilled at the console before he turned to face her head on, his eyes making very deliberate contact. “You’ll be grading your exams here?”

Clara had paused. Had she read this situation wrong? She’d thought he wanted her here. “Well, yeah. I mean, if I’m to be traveling more now, I just thought I could do some of my schoolwork here, but if you don’t –”

“No! No.” He interrupted quickly. “I’d assumed you’d go back, like before.” He paused, reassessing the situation. “Clara Oswald, you may spend all the time in the universe on the TARDIS. Just tell me what you need.”

Her smiled had lit up the entire room, and she squashed him in a hug he’d barely protested.

Clara’s constant presence on the TARDIS soothed the Doctor’s rising fears of her evitable departure. When he told her at Christmas he never got second chances, he had not lied. Most of his second chances ended with him failing his companions, scattering them across dimensions and time zones, and he swears that this will not happen to Clara.

He cannot pinpoint the exact moment he realized he has no idea how to do this without her, but that does not make the truth sit any more comfortably on his chest. It scares him what this tiny human has wrought on his life. He has sworn dozens of times that he would not fall again into the trap of caring for flimsy, fragile humans, but even in the darkness of his denial, he knows it’s not just the overbearing sense of grief he carries around him like a blanket that makes him fear Clara’s demise so acutely.

“Doctor?”

“Hmm?” He glances up to where she sits hunched over her pile of essays, and he hadn’t noted the change in attire from sensible skirts and crisp blouses to the softer tees and linen bottoms that seem to exemplify her TARDIS wear now, but the sight of her short hair tied back and the arms of his holey jumper pushed haphazardly past her elbows make his hearts beat painfully in his chest.

“Would it be a terrible ethical breach to drop off a handful of my year sevens into the start of the London Blitz so that they might come across as more sympathetic in their interpretations of the war time children’s essay I’ve had them read?”

He hums thoughtfully for a moment. “Might work. Could always bring them to the great intergalactic war of the fifty-first century when whole planets disappeared in the blink of an eye. That should work.”

She chuckles softly before explaining when she sees him bristling. “They’d probably just think I brought them to live action cinema before they’d believe it’s the future. No, I guess I will just have to suffer through the lot.”

She’s usually so quiet about her Earth responsibilities now that he can’t help but come and investigate the source of her frustration. He sits next to where she’s lying on her belly with paper and pen in hand, and awkwardly wrings his own before she shoves a paper and red pen into them.

“Topic’s give insight onto the feelings of wartime children based on the readings. I suspect you’ve seen enough wars to be a fair judge.”

He winces slightly, and she bumps his knee with her shoulder before she turns her attention back to the paper in her hand. For a moment he stares at the paper in his hand numbly. It feels like ages ago he told Rose that he didn’t do domestic, but here, with Clara muttering under her breath about her pudding brain students, he can’t imagine living any other way.

With a small shake, he turns his attention to the paper in his hand; spend too long ruminating on the Clara shaped space in his life only leads to madness, worry, and sharp words from the subject of his thoughts.

He makes it barely a paragraph into his own paper before scoffing in disgust. “This is considered intelligible! I don’t believe this child knows what half the words on this page mean. How do you not fail the lot?”

Clara glances at the top of the page and winces. “They’re not all as bad as Taylor. Here we can swap. I’m reading one of the best here.”

He pulls his paper away, holding it above her reach. “No, no, I will finish this one, but I might need another pen.”

“Doctor, he’s just a child. His work doesn’t have to be on par with Dickens.”

“And never will be if you let this inanity stand!”

She pushes herself up, and the Doctor moves to his feet as well and she jumps at his arm still held above his head in her attempts to reach the offensive essay. “Doctor! I’ll just do it. No sense in causing a scene that will probably end in an avoidable parents’ meeting.”

The Doctor goes rigid at the thought of Clara needing another night away. In his shock, she manages to pull his arm down and she shouts a bit before he gathers her tightly against his chest. “You can grade the essay,” he whispers to the air above her head.

A moment passes, and as he feels something brush his feet, Clara manages a complicated wriggle that ends with her hands grasping at the nape of his neck forcing him to look down at her. Her brown eyes are as wide as ever, and he looks to the side to avoid them.

“Doctor.”

He hugs her tighter, lifting her small frame just off the ground as he attempts to cocoon around her so that she might always be safe.

She allows him his moment before she speaks again. “I’m not leaving now, Doctor. You know that. Not now or ever by choice.”

He shudders at her words. “Clara –”

“No, you silly old man! You don’t get to do this. I’m your second chance that you got remember? Let’s not waste it by mourning me while I’m still here.” He meets her eyes now, wet with tears, and by an impulse he’d rather not examine, he kisses first one, then two tear tracks from her cheeks.

She lowers her face into his hoodie as he gently plays with the loose hair under the tie. The TARDIS hums faintly in the background, and if he could, he’d extend this moment until time stops.

“I’m here now. I’ll be here for as long as I can. You won’t rid of me that easily, Doctor.”

Chuckling wetly, he brushes a kiss into her hair. “Oh Clara Oswald, always exactly what I need.”

She smiles so widely he feels it against his chest. “And don’t you forget it, old man.”

Another moment passes before she pulls away, sighing about her ungraded essays, and as she sits back down, he ponders for just a moment what he should do.

He sits behind her, and she looks over her shoulder at him quizzically before he gently pulls her back into his lap. “I’ve still got much more experience with war than you.” And he settles his chin on her shoulder to read as she picks up the discarded essay and her pen.

Not even a minute passes before she stops reading. “You’re right; it’s quite hopeless.”

Poor Taylor’s essay ends up with competing red pen commentary in the margins and a note for a parents’ meeting at the end. If the Doctor plans on popping by for a chat as well, he wisely keeps that to himself.