Clara was shaken, but not out of control. She could handle this. The Doctor had awakened, fine, great. He’d somehow arrived at the scene before they had. He was still wildly dangerous, though, still not in his right mind. He was in his nightshirt even in the cold air, standing on the parapet of the bridge, insulting them all for not understanding the problem in front of them. He jabbed a finger in the direction of a man he found suspicious.
“He seems remarkably unmoved by the available spectacle,” Lady Vastra said.
Clara turned, a question on her lips, and snapped her mouth shut. The Doctor was standing on the parapet as before, yes, but he’d changed. He’d changed. Huge gray wings spread out from his back. He pointed in the direction of the fleeing figure, and said, “aha!”
He spread his wings – his wings, his steel-gray wings – and leapt from the parapet. He fell, swooped, flapped, and was in flight. Clara watched him, hand to her mouth, until he vanished in the murk.
“Well well,” said Lady Vastra. “That’s new.”
It was days later, in the TARDIS, after all was done, and they were on their way back to her home. He was dressed properly now, in a dark blue coat with a red lining. He closed his eyes, tensed his shoulders, and then there was that rustle and that breath of air on her face, and there they were again: wings, magnificent, the same gray as his hair. Fifteen feet. His eyes were closed and his hands spread out at his sides, palms up. The wings spread out, beat once, and folded against his back. He opened his eyes again.
“This regeneration was a bit of a wild one,” he said, and he flashed a smile at her.
“How,” Clara said. “How.”
“I’m bigger on the inside.”
“I know. It’s rare, but things like this sometimes happen. The energy flowing when they answered your plea-- the battle in progress. I can’t say.”
He shrugged, but Clara thought she saw something else on his face. Fear, or shame, or something she didn’t like seeing there. It was a strange face to her, but she’d seen all of the faces that came before this one, and she never liked seeing shame on any of them.
“Can I-- can I touch them?”
That was the right thing to ask, because he smiled again and this time it was a lovely smile, heartfelt. He turned and spread them again for her. Clara came close to him and laid a hand very gently between his shoulder blades. Such a thin man he was in this regeneration, narrow shoulders, thin back. He was quivering with tension under her hands. She could see the feathers trembling.
She laid a hand on a wing. Feathers, sleek feathers, soft and yet with bone underneath. Such a rich color, so much more complex than mere gray now that she was looking at it. There was iridescence in them, a shimmer under the lights.
“So beautiful,” she said, and he shivered. “And you can fly.”
“I went to a planet of winged people and learned properly. Took a week. I still have the bruises.”
“And you didn’t take me?”
“I wasn’t-- wasn’t sure you’d come.”
“Why would you think that?”
“You were angry. You wanted him back, not me. Because I look different now. I am different now.”
“And I’m not him.”
“I’ve met you before.”
“But not like this.”
Clara sighed. It was true. He’d never been human, but he’d always looked human until now. “Not like this.”
His wings folded up and he hunched over himself. “I’ll understand if you leave.”
“Leave?” She’d been thinking about it. She had to admit it. He’d frightened her in that restaurant. But he’d also intrigued her and now-- now that she saw the challenge, now that she saw his fear, there was no chance she would leave him. “Sorry,” she said. “I’m staying.”
He turned, and she saw that he was as uncertain and desperate as she’d ever seen him. “Even though I’m like this?”
“Doctor–” She stepped close to him again and laid a hand on his chest. “You have two hearts. You’re not the same species as me. You think I’m going to let wings get in the way?”
A wan smile from him, and he touched her hand where it rested on his chest. A brief touch, as if he were afraid of her.
She said, “Besides, I like them.”
That smile again, the heart-stopping one that Clara knew she’d spend years chasing if she had to. “Seriously?”
She hopped up on her tiptoes and pulled him down into a hug. He protested, then his arms closed around her awkwardly. To her awe and delight, the wings followed. She was in the embrace of the wings of an angel. Her angel. Her Doctor, with the new face, and the attack eyebrows, and the graceful hands. And the wings.
Clara Oswald was outdoors, lying flat on her back in a field of purple grass, on a planet where the chlorophyll looked a lot different than it did on earth. She liked it, though, the purple leaves and the yellow and green flowers. Floating over it all was the drone of insects that might as well have been bees. Bee-analogs. Bee-ish flying bugs that liked flowers and didn’t care about her. It was peaceful and relaxing and she couldn’t bring herself to read the book she’d brought along. Trollope just wasn’t face-paced enough to keep her attention, no matter how polite the man had been when they’d met him last week. Instead she lay day-dreaming in the thick purple grass soaking in the sunshine, which wasn’t quite the same wavelength as earth’s sun, but was warm just the same. Warm sun, the spicy scent of alien spring, and the sight of the Doctor arcing past overhead. He was working on his skill at hovering in place and landing.
He was, as far as Clara could see, terrible at it, but slowly gaining confidence. He botched the landings one time in four, though, and Clara had to fight not to giggle when he went skidding and tumbling face-first into the grass near her. He didn’t take it well. He was, in fact, all around still touchy about the wings. She wasn’t sure why. He was gorgeous to look at. Otherworldly in an obvious way. Alien and odd as he’d always been, awkward, but now beautiful.
He landed almost gracefully this time, stalling just as his feet touched the ground. He ran a few steps, flaring his wings out, and came to a halt beside her. He grinned at her and she grinned back.
“Looks like you’re making progress,” she said.
He gave her a heart-stoppingly sweet smile, and dipped his head. “Yeah. But I’m going to have to make a wrist holster for the sonic. Or build the same features into a watch, maybe. Oh! My sunglasses. Perfect.”
He tapped the earpiece of his RayBans and grinned. He slipped the glasses off and tucked them away into his breast pocket. He folded his wings neatly against his back and then rolled his shoulders, and they were gone, leaving behind his narrow shoulders and slim back in that close-fitting coat. Hidden in another dimension, he’d said. He was bigger on the inside, like his ship. He was a multi-dimensional being now. Had he always been one? She didn’t think so. She knew a lot about him and all his faces and he’d never once mentioned anything like this before. He trickery was all clever machines, gadgets he built that manipulated matter and dimension, and the super-powerful gadget that was his time machine. Gadget? Half-sentient ship.
He flung himself onto the grass next to her and somehow configured himself with his knees up and his ankles crossed. Clara sat up. “You seem better in general. Regeneration is hard, huh?”
He blinked at her and looked down. Such long lashes he had, silver mixed with dark, over such blue eyes. He was so different than he’d been. A different man, it seemed to Clara. Yes, he remembered everything they’d done together, but he wasn’t the same. He was far more abrupt, far more intense. And graceful in a way he hadn’t been before. He had a lined face, and graying hair, and he considered himself to be a Scot. Why? Did it even make sense? He wasn’t human. Why did he have that accent? Was the TARDIS translating an accent for him as she translated everything else? He was desperately afraid she would reject him for his crow’s feet and gray hair as well as for the wings. He was two thousand years older than she was; he looked thirty years older. And he was afraid she couldn’t see him.
Couldn’t see him? Right now she couldn’t see anything but him.
He looked as if he’d been beautiful when he’d been younger, if such a thing made sense for a body that had come into existence only a few weeks ago. Striking was the word Clara wanted to use for him now. Was it shallow, this urge she had to categorize him? To compare him to the being he’d been when she first met him? No eyebrows, a great shock of hair that used to fall into his face, a chin of great magnificence. This man had graying hair that wanted to curl, a mournful long face, and eyebrows that betrayed every emotion he felt. His face was always in motion, always saying something to her even when he was himself silent. Which he rarely was; at least that had not changed.
He was silent now, though, gazing at her, still for once. He was looking at her hands clasped on her knees, not at her face. He was solemn, as if contemplating something deeply serious, but so close to her, close enough that she could smell his aftershave.
He used aftershave. His previous self hadn’t. She’d been close enough to him to know that. Not much closer: they hadn’t ever gone to bed. They’d kissed, and he’d hugged her quite often, but that had been as far as it had gone. He was far more reserved now, in this incarnation, far more self-contained. No kisses, and fewer hugs, but those hugs had been more intense, if that even made sense. More of himself had been in them.
The manic energy that had first drawn her to him: that was still present, vibrating through him even as he sat next to her, seeming to think over her question.
“Hard,” he said at last. “That doesn’t come near to what it’s like.”
“Are you okay?”
His eyes came open again. So blue. So piercing. “Yes. No. It’s complicated.”
“You may like the wings. I’m not sure. It’s almost too much. Changing this much. I knew it had happened the moment I regenerated. When I became aware of myself as me, I felt how much was different inside. Two extra limbs. No warning.”
“You said something about kidneys.”
He shook his head. “You were there, and you were afraid and I didn’t want to make it worse. I couldn’t remember who you were but I knew you were important to me. That you’d saved me. And you are my first face.”
“First face this face saw. It’s special.”
“Oh.” Clara wasn’t sure what she felt about that. Grateful? Secretly relieved? He wasn’t thinking about dumping her or about to wander off because he was bored. He was going to keep coming around to her on Wednesdays and taking her out to places like this. But the intensity of his face as he said it-- he meant something much deeper than that. “You didn’t-- you didn’t have to hide it.”
He shook his head impatiently. “Couldn’t bear that you were afraid, but I couldn’t help it. Couldn’t face it myself. Bits of me kept passing out.”
“Does that happen every time?”
“Yeah. Everything’s a muddle. Takes me days, sometimes, to get my memories back. And this time–” He gestured with those elegant hands, waving them vaguely at his shoulders. “I couldn’t think straight. Couldn’t remember anything. Couldn’t move right. I ran away until I could talk sensibly and fly without breaking my neck.”
“I wish I’d been with you.”
“We’re friends, aren’t we?”
“We are,” he said, as if the thought surprised him. The eyebrows came together and he looked fiercely intent about something. Some thought that he had that he was worrying at, tearing at the edges of. And then he smiled at her for a moment, that lovely smile that transformed his face. “Oh, Clara,” he said, “you are too kind.”
She pushed at his shoulder and grinned back. “Yeah, shut it.”
Then on impulse she got up onto her knees and got her arms around him properly. He held very still under her, then relaxed a tiny bit. His hands rested against her back awkwardly. Not a natural hugger, this version of him, but there was something in him that wanted it, because he was leaning into her and letting out a long sigh.
When she let go of him and sat back, he grimaced and rolled his shoulders.
“Did I hurt you?”
“No,” he said. “Just an itch. I can feel them even when they’re hidden. Part of me, you know?”
“Do you like having them out?” she said.
“Yeah. Feels good. To have the sun on them. To be able to stretch them. They get itchy when I hide them away. Makes no sense, but I think it’s mental. I stop moving them as much as they like.”
“Take them out, then.”
“You truly don’t mind them? You don’t mind that I changed this much?”
“Daft old man,” she said, fondly. “Told you once already. I’ll keep telling you as often as you need to hear it. Show them to me. Go on. Show me your amazing new self.”
He rolled onto his face in the grass and tensed his shoulders. The wings shimmered into solidity under Clara’s hand.
So beautiful, they were, even prettier in the sunlight than they’d been on the TARDIS. Still that same iridescence, but now she could see the patterns in it. They weren’t entirely gray, not in this light. They were white and gray with tawny brown bars. Some feathers were pure white; some were brown. The coloring was the same as his hair, which she could also now see wasn’t gray, not really. It was white with a lot of brown in it, especially at the back of his head and around his ears.
“They are beautiful,” she told him. “Never doubt that.”
He shrugged and turned his head away from her.
“Laying it on a bit thick, Clara Oswald.”
“Yeah, okay. You’re just a bit of all right.”
That earned her a fleeting smile. “I’ll let that pass.”
“Can I touch them? Does it bother you?”
He shook his head abruptly. “I like it when you touch them.” Simple words, but there was something behind them, some emotion that Clara couldn’t identify. He shouldn’t be hard to read, with those eyebrows dancing all over his face, but he was.
Touch him. He wanted her to touch him. Okay. Clara reached out a hand and rested it on his back, where his shoulder blades ought to have been, right over where the wings joined. She had some kind of vague idea that bird bones were fragile, light hollow things that you had to be careful with. She brushed her fingers over the biggest feathers, the ones that she thought were called flight feathers. He shivered and flinched away.
“A little harder?”
“I think so.”
Clara used a firmer touch-- along the ridge at the top, out to the end of the bony part. He sighed and relaxed under her, so she kept going. So many feathers. Tiny feathers under the larger ones, all lined up and flaring as he stretched his wings out for her. Big ones along the lower edge, the trailing edge. He could fan them out when he wanted to, and angle them. Right now they were shifting as he breathed, in and out. They were like bird’s feathers, as far as she could tell, only a lot larger than even large birds. He was human-sized. And he could fly. So strange. Wings were arms for birds, as she understood it. So it was like he had two extra arms, except he didn’t. If a real human had had wings, there’d have been extra muscles, or something. He just had wings, storybook wings, fantasy wings, like paintings of angels had. Fantasy made real, because they were real under her fingers. Warm blood pulsed under her hand, a real live breathing man shifted restlessly beneath her. No story. The Doctor, her friend the Doctor, now something she’d never imagined existed.
Clara used both hands now, running from his back out. He shivered.
“Oh,” he said. “That’s–”
His fingers flexed and dug into the purple grass and his wings shivered all the way out to the tips.
“I feel odd. I feel like-- Oh. I, um.” His ears were red. That was the strangest reaction. It was almost like he-- Oh.
Clara backed off and sat with her arms around her knees, watching him. That was a surprise. She knew he had sex-- well, he’d been married. She’d seen him kiss River. She knew it was a thing his previous self had done. This version of him could do it too. She just hadn’t ever thought it would ever be something he did with her. Yeah, she’d crushed on him, but surely she’d moved on? Surely because he was older now, because of the gray hair and wrinkles-- Stupid. Stupid. He’d always been older. Hundreds and hundreds of years old. Lady Vastra had reminded her of this sharply. Now he looked it. Now he wasn’t hiding from her any more, she’d said. Now he was who he was, truly.
An alien with gray hair and wings.
He pushed himself up off the grass slowly and resettled himself facing her. He scrubbed his hand through that gray hair until it stood up, short though it was. His cheeks and ears were red and he was looking everywhere but at her. At moments like this he seemed so very human.
The Doctor. An alien. An alien who thought very highly of her, and was grateful to her for saving his life. She’d shattered herself and remade herself for him. He’d told her once he had always known her, always seen her face at least once in every regeneration, sometimes many times. It was a miracle to him now to know the original Clara at last.
And now he was close enough to her that his knees were brushing against hers, and he was breathing hard.
His eyes were blue. Intensely blue. And his gaze was locked with hers. See him? She could see nothing else right now.
“Clara,” he said.
She waited for him to go on, but he seemed to have nothing more to say. She reached up, on impulse, and laid her hand against his cheek. He closed his eyes, drew in a long breath.
“Clara,” he said, again, with eyes closed.
Clara let her thumb stroke over his cheekbone. Such an odd face, so full of character. Crows-feet that in a human would have meant he smiled a lot. Did this Doctor like smiling? He was so beautiful when he let himself smile, when he wasn’t as strained and worried as he was right now, with those ever-active brows furrowed.
Then he opened his eyes and held her gaze.
“I shouldn’t,” he said. “I told myself I wouldn’t.”
“Try to be something I’m not with you.”
“Not sure I understand.”
“I’m not your boyfriend.”
“I didn’t think you were–”
“I mean the other fellow. The one with the chin. I’m not him. I have his memories, but I’m not him. I’m my own person. I don’t do things the way he did. I can’t flirt with you.”
Clara frowned and let her hand drop. Lady Vastra had been right. They’d flirted. They’d danced around each other. This new face was warning her off, then, saying that wouldn’t happen. It was okay; it was fine; she’d never expected much. He looked human but wasn’t human, not on the inside. He didn’t even look completely human any more with those wings. Two hearts, a distressingly intelligent brain, and wings that he could hide in another dimension when he wanted to. Bigger on the inside.
Why did it sting then, if she hadn’t been hoping for flirting?
Then he was up on his knees, reaching for her, taking her face in his hands, and kissing her. Clara’s eyes widened for a moment in shock. His were screwed shut. This kiss was not innocent and not tender either. It was desperate and awkward and clumsy and so very intense. He pushed her hair away from her face and kissed her again more deeply. Clara let herself return it, let her lips part, let herself taste him. And then he was releasing her, standing up, and leaping into the air with wings unfurled.
Clara fell onto her back in the deep purple grass and watched him swoop away.
“What the hell just happened?” she said, to the deep blue sky and the speck in it that was the Doctor.