When Clara Oswald was eleven years old, she decided she wanted to be an astronomer. She knew the constellations - Cassiopeia, Corvus, Canis Major, Cygnus, and the rest - with preference to the ones visible from her yard. The names of the brightest stars. Ursa Major, Sirius. Polaris, the North Star. There were other stars yet to be discovered, yet to be named, and she wanted to be the person to name them. A whole cosmos, the infinite unknown, which was understandably compelling for a young girl in the outskirts of Blackpool, living in the finite known world.
She learned about the tides, poring carefully over a dictionary entry and then, when she successfully wheedled the purchase out of her mum, a book with color photos and diagrams and sentences that almost, very nearly, made sense.
The principal lunar semi-diurnal, or the M2 tidal constituent; 12 hours and 25 minutes separating one lunar zenith from the next, the moon traveling around the Earth, towards and away, its gravitational pull increasing, lessening. Spinning on the axis, gravity tugging at the Earth, and the water following. The tides drifting in and out.
And when the moon hung full and heavy in the sky, she'd stay up until she couldn't stand it, half out her bedroom window, neck craned so she could see it. Not just a foreign country - which she'd been to, once, a whiplash weekend through Paris, the newness and strangeness of it held out of reach behind coach rides and guided tours - but a foreign world. Where you needed special suits to breathe and you could fly through the air, and it was cold, impossibly cold, and so very far away, but so close, still, close enough she should just make out the outlines of craters and valleys.
She asked for a telescope that Christmas, and she'd understand much later what she'd actually requested, the financial burden and budget revamping, for a child's whim. But it was the only thing she asked for, and it was good, wasn't it? to encourage her interests in this stuff? she could be a scientist, one day. Her parents had made it work, somehow, and on Christmas day, there it was, beneath the sad scraggly tree.
Half a tangerine in one hand, her dad helped open the box, pulled the pieces out and spread them over the carpet. Her mum watching, hot cuppa and her legs tucked under an afghan. The other half of the tangerine in her mouth, Clara straightened the manual out on her lap.
"I bet you can see aliens with this," her dad said, cutting open a bag of screws. "Spaceships and cities and the like. Maybe you'll make a new friend."
"There's no such thing as aliens," she said, rolling her eyes.
They put it together and set it up by her bedroom window. Dinner with her grandparents - they gave her clothing, which was alright, she supposed, and she dutifully thanked them. Seeing but not entirely understanding the grateful look her mum shot Gramma Oswald. Another thing that'd make more sense, later on.
"Don't be up too late," her dad said as he deposited her by the telescope, carried off from the table so the grownups could talk about boring grownup things. He ruffled her hair. "Let me know if you see ET, yeah?"
"ET is fictional," she said. "You know that, right?"
He smiled, and she fidgeted, and then he left and it was just her and the sky. The faint conversation drifting up from the floor below. She aimed the telescope at the moon and focused, the way the instructions indicated. The craters and valleys. The marks she imagined might have been left from Apollo, or from something else entirely.
Moonrise and moonset, the tides rising and falling.
She felt a hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently. "How's outer space?" Her mum crouched down next to her, arm around her waist.
"It's." She didn't have words for it. Not yet. She shrugged and stepped aside, gestured for her mum to look through the telescope.
"Sure is," her mum said. And she laughed, the odd kind of laugh grown-ups made sometimes when nothing was actually any funny. A sad smile. "Time for bed, kiddo. The stars will still be there tomorrow night."
Wouldn't be a full moon anymore, though. That was important, though Clara didn't know why. Still, she let herself be tucked into bed, the covers pulled up to her chin, a kiss pressed to her forehead. The night light turned on and the lamp off.
She laid in bed for a while before getting up, on tiptoes, to unplug the nightlight and pull the curtain wide. Her bedroom dark, just the streetlights drifting in. And the moonlight. She got back into bed and tugged the blanket tight around her, eyes wide. A feeling she didn't have a name for yet.
When Clara was fourteen, she didn't want to be an astronomer anymore. She didn't know what she wanted to be, and couldn't see how it was reasonable she was expected to know, when her head was a mess like this.
She realized not everyone felt like this at a sleepover, a friend's house, two other friends, all with sleeping bags and snacks and flashlights. Huddled in a circle, giggling. Talking about boys.
"I think David's really cute," Emily blurted out, then collapsed back in an embarrassed, blushing pile.
"Who doesn't?" Nina, the worldly one of the group, rolling her eyes. "And don't get worked up about it. That's what boys are for. Clara, you're next. Who's your number-one secret crush?"
Boys weren't for anything, boys were just there. She liked astronauts, still had that poster of Buzz Aldrin tacked up in her bedroom. The only time she felt like she imagined Emily did was at night, with the telescope.
She suddenly and acutely understood that she should not admit to that. "Um. Adam?"
Nancy groaned and Emily blushed harder, if that were possible, and Nina looked at her strangely. Like she could see through Clara. Clara smiled and tried very hard not to panic.
"Right, my turn." Nancy cleared her throat, clearly working her nerve up. "Mr. Franklin."
They all laughed, Clara the loudest.
When Clara was fifteen, the dreams started. She did her best not to remember any of them. She'd wake up sweaty and sore, though, shoulders stiff, feeling like she could, or should, tear a hole in the fabric of the world and fall through. The ache and panic growing as the moon waxed: maybe she was one of them. The wrong feelings and the wrong body and everything was just - wrong. She started sleeping more.
(She laid in bed one night and listened to the conversation downstairs.
I'm just saying -
She's not like that. It's just a phase.
And if it's not? Her mum, Clara could picture her, the look she'd be making. So what?
So everything. Her dad, and she could picture his expression as well. You know what this world is like.)
Sixteen, and the rumors started. Whispers in the hallway about that girl. She's probably one of those folks. You know. The shifters. She's so weird, she has to be one of them. Like the boy who'd broken down in maths class, burning out all the light bulbs in the room. And others, likely, could be any of us. What a terrible thought. In Blackpool, of all places. They're bloody everywhere.
It'd been better, hadn't it, before they'd come. Safer, more sensible. Freaks and mutants and murderers, you know the rate of attacks on farm animals has gone up ten-fold since the first verified shifter was catalogued?
Sixteen and a half, and the boy who'd burnt the bulbs out was cornered during recess, nose bleeding before the first punch had landed. Five students wound up in hospital; he wasn't one of them. The eyewitness accounts were shaky. Something big, they all agreed. Black. With teeth.
Clara knew what the world was like, and she knew how to keep a secret. How to hold her breath. So she held her breath, all the way up until Uni, when she found the flier.
Xeroxed, cheap and enthusiastic, stapled to a bulletin board amidst a hundred other fliers. H+-= ALLIANCE. WEDNESDAYS 7 PM, PRYDON HALL RM 401. ALL ARE ACCEPTED AND WELCOMED. A crude drawing of a stag, smiling Disney-style.
She didn't attend the meeting, but she did take a Human+- Studies course next semester. She had words for this now, at least, beyond the slurs and the hushed fearful euphemisms. Books about this, rhetoric, intra-community dissent. The idea of a community. People like her, even sitting right next to her.
Like her, but the words still caught in her throat when she thought about saying it out loud. And it was easier to be Clara Oswald, regular human, your average young adult, than it was to admit to the ache, the howling thing inside her. Don't give it away, don't give an inch. The cold, detached essay. The well-practiced lie. Carefully-organized notebooks and a carefully-compartmentalized brain.
A lecture about the vagaries of H+- legislation, the pros and cons of an official identification. The importance of 'Other/Choose Not To Disclose' on a form. She was angry abstractly, not even sure what she was mad about or what the right solution was but knowing that there was something broken. About the system, about her. All of it.
The students filtered out afterwards and she felt a hand wrap around her upper arm. She turned, found herself face-to-face with someone she hadn't thought about in a very long while.
"Clara? Oh, my God, Clara! It's Nina! Remember me?"
She did, and she smiled, inwardly feeling fifteen again. Awkward and vulnerable and stripped of the mask she'd spent so long cultivating. Did Nina remember? Had she even actually noticed anything to remember? "Yeah! Holy hell, how long has it been?"
"Three years, at least. How are you?"
Nina shrugged, something on the edges of her rippling, shuddering and snapping back into place. A display, the coded outreach. Normal folk didn't see it, just. People like her. Clara pretended she didn't see it.
"Oh, you know. Hanging in there. Developing my addiction to caffeine and watching anime instead of studying. You?"
"Same. Minus the anime." She laughed. Nina laughed. What were they laughing about? That grown-up thing, where you laugh at things that aren't funny.
"Anyway. If you're - interested. In this sort of thing, uh." Nina shifted nervously, foot to foot. "There's a group, informal, just to talk about. You know. That stuff. Tomorrow, I'm going, you should come too."
So she went. And it was just a small sad room, a bowl of crisps on the table, cans of Fanta and a handful of people. Who were friendly, and open, and talked easily about that stuff.
Nina, turned out, not that there was anything wrong with that, Nina was a shifter. A raven. Off-hand, it came out, just an anecdote about the little girl down the road from her who'd been collecting all the bottle-caps Nina had dropped off.
And the others. A couple, cat and mouse, holding hands. A few nervous kids just barely glancing off the topic, no specifics. The allies, or 'allies', like Clara was. Talking about nothing. Everything.
"Can't believe it's a fucking crime," the mouse said. "To not disclose your shift-ID. People shouldn't have to tell the government about that shit. And what if they don't know? I only figured it out when I was a teenager. So I coulda been arrested before that, if they'd found out?"
Clara, who still didn't even know what she was, nodded and agreed as non-commitally as she could, and then left as soon as she could, making her excuses.
Nina followed her, or maybe she'd semi-on-purpose mentioned where she lived, but there was a knock on her door as she was having a mini nervous breakdown in her very small room in her very small flatshare. She opened the door and felt her heart slip down to her feet. Because she knew, somehow, what was about to happen.
"Your roommate let me in," Nina said. "I didn't break in."
"You're like me," Nina said, voice cracking and going hoarse, staring her down. Confident, but like it was just a determined guess. Like she needed it to be true.
Clara pulled her into the room, slammed the door shut. "So what if I am? Not that I am. But what business is it of yours?"
"None. Just." She stared past Clara, at the wall covered in photographs and magazine pull-outs. The framed poster of the solar system. "I had a crush on you, you know."
Clara bit her lip. This wasn't going along any of the paths she might have imagined.
Nina shrugged, looking suddenly deflated and more than a little afraid. Clara shrugged back. They laughed, nervously. And then Clara kissed her, pushing her up against the wall, all clicking teeth and fumbling. Something coming loose in her. Something in Nina responding.
"Just let go," Nina said. "You're safe here."
They were sitting cross-legged in Clara's room. Naked but the sexual tension had been mostly fucked-out.
"I don't know how," Clara said plaintively. And she couldn't, even if she should, she couldn't.
"Yes you do. Of course you do. Everyone knows how to be themselves." Nina smiled, and flickered, and shifted.
A small, glossy-black raven was tilting their head at her inquisitively.
"What if I'm something awful?"
The raven chirped dismissively.
Right. Okay. So, why not. Clara closed her eyes, and exhaled, and the world fell apart around her.
("What was I?" she asked, later, back in a body that now seemed far too small.
"You were you, sweetie," Nina murmured, holding her close.)
Clara graduated and got a proper job and traded her dingy flatshare for a space of her own. And she was a grownup, all of a sudden.
A routine. Wake up, shower, a sensible breakfast; work, English teacher at a local comprehensive; home, for lession-planning, a sensible dinner. And then a few hours to do whatever she wanted. Read a book, watch the telly. Ignore the pressure building. The routine: as the moon waxed, her kit was pulled out, organized and adjusted. The suppressants, the bandages, the collar.
And the full moon would come, and it would happen. But she knew, she knew not to go too far. Through the window and around the neighborhood, the collar tugging her towards home. She pretended not to remember any of it.
But, god, she loved it.
You look tired, Miss, the kids would say.
From dealing with you lot, she'd reply. They'd giggle, and they'd move on.
The same thing, every month. Except this month. She'd steadied her breath and fastened the collar around her neck and let go, and got gone, padding through the streets.
And she'd come across a goose. Outside the Tesco's, preening and looking at their reflection in the glass windows.
She growled. The goose turned and honked happily.
The goose honked again, and waddled over to her. She fought the urge to run, and/or tear their throat out.
She'd met animals, and she'd met things like her, but this felt different. Somehow. Maybe it was the wriggling dance the goose was doing, or the wheezing sneeze-snorts, which - and she wasn't an expert, but she knew enough - didn't quite seem like proper goose-noises.
The goose flexed their neck improbably, inquisitively at her, then nipped gently at her fur. She giggled. Or, well, sniffed and panted, much the same thing. And the goose fluttered their wings, gesturing behind them to the Tesco's door. Which was open - a lock-picking goose, then.
Clara followed. The goose honked cheerfully. In the back, by the homewares, was a hole in the world. A flickering, inviting tear in the fabric of reality. A wound, a possibility. She nudged the goose aside and leapt through. It seemed like the right thing to do. And she went - someplace else.
She woke up the next morning in her bed. She slipped out from under the covers, unbuckled the collar, and stumbled over to the kitchen table. She found a pen and a scrap piece of paper and she wrote down everything she could remember.
The next month, Clara went out a little early. Maybe the itch under her skin, maybe a curiosity - that damn stupid goose - or something else entirely. But before the pull of the moon was at its strongest, and with the collar left in its box, she sat down cross-legged on the floor, breathed out, and fell apart.
(Or fell into herself. Was complicated, the language of this. The politics of that language. Every word carried a meaning.)
She wandered the neighborhood for an hour before finding the goose, head stuck between the slats of a residential fence. They honked indignantly, wings flapping. She shrugged, and bit the fence above the goose's straining neck, teeth wrapped around the wood, and yanked until it broke.
They stayed out all night - no world-holes, but enough to see, smell, occasionally chew. Side streets she'd never been down, the goose honking away in front of her, feet slapping at the asphalt as she padded silently behind.
And then it was morning, and she was slammed back into a body that didn't fit, naked and filthy in a ditch. Oh, fuck.
"Aw fuck," she croaked out, batting away an overhanging bush.
A blanket settled on top of her, and then a handful of clothing was flung on top of that.
"It's okay," she heard. "I've hidden stuff all over. Forgotten where half of it is, but we're in luck! Multiple pairs of trousers. And you can have the shirt, your breasts are socially unacceptable in a way mine are not."
Clara sat up slowly, tugging the blanket close. Squinted at the person crouched down in front of her. No shoes, no shirt, just tweed trousers with suspenders: a scrawny, youngish man - or, no, masculine yes, man only maybe - with an improbable head of hair.
They grinned and stuck their hand out, arm hovering until she took it, then pumping enthusiastically. "I'm Theta," they said. "You may know me better as the honky flappy flying thing, whatever that is."
"Goose," she said. She squirmed into the t-shirt and sweatpants beneath the blanket. There were slippers, too, big fuzzy things; she gestured at Theta like do you want the shoes? and they shook their head. She slid them on. "I'm Clara. The, uh." Christ, she still didn't know what she was.
"The wolf! Yes. And a magnificent wolf, at that. I've always wanted to be a wolf. Maybe next time." They grabbed her hand again and pulled her up, til she was awfully close to them, breathing them in. Her senses still heightened, she could tell they were, what. Something. Something different.
(Humans that are sometimes Other, and Others who are sometimes Human. H+ and H-. They were the latter, then. She'd never met one of those.)
A new routine. Her and this creature. The wolf and the goose, falling through holes in the world. Where they went when they stepped through the cracks, she didn't know, but she did know Theta had an unerring sense of where to find them. And there were more and more of them, seemed like, around every corner a portal to someplace else.
And the others, the people like them. Rabbits and cats and bigger cats, a horse now and then. Nodding to each other as they passed, sometimes stepping through together. Wherever it was that they went. She'd wake up and write it all down, then force her way through the regular day. She wasn't the best teacher, really, these days. She did her best but her mind was elsewhere.
You look like hell, the kids would say.
Language, she'd reply.
One night she went out and she knew, just by the way the pavement felt against her feet, she knew it was all about to go wrong. A portal on every corner, crackling and calling her in. She ignored them, kept moving, running until her lungs burned, until she found it. The place where the world ground to a halt.
Theta, small and angry, wings spread wide, mouth open and screaming. Around them: she'd write 'bright lights' down in her journal but that didn't cover it, not nearly, did not adequately describe this. The spinning, crackling lightning forming a cage around them. Drawing tighter.
She growled and tensed, leapt in even as they told her, somehow told her, or yelled, to not, please don't, just leave me alone - she leapt in and she felt herself fall apart. And she felt them - she felt them die.
So much for the wolf and the goose. Clara Oswald, on her own, same as it ever was. She drifted through the Otherworld, letting the currents carry her along.
She came to in the middle of the street. An older man staring down at her, a stranger, blanket wrapped around his shoulders, otherwise naked.
"Sorry," he said, eyebrows furrowed. "But I can't - I have to go." And he went, stumbling off into the night.
She found a small twine-wrapped packet containing a cloak, an ankle-length flowy skirt, and a packet of Hobnobs beneath a nearby bus stop bench. Theta's, probably. She stifled a sob and dressed hastily, clutching the biscuits close to her chest as she ran home.
There was a knock on her door. Her heart in her throat as she opened it, for whatever reason: it was the man from earlier, awkward and nervous. Or - not a man, a whatever. Like her, ish. Humans that look Other and Others that look Human. They seemed to be trying their best to maintain human form. Edges skittering, shivering. Wearing more clothing this time, at least: pajama bottoms and a t-shirt, hoodie loose on their narrow frame. She pulled them inside and slammed the door.
"You're - Clarence? Clark. No. Caroline?" They squinted at her.
"Clara," she said.
"Yes! Clara. The wolf." He grinned.
She did not grin back.
"I apologize for before. Always a bit of a shock, you know, when that happens." They ambled past her, settled down on her couch. Looking both at home and very, very unsure about whether they were welcome.
"No, I don't know - what? Who are you?" Like she didn't know, deep down inside.
"I'm me," they said. "Theta." They stuck their hand out, awkwardly; she tentatively took it, doing most of the work on the handshake.
"So you're not human," she said, letting their hand drop. Every word carried a meaning. Every word had weight.
"No. Are you?"
"Probably. I mean, I assume so, anyway." She laughed; they tilted her head at her inquisitively.
"Right, so, d'you know then," they began, head still akimbo. "What, uh. How this. Basically, right, I'm - I died."
She swallowed and made herself aware of her body, her human body. Toes and legs and torso and arms and fingers and head. Clara Oswald, a regular human. "Okay."
"That's how it works, for me. I die and then I - " They gestured vaguely. "Then I'm not dead."
"Are you still that ridiculous goose?"
They considered, frowning, biting their thumb. "Nah. Don't think so. Not sure what, though. Could be a wolf, maybe."
"Like I am." Her breath held.
"Yeah. Like you are." They smiled, a scared, tense quirk of the mouth. "If that's alright."
She shrugged. "Be what you want to be," she said. "Be what you are."
"So let's go, c'mon," Theta said, hands in their pockets and tilting their chin towards the open window. So very contained and still, so unlike the young dumb honking bird they'd been, but something still so familiar; something below the surface reaching out to her.
Clara reached back. And she fell into herself, muscles and tendons straining, the side-step and the coming home. They climbed through the window together, awkwardly wedged through; she landed on the ground much more gracefully than they did.
"Let's go. Anywhere, anywhen," they said, smiling, regaining their footing. Falling into themself, shaking and stumbling into form. A wolf like her, scrawnier and stragglier and less accomplished, but still. They preened and posed, hopeful. Scared but hopeful.
She nudged her head into their neck, nuzzling, her teeth light on their throat. Smiling back, teeth bared.
Two wolves and the world falling apart around them. The portals multiplying, reality splitting and cracking. The universe electric. Waking up in a bed together, the ozone smell, singed fur.
Human again, hard against the skin of what she was, or was sometimes. Their grunt as they did the same. A shared look, a shared hesitation. The strangeness, but fuck it, she'd always been strange. She kissed them, teeth bared, clicking against theirs. A hungry, desperate thing. Something going slack and then re-tensing, in a different way, her muscles flexing. A howl, from her throat or theirs, or both. Feeling less human and more herself than she ever had while wearing this skin. This just made sense, in a weird way. The two of them fit together.
They fell back as she pressed down, their neck bared and hips lifting against hers. Mouth open, the whole of them open as she fell apart around them.
(Later, sprawled out on the floor of her bedroom, sweaty and naked and antsy for something that couldn't be fucked out. She stretched and went up on one knee, took their hand, pulled them up as she stood.
"Wanna run?" she asked.
"Again? So soon? You sure you're human?"
She grinned, shrugged. He grinned and shrugged back, eyebrow cocked. And they ran, fast as they could and as far as they could, fleeing the rising sun. The moon lighting their way, pulling them along.)