“If I’m going to travel with you,” Ace said earnestly, holding out the jacket, “I need you to hold on to this.”
The Doctor looked down at the jacket, looked at her face, looked at the jacket again, frowning harder. “Does it count, if you give it?” He looked at her sidelong, in that uncannily not-human way of his.
“What d’you mean?” Her fingers twisted around the collar of her jacket, the badges clinking against themselves.
“According to the stories,” the Doctor said, rocking on his heels, “when you take a selkie’s coat, she’s yours.”
“Right,” Ace said, her eyes darting around the white, bare surface of the console room. “But I know, I figured I’d figure out a way to, uh… to figure…” She cleared her throat, pressed her knees together,and tried to get her thoughts in order. “I’d save us both some trouble,” she said. “That’s all.”
“I don’t need that,” the Doctor said, and she shot him a surprised look, frowning.
“No?” She could see the way the Doctor’s eyes followed the jacket, as she flung it over one shoulder. “I mean, it’d guarantee that you’d keep me around, which I know you’d like.”
“Ace,” the Doctor said gravely, and he tapped her on the nose, “I wouldn’t want you to agree to anything hasty, just because I happen to be the one who managed to get you off of Iceworld.”
Ace wrinkled her nose, somewhat insulted. “I didn’t offer that to Glitz, y’know,” she said, miffed. She put the jacket back on, wrapping it tightly over herself, and her other shape shivered under the edges of her skin. She could feel the sea, on the very edges of herself, and her body arched and wriggled for a moment, sleek and strong.
“I’m glad to know I rank above Sabalom Glitz,” the Doctor said, all withering sarcasm. “I’m sure I share that dubious honor with the likes of -”
“Forget I said anything,” Ace mumbled, pulling her jacket back on and zipping it shut. “Forget I said anything at all. It was dumb.”
“It’s fine,” the Doctor said, and he patted her on the cheek, his expression fond. “You don’t have to worry about that. I promise.”
“Are you sure you’re not just playing hard to get?” Ace asked, after a few minutes.
The Doctor looked up from his two hundred year diary, frowning at her. “What was that?”
"Playing hard to get," Ace repeated.
He looked at her with one eyebrow up. A look that she was already beginning to understand meant something along the lines of impress me.
Ace had never been one to back down from a challenge, and she grinned at him. "I see how it is," Ace said, and she grinned at the Doctor. "You'll see."
He gave her an unreadable look, and wrote something down in his diary, as if he was making a note. "Oh, I have no doubt," he said. "I have no doubt."
"Ace," the Doctor bellowed, and she turned to him, her eyes wide.
"Doctor?" The water was a very long way down, and she was a very far way up. Although one led to the other, didn't it?
It was funny, wasn't it? The way the panic was filling her whole mind like radio static, but some little part of her was making all these crystal clear observations.
"Ace," the Doctor said, "you'll be fine, if you change."
A shudder. "You can't just ask me to do that," she said, and she pulled her jacket a little tighter around herself.
"It's change or die," the Doctor snapped, as the Cyber Battalion advanced on them.
Ace is five years old, and her mother is yanking her skin off of her, throwing her back into the waves and leaving her naked and panting, treading water with her clumsy, sloppy human legs.
"Never where they can see," her mother snarls at her, and there's the hint of sharp teeth in her mouth. There are few animals that will get in a fight with a fully grown seal, and sometimes Ace is reminded.
"There's nobody around to see," young Ace whines, and she's crying as her mother tucks the skin under her arm.
"You never know who's watching," her mother says, making her way down the empty stretch of beach, and Ace has to trip her way on shore, to her towel and her clothes.
She's still stinging, in all the places where it separated, and she tells herself that the salt water on her face was just more dying seawater, because even at five she doesn't want to admit just how much it hurts.
Her skin closed over her, and she bellowed her delight as she changed midair, and swam down into the water, her tail flexing, skin and fat and muscle keeping her warm as she swam through the frigid water. She surfaced, miles away, and wasn't surprised to find the Doctor on the river bank.
"Are you going to come out?"
His tone was mild, resting his chin on the handle of his umbrella. He was looking down at her with an equally mild expression.
She rolled over in the water, let herself imagine staying in this form - that was part of the point, wasn't it? That she had the choice.
She'd have jumped at the chance, when she was younger - her mum had hidden the skin at one point, just so that she'd learn how to be something that at least resembled human.
But she wasn't a little kid anymore, was she?
That first gasp, pulling herself onto the riverbank and gasping, then the sharp pull, as she pulled the skin up and off. It was a jacket again, covered in badges, sodden and spread out on the riverbank.
"You could have taken it off of me," Ace said, as the Doctor handed her a towel. He wasn't looking at the way her wet clothes were pasted to her with anything like interest, and she wasn't sure if she was insulted or relieved.
"Then it would be me taking it from you," he said, as if that was the most obvious answer in the world.
"Well, yes," said Ace, as she began to towel her hair dry. "That's kind of the point."
"I suppose that we see different points," he said, after there was some endless bit of silence that left her teeth on edge.
"If you let me keep it," Ace said, "I could leave at any time, y'know." It was easier to talk about this with the towel covering her face, the rough sound of the towel on her wet hair drowning out the desperate, racing thump of her heart in her ears.
"You could leave even if I had it," the Doctor pointed out.
Ace scoffed. "And leave behind my skin?" She hooked her fingers into the waistband of her tights, began to shove them down her legs, then caught the strangled noise that he made, and the way his face was turning red.
"Anyone can leave anything behind, if they need to," said the Doctor, and there was something very sad in his voice.
She didn't really have a response to that.
"You're going to have an impact on the local mythology, y'know," the Doctor said, as Ace hauled her tights off, then flopped out, panting.
"Am I?" She stretched out on the riverbank, legs out in front of her, and she tried to remember what it felt like to have legs, and how to make them work. Some part of her was still swimming through the currents, learning how to navigate the waters of an alien world.
"They didn't have any stories of girls becoming animals before," he continued. "Of course," he added, "this isn't a world that has seals, so it'll be more along the lines of something... lizardly."
"Lizardly," Ace echoed, and she snorted. "You said most planets have legends about... y'know, people like me."
"I'm coming to the conclusion that you and I may have something to do with it," he said, and when she caught his eye, he winked.
She wasn't sure why she was blushing so hard.
Ace is seven when she finds her father's skin, sewn into the underside of her parent's mattress. She's looking for Christmas presents, there's a rip as she's wriggling her way out, and as soon as she touches it, she knows.
She keeps her own skin on her at all times, tied around her waist, draped over her shoulders. It doesn't look like anything in particular yet - sometimes it's a hoodie, a duffle coat, a jumper. Something unremarkable that people don't notice. Her father showed her how.
This skin is too big, but she pulls it free anyway, wraps herself in it and tries to imagine being big enough to fit it, some day. It's shaped like an old suit jacket, but she'd know it if her eyes were sewn shut. That same tingle along her skin, the taste of salt on her lips, the deep currents buffeting her body.
She's never seen either of her parent's change, but it stands to reason that one of them would have a skin. She has to come from somewhere, right?
When her father comes home, he finds her wrapped in it. He doesn't say anything to her, just walks in, puts down his briefcase, takes the skin from her. He puts it on over his work jacket, and he turns on his heel and walks out. She doesn't know what it is that's
"You don't have to take it with you, y'know," the Doctor said, as Ace pulled her jacket on. "It's not as if that'll fit in with the time period, anyway."
She looked down at her jacket, running her fingers across the badges, the familiar deep tingle off on the edges of her senses. "I can't exactly leave it on the TARDIS," she pointed out, and tried to bite back the spike of fear that rose up in the back of her throat at the thought.
"Whyever not?" He rested his chin on top of his hands, which were, in turn, folded on the handle of his umbrella.
"If you took off without me, I'm shit outta luck," Ace said, with a candor that surprised herself as much as it shocked him.
"Oh ye of little faith," the Doctor grumbled. "D'you really think that I'd just up and leave you?" He crossed his arms, looking at her from under those craggy eyebrows of his.
Ace shrugged, uncomfortable, and avoided his eyes. "It can't hurt to be careful," she mumbled, rubbing the back of her neck.
"Am I hearing things? Ace McShane, telling me that it can't hurt to be careful?" He looked incredibly unimpressed.
"It's easy for you to say," she snapped. "You're not walking around with some vital part of you just... out there!"
"What makes you say that?" His tone was very mild, but the way he was looking at her pinned her to the spot.
"Well," said Ace, and she didn't have a response to that, did she?
She still kept her jacket around her shoulders, over the old fashioned dress. Maybe some other day would be good for a trust exercise, but not today.
"So my question," says Bennie, as she clutches around Ace's middle, "is; do the badges have any impact on where your spots are?"
Ace, not in a body that can talk, makes a disgruntled noise, and dives down again, as deep as she can get with Benny still clinging to her. The human (other human, she has to remind herself, other human) is almost too heavy to tow along, but they can creep along, only surfacing when they both need air, then diving down again.
The searchlights barely penetrate the surface of the water, and the two of them are able to shelter behind a particularly big rock.
"I'm just saying," Benny says into Ace's ear, once she's opened them up again, "if I rearranged your badges in the middle of the night, would your spots say something different? I could, in theory, use them to spell things out. You could take out advertising space, that's still a valuable commodity in your time, right?"
Ace, already on edge from having to run for her life, takes a handful of Bennie's sleeve into her mouth and bites, and this is with her proper mouth, the one with the strong jaws and sharp teeth. She tugs on Benny's arm, just hard enough to get her message across, and Bennie makes an annoyed noise.
"The most annoying thing," Benny says, after she's extracted her sleeve from Ace's mouth, "is that this isn't that much different from your usual method of communication, is it?"
A snort from Ace, and then the both of them freezing, as the light gets closer.
"This isn't even the weirdest evening I've had with you two," Benny mumbles, and she's holding on tighter to Ace's middle. "So the kid can turn into a seal. Why not."
Who are you calling a kid, exactly? is not the precise meaning that Ace is managing to convey with her teeth pricking Benny's arm, but it certainly gets the broader message across.
"Honestly," Benny mumbles, as she holds on a little tighter, "there's no reason to take it so personally."
A snort, and then another deep, breathless dive. By the time they come up for air again, Benny is trembling, and Ace's own lungs are burning. Benny sees something on the bank, and is making her way towards it. Ace's eyes aren't very good, in this shape, and it isn't until the question mark shaped handle is nudging at her side that she makes out the Doctor in the darkness.
"We're safe now, Ace," comes his voice, on the distant planet of dry land. "Change back, and we can head back to the TARDIS."
Ace grumbles, and she's still staggering when her mouth is the right shape for words. "You said I wouldn't need it this time."
"Well, that was unfortunate," he says blandly, handing her a small towel he's pulled out of one of his bottomless pockets.
"Excuse me," says Benny from off to the side, and they both turn to look at her. "Are either of you going to discuss the fact that Ace turned into a seal?" She sounded faintly shell shocked, as if it was all finally catching up with her.
"Not exactly breaking news there, Benny," says Ace, when she has a throat that can make the right sorts of sounds, a jaw that moves in a way conductive to speech. "What with me knowing it my whole life."
"Good for you!" Benny says. "So you're an alien too. I suppose you're not required to -"
"She's as much from Earth as you are," the Doctor interrupts, before the two of them can really start ripping into each other, "and while I'm sure this is a fascinating discussion for all parties involved, might I suggest we have it in the relative safety of the TARDIS?"
Ace rolls her eyes. "Did you at least save my rucksack? There's stuff in there I don't want to get wet."
There's a muffled explosion from a long way off, and flames blossoming up into the darkness. The Doctor looks unbearably smug.
"... or not," Ace says, because she'd know the sound of Nitro-9 going off anywhere, and judging by that fireball, it's all used up.
"I told you to stop brewing up that rubbish," the Doctor says severely, but he bends down, picks up her jacket. There's a breathless moment, the way there always is when someone else is holding it. He holds it out to her wordlessly, and she takes it with something like relief and something like disappointment.
Maybe someday, he'll keep it.
Maybe someday, she'll steal it back, although she's never gone that far.
But she pulls it back on, wraps it tight around herself, and follows after Benny and the Doctor, picking their way along the riverbank towards the blue box.
The planet was old and the planet was dying, but the virus burrowing its way through Ace was familiar, on some bone deep level. She could run forever, she could taste the wind, and that wasn't the same as being able to read the currents and touch the bottom of the sea, but it was better than her current form.
Her body was coiling up, ready to strike, ready to chase, and she wanted to throw her head back to the sky and howl.
“Ace,” the Doctor yelled, and she looked at him sidelong, and felt her eyes do… something. He was recoiling, but persisting. “Ace, you mustn’t give in!”
Ace was on her back foot, her eyes darting from him to the horizon. She was so hungry and he smelled like… she didn’t want to think about what he smelled like, just then.
“Ace,” he said, and then he was grabbing her jacket - her skin - and yanking it off of her shoulders. She was too stunned to stop him, as he danced back a step, two steps, three. “Ace! If you want it, you can’t leave!”
She stood there, torn in two. Old instincts, new instincts. The desperate pulse in her head, in her chest.
Karra snarled, and Ace’s head whipped up towards her. She looked over at the Doctor, at the ragged shabbiness of her skin. She looked at Karra’s own skin, spotted and furred, and she let her legs coil up.
And then she was running.
“What does it feel like?” He asks her, later.
They’re back on the TARDIS, and she’s got her skin wrapped around her as tight as it could, rubbing her cheek against it. She sighs, shaking, and she looks at the mug of cocoa he’s put in front of her.
“What does what feel like?” She asks. Her voice isn’t shaking anymore, but it’s still rough. He nudges the cocoa towards her, and she takes it in her shaking hands and tries not to spill it down her shirt.
“When I took your skin,” he says quietly. “What does it feel like?”
A sigh, and she wipes her face with the back of one hand, not sure why she’s tearing up. “It feels…” She trails off. Sighs. Takes a long sip of her cocoa.
To his credit, he doesn’t seem to be getting impatient. At some point he hands her a hanky, and she dabs at her face with it ineffectually.
“It feels like giving a piece of your soul away,” she says at last. “But… it’s also a little… when you rip off that piece of yourself, you don’t know what might fit there. After.”
"I see," he said, thoughtful.
"It's also the…" She went to wave her hand, nearly spilled cocoa on herself. "The expectation."
"What expectation?" His tone was surprisingly sharp.
"That you'll take it someday. You just grabbing it like that was a relief, in a weird way." She gave an awkward, hiccupping laugh and wrapped herself a little tighter in her skin. "Been waiting for that shoe to drop for a while now."
"Ace," the Doctor said, and his hands came into frame, squeezing her own. “Ace, you know I’d never -”
“I don’t, though,” Ace interrupted, looking from his hands to his face, then back into her cup again. “I don’t know. You’ve barely told me anything about yourself.”
The Doctor gave a deep, bone rattling sigh. He looked, inexplicably, very young and very old all at once. “I sometimes envy you, y’know,” he said. “I’m forever stuck in this shape.”
“Forever, nothing,” Ace scoffed. “You’ve told me yourself that you regenerate.”
“Well, yes, but regeneration isn’t the same thing.” He was still looking troubled. “I think of all I need to do, all the horrible things I’ve had to do, that I’ll no doubt have to do in the future…” He trailed off.
“It’s not that simple, y’know,” Ace countered.
“Hm?” He frowned at her, clearly still miles away.
“You seem to think that when I’m… y’know, when I use my skin, that it’ll be simpler. But I’m still me, even if I’m a different shape.” It was downright weird to talk about something so taboo, as if it was just something that you talked about like taxes or the weather.
“I’ve observed from previous experiences that changing one’s shape -”
“See,” Ace interrupted, “that’s the problem you’re running into.”
“The fact that you won’t let me get a word in edgewise?” He raised an eyebrow at her.
“No,” Ace said, plowing on and ignoring the arch hints he was dropping rather aggressively. “The fact that you seem to think of it as shape changing.”
“You are going from one shape to another, are you not?”
“Well, yes, alright, I am doing that,” Ace said, “but I’m still… me.” She trailed off, looking embarrassed, then decided to dig her heels in. “I’m still me, I’ve always been me, I’m just… a different me.”
“It does sound a bit like regeneration,” the Doctor agreed thoughtfully. “Not an angle I’ve ever seen, admittedly, but there are more things in Heaven and Earth, etc.” He leaned forward and tapped her on the nose, and she gave him a watery, anxious little smile, and something in her chest relaxed.
She doesn’t remember what the big fight is about.
There’s something about that she laughs about, years later - the thing that led to her leaving the TARDIS has slipped her mind entirely, although she knows that it wasn’t just one thing. It’s never just one thing, and with the Doctor especially, there’s definitely a deeper, more painful origin.
But she leaves. She knows she leaves, with her rucksack and her Nitro-9 over her shoulder.
Crucially, her skin is not with her, and the shock of its loss is almost as potent as the rage boiling at the base of her skull.
Something about missing memories. Something about missing time.
The first time she crawls out of her skin, she screams and cries like she’s being born again, and the skin under it is tender and delicate. She rolls and dives in the water, and when she comes back to the land and has legs again, she doesn’t entirely know what to do with herself.
But this proves that anything can grow back. That anything can change.
Later - much, much later - there was a blue box in front of Ace’s house.
A blue box, and a woman in a blue coat, holding a bundle over one arm, looking nervous and embarrassed. Her boots sank down into the sand, and the sea wind was doing some truly chaotic things to her hair.
“Did you at least have the decency to try it on?” Ace asked, digging into the pockets of her jeans to find her house key.
“Pardon?” The woman looked guilty.
“Doctor,” said Ace, unlocking her front door, “you’ve been holding on to that for how many years?” Her chin indicated the old jacket, covered in its badges. Indicated a piece of her old self, and had she ever wanted to touch something so badly in her life?
There were her Blue Peter badges, her camel, the special patch her mate had made out for her…
“As you judge it, or how I’ve judged it?” The Doctor asked, then; “how’d you know it was me?”
“It wasn’t exactly hard,” Ace said, hanging her coat up as well. “Go on, get comfy.”
“I never saw you staying in one place,” the Doctor said, as she took her own boots off, cautiously hung up her own coat.
“Oh, this is a stopover for a bit,” Ace said. She put her milk in the fridge, her eggs, closed it. Crossed her arms across her chest and leaned against the fridge. She ran her fingers along the sleeve of her comfy old jumper, and the currents sang back from the stitches of its weave.
“I looked for you,” the Doctor blurted out. “After you left.”
“You didn’t seem to find me,” Ace said blandly, because she didn’t want to talk about those days afterwards.
“No, I had… I had some trouble,” the Doctor said, and she looked embarrassed. “But,” she added, “I… it got awkward. Because I took some space to cool off, and then it had been twenty years, and...”
Ace snorted. “You’re just as much of an avoidant mess as you’ve always been,” she told the Doctor, but there was affection in her voice in spite of herself.
This woman didn’t look anything like the Professor, except around the eyes. Something around the eyes, a weariness in the posture. There was a new confusion there too, and some old terror that was older than anything Ace could ever comprehend.
That, at least, was new.
“I’m sorry, Ace,” the Doctor said. “For…” She trailed off, and she looked so sad that it made Ace’s heart ache.
“Have you tried it?” Ace indicated the skin.
The Doctor looked down at the old jacket, covered in badges. “What? No!”
“Why not?” Ace went to her back door, opened it. It led right to the beach, and her feet sank into the cool sand as she began to walk towards the shoreline. “Professor, come on.”
“But we just came in,” the Doctor said.
“Try it on,” Ace called, and then she was running down towards the water, wooping.
She heard the thump of feet, and then the Doctor was running beside her, Ace’s old skin streaming behind her.
“I don’t know how to do it,” the Doctor said, when they’d stopped at the very edge of the waves, both of them panting.
“There’s a trick to it,” Ace said, and she drew her skin - the skin she’d made, of her old one - around herself, and let the change wash over her like the waves. She looked up at the Doctor, from a much lower vantage point, and she dragged herself into the surf.
She might not come, pointed out the logical part of Ace’s mind. This might be your dumbest idea yet.
She hadn’t yet been stopped by a stupid idea.
Something bumped against Ace’s side - a seal. Another seal, with a long stretch of pale fur across its back and gray-green intelligent eyes. It bumped her in the side again, did a somersault in the water, seemingly delighted by the buoyancy and freedom of the ocean.
And then it dived down into the unknown, and Ace gave her own somersault and followed down after her dearest, oldest friend.