The air was still and cold in the sleeping city, and a few flakes of snow sifted down between the buildings towards the pavement. It was a bad night to be small, alone and without shelter. The calico cat huddled in an unhappy loaf against the side of a building. It didn't help much.
She'd had a good spot, a nice little den next to an air vent that breathed human-scented warmth into the night, but earlier tonight a big black-and-white tom had found it and decided to take it for himself. She fought him, but the calico had ended up needing to flee. Now she didn't know where to go. All the good dens she was familiar with were taken by unfriendly occupants. The only thing to do was strike out for new territory.
She went cautiously through the streets and alleys, scurrying and slinking by turns, keeping to shadows and hidden places, avoiding other animals and humans equally. Sometimes humans were nice and gave her food, but sometimes they weren't nice at all, and she couldn't always tell the two kinds apart until too late – best to avoid them altogether.
The cold nipped through her fur and she was tired, but all she found were empty, exposed alleys or other, unfriendly cats. She just wanted to curl up and sleep somewhere, but instinct told her that would be a very bad idea. Even so, when she bumped up against a wall that was ever-so-slightly warm, unlike all the others she'd encountered, she pressed up against it in an exhausted loaf and started to drowse. As her mind drifted towards sleep, she thought she could hear a sort of purr coming from the wall; it reminded her of being snuggled up against her dam when she was a kitten, and, half-dreaming, she began purring in response.
The wall's purr deepened, and the calico snuggled into it even though a part of her was afraid – Too open, too exposed, you aren't safe here . . .! The deeply-ingrained fear forced the calico towards wakefulness, but before she had roused completely, a quiet voice said, Hello.
It wasn't a voice, really, more of a feeling, and it wasn't speaking in words, but the calico still understood: a greeting, like a friendly nose-bump.
“Hello,” she said back, shivering as the cold hit her again, biting at her exposed flank.
What are you doing/why are you there?
“I'm cold, and don't have a den. This wall is warm, but I can't stay here, it isn't safe.”
Come here, the voice said, and the calico had a strong sense of directions being given.
She was fully awake now, but being a cat, she didn't question the way a human might. Instead, curious, she followed the instruction to walk around the corner of the warm wall. On the other side was a barely-ajar door, radiating warmth, light, and a strong, strange scent. It smelled a bit like humans, but also like a thousand things the calico couldn't name. Her whiskers went forward, and she crept closer.
Very carefully, she eased through the narrow opening and found herself in a large, open space. The floor was a metal mesh that hurt her feet, but it was warm – deliciously so – and she pulled her tail through the door, too entranced to notice when it closed quietly behind her.
Up here, the quiet voice instructed, and the calico made her way up the foot-hurting mesh ramp to the source of the voice. She could see a tall column, and there seemed to be an overhanging shelf she could jump to. There were other, lower, flat surfaces that seemed padded, but though they were easier to reach they weren't as interesting as the shelf.
Gathering herself, the calico sprang up to the shelf. It was sloping, and covered with all sorts of bumpy things, but she caught her balance at the edge of it. In the middle of the shelf, the column continued in a tall, glowing pillar of glass, and that was where the voice seemed to be coming from.
Ears pricked, the calico picked her way through the lumps and pointy bits to a fairly clear, flat space up against the glass column. The glass was warm, even warmer than the air, and when she bumped it with her nose, it seemed to bump back.
The quiet voice didn't say anything, but the purr got louder. The calico rubbed her cheek against the glass column, then curled up in a tight, happy ball against it. It was exactly like lying on her dam, back when she'd been tiny and safe and cared for, and she purred for all she was worth until she fell asleep.
“Um, Doc, is the control panel supposed to be furry now?”
The calico was rosed by the sound of human voices and footsteps, but instead of jerking awake in terror, the deep, dreaming purr of the quiet voice kept her calm. Her ears twitched, but she didn't bother uncurling yet, preferring to savor her comfort.
“What are you going on about?”
“That. Something new?”
A pause, then, “What the hell is that? And how did it get there??”
“If you don't know, I don't know, Doc.”
“Didn't tell us you had tribbles on board,” a new voice said. Higher-pitched, female. Amused. The calico still wasn't scared, but she could tell her nap was over.
“S' not a tribble! That much I can tell you. You've got Star Trek on the brain.”
“What's Star Trek?” the first male voice asked.
The calico couldn't understand anything the voices were saying, but they weren't angry, or cruel, or nice-covering-cruelty. She raised her head and blinked at the three humans. Two male and one female, as the voices had indicated.
“Oh! It's a kitten! Isn't she cute?” the female voice said.
“How'd that get in here?” the second male voice said, then, unexpectedly, it spoke words the calico could understand: “Oi! You! How'd you get in here?”
He sounded angry, as if his territory had been invaded, but without real teeth behind the words. That, combined with the continuing purr from the glass column, made the calico bold.
“I was invited,” she said.
“Invited? By who?”
“The quiet voice. She said I could be here.”
“Um, Doctor?” the female said – just gibberish again, questioning. “Are you talking to a cat?”
“If there's a language, I can speak it. Hush.” Gibberish. Then: “What quiet voice?”
“The one that's all around. The one that purrs,” the calico said. She stretched and yawned, savoring the feeling of waking up warm, with all her muscles loose and un-cramped.
“The TARDIS? The TARDIS said you could be here?” the human looked around the room, as if he were trying to see the quiet voice. Silly of him.
The calico settled in a tidy sitting position, curling her tail around her feet. “She opened the door, too.”
“She can't do that.”
“She did.” The calico yawned, bored.
“Okay, this is officially freaking me out,” the female said. “I'd swear that cat is talking back to you.”
“Oh, she's doing that, all right. Cheeky little thing!”
A chuckle from the other male. “What's she saying? From your half of the conversation, it sounds like the TARDIS decided to adopt another stray.”
“Well, I think she's adorable!” the female said, and reached for the calico. Startled, the calico flinched back, but the quiet voice said, It's all right. The calico let the human's hand stroke her back. It felt nice, like a big, warm, dry tongue. The calico squinted in pleasure.
“Oh, no! Don't you go getting attached! We are not keeping her!” The second male sounded annoyed, but, as before, there were no teeth behind the words.
The female kept stroking, shifting her hand around to scratch the calico's chin, and the calico leaned into the lovely sensation. It was so nice she began purring again.
“Looks like the ladies have you outnumbered,” the first male said, amused.
“You're a bloke! Help me out!”
“No way, I'm staying out of this one! You're on your own.”
“But . . . “
“She's so thin!” the female voice said. “And she's sweet! You can't put her out in the cold, Doctor!”
“I . . . but . . .”
The chin-scratching stopped, to the calico's annoyance, as the female turned to growl at the second male. The calico could tell the female was going to win, especially with the quiet voice on her side.
There was a lot more human talking, but the calico tuned it out. The quiet voice was giving directions again. The calico picked her way down the slanting shelf, then sprang to one of the padded seats nearby. On it, there was a bowl (that hadn't been there before), filled with something white that smelled delicious. The calico sniffed, tasted, then hunkered down to lap it up in earnest.
Off to the side, the first male voice laughed. “Yep. Looks like we've got a ship's cat!”
The female voice said, “See, the TARDIS wants to keep her!”
The second male voice growled helplessly.
All around, the quiet voice purred.