The whole hunting party trooped back down the main staircase, two of the hunters carrying the boy in a foldaway sling made from a length of strong silky cloth Erik had pulled from one of his many pockets.
The wind kicked up, leaves and rain blew through the gaps in the stairs making even barefoot footing treacherous.
Deran sent Shale ahead to sound the all clear, and by the time the hunters made it back to the main plaza the population was returning, streaming back up the tree to their homes. Their congratulations were heartfelt, but the increasing blustery rain dampened any inclination to celebrate.
A crack of thunder illuminated the trees in stark tones of white and black and suddenly everyone was all business. Erik and his other two hunters took the boy off to the local medical shelter. Sondherson found Steve and started issuing orders about lightning rods.
"Shouldn't we get back to the Tardis, Doctor? Haven't you seen enough?" Rory said, huddling in his visitors jacket. Amy had rejoined them with the mass return and had hugged the stuffing out of them and berated them already. She was standing by Rory, looking like a drowned rat. Shivering in her shorts and tights.
Everyone was hurrying to get indoors. It only made sense, with the wind kicking up, being up a tree was not the safest place, even with lightning rods.
"We can only try, Rory." They took off for the other side of the plaza, making for the stairs down to the smaller plaza that was the first place they'd seen on entering the tree.
But the planks were slick, the wind was blowing, the rain got progressively heavier and heavier until they could barely see, they were holding onto each other and slipping and sliding on the slick deck before they even reached the stairs.
"What the hell are you doing?!" Sondherson yelled at them over the rumble of thunder and falling rain.
"We have to get back to our transport pod!" Rory yelled back.
"In this weather? You're mad! You'll get blown off the tree and not even chutes will save you." He waved his arm imperiously from a wide, elaborately carved door in the bole of the tree. "Get in here!"
Amy, Rory, and the Doctor stumble/skated their way across the slick deck, bracing against the gusts of storm wind and rain. Hair tickling with streams of soaking rainwater, they were virtually drowned by the time they managed to flounder their way across the deck and fall into the wide doorway Sondherson held open for them.
Sondherson and Emma put their backs to the oversized doors and muscled them closed, lowering a thick bar over the door with a heartening thunk.
Amy squeezed water out of her hair, the Doctor shook his head like a dog, and Rory stared up in amazement.
They were in a cavern. A sort of cave, hewn out by Dr. Seuss by the look of it. Higgledy-piggledy walls carved up to form a hugely high ceiling forty feet overhead, with bed nooks carved out of the walls at every level, reaching all the way up to the ceiling.
Mellow artificial lights of some type spread a warm golden glow over the whole great hall, if that's what it was.
A leaf fluttered down on a gust of storm wind and landed on Rory's shoulder, making him jump. He whirled and looked up at the huge interior wall. Large arched doors were carved into the curved wall of the tree, with wide shuttered transom windows at the top letting in the occasional rattle and gust of storm wind.
He turned back around. "I'm dreaming."
The Doctor was beaming like a Who at Christmastime. He turned in a beaming whirl, arms outstretched. "it's magnificent! I call dibs on the top bunk!" He yelled merrily, staring up at the curtained alcoves only feet below the forty foot tall ceiling.
"Beds are assigned," Sondherson said, somewhat repressively, but indulgently. Obviously pleased by the Doctor's approval.
Amy was just staring like she'd just stepped into one of VanGogh's paintings.
"What is this?" she asked.
Sondherson pointed to a long bar on the right side of the hall. "Visitors quarters and Single's domicile. And meeting hall whenever we need one." He nodded in approval as Emma waddled up and dropped a heavy blanket over each of the visitors, large, scratchy absorbent blankets that sucked the water right off them.
"Oooh!" Amy shivered. "Thank you!" she said gratefully.
"No problem, ducks. Now the three of you get out of those wet clothes before you catch your death." She pointed toward the back wall beyond the bar, where a rack of metal bars hung over what looked like a radiator. "You can hang your wet clothes over there, they'll dry out in no time, in the meantime you can wear the blankets. I've brought spares." She set down an encouragingly thick stack of blankets on one of the wooden tables that sat in front of the bar.
"Soups been simmering all day, bread's fresh this morning, and there's fruit and nuts for afters. With this storm blowing, you'll probably sleep like a baby, I know I always do." She yawned hugely. "Sorry 'bout that. Cindy!" she yelled.
The curtains on one of the second tier alcoves fluttered and a curly blond head popped out. "Yes, gran?"
"Come take care of our visitors here. They're new, you show them the ropes, huh?"
"Sure!" A bright, cheery little girl of seven popped out of the alcove like a pea out of a pod. She swung down to floor level on a peg rammed into the wall and trotted over. She was dressed in green tights, and a blue unitard, and looked altogether like a daisy.
She bounced on her toes as she beamed up at the visitors. The Doctor grinned down at her. Amy hid a smile under drying her hair, he always was a sucker for a cute little girl.
Emma smothered another huge yawn. "All this excitement has worn me out. I'm off to bed. Cindy, take good care of them." She gave her granddaughter a huge hug, the girl smiled blissfully as she wrapped her little arms as far around her grandma as they'd go. "Deran, I'll see you in the morning." Emma nodded and trotted off to an archway at the back of the hall. Amy's eyes widened as she saw the woman walk upward in a curve and disappear into the tree. She realized there must be interior tunnels in the place.
"Hunh, just like ants," Rory said beside her. She nodded.
The wind howled outside and Sondherson rubbed the back of his hand across his forehead wearily. "I'm off to bed too. I've got a report to write, and there'll be storm damage to clean up in the morning." He sighed and looked at the visitors. "Biologists get free food and bed so take whatever you need. Cindy'll show you which berths to use, and she can answer any questions you have before morning. I'll try to find you some decent boots to wear by then. Jake," he turned to the thirty-something man behind the bar, apparently a combination cook/barkeeper, "You got a sandwich I can take with me?"
"Got your usual right here, Chief," he held up a loaf shaped package wrapped in a soft cloth.
"Thanks." Sondherson took it, and saluted the three visitors with it. "Get out of those wet clothes and get some hot food in you. I'll see you in the morning." With that he tromped off toward the back of the hall and took another shadowy archway, this one apparently leading down.
"Well," Rory said, clapping his hands, blanket heavy around him. "What's for supper?"
Cindy was crouched on the floor in front of him, she looked up. "You've got hairy toes."
Rory curled his cold toes under. "I do not!" he said defensively.
"Hey, lay off the hairy toes. I like the hairy toes," Amy said with a grin. She ruffled the girl's hair. "I'd like to get out of these wet clothes. Which bed is ours munchkin?"
Cindy grinned up at her. "Over here," the girl trailed off, chattering. Amy followed.
Rory stared down at his toes, then followed the girls with his eyes. Apparently biologists were assigned alcoves on the third level. He watched as Amy climbed up the carved in handholds, blanket trailing, after the little girl and disappeared behind the fluttering curtain. After a bit of bumping and ruffling, he saw her wet clothes plop out onto the raised dais at the side of the bed.
Cindy trotted back over and picked up two of the blankets off the table, they were almost bigger than she was, she toddled over and handed them to him, bumping into him because she couldn't see him over the top. "Amy said you're her husband, so you can bring the extra blankets," Cindy explained.
Rory looked down at the fluffy blankets in his arms. "Yeah," he had a sudden vision of Amy, sans blanket, walking across the room to hang her wet clothes over the radiator to dry. He wouldn't put it past her. He turned to say something to the Doctor, but stopped and hurried over to the bed alcove.
"So, Cindy," the Doctor said, standing there leaning on the bar, hair limp, tweed and trousers dripping onto the wood floor past his bare feet. "What would you suggest for supper?"
Cindy giggled and picked up the last blanket. She started patting it over him like a big drying pad. "You gotta get dry first!" she protested, laughing when he just stood there and let her mash the blanket on him. "You're gonna make the tree sprout with all that water!" Cindy said. The Doctor could definitely hear a scolding mother in her tone.
He jumped comically, jumping right out of the puddle he'd created on the floor. "Oh no!" He leaned down ostentatiously and studied the puddle as if looking for tree sprouts. "Do they grow fast? Quick smother them!" He plucked the blanket out of her hands and smashed it down on the puddle, sopping up the water with mock urgency.
Cindy rocked back and forth laughing. "You're silly!"
"No, I'm soppy!" he declared in all his drippy glory. "Which bed's mine?"
She grabbed his hand and dragged him over to the wall. She pointed up to a berth on the fourth tier, one row over from Amy and Rory's. "The one with the checkered curtains?" he asked.
"Excellent!" He swarmed up the carved in hand and footholds. "Don't eat all my biscuits!" he yelled over his shoulder.
They reconvened at the tables several minutes later, bundled in the blankets. They'd spread their clothes over the radiator rods, to gently steam away in the cool evening air. The storm continued to rattle the shutters every now and then and waft rain-smelling air in in odd but strangely comforting drafts.
Jake, it turned out, was Cindy's father and Emma's son-in-law. As he dished up bowls of soup and passed out bowls of nut butter and hunks of bread he explained that the place was a sort of community hall and public dormitory. A half dozen "regulars" were keeping to themselves at a table in the back corner of the room, apparently absorbed in some game they were playing, or perhaps just avoiding the "biologists."
Amy shrugged and dug into her soup. No skin off her nose, although she knew the Doctor would be over there introducing himself and getting into their space if he hadn't had Jake and Cindy to concentrate on.
Amy was bundled quite happily, if a bit haphazardly in her blanket, draped over her shoulders and arms to keep the drafts out. Rory had his folded and wrapped around his chest and under his arms like a sarong, snugly tucked in at the front. The Doctor had his draped around him in classical Roman fashion, as heedlessly comfortable in that as he was in bowties and tweed.
Reminded by his earlier remarks about spears and lions, Amy asked, "Why don't you have yours done like that?"
Rory looked up, filled spoon halfway to his lips. He shrugged. "This way's more practical."
Amy looked down fondly at her practical husband, then across at her impractical imaginary friend. She shook her head.
She reached for a a knobbly orange-green fruit from the bowl Jake put on the table. She took a bite. Her eyes snapped open and juice dribbled down her chin. "Oh Wow! You've gotta try this!" She held out her fruit to Rory, he pulled back and looked at it dubiously.
"What is it?" It looked like a plasticy avocado on the outside, and was the fleshy orange color of a cantaloupe inside.
"I don't know," Amy yelled across the table, "Doctor, what is this?"
The Doctor pulled his attention from Cindy, and studied the fruit. He shrugged. "Dunno. Cindy, what do you call that fruit?"
The little moppet beside him looked and said, "That's a ripper fruit."
Rory stared at her in consternation, picturing a Victorian murderer eating one. "Ripper fruit?"
"Yeah," the girl piped up and climbed half on the table, she snagged a small fruit from the bowl and sat on the table, she dug her fingers into it and ripped it in half with a wet crunching noise. She held up half, "See, ripper fruit!" She took a bite out of the half-sphere, using her teeth to dig a chunk out of the solid meat of the fruit, leaving the rind behind to form a bowl. She crunched happily and offered the other half to the Doctor.
Amy looked down where she'd bitten into the rind. It had been sort of tough. She shrugged and ripped it in half. She gave one half to Rory. "You gotta try it. it's crunchy like an apple, but it tastes like an orange!"
The Doctor watched Cindy eat her fruit, then watched as she tilted her half up to her lips like a bowl. "The juice is the best part!" she said enthusiastically. She was jittering lightly on the table, delighted to be able to teach a grown-up something. She nodded enthusiastically at him, eyeing his fruit.
He took a bite, digging it out of the flesh with his teeth the way she'd shown him. The flesh was crunchy and sweet, and as he chewed he looked down at the small depression he'd made in the fruit and watched it fill with juice leached from the rest of the flesh. He swallowed and sipped. It did taste a lot like orange juice, only clearer somehow.
Rory was staring down at his fruit, an astonished look on his face. "That's good!"
Jake started discreetly lowering the lights in the hall. The locals quit their game, brought their tankards to the bar and made mumbled good nights. They climbed up to their beds in the shadowy heights of the great, oddly shaped room.
Rory yawned and half dozed on his bench, the stormy night air was acting as a soporific on all of them. Cindy stumbled off to her bed, shooed by her father.
"Come along, time for bed, Ponds. it's been a busy day." He shooed his own ducklings ahead of him. Watching to make sure they climbed safely up to their own bed before swarming up the wall to his own bed nook.
He lay down on the soft downy mattress and sank in with a sigh. He pulled the smooth, ageworn coverlet over himself and settled back to listen to the soft sound of the storm as it blew itself out beyond the shutters. If he closed his eyes he could believe he felt the gentle swaying of the huge ancient tree.
His breathing slowed. His heartbeats softened.
The smell of fresh rain, wet wood, and clean sheets, filled his head and buoyed him off to sleep.
The Doctor woke in the ancient dark. The only sound around him the gentle sound of dripping leaves, and the soft snoring of his fellow sleepers.
He brushed aside the checkered curtain that fronted his alcove. The hall below was quiet, with that still contentment that comes in the deepest night. Faint moonlight seeped in through the shuttered transom windows over the arched door, giving the darkness a pearly sheen.
Quietly, so as not to wake the others, he climbed out of his niche and trotted barefoot across the floor to check their clothes. As promised, they were nicely dry and warm.
He dressed and unbarred the huge arched doors. He slipped outside.
Outside, a huge gibbous moon floated wavery pale over the giant trees. Silvery light spilled down to cast twinkling stars in all the jeweled raindrops still hovering on leaves and branches. The wet decks gleamed with moonlight, and every guy wire and rope glimmered and glinted like a strand of lights.
The air was heavy and humid, clinging to him with a lover's caress. He closed his eyes and raised his face to it, smiling. He went for a stroll, keeping to the boardwalks. A silent ghost slipping past the shuttered shops and quiet residences. Soft clouds wafted past the huge moon, sending strange drifts of dark and light across the scene.
He stood at the edge of a wide boardwalk, looking out over the endless jungle. A lumpy green so dark it was nearly black, highlighted in silver/white in the moonlight. A quality of night that was almost day, if he had the eyes for it.
He wandered back into the deeper shelter of the trees, back to the atrium with its protecting branches and promise of bustling humanity. Yet he loved these quiet hours. A time when all the frantic race of day was soothed, when life was just life, when there was no pressing need to be anywhere, do anything. When just being was enough.
He stopped back on the wide boardwalk and tipped his head back, arms wide, and just let the moonlight bathe him. Silvery silence, the comforting darkness wrapping around, here in the womblike embrace of the tree. He opened his eyes slowly, unfocused. Then wider. Silvery pinpricks of starlight were floating all around him. A softly moving swarm of luminescent insects, gold and green and watery blue. So many that it seemed like a living cloud. All made up of tiny butterfly like creatures, their wings transparent except in the glow of their luminescent bodies. Thousands of them, drifting on the wind, swirling around him, landing on him, bedecking him like a jeweled Christmas tree.
The Doctor grinned, he held up one of the tiny creatures, no bigger than his pinkie fingernail. In fact, sitting on his pinkie fingernail. Wings lightly floating in the air until a puff of breeze lifted them off to swirl away into the night, a fairy dance trailing away to enchant some other mortal.
"Come on, sleepyheads! Time to get up!" The Doctor whipped away the curtain over Amy and Rory's bed nook. Rory scowled and held up a hand to ward off the bright morning sunlight streaming in.
They were cuddled in, heaped under mounds of blankets, Amy's head resting on Rory's shoulder, one hand curled over his heart.
"Come on, up and at 'em!" The Doctor said with annoying cheer. He tossed their clothes into the nook. "I incorporated our chutes into our clothes, so they should be more comfortable now."
"You sew?" Rory asked, still befuddled by the Doctor's morning cheer. Amy grunted at her pillow talking and smacked him on the chest. She pulled the covers up over her head.
The Doctor ran his thumbs under his braces, with his chute straps on underneath it looked like he was wearing two sets of braces. "I'm a man of many talents. Come on, seriously, get up. Things to do. Besides, breakfast." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder and turned to indicate the sound of people getting up and the clatter of pots and dishes. The light fell across his face.
Rory jerked upright. "Doctor! What happened to your face?!"