Not long after the bride- and groom-to-be managed to migrate over toward the two strangers who introduced themselves as Zepheera and Aster, supper was called for and foldaway tables were brought out to accommodate the abundance if food and guests. Makeshift seats could be found just about anywhere and it seemed that everyone but the travelers had brought their own plates and cups; they were lucky that the Furnaces had spares. Once tables were set, drinks poured and seats taken (the Doctor and Zepheera sat side by side), Osier stood, cleared his throat, and all attention turned on him.
"I'd, er, like to thank you all for coming here tonight to celebrate the love that Noz and I share, and the proof of such love which we will commit to tomorrow and all the days after. But for tonight...let's eat!"
A short cheer of agreement, and everybody dug in.
The food was spectacular. It seemed as though Marjora had used up much, if not all, of her culinary repertoire: bowl after bowl of assorted soups and stews, mashed potatoes as well as cooked, a basket of rolls, assorted vegetables, and not one but two whole shrimp. Tow'er joked that he had to go back for the second one when he remembered that Cog would be in attendance, which got a hearty laugh from everyone. The Doctor and Zepheera were stuffed after their first helpings, but it was all so scrumptious that they were driven to seconds.
And so the meal went on until there was no more to eat. Dishes were cleared, tea was made and offered to all but the children, who were served milk, and light familial conversation started up while the least necessary of the tables were put away. This left a few people without tables, but seats were still around and a few even preferred to stand, so no one was bothered. Zepheera got pulled in when Tow'er asked her, smiling as usual, how long her uncle had been teaching her to borrow; the Doctor, similarly, was asked by curious others about the places he'd been and where they'd come from and just who were they anyway.
Luckily for the travelers, they didn't have to improvise for long.
Quietly at first, someone at the remaining table began to tap out a beat with their cup, as if starting a metronome. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Others joined in, the noise growing steadily louder the more people caught on. The Doctor looked around, frowning slightly; something about all this made the hairs on the back of his neck prickle in some terrible foreboding.
It wasn't until another set of people began a counter-beat – tap a-tap-tap-tap – and Zepheera gasped, "Oh! I love this song!" that he managed to relax. Zepheera shot to her feet in excitement, and the Doctor realized that others were rising to their feet as well. By now, the beat was being tapped out by more than just cups; people were clapping, stomping feet, hitting tables and anything that made noise with their hands. Suddenly, Strapley stood on his chair, a small wood spool, and grabbed his lapels, looking quite important and ignoring the fact that at any second he could fall on his arse. Nonetheless, he started off the merry tune in a key that suited him:
Oh, I could tell you a sto-o-ry
Of might and wit and glo-o-ry
But no truer words could I say
Than those of the Borrower Way!
Let me teach you the Borrower Way!
The entire company joined him in the last line, and this began the dancing. Most of the borrowers gathered in the hastily cleared space of the sitting room, Cog and Marjora as well as a few others (and the Doctor and Zepheera) staying behind and keeping the beat. But before long, Zepheera began to tug on his sleeve.
"C'mon, let's get in there!" she chimed as she continued to tug.
The Doctor resisted. "I dunno the steps!" he protested.
"What steps?" she chuckled. "Just jump in and go with it!"
Finally, he allowed himself to be pulled into the group dance that had come about, the kind that had you switching partners quite often. In fact, he and Zepheera only paired up two or three times per chorus – he could tell it was the chorus by how often it was repeated, each time by a different person in a different key or even no key at all; anyway, it was pretty self-explanatory. The chorus went like this:
Borrowers are quiet and ca-u-tious
And never ever con-spic-u-ous!
Alert and brave and handy with string
And very good at cli-i-mbing!
Never seen and never heard
Invisible to the whole wide world!
And every so often, a verse or two would be interjected between choruses. Everyone seemed to have their own verse, whether they'd heard it before or simply made it up on the spot was nearly impossible to tell. Even Zepheera had one, and the Doctor stopped dead in the middle of the dance to turn and listen. She stood above the crowd on a wicker chair, holding the hand of that boy Marcue for stability. Zepheera's verse rang out loud and clear:
Oh, I could spin you a ripe ol' tale
Of enchanted forests and fairy vales
But that's a yarn for another day,
Now I'll teach you the Borrower Way!
Grinning like an idiot couldn't be helped on the Doctor's part. For one, he'd never heard her sing, and he was pleasantly surprised that she was actually really pretty good! And for another, Zepheera had always indirectly described herself as a sort of recluse from her own people, and now here she was, laughing and drinking and singing like it was her last day on Earth, amongst more borrowers than she'd probably seen in a long time. And in that moment, he couldn't be more proud of her.
As soon as her verse ended, the boy helped her down and she ran through the crowd to embrace the Doctor tightly. A chuckle escaped his lips. "Ah, well done!"
"Thank you," she mumbled into his shoulder; unfortunately he never replied because as soon as they pulled apart, they simultaneously got sucked back into the dance, away from each other.
When at last the room had been exhausted for verses, the song began to wrap up in a strange mix of solo and unison going something like this:
Tow'er (holding Marjora's hand): From the ants so small to the trees so high/ We stick together,
Everyone: Never say die!
Osier (dancing with Noz): From the beans above to the rats below/ We never steal,
Everyone: We borrow!
Strapley: So raise your glass and brew your tea
Everyone: Hey! Borrowers are we!
Applause filled the space beneath the floorboards once more, and the few who still had drinks in hand raised their cups and chanted "cheers!".
Breathing heavily, the Doctor smiled around at his fellow participants of the dance who were all laughing and slapping one another, including himself, on the back for a job well done. all the while, he skimmed the crowd searching for Zepheera. The second he found her–all the way across the room, breathing just as heavily as the rest–his smile widened and he made a move to push his way over.
He paused when her already elsewhere attention was stolen by that boy grabbing her shoulders and turning her to face him. She grinned abashedly as Marcue lowered himself to her eye level (though he wasn't that much taller than her) and the Doctor saw his lips move in what could only be something like "You were amazing!"
The Doctor's smile became more mild, and with a short sigh and a nod, he turned away. He could tell her how proud he was later. For now, he should let her bond with the present company and he should do the same, discovering all he could on his own in the meanwhile.
"So, did my dad say just why he invited you and Aster over tonight?" Noz asked of Zepheera, who was sitting on the floor across from Cobble teaching the child a hand game. They, as well as Osier and Marcue, had settled in a corner of the room away from the older crowd; the boys had their jackets either slung over their shoulders or strewn across their laps, and their hair had fallen into messier, more natural states. Noz sat on a spool and leaned against Osier as he stood, and Marcue settled on a ring-box nearby.
In answer to Noz's question, which was casual and curious rather than suspicious or accusatory, Zepheera shrugged and said, "No, not to me. Never really thought about it til now." Her hands halted and she looked at Noz. "It's not a bother, is it? That we're here," she asked.
"Oh, no!" Noz and Osier chorused. "Far from it!" added the latter, "If anything, your uncle seems to be the life of the party!"
Zepheera's gaze followed Osier's jabbing thumb and she allowed herself a small private smile when she caught sight of the Doctor energetically chatting up Strapley. She got hung up watching him until Tow'er stole him into another room and she remembered what she was doing. She turned back to Chartreuse to continue their game, but she had crawled away and into Marcue's lap. Chuckling lightly, she once again addressed the happy couple.
"Well, I'm glad you don't mind. I mean, it's your wedding after all. Still, I do feel a teeny bit underdressed for the occasion."
"'Oo d'ya think they are, though?" Vermilion whispered to Marjora as they, mostly Marjora, made more tea and arranged and brought out a few finger snacks.
Marjora hummed in response, fairly distracted. "Who?"
"Oh, y'know! That handsome fella and – what was it? – his niece?"
Marjora blinked, as though suddenly aware of the conversation she was having. "Oh, them. Well, ah, they say they're nomads..."
"But 'oo do you think they are? An' I mean really."
"Well, who else could they possibly be?" inquired Marjora, raising an eyebrow at her sister-in-law and wondering just what she was getting at.
Milly shrugged. "I dunno. They been all round the world. Could be running from something. Like fugitives. Oh!" she gasped, patting Marjora's shoulder in excitement. "What if they're criminals?" she breathed, beaming.
"Vermilion," chuckled Marjora, shaking her head amusedly at the other's eccentricity. "They're not criminals. We don't even have laws!" Beans have laws, she thought, because they can't be trusted to hold one another accountable.
The black haired woman tsked. "You're no fun."
Marjora smirked, then clapped her hands together as she scrutinized the arrangements all laid out on the only remaining table. "Right, is there anything I've forgotten..." she mumbled to herself. Her eyes suddenly lit up and her face split with an eager smile. "Milly, could you find Tow'er, let him know I'm getting out the pudding?"
Milly perked right up as well. "Right away!" and she scampered off as fast as a pregnant woman could.
To the Doctor, Tow'er was becoming increasingly more fascinating by the minute. After following the man a short distance through a hallway with postage stamps stuck along the walls like picture frames, he was led into Tow'er's workroom. It was rather bare as far as decorations went, favoring the essentials: a corner desk with a chair and lamp nearby as a main workspace, a shelf that held tools and various materials, tall baskets with long reeds sticking out, toothpicks and other sturdy things presumably used for frames, and waist-high jars made with thick glass that contained Tow'er's resin finish and a clear liquid that, after a short soak, got the reeds "pliable enough to work with without being so soggy as to fall apart" as Tow'er put it.
He thoroughly explained his craft to a closely listening Doctor (or Aster), using a small half-done basket as an example. The Doctor was careful to choose appropriate moments to ask his many questions, not wanting to interrupt.
For instance, "Where do you get all these materials from?" he asked, peering into the individual baskets.
"Mostly from the pine tree out back," the man replied. "I go out every so often, collect the needles that fall. Usually strip 'em into thinner bits after that, but some of 'em are more useful as they are."
"Thought I smelled pine," muttered the Doctor.
Before long, a knock came at the door and Vermilion Clock poked her head in. She was grinning from ear to ear.
"It's time," she said to Tow'er, "Jora's bringin' out the pudding!"
Tow'er's eyes flashed with excitement. "Already? O-okay, I'll be right out!" Vermilion disappeared and the Doctor, now standing with his hands pocketed, raised an eyebrow at Tow'er.
"It's a surprise for my daughter," he explained as he hastily replaced everything he'd brought out to show the Doctor. "The beans upstairs usually don't have them except around Borrowing Season, but—oh, you'll see, c'mon!"
So back into the heart of the home they went, just as Marjora cleared her throat for everyone's attention. Tow'er joined her and they called Noz and Osier over. By now, the crowd had closely gathered around.
"Darling," said Tow'er to Noz, "your mum and I thought, what with the Big Day being upon us, that tonight should be special. So I whipped up a little something I've been saving for a rainy day." This reference to the day's earlier weather got a few good chuckles. When this died down, Tow'er and Marjora stepped aside to reveal what the Doctor recognized as one of those assorted chocolates, all wrapped up in pink aluminum foil and easily big enough to serve the present company, and then some. Reactions to the treat ranged from ecstatic to impressed; Noz, nearly in tears, rushed to embrace her father and whispered "thank you, daddy," over and over.
"Oh. My. God." a voice breathed beside the Doctor. He started; he hadn't realized Zepheera had come to stand next to him. Her hands covered her mouth in genuine shock, and the Doctor wondered just how long it had been since Zepheera had even come close to something like this.
Almost immediately, it was a battle to retain order as Marjora stripped the chocolate of foil and began to carve it into servable slices like a cake. Amidst the disorder, Cog inquired suspiciously if it was a caramel; strawberry cream, as it turned out, with an all-natural center that was the perfect consistency to melt in your mouth and rich, crunchy chocolate exterior. The Doctor seriously wondered, after taking a bite, if increased size scientifically meant increased flavor. Because it sure seemed like it.
"Pretty, ain't she?" Osier playfully nudged Marcue back to his senses. The poor sap had been staring across the room at the nomad girl, mechanically chewing his food all the while. She was sitting alone while she ate, visibly savoring each bite.
Marcue blinked rapidly and replied, "Yeah, I-I suppose she is." His ears turned pink and he took a sudden interest in his plate, picking at its contents uselessly with his fork; his very essence seemed to scream, "I shouldn't have said that I shouldn't have said that."
Sniggering, Osier clapped a hand good-naturedly on Marcue's shoulder. "Ah, Marcue. It seems to me that this situation calls for an intervention." With a sly grin, he grabbed hold of Marcue's other shoulder and slowly ushered him toward the unsuspecting girl.
Marcue tensed up and nearly tossed his food in an act of surprise. "Wh-what are you—Osier, quit it!"
"I'm sorry, but I am not giving up until you at least talk to her—"
"Alright, alright!" Marcue shook himself free, shooting a dirty look at his best friend and soon-to-be cousin before willingly walking over to Zepheera. He'd caught her mid-bite, and she quickly swallowed when she noticed him coming.
"Hi," she smiled, wiping her mouth with the back of a hand, clearing it of excess food that Marcue hadn't seen.
"...Hello," he said at length.
Say something! he ordered himself. But what should I say? Contrary to Osier's belief, he had spoken to her. But that had been after the song and dance, in the heat of the moment. Now, he needed to choose his words carefully, be sure not to say anything stupid or wrong.
"So, er, strawberry cream, eh?"
Surprisingly, though, she went along. "Oh, it's so good. It's been so long, I'd almost forgotten what it tasted like."
Somehow reassured, Marcue managed a small smile. "Yeah, I can't really remember exactly when my last strawberry cream was. I borrowed a fudge the Borrowing Season before last, though, Char didn't sleep for a week." He chuckled nervously, scratched the back of his neck; desperate to change the subject, he said, "May I sit down?"
"Yeah, sure!" She moved over to give him a little more room.
As he sat, he could feel his heartbeat quicken. He mentally told it to get it together.
Throughout the night, the Doctor kept glancing over at Zepheera. He couldn't help it.
By now, most everyone had settled in and were swapping stories old and new. More tea had been served, some with a bit of something stronger dropped in. The Doctor had his plain, and he sipped it slowly as his brown eyes flitted to that spot across the room where he was sure to find his companion engaging in rident conversation with that boy Marcue. He wasn't sure if that should be a comfort or not, but at least she and he were consistently there.
Occasionally something in their body language would indicate to him the nature of their talk (once, the boy pointed curiously at Zepheera's neck and she looked down and began fiddling with her father's necklace – since the incident, she didn't want to be without it again – and she seemed to speak to it, telling the boy about it. The Doctor briefly wondered how much of the truth she was telling him.)
It was while he was checking on her that he suddenly sensed a presence next to him. He turned to find Marjora standing beside him, following his gaze.
"They seem to be hitting it off," she commented.
The Doctor nodded, taking another swig of tea.
After a moment, Marjora tried again. "Tow'er told me that you're teaching her to borrow."
"Yep," said the Doctor, popping the 'p'. He wasn't exactly avoiding her gaze, but he didn't look directly at her. They were silent a moment, and then he felt her inch (or, millimeter) closer to him and when she next spoke, it was in a low tone.
"I realize it's really none of my business, but...don't you think it's a little...irresponsible, taking a young girl borrowing?"
"Well, she's not as young as she seems," he answered. "And she can hold her own pretty well. Actually saved my skin a few times," he added, more to himself than Marjora.
"But it's so dangerous up there amongst those beans," Marjora pressed, brow knit. "Borrowing's really something meant to be passed down from father to son..." She trailed off here, seeming to regain her tact. She bit her lip and studied her dress shoes. "I'm sorry, I forgot she wasn't your..."
The Doctor looked at her, eyes and slight smile soft. "Ah, no need to apologize," the Doctor said with a small shrug. "I know you were only thinking of her well-being."
Marjora nodded, her eyes wandering to where Zepheera and Marcue sat. The Doctor did not follow suit, he was satisfied in that department for now.
"She's an orphan?"
"Yeah," he replied tersely.
"And you're a bachelor, correct?" she asked, hesitating in the slightest.
The Doctor blinked and he looked at her again. He'd never heard it worded that way, but...
"I suppose, yeah," he said after a moment.
Marjora seemed to regret asking and kept quiet. She shouldn't be bothering the man, a near-perfect stranger, with such personal questions, she berated herself. She awkwardly downed her tea.
"Not like there was never anyone," the Doctor continued after a short pause, almost as though he couldn't stop himself. "There was...one. Long before Zepheera came around. But it didn't work out. And after that, it seemed to never work out."
All through his little spiel, he had an expression of reminiscence glazing over his features. He hadn't meant to carry on like this, didn't want to be reminded of all the people he'd loved and lost. Donna...Martha...Astrid...
He suddenly snapped back to reality and remembered that he was talking to someone besides himself. He put on a smile to hide behind as he turned back to Marjora.
"And then the accident happened, and I found myself with Zepheera to take care of. We've been inseparable ever since," he said, with a significant amount of chipper enlivening his voice. "That's why I'm teaching her to borrow. Because...she's all I've got."
It was surprising how much truth there was in those last few sentences.
Marjora simply nodded in response. An awkward silence hung in the air between them until her daughter called her over and the two of them walked off.
Heaving a deep sigh, the Doctor contemplated what had just been said. Randomly, he recalled all that stuff Zepheera had said when they'd been trapped in the drawer, and his mind began to wander from there. If what they had encountered back there had only been the hand, he could only imagine how large the entire human must appear down at this scale. How he must look to Zepheera all the time.
As thoughts similar to those circled through his head, he found himself staring at the ceiling, the underside of the floorboards. Without trying, he imagined someone about twelve or thirteen times his current height prying it up, shouting "Gotcha!", causing panic. He pondered what he might do in such a situation, if he'd make sure everybody hurried to get safely away, if he'd distract or try to reason with the—
Human. The word suddenly hit him like a ton of bricks. Sure, he understood that humans were capable of all kinds of things from kindness to cruelty. But he'd never really considered them to be predators. That was how every single borrower in the room with him saw humans. And now, so did he. Now he understood just why they made it their creed to never be seen or heard.
And then he noticed something strange.
"Awfully quiet," he muttered under his breath, still frowning at the ceiling. "Where is everybody up there?"
"Gone," said Tureen beside him.
The Doctor jumped in surprise, and she continued with slightly slurred speech, "Went on holiday only earlier today. Lucky, lucky lucky. We'd prob'ly not be as loud as we have been otherwise."
The Doctor stared at her a moment, carefully choosing his reply. Asking if she was drunk was pointless since, going by her bleary expression and breath which carried the distinct scent of tea and something stronger, he already knew the answer. Instead, he went with, "How long have you been standing there exactly?"
"Long enough," she replied tipsily, leaning toward him. "But...we don't have to be if you don't want to, y'know." Her hand slowly – and a little shakily – crept up his thigh.
O-kay, the Doctor had had enough. He quickly came up with an excuse to get away.
"Ohhhh, actually, I think I hear my niece calling me. It actually sounds rather important, so I'll just go now," he said, moving away from her touch. She reached forward and snatched him by the crook of his elbow before he could get far.
"I don't hear anything," she cooed.
The Doctor's face scrunched up. "I have very good hearing," he countered, pulling himself free and swiftly striding out of her reach.
"Aw c'mon, don' be like tha'," she called after him, but he ignored her, drowning her out by calling Zepheera's name.
But there was no one to answer. She and Marcue, the Doctor realized when he turned to the place they'd been all night, were, to quote Tureen, gone.