"Doctor?" Nyssa asked carefully, her eyes never leaving the twisted hank of wires in her hands which she was inspecting for wear. Tegan had announced her intention to take a long bath to soak off the residue of their last adventure, so Nyssa and the Doctor had begun working together--mostly silently--on some much needed repairs. She'd no idea where Adric was, but so long as they were all in the TARDIS, it seemed safe enough to leave him to his own devices.
The only reply from the other side of the TARDIS console--which the Doctor was neck-deep in--was a distracted, "Hmm?"
"What is a 'birth day'?"
There was a moment's silence, then the Time Lord's seemingly-disembodied voice responded, "What do you think it is?" Despite the words, the tone was curious, not hostile.
"It sounds as though it meant the day one was born."
The Doctor made a noise of agreement, then cleared his throat. "Ah, yes. That's it exactly."
Nyssa frowned. Lifting her eyes from her task, she glanced at the striped trouser-legs and white trainers that were all she could see of the Doctor. "But Tegan told me that her birth day is something she looks forward to all year, so how can it be?"
"I see." The Doctor promptly launched into lecture mode. "Well, Nyssa, it's a custom in many cultures on Earth to commemorate each year of life by marking the anniversary of the day a person was born. In Tegan's culture, such an occasion would most likely be marked by a party of some sort and the giving of gifts to the person whose life is being celebrated. Sometimes there is a cake, decorated with lit candles to mark each year of the celebrant's life."
"Oh." Nyssa paused a moment to consider that mental image. She didn't know much about Earth parties, though, so it was a very vague one that bore a striking resemblance to the fete they'd recently attended at Cranleigh Hall. She tried to imagine fitting so many of the candles she'd seen into a cake and decided said cake must be truly enormous. "Do your people have similar customs?"
The Doctor made a noise that was almost a snort. "My people aren't terribly keen on the idea of celebrating anything. Pomp and ceremony, certainly, but frivolity? It would be entirely beneath their dignity."
Nyssa couldn't help but smile at the scorn in his voice. Dignity was a part of her nature, something she'd been brought up to hold in much higher regard than he evidently did. But she'd also been taught that there were times when decorum might be set aside in the interest of joy. From what little she'd learned of the Time Lords, what they called dignity would more accurately be described as pompousness.
"As for commemorating the day of one's birth even in a more solemn manner," he continued. "After the first century or so it becomes quite difficult to keep track of such things."
"I rather like the idea," Nyssa admitted. "On Traken, we celebrated important events such as births and marriages and comings-of-age, but only at the time they happened. The only occasions that were marked annually were the turning of the seasons. In fact, if I've marked the time right, our Spring Festival would have been coming up in fairly short order." Her voice turned wistful. "Spring was considered a time of new beginnings, so each year any young person who wanted to leave their home city and make a new start elsewhere in the Union would be given a pot containing a cutting or a seedling from their home garden. Garlands of flowers would be woven--so long that they could encompass the entire wall of the city--to wish the departing well on their journey and welcome those who had chosen to come to our city in return. Then all those who were newly arrived would present their departing gift from their home city to the consuls to be planted in the garden, and the planting would be done by the children. I still remember spending hours on my knees in the dirt, my skirts going to ruin but so happy I hardly cared."
On the other side of the console, the Doctor sat up abruptly, a perturbed line creasing his usually youthful brow as his eyebrows puckered together in concern. "You miss it, don't you?" he asked gently, looking her in the face for the first time since their conversation had begun.
Nyssa shrugged. "Of course."
"I didn't only mean Traken, though I've no desire to belittle your loss," the Doctor corrected in that same quiet tone of voice. "I meant the planting."
She closed her eyes for a moment, turning pages backwards in her memory. She felt the moist earth between her fingers, heard her father's kindly admonitions to be gentle with the delicate roots. She felt the swell of pleasure that always came with returning in the days and weeks that followed to tend her gift and watch it grow and thrive. "There was something...pleasing about it, yes."
Then she remembered giving the same tender care to the Melkur that had stolen her father and her world from her and the memories turned sour.
The Doctor's expression softened as he watched the shifting moods flit across hers. Then, abruptly, he sprang to his feet. "Come on, then!"
"What?" Nyssa asked, startled. "But we haven't finished!"
"The old girl's held together this long; she won't mind a few minutes longer. Will you?" This last was directed at the TARDIS, along with an affectionate pat to the console. The ship's only answer was the same, steady, comforting hum that usually accompanied their interludes in the vortex. The Doctor turned to Nyssa, smiling as though that were as good as a yes. It probably was. "See?"
Allowing him to haul her to her feet, Nyssa followed the Doctor out of the console room and into the TARDIS's endless twisting corridors. "Where are we going?"
"There's a room I misplaced a regeneration or two ago. Now seems as good a time as any to find out if it's still here or if it was jettisoned along with the Zero Room."
Nyssa was at a loss to explain what a missing room in the TARDIS had to do with what they'd been talking about, but the Doctor was a force of nature even inside the infinite walls of his ship. Sometimes the only thing to do was to follow along and hope that whatever lay at the end of the journey made some sort of sense.
"What sort of room is it?" she finally asked after they'd peeked in half a dozen doors to no avail. For all she knew, she might have missed it.
"Rather difficult to explain," the Doctor answered vaguely. "I'll know it when I see it. Ah, here we are!"
He threw open a door at the end of the hallway, but his triumphant exclamation was rather undermined by the broom handle that promptly fell out and clonked him on the head. "You were looking for a cleaning cupboard?" Nyssa asked, amused.
The Doctor gave her a sour look. But since he promptly set off down the corridor again, the answer was clearly no. Nyssa fought a smile, not wanting to embarrass him further. Though truthfully she could hardly blame him--all the TARDIS doors did rather look alike. Sometimes she thought the only way any of them ever found their way to the same place twice was because the TARDIS allowed them to.
There were a few more false leads--at least if the Doctor's reaction to the rooms in question was anything to go by--but finally down a corridor Nyssa was fairly certain she'd never been, he opened one final door and let out a triumphant, "Aha!"
The Doctor was already inside the room by the time Nyssa caught up to him, so she followed him in. She'd gone several steps before her surroundings really registered and she stopped cold. Nyssa's education on Traken had better prepared her for much more about the TARDIS than most of the people who saw the inside of it, but for a moment even her scientist's mind abandoned hope of trying to explain it and she simply stared in awe.
In front of her stretched a hillside green with grass and spangled with a rainbow of flowers. All the way to the horizon, she saw nothing else but those rolling green fields. Looking up only further confused matters, because above her stretched what seemed to be miles of perfect, endless blue sky, interrupted only by a myriad of tiny creatures that seemed like flowers in flight.
"Is this...some sort of back door?" Surely even the TARDIS couldn't contain a space this vast.
The Doctor smiled. "No, we're still very much in flight. An old companion of mine, Victoria, called this the butterfly room."
"Butterflies," Nyssa echoed. "Is that what those creatures are? They're beautiful."
"Most of them are Earth butterflies, yes, although there are a few insect species from other worlds as well." The Doctor held out a hand and one of the insects alighted on it, its wings like orange panes of stained glass beating slowly. "Every so often an insect accidentally wanders inside the TARDIS. Those that survive are guided here."
The butterflies seemed to have no fear of larger creatures, because several of them began to take roost in Nyssa's hair and clothing. She held still, afraid of frightening them should she move.
"Anyway," the Doctor continued. "There should be plenty of space in here for a garden, don't you think?"
His words startled Nyssa so much that she pivoted abruptly towards him, sending up a storm of startled butterflies from both of them. "What?"
"I'm sure we've the necessary tools about here somewhere." The Doctor's eyes as they met hers were impossibly gentle, as was his voice. "I'd say it's past time you got the chance to plant your departing gift in your new home, don't you think?"
Nyssa blinked back tears, astonished at the thoughtfulness of his offer. Somehow he'd understood, just from her description of the Spring Festival, how rootless she'd felt ever since the TARDIS had become her only home. Even so: "But I haven't got any Traken plants. When the Watcher brought me to Logopolis, I'd every intention of returning home so it never occurred to me to take a cutting."
Stepping closer, the Doctor laid one hand on her shoulder. "I know. But I know where we can probably find some." When she looked askance at him, he explained. "Every so often, vegetable matter gets caught up in the TARDIS' ventilation system..."
"And it finds its way here?" she asked with just a touch of pertness.
"Well, it certainly finds its way somewhere. Here's as good a place to start looking as any."
Nyssa wanted to hug him, to throw herself into his arms and bury her face in his chest just as she'd done when he'd rescued her from George Cranleigh. Only a lifetime's training in decorum held her back.
"Thank you," she told him wholeheartedly instead.
The Doctor smiled at her. "Let's see what the TARDIS has for us, shall we?"
Nyssa nodded eagerly. She had already half planned in her mind how she could create a garden that would blend in with the hillside's wild beauty instead of disrupting it.
The Doctor turned away, towards the door that would lead them back into the TARDIS proper. He paused and looked over his shoulder. "Oh, and Nyssa? Happy birthday."
It wasn't the anniversary of her birth. Depending on where they were in the vortex, the date of her birth might not even have come around yet. But Nyssa understood what he meant and it made her smile. This was a gift to commemorate her life. Not just her survival, but her existence and the fact that their journeys' merging had given them the chance to know one another.
In spite of all the grief and loss that had led them here, that was still something worth marking.
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