“The Council have ordered a state banquet for tonight in recognition of your feat,” Mayala told the battered travelers as she bundled them into the transport back to the capitol. “You are to be presented to the people as heroes of the realm.”
“That really isn't necessary,” the Doctor said wearily, “anyone could have done it, really; we simply happened to be in the right place at the right time. Happy to have been of service, but it's been a long day and we really must see about retrieving our ship.”
“Oh, but you must stay for the celebration! The Council will wish to hear the tale in person and it will take the engineers at least until tomorrow to get their equipment out to the site to free your ship from the rubble.” The young woman's earnest smile was brilliant against the deep blue pigment of her skin. “It is a great honour,” she said reverently and then added, as further incentive, “there will be excellent food and lively music.”
He might have argued further had Nyssa not intervened. “Doctor, it would be rude to refuse their hospitality,” she murmured reasonably.
The Doctor sighed and nodded his head reluctantly, settling back into the bench beside her. In this incarnation especially, he preferred to avoid public acclaim if at all possible, but in this instance, he would simply have to endure. Until the TARDIS could be unearthed, they were at the mercy of their well-meaning hosts.
“Cheer up, Doc,” Tegan said from across the compartment. “It's only a party. What's the worst that could happen?”
The Doctor simply raised an incredulous eyebrow at her. Since they had company, Tegan resisted the urge to make a sarcastic comment and looked out the window at the passing scenery instead. Oblivious to the silent exchange taking place between the two traveling companions, Mayala continued to chatter excitedly about the banquet and how wonderful it was going to be.
Once they reached the magnificent capitol city, one of the reasons for the Doctor's unease became apparent. The news had spread fast, and at every turn their carriage was greeted by throngs of people, eager to catch a glimpse of the heroic strangers who had defeated the fearsome Beast of the Sleeping Mountain. The jubilant crowds had already begun their revelries; there was evidence of dancing and strong drinks flowing freely in the public squares. Flashes of gold and copper shone brightly amidst the sea of blue limbs and colourful, flowing garments.
Watching the cheering populace with the poise of a seasoned diplomat, Nyssa slipped her hand discreetly into the Doctor's on the seat between them to reassure him. At her touch, some of the tension in his posture eased, though all the while he'd been keeping his face carefully neutral, and he squeezed her hand back lightly in acknowledgment.
Mayala's eyes were wide as she took in the spectacle, her gaze flicking from the window to her fellow passengers with growing astonishment. Even Tegan had to privately admit that being the focus of all that attention was rather overwhelming and she was glad that their transport kept moving steadily.
The inhabitants of this world, or at least this portion of it, known as the Rumari, were governed by an elected council comprised of respected members of the various professional guilds. The TARDIS databanks had listed this era as exemplifying unparalleled peace and prosperity for their civilisation, making it an attractive location for a visit after all the dangers they'd encountered recently. The entry had failed to note any invincible monsters terrorizing the populace, trapping the people within the high walls of their city at night. That bit of history they'd had to discover for themselves.
The TARDIS had landed them nearly atop this mythic creature's lair and they'd been very nearly all killed as a result. Fortunately for all involved, the Doctor eventually recognised the beast for what it actually was, a damaged emergency security programme from a downed alien spacecraft. With a bit of technical jiggery pokery and some trickery involving mirrors, they were able to get past the sentry hologram and board the craft. Once inside, it became rather apparent that none of the original occupants had survived the crash; the system had been running automatically for three years at least and refused to shut down. Lacking a more elegant solution, the Doctor set the ship to self destruct and they'd fled for cover.
The plan might have worked beautifully had the resulting explosion not caused a landslide that buried the TARDIS in several tonnes of rock.
At some point shortly after the dust settled, Tegan may have lost her temper about things.
This disturbance — the landslide, not Tegan's enraged rant directed at the Doctor's general (lack of) competence — did not go unnoticed by the occupants of the city and they were met at the base of the mountain by a well-armoured expedition force who'd been at first dubious and then overjoyed to discover that the infamous Beast was no more.
Upon reaching the aspirationally named Grand Amphitheatre of Knowledge, the trio were welcomed by more crowds at the gate and a large, enthusiastic staff inside.
Against their protests, they were each taken off separately by a small team and subjected to a friendly, but remarkably thorough, bathing and grooming regimen. In the process, their clothes were confiscated and replaced with traditional local garments, which, given the warm climate and uninhibited culture of the Rumari people, covered rather less skin than either the Doctor or Nyssa were strictly comfortable with. Tegan, however, minded their fascinated stares at her pale complexion more than the abbreviated wardrobe.
Scrubbed clean and freshly attired in what might be generously termed a pair of white shorts, but was really much closer to a kilt, and sandals, the Doctor had begun to foolishly hope they were done with him when the industrious young man at his side produced an ominous metal canister and a paint brush.
Mayala came to collect each of them in turn, taking them into a small antechamber filled with soft couches to await their introduction to the council. The muffled sounds of loud music and many voices bled through the thick walls, evidence that the banquet festivities were already beginning without them.
Despite her own experience at the hands of the Rumari makeup artists, Tegan was startled when the Doctor entered the room behind Mayala, looking like something out of a textbook about the Greek or Roman pantheon. On a planet where the natives all had blue or turquoise skin and dark hair, he shone like the sun itself. While her own short gown was a deep red and Nyssa's a rich purple, the white half-toga they'd put him in, combined with his fair hair and the golden symbols painted all over his body, accentuated the dazzling effect. Apollo had descended from Olympus, and he was not pleased.
Tegan couldn't help but laugh. “Hells bells Doc, you could double for a glitter ball in that getup.”
“Yes, yes, very funny Tegan,” the Doctor replied, shooting her an unamused glare.
If he hadn't seemed so obviously disgruntled about the costume, Tegan might have been willing to concede that he wore it rather better than she'd have expected. Who knew the reserved Time Lord was hiding a halfway decent physique under all those layers? It certainly hadn't escaped Nyssa's attention either, if the pink flush on her friend's gold-dusted cheeks was any indication. Distracted by this unusual display of awareness in her Trakenite friend, she missed entirely the return look of stunned admiration that the Doctor gave Nyssa's appearance.
Nyssa nearly always looked beautiful, no matter what she was wearing, so the sight of her pale, glittering limbs offset by the deep color of her short garment was merely breathtaking, not surprising. She looked a bit like something escaped from fairyland, Tegan thought, quite literally an unearthly creature. Between the two of them and the almost universally attractive natives she'd met so far, she suddenly felt a touch insecure. Tegan pulled herself together by remembering that she was just as unusual a sight on this planet as any of them and it was silly to go comparing herself at a time like this.
Mayala had obviously been put in charge of orchestrating their presentation to the Council and seemed pleased with their transformations. She had changed into more festive attire herself, which included similarly elaborate gold markings on her arms and face. A jewelled pin at her shoulder secured her green dress and glittered whenever it caught the light. She smiled reassuringly and said that it would only be a few more minutes until the Council summoned them. Before they could ask her any questions, she'd dashed out of the room again.
“This whole business is turning into quite the exhibition, isn't it?” Tegan said, taking a seat to wait with a sigh.
The Doctor's reply was dry, but some of his good humour had obviously returned. “You're not losing your enthusiasm already, Tegan? Brave heart, the night is young.” He leaned casually against a wall, his hands going automatically to where his pockets ought to have been, and not finding them there, smoothly redirected the motion to cross his arms in front of his exposed chest.
Tegan pulled a face at him.
Nyssa, ever the peacemaker of the group, changed the topic of conversation before they could start bickering. She'd been examining the various symbols painted on her skin and comparing them to designs carved into decorative pillars spaced throughout the room. “Were either of you able to learn the significance of these markings from your attendants? I asked mine, but was only told they were traditional. They obviously have some meaning, but the semantic value must be too inexact, otherwise I should think the TARDIS would have translated them by now.”
“I got the same story,” Tegan supplied, peering at her decorated limbs curiously. It looked like a bunch of random lines, dots, and squiggles to her, and she could've sworn they'd been making up the design as they went along while they were painting it on her. “They're very pretty though.”
The Doctor assumed his customary 'curious academic' tone and joined Nyssa at one of the pillars. “It was intimated to me that it's something to do with how the city was founded." He touched one of the carved symbols with his fingertips absently, his eyes tracing its duplicate on her shoulder. "Perhaps there will be an opportunity later to inquire after the meaning of the individual pictographs. I would be very surprised if none of the Councillors know their history well enough to share a tale or two."
Nyssa nodded, her gaze fixed carefully on his face. "I should like to hear them. I'm sure their explanation will be much more entertaining than the clinical descriptions found in the TARDIS databanks. All the moreso, if they've created an extensive cultural mythology about those events."
"Do you suppose they'll invent new ones since we killed their fearsome monster for them?" Tegan wondered idly from her couch. The thought that the three of them might end up memorialised as body art on some planet when all they'd done was stumble into a crashed spaceship struck her as rather ironic. It probably happened to the Doctor all the time though.
The Doctor seemed vaguely discomfited by the suggestion, but he chuckled. “It would take a great deal of creative embellishment to make our adventure on that mountain sound worthy of such an honour, though I shouldn't be surprised if history ends up recording a more heroic version than the truth.”
Any additional musing on the subject was postponed by the return of their hostess. Mayala led them out through a narrow hallway and up a steadily rising slope to pause in a partially sheltered alcove. Beyond the portal lay a raised platform where nine Rumari Councillors sat in a semicircle around a crescent shaped table. Below them, the ground was packed with hundreds of revellers, crowded round to see the introduction of the alien champions. Thousands more filled the stadium seats that rose up on all sides, the architectural features terminating in a row of gas-powered torches, flickering against the night sky. The noise was tremendous.
Noting their arrival, one of the Councillors, an older woman, judging by her long, silver hair and weathered features, stood and held up a hand. The crowd quieted nearly instantly. When she spoke, her voice carried easily, rich and velvet-toned as she introduced the strangers from afar who had saved their city from the tyranny of the mountain beast once and for all. At her final gesture toward the alcove where they were standing, Mayala pushed the three of them out onto the platform to thunderous applause.
Doing their best to smile and wave, they joined the woman at centre stage. She greeted them warmly and once the cheering had subsided somewhat, directed them to three empty places at the table. Turning once more the waiting masses, she announced that the festivities had now formally begun and invited all to partake in the merriment. Music resumed and with it, the general roar mellowed to something better suited to sustaining normal conversation.
The Councillor took her own seat and carried out the more genial task of identifying herself and the other members of the Council to the visitors. Her name was Inamurami and as the eldest representative, she served as Speaker at all official state functions, she informed them.
Goblets of a fruity, alcoholic wine were placed before each setting as the Doctor gave his account of their arrival and encounter on the mountain. He was careful to avoid giving too detailed an explanation, in light of this world's current technological sophistication and demurred modestly any exclamations of brilliance on his part by his amazed audience, though their praise brought a secretly-pleased twinkle to his blue eyes.
Once the telling was finished and pertinent questions answered, talk at the table fragmented into more intimate groupings, and Tegan found herself engrossed in conversation with a handsome young Councillor called Afrondis. He wore his dark hair in intricate braids that fascinated her and had a broad, friendly smile when he laughed. His was one of the agricultural guilds, and they spent some time comparing the places where they had grown up. The wine glass at Tegan's elbow never seemed to empty, though she never once saw anyone refill it, not that she paid it particular attention as the evening wore on.
Nyssa and the Doctor had located a willing historian among the Council who regaled them with improbable tales of the Rumari's journey to this ancient valley centuries previously, culminating in the establishment of an unprecedented alliance between disparate powers to form the foundations of their great city. Their new acquaintance was a natural storyteller who grew more loquacious as the wine flowed freely, and gradually his expansive hand gestures gave way to leaning forward to steady himself on the table and swaying heavily with every emphatic syllable. Eventually, one of his colleagues came to collect the old man and shuffle him off to bed before he made any further spectacle of himself.
Having imbibed far less enthusiastically than the old Councillor, the Rumari wine had nonetheless left Nyssa feeling rather splendid in a warm, languid sort of way and, forgetting herself a little, she leant against the Doctor's shoulder, hand dropping to touch his bare knee under the table. The night itself was warm, with a fleeting breeze that occasionally wafted down from the open roof to tease the party-goers, and she was glad of the relief his cooler temperature provided from the heat of all those bodies pressed together.
The Rumari councillors were naturally just as curious about their alien visitors as they'd been about their hosts, and the old historian's empty chair was immediately filled with someone new. Idly tracing eccentric orbits along the Doctor's thigh, Nyssa inclined her head forward to follow their discussion through the pleasant haze of moderate intoxication. The Doctor allowed her gentle caresses to continue unacknowledged for a while before shifting awkwardly in his seat and, murmuring a polite apology to the latest councillor to engage him in conversation, rose under the pretence of locating a lavatory, taking Nyssa with him.
As soon as they were out of sight in the dimly lit hallway they'd entered from a few hours earlier, the Doctor turned on her, and pushed her gently but firmly against the wall, his mouth finding hers in a passionate kiss.
“Doctor!” she gasped quietly as soon as she was able, putting a hand to his chest to hold him back so that she could catch her breath. It hadn't been the kiss so much that had surprised her, but the intensity of it. “What's gotten into you?”
He made a slightly exasperated noise and looked at her searchingly. “You've been stroking my leg for the better part of an hour,” he whispered. “I rather assumed this was what you wanted.”
“Oh.” Nyssa was a little embarrassed. She hadn't really thought about what she was doing while she listened to the talk around her; casual physical affection was a relatively new experience for them, and they were still discovering through trial and error what each other was comfortable with. The alcohol had dulled her awareness of the public setting and how he might interpret her behaviour. She'd merely been absently enjoying a rare opportunity to touch him without any clothing in the way.
Neither of them were anything like exhibitionists when it came to this sort of thing; just the opposite, in fact, and since Tegan had rejoined the TARDIS crew, there'd been precious few moments of alone time for them to connect. As their relationship was largely intellectual, their emotional bond far pre-dating anything physical between them, they'd merely continued on as they had before, as friends and travelling partners primarily, occasional lovers a distant second. However, this was not to say passion had ceased to exist for them — as evidenced quite clearly by the speed with which the flame had reignited at the slightest provocation. Now that she had him here, alone in the secluded alcove, the prospect of taking advantage of their unexpected privacy suddenly appealed to her.
“Nyssa?” he asked, still waiting for her answer.
“Sorry. Yes, it is.” Running her hands up his bare torso to capture his face, Nyssa pulled him down to her again and kissed him deeply, smudging the line of gold paint on his chin. He responded enthusiastically, having had enough to drink himself to loosen his rigid Gallifreyan mantle of decorum, and used the wall for balance as he bent to press his cool body against hers.
They were thoroughly engrossed in one another, one of Nyssa's legs hitched up to wrap around his left hip, when the sound of footsteps in the corridor behind them interrupted things. With the guilty swiftness of teenagers caught together in the woods, they disengaged themselves and stood in awkward feigned nonchalance as a serving attendant passed them by carrying a pitcher. The server smirked at them knowingly and went out on the platform to refill drinks for the remaining Councillors.
The Doctor coughed lightly and watched the server leave. “Ah. Perhaps not the best place for this,” he said, voice nearly squeaking in the way it often did whenever he was acutely embarrassed or excited.
Nyssa giggled nervously and bowed her head in agreement. “To be continued later then,” she said, with a secretive smile.
“Definitely,” he murmured.
They adjusted their inadequate clothing self-consciously and walked out of the alcove, making their way back to the platform and down a short set of steps to join the hundreds of other celebrants on the dance floor. All of the food had been piled high on long tables arranged at the edges of the floor to maximize open space and the Doctor had intended to make a beeline for the nearest one until Nyssa caught his arm again. She smiled at him and nodded meaningfully towards the people dancing around them, pale eyes sparkling mischievously in the reflected torchlight.
The Doctor's natural inclination was to avoid dancing if at all possible, but for Nyssa he was willing to make an exception. He stepped closer to her and slid an arm around her waist, his other hand clasping hers as the move brought them abruptly face to face. The music was lively and night was late enough that the prevailing dance style had devolved to something suitably non-specific enough to allow amateur participation, making him more confident in his skills than he might otherwise have been.
Not too far away, Tegan had been led out onto the floor by her handsome Rumari Councillor and was dancing very close to him, holding her goblet aloft to avoid spilling it. Despite the chaos of the scene, the three light-skinned time travellers stood out in the crowd and the Doctor was able to catch a glimpse of Tegan briefly to reassure himself that she was all right. She seemed to be enjoying herself and was far too distracted by her own partner to pay any attention to what the Doctor and Nyssa were doing.
Dancing in a crowd of inebriated Rumari required more concentration than either of them expected. All the while, they had to contend with grateful Rumari approaching them to make thankful gestures. Theirs was a fairly tactile society, so unlike the more reserved Time Lord and Trakenite rules of etiquette. Between this, the constant jostling from the other dancers, the shifting patterns of light bouncing off of the hundreds of tiny mirrors positioned on nearly every vertical surface in the amphitheatre, and the glittery costumes of the people, it was far easier to cling to one another and simply sway to the unfamiliar beat than attempt anything more elaborate.
Sweat trickled down her spine as Nyssa rested her head against the Doctor's solid form. His cream and gold skin almost seemed to glow against the backdrop of blue bodies, a cool oasis in the sea of warmth. She was growing tired and wondered how much longer this banquet was expected to last. Above them, the starry sky had already begun to lighten.
"We should collect Tegan and ask about sleeping accommodations," she finally said when a gap in the music allowed it.
The Doctor nodded and together they pushed through the slowly dwindling dancers to find their friend.
They found Tegan draped inelegantly amongst three attentive - and extremely affectionate — Rumari. Her makeup had smeared badly and she was teaching the group to sing a rather bawdy Australian ballad.
"Nyssa! Doctor!" she crowed happily when she caught sight of her friends. "You're just in time to join the sing-along!"
"Oh, I think there's been enough singing tonight," the Doctor said firmly, with a dubious glance at the state of her compatriots. They regarded him with the unfocused, heavy-lidded stares of the very drunk. "Time we all retired for the evening."
"It's very late," Nyssa added, reaching to take Tegan's arm.
Tegan pouted but allowed herself to be pulled to her feet, swaying dangerously until the Doctor steadied her. She grinned at him drunkenly and flopped her free arm around Nyssa's shoulders. "Always so serious, you two," she slurred as they made their way back through the thinning crowd. "Don't you ever relax?"
She nearly took a tumble on the stairs, but her more sure-footed escorts kept them all upright. "I'll bet you spent the whole evening talking with that Council bloke about ancient history," she continued conversationally as if nothing had happened.
The Doctor ignored her and asked for direction to their rooms from a server he recognised from earlier. Mayala was nowhere to be seen.
Tegan turned to look at Nyssa. "You should've stuck with me tonight. Afrondis is a very talented kisser," she confided in a stage whisper. "He had some very nice friends I could have introduced you to."
Nyssa made a surprised sound, which her friend blithely misinterpreted as encouragement. "Things were getting properly friendly; we were just about to head back to his quarters. I could've had some real fun tonight if Mister Tall, Blond and Grumpy here hadn't intervened." She sighed dramatically.
"Tegan!" Nyssa exclaimed. The Doctor looked faintly scandalized.
The young human woman laughed and leaned more heavily on them both. "I'm only kidding! Rabbits, you should see your faces. Didn't anybody ever have sex on your planets? No, don't tell me," she preempted the Doctor's indignant reply, "I'm sure it's all polite handshakes and test tubes on ruddy spaceships."
"Tegan..." he began tiredly.
She was grinning at him wickedly, childishly pleased with herself for exasperating the Time Lord. "You should really consider trying it sometime," she teased. "Probably do you a world of good.”
The Doctor's expression was distinctly unamused. Nyssa was torn between laughter and admonishing her friend for teasing him.
Tegan abruptly stopped walking and leaned back in an exaggerated effort to study him. “Doubt it'd be that hard to pull a volunteer either — your secret's out, my lad, we've all seen the goods now." She attempted to wink suggestively, but the movement inexplicably involved her whole body, so instead she lost her balance, pitching forward unexpectedly. Nyssa grabbed her just in time to keep her from falling flat on her face and steered her along the hallway.
Tegan wasn't finished with her frank evaluation of the Doctor's romantic prospects though.
“You're much easier on the eyes when you actually smile, you know ... Not my cup of tea,” she hastily clarified. “But it clearly works for some people,” she hinted with all the subtlety of a thrown brick.
"I think that's quite enough, Tegan, you're getting silly," Nyssa put a warning note in her voice and backed it up with an empathic nudge projected at the other woman.
Tegan's demeanour sobered noticeably and she apologised, suddenly recognising that she'd crossed a line.
She kept quiet the rest of the way to their suite of rooms beneath the amphitheatre and slid bonelessly onto the first bed they came to without complaint. She was snoring loudly within a minute. The Doctor draped a blanket over her sleeping form and followed Nyssa into the adjoining room, closing the door firmly behind him.
The only light came from a small lamp that Nyssa had switched on, revealing a circular mattress dotted with colourful pillows and partially enclosed by translucent curtains hung from the ceiling, nearly identical to the one they'd left Tegan on, and a pair of recessed couches set around a low table in the corner. All of the walls and floor were smooth, white stone like the rest of the building, which gave the space a faint echo.
"She's going to be miserable when she wakes in the morning," Nyssa whispered with a shake of her head. Her own body had metabolised most of the wine by now, though her limbs still felt strangely weightless, and she stretched her arms above her head with a yawn.
The Doctor nodded and cast a thoughtful glance over his shoulder towards the door. "It's nearly morning now," he said reasonably, "I don't expect we'll hear from her until late afternoon, unless we wake her sooner." His gaze returned to Nyssa; she was taking tiny clips from her hair, methodically undoing the careful artistry of the Rumari stylists. "I should let you get some rest as well." His eyes were shadowed in the soft glow of the lamplight.
"I'm not quite ready for sleep just yet, Doctor," Nyssa said, and smiled at him. "Come here? Please."
He hesitated for a second before joining her at the bedside and cupping her shoulders in his palms. He bent forward, resting his forehead against hers. Like an untuned television set flicking on in the next room, there was a faint hum of static just at the edge of their awareness. Not a deliberate attempt at telepathic communication — the Doctor could have easily managed that if he'd tried — but something more primitive, almost instinctual. A momentary mental conjunction meant to reassure both parties. Nyssa was not one of his own people, but the principle worked the same — yes, she was really there, yes, she wanted him, and vice versa.
When their lips finally met, the touch was feather-light, staccato, a promise of things to come. Nyssa shivered and buried her fingers in his hair. The Doctor's mouth moved lower, pressing a cool, damp trail of kisses down her throat. She gasped when one of his hands repeated the slow tantalizing path up her inner thigh that she'd unwittingly tormented him with earlier. He breathed a nearly silent chuckle against her breast at her reaction and guided her gently onto the bed.
It was, as predicted, nearly evening when Tegan finally emerged from their quarters and rejoined her friends in what appeared to be a modestly sized canteen. The Doctor and Nyssa had already washed up and were back in their own clothes again. They sat talking with Mayala about the party the evening before and the plans to retrieve the TARDIS. Tegan's head ached just looking at them, they all seemed so damned bright-eyed and cheerful.
“Morning,” she mumbled and sat down immediately to put her head in her hands.
“I believe you'll find it's well after noon, Tegan. How are you feeling?” The Doctor set a cup of something that smelled suspiciously like coffee in front of her and Nyssa patted her arm sympathetically.
She squinted at him balefully and then looked down at the steaming cup. “Head's killing me. That wine packs one hell of a wallop.” She took a tentative sip of the drink; it was oddly spicy but it helped a little. “How is it that you two are so chipper after last night?”
“Ah.” The Doctor's gaze met Nyssa's across the table for a second. He grinned. “Would you believe I followed some very sage advice from a friend?” he said.