In the depths of the TARDIS, a black and white tuxedo cat lounged on a table. It had just woken up from a three-hour nap and thoroughly groomed itself when a small grey tabby kitten appeared in front of it, drawing its attention. The kitten mewed at the cat, crying for help as it was lifted even higher. The cat watched lazily as the man underneath the kitten slowly straightened and removed the kitten from his head, staring at the cat owlishly as he did so.
This room, as well as several others throughout the TARDIS, was crawling with cats of varying ages and breeds, the younger ones nipping at the Doctor’s ankles while the older ones kept a nonchalant eye on the Time Lord. Such had been the state of the TARDIS for about a week.
“Doctor!” a hushed voice rang out somewhere above his head. His eyes darted around looking for the source, ending the staring contest between him and the cat–which he rather resembled in his black suit and white button-down.
“Up here!” the voice hissed again, leading him to look up at the air vent high up in the wall above the table. Seeing who was calling him, the Doctor grinned without reaching his eyes.
“Zepheera!” exclaimed the Time Lord, shifting the kitten in his hands to a shoulder as he climbed up onto the table. This put him at perfect eye level with the vent.
“I haven’t seen you in days!” he remarked, seemingly emotionally unaffected by this fact. “How’ve you been? Are you eating well?” He stuck his fingers through the slats, as though trying to reach the very small woman inside the vent, but they were too big to make it past their second joints. But the borrower, all four and a half inches of her, would make quick work of the small space, he thought absently.
Zepheera scrambled back a few inches deeper into the vent at the approach of his digits. “Don’t do that!” she scolded, masking her fear.
The Doctor blinked slowly, a slight frown pinching just above glazed eyes. The fingers withdrew until their tips rested at the bottom of the vent’s opening, allowing him a place to rest his chin as he peered into the vent. “Zepheera, what’s the matter?”
She had to bite back a scoff at that. It should’ve been rather obvious to him why she was so wary, why she had spent the last few days hiding out in the depths of a ship she’d come to call home, sneaking food from the kitchens the few chances she got. If she were honest, a small part of her had missed living like this, like a proper borrower; but the illusion was broken by the need to hide from her best friend and the legion of cats he’d brought on board.
“I’ve contacted Torchwood,” she informed him rather than answering his question. “Captain Jack Harkness, you once told me he could be trusted. The TARDIS is set to pilot itself to their headquarters as soon as it receives their signal.”
“What’d you do that for?” asked the Doctor, more curious than concerned.
“Because I can’t very well fly this hunk of metal myself, can I?” Zepheera snapped, crossing her arms. “I’ve half a mind to make you teach me, once you’ve got half a mind.”
The Doctor tilted his head, clearly confused, and the little grey tabby mewed and crossed to his other shoulder.
“Look…You’re not yourself, Doctor,” she explained, placing her hands on her hips. “I don’t know if it’s the cats or the planet we were on or something else, but this isn’t you. And I just. Can’t. Handle this. Not on my own.”
For all her efforts to make him understand, she received a pair of big brown puppy-dog eyes in return. “No no, but the cats are friendly!” he insisted, breaking her heart a little more with each word. “I’m sure they’d be friends with you, too, if you’d just–”
He was cut off by the borrower suddenly lunging forward until her little fists slammed into the metal slats of the vent. The Doctor flinched back in surprise, blinking at her sudden outburst. Zepheera forced herself to slow her breathing, calm herself down, remind herself that it wasn’t the Doctor talking–not really.
“I would never befriend a cat!” she practically spat, venom coloring each word. “Not after what happened to Kernel…” Her voice trailed off at the mention of his name, and she squeezed her eyes shut to push back the memories and tears. He had only been ten years old…
“Your brother,” the Doctor replied at length.
Zepheera’s head snapped up. “Yes. You remember him, you remember me telling you about that!” Despite the grisly memories this situation had roused, Zepheera smiled for the first time in a week. “It’s still you.”
The Doctor didn’t respond; his brow was knit tightly together, as though he were trying to remember how exactly he knew what he’d said. Before he could even think about answering the borrower, the TARDIS rumbled and the familiar sound of the engines in flight rang throughout the beautiful machine.
“That’ll be Jack,” she remarked, backing away from the vent slowly. “I have to go. We’ll be there soon, and I’ve got to show them where you are.” Having warned him fairly, she turned to go.
“Wait!” the Doctor called after her. “Why won’t you come out? It’s all they want, and it’s all I want, so would you just…come out? Please? You don’t have to hide.”
Zepheera kept walking despite the chillingly familiar words, never once breaking her stride. “I’ll stop hiding once you understand why I have to.”