Donna said, “Centuries of living and you still don’t know when you ought to bring an umbrella.”
“Centuries of living and it turns out I don’t melt in the rain. You learn to live with it.”
“It’s not even rain at this point, it’s sleet. And yeah, well, with your hair, I don’t wonder you can live with it. Barely enough to run your fingers through. Meanwhile I’ve got to wring mine out like a bloody towel.” She demonstrated, twisting a great handful of it around: droplets of water actually did fall and steam on the hearth, popping against the stone.
God, she loved a good old-fashioned fire. The last time they’d gotten caught in a rainstorm—which might have been yesterday, or what passed for yesterday when you were traveling around with a Time Lord—she’d had to cope with sodden clothes in the middle of a civilization that had dug itself a damp sarcophagus of a city, on a world where gases in the air ignited at the first little spark. No, the bare minimum for habitation was fire, from now on—no more getting-by on planets that couldn’t cough up so much as a hair dryer, let alone a clothes dryer.
Her clothes were going to take ages to dry even as it was, but she wasn’t going back to the TARDIS tonight just to change. They’d had an hour’s walk to get here in the first place; she wasn’t slogging back there in the dark, cold, and wet just on the off-chance she could rummage up something satisfyingly woolly from a wardrobe that half the time wasn’t where you’d left it.
But this was the way to wait out a rainy night. Old American hunting lodge somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, just closed for the season, still full of Saltines and hot cocoa powder, still decorated with enormous moose heads to serve as conversation pieces. Really enormous moose heads.
“Maybe it’ll turn to snow,” she said now, looking out the window. The icy rain was hitting the glass with tiny, percussive rattles. “Didn’t you say it was Christmas Eve?”
“Past midnight now,” the Doctor said absently. “Christmas Day.”
Donna followed the direction of his gaze and wound up with nothing but an empty corner. She stretched out her legs and nudged him with one foot (sock still damp but getting drier but the minute).
“Oi, Earth to spaceman. What are you looking at?”
“There’s supposed to be something there.”
“Maybe, but it’s not that I’m feeling festive. There’s just—a gap. You can feel it.”
Donna ate another cracker and chased it with a powdery marshmallow. “Never knew you were one for feng shui.”
He hesitated for a second and then turned back to the fire, all chummy boisterousness like somebody’d asked him to host a party. “Oh, not me. You’ve seen the TARDIS. I’ve got no business telling anyone what goes where. Are you going to eat all those marshmallows yourself?”
“I was planning to, yeah.” She popped another one in her mouth and then caved and passed him the bag.
“You know what we ought to do,” he said. “We ought to toast these over the fire.”
“Oh, no, you don’t. I’ve seen these kind of clever ideas of yours in action. I’m not having the entire pack of them winding up charred or melted or—”
“All right! Only trying to be festive. Nothing doing when we’ve already got the wrong kind of Christmas crackers, I suppose.”
Donna smiled and picked up another Saltine, snapping it in two. “No crown in this one. No joke either. We should complain to the management.”
“I could tell you a joke.” His gaze had drifted away again. Back to the corner.
“If it’s ‘dogs with no noses’ again, you’ve told it to me three times already. What about a ghost story, then? Little homage to Dickens? Didn’t you say you met him once?”
His eyes snapped back to her. His voice was nervy, the words coming out too fast. “No, not that. Not tonight.”
“What, are you getting to be a stickler about the day all of a sudden? It’s Christmas proper, not Christmas Eve, so no ghosts need apply?” She dug through one of the crinkled cellophane sleeves of crackers, trying to get the last one down at the bottom.
“You know me, not really a traditionalist.” It was the way he sounded that made her look up again, that last cracker completely forgotten. He was back to sounding distant—and he was back to staring into the corner, with an intensity that made it feel like he had never looked away, not really. “I’m just worried about that. No point in encouraging it.”
“In encouraging an empty corner?”
“It’s a lot more than that. Not just a gap in the décor. This is a hole in the world. Deeper than that, even—a hole in the universe.”
Right. She felt warming prickles race up and down her spine. Should have known the TARDIS wouldn’t swing them this wide of their mark unless there was some kind of trouble they were supposed to be getting into. She hopped up to her feet. “What do you think, then?”
His eyes finally met hers, and she saw how pale he’d gone. The firelight was gilding him a bit orange, but even it couldn’t make him look anything but pasty.
“Doctor? What do you think it is?”
“I know what it is, I just said it. Hole in the universe.” He pushed his hands back through his hair. “Associational,” he said to himself. “It’s associational.”
“An associational hole? If anything ever needed a better name—”
“No, I mean this place. The atmosphere’s filled up with—” He made a kind of strangled noise of frustration. “Think about it like another dimension, just like time. Unseen but always there. A kind of energy that can be thick in some places and thin in others, something that can move around, like weather patterns. A storm blew in here, and it didn’t just bring the rain. It brought something else, too.”
Donna thought she was following him, but she couldn’t say she liked the sound of any of it. “You’re saying some cosmic meteorologist should have said there was going to be, what, high chance of strangeness in the mountains?”
“Yeah.” He glanced at her, just for a second, and she was relieved to see he still had a bit of a smile in his eyes. “Good way of putting it, really. It’s like psychic matter has built up here, like it’s dust laid over everything and we stirred it up, we’re breathing it in. Breathing it in and breathing it out, changing it. And it feeds off associations, it gets shaped by them. Christmas, Christmas ghost stories, emptiness. Me.” He took a step towards the inky blackness, the shadows that weren’t moving but were just too solid, too wrong. “I made it. A sense of absence and—and death.”
“Well, don’t go swimming in it.” She tugged at his jacket sleeve until he stepped back. “Is it going to do anything?”
“I don’t know. Probably not. Not really. Barely anything.”
“That’s about four different answers to the same question.”
“It’s weather, what do you want from me? Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.”
“Sometimes they run away from it, if they’ve got reason to think it’s going to do something to them first.”
He shook his head, dismissively enough that she believed him literally and was completely irritated with him otherwise: she hadn’t asked for a load of blustery bullshit, had she? “Nah. It’s more along the lines of rain—well, sleet—than a hurricane. Just a nuisance, really. More of an eyesore than anything else, because you keep looking at it and thinking, ‘Ah, something should be there, something’s got lost somehow.’”
His voice was quiet.
Donna looked down at her socks, dry at the toes now but still dripping wet at the heels. They leaked, squishing against the floor like a pair of sponges.
Nothing to be done about it. What had he said? You learn to live with it.
She didn’t care for being soaked through, but she reckoned she could deal with it a world better than he could deal with a great big swirly hole of ghostly loss. Some kinds of weather were worse than others.
She found her coat and started to sling it on again.
“What are you doing?” the Doctor said, tilting his head at her quizzically. It made him look like a parrot.
“I’m not staying in here with that.”
“I just told you, it’s nothing. It’s—cosmic rain.”
“Right. That’s why you look like somebody clapped a load of chalk dust all over you.”
He shook his head. “The storm outside’s only gotten worse. If you try to pick your way down a mountainside in this, all you’ll get is a nasty slide and a nastier fall. You won’t even be able to see where you’re going.”
“You’ve got your screwdriver. That’s like a flashlight.”
“It’s blue. It’s got a bulb.”
“Yeah, a tiny one. Donna, I’m not going to let you crack your head open just because I accidentally put a ghost story in the corner of the room! I’m telling you, it’s harmless!”
“Obviously not to you!”
They stared at each other, stuck in a standoff.
“Look,” Donna said. “You’re shaking.”
“Can’t be. I never shake, me. Cry and scream and rage, but not shake.”
She took his hands in hers, feeling the little jumps and twitches there. They were clammy with panic. Here they were, in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, on Christmas, in the storm of the bloody millennium, and he was practically shaking his way into shock and hypothermia. She wasn’t stripping down and cuddling him for it, she would tell him that much. She chafed warmth into his hands, rubbing little circles there until she felt them relax in hers.
“See?” the Doctor said, with a smile that might as well have been made out of plastic. “Not shaking.”
“Yeah.” She exhaled. She hadn’t let go of him yet. There was always the option of just dragging the two of them outside and flinging him down the mountain, tiny space Swiss Army flashlight or no. “At least stop looking at it.”
“I’m trying. Don’t exactly have the best record for not poking my nose where it doesn’t belong, do I?” Even as he was talking about, his eyes had darted off in that direction again. Trying, her arse. “And it is mine,” he added, so quietly that at first she almost didn’t hear him.
Like hell was she going to stand here all night and watch him dig a hole and bury himself in it. She didn’t care what all he’d killed in his life, or gotten rid of, or not saved, or what—it wasn’t an emptiness that was going to get any fuller by him hurtling his scrawny little streak-of-nothing self in there. They already had enough on their plates with aliens; she wasn’t losing him to a bunch of ghosts just because he couldn’t stop conjuring them up.
“We’re walking,” she said firmly. “End of story. Besides, it’s not like I can just settle in for the night with that curled up in the corner. And if I do wind up cracking my head open on the way back to the TARDIS, so help me, you’d better not associate me back here with that thing or I’ll haunt you from one end of the universe to the other, never mind the psychic weather or what-have-you. You’ll think a hole in the universe is a tea party compared with me.”
“Sometimes feels that way, yeah,” he said, but his mouth was twitching—a different kind of thing, she supposed, from his hands shaking. “You’re a nightmare to argue with, d’you know that?”
“Yeah, deliberately. Remember that for the future and just concede gracefully, all in advance.” She zipped her coat back up. “That thing’s not going to follow us, is it?”
“No. Call it a localized weather pattern. You know those days where it’s sunshine out the front door but raining in the garden. Just like that, only with abstract psychic phenomena.”
“Right. Sounds exactly the same.”
They put out the fire, and until they were out of the cabin, Donna tried to keep herself between him and the corner at every turn. He gave her an arch look like he knew exactly what she was up to and thought it was typical human nonsense and hubris, but a little color had crept back into his face, and she could have sworn the emptiness radiating out of the corner had closed up just a fraction, irising in like a camera lens.
“Shame I didn’t get to it first,” Donna said. “Your little localized weather pattern. I could have conjured us up—”
“A moose,” the Doctor said.
“I was thinking more like a bevy of rustically handsome—”
“It’s a subconscious process, you couldn’t stop looking at the moose heads, you’d have put an enormous phantom moose in the cabin with us. Not sure that would have been better.”
“Spoilsport,” Donna said.
They stepped out onto the porch, and the rain slanted in immediately. She sighed. At least it wasn’t sleet now; it had turned back to proper rain. That was something.
The Doctor lit up a path in front of them in dim, glowing blue. He turned to her, hesitating. “You’re sure about this?”
“Just a little rain. Not like it’s leaves on the line, is it?”
She stepped bravely forward, resigning herself to the instant soaking. It was worth it to know that they were leaving that accusing nothingness behind them. Did he carry that around with him all the time? Was it just a question of the psychic weather, whether it showed up or not? Rainy days and Mondays always get me down.
Well, she’d just have to be his umbrella, then, wouldn’t she? That was what mates were for.
He caught her as she slid in a little mud. Even though they were away from the fire now, and he was as drenched as she was, he felt warmer and more alive than he had back there.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Thank you,” he murmured. He squeezed her hand before he let it go. “You know, when we get back, I bet I could turn up something you’ll like. I used to have an inglenook fireplace a couple levels down. It’s been wandering about for a few years, but I imagine we can find it again if we really put our minds to it. If I can make a hole in the universe, I can probably get you a fireplace.”
“I’m going to hold you to that.”
They inched forward—careful in the dark and the rain, but definitely, Donna decided, getting somewhere, getting closer to home.