The sun had burned and he had burned, and now he was looking for a colder place.
It had started with the ice skating, the frozen-blue mineral lakes. No monsters, no crazy experiments or ancient enemies or great threats to the fabric of the universe, thankfully, but that planet was freezing — not intolerably so, but definitely enough to chill her to shaking.
And she’d skated, and he’d made an attempt, and he’d tried to keep the smiling mask in place. It had slipped here and there. Not enough to see what was underneath it; just enough to see that something was there, writhing and hurting and white-hot. The happiness had only been genuine for a moment, when they were tired and red-faced from the wind and wobbling from too long spent in the awkward skates and he’d let himself fall into a nearby snowdrift, sending a great puff of blue powder up around himself. He grinned at the night sky as the flakes fell and caught on his eyelashes, frosting his pale skin, and he’d laughed, and she’d laughed, and for just a second, everything had been all right again.
It didn’t last.
He was restless, after they got back to the ship - in constant motion as he moved around the console, making random adjustments and course corrections as he went. Give the hands something to do — the mind something to be occupied with, to keep it from stumbling onto the fact that it had become a much emptier, more desolate place in the last twenty-four hours, the things meant to fill it crowded out and left scarred and scorched and damaged, huddling in the shadows.
There was nothing for it but to keep moving.
The next day, there was the dark planet.
“Beautiful place,” he said, twisting one control, flipping another, expression a perfect imitation of enthusiasm. “And a scientific marvel to boot.”
“You are a science geek.”
“That’s me.” An eyebrow raised, playfully. “Outermost planet in its system, dark as pitch. Six moons! Made of-“
“Green cheese?” Martha supplied helpfully, earning herself a sharp and teasing look.
“Bio-luminescent silicate. Well, not bio-luminescent by your definition, since that implies that it’s carbon-based. Still, emits the most amazing blue glow over the entire planet, and just enough warmth to not freeze to death, which… put like that isn’t much of a selling point, I suppose, but it’s the only place you’ll see anything like it that’s even halfway habitable. Game?”
She was - and she could sense the pattern developing, but she didn’t say a word as they wandered the cliff faces and riverbeds of a world with no sun, shifting gracefully through the night-blue spaces, breath pluming above them through the chilled and calming darkness.
And it was beautiful, and it was serene, and if it was the second trip in a row that didn’t end in disaster, she could chalk it up to the TARDIS taking a little pity on them for a while. There were certainly fires to put out all over the universe, there always were - but the fires could wait. Right now, the Doctor needed time to let the embers cool.
She found him the third night in the TARDIS kitchen, staring at a jar of marshmallows with an intensity that made her want to turn tail and hide before he noticed her — but it was a jar of marshmallows. The visual non sequitur of it all short-circuited her instincts and she stayed, wandering closer to get a better look.
The jar was mostly empty; the marshmallows were compressed and squashed up against the inside of the glass, giving the impression that it was full. An empty balloon lay nearby, a children’s party favor. Yellow.
It didn’t make any more sense, no matter how long she looked at it.
“Doctor... what are you-”
“Experiment,” came the short and fast reply, his eyes not leaving the jar.
Serious. Far too serious, given the context. Martha covered her snort of laughter as gracefully as she could, but the Doctor still looked up at her, wide-eyed like someone startled out of a dream, voice all endearing innocence. “What?”
“Sorry,” she said, still covering a grin. “Just, what sort of experiment uses marshmallows and balloons?”
His eyes stayed on hers for a moment, not blinking when they should have, that deadly seriousness having crept, wearily, back up behind them. “Oh, nothing important.” The reply came in a rush of breath, gaze swinging back to the jar. “Something in a jar, soft and malleable — marshmallows, whatever, doesn’t matter — stick the balloon in and blow it up to fill the jar. Squash everything else out to the sides.”
“Pull out the balloon,” she supplied, picking the discarded toy up from the table’s surface, stretched the yellow plastic between her fingers. The color mattered, and she was starting to get a sense of where this was going.
He nodded, absently. “And see how much they expand back on their own. To fill in the empty space.” A pause, a sudden breath, face rearranged into something approaching nonchalance as he looked up at her. “Not… much of an experiment, admittedly.”
“Sorta first form, yeah. Got a baking-soda volcano round here somewhere?”
He didn’t say anything, just looked down again and traced one finger down the side of the jar, contemplative.
After a moment too much of this suddenly unnerving silence, Martha slipped into the chair next to him. She reached out to tilt the jar toward herself, regarding the empty space inside of it. Her voice was quiet. “Not… doing too well, are they?”
“No. No, they’re not.”
The next planet, Martha picked, and he agreed to it. She wanted someplace warm and sunny, with beaches and sand and it was the same rubbish most of his companions had requested at one time or another — nothing exciting ever happened on a beach. This planet had all of the above, but it also had a rather impressive system of caverns under the surface, didn’t it? Much more interesting.
“Sorry,” he said, in the half-light of the rocky tunnel, Martha grumping nearby. “Seem to have oopsed the TARDIS into some sort of a... mine shaft, or a natural cave tunnel. Not freezing, at least.”
“Hardly warm either, though. How do you ‘oops’ yourself miles underground?”
“Well… no one’s perfect,” he mumbled, carefully avoiding eye contact. “Let’s go explore, shall we?”
And they did. And this time there was trouble, and really the creatures living in the caves had looked an awful lot like rocks when Martha had decided to try skipping one of them across an underground pool — out of sheer boredom and a growing irritation with how long it’d been since she’d seen the sun — and my but they’d had large teeth, but that was neither here nor there.
She wandered into the library later, nursing her twisted ankle — had to be that, didn’t it, so stereotypical — and found him over a large, heavy book. It was a photograph album, and he turned the pages slowly, running light fingers over the faces in the images as if trying to burn them into memory; women and men, young and old, all smiling brilliantly for the camera — a few gaps in the pages where a picture should be, but wasn’t. These spaces he lingered on the longest, eyes closed against their absence, trying to piece together things that no longer existed, fill in the blanks.
Rather than ghost around spying, Martha wandered over to him, putting one questioning hand to his shoulder. He didn’t startle. Must have known she was there the whole time.
“Who are they?” she asked, dancing between respect and curiosity.
A harshly sucked in breath, then he turned to glance up at her, glasses slightly askew. “Oh, just… friends. People I’ve known.”
“The blank spaces,” Martha muttered, reaching down to finger the page lightly, “...people you’ve lost?” And the question was so quiet, so careful and hesitant, and she was ready to retract it at a moment’s notice, eyes shifting from the photos to his face, gauging.
There was no anger there, and none of the quick shuttering away of emotion she’d gotten so used to seeing — which was a surprise in and of itself, the openness and the hollowness behind his eyes, on full display for the first time since those shuddering giddy moments after the fuel dump, terrified and empty and too overjoyed at being alive to have hidden any of it. He took another breath and looked back down to the book, hand tracing over a photograph of a dark-haired girl in a bright yellow jacket, light and youth dancing in her eyes. Sunny, that was the only word to use for her, for all that she stood against a barren waste of rock and dirt. “…at this point, honestly? It feels like I’ve lost them all.”
It was going on a week before Martha put her foot down, and she was very proud of the fact that she didn’t snap — just decided, very calmly, that enough was enough.
“You know, Doctor, there’s this thing that humans need. Vitamin D? Comes from sunlight.”
He fiddled with the controls, not looking up. “Does it? Very clever, that.”
“Yeah. And we get crabby and sick without it.”
“Well, what I’ve seen of you lot, you tend to be crabby a lot of the time anyway.” Teasing. Evading. “Complain a lot, too. This planet’s too cold, that planet’s too dark, that planet over there’s got too many carnivorous rock creatures that want to eat me — mind you, they were several shades of obnoxious, I’ll give you that…”
She canted her head to the side, mustering up an exasperated glare. “Doctor.”
“All right, well, I’m sure the TARDIS can whip up some full-spectrum… lights…” he trailed off as he glanced up at her, caught off-guard by the intensity of her disapproval.
A beat of silence.
“Right, sorry,” he said, reaching out to change the settings on the console. “Suppose I’m being silly, aren’t I. One sunny beach coming up.”
It wasn’t Earth — the sand was subtly redder, the sky a richer, more purplish blue — but it was near enough for Martha, and the planet’s single moon provided just enough tidal pull to send the breakers roiling up onto the sand in a rush of foam and watershine. The birds even sounded a bit like gulls, if she didn’t focus on them too hard. The sun shot through the water in shining metallic ribbons, the sky hanging over them a clear and cloudless bowl of color and light. It was brilliant and beautiful and warm, and he was paler than she remembered under the dizzying light, and they both squinted as they wandered, eyes poorly adjusted after a week spent in the dark.
They didn’t speak. There was no need for it — the first step back into the light, a healing moment best attended to in silence.
At the edge of the water, they stopped — looked out over its shimmering surface, the sun to their backs but warming them through in the way that little else can. Martha glanced up at the Doctor, and the look on his face was one of time and the past and the care that you use handling your oldest and dearest possessions, the look you give to the people who’ve known you since you were young when you don’t expect them to catch you. The sky arched over them, shifting with memory and light, and he breathed it in like air, flooding out the dark places.
It couldn’t fix him, couldn’t make him whole. He had more pieces missing than any single warm and pleasant moment, no matter how radiant with brilliance, could ever hope to put back into place. But it was getting him a little closer, filling in the hollowed-out spaces behind his eyes, rekindling the spark of life and love and love of life and all the things he hadn’t yet seen and a universe worth living in and fighting for.
“Not bad, yeah?” Martha finally broke the silence, shifting her gaze out to the water, the sun’s light delicate and sharp against her vision.
Silence, then a held breath let out, and a smile in his voice. “No. Not bad at all.”