Some Christmases are better than others.
This one is at the wrong time, on the wrong world and no one else lives within a planet or two. Even if they did, it is a bit too far back in time to make it possible for them to have heard of this particular celebration.
It is one of the better Christmases for Grace.
“This is safe, isn’t it?” she asks the Doctor, looking over the little log cabin, iced with snow and looking far too picturesque to be real. They crunch through the fresh snow together, a sharp wind in the air, turning her nose a painful red. He grins back at her, in what she assumes is supposed to be a comforting way, but it reminds her more of some of the patients she’s seen in the psychiatric ward; the ones who weren’t quite all there.
“Oh yes, I only built it fifty...sixty years ago...well, not me, but I was here. I think. There was a bit of a temporal, ah, accident. It looks the same, anyway. Nice and cosy, don’t you think?” Puppy dog eyes, and a slightly less manic smile; she relents and laughs, nodding.
“Very cosy,” she agrees. As the Doctor kneels and fiddles with the lock, Grace drops the hamper outside the door and peers in one of the windows.
Hot breath cools the ice on the window. She draws a smiley face, and is thinking up a suitably witty caption when the door swings open, inwards.
“After you,” says the Doctor, bowing.
“Come in to my parlour,” murmurs Grace, sticking her tongue out at the Doctor when he frowns.
“I’d have brought a tree if I could,” says the Doctor, struggling to bring the hamper inside. He’s faking and Grace knows it: she’s managed to carry the thing for half a mile.
With nimble fingers and the occasional sigh, the Doctor sets about laying the fire in the hearth. There is a surprisingly large amount of space in the hamper, and Grace wonders what he’s done to let it store so many logs. A crackle and a pop and the fire is lit. He grins at her, a child who’s learnt that playing with matches is fun.
She takes a picnic blanket from the hamper and lays it in front of the fire.
“I’d like to build a snowman,” she says, pulling of her hat and gloves. It’s so quiet here, that’s why she’s whispering. Or maybe she’s worried that if her voice is too loud, the cabin will collapse around them, an avalanche of timber.
“I may have a carrot or two,” mutters the Doctor, rummaging around the hamper. “We’ll need carrots. And coal.” He frowns. “I think this world is old enough to have reached the biochemical stage for coal formation.”
“You want to go mining?” asks Grace, reclining on the picnic blanket.
“Or sledging!” His face lights up. “I haven’t been sledging for years.”
“I thought we were coming here for Christmas dinner. And there’s no electricity.”
“There’s a fire.”
“I want fairy lights.”
“How about a present?”
“How about a kiss?”
He pecks her on the lips, and begins to set up the picnic, ignoring the roll of her eyes.
“So,” she asks, with only a hint of sarcasm. “Will Father Christmas be paying us a visit tonight?”
“Did you send your letter?” asks the Doctor as he sets out another dish. Grace stares at the covered plate and really hopes that there’s turkey somewhere in that hamper, because she doesn’t remember anything on her Christmas table that was ever that particularly neon shade of yellow.
“I thought Santa had a list,” she says. The Doctor rocks back on his heels and looks at her thoughtfully.
“I used to think he existed, you know.”
She feigns a shocked expression. “Doctor, what are you saying?”
“It was rather exciting at first,” he continues. “Another Time Lord living on Earth and giving out presents to everyone every year. I used to wonder how he managed to attach reindeer to his TARDIS.”
“You’re not serious?”
“Oh, well, I realised my mistake soon enough,” he says, with a slightly embarrassed smile. “Still, it was nice for a while.”
“It was,” agrees Grace. “It used to be the most magical night of the year.”
“Used to be?”
She shrugged. “We all grow up.”
“Some of us try not to.”
“I can see that,” she says, grinning at him.
He takes out a bottle of red wine. It looks old enough to be far too expensive for Grace to ever have been able to afford on a doctor’s salary. She grins as he opens it without even glancing at the label. Next he pulls out a pair of crystal glasses and pours. He hands her a glass and she lets the alcohol breath for a few minutes before taking a sip.
“Ready!” he announces, looking over the spread of food with no small degree of satisfaction.
They eat and talk and laugh. Grace drinks more wine than the Doctor and agrees to try only one of the more exotic dishes he has added to what she regards as proper Christmas fare. It isn’t unpalatable enough to make her sick, but she has to sit very still for several minutes.
“But it’s not really about Santa Claus,” says Grace in a silent moment.
“Not really, no.”
“I keep forgetting.” She takes another bite of turkey and chews thoughtfully. “Did it happen then?”
“Mary, Joseph, the baby in the manger, that whole Nativity play thing? Come on, you must know.”
He looks at her, he looks away, and he doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands as he stretches out the moments, seemingly hoping they’ll both forget she asked the question. “Does it matter?” he settles on finally.
“What if it’s true?”
“I guess I’ll start going to church.”
He leans towards her. “Faith is a very human thing. It’s not my place to tell you what to believe.”
She leaves it at that, because his eyes were too intense and his voice too alien.
Then he brings out a box of crackers from the hamper, and they’re giggling over poorly written puns as they finish off their meal.
Grace leans back against the wall, hunger satisfied, and looks around her, comparing her situation to all those scenic Christmas cards that she never bought. “Bit kitsch, isn’t it?” she says, expecting the carol-singers to arrive at any moment.
“I like it.”
“Wouldn’t you rather be fighting monsters?”
She shrugs. “Why not?”
“I thought you’d like it.”
“I do.” She hesitates, her eyes drawn to the dancing flames. “Brings back a lot of memories.”
The Doctor moves to sit next to her, and suddenly she doesn’t care how cloy and sweet this is, she’s content. There’s a fire and snow and alcohol and probably her favourite person in the universe is sitting next to her and letting her rest her head on his shoulder.
She falls asleep singing Jingle Bells inside her head.
“Merry Christmas,” the Doctor whispers in her ear.