Not even a scream rang through the saloon. Shocked silence was the stranger's only answer as he lowered the gun and raised his head to let people peek at his face.
The grin never quite vanished from the rough face. The man was probably somewhere near the end of his forties, clean shaven and with eyes so dark they almost seemed black. And when he spoke his voice sounded like sandpaper and smoke.
"'eere comes yer payment, Charlie," he said, looking at the bartender. "Ey promised tha will not get'way. Sais goo'bey to' yer wive from ma."
Nothing was spoken as an answer, but still the man laughed as if he had gotten the funniest reply. "Oh ney, ney, ma boy. Nid thys night. Till sun rises, aye? Yee know where."
Another pause stretched in which his grin widened, and then, again as if someone had said a word, he burst out into a rough barking laugh, tipped the barrel of his gun against his hat and took a single step back - froze.
No one spoke, no one twitched a single finger, blood pooled around the dead boy on the wooden floor.
And then the stranger twitched, grinned. And his face crumbled away in sandy, pitch black chunks that trickled to the floor and revealed muscle and bone, red and glistening and slowly evaporating into dust with the same speed that the rest of the man disintegrated.
It was impossible for me to take my eyes from the scene, being too grotesque and too fascinating for letting even a second of disgust or fear shimmer through. Only when the whole man was nothing more but a pile of black sand next to the corpse did I blink again.
Seconds ticked by. Someone moved. The Master lay a hand on my shoulder and slightly pulled me backwards into the crowd that started to thaw from their shock. Without a word they brought a broom and removed the dust. Someone else grabbed the dead boy under his arms and dragged him out of the room.
And then… as if nothing had ever happened… the music and the dance and the laughter and chatting resumed, as loud and as cheery as it had been before.
I gasped at the surreal scenery, let me be pulled by the Master and followed without hesitation. We went back to the room and the portal and only then did he finally speak.
"Now if that wasn't interesting then I don't know what else is."
"Yeah, that was… bizarre," I brought out, still shook by how surreal it had been. "Why did they not react?"
Exhaling slowly I sunk down against the nearest wall, not minding the darkness in the room. It didn't last for long anyway. The Master lit the lamp and held it out to see me. I couldn't read his expression. It was too neutral.
"Do I have your attention now?" he asked in a mocking voice.
"You know anything about this?"
The Master huffed and shook his head. "Not about him. But come on, do you really think this isn't connected?" His eyes gleamed eagerly in the dancing lamp light. "Something's going on here."
"Not when you watch their reaction," I mumbled. "It's as if they forgot the whole thing as soon as the dead man was out of sight. Or maybe… mhmmm… maybe… no, that's dumb." I shook my head. "Can't be. Still an interesting reaction."
A chuckle made me look at the Master. He was observing me, his eyes glued to my face.
"Speaking of reaction." He stepped closer and bent down a bit. "Yours is quite interesting too."
"Uhhh… what… what do you mean?"
The Master poked my head. "Someone just died there and another man crumbled to dust right in front of your eyes. And yet-" he cocked his head to the site- "it doesn't seem to affect you. At all. Why is that, lil' lumin?"
It took me quite some seconds to find my voice again, his words sealing my mouth and also my mind. Was I really acting strange again? And if so, what would have been the proper reaction? Fear? Shock? Maybe panic even? The truth was, however, that I felt nothing the like. Only a mild curiosity managed to squeeze its way through to my consciousness.
"Just before you were so frightened." Again he chuckled, his eyes never leaving my face. For a small eternity we stood there, gazes locked, before he moved. "Go back to the TARDIS and fetch our pesky Doctor, will you? I'm sure he'd-"
"No way," I muttered, immediately remembering the darkness.
The Master huffed, rolled his eyes and turned to the portal. "Fine, I'll get him myself."
Time slowed for me as he moved. His arm vanished in the wall, half of his leg. I winced as if I had gone through it myself, then jumped forward to grab his arm and drag him away from the gods forsaken portal.
"No!" I panted, my pulse racing. "Don't."
The Master stilled, looked at my face and - finally - retreated from the wall, eased himself out of the darkness on the other site. I exhaled shakily, dropping my head against his arm that I was still clasping.
He didn't move for a while, didn't try to get me away from him. But his other hand cupped one of mine and just held it until I dared to look up and let go of his sleeve. After that he slipped his hand into mine and nodded to the portal.
"Nothing in there. We scanned it thoroughly. Come."
"I don't want to be there," I whispered, tightening my fingers around his hand. "It's… I don't know. It does something to me."
The Master chuckled and simply strode through the portal, leaving me no choice but to follow.
Immediately we were swallowed by the darkness, billowing around us like a living creature, ready to-
His hand moved, fingers intertwined with mine. I let out a breath I hadn't been aware of holding and then… it was gone. The fear simply disappeared and the darkness was just that… the absence of light. Not some eldritch abomination.
"Thanks," I muttered.
"You… you did something with my head, didn't you? Just now. Because… the fear is gone."
The Master let out a laugh. "Why would I do that? I quite enjoy having you a little scared. Even if it's not of me."
"Then why are you…" I tugged at our joined hands.
At first there was no answer and I already thought I wouldn't get one, when the Master spoke up.
"Nothing is in here. Nothing at all. And this nothingness… it digs out ancient instincts. It makes you see and hear and feel things that are only in your mind. And yours…" He chuckled and squeezed my hand. "Your mind is so vivid, I can imagine what this place does to you."
Now it was me who didn't answer. His words sank in and now that the fear was gone, I could very well imagine them to be true.
Which meant… I smiled into the darkness. Maybe he hadn't done anything to my mind directly, but by holding my hand he had still banished the fear. Just by not letting me walk alone. And he probably knew it.
Scenes from his dream I had slipped in manifested before my eyes, vague and hazy and I still had no idea if those were real memories of his past. But if they were… If those really had happened… Tiny acts of kindness, infinitely small in comparison to his usual deeds. An act… pretending… pretending until you became the very thing you tried to be…
"Dissociating," I mumbled into the darkness.
"You… wanted to know why I'm not shocked about the corpse and the creepy zombie cowboy."
Our steps echoed in the darkness. Shoes on metal, incredibly loud and still so insignificant in the vastness of space around us.
"I am," I almost whispered. "I… just don't allow myself to feel it. My head just… it… pushes it all inside an isolated chamber, where it's just there, but can't get to me. Can't… harm me." There was no answer, so I quietly continued, "It's easy with things that happen outside of me, that aren't somehow… part of me, you know?"
Maybe it was stupid to tell the Master, of all people, what my mind did. But here, inside the everlasting darkness and only the warmth of his hand to ground me, I felt safe doing so.
Of course he didn't respond, but I felt something like a hesitant tug on my mind, almost accidentally, as if it would take a great amount of effort to keep himself from just slipping in and see for himself.
He didn't and kept holding my hand until we finally reached the safety of the TARDIS. Her small light illuminated the metal plates in a vain attempt not to be swallowed by the nothingness around and when we opened the doors her light pooled out so warm and soothing that I felt it deep within my chest.
The Doctor was tinkering with the console, hair more dishevelled as usual, his tie lying crumbled on a jump seat. When he heard our steps he spun around and eyed the two of us as if we had caught him doing something wrong.
"Oh, uh… hey." He pointed behind him. "Was just checking why we landed here and uh… I guess I need to look for another component. See you." Quickly he stormed towards the door.
"Wait, you moron!" the Master sneered. "Something's happening. And you might want to stick your annoying nose into it."
"M… me?" the other Time Lord squeaked as he turned back. He never directly looked at the Master. "Okay… 'm listening."
It was a weird scene to watch. While the Master told in detail what had just transpired, the Doctor fiddled with his Sonic, pushed a loose screw around with his foot, nodded occasionally, then continued to fidget with whatever he could find. Never ever did he look the other man in the eyes.
Well, he must be still drunk, I thought. Or maybe… he was confused and flustered about the Master kissing him. Well… he had obviously responded. In any way possible. Didn't mean it wasn't confusing. Didn't mean it-
"Hey, you're even listening?" A hand waved in front of my eyes and I snapped out of my thoughts to see the Master raising an eyebrow at me.
"Uh… yeeeeah… maybe." His look turned into a knowing smirk and I sighed. "Sorry, no."
"Stop spacing out. Or does that egg still have an effect on you?"
I shook my head.
"Egg?" the Doctor asked. "The dragon egg? You still have it? And what do you mean having an effect on Lucy? What have you-"
"Later. We have more important things to do," the Master decided and glared at the Doctor, who shrunk together and averted his gaze once more. "Lumin with me. Doctor… do whatever."
He grabbed my arm and dragged me to the door, leaving the other man behind. In the corridors I tore my arm away.
"Where is it anyway?" I demanded. "You hid it somewhere."
"Yeah. I did. So what? You don't want that thing to drain you."
I pursed my lips. "I want it back anyway. Feels wrong not to have it with me. Is it still… does it still glow?"
"Still alive, yep," the Master said in a cheery voice, popping the 'p'. "It probably has enough energy to stay like that for a while." He tossed me a nasty grin. "You can't risk your life because of it. I still need you around."
"As if," I grumbled. "Give it back. At least let me have it nearby."
The Master stopped, turned and gave me a dark scowl. "I'm not lying, idiot. You're important. So stop being a child and wait. I'll figure something out. Promise."
I scowled back at him, but then sighed. "'Kay. 'M not having a choice anyway, do I?"
He didn't answer and marched away swiftly. I couldn't help feeling a bit pissed about the situation and was absolutely determined to get the egg back into my possession. One way or the other. Right now, however, the only thing I could do was to pout at the Master's back.
Only then did my ire settle and slowly I realized what he had just said to me.