Gus ran across the living room and took Melody's hand just as she rounded the corner from the stairs. "We're almost finished, but we saved some ornaments for you to put on the tree!" he explained excitedly.
Melody allowed herself to be led across the room by the small child, though her eyes had somewhat of a help-me urgency to them. Amanda, the oldest of the children, smiled as Melody approached the group and made room for her at the tree, while Samantha gave her a small bucket of ornaments and explained their decorating methods-of-madness.
Leaning against the doorjamb, River watched her impossibly moody and oftentimes isolating girls embrace Melody and welcome her warmly into the festivities. Most of the girls had been with River for years. Because the home was privately owned and operated without relying on state funding, River determined who walked in, and she had the power to have troublemakers removed without hassle. So, her home was relatively peaceful, and the kids enjoyed the freedoms of the country, as well as the comfort and security of a stable home. Ensuring that the children could walk through the doors of a safe environment every day was the most crucial responsibility that River had undertaken.
And her motivation to make it happen was hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree with the closest thing to a family that she had ever known. River had no choice but to allow Melody's future play out as she knew it must, but she saw no reason why she couldn't have a safe holiday before her life started over. With the knowledge she innately had as the child of the TARDIS, River had taken the necessary precautions to make sure that there would be no time-altering paradoxes from which to save humanity, and she knew that the Doctor had the mystery already worked out. Though why he thought it could be contained and concealed in a kitchen drawer was beyond River's ability to reason.
The man himself had yet to acknowledge Melody and sat on a nearby couch surrounded by a heaping mess of decorating chaos. In fact, his refusal to pay the girl any attention whatsoever seemed to have piqued the child's curiosity, as River noticed her studying the Doctor more than once. When Katie teased him about the mess he was making and the scolding he was sure to get, Melody laughed along and nodded in agreement. The Doctor stuck out his tongue and continued working diligently on his own project.
River joined her makeshift family, collapsing on the couch next to the Doctor. Without looking up, he shooed her over, complaining that she was impeding the free flow of creativity by sitting so near.
"What does that even mean?"
"It means you smell quite yummy, and it's distracting. I am already defying the laws of my attention span, as it is…" he answered, still concentrating on his cutting.
"Oh, well in that case…" River dug her knees into the couch and stretched her body across his lap, reaching for the scissors on the other end. "I'll just get these myself. I'd hate to interrupt your creativity flow."
The Doctor clenched his teeth as she drug her body over his, the aromas of freshly washed hair and lady soap torturing his reflexes. As she reached for the scissors, her top rose and revealed a bit of flesh at the waistband of her pajama bottoms, not to mention a peek of black lace knickers.
He could hear the teasing sarcasm in her voice as her arm slipped out from under her and the weight of her upper body fell over his groin. She braced herself with a hand placed strategically between his legs and lifted off of him. "If you don't move, it's about to get rather embarrassing for the grown-ups in the room," he mumbled under his breath.
River was sure to graze his face with her hair before returning to an upright position. "Is there a problem, Sweetie? I didn't want to distract you from all that hard work you're putting into the snowflakes and ask you to fetch them for me."
"A million thanks," the Doctor replied sharply.
"Oh, I forgot to get some coffee filters." She began to lean over again when he tossed a handful in her direction from the pile that had been near the scissors she picked up.
"Here. Merry Christmas."
River chuckled and folded her legs under her, cutting out snowflakes that they would tape on the windows facing the road.
"Mimi! Look at the tree!" Gus exclaimed proudly.
"It's pretty fantastic, Bossman. We should pay you for all of your hard work," she teased.
"Cash only. No credit," he said smiling. "But I will accept cookies."
The Doctor giggled as he continued his focused cutting. River nodded with a straight face and replied seriously, "Sir, you drive a hard bargain, but I feel your request is fair. Cookies all around when you've finished the job."
"Ladies, I got you some cookies!" He yelled, his little voice booming with importance.
The kids laughed and cheered as they put the finishing touches on the tree. Janie removed the angel topper from the mantle and handed it to Melody. "Would you like to add the angel?" River saw a wink pass between Janie and the Doctor.
Everyone knew that the angel was the most important part, and they kept a small piece of paper under the angel's skirt to keep track of whose turn it was to place her. River was channeling all of her emotional willpower as Janie gave up the honor to Melody.
Amanda took a long look up at the top of the tree and asked the question that they were all wondering. "How are we going to get the angel up there without A…"
Luckily, she had been looking at River and saw the woman shake her head quickly in warning. Her voice faded off and the room fell silent until River spoke up. "I'll go get the ladder from the utility room. Problem solved, easy peasy."
Before River could stand from her awkward position on the couch, Melody walked over and tapped the Doctor on the knee. "Excuse me?"
Without missing a beat, the Doctor raised his eyes to meet the girl's. "Do you need some assistance?"
"You're probably tall enough to help me reach it," Melody said in a voice that was nearly a whisper.
"I think you're probably right, tiny lady person. Hop up here," he answered, tapping on the coffee table.
All eyes looked at River for permission. She smiled and gave consent; she would have allowed the child to do just about anything within reason in that moment. "Just be careful, please."
The Doctor sat on the coffee table and motioned for Melody to sit on his shoulders. After she was situated, he rose and walked over to the tree. Melody slid the angel onto the protruding tip and plugged it into the strands of lights. Gus crawled under the tree and carefully inserted the bottom strand into the outlet, the only time he was allowed such a grown-up task. The room exploded with hurray's and applause as the tree and little topper quietly burst to life.
The Doctor turned around to face River with Melody basking in the praise of her peers. "I believe I recall the promise of biscuits."
The children looked up at him with expressions of confusion. Realizing his mistake, he added, "Cookies." A chorus of yesses pleaded with River to make good on the deal.
She smiled and hushed with down with a wave of her hand. "We have ten minutes before the show starts. Everyone pitch in to clean up and you should be settled in with milk and cookies just in time." River rose from the couch and walked towards the kitchen, then turned and pointed to the Doctor. "That means you, too," she said with a wink.
The Doctor clicked his heels and saluted the commander. "Ma'am, yes Ma'am!" he shouted in his best American accent, and the girls fell into flirtatious giggles.
By the time River returned with a plate of cookies and a carton of milk, the Doctor was tying off the bag of trash. "Well, whadya know! There's the floor! Gus, turn on the television, and the rest of you get your bean bags from the closet." The kids scattered to one of two closets on the far wall.
After switching on the set, Gus ran up to Melody with an offering and pulled on her sweater, "You can use my chair, and I'll sit on the couch with Mimi." He reached into the closet and pulled out the remaining floppy chair. "Look, its blue, just like your hair ribbons."
"Thank you, Gus," she said softly.
"We saved a place for you here, Melody!" Alice shouted from little community of girls camped in front of the television.
Melody took her bag and dropped in the middle of the pile of giggling girls and joined in the fun. They would occasionally peek over their shoulders and look at the Doctor before breaking out in more fits of laughter.
"What? Have I a bogey on my face?" he asked, checking his face and head for anomalies.
River plopped onto the couch beside him and leaned in to whisper, "Sweetie, I think it's an epidemic of the girly crush."
"On me?" he asked in complete shock.
"It's a miracle the effect a pair of jeans can have on teenagers, isn't it?"
The Doctor took advantage of the momentarily distracted female population and brushed his thumb across River's lips. "Just the teenagers?"
"Oh, absolutely," she answered around the breath that had caught in her throat. "Your charms have no effect on me, sir."
"Mimi, should I dim the lights?"
A chorus of "Yes!" drowned out a lonely "No!" and Gus turned off the overhead lighting just as the opening credits rolled on How the Grinch Stole Christmas. He ran across the room and jumped onto the couch, stepping over River and nestling himself between the arm of the sofa and the arm of the Doctor.
After having watched a few minutes, the Doctor lowered his head to whisper in River's ear. "Those are the ugliest furry insects I've ever seen."
"They aren't insects. They're Whos."
"What's a Who?"
"Those are Whos."
"Is there a Doctor Who?"
"Shut up and watch it. You might learn something," she instructed as she leaned into him. The Doctor raised his arm around River, and she settled comfortably against him.
When the credits began to scroll to the tune "Welcome, Christmas" River scanned the floor for survivors. The eyes of every child had yielded to sleep, including the smallest who had cuddled up to the Doctor. River smiled as she noticed him absentmindedly running his fingers through the child's hair.
River stood and gently shook the children awake amidst moans and groans. They reluctantly left the comfort of their bean bag chairs and headed in the direction of the stairs, some slower than others. River walked back to the couch and held out her arms to get Gus from the Doctor's lap.
"I'll take him," the Doctor said quietly.
"You have no idea which room is his. I'll do it."
Before the Doctor could hand him over, Melody approached them sleepily. "I can show him where Gus sleeps."
Without waiting for an answer, the Doctor stood carefully and positioned the sleeping child onto his chest, his head resting on his shoulder. He followed Melody to the stairs and waited as the child ran back in to the living room.
Melody threw her arms around River's waist and hugged her tightly. "Thank you, Mimi."
Momentarily gripped by shock, River's delayed reaction went unnoticed by the girl. She wrapped one arm around the child and held her head close to her with the other. "You're welcome," she managed to say as emotion began to build in her chest. "You run on up to bed, okay?"
"Yes, ma'am." Melody released River from her embrace and walked clumsily by the Doctor and up the stairs. River gingerly sat on the couch and blinked back the tears that she had been fighting since she found Melody sleeping in a railcar at the South Philadelphia Railyard.
Letting time have its way suddenly became harder than she could have imagined.
The Doctor gathered the cups that littered the floor onto the tray and carried them into the kitchen. When he had returned to the living room, River was nowhere to be found. Assuming she had also retired to bed, he began to clean up the mess left after the cookie extravaganza. Standing over the sink and washing the few cups, he heard a door open and close down the hall. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw River walk by the kitchen and then slowly back up to the doorway.
Before she could open her mouth to spoil the evening with sarcasm, he gave her orders to keeping marching towards the living room and rest on the couch. "I'll join you after I finish these."
Afraid that any remark would dissuade him, she did as she was told and waited on the couch. The light that shone down the hall from the kitchen disappeared, and the Doctor joined her after a brief trip to the bathroom.
"Well, those are rather smart," she teased as he rounded the corner of the couch in his pajamas.
"A bit more appropriate for sleeping in an orphanage than my usual sleepytime attire," he reasoned coyly, sitting down as closely to her as possible.
She giggled softly and stretched her legs out on the couch, laying her head in his lap. "Yes, I suppose that would be rather frightening to come upon in the dead of night," she agreed with a yawn.
The Doctor ran his fingers through her hair, careful not to tug on the tangles. "I don't want to snoop in your house. Can you just tell me where it is?"
Little moans of delight escaped her with the sensual movements of his hands through her hair. She pointed lazily behind her. "The locked closet next to the one where the kids keep their bean chairs. How did you know it was here?"
"It's the only way the two of you can exist together at the same time and the universe not cave in on itself…although the last time I saw one used, it was nearly catastrophic."
"Well, it's just holding together the small world of two people. Not being used in some sinister plan to takeover all planets and crown myself Queen," she replied and snuggled closer to him.
"Am I allowed to ask how you built it? That's almost impossible technology," he wondered, adding quickly, "even for someone as brilliant as you."
River's laugh was low and guttural and stirred the Doctor in pleasant and inappropriate ways. "It's technology that has been associated with the TARDIS. I know what she knows. The difference between my machine and the Master's is that mine was not purposed for destruction or ill-intent."
"How do you know what she knows? Not everything, I hope," he said with a question in the tone.
"I know enough." She thought it best to keep her answers as vague as possible, but gave up one small hint. "I'm the child of the TARDIS, after all."
"Child of the TARDIS? Says who?"
She rolled over and looked up at him with a smile. "Spoilers."
"Doctor, swearing is so unattractive," she scoffed, rolling her eyes playfully as her lips curved into a perfect smirk.
"How is it that you are so incredibly beautiful, even when you're a smart ass?" The Doctor trailed a fingertip slowly down her forehead and her nose, coming to rest on her parted lips.
River kissed his finger sweetly and answered, "Practice."
The tormenting grin on her face caused him to bite down on his bottom lip. The gesture was all River could stand. She sat up and swung a leg over his, straddling his lap. She took his face in her hands and stroked his cheeks with her thumbs. "I hate you so much sometimes it hurts."
He gently ran his hands up the bare skin of her back. "And right now?"
She placed a kiss at the corner of each eye. "I love you so much I could kill you."
The Doctor withdrew his hands from under her shirt and gently pulled her face to his, entangling his hands in her hair. Their kiss was chaste, a light pressing together of affection. As she moved hers under his, it became desperately urgent. Her knees tightened at his hips as she rolled into him, eliciting a groan. Their lips fought for control of the kiss as their tongues licked at each other violently.
River broke from him and began unbuttoning his shirt, lightly scratching his skin with her nails as she worked her way down his chest. His teeth were biting along the length of her neck, and his hands gripped her rear and pulled her closer into him. She rocked her hips back and forth slowly as he drug his nails down her back.
"Doctor, what are we doing? This can't happen here," she forced herself to admit between pants.
"I know…" He buried his face into the crook of her neck and tried to steady his breathing. River shifted her weight to move from his lap, and he stopped her. "You better wait it out where you are."
Chuckling, River leaned against him and rested her head on his shoulder, in much the same way he had carried Gus to bed. The Doctor stroked her hair and listened to the calm labor of her breathing, both of them eventually lulled to sleep by the rhythms of the other's rising and falling chests.
The emotional and physical drains of the day held the Doctor and River captive under a heavy sleep. They had situated themselves into comfortable positions as the Doctor wrapped an arm protectively around River, her body molded into his.
So under the spell of sleep were they that they didn't hear the air snap, crackle and pop with electricity. Nor were they woken by the flashing light of the transport. Both the Doctor and River knew instinctively when they were being watched, even in sleep.
Yet, neither stirred as Amos sat on the nearby coffee table and lowered his head into his hands.