What Child Is This

Chapter 26

The Doctor stared down at the floor of the TARDIS below the console platform. After living a domesticated life for nearly a month, he had a new perspective that was seeping into his timey-wimey journeys. For instance, there were essentially three juvenile adults running in and out of the TARDIS relentlessly. Who swept the floor? He certainly did not, and he wasn't entirely sure Amy would recognize a broom if it were chasing her.

Yet, the floor was remarkably sparkly, even more so than those ridiculous vampires that Amy insisted on fangirling…whatever the hell that meant. Why didn't he have fangirls or fanboys? He was the ultimate good guy and possessed a fair amount of swooning appeal. And if a fangirl fangirled, did a fanboy fanboy? Were those new euphemisms for stalkers and creepers? Because no matter what you called it, groupies had been around for ages. He needed groupies, though he supposed it would be difficult to follow him around. Perhaps if he –

"Hey, what's going on in there?" River asked as she knocked her fist lightly upon the top of his head. Poking her legs through the railing and having a seat next to him, she folded her arms across the top rail and rested her head, her hair swinging freely and her eyes watching him.

He turned his head to the side so that his eyes were level with hers, both of them resting their heads on their arms lazily. "Dirt and vampires."

"You could easily have said nothing. For a career liar, you aren't very good at it," River said, raising an eyebrow to emphasize her skepticism.

"No, I was honestly thinking about dirt and sparkly vampires. Not very manly, I suppose. Maybe I shouldn't have admitted to such unsexy thoughts. I should have said beer and lacy knickers." He swung his legs out, kicking the platform as they fell back.

"You did the right thing by going with your gut. Lacy knickers do vile things to you, dear," she teased.

The Doctor giggled the high pitch childlike laugh that she found so irresistibly charming. "They really do. I don't understand their purpose exactly, but I am ever so thankful that they exist."

River teased him with a wink. "That giggle is their purpose for existing, Sweetie."

The Doctor smiled and took in the sight of her for a quiet moment. River had closed her eyes, and the Doctor could almost see her thoughts tick across her eyelids as her mind spun in circles.

He often thought of the inside of the brain as a great circus – each part hosting its own magical show of wonders. The language of poets, movements of dancers, ingenuities of inventors, proficiencies of scientists, and the wisdoms of philosophers were all such variant gifts, yet they all stemmed from the same workings of one relatively tiny brain. And all of this in conjunction with the ebb and flow of the science of the body itself. Writing while breathing, singing while blinking, building while beating…magnificence like no other.

That was, of course, when it all worked properly.

The Doctor rested his chin on his hands and stared beyond the TARDIS door in front of him. River sensed his movement and opened her eyes. Running her fingers soothingly through his hair, she could see the worry and disappointment in his profile.

"Why didn't you tell me you'd been there already?" he asked quietly.

"Honey, you needed to hear it for yourself," River said as began lightly scratching his back in wide and random circles. He blew out a heavy sigh and tucked his face into the crook of his elbow, replaying the day's events in his jumbled and bumbled mind.

The Doctor sneakily lifted the lid of the jar and took out a tongue depressor. "You know, we could stick this in a banana and freeze it for a fun little treat. I saw it one of those parenting magazines."

"Oh, for goodness sake, for the last time, come over here and sit down, Doctor," she demanded, not at all amused by his usual curiosity. He had opened every drawer and every cabinet door while they waited for the doctor.

He stuck the small wooden stick in the inside pocket of his jacket and moped across the room, plopping down into the chair beside River. "Waiting is boring. A terrible waste of time, it is…waiting…"

"As if you don't have all the time in the world," she said with a roll of her eyes.

"Well, I definitely won't get these twenty minutes back. Do you have any idea of what I am capable in twenty minutes?" He had crossed his legs and began kicking one irritatingly high.

"If nothing else, you are doing a marvelous job of tap dancing on every one of my nerves." River lifted her own leg and brought it down on his offending one, denying him the ability to kick, swing, shake or even wiggle. She saw his fingers fidgeting in his lap and followed his gaze to the counter behind the desk. "No."

"But Rory showed me how to fit a glove over my head and blow it up so that the fingers look like a rooster's comb," he whined.

"If you take a glove from that box and stretch it over your face, I will tie it down and lock the door while you regenerate," she warned. "I'm not kidding. I killed a man, remember?"

The Doctor chuckled until he saw the flash of not-kidding in her hazel eyes. Slumping down in the seat, he began humming a holiday tune and snapping his braces in rhythm. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw River drop her head into her hands and rub at her temples gently. She peeked at him over her hand, and he smiled innocently, kissing the pad of his finger and brushing it quickly across the tip of her nose.

She bit back a grin. "I hate you."

"You so emphatically do not…yet."

Just as she opened her mouth to retort, the door behind them swung open and a mutant of a man hurried into the room. "I am so sorry to have kept you waiting, River and Am - Oh, pardon me," said the unimaginably tall man as he sat down behind the desk and held out a hand towards the Doctor. "I don't believe we've met."

River kicked the Doctor and brought him out of wide-eyed wonder. He hesitantly shook the man's hand and stared at him with brows turned inward. "No, we uh…haven't…met…how tall are you, exactly?"

The doctor momentarily studied the Doctor's face with squinted eyes and looked at River curiously. "This is him, isn't it?"

The Doctor turned his gaze to River. "I'm a him? There's a him, and I'm it?"

"Is it that obvious?" River stared back at him intently.

"Absolutely. Look at the ears, the shape of face, and his hands. Only a fool could look at them both and not see it."

The Doctor felt like a mime in a box – everyone staring and waiting for him to do a little dance. And he was nearly positive that River had laughed because the doctor had indirectly called him a fool.

"I'm sorry. How rude of us. I'm Dr. Flanagan," the giant said, seemingly unable to stop looking at the Doctor. "I'm just a bit taken back at the similarities between you and Gus. It's astounding. How is Gus, by the way?" He turned his attention from the Doctor.

The Doctor leaned in close to River. "You've been here before?"

River ignored his question and answered. "Well, he had another catheterization. The thickening has progressed, it seems." She swallowed hard and shifted her weight in the chair. "But he is as precocious as ever. Especially now that he has a kindred spirit underfoot."

"Oh, you are staying nearby then?" Dr. Flanagan asked the Doctor.

"Actually, I'm just a couple of doors down and a few feet up."

River saw the confusion in the older man's face. "The Doctor has been calling our attic home for a few weeks during the holidays," she explained.

"How cozy…so, what can I do for you today, Dr. Song?" he asked, getting to the point of the visit.

"The Doctor thought it would be best to speak to someone here regarding Gus' condition and what, if any, options are available to correct the problem." River's voice had an unusual, almost patronizing, tone.

"Ahh…I see."

The Doctor looked back and forth from River to Dr. Flanagan. "I wish I could say the same. What is going on exactly?"

River sighed and opened her mouth to speak but was interrupted by the doctor. "When Gus was nearly three years old, I believe, Amos and River came here to discuss a diagnosis that they had been given by the doctors at home, and they explained to me the truth of the …erm, situation, I guess. After examining him myself and conferring with Amos over the years, we have worked out the realities of his condition as best as it can be understood."

The Doctor leaned forward and propped his elbows on the desk, hands clasped and fingers fidgety. "Okay…"

"It's not good news, Sweetie," River said, her voice almost a whisper. The Doctor looked at her for reassurance but found her eyes downcast and her expression disheartening.

"Has River explained the unprecedented uniqueness that is your son?"

Hearing someone acknowledge Gus as his son caused his stomach to flip-flop. "Somewhat. I guess the timing didn't really allow for much exposition."

Dr. Flanagan cleared his throat and began the Doctor's education on the workings of Gus' human heart and how it seemed to be affected by his Time Lord DNA. As he processed the information he was being given, he would occasionally glance at River – whose facial expressions reflected the emotions of a mother hearing a truth that is most feared. The Doctor started to realize the hopelessness of their circumstances. Mothers only accepted these truths when there were no others to be found. Never was River - as a woman, a fighter or a mother – prepared to give in without a fight. And something about the look on her face sent his hearts to pounding. He leaned back in his chair and inhaled deeply.

"So, wait a moment, Dr. Flanagan. Heart transplants are an option in our time, but River said that it is impossible. I understand the dangers and the obvious concern, but why is it out of the question?" The Doctor was taken a bit by surprise of a hand slide gently into his. River intertwined their fingers and gave him a comforting squeeze. He found this tenderness the exact opposite of comforting. It was preparation.

A look passed between the doctor and River, almost as if he were asking permission to answer the question.

Dr. Flanagan stood and walked around to the front of the desk, leaning against it and crossed his feet. It was the relaxed stance of a man who needed to break bad news gently.

The Doctor waited.

"Correct me if I misunderstand this, but your body regenerates before you do, in fact, die. And if you are threatened again during this process, your body will not complete regeneration..."

Turning his head quickly in River's direction, "One thing: why is it okay that he knows this? And how exactly do you know this?"

"Just answer and listen, Sweetie."

The Doctor shook his head and then nodded. "Yes, when my body senses severe trauma, regeneration is triggered. Time Lords regenerate differently, but this has been my experience."

"And traditionally, your physical and mental attributes change altogether, while maintaining the same memories and general knowledge..."

The Doctor raised his eyebrows. "Well, I'd say 'general knowledge' is a bit understated, but that is, generally speaking, how it works."

The doctor grinned at the unintentional slight and continued. "And it's safe to assume that Gus would inherit the same methods of regeneration?"

"Yes, most likely." The Doctor noticed another nonverbal exchange between River and the doctor.

"So, with that understanding, let me explain very basically how we would reasonably expect Gus' body to respond to a transplant. Before his heart is removed, he is connected to a machine which circulates his blood as well as keeping it oxygen-rich. His heart is then removed and replaced with the donor heart. After the transplantation, he is weaned from the bypass machine, and his chest is closed. That is the long and short of it, as far as the general surgery is performed.

"First, let's just make the ridiculous assumption that the doctors are aware of his extraordinary condition. Now, the first problem we would expect is that the incision and opening of his chest cavity could be considered fatally threatening…regeneration. Should he make it past that trauma and a significant amount of time passes in-between, there is the running of the bypass machine. Will that also be considered threatening? If the machine is okay, certainly the removal of his heart could trigger a regeneration. A donor heart is foreign to the body…threat. If by some miracle, these procedures go smoothly, there is no doubt in our minds that the disconnecting of the bypass machine would cause him to regenerate. And the energy that is created by this remarkable process will be too much for a newly transplanted heart to endure. Under these collective circumstances, I am so sorry to say that it is just not reasonable to think that a transplant would be an option."

River could feel the Doctor's hand shake slightly in hers. It broke her heart to see him pale and staring beyond anything in front of him.

"I think it is safe to say that, at some point, he would regenerate. And if his regeneration protected him throughout the surgery…"

"I never said that a regeneration was protective. What gives you that impression?" The Doctor looked at River and saw her avoid eye contact. He gave her hand a squeeze to get her attention, but she kept her gaze cast downward.

"Oh, well, that must be my misunderstanding," the doctor stammered.

The Doctor withdrew his hand from River's and stood, walking over to the window overlooking an expansive lawn. "Let's say for the sake of believing that would happen…finish what you were saying…please."

He didn't see Dr. Flanagan raise a confused eyebrow in River's direction, nor did he see River wave it away. "There's one rather obvious glitch."

"The donor heart…"

"Yes. Not only that, but while his anatomy may be entirely human, his blood is not – "

"Is that possible?" The Doctor turned and faced the doctor.

"Oh, it is. We've run every test that could be performed on the child. And we think that the human anatomy combined with the alie…time lord DNA…is the root cause of his peculiar way of regenerating - as he doesn't physically change – and makes it nearly impossible to know for sure how his body would react to the stress of major surgery."

The Doctor inhaled deeply and held the breath as long as his lungs would allow. He suddenly felt small and insignificant and sensed millions of tiny fingers pointing at him in blame. Once again looking out at the open space beyond the window, the Doctor watched a young child and a nurse walk across the grass. Apparently having caught the attention of the little girl, she turned and waved to him enthusiastically. The Doctor smiled and returned the gesture before she passed by, shoving his hands back into his trouser pockets as she disappeared.

"I wish I had better news, Doctor. I can promise you that I have reexamined this case time and time again over the years, but there's nothing that can be done as far as we can tell. I truly am very sorry," Dr. Flanagan said, placing an apologetic hand on the Doctor's shoulder.

The Doctor could respond in no other way but to nod. He felt River's hand on the back of his neck, caressing his hair. "Sweetie, let's go home, yeah?"

He spun on his heel and took her by the hand, reaching out with the other in gratitude to the doctor. "I appreciate your time, Dr. Flanagan. Thanks again."

The larger man's hand engulfed the Doctor's as he shook it. "Of course. If you have any other questions, do not hesitate to come back. River, give my regards to Amos. Tell him that he owes me a lunch."

River returned the man's kind smile and nodded. "I certainly will. I imagine you'll hear from him soon. Take care, John."

The sound of the office door closing behind them was the loneliest sound the Doctor had ever heard.

"I thought you said it was too dangerous to transport Gus with the manipulator," he said as the TARDIS swayed in the direction of Forty Five Minutes from Somewhere.

"Did I? Well, yes, it is. Dr. Flanagan traveled backward," River explained.

"You mean, John," his voice lilted as he said the name.

River rolled her eyes and untangled herself from the railing to check the scanner coordinates. "He was a colleague of Amos' for several years before he joined the Agency. He made a couple of house calls. You should be thankful."

"A colleague? Amos the Great was a physician at the Sisters of the Infinite Schism?"

"Yes." River peered around the console and stared at the back of the Doctor's head. "He's a wonderful doctor. Again, you should work on your gracious face."

The Doctor swung his long legs around and walked over to join her at the console. He kissed the top of her head and wrapped his arms around her waist. "I truly am grateful to him, River. But give me some time to stop hating him for loving you, okay? While I may be rather spectacular, I do have somewhat of a selfish streak. It will take some time to accept having to share my family."

River leaned back against him and sighed. "You should put a rush on it," she said quietly.

The Doctor rested his chin on her shoulder. "What do we do know now?"

Her shoulders shrugged under him. "We wait, Sweetie. We get through Christmas. Then we make it through New Years and hope for a happy April birthday…we simply wait."

He pulled her tighter to him and buried his face in the hair that fell over the crook of her neck and held her until she moved to release the brake for landing. "Aww…come on! I like the noise."

"You should be nicer to her."

The Doctor would have sworn he heard the TARDIS purr under River's direction. "Traitor," he spat before following River down the steps and through the door.

He nearly ran her over when she stopped abruptly while climbing the porch steps. "Now, play nice, Doctor," she warned.

"Hey, I'm the one who asked him to babysit while we were gone," he reminded her and pointed to the ground. "Look at that water flowing under the bridge we just crossed."

"Smart ass."

"And I caught you looking at it in those jeans this morning, Dr. Song…"

"Oh, shut up."

"Make me."

River turned around before opening the front door. "Seriously, shut up. I don't want to hurt Amos' feelings."

"Oh, Amos…"

"Water under the bridge, huh?"

"Rule number one…" he whispered as they walked into the foyer.

"We're home!" River called from the kitchen.

Hurried footsteps could be heard pounding down the upstairs hall and then stomping down the stairs. The Doctor looked up to see Gus' animated face covered in war paint.

"I thought you'd never get home!" he yelled as he leapt from the stairs and into the Doctor's surprised grasp.

"Hey! What if I hadn't caught you, Superman?" The Doctor leaned back and studied the colorful designs that had been painted on his little face. "Did you learn to fly while we were gone?"

"You're the Doctor. You'll always catch me!" Gus exclaimed as he wrapped his arms around the Doctor's neck.

He swallowed down the threat of tears and returned the boy's hug, watching Amos slowly descend the stairs. He nodded to the man and mouthed the words that were hardest to come by. "Thank you."

Amos smiled weakly and gave his goodbyes before slipping through the front door. The Doctor watched him leave and was suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude for what he meant in their lives. Though, of course, he didn't have much time to dwell due to the chatter of the child in his arms.

"Why don't you run and give Mimi a proper hug, yeah?" the Doctor said as he attempted to lower the child to the ground. Gus, however, continued to keep his hands clasped around the Doctor's neck and hung like a monkey while the Doctor walked them both down the hall towards the kitchen.

"…and then Amos shot me with an arrow…make-believe, of course...and I fell over and pretended to be dead and when he walked over to me I grabbed him by the ankles and tied his feet together with an imaginary rope and…"

River could hear the nonstop babbling as the two turned the corner into the kitchen. She turned to greet the boy and laughed to see him hanging from the Doctor, looking up at him and talking through borrowed breaths.

And her heart swelled to see that, even in such a ridiculous moment, the Doctor had found and wore his gracious face unabashedly.

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