She had been calling his name for quite some time and had zipped in and out of every room downstairs. Having no luck locating the unusually quiet man, River took the stairs two at a time and continued yelling for him.
Hearing her stomping footsteps headed back down the stairs a few minutes later, he peeked around the corner of the couch from where he sat on the living room floor. Despite his growing frustration, he smiled as she mumbled the despicable harms that would befall him once she had searched him out.
"I swear, Doctor, if you have spun off in the TARDIS again without telling me…" Her words faded as she caught a quick glimpse of the top of his head bobbing slightly from behind the couch. River turned on her heels and crept across the carpeted floor, trying to arrange the words in her head so that she could spit them out with the precise degree of harshness. However, the closer she got to him, the less angry and more entertained she became.
The Doctor sat in the middle of a ring of wrapping chaos. There were bits and pieces of wrapping paper strewn about the floor and the furniture. Large pieces, small bits…some were round, some square, some had shapes that could not be found even in science. And there was ribbon. And bows. And tinsel. It looked as if a Christmas goblin had snuck inside and left a massacre of gifts. Dozens of haphazardly disguised presents were stacked and set aside like a pile of forgotten mistakes.
And of course, right in the thick of it, was the Doctor.
And he looked as unhappy as an elf could look at Christmas.
He blew the veil of hair from before his eyes and looked up at her in obvious defeat. "I have been bested. The unthinkable has happened."
River walked around the couch and sat cattywampus on its arm, folding her arms across her chest and surveying the scene once more. "And what would that be, exactly?"
"I have killed innocents. Somewhere, the Christmas spirit has retreated to a corner and cried," he answered as his gaze followed hers.
She smiled and nodded in agreement. "Yes, this is quite the gruesome scene. Were there any survivors?"
The Doctor pointed to a bag stuffed to overflowing that sat against the far wall. "I do believe that that bag was closer to me before this began. It has been gradually fleeing the scene of the crime…cowards, the lot of them."
"Doctor, what is all of this?" River rose from the couch and walked over the bag, skimming its contents. "Wait…Harry Potter?"
"Are these gifts for our kids?"
The Doctor actually felt his hearts swell when she said "our kids," as he had begun to feel that way, as well. He dreaded the day that they started to trickle one by one to their new homes, leaving just Gus and Melody in the large house. How the halls would echo with silence.
River knelt down and emptied the bag one gift at a time, mumbling incredulously upon each discovery. When she had reached the bottom, she looked over at him. "It is no wonder that you were hiding. You know the kids can't have half of these presents, Sweetie."
He raised an eyebrow in defiance. "And why not? They are perfectly suited to them. Besides, not all of them are…well, in development, as it were…"
"In development?" she screeched, holding up a set of Harry Potter books. "Thirty years?"
"They're for Jane. She wanted something exciting to read. Santa can do anything."
"Yes, Santa. They asked, and Santa has complied. Jolly sort of fella, he is," the Doctor replied with a smile. "Nice guess with the books, by the way."
"The books…thirty years. You know your childhood literature, Dr. Song," he said with a question in his voice.
She tried to appear distracted as she rummaged her brain for an answer that he wouldn't see as total rubbish. "Well, that's why I am a damn fine archaeologist, Doctor."
"Of children's books?"
Her eyes found his as she answered him, leaving no room for further discussion. "Of everything."
The Doctor recognized that tone as her way of closing the subject, and he had no desire to ruffle the feathers of a hawk. "Right then….so, what do you propose we do about this? I'm afraid I have nothing more to give in way of help."
River crawled over the mess and reassessed the damage. "I'm not very good at this either, really. Though I suppose I couldn't do any worse than you."
"Not very good? Shouldn't you have this sort of thing down to an art, being all mum-like and girly?" The Doctor waved his hand erratically to free it from the clutches of a stubborn piece of tape.
She squinted her eyes and turned up her nose at his misguided assumption. "Until a few years ago, I was chasing you around the universe with a gun and a smile. I do well enough to keep the children alive. Santa's helper, I am not, honey."
"What do you do with all...this?" He pointed randomly at the gifts littering the floor.
"I stack them into individual piles for each child like the man himself would do. No fuss, no muss," she answered as she gathered up the scattered trimmings and crushed them into a ball of trash.
"Well…how very lazy of you. Where's the element of surprise? The joy of watching them open up each one and seeing their little greedy faces light up with yet more greed? Even more importantly, it takes away the opportunity to feel good about how wonderful you are," he grumbled, watching her clean up the mess he had made while he pouted.
River giggled at the petulant man-child sitting before her. "It's strange how my mumness has clouded my judgment. Of course, Christmas is all about making myself feel fantastic simply by being fantastic. Bah humbug with the joy of children, I say! Thanks for helping to me to the light."
The Doctor stuck out his tongue, and a smile began to creep out from one corner of his mouth. "Don't mention it. As always, I'm here to help. I'm the Doctor."
"In that case, how about you talk less and help more," River said with a wink in her smile. "It's ridiculous how much pleasure you take in announcing that, by the way."
"I'm the Doctor," she replied in her best Doctory voice. "It's almost like a verbal punctuation….period."
"I most certainly do not exclamation point!"
River chuckled and scooped up the last of the trash within her reach. "Whatever you say, Sweetie."
The Doctor stood and hurriedly left the room, returning shortly with a bag for the trash. "Anyway, that's my name. I worked hard to be the Doctor. It bears mentioning from time to time."
"Alright then. From now on, when I am being particularly narcissistic or omnipotent, I shall announce that I am the River. In fact, it is now my answer for everything. Why? Because I am the River." She grinned up at him as they filled the bag with the mess he had created. "Besides, it's not your name now, is it?"
He raised his eyes to meet hers. "No, it's not. Shall we go into that again?"
"No, we shan't," she answered matter-of-factly. Having finished cleaning up the chaos, she flopped onto the sofa and motioned towards the pile of misfit gifts. "However, we must address a more pressing issue."
"What? I say we leave them as they are. They have character, don't you think?" His brow began to glisten at the thought of having to start over, his stomach rolling when he remembered the bag of gifts beckoning from across the room.
"You can't leave those under the tree, dear."
"Maybe they won't notice?"
"Are these from you or Santa?"
He fidgeted as he followed her trail of logic. "Santa…" came the mumbled answer.
"And Santa is visually impaired now? The elves have been maimed? Funny that the toy factory explosion didn't make the evening news."
"Fine! I see your hateful point," the Doctor growled, plopping down beside her on the couch and crossing his arms angrily across his chest in a proper pout.
River felt a twinge of guilt for inviting the rain to drench his Christmas parade. She sidled up next to him and snaked her hand through his armor of arms. "Well, I think…that we unwrap them and carry on with tradition, even though they won't wake up to them on Christmas morning. We'll have our own Christmas when they return."
The Doctor was unrelenting in his sulk, speaking in a voice that was rather familiar to Gus' mother's ears. "But I don't want you to see them."
"Because you'll make me take them back."
"Back to where?" A small alarm sounded throughout her brain, alerting her judgment and reminding her of the nature of the gift giver.
"Well, they aren't all time appropriate." He glanced at her out of the corners of his eyes. "Okay, none of them are time appropriate but I really want them to have them and Santa doesn't care about the wibbly-wobbliness of stupid ole time and the ones for the younger kids blink and wink and for the older ones crash and thrash and shine and shimmy and please don't make me take them back because the TARDIS really wants the children to be happy and it would be a grave error to upset her as she might deposit me to a certain death as you very well know and then my blood will be on your hands and how could you possibly live with yourself…" He took a breath while allowing the plea to sink into the brain of the smiling woman beside him and take effect.
River's smile hid the wrenching of her gut at the mention of his death on her hands. "I'm sure I'd find a way to muddle through. You don't bleed much anyway." She rose from the couch and walked over the mound of gifts. "So, what do you suggest we do?"
He stood and joined her, encircling her waist and resting his chin in the crook of her neck. "I suggest…" He kissed her lightly behind the ear. "…that we go upstairs…" He drew small circles across her abdomen and felt the intake of breath as her back moved against his chest.
River slid her hands under his and intertwined their fingers. "Sweetie, I meant about the gifts."
He smiled against her neck and left at trail of kisses along her hairline. "We can leave them down here. None of them would be very helpful."
Her laugh was guttural and blazed through him like fire. "Not to mention Gus is due back at any time."
"Gus!" The Doctor nearly knocked her over as he spun around and hurried from the room.
River looked curiously over her shoulder to see the back side of him race up the stairs. Shaking her head, she sat beside the gifts and began to release them from their wrapping prisons. As they were revealed one after another, River sighed at the Doctor's questionable enthusiasm for gift giving. Yet, after seeing the collection of presents and realizing the amount of thought he had put into each one, there was no way she could keep the gifts from the children.
She carried them over to the closet and locked them all away from the curious eyes of Gus. Taking a step backward, River nearly lost her balance and tripped over a book that had apparently toppled out of the bag as she had scooted it across the floor. She bent down and picked up the elaborate copy of some Harry Potter escapade, staring down at the cover and tracing the lettering with her finger. A warmth traveled through her veins and left tingles underneath her skin. The children were never at a loss for gifts on Christmas. The entire community always turned up with bountiful offerings of toys, clothes and knick-knacks, but they were generic – gifts to be divided up and spread around. Rarely ever did presents come into the house purchased for a specific child. But behind the closet door were gifts stacked high and bundled wide for which River would not even need tags to assign ownership. The Doctor had taken their Santa letters and did what only he could do. He had made Christmas bigger and brighter and more sparkly simply by listening to what they had to say and giving them all a tiny remembrance of a mad man with madder stories.
She dropped the book atop the stack and smiled as she closed and relocked the door. No matter the confusion and chaos some of the gifts might cause, no power above or below would keep them from the kids…or from her seeing his face as they opened them.
"Hey, where are my gifts?"
River turned and found him disheveled and clutching a cardboard box. "I hid them away until the kids come home. What is that?"
"Umm…just another gift. Nothing special," he said, fidgety and fumbly. "What about the wrapping?"
She walked over to him and leaned in, leaving the faintest of kisses on his lips. The Doctor smiled down at her with eyebrows turned inward to question the sudden gesture. "You are the greatest man I have ever known," she whispered into his ear before walking towards the couch and sitting down.
"Oh really? How many have you known? What was that for? It makes me nervous. I need more paper. And a bow. And a biscuit…not your kind of biscuit...a cookie. You have become quite Americanized, Dr. Song," he said as he squatted on the floor in front of her.
"Why are you bothering with this again? You're going to get hurt." River sighed loudly as his clumsy and impatient hands worked the scissors to cut a large and lopsided piece of wrapping paper.
"Because…" he began and stopped as he concentrated on covering the small box with the red and gold paper, his eyes squinted and his lips tight. Placing the last bit of tape and adding the bow, he smiled up at her and continued, "…this is to Gus from me. The fat old man couldn't pull this out of his tricky bags of tricks."
The smile spread across his face was irresistible, and even though her good sense and mother's intuition were clammering to be heard, River just laughed softly and returned his grin. The Doctor set the gift down on the side table and sat down behind her, pulling her closer to him. She relaxed against his chest, and he rested his chin atop her head, his hands gliding slowly along the skin of her bare arms. They sat quietly watching the twinkle of the tree lights until the sound of River's voice, unusually small, broke the silence.
"This will be Melody's first real Christmas," she said softly.
The Doctor kissed the curls that tickled his nose and hugged her tightly. "You mean, your first Christmas…"
River's gaze was focused on the blinking of one red bulb that seemed out of synch with the others. "I suppose. Actually, I've been a bit disappointed and sad that I haven't been able to connect with her in a way that makes me feel like I am…well, her. But I remember now how excited and overwhelmed and…loved…I felt this Christmas. I feel what it was like to be her. Doctor, her life is going to change so dramatically and take her places that she'll never be able to forget. But she will know that she was loved for one Christmas."
"That you were loved…" He felt her nod under the weight of his chin, and he ached to gather her into a ball and hold her close to him like a child. "And not just by me or the other kids or even Amos. More importantly, that little light of love she'll hold onto was a gift from you. You've taught her how to love herself…in an odd sort of way."
She giggled at the tone of his voice, able to see the timey-wimeyness weave around his brain as he tried to make sense of what he'd said. River sat up and turned around to face him, smiling at the confusion that set in his brow.
"Did that make any kind of sense worth making? I may have gotten a bit lost on what I was trying to say."
River took his face in her hands and brought him closer to her. Sweeping the hair across his forehead, she placed feathered kisses on his closed eyelids before brushing her lips quickly against his. "Perfect sense…and I love you for it," she whispered.
The Doctor caressed her back gently and studied her face. His hearts hurt to know how badly she had hurt as a child. His childhood hadn't known Christmas, but he had known love. For a child on Earth, love of and for family was no greater than at Christmastime. Christmas was magic, and Melody had not had much magic in her short life.
River looked at him inquisitively as his eyes widened and shown with a mischievous and irregular twinkling of their own. "Doctor…."
A banging and clanging from the foyer distracted them both, and they turned their attention to the hallway. The front door opened noisily and was slammed shut.
"Mimi! Doctor! You would not believe what those Bethlehem people did to baby Jesus! Just makes no sense! I don't wanna be a Methopist anymore!" Gus shouted as he stomped down the hall and up the stairs. "Happy birthday, baby Jesus. Here's some perfume and don't let the goat bite you! Merry stinkin' Christmas Eve."
They both stared at the trail of imaginary smoke left in the wake of the angry child.
"Well, then. Merry Christmas Eve indeed, son," the Doctor said quietly and nervously, as they waited for the other shoe to drop.