River sat in the chair near the railing and twirled a curl around a finger, both in anxiety and anger. Perhaps anger wasn't entirely correct. She was more curious than she was angry, though not by much. One thing she did know for sure – she absolutely hated not being the navigator. If she knew where she was being taken and could pilot them there herself, the trip would be more enjoyable for them all. Then again, if she knew where she was being taken, she wouldn't be taken anywhere. Which is exactly how she liked it.
And the rest of them seemed to be having a jolly enough time regardless of her dog-in-a-cage fidgeting. This put her even more on edge - that jolliness could exist around her when she was in an obvious state of not being jolly. She bit through the fingernail she had been gnawing.
"What about this one?"
"NO!" The Doctor reached out and blocked the little hand hovering over the console. "Not that one."
River was distracted from her loathsome thoughts by the frantic outburst of the pilot and couldn't help but giggle at the sight of them. Gus had wrapped himself around a leg of the Doctor and was being dragged around the TARDIS console on a limp. The Doctor's jeans were pulled down over one side of his hips, and River could see Santa-patterned boxers peeking over the top of the sagging denim. He hurried as quickly as he could, making large strides and dragging his passenger leg in circles around the console, periodically swiping an arm along the top to bat away the wandering hands of the child.
"Why not? What's it do?" Gus strained his neck to peek over the horizon of the controls.
"It…That one…well, I don't know, exactly," the Doctor mumbled, trying to keep his voice out of earshot. "Which is why we don't touch that one."
"But if you don't touch it, how will you ever know what it does?"
"Well, I've never needed to touch it, and I do just fine without knowing." Step, drag.
"But you almost never go where you are supposed to. What if it is the getting-you-to-where-you-need-to-be button?" Gus grabbed the inside of the Doctor's jeans to readjust his position.
"Hey! Whoa! Watch the grabbiness there, little friend," the Doctor warned, his eyes wide and a flush creeping across his cheeks.
"Well, you keep dragging me sideways. I gotta hold onto something. What if you sling me off and I roll over the side?" Gus continued to bounce and wiggle atop the Doctor's foot. "I might break when I hit the bottom. I'm just a little kid."
"Or…I have a cracking idea…how about if you stood up on your very own legs?" The Doctor's arms fell to his sides, and he peered down at the boy who continued to cling.
"Um…no, thank you. I like it here. It's like a ride. I don't get to ride many things. Do I, Mimi?"
River hid a smile behind her hand and giggled quietly when both sets of eyes fastened upon her quickly, commanding that she pick a side.
"No, you don't." She raised an eyebrow and met the Doctor's glare. The twinkle in her eyes certainly did not match the exasperation in his.
"You're not helping."
"And I'm not going to. Tag, you're it."
Gus curiously watched the back and forth between the two time travelers. Pleased that River had chosen his cause to champion, the boy playfully slapped at the Doctor's leg and yelled, "Hee-yah!"
"Why are you acting like such a child?" The Doctor screeched as Gus bounced on his foot as if riding a pony.
The small head stopped bobbing and turned upwards to look into the Doctor's face. "I'm just five. I am a child. It's my job. Why are you acting like a kid?"
"Gus…" The tone in River's voice had turned from playful vengeance to mild warning.
Not to be outdone or taken over by a child, the Doctor relaxed his legs and fell onto the platform floor, landing on his rear. Gus toppled over into his lap head-first, his arms still wrapped around the bent leg.
"Hey, you're playing dirty!" Gus stood up and grabbed by the Doctor by the nose.
Leaping to his feet, the Doctor bent forward to bring himself eye level with the child and snickered. "No, I'm just playing smarter."
Gus squealed as the Doctor grabbed him and fixed him under his arm like a large sack of child. The boy started laughing and crawled his way around the Doctor to grasp his arms around his neck, wrapping his legs around the Doctor's waist. Soon, Gus was peeking over the Doctor's shoulders while the goofy duo continued to teasingly squabble over the console…both seeming to have, once again, forgotten the amused woman watching from nearby.
The sounds of their voices faded as River's thoughts turned to what the future held for them, as how they were before the truth forced its way upon them and after. Her stomach rolled as giggling wove around the familiar noises of the flying TARDIS. No matter how sweet the sound of their two voices blending together or the smiles that each brought to the other, River knew the reality of life aboard the enormously tiny universe of the little blue box. And though there were more casual flying days than hazardous, the scary days were not simply run-of-the-mill scary. Driving away the monsters wasn't as easy as turning on a closet light or sweeping an arm under a bed. On the TARDIS, one never knew if the sweeping arm was truly in danger in being detached. No matter how fearless and remarkably brave their son was, the dangers of traveling with the Doctor were as great for him as they were for any companion. In fact, the tie that bound them made Gus even more vulnerable to the big bad.
So, where did that leave them as a family? River as the doting housewife and mother? The Doctor selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door? What was he qualified to do, a doctor of everything and nothing. River could easily teach at the university; she had the qualifications necessary for backstory. Did he stay at home while River trudged to the office day after day? Would the TARDIS sit in the backyard and be consumed by the cornfields, or did she fly off to pursue another life? Was there a life for a TARDIS without a pilot? And what about after…
Because there would be an after.
An after Gus.
What then? Continue living in a big blue house with white lattice trim and wrap-around porches, tire swing in the tree of the front yard? Sit on the porch swing and grieve together, neither knowing or caring about the next day, the next week…
Or do they brush the dead stalks away from the ship and fly off, return to business as usual. Maybe he would go one way and she go another. Perhaps they would bump into each other occasionally on their travels and greet each awkwardly. She might be having a drink…may have even momentarily forgotten about the life she led as a family - could even be smiling. And there he might be suddenly – bursting into the restaurant with this or that companion, barking out warnings and commands as he liked to do. Would he stop long enough to hold her hand or kiss her cheek? Or would they exchange a knowing nod before he ran after the danger, leggy brunette in tow?
Or worse yet, what if he never returned to life as the Doctor? What if he sat on that porch swing day after day, trying to figure out a way to make it different? Would he relive the same weeks, months or years over and over, every time attempting to trick time and hold on to his family?
River inhaled deeply as her insides churned. How was it possible to transition from being a family to being people? At Christmas they are watching Gus open gifts, and at Halloween they sit in a dark house while the neighborhood kids with eggs bypass their door….because they know why not to expect candy at the big blue house with white lattice trim and the tire swing in the tree of the front yard.
She knew the only way to avoid the loss of a family was to never be a family. She had never intended to have to make the choice between being a mother and being a wife. Now she had to do anything necessary to be a mother first.
She blinked back the tears that threatened to fall and crawled back to her actual reality. River looked down at his hands as her fingers intertwined with his.
River ran her free hand through her hair and smiled up at him faintly. His eyebrows turned inward to ask an unspoken question, and she shook her head as if to answer "no worries."
She was suddenly pounced upon, and Gus grabbed the sides of her face, squeezing and stretching the skin back and forth. "Big lips, little lips…big lips, little lips…"
"…big lips, little lips…"
"…big lips, little lips…"
"Children!" River reached up and grabbed Gus by the wrists and blew a breath into the child's face to get his attention. She kissed the palms of his hands and clapped them together. "What are we doing?"
The Doctor once again picked up his sack of child and held out a hand to the hesitant River. "We are here, dear."
"Where is here?" She allowed him to pull her to her feet and followed him down the steps and towards the door.
The Doctor stopped short of the door to tie his shoe, and Gus took the opportunity to clamber atop his shoulders. Without batting a lash, the Doctor rose and both of them looked at River as if she was offering them the world's last cookie.
River blew out a frustrated sigh and shoved her hands deep into her jeans pockets. She closed her eyes and rocked from heel to toe, waiting as patiently as her impatience would allow.
The Doctor leaned forward and brushed the hair away from her neck. Gus began to pat her gently on the top of her head. River's breath caught in her throat as she felt his whispered words dance in her ear just before the TARDIS door opened to reveal the world outside.
"Merry Christmas, Melody."