What Child Is This

Chapter 35

River cautiously took a step out of the TARDIS. The red and green cobblestone road wasn't cobblestone at all, it seemed. Her foot settled onto the cushiony path while she braced her arms on the inside of the TARDIS doorway. She shifted her weight to dig the toes of her shoes into the stones. The sensation of bounce did not make sense with what her eyes were telling her. A smile threatened to expose itself. River returned both feet back to the ship and closed the door.

"I don't like it. It's a lie."

The Doctor smiled proudly. "It's our kind of world, yeah? Nothing is as it seems. Just fantastic."

Gus swung his legs around and wiggled to be lowered from his tower of Doctor. With a thud, his feet hit the ground running. He sprinted around River and launched himself from the TARDIS.

"Gus!" River reached out to grab him, but he was already out of reach and extended for flight. She spun around in a panic. "Doctor!"

With a giggle, the Doctor ran at her, and before she had time to react, he grabbed her by the waist and threw them across the threshold.

In the time it took from launch to land, River killed him a thousand times in equally horrific ways. And then they bounced.

No. They were caught and tossed.

Or did they bounce?

What the bloody hell was going on?

River rolled out from underneath the Doctor to see Gus body-slamming himself onto the road and laughing. She stood in preparation of steadying herself, but she found that her footing was as solid as anywhere else. In fact, it was almost as if she weren't standing at all. River bent forward to convince herself that she was standing. She stomped both her feet on the festive stones. Reaching out, she rubbed her fingers across the path. Stone. It looked like stone and felt like stone. Stood like stone.

But it bounced like jelly. She hopped from foot to foot, trying to make sense.

Her hands settled on her hips, and she stopped moving. Though she did keep a watchful eye on the ground.

"Don't waste your time, River," he whispered into her hair. "Don't look to analyze. Look to see."

The Doctor took her hand and led her down the cobblestone path. "Don't go too far ahead!" he called after Gus as the boy flipped his way along the road.

"Wait, Gus!" River called.

The Doctor squeezed her hand in reassurance. "He's fine, River. Let him go."

She looked up at him in confusion, still a bit disoriented. "But I don't know what's…"

"I do. And he does. Trust me," he said, cutting short her near-panic. "Come on." The man holding her hand all but skipped alongside her, while she remained cautious.

River allowed him to lead her forward as she took in her surroundings. The stone path stretched out and disappeared over a hill into nowhere. On each side of the walkway grew the most unusual flowers that River had ever seen. Rolling meadows chased the path and on every square inch grew a flower. Daisies, tulips, sunflowers, peonies, pansies, oleander, lilies…petals of various sizes in all shades of red and green sprouted from stems of the same red and green hues. And they seem to glisten under a light that shone from nowhere. She looked up and shielded her eyes in expectation of a bright light. What she found was not a sun…nor was there a moon. No ball of fiery light, no ball of cold light…no shape or temperature of any light whatsoever. Just the same, the flowers sparkled.

River stepped close to the edge of the pathway and gently kicked at one of the sparkly flowers. Some of the glimmer fell from the petals and covered River's shoe. The daisy almost seemed to glare up at her in disappointment.

"Well, that simply won't do," the Doctor said. "Look, it's all dull now. Poor dull thing." He bent forward and plucked it from the ground. "Well, waste not, want not…" he proclaimed before biting off the top of the flower and chewing with a smile.

"Doctor!" River squeaked with wide eyes and furrowed brow.

He stopped chewing and smiled wider, his teeth stained a shimmering green. He held out the stem to her. "Oh, pardon me. How thoughtless of me not to share…but I saved you the best part. Look when you squeeze it, the guts spill over the top and –"

"No."

"But it's the best –"

"I had daisies for breakfast, so I must decline," River snarked with an upturned lip before walking off. "I was hoping for a pine tree lunch."

The Doctor watched her walk ahead of him and blew a sigh through his nose. Not one for giving up easily, he jogged to catch up. Falling in step alongside her once again, he turned to face her, walking backwards.

River glanced down at his feet and back up to his face, skepticism and a touch of worry stared into his eyes. "Is this really how you want to die? Turn around and barely put one foot in front of the other as is customary, please."

"Come on, River. Just one bite. I can't eat the stem. It shouldn't – "

"Gus!"

The Doctor groaned as he spun around to face the sprinting child. Gus' lips were stained red and green, and he ran towards them with a hand full of sticks that matched the colors of his face and hands. River held out an arm to catch him as he sped by. He struggled to catch his breath as he stood before them. "Here," he said between gasps of air. "I saved them for you."

River looked at the stem that the Doctor still held out for her and then down at Gus' offering. More stems. "Gus, did you eat the flowers, too?" River's voice cracked as the pitch grew higher with each passing word.

The boy smiled to reveal stained teeth to match the Doctor's. "Yep. I like the way the petals crunch, but I can't eat the stem. See, look," he said as he waved the stems at River.

She reluctantly reached out and took them from Gus. Scrunching up her top lip, River made a little noise of disgust as the stems stuck to her fingers like wet licorice. "What the hel –"

"Squeeze 'em, Mimi!"

"No."

"Go on, River. Squeeze them like you..." His voiced trailed off and they both watched his eyes thinking. "Never mind. I lost train of my thought…" the Doctor said as the blush rose in his cheeks. "Just squeeze them and quit being so difficult."

With two sets of pleading eyes bearing down on her, River succumbed to the pressure and gave the stems a gentle squeeze. A purple jelly-like substance spilled over and ran down the side of her thumb and hand. She groaned a groan of disgust once again and turned her head to look away. Both the Doctor and Gus exploded into cheers of delight and high-fived each other triumphantly. River opened her hand to drop the stems, but they stuck to her skin as if by adhesive. Her companion travelers giggled as she tried to shake them off. Unsuccessfully.

"You're just gonna have to eat them, Mimi. It's a fact," Gus said matter-of-factly. "I would do it, but I can't. Wish I could, but I just can't help you, Mimi."

"Me neither." The Doctor shook his head while looking at his feet, a broad smile hiding behind a layer of hair.

"I am not eating this. See, this…" River waved her hands in a circle around Gus' face. "…is what happens when you…" She pointed an accusing finger at the Doctor. "…are left alone with children. They eat the flora." River moved her pointing finger from the Doctor to the stems in her hand.

"And the fauna," he mumbled.

"What! Did you say 'and the fauna'? Surely, that is not what I heard. I did not hear 'fauna'." The voice was almost a pitch heard only by fauna. She lifted Gus' chin so that his eyes met hers. "Have you eaten the wildlife?"

"What's wildlife?" Gus scrunched up his nose and thought about life that was wild. "Like tigers?"

"Yes…like tigers…maybe…"

"Oh, no. I haven't eaten any wildlife," Gus replied with a shake of his head.

River let out a sigh of relief. "Well, that's something, at least…"

"Does a rabbit count as wildlife?"

Large intake of breath. "Yes…" she said through gritted teeth.

"Oh."

River cut her eyes towards the Doctor who rocked on his feet from heel to toe, nervously whistling a quiet tune while trying to inch away from the boiling woman at his side. "Anything else?"

"Ummm…a chicken?"

"A chicken like a leg and a wing, a chicken? Or a chicken, a chicken?" River gripped the stems hard enough that the purple goo dripped from her fingers onto the stone path.

"A chicken, a chicken."

The Doctor watched the goo seep between the cracks in the walkway and tried to stifle the giggle that threatened to bubble up from his feet.

River spun around and turned her back to them, taking a few steps away before sighing heavily once again. When she returned, she smiled sweetly at the child. "Gus, honey. Why don't you run up ahead and give me a minute alone with the Doctor, yeah?"

"Don't do it," whispered the Doctor. He looked at Gus and shook his head slightly.

"Gus…" River waited with the same smile plastered across her face.

"She'll shoot me," came the whisper again.

The boy looked from one to the other, trying to assess the situation as best as his little mind could manage.

"Why? A while ago you told me not to run ahead. Now you're telling to run ahead," he answered suspiciously. "It's very confusing, Mimi. Are you gonna kill him? I'll probably notice if we leave in the TARDIS without him, you know."

"Probably?" The Doctor stood at attention and raised an eyebrow at Gus.

"Well, I'll definitely notice. Yeah, the TARDIS might not, but I promise I would. I'm a smart kid. You tell me that all the time, and smart kids notice things…especially a big old missing man," Gus explained, standing a bit taller and squaring his shoulders. "You're gonna shoot him, aren't you? I just know you are. I feel it in my little kid guts."

"Gus!" River stomped her foot but did not get the same feeling of release as when her foot usually came down on something hard. The ground seemed to hug and cuddle her shoe, and this made her even angrier. She took a deep breath and bent down to meet the boy's eyes. With a simple and aggressive point beyond them, she said not another word to the boy.

Gus nodded in defeat and raised his eyes towards the Doctor. He held out his hand, and the man accepted the gentlemanly gesture, shaking it gently. "Good luck. It was a pleasure to meet you," he whispered before running down the path and disappearing over the hill.

The Doctor could feel her eyes on him while he watched the boy run off. He looked at her out of the corners of his eyes for a fraction of a second before slowly backing away. "Now, River…"

"If you say another word, I will stab your face with these flower stems," she growled as she matched him step for step.

"Please, don't. I'm allergic."

"Liar. "

He stumbled as the heel of one foot clipped under the toe of the other. "No, really. Not allergic in the sense that you might be allergic, but Time Lordy allergic. You said you wouldn't kill me!"

"I said no such thing."

More awkward steps away from the frightful woman. "No? I swear I thought I heard –"

"No." River stalked him much more gracefully than he fled. The look on her face left no option for explanation.

He knew that he had only one course of action. Running his free hand swiftly through his hair, the Doctor whimpered nervously and brought his own flower stem to his lips. After coating them generously with the purple liquid, he stopped abruptly and reached around River, pulling her to him quickly. Caught off guard, she didn't have time to retaliate before he brought his lips to hers, kissing her more out of urgency than passion.

She wiggled and writhed to free herself from his sudden attack but not before he managed to force his tongue between her lips and seek out her own. River considered clamping down with a relentless bite…until the taste of him swam around her tongue and the smell wafted into her nose. She smiled and felt his grip on her lighten. Taking advantage of the opportunity, she broke away from him and took another look around. The Doctor grinned and hurriedly wiped the remainder of the nectar from his lips and face.

"See…" His eyes were wide with "I told you so" and his grin had never looked goofier. "I was right, wasn't I? I'm always right, River. It's a truth you need to accept. A fact, if you will."

"Except when you're wrong," River said around licks of her hand.

"Except when I'm wrong," he repeated with a nod.

River spun around trying to make sense again of the flowers that glistened under an invisible lightsource, stones that hugged feet and purple goo in sticky stems that tasted as sweet as honeysuckle smelled.

She bounced a bit more from one foot to the other, and the Doctor giggled as only he could.

"Where the hell are we? And to where did I just banish our child?"

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