What Child Is This

By alwaysgus

Mystery / Romance

Chapter 36

The Doctor and River sat outside an ice cream shoppe and watched Gus play in a pit filled with chocolate drops. There were several other children - some human-esque, some not so much – diving in and out of the candy, and Gus seemed to pay no mind to their differences. When it came to a chocolately play pit, kids were kids, regardless of species.

River stared into her bowl of ice cream and stabbed at the stacks of vanilla scoops. The corners of her mouth were pulled inward as she bit on the inside of her lips, appearing rather trancelike. So engrossed in her thoughts was she that she didn't seem to notice that the scoops of ice cream were dodging her spoon.

"How do they expect me to eat this ice cream snowman when it waves and smiles at me?" The Doctor was also staring into his bowl, but more in disbelief and frustration rather than preoccupation. "I'm going to eat you now, Creepy Edible Snowman. It's only a matter of time. And all of time belongs to me, so make a wish…"

Brought out of her trance by his mumbling, River looked over to find him snarling at his bowl. His brow was furrowed and his lips puckered. He wiggled the spoon between his fingers, and his right leg bounced anxiously. A curtain of hair fell over his eyes, and he repeatedly blew at it and shook his head to the side, expecting different results each time and neglecting to recognize defeat. Between puffs, it flew out in waves as breaths of frustration erupted through his nose before landing across his brow once again…leading to another blow of breath through his puckered lips and a waggle of his head to trick it into place.

"Oh for Christ's sake!" River stood as if launched from her chair and took a step towards him. Reaching out and raking her hands roughly through his hair, she pulled the offending locks back from his face. The Doctor whined and slapped at her hands as she continued to tug and rake without taking care not to pull out a strand here and there. "Quit your whinging," she warned flatly. Satisfied that she had tamed his hair even if only for a short while, she pulled a hairpin from her own and fastened his behind his ear. Pleased with herself, she slapped him gently on the back of his head and returned to her seat.

"What is this sorcery! Be still, alive ice cream. You are living cream of ice! You make no sense. Why do you mock me! Stop looking at me like that!" His head fell to the table, and he turned to face her.

The Doctor looked at her through amused eyes. "I was thinking about getting my hair cut. What do you think? Will it make my b-u-t-t look fat? I just don't think I can grow out these bangs. It's too hard!" He sat up and looked at her with a pout.

"I hate you."

He hung his head and sighed playfully. "Me too. I say we kill me with kisses." He peeked up and found a reluctant smile creep across her face. River scooped up a spoonful of ice cream and catapulted it towards his face. The cold blob smacked his forehead and slid between his eyes and down his nose.

"You killed him! He was just a wee little snowman," he yelped. "A gun, a spoon? Woman, know you any limits?"

She giggled and felt the tension finally ease from her shoulders and neck. An element of preparedness and fear was always necessary when traveling with the Doctor, even on pleasure trips. Trouble was the Doctor's groupie. Though when considered from the perspective of a companion, of sorts, the Doctor could only go where the TARDIS agreed to take him, and it stood to reason that she would drop him off where he could do more good than harm. And it was certainly not out of the question for him to take a perfectly peaceful place and cause a warlike commotion. Despite his noninterfering mission statement, he never failed to find a way to be rather bothersome for the locals.

Today, however, it seemed that he had brought them to a place that didn't mind their intrusion. It was a child's wonderland. Everything, down to the chairs in which they were seated, were whimsically designed and could be licked or bitten, if one took a notion to do so. Which the Doctor did quite often…without consideration to whomever may have licked them before. "It's applely delicious!" he had exclaimed after running his tongue and his body around one of the many lamp posts lining the pathway.

As they had walked the path into the village, he would randomly reach up or out and break off a chocolate branch of this cherry sour tree or that orange gummy tree. By the time they reached the shoppes, both he and Gus were sticky brown messes and happier for it. Catching a glimpse of themselves as they passed by the window of the ice cream parlor, the Doctor chuckled and pointed to their reflection in the glass, casting a proud smile over his shoulder towards River. As per usual, she simply rolled her eyes and herded them both into the shoppe, hoping to find a restroom where they could be either wiped or hosed down. After cleaning them both vigorously with towels that felt as if they were woven with candy floss, River and the Doctor ordered ice cream sundaes while Gus opted to play in the park across the street, his belly full from the swiping of goodies as they had walked the bouncy pathway.

Turning her attention away from the Doctor, who continued his battle of wills with the ice cream snowman, River watched passersby as they strolled unhurriedly through the village. The cobblestone-ish path ran between rows of quaint shoppes that seemed to cater soley to the delights of children. Their brightly covered awnings all sparkled with the same dusting that gleamed atop the flowers in the meadow, and various smells wafted through the doors of each one. There wasn't simply a toy store; there was a doll shoppe, a magic shoppe, a car shoppe, a remote-controlled helicopter shoppe, a build-your-own-shoppe shoppe. The shoppes that attracted little girls smelled of strawberry and honeysuckle, while those of little boy dreams vibrated with the sounds of revving motors and disgusting bodily functions…the bodily functions of many species apparently.

Connecting the shoppes was a tubal transport system that jutted in and out of walls in a pattern similar to sound waves and seemed to vacuum visitors from one place to the next. Though Gus had pleaded to be allowed to be sucked from room to room, River had shut him down instantly, taking into consideration the ridiculous amount of confections churning in the boy's belly and his tendency to explode with motion sickness. In her mind she had begun building a case against the distant rollercoaster that could be heard faintly as the cars raced along the tracks. She had already bathed them both once, and she had no intention of having to clean sick from Gus when his indulgence turned against him. Sometimes it seemed that mothering consisted mostly of "no, dear" with the occasional hug thrown in for reassurance.

After reluctantly giving up on his sundae and convincing River that Gus would be safe to play in the park under the supervision of the caretakers, they strolled down the path hand-in-hand, blending in with countless other parents. There was so much to see with so few eyes to take it all in. River found herself constantly looking over her shoulder to make sure that she had not missed anything, despite the slow pace of their walk. Squeezing the Doctor's hand in delight, she giggled and squealed as she was taken by surprise time and time again by her charming surroundings.

While the toy shoppes lined one side of the street, dozens of storefronts on the other side displayed every candy, type and flavor, in the known universe…and considering some of their customers, perhaps even some unknown universes. As they passed them, River saw familiar names written fancifully along awnings or windows…Wonka, Hershey, Cadbury, Jelly Belly…and cast a curious glance towards the Doctor.

"You don't really believe that those were human geniuses, do you?" He winked at her and tossed a Jelly Belly into his mouth as they left the shoppe. Reaching into the bag of gummies, he offered River a sample. She nodded and held out her hand, only to have him lift it to her lips and slide into her mouth. River smiled, and the Doctor clipped her nose playfully between two fingers before leaving a sugar-coated kiss at the corner of her mouth. She licked at the crunchy crystals, and an overpowering swell of love for the goofy man beside her caused her breath to catch in her throat as she swallowed the sugar.

The Doctor patted her back gently as she coughed and choked on the candy residue. Smiling down at her, he said, "I have just the cure for that."

Pulling her through one the few alleyways, they rounded the back corner of a building to find an expansive park behind the row of shoppes. The lawn was the greenest green River had ever seen. There were actual trees with real-tree foliage and flowers that smelled of flower instead of tasty fruits. Actual tulips, roses and daisies of all colors were planted around the base of the trees. Blooming cherry blossoms and dogwoods scattered the lawn and shaded ornate benches painted in pastel hues. There were a few couples resting on the benches, and they seemed to take no notice of them as they passed. Soon enough, River saw where she was being taken.

As they made their way through a grove of fruit trees, the sky in front of them was blocked by a towering hot air balloon in the shape of a giant Santa hat. River gasped and beamed at the sight of the monstrous and beautiful balloon that seemed to appear from nowhere, hidden inconspicuously in plain sight. The balloon itself was the richest shade of red imaginable and was trimmed in bright white along the bottom, finished of with the traditional ball of white fluff at the top. Letting go of his hand, she hurried towards the swaying ride. The large green rattan basket hovered inches above the ground and was padded in a soft cream-colored fleece. River moaned as her hand brushed over the fabric and then yelped as a figure popped up on the other side of the basket. Falling backwards, she heard a deep and melodic laugh as she landed heavily on her rear.

"Well, Doctor, I see you've brought another visitor, and I might have scared her just a bit," came a warm and welcoming voice over the top of the basket. "Is this the River Song I've heard so much about?"

The Doctor offered a hand to River and pulled her to her feet, reaching up and securing a few wayward locks of hair behind her ear. "Yes, Sir, it most definitely is," he answered, a glimmer of excitement in his eyes and a proud smile stretching across his face.

Another hearty laugh. "Well, I am honored, River Song. Though I must admit that I thought you would be a bit more fearless," he joked. "The last time I saw you, you were a different person altogether, young lady. You're not planning on stealing my ride, are you?"

River turned to face the Doctor's friend and stumbled back a bit as the man held out his arms to her. Before her stood a rather recognizable figure clad in deep red trousers, a crisp white shirt and the shiniest of black boots. His beard was full and white, looking much like a cloud. A face cloud. He peeked at her over sunglasses and winked, snapping his braces for effect.

She turned back to the Doctor with a gaping mouth and questioning eyes. "Tell me that's not…"

The Doctor leaned in and whispered in her ear. "Now do you understand why I asked you not to make him naughty? I had a helluva time looking him in the eye last time."

"Well, are you going to give Santa a hug or not?" the man boomed, still holding outstretched arms in her direction. River spun back around and walked tentatively into the awaiting hug of the large man before her.

It was like being hugged by happiness.

River smiled and returned the man's affectionate squeeze. Santa wrapped one arm protectively around River and gently held her head to his shoulder with the hand of the other. He placed a fatherly kiss to her temple and whispered into her ear, "I never forgot you, and I always knew where you were, Melody."

River fought back tears while the Doctor looked on with wet eyes of his own. She nodded against him and gave him a final squeeze. Santa held her by the shoulders at arm's length and studied the woman who had captured the uncapturable. He smiled and winked at her. "That's quite some head of hair you have there, Dr. Song. The secrets it must hold…"

She returned his wink and leaned in to whisper, "Oh, Santa. If you only knew…"

He laughed his trademark jolly rumble and stepped around her to greet the Doctor.

"So, my friend. Are you here to borrow my baby once again?" He grasped the Doctor's outstretched hand and tugged him in for a hug. "I may have to start charging you a fee."

The Doctor patted the man on the back and laughed. "What does Santa need with money?"

"There's a lovely timeshare in a galaxy far, far away that I've had my eye on," he answered, releasing the Doctor from his embrace.

"Is the force included with the package?"

"Oh, you know those blasted Jedis. Everybody is evil and must be destroyed," he mumbled as he walked back to the balloon. "It's ready to go when you are, Doctor. But I have an appointment in a couple of hours, so don't be gone for too long."

River looked nervously at the Doctor. "What? You expect me get in that thing with you? Just you?"

"Smart lady," Santa laughed.

"I drive a Santa hat now. Santa hats are cool."

"No way."

"But –"

"Nope."

"I've flown it loads –"

"Don't care."

"Santa!" he whined, throwing up his hands in exasperation.

"Don't expect me to argue with the lady. Word travels, son," he answered quickly over a blast of the burner.

"Come on, Nick. Help me out…"

The man sighed and took River by the hand. "I know he's a bumbling mess of awkward clumsiness, dear, but I promise that he is a fine balloon pilot."

River looked skeptically at Santa. " 'Fine' like when someone asks you how you are, or 'fine' as in 'fine young man' ?"

"Gee, umm…"

"Really?" The Doctor looked from one to the other as they assessed his skills.

Santa nodded and gave River's hand a gentle squeeze of reassurance. "You are perfectly safe. I taught him myself."

"Don't you normally drive a sleigh?" she asked.

"Santa has hobbies too, dear. Just humour him or else he'll whine for days," Santa answered.

River giggled and let go of his hand. "Well, then, you are well acquainted. I'll take your word for it." She turned back to a sulking Doctor. "Are you ready?"

"I guess so," he pouted, kicking at the grass.

She walked behind him and started pushing him towards the basket. "Oh, stop your moping and climb in."

The Doctor put a foot in one of the holes in the side of the basket and swung a leg over the top. Unable to remove his foot from the hole, he dangled while River and Santa watched him try to free himself. "A little help would be most welcomed," he called from inside the basket.

River glanced anxiously at Santa for some affirmation of confidence in the Doctor's piloting ability, but the man just shrugged at her and pulled the Doctor's foot from the hole. He crumpled to the bottom of the basket and popped up with a smile. "Ready?"

Santa walked by her and gave her an encouraging pat on her back. "It'll be fine. Really."

Though River thought she detected a note of uncertainty in his voice. She blew out a deep breath and swung her legs over the side of the basket and stood beside him.

Santa waved to them and nodded his head as the basket began to rise. "Fine…it'll be fine. As in 'you probably won't die' fine!" he yelled.

The Doctor stared down at the waving man with furrowed brow. "Hmpf. Thanks, Santa," he mumbled under his breath. With a snap of his fingers, he spun on his heels to face River. "Alright then. Let's get on with it, shall we?"

The basket rose quickly and as she looked down on the tiny figures below, a realization suddenly hit her. "Oh my God! Gus! We've left Gus!"

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