"I must say, this beats dangling any day of the week," River said as she watched the surroundings below, leaning over the side of the basket to take in the fullness of the view - the Doctor holding fast to her with his finger through her belt loop.
Once, in a moment of weakness and exhaustion, the Doctor had allowed River to dangle by a rope from the TARDIS while it traveled over the Irish countryside. Perhaps allowed wasn't the right word. More appropriately, he had stopped ranting and reluctantly held onto the rope as she teetered on the edge of the doorway, lowering her carefully as he braced himself against the swaying brought about by the change in air pressure. Beads of sweat trickled from the hair at his temples as he held onto the braided cord, his hands burning from the swinging weight of her. He heard the as-ever dangerously adventuresome woman laughing from below and felt a tug on the rope.
"Doctor! You have to see this!" she called excitedly.
He lifted a shoulder up to meet his brow and dabbed at the sweat threatening to fall into his eye. "I'm quite busy at the moment! Perhaps some other time when you haven't stupidly jumped from the TARDIS!"
"Come on! I tied it well enough! I'm handy with ropes! You have to see this!"
He let go of the line with caution and glanced nervously to where it was secured along the console railing. He instinctively waved his sonic around the knot. Nothing. Did it also not do twine? "Are you sure, River? Are you really properly sure? Confident, even? With the tying?"
"Spoilers!" she yelled, followed by a giggle. A flush of unknowing embarrassment burned his cheeks at her implication, and he hesitated poking his head through the door to reveal the effect of her flirtatious teasing. "Doctor!
The Doctor stepped over the rope and looked out of the door. Below them stretched nothing but green. Green trees, green hills…even the water reflected green hues. The air that rushed by his face smelled fresh, and he reached out a hand and let the pressure roll over it in waves. Looking down, he watched River as she swung on the rope, her hair blowing around her face, bursts of giggling and small yelps at the erratic movements of the TARDIS. Finding it next to impossible not to smile, the Doctor decided that the moment was as close to perfect as perfection had ever dared to be.
But that had been a dream. A perfect dream dreamed in a cozy little dream world for two. Now there were three. And the knowingest part of him knew that the dream world for three would not be as tidy and cozy. He was the one dangling on the rope, and River controlled the tightness of the knot.
"Wait," he whispered under his breath. His almost-eyebrows looked at each other and his bottom lip protruded slightly as what she said sunk in. It had been a dream. "River?"
"Hmm?" she hummed softly.
"Have you dangled? Before? With me?"
"Is that a euphemism, Sweetie?" Though he couldn't see it, he could hear the smile in her voice.
"What? No! Actually dangling, from the TARDIS," his voice cracked a bit in response.
"Because I can explain again how a Gus is made if I need to."
"That's what I said, if I remember correctly."
She turned her head slightly to peek at him behind her. "Spoilers, honey."
The Doctor sighed and let it go…again. He slid his finger from her belt loop and leaned forward, bracing his elbows on the side of the basket alongside hers, molding his body to cover hers as they watched the scenery below. It was astounding how quiet it was between the earth and the heavens. No sounds of the locals, no whirring of the TARDIS. River intertwined their fingers and relaxed into him, enjoying the rare peace and waiting for him to interrupt it.
Except the Doctor was lost in the nearness and quiet of her. Nearly all of his time with them, his tag along travelers, consisted of exposition and witty responses, followed by more exposition and correction. Then more of the witty. Sometimes a pout – from either side. The quiet times consisted almost entirely of sleep, him or them. Though with Amy, a great deal of her time was spent with Rory, whether or not the Doctor was present. So, he had plenty of quiet time between adventures. Though if he was honest, he considered the time to be more on the side of lonely than it was quiet. It was rare that he and his friends could just be together silently, or more perhaps, rare that they took the opportunity. Sometimes the quiet was more comforting than the chatting. Nobody wanted to be quiet with him. Except River. River seemed to prefer him quiet. He liked to think that she enjoyed the hushed nearness of him, but he suspected that she simply waited for a break in the conversation to prove herself right. Which she was, usually. It was irritating.
The Doctor sighed and laid his chin on her shoulder, prompting River to nestle further into him.
The landscape was the most unusual that River had ever seen. As they had risen, the trees and foliage shimmered with the most remarkably bright coloring. Almost as if rainbows had actually rained down. The distinctive path that ran between the shops came to an abrupt stop at a dense forest. The multicolored trees eventually faded into a thicket of dark greens and browns, much like the forests of her home. Out of the thicket ran a road into another small town. Rows of red brick building with slate roofs lined both sides of the presumably cobblestone path. Whether they were shops like in the candy village or homes, River could not tell. There was, however, a brightly shining architectural structure holding court in the middle of the buildings. It appeared to be made of twisting copper pipes, and there was a clock crudely and crookedly fashioned at the top. An aviator-esque man waved to them from the winding staircase of the edifice, and River returned the gesture.
"What is that place?" she asked, motioning towards the village below. "It's a bit speampunk. I like it."
"Umm, yes," he answered.
River turned her head to look at him from the corner of an eye. "Do you even know what steampunk is?"
"Of course I do, you silly woman! It's steamish with bits of punk thrown about." He smiled his smile of irresistibility and kissed the side of her neck. River rolled her eyes and bumped him with her hip, sliding out from under him before he had a chance to stop her. The Doctor sighed a groan of protest and stood with a stretch before turning to face her.
River leaned carefully against the other side of the basket and watched him, her arms crossed over her chest and her left foot tucked behind her right ankle. It was her "we're about to have a serious conversation, dear" stance. The Doctor knew it well now, and he wished he had the appropriate body language to match hers. His body could only respond to situations spontaneously, and judging by the smile on her face, River knew that she was already ahead.
"I don't like this," he said. "It feels a bit 'yes, dear' to me. I don't like 'yes, dear'. I'm the dear. Let me be the dear."
"I am letting you be the dear."
He looked up at his hairline. "Wait, I think I got that backwards."
"You've been known to do so."
"You be the dear."
"I don't know even what the hell you are talking about," she said with an almost patronizing smile.
"Oh yes, you do. You're standing there like a mum, all mumlike. Like you know something or are about to ask something that is sure to make me uncomfortable, and you have settled in nicely for a bit of stammering. Well, I will not stammer," he answered defiantly, crossing his own arms over his chest. "Just so you know."
"You are stammering already."
He stared at her, opening his mouth in denial and then closing it in defeat. "Okay, you've got me up here, caged in the air. What is it?"
River giggled and unfolded her arms, sliding her hands into her front pockets. "You're the one who put me in this bloody thing and blew us up here, you silly bugger. I haven't gotten you anywhere. I am honestly just standing here. You pulled up your big-boy pants and jumped into panic mode."
The Doctor studied her face and saw a glimmer of amusement in her eyes. She smiled a half-smile and giggled once more, dropping her chin to her chest and digging the toe of her foot into the basket floor. Relief washed through him, and he smiled back at her. "I hate you," he whispered.
River looked up and winked at him. "I'm sure you wish you did."
He laughed and turned his attention to piloting the balloon. "Many times, Dr. Song. Many times, indeed."
While he concentrated on a moment of piloting, River watched the landscape below them change once again into another themed village, this one eerie and sad. The steampunk town faded into another wooded area and emerged as a hauntingly dark cemetery. Impossibly dark, actually, as they were floating in a brightly lit sky. She turned around quickly to find the Doctor also peering over the side of the rattan basket, a frown creasing his brow. When in a new place, especially a place he had taken her, she expected him to know exactly where they were…or at the very least, generally where they were. River glanced below them once again before returning her attention to the Doctor. "Ummm…Doctor?"
"Yes, dear?" He continued studying the creepy happening below them. The darkness hovered over the graveyard and the neighboring hamlet. Dark figures moved in and out of the shadows cast by street lamps along paths that led up to homes even creepier than the darkness. Suddenly there was a growl followed by several screams and eruptions of laughter. The Doctor squinted his eyes and looked closely at the fleeing figures. A group of children ran down the lane from one enormous home and up the path to another. Realizing what was occurring below, he grinned widely. "Well done, you beautiful universe, you…" he whispered.
River's eyes bulged as she took in the ghostly scene. She had heard the screams but could not locate the source. Had she paid closer attention to the details instead of being overwhelmed by the sinister, she would have easily made the connection. Instead, she panicked and immediately thought of Gus and re-evaluated her decision to leave him under watch of the Candyville caretakers. River spun around to find the Doctor sporting a smile that could only be described as nostalgic. She could feel her heart beating in her ears. Inhaling deeply and slowly, she asked him once more, "Doctor, where are we?"
His delightful grin vanished, the hostile tone in her voice taking him by surprise. He bit at the corner of his lip and pointed nervously at the madness below. "Look, it's tiny goblins. Aren't they spectacular?"
The look on River's face expressed anything but awe. She dug her hands further into her pockets and closed the space between them. "No. The scary creatures are scary. Where are we?"
Against his better judgment, he giggled and tugged playfully at her earlobe. "It's Halloween!" he exclaimed gleefully.
"Yes! Look at them running about. We have obviously discovered where Halloween lives!" He couldn't keep the childlike awe from his voice. His face seemed to grow wider just to accommodate the Cheshire-cat grin that danced up to the corners of his eyes. "Ha! I think that little thing is masquerading as a human!" He pointed to a rather normal looking little boy with a long purple scaly tail. "Ha! Brilliant!"
River exhaled the breath she had been holding and fought the urge to smack him. It was becoming more and more obvious that he no more knew where they were than did she, and when neither of them had the faintest of ideas as to their whereabouts…well, that was when the proverbial shit tended to hit the fan. River was not in the mood for a shit spray.
The Doctor looked at her with his ingenuous expression, ignoring the cautionary visage with which he was met. "It's little creature-people being other creature-peoples in the dark and chasing sweets. I want to live there in fancy dress and eat stuff."
"Fancy dress as what?" she asked. "A grown man? That would definitely be a stretch of the imagination."
He grinned at her warmly. "Oh, River. I could just lick your face."
She stared at him in bewilderment for a moment before remembering that his amused face was exactly what she loved about him. A corner of River's mouth turned up a playful smirk, and she kneed him teasingly in the rear. Sliding her hands into his back pockets and stretching her front along his back, she peered around him at the controlled chaos below. "And what would I dress as?"
He giggled nervously and rubbed his hands together. "I don't think it is very wise to even envision such a thing at this altitude." He felt her body dance under the deep laugh that escaped her. "Nope, not very wise at all."
"You're probably right, Sweetie." River walked around him and kissed his cheek before sitting down and leaning back against the side of the basket. "So, there's a candy village, a steampunk village, and Halloweentown. What planet is this?"
He gave the gas cord another tug and sat down beside her. "I'm not really sure."
"Is that possible?" she smiled and winked at him. "Seriously?"
"Seriously, I have no idea. I've been here several times, and I have no clue where 'here' is," he answered, staring at and fiddling with the hem of his trousers. "Look, I think these could be lowered."
"So, how do you get here if you don't know where you're going? I mean, she's good but…" River let her voice trail off in the offchance that the TARDIS could hear her even above the trees.
The Doctor stretched his legs out and wagged his feet together, his hands clasped in his lap and twiddling his fingers. "I don't think she brings me here. I think here pulls us in somehow. I can't get here by asking or thinking. It's almost like this place knows who needs it and becomes what is needed. But I don't know what constitutes the needing – what it senses in beings that necessitates bringing them here."
"That must drive you to madness," she said, bumping his shoulder with hers.
"Of course, it does!" His exclamation betrayed his frustration, and he sighed defeatedly. "But…"
River waited patiently while he worked it out. They were a delicate balance of flirt, equality and patience.
"…with that said, I think Gus brought us here."
River looked at him, his hands still fiddling and his eyes staring beyond his fidgeting. "What makes you think that?"
"I don't know," he murmured. "Intuition…my excellent brainy skills…the fact that every time he's been in the TARDIS we've ended up here…" The Doctor looked at River with a blank expression.
"And how many times has that been?"
"Umm...maybe three." He waited for the number to sink into her brain and eject forcefully through her words.
But there was nothing. River wanted to wife him about absconding with their child at least once without her knowledge, but she had more iffy bits bouncing about in her head. "And you've been here before without him?"
"Yes," he said quietly.
"With other children?"
More silence. River wanted to inquire further, but his voice and the fallen look on his face stopped her. Instead she simply sat beside him and watched the clouds pass over.
He pulled his legs closer to his body and folded them in front of him. His head fell back against the basket wall, and he turned his face towards her. "After I lost Gallifrey…after my family was gone, I was brought here."
She lowered her eyes from his, unable to face the sorrow they held. River leaned towards him and laid her head on his shoulder, giving him the comfort of her presence and the reassurance of her tenderness. Reaching for him, she took his hand in hers and gave it a squeeze.
"I remember standing in front of the TARDIS door and staring at it for ages, wondering to where she could have possibly seen fit to bring me. My home was gone, my family…everything that mattered, I had destroyed." He rested his head upon hers. "Where does one go after that?
But there I was. Somewhere. I had to be somewhere, I guess. And when I stepped out of the door, I was almost angry. I wanted to be hurt. I wanted to stew in my rage and my hate, and yet there I was in a land of candy flowers and gumdrop trees. It was beyond ridiculous. But there I was, regardless. No home, no people and suddenly no TARDIS. So, I walked down that impossible path into that disgustingly sweet village." Looking down at their hands, he traced the bones of her fingers lightly.
"I sat at those tables we just left and stared into nowhere. There were random childy things playing, and there were giggles and screams and all these happy sounds flooding my ears, and I could feel the hate and the anger growing and bubbling and enclosing around my hearts, and all I wanted to do was reach out and take that happiness from those children. I wanted to run over and yell at them and tell them about a world that was gone so that they could throw sand and slide down slides and not die in front of their parents…not die…" His voice had grown louder and had cracked under the emotions he tried to hold at bay. He sighed and continued, whispering. "…not die in front of their parents like the others had. Like mine had.
But I just sat there. And watched them play carelessly. Except for one little girl. One girl sitting on the grass apart from the others, watching them as I did, alone. Something about her grabbed at me, so I crossed the path and the playground towards her. And I as I drew nearer, the overwhelming sounds of joyous living faded almost instantaneously. She smiled up at me, and I sat down across from her in her comforting silent bubble of solitude. And I sat there for the longest time with my eyes closed. Just sat there."
After several moments of reticence, River lifted their hands to her lips and kissed the knuckle of his thumb. He raised his head from atop hers, and River sat up to look at him. She needed to see into him. His eyes were heavy and barely peeked out from under his long hair. She asked him softly, "Who was she?"
The Doctor shrugged his shoulders slightly and looked up at the blueness of the up place, not certain that it could be called a sky. "I don't know. She never spoke. When I finally opened my eyes, she smiled at me again before standing and walking away. The further she walked, the louder the sounds of the children became. But it wasn't a hateful noise. It wasn't bearable, but it wasn't threatening.
I walked slowly back to where the TARDIS had deposited me, sat down on the path and waited for her. I waited not in anger or rancor but in grief. I began to grieve what the Time War had forced me to destroy. I grieved the family that I would never again have and the home that no one would remember. My anger was replaced with loneliness when I realized that I was truly alone. In that world and in any other world I would ever be in. With all those people, all those companions and tag-alongs…I am always and completely alone. There is no one who belongs to me, and I belong to no one."
A tear slid down River's cheek, and she wiped it away with her free hand. She reached up and swept the backs of her fingers along his jawline. He turned his face towards her and kissed her fingers. River's eyes met his, and she spoke quietly. "Not anymore, Doctor. You have a family now. You have a home."
His eyes pleaded with hers, revealing the unasked question that loomed over them constantly.
River nodded and looked away quickly before he could see her own sadness and doubt. She stood and stared into the bowels of the balloon. "What do you say we get back to our son, yeah? There's Christmas waiting on the other side." Her smile hid the worry of the bothersome truth his story had inadvertently revealed.
Why was this place reaching out to their son?