River walked up and down the halls, checking rooms for procrastinators. There were only two girls in bedrooms. Gus must have put the fear of God into the rest of them to get it together, though even the surliest of teenage girls would struggle to hide her excitement about Christmas. Well, except for one. Janie could depress a puppy if given the challenge.
After having walked down a few stairs, River turned around and made her way back to a bedroom, knocked and cracked the door open a bit. "Melody?"
"Gus said you were staying behind. Are you sure you don't feel like coming with us? It promises to be loads of fun," River said quietly, hoping to get her involved with the other children and knowing it wouldn't happen.
"I think I'll just stay here, if that's ok."
River opened the door further and stepped just inside the doorframe. "You've been up here all day, Melody. Does it have anything to do with my friend?"
The little girl sat in a rocker with no visible means of entertainment around her, as if she were being punished. She looked down at the floor as she talked. "No, ma'am. I just haven't felt well today, that's all. It gets a bit rowdy here sometimes."
"You are right about that," River replied with a chuckle. "Well, Mrs. O'Malley will be downstairs if you need anything."
"If you feel better when we get home, I'd love for you to help us with the decorating," River suggested as she turned to leave.
River closed the door behind her and took a deep breath. She was consistently torn between doing more and knowing that she couldn't do more. And like many of the unpleasant aspects of her life, she put it out of her mind until she had no choice but to deal with it.
There was fast stomping up the stairs. "Mimi! Hurry up!"
River appeared at the top stair with a hand on her hip. "Mimi hurry up what?"
"Mimi, hurry up, please!" Gus repeated excitedly. "Everybody's already in the truck. Just come on before they start getting out all willy nilly!"
"Just calm down. Go on back to the truck and let me give directions to Mrs. O'Malley. Then we're good to go," River explained. Stomp, stomp, stomp. Slam. River grinned as she descended the stairs.
Mrs. O'Malley was relaxing in the sitting room with a book. "He's quite the firecracker, isn't he?"
River slid her arms into her jacket, smiling. "That, he is. A little too smart for his own good, I think."
"It's a shame for such a bright little boy to be an orphan," the elderly lady said with a shake of her head.
"Yes, it is," River reluctantly agreed. "Now, Janie and Melody are upstairs. Don't be surprised if you neither see nor hear anything from them. Melody's not well and…well, you know Janie."
Mrs. O'Malley gave River another isn't that a shame looks and said, "She still upset about leaving?"
River pulled her hair from underneath the jacket and searched her pocket for the truck keys. "Well, they all are, but Janie most especially. Okay. We'll be back shortly. Thank you so much for holding it all together while we're gone. I owe you another one." River walked over and gave her an appreciative hug.
"Oh, I don't mind it, dear. By the way, your friend is very nice. Odd, but nice."
"He gets that a lot. Thanks again!" River opened the front door and stepped out before realizing Amos had parked the truck in the back. She decided to walk around the house instead of going through it and risk getting held up with the friendly yet talkative babysitter again. She rummaged through her bag for a hair clip and heard the excited ramblings of the kids before she even saw the truck. Turning the corner, she looked up and stumbled to a stop.
There he stood, arms propped over the bed of the pickup and engaged in conversation, seemingly with every child. He had changed into a pair of dark jeans that were actually long enough to pull over hiking boots and a black long-sleeved tee. The shirt had risen with the position of his arms and a bit of skin peeked out from atop the denim. He had one leg bent forward and resting on the rim of the wheel, which made his hip cock to the side slightly. She couldn't remember ever seeing him look so relaxed…or normal…or like walking sex. It was no wonder the girls were fighting for his attention.
River willed her rubbery legs to move her forward. "Alright, everyone ready to go?"
The Doctor turned around and held his arms out to give her a good look. "Aye? Look, no bowtie. Though I do feel somewhat naked without it…"
"I don't know that I've ever seen you without a bowtie and braces," she replied, trying and succeeding to look unaffected and not at all impressed. She passed by him and checked that she had all the kids and that they were seated securely.
"Well…" The Doctor lifted his shirt a bit and the bed of the truck erupted in giggles.
River turned around and saw that he had a pair of braces fastened to his jeans underneath his shirt. She dropped her head and shook it, adding her own giggle to the song. With that one gesture, he returned to being the awkwardly gangly man with whom she was most comfortable.
River returned her attention to her cargo and saw that Gus was trying to make himself invisible in the pile of girls. "No, sir. Up front…you know the rules."
"But Mimi – "
"Don't 'but Mimi' me, please," she warned sternly. "Move it along…we need to go."
"I'll watch him carefully, Mimi," Katie reassured, wrapping an arm around the little boy's shoulders.
"Me, too. Besides, we aren't going far, right?" Alice draped her arm over the other side of Gus.
River stared at the girls, taken aback by their protectiveness, and a moment of sadness passed among them all. She, however, refused to let their troubles ruin the festive outing. "Okay…just this once!" She spoke directly to Gus, wagging a finger at him to get the point across.
"Yes, ma'am!" He saluted, and the Doctor collapsed into a fit of laughter. "Come on, Miss Ma'am. Let's move out!"
River couldn't help but smile and mumbled under her breath as she walked by the Doctor, "Charming little bastard, isn't he?"
"River!" The Doctor exclaimed disapprovingly, opening the passenger side door and hopping onto the seat.
She slid under the steering wheel and raised an eyebrow at him. "Well, am I wrong?"
"Well…I suppose you are correct in your overall…assessment…but isn't there a better word to use than…" he leaned over and whispered, "…bastard."
She thought on it for a second and answered simply with a smug grin, "No, actually. I'd say it's about right."
"Buckle up, Doctor. I drive this truck much like you do the TARDIS," she cautioned as she turned over the ignition and jumped it into gear.
"Oh, dear." He swallowed hard and wrapped his hand around the crude safety belt as the truck hopped down the driveway and skidded onto the road. "Did the little girl say we haven't far to go?"
The only response he got was the sound of grinding gears.
They had been riding quite some time in comfortable silence. The Doctor took in the landscape as a civilian after River got the hang of shifting the gears. He looked back and saw that Alice and Katie were true to their word. Both were nearly sitting atop Gus to keep him from bouncing out. And he was having the time of his life.
"It's tremendous that they all get on so well, yeah?" He said as he returned a wave to the ecstatic boy.
"Oh, it's circumstantial. Don't let them fool you," she said skeptically, eyes on the road and hand wrapped around the gearshift in a death grip.
He turned his attention from the kids to River. "How do you mean?"
"Well, it's Christmastime, for one. They all love each other during the holidays. I like to think it's because that's when they have a greater need for a sense of family," she explained. "But I'm sure it has more to do with the Naughty and Nice list."
"Ah, I see…" He glanced back at them and caught them as they were all laughing together. "It looks quite genuine to the untrained eye."
River inhaled deeply and sighed, her eyes seemed to be focused beyond the scope of the road ahead of them. "The state is shutting us down a week after Christmas."
"They are moving kids out of group homes and into foster homes," she scowled. "The anti-institution movement proclaims that it's best to get the kids out of the crowded cities and into country environments. So, the kids are enjoying their last days together."
The Doctor looked to the left and right of the road where cornfields chased the pavement as far as the eye could see. "More in the country than this? Are your kids being moved to a different country altogether?"
River smiled at the indignation in his voice, remembering her initial reaction. "We are a technicality, really. They had almost forgotten about us until a couple of months ago. Most group homes were closed years ago. Remember Graystark Hall?"
An explosion of explanation ignited inside the Doctor's head, though he was far from knowing the full extent of the situation. Pieces were falling into place bit by bit, except those things that were eating at him. "So, you will return to…wherever trouble is waiting?"
She saw the realizations play across his face but ignored it, well-enough versed in Doctor to know that it would find its way back around later. "I actually own the house. Perhaps a better way of explaining it is to say that the state is pulling their kids from care. I will still have a couple of privately placed kids to stay behind."
The conversation was interrupted by a knock on the window. River looked in her rearview mirror and the Doctor turned around to see one of the girls blow an open-mouth fish face on the glass before losing the trick to a fit of laughter. The two adults joined in the fun and laughed along.
River maneuvered the truck into an unpaved driveway, and they jumped in and out of ruts as they entered a wooded area. Aware that this was exactly what happened before people starting dropping off one-by-one in horror flicks, the Doctor looked at River for reassurance.
"Is this how you plan on killing me? I think I'd rather you do that dismembering and slapping thing you mentioned earlier…" He thought he saw a flinch across her face before she smiled, but it could have been the leaping-frogging the truck was doing through the forest. "The bloke in the braces always get it first, you know."
"Good thing yours are hidden underneath your shirt," she winked.
"You like this shirt. I can tell," he said, rather full of himself. "And the trousers."
"I'm still mad at you."
"I can handle it. He's not the only charming bastard in the truck."
"Is it really necessary to whisper it every time you say it?" She cut her eyes to him. "How old are you?"
The Doctor put on his most effective pompous expression. "Gus said that God frowns upon swearing, and I believe him."
"Gus says God does and commands quite a few things."
He smiled and tried to slide his fingers underneath braces that weren't there. "Yeah, that did not slip by me. He said that you take them to church every Sunday?"
He didn't know what to do with his hands. There wasn't an abundance of pockets to shove them in, no bowtie to straighten. His sonic was in his jacket at the house. There was no point to emphatically make. He was a man without an outlet to fidget.
"It started out as a means to an end. The locals pay a bit more attention to you if you don't profess some religious loyalty, and I certainly don't need to call more attention to us than is necessary. So, I chose one from the directory and sauntered through the door one Sunday morning. The kids made some friends…I found some babysitters and grandmothers who love to bake. It works out, I suppose."
The Doctor rubbed his hands together in childish glee. "Yes! Mrs. O'Malley promised to bring us a chocolate pie soon. I had no idea you could make a whole pie from chocolate…how long is soon?"
River's heart swelled at his use of us. "Knowing Mrs. O'Malley, she's probably working on it now. I saw a large bag beside the chair before we left." She giggled at his obvious delight.
"And Gus? What's his story? He talks more about God than any mates," he said curiously.
"I really don't know. It's a mystery to us. We've asked him repeatedly why God is so important to him and his only answer is 'Because God says so.' That's the generic answer. There's more to it, but we can't get at it," River explained, dumbfounded.
"You keep saying we've, as in we have. Who is we?"
"Just generally speaking," she answered weakly before changing the subject quickly. "Look! Here we are, Doctor. Your first Christmas tree farm."
The forest had opened up and revealed rows and rows of perfectly shaped Christmas trees. They seemed to go on forever. He turned his nose up a bit. "I thought we were going into the woods and look diligently for just the right specimen? I had it planned out…up here." He tapped on his skull, still studying the rows and rows.
"Sweetie, this is 1969, not 1869. And believe me, these kids will make you look diligently. It's even harder to choose when they all look perfect." She whipped the truck into a parking area and silenced the engine, a signal to their young passengers to leap out excitedly.
River exited the cab and lifted Gus over the side. As soon as his feet hit the ground, he ran over to the Doctor and grabbed him by the hand. "You can be my buddy."
The Doctor looked to River for an explanation. "Everybody gets a buddy, so no one's lost alone."
"We won't get lost," the Doctor said proudly.
"You'll be the first to get lost," she acknowledged, drawing from experience. "But don't worry, Gus knows his way out." The smile on her face was intoxicating and infuriating at the same time, making absolutely no sense to the Doctor.
"Won't it be difficult to find the one perfect tree if we're all looking at different trees?" he reasoned.
"We have a system. Just go with it," she said, leaving the group and walking in the opposite direction.
"Where are you going?" he called nervously.
"To the hot chocolate. I'm just the judge and wallet of this operation. Carry on," she exclaimed with a wave of her hand.
He looked down at his tiny partner. "Well, looks like it's just you and me."
Gus took a couple of steps and pulled on his arm. "Don't worry, Doctor. You're safe with me," he promised as they disappeared into the rows and rows.