"What about this one? Look, it was grown especially for strung popcorn." The Doctor stood next to a disturbingly giant fir. Truthfully, they had all started to look alike within just the first few rows. "Maybe even some shiny things too."
"But you didn't even look at it. How do you think that made the tree feel?"
"Oh, the tree is fine. I know exactly what I want, Doctor," Gus said as he marched past. He was a little boy on a mission.
The Doctor crossed his arms over his chest and pulled up the rear. "Well, don't you have to talk it over with the girls before deciding?"
"They pick out the tree that goes in front of the big window, and I get to choose the other tree." Without even bothering to look at the dozens of trees he passed, Gus walked briskly across the rows.
"Where does your tree go?"
"In the living room. Where we do the living," he explained.
"What's the other tree for?" The Doctor so enjoyed the child's company that he could listen to him talk about bubbles and kitties. He was certain that Gus would have some brilliant opinion even on the fluff.
"It goes in front of that big window in the front. It's for everybody else."
"What do you mean 'everybody else'? The girls?" The Doctor had stopped trying to keep up with him and instead just watched him weave in and out of the trees.
"The people outside. It makes them feel better about kids without parents. If there's a really pretty twinkly tree in the window, then the kids must be pretty happy. But that's not always how it works, Doctor. Sometimes a kid still cries looking at the lights, even if there is an angel on top."
The Doctor felt his heartbeats trip over each other, and his breath got lost somewhere between his chest and his lips. There were no words that could…or should…spread good cheer over his truth. So, he shoved his hands in his pockets and fell further behind, studying the earth beneath his feet and listening to the child's crackling footsteps.
"So, we put all the fancy pancy decorations on the big tree in front of the window. And when all the people with presents come over, we have parties around the company tree. And we smile and laugh, so they'll keep feeling good about what they are doing for the orphans," he said, his voice fading in and out with the deep breaths he took. "But my tree is the boss. We make all the decorations…well, except for the lights of course. Even Mimi can't make lights."
"Mimi helps make the warm and fuzzy hangy-down trinkets?" Nothing about the visual invading his brain made any sense. River with glitter and crayons? Unlikely.
"Oh sure. Last year, she cut out this really, really, really, really long chain of gingerbread men, and we wrapped it around the tree. It was groovy - can't you keep up with my little kid legs?" Gus stopped suddenly with only his legs visible from behind the tree. And if legs could look annoyed, his certainly did.
The Doctor smiled widely and put a bit of hurry in his steps. "March on, tiny soldier. I'm right on your heels."
"Try not to fall behind, okay? I think we're getting close."
"Close to what? More trees?" It came out almost as a whine.
When the Doctor finally caught up to Gus, the boy took him by the hand. "I'll walk with you, so you'll know how fast to go."
The Doctor couldn't be put out for being amused. He gave the little hand a squeeze and increased his pace to satisfy the boy. After a few more minutes of walking, the landscape changed and the air smelled different. The trees were not as crowded, and the pine odor not so overwhelming.
Gus let go of his hand and hurried off, exclaiming, "Here they are!"
The Doctor didn't find anything about the trees to be amazingly spectacular. He almost expected them to have decorated themselves to have caused such excitement in the child. These were trees he had seen in the yards of hundreds of people over his hundreds of years. "Gus, what is so special about these trees?"
"They're new!" He popped out from under one, wearing a smile full of marvel.
"What do you mean 'new'? People have been hiding from their neighbors with these trees for years." The Doctor chuckled to himself as he saw little feet run from tree to tree, sizing up their potential for greatness.
"Not for here. Mr. Robards said these trees are brand new. He's never had them before."
"Oh, I see." The Doctor was startled when Gus crawled out from under the tree he was examining.
"Well, of course they aren't a new kind of tree, silly. These trees come from England," he clarified.
"Is that so?"
"Yep. See, this one man named Lee-something discovered this weird tree in his yard a long, long time ago. And what made it special was that it a baby tree."
"A baby tree? Real babies grow on this tree?" The Doctor smiled at the little boy who in turn rolled his eyes.
"Of course not. Aren't you supposed to be real smart? Are you tired?"
The Doctor just stared at him, a curious and worried look across his miniature face. "I don't necessarily adore trees, you know. Why don't you explain it to me?"
"Okay. There was one kind of tree next to another kind of tree, and some kinda way those two trees had a baby tree. A whole new kind of tree…one that nobody had ever seen before." He pointed to the tree beside them. "Like that."
"Gus, I like the way you explain things," the Doctor said with a definitive nod.
"Well, I kinda had help with it. That's the way Mimi told me it happened." He walked over to a tree nearby and strolled around it.
"Mimi knows about trees, too?"
"Umm…no. Amos told me all about the tree. But Mimi's really smart too. I didn't really understand it until she told it to me like she did the real baby story." Gus reached inside the tree and shook it gently. "Hey, the needles don't fall off!"
"Now you have no choice but to tell me about the really real baby story," the Doctor persuaded to move quickly past the mention of Amos.
"Doctor, you should know about babies. You're too tall not to know the baby story," Gus reasoned.
"I don't know it how you know it," he answered with a smile.
"Well, Mimi says that a baby comes from a lady and a man who really love each other. And when they make a baby, it's a whole new person that no one has ever seen before. And sometimes even a whole new kind of person…just like this tree." Gus backed up a few feet and scrutinized the cypress carefully. "But I don't really think those trees loved each other. It was probably just an accident…if I tell you a secret, will you promise not to tell Mimi or anybody?"
The Doctor swept a hand over his chest. "Cross my heart…" adding a –s under his breath and kneeling down to the boy's level.
"I think I was an accident," he whispered into the cold air.
The Doctor blinked rapidly a few times and reached up to straighten his missing bowtie, scratching his head instead. "What makes you say that?"
"I don't think Mimi told me the whole story about babies. Cause if a man and a lady really loved each other, wouldn't they both want to see their new baby grow up together? And I only ever had a mommy," he murmured, adding sadly, "and she died before she even got to learn about the new person she made."
In that moment, the Doctor was convinced that he had grown those long arms in order to reach out and hug that very child one day. "Would it be alright if I gave you a hug?"
Gus smiled and nodded. "Sure. I like hugs. Hugs are like smiles you can wrap around other people." He held out his little boy arms and encircled the Doctor's neck, laying his head on his shoulder.
The Doctor had expected hugging the boy to be awkward. He wasn't exactly Mary Poppins, and he'd only known the child a few hours. But as soon as he embraced him, he could feel his hearts swell. Almost as if this tiny person was the cure for the last Time Lord's perpetual loneliness.
"Do you feel better now?"
The Doctor almost laughed at how sincerely Gus had asked the question, recognizing that the Doctor was the one who needed comforting. He nodded and released the boy from his hug, but not before catching him off-guard with a proper tickle.
Gus shrieked with uncontrollable laughter and protested as he wiggled. He eventually maneuvered away from the Doctor and steadied himself just outside of the man's reach, prepared to make a run for it if necessary.
The Doctor held up both hands in surrender. "Truce?"
"Truce…" Gus agreed, still unsure as to whether to trust the wacky man.
Looking up at the tree that Gus had intently examined, the Doctor asked the big question. "So, is this the one?"
"I think so," he replied as he struggled to catch his breath from the tickling tomfoolery. Gus checked the ground before sitting down and crossing his legs.
"So, now what? Are there tree cutting fairies that will find us out here?" The Doctor joked.
"Yes. We call her Mimi. She'll come in the big truck in a few minutes."
The sun was sliding slowly below the horizon, and the Doctor knew that it would be dark soon. "How will she know where to find us?"
"She'll just look 'til she does," Gus answered with certainty.
"We should have brought a saw. Cutting down trees is what makes us men," the Doctor professed, puffing out his chest.
"I'm too little to carry it, and you probably would have tripped and cut off a hand or something," he replied, drawing in the dirt with his finger.
"I'll have you know that I am a grown-up person who can carry a saw without causing a nasty scene," he announced in his defense.
Gus looked up at him in complete disbelief. "Mimi showed me how you dance. Giving you the saw would have been a bad idea."
"Hey, my giraffe is legend!" The Doctor raised his arms over his head and moved them back and forth in his signature dance.
Gus simply shook his head and repeated, "She'll be here in a minute."
The wind having been stolen from his sails, the Doctor slumped forward and watched Gus doodle in the dirt. The conversation between himself and River in the truck came to his mind, and he struggled with whether or not to broach the subject with Gus.
"Hey, really awesome kid?"
"What's awesome mean?"
"Umm…it's like cool."
"Like the weather?"
"No." The Doctor searched his brain bank for the appropriate word and remembered a word Gus had used earlier. "Groovy."
"Oh…awesome. I could probably use that in a sentence…" the boy supposed, still doodling.
"Might I ask you a personal question?" the Doctor began carefully.
"Do I know the person?"
"You asked if you could ask me a person question."
"No, a personal question…" The Doctor truly had to put some work into these conversations.
"I guess so. I don't know what that means, but I'll answer it if I can." He had yet to look up and acknowledge the confusion as being bothersome.
The Doctor smiled and tried to find the question that would be most likely to get answered. "Gus…why is God so special to you?"
"He should be special to everybody."
The Doctor realized that it was entirely possible that he had met his match. "Perhaps…but I'm curious as to why he's special to you."
Gus stopped dragging his finger through the dirt and stared momentarily at the ground before meeting the Doctor's eyes. "Just between us? You won't say anything to Mimi or Amos?"
Ahh, the we explained. The Doctor forced down the rising bile at the sound of the other man's name yet again and promised to keep another of Gus' secrets.
The sound of an imaginary clicking clock in the Doctor's head ticked off the seconds of silence that passed before Gus spoke. "A girl named Mary used to live here before she got adopted, and she had this really nice grandma that would come visit sometimes and bring us cookies and chocolate. She was really old and couldn't walk too good, but she would play games with us when she felt like it. But then she died and Mary was really sad. We were all sad 'cause we all called her Granny too."
The child paused and his eyebrows turned inward in deep thought. "What's that word when someone dies and people get together to say nice things about them?"
The Doctor cleared his throat and forced the word from his mouth. "Wake?"
"Yeah, funeral. Amos took Mary to the funeral, and I went with her to hold her hand 'cause she was my friend and I didn't want her to have to be sad by herself. Well, the preacher…that's the man who was doing all the talking about how nice Granny was…" he paused to explain in case the Doctor was not familiar with the Godly things, "well, he said that we shouldn't be sad or cry, because Granny was in a better place with other people who loved her because she had loved Jesus. I don't think it helped Mary feel better, because she still missed her Granny something awful."
"But it helped you feel better about your mum…when she left…" The Doctor couldn't bring himself to say the word died to this little boy who had no mother – he could barely say any words at all.
The faint sound of a large vehicle bounced off the surrounding trees, and they both craned their necks to search it out as it slowly climbed the hill towards them. Gus stood and waved his arms to get their attention, continuing to talk as he watched the truck get closer. "It makes me feel better about when I die…that if my mama loved Jesus like I do, then I'll get to meet her. If I didn't love God, when they put me in the ground, I'll just have to stay there. And that's the saddest part of all…I'm not really scared because my heart has been real sick since I was a baby, but I don't want to be by myself for always. Nobody likes being alone, right?"
Without waiting for the devastated man to answer, Gus sprinted towards the parked vehicle and excitedly began telling River about his tree and his plans to decorate it. River laughed as he rambled all his thoughts together and borrowed from the next breath to finish his current one. "Hey, hey, hey…slow down a bit. Where's the Doctor? I told you to watch him carefully."
Gus pointed ahead in the road. "Oh, he's right…he was sitting right there when you got here, Mimi. I promise I didn't lose him…oh, he's still there."
River stood in the bed of the truck and saw him reluctantly stand from his kneeling position. "Hey! I got the saw! You feel lucky today?" she yelled playfully and then watched the Doctor turn his back to them and hold up a hand, disappearing into the rows of perfectly groomed Christmas trees.
Because sometimes a person needed to be by himself.