Wishing on a Peppermint Star
A little Christmastide Tale for Three, Jo and UNIT.
Jo turned in front of the dressing room mirror to check her outfit one more time. Yes, everything was in place, from the jaunty tasseled cap neatly pinned to her hair down to her short red and green tunic and glittering green boots, she was the very image of a 'Santa's Helper.' She stepped out into the department store.
One of the mall caretakers in his rumpled beige coveralls shuffled past her, pushing his broom. "Smashing, Miss Grant," he murmured.
She rolled her eyes. "Hush, you don't know me," she whispered back.
"You make me wish I did," the caretaker quipped as he bent to scoop debris into his dustpan.
"Mike. Where are the photos being taken?"
"North end, go out that door there, by the jewelry."
"He said he had it covered. Good luck."
The marketplace was an older structure with lines of shops partially enclosed from the elements beneath a newer metal roof. At this time of year it was ablaze, blinking and glittering with decorations for Christmas, filled with a cheerful babbling confusion of holiday shoppers and shopkeepers. Oversized fruitcakes, strings of hard candies, giant red stockings with wrapped boxes bulging out of the tops; the window displays were predictably and generously decked out for the season. The air was a mix of warmth from the shops and the cold snap of winter, the scent of cut greens, baked goods and cinnamon.
Jo paused to get her bearings than started weaving her way through the crowd toward the north end, trying to remember to smile at passerby in spite of being on the alert. She was, after all, Santa's Helper. She needed to remember she was effectively onstage.
Up ahead she caught a glimpse of her goal: giant oversized candy-canes leaning together over a throne for Father Christmas, roped off by velvet ropes. It was empty. Where was the Santa? The Santa was supposed to be one of their operatives. The Doctor said he would be monitoring and she had yet to see him either. Had something gone wrong already?
A tall man in red, all trimmed in white fur was suddenly beside her. She startled as she looked up; before he said anything she recognized the blue eyes twinkling at her from the midst of the false beard.
"Ho ho, Jo," he smiled. "I suppose I'm 'Santa' to you for the moment. This white hair of mine apparently comes in handy this time of year, or so Sergeant Benton has informed me."
"Except for the beard," she said, unable to resist reaching up to poke at it. "I thought you were just going to watch. Doesn't it bother you?"
"Only when someone pokes it."
"Oops." She fell in beside him. "I should've guessed when they insisted I needed to be an elf."
"You make a good one," he appraised. "For Earth. Now come on, we're expected in less than three minutes. You'll have to trot."
"With you, I'm used to it," she said, gamely trotting in her bright green boots, the jingle bells sounding with each step as she worked to keep up with his long stride. Even so, she was slightly out of breath as they reached the little scene where they were to be the center of attention. 'Get Your Picture With Santa at the North Pole!' a sign proclaimed.
A flimsy picket fence had been strung with lights to cordon off the small concrete platform, which itself had been festooned with a glitter-sprayed white cottony layer that theoretically resembled snow but never quite did. Plywood cutouts of tin soldiers and a fake old-fashioned street lantern with a wreath on it were propped up on either side of the likewise plywood giant candy canes. A large aluminum Christmas tree and a brightly painted small 'Elf Workshop' completed the scene while creating shelter for the photographer and his equipment.
The Doctor stepped up to the throne, an elaborate old chair that had been sprayed with gold paint and padded with velvet, his eyes quickly scanning the decorations around them under the guise of settling his sack. Jo smiled, bending to help open the mixed lollies and a box of candy canes that awaited them and tucking a couple away in the pocket of her costume, dumping the rest into Santa's sack. Thus armed, she felt ready to do her part for any children approaching to dispense Christmas wishes to the old saint.
"About time," the photographer said, and stifled a yawn as he looked her over. "Change of shifts?" He stuffed the last of a doughnut into his mouth and adjusted his tripod.
"We're the afternoon ones," Jo said. "Do you have to do the whole day yourself?"
"Can't afford an assistant, unlike Santa," the man said wryly. He turned to where a handful of parents and children, seeing the Santa was back, were gathering near the velvet rope. "All right, let's get this show on the road." He lowered the rope, nudged his reflective umbrella and turned to the waiting camera. "Pictures! Get your picture with Santa, here at the North Pole!"
A little girl, urged forward by her mother, cautiously approached the red-and-white clad figure on the throne.
"Ho ho," the Doctor said gently leaning forward so he wouldn't seem so tall. "How are you today? Have you been a good girl?"
"Yeph," she said and stuck her fingers in her mouth, then looked up at Jo as if seeking rescue.
"Here," Jo said, taking the girl's other hand and then lifting her up to settle her on the Santa's knee. "See, he's not scary. He's a nice Santa."
"Ho ho," the Doctor said again, fishing out a green lolly from his sack. He put it in her hand and she examined it solemnly. "What would you like for Christmas?"
She considered this carefully, ignoring her mother's exhortation to smile and look at the camera. "A princeph dreph," she said.
"Well, I'm sure you've been a very good girl, and I'll have to see if I have any in your size at the North Pole," he replied amenably. "Now look over there, smile, that's right."
"Off you go, merry Christmas," he said, sending her back to her mother.
"That's one," said Jo brightly.
"The tracking was correct." he murmured. "It's quite close, I heard it."
"You're not fat enough for Santa!" declared a small boy's voice.
"But it certainly wasn't that," he smiled and smoothly turned back to his task. "Hello little boy, ho ho ho… have you been good?"
"I most sincerely believe you. Tell you what, you come here and let your mum have her picture and I'll give you two pieces of candy instead of one. Is it a deal?"
Jo took a breath and scanned around them again, still holding her pasted on smile. If he said he'd heard it nearby, why couldn't she see anything remotely alien? Well, discounting Santa, giant plywood soldiers and the other odd accoutrements of the season.
She watched as a familiar-looking man asking for donations for needy servicemen went past, trying unsuccessfully to get the shoppers to meet his eye or take his small flyer. His jar appeared to be mostly empty. He jingled it at the parents waiting in line, but no one was interested.
"I already gave at the office," a father mumbled in annoyance.
"Off you go."
"I don't want cherry."
"It isn't cherry, it'sbenzaldehyde acetal."
"I want two!"
"Here, and an extra one for your mum, I expect she deserves it. Merry Christmas." The boy ran back to his mother and a fat infant that looked remarkably like Churchill was carried forward next to be propped in Santa's arms.
He quickly handed the frowning infant back.
"Pictures, at the North Pole!" the photographer hawked again.
The Doctor's head went up sharply. "There. Check behind the tin soldier," he said softly to Jo. "It's very close."
Still wearing a bright smile, Jo casually waded into the false snow. She hadn't heard anything, but in the noise of market that wasn't surprising.
"Ho ho," the Doctor began again, his attention only partially on the two small brothers in matching bow-ties being pushed towards him. He glanced back, trying to see Jo. The older of the two boys followed his gaze and then gaped at the fake silver Christmas tree off behind him.
"Th' star!" he said, pointing up at the decorated tree. "Santa, it moved!"
"Did it really?" the Santa Claus turned his head, scrutinizing the decoration in question. "Thank you. Jo! The white star, up there," he said in an urgent undertone.
She looked up from where she'd been gently digging around in the fake snow with the toes of her boots. "Star? Up where? What's it look like?" she asked, craning her neck at the rafters overhead.
"In th' tree," the boy chimed in. "It's a monkey! I want it!" He hopped from one foot to the other in excitement.
"No!" the smaller boy randomly contradicted and sat down, trying to worry his bow tie off. The photographer frowned and looked back at their mother for help in keeping them on the task of posing, but she was bent over a pram, oblivious.
"Now just a minute," the Doctor said, putting out an arm to keep the lad from pushing past him to the tree where now even Jo was aware of the furry white star-shaped decoration that was creeping from branch to branch. "Stay back. It's not a monkey, it's a very special sort of star, and only for elves."
"I want it," he responded accusingly. "You're Santa Claus. You're supposed to give me what I want." He ducked past the wooden throne in determination.
"Only if you've been very, very good," the Doctor corrected firmly as he made a quick grab at the bow-tied bedecked collar and hauled him back. He sat back down and bodily lifted the boy, dropping him into the traditional pose on the knee. "Which you plainly haven't."
"Come here…" Jo was wheedling softly behind him. "Come on you… Doctor, does it bite?"
"No," he said.
"He's not a doctor, he's Santa!" corrected the boy on his knee, "But he's mean. Awp!"
This last exclamation heralded the severe wobble of the tree as Jo stretched on tip-toe to try to pull the now half-dangling star creature from its boughs, only to find it wasn't inclined to let go. The Doctor jumped up, dropping the boy to the ground by his brother as he quickly caught it, trying to push it back up onto its stand as tiny plastic ornaments tinkled and plumped into the stuffing below.
"Whoa, the tree almost fell over!" the boy observed with the penchant of all Earth people of any age for stating the obvious.
The man who'd been soliciting donations was suddenly there, setting it the rest of the way up as Jo finally succeeded in stripping the white star from its moving perch. "You all right, Miss Grant?"
"Got you! I think…"
"I got it," Benton, for it was he, grunted, wrestling the tree. It was a lot heavier than it looked.
"Hold onto it, Jo, it's prehensile!" came the Doctor's urgent undertone.
"Hey!" the photographer was protesting. "Hands off the scenery! Ma'am…get those lads…" he winced as the boys' infant sister was pulled from the pram like a screaming, red-faced green cake decoration in a puff of stiff holiday lace. "Oh no, that'll set 'em off…" Sure enough, every other baby anywhere within hearing shortly began to whimper and then to wail sympathetically along with the first one. The photographer yanked his thinning hair in frustration.
The harried mother patted the infant. "Hurry up, Thomas; just tell Santa what you want!" she uselessly declared. "Billy, don't take off your tie! Oh dear, not on your new frock… now where did that bottle go?" Seeing no real consequences, Billy promptly waved his tie triumphantly and began removing his shirt for good measure.
"Hey!" the older boy, William, demanded. He grabbed onto the hem of the Doctor's red and white tunic with his small hands and tried to stuff him back into the chair. "You're s'posed to listen t' me!"
Jo, who was now trying to contain the creature that kept moving from one of her arms to the other like a spring-toy called out "Get their picture!" Benton huddled beside her, trying to camouflage the strange sight from curious passerby.
The Doctor, annoyed, sat in the chair and reached down to pull both boys up. "Smile," he commanded Thomas while pinning the wriggling, half-dressed Billy on his other knee. "Or I'll only bring you a lump of lead."
"Coal," Thomas corrected with a glare.
"Wanna monkey," Billy uttered randomly, and stuffed his much abused tie in his mouth.
"An' I don't think you're the real Santa anyways, so there!" Thomas declared as his parting shot, jumping down and running back to his mother while towing his brother behind him.
"What is that?" the photographer was asking. "Some kind of animal? No pets allowed, you know."
"An exotic guinea-pig," the Doctor said quickly. "Must have escaped from a pet shop somewhere. Just a minute…" He got up again and ducked between the tin soldier and the 'elf workshop.' Snatching a gaily wrapped blue box from among the white stuffing, he opened it. Moving quickly, he then slipped the white mass of fur out of Jo's hands and dumped the animal in, popping the lid back on. With Jo holding it in place, they rapidly wrapped it around with ribbon, tying it off in a fat, lopsided bow.
"Finally," the Doctor said. His beard had been knocked slightly askew and bobbed comically as he talked. "I'll take it back to the lab and get it calmed down."
"It's so small," Jo said, who'd been charmed to find the star-shaped white furry creature with its large eyes that looked back at her from the center of its body. She felt strangely disappointed to have it taken away. "What was it trying to do?"
"Go home, apparently," he said. "They come from a solar system in the neighborhood of what you would call Polaris."
"The North Star!"
"Yes, and thanks to our enthusiastic photographer friend there, it very likely homed in on the North Pole phrase almost immediately. It thinks we're from the North Pole and can therefore take it home. Thankfully, I can. Who knows how the poor thing got lost way out here, probably someone's pet that ran off during a holiday."
She looked surprised by this. "Holiday on Earth? You mean it's like a dog?"
He adjusted the fastening on the blue box, crooning a comforting noise at it. "Slightly more intelligent, but yes. You could say so, in a way. I'm sure we can find its owners, they're somewhat symbiotic and probably missing it."
"Hey there, what do you think you're doing?" the photographer's voice came from the other side. "Get a move on! Sorry, everyone, it'll be just a minute…"
"Could I come with you? I love a good reunion." She reached up and pulled off the beard.
He grinned at her. "I don't see why not. But I'm not sure what to do about the pictures." He pulled off the Santa hat and ran a hand over his tousled hair. "Hate to disappoint the tots and all that."
Sergeant Benton poked his head around the side of the false tree and seeing them, smiled as he slipped under the tinseled boughs, obviously curious about the end result of the box and its contents.
"I've an idea," whispered Jo.
"I think I've the same," the Doctor said and winked.
Jo turned, smiled and put a candy cane in Benton's donations jar that he still held. "For a needy serviceman," she said. "What were you planning on doing with any money you got?"
"Why, use it for needy servicemen, of course," he said cheerfully. "If there was enough I thought we might do a round at the pub, but it looks like we're on our own."
"Sergeant," the Doctor said.
He rubbed a finger aside his nose. "Look, the hired Santa won't be back for another hour and as you can see, I need to take this creature home." The beard was draped over the donation jar. "You're tall enough to fit this outfit. I hope you get along with children."
"Oh." Benton groaned as he realized what he was up for.
Carefully avoiding the wobbling box, the Doctor shrugged out of the bright red and white ensemble, revealing his own burgundy velvet beneath. He draped it over Benton's arms. "And you'd better hurry. That photographer is likely to get quite snappish if you leave him for long."
"Good luck, Sergeant," Jo smiled, "I'm sure you'll do fine." She picked up her purse and quickly jingled after the Doctor, who was already striding away with the blue box in his arms.
"Hey, but…" Benton protested, then sighed and hooked the beard over his ears in resignation. "Ho ho ho."
Jo and the Doctor made their way back through the department store, ducking through the back room where Yates was waiting to help in anything that might be needed in containing an alien.
"You've got it in there?" the Captain asked. "Not very big, is it? I was just about to report in to the Brigadier. Anyone hurt?"
"No, but you've just got to see it," Jo said happily, taking the box out of the Doctor's hands and pulling the bow.
"Jo…" the Doctor started, then sighed. "Oh, all right. I admit it is a friendly little chap."
"See? It's a…a star-puppy," said Jo, cooing over it as she lifted it from the box into her arms. "It's just adorable. Look at its eyes." Yates smiled more at her enthusiasm than at the creature in her hands while taking up the phone. He punched a few buttons.
The Doctor watched her cuddle the furry star-like animal, its rabbit-soft legs curling over her arms. "Yes, much of the life on Polaria is based on the five-point shape," he said. "The star-shaped pupils are intriguing, aren't they?"
"I've never seen anything like them" she admired.
He smiled at her obvious pleasure in such a small thing and reached out a hand to stroke at its fur as well; the eyes partially closed in pleasure.
Jo tilted her head, stroking its soft fur with her cheek. "How could you hear it? It's not making any sound now. I think it's been quiet the whole time, even when it was being caught!"
He rubbed at the base of his neck. "Yes, it is. And quite a noisy bit of complaining too. It communicates on a higher frequency intertwined with empathetic pulses."
"What's it doing? It's not hurt is it?"
"Well, it's confused and hungry but not frightened anymore. And I think it likes you."
"Does it?" Jo cuddled it, letting the soft prehensile white legs curl around her arms more snugly, gazing into its starry eyes. "I almost wish we could keep it. It feels so, so comfortable to hold. What does it eat?"
"Yes, that's the empathy you're picking up. Hm. If I remember right, they're nectar feeders; that is they feed off a large sweet-sapped plant by attaching to the stems for nectar, rather like one of Earth's starfish might attach itself to a rock. I would expect sugar candies might do the trick for now."
"Like hummingbirds? With that red syrup?"
"Oh! Here," she said, wriggling one hand free long enough to reach into the pocket of her costume. She pulled up a candy cane and offered it to the 'star-puppy' as she had termed it. The eyes grew even more star-like as it wrapped an arm around the small confection. She grinned up at the Doctor in triumph.
"Sir," Yates interrupted. "The Brigadier. He wants to talk to you."
The Doctor reluctantly took the phone from him. "This is the Doctor. We've… no. It's not hostile at all, Brigadier. It's a pet…. No, that would be quite difficult, it hasn't any teeth. Yes. No, I don't think that's necessary. It's taken a fancy to Miss Grant, so there's really no need… . I doubt I'll have any difficulty finding its owners once I get it home…. Yes. No…. Look, we've rather a lot of children waiting…. Here," he said and thrust the phone back at Yates.
"I…uh, yessir, Yates here…."
"There aren't any children here," Jo noted with a smile. "You'll have to bring the Brigadier a candy cane to make up for that one."
"Sergeant Benton is no doubt doing his best. Come now, Jo, we can hardly carry it out into public," he said, picking up the box.
"Oh, I suppose you're right." She reluctantly allowed him to gently try peeling it off of her, its eyes bulging slightly as it hung on. "It doesn't want to let go."
"Have you any more candy?" he asked, seeing it still had one foot thus occupied.
"No… Mike?" she looked back at where the Captain only just managed to get off the phone. "Could you run back to that Santa place and fetch us some more candy canes?"
"At least four. Better make it a dozen," the Doctor put in. "Just to be safe."
He blinked a moment then shrugged. "Right. Back in a nip," he said and strode out.
The photographer scowled at Sergeant Benton as he shuffled around the plywood décor, adjusting his new red velvet attire. "Oi! What is this? Where's the elf?"
"Um, she had to go to her…other job," Benton replied lamely. He tugged the Santa hat down over his head a little further; there hadn't been a wig, as the Doctor had already had white hair. Ignoring the continued grumbling from the man with the camera, he sat down in the cheaply gilded throne and adjusted the beard one more time.
"Ho ho ho," he said, trying to get into the role. "Ho ho."
The photographer looked suspicious. "What about that other Santa?"
"Had an allergic reaction to…peppermint," the Sergeant said, "Ho ho!"
"Hey!" complained one of the waiting parents. "We're waiting with children here. You want your money or don't you?"
"Right," the new Santa agreed, suddenly seeing his mission open up before him. "First up, let's go! Take down that rope," he ordered the waffling photographer. "Don't dawdle, man. We have pictures to take!"
A blonde, six year old girl in an overworked velvet Christmas frock approached and eyed him critically. "You need to straighten your hat," she stated officiously coming up to stand by his knee. "And I know you aren't the real Santa, 'cause he went that way," she said, pointing after the departed Doctor and Jo. As he tried to think of what the right response ought to be, she patted his hand comfortingly. "But that's okay. I'll help you."
"Ho ho," said Benton weakly.
"Now," she said climbing onto his knee and carefully smoothing her skirt. "You're supposed to ask me if I've been good. Say it."
"Uh, have you been good?" Benton fumbled.
"Yes. Very good," she replied primly. "You can tell the real Santa that. You aren't very good at this, you're lucky you have me here. Now you ask me what I want for Christmas."
"What would you like for Christmas, little girl?" Benton responded obediently in what he hoped was a good Santa-like voice.
"Thank you. I would like a white pony, a doll and three packs of bubblegum. You can write it down for him if you want to."
"I'll remember," Benton said, feeling weirdly offended that he apparently wasn't qualified to take childish wishes himself. "Ho ho!"
"Now we smile for that camera man," she added, reaching over to adjust his false beard, checking her own hair and turning with a practiced tip of the head to pose in the appropriate direction.
"Don't worry," she said confidentially as she slipped back down. "I won't tell anyone you're pretend. Now you give me a candy cane. I don't like lollipops."
"Roger, I mean right," he said and handed her a peppermint stick from the bag beside the chair. After all, what did one say to something like that? "Merry Christmas."
An insecure little boy in a plaid romper came next. Unlike the girl with her assurance, this tot screamed in an ear-piercing ululation and adamantly refused to let go of his Mum, clamping onto her with both hands and his feet as well.
"Come on now," Benton coaxed, wincing at the sound. "Come to Santa Claus. Your Mum will stay right here, won't you Ma'am? See? Just…let….go…."
After they'd finally talked and reassured him from her arms onto Santa's knees, Benton was feeling a satisfactory sense of accomplishment as the camera went off on a relatively normal pose. The mother held out her arms to retrieve him but the lad proceeded to repeat the performance, clinging to 'Santa' with such fierce tenacity that he had to be forcibly pried off and dragged away like a screeching limpet complete with red fuzz in his clenched fists where he'd been peeled from the velvet costume.
He usually liked children, Benton reflected and set to reminding himself of this sternly. I like children, he thought. I like them. A sticky, squalling toddler who smelled strongly of cheese was deposited on his knee.
"I like you," he said with the conviction of a loyal man faced with a necessary vaccination. "Ho ho!"
He gave the toddler a lolly only to have it thrown on the floor. Releasing the boy, he sighed and adjusted his beard and hat again, then looked up to find not another child but Captain Yates still in his caretaker's coveralls.
"The Doctor needs candy canes," he said abruptly. "Where are they?"
"In the sack," Benton responded, not bothering to ask why. "What would you like for Christmas, little boy?"
Yates snorted, bending to rummage in the sack. He came up with his hands full of the peppermint sweets. "I'm trying not to think about that."
Benton grinned. "I can guess. Don't think you've been good enough for that, speaking strictly as Santa. Hey now, leave me some of those for bribery; they don't like the lollies."
He watched, envying the Captain's relative freedom as he finished stuffing his pockets with candies and slipped away. A four year old tot with a bad haircut walked up to his chair and stared fixedly, his mouth slightly open and drooling.
"Ho ho ho, how are you? Have you been good?" Benton said dutifully scooping him up onto his knee.
The only response was additional drooling as the child stared. He handed him a lolly and the drool changed to brilliant pink. It was going to be a long, long hour.
"It's like a little lost Christmas star," Jo was saying as she smoothed its fur. "I think it's kind of sweet. I wish we could keep it." She came close, holding it up to the Doctor for petting, her eyes nearly as starry.
"Does give a new meaning to wandering stars," he conceded. "And yes, empathetic creatures are masters at bringing out affection, especially in someone who is already given to that nature."
"Is that a compliment?" she said, dimpling. "I'm going to take it as such."
"If you like," he smiled and reached out a hand to stroke the soft fur of the 'star-puppy' on her arm again.
She smiled up at him. "That's very sweet of you."
"Must be the empathy," he noted, more to himself than to her as he found himself watching his assistant more than the little white star.
"Of course," she smiled and leaned comfortably back against him.
He took breath as if to say something else, then changed his mind. "Thank you," he said politely instead as Yates burst back into the room, candy in hand.
Taking them from the breathless soldier he quickly unwrapped one; brushing it along one of the furry white feet that still clutched Jo's arm had the desired effect and soon the 'star-puppy' was lifted from her hands, five sticks of striped sweet firmly held in its five feet. The room smelled of peppermint.
He lowered it into the box where it seemed content to lay, eating its candy. The lid was replaced and the bow re-tied. "Very well, it seems comfortable enough. Are you ready, Miss Grant?"
"Yes, Santa," she grinned, taking up one of the extra candies and crunching it. "If the reindeer are all hitched to your TARDIS, let's go point them to the North Pole."
She waved at Yates as they headed out the door, box in hand. "Just a minute!" she called and suddenly came jingling back to grab up her purse. Yates froze in astonishment as she then ran up and gave him a peppermint kiss on the cheek, then just as quickly ran after the Doctor again. "Merry Christmas, Mike!" she called. "Just in case we're late getting back and miss it."
"Really, Jo, in case we're late getting back?" the Doctor's voice could be heard over her laughter as the doors swung shut. "I can bring us back within the same minute of our leaving, I'll have you know…"
"Merry Christmas," the Captain belatedly managed to reply, and smiled to think he'd gotten his wish after all.
Star Light, Star Bright, Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night