The Doctor sat in the oversized chair in his bed chamber, more slumping than sitting actually. His shirt had come untucked from one side, and his bowtie hung loosely under his collar. He had stepped out of his shoes after walking through the door, and his gaze was fixed upon the sole of one of them, rolling his bottom lip in waves between two fingers. His thinking was deep and tunneled.
He couldn't find her.
He stood and shrugged out of his braces, careful not to trip over the shoes as he walked to the armoire. The Doctor unsnapped the braces and hung them over the hook, along with the bowtie. He discarded his clothing into a growing pile and opened a cedar drawer, pushing a sigh through his lips when he realized he had no clean pajamas. So, he did what the Doctor usually did – he compromised. He reached deep into the bottom of the large chest and removed a blanket. The TARDIS had been cooler than usual, and he knew that he would need the extra weight of the blanket if he slept in only his Y-fronts.
The Doctor wearily crossed the room and flipped on the light switch in the adjoining bathroom. He watched the water puddle and swirl down the drain as he waited for it to warm. Letting it collect in his hands, he splashed his face a couple of times before rubbing it dry with a nearby scarlet hand towel. He stared at the monotonous motions of the toothbrush along his teeth and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand after spitting. Having finished his nightly routine, he left the darkened bathroom and walked over to his dresser.
It wasn't very often that he drank, but his mind needed clearing and perhaps a brandy could put him at ease. The crystal decanter clanked loudly against the glass in the quiet room. He replaced the stopper and took his drink over to the bed, sitting on the edge. The Doctor studied the dark liquid in his hand. He swirled it around and watched the legs of the liquor slide down the inside of the glass. Tipping the glass back up to his mouth, he let the heavy sweet alcohol pool around his tongue before swallowing hard.
The Doctor looked up and saw himself in the mirror over the dresser. His hair was unkempt and a slight shadow was growing along his jawline. Tired and weary eyes stared back at his nearly nude form as he sat despondently on the bed. He looked old. He was old…but now he looked the part. There were lines on his face that hadn't been there before. His hair had grown long enough to fall across his eyes. Failure and loneliness had caused him to frown perpetually over the last several months, and the wear of the burden was evident throughout his body, from the slump of his shoulders to the creases in his forehead. He exhaled a heavy breath and drank down the last of the brandy.
He once again walked into the dark bathroom and turned on the faucet, rinsing out the glass. The tile floor was cold, even under his socked feet, and a shiver ran up his spine. Shaking it off, he walked towards the dresser once again to return the glass next to the decanter.
Tomorrow was the day. He had exhausted his resources and his intuition. He had followed every lead and come up short of the answer every time. The Doctor had let them down, and tomorrow he would have to tell them.
In only hours he had no choice but to admit to his best friends that he had let their daughter slip through the cracks of time, unable to find her. He would have to walk through their door empty handed. And he didn't know if he would have the courage to raise his eyes to hers, knowing how greatly he had failed them. Someone else who had wrapped her arms around his hearts and loved him and then would let go, disappointed and broken. And though they all knew she had survived and had found her way back to them, he couldn't tell them how…or, more importantly, when.
And it was all because of him. While he was strutting and throwing his power around, they had stolen Melody right out from under him. Perhaps if he had been looking at the details instead of waving his arms in boastful triumph and exchanging quips with his enemy, he may have seen it coming. If only…
Within a few feet from the dresser, the anger and frustration exploded within him. He inhaled deeply and made a quick step to the side, flinging out his arm and throwing the glass at the mirror with as much force as he could muster, a loud swear driving it forward. The mirror and the glass both shattered on impact and gleaming shards fell all around the furniture and across the dark wood floor.
The tension holding his shoulders and neck hostage gripped him tighter, and there was a pounding at his temples with every beat of his hearts. He turned away from the broken mess and back to the bed, crawling between the linens and pulling them under his chin.
Yes, the TARDIS was much colder than it was normally, almost as if his despair had seeped into the air and chilled it.
Tomorrow was the day he lost his companions and his friends. Tomorrow was just another day in a long line of days in which he turned and walked away from heartbreak that he hadn't prevented. Another day of running. Away.
His breathing had slowed down and his consciousness began to fade into sleep. But not before a tear spilled from his eye and slid across the bridge of his nose before falling onto the pillow. By the time the TARDIS landed, he was nestled in the only comfort he had – sleep.
"But why must I sleep in here, Mimi?" The child whined, arms in the air as she pulled his pajama top over his head. "It's scary, and I'll be lonely."
"Gus, step into these, please," she asked politely, though she was reaching the end of her patience. The day had been unnecessarily long, and the end was waving to her from just ahead. "The upstairs room smells too heavily of paint, remember? You will wake up with a dreadful headache and feel icky all day tomorrow. You don't really want that, do you?" She gave his behind a gentle pat, motioning him to climb into the small bed.
"I suppose not," the little boy said with a pout. "Can we get the tree tomorrow? You promised!"
"If you get into bed and go to sleep, I will do my best to get the tree tomorrow," she said, trying to cut a deal with the five year-old.
"Just one night, right?"
"Just one night," she answered with a warm smile as she tucked the covers around his little frame. Sweeping the dark hair from his forehead, she kissed him goodnight and turned to leave the room.
"Mimi, can you tell me a story, please?" His voice quivered with fright, and she couldn't help but feel guilty for leaving him alone in the unfamiliar room. "Just until I fall asleep…and I'm real tired, so it don't even have to be very long…please…"
"Yes, ma'am. I promise, just one story…about the magic doctor."
She walked back towards the bed, and Gus inched over to make room. Sitting down and leaning against the headboard, she ran her fingers through his hair as she began her story. "Once upon a time or sometime far in the future, there is a mysterious man in a magical flying box…"
"That's my favorite part, Mimi," he said with a yawn and stretched his little arm over her lap, letting the sound of her voice and the tale she spun pull him into waiting dreams.
After she had checked that all the doors were locked and had cleared the floors from the scattered toys and games, River dragged herself up the stairs to her bedroom. Just as she reached the top, her foot slid out from under her as it came down on a wooden train, sending it flying to the floor below. She stood very still and waited for the sound of little footprints running down the hall.
Nothing. She had been spared…for once.
She flipped on the lamp on the table outside her bedroom, and a soft glow filled the corridor, just in case those little feet decided to pay a visit in the middle of the night. River let out an exhausted sigh as the door latched shut behind her. Pulling off her sweater and jeans, she shivered as the cool winter air hit her bare skin. She rubbed her arms to generate some heat and stumbled into the bathroom.
She tugged on the faucet and waited for the water to warm up, gathering her hair into a high ponytail. After dampening her face and rubbing it clean with cleanser, River rinsed her skin and dried it gently with a crimson hand towel. Her heavy eyelids and pounding headache begged that she skip brushing her teeth, and she gave in easily, flipping off the light and walking across her bedroom slowly. She dropped her bra into a nearby chair and pulled a nightshirt over her head, pleading with her body to work long enough to get her to the bed.
Having been obliged, River sat down and sunk into the mattress, swinging her legs up and under the covers. Releasing her hair from the band, she buried her head into the pillow and inhaled deeply. She had made it through another day. Perhaps, the longest day since she had left.
A random thunderstorm had rolled in just after she had finished painting two of the third floor bedrooms, and she hadn't been able to keep the windows open to thin the paint fumes, so the children had to be shuffled to makeshift bedrooms. A pipe had burst in the bathroom downstairs, soaking the carpet and ruining a load of clean laundry that had fallen onto the floor when she had been taken by surprise at the water seeping from under the door. Janie had tripped over a tree root while playing in the yard and had burst into the kitchen with a rapidly blackening eye and a cut on her chin. These were the before-lunchtime events, and the day just got progressively worse.
And all of this River handled alone. She was always listening for footsteps and arguments. Around every corner was a "Mimi!" or a "he/she started it!" Errands to run, homework to check, meals to cook, bathtime…playtime…chores…a neverending cycle of domestication. All the while, a sonic blaster and a hand-held time manipulator locked safely away in a firebox in the back of her closet.
She was married to the greatest man she had ever known, and she was living her life alone. Sometimes, unbearably alone. Of course, this had been her choice. This is where she had disappeared to and where she waited for what she knew was coming. She had an obligation to herself, and she intended to see it through…even if it weighed heavier on her heart every day that began without him. But she couldn't tell him. This life was her responsibility, not his.
And like most every night before it, River eventually drifted off to sleep on a pillow made damp by tears, not hearing the familiar sound of screeching brakes outside in the dark of night.
The floor was cold underneath her small feet, but she crept quietly towards the window despite her tingling toes. She had been lying in her bed, unable to sleep, when she heard the strange noise outside.
Her warm breath fogged the window, and she peaked over the frosted glass.
There, behind the fence that separated the front yard from the road, sat a large bright blue box.
She hurried back over to her bed and pulled the covers over her head as fear bubbled in her belly. She knew the story, and there was never a happy ending…
The Doctor sat on the steps leading up to the TARDIS console, elbows propped on his knees with hands clasped in front of him. He had been staring at the door for what seemed like hours. But time for him was relative. An hour, a decade…who was counting, really?
Amy. Amy was counting. She knew exactly how much time had passed.
He finished tying his shoes and made his way to the door. The Doctor was not a praying man, so he surprised himself by taking a quiet moment of reflection before opening the door. What he was reflecting on or to whom wasn't entirely clear…and it didn't provide him any comfort whatsoever. He was obviously on his own – as it should be, he supposed. He inhaled slowly and deeply, pulling open the door and stepping out.
The morning light was offensive to eyes that had become too accustomed to the mood lighting of the TARDIS. The Doctor squinted and waited for the sparkling behind his lids to pass, blinking several times and shaking his head. "Blimey…"
As he scanned the horizon, he realized that this was not the Leadworth landscape he remembered. The trees were different, and the air smelled less…well, just less. There wasn't much smell to it at all, at least not an English smell. Which led him to wonder exactly what constituted an English smell. And if where he was didn't smell English, where did it smell like? What kind of place smelled like nothing and...
"Are you lost, Mister?"
…and it also didn't sound English…at least not British English.
He looked down without moving his head to follow the noise. Sitting in the middle of a dirt road and directly in front of the TARDIS was a little boy with dark brown hair and wide curious eyes. His jeans had patches over the knees, and he wore a tiny little blazer over a plaid-striped shirt, a scarf wrapped around his neck to protect him from the cold wind. He sat with his legs folded akimbo and his shoulders slouched, looking as if he'd been sitting there for ages, waiting for someone to emerge.
"Well, hello," the Doctor replied, managing to smile and frown at the same time. Smiling in reflection of the small boy's enthusiasm, and frowning because he was once again precisely somewhere of which he had no idea.
"You were in that box," he said as he fiddled with the lace of his shoe, staring up at the Doctor with scrunched eyes and crinkled nose.
"Yes…yes, I was." The Doctor turned and knocked once on the side of the TARDIS.
"Is someone else in there?"
"No, I don't think so," the Doctor said, adding with an amused whisper, "though I can never really be quite sure."
"Well then, why did you knock?"
"I don't know, exactly. Perhaps a nervous habit of some sort."
"Why are you nervous?"
"I don't really know that either."
"What's 'nervous' mean?"
The Doctor shoved his hands in his jacket pocket and rocked back and forth from heel to toe. "Nervous is how you feel when…" He thought of how to put it terms of how a child could understand. "It's like how you feel when you've done something naughty at school and you don't want your mum to find out."
"Did you do something bad?" The boy had started drawing in the dirt with a small stick, occasionally looking up at him for his answers.
"Not exactly…at least, not yet...I think...though I didn't do anything spectacular, either," he explained.
"It means great...no, better than great…super, even."
"Say it again."
"Spec-tack-you-lure." He sounded it out as he thought the boy would best understand it. "What's your name?"
"Gus. I'm five. What were you doing in that box?"
"Nothing, really. Just having a sit down, I suppose."
"It's bigger on the inside, I reckon. I've never seen a big blue box like that before," the little boy said, curiously looking around the Doctor at the TARDIS.
"I wouldn't suspect that you had, Gus. Big name for such a little boy," the Doctor answered, unable to keep his smile from traveling from ear to ear. He quite liked the inquisitive child.
"Are you the doctor?" he asked as if it were a question like any other.
The Doctor's eyes widened and his eyebrows turned inward a bit. "Doctor who?"
"I don't know. I'm just a little kid," he reasoned. "But Mimi doesn't seem to know his name either. She just says 'The Doctor', but it still sounds really important. You probably aren't him since you don't know his name either. I'm not sure you even know your own name."
"Is Mimi your mum?" He had no idea where he was, when he was or who this child was, but the tiny person had possession of some rather big knowledge.
"No. My mama died when I was real tiny baby. Mimi takes care of me now. She tells the best stories, and her hair always smells nice. Her cornbread isn't very good, though. But don't tell her I said that, ok?"
"You have my word." The Doctor held out his hand to the little boy for a deal-sealing handshake, and the little hand slid confidently into his. "So, where is Mimi? Do you live nearby" The Doctor stupidly realized that the boy seemed to be nowhere at all, much like he frequently found himself.
"Of course I do, silly. I'm just a little boy. I'm not allowed to go anywhere by myself. I live right there." Gus pointed in a direction behind the TARDIS.
The Doctor side-stepped his box and looked behind him. Back off the road and on a slight hill was a large powder blue house with a gleaming white wrap-around porch and intricate lattice work. Rugs were hung over the porch railing, and several rocking chairs were randomly scattered. The front yard displayed several signs that children lived inside, and the back yard disappeared over the hill. There was a girl watching them from a swing hanging from the porch ceiling.
"Is that your sister?" The Doctor asked.
"Sometimes. That's Janie," Gus replied, matter-of-factly.
"Sometimes? What does that mean, exactly?"
"I don't know. That's just what she says."
"Who says? Janie?" The Doctor's confusion swam around in his head, looking for sense to be made. He found himself disappointed – amused – but disappointed. The sense had gone missing.
"No, Mimi says it."
The Doctor sighed and shook the information around in his head. "Let's say we go find your Mimi, shall we?" He began walking slowly towards the house.
Gus stood and brushed the dirt from his seat, running to catch up to the long legs of his new friend. He reached up and took the Doctor by the hand. The gesture sat warmly in his hearts, and he smiled down at the little boy who returned the kindness.
The Doctor opened the gate, and Gus ran through it towards the house, then turned and ran back in his direction. He stopped in front of the Doctor and motioned for him to lean nearer.
"I still think you're the doctor, but I won't tell anybody. You might wanna move your box, though," he advised in a hushed voice.
The Doctor chuckled and whispered into the boy's ear. "What box?"
Gus peered around the Doctor's legs and saw that the bright blue box was nowhere to be found. His eyes grew large, and his mouth fell open. He looked up at the Doctor, finally at a loss for words. The Doctor winked and stepped around him, leaving the young boy in wide-eyed wonder.
The little girl studied him as he hopped up the steps. She had bright blonde hair that fell in waves over her shoulders, and she looked at him through skeptical eyes. He had never been able to tell the age of children, but she was older than Gus by a few years, he guessed. She was holding a book open in her lap and appeared to be annoyed at the disturbance he was causing.
"Hello. You must be Janie," he said in his most child-friendly voice.
"No. Your box is gone."
"You saw that, huh?" He scratched his head and flipped through the rationalizations in his memory bank, looking for one that was kid-appropriate.
"Yeah. Smart move. Mr. Peterson would have run it over with his truck. He's really too old to drive." She went back to reading her book, as if she could no longer be bothered with him. "He's a menace, really."
"Right…well, it was a pleasure meeting you," he replied, trying to conceal the hesitation from his voice. Obviously, Gus was in sole possession of the family charm.
He turned his attention to the front door and raised a fist to knock. However, the door opened in anticipation, and a familiar face was revealed, though the welcoming and seductive tone of her voice in no way matched the fury in her eyes.