The nervous tapping of River's feet echoed in the small waiting area, and she flipped the pages of the paperback as if she were watching a clever animated scene play out…on repeat.
The symphony of noises was becoming too much for Amos. He reached over and placed a hand over hers. "It's just a routine procedure, River. If you keep up your tapping and flicking, I will have no choice but to kill you."
River smiled, and he saw her exhale some of the tension she had been holding hostage for the last couple of hours. "I'm sorry. I just hate all of this futile testing." She rolled her neck to distribute the tightness.
Amos slipped a hand under the wall of hair and gently massaged the obstinate muscles in her neck. "Hals, the diagnosis is correct, even if we know it's a symptom of the larger problem. They have to do these tests to see how extensive the damage is and to make sure there's no infection. It's nothing new."
"You did it again."
"Called me Hals."
"Well, yours is not the only brain firing on all cylinders. At least I didn't call you Debbie or Bruhanna," he said playfully in his defense.
"Oh, is there a Bruhanna somewhere?" River looked at him out of the corner of her eye and smiled. "Not that there shouldn't be, but…Bruhanna?"
"She's delightful, Bruhanna. All seven heads of her," he teased before reaching up and softly pulling on a curl, watching it bounce back into place. "There's no one else, River," he confessed quietly.
River sighed faintly and took him by the hand, giving it a squeeze. "I know…"
He stood, freeing himself from her grasp, and walked over to the door of the small room. A woman who looked none too pleased with her job shuffled papers at the nurse's desk. Amos was not a timid man, but something about the woman's face warned him against asking if Gus had yet been taken to a recovery room. After quick glances down both ends of the hall, he abandoned his search for an update. Deciding to stay within view of any and all personnel, he turned his attention back to River and leaned against the doorjamb with arms crossed over his chest. "So, how many are we up to, now? Seven?"
"Eight, I think."
Amos' eyes widen in surprise and concern. "Eight? But that's two more than…"
River quickly cut him off with a voice raised in growing frustration. "I know, Amos! You're not helping."
"But – "
"Amos, we're not talking about it right now."
She had that look on her face. The one that indicated he was tap dancing on rather thin ice. River never ceased to amaze him at how easily she could go from tender to homicidal…and he had seen her at her most hormonal. He shivered to look back on those days when he realized how close he had come to losing his life on more than one occasion. Though he had to admit in hindsight, those days were more humorous than they were dangerous.
"What's so amusing over there? I need to find the funny," she said, noticing the grin on his face.
"Do you remember the time that we walked down to O'Malley's, and Tommy Walker's dog came charging down the road after us?" His grin had turned into a chuckle.
Against her will, River giggled at the memory. "Well, I told Tommy that he needed to keep that hateful beast on a leash."
"I don't think a dog has ever flown that far before. Lucky for him, he landed in the ditch rather than atop the fence." Amos had given over to a fit of laughter and wiped the tears gathering in his eyes.
"He stopped chasing after us, didn't he?" River reminded him between her own giggles.
"Stopped chasing us? To my knowledge, he never even left the yard again. And he whimpered every time he saw you thereafter."
"Well, pregnant women must not be trifled with whilst on a mission for chocolate. I'd say it was a lesson learned," she reasoned matter-of-factly.
"Yeah…by the dog and me both."
"You got your fair share of kicks as well, if I remember correctly." She smiled up at him and winked.
"And my knee still pops when I squat."
"Did you learn your lesson?"
"I don't remember."
"Well, there's always next time." The words were out of her mouth before she could reel them back in, and their laughter was quickly overpowered by the reality of what she'd said. "Or not…"
Amos pushed himself off of the doorjamb with his shoulder, but before he could walk over to comfort River, she rose to greet the doctor as he stepped into the room. River walked over and stood next to Amos while the doctor explained to them the extent of the damage that was found.
"The good news is that there is no infection that we could see. Of course, the tissue samples will be sent to the lab to make sure that there are no other underlying problems working against the myopathy."
River had yet to exhale the breath that caught in her chest when the doctor had said "the good news is…" Because where there was good news, around the corner the bad news was lurking. Amos wrapped a supportive arm around her waist and held her close as they waited patiently for the doctor to finish spinning the good news.
"However, as both you and I suspected, the muscles appear to have thickened since the catherization we performed last year. As you know, this is what is causing the congestive heart failure." The doctor was telling them nothing that they had not anticipated, and though the news wasn't great, it was manageable.
"So, we increase his dosage of diuretic and keep him as inactively active as is possible for a five year-old..." Amos said as he soothingly stroked River's side with his thumb.
"I wouldn't be providing the best care possible if I didn't, once again, urge you to consider transplantation. The team at Stanford University is having positive results..."
"No, the risk is still too great. This technology is still too new for you –"
"- to consider for our child," Amos said, finishing River's sentence quite differently than he was sure she had intended it, giving her a knowing glance out of the corner of his eye. "We certainly appreciate your thoroughness, Dr. Hawkins, but we will simply have to manage his condition as it is."
"I understand. And I'm afraid to say that at this stage of the disease, we don't know how much longer his heart will hold out, considering the increasing thickening of the muscles. After the fluid is cleared from his lungs, he will feel much better, but always keep in mind the danger," he explained to the nodding parents. "I would like to keep him overnight to monitor the CHF, but there's no reason why he can't go home in the morning. If you don't have any other questions, I'll go check to see if he's ready to be moved into pediatrics."
Amos extended a hand to the doctor who shook it and smiled enough to show compassion but not so much to seem indifferent to their worries. "No questions, thank you. We understand and appreciate your time. I'll be staying with him tonight, so I will see you in the morning, I guess."
"Okay then. Just have the nurses call my service if there is problem before then." He turned and left the room quickly, more to run from the cloud of despair than to oversee the transfer of the child from the recovery room.
They both stood in their same positions, looking out into the hall through the void left by the doctor. "Are you sure it's no problem for you to be gone so long?" River asked.
"I don't return to duty for another couple of days. Wouldn't it be easier for you if I stayed behind this go-round? We're not exactly under the same circumstances as times before." He raised an eyebrow, and River saw the slightest of smirks flicker across his face. "It's the same amount of time, River. We're just swapping places. I can't very well run the house with the Doctor around."
"Besides, the little man and I have some catching up to do – "
"Do not bring those video games inside this hospital. All we need is for a nurse to see you two with that technology," she warned hastily. "I know what 'catching up' means. He's going to beat you every time. Accept it and move on," she added with a smile.
A nurse popped her head around the door and gave them the room number to where Gus had been transferred. Amos grabbed their coats and followed River to the elevator. "Not every time. I could probably beat him today. Anesthesia clouds the brain," he joked.
The doors opened and people rushed by them as they exited. River stepped over the elevator threshold and pushed the button for the correct floor. "You wouldn't stand a chance even in his medicated stupor."
"You're right," he conceded reluctantly. "Dammit."
River smiled and playfully bumped his hip with hers as the doors closed.
Night had already fallen around the small town of Delaware City, and River hated to drive over Reedy Point Bridge in the dark. It wasn't old enough to have been proven effective, and this woman who was frightened of very little was terrified of careening over the side into the Canal. Nighttime and snow were the two things that kept her on her side of the Chesapeake and the Delaware. She blew out a heavy breath when land began to appear on both sides of her again.
The "company" tree, as Gus called it, was shining through the front bay window of her home, welcoming in anyone who dared enter. Though they had several visitors around the holidays, for the most part, the community regarded them as any other home overrun with children – amusingly unfortunate. River could remember the looks on the faces of people in the streets when she was at Graystark Hall. Pity and fear, as if being an orphan was contagious. Here, however, the kids lived a relatively normal life, aside from their own individual battles. River was dreading the day it all came crashing down for them.
She put the car in park and dragged her weary feet up the back porch steps. The door creaked its usual creak, alerting anyone downstairs of an intruder. "I'm home," she called when no one came running immediately. After a stop in the bathroom, River began searching the downstairs rooms for occupants. Finding no one, she began to question her decision to let the Doctor take charge of the kids for the few hours after school. Before her good sense could take over, she rifled through her mental files of baddies that could have chased him down and taken the children along with him. Just as a proper panic started to set in, she heard heavy footsteps bound down the stairs, and the Doctor nearly ran her over in his haste.
"Oh, there you are!" He threw his body to the side to keep from colliding into her. "I was starting to get worried that some inter-galactical nasties had stolen you away."
"That was my concern as well. Where is everyone?" River listened closely to the silence upstairs that mirrored the creepy quiet downstairs.
The Doctor smiled proudly and rubbed his hands together, which was a certain indicator that he'd had an idea and that there were absolutely kinks that needed working out. He leaned in and whispered, "They are writing out letters to Santa."
"The girls are?"
"Yes." He giggled and stepped around her in the direction of the kitchen. "I saved you some dinner."
She followed him into the kitchen and stared at him while he washed his hands. "The cynical and humbugging girl children are making out lists for the "fat dumbass" Santa, as Janie so lovingly referred to him…"
"Her list is rather short, I admit. I still don't think she is entirely on board, but she caved with peer pressure. Look, I made lemonade that you don't have to chew." He held out a plate and a glass for her and disappeared through the kitchen door. Seconds later he returned with a less than excited look on his face. "Where's Gus?"
River sat at the table and stared down at the pizza on her plate while she explained her day to the Doctor. Finally taking a bite, the taste of it wrapped around and hugged her tongue. She hadn't realized how hungry she had been.
"But he's going to be okay?"
"His current condition will improve, but he's not getting any better. The myopathy will only increase with age. We just have to deal with it as it progresses," she said as she took a sip of his tart beverage. "Better than last time, but a bit more sugar on your next try, yeah?"
"River, why aren't you getting him treatment in a more technologically advanced century. Surely the doctors in the 52nd have the capabilities to repair or reverse the damage," he reasoned.
"And explain his recovery how? God? That's Gus' spiel."
"Explain to whom? Random nobodies who couldn't care less anyway? Come on, River. You've got to do better than that," the Doctor insisted, realizing that he may be pushing her further than what she was prepared to consider and not caring whatsoever that she may lash out.
"Doctor, his heart wouldn't survive the transport. We've considered all our options." She had acknowledged Amos in the equation before she had the good sense to stop herself. River lifted her tired eyes to his and pleaded, "Look, I know you mean well, but I am too exhausted to talk it about it tonight, yeah? What about these letters?"
The Doctor let it go with the intent to revisit sooner rather than later. "Well, I have a plan…"
"Oh, dear. You and your plans…"
"Pardon you, but this is brilliant. Just you wait and see, Dr. Song," he said smugly.
"Wait? Why must I wait?"
"Because it isn't Christmas just yet," he explained and then walked out of the kitchen, whistling a holiday jingle as he went.