The only sound that could be heard was of little socked feet shuffling across the hardwood floors. He slowly opened the door to River's bedroom but didn't bother to walk in when he realized she wasn't in bed. Gus walked clumsily down the stairs, holding onto the banister with one hand and rubbing the sleep from his eyes with the other. He searched in room after room of the downstairs, finding it as quiet as the hall above.
Staggering into the kitchen, still not fully awake but unwilling to lie in bed and wait for a wake-up call, Gus dragged a table chair over to the pantry. He stood on the edge and reached as high as he could for the prize on the top shelf, coming up short by several inches. The little boy climbed down and returned to the table. One by one, he untied the cushions from the chairs and toted them to his makeshift ladder in the pantry. Scooting the chair closer to the shelves, he tried again, and a smile spread from ear to ear as his hand found the treasure.
Gus replaced and retied the cushions before pouring himself a glass of milk and returned to the table to eat his stash of oatmeal cookies. Some of the other kids made fun of him a bit, because he preferred oatmeal cookies to chocolate chip, saying that oatmeal cookies were for old people or people allergic to fun, but he didn't care. Anybody could like chocolate chip cookies, Mimi said. But it took a special kind of person to appreciate an oatmeal cookie. And Gus knew he was special. So, he had found just the right kind of cookie for him.
Pulling a chair out and settling in for a secret breakfast treat, Gus swung his legs and ate his cookies by himself. Gus did a lot of things by himself, so he didn't mind it so much when other people weren't around. Sometimes he got lonely and a little bit scared, but not very often. Mimi worried herself silly when he was sick, so he had been creeped on quite a lot over the last several weeks.
Why was that when he wanted to be alone, there was always some girl around to mess up his day? And when he was frightened, nobody was ever around? Sometimes the world just didn't make any sense…and not just because he was only five.
Gus liked to watch people, and it seemed that everyone had trouble with different things. Samantha was really afraid of old people; that didn't make much sense, but sense didn't seem to matter. Becky would stand in a chair all day if she saw a bug crawl across the floor. It seemed to Gus that standing in a chair for hours would get rather boring, but it worked for Becky. Tommy Walker had been afraid of his own dog, but he moped for days when the hateful old thing had been hit by a car. Just a whole bunch of stuff not making any sense but happening just the same. Maybe when he got older he would understand why big kids and grown-ups couldn't just say, "Look at that tiny bug and look at how big I am. I will crush you like the tiny bug you are!" And then just go on their happy way.
Licking his finger and scooping up the last of the crumbs from the table, Gus slid out of his chair and walked over to the sink, washing out his glass and returning it to the drainer. Sunlight streamed in through the kitchen window, intentionally mocking him since he couldn't go outside until Mimi said so and she was nowhere to be found. He stuck his tongue out in defiance and paddled towards the hall, reaching up to turn off the light.
"Why do you keep doing that, you dumb dummy?" he chastised himself as he, once again, tried for the switch on the wrong side of the doorway.
Unable to figure out where she could possibly be, he gave his head his best thinking scratch as he walked back upstairs, singing quietly to keep himself company. "Frosty the Snowman is a robot underneath. And his eyes won't blink and his nose's not real and he's got too many teeth…Frosty the Snowman is a monster you might say…he is made of steel but of course he's real…and he always wants to play…"
He checked Mimi's room again and found it as empty as before. Maybe she'd gone to the store early, so she wouldn't have to drag a lot kids along. Which meant she had probably told the Doctor that she was leaving. That made him the adult in charge. Gus grinned widely when he realized that not only would the Doctor let him go outside and play, he might even tag along. He walked up the second flight of stairs and knocked quietly on the door to the attic. The door creaked at the offense of having to move, and he shushed it, putting a finger to his lips and giggling. Creeping up the steps on all fours, he tried not to make a sound. He wondered how far the Doctor would jump if startled.
At the stop of the stairs, the little boy peeked around the wall and heard no stirring of the clumsy man. No humming and no whistling. He hadn't known the Doctor for long, but he knew that his friend was incapable of being quiet. Gus eased to his feet to check the bed for a sleeping man and suddenly felt the need to scratch his figuring-out place again.
The Doctor was certainly still asleep.
And so was Mimi.
There things went again…making absolutely no sense.
The Doctor swatted a hand at the hair tickling his ear and nuzzled in closer to River. He smiled when she returned the cuddle and a soft sigh escaped from her while she slept. He hadn't woken up to very many bed fellows, but he could definitely see the appeal. There was a comfort unlike any other that came from his arm draped over her soft curves and the movement of her breathing against him. He trailed his hand lightly along the bare skin of her leg and wished that he had wiggled out of his jeans before climbing in next to her the night before. His hearts were so full of the nearness of her that it was almost as if the terrible storm just hours before had never happened.
He turned his eyebrows inward and slapped at his ear again, tucking his hair behind it. Though his procrastination at getting it cut had found a home amongst the current style, he himself did not aspire to hippie-ness. A faint giggle from behind him put him on alert. His eyes opened wide and quickly, and he cautiously turned his head to the side. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a small hand wave. Which remedied a situation that had arisen under the covers.
"Hi," came a whisper.
"Hello," the Doctor whispered back. He flipped over towards the child, careful not to disturb River. If she woke to the knowledge that her youngest resident had found them - more or less- in flagrante, it would somehow be his fault. And he preferred his coffee in his belly rather than dripping from his hair, especially first thing in the morning.
"Mimi's right there."
"Yes…yes, she is."
"Well…" How did he answer that? "I don't think it was an accident."
"Do you have on any clothes under there?"
"What in the…how do you…"
"Sometimes grown-ups don't sleep in their clothes. It's a fact. I can see Mimi's shirt but not yours. Your shoulders are naked."
The Doctor choked on a breath that went awry and pulled the duvet to his chin. "Of course I do!"
"Dontcha think it's too cold not to wear all of your clothes? Even if it is just your pajamas," Gus reasoned. He pointed to his feet, "Look, I have on my socks, too. Because it's cold. Aren't you cold?" Gus reached out a touched his shoulder. "Why are you so warm? Are you sick? Please don't be sick. I want to go outside…"
The Doctor rubbed his forehead and let the babbling sink in and process. "Okay…wait. There's socks and you want to play?"
"I don't know what the hell is happening," the Doctor whined quietly and rubbed his eyes.
"You swore again."
"I know. I'm sorry. Force of habit when words hide in my brain," he admitted.
"It's not nice."
"Will you still be my friend?"
Gus chuckled and spun around on his heel. "Of course, silly man. And do you know what friends do?"
"Let their friends sleep?"
"Well, sure…if they're sick. But you're not sick, are you? So, that means you have to come outside and play with me. It's the rule," he advised.
"Who's rule?" The Doctor bit back a smile.
"My rule. And I'm the man of the house. You're just visiting. Come on…" Gus grabbed the Doctor's hand away from the covers and pulled at him. The boy tried to drag the man from the bed, but his socked feet refused to grip the wood floor. The child seemed to moonwalk in place despite his best efforts. He finally gave up and dropped the Doctor's hand thoughtlessly on the bed. "Now, I'm tired."
"But you appear to have recovered quite well," the Doctor answered.
"I guess I got enough sleep and medicine. Why is Mimi in here? Is she sick too?" Gus snuck around the other side of the bed and whispered, "She doesn't look sick. Aww…she's so cute. Isn't she cute?"
"I can't really see her, kiddo."
"Well, she is. She's always cute, but don't tell her I said so," he asked, returning to the Doctor's side of the bed.
"Of course not."
"But you should tell her that she's cute."
"You think so, huh?"
"Oh yeah. Girls like that kinda stuff. But maybe you should say 'pretty'. Don't you think she's pretty?" Gus picked up one of the Doctor's discarded socks and tried to fit it over his head.
The Doctor smiled and glanced over his shoulder at the mess of curly hair fanning the pillow. "I think she's absolutely beautiful."
Gus grinned and nodded in frantic agreement. "Oh, even better. She might not whack you so much if you said that."
"Do you actually think that would help?"
"Well, I'll tell you another secret. Mimi's not so tough," he confessed, almost inaudibly.
"No? I think she's a remarkably tough."
Gus crawled up in the big chair and folded his legs under him. "Sometimes I can hear her crying in her bedroom at night."
The child's words sliced through him, causing him more harm than any weapon could inflict. "That must make you rather sad, yeah?"
Tracing the outline of the cowboys on his pajamas, he nodded and looked up at the Doctor. "Do you think it's my fault?"
The Doctor eased his legs out from under the covers and swung them over the side of the bed, sitting up and leaning towards Gus. "Why would it be your fault?"
"'Cause I'm so sick," he answered, scrunching his nose up and trying to watch it move. The amusement in his face as his eyes crossed was a contradiction to the sadness in his voice.
"Well, that's not something that you can help, Gus. Besides, grown-ups cry for all sorts of reasons, really. We cry when we're sad and when we're happy. And we cry when we're scared, just like kids do."
"Mimi's not scared of anything," he stated, leaving no room for argument. "Except butterflies. She hates butterflies."
The Doctor chuckled. "Well, maybe that's it. Perhaps there was a frighteningly large butterfly flittering about her room last night."
Gus stood in the chair and started jumping. "Maybe. Or maybe she was just lonely."
He sighed and watched the astute child bounce up and down. "Maybe…"
"Have you ever been married?" Up, down, up, down.
"You know, I suppose I could be right now…" The Doctor looked upward, as if the answer to the question could be seen just outside of his periphery.
"Why are you so smart on some days and not so much on others?"
The Doctor couldn't help but laugh at the question. "How do you mean?"
Up, down, up, down. "Well, I guess most men know if they are married. Mr. Robards certainly does, and he doesn't like it very much. He says he wishes it were Christmas all year long so he'd have a reason to stay in the fields with his trees." Down. "My friend's dad at church fell off a tractor one time and hurt his head real bad when Billy was a baby, and now his dad has a…uh…"
"No…what is it when you hurt your head and you can't think like you're supposed to think?"
"Yeah! Brain injury. Has your brain been injuried?" Up, down, up, down…
The Doctor looked at him defensively and answered him as such. "Absolutely not! This brain is one of the best. It works marvelously. Ask me another question."
"Do you have any kids?"
"Don't you know any easy questions?"
"Do you have a job?"
"I save the world."
"No, like a real job...like selling vacuum cleaners or something?"
"How is protecting the whole universe not a real job?"
"Do you get paid?"
"Well...not exactly..." The Doctor heard a faint noise from behind him that sounded more like laughter than sleepy breathing.
"Can you put on some clothes and come outside and play, please?" He pleaded as his hair flopped around his eyes while he jumped.
The Doctor stood and stretched out his arms and legs. "Tell you what…how about you go downstairs and eat some breakfast. Then we'll go outside for a few minutes before Mimi wakes up."
"I might have had breakfast already."
"That doesn't sound entirely on the up-and-up, as Mrs. O'Malley would say," the Doctor said, looking at Gus inquisitively.
"I'm not saying that I did, exactly. Just that maybe I had some cookies…but don't tell Mimi!" He explained between pants.
"You know, Mimi must think you and I have very little to say to each other for all the things that I can't tell her."
The child smiled brightly and spun his body in circles in-between bounces. "Are you coming?"
"You are making me so nervous. Please don't fall and break yourself." The Doctor reached out but couldn't get a grasp on the boy.
"Oh, I'll be alright. I heal really fast. That's my superpower."
"Is that so?" Finally nabbing the boy, the Doctor tucked him sideways under his arm and carried him across the room like a large sack of wiggling, giggling something. He set him down near the stairs and turned him around. "Now, go put on something warm, and I'll be down in a few minutes. I need to shower and change." He had started to sound like a regular person and less like an awkward social experiment.
"Don't take one of those long girly showers," he commanded as he jumped down the stairs, one at a time, until he landed in the hall and closed the door behind him.
The Doctor sighed and walked back to the bed. He slipped out of his jeans and under the sheets, molding his body alongside River's. "So, how much of that did you hear?"
"Pretty much from 'Hi'."
"So, what else can't you tell me? You know, besides how cute I am." River wiggled her hips against him and reawakened his below-the-belt fun feelings.
"Just stuff. Stuff that is exactly none of your business." He clenched his teeth as her playful movements caused waves of desire to travel from head to toe.
"Did he wrestle you out of your jeans before he left?"
The Doctor chuckled into her neck and left a quick kiss under her ear. "I'm going to shower, remember?"
"And your brain injury made you forget where the bathroom is?" Her voice dripped with sarcasm wrapped in a smile.
His body shook against hers as he laughed. "What is that kid? I mean, besides amazing."
River turned over to look at him with her serious face on. "Doctor, I think…"
"Look, River…about last night. I'm sorry. I meant what I said, but I shouldn't have…well, I'm just sorry…" His voice trailed off to a whisper, and he kissed her sweetly on the forehead.
River nodded and exhaled heavily. "We need to talk sooner rather later, okay?"
"Perhaps it can wait until after Christmas, yeah? Let's just enjoy the next few days. Of course, provided that no anomalous creatures or holiday fairies show up to wreak havoc on Dela-where," he offered with a smile.
She stared into his eyes and saw that her Doctor looked back at her…with the same wonderment and love for which she so desperately yearned. River reached up and brushed the back of her hand along his jawline as he leaned in and brushed a feathered kiss across her lips.
As the kiss deepened, they explored each other tenderly. Hands gingerly caressed and lips urgently tasted. Their desire was everything that it hadn't been the night before. But like the night before, he cut it short and was treated to moans of disappointment.
"There's a tiny person waiting downstairs, Dr. Song. All things in due time…"
River tucked the covers tightly around her when he left her embrace and walked towards the bathroom. "Sweetie?"
He turned and watched her with fragile eyes and a gentle smile, lifting an eyebrow.
The words caught in her throat for a moment, but they fought to be said. "I bet you were a magnificent dad."
With a bright smile and a nod of gratitude, the Doctor closed the door behind him and turned on the shower.
River allowed herself only a few tears before throwing back the covers and leaving the comfort of his bed to face her waiting world.