River stepped down the last stair and heard something that she had never heard at mealtime before – silence. She could always count on at least two arguments or four conversations at the table at any given meal. As she neared the kitchen, she heard only a single voice…the one she usually heard only in dreams. She peered around the doorframe and saw the profiles of seven small faces - their rapt attention turned towards the Doctor…who had an aluminum mixing bowl atop his head.
"…and then it was all like, 'You will be assimilated…'"
"What does amisimlated mean?"
"A-sim-i-lay-ted. It means…uh…"
"You don't know, do you? What day is it?" Janie asked, her voice dripping with smugness and venom.
"Of course I know…what amisimla…assimilated means. Stay tuned about the day," he explained from under his makeshift hat, pointing randomly at the children. "It means…like when you have a banana and you eat it…the banana has been assimilated."
"So, it was going to eat you like a banana?"
"Was it going to peel you first or just gobble you up whole?"
"I don't like bananas. What about an apple? Can you assimilate an apple?"
"Apples are rubbish." He answered the only question he could honestly, because he was old enough to know that children could generally sort through the bullshit to get to the truth straight away.
"Did it eat you?"
"Well, of course not, dummy. He's here telling us the story."
"But you have lotsa lives though, don't you Mr. Doctor?" Gus' voice was filled with uncertain certainty. "Did you grow a new face when it asilated you?" The voices hushed at this new information.
The Doctor peeked out from under the bowl and studied the little boy's face. "Who are you?"
"I'm just Gus," he answered simply.
All eyes followed the strange man as he walked over to Gus and knelt down, bringing him eye-to-eye with the little boy wonder. "Well, Just Gus, I think that it may be a bit more complicated than all that…"
River took that opportunity to burst into the kitchen, drawing all attention to herself and away from the Doctor and his new protégé. "Alright then! Are we all finished? You know the drill."
A chorus of moans erupted from around the table as the children rose to tidy up. The Doctor removed the bowl and smiled apologetically to the headmistress of frowning. He clapped his hands loudly and spun swiftly on one heel, pointing at the nearest child. "Tell you what! You lot give me all of your dishes, and I will do your clean up today…"
There were shouts of freedom and before he could finish his sentence, they had piled his arms with dishes and cleared from the room. With the exception of Gus, who carried his plate over to the sink and washed and dried it himself. River leaned against the counter and watched as the little boy walked over to the Doctor and wrapped his arms around his leg, hugging him tightly.
Before the Doctor could respond awkwardly, Gus stepped back and craned his neck to look up at him. "Thank you for the story, Mr. Doctor. But Mimi tells it better. You should ask her how it really happened." He smiled brightly and meandered out of the kitchen.
The Doctor turned his gaze to River, eyebrows raised. "How it really happened? You weren't even there!"
She pushed herself off the counter and walked over to the sink. "And if you tell him, you will have another face. Count on it."
"Well, that's exactly how it happened. There isn't another way to tell it," he mumbled as he joined her and dumped the dishes into the pooling water. "Don't you have one of those automatic washers of dishes?"
"Yes, I do. And you excused them all from their kitchen chores. So, that makes you the washer of dishes today," she explained haughtily. "Here, let me help you…" She unbuttoned and rolled his shirtsleeves up to his elbow and grinned as she propped herself on the far counter.
"I thought you were helping?"
"Bossy girls are not…"
"What's that? Bossy girls are hot?"
"Precisely, dear. You just rest...there. Do the nothing thing while I do the helping thing." He put on his most sincere scowl and began swirling the dishrag over the plates.
River stood there watching him try his hand at a simple domestication and found herself both amused and saddened. It wasn't in her nature to want to settle into a family routine, and her current situation was still mission-driven. However, she couldn't deny the warm fuzzies that swelled in her belly as he did a horrid job of the minor task before him. She bit down a smile as a plate slipped through his hands and splashed water and suds into his face. A murmured string of child-like swears escaped his lips, and he picked up the dish to start again. Unable to restrain her grin, she raised a glass of soda to her lips and giggled quietly to herself.
"So, Dr. Song…" His eyebrows turned inward as he scrubbed a hatefully dirty plate. "Never pegged you as the nurturing mother type. You're more…shoot now, nevermind the questions…."
"And you are washing dishes. What is this world coming to?" She replied with arms crossed as she continued to examine the man covered in soap and suds.
The Doctor dropped both hands heavily into the water, creating an even more laughable situation for himself. "Are you really not going to help me?"
She exaggerated a sigh and placed her glass on the counter. Pushing her sleeves up, she joined him at the sink. "Move over, you useless man. Maybe if the dishes were in danger of extinction, you'd be more willing to tackle the job and prove your superiority. Scoot…you rinse."
He gladly gave up his spot and ignored the sarcasm in order to get out of the chore. "Really, River…what are you doing here?" Rule number one…
"Where are you?"
"I have absolutely no idea," he muttered.
"In relation to our timestream. Where are you?" She repeated, unable to keep the irritation from her tone.
"Well, I know who you are," he quietly answered. "Where are you?"
"The Byzantium was five years ago for me."
"Demon's Run was three months ago for us."
"How are Amy and Rory?" she asked immediately, thankful to be able to drop the pretense.
The Doctor didn't answer straight away. The lump rose in his throat again. The hustle and bustle of a house full of children had managed to take his mind off the daunting task that awaited him in Leadworth. "I, uh, haven't seen them since the day. Since I left them to look for you…baby you…Melody."
"Oh, I see."
"Do you really, River?" He searched out her face for an answer to why the TARDIS had brought him to her.
"Have you found baby me?" She tried to keep her voice light and unconcerned.
"No. I haven't. And I won't, will I?"
"River, where are we?" Perhaps he could put the pieces together without her having to say the words.
"The scanner denying you access again?" She knew that the more information she gave up, the closer he would be to making the connections. And she would have no choice but to explain herself to the man who preached but didn't always live a non-interfering life.
"I didn't check the bloody scanner. River…" He reached out for her hand and intertwined their fingers, stroking the heel of her hand with his thumb. "…where and when are we?"
She blinked back threatening tears and dropped her chin to her chest. "About 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia. December…1969."
He let the information run through his brain but was unable to reconcile what he knew with what he had been told. "I need more, River."
The bubbles in the dishwater exploded one by one as she poked them with a finger. She hadn't expected to have to justify herself so quickly…or at all, actually. His appearance had not been factored into the risks she had weighed before making her decision. She was the seeker…he waited to be found.
"River, I know Melody is upstairs. The other kids were talking about her," he said softly. When she didn't answer again, he insisted, "You've got to make me understand what the hell you think you're doing."
Being told that she had to do something was the exact opposite way of encouraging River to do anything. She snatched her hand from his and forcefully pulled the stopper from the sink, watching the water swirl down the drain. She looked up at him with a fire in her eyes, a look to which he often found himself subjected.
"I don't owe you any explanation, Doctor. And I don't need the lecture. I promise you…every miserable event occurs exactly like it is supposed to. Your timey wimey self-righteous bullshit is not necessary," she spat in defiance. River held his eye contact momentarily before walking away from the confrontation.
"One more thing…"
The curious maliciousness in his voice startled her, and she stopped just outside the kitchen door, back to him as she heard his footsteps approach, and waited for him to continue.
"He said that you had been taking care of him since his mum died…sometime soon after he was born, I assume."
"Where is his dad?"
River walked away and left him standing in the kitchen, a plate and towel in hand.