The Doctor tapped lightly on the bedroom door. When his knocks went unanswered, he slowly opened the door and peeked into the room. The child was not on the bed or in the rocking chair near the window. There was no tiny head poking out from a hiding place on the other side of the bed where he liked to sit on the floor and play.
There was no Gus.
The Doctor, as a hero of men and creature alike, did not panic...initially…while on the other side of the door. Now that he had proof that the boy was missing, the innumerable possible scenarios raced through his mind. As a fully-ripened terror set in, the Doctor leapt over the small bed to search out the yard for intruders. Finding none, he turned to run out of the bedroom door and urge River to grab her weaponry. His eyes wildly swept the length of the other side of room for clues and saw something that caused both of his hearts to plummet into his stomach.
A dim light shone from underneath the closet door.
His first instinct was to yank open the door and yell at the boy for hiding. However, having been yelled at by both hysterical women and men while he himself was trying to locate calm and quiet, the Doctor paused with his hand on the doorknob. Now that he was closer to Gus and his hearts had stopped pounding in his ears, he could hear his son's small voice humming from behind the door.
The Doctor knocked a bit louder, and the knob turned under his grip. The door creaked as it slowly opened to reveal the littlest Time Lord sitting on the floor with his back against the wall underneath the hanging clothes. Gus' legs were folded akimbo, and a book lay opened in his lap. Wires hung down his chest and led to the small digital music player he held in his hand. Staring up at the Doctor with wide eyes, he looked much like he did the first time the Doctor had seen him only a few weeks before…before the wandering mad man knew what those eyes would come to reflect. The Doctor knelt down and sat opposite Gus with his own legs crossed underneath each other, throwing up a shy wave.
Gus pulled the diminutive speakers from his ears and waved back. "Hi."
The Doctor smiled and glanced at the book in the boy's lap, recognizing it easily. "Hello there, tiny vicar."
"Who's Victor?" His voice was quiet and small.
Chuckling, the Doctor motioned towards the book. "No, silly kid. Vicar…a preacher."
"There's a preacher in the Bible named Victor?" Gus held his place and thumbed through the pages of his children's Bible. "Where? I've never heard of any Victor. You sure you don't mean Peter?"
The Doctor rubbed his forehead with significant pressure and sighed. "A vicar is just another name for a preacher…like reverend or pastor."
"Oh…yeah, Victor doesn't sound very Bible-y. Not like John or Paul," Gus explained.
Gus' eyebrows turned inward and his countenance became even more somber. "I don't want to talk about Jesus just now if that's okay."
The Doctor swerved his hips and rear around and scooted back against the doorframe, draping his arms casually over his bent knees. "Yes, I heard there was some misunderstanding about the tiny Jesus and his less-than glamorous birth."
"I don't think it is my mis…understanding. I understand it just fine. And it stinks. The whole thing just smells like a heap of lies," Gus said with a bit of fire in his tone.
"Well, the grownups always tell the Christmas story like it's the greatest story ever told. Their eyes get all big and their voices all quiet. And then they make riding on a donkey for millions of miles sound like fun and having your baby in a barn sound like an adventure. Then they use big words like swaddling and frankenspents and murm, and us little kids forget to ask what those words mean because of the star and the wisemen and the hay…"
"Frankincense and myrrh," the Doctor corrected gently with a smile hidden in his voice.
"Yeah, those words. And you know that song about the hay?" Gus' own voice got higher and higher as his brain further worked out the kinks of the story.
"Perhaps you need to refresh my memory…"
"You know the one," he replied before softly singing the simple Christmas carol. "…the stars in the sky looked down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay…"
"Oh, yes…that one," the Doctor said with a nod.
"Well, even the Christmas songs make it sound sweet and cute. Even my little Bible here does the same thing!" Gus was nearly screeching as he waved the book in the air. "But the grownup Bible tells the story like it was a horrible thing that happened to Mary and Joseph and Jesus. Doesn't sound sweet or nice or like an adventure at all."
"No, I suppose it doesn't."
"So, do I feel good that the baby Jesus had friendly animals smiling at him with all those bright stars shining down on him or do I feel bad because nobody would let Mary have a room and her baby had to be born in a barn like an animal?" Gus looked at the Doctor for a definitive answer that he just knew his friend could supply.
The Doctor scratched his head as if to stimulate his answering place. "Well…"
"See, it just doesn't make any kind of sense," the boy said with a sigh, realizing that not even the hero of his mad stories had the answers to the mysteries of faith.
The space between them was quiet with reflection for some time. The Doctor stared at his folded hands hanging over his knees, searching his brain for the proper words of comfort. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gus sitting with his chin stilted in a hand steadied on his leg, the fingers of his other hand drawing in the carpet. He looked as sad as little boy could look on Christmas Eve.
The Doctor spun around to face the child once again. "You know, Gus, my TARDIS will take me to anywhere and anywhen that ever existed."
"If she wants to…" Gus reminded him softly, still staring at the swirls he made in the carpet.
"Well, yes…but the point is that nowhere is too far away and everywhere is right around the corner," he continued.
"That's what Mimi says, too."
"But just because I can go anywhere, it doesn't necessarily mean I should go anywhere. And quite often when people learn that I can travel throughout space and time, they ask me the same questions. Hundreds of years traveling…thousands of new faces and voices…and always the same questions. And do you know what you humans ask the most?"
"Why a bowtie?" Gus smiled for the first time since arriving home.
The Doctor chuckled and gently thumped the child on the nose. "Well, after that…"
Gus shook his head and stopped fidgeting, folding his hands together and dropping them in his lap.
"All the things to know, past, present and future…millions upon millions of years before and ahead and the question is always the same. Is there a God…"
The Doctor and Gus looked at each other intently, neither acknowledging nor ignoring the question hanging in the air. After a few seconds of comfortable silence, Gus spoke first.
"Do you tell them?"
"You assume I know," the Doctor answered.
"You're the Doctor," Gus said definitively.
Hearing his own words repeated back to him in the manner in which he so frequently used them, the Doctor understood more than ever the magnitude of truth and responsibility that those three little words held.
"Like I said, just because I can go everywhere doesn't mean I have or should," he repeated. "Would you look for God if you could?"
Gus began to fidget in the carpet once more, and the Doctor could see the wheels of contemplation turning behind his eyes. The boy had not yet lost his willingness to lay open his emotions for examination, and his face reflected a palette of sentiments as he gathered his thoughts.
"Well…I think…that…believing in God is all about having faith that He exists, not proof. God could show up real easy if He wanted to, right? Jesus, too. But they don't. Cause if you could bump into Jesus at the Piggly Wiggly, then He'd be no more special than Mr. Walker or even Elvis," Gus explained, picking at the fibers in the carpet. "And then there would be no such thing as believing in God…cause you just stood behind him in line at the grocery store. And who wants to see God pushing a shopping cart filled with macaroni and cheese and bananas? Not me. The greatest thing about believing in God is knowing without seeing…having faith that He exists. Some things you just have to believe exist without ever seeing them, Doctor. It makes the heart beat sweeter. I bet plenty of people believe in you without ever meeting you."
The Doctor's hearts pounded as the child explained the mysteries of life better than he ever had or could. Unable to respond immediately, he watched Gus as he continued to pick a bare spot into the carpet.
"Besides, I don't have to travel in time to look for God. God is everywhere, isn't He? Yep…even in your TARDIS, I bet. Somebody has to tell her where to go if she doesn't fly to where you want her to, because you always end up where you need to be, right? That's what Mimi says," Gus pointed out. "So, I guess it's not really important how the baby Jesus got here – just that I believe He is here. And if it makes the grownups feel better to tell it their way, I guess it doesn't really hurt anybody if it sounds sweeter than it really was."
Gus looked up at the Doctor for the first time since he began his simple answer to the man's complicated question and smiled with his entire face. The Doctor knew that no other words on the matter were necessary since Gus had worked out his belief crisis with very little guidance from his knowledgeable friend…who suddenly felt rather inferior to this little person with an enormously powerful soul.
"Can I have a hug?" The Doctor asked quietly.
Gus smiled and crawled towards the man. "You don't have to always ask permission, Doctor. You're my friend. Hugs are a part of what's supposed to happen with friends," he said as he wrapped his arms around the Doctor's neck.
The Doctor squeezed his son's little body just tight enough to hold back his girly tears but not so much that he broke him in half. "Sometimes I can't tell who is teaching who. I find it a bit unnerving."
Gus patted him on the head in comfort and leaned back to look at the Doctor. "You should probably get a friend to travel with you, so you have somebody to hug as much as you need to," the boy advised as he fiddled with the pocket of the Doctor's shirt. "I kinda miss that ugly jacket and the bowtie you were wearing when you first got here. You should wear it more often."
The Doctor laughed out loud at the exact opposite of words he heard most often. "You know, girls tell me that I look a bit daft in my bowtie."
A confused look passed across Gus' face, followed by one of certainty. "I don't know what daft means, but I do know that girls are dumb."
"Your Mimi makes fun of my bowtie…"
Gus put a finger to his lips and thought on the revelation and how it contradicted his "girls are dumb" theory. "Well, I guess she can't know everything. But don't tell her I said that!"
"It'll be our secret…again," the Doctor said with a wink. "Now, up you go! I have a secret of my very own."
The Doctor crawled out of the closet, and Gus jumped onto his back and rode him across the bedroom. "A secret from me? No! What is it?"
"A secret from Mimi," the Doctor said before tilting Gus off his back and rising to his feet. "If I tell you, you must promise not to breathe a single solitary teensy little word."
Gus jumped from foot to foot in excitement. "Cross my heart!"
"Well," the Doctor began as if to tell a magnificent story, "you may not know this, but Mimi never had a spectacular Christmas as a little girl and – "
"That means super. I remembered." Gus interrupted, rather proud of himself and his growing vocabulary. "But it makes me sad for Mimi."
The Doctor picked the child up and swung him around so that he was nestled comfortably on his back. "That's why we are taking her somewhere that would make even the Grinch smile."
Gus' eyes lit up, and he inhaled sharply. "Are we going back?"
Gus kicked the Doctor gently with his heels. "Well then, hurry up, Doctor Pony. We got ourselves a TARDIS to catch!"
Laughing, the pair of them hopped down the stairs, and Gus grabbed River's hand as they galloped towards the front door.
"Hold on there, Tonto. Your rider needs a coat."
Gus' impatience and excitement sparked from every nerve ending. "Forget about the coat, Mimi. We have a surprise for you! And you won't need a coat where we're going."
River struggled to get Gus' arms through the sleeves as the child wiggled with glee. "We're not leaving this house until you put this jacket on."
The boy giggled and rolled his eyes. "Yes, Mom…" The word drug out like an irritating nag.
River's breath caught in her throat, and the Doctor looked back at her with smiling eyes and whispered. "Let's go, dear. You have somewhere to be."
She had seen that mischievous look before, and mayhem nearly always followed. Yet, as always, she fell in line behind the pair of giggling boys and hoped for the best as she found herself reluctantly walking towards the hiding TARDIS.
"Umm, Doctor…I don't think this is such a good idea," she said nervously. "It's time for all little monsters to be in bed, waiting for Santa."
Gus leaned down and whispered into the Doctor's ear. "Shhh…don't tell her about Santa. She still believes."
The Doctor chuckled and called to River over his shoulder. "It's a time machine, remember. We will be back in plenty of time for Father Christmas. No worries!"
River was less concerned with Santa and more concerned with traveling with the Doctor at any time near Christmas. She did, however, trust him not to put them in danger – at least, not to put Gus in danger. Still, what she felt battled with what she knew, and the tug-of-war caused her stomach to flip-flop.
"Oh, this will not end well…" she mumbled into the chilled Christmas Eve wind. "Not well, at all..."