The Doctor finished up the few dishes she had left in the sink. He figured that it was the appropriate gesture considering he had offered to complete the chore in the first place…not to mention that she might look on him favorably and spare him a regeneration or two.
Nothing ever seemed to come across just as he intended. Though he did ask the last question exactly as he intended – which was the problem. Not only was time wibbly wobbly, but so was communication with River. It was most unfortunate that she had so much more practice and was far more advanced in the art of flirtation and button-pushing. However, he may have skipped a few levels in the last five minutes. Which wasn't necessarily a good thing. He imagined River sitting in a dark room, fuming and preparing the perfect verbal and emotional attack. He suspected the physical required very little planning.
Perhaps he should leave well enough alone and summon the TARDIS.
"Perhaps" was a word on which he often reflected and wished he had followed. Even a Time Lord was subject to hindsight.
This would most definitely not be one of those times. Because he had no intention of going anywhere until the question was answered.
The Doctor dried his hands as he looked out the window. The children had separated themselves into groups and were engaged in various activities throughout the house; however, Gus sat underneath a tree playing quietly by himself. Within only a couple of hours, a fondness for the little boy had settled in nicely amongst the quirks of his personality, and he had to admit he was thrown a bit off-center by the boy.
Resisting the urge to seek out River and interrupt whatever sinister plans she had in the making, the Doctor instead opened the front door and stepped out onto the porch. A brisk wind blew through his jacket and made a bigger mess of his lazy hair. His body shook with the chill of the cold and the knowledge that the boy always appeared to be alone in this "family" of many. Even sadder still was the smile that always teased at his face, as if he knew something special to which none other was privileged, and no one was ever around him to share in that secret.
"Hello, tiny person," he said as he danced down the porch steps.
Gus looked up and smiled. "Hi, really tall doctor person."
"Now, Gus. What makes you so sure that I am this doctor?"
"Well, you did tell that Cyberman story at lunch," he reasoned, going back to the drawings in his lap.
"Yes. That did happen, didn't it?" The Doctor sat down and crossed his legs under each other, watching Gus maneuver a colored pencil around a stencil. "But you were quite sure before, weren't you?"
"I guess so. We don't have very many people around here who wear those bows anymore. Except for girls. They like them in their hair. I think it looks stupid, but girls are kinda dumb like that."
The Doctor fiddled with his bowtie. "But on me it looks really cool, yeah?"
"And then there was the TARDIS. You can't show up in your spaceship and try to say you're not the Doctor. That's almost as dumb as girls," Gus explained.
"I see your point. You know my ship's name, do you?"
"Of course I do. I didn't want to let the others know I knew…what color do you think I should use next?" He held up his drawing for the Doctor's inspection.
"Umm…red. Yes, definitely blue. Here," he answered, handing the boy a green pencil.
"I thought you'd be a little smarter."
"Well, I couldn't decide. Green was a last minute change of direction," he said in his defense.
"You don't know where you are either," he said as he worked the gears in and around each other. "Or what day it is."
"I know we're somewhere near Philadelphia. And it's almost Christmas."
Gus was concentrating on his intricate drawing and had only to look up once during their conversation. "I heard you and Mimi fighting. She told you where you are."
"You heard that, huh?"
"Yeah. I have really good ears. Somebody told me one time that when one thing doesn't work right, other stuff works better. Mimi swears an awful lot with you around," he paused and raised his eyes to meet the Doctor's, giving him a look that caused him to feel shameful. "Swearing's not very nice."
"No, I suppose it isn't. Sorry."
"It's okay. I guess it's not really your fault." He returned to his activity, and the space between them fell silent.
The Doctor studied Gus as he focused on his task. He didn't know much about the size of children, but the little boy seemed terribly small. The Doctor would almost describe him as frail, though that didn't seem like the appropriate word to use for someone with such a big personality. He had long nimble fingers, and his dexterity was amazingly well-developed for such a small boy. On closer inspection, there were slightly dark circles under his eyes which accented the pallor of his skin. His hair was tucked behind ears that protruded just enough to be noticeable but not enough to be laughable, and there was a dimple between his eyebrows that was caused by his intense engrossment with his project. The Doctor was brought out of his scrutiny by the sound of the child's voice.
"Done. What do you think?" He held the picture up for the Doctor's opinion. It was an elaborate sketch of curves and geometric shapes drawn around each other in various colors and textures.
"Very smart…very cool indeed." The awe in the Doctor's voice was sincere, even though the boy had used stencils to create the drawing. "Hey, what are those toothy contraptions?"
"It's Spirograph. Amos gave it to me a few weeks ago. It's neat, huh?" He was proud that he had impressed the Doctor, a smile beaming across his face.
"Quite magnificent. Do you know what those curves are called?" The little boy shook his head and waited patiently for the answer. "Hypotrochoids and epitrochoids."
Gus' face fell from excited to troubled, knowing that there was no way he would ever be able to repeat what he'd just heard. The Doctor chuckled softly and reassured him. "Yes, it is a mouthful, isn't it? But I just bet that if we practiced it a little bit and if I wrote it down…can you read, Gus?"
"A little bit. I can read Billy and Blaze books."
Who is this kid? he thought to himself. "Okay…if I wrote it down like it sounds, then you'll have it in no time, don't you think?"
"Probably so." His face lit up at the solving of the problem and clouded over once again. "But how long will you be here?"
The Doctor had not considered this before he had promised to help, getting caught up in the tiniest of opportunities to teach someone who had no ulterior motive other than to learn. "Well, I suppose at least until you can say the words without help. That seems reasonable, yes?"
The Doctor realized he had made yet another promise off the cuff that would play rather unpleasantly in his next conversation with River. But surely she would understand his need to follow through on his commitment. And it was educational. He was a superhero of knowing cool things. When it came right down to it, she herself had created this persona for him. He was only trying to live up to the hype.
"Would you like to draw one?" He held out his little hands filled with paper, gears and pencils towards the Doctor.
"Absolutely…can I have the blue pencil first? I like blue." Gus traded the red for the blue and started another drawing of his own.
"Gus, why is that only you seem to know stories about me?"
"Mimi only tells me the Doctor stories. I guess cause I'm a boy, and the stupid girls only want to talk about hair and dreamy Amos," he explained with a lilting in his voice when the subject of his almost-sisters and their obsessions came up.
The Doctor laughed at his brilliant insight. "Amos gave you this art set?"
"Is he someone that works here?"
"Must be a nice man. To give you a present. Nice people give presents…that's what makes them nice…" He knew he was rambling and felt guilty for prodding a child for grownup information, but he had a process-of-elimination to get under way.
"Yep. I guess that's why Mimi likes him."
The tip of the pencil broke under the stress caused by the hateful words. "Mimi likes him? Well, of course she does. He's a nice man, yeah? He gave you a gift…and there is apparently hottiness…"
"And because he's her boyfriend."
Snap. "Oh, sorry. It seems I may have broken your blue pencil in half," he apologized as the synapses in his brain fired rapidly and caused his breathing to quicken and become shallower. "Boyfriend?"
"Well, that's what the girls say anyway. I'm just a kid, remember," he continued working on his sketch and talking as if it were any other day with any other strange man drawing under a tree in his front yard. "What do I know?"
The Doctor's hearts began to slow down when he realized that Gus' information was based on the innocent fantasies of several little girls.
The little boy leaned in closely to whisper, "But I have seen them kissing a couple of times. But you can't tell anybody! Especially the girls. They'll go straight to Mimi."
Snap. "There went your yellow, as well. I'm very sorry. Guess I'll be making a trip to the shops tomorrow, yeah?" he squeaked. "Aren't you just a tiny little collection of secrets? I'll keep it just between us…"
The Doctor needed to go into his TARDIS and throw something. Or do his angry dance. Something to relieve the tension that was building inside him. Of course, he certainly had no claim on her, but a common Earth man? Wait. Yes, he did. He definitely had a claim on her…he just wasn't sure what the claim entailed, exactly. But there was a claim to be had. And she was extending it to some random something named Amos.
Stupid name. Amos.
"Gus! Time to take your medicine!" came the shout from an upstairs window.
He stood up on his tiny legs and brushed the dirt from his pants. "I'll be right back."
"Are you sick? Should you be out here in the chill?" The Doctor added keeping the child out in the cold under the reasons for anticipated arguments with River.
"No, I'm fine. I just have a sick heart," he said matter-of-factly and walked towards the house. The Doctor felt a bit nauseated. Is that how the universe evened out the score? Give the child more sense than most adult humans and counteract that gift with sickness?
River, Melody, a boyfriend and a likeable child with a serious illness…a child with a bit too much cool.
The Doctor reached up and squeezed off the headache threatening at his temples.
He was beginning to be nostalgic for his usual Christmas nonsense and chaos.