"I thought you said you've played this game before."
"Many, many times. I've had so many lives. I'm hundreds of years old. It's the color. It's all wrong. I travel in blue."
Gus stared at the pouting man who sat across the game board with legs folded under him and chin resting defeatingly in his hand. "Blue is my favorite color. And it's Christmas, and I'm a kid. This is my day, and I want the blue car. You're just mad that I'm winning."
"We're playing it wrong. And you're cheating! It's unacceptable, really. Didn't Mimi teach you better manners than to cheat?" The Doctor raised his eyes to Gus' and glared at him.
"I am not cheating! I'm playing by the rules of the game! You can't make up the rules for everything. Sometimes you just gotta do something by rules you don't make up, Doctor. That's what's called being a grown-up," Gus answered defiantly.
The Doctor clumsily jumped to his feet and stood with his hands on his hips. "I most absolutely can follow someone else's rules! When they aren't stupid! Why do I have to have all those kids? Maybe I didn't want little pink and blue peg kids. Did somebody else think of that before they made up these silly rules!"
River had been putting the final touches on dinner when she heard the raised voices and made her way to the den to put a lid on the boiling pots of her two children. She couldn't help but be amused by the scene, and she stood in the doorway, smiling and unnoticed, while they continued to argue.
Gus rose to his feet and stood on the coffee table in an effort to argue his point eye-to-eye. "That's why it is called 'Life'! Mimi says you just have to suck it up and deal with what you end up with. Sometimes life makes you have kids you don't want! You are living in a children's home! My dad left, remember? Not all parents want their kids but you're supposed to continue playing the game! So, sit down and spin the wheel!" Gus jumped down and resumed his place at the game, huffing and puffing stolen breaths. "You are making me so mad. Just sit down and play with your plastic babies."
River's smile faded as she watched the Doctor's face change from outraged to heartbroken. She crossed her arms over her chest and began rocking on her feet. Fighting the urge to shower him with comfort, she reluctantly stood still and waited.
The Doctor stared down at the child while Gus counted his money. The boy was still in his pajamas, and his hair stood randomly on end in a way that not even a hot washcloth could tame. He had somehow lost a sock in his race to the presents, so the Doctor could see the toes of one foot wiggle while the boy concentrated on organizing his bills. Gus hummed "Jingle Bells" quietly, periodically exclaiming "Hey!" and giggling to himself, having already moved past his anger with his taller friend. The Doctor felt shameful and cozy at the same time.
"I knew a kind of rubbery baby once. It melted. It was sad, really," the Doctor mumbled.
Gus reached across the game and grabbed the Doctor's red game piece. Taking out the blue and pink "children", he placed them in the blue car and returned the vehicle to its place on the board. The child looked up at the Doctor and smiled. "Okay. You can have the blue car, but you're keeping those hateful screaming babies. Hurry up and sit down before it's time to eat."
"Oh, fine," the Doctor replied, feigning defeat. He sat down and crossed his legs under him once more. "It's still my turn."
"Well, stop talking about it and spin," Gus said, his brow furrowed in impatience.
The Doctor smiled and spun the wheel, moving his car the appropriate number of spaces. He drew a deep breath and blew it out. "Gus, maybe he didn't know."
The boy took his turn and raced his tiny car along the game path. "Who didn't know what?"
"Your dad. Maybe your mum didn't get a chance to tell him about you. That could have happened," the Doctor reasoned. He was almost certain that River would bring down the hammer of Thor on the turn of conversation, but he decided to risk it. He couldn't bear the thought that Gus has vilified the father he'd never known.
Gus looked up at a solemn Doctor. "Don't you know how long babies take to make? And after a while, a girl kinda tells on herself when her belly keeps getting bigger and bigger. And it's a little town. One time I fell down the steps at the library, and the other kids knew about it before I got home. Somebody woulda told him cause Mimi said everybody liked him. He just didn't want me. But that's okay because I'm sure Mimi is better than some old dad, anyway."
Lumps rose in both River's and the Doctor's throats, though for completely different reasons. She blinked back tears and shifted her weight from foot to foot, while the Doctor stared into the boy's face and struggled for the words to continue. He didn't want to lie, but he couldn't tell the truth. For once, the truth was fighting to be heard, and he no choice but to apply rule number one. He picked up the blue game piece and stared at the little baby pegs. "Well, yeah…she's rather good, your Mimi," he said quietly.
"I know. Hey, are you gonna go or not?" Gus asked impatiently. "Cause Mimi's been standing right there, and she has that look on her face that says 'Wrap it up, boys. Time for dinner'."
The Doctor spun around to see River staring at the floor, her hands stuffed in her back pockets and wayward curls falling over her face. She slowly lifted her eyes to his, and her expression was one of gratitude and shame. He wished he could lash out at her for creating a situation where the phantom dad was the villain and the phantom mother the saint. But the deed was done, and he knew that the guilt she carried was her constant companion. He gave her a wink and smiled softly, welcoming her to join them.
River walked over and knelt down beside Gus. "So, it looks like you're showing the Doctor how Life is lived, yeah?"
Gus smiled and nodded. "For someone really old, he's not very good at it. I guess they do things differently in space families."
She laughed and glanced at the scowling Doctor. "How can you lose so badly at Life, sir?"
The Doctor thumped his game piece across the room. "The boy cheats."
"I do not!"
River held her hand playfully over the boy's mouth. "Don't shout at the Doctor. He's your elder, and we don't yell at grownups, do we?"
Gus blew a raspberry on River's palm, and she removed it. The Doctor stuck his tongue out at Gus, and he quickly reciprocated, adding, "He's everybody's elder, and somebody needs to yell at him more often. Maybe then he'll learn how to quit pouting."
River tussled Gus' hair before standing. "Oh, he gets yelled at often enough, I promise. But right now, you need to go upstairs and get ready for dinner. Amos will be here in a bit."
"Is he bringing that girl?" Gus asked as he began to put away the game. "That's weird, and I don't know if I like it."
She smiled down at him and nodded, whispering, "I don't think I like it either, but we still have to be nice. She might even play a proper game of Life with you."
Gus looked over at the Doctor. "Did you hear that? Amos has nicer friends than Mimi."
"Gus…" River warned.
"Well, it's true…maybe," he whined, putting the lid on the box and carrying it back to the tree.
"Go upstairs and get cleaned up. I've run a bath for you and laid your clothes out," she explained as he walked by.
River grabbed his hand and pulled him back to her. Wrapping her arms around him, she hugged him tightly and left a kiss atop his head. "And wear those clothes. Exactly those clothes. Please do not come out here in that dreadful jacket."
"Yes ma'am," he mumbled into her sweater before heading for the stairs. As he walked off, he called, "I hope you put his clothes out for him! He needs some help too. And he hates his little peg babies! He's the dreadful one!"
River giggled as the boy stomped up the stairs, mumbling what she sure were words of childlike disgust. She turned her attention to the sulking man on the floor and offered him a hand. "Another successful attempt at socializing, I see."
"He thinks he's so clever," the Doctor groaned, grabbing her by the hand and offering little help as she pulled him to his feet. "It's quite annoying."
She raised an eyebrow before herding him towards the stairs. "Well, that is most definitely genetic."
"But I am clever!"
"Of course you are, sweetie," she answered soothingly.
"Patronizing me. That's what you're doing." The Doctor plodded clumsily up the stairs. "Did you lay out my clothes as well?"
"No, of course not." She pushed him along in a failed attempt to hurry him.
"What? No. Why are you going so slow?"
"Will you at least dress me?" he whined, although had she been in a position to see his face, he would have had a hard time hiding his smile.
River laughed and shoved him up the last two steps. "Shut up and go get dressed, you silly idiot."
He turned around and thumped the end of her nose before rushing towards the attic door. He had almost closed it behind him when he poked his head out. "Hey, River?"
She took a step out into the hall again. "Hmm?"
"Are you really bothered that Amos has a new lady person?" He seemed afraid to hear the truth yet unable to stop the question.
So River lied. "No, honey. I'm happy for him. I was only trying to put Gus at ease. Go get dressed." She winked and disappeared through her bedroom door.
The Doctor smiled and ran up the attic stairs, whistling.
He had forgotten that she knew the rules.
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