sorry about the delay, guys. Happy holidays -whatever you celebrate- though.

Chapter 8: In Which Childhood Activities Are Discussed

She might consider him a spoilsport (and she might be right for doing so) but the Doctor had no interest at all in finishing that bowling game.

"There's no point," he whinged. "You were winning!"

"Only by a little," she answered quickly. He gave her a suspicious look. Her back was to him, her face hidden, but there was a certain something in the rigid set of her back, a steadfast refusal to turn around… the suspicious shaking of her shoulders.

"You're laughing at me!" he cried.

A second passed, and she stood perfectly still before turning around. Her face was red from suppressed mirth and her lips pressed tightly together.

"You are!" the Doctor insisted, pouting for all he was worth.

"Never," she told him, eyes gleaming merrily.

He humphed and grumbled to himself as he sat on the glass floor of the console, twisting wires together, reconnecting plugs… jumping just occasionally when he was hit with a few sparks.

"You grew up bowling," he muttered petulantly. "We didn't have bowling alleys on Gallifrey."

"I've never thought to ask," River said thoughtfully, "what sorts of things you did, growing up? Did you play sports?"

"Gallifrey," the Doctor said, trying for a lofty condescension and failing miserably, "was not known for its abilities in the sporting arena."

"Evidently not." Her lips twitched. "Not even a track team? I'd have thought you would be a shoo-in for that."

He scowled, positive she was making fun of him again.

"We did all the regular things kids do," he responded, waving a hand airily at her. "My friend had a flight simulator that we played when I visited him. Supposed to get you ready to fly a TARDIS; but my family didn't agree. Said I'd learn best by doing, and that once I flew one by myself I'd understand the mechanisms."

River bit her lip, firmly squashing down her urge to tell him: They were wrong.

"I see," she murmured instead. "How fascinating. Flight simulators." She sat down opposite him, running her fingers idly over the exposed wires. Honestly, sometimes she had a feeling he didn't even have anything real to fix. Her Doctor always had such tells when he got nervous or needed to think something through… a hand run through his fringe, endless fiddling with his bowtie. But on the safety of his ship it was always the same, every time. Out came the screwdriver to tinker with something on the TARDIS that usually didn't need to be fixed in the first place.

"We did other things too," the Doctor protested. "Lots of things, and better ones than bowling!"

"Then tell me." River leaned over, a tiny smirk on her lips. "What else did the youth of Gallifrey do to pass the time?"

He should have expected she'd ask.

"Well… oh, we played a lot of board games at the Academy. Do you know 'Cyberman Attack'?" She shook her head, and he continued, suddenly excited to share something with her that she didn't know about. "Everyone chooses an icon, and then there's this miniature Cyberman that you have to trap and evade while making sure it doesn't convert you.

"Actually, we should play that sometime," the Doctor said. "I'm sure I still have the board. And it was one of our favourite things to do. We'd have marathons sometimes that lasted for weeks!"

"We could… but I think," River said, trying to be tactful, "that if it's all the same to you, I'd rather not play with a Cyberman. Miniature or not."

He frowned thoughtfully. "I suppose if you think about it that way, it sounds a lot less fun than it did when I was young. But it was really an exciting game…"

"Still no, thanks."

"It was a good game," he muttered. "Mostly. Trained you in all sorts of tactics, evasion and escape methods…"

"Somehow," River answered, "I doubt either of us need work at evasion or escapes."

An impossible statement to refute, so he didn't even try.

"There was another one that I can't remember the name of it, a card game that ranked the inhabitants of the universes by order of threat. But," he shrugged, "that one you tended to play by yourself."

River's face was twisted, her lips almost quirked into a smile as she surveyed him from beneath lowered eyelashes.

"So what you're telling me is that by 21st century Earth parlance… you played video games, Solitaire, and board games?"

"Well…" The Doctor fluttered a hand around, knocking a bolt to the floor. River sighed, leaning over to pick it up.

"That's not all we did! We…" he paused, searching for another activity, "played with Roentgen blocks; but of course that was when we were still in the nursery."

There was an unreadable look on River's face, before she pushed her hair firmly back behind her ears.

"You played with… radiation." she said. Her tone of voice made it clear that it wasn't even a question, merely a statement of fact. "That does explain quite a lot…"

"Oi, what do you mean by that?"

"Nothing, sweetie." River bit her lip to hide a smile. "Nothing at all."

He had a funny feeling that she was either laughing or pitying him somehow, and either was unthinkable.

"No need to be rude, Doctor Song! You," he stated with immense dignity, "had fun throwing a heavy ball at a bunch of pins every weekend!"

"And I was good at it," she retorted. "You're just a bit upset because you weren't."

"I needed more practice, River! Plus," he waved an arm around, "I wasn't really throwing a bowling ball a lot of the time. I was throwing eggs!"

"Egging; yet another thing Mels did as a child that I'm sure you didn't."

He didn't have time to wonder about what exactly she meant (how exactly was egga verb?) because then she was laughing, a soft girly sounding giggle that made him stop and look at her in amazement. River Song, giggling… Well. Yes, it was giggling at him. But it was such a rare sight and sound that he found himself smiling in response, shrugging nonchalantly as River clutched her stomach, trying to get herself back under control.

"Alright," she said, sobering. "I won't laugh anymore. At least," she winked, "I'll try not to. I think I just expected something quite different of Time Lord youth. Something far less… normal. Considering how you are."

He frowned at her. "All the Time Lords weren't like me, River."

"And thank goodness for that. I suppose that I assumed with the way how you are… how trouble always seems to find you… I expected something else.

"Alright, Doctor." She tucked her hair behind her ears one more, peering at him intently. "Tell me more? We've established that you played with radiation in the nursery, and then at the Academy you had a whole host of strangely themed, yet oddly human games that occupied your time. What else did you do for fun?"

He thought for another moment, waving the sonic around aimlessly as his mind raced. Gallifrey was so long ago… so very long ago and far away, shrouded in so many unhappy memories that he tried not to remember even the good things. But she'd never asked before… and despite knowing that she knew his language, could fly his ship; he'd never even thought of sharing his past with her. He didn't share it with anyone, really. A titbit here or there; a few words to describe the landscape and people, an even briefer explanations of the reason he'd left and what he'd done.

But this. Talking about his youth, as though it was just an unfamiliar country and not a destroyed planet… Only with River Song would he have wanted to do that.

"Have you heard of the Maze?" he asked, looking up at her a little shyly. She shook her head. "Well, at the Academy there was… Well, it wasn't quite a maze as much as an obstacle course that you had to practice going through once a year. We'd compete to get the best time, and it taught you about portals and temporal shifts. You had to remember the correct turnings to get out. Tested your knowledge of other planetary life as well. I got the highest score for all of Prydon."

He shivered again, fingers stilling on the pieces of oscilloscope spread before him. "Some of those things were really nasty, though. Almost got eaten by a Hystrix. Do you know them? Looks like a porcupine except-"

"Carnivorous," River finished for him. "I know. Met up with them myself during a University trip. Was it a normal one, or the rarer poisonous variety?"

His eyes widened, mouth open in surprise. "I didn't know there were poisonous ones," he breathed, eyes gleaming. "Really?"

"Only for you," River said, shaking her head, "would that be something to look forward to."

She laughed, softly. "That maze sounds more like what I expecting from you. A bit Harry Potter though."

"Good old JK." The Doctor grinned, raking a hand through his hair. "Always wondered how she got all that insider information."

"Magic isn't real though."

"No, of course not. And she made up that Mirror of Erised. Can you imagine, River? Seeing what you most want, just by staring into a reflection? Hah!"

River laughed along with him, seeing the humour in the situation. "And if you were to look into it," she teased, "what would you see? If it existed."

He sobered rather abruptly, reaching over to cover her hand with his own, stroking his thumb down her knuckles. "If it did…" He paused, smiling slightly. "Right here, right now."

She looked down, biting her lip and feeling oddly sober herself. Her fingers twitched beneath his before she flipped her hand over, letting their fingers intertwine.

He was the Doctor, and she was River Song; and for them, nothing was ever like other people. Normal couples met in the pub, by bumping into each other in the supermarket, or as the friend-of-a-friend at a party… They met scattered through time and space, disordered and complicated. Their very interactions were a Gordion's knot of possibilities… and even how they expressed themselves defied convention.

For herself… oh, she knew how she felt about him. Not so very long ago -in a timeline that didn't exist, on top a pyramid in Area 52- she'd refused to let the Silence and Madame Kovarian get their way. She'd forced time to grind to a halt, put out desperate pleas to the whole of the universe on his behest… and when all that had failed, she had willingly allowed the world to think him dead, gone to prison to protect him and his secrets.

Yes, she knew what she felt for him, all right. Love. No matter that she rarely said the word aloud; it didn't make her feelings any less real. And she might have regretted not saying it, not using that little four letter word more often; except that he never said it either. It had only been once, in her memory. Berlin; the Doctor dying on the ground, fingers clutched on her jacket lapels and pulling her close to give a faint whisper into her ear.

"Really?" she whispered, feeling a faint heat creeping up her cheeks. Ridiculous, really. River Song was not one to whom blushes came easily… but hearing him murmur those four little words, his voice smooth and low and intimate… It made her insides quiver and warm, and a tiny smile came over her face, because she knew. This was his way -their way- of saying exactly what he felt. "Right here, right now; really?"

"What else could be better than this, River?" His voice was impossibly gentle and she looked up at him, her eyes gliding over those ridiculous features that were still so inexplicably dear; those ancient eyes intent on her that held all the dark and light bits that made up who he was.

"Well," she said slowly, feeling the strength and comfort of his fingers beneath her own, the warmth of his gaze upon her. "I suppose that if I were to look… Right here, right now. For me, too."

He grinned like a child, pulling her hand until she was closer to him and he could squeeze her tight.

"We're a pair, aren't we?" he murmured into her hair.

"Pair of what, exactly?"

Idiots. She felt him mouth the word inaudibly against her ear; and she laughed softly, feeling his heartbeats beneath hers, tweed scratching her cheek, and a strange sense of rightness as she snuggled into the circle of his arms.