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A Brief History of Time

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Bill's hair smelled like chips. It would probably always smell of chips now, though she might be able to beat it down to a faint whiff of fryer oil with the right shampoo or conditioner. But the chip scent and the long commute and maybe even the snide skinny boy who wouldn't meet her eye when she dropped a pile of potatoes on his plate, it might all be worth it, now that she finally had a steady job with a good wage, even if it did mean waking at five, tiptoeing past Moira hung-over on the sofa so she could grab a quick cup of tea and be on her way to the bus stop.

Moira had promised Bill a nice meal to celebrate her first week on the job, which probably meant a sandwich packet holding down a last-minute note saying Moira'd gone down the pub with the man of the month. Sod that. Better to grab takeaway on her own, maybe the lamb vindaloo from the good curry place that always threw in an extra pakora for her.

But it was too sunny a day for late September not to take a stroll before dinner. She could wander down the high street until then, soak up the warmth and the crowds while dreaming of clothes she might one day be able to afford once she'd made a deposit on her own flat. A little walkup somewhere near the city centre; it didn't even have to be much bigger than her own bed and bath as long as it was hers.

Even one of the grimy-windowed flats above Farrar Bookseller's would be fine. The rooms on the top floor were lined with Roman shades, tangerine with tassels dangling below, a deliberately cheerful statement countering the building's charcoal brick.

Someday, maybe. Someday.

The bookshop itself had always looked as grim from the outside as the rest of its building, the sort of place that surely catered to the professorial class rather than Bill's sort.

But today, someone had finally seen fit to raise the shades, and sunbeams gleamed off the front counter and a clerk's long blonde hair.

Well. That was promising.

Inside, it was less dim than Bill had been expecting, though exactly as dingy as she'd imagined: a scuffed carpet that might have been bright red at one point but was now dusty maroon, and walls packed to the ceiling with books dripping from wooden shelves or lurching in unsteady stalagmites. If the owners could have found a way to line the ceiling with books, Bill felt sure they would have.

Still, it smelled of a pleasant sort of dust: not mould, not damp, but the fine, crisp essence of paper books patiently waiting their turn to be found. A bell above the door jingled jauntily to announce her.

The woman behind the counter was thin and straight as a pin, a severe and blank look on her face. She closed her book with a smack over a dark green ribbon and looked over at Bill.

"Oh," the clerk said, "I'm sorry; I was expecting someone else." Her eyes bright now, her face open and pleasant. "Please, come in," she continued. "How may I help you?"

"I dunno, just looking around," Bill said. The light, or lack thereof, made it hard to tell where the different sections were. Beside her were several biographies of Julia Child and Winston Churchill, but below them, a shelf of Rex Stout paperbacks intermingled with a multi-volume encyclopaedia of cat photography. "I quite like nonfiction," she said. "Got any Stephen Hawking?"

"Oh, yes. Check the children's section."

"The children's section." Bill's voice trailed off. "And that's …?"

"Over here," the woman said, gliding from behind the counter with the confidence of someone who knew exactly how much she was worth. "I very nearly shelved it in Young Adult, but his explanations of black holes are best suited to the nursery, don't you think?"

"Uh … yeah, right, okay," Bill said, crouching down beside the books. Paddington Bear, Winnie the Pooh, Peter Rabbit, A Brief History of Time, Cosmos.

"They're arranged by topic," the woman said. "Anthropomorphised animals, then cosmology."

"Of course. I mean, how else would you do it?"

The woman's smile grew even more cheerful. "I'm so pleased you agree. It's delightful to meet someone who truly understands literature." She extended her hand. "I'm Romana. Please, stay as long as you like. We don't seem to get many customers, and those we do … well, they seem terribly disappointed when I tell them all our copies of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare were sent back to his home world."

"Right, well, who wouldn't be?" Bill said with a brief chuckle. It was always best to courtesy laugh when confronted with a harmless nutter, though she had to admit, at least this one was a bit of a looker: a slim blonde who carried herself like a posh girl but who seemed perfectly happy to spend the rest of the day chatting with Bill.

Maybe Romana just couldn't smell the chip grease. Or maybe she didn't care.

"I'm Bill, by the way," Bill added, reaching up and taking Romana's hand. It was cool in hers, but soft and delicate, with neat, unvarnished nails. "Nice to meet you."

Bill pulled the Hawking book from the shelf, turned it in her hands to examine its condition. Some worn edges, a few dogeared page corners, a crack or two splitting the spine. But the interior was clear and readable, and the physics sang sweet harmonies in her head.

She sat, crossed her legs, and settled in to read.

* * *

It became a habit. Or it began to look like it could take on the shape of a habit, because it was now three days in a row Bill had stopped by after work, and in the wee hours of the morning, she'd dreamt of the mossy scent of old paper, and of a twirl of blonde hair round her fingers.

Romana didn't seem at all fussed that Bill hadn't yet bought any books. "My friend and I are filling in for the owner. He was eaten – that is, he's on holiday. In Eton. Possibly indefinitely," Romana said. "Besides, I don't think he'd much in the way of expenses. I couldn't find anything in his books about rent, although there were some very interesting photographs of the landlord and a most intriguing use of vegetable marrows."

"Feel free not to share those with me, thanks."

"Mostly," Romana continued, "we're only here until we find this little trinket we think is in one of the books. Or until something very large and nasty with quite a lot of teeth drops by again." She looked away for a moment, then shook her head. "Pretend you didn't hear that. I've picked up the most terrible habits from my friend."

"It's all right. I can rattle on myself when I get going. Like, this one time … well … it's not important. Anyway, it's forgotten. What you said."

Pauses weren't awkward, Bill thought. Pauses were totally normal moments in conversation between people, natural breaks in the flow while each party collected themselves and figured out where to take things next. Pauses were a point where one grown adult could consider whether another grown adult might be interested in, at some future time, discussing or perhaps even engaging in adult pursuits, and such pauses for consideration should be treated as expected, even valuable.

No, pauses weren't awkward. It was the next thing you said after the pause that was the problem.

"Listen," she finally said, "do you fancy a cup of tea? I don't want to – well, I don't have to be home just yet, and I was going to stop for one, and … might as well do for two, you know?" A flutter in her stomach so anxious she placed her hand over her belly to stifle a gurgle. "You could … come with me?"

Romana leant over the counter, her chin braced on her hand, an expression on her face that twisted enigmatic into a careful knot and emerged as something Bill chose to interpret as at least marginally interested. "I probably shouldn't leave," she said, but she opened a drawer in the countertop and handed Bill a fiver. "A dash of milk will do if you want to bring it back here. I'm fairly sure we've a tin of biscuits in the back. I'll hunt it down while you're out."

Bill's smile splashed warm sunshine all across her body. "Back in a tick," she said, and if she could have flown fast enough to beat the door's bell before it finished jangling, she would have.

* * *

Romana had found the tin of biscuits – not a brand Bill was familiar with, or even one labelled in a language she recognised, but whatever the green fluted things were, they were delicious: minty and buttery, the scent of freshly mown grass wafting by as they crumbled. "Eton's not exactly the sort of place I think of for a holiday," Bill said, popping the last of the biscuit into her mouth. "But at least it means I got to meet you. And, uh … finally stop in at this bookshop."

"I'm glad you stopped by, too. My friend's occupied elsewhere, so it's just been me and all these books filed in the most ridiculous order possible. Harry Potter and Little Nemo in Fiction! It's a good thing I don't need much sleep, because it's going to take the rest of the week to reorganise those so-called 'science' texts alone."

"You know, I've been thinking of taking a science class. Well, I can't really take it, not officially, but they'll let me sit in on it after I'm done with work. There's this weird bloke, been teaching there for ages, covers absolutely everything, apparently. My friend said he once did an entire lecture on how the domestication of sweetcorn led to development of the British space program."

"Did it really?"

"I guess? My friend said he stopped taking notes halfway through because he thought the lecturer might have been completing a connect-the-dots on the chalkboard. But at least he's interesting."

"Always choose interesting," Romana said.

Romana was looking straight at Bill's face, grey eyes focussed on Bill's own. What if she … no, it couldn't be, Bill was hardly ever that lucky. People looked deep into each other's souls all the time, surely.

"If there's one thing I've learned from travelling with my friend," Romana continued, "it's that traditional learning will only take you so far. I'm quite smarter than he is, you see, but I admit I've gained much from his experiences outside the classroom." Romana broke a pink biscuit in half, and Bill suddenly smelled oranges and the earthy tang of a tomato stem. "Besides, that professor is right," Romana said. "You'd best take notes; you can share them with your less attentive friend. Now, the first thing you need to know about sweetcorn is that it's really a grass …"

* * *

Andrea was at home with the flu – "actual flu," apparently, not simply a nasty cold – and Victor was minding his father at chemo, and that left the kitchen short two people even before Roxanne's daughter's preschool rung to say there had been one glue-related disciplinary incident too many, and could she come collect young Yasmin? Now, if not sooner? So by the time Bill slumped onto the bus, she was dead tired enough that she nearly went straight home to fall face-first into bed.

Except her body, by now accustomed to the earlier stop, had her up and out of her seat at the stop by Farrar's, and really, couldn't she take a few minutes to see Romana? Especially because for all she knew, Romana and her friend were leaving any day now? It was a narrow thing to hope for in the first place, that this pretty girl might be someday be anything more than a friend with peculiar ideas about book categorisation, but knowing that she had a limited lime left to cling to it would probably make it easier to let go. Or so she hoped, anyway.

"Bill!" Romana greeted her. "I'm so glad you stopped in; it's late, and I was worried I'd missed you."

Easier to let go. Right. "Nah," Bill said, "I wouldn't miss dropping by, would I?"

"I'm so sorry to tell you this, Bill … but I'm afraid we're leaving tomorrow," Romana said. "It would have been today, but I told my friend I wanted one more day to reshelve Alien Abductions and Astrology in Humour.'"

The narrow beam of hope in Bill's heart shrank to a sliver. "I … well … we could still get a cup of tea after you're done, yeah? Or maybe a curry? I could even help if you want."

"Bill." Romana took Bill's hand in hers, raised it slowly, pressed her lips to Bill's palm with a delicacy that left Bill shivering. "You're a very clever girl. I didn't think I'd have to explain to you what a 'lie' was."

"Oh," Bill said. "Oh. Right. Good. Curry later, then."

"Much later," said Romana, and led her to the back room of the shop.

* * *

The leather sofa in the back room had yellowed foam peeking out of a rip at the corner, and its few remaining functional springs lurched and creaked as Bill and Romana fell on top of them, but as a reasonably soft and flat place where Romana could tug down the spaghetti straps of Bill's top, exposing a peaked nipple, or where Bill could slide a hand along Romana's back to cup her small but firm arse through the crepe of her skirt … it would do. It would do just fine.

Romana's lips on Bill's were hard, insistent; the kisses of a woman who knew how little time they had together and was going to get what she wanted. Right now, that was her knee slipping between Bill's legs with maddeningly inadequate pressure, while Bill's own hand found its way into the warmth beneath Romana's skirt. Romana sighed into Bill's mouth; again as Bill slowly edged a finger inside her.

Romana pulled back, eyes fluttering shut as she knelt over Bill and let the heel of Bill's hand press against her. "Here," she said, clasping Bill's other hand and drawing her up so she could kiss her again. She was slick and hot beneath Bill's fingers, much hotter than the curve of her collar, where Bill licked the jut of bone, or at the vee of her blouse, between her breasts, where her heart beat beneath Bill's lips faster than Bill had ever felt from any other girl, not that there had been so many of those yet.

But this one, this one was more than happy to kiss her and whisper you're so beautiful in her ear right before her teeth tugged on a lobe and she moaned so perfectly atop Bill's steady hand. If Bill could only have her for a late afternoon on the tattiest sofa in the mustiest stockroom in Bristol, well, that was more than enough for now. Especially when Romana clutched at Bill's shoulder, nails digging a crescent into her skin, and shuddered and gasped as she slowly rocked to a halt.

"Oh. Oh. That was … unexpected." Romana paused to catch her breath. "Has anyone ever told you quite how good you are with your hands?" She drew Bill in for another kiss, tongue lingering across Bill's lips.

"Well … I …"

"You really are, you know," Romana continued, pulling back far enough that she could start tugging off Bill's jeans and underwear. "I mean, you're obviously a bright young woman, but that doesn't always go hand-in-hand, shall we say, with other skills." She tossed the clothing behind her, where it landed on a tower of old chemistry texts.

"Um. Thank you?"

"You're so very welcome," Romana murmured, settling in between Bill's legs and kissing her abdomen.

Every point where Romana's lips touched, Bill tensed, then relaxed: the anticipation of where the next warm brush against her skin might be, or where Romana might choose to linger in a punctuation mark; the release as Romana moved on to her next target. The anticipation buzzing hot within her as Romana's mouth dotted its way lower on Bill's belly, across her groin and inner thighs, and finally came to rest with Romana's tongue sliding slowly over Bill's clit.

Bill knew it wasn't possible for her body to sparkle with electricity and sunlight; she wasn't one of those silly vampires. But she crackled and fuzzed and spun, all centred where Romana's tongue slowly lapped at her, the sensation spreading like warm bathwater enveloping her.

She gasped, and arched beneath Romana's touch, and sank beneath the water.

* * *

Bill caught herself on the bus the next day, the Farrar stop next on the line, and her body itching to signal the driver to let her off. She withdrew her hand from the pole button. The bookshop's shades were drawn now, the windows as dark as they'd been a week ago.

At least the flat was quiet. Moira had left a note Bill didn't even have to read to know what it said – pub, don't wait up – but instead of being lodged below Moira's favourite One Classy Bitch mug, a spent teabag and the dregs of cold tea within, the note lay on top of a cubic parcel wrapped in brown paper and addressed to Bill.

There was no return address. Nor was there a note or card inside the parcel itself, once unwrapped, but Bill knew who had sent it just the same: the copy of A Brief History of Time and the half-eaten tin of very foreign biscuits told the tale.

The book still smelled of moss and toast; the biscuit of tomato stem, young and green and earthy.

Bill made a cup of tea, poured in a dash of milk, and dunked the biscuit. It tasted of orange and tomato, alien yet delicious.

She turned to the first chapter, and began to read again.