Sometime after the Halloween party that they don’t talk about for fear of shattering their suddenly tenuous friendship, Stuart moves back to the store.
The X-rated comics are relocated from the back room to a stand near the counter, where he can keep an eye on underage browsers, and a new door with a sturdy lock gets fitted where once there was just a curtain (white, opaque, with a whimsical Psycho bloody handprint smear).
Raj misses his friend; misses the companionship of sharing his home with someone who can speak English and doesn’t throw up on the carpet. (Well, except that one time, but to be fair Raj had been in the bathroom at the time hugging the toilet, and now that particular sushi place is forever blacklisted.)
So, early in December, he makes gingerbread cookies and swings by the store on a Saturday afternoon, when it’s usually quieter. He leaves Cinnamon at home; Stuart loves her, but Raj feels weird about taking her into the store, in case she gets it into her head to eat all the Archies.
To his surprise, the front door is closed and there’s a “Back in Five Minutes” sign up. Raj would think that Stuart had stepped out for lunch, except that he knows all Stuart has for lunch is coffee and maybe some ramen if he can be bothered nuking it. The lights are still on. Stuart’s probably not far away. Raj leans against the wall to wait.
Five minutes pass. No Stuart. Raj sends him a text.
Another five minutes pass. No Stuart, and no response.
At the fifteen minute mark, Raj tries the door in spite of the sign, and is surprised when it opens. The bell over the door jingles lightly. Raj steps inside and closes it behind himself.
Stuart’s definitely not in the store. The racks of comics are silent. He’s not flopped in a corner masquerading as a plushie Pikachu or a supersized Transformer. He’s not behind the counter. He really does seem to have left the store for lunch, and that worries Raj because why would Stuart leave the door unlocked?
The door to the back room is closed. As Raj pauses outside it, a very familiar vworp-vworp sound comes from behind it, accompanied by a slow pulse of blue light around and under the door.
Raj takes a breath and knocks on the door.
“Hey, Raj, come on in,” Stuart calls, sounding totally normal and not at all like someone who’s gone nuts and locked himself in a storeroom and started pretending to be a time traveler.
Raj pushes the door open, holding the box of cookies close by his side, and enters the back room.
It’s empty. Empty, that is, except for the blue police box standing serenely down one end of the formerly cluttered space. The blue police box that looks just like the photo booth they hired for Halloween—
—except for the fact that it’s considerably more battered, slightly scorched, and the bottom third is streaked with mud and clots of dirt.
The TARDIS door is open and light spills out from it. While Raj is still dithering about whether or not to approach it, Stuart sticks his head out. He’s got the biggest smile Raj has ever seen.
“I was hoping you’d come,” he says. “Come inside, come on.”
Raj is still expecting the cramped interior of the photo booth, even though every sense other than common sense is telling him this is for real. But when he walks through the door and sees the main bridge of the TARDIS in front of him, familiar and new all at once, clearly remade according to Stuart’s own sense of style, common sense flees and he’s left believing what his eyes and ears are telling him.
“It really is bigger on the inside,” he says, and Stuart laughs, not unkindly.
“I’d offer you the tour, but there’s more to see than I expected.”
Stuart goes very serious all of a sudden. “I can’t tell you.”
Raj takes a longer look at his friend. Stuart’s not wearing a bow tie or a fez, just his regular t-shirt and jeans, but he’s abandoned his usual plaid flannel for a brown leather jacket (although it is comfortingly flannel-lined, Raj notes).
“I thought you were a Four guy, not a Nine guy.”
“You’d be surprised what leather repels.” Stuart holds his right hand out, palm up, and Raj sees the greenish stain across his forearm. “If that had hit my skin, I’d be trying to draw left-handed.”
“Wow.” Somehow Raj’s cutely decorated cookies seem completely unimpressive next to Stuart having a working time machine, but he offers them anyway.
“Thanks.” Stuart shoves one into his mouth whole and chews and swallows without regard for the time Raj spent on the frosting. “This is hungry work.”
Stuart gives him another serious look. “Come on, Raj. I know you’ve seen the show.”
“But it’s fictional,” Raj says, completely aware that he is saying this while standing in the TARDIS.
“In this universe it is. But what if, in another universe, it isn’t? And what if—”
The console buzzes a warning. Stuart gives it a soothing pat and looks at Raj. “I can’t tell you outright, but if you can guess it…”
Raj sighs. “As long as I don’t have to tell Sheldon that he’s right about the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.”
Stuart looks triumphant. “I knew you’d get it!”
“Don’t you think it’s a little dangerous to leave the store unlocked if you’re back here with the freaking TARDIS?”
Stuart’s smile just gets wider, and he slips his hand into an inside pocket of his jacket, pulling something out and flipping it in the air. Raj doesn’t need to engage in a detailed scientific examination to know that it’s a sonic screwdriver. “This is good for unlocking stuff… it’s also good for making sure locked doors only open to particular people.”
“You set this up so I was the only one who could get in?”
“Well, you or Scarlett Johansson, but I wasn’t holding my breath.”
Raj sets the cookies down on the console, between a tablet that’s displaying an inventory list and a typewriter with a Dvorak keyboard layout. “You wanted me to see this? Why?”
“I miss you.” Stuart tucks the screwdriver away and does his best to look nonchalant. “I miss living with you. I thought maybe if I showed you this we’d hang out more.”
“Oh, dude. You didn’t need to show me this… you could’ve just asked.” Raj pulls Stuart into a hug. Stuart’s arms creep around his waist, and his head settles on Raj’s shoulder. “I miss you too.”
“I want you to come with me,” Stuart says against the side of Raj’s neck.
Stuart pulls back enough to look him in the eyes. “Come with me. At least once. I want to show you some of the things I’ve seen.”
“Are you serious?”
“Rajesh, I haven’t been this serious about anything since I told you if you kept talking during movie previews I was never going to the movies with you again.”
Maybe it’s the look on Stuart’s face, or maybe it’s the use of his full first name — something that was kind of their private joke — but Raj impulsively kisses him. Just a peck, really, but on the lips rather than on the cheek. It’s supposed to just be a ‘wow, thanks’ thing, but Stuart’s arms tighten around him and he returns the kiss with interest.
“Sorry I’m not Scarlett Johansson,” Raj says as soon as he has a moment to breathe.
Stuart smiles at him. “You can still wear leather if you want.”
Raj just kisses him again, this time letting it linger, before asking, “So where are we going?”
“First of all? Your place. I don’t want Cinnamon to be the dog who waited.” Stuart disentangles himself from Raj and moves to the console, fingers flying over the typewriter keys.
Mere seconds later, the back room of the Comic Center is empty except for a swirl of dust and the echo of a noise that is no longer imaginary in this universe.