“I’m going on break,” Bill announced. “Send up a flare if you need a hand.”
“I think I can handle my own mall shop for ten minutes,” the wiry fellow manning the register sniped back. Bill just laughed on her way out.
He wasn’t alone for long. “The Doctor, huh?” The newcomer to the store, a mirthful young woman, pointed to the nametag pinned to his Triforce tee, half-obscured by his navy velvet coat.
For her part, she was wearing an extremely smart suit, tailored in at her waist and slim cut, the pants cropped to reveal her ankle and spike heel. His gob flapped unhelpfully before he managed a simple “Can I help you?”
“Maybe,” she teased.
“Sorry,” he mock-apologized, self-possession restored. “Honestly, I need to have someone make me a set of notecards.”
She looked him up and down. “Maybe someone should.”
“Anyway: comic book? Video game? Tabletop gaming miniature?”
He blinked a few times. “I think we might have a toaster that’ll put a TIE fighter on your crumpets.”
“Ah. Sorry. I guess Benjamin wouldn’t have mentioned.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “I work in the fancy dress store across the way there, but we don’t have a very good break room. The used book shop that used to be where your place is now, the proprietor used to let me heat up my lunch with his microwave.”
He nodded his understanding. “What did he get out of it?”
He was kidding, but she leaned in uncomfortably close. “We’ve got a really posh loo. Way nicer than the mall bathroom. Come over anytime you like.”
“Deal,” he said immediately, and the sticky soles of his Doc Martens thanked him at once. He would never understand what possessed people the moment they stepped into a public restroom. They shook on it, the touch electric. “Are you having lunch, then?”
“Maybe in a bit? Figured I say hello first. Clara Oswald, by the way, ‘Doctor.’ No, no.” She held up a finger to his lips. “Don’t tell me.” She winked as she turned to leave. “I like a bit of mystery.”
“Damn,” Bill blurted out as she returned, equally as entranced by the sway of Clara’s hips. “Who is that?”
“Our neighbor, apparently. And you’ve got a girlfriend.”
“Yeah, but I’m not blind. And neither are you, apparently.” He scowled at her. “Cheer up,” Bill continued. “I’ll sort that new shipment of Funko Pops.” Stupid enormous heads, he thought loudly.
“Well?” Ashildr asked.
“The new manager is quite fetching.”
“Over your crush on Benjamin so soon?” Clara’s coworker teased.
“He’s--! I’m--!” Clara folded her arms. “First, I never had anything with Benjamin.” He was a little young for her, to be honest. “Second, he’s eloped with that professor.” And, apparently, she was quite a bit young for him. “Third, I can appreciate someone physically without forming a bond.”
“Fourth, I was asking about their microwave. You jumped to nameless manager boy all by your lonesome.” Ashildr grinned and straightened a rack of blazers. Clara huffed. “Face it, Oswald: you’re hopelessly gone.”
“Why must you be so unhelpful?” Clara asked herself more than anyone else. She wasn’t smitten, she was just flirting. With someone who happened to be an attractive older man. Hell, for all she knew, he was married, gay, or both. Just a bit of harmless flirting.
“You’re back.” By way of answer to the Doctor’s implied question, Clara held up a tupperware container full of what remained from last night’s curry. “Just keep that away from the merchandise.”
“I think I can handle that. Although…” She peeked around to make sure the shop was empty. “Have you got anything Inspector Spacetime?” she asked with the embarrassment of one on a diet picking out truffles and the tone of one purchasing erotic literature. (Although, given the sorts of things he had written about the Inspectors and Constables, that might not be too far off the mark.)
“Do we ever!” He rubbed his hands together. “Tell you what, I’ll show you around after lunch.” He tapped the side of his head. “Some things are important.”
“What, just like that?” Clara asked. He looked at her without a scintilla of comprehension. “You aren’t going accuse me of being a fake geek girl, on account of being young, pretty, and into popular sci fi?”
“Do I look like the sort who can turn away customers?” He paused, and weighed his words. “Would you mind if I joined you for lunch?” Please don’t let me have come across as an aging pervert, he begged whatever was holy.
“Yeah, I’d like that,” she replied. Okay, that was unexpected, he thought, palms clamming up. You can handle this. It’s just lunch. With a very attractive woman who happens to like your favorite TV program. The prospect of chicken salad had never seemed so daunting.
He unwrapped his sandwich as she microwaved her takeout leftovers. His stomach grumbled as the spicy aroma wafted to fill his nostrils. It was almost comforting, feeling a regular hunger that he could so easily address. Honestly, he told himself, it’s not as though half your customers aren’t younger women. (Too young, he added unhelpfully.) Why was this one so different?
The minutes ticked by as they debated favorite Inspectors and superheroes. Clara looked up from her phone. You dead? It was Ashildr and it was… “Shit! I’ve stayed way too late.” She hurriedly re-packed her tupperwares into her lunch kettle, fumbling with them as she tried to get them to fit just so. (A lunchbox where the contents fit perfectly with no wasted space had seemed brilliant when she bought it. Less so now.) “Raincheck for that tour?” She offered to his crestfallen face. “And no, I’m not just trying to let you down gently,” she added, because she would definitely have assumed that. “Just gotta run before my coach turns back into a pumpkin.”
She evidently said this loud enough for Bill, minding the register, to hear. “Does that make you the prince?” she asked. Clara smothered her grin until she was outside, regretting only that she couldn’t hear his answer.
“You done with your new boyfriend, then?” Ashildr asked, her usual disaffection covering...something else. Amusement? Disdain?
“He is not my boyfriend. We had lunch. Once.”
“You invited him over to use our toilet.” They only have the one, marked with a gender-neutral sign at Ashildr’s patriarchy-smashing insistence. Clara approved fully. “And it’s not that I don’t endorse your relationship; just because heteronormativity doesn’t suit me doesn’t mean I can’t tolerate it in others.”
“Augh, fine, so I might fancy him. You really are insufferable.”
“You can’t get enough of me,” Ashildr said back through a smirk. “Just let me know when you’re going to be out of the store so I know not to expect you.”
“You know I’m the boss, right?”
“I doubt you let anyone forget.”
“Are you going over there like that?” Bill asked.
“I’m just going to,” the Doctor glanced around, and, seeing a group of juveniles, held up a pair of fingers. “It’s not like I’m going to buy anything. Besides,” he plucked at his t-shirt, “everyone likes Captain America.” He marched off, comfortable in his belief that baggy trousers, vintage t-shirt, and velvet jacket was an appropriate outfit for virtually any circumstance, and entered Impossible Couture.
The interior was brightly lit, the walls white with glowing roundels. It was entirely unlike his own decor, a mix of industrial and academic, and yet, he liked it.
“Restrooms are for paying customers only,” announced Ashildr manning the register as he neared the back of the shop. They didn’t look up from their magazine.
“Look, I’m--” he began testily. This person clearly had no idea what sort of arrangement they had, even though Clara had been using his microwave and eating lunch in his breakroom for the last week.
“Restrooms are for paying customers only,” they repeated, turning a page. He took a closer look at them; they were wearing a white blazer over designer jeans and an intricate black tattoo that seemed to stretch from their neck to their breasts. “And frankly, you could use it.”
“That’s incredibly rude, and frankly, I should know.”
“Honestly, Ashildr, I can’t leave you alone for ten minutes!” Clara emerged from the stockroom.
“Oh, is this your boyfriend from our neighbor shop?” Ashildr asked with mock-surprise. (Clara suspected that all of their emotions were expressed ironically.)
“I am not her boyfriend,” the Doctor replied stiffly.
“Oh, now you’ve gone and hurt her feelings,” Ashildr teased.
The Doctor blinked. How had he accomplished this? Could it be that--
“Oh, just go to the bathroom already,” Ashildr chided him, scorn laced with amusement.
The Doctor finished his business economically, though he admired the modern trimmings--mostly black marble. When he came back out to the main store, Clara was alone. “Right, so I should probably apologize for Ashildr, because they are the best kind of terrible. But I will totally understand if you don’t want to have anything further to do with me.”
The Doctor cut her off with a shrug. “Not a big deal. And, really, I’m probably serving as bad advertising for you, coming in here dressed like this.”
“Nah, it suits you. Although, Steve Rogers? Not really my type. Great hero, but I like someone with a bit more bite to them.” She smiled impishly. “I had such a crush on Bucky Barnes.” She traced the star at the center of the logo. “Maybe that’s why I like the outfit on you. Says you don’t give a shit about anything. Except maybe the powers of the Infinity Stones.” She tapped the center of his chest, sending sparks through him like she had implanted him with an arc reactor.
“So, did you grow out of heroes, then?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. Still have that poster of Marcus Aurelius in my bedroom. Wait,” she called as he turned to go. “Can I buy you dinner sometime?”
He froze. “Wh--?”
“Hang on, customer.” She spun and left him with the swish of the tails of her coat. He watched as she worked, those large eyes scanning over her client, taking his measure. He was short, weedy, slouched. She picked out a suit for him, emerald green and pinstriped, close fitting and tight lapels. Black shirt, mandarin collar, no tie. Splash of color in the pocket square. In practically the blink of an eye, the man looked taller, more confident; like he was born to stalk through a boardroom. The Doctor hadn’t realized clothing was something that you could be good at, that it could make that kind of difference, but competence he knew and appreciated. Her hands adjusted the ankles of the customer’s pants where they would need to be hemmed with brisk, precise moments, and the Doctor wondered about what else those hands could do.
“So, dinner?” she asked, returning with the same economy to their previous thread of conversation.
“I wouldn’t think you’d want to spend time with an old fogey like me.”
“Call it an apology. And besides, I like getting you talking about those strange worlds of yours. Takes me away from this one. Used to go over to the old bookstore until Benjamin packed up shop and left. Lost myself in the books. I miss that.”
“I feel like I’m your second choice.” He felt...hurt? That was irrational. There was no reason for him to be her choice at all.
“One more thing to apologize for. I’ll have to buy you a drink, too.”
“Have you been…” The word ‘flirting’ chokes in his mouth and stops short before it reaches his lips. “Okay, dinner. But not the food court.”
Clara pressed a hand to her chest in offense. “What sort of savage do you take me for?”
“So, is this a date, then?” he asked her over breadsticks. He wasn’t sure if he hoped it was or not, but he had gone to the effort of swapping out his t-shirt for a henley.
“It could be,” she hedged. “So, tell me about myself.”
“Well, I’m--wait, don’t you mean that the other way around?”
“Nope,” she popped her ‘p’. “So: why do you want to date me? Answers starting with my exceptional looks will be marked down accordingly.” What sort of egotistical, game-playing control freak?... “Sorry, former English teacher. Old habits die hard.” His brain briefly short-circuited as he considered her in a sexy-schoolmarm outfit. Not that her sleek heather-gray suit didn’t work for him.
Alright, two can play at this game… “I like that you know your job: you’re good at it and you seem to enjoy it. I like that you’re a little flirty, a little bossy. I like that you enjoy geeky things and enjoy talking about them.” He swept up her hand in his own. “I like being with you, talking to you.” And now for the great gamble... “But tell me, Teach, is this an oral exam only? Or is there a practical element?” He had pulled her hand steadily closer to his lips as he spoke, letting his breath ghost through the small hairs on the back of her hand until she nodded her consent, letting him press one single, chaste kiss to her knuckles.
“Damn.” Clara blinked. “The accent was enough, you know.”
“You never did say what you liked about me,” he prodded. To be fair, he wasn’t sure what he liked about himself, let alone what she could see in him.
“You’re clever, witty, and sneaky good-looking. And I like getting you talking about different things in your store--it takes me to new worlds.” She smiled, and he lost this world entirely.
The Doctor was drying his hands when the door swung open. “Good,” Clara greeted him. “I was hoping I’d find you here.”
“Oh?--” She interrupted him with a kiss.
“There’s just something naughty about doing...this...in my work bathroom.” She leaned back against the black marble slab sink and pulled his mouth down to hers.
“There’s a good reason for that,” he whispered into the shell of her ear, hot with blood. “For one, I’ll never be able to look at that mirror again.”
“Good,” she murmured back. “I want to ruin it for you. Want you to see my face and stiffen your prick every time you wash your hands.” She turned away from him and unzipped her trousers.
“How much time do we have?” He tore open a condom.
“Not long, so be quick,” she replied, black silk knickers tangling around her knees. He cupped her breast through her blouse with his free hand as he undid his fly and pulled himself out. A few tugs, the careful unrolling of latex, and he was ready. So was she, he thought with a grunt as he entered her. God, this was absolutely filthy. “Harder,” she moaned, bracing herself on the chic brushed-nickel faucet. He was powerless to do anything but comply as she seared her face into his memory, eyes hooded and dark.
“--do,” she gasped, clenching around him. “Please do.” They came down together, shuddering breaths and sweaty hands. She handed him a trifold paper towel from the basket beside the sink. “You leave first,” she directed. “I’ve got to put myself back together.”
“Wouldn’t want to be seen with a hair out of place.”
“Mm, that’s just for you.” He felt his face flush at what her sultry tone implied, and dashed on some cool water as he washed up.
When he had mentioned having her over for a roleplaying session, this was decidedly not what she had envisioned.
“Right, so we’re about to start a new campaign,” the Doctor said, brandishing his copy of the Inspector Spacetime Roleplaying Game sourcebook and a sack of dice. “Nardole, do you want to DM?”
“Nah, I’ve got this great idea for a Constable: he’s this cyborg con man who--”
“Save it for the game, Nardole,” Bill admonished him. “I want to play the Inspector.”
“Noted.” The Doctor rifled through his reference sheets. “Which one?”
“Twelfth, I think. Since we agreed to wait to play the Thirteenth until she actually has a season under her belt.”
“You just want to play as the Thirteenth Inspector because she’s gorgeous,” Nardole groused.
“Nothing wrong with that,” Clara replied, rising to Bill’s defense. “Mind you, the Twelfth Inspector’s quite the catch himself.”
“Why, Ms. Oswald, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were flirting.” Bill batted her eyelashes at the other woman.
“I’m-- I”m not-- I mean, I am attracted to women, it’s just--” Clara fumbled for words, as she tried not to put her foot any further in her mouth.
“Relax, Clara.” Bill put a steadying hand on her shoulder. “I get it.” Her gaze flickered over to the Doctor. “Besides, I never said you were flirting with me.”
“You’re not my type,” Nardole muttered as the Doctor blinked owlishly. “Now, if you don’t mind, have a character sheet.”
“If it helps, I’ve got an adventure on a spaceliner planned,” added the Doctor.
Clara savored the experience: she could choose how smart, how brave, how skilled. An idea for her character coalesced: a girl named Oswin, who worked as a junior sort of crewperson aboard the ship. Amateur baker, opera lover: extremely sassy. Trying to see the galaxy. Skilled in Convince, Transport, and Subterfuge. Perfect.
“If we’re ready.” The Doctor turned to Clara. “There is a loud whooshing, rumbling noise as a red box appears behind you. As you turn, the door opens. You find yourself in the presence of a compelling, masculine figure.” Ah, so he hadn’t missed the uncanny resemblance he bore to the rangy, grey Twelfth Inspector, then, Clara surmised.
“Hello, I’m the Inspector,” Bill introduced herself once she had flung a pillow at the Doctor.
“Oswin. Pleased to meet you.”
“I imagine so,” Nardole muttered.
“You’re not on screen, Nardole.” The bald man was not chastened. “Now, what do you do next?...”
The Doctor tried not to let his sheepishness show as he knocked on the glass door of Impossible Couture, now closed and shadowed. “You said you had something to show me?” He resisted the urge to pull up the collar of his overcoat as he greeted her like some preposterous spy novel.
She simply crooked her finger, and like a siren call or a black hole, he was unable to resist. He followed her back into into a back room strewn with clothes, a mirror to the back. “You know, I have a flat.” By way of response, she wagged her finger to tap to his lips. “Quiet. Yes, I can do quiet.”
Her hands returned as he fell silent, removing his overcoat. He sensed that this was no mere liaison and did not bend to kiss her, instead shifting his weight as she knelt to remove his boots, shimmying his hips as she removed his trousers, revealing bony legs hidden by their baggy length. There was something strangely erotic about the care with which he was lavished, with which his layers were flensed away. The same careful fingers exposed shy, grey curls as they peeled away his t-shirt and novelty boxers, then handed him fresh clothes, one article at a time. Sleek, slate-grey boxers. Crisp white shirt with French cuffs. Black trousers and waistcoat, elegant in their simplicity. Socks and shoes, black, straddling the line between sensible and fashionable. And over it all, a coat of red velvet, nearly purple.
“You wanted to show me this outfit?” he asked, led to face the mirror, her small hand wrapped around two of his fingers.
“I wanted to show you you, you ridiculous man.” She bumped against him. “Not that you don’t always look good. But, um.”
“I have got a flat,” he echoed. “Bit of a waste to get dressed just to take it all off again.” She grinned her reply and shook her head. “Yes, boss.”