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A Praise Chorus

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It's an abuse of power is what it is.

There's an implicit contract, a sort of sacred bond, between a man and his video store clerk.

You don't look at rental history, if you do, you don't judge, and if you do look and you do judge, you sure as hell don't bring it up.

But that's exactly what Wilf's done, right here, in the middle of a sunny Saturday afternoon, he's gone and broken that bond and upset the balance of the entire universe. Again.

"Listen, Doctor, all I'm saying is you could be out there living this life, instead of watching it on a TV screen. You're young, you're handsome, you already have a beautiful red-haired woman in your life. What do you need John Hughes for?”

The Doctor shakes his head, fighting an urge to roll his eyes. "For the last time, Donna is not my Molly Ringwald, she's -- she's --"

Wilf stops, his hand stilling on a pack of Skittles in the middle of the display he's been straightening. "You watch yourself, son, that's my granddaughter you're talking about."

His voice is deliberately stern, a parody, and this time the Doctor does roll his eyes, slouching against the bin of returns. He's not technically supposed to be behind the counter, but Wilf's never said anything, and it makes him feel just the slightest bit important, which is hard to come by in high school.

The conversation is familiar though, and the Doctor continues as if he hadn't been cut off. "-- she's my best friend. She's someone's Molly Ringwald, but she's not mine, you know?"

Wilf nods, undeterred, and moves on from Skittles to Starburst. No one ever buys the candy, not even when they run a sale, and the Doctor spares a moment to wonder if Starburst go stale. Starburst? Starbursts? What is the plural of Starburst?

"Well, all right," Wilf says, interrupting his thoughts, "but you know where your Molly Ringwald definitely isn't?"

"Tell me," the Doctor says, deadpan, because this, too, is familiar. It's all familiar. This is his life, as much as he sometimes wishes it weren't.

"She's not in that basement of yours, hiding between your baseball cards and that stack of Playboys that went missing from my garage."

The Doctor feels his stomach roil. "I, uh. I -- um, well. I don't know what you're talking about."

Wilf laughs. "Yeah, you do. Don't think I didn't notice it was the blondes either."

The Doctor scratches at his head, momentarily distracted by memories of the Noble garage, the precarious piles of magazines among the sports equipment and shoes and hats. "You know, I thought that was weird, why are they organized like that? It took me a minute to figure out the system."

Wilf beams at him, moving on from the candy to the popcorn and apparently pleased the Doctor's not going to bother continuing to deny it. "That was your best friend -- devious little thing, my granddaughter. She thought it'd give us something to go on, if we at least knew what kind of women you liked."

The Doctor feels his mouth open, gaping, aghast, completely and totally floored.

"What? It was smart. Did you catch the Playgirls, too? We accounted for all variables."

This isn't a conversation to be had over the bright blue store counter, and the Doctor steps out around it, approaching Wilf with his arms crossed.

"So it was blondes, brunettes, redheads, or gay?

"No," Wilf says, "it was blondes, brunettes, redheads, men, all of them, none of them, some of them, both of them --"

Donna's voice rings out from the storage room in the back of the store, growing louder as she nears them and joining the conversation as if she's always been a part of it. "You do have a very confusing history, but I didn't pass AP statistics  without learning a few things. I would have been able to draw a conclusion whatever you did, but you, of course, made it easy.

"Blondes," she groans. "I should've known."

The Doctor bristles, but moves to help Donna maneuver the stock cart to the next aisle anyway. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means that for all your bullshit, you're just a regular dude."

The Doctor's back goes rigid as he draws out of the slouch he usually defaults to and into perfect posture.

"I am not a dude," he says, every ounce of conviction and disgust he can muster soaking the words.

Donna squints at him, sizing him up, and then breaks into a grin. "Nah, you're not. Because dudes get laid."

And with that, she turns her full attention to stocking shelves.

The Doctor slinks away back to behind the counter, foot connecting with another bin of returns on the floor.

"Hey, be kind, rewind while you're over there," Wilf calls.

With a grumble, the Doctor does as he's told, stopping halfway through the first tape. "You know, I should be getting paid for this."

Wilf winks at him. "Yep, but then you'd have a job -- an after-school job, just like all those kids living out their teens in a way you're hellbent on avoiding."

"It's Saturday," the Doctor says.

Wilf just smiles.

&&.

For all the horror of his Saturday afternoon, the rest of the weekend had been pretty cool. He'd managed to get through three movies, and his traditional Sunday night viewing of The X-Files went nearly uninterrupted. Uncle Rass had called halfway through, leaving a message on the machine that he wouldn't be back this week either, which wasn't surprising.

Uncle Rass hadn't been back since school started almost a month and a half ago, or, really, much that summer either. All the paperwork the Doctor had needed signed for the start of the year had been on the fax machine in the office one morning a couple months ago, and the allowance from his parents' trust every other week was enough to keep him in food and movie rentals and sometimes a dime bag.

(Sorry Mom and Dad.)

Since freshman year -- the year after his parents died -- there'd been a rumor he was an emancipated minor, which wasn't too far from the truth, except there was a piece of paper in some office somewhere that named Uncle Rass as his legal guardian.

But it didn't matter, nobody's parents factored in much to the movies he loved, unless it was to drop them off at detention or forget their birthdays or something.

In his case, his were dead, which was probably a good story, even if his therapist said it was compartmentalizing or distancing or some shit to look at it that way. And Uncle Rass was just there to -- what? Pay the utilities? The mortgage? Did this house have a mortgage?

None of it was worth thinking about really.

It would be nice though, on Monday mornings like this, with the rain and the October chill setting in, to have someone make him his oatmeal, a cup of coffee, something warm.

Or, well, even if his mom had been around, she probably wouldn't have made him coffee -- too worried about stunting his growth. Would he have cleared that hurdle in her eyes? 6'1" -- that was pretty tall, surely she wouldn't think the caffeine would hurt now? He was only, what, 5'7" when they'd ... well, since she'd seen him; it was hard to say what she'd think of him -- his height -- now.

Maybe he'd bring that to therapy, should be good for the hour, a rambling conversation on caffeine intake and its impacts on human height.

It would be better than talking about his unwillingness to make close friends other than Donna again, at any rate.

&&.

Tuesday, lunch hour, and his car won't start.

It's just his luck, really, because Tuesday is the one day of the week that the computer club meets in the library, which means he can't get online, and it's the one day of the week that Donna has a lunchtime student council meeting.

He could go to the library and just read, or he could crash Donna's meeting -- it wouldn't be the first time for either -- but he was really looking forward to hitting the mall for lunch. Well, the music store in the mall, new albums today and all.

He could walk to the comic book shop or to McDonald's, but he might not make it back in time for the start of fifth period and Mr. Van Statten's a complete asshole about tardies unless you're on the football team.

So that leaves the library, Donna's meeting, or getting someone to give him a jump. It's definitely just the battery, and it's definitely his own fault, he probably drained it powering that satellite hack experiment.

Brain power to wow the SAT people for days, and he still couldn't figure out a way to get the premium channels for free. And now his car is dead. First thing after school, he's just calling and adding Cinemax, Uncle Rass probably doesn't even look at the cable bill, probably has people that pay it for him.

With a sigh, he troops away from his car, only to run straight into Jack Harkness a few steps later, narrowly avoiding a second collision with Rose Tyler standing at Jack's side.

"Dude," Jack says.

"Sorry, man," he returns, both aware that he's participating in some bizarre high school boy exchange and powerless to stop it.

"It's cool. Aren't you taking her out?" Jack says, tapping the hood of the Doctor's car. "If I had a car like this, I'd never stop driving." His eyebrows draw down and he looks at the black smudge on his fingertip. "And I'd take better care of her, Jesus, do you ever wash this thing?" He rubs the dirt between his thumb and index finger for a moment before wiping it on his jeans.

"Of course I do," the Doctor says, gazing proudly at the blue car he'd spent years stealing from his dad for joyrides and then just straight inherited when he died. "And then I get her dirty again."

In between them, Rose gives Jack a shove.

"Hey! What was that for?"

Rose raises her eyebrows. "For the thing you were just gonna say about dirty girls."

"I do love 'em," Jack says and winks at the Doctor.

"Right," the Doctor says, inching slowly away from Jack and Rose. It isn't that he dislikes them, it's just -- high school. Cliques and stuff.

But Rose's voice stops him. "Hey, we were going to the mall, if you wanna come?"

The Doctor looks around, they were clearly talking to him, but it's, like, this doesn't happen, pretty girls and the probable Prom King don't just invite him to the mall.

Unless ... oh, ohhhhh, of course, he's seen this movie, he's seen all these movies. It's a prank. He hadn't thought people really did that stuff in real life, and not to him, at least. He wasn't popular, but he wasn't unpopular, and there wasn't supposed to be any fun in picking on the faceless masses in the middle, right?

"Oooh-kay," Rose says, drawing him out of his thoughts. "Or not, if you're just gonna stand there being weird."

If he really thinks about it, Rose and Jack aren't the type to pull pranks anyway or ... not the kind that hurt other people. He's seen Jack's bare ass enough times in pep assemblies to know he's fine pulling pranks. And Rose, she's always been nice to him, even if he wasn't in her orbit much.

"No, no, cool, thanks, I'll go," he says, because if he sits through another meeting with Donna bossing Shaun around in some sort of twisted courting ritual, he’s gonna lose it.

They pile into Jack's pick-up truck and onto a bench seat that leaves him pressed up against Rose where she sits in the middle of the boys.

It seems like Rose is being careful not to touch Jack, it's almost obvious, the way she's doing it, a careful buffer of a few inches between them on the seat. The Doctor would assume it was out of respect for her boyfriend, the football captain, if it weren't for how it leaves her thigh so tightly pressed against the Doctor's that he can literally feel the heat from her skin through her jeans.

Maybe he's just that much of a non-threat. Maybe Rickey Smith would laugh at the very thought of Rose flirting with the Doctor, and she knows it.

Whatever it is, he's gonna go with it, because it's nice.

They spend the rest of the ride talking about how it's great to finally be seniors, and he learns that, due to budget constraints, they coupled the homecoming dance with Halloween this year. He doesn't remember there ever being a Halloween dance, or a school Halloween celebration at night at all, and when he says that, Rose says it's probably just to keep the high-schoolers out of trouble on Halloween night. It's impressive, like, clever a little bit, that she'd put it together like that, and the Doctor agrees.

"So," Jack says, swinging wide the glass doors to the mall after they've parked, "speaking of Hallo-coming, Home-o-ween -- no, that'd be something different -- not that I'd mind -- but speaking of our big October dance, who is the relatively newly single Rose Tyler going to be accompanying?"

Rose rolls her eyes and Jack smirks.

"Ohhh, did you think the conversations in first period, second period, and just now on the drive were going to be the end of it? You, Miss Tyler, were mistaken," Jack says, tapping her on the tip of the nose and dashing into the music store, with a Schwarzenegger-accented, "I'll be back," in his wake.

Rose scuffs her sneaker on the mall's linoleum, making it squeak. Most of the girls have different kinds of shoes than hers, big chunky platform things, Sketchers, and Doc Marten sandals (an absolute abomination, and he hopes wherever Doc Marten lays, he's spinning in his grave), but Rose's are plain canvas, Keds, he thinks they're called.

She's drawn all over them in ballpoint pen, a ton of different colors; she must have one of those novelty pens with all the different inks. There's stars and swirls and smiley faces, little hearts and what looks like the moon painted in white-out.

He likes it.

Maybe he'll wear his white Chucks, see if she'll draw on his.

Or, well, maybe he'd do that if they were friends. But he's only got one friend, and Donna wouldn't draw on her own shoes, let alone his.

"So," he says, trying to pick up the thread of conversation as they walk like normal, civilized people trying not to get kicked out of the mall -- unlike Jack -- into Sam Goody. "Single?"

Rose's face ... changes. It draws up or tightens or winces or something, it's so brief, he can't place it, but it wasn't a good look, whatever it was, and he realizes that was probably not the conversation to pick up.

She shrugs anyway, apparently used to talking about things she doesn't want to talk about. "Yeah, over the summer -- Mickey and I decided, you know, better as friends, that whole thing. Like you and Donna."

He nods along, right, right, friends -- wait, what?

What?

No.

What?

No. No, no, no, no.

"Donna and me?" is what finally comes out, on an embarrassing voice crack, and oh, goddamn it, he thought he'd finally passed those by.

"Yeah, I hope we can be like that actually," Rose says. "You guys seem really close still. Mickey and I used to be like that, and that's why I didn't want to go out with him in the first place, I didn't want to lose it, but, I don't know. Anyway. You guys'll have to tell me your secret sometime."

There are at least ten reasons he can think of, right here, right now, that he needs to correct Rose, and it's his brain tripping up on all of them that causes him to forget to keep his voice at a reasonable volume.

"We never dated!"

Rose's eyes go wide at his shout, and he's sure he's got a look to match, terrified that he just yelled at Rose Tyler. No one yells at Rose Tyler. She's like the school sweetheart, or certain parts of the school anyway.

"I'm sorry," he rushes out. "It's just -- we've only ever been friends. We've only ever wanted to be friends. Donna is like ... like ... like my sister."

"Oh," Rose says, her lips pulling down on a hmmm sound, like she's slightly surprised at this new information, but not unwilling to accept it. "Well, sorry. Anyway, Mickey and I used to be like that, and I hope we can still be. But it does leave me without a date to homecoming, he's already going out with Tricia Delaney."

"Ah, the cheerleader, right? The one that does the -- " he makes a flipping gesture with his fingers, ending with them split apart.

"Yeah, yeah," Rose says, rolling her eyes, "flexible Tricia, go ahead and say it."

"What? No, I just meant, like, that's who she is." He's trying very hard to keep his voice level and his face from twitching, because now that she's pointed it out, it's not like he's going to campaign against flexibility or anything.

"I was a gymnast, you know," she says, like she's had this conversation before, like she's already tired of being compared to Tricia six weeks into the school year.

"No," he says slowly, his brain sputtering and smoking and as dead as his car back in the school parking lot. "I did not know that."

"Well, I was," she says, reaffirming it one last time, just to make sure that coffin his brain is in is well and truly nailed shut. "I'm gonna go look," and she turns away into the aisles of the store.

The Doctor catches up to Jack at the new releases and looks them over. There’s nothing he wants right now, but it’s his duty, as a person with ears, to stop Jack from buying the Linkin Park CD he has in his hand.

“No, no, don’t do that,” he says, prying the disc from Jack’s fingers.

“But I just thought —“

“No,” he reiterates. “Just — don’t.”

“All right,” Jack says. “Then point me in the direction of something better.”

He nods toward a set of racks and then walks toward them, Jack close behind him, slightly too close, but that’s Jack Harkness, anybody’ll tell you.

“Here,” the Doctor says, gesturing at the store employee recommendations. “Anything from Ace, Charley, or Sarah Jane. Stay away from Adric and Turlough. And Davros has recommended Rammstein for the last 14 months straight, so if you want to take advice from a guy like that, it’s up to you.”

Jack’s eyes scan the shelves. “You know all these people?”

“Yeah,” he shrugs.

“Where are they? Why aren’t they over here talking to you?”

He shrugs again. None of that’s worth getting into.

“All righty then, be mysterious, that’s not weird or anything,” Jack says, but he’s already begun looking at the CDs, snatching up In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. When he begins scrutinizing the covers in a way that reads like he's assessing the hotness of the women on each album, the Doctor speeds away. He's already got a speech on the relative merits of Neutral Milk Hotel and Smashing Pumpkins prepared, but if Donna's lack of receptiveness to it last month is anything to go on, Jack's not gonna want to hear it either.

He finds Rose in the back of the store, in the alphabetized aisles of the rock section, she’s got a CD in her hand and as he gets closer, he recognizes it — that’s Op Ivy. Where would she have heard —

When she catches sight of him, she grins, holding up the CD in the air. “This was them, right? That cover band from sophomore year, they played Operation Ivy?”

He grins back, pleased she remembers. All-ages shows were rare, and all-ages shows he recognized people at were even rarer. He thought he’d only recognize Donna, and that was because he’d dragged her along, but then Rose had been there, right at the side of the stage for the shitty opening-opening act.

“Yeah, how do you remember that? I thought you’d taken off.”

She nods, carefully putting the CD back. “I had, that was my ex-boyfriend’s band, the opener for the opener. I left with him, but then came back. I saw you — you were dancing, Doctor.”

The rush of happiness he feels at hearing the word "ex" in front of "boyfriend" is crushed by the thought she’d seen him dancing.

“Well, um,” he scratches at the back of his neck. “It was actually more … skanking.”

Skank?”

“Skanking, it’s a kind of … dance, one you can do when there’s horns. Or even when there’s not. And anyway, I wasn’t the only one.”

“Teach me?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Fine,” and her grin this time has a little bit of tongue to it, and if this does turn out to be a prank, it’ll probably end in tears, but the used tissues on his nightstand will be for a completely different reason. “If that cover band comes back though. Or who was it? The main? Less than Jake, if Less than Jake comes back, we’re going, and you’re teaching me.”

“It’s a date,” he says, and then feels a rush of heat and embarrassment and maybe a little anticipation because what if she doesn’t laugh at him?

“Imaginary concert down, homecoming to go,” she says with a little eye roll, like they already have inside jokes, like those inside jokes aren’t sending his actual insides sparking and fizzing and sloshing around his body.  

“We could —” He shakes his head, aborting the sentence.

“We could what?”

“We could do that, too, go to homecoming, kill two birds with one stone?” What is he doing, what is he saying, this isn’t how things are done, they don’t even hang out, they don’t even have classes together, oh fuck, oh shit, oh god, and he’s still fucking talking. “… If you want?”

He ends with a shrug and a death wish.

She stares at him and he’s sure she’s going to laugh, that Bob Saget is on his way out and this is some live version of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Or whoever’s hosting that show now, who is hosting that show now? God, he hates that show. Almost as much as he hates himself right now.

“Yeah, sure,” she says. “Let’s do it.”

“No, yeah, it was a stupid idea, sorry, just forget it, Less than Jake, we’ll just leave it there.”

“What?” Rose looks and sounds confused.

“What? Wait. Oh my god, you said yes.”

She laughs at him, actually laughs at him this time, but it’s a nice sort of laugh, he likes it, and then she’s tugging him by his sleeve to the front of the store. “Come on, I can’t be late to fifth period again.”

On the drive back to school, he catches himself thinking maybe it’s not that she’s trying to keep from touching Jack, but that she wants to touch him.

It’s totally crazy, but it gives him a semi anyway.

Fucking hormones.