Disclaimers: Charles and his friends belong to Mike Newell and A Working Title Production. The title is taken from Tom Lehrer's song, "Bright College Days." All is in fun and nothing is for profit.
Note: Happy Holidays, Marie! Thank you for the terrific prompt and the fleshed out musings at your journal. You made this fic a joy to write.
"I don't think we're in the right place."
Fiona shot him the look she normally reserved for her older brother. "I think I'm capable of finding the correct lecture hall, thank you very much."
"But look around," Matthew protested feebly. "Everyone looks like they're on their way to a funeral." Fiona gave him another Tom-worthy glare and took a seat. He attempted to dig himself out of his hole by elaborating. "I'm the only person in the room who isn't dressed all in black."
"We can't all look as good in blue as you do, Matthew." She smiled and Matthew grinned back. "I do appreciate you signing up, you know. I know that you'd rather be taking another science course."
"I'd rather help out a friend," he assured her. "However, I'm not entirely clear on what it is you want me to do. Am I supposed to pretend to be your boyfriend? I ask because I think that you should know that I don't actually have any experience along those lines."
"I'm not asking for elaborate displays of public affection. Just sit next to me every day, put an arm around my shoulder every once in a while, and allow Daphne to make her own assumptions." Fiona smiled sadly. "She's a lovely person and if I were a lesbian, I'm sure we'd be very happy. But it only took fifteen minutes for me to realize that I'm not and that I don't want to sleep with her again. I'm hoping she won't ask as long as you're here."
"Fair enough. As long as you're answering questions, though, you never did tell me what this class is about, exactly. Dystopian Literature. What is that?"
"Works that deal with totalitarian societies. I expect we'll be reading Orwell and Huxley and Ayn Rand and others of that sort."
Matthew stared at her in horrified disbelief. "Well, that explains why everyone at University who's allergic to color decided to sign up."
Fiona shrugged guiltily. "I'm sure there will also be a fair bit of science fiction. You like science fiction."
"Yes, but it all sounds so... depressing."
"Not at all," Fiona assured him. "It's fascinating. I predict that you'll love this class."
Matthew started to object again, but he was diverted by the sound of laughter out in the hallway. He'd never heard laughter like that before, deep and rich and honest. It was the laugh of a man who loved life and who made others love it as well. Matthew wondered if it was possible to fall in love with someone at first hearing but quickly dismissed the possibility. With his luck, the bloke in the hallway would turn out to be straight anyway.
Before Matthew could begin to brood about his non-existent love life, the lecturer entered the room. Based upon the fact that he was still chuckling, Matthew guessed that this was the owner of the remarkable laugh he'd heard.
There was no way this chap was straight. Matthew's ability to find other gay men was far from perfect, but he was absolutely certain about this particular chap. A poofter if ever he saw one (which he had, every time he looked in a mirror).
The bloke was about Matthew's height, perhaps a bit shorter, and had a very full, untidy beard. The curly silver hair suggested a man almost twice Matthew's age, but the clothes declared their wearer to be youngest soul in the room. His waistcoat was a blaze of red and orange and purple; it could have been (and probably was) filched from the set of Doctor Who sometime during Colin Baker's tenure. Matthew had never met anyone whose personality could match that particular appearance, but somehow he knew instinctively that this man would live up to his outfit and then some. He wondered what there was to learn beneath the man's clothes and then blushed at the thought.
While Matthew was contemplating the lecturer, the man in question was looking around the hall. "What a dismal lot you are," he burst out and began laughing again. "Just because we're here to learn about dreary and hopeless societies, there's no reason to take it all so seriously! Why can't we have a bit of fun with our societal decay and moral bankruptcy?"
That joyful evaluation was a revelation to Matthew. He was a logical young man but he'd always had a romantic streak as well. Matthew was glad to learn at last that this wasn't an inconsistency. Love at first sight was indeed a scientifically provable concept, as demonstrated by the fact that it had just happened to him.
He turned to his friend in delight. "I think you're right, Fee. I'm going to love this class."
Matthew's new obsession turned out to have a healthy distaste for all University traditions. He demanded that his students call him by his first name ---Gareth-and never allowed them to stand on protocol during class discussions. Anyone was free to jump in and no idea was ever too outrageous for Gareth's consideration. On the other hand, any student who dared to quote the more mainstream critics was roundly mocked. Since Matthew was new to the world of literary criticism, this worked well for him... unlike the majority of his classmates.
He quickly gained a reputation as an outsider. While the other students claimed that man's inherent evil and stupidity made dystopic societies inevitable, he argued that mankind was naturally good. Societies based upon oppression would doom themselves to self-destruction and enlightenment for their citizens. The other students ridiculed his Candide-like optimism, but Gareth congratulated him for being the sole voice of dissent. Since Matthew was more concerned with catching Gareth's eye than he was with a good grade, he was pleased by this status.
Yes, Matthew was pleased, but he was not content. Every class, he became more and more convinced that he was in love with Gareth; at the same time, every class also convinced him that he was far too British. He had no idea how to approach the lecturer outside the classroom setting.
After two weeks, Fiona confronted him about his odd behavior. "One moment you're floating on air; the next you're down in the dumps." She stared at him intently. "You're in love, aren't you? Unrequited love."
"Is it that obvious?" he asked miserably.
"It is to me. I'm not exactly a stranger to unrequited love."
"Aren't you?" he asked in surprise.
She ignored his question, thus effectively answering it. Instead, she clapped her hands and took on an expression of patently false good cheer. "So, who is it? Charlie? Because if it's Charlie, you sh-"
"Charles?" Matthew blinked in surprise. "Why on earth would you think I'd fall for Charles? Other than the fact that he's dating Veronica, it would be rather awkward to fall for my straight roommate. Besides, you've never seen how scruffy he can look in the mornings!"
Fiona laughed in relief and Matthew realized he knew exactly with whom she was in love. She must have read the realization in his eyes because she abruptly sobered. "Come on," she sighed. "I think we both need a good stiff drink at the pub."
The booming baritone was clearly audible even before he even opened the door. Matthew immediately knew the identity of the singer; there couldn't be two people on the planet that could sound that joyful. "Perhaps we should go elsewhere," he suggested nervously.
Charles looked startled. "This is our favorite pub. Don't tell me that you're going to let a little singing put you out?"
Fiona, who had already gone in, ducked back out at this point. "It's Gareth," she informed them. "The lecturer in our literary class."
Charles grinned at that. "Ah, yes. Didn't you tell me that he was a bit mad, Fee?"
"Excellent!" Charles grabbed one of Matthew's arms and Fiona grabbed the other. "I've always wanted to meet a genuinely mad professor!"
Bowing to the inevitable, Matthew gave in gracefully. Before he knew it, Fiona and Charles had dragged him over to Gareth's table. The object of his crush was clearly not sober, but Matthew suspected he wasn't as drunk as he appeared. He was just happy and saw no reason to hide the fact.
Matthew found Gareth's openness completely charming, which perhaps explained how words he never intended to utter slipped out of his traitorous mouth. "Would you mind if we joined you?"
"Not at all," Gareth said expansively. "I'd love the company, Matthew."
Matthew told himself that there was nothing remarkable about the fact that Gareth remembered his name outside the classroom. He was an intelligent man, after all; he probably remembered all his students. It didn't mean that Gareth found him particularly memorable. Despite this internal lecture, Matthew felt a foolish grin creeping across his face. To his surprise, Gareth grinned back... and there was a definite flirtatious edge to that grin.
Matthew could feel Fiona's cool, speculative gaze upon him, but Matthew found her strangely easy to dismiss. So she'd figured out his secret. So what? Gareth was noticing him-not as a student, but as a person-and nothing could ruin this moment.
Nothing, that was, except Charles and his legendary lack of tact. "Hello. I've heard a great deal about you from my roommate." He laid a hand on Matthew's shoulder, clearly indicating which friend he was referring to. "I'm Charles, by the way."
Gareth chuckled. "Hello, Charles. I'm certain that anything young Matthew has told you is a scandalous untruth."
"Not at all," Charles assured him. "Far from it! Just the opposite, in fact. Why, just yesterday, he was-" To Matthew's eternal gratitude, Fiona saved the moment by stepping on Charles's foot. He turned towards Fiona in surprise and something in her eyes stopped him. "Uh, he was, um... studying! Studying ferociously! Very serious student is old Matthew. Very, very serious."
"I'm glad to hear it," Gareth murmured.
"Yes, definitely. Never says anything frivolous. At all." Fiona trod on his foot again and Charles began scanning the room like a cornered animal. "I say, Fee! Isn't that your brother over there?"
"Good lord! So it is!" She gently pushed Matthew into a chair and kept a hand on his shoulder until she was certain that he'd stay there. "I have to go talk to him for a moment. Can I bring you two anything from the bar when I come back?"
"Another pint of bitter, please," Gareth requested.
Matthew held up two fingers. "Two, if you don't mind."
"Not at all," Fiona assured them. "Come along, Charles. I think Tom needs to talk to you as well."
Charles looked like he was going to say something more but another glare from Fiona silenced him and he followed her meekly. As soon as they were out of earshot, Gareth let loose with one of his full bodied laughs. Matthew hesitated for a moment then joined him. And as easily as that, all his embarrassment melted away.
"So," Gareth drawled. "You're a very, very serious student, are you?"
"Of course," Matthew said lightly.
Gareth grinned. "No you're not. I've noticed you in class. You, Matthew, are a romantic."
"A romantic?" he repeated with a scarlet blush. "I'm Scottish!"
"I'd noticed that as well," Gareth said with another laugh. "But you're also a romantic. Fiona's a lucky girl."
Matthew blinked at the apparent non-sequitor and then panicked when he realized Gareth's misapprehension. "Oh, Fiona's not my girlfriend!"
"Isn't she? I was sure..."
"That's what everyone was meant to think. There's another student that Fiona wants to avoid; she needed a pretend boyfriend to help with that." Matthew took a deep breath, gathered his courage, and went for broke. "Pretend girlfriends are the only ones I'll ever have. I've known since I was thirteen that I was gay."
Gareth's nodded thoughtfully. Apparently he'd had his suspicions about Matthew even with a supposed girlfriend. "So is that young man...?"
"Charles?" Matthew chuckled and shook his head. "No, Charles isn't gay and I'm not dim enough to fall for a straight friend."
"Not gay? And he has no problem living with an openly gay roommate?" Gareth asked skeptically. "Very rare for a man his age..."
"You'll get no argument from me there!" Matthew had not had an easy time finding a roommate during his first year at University. "Charles is that rarest of all creatures: someone who accepts other people as they are, no questions asked. He's sometimes insensitive and has an appalling tendency to stick his foot in his mouth on occasion, but he never judges." He smiled wistfully. "I've been very fortunate to have him as a friend."
"I can believe that." Gareth laid a hand on Matthew's shoulder, and the younger man knew that it was a question. It wasn't demanding and it wasn't dismissive; it could be whatever Matthew wanted it to be. "So, is there a chap in your life at the moment?"
"If my good fortune continues to hold, there might be one in the near future." Was that understanding Matthew saw in Gareth's eyes? Hope? Desire? "Perhaps I'll tell you about him later." Worried that he was coming on too strong, Matthew broke the tension with a cheeky grin. "For now, I'd love to learn that song you were singing earlier."
Gareth burst out with the booming love that enchanted Matthew. "Quite right! Drink and song! That's all anyone needs from life!" He gave Matthew a look that made the younger man blush again and then broke the tension with a wink. "Well, almost all."
Before he could respond, Fiona, Charles and Tom returned with a tray of drinks. Fearing that he would lose his chance with Gareth if he allowed the moment to slip away, Matthew snatched up a beer and held it high. "Here's to the almost all."
His friends looked confused, but the smirk Gareth gave him assured Matthew that he'd been understood. "Just so. To the almost all!"
"Let's go to the pub tonight."
Matthew propped himself up on his elbow and looked quizzically at Gareth. "You want to go out? Don't tell me that you've had enough 'almost all.'"
"Of course not," Gareth assured him as he stood up and began putting on pants. "But Matthew, you're almost half my age. My 'almost all' is almost all gone."
Matthew laughed and rolled over to grab a dressing gown. "Fair enough. Shall we watch telly, or do you want another trouncing at gin rummy?"
"Neither." Gareth spoke slowly, as if to an idiot. "I. Want. To. Go. Out."
"But Gareth, we can't."
"We can't. You mean you can't. You're ashamed to be seen with me."
"No," Matthew yelled, stung. "Why should I be? The only people whose opinions matter to me know all about you and they're all quite happy for us."
That must have been a real fear, because Gareth's posture suddenly relaxed. "In that case, why on earth would you choose to stay home with the television instead of going out for a good bitter?"
"Because you're a lecturer and I'm a student in your class. We know that there's nothing sinister between us, and our friends know that, but I'm not sure the department chair would see the situation in the same light."
Gareth laughed happily. "Is that what you're concerned about?"
"It's not such a trivial matter."
"You're right, of course," Gareth allowed. "Rather than trivial, perhaps we should call it a non-matter. I highly doubt I'll be a lecturer at the University much longer."
"You submitted that paper." Matthew shook his head in frustration. "Of all the idiots!" Gareth laughed at him and Matthew felt his anger slipping away. That laugh was always his undoing. "I don't want you chucking away your career on my account."
"It's fine, Matthew. Really it is. I should have sent that paper in years ago."
"I've always viewed that position as temporary. I'm not meant to be permanently attached to the University and the University wasn't built to withstand twenty-odd years of me. I can't allow the ivy to start growing around my ankles, and I'd kill myself if I began acting like all the other duffers in the department."
"That would never happen," Matthew assured him fondly.
"I'm glad to hear it. But what I wanted to say, Matthew, was this: jobs come and go but love lasts forever." He smiled sweetly. "If a job that I was never cut out for in the first place is coming between us, then it's not the right job for me."
Matthew wanted to object a bit more, but he knew it was useless. Instead, he expressed his love and concern physically by giving Gareth a thorough kiss. When they broke apart, he asked, "So, which paper did you go with? Was it 'Lear and Polonius: Crazy Codgers and their Demented Daughters'? I rather liked that one."
"No," Gareth drawled thoughtfully. "I decided to tighten my focus to a single play. 'King Lear: Grandpa Goes Gaga' should be coming out any day now."
"I expect it will be a big success."
"Oh, I'm certain of it," Gareth agreed with a smirk.
Matthew placed an arm over Gareth's shoulder and gave him a quick peck on the nose. "Let's go out to the pub to celebrate, then. My treat."
"Excellent," Gareth laughed happily. "A capital idea. That's just what's needed: a chance for public drunkenness with the man that I love."
"Will that public drunkenness lead to public snogging?"
Matthew smiled happily. He couldn't imagine what more he could want from life. "Then let's go."