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Stranger Things

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Alfred stretched his arms over his head, glad that the lecture was finally over. As much as he enjoyed the lessons, he really was better suited for practical study rather than theory. He could hear the other students packing up around them, the expanding chatter after the professor had finished speaking consuming the hall. Sunlight filtered in from the skylights in the ceiling, and Alfred took a moment to drop his head back, letting his gaze drift. Flecks of dust caught the light as they drifted down, spiralling in slow patterns through the heady air. He could hear the sound of distant cars, drifting in with the nearby music the art students always struck up around this time of day, the scent of food twining somewhere inside the mix. Covering his mouth as he yawned, Alfred sat forward and fumbled his notes into his bag with his other hand, ready to head out. Slinging the backpack over his shoulder, he yanked his IPod from his pocket, humming tunelessly as he set it to shuffle.

Alfred smiled and waved to a few of his classmates as he trumped down the stairs towards the door at the bottom of the lecture theatre, feeling himself relax that final bit as he emerged into the warm morning air. He weaved through the press of bodies exiting classes around them, heading off of the paved sheltered area around the hall and over the grass-covered quad. His finger tapped on the strap of his backpack as he held it, drumming to the beat of some new pop song he’d ripped from the internet and forgotten about. It was a fine day, if already heating up, and Alfred quirked a smile to himself as he spotted a flock of pigeons clustered around a single bin a way ahead of him. The smile turning to a grin, he picked up his pace and leapt the last few feet to the cluster with a whoop, scattering startled birds around him in a cloud of feathers. Laughing, Alfred payed no heed to the disapproving glower he received from one of the girls reclining against a nearby tree. He resettled his bag and hopped over the small lip at the edge of the quad with practiced ease.

He wasn’t heading anywhere in particular. There wasn’t another lecture for a few hours yet, and he didn’t want to go home only to come back, but he couldn’t think of any way to pass the time.

“Hey, Al.”

Maybe he should go over to Kyle’s place. It was close enough if he walked-

“Al!”

Alfred blinked, glancing around until he met a pair of annoyed violet eyes. “Oh! Sorry Mattie, I was distracted.” Alfred flashed his friend a sheepish grin, waiting for him to come to a stop beside him. The grin turned to a frown as he remembered something. “I thought you didn’t have class today.”

“I don’t.” Matthew bumped his shoulder against Alfred’s as they set off again. “But unlike some idiots, I actually use my study days for study.”

Alfred rolled his eyes. “Just ‘cause some of us have lives.”

“I resent that claim.”

“I resent your shirt.”

Matthew looked affronted. “What’s wrong with my shirt?”

“Dude. It’s a whopping giant beaver, that’s what’s wrong with it.”

“So? They’re a good team.”

“Yeah, but . . .” letting out a frustrated noise, Alfred waved his hands in front of his face. “It’s not our team.”

Matthew laughed, shaking his head. “It’s not like we’re at a game right now, I think I’ll be alright.”

“See: not our team.”

“Shut up idiot.”

They set off, wandering along the familiar paths through the campus. Matthew was weighed down with a heavy-looking bag of his own, and Alfred knew enough to guess it was filled with dictionaries, and possibly his hockey gear.

“I’ve got practice later,” Matthew started, confirming Alfred’s thoughts, “but I’m free till then. Want to do something?”

“Sure, but I’ve gotta drop by the town library first, Mr D. wants me to look up some weird old book on engineering. Apparently they don’t have it here.” Alfred’s shoulders slumped. “It’s required reading for second years.”

Matthew shuddered. “Better you than me, I guess.”

“Not like the teaching courses are any easier,” Alfred pointed out.

“Yeah but they’re way more fun,” Matthew said as he hefted his bag higher over his shoulder. “Most of the time.”

They set an easy pace, content to follow the winding path where it led. Paved concrete turned to brick as they moved into older parts of the college and it began to bleed out into the town, coffee shops blending with school suppliers and bookstores. Smiling to himself, Alfred changed the subject as they made their way out of the grounds and into the edge of town. He knew Matthew was going to make a great teacher. He’d always had a way with kids.

“By the way, you owe me – stop looking at me like that, you do – you owe me two tubs of ice-cream.”

“Since when did this happen?”

“Seriously, Mattie, will you stop with the eyes? It’s freaking creepy.”

Matthew only narrowed them further, pushing his face up into Alfred’s space. “Why.”

Alfred shuddered and pushed Matthew’s face away, ducking under a swiping arm and holding his backpack protectively in front of his chest, walking backwards as he kept a wary eye on Matthew. “’Cause. I know you’re trying for suspicious or-“

“Disbelieving, actually.”

“- disbelieving, or whatever,” Alfred continued, glaring. “But you really suck at that, you really do, and all it looks like is you giving me bedroom eyes, and that’s wrong for so many reasons, so just . . . ugh.”

“Seriously?” Matthew managed the disbelief this time, and Alfred made a face as he nodded, the thought of the two of them like that making his stomach churn. “Ugh.”

“Yeah.”

There was a second as he absorbed this information, then Matthew waved his hand in front of his face, dismissing it. “You know what, never mind. Let’s just – what were you on about again?”

“Right. Ice-cream. From you. For me. Double-choc fudge.”

“Like I said. Why.”

“Cause. Your last essay.”

Matthew paused at a crossing, holding out an arm to stop Alfred walking straight into the traffic. “I thought you’d forgotten about that.”

“No way dude,” Alfred ginned, practically skipping as the lights changed and they crossed the road. “I pulled an all-nighter to help you with that shitstorm. I’m getting my ice-cream.”

It took them another ten minutes to reach the library, bantering back and forth, and by the time they tumbled through the doorway, Alfred had Matthew in an arm lock and was taking a moment to laugh at his struggles.

The sound of a throat being cleared reminded him of where they were, and Alfred looked up with a sheepish smile. There was a man behind the front desk, all messy hair and eyebrows, but it was pretty easy to see his glare even behind his glasses.

“Sorry,” Alfred whispered, the words directed to the librarian as Matthew stopped struggling so much.

The man just glowered, picking up the magazine he’d been reading – were librarians allowed to read on the job? – and settled back down. His face relaxed, and Alfred stared for a moment, struck by his green eyes.

Well. That and the eyebrows.

“Al!”

“Huh?” Alfred blinked, looking down to where he still had his arms wrapped around Matthew’s neck. “Oh, shit! Sorry, my bad.”

Matthew rubbed his throat after Alfred released him. “See something you like?” he asked, a teasing lilt to his voice as he tugged Alfred out of the doorway to make room for a family to enter. The father smiled gratefully at him as Matthew held the door open for them.

“What?” Alfred asked, confused.

Matthew looked at him, door closing behind him, then shook his head and sighed. People seemed to do that a lot around Alfred. “Never mind. Where’s the book?”

“Right!” Alfred spun in a circle, eyeing the shelves. He turned back to his friend. “I have no idea.”

Alfred.”

 

--

 

It took him two weeks to return to the library. Last time’s entrance in his mind, Alfred slipped inside soundlessly, eyes going straight to the front desk. If he was looking for anyone, however, he would have been disappointed, because the desk was empty. Good thing he wasn’t.

Applied Electricity dug into his side as he shifted his arms, and Alfred glowered down at the book. It wasn’t even a new copy, like he’d seen some of his classmates lugging around. If he didn’t know better he would have said it was one of the first print run, with its yellowed pages and cracked binding, and the way it smelled almost like someone had left it in a urinal to marinate. Hearing the book thump as he dropped it in the returns box felt satisfying in the way only getting rid of schoolwork could.

“Hey!”

Alfred didn’t jump, but he might have let out a very manly squeak. Turning around, he tried to calm himself, but he had a conditioned response to that tone of voice from his parents – it was the tone that said ‘you just did something incredibly stupid and you’d better have a damn good reason for it, or I’ll ground you for a month’.

“Oh thank god,” Alfred said, mouth slackening in relief as he was faced with the scowling face of the man from the previous visit. The guy’s frown deepened, like he hadn’t been expecting that response. Alfred couldn’t blame him. “Sorry man, you just sounded like my mom there for a second. You know how parents get that voice, and you just know you’re in deep shi- trouble,” Alfred corrected himself, “and, like, you get that fear-response from it? Pavlov’s dog, dude, it’s terrifying.”

Opening and closing his mouth a few times, the man – Arthur, ‘happy to help’, according to his name tag – shook himself, then poked Alfred in the chest. “That book,” Arthur said, and, fair, people ignored a lot of what came out of Alfred’s mouth, “is fragile.”

“Yeah, no kidding.”

Arthur’s scowl didn’t get deeper, because it was probably impossible, but the finger in his chest pressed a little harder. Apparently that hadn’t been the answer he was looking for. “If I find any damage-“

“Hey!” Alfred raised his arms in defence. “It’s fine! Jesus, I’m pretty sure my nose took more of a beating than that thing.”

Arthur’s nose wrinkled as though he knew what Alfred was talking about, and Alfred watched his glasses slip down his face. After a moment, Arthur stepped back, and Alfred rubbed the sore spot on his chest. “If there’s any damage-“

“There isn’t.”

Arthur glared at him. “Fine.”

“Fine,” Alfred parroted, feeling a bit childish. The feeling only grew when Arthur rolled his eyes and walked off.

Alfred stuck his tongue out at his retreating back.

 

--

 

Rubbing his bruised chest later that night, Alfred pushed back from his desk and spun his chair in circles. “What was that all about anyway?” he asked the ceiling, head falling back.

“What was what about?”

Alfred yelped and almost fell out of his seat. “Jesus, Mattie!”

Matthew raised an eyebrow from his perch on Alfred’s bed, mouth busy around a bite of pop tarts, the height of college cuisine.

“It’s nothing,” Alfred grumbled, stomach making an attempt to get him to move and eat with a particularly loud growl.

Matthew swallowed his mouthful, brushing the crumbs off his hands onto Alfred’s sheets – “Hey!” – and leaned back against the wall.

“If it was nothing, you wouldn’t be trying to hold a conversation with the roof,” he pointed out. Then hesitated. “Unless-“

“No, I’m not doing pot. Have a little faith, c’mon.”

Matthew shrugged. “Your loss. Either way.”

Alfred grimaced. “You know that library in town?”

“Oh.” Matthew didn’t seem surprised. “You went to see that guy?”

“What?” Alfred blinked over at him. “No. I had to return the book.”

Pursing his lips, Matthew said nothing, but gestured for him to continue.

“Anyway, I wasn’t even making noise. I was completely quiet, I swear, and then this dude, Arthur, he comes out of nowhere and scares the shit out of me, like wham! My heart’s nearly out of my chest, and he’s all up in my space, talking about ‘what if you hurt the precious book!’” It wasn’t until Alfred tried to imitate him that he realised Arthur had had an accent. A faint one, but it was there. He dismissed the thought. “And I’m just standing there, right, I haven’t even done anything! I don’t get it. I’d never spoken to him before then, so it can’t have been anything I said,” Alfred waved his arms, “I just don’t get it!”

Matthew tilted his head, pretending to think. “Maybe it’s your face?”

“Ha. Haha.”

“Well, if it’s not that,” Matthew just grinned at the dirty look Alfred shot him, “then sorry Al, I’ve got no idea.”

“You are incredibly helpful.”

“I try my best.”

“Whatever.” Alfred glanced over his shoulder at the pile of work on his desk, contemplated a late-night run. Maybe he’d clean the room, or Matthew’s room. He sighed and rubbed a hand over his eyes in defeat. He was procrastinating. Again.

“I’ll bring you some pop tarts, yeah?” There was the sound of Matthew sliding off Alfred’s bed and picking his way through the piles of clothes scattered over the floor.

“Have I ever told you I love you, Mattie?” Alfred asked, not opening his eyes.

Matthew’s laughter trailed back out into the hall.

 

--

 

The next time Alfred stumbled his way into the library, it wasn’t even intentional, really. He was just on his way back from town when it started pouring down rain, and he ducked into the first open door he could find, jacket over his head.

When he shook himself and glanced up, he found himself face to face with a haggard looking man making his way out, and hurriedly stepped to the side. The place seemed busier than it had been his previous two times there, and he shrunk back into one of the shelves to get out of the way, trying not to drip too much on the books.

Arthur was manning the desk again, face set into what was apparently his permanent frown. Alfred almost wanted to talk to him for some reason, but he had no idea what he would say, and Arthur looked busy fending off the questions of a couple of young girls. Instead, Alfred made his way over to a free space at one of the tables near the computers and settled his jacket over one of the chairs, hoping it would dry by the time the rain let up. Which, judging by the water pelting into the windows, was going to be a while.

About to sit down and wait out the storm, Alfred spotted the new book stand, one of the covers catching his interest. He asked one of the others at the table to mind his things while he checked it out, and made a beeline for the book with the snakeskin binding.

Two hours later, he was halfway through it, still standing in the same spot.

“Pardon me, but-“

“Holy fuck!” Alfred nearly dropped the book, scrambling to save it from a trip to the floor and clutching it close to his pounding chest, because he knew that voice. Sure enough, when he turned around, there was Arthur, eyebrows and all. That was the second time he’d surprised Alfred. “Dude, stop sneaking up on me.”

If he didn’t know any better, Alfred would have thought that was amusement on Arthur’s face, but before he could examine it too closely, it was gone. “Don’t call me dude.”

“Fine. Arthur. Stop sneaking up on me.”

“I wasn’t-“ Arthur took a breath, stopping himself. “Never mind. Are you going to borrow that?” he asked, pointing to the book in Alfred’s hands.

“Uh,” Alfred said, faltering, “I guess? Does it matter?”

Rolling his eyes so hard it looked like it could have hurt, Arthur just plucked the book out of Alfred’s arms and led him back to the checkout desk. “Do you not have a watch, or a phone, or something?”

“Is that your way of asking for my number?” Alfred asked, smirking as he handed over his library card. Arthur flushed, glowering up at Alfred, and Alfred couldn’t help but lean forward a little because yeah, he’d been joking, but Arthur was kinda cute. And surprisingly easy to tease.

“No, you numbskull. It’s closing time,” Arthur said, thrusting the book at Alfred with a glare that was much less effective when he was still pink in the cheeks.

“Say what?” Pulling his gaze away, Alfred glanced around, and sure enough, he was one of the only people left. Huh. When did that happen?

“Idiot.”

“Are you supposed to insult your customers?”

“Patrons,” Arthur corrected, with a smirk of his own. “I get the feeling my boss would agree.”

“What a lovely place,” Alfred said under his breath, not without good humour. “Either way, thanks. I like this one.” He grabbed the book and waved a goodbye at Arthur, heading back to collect his things.

“Uh-“ Arthur’s voice – that was a British accent, wasn’t it? – stopped him as he was leaving, and Alfred paused with his hand on the door. “It’s. A series. The book, I mean. There’s three of them.”

A grin crept over Alfred’s face as he watched Arthur go red again. “You mean a trilogy?”

Arthur shot him a sour look. “Twat.”

“It’s a talent,” Alfred agreed, and there was that expression, like Arthur was holding back a smile. It made Alfred want to see what the real thing looked like. “Thanks, Artie,” he called, slipping out of the doorway. “I’ll check ‘em out.”

“It’s Arthur!”

Alfred hummed to himself, heading back to the dorm. Matthew’s behaviour made a little more sense now, but Alfred had no idea how Matthew had known before he himself did.

He might, maybe, possibly be a little interested in Arthur.

Stranger things had happened.