Author's Note: Okay guys, it's happening. This is the first official UPDATED chapter of this fic, as of January 12th, 2021. Yes, I am still stubbornly working on this thing. I'm still editing, so as I replace the chapters, I will add a note that they are the reworked chapters. This is the first one! I'll also be posting the new version on ao3 under the same name! If you're still there, thank you! Happy reading!
Alfred was never the most organized. On the average day, he would lose his keys, his wallet, and on one occasion – okay, Tuesday – he managed to lose his entire laptop, only to find it in his kitchen pantry. His life consisted of half-empty soda cans on his nightstand and piles of abandoned socks in the living room, of hair gel where his toothpaste should be and glasses that always somehow teleported behind furniture. Mostly, he blamed it on time. Alfred was nothing if not a busy man.
But, it was the slow season for him now. Alfred had officially run out of excuses. Which led him to cleaning out his closet at 8:33 on a Saturday morning.
Alfred stood with his hands on his hips, eyeing the piles of boxes around him as if they had personally offended him. Most of them contained items he had not seen or even thought about in… months? Years? Certainly not since he bought the place. Some boxes were filled with clothes, others with sport trophies he had won before he could read. One was full of ties Alfred could swear on his life he'd never owned. Maybe he had allowed this to pile up for too long. Then again, he was almost never in this house… or this state, for that matter.
Damn the relator that sold him on this walk-in. Alfred liked it at first; it reminded him of that one book about Narnia. But in this moment, it felt like some kind of endless clutter-prison. Alfred picked up the box of mystery ties, hoisted it on his hip, and began to scale the shoe rack he'd been using as a latter. The box ended up being heavier than he expected. Since when were ties so heavy? And this shoe rack wasn't exactly stable, and oh god the ground was a lot closer than it was a second ago-
Alfred landed on his back with a tremendous thud. The ties cascaded around him in a colorful burst, along with what was unknowingly packed beneath them – books. Maybe that was what was so heavy. And just when he allowed himself to believe he had avoided it, one of them landed spectacularly on his face. A hard covered one that was probably better served as a brick.
Alfred groaned, shook the stars out of his eyes, and sat up. Finally, he was able to get a good look at what had assaulted him.
Sitting open-faced in his lap, glossy pages shining, was his high school yearbook.
"Huh," he said to the empty space around him. The year on the cover was two thousand on the dot – his freshman year. It felt like a lifetime ago. Alfred was sure he'd lost this thing or left it in his childhood home. Anything but this, really.
Having decided having an organized closet wasn't for him anyway, Alfred flipped through the pages. The first few pages were full of signatures. Silly messages in rainbow colors and varying sizes, crammed into every available space until they almost melded into each other. Some of them were old varsity teammates, Alfred noticed with a smile. He wondered how they were doing these days.
Some of the pages were faded and dull with age, but for the most part, it was a perfect time capsule. Alfred spent a good amount of time looking through the candid pictures filling the first half of the book. Teenagers in low-rise jeans and those ridiculous blonde highlights everyone had in the early 2000s, the sports and clubs spreads, stuffy professional shots of teachers he barely remembered. And finally, roughly half an hour later, the senior pictures.
Then, Alfred froze.
There were some things from high school that Alfred had chosen a long time ago to stop thinking about. Like the amount of times it had taken him to pass his driver's test. After all, it was over and done with, no matter how big of a deal it felt like at the time. No sense in dwelling on things that upset him, Alfred figured.
He used this approach a few times. Sometimes, on things that were… more pressing, than others. For about a decade, right up until the very moment he opened his freshman yearbook to page 189, he thought he had forgotten about this too. At the very least, he had conditioned himself to forget. Quite successfully. It had been years, nearly a decade, of constant activity and change. Alfred had no choice but to forget.
But now that he was staring at this picture, one that stuck out from the others like a flash of sun in a downpour of rain, he realized that had never truly been the case. Messy blonde hair, eyebrows the size of Texas, a permanent scowl… all of it leapt from the page and hit Alfred like a smack to the face. He lifted a hand and ran his finger over the printed letters.
All these years, and Alfred remembered perfectly.
Right from the start.
Alfred was beginning to wonder if this was not actually a high school, but a small town. He stood in the middle of a hallway that looked no different from the last five he had walked through, clutching a tattered map in his hand, and glancing uselessly to either side of him as if directions would be written on one of the walls. He wondered if he was even in the right wing. What was a 'wing,' anyway? Well, this really was nothing like Tennessee, at least that was for sure. Everything was just… bigger, in the city. And more confusing. Definitely more confusing.
Alfred heard a scoff from behind him.
"Must you stand in everyone's way?" said an accent Alfred had only ever heard in movies.
Alfred whipped around, grinning madly. "I've never heard that accent 'round these parts!" he exclaimed. "You must be, like, British or somethin'!"
The boy raised his eyebrows – the first thing Alfred noticed was how massive they were – and blinked. "Acute observation," he said, the corner of his mouth twitching into a grimace. "You have a bit of a twang yourself. Now, please, if you could step aside so I can pass through…"
"Twang? That's a real funny word."
The Brit mumbled an intangible response and stepped around Alfred. Alfred quickly remembered his situation and reached out to touch his shoulder.
"Hey, wait, could you help me out a second?"
The Brit adjusted his hold on his books and sighed again. Judging by the bags under his eyes, it looked like he hadn't slept in a year. Alfred would not be surprised. This boy certainly looked like a tired old man – really, what kind of high school student wore a sweater vest? "I suppose," he said. "What seems to be the issue? And please don't take terribly long, I'm going to be late."
"You sound a little uptight, fella. Calm down." The boy balked at him. Ignoring it, Alfred lifted the crumbled map in his hand and smiled sheepishly. "Anyway, it seems I'm lost. Can you point me to the science wing thingy?"
"That's on the other side the building." The Brit narrowed his eyes. "Are you a transfer student? I don't recall seeing you last year."
"Well, I moved over here this summer, but I'm a freshman."
"Oh." The Brit creased his brow, looked Alfred up and down, then shook his head and met his gaze. He almost had to crane his neck to do so. "Right, then. Jolly good. Anyway, in order to get to the science department, all you have to do is walk down the hall, take a right, go down the second set of stairs, take a left…" Alfred tried to look attentive but the directions were already over his head. The Brit must have sensed that, somehow, because he trailed off with yet another sigh. "On second thought, it would probably be easier to walk you there."
"Fine with me!" Alfred extended his arm in a dramatic pointing gesture. "Lead the way, uh…" He trailed off, raised and eyebrow, and looked to the Brit pointedly.
"Arthur," he said flatly, taking a step forward. "Alright, follow me-"
"The name's Alfred," said Alfred, quickening his pace to match Arthur's hurried steps. "Alfred F. Jones, all the way from the great state of Tennessee."
Arthur glanced briefly to the side, and then nodded once. "Well, that certainly explains that accent of yours."
"Do I really have an accent? I never noticed. I bet people notice yours all the time, though!" Alfred trotted next to him, smiling excitedly. "Man, I can't get over it, you sound like Dr. Who or Sherlock or something. Where are you from anyway?"
There was a pause. "London," said Arthur finally, with a slightly dazed shake of the head. "Has anyone ever told you you talk quite a bit?"
Alfred shrugged. "Not really. Has anyone ever told you you don't talk much?"
"Can't say they have."
"Well, there you go." Alfred rounded the corner behind Arthur, who led them down a narrow, crowded staircase. He felt like a salmon fighting its way upstream. "Ah man, we really aren't in Kansas anymore, Toto. Well, it was Tennessee for me, but still. Good movie. Anyway, there's way more people up here in the city. It's mighty confusing, I'll tell you what."
"Quite." Arthur glared as clusters of teenagers shoved past him, or maybe that glare was simply perpetual. Alfred was beginning to think the latter. "Tennessee is a ways away. What brings you to New York?"
"It was my dad's doin', mostly. Something about more opportunity here in the big apple." At that, Alfred's grin finally fell. He really did miss the countryside. There was just something about the open fields, clear skies, small towns… he fought the urge to sigh and smiled again. After all, if he never moved to the city, chances are he never would have gotten to meet a real, live English person! "But ya know, I'm adjusting. I should be asking how you got here. Isn't London, like, by Africa or something?"
"Not… quite." Arthur cleared his throat and stared down the hall, as if he suddenly had no idea where he was going. "My family moved here for business a few years back."
"Oh, neat! Hey, about London, is it true that y'all call elevators lifts?"
"Yes," said Arthur shortly. Then, he stopped dead in his tracks. "We're here."
"Huh?" Alfred looked around, remembered what they had been doing in the first place, and stopped himself. He was surprised when he felt slightly disappointed. "Right, the science wing. Thank you much. I'm sure I can find my room from here."
"I would hope." The bell rang, and Arthur groaned. "Bullocks, I'm late. Goodbye, Alfred."
"Hey, thanks again for gettin' me here!" called Alfred as Arthur rushed off.
Arthur raised his hand in recognition, and Alfred could not help but watch as he walked away – messy blonde hair, stiff posture, sweater vest and all. He knew he was already late, but he could not help but call out, "I'll be seeing you round, right?"
Alfred half-expected him to keep walking. Surprisingly, Arthur paused and looked over his shoulder. For a moment he only stared back at Alfred, seemingly conflicted, and finally nodded. "I suppose," he mumbled.
It was not until then that Alfred noticed… he had the nicest green eyes.
Another rouge cluster of ties spilled from the top shelf, and Alfred's senses came flooding back. He tightened his grip on the page and traced the letters with his eyes again. All these years he had gone on without even thinking about this era in his life, and suddenly, overwhelmingly, it was all hitting him again.
He remembered the first time they met like it happened yesterday. On top of that, Alfred remembered almost everything that followed it, albeit it was only in pieces. It seemed that, even though there were thousands of people in that school, it was always Arthur that would lead Alfred to this room or that office, always Arthur that he would constantly run into and sit with during breaks. Arthur would always scowl and roll his eyes, always mumble some snippy remark… but he kept finding Alfred. And Alfred doubted, even now, that that was entirely coincidental.
Over the time they spent together in the hallways – and eventually, beyond them – Alfred had gotten to know Arthur pretty well. He knew he was three grades and two years above him. He knew he had three brothers, all of them scattered across the United Kingdom. He knew he drank too much tea to be healthy, had a crazy obsession with old poets, and, even though he would go to great lengths to deny it, quite enjoyed knitting. He knew there was a lot of compassion behind that hardened glare, when Arthur chose to let it show.
But of course, there were a few things he didn't know. He never knew much about his family beyond their names, or exactly why his brothers had so eagerly moved away from London. Above all, Alfred didn't know why they lost contact. He didn't even remember how it happened. That, he had managed to suppress beyond recognition. Nearly ten years, and all Alfred had was a set of fragmented memories, about a million questions, and a book.
Still dazed, Alfred flipped to the back pages. He searched the multicolored array of yet more signatures, promises to hang out over the summer, overblown compliments and declarations of close friendships from people he did not even remember knowing, and finally, like a diamond in the rough, an impossibly neat note written in plain black.
Meeting you was an… interesting experience, to say the least. Regardless, I'm thankful that it happened. You've given me a great last year, not to mention a great friendship. Good luck with the rest of high school. I'll be seeing you.
So much for that, thought Alfred, suddenly rather bitter at a decade-old conflict. It was weird how fresh that wound felt.
In trying to remember why they stopped talking, Alfred realized he was fairly certain there had never been a reason at all. Arthur had all but fallen out of existence, slipping through his fingers like sand without so much as an email. That was why it had been so easy to forget – how was Alfred supposed to fight for someone who had erased his own existence?
By the middle of Alfred's sophomore year, he had convinced himself he was over Arthur. He had about a million new friends by then. He had made the football team with flying colors, girls were constantly after him, and his life was a busy one. That drip never stopped. Now, Alfred had a career, one that sent him traveling all over creation and left him with thousands if not millions of fans. But, despite all of that, here he was thinking of Arthur again, with such fondness it as if they had never drifted apart. And that must mean something.
A sudden rush of adrenaline caused Alfred to slam the yearbook closed. He clambered to his feet, nearly hit his head on the shelf, and just about lost his balance. By the time Alfred regained his footing, he had made a decision. A decade was enough. All these years, all these questions, and Alfred was beyond ready to get some answers. He was not a confused teenager anymore. He had power; he had determination. Leaving the mess of clutter in his wake, he ran to his computer. There was only one thought left in his head.
Alfred was going to find Arthur Kirkland if it was the very last thing he did.
The Internet, Alfred decided after about three hours, was not as useful as people claimed it was.
Alfred removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes, the blue glow of the screen having left them stinging and tired. He had known Arthur wasn't much for technology – in fact, Alfred distinctly remembered him once blaming E-Readers for what he called 'the downfall of the literary world' – but he could hardly believe there wasn't a trace of him somewhere. It really was as if he had dropped off the face of the planet.
Tired, frustrated, and slightly disheartened, Alfred closed out of the browser and rested his head in his arms. Barely a second later, his phone rang.
"What's up?" answered Alfred, hoping he didn't sound as dejected as he felt.
"Alfred, where are you? I thought we were going to go out for dinner."
"Hey, Mattie bro!" Alfred sat up, suddenly aware there were things going on beyond this sudden fixation. He checked the tiny digital clock in the corner of his screen, realized it was after six pm, and silently cursed himself. Damn. He was supposed to be at Matthew's place an hour ago. He was only in town so often, after all. He usually spent every moment he could with his brother. "Oh, crap, was that today? Sorry. I got all wrapped up in something."
"Oh. Well, that's okay. Do you still want to go out? There's this nice little barbeque place that just opened, and-"
"Hold up," said Alfred, interrupting. For once he could not care less about food. "Matt, remember back when we were in high school?"
"Um, I would hope I remember."
"Okay, but like, remember that one dude I always hung out with?" Alfred paused, for some reason unwilling to actually say his name. If Matthew didn't know anything, maybe didn't even remember he existed at all, then he was truly stuck. He was met with silence. "You know… British, big eyebrows, stuffy as hell?"
Alfred swallowed dryly. "Arthur Kirkland?"
Alfred could hear Matthew breathing on the other line. He waited for the torturous silence to end, picking at the fabric of his jeans, listening to the summer wind blow through the trees, fighting not the hold his breath. Nothing.
"Matt, come on! Are you alive over there?"
Matthew quickly cleared his throat. "Sorry," he said. He sounded suddenly out of breath, in a hurry. "You know what, Al, I think we should skip dinner. Can I come over?"
"Whatever floats your boat, man," said Alfred, confused. "Did something happen, or-"
"I'll be right over."
The line went dead. Alfred sat, dumbfounded, with the dial tone screeching in his ear for what felt like a very long time. Then he set down the phone and reopened the browser.
As promised, the doorbell rang less than twenty minutes later. Alfred stood from his desk and walked out of the office, past the door that led to the pool, down the hall, and finally to the open entryway. His footsteps echoed against the white-marble floors and white-painted walls; the crystal chandelier sparkled in the June sun. Alfred ignored all of it, ran to the door, and threw it open. He was speaking before Matthew had a chance to even step inside.
"Dude!" cried Alfred as Matthew kicked off his shoes. He was still dressed for work, in slacks and a flannel shirt. Alfred could never convince him they didn't go together. But his brother's fashion choices were hardly his priority. "Mattie, bro, this is getting ridiculous. I looked everywhere for that British loser. Everywhere online, at least. I checked Facebook, Twitter, YouTube… I even checked MySpace, dude! MYSPACE!"
"Nice to see you too, Alfred." Matthew shut the door behind him and rolled his eyes. "It's not like it's been a month since I've seen you or anything."
Alfred blinked, his tone softening. "Oh, sorry. Uh, how are you doing? Are you still running the nuthouse?"
"Don't call it that," Matthew scolded. He was a therapist in an inpatient psychiatric hospital, and he never took well to terms like 'nuthouse' or 'loony-bin,' as Alfred often dubbed it. Except this time, his protests were half-hearted. Matthew wouldn't even look him in the eye. "But yes, I've been doing fine. And the hospital is…um… fine, too."
"Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yes, I mean, of course, I just…" Matthew sighed, as if resigning to something. "Can we sit down somewhere?"
Alfred raised an eyebrow. "You're freaking me out, dude." Matthew said nothing, did not even look up. He only kept fussing with his sleeve. Confused, and honestly a little nervous, Alfred led Matthew to the kitchen and sat with him at the granite island.
"So, how are things?" asked Matthew after a moment. "How's football? You haven't hurt yourself lately, right? I don't think you can handle another concussion."
Alfred answered in rapid fire. "Everything is fine, the Patriots did well last season, and no, I haven't hurt myself, because I'm indestructible," he deadpanned. "Now, can you please tell me why you look like you've seen a ghost?"
Matthew sighed, visibly deflating. He lowered his gaze to the countertop, his fingers tracing the patterns in the stone, his eyes darkening behind his glasses. Alfred's heart pounded uncomfortably in his chest. "You said you wanted to try and find your friend again, right? Arthur?"
"Yeah, I did. Why? You got some info?"
There was pause. Matthew seemed to choose his words carefully. "Well, kind of."
"Alright, we're getting somewhere!" Alfred grinned. "What's up? Did he friend you on some weird hipster website I don't know about?"
Another pause. "…No." Matthew looked up, sighed, and delivered the words evenly. "I know where Arthur is."
A sudden, overwhelming burst of energy erupted in Alfred's veins. "What? Really? How? Actually, it doesn't matter, just spill!"
"Actually, Alfred, it does matter." Matthew removed his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. They were bloodshot, drooping. His hands were unsteady. He just looked so… tired, Alfred noticed uneasily. Matthew continued, "Look… Alfred. This was probably a long time coming. I just didn't expect it today."
Alfred wondered briefly if everyone in the world had gone insane. "What are you talking about?"
"I, well…" Matthew finally met his gaze. "I haven't been completely honest with you lately."
"What?" repeated Alfred. "Oh, my god, Matt, did you kill someone? Do you need help with the body? Don't even worry bro, I've been on like, this huge CSI kick, and…"
"What? Alfred, no. Calm down."
Alfred leant back, maybe a little disappointed. "Just tell me, then."
"Well, you obviously know where I work." Matthew looked out the huge bay window in the next room, and for a second Alfred almost expected him to make a running jump out of it. But instead Matthew just sighed. A shadow cast briefly over his face – a cloud must have passed over the skylight. "Arthur is… under my care, Alfred. He checked in about two months ago."
Alfred blinked. Briefly he wondered if that closet really was a portal and he was in a different, much weirder dimension. It would make just about as much sense as the rest of this conversation. For once he could not find anything to say.
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you. Arthur doesn't remember me, and I was sure you didn't remember him, so I kept quiet," Matthew continued. "There's doctor-patient confidentiality to worry about, too."
"But you're telling me now," said Alfred, his mind spinning. "I don't get it, Mattie. What would Artie be in the hospital for?"
"I don't believe I can tell you that." Suddenly, Matthew straightened up, crossed his legs, and looked at Alfred as if they had never met. "How are you feeling about all of this?"
Alfred was not impressed. He leaned against his arm and raised an eyebrow, his mouth pressed to a hard line. Matthew had done this before. Even before he was certified, Matthew had an annoying habit of going all therapist mode on him. Matthew probably didn't even realize he was doing it. "I think you can," said Alfred flatly, ignoring the question.
Matthew deflated, much as he had when Alfred held his toys above his head when they were younger. "Right now, the diagnosis is schizophrenia."
Then, Alfred could not help it – he laughed. "What?" he asked, his voice loud and breathless. "Isn't that when you hear voices and crap? I'm Arthur's best friend, Mattie. I think I would now if the dude had a screw loose."
"You were Arthur's best friend, Alfred. A lot can change in ten years." Matthew glanced up towards the skylight, shaking his head once as if to clear it. "Look, I've already told you far too much. I can't tell you the details of Arthur's condition. It goes against my morality as a doctor. But I can tell you that Arthur is far, far different than you remember. He's a completely different person. You probably wouldn't even recognize him. I'm sorry."
Alfred just shook his head. This was ridiculous. Arthur was still Arthur, wasn't he? And the Arthur he knew wasn't crazy. He was smart, sarcastic, sophisticated… schizophrenic had no place in the description. "You bet your ass I'll recognize him," he said.
Matthew's fact went blank. "What do you mean?"
"I'm going to go see him," said Alfred. He rose from his seat, planting his hands triumphantly on his hips. "And I'm going to do it tomorrow."
To be continued...