Athelstan is a polite person.
He holds people’s doors for them and says please and thank you and he keeps his opinion about his loud, loud, loud neighbours to himself.
He really does.
But it is three in the morning, the walls and ceilings are thin as paper and if the couple downstairs rekindles their screaming match one more time, he will murder someone because he has an important exam tomorrow morning and he only just finished cramming and the heating is off again and if he has to be cold and dream of dead poets, then that’s okay, except he cannot sleep, because the neighbours keep ripping into each other at a volume that’d get them the police on their doorstep in any other part of town.
Athelstan presses his pillow over his head, tucks his feet tighter into his thickest pair of woolly socks and prays for patience, or, alternately, lightning to strike his neighbours dead. It’s not very charitable, but he is pretty sure charity has never met three am, so that’s okay.
It’s not helping him fall asleep.
He counts to ten.
Downstairs, a plate breaks and the blonde warrior queen he occasionally glimpses in the hallway screams in inarticulate rage.
He pushes harder on the pillow. His ear hurts from the pressure.
The man, a fierce, tattooed thing with teeth that remind Athelstan of nothing so much as a wild animal, roars back his answer.
There is banging, the sound of something falling off the wall.
Elsewhere in the building, someone screams abuse.
The alarm clock ticks over to 3:04 am.
“I am going to murder you in your sleep, you good for nothing waste of fucking space!” the queen rages and Athelstan slams his pillow down beside him and grunts, “If only.”
“You’re completely fucking insane, woman!” the animal snaps back and then something else breaks, something else bangs, and the clock says 3:06 am.
His exam starts at eight and his entire future hinges on it.
He gets up. He marches out of his shoebox bedroom into his even smaller living room and from there, straight out the front door in nothing but his ratty sweats, woolly socks and too large t-shirt with faded print. He avoids the suspicious stains on the hallway carpet and walks, very quietly, down the stairs and along until he finds flat 2B, directly below his.
Then he raises his hand and bangs his fist against it three times.
Inside, the queen stops in the middle of a truly impressive threat to the animal’s manhood.
The door opens.
Athelstan is too tired to wait to be invited, just shoulders in. He’ll be mortified in the morning, but he’s desperate, sleep-deprived and stressed out of his mind right now. He has no time for mortification.
“You two,” he snaps, stopping three feet inside the door, next to the shards of what looks like it was once a vase. “Are very, very loud and it is very, very late. Would you mind terribly having your fight at a more humane time of day and, perhaps, volume?”
He smiles and it probably looks like he’s bearing his teeth, but he can’t care. Queen and Animal (he really needs to find out their names) stand there, staring at him. Both wear even less than he does, he realizes, and wonders how they keep warm. But then, they’re getting healthy exercise down here, so maybe that keeps the blood pumping. Or something.
The queen blinks once. Her boyfriend doesn’t. He has tattoos down both arms and along one side of his chest and his pants hang so low, a stiff breeze could make Athelstan’s day. He looks and then looks away.
Finally the queen unfreezes enough to punch him – hot guy with tattoos - in the arm. Hard. “Fantastic, Ragnar, really!” she barks, clearly even more displeased now that she knows the whole building is listening. Her voice could cut diamond.
“I’m not the one screeching like a madwoman,” Ragnar defends, sneering.
How they have this much energy this late as night is a riddle.
“I am not!” she defends, before abruptly stepping into Athelstan’s space. The oversized shirt she’d wearing barely reaches the tops of her thighs. He can make out a tattoo on her left leg, large and detailed, something with scales. He looks away when he realizes he’s staring, catches her amused gaze as she leans into him.
“Tell me, neighbour,” she says, suddenly all sugar, “what would you do, if your boyfriend of three years flat out refused to take you with him to see his parents!”
“You bitch,” Ragnar howls. “I never said that! I said I don’t even want to go see them! That’s completely different!”
“Stop calling me a bitch, before I rip your balls off!”
Ragnar punches the wall with a snarl that sends Athelstan’s hindbrain into full fight or flight mode. The queen, utterly unimpressed, grabs an ashtray from an end table and aims, arm hauling back like she means to throw it through someone.
Tomorrow, Athelstan will feel the appropriate terror at being in the same room as a couple of psychopaths with anger management issues. Tonight, numb, tired, exhausted, he plucks the ashtray from her hand and flings it on the couch before pointing a finger at Ragnar.
“Correct me if I am wrong,” he starts, still a little dazed by al the skin and rage and lack of sleep, “but it sounds like you’re not on very good terms with your parents.”
Ragnar nods, looking a bit stunned.
No fucks are being given.
“And you probably don’t want to take her along because you think they’ll ruin everything. And you,” he turns to the girl. “think the exact opposite, that he thinks you’ll be the one to ruin things.” She blinks again, surprised. If they haven’t realized yet that he’s spent the past three hours listening to every single iteration of this argument, he won’t be the one to break it to them. “I suggest you either start communicating or get therapy. Whatever you do, do it quietly. I have an exam to sit in, oh good Lord, four and a half hours and if I fail, I will probably kill myself, so please, please, I beg of you, please, have your makeup sex more quietly than usual. Please.”
With that he nods to them both, spins on his heel, almost lands on his face because woolly socks and then walks out with the last shreds of his dignity wrapped around him like a shroud, fighting the urge to giggle hysterically. He just told two complete strangers how to deal with their screwed-up relationship. And he said ‘sex’ out loud. To their faces.
The monks at the orphanage would be appalled.
Dimly, he is aware of someone a few doors down applauding him.
He’s never been so daring before. He clears their door, their hallway, the stairs, circumnavigates the stain, slips back inside his own flat and into his bed.
The blankets have gone cold in his absence. The clocks says 3:14 am.
Downstairs, everything is silent.
At 3:23 am, the bedsprings start squeaking.
Athelstan was wrong about being mortified in the morning. He has no time for it.
He wakes at seven and stumbles out of his flat twenty minutes later, shoes untied, hair uncombed, bag slung over his shoulder the wrong way around. It takes more than fifty minutes from here to campus. He’ll be ten minutes late, no matter what he does now and the clock is ticking.
He steps outside his door and almost breaks his leg to avoid stepping on something small and new on his ratty welcome mat. It’s a plate. On top of it, folded over a muffin, is a piece of paper.
It says good luck in spiky, tall letters.
Athelstan blinks at the offering, looks around for its owner and finds no-one, except the next door cat who is slinking around like she’d love to take the baked goods off his hands. He snarls at her and scoops up the muffin, kicking the plate into his flat in the same movement. He closes the door, jumps over the cat, and starts running.
He catches the bus with seconds to spare, lands between a lady smelling of cabbage and a teenage wannabe gang-banger, who looks like he can’t decide whether to shoot or stab Athelstan in the face. He thinks of the queen in a shirt that didn’t belong to her and her boyfriend with the bearing of a warrior of old and looks down at the slightly worse-for-wear muffin in his hand.
It’s chocolate and a bit stale, but it’s the first thing he’s eaten since lunch yesterday.
It tastes delicious.
He is only eight minutes late.
After the pre-exam haze and the exam-fear, the post-exam haze of exhaustion, giddiness and relief sets in. If he didn’t crash and fail spectacularly, this was the last exam of his university career. He’s done. Finished. Officially done with university forever and ever and ever.
All he wants to do is sleep forever.
He stumbles home, almost trips over the plate for the second time today, strips off his panic-sweaty clothes and drops onto his lumpy mattress.
Six hours later, he startles awake with a gasp, realizing who the muffin was from and that he did not, in fact, dream going downstairs and yelling at his intimidatingly hot and aloof neighbours.
He gropes around for his pillow, finds it on the floor and promptly tries to smother himself with it.
It takes him two days to work up the nerve to go and apologize. In his defence, he spends half that time sleeping off the stress of the last couple of months, but still. They are gorgeous and vicious and half the building thinks they are either porn stars of serial killers or, possibly, both, and he barged into their flat and yelled at them both like some kind of sleep-deprived madman, which, okay, yes.
But that’s not who Athelstan is. He is polite, friendly, shy. He was raised by men of God and he believes in being kind.
Brother Gunther, an old, stooped German, had a saying that didn’t translate well: What you shout into the forest comes back. It’s about echoes and behaviour and the Golden Rule and Athelstan believes in that, too.
Except, he thinks, in this case the forest started screeching, roaring and howling before he ever uttered a single sound, so he was possibly not completely in the wrong, but. Brother Gunther would be disappointed in him.
So he washes the plate, steels himself, and walks downstairs. He’s even wearing clothes this time. He knocks politely and half hopes no-one is home.
Of course, he’s not that lucky.
The door opens just as he’s about to turn away, revealing the queen with glasses on her nose and a pencil stuck in her pale hair. She’s dressed, too. It’s nice.
“Hello, neighbour,” she says with a small twist of her lips when he stares at her dumbly for a second, like the rabbit in front of the snake.
He thrusts the plate in her face. “I think this is yours,” he tells her. He sounds like a nervous twelve-year-old.
She takes it from him with another quirk of the lips. “Thank you,” she allows. “We’re running low.”
Athelstan takes a deep breath. “With that plate also comes an apology. I was over the line, barging into your flat and telling you what to do. It was rude and terribly inappropriate. Please forgive me.”
Her head cocks to one side. “You actually mean that,” she realizes after a minute of silent fidgeting on his part.
He nods so hard his head might fly off. “Of course.”
She nods, too, just once. He’s so jealous of the way she conducts herself, perfectly in control, that he wants to weep.
“I’m Lagertha,” she tells him. “You should stay for dinner.”
He can’t help it. He blurts, “Lagertha and Ragnar?”
She chuckles. “Yes. Ragnar says we were fated. No-one else would have people with names like ours.”
And because sometimes he does have a sense of comedic timing, Athelstan holding out his hand and offers, “Hello. I’m Athelstan.”
Lagertha laughs out loud. Then she shakes his hand and uses it to draw him inside, despite his protests. “Now you have to stay and meet Ragnar properly. He’ll love you. And we owe you an apology.”
“No, please, the muffin…”
“Was stale and store-bought and not a very good apology. You looked wrecked when you came down,” she declares and pulls him along to the sofa, where she takes him by the shoulders and shoves him down to sit. A laptop and a myriad of notebooks and sketchbooks are open on the battered old coffee table. She shoves everything into a pile. “I’m a graphic designer,” she says, “freelancer, so I work from home, mostly. Excuse the mess.” She sits down next to him because there is really nowhere else to sit. “Tell me about your exam. Did you pass?”
He wants to protest, tell her he only came to apologize, that he has plans, but she gives him a look over her glasses and all thoughts of escape die a quick death. Lagertha, he thinks, does not like being told no. And why would she? She doubts anyone has the balls to even try.
So he answers her question. Promptly.
Ragnar comes thundering into the flat an hour later, cursing about this and that before he even clears the entrance and stopping as soon as he sees they have a guest.
He stops and a wicked smirk crosses his face. “Are we to get another lecture?” he wants to know and Athelstan turns cherry red.
Lagertha laughs. “He brought back our plate, which is a good thing, because now we have enough to eat from.”
Ragnar snorts and swoops in to kiss his girlfriend. It’s filthy and far too close, so Athelstan scoots away as far as he can and tries not to watch. They have interesting sketches tacked up on the far wall. They look original.
“And whose fault is it we only have three plates left?” Ragnar asks as he finally pulls back. His lips are kiss-swollen.
There is a sketch of a dragon in flight that looks breathtakingly real.
Lagertha follows his eyes and explains, “Ragnar is a tattoo artist. Those are all his. Good, huh?”
He nods, then jumps as she smacks her boyfriend on the arse. Hard. “Go cook dinner, he’s staying,” she announces and Ragnar rolls his eyes and yanks on a loose curl of her hair, but disappears into the bedroom to change and then shortly starts puttering around the small kitchen.
“You really don’t have to,” Athelstan starts again, but all that gets him is twin looks of scorn and raised eyebrows.
“You’re terrifying,” he blurts, and then promptly slaps a hand over his face. Ah, there is the long awaited mortification.
Ragnar’s laugh is deep enough to be felt to the bone. “And yet, you’ve braved the lion’s den not once, but twice. Respect, Priest.”
The older man points at the cross Athelstan wears. “I’ve never seen you without it. Are you not a priest?”
He’s not sure what to address first, the cross, or the fact that, apparently, Ragnar has noticed him before the other night. “Hardly,” is what he finally settles on. “The orphanage I grew up in gives a cross like this to every child who leaves. It’s good luck.”
It’s a piece of home, of good memories, a token of a faith he’s never quite taken to but always found comfort in. Something familiar in a world where he is, literally and absolutely alone.
Ragnar stops in the middle of chopping an onion with a wicked looking knife to study Athelstan for a moment. There is no pity in his gaze at the revelation about Athelstan’s childhood, only consideration. “I think I will call you Priest, anyway.”
Lagertha kicks her legs up on the coffee table. “His name is Athelstan,” she informs the room at large and, like she promised, Ragnar’s eyes light up.
It starts a discussion about names and origins and they both reveal that they have Swedish roots. Ragnar’s parents immigrated before he was born, while Lagertha lived in Uppsala until she was eight. They didn’t realize that they both have distant family living within miles of each other until they were dating for over a year.
Conversation flows from there and before he realizes it, Athelstan is helping Lagertha clean up after dinner, still talking easily with both of them. They have little in common with him, at first glance, artists, both of them, and he the boring student of linguistics, whose life’s dream is working in a library and having five cats, but somehow, Lagertha and Ragnar keep him talking, talking, talking.
“And the next time,” Lagertha says as he finally manages to extricate himself, “just bang on the floor when we get loud.”
He giggles a little, shaking his head in disbelief. “I’ve tried that,” he tells her, standing in the open doorway. “You never hear me.”
And then he’s gone, Ragnar’s roaring laughter following him all the way back upstairs.
He honestly expects that to be it. They have their lives and he has his and they might greet each other by name now, but really, they have little in common, despite a nice evening, and what would they want with him anyway.
A week after the dinner, there is a hard knock on his door and when he opens, he finds Ragnar standing outside with a pissed look on his face and a bag slung over his shoulder. “I’ve locked myself out,” he snarls, “and Lagertha is with a customer. Can I wait here?”
And Athelstan finds himself stepping aside almost without thinking and a moment later he has a tall, tattooed warrior king sitting on his sagging sofa. He’s not used to having guests.
He bustles around, clears some of the detritus left over from cramming sessions back onto the shelves that line the entire room. Then he offers Ragnar something to drink and realizes he only has water and leftover apple juice.
“Water’s fine,” Ragnar announces and stands to peruse the bookshelves. “What’s your favourite?” he asks, tilting his head this way and that, like he’s trying to figure out Athelstan’s system.
(There isn’t one. He sorts roughly by genre and then by preference, or year, or connection between books. There are clusters of one subject here and there and the occasional notebook tucked in between.)
Athelstan hands him his glass and walks over to the shelf closest to the bedroom there. There, on eyelevel, he keeps his favourites and, on a whim, he tucks one of them out from between the others.
Ragnar plucks it out of his hands and turns it over, studying the cover with the volcano, the praise on the back. He opens it. “Autobiography of Red. This is poetry,” he announces.
“Epic poem,” Athelstan corrects. “It more a story told in verse. Like the – “
“Greeks,” Ragnar finishes for him. “What’s it about?”
“A monster, mostly,” Athelstan hedges. “Trying to find your place in the world. She uses a lot of religious imagery. A lot of her work is retellings of older tales, from the bible, or antiquity. I like to see how many references I can find.”
It’s what he does for fun. He knows it’s boring, but he finds comfort in the familiar tales he was read as a child, twisted in new and interesting ways.
Ragnar laughs, suddenly, and Athelstan, taken aback, reaches for the book. He’s revealed too much. But Ragnar refuses to release it, shaking his head. “It suits you, Priest. Personally, I prefer the Norse myths. More blood and battles.”
He twists his left hand to reveal a tattoo reaching from his wrist almost to his knuckles. It’s Thor’s hammer, the head spreading onto the back of his hand, artfully detailed. “I did this myself,” he announces. “God of Thunder. He’s a good god to worship.”
With that he turns and makes his way back to the sofa, starting to read without another word. Athelstan watches for a moment, then gives up, grabs a random book and joins him.
Some time later there is another knock and Athelstan looks up to find they’ve been reading for over an hour. Ragnar meets his gaze, grins widely and goes back to his book. Rude.
Lagertha stands on the other side of the door, her laptop case slung over one shoulder, a bag of Chinese take-out in hand. She busses a kiss on his cheek as she slips past him asking, “Where are your forks?”
“You…,” are invading my flat, brought dinner for me, intend to eat here, are very rude, have no sense of boundaries, are treating me like an old friend, confuse me terribly. He says none of those things. “Second drawer on the left.”
She drops her bag on the table, rubs an affectionate hand over Ragnar’s shaved head as she passes him and finds the forks on the first try. Then she shoves a random container into his hands, sits down on his rickety kitchen chair and says, “Thank you for minding Ragnar. He chews on the furniture if left alone too long.”
Ragnar takes the book without asking.
The next day, Athelstan has a job interview. Since he’s still waiting for his actual graduation and certificates and all that, and quit his last job right before the exams to get through them with his head in the game, he needs something to tide him over.
There is a coffee shop about ten minutes’ walk from his flat and they are hiring. The salary is enough to make rent and eat, there’d be practically no commute and the hours are good. He wants that job.
So he puts on one of the few neat shirts he owns and goes to be interviewed by a pimply twenty-year-old who has ‘junior manager’ written on his name tag instead of an actual name.
Athelstan is only twenty-five, but he feel ancient next to the snot-nosed kid who reads that Athelstan has studied literature and linguistics and starts lording all his ‘work experience’ and worldliness almost immediately.
Still, after a test run at the machines (this is not his first job, no matter what the kid thinks, he paid his way through university somehow, didn’t he?), he is hired and told he starts tomorrow, ten sharp.
“If you’re late, you’re fired,” the junior manager calls after him as he leaves. He waves in acknowledgement and walks home.
He does a load of laundry so he has clean clothes to wear and starts straightening the flat because it’s overdue. Around dinnertime, there is a knock on the door and he thinks, vaguely, that he’s never had as many visitors as in the past twenty-four hours.
Since that makes all of three, he decides never to tell anyone.
It’s Lagertha, like he half knew it would be, her glasses jammed back on her nose, curious expression on her face. “So, did you get the job?”
He mentioned the interview in passing the night before and, apparently, she remembered. He holds up the standard contract with two signatures at the bottom, nodding and smiling.
She hugs him and stays to chat a while before making her excuses. She’s working on a big project and only wanted to see if he needed consoling. He’s strangely touched, wishes her a good night.
“We’ll celebrate on the weekend,” she tells him as she goes, disappearing into the stairwell before he can protest.
... And then they bone.