On the way here it had been a starry evening, but when Clara stepped out of the door again, the sky was dark and overcast.
The wind felt like rain too, she thought, huddling deeper into her hoodie and big puffy jacket. The crisp chill of a sunny fall day had made way for a wet, misty chill that crept into her bones and made her face hurt, and she'd never been too good with cold weather in the first place. How Freddie beside her was comfortable in just a leather jacket over a T-shirt was a mystery beyond her.
"How are you not freezing?" she muttered, briefly taking her hands out of her pockets to breathe life into them. "I get cold just looking at you."
Blinking in surprise, Freddie glanced at her, then down along himself. "You're cold?" he said, sounding so genuinely baffled that she almost started laughing on the spot. "But it's only gotten nice outside."
"Speak for yourself," Clara replied, pulling her hood down into her face. "I guess you really are a vampire or something."
They rounded a corner, and a sudden gust of wind yanked at their clothes and hair, knocking off Clara's hood and throwing Freddie's hair into his eyes. Sputtering, he brushed it out of his face and laughed, and before she knew it Clara started laughing with him. What exactly was so funny, she herself couldn't tell. He simply had the kind of laugh you couldn't ignore; he was laughing with his whole body, his face scrunching up with glee, his voice resounding off the walls of the sleeping streets. Laughing in caps lock, she thought, and it struck her oddly as something Giselle might say.
"Told you this season's not all that," she told him, pulling her hood back up. "The only good parts are the hot drinks and the holidays."
"You're forgetting the dark," Freddie replied. "Nothing worse than going to bed in summer and your room's still hot enough to boil soup without a stove."
Clara snorted. "I'd rather be too hot than freeze my toes off, honestly."
"Just wear something warmer! It's an easy fix! But when it's ninety-five degrees outside and even your ice cream is begging for a cold drink, what are you gonna do? Take your skin off?"
"Turn on a fan?"
"It's barely bearable with the fan on! That thing is crying into its hands as we speak!"
The corners of Clara's mouth twitched. "You sure have a lot of colorful descriptions for the heat," she said.
Freddie stopped in his tracks, and she couldn't tell for sure in the dim light, but she could've sworn his cheeks turned pink. "You have to cope with it somehow," he replied. "If you can't make it go away, at least you can call it names."
She raised an eyebrow. "Does it work?"
"Then maybe I should try it sometime." She breathed into her hands again. "And here I always thought that if you can't change a bad thing, you should just ignore it."
He turned his head as he resumed walking. "But it's still shit even if you ignore it," he said. "How does that help?"
"You just arrange yourself with it," she replied. "No need to waste your energy, you know?"
He pulled a face, but he didn't try to question it any further. For some time they walked on in silence. Clara couldn't quite decide if it was awkward or not, if she should say something or if she had the leisure for more conversation in the first place. She should hurry up and get home, do her reading, go to sleep. Pretend the very thought didn't make her miserable, because it wasn't like she could do anything about it anyway.
The wind picked up.
"It better not start raining," Clara muttered, burrowing even deeper into her jacket. "Why does it always rain when I've forgotten my umbrella?"
"We can find shelter somewhere," Freddie replied, scanning their surroundings, but aside from the store in the distance they offered little protection. "Like…I don't know."
The first raindrops fell from the sky and landed on the concrete ground with a heavy patter.
"Store's still open," Clara remarked, pointing towards the glowing sign above the entrance. "Or do you feel like diving into a driveway?"
As if on cue, the rain got heavier. Clara glanced at Freddie. Freddie glanced at Clara. Both of them made a snap decision.
"Race you to the door!" Clara said and ran.
Behind her, Freddie let out a startled shout, then took off after her. He had the longer legs, and Clara had never been the fastest runner in the first place; but she'd be damned if she let herself lose, and so she sprinted the whole way through the increasingly heavy rain while the cold wind slapped wet strands of hair against her neck and face. Freddie laughed and picked up speed, but each time he tried to overtake her she pushed herself just a little harder, a little faster, until they both collapsed breathlessly in the brightly lit entrance.
"Damn, you're fast," Freddie gasped out, brushing his hair out of his face and grinning. "But I still won."
Clara sat down on the floor. "You have the longer legs," she said. "How's that a fair competition?"
"You started it!"
"I wasn't thinking." She shook herself like a wet dog, drops of water falling from her hair and flying everywhere. "If I'd thought this through, I wouldn't have challenged you."
Her breaths were still coming in gasps, her shoulders and chest rising and falling sharply. Beside her, Freddie had already caught himself, standing above her like a watchtower as a stranger passed them by with a plastic bag in each hand. Clara deliberately tried to slow down her breathing. Damn it, where had her stamina gone? She shouldn't be this exhausted from a quick sprint. Why had she gone all in for a silly little race anyway? Not losing was one thing, but shouldn't she know her limits?
Before she could form a response, Freddie crouched down beside her, resting his elbows on his folded-up legs. He really was mostly limbs, she thought. No wonder she'd lost the race.
"Who, me? I'm all good," she said automatically, still trying to steady her breath. "Don't worry, I can handle myself."
Nodding, he lowered himself, resting his back against the wall. More strangers passed them by, hurrying inside with jackets or umbrellas over their heads or venturing back outside with bags full of necessities. Outside the door, the rain was still pouring.
"We're not getting out of here anytime soon," Clara remarked after a while, "are we?"
"Not on foot," Freddie agreed. "Why, you in a hurry to get home?"
Common sense said yes. It would already be late enough as things were.
She let out a slow breath.
"Not really in a hurry," she admitted, running a hand through her still-damp hair. "I still have something to do when I get home, but I can just stay up late."
He turned his head. "You're not tired yet?"
"I don't get tired," she retorted, shooting him an amused look. "Sleep is for the weak."
"I should start saying that!" he burst out, only to catch himself and fall abruptly silent. His eyes avoided hers, resting all too eagerly on the faded patterns of the tile floor.
"Right," she mused, "you're always awake late too." She adjusted her position against the wall. "Night owl, huh?"
He turned away.
"Insomnia," he said.
Abruptly she felt stupid for asking at all. "Oh."
"It's okay, I don't need much sleep anyway." Smiling, he rose back to his feet, offering her a hand up. "Can we go in? It's still raining."
It was, and their spot on the floor wasn't getting any more comfortable. Shrugging, Clara took his hand and stood up. His long, bony fingers curled around her palm, cool and callused, and suddenly she couldn't shake the feeling that she had just struck a deal with the devil.
"Where are we going now?" she asked as they strolled inside, breathing a sigh of relief at the sudden warmth hitting her skin. "The candy aisle?"
He cracked a grin. "To get jelly beans?"
"Without accidentally roasting you this time?" she added. "You don't even dress like a bag of jelly beans."
He regarded her with open amusement in his face, and on an impulse she said, "More like black licorice or something."
Freddie cracked up, and there it was again, that caps lock laugh of his. For someone who would look intimidating at a glance, she mused, it really was easy to make him laugh. A few people turned around to look at him, but he didn't seem to notice.
But before they could get to the candy aisle, Freddie paused in front of the record shelves again, and Clara right with him. His eyes lingered on one corner, the very same corner that had made her pause and remember her teenage years just a couple weeks before.
"One day," he muttered, "it'll be us on there."
His hand was half extended toward the shelf, his face grave and serious, determined; but his eyes were gleaming with hope. Clara followed his gaze, tried to picture it. At the mental image, she smiled.
"It really will," she said softly, trailing her fingers along one of the shelves. "All you need to do is find your audience."
For a long, quiet moment, Freddie only looked at her. His open book of a face was strangely unreadable.
"You think?" he asked at last, his voice faint, like he barely dared to hope. "That sounds too good to be true."
Her smile widened. "You can make it come true anyway," she replied, turning back to the CDs. "If you ask me, you definitely have more talent than some of the guys on this shelf."
The spark of humor returned to his face. "Hey!"
"Don't give me that look, I've got all the good ones at home." She went over the shelves with her finger, pointing out all the records she owned. "Like this one, this one, this one—all of these—that one. I think they're still lying around in my childhood bedroom."
Freddie's eyes lit up. "I have all of these too!" he burst out, then reached past her into the shelf. "Have you listened to this one?" he said, holding an album from a band she'd never heard of in her face. "I got it on accident, but I can't stop listening to it. You should check it out!"
Intrigued, she took the CD from his hands, inspecting it to memorize the band name and title. "I have to look it up when I'm back home." Abruptly her reading popped back into her mind, and she grimaced. "Tomorrow," she corrected herself. "I'm fully booked tonight, but I promise I won't forget."
Freddie frowned, and there it was again, that strange, irrational feeling of having said too much. She really needed to stick to the script, she reminded herself. "What do you even have to do tonight?"
"Just some reading for a class," she said lightly, turning back towards the shelf. "It's not that much, but it's pretty technical and I have to know it by tomorrow morning, so…yeah."
He didn't answer at once. She could still feel his gaze on the back of her head, and she didn't dare turn around.
"I could never do what you do," he said at length, genuine admiration in his voice. "Memorizing, all this technical shit…I already hated it at school."
To be honest, I did too.
The thought shot through her before she could stop it. "Sometimes you have to wade through that to get to the good parts," she said instead. "And the good parts are pretty good, so it's honestly fine."
Freddie leaned against the shelf. "What are the good parts of this reading?"
Blinking, she opened her mouth to answer, but only an awkward laugh came out. "Uh—"
"Not that I know shit about programming," he admitted, cracking a lopsided smile. "But what can you do with it?"
For the next couple minutes Clara found herself explaining the basics of computer science and programming to him, then summing up the subject of her reading and its practical uses, complete with the patchy knowledge she already had. She doubted Freddie understood any of it, but he listened with rapt attention, looking so fascinated that even she suddenly found herself more excited about the task.
"That's awesome," he said at length, pushing himself off the shelf to stand up straight again. "And you're awesome for doing it. I could never do that for the rest of my life."
The rest of my life, huh.
From one second to another, Clara's newfound enthusiasm vanished like the light of a snuffed-out candle.
"Good thing we're not the same person," she remarked casually, swallowing the dread pooling in the pit of her stomach. "Someone's gotta do it, right?"
Freddie gave a nod, his face understanding, and Clara steered the conversation back towards music and records. In the end they didn't buy anything. Clara had half considered getting a physical copy of the album Freddie had recommended, but in the age of streaming services, what would've been the point?
Someone's gotta do it, she reminded herself later as she sat down to read, after the rain had stopped and Freddie had walked her home before getting out his phone to call Theo on her doorstep. There were a lot of things someone had to do. And waiting for volunteers was one thing, but not everyone had the time and leisure and resources to wait for a person who was truly eager for the task.
In her case, there were simply no other options. There were no other someones she could push the task off on.
So she made herself comfortable and tried to read, but the whole time her mind kept straying back to her CD collection at home and the empty shelf behind her.