After saving the world came a lot of talking. Mitch stood with his arm around Jordan and talked to reporters and Dr. Meredith and Congressman Dougton and just about every neighbor Hathaway had, and occasionally he'd look up and catch Chris's eye.
Later Mitch went over the entire time, searching his memory for Chris. He found snapshots: Chris standing on the periphery. Chris laughing at something Mitch didn't notice. Chris diving into the popcorn snow. Chris buried in popcorn. In the last snapshot, the last time Mitch saw him, Chris was constructing a tower of popcorn with a five-year-old girl, both of them utterly intent on it.
The next time Mitch looked for him, Chris was gone. Mitch wasn't worried. They'd had a brutal few days, even for Pacific Tech students, and when Chris crashed, he crashed hard.
Eventually, everyone Mitch needed to talk to was gone, and Jordan wanted to redo some of her volumetric calculations and investigate the heat dispersal, so they went back to the dorm. Before she headed to her room, she kissed him on the cheek without ever stopping her discussion about the flashpoint of drywall, and Mitch found himself grinning as he walked on to his room without her.
He noticed, of course, that Chris wasn't in their room, but there was something else off, too. Mitch stood in the middle of the room, right in the center of the dividing line between his organization and Chris's chaos, and looked around. A few things were missing: Chris's Carmen Miranda hat, his bunny slippers, his floppy disk case. When Mitch checked the closet, he found most of Chris's clothes gone, too, and his shoes. Mitch blinked and went over to Chris's desk. His computer was still there, most of his files intact, and his notebooks were sitting in a worryingly neat stack to one side. Mitch flipped through them - Chris's geometrical optics notes were there, and all the atmospheric diffusion work they'd done. He picked up the notebook filled with the questions Lazlo had researched for them and riffled through it. A page fell out. It read:
Be seeing you. Feed the fish.
Mitch scanned the paper automatically, checking the back, the alignment of the letters, the anagrams of them, every mark and rip on the page. He couldn't find any coded message. Apparently that was really all Chris had had to say. He stared at the paper for a long, empty moment, then balled it up and threw it away.
Five minutes later, he fished it out, flattened it, and pinned it to the corkboard.
Mitch spent the summer term looking for Chris. Or, more accurately, he spent the summer term almost seeing Chris. Every time he turned a corner, he thought he saw Chris up ahead, ducking into the library or climbing a tree in the Decker Quad or spraying the founders' statues with water-soluble florescent paint.
Jordan noticed him looking around the campus, searching for something that wasn't there. "You know, when I first came here I was sixteen, and I thought - you didn't know Sanjay, did you? He was the one who doubled the speed of the elevators in Gell-Mann Hall and changed all the fire escapes over to slides. Back home people didn't build things just because they could, and he was really pretty amazing, he had the most gorgeous schematics I'd ever seen, I just wanted to stare at them for hours, and - anyway, after he graduated, it was months before I really felt okay about changing the banking on the emergency slides."
"Yeah," Mitch told her, and smiled. It only felt a little forced. "I guess it'll be months before I feel okay cleaning up Chris's mess, huh?"
Jordan wasn't big on eye contact most of the time, but that got him a solid ten seconds before she looked away. "Um, I guess so, except I was more talking about -" she said, and then she abruptly changed the subject to mixed-signal circuits.
She was right, though. After a while, Mitch started sorting through Chris's stuff. "I'm not throwing anything away," he told the room before he started, like he thought Chris was watching him through a closed-circuit monitor. He didn't bother to say that he wasn't looking for clues. Chris wasn't watching. And even if he was - well, Mitch had never been very good at lying to Chris.
Without Chris around, he had so much more time it was weird. He wasn't trying to absorb the material for senior classes along with his own, he wasn't building anything world-destroying. He wasn't going to any parties, either. So it was no trouble to call Darlington and see if Chris had started yet. (He hadn't.) A few weeks later, Mitch snuck the Peterson's out of the library and called the top twenty physics departments. Then he called the next ten, and the next ten, and the next. He managed to make himself stop at number seventy; Chris was never going to go to Nebraska.
Chris wasn't going to go to grad school at all, apparently.
Jordan came and sat with him during some of the phone calls, although of course for Jordan "sitting" meant "constructing a shelving system for Chris's stuff, and then installing a lever and pulley system on rails so that some of the heavier items could be moved more easily."
After Mitch sincerely thanked the USC physics department secretary and hung up the phone, Jordan shifted her safety goggles to the top of her head and said, "I'm sure he's okay. I mean, I don't think he's cracked up or anything, because I've gotten pretty good at seeing the signs in the past three years, and I'm 85 percent sure I know all the ways it can play out, so he's probably just taking a break. You'd be surprised how many people do that after they leave here. Like, you never knew Alex, but he left here and worked as a roadie for some band, and I think Shauna's still surfing. The brochures they send all talk about increasing our capacity to achieve by accelerating our learning process, and I guess it works for some people, but some people get through here and they're just - done for a while." She slid her goggles back down on her face and picked up soldering iron. "He'll turn up," she said, and flicked it on.
"Yeah, I know," Mitch said.
By the end of summer term, Mitch wasn't so sure. Chris still wasn't enrolled in any graduate program - Mitch had even checked Nebraska, plus the major universities in Canada, Europe, Mexico, Australia, Africa, South America, and Asia - and he wasn't working at Darlington or any of the other big-name defense contractors that Darlington had outbid for Chris. He wasn't anywhere.
During the intersession, Mitch went into the closet and down into Lazlo's steam tunnels, just in case. He couldn't picture Chris living down there, away from the sun and people and noise, but he had to check.
Lazlo'd taken the best of his things, of course, but even what he'd left behind was interesting. There was a computer faster than anything Mitch had ever seen; Jordan took it apart and found a 20 MHz processor, which was the talk of the school for days. Mitch pulled a bunch of stuff up from the steam tunnels and sorted through all of it, then boxed up the best of it and mailed it to Lazlo in Wyoming.
Right before he took the box to the post office, he added in Chris's RC helicopter and his collection of She-Ra action figures. (Mitch kept the Boba Fett.) The universe didn't come crashing down around his ears.
A month after the start of the semester, Mitch sent another package off to Ick at Stanford. He gave Jordan Chris's toolbox. He dug up Kent's new address - he was working in the industry, surprisingly - and sent him all of Chris's unused floppy disks, after randomly writing data to them; he figured Kent needed something relaxing to do, and sorting through random data for patterns was perfect for him.
He came back from the post office and just sat on his bed for a while, staring at the holes where Chris's stuff used to be.
The next day, Mitch woke up at five to Jordan painting his ceiling. "I was waiting for you to wake up," she explained, "and then I noticed that whoever painted this ceiling didn't prime it right, so I thought I'd better fix that."
When Mitch came back from the bathroom, she'd finished and was packing her stuff up. "It's going to smell for a while," she said. "Do you want to sleep in my bed?" She added, "Not with me in it, unless you just - but I meant I don't use it much, and now that the varnish is dry in there there's no smell, so I just meant if you wanted to get more sleep, that would be a good place. I wouldn't bother you. I could stay in here, actually, and rewire your outlets."
"Nah," Mitch told her. "I'm up."
"Oh, good!" she said. "Then I wanted to tell you we're having a party tonight. It was supposed to be a surprise, but some people don't like surprises. Surprises like that, they kind of freak me out, so I thought this would be a good time to tell you, because then it's a surprise, but you still have time to get used to it."
"We're having a party?" Mitch blinked at her. They hadn't had any serious parties since Chris left; it wasn't just in Mitch's imagination that the campus was colder and quieter with Chris gone.
"It's Friday," Jordan told him. "And it's your birthday."
"Right," Mitch said. He'd honestly forgotten.
"Sweet sixteen!" Jordan said. "I guess. Are guys sweet sixteen too, or is it just girls?"
Mitch waited for Chris to come in with a joke, since that was obviously his cue. Nothing.
Maybe he wasn't entirely done with expecting to see Chris.
Or maybe he was. The party went well - it wasn't a Chris Knight kind of party at all, more a Mitch and Jordan party, with Risk and Missile Command and an AD&D session that devolved into a giant rules argument, and no alcohol to speak of - and afterward, walking back to the dorm, Jordan wrapped her arms around Mitch and they made out for fifteen minutes.
Mitch stumbled back to his room, hard and already planning to jerk off before bed. When he opened the door, he saw the clock first - 3:07, fuck, he had to be up in four hours, better make it fast. He toed off his shoes, stripped off his shirt, and reached over to grab his toiletries kit from the cabinet.
Only then did he register that someone was sitting on Chris's old bed.
"Uh -" Mitch said, and he'd closed the door behind him already, and his heart was accelerating, and then -
"Mitch, unclench," Chris said.
Mitch stumbled to his bed and sat down hard. "Where have you been?" he said, and winced, because his voice sounded higher than he wanted it to.
"Big world out there," Chris said.
"You weren't at Darlington," Mitch said, "and you weren't in grad school," and then he shut up, because he didn't want to sound as obsessive and stupid as he obviously was.
"Mitch, I know this is going to come as a shock to you. It was to me. But there are people in this world, lots of people, who have never been to graduate school. They see the sun on a regular basis, and a lot of them still have souls."
"But you have all this potential," Mitch said, and then he wanted to kick himself, because he sounded like his own parents. He shouldn't have stayed up so late playing Go with Kristen Valdez. He wasn't managing to say what he really meant. He wasn't even sure what he really meant, except that he wanted Chris to stay where he could see him, and talk to him, and reach him someday.
"Yeah," Chris said. "So much potential I almost killed a whole bunch of people. No, wait! I did kill a whole bunch of people. Every grant I've ever worked on has been DoD money, did you know that?"
Mitch blinked. "But that's - I mean, lots of things can be -" He knew he was floundering and broke off.
"But enough about me," Chris said, and even in the dark, with his eyes still not perfectly adjusted, Mitch knew exactly how Chris would look, the expression in his face, his eyes bright and focused on Mitch. "Tell me about yourself, young Jedi."
"Uh, well, I'm still in optics and lasers, but I've been branching out into electromagnetic theory," Mitch said. "I'm in Dr. Sayegh's lab now. In my spare time, I'm trying to reverse engineer some of the stuff Lazlo left behind."
"Have I taught you nothing?" Chris said, and he was joking and he wasn't. "What of the finer things in life?"
Mitch laughed. "Jordan, you mean?"
The room was silent for a second, and then Chris said, "Sure. Tell me about Jordan."
Mitch kicked off his shoes and stretched out on his bed, settling down with his hands behind his head. "She built an automatic hardwood floor finisher. Turn it on, throw it into the room, close the door, come back in two hours and it's got the floor sanded and varnished. First time she ran it, though, she forgot to include an auto-docking command, so it just stopped where it was when it was finished, and it ended up stuck in the varnish. Jin-Yu built a shell for it and then Nika added some molded weaponry, and now it’s the Common Room Guardian. Jordan says she's going to get it talking for Halloween..."
The next morning, Mitch couldn't remember falling asleep. Chris was gone, and on his bed he'd left a modem with a happy face painted on it.
It took Mitch half an hour to notice that his tie rack was completely empty except for a large note:
WOULD YOU RELAX ALREADY?
Mitch's seventeenth birthday hit him almost before he remembered it was coming. He was grinding through his courses, taking an extended course load so he could graduate in spring instead of having to wait through an extra term, and he moved through the days without really noticing the date.
Jordan was leaving at the end of the year, and they hadn't really talked it through, but he knew how it would go. People left Pacific Tech for grad school or to work in their field, and they disappeared. They were still working 16-hour days, but they were working them somewhere else, and it never took too long for them to fall out of touch. So he was happy when she planned the party, happy to spend the time with her while he could.
Rather than host it anywhere in the dorms, Jordan picked the lock of a classroom in Feynman, one of the big ones that didn't have auditorium seating. On their way over, Jordan said to him, "Are you hoping Chris will come back again? He did last year." She was pushing a pallet with a suspiciously large box on it, and she had refused all offers of help.
Mitch looked down for a second. "I'm hoping, but this is Chris. He's probably in Tibet. I don't think coming back to Pacific Tech every year was ever in his plans." Of all the people Mitch had lost touch with, maybe Chris was the one he should have most expected to. "He doesn't exactly stick around," Mitch told her, and hoped he didn't sound bitter.
"I think sometimes he does," Jordan said. "I think he's going to keep coming back for as long as you're here." She paused to work on one of the wheels on the pallet, so she wasn't looking at Mitch when she said, "Say hi to him for me, okay?"
"Right," Mitch said, and the thing was, he wanted to believe her so much, but he knew better than to let himself do that. Jordan tried to reach for her tiny portable toolkit, but couldn't quite get it with her left hand; he extracted it from her pocket, got out the pliers, and handed it to her. "If I see him, I'll tell him you said hi."
It was a great party, with a laser light show and a smoke machine that was asthma-friendly, in deference to the new star on campus, 14-year-old Tiffany Brit. Even so, Mitch checked the clock way too often. At midnight, he and Jordan settled on one of the couches they'd dragged in, but after about twenty minutes, she sat up and said, "Oh my God! I forgot! I have to work on your present, I forgot to put it together." She pulled her shirt back over her head, so her voice was muffled when she added, "You should go back to your room and wait there. I might not have it all together before the morning."
Mitch hesitated. Jordan had always been a terrible liar and a really good girlfriend. Then he kissed her on the cheek. "Thanks," he told her.
He ran all the way back to the dorm. Outside his room, he paused. He had no reason to believe Chris was in there, and maybe not knowing was better than knowing for sure, in just this one case. He put his hand on the doorknob, not sure whether to turn it or not. After a few seconds, the door popped open from the inside.
"Are you going to keep me waiting all night?" Chris said, miming extravagant impatience. Mitch hadn't seen Chris for a year, so he figured he had an excuse for needing a second to take it all in. Chris had cut his hair short, really bizarrely short. His skin was a little paler than it had been, which ruled out Mitch's theory that he was surf bumming his way around California, and he looked a subtly different in a way Mitch couldn't quite place. He also looked tired, but that wasn't unfamiliar; the last few weeks of their semester together, he'd never looked anything else.
Mitch tuned back in to hear Chris saying, "I come all this way to see you, and this is the thanks I get. You stand there staring - although I understand the impulse, don't get me wrong, I'm fantastic - and don't even invite me in."
Mitch smiled, couldn't even help it. "You're already in," he pointed out, and stepped in himself, closing the door behind him.
Mitch's computer was open, so Chris had apparently been doing something to it, which was fairly pointless, since Jordan took it apart every two weeks or so; at the end of the year, Mitch was going to call in a computer repairman from outside, just to see him break down weeping. But Chris had clearly been doing something. Mitch headed over to see what, but Chris blocked him. "No, uh-uh, you will wait until your present is wrapped, young man. I don't know what they teach in this school these days." He bent back over the computer, angling his body so Mitch couldn't really see what he was doing.
"It hasn't even been two years," Mitch pointed out. "You can probably still remember most of it."
Chris paused, holding a tiny screwdriver up like a torch, and declaimed, "Our time is a very shadow that passeth away."
Mitch waited for that to cycle through his brain, but he didn't entirely understand the result. "Old Testament? Really? Are you..." But he couldn't figure out how to end the sentence, given that he was talking to Chris.
Chris turned enough to let Mitch see his raised eyebrows. "It happens. It happens." He paused, obviously waiting for something, but Mitch didn't know what. Chris sighed. "'Name one Pacific Tech graduate who has turned from science to religion, Mr. Knight,'" he said, in what Mitch hoped wasn't supposed to be an imitation of his voice.
Mitch had never had any trouble feeding Chris straight lines. "Name one Pacific Tech graduate who has turned from science to religion, Mr. Knight," he parroted obediently.
"One Ronald Kent," Chris said, and turned back to the computer.
It was a second before Mitch could actually form words. "Seriously? Kent? Kent is - what, a priest?"
"Apparently he had a dramatic spiritual epiphany just before he graduated," Chris said. He was wiggling his butt as he worked. Mitch found it strangely distracting. "Jesus spoke to him directly."
"Wait, that - that was us. That was me," Mitch said.
"Kent believed it. He spent a year working at Hughes - my sources say he was 'strange' and 'difficult to work with,' which sounds just like the Kent we all know and loathe - but then he took a week off and never came back. Living in South Dakota with a splinter religious group. Lots of testifying and orgies."
"Orgies?" Mitch said, and damn it, his voice should not have cracked on that. It was just the mental image that was getting to him, he was sure of it.
"I admit I'm not entirely sure about the orgies. My theory there is why have a cult and not have orgies?" Chris paused long enough to force his face to be a little more serious. "The rest of it, though, absolutely true." Chris finished closing up Mitch's computer and turned to face him, straddling the desk chair; it draw Chris's jeans tight against his thighs, and Mitch found himself wondering when Chris had started working out so much. He blinked back into the conversation to hear Chris say, "Actions have consequences, Mitch." The flat, level tone of his voice had Mitch on the defensive.
"We had to do that," Mitch told him. "I - we were saving lives! We were preventing a disaster!"
"True. But, technically, those were lives we put in danger, so I'm going to call it a draw." He regained all his animation very suddenly, grinning at Mitch as he said, "I'm taking up a collection to send a little gift to Kent. Have to make sure he hasn't forgotten about his friends at Pacific Tech."
Mitch pretended he wasn't already in. "Well, I don't know. What is it?"
Chris pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket. It looked like it had been cut from a magazine; it had part of an ad for margarine on the back. "Popcorn of the Month Club," he read out. "Twelve of our favorite varieties of popcorn, in convenient 2.4-ounce packages, ready for popping. A hot, delicious way to have that special someone thinking of you all year long!"
"He'll have an aneurysm," Mitch predicted.
Chris smiled. "I'm thinking of sending one to Jerry, too."
Mitch hesitated. Dr. Hathaway was a topic of frequent discussion on the campus, even after two years; the court case against him was slowly winding its way through the justice system, and several people who hated him tracked every single step. But he could talk about Hathaway with lots of people. With Chris, he wanted to talk about Chris. He took a breath. "What have you been up to?"
"The question, Mitch, is what haven't I been up to?" But it sounded like Chris was responding to him almost by rote.
Mitch decided to respond in earnest anyway. "I know what you haven't been up to. You haven't been working in the field, you haven't been attending any school I can find, and you haven't been publishing or filing patents."
"Why, Mitch, I had no idea you cared so much," Chris said, smiling hugely.
Mitch shrugged. He figured at this point it was pretty obvious. "I do, though," he said.
The silence that followed that threatened to stretch a long time, during which Chris just watched Mitch. Mitch waited; if there was one thing he had learned about Chris, it was that he would always break a silence, like it was his job to keep everyone going. Finally, Chris cleared his throat and started talking. "I've been keeping busy," he said. "It's amazing what a strapping young man can achieve if he puts his mind to it." He stood up and brushed off his hands. "Let this be a lesson to you, young Mr. Taylor: Dream big." He hesitated, then popped his eyes wide open before slapping a hand over them. "Oh, God, not that big. Aren't you too young for those kinds of dreams?"
"I just turned seventeen," Mitch pointed out.
"So you did," Chris said, and there was nothing strange about the content of the words, but there was definitely something new about the way Chris let his eyes skate down Mitch's body, about the way he smiled as he did.
Mitch lurched back into speech without having any idea of what he was about to say. "Yeah, it was a great party, I'm sorry you missed it," he said, stumbling a little over the words.
"Would have loved to come, but you know me. Busy busy busy," Chris said, and picked up his backpack.
"You're leaving already?" He winced, because, yes, he wanted Chris to stay, he missed Chris, but he hadn't wanted to sound so - so obvious about it.
"Just came by to drop off your present." He gestured at the computer and patted it. "This should keep you entertained for a while." He tilted his head at Mitch, waiting for him to say something.
Mitch figured he had nothing to lose at this point in terms of dignity. "Come on, Chris, stay. I don't have a roommate, you still have a bed." He gestured.
Chris looked tempted, but he shook his head. "Can't," he said.
"Why not? Are you a wanted man?" Mitch said. He'd intended it as a joke, but it didn't exactly sound that way.
Chris looked at Mitch for a little too long before he answered. "Not yet," he said. He headed for the door, slinging his backpack over his shoulder. "Be good, Mitch. Try not to do anything I wouldn't do. Definitely try not to do most of what I've done."
And he was gone.
Mitch got ready for bed, running over the conversation in his mind so he wouldn't forget any of it. He fell asleep thinking about that "not yet." What the hell was Chris going to do?
Phone calls with Jordan were infrequent but great. Mitch set aside an hour or two every couple of weeks just to listen to her talk about MIT, and her roommates, and the other grad students, and her plans, which these days mostly seemed to center around robots. He usually scheduled their phone calls for Friday, after a week of school and research and teaching the freshmen. Jordan relaxed him.
Except the night in early October when she stopped abruptly in the middle of her plans for improvements to a bomb robot to say, "So, are you having a party?"
"Uh, no," Mitch said. Without Jordan or Chris around, there was no compelling reason for it, and he was pretty sure he wouldn't be able to enjoy it, wondering.
"Oh, good," Jordan said, and once again Mitch was reminded that she really was just that smart. "Because you'd be distracted and thinking about Chris and you wouldn't have any fun, and I think the point of a birthday party is to have fun. Well, to have fun and also to engage in age-appropriate socialization, but at Pacific Tech that never works out exactly right."
"Did you have an eighteenth birthday party?" he asked her.
"What? Oh, yes, yes, I did. That was the year before you came to Pacific Tech, and Ick and Samir made these shoes and gloves you could use to climb walls. They called them anti-gravity gloves, which was stupid, I mean of course they didn't actually negate gravity, but they gave me the best idea for minimizing friction in my climbing rig, and they were fun. I spent most of my birthday on the ceiling and the roof of the Keppler Building. It was great, even though I never did manage to get the glider working exactly right."
Mitch leaned back into his pillow and smiled. "It sounds like fun," he said. "I miss you," he added. "Things are less fun around here without you."
"Oh," she said. "Oh, yes, I miss you, too."
The conversation wound down, and Mitch forgot all about the issue of a party.
He didn't forget about turning eighteen, though. He'd mostly stopped looking for Chris, except for the regular calls to a few university contacts, and the alerts he'd put on for Chris's social security number and passport, and none of those ever paid off. Chris was just gone, off the radar, somewhere he couldn't begin to track. But he still wanted to see him, and if that was the birthday present he was going to get this year, that was fine.
Except it wasn't. His present from Chris came in a box that year. It was a three-pack of Calvin Klein boxers with a note:
White because I know you like to play it safe.
Mitch stared at it for a while, checked for codes on automatic while he tried to figure out what it meant. Finally, he picked up the phone and called Jordan; it was the wrong time of day, and he couldn't afford it, but he had to talk to someone, and there weren't too many people left at Pacific Tech who had really known Chris.
"He sent you underwear?" Jordan said, and her voice went almost squeaky on the last word.
"Yeah." Mitch looked at them. "The package seems sealed, but it's not like it'd be hard to rewrap one of these. Should I open it?"
"He sent you underwear and you called me to ask if you should open it?" Jordan said.
"I just don't understand it," Mitch said.
There was a pause on the phone, an unusually long one for Jordan. "Um, I don't know," she said, and Mitch froze, because Jordan was lying; he could tell even over the phone. "What do you think it means?"
"In the note, he said I like to play it safe," Mitch said helplessly.
"You remember how Dr. Wali always said we were welcome to cheat on the homework but if we did we'd just fail the test? Because if you don't do the homework, you can't do the test," Jordan said.
Mitch took the handset away from his ear and stared at it for a second, since Jordan wasn't available for staring at. "...And?" he said, when he brought it back.
"Um, I have to go now, sorry. Talk to you later! Bye!" And she hung up.
Mitch opened the package and discovered that the boxers were, yes, technically white, but with a pattern of tiny hot dogs all over them. He sat on his bed and looked at them for a stupidly long time before tossing them in the laundry pile.
"Mitch Taylor!" Dr. Meredith smiled vaguely at Mitch and added, "Congratulations, son." Mitch took the fake diploma and smiled. He heard his mother yelp from the audience.
He went down the stairs at the other end of the podium as Dr. Meredith was announcing Cheryl Tearno and made sure his eyes didn't stray to the part of the auditorium he knew his parents were in. That was why he caught sight of Chris - or probably Chris, anyway. He was pretty sure he'd recognize those eyes anywhere, but by the time he got over to that part of the room, Chris wasn't there. Mitch looked around for him until Jordan came over.
"I'm supposed to say congratulations," Jordan said. Mitch shrugged, and she nodded. "I know. I felt like I was getting a big piece of paper and applause and dinner out and a pen and pencil set because I remembered to tie my shoes in the morning. Are you ready to go meet your parents?"
Mitch winced. "Are you ready to go meet my parents? They're pretty terrible."
"My parents are still upset I picked Pacific Tech over Harvard," Jordan pointed out.
"Yeah, but my parents - oh, uh, hi, Mom. Dad. Jordan, these are my parents, Phil and Joanie. Mom, Dad, this is Jordan." Mitch couldn't resist taking one more quick look around the room - still no Chris - before he focused on the inevitable unfolding horror of his parents and Jordan together.
"Well, it is just a pleasure to meet you," Mitch's mother said, and she leaned in and kissed Jordan on the cheek. Mitch was standing close enough to Jordan to feel her flinch. "I have never been so surprised as I was when Mitch told me he had a girlfriend!"
Jordan blinked and said, "He's really great."
Mitch interrupted before things could get even more complicated. "Mom, I told you, Jordan and I stopped dating last year. She's just a friend. A really good friend," he added, looking at her apologetically.
"Oh, Mitch -" his mother started, but Mitch would never know what she was about to say.
"Young Mr. Taylor!" a voice said from behind him. Mitch recognized it, but he'd have known who it was just from the way Jordan's eyes got big. Mitch felt Chris before he saw him, because Chris was slinging an arm around his neck. "And these must be your parents. Mr. Taylor, Mrs. Taylor, I want you to know that we expect great things from Mitch, here. Great things." He turned back to Mitch. "What are your plans for the future, young man?"
"Uh," Mitch said, and somehow he was answering Chris's question just like he meant it. "I'm going to grad school. Caltech."
Chris nodded, but Mitch didn't miss the tiny frown.
"He's always been so smart!" Mitch's mother said proudly. "Even from when he was a little boy, he was always asking questions and learning things. It was amazing."
"It happens," Chris said, leaning forward and lowering his voice, "but we have every hope he'll recover." He leaned back out, leaving Mitch's parents blinking in confusion, and slapped Mitch on the back. "You'll go far, young man. Very, very far. Almost a hundred miles up the coast, in fact." He turned back to Mitch's parents and said, "A pleasure to meet you both."
"It's great to meet you, too," Mitch's dad said, looking slightly wide-eyed.
"Any parents of Mitch's, of course," Chris said, and he was gone.
Mitch didn't get a good look at him until he was walking away. He was wearing a suit, Mitch realized. No wonder he hadn't been sure if it was Chris.
Jordan had been rocking in place, unable to hold still, and she lunged forward with all her pent-up energy and grabbed Mitch's shoulder. "What are you waiting for?" she said. "Go after him!"
Mitch did, but Chris was gone.
"Sorry about dinner," Mitch said, waving his parents off. Jordan was staying in his dorm room, but his parents had a hotel room, of course. "They really do mean well."
Jordan shook her head like that wasn't important. "Did you find him? What did he say?"
"I couldn't. He was gone. I didn't come back right away because - um. I just didn't. Sorry, I know what it's like to be alone with them."
"It didn't bother me, probably because they're not my parents, because it drives me crazy to be alone with my parents, but I was basically okay with yours, and anyway, your father seemed really interested in my welding experiments, so we definitely had things to talk about." Jordan stopped, looking at him. "Sorry you didn't find Chris."
Mitch sighed. "If he'd wanted me to find him, I would have. Ready to come up?"
Jordan nodded. "Oh, wait," she said. "Are we having sex? Or are we just talking?"
"Uh, either," Mitch said, blushing. He'd never managed to get used to Jordan's straightforward approach to sex. And they were technically broken up, after all; to him that meant no sex, but Jordan was apparently running on a different codebook. "I mean - if you want to, whichever you want to. It would be great, you know, but I'm not expecting anything, I mean - it's just good to see you."
"It's good to see you, too," Jordan said. "Let's have sex, okay? I just need to grab the condoms from my other bag."
Mitch headed upstairs; Jordan knew her way, and wasn't going to want him to wait and hold doors open for her. He paused to check the data coming back on his final project; he'd planned to have it finished by graduation, of course, but the fourth-to-last run had been corrupted and he was behind schedule. He clicked through just a few pages. Then he heard the door open, and his brain switched to sex, sex, sex.
"Do you need to do some work first?" Jordan asked, coming in.
"No," Mitch said, turning around to face her.
"Great," she said, and took her shirt off. Mitch watched, entranced, as her smooth belly was exposed, then the bra she'd designed for herself because every commercial bra was apparently terrible. She tossed her shirt on his desk chair, then flicked open her bra and shrugged it off. When it had followed the shirt, she looked at Mitch. "You should take your clothes off," she said. "Nudity is almost always helpful at this point."
Mitch unbuttoned the good white shirt he'd bought for graduation. "Almost always?"
"Well, actually I always like it, but I figured I'd better qualify it because I'm finding that absolutes don't really apply to sex. Do you ever get frustrated because the human body is so variable and imprecise?"
Mitch looked at her human body, the curves, her soft skin, everywhere he'd touched, and shook his head. "Right now, I can't imagine ever being frustrated by the human body."
Jordan tilted her head and considered that. "Let's get some further data," she said.
Mitch laid down on his back. "Always ready to further the cause of science," he said.
"It's your dedication to the experimental process that I find so appealing," she said, and climbed on top of him.
Caltech was like Pacific Tech but bigger. Mitch still didn't entirely fit in, still didn't make fast friends the way his mother had been predicting ever since he was five. Mitch didn't hate Caltech. He loved the libraries, the classes, and at least half the professors. He just felt a little - dislocated. A little out of touch.
Of course, there was no one at Caltech like Chris, but Mitch hadn't expected there to be.
Mitch spent a lot of time thinking about that as he shuttled from lab to class to library. And, of course, he called Jordan about it; she had a new boyfriend, he knew, but she was still his friend, the best friend he had that he could actually call.
"I just - I guess I don't feel like I belong here, exactly."
Jordan said, "When I got to MIT I kept wondering why everything seemed so easy and everyone seemed so slow, but then I remembered the real world is like that and sometimes you just have to design a jetpack or something so you don't get bored."
"It's not the classes," Mitch said, and it wasn't, exactly. He'd done most of the work his junior year at Pacific Tech, but that just gave him more time for his own research. "I'm not bored. It's just - I don't know," he said.
But he was beginning to be afraid he did know. Chris didn't come on Mitch's birthday, and Mitch spent the night in his bedroom, staring at the ceiling, trying to convince himself he didn't feel hurt, he didn't feel alone, he didn't feel increasingly like he was trying to divide by zero.
In the end, he just convinced himself not to think about it anymore.
Mitch distracted himself with lots and lots of work, which was why he got his master's during his second year at Caltech. Mitch knew it didn't really mean anything; it was just a stepping stone to the Ph.D., and who ever got work in the field with a master's? But it was nice to have an achievement, even so.
It became something more than just a nominal degree when Mitch saw Chris's back heading into the departmental awards ceremony ahead of him. He said goodbye to his officemate, Suresh, and jogged to catch up. Once he got there, though, it took him a moment to be able to say anything; he was stupidly afraid that if he said anything, Chris would disappear. Eventually he managed to say, "Hey, Chris," and he hoped he'd managed an appropriately casual tone.
Chris turned and looked at him, and the smile was familiar, but somehow Chris wasn't. He looked - different. Older. Mitch was suddenly forcibly reminded that it had been six years since they'd first met.
"Well," Chris said, "You are the picture of a flourishing young graduate student." He scanned Mitch up and down absolutely obviously, and Mitch blushed, but for the first time, he didn't look away. Having Chris's eyes on him almost made him feel like he was waking up.
"I'd say the same to you, but you -" and Mitch broke off, because he couldn't exactly say that Chris looked bad. He did kind of look like he'd borrowed some homeless guy's clothes: destroyed jeans and a giant plaid flannel shirt open over a too-tight white t-shirt. But he still looked good. He'd let his hair grow out some again, and Mitch couldn't argue with the way the t-shirt stretched over his shoulders.
Chris smiled, "But you're tongue-tied. I know. I get that a lot." He gestured to the room in front of them. "Are you going to the awards ceremony?"
Mitch shrugged. "I'm just going to get Most Improved or something." He was actually getting the Lyons Award, but it amounted to almost the same thing: a line on his CV, nothing more. "Let's go get coffee instead."
Chris fell into step next to Mitch as he headed away, making an exaggerated pouty face. "And I brought you something to wear, too." He handed over a box. "I was afraid you didn't have a tie. I wanted you to look classy for your big day."
Mitch opened the box. "I definitely don't have a tie shaped like a penis," he said, and getting older was good for something: he didn't stutter or blush when he said it. "So, uh, thanks."
"Aren't you going to wear it?"
Mitch looked around the campus. This was his university, and he'd be here long after Chris had disappeared back to wherever he went to. On the other hand, this was Chris. He smiled almost against his will, took off his boring blue tie, and put the other one on. Or tried to. It was harder without a mirror.
Chris said, "I swear, I have to do everything. Kids these days," and he stepped forward and took over. His fingers brushed against Mitch's neck as he straightened the tie. Presumably he caught Mitch's shiver, because he smiled and did it again before tying the tie with practiced ease. "There." He stepped back to appreciate the effect. Two girls walked past, talking about tensor calculus, and Chris added, "Your father would be so proud. What a pity he had to return to his homeworld." The girls rolled their eyes without breaking stride, and Chris laughed. "I'm losing my touch."
"You never had a touch, Chris," Mitch told him, and hoped Chris couldn't hear that he was just a little bit breathless.
"And yet I touched many, many people," Chris said. "Including you."
"I think I'd know if you touched me that way," Mitch told him.
"Who said anything about that way? Trust me, Mitch, if I had touched you that way, you wouldn't be wearing that suit right now."
Mitch couldn't decide how he felt about the way the conversation was going; it was clearly flirtatious, but Chris never meant anything by it, and Mitch certainly - well. He could play along. "You ruin men for all other suits?" Mitch asked.
Chris leaned forward, smiling slightly, looking straight into Mitch's eyes. "No," he said patiently. "You wouldn't be wearing that suit because I'd have gotten you naked five minutes ago."
Mitch blinked at Chris, wishing people were as easy as physics.
After a few seconds, Chris smiled; it almost looked genuine, but Mitch had had the total immersion course in Understanding Chris Knight, and he knew this smile meant he'd dropped a decimal point. "Come on, Mitch. Let's get coffee. Or," he said, "we could get alcohol. You're almost legal. You have an obligation to tradition to drink as much as you can before that happens."
Mitch laughed despite his slight sense of disappointment. "Yeah, okay," he said. "Let's get a beer. But you have to buy. In this town, they card."
The beer was fine, and the conversation was interesting. Chris had apparently been spending a lot of time in Britain lately. All he wanted to talk about, though, was their crappy beaches. Mitch spent most of the time just looking at Chris, trying to get his fill, trying to absorb every detail - the new lines around Chris's eyes when he laughed, how he leaned in to Mitch as he told stories, the way his hands slid along the surface bar.
A week later, Mitch woke up in the middle of the night and spent ten minutes arguing with himself before he got out of bed and wrote an email to Chris. It read:
Subj: That suit
In retrospect, I believe I gave you an erroneous impression during our meeting on 6/12/91. I would, in fact, remove that suit if asked.
After he sent it, his heart pounded, he felt light-headed, and he was so fucking turned on he could hardly stand it. He picked up the phone and dialed on automatic.
"Jordan," he said when she answered - it was 4:00 a.m. where she was, but one of the many great things about Jordan was that you could call her anytime. "I think, I think I just propositioned Chris?"
"Oh my God!" she said breathlessly. "Did - wait, Mitch, is he there right now? Did you proposition him and then run into the bedroom to call me and he's still out there in the living room? Because I've done that, and I've learned it's not the way to go. You have to go back out there and pretend like he's the only thing on your mind right now. Although I don't know, maybe it would be different with Chris, but -"
Mitch broke in because he had to. "No, I - I sent him an email. I told him I'd take off my clothes if he asked me to." Mitch stared at the phone and tried to straighten out the coils of the cord that connected the handset to the base. "Have I lost my mind?" he asked, and it was a serious question.
"I'm not necessarily the right person to ask about that," Jordan said.
"But you have all that experience with crazy roommates," Mitch pointed out.
"They didn't go crazy because of a sexual identity crisis." She paused, considering. "Or maybe they did! I don't know. Would that mean they were thinking gay thoughts about me?" From her tone of voice, it was an interesting concept more than anything.
"Uh, maybe," Mitch said. Since he'd never actually met any of the three roommates Jordan had driven crazy - MIT had not learned as fast as Pacific Tech, and they'd given her two before giving up - it was pretty much an academic question. Mitch realized he'd just used "academic" as a synonym for "uninteresting" in his own head, and blinked.
"Sorry!" Jordan said. "We were talking about your sexual identity crisis, not my roommates."
"Is that what I'm having?" Mitch asked.
Jordan put him on speakerphone; he could hear the change in the background noise. Then there were a few tinking noises that meant she had stopped pacing up and down the room and had started to tinker with something on her desk. "Well, did you want men to take your clothes off before this, or is it new?" she asked.
"I -" and Mitch tried to think about it, reel his mind back through his limited sexual history. "I don't -" and then he thought about Tim Blaizer, who'd beaten him in his first North American Youth Chess Championship, and he hesitated. "I don't want most men to take my clothes off," he finally concluded, and then he had to add, "But I don't want most women to, either, so I'm not sure..." He trailed off, and then forced himself to say the rest of it. "And, well, this isn't any man. It's Chris." He felt suddenly dizzy.
Jordan said, "Do I need to point out that you just answered your own question, or did you get that? Oh no, did you get it and now you're having a panic attack? Should I call someone?"
"I'm not - I'm not having a panic attack," Mitch said, although he wasn't entirely sure that was true. He felt light-headed again. After a few seconds, it resolved into a sensation of relief sort of like the one he'd felt when he'd finally picked Caltech over Stanford.
"Do you need me to be sympathetic or something, because I will be if you want, I mean, you can cry if you want to," Jordan offered. "I know exactly what to say, I did research after my labmate lost it last week."
Mitch laughed and settled down in his chair. "Nah," he said. "I think I'm good. Let's just - talk, okay?"
"Sure!" Jordan said.
"Why did your labmate lose it?"
"Oh! I meant to tell you! I got offered this really cool job. We were both in for it, but I got it. I wasn't allowed to tell anyone about it when I was applying, but I'm allowed to tell you a little bit now. I'm going to live in this, it's almost like Los Alamos, actually, like a modern Los Alamos I guess you would say, this little town - um, I'm not allowed to say where - and the lab there is amazing, and you wouldn't believe who is already working there. It's going to be so great! All these brains in one place inventing amazing things."
Mitch smiled and said, "That sounds great, Jordan. I'm really happy for you." And he was. But part of him was trying to imagine it, and all he could come up with was a Pacific Tech the size of the town. Wouldn't that be great? he asked himself, and then he thought, I don't know. Would it?
"I got your email," Chris said in Mitch's ear, and he jumped and accidentally deleted four lines of text.
"Jesus!" Mitch said, then turned around. "I wasn't expecting you until October," he said.
"It's technically 1992. And, like I said, I had something on my mind. You sent that email."
"I've sent you 94 emails." Mitch wasn't sure why he was dodging the issue, except that he wasn't Chris, and he wasn't Jordan, and he just needed more time to think than they did sometimes.
Chris leaned in towards Mitch, and Mitch felt his pulse pick up. Chris said, very quietly, "For some reason, there's one that sticks in my mind."
"I, uh, yeah." Mitch felt himself blushing and made a mental note to email Ick, see if he could work up some sort of localized blushing preventative.
Chris just watched. "So, is nudity still on the table? Because if so, I will definitely take that. I will even provide the table. Or we could go get coffee."
Mitch stared at Chris for long enough for Chris's brows to wrinkle. "Knight, did you just proposition me in my own lab?"
"Mitch, Mitch, Mitch," Chris sighed, looking disappointed. "I have spent years propositioning you in all kinds of locations. It's just taken you a while to notice. Now, I've been extremely dogged and persistent, and I think, given my track record, it's only fair if I do - this." He stood in one place and did something Mitch guessed could be described as a dance of triumph. Or some kind of seizure; it was hard to tell with Chris sometimes.
Mitch watched him gyrate and flail and thought about Chris - about the underwear, about some of the things Jordan had said, about nudity. Mostly, he thought about the fact that he wasn't going to be seeing Chris again for quite a while, so he'd better make this visit count.
"Okay," Mitch said.
Chris stopped his dance and said, "Okay?" in a tone that indicated that Mitch had dropped a conversational cue or two.
"I'd rather have sex than coffee," Mitch said. He felt sort of like he was having an out-of-body experience; that didn't sound like him at all.
Chris blinked. "That's far from the most enthusiastic consent I've ever had, and yet: I'll take it. Lead the way to your domicile."
Mitch did, and somehow it still felt like Chris was in the driver's seat, even though they were walking, and Mitch was the only one who knew where to go. Mitch was disoriented. I'm about to have sex with Chris Knight, he thought. On the one hand, it seemed totally impossible. He'd have called a halt to this game of chicken - except for the other hand, which said they'd been leading up to this for seven years.
"Have we been leading up to this for seven years?" Mitch asked.
Chris looked shocked. "No! No, no, no. You were fifteen when we met, Mitch." He paused, counting carefully on his fingers. "One, two - let's see - six. We've been leading up to this for six years. Anything that occurred prior to that should be considered fore-foreplay. Eightplay, in fact. Possibly even sixteenplay."
Mitch just smiled and nodded, mostly because his heart rate was accelerating and he felt a little light-headed. He wasn't panicking only because he recognized the sensation: Proximity to Chris Knight Syndrome, characterized by mood swings, adrenaline rushes, and inappropriate arousal.
Or, since they were apparently heading back to Mitch's place to have sex, possibly entirely appropriate arousal. They got to Mitch's car, and he gestured at it with a hand that didn't shake at all. Chris looked at the 1981 Datsun and laughed. "One thing I have not missed about academia: the excellent recompense for work performed."
"You're getting paid better?" Mitch asked as he unlocked Chris's door. This time his heart was beating fast for an entirely different reason, because this was it, this was the way in, the way to find out what Chris was doing.
"Can you doubt it?" Chris said, and held out his hands to indicate his attire. "I am the picture of modern success." He leaned in confidentially. "I receive many offers of pay for my skills. Some of them are even legal."
Mitch nodded and climbed in. Chris did, too. Mitch navigated the streets of Pasadena in a haze. With Chris beside him, it was more obvious than usual that he didn't really live there, even though he had an apartment and a job and research. He didn't know anyone except his fellow graduate students. He didn't feel as connected as he had at Pacific Tech, and he definitely didn't feel as connected as he did to Chris, sitting beside him now, watching him drive with the air of a connoisseur.
Mitch hesitated, but that was the thing about Chris: hesitate and he was lost. "Why do you keep coming back?" he asked.
Chris turned away and stared out the window as Mitch turned onto his street. "I'm surprised you have to ask," he said, so flatly that he didn't sound like himself.
"With you, I always have to ask," Mitch said.
Chris didn't respond at all.
By the time they got to the apartment, the moment - all the moments - seemed lost, and Mitch didn't know how to get any of them back, so he opened the door and just waited.
Chris watched him for a few seconds and then said, "My move, hmmm? Well, I think I know something that will really impress you." Mitch looked up at him, startled but entirely willing to believe, and Chris held out two fists. "Choose one," he said.
Mitch tapped Chris's left hand. "64 percent of people choose that one," Chris said.
"Have you compared the left-handed to the right-handed cohort?" Mitch suggested automatically.
"Only 59 percent for the left-handers," Chris said. "Still statistically significant." He opened his hand dramatically to reveal - nothing.
"This one was food," Chris said. "The other one was alcohol." He shrugged. "Those are basically your options here."
Mitch nodded and headed to the kitchen. Chris followed, opened the refrigerator, winced theatrically, and shut it again. Mitch opened the drawer with the delivery menus and handed them to Chris, who took them and said, "Just so I know, are we still on the same page?"
"To be honest, I have no idea," Mitch said, and Chris leaned in and kissed him.
Mitch wasn't a virgin anymore, and he'd kissed... well, several girls, at any rate. Being kissed by Chris was a different experience entirely. He found himself making mental notes - that the hands on his face felt great, that the way Chris pressed against him woke up every nerve in Mitch's body, that Chris committed to a kiss in a way that Mitch had never committed to anything. When Chris pulled back, letting his fingers trail over Mitch's collarbone before dropping his hands to his side, Mitch blinked at him, dazed, breathless.
"We're still on the same page," Chris said, and Mitch nodded. He felt hot all over and his fingers itched to touch. Yes, he wanted Chris, however much he could get of him.
Chris smiled at him happily and then bent his head over the menus. He flipped through them once, twice, and then looked up, shocked. "No Chinese? How does modern science run without Chinese food delivered in the dead of night?"
Mitch tried to switch gears and found, once again, that he couldn't quite keep up. He couldn't stop staring at Chris's mouth, couldn't stop remembering Chris's hands on his face. "We, uh. We manage," he finally said, and reached over to pick out one of the menus. "Basic Italian, but it's pretty good," he said.
"A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, a $6.99 spaghetti dinner, and thou," Chris said, and smiled. "Perfect. You order. I have to check my email."
By the time Mitch was back in his living room, Chris had logged on to Mitch's college account. "I guess I shouldn't ask how you did that," Mitch said.
Chris smiled. "I told you I had skills."
"Hacking?" Mitch said, even though he couldn't really imagine Chris as just another kid with some code.
"There are two sides to every fight," Chris pointed out. "Except the real ones. Those have dozens of sides and no sense anywhere. Talked to Lazlo lately?"
"I haven't been to Wyoming." Lazlo had gone low-tech sometime in 1989; he and Sherri had pulled themselves off the grid and started growing vegetables or something.
"Me neither," Chris said. "I am far too fabulous for Wyoming. He's on here."
"He's not even using electricity anymore," Mitch pointed out.
"He's not using the electric company, Mitch, pay attention. Honestly, I leave you to your own devices and you start believing things again."
Mitch winced, and Chris saw it. His eyebrows went up.
The problem, Mitch wanted to tell him, was that he didn't believe enough anymore.
The spaghetti was what it always was. Chris ate the first two mouthfuls with intent interest and then consumed the rest of the meal mechanically. Mitch couldn't figure out if he'd decided it was boring or just placed low odds on it being poisoned. Mitch ate some of his food and left the rest for later, unable to focus on anything with Chris there.
"You seem restless," Chris said, finally, leaning back against the couch.
"Yeah," Mitch said, and it trailed off into a little laugh he didn't entirely mean.
"I could help with that," Chris said, looking directly into Mitch's eyes.
The restlessness melted away, leaving Mitch almost frozen. It took noticeable time for him to manage to say anything, time in which Chris just watched him with the same kind of interest he'd initially had for the spaghetti. Mitch finally managed to nod, and he found himself saying it, too: "Yes, okay, yeah." He shoved the remains of his food onto the coffee table and gestured toward the bedroom, but Chris was already heading over to the couch. He sat next to Mitch, and Mitch turned toward him on instinct, because he always turned toward Chris when he could.
Chris kissed like he owned the place, his hands angling Mitch's head just slightly, his mouth hot and intense. Mitch parted his lips a little, and Chris took immediate advantage, licking his way in and then almost fucking Mitch's mouth. It was intense and hotter than it had any right to be, and Mitch reached up to grab at Chris's shoulders, needing some way to anchor himself. Chris responded by running one hand down Mitch's side to his waist and then sliding it up. By the time Mitch could track the sensations, Chris had his shirt halfway unbuttoned. Mitch choked back a laugh, and Chris pulled back and looked at him, inquiring.
"Just - I can tell you've done this before," Mitch said, and then cringed, because of course he had, they both had, what the hell was that.
"I promise you, Mitch, I am not at this moment contemplating past ventures in this arena," Chris told him, and bit Mitch's ear, hard enough that he gasped, the sensation going straight to his dick.
It took two more kisses for Chris to get Mitch down on the couch. By then, Mitch was almost mindless with wanting Chris, wanting to touch him, wanting to be touched by him. Chris was frustratingly slow, diving in for a kiss and then spending whole minutes on Mitch's neck. He was kneeling over Mitch on the couch, which seemed like it should be promising, but when Mitch arched up, Chris shifted away. Mitch moaned a little, reaching for him. Chris arched into the touch but wouldn't let Mitch move him, saying, "You know, I've been really patient. You can be patient."
Mitch's whole body went hot. "I, uh, I need to -" and he reached for his fly, but Chris's hand smacked his away.
"I've got this," Chris said, and ran his fingers down the front of Mitch's pants, popping the first button on his jeans, then the second, applying just enough pressure to make Mitch insane. He leaned a little of his weight on Mitch's hips. "Keep still, I've got this," and the tone of it made it clear it was an order.
"Fuck," Mitch said, his whole being intent on the slow downward progress of Chris's fingers.
"Yes," Chris agreed. "Eventually." Mitch moaned and grabbed Chris's shoulders, needing some sort of contact. Chris finally popped the last button of Mitch's jeans. Then he laughed a little and pressed a kiss to Mitch's side like he couldn't help it.
Mitch tried to focus. "What?"
"You're wearing my underwear," Chris said, and Mitch remembered he was, one of the pairs of hot dog boxers Chris had sent him years ago, and he laughed, too.
"You know, I had some plans, here, but I think after that I've got to suck your dick for a while," Chris said.
Mitch couldn't find the right words for his enthusiastic approval, but he managed to stutter something out - "Yes, please, yes."
Chris licked Mitch's dick through the boxers, mouthed at the head of his cock, and it was so fucking good, but Mitch wanted more, needed more. He kept arching his hips up but Chris wasn't taking off his jeans or his underwear. "God - I - I just -" Mitch said, gasping as Chris gently sucked on him.
Chris said something, his mouth still pressed against Mitch's cock, and Mitch couldn't even follow it. "Chris," he said. "Please, just, please just do something."
Chris pulled back, replaced his mouth with his fingers, stroked Mitch softly through the fabric, every gentle touch driving Mitch further out of his mind. "There are so many things I'd like to do to you," Chris said, and his voice had gone a little deeper, a little rougher, and it just made Mitch crazier. "I want to suck you off, of course I want that. In my fantasies I suck your cock until I can taste how close you are, and then I pull off until you beg for me."
He slid his fingers into Mitch's boxers, just rested them gently alongside Mitch's dick, and Mitch's attention was totally focused on Chris's hands and Chris's voice. Mitch wanted to thrust up, to get some kind of friction, but Chris wouldn't let him. "But I also want to fuck you. I want to fuck your mouth while I hold your hands away from your cock, because believe me by the time I push my cock into your mouth you'll want nothing more than to come, you'll be moaning around me, wanting to beg for just the chance to touch yourself, and I'll make you wait for me. I want you to have to wait for me, Mitch."
Mitch tried to say something, but he'd lost the ability to form words. His thighs were shaking with the need to thrust, but he couldn't, couldn't do anything but wait for what Chris would say next.
Chris's voice was scratchy, now, but the words kept coming. "And that's not the only way I could fuck you, of course. I want to get you kneeling on this couch, holding onto the back while I finger you open, finger you until you can barely hold yourself up, until you can't stop moaning and pushing back onto me, and then I'll slide into you as slowly as I can stand, until I'm buried in you, all the way in, and I'll fuck you until I'm so - until I'm so fucking close, God, Mitch, and then I'll reach for your cock and stroke you just once, like this -" and he did, finally, his whole hand in Mitch's boxers, wrapped around Mitch's dick, real contact at last, at last. Mitch's whole body shorted out, and he came and came and came.
When his head cleared, his heart still pounding hard, his body still weak with pleasure, Mitch focused on Chris, who was staring at him, his eyes wide. "That was - God, that was the hottest -" and Chris reached down, popped open his own jeans, and stroked once, twice, three times, and then he was coming. Mitch was still numb, but he watched, paid close attention, because he knew he was going to want to remember this.
When Mitch woke up in the morning, still mostly dressed and wearing his sticky boxers, Chris was gone. The note he left said:
See you next year. Don't do anything I wouldn't do.
Mitch looked at it a long time, thinking about all the things Chris wouldn't do. Thinking, too, about that "see you next year." He couldn't remember if it was the first promise he'd ever had from Chris, or just the first that he believed.
The problem was, the academic grind was too familiar. It was like breathing, at this point: something Mitch did every day because how could he not? He still had his final classes, and he also had his research and his dissertation going on. He worked long hours and slept little and forgot, for weeks on end, that there was anything besides academic work to do. Some mornings he woke up to his alarm after four hours of sleep, his face on top of a stack of photocopied journal articles, and he couldn't remember if he was 15 and at Pacific Tech or 23 and at Caltech.
"I'm going to spend the rest of my life this way," he told Jordan. "I have seen the future, and it is my face in a book. Forever."
"Isn't that what you wanted?" Jordan had moved to her undisclosed small town, but she still sounded exactly the same. Her speakerphone was way better, although the background noises he picked up were sometimes a little alarming.
"What I wanted when I was 15 and what I want now is not the same thing," Mitch said.
"Well, then, what do you want?" Jordan sounded honestly curious.
"I have no idea. I just keep thinking somewhere there's a life that involves me contributing to more than footnotes."
"You could always come here. There's more than footnotes here. It's great."
"Is that an alarm I hear?" Mitch said, although it wasn't like he wasn't familiar with the blaring, blooping noise. It ended at least half his phone calls to Jordan these days.
"Okay I have to go now but think about it okay? Bye I'll talk to you later take care!"
She was already gone, but Mitch told the phone, "Try not to get blown up or anything" before he hung up.
The lead-up to his defense was tense, but in a dull way. When you started your academic career at Pacific Tech, you couldn't get your adrenal glands going full blast on any day that didn't involve, at minimum, someone inventing color-switching paint and using it in the dorm kitchen without noticing that its flash point was 77 degrees. Mitch, carefully measuring the margins on the Works Cited section of his dissertation, scheduling the room for his defense, and responding to endless queries from his chair, remembered the paint and laughed. He still suspected Kent had done that; it just seemed like him.
Then he remembered that Kent was in some kind of cult now, and it was technically his fault, and he sent another email to Chris:
If I can fuck things up for someone completely even when I'm not trying at all, what happens if I actually do try to make a difference?
Chris only replied once every five or six emails, and when he did it was usually a three-page rant about socks and inadequate delivery services, followed by a comment like, I hope you're naked right now. I am. Which meant Chris's emails usually left Mitch confused and horny, so really nothing had changed except the medium of inappropriate erection delivery.
Mitch wasn't actually expecting a response. He got one, though; when he logged in that night from his apartment, mostly to check to see if his chair had any more ridiculous commands, it was there.
I tried accomplishing great things and ruined people's lives and sometimes got them killed. Then I tried accomplishing nothing at all and ruined a whole bunch of lives and almost got people killed. So now I'm trying to help people. Haven't killed anyone yet.
Mitch stared at that for a long, long moment. Then he typed out a response:
Tell me more.
The next morning, when he woke up, he checked his email before he even brushed his teeth, but Chris hadn't answered.
He didn't get any email from Chris for weeks, in fact, not even a sock rant. The day of his defense, Jordan called him and said, "I'm wishing you good luck even though I know you won't need it. Just remember to answer only the questions they actually ask you, and don't take apart the table or anything, because I did that and it seemed like it maybe pissed them off a little. I still got my degree, though, so I guess no big deal."
"I'll leave all my screwdrivers at home," he promised, laughing even though his hands were shaking as he adjusted his tie.
"Don't do that!" she said, genuinely shocked. "What if you need to make something better?"
"On this campus? No chance," he said. Before she could ask him what he meant, he said, "Gotta go. Thanks, Jordan." He heard her saying goodbye as he hung up the phone.
The defense was an anti-climax, actually. Mitch had done much tougher exams in his day, and for less encouraging audiences. He sat in the hallway and waited for them to make their decision, and then he accepted their congratulations, and then he left. His officemate and a couple of his fellow TAs were waiting to take him out drinking, and Mitch went along mostly because the day seemed entirely empty with no more dissertation work to do.
"So," Suresh said, passing him a first beer, "did you get the job at Tennessee?"
"Uh, yeah, they made an offer," Mitch said, and the entire table cheered.
"Go, Mitch!" Alex yelled, way too loudly for the almost empty bar. "Giving us hope that there's life after grad school!"
Mitch smiled at that. "It's not life after grad school," he said. "It's grad school, but with better pay."
"Yeah," Heidi said. "Tenure is when you really have it made."
"By then I'll be thirty," Mitch pointed out. It really did seem like forever.
The table went entirely silent, and then Lee said, wincing, "Mitch, don't make us all hate you, okay?"
After that, Mitch kept quiet. He drank and smiled and tried not to think too much.
Mitch stumbled back into his apartment after Alex dropped him off. He'd only had four beers, but then, he'd drunk more beer when he was 15 than he had at any time since. He just didn't have the alcohol tolerance he'd cultivated in his first term at Pacific Tech.
And that, of course, made him think about Chris. So he wasn't entirely surprised when his door opened from the inside.
"Chris!" Mitch said, and he could feel how big his smile was. "You should have told me you were coming. I would have left the door unlocked. You always leave scratches when you pick the lock."
"Could you doubt I'd be here? It's your big day, Dr. Taylor."
"Yeah," Mitch said, and he could feel the smile sliding off his face. "Big day," he mumbled.
Chris studied his face. "Are you going to puke, or is this just existential angst time?"
"Angst," Mitch admitted.
Chris nodded and helped Mitch to the couch. "I find angst works better when you're sober," he said. "But, fine, give it a try." He leaned back on the couch, arms folded like he was preparing to grade Mitch's efforts.
"I have... job offers," Mitch said. He gestured at his desk, where they were neatly stacked.
"I saw. The University of Tennessee and Global Dynamics. You have so much to choose from," Chris said.
"Yeah. I can go back to grad school or... I can go back to undergrad," Mitch told him. "It's not like it would be - be bad. I could see Jordan again. I mean, I could see her every day. And I'd be doing - uh, stuff."
Chris had gone still and careful. "At Global Dynamics? With your degree? You'd be doing defense work. You're not an engineer, Mitch. Our knowledge can be practically applied mostly in the service of killing people."
"So really the choices are - I can work directly for the Department of Defense, or I can turn out students to work for them."
"That's about the size of it," Chris said.
"It's a really great choice," Mitch said, turning his sincerity into overdrive. "It's hard to choose between such amazing options."
"You're so good at that," Chris said admiringly.
"You know," Mitch said, "I went out drinking with my - my fellow grad students." He knew they weren't exactly his friends.
"Now, that you're not so good at. You used to be much better at it," Chris told him. "I'm disappointed in you. You aren't even trying to practice kissing on statues."
Mitch winced but soldiered on. "I was talking about - about Tennessee, and about how it'll be just like this, the research and the writing and the trying to be good enough, and I'll be thirty by the time I'm eligible for tenure, and Lee told me not to make them hate me."
Chris put his hand under Mitch's chin and tilted it up, so Mitch was looking directly into his eyes. "Mitch," he said, slowly and carefully, "you are smarter than most people. You work harder than most people."
"So I should just get used to it? I thought - I thought Pacific Tech would be different. Then I thought Caltech would be different. But nothing is different. Nowhere I go is different."
"You have to admit you've restricted your range a little," Chris pointed out.
"What, by only sticking to places where my skills are actually useful?"
"The internet. Heard of it?"
Mitch rolled his eyes at Chris, then wished he hadn't. There was a headache lurking behind his eyes, waiting to get out.
Chris held up a finger. "Information wants to be free."
Mitch processed this for a second. "So. Like I said before. Hacker."
Chris raised his eyebrows and raised a second finger. "Information will be used."
"Kind of what it's there for."
Chris's third finger was up. "Information can be used as a weapon." Fourth finger. "And the lack of information can be used as a weapon." He leaned forward. "The weapons of the future - the weapons of the present - aren't lasers and mobile defense satellites and robots with guns. The weapons of the future are information and information transfer. I just make sure that the right information is in the right hands."
"Still not seeing how this differs from hacking."
"Cryptography and cryptanalysis is part of it." Chris leaned back. "If there's one thing I've learned it's that if you give the government anything, they use it against people." Mitch nodded helplessly; it was true, and it was also nothing he could fix. "So I help keep the information, and the structure in which it resides, out of the hands of the government. And I try to make it available to people who will apply it less destructively."
"And you do this by..." Mitch said.
Chris leaned forward and smiled. "Come with me and see."
Chris shrugged. "Or go to Tennessee. Or Eureka. I'll come too."
"Seriously?" Mitch stared at him.
"I'm done waiting," Chris said. "And so are you."
"Wait - Eureka?"
"Jordan hasn't told you the name of the town she lives in?"
"She said it's top secret."
Chris sighed theatrically. "Mitch. I will give you a pass on this, because you're drunk. But the government keeps that secret. And they can't keep anything secret from me."
"I'm trying to picture this," Mitch said, trying to suppress his rising excitement, trying to keep a dry, level tone. "Is it more, like, crazy schemes and plans that shouldn't work and the triumph of the little guy, or is it a bunch of coders in a hotel room with four days of pizza boxes by the door?"
"If there's one thing you should know about me by now," Chris said, "it's that I like both."
Mitch was still laughing when Chris kissed him. Chris, as always, kissed like he meant it, like right at that moment he was thinking of nothing but Mitch, and Mitch found it so intoxicating that he just stared when Chris pulled back.
"So...?" Chris said invitingly.
"I have condoms in the bedroom this time," Mitch told him.
Chris laughed. "I can't believe it's me saying this, but I was talking about the rest of your life, not the sex."
Mitch blinked at him. "Yes. Of course." And a part of him unwound in relief, like all this time he'd just been waiting to tell Chris yes.
Chris, who'd been updating the internet archiving bot, pushed back from his desk and said, "Avengers! Assemble!"
Mitch saved his work on the latest version of EncryptSecure, which still paid most of their bills, and looked around pointedly. "It's still just me in here, and I still don't have an Iron Man suit."
"Chen sends word that the Golden Shield Project is live. I repeat: the Great Firewall of China is live."
"Didn't we just go down this road?" Mitch asked. He was honestly astonished that they kept trying it, kept trying censorship and filtering and weird backend schemes. He felt like he'd written more code to beat back filtering software alone than Bill Gates had written in his entire life.
"Governments have a hard time learning from each other's mistakes. It's a thing with them," Chris said.
"So, road trip?" Mitch asked.
"Yeah. I'll let Lazlo and Bao know we're coming. Avis will meet us there. You call Jordan, we'll pick her up on the way."
Mitch pushed himself up from the chair. Maybe it was the way his knees twinged slightly - they'd never been the same since that rappelling incident, and that was why he tried to be one of the ones back at HQ these days on the intrusion hacks - but suddenly he had to ask. "Do you ever worry this is going to get old?"
"You're joking. We're fighting for truth, justice, and freedom of information." Chris pulled his black duffel out of the closet in the spare room, then switched it for the green duffel. So - mostly a coding run this time. He looked at Mitch, suddenly serious. "You think it's getting old?"
Mitch looked around their house, seeing not just the walls, which were mostly covered with Chris's comic book and movie posters, but through the walls to the generators Jordan had built and installed during her last visit, the T3 connection, the weird and terrifying beast that was the Dark Knight Coffee Master 12.6, the bed he shared with Chris, with its bizarre learning mattress. "Nah," he told Chris, who smiled back at him. "Come on, let's go save the data again."