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Here It's Safe and Sound

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  It's gotten to a point where the continuous silence no longer bothers him.

  It's not like he had been totally alone anyway, he had Alexa there to talk to him in case he felt particularly lonely or it got so quiet that the ringing in his ears became too much to handle. Even an AI with limited responses and answers was much better than living completely alone.

  Then again, living completely alone and safe was better than living among others and in constant fear of death or destruction. It wasn't like he was alone all day, every day either. Most people wouldn't have their day job double as their main source of social interaction, but Henry Hidgens was not most people. Even though he teaches a room of rarely interested students, he couldn't exactly call it thorough communication. They all thought he was just the kooky old teacher who was one more conspiracy away from joining the league of tin foil hats.

  Emma Perkins seemed to be different, though. Not exactly an instant friend, but still was kind enough to respond to his greetings when she entered the classroom and even brought him groceries once, which was a godsend because if Henry had to eat one more package of rehydrated noodles before the end of the world actually arrived, he was going to lose it. But still, mere acquaintances proved to be just enough for him. Besides, he couldn't handle more than that anyway.

  Not anymore.

~*~

  Henry takes a drag off his cigarette as he paces the floor. His mind is somewhere hazy, but his attempts to clear it and evaluate the situation at hand are proving to be quite difficult. He quickly thinks about how easily he had taken up smoking. He used to be disgusted, knowing how the chemicals royally fucked up the human body and vowed to never touch a cigarette in his life. But after everything, it became all too easy to go through the familiar motion of hand to lips to lungs to mind, and every tremor to still from the nicotine buzz.

  This new outbreak...he wonders if it's really all that bad. The infected are happy, no conflicts or arguments. They sing and dance in harmony but still maintain a sense of individuality. Humanity had yet to find a way to create mutual peace among every member of its society, and it had thousands of years to do so. How was this all so bad if it's to create global calm?

  He's stopped pacing and remains stuck in such a daze of his swirling thoughts that he doesn't notice the door open, or the footsteps that follow it. It's only the words that cause him to jump out of his thinking to allow his ears to readjust to the sound of someone else's voice besides his own.

  "Everyone's asleep. They're beat after all the shit that's happened."

  The professor turns his head to glance at Ted, standing there with a demeanor that looks slightly different than it did when he'd arrived. He looks almost...scared. Not entirely, but as if he's so unsure of the future or his own fate than he can't help but display even the slightest bit of uneasiness. Henry can see it. He notices little things like that.

  "That's understandable. You've all had a rough day," he responds in his usual matter-of-fact tone, taking another drag off the cigarette he nearly drops when the tremor returns. "Aren't you tired as well? You've been through as much as they have today."

  Ted just shrugs and leans back against the wall, watching the other smoke and stare blankly at the floor. "I usually go to bed late anyway. Guess my sleep schedule doesn't give a fuck about the end of the world."

  Henry chuckles slightly in return, before taking a moment and extending his pack of cigarettes to offer up one to him. Ted shakes his head and softly declines as he sighs and glances around the room. "...Do you think it really is the end of the world?" Henry asks, his voice barely above a whisper as he talks through an exhalation of smoke.

  "What do you mean?"

  "I mean, what if it isn't the end of the world? What if it's the new beginning?"

  "...Are you seriously defending murderous aliens right now?" Ted asks, the tone he uses to ask the question cutting deep into Hidgens' subconscious. "They killed Charlotte. The only thing they're beginning is the fucked up apocalypse nobody wanted to be a part of."

  Henry doesn't have a response. He just sighs and smashes the finished cigarette into the ashtray. He has an overwhelming urge to go for another one, but he needs to pace himself, or even more, his supply of cigarettes.

  "So why do you stay cooped up in this giant panic room?"

  "I'm not cooped up, I'm safe. As I told you all, I predicted this scenario thirty years ago-"

  Ted looks at Henry with an expression that makes his heart stop. One with no trace of light-heartedness, one that's familiar and reminds him of things he doesn't want to think of. "I know I just met you today, but I can call out bullshit when I see it. There's gotta be some other reason."

  The older man has to look away, and the nerves culminate in him pulling another cigarette from the pack and lighting it as soon as it hits his lips. "There's just...a lot of things I've learned over the years. There isn't some other reason. There are many other reasons. If I can keep myself alive, then there's no point in taking risks."

  "I don't think being a part of society is taking a risk, professor. That's just stupid."

  Henry has to bite his tongue to keep from snapping at Ted. To keep from explaining that the reason he keeps his distance is because of his first and last best friends. "You can't lose your friends if you don't have them to begin with," he says with finality, signaling that he was ending the conversation right there.

  After a few passing moments of silence, Ted pushes off the wall and feigns a yawn. "I'm gonna go get some sleep." He turns and makes way back to the door. "Goodnight, Professor Hidgens." The footsteps tapping on the floor sends Henry back to his thoughts. He thinks about the conversation, about his refusal to make friends...but sometimes he wants so badly to have connections with other people again. Maybe it's not as simple as he thinks it is. Maybe he can't just refuse to have people in his life because he's afraid to lose them again. Sometimes he longs for just someone, anyone, to at least call him by his first name. Hearing Emma call him Professor Hidgens reminds him of all he's accomplished and worked hard for, but he'd give anything to hear someone call him Henry again. To have that simple fucking connection of a first name basis.

  Maybe that could happen. Maybe that's the first step he needed to take.

  "...Henry," he says quickly before he can hear the sound of the doorknob turn. "My...you can call me Henry."

  There's a brief pause and slight tension that hangs in the air, and Henry moves to take another drag before he notices to his dismay that he had let the whole cigarette burn down to the filter.

  He doesn't look back at Ted. This whole interaction was making him stress enough. He can't add to it by looking back at what he's sure is the man's smug grin. He doesn't have to look back though, because the man quickly moves to stand in front of Henry, looking at him with a blank stare before a slight smile shows up. It's something new to Henry, something he hasn't seen from the man all day. He'd naturally assumed he wasn't one to display emotions...or at least, the positive ones.

  "Alright...goodnight, Henry," Ted replies to kill the silence, patting Hidgens' shoulder as he walks back to the door.

  And in an instant, Henry Hidgens is thrown back into the typical silence. The silence that doesn't bother him anymore, but now...neither does the sound.