Arecibo is kind of far away from everything. It's one of those things you know going in--the fact that it's on an island in the middle of the Caribbean is not exactly a downside at first--but when hurricane season hits, when a body starts to itch for the familiar comforts of home, it can wear a little thin.
Generally speaking, when Kent gets homesick, he just eats the long-distance charges and calls one of his sisters. They're happy to chatter for as long as he's got, and hearing their voices is enough to push the loneliness away for a good two, three weeks at least.
But Ellie hasn't been here long enough to get homesick, so he's pretty sure it's not loneliness that sends her knocking on his door one Thursday morning. If he remembers the schedule right, Ellie ought to be at work in just about half an hour, but here she is anyway, freshly showered, hair still a little damp--he can smell her shampoo.
"Ellie. Hey. Something wrong?"
"No! No, nothing's wrong. I just thought I'd come by. To see you."
"Oh, well--come on in, then."
He holds the door for her, and once she's inside and the door is shut, he can hear her wandering around. There's a squeak from ancient couch springs, and a soft rustle of paper tells him she's leafing through one of his books. He wonders which one--maybe the Hawking, he's been rereading that one.
He comes around and takes a seat in his armchair. "Find something interesting?"
"Black Holes and Baby Universes," she says, so yeah, that's Hawking. "I could probably teach myself Braille if you had a copy of A Brief History Of Time sitting around."
"I might." He grins. "You want, I can dig it up."
"Oh, no, that's okay."
"Can I get you something to drink?" He can feel his knee starting to bounce. This just feels weird. Awkward. He can't tell what she's thinking, and the tone of her voice isn't giving him much of a clue.
"No, I'm fine--"
"Are you hungry? I could make some breakfast--"
"Kent." Ellie gets up, walks over to him. She puts her hand on his shoulder, and he jumps, head tilting to try to get a fix on her--what she's doing, where her face is, what she's going to do next, whether she's gonna touch him again--
He can feel her breath against his cheek before she starts talking. She's close. "Ellie..."
"Kent, I'm kind of having one of those days, you know what I mean? And I kind of thought, maybe you'd understand if I came over and we--"
This is not happening, Kent thinks, and he keeps on thinking it right until she stops talking and puts her lips on his. She goes for the kiss like she's sure he's gonna say yes, but when he doesn't start kissing back right away, she pulls back, her breath coming out hard and unsteady.
"Oh--God, I'm sorry--"
"Hey--" He grabs her by the shoulders, because Mama Clark didn't raise any fools, and Ellie stops trying to apologize.
When he nuzzles forward, his mouth searching for hers, she kisses him again. This time she takes it slower, opening up to him, letting him take the lead. He slides his tongue across her lips and licks into her mouth, softly, nice and slow. She shudders a little, whispering out just a hint of a moan. When he breaks off the kiss, he rests his forehead against hers.
"So," he whispers, "where exactly did you picture this going?"
"You feel like maybe taking me to bed?"
"I can do that."
"Okay." She straightens up, pulling away from him, but then she reaches down and takes his hand. "Where is it?"
Ellie's warm, smells good, feels like more sharp angles than curves, and when she guides him into her, he gets his hands on her hips and holds on--this is going to be her show, he can feel that, so he's just going to do his best to hold on for the ride. She rocks away on top of him until he's pretty sure he can't take it, and then she's tightening up around him, moaning, her fingernails digging into his shoulders as her whole body goes tense, tense, tense--and then suddenly, blissfully loose, falling over onto his chest, squirming and gasping, smiling so broadly he can feel it against his shoulder.
He wraps both arms around her waist and drives up, in, as close as he can get, and now it's his body that's tensing, him shuddering and gasping and groaning through the sensations, falling back against the pillows as he catches his breath.
And oh, God, he doesn't have the faintest idea what to say after that. In his line of work, there aren't exactly a lot of opportunities for casual sex with colleagues, and this... there's sex, and there's having a friend come by to get off, and Kent's not under any illusions about which one this was.
"So it's okay if we don't really--if we don't talk about this at work?" she asks, not too much later, as she gets dressed. He can hear her moving around the room, picking things up one at a time, and he sits up so he can at least try to be on equal terms with her for this, even if she's dressed and he's not.
"I wasn't gonna mention it," he says. "I can keep a secret. Trust me on this one."
"Oh, God, I didn't mean it like--I mean, it is better if we don't talk about it at work, but I don't want you to think I'm--"
"Ashamed?" He shakes his head. "I never would've thought that."
Her hands are soft on his cheeks. "Good," she whispers. She bends down and kisses him, and he stays still this time, lets her kiss him however the hell she wants to before she pulls away. "Good."
"It was just one of those things."
"Right. Yes. Exactly."
"One of those things that wasn't." He grins at her; he wishes he could get a reading on how she's feeling right now. She's awfully quiet, which doesn't tell him a damn thing.
But when she speaks again, her voice is serious and--he thinks--relieved. "Thank you," she murmurs. She clears her throat. "I'll see you later. Take care."
She lets herself out, and he falls back on the bed, listening until her car's long out of earshot. It's only once there's nothing left to hear that he lets himself sigh.
Packing up is crazy--there's too much to do and too little time to do it--and after Kent tells Ellie for the fifth time that he's got it covered, he doesn't need help, he realizes maybe the crazy is getting to her a little. Maybe it's one of those days.
When he gives in and says she can come over to his place, he gives his dick a stern talking-to; it would be totally sleazy to hope for that. The fact that it's been a shitty week for everybody doesn't give him the right to take advantage of her frustration and try to parlay it into some no-strings sex.
Ellie taking advantage of Kent's frustration, jumping him without even asking first, well, that's just fine.
She feels different this time--a little more frantic, maybe. She's sweaty, which makes sense given that she's probably been running herself ragged getting her office and her room all packed up, and she's riding him rough today--rough enough that when he reaches up to hold her, she pushes his hands down to the mattress and growls, "Let me," at him.
"Your show," he breathes, hands going slack in her grip. She pins him and keeps him pinned, and this time she works him like she knows she can drive him crazy if she just tries hard enough.
She's right, too.
He babbles, sometimes, when he's getting laid; he likes to talk dirty, likes it when he's with a woman who gets off on it, who encourages him to do it, but he doesn't know enough about Ellie to know whether she'd want him to or not. He ends up biting his tongue and grunting, making noises no sane person would consider a turn-on, trying to keep himself from saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.
But she's hot enough and slick enough and just fucking determined enough that, in the end, he can't take it anymore, and he ends up panting out, "God, God, baby, you feel so fucking good, please, please, c'mon, please, just let me--"
"Yeah," Ellie growls down at him, "yeah, come on, Kent, do it--"
That's all it takes; he opens his mouth to groan as his climax hits, hips hitching up, and she slams her mouth down on his, teeth cutting across his lips as she chokes out a few solid, muffled gasps of her own.
She stays wrapped around him for a little longer than the last time, face pressed up against the side of his neck, fingers still laced through his. But she's still the first one to move, and when she slides off him, he props himself up on his elbows, licking his lips as he tries to figure out what to say.
"I, ah, I noticed your dishes weren't packed, you want me to--"
"Sure. Yeah. That'd be great; thanks."
"Okay. Let me know if you want me to get anything else."
"No, no, that's good, I'll be out in a minute. Thank you."
He's gotten pretty good at packing, and the truth is he doesn't have a whole lot of stuff here to begin with, but she sticks around until everything he brought to Arecibo is in boxes. It's pretty nice of her, really.
When she goes, well--it's not like he expected a kiss goodbye, not even on the cheek, but the awkward pat on the hand is still a bit of a letdown.
It's been another one of those days. Really, one of those weeks. Months. God, Kent doesn't know at this point; they've just been having one bad day after another, to the point where Fisher just stays out of their way and everyone seems to clear the room when he and Ellie are snapping at each other. It's not Ellie's fault that nothing came of that search for the Wow! signal. It's sure as hell not Kent's fault that the sound he picked up on last week turned out to be a quasar. They know all that; it's just been hard on both of them, being so close to a breakthrough and never quite making it.
They've got three more years of funding, but sometimes it's real hard not to imagine their time left as a giant ticking clock, counting down every day faster than the last. Haddon's got to be asking himself what the hell he's paying for at this point; sometimes Kent's not sure he could answer that question.
He pulls his headphones off and tosses them onto the desk, sighing as he leans forward and rests his face in his hands. He'd check his watch, but he doesn't really want to know what time it is--he's been listening to static for what feels like hours, and his shoulders are tight enough he's got a massive headache building up.
The hands sliding onto his shoulders make him jump. "Hey," Ellie murmurs. "You should get some sleep."
"Is that the pot calling the kettle a workaholic?" But he groans when she digs her fingers in, sits up a little straighter and lets his arms drop down to his sides. Ellie can give a mean back rub when she wants to, and he's not going to turn it down. It beats getting into another argument by a factor of, oh, infinity.
"C'mon," Ellie says. "Come home with me."
And that's something else he isn't going to turn down. Not after a month like this one, not after the dry spell he knows they've both had lately. They both date sometimes, they've both had things that have lasted a few weeks or a few months, but when it comes down to it, sometimes it's good to have somebody in your bed who knows what you've been up to all day, who already understands why you're tired and frustrated and just want to be held instead of wanting to talk about it.
Back at her place, Ellie gets him undressed and lays him out flat on her bed, crawling between his legs and sliding her hands up his thighs. He stretches his arms up above his head, wrapping his fingers around the bedrails--by now he knows the cool, slightly textured iron bars on hers just as well as he knows the heavy oak slats on his. He knows the warm, impatient feel of her mouth on him pretty well, too, the insistent pressure of her hand stroking him steady and quick. He reaches down to slip one hand into her hair, and she lets him this time, lets him cradle her head in his hand and rock into her mouth--gently at first, but getting faster as he gets closer and closer and oh, God, finally there, gasping as she swallows all around him.
She climbs up on top of him when he's done, her hands curling around his shoulders, her head resting on his chest. He wraps both arms around her and holds on tight.
"You could've said something," she murmurs.
"Said--when? Now?" He doesn't let himself talk when they're having sex anymore; there's too much danger that he'll say the wrong thing. You feel good is one thing, but he's got other stuff going on in his brain nowadays, the kinds of things that make Ellie cut and run; he's heard about it happening to too many other guys.
"Not now, just--we've known each other a while now, you know? It doesn't always have to be my idea."
"I'm not really the pushy type."
"I know." She slides up just a little so she can kiss his forehead. She nuzzles his cheek on her way back down, settling in on his chest again. "I worry about you sometimes," she murmurs.
"This wasn't exactly what you dreamed about when you were a kid." She sighs. "People burn out. They get tired."
She's got a point. Eli and Rick are long gone; Fisher's still around, and the new guy, Willie, he's got enough passion for SETI that he'll probably be with them over the long haul. But it's not like Kent hasn't thought about other projects, other things he could make a contribution to.
He shakes his head. "I'd let you know if I was burning out. I promise."
Her grip on him gets tighter, and she nods. "Okay," she whispers. "Okay."
It sucks to have to hear about this on CNN, but it's got to be worse for Ellie at mission control. So close, but so far away. If this thing does what they all think it will, so damn far away. To think there was a time Kent didn't feel like Drumlin was a scheming political weasel; his opinion of the guy's plummeted in the last few weeks.
"...and that's NASA's simulation of what's going to happen when they release the pod. Now--"
The announcer cuts off abruptly, and Willie lets out a loud yelp. "Oh Jesus--"
Kent's pulse skyrockets; all that silence, something wrong--it's like the Challenger, when nobody said anything for seconds that felt like an eternity, and finally the newscaster said the word explosion. "What, what--"
Willie's talking over the announcer now, babbling; Kent gets it from two sources. "Something fucking blew up--"
"--and you can, you can see now, there has been some kind of--"
"--oh, Jesus, the whole arm, the, the arm, man, it's--oh my God, the whole thing, it's--"
"--the entire machine has broken into pieces in what appears to be a massive explosion of some kind--"
"Just the machine, or mission control, too?" Kent barks. "What about our people, Willie?"
"No, no, just the machine, it, the pieces are flying, but none of them are big enough to--oh, holy shit, man, Drumlin, Drumlin's on that thing--"
"Where the goddamn hell is Ellie?" Kent reaches over the TV--he's always parked behind the TV for things like this, leaves more room for the other folks to crowd around the front--and grabs out for Willie. He misses, but Willie puts his hand up and lets Kent hold onto his arm, lets Kent steady himself.
"She's gonna be fine, man, she's fine, they've panned around, nothing's wrong with mission control, they'd have said something. Jesus Christ, the whole machine, it's just--there's nothing, it's just gone--"
Gone. Kent lets Willie go and sags forward, bracing himself against the row of monitors. Gone. "Mechanical failure?"
"Hell, no. Didn't look anything like that. A bomb or something, maybe, some nut got past security, I don't know, but ain't no way a mechanical failure made an explosion that blew half the arm off."
Bomb, mechanical failure--it doesn't matter, Kent realizes. "Drumlin," he says, finally. "The--the crew on the machine--do they know if there were any survivors?"
"I don't see how."
"Jesus." Kent rubs at the center of his chest. "Jesus."
He doesn't call Ellie. He should. Willie touches in for both of them, and Kent tells Willie to pass on how sorry he is. He can't lie to her directly.
The minute she's back, they let him know, and he stands in front of her, trying to think of something to say. She reaches up and touches his cheek, and then, oh, God, he's holding her, got her wrapped up safe and solid in his arms, and she's still here, still safe, and being so goddamned grateful for that feels like a betrayal of everything they've been working for these past four years.
"I want to drop my stuff off at home," she murmurs, when he finally manages to make himself let go. "Will you be up later? I don't want to wake you, but I'm--" She laughs, softly, no humor to it. "God, I haven't had two seconds on my own since the... since... and you know what, I'm not really ready to start now. So just... just enough time to shower, maybe? And then..."
He digs into his pocket and gets his keys out; he's had the spare sitting on his key ring for a while, ever since this whole crazy thing started. He just hasn't known how to offer it--if you ever need to get away, if you want to be outside the reporters' line of fire for a while--or if he should just tell the truth at the worst possible moment, when she's got everything else to deal with, too.
But he slides the key off his key ring, takes her hand in his, and gently places it in her palm, folding her fingers over it.
"You don't ever have to ask," he says quietly. "You're always welcome."
"I..." He can feel her hand tensing in his, like she's clenching her fingers around that key, holding onto it as if it can anchor her. She doesn't say anything else. He hears her swallow, and he thinks he can feel her body moving as she nods. It's a better reaction than he'd hoped for.
"Thank you," she whispers. She leans up again and kisses his cheek, and her other hand wraps around the back of his neck and holds him close for a minute. Then she's pulling back and clearing her throat. "I'll be--I don't know, twenty minutes, half an hour."
"I'll be there."
It's over two hours before she shows, and when he hears the key turning in the lock, he launches himself off the couch, coming around and wondering if he should have stayed in work clothes, if the pajamas are going to be too much of a presumption. But he can feel the excitement crackling around her like a static field, and when she drops her bag on the floor, it sounds heavy, like an overnight bag instead of just her purse.
"You are not going to believe what Haddon did," she says, and he can feel his heartbeat speeding up all over again; he knows exactly what she's going to say before she says it. "There's another transport."
"You're going," he says quietly.
"They haven't told me yet."
"You're going." More firmly this time. "You've gotta go. It has to be you." He stretches his arms out, and she just about falls into them, clinging to him, both her hands making fists in his t-shirt. "Man, just when I got over being scared as hell for you..."
"I know," she whispers. "I know. I'm sorry."
It surprises him so much he actually pulls back, tries to get a little distance so he can think straight. "You--what? Why the hell are you sorry? Don't be sorry, this is your dream--"
"I can still be sorry that it scares you." She slips her hand into his and laces their fingers together. "C'mon. You think I don't know why?"
He tries to turn away at that. "Ellie--"
"Listen. Kent--listen to me." She squeezes his hand. "We both know I've got to do this. I have to go. But believe me--" She leans in close, and despite himself, he puts his arms around her again. "I want to come back."
It's everything he never thought she'd say, even though she didn't really say anything. No promises, no declarations, not any more than he did with the key and the offer. But when she reaches up and cups his face in her hands, when he kisses her this time, he doesn't worry about saying the wrong thing. He doesn't worry about anything, that night, and for all that he's a scientist, he puts his faith in the belief that she'll go--she'll find out who sent that signal--and she'll make her way back home.
"Here you go, Kent--this one's just books."
"Oh, more books. I wasn't sure we had enough."
Ellie laughs. "Yeah, well, if we can't figure out where to put them, maybe I'll just take over the garage, put up some shelves..."
"We'll manage." Kent winks at her as he takes the box. He heads back inside with it, going straight for the library and stacking it neatly on top of the last box he brought in. That makes fifteen boxes of books, and okay, they're small boxes, but still--he's glad he won't have to unpack them.
He's grinning as he heads back outside; he hears Fisher just in time and comes to a quick stop. "Whoops--sorry, Dr. C," Fisher says. Kent takes a step to his left, making a little more space; he wonders what Fisher's carrying. Something heavy, he bets. He goes back to the truck and stands at the ready while Ellie directs more boxes into the hands of grad students, a few kids they recruited who were happy to work for beer and pizza.
"What can I get next?" he asks Ellie. She turns around and slides her arms around his neck, which still gives him a little jolt; they can do this now, be like this in public. It's nice.
"You don't have to get anything else," she says. She kisses him on the cheek. "Books are in, clothes are in, all that's left is the heavy awkward stuff."
"Oh, heavy awkward stuff. Yeah, I'm thinking we let these sprightly twentysomething guys handle that."
"The unpacking could take a while," she says. She slides out of his embrace, but when he keeps an arm around her waist, she steps closer, wrapping one around his in return. "You're not gonna mind all the chaos, are you?"
"As long as we keep the paths clear, it'll be just fine." He leans in and exhales softly. "If I'd known this was going to happen once I gave you a key, I'd have done it a lot sooner."
Ellie laughs at him. "Your timing was perfect." She gives him a squeeze and then steps away. "I'm gonna see about ordering those pizzas."
It takes her a good three weeks to be fully moved in. They end up moving some of the furniture, but he gets used to that quick enough, and it's worth every minute of the adjustment period, having her around. He catches a little flack from her for snoring; he gives her some grief for never taking out the trash.
"Did you ever imagine us being here?" she murmurs one night, all tucked up against his back. "Like that first night in Arecibo--did you ever think this was where it was going?"
"Truthfully?" She nods her head against his shoulder. "Since I met you, I've never known where anything was going. But I always wanted to find out."
"Here's pretty good."
"Here's great." He grins, and he can feel her grinning, too. "Here works for me."