Outside is no better. The air feels gritty in his lungs, impure and noxious, the waste of this barbaric civilization whose machinery is loud and constant, the grinding of too many gears. The motion of the car is jarring as he tries to navigate the crumbling asphalt of the city, and he'll be amazed if he escapes this godforsaken time with his teeth intact. He throws the car into park and slams the door behind him, but he only makes it half a block before he remembers about the meters and has to turn around. Attention from even the most innocuous of authorities is not something he needs.
And then: a coincidence. That's all it is, this first time.
He's digging in his pocket for change -- for actual metal currency, of all things -- when a boy with an ice cream cone steps off the curb and into the street. The boy is gawky and too thin, and oblivious to his surroundings. He's focused on his ice cream as the traffic lights change, as a car rounds the corner and speeds up, as the tires squeal and the horn blares and Eobard realizes it's not a boy at all: it's Barry Allen.
Eobard has the both of them on the other side of the street before he thinks his way through the final syllable of that name. They stare at one another, winded and startled and wide-eyed. Ice cream drips on the sidewalk between them.
Time seems to stretch and swirl and Eobard can see everything that's already happened, everything that hasn't yet happened, everything that could happen, everything he and this boy will one day be to one another. His heart slams against his ribcage so fast he thinks that must explain it, the muscle beating so quickly it can only be the speed force. With something like hope, he reaches for it, but-- but--
"Oh my god," he hears, and there's a man running up to them. He's in a well-worn suit and he falls to his knees and clutches Barry to his chest, a look in his eyes Eobard can't identify. He tries -- he wants to know what this man sees when he looks at the boy who will one day be Barry Allen -- but the man doesn't so much as glance in Eobard's direction. He is, instead, holding Barry's shoulders and muttering worried half to death and need to pay attention and can't move faster than a car and at least thank the man.
"Thank you," Barry says, ever dutiful, and Eobard feels his wrath rise up again. All the power he'd managed to save, everything he'd hoped to hoard and cultivate and grow and use to go home -- gone, in less time than it takes to blink, all because of Barry Allen. Again.
"Got his head in the clouds," the man says, standing up, extending his hand to Eobard. Firm grip, dry skin. Relieved smile, tinged with fond exasperation and a deeper worry. "Needs someone to watch out for him, I guess." He looks down again, but Barry has returned his attention to his ice cream. "Seriously, I can't thank you enough."
"Not at all," Eobard says, feeling again for his power. This time, his hand is vibrating as he reaches for Barry. This time, it will work. This time -- but when he feels Barry's neat brown hair beneath his fingers, he realizes he's not moving fast enough to be vibrating: He's simply shaking. He dredges up a smile. "It was my pleasure."
It sounds like greed, perhaps, but it's not: He needs to relax, needs to be able to breathe and recover when the frustration of this place and time proves overwhelming. It does, and often, because although in the lab he needs technology, what he really needs is sheer brainpower, and that's a long game.
He needs youth. He needs fresh and eager bright young things, bursting at the seams with raw intelligence, untutored and unjaded and unlikely to ask too many questions about how, exactly, he knows some of the things he knows. He needs them able. He needs them willing. He needs them easily led.
He'll pay for it if he has to, and he does. In compensation packages, of course, but mostly in other ways: time lost to speaking engagements, to book signings, to the judging of science fair competitions. In donations of equipment and supplies to area schools' science departments; in sponsorship of local soccer teams, season after season of paying for endless orange slices and yellow jerseys that say S.T.A.R. LABS on the back instead of, for example, ALLEN. In scholarships to study physics, awarded to deserving students with murdered mothers and incarcerated fathers who might not otherwise be able to afford a top-tier education.
And in trade: When his protégés arrive, he gives them whatever they need, and if they don't need anything from him, he doesn't want anything from them.
"Dr. Wells?" A post-doc. An astroparticle physicist, specializing in quantum chronodynamics. Not a difficult home life, but home is very far away. They have that in common.
"Dr. Chapra," he says, smiling. "What can I do for you?"
Her answering smile is tentative. "Our team will be meeting shortly, and there are several demos we thought you might be interested in."
"I hope yours is one of them," he says, and her smile loses its hesitancy. He glances at the clock. "But 5:30? I hope someone thought to order food."
"Yes, sir," she says. "Pizza and burgers."
Harrison is tired of pizza, of the clotted plastic they call 'cheese,' but he hasn't yet started eating meat. They don't have it where he comes from, not real meat, but the food science had advanced to the point that it hadn't mattered. In the current era, it has not. He needs protein. Perhaps it's time for an experiment. "Where are the burgers from?"
"Big Belly Burger."
"Lead the way," he says.
Later, he licks grease off his fingers and watches his staff present findings that will advance their respective fields by leaps and bounds and he thinks: Maybe there are perks to being here after all.
"Is that so." Harrison puts the book aside and props himself against the headboard.
"It is," Hartley says. "They have to run forever, around and around the mountain, fast as they can. Ratto, ratto, che 'l tempo non si perda per poco amor."
"To lose time due to insufficient love," Harrison murmurs, and Hartley moves to straddle his thighs. "And all that running. It sounds more like Hell than Purgatory." He would know.
"Eventually they reach the top."
"Well," Hartley says, and starts moving. "Earthly Paradise, anyway."
"And the lustful?"
"It depends." Hartley's skin is hot against his. "The regretful are in Purgatory, but the others--"
"The carnal malefactors," Harrison says, reaching between their bodies.
"Yes," Hartley says with a smirk, his hands planted on Harrison's chest, his head thrown back. "They end up in Hell."
"That's too bad." His lips twist, and then his wrist.
"Not too bad. It's only the second circle, so it could be worse. It could be the ninth."
Hartley wants him to ask, and so he does: "And who's there?"
Harrison slides a thumb into Hartley's mouth. "Enough."
And so he hires Cisco Ramon, who has the potential to become the greatest mechanical engineer he's ever seen. He hires him straight out of undergrad and with no relevant work experience and all he says is I've got a feeling about you, which is true, but it's also true that Cisco has a spark Harrison won't see for another hundred years, and he wants it.
What Cisco wants is immediately clear, and Harrison gives him everything: He gives him a chance. He gives him a home. He gives him opportunity and knowledge and funding and wicked cool toys. He gives him attention and acceptance and approval. And the first time he screws up, when he shuffles into Harrison's office with his chin sunk to his chest with guilt, Harrison gives him absolution.
When the accelerator explodes and he shuts down S.T.A.R. Labs and lets go of his staff, many of them want to stay on as part of a skeleton crew; they want to rebuild. It's expected: He's a generous employer, and times are tough enough that paychecks take precedence over principles. Cisco doesn't even want the paycheck; he'll stay for free if Harrison wants him to. If he needs the help.
Harrison says his name, just once, and Cisco puts a blowpop in his mouth and turns sideways in his chair, his legs dangling over the armrest. "There's still so much to learn," he says, which is true. Harrison has wondered if they have time enough for Cisco to become an equal. It's doubtful, but Cisco has spent nearly two years surprising him.
"But?" he prompts.
"But I have another offer. It's a really good one, too, from Mercury Labs, in their materials division." He looks up, suddenly stricken, and pulls the blowpop out of his mouth. "I wasn't looking, I swear, but a lot of the team ended up there and they called and--"
"Cisco, it's fine," he says. "Of course they called you. I'm surprised they're the only ones who did."
Cisco looks away. "They're not," he mumbles. He sounds miserable, but Harrison smiles.
"You've come far in two years." He likes to think he had something to do with that.
"Yeah, and I could go a lot farther if I stayed here. Not to make it weird or anything, but there's still a lot you can teach me."
"That's very flattering, Cisco, but you'd go far anywhere. You have a bright future ahead of you, and there's no shortage of people you can learn from." He doesn't need to stay in the burned-out husk of the accelerator, haunted by ghosts, chained up by survivor's guilt and Harrison's own particular brand of charisma. His help rebuilding the accelerator would be invaluable, yes, but Harrison can't risk asking for it. In fact, Cisco being here at all might be too much of a risk: He's clever, and there's a good chance he'll figure it out, at which point Harrison will have a choice to make.
"Okay, can you stop being so supportive for like half a second and tell me what you think I should do?"
Harrison folds his hands in his lap and looks down. Walk away, he thinks, and knows that if he says it, Cisco will do it. He knows it's Cisco's best chance. And he knows himself.
"I think you should do whatever you want to do," he says, and when Cisco stands up, Harrison holds out his hand and smiles. "Welcome back to S.T.A.R. Labs, Mr. Ramon."
He could kill Barry and save himself, no problem at all: Simply take what he came for. He wouldn't be able to go home, not now and possibly not ever, but it might be worth it. He already knows he can live like a king in this time; how to acquire wealth beyond measure; how to surround himself with beauty and brains and talent; how to dole out praise and criticism at intervals designed to keep people at his side, eager for his approval and scrambling for his favor, but not so much it turns them into fawning sycophants unable to think for themselves.
As for the rest of it, it could be worse. He likes hamburgers, and the smooth burn of a neat single-malt. Denim no longer feels harsh against his skin, and he's come to enjoy the scratch of a needle over a vinyl record. The sound may be degraded and corrupt, but there's beauty there, too, and Harrison can hear it now.
But what he can't do is feel the lightning crackling through his veins. He can't feel the air on his face, can't feel his ribcage shift as his lungs expand. He can't move his legs and be gone, can't run, can't be part of something greater than himself and infinite. Barry Allen can't do any of those things, either, not yet, but he will, and Harrison aches with envy. Barry has no idea how lucky he is to have that future still in front of him -- the boundless joy of discovery, the endless enthusiasm -- and even if Harrison means to end that future, he won't do it now.
Now, when he thinks about it, all he sees are a thousand iterations of Barry's smile, lighting his face as he walks across a stage to accept his degree, as he sits in the park with Iris and pets every dog that ambles in their direction, as he scores a meaningless goal in a meaningless intramural soccer game, as he perches on the edge of Joe's desk on his first day of work, as he takes that sip of coffee on a rainy Monday morning.
"Nothing is forgiven," he says to Barry, and to himself. "There will be a reckoning."
Harrison is. His foot is on the ground, his knuckles white on the arms of his chair. He has options. He knows what they are. He can do anything. He can sit there and watch as the missile obliterates Barry and everything he's worked for, his chance to go home. He can let Barry die and spend another decade in this ghost town, rebuilding the accelerator only to destroy it again, one more chance at another speedster. He can let Barry die and he can die too, eventually, here in this time and this place and this body, can simply stay in the twenty-first century, honing young minds and swimming laps in his pool and eating hamburgers. He can settle.
Or he can save Barry and kill the others, put Barry in a cell until he comes around. He can save Barry and collapse, gasping, say the accelerator took more than my legs, let Caitlin run tests that show her whatever metahuman traits he wants to fabricate. He can save Barry and tell the truth, can look into his eyes and say forgive me, but I only want to go home.
And then Barry moves, and Harrison does nothing. Barry isn't the one who needs saving.