The tables were crowded with the last of the summer semester students. Harrison picked his way through and found the white blond head that called him to safety. Most of the other professors couldn’t stand Dr. Caitlin ‘Call me Frost’ Snow, if not for her obnoxious personality than for her insistent bordering-on-obscene P.D.A. with her husband.
“Hey, look,” she tilted her face up to him, showing off her signature blue lipstick,. “It’s Dr. Grumpy Cat.”
“Thank you for that, again. Some student now thinks it’s hysterical to pin memes to my office door,” he sat in the seat she’d left open.
“Oh, that’s me,” she grinned, showing off pearly whites. “How was your summer?”
“Good. I’m near to a working prototype for the-”
Harrison diligently turned his attention to a syllabus. Soft wet slurping sounds filtered through, but he had perfected the art of tuning out a long time ago. It was worth the price of having a built in shield against anyone that might want to make small talk with him. Harrison had little patience for chatter.
A hand reached into his line of sight and snatched the stack of papers he’d been working on.
“No!” Frost protested. “Not again, Grumps. What’d you do this time?”
“I think that students of all levels deserve an adequate education from a qualified-”
“He told Nutkins that a chimp could do his job,” Ronnie took the sheets of paper from Frost’s hands and handed them back. “So now Dr. Wells gets to play chimp. Again.”
“Physics 101,” Frost shook her head slowly in despair. “How many students?”
“One hundred and six,” Harrison leaned back in his chair. “But I’ll lose ten or fifteen after they see the syllabus.”
“So that, plus your two five hundred levels, publications and that book you’re meant to be churning out,” she clicked her tongue. “You’re going to die. Too bad. Your office is in the wrong building for me to steal.”
“Babe, you already have three offices,” Ronnie pointed out.
“I know, but I’m running out of space to store my assistants,” her eyes brightened and pointed at Harrison. “You need one.”
“I have an office.”
“No! A T.A. Even better a graduate assistant,” she pulled out her phone and started scrolling. “You’d be so much happier if you had a minion or two.”
“You used to be my minion,” he pointed out.
“Aw, it’s cute that you still think that,” she paused to smile at him. “It was a fun time.”
“I’m not going to take one of your lap dogs.”
“What about Ramon?” Ronnie leaned back in his chair so Frost could swing her feet into his lap.
“Perfect!” She grinned. “Oh, really really perfect.”
“I haven’t heard the name,” Harrison was already formulating a list of arguments to throw uselessly against her.
“He’s one of mine,” Ronnie leaned over Frost’s legs. “It’s his first year in the doctoral program, but he did his last year of undergrad here too. I taught him a few times.”
“And Frost hasn’t snacked on his soul yet?”
“He won’t let me,” she sighed. “He’s the wrong kind of gay to appreciate my charms.”
“Is there a right kind?” Harrison glanced at Ronnie, who just shrugged.
“I don’t appreciate your charms. I understand the dangers of crossing you. Very different. “
“I don’t understand the difference,” she moved to her watch. “Stop interrupting me. It’s rude.”
“My apologies,” he said, drier than the Sahara. “Do go on about how you’re going to inflict this unsuspecting human on me.”
“It’s not an affliction,” she chided. “He’s perfect. He’ll instill all the fear that you want to, but are secretly to much of a mush to see through.”
“I am not mushy. Firm. Very firm. I have witnesses,” he said firmly.
“You’re a hedgehog. Prickly outside, adorable soft pink underside.”
“And he could help you with your research,” Ronnie swept in with a slight fear in his eyes. Good. Someone was still afraid of him. “He’s got a great grasp of the theoretical and his talent is turning it into the practical.”
“Joy. So another person who wants their name added onto my work,” he crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair.
“Ramon doesn’t actually care about any of that,” Frost said tartly. “Let me do the selling on this one, baby.”
“I don’t need a pitch, I don’t need an assistant,” he said firmly. “I certainly don’t need one that you handpicked.”
“You should meet him,” Frost decided.
“I’ll introduce you guys!” Ronnie said brightly. “At the welcome back shindig tonight. I can get him to go, I’ll bet.”
“Nutkins made it mandatory. Do you want to teach Physics for Poets next semester?” Ronnie prodded.
“No,” Harrison shuddered. “Fine. But I’m not meeting your kid.”
Ronnie and Frost exchanged a look that made him uncomfortably certain that he was going to lose the battle. He vowed not to give up the whole war. He liked working on his own. He was good at it. After a few more minutes, he got up without excusing himself and left. Ronnie waved to him over Frost’s head. She was apparently evaluating his tonsils with her tongue.
On the walk back to his office ‘Tiny Dancer’ played over his watch and he picked up the call with a swipe,
“Hi, Dad!” Jesse chirped. “How was your first day back to school?”
“Fine,” he smiled at her miniaturized picture. “How was practice?”
“Awful,” she groaned. “the new director thinks we should drill each movement until it’s the way it looks in her head. I’m going to cave in her skull and start looking at the pieces to figure out what that means soon.”
“You’re enjoying it.”
“Of course I am!” She laughed, the sound tinny and far away. “I am gonna be a soloist by next season.”
“I know you will.”
They chatted for a few more minutes and then Jesse was chiming a goodbye as she ran out the door to meet friends. It was good to hear her, but hanging up left the persistent silence behind.
The Physics department took up a long hallway in the Wayne Memorial Earth and Sky Building. No one else had returned yet, leaving their doors firmly shut. Harrison had his own office thanks to retirements and his apparently unbearable habit of playing Gregorian chants at high volume while writing.
The door had a new printed piece of paper stuck to it. Grumpy Cat frowned at the world with large font that said ‘I had fun once....it was awful’. Harrison considered tearing it down, but Frost or someone like her would only find something worse. He unlocked the door, greeted by the musty smell of twelve weeks of neglect.
It was a closet of room, but there was space for his computer, a desk and two chairs on either side of said desk. There was also a window that could be coaxed open with judicious application of his jerry-rigged lever system. He made use of it to clear out the stale air. Then he started piling folders onto his previously cleared desk.
Jesse and Tess smiled at him out of an ancient photo tucked at the monitor’s side. He turned away from them and put his mind firmly on paperwork. If he got started with it now, the bureaucracy wouldn’t start really grinding at his soul until three weeks into the new year. That would save him a few dollars in antacids.
He turned on the Gregorian chants and took out his red pens. Red ink was cathartic. The monks were really getting into the Ave Regina when a knock finally managed to penetrate their growing fervor.
“Go away,” Harrison shouted.
“It’s six, Harrison!” Ronnie shouted back. “Come out with your hands up!”
Reluctantly, Harrison set aside his pen and found his coat. He could try to ignore Ronnie, but the deceptively sunny man had a temper like a honey badger when provoked. Which was hilarious when aimed at other people, less enjoyable when it was Harrison holding his door shut with a chair and calling for campus security.
It was possible that he required new friends.
“You didn’t change?” Frost asked as soon as he closed the door behind him. “I thought you kept a suit in there.”
Harrison glanced down at his black on black ensemble and shrugged.
“The suit is black too. This might be slightly less suggestive of a funeral.“
“Fine. But I’m not standing next to you,” Frost declared and started off down the hall, her silver stilettos somehow soundless against the tile.
The supposed party already looked like most of the events Harrison was forced to attend since coming to work at the Central City Institute of Technology. A lot of bored, pretentious asses stuffed into checkered suits, talking over cheap wine about their summer ‘experiences’. Harrison slipped away from his chaperons and found himself a quiet space where he was visible enough to qualify as attending without actually having to interact with anyone.
He was planning out week five of the 513 Many-Body Theory for Condensed Matter Systems class that he’d been developing when the Dean of Sciences slithered up beside him.
“Hello, Dr. Wells,” Nutkins smiled with a full set of caps. “How was your summer?”
“Productive,” he put on a smile that usually worked during grant interviews. “Yours?”
“Fascinating, fascinating. Have you ever been to Borneo?”
“102 species of bats! I spent four weeks in a cave. Very calming.”
“Yes, I imagine it was,” Harrison was actually imagining Nutkins slowly drowning in guano. It was, in fact, very calming. It kept his heart beat at a reasonable rate even as Nutkins insisted on enumerating the many virtues of Borneo bats.
“Wells!” Ronnie bounced up to them. “Oh, I’m sorry to interrupt. Do you mind if I steal Dr. Wells for just a moment?”
“Go right ahead,” Nutkins smiled vaguely at them, then turned to look for his next victim.
“Thank you,” Harrison said fervently.
“You can thank me by coming with me to Engineering. I can’t budge Ramon, so I’m taking you to him. Maybe you can explain to him the exact nature of the Dean’s wrath.”
Too grateful to have an out from the party, Harrison didn’t resist any further. He followed Ronnie to the new high tech laboratory building that blotted out all the historic quaintness of the campus. It had nearly caused a riot when the plans were announced. Harrison loved it. He’d almost campaigned to move offices there, but the engineers had higher tolerances for loud music and he was too old to develop a second irritating habit.
The elevator whisked them up to the fourth floor without any of the ominous creaks of the Wayne building. They got off into a quiet sterile hall with only three doors. Each had a keypad. It would have looked corporate if it weren’t for all the flyers plastered next to the doors for clubs, gigs and roommate requests. Ronnie approached the one on the left and punched in a long sequence of numbers.
The door opened with a soft exhalation. A warren of tables, metal and orange warning signs greeted them. Harrison followed with increasing interest as he saw the various stages of development. This was the weapons lab that Ronnie had fought against, funded by delicious, addictive government money.
At the far back, they came to a makeshift shooting range with a single lane. Standing in the booth was a short, dark haired man wearing protective eye and ear gear. He was holding a gun that might’ve out massed him and looked like it was held together by sheer force of will.
“Clear!” The man shouted and pulled a trigger. The sound was explosive and left a faint whine in Harrison’s ears as it cleared. A paper target at the end of the lane hung oddly stiff. The man set the gun down carefully and pulled a rubber band out of his pocket. With care, he spread it over his fingers, then released it. It hit the target with soft ‘twip’. The paper shattered and rained like broken glass over the ground.
“I am duly impressed,” Harrison allowed. Ronnie grinned at him, then walked over to the man and tapped him on the shoulder.
Ramon, for it must be him, jumped a foot in the air and turned around with a ready fist. It stopped a hair short of Ronnie’s nose.
“Fuck,” Ramon reached his hands up to shove his headphones down. “I could’ve killed you.”
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“I’m not quite that fragile,” Ronnie went on smiling. For the first time, Harrison witnessed someone do the impossible: Ramon didn’t return Ronnie’s jocular smile. He didn’t even blink. No one was immune to Ronnie's smile. It was a law of nature.
“You should know better, professor,” Ramon crossed his arms over his chest. “This is a live range. If I hit you with that thing, I’d spent the rest of the night dust-busting your ass off the floor.”
“Right, sorry,” Ronnie shook his head. “I brought Dr. Wells to meet you.”
There was a slight hesitation, a widening of the eyes, but otherwise the stone cold expression remained.
“What did you think?” Ramon asked, lifting his chin up.
“I think that nitrous cartridges would be a pain in the ass on the field. You got a practical application for that monster or are you just fucking around?”
“Paid for by your tax dollars,” Ramon looked down and away and Harrison wondered if he’d actually pinged this kid’s ego. “I don’t ask why they want what they want, I just deliver so I can keep my scholarship.”
“May I take a closer look?”
Wordlessly, Ramon flipped on the safety and held it out for him. The gun weighed less than it appeared, made of an alloy Harrison didn’t recognize. He ran his hands over delicate circuitry and beautiful metal work. He could see that he’d been right about the stage of assembly, but once it was done it would be:
“Gorgeous,” he declared and offered it back. “Have you used the triggering mechanism in other devices? I haven’t seen it before.”
“Didn’t think particle physicists spent much time looking at experimental weaponry,” Ramon challenged, taking back his work with a possessive clutch. There was a very faint shade of pink high on his cheeks.
“I dabble,” Harrison said mildly. Had Frost talked him up or did Ramon know him already?
“He’s done his time down in the muck with us,” Ronnie put in. “I should really say more formally, Doctor Harrison Wells, this is Cisco Ramon, potential graduate assistant.”
“I told you I don’t need your help finding a position,” Ramon stiffened impossibly further. He set into fighting it out with Ronnie while Harrison took his time perusing him.
The kid might like to look tough, but he had a practical turn to him. Tough dark denim pants, rubber soled work boots that were probably steel toed, dark t-shirt and a brown leather jacket still zipped up despite the warmth of the day. He was armored, down to the slicked back hair and the black protective eye gear now pushed to the top of his head.
Not to mention he was as good looking as his gun.
“Dr. Wells just needs someone with him to manage the general lecture and help with the grading,” Ronnie was saying as Harrison tuned back in. “You need the money, Cisco.”
“Reverb,” the boy corrected with an angry twist to his mouth.
“Fine. Whatever you want to call yourself, but you’re gonna have to eat your pride to stay full if you don’t take on some kind of work-study. I know how much you’re making.”
“That’s a violation of privacy.”
“If I might?” Harrison said softly. Ronnie and ...Reverb, apparently, snapped to attention. “I need teaching assistance exactly as much as Reverb desires to give it. However, my current project could use the eye of an engineer. I don’t have a budget for a consultant, but I do have one for an assistant.”
“What kind of project?” Reverb asked, suspicion dripping off of him.
“Miniaturization of particle acceleration.”
“I’m in,” Reverb said before the last word had properly left Harrison’s lips.
“Miniaturization is sort of his thing,” Ronnie said with smirking self-satisfaction.
“Like being a smug ass is yours?” Harrison growled. “Congratulations, you get to do the paperwork to push the appointment through.”
“I don’t-” Ronnie started.
“It’s that or I tell Frost that I’m turning down her top pick because you pushed it too hard.”
“You wouldn’t,” Ronnie’s eyes narrowed.
“Don’t test me, Raymond.”
With an annoyed puff of agreement, Ronnie turned tail and left. Reverb was looking at Harrison with what was either a hint of respect or the repression of a sneeze.
“First day of class in next Tuesday. Come to my office hours on the Thursday before and I’ll give you an overview of the syllabus and show you the research models.”
“Yes, professor,” Reverb sing-songed. “Should I bring my very special pens and notepaper?”
“That attitude is at an eight and I need you at about a five to not want to systematically destroy your self-esteem,” Harrison snapped. “Save the higher levels for freshman who need gravity explained to them for the fifth time. Understood?”
“Yeah,” Reverb blinked a few times and nodded for good measure. “Understood.”
Harrison walked away reasonably sure of two things:
1. Reverb was flipping him off behind his back.
2. The semester was going to be an exercise in self-control.
“...and this the outline of the midterm. I randomize the questions the night before, but that’s the gist.”
He handed of the stack of papers and Reverb thrust them into the messenger bag along with everything else Harrison had handed to him. It would’ve concerned him to see it all so casually stowed, but through it all Reverb had peppered him with incisive questions that showed close, if ornery, attention.
“You have almost everything done already,” Reverb pulled a pen from Harrison’s desk and let it flip through his fingers. “What do you want me to do?”
“Look at this,” Harrison turned the monitor to him.
The exploded diagram of the accelerator gently rotated in the background. As if electrified, Reverb went from idle looseness to ramrod straight posture. His eyes were wide and the pen started tracing arcs in the air as he internalized what he was seeing.
“It’s...okay. You can’t do that. It looks cute, but it’ll crumbled under any real pressure,” he had the pen uncapped and halfway to the monitor before catching himself. “I need paper. A lot of paper.”
“That I can provide.”
Bemused, Harrison found himself clearing off his desk to make room as Reverb’s mad scribbling arched off the first piece of paper onto the next and the next.
“No, no,” Harrison stopped him at one point. “Look, if you do that than the collision will be more difficult to observe. That’s our main goal.”
“Right,” the pen tip paused and for the first time, Harrison caught something like uncertainty crossing over Reverb’s face. “I was thinking for stability, not visibility.”
“The rest is a vast improvement,” Harrison pursed his lips. “I’m beginning to feel a bit inadequate to the task in comparison.”
“It’s your machine,” Reverb grumbled, but he couldn’t hide the quicksilver smile.
Harrison bit the inside of his cheek and thought about the vast reaches of frozen space. How infinite they were and all the possibilities folded therein. It was the meditation he reached for in trying moments and right then, he was being sorely tested. Damn Frost and her know-it-all smirk.
“I believe that when you’re through, it will be unmistakably ours,” Harrison traced one red line with a thoughtful caress.
“I don’t need credit,” Reverb’s resting bitch face returned. “The challenge is enough.”
“Credit is rarely offered, you should take it when it’s given.”
“I don’t need lessons,” the pen finally clattered down, ceasing it’s relentless execution of beauty.
“Everyone needs lessons,” Harrison rolled his eyes. “And if you don’t want to be lectured, you shouldn’t have stayed in the ivory tower.”
Having no reply to that apparently, Reverb sank back down into his chair to look over the work he’d done. The sun was starting slant downwards and Harrison was starving.
“Come on,” he reached for his coat. “Dinner. You eat meat?”
“Yeah,” Reverb glanced up at him, seemingly surprised he was still there. “Why?”
“Burgers. On me.”
“I can afford a burger.”
“Good, so can I. Two, in fact.”
Reverb got to his feet, gathered his bag up and glanced back at the drawings.
“Will they be safe here?”
“Safe from what? None of the other imbeciles in this department would know what to do with them even if they did see them. The custodians won’t touch them.” Still Reverb lingered and Harrison heaved a sigh. “Take it with you if you’re so damn worried.”
“I’m not worried,” Reverb snapped, but his hands were on the sheets right after. “You should be more careful.”
“I thought you didn’t deal in lessons,” Harrison said mildly.
“I can give ‘em out.”
“But you can’t take them?”
The silence that followed felt thicker than Harrison had anticipated. Reverb made quick work of his plans tucking them away as Harrison watched.
“I can give and take,” he said eventually, mouth a thin line. “Depends on who’s on the other side of the equation.”
“Interesting,” Harrison swung the door open, gestured him out so he could lock the door. “If opaque.”
“Opaque my fine ass,” Reverb muttered and Harrison, diplomatically he thought, choose not to hear him.
They walked together in the shared silence of thought. Reverb’s steps were nearly soundless despite his heavy gear and he walked with his eyes trained upward, tracing the sunset. Hands in his pockets, Harrison considered the colors of it. The pastels were fading into the deep blue of early evening, the stars straining to penetrate the too light sky. Abstractly, it wasn’t a remarkable sunset, but it was nice to see one again over the familiar buildings of the campus.
“Did you do your undergraduate work here?” He asked idly.
“No,” Reverb blinked and his gaze fell to the sidewalk. “I went to state until my junior year. I punched a professor and they kicked me out.”
“You punched a professor,” Harrison repeated without inflection. “Did they deserve it?”
“I corrected a theorem solution of his. He presented it to the class and I offered my opinion,” there as a tremendous anger straining under the clinical presentation. “He called me an ‘ignorant jumped up ghetto piece of trash’.”
“So you punched him.”
“No,” the word was a razor, thin and fraught. “I punched him after the disciplinary hearing. They said that I had misheard him and that none of my classmates could corroborate my story.”
“He was the department head?” Harrison guessed.
“Yeah. No one wanted to cross him. He was mentoring half of them and the other half were hoping he would. Including me. And I was hardly a favorite of anyone’s anyway. Not someone they were willing to take the risk on,” Reverb shrugged. “He came up to me after to ask if I wanted to apologize for the misunderstanding.”
“That sounds like a punchable offense.” Harrison felt the prickle of unease. He knew a few people at state. Pieces started to click into place.
“Yeah. He threatened to press charges, but they talked him down,” he shook his head. “You don’t want to hear this. I’m shit at small talk.”
“I need your help because I got in a screaming match with the Dean,” Harrison offered. “We have very different pedagogical styles.”
“Yeah?” Reverb glanced at him.
“Yes. He believes that undergraduate classes are a useless pursuit for tenured professors. I violently disagreed.”
“Which is why you’re teaching a basic class,” Reverb smirked. “Made you eat your words, huh?”
“I do it on purpose,” it felt good to admit since he certainly couldn’t say it to Frost or Ronnie. “I stand by my belief. If we cannot inspire a new generation than there will be no graduate proteges to dote on. We have several great adjuncts here, but they would be better served teaching their specialties or better yet, creating more tenure track positions for them. Continually pressing already stressed and overworked people into giving the first impression into a subject matter is ludicrous.”
“Wait, you mean you go out of your way to hang out with freshman?” It sounded as if Harrison had admitted to having a closer than usual relationship with Frost’s lab rats.
“I go out of my way to teach. I didn’t become a professor because of the luxurious lifestyle,” he gestured at his worn shoes. “If I wanted to spend all my time in research, I could have gotten a job at any number of corporate or government offices. I wanted this.”
“You’re crazy,” Reverb laughed. “You could be making things like the accelerator all the time? Do you know what I would do for a life like that?”
“Then you should do it,” Harrison shrugged. “It’s not what I wanted.”
“I want to build insane things with other people's’ money,” Reverb shook his head. “I’ll probably wind up doing weapon design for some ethically challenged warmonger. Seems to be the only gig going.”
“Does that bother you?” It didn’t sound as if it did.
“I don’t know,” the answer caught both of them off-guard apparently. Reverb’s mouth shut tight after it came out as if he regretted it while saying it. “I used to think it wouldn’t.”
“Everyone has to grow up some time,” another shrug, but this one far less believable.
“The great poet Bob Dylan said that we all have to serve somebody,” Harrison kicked a stone off the sidewalk, watching it careen into the road. “Sometimes it’s a matter of find the person you can stomach.”
“You follow your own advice there?”
“Nutkins is an annoying, pedantic asshole, but he’s stupid enough to let me get my way most of the time even if he doesn’t realize it,” Harrison snorted. “Maybe don’t repeat that anywhere.”
“Who would I tell?”
The Big Belly Burger closest to campus was always jammed packed full of students. Harrison detoured them to a chain restaurant a few doors down instead. It’s slightly higher price cap screened out a lot of the more boisterous customers.
“Heya, Professor Wells,” the waitress was an older woman with bright yellow nails and practical footwear.
“Hello, Cara,” he offered her a slight smile which she returned twofold. “The usual, please.”
“And for you?” She turned her eyes on Reverb.
“What’s the usual?”
“Cheeseburger with the works and a side salad instead of fries. Balsamic vinaigrette on that. A coke with a slice of lime and a piece of cherry pie.” She rattled off. “A beer if he comes in with the lady with the blue lips.”
“Doctor Frost,” Harrison offered and Reverb rolled his eyes.
“Cause there are so many people answering to that description. How regular is regular exactly?”
“Oh, at least three times a week,” Cara pat Harrison on the shoulder. He thought he hid his reaction well, but he could see Reverb picking up on something. “I used to think me might be sweet on me, but now I think it’s the pie.”
“That’s....nice,” Reverb managed to give the ‘c’ in nice a sibilant sound. “Guess I’ll have the usual too. Fries instead of the salad though.”
“No problem,” she said cheerfully.
“You eat dinner like this three times a week?” Reverb lifted his eyebrows.
“I like what I like,” he matched the eyebrow lift. “Why?”
“Hey, man, it’s your heart.”
“Hence the salad. So, why weaponry?”
“Why weaponry what?”
“Why that and not...I don’t know. What do engineers like? Bridges?”
“Hilarious. Bridges are boring. Structural things are boring.”
“And weapons aren’t?”
“Ah, weapons have one very major important thing going for them.”
“What’s that?” Harrison prompted when Reverb didn’t follow that up. A slow, dangerous smile curled up over Reverb’s lips.
“Big bada boom.”
It took Harrison a moment and then he surprised himself with a sharp bark of a laugh.
“Yeah,” Reverb’s smile lost it’s edge, softening into something like a normal person’s. “I’ve seen it a million times.”
That segued them into the safer ground of nerd pop culture. Harrisons’ references were a little dated, but solid and Reverb had apparently wandered from the slim channel of acceptable geek media. He had a rather intense passion for black and white films,
“But not the silent ones,” he ate his fries smeared in mustard. “I usually watch when I’m working, so I can’t follow along.”
“I would think most people your age would find them too slow.”
“Everything is too fast,” the correction coincided with a neat bite through crisped potato skin. “You can’t do horror right by rushing through it. What’s scarier, blurry shapes in the dark or the building sensation that something isn’t the way it’s supposed to be?”
“I’ve never cared much for horror,” Harrison stabbed a tomato with his fork. “Life tends to provide its own terror without help.”
“How can you master your fears without something to express them?”
“Ah, so someone’s taken a few humanities courses.”
“They were required,” Reverb snapped.
“I double majored,” Harrison said quickly, moving to smooth over whatever wound he’d accidentally prodded. “Physics and philosophy.”
“Engineering and film analysis,” Reverb admitted, the words smearing together. “They were no-brainer classes.”
“Of course,” Harrison allowed.
The slices of pie were too sweet and oozed out of their crust. Harrison enjoyed it immensely. Without Jesse there to police his diet, he returned to his bad old ways with hedonistic abandon. Reverb seemed almost offended by the thing, chasing the vibrant cherries around his plate a few times before eating one.
“This is a vile offense to pie,” he declared and set down his fork.
“Then I’ll eat it,” Harrison moved to take the plate and Reverb’s hand snatched out to move it from his reach.
“No way. This one is mine.”
To Harrison’s bemusement, Reverb ate every bite with a challenge in his eye.
They parted ways after Harrison paid the bill over Reverb’s low-key grumblings. He didn’t ask how Reverb intended to get home, judging the question to be unwelcome by the way the man stalked off into the darkness.
Harrison’s townhouse was only a twenty minute walk. He’d given his car over to Jesse when she moved and had made no attempt yet to replace it. It wasn’t any great love of walking, but a deliberate avoidance of negative stimulation.
The narrow three stories were crammed full of odds and ends. When they’d moved from the house, they hadn’t downsized enough. Even with Jesse’s things partially moved to her new apartment, there was a heavy feeling of too many things weighted with their history. One day, he’d get around to throwing some of it out.
Not tonight though. Tonight, he stretched out on the sofa with his laptop and turned on the television. Netflix offered him one of Reverb’s beloved black and whites, one he’d mentioned specifically. Harrison hesitated then let it play. It wasn’t as if he’d be paying it much attention anyway.
The information he wanted took only a few cajoling emails to old colleagues and a few internet searches. The woman on screen mused on her situation as he waited for information to return to him.
I could turn my car around and go away from here and no one would blame me. Anyone has a right to run away.
A new message slid into his box and he read it thoroughly. He considered the information and added it to the heaping pile. He paused the movie on the heroine's terror stricken face and made a phone call.
“What?” Frost bit off.
“Glad to catch you in an good mood,” he closed his eyes. “Did you know about his entanglement in our situation when you choose him for me?”
“I’m not in the mood for riddles,” she was huffing and in the background someone groaned.
“Are you actually talking to me while fucking? That is a new low, Frost.”
“You called me,” she snapped.
“You didn’t have to pick up,” he rolled his eyes as a third voice entered the fray. “And one of your victims is there? Amazing.”
“If you saw her, you would agree that I am,” she let out a soft approving noise. “Good girl. What did you want again?”
“Reverb. Did you know he had a run in with our mutual friend?”
“Who the fuck is Reverb?” Faintly, he could hear Ronnie explaining while the third voice started to whine. “Oh. Yeah, of course I fucking knew. What do you take me for?”
She’d had no idea. Which meant Ronnie must’ve. That seemed more his style. And also less likely to be a deliberate provocation. Ronnie believed in sappy things like compassion and kismet.
“Someone who answers the phone mid-orgy, apparently.”
“Three is not an orgy, Harrison,” she sniffed. “Unless you’re volunteering...”
“And we’re done.”
He hung up on her and stared at the ceiling for a few minutes. When nothing there provided any insight, he turned the movie on again. The characters careened from room to room, haunted by their own fragile psyches and the formless dread of the unseen presence. It left a peculiar feeling in him. A restless uncertainty that followed him into the shower and the bed.
Sleep far from him, he opened his tablet and dug into his work email. Putting as many petty problems to bed as he could, he still found a last spark of anxious energy at the bottom of the pile. He opened a new message.
From: Harrison Wells, Physics Chair < firstname.lastname@example.org >
Subject: Week Three Pop Quiz
Forgot to mention that one. I throw a stumper at the end for bonus points on the midterm. Seems like something you might like to write up.
You neglected to mention that The Haunting is about being stalked by your own repressed sexuality. As if our adolescent years don’t leave us with enough anxieties.
The reply came only a few minutes later from a different address.
From: Reverb < reverberationsandechoes@***mail.com >
To: Dr. Wells < email@example.com >
Subject: re: Week Three Pop Quiz
Bonus points? What is this? Middle school?
All good poltergeist stories are about our repressed sexuality. That’s why they don’t scare me.
Harrison read it over twice, considered not replying then decided that was the coward’s way out.
From: Harrison Wells, Physics Chair < firstname.lastname@example.org >
To: Reverb < reverberationsandechoes@***mail.com >
Subject: re: Week Three Pop Quiz
Everyone enjoys bonus points, regardless of age. Sometimes it seems the smaller the prize, the more fire it inspires. You can bring a staff meeting to it’s knees over a trivia game with a reward of candy bar.
I do not consider repression an issue in my life and I still find movies of that ilk disturbing. The concept that one is distilled to the worst part of one’s self after death is far more distasteful than nothingness.
Dredging up the remains of his discipline, Harrison set the tablet aside and chased sleep. It came to him reluctantly and his dreams were chaotic, milky things. There were voices in the dark that he could not hear. When he woke, he was reaching out to the empty side of the bed.
“Fuck,” he turned over and beat his alarm clock into submission. It was passingly satisfying.
The tablet was still open to his work email and there was a new message. Apparently, Reverb had also had trouble sleeping. His reply had arrived an hour after Harrison’s last message when the pre-dawn light must’ve been trickling in.
From: Reverb < reverberationsandechoes@***mail.com >
To: Dr. Wells < email@example.com >
Subject: re: Week Three Pop Quiz
I don’t like candy or bonus points. Completion is the motivation.
You’re taking it on the wrong wavelength. Ghost stories are never about death. If they were then they’d focus on the ghost. They’re about the ones being haunted. Why them? Why that way? Why don’t the dumb fucks just leave at the first sign of creepy trouble?
The thing is, when you think about it, we’re all haunted by the things we wish we weren’t.
Your office at 2 tomorrow? Did some tinkering in AutoCAD. Shaved off 40mm in height.
“Fuck,” Harrison repeated.
Brilliant, dedicated, workaholic with enough baggage to fill a 747 and a philosophical streak buried under pure rage.
Sometimes, Harrison wished he believed in fate just so he could blame things on it.
“Good morning,” Harrison faced a sea of young faces. Only a brave few had ventured into the first few rows of seats in the hall while the rest ranged upwards like skittish mountain goats.
“Good morning,” some of them mumbled and others intoned in a sing-song.
“I’m Dr. Harrison Wells. This is Physics 101. If you’ve come in here by mistake, this is your moment to exit. Introduction to Sociology is in 3B, this is 2B,” a few bright red cheeks flared and a flutter of papers and bags exited with speed. “We’ll be going over the syllabus and expectations for coursework today. Show of hands, who took some level of physics before this?”
Most of the hands went up, but very few rose with any real conviction.
“Great,” Reverb muttered mutinously. He had pulled a chair over to the board and until a moment before the class started, had had his boots up on chalk tray.
“Behind me is...” Harrison glanced backwards and Reverb gave a shrug. They hadn’t discussed introductions, but his given name was clearly not a favorite. Harrison couldn’t really imagine students referring to him as Mr. Ramon or even Cisco. “my graduate assistant, Reverb. His office hours are posted at the top of your syllabus. We are both equally able to answer any questions you may have outside of class.
“Let’s talk about expectations first.”
Rattling off his usual policies about absences and the like, Harrison gave more of his attention over to assessing the students before him. He saw several that were likely not to return already and more that would probably leave within the first few weeks. It didn’t bother him. Not every subject was suited to every student.
“That’s what I expect from you,” he concluded. “What you can expect from me is an introduction to the hardest, yet most basic, questions mankind has learned to ask. We will journey together from the outer reaches of space to the smallest particle of matter. It is not a trip we take with faint hearts or surety. There will also be a lot of math. That is the language we use to answer those questions.”
“The universal language,” Reverb said quietly, most likely too quietly for the students to make out.
“Now, for our next meeting, I will ask that you read the first chapter of your textbooks. Are there any questions?”
Twenty hands shot up. He choose a girl who had braved the front row.
“If I have to miss a class, will you accept a doctor’s note?”
“Yes,” he heaved in a breath and reminded himself that he’d chosen this. “Try and find a doctor that you’re not related to.”
The other questions were along the same vein and by the end, he had the start of a righteous headache. It would get better, he reminded himself. Most of them were entirely new to college and soon they would find their rhythm.
“Here,” Reverb held out a can of coke. It was deliciously cold.
“Nice speech,” he was already turning on his heel, ready to plunge headfirst after their scattering students. “Very nearly inspiring.”
“Only nearly?” He asked, expecting a last sarcastic response.
“Don’t push it,” came instead and before Harrison could look up to try to catch the expression that went with oddly genuine plea, Reverb had disappeared into the crowd.
His senior seminar was only twenty minutes after that and he needed half the time to get to the cramped classroom that sat a floor up from his office far and away from the massive lecture halls. There were ten students in 513 Many-Body Theory for Condensed Matter Systems . He had taught all of them before and they greeted him in a tidal wave, with bright eyes and poised pens. To a one, they were planning on going into doctoral programs around the country and would most likely ask for personalized recommendation letters to get them there.
“Time to wake up your brains,” he favored them with a slight smile and uncapped his favorite white marker. “We’ll go over the general outline for material today, but there will be some flexibility in our coverage of material. If we don’t approach something in-depth enough to satisfy you, make a note. The final is a presentation on a subject of interest to the class. Good?”
He gave the course outline and at the end of the class, gave them the first problem set.
“We won’t go over the particulars until next week and it won’t be due until after that, but if want to get started on them by all means.”
A few of them rolled their eyes, but another few (his favorites), reached out with open hands. Though she would hate to be reminded now, he remembered a young Frost (still Caitlin then), holding her palms aloft as if he might fill them with money instead of tricky equations. It felt wrong to remember her that way, still so raw and unformed.
As if to remind him how far she had come, she was standing in front of his office door when he finally returned to roost for awhile. She was in her first day finery, perfectly tailored pinstripe pants and white silk blouse. A far cry from the girl with her hair in a messy bun and an oversized sweatshirt swamping her thin frame.
“You ever gonna eat lunch with me again?” She asked in a mocking whine.
“I ate lunch with you two days ago,” he flicked a glance to the front door. Grumpy Cat’s face now declared ‘You only live once? ..... GOOD.’ “Really?”
“That’s an eternity without you,” she purred, then took a step back so he could open the door. “Anyway, Ronnie’ll be in the lab all afternoon and I’m done for the day. Take me somewhere nice.”
“I’m not sure how I feel about being your substitute spouse.” He stopped a foot inside the door and she almost collided with his back. “Did you sneak in here?”
“Why would I?” She looked over his shoulder. “That looks...foreboding.”
A black cube sat on top of his filing cabinet. Harrison approached it slowly and when he was about a foot away, a small pinprick of red light swam to the front surface. It blinked in and out slowly. Then a soft hiss escaped and a mechanical voice said,
“Identified. Do you wish to unlock, Doctor Wells?”
“That is amazingly creepy,” Frost determined.
“Yes,” Wells said to both the box and to her.
“Unlocking.” Another hiss and the cube sliced neatly open. Inside was a neat stack of files. Harrison reached in carefully and pulled them out. He knew the handwriting by now and certainly the work inside.
“I regret giving him to you now,” Frost sighed. “He gives better presents than my minions.”
“I’m not sure this is for me,” he put the files back inside. The cube flashed red again. “Lock.”
“Locking,” it sighed and the cube closed back up.
“It greeted you by name, dummy.”
“He needs it though,” Harrison could see the suppressed panic as drawings were returned to their rightful place. “He thinks I’m security lax.”
“He’s probably right, all things considered,” the downshift in her tone creeping over his skin.
“I don’t keep anything important here and most of the parts of the accelerator are already patented.”
“Still,” she reached a hand toward the cube. It buzzed at her.
“Unauthorized,” it said shrilly. “Exterminate!”
She leaped backwards and Harrison coughed out a laugh.
“You laughed!” She spun on him with an accusing finger.
“It was funny,” he said dryly.
“But you never laugh.”
“I do when you jump in the air like a seven year old watching a horror movie.”
She stared at him for a disconcertingly long time with the same look she usually reserved for looking at slides of bacteria. Fascinated and intent.
“What?” All echo of the laughter withered and died in his chest.
“Initiate him,” she turned on her heels. “And get your wallet. I want French.”
“I’m not buying you a four course meal,” he bitched and set down his papers in exchange for his coat. “And I’m not initiating him.”
“Please,” she threw over her shoulder. “You’re already gagging to do the former and you love the latter, so make it happen Number One.”
“I’m Picard. You’re Q. Ronnie is Riker. We’ve talked about this.”
"What's that make your new little friend?" She charged down the hall, her heels rhythmic against the title. "Wesley?"
"More like Worf."
They bickered on the way to the car and he found himself pulling into Latour without being quite sure how he got there. The smells were enticing though and Frost, as ever, was treated like a goddess as soon as liquid French started to drip from her tongue in her perfect accent.
The waitress gave them a little too much attention actually.
“Did you bring me here so you can flirt with your new third?” He asked as soon as the girl had disappeared into the back room.
“She’s a very sweet girl, Grumps,” she said with a slight pout. “Don’t you like her?”
“Why does it matter?”
“It doesn’t, obviously,” she sniffed. “Anyway, she’s just passing through. I don’t think she’ll stick.”
“No one sticks.” Since the Steins, but Frost wouldn’t discuss them. Couldn’t if she wanted to keep her perfect cool and Harrison was not the person to push her into it. “You’re teflon.”
“If only,” she waved between them. “Yet, here we are.”
“You could find someone else to buy you snails.”
“But I won’t,” she shrugged. “Sometimes one must deal with the sticky.”
“You meant that lewdly didn’t you?”
She lifted one eyebrow up and he smiled at her. She was so perfectly herself sometimes that he was in awe of it. They ate their ridiculously rich meal with the waitress fluttering around Frost until she was banished by an arch look. They talked about Frost’s research and her shoulders went a little round and soft.
“I think it might work this time,” she speared a last bite of a fruit tart, the gem of a strawberry sparkling on the tines of her fork. “If I can get the chemical balance, it should retard the growth of the targeted cells.”
“So not quite a cure, but damn near enough.”
“Exactly,” she bit neatly through the strawberry. “It should generate several papers. I have a pharmaceutical company sniffing around already.”
“Will you sell it to them?”
“We’ll see,” she set down her fork and reached for her glass, killing off the last inch of deep red wine. “It’d be nice to have a fat payout.”
“You could finally pay for your own lunch.”
“Unlikely,” she said dryly. “And anyway, you would live on red meat and sadness if it wasn’t for me dragging you out.”
The comment struck home and after dropping her off at her condo, he went by the grocery store. He planned out a meal, though he was still too full from the richness with Frost. It would do for Friday’s dinner though, after his second go around with Physics 101.
When he got home, he started putting everything away and realized how much he’d really bought. There was no Jesse to soak up the extras this time around and he never remembered to eat the leftovers in a timely fashion.
He plucked his phone out of his pocket. They had migrated from email to texts when it became clear their electronic communication was fast and furious.
Thank you for the Dalek safe, scared the shit out Frost. Friday afternoon, my place to discuss miscellaneous business, unless you’ve got classes to manage.
The response was nearly instantaneous.
Make it four. Address?
He sent it and tried not to overthink what he’d just done. Frost was right. They had to talk and it would be easier to do it away from the school.
Feeling nostalgic, he put on the Fifth Doctor episodes he had burned to DVD ages ago. With the familiar voices rising and falling into the background, he delved back into his work. The accelerator was coming along beautifully, mutating under Reverb’s attention to detail and ruthless revisions. It splayed open before Harrison, exposed, vulnerable and promising.
“Oh, marvelous,” the Doctor said coolly in the background. “You're going to kill me. What a finely tuned response to the situation.”
Harrison sucked in a breath and let it out slowly. The numbers swam and came together, washing away the images that threatened to encroach on his concentration. Sometimes an accelerator was just an accelerator.
A date and a lot of exposition.
Warning: There is a description of scarring/burns in this chapter.
The door had a tendency to whine when opened, a soft pitch last ditch alert. Reverb was standing on the cheery welcome mat looking utterly out of place and without a shit to give about it. Aside from his usual uniform, there was a bottle hanging casually from his fingers. It was a dark brown and label-less.
“Hey,” his voice was rough and dark, not enough sleep and too many coffees if Harrison had to guess.
“Come on in,” he gestured up the stairs. Reverb took them two at a time and found the kitchen on his own, setting the bottle down on the counter.
“What is it?” He was peering into the pot before Harrison had even scaled the stairs.
“Kung pao chicken,” Harrison picked up the bottle, accessing it.
“You made Chinese?” Reverb looked startled, peering in closer. “No one makes Chinese at home unless they’re Chinese.”
“I do. I like Szechuan and there’s not a good place around here for it.”
“Spicy,” a note of approval rose up.
“Yeah. Little bit,” he flicked a nail against the bottle. “What’s this?”
“Home brew. That waitress said you got beer. Hope that wasn’t just a reaction to spending time with Frost.”
That had been two weeks ago, an off-hand comment and Harrison had to reconfigure a few things in his head to fit. Reverb paid attention. Close attention.
“You made this?”
“It’s not hard,” Reverb put the lid back down and then hopped up onto the counter as if he’d done it a thousand times. His look challenged Harrison to protest. He didn’t. If he wanted to perch on hard stone rather than a comfortable chair, well it was his ass to gain an ache. “They make kits.”
“You didn’t use a kit,” Harrison said blandly.
“No,” Reverb confirmed. “Want a glass?”
Harrison took down two dusty pilsner glasses and washed them off. Reverb watched him, intent and focused as a laser. The top went easily off with a church key, unnaturally loud as it pinged into the sink. The beer was dark as motor oil and nearly headless in the glass.
Their glasses chimed together and the first sip took him off guard. It was a softer taste than he expected, nearly creamy.
“Milk stout,” Reverb licked a droplet off his lips and Harrison looked away. “I prefer it bitter and mellow.”
Harrison banged open the silverware drawer.
“Chopsticks or forks?” He said hoarsely.
They ate at the table which was a novelty. Usually, Harrison used it as a place to hold up the mail. Reverb sat with one angle tucked under the other thigh, drinking his glass of beer like it was water and showing no effect from it. He also bit neatly through the chilies as easily as the peanuts and talked about the accelerator between them both.
The plates filed easily into the sink and Harrison figured he’d get to them in the morning. The sound of a zipper shuddered through him. When he turned, he found Reverb was setting aside his heavy brown leather jacket. He wore a long-sleeved black t-shirt beneath with a scrawl of illegible white writing across the chest. It wasn’t quite long enough though. At the right wrist where the jacket usually fell, Harrison could make out the edge of a shining healed burn that clearly crept upwards.
“You cook, you sit,” Reverb wouldn’t look him in the eye, just gestured at a chair. “I’ll clean.”
Harrison sat. The water ran and the conversation picked it’s thread back up. Eventually the water started to soak the edges of Reverb’s sleeves and Harrison could see the line of his back tense.
“No questions,” he said, barely audible over the running sink.
“I don’t have any,” Harrison lied.
Sleeves were pushed up and the burn licked up and up. It disappeared beyond even the forearm and mangled elbow. There was evidence of another kind of scarring, grafts probably. There was some stretching here and there, so the wound was old, grown into. Harrison could too easily imagine a smaller, scrawnier Reverb without his perfected hair and leather jacket. A softer person, exposed and nervy.
That was the person that made the beer and watched horror movies. That was the person that gave a safe a Dalek’s voice.
“Frost screamed like a little girl,” he lied again because the silence had gotten to thick and she wouldn’t really care if he used her in this small way.
“Mhmm. I guess if the locking mechanism doesn’t work than it can just spook nerds into heart attacks.”
“Second line of defense,” the tension across Reverb’s shoulders eased and wet dishes landed in the drying rack. “You’re going to use it, right?”
“Yes. But not for the reasons you think. That’s more or less why I asked you over.”
“I figured there was a reason. Not exactly normal mentor-graduate relations is it?” Turning Reverb had his arms folded, left over right shielding the old wounds.
“I think we established that I have no idea what that looks like. Come on, the living room is more comfortable for this.”
The couch was a dark brown color, chosen to hide a young Jesse’s predilection for drinking juice and spilling. Harrison folded himself down into one corner. Reverb stood for a long evaluating moment then sat down on the other side, facing Harrison.
“Tell me,” he demanded more than asked, but even his voice had lost its outer shell and the tone didn’t carry nearly as well as it usually did.
“The professor you decked. His name was Zoom, wasn’t it?”
“You looked me up?”
“I did, but only to confirm the suspicion,” Harrison took off his glasses, preferring to let the world go soft around the edges. “We were...rivals, I suppose you could say. When we were students. We had the same mentor for our doctoral research. Him, me and my wife.”
“Your wife,” Reverb said dully.
“Tess,” Harrison gestured at the wall where she smiled out of a dozen pictures. “Zoom...his last name, but I never can think of him as Jay anymore. He wanted to maintain contact after graduation. He proposed that we start a sort of post-doc think tank with the three of us and our mentor. Stein.”
“I’ve heard of him too,” Reverb’s frowned. “Isn’t he dead?”
“House fire killed him and his wife Clarissa a few years ago. It’s...it’s all tied up in Zoom,” Harrison couldn’t figure out where to begin really. He’d never actually had to tell anyone the whole thing at once. “It became clear over time that Zoom was more interested in taking what we had to offer than generating his own ideas. Over and over things that Tess had worked on cropped up in Zoom’s work under his name with no credit given to her. She had leaned more strongly into astrophysics than I did.”
“His theory of black holes?”
“Tess’,” Harrison confirmed. “It broke her heart, but she didn’t have any proof. Her original papers were stolen and at the time, we didn’t have very sophisticated computers. He took her floppy discs and that was that.”
“Son of a bitch,” it was heartfelt and Harrison nodded along with it.
“She was pregnant with Jesse at the time, so we...we decided to let it go. We couldn’t afford to fight it. He laid low for a long time, went to work at State and we figured it was just a painful incident. Tess turned her attention to less groundbreaking stuff for a few years. Neither of us had time for genius, trying to raise a kid.
“But things got easier, there was a little more time. The two of us put our specialities together. We discovered the potential existence of a particle....it doesn’t matter now. It wasn’t real. We could never prove it properly and before we could, Zoom was announcing its existence. Of course, he couldn’t prove it either.”
“How did he find out about it? If he wasn’t working with you anymore...”
“He convinced Frost and Ronnie to give it to them. Tess was mentoring Ronnie at the time and Frost was taking a few classes with me. She asked to work as my teaching assistant,” he rubbed the bridge of his nose. “and I was overworked and overwhelmed and I never really watched her.”
“Frost?” Reverb’s mouth hung ajar. “But you’re all buddy buddy with her!”
“Zoom was using her and Ronnie just as much as he used us. And she changed her mind. Left some evidence behind that we could use.”
“There’s a big but coming, isn’t there?”
“He used his leverage. Frost and Ronnie are polyamorous. At the time, they were dating another couple. The Steins.”
“Woah, okay,” Reverb held out a hand. “So your old mentor was boning your T.A.?”
“As far as I know, they hadn’t exactly reached that stage yet. Frost wasn’t what she would become and the Steins were fairly conservative people. But I think the four of them cared about each other very much, regardless.”
They had had a party here once. Ronnie half-drunk on champagne, his arm around Clarissa’s shoulder while she laughed at his antics. Frost, still Caitlin then, perched on the arm of the couch, hovering over Martin with wide eyed interest while Martin tried not to look interested in return. After they’d left, Tess had laughed and called them all merry fools.
“Leverage,” Reverb rubbed a hand over his mouth. “The Steins...”
“The report claims an accidental house fire. It was Christmas, there was a tree with lights and the fire started there. Seemed logical. Ronnie and Caitlin were devastated. So were we for that matter. Martin was...he was a great friend.”
“Sorry,” Reverb offered, awkward and tight.
“Me too,” Harrison looked away. “Four months later, Ronnie finished working on this side project that he and Martin had started. He filed for a patent and was rejected. When he tried to follow up on it, a few government spooks showed up at his door. Someone else had gotten there first and conveniently entangled it in a hush-hush military project. They wouldn’t tell him who the supposed inventor was, but we all knew.
“It nearly killed Ronnie. The heart went out of him. Frost blamed herself for getting involved with Zoom in the first place. Tess and I tried to reach out to them, but they went into hiding. We searched for some way to bring Zoom to justice, but we couldn’t prove a damn thing,” he cleared his throat, “and I guess we were terrified. We’d known that Zoom was ruthless, but the idea that he’d kill for what he wanted...it was inconceivable.”
“Power, money, prestige. People have done more for less,” with a sigh, Reverb titled his head to lean against the back of the couch. “So you did nothing.”
“I did,” Harrison admitted. “But Tess...she wouldn’t quit. She kept digging. A letter came to the house, no postage, just slipped into the mailbox. It had a picture of Jesse in it. She was six then, already crazy about ballet. The picture was her at the barre. On the back it said ‘Cease and Desist Warning’.”
“Sick fuck,” Reverb hissed. “So Tess stopped?”
“She told me she did. We tried to go back to something like normal. It worked for awhile. The semester ended. We were going to get away for a few days. Nothing fancy, a road trip with Jesse. Tess picked up her parents’ car. It was more reliable than ours. On the way back she...” he could still hear the policeman’s voice in his ear as crisply as the night it happened. “She swerved, we think, to avoid hitting something. It was raining. Dark. Who knows what she saw. The car flipped. She died on the way to the hospital.”
“Oh,” the sound was broken and low.
They sat in silence for a long tarry minute, the thickness of ancient grief returning onto Harrison. When he could get his thoughts back together, he managed to ask:
“So what did he take from you?”
“Before you told me all that, I would’ve said everything,” Reverb cast his eyes to the ceiling. “After he got me expelled, someone broke into my apartment. Really trashed the place. Took the television and my computer. Typical druggie stuff. But they also took all my files. All my diagrams. Everything I’d worked on since I was a kid. The cops never found a suspect, but I don’t think they were trying all that hard.”
“Did he use any of it?”
“Don’t know. I ran into the waiting arms of C.C.I.T. and never looked back,” the shrug was painfully tight, “I needed a fresh start. There were plenty of other things in my head that no one could touch. And I only suspected it was Zoom, never had any confirmation.”
“How much did he offer you when he found out you were working for me?” He asked as casually as he could.
Reverb’s eye snapped to his face, already wide and startled.
“How did you-”
“The particle accelerator is bait,” Harrison smiled thinly. “Jesse is a grown woman now and she gave me her blessing. Ronnie and Frost have been waiting on me. How much?”
“Two hundred grand,” it cracked out of his throat.
“But you turned him down,” Harrison suggested.
“Fuck yeah, I did,” the scowl was dark as an oncoming storm. “That racist piece of shit thinks he can buy me off?”
“And he didn’t threaten your family?”
“Don’t have any to threaten. I emancipated myself when I was sixteen. He can’t get to my research, it’s already tied up in government NDAs and the like.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“It’s a competitive field. I didn’t know the guy was a certifiable serial killer. I figured he was just hungry,” Reverb through his hands in the air. “What you’re working on, what you’re building it could be worth millions. And it’s just bait to you?”
“Never just that,” Harrison assured him. “It’s all I’ve got left of Tess. It was her idea in the beginning. I found the plans after she died and it took me years to catch up to her intentions without her here to show me.”
Tipping a hand over his mouth, rubbing the thumb over his lips, Reverb went as still as Harrison had ever seen him. It was a strange thing to watch someone who seemed to hum with motion slow to a stop. Harrison left him to it, retrieving a bottle of whiskey from his liquor cabinet and pouring them both generous glasses. He offered it and Reverb wrapped both hands around it, briefly trapping Harrison’s fingers against the glass.
“Thanks,” the whiskey slid away, safely resting between Reverb’s broad palms.
“Welcome,” Harrison sat back down just on the edge of the cushion.
They both polished off most of their glasses, heat rising to Harrison’s face with the combined punch of beer and liquor. It pooled in his stomach, reckless fire that goaded at his usual reserve.
“Why did you tell me all this? How can you be so sure I’m not working for him?” Reverb finally asked.
“Because Frost gave me her blessing to tell you. As to the other...I suppose I can’t be sure. Who ever is? But I’ve watched you throw yourself into the project. All the time and purpose you pushed into it. How little you care about your name embossed on things or for money lining your pockets,” Harrison frowned and set down his glass. “I suppose too that I want to trust you.”
“Why?” The question floated lost between them, a tentative quiver in the air.
“Because I think you’re the most fascinating person I’ve met in years,” the whiskey let him say.
“Fascinating is a new one,” Reverb shifted, his black boots landing beside Harrison’s worn dress shoes. He was close enough that Harrison could catch the faint remains of cologne, sharp and spiced. It was mingled with the whiskey on his breath and the dish soap lingering on his hands.
“We work well together. I haven’t worked well with anyone in a long time.”
“Me either,” Reverb set down his glass beside Harrison’s. They stood, two downed soldiers, amid the flutter of magazines and journals.
“The question of the hours though, is more along the lines of: do you trust me?”
“You have your own reasons to want to get back at Zoom. If you don’t trust me, that’s fine, we can go on as we have. Except we’ll have to stage some kind of falling and sever your ties with the accelerator. No reason to put you at any more risk than you’re already at.”
“That’s choice one. If you trust me, then you’re in. Frost has a lot more of the details in her scary brain, but we do have a plan. You can become part of it. I can’t promise you that we’ll survive it. Zoom has had time to prepare just as we have and he’s a much sicker, darker man.”
“You have me now,” Reverb gave him that razor smile. “I’ve got a dark streak like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Ah,” Harrison’s fingers twitched. “So?”
“I trust you, obviously,” Reverb laughed, rusty and low. “Do you know the last time I rolled up my sleeves in front of someone else that wasn’t treating me? A decade.”
“I haven’t given you much reason.”
“You call me Reverb. No questions asked. I corrected Ronnie once and you just...you did.”
“That’s what you want to be called, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, yeah it is, but no one ever just took that at face value. You trusted me to know myself. I can work with that.”
Harrison thought of the first time Caitlin had come to him with her blue lips and dead eyes and told him to call her Frost. He’d sensed that change rooted so deep in her that it broke her apart and remade her. Names had power.
“Good. That’s very good,” Harrison dropped his face into his hands. “Welcome aboard.”
“You don’t sound happy about it.”
“Everyone I care about is officially signed up to take on a ruthless murderer. I’m really not sure that it’s a win.”
“Hm, well. Nice to know you care,” Reverb reached up and gently pat Harrison on the shoulder. “It’s gonna work. We’re all much smarter than him. That's why he's got to steal from us.”
Harrison scrubbed his eyes and risked looking over at him. Reverb was actually smiling, a weirdly genuine grin.
“You’re happy?” Harrison asked incredulously.
“Yeah,” Reverb tugged down his sleeves. “I sort of prefer working on teams. Don’t tell anyone, okay?”
“Okay,” Harrison said faintly.
“Want to do wicked crazy math, drink more of your crappy liquor and pass out on the floor?”
“...yes. That sounds perfect, actually.”
If they woke up on Harrison’s bed, still fully dressed down to their shoes, then that was just a natural consequence of having gotten too old to comfortably sleep on the floor. Reverb kindly killed most of the awkwardness by promptly running to the bathroom and throwing up. There had been worse nights. Harrison didn't try to hold his hair or talk to him through the door. He did make a very strong pot of coffee and enough toast to fill a thousand hungover stomachs. Reverb came down the stairs with his hair pulled back in a messy bun at the nape of his neck that made him look closer to his age. Taking the mug of coffee, their fingers touched again as they had the night before over whiskey.
"Thanks," he sounded like five miles of bad road. "Did we solve P=NP?"
"No, sorry," Harrison smiled at him until Reverb scowled. "You have ink on your cheek."
"Ugh," Reverb took a sip of coffee. "Fuck me running. I was really thinking that getting shitfaced would do it."
Carefully as if the movement was painful, which considering the hangover he was sporting it probably was, Reverb set down his mug on the counter. He took a step forward into Harrison's personal space. Startled, Harrison stepped back too. Unstable he grabbed the counter to steady himself. Reverb looked up at him, eyes dark pools. With the infinite care he seemed to reserve for the inanimate, Reverb put his hand over Harrison's. Then he leaned up and brushed a kiss over his lips.
"You were supposed to go first. Age before beauty and all," Reverb said quietly, his heels clicking back down onto the tile. "I'm going to take that toast and go nurse this headache on your couch. You mull on that, professor."
Harrison watched him go, dazed and heart pounding. He stayed in the kitchen for several minutes, finishing off his coffee and reassessing the last twenty-four hours. A laugh track broke through his haze, a canned collection of hilarity thrusting itself into the still truth of the moment. He left behind his mug and trailed into the living room. The television was playing a hazy strange cartoon. Reverb was stretched out across the couch, his head on arm. He tilted it back to look at him.
Harrison kissed him upside down with his glasses tumbling off his face and onto Reverb's chest. It was awkward and terrible and lovely all at once.
A short one to keep my hand in.
The kiss didn’t lead to more. Reverb had accepted it as if it were only his due, then slipped off the couch, into his boots and jacket and squared up his shoulders.
“I have to deliver to a deadline,” he zipped the jacket up, concealing any hint of what might lie beneath. “I’ll barely have enough time as it is.”
“All right,” Harrison didn’t move, watching him closely.
“I-” Reverb started, then stopped. Licked his lips, looked to Harrison as if expecting...what?
“I’ll see you on Wednesday,” he said gently. “Class. You can come by in the evening if you have the time.”
“Yeah. I- yeah. I’ll be done by then,” another sharp tug, everything falling back into place on Reverb’s strong frame. “Later.”
Harrison watched him leave, listened to the door slam close and then sat down heavily on the couch.
“You’re an idiot,” he told himself, but it didn’t hit home. He felt too weirdly buzzed and buoyant, eager for something he couldn’t name.
Restless, he sprang back up from the couch and went to find his laptop. The glorious mess they’d made trailed everywhere on route. He spent a pleasant hour cleaning up impossibilities sketched vivid on the back of his electric bills and saving the last dregs of his whiskey from tipping onto the bathroom floor.
Frost called him just as he was finishing.
“So?” She demanded.
“Zoom made him an offer. He says he refused it.”
“Do you believe him?” She sounded distant, speaking over her car’s bluetooth, cutting in and out.
“I do. He’s too prideful to lie.”
“Ah, so he made a move,” she surmised.
“How did you-”
“Grumps, I know a thing or two about you by now, don’t you think?” She sighed. “What did you do about it?”
“I kissed him. He left.”
“Thanks,” he rolled his eye’s to the heavens.
“Eh, you’re out of practice. He’s pretty much gagging for it, so I wouldn’t worry.”
“I doubt he’s ever gagged for anything.”
“You really don’t know people,” she must’ve swerved, the sound of wheels grinding over the pavement setting his teeth on edge. “Anyone that buttoned down, is all fragile and seething passions underneath. Or you know, dead inside. One of the two.”
“Ever so helpful.’
“He’s the seething kind. Guaranteed. He’s a lot like Ronnie really.”
“That I don’t see.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” she said with the vocal equivalent of a shrug. “Bring him over for lunch on Saturday. We’ll barbecue and talk through what we’ve got.”
“Bring the meat. And a side.”
“....why don’t I just cook here?”
“Aw, thanks for the offer! Sounds good. We’ll bring wine. A lot of wine,” she considered. “And vodka.”
“No vodka,” he said firmly. “Not after the last time. I already almost gave him alcohol poisoning once this week.”
“Stop peeing on my fun rug, Grumps,” she growled without heat. “See you Saturday, try not to pine for me in the meantime.”
When he arrived at his office on Monday morning, the cat on his door now declared ‘Team Grumpy’ while wearing what appeared to be a festive Christmas sweater. Harrison looked at for a long moment then went in. The safe pulsed meekly at him. Under its soft light, he prepared for the week.
He was deep into the problem sets for his 511s when the door opened with a bang. He jumped, a mishmash of letters appearing on his screen. Reverb stomped in, set down a brown bag and then stomped right back out again, slamming the door behind him as he went.
“What?” he asked the empty air.
He opened the bag and found two pieces of tupperware. The top one contained two empanadas, still warm and fragrant. The other had some kind of cherry crumble that oozed darkly with fresh cherries instead of canned. Nestled beside the tupperware was a can of Coke, weeping condensation and a plastic fork.
“What?” he asked again and glanced at the clock. It was after two and his stomach was empty. “Right.”
He took a bite of the empanada and was profoundly glad he was by himself. The sound he made was highly inappropriate for a professional setting. Drinking his soda, he paced himself through the empanadas, licking his fingers and then attacking the cherry cobbler. It was good enough to ruin the gluey pie he usually dined on for a good long while.
Belly full, he considered the implications of a carefully prepared meal. He picked up his phone and sent a text.
Thank you. A meal for a meal? Not all things have to be equal.
He set the phone aside and returned to his work. When he’d finished, emerging from the tunnel vision, the tiny red icon with its solitary white one was on. He opened the message,
Succinct. Harrison found himself smiling at the brutal message. Maybe he’d killed a few too many brain cells with whiskey over the weekend. One shouldn’t feel fond over f-bombs, but there it was.
I’d rather fuck you he typed back before he could quite think it all the way through. But even once it had whoosed off his screen, he didn’t regret it.
If they had a normal assistant-professor relationship, it would mean the end of his career. But it wasn’t, they weren’t and Harrison had the creeping sensation that if someone was being taken advantage of, it was almost certainly himself. Reverb didn’t seem the type to do anything without a clear plan in mind.
His phone vibrated gently in his hand.
Wednesday. He put the phone away and logged off his computer. Nothing else was getting done today.
Tuesday was probably going to be a wash too.
His students stared blankly back at him.
“Okay,” he almost brought his hand up to rub his face, but remembered that he was holding chalk at the last moment. “Did no one do the reading?”
A group of them in the top right of the class were still talking, apparently unaware that class had begun several minutes ago. Harrison slammed his palm down on the desk and took some small satisfaction in seeing the group jump as a whole.
“Inertia. Someone define it for me,” he snapped.
One girl put her hand in the air and he pointed to her,
“Reverb, please mark this young woman down for two bonus points on the next quiz for at least pretending to be prepared for class. Definition, please.”
“It’s...umm...it’s um how an object resists having its state of motion changed?”
“Three points,” he amended. “Correct. Does anyone else want to venture a guess on why anyone cares about inertia?”
It was like pulling teeth the entire session. They hadn’t been nearly this bad the week before, but it was about the time that they all started getting cocky and thinking they’d mastered this whole college thing. He could tell from a few ridiculous outfits that some of them were already in the process of pledging which would distract them for weeks.
“Do the reading,” he said to wind down. “It’s not a lot and it will keep you on track for a decent grade. I don’t expect mastery, I expect effort. Understood?”
Heads bobbled up and down. He checked the time and frowned. No time to wait for questions or he’d be late. He really had to schedule better.
“I’ve got it,” Reverb appeared at his elbow. Harrison glanced warily back at him. They hadn’t spoken since the bag lunch episode and Reverb had appeared close enough to the beginning of the lecture that there hadn’t been time to discuss. “You go.”
He didn’t have time to question him, just went for the door. He thought he caught the low ebb of a conversation cut abruptly short before the door shut, but he was probably just hearing things. His 511 students were beautifully cooperative in easing his tension. They asked questions before he could get around to it and practically flung completed assignments at him with requests for more.
He took a deep breath and reminded himself that all of them had started in a 101 class. Every path had stepping stones.
When he had the room to himself again, he called Jesse.
“Daddy!” She picked up with a laugh. “I’m just finishing up here. Is everything okay?”
“Yes, no emergencies,” he assured her. “Just wanted to see how my best girl was doing.”
“I’m good,” the line muffled for a second as she said something a friend. “How are you?”
“I’m...good,” he determined after a second’s thought. “Do you remember that rice dish I made a few years ago? With the lamb?”
“Oh, sure! The Greek thing? Why?”
“I was thinking about making it tonight, but I couldn’t remember if it was a homerun or a disaster.”
“Got a date and you already made the Kung Pao, huh?” She teased.
He held the phone back from his and looked at it suspiciously, then brought it back.
“When did she call you?” He demanded.
“Like three days ago,” Jesse laughed. “She invited me back for the barbecue on Saturday, but I can’t get away right now. That’s okay right?”
“It’s fine,” he assured her. “I didn’t ask because I know you’re busy getting established. We’ll see each other at Thanksgiving.”
“Cool. You know how I feel about it anyway,” she said dismissively as if ‘it’ were a toss away event rather than the culmination of years of planning around her very existence. “So. You’re dating someone like six years older than me? Way to go, Dad.”
“I wouldn’t call it dating,” he said absently. “And he went for me, for the record.”
“That’s what they all say,” she clucked her tongue at him. “Make him lamb chops. That’s your best thing anyway.”
“Those are easy,” he wrinkled his nose.
“So what?” She sighed. “Dad, sometimes easy is good, remember? Not everything worth doing is literal rocket science.”
“You’re right,” he amended his mental grocery list. “Thanks, daughter mine.”
“You’re welcome, father mine!” She chirped. “I gotta go. I love you.”
“Love you too.”
The sound on her end cut off with a happy calling of her name by someone else. It was a good sound. Her delight was his and he carried it with him to the grocery store and home again. The lamb chops with their attendant vegetables and rice weren’t complicated in the least, so he kept himself busy with grading at the table as they cooked.
The knock on the door shattered his concentration and he realized he hadn’t so much as changed his shirt since he got home. Reverb didn’t seem to notice or care, still in his own usual uniform when Harrison answered the door. Before Harrison could greet him, Reverb stepped right into his personal space, fisted one hand into Harrison’s shirt and yanked him down to his level for steamingly long kiss.
“Hi,” Reverb released him with a faint smile.
“Hi,” Harrison blinked.
Then he was gone up the stairs, a blur of brown leather and pheromones. Harrison trailed after him. Reverb stripped off his jacket, threw it at the couch where it landed with easy precision, then marched into the kitchen and started setting the table. It was so precise that Harrison was dead certain that Reverb had practiced it in his head before arriving.
He tried not to find that endearing and failed entirely.
“Did the 101s have any questions?” Harrison inspected the chops, pulling them from the oven.
“Just the usual bullshit,” Reverb shrugged. He was still wearing a long sleeved shirt, but the fabric rode up a little. Harrison found himself looking not at the damage skin, but the smooth turn of his unharmed wrist; at the capable span of his fingers.
“Frost invited us both to a barbecue this Saturday,” Harrison laid the food onto plates, handing it off to Reverb to set on the table.
“Joy,” Reverb said flatly. “Just what I always wanted. To break bread with the suck face twins.”
“Ronnie likes you,” Harrison poured them both soda, determining that another session of boozing was pushing his liver a hair too far.
“He likes everyone,” Reverb said dismissively. “That’s not earned, it’s a given. Now if Frost likes me...I might feel mildly complimented.”
“I have no idea if she even likes me,” Harrison admitted .”It really depends on the day.”
They ate the lamb chops and discussed the finessing of the scale model of the accelerator. Reverb explained the way he planned to laser cut some of the pieces, his voice steady, but his eyes gleaming. He carried his passion for his work in his fingertips that flicked over imaginary paper and the way he held words like ‘precision’ and ‘process’ in his mouth like lovers.
Afterwards, Reverb did the dishes, not hesitating this time as he shoved his shirt up over his elbows. The scars were still terrible, but the familiarity made them easier to see. Harrison brewed coffee and they drank it in silence when the dishes were done, looking out the kitchen window onto the parking lot.
“I haven’t dated much since Tess died,” Harrison confessed in the growing gloom of his kitchen.
“No time. Sociopath following me. Single fatherhood. I don’t know.”
“I don’t date. One night stands, mostly.”
“No time. Scholarship student with a part-time job. Having to turn on the light when I get naked is sort of an ordeal,” Reverb glanced over at him.
“So why am I different?”
“Dunno, why am I?”
They regarded each other over empty mugs with mouths emptied of words. Harrison took Reverb’s and his own, set them in the sink. Then he slid a hand around the back of Reverb’s neck and leaned down to kiss him.
The lips that parted on his were infinitely soft, at odds with the sharpness of the rest of him. He opened under the kiss, body language wide and open as it never was in any other setting. This is why, Harrison thought.
Harrison led him upstairs to the bedroom. He didn’t turn on the light and Reverb didn’t reach for it. The bright security lights outside filtered through the bedroom window, painted them both in sharp shadows. Harrison laid hands on the damaged parts of Reverb’s body with equal fervor as the whole. In return, Reverb brushed fingers over the places that age had softened on Harrison, all the lines and folds of a man gracelessly saying his goodbyes to middle age.
The sex wasn’t extraordinary, but it was powerful. Harrison could feel the energy arcing between them, the potential for something explosive simmering in the heat of a kiss, the care of a wrist rubbed over the point of a hip.
“Don’t stop,” Reverb panted artlessly, fingers turning to claws. “Don’t you fucking dare stop.”
Harrison didn’t. He wasn’t sure was capable of it.
The next morning fresh coffee curled becomingly into his nose, beckoning his eyes to crack open to the first stretch of morning light. Reverb was standing at his bedroom window, still utterly naked and cradling a mug in his hands. His hair was out of it’s usual hold, cascading over his shoulders. The strong line of his back shifted minutely.
There was a steaming mug sitting on Harrison’s nightstand and when he picked it up to take a sip, he was unsurprised to find it exactly as he liked it.
“What are you looking at?” He asked once the first sip had warmed his belly. “Not much of a view.”
“Guy can’t admire a sunrise?” Reverb didn’t turn around, but he seemed relaxed. Harrison forced himself up, padding across the room to stand behind him.
It was a nice sunrise, pink and yellow amid the green trees. The cars, silent in their spaces, reflected back the sky. Harrison slid his arm around Reverb’s chest, set his chin on top of his head. He waited for a protest, but none was forthcoming. Instead, Reverb leaned against him in stages. It felt almost more intimate than anything they’d done the night before.
“My brother and I were roughhousing,” Reverb said quietly, placing his free hand over Harrison’s. “We fought a lot. Different kinds of people even then. We were in the kitchen. I’d pinned him, so he reached up and pulled a pot off the stove on me.”
“Fuck,” Harrison breathed out, squeezing his fingers.
“My parents always said he hadn’t meant to,” he shrugged, the movement tracing up and down Harrison’s chest. “But I was the one looking him in the eye when it happened.”
“How old were you?”
“Nine. He was twelve.”
“Twelve should know better.”
Harrison pressed his hand closer, the quiver of muscle under his fingers. They watched the pink ebb to orange and then the clear blue of a pleasant day. Reverb turned, tipped his face back,
“Take me back to bed.”
The sun streamed in, painting Reverb’s skin golden brown as he rocked over Harrison. He was quiet, but focused, eyes piercing into Harrison’s. When he came, it was with his head thrown back and Harrison committed the vision to memory. The arch of his back, the sharp cut of his ribs, his hand wrapped around his cock.
“You’re gorgeous,” Harrison surged upward to kiss him.
Afterwards, Harrison tried to get comfortable and doze, but Reverb poked him.
“Buy me breakfast,” he demanded.
“No,” he grumbled into his pillow. Another poke, this one a little harder, “Fine. Let me shower-”
“Don’t,” Reverb said casually as if it didn’t matter.
Harrison didn’t. They walked down the block to the wannabe Starbucks, sharing a small table over their second cups of coffee and peeling apart danishes that were both delicious and entirely artificial. They didn’t speak much, didn’t reach for each other, but Harrison felt utterly aware of him. Every gesture Reverb made, every inch of pastry unraveling under his fingers, every time his eyes left his plate to sweep over Harrison’s face, it felt as though they were back in bed.
“I should go home,” Reverb watched the waitress carry away their check, tucking a lock of hair behind his ear. “Stuff to do. Things to prep.”
Harrison bit down a protest. It was too much, too soon, he reminded himself. There were days and weeks ahead of them. Maybe they would get sick of each other after awhile, most likely. Better to prolong this first sweet stage.
“If you have to,” he settled on saying.
Reverb ran a hand over his mouth, then nodded once, stiffly.
“Should,” he shrugged. “See you in class, professor.”
The word was layered now, full of something new and promising. Harrison licked his lips and only nodded back. He watched Reverb leave, the faint hitch in his stride another quiet reminder of what had come to pass between them.
No matter what he did, Harrison’s concentration was shot for the rest of the day. A page of a book blurred meaninglessly away. Equations skittered into doodles under his pen tip. His lunch went into the microwave and went cold again before he recalled it’s existence.
The shrill cry of his phone sliced into his attention mid-afternoon. The school’s general line and when he picked it up, he expected someone from payroll perhaps.
“Wells, it’s Dr. Nutkins,” the man sounded less than his usual oily self, taking Harrison off-guard. “There’s been an incident with your office. I know you’re not teaching today, but I think you should come in.”
Ice water poured through him. He wasn’t sure what he said in reply, but he was out the door before he’d ended the call. For the first time, he was actively angry at himself for not driving as he ran towards campus.
The door to his office was hanging off a single hinge. A tattered picture of the frowning cat declaring ‘I wish I was an octopus so I could slap eight people at once’ fluttered like the flag of a conquered country. Frost stood sentry beside the door. When she caught sight of him, she reached and grasped his wrist hard.
“He took the bait,” she hissed. “Too early.”
“Wells,” Nutkins emerged from the office, pale and shaken. “Your harddrive is gone. I think most of your paperwork too. Campus security is looking into and we’ve called the police in as well. Two other offices may have been hit. We’re not sure what we’re dealing with here.”
“All right,” Harrison studied the Dean’s face, surprised to find some lingering sympathy there.
“Did anyone check the safe?” Harrison asked abruptly.
“What safe?” Nutkins blinked at him.
“I thought you weren’t using that,” Frost’s grip on his wrist tightened.
“Of course I’m using it,” he made a move to go into the office and reluctantly Nutkins let him pass. A campus security officer was milling around inside. The place had been turned upside down, papers and books in ruins on the floor and strewn over the desk. Harrison forced himself to ignore it and approached Reverb’s safe.
“Identified,” it hissed though it sounded almost...tired? Could a machine sound fatigued? “Do you wish to unlock, Doctor Wells?”
“Yes,” he told it. The door clicked open. The plans sat undisturbed inside. Frost made a soft pleased sound.
“Two unauthorized attempts in the last twenty-four hours,” the voice went on. “Location compromised.”
“No, shit,” he rubbed a hand over his face. “Close door.”
“You should stay with Ronnie and me,” Frost decided, eyeing the safe. “Bring that thing with you.”
“I’m not staying in your den of iniquity,” he folded his arms over his chest.
“Harrison,” she said so quietly and softly, he might nearly have missed it entirely. “Please. You know he’ll come to your house next.”
“You should stay at mine.”
They turned in unison to face Reverb. He was still wearing yesterday’s clothes, but the softness of the morning was gone. His face was a series of hard planes as he took in the ruin of the office.
“We have a guest room,” Frost started.
“Yeah. Well,” Reverb shrugged. “I’ve got a security system that that safe is based on. And it’s not like you aren’t on his list.”
“So are you,” Frost stared him down.
The tension ratcheted up between the two of them. Harrison took an involuntarily step backwards, almost tripping over a pile of books. Then Frost raised an eyebrow.
“Fine. You take custody. He’s a pain in the ass anyway,” she declared and pat Harrison’s chest without looking at him. “You watch yourself. And I still expect you on Sunday for dinner, capishe?”
“I capishe,” Harrison assured her.
“The police are here,” Nutkins said from the doorway. “They need you to answer some questions.”
The police did ask their question, though they didn’t seem particularly invested in what they seemed to assume was a student prank gone out of hand. Even with the Dean blustering and talking about sensitive research, they weren’t much moved.
“We’ll look into it,” they seemed to say on loop until Harrison was convinced that they would do nothing of the kind.
Eventually they left, leaving behind a sad sagging line of yellow tape over the door and their cards if he thought of anything. Reverb had waited through it all, an unmoving sentry. As soon as the cops left, he came to life again, moving with purpose into the office and coming out with the safe tucked under his arm.
“We’re going,” he declared and turned on his heels. Harrison followed him as if on a leash.
He followed him across campus and onto a bus that ticked by a few stops and dropped them off at a block of apartment buildings. He followed him down the street and then down a flight of stairs to a door sunk beneath the street with the curtains drawn. Reverb pressed his hand to the door, as he turned the key in the lock and Harrison caught a flicker of a green light.
“How much security do you have?” He frowned.
“Rob me once,” Reverb shrugged with one shoulder and pushed inside.
A surprisingly pleasant smell wafted out of the door, it was cool and crisp. Harrison stepped over the threshold into an air conditioned workshop. Instead of the living room that would’ve been in a normal place, there was a single long table running against the wall, tools hung neatly from a pegboard over it and two projects lay splayed open in various stages with all their components laid out in rows. It was nothing like the chaos of the university lab.
A laptop sat on one end, the screensaver drifting through pictures of sleek motorcycles.
“What is this?” He asked, keeping his hands at his sides.
“It’s where I do my own work,” Reverb set the safe down, patting the top of it absently.
“I thought you said all your research was tied up in N.D.A.s from the government.”
“Nothing here is worth stealing.”
“Now that I don’t believe.”
“Well,” Reverb looked faintly surprised, but it melted into a slight smile. “One man’s tinkering...”
“Is another’s treasure?” he took a step forward. “You know this is a good thing. We wanted this to happen eventually.”
“I know,” Reverb studied his face. “But I’m not the one shaking.”
Harrison looked down at his own hands, surprised to find the tremor there. “I suppose I wasn’t quite ready.”
“You look like a man that could use a drink.”
The apartment didn’t boast any windows, but the kitchenette was pleasant, large enough for Harrison to sit on a stool at the breakfast bar while Reverb moved with purpose. A sandwich manifested in front of Harrison along with another of the dark labelless beers. He picked at the food and drank, Reverb sitting silently beside him, their knees just touching.
“Are you sure I should stay?” Harrison asked eventually, the silence building uncomfortably. “I can take up Frost’s offer. I kid, but her house is really-”
“Stay,” Reverb looked Harrison in the eye. “I wanted to go back to your place before.”
“Yes,” Harrison breathed out. “I wanted you to come back, but you seemed to need the space.”
“Space,” Reverb tasted the word and shook his head. “I just thought it’d be weird to hang around. Too much.”
“You’re a lot,” Harrison admitted. “But I like that you’re a lot.”
“That sounded ridiculous,” but he was kissed for it anyway, a lingering sweet thing that drove back some of the afternoon’s anxiety.
The bedroom was the opposite of the workroom’s cool citrus. The furniture was older and heavy, mismatched and damaged wood. The bed was a mess, a litter of fat pillows and a heavy comforter. Clothes were strewn over the floor and overflowed the bureau and hamper, a swamp of black cotton. A single photo was propped up on the bedside lamp without a frame, a wedding photo though the bride and groom looked very young. The groom was smiling broad and ridiculous, the bride more subtle, but radiating happiness.
It seemed an odd statement, that single happy couple gracing otherwise faceless walls. Harrison knew his own house groaned with his history, walls weighted down with too many photos to make out specifics, just a widespread mosaic of holiday smiles and Sunday best clothing.
“Friends?” He guessed.
“You could say that,” Reverb glanced at the photo expressionlessly. “Barry and Iris West-Allen.”
“They were. Married at twenty-two,” sitting down on the edge of the bed, Reverb peeled off his socks. “She’s pregnant now.”
“They asked me to be the godfather,” the grimace was real. “Like either of them have been inside a church in years.”
“It’s usually not about that,” Harrison watched him undress for a solid minute before realizing he should probably do the same.
“What’s it about then?” Reverb tossed aside his t-shirt which was...distracting.
“It’s about surrounding your child with the people you know will protect them. Love them.”
Reverb looked at the photo again, eyes narrowing and then shook his head, “Sounds like them.”
“I want to hear all about them.”
“Whatever. Maybe. But not right now,” Reverb spread his legs in welcome and Harrison stepped between them.
“Not right now,” he agreed and bore them both down to the mattress.
Frost’s house always took Harrison off guard and he could see it equally surprised Reverb, who emerged from the Uber into the bright afternoon with his shades locked tight to his face and the bowl of potato salad held before him like a shield.
One imagined Frost in a glassy high rise with uncomfortable leather furniture and expensive never used chrome appliances. Instead, there was this little brick cottage with a picturesque walkway and a few white rose bushes planted near the door.
“Ronnie bought it years ago,” Harrison supplied.
“Oh, thank fuck,” Reverb grinned sharply at him. “I was starting to think she had split personalities or something.”
“She’s a complex person,” Harrison said mildly, repressing a matching smile. “But I don’t think she does the gardening. There’s also a dog, but he’s an old fat thing.”
The front door popped open before they could reach the porch. For a brief moment, Frost was silhouetted in the late afternoon sun. She looked almost entirely Caitilin for a mournful breath and then she pointed at Reverb,
“You. Kitchen. Ronnie is doing something with the meat that frankly disturbs me and I think he might need someone to talk him off the ledge.”
Reverb frowned, but didn’t have a comeback. He disappeared into the kitchen, leaving them alone.
“How are you holding up?” Harrison asked her quietly.
“Not my office that got ransacked,” she said tightly.
He touched her arm lightly and she leaned into it for. They stood amid the roses like that until a cloud covered the sun.
“Sometimes I think we should all just move somewhere else,” she said quietly, almost dreamily.
“We don’t have to do this,” he reminded her.
She snapped out of her fog and gave him a piercing look.
“When nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we do,” she quoted at him, turned on her heels and marched back into the house.
They ate outside on the stone deck that took up most of the narrow backyard. Ronnie and Reverb had salvaged whatever horrors Ronnie had attempted to perpetrate on the steak. Reverb’s potato salad was demolished along with a great deal of wine.
The back floodlights came on and the dog, Fibonacci, meandered out to take a piss in the grass before lazily inspecting Reverb’s pants, then flopped over Ronnie’s feet with a contented sigh. It was strangely idyllic, despite why they’d gathered. They talked about other things like university politics, climate change, and Reverb and Frost got into a heated debate about a plot point on a television show Harrison had never seen.
Eventually though, there was nothing else for it. Frost licked her lips and sat forward.
“What we planned to do was to get him to steal a few things, which we’ve already done accidently,” she confided. Reverb leaned in, eyes bright with interest. “But Harrison purposely left several key pieces out of what was taken. Things that only he can fill in. Which thanks to your safe, worked out. Zoom only has two go-to plans: theft and murder. He’s threatened Jesse once, so we think that’s how he’ll go about it again.”
“You’re going to use Jesse as bait?” Reverb asked incredulously.
“There’s absolutely no chance of her getting hurt,” Harrison cut in. “I would never have agreed to it otherwise.”
“Right,” Frost agreed. “Jesse knows what we’re doing, agreed to a few minor legal adjustments and we’re good. There’s no way that Zoom can trace her to where she actually is.”
“No?” Reverb frowned. “How’d you manage that?”
“Nothing legal,” Frost shrugged. “We have a friend that’s very very good with computers. We’ve spoofed her entire existence to another location. As far as Zoom knows, she’s living in a small house with two roommates about three miles from here, she’s got a part time job while she goes to grad school. He’s a hammer, not a precision instrument, so he won’t look much deeper.”
“Then it was just a matter of setting up cameras and alarms in an empty house,” Ronnie went on. “First a set of obvoius ones for him to disable then more subtle ones.”
“And some across the street and in the backyard,” Harrison added. “Since we know how much he likes to set fires.”
“You don’t know that he does any of this stuff on his own though,” Reverb frowned. “All you might get is some goon that’ll be too afraid to talk.”
“Maybe,” Frost shrugged. “But I don’t think so. I think he wants to hurt Harrison personally. It’s not just about money or ideas. He’s a sadist. He wants to create suffering.”
Reverb sat back, “It’s too complicated. Too many things could go wrong.”
“Then help us,” Ronnie caught Reverb’s eyes and it was very very hard to look away from that kind of earnestness, “Patch up the holes. You’re the best fixer that I know.”
“That makes this sound more of a shitty mobster film than it already is,” but those wonderful fingers were already twitching for want of a pen and paper.
Harrison smothered a smile behind a glass of wine and allowed himself to believe this all might really work after all. It didn’t hurt that he knew tonight he’d return to that warm, hidden heart of a bedroom surrounded by the beautiful things Reverb made.
On their way out to do just that, Ronnie tapped Harrison on the shoulder and drew him aside.
“What is it?” Harrison asked warily.
“Just...be good to him,” Ronnie whispered, watching carefully as Frost ensnared Reverb into the last of the cleaning up. “I don’t think there’s anyone else to say it for him, so I thought I should.”
“Thank you,” Harrison settled on. “I have every intention of it.”
He thought about that long after Reverb had fallen asleep beside him, a warm comma under the heavy blankets. It had been a very long time since he’d made a promise to anyone and they had been dating such a short time.
Still, he curled himself around Reverb’s compact body and his a kiss under the fall of his hair. He would treat this man with care. He would keep him, if he could. Not a promise, perhaps, to anyone, but himself. It mattered though.
Because what they did mattered.
He carried that with him through the next few days. Even after he stopped by his house and found it as ransacked as his office. He thought about it as the police started taking the case more seriously, asking him a lot of hard questions that he answered as honestly as he could.
He carried it to his mysteriously well behaved 101 class and his beloved 511 students.
He carried it as Reverb buried himself in his workroom, perfecting the surveillance equipment.
He carried it as he made simple meals to keep them both fed.
It held him up and kept him strong. Even when Jesse called him,
“Daddy, someone was asking about me by my real name this afternoon.”
“Get a hotel room, use the back up credit card,” he told her tightly. “Don’t go home, don’t call anyone else. Buy a burner phone. I’m coming to get you.”
“We’re coming,” Reverb was at his elbow.
Harrison didn’t bother to argue, “We’ll be there in five hours.”
“I’ll drive,” Reverb decided.
“You don’t have a car,” Harrison said, staring at his phone.
“We’ll rent. Get a bag together. We’ll be out of here in twenty minutes.”
The drive would’ve been harrowing all on it’s own, but Reverb drove like he’d taken driver’s ed with Satan. A handbuilt radar appeared on the dash of the stressed Honda and warned of police vehicles, keeping them just out of reach and under the speed limit when they were in danger of getting caught. The rest of the time, he pushed the machine to it’s limits, turning the passing scenery into a blur.
They made the drive in three and a half hours. Harrison staggered out of the car, his entire being shaking.
“Never again,” he croaked. Reverb frowned darkly, “but thank you.”
They went right to the room Jesse had texted him about.
A man opened the door.
“Hello, Harrison,” Zoom smiled at him. “Let’s talk.”
Harrison had often wished that Zoom was an uglier man. That he wore some mark of his twisted mind on his face. But instead he matched Ronnie in pleasant affability. Even when he had a seventeen year old girl tied to a chair with a gun lazily pointed at her.
“Have a seat,” he gestured expansively to the cheap bed. “Nice work trying to hide your little girl from me. It would’ve worked if you weren’t so insistent on calling her all the time. Bugs are so easy to get these days.”
“You bugged my cellphone? How?” Harrison sat down heavily on the bed. He glanced at the open door, but Reverb was gone.
And Zoom hadn’t noticed, he realized. He’d been so focused on his prey and Reverb had been just a step behind. Zoom caught his look and sighed, kicking the door shut,
“Don’t try to make a run for it. That’ll just embarrass us both,” he said calmly.
“What do you intend to do then? Shoot us both?” Harrison couldn’t bring himself to look too closely at Jesse. She was breathing, but her eyes were closed. He had no idea if she was conscious or not.
“Really, Dr. Wells,” he waved the gun around and Harrison flinched. He was afraid and he didn’t see any harm in letting it show now. “You know me better than that. If I kill you, you won’t have any other marvelous ideas. No, no, I thought we’d just make a deal, you and I.”
“What kind of deal?”
“I’d think that was obvious. You give me the missing parts of the accelorator or I start shooting your daughter. I think the legs would be poetic for a dance, don’t you?” he smiled slyly. “Poor Jesse, coming here to flee her abusive father and he catches up with her at the worst moment. She’ll deny it, of course, but I think some earnest testimony might muddy the waters.”
“No one would believe that,” his mouth went dry.
“They don’t have to...fully. Just enough,” Zoom shrugged. “But we don’t have to let it get that far, do we?”
“No,” Harrison swallowed. “I’ll tell you whatever you want.”
“I know you will,” Zoom grinned at him. “You always were the best behaved of all of them.”
Harrison held a picture of Jesse dancing forefront in his mind. He started talking.
The thing about a particle accelerator was that it wasn’t something you could sketch out on a napkin. And it wasn’t something that you could explain over coffee. Zoom might know the basics, but the holes from Reverb’s plans were vast. Years of teaching had honed Harrison’s oratory skills.
He talked for a solid twenty minutes straight, technical and mathematical data flowing out of him while Zoom took copious notes. Harrison wanted to laugh, to scream, to cry as Jesse’s eyes fluttered open behind their captor. He gave her a curt shake of the head when she looked at him, and she obediently feigned unconsciousness again.
“What about the pipeline?” Zoom cut in. “That’s an unusual feature.”
“Oh, well-” Harrison began and then the door exploded outward. Five men in S.W.A.T. uniforms streamed into the room, surrounding Zoom. He didn’t even have time to raise the gun to them. It was gently removed from his limp hand.
“Hunter Zoloman, you’re under arrest,” one man in a black mask muttered. “You have the right to remain silent...”
He went on, but Harrison was off the bed and to Jesse’s side. A call went out over a radio behind him and a paramedic was quickly helping him unbind her from the chair.
“I’m okay,” she told him over and over as he clutched her hand.
There was some discussion outside that went over his head, but in the end, he was bundled into the ambulance with his daughter. The nurses kindly worked around him as they checked her head wound and an officer took down her story. She didn’t remember much. Zoom had used a recording of Harrison’s voice to get her to open the door and then she thought he might’ve sprayed a chemical of some kind in her face.
“I don’t know though,” she admitted. “I can’t remember.”
“That’s normal,” the nurse soothed her.
“Dr. Wells, can I speak to you outside?” One of the SWAT members asked from the door.
“Go, Daddy. It’s important.”
It reminded him of letting go of her hand so she could go into her kindergarten classroom for the first time. Just like then, he did manage it and went out into the halls.
“I’m Captain David Singh,” a strong competent hand shook his. “I’ve been on the task force to hunt down this monster for ten years. So before we get to questions, I just have to say thank you for leading us to Hunter.”
“I don’t understand,” Harrison stared at him.
“The man you know as Zoom was born under a different name. He stole the identity of a grad student in physics after murdering him. That’s the third body we know of that we can attribute to him out of sixteen.”
“Sixteen people,” the number curdled in him. “I couldn’t get anyone to listen to me when my wife died. Or when the Steins were killed.”
“I know and I’m sorry for that. Your boyfriend has been very clear on our many failings,” David smiled sharply.
“My- shit. Reverb,” he had been so wrapped up in Jesse he had almost forgotten. “Is he all right?”
“He’s fine. We’ve got him at the station giving his very long, profanity laden statement,” David assured him. “He got lucky. While he was trying to call in a hostage situation, he crossed paths with the uniformed officer who was supposed to be tailing Zolomon.”
“He did a bang up job,” Harrison growled.
“I know and I’m sorry,” Singh sighed. “But for now, the best thing we can do is get your statement and make sure that this guy never breaths free air ever again.”
Harrison didn’t see Jesse or Reverb again for hours. There was the statement, the signing of the statement, the calling of lawyers to make sure he could sign the statement, then a call to Frost and Ronnie so they could give statements and call their lawyers. Somewhere in there a terrible sandwich and too many cups of coffee appeared until Harrison was so jittery that his vision started to blur. Or maybe that was fatigue.
Then like a razor through paper, Reverb’s voice cut through the noise, “Enough.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but you can’t just-” an officer started.
“We’re here to be helpful,” Reverb plowed on. “And we can’t do that if we’re exhausted. I’m taking him back to his daugter. They put cot in her room for him to sleep in, so you know where he is. All right?”
The officer reluctantly let him go and Reverb took his hand. It was an anchor in a stormy sea and Harrison clung to it shamelessly.
“Thank you,” he said when they were alone. “For literally everything.”
“Like I would’ve done anything else,” Reverb just rolled his eyes and turned around to kiss him once fiercely. “This is why you need an assistant, professor.”
“No,” he corrected, “this is why I need a boyfriend.”
“That too,” Reverb said quickly, but Harrison had learned to read the hidden pleasure in his expression. “Come one, your kid needs you.”
The cot was small, but Jesse was already asleep and Reverb looked grey from fatigue. They managed to jam themselves together on the small mattress. It was horribly uncomfortable, but Harrison fell asleep immediately.
Life, as it was wont to do, went on. There were still classes to teach, papers to grade, meals to be made and eaten. Frost and Ronnie bullied him into lunches. Nutkins picked a fight with him about educational ideology at a staff meeting and stuck him with another 101 class for the spring semester.
Jesse came home for a few weeks, debated not going back, but eventually found a therapist near school, kissed her father on the cheek and left again. Frost visited a lot more than usual, half-heartedly re-arranging his things so nothing was where it was supposed to be and reminiscing about the Steins. A few of his more news conscious students gave him strange looks, but none of them got up the courage to ask a question.
And then there was Reverb.
“That was the last one,” the young man with his dark hair and wary eyes. His shit kicking boots and his leather jacket cast aside, forgotten in a pile on the floor. He was draped over Harrison’s couch, melodramatically flinging the last graded final onto the floor. “We’re free.”
Harrison’s eyes wandered over him and then his hands followed. Reverb smirked up at him.
“You ever going to tell me what you said to them? I haven’t seen so many A’s in a 101 since I graded high on painkillers after I broke my leg.”
“Just laid down a few truth bombs,” Reverb ran a hand under Harrison’s shirt. “I’m good with weapons.”
Harrison leaned down and kissed the smug off his face. There were still rough things to come, but in the end, that was all right. He had a team. They’d get through the trial. They’d build the accelerator.
And one day, if he was very brave, Harrison might make a few new promises.
My New Year's resolution was to finish my WIPs. This isn't the story I had originally planned, but it's the one I had in me to write. Please forgive it's poor editing. It mattered more to me this time around to finish than to perfect.