Belonging

by

Michelle Pichette

 

Chapter 21

 

 

* * *

     Dom was excited as she walked to her office.  She hadn’t been out on a date for months and she was looking forward to it more than she had thought she would.  Seamus had been so happy at breakfast, telling her vaguely about all the projects that the Admiral had already expressed interest in.  He was so thrilled about the prospect of slaving away over in Engineering for years on end that Dom couldn’t help but be happy for him.  She hadn’t been at all pleased when she had found out that the Admiral had gone to her house to... she wasn’t entirely sure why he had gone.  It didn’t matter because whatever he had gone there for, the Admiral had proven himself to be her hero yet again by rescuing Seamus from the uncertainty of his future.

     As she rounded from the hall into her office, she found Kowalski, Patterson, Riley and Johnson all there, sitting or standing all over the room, looking generally uncomfortable.  “Good morning,” she told them with a sunny smile.  “And to what do I owe the pleasure of having all of you in my office?”

     “Dom, I know you kicked us all off your doorstep on Friday,” Kowalski said, then looked to Patterson for help.

     “We’ve been talking it over,” Patterson said, then didn’t seem to know what more to say and looked back at Kowalski.

     “Look, about this Harper guy living at your house...” Kowalski started, trying very hard to look tough and authoritative on the subject, though plainly he wasn’t feeling the part.

     “He’s not,” Dom interrupted him before he could go any further.

     Ski, obviously caught flatfooted, suddenly lost his stony expression and said, “Huh?  He’s not what?”

     “Not living at my house,” Dom told him, going around to her desk and giving Riley a pointed look.  He sheepishly got out of her chair.  “Not since yesterday.  So if that’s why you all came to see me, you can go to work now.  Thank you for making it plain that you don’t trust me to run my private affairs.”

     “We weren’t saying that!” Riley exclaimed frantically.

     “Oh?” Dom replied, sitting at her desk and giving each of them a cross look.  “Coming around to my house and then my office to tell me who you think I should allow to stay under my roof and who I shouldn’t is how you show confidence in my decision making, is it?”

     “It’s not like that, Dom,” Ski tried to explain.  “See the Skipper said...”

     “Oh, so Captain Crane sent you over to do his dirty work,” Dom cut him off.

     “No.  Cut that out, okay?” Ski said.  Dom frowned at him and crossed her arms over her chest, but didn’t say anything.  “Look, I get why you’re mad at us, but the skipper was just worried and it got us thinking, which got us worried.  I mean, talk to the Skipper or the Admiral.  They’ll tell you how dangerous this Harper guy could’ve been.”

     “Captain Crane, probably, but I doubt the Admiral would considering he hired Seamus yesterday to work in the Engineering department of the Institute and gave him quarters over at the dorms,” Dom stated, still glaring at the sailors.

     Now the four men before her wore an identical expression of confusion.  “He did?” Johnson asked for all of them.

     “I believe Seamus is in the Admiral’s office at this very moment finishing his new hire paperwork,” Dom said, dropping her arms, but not her cross expression.  “I told you on Friday that Seamus was just someone down on his luck who needed a little help getting back on his feet and you all refused to believe me or you wouldn’t be here now.  You should all be ashamed.”

     Now the four men wore fairly similar looks of embarrassment.  “Sorry,” Pat apologized for the group.

     “You should be,” Dom told them, not about to let them off that easy.

     “Come on, Dom.  We were just trying to look out for you,” Ski said.

     “I don’t need looking after, thank you.  I’m a grown woman, not a little girl,” Dom told him, making him wince.

     “Can’t we make it up to you?” Riley asked, giving her a pleading look.

     Dom gave each of them a pointed glare in turn, making them sweat a little more.  They deserved to, not trusting her that way.  They should know her better than that by now, especially Kowalski.  “Maybe,” Dom said tersely.  “Seamus was so grateful that I let him stay at my house, though others strenuously objected, that he’s taking me out to dinner tonight to thank me.  I’m supposed to meet him in the lobby at the end of the day.  If you all come to meet him and make a sincere effort to make him feel welcomed at the Institute, I might just forgive you.  And you might even find that he’s a pretty good guy if you give getting to know him a chance.  He’s good at fixing cars and he made me this.”  She opened her dragon hologram and handed it to Riley, who was standing closest to her.

     “Whoa.  Cool,” Riley breathed out, starting to grin a little, handing it to Patterson.

     “And Seamus likes surfing,” Dom added, knowing that would bring Riley firmly over to her side.

     “Hey, then he’s got to be a great guy!” Riley declared, giving Dom a grin.  “All us surfers are!”

     Ski rolled his eyes, then turned his attention to Dom.  “Look, if the Admiral says he’s all right, then he’s all right,” he told her.  “No arguments there, okay?  We’ll be there tonight and shake hands and make sure there’s no hard feelings.”

     “There wouldn’t be on his part because I never told him that you came to my house to throw him out,” Dom replied.  “And from now on, save the protectiveness for the Seaview.  I appreciate it there, but not in my personal life.”

     “It’ll never happen again,” Johnson promised.

     “It better not,” Dom told him as she stood up.  “Now go to work!”  She began to shoo them out of her office, but Patterson held back.

     “I’ll catch you guys up,” he said to the others, then closed Dom’s office door.  Dom looked up at him, but he didn’t say anything right away, his lips pressed together, a look on his face that she couldn’t quite define, one hand still resting on the doorknob.  Dom was about to break the silence herself which Patterson suddenly met her eyes and said, “This dinner, it’s not just a ‘thank you’ is it.”  He wasn’t asking a question.

     Dom found herself straightening her back.  “No.  Problem?”

     Then Patterson did the thing she least expected him to do.  He gave her a smile.  “No.  He’s pretty smart, this Harper guy?”

     Dom gave him a wary look.  “Yes, really smart.  I heard the Admiral bandy the word genius around.  Why?”

     Something sad tinged the corner of Pat’s smile and his eyes, but he nodded, saying, “Just figured.  Good for you, Dom, really.  I kind of half thought you and the Admiral might, you know...”  Pat suddenly blushed and looked down, clearing his throat, then continued, “Anyway, I’d better get to work.  About five o’clock good for the meet and greet?”

     “That would probably be good,” Dom replied, feeling the rest of her annoyance at her friends, Patterson especially, bleed away and she reached out and touched his arm.  “Steve...”

     “See you then, Dom.  I’ll remind the guys to behave, especially Kowalski,” Pat told her, then opened her office door and let himself out without saying another word.  Dom didn’t stop him.  She stood at her office door watching him walk off toward where the Seaview was waiting to be repaired.  Dom almost called him back, almost went after him, but she didn’t.  For the last few months they had been doing this strange dance where, when something more than friendship started to form between them, Patterson would back away, not let it happen.  Dom had always wondered why, but knew even broaching the subject would be disastrous.  She supposed that he thought that the Admiral was interested in dating her from what he’d just said, but she didn’t think that was all of it.  Whatever it was, Patterson wasn’t talking and she couldn’t make him.  She sighed, hoping that he was really as okay with her dating as he’d said he was.

     “Dom, you haven’t seen Olivia, have you?” Doctor Lorn asked, breaking her train of thought.  Blinking and reorganizing her thoughts, Dom turned to the older Marine Biologist, preparing herself for octopus hunting, thinking there was never a dull moment at the Nelson Institute.

* * *

     “So, exactly how much instruction should I be giving you?” Nelson asked as Harper buckled his seatbelt.  They were sitting in his car in the Institute’s back lot, having just traded places so that Harper was behind the wheel.  Harper had a big grin plastered over his face and looked excited about trying out driving for the first time in his life.  That was a vast improvement over how the boy had looked earlier.  Nelson still wasn’t entirely sure what had happened in his office that had panicked Harper so badly, but it had taken hours to calm him down.  Was it something in the forms?  Perhaps the thought of having to detail his injuries and explain how they had occurred had made Harper think more hurt might be forthcoming.  Nelson didn’t want him to think anything even remotely like that would ever happen to him again.

     Sitting in one of the labs, working on their program, Harper had given him a lot of worried looks.  At first, Nelson thought it was because all the stress he’d experienced that morning had made him mentally freeze, that he thought he’d be punished or fired if he couldn’t proceed with what they were doing.  However, Harper not only proceeded, he came up with a few ideas that outshone some of the projects he’d brought up the night before.  If Harper could deliver on even half the things he partially described, he and the Institute were both going to be wealthy beyond all dreams of avarice, even if the Seaview continued her current trend of returning from missions damaged.

     Nelson had been at a total loss and thought, perhaps, Harper hadn’t come through his physical as emotionally unscathed as he’d first thought.  There had been so much upheaval in the boy’s life in the last few days, it was perfectly reasonable for him to be displaying symptoms of extreme stress.  Very gentle handling, Nelson had reminded himself, then halted the outpouring of new technology springing from Harper’s mouth by asking him about books.  Miss Simmons had said that Harper liked to read.  There was nothing harmful or frightening in talking about books, at least not that Nelson could come up with, and it seemed to do the trick.  They had talked about some books that Harper had read at Miss Babin’s house, about books that Nelson had enjoyed and would lend to him.  It was a pleasant, soothing conversation and after a light lunch and finally completing the program and running it through a few tests, Nelson had decided it was time for driving lessons while Harper was calm again.

     “I’ve watched Dom,” Harper told him, then pointed at the control panel.  “P for park, D for drive, R for reverse, N for... I haven’t quite figured that one out.  She never used it.”

     “Neutral,” Nelson told him before he could continue.  “The car can move but isn’t in gear.”

     “Okay,” Harper said, nodding.  “Got it.  I think I’m good.”  They had already adjusted the seat and mirrors, checked tires and gauges.  Nelson had talked about checking oil, but hadn’t opened the hood of the car because Harper seemed ready to give the car a thorough examination rather than just preforming a cursory fluid check.  Nelson had steered him into the car instead and had gotten seat belts fastened.  When Harper started the car and put it in drive and eased forward, Nelson tried to relax, finding it more difficult than he’d anticipated.  He hadn’t ever thought he would be doing this, being an old bachelor.  Nelson consoled himself that at least Harper wasn’t sixteen.  “Hey, this isn’t so tough,” Harper said, giving him a grin with a sidelong look.

     “Eyes front,” Nelson told him, nodding toward the windscreen before the glance could turn into all out inattentiveness.

     “And check the mirrors.  Right,” Harper said with another nod as he proceeded slowly up the lot.  They navigated around a few obstacles without incident, then Nelson had Harper back up in a straight line, parallel park, and make a ‘U’ turn.  Finally, they parked back in front of the Institute in Nelson’s parking space and Harper gave Nelson a hopeful grin.  “How’d I do?”

     “You did fine.  A little practice and I won’t be nervous about turning you loose on public roadways,” Nelson told him.

     “License first, though, right?” Harper asked.

     “Learner’s permit, then license,” Nelson corrected him, but smiled at the boy.  “So, I take it you have plans this evening?”

     “Or lack thereof,” Harper sighed.  “I’m supposed to be taking Dom out to dinner, but I don’t know where.  Usually, I meet women when I’m already out and I don’t have to take them anywhere, ‘cause we’re already there!  I have no clue what I’m doing with this dating stuff.”

     “Well, where have you taken previous female companions on second dates?” Nelson asked, thinking Harper’s past might not have been one, long, dismal experience if women were involved.

     Harper raised his eyebrows.  “Second date?  Heeyeah, right,” he said with a little laugh and a head shake.  “I never got first dates.  I got slapped a lot and the occasional drunken evening that was best forgotten as soon as possible afterwards, much as I tried to make it sound totally different with Beka.  I think she knew anyhow.  She rolled her eyes at me a lot when I talked about women and my interactions with them.  The point of it all is that actual dates did not happen.  I want tonight to be different, special, real for once, not just some happy little story I make up to cover over the not so happy truth.  It doesn’t have to be like some glamorous movie thing.  Something simple, you know?  Dinner out some place kinda nice, with maybe some music or dancing or something.  I don’t know.  Maybe you know someplace she’d like?  Someplace not too expensive?”

     “Yes, money,” Nelson muttered.  Nelson knew that Harper had exactly one hundred and forty eight dollars to his name, a third of which was still at Dominica’s house somewhere.  He looked at Harper’s secondhand clothes and then glanced at his watch and frowned again.  There was no time to run out somewhere and get the boy something a little nicer to wear.  It probably wasn’t a concern.  Doctor Babin liked casual places and attire.  He didn’t see the sense in worrying Harper about his appearance.  Harper didn’t seem to have any outlandish expectations for the evening in any case.  Nelson thought that Harper had been through enough trouble and stress lately and that the pleasant, innocent evening he wanted wasn’t too much to ask for after all that.  He didn’t mind giving a little advice and a little money to help things along.

     “I think if you take a stroll up State Street or Victoria, you’ll find somewhere that will suit you,” Nelson advised.

     Harper grinned.  “Yeah, great idea!  Dom likes going for walks.  I like to dance.  Dancing is okay, right?  I know Dom’s religious and some religions have issues with dancing.”

     “Dancing is fine,” Nelson said with a sense of relief.  If Harper was worried about dancing being inappropriate, then he most likely had absolutely no expectations of a sexual nature.

     “Good.  Great.  I think I can do this,” Harper said half as if he was trying to convince himself.  Nelson smiled warmly, then reminded himself of the money issue.

     “I suppose I’d better advance you a little money on your pay.  Nothing worse than being caught short at the end of the evening,” Nelson commented casually as he took out his wallet.  Of course, he had no intention of reclaiming the money he was about to hand over.  All of the new technology that he and Harper were going to develop would more than compensate him.  He was actually looking forward to it.  It had been a while since he’d gotten to do some groundbreaking engineering and Harper seemed more than thrilled at the prospect of supplying them with a nearly endless supply of ideas to work on.  Still, he didn’t want Harper to feel uncomfortable about taking the money.  In this instance, Nelson was pleased with the fact that Harper was extremely easy to distract.  “Make sure you’re ready for an early start tomorrow.  We never did get to that paperwork,” Nelson said as he handed some money toward the boy.

     “Oh, yeah.  Should we go do that now?” Harper asked, taking the money and sticking it unconsciously into a pocket.  Nelson smiled.  Mission accomplished.  Then he thought about what had happened the last time Harper had been sitting in his office filling in forms and didn’t want Harper panic stricken again.

     “No, no.  It’s getting late.  Tomorrow will be fine.  Then we’ll test your operating system program a little more and then possibly bring in a few of the other engineers for a little demonstration,” Nelson said, opening his door.

     “Oh,” Harper said, sounding less then enthusiastic as he got out of the car.  Nelson could understand why.  Most of the engineers seemed to be viewing Harper in a less than favorable light, probably in part because of his appearance.  Some new clothes and a good haircut would take care of at least some of that.  Nelson would see about making sure that both those things happened sooner rather than later.  He also wished the not quite so many people at the Institute were aware of Harper’s previous homelessness.  He wasn’t quite sure how far that particular tidbit of knowledge had been spread, but it probably wasn’t helping matters.  Of course, pretty soon the other Institute engineers were going to have to worry more about keeping up with Harper rather than where he came from or how he looked.

     “Yes, but don’t worry about it.  You’ll have plenty of time to prepare.  And I’d like you to make a few notes on the little robot.  I like the idea very much,” Nelson told Harper as they met at the front of the car.  He gave the boy a companionable pat on the shoulder.  “Perhaps you might even start drawing up schematics on that tomorrow if there’s time.”

     “I could build you one,” Harper offered.  Nelson smiled.  He liked making things off the cuff too, but developmental procedure was important at the Institute.  Some of the things being worked on there could be dangerous, especially if made improperly.  The Admiral was about to detail the steps that should be followed with any new project, when Harper continued, “It’s the power supply I’m worried about.  It would need something small so the robot’s not overburdened or trailing wires, but anything small enough that I’ve seen would deplete its cells pretty quickly.  I’ve got to think it out, maybe when I get back tonight.  It’s like it’s in my head but it’s not clear enough for me to see.  I can still build a prototype, but it’ll probably run down pretty quickly.”

     Nelson patted him gently on the back as they started into the Institute.  “Remember what I said about trying not to rush yourself.  The robot itself seems like it would be fascinating. The dexterity that you described, I’m not sure how you’re going to achieve it.”

     “It’s all down to keeping things small and light,” Harper told him with a confident smile.

     “After seeing what you did with the hologram projectors, I have no doubt you can do what you’re saying.  I’m rather looking forward to seeing it,” Nelson replied with a chuckle.  “That and about fifty other things you’ve described to me.  You’re going to be a busy, busy young man for a very long time to come.  You’ll probably be grateful when the Seaview is repaired and I’ll be off at sea rather than looking over your shoulder.”

     “Nah.  I don’t mind an audience,” Harper said with a big grin.

     “That’s good to hear, because in the near future, I want you to give a demonstration of your hologram and talk about the miniaturization techniques that you used in the one you made for Dominica.  There are some other projects currently in development that could use some of a little push in that direction,” Nelson said.  “You won’t find that intimidating, will you?”

     Harper shrugged a little, still smiling as he opened the Institute’s door for them.  “Whatever you want, Boss.  I aim to please.”

     “And that you do, Mister Harper,” Nelson praised him, making Harper’s smile glow even brighter.  It was the truth, after all.  Nelson couldn’t be more pleased.  If he could just get Harper over this initial bumpy patch in his new life before the boy gave himself a nervous breakdown, Nelson was looking forward to Harper shaking things up in engineering and giving them all new things to think about and different directions to look in.

     As they walked into the lobby, Doctor Babin, Kowalski, Riley, Patterson, and Johnson were just coming from the other direction.  Harper’s smile brightened and he trotted over to Doctor Babin saying, “Guess what?  I pretty much mastered driving in one lesson!  Gonna let me take you out on the Harley now?”

     “Get a license and we’ll talk about it,” Dominica said with a smile and a laugh.  “Seamus, this is Rick, Stu, Steve, and Dave.  They’re sailors on the Seaview.  Guys, this is the Seamus Harper I’ve been telling you about.”

     Greetings made their way around and fortunately for Harper’s sake, Doctor Babin’s friends seemed much warmer to him than Lee and the other engineers at the Institute had been so far.  Nelson reminded himself that he would have to work on that, but there was plenty of time.

     “So I had just about the best day of my life and the Admiral even gave me an advance on my pay!” Harper said, exuberantly, suddenly taking Doctor Babin in his arms and swinging her around as if to music.  That drew a schoolgirl giggle from her.  It was obvious that Harper had forgotten the rest of the room even existed, his entire attention on the young woman in his arms.  “There is fun happening somewhere in Santa Barbara and it’s going on without us.  That’s just plain wrong.  Let’s go find it, huh?  Come on.”  Harper dipped Doctor Babin back low and pulled her up and toward the exit, not waiting for an answer.  Of course, Doctor Babin wasn’t exactly resisting, so the Admiral supposed that was an answer in of itself.  Harper turned to give her friends a smile and jaunty wave.  “See ya around, guys.”

     “Bye!” Doctor Babin called to them, still laughing and looking flushed with excitement.  “Good night, Admiral.”

     “Thanks again, Boss,” Harper said, but before Nelson could respond, they were out the door.  Nelson smiled and shook his head as he watched Harper spin Doctor Babin around again outside, too excited and happy to contain his feelings.  Harper wasn’t going to waste any time letting Doctor Babin know exactly how he felt toward her were now that his future was far less uncertain.

     “Can you beat that?” Kowalski asked as the two of them disappeared into the parking lot.

     “Yeah, what just happened?  Dom didn’t say she was dating that guy, did she?” Riley asked.  “I mean, he just scoops her up caveman style and carries her off and she liked it?  What’s with that?”

     “She sure wasn’t pushing him off her,” Kowalski observed, but then Ski had been Doctor Babin’s friend since childhood and he wasn’t interested in anything more between them.  He seemed to be ready to take the role of protective brother, though, for he added, “He better not pull anything funny,” his voice low and dangerous.

     “But we were here first!” Riley complained, ignoring Ski’s comment.  “I would have done that, just told her, ‘Come with me, Woman.  We’re going out on a date,’ if I’d known it would work!”

     “Yeah!  And he’s just some little, scrawny guy too.  It’s not like he overpowered her.  What’s he got that we haven’t got?” Johnson said, sounding almost insulted.

     “The guts to actually do it,” Patterson summed up in his normal, stoic way.  That took the wind out of Riley and Johnson’s sails and they nodded sheepishly in agreement.  The group bid Nelson good night and they left out the door as well.  Nelson chuckled to himself as he started back to his office, thinking that Harper was going to shake things up at the Institute in more places than engineering.

     When he got to his office, Katy was plainly starting to close things down for the day.  “Will there be anything else tonight, sir?” she asked.

     “No, Katy, thank you.  I have a few things I’m going to finish up tonight, then I’ll be heading home myself,” Nelson told her, thinking that he would finish off his ‘in’ box so that he would be free to watch Harper build his robot and go over proper developmental procedure.  Nelson was the worst offender of not following proper procedure at the Institute, but, since it was usually during times of emergency and he did, after all, own the Institute, he felt allowed.

     Going to his desk, Nelson saw the little stack of new hire and medical papers that Harper had left on the edge of his desk.  He picked them up and gave what little was written there a quick looking over.  Zelazny?  Harper’s middle name was Zelazny?  Finally, someone that could give Sharkey a run for his money in the strange middle name department.  He would have to give the two of them a full introduction he thought with a grin.  Nelson chuckled again, tucking the papers away for the time being.  He sat down and stacked the remainder of his inbox in front of him.  Tomorrow was going to be a good day, Nelson thought with another smile as he set to work.

* * *

 

 

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