Belonging

by

Michelle Pichette

 

Chapter 35

 

 

* * *

     Monday morning, Nelson had gone over to the Seaview first, checking over the rewiring efforts and repairs in general.  The rewiring was a bother, but everything seemed to be moving along at a decent pace and they didn’t have to do it at sea, so it could have been worse.  Worse was when he had returned to his office to find a cross Doctor Babin waiting for him.  Apparently Philip Kensington had come on her and Mister Harper on Friday and she had found out the hard way that Harper was the Kensington’s latest engineering interest.  Telling him that she’d had to resort to purchasing the first bikini that she’d owned since she was twelve years old in order to calm her angry boyfriend and that she’d better not have to do anything remotely like that again because of a ‘silly game,’ she’d left without letting him say a word.  Nelson suddenly was rather glad that Doctor Babin didn’t often get angry, especially with him.

     It was after a cigarette that Nelson suddenly spied all the paperwork that Harper needed to fill out that somehow kept getting set aside tucked away in his in box.  He remembered that he’d been meaning to bring it to Harper on Friday, but somehow, had forgotten about it entirely.  Still, Jamieson probably wanted his medical history papers and Nelson supposed he ought to have his new hire papers on file even if there wouldn’t be much on them.  Nelson shook his head with a little smile, thinking that if the truth about Harper weren’t so dangerous in so many ways it would probably make incredibly interesting reading.  He was always pleased when Harper trusted him with little pieces of himself, little stories about his life.  The smile he’d been wearing disappeared as he wished that most of them weren’t so sad.  He picked up the papers and headed over to Harper’s lab, wondering how the schematics were coming.

     Nelson let himself into Harper’s lab, which now had opaque glass its door, but, as usual, Harper’s back was to the door and music is playing, so the boy didn’t seem to hear him enter.  There was a litter of parts and tools across the counter that Harper was standing in front of, the little engineer working on something hidden from Nelson’s view.  What Nelson could see was a little surprising, but in a pleasant way.

     Harper was wearing some black pants and they actually fit him.  His black shirt, which also fit, was tucked in, sleeves weren’t rolled up and the cuffs were buttoned.  He was wearing shoes, not work boots.  A jacket that looked to match the pants was lying abandoned over one of the chairs.  And, amazingly, Harper’s hair looked to have been combed and wasn’t sticking up across the top as it had been since they’d met, though there was one small unrepentant patch near the front that was poking upwards.  Nelson smiled again for a moment, then frowned.  Now that his clothes fit, it was easy to see how almost painfully thin Harper was and Nelson didn’t like it one bit.  He was going to make sure that Harper ate a lot of hearty meals in the very near future, even if it meant buying the boy some more new clothes.

     Nelson went over to see what Harper was working on and Harper looked over at him with a smile when he arrived next to him.  “Hey, Boss,” he said happily, continuing screwing something together.  “I had an awesome weekend.  Dom and I went swimming up behind her place for part of it.  Short version, Dom, bikini, sunscreen, happy, happy Harper.  I am the luckiest man alive!”  Nelson smiled, thinking that Doctor Babin was the only one still upset about Kensington, but then couldn’t help but notice the bright green tie that wasn’t pulled tight hanging down Harper’s front.  It had darker green letters that read ‘Kiss Me I’m Irish’ emblazed on it.  Nelson winced mentally, certain that this was partial payback for the necessity of purchasing skimpy swim wear.

     Nelson laughed as Harper’s eyes followed his down to the tie  and he said, “For a minute there I thought I was dealing with an imposter.”

     Harper glanced up from his tie and shrugged.  “Gotta be me, Boss.  Hope I cleaned up okay.”

     Nelson nodded, thinking that the dark colors complemented Harper’s fair complexion and hair.  At first he hadn’t been sure about all the black, but he could see it worked for the boy.  He would have to tell Doctor Babin that he approved of her taste, but he set the papers in his hand down on the counter because he needed his hands free for what simply had to be done.  “Overall, I’d say we have a success on our hands,” Nelson said, patting the boy gently on the shoulder.  He would be glad when the bruises hidden by Harper’s clothing were gone.  Most of the ones on his face and neck were and the cut on his forehead was fading each day.  “A few minor adjustments and you’ll be ready to face the world,” he said, mostly to take his own mind off of Harper’s healing injuries.  With that, he pulled Harper’s tie loose and took it off him, then tossed it over on the chair with the jacket.  He would have aimed for the trash, but didn’t think that would go over well.  There was always St. Patrick’s Day for it, he supposed.

     “Hey!  You’re stealing my personality!” Harper protested indignantly as Nelson removed the tie.  He put down what he was working on, probably to have his hands free to stop further alterations.

     “Trust me, you have plenty to spare,” Nelson told him, then unbuttoned the top button of Harper’s shirt and looked him over as the boy had turned from the counter.  Now that Harper was facing him, Nelson could see a white rabbit’s foot hanging from one belt loop.  Otherwise, Harper looked positively respectable.

     “No, no, no!” Harper said, backing away from Nelson as he reached for the rabbit’s foot to add it to the pile of the chair.  “I need all the luck I can get, so either I get to keep it or I’m buying a whole, living rabbit to stay here in the lab with me!”

     Nelson chuckled.  “Fine then.  A small adjustment,” he told Harper, then quickly tucked the rabbit’s foot into Harper’s pocket, out of sight.  “There.  Problem solved.”

     “Darn.  I always wanted a bunny,” Harper pouted, obviously having hoped Nelson would go for the second option rather than a compromise.

     “Really?  Not a puppy?” Nelson said, still amused.

     Harper got an appalled looked on his face.  “No.  Me and dogs have a history,” he said.  From his tone, Nelson knew that whatever Harper’s ‘history’ with dogs was, it hadn’t been a pleasant one.  “I’m all about small and cuddly with the pet wishes.  I think I might have bugged Beka for a cat, but with them being extinct and all...”

     “Seamus, I assure you, cats, at least in current times, are anything but extinct,” Nelson told him.

     “Really?” Harper said with a sudden smile.  “Wow!  That’s awesome!  That’s just what I want.  Forget about the car, Boss.  I want a cat!”

     Chuckling again, Nelson informed him, “Seamus, cars are quite a bit more expensive than cats in most cases.  In fact, there are usually kittens being given away for free pretty much all over the country, but I’ve never seen anyone standing on a street corner, holding up a sign offering free cars.”

     Harper got a contemplative look on his face.  “These free kittens, where could somebody find one of those?” he asked, trying to look nonchalant about the matter and failing miserably.

     “No kittens or cats, Seamus,” Nelson told him, not wanting to think about one running loose all over the Institute.  “That is unless Dominica is looking for a pet and will let you keep it at her house until you have a place of your own.”  Harper grinned from ear to ear and Nelson winced mentally.  What had he just done to poor Doctor Babin?  Clearing his throat and sincerely hoping he hadn’t uncorked a genie’s bottle, he turned to the counter top where Harper had been working.  Apparently, Harper had only partially listened about not working on the weekend because there was no possible way all of what was on the counter could have materialized in one morning.  “What’s all this?  I thought we had gone over developmental procedure,” Nelson said, waving a hand at the plethora of half constructed things littering the area.

     “Oh, I’m not developing.  I’m trying to get a good feel for the materials I’ll be working with so I can decide if I need to start worrying about talking to you about alloys or if I can just sort of use what I’ve got metal wise to machine parts,” Harper said quickly.  Nelson couldn’t decide whether or not Harper was being even partially truthful, but considering that he himself had a whole lab full of half constructed things that he was experimenting with, he decided a little bit of tinkering on the side wasn’t be too bad.  Then an image of Barris telling him how Harper had been a disobedient slave and should be beaten flashed up in his mind.  It bothered him as though it had just been said.  “I finished all the schematics for the reactor and you weren’t in your office, so I figured I’d kind of play around a little.  If that’s not okay, I won’t do it anymore,” Harper said, sounding worried, probably because of the silence his previous comment had been greeted with.

     “No, Seamus, it’s fine.  Just don’t let it get out of hand, all right?” Nelson told him, patting him gently on the shoulder again.  Harper nodded, relaxing, and Nelson turned to the table where the finished schematics where lying.  “I’ll want to go over these very carefully, then we’ll sit down and discuss them.  While I’m doing that, you need to fill in the forms we started last week in my office.  Then I’d like you to draw up a proposal for that maintenance robot you’ve been talking about.  And you need to start thinking about the presentation you are going give on miniaturization techniques and the holograms, which I would like to do in the very near future, since quite a few of the other engineers have seen Doctor Babin’s toy and I know it has been heavily discussed.  You should also probably sit down with Mister Portman and go over that operating system that we’ve worked on together.  I’m thinking I very well might be converting over to it as early as next year if the rest of the testing goes well.  Mister Portman might have some concerns or suggestions.”

     “Uh... yeah... about that,” Harper said uncertainly as Nelson began to roll up the papers in front of him.  Nelson turned to see Harper looking down and running a hand up through his hair, making half of the formerly order bits stand up at attention.  “See... um... me and Portman... we aren’t... you know... getting along... much... or at all...” he stammered out, looking terribly uncomfortable.  “See... he... uh... doesn’t like that... ah...”  At that point, he seemed to get stuck and didn’t know how to get himself started again.  Nelson couldn’t quite tell if Harper was trying to keep from getting himself into trouble or if he was trying not to say anything negative about Portman.  Of course, knowing Portman, it was probably the latter, especially since Harper was rather openly seeing Doctor Babin and Portman would not be happy about that.

     “Doesn’t like that you are involved with Doctor Babin?” Nelson prompted him, hoping that was the extent of it.

     “Doesn’t like that I’m alive and taking up space at the Institute,” Harper sighed out, running a hand through his hair again and still not looking up.  Nelson closed his eyes and let out a sigh of his own.  Knowing how class conscious Portman was, he could imagine where Harper stood in the man’s eyes.  “I can handle it,” Harper said, sounding determined, making Nelson look back at him.  Harper took a deep, steadying breath then met his eyes.  “I’ll figure something out.  You want me to talk shop with Portman, we’re talking shop.”

     “If Mister Portman has been rude to you, Seamus...” Nelson started, not at all happy about having to say it because he more than suspected that it was not a matter of ‘if.’

     “I can fight my own battles,” Harper interrupted him, still looking determined.

     “I’m sure you can, but there shouldn’t be any battles being fought here,” Nelson told him.  “This is a place of science and the people working here are supposed to be intelligent, well adjusted members of society.  If Mister Portman, or anyone else for that matter, is treating anyone else in my employ with anything less than proper respect, I need to be made aware of it so that I can address it as an employer.”

     Harper looked down again, seeming frustrated and unsure.  “Yeah, well, I’m not.”

     Nelson’s brow knit.  “You’re not what?”

     “A well adjusted member of society,” Harper said, blushing  around his ears.  “No matter how good you treat me, that’s the truth and Portman and a bunch of other people have already picked up on it.  You can yell at them, but it doesn’t change the truth.  I’ve got to be the one that makes people see that I’m worth all the trouble you’re going through for me.  I’ve got to do that for me, so I know that maybe I can be the person that you and Dom seem to think I am.  I want to be that person.  I want it so bad.”  The longing in his voice made Nelson rethink what he had intended to do about matters.

     Nelson laid a hand on Harper’s collar bone and squeezed gently, getting Harper to look back up.  “I think you’re being too hard on yourself and that you are selling yourself very short.  You are an incredibly brave and resourceful young man.  I can’t imagine being in your situation and coping half as well as you have.  I like the people who work for me to prove themselves and you’ve done that admirably.  You shouldn’t have to keep doing it.”

     Harper let out another sigh and said, “That’s just life, Boss.”

     Nelson put a thin smile on his face.  “I suppose it is,” he agreed, giving Harper’s collarbone another squeeze.  “Still, life here at the Institute is what I say it is, so when you’re ready to talk about the operating system, you and Mister Portman will do it in my office so that I can be sure that he will listen to you.  Mister Portman will learn to respect you, Seamus, as will everyone else employed here if they want to stay employed here, because I say so and, as you say, I am the boss.  Now, you get to work on that proposal, all right?”

     “Yes sir,” Harper replied with a little grin and a salute that would have earned him push ups at Academy.

     Nelson shook his head at him.  “I have to teach you to salute properly one of these days.”

     “You have to teach me how to do lots of stuff properly, Boss,” Harper said sheepishly, then got a sly grin on his face.  “The care and feeding of cats, for instance.”

     Nelson chuckled, patting Harper on the shoulder, saying, “Nice try.  You’re still getting a car,” then turned to roll up the schematics again.

     “Come on!  I never wanted a car.  I’ve always wanted a cat!” Harper told him, sounding at least a dozen years younger than he was.  It was all that Nelson could do not to laugh.

     “New hire papers, then maintenance robot proposal, Mister Harper,” Nelson ordered, tucked the rolled up paper under his arm.

     “How about if I write up a really awesome proposal about how a cat would increase my productivity?” Harper asked persistently.  This time Nelson did laugh, hoping that Doctor Babin liked cats.

* * *

     Portman was quite pleased with the way the morning was going so far.  He’d gotten a lot of work done on the upgrade he had been working on, particularly inspired by the talk that had been circulating the break room earlier.  A few sailors had been talking in soft voices about how Harper was illiterate and prone to violence.  Lawson and Carroll were in the room and had agreed a little more loudly that Harper was a disgrace to the Institute and none of what was being said took them at all by surprise.  Some of other people in the room had scoffed, but the fact that the talk had started without Portman having done it himself meant his plan was working.  He had left the room without saying a word and thought about where he would sow the next seeds of discord against Harper.

     When the Admiral walked into his office, Portman had been a little surprised.  Nelson had never come to his office in the past and the fact that he didn’t look pleased did not bode well for why he was here now.  “Mister Portman, we need to talk,” the Admiral said, his face and tone confirming that the man was anything but happy.

     “Of course, sir,” Portman said, getting to his feet.  What was going on?  Was this about the virus that hadn’t materialized?

     Nelson’s frown deepened.  “I treat you and everyone here with respect, do I not, Mister Portman?”

     Portman was certain that he looked as confused by that statement as he felt.  “Why, yes sir,” he agreed.

     “And I expect that persons under my employ will treat each other with civility and respect as well,” Nelson continued.

     Portman still didn’t have a clue as to what the Admiral was upset about.  “Of course,” he said, nodding.

     “Then I would like you to tell me how you feel Mister Harper should be treated,” Nelson said, his eyes narrowing.

     Portman barely kept the rage and contempt he suddenly felt off his face, trying to keep his expression confused.  So, the little toad had gone crying to the Admiral, had he?  Well, he’d pay for that sooner rather than later.  “Harper?  Well, with charity, considering his situation,” Portman said.

     “And what about Mister Harper’s situation requires charity, Mister Portman?” Nelson questioned, his voice taking on a sharp edge of displeasure.

     Portman shrugged, keeping his stance loose and unconcerned.  “Word has been circulating that Harper is the homeless man that Doctor Babin so kindly took in.  I think that you were incredibly noble to support her efforts.  It’s terrible that in our country so many people...” he started, thinking to compliment Nelson while reinforcing the idea that Harper was merely here because others were trying to help him, not because of any merit on his part.

     “Whatever Mister Harper’s circumstances were, they are no longer hold any bearing on what his circumstances are now,” Nelson interrupted him, his expressing moving from displeasure towards anger.  “Now he is an engineer at this Institute and he will be treated with the same professional courtesy and respect as you, yourself, would expect to be treated with.  Am I making myself clear, Mister Portman?”

     Portman frowned at the comparison being drawn between himself and Harper.  “I worked very hard to be where I am, sir,” he said, making sure than his tone was polite.  “I feel that I have earned the respect being accorded to me.”

     “What you feel you have earned is irrelevant to me.  You are here at my sufferance, as is everyone else in my employ.  Don’t forget that, Mister Portman, and do not make me speak to you again concerning this matter,” Nelson warned him, then left without another word.

     Portman’s frown deepened.  The thought of having to treat Harper like an actual person in order to keep his job appalled him as very little had in recent years.  Then he smiled.  For all of Harper’s bravado in the hall the other day, he obviously was too afraid to stand up for himself if he had gone to the Admiral for help.  That got Portman to chuckle.  He would certainly not leave silently the next time he heard talk about Harper.  No, he would fuel the fire and Harper would burn.

* * *

 

 

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