Belonging

by

Michelle Pichette

 

Chapter 47

 

 

 

* * *

     Portman had been miserable for days.  Trust the irritating little hobo to come up with the one way to thwart all the work that he had done to have him shunned.  The vagrant had gone and done something selflessly heroic that had nearly gotten him killed.  Now most of the Institute and all the crew of the Seaview talked about him like he was Crane or, worse still, as though he were a younger version of the Admiral.  That was the absolute last comparison that Portman wanted drawn, not that he dared to say a word against Harper since the incident.  A few of the other engineers still scowled and shook their heads at all the fuss over Harper, not that it mattered.

     Lawton had been daring enough to say in public that Harper hadn’t been a hero, that he’d merely been lucky not to die and destroy the Institute while trying to kill himself with untested technology, all for self aggrandizement.  It had taken half a dozen strong men to drag Kowalski off of him, and that was after they had plainly let the sailor get in a few blows.  The Admiral had swept the entire matter under a rug because Kowalski had told Lawton to take back what he’d said and Lawton had poked the sailor in the chest while arguing his point.  As if that little prod excused a beating, Portman thought in disgust.

     Portman had been in ill humor ever since it had been made clear that Harper was going to live and would be returning to work before long.  Worse yet, rumors were circulating that Harper was being given some huge, important project to head.  Portman was going to make sure that he was as far from that debacle as possible.  At the moment, he had something else he was working on to make sure he stayed in the Admiral’s good graces.  He stepped into the electronics lab to find Fletcher there, looking worried and a little desperate.  Portman smiled.  Yes, things were looking up.

     “Hello, Andrew,” Portman said as he approached the older, frantic looking engineer.  Fletcher looked up to Portman and seemed to get even more worried.

     “Oh... Greg... How is the computer upgrade coming?” Fletcher asked, moving the communications array he was working on to the side nervously.  Portman knew Fletcher was stuck, behind schedule and floundering.  He also knew how to work around the problems Fletcher was having and had for some time.  Of course, he wasn’t going to give that information away.  No, he wanted credit for rescuing the project and Fletcher’s gratitude.

     “It’s going very nicely,” Portman said with a smile.  “I’m ahead of schedule.  How is your communications array coming along?  Have you worked out that snag yet?”

     “Oh... ah... I’m sure that something will... come to me,” Fletcher stammered out nervously.

     Portman shook his head.  “I thought the project deadline was next week.  Aren’t you supposed to have something to present to Admiral Nelson by Friday?” he asked, knowing all these things for a fact.  Fletcher looked down and ran a shaking hand up through his thinning hair, but didn’t respond.  Portman walked over to the table where Fletcher was working and made a short humming sound, shaking his head as he looked over the litter of wiring and components.  “I just don’t see how you’re going to finish this alone, Andrew.  Maybe you should think over my offer again,” Portman said as he patted Fletcher on the shoulder.  Fletcher still didn’t answer, but Portman knew he was going to crack.  Dropping his hand and moving unhurriedly back to the lab door, Portman said, “Just don’t leave it too long.  Even I can only do so much in limited time.”

     With that, Portman walked out of the lab.  Now he smiled broadly.  Fletcher would be coming to him before the end of the day, ready to give him whatever he wanted.  Portman chuckled, thinking that having credit for saving the project would be a very nice feather in his cap.  It wasn’t as if Fletcher had any alternatives, he thought smugly as he strolled to his office to wait.  He would work a little more on his upgrade, not that he needed to.  He was so far ahead of schedule that he could take a month off and not fall behind.  He would have Fletcher’s problems all worked out by the end of tomorrow at the latest.  Portman sat at his desk to wait.  Yes, Fletcher would be coming through his office door any time now.

* * *

     Fletcher sat with his face in his hands, not knowing what to do anymore.  He had thought he was a competent engineer.  More than that, really.  He had made major breakthroughs in the communications field over the years, things that had gained him patents and notoriety.  Lately, however, he’d been having serious doubts.  The youngsters in the field now, they just seemed so much brighter than he’d ever been, could ever hope to be.  He’d been thrashing with the improved divers’ communication array that he’d been working on, desperate to finish it and show the Admiral that he still had something to offer the Institute.  Then Harper had shown up with his hologram and Fletcher had been devastated.  Harper and young people like him were the future of engineering in the country, not some old man like him that simply couldn’t keep up with all the new ideas and developments that seemed to happen hourly.

     Portman had been circling for a few days now, offering to bail him out of his difficulties, but not for free.  No, Portman wanted half credit on the completed project and all patents that came from it.  At first, Fletcher had been insulted by the offer, but now it was starting to look like he had to take it or all his work would have been for nothing.  Fletcher scrubbed his hands down his face and looked at the litter of parts in front of him, wondering how he had gotten so lost.

     “How you feel about pie?” a voice intruded on his thoughts, making Fletcher jump a little in surprise.  He looked up to see Harper standing in the door, holding the item in question.  The young man smiled at him, saying, “Fletcher, right?”  Fletcher nodded, not knowing what to do.  He hadn’t known that Harper had returned to work, not that it mattered.  Harper was the Admiral’s new favorite and Fletcher would be lucky to have a job at the end of the week.  It wasn’t as if Harper needed to bother with him.  “So, pie.  How do you like pie?  Cherry pie, specifically,” Harper said, coming into the room, lifting the pie to his eye level and regarding it with thin lips.

     “Uh... It... It’s fine.  You... don’t like pie?” Fletcher asked, not having a clue why Harper was now standing next to him with a pie, of all things.  Rumors were circulating about Harper being unpredictably violent, but Fletcher would almost welcome an injury.  Anything that would give him some sort of excuse for missing his next deadline would be good at this point.  Certainly having a pie driven into his face would be no more humiliating than having to crawl to Portman for help yet again.

     Harper put the pastry being discussed on the table and smiled.  “Oh, I love pie.  All kinds of pie.  Apple, blueberry, banana cream, mincemeat, strawberry, chicken.  Don’t get me started on how awesome Dom’s chicken pies are.  The thing is, much as I love pie, people have been feeding me pretty much nonstop for days now and I am in deadly danger of becoming as wide as I am tall.  I’ve had like four full meals today and it’s barely past noon and I just can’t eat anything else.  Not that anyone is listening to the fact that my stomach has reached its limits.  Doctor Lorn just brought this over to my lab and she expects me to put a huge dent in it before she and Dom finish some tests with Olivia or I have to go back to the infirmary and have Doctor Jamieson shake his head at me and probably get flung back into a bed to rest despite the fact that I feel fine and have for days now.  So, what do you think?  It looks like a mighty tasty pie, right?  You wouldn’t mind eating a piece or two, would ya?  It would help me out a lot.  Really.”

     “Uh...” Fletcher let out helplessly.  He didn’t understand half of what Harper was talking about, but the gist of it seemed to revolve around the fact that Doctor Jamieson, Doctor Babin and Doctor Lorn all wanted Harper to eat the pie currently sitting on the table.  The young man had just been very ill and had always been very skinny, at least in Fletcher’s opinion, so most likely everyone wanted him to put on some weight.  Fletcher looked down at the pie.  It was a large pie and did look quite good, but he didn’t know if he should interfere with anything to do with Harper.  The Admiral was very protective of the young man and Fletcher knew he was going to be in enough trouble with Nelson before the week was out.

     When Fletcher looked up again, he found that Harper was looking over the communications array on the table with a quizzical expression.  “You’re never gonna be able to fit all that hardware in that housing like it is,” Harper observed, making Fletcher’s shoulders droop a little lower.

     “I know,” Fletcher sighed out.

     “I was supposed to give this talk about miniaturization techniques, but I got squashed by a squid monster before I could.  Want the abridged version?  You could listen while I show you with this stuff and you eat pie,” Harper said, looking up with a big smile.

     Fletcher sighed, slouching and looking down again.  He supposed that having Harper take credit for pulling his fat out of the fire was no worse than having Portman do it.  At least he’d get some dessert out the making a deal with Harper.  “All right,” he sighed out.  “I’ll make sure your name is on the documentation as a major contributor and...”

     “Why would you do that?”  Fletcher looked up to see Harper giving him the same quizzical look he had just been giving the array and a grin.  “I’m just giving you a little hand.  I’m sure you’d do it for me if I needed some help.”

     “As if you would ever need my help with anything,” Fletcher said, sounding as defeated as he felt.

     “I need your help with this pie,” Harper pointed out, then held up a fork.  “What d’ya say?”

     Fletcher searched the boy’s face for a moment, but Harper seemed to be sincerely offering to save his job and all his work and all he needed to do for this minor miracle was eat some pie.  “Done,” Fletcher said, taking the fork and sliding the pie over to himself.  While he ate, he listened to Harper talk and watched Harper work, fascinated.  It was only after half a pie that Fletcher began to ask questions and work with Harper rather than watching dumbly.  Two hours later, they were talking about Doctor Babin and Fletcher’s wife, with the divers’ mouthpiece of the communications array nearly completed and Fletcher feeling better than he had in months.

     “This is a sweet piece of technology,” Harper commented with a beaming smile as Fletcher sealed up the last of the seams.

     “I couldn’t have done it without you,” Fletcher admitted, not feeling half as bad about saying it as he thought he would.

     “Aw, you were nearly there.  You would have worked it out whether I showed up begging you save my sorry ass or not,” Harper said with a chuckle.

     “Oh, yes, the pie,” Fletcher said, having almost forgotten about it.  He looked up at Harper, who was still a skinny kid no matter how much food people had been throwing at him recently, and thought he’d help in the effort of fleshing the boy out a little.  “How about I go get us some milk and we run a few tests after we both make Doctor Lorn a little happier?”

     Harper chuckled again.  “Now you’re gonna feed me too, Andy?”  Fletcher fought down a wince.  He preferred being called Andrew, but Harper had definitely earned the right to call him whatever he wanted to.

     “Since I don’t know a way to take some of the fat off me and stick it to you, I suppose I am.  I used to be as skinny as you when I was your age, believe it or not.  Ever since forty hit, this is what I have to live with,” Fletcher said, jiggling his middle age spread with both hands and a little laugh of his own. Harper joined him with good natured giggle.  He was a nice kid, Fletcher thought, smiling at Harper.  Why were people saying so many terrible things about such an obviously nice kid?  Fletcher didn’t understand it, but he would set the record straight the next time he heard such talk.

     “Okay.  I guess I could eat a little.  I’m gonna take a load off until you get back,” he said, then moved to a nearby chair.  Fletcher grew a little concerned to see Harper’s legs wobble a bit just before he took a seat.  Harper was looking a little pale and tired, now that Fletcher looked closely at him, and he had just been seriously hurt and ill.  Fletcher would make sure that the boy ate his pie seated and resting.  He would hate to think of Harper getting sick again because he had been generous enough to rescue him when he had been in such desperate need.

     Fletcher headed off to the cafeteria and returned quickly with milk, plates and cutlery, only to find Harper slouched back in his chair, fast asleep.  Setting down the things he’d gotten, Fletcher shook his head as he smiled fondly at the sleeping boy.  Why had he been so terrified of Harper?  He was a brilliant kid, sure, but he was just a kid, a nice kid at that.  Fletcher could see why Doctor Babin, who was the embodiment of sweetness and graciousness, would date him when she’d turned so many others away.  Certainly, Fletcher could understand why she would chose Harper over Portman.  With a smug smile, Fletcher relished the thought of Portman dropping in again with his insulting demands.  From now on, when he hit a stumbling block, he would go talk it over with Harper and be sure to bring something nice of a pastry nature with him when he did.

     Harper let out a soft murmur and shifted in the chair, then began to visibly shiver.  Fletcher frowned worriedly, then pulled off his suit jacket and laid it over Harper, not seeing the sense in waking the boy but not wanting him to be chilled.  The lab was kept quite cool because of all the computer equipment in it.  Harper let out another soft murmur, cuddling the jacket to him, then settled quietly back to sleep.  Nodding in satisfaction, Fletcher turned around, meaning to start tests on the completed array while Harper slept, only to find Admiral Nelson standing in the room, looking at him, his expression unreadable.

     “Uh... Admiral... I...” Fletcher stammered, suddenly fearful of what Nelson would think and not knowing how to explain what had happened.

     “Was the milk for Harper?” Nelson asked quietly, nodding to the two glasses sitting on the table.

     “Uh, yes sir,” Fletcher said feebly.

     “Hmm.  I’m surprised he didn’t ask for coffee,” Nelson commented offhandedly, his voice still hushed.  He moved to the table and took one of the glasses and drank some of the milk while lifting the divers’ mouthpiece.  “He was working with you on the array?”

     “Yes.  He got me over a major space issue I couldn’t resolve,” Fletcher admitted, also keeping his voice low.  Harper might not care about getting it, but he deserved credit for what he’d done.

     Nelson nodded, then glanced over at the sleeping boy.  “He’s a brilliant engineer.  Terrible with documentation, but brilliant all the same.  How did you find him to work with?”

     Fletcher shrugged, thinking about all the negative things being circulated about Harper.  Did the Admiral think he was involved in that?  Fletcher certainly hoped not.  He wasn’t one to spread rumors.  That was more Lawton’s speed.  “Not bad at all.  He talks a lot, but so does my Helen.”  Nelson smiled a little and nodded, but then Helen had bent his ear at the last Christmas party for a decent length of time and the Admiral had born it with good humor.  “He did start calling me Andy,” Fletcher said, but took a sip of his own cup of milk rather than frowning about it.

     “Just tell him you prefer Andrew or Mister Fletcher.  He’s not an unreasonable or meanspirited person,” Nelson commented, then helped himself to some pie.

     “I know, at least I didn’t get that impression from him.  In fact, he seems like a nice young man.  He’s all right, isn’t he?” Fletcher asked, glancing a little worriedly over at the sleeping boy.

     “Oh, he’ll be fine.  He’s still got a little more recovering to do, so the sleep will do him good,” Nelson replied.  He didn’t seem at all concerned, so Fletcher relaxed again.  “Andrew, as you know, I’m away quite a bit, both with the Seaview and on other matters for the Institute.  Seamus is going to be heading up a large new department, one that is going to be very important both to the Institute and to the scientific community in general.  I’ve been thinking, he’ll be needing guidance from an older, more experienced individual on a regular basis.  Someone who is good with documentation and who will need to help him to keep focused.  I thought I might have to recruit outside the Institute to fill the position, but you might be just the man for the job.  How would you feel about working with Harper on a regular basis as Assistant Chief of Technical Operations of the new department that Harper would be heading?”

     Fletcher stared at Nelson, not knowing what to say at first.  “I’d be honored, but... are you sure, sir?  I mean, maybe someone younger and more... adaptable might be a better choice.  Someone like Portman,” Fletcher said, though he didn’t think Portman would work very well with Harper at all.  Now that he thought about it, Portman had been a major source of the negative words circulating the Institute about Harper.  “Or Miss Simmons?” he quickly added, thinking she might be a better choice.

     “I need Miss Simmons on the Seaview and Mister Portman,” Nelson paused and shook his head with a frown, “That would be a very bad idea.  And you are an innovative engineer, Andrew.  Don’t sell yourself so short.”  Nelson looked over at Harper and smiled indulgently.  “I know that some of these new, young engineers can seem intimidating with how quickly they grasp and improve things, but they don’t have our experience, the knowledge that only years of doing something and doing it well can bestow.  No, I think you’re just the man to keep Harper focused and on task, keep him out of trouble.  When Harper wakes from his nap, why don’t the two of you come over to my office and we’ll discuss the entire thing in more detail,” Nelson said, then took pie and milk and walked back out of the lab.

     Fletcher stood there dumbfounded for a few moments.  He’d been afraid of losing his job and having nowhere to go a few hours ago.  Now it seemed like Nelson not only wanted him to stay, but seemed willing to give him a huge promotion.  Fletcher smiled and let out a soft, hesitant laugh, then glanced over at Harper.  He was still sleeping, looking very young and angelic, though Fletcher had the feeling that was an illusion, that Nelson had actually meant it when he said that part of Fletcher’s duties working with Harper would be keeping him out of trouble.  Nodding at the thought, Fletcher decided that was a fair enough exchange.  His whole life had just changed for the better in the matter of hours because of the boy.  Fletcher found himself wanting to do something nice for Harper in return.  Helen wasn’t much on pies, but she could bake a pretty decent cake.  As he beamed over at the sleeping boy, Fletcher wondered if Harper felt about cakes as he did about pies.

* * *

 

 

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Belonging, Chapter One
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