1. Dire Times Call for Dire Faces
Travis Cooper keeps his eyes on the ground. He knows the way from his dorm to the labs by heart, and he's careful. It isn't a self-esteem issue so much as a simple choice. It's the first week of his second year of college, and he really doesn't feel the need to watch all the happy reunions happening all around him. He hasn't had a single social interaction since his plane touched down five days ago, unless he counts the handful of texts he has exchanged with Hero, but those don't count, not really. It's okay, though; he's better for it. He likes being alone. He even likes looking at the ground. The bricks of the Walk make an interesting pattern. Most of them are normal, red, boring bricks that come in parallel pairs, but they're interspersed with marbled gray stones that form a snake-like shape. If he was alone, he would like to follow it (even though he knows that the most direct route between two points is not a zigzag.) But as it is, he walks straight, burying himself in the cheery sounds of Tokyo Police Club, his brown eyes trained firmly on his well-worn orange Converse sneakers.
(He's fine. Really. It's better this way.)
It's as he passes the Button that it happens. One minute he's walking, and then he collides with a moving object. He stops and blinks and starts to say something snappish. Then he looks and stops and blinks all over again. The formerly moving object is a boy who would be a few inches taller than Travis if he wasn't currently crouching down to retrieve the scattered papers on the ground.
"Sorry," Travis says quickly as he bends down to help. The papers are covered in penciled sketches. He tries not to look as he gathers them and hands them to the long pale fingers with neatly-trimmed nails to place in the butter leather portfolio embossed with the letters "MJD." Travis's heart hammers. He tries not to think. (He hears music in his ears but forgets, for the moment, why.) He coughs because his vocal cords are rusty from disuse. "I wasn't looking where I was going."
The boy laughs, light and carefree. "Neither was I. There's no fun in looking straight ahead." He files the last sheet away, secures the portfolio under his arm, and makes eye contact.
Travis's heart stops. Everything about this boy is stunning, from his unruly mass of red hair to his faint freckles to his dazzling smile. Not to mention his eyes, blue-green, ocean deep, and so alive. There's a subtle humor about him, as if he doesn't quite take life seriously (or maybe just doesn't let it get to him). He stands up, smoothing out the creases in his skin-tight jeans. He's wearing a plain green t-shirt and a brown beret. He's slim and toned and gorgeous, and Travis is staring. He almost wants to smile.
(God knows this doesn't bode well.)
"Sorry, I'm being rude," the boy states abruptly, but he doesn't seem fazed. He sticks out his hand. "I'm MJ Davis."
"Cooper," Travis replies dumbly (because this isn't supposed to happen). "Travis Cooper." There are a million things he wants to know (such as when particles began moving faster than the speed of light, how he traveled back in time, why reality is falling apart all around him), but he can't bring himself to ask a single question. He wants to run away. He tugs anxiously at the strap of his backpack. "I, uh," he stutters. "I should get to class."
"Oh." MJ's smile loses a few watts of its stellar brightness. "Right. Thanks for your help."
"No problem." Travis starts to walk past him.
Then MJ taps his shoulder.
Travis stops, paralyzed in place. (How long has it been since anyone besides his parents touched him, even casually?) He knows he should make some acknowledgement, look over his shoulder or something, but he can't.
"Remember not to look where you're going," that smooth voice whispers in his ear. "Maybe we'll run into each other again sometime."
As soon as he can't feel the breath against his skin, Travis scrambles away. He walks at a fast pace, almost a jog. It isn't that he's in danger of being late. (He isn't; he makes a point of arriving to all of his classes ten minutes early.) It's that what just happened doesn't happen, not ever, not to him. Strangers don't make impressions at first sight, certainly not positive ones. Strangers don't tug at the corners of his lips, urging him use long-forgotten muscles to smile. Strangers don't give his heart palpitations. Strangers don't confuse him, don't rattle him, don't touch him.
(This has the makings of a disaster.)
He runs through the Engineering Quad, the late summer sun beating down on him. His backpack is heavy (like a ton of boring red bricks), his thoughts are loud (louder than his iPod), and his eyes are open (even though he doesn't see). He's oblivious to the honking cars as he hurries across 33rd Street.
And there he is, standing outside David Rittenhouse Laboratories, the co-home of the Departments of Math, Physics, and Astronomy. It feels like home. Even if this is the most labyrinthine building on campus, and he still can't find his way in it. (He's fairly certain it was designed to withstand a nuclear blast.) He hurries up the steps, around the gaggle, through the halls and doors until he reaches the room where his physics recitation is supposed to be. He sighs as he sinks into a seat in the middle of the room. (He likes anonymity.) Even if he's four minutes later than he would like, he's still the first one there. (Maybe he's less anonymous than he would like.)
He reaches into his backpack, past crisp spiral notebooks and unopened textbooks, and pulls out an aqua Moleskine sketchbook and a freshly sharpened Ticonderoga Number 2 pencil. He turns up the volume on his iPod, opens to a clean page, and begins drawing triangles.
Travis doesn't stop drawing until a hand touches his shoulder. He startles because it's such a cruel parody of that morning. He drops his pencil, yanks out his earbuds, and looks up.
"Hey, Travis," the brown-haired gray-eyed graduate student says with a self-deprecating smile. "Was I really so boring that you had to spend the entire class period drawing simple polygons over and over?"
"Shit, Libby," Travis blinks. "I didn't even realize. Why didn't you stop me?"
Libby Casey sits backwards in the seat in front of him. "It would have undermined my authority to draw attention to your antics." She smiles to show that there's no anger behind the harsh words. "Besides, I know you already know the material."
"What did you go over?"
"Look at the board."
Travis squints at it. "Now I'm confused."
"Honestly?" Libby looks over her shoulder with a low laugh. "It's just Newton."
"Exactly." Travis raises an eyebrow. "Why are we reviewing elementary classical mechanics in a thermodynamics class?"
"Oh, don't you know?" Libby smirks back. "It's a sin not to review Newton's Laws on the first day of a physics class—even in my graduate seminars."
He rolls his eyes.
She drums her fingers against the back of her chair. "It's good to see you again, Travis."
He studies her curiously. He's still confused, but for an entirely different reason. Libby was the TA for his physics class last spring, and although they had a few extracurricular conversations about supernovae (the subject of Libby's research), they weren't friends by any stretch of the imagination. Cautiously, he returns, "You too, Libby."
"Listen." She leans forward and lowers her voice as if she's about to tell him a secret or invite him to join the conspirators. "We should have coffee sometime."
He's wary. "Why?"
Mischievously, she grins. "You'll just have to come to coffee to find out."
"This sounds dangerous. Should I put my affairs in order?"
"It's nothing that sinister." It's her turn to roll her eyes. "If you really must know, I'm on a mission from Herring." Presumably she means Dr. Joan Herring, renowned astrophysicist, Travis's physics professor, and Libby's thesis advisor.
"That just makes it sound worse," Travis frowns but tries to keep the conversation light. He really has no idea what's going on, but at least he knows Libby isn't misguidedly trying to ask him out. (She's decent looking, he supposes, but really not his type.) But knowing that this is academic doesn't translate to knowing if it's good or bad.
"Stop worrying and surrender already. Coffee. Tomorrow. Starbucks at 34th and Walnut?"
Travis shudders. "God, no. I'm Starbucks-phobic. Saxby's is less crowded."
"That's because it's on the far side of campus," Libby whines.
He ignores her. "Does three work for you?"
"Fine," she smiles all over again. In victory. "It won't take long. See you then."
Travis just groans.
Travis gets lost on his way to his advisor's fourth floor office. It's been a long summer. Apparently he has forgotten that the northern staircase dead-ends at the third floor. He feels like a bumbling freshman. (He really should know better.) It only takes a moment to locate the central staircase, and then he's on the top floor, right around the corner to Rachel Field's office.
He's still five minutes early for his appointment, and he's beginning to remember the bane of this habit. While showing up early to class isn't a problem, showing up early to meetings is a waste of time. He can't go in yet. There's really nothing to do but wait. So he paces back in forth along the corridor, careful not to make any turns because he doesn't trust himself not to get lost again. His sneakers squeak as he scuffs them along the monotone linoleum floor. His iPod is safely stowed in his backpack, but he could really use the noise right about now. He's trying not to think, but it isn't working.
Because Travis believes in patterns. He notices them instinctively, even (especially) when he'd rather not. He can read them better than the back of his hand (which is, coincidentally, littered with them). He knows how to recognize the signs and predict the results. Sometimes, he feels like he can predict the future because the patterns are all there, all the time, as long as you're not blind.
And Travis can remember the last time (the only time) he reacted to a stranger with anything other than ambivalence. It's a pattern he can't repeat.
An office door swings open, and the ineffable Rachel Field calls out, "I can hear you pacing, Travis. You may as well come in."
Travis takes a deep breath, trying to find a center he doesn't possess. Then he goes in.
The office is small but cozy, the walls lined with bookcases and blackboards. The desk is cluttered with papers. Behind it sits an imperious middle-aged woman. Her auburn hair is pulled back in a messy bun. The eyes behind her tortoise shell glasses are dark, fierce, demanding. She waits for Travis to sit, and then she says, "I trust your summer was well spent."
Travis blushes. "You could say that." In truth, he didn't do anything except go home to his sleepy hometown and read old mathematical tomes. (But he isn't about to admit that he wasted four months in a lazy summer stupor.)
"Hm," Rachel returns with a knowing smile. "So why did you want to arrange this meeting?" She doesn't sound particularly impatient, but she isn't exactly known for idle chitchat.
"Right," Travis nods. "Two things, really. First, I just wanted to make sure I completed all the steps of the declaration process." He knows he did. He's just too nervous to start with the real reason for his visit.
"Yes," Rachel humors him. "You are officially declared as a math major. What was the second reason?"
"Right," he nods again. He inhales, exhales, and speaks in a rush, "I was just thinking that it's probably time I start research, and I was wondering—"
"If I would be your faculty mentor?" Rachel cuts in with a genial smile. "I take it you've given some thought as to what you want to research. You know, of course, that my research involves number theory."
"Yes." Travis also knows that his cheeks must be bright red. He doesn't know why this conversation terrifies him, but it does. Rachel is intimidating. "I did some reading over the summer about the geometry of numbers—Minkowski's theorem, Mordell, Davenport, Siegel."
Rachel nods. "Have you read the more recent theories? Lenstra? Brion? Barvinok? Schmidt?"
"Um," Travis shakes his head. "I ran out of time."
"That's perfectly fine." She stands up and starts sifting through one of her bookcases. "You can borrow a few of my books, and we'll meet again in a few weeks to discuss a reasonable topic for your project." She spins around, a tall stack of books in her hands. "How does that sound?"
And Travis just nods.
Travis walks back to his dorm after making a quick stop at Wawa for a hoagie. His building is sixty percent graduate students, only thirty percent undergraduate, and he doesn't know a single person. He hasn't even talked to the guy who lives in the single next to his, with whom he shares a bathroom. To say he's a hermit is an understatement.
He sighs as he enters his third floor room. He keeps the curtains closed (because he has a view of the other walls of his own building and it's nothing short of depressing). He drops everything (his backpack, Rachel's books, the Wawa bag) on the floor. He lets himself fall backward onto his bed. It creaks unhappily under his weight. He sighs. He's tired. The weight of the day is heavy upon him. He reaches into his pocket, pulls out his phone, thumbs through the screens. And he sighs.
(Sometimes it feels like all he ever does is sigh.)
He has a missed call, and although he would like nothing better than to ignore it, he knows his mother doesn't like to be ignored. So it's with a heavy heart that he dials the all too familiar California number.
And two seconds later, the high-pitched harpy-like voice screeches, "Why don't you ever answer your goddamn phone?"
And it's all Travis can do not to sigh. "I had class, Mother."
"Well," Alexis Cooper sniffs, unwilling as always to admit defeat, "you should have answered."
Travis just rolls his eyes. No matter how hard he tries (which, admittedly, is not very hard), he can't keep the snappishness out of his tone. "Was there something you wanted?"
"I just wanted to know how your classes are!" Alexis snaps back.
"They're fine," he says. He's tense. Sooner or later, these conversations with his mother are going to give him a stress ulcer. "I haven't had all of them yet, but everything's fine."
"Have you made any friends yet?"
His eyes fall shut. He sees images of a red-headed boy in a brown beret. He swallows deeply and lies, "I'm fine, Mother."
"No, you're not," Alexis retorts. "You need friends, Travie. Your father and I didn't raise you to be so—"
"If you must know," Travis cuts in quickly because god knows he can't take yet another lecture about how wonderful Alexis and Jeff Cooper were as parents, "I'm having coffee with my physics TA tomorrow."
"A girl?" Alexis croons, willingly distracted and suddenly eager.
"Yes." Travis stares at the ceiling. It's cracked. He feels himself cracking (up). "A girl."
And then Alexis begins one of her dating spiels, and Travis tunes her out. He doesn't know how his mother has managed to stay oblivious all this time. Travis has never seriously been involved with a girl, and he was seriously involved with one boy during high school. But Alexis is blind to patterns; she sees only what she wants to see (and she certainly does not want to see that her son is gay).
So Travis waits, stares at the ceiling, tries to see if the cracks form a pattern.
Travis eats his hoagie while reading the first chapter in his thermodynamics textbook. Another Tokyo Police Club album blares in his headphones. It's all a pleasant distraction from the thoughts he can't quite shake. Until, that is, his phone vibrates on his desk and he reads the text from Hero.
I haven't heard from you all day. Is something up?
And Travis sighs. Hero is his best friend, his only remaining contact from high school, his confidant, his anchor. Hero goes to college in London, five long hours away. Hero is handsome, intelligent, idealistic, and sometimes, Travis would give anything to love him, even if he is straight. (It would be so much better, he thinks, than loving Leo.) Travis knows he can't lie to Hero because Hero knows him better than he knows himself. So he sighs, closes his textbook, turns off the music, and texts back, Have time to Skype?
The response is almost instant. Yes. Get online. Now.
So Travis logs into Skype, and before he has a chance to do anything, Skype informs him that Hero Mercer is calling.
Hero's image appears on the screen. He's blonde and blue-eyed but too tan to look Nordic because he spent the summer in Brazil. His room is dark because it's already night on his side of the pond. His eyes are narrow. He looks the part of the lawyer he's in training to be. "Something is up," he states in that knowing tone of his. "Spill."
"I think," Travis says carefully, "I met someone."
"What do you mean you think you met someone? Either you did or you didn't."
"I mean I think I met someone."
"You mean met someone, met someone?"
"Yes," Travis coughs. "I think. I mean, it's just a feeling. A terrible feeling, kind of like coming down with a cold."
"In my experience," Hero comments knowingly (because for all the experience he has, he really should know), "love isn't a sickness."
"In mine, it really is." Travis shuts his eyes for a moment, trying so hard not to think. It's a hopeless endeavor.
"Travis," Hero scolds. He doesn't have a high tolerance for Travis's age-old obsession with Leo. He never approved. "Who is this someone?"
"Just a guy that I ran into, um, literally." A beautiful boy. A smiling boy. A boy who looked so alive. "I don't really know anything about him, except that his name is MJ and he sketches. And that—" He breaks off, looks away, tries to forget.
"And," his voice is small, "for a moment, he made me feel like Leo used to. At the beginning. Before things got—bad."
And the exasperated look on Hero's face says what he doesn't, that things with Leo were always bad. Instead, he says, "If you want my advice, Travis, you'll stay away."
"I know," he nods. This is one pattern he can't repeat.
AN: New story! And... I'd really like to continue it, but I'm super busy these days. Updates will be slow to nonexistent, unless I find that I'm really inspired to work on this. (Which may happen, so maybe I should just stop speculating.)
So, a few things. This was inspired, in part, by the TPC song "Tessellate." (Chapter titles are lyrics from the song.) If you don't know the word, to "tessellate" is to cover with a geometric pattern, usually a single shape.
This story is set in Philadelphia. To those of you who are unfamiliar with Wawa, it's kind of like 7/11 (but better). Cookies to anyone who can guess which college.
Number theory isn't really my thing. Physics, however, sometimes is.
I'm drawing a lot on personal experience for this story (possibly more so than I have in any other story), so I'd really appreciate reviews.