CI by StarFeather @HPFT
The rain fell with a light patter on the dark grey stone that paved the paths of the Mall. Though the air was still, it held the cool kiss of early December. The people of Washington, DC, however were used to their winters, and went about their business. Figures in long dark heavy coats walked swiftly on their way, heads bent, and collars upturned against the persistent drizzle. Those who’d had the forethought to carry an umbrella moved about with a similar swiftness, if only with better posture. Determined joggers huffed across the slick pavement, gamely ignoring the water that blurred their vision, and tourists, being tourists, went about their business of being tourists in the same manner as they would had the day been clear and the sun shining bright.
Lily Luna Potter, for perhaps the first time on this trip, felt glad to count herself amongst the ranks of such a tenacious people. Granted, this was her first proper day on American soil, but so far, the reality of travelling had been… trying.
She was unaccustomed to feeling so lost all the time. She’d grown up surrounded by her large and rowdy family in the bosom of English suburbia, attended school in the wilds of the Scottish highlands as a matter of course, then found herself ensconced in the Royal Observatory at Greenwich as an intern of the astronomy branch of the Department of Mysteries.
But now she found herself in a foreign land, alone. Granted, she’d chosen this for herself. Halfway through her three-year internship, this was the first real holiday she’d had. And instead of using the week to spend with her family and friends, she’d whisked herself off to the colonies for a jaunt across its capital. In the rain.
Her bright blue umbrella rested against her right shoulder as she walked with her normal swiftness down the walkway that framed the grass – currently more mud than green. With the forecast for the day in mind, she’d put a quick waterproofing charm on her sturdy black boots before leaving the muggle hotel this morning, so her feet were quite snug and dry in her two pairs of socks. She tugged at the soft wool of her scarf, pulling it over her nose and took shallow breaths to avoid the smell of wet dog.
She reached inside the left pocket of her coat to make sure she still had the map of the national park, although she hardly needed it to find her way to her destination. She’d passed the info-plaque for Mercury not long ago, so she couldn’t imagine that her goal was too far ahead.
And then, she was there; the reason for her trip across the Atlantic, a place she’d desperately wanted to visit since the age of fifteen.
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Standing outside the neoclassical building, her mouth tugged upwards at the corners into an unconscious smile. It felt like home.
David was manning the space shuttle discovery station on the ground floor of the museum when he saw her. Her coat was a rich burgundy colour, the buttons open to reveal a black cable knit sweater that came to the middle of her thighs. Tights in a colourful geometric pattern were tucked into a pair of socks that he could see peeking out over the tops of her lace-up black boots. The straps of her canvas backpack were an understated navy and the dark wooden handle of an umbrella poked out over her right shoulder like some medieval weapon. With her dark red hair in a frizzy halo around her head, the young woman looked like a knight off to slay a dragon with the pointy end of her umbrella – if dragon-slaying knights dressed like college kids.
He quickly snapped his mouth shut and returned his attention the task at hand: to look friendly and approachable to the visitors, so that they’d feel comfortable coming up to his little stand to listen to him harp on about space shuttles and Mars. He smiled in what he hoped was a friendly and non-threatening way to a kid in a dark blue t-shirt with the NASA logo emblazoned on the front. He maintained eye contact with her, despite the force of her feigned boredom.
After a tense few seconds, David won their secret staring contest, and the kid approached him with a grudging inevitability, one of her two plaits swinging back behind her shoulder as she dragged her feet his way.
“Hey!” he said brightly – but not too brightly – still maintaining that non-threatening smile. You’d think that talking about space to a child wearing a NASA t-shirt would be like preaching to the choir, but it broke his heart a little to know that was quite often not the case. The ugly reality of trying to be “cool” often didn’t mesh well with the wonders of space. The girl – maybe twelve or thirteen – stopped before him and pinned him with a baleful stare.
“You want me to tell you about the space shuttle?” he asked in the face of such animosity.
“No,” she replied, folding her arms across her chest.
David nodded, still smiling. “I suppose you wouldn’t need me to, would you? By your taste in fashion I can tell that you’re a big fan.”
The kid looked down at her t-shirt like she’d forgotten what she was wearing. When she looked up at David again, a faint blush was apparent under her dusky skin. “I guess,” she said shrugging, although her lips were quirked in a rueful half-grin.
“Do you have a favourite?” he asked.
She nodded her head carefully, as if admitting to a complete stranger that she had a favourite space shuttle was somehow shameful. And, David thought, for some people it must be. Even with the current buzz in the media about the launch of the first manned mission to Mars, it was still uncool to be genuinely enthusiastic about things. No matter how David felt about his unconventional upbringing, he’d always be glad for the fact that he’d been removed from adolescent peer pressure.
Graduating high school at thirteen had its plus sides, sometimes.
“I really like Sagan,” the girl rushed out.
David nodded. “The most fuel efficient shuttle to date. It’s definitely in my top three.”
“Top three?” she screeched, as if it was a personal insult. “Only top three?”
They spent the next few minutes debating the pros and cons of the Sagan shuttle design, and when the kid left to go watch one of the shows on in the planetarium, David felt a twinge of pride at seeing her stand straighter in her NASA t-shirt, her shoulders back in nerdy pride.
If he could foster a genuine love for science and technology in kids like her for even the span of a visit to the Space Museum, he considered it a good day. It’s why he volunteered at the Smithsonian.
“Will you argue with anyone about space shuttles, or does it take a NASA t-shirt?” a voice asked, the end of each word carefully clipped in a way only a British accent could achieve.
David turned to face them, and was momentarily stunned to see that it was the knight-who-goes-to-college. She’d tied her marvellous hair back, and her hands were shoved into the pockets of her coat. She smiled at him a touch mockingly but there was a hint of… flirtation? “We were having an intellectual debate, actually,” David replied, mirroring her smile – without the mocking. He’d never quite managed to learn the fine art.
Her smile widened to show straight white teeth. Unlike his, which had to be coerced into line by orthodontics, hers were just crooked enough that he was fairly certain she’d come by them through excellent genetic luck.
“I’d be happy to engage in the same with you,” he continued. She was around his age, he guessed – maybe a year or two younger – and was pretty when she smiled. He could imagine that her face was rather more forbidding otherwise, with a nose that was a touch too long for her face and sharp brown eyes, despite the dusting of golden freckles across the bridge of her nose.
“I’m afraid I’d lose that debate rather spectacularly. I know far more about telescopes than shuttles.”
He raised his eyebrows at that. “You’re a fellow space nerd?”
“Of course,” she blinked. “Why else would I be here?”
He shrugged. “There’s any number of reasons to visit a museum. It’s a warm dry place to wait out the rain, if nothing else. Plus, entry is always free!”
She quirked her lips. “Both are very excellent reasons. Since I’ve admitted to being a space nerd but woefully ignorant about space shuttles, will you tell me about them?”
“Oh!” David was reminded that his job entailed explaining the wonders of space exploration in glorified tin cans, and not flirting with girls who were pretty when they smiled. “Of course.”
He launched into his usual spiel about the shuttle program, talking about its history, its present, and its future. Normally, he lost people after reaching the part about “and there’s plenty of need for research into space engineering”. He assumed that it somehow signalled the end of all that he had to say. But this lovely woman in the burgundy coat stood in front of him as he rambled and gesticulated through all the areas in which discoveries could be made, and what new heights the human race could achieve because of them. She watched him, a faint smile on her lips, and her brown eyes bright and rarely-blinking.
When he reached the end of what had admittedly morphed into a rant, she exhaled slowly and said, “That was… very enlightening. Thank you.” He was surprised with the sincerity of her statement, as if she was truly thankful for what he’d said.
“Thank you for listening,” he replied sheepishly. “I get carried away sometimes.”
“No, you had some wonderful ideas,” she assured him. He felt a warm glow in his chest at the unexpected words of praise. “And it’s very clear that you love talking about this.” She smiled at him again, this time without any flirtation, but true happiness.
Before he could reply, he was interrupted by an announcement for a live show that was going to begin in ten minutes.
“Oh!” the girl exclaimed. “I have a ticket for that!” Her left hand rummaged through her coat pocket, and her eyes drifted away from him, distracted by her somewhat frantic search.
“Aha!” she brandished the piece of paper in the air upon locating it with a triumphant smile. “I better head off to grab a good seat.” Again she looked away, distracted.
David smiled, hiding his disappointment. He would’ve loved to talk to her more, listen to her ideas about space exploration. “Of course.”
“It was lovely to talk to you!” She said brightly, gracing him with a polite smile, the excitement of a shared interest from just moments before gone from her lips. It left him feeling oddly bereft.
“Yeah, you too.”
With a little wave of the hand clutching her ticket, she turned and walked away from David with the same purpose as the astronauts on TV.
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