So then, if I take a singular value—
“Hi Charles. I had to reduce coffee production because of you.”
He makes a bow. “My most abject apologies.”
“So, you got what you needed?”
“More or less. It’s hard to prove negatives, but it really seems no one else has cooked up a trick similar to what I’m writing up.”
Jack and Diana make a chorus, “Paper! Paper! Paper!”
“Shut it, you two. Ian’s already telling me that and he doesn’t need any help.”
I tell him, “No, but they’re volunteering anyway.”
“They would. And they didn’t even get me a free morning like you did.”
“I did what now?”
“That accuracy code and the faulty run stuff. Saved me hours. What inspired that? It seems such a change from how you normally work.”
Diana walks over. “You’re not supposed to ask a lady about her secrets, Charles.”
I say, “It’s not a—” at the same time Charles says, “Muses aren’t—” and we both start laughing.
Diana asks me, “So, can I abduct you for lunch?”
Charles looks at her and says, “Girl talk?”
He smiles and tells Jack, “We’re being excluded.”
Without looking up, Jack says, “Yeah, it’s terrible. Really, really terrible.”
Looking at his papers isn’t quite hiding his smile.
We walk out and once we’re outside Diana tells me, “Mark told me a lot of stuff yesterday. Things are a lot stranger than I ever thought.”
“He also told me you know about this stuff?”
“Yeah. Sort of got tossed into the middle of it. How much did he tell you?”
“At first, not that much. He said I should ask you. But you guys met because you recognized him as Consistorium, that was clear. And he told you a lot, that was also clear. And he got skittish when I asked about what was wrong between the two of you. So I had this crazy thought that there had to be some connection between you and Pam and that that was why he told you things. And I’m busily arguing to myself that that’s my craziness, not yours when someone sees the two of us together and says to him, ‘Hey, I thought you were dating that soul-swapped girl?’ ”
“So then I told him soul-swapped sounded very scary.”
“And he spilled the beans?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry, I should have asked you—”
“It’s OK. No, it’s good. I felt really weird presuming on the friendship you and Cat had. Now you know what’s up. It’s a relief.”
She hugs me. “Don’t you dare! You held me, you dried my tears. You were a friend. Are a friend.”
I just hug her back.
As we walk, she asks me a lot about how Cat is doing. Then I suddenly notice, “Where are we headed?”
“I know food is chemistry, but…”
“Not for that. We’re going to be just in time for the classes to go out and… There he is!”
“What are you up to?”
“Getting the two of you to talk.”
“But… I don’t know what to say!”
She smiles. “Mark used that one already. You’re going to have to come up with something else.”
Then she waves, “Hi Mark!”
He spots her, then me and does a double-take. We were both kept in the dark. Nice and symmetrical. He said he doesn’t know what to say either.
Mark has walked up. He’s looking at me. I hold up my hands. “I didn’t know, I swear.”
He suddenly grins. “That makes two of us. Guess we’ll see what Diana thought up.”
“Nothing much. You two are here now; you need to talk. So talk. Or I’ll glare or something.”
“But talk about what? Diana, he needs to know what I am and I don’t know.”
Mark says, “About that. I’ve been… double-thinking everything you said. Is this girly, is that boyish? I’ve never done that with anybody before. It’s ridiculous, but I can’t stop.”
“It’s not ridiculous, it’s asking what all this means. That’s— That’s a pretty big thing to me.”
“I get that. But— I don’t know. But I don’t want to double think like that.”
Diana interrupts, “You know, the soul-searching is important, but you two are never going to get anywhere making this a philosophical debate.”
Mark says, “So what kind of debate should we have?”
I look at Diana. “You sound like you have an idea.”
“I do and it’s right here.” She points at the park bench we’re walking past and sits down. Pointedly at the one end.
Mark and I look at each other, then he shrugs and gestures to the middle, so I sit down next to Diana and then he on my left.
Mark looks past me at Diana and asks, “So we’re seated. Now what?”
She smiles. “This is a university, right?”
“So why don’t you try a scientific experiment?”
“Put your arm around her, see how that makes both of you feel. I think that’ll say a lot more than the philosophy class. If you’re both OK with it.”
Mark looks at me. Is that half a blush? I’m— I want to try, but—
“Tell you what”, he says, “First one to freak out gets an ice cream from the other.”
That makes me smile. “You’re on.”
He sits back, pulls up his right arm, hesitates, then puts it on the back of the bench. I’m feeling it against my back. This is OK, I guess.
Diana giggles and then says, “That’s the most unromantic version of that I’ve ever seen. Come on!”
Mark and I look at each other and start grinning; it is kind of ridiculous.
Mark says, “Oh, all right.”
He tries to put his arm around my shoulder, but we’re too far apart. I lean over his way to help and that works better. It’s still a little awkward, so I change position a bit more.
I feel him stiffen for a moment, then he relaxes and chuckles, “Looks like I won’t be owing you any ice creams.”
Diana says, “No, it doesn’t.”
“You’re snuggled up pretty comfy there.”
I’m— I guess I am. And it is pretty comfy here. Feels good.
And it’s a lot closer than I thought we’d be getting. I look up at Mark. “How about you?” His face is really close. I could nuzzle him.
“I’m OK. No ice cream needed.”
Dammit, that’s dodging!
I must have stirred or something, because he adds, “OK, OK. So I like it. So sue me.”
So do I, but now what?
Diana must have seen the look on my face because she asks, “Cat? What’s wrong?”
“What does it mean?”
She smiles. “It means it’s time for lunch. Science is hungry work. You have to take care of yourself. You too, Mark.”