"I don't understand it," she said. She looked across the path, where pigeons fluttered around a toddler and his heavily pregnant mother, as the boy plunged his hand into a plastic bag and scattered breadcrumbs onto the sidewalk. "What they call love is so clearly a biological function, designed for survival of the specie. It's a potent mix of chemicals, nothing more."
Rob laughed. "You're such a skeptic, Cin."
She crossed her ankles and looked over at him, sprawling comfortably on the other side of the wrought-iron bench, heels resting in the grass. "Forgive me for bringing up Laurie, but her professed love for you had more to do with your looks. She was a beautiful girl, and innately, wanted a mate whose qualities resembled her own. It is scientific fact the more attractive within their specie are evolutionarily more suited for survival."
He grinned at her. "You're saying I'm good-looking?"
She felt the tops of her cheeks warm. "I was stating a fact established by current societal definitions of attractiveness. In her day, Marilyn Monroe was considered a paragon of beauty. Today, she'd be told to lose weight."
Rob shrugged easily. "Eh. Blondes aren't my type."
"Hey, I got called the blond-haired blue-eyed American poster child all the time growing up. I won't submit my future children to the same indignity."
"But that would be-" She shook her head. "Never mind."
"Let me guess, evolutionarily responsible?" Rob drawled.
She straightened her spine, so it wasn't touching the slanted back of the bench. "It's not nice to make fun of people." She'd been telling him that since their first assignment as lab partners her senior year of undergraduate work. It was a horrible first impression. She stood stiffly at their bench, lab goggles firmly in place as he simultaneously flirted with and made fun of the cute and clueless redhead across the aisle. She informed him on his return that while the average girl might find him attractive and therefore grant him leniency, she saw him as the unfocused buffoon who currently stood between her and a 4.0. He blinked, grinned, and proceeded to irritate the hell out of her the rest of the semester while ensuring they had the highest grades in the class. One day, she realized she no longer had the overwhelming urge to crack him over the head with an Erlenmeyer flask, and they started becoming friends.
Rob's smirk softened into a smile. "Sorry, Cin. It's just - I can't figure out how you're still so insistent on denying the existence of love outside biology. I mean, believe me, I've been trying for over three years now, and while my IQ isn't Einsteinian–" He held up a finger. "Oh, wait, never mind, it is, which makes it even more baffling."
She punched his shoulder. The pigeons fluttered, catching her gaze again. "Biochemistry." She watched the birds primping and pecking, battling for bread crumbs against the backdrop of a rippling lake and rolling grey clouds. Evolution at its basics, the need for sustenance, the bigger birds bullying the weaklings to the edges of the crowd. Over the years, she supposed, the birds developed an odd symbiotic relationship with humans. It made sense. Homo sapiens provided an easy source of food, not to mention endless entertainment, if they could understand it.
The left corner of Rob's mouth lifted. "There you go into that little universe in your own head. What's going on in there, a discussion about mating pigeons?"
She blinked. "Close enough. How'd you know?"
"As insistent as the rest of the team is about your being impossible to read, I find it an interesting challenge. Not quite as tricky as trying to grow a pancreas in a teenage gibbon, but close."
"Ah," she said. "I don't know whether I find that comparison flattering."
"Take it however you want. It wasn't that hard, once I got past your tripwires and land mines."
She looked sideways at him, finding it hard to suppress the smile breaking her glower. "Not many people get there."
"What can I say? I've been told I'm obnoxiously persistent."
"Obnoxious is right. Maybe even stalker-ish. You did follow me halfway across the country."
"Hey, the odds of us both landing in the same grad school research team were slim to none, and I only applied because you started threatening to sabotage my senior thesis if I didn't."
She lifted her eyebrows. "Would you deny this program has been the best fit for you?"
He looked at her curiously for a moment, with traces of a smile. "No. No, I wouldn't."
The pigeons broke and scattered, iridescent feathers loose and floating on the breeze. She looked up to see the toddler stampeding after them, a hunter and prey - no. Not a hunter and prey. She watched as the boy ran past the birds, into the arms of a man wearing a suit jacket a size too large and slacks short in the ankles. The man swung the boy up and around until he was squealing with delight, before tossing him onto his shoulders and walking back towards the pregnant woman. She smiled, almost shyly, and stood on her tiptoes to kiss him.
Cin's heart constricted as the family walked off together. She couldn't remember her parents ever looking that way at each other, save for large social events, and usually they'd be screaming at each other as soon as they got home. She certainly never remembered her father picking her up like that, with raw emotion in his eyes. Mostly she remembered slipping away from her nanny at a party and sneaking up behind her parents, her beautiful, smiling parents, as they talked with another couple about how if they could relive the last seven years, they wouldn't have children.
"I kind of wish it were real." Ashamed she'd said it out loud, she lifted her chin. "Doesn't really matter, though."
"Why not?" said Rob. "For a few billion people it does."
Cin closed her eyes for a moment. Her mother had even turned, the hem of her midnight-blue dress sweeping the floor, seen Cin standing there, and turned back to the conversation, as if Cin were too stupid to understand. "Emotions are mirages. They accomplish their evolutionary purpose, but they don't mean anything more than that." She shrugged. Lately she felt like she was kicking a big-eyed puppy every time she tried squashing Rob's fantasies of Happiness and True Love. She didn't know why, and the not-knowing left an uncomfortable disconnect in her mind.
He shook his head with a half-smile, leaning forward. "Say you're right, and most of the known world is vividly hallucinating, and these emotions don't come from the mind or soul. Suppose it's all a dream, and then think about how happy that family over there looked. Call me crazy, but that kind of dream beats out reality so soundly I'm going to stay asleep."
She looked away. "Now you're getting into matters of metaphysics I'm not entirely comfortable discussing."
He sat back, looking vaguely smug. "We don't have to discuss it. You're already thinking about it."
Damn him for being right. "Anyway," said Cin, deliberately, "I heard someone from our group got offered that research position in D.C." She'd hoped for it, but five of the seven other people in their research group were just as qualified as her, and they'd wanted someone with excellent interpersonal skills. She knew she did not qualify on that front.
"Yeah," said Rob. "I heard that too."
"I suppose we'll find out on Monday."
"Maybe," said Rob. He gazed at the lake as stray raindrops danced on the surface.
She looked askance at him. "Why wouldn't we? I figure that's the dream of anyone in the group. Someone will be packing up soon enough, I'm sure."
"Nah," said Rob. "Won't happen."
She raised an eyebrow. "Why not?"
He shrugged casually. "Because I turned down the offer."
The pigeons squabbled and scattered as a jogger with ankle weights lumbered past. Cin stared at him, mouth cracked. She knew she looked idiotic, but her mind was too overrun with thoughts to bother with closing her mouth. "What? Why in the world would you not take that job?" She'd honestly expected him to be offered such a position sooner. There'd been rumors a few months ago he got a similar offer in a pharmaceutical facility in New York, and when she came to congratulate him, she expected a half-cleared office. Instead she found everything in place down to the bottle-green glass lamp and coffee mug bristling with sharpened No. 2 pencils, and him sitting at his desk, looking vaguely amused at her confusion.
"It would entail a move to D.C.," he said.
"So? You love D.C. It's a great city. It's one of the centers of power of the entire world. Why would you not want to move there?"
He was still gazing across the lake. "Love makes people do crazy things."
She didn't understand that feeling in the pit of her stomach, like her gut was falling down a sinkhole. "Oh, god, tell me you're not staying for Laurie. She already hurt you so badly-"
Rob turned and looked her square in the eye. "Cin, I'm not going to D.C. because you aren't there."
The tirade died on her lips, as did the sinking feeling, for some inexplicable reason. She realized a moment later her mouth was hanging open again. That was twice in the space of two minutes, an unpleasantly equal ratio. "What – what do you mean?"
He rubbed the right side of his face, like he was uncomfortable. "I would be living several hundred miles away from you?"
"Why did you phrase that like a question? Of course you would be. That's a simple fact of geography."
He made a choked sound, pressing his palm to his forehead and muttering something like "oh God" under his breath. "For being such a fucking brilliant scientist, Lucinda, you are one of the greatest idiots I've ever met."
Cin blinked. Rob rarely swore, much less with such vehemence, and under threat of protracted death by any nasty cocktail of chemicals, never uttered her full name. "I don't understand. Why would geographical distance be a problem with this job?"
"Because I love you, Cin, alright? I freaking fell for you the moment you threatened to light me on fire with a Bunsen burner if I didn't quit flirting with the TA."
She registered the words, and she honest to God froze solid. Something like a squeak died in her throat.
Rob leaned over, peering at her. "Cin?"
She couldn't get a single muscle to move. She was relatively certain not a single synapse in her brain would fire either.
He waved a hand inches from her face. "Don't go all Han Solo in carbonite on me here, it's really kind of freaking me out."
"It's – it's freaking you out?" There was that damn stutter she thought she'd gotten rid of in elementary school. Cin pressed her lips together. "You – you're completely ignoring the instinct to move up the metaphorical food chain."
"Yes, yes I am."
She touched her pointer fingers to the bridge of her nose, speaking deliberately and slowly. Screw you, stutter, screw you. "I could perhaps see it from the perspective that both our IQs are much higher than average." It soothed her to find a tiny bit of logic to which she could cling. "Nevertheless, that entirely throws the most attractive mate theory out the window, which is-"
It was disturbing how he could finish her sentences like that. "Precisely. I did not inherit particularly good genes from either of my parents in regards to looks. You've met my mother." Her mother was a slender ribbon of a woman, with curling blonde hair and tiny waist, and her father bore a certain resemblance to Cary Grant. Cin had brown hair, flat blue eyes, smallish hands, and was precisely five feet and four inches tall, matching the national average.
"Yes, but your mother is a bitch."
Cin giggled. Giggled. What was that about? She clapped a hand over her mouth.
Rob half-laughed. "Sorry, but it's true, and you know it. Besides, you're a lot cuter than you give yourself credit for."
She thought she felt a faint line of heat across the top of her cheeks, as if she were standing a foot too close to a bonfire.
"That aside, tell me what evolutionary sense I make right now." He didn't wait for her to think. "Little to none. That means you now have a pretty decent case for love's existence."
"No, it means you're defective."
Rob blinked. "And for a moment there, I thought I'd said something at least vaguely complimentary and heartfelt about you."
"I mean, in regards to evolution. You have to be."
"What happened to a few minutes ago when I was an attractive mate?"
For reasons beyond her ken, she felt flame explode across her face. "I was not denying that, I–"
He had traces of a satisfied smile as he crossed his arms. "Well, at least there's something right about me."
"But you're implying you're not accepting that job because your – your hormones and perhaps even the biological imperative you find a mate has tricked you into believing you have romantic feelings for me." Dear God, why was her face so hot? She looked down, rubbing her right temple. "That leads to my proposition something is defective, because ordinarily someone like you would be seeking out an equally attractive mate, and that can't be–" She could smell the faint tang of cologne from his shirt, something sharp like pine, and it was wreaking havoc on her intelligibility. "I mean, it – it isn't me, because-"
He lifted one eyebrow, leaned over, and tipped up her chin with his thumb. "Because?"
Cin's world shrank to the point of physical contact, as if she could feel the individual ridges on the pad of his finger. "I – look, if you just think about it-"
The corners of his mouth flickered. He pulled his hand away, probably so she could regain any capacity of speech. "Cin, you're adorable when you're flustered."
Her toes curled in her sneakers at the indefinable timbre in his voice. Even worse, she thought she liked it. "Um." Um? She never said um. She abhorred 'um' and 'uh' and the incorrect and frequent use of 'like'. What was wrong with her? "What I meant to say is that – that while I have a much-" he was even closer than before. How was that possible? "A much higher intelligence quotient than the average person, I do not fall where you do on the scale of attractiveness-"
"Cin," said Rob. "You keep saying that like repeating it is going to make it matter."
She felt her bottom lip tremble, and she bit down on it for a moment. "Because there – there's no such thing as-"
"You know that's not true."
Cin sat very still as a hint of wind traced her face. She swallowed once. How could five words crack her world?
Rob studied her face as if he'd received confirmation. "I think you've known that for a long time."
Cin felt a burn behind her eyes she hadn't felt in years. She didn't dare say a word, lest her voice waver and actual tears emerge.
"So the real question is, Cin, why is it so impossible to think someone might love you?"
The ache in the back of her throat made it hard to speak. She tried to swallow it. "My own parents had conversations with their friends about how they would not have children if they could do it again, and had a nanny watch me during my formative years so they wouldn't have to bother with me." She heard the hairline crack in her voice and cleared her throat. "So pardon me if I have no grand delusions of love and happiness and romance, because all I ever heard was that-"
"Stop, Cin." Rob looked like he'd been punched.
She'd never told anyone that, and she couldn't believe she'd told Rob. "I was their mistake."
"Cin. You are many, many things, but the last thing you are is a mistake."
She swallowed hard. "Then give me one good piece of evidence I'm not."
"You're brilliant, honest, and pretty, and all I've been able to think about doing for the last ten months is asking you on a real date and kissing you."
"Say what?" She clapped a hand over her mouth. Never in her twenty-two years had she uttered something so…slangy.
Rob tilted his head. "Who are you and where did you put Cin?"
"You surprised her away." Cin waved her free hand vaguely over her head. "She just jumped out of body for a minute."
"Let me know when she gets back and how she's feeling."
Cin blinked a few times, pulling her hand from her mouth. "I think I am back." She chewed the corner of her bottom lip. "I don't know how I feel." It wasn't as if she'd never kissed a boy or – God knew – been in an awkward social situation. She could let those things bounce off, but this butted its head against the center of her being, demanding her attention. "Shock." Cin nodded. "That's what this is. Shock."
Rob tried to lean further into the bench, but Cin saw the line of tension in his shoulders. "Is that good, bad, or in between?"
"Neutral. Just shock."
"I think that's okay." He shifted. "That's okay, right?"
Cin didn't know, but she managed a nod. The only time she'd seen Rob this uncomfortable was that unfortunate incident last year with the cacti and fire ants. She licked her lips – another habit she thought she broke in middle school – and drew a breath. "I think," she said. Cin exhaled, twisted the tail of her French braid around her index finger, and pulled it. "That's the problem. I'm not thinking."
"Well," said Rob. "That's a first."
"Sixth," said Cin.
"You would keep track of how many times your mind has shorted out," said Rob.
"And yet, that doesn't surprise you." Cin released her hair before she loosened the braid to the point of unsustainability.
"It does. I'm surprised there have been that many times." Rob stopped looking like he was considering a sudden dash into traffic as he frowned, leaning forward. "What exactly happened those other five times?"
Cin allowed a smile to touch the edges of her lips in a fashion she hoped was vague and mysterious. "That is for me to know. And perhaps for you to discover someday."
Rob heaved a sigh. "Be all dramatic if you must."
She felt in control of her own mind again. That was reassuring. This was Rob. One of her best friends. Steady, unpredictable, intelligent, beautiful Rob. And apparently he liked her, not entirely due to evolutionary imperatives. Her mind looked at the last five minutes, shrugged, and handed the reins over to her feelings, and they made decisions without hesitation.
"Also, I don't care for the number six," said Cin.
"Hey, I like six. It's the product of two primes."
Cin swung her feet onto the bench, shifting so the tips of her shoes pointed toward Rob, every nerve in her body buzzing. "Yes, but seven is itself a prime and the sum of two primes."
"Yes?" Rob held up a finger. "I mean, that's not a question, that's a fact, but-"
Fingers faintly tingling, Cin pushed against the bench arm behind her, so she knelt on the bench, took Rob's face in her hands, and kissed him. He froze for an instant before shifting toward her, one hand covering her face from chin to temple, the other slipping, cautiously, behind her neck. Eyes closed, she traced her fingers along his jaw and into his hair, short and soft like duckling fuzz.
She pulled back a few moments later, hairs on her arms lifted. "Uh." Really? Again? She realized she still had a hand in his hair, and felt no inclination to move it. "Seven. Is a superior number."
Rob, likewise, did not remove his hand from her cheek. He blinked, as if uncertain as to the date, time, or century. "I did not see that coming."
"Is that good, bad, or in between?"
His lips flickered. "Smartass."
"I enjoy my contrary moments." Her voice possessed a breathy quality she'd not heard in it before. She looked across the park. "We should probably go."
Rob stilled. "See, when you say things like that, I worry, because I don't know what you mean by that."
Cin turned to look him steadily in the eyes. "What I mean is that I would to continue kissing you, and that would not be appropriate in a public avenue with children about. Is that a sufficiently clear answer?"
"Ah, yeah, that's clear." Rob rubbed his forehead with his free hand.
"You still look confused," said Cin. Her shins informed her they were not meant to be sat upon, and she rocked back into a normal sitting position. "Ow."
"Honestly, I expected a lot more panic and freaking out."
"As did I," said Cin. "Who knows, maybe I'll start believing in miracles next."
"I think I'm already there." Rob pushed himself into a stand with one smooth motion, offering her a hand.
She took it, looking up at him. Heat bloomed across her cheeks again. "Alright, all this-" she waved at her face, "-has to stop."
Rob smirked, pulling Cin to her feet. "Nah, I like it."
She shook her hand free and dusted down her peacoat. "You just enjoy the fact that you can fluster me right now."
"Damn right I do." Rob ran his thumb over her right cheekbone and grinned. "Your face is like heat-sensitive plastic right now. It's changing color every time I touch it."
Cin was fairly certain she could kindle a bonfire from yards away, using only her ambient skin temperature. "You jackass."
"You love me and you know it." Rob blanched. "Uhhh. That was accidental flippancy given recent events, so I-"
"Rob?" said Cin. He halted mid-sentence, lips parted. She bumped him with her shoulder. "I do and I know. Okay? So stop freaking out on me before I start freaking out again."
"Okay. I think I can handle that," said Rob.
"Okay," said Cin. She hugged him, surreptitiously inhaling his cologne. "Honestly," she said into his chest, "this scares me a lot."
"Thank God," said Rob. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders. "It isn't just me. But you know, I believe this is viable."
Cin smiled. "You never would have phrased that in such clinical language with Laurie."
"Nope. You're not Laurie. And, let's face it, that is such a positive quality to possess."
"You don't know that. I could just want you for your…for your…" Cin started giggling. "No, I can't say it. This is crazy. This entire thing is crazy."
"Yeah," said Rob. "That's love. Crazy."