“What?” said George. “Why is he here?”
“If you recall,” Charles replied, “he insisted on coming here to give you a tutorial. Which you’ve managed to duck out on, twice.”
“And he knew I was here this morning, instead of sleeping like I should be… how?”
Charles smiled inscrutably. “Damn,” said George. “Well, it’s bound to be entertaining, at least.”
“So who is this person?” asked Olivia, seeking solid ground under her feet again.
“Dr. Sinensis is our… patron, I suppose you’d call him, on this contract. He’s a tea expert.”
“Tea fanatic, you mean,” said George.
“Granted. In any case, he’s put up the money to make this project viable. I can’t frankly think the governor cares whether she’s going to drink Bohea or Darjeeling at this ceremony—”
“Drink it?” Olivia asked. “Not throw it in the harbor?”
“God, no,” said George. “Fake tea in the harbor, thrown by patriots dressed up as Native Americans, in a historically accurate yet somehow culturally sensitive way; real tea retrieved at great expense drunk by VIPs. Ironically. But Dr. S. wouldn’t have it otherwise.”
“He’s thrilled that you’re going to London,” added Charles.
Oh, not as thrilled as I am, thought Olivia. She was still feeling the unfairness of her abrupt entry into the time-jumping world, and hoped that every hour of her sojourn here would not include a day’s worth of surprises. It had been a tiring morning so far. When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. And she wasn’t even there yet.
“Wait,” she said, the penny dropping. “How does he know we’re going to London?” She thought back to Charles’s words after the meeting. “I anticipated you… You’d already decided, hadn’t you? Before the meeting started.”
“It seemed like the only logical course of action. Although I would have considered an alternative.” For about five seconds, said the expression.
“And that’s why Janet was there,” Olivia observed. George’s mouth twisted wryly; the detail hadn’t escaped him.
“Yes,” said Charles. “She’ll have fine suggestions; listen to them. And now I must be off. The good doctor is waiting for you in conference room three. Have a wonderful time.” He winked at them, and then he was gone.
Olivia put her elbows on the table and rubbed her temples. “Headache?” said George.
“Just a bit.” Straightening up, she forced a smile onto her face. “More a kind of down the rabbit-hole feeling.”
He laughed. “Well,” he said, “on to the mad tea party.”
She followed him along the hallway to the door of conference room three. Beatrice bustled up to them as they arrived. “I think he’s still setting up,” she told them, “but you should go in and wait.” She opened the door, letting out a kind of light Olivia did not associate with conference rooms. “I’m supposed to tell you…” Beatrice made the face that meant the net was playing a phrase back to her. “To rid yourself of the dust of the world and turn your thoughts toward harmony with your surroundings. Does that sound right? Anyway, go on in; enjoy yourselves.”
“Thanks,” said George. He gestured toward the doorway. “Ladies first.”
Olivia, wondering if George would be equally courteous at the mouth of a lion’s den, preceded him into the conference room. Her impression of the light not being right was confirmed immediately; it was filtered, like sunlight coming through foliage. A trail of skeletally fingered maple leaves in rich autumnal colors lay on the floor in front of her. A second glance, however, revealed them as projections, not actual leaves. The placement was not natural either: they were spaced in too perfect a pattern of randomness.
Part of the conference room had been blocked off to simulate a small garden. Projection screens similar to those in the cubicles were displaying gracefully bent trees and shrubs, some dripping with blossom, their branches subtly shifting as if moved by the lightest of breezes; a pale sky was just visible beyond, and a simple structure of weathered stone and planks squatted at the end of the winding path. The whole picture breathed relaxation and peace. When Olivia reached the little house, she noticed three stones set in the ground—they were projections as well—and, balancing them on the other side, a small bench: solid in a strong-grained wood, worn smooth on top as though hundreds before them had sat there waiting.
Nearby stood a low stone pedestal with a shallow bowl carved into its top. A pump hummed gently, and water began to trickle down into the bowl. The darkness inside the building resolved to a glowing paleness, the exact shade of a backlit paper screen. It was all achingly familiar.
She took a seat on the bench and drank in the sights around her. The garden was demonstrably not real, and hardly pretended to be so; but it was a lovely thing, and more pleasing for its lack of pretense. Like many works of art, it was a representation of reality—in this case, a representation of a highly structured version of the natural world, hence doubly removed—and it seemed to her, at this moment, that art was far safer and more comforting than life. The screens embraced them like a silkworm’s cocoon, shutting out the work that waited when the generators were turned off. Until then, she would enjoy the false tranquility.
Or she would try to, but George was making it difficult for her. He paced up and down, peering at the screens and poking at the stone columns, then followed the path of projected leaves by hopping from one to another as though they were part of a children’s game. She thought he was willfully emphasizing the falsity of their situation, as though he’d cleverly deduced it instead of being struck by its self-evidence. Or maybe he was just bad at waiting.
“Would you please stop that?” she said, more sharply than she’d intended.
He ceased prodding the basin’s pedestal with a foot and looked at her in surprise. “Stop what?”
“Just hold still—we’re supposed to be calm and in harmony with our surroundings.” He snorted, but did stay in one place and stop poking things.
After a moment, she went on, “I think we need to wash our hands,” and indicated the basin.
“Not again?” he said, but bent down cooperatively and ran his hands under the trickling water. She followed suit, thinking absently about the perfumes of Arabia. There appeared to be no way to dry off, so George flapped his arms in the air, while Olivia waved hers about in a less demonstrative fashion, then sat down again.
“Are you going to tell me why now?” he asked.
“It’s a purification ritual. I can only assume, between the stage set and the interests of our host, that we’re meant to be participating in a Japanese tea ceremony. The guests spend time in the garden to divorce their minds from the bustle of the mundane world, and cleansing the hands is a symbol for shaking off the dust of ordinary existence.”
“Ah. I don’t think it works for me. I’m not good at symbols.” He looked at his hands as though they might have changed. “I take it you’ve done this before, then?”
“Yes. I have. By the way, it’s important to be quiet for this part.” In truth, silence was optional, but cynical and uncooperative comments would certainly be frowned on, polite conversation about the art of horticulture being preferable. And she didn’t feel much like talking to George at the moment, anyway.
He made an exaggeratedly formal gesture in the direction of the bench—may I?—and she sighed and nodded, sliding over to leave him room. He took a seat as far distant from her as possible. She listened to the murmur of water falling into the basin, and the recorded sound of distant wind chimes. Just over the threshold of hearing, so that she had to strain for them, came the notes of a cuckoo calling. A light perfume floated through the air, floral and intoxicating.
Lovely as it all was, the simple forms of the garden did pale in interest after a few moments. Out of the corner of her eye, Olivia assessed her companion. His brashness was muted by this quiet place, and she was glad to know that he could be silent for a while; it was also nice that he could contain himself in a compact physical area. He didn’t sprawl into her personal space like so many men did, letting his legs fall open and his elbows stick out, leaving it up to her to avoid contact. Physical awareness presumably came with the job, as the manners of previous centuries with regard to touch and invasion of barriers varied; this would have been part of his training. On-the-job training, in his case, she’d gathered. He had perhaps not left the eighteenth century entirely behind today.
The tension radiating from him was unmistakable at this close range, however. Could it still be residue from this morning’s debacle, or was he like this all the time?
She would have blamed his unease for her own inability to be at peace, but the fault for that certainly lay with her. In fact, she had nearly forgotten what it was like to relax; three months of constant worry and insecurity had insinuated themselves into her body so utterly that the anxieties seemed part of her physical self, as though the tightness in her neck meant a repressed anger and the stiffness in her shoulders an unspoken suspicion. Certainty, even of the worst, might bring relief. Hot baths hadn’t helped, nor had wine, and she hadn’t wanted to try massage, fearing it would stir up too many memories. Her body recalled vividly those nights when Bernard would come home from a meeting, find her at her desk frowning over an essay, kiss the back of her neck, rub her shoulders: all in silence. Then his hands would stray lower…
Stop that. She started, pushing the thought away violently, and George glanced at her. “Falling asleep?” he asked.
He laughed. “I feel the same way. Nearly dropped off.” Stretching, he went on: “Maybe the same thing happened to the doctor. I bet he’s so saturated with caffeine by now that it makes him sleepy; he’s in there curled up with a cup of Earl Grey in his hand, and we can just go home.”
He rose to his feet, and with theatrical precision, a chime sounded and Dr. Sinensis spoke to them for the first time. “Please enter,” said a thin and authoritative voice, and there seemed nothing to do but obey. The door to the teahouse, now obvious as the only real bit of the construction in front of them, was unnaturally low, forcing them to duck down and nearly crawl through it. George went first this time. Olivia had to remind him to remove his shoes.
Tatami mats covered the small floor inside; windows in the projected walls let in a soft light. Near the doorway, their host was bowing to them. Small, elderly, balding; skin the color of old wicker, flat cheekbones, narrow eyes, firm chin: he might have blended in easily anywhere on the globe. The faint whiff of the Orient he carried with him was likely due to his surroundings and enhanced by the costume he wore, echoing old Japan.
“We bow our heads to enter,” he said, “to show that all are equal in the world of tea.” He crinkled his eyes at them. “Including the humble one who greets you.”
“Thank you for inviting us,” Olivia answered; and then, feeling that she needed to add something, “Your garden is beautiful.”
“A small thing. My masters, however, might have appreciated its convenience. And yet: can beauty be truly unique—as every garden is unique, every lovely woman—if it can be carried about with one and reproduced at will?” He shook his head. “Perhaps a question with no answer. Truth may reveal itself if we put the search aside; let us drink tea instead.” He gestured them toward two small cushions beside a display of tea-making equipment.
Before she sat, Olivia was careful to remark on the perfect balance of the room and on the projections of a vase of flowers and a scroll of poetry on the wall. Bernard had spent considerable time reading up on this ceremony before they had attended one in San Francisco on their honeymoon, and had led their way through it with his usual assurance and poise. She was doing her best to remember how the various stages went, and she knew that compliments to the host on the always sparse and symbolic decoration of the tearoom were de rigueur.
Dr. Sinensis bowed his head modestly and indicated the scroll. “A little verse of the English poet Cowper, translated into the Japanese.” She must have looked surprised, because he went on, “Adaptation being the breath of life to an old art. Please, be seated.”
She and George took their places on the cushions. Dr. Sinensis knelt across from them, and began to lift the pieces of equipment one at a time, explaining their uses: a tea bowl for drinking, hand-made ceramic with a fern-like design inside and out; a bamboo whisk with a short solid handle and the rest split elegantly into a hundred curved strands; a container for the powdered green tea and a scoop to transfer it. The round blackened kettle sat over a fuel cell burner. Adaptation.
“Yin,” he said, pointing to the simmering water in the kettle and nodding to Olivia, “and yang,” indicating the heat source and bowing his head to George. “Everything in balance. Will you have a sweet?”
He produced a small tray and handed it to Olivia. She thanked him, and remembered to say to George, “Excuse me for going before you,” as she took one of the tiny molded cookies. George accepted the tray from her with an unscripted “Excuse me for letting you take the risk of going first” at which their host chuckled with delight.
Olivia bit her sweet meditatively, and contemplated the degree to which memory might be stimulated by a concoction of rice flour and sugar. Proustian madeleines notwithstanding, she thought a powerful degree of association, even conditioning, was possible—during her first reading of Romeo and Juliet she had devoured an entire parentally-unauthorized plateful of macaroons, linking the taste of almond forever with doomed love in her mind—but a complete reliving of an event was unlikely. She had eaten a sweet identical to this one at the tea ceremony she and Bernard had attended, and though she could see the red-painted window frames of the tearoom and hear the voice of their hostess, nothing more came clear, and Bernard was a ghostly presence, nowhere near as solid as George sitting next to her.
Perhaps it’s simply not sweet enough, she thought, taking the last bite. Time travel by confectionary, a science not yet perfected.
She shifted her attention back to their host. His hands never still and never less than graceful, Dr. Sinensis wiped the pieces of equipment with a white silken cloth and then folded it away. The simple act, mundane and almost servile, was made mesmerizing by the concentration he lavished on every movement. He caressed the tea bowl as though his hands were following a strain of music unheard by anyone else, and the precision and care with which he creased and doubled the cloth gave a significance to the action far beyond its literal import. It might have been the universe he was enclosing safely in the folds of silk, before storing it away in his pocket.
Now it was time to make tea. He opened the small container, used the long bamboo scoop to place a precise amount of powder in the tea bowl, and then wielded a ladle to add hot water. Then he took the whisk and, with careful motions of his wrist, stirred the tea into a froth. When he was done, he held up the tea bowl in his right hand and turned it clockwise two times, displaying its beauties once more, then handed it to Olivia. She bowed her head, thanked him, repeated her ritual apology to George, and sipped.
No, she thought immediately, not that it wasn’t sweet enough, but that it wasn’t bitter enough. At the first taste of the astringent tea everything came back with aching clarity: the glow from the paper lanterns, the precise colors of their hostess’s kimono, the pattern of the china, the numbness in her left foot from being sat on too long. Bernard had been a hand’s reach away, warm and real and newly hers, and the memory of his hands reaching for her in the morning light of their hotel room had kept intruding on her concentration, so that the details of the tea service had passed in a blur.
She wanted to drain the bowl to its dregs and beg for another, but kept to the ritual, wiping the rim with the cloth provided, giving the bowl a quarter turn, and handing it to George. Another visceral memory surged up: the bowl they’d used in San Francisco, a thinner, more delicately painted one, and Bernard passing it to her, brushing her fingers in the transfer. George managed to avoid touching her, even though her grip was careless and unthinking and left little room for his own hand on the bowl. She watched him take a sip; he grimaced at the taste, and she found she had to look away, eyes filling with tears.
“We never drink tea the same way twice,” said their host in a quiet, intent voice. Olivia glanced up and found he was gazing right at her. “The beauty of this ceremony, and of any human encounter, is that it will never happen again. You two, of all people, you time hoppers, should understand that. So many sips of tea, so many conversations, so many smiles and kisses and meals shared by so many people, over the centuries, and not one pair alike. History repeats, but as an echo of itself, never exactly; just as I make the tea the same way every time, and each time it is just that tiniest bit different.”
He turned to George. “And each of us experiences the tea in his or her own way: bitter”—he twisted his mouth into an echo of George’s grimace—“or… bitter.” He looked back at Olivia, his mouth set in a straight line and his eyes infinitely sad.
“Thank you,” he said to George, taking the bowl from him, “I will join you. Ah,” he went on when he had drunk, and a serene smile came over his face. “Bitter.”
She thought she understood. The acceptance and fatalism were oddly comforting, and she could have remained within their embrace as she had sat in a compromise of peace within the garden, but their host appeared to have exhausted the intent of his ritual.
“At this point,” he told them, “we might drink again, and exchange courtesies about the tea and our surroundings, and then, when today’s moment had passed, I would tidy up. But we have much to learn, so let us move onward. Although,” he said, putting down the tea bowl and clapping his hands, “the next step is backwards.”
The screens vanished. The rest of the room became visible for the first time: not unlike the space where they’d had their meeting earlier, though larger. One end of the conference table was set with linen and china, apparently ready for a different kind of tea party. But for now Dr. Sinensis gestured at them to remain seated and moved only to the contiguous bit of space, which held a small platform-like chair, a plant in a pot, and a large wooden box.
He sat cross-legged on the chair and smiled benignly at them. Indicating the plant, glossy-leaved and white-flowered, he said, “Camellia sinensis. My dear sister, you might say. Or perhaps a wife, since I have taken her name in a reversal of the old manner. Although I assure you that I am not quite—quite—that peculiar.” His eyes crinkled again; it was nearly a wink.
“Whatever accident led the ancient Chinese to brew the wild tea into a semi-palatable drink is concealed by the veils of history. But the phenomenon caught on eventually; problems of storage and preparation were solved; cultivation on a large scale followed. By the fifth century A.D., tea merchants were growing wealthy…”
He went on to deliver a lecture—not rambling, but complex—on the history and cultivation of the tea plant, the processing methods necessary to produce various types of drinking teas, and the fashions in its presentation that came and went, including a dissertation on the side about the origins of the Japanese ceremony. Olivia attended as well as she could, but her concentration was not at its best; she had been shaken by the memory stimulation of the tea. Luckily, George asked intelligent questions and kept her nonparticipation concealed. Dr. Sinensis did have a habit of catching her eye whenever he said something complimentary about China, as though he thought she would accept the positive sentiments on Bernard’s behalf.
He showed them tea after tea, making them examine the leaves, smell them, crumble them between their fingers. Then he brewed several, and they tasted. These were all green teas, each fragrant and evocative in its own way, none quite as bitter as the Japanese matcha. It was on, then, to the oolongs—“The shape, you see, the curl of the dried leaf: like a wu lung, a black dragon”—the semi-fermented teas developed for long travel, and, later, to the black teas: some floral, some smoky. Olivia could have used more than a sip of these; she was tired from lack of proper sleep, and the caffeine in the fully fermented teas would have kept her more alert. However, Dr. Sinensis moved into more familiar territory shortly, and she began to pay attention.
“Tea first reached Europe,” he said, “by sea, in the early seventeenth century, carried by the Dutch, and soon afterwards arrived in Russia by land. But it was, of course, in Britain that it achieved its greatest influence. From mid-century onwards, it became more and more popular; a century later, it was as though the English had never lived without it. They paid good money for it, more than many could afford; they smuggled it to avoid the tariffs, and paid somewhat less; in time, it formed part of a family’s every meal, and was served to their guests.”
He rose in one fluid movement, and gestured toward the table, inviting them to join him there. When Olivia got to her feet, he bowed and offered his arm to her. He placed her in a chair, waved George into another, and sat down between them, spreading out the tails of his coat and crossing his elegant legs.
“This,” he said, removing the cover from a fine teapot of flower-patterned china, “is Bohea, or the closest the modern day has to offer, plucked from the terraces of the Wuyi Mountains in that dwindled part of China that still supports the cultivation of Camellia sinensis. My own tea plantation, in fact.” He bowed. “It has required immense precision and a small fortune to produce, likely resembles the original not at all, and you, young man,” he went on, rounding on George, “could have brought us some back in your pockets and cuffs, at the very least; but no matter. Would you care for a dish, my dear?”
“Thank you, sir, I would care for one, very much.” The change of venue had worked a transformation in Dr. Sinensis. He was a kind and almost twittering old gentleman hosting a little tea party for his young friends, modest and yet proud of his acquisitions. All the ceremony of the Far East had gone; he poured with a practiced but matter-of-fact hand.
“If you drink tea in the eighteenth century,” he said, “you will, almost certainly, drink it with milk; however, I abhor its use in a gentle tea of this nature. Drink,” he added, handing the cups to them.
She sipped the warm liquid. It was not, to her tongue, distinguishable from most of the black teas that Dr. Sinensis had presented them with earlier… in China, she thought with an inward smile. And now they were in England. The tea had a fruity, almost malty aftertaste. She thought several cups would slide down quite easily.
“Cakes!” said their host suddenly, and excused himself to forage in a box across the room.
George looked after him. “I did tell you,” he said in a low voice. “A fanatic.”
“I like him,” she responded coolly, and took another sip of tea. There was silence for a moment. Dr. Sinensis appeared to be opening a series of unmarked tins in search of the appropriate accompaniment to their beverage.
George sat back in his chair, folded his arms, and regarded her with a mischievous expression. “It is your turn to say something, Ms. Lake. I drew your attention to our host’s eccentricity, and now you ought to remark on the size of the teapot, or the number of cups and saucers.”
She burst out laughing. Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, and now Austen: he was better read than she had expected. “I am not entirely certain,” she replied, a smile still tugging at her lips, “that discussion of the size of teapots is allowable in polite society; however, there appear to be the requisite number of cups here for the company, unlike at the table of the March Hare. So perhaps our host is not as mad as all that.”
“I never said he was mad,” said George. “I only said he was a fanatic. There’s a difference. He’s just kind of… obsessed. Awash in tea. He even looks like he’s been dipped in the stuff. I think it’s a preservative; from something the boss said, he’s got to be near eighty.”
“Perhaps we should all be taking baths in Bohea, then.”
“I did that already today. It was a cold bath, of course. ‘Boston Harbor a teapot tonight.’” He grinned. “A really big teapot.”
She felt that she ought to hit him with her fan, but she didn’t have one, and she wasn’t sure they were in fashion in whatever year this was supposed to be. And she was getting tired of banter. She took another sip of tea, in hope that she could learn to identify the taste; presumably that was the goal of this tutorial, although clearly Dr. Sinensis wasn’t sure that this twenty-second-century brew was the same as George had seen dumped into the harbor in the eighteenth century this morning. So many factors could be brought to bear, it seemed, and so many varying infusions could result from the same original leaf. She could see how one’s life could be dedicated to puzzling out the differences.
“How pleasant it is to have a little private tea party, a quiet moment for just the two of us,” said George nonchalantly. “If you’ll talk to me again I promise I’ll be good.”
“’Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, that there shall be no more cakes and ale?’ Or cakes and tea, rather,” she responded, nodding towards the doctor, who was returning to them, having finally located the sweet for which he had been searching.
“How sad that Shakespeare never tasted tea,” said Dr. Sinensis; he’d apparently overheard her. “Think of the poetry we would have.” He offered his cakes and they each took one, Olivia with a realization of how hungry she was.
George shook his head. “I’m sorry, but ‘Shall I compare thee to an oolong tea?’ just doesn’t do it for me. Although there are some possible lines of analogy.” He coughed politely. “I’m sorry. I said I would be good. So”—he waved a hand at the teapot—“this is the stuff we’re looking for, more or less? In case we get to drink any of it while we’re there.”
“Most of the available research appears to point in that direction,” said Dr. Sinensis. “And research is relatively useless in this case. Except the kind the two of you are able to conduct. I do greatly appreciate your efforts.”
“They are paying us,” said George.
Olivia frowned at him. “It’s an intriguing problem,” she said encouragingly. “And I can see why you’d want to have the authentic tea available at the reenactment.”
“For the Philistines who’ll drink it there? Hardly. I do this only in the cause of truth.” He leveled his eyes at her, and for a second everything of the amiable gentleman was gone, and she went cold under his gaze. “I need to know.”
Fail me at your peril, the look said, and she felt suddenly relieved that their tutor in the history of tea had been a gentle and monastic scholar rather than a ruthless and inexorable emperor; then common sense reasserted itself. It was not likely that any clause in the contract allowed time jumpers to be fiendishly tortured if they neglected to bring back the commodity in question. And, a second later, the old Dr. Sinensis was back, in lecture mode again, informing them of his plans to reinvigorate the tea industry in its birthplace, as emergency intervention had finally begun to restore the climate of southeastern China.
“Now,” he said, pouring out the dregs of their second pot of tea into his own cup, “I could move on and discuss the development of tea growing in India in the nineteenth century, and its effects on the international economy, and let you taste some of the more interesting products of that region, and we could even experience the heady joys of a proper Victorian tea service, but I am afraid”—here his voice took on the quality of a Wildean dowager, and Olivia nearly laughed out loud—“that all my servants have ungratefully given notice in the last fortnight, and I have no one to prepare my meals, and am quite likely to starve. So I shall let you go on your way, with regrets.”
He took the cup in both hands, as he had in the Japanese teahouse, and raised it to his lips, solemn again, like a priest celebrating the Mass. Lowering the cup, he nodded to George, and then turned his eyes to Olivia. “I do hope that you find what you are looking for, my dear,” he said gently, and she knew he was not referring only to the twelve ounces of Bohea. “Remember, though, that the path to enlightenment is never straight.”
They helped him, against his protests, to tidy up the three tea services that lay scattered across the room, and then thanked him and shook hands; he bowed over Olivia’s and touched his lips to it briefly. The last she saw of him, he was sitting in his invisible teahouse, muttering over a misplaced whisk, and then she and George were back in the hallway.
Not sure where to go next, she stopped short when the door closed, and George looked at her and raised his eyebrows. “Well, that was interesting,” he said. “By the way, if the information is of any use to you, the ladies’ room is that way,” and he pointed. “I noticed he didn’t cover the diuretic effects of tea, but I for one am quite aware of them at the moment.”
She didn’t comment, but followed the direction of his pointing finger. It occurred to her that details of this nature were not likely to go unnoticed during the relative intimacy of a time jump: although perhaps they’d only be in London for a few hours. He was waiting for her when she emerged.
“So I’m going to play mentor for a moment, and ask about your general impressions of the morning. Feeling a little less rabbit-holeish?” he asked. She shook her head wordlessly. “Would it help at all if I talked you through some of it?” he went on. “We could have lunch.”
“I think I’ve been talked at enough in the last hour.”
He grinned. “I understand. Probably the only part of all that I’ll remember is that I made you laugh. Best moment of the day, so far.”
“It was all very… informative,” she replied, “but a bit overwhelming.”
“Thought you might be used to being lectured at.”
She froze. “What do you mean by that?”
“Well, being an academic and all,” he said casually.
“Oh. I thought…”
His brows drew together. “You thought I meant the Professor. No, no. Just because he lectured me.” The corner of his lip quivered. “Although I did notice you had a startlingly good rapport with Doc in there. I thought he was going to invite you home for dinner or something. And tea afterwards, of course. And maybe a research jump to China. All your professors don’t treat you like that, do they?”
She answered the assumption rather than the question, her voice cold. “Bernard was only my professor for one class, and we didn’t start dating until it was over. And Charles never taught me, in case you were wondering.” And, no, I didn’t routinely sleep with my professors.
“I didn’t mean… Dammit, don’t be so sensitive.”
She set her mouth and glared at him. “I am not sensitive. And it is really none of your business. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to work.” To her annoyance, her voice shook.
“Well, coincidentally, I work right next door to you, so if you don’t mind, I’ll walk along.” He matched his steps to hers. “It is my business, you know, your sensitivity. If it’s going to flare up when we’re on a jump. I’d suspect that you only react this way to me, and feel special, except I saw what happened when you drank the Japanese tea, and I see what happens every time the Professor gets mentioned. It’s extremely unlikely, but my life might possibly lie in your hands in seventeen seventy-three, and I’d like to know I can count on you at least making a token effort on my behalf, instead of dissolving into tears—”
She came very close to hitting him. “I… will… do… my… job,” she said between her teeth. “I won’t like it, but I’ll do it. You won’t be drowned in the Thames if I can help it.” At least not by the local inhabitants; I make no promises about myself. “You worry about your own sensitivities, and I’ll worry about mine.”
He made no response, and they entered the jumpers’ area in silence. When they arrived at his cubicle, he said, “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. That was uncalled for. Sometimes,” he went on, “I let my tongue get ahead of my brain, and disaster usually ensues. I don’t know why, but I don’t think…”
“Then you shouldn’t talk,” she shot back, whirled on her heel, and strode to her own cubicle, wishing she had a door to slam. Five seconds after she had spoken, she heard George’s bark of laughter—took you that long, did it?—and the delight of having hit the quotational mark whang in the gold, especially with such a perfect ending to the mad tea party, bubbled up inside her, tearing a grin out of her tight-stretched face.
Then the heaviness of being back in Bernard’s workplace settled over her like a shroud, and her spirits took an abrupt plunge. She stabbed fingers in each direction, surrounding herself completely with screens, and sank into the chair, staring absently at the tulips as they bloomed again on the wall between her and George.
I should probably go find something to eat, she said to herself, and didn’t move. She had wanted nothing more than to be alone for hours, and could not bring herself to give it up now, although it was bringing her none of the peace she had hoped for. It seemed impossible even to think, let alone to read a book, look at files, or peek into drawers. She wanted to make no connections, form no plans, set no memories roaming free in her mind. Simply being was difficult enough.
Finally, though she had done nothing, thought nothing, felt nothing to make it happen, the tears welled up in her eyes again. She let them trickle down her face and into her mouth, savoring them as though they had cost a fortune. Bitter.