Lady Ink pressed her hand to the glass case which had once held the Book. It used to feel cool against her palm, but these days… it was as though she touched her own skin.
She turned her back on it and ran her fingers through her hair—quickly, in nervous movements she was not used to. The second time she reached the tip, a few strands snapped off. They did not tear out: they snapped, with a brittle sound like stepping on ceramic.
The Lady let out a slow, shuddering breath. She had no idea what to make of it, any more than she knew what had happened to the Book. She closed her eyes for a moment. "Well," she whispered. "I suppose it was inevitable."
Cathal hadn't bothered to mention he was coming over, but Damon wasn't too surprised when he walked into his kitchen and found Cathal sitting at the kitchen table, chewing on a pencil. Damon's teapot was on the stove, leaking steam slowly in that way that meant the pot hadn't noticed there was no water left inside.
Damon sighed—though he wasn't in the least surprised—and walked over to the stove to turn it off. Cathal didn't notice that he'd walked in; he was bent over the paper, writing furiously with his tongue between his teeth. He wouldn't come out of it for a while yet, most likely, so Damon took the teapot, filled it with fresh water, and set it to reheat. Then he sat down across the table from Cathal and did his best to arrange himself as though he had always been there.
Cathal finished what he was writing and started chewing on his eraser. "You know, one of these days, you're going to bite one off and choke on it," said Damon, setting his chin on his hand.
"Gah!" Cathal jumped. Damon covered his grin with his hand. Cathal pressed his hands against his face, though Damon could still tell he was blushing. "You, sir, are an ass."
"You know, it used to drive me crazy that you did that," said Damon, drumming his fingers on the table. "I mean, here you were, nagging at me to be in the real world, and half the time you had your own head in the clouds."
Cathal sniffed with only about half his usual snobbishness. "Of course I had my head in the clouds. I'm an astrophysicist." He paused. "I'd say if you wanted someone more grounded, you should spend time with a normal physicist, but no, they're all just as bad. Show them an infinite resistance problem, and they just vanish."
Damon smiled faintly. He wasn't sure if Cathal could tell he was amused or not; Cathal made jokes in response to everything. "I suppose. My only question is why you thought it was wise to set tea to heat while you did it."
Cathal blinked; his eyes slid past Damon to the stove. "Did I?" He rubbed the back of his neck, blushing. "Well. That was daft."
"So it was." Damon got up and walked to Cathal's side to read over his shoulder. As usual, Cathal's notes were indecipherable; his handwriting was perfect, but he only jotted down one word in three, as well as a few formulas. "What were you working on?"
Cathal ran a hand through his hair, frowning slightly. "I had an idea about my research—but now that I look at it, I don't think it's going to pan out after all." He groaned. "Oh, this is going to be a long slog."
Damon leaned against the tabletop. "What are you trying to do? You've never explained to me."
"Because it's frustrating and dull. I'd rather tell you when I'm finished so I sound like a hero instead of an actual scientist doing actual science." He leaned forward and pressed his forehead to the table. His shoulders were tense, and he looked tired—he always got this way around the end of the semester. He was scatterbrained, but this time of year it got turned up to eleven.
"Oh, please. You bore me with meaningless details in other subjects all the time—why not now?" He glanced at the kettle. "Besides. I'm making you a pot of tea. You owe me."
Cathal straightened and rubbed the heel of his hand against his eyes, smiling wearily. "Damon, if we measured our relationship in terms of the food you made me, I'd be so far in debt I wouldn't actually be allowed to speak to you." He fidgeted with the paper. "If you must know… we're trying to perfect an algorithm to study galaxies. My research student, Roger, is an utter genius with numbers—we had to get someone in the computer science department to make a program you could actually interface with, but Roger has been working the bugs out in it himself. I'm just getting him the data he needs, really."
Damon looked at him. "…You're right. I have no idea what you just said."
Cathal sighed, but he was smiling. "Here. Let me show you. Do you have your netbook?"
Damon had been using it as a paperweight, but he knew better than to say so. He got it; Cathal started it up and pulled out a flash drive. "Technically, I am not supposed to have this picture, but…" He smiled sheepishly; it was so unlike him that Damon couldn't do anything but stare. "It was too beautiful." He pulled up something. "Here."
He tilted the screen so Damon could see; Damon's lips parted in surprise. The picture held a million points of light, in colors ranging from bright white to warm red. "It's lovely." He glanced at Cathal and realized Cathal had been looking at him instead of the picture. Cathal blushed and dropped his eyes. Feeling confused, but pleasantly so, Damon looked back at the picture. "So what am I looking at?"
Cathal cleared his throat; his ears were still red. "Um. It's a section of sky about the size of your thumbnail. All those little things that look like stars," he pointed at one and grinned suddenly, "are actually galaxies."
Damon looked at the picture again, his eyes widening. "All of them?" He suddenly felt very small, but it was giddy, like his confusion.
Cathal shrugged. "More or less. It's hard to tell at this resolution. Actually, it's hard to tell, period. I mean, we can blow up the picture way more than this, but then we still have to go over it by hand, looking at each galaxy and giving it our own classification, then seeing if someone else has already classified it and published that, and if we agree with them or not…"
He ran a hand through his hair and sighed. "It's almost tedious enough to make you forget we're studying the wonders of the universe. That's where my research comes in—we're trying to teach the computers how to do it for us." He pulled out the flash drive, and the picture vanished. Damon was sad to see it go. Cathal turned sideways in his chair so they faced each other. "See, other campuses with lots of computers can do this easily with existing programs. But we've only got piddly processing power, and we'd crash the entire campus if we tried classifying things on the level they can. So Roger and I are trying to make little versions, ones you could run on a machine like yours. It's not fancy, maybe, but it's important."
"I think it's fancy," said Damon.
"That's because it still went totally over your head." Cathal smiled at him. "Don't lie."
Damon shrugged. "So it did, but at least I can make a proper pot of tea." Cathal made a face at him; Damon snorted. He got up and made the tea, then poured himself and Cathal a cup. "…Can I have a copy of that picture?"
Cathal looked at him in surprise. "Oh. Of course." He plugged the flash drive back in, disturbing the computer from a screensaver of pictures of Damon's family. "There. Now it's on your desktop. Can you actually—"
Damon looked at him flatly. "I will put arsenic in your tea. Yes, that's what I'll do."
"What?" Damon kept looking at him; Cathal huffed and sipped his tea. "It's a reasonable question. You can barely get into your email without my help."
Damon crossed his arms. "All the same. You're a jerk."
Cathal sniffed. "You resort to names because you cannot think of a better insult. You are not worthy of my time. Thus, I ignore you."
Damon laughed "Fine. We'll see who cracks first." He pulled the computer over and opened the picture again, so he could gaze at galaxies as he drank.