Inspired by this prompt from hourlywritingprompts.
“So, what are you researching now?”
Grace wished for a second she’d ordered a fruity drink with an umbrella so her fingers would have something to play with while she stalled. But the question was reasonable–Cameron couldn’t ask her what she did for a living, because he already knew. And for a scientist, it must be second nature to delve into research topics. She took a sip of her Scotch–18-year-old Glenmorangie, because if she was only going to have one drink, it had better be a good one–and let the smoke-and-honey aroma linger in her nose before she took a breath to speak. “Are you sure you want to spend our date talking about academia like colleagues? Because when I ask you the same question, I doubt I’m going to understand the answer. My background in the sciences is weak at best.”
Cameron laughed. The sound was full and rich, but it didn’t set warmth blooming through Grace’s body like Perseus’ laugh did. “I’ve gotten pretty good at explaining my work to laypeople,” he said. “But it’s a fair point. I admit to looking into your work a bit, and I don’t understand it, either. I can view art and have a reaction to it, but trying to pick apart how the movements work or how the art is influenced by politics or other art or anything else…I don’t get it.”
“Anyone can love art,” Grace said, Perseus’ words coming out of her mouth without a thought. She realized what she’d said and took other sip of Scotch, clearing her throat when it burned going down. “But studying it can be challenging.”
“So talking about our work is out, for the moment. You’re right that we probably shouldn’t start by inadvertently making each other feel stupid.”
Grace raised her eyebrow at his bluntness.
He didn’t miss it. “I have nothing but appreciation for your intellect,” he said. “I don’t need to understand why you’re smart to know that you are.”
“I thought scientists always had to know why,” Grace remarked. “Isn’t that what you do, hunting the mysteries of the universe and making them less mysterious?”
“The how is just as important, but the two go together.” He tapped the fingernails of one hand against his glass. He’d ordered a draft beer, and Grace tried not to let herself feel any drink snobbery. “But unless you actually do want to hear all about my research, it’s time to change the subject, because I have this nasty habit of boring people by talking too much about it.”
“Okay, then.” Grace sipped her drink and cast about for something random and startling to say. Putting a date off-balance early on wasn’t the kindest thing to do, but it did help her get to know them better. Over his shoulder, two people at the bar caught her attention–he was sitting on one of the stools, she stood next to him, angled his way, trying to entice him as clearly as he was trying to ignore her. “What’s your favorite pick-up line?”
Cameron froze with his drink halfway to his mouth. “What?”
Grace smiled and shrugged. “You said to change the subject.”
He set his glass down without drinking. “I don’t use them, so I don’t have one. I’m a skinny science nerd, I’d need a hell of a line to actually have it work.”
“Oh, they don’t work,” Grace said. “At least, not on me. But they are good for a laugh.”
His answering smile was tentative. “Please tell me you said yes to me because I was direct.”
Grace nodded, but her heart sank at his tone of self-deprecation. “Skinny science nerd” might be accurate, but until she knew him better, it wasn’t endearing. She was trying to fully engage in the date, but her mind kept drifting, and comparisons to Perseus plagued her thoughts.
She’d admired Cameron’s directness, but his lack of easy confidence didn’t stack up to Perseus’ self-assurance. He radiated calm capability through the force of his personality, even in his vulnerable moments, even with his body turned to stone.
Cameron’s restless fingers and nervous glances at the other patrons in the bar didn’t inspire the same connection.
But Grace knew, on one level, she was being unfair. The situations were different, and she’d been awkward on plenty of her first dates in the past. Being the less-awkward one was a strange experience. Even if she was constantly distracted by thoughts of another man.
That might be why she was suddenly so calm, though. Grace knew she didn’t need to be here, that this wasn’t going anywhere. She would rather be at home on her laptop, typing endless strings of searches into her browser and spending hours scanning the results.
Like she had all weekend. Medusa. Gorgons. Perseus. She’d read every variation of the myth she could find, and none of them ever suggested there was way to reverse what had been done to her friend. Searching for hypothetical stone-form cures had led her down a maze of dead-ends ranging from witchcraft to video games, where players afflicted by the ailment “Stone” or “Petrify” were cured with a “Needle”. Tracking down any real-world basis for it was another dead end. The few stories of petrifaction she did find had nothing to do with needles.
In one tale, a giant turned people to stone, but the hero convinced him to turn them back. Grace had no illusions that she would hunt down one of the remaining Gorgons–for Medusa was mortal, but her sisters were not–and convince her to revert Perseus to his human body. Even if she could find them, which was so wild an idea she could hardly keep from laughing as she considered it, she’d almost certainly end up as a statue herself. Never mind that she’d either have to bring Perseus’ statue to the Gorgon, or the Gorgon to him in the museum. Impossible either way.
In all the other old tales, the cure was related to water. Water from a sacred spring or blessed fountain. Water in the form of tears shed by a sorrowful maiden–one young hero was saved by his sister’s grief. That almost sounded promising, but the tales ranged all around the world, and none of them seemed related to the Greek mythos, which remained unyielding in its lack of a cure.
Grace refused to believe that Perseus could not be saved.
“Grace?” Cameron was looking at her with furrowed brows and one hand lifted from the table, like he was considering waving it in front of her face.
“I’m sorry,” she answered. She had no idea how long she had been adrift in her mind. “I’ve had a lot on my mind lately. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
His frown only retreated halfway. “This isn’t going well, is it?”
“No,” she answered, relieved. “But it isn’t your fault, Cameron. I wanted to give this a try, but I’m not all here, and it has nothing to do with you.”
“That sounds like a line.” He tapped his fingers against his beer glass again.
“It isn’t.” There was plenty she could say to him about his habit of being down on himself, but if it looked like she was trying to fix him, he’d either be insulted, or think she was still interested. “It’s the truth. I was happy to get asked out for the first time in what seems like a very long time, and I wanted to see what happened. But I’m distracted by something else, and I can’t be starting a new relationship now. It wouldn’t be fair to you if I’m checked out half the time.”
Cameron stared at his beer while Grace spoke, and for several long moments after. Then he nodded and looked up to meet her eyes. “You’re right. Thank you for being honest.”
“You were direct, Cam, and I do like that about you. I shouldn’t be anything less.” Grace downed the last bit of her drink, then fished in her purse and found a twenty dollar bill, which she folded and weighed down with the empty glass. “And since I’m the one who spoiled our date, the drinks are on me.”
“You don’t have to–”
“Yes, I do.” Grace smiled and hoped some more directness would be welcome. “There’s a redhead across the room that’s been eyeing you this whole time, even though you were with me. If you stick around and order another beer after I’m gone, you might have a chance at salvaging the evening.”
Cameron chuckled, a warm sound that Grace hadn’t expected to hear after ruining their night out. He hefted his beer in salute at her as she stood. “I accept your apology, Grace. I’m getting the impression we’d be better friends than lovers.”
“Why’s that?” she asked. “Because I’m trying to set you up with someone else already?”
“Because after you dumped me, you called me ‘Cam’. First time all night.”
Grace cocked her head, replaying the last few minutes of conversation in her mind. “I did,” she said, then looked down at him. “You’re okay with that?”
He nodded. “Go on and get out of here so I can see if that redhead likes skinny science nerds as much as you seem to think she will.”