madhadron

Igor

Rose sat before the fire in the dark, listening to the crackle of the wood. She started when a green hand snaked out of the dark behind her and placed a plate on the table at her elbow.

“A snack, miss?” lisped the thin voice of Igor from the dark. She regarded the plate and mug in surprise.

“Are those mice?”

“Apple mice,” confirmed the voice as the hunched, gorilla armed form slipped silently into the firelight. “Apple, with raisins for eyes and noses, little strings of fudge for whiskers, all held together with peanut butter.” He squatted by the fire, facing her. “The young master liked them as a child.”

Rose had been pleased when Kraus had suggested spending Thanksgiving with his father. She had grown steadily less pleased as they took a bus to the end of its line in New Jersey, ducked through holes in chain link fences in an old industrial park, dodged around scrap heaps and decrepit buildings, and finally came to a stop at the delivery entrance of an old, brick warehouse.

When the door had opened to reveal a—she wasn’t at first willing to call it a man. There were stitches. The skin was green in places. The back was hunched and arms tipped with enormous hands, hands she wasn’t sure matched, that almost brushed the ground.

Then it had grinned, a grin like a shark, revealing teeth that did not match. Some were yellow, others white. Some of them were pointed. “Young master!” it had cried, reaching out to embrace Kraus.

The same creature was squatting next to the fire, regarding her now.

“The young master has gone to bed?”

“Yes.”

“You are not tired?”

“I told him I would be along in a little while.”

“Ah.”

They lapsed into silence. She picked up the mug, more in response to the awkwardness of the situation than anything else, and sniffed. Cocoa. Good cocoa, to judge by the smell. She took a sip, and felt the rich liquid coat her mouth and throat. “Mmm,” she moaned involuntarily.

“Yes, chocolate on a dark November evening is a good thing,” Igor agreed, not stirring from his squat.

The silence broken, she began, “Igor—” then trailed off.

“Yes, miss?”

A pause, and then it came out almost as a yell. “What’s going on here?”

“Ah,” Igor said, smiling that shark-like smile. “I thought something like that was bothering you. What did the young master tell you?”

“That his mother had died years ago, and his father lived alone with his caregiver.”

“‘Caregiver’,” repeated Igor. His grin must have widened, for more teeth were reflecting the firelight now. “And you expected—what? A suburban ranch house, a sick old man, and a live in nurse?”

“Well, maybe not in such detail, but yes.”

The bald head cocked, stitches showing in the firelight. “What are you studying at university?”

“Biology.”

“And you like the lab, like hunkering down at the bench and working, sans interruption, don’t you?”

“Yes—” she answered tentatively.

“Yes, I thought I saw a bit of the spark. What’s going on here, then.” Igor gave himself a shake, resettling his hands where they lay loose on the floor. “The young master’s mother was a scientist. Frau Doktorin Privatdozentin Magold. The warehouse below us was her laboratory. I was her assistant. After her death, I stayed to take care of the laboratory. And of her husband. Matthew is a dear man. Not a bit of the spark, but his stories about the little forest creatures are endearing.”

“Forest creatures?”

“Oh yes, didn’t the young master tell you?” The head turned to glance at the fire, reflecting many more teeth. “Matthew writes and sells children’s stories about little forest animals. Does quite well at it, too, though the estate has plenty to maintain us both. But it gives him a purpose.”

“And what’s your purpose?”

The head swiveled back towards her and contemplated her for a moment. “I told you: I take care of the laboratory. And if the next master or mistress does not already have an assistant, I will become their Igor.”

“I think I should go to bed now,” Rose said, not sure what to make of this.

“Yes, sleep well. I hope you enjoyed your snack.”

Rose looked at the now empty plate next to her. She vaguely remembered taking a bite at some point. “Apple mice,” she muttered.

“Apple mice,” agreed Igor. “Sleep well.”

She woke the next morning to sun in her face, unsure of where she was. Kraus was asleep beside her, but the bed was far too large to be either of their beds at school. She slipped from the bed without disturbing him and hastily dressed.

Aside from Kraus, whose gentle snores she could still hear, there didn’t seem to be anyone there. The other bedroom stood open and empty. The living room was equally empty, the fire burnt to ashes, and the place where Igor had squatted innocuous and vacant. At last she heard stirring from the bottom of a stairwell in the kitchen.

“Hello?” she called as she descended. The stirring stopped.

“Miss Rose?”

She almost stopped, but decided it would be rude to pretend not to have heard, and went on to where the stairwell turned. From the landing she looked out into a rough floored room crammed with equipment and lit from banks of windows. Amid the laboratory, for she recognized that it could be nothing else, was Igor, his hunched head just over the level of the workbench at which he was working.

“I hope you slept well,” he offered.

“Thank you, yes.” She had been astonished that she hadn’t had nightmares, but she had slept peacefully.

“Matthew has gone for his morning walk, looking for ideas for his stories. Has Kraus begun to rise any earlier?”

“He doesn’t get up before eleven unless he has class.”

“He never did. If you can wait, Matthew will be back soon and we will have breakfast with him.”

“Yes, thank you.” She hesitated on the stairs while he looked curiously up at her with his left eye. The right wandered aimlessly. “What are you working on?” she asked at last.

“Come see,” he said.

His grin really did look like a shark, she reflected as she made her way down to the laboratory floor and to the bench where he stood. The Petri dishes laid out on the bench were all covered in some luridly green microbe.

“So what is it?”

“Green,” he said.

“Just green? Not a mutation or a screen or something?”

“No, just green.”

“Why?”

“I have red ones, too. In a few weeks I’ll put them all on string and hang them around the laboratory.”

“You use cultures as Christmas decorations?”

“It’s good for the laboratory to be used, even if it’s not for research. Eventually someone will come and research here again.”

“Why don’t you?”

His smile drooped slightly. “I am a man of modest ambitions. Come, help me put these in the incubator, and we will have some tea.”

That plan was disrupted by the rumble of the freight elevator. “Ah, Matthew is home,” Igor told her, putting the last plate in the incubator and closing it. He gestured her up the stairs before him.

Matthew was already in the kitchen. She had reflected last night that now she knew where Kraus got his looks. He looked like his father: tall, broad shouldered, blond haired and blue eyed, their features sweet and regular. It made Igor all the more shocking.

“The crows were chasing an eagle again,” Matthew greeted them. “How do you like your eggs, Rose?”

“However you normally have them is fine.”

“We have them all kinds of ways. Today we’re going to have the way you like.”

“Over easy, then.”

She was gestured into a chair while Matthew cooked and Igor set the table in the kitchen, poured orange juice, steeped tea, and laid out butter, jam, and marmalade, all the while thanking her for volunteering to help, but insisting that she “please sit and be served, miss. You are a guest.”

Once Matthew had served them eggs, toast, and sliced fruit he sat and fidgeted with his fork. “I wanted to ask—” he began, then frowned. “I wanted to ask—you see, I don’t really understand these things, but—” A deep breath, and in a rush: “Is Kraus happy at university?”

“I believe so,” Rose said, nonplussed.

“Good.” All sign of hesitation gone, he beamed at her and turned his attention to his eggs. She turned a questioning gaze on Igor, who was spreading marmalade on his toast with surgical precision. He looked blandly back at her.

“We all have our reasons for being where we are,” he observed cryptically. Then to Matthew, “So, the crows were chasing an eagle again.”

“Yes,” Matthew said, his face lighting up. “Two chased him down the stream bed, and three more ambushed him near where it turns east. Quite a sight. The eagle didn’t even notice the field mouse hopping from rock to rock across the stream.”

“There are eagles in an industrial park?” Rose asked.

“Oh, no!” Matthew told her. “The concrete ends just behind the laboratory. It’s all woods from there.”

“And you go walking in them every morning?”

“Every morning,” he agreed, smiling. “How else would I see the animals’ stories so I can tell them to the children?”

“Of course,” Rose said weakly, returning his smile. Matthew, still smiling, returned his attention to his food. Igor munched on his toast, still regarding her blandly. Under that gaze, an intense left eye, and the smaller right occasionally locking onto her before rolling away again, she dropped her own eyes to her food.

They finished their meal in silence. Matthew bid them good morning and strode purposefully off—“to write,” Igor informed her—and Igor shooed her away when she tried to help with the dishes. “Go relax. And when I am done, perhaps we can check the red cultures in the lab?” He looked inquiringly up at her.

Rose cursed her mother’s inculcation of manners as she heard herself say, “That would be nice.” She sat once again at the table and enjoyed the sunlight pouring through the kitchen’s big windows.

“What would you like for lunch?” Igor asked her later as he handed her a pile of red cultures to put in the incubator.

“Oh, whatever you were planning,” she answered, squatting to gently pile them on the wire racks. She closed the incubator and looked up at Igor, who’s left eye was regarding her. “What?”

“You are very biddable,” he lisped.

“I’m a guest,” she said, straightening up.

“A guest, even the most assiduous, may express preferences.” He heaved himself up onto a bench and bent towards her. “Perhaps something less immediate. What’s bothering you in biology?”

She shifted uncomfortably. “It’s rather basic. I hate to bother you with it.”

“Miss Rose,” he lisped, “I grow red and green cultures in an empty laboratory to have something to do. Please. Bother me.” She thought his right eye was rolling a little more erratically than usual.

“Well,” she started, then in a rush, “do bacteria respond slower when they grow slower?” Igor’s right eye stopped dead while pointing somewhere off to the side, then rolled forwards to join his left eye in regarding her fixedly. “I’m sorry, it’s stupid,” she muttered.

“No, Miss Rose,” he said. “It’s not stupid. And I have no idea. Shall we find out?”

She blinked at him. “How?”

Igor inclined his head and gestured grandly with a misshapen hand. “We do have a laboratory.”

“You have—” She looked at the incubator next to her. “Yes, of course you have cultures. But how will we control the growth rate?”

“Change the growth medium?” offered Igor. “It’s not perfect, of course—”

“No, but unless you have a chemostat somewhere around here—”

“Oh, we do,” he intoned, his right eye rolling again, “but it might take us several days to get it in working order again.”

“Then it will have to be growth medium. But do we have a strain we can measure response of?”

“Let us look through the freezer catalog.”

It was several hours later that she heard Kraus’s voice. “Rose?” he called sleepily from the top of the stairs. She looked up from where she was titrating stimulants. “Rose, what are you doing?” He sounded more awake and less pleased.

“Igor and I were working on something,” she said pleasantly. “Did you sleep well?” She stood, stripping her gloves off, and running her hands through her hair.

“Yes.”

“Go on up,” Igor said, slipping up behind her. “I’ll finish.” He looked over the meticulous notes she had been made for the process, and picked up her pipette. She gave him a grateful smile and turned to the stairs.

Matthew was already making lunch, and smiled at her. She sat across from Kraus while he sipped coffee. He kept glancing at her, frowning, until Matthew called down to Igor to come up for lunch.

Matthew smiled at them all as they sat down, and dipped his grilled cheese sandwich into his tomato soup. Igor idly chewed on his, his left eye directed at it. His right eye was rolling back and forth between Rose and Kraus, and she wondered how much he saw with it. Kraus poked at his soup, occasionally glancing up at her, and then at Igor.

Kraus begged off as soon as lunch was over, saying he had studying to do. Matthew cheerfully bid them a good afternoon and went off to his writing. Igor looked at her across the table.

“Shall we continue?”

“Yes,” she said with relief, rising and making for the stairs.

That night, as she joined Kraus in bed, he turned to her. “What are you doing with Igor?”

“We’re running some experiments.”

“On what?”

She looked at him. Kraus had never shown any interest in her science before. “Do you really want to know?”

He opened his mouth, then closed it again, looked away. “Look, I appreciate you trying to be nice to my family, but you don’t have to try this hard. I know that they’re…” He trailed off.

“Kraus, they’re lovely,” she said, resting her hand on his thigh.

“They’re weird!” He waved her off when she opened her mouth to protest. “I know, they’re my family. And I thought you should meet them. And thank you for being so kind to Igor, but you don’t have to spend time in the lab. It’s fine to just read by the fire.”

“Kraus,” she said, reaching to lift his chin to look at her. “Kraus,” she insisted, when he tried to duck away. “I had fun today. I’ve had a question that’s been bothering me. We’re rolling up our sleeves and trying to get some preliminary answers.”

“Are you going to spend all tomorrow in the lab, too?”

“Of course not! It’s Thanksgiving!” She smiled. “We’ll run down and split our cultures at some point, but I imagine we’ll all be busy cooking.” Kraus looked like he wanted to protest. “It’s okay, Kraus. I’m glad you brought me.”

He sighed. “Okay. Good night.”

“Good night.”

She slipped out of bed the next morning, leaving Kraus sleeping again, and emerged to find Igor already up, slurping coffee and sharpening knives. He poured her a cup without comment and resumed working on a carving knife.

“Matthew will be back shortly and make breakfast, then we’ll get started on the stuffing,” Igor told her once she had taken a large gulp of coffee.

“I’ll start breakfast if he’ll be back in the next ten minutes.”

“Let Matthew make breakfast, Miss Rose. He would be disappointed if he didn’t get to. But if you would cut bread crumbs?” He proffered a serrated knife and gestured to two loaves of bread on the counter.

Matthew returned, asked if everyone would like pain perdu, then started mixing milk and eggs when Rose and Igor acceded. He stepped aside when Rose slipped the bread crumbs in the oven to dry. They sat down a few minutes later to breakfast, then cleared away and started on stuffing and pies.

It was comfortable, Rose reflected. They barely spoke—mostly “are the bread crumbs ready?” or “would you pour in the onions?”—until the turkey was in the oven. Then Matthew announced, “I’m going to write until it’s time for the turkey to come out. Mustn’t disappoint the children.”

After he departed, Rose turned to Igor. “Shall we split our cultures now?”

“Yes, Miss Rose.”

An hour later—Igor had run up to baste the turkey earlier, the cultures had been split, but they had become absorbed in a discussion of other organisms it might be worth testing—Rose heard the stairs down to the laboratory creak.

“Rose?” called Kraus, sounding resigned.

“Good morning, Kraus,” she called, turning to smile up at him.

“Good morning, young master,” Igor added, peering around Rose.

“I thought I heard you down here. I’ll get some coffee.”

“We’ll be up shortly,” Rose told him.

“It’s nice to have the young master home for a holiday,” Igor noted wistfully after they watched Kraus climb back to the kitchen.

“He’ll be home again for Christmas in barely a month,” she reminded him.

Igor shrugged. “Maybe.”

“Doesn’t Kraus usually come home for holidays?”

“We love having the young master home whenever he can make it,” Igor turned to the stairs.

“Igor.”

He stopped at the steel in Rose’s voice. “Yes, Miss Rose?”

“When did Kraus last come home?”

“We saw him in August.” His left hand jiggled, scraping at the floor.

“For how long?”

“Miss Rose, there’s no reason to be upset.”

“Was Kraus home for Christmas last year?” Igor’s head shook. “Thanksgiving?” Another head shake. “How many days was he here during the summer?” Igor seemed to sink in on himself. “Igor!”

“Four, Miss Rose.” He turned to look at her. “You’re not angry at him are you?”

She looked at the hunched figure before her in disbelief. “You tell me my boyfriend has been neglecting his family, and wonder if I’m angry at him? Of course I’m angry at him!”

“Miss Rose, please don’t think ill of the young master. I don’t want to cause strife between you. Matthew and I like you very much.”

Rose took a deep breath, and went up the stairs.

She made pies with Igor while Kraus watched, and slipped them in the oven when the turkey came out. An hour later, Igor went to fetch Matthew while Rose put food on the table.

Matthew very precisely, very meticulously dissected the turkey, then lifted several slices on the fork. “Turkey, Kraus?”

“Thanks, dad,” Kraus said, studiously not meeting anyone’s gaze as he lifted his plate.

Despite that inauspicious beginning, the meal was pleasant. Rose told stories about growing up on Long Island, and watched in relief as Kraus seemed to relax, meeting her eyes and smiling.

“I think it’s time for pie,” Igor said at last, starting to rise.

“Sit, Igor, I’ll get it,” Rose told him. She saw Kraus’s smile falter, and gave him quizzical look. He just shook his head, so she shrugged and fetched the pie and server. There would be time to talk about it after dinner.

As they finished their pie Rose looked around the table. “I’m betting that no one here watches football?” she hazarded. She smiled at Kraus’s snort.

“I’m sure we could find it on one of the computers,” Matthew told her earnestly.

“No, I don’t watch it either. Thank you, Matthew.” Then throwing a glance at Kraus, she asked his father, “Do you have any more writing to do today?”

“Oh—” The question caught him by surprise. “There were the two voles I saw today that I think the children would so like to hear about…” He looked at them in concern. “You wouldn’t mind if I—?”

“Go ahead, dad,” Kraus told him.

“Kraus and I will clean up,” Rose added. Matthew beamed at them, and wandered out of the room. Igor stood and started stacking dishes. “Kraus and I will do it, Igor,” she said. “Why don’t you check the lab?”

“Miss Rose,” he started, looking miserable, then slumped at her glare and turned to shuffle down the stairs.

Kraus was looking at her with trepidation. She smiled and reached out her arms to him. He tentatively stepped forward and embraced her, his body stiff. She kissed his neck and held him as he slowly relaxed.

“Why don’t you come home more often?” she asked him finally. He tensed again in her arms.

“I…don’t know. It’s like there’s two me’s. There’s me as a child, walking with dad in the woods, holding his hand. And waiting for mom to bellow up from the laboratory. And Igor bringing me apple mice by the fire on cold nights while dad told me about the animals and mom sat in her armchair and read.” His body had relaxed as he spoke, and he snorted into her shoulder. She could feel his lips curve up in a smile.

“But then I see it as someone who’s not part of this. My father? He’s not right in the head. Igor is something out of a bad Gothic novel. And my mother. I loved my mother, I still miss her, but what is this? A laboratory in an old warehouse? An assistant named Igor that looks like she sewed him together from spare parts?

“When I come back here, I find myself settling back into this. And then I go back to school, to the outside world, and it’s like I’m an alien until I adjust again.” He pushed back and looked her in the eye. “And I see you settling in so well, and it scares me. It’s like my life here is bleeding through into my life outside.”

“Kraus, it’s still me. I haven’t changed.”

“I know. But I’ve never seen you so bossy.”

“I’m not bossy!” she said, pulling back to look at him.

“Rose, you just manipulated my father out of the room, ordered Igor out, and proclaimed that I’m helping you clean up.”

“We needed to talk,” she pointed out.

“Yes, we did. But you’re in the laboratory all the time, and then you did that, and it’s like…like…my mother.”

“I spend a lot of time in the laboratory at school,” she pointed out.

“Yes, but I’m not there.” He sighed and slumped. “I’m sorry, Rose. I really wanted you to meet my family, really wanted you to like them. And you do, I get that,” he added, holding up a hand to stop her from interrupting him. “But you’re always so sweet, you always seem so normal when we’re at school.”

“It will be okay, Kraus. Come, let’s clean up.”

He nodded and turned to the table.

The evening was better. They read in the parlor in front of the fire together. Matthew smiled at them as he left his writing to scrounge for leftovers in the kitchen, and Igor brought them cocoa and apple mice as dark fell, looking anxiously at them. She gave him a reassuring smile and he inclined his head, his right eye slowing in its orbit, before shuffling off again. When they went to brush their teeth she leaned her head on his shoulder, and he rubbed her lower back.

In the morning she emerged from the bedroom yawning and smiling contentedly. Igor was in the kitchen, his long arms draped on the counter as he looked out the window.

“Good morning, Miss Rose.” he said, turning to pour coffee for her.

“Good morning, Igor!” she answered brightly. She joined him looking out the window at the dilapidated fence of the industrial park and the woods beyond it. “Oh, there’s Matthew.” She pointed to the blond figure striding up the hill beyond. He climbed handily over the fence walked on for a few strides before pausing, head up. Then he focused on the window where they stood and waved happily. She waved back.

The freight elevator rumbled up and Matthew greeted them cheerfully. “Eggs over easy again, Rose?” he asked.

“Yes, thank you.”

“Sit now! Your holiday’s over and it’s back to being a guest,” he instructed as he pulled eggs from the refrigerator. Igor held her chair for her, then bustled about reaching his long arms up to fetch jam, butter, tea cups and the rest of their breakfast setting.

Matthew regaled them with the goings on of crayfish in the creek while they ate, then retired to write. Igor cleaned up, then stood hesitantly.

“Shall we get to work?” Rose asked him.

“Are you sure, Miss Rose?” he asked. “The young master seemed—”

“It’s fine, Igor. Besides, our cultures must be ready. We can’t let them go to waste.”

“Yes, miss.” Igor stepped aside and hunched his shoulders, making his arms brush the floor, apparently waiting for her to precede him down the stairs.

Many measurements later she heard Kraus call, “Rose?” down the stairs.

“We’ll be at a stopping point in twelve minutes,” she called back. “Would you pour coffee for me?”

After a slight pause she heard, “Okay,” and the creak of the stairs as he went up again.

She looked back at Igor, who was staring at her, his right eye wobbling back and forth. “Next sample?”

“Yes, miss,” he lisped.

Kraus had laid out a snack for them upstairs. She looked at the fruit and pastry on the table, and looped an arm around him and laid her head on his shoulder. “Thanks,” she murmured.

“How much more do you have to do to today?” he asked.

“Another few hours. We should be done by two o’clock. Igor says he’ll run the real time PCR next week from the frozen samples.”

“Yes, miss. The machine needs some maintenance.” Igor hovered behind his chair until Rose sat. “Thank you, young master,” he said to Kraus. “Did you sleep well?”

“Yes, did you sleep well?” Rose asked, arching an eyebrow at Kraus.

“Yes.” He grinned, and leaned in to nuzzle her ear. “Eventually.” She smiled sweetly back at him, and held up a slice of apple to his lips.

Igor hunched across the table from them, his right eye rolling lazily in what Rose now could read as an expression of contentment, steadily smacking as he chewed on a piece of apple. “Are you going to study some more, young master?” he asked.

“Yes, I think I will. You know that accounting class I’ve been fighting with all semester,” he continued, turning to Rose. “I think I need to revisit accrual accounting again.”

“You’ll figure it out,” she assured him. “I’ll come have a look when we’re done if you want.”

“Thanks, Rose.” He nuzzled her ear again. “So are your experiments going well?”

“Yes, I think so. We won’t know until the real time PCR results come back. Of course, our design may be so confounded that it’s useless, but that’s hardly unusual.” She noted Kraus’s smile becoming slightly fixed, and leaned over to kiss his cheek. “Yes, we’re having fun. We’ll see you in a little while.” She stood, ruffling his hair. “Coming, Igor?”

“Yes, miss.”

They had paused for lunch—club sandwiches that Matthew had prepared from the leftovers and slices of sweet potato pie—and settled into a smooth rhythm for the last several cultures. Igor scurried off to the freezer with their samples tucked in their bucket of dry ice while she began cleaning up. He joined her to finish, then followed her closely up the stairs.

“Why don’t you check on the young master and I’ll bring some tea in, miss?” he said as she stretched in the kitchen.

“I’ll do that, thank you.” She skipped into the parlor and threw herself onto the sofa next to Kraus, kissing him on the cheek. “How’s accounting?”

“Still boring. I at least remembered how accrual based accounting works. How was the lab?”

“Relaxing. Our samples are tucked away in the freezer, and we’re done.”

“Tea, miss, young master,” Igor announced, as he brought in a tray. He set it on the side table, poured for each of them, then took his own mug and crouched by the fire. Shortly later Matthew poked his head in, happily accepted Rose’s offer of tea, and established himself in his armchair.

Dinner was more leftovers as the sun set. Igor set them out, and they each filled a plate, bringing them back into the parlor.

“So you’re going back tomorrow?” Matthew asked.

“I suppose we could stay until Sunday,” offered Rose, but both Igor and Kraus shook their heads.

“No bus service on Sunday,” Igor told her.

“We’ve really enjoyed having you with us, Rose,” Matthew told her.

“Indeed, miss,” Igor added.

Rose smiled back at them. “I’ve had a wonderful time.”

“Please feel free to come back to see us. We would love to see you again,” Matthew went on.

“I would like that very much.”

“Good.” He smiled and sat back in his armchair with a sigh. “I need to go to bed so I can be in the forest early. Good night.”

They bade him goodnight. Igor followed soon, bidding them, “Good night, young master. Good night, Miss Rose.”

“Should we pack before we go to bed?” Rose asked Kraus.

“We barely have anything. We’ll have time in the morning.”

“And are you going to wake up in the morning?” she teased him. He rolled his eyes. More seriously she continued, “Kraus, I really have had a wonderful time. I know you have issues with your family, but I think they’re wonderful and so are you.”

“Thanks, Rose.”

“Now, coming to bed?” She stood and held a hand out to him.

It was three weeks later that she received a phone call from New Jersey. “Miss Rose?” she heard a lisping voice ask through the phone.

“Igor?”

“Yes, miss.”

“It’s lovely to hear from you. How are you?”

“We are all fine, miss.”

“And did you get the data I sent you?”

“Yes, miss. The streptomycetes were a much better choice of organism. It is a shame we didn’t have any strains in the freezer when you were here.”

“If I hadn’t had the our data, the lab here wouldn’t have let me use their facilities. Even though that promotor in corynebacteria wasn’t useful, it was hardly wasted effort.”

“I’m glad to hear that, miss.” There was an awkward pause. “Miss Rose, I know that you and Kraus are no longer together…”

“Yes,” she said coldly. Kraus had started avoiding her when they got back, and after a week of this came to her and, not very gently, dumped her.

“I’m sorry, miss. But Matthew and I were wondering…”

“After what he said to me, I doubt we’ll be getting back together, Igor.”

“No, miss. We were wondering if, perhaps, you would like to come for Christmas?”

Rose blinked, and pulled the phone away from her ear and looked at it in astonishment. “Igor,” she said, putting it back to her ear, “did you just invite me for Christmas?”

“Yes, miss. Kraus isn’t coming home, and we would very much like to see you.”

“I…” Her mind raced. “I can’t, I’m sorry.”

A silence. “Ah. Yes, miss.”

“But maybe New Year’s?”

“Miss?” The voice lisped hopefully. Then, apologetically, “We do not generally stay up until midnight.”

“We can have cocoa by the fire and go to bed early,” she assured him.

“Yes, miss. We look forward to it.”

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