Bella goes to gym.
"You were explaining how your clockwork is wound backwards, and I could earn your admiration by provoking you to see if you were a physical threat to me, and also by insisting on tailoring my persona to my preferences and not yours," Bella prompts.
"No, you already did those," he says. "Hell if I know what you're gonna do next; that's part of the fun."
"Could is a past tense verb too," Bella says pedantically. "Like, 'I discovered when I was small that I could get more brownies if I helped myself while they were cooling, instead of waiting for Renée to cut me one.'"
"Okay. The way you said it made it sound kinda like you were building a list for future reference, is all."
She shakes her head. "I only needed to do the experiment once, and I think we're clear on who's driving this thing." She gestures at her head.
"So that's what the experiment was for? You wanted to see if I'd hurt you?"
"Before going home with someone whose primary form of recreation seems to be getting into fights? Yes, that seemed like relevant information - information that I wanted to collect under controlled circumstances. And I had a trigger I'd seen work - so to speak - one and a half times." Pause. "What, did you think I did it just to annoy you? Why would I go out of my way just to annoy someone?"
"I was kind of too busy falling in love to think about your reasons at the time," he says, smiling. "Makes sense. Not sure it worked the way you meant it to, but it makes sense."
"Why does it bother you so much?" Bella asks. "Is it only the one word?"
"Yeah, just that one," he says. "It's like getting punched in the gut, except I like getting punched in the gut. I dunno why. I mean, I'm not exactly gonna argue that the definition applies, y'know?"
"Huh. Do you know when it started? I assume you weren't born with special reactions to any English word."
"Good question," he says, thinks about it, and shrugs. "Not a clue."
"Weird. You realize that because it's obvious, anyone who feels like metaphorically punching you in the gut can do it any time they like. Self-restraint might be worthwhile."
"On the other hand, if it wasn't obvious, you might not have said it," he points out, "and I like that you did."
"How many of me do you think there are?" Bella asks, amused. "Enough to be worth it even now that my historical behavior is a fait accompli? For that matter, did you expect me? Would it have been productive to make any plans contingent on my future arrival?"
"I think there's exactly one of you," he says, laughing. "And you were a complete surprise, that's the point."
"If I lived in a fairy tale universe, giving my lunch to a random hobo could grant me a wish," Bella says. "I won't know if I live in a fairy tale universe until I feed all the hobos in the world, in fact, because perhaps only one is magical. That doesn't mean I should plan for it, because I would wind up being very hungry and having no time for anything else, and even if the hypothesized magic hobo is powerful enough to make all the work worth it if I find them, there might also be zero magic hobos." She makes a vague, expansive gesture. "Here I am, how surprising. That doesn't mean it makes sense to repeat otherwise-a-bad-idea behaviors that happened to pay off. Especially since I'm already here, and as you concede there are not several of me, lurking in the corners and waiting to call you names if only those names are sufficiently obvious."
"Mm, okay, lemme put it another way," he says, tilting his head back to look thoughtfully up at the ceiling. "I don't really do stuff that makes it easier or harder for people to hurt me, because sometimes I like it when people hurt me and sometimes I don't, and I don't know which one it's going to be until it happens."
"Mmm... hm." Bella closes her eyes and tilts her head back. "That doesn't mean there's no useful tweaking to be done. I might want to buy something a telemarketer is selling. I don't know whether I do or not until I listen to the sales pitch. But on average, listening to telemarketers is a waste of time, so our house number is on the do-not-call list. Meanwhile, I haven't asked my mom to stop sending me email forwards that she gets from her floaty silly friends, because while plenty of those are also wastes of time, a fair number of them are cute or interesting, enough that it's usually an okay bet to spend the time opening the message. I bet there are ways you could make it harder - or easier, for that matter - to hurt you in particular ways, that would make things better overall. There's no reason to think that the exact amount currently happening is exactly right."
"I'm falling in love with you again," he informs her, smiling crookedly.
"How many times can one do that, really? Surely it's redundant by now," yawns Bella, smiling slightly. "Unless you've been falling back out each time when I wasn't looking."
"Well, maybe I need a more accurate phrase. I'm falling in love with you more?" he tries.
"This must be one heck of a deep pit, with a lot of really convenient ledges," Bella muses.
"Pretty sure it's bottomless, actually."
She smiles. "You're very cute when you want to be."