As it happened, one ordinary day in the middle of Wyvern Moon, Raphael Kirsten decided he needed to be his own man. Which could mean many things, but in his case, it meant not relying on the kitchen staff for food.
He was going to get pretty decent at it in the future, but in order to get there, he had to start now. Plus, he didn’t know he’d get pretty decent at it (or at anything really, other than his usual talent for bulk-building), because the future is the future and the now is now.
And in the now, he was absolutely starving.
The question was how he should start. His friend Leonie did some cooking on the side, and was absolutely great at it – she could transform simple scraps into a much tastier scrap-soup, and even pickled greens got elevated far above average. Not that Raphael was the pickiest kind of person, when it came to that.
He was not quite on Leonie’s level, obviously. He’d have to start simple. He imagined himself parading around with stacks of fine cheese-grilled steaks and mashed potatoes, but steadily, he backed away from that image until he reached a memory he had long since forgotten.
Hadn’t his parents used to trade with a bakery across the street, when he was just a young boy? He distinctly remembered the smell as the bakers came by to visit, and he always got a small, small pastry for being ‘a good kid’ (all he’d done was carry plates off the table and help them with carrying a few barrels of their sweet-smelling cargo – just helping out, like any kid would, right?).
That pasty… He put his hand out, imagined it lying there just like it had used to. It had been a sort of… buttery thing, a shortcrust pastry, baked into a golden brown and with a swirl of raspberry jam in the middle.
Seemed simple enough. Raspberries were not that hard to find, either.
Raphael walked down to the market, and after getting slightly distracted by a vendor offering glazed meat skewers (one cannot bake on an empty stomach, he decided as he parted with a few of his coins), he returned to the dormitories with a basket filled with raspberries hanging elegantly from his arm, an anvil on a rolling cart behind him, and a barrel filled with grapes over his back.
Might as well get some errands done when he was at the market anyway, he figured. There had to be someone somewhere who had use for an old anvil or two, after all.
The kitchen staff gladly let him use his own space for his cooking projects, as thanks for the grapes. The head chef even looked over his shoulder (metaphorically, since he was about twice her height) to give him inputs. Though she gave her advice, Raphael wasn’t sure what he could do differently, when the baking tools were like small toys in his hands and butter and eggs and flour and sugar covered his shirt after his many attempts as blending and kneading. He insisted on doing it all himself, despite that. As he said with a smile at the head chef, ‘you don’t build muscle without training, and you don’t get better at cookin’ without practice!’
Once he’d finished burning himself for using the too-small oven mitts, he put his pastries out to cool, and he almost got a little misty-eyed at the sight of them. They were too big, uneven to a fault, flat and undercooked and absolutely beautiful.
With such an accomplishment, Raphael didn’t want to just eat them, then and there. This was a victory! And a victory had to be shared with friends.
He put the pastries carefully into the same basket he’d carried the raspberries in, and walked to the first floor of the dormitories. Plenty of Black Eagles were mingling around the place, but none of his own house. And while he’d love to share his victory with every fellow student, he didn’t have quite that many. He’d have to save that for another time.
He kept walking, and up the stairs to the second floor, humming all the while. The second floor was for nobles only, but that didn’t mean a commoner like him couldn’t pass through.
And, by good grace, he spotted Hilda not too far along the wooden corridor.
“Heya, Hilda!” Raphael called out to her, and a Blue Lion student jumped in surprise at the sound, but Hilda herself merely spun around with her head tilted and her pigtails swirling around her. She didn’t spook easily.
“Raphael! And at the perfect time, too!” Hilda skipped up to him and said in a low voice, “Marianne invited some of us to her dorm room. That’s like, a once in a lifetime thing, you know?”
Raphael grinned. That was perfect, an opportunity to let every single Golden Deer taste his masterpieces. He wouldn’t say no to that, indeed.
Hilda waved at him to follow with a secretive smile, and barged in through the fourth door down the corridor.
“Heeyy, Mari-anne”, she sung, and then stepped out of the way so Raphael could duck down and follow her inside.
Raphael wasn’t disappointed, per se, but it turned out not to be his entire house in there. Just Marianne, sitting on the couch with some batch of papers in her lap, and Claude, his feet on top of the little green couch’s backrest, his back on the seat, and his head hanging from the edge. Both of them looking both startled and confused.
“Oh, uhm, R-raphael”, Marianne greeted him, her hand clutched over her chest. “I’m sorry, I didn’t—“
“Heard there was a get-together!” Raphael said with his widest smile, and put his basket down on the table in front of the couch. “I’ve made pastries!”
Marianne cringed a little at the impact of the basket. Raphael knew she was the opposite of Hilda, in many regards – and one being that she spooked very easily. She was intimidated by him especially, he knew that, but who could say no to free pastries and some hearty excuse to bond as classmates?
Not Marianne, at least. As soon as she was over her shock (which took a few seconds, while the rest of them waited in silence), Marianne peeked into the basket.
“Oh”, she said. She picked up one of the pastries, and turned it slowly in her palm. Then, she smiled – a very, very little smile, but she was a very, very little person, so it checked out.
“They’re quite… nice”, she said.
“Of course they are!” Raphael laughed so the glasses trembled on the table. “I made them!”
Marianne took a careful bite, but before she got to say anything else, Hilda hopped down onto the couch as well, nibbling on one of the pastries.
“So, what’re we doing here?” she began, her eyes on Marianne. “Lemme guess, we’re gonna go through some battle tactics so we can impress Teach with our planning skills? Make it seem like we made it all up on the spot? Though we should wait for the others first, right?”
“Uhhm”, Marianne began, with a careful, darting look on Hilda. “Actually… I only meant that you and Claude should come.” Her gaze darted to Raphael, and she hurried to add; “You can stay! I don’t mind, uhm… These are good.” She gestured with the pastry in her hand.
Hilda’s mouth turned into a round o. “What, Marianne, I’m sorry—“
“No, no, it’s my fault”, Marianne hurried to say, and shook her head. “You can start with talking battle tactics, actually… I don’t… know how to begin…”
“Are you sure?” Hilda asked, leaning forward with a troubled expression. Raphael leaned forward and took one of his pastries. He might be better off leaving, but Marianne said it was fine for him to stay, and to be honest, he wanted to know what the rest of them thought of his pastries. And, he wanted to try one for himself, at least.
Marianne, nodded, and Hilda leaned her head in her hand with a sigh. “All right, then! Battle tactics! Boring stuff! Claude, you’re the boss, or something—don’t you have a plan to like, do some chemistry and poison the enemy a little? You know, ‘hair of fire, foot of hare’—“
"That's alchemy", Claude said, his hair hanging down as he lay upsidedown on the couch. "There's a difference."
"Difference how?" Hilda snorted.
"One is science, the other is… magicification of substances."
“Cooking is a bit like both, then”, Raphael added helpfully. “It’s a science because it’s difficult, and alchemy because the result is magical.”
“In your case, I don’t know if I agree on the last bit”, Claude said jokingly, as he took another bite of the pastry and sat upright. “But keep working on it!”
Marianne’s gaze had darted to and fro between all three of them, her focus changed each time another spoke, and silently ate her raspberry pastry.
“Well, I’m in favor for a bit of whatever-it’s-called”, Hilda concluded and crossed her arms. “Because that means I get to stay behind for a bit. The less fighting I gotta do, the better!”
“It’s maybe a bit unfair, though?” Raphael objected, and finally decided to sit down and be less awkward.
Hilda narrowed her eyes at him. “You can punch guys in a fair fight all you want, but I’m delicate, you know?”
Raphael had learned in his time at the monastery that there was no use arguing that, even though he’d seen Hilda smash her axe into an enemy so hard they were flung across half the field (slight exaggeration, but still). So he simply ate his first bite of the pastry, and was flung back to a time of bustling streets right outside his windows, and smiling customers, and two parents who grinned supportively as he showed off how much dinner he could eat. They’d been food enthusiasts too, after all.
He was abruptly brought back from that sensation by a pat on his knee, and moved his gaze down on Claude, who was leaning over to him.
“Hey, big guy”, he said, a concerned frown on his face. “You were spacing out a little, there. Are you all right?”
Hilda had whipped her head around as though she’d been interrupted. Maybe she’d kept talking, and Raphael just hadn’t noticed.
“Yes”, Raphael said with a smile. He felt warm in his heart, and being here with friends who cared about him made his eyes a bit misty, again. “I used to eat these with my parents.”
Hilda’s mouth turned back into an ‘o’. “Oh, no, Raphael, I just ate them without thinking—and I didn’t even tell you I thought they were super tasty—so rude! I’m so sorry!”
Raphael shook his head, took the rest of the pastry. “I’s all right, really. I like remembering them, and – shoot, I’ve got to make these for my little sis!”
Hilda got started on words of encouragement, but she immediately quieted once Marianne spoke up.
“I wanted to talk… about my family too.”
No one said anything, and Marianne stared down into the floor. Then, she slowly brushed her fingers along the papers in her lap.
“I’ve… written a story”, she continued. “I'm not good at telling stories, but... It’s about a dream I had, and I didn’t want to forget it, because it was so… sweet.” She looked up at them, and her gaze rested on Claude. “My family is frightening, both of my families, and… in this dream, it was much easier.”
She looked down on her papers, and cleared her throat. She hadn’t spoken so much in one go, ever – not when Raphael was around, anyway.
Hilda put a hand over her back, and watched her with an excited smile. And that had Marianne smile a little, too.
“In this story, one of my mothers is a simple noblewoman, and she’s about to be married to a nobleman, but… She falls in love with a witch from the woods, instead. And their love is so strong, they make their own life far away from everything… with a little herbal garden, filled with magical flowers. And they have me, and I grow up far away from big things, just me and that garden and a bird feeder…”
“Aw”, Hilda sighed. “That’s so romantic. You dreamt this?”
“Y-yes”, Marianne stammered. “I know it’s… probably bothersome… for me to be sharing this, I’m sorry…”
“Hey! No! None of that!” Hilda said, and patted her back.
“As I recall”, Claude added; “It was I who asked what you were working on when you were writing this, and that's why we're here in the first place. It’s not bothersome at all! We’re your friends, and we love hearing what you’re up to.”
“Hear hear”, Hilda said and gave her half a hug.
Marianne was tense in her arms, and she glanced on Raphael instead.
“It’s not that I’m displeased with… my family, I am lucky to have them, I realize. But sometimes, it’s just easier to… dream a little.”
Raphael nodded and leaned on his knees with a smile. “Are you apologizing because mine is gone?”
“Uhm”, Marianne said, her eyes trembling. “…Yes.”
“Well, I don’t mind!” Raphael clasped his hands. “Accidents happen, sometimes. And I still have my lil’ sis. And living here, with a group like we got here—there’s no use to be living in the past, right?”
“Aww”, Hilda said and hopped over to Raphael. “Just let me give you a hug.” She put her arms around his arm in a quick hug, and he almost believed she’d ask for some sort of favor in return for gracing him with her embrace, but she didn’t. Instead, she pulled him closer, so that he’s led to sit even more squished beside the rest of them in the couch.
At first Raphael thought Marianne would mind, but she didn’t cringe or jump at the movement. Instead, she leaned over the basket, and asked; “May I… have another one?”
Raphael grinned and nodded, and took one for his own as well.
That was where he remained for the rest of the day. Neither he nor Marianne spoke much more, but they sat together in a too-small couch and listened to Claude and Hilda’s witty battles, and added to some things, but mostly, they just spent their free time away from studies and battles and rebels of the church.
The future is the future, and the now is the now, Raphael thought. And the now just happens to be absolutely wonderful, so that’s where he’ll stay. For as long as he’s able.