Maria been away for a week. A week wasn't all that long. She'd been on much longer assignments. That one time she had to track down a missing cargo ship in that meteor belt way the hell out in the far reaches of the galaxy had taken three months, though that wasn't normal, thank goodness.
The point was, having been away for so short a time, it was reasonable—wasn't it?—to expect her kitchen to be more or less as she'd left it. And yet here it was, full of... things. Mysterious things.
Maria went into the bedroom, put her bags down, and came back out into the living/dining/kitchen, where *Hyun-ae was sitting on the couch.
"*Hyun-ae, what is all this?"
*Hyun-ae looked up and grinned, a little sheepishly. "Baking supplies?"
This clarified nothing. "Are you going to bake?"
"Actually, I was hoping we could bake. I mean, you made a cake for me that one time, and now that I can actually eat it, I thought we could make another one. Together."
Maria hesitated. She didn't want to hurt *Hyun-ae's feelings, but... well, the last time hadn't been much of a success, nice as *Hyun-ae had been about the whole thing. "Baking's not really my strong suit. You know that."
"That's okay!" *Hyun-ae said brightly. "I've never baked before at all. I mean, I helped my mom a few times when I was little, but that was... kind of a long time ago."
"Great, so neither of us knows what we're doing."
"I know, but we just have to follow the recipe, right? It shouldn't be too hard. So can we just try it? Please?"
"I'm not telling you not to do it. I just feel like I'd be more of a hindrance than a help. I mean, I spend half my life on my ship, and it doesn't have much in the way of a kitchen, so I never learned, you know? I can barely boil water."
*Hyun-ae sighed. "Look, I don't mind if the cake doesn't come out perfectly, okay? I'm not trying to win a contest or anything. I just wanted to do something together, because I missed you while you were gone, and... I thought it would be nice." She looked away, biting her lip.
Well, now Maria felt like a jerk. "All right."
*Hyun-ae beamed. "Great! Let me just pull up the recipe."
"But you don't need to, do you? I mean, if you have it memorized..."
"Of course, but it's easier for you if you can see it, right?" *Hyun-ae gestured at the computer and the recipe appeared, projected above the kitchen counter. "Okay, so first we combine the dry ingredients..."
*Hyun-ae produced a mixing bowl from a cabinet (Maria didn't remember having a mixing bowl; had *Hyun-ae bought that too?) and started measuring flour and sugar into it, so Maria picked up the canister of salt and tried to pour it into a measuring spoon. Which should be a simple task, really, except that she misjudged how fast it would pour and ended up spilling some into the flour.
Maria winced. "Should we start over?"
"I'm sure it's fine!" *Hyun-ae said, with more hope than conviction in her tone. "We'll just put a little less in."
"Okay," Maria said doubtfully. She put in a pinch more salt and dumped the rest of the spoonful into the trash while *Hyun-ae added the sugar.
"Right, then, next we melt the butter..." *Hyun-ae muttered, seeming to be talking more to herself than to Maria.
"Why don't you measure out the ingredients for a while and I'll stir?" suggested Maria.
"What?" said *Hyun-ae, who was rattling through a cabinet full of slightly dusty disused kitchenware in search of a saucepan.
"I said, why don't you take over measuring the ingredients? I don't want to be responsible for another accident."
*Hyun-ae emerged from the cabinet, saucepan in hand, and went to rinse it in the sink. "It's no big deal, really! But I'll do it if it'll make you feel better."
The electric stove was slow to heat, so Maria spent a few minutes poking vaguely at the butter with a spoon while it remained rock-solid. "So," she said to *Hyun-ae as the butter finally began to melt, "any word from the historical society?"
*Hyun-ae shook her head. "Nothing. So I guess I could just as well have gone with you."
"Yes, but you couldn't have known in advance, and if they say they don't want you leaving the solar system until they're sure they're done with you..."
"I know," *Hyun-ae said, slumping a little. "It's just... I didn't come all the way to Earth to sit around and wait at home while my spouse goes out into the world to do exciting things, you know? I'd like that part of my life to be behind me."
Maria looked intently at the chunk of unmelted butter remaining in the pan. She hadn't meant to dredge up *Hyun-ae's past. And the "spouse" thing was... well, cohabiting wasn't marriage, but now didn't seem like the time to get into that. "Next time, okay? I mean, if you're sure you want to come instead of finding something exciting to do here. My job's really not that thrilling."
"It's thrilling enough for me," *Hyun-ae said, coming out of her funk enough to start adding the cocoa to the butter. "Although," she added after a moment, "I admit I was disappointed that you don't wear a trenchcoat and a fedora while you investigate—like the detectives in the old movies I used to watch with my dad, you know?"
"Maybe I should start," Maria laughed. "I do most of my work alone, so who'd know? Though I'm not sure where I'd get something like that."
*Hyun-ae frowned thoughtfully as she poured in the boiling water. "Well, the trenchcoat I could probably make, at least..."
"You could make one for yourself too, while you're at it," Maria said. "We'd be the best-dressed investigation team in the galaxy."
"Heh, I can just see it now," *Hyun-ae said. "The dashing detective and her stylish sidekick."
"You don't have to be the sidekick, you know," said Maria. "We could just be... partners."
But *Hyun-ae's attention had been diverted back to the stove. "Oh no," she said, "I think we've left the cocoa mix boiling too long!"
Cursing under her breath, Maria moved the pan off the heat and shut off the burner. "Do you think it's ruined?"
*Hyun-ae peered at it, then sniffed it. "It doesn't seem like it got burnt or anything."
"Should I go ahead and add it to the flour mixture, then?"
"Sure. I mean, we might as well."
Maria did so, and stirred it a little while *Hyun-ae started mixing the rest of the wet ingredients in another bowl. That part, at least, seemed to go off without a hitch, and once it was stirred into the other ingredients, the resulting batter looked and smelled pretty normal, as far as Maria could tell. She stuck a finger into the batter and then licked it, the better to tell if she'd ruined it, but she was still uncertain. Did it taste a little too salty, or was she imagining it?
She let *Hyun-ae do the honors of pouring it into the cake pan and stuck to wiping up the drops that inevitably made their way onto the surrounding countertop.
"Okay," *Hyun-ae said, brushing a lingering bit of flour off her hands. "I think this sucker is ready to go in the oven!"
"And thank goodness for that," Maria said, under her breath.
* * *
"Well," *Hyun-ae began, regarding the finished cake with cautious optimism, "it smells good, anyway!"
"The bottom kind of came off when I removed it from the pan, though. I don't think we greased it enough."
"Now that it's frosted, you can't really tell, though," *Hyun-ae reassured her.
"I guess not. So... shall we try it?"
"Of course!" *Hyun-ae said, already cutting herself a slice. It fell apart a bit further on the way to the plate, but her enthusiasm didn't seem dampened too much.
Maria cut herself a slice and took a bite. It was a little too salty, and a bit dry. Not inedible—it probably wouldn't be too noticeable if you ate the cake with ice cream or something along those lines—but not, most likely, just like mother used to make. She watched, toying with her fork, as *Hyun-ae took her first bite. She was expecting grimacing, gagging, maybe forced politeness, maybe at best something like "hey, this is surprisingly edible!"
She wasn't expecting to see tears well up in *Hyun-ae's eyes.
"Is it that bad?" she said, only half joking. "I mean, I know I'm not a great cook, but I've never made anyone cry before."
*Hyun-ae started to say something, indistinctly, around a mouthful of cake, then swallowed and tried again.
"Don't be silly, you know that's not it," she said, putting down her fork to brush the tears away. "That's not it at all."
"Good," Maria said. "But I think we can do an even better job next time."