It takes quite a while for Rita to admit to herself that she might be in love.
To a large extent of course, it's just because she has nothing to use as a basis for comparison: certainly her parents' nonexistent presence in her life doesn't give her much to go on with their equally nonexistent relationship. And while there aren't a lot of aspects she misses out on by not having human friends - certainly not when she generally doesn't even get along with people and vice-versa - blastia generally aren't known for falling in love with each other. So no help there. And sure, she reads a lot, but mostly research articles and scientific-magical theory and generally nonfiction; the only romance there was the romance of discovery. (And she doesn't even like that term, really - discovering new things was supposed to be a practical, sensible business).
So for the longest time, she thinks that what she feels about Estelle is a completely normal and mundane reaction to simply having a friend who was, you know, another person. (And she doesn't even want to use the word 'friend' at first.) Sure, she comes up with reasons to follow her all over the globe, but it's not like they aren't perfectly real and valid reasons in their own right. There are a lot of things out there that it's just more useful to research in person, especially as the aer keeps behaving in stranger and stranger ways, and if they're both traveling in the same direction it's just logical to travel together. It's not like it's a big inconvenience, and never mind that she's hardly left Aspio before.
And sure, when it's up to her she probably spends more time around Estelle than anyone else in their party, because of course. Theirs is a group variously composed of idiots, weirdos, criminals, and Raven. She likes being around all of them - likes them - much more than she ever intends to openly admit, but it's just obvious, to everyone, that Estelle's the nicest and best person in their group. (She's certainly nicer than Rita is). So no wonder she's the one that Rita spends the most time near.
Even if she's too nice for her own good sometimes. Which is, obviously, the only reason Rita spends so much time worrying about her - because someone has to! Estelle acts most of the time like people are fundamentally good even though she's a potential heir to an empire which constantly proves that they're not, and through no fault of her own the powers that she only wants to use to help people are seen as either threats or tools by what sometimes seems like half the world. Of course she needs someone to worry about her. And sure, there are other people who would do that: Yuri would do pretty much anything for her, and while half the knights they run into are thugs in nice armor the other half would go to any length to protect their princess (even if they don't always bother to, you know, ask Estelle about how to do it). But there's only one Estelle and there's a whole lot of bad guys out there, so it only makes sense for Rita to make sure that she has that extra bit of help and protection when she needs it.
But then. Then eventually they're all back together, in the imperial palace after the battle for Zaphias, having some time to rest and relax a little, for the first time in what seems like weeks, and Rita can finally try and stop thinking about what Estelle might be going through at the hands of the absolute worst particular bad guy they've run into (and keep on not thinking about what they might have had to do if she hadn't managed to bring her powers back under control). And it's then that, tinkering with a formula to help her friend, surrounded by all of the books that Estelle grew up with the way she herself did blastia - books of a decidely more fairy-tale-romance-filled nature than the ones back in her own home - that Rita starts to seriously wonder, for the first time, if she might just be kidding herself.
And much later, as they're leaving the Blade Drifts behind with, for the first time, a really solid theory about how to save the world - a theory that only exists because Estelle's just done something incredible, something completely impossible, something that turns absolutely all of the data she's been acquiring on the interelationship of aer and mana and matter, and the Entelexeia, and really just the general basic laws of how the world works - that's when Rita finally decides that she has to face the facts and admit it to herself.
I think I'm in love. I think I'm in love with Estelle.
Which of course means the next problem is how to admit it to Estelle.
The problem isn't simple. She's afraid of rejection, of course - how could she not be? Estelle's too - Estelle - for it to be anything but the kindest possible rejection, but still, just in purely statistical terms the overall odds are that Estelle simply doesn't even like girls that way. And if she does, Rita doesn't think it's being too self-deprecating to realize that if there's a female member of their party who's the most likely to have someone fall for her, it's not her. (Or - honestly - Estelle. Rita's admitted to herself who she's in love with, but even so she's not afraid to admit that Judith is beautiful.)
But rejection is something she can live with. Not being around people is something she's used to, and really that's not going to wind up happening no matter what. A year ago she never expected to have actual people as friends, and certainly never wanted it, and now that she has and knows what it's like, she absolutely knows she can be happy being friends and nothing more with Estelle. They spend a lot of time together as it is; if it's not 'together' together, well, honestly, it's not like she knew she wanted that before. She'd be happy, and Estelle would be happy, no matter what, and that was the important thing. At most there'd be a few awkward weeks after she said something. That wouldn't be great but it was certainly survivable.
Of course by that same line of thought, she doesn't have to say anything at all. If things are fine the way they are, why rock the flying boat, right? Or however that expression goes. Plus, the plan to use the spirits is a pretty solid one and the theory's held up in practice so far, but she's never seen or read about anything like the Adephagos before, ever, so maybe this still isn't the best time to be focusing on something as absurd as romance, right? Right.
Except... she's certain this is going to work, so is there really a need to worry about waiting? And she doesn't think Estelle feels the same way about her, she really doesn't; she's only ever used the word 'friends', never hinted at anything more than Rita can tell. She's probably the only one of their group by this point not to have teased Rita about how easily and furiously she blushes around her. But Estelle's also sheltered, and 'ladylike', and still working a little on taking the initiative. And she does spend all that time with her, is so happy to be around her... So she might be wrong: it's at least possible she feels the same way and just hasn't said anything. And if that's the case, then just staying quiet and never admitting how she feels would be a huge missed opportunity on Rita's part, would it? She's happy being friends, but it couldn't hurt to at least find out if they could be something more.
Also, it would feel like giving up. And Rita Mordio emphatically does not like to give up.
The problem with saying something, though, is: how is she supposed to say it? Just walk up and say "Estelle, I think I'm in love with you?" No. Definitely not. She's blushing ridiculously just thinking it. She could never just... blurt something out like that. Besides, wouldn't it maybe be rude or something? Weren't nobles supposed to have this whole courtship thing? Estelle's definitely not the kind to be too bothered about that sort of silly protocol nonsense - she's formal and dreamy, but nothing even remotely like stuck-up. But she still shouldn't just ignore it, right?
Maybe she could... hint at something? Except, how? It wasn't like she had even the slightest experience with flirting, or suggestiveness... Or in general not speaking her mind. Ever. (Also, honestly, given that the entire rest of their group seemed to have figured out how she felt before she did, if Estelle didn't already know hinting was not gonna work.)
More and more she's coming around to the idea that the only thing to do here is ask for help from the guild. They were friends, far-fetched and unlikely as that was given how ridiculously different and strange they all were. Maybe even, mushy as the word sounds in her head, family. She's never actually had a family, of course, but she certainly knows enough about the concept to know that this sort of thing is what they're supposed to be there for. Different or not.
The only real problem with this idea is that it's terrible.
"Well, for starters - " Raven begins. They were gathered in the common area of an inn in Capua Nor, and Estelle wasn't there - ostensibly she'd gone out somewhere to shop, but Rita suspected it was more another vain (but cute) attempt to bond with Repede. It had seemed, briefly, like a good moment to ask for advice.
She holds up a hand. "Actually, you know what? Let me rephrase that. How would any of you besides the old man tell someone that you... liked them?" She turns redder. "Romantically."
"Or-or show them, I guess," she adds. (Showing might actually work better. Wasn't that a principle Estelle had talked about in writing, or something like that?)
"Well honestly, when Flynn and I have had a hard time talking things out loud, we fight. Swords can be a pretty good means of communication."
She glares at Yuri. "Are you crazy? I'm not gonna challenge Estelle to a sword fight! And besides, considering that your boyfriend spends half his time trying to arrest you I don't really think you're any better a source for romantic advice than the old man is!"
"I mean, Rita, you're not exactly leaving a lot of us left to ask," the kid speaks up. "I've never even had a girlfriend. And n-not that I know that much about this sort of thing, but one of the things I've learned since traveling with you guys is that doing something just to impress someone is kind of dumb and selfish. I know you don't want to, but maybe you should just go ahead and tell Estelle - "
She balls up her fists and he backs rapidly away. "O-or not! Your choice!"
She feels her whole face below her goggles assuming a definite glare shape, which she directs towards the group in general. "Come on, seriously? Him aside you're all older and supposed to be more experienced with life than me, right? You've got to have some idea of how to... do something like this!"
"If only there was someone here with both a lot of years under his belt and a lot of familiarity with lovin' the ladies, who hadn't been immediately dismissed..." Raven says, gazing in the direction of thin air. She's turning her glare back on him when Judith steps in.
"Maybe you could just try getting something for her? A present, or maybe a favorite meal?"
Rita grumbles, of course. "A meal? You remember I've never bothered to learn to cook beyond 'it's food, let's eat it', right?"
"I didn't say you'd have to make it yourself," the Krityan returns.
"Though," Yuri puts in with a smirk, "you definitely don't need the ability to cook to have a good relationship."
Judy gives him an amused look. "You're never going to let him live that contest down, are you?"
"Nope." He turns back to Rita. "You could just... I don't know, bake her some cookies or something. Estelle's definitely a cookie kind of girl."
"Make 'em heart-shaped, too," Raven adds, "so she knows what you're going for."
"That is... actually not a completely terrible idea," she replies slowly. "I guess it does sort of sound like... Except I've never baked cookies in my life."
"You're a mage. Can't ya just use fire magic for baking?" Raven again, of course, though Karol immediately supports him.
Rita snorts. "And we're now back to the completely terrible id... wait. Wait. No one's ever bothered adapting combat magic for mundane utilities when there are preexisting formulae, but if I create a variant on the standard formula for a fireball with altered values for temperature and area-of-effect... Hmm. Normally you can't just up-and-modify a spell like that, but the overall aer flow regulation is so different now that the spirits exist that it might be possible to create a minor shift without any blastia modification and only minimal time..."
(As she walks off muttering to herself, behind her back the rest of the group exchanges amused, knowing glances).
About two hours later, she knocks at the door of Estelle's room. Thinking as she does that this is exactly why she prefers practical, sensible theory and experimentation to wild ideas.
She's managed to clean off pretty much all of the soot from herself; she's never cared much about appearance beyond what's convenient, and maybe wanting to avoid the general 'stuffy mage robes look' of most of Aspio's researchers a little, but there's certainly no need to look any more ridiculous right now than she's already going to. But the smoky smell is still there, and it's especially wafting from the box she's carrying. She's already decided, though, that she's not gonna hide from Estelle - that's the entire point of this. Still, this is going to be so embarrassing -
Estelle opens the door. Her face lights up in that way she had never really believed faces actually did before meeting Estelle, and Rita feels her own face immediately turning red.
"Rita! Hi! I've been wondering where you were. Yuri told me you were shut up in your room for hours, but he wouldn't tell me why. And then a little while ago I thought I heard the innkeeper shouting something about smoke. You're all right, right?"
"Y-yeah, it's fine. I'm fine. I was going to give you these, but, um..."
Estelle gives something between a gasp and a squeal and reaches for the box lid. "You were baking me something, Rita? That's..." Her face falls slightly but perceptibly as the lid comes off, revealing a bunch of malformed, charred lumps that do not in any way resemble heart shapes. Or cookies. Or edible baked goods of any kind.
But of course being Estelle she rallies almost immediately. "That's so sweet. Are these cookies?"
Rita looks down, blushing even worse than before. "They were supposed to be. But - y-yeah, it turns out that modifying my fire spells on the fly... well, I probably needed a lot more time to think about it, or a more stable aer situation. Or probably both."
"Why didn't you ask me for help? I could have talked to Efreet about it. I'm sure a spirit controlling fire would have been able to help you do exactly what you were trying to."
Well, this had worked out about as badly as possible. At least as far as showing rather than telling went.
Rita sighs in resignation. "Because they were supposed to be a surprise for you."
Estelle blushes slightly. Rita thinks it looks better on her than it ever does when she's seen her own reflection, but she admits that might not be an objective opinion. "Oh, I see. Well, if that's the case, I'm sure they'll be just fine anyway! Everyone always says that you can always taste the love in someone's cooking if that's what they made it with, even if it otherwise might not taste that good, and I'm sure - "
The word is out in the air. Love.
"Wait. Y-you know...?"
"Rita," Estelle says, gently amused, "I spent most of my childhood with books as nearly my only friends, and most of them at least had a romantic subplot." She looks down. "I just wasn't sure if I should say anything. You always seemed so embarrassed about it - "
If Rita had been the lead character of one of those books Estelle was talking about (at least from what she'd picked up in the time they'd been traveling together), she thinks, this probably would have been the time to completely throw caution to the wind and go in for a kiss. But instead she just says "W-well, this is me... this is me trying to not be embarrassed about it. As embarrassed about it."
Estelle reaches out with one hand and takes one of hers. It doesn't actually feel any different from any of the other times they've had physical contact in the past, and Rita's not entirely sure if that's how this is supposed to work or not, but at least she isn't blushing any worse than she already is. (Though that might just mean her face is already as red as it can get.)
"Good. I'm happy."
They're silent for a moment, then Rita decides to come out and admit it: "So, I have no idea what to say now."
"Well, why don't we just sit down and eat these cookies?" Estelle replies, and Rita suddenly finds that she does know what to say:
"H-how about... How about we just go out somewhere and get some from a store or something? Because, I mean, whatever 'everyone' always says, those things just turned out gross. I mean, seriously, from now on if we want cookies we can just buy them. Because look at these."
Estelle giggles. "Oh, Rita, you're always so practical!"
But Rita's not entirely sure that's true. On one level trying to bake cookies with fire magic has proven a wild, impulsive idea that was a predictably total failure. But on another level... on another level, maybe not so much.