“What is it?”
“These coffee biscuits. They’re terrible.”
“... I didn’t want to say it… but you’re kind of right…”
The café’s busy chitter chatter unfortunately doesn’t do much to stifle the noise that comes from their table. Between the rattle of the plates as Ryne carefully pushes them aside and the rattle of Gaia’s ranting about just how terrible these biscuits are, they turn heads for more reasons than simply being a strikingly unfamiliar face and the Oracle of Light.
“I’m not sure why they crumble in your mouth so easily. They’re just so dry… and I shouldn’t have to dip my coffee biscuits in my coffee. Not to mention that weird aftertaste.”
“I swear they were amazing when I tried them last week! Maybe they’re trying a new recipe? Or maybe they ran out of butter again. I heard the management was trying to get some from Wright, but they want to think more about their own people right now —”
“Whatever it is, they should fix it immediately. My mouth feels sandier than Amh Araeng.”
“How about we go try something else? There’s a new tea shop that opened last —”
“Pass. You know how it goes. ‘Fool me once’...”
With a huff, Gaia folds her arms over her chest, grimacing over to nothing in particular. A heavy silence hangs over them — their dispute being over something as light as teatime snacks.
“... So, did you prefer this or the wriggler cakes?”
Gaia’s eyes snap right back onto Ryne’s.
“Is that some kind of a joke?”
“I’m just asking! Between you and me...” She leans forward to whisper. “I definitely preferred the wriggler cakes.”
Her amethyst eyes narrow into slits, the frame of her lashes acting as cracks around the jewels. For one so tremendously mistreated by their people — and to an extent, Gaia herself — Ryne is so peculiarly persistent in being kind. Her unwaveringly optimistic attitude, like that out of a faerietale, does liken her to a mythical princess. That and the picturesque poise of her delicate smile, like a smooth carving into porcelain…
And whatever knife cut it must be piping hot; Gaia can already feel herself melting.
“It’s definitely the lesser of two evils,” she mumbles. Then, after a pause: “I suppose we could order something else. But let’s stay here. We got in early, so we have all the time in the world.”
“Ah, I don’t mind at all. Let’s try again.” Before Ryne is able to perform the unnecessary charity of taking both the menus in the center of the table, only to hand one back, Gaia takes one for herself. After, she continues taking — specifically, that of furtive glances over her menu. Ryne doesn’t notice. She’s too busy running her finger under each and every item description.
“Is your old man gonna be okay with you coming back late?” Gaia asks.
“Well, he’s not my father .” Ryne’s cheeks flush for just a moment, their rosy glow fading just as fast as it comes. “He’ll be fine with it. Besides, even if he wasn’t, he has to be okay with it eventually.”
“Why do you think that? You know when it comes to parents, age really is just a number… He’ll probably act all the same with you when you’re thirty.”
“He’s not my father!” Ryne stretches the menu out over her face. “And it’s because he doesn’t have much of a choice. He’ll have to go back where he came from soon, and whether he likes it or not, I’m going to be making my own choices.”
“Where he came from?”
“Uh… It’s a long story.”
Yet another stolen look over her menu. This time around, she catches a new expression on Ryne’s face. Not one of embarrassment, the one she saw moments ago; rather, one of wistfulness. A forlorn acceptance.
“You’ll be alright,” Gaia says, her tone dangerously dismissive in her quick effort to dissipate the awkwardness she’s caused. “That just means more freedom to do what you want, when you want. I want the mango pudding.”
“Ah, that’s what I wanted as well. It looks so well decorated…”
“I just want it because it hasn’t got any milk or butter in it.”
“Hehe, that too!”
The server, as if waiting upon their every sentence, strides over to their table without so much as a wave of the hand. “Any further orders, ladies?” she asks, holding up her notepad. She clearly already knows the answer.
“Could we get two mango puddings, please?” Ryne hands over the stacked plates.
“Ah, I’m really sorry, but we’ve only got one mango pudding left. Is that alright?”
Ryne looks expectantly to Gaia. This only makes her brow furrow further. Why should she be the one who decides for her? For some reason, Ryne’s all too eager to please attitude makes her angrier than anything else. The girl truly doesn’t owe her anything. After all, they’re already friends.
“You can have it if you want,” Gaia says.
“What? No, I couldn’t.”
“I can always get it some other time.” She’s not sure when she last said those words.
“But this is your first time here!” In a huff, she stacks the menus, then hands them back to the waitress as well. “Could we get the one mango pudding with two spoons, please?”
“Of course. It’ll be right with you, miss.”
Gaia throws her hands up.
“What in the seven hells?! I told you you could have it.”
“This is our treat. I’m not the only one who needs a break… In fact, I think you need it more than I do.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I… I just mean you’ve been through a lot. And while I’ve had people to support me, you’ve been alone for a while…”
Normally, she’d retort that being alone isn’t all so bad. That she’s been fine with it before, and she’s fine with it now. But something tugs at her conscience urging her to keep her mouth shut for once. Perhaps it’s the deep blue of Ryne’s almost apologetic eyes that, like the tide, pull at her, begging her not to shun the girl. Their familiar silence hangs over them again, but this time it’s of Gaia’s acceptance rather than her stubbornness.
“Here you are!”
“Ah?” Ryne perks up, setting her sights on the dessert on their table. “That was so fast.”
“It probably came straight from the fridge, right?” She shoots a look at the waitress.
“Enjoy,” mumbles the server, scurrying away from the table. Before Gaia can prevent it, Ryne does her obligatory nicety of distributing the spoons once equidistant between them. As Gaia takes the tiny dessert spoon, she looks upon the pudding with scrutiny, and even moreso she looks at Ryne expectantly.
“No, no... you first.”
“You’re paying for it.”
“But I’m treating you!”
“Fine. On three.”
“Okay, okay… One…”
In a swift motion, the two lean in and scoop up the pudding. To Gaia’s surprise, the spoon that makes its way into her mouth isn’t her own, which hangs in her hand still over the bowl, but rather the one in Ryne’s grip.
“Got you!” she cheers, still holding the spoon. With a muffled noise of protest, Gaia finds she’s unable to quip back at all, and instead opts to swallow the spoonful she’s been given. Once the silver’s removed from her lips, she flushes in embarrassment.
“What was that?!”
“I really did get you!”
“Yes, you ‘tricked’ me into having the first bite of your dessert… Who’s really winning here?”
Unlike Ryne, the rosy quality of her cheeks doesn’t quite dissipate for a while. She continues to blaze through the dessert with barely any room to breathe as Ryne takes her sweet time on each bite. This time, Gaia doesn’t bother stealing glances. The slow rise of her gaze meets Ryne’s. She has no idea how long the latter’s been there.
She finally takes a break from her onslaught on the pudding.
“Mm?” The Oracle’s mid-mouthful.
“I don’t know where your old man’s going, but…” She trails off.”
“Give me a second!” Gaia sighs exasperatedly. So impatient , this girl. She swallows her spoonful before continuing. “You’re not going to be… alone , you know that? Times have changed. Eulmore isn’t what it was anymore.”
Ryne smiles at Gaia again. This time, while her smile is perfect, pristine, and carved into porcelain, it doesn’t quite seem like one that comes from the heart. As if the other’s chewed on the words but hasn’t swallowed them.
“I mean you were never alone alone,” Gaia continues. “But you’re not going to be treated like some zoo animal. People are going to want to be your friend.” A pause. “I’m your friend. I’m not going anywhere.”
The quality of Ryne’s smile changes. From that on a doll’s face, her grin turns into one that shows bare teeth, runs lopsided and genuine, glows from a deeper place. It’s enough to make Gaia smile, if only for a second. The corners of her lips turn up despite the strain, and in this moment, they share more than the pudding.
“Thank you, Gaia.”
That blush still hasn’t quite left Gaia’s face.
“Especially because I’ll be needing new clothes,” Gaia continues, averting her eyes from Ryne’s baby blues, pretending to investigate the mango pudding. “I’ve been looking around, and it looks like mine are hopelessly out of fashion.”
“Oh, I just got the best idea for where we can go on our second date!”
“S-Second date? Shut up.”
“Hm…” Ryne’s grin turns to a smirk. “I feel like you already knew what this was...”
“Whatever you say.”