Chapter 1: Valentine's Day, 7 Years after the Death of the Sun
"The big glass counter with all the cakes is a bit tacky, don't you think?" Sakura leaned in closer, keeping her voice down to avoid letting the staff hear she was insulting them. We could have waited, of course, but we were out checking the various cafés around Fortitude to come up with ideas for our own, so it was best to make sure to note things immediately before we forgot. The whole thing would be wasted and we'd be even further behind on earning something if we didn't get good notes out of this trip. Money was tight enough as it was...
I nodded, quickly jotting down a note. "Yeah. And it takes up a lot of space too and we'd have to sell a lot for all those cakes to not just spoil. It's probably a better idea to get one of the little ones that sit on the corner of the counter like they have at Hennesey's. Then we can use the space to display the masks and paintings. It makes the room less cluttered."
The whole plan behind it all was to help finance the Archive. Make sure our home stayed open and in business without having to rely on the charity of the neighbors. I mean, they'd probably do it, but still, feeling like you could fend for yourself is a pretty basic human goal. And it'd help pay back the Professor for letting me stay, despite... In any case, we were going to start an art shop and café to help finance the Archive and the Professor's habit of letting orphans stay there.
"What about the furniture? It's pretty light, good for an informal café and easy to move when we clean in the evening. It's not quite as basic as what you get in the coffee shops over in Arcadia either. It's still got a classic look. Like you'd see on old photos from Paris back in the early 20th century." I looked back up to see Sakura's thoughts on this, she nodded in assent. "I wonder where we'd buy something like this, though."
We should probably try to make service a bit faster than here, though. We'd been there for a while and the café was empty. It was because it was Valentine's, all the people out on dates were over in Bluebell Park already and everybody else stayed away to avoid the appearance of being on a date. Some people were probably staying away to avoid the commodification of the holiday. Whatever it was, we were the only customers and still hadn't seen any staff.
"The menu's pretty classic. Some light meals, pancakes, all the cakes over there..."
"Hi! Sorry about being late, are you ready to order?" The waitress cut through Sakura's comments on the menu. She was a teenage girl, probably a bit younger than us. I think she was wearing an apron over her clothes, but I didn't really pay any attention to either. I was too busy taking in how striking she looked. She had long, thick red hair, curling lightly to give it even more volume. It really stood out against her dark skin. The biggest thing, though, was the way she smiled. I couldn't get my eyes off that smile. It was too big somehow or maybe too innocent, lacking the usual slight hesitation or emotional defenses. Nobody looks that positive!
"The owner's sick so I'm filling in today and I haven't worked at a café before. I got caught up handling something in the back room." Her beaming smile faded into kind of a sheepish expression. If she'd noticed me staring, she certainly didn't say anything. "I'm not really used to cooking either, but at least there's still the cook to take care of that..."
"Ah, don't worry." I managed a somewhat stiff smile of my own, still failing dazed by that smile. "I'll have a slice of the sachertorte and a cup of milk tea." That felt a bit dismissive after she'd volunteered that much looking so awkward. "Just take it easy." That still sounded way too forced. "...Do you know the owner well? I don't think I've ever seen you around here before." Because that was going to make it better.
"Oh, I'm pretty new to the lower world." Wait, what? "His wife just hired somebody for the day." Her smile returned. "But I'll take your friend's order and then I can come talk. It's pretty boring just waiting for customers." Before I could do much more than nod in confusion, she'd already taken Sakura's order and was on her way back to the counter.
Once she was gone, Sakura looked up with a knowing smirk on her face. I had no idea what she meant. "Certainly energetic, isn't she?"
True to her word, the waitress returned a short while later with a small tray holding three cake plates and three cups of milk tea. Once she was done serving, she grabbed a chair and pulled it over. "Um...It's okay, right?" She hesitated for a second before sitting.
"Of course. I'm Sakura Anastasia Kuga." Sakura's smirk turned into a normal smile the second she shifted attention away from me. She moving a bit to the side to make room for another chair. Of course she said her full name, everybody knew that first name only was a sign of modern rushed times. Or at least, Sakura knew that everybody knew that.
The waitress sat down, still smiling that uncomfortably bright smile. "Jasper Irinka." I almost choked on my tea.
"Uh, I'm Miramie...So you're from Earth, right?" It was a Russian name and even if nobody in Fortitude would call themselves Irinka, people on Earth didn't seem to know about Jade Irinka. How they'd missed the Angel of the Houses of the Sun, I had no idea, but they apparently had. Maybe she only came for the annual party in Town and all those other stories happened here too? But if it was true and the Irinka came from that...
Jasper put down her fork, swallowing the bit of she'd just gotten. "Are you okay? Should I leave or get...one of those people who look after people when they get sick." That look was definitely worry. Not a hint of guile there either. How did you respond to that? She didn't even know the word! Maybe her bizarre claim was true after all.
"Doctors." Sakura helpfully cut in. Of course she maintained her composure. She always did. Still, I couldn't help but notice how her cup was stuck halfway to her mouth and her eyes were glued to Jasper.
"Oh, yeah..." That sheepish look was back for a second, though she quickly returned to that concerned look. "I mean it, is there anything wrong? Anything I can do?"
What could I tell? That I wasn't human? It was pretty hard to assume she was just from Earth, she'd be the world's greatest liar if she was, and telling her that I was kinda sorta like the man who killed her mother? Older sister? Aunt? Jade Irinka, would definitely just make things worse. "Ah, no...I was just surprised by your name. You know about Jade Irinka, right?"
"She was my mother. I fell down here after da- The Headmaster shot her." Jasper's fork played with a little slice of cake, breaking it into ever smaller pieces. She quickly looked back up again, squarely at me. "Ah, don't worry. I know she's famous here and it's been a long time already. Um, for you. I only landed a few months ago and I wasn't really awake while falling... I was just worried something was wrong! You didn't hurt me or anything!"
Smooth, Miramie . "Sorry. I just didn't expect to hear that." I finally looked directly at her again. "Sorry about your mom and falling and everything that happened."
"Thanks." Her smile returned, smaller this time but still bright. Just not overpowering anymore. "People have been really nice. Even if they keep asking for that cash thing whenever I try to get something to eat.” She tensed up for a second. “I'm going to have to pay for the cake and the tea! I don't have any, I spent the last on breakfast."
"The owner is paying you, right? And he might just let you take it. Nobody in Fortitude would really cause trouble over it, at least I haven't seen somebody do it here." I wet my lips. "But if there is an issue, come to the Archive after work and I'll pay." Not that I really had the money. We were still scrambling to make ends meet and if we had to borrow, it'd take longer to help support the Archive, but I couldn't just let her worry like that. Maybe if I was careful not to spend a lot. Sorry, Sakura.
"Thanks!" Jasper's big beaming smile was back. "You're right, I'm getting paid and I guess the owner would help. People usually give me something if I help them or they realize that I can't pay." She sounded way too positive for saying that she was living on charity. Just how bad was her understanding of the lower world? Not that I was all that different, but at least I tried to pay the Professor back.
"She's just doing what is proper. Far too many people these days ignores the needs of others." Sakura finally spoke up again, nodding along. "But Fortitude still keeps values like that, so you came down in the best place possible." Classic Sakura, in other words. She looked away from Jasper for a second, giving me that smirk again. "If you need a place to stay, I'm sure Miramie can help you." As if she couldn't do it herself. She was planning something, but that smirk didn't tell me much.
"Ah, yeah. You can probably find an apprenticeship somewhere.” Just not at the Archive. That was going to end up awkward for everybody. “I imagine any of the shrines would love having Jade Irinka's daughter stay with them. But be prepared for some odd theological questions.” That's when the realization dawned on me. “Just make sure to stay away from the Titovs! Nothing good ever comes from having to deal with them and living with them has to be worse. None of them ever seem happy." I saw her jaw set and her smile fading. Oh, god, please don't. "I mean it! Don't move in there to try to help them either. They've lived in Fortitude for generations and nothing has made them any happier. They don't like outsiders in their business either."
"What about the Vasili? The other shrine families use magic, but the Vasili are magic. Like how the winters are supposed to be milder thanks to Asuka and Mayu gives the ships kinder winds. It seems like it's a better fit for the daughter of an angel than some of the others.”
Sakura made a good point. If Jasper had any divine nature, the Vasili were the ones who could help figure it out. “They're probably the best choice. I mean, the Kichi and Sosunov are pretty nice too and could probably teach you something. The Yatskaya are kinda odd, but should be fine as long as you like cats and can get used to not really knowing if you're dreaming or not.”
“I think I'll try talking to the Vasili, maybe I'll turn out to have sunlight powers or something. And the lower world is more magical than I thought. I didn't think that there were people with powers like that down here. I mean, other than the Riders and fallen angels and such. I guess I still have a lot to learn about the lower world. I haven't even seen more than one district of Town either, the others sound really different. And then there's all the rest of the lower world.” Jasper spoke more slowly, picking some more at her cake as she mused on this.
“Oh, yeah, I heard today is all about romance and tons of people are out on dates. Are you two...?” That beaming smile was back, her gaze practically pinning me to my seat.
“Uh, actually, we're looking to see how different cafés handle things. Nobody is going to cafés on Valentine's Day. They'll stay at home to protest the commercialization of the holiday,” quite rightfully so, I might add, “or they're trying to avoid looking like they're dating or they'll go to Bluebell Park just in case. It's much easier to see how everything is laid out when the room isn't full.” I could feel my face lighting up at the suggestion. The idea of dating Sakura was weird, she'd been there for almost as long as I'd been myself. It'd be like dating my sister.
“It'd be pretty awkward.” Sakura interjected, putting down her cup, it was empty anyway. “We both live up at the Archive. If we were dating and something happened, home life would be pretty odd. We wouldn't have to go out and could just hang out back home if we were too.” She was fidgeting slightly with her fork. “Most girls date boys anyway. And the opposite.”
“Oh.” Did Jasper just perk up a bit? “Good luck with the café!”
“Make sure to come to the opening.” Sakura kept an entirely straight face. Her attention was focused entirely on Jasper and it was a pretty standard bit of advertising, yet I couldn't quite help but feel like it was aimed at me. Like all those smirks earlier.
Before Jasper could answer the bell rang at the door, signaling more customers. A pair of teenage boys, both wearing blue school uniforms.
“Oh, I need to take their order, but I'll make sure to come!” Jasper got up from her seat. She straightened her apron, smiling one last time. “I'll come remove the plates once I take their orders. See you!” She made a quick bow and began to head off.
“See you.” I half-heartedly raised my hand in a wave. That was probably all I'd ever see of Jade Irinka's daughter and her weird behavior, just walking away to continue her part time work... And forgetting what that entailed. “Um, you need to get us the bill too so we can pay.”
“...Right.” Jasper stopped in her tracks, turning to send me that sheepish look again as she scrambled to find a menu to see how much to ask for. How could somebody supposed to be a goddess, or at least the daughter of one, flail over something that basic?
“And if you don't know what to do, we can hang out tonight. I'm sure we can find a couch at the Archive if you don't have anywhere to sleep.” I heard myself make the offer, I still didn't understand why, but there was something intriguing about her. Not really the goddess part, I was curious, but it was also weird and scary. Instead it was her behavior, she didn't really act like you'd expect, but she wasn't like a citizen of Fortitude either.
“Okay.” Her smile was unfairly cute as she nodded. “I look forward to it!” She realized she'd stopped, looking over her shoulder to the other table. “I'll be back in a bit with the bill and to take the plates. See you!”
“See you.” I sank back in my seat, barely registering that my gaze drifted to Jasper. I wasn't sure how long I was looking (I wasn't trying to stare, honest!), but it didn't feel like that long. I guess she just smiles like that.
I was pulled out of it by a small sound, like halfway between a snort and a chuckle from the opposite side of the table.
“Nothing.” Sakura's smirk was back. “So what do you think about the choice of pictures...”
Chapter 2: Sorrow's Week
Illustration courtesy of the extremely talented DL.
Sorrow’s Week. I knew about it and dressed for it, of course, but in my time living in Fortitude I’d never actually gone. I’d always found some work that needed to be done at the Archive or on the café (it’s almost ready to open, honest!). Anything to avoid paying attention to the music and the fires in the distance. It’s a beautiful tradition, of course, but it always felt wrong for me to join in. Like I’d just mock the mourners with my presence. Jade Irinka was killed by the Headmaster, after all.
I would have done the same this year, except Jasper showed up at the Archive just before one of the dances, all dressed up as one of the miko from her new home among the Vasili. She asked me to join her. To remember her mother with her. So there I was, sitting on a blanket covering the cold ground of a small slope at the edges of the gathering, looking down towards the dancers by the fires below. I drew my coat a bit closer around me, trying to ward off the cold air of early spring without having to join in on the activity.
One dancer caught my eye; Jasper. Unlike the others, she didn't drive all of her emotion out in a burst of maniacal energy. Her dance was precise as she moved in the ancient, ritual steps of a temple dance meant to honor the gods. She’s beautiful. The thought came unbidden as I watched her red curls whip about. I sat transfixed, soaking in her graceful movements for what felt like an eternity before another thought shook me out of it. I hadn’t just watched Jasper, I had been looking into a fire for minutes without my eyes hurting. A reminder of what they were. What I was and why I shouldn’t be here.
I looked around, taking a deep breath to maintain my composure and not cause a scene. Had anybody seen me? Was anybody watching me? Could I get away, back to the safety of the Archive?
“Miramie?” A voice called me back to reality. “Is everything okay?” Jasper was standing there, smiling softly, obviously trying to reassure me. There was still a hint of tears at the edges of her eyes that she hadn’t quite managed to wipe away yet.
“Yes. It was just, you know…” My voice trailed off as I met her smile with a slightly sheepish one of my own. What could I do? I’d planned on ditching her at an event to honor the memory of her mother.
Yet, seeing her, seeing her smile calmed me. I wasn’t alone and more than anybody else, this was her event.
“Will you honor my mother with me? Go dance together.” Jasper wiped away the rest of her tears, her expression serious. For a second before going sheepish, she’d apparently seen my expression. “Not like I did before, just like everybody else.”
I paused for a second, but looking up at her sincere expression of concern melted my worries away. I reached out to take her hand. “Yes.”
At the fire, my movements were clumsy. My long skirt kept getting in the way. I kept looking down to keep track of my movements and make sure I didn’t stumble and ruin everything. I glanced up for reassurance, seeing what Jasper was doing. Her movements were wild, like I’d never seen her. The grace I’d seen before was gone, replaced by fast, fierce movements that seemed to put her entire weight behind them. A thin layer of sweat glistened on her dark skin as she threw everything into it. Yet, she still noticed me, smiling back as I watched her offering me her hand to join her more fully. The worry melted away and all thought of whether I was doing it well enough vanished in the face of simply being in a private world with Jasper.
After the dance we returned to the blanket together, looking west towards the setting sun. It wasn’t quite traditional, but it was good enough. Suddenly I felt Jasper’s head on my shoulders. “Thanks.” Her voice wasn’t the beaming, hopeful one I’d gotten used to. It was quiet. Tired, yet content.
“Of course. Always.” My words came out a bit too definite, too defensive. “I wouldn't let you be lonely this week.” My own voice softened as I leaned over to rest my head against her, my arm slipping around her back.
We sat like that for a while, I didn't keep track of how long, before Jasper turned her head slightly to look up at me. “You're quiet. Is something wrong?”
“No.” I paused for a bit. I still hadn't told her and that seemed a lot less defensible today than usual. Especially sitting like this. “Or actually, there's something I should tell you. I probably should have earlier.” I hesitated for a bit, glancing nervously at her. Of course she wasn't angry, I hadn't said anything yet. She just looked concerned. “I'm a Rider.” My voice was thin. “I recreated my form in the Outside at the upper part of the Archive... Um, it gets pretty weird up there.”
“Oh.” At least she didn't say “that's all?” “I don't think that's really a problem. There are lots of Riders living in Town and not causing any problems. You're not planning on washing Town away with a flood of the Outside, right?” She had a little grin on her face and her tone was light.
“Well, then it doesn't matter, does it?” Jasper looked up at me, smiling. “You were nice to a random waitress butting into your conversation and you help out the Professor and the others at the Archive.” She was right, of course, but just how could she be so nice all the time? It was unfair!
I looked away. “I still should have told you. Given you the choice of whether to spend time with somebody involved with the Headmaster.”
“The Headmaster is my father.” Her voice was steady, not quite toneless but without the energy she usually spoke with. “I'm more involved with him than you are.”
I immediately spun my head to look at her. To see if there were any signs of her holding in a joke or making something up. Nothing. She looked every bit as sincere as ever and there wasn't even the shade of a smile. I started to say something, stopping myself before trying to say something else, but what could I say? That I was sorry her father murdered her mom? That she didn't seem very Bleak? That we were all the same having come from monsters? If she wanted to talk about it?
“I see.” At least I followed the weak response up with pulling her a bit closer in a sidehug. “I'm sorry, I didn't know... It had to be awful.”
“Yeah.” She leaned into the hug, even giving me a small squeeze back. “It was a long time ago and I've always known who he was. It hurt, but I've had time to deal with it.” She straightened looking back up. “I just didn't want you to worry. We can support each other if Rider background ever becomes a problem.”
Now it was my turn to rest my head on her shoulder. “Thanks.”
Chapter 3: Celdinar Day
“She’s getting away!”
“Don’t ruin Town!”
“You’ll never catch me! Progress will reign forever! Ohohohoho!” Small feet and the laughter of children rang out behind me. I, the wicked Mayor Celdinar, was on the run. Punishment for calling down the Demons of Progress on Town, the agents of the sun were here. The weapon of choice? Sticks topped with balloons in the shape of the sun.
“Stop her.” One of the bigger kids caught up to me, grabbing the bottom of my coat and started hitting me with his balloon.
“Ow, ow, ow, I give up! I yield! The power of the sun is too much for me!” I cowered under the flurry of soft balloon blows, the other kids soon joining in. Mayor Celdinar was well and truly caught.
The chase should have gone on longer, been more of a game for the children and I should have shouted more silly villain lines, but he actually caught me! I’d just disappoint him if I broke off. “Or it would be, except…”
I reached up to pull off the mask Miramie had lent me. One of her own, of course, meant to evoke the blank features of a ghost. It was half a marketing gimmick for her café, half a way to hide who I was from the younger kids who’d be worried that, I, of all people, was Mayor Celdinar. “I was Jasper Irinka all along! This was all my-”
“That’s not how it goes!” A boy broke off from bashing me with his balloon to frown. “The sun isn’t Celdinar, she stops him and Progress.”
He was right, of course, that was what the tradition said, but several of the other kids backed off, confused that their game was ruined. “That was my mother, Jade. I have been behind Progress all along! Ohohoho!”
Reaching the café, a load I hadn’t even realized I carried came off my shoulders. The tables in front of it were full. That had never happened before. The place was new, but I still wasn’t sure why. Miramie worked hard on it and it had a great view of Fortitude and Big Lake. Maybe it was the location? Still, hopefully people would get to know it and it’d remain this way.
Lots of kids around, so I hurried up and took off the top hat to avoid getting into another chase. Maybe later.
It was a lot emptier indoors. Just a couple tables occupied here and there, most of the customers remaining outside, enjoying the sun. Sakura was at one of those tables, taking orders. Her back was turned, so I ignored her for now. The lower world didn’t really approve of interrupting people while they worked, it seemed, or maybe that was just Sakura. It hadn’t gone well last time either way. I’d just say hi when she returned to the counter.
“Hi.” Miramie’s voice called out from the door to the garden. Standing there in her apron and light blouse, her hands full of used plates, she was outlined by the sharp light of the sun behind it. It played through her dark hair, giving her an ethereal look. “Did the wicked Mayor Celdinar get properly punished by the sun?” Her expression split into a soft smile, probably the closest to a grin I’d ever seen her do.
“He did. I smote myself good!” I met it with a grin of my own, moving closer to her. Our gaze broke for a second as she sent Sakura a look to ask her to take the plates she was carrying.
“Don’t say that, think about the theological confusion you afflicted on those poor kids!” Miramie’s smile grew a bit wider. She handed the plates over without even looking. Not that I was any better, I just waved as I saw Sakura next to us out of the corner of my eye.
“Oh, yes, I guess…I actually had to reassure a girl that it was just a game and the sun hadn’t betrayed them when she saw my face…” I felt my smile slip a bit. Miramie’s expression dropped a bit too. “Oh, it’s fine. She understood!” It hung there for a second. “Business is really good today. I guess people heard about your zeppelin cookies.” I recovered my smile. “Or maybe just how cute the owner is.”
Some pink crept onto her cheeks at that. “That’s such a cheesy line…”
“You really are, though.”
I felt her hands find mine as I kept looking into her brown eyes…
When suddenly a loud cough could be heard and a rather stern looking Sakura glared at us when I looked. “We should probably save this for later.” Miramie let go of me and recovered to a more professional stance.
“It’s pretty busy, do you need a hand? I’ll go find an apron.”
She nodded quickly, sending me a final look and a smile. “Go check on the tables in the garden when you’re ready, I’ll go to the ones on the street.”
As I went to the back two thoughts competed in my mind. God, she’s so cute and I really need to remember about money this time…
Chapter 4: Christmas
"...Do I boil the water before or after pouring it over the peas?" I eyed the bowl of soggy peas with suspicion. Cooking was a lot harder than I'd expected. Things had to be done in the proper order and timing things carefully was vital. Back in Celestia the bird-faced spirits had always had it done on time, and both Miramie and the Vasilis made it look so easy, so I hadn't expected problems. I was just boiling frozen peas too. It should be simple, but I was clearly doing something wrong.
"Before." Sakura didn't even look up from the soup, stirring it at a steady rate. "Slowly boiling them in a pot will ruin them and leave them all mushy. And you don't want the bowl to be burning hot and impossible to handle."
"That does make sense." I agreed, it was pretty obvious really, as I started rummaging through the cupboards for a strainer. I supposed I just had to throw these out. There was half a bag left, so I could start over and do it right. Then the peas would get it for defying me! And next year I would be a master in the kitchen and do the real cooking! Maybe even mix the marinade for the cod!
I saw Miramie smile out of the corner of my eye. I guess my determination about cooking peas was pretty cute when you thought about it. Not like her. She would calmly keep an eye on the cod in the oven while making the mashed potatoes with lentils. How does that combination even work? I mean, I knew it would, people wouldn't make it a traditional centerpiece of the Christmas dinner if it was a completely impossible combination, but it still seemed odd to me.
Despite a few more minor mishaps like that, cooking proceeded well enough that Sakura looked around with a pretty self-satisfied smile on her face. I already knew what was coming.
"This is what Christmas is supposed to be like. Sure, we're doing it on the wrong day, but we're working hard together to share a proper meal. Not like all of those people who can't take the time off for more than some fried chicken and-"
"Where are the figs?!" Miramie stepped away from the pot, her head dashing from side to side to take as much of the kitchen in as fast as possible. "Did we remember to buy any? Or did we only get them for the café? It won't be Christmas without the figs!" Her breathing picked up. "I know Mr. Ulyanov still had some for sale and he lives just down the street...Keep an eye on everything, Sakura. Jasper, help her with what she needs.”
She was halfway out of the door before I could react. It never ceases to amaze me how fast Miramie can be when she's worried about something. “Good luck! We'll make sure everything's ready when you get back.” I called out to her, letting her stop just long enough to draw her into a hug. “And we'll work something out if he doesn't have any, okay?”
Her shoulders dropped slightly and for a second a smile crept over her face. “Yes, right. It'll be just a second.” She gave me a small squeeze back before heading to pick up her shoes and coat. “See you.”
Me and Sakura were left behind as the only people in the kitchen. Thankfully dinner was almost done and most of it just needed to be looked after while it cooked, so there probably wasn't much I could screw up. Hopefully.
“She always used to do that.” Sakura frowned a bit at the pot she was stirring as she stopped. “It was a lot worse back when I first got here. I don't know how long she'd been here, but I think she was pretty new as well. She was hard to deal with, always nervous about everything. Especially other people paying attention to her. She relaxed eventually, I guess she got used to us, and we got to know each other better. I'm not sure what happened to her, but it had to be pretty bad.”
I knew some of it, of course. Miramie was a Rider and something had happened with her and the Professor. “Yeah... She seemed really on edge back when I first met her. Especially when I introduced myself.” I put down the stack of plates I'd pulled out of a cupboard, turning to properly face Sakura. “But that's probably unrelated.” I grinned slightly.
“Yeah... Anybody would be on edge hearing that.” Sakura managed exactly the deadpan expression I'd aimed for there. “But I guess the weirdness of it helped break the ice. Or maybe just how you kept going.” She shrugged it off. It was pretty weird not hearing her speak in completely definite terms.
“I was pretty nervous too actually...” I frowned, looking away. “I didn't really know anybody down here back then. Everything was weird too. We didn't have money back home and nobody ever got sick. I had a pretty bad cold just a couple days before we met and sneezed for the first time. It freaked me out and I hadn't had much of a chance to just sit down and talk to somebody around here before. At least not without worrying that I was missing something.”
“I don't think either of us noticed. Miramie certainly didn't. After we left she kept finding new ways of talking about how amazing you were without sounding like she was gushing.” She smiled. Sakura actually smiled! Without any theatrics or pivots to the fallen state of the world! “First time I'd ever seen her like that and I was already preparing to have to comfort her later. She had it bad enough without adding that disappointment too. Getting shot down, I mean.” She looked away, the smile fading from her face. “At least she called out to talk to you more, that was a first too.”
“I'd thought about doing it myself, but I'd already forced my way into your conversation, I wasn't sure it'd be okay to ask. I'd probably have asked anyway when I got back for the plates, if you'd still been around. I wasn't really part of Fortitude back then and she was the first person I'd met who was the same. I felt a lot more normal talking to her than most people here, so I was worried about letting it end there... she actually took me seriously when I talked about mom. And she was really cute!”
That earned me another of Sakura's deadpan looks.
I wasn't entirely sure what I'd expected the Christmas dinner to be like. It was obviously not going to be a normal family meal. Miramie and Sakura had obsessed far too much about making sure they had the exact right dishes for that, but it was clearly not going to be like one of mom's formal banquets either. But whatever it was, it wasn't this.
On the surface it was a normal version of a family meal, or at least as normal as you'd get with the inhabitants of the Archive. The Professor was quiet and distant as always. Danny, the only boy living at the Archive, kept calling for some dish or another to be passed to him because he'd somehow missed all of them the first time and only realized it once they had reached the other end of the table. The one girl I didn't really know, Kiri, seemed intent on eating very carefully so that none of the different kinds of food touched each other. Sakura naturally tried, without all that much success, to maintain the utmost poise and Miramie was the one person who seemed to eat normally.
But most normal family meals you didn't need to constantly watch out for teenage girls darting in to snatch food off your plate and run off. At least, I'd never experienced that before and whenever I tried offering that girl a seat she tensed up and looked at me with wary eyes for a second before running off. It seemed like it was normal at the Archive, at least none of the others said anything. In the end I just gave up on talking to her, but did set out a plate for her so she could enjoy the dinner too. She quickly snatched it up and vanished off to some other room.
At least there was lots of talking, with everybody trying to push their own train of conversation. At any given moment I found myself talking about everything from dangerous new strains of the flu (Kiri, of course, Miramie had warned me about that) to Sakura commenting on how nice communities were in the past when everybody looked after each other (I couldn't really see how modern Fortitude was any different) to how The Latest Thing had gotten a genuine Playstation 2 (whatever that was) in stock with a full ten games. It was a lot like back with the Vasili, everyone just talking about their daily stuff, but the actual topics were a lot weirder.
In a lull in the conversations, the cod had just been served and everybody was busy eating, I heard somebody ask. “So what was life in the sky like?” Danny spoke up looking straight to me. “There's got to be some cool stories!”
“Um...I don't remember it that well, but...”And suddenly I was at the center of attention as I got to tell stories about bird-faced spirits and the impossibly tall, clear sky. It quickly moved on to random stories of the lower world and silly things I did trying to adjust. Like the time I was shopping over in Arcadia and mistook a singing fish for a spirit. You know, one of those plastic ones that people put on the wall. I mean, why wouldn't I, why would people even make those? It had to have been a spirit! Only, you know, it wasn't and people actually make those, for some reason.
“Looks like we won't get a white Christmas this year either.” Miramie sounded a bit disappointed as she looked to the sky.
“At least the stars are pretty.” Even with the streetlights they were clearly visible in the sky. ”I never really got to see them back when I lived in Celestia. We were up above them and they look pretty different against the ground.” I looked at the sky for a bit. Somewhere up there was a home I barely remembered and had no idea how I would return to. Or what it'd be like after all this time.
“The lower world has its benefits.” Miramie broke into one of her smiles that almost, but not quite became a grin. “Even if we can't manage bird-faced spirits taking care of chores for you, we at least have a real sky.”
“Yeah. And taiyaki. I'll have to teach the spirits to make those if I ever get back to Celestia. Mom has been down here before, she really should have introduced them!”
“Really, all the food and new experiences of the lower world and a simple pastry fish is the one that you think the heavens could use?” Miramie's eyes twinkled as her smile broke into an actual grin for a second. We'd stepped under one of the streetlights and were suddenly illuminated. We came to a halt, off in our own little world.
“They're tasty! Not like you have the most sophisticated taste either!” The pout only lasted for a second while I watched Miramie's amused expression. She was so cute when she relaxed enough to let it show like that.
“Right, right, if you say so.” The grin was back. “Just saying that for a goddess, you're pretty normal. Approachable even. It's not really something you usually see in mythology and religion. There, they're all big on getting into random fights and telling people what to do.”
“Would you prefer that? I mean, I'm sure I can come up with some commandments. Like...'thou shalt not sleep in class for Mrs. Senko's lectures will drain thy resolve'”
She stifled a laugh. “I think you'll need to work on it a bit if you want to start a world religion.” She reached for her purse, growing more tense. “Also, um, I have something for you. I didn't want to give it to you back at the archive since everybody is there and the presents aren't until tomorrow normally.” She pulled out a small box wrapped in green and gold paper.
“Thanks!” I beamed, which I suppose was pretty appropriate for me, as I reached out to accept it, turning to face her directly. “...I don't really know the rules. Do I open it now or back when I'm alone?”
“Go ahead.” She was pretty tense. “Not really sure there are rules for Christmas presents given at nonstandard times like this, but I want to see it.”
“Okay.” A quick nod and a smile and I was off to unwrapping. The paper quickly came off and the box within was carefully opened. The contents were a small figure of a bird made out of sky-blue glass with white and black highlights for the eyes.
“I didn't quite know what a bird-faced spirit looked like, so I figured a bird would be close enough...And it'd represent the sky even if it wasn't.” She shuffled her feet slightly, staring at my face to see my reaction.
It took the form of a big hug, one hand held off from her back to balance the figure. “It's really pretty!..And I better be careful with it until I get back home.” I held it for a few seconds before breaking off, packing the bird back up and reaching for my own purse. “I have something for you as well.” I pulled a cylindrical present out, probably wrapped as well, of course, and offered it to her.
She naturally accepted it and unwrapped it, revealing a scroll tied with two silk ribbons. After carefully untying the ribbons, she unrolled it to reveal the motif. A painting of the archive. It had been pretty hard to make, I didn't have good access to looking at it without Miramie seeing me and I had been too busy to really keep practicing since falling from Celestia. But I think it turned out okay.
Miramie seemed to think so, she blushed slightly as she looked for a bit longer. “It's even got the little weather vane at the top that most people don't realize is there.” She stood for a bit longer before a small gust of wind and the lack of available hands for anything else made her realize the inconvenience of standing with it like that and rolled it up, tied the ribbons and slid it into her purse. “Thanks, I'll have to look at it more back home.” She looked back up, her eyes falling on mine.
I moved in for another hug, but for once she beat me to it, drawing me close. “Thanks. It's been a really great evening. I was a bit worried how meeting everybody would go, but it went really well. Even the feral girl seemed at ease, at least after you gave her her own plate...Just, thanks.” With another smile, she leaned in to kiss me.
We stood there holding each other close under the yellow light from the bulb above use for what seemed like an eternity. Up close like that I was reminded of how beautiful her eyes were.
Eventually we did break the kiss, even as we were still holding on to each other. “I probably shouldn't keep you. It wouldn't do for the sun to oversleep. Even in the middle of the winter.” Miramie pointed out the obvious. It was getting late and I did have to get up early for my morning rituals with the Vasili.
“I think it follows its own cycle without me, but, yeah, you're right.” I nodded once, but I didn't let go yet. Instead I leaned in for another brief kiss. I could always leave after that.
Chapter 5: Valentine's Day, 8 ADS
The tables were clear and had been wiped. Same with the chairs. I checked the door to the garden. Locked. I came from the kitchen and I had already swept the floor. The paintings, masks and glass work were all in their place, as expected given how poorly they usually sold, and didn't need a lot of tidying. That only left two things: The glass cabinet with the cakes and the cash register.
There was way too much cake left, more than two full ones and around eight pastries. I should have known that I wouldn't have a lot of customers today. Just last year, I'd been one of the people protesting the commercialization of the holiday, after all. I'd still hoped more people would have dropped by on their way to Bluebell Park or maybe bought some to bring with them. As well as general customers not out on dates, of course. I guess your views of the commercialization of holidays change once you're the one relying on it to make ends meet. I should probably be a bit more understanding about this in the future.
I had to do something about them, though. They'd grow stale if I just left them sitting there, making them unsalable. Throwing them out would be a complete waste too, they were still good. Maybe I could bring some home for Sakura, the Professor and the others. Then if I gave some more to Mr. Ulyanov, he'd given us a lot of credit on ingredients and never got mad when we rushed to buy something in the evening, I should be able to get rid of most of it. Even if it meant having a lot of cake over the next few days.
What I was really dreading was the cash register, though. I had to take stock of the day's earnings no matter what. I approached with caution, opening it to see how much was in it. In total it came out to around $110 in a mix of Town cash, actual dollars, euros, yen and currencies I wasn't even sure what were. Enough to have some to take home for the Archive, but only because me and Sakura didn't need to worry about food or rent.
Maybe an advertising campaign would help. The short trip back home was largely uneventful, Mr. Ulyanov was at the door to accept the cake when I rang. Or e some kind of an event or promotion. Back at the Archive I dropped off the remaining cake in the fridge and the pastries on the kitchen counter. Perhaps it just wasn't going to work out...
For once everybody was out, I wasn't sure where except for Sakura. She had finally managed to get a date of her own. So I was left to my own thoughts as I prepared a quick meal. Just a few leftover pirogi. It was a bad habit, but with how much I cooked for the café I didn't feel like doing more of it once I got home these days. I didn't have much time today anyway, maybe in general since I clearly needed to do more for the café. Jasper was coming over and I wasn't sure when, just that there was some tradition at the shrine and she couldn't get out of having dinner with the Vasili, but she'd be over once they were done.
I wasn't more than halfway through dinner when I heard the doorbell. “Just a second.” I put down a half-eaten pirogi and rushed to the door to answer.
“Hi.” Jasper greeted me with her customary bright smile. She'd taken the time to change back to her casual clothes, abandoning the shrine maiden outfit she wore at the Vasilis'.
“Hi.” I smiled as well, worries about money gone for a moment. “I'm in the middle of eating, so we'll have to go to the kitchen for now.” We were anyway, we needed China and cutlery from it before we could go to my room anyway. “You don't have any duties at the shrine tomorrow, right?”
She nodded. “Right. I asked for a day off and told them I'd be staying over. They'd expected it and already scheduled me not to take part of the rituals tomorrow.” I guess they'd remembered the day and had realized where things were probably going to go. Not entirely sure how I felt about that.
Nothing much happened while I finished eating. Jasper told random stories about what had happened during the day. Some tall, dark, cool-looking girl had come to the shrine to get her love fortune taken. She'd apparently tried hiding what she doing from people passing by. I mostly nodded along to try to get through my food as quickly as possible. It didn't take too long. “Let's go to my room. Less interruptions.” Valentine's Day almost certainly wouldn't be improved by Kiri deciding to warn us about the risks of getting contaminated produce from Earth or the feral girl eyeing us like cat while we talked. I started putting a kettle over. “Can you get some plates, forks and cups while I make tea? I'll be up in a bit.”
I reached my room a short while later, teapot in one hand and cake in the other. I'd splurged and gotten some of the imported tea from Earth, Indian maybe but I didn't really know, rather than the local stuff. Jasper was already there and had set out the China on the desk. It wasn't the ideal romantic table, we'd look into the wall and not at each other and had to be careful to not stain the books in the back, but it was what I had. “Here we go, if you can just lean a bit so I can put it down.”
“That looks really nice.” Jasper's eyes were already on the cake, a pretty standard round layer cake with strawberry buttercream and decorated with the actual berries. This wasn't one of the ones from the café, even if I'd used the same recipe for one of those, it was smaller, just enough for two people. The sunburst motif on top was a bit off. I hadn't quite managed to make it round and some of the beams were longer than others (painting with frosting is a lot harder than it looks, okay).
“That was the plan.” I flashed her a small smile while putting down what I was carrying. “You generally want the cake you make for your girlfriend to be nice.” I turned my head to look at her. The desk was really annoying for this, I'd have to get a proper table when I got my own place.
“I don't know, some people in movies seem to go out of their way to ruin it. Something about punishing them for minor failures instead of just talking like a normal person.” She was already cutting a slice, though. “Either Earth is pretty weird or the people who make movies have some odd ideas of what people are like.”
I sipped from my tea. “I have no idea, I've never been there and I don't know anybody from it either. Maybe the Outside messed it up somehow and this is just another example of that? Lots of things get weird out there, after all. Or maybe Earth culture is just weird. Danny got an imported DVD recently about incredibly stupid sounding people with heavy tans getting drunk and cheating on each other. Earth people apparently enjoy that. There wasn't even a plot, just random people bumbling about getting drunk and cheating on each other until it ended.”
“It could be a mating ritual.” Jasper cut in with a small laugh. “I'd like to go eventually, to see what it's really like. There's so much to see in the lower world beyond Town.” She tried a bit of the cake. “This is really nice. Anyway, I thought that it'd be nice to see more of the world and help push back the Outside. If the Sun keeps Town from getting swallowed, then maybe if I went I'd help restore Earth to how it was. Or at least to proper reality.”
“Then you've got to take me with you. There's so much I want to see too.” I could already envision a romantic trip across Earth together, sleeping in a classic Japanese inn one day and seeing the old town of Prague the next. Just the two of us out restoring lost wonders on our own. “We've got to see the pyramids.”
“Yes, and that big, white building with the thin towers. The... Thai Mahal? I saw it in an old book about most beautiful buildings on Earth that the Vasili have. Oh, seeing the big cities of Earth...”
We continued like that for a while, building an ever growing itinerary for our hypothetical Earth trip as the cake shrunk correspondingly. It wasn't going to happen any time soon, but dreaming was nice and maybe we could do it eventually. I just wished I could push one worry out of my mind. “I can't afford it. The café barely had any customers today. If me and Sakura didn't live here for free, we'd have lost a lot of money.” I looked away, realizing what I'd done to the moment. “I was hoping to move out too. There are a lot of backrooms behind the café that we aren't really using, but I'd have to pay for furniture and my own food if I did.”
“Can't you just eat leftovers from the café until things work out? You've got a pretty good menu and there will probably be leftover ingredients too you can use to make something else. Lots of different things use flour, eggs, milk and so on and there has to be things you can do with spices and fresh fish.” I could think of a few things and there was always something left after the day ended.
“I'd probably still end up buying a bit more. It'd be pretty annoying to mostly eat things from the menu, but I could. As long as it's temporary, I guess I could manage.” I hesitated for a second, but nodded. I still needed to do something to get more customers, but every little bit helped. As long as I wasn't stuck eating the same thing every day. That just might make me kill myself.
“I'll make sure to invite you over often so you get something else too and don't have to cook.” Jasper's classic smile was back. “And I'll help you clean the place. One of the Vasili is married to a carpenter. He can probably get you some cheap furniture. If we all help you move, it should be pretty simple to do.”
“Thanks. Furniture is heavy, so having somebody help me carry it will be good.” I offered her the teapot, checking to see if she wanted the rest. When she held up a hand, I poured myself a cup. “It'll be a while before I can move out, the place is still a mess back there and I still need to save up a bit more money for the furniture and to have some just in case.” I leaned in for another bit of cake, the desk kinda forced me to if I wanted to not drop crumbs all over. “I really did do a good job with this.”
“Well, yeah, I told you. And you ate two slices already, did you only notice now?” Jasper grinned, at least for a few seconds before returning to her own cake.
“Hey, I had other things to think about! Like the trip to Earth.” She got a small pout for her efforts. “How can I think about cake while thinking about walking down the boulevards of Paris together at night?” I might have gone a bit too deeply into that one scenario. The stars better be out while we did it and it couldn't be cold or windy. “Or seeing the sights in Rome?”
“Isn't it pretty hot there?” Jasper broke into a grin. “You probably shouldn't try dressing like that over there.” She gestured towards my heavy skirt and long-sleeved blouse. “We'd have to go shopping for something lighter before going. We should do that anyway, I remember how much you complained about the heat last summer.” She finished her cake. “Actually, did you even go to the beach once? Despite how nice the ones around here are.”
“No. And don't think I can't see through your plan.” I was pretty sure I was blushing at this point, even as I tried to keep up. “Sneakiness isn't your strongest suit. I'll do it if we go together and you try something on first.” The last bits of cake were long forgotten as I leaned in towards her. “Rome isn't the only hot thing I've been thinking about, you know?” Then I moved the final bit to kiss her.
She was prepared, meeting the kiss and returning it. It was kinda awkward, we were sitting at a bad angle and had to turn for it, but I didn't really care. We were done eating, we could just move somewhere more comfortable for the next one and we had the entire evening and night to ourselves and the bed was just over there.