The Spiral Rose
Eva comes across the room to where Audrey is sitting in her booth, bearing a pepperoni pizza in one hand on a silver platter, and a basket of onion rings in the other. She sets them on the table and scootches inwards, smiling at the blanket-wrapped Audrey as she does so.
"Nothing like comfort food, right?"
Audrey nods and smiles; one of her hands snakes out from her pink blanket to take a slice of the pizza and bring it to her mouth. She takes a big bite, and chews contemplatively.
"I figured pizza was a safe bet. Onion rings are okay too?"
Audrey nods, still working on her slice of pizza; Eva takes a slice as well, holding her other hand beneath it so she doesn't drip grease on the table. Between bites, she sneaks glances over at Audrey beneath her blanket.
Audrey catches Eva looking, and blushes a little. "What are you… looking at me like that for?"
Eva's gaze darts away, and then comes back to Audrey. "I… It's just really nice to have it in the open, now."
Audrey nods slightly. "… yeah."
"So… What do you want to talk about?" Eva smiles slightly.
"… what's your favorite kind of food?" Audrey tilts her head. "I… have to admit, it's kind of hard for me to imagine you… eating pizza. But…"
Eva smiles. "Is it so hard to imagine? I like pizza, and onion rings, and a bunch of other stuff besides - curries and sushi and wonton soup and fajitas… I think most cuisines have something to offer if you look. I think my favorite snack is mandarin oranges - they're sweet and tart and just the right size and I don't feel guilty about abusing my Grace when I eat them - and for desserts… either chocolate fudge or red bean buns, I can't decide."
Audrey leans in a little bit and her smile widens a fraction. "… You're cute."
Eva blinks. "Wait, what?"
"Talk more about food," Audrey commands with her half-eaten pizza slice.
"Um, okay. Have you ever had red bean buns?"
Audrey shakes her head. "What are they?"
"They're this light, sweet, uh, bun, filled with red bean paste? I really like them, they're really distinct from your chocolate cake, your chocolate fudge, your apple crumble - they're really light and soft and nice, not rich and heavy like chocolate can be, but they're also not just nothing but sugar like an apple crumble, they're almost savoury… I could go order one if you wanted to try one?"
"Maybe for dessert." Audrey grabs an onion ring and chomps into it, still holding her half-eaten slice of pizza in her other hand.
"Okay. I assume the selling points of chocolate fudge are well-known to you?"
"Mhm," says Audrey, still chewing.
"Do you know everything else I've already mentioned?"
"Ummm… What's a fajita?"
"It's like a soft taco. You wrap up meat and cheese and salsa and I like to add sour cream in a tortilla. It's a fajita if one end is open, and a burrito if you just fold in every side to the middle."
Audrey finishes her pizza slice, and gets a napkin out of the napkin holder to wipe her fingers. "Huh. I can't say I can imagine you eating a soft taco. Wouldn't it, like, get all over your hands?"
"Some things are worth a little mess! I mean," she gestures at the pizza and onion rings, "I'm not really a - fancy person? Sure, I like a good steak or some weird custom fusion cuisine dish as much as the next person, but…" She shrugs.
"What's your favorite fancy dish?" Audrey tilts her head.
"Salmon wrapped scallops," Eva says immediately. "Give me like a whole platter of those and they'll all disappear. I have a weakness."
"Are scallops like clams or am I thinking of a different thing?"
"Scallops are a kind of clam, yes."
"I don't really like seafood, except maybe tuna sandwiches. I definitely couldn't eat octopus or squid. Weird tentacley bits, ew."
"I've had real squid, but I have a rule against eating things that might be intelligent so I've only had synthetic octopus, and then only at the Bowers." Eva takes a slice of the pizza and bites into it. "I trust them not to be lying about where they got it from."
"The Bowers' reputation is pretty amazing, honestly."
"I mean, that's what happens when you have a Director behind you." Eva shrugs.
"Yeah, I guess so. It's been… pretty good so far, I'd say." Audrey blushes a little.
"I mean, you're only scratching the surface so far - and that reminds me, I should give you some tips about the Bowers, since you're new. In particular - you know that cold shower you had?"
Audrey nods, a little more color coming to her cheeks. "Mhm?"
"Not strictly necessary. You could've taken an aftercare potion and that would have settled it, most likely."
"Aren't potions like that supposed to be, like, really expensive…?"
Eva gives Audrey a flat look. "Audrey. It's the Rose Bowers. Everything is included. You're not going to deplete the Bowers' stock of aftercare potion - believe me, I've tried."
Audrey blushes. "I've been meaning to ask… about, um, that. You're pretty experienced, right?"
Eva ducks her head. "Less than I maybe used to be, but yeah. The Bowers is really good at helping you find people, whether for hookups or something more significant. You're always being low-level matchmade with the people around you unless you opt out - I suspect we matched up, to be honest."
Audrey frowns a little. "I'm not sure what to think about that. I mean, so far it's been great, and all, but…"
Eva smiles. "I've spent a lot of time in the Bowers over the years, and I've never had a problem. It's pretty subtle, mostly just putting people in the same places and then letting them connect or not connect as they wish. I still had to make the decision to approach you, and you had to accept that - we've had to work to get this far, is what I'm saying."
Audrey nods firmly. "Yeah. Okay, that makes a lot more sense to me."
"That said, I would absolutely not hold it against you if you decided to see more people besides me. I have a bunch of casual partners, so… It would be totally hypocritical to ask you to be only mine."
Audrey nods, and then her brain catches up. "Wait, you have a bunch of partners?"
Eva nods back, and sets her pizza down on a suddenly-appearing plate. "Four or five, that I see semi-regularly. Nobody I'm actually dating, though that could change. I'm polyamorous. I… hope that's not a dealbreaker."
Audrey snuggles a little closer into her blanket. "Don't ask me to think about hard questions, my brain is still all fuzzy. But… I guess it's not that surprising, since you've been here in the Bowers on and off for a long time. You'd collect connections."
Eva blushes slightly. "… Yes, you do. Though it's… been a long time since I considered actually dating someone. You're… You're special."
Audrey blushes back. "… Thank you. It… helps, to feel like I'm not just anyone to you."
"I said it because it was true, not because it would help you feel better." Eva looks at Audrey levelly, and takes another bite of her pizza.
"I know that! I just… It's flattering, to hear you talk about me like that…" She looks away. "I have a hard time taking compliments."
Eva nods. "Something to talk to Clematis about, maybe."
"Maybe, yeah. I'm still… kind of nervous about trying hypnotherapy… but if you vouch for her…"
"Then I guess I'll try it. Because, I, um… Even if I haven't decided what I want to… do… with you… I'd like to have the option, you know?"
Eva smiles with a hint of a blush. "More options are always better, I agree." Then she taps her fingers against her lips. "You know, you could call her right now if you wanted to. I wouldn't mind."
Audrey looks away. "I… That would probably be a smart idea, wouldn't it, but… I don't really want to interrupt our… I guess this is a date, now?"
Eva smiles. "Yeah, I guess it is. It's okay, you don't have to."
Audrey finishes her pizza slice, and brushes her hair out of her eyes. "… no, you know what, I'm going to do it. I'm going to call her."
Eva flashes a thumbs-up. "Alright! Should I cover my ears?"
"No, it's fine, I don't think I'd say anything important…" Audrey pulls her phone out of her bag and taps through to her contacts. "Here I go." She taps the button and holds the phone up to her ear.
"Hello, is this Dr. Clematis' office? Yes, I'd like to book a session? Uh… I'm not sure when… Oh, I can just walk in? What's the wait time like? That's wonderful. I'll do that, then. Thank you. See you."
She hangs up and puts her phone back in her bag. "Okay, that's done. I'll go over right after we're done here."
Eva's eyebrows draw together. "You don't have to push yourself for my sake, Audrey, it's okay -"
Audrey shakes her head. "No, I want to do this. It's my - problem, to solve how I choose. And I don't want to spend my two weeks at the Bowers just hiding in my room."
"Alright," Eva relents. "It's your decision."
"Thank you." Audrey smiles slightly, and picks up another piece of pizza. "So, uh, food. Unless you had any more Rose Bowers tips?"
"Well, you do know about the three layers of wards, right?" Eva tilts her head.
"Safety, privacy, contraception. I at least skimmed the brochure before booking. Anything else?"
Eva taps her nails on the table. "The rooms are customizable?"
Audrey shrugs. "Yeah, the brochure said that too. I haven't seen any reason to just yet, what I've got is pretty decent already. There's a jacuzzi in the bathroom and everything."
"I'd say that's the essentials, though there's definitely a lot to learn still. Have a look at the catalog of toys and extras sometime. And once you get a little more experienced, you might want to check out the Blackberry Gardens… though that's probably pretty far from where you are right now."
Audrey crosses her arms over her chest. "I've heard stories about the Blackberry Gardens. They sounded… obviously made up."
Eva half-smiles. "Well, you'll find out eventually. Maybe not on this trip. But eventually, if you decide to come back."
Audrey smiles wryly. "For you to know and me to find out, huh?" She takes another bite of her pizza.
Eva nods. "Something like that." She snags another onion ring.
"So, food. Uh, I don't know if there's a lot more to talk about there, my tastes are pretty normal. Pizza, hot dogs, chips… Maybe not the healthiest, but I've got a Grace, so…" Audrey shrugs.
Eva takes a bite of her onion ring. "Yeah, a lot of people get into that kind of habit. Me included, honestly. Though it's nice to mix in some variety."
"All glory and honor to the Gracebearers, etc." Audrey grins.
"You know… I contribute to the Grace grid sometimes, myself." Eva ducks her head.
"Really? You don't seem to be the type who'd be… into pain."
"There's a lot of things you don't know about me." Eva finishes off her onion ring.
"So do you do that for a living, then?" Audrey tilts her head.
"What, Gracebear? No, not… really…"
Audrey frowns. "If you don't want to talk about it, that's okay."
Eva shakes her head and takes a deep breath. "No, I knew that this would come up eventually, and there's nothing for it but to be honest about it. It's, uh, kind of awkward to say this, but… my… family… has some members that are high up in the OTC. So, uh. I'm kind of… independently wealthy. I don't have to work. I just… take trips around to nice resort worlds, stay in the Bowers when I feel like it. I do… earn a little money on the side from some coding projects, and from contributing to the Grace grid… but I donate it all to charities for morphological freedom and trans issues. I don't actually… need any of it."
Audrey's eyes are as wide as saucers. "So… Wait a second, you keep saying you're - experienced - how experienced, exactly? How old are you, Eva?"
Eva rubs the back of her neck. "Uh. I don't… actually know precisely, the records don't go back that far… but I was in the first set of people to receive Graces, back when they were limited only to high-level executives and family…"
"That would make you…"
"Almost five hundred years old, yes." Eva ducks her head.
"Yeah, I… get that a lot."
Audrey runs a hand through her hair. "I, uh… I'm 24… and I work in the Civil Service on Arcbright… mostly I push papers and do bureaucratic stuff… I don't really, um, like my job…"
Eva looks at Audrey for a long moment, and then she rests her forehead in her hand and starts to giggle helplessly.
Audrey freezes - and then the dam breaks, and she starts giggling too.
Eva turns away a little, and takes deep breaths, but then Audrey's giggles set her off again. "You- that was such a valiant effort - "I'm 24?""
Audrey breaks down and laughs. "I tried, okay! I tried! It's not my fault you started giggling!"
Eva manages to calm herself a little. "Haaaaah, oh wow. What a mismatch, huh?"
"Yeah, I'll say…" Audrey presses a fist against her lips.
"It doesn't change anything about what I feel for you, just so you know. I… there aren't a lot of five-hundred-year-olds going around, or a lot of higher-ups. Most people I see are more like you than they are like… me."
"Yeah, I guess that makes sense… Were you really around for the founding of the OTC?" Audrey leans in despite herself.
Eva picks up a slice of pizza and takes a contemplative bite. "Well, sort of. I don't really remember that anymore - all my memories from that far back are kept on crystal now, I don't have them just floating around loose in my brain. Meat's only good for about a hundred years, so I try my best to - have a life worth living in the present, instead of letting things from centuries ago define me."
"That seems… sensible. I hope I'm like that when I get to be your age…" Audrey shakes her head. "Five hundred."
"Yeah, it's a lot to take in, isn't it. It's okay if you… need space, to process that."
Audrey crosses her arms over her chest and exhales in a long huff. "That… is definitely a tricky one. You're literally… twenty times my age. Hard to believe you're actually interested in little old me. Well, little… young… me."
Eva nods. "There's… a reason why I don't date often. The age scares a lot of people away. And it's hard to… accept that most of my relationships probably won't last the rest of my life. Forever is a long time for things to go wrong in. Casual is easier for me."
Audrey closes her eyes and nods. "Yeah, I can see how that… long perspective… could make it tough for you."
Eva sighs. "I'm sorry to make this such a… heavy conversation. You're still recovering, it's just, you asked, and…"
Audrey frowns. "No, you absolutely did the right thing. But… Yeah, I'm definitely going to need some time to think about this."
"Do you want to finish the pizza, or…?"
Audrey shakes her head. "I think I'm done for now. I'll find something to eat back at my room. I… It was lovely, Eva. I would like to meet again, probably, but… I might be a while. Is that okay?"
Eva nods. "Of course. I'll just pack this away, then, if that's alright?" She stands and picks up the basket of onion rings.
"Yeah, that's fine." Audrey smiles slightly. "And… Can I give you a hug?"
Eva sets the basket of onion rings back down on the table. "You can definitely give me a hug."
Audrey stands, leaving behind her blanket, and steps in to embrace Eva softly. Eva drapes her hands around Audrey's back, and holds her as well.
"This was fun. I… no promises. But… if I don't call within a couple days, you know…"
Eva nods into Audrey's shoulder. "That's fine. Do what feels right."
Audrey unhugs, and Eva lets her go.
"Um." Audrey runs a hand through her hair. "… Bye."
"… I'll be waiting for your call." Eva smiles slightly.
Audrey picks up her purse, and slings it over her shoulder; then she walks away, with one last glance over her shoulder. She catches Eva halfway to the bar with the leftover food in both her hands, but she still smiles when she sees Audrey looking back.
Audrey looks away, shoves her hands in her dress' pockets, and keeps walking.