In the last year, Estelle had traveled the world. She had breathlessly viewed the blossoming tree of Halure; she had dangled her feet into the clear water of Torim Harbor; she had tread the sunset-stained cobblestones of Dahngrest; she had even stood within the living body of Krones in the Krityan city of Myorzo, high above the sky. She had fought through the overgrown wreck of Caer Bocram, through Baction's crumbling halls, through the ancient stronghold of Tarqaron. She had been to every continent, to every major population center, to every landmark in the world.
She was becoming quite the travel expert, in her own mind.
But Yuri had always taken the lead in those travels. He had made the daily affairs of plotting their course and directing their path seem effortless.
In stark contrast, Rita made it seem unfathomably difficult.
Estelle lifted her head to the spring sun, letting it beneath the brim of her wide hat to touch her face with warmth. The breeze caught playfully at her thin dress, stirring it about her legs. She loved it out here on the plains of Ilyccia, green and strewn with brightly-colored flowers, with the sound of the sea dimly reaching her ears, its white beach just a few gently rolling hills away.
She closed her eyes to imagine it. "Have you figured out the map yet?" she asked.
Rita's response was instant and acerbic. "I don't need to figure out the map. I know how to use a map! I just haven't found where we are on the map."
"Right. Of course." Estelle opened her eyes again and glanced over her shoulder. The swordstair of Zaphias loomed visibly on the horizon, piercing high into the achingly blue sky that spread flawlessly in every direction. They were northwest of Zaphias, over the river, and south of the mountains. Even if someone spun her around until she fell over from dizziness, she would have assumed she would be easily able to tell -- from Zaphias on one side; the mountains on the other -- how to find her way to pretty much anything on the southern plain.
But -- it was probably complicated in some way Estelle hadn't considered.
Rita murmured, quieter, "It was definitely around here somewhere. Cross the first river... Then west..."
She had refused to tell Estelle where they were going, only that it was a perfect place for a picnic and that she would have never seen it before. Significant promises, both; in Estelle's opinion, anyplace on the plain would make a wonderful place for a picnic.
Estelle shifted restlessly from foot to foot, lifting the basket, which was starting to feel heavy in her arms after all this time simply waiting.
"Have you ever been there before?" she tried helpfully.
"Yes! I was there with a research team just this week."
Shift, shift. "Maybe you should have asked for directions," she ventured.
"I have directions."
Estelle bit her lip. There were lots of areas in which Rita was an unparalleled genius. Magic, of course! Research and artes, fighting, and critical thinking of all kinds.
And then there were a few areas in which she was not. Finances. Social skills. Fashion.
Finally, Rita lowered her map. She said, decisively, "Okay. This way."
"Wonderful!" Estelle said, perking up again, and took a few quick steps to rejoin her.
They started walking west, towards the sounds of the sea. Estelle's eager mind raced ahead, imagining a picnic by the seaside, the salty wind in their hair and the waves lapping soothingly at their bare feet... An isolated place just for the two of them to curl up and eat and talk and laugh... Estelle pictured herself drifting off after a full afternoon, curled up, head in Rita's lap, the other girl reading a book and pretending not to be stroking her hair...
And the beach was everything that she had imagined, glittering pale sand and bluegreen stretch of water with not a hint of cloud or cool weather in sight. But Rita led her north to a rocky inlet, carefully choosing their footing on such precarious purchase. Those round, round rocks would grind uncomfortably into them through the flimsy blanket Estelle had brought, and she continued marching deeper toward the river, even after they had entered damp rock, and rock with water tickling beneath them, and then water that spilled over their shoes.
"Maybe a little farther away from the mouth of the river," Estelle suggested dubiously, but was cut off by Rita's exasperated, "Damnit! This isn't it either."
"You mean-- We're not going to have a picnic on the beach?" Estelle asked, disappointed.
"What?" Rita glanced back at her, as if to determine whether or not she was joking. The crestfallen look Estelle was wearing must have been answer enough. "No way! I said it was going to be somewhere special. This is just some beach! It's exactly like every other beach I've ever seen. Why would I want to take you here?"
"Feel free to just say no," Estelle murmured quietly.
"We'll find it," Rita said, turning to head back into the field, wet boots and all. Estelle thought she heard her musing, "Maybe we should have crossed the second river after all?" as if another hour of hiking to find the perfect picnic spot were nothing.
"No!" It was out of her before she could stop it, and Estelle found that her feet took her forward and her hand grabbed at Rita's sleeve. She flushed. "I just mean... What's so special about this place you want to take me to, anyway?"
Rita frowned at her, but even though it seemed her whole body struggled with the words, she managed to say, "It was -- beautiful. Really beautiful. And it sounds dumb, but I looked at it and I thought, I wish I had some way to take this home and show it to Estelle. Like, if I knew how to paint..." Then she shook her head, dismissing the idea with curt irritation.
Estelle smiled slowly. A sight that had made even cynical Rita wish she could be more creative... and for her benefit, no less. "It sounds like a really special place," she admitted.
"That's why I can't just sit down and eat on some boring beach. The whole reason I brought you out here--"
"No-- Not because it's pretty," Estelle said, stepping a little closer to Rita. "But... because it made you think of me. That's what makes it sound so special."
Color started to rise in Rita's face, and the other girl looked away. "Well. It's not like that's hard," she muttered, her usually strident voice suddenly low and awkward.
Estelle slid her fingers to Rita's arm, down to her wrist, her hand. "But I'm really just here because I want to spend time with you. I don't care where we do it. It could be in the perfect picnic spot, or on the beach, or in a field of flowers, or in a dank cave. As long as I'm with you... it is perfect."
And Rita let Estelle take the map gently from her loose fingers.
The sun dried out their boots far above them at the edge of the beach, as they let their bare feet hang over the edge of the blanket and play in the gentle waves, with all their attention focused on the space between them.