The Food of Love
a Tales of Rebirth fic, by Suzume
written for springkink @ lj
"Ergh!" Tytree tossed up his arms and rubbed his hands through his hair, mussing up his already tousled pine green locks so that they poked up every which way like the spikes of some demented porcupine. "This one's not right either!"
Mao snickered, unsuccessfully attempting to smother the sound between his hands. It really wasn't funny that Tytree had been working on perfecting his own version of Aunt Popura's peach pie on and off for months and today, after thinking he had finally gotten the recipe right, not even the third pie he baked quite matched up to his expectations. But the crazy sounds he made in the midst of his frustration were just hysterical. If Tytree ever needed some other job to supplement his income as a factory worker, Mao would definitely suggest he try his hand at becoming a clown and entertaining children.
"You're not helping, Mao!" Tytree paced back and forth across the cold, black stone of the tiny kitchen area, swinging his arms in an attempt to loose some of the frustration that dogged his somewhat ill-advised adventures in baking.
"I know, I know! I didn't mean anything bad by it," Mao smiled. His sincerity was unfeigned. He liked Tytree, and even if his occasionally spastic nature was good for a laugh, he generally preferred to see his friend succeed. And then, of course, there was also the matter of wanting to enjoy a really good peach pie again for the first time in several months. It wasn't exactly the kind of cuisine he or Eugene could easily prepare while out on the road together. "I just wonder what it is that's not coming out the way you think it should. You've got a pretty specific recipe written up here- I saw it," Mao pointed his fork at the scrap of paper tossed aside onto the table. He couldn't decipher the chicken scratch that passed as Tytree's handwriting, but every component was listed with numbers alongside it, betokening some degree of specificity involved.
"That recipe is the result of long weeks of toil and testing! ...Well, also some suggestions from Serena and some healthy speculation." Tytree's enthusiasm was testament enough to his enormous investment in this project.
"Uh," Mao picked at the piece before him. He wouldn't call it bad. And it was far superior to the first peach pie Tytree had tested out on him during their first visit to Sulz. Still, the crust was a bit dry. Something just seemed to be lacking. "Did you ever think that you might have a bad oven here? I don't think this pie was baked evenly."
"If you're suggesting I let you go all "chichinpuipui" on me and zap the next one with your flames, I've gotta tell ya, I'm not all onboard with that, Mao," Tytree favored the boy with a skeptical glance.
"Aww, don't go dismissing it right off the bat! I don't want to blast the next pie straight out. It'd just get charred. You know I'm smarter than that, don't you Tytree?" Mao pouted, trying to muster up some sympathy through his supposed pathetic-ness. "I thought I could just provide a little extra assistance by controlling the temperature in the oven."
"Hmm, I guess that would be alright," he eyed both Mao and the oven with some suspicion. Neither of them had the greatest track record for performing exactly as promised. "But you better be careful."
"Oh, I will!" Mao popped one last sticky slice of sugary peach in his mouth and hopped out of his chair to examine the finicky device he would be working with.
"You and Eugene must really love each other, kid," Tytree chatted as he began to roll out a new crust from the dough he had been mixing, "Otherwise I don't know how he could put up with you sitting around taste-testing pies while he trains out by the river."
"Eugene's a real soldier, Tytree, but he doesn't expect me to live as, uh, what's that word? Ascetically as he does. 'Sides, he figured you still had a couple of bad pies in you and by the time he came back to get me you'd have worked all the kinks out."
"Wha-what?! Eugene said that?!" Tytree slapped his flour-coated hands against his knees, leaving twin white blotches on his green pants.
"Well, he said it nicer, but, you know," Mao shrugged.
"Why you little-!" Tytree gave voice to his mild annoyance, trying to grab the feisty boy and give him a good noogie full of flour.
Mao dodged him with practiced ease, jumping over a chair and hiding behind a barrel of pickles. "Now now, Tytree, don't get hasty and do anything you'd regret!"
"I'm sure I wouldn't regret dunking you in pickle juice," he scratched his chin thoughtfully.
"But you don't want to risk getting any of that pickle juice in your pie, do you?" Mao countered astutely.
Tytree whirled around and paced back to the counter to focus on his next pie. "Don't think I'm done with you, Mao, just 'cuz I decided the prioritize the pie!" As hard as he tried to sound stern and unforgiving, his kind, easy-going nature slipped through in the form of a snapping, sparkling laugh. His supposed annoyance drifted away as lightly as a blade of grass on the wind. Mao was encouraged into laughter of his own, coming out from behind the barrel to finish off his current slice and move on to assist with the next pie.
Tytree hummed to himself as he worked, molding the lower half of the crust to fit nicely into the pie tin. Mao had to concede that for such a rough fellow, he really had something of an artisan's touch. He used his hands as skillfully in manipulating the dough as he did in the midst of battle. It was impressive to watch the source of so much pain turn so precise and gentle. Mao picked at some crumbs on his plate and mused over the complicated nature of people. He was glad that people weren't simply classified as just Huma and Gajuma. Everyone was so unique, in some ways, each being was a category unto themselves.
"Ya gonna help me with any part by the actual baking or was that just a pipe dream?" Tytree interrupted his philosophical reverie.
"Uh, yeah, I'll help," Mao picked up a knife and joined in with cutting the peaches into slim slices. As rowdy as he'd been before, now he was eager and thoughtful in following Tytree's directions. While he didn't exactly respect Tytree as any kind of baking expert, he knew his own cooking wasn't anything to brag about either and this was Tytree's little pet project after all.
Tytree's humming continued right on as he added the peach filling and the top layer of the crust to the pie and brushed on a light glaze before setting it carefully into the oven. Mao knelt down by the base of the oven, gauging the strength of the heat as it spread throughout the box. He summoned up a small amount of flame to dance around the edges of the oven that didn't seem properly heated. "What is it you're humming?"
"It's a song my sister always sings when she cooks dinner. Actually, I'm surprised you didn't come up with some song of your own to sing while we worked on this."
"I'm not out of time yet," Mao reminded him, keeping his wide, ruby red eyes fixed on the oven. Clinking noises provided a backdrop to his vigilance as Tytree filled the sink with dishes. He had run out of peaches. No matter how this one turned out, it was going to have to be the last try for the day.
"The only thing I can think of to do with these leftovers is to take them up to the factory for everyone else to finish off during their breaks."
"That sounds smart enough to me. They've never had Aunt Popura's pie, so they don't know what they're missing."
"Okay, well, I'm gonna take them to the factory, but I'll be back long before that one is done," Tytree carefully balanced three relatively intact peach pies in his arms.
"Yeah, I'll keep on this one," Mao encouraged him to go. He could use the time alone to think of a way to meet Tytree's expectations by coming up with a peach pie baking song.
Tytree was gone longer than he expected as a result of the minor stir of excitement the way he was spending his day off caused amidst the chief and his coworkers. Only Serena had been aware of what he was up to. "Whew! Sorry for the hold up, Mao."
"Oh, you're back! I was staring to get bored." He wasn't kneeling any longer, but sitting on the slight step that separated the stone kitchen floor from the wood of the rest of house. "Anyway, I did think up a song for you."
"Aaah!" he sucked in a deep breath. The air was filling up again with the warm, sweet smell of baking pie. He thought he could really understand the appeal of running a bakery now. It would be nice to be surrounded by such a comforting aroma and atmosphere each day instead of the grease and noise of machinery. "For me, huh?" he plonked himself down beside his friend, staring into the tiny viewing slot in the oven. "Let's hear it."
"Kneed the dough
Chop, chop, chop
Roll, roll, roll
"'Fuwah, fuwaaah?' Huh? What's that supposed to mean?"
"It's the sound of the smell wafting off the pie while it's baking!"
"But...that happens silently," Tytree answered, somewhat puzzle by the inclusion of this odd bit of onomatopoeia.
"But if I didn't say it, how would you know it was happening?"
Tytree had to admit- Mao had a point there. "Hmm. I guess that's right."
"I hope you've finally got it." Though side by side, their gaze was focused thoroughly on the oven as if their constant attention could will their desire outcome into being.
The timer started ringing and fell off the counter to the floor. Both of them jumped to their feet with surprise. "Wah! Uh, pass me the oven mitts and I'll get it out," Tytree roughly wrapped a hand in his apron to yank open the door and sent a billowing cloud of steam free into the room.
"Here!" Mao threw the green mitts across the room and Tytree caught them deftly in one hand. He whipped them on and whisked out the pie with practiced expertise. Its surface gleamed with sugary sweetness. With great ceremony, he brought the pie back over to the table, picked up the knife, and carved out a tentative, thin slice, setting it aside on a small, white plate. The bite-full he jabbed onto the fork let off a wisp of steam of its own. To all appearances it was a perfect bite, a golden ratio of soft, yellow peach to crisply tanned crust. "Mao, you gotta do this for me. Taste it!" Tytree shoved the fork in his direction, squeezing his eyes shut- he couldn't bear to look.
Mao lunged forward to take the bite for Tytree. Was this it? Had Tytree made the pie he dreamed or baking or was it another flop?
Silence fell across the tiny house. Tytree peeked carefully, holding back his bubbling emotions in fear of what the response might be. "...So, Mao, how is it?"
Mao swallowed. His look was one of pure bliss. "Tytree...if you tasted like this, I would kiss you."
Tytree brightened, eager now to taste his own concoction. "If it's that good, in a few seconds, you might!"
"Is it the custom in Sulz to have a peach pie instead of a wedding cake?" Mao wondered, seeing the gift Popura brought in and recognizing it for what is obviously was despite the cloth covering laid across the top to keep the warmth in.
"No," Claire laughed daintily, "But perhaps it should be. Look over there," she guided his crimson eyes to a decorated table. Amidst the snowbells and anemones was a fairly traditional white wedding cake decked with almonds and candied violets. "We have a cake. One little pie wouldn't have been big enough for all our guests, as good as it might taste. We wouldn't have wanted to saddle Aunt Popura with the task of baking for everyone. My mother wanted to hang onto the honor of feeding our guests on this special day."
"So the peach pie is?"
"A special wedding gift for Veigue and me."
"It's going to make their wedding night pretty tasty, if you know what I mean," Hilda favored Claire with a knowing glance over Mao's head. Claire blushed. Mao tried to act like he understood her hinting, but inside he was a little less than certain he could pin down the specifics. "Now leave the lovely bride alone," Hilda put her hands on Mao's shoulders and guided him off in the direction of Annie and Eugene, "She should be enjoying her day with her new husband, not answering your questions."
Veigue, who had sat silently at Claire's side until this point, let out a light chuckle. The outpouring of good will surrounding this event, along with Claire's radiance of both heart and body had buoyed Veigue to heights of happiness he had only felt but several times in his life. It took something extraordinary to free him from the bonds of quiet restraint that were his natural manner. Seated together at the head of the meeting hall, it felt as though he and Claire were perched atop a golden cloud. The only regret he felt was that Agarte had not lived to share their happiness. Milhaust had been too busy to attend, but he had sent his regards, as well as those of the rest of the court. Veigue imagined that Agarte and Milhause would've held their wedding sooner.
Agarte's deception and immaturity had hurt him, but he had come to like her. She was difference than Claire and he was glad for the conversations they had had. She had opened his mind at the same time as he opened hers. Of course, now was not the time to linger over thoughts of Agarte. He looked at Claire and knew he was seeing their future. Her smile hadn't drooped all day. In fact, Veigue thought her sunshiny brilliance had only increased as the celebration wore on. The sun would never set on his wedding day as Claire's glimmering feelings would burn on event through the night. She and her mother had sewn her pink and white dress together, adapting Rakiya's own wedding dress into something new. That sense of tradition and continuity was strong in Sulz. Veigue had found plenty of time to muse over the matter while he and Marco and the other men of the village labored over the past months to build a new steep-roofed addition to the town. Tonight would be the first he and Claire spent in their new home. So far the place was sparsely furnished, but moving in the last of their personal possessions, along with the addition of their wedding gifts, would take care of that.
"It's times like this you can't help but feel a little overwhelmed at how lucky you are to have so many people who love you," Claire sighed, leaning her head on Veigue's shoulder. The carnations in her hair released a slight fragrance as they were crushed between their bodies. "As if I wasn't fortunate enough to have you."
Her sparkling eyes drew him in and he placed a light kiss on her welcoming lips. It was still a little unnerving to kiss Claire with so many people watching. He could hear Annie telling Mao and Tytree to stop giggling. Veigue had a feeling he had probably brought this upon himself by denying his attraction to Claire and being so stoic in the past. "I love you too."
"Save some room for peach pie tonight, Veigue," she reminded him.
"Of course," he promised.
Their attention was swiftly pulled away as Marco, holding back tears of happiness, proposed a toast to the happy couple. When he erupted into choking sobs, Rakiya embraced him and Eugene rose to take over for the overwhelmed father. Eugene was a good speaker and the things he said about Claire's strength of character and Veigue's dedication which he had witnessed for himself made both their ears burn. Eugene's speech was followed by a downpour of applause, and then, not to be outdone, Tytree stood up and offered his own two gald regarding the new couple.
The afternoon wore away into evening in a whirling haze of toasts and anecdotes and dining and dancing. Veigue felt almost lightheaded, drunk on the atmosphere. He had only felt a great sense of relief when Yuris' fury had been averted, but now he felt like some sort of great hero, carrying Claire over the threshold of their new home to the raucous cheers of all their friends and family. Rakiya and Marco led the others in following them in, helping out by bringing the presents into the house, but quickly retiring to wind down the party while Veigue and Claire were left in the quiet of one another's company for the first time since before their wedding ceremony.
"Veigue, I'm afraid if you get any happier you might drop dead from the sheer shock to you system," Claire giggled as he set her down precisely on the smooth wooden floor.
"And leave you alone like that? No, I've made it through far too many difficult things to desert you now." He squeezed her hands and as he leaned down to kiss her, she twirled away, slipping through his fingers to dance around the table. She chose carefully among the presents to pick out Aunt Popura's peach pie. It was still warm. All the steam had dissipated, but the tin's hot surface still stung her fingers.
"Come and get me," she teased, stepping away through the combined dining room and kitchen as energetically and gracefully as she had danced with him hours before. She held the pie over her head as if it were the more tantalizing portion of her flirtatious display. It was a move that couldn't fail to make Veigue laugh. He remembered having to tell Tytree that all joking aside, there was no way he would ever had chosen peach pie over Claire. Tytree, ever light-hearted, refused to fully accept this answer, enlisting Mao in some heavy duty teasing whenever they judged Veigue's behavior to be too unnecessarily serious. He didn't think Claire knew about any of this, making for an unusual bout of irony.
With a final shake of her hips she looked up at the pie, licked her lips, and disappeared into the bedroom. Veigue spared only a stray glance at the slight stack of gifts and the full moon shedding its pale light over their various shapes before following her into the cozy room.
Claire had kicked off her shoes. She lounged against the white, lacy pillows. She looked up to meet Veigue's gaze before boldly poking a fingertip through the crust of the pie, pulling it back out, and sucking off the sweet sauce that coated it.
Veigue licked his own lips almost without realizing it. He approached calmly, but with determination, loosening his collar and leaving his dress boots behind. "You're going to save some of that for me, I hope."
This was the boiling point of the gradual heat that had been building up in their chaste relationship.
"Of course. It's time for use to share everything we have."
Veigue dipped his hand in, scooping up a bit of the pie. "Allow me to lend you a hand," he offered it to her.
"Oh, Veigue, you've always been a gentleman," she sighed blissfully.
"Mao, Tytree," Veigue addressed his two friends as solemnly as ever, "I called you here because I have a very important piece of news to pass on."
Mao drew in a deep breath and held it tight as he waited to hear it. Veigue was so cool he was beginning to fear it was something bad. He hesitated, wondering if he should ask if they needed to sit down for this, but Tytree preempted his ability to question Veigue by jumping to all kinds of conclusions about their gathering. "W-wait! Is there some kind of trouble going on? Is something wrong with Claire? Or one of your kids?! Is Yuris back?!!"
"Tytree!" Veigue barked.
"Or is it something else?" the green-haired man was undeterred in his wild panic.
"Tytree!" Veigue redoubled his efforts at snapping his friend out of his irrational state of mind. If he was forced to deal his pal a slight blow to return him to his senses he was going to do it. "Tytree, it's only a pie recipe!"
"Huh?" Tytree relaxed, giving him a curious glance.
"But Veigue, you've forgotten that peach pie is a life or death matter to Tytree," Mao laughed, feeling all glimmers of pessimism he had entertained slip away like water through a sieve.
"Peach pie? This is about peach pie?" He scratched his messy mop of deep green hair, "Uh, sorry about that, Veigue. Why don't you tell us about it. I won't interrupt this time- I promise."
"Right." Veigue smiled as he nodded. He wasn't sure that was a vow Tytree could be expected to deliver on, but he didn't really mind as long as it didn't get out of hand. "Anyway, what happened is that Aunt Popura made up her mind that she was getting on in years and she didn't want her secret recipe to die with her. ...So she took Claire into her confidence and passed the recipe on to her."
"Wow!" Mao blurted out an immediate response. "That's awesome! Claire is so lucky!"
"That makes Veigue and Heize and Agarte lucky too," Tytree agreed. "Though I don't suppose I'll have any better luck getting the secret out of her than Aunt Popura."
"Ha ha, I wouldn't bet on it, that's for sure!" Mao laughed.
"I'm going to have to agree with Mao on that one." He had seen that query coming a mile off. "But it's not like there's no benefit to you in having the recipe fall into the hands of your close friends."
"Oh?" Tytree perked up further. ...Was this going where he thought it was? Tytree and Mao both turned their ears to the gap that connected the sitting room to the kitchen, straining to translated the soft scraping and mixing sounds they heard into the promise of peach pie to come.
"Claire practiced the recipe several times alongside Aunt Popura to make sure she conquered all its finer points and now she feels ready to make it on her own. ...So she suggested that I invite some of our friends to join us in sharing it."
"So it's an honor to be here then!" Mao chirped. He imagined he could catch a faint whiff of pie in the oven already.
"Yeah, I picked the two of you," Veigue agreed, emphasizing the value of his decision. "I thought you would appreciate it most. ...Both the taste and the, uh, sensual nature of the pie."
"Heh heh heh," Tytree chuckled awkwardly. The blush that rose to his ruddy cheeks showed that even now he was something of a stranger to such physical displays of affection. Veigue, while somewhat experienced, was similarly reticent in discussing such matters. He took it as a welcome sign of how little Tytree had changed in the intervening years. Mao, an enigma in this category as he had been before in so many others, continued his policy of talking big about things his older friends doubted he fully understood.
"Claire...is okay with that?" Tytree didn't think Veigue was the type to set up something like this without asking his wife, but one could never afford to be too sure where intimate applications of peach pie were concerned.
Mao blinked, rattle by a sudden revelation precipitated by Veigue's stammering tone. "This- I mean, having both of us over to join in with the festivities- this was Claire's idea, wasn't it?!"
"I thought you boys would never catch on!" Claire's sunny voice rang out of the kitchen. "Mao, do you want to lick the bowl or are you getting too old for that now?"
"No matter how old I get, I'll always be a kid at heart!" he bounded away into the kitchen to join her. Veigue smiled at still more things that had remained comfortingly the same- Mao's youthful energy and Claire's inviting nature were always a boon to him.
"Wait! You're already putting it in the oven?" Tytree deserted Veigue for the warmth of the oven-heated kitchen.
Veigue didn't see much meaning in staying alone in the sitting room, so he casually followed along to see all three of them engaged in some familiar banter and camaraderie. Mao ran a finger along the inside of the mixing bowl and sucked off the dregs of the sweet mixture of peaches and spices. Claire adjusted the flame and settled the peach pie in the oven while Tytree pestered her good-naturedly for hints as to how to make his own twist on the recipe more like Popura's jaw-droppingly delicious concoction.
Outside he could hear Heize and Agarte running around with some of the neighbor kids. Sulz was as it should be again, Humas and Gajumas mixing freely. Little Agarte liked the big ears of some of her Gajuma playmates so much that her mother had sewn a pair of felt ears onto a headband that she wore almost every day.
Out of the corner of her eye, Claire caught a glimpse of Heize's blond head and the tips of Agarte's toy cat ears running by. "Heize! There' s not enough snow left to take that sled down the hill!" she yelled out the window.
"Yes, Mom!" he returned the dutiful cry.
"With parents like you two, no wonder your kids are good." Tytree pulled over a chair and sat down in it backwards, keeping the oven firmly in his sights. "I bet neither of you were much trouble for Marco and Rakiya either."
"Not Claire, that's for sure."
"Unless you were completely different as a little kid, you probably drove your parents and Serena crazy!" Mao accused his freewheeling friend.
"You forget," Veigue piped up, "Even now with a husband of her own, Tytree's calling on his sister for all kinds of things and driving her crazy."
"It doesn't bother her! She doesn't mind!" the man in question argued, "I love my sister!"
"You really gotta do something about that sister complex," Mao chided him.
Veigue pulled out chairs for Mao and Claire before sitting down himself. No matter how much time passed between his meetings with the friends he had traveled the world with, it never took long for it to feel as if they'd never parted. Even if the pie wasn't quite up to Aunt Popura standards, it had been worth it to invite Mao and Tytree to Sulz just to talk to them. Especially Tytree, he thought, but they had a unique bond. Tytree was his first true friend. And what husband could ask for such luck in having a wife who embraced his friends so completely as her own?
The time spent waiting for the pie to bake, breathing in the increasingly tantalizing aroma and occasionally checking on its progress, seemed to fly by in a flurry of pleasant conversation. When Claire finally removed the pie from the oven she could barely wait to cut the first slice, but of course, it needed some time to cool off so no one burned their tongue. She harbored no doubts as to the quality of the pie. The baking had proceeded smoothly and she had followed each step exactly as Aunt Popura had taught her to. Everyone would be so happy enjoying it together.
"Let me help." Veigue was unwilling to leave all the work, however light, involved in this gathering to his wife. As she began to carve up the slowly cooling pie, he took out four plates and four forks to eat it with (thought if past experiences with such superlative pie were any indication, there was a good chance he would end up doing as much eating out of Mao's fingers, off Tytree's stomach, and straight from Claire's lips as he would with any utensils).
"Aaah," Tytree made no secret of the great pleasure he derived from the lovely fragrance blanketing the room (and seeping out, no doubt, to infect the rest of the house and the yard as well). "Well it definitely smellsjust like one of your aunt's pies."
"Who gets the first bite?" Mao asked, clearly angling to claim this privilege as his own.
Claire particularly liked the way he batted his crimson eyelashes in an attempt to manipulate her with his cuteness. However, Mao wasn't exactly the little boy he had once been, and as nice as it was to have friends over to share her first Aunt Popura-style pie with, Claire had already made up her mind weeks ago that Veigue, who had made such a difference in her life (and who had been so affected in his own life by this same peach pie), should test the first bite. "Why, Veigue of course."
"Aww, I knew it," Mao snapped his fingers, somehow managing to use the gesture to emphasize his loss.
"Come here and open up," she beckoned her husband with the scoop before lifting out the first piece. It broke messily into several sections, as was often the case with the first slice removed from the pie plate.
"How is it?" Mao and Tytree clammered eagerly as soon as that bite was in his mouth.
His beatific expression should've been answer enough. His cool eyes softened and he locked his gaze with Claire's, engaging in the same silent love-struck communication as his memory overflowed with recollections of equally love-filled peach pies that had brightened his life. Even those who had never tasted a peach pie before had to have experienced some feeling similar to this. For many years he had only thought of Claire as a kind friend or sister, but when he heard her speak on the scaffolding at Belsas he had been exposed to the true depths of her compassion and wisdom.
Claire returned his smile with an equally gilded expression of her own. She passed out pieces of the pie to both of their guests, cheerfully awaiting the opportunity to see their reactions to her precious handiwork.
Veigue took the time as he savored the pie to consider his deep love and appreciation for Mao and Tytree as well. "Oh! This is perfect!" Tytree gasped, unable to stay quiet about his enjoyment. Mao laughed at that, but there was nothing cruel or mocking in the laugh.
All four were caught up in the spell of pure love and thankfulness for friends both far and at hand. Under other circumstances it might've sounded a bit sappy, but Veigue felt there could be no substitute for actually telling them- Mao, Claire, and Tytree- "I love you, all of you. I'm a better person for having met you. All of you are irreplaceable to me."
"Oh, Veigue!" Tytree leapt to unabashedly throw his arms around his friend, "I feel exactly the same way!" The air rippled with sentiment as Claire and Mao expressed similar feelings. There was no doubt that Popura had done the right thing by agreeing to pass down her recipe when she did. They could only hope this beautiful feeling would last forever.