Rose Queen could kill for a morsel of grub. Missions with the Rookie usually concluded much sooner than without, but today was not her lucky day because she had been booted to a different mission. It was a quick one for easy credits, just the sort of mission favoured by the ladies of Panzer Crown. Albeit, it would have been completed much sooner with the prodigal Rookie around. Her stomach wouldn’t be grumbling so much otherwise.
Stepping towards the entrance of the Panzer Crown headquarters, Queen wondered what she should heat up for dinner tonight. Last she checked, there was a surplus of Pink Goo Stew; Or as she used to call it: Cherry Pus. Despite the nickname, it was a splinter against her herculean hunger. Her energy-starved body was demanding for nutrients, no matter where it came from. Wetting her eye for the iris scanner, her usual routine for entry was interrupted with a nostalgic, gastronomic punch to the gut. It was a full-bodied fragrance that entranced her with memories of home, memories of pots filled and bubbling away atop the stove, ready to fill one's stomach. The scanner was nearly smothered with fervent urgency when Queen finally regained her senses.
Queen’s passage through the entrance was an acrobatic feat in itself; Urgency was a snare upon her legs, all while her arms flailed for the sensors to shut the semi-automated door behind her. Catching herself would have been child’s play if her nostrils hadn’t been assaulted by a fragrance that penetrated through her psyche. The sensation was akin to a vengeful pair of dreadnoughts that vyed to consume her whole. Three or four clumsy stomps upon the metallic floor caught the starving Reclaimer from face-planting into the cold. Her homecoming was brightly sounded during the process, after which light metallic taps responded in increasing volume.
“O-Oh, Queen… You're back.” Crown Princess appeared around the corner, looking the most bewildered Queen had ever seen her. Guns Empress was up to something, wasn't she? No one else could have unnerved the stoic Princess in such a manner. Was the elder cooking? She had always made her own meals, so that should not have been a surprise at all. Judging by the younger Reclaimer’s reaction and the intensity of the smells, however, perhaps Empress was making much more food than usual?
Was there some sort of commemoration neither Princess nor herself took note of?
The darkened hallway remained chilled with its harsh, metallic accents — cosmetic renovations were prohibited by Orbital — but the savoury warmth grew ever stronger in contrast. It had spilt out of another room and down the hallway with a mystifying glow, accentuating the shadows with a familial aroma it was never meant for. It had the atmosphere drawn to a whisper, as though the fantasy may corrode and dissipate into nothingness if a gasp too loud slipped between Queen’s lips. Yet, the aroma was a seductress upon her carnal desires; Everything was starting to spin. The battle-hardened Reclaimer was already prepared to squeeze the chewy, smelly, cherry pus from its juice pack into her mouth, then getting some of the chemically-scented goo stuck into her molars like crunchy, old gum. ‘Stop freaking out; Look, you’re being a joke. Just… Pull yourself together and straighten up, Empress is just right around the corner.’
A five-second breather; Followed by a straight pitch.
"What's the occasion, Empress?"
The enigmatic woman, barely acknowledging the query, merely presented an equally enigmatic grin to dodge the question. Beneath the surface, Empress could barely hold her laughter in; Why was Queen panting behind the wall like a pervert?! The temptation to tease the silly woman bubbled at her throat, but her attention was required for the work ahead. If she were to unleash the torments, Orbital would burn to a crisp before any sort of satisfaction was met.
A cast iron pan was being heated up over a conduction plate that kept the flames contained. Beside it was a pot of creamy pumpkin left to bubble and reduce. Cooking was not a problem under Orbital's rule but open flames and smoke were a no-no, hence such a design. Not that Reclaimers often cooked for themselves, because fresh ingredients did not come cheap within the Oval Link. Few were willing to contend with its messy aftermath as well.
A good chunk of butter — earning a second incredulous stare from Queen for its existence in their kitchen — was chucked into the pan, and it sizzled almost instantly as it melted. When only tantalising gold was left fizzing, a pile of sliced mushrooms were scraped into the pan with a knife. The unseeming expert then gave the mixture several quick tosses, before casting a precise amount of seasoning. The sizzling intensified dramatically, along with the influx of salivation at the smells and sights alone. Once browned, the mushrooms and their sauce were dribbled into a bowl, seemingly floating above its edge. They had been cushioned by a heaping stack of fresh vegetables and some sort of twisty noodle.
'A salad and soup… Something's definitely up, isn't it? That's celebratory standards right there. Salt, pepper, butter… And even some herbs! Those ain't affordable!' Despite Empress' typically cold demeanour, she had always been a stickler for celebrating important events annually; Something about how it was part of human culture. Not that Queen nor Princess actually understood what she meant, but they went with the flow all the same. It would just bring trouble to question Empress otherwise.
However, for the life of Queen, nothing came to mind.
"I never knew she could cook like that…" Princess almost had an enviable tone to her murmur. Both she and Queen consumed ration meals almost exclusively, but Empress, unlike them, would splurge on 'healthier' investments at her own expense. Eating was just a means of survival so Princess just wasn't that intrigued by fancy diets, but watching Empress personally defying her beliefs was almost mind-shattering.
Then again, Princess simply did not want to learn something as bothersome as cooking .
A crispy scrape of metal distracted Queen from her ponders; From what she could tell, Empress was opening a can of something . It was an oblong-shaped tin that contained some sort of oil — judging by how its viscous contents were being drained into the vegetable bowl before being shaken out onto the cutting board. Some sort of dark brown strips…? ‘... Anchovies?’
“E-Empress… Just how much did you spend on this meal?! Are these legal?” Queen had been crunching the numbers mentally till it was much too horrific to keep the calculations up. Fresh vegetables, fresh fungi, processed dairy, canned seafood , seasoning … Every single ingredient revealed thus far were luxuries within the Oval Link. The only Reclaimers that can afford them on a daily basis were probably Terrors and Five Hells; And well, Empress herself. However, the extent of her food expenses had always eluded Queen because the former consistently footed the bill from her personal coffers. For all she really knew, such ingredients have been a staple in their pantry; The ration packs were always kept in their separate, non-refrigerated storage room.
The knife ceased its mechanical chopping motion for a moment when Empress directed a stare at Queen. The latter’s spine quivered hesitantly, even though nothing was said between them. After what felt like an ice age, the elder returned to her handiwork. Sliding the sufficiently minced anchovies onto the bed of vegetables, Empress merely smirked; The slight emotion was nearly missed by the duo. “Don't leave a single drop then.”
Turning her attention to the golden pottage, Empress decided that it should be about done. Her index finger was nearly done in as well, when it was nearly plunged into the boiling liquid. Just nearly skimming the surface was enough for Empress to snap her entire arm backwards, as though a force field had repelled it instantly. Possessing a flesh-and-blood body was certainly inconvenient at times like this, not that she would complain about it too much.
It was much more pleasurable to be alive than to being stuck in cyberspace, after all.
A leftward motion forced Empress out of her thought processes; Queen had approached her salad seemingly with the intent of mixing it, judging by the oversized utensils in her hands. The elder wasn't exactly sure why Queen would offer to do so, but it felt as though an enemy mercenary had entered her personal space. A tingle shivered from her tailbone; Such a sensation was not relished by Empress, not in the kitchen.
"Rose." It was a tone that required no other explanation; One that would deter mischievous children and overly enthusiastic adults. Subjected to such a warning, the utensils nearly fell out of the woman's hands. They were placed gingerly onto the counter top instead. Meanwhile, Empress gave the soup a quick analysis of its flavours. It felt as though time had frozen over before she addressed Queen again, "Mind plating the soup instead? I'll toss the salad myself."
Stepping aside to swap positions with Queen, Empress took up the utensils she left behind. She pressed the spoon and fork carefully into the centre of the salad before beginning to churn it from within. Cooking is such a pain, isn't it? A single error and you could either ruin all your efforts or kill someone. Why did humans care so much about the short-term gratification when it comes to survival? Consumption is merely an unavoidable means to staying alive, why should the flavours matter? Restraining herself from attempting to toss the salad like how she flipped the pan earlier, Empress' train of thought carried on, 'Human ingenuity is a mystery, isn't it? To be able to blend and manipulate such simple flavours into complex sensations… And it's just for frivolous satisfaction too. Is it some sort of primal desire I'm missing?'
The conclusion nearly sent a flick of saucy lettuce into Queen's face.
Did it even matter if there was a special occasion? Queen could no longer think straight with the feast before her eyes, with her appetite succulently oozing and overflowing. Lifting the spoon to her lips, vision became a pointless distraction.
A gradual warmth blossomed within the chests of Panzer Crown, with each spoonful of the pumpkin pottage consumed. Their tongues were introduced to a novel sweetness that twinkled upon their taste buds in a delicate manner. Such flavours were followed by a sense of cosiness that surpassed the five major senses. The first sip, followed by seconds and thirds in various frequencies, drew a sigh from each of their lips. How was it possible for a mere soup to soothe as such?
"A pity I couldn't buy any sort of bread to go with the meal, with the purchase limit and all." Empress commented off-handedly as she scraped her spoon along the edge of her bowl, collecting whatever essence that had settled on the sides and dipping them back into the soup. The recipe called for a baguette, but exceeding the limit just for bread of all things would be wasteful. Hence, she wasn't sure whether it was actually a decent attempt at a pumpkin pottage — since she had failed to follow the recipe exactly — but watching Queen's and Princess' blissful exclamations were the finest gratifications Empress could ask for.
Queen remained persistently entranced by the incredible flavours she ingested. They reminded her so much of home, it was nearly impossible to remain collected at all. Not that they could ever afford such fanciful cuisine back in the slums, but the company of family always rendered each and every meal irreplaceably priceless. All meals, even if it was the Meat — A smouldering pot of partially-dissolved flesh from unknown origins with maggots as a replacement for rice. Creamy pumpkin puree may be godly in comparison, but it was also akin to comparing apples with oranges.
"Empress… When did you ever learn to cook? I thought we spent a lot of time training together… Not that I'm complaining, of course." Speaking almost felt like a waste of time with such gastronomic delights awaiting Princess’ consumption, but her almost-neurotic curiosity demanded to be sated as well. It had been obvious since day one that Empress was never the sort for feminine or frivolous intricacies, but… No one else in Panzer Crown could have come up with such luxurious cuisines. Ration meals were all Princess ever vouched for and Queen… Queen's cooking was fatal .
Empress eyed the girl curiously. Was there some sort of envy in that query? Humans do not have the ability to study cooking videos in their sleep, do they? Could she pass it off as lucid dreaming? Probably not, it sounded much too convenient. Her gaze was directed elsewhere in a bid for time, but her framework was unable to conjure any convincing responses. A diversion was in order. "How's the soup?"
"Ah… Yeah, amazing." It was pointless to pursue the matter further whenever Empress diverted the conversation like that. Shifting her attention to the fork in her salad bowl, Princess found that it already had lettuce clinging into its prongs. Twisting the utensil about, she managed to snag a bit of mushroom and pasta as well; Those, and a crumbly substance or sorts. "What is this?"
"Anchovy, a small, common forage fish of the family Engraulidae. Most species are fou-"
A timely interruption from Queen prevented their dinner from transforming into a biology class. It was an odd quirk Empress had from time to time, as though she was blatantly reciting from somewhere instead of being bothered to explain succinctly. Not that the explanation nor the interference could have encouraged Princess into consuming the creature instantly. She never had any sort of seafood beyond miscellaneous, unidentifiable fish. While she was not the sort to reveal her emotions easily, her lack of action was clear as day.
"Don't be picky with your food now, Princess, else you'd end up like Empress. Bes-"
"-The hell's that supposed to mean? Oi-"
"-ides, Empress graciously paid for it entirely. Don't let it go to waste."
Contrary to layman expectations, Empress had merely retorted in jest. Personally, however, she did not see the point of cherishing her effort for its monetary costs. Why should she? Access to credits was quick and easy; Just a mission or two in the upper ranks would instantly cover the cost of this meal. Should worse come to worst, she had other means that extend beyond the expanse of the Oval Link. In that sense, she was infinitely wealthy.
"You're right. Thanks for the meal, Empress… Can I have a Mountain Dew?"
"Just enjoy it, really. Do that and it'll be worth all the trouble." Empress was grinning when she took a gulp of water. Then a second gulp after adding, "Ask Queen for your pocket money."
"Oh, how selfless of you, Empress. For a moment you nearly sounded like a mother."
The elder would have choked on the liquid if Queen ever had a knack for timing. A few seconds were required before she could speak again; Her voice had crumpled from the emergency. "Queen."
"What, what?" The woman's voice was almost sing-song with glee from her (almost) successful payback attempt.
"Eat your salad."
"You're a terrible child ... Rose."
Empress' voice had cleared up; Queen simpered in response.
"I love you too."
"Now that's rich."
'Didn’t they used to be at each other’s throats before?' Princess all but muttered through another lettuce-mushroom-anchovy-pasta-filled mouthful.
"Was there anything special at all about today?"
Somehow, Queen had already expected that. Albeit, a verbal confirmation was required to clear her anxiety away.
"I knew it… Gimme seconds.”
“I got the Cherry Pus ready.”
A moment of silence was unanimously dedicated to crestfallen appetites.
“Goddammit, Empress. You did this on purpose, didn’t you?”
The toothy smirk confirmed it all.