When traveling the roads for days on end and avoiding the populous towns that would turn away even at the hint of a sharply pointed ear, there were few luxuries that they could afford. Yuan knew this.
Still, Martel had asked him once.
“You don’t have much of a sweet tooth, do you?”
The question was sudden, surprising Yuan out of his task – stamping out their campfire that morning so that the group could start heading off. Kratos had already gone ahead to scout the forest area with Noishe (always demonstrating his skills at every opportune moment, of course), while Mithos had tagged along. The boy rarely left Martel’s side, but when it came to promises of learning from the human, even the boy could be swayed to leave the company of his sister.
Yuan treasured those rare moments, when it was just him and Martel, when it felt as if no other ear was listening in for once. This was also his chance to truly impress her, now that he had set out on this journey with them. Within the circle of trees the group had taken shelter in the night before, Yuan stood up tall, trying to gaze at Martel with the confidence he used to have as a past military officer.
But of course, that confidence deflated the moment she smiled at him, as she did now, making him fumble in his words – and movements.
“W-What gave you that idea?” he asked, trying once again to put out their campfire with a kick of his boots against the dirt. He had instead successfully kicked the dirt up so high that it landed right in his face. He coughed loudly, trying to wipe it from his hair.
Martel simply smiled, even laughing just a little bit. She placed a hand against her mouth, eyes shining as Yuan tried once again to gain some semblance of dignity. “Nothing, though I guess you prefer something more earthy than sweet!”
Another cough and Yuan was sure that he finally got the dirt out of his mouth. Well, at least the campfire was out. He flicked his long cloak behind him, then cleared his throat. “Still, that is not a question I expected to hear you ask…”
The sun had only just started peeking out from the horizon, painting the sky a pink hue. It blended with Martel’s hair, the green color as rich and bright as the grass beneath them, seeming to take a brightness that Yuan couldn’t turn away from.
Then he caught himself staring, clearing his throat again. Why did he always have to lose all common sense when it came to Martel? Finally, he had a chance to be alone with her again, with no pitying look from Kratos, or a curious stare from Mithos. And yet he kept messing this up. I must be making this unbearable for her, he thought shamefully.
Martel was kind to not comment on his sudden awkwardness. Instead, she seemed to move closer to him, which Yuan could only tell by the nearness of her staff. Delicate fingers held it aloft, and soon she was smiling up at him, the morning breeze picking up her hair.
“You never eat the gels, you know!”
Yuan blinked. “Uh, what?”
She laughed again, never taking her eyes off him. The same green, the same hue of the fields they traversed. All this green that could wither away if we don’t succeed, he thought to himself. But her eyes gave him hope still.
“Mithos loves apple gels the most. They go well with an added pinch of honey, though we haven’t had some in a while.” She tilted her head, dreamily looking towards the clouds in the skies. She always seemed so calm, despite how far they traveled, how far they had to be from so many others to even get a morning such as this, with no burning smoke or jeers from a crowd to disturb them.
She turned back to him. “But you avoid the gels completely! Do you not like them at all?”
Yuan blinked, too confused to even be tripping over himself as he tended to do. “Gels are for healing us, to restore our energy… They’re not exactly meant as desserts, you know.”
Martel nodded in agreement. “True. I suppose it was just that me and Mithos could barely afford to get real sweets… gels were much cheaper in comparison, and every store sold them. You could even make them if you had the right ingredients." She sighed, as if reliving a pleasant memory. "And a dessert that heals your aches is never a bad thing."
Yuan instantly felt guilty – had he just basically ridiculed Martel for her tastes in desserts, all molded by her circumstances? I’m such a fool.
She noticed his sudden somber mood, tilting her head to the side. “Yuan, is something wrong?”
“Um! N-Nothing, Martel. It’s nothing.”
She didn’t seem convinced. “I guess you don’t really like sweets so talking about them must be boring… I’m sorry, Yuan.”
“No! It’s – it’s not that at all!” Yuan coughed. “I mean…this has just reminded me how long it has been since I’ve had any kind of dessert actually.”
“Ah! Would you like these apple gels then that I’ve been saving for Mithos?” With an airy laugh, she gestured to a pack on the ground near their belongings, overflowing with the red gels. “I’m sure he wouldn’t mind you having his share.”
“Martel…” Yuan faintly protested as she plopped one of the wobbly, gooey-looking things in his hand. He had eaten far, far too many of these to ever miss them, but Martel looked so pleased, the green of her eyes shining so bright.
He would never be able to taste the apple gels as anything but much-too-sweet medicine. But, through that familiar taste, the faint hint of honey reached him…
Kratos turned to him, his face as static as ever, in contrast to Noishe who stood with him, looking to Yuan with a dopey smile. The Arshis was just about to pounce on him while Yuan tried to flail him away.
“Down! Not now!”
“Is there something you need, Yuan?”
Finally, after pushing away Noishe and his slobbery tongue, Yuan faced Kratos. Of course, now his hair was a damn mess…
“I will be taking over the restocking of our supplies today.”
He used a stern voice as he spoke, one he put on for his troops when he had been a Sylvaranti officer. It made men listen to him. But maybe because since Kratos was human, or a knight, or was from Tethe’alla, it only made him raise an eyebrow..
“You mean our grocery shopping?”
Yuan sputtered, shifted on his feet. “W-well, yes, I guess if you put it that way!”
“I thought you had said that such a task was beneath you.”
Oh, of course the human would remember that little detail from months back…
“I just figured that I should help take over some of your heavy duties,” Yuan said through gritted teeth. After all, Kratos would keep taking watch, or making their camp, or even speak to other strangers while they traveled, no doubt quite easy to do because of his human heritage. “If you would rather not, then I see no point in arguing.”
Kratos seemed to consider the suggestion, looking to a curiously-whining Noishe (asking the creature his opinion on the matter?) and then his eyes flickered to the other side of their camp. Martel was seated with Mithos near a birch tree, happily chatting with him, their laughter ringing through the air.
“Ah,” Kratos merely said, then nodded. “I see.”
Yuan huffed. “You see what?!”
“It is of no matter. If you would like to do the shopping, that is fine by me. But will you be alright? The nearest town is of human population.”
“You forget that we’re in Sylvaranti territory. I can find ways to gain trust. Got yours, did I not?”
“Hmph,” Kratos said with a smirk. “But if you do go, just remember to get some treats for Noishe.” He patted the creature’s head, scratching behind the long ears. Noishe wagged his tail. “We are running low.”
Yuan frowned. “Ugh, if I must…”
It was rare that Yuan could be completely alone with Martel, but he had managed another opportunity on that same day. Kratos and Mithos had, quite mysteriously, went somewhere else to train just at the time he had arrived. His back was laden with packs – full of food, bandages, and the treats for Noishe, of course. But that was not all he had.
Martel knelt by a rushing river, laying her hands within its currents. She had her eyes closed, appearing to be at peace.Yuan was reluctant to disturb her, but his footsteps must have been less than steady, for then she turned.
“Yuan. Glad to see you safely back. I was a bit worried.”
Her soft tone, combined with the smile she gave him, nearly made Yuan flush. “I…I can take care of myself. There is no need for you to worry.”
Martel smiled. She seemed so relaxed and peaceful. When with her, Yuan felt the world stand still.
He remembered suddenly what he had come here to do. “Ah, actually I wanted you to… have something for me?”
“Hm?” Martel tilted her head in curiosity. “What do you mean, Yuan?”
“W-well, um…” Why did he always have to be so tongue-tied around her? It made no logical sense yet here he was, flushing as if he were a schoolboy in front of his crush, ready to give her a gift.
He supposed he wasn’t that far off, in all honesty.
“Just, let me get it first,” he said, partly to recover from the intensity of her gaze. She looked as if she already knew everything… and she must have. Just as Martel knew that he was infatuated with her. It was one reason (besides finally getting Kratos to respect him!) that he ever even joined on this journey.
From the pack, he got out the package he had bought from the shop, though his hands shook. Why did they shake? Why must he keep acting like a young fool like this?
Martel’s eyes flicked to what he held. “Chocolate?”
Damn it, he meant it to be a surprise! But he hadn’t exactly wrapped it well… “Um! Y-yes, it…it is..”
With a sigh, Yuan held the package out to Martel. He was…not the best gift-wrapper. A small ribbon tied over the box was essentially the best he could do. The box itself was rather plain, but he hoped that to Martel, such plain appearances wouldn’t matter.
“I wanted to get you something sweet. Nothing too fancy. I suppose all the talk of desserts had made me nostalgic for them.”
Martel continued to stare. Her staff was not at hand, placed carefully on the grass near the river. She thoughtfully placed her fingers against each other, apparently so very fascinated by the box he held.
“T-They’re bon-bons! They’re a bit like gels, if you think about it. Here.” Yuan pulled away the box cover, showing off the rows of fancifully decorated chocolates, drizzled over with an array of colors, from blue to silver to gold. “These ones happen to have apple-flavored filling!” he said, pointing to the top row. “And these ones…um… have a bit of honey..”
Yuan pulled at his collar nervously, wondering if he was going about this all wrong. Martel was still staring at him and at the box. Maybe she didn’t like this type of chocolate? He should have done more research.
“Um, Martel?” he asked. Her gaze was very focused, very beautiful – but unnerving.
He was just about to apologize when Martel asked, “Could you feed me the chocolate?”
Yuan’s brain felt like it was overheating at such a request.
“Oh, I am sorry.” Martel pressed a hand to her mouth. “That was very strange. I don’t know what came over me.”
Yuan didn’t get anywhere in life by squandering his opportunities. It was the only way he had ever made any top position. So with his heart thudding in his chest, he took the chance.
“Yes! Of course I will!” Yuan cleared his throat. “I mean… if you would like, I can do that for you.”
The usual dreamy expression Martel held seemed to change just then. It was mesmerizing, it was fascinating in its existence. She genuinely looked surprised, caught off guard by his words.
“You would do that for me?”
Yuan nodded, taking one of the bon-bons, holding it carefully between two fingers. “Yes, I can just-”
Martel was suddenly much closer to him, smiling brightly, hands behind her back as she looked up at him.
Yuan was speechless. She was so close to him that he thought she was about to kiss him.
…Gah, of course not! He shook his head, and just went on with what he promised to do. He held up the chocolate near her mouth. “Well… open up then.” He still felt so nervous!
Martel, bouncing on her toes, opened her mouth, even saying, “Ahhh~”
Yuan thought he would pass out the moment her lips brushed against his fingers, taking the chocolate from him.
She leaned back, her face so euphoric, pressing one hand to her cheek in happiness. “Oh! This is delicious, Yuan!” She took her time chewing the treat, enjoying every second. “And it even has a bit of cacao powder!”
“Ah, yes. I felt that would help more with the flavor.” Yuan still had his hand up, remembering the sensation of her mouth. “So you liked it?”
“Yes! I liked it so much.” Martel, with obvious excitement, reached for one of the chocolates in the box he held. He thought he was taking them for her before she held it up to his face.
“You must try this, Yuan! It’s so sweet! Say ahhh~!”
But he had never seen her so happy. So happy over something so small and trivial. They were just chocolates. Simply meant to satisfy a craving. But she was enjoying it so much, like he had given her something precious.
Maybe a small thing like this meant more to her than he realized.
Trying to ignore his nerves, Yuan leaned forward to quickly take the chocolate from her fingers. A brief taste of something very sweet. He heard Martel’s soft laughter, and felt his own happiness light up his chest.
“Very… delicious,” he said with a blush, chewing the chocolate, tasting the hint of honey. Martel gazed at him, eyes as green as the hills around them, as green as the world they were trying to save.
After so many years, it was hard for Yuan to think about finally resting, about finally staying in one place. But as he gazed at the small sapling that was supposed to be the new World Tree, he didn’t feel the urge to move anymore.
So much of his life had been chaotic – but where the tree rested, there was a peacefulness that was familiar to him.
“Yuan?” spoke a voice, just as familiar. But it was not really her.
Martel, the spirit with the face of the woman he had loved, gently walked over to him. She had a staff held in her right hand, a smile that was soft and bright, eyes that reflected the greenery of their world.
“Did I disturb you?” Yuan asked. Being the guardian for the tree, he felt he still had much to learn. “I only came by to check on things.”
Martel nodded, then looked down at what he held. “Oh. Is that chocolate?”
He smiled at her. The box full of bon-bons were drizzled in an array of colors, from blue to silver to gold. “I’ve gotten a bit of a sweet-tooth,” he admitted. He had made these chocolates himself, made with time and care.
He saw her look at the chocolates with curiosity, with an interest that spoke of something human and so very familiar. “They look very well-made,” she said, her voice so soft.
Yuan held out one chocolate to her. “Would you like one?”
And, he didn’t even have to tell her what to do. Martel, with an echo of the happiness he once saw in the Martel of 4000 years ago, leaned forward to take the chocolate from his fingers. She then leaned back, face bright, her cheeks painted with a hint of red.
“This is delicious!” she said, with an excitement that was also familiar. “Thank you. It has a taste of apples…and honey.”
“You’re welcome,” he told the spirit, thinking he would feel sadness. But instead, he felt contentment, smiling at her. “These were her favorites.”