“Where are we going?” Ora asked. Raj detected a hint of curiosity in her voice alongside another, stronger tone, one that said, I think I know the answer to this question, but I’m not certain enough to say it out loud.
“You’ll see,” Raj said. He knew she had to have guessed. They had not gone into the woods together over two years. Ora had been surprised when she’d awoken to find he had prepared them a picnic basket and told her they were going somewhere special.
“Obviously I’ll see.” Ora forced an exaggerated sigh. “That’s not why I asked the question.”
Ora wore a cream colored, sleeved dress stitched with a lacey floral pattern. With Vernoa’s domain now covering the country, spring had come, and with it, a whole new set of fashions. To Raj, they were all just variations on those from the previous seasons made only to force those who wanted to stay fashionable to buy more clothes. Ora was always fashionable, so her dress, her shoes of woven cord, and even her hair were all in line with the latest aesthetic.
Raj disliked her new hairstyle, in which the sides of her black hair had been braided tight around her skull in clean lines, leaving the top to fly free. Crystalline beads dangled from beads at the end of her braids, which dropped down over her left shoulder. Raj found her beautiful despite the fact that he thought the look to be quite silly.
Raj wore nice clothing, since Ora had picked it for him, but he refused to update his wardrobe every time the aestheticians updated their idea of the ideal outfit. He wore comfortable trousers, functional shoes for walking, and the brown jacket made of light material that Ora had given to him on their first anniversary. That had been seven years ago, but Raj took good care of his clothes. He believed that nice things should last.
“You’re going to like it,” Raj promised. He knew what she liked very well. Even before they had begun dating, he had known her better than most people in her life. They had been friends since childhood. How could he not know her?
“I trust you,” she said. “I just don’t like surprises.
Raj laughed. That was not true. Ora loved surprises, she just had a drive to try to find them out before they revealed themselves. Raj was constantly trying to protect her from herself, in that regard, because her own inclination only led to disappointment. “What if I reveal the surprise in the lunch basket instead? Will that satisfy you for a time?”
“Perhaps,” Ora admitted.
“We’re having sweet bean rolls,” Raj said. “With vegetable crisps and spice paste.”
“I thought you said you made lunch,” Ora teased.
“I made the money that bought the lunch. I put it in the basket. Doesn’t that count?” Raj smiled. They rarely spoke like this anymore. They had already exchanged more words today than they had any other day in the last few months.
“I guess,” Ora said. “Either way, it sounds delicious.”
The woods through which Raj led Ora were actually part of a park maintained on the outside of the city. They walked along a stone trail laid through the thick growth of trees and underbrush. They had been through this park many times together, over the years. They both knew it well. However, their memories had become clouded about one particular detail.
Somewhere in these woods, the trees parted to reveal a special clearing. They had found it, together, on their first date, seven years ago today. They hadn’t been able to find it since. They had walked out in late afternoon, after having a few drinks at dinner, and with them they had brought a bottle of wine. They didn’t get drunk, not exactly, but neither of them had been of the right mind to remember how they had gotten there when they thought back on it later.
Raj, after weeks of searching while Ora was at work or with friends, had finally rediscovered it.
“Okay,” he said, pausing at a bend in the trail. “If you trust me, follow me.” He ducked off of the trail and pushed his way through the dense brush among the trees.
“Raj!” Ora said. “Can’t we stay on the path? I’m not dressed for this.”
“Nope,” Raj said. He knew she would follow.
“Hivara’s breath, Raj,” Ora said. “This is a brand new dress.” Coming from another person, he would have given into the apparent irritation and turned around. He didn’t do this for Ora, because he could hear the hint of joy in her voice. Moments later she began pushing through the undergrowth to follow him.
“It’s not far, I promise,” Raj said. He began to feel nervous. He had spent all that time searching so that he could bring Ora back here today because he had something very important to propose to her. It was an idea that had settled into his mind quite some time ago. Something he’d been thinking about, non-stop, for what felt like ages. He knew exactly how Ora was going to respond. That brought him the confidence he needed, because he knew she would be thinking the same thoughts as him. Still. Still, it was a big step for them.
Raj stepped into the clearing first. He had been glad to find, when he discovered it anew, that it still held all the beauty from those many years ago. Vesara’s touch had blessed this place with an abundance of flowers, in shades of orange, violet, blue, and yellow. There were so many flowers they seemed to crowd out the grass that grew tall among them. The light here, somehow, seemed brighter, giving the flowers an otherwordly glow.
“Oh, Raj!” Ora exclaimed. She skipped out of the tree line and into the small field. “You did find it! I knew this was where you were taking me.”
Raj laughed. She looked so happy. She held her arms out and took a deep breath, her face turned toward the ceiling. She spun, practically dancing through the glade. He felt like he hadn’t given her this much joy in years.
The thought sobered him. His grin shrunk down into a smile. He walked toward the center of the glade, where a large rock he imagined had fallen from the ceiling kept the flowers at bay. There, he set down his basket. He pulled out the blanket he had brought for them to sit on. Ora approached, her face still beaming. She helped him spread the blanket out on a flat part of the rock.
“Thank you for finding this place,” Ora said. She leaned forward to kiss him on the cheek. “You’ve always been so thoughtful.”
“It’s because I care for you,” Raj said. He still liked to do things for her. He liked when he could give her something that made her happy. When he’d first decided to make her his girlfriend, rather than just his best friend, he had showered her with more gifts than she knew what to do with. That was just how he showed his love.
Ora hugged him. “I care for you too, silly,” she said. “I love you.”
“I know.” Raj never doubted that. Ora didn’t show her love like he did, but he knew she felt it. She loved to tell him that she loved him, and show it with touch, whether than be an embrace, a kiss, or a more sensual act.
Over the last few years, though, Raj had been less inspired to get her gifts. Ora’s touches had become, not tentative, and no less caring, but certainly less intimate. The course of their relationship had inspired Raj to think.
Raj sat. He placed their meal, wrapped in white linen, on the blanket. He unwrapped it, using the motions as an excuse not to speak his thoughts quite yet. Ora, too, stayed silent. The only sounds came from the insects and birds in the forest surrounding them.
“My parents keep asking me why we haven’t married yet,” Ora said. She looked away from him, off to some point in the distance, beyond the tree line, beyond what Raj could see. Raj felt his heart in his throat. Had she guessed why he had asked her here today?
He forced himself to swallow. “Mine, too.”
“I just don’t answer them,” Ora said. “I try to change to topic, or tell them something noncommittal. It’s getting harder, though.”
“Yeah,” Raj agreed. They had spoken of marriage, of course, but neither of them were interested in the idea. Whenever one of them brought it up, the other just shrugged, verbally or physically, and moved the conversation on to something that held more interest for both of them. Raj enjoyed his time with Ora, and she with him, but the idea of marriage to each other just didn’t appeal to them.
This was the crux of why Raj had brought Ora here today. Though he wanted Ora in his life, and he loved her dearly, he had no interest in marrying her. Yet he did want to get married.
“Ora,” he began. He couldn’t continue.
Ora looked at him, sideways. A smile raised half of her lips. “I know,” Ora said. “It’s hard, isn’t it?”
Raj couldn’t sort out whether to laugh or to cry. “You are too good at ruining surprises for yourself.”
Ora did laugh. “I don’t really think of this as a surprise, do you?”
“I guess not,” Raj admitted. He decided that he should feel relieved. After all, he had been right. They were on the same page. Ora knew what he was thinking, and had the same thoughts.
“I do love you, Raj,” Ora said. She sat down next to him, took his hand in hers, and met his eyes. “I know you love me, too. I just think it’s the wrong kind of love for what we want from each other.”
Despite himself, Raj’s vision began to blur as tears snuck their way into his eyes. He nodded, unable to say anything of the things he had planned, because Ora was already saying them.
“I think,” she said, as she reached up to wipe away a tear that had escaped down Raj’s cheek, “that we got confused, on that first date. We thought that a boy and a girl who love each other have to be in love.”
“I’ve heard something like that before,” Raj said. “People think men and women can’t be friends without falling for each other.”
“Now we know it’s wrong,” Ora said. Her eyes stood out, bright even among the wildflowers.
She was lovely, and Raj loved her, but he loved her as he would a sister. “Now we know,” Raj said.
Ora picked up one of the sweet buns with her free hand and took a dramatic bite. “Our parents are going to be so disappointed.” She squeezed his hand in hers.
Raj laughed hard, hard enough that, for a moment, he quieted the insects closest to them. He squeezed her hand back. They finished their meal like that, holding hands. Then they sat together for a while in comfortable silence. They leaned against each other for support. When they left, they left their romance behind, and carried with the only the friendship they had never truly lost.