Now that Tula's in high school, she's "bloomed" socially. In the eyes of her family, anyways. At school she's always been well liked. Today before school, she's chatting with her classmate, Ephraim Blanco-Riffin. He's quite a bit older than her, already nearing graduation, but with her natural charm, Tula's managed to chat him up.
"So, tell me, got a girlfriend?" Tula asks teasingly during a lull in conversation. Now that she's at the age where dating is expected and much discussed, Tula wants to know more about it. Romance is an important aspect of human behaviour, after all.
"Woowww, a tad direct aren't you?" Ehpraim says. He doesn't say anything for a moment. Papers rustling in the background indicate that he's just getting ready to go to school. Tula knows he's trying to evade the subject, which must mean that there's an interesting answer to the question. She needs to press.
"Oh come on, impersonal questions aren't any fun!"
"Well, then no, I do not have a girlfriend."
"Then there must be someone you like. You can tell me."
"Pfft, mind your own business Tula."
If he were here, she would have pouted, "Come ooooonnnn. If I know her I can help you out. I know everyone."
He hesitates, "Well, she already graduated..."
"...I'm sensing a 'but' somewhere."
"But she's a student teacher now."
Tula quickly puts two and two together, "Oh you like Dionne?" Dionne Blanco-Riffin is the history teacher's assistant.
"Yeah. We went to prom together before she graduated, but nothing really came out of it."
Tula wonders how far she can take this. What will happen if she manipulates a few variables? She wants to find out.
"Well you just have to show her you like her. Oooh, I know! You're pretty funny, and girls like funny guys..."
"Shhh I'm working out a plan. This is just too cute. You gotta let me get the two of you together."
Ephraim sighs, "Sure I'll listen..."
Though Ephraim can't see it, she smiles deviously, "As I was saying..."
It's the end of the day. Everyone is ready to get home... except for Ephraim.
Ephraim has a mission.
Guy watches in confusion as this peculiar scene unfolds in front of him. Does Ephraim dislike Dionne? This seems to be an odd way to show it.
"Hey Dionne, think fast!" Ephraim calls out. Before she fully turns around, the water balloon has exploded all over her outfit. He grins widely, catching Tula's eye and winking. Sure, it seemed a bit childish when Tula suggested he pull a prank on Dionne, but she had a point about "putting himself out there" and "setting himself apart" from other guys. Girls had never really noticed him before, so maybe Tula was right; pick-up lines and compliments are boring. Girls like excitement, right?
Instead of laughing, like he expected, Dionne looks at him with confusion and anger.
"What the hell, Ephraim!?" she screeches at him, "What was that for!?"
"You looked hot out here, I thought you might want to cool down a bit." He says this with a teasing smile, but Dionne just looks furious. Uh oh.
Ephraim blanches, "I-it was just a joke-,"
"Tell that to the principal," she cuts him off angrily, pointing at the school doors, "Because that's who you'll be telling this story to when you beg not to be expelled."
At this point, quite a crowd has gathered around the arguing pair. Now that she's seen the results of her little experiment, Tula slinks off, bored. It was almost too easy to make this happen. Dionne's infamous for her short temper and Ephraim's never been good with girls. Not a good mix, as it turns out.
She's not really in the mood to go home, so she sits down with a book in the courtyard. Books are an interesting glimpse into the minds of others. Of course she takes them with a grain of salt, but it's helpful having everyone's motivations listed here for her to analyse at her own leisure, rather than doing it on the spot, as she did this morning. As it stands, even her analyses are flawed; she didn't expect Dionne to be quite so explosively angry, nor did she expect Ephraim to act as quickly as he did.
Which means she just has more reading to do.
Later that same evening, Paolo finishes a surprise evening training session, exhausted and ready to go home. Just as he's walking out the front doors of the base, his phone buzzes with a message. He glances at his phone screen; it's from Sun.
Want to have dinner at my place at 7? John's cooking!
"You coming?" his co-worker Terrence asks. Given how spontaneous the training was, almost everyone only got rides from the few soldiers with cars. Terrence and Paolo's ride is waiting impatiently in the side parking lot.
"Uh, no, go ahead without me. See you tomorrow," Paolo says distractedly. Terrence shrugs, waves, then jogs off.
"See ya later!"
Paolo doesn't really hear him; he's busy calculating. He'll have to change and shower here, then call a cab if he wants to make it to Sun's on time and be presentable.
A rushed shower, hurried change of clothes, and a cab ride later, Paolo is at Sun's door at 7 exactly. Sun doesn't look exactly pleased to see him.
"Is everything ok?" he asks, concern in his eyes.
Sun turns away, nervously biting her nails, "I'm fine," she lies, "Just wasn't expecting you to be so...punctual. Must be that military training," she jokes weakly.
In reality, she's worried about the sink upstairs. She had a...gentleman friend over right before Paolo arrived. Did he remember to shut off the faucet? Did Paolo see his car on the way in? Will Paolo think she's a horrible person for dating two men at the same time? She was just worried that Paolo wouldn't work out, like all the other guys, and just in case wanted a back up plan.
Nothing wrong with that, right? She's not exclusive with either of them.
Get it together! she chides herself. You are an adult. Adults date around! Quit freaking out.
Still, she worries over her reputation. This town is small. Her housemates might gossip. She should've thought this out better!
"Shit," John curses sharply next to them. At the sight of the smoldering macaroni, Sun feels her anxiety shoot through the roof; she asked John to make dinner precisely because she didn't want to mess it up! Everything about tonight seemed to be falling apart.
"Looks like we'll have to order pizza," John sighs, scraping the blackened meal into the trash.
"Do you have anything in your fridge?" Paolo asks.
John shrugs, "You're welcome to look. Honestly no one here really cooks that often, so I doubt we have much."
Paolo is able to scrounge together some ingredients; spaghetti, pasta sauce, and some butter will have to feed them tonight.
"We can really just order something," Sun says, feeling bad about having her guest make dinner for them. What kind of host is she?
"Order?," Paolo repeats in pure astonishment, "But this is cheaper! And probably healthier. Besides, spaghetti's pretty easy. If you guys just had some parmesan cheese, or a bouillon cube, it could have even more flavor..."
Sun scoffs and rolls her eyes. Bouillon cubes, like we're some 5-star chefs or something.
Still, the fact that Paolo can cook at all and likes doing it puts him a step above most of the guys she's tried dating. And seeing him carefully measure out water and pasta, she appreciates the amount of attention to detail he's giving. The small things are very important.
Without any cheese, Paolo's "sprinkling" gesture is purely for dramatic effect. It's really for the principle at this point.
"Is he for real?" John grumbles under his breath at Sun.
"I can't hear you, Mr. Burned-the-macaroni," she says in a sing-song voice.
John rolls his eyes, "Wow, real mature."
"You're still going to eat his spaghetti though, aren't you?"
John makes a face, "...yes."
"Dinner's ready!" Paolo calls out. All argument is cut off at the prospect of unburned and more importantly free dinner.
Back at the Winterly household, Persis wakes up from her nap quite suddenly.
Something doesn't feel quite right. Is she ill?
She's only mildly surprised to find her body ethereal. She doesn't feel angry, or sad, but only regretful that Tula and Guy are going to have see death again at such a young age.
At the supernatural chill emanating from this room, Tula had an idea of what was happening. She raced here to see if it was true, if she could really see the Grim Reaper again. Guy followed after her, compelled by a sense of dread rather than feverish curiosity.
"Grandma," Tula gasps. She has to remember that Guy is here too. She's still expected to act a certain way.
"Please don't make them see this again," Persis begs, "They're just children."
Grim sighs. How many times has he heard this plea?
How many times must he ignore it?
"It is your time. It is the order of things."
Tula's eyes are glued to the Reaper as he swings his scythe, casting her grandmother to another realm. A frisson of electricity shoots down her spine; this otherworldly force has literal control over death itself. The idea is almost unfathomable.
Guy can only feel acute terror. What's happening? Why is Persis gone?
Why do people keep dying in front of him?
Before he can ask the one being who might be able to answer his questions, the Reaper fades away, lurking until he must be called upon again.
And just like that the kids are alone.
Halfway across town, Paolo has no idea what is happening back home. After a pleasant dinner and washing up, Paolo finds himself chatting with Sun. Well, more than chatting; he hears her giggles, sees her fluttering eyelashes, enjoys her casual, lingering touches.
More than enjoying; reciprocating. He feels his heart skip a beat; the last time he was this close to a woman was with Krista. It's been such a long time that it's like he's forgotten how to embrace. Sun laughs at his clumsy flirtations.
"What, is there something on my face?" she teases.
"Well, actually, there is something on your lips, just let me get that for you." It comes out in a rush, not at all smooth like Paolo planned, but once he's said it, there's nothing he can do but follow through.
It's a nice kiss, Sun thinks. Light, respectful, but lingering. Enough for her to sigh when he pulls away and start snaking her arms around his waist.
But before they can continue, Paolo's phone rings.
"S-sorry, let me get that," he apologises, his face flushing with regret and embarrassment. Sun sighs, this time sounding slightly annoyed, but she withdraws her hands.
Paolo frowns when he sees that it's Tula. Tula wouldn't be calling unless it was an emergency. As he presses answer, he feels his stomach sink.
This can't be good.