One day, a mysterious invite to a server showed up on her home page, an invite to server called "Daoist Discord" from a user by the name of "Transcendent Tourmaline Trapmaster".
She laughs brightly.
"Basically, you follow a chef cultivation technique, and you condense a 'chef heart' - which is kinda like a classical 'core' which adds this extra capacity to you based on your love of cooking and your understanding of the trade to be able to work wonders. The more of them you have, the better your dishes will turn out. The theoretical limit is about a chef heart per realm you advance, in most cases, and I've gotten that done, but it's still pretty forgiving as long as you keep on working on perfecting your craft and collecting more options for how to make things, and there's no tribulation system inherent in being an immortal chef, which is nice."
She grinned. "That does sound pretty great. It really sounds like a way to compound my investment, kinda, and it all runs on love of and dedication to the craft? I just love this more the more you tell me about it."
She took another sip of the supernaturally clear water.
"This really is impressively refreshing. And here I thought just adding that filter was an improvement!"
She smiles softly, and reaches out to stroke her head again.
"I'm glad you like it!"
A half-remembered reaction, hands reaching far faster than that in the past, and a quick flinch took her, but she stilled it, staying put to accept the petting.
She lets her hand draw back, slowly, petting her hair lightly before she rests her hand against hers.
"I know this can be a lot, just... take the time to note how this can be nice too, ok?"
The petting did feel pretty good. She leaned her head back away after it stopped though.
When Romana rested her hand against Hailey's own... she paused a moment, and then turned her hand and held her mentor's.
"Yeah, it really is nice. That's honestly what throws me the most. Cultivating is nice, Immortal Cooking sounds nice, you're really nice..."
"...I don't know how to handle that much niceness yet."
She smiles softly, and strokes her finger down across her ear.
"That's alright. If you'd like, I can go? I could set up a sparring spot or book a nicer kitchen around here or just take some time to find a good spot to cultivate, and you can text me when you want me back here. There's no rush."
What, leave? Why?
Did she do somethi—
No. That was more niceness, wasn't it? Romana was offering to give her space to process.
Did she want space to process?
She wanted to do. To experience. She'd just stew in the stillness if Romana left.
"Walk into the fire," she muttered under her breath.
She squeezed her mentor's hand. "I'd rather you stay, if you don't mind."
She smiles softly, and squeezes her hand.
"I don't mind at all."
She took a deep breath, letting the moment — and the response — sink in.
"What would you suggest we do now?"
"It really depends? I can talk to you about your options for housing, about the sort of things that you can do with your supplies here, talk about what you want to get out of your cultivation and internship, how comfortable you are with the risks of tribulations, when that comes around, and just about your life plans, overall? There's a lot that I can teach you, and a lot of things that naturally end up kind of frontloaded, unforunately, just because the Rivers and Lakes of the cultivation world are so vast."
Her thumb runs tenderly over the meat of hers.
Hailey hummed thoughtfully and considered the first few points, looking around at the tools she'd collected and repaired over her time in Toronto. They were hers. She'd spent time finding them at junkyards and flea markets and thrift stores, money buying them and their replacement parts, and sweat repairing them to their admirably-functional states.
And as much as she'd put into them, they didn't justify staying here. Maybe she could take them or maybe not, but she couldn't pass up leaving this place.
Wait, had she missed something? Romana was talking about life plans?
She shivered a bit, finally noticing the ongoing thumb-caress, and looked down to see her hand still clasped with Romana's.
She looked up, after a beat, eyes wide. "Bwuh— Romana?"
She looked down at their joined hands again, then looked back up.
"Why are you rubbing your thumb across my hand like that?"
"Because you're cute and you said that you didn't want me to leave, and part of that is just... staying as close as I was, in the way that fits."
Romana thought she was cute?
Did she w—
No. Stop. Walk into the fire.
"You think I'm cute?"
"Pot calling the kettle black," she mumbled as an afterthought.
"'There's no inverse or conservation law of cutjitsu', as Radiant Heart Topaz~ likes to say. If anything, it's probably the other way around."
"Cuteness begets more cuteness?"
She shook her head. Not the point.
"I have no idea what is going on at this point."
"It does! People being cute to each other makes it inherently more plausible that the reactions are cute, and being cute naturally lets more people be cute."
She smiles softly.
"And besides - the physical bit is pretty easy once you get started cultivating? An appearance touch-up is something that you'll pretty much always get from starting out."
"As for what's going on... Do remember that the answer is allowed to be 'nothing'. Otherwise... I can serve you a meal, show you what the wind tastes like, take you for a walk, help with your cultivation, or just help with the future? It's okay if you'd just like me to pick one of those options, too."
She rubbed her face with her free hand. "Those all sound too great..."
"I feel like I should be figuring out plans, but that meal option sounds pretty great..."
"Thinking over an empty stomach is never the best idea, Hailey."
She hums quietly, and squeezes her hand.
"Would you like me to make you something from what you have or just with what I brought?"
She blushed softly again at the reminder of still holding the hand of her pretty mentor, but squeezed back.
"You're welcome to anything I've got. I'm curious about the Sky Shrubs you mentioned bringing..."
She blushed a little more. "Can you decide that one, though?"