Oboe sat on a station bench and waited while Theo stared at a map of the trolley routes. He was trying to puzzle out if any of the other stations would get them to the university on time.
“It’s no use,” he said. “It’ll be faster to walk.”
Oboe slumped over in her seat. “I’m sorry. It’s my fault you’re going to be late.”
“It’s fine,” he said, his tone gruff. “I let us get distracted. I should’ve been more mindful.”
“It’s not okay,” she said. “You’re mad. You should yell at me so you feel better.”
Theo held his eyes shut, long enough to make his scowl go away. “That won’t solve anything. Let’s just get going.”
“But you’re upset!” Oboe said.
“Drop it,” Theo said with a glare. “It’s not a problem. We have a mission to worry about, so let’s focus on that instead. Alright?”
She backed off. “O-okay.” That said, they left.
Oboe was grateful Theo didn’t blame her, but it worried her how cold he was being. He told her it was not a problem, but it still felt like one. There had to be a way to make it up to him, but she wasn’t sure how.
A train of merchant wagons came rumbling through the streets. Hundreds of humans and a few scattered creatures helped to drive its goods to market, blocking the way through. Oboe and Theo waited, sharing a stiff silence.
“Theo,” Oboe said, not even really sure of what she wanted to say but wanting to break the quiet. “Do you miss living here? …In the capital?”
He shook off whatever thought he was having. “What do you mean?”
“It’s so exciting here!” She said. “There’s something always happening. It makes the valley seem so boring.”
“I wish it were boring,” Theo said. “Every day I have to deal with strange new problems. I never know what to expect. Things are better here because everything has a pattern to it. My old job required me to do the same thing every day. I liked that it let me focus on doing everything perfectly.”
Oboe leaned against a lamp post. Before Theo came to the Whirlwood, almost every day was the same for her. Wake up, look for food, maybe go for a swim, and bother Thistle if he wasn’t mad at her. If Thistle didn’t want to deal with her, she was just lonely.
“Do you miss your friends in the city?” Oboe asked.
He furrowed his brow, thinking. “I’m not sure I had any.”
Oboe almost fell over. “What?!”
He counted off his fingers, as if running through all the people he knew in his head. “I don’t think my co-workers qualify. Never really spoke to them unless I had to. I was cordial with my landlord, but I believe he preferred talking to his cats. I can’t think of anyone else.”
“There are people everywhere here!” Oboe said, gesturing wildly at the throng of people in front of them. “You could be friends with every single one of them! Why aren’t you??”
He laughed, which startled Oboe. He was always so serious. “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s not like that here. Everyone has their own routine, and they don’t always crossover. I worked, and then I went home and studied books. I spent all my time trying to save up to go to university. I guess I didn’t think about it.”
“But you didn’t get to go to university,” Oboe said. “That’s sad.”
Theo didn’t say anything. He watched the wagons pass. Oboe panicked. She’d made things worse again. She tried to think of something else to talk about, but before she thought of anything Theo found his voice.
“I got a letter,” he said, staring off. “The university approved my application. I’m supposed to go in for an entrance exam. But I can’t.”
Oboe squeezed her fingers. “Why not?”
“I got roped into being a knight instead.” His eyes were sad, not angry. “It’s the last thing in the world I wanted.”
The moment grew heavy. “Then maybe you should quit.”
“I can’t just abandon the Whirlwood creatures,” he said. “They need help.”
“Why can’t you do both?” Oboe said, growing anxious.
“I thought about that a lot,” Theo said. “But the city is too far and I’m too busy. It won’t work. I have to accept that.”
The traffic cleared. The way forward was open but neither of them moved. They were stuck.
“Are you okay?” She said.
He shook his head, and gathered himself. “I’m fine. Just thinking.” They crossed the street together. “Oboe, I apologize for snapping at you earlier. It wasn’t professional. I’m sure the university staff will understand the delay. It’s my day off, after all. It’s just important to me that I take my work seriously.”
“You don’t have to be sorry,” Oboe said. “I’m the one that messed up.”
They kept moving. The spires of the university rose in the distance. Theo seemed in better spirits now. Were things fixed? It looked that way, but didn’t feel that way. Oboe wondered what Theo was feeling inside. Why didn’t he like talking about it? She told herself to leave it alone. She didn’t want to ruin anything else.