That evening, Aimi was welcomed into a rustic yet beautifully decorated Thai restaurant by a smiling waitress. She had only just ordered a drink when Shaun arrived with a dark-haired woman - Michelle, she guessed - in tow.
"No Ren?" Shaun questioned as he sat across from her. The heaviness in his voice was hard to miss. "I did send her a reminder."
"Don't feel bad," Aimi replied with a noncommittal shrug. She had expected it, in all honesty.
Still, Shaun frowned, but a smile appeared on his features as he gestured to the woman beside him. "Aimi, this is Michelle. Michelle, Aimi. I know you two have wanted to meet each other for a while."
As difficult as it was, Aimi put the thoughts of Ren to the back of her mind. Reaching out, she shook Michelle's hand, allowing herself a small smile. "Good to finally meet you."
"You too." Michelle's own smile was warm and genuine, as if they were old friends.
They took the time to browse the menu, eyes drifting to the papaya salad. After the indulgence of Christmas, she felt obliged to have something light for dinner.
"Anyone want to share pork dumplings with me? I don't think I'd manage a whole starter and main."
Aimi smiled and nodded. "Sure, they sound delicious." Sharing a starter was something she often did with Ren - or, back in the day, her husband - but neither of them was here. Besides, she wouldn't manage a full two courses herself either.
At some point her phone buzzed, but as the three got chatting it was quickly forgotten. They ordered, drinks arrived, and soon enough Aimi was laughing along to Shaun's antics.
Someone else must have arrived, because a draft floated through the small restaurant and Michelle shivered. "Looks like we don't have the place to ourselves any more," she noted.
With a raised brow, Aimi turned. She expected to see someone picking up an order, or perhaps a group looking for a table. Instead she saw a tall, thin woman with dark golden eyes just like hers. Ren.
Ren glanced about, but it only took a moment for her eyes to find Aimi's. She beamed, immediately worming through the tables to reach their little group at the back. "Mum!" she called with a grin, "sorry I'm late, I couldn't find my purse, then the car ran out of diesel..."
Her face must have been priceless, because Shaun muffled a laugh by taking a gulp of water.
"You never messaged me," Aimi replied, incredulous. After almost a month of only a handful of texts, surely she could be forgiven for thinking she was dreaming? Here Ren was, wearing the ridiculous orange sweater Aimi had bought her for her twenty-third birthday last year.
Ren's features pinched - almost guilty, she thought - and plopped down on the chair beside her. "I know. Sorry. I kept meaning to, but then one thing got in the way of another and it started a whole chain..."
For a moment Aimi hesitated, thoughts whirling in her mind. Did she seem silly for worrying? Did Ren even know how much it stressed her out?
Then Ren's slim arms pulled her close, ignoring the rickety chairs, and she buried her face in Aimi's hair. "I missed you," she muttered, "and I totally meant to reply, promise."
"I believe you," Aimi replied. A laugh bubbled up in her chest, threatening to spill, but all that came out was a sigh of utter relief. When they released the hug both were beaming - and so was Shaun.
"Wait, am I missing something?"
This time a laugh did escape, made only worse by Michelle's wide-eyed look. "This is my daughter, Ren," she clarified, "who I didn't think was going to come this evening."
Ren jabbed her in the ribs, holding in a snort of laughter, and it was just like old times. It felt like a normal family dinner, out with friends, and all the tension simply melted away.
"So," Ren started, "have you already ordered."
Shaun nodded. "Roast duck with chilli for me, red curry for Michelle here, and your mum's having salad because she's boring."
"I'm sharing dumplings with Michelle," she pointed out with a shrug.
The pout that crossed Ren's face was adorable, and childish in a way only a young adult can accomplish. "But we always share a starter" she complained.
"Then you should have got here quicker."
Rolling her eyes, Ren sank into her seat. "But it's tradition."
Aimi's gaze flickered to Michelle with a what can you do expression. "Looks like you're having dumplings to yourself," she noted with a smile. The relief that everything was okay between her and Ren was still flooding her, only made more so when Ren's face lit up.
"Can we share chilli squid?"
"I'm going to have green curry too."
Of course. It was the only thing she ever ordered. She was predictable like that, despite being unpredictable in almost every other way. Ren was a law unto herself - but would Aimi really have her any other way?
Ren ordered later than the rest, yet their food arrived piping hot all at the same time. Shaun wasted no time digging in, savouring his spicy dish. Michelle seemed happy to enjoy her dumplings and curry despite complaining it was too much for one person.
Aimi lifted a slice of squid to her lips, biting down and enjoying the spice. The aftertaste was almost sweet, and the squid was tender. Perhaps, if the rest of the food was this tasty, she and Ren could come back together themselves.
As time passed the restaurant filled, and it became easier to talk without their voices echoing through the entire room. At some point Michelle and Shaun had dipped into their own conversation, momentarily leaving Ren and Aimi to talk alone.
"I really am sorry I've been neglecting you," Ren murmured. Her eyes were downcast, hands fumbling with her glass of water. "and around the holidays too."
"You saw your Dad?" she questioned. The flippant tone she had been hoping for failed.
A shrug, a hesitant nod. "Yeah, but only because he guilted me into it. I was supposed to be fixing up the living room that day."
Aimi winced, a huff escaping her lips. "He's always been insistent," she agreed.
"But it wasn't because I wanted to see him more than you. You know that?" Ren's dark gaze flickered up, lips forming a pout. She really did look like a kid, despite being in her twenties.
"I know," came her response, "but I really worried. I don't want you to phone me every day and update me on every little thing - but maybe you could just text every so often."
The delicate smile was sympathetic, her flush apologetic. "Yeah, of course.
They could have said more - because Aimi had more to say, even if it was unnecessary - but Shaun chose that moment to burst into laughter, quickly stifling it with his sleeve.
Suddenly Ren, who had somehow been keeping track of both conversations, butted in with her own remark. Conversation returned to normal, the four of them chatting and laughing over the last of their meal.
The evening ended with Aimi in high spirits, grinning and laughing along with everyone else. Even when it came to saying goodbye, she didn't mind. Not even when Ren pulled her into a crushing hug, muttering something about needing to catch the last train.
She trusted Ren to keep her word - to text and call more often - and as she waved goodbye to her daughter, Aimi smiled and could only hope she would.