The Outer Wall Paradise was full of exotic, delicate flowers and ornamental trees, crisscrossed throughout with an endless array of grassy paths. It was the sort of place that most would have loved to be lost in for hours, just wandering about and looking at the wonders of the natural world - like a palace garden but better, because it didn't seem as if anyone had put them there. They looked like they'd grown there naturally, like this place was one of nature's own garden spots.
However, the six travelers who sat in a clearing watching the sunset weren't entirely pleased to be there. They weren't lost by choice, after all - they were strangers, and they really were lost.
"We have to find a way out of here," Ashton was saying, pacing back and forth. He was shaking his head constantly, irritating his dragon companions, who were idly snapping at his hair as it flew by. "I mean, we're getting pretty low on food. The place is really pretty, but if we starve to death here-"
"Ashton, darling," Celine sighed. She stood up and put a hand on his arm, looking into his eyes as he jumped and turned towards her. "Relax, won't you?" she said in her kindest tone of voice. "We'll find a way out. We will not be stuck here forever."
Leon was sitting some distance away, staring off into the distance and trying not to listen to Celine comforting Ashton. He was huddled in his too-big labcoat, as if he were trying to hide. His feline ears were twitching, like they usually did when he was upset or distressed about something.
He knew he ought not to be so unhappy. They were his friends, after all, and he was glad that they'd let him come with them. It was just hard for him to be near Celine, not since he'd started... well, it wasn't his fault, was it? She was smart and pretty and... and... and it wasn't fair! She was paying so much attention to Ashton, and she didn't even know how much Leon liked her, and -
"Celine's right," Claude said. He was still sprawled out on the grass, arms crossed behind his head, staring up at the sky. He'd been distracted since they'd appeared in that weird place... no one had dared to ask why, and he hadn't seemed inclined to talk about it. Whatever it was, he seemed to be not thinking about it as hard as he possibly could. "We've still got enough food to last us three more days, if we're careful with it. And we can keep our eyes out for anything edible while we're traveling. We'll be fine."
Rena had been helping Bowman make some stew out of the dried meat and vegetables that they'd been carrying with them. She walked back over to the group, smiling. "We'll have some more food ready soon, guys."
"Great," Claude said, grinning. "I'm hungry."
"Darling, you're always hungry," Celine teased.
"Hey, what's wrong with that?"
Leon, who'd been quiet the whole time, suddenly stood up. "Um, Big Brother?" he said in a rush, looking at Claude. "Would it be all right if I took a walk until the food's done? I can, um, see if I can find any berries or something."
"Sure, Leon," Claude answered. "It's fine with me."
"Claude, are you sure that's such a good idea?" Ashton interrupted, worrying as usual. "I mean, if there are any wild animals... shouldn't we stay together?"
Leon didn't have the heart to say that he mostly wanted to leave to get away from the talking, and from all of Ashton's worrying and Celine's... well, just from Celine. At least for a little while. His heart couldn't take any more pain, not right then. "Well, I haven't seen any signs that there are dangerous animals here, so it's bound to be safe, I think."
"Ashton..." Celine took the swordsman's hand, and she didn't seem to notice how Leon looked away as soon as she did. "Dear, try not to worry so much about nothing, all right? Just calm down and wait for the food. You'll feel better when you get something to eat."
"Well..." Ashton paused, then cocked his head to the side as if listening to something no one else could hear. "Well, okay. If Claude says it's safe, I guess we ought to trust him."
"Thanks," Leon said. He looked around, then pointed to a small ridge next to the road, surrounded by a few flowering shrubs. "I'll go that way, I guess. I mean, in case you need to find me for anything." He turned and walked away before anyone else could say anything.
Rena stared after him thoughtfully. "Is it just me," she said, half to herself, "or is Leon acting a bit strange lately?"
"He's probably homesick." Claude reached down and pulled at a blade of grass. "He's awfully young for this kind of journey, isn't he?"
"Yeah, you're right, Claude." But she did not sound too convinced.
Bowman stood up and came over, brushing dirt off of his pant legs. "Hey, guys, food's almost done," he said. "Where's Leon?"
"Oh, he's off taking a walk," Claude answered. "He'll be back."
"What? You let him go off by himself?"
"That's what I said," Ashton interjected. He sounded somehow relieved that someone actually agreed that Leon might be in danger. Ururun grunted and snapped at the air as the nervous swordsman shook his head.
"Come on, guys," Claude said, shaking his head, "We haven't even heard a bird singing since we got here. You can't really think that there's anything out there that can hurt him, can you?"
"Claude's right. It's perfectly safe," Rena said suddenly. "This place is separated from most of Nede. The only way anything can even get here is -"
She stopped and blinked, pressing a hand to her temple. The thought had come to her without a warning, and disappeared just as quickly, and now she was left wondering where in the world it had come from.
"Whoa, Rena, you okay?" Bowman reached out to catch her, in case she fainted... but she seemed to recover her balance at the last minute. "You probably ought to lie down. You've been like this since we got here!"
"It's all right," she said, blushing fiercely. Everyone was staring at her, worrying about her, and it made her feel wretchedly uncomfortable. "It doesn't hurt at all. I'm just..." she shook her head. "I don't know. I don't know how I even know this stuff, I shouldn't know it... and I can't figure out why this place is so familiar. Like I knew it really well in a past life, or something."
"Well, stranger things have happened," Celine said as pragmatically as she could. "Whatever it is, though, I'd rather listen to you than spend so much time worrying." She patted Ashton on the shoulder. "So calm down, all right? Get some rest. I'll bring you a bowl of stew when it's ready."
"Well..." Ashton finally shook his head, goaded on more than a little by the two dragons that were grumbling in his ears. They probably agreed with Celine, but it was impossible to tell without asking... "I guess so." He settled down, looking back towards the sun, his face maybe a little bit calmer.
Celine turned back towards the fire, and cast a glance back at Rena. Rena knew that look well. Celine wanted to share a little bit of girl talk. She steeled herself - usually she enjoyed that sort of thing, but she was a bit off-balance and not really in the mood for it at the moment - and followed her.
Celine took the stick that Bowman had cleaned and whittled and stirred the food in its makeshift pot. She glanced back over her shoulder to make sure that Rena was there, and that Ashton wasn't paying any attention to them. She she was satisfied, she stopped and motioned for Rena to stand beside her. "Rena, sweetheart... is something wrong? You've got that look on your face again," she said with a sly smile.
Rena blinked. "What look?"
"The one you had when I was thinking about giving up on Chris." She winked at her. "So what's the problem, hmm?"
"Well... ok, it's just one thing." Rena admitted. "I guess it's nothing much, but... why do you keep acting like that, Celine?" Then, realizing that she hadn't quite said enough, she continued, "Aren't you afraid that someone's going to get the wrong idea about you and Ashton?"
Celine laughed quietly, stealing another glance at the young swordsman. "Oh, Rena, I've never cared what people thought of me before," she answered. "Why should I start now? Besides, we both know that I'm taken, and that's enough for me." She winked, held up her hand. A beautiful golden ring, set with six diamonds in the shape of a cross, flashed on her finger. "I always wanted a man who'd give me real diamond rings!"
"It's very pretty," Rena agreed. "But... if nothing else, what about Ashton? What if he takes you seriously? You might end up breaking his heart!"
Celine was still grinning. "Oh, no worries about that! Between you and me, Rena dear, I don't think he's... interested in my charms. I think that he wants something that I could never possibly provide..."
"What do you..." Then she realized what Celine might mean, and started to blush. "Um, oh," she said lamely. It was easier to pretend she knew what she meant than it was to try to talk about it any more...
"You're such a darling," Celine said, still laughing that quiet silvery laugh. "Of course, I can't possibly know. But I have my suspicions."
"Well..." Rena shook her head. "Let's not talk about that. Ok? I mean, it's none of our-"
"Of course. And anyway, Rena, I have a question for you." Celine looked back at the guys sitting around the fire, at Claude and Bowman trying to strike up a conversation with Ashton. Rena felt a sudden flash of curiosity - did they know that Ashton might be...? But she suppressed it at once; it really wasn't any of her business, like she'd said.
"So," Celine continued, still smiling that dangerous smile. "What in the world is going on between you and Claude, anyway?"
Rena blushed even more; she hadn't even thought it was possible. "Um... well... it's really complicated, and..."
"Well, Rena dear, you have all the time you could possibly want to explain any parts that I don't understand," the mage retorted dryly.
For a moment, Rena was tempted to tell Celine off - that wasn't anyone else's business either, she thought fiercely. But then again, maybe Celine could give her some good advice. She knew a lot more about that kind of thing than Rena did. "I mean... I like him, and I kind of thought he liked me, but... he says such horrible things, sometimes. Like he doesn't think before he tries to talk to me." She sighed. "It's like he doesn't care what I'll think of what he says."
Celine nodded. "Well, sometimes, that can mean that he does care. He just doesn't know how to say it. Or he's too busy thinking about you to really concentrate on what he ought to say to you. It doesn't mean he's trying to be rude...."
"I know, I know..." Rena shook her head. "It's so confusing."
"Romance always is," Celine said, patting her on the shoulder. "Especially a first romance. This is your first real romance, isn't it?"
"I don't even know if it is or not. That's the problem." Rena sighed again. Thinking about Claude lately bothered her. Like the time that he'd disappeared, and she'd spent so much time waiting for him - too afraid to admit that he was gone, because that would mean never really understanding what was going on in her mind about him. "I... I'm not sure I'm ready for it. Maybe I ought to concentrate on other things."
"Like what?" Celine seemed genuinely curious, and maybe just a little bit surprised.
"Like studying. When we get back home... well, I've always wanted to study in a big school, like the University at Linga. Bowman said that he could see that I got accepted, and he and Nineh would let me stay in their house if I wanted to."
Celine's eyebrows shot up. "My, darling. I didn't think you were the academic type."
"I know," Rena answered, a little sheepishly. "I never really thought of it that way either-"
They were interrupted by a shout from over the hill - not a scream of pain, though, not if Rena was any judge. It was a cry of simple, childish delight. But Claude scrambled to his feet, closely followed by Ashton. "Oh, no," he said, "something's happened to Leon!"
It was sort of endearing, Rena thought, to see that Claude was so worried about his little brother despite the cavalier attitude he'd shown earlier. Still... "Claude," she said on a sudden impulse, "let me go see what happened. I... want to see more of this place anyway, maybe that'll help me figure something out. I don't think he's in any danger." And even if there is something, I think I'll be ok, she added, at least to herself. I'm not helpless.
"But..." Claude looked at her helplessly, then slowly nodded and sat back down. He wasn't happy about it - Rena could tell by the way that he was still holding his sword, his fingers white around the hilt. But he seemed determined not to argue with her. Probably from those times they'd argued before, and she'd gotten mad at him for days. He seemed almost frightened of her. "Be careful, Rena."
"It'll be fine. I'll be back soon, okay?" She turned and ran towards the ridge, where she'd heard Leon's voice. From behind her she heard Ashton's protests, and Celine and Bowman making some attempt to calm the man down.
It was true, she did want to see more of the Outer Wall, as she'd called it... maybe then the name would make a little more sense. But she had more than one reason. Ever since she'd talked to Florence on the ship to El, she'd wanted to talk to Leon - a private sort of conversation. She didn't think that Leon would really want to talk about it in front of a bunch of people.
As she reached the top of the ridge, she saw him - he was standing on the edge of a meadow grown so thickly with beautiful red flowers that she could barely even see a blade of grass between them. He didn't even seem to hear her approach; he was staring too raptly at the field. And Rena couldn't blame him; they were beautiful. She'd never seen anything quite so vibrant before, and had to fight down a sudden urge to run into the meadow and play. She quickly jumped down the hill, somehow managing to keep her balance. "Leon," she called out, "are you okay?"
"Huh?" Leon turned back around, then grinned - he'd been lost in amazement when he'd seen the flowers, and Rena's voice had shocked him out of it. At least it was Rena, though, and not someone else. "I'm better than okay! Look what I found!"
Rena nodded. "They're beautiful," she agreed with a smile.
"Do you know what these are, Rena?" he asked, not seeming to have heard. "These are Ruby Blossoms! They never grow in big meadows like this back at home!"
Rena blinked. There are flowers here that grow back home? she thought, eyes widening. How was that even possible? Maybe they weren't as far from home as she'd guessed....
Leon, meanwhile, had run to the edge of the meadow. He started pulling the blood-red blooms off of the plants, stuffing them into his pockets. He wished he had some sample jars with him so that he could go ahead and pack them properly, but the few he had were at the camp; how could he have possibly known he'd need them?
As he picked, one of the petals came off of the flower; he caught it in his hand and stared at it, smiling. "Yeah, that's what they are, all right. Just wait until I get these back home! Mama and Papa won't run out of petals for months!"
"But why would you need-" Then it suddenly dawned on Rena - why else would he need just the petals? "You... experiment on them, don't you?"
"Of course we do!" he said as he grabbed for more. They'd be fine, he figured - they'd have to be rinsed, dried and powdered before they could use them for anything anyway. "This flower is one of the most useful compounding components ever discovered! We use it to make all kinds of stuff..."
Maybe, he thought, he could use these to tempt Bowman into coming back to Lacour. Maybe if they had lots and lots of rare ingredients... it would certainly tempt Leon, if he'd ever left. Still, even if that wouldn't work, he'd have more than enough for his parents to work with for a long time.
Rena said nothing, watching Leon grab greedily at flowers as the wind started to blow again. Petals flew up and away from him constantly, as if trying to escape on the light breeze.
"It's supposed to affect the heart," Leon was saying as he grabbed for more. "See, it can make blood flow better, or it can make the heart stop, or it can... it can do all kinds of things, if you mix it right! That's why we still do experiments with it even though we don't have a Pharmecutical Division anymore. It could do so much for the entire world, if we could just get the formula right."
"Is that all you thought about when you saw those flowers?" Rena blurted out. "Experiments?"
"Huh?" Leon paused for a moment and looked at her, a puzzled expression on his face. "What else should I be thinking about, Big Sister?"
"Well... nothing in particular, I guess," Rena quickly backpedaled.
"Oh," Leon said, still a little bit confused. Then he went back to gathering petals, since there didn't seem to be much else to say.
Rena watched him quietly. I... can't believe it. It's worse than I even thought it would be. Poor Leon, he doesn't even know how fast he's had to grow up...
She still remembered how sorry for Leon she'd felt when she'd talked to his mother, in the close cabin of their ship. There hadn't been many women on board, and they'd all had to share the same quarters. Celine, frustrated, had begged out for a while at the time - she'd wanted to "take in the sea breeze," she'd said, although Rena suspected that she'd really been teasing Ashton again. Florence and Rena, bored, had talked about a number of things. Mostly domestic things, and it soon became obvious to Rena that despite being much younger than Florence, she knew quite a bit more about cooking and keeping house than she did.
Florence hadn't been offended when Rena had pointed it out to her. She'd just laughed a little. "I can't say that I'm surprised," the scientist had answered. "That's what happens when you spend all of your time in a science lab... you forget what to do at home. But Murdoch helps out as much as he can, and so does Leon."
"It's good that he helps out at home," Rena had agreed. "It's hard to believe, though, that he's so young. I mean, a twelve-year-old being in such a high position..."
"I know." Florence had grown quiet for a moment... then she'd began to talk again, her voice thoughtful. "Of course... you've probably guessed that he's not our biological son. He appeared at the entrance to the castle one night. The traveler who brought him there was never found - no one has ever admitted to it. It is very likely that his real parents are dead now. He was ill-formed... an early birth, if you understand what I mean. That's what we all thought, anyway. It wasn't unheard of for families to abandon such children, tragic as it is. And no one thought he'd live past his first few months.
"But Murdoch and I hadn't been able to have children... so we decided to take the chance. We wanted so badly to have a child to care for. If nothing else we wanted to give him a warm, comfortable home, at least for a moment. The King gave us his blessing, and all the help we needed. Special caretakers, food and medicine - the Pharmaceutical Research Department was still in Lacour back then. I still remember the researchers working around the clock for two days straight, trying to find some kind of medicine for a bad cough that wouldn't have been too strong for him to take.
"Then he started growing like a weed, and his ears started growing into what they look like now. People whispered about him then, said he was one of the fairy children. Who knows, maybe they're right... we certainly felt that Tria had blessed us. Especially after the first year passed, and we realized just what a wonderful little boy he'd grown into." She'd smiled, and her eyes had grown a bit misty. "Just a precious little miracle."
Rena had closed her eyes, overcome by the story. Was that how Westa had found her? Why hadn't she ever told her? "Does he know that he was... adopted?"
"Yes. We told him how he was found from the start, or just about. It seemed easier than trying to explain when he was older and realized that he was different." She shook her head. "Of course, I still wonder if maybe it could've waited a bit later. You always wonder about things like that..."
"I... I don't know," Rena had answered in complete sincerity. "I think the important thing is that you told him, instead of letting him find out by mistake."
"You understand this, don't you, Rena?" Florence had smiled at her. Rena had blushed again. "It made things difficult, though. His ears..."
Rena looked back up, feeling the tips of her own pointed ears burn. "The other kids didn't want to play with him, did they?"
"That's right - they were nervous about him. They thought he was strange. And maybe they were a little jealous, since Leon was learning to talk and do math and read and write faster than they could. He was always a brilliant little boy, very intelligent. So they... they wouldn't invite him to play, or to come to their birthday parties, or anything else. He spent all of his time in the lab with us, because we hated to leave him alone." Florence had smiled then, a thin and stretched smile. "That's why he's learned so much so quickly. His father taught him a lot of things. He thought that if he gave Leon something to occupy his time, he wouldn't have time to be sad. He wants his son to be happy, like any other boy. But he didn't know how else to teach him."
Rena had nodded, but she hadn't said anything. It all sounded so familiar... the only real friends she'd had besides her pets had been Cecille and Dias, when she was a child. If Cecille hadn't found her, well, she would've been just as lonely as Leon had been. And hadn't Master Flac taught her martial arts for much the same reason that Murdoch had taught Leon how to be a scientist? So that she wouldn't have as much time to be sad that the other children didn't want to play with her?
She understood Leon, maybe better than anyone else... but at the same time, how could it have happened that way? How could a child - not even a teenager yet, a twelve-year-old boy - look at such a beautiful part of nature and see it as just something to use in a laboratory? Had he ever played a game of tag in his life, or kickball, or hide-and-seek...?
"Leon," she said, surprising herself. She started to walk out into the field of flowers. The idea in her mind was impulsive, and maybe a little silly, but something about it just seemed so appropriate. This kind of meadow was made for playing, wasn't it? She'd said so herself...
Leon looked up. He'd walked a bit further into the flowers, now - there were slight red stains on the pockets of his lab coat where he'd crushed petals a bit too hard. "Big Sister, what are you doing? You'll mess up the flowers...." But he trailed off, realizing a bit belatedly that he was messing them up worse anyway. "Um, I mean..."
"I just wanted to say something, Leon. That's all right, isn't it?"
"Um... well, okay. What is it?"
"Well..." Rena suddenly lunged and pushed Leon. The boy stumbled backwards, stepped on the edge of his lab coat and fell down hard on his behind. He squawked as he fell, more in shock than in any real pain.
"You're it!" Rena shouted in triumph, then whirled to run deeper into the flower patch.
Leon pushed himself to his feet and stared after her, mouth agape. His ears were twitching hard enough to make his head hurt. "What the... Big Sister Rena! What are you doing? That's...!"
Rena turned back to look at the flustered boy. "I'm trying to play tag with you," she said, "isn't that obvious?"
"Tag? But it's a waste of time! I don't want to..." But as he protested he took a few steps forward; obviously something in him didn't think it was that big of a waste.
Rena laughed. She'd been right! "If you don't chase me, I win!"
"What? That's... that's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard! How can you win if I don't even -"
"Come on, Leon!" she continued, ignoring him. "You don't want to lose to me, do you?"
That did it. If there was one thing that Leon really hated, it was the thought of losing - even to someone like Rena. "I'm not gonna lose!" he shouted, and hastily yanked off his coat and threw it to the edge of the meadow. He didn't want to trip on it and spill any of the petals. "I'll get you!"
Rena laughed and turned to run in a wide curve across the field of flowers as Leon started to chase her. She hadn't played like this in years - she just hadn't felt like playing. Or maybe she'd been trying too hard to be a grown-up, just like Leon.
The two ran for quite a long time, knocking free petals and pushing through tall grass as they laughed. Leon, for all his irritation, certainly warmed up to the game quickly. Soon he was breathlessly shouting taunts at Rena - "C'mon, Big Sister, you can't keep running like that forever! I'm gonna win sooner or later!"
"I don't believe you," she shouted back over her shoulder, equally breathless, and still grinning happily. "You're going to have to prove it to me!"
"Then I... then I will!"
He leaped at her. Rena didn't have time to do more than risk another backwards glance before he had her, his arms wrapping around her waist, his laughter loud in her ears. "I got you, Rena. I got you-"
"Leon, look out!" she shouted back as she lost her balance. Leon's grip on her loosened in surprise, and Rena spun around in his arms, not wanting to risk falling on her face. They collapsed heavily in the field of flowers, Leon still hugging Rena, Rena with the breath knocked out of her for just a moment. It hurt, just a little, but no more than roughhousing with Dias had hurt back when she'd been a little girl - it was the kind of hurt that never lasted, the kind that only needed a mother to kiss it better. Leon wasn't heavy enough to hurt her, and the grass and flowers were soft enough to break her fall. "Ok," Rena said, still smiling, her eyes closed and her head pillowed against the soft green grass. "I guess you did win, Leon."
Leon stared down at her. "Big Sister... are you ok?"
"I'm fine," she said. "Just... tired." It didn't make any real sense to be tired - she'd been running and fighting for long enough that she should be used to the exertion. Maybe it was just because she hadn't played games like that in such a long time. "Trying to catch my breath..."
Leon didn't answer. He was staring at Rena, suddenly, at something in her face. The bright smile on her face, the petals tangled in her hair, the affection he'd seen in her eyes. And the way that she'd... well, no one had ever tried to do that before. No one else would've even thought about playing tag with him before; he'd laughed at it and called it childish, but only because he wanted to play with them so badly and couldn't admit it. But she'd... she'd known that, somehow. She'd cared enough to...
No, he thought as that familiar feeling started to grow in the pit of his stomach. This is wrong! I... I love Celine. I can't love two people at the same time, right? That's not... that's not what love is!
Rena opened her eyes, looked at him with sudden concern. "Leon... oh, your face is so red. You must've been running too hard."
"What? No, it's... I'm ok!" He was blushing even worse now. "It's just..."
"Well, it's just... Rena... I wanted to tell you that..." Rena blinked. Had Leon ever called her just by her name before? "I... I think I..."
"Leon, darling! Are you two ok?"
Leon jumped up and whirled around; Rena stood a bit more slowly, brushing off petals and bits of grass as best she could. Claude and Celine were standing on the ridge, looking down at them with nearly identical expressions of concern.
"You two were gone for a long time," Claude shouted down to them. Rena blinked; had it really been that long. "And then we heard shouting. We were worried..."
"Oh... Claude, there's nothing wrong," Rena said quickly. "Me and Leon were-"
"We were playing tag," Leon interrupted quickly, his face still red. "It was just a game, ok? Just a silly game!"
Celine blinked. "My, Leon, there's no need to be so snappish," she said mildly.
"We're coming back right now," he said, ignoring Celine's comment. He walked out of the field, too ashamed to look at Rena again - he'd been so close to telling her how he'd felt now, too close to making a fool of himself. He was just a kid. Rena was going to end up with Claude or something, and he was just going to end up heartbroken. Again.
Rena stared after the boy as he snatched up his lab coat and quickly pulled it back on, immediately assuming that curious air of half-adulthood.
Just a silly game?
She didn't know why those four words had hurt her feelings - surely he'd enjoyed it, he probably just thought it would be too childish to admit it. A lot of kids were like that, especially kids who'd grown up alone.
But... still, a silly game. And he'd sounded so... so contemptuous about it. Like he hadn't wanted Celine or anyone else to have the wrong idea for even a second...
Leon was already halfway back to the camp, though. There was nothing else to do but follow him.
"Rena, sweetheart, you have something in your hair," Celine whispered to her as she approached. She pulled out a single crushed red petal and dropped it to the ground.
"Oh," she said, feeling a bit too distracted to care and hoping that Celine wouldn't ask her any more questions that night. "Thanks, Celine."
She felt Celine's eyes on her, knew that she was dying to say something. But thankfully, she stayed quiet, at least for the moment.
Leon avoided the others as much as he could for the remainder of the evening. He took his bowl of stew, sat down away from the fire and ate it quietly by himself. The others asked him questions, but he didn't answer them. Then he said that he was tired, and just wanted to sleep for a while. He took off his coat and went to curl up as close to the fire as he dared, trying to keep his eyes closed so that the others wouldn't notice he really wasn't asleep.
It was hard, because what he really wanted to do was talk to someone. About Rena, and Celine, and everything else that was in his head. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Rena watching him, with a sad, worried look on her face, and he'd had to stop himself from running up to her and giving her a big hug. It wasn't like what he felt about Celine. Celine seemed untouchable; he wouldn't have even considered hugging her if she hadn't said it was ok. He didn't understand it at all...
That was the problem. If he didn't understand, how could he think that anyone else would? So he just kept his mouth shut.
Later, after the others were asleep, he got up and grabbed his lab coat. He walked off a bit, rummaged through his stuff and found one of his sample jar - a fairly simple glass jar, only with a few crests etched into it. One to keep things fresh, one to keep the jar from breaking, one to seal it so that only someone who knew the secret words could open it.
He opened the jar with a whisper and began to go through his pockets, pulling out petals and dropping them into the jar. They were sad-looking things, in a way - vividly red, and many of them so badly crushed and crumpled. He found himself feeling like that too, somehow.
Then he pulled out another flower - and by some miracle it was whole, complete, as if it had just been picked. The five petals were a brilliant red, and there was even a length of green stem still attached to it.
He started to drop it into the sample jar... then stopped, and looked at it. It was too perfect. He couldn't let it be powdered up and used in some kind of medicine. That would be... well, it would just feel wrong, somehow.
A sudden thought struck him. He rummaged through his pack some more and found a few leftover pieces of scrap paper - notes he'd scribbled about some invention or another a long time ago and had promptly forgotten about. Then he took one of the research books he'd insisted on carrying along, the biggest and thickest one his mother had let him carry. It wasn't all that heavy, but at least it had a strap and buckle to keep it closed. It would do.
He opened the book to the middle and smoothed one of the notes - some childish precursor to the Lacour Hope - over the page. The flower he laid on top of it, very gently, opening the petals as much as he could without the risk of pulling them free. Then he covered it with the other piece of note paper, closed the book tightly, and pulled the strap through the buckle as much as it would go. He'd have to remember not to open that book for a while... maybe not until he'd gotten back home.
It was silly, doing something like that. If nothing else, it was a waste of a perfectly good specimen. But then again... he started blushing again, remembering how pretty Rena had looked, how she'd pulled him into the kind of game that he'd been too busy acting grown-up to know that he'd wanted to play all along. And he thought that maybe silly things weren't always so bad after all.
A/N: Written for my friend Chalaine, who was the one who got me infected by the idea of Rena and Leon playing in a field of flowers. A cute little concept, somewhat inspired by the PA in Fun City about Leon's many crushes.
I admit that it does make a few assumptions. One, that Celine still met
Chris, even though this is apparently Claude's scenario - yes, I'm mixing
PAs a bit. Call it creative license if you like.
Two, that the party actually spent a few days in the Outer Wall Paradise before finding the transporter to Central City, which I think is reasonable. After all, judging by the map of Nede, that could've been quite a large area. It's a pity that you could never visit it again.
(As for the bit about Ashton... well, Celine's a bit of a busybody anyway. Make of it what you will.)
Please feel free to offer critique. I can always use critique.