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Star Ocean 2

Delicate Chemistry
By Akia Starfrost [ 03-03-01 ]

Author's Notes: This is my first Star Ocean 2 fic, so please be nice. ^^ A lot of this is based off of the manga, especially the stuff about Bowman. Also, please note that I don't intentionally bash anyone in this fic; you just need to remember whose perspective it's coming from. (For instance, Leon doesn't like Bowman all that much, so he's probably going to think some not-so-nice things about him, ne? ^^;;) Comments and yes, even criticism are appreciated, so long as it's constructive criticism. ^^; Please read and review! ^_^

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Claude awoke slowly, stiff muscles avidly protesting any movement. Last night had been terrible, he remembered. They'd been forced to camp out in the woods again; somehow they'd gotten lost between cities (Claude mentally vowed that that was the LAST time he let Ashton read the map). On top of everything else, it had gotten very windy and cold during the night. At first, Claude had been afraid they'd be caught in the middle of a storm, but other than strong gusts of wind and rather cold temperatures, it hadn't been too bad.

Rubbing his head as he sat up - he never could get comfortable sleeping on the ground - Claude observed that all of his friends were still asleep. Ashton lay sprawled on his stomach only a foot or so away, sleeping like a log. Claude wondered how that could be at all comfortable; but then, Gyoro and Ururun refused to let Ashton sleep on his back, since they were attached to it and would likely be crushed.

On Claude's other side (and a respectable distance away), Rena slept on her side facing him. Next to her was Leon, his small body dwarfed by the oversized lab coat that doubled as a make-shift blanket. Scattered in various positions around what used to be their pathetic excuse for a fire were the rest of Claude's friends - Bowman, Precis, and Celine. Claude eyed Celine dubiously for a moment. How in the world could she stand wearing such a skimpy outfit, especially when it got as cold as it had last night? Keeping the fire lit had been nearly impossible, so the only heat they could rely on was their own.

Claude heard a soft moan next to him. Looking down, he noticed with a start that Rena was shivering. But it wasn't cold anymore… Cautiously, he laid a hand on her forehead and examined her disturbingly pallid complexion.

"Rena?" No response. He tried again, a little louder. "Hey, Rena?"

A sudden hand on his shoulder startled him. "Let me see," Bowman said from behind him. Claude complied, trying hard not to trip over Ashton as he did so. He stood behind the older man as he leaned over Rena, but his view was blocked by the other man's body. Claude shifted his weight, losing his balance and falling right on top of the still slumbering Ashton.

"Yowwwww!!"

Everyone else jerked awake with Ashton's loud yelp, plus Gyoro and Ururun's indignant "awrk"-ing.

One tangled mess of limbs and dragon necks later, Ashton and Claude had managed to separate themselves, joining the rest of the group as they clustered in an anxious circle around Rena and Bowman, wearing various expressions of curiosity and concern. Even with all the noise, Rena still hadn't woken up.

"Is she all right?" Leon asked somewhat timidly. Claude blinked at the small quaver he heard in the young boy's voice. Glancing over, he felt a pang of sympathy; the kid was still trying to deal with his parents' unknown fates, and now one of his friends, someone he looked up to (and possibly even had a crush on) was sick.

Bowman stood up abruptly, causing everyone leaning over him to step back quickly so he didn't knock them over. They watched curiously as he pulled a few vials and a brown pouch from the inside pockets of his lab coat, then took it off and laid it over Rena. He stared thoughtfully at her for a minute, then finally turned to face the group. "It's not too serious. She has a fever, probably from the cold air last night." He smiled confidently, taking a drag from his ever-present cigarette.

What, does he SLEEP with that thing in his mouth? Claude wondered irrelevantly.

Bowman continued, "Just try to keep her warm while I make something to take care of the fever."

"You can do that?" Ashton asked of Bowman, staring at him with wide eyes.

"Sure. You just have to know which herbs to mix."

"That's nice, darling. So, why don't you go do that, then? We'll take care of Rena." Celine cut in, not unkindly. Bowman winked at her, which she ignored, then he wandered off with his supplies to go do some compounding.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Look, see? There's a town right here!" Ashton scratched his head in confusion. "But that means we should be there by now…"

"Let me see that, Ashton." The dragon-possessed man handed Claude the much-abused map, and after looking it over for a moment, Claude sighed. "Ashton…" the brown-haired young man looked over, and Claude pointed to the "town". "This is a crumb from breakfast yesterday." He flicked the offending piece of food with one finger, sending it flying into the dirt. He continued, more exasperated this time, "And you've been holding the map upside-down!" He glared at Ashton, irritated, and the other man put one hand behind his head and laughed nervously.

"Really?"

Claude sighed again in response.

Just then, Bowman came back, carrying a small vial of greenish liquid in one hand and with a cigarette dangling from his smugly smiling lips.

"This should do the trick," he proclaimed and walked over to where Leon sat by Rena's side, writing a book on Advanced Heraldry. "Move it, kid." Leon looked up long enough to glare at him, and reluctantly scooted back - a little.

Bowman decided to ignore him, kneeling down next to Rena while everyone once again looked on. Gently, he picked up the unconscious girl's head with one large hand and poured the herbal remedy between her slightly parted lips with the other. She swallowed the liquid reflexively and when it was all gone, Bowman sat back on his heels.

Nothing happened.

"Ummm… Bowman…" Claude started to say, but Bowman cut him off. "What, you think something's going to happen right away? This is science, not magic, boy. The medicine has to work its way through her system first." He smiled. "Don't worry, she'll be fine. She just needs some rest."

"That's great! Then we can get out of this stupid forest and into a REAL town!" Precis startled them all with her cheerful exclamation. She shot a meaningful glance at Ashton, who blushed a little and smiled sheepishly. Apparently she'd overheard the previous conversation.

True to Bowman's words, Rena woke up a few hours later, groggily asking what had happened. By the time explanations were finished, it was already afternoon, so the group decided to wait until tomorrow to resume their travels.

Claude sat alone with his thoughts for a while, leaning against a sturdy tree that might have passed for an oak on Earth. His thoughts wandered aimlessly for a while before they inevitably turned back to the morning's events. What would they have done if Bowman hadn't been with them? Would the fever have gone away on its own, or gotten worse? Sure, a fever didn't sound too serious, especially since he came from a medically advanced planet, but who knew what kind of sicknesses it could lead to on an undeveloped, alien planet?

It wasn't that Claude forgot that he wasn't on Earth now - he knew that all too well. But he'd never really thought about how different planets had foreign strains of bacteria and viruses; he remembered a little bit from one of the micro-biology courses he'd taken back at the academy, but that had never been his specialty. He wasn't studying to become a doctor after all. It was very possible that a virus the people of this planet were immune to could kill him, or even vice versa. He remembered all those stories in ancient history about tribes being killed off by something as minor as chicken pox.

Claude shook his head. There was no use worrying about it, anyway. But still…

That's probably a useful skill to have, Claude mused. Definitely a good back-up for when cure magic couldn't be used. I wonder…

Stretching his legs as he stood, Claude glanced around the camp site, then frowned. Where was everybody? Rena and Celine were still there, chatting about some girlish thing or other, judging by the occasional giggles he heard from that direction. No one else was in sight.

He really didn't want to interrupt the girls' conversation - he'd learned his lesson way back with that little incident in Cross - so instead he ventured deeper into the surrounding woods, listening for voices to give him a clue where everyone was at, but at first all he heard was the chirping of birds and leaves rustling in the breeze. Considering how awful the weather had been last night, today had turned out to be a beautiful day, Claude reflected. Almost like Mother Nature was trying to make amends, he thought with a small smile.

"…no, come on Gyoro, you know I didn't mean it like that…" A moment of irritated "awrks" prevailed, then, "Well, both of you ARE strong. You just have…different strengths, ok? …Hey! Ururun! Cut that out! You guuuuuys…"

Claude chuckled. There was only one person - well, technically three - that THAT could be. Last time he'd interrupted a fight between Gyoro and Ururun it hadn't turned out so great, but it was certainly a lot safer than interrupting women. Claude would just have to make sure he didn't say anything incriminating this time.

Before long he found Ashton, still trying to "separate" Gyoro and Ururun, which was pretty much impossible during the best of circumstances. Currently, they were waging their own private war right over Ashton's resigned head.

"Oh, hi, Claude," he offered lamely once he spotted his blonde friend. His expression became a bit more hopeful as he asked, "What are you doing?"

"I'm trying to find Bowman. Have you seen him?"

Ashton blinked. "Uhmmm… oh yeah. I think he went that way." The Expelian pointed to the left, through the trees. "Why are you looking for him?" At this, the two dragons stopped fighting and peered at Claude curiously.

Scratching the back of his head, Claude answered, "I want to see if he'll teach me about herbs. I think it might be pretty useful."

The mercenary perked up at this. "Really? That sounds interesting. Can I come too?"

"Of course, if you want to. Anyway, we still have to ask him if he'll teach us, right?"

Ashton nodded vigorously, taking the lead to track down Bowman since he'd seen the man last.

Finding Bowman proved to be more difficult than locating Ashton had been. Of course, Bowman didn't have two demon dragons bickering on his back.

They eventually caught up with him in a small clearing, which Claude realized wasn't all that far from the camp site; within hearing distance, actually. Which meant they'd been going in circles. Naturally.

For a moment, Claude was a little troubled when he realized he had no idea where the youngest two members of their team were, but Leon and Precis could probably take care of themselves well enough, and they'd know better than to wander too far by themselves. Right?

Somehow, Claude wasn't all that comforted by the thought.

Bowman had found a relatively flat rock and, sitting cross-legged in front of it, was busily pouring a bright neon pink liquid into another vial, this one partially filled with dark blue. The combination turned fluorescent green.

On the rock in front of the herbalist sat a mortar and pestle, along with several small piles of various herbs that Claude knew were from this planet, but couldn't identify. The man was wearing his lab coat again, having gotten it back from Rena earlier.

At the sound of their approaching footsteps, the older man looked up at them, smiling around his cigarette. "What can I do for you boys?" He grinned, eyes glittering mischievously. "Do you need more tips on girl watching? You should wait until we're in a city, in that case."

Claude colored a little at that. "Actually, Bowman, I… we wanted to ask you something," he started hesitantly. He didn't like asking for favors; he was too used to the reactions he got because of his father's influence. But it's not like that here, he reminded himself. No one here even knew his father. That's why he liked being here so much; no one gave him special treatment.

"Will you teach us how to do that stuff with the herbs?" Ashton jumped in during Claude's pause.

Bowman laughed. "So, you kids want me to teach my secrets, huh? Okay, but only if we do some girl watching in the next city."

"Uh, sure." Ashton shared a brief, uncertain glance with Claude.

"I guess." Maybe this wasn't such a great idea after all…

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"I bet I could improve it."

"You could NOT! Leave Bobot alone!"

"I'm telling you Bobot would be much better if you'd just let me make some adjustments!"

"And I'M telling YOU to forget it! No one touches Bobot but ME, got it!?"

Several heated glares and stuck-out tongues later, Leon found himself wandering aimlessly through the dense forest, sulking. 'Stupid Precis. She's just jealous that I can do better than her.' He kicked a stray rock, sending it skittering through weeds and tall grass.

"…now add some Aceras to the Rose Hips and grind it into a fine powder with the mortar and pestle… Ashton, like this."

Leon's sensitive feline ears picked up on Bowman's voice easily. Curious, and not having anything better to do anyway, he remained motionless and listened.

"Ok, what's the next step, Bowman?"

That sounded like Big Brother Claude's voice! So he and Ashton were hanging out with Bowman? BOWMAN, of all people? He couldn't imagine why…

The young boy crept closer to where the voices were coming from, careful not to make any noise. Peeking out from behind some bushes, Leon could see Claude, Ashton, and Bowman seated around a large, flat rock, with an assortment of herbs and vials strewn out among them, complete with a mortar and pestle. Ashton was grinding something with the tools, Gyoro and Ururun occasionally peering in the small stone bowl over his shoulders. Bowman was instructing Claude on mixing several different colored vials with another vial of crushed-up herbs.

It went on like that for a long time; Bowman would show them how to do something, then have each of them try it themselves to see if they could remember the steps. Leon watched for a while, then went back to the camp site when it started getting dark. He was pretty sure no one had noticed him watching the trio.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Thanks to Ashton's lack of map-reading skills, the town the group was attempting to reach was still a three-or-four day journey away. Which meant more camping out, of course.

"Hey, Big Brother, do you want to read the book I just wrote?"

"Leon…"

"Or maybe we could both write one?"

Claude smiled at Leon apologetically. "Sorry, Leon, I'm a little busy. How about later, alright?" Then he left.

Leon sat dejectedly against a tree, arms crossed and ears flat, frowning. That's the way it had been for the past two days. Claude and Ashton always ran off with Bowman, Celine and Big Sister talked about girl stuff and sometimes worked on jewelry when they got too bored, and Precis did her own thing - away from him. She was still mad about the whole Bobot incident, apparently.

An awful screeching noise broke in through Leon's thoughts, and the Fellpool clasped his hands over his sensitive ears in agony. "What the heck is THAT?" he yelled angrily, then he spotted Precis across the clearing, playing her harmonica. Or rather, TRYING to, and doing horribly.

Leon glared at her. "Cut it out, Precis! I like being able to HEAR, you know!!" Precis did stop, but only long enough to stick her tongue out at him before she continued playing.

"Fine!" Leon stormed off. No one ever paid attention to him. Big Sister was always talking to Celine or Precis, or playing with animals or something. Ashton was, well… Ashton, and Leon wouldn't WANT to associate with Bowman, a feeling he knew was mutual. And Precis just seemed to like making Leon miserable. But Big Brother Claude… Big Brother used to pay attention to him, but now…

Now, Bowman was taking him away with his stupid compounding, and Leon was going to lose Claude, lose his newfound Big Brother.

Just like he'd lost his parents.

The young boy stopped in his tracks, ears drooping, blue eyes staring listlessly at the ground. One hand unconsciously sought out the light metal ring at the end of the drawstring of the red hood he wore over his lab coat. He clenched it in his small hand, but the feel of the cold, smooth metal didn't comfort him like it usually did.

He didn't want to think about that.

He didn't want to think about… his parents.

True, he didn't know if they were really dead, but… it was hard, not knowing where they were, if they were safe…

If they were alive.

The only thing he could do was just… not think about it. If he didn't think about it, it didn't hurt. Much.

And it wasn't like he could do anything about it right now, anyway. As much as he wished he could.

I won't lose my Big Brother, too, he thought, determined. He clenched the ring in his fist tightly. I won't lose him to that dork Bowman. There must be something I can do…

Suddenly, Leon grinned, his ears perking up. Yeah! That should work. He crept along silently until he found the spot Bowman had chosen for today's compounding lesson, a small clear space between a few trees. Only half-listening to their conversation this time, Leon eyed the herbs and vials laying on the ground, then studied the vials Bowman was holding. One yellow, one clear, one light green, all held between the fingers of one hand. With the other, the man poured a little bit of some dark purplish fluid into all the vials, saying something about the different combinations you can make using the same base herb. Leon's eyes locked on the dark purple liquid. "Base herb", huh? Perfect! Now he just needed an opportunity…

Bowman gently set down the "base" herb - which Leon guessed was probably some variant of Wolfsbane, judging by the color - and corked the other three vials, storing them in his lab coat for later, Leon supposed. The older man turned away, digging through the brown satchel next to him for something. Leon quickly looked over to Ashton and Claude, but they were too busy with whatever it was they were doing to notice anything. Good.

Chanting very softly under his breath, Leon summoned some of his magic; not in the form of a spell, just a tiny bit of raw void magic. It danced as purple energy on his finger tips, and he grinned impishly before casting it to the vial of liquefied Wolfsbane on the grass.

None of the three noticed as a tiny, barely visible streak of purple energy shot straight to the vial and caused the entire tube to momentarily glow with a dim purplish aura.

Leon crouched down further, anxiously awaiting the results of this little venture. He watched nervously as Bowman finally found what he was looking for and turned back, picking up the vial of purple liquid. The herbalist pulled out a few more vials; bright pink, cloudy white, and another blue. 'Where does he get all that stuff?' Leon couldn't help but wonder.

Bowman held the two tubes for a minute, seeming to consider something, and for a moment Leon was afraid the man had seen what he'd done. But then, unexpectedly, Bowman handed Ashton the vials, saying, "I think you're ready to try this step, Ashton. Go ahead, just pour a little of this into each of these."

Leon's eyes almost popped right out their sockets when he heard that. What?! That's not what's supposed to happen! It's supposed to get Bowman, not Ashton! His ears flattened. Oops… guess I made a miscalculation…

Completely oblivious to the imminent danger he was in, Ashton happily took the vials, struggling to hold three in one hand the way Bowman did. Claude looked on, an amused smile on his face as he watched his friend get a grip on all the tiny glass tubes. Slowly, Ashton started to pour the dark purple liquid into the pink one…

As the two substances touched, the void magic in the purple one reacted violently with the other, causing a mini-explosion to take place - right in Ashton's face. The poor guy didn't even have time to yelp in surprise as the vial he was holding flashed a brilliant purple, then exploded upward in a mass of herbal liquid and black smoke.

Claude and Bowman stared in astonishment at their friend, who was now thoroughly blackened and smoking slightly. "Geez, Ashton, what did you do? Are you okay?"

Ashton, Gyoro, and Ururun coughed simultaneously. None of them looked very happy. "I'm okay."

Bowman scratched his stubbly chin thoughtfully. "It shouldn't have done that… hmm."

Very, very slowly, Leon started to back away from the scene. It was too bad Ashton had been caught in Leon's little scheme, but he'd just have to be more careful next time. Maybe I should think of something else… This didn't help me at all.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Something wasn't right here. Bowman knew what he was doing too well to make a mistake like that, and even though Ashton certainly would have, he only did what Bowman told him to and he hadn't touched those vials ahead of time. And why had there been a purple flash like that? It looked sort of like… magic. But that couldn't be right. Could it?

Claude's suspicions were confirmed when he caught sight of a certain blue-haired Fellpool trying to make a quiet getaway. Frowning, he thought, Why would Leon sabotage the herbs like that? I better talk to him. But not with these two here.

Excusing himself from Bowman, who was too busy trying to help clean up Ashton to really notice, Claude silently tracked Leon to a secluded spot deeper in the forest. He watched the boy for a moment; Leon was sitting on the ground, his back resting against the tree's trunk, arms wrapped around his legs. He appeared to be deep in thought. Glancing skyward, Claude noticed it was starting to get dark… the sun had almost finished setting. They'd have to go back soon.

"Leon."

Leon jumped when he heard his name, staring around wildly until he spotted Claude in the fading light. "B-Big Brother Claude? What are you doing here?"

Claude came over, seating himself next to Leon, but not looking at him. "Leon… why did you do that?"

"What do you…"

"Leon. I know you sabotaged the vial so it would explode. Why?" Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the young Fellpool look away in defeat, cat-like ears drooping low.

"It wasn't supposed to get Ashton," he admitted reluctantly.

"So who did you want it to get? Bowman?" Leon nodded, and Claude sighed impatiently. "Look, Leon, I know you two don't get along that well, but don't you think this is a little much? Have you suddenly taken up pranks and practical jokes as a hobby? What is it?"

Leon almost seemed to curl in on himself. "Because…"

"Because WHAT, Leon?" Claude asked, more harshly than he meant to.

"Because he's taking you away from me!"

Claude started at the sudden outburst, finally turning to stare at the small boy beside him, absolutely stunned. "What did you say?"

"He's taking you away from me," Leon repeated in a near-whisper, resting his chin on his knees, refusing to meet Claude's eyes.

"What… what makes you say that?"

"Because, you… you never have time to do anything with me anymore. While we're walking, you're always talking to them, and when we stop, you're always working with HIM, and you just ignore me, like everyone else does."

Claude stared wide-eyed at his young friend. Leon… was lonely? Mentally, he smacked himself. Of course the kid was lonely! He'd just lost his parents and been thrown into a ragtag group of fighters and mages. To be honest, Leon wasn't always the easiest person to get along with, and after his parents' disappearance, the boy had become a lot quieter, so it was easy to overlook him sometimes. He felt a pang of guilt as he realized that children were much more sensitive than the adults he was more used to dealing with. Claude knew he'd been pretty preoccupied with learning Bowman's trade, although he didn't really think he'd been ignoring anyone. But, to a child, especially a lonely child, he guessed that it must have seemed that way.

"I'm sorry."

Leon blinked. "Huh?" He looked up at Claude with large, questioning blue eyes. "I'm the one that blew up Ashton, remember? Shouldn't I be saying that?"

"Yes, you should. And I want you to at least tell Ashton what happened, so you can apologize." Leon sighed, then nodded. Claude smiled slightly, leaning his head back against the tree's rough trunk. "But I'm sorry, too. I got so wrapped up in this whole compounding thing that I just forgot about everything else that was important. I do still want to learn, but I'll take it a little slower, okay? So I have time for other things. Forgive me?"

Leon pretended to consider it for a minute, then smiled back. "Of course I do! You're my Big Brother!" His smile turned into a slight smirk as he continued, "And I know Big Brothers do stupid things sometimes."

Claude chuckled. "So do Little Brothers." He put one hand behind his head, grinning. "But Little Brothers do them more often!" Leon just stuck out his tongue at him.



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