The next day, Carmen went to the outpost quite early to pick up Fleur and Anne. Officially, Fleur and Anne were assigned to an outpost mission to “investigate undead activities in the south.”
Putting aside whether or not the order made sense or had any real basis, Barsig had the power to issue it, and once they were gone, even Reinhart can’t call them back if he didn’t know where they were.
Before the sun rose much higher in the air, the trio left on four horses—one of them for carrying things—and enough food supplies for a week. Barsig saw them off, and Carmen had a feeling that she won’t be seeing him any time soon unless she went to visit the Cloud Order stronghold.
From the maps, the fastest way to get to where the mines were was by following a small path southwest and then west at a crossroads. It was a more indirect route than Carmen had taken on foot, but it was more well defined.
While the start of the journey wasn’t bad due to the initial excitement, the atmosphere quickly turned awkward due to Carmen’s two companions.
Carmen clearly felt the hostility directed at her radiating off of Fleur’s redheaded friend. At first, she didn’t know the reason, but she quickly found the cause.
Anne often stuck close to Fleur, riding so close that their legs were almost touching. She was attentive of Fleur’s needs, fussing over her in a way bordering on obsession. While the girl was constantly vigilant of Carmen, she was never as hostile as when Carmen nudged her horse near Fleur.
Carmen had no idea how or when it happened, but Anne clearly had feelings toward Fleur. While she didn’t see anything wrong with the potential relationship as long as Fleur was fine with it, she couldn’t help but worry. She wasn’t sure if that obsession-like behavior exhibited by Anne was healthy or not.
At the same time, she was totally clueless about how she was supposed to remedy it.
Since Anne views her as a “rival” to Fleur’s affections, any advice that she gives Anne will probably be viewed as a trick.
Anne wasn’t the only problem either. Fleur seemed really out of it compared to the day before as well. She was constantly sneaking her glances or staring up into the sky at nothing, which riles Anne up.
The awkward atmosphere continued until they stopped for the afternoon at a small clearing at the side of the trees, cleared by past travelers as a resting point. There were a few stripped logs in a circle around a pile of stones meant to hold in a campfire. However, the smell of ashes was long gone, washed or blown away by the winds and rains over time.
After tying the horses to trees and watering them with a small bucket from their store of water, they each picked a log to sit at.
Carmen sat first, but when Fleur sat next to her, Anne squeezed in on the end of the log.
Feeling Anne’s burning gaze on her, Carmen stood up and sat on a log on the opposite side of the burnt out campfire, putting space between her and the two young girls, ignoring the confused expression on Fleur’s face.
Watching the two girls chewing on the outpost bread they brought, soaked in water, Carmen felt a sudden rush of pity for them. As an undead, she didn’t need to eat, but they were different. To force them to survive for a week on nothing but things that could barely be considered food was the height of cruelty.
Carmen stood up, attracting both their attention. “I’ll be right back. I’ll go see if I can find something better to eat, like fruits, or some small animals.”
Immediately, Fleur stood up. “I’ll go with you!”
“I’m coming too!”
Carmen felt her heart pound, pumping blood into her head. Even if she couldn’t get a true headache, she thought she felt something begin to jump on the side of her forehead. If this was going to be a common occurrence, she considered wasting a day and sending both of them back to the outpost.
“No. I’m going alone.” She took out the updated map that she copied from Barsig’s office and passed it to Anne. “If you two really want to do something else, then there’s a stream nearby. Go water the horses and refill our water supply. You can go look for fruits as long as you don’t go far.”
Carmen half expected Anne to protest being ordered around by someone who technically wasn’t in charge, since on paper they were merely traveling in the same direction, but surprisingly she didn’t.
Instead, the girl’s eyes lit up.
Ah, of course. She gets to spend time with Fleur alone.
With that realization in mind, she decided to nudge Fleur a little further toward Anne. That way, Fleur will have someone to take care of her while Carmen wasn’t around. “If you need anything, get Anne to help you, okay?” she told Fleur.
Fleur nodded and held up an ice crystal-embedded waterskin. “Leave it up us!”
Satisfied that the two girls won’t get up into any trouble, Carmen walked off into the trees, but not before picking up a few larger rocks from the side of the path. Her greatsword was overkill for rabbits and she didn’t feel like running after them either. She could only hope that her aim was good enough.
After she left, the two girls were left alone near the old extinguished campfire, staring at each other.
Fleur was the first to make a move. She raised the waterskin again. “What are we waiting for? Let’s go!”
Although she knew that Fleur was only so excited because she received a task from that woman Camilla, Anne was still happy to spend time with her.
When she heard that Fleur was going to leave with Camilla, her heart felt like it was going to break. When Fleur asked if she wanted to come, she decided that she would no matter what.
Carrying three more waterskin slung on a cord, a basket in case they came across any fruits, and her trusty mace, Anne went with Fleur into the forest in another direction that Camilla went.
The lady said she was going to hunt, so it would be awkward if they were too close and the ruckus they made scared all the prey away.
“I wonder if we’re going the right way?” Fleur asked after a moment of walking.
“I think so. I think I hear water up ahead.”
“Ah, I think I hear it too.”
The gurgling of a creek traveled through the trees, reaching their ears long before they saw it. Picking up their pace, they ran out to find a small flow of water that carved a path into the forest floor, creating a stream hemmed in by two steep walls about as tall as halfway up Anne’s knees.
Seeing how slippery the banks looked, Anne took one look at Fleur and held out her hands. “We didn’t manage to find any berries on our way here, but there might be some closer to the water?”
“I think so. Oh, there’s one up there,” Fleur said, pointing at a bush further upstream. It was dotted with dark blue fruits of some kind. Trading her waterskin for the basket Anne carried, Fleur went to the bush and began to pick the ripest berries while Anne began to fill the waterskins full.
Filled with water, the waterskins were much heavier than before, and Anne left them on top of the banks while she went to help Fleur. Her friend was having a hard time balancing, and without another hand to help, it was hard for Fleur to pull the berries off the branch when the branch bent toward her every time she tried to pick a berry.
Anne wordlessly knelt down next to her and began to help. Their pace sped up by a lot, but Fleur didn’t seem happy at all. Seeing Fleur’s glum expression, Anne slowed her pace a bit.
Whenever Fleur’s inadequacies came up, she always became gloomy, even if she never ever voiced any complaints. Sometimes, Anne wished that Fleur would talk to her more. She’d never find her a burden. But no matter how many times she told Fleur that, Fleur would always say something like “it’s okay, I’m fine” and end the conversation.
Each bush yielded a surprisingly large amount of berries, filling up their basket almost halfway. But when Anne started on the second one with Fleur, Fleur’s voice sounded by her ear.
“You don’t have to slow down just for me.”
Anne almost didn’t catch what she said. She looked toward her friend, but Fleur didn’t look back, only continuing to pull at the berries.
“You don’t have to wait for me. We’ll probably be done faster if you just picked by yourself.”
Her attempt to spare Fleur’s feelings had been discovered. Knowing that she had only hurt Fleur more despite trying not to, Anne turned away with her face burning and began to pick the berries as fast as she could.
Her fingers trembled, and as she plucked a berry off its branch, she accidentally ruined one by squeezing too hard. Juice spurted out over her fingers and her face, some of it getting in her eye. She lurched backwards, falling onto the ground as she rubbed her tearing eye. “Ahh!”
“Anne, are you okay?” Fleur exclaimed, kneeling next to her, trying to pull away her hand, but Anne stubbornly held her hand to her eye. Despite her efforts, she couldn’t complete against Fleur putting her whole weight into the pull and her hand lifted from her eye.
“Stop, I’m okay!” she said.
“Huh? Oh, okay.” Fleur let go.
Anne had been using all her strength to resist Fleur and hold her hand in place, and when the countering force suddenly disappeared, her hand slammed into her eye. She doubled over in pain, curling up, her eyes tightly shut.
Stars flashed in white bursts against the dark background in her vision and her eye throbbed deep in her skull. She sucked in a breath, trying not to groan.
She heard Fleur gasp, and then a yelp.
A heavy weight crashed onto her side as Fleur fell on top of her when she tried and failed to help. Fleur’s elbow knocked the breath out of her with a faint oof, followed by silence as they both froze—Fleur because she was afraid that she might have hurt Anne with her fall. Meanwhile, as Fleur stopped moving, Anne froze as well since Fleur wasn’t moving anymore.
Was Fleur hurt?
With her good eye, Anne turned to stare at her friend’s face, looking for any signs of pain, and Fleur looked at her in turn. They held each other’s gaze for a moment before Fleur shuddered and covered her mouth, sitting onto her legs. “Pfft. Hahaha!”
After a moment, Anne burst into laughter as well from the sheer absurdity of the situation.
Somehow, they got into such a mess over a simple task of picking berries. And it all started when she squirted berry juice in her eye.
Whenever one of them was about to stop laughing, they’d hear the other laughing alone and start laughing again, falling into a continuous cycle until Fleur began coughing. But even after casting Cleansing Light at the same time, the smiles didn’t leave Anne and Fleur’s faces, the gloominess from earlier forgotten.
They turned to look at what became of their berries when they both fell over. Anne wasn’t sure, but she thought she had kicked something over, and as it turned out, she did.
“Geez, look what you did. You knocked the basket over!” Fleur scolded. She began to up the berries scattered on the ground, tossing them into the basket.
“Sorry, sorry.” Anne sat up. She took her hand away from her eye, blinking a few times. Although it was a bit blurry from the pressure and from being closed, the blur soon cleared. “Ah, I’m okay now.”
She moved forward next to Fleur, about to help, but Fleur glared at her. Her reaching hand froze midair and then obediently reached toward the berry bush again. With Fleur putting the already picked berries into the basket combined with the new berries she picked, the basket soon filled up.
However, dirt still clung to many of the berries.
If it remained like this, then it couldn’t be eaten. “What should we do?”
“No wait, I have an idea.” Fleur looked at the basket one last time tilting her head toward the stream. “Let’s go run the whole basket through the water to clean off the dirt as best as we can. The holes are big enough.”
The gaps in the basket were just small enough to poke their pinkies through, but most of the berries were larger than their thumbs. Fleur’s idea will probably work.
“Let’s try it then.”
“Hup!” Fleur picked up the laden basket, refusing to hand it over even when Anne reached for it. Faced with Fleur’s resolve to do it by herself, Anne backed off, biting her lip.
It felt like Fleur didn’t need her anymore, refusing her help again and again. But on the other hand, Anne still felt happy for her friend for being willing to do things by herself again.
Only, if one day Fleur didn’t need her anymore, would Fleur still allow her to stay by her side?