None of this is mine.
Tomorrow's the day. Tomorrow it ends, one way or another.
He'd never wanted this. Far away from home, away from everything he'd ever known, with literally the fate of the entire universe on his shoulders. This wasn't how it was supposed to be, not even when his father's expectations had led him into Federation service. Now, just shy of his twentieth birthday, the futures of countless billions lay in his hands.
It made him feel very small.
Sitting on the beach in L'Aqua, Claude Kenny sighed. By rights he should have been asleep, conserving his strength for the fierce battles that were mere hours away. As far as he knew all his friends were. Celine the beautiful and flirtatious sorceress. Ashton, the unluckiest man in the galaxy. Opera and Ernest, the adventurous Tetrageniot couple. Bowman the pharmacist. Welch the . . . whatever she was. Precis the inventor, Leon the magician and scientist. Noel the naturalist, and intrepid reporter Chisato. Dias, the stoic swordsman who had somehow become one of Claude's closest friends.
And Rena. The simple girl with a mysterious power. The girl who had been Claude's first companion on this insane adventure. Whose healing power had saved his life more times than he could count. Whose unfailingly upbeat and cheerful attitude had more than once lifted him out of black depression. The girl who had irrevocably changed his life.
More and more, Claude found his thoughts turning to the blue-haired girl. Though he hadn't dwelt on it much at the time, then having rather more immediate concerns, in retrospect their first meeting in the Sacred Forest on Expel all those months ago seemed more than mere coincidence. Adventure had a way of finding his family, he knew, from his ancestor Stephen "Lightspeed" Kenny down to his father Ronyx's experiences on the planet Roak twenty-odd years before.
Now it's my turn. There was some grim humor in the thought, but in the end he couldn't honestly say he regretted it. Messing with that alien contraption (which he now suspected to be of Nedian origin) had brought him and Rena together, and he wouldn't give that up for anything.
He looked up, surprised. Rena stood a couple of meters away, the gentle breeze stirring her short blue hair. Claude had been so lost in thought that he hadn't heard her approach. "Rena? Is something wrong?"
"I couldn't sleep," she said, brushing at her skirt. "Can I sit next to you?"
"Of course." Claude felt his heart skip a beat as Rena settled herself a scant few centimeters away. He watched her in the corner of his eye. Rena had always had an ethereal look to her; he'd noticed that even when they'd first met. The peculiar nighttime lighting of Energy Nede (his mind still whirled at the idea of being inside a Class Nine supernova) added to the effect.
When Rena showed no sign of speaking further, Claude drew his phase gun and inspected it. An ordinary Federation weapon, albeit an older model, it was the last legacy of his father. Ironically, it had also played a part in setting him on the path he now walked.
Claude turned his head slightly. Rena was looking at the gun in his hands. "It's my 'Sword of Light'," he said with a rueful smile. "A phase gun. Standard Federation military sidearm. This one was my father's." He shook his head. "The last thing I used it for was blasting the door to Alen's mansion open; ran out of power after that. Just as well; if I'd kept using it, I've have gotten in trouble for violating the UP3."
Rena cocked her head. "UP3?"
"Undeveloped Planet Protection Pact," Claude explained. "Meant to prevent interference with less advanced cultures. Saving you from that monster in the Sacred Forest was one thing, an emergency situation. Anything more would've been pushing it."
"Is that what you were lecturing Opera about in the Mountain Palace?"
Claude chuckled. "Yeah. I know a Tetrageniot when I see one, and their homeworld is nowhere near Expel. At least I can use a sword; she wasn't even trying."
"I remember." Rena drew her knees up to her chest, staring out at the artificial sea. "Claude, what will you do when this is over?"
I don't know. "I have to go back to Earth, at least for a while," he said. "Have to report to Federation headquarters, and," he sighed, "see my mother."
Rena gently rubbed a hand along his spine. "It wasn't your fault," she said softly. "You did everything you could."
"I know, but that doesn't make it any easier." Claude forced the memories back. There would be time enough later. "After that, they'll probably place me on leave for a while to recuperate. I should be able to spend it on Expel; the UP3 doesn't really apply there anymore, after what the Wise Men did."
"I'd like that," Rena said, smiling. "You can stay with us in Arlia."
The thought of spending an extended time in Rena's home village, months at least, brought an answering smile to Claude's face. Clean air, a gently flowing stream, peace and quiet, and most of all Rena's comforting presence. Just what the doctor ordered.
"What's your world like?" Rena asked suddenly. "When you first came to Arlia, you said the air on Earth was dirty."
Claude's eyes took on a faraway look. "Three hundred years ago, there was a war," he said quietly. "A war more terrible than anything Expel has ever seen. No one knows what caused it, but by the end Earth's environment was devastated, billions of people dead."
Rena shivered. "That's horrible."
"Since then, advancing technology has made things more livable, but there's still a long way to go." Claude sighed. "In the end, we were lucky. It could have been much worse."
"What happened after that?"
Claude shrugged. "We rebuilt, and the Earth Federation was founded a few years later. My family have been in Federation service since the beginning."
He fell silent, gazing out over the sea. Past the seemingly-endless waves, he knew, was the occupied city of Phynal. There Gabriel and the rest of the Wise Men awaited, with the Symbol of Annihilation. Claude didn't know why the Wise Men were out to destroy the entire universe, and he honestly didn't care. It didn't matter.
I just hope whatever countermeasure Nall has in mind works.
"It's amazing how far we've come," Rena murmured. "It seems like just yesterday that you saved me from that monster. I didn't know what had happened, but I really believed you were the Warrior of Light."
Claude scratched the back of his head. "Sorry about that," he said, feeling a bit sheepish.
She shook her head. "It wasn't your fault." There was a brief pause. "Claude, did you ever regret coming to Expel?"
On the surface, a simple question. The answer, however, was not so simple. "At first," he admitted. "Don't get me wrong, I really felt for you all when I heard about the Sorcery Globe. I was just really out of my depth; the only reason I was on Expel at all was because I'd screwed up on my very first field assignment. So for a while I was focused on just getting home."
"I saw you with your . . . communicator," Rena hesitated over the word, "the night we stayed in Hilton."
Claude's lip twitched. "You saw me? Yeah, I was sending a distress call. Not that I really believed it would get through." He made a sound that might have been a soft laugh; even he wasn't sure. "When I was brought aboard the Calnus at Eluria, I learned Expel was in a frontier sector. There'd only been one brief survey."
"What changed?" Rena asked. "You said you were home when you reappeared. When did you start to think of Expel as home?"
Claude pursed his lips. "I'm not completely sure, but I think it would have been when I was being a jealous idiot in Lacuer." He winced at the memory. "I don't think I would have reacted quite so badly if I still considered myself an outsider."
"Dias said something like that," Rena said. "When I asked him to join our group."
"Guess he saw right through me," Claude said. "Anyway, I might have regretted it once, but not anymore. Getting transported across the galaxy to Expel, meeting you in that forest was the most important moment in my life. I wouldn't give it up for anything."
It sounded cliche even to his own ears, but he meant every word. As his clumsiness after arriving on Expel showed, deception wasn't his strong suit.
Regardless, his admission clearly made Rena happy. She smiled in a way that melted Claude's heart, her blue eyes sparkling. He never tired of seeing that smile; it almost made him feel like he was the Warrior of Light spoken of in Expelian legend.
"I'm glad," Rena said softly. "I wouldn't have come so far without you, Claude." She slowly leaned her head on his shoulder. "You'll always be my Warrior," she whispered, eyes slipping closed.
Claude supposed he should take her inside, make sure she got some proper rest, but he couldn't bring himself to quite yet. He wanted to savor this moment of peace while he could. All too soon, he and his friends would be returning to battle, hopefully for the last time.
Three Months Later
"Claude! Breakfast is ready!"
Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Claude C. Kenny, Earth Federation Navy, sat up in bed and yawned, stretching. Judging by the angle of the sun, it was midmorning, about usual for him since the end of his little adventure. Since he was on extended leave, he usually slept in, needing the extra rest.
Westa Lanford's cooking, though, was ample incentive for him to get up. From his first night on Expel a year before, he'd considered her food the third best thing about Expel (ranking behind her daughter and the crisp, clean air). In the wake of the Federation contact team's arrival, she had even spoken of trying her hand at Earthling dishes.
"Good morning, Claude," Rena said, greeting him with a bright smile and a warm hug.
He smiled back. "Good morning, Rena," he replied, returning the embrace. "Good morning, Westa," he added, nodding to Rena's mother.
Westa was just setting plates on the table. "Did you sleep well, Claude?"
"Like a log," Claude said, taking his usual place. After so much travel and combat, he found the ordinary routine comforting. "Oh, I had a message from my mother last night. She said she'll be coming to Expel to study local Symbology methods."
Rena sat next to Claude, also as usual. "Is there really anything she can learn here?" she asked in mild puzzlement. "The Federation is so much more advanced than Expel."
"That doesn't mean Expel has nothing to teach us," Claude said after swallowing an overlarge mouthful. "Believe it or not, Symbology is still pretty new to us. Mom will be staying in Marze, since there's a lot of really old books there."
He concentrated on his breakfast after that. It was, he'd found during his first night on Expel, difficult to focus on anything else. Westa Lanford's cooking had a way of taking over the senses, even more than some of the more bizarre magic he'd encountered on his journey.
Roughly half an hour later, Claude leaned back in his chair. "I can't eat another bite," he said contentedly.
Westa chuckled softly as she collected the dishes. "You don't have to clean your plate quite so thoroughly," she said, echoing her daughter's words from a year before.
"I can't help it; your food is just that good," Claude said with a grin.
"You're being too kind, but I'm glad to hear it anyway," Westa said with a laugh. "Do you have any plans for today?"
Claude stole a glance at Rena before answering. She didn't appear to notice. "I was thinking of going to the Sacred Forest, actually," he said. "It's a year to the day since I came here."
A year before, Westa would have objected. Since then, with the destruction of the Sorcery Globe, the monster population had shrunk drastically. Bandits had been known to lurk there, but such lowlifes were no match for Claude, and Westa knew it.
"Just make sure to be back by sunset," she said. "Even now the forests are dangerous at night."
"We'll be careful," Rena assured her.
The Sacred Forest was much the same as he remembered it. Waking up in that grove, the first thing he'd noticed was the trees. Ancient trees easily the equal of Earth's redwoods surrounded him, alien sunlight filtering through their leafy branches. Even then, frightened and disoriented as he'd been, he'd sensed the inherent peacefulness of that forest.
And it was where he'd first met Rena. Everything had changed in that moment.
Now, a year later, they had come full circle. The same, yet different. Claude was no longer a frightened newly-minted officer, hurled across the galaxy to an unexplored planet, but an experienced, confident warrior on a planet he now considered his true home. Rena was no longer a mysterious girl who ran from him in fright, but someone precious to him, walking beside him with her arm tucked through his.
"I can't believe it's been a year," Rena murmured. "It seems so long ago, yet just yesterday."
"Yeah," Claude agreed. He nodded at a particularly gnarled tree. "That's where I appeared when I was transported here." He sat on the ground, leaning against that tree and drawing his knees up. "This is where everything started."
Rena curled up next to him. "I was scared out of my mind then, and then I ran off even though you saved me."
"I never blamed you," Claude assured her. "Especially after how I did it."
They spoke for a while of what had happened since their adventure. Celine had married into the House of Krosse, something Claude found very difficult to imagine. Her days as a treasure hunter, it seemed, were over; Federation aid or not, the Queen of Krosse could hardly gallivant all over the place.
Ashton, when last heard from, was still looking for a way to remove his dragons without actually killing them. Precis was traveling with him, though she'd expressed a desire to travel to Earth for study. She would, Claude was certain, acclimate to modern technology with little trouble.
Bowman was back in Linga, still running his pharmacy. He went into the caves every few days to search for herbs and keep his martial arts skills sharp, but much of his time was spent studying Federation medical texts. It seemed he was determined to bring Expelian medicine into the modern age.
Opera and Ernest's whereabouts were uncertain. More adventurous than even Celine in her treasure hunting days, the pair had left Expel within a month of Gabriel's demise. An occasional letter made its way to Expel, but nothing more than that.
Welch had from all appearances simply vanished. Claude suspected there was more to that girl than any of them had realized at the time. She wasn't Expelian, that much was clear.
Noel, last they heard, was living a quiet life in the forest near Marze. The Nedian naturalist was tired of all the chaos, and just wanted to be left in peace. Aside from his old comrades, he seemed more comfortable with animals than people.
Chisato was another they seldom heard from directly, but Claude had made a point of subscribing to the newsletter she'd recently founded. Madison's Dispatch was in part devoted to helping Expelians learn about the outside galaxy.
Having learned of his parents' miraculous survival, Leon was back in Lacuer, doing his part to modernize Expel. Word was the other researchers found him far easier to deal with than he'd been in years past, doubtless thanks to his many brushes with death.
Dias, Claude suspected, would never truly recover from the murder of his family. Nevertheless, the wandering swordsman was noticeably more relaxed than he had been when he and Claude first crossed paths in Marze. When last heard from, he was hoping for a rematch with Claude.
Claude had not yet decided whether to accept.
"So much has happened," Rena said. She fingered her pendant, the Nedian crystal glimmering in the sunlight that filtered through the branches. "If it wasn't for an accident, I wouldn't even be here."
The thought had crossed Claude's mind before. If that weapon hadn't gone out of control eons ago, Rena would have been dust before the age of the dinosaurs. The idea made something deep inside him shy away in fright.
It was also a perfect way to broach his real reason for suggesting a hike in the woods. The place where they'd first met was a perfect fit.
"If I hadn't been so reckless, I wouldn't be here, either," Claude said. "A coincidence like that almost seems like fate."
Rena tilted her head curiously. "You're not usually this poetic, Claude."
He scratched the back of his head, sheepish. "It sounds a bit silly, I know." He coughed briefly, buying a little time. "Whatever caused it, I was in the right place at the right time. If we hadn't met, I don't know. . . ." Claude shook his head, realizing he was babbling. "Rena, remember when we were in the church in Krosse, just after we met Celine?"
She nodded. "I was hoping I would get married in a place like that." Her eyes suddenly went wide; apparently she'd suddenly realized where he was headed. "C-Claude. . . ?"
Claude swallowed; it was the moment of truth. "You said then that I might already have met the one I was going to marry. You," he moistened his lips, "you were more right than either of us knew then." Now, before he lost his nerve. He reached out and took her hand in his, gently sliding a ring onto her finger. It was a diamond, a gift from Celine out of her last treasure hunt. "Rena . . . will you marry me?"
For a seemingly endless moment, Rena just stared at him as though paralyzed, unable to speak. Except for a barely-perceptible trembling, she might as well have been a statue. Claude kept silent, not wanting to rush her. He didn't dare risk driving her away now.
Tears beginning to gather in her eyes, Rena looked down at the ring, then back up at Claude. She was visibly shaking now, her breath coming in short, sharp gasps.
Then, at last, the moment broke. A wide smile spread across Rena's face, and she practically tackled him, crying with joy. "Yes! Yes, of course I will!" She buried her face in his chest while he held her close, stroking her hair.
It was the final culmination of the journey he'd accidentally begun a year before. By getting too close to an ancient, seemingly-wrecked teleportation device, Claude had not only found his own path, he had met the love of his life.
Still sniffing a little, Rena looked up at him. Her eyes were rimmed in red, but she still looked happier than he'd ever seen her. "I love you, Claude," she whispered, stroking his face.
He smiled back, lightly touching her cheek. "I love you, Rena," he said, and leaned down for a kiss, savoring the soft warmth of her lips.
There would be bumps in the road, he knew. There always were, even for people from the same world. He didn't care. All that mattered was having Rena beside him. No matter what awaited them, he wouldn't have it any other way.
Author's note: Perhaps a bit too sappy at the end, but I at least tried to keep them in character. The genesis of this little fic was the lack of good Star Ocean 2 stories in general and Claude/Rena plots in particular. So I decided to alleviate that lack in my own small way. I do hope it passes muster.