Lenol came out of the store with his bag loaded with new journals and notepads. Immediately, his senses were assaulted by the sound of hundreds of people milling about in the shopping center. He sighed and began trying to find the fastest way to the exit. He often found it regretful his favorite book maker had her only store in a shopping center, but he understood her intention. Physical books were a novelty, and one of the best places to get buyers was a shopping center, where wealthy tourists frequented. Oh, but he wished she was in some quite corner in a backstreet where only a select few had access. He laughed softly at the thought, but then had to focus as he maneuvered through a crowd in front of a cold cream stall.
Lenol wasn’t usually so averse to crowds and people, but the concentration of tourists was particularly dense that week for the yearly celebration of the establishment of Cajara’s monarchy. He had also been to one event after the other with his family, so he was quite feed up with being around people for the moment. Picking up his books could have been left to another day, but he didn’t think the extra day or week would drastically reduce the number of people, and he wanted to get his hands the books he’d ordered as soon as possible. He could already imagine the rough feeling of the paper under his pencil, another object he had to have custom made. The softer lead would crumble slightly as it bit into the tooth of the paper to mark it with elegant scripts and drawings. He smiled to himself, enjoying the weight of the books hanging in the crook of his elbow. He was almost on the ground floor of the center, an open plaza with a sky light and large doors exiting to main street, but as he descended down the stairs, he saw people gathered around in a circle staring at someone on the floor, then he came down the last step and moved closer; his curiosity to see what had happened winning over his desire to leave the shopping center.
Pushing through the crowd, he came to stand before a man fallen on the floor and struggling to stand. He looked around at the group and appalled that no one had already offered to help, he Stepped forward.
“Are you ok?” Lenol asked, putting his hand out to help the fallen man.
Ignoring the hand, the man struggled to get up on his own; a small feat which was made impossible by his malfunctioning mechanical leg. The limb bucked and spasmed with each attempt the man made to stand, and he was hindered further by his long, disheveled hair, overgrown beard, and tattered clothes, which all anchored him firmly floor. Continuing to struggle fruitlessly, the man finally gave up after a significant crowd had gathered and Lenol had pulled his hand back. Lenol now guessed that others may have already offered to help but were similarly rejected. The man laid sprawled on the floor, panting, with his hair and clothes drenched in sweat, while the mechanical leg twitched continuously. Lenol would have found the sight pitiful, if not for the defiant gleam in the man’s eyes, which warded of both pity and sympathy. As Lenol looked around at the growing crowd in their expensive clothing and jewelry, then back at the man, he couldn’t help but feel that the man was out of place in such a high-end shopping center. He saw the man’s face begin to redden with anger as some people started taking pictures and laughing while others, mainly tourists, grew angry and threatened to call security if the man didn’t move.
Sensing that the situation might soon get out of control, Lenol offered his hand to the man again, hoping this time he would take it. The man turned his angry eyes on Lenol as he leaned forward, then his gaze shifted slowly to the outstretched hand, and a look of unconcealable repulsion filled his eyes. It was as if he’d been asked to touch the rotten carcass of the vermin often on the side of roads where ground cars were still driven. Lenol recoiled at the look, and almost retracted his hand, but the man soon reached out and reluctantly took it.
“Thank you,” he said, and to Lenol’s surprise, the man’s voice, in contrast to his rough appearance was deep and soothing.
“Your welcome,” Lenol replied, then lead him through the crowd. The people quickly parted as they approached, not forgetting to get last minute recordings.
They walked side by side, Lenol, his usually long strides, shortened as he compensated for the man who walked as quickly as he could with his prominent limp; the result of his mechanical leg, stating at the knee, and ending at least an inch shorter than his real one. Lenol kept taking discreet looks at the man’s prosthetic, and his confusion and interest grew with each glance. He hadn’t seen or heard of inaccurate mechanical limbs for centuries, and as a matter of fact, he didn’t know of anyone who would choose a mechanical limb replacement. These days even colony citizens could afford limb regrowth procedures. When he dared take a closer look, he saw obvious hinges and gears, exposed nerve circuits and thin tube veins directing cloudy fluids. The thing was not only an antique of at least a couple thousand years old, but it was also in terrible shape, though, Lenol thought there was some beauty in the archaic device. He made a mental note to make a sketch of it later.
Their odd pairing: a scruffy, old, off-worlder with his broken, old, leg, and an opulently dressed young man carrying a large bag of books, caused them to reccieve inquisitive looks which though made Lenol uncomfortable, he ignored with ease. The bloated silence between them though, had him squirming as he escorted the man to a small café, where they sat together in a quiet corner. Lenol quickly browsed through the tables imbedded menu screen, then ordered some drinks and food for them. They sat facing each other, but they looked at the menu, out the window, or at their hands; every effort was made to avoid making eye-contact. Lenol continued to grow more distressed over the silence and battled with whether he should quickly leave after paying for the man’s drink or sit with him longer. Now, he wondered what impulse had led him to even bring the man to the café when he could have simply left him after helping him up. After a few minutes, the drinks and food came out, so they focused on eating instead of the growing awkwardness. Lenol picked at his food and savored each bite of the pastry, though the taste was nothing extraordinary. The man ate quickly, shoving the pastries so forcefully into his mouth that pieces of it stuck to his beard, then he drank the entire fruit juice in one mouthful. He swished the drink around in his mouth for a moment before swallowing with a pained expression.
“What’s this?” The man said, licking the fingers of one hand, and turning the cup around in the other. “It’s too sweet.”
“It’s called Falu,” Lenol explained nervously, while the man stared at the bright pink drink that still filled Lenol’s cup ravenously. “It’s popular these days, made from fruit imported from Laurim. It’s quite popular, you know, people usually drink it in the morning because it gives you a bit of energy… and although it’s sweet, it has many health benefits. I thought…”
“Yes, well thanks,” the man said gently placing the cup back on the table, then quickly, since he couldn’t allow himself express honest gratitude, he added “but it’s too sweet. People should know that things that are too sweet never last long.”
Lenol felt that the man’s remark was unexpectedly loaded, and he wasn’t sure how to respond. “I see, that’s understandable,” Lenol said, tugging and twisting the rings on his fingers.
“Stop fidgeting,” the man snapped, and Lenol reflexively put his hands under the table. The man’s heart tightened at the action, and he looked off to the side so Lenol would not see the guilt and regret he felt. He sighed and clenched his fists till his pale blue skin was nearly white. “Sorry,” he said after a while. Lenol didn’t reply, but he took a sip from his cup, and order another drink for the man. This time something milder.
They sat there, two strangers, sipping their drinks in silence for a long while. The man fiddled with a small pendant on a chain hanging from his neck, while Lenol looked out of the window. Since he was younger, he’d always enjoyed observing people in various situations, and would go around with a notepad documenting the little things he saw. Now, he watched as the people passed by with their arms weighed down with shopping bags or children. There was an academy located near the center, so there were also a few students playing around and eating snacks cheerfully, but the group he found the most interesting though, were the Winforans. He’d spent a couple years on Winfora and had concluded that upper winforans were most likely the haughtiest race in the entire galaxy. Even here on Cajara, they flew low to the ground, proudly with their chins up, as their carrier auto-servers trailed behind them with their bags. The thing he found most fascinating and ridiculous as he watched was that every time the Winforans encountered people carrying their purchases with their own hands, they would pause and stare, just enough to make sure the other party knew they were being looked down on, before floating away, leaving them confused and offended. Lenol couldn’t help but scoff at typical Upper winforan behavior, but he wished they would at least act differently when they were on other planets.
The man, who Lenol had noted was also Winforan, obviously from his appearance, and more apparently from personality, slurped loudly, bring Lenol back to his current situation.
“So, what were you doing here anyway?” Lenol asked cautiously, hoping wasn’t being too intrusive.
The man eyed him suspiciously, which Lenol found ridiculous, then answered, “Nothing much, I just wanted to visit someone.”
“Oh, did you get to meet them?” Lenol asked, worried that he may have interfered with the man’s plans.
“No. She didn’t want to see me… then as I was leaving, some punk thought it’d be fun to send an electrical surge through my leg.”
“Oh, that’s why your leg malfunctioned.” Lenol could bet it was on of the academy students. He’d gone through his own phase of mischief at that age, not that it was so long ago, but he smiled nostalgically thinking of his academy days. Then a thought came to him. “But why are you walking any way, your winforan, couldn’t you just hover or fly… by the way, what’s your name?”
“You think I could fly with these wings,” the man said raising his arms. Winforans had gloriously colored membrane wings underneath their arms which they enjoyed displaying and showing off, but when the man exposed his wings, Lenol couldn’t hold back his gasp. They looked to Lenol like the tattered flag of a ship shattered by a horrendous storm. The man was the ship, and he displayed his torn-up wings with such pride that one was forced to acknowledge his fortitude. The wings should have been a lustrous indigo, but they had faded to pale blue in patches, and were filled with holes, and long scars with sickly yellow and pink hues. Lenol suddenly felt squeamish imagining the pain the man must have experienced.
“You look sick,” the man said putting down his arm, with only the slightest hint of embarrassment. “It’s an old wound. I got into an accident a few centuries ago, and besides losing most of my powers and not being able to fly, I’m in pretty good shape for my age,” he said, and it seemed that he meant it, as the prideful tone returned to his voice. “Also, I’m Mivin... you?”
“I’m Lenol,” he said, and offered his hand for a proper handshake, but Mivin quickly looked out the window. Lenol smiled wryly, he’d offer his hand three times to the man that day, been refused twice.
“I don’t like formalities,” Mivin said in a gruff voice that sounded disinterested, but Lenol saw the man’s cheeks color with embarrassment and smiled. He needed to learn to be honest with his emotions, Lenol thought.
“What makes you think I was offering you a handshake, I was swatting a bug out of the air,” Lenol said, making swatting motions in the empty air.
Mivin turned to him, and for the first time since they’d met let out an ungraded smile. “That’s the problem with you Cajaran’s, your too nice. Who else would put up with some grouchy stranger for so long? You even bought me food,” he said lifting a plate. “I’m not sure if your naive or stupid.”
Lenol laughed. “Well, I’ll admit that most of us are kind,” Lenol said. “But, I have been told that I’m a bit naive… I think my parents sheltered and spoiled be too much. I could have either ended up this way or entitled and arrogant,” he said proudly. It wasn’t just his parents, being the youngest by almost two centuries, his older siblings also dotted on him. Fortunately, they didn’t neglect to teach him proper moral conduct.
They fell into silence again, this time it was more comfortable. Mivin finished the last of his new drink, no complaints this time, then suddenly stood up looking at a time piece he pulled from his pocket.
“I need to get going,” he said, “I have a shuttle to catch.” Then he paused paused, and his eyes glazed over, looking into the distance “I just wanted to see the kid before I left.” He whispered wistfully.
Lenol quickly stood as well. “Where are you going? I’ll give you a ride to the ITS.”
“No, no need for that. You’ve done enough for me already,” then he took Lenol’s hand and held his gaze. Lenol had only seen such clear and bright green eyes on one of his closest friends, Alexil. Compared to his friend’s electric green gaze that was constantly filled with troublemaking and excitement, Mivin’s were deeper; matured with age and jaded by experience, though, they were much more revealing and open. Now he knew why the man avoided eye contact. “Thank you,” Mivin said earnestly, then he dropped Lenol’s hand and left.
Through the window, Lenol watched Mivin’s small hunched over form retreating to some unknown destination. He stumbled a few times as he waded through the crowd, and Lenol could hear the hard clinking of his metal leg on the floor, above the noise of the shoppers. Mivin didn’t look back once, even as he blended into the crowd, and disappeared from sight.
Lenol finished the rest of his Fula juice, slowly sipping till the last drop. It really was too sweet, he thought, then he also left.