Seeking Love: Part One
There was a laziness in the air.
The sunshine that filtered through the trees was soft and pleasantly warm. Lucinda traced the lace-like pattern it made on the grass as she smiled at her Petpet, Tess. The little Feloreena had already knocked over both their teacups in an attempt to locate the source of the light. It now attempted to climb an oak with, it seemed, limited success. For all its scrabbling, its claws couldn't get a good enough hold in the bark.
Though several voices rang nearby the thump was audible to the Pink Aisha as Tess slipped, landing back on their picnic blanket. Two passersby bent to coo their sympathy even as Tess regained its footing, unhurt and undaunted. Lucinda couldn't suppress a chuckle at the determination that blazed in its eyes. The Petpet was definitely gutsy.
It appeared that today was a popular day for picnicking. Lucinda wasn't surprised. Her gaze wandered, taking in the crowds that had come out for Valentine's Day. Under a neighbouring tree a group of Ixi sat around a half-empty tin of chocolates, stretched out on a blanket as blue as the sky. To the right a yellow Buzz reclined against his basket, a piece of cake clutched in his claw. He must've had an Invisible companion as a plate bobbed mid-air while a muffin disappeared into nothingness in large, hungry chunks. Elsewhere a trio of Usuls skipped, all three hand in hand, as a bulging knapsack swung and rattled wildly between them.
But there was one Neopet who was noticeably different. One Neopet who was clearly alone. The Aisha almost hadn't seen the Chocolate Draik; the bench she sat on was hidden from view by the blooms on the tree beside it. Lucinda squinted. She could see something glittering on the Draik's shoulder. It trickled down the Draik's arm as she watched, flashing in the sunlight. A wet track was visible where the liquid had streaked.
Sudden alarm caused Lucinda to leap to her feet. Many Chocolate Neopets were wary of staying out too long in the sun. What if the Draik was melting?
She'd started to walk before she realised she'd made the decision. She'd drawn within metres when she saw that the Draik was actually crying. Tears forced their way through eyes squeezed shut to flow in virtual rivers down her cheeks.
Lucinda's chest tightened as the other Neopet started to rock, slumped, in her seat. No one should feel as bad as she clearly did – and especially not on Valentine's Day. Slipping next to her, Lucinda put a comforting paw on the Draik's back. "What's the matter?" she asked softly.
The Draik seemed surprised to find her next to her. "Oh!" she said, with a little jump. "Oh!" She moved to wipe her eyes but ended up burying her face in her claws. Soon she'd started to wail.
Lucinda waited. When the Draik next looked up she held out her handkerchief. The stare the Draik directed at it was blank. A few seconds had passed before recognition set in. She accepted it with a watery half-smile.
"I'm Lucinda," the Aisha introduced herself.
"Candice." The voice came, slow and wobbly, from behind Lucinda's handkerchief. But as the Draik put it down, she added, "I prefer Candy, though."
Lucinda's lips quirked as she appraised the Chocolate Draik. "I can see why it might suit you. It's a beautiful name."
The half-smile reappeared. "Thank you." Candy looked past Lucinda, to where Tess persisted in its efforts to scale the oak tree. "I was watching you earlier," she told her. "Is that your Petpet?" Her voice broke on the last word.
"Yes." Lucinda nodded. "That's my Tessie. We're out having a picnic to celebrate Valentine's Day."
"I see." Candy bit her lip. "We were out for Valentine's too."
The sadness in the Draik's tone was unmistakeable. "We?" Lucinda prompted gently.
Candy gave a dry sob. "I can't find Love."
"My Red Pikis. I can't find it."
"Ah." Lucinda felt herself flounder. The right thing to say seemed to elude her as the horror of Candy's words sank in. "That's awful!" she exclaimed at last, though, even to her own ears, it sounded woefully inadequate. "Did you get separated? Where did you last see her?" She flinched at the thought of losing Tess; she hadn't the faintest clue what she'd do if she did ever lose the Petpet. She glanced back at their picnic blanket to make sure Tess was still there.
"This morning we went to Usuki Land," Candy started, once more dabbing at her eyes with Lucinda's handkerchief. "We wanted to buy some new dolls to play with. There were more Neopians there than we'd thought and..." she broke off. "One second it was there and the next, well, it wasn't. I looked and I looked and Love wasn't anywhere to be found. It was gone." She sniffed.
Words came to Lucinda more easily this time. "I'll help you find Love."
The Draik blinked. "Would you? Would you really?"
"Of course! Tess will too," she promised. "First, though, are you sure it wouldn't have gone home?"
Candy shook her head quickly. "We're not from Neopia Central so we're staying in the Neolodge here. We only arrived yesterday. Love wouldn't be familiar with the route."
The change in Candy was obvious. A spark flashed in the dark eyes that wasn't there before. Lucinda felt a burst of relief as she noted it. Tess gave the Draik a lick as the two went to pack up the picnic Lucinda and the Petpet had shared. Lucinda's relief swelled when Candy let out a small laugh.
It didn't take too long to get to Usuki Land. One glance told Lucinda that getting inside, on the other hand, was going to be somewhat harder. Dozens of Neopians milled about. They talked, laughed, clapped and even danced in a dizzying riot of sound and colour. Remembering what Candy had said about the crowd, Lucinda took her Feloreena's white paw tightly in her own pink one. "Stick close to me," she warned.
No Neopet they asked on the way in had seen Love. They had similar luck inside. One Shoyru they encountered had indeed seen a Red Pikis – but it was his own Petpet. "I'm sorry," the Striped pet apologised. "I really do hope you find yours."
Lucinda and Candy fought to reach the counter, Tess in tow. The Aisha had to dodge the swinging tail of an absent-minded Skeith, weave between two arguing Cybunnies and duck to avoid being hit in the head by a doll held aloft by one decidedly enthused Bruce. When the shopkeeper, a Blue Blumaroo, inquired how she could be of service, Lucinda could only huff and puff in reply.
"Have you, by any chance, seen a Red Pikis about?" Candy asked hopefully.
The shopkeeper frowned and shook her head. The ribbons in her hair swished back and forth as she did so. "Can't say that I have," came the brisk answer. "Is it lost?"
Candy's nod was dejected.
"Sorry. Wish there was something I could do."
Inspiration struck like lightning. "You can," said Lucinda. "You can... I mean... would it be possible for you... to put up a lost sign?"
The Blumaroo tilted her head thoughtfully. "Sure, give me a minute and I'll write one up. I'll place it in the window."
"That would be amazing." Gratitude was plain in Candy's voice.
"Where should I direct informants?"
Lucinda hadn't thought of that. "The Defenders HQ?" she said, shooting a questioning look at Candy. The Draik gave her a claws-up.
Heading towards the exit, Lucinda felt a bubble of hope. She read a similar optimism in the glow on Candy's face. With any luck, the trip here wouldn't have been in vain.
Lucinda heard the smallest of coughs as she passed through the doorway. The Aisha looked down to see that a Brown Usul had taken hold of her dress. Perched cross-legged on the grass just outside the shop, the Usul was clearly embarrassed. The brown fur on her cheeks was stained with a ruby tint and she avoided eye contact. "Um," the Usul began. Her voice was quiet. Hesitant. "I saw a Red Pikis earlier. It was near some bushes outside... by the Gardening Supplies store, I think."
She jolted upright as Candy seized her paws. "Was it alone?" the Draik demanded.
"Ye-s," she faltered. The Usul's blue eyes darted from Candy's to Lucinda's, before fixating once more on the ground. She wasn't just embarrassed; she was painfully shy. Lucinda's mind blanked. She suddenly wanted to help the Usul – but didn't know how.
"Thank you!" If there had been a glow on Candy's face before, she was now positively luminescent. She hastened away, towards Gardening Supplies.
Lucinda took a step before she stopped. Turning back, she met the Usul's gaze for the briefest of moments. It had been fixed wistfully on her and Candy's retreating form. The Aisha got the impression that the Usul was quite lonely. Squatting to the Usul's eye level, she asked the Brown Neopet her name.
"Um," wavered the Usul, ducking her head. "It's Isobel." Another pretty name.
"Nice to meet you, Isobel. My name is Lucinda. My friend is Candy and my Petpet here is Tess." The Aisha mulled over the thought that had taken root in her mind. "Would you, perhaps, like to help us find the Pikis?" she asked, with a jerk of her head towards the waiting Candy. "It's lost and we could always use new friends to help us find it."
Isobel startled at the word 'friends'. "Could I?" The question was threaded with as much doubt as it was with shy enthusiasm.
Lucinda grinned. "Absolutely."
Isobel offered diffident replies to Lucinda's attempts to engage her in conversation on the way. "I didn't have anywhere to go so I came to the Bazaar for the day. I've always loved to window-shop."
When the foursome arrived at Gardening Supplies they found the flower-bedecked structure almost as crowded as Usuki Land. Lucinda surveyed the hustle and bustle with a keen interest. Maybe there were more here or maybe she was just more attuned to it but, for whatever reason, her glance kept picking out individuals by themselves. Though possible they were meeting others, she was sure a good proportion were simply alone. It was a bit sad, she thought, that they had no one – not friends, not family – to spend the day with unless, of course, it was a conscious choice.
Plants of all varieties were laid out for sale and business was thriving. The sound of Neopoints being counted for all manner of purchases was a constant accompaniment to the voices that chattered, high and loud, throughout the store. The table closest to the entrance sported a dozen Pink Flower Bouquets in addition to Lovepetals, both single and bunched, and, intriguingly, Bleeding Hearts. There was no need to read the sign to recognise the theme going on.
The Green Blumaroo shopkeeper there shook his head as firmly as the Blue Blumaroo had done. "Sorry, no, I haven't seen a red Pikis. I could put a notice up, though, if you want," he proposed, before Lucinda had a chance to ask.
"That would be incredible. Really, thank you."
Lucinda and Candy left the counter. Isobel had lingered with Tess near the green door and was sniffing a Lovepetal she'd picked up, starry-eyed. Tess might have taken too potent a whiff of the Bleeding Heart it was examining as the little Feloreena was starting to sway on its feet. Lucinda took a second to breathe in the fragrance that suffused the shop. The scents of the various blossoms here mixed headily to create a perfume as intoxicating as it was multi-layered. She could understand why Isobel looked so lost in the clouds. It had immediately brought a smile to her own lips.
"Wait," she told her friends. Returning to the Blumaroo shopkeeper, she set down a bunch of Lovepetals she'd swiped and reached into her basket for her purse. The violet material was heavy with coins she'd saved for the day and was yet to spend. An idea was buzzing in her head. "Thank you for helping us," she repeated as the Blumaroo took her Neopoints. He tipped his broad-brimmed straw hat in answer.
Outside Gardening Supplies, Lucinda first handed a Lovepetal to each of her friends. Tess received its Lovepetal with an approving rumble low in its throat. "These are for you." The Aisha then divided the remaining Lovepetals into three smaller bunches. "I want to hand these out to the Neopians who are alone."
Candy and Isobel both understood. There was no need for further words. Silently, both Neopets took their bunches and went to distribute the red flowers. Lucinda could already sense a change in the area as one face lit up, then another.
Lucinda handed out her own bundle near a copse of raspberry bushes she'd spotted. Tess helped, carrying a blossom in its mouth. It delivered the Lovepetal to an Ogrin who looked as if he might cry as he received it. By one particularly enormous bush rested an Elderlygirl Aisha. She held herself stiffly as she stared, eyes vacant, into the distance, gold-rimmed teacup clenched tightly between her paws. Lucinda took in the lines on her face as she held out the final bloom, with a gentle smile. "Happy Valentine's Day."
Two White Acaras beamed at her as she walked back to her friends. "That was lovely," one said.
"Oh. No, it was nothing."
"No, it wasn't. It's nice to see that kind of love for one's community."
Lucinda paused as the Acara's words washed through her. Love, he'd said. Was that what it was?
To be continued...