The next morning, Nathan left his tent just after sunrise for an early swim in the lake near the temporary camp of the Clan Chosen. Though the sun had not yet completely risen, the day was already unusually warm, the birds in the trees already singing and promising a clear morning. Nathan found the water to be cool, but not uncomfortably so, when he finally reached the lake after a short walk, tossing his shoes over by a tall rock on the shore. After draping his shirt over a low branch on the closest tree, he waded in slowly until his body adjusted to the temperature before diving head first, slipping completely under the water in one fluid motion. He surfaced about ten feet away, closer to the center of the lake, shaking the water from his face and hair as he shifted to float gracefully on his back.
He closed his eyes and sighed as he floated in the clear water, the first rays of sun bathing him in a warm glow. With the sun on his skin and the cool water surrounding him, he thought he might drift off to sleep again, folding his arms behind his head and yawning lazily.
Nathan's mind began to wander as he floated in the clear water of the lake, the sound of the birds above lulling him to sleep. For a moment, he allowed himself to forget the rebellion and the Canaanites and all of his problems, letting the still water wash away his doubts and fears as he let go of conscious thought.
Just as he allowed sleep to claim him, Nathan was jolted back into reality as something below him in the water grabbed a hold of his right leg, tugging it roughly and forcing him off of his back. He wildly flailed his arms, instantly awake as the grip tightened on his leg, jerking his head under the water before he had a chance to cry out.
Water filled his mouth and nose, flooding his lungs and making him sputter as he kicked his legs, trying desperately to break free and return to the surface. He fought panic as the grip on his leg persisted despite his efforts, the water burning his eyes and lungs.
"Nathan, there is something that you should know."
"Not... now... Professor!!"
"Nathan, your 'attacker' is Tetherblood."
Nathan continued to kick his legs, finally making contact with something solid and breaking the hold on his leg. With everything he had, he kicked and reached upward with his arms until he broke the surface of the water, sputtering and coughing as he exchanged the water in his lungs for air. His eyes alert, he scanned the water beneath him as he breathed heavily, his chest aching from lack of oxygen. A moment later, he spotted a shadow beneath him and tensed, preparing to finish the confrontation.
"A telepathic scan will reveal that I am not mistaken, Nathan."
Nathan sighed and took the advice, quickly scanning the water around him as the dark shadow beneath drew closer, lightly brushing past his leg. Reaching out with his mind, Nathan growled with annoyance as he confirmed the Professor's statement. Three seconds later, Tetherblood surfaced about ten feet away, taking a deep breath of air and holding his cheek with one dark hand.
"Nate! Oath, you kick hard!" Tetherblood called to him, half annoyed and half amused. He was smiling, though, making his way across the lake with several long strokes of his well-muscled arms until he treaded water at Nathan's side. Nathan glared at him, his blue eyes firing off angry daggers at his best friend.
"To make use of an ancient phrase... 'I told you so,' Nathan."
"Oh, be quiet."
"What do you think you're doing?!" Nathan yelled out loud, the golden glow of his left eye shining brighter with anger. "I thought something was trying to kill me!"
Tetherblood's eyes shined with mischief and he grinned brightly. "That was pretty funny! You looked so scared!" Tetherblood chuckled, playfully splashing Nathan, who continued to glare at him. "Aw, come on, Nate. I only meant it as a joke."
"Very funny," Nathan said through clenched teeth, shaking his head as he began to swim for shore. Tetherblood hurried after, his quick strokes forming small waves in the calm water as he struggled to catch up.
"Hey, come on, Dayspring! Wait up!"
Nathan ignored his protests and climbed up onto the shore of the lake, shaking himself off with his back to Tetherblood. He was fuming and didn't trust himself to speak, instead sitting on the flat rock nearby and slipping on his shoes. He heard Tetherblood walk across the shore and approach him, but refused to turn and face him.
"I'm sorry, Nate," Tetherblood said, his shadow casting over Nathan as he came to stand beside him. "I thought you would sense me coming."
Nathan didn't speak for long moments, running a hand through his wet hair as he felt the sun begin to dry him. "Yeah, well, I wasn't paying attention."
"Oh, I see now," Tetherblood said in a sly, knowing tone, sitting down on the rock beside Nate as he, too, began to dry in the sun, the water from his shorts rapidly puddling beneath him. He snickered slightly as he stretched his legs before him, leaning back on both elbows.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Nathan asked, finally looking over at Tetherblood as his anger began to cool. He really should have been more alert, after all. As leader of the most hated rebellion group on the planet, he knew that he would be an invaluable prisoner. Anyone who could bring in the head of the fabled Askani'son would be handsomely rewarded. Nathan sighed and vowed to be more careful. As much as he might have resented the titled he'd been given, he could not deny the consequences of it. He was always a target, and slips like the one he had made in the lake could well cost him his life.
Tetherblood grinned widely. "You were daydreaming about her."
Nathan narrowed his eyes, folding his arms across his chest and frowning. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Ha! You're such a bad liar, Dayspring. Admit it. You like her!"
"If you're talking about Aliya, you've lost your mind, T."
Tetherblood shook his head, grinning widely. "You're not fooling me, my friend. You keep arguing with her because you're afraid of what might happen if she knew how you really feel about her."
"That is such a load of pipe!" Nathan cried, hopping off of the rock and glaring up at Tetherblood. "I can't stand her! And she can't stand me!"
"You keep telling yourself that," Tetherblood smiled, putting on his shoes as Nathan again turned his back to him. "I see how you look at her when you think no one will notice."
Nathan sighed, pulling his shirt off of the tree branch and slipping his arms through the sleeves, not bothering to tie it closed. "It wouldn't matter anyway," he muttered, absently picking up a small stone and skipping it across the lake. He watched as it jumped four times in a near perfect line before finally sinking into the water.
"What do you mean by that?" Tetherblood asked, hopping off of the rock and walking the short distance to his friend's side as he gazed across the lake.
"I'm not exactly what most young women look for in a man," Nathan said bitterly, avoiding Tetherblood's eyes.
"Yeah, you are a bit arrogant, and argumentative, and stubborn, and--"
"Oath, you know that's not what I mean!" Nathan raised his voice more than he intended, thrusting out his techno-organic arm for Tetherblood to see with a look of disgust on his face. Glancing down, he studied the portion of his chest that was metal as well, meeting the rest of his flesh about half-way across. There were many tiny scars at the meeting place, a reminder of the constant battle he waged for control of his own body. He may have won so far, he thought, but the results certainly weren't attractive.
Tetherblood sighed, taking a moment before responding. "Nate," he started, carefully choosing his words. "You're a lot harder on yourself than anyone else is."
Nathan snorted with disbelief, still looking out over the calm water of the lake. Tetherblood reached out and put a hand on his shoulder, seeing the rare look of vulnerability on Nathan's face. "I'm serious. You don't look that much different from anyone else. You're a young, good-looking guy! Lots of girls would be happy to have someone like you."
"Yeah, look at the line outside my tent," Nathan muttered, kicking up a cloud of dust with the toe of one shoe.
"There may not be a line, but there's one girl in our camp that's got eyes for you. You're just too afraid to talk to her and find out!"
"I am not afraid of a girl!" Nathan said, his face coloring despite himself.
"Then why won't you let her teach you all of the Askani things you traveled so far to learn? Any time she's brought it up so far you just start an argument with her."
Nathan paused, biting down on his lower lip. Inside, he admitted to himself that Tetherblood was at least partially right. When he looked at Aliya, he felt something that he had never experienced before. He had dismissed it as dislike at first, but as time passed, he realized it might be something quite different. He wasn't about to admit that, though, afraid that she would laugh at him. She was beautiful and strong and intelligent. What would she want with someone like him? He sighed, shaking his head.
"I'm not afraid," he insisted, looking Tetherblood in the eye and raising his chin defiantly.
"Then prove it and talk to her."
Nathan began to protest when the snap of a twig from the woods above them reached his ears, his hearing having been enhanced by the virus so that he had a much greater range than most people. He turned to face the sound, running a telepathic scan at the same time. Tetherblood realized that someone was coming and tensed at his side, clenching his fists in preparation for battle.
A moment later, Nathan sighed and turned away from the trees. "It's only Aliya," he said, tying his shirt closed with some haste.
"Only Aliya?" Tetherblood asked with amusement, winking slyly.
"Talk to her," Tetherblood whispered, elbowing him lightly in the side.
"No!" Nathan hissed back, just as she emerged from the trees and into their line of sight, already fully dressed in her usual battle gear.
"Coward," Tetherblood taunted back in a low whisper, grinning as he began to walk away toward the trees, flashing one last mischievous grin over his shoulder. He greeted Aliya as he passed by her, then vanished into the woods, whistling as he went. Nathan swallowed hard as Aliya made her way down to the lake's shore, finally stopping to stand just a few feet away from him. Several minutes of tense silence passed before Nathan finally turned his head and acknowledged her arrival with a stiff nod.
"It's a beautiful morning, isn't it?" Aliya asked, her arms folded as she squinted into the sun, studying a group of birds that flew overhead. Nathan nodded, feeling awkward and a bit ill as he usually did around her.
"Yeah. I was just taking a swim before Tetherblood showed up and tried to drown me."
"Didn't you sense him coming?"
Nathan sighed. "What is that, the question of the day?" he snapped, throwing her an annoyed look.
"Well, you're not supposed to be able to sneak up on a telepath, yet people keep sneaking up on you," she said flatly, returning his glare. "Your mind is undisciplined."
"Who died and left you the expert?"
"Well, actually," Aliya began, lightening her tone a bit. "Madam Sanctity did."
Nathan sighed. "Not that again. Is that why you came down here to torment me?"
"I'm not trying to torment you. I'm supposed to be helping you. You know the job that was given to me. I am to teach you the ways of the Askani so that you can lead our people. You're the Chosen One, after all." Nathan detected a bit of sarcasm in her voice and felt his temper flare despite his own doubts about the role he'd been given.
"So maybe I am," he said stubbornly, folding his arms to mirror her stance.
"Then we're all doomed. You won't even let me teach you!"
Nathan was instantly reminded of Tetherblood's taunts as he stared at Aliya, noting despite his anger how attractive she was in the morning sunlight. Her eyes shone with energy and anger, sparkling beautifully even as she glared at him, her skin smooth and flawless. Her brown hair trailed over her shoulders in perfect waves, neatly combed back from her face. Even the ordinary clothing she wore looked wonderful on her, Nathan thought, before realizing he'd been staring and quickly snapping back to reality, averting his eyes.
"Scared... I'll show him scared."
"I just wasn't ready to learn before," Nathan said lightly, looking back at her casually. "But I think I might be now."
"Really?" Aliya asked, surprise slipping into her carefully controlled tone.
"Yeah, really. If you can handle it, that is..."
"Of course I can handle it! When do you want to begin?"
Nathan thought a moment, pushing the remaining worries from his mind. He was not about to let Tetherblood think he was right. He was not afraid of Aliya, no matter what his friend said. Careful to sound calm, he finally addressed her again. "After lunch?"
Aliya nodded and smiled slightly. "All right then... Come to my tent, and I'll be ready." She turned and began to walk back toward the woods and the camp then, leaving him to watch her go, admiring her even as he cursed himself for the weakness. He sighed as she vanished from sight, finally allowing a smile to play across his face. He might not have agreed that he was anyone's savior, but if listening to the Askani teachings would give him more time with Aliya, he was willing to endure it.
"Not that she'd ever be interested in me anyway," he thought after a few minutes, giving Aliya enough time to reach the camp before making his own way back.
"I have calculated the likelihood that Aliya finds you attractive, Nathan, as you asked me to do this morning," Professor answered as he walked, absently pushing a stray tree branch out of his path.
"Forget it. I already know what the odds of that are. Zero."
"I estimate that there is a--"
"Don't tell me. I'm worried enough."
"Oath, this is so stupid... I thought I hated her, but... I can't stop thinking about her."
"I believe humans call it 'love,' Nathan."
"What?! You're worse than Tetherblood! I hardly even know her and all we've done so far is argue."
"Then perhaps you ought to take measures to change those things."
Nathan sighed as the many tents of the camp came into view through the trees, the clan members assigned to guard duty spotting him immediately and waving with respect and adoration. He raised a hand halfheartedly in greeting, stepping into the clearing that housed their temporary camp and heading for his own tent toward the center.
"We'll see about that, Professor... We'll see."
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