"Give me the—" cough "—goddamn soup."

"Not until you say please."

Cough. "Give me the goddamn soup before I rip your spine out your throat please."

"Good boy."

"You are the worst nurse ever," Sonya remarked, her voice muffled by the blankets pulled up to her nose. Emma sighed and nodded in agreement, whereas Jack only grinned and patted Nathan's knee with his cast.

"Nathan doesn't mind. He secretly likes the attention."

"We didn't ask for you two to come over and invade our room," the sick Tego in question snapped.

"You visited me in the hospital, so I'll return the favor. Now open your mouth." Jack held up a spoon, only to have Nathan cough on it and manage to spill a fair amount of it on his fingers. He hissed in pain while his patient smirked smugly.

"I'm amazed he didn't bite you." Nathan didn't have to raise his head to recognize the voice. Everyone else turned in mild surprise to see Allen and Lenore ducking into the room, bags in their hands. The blond unlaced his boots with one hand, kicked them off, then perched delicately on the arm of the couch where Nathan was being nursed (if it could be called that). "We come bearing gifts of food and medicine. And competence."

"That's not all," Lenore chimed in. "Look who I smuggled out of Leland's grasp for a visit." She stepped aside and gestured to a cloaked Emil. Sonya bolted upright, blanket falling down to her waist, and coughed as she made grabby hands towards him. He momentarily looked torn between running on instinct and throwing himself into her arms. Nathan rolled his eyes and flopped back down on the couch.

"You're all going to get sick," he warned, though Jack had heard that one enough times before for him to completely ignore it.

"Even if we might, we can't stand to lose our star Tego this early in our collective career. Plus you have pneumonia. Are you honestly thinking I'm going to let you sit here and die of it?" Allen asked severely, jabbing his finger into Nathan's shin.

"Borderline pneumonia. The doctor isn't sure if it's an actual case—"

"Pneumonia kills more Sovinians these days than the war. You're not going to be one of those Sovinians," Allen all but snarled. "Now Jack said you two have fevers?"

"You traitor. He's never going to leave now," Nathan griped, shooting Jack a betrayed look.

Jack, for his part, only shrugged. "What can I say? Mother knows best," he replied with a gesture towards Allen. He looked mildly perturbed at the moniker, but it unfortunately didn't distract him from sitting on Nathan's legs and feeling his forehead. Jack leaned in, serious for the moment, and frowned thoughtfully. "He was burning up earlier, but I think it's gone down a bit. Sonya is just as bad, but hers hasn't gone down, last I checked."

"If you would all leave, we could sleep this off," Nathan interjected in between coughing.

"Nathan's right," Sonya agreed loyally. She gave them a sleepy glare from her position on Emil's shoulder. "Sleeping will do more good than you guys. I think."

"I'll agree with the point that this petty arguing is doing nothing for your health, but I luckily have age and experience on my side. Thus, we are staying." Lenore sat down daintily on the spot nearest Sonya and leaned over to place her hand against her forehead. "The other two can leave."

"Why are we getting kicked out? We were here first!" Jack exclaimed. Emma nodded firmly, bottom lip pushed out in a pout. "We have also been doing fine until now, since you two have only just arrived."

"Can you all leave so we can sleep?" Nathan tried again after a coughing fit.

"You have to feed a fever. After you eat then you may," Allen replied.

"Provided I can—" cough "—keep it down."

"It's amazing how loud it got in here so quickly…" Emma remarked wonderingly. It was Sonya's turn to sigh and nod in agreement.

With a sniffle, she got up, blanket still tight in her grasp. Emil looked up at her, startled, and hastily jumped to his feet as well. Neither Nathan nor Allen, who were busy fighting over the spoon, noticed. Sonya shuffled off towards her room, blond boy still in tow. It wasn't until she was crawling into bed that she noticed Emma and Lenore had followed her as well.

"What is he, your stuffed animal?" Emma said lightly, raising her eyebrow with a smile.

"You're just jealous you don't have one yet," Sonya answered with her own smile. Emil looked back and forth between them with wide eyes, apparently not having understood that exchange. Sonya pulled her covers up to her chin and managed to pin Emil between herself and the wall. Lenore leaned over and tucked them both in, her long black hair falling over her shoulders like a sheet.

"Goodnight, little ones. I'll make sure the boys don't keep you up. Get some rest and feel better." She kissed them both on the tops of their heads—not that Sonya noticed. She was already asleep. Emil gave the woman a frown, but didn't say anything. Lenore smiled brightly at him and removed Sonya's glasses for her, then gestured to Emma as they closed the door behind them.

"Wait, are you really going to let her sleep with him?" the girl whispered loudly, glancing back at the room worriedly. "He'll catch it, too. I was joking with the part before."

"I doubt he'll catch it. Sonya is sick because she's tired and caught it from Nathan. Once she gets rested up again, she'll be over it. Kids like you are resilient these days." Lenore paused thoughtfully and looked at the wrestling match that started on the couch. "…They also aren't going to mess around like those three."

"But—"

"Even if he catches it, it won't do any harm in the long run. He's supposed to be in quarantine right now, anyway," Lenore replied with a laugh. Emma only stared at her in shock. Allen, too, had paused in the roughhousing and had his brow furrowed. Lenore looked away from him. What had intended to be a lighthearted remark suddenly wasn't one. She could get away from the little Inven and didn't particularly care what she thought, but Allen knew better.

"Jack, we had better get going," Emma said suddenly. He looked up at her with a grimace, but she was over her surprise and all business. She stooped down and picked up the jacket he had thrown on the floor, strode over to the door, and put her shoes back on to show she was serious.

"Are you really dragging me out already?" he asked, sounding partly confused, partly pathetic.

"Yes. Please." There was something in her voice, unknown to the others, that made him stand up and follow her without another argument. He waved his cast arm in farewell and closed the door behind him.

"What was that about?" Allen asked cluelessly.

"There will always be things between a Tego and Inven that simply will not be understood by any other pair," Lenore replied, tone curt. He bowed his head, cowed, and didn't reply. She sat down in the chair Sonya had claimed before, crossed her legs, and folded her hands neatly in her lap. "I'm going to talk to you boys about a few things now."

"Is it really the best time?" Nathan inquired, eyes narrowed.

"Sonya's asleep and I have you both as a captive audience. I see no better time," she said with a beam.

"In that case, by all means, continue."

"Nathan," Allen scolded. Nathan only shrugged, coughed, and turned back to Lenore.

"Right now, Allen and I have been stealing a lot of the attention," she started right in. Nathan huffed and crossed his arms. "It's true. You and Sonya wouldn't have even appeared on Leland's radar for another couple of months, save for the fact that you brought in the little Lannish boy. This is both a blessing and a curse for you two. Emil now serves as Leland's new distraction, but you two are now known to him."

"Why are you saying this?"

"Because Leland Aminov is not someone you want to get too comfortable with. Especially Sonya," Lenore surmised grimly. "Eventually, he will either try to recruit her for one of his special projects, or you could luck out and be too important to the Tego half for him to interfere much. I hope that is your case."

"It will be his case," Allen broke in with a look down at his friend, "Nathan and Sara Grace are the favorites. They're both safe."

"Leland is gaining more power over this project. The Inven are what drive this effort—let's not try and pretend it's any different. Without us, you would simply be fodder on the front lines."

"Lenore!" Nathan snapped, sitting up with a glower. She glared right back at him. Allen pushed Nathan back down and turned to give his Inven a look that told her to plainly back off as well. Not that she noticed or respected it.

"I'm trying to give you a warning, Nathan Loar. I have years of experience on you and I've seen the darker side of this war."

"It's a war. It's all dark. And if you badmouth our soldiers one more time—"

"Nathan, kindly shut up." Lenore pinched the bridge of her nose, head tilted away from him. "You can be patriotic later. I'm only giving you this warning because you are a friend of Allen's, but if you're not going to take me seriously, then I'll stop here and let you die out there."

"Lenore, he doesn't—well, you both don't—Lenore, be nice. Nathan, listen to her." Allen had to physically keep Nathan pinned to the couch.

"You're on her side?" he asked, falling back with a betrayed look.

"She's my Inven, and in this case, she's right," he admitted, though he couldn't meet his friend's eye. Allen fidgeted nervously and looked at Lenore. "I… I've seen the front lines. They're not pretty, Nathan. I haven't seen a Prissy yet or any of the monsters, or found any dead refugees, or what have you, but I've seen Sovinian soldiers get shot up and killed, and we had to bring them back. I've seen Aminov argue with Lenore, try to push his research forward through intimidation and enticement."

"That reminds me. If you see a Prissy, for the sake of anything you hold precious or holy, run," Lenore interrupted briskly. Nathan coughed again but didn't say anything in argument. "I don't care if you want to try to be a hero. You can play hero all you'd like with the regulars and Paronese and soldiers."

"What are Prissies?" Nathan deadpanned.

"It's slang for Pristines. They're those monstrous things you'll see out in the wastes, except they still look human. They won't be broken or bloody or hurt. They'll look, well, pristine. And that's why you have to run like hell," she explained, ducking her head so her hair covered her eyes. "They stayed clean and whole for a reason—because they're dangerous. I've only seen one myself once before and it ripped apart three soldiers, two Tego, and an Inven before someone managed to stop it. So if you see one, run. I'd like to avoid as many funerals as possible in the near future."

-.-.-

Jack was still on leave for his shoulder and wrist, but Allen was not. He and Lenore departed for another mission and left a slowly recuperating Nathan and Sonya to them. All in all, the experience did not, surprisingly, kill them and Emma usually and thankfully kept her Tego in line.

Unfortunately, while Nathan and Sonya escaped relatively unscathed, Emil did not.

He caught whatever they had and with Lenore gone, someone had to explain to Leland Aminov why his precious southern Lannish boy had caught something new when he was supposed to be in quarantine. Nathan quietly considered it revenge when Jack was given that task.

"They added another three weeks onto his quarantine, granted that he's better by that time. At this rate, that boy is never gonna see sunlight ever again."

"He didn't seem to be complaining at the time," Sonya said as primly as she could manage.

"Well, he ought to be complaining now. From what I heard, he's bedridden with that nasty fever you had a couple days ago. Nice going."

"Hey, lay off," Nathan complained hoarsely. He rolled over onto his stomach and pulled his pillow over his ears. "You know, we start to feel better after you leave and let us sleep."

"You already sound better," Jack replied with a bright smile. "And you're not coughing as much anymore."

"They're still sick, Jack," Emma said warningly.

"I know. But it's not as if this was life-threatening or anything." He waved his cast dismissively. He ducked out of their company soon after that, however, after much more prodding and cajoling by his Inven. Emma had suspiciously good reign on him, but Nathan didn't want to ask questions. Maybe when he wasn't coughing up a lung on a regular basis.

Over the week of sick leave they were granted, Sonya got better. Nathan did not. He had a feeling part of it was due to stress, because while he could chase Allen and Jack out of his room, he couldn't very well chase her out. So she was his full-time nurse—much to his dismay. At least she was capable of making better soup than Jack was.

The doctor took one look at Nathan once their time was up and gave them another three days. If he wasn't on his feet by then, he'd be admitted to the hospital and put on watch. Because (borderline) pneumonia should not last two and a half weeks. Or so they said. Sonya took this news very gravely and was half-convinced he was dying, which she unfortunately shared with Allen and Lenore upon their return. And so the circus returned.

Nathan was positive he only got back on his feet so he could take a swing at Allen, and was positive he stayed upright out of sheer tenacity and unwillingness to go to the hospital. He wasn't about to get stuck on more sick leave than strictly necessary, especially when he was supposed to be one of the star Tego. Lenore's advice was shoved into a dark place in his mind, at least the part regarding Leland Aminov. Nathan saw no problem with the man, especially since he was the head of the Inven branch. He wasn't going to make powerful enemies (Sara Grace didn't count) if he could help it.

Nathan received orders for their next mission once the doctor okayed him for it. "Damn it," he hissed, glaring down at the paper.

"What is it?" Sonya gasped. She snatched it from his hands and scanned over it, frowning when she discovered it wasn't some sort of suicide mission. "What's wrong with it?"

"We get back the twenty-seventh."

"And?"

Nathan sighed and grimaced when it came out in a cough. A passing nurse gave him a look, but he smiled nervously at her and began herding Sonya out the building. "Allen's birthday is the twenty-fourth."

"Ohh." She gave him back the paper and frowned thoughtfully. "…Are you going to throw him a birthday party?"

"Sort of," he lied. Mostly it was an excuse to go out and get plastered. That and make fun of the fact that he was a year older.

"We could ask for an extension."

"They already gave us one on top of the sick leave."

"We could ask for another?" she tried.

"It wouldn't look very good, and it would only lead to them asking about our health again."

"Then throw him either an early or late party. And tell Lenore about it, too." Nathan glanced down at her, where she was looking up at him with big, violet eyes. This wasn't merely a chance to hang out with the guys anymore. Their Inven would always have to be a factor from then on. It wasn't as if he could invite Sonya along—she was much too young to start drinking, not to mention the legality of such a thing—and he had no idea how Lenore would react to the thought of them all getting drunk. She did seem like the strict type.

"So, this next mission seems pretty easy," Nathan said with an unsubtle change of subject. Sonya didn't question him. "Supposed to be two weeks long, have to escort some refugees from the southern border up. Apparently they're a little ways in, though… Deeper than what we're used to." More dangerous, he thought idly. He thought of Emil's parents.

"If we're expecting them, why don't we have them come up to the border and then just give them a truck ride?" she asked, folding her hands behind her head.

"Because it's illegal."

"Why?"

"They have to travel through checkpoints and come in legally through one of the major gates into the country. Then they go into quarantine. Like Emil." She nodded and accepted that. He held the door open for her and gratefully breathed in the outside air. Hospitals always made him feel claustrophobic. He felt even better when he tapped out a cigarette and stuck it between his lips, much to Sonya's irritation. Before she could start in on that, however, he continued, "It's partly why we were created. We go in and guide the refugees up to the checkpoints so they can safely and legally immigrate into Sovine. Otherwise, if they just enter in wherever…"

Well, technically speaking, the guards at southern outposts had orders to shoot. But in practice, they normally just shooed anyone away and put in a call for some help. Nathan had also heard rumors of bribes being taken to be let into the country, but he refused to believe that.

"I get it. Because there's no telling whether they're a refugee or an enemy, right?" Sonya asked smartly.

"Yeah. This way, they can get processed and checked out. It also keeps refugees away from Bauk, since they're not taking any and don't want us flooding the area near their border with foreigners…" He trailed off. "It's politically messy down there," he added. It was a favorite saying of one of his classmates, Zeren Kaya, who was actually from Bauk. Maybe someday when they caught back up with each other, he could introduce him to Sonya.

In fact, it probably wouldn't be that long before he got that chance. After the first year, Tego started getting paired up for more important, tougher, longer missions. His chances of working with Allen were slim according to the class rank—he refused to think about getting stuck with Sara Grace to work with—but with Luca Becker missing an Inven, the next in line was Zeren.

"You're so smart, Nathan," Sonya summarized, taking his arm in hers. And that was the end of that.

-.-.-

It was on day two that Nathan noticed something. He had noticed it several days prior, but it was only on the mission when he figured out what it was. And another day after that before he worked up the courage to mention it to her.

"Sonya, c'mere," he said with a beckon. She pranced over and he pulled her up close, setting his chin on her hair, much to her surprise. Before she could wiggle away, however, he announced, "Your roots are showing."

"What?!" she shrieked, hands flying up to her head. She pulled her nivedidus low over her brow and Nathan suddenly felt incredibly dizzy. He staggered to one side, releasing her, and tried to catch his balance while simultaneously resisting the urge to throw up. It was surprisingly difficult. Sonya didn't even notice, too busy freaking out instead. "Why didn't you tell me before we left?! I could have had time to fix it! Now for the next two weeks I'm stuck with weird hair!"

Because two-toned hair wasn't weird as it was. Nathan shook his head, swallowed a couple times, and managed to clear most of the lightheadedness. He could still taste the acid in his throat, though. "Sonya, no one's around to notice."

"You are," she hissed, eyes narrowed to slits. He was starting to think bringing it up was a bad idea altogether. Her anger gave way to despair in the blink of an eye, however, and she looked as if she were about to cry.

Unable to tell if it was a ploy or not, Nathan took a step towards her, reaching out. Sonya threw herself at him and clung to the front of his uniform. After only a moment of hesitation, he wrapped his arms around her. What else could he do? "Look, Sonya—"

"You could have told me beforehand," she hissed into his shirtfront. She buried her face into his chest and sighed. "You could have, Nathan! And now—and now I have to have dark roots with light hair and not only you, but those refugees are going to see me like this!"

"Sonya, it's okay!" he replied helplessly, definitely regretting having brought it up. Nathan never made the same mistake twice on principle, but he added an extra mental note for this one. Too much drama. "Look, I don't care, they're not going to care, and we can dye your hair when we get back. Why are you so worked up about this?"

She wriggled out from his grasp and kept a cautious distance from him after that. She didn't—directly—answer his question and even more bizarrely, she completely dropped the subject of her hair. Nathan was worried about this, but wasn't about to risk his neck by bringing it back up. So instead, he awkwardly ignored the topic.

Sonya bounced back the day after that. She returned to chasing after lizards, climbing things, risking tetanus, and exploring the vast nothing. He did, however, catch her tugging at her hair and sighing dejectedly a couple times when she thought he wasn't looking. He tried to carefully cheer her up by letting her carry around lizards—and a single bird she somehow managed to catch—instead of immediately turning them loose, and didn't immediately reject any demands for piggyback rides.

It was two days after they checked in with Chad and Annie that Nathan noticed another thing about his Inven's hair. It was dyed. Not just the silver part, but even the brown, which he had taken as her natural hair color. But as her roots grew out, he could see that they were darker. Not black, but a dark brown, as far as he could tell. Which was even stranger; who dyed their brown hair a lighter shade of brown? It wasn't even that big of a difference.

Eventually, Nathan chalked it up to one of her many quirks and dropped the matter from his mind. He had other things to worry about, such as running out of cigarettes or coming across more dead refugees. Especially since they were supposed to meet up with the refugees they were to escort into Sovine any day. The waiting and semi-directionless wandering were beginning to make him antsy.

Day eight, and Sonya, precariously atop a ruined three-story building that Nathan had been attempting to get her down from for two and a half hours, suddenly shouted, "Nathan!"

He felt a spike of panic and for one terrible moment, believed she was going to fall. Sonya's head snapped down to stare at him, but she stayed where she was.

"I see them!" she called down excitedly.

By the time she climbed down and Nathan had calmed his racing heart, he, too, could easily see several figures in the distance, moving towards them. Sonya thankfully didn't notice as he took his gun out and checked the magazine. "Sonya, don't go run—" He hadn't even gotten the warning out. He had glanced up, and she was already sprinting out, leaping over rubble with alarming accuracy. "Shit, Sonya!" Nathan shoved the magazine roughly back into his gun and tore after her, albeit not nearly as gracefully.

He knew she could outrun him on even ground, and she was twice as fast over obstacles. After the toe of his boot caught on a rusted steel beam and he nearly face-planted, he growled to himself and pointed his gun in the air, pulling the trigger. Sonya froze on the spot. The bang echoed around them for a couple moments, and in the distance, the figures had stopped moving towards them.

Nathan jogged up to Sonya (making sure to stomp when he was close enough to exhibit his irritation properly). She watched him come up with eyes large behind her glasses, rather trusting, all things considered. He glanced once more at the silhouettes to his right—they still hadn't moved—and then cuffed her upside the head. The smack was hard enough to send her off balance and skew her glasses, and definitely enough to send the message.

Before she could offer much more than a pathetic whine and the most wide-eyed, betrayed look he had ever seen, he pulled her down so that they were cut off from the figures' sight. "Sonya, you never run away from me. Didn't they teach you that?!" he snarled. She simply continued to stare at him with that hurt look. Gritting his teeth to reign his anger back in, Nathan added, "Do not. Ever. Run away from me again. Unless it is a direct order from me."

"…You can't order me," she said, voice weak. She looked away from him for the first time, initially to the left, and then down to where he was holding her wrist in an iron grip. He let go of her, and her arm dropped limply to her side.

"I outrank you, and you are my Inven. You have to listen to your Tego—"

"We are partners!" she exclaimed, locking gazes with him again. The hurt was still there, but buried under her own anger now. "Nathan Loar, I am not a soldier under your command. Yes, I am your Inven! That means that I'm the one finding these people, and you are here to guard me!"

"That is hardly—"

"Who's the one wearing the nivedidus?!" Sonya demanded. She viciously twisted it around her head; Nathan's breath caught and he had to throw out a hand to catch himself before he fell over completely. He glared up at her, but she glared back at him down her nose. He shakily got back to his feet, drawing himself to his full height, not bothering to care if they were both visible once more.

"Karahalios, you are under my protection, and as such, I have been given the responsibility to keep you safe. That means that you listen to me, since I get to make the judgment calls on any and all missions."

"Your job is to keep me safe under any circumstances, not to order me around! Without Inven, Tego are just soldiers!" Sonya growled, triumphant because it was the truth.

"Without Tego, Inven are just kids!" Nathan shot back, just as savagely.

"So we're both useless without each other! That means that you can't act high and mighty and pretend that you're in charge!"

"I am in charge!" he exclaimed, although he couldn't help but throw his arms into the air in exasperation. This was getting them nowhere but mad at each other. Which, by all accounts, should never happen in a pair. It usually made for dead Tego and Inven. They weren't in a very high-risk scenario now, but eventually, they would be, and they couldn't be caught in a power struggle.

That aside, Nathan was not going to give up this fight. He couldn't have Sonya running off and thinking she called the shots, because realistically, that would get them both killed. She didn't have the training to handle that sort of pressure or responsibility.

"We have a mission," Sonya said acidly. She looked over towards the figures in the distance. "I won't run away from you again, but if you try to order me around, I'll kick you between the legs."

Nathan unconsciously shuffled away from her. "…Just so long as you don't do anything else so stupid."

"It wasn't—!"

"It was! You don't know who those people are—or if they're even people! Remember, Sonya, there are monsters out here, monsters that would gladly rip you apart before I could catch up to you. Not to mention enemies and rebel groups. There are things out here that will kill you if given the chance."

"That's why you're here," she replied primly, although he could see that she was a little shaken by his reminder.

"Yes. And that's why you have to stay near me, otherwise, I'm a pretty useless bodyguard." With that, he finally broke through and won the argument. Sonya nodded wearily and plodded along beside him as they resumed their path towards what they hoped were the refugees, head bowed. As they both calmed down, Nathan began to regret hitting her. He was justified, though, wasn't he? He wasn't so sure anymore, although he would do it again if it meant she behaved permanently and didn't run off anymore. Because he was getting more and more worried that she would run off one time too many.

The figures were undeniably the refugees they were appointed to meet, a family clearly from northern Lanne. Dark hair, dark eyes, guarded and tired expressions. The man haltingly introduced himself, complete with thick accent, as Ander, his wife as Seraphine, and their four children as Xavier, Carelia, Heloise, and Sophie. They didn't seem to have many belongings with them, nor did they seem to be in very good shape. The children—particularly the youngest, Sophie—were very thin, and Ander had an injury on his leg that had a dirty bandage tied around it and that gave him a limp.

"I 'ave bullets. Two." He held up the rifle in his hand. "We use all but two. There is… treou decomn founache d'aldrich!"

Nathan blinked at him, and not because he didn't understand him, but because he did. He very easily recognized the word founache, even with the accent. Maria used it often enough. "Excuse me?" he asked, wondering what the hell the man was trying to convey.

"Decomn d'aldrich!" Ander stressed with a helpless gesture at the wastes around them. Nathan shrugged just as helplessly. His knowledge of the Lannish language was limited to the swearing Maria constantly used and the basics he'd learned during school, but it was entirely possible he'd only be able to recall those lessons with a gun pressed against his skull. "Large number, er, many," the man said, holding his hands apart.

"Oh! A lot!" Sonya piped up. She tugged on Nathan's hand and said, "There are a lot of something out here!"

A lot of something that required a lot of bullets. Nathan could guess, and he didn't like the answer. "…Come on, then." He reassured them that it was safe to travel with them; they were both in uniform, albeit filthy, and he still had a full magazine in his gun. That, more than anything else, calmed Ander.

He acted as the translator for his family, either because he was the most fluent or the only fluent one. Nathan couldn't tell. He had to admit that he did like the way Seraphine spoke, on the rare occasions that she did; she was one of the few Lannish women who managed to make the language sound beautiful. (Maria was far-flung from that grace.) Sonya immediately bonded with the children, which was her job, but even he had to be impressed. They began exchanging fragmented and rudimentary language lessons, mostly revolving around things they found along the way.

"Nathan, where are we going?" He looked back at her, somewhat surprised she had even noticed the alternate route. Telling direction in the badlands was difficult enough, especially when the sun was hidden behind clouds. "This isn't the way we came."

"We're circling around to the lake from the last mission. We need more water, especially for them."

"That lake," she hissed, but then quickly returned to catching lizards. Nathan watched the two adults carefully for any sign of understanding from them. Even if he had their best interests in mind, he could tell they were tense. He didn't want to get into any sort of argument because they thought he was leading them astray.

Luckily, they were caught up in their own conversation of rapid, indecipherable Lannish. Nathan relaxed and allowed himself to listen to Seraphine's voice as he scanned the horizon.

They were traveling more slowly, but overall, he was pleasantly surprised by how quickly the refugees moved along. Then again, he couldn't blame them. He wanted out of this place, too. It took two days, but they reached the lake. He was forced to trust the water even without the rain to clear it up, but the family didn't seem to care and all but threw themselves at it. Sonya, caught up in their excitement, dragged one of the older girls out into the deeper water and turned it into a swimming contest. Naturally.

"If you get pneumonia again," he groused, toweling off her hair later. He and Ander had decided to stay near the water for the night, so they could have a break and so they could stock up again tomorrow morning. The children seemed more energetic without dehydration to combat, although Sonya and Heloise were sniffling suspiciously from their earlier bath.

Nathan didn't say anything else, and especially not over the fact that her dark roots were highly visible and had to be at least two finger widths long. Sonya, pleased that he'd sacrificed his shirt as the towel, didn't argue with him over it.

She did, however, give away her last two ration bars to Sophie, who took them like bars of gold and shared them with her brother and sisters. Nathan sighed and stood up, upending her from his lap. "What are you doing?" she asked sourly. "I thought you'd volunteered to be my heater!"

"I'll be right back. I'm just going to go get some food."

"From where?" Sonya pressed, trying to catch his arm and pull him back down. Nathan easily dodged her and stepped out of her immediate range, lacing up his boots again once he was sure she wouldn't lunge at him.

"The lake's not far from here. There's going to be animals getting a drink." Or so he hoped. He heard of larger game further into the wastelands, but large sources of water were few and far between. He simply hoped there was something to shoot at.

"You will 'unt?" Ander asked. Nathan nodded curtly and waved him back down when the man started to stand up as well. "You are but a boy. You need assist."

Now he was doubly sure he was leaving him behind. "I am a fully-trained Tego, sir, and I am perfectly capable of catching a rabbit by myself," he told him primly, trying his best not to be too annoyed. From his perspective, he probably was just a kid. But in Sovine and its perspective, he was old enough to go to war. That should have been enough.

He had planned on giving him a speech about how he had to stay behind to guard the others in case something nasty showed up, but he didn't want to worry Sonya, and he figured it should be obvious, anyway. They had spent who knew how long in the wastelands already. They knew of the dangers.

Nathan stalked out into the night. He hated hunting with a handgun, but he didn't have a rifle on him and wasn't about to waste Ander's last two bullets getting breakfast. Plus, a rifle like his would probably be a little much for anything he hoped to find. His eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness as he crept along, mindful of gravel and broken glass closer to the buildings. Thankfully, the road was clear enough he could stick to it, even if it put him out in the open.

He was sorely tempted just to round up a couple of the night creatures that he heard scuttling out of his path, although he would have a hell of a time trying to convince Sonya to eat them. Just to be sure, though, Nathan crouched down on a clear patch of ground, rested his arms on his knees, and scanned the darkness.

It took a couple minutes, but the creatures came back out. They were unused to humans and weren't at all shy, probably only seeing him as another animal moving about in the night. They kept their distance from him, but he could easily see lizards—of course—and snakes slithering about, looking for their next meal. A spider the size of his hand crawled delicately over the toe of his boot before he noticed it, and it was all he could do not to shoot his foot off to get rid of it. He wasn't necessarily afraid of spiders, but he also was used to ones no bigger than his thumbnail.

Sara would die laughing, he told himself sternly, unclenching his fist and pulling his finger off the trigger. Nathan stood back up with a scowl and stomped on the spider with a satisfying crunch. He wouldn't waste a bullet or take out his foot, but it didn't mean he had to let the thing go.

He heard a shrill squeal to his right, and gun immediately trained on the spot, he only peered over the edge of a broken wall to find a snake chewing on a rat. "At least there are mammals around," he whispered, sending a handful of things scurrying into the darkness at the sound of his voice. The snake, however, paid him no heed and only lazily flicked its tail at him. "You could at least pretend you cared I have a gun. I'm pretty sure I could make jerky out of you. One long strip." The snake still ignored him and continued with its meal.

He left the hunter with its prey and wished he could find something a bit bigger and be done with it.

Instead, he heard Sonya's scream and a gunshot.