*Fluff Rolls – light and flavorful bread rolls that are a common addition for any Arlytian meal.
Corbin made his way to the shelter he and Kel shared feeling better, but knowing there was still something he had to do. For the first time that evening, he hoped Charge Seren hadn’t yet made it to join them because he didn’t want to have to put off talking with Kel. He breathed a sigh of relief, although retained a nervous flutter in his stomach when he saw Kel was sitting alone outside their canvas. Corbin slowed his steps a little, noticing that Kel’s shoulders were hunched just a little more than was normal and there was an aura of…not sadness really, but maybe disappointment. Corbin’s suspicions on Kel’s feelings were confirmed when he gingerly sat down next to his friend and got only the briefest look in return. That look said a lot though. There was no anger in it, but there was dejection. Hoping he wouldn’t be rebuffed, Corbin lightly put his unbandaged hand on Kel’s knee.
“Kel? Can we talk?”
“Of course, lad,” Kel replied immediately, but he didn’t look at Corbin.
There was silence after that and Corbin knew he needed to fill it, but he was having trouble finding the words. He thought it ironic and frustrating that he had ready insults when he should keep his mouth shut, but a sorrowful lack of positive words when he needed to speak.
“Kel, I…I can tell you how sorry I am for what I said to you. I was angry with no right to be.”
He noticed Kel looked about ready to reply to that, but Corbin knew he better get out as much as he could now. If he allowed an interruption, he might screw things up even more because he was sure any good words he had to say would just disappear.
“Please, Kel, let me explain.” Kel paused before nodding, and Corbin continued gratefully. “You didn’t do anything wrong. We’re friends and friends tease sometimes, and I know there was nothing mean in what you said. I just…”
He just what? He wasn’t sure how to explain his emotions from that moment, but he did the best he could.
“I just reacted badly. I haven’t really had many friends and I’m not great at keeping the ones I’ve had, but I want to keep you, and I hope I can learn to be the kind of friend you’d like to have. Anyway, I am truly sorry for my words earlier and how hurtful they were. I ran into Charge Ozias when I left and told him what happened. He wasn’t pleased with me and he told me where that phrase came from. I didn’t realize it was so horrible and I don’t want to ever use it on you or anyone again. He punished me for my disrespect to you, and I earned it rightfully, and I hope you’ll believe that I’m sorry and forgive me.”
His last few sentences were said very quickly, but Corbin was relieved to have said what he did. He’d been staring at the ground almost the whole time he spoke, but now looked up tentatively at Kel. He was grateful to see a soft smile on the man’s face, and a moment later he felt the warmth of Kel’s hand over top of his.
“Thank you, Corbin. I want to keep you for a friend too. I…” He paused and looked like he changed his mind to what he had intended to say, but he didn’t look dejected as he had earlier. “I like you a lot. I like talking to you and you’re good company, even if you don’t think you are.” His thumb rubbed lightly over Corbin’s knuckles. “I forgive you, and I’ll try to be more considerate with my teasing. I certainly didn’t mean to antagonize you, and I’m sorry that you were disciplined for bad choices on both our parts.”
“Kel,” Corbin said seriously, feeling like he needed to make something clear. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I overreacted. And besides,” he added, “I’d rather be teased by you than ignored or left out.”
Kel looked pacified, but the steady gaze he was giving Corbin unnerved the younger man. It made Corbin feel like the man could see more than he let on.
“You’re not one I want to ignore,” he heard uttered softly from Kel’s mouth.
Those words felt more significant than they sounded, and Corbin was ready to ask what Kel meant when the earlier cause of his anxious excitement finally showed up.
“Good evening, gentleman. I’m sorry if I’ve held up your meal, but I hope you’ll still have time to show me your map, Corbin.”
Corbin and Kel both looked up quickly as Charge Seren reached their shelter. Kel’s easy smile was back and it greeted their guest.
“We actually haven’t eaten yet,” Kel told him. “The rest of Group 6 only just recently got their servings. I was about to dish some out for Corbin and me. Have a seat and I’ll get some for you as well.”
Seren sat by Corbin as Kel took the lid of a pot on the outdoor cooker and proceeded to serve up generous helpings of what was inside. Seren looked grateful for the filled bowl when Kel handed it to him.
“Thank you. It smells wonderful,” he said sincerely. His eyes watched a moment as Kel handed Corbin a bowl, and he noticed a bandage on Corbin’s left hand. He felt a niggling of worry as his mind automatically thought on the events of that morning. “Corbin, what happened to your hand? Was that from this morning?”
Corbin glanced at his hand, having almost forgotten about the cut he’d gotten. “No, this happened just a little while ago. I tripped and cut myself, but Charge Ozias was there and he took care of it. It’s nothing serious.”
Kel took hold of the wrapped hand, gently examining it for a moment. “Charge Oz knows what he’s doing, especially if the cut is relatively minor. I can check it for you later tonight or tomorrow if you want.”
Corbin nodded agreeably. “If you want to. It’s just a bit awkward right now, but it doesn’t bother me.” He took the bowl Kel had offered to him then and his stomach growled at the enticing aroma and thick looking chowder. He was definitely more interested in food than talking about his hand.
Kel, appeased for now, sat on Corbin’s other side with his own serving but offered a covered plate to the two men. Seren removed the towel hiding what was inside and looked curiously at Kel when he saw the contents.
“Whatever it is smells terrific, but I’ve never seen a pastry like this before,” the Charge Pilot commented. Despite not knowing what he was taking, he willing grabbed a helping of the rounded food being offered.
“Well, I hope you and Corbin don’t mind being my taste-testers. I have fluff rolls as well, but I’m running a bit low on yeast until we get back to the ship, so I thought I’d take a chance on making a type of flat bread. It’s hardier than the fluff rolls, which makes me think it could help a man fill up faster than any rising bread. I added a bit of sweet root and bellberry extract to keep it from being too bland as well.”
Seren was definitely enticed, and being a man who favored bellberry flavoring, he immediately bit into the bread. His brows rose in pleasure as he chewed and swallowed. “It’s delicious, Charge Kel. If this is what you come up with, I’ll be a taste-tester for new foods you want to try anytime.”
Corbin had also already consumed half of one of the flat rolls as well and nodded his agreement. “It’s great, Kel, and the chowder is good too!”
Kel smiled and just the hint of a blush accompanied it. He enjoyed experimenting with recipes, and it pleased him a lot that Corbin, as well as their esteemed leader, were so enjoying the results of his labor. He ate his own food with less gusto, not because he didn’t like it as much as them, but because he let himself enjoy the distraction of their enjoyment of the food.
Seren, his stomach now happily full, was finally feeling the most relaxed he had all day. Considering the animal attack, his aching arm, concern for his people’s safety, a fairly taxing day’s trek, and dealing with the two Travelers’ indiscretion, he was worn out. But the meal, which had been delicious, and the surprisingly undemanding company of Kel and Corbin was helping him wind down from the day’s stressors.
Kel especially was easy to be with, and Seren found himself more comfortable with the man than he typically was with a lot of people. He almost felt like he didn’t have to be the Charge Pilot while in Kel’s company. He could just be ‘Seren’.
And Corbin…well, he hadn’t been aware of it before, but now he was noticing things. The smiles whenever he looked in the young man’s direction. The excited yet anxious way Corbin had of responding anytime Seren spoke personally to him. The side glances that he was probably hoping Seren didn’t notice.
Seren was quickly coming to the knowledge that Corbin had a crush on him. Personally, he tried not to dwell too much on how he felt about that. For the most part, he didn’t want to encourage it. He was the man’s authority first, and Seren didn’t feel he could afford to think about pursuing anyone as a mate, at least until he had the Travelers more established on Neveah. He also could clearly see that Kel was dearly drawn to the younger man, and Seren thought those two could be a very good match. If they got together, there would hopefully be a young woman who they would soon find as well.
On the other hand, he noticed an unexpected yet pleasant twinge of attraction to the young man. He knew from experience that Corbin could show himself to be a handful, but Seren had dated other men with that temperament and found that he tended to like the challenge of that personality. He didn’t approve of disrespect, but he liked a man who spoke his mind. He also had to admit that it was flattering to have the young Traveler’s interest. It was nice to feel wanted as a man and not just as a Charge.
His eyes lighted on Corbin and he smiled, trying not to chuckle when the younger man tried to look like Seren’s gaze on him wasn’t making him flustered.
“We still have some light left to see by, maybe it would be a good time for me to see the map you’ve been working on.”
Corbin’s face lit up, making his green eyes sparkle adorably. “Yes, sir! I’ll be right back!”
He hustled into the canvas he and Kel were sharing to retrieve the carefully done paper. Kel, in the meantime, collected the empty bowls and utensils they had been using and dropped them into a tub of warm water he’d prepared earlier.
“I’ll help with that,” Seren volunteered.
Kel quickly waved him off with an easy smile. “No way. You’ll want your full attention for Corbin’s map. I haven’t yet seen it, but I’ve been privileged to see some of his other work and it’s impressive.”
On the heels of his words, Corbin emerged from the shelter with the rolled paper in his hand from earlier that day. He handed it to Seren looking nervous, but confident in a sense.
Settling back down, Seren unrolled the paper and was immediately impressed with the artistry within the work. The images on the page were definitely not done by an amateur. Seren’s eyes quickly locked onto several places that he was familiar with, which Corbin had drawn out and marked: the area where their ship had landed, several water landmarks they’d passed during their trek, and even the wooded area they’d just exited that afternoon had already been added.
There were several things that weren’t familiar to him as well though, and he spread the paper out respectfully on the blanket they sat on and motioned Corbin closer.
“I think I assigned you the right task, Corbin. Your talent shines through at even just a cursory glance, but maybe you can clarify a few things for me.”
Corbin initially looked pleased, but then wary. “What things?”
Seren pointed to several penciled in, but blank boxes, on the map. “What do these represent? I’m a bit at a loss.”
“Oh,” Corbin’s tone sounded relieved. “Everything on Neveah has yet to be named, so I wanted to include those boxes so I could fill in the names of each place once they’re official.”
“Smart,” Seren murmured. “What about these triangles? Do they mean something?”
Corbin nodded. “The triangles represent each spot we rested during the trek, but I’ve color-coded them for the map. The dark blue ones…” His finger pointed out one of the triangles. “…are for the places where we stopped for the night. The yellow ones are the rest areas we stopped at for mid-meal,” he explained.
Seren nodded his understanding. “But what about this triangle? It’s red.”
“Yeah, that’s where we camped last night. I marked it in red because that’s where the animal attacked us.” Corbin’s tone was serious and held just a hint of him still feeling rattled by the events of the morning. “I’ve been using red to specifically mark dangerous places or things.”
Seren studied the map carefully and picked out all other red markings, although he wasn’t distracted enough to not notice the way Kel reached out a hand and squeezed Corbin’s shoulder compassionately. He must have noticed the slight tremor in the other man’s voice as well. He smiled to himself even as he continued to examine the map.
“You have several red dots in this area. What are they for?”
“That’s where the impure water was found,” Corbin explained after throwing a grateful smile to Kel. “I can’t specify every single place the water was seen, but I noted the places we first saw it, and then the last area it was identified in before no more sightings occurred. That at least gives a warning of the general area where it can be located. If we find that the water is impure but safe when the Purifiers do further testing on the ship, I’ll keep the markings but change them to a different color to keep things accurate.”
“You’ve thought this through,” Seren offered in praise. “What about this last marking in red? The one here.” His finger pointed to an arrow drawn in at an upward slant.
“Oh, that’s a spot I might mark differently later, but I wanted to note the place where we had that steep upward climb yesterday. If people are careful, it’s probably not a very dangerous place, but I wanted to mark it for potential risks.”
“I’m glad. I really appreciate the detail you’ve put into this, Corbin.”
Corbin’s face blossomed in a beautiful smile again. “I’ve got something else for you then, if you think you’d like to include it on the map or have it separate.”
He reached just inside the canvas opening and pulled out a bundler, which he immediately began rooting through. A minute later a notebook was pulled out and Corbin opened it up to the first page.
“I’ve been marking distances,” he told Seren as he held the book open for the Charge Pilot to see. “I wasn’t sure if you wanted distances listed at this time in the map, or if you wanted them as an addendum to things. I have the distance we’ve traveled so far, as well as approximate sizes of certain places, like the woods and the streams and rivers we’ve come across.”
“These look surprisingly accurate for our limited knowledge so far, Corbin. How have you been able to do this?”
Corbin, his excitement showing, explained. “It’s similar to what I do when involved in a build. I always have to mark out ground areas, as well as height and width, sometimes even depth as well. The better I know the area to be built on, the better work I can do.” He shrugged. “Once you’ve done things enough, you start to recognize how water flow can determine depth of rivers and lakes, or where the water might be moving into an underground stream. Woods are fairly easy because the type of trees will let me know root length and depth, so I can determine where to build and if a tree needs removed or replanted, although the unfamiliar plant life of Neveah makes that harder. Truthfully, I can’t say with a hundred percentage accuracy that these distances and lengths I’ve noted are true because Neveah is still too unknown to us, but I thought at least these would give us a reference.”
“Corbin, I’m impressed…truly impressed,” Seren said honestly. “I believe what you’ve done will help a lot. Thank you.”
Corbin’s pleasure over the praise was evident, but he ducked his head a little awkwardly. “I’ve enjoyed doing it,” he declared. “And I…wanted you to know you could trust me with it. I can do more than cause trouble,” he said almost as an afterthought.
Seren glanced at Kel, who was looking at Corbin with sympathy and eyes that seemed to understand. Seren felt a little bad. He hadn’t wanted to give Corbin the impression that he didn’t think highly of him, but he now feared that their past confrontations were weighing on the young man.
Doing what Kel had done earlier, Seren put a hand on Corbin’s shoulder and squeezed lightly. “I haven’t thought of you as a troublemaker, Corbin. I know it can be hard to accept an assigned task you don’t enjoy, such as being in the Agriculture Unit on the ship, but you pulled through and I can see the effort you’ve been putting in to correct past mistakes. I don’t want you to think you have to prove anything to me. I know you’re a benefit to our crew.”
Tension he wasn’t aware had been in the other man drained from Corbin’s body. The shoulder under Seren’s hand relaxed.
“Thank you, sir,” the still somewhat young sounding voice offered. “I’m glad you’re our Charge Pilot.”
It could have been awkward after that, but Kel seemed to see that moment as the right time to restart participating with the two of them. He sat with them, creating a casual triangle of the three of them, and handed a small package to Seren.
“Here, sir. I thought you might like to take some of the flat bread with you to your shelter when you leave.”
“Thank you,” Seren responded and couldn’t help smiling at the other man. He felt rescued from the momentary awkwardness with Corbin, and was more than pleased to have some of the bread to take with him. He’d truly enjoyed it.
Kel, after handing off the package, turned his tender gaze to Corbin. “Might I see the map, Cory?” he asked.
Seren watched as Corbin smiled at Kel, almost like there was a shared secret between them, but then turned the map for his friend to study it. This time Seren listened as Kel asked questions and Corbin explained things. After a few minutes, Kel patted Corbin’s knee.
“It’s splendid. I can’t imagine anyone doing better. I hope you’ll let me see the final results when the trek is over.”
Corbin nodded happily. Seren smiled slightly at the sight, enjoying both Corbin’s happiness and Kel’s peaceful nature. He wasn’t eager to leave the relaxing evening, but he knew he needed to return to his shelter. He’d be starting his guard patrol in another hour and needed to mark the day’s incidents down in his log before that time.
“Gentlemen, thank you for this evening,” he said, garnering their attention. “It was nice to be able to relax for a time. I hope we might be able to do it again, but I’m afraid I have to say my good-byes.”
He very nearly changed his mind when he saw Corbin’s face fall, but the younger man quickly caught himself and forced his expression into one of disappointment but grudging acceptance.
“Thanks for coming, Charge Seren,” he murmured. “I’m glad I got to show you the map.”
Seren smiled at him, for a moment unexpectedly tempted to run a hand through Corbin’s hair and try to soothe him, but he withheld, knowing it wouldn’t be appropriate. “I’m glad I got to see it; and please, in moments like these when we can be friends and neighbors, you can call me Seren.”
That brought pure joy returning to the Backer’s face and Seren was pleased with himself. He looked to Kel who almost looked to be scrutinizing him for a moment, but that easy gaze of his kept it from feeling unnerving.
“You’ll always be welcome to share a meal or a visit, Seren,” the man offered sincerely. “I think we’d all enjoy it.”
Seren thought so too, and planned to make use of the invitation in the future. For now, he knew he did need to leave. With a final good-bye and the packet of flat bread Kel had given, he returned with thoughtful steps to his shelter.