“Is this kamphas?” Nathan called.
Penny suppressed a sigh and walked over to where he was kneeling, holding a green plant. “No, remember, I said the leaves are more rounded. Would it help if I gave you some to hold onto, so you could compare it?”
“I doubt it,” he said with a frown. “All you have is dried up, so it wouldn’t look the same. The leaves on what you showed me didn’t look very round. They looked…well, sort of like this.”
“I told you that hunting for kamphas can be tedious, unrewarding work.”
He straightened up and looked at her curiously. “Did I complain?”
He nodded then. “I’m bothering you.”
“Not…bothering,” she said. “I just…don’t know why you wanted to come with me at all.”
He smiled. “You don’t understand why someone would want to spend time with you?”
“I don’t understand why you would want to spend time with me in this way,” she said, trying really hard not to blush.
He shrugged and started walking again. She followed him.
“You said you’d have lunch with me today,” he reminded her.
“I know, but—”
“But you ran out of kamphas and needed to procure more as soon as possible. You told me.” His tone led Penny to think that he didn’t believe her.
“I used more than I thought making the Substance K for my final examination, and still didn’t have enough K made, so it was vital that I…what?” He had stopped and was looking at her with an amused expression.
“You’re avoiding me.”
“What? Of course I’m not. I really did need more kamphas.”
“Then why are you so uncomfortable with me coming along?” He held up the basket he’d been carrying the entire time. “You said we’d have lunch; I’m just providing a way to do that and allow you to restock your kamphas supply at the same time.”
She finally softened a bit, feeling badly about how she’d been treating him. “I am hungry, and you know how much I always enjoy the food you bring me. But I didn’t lie about needing more kamphas…maybe about how vital it was that I get some as soon as possible…”
“Then can we stop and eat now? I promise to stay and help until we find as much kamphas as you need after that.”
She took a breath and held it in for a long moment, then exhaled and nodded. He began to lay out the food he’d brought and gestured his invitation for Penny to sit next to him on the blanket he’d hastily stuffed into the basket as soon as he caught wind of the location change for their lunch.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t completely truthful to you,” Penny said, eyeing the food, but unwilling yet to partake. “I…I don’t really know why it’s been so awkward to be around you.”
“I think I do,” he said. After a pause, he put forth his theory. “Ever since I told you about my past, there have been no more barriers between us. I think it scares you.”
“Doesn’t it scare you?” she asked quickly.
“Why would it scare me? You’ve become one of my best friends. I care…very deeply about you.” He looked her directly in the eyes, remembering the connection he’d felt with her right after he’d told her his story. Right before she’d hurried out of the room and spent the next few months deftly avoiding him. “In the interest of complete honesty—”
“Oh, don’t tell me there’s more,” she interrupted.
“Nathan, I don’t know how to handle what you shared with me. I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like to grow up the way that you did! I care about you too, but…well, like you said, it scares me.”
He put his hands on the blanket behind him and leaned back, stretching out his legs. “Why?”
She shook her head. She wasn’t sure how to put into words what she’d been feeling. “I guess I feel like you want me to fill some kind of role for you, something I don’t understand and don’t know that I can possibly do. I guess…I just don’t know what you want from me.”