Laura banks was already loving the walk up river, and she loved Neal for suggesting it. They had already travelled a lot of ground. Neither of their packs were heavy, and they were used to being out in the field for days on end. Neal seemed to have lightened up since she’d changed out of her swimsuit into some practical field clothes. He was a funny guy, he seemed to get so edgy when she dressed nice, like he no longer knew how to take her. As far as she was concerned, she was always the same Laura Banks.
“Let me ask you something,” Neal said.
“We were allowed a small pack of possessions to bring with us from earth. So tell me, why a bikini of all things?”
She shrugged. “I happen to like swimming, and it’s not like it takes up much room.”
“I guess I can’t argue with that.”
“It’s good to be seeing new parts of this planet. We’re still sleeping in tents back at Moreau anyway, so it won’t really be any different out here.”
“Yeah. It’s funny though. My brother loves to go camping with his kids when he’s on holiday. For me, that’s too much like my working life.” Neal hesitated. “At least he did. I keep forgetting that he’s been dead for hundreds of years.”
“I didn’t know your brother had kids,” Laura said, trying to steer the conversation slightly away from the morbid. “Nieces or nephews?”
“One of each.”
“That must have been nice. Being an only child I never had either.”
“You ever regret not having a family of your own?”
“Not as such, I mean, it’s not as if it’s too late is it? I’m not that old.”
“I suppose you’re right, it’s just that you’ve been so focussed on your career. I know I have. Sometimes it feels like we’ve both missed the boat.”
Laura shook her head “For me it was never about career, it was about trying to save Earth, but we’re not on Earth anymore. I’d still like to have a family, now more than ever. Think about it, we’ve got a whole new planet to populate. This is the time to think about settling down with someone.”
“Well, we have a much smaller pool to draw from, but yeah why not.” Neal’s voice had shifted into discomfort again. What was up with him? “You got you eye on anyone in particular?” he asked her, as he took a sip from his water canteen.
“Well, I’m pretty choosy. I’ve always wanted somebody who knew me very well, someone I knew well too. I’m not the kind to jump into a relationship at first meeting. I gotta get to know someone over a long period of time.”
“I’ve noticed that about you.”
“It’s funny Neal, but given that criteria, the only real option I see on Xinju at the moment is you.”
Neal nearly choked on his water.
“It’s okay, That wasn’t a proposition, it’s just a shame you’re not interested in me in that way. You really need to calm down Mate.”
Neal said nothing, he just kept walking.
“Look, I’m sorry if I embarrassed you. You’ve been acting strange around me ever since we arrived on this planet. What’s the go?”
Neal seemed to visibly struggle for words. “It’s just, well.”
“What?” Suddenly understanding dawned on her. “You don’t actually have feelings for me do you?”
Again Neal said nothing.
He stopped walking, and turned to her. “Yeah okay, I do. You really want to know the truth? I’ve been in love with you for a very long time.”
Laura didn’t know what to say.
“So why the hell didn’t you tell me?”
“It wasn’t that simple. Besides, you never told me either.”
“Hey, I’ve started to realise just recently that I have feelings for you, and I just told you now. How long have you had feelings for me?”
Neal let out a long sigh. “Oh, years. I’ve lost count.”
“I would really like to know why you kept it to yourself.”
“I guess I just felt like you were too good for me?”
“That’s just plain stupid. Too good in what way? You’re a charming intelligent kind man – a real gentleman. I respect you. Seems like we’re just right for each other.”
“Well, you know, you’re just so attractive.”
Laura couldn’t help but laugh at the irony. “This is just brilliant this is. I never thought I’d be rejected for being too attractive. What do you mean by that?”
“Well, you’re one of those women who are especially beautiful. The kind that other women envy. The kind that men are always after. I’m not exactly the male equivalent. I just felt I had no business being with you, that you could do better.”
“Especially beautiful? What’s that? And I can’t believe you would think I’d be that shallow. In fact, I can’t believe you’re that shallow.”
He hung his head down in a display of shame. “I’m sorry.”
“You really need to get some bloody confidence Neal.”
She started walking again. Neal began to follow a moment later, like a lost puppy.
Laura let out a sigh, trying to let her frustration dissipate. “You know this is ridiculous. We’ve just discovered that we love each other, and we’re fighting. We’ve never fought before. We should be happy.”
“I suppose we should,” Neal said, a little more confidence creeping in to his voice. “It’s weird, after all this time, to think I actually have a shot with you.”
“More than a shot Neal. I just told you that you’re the one for me. Now, what does that make you want to do? I’m really interested in how you respond to this.”
He seemed to consider his response for a moment. “You’re suggesting we go on a date when we get back to Moreau Town?”
“Come on Neal, we’ve known each other over a decade. I think we’re a little past dating don’t you? Do you really think you can get to know me any more than you already do?”
“Okay, so what are you saying?”
“I’m saying that if you asked me to marry you, I’d say yes.” She gave Neal a smug grin, eager to see what he’d make of that.
“Well that is what we were talking about wasn’t it? Finding someone to settle down with and raise a family.”
“Well?” She waited expectantly.
“What, you want me to propose right here and now? Laura, for goodness sake, two minutes ago we were just friends, now we’re talking marriage. Am I the only one struggling to keep up with the pace here?”
Laura’s heart sank. “I suppose it would be too much to expect a little movement from someone who’s taken years to admit how he even feels.”
“Now come on Laura, be reasonable.”
She raised a hand to silence him. The conversation was over. “Just give me a call when you’ve finally worked up the guts okay. Hopefully I won’t have died from old age.”
She began walking briskly, trying to put some distance between them.
“Laura,” he called from behind. She didn’t slow down.