Disclaimer: Let's skip the boring part, shall we?

Author Notes: Writer's block is a terrible thing, and being an Al/Nel fangirl for too long can damage your mind permanently, as you will soon learn from reading this fic. You've seen the summary, right? It's true; expect no plot and nothing but a random spurt of fanservice ahead.

BlueTrillium, many thanks for putting up with me and my fics. In return, I can only promise to poke you harder. :)

Before Dawn

by Lucrecia LeVrai

Nel awoke at least half an hour before dawn, when the sky was still a dull shade of gray, dotted with a few fading stars. She stared up at them for a couple of moments, breathing in the fresh, forest air, and finally deciding that even though sleeping outdoors had at least some advantages, it could hardly compare to a good rest in a regular bed. Beautiful scenery or not, it would take an absolute masochist to prefer roots and multiple sharp twigs to a set of clean, smooth sheets and a warm inn. Nel was by no means unused to physical discomfort, but right now, as the said twigs continued to dig painfully into her back, she was beginning to regret Fayt's decision to take a shortcut through the woods.

She understood that the boy's choice had been a very reasonable one, because time was not on their side. The sooner they reached the Marquis' lair, the better. She just didn't appreciate feeling this sore so early in the morning. There was no point in complaining about it, though.

Going back to sleep seemed useless, since it would only mean having to wake up again in just a few minutes—most likely to the sound of Adray's cheerful singing. Nel cringed at the multiple remembrances. Clair's father had usually tried to mask his obvious lack of vocal skills with sheer enthusiasm, having somehow concluded that a false note might sound right enough if it was produced at the top of his voice. Too bad it never worked in practice.

A mental picture of Adray's most recent performance was enough to wake up even a very drowsy person. Nel sat up at last, stifling a growl and wincing slightly as her muscles ached in protest. One glance at the campsite told her that her comrades were still asleep. She had expected as much. Judging from Cliff's intense snoring, the man couldn't care less about the lack of sheets and other basic luxuries. He was effectively drowning out the majority of the local birds, maybe because he got such a nice help from the little Menodix brat.

Nel rose to her feet and sighed, running a slender hand through her tousled hair. A quick bath might be able to ease all the cramps in her body. Yes, it sounded like a nice idea, especially if she could bring herself to enjoy the chilly waters of a nearby lake. She had been there last night with Maria: reaching it would take her only four or five minutes, which meant that she still had enough time to go and return unnoticed before the whole group woke up.

Careful not to disturb any of her slumbering comrades, Nel began to overstep their scattered belongings, slowly making her way through the narrow clearing. Not a single twig snapped under her boots as she moved, a meaningful testimony to her skills. She paused only to stare down at Fayt, the group's unquestioned leader for the time being. The nineteen-year-old boy looked rather peaceful in his sleep: even the corners of his mouth were pulled up into a carefree, relaxed expression. Nel struggled to remember the last moment she had seen him like this. Fayt had a tendency to blame himself for everything, including the terrible Vendeeni attack that certainly hadn't been his fault, regardless of what he claimed. Sometimes, she really wanted to pull the young man aside a give him a good lecture on being reasonable… but then again, lectures had never been her style, and so she kept silent, limiting herself to supporting Fayt in every other way she could, from constant help in battle to simple, reassuring gestures.

Tearing her gaze away from the sleeping boy, Nel quickly adjusted her daggers in their holsters, and then turned towards the dark forest. The surrounding area was said to be free of predators large enough to endanger a grown-up human, but one could never be too sure, especially so early in the morning and far from the campfire's warm glow. The crimson-haired warrior didn't feel like taking any chances, so she kept all noise to a minimum as she went deeper into the woods, carefully following the shortest route to the lake. The moment she emerged on the shore, however, she instantly caught herself wishing she had stumbled across a pack of vicious monsters. She knew how to handle those… whereas she had absolutely no idea how to react to the sight of a very naked man in the middle of the pond. And not just any naked man. Of all possible people to run into under such awkward circumstances, she had to cross paths with Albel the Wicked.

Nel's hesitation didn't last more than a split second. Embarrassed beyond belief, she leapt behind the nearest tree, turning away from the spring. Thank Apris that she had acted so quietly the whole time, and that the Glyphian captain had been facing the opposite bank when she had reached the lake. He couldn't have possibly noticed her, which was a relief. She wasn't in the mood to deal with his unpleasantness.

Safe and stuck for the time being, Nel quickly considered her options. The new day was dawning rather fast; in just a few moments the clearing would become much brighter. She had to leave as soon as possible, unless she fancied being caught like this, peeking at her former enemy. It was easier said than done, though. The tree trunk appeared to be wide enough to hide her slender form from view, but if she moved from behind it, wouldn't the man spot her at once? Was his face still turned to the other shore…?

Nel risked a second glance in Albel's direction. Miracle of miracles, it seemed that he hadn't noticed anything strange so far; he simply kept splashing his face with water. Having finally calmed down somewhat, the red-haired woman allowed herself a closer look at her current ally. It was supposed to be a short peek, and yet a few moments later she discovered, much to her own surprise, that she couldn't take her eyes off the man.

It wasn't as if she had never seen a breathing, naked male before. Aquarian warriors such as herself were by no means holy priestesses of Apris, all sworn to chastity under the penalty of exile. According to the unwritten rules of her society, premarital sex was a taboo subject, but the fact that people didn't talk about certain matters in public obviously didn't stop them from indulging in these forbidden pleasures. Her best friend, Clair, used to say that if you saw just one undressed man, others looked pretty much the same.

Nel had always shared this opinion. Still, something about Albel made her heart beat faster.

It was almost a pity that a person with such a rotten soul could appear so damn attractive.

In fact, 'attractive' didn't even begin to describe it. He seemed downright gorgeous. Cliff could laugh at the Elicoorians as much as he wanted, but he was just an ignorant off-worlder with no sense of fashion. Perhaps on his planet a short-haired guy in tight pants was considered the very epitome of attractiveness, but her world had different canons for masculine beauty.

Albel wasn't exactly perfect, as far as these canons went. Tall and slender, he didn't look the part of a genius swordsman; actually, he lacked most outward appearances of physical strength. Nel could easily see his scars and shoulder blades, not his muscles. Besides, he seemed rather pale for a man who should spend most of his time outdoors, fighting and killing things… then again, the kingdom of Airyglyph had never been a sunny land. And for the past couple of weeks Albel had been locked in some cold dungeon, too. Such an experience was bound to take its toll even on the toughest of people. The Glyphian seemed to be thinner and a bit slower from what Nel remembered from their brief encounter in the mountains, two months ago.

Of course, it wasn't as if she pitied him, either. He had probably deserved every second of his punishment, if not because of his so-called treason, then for his war crimes and the way he loved to abuse those weaker than himself. Torturing Farleen and Tynave had clearly amused him, and it was only fair that he had tasted equal suffering, spiced up with a great deal of humiliation. Nel felt a twinge of dark satisfaction as she recalled the moment she had seen Albel in chains: not broken, but helpless and exhausted all the same. The look of silent rage in his crimson eyes had been very rewarding, almost enough to make her accept their current mission without much protest.

Nel sighed, struggling to clear her mind of these rather ignoble thoughts. She wasn't a person of his kind, after all; she didn't find pleasure in other people's misery. If Albel was willing to put his past behind him, and act like a civilized human being in her company, she felt obliged to follow the set example. Oh, sure, the man still behaved like a jerk most of the time, but at least he never resorted to open hostility. Nel really appreciated it, and made a point to avoid him as often as possible. Thus it was all the more surprising that she felt so drawn to him on this particular morning. She guessed she could have left the clearing by now, and yet here she was, sprawled against the tree, silently contemplating her former enemy.

She let her gaze trail lower, along his twin braids, down to the surface of the lake. The water started about an inch below Albel's waist. It was deep enough to hide a few important aspects of the man's anatomy from view, so Nel studied his left arm instead, the one he usually hid under the metal gauntlet. She had heard a few rumors concerning the origins of that weapon and some of them didn't seem to land too far from the truth. Albel's forearm was wrapped in bandages, but the hand itself was not; it hovered right above the water, because the warrior obviously intended to keep it dry. Nel suppressed a disbelieving sigh, then counted the fingers. Three were missing.

"You know," a low, mocking voice suddenly cut the silence, breaking her previous train of thought at once, "your breathing is quite loud for a supposedly professional spy."

Nel all but jumped at Albel's words. Damn, damn, damn. He had finally realized that he was being watched… but how the hell did he know it was her, of all people? He couldn't really see her from his place in the water, could he? She risked a quick glance at his face—he wasn't even looking in her direction! Perhaps he had only hazarded a guess? There was no need to prove him right, then…

"So…" This time, his smug tone was marked by a hint of threat. "Are you going to come out, or are we both going to pretend that you were never there in the first place? Which one is it going to be, Nel?"

Fine, so he hadn't been guessing. Blushing like a virgin on her wedding night—and absolutely hating herself for it—Nel finally stepped out into the open. As awkward as she felt, she knew she had to muster enough self-composure to look the fellow warrior straight in the eye. She also realized that the most reasonable thing to do would be to apologize and walk away, hoping that they would both forget the embarrassing incident soon enough. Unfortunately, no matter how hard she tried, the word 'sorry' could not leave her mouth, possibly because she still felt no remorse for her trespassing. The woods were a public place, right? If he had cared about his privacy so much, he shouldn't have stripped right here, for every passer-by to see.

Albel was once again the first one to break the unpleasant silence. "What's the matter with you, Aquarian?" he chuckled, tilting his head forward so that the wet, dark bangs fell over his eyes. "You may hate my guts as much as I hate yours, but it won't stop you from gawking all the same?"

"I wasn't gawking," she objected immediately, lips pressed into a thin, harsh line.

"Sure," he snorted. "You've only been standing behind that tree for what, ten minutes?"

Nel winced at his bluntness, feeling her cheeks warm up despite herself. "I have more interesting things to do than to watch you bathe, Albel."

"Figures. But it doesn't change the fact that you were there, holding your breath like a little girl who doesn't want to get caught." He snickered, noticing her flushed face. "What is it, Nel? Feeling a bit too hot on this chilly morning? Here, why don't you jump straight into the water? It might cool you off a little."

With his gaze turned in her direction, the insufferable man was currently wading towards the high bank, to the place where his clothes lay. Nel wanted nothing more than to see him slip, choke, hit his head against an underwater boulder and drown on the spot. If any of that happened, she certainly wouldn't try to help him. She would be too busy struggling to keep his foul mouth pressed against the bottom of the lake.

Meanwhile, Albel had stopped by the shore, ready to haul himself out of the waist-deep water. Nel averted her eyes, but it only earned her yet another malicious comment from the captain.

"Oh, now what? Has the play already become too boring? I assure you, the best act is yet to come…"

"I've had enough of your sarcasm." She clenched her teeth, forcing herself to remain calm, because she knew just how much her unease amused him. "Not everything is about you, Albel—I certainly hadn't come here to peek at you. In fact, I was hoping to have a bath myself, but since you were already here, I decided to wait until the pond was free." Having to excuse herself like this was very irritating, to put it mildly. Her nerves were already failing her. "Now, is that clear enough for you, or do I need to repeat myself?"

"Sure, whatever you say." Nel couldn't see the bastard's face, but from the tone of his voice alone she would guess he still wore that irritatingly smug expression. She heard a quiet splash the moment he hauled himself onto the bank. "And I'd say you shouldn't have minded me, really–"

"You just mind your own business, Nox!"

"Look who is talking."

The mocking remark was, unfortunately, all too accurate. Nel's jaw twitched. Unable to argue further when she wasn't right, let alone admit that she wasn't right, Nel fell silent, refusing to open her mouth again in the man's presence. More or less patiently, she waited for him to dress, turning around only when she was certain he had had enough time to put on his clothes. She found him in his usual attire, complete with the claw and the silver collar, sitting on a large boulder by the water, struggling to pull on his solid boots. He must have sensed her gaze, because he looked up, lips twisting into a smirk as soon as their eyes met.

"Well? The lake's all yours."

"And you're still here," Nel noted dryly, without moving an inch.

"So?" He glanced at her from underneath his bangs, perfectly feigned confusion written all over his face. "Oh, don't tell me…" He raised an eyebrow at her, confusion turning into equally artificial surprise. "You're uncomfortable in my presence? You're asking me to respect your privacy?"

Nel took a deep breath, and then inwardly counted to ten. She knew she could keep herself from lashing out at the bastard, even if it cost her all her patience… even if it seemed rather difficult at the moment.

"Cut it out," she finally spoke through clenched teeth. "You've already had your fair share of fun."

"So did you," he retorted at once, and his voice sounded serious this time. "Before I leave, I believe you still owe me something."

There was a long, strained pause. "…Fine, I apologize." Nel raised her hands in a defensive gesture. Another pause followed. "Satisfied now?"

"Bah." Albel pushed the final metal clasp into place, standing up a few seconds later. His expression indicated pure indifference, leading Nel to wonder if the whole argument was necessary, when he seemed to care so little about it. He started to walk away. "Take your time, fool. I won't be lurking behind these trees, you know."

His voice once again held its familiar, mocking edge. Nel felt her ears turn red as an unnerving suspicion flashed through her mind. She spun around before the man could reach the edge of the clearing. "Your word on that, please."

The noise he made in reply could have been anything from barking to laughter, but if it was the latter, it certainly didn't sound too pleasant. And it seemed tinted with anger, too.

"Just who do you think I am, woman?"

Still, Nel's own tone was flat, composed, leaving no room for further discussion. "Albel. I did apologize, so it's your turn to act fair."

There was another contemptuous snort from the captain, but he paused in his tracks. "Fine," he turned around a bit, "you have my word as a knight." The sentence was accompanied by a barely noticeable, mocking bow. "Does that satisfy you?"

Nel stifled a cutting remark about Albel's so-called 'knightly' behavior, and her own opinion on it. Something in his eyes warned her that it wouldn't be a very good idea to push the matter further.

"Yes, it does." She nodded, hesitating for a moment before adding quickly, "Once again, I'm sorry."

"Whatever, fool." Albel was already walking away, not even bothering to look at her. "Hurry up, unless you want to get caught by someone like Roger."

Nel cringed, watching the man's back disappear behind the trees.

All things considered, a bath no longer sounded like such a nice idea.

Author's Notes: All things considered, writing, let alone posting this fic no longer seems like such a nice idea. I think it's a good moment for me to crawl into a hole and die. :)