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When In Petra…

Chapter Text

As lovely as driving in the Wadi Rum desert had been in the early dawn light, with the rising sun staining the rocks gorgeous shades of purple, orange and salmon pink, by nine a.m. it was warming up, so Natasha unzipped her fleece jacket and pulled it off, stuffing it into the backpack at her feet. Their ancient jeep/truck/monster bumped along the dirt road, merrily driven by Dr. Ahmed Khamash, Director of Antiquities at the Royal Jordan Museum. Hills the color of toffee and marmalade swept by in dramatic upsweeps of strata and weather-worn pillars, like a giant, exuberant potter throwing slabs of orange clay.

Unlike the chilly wet weather of her hometown of Vancouver, BC, Natasha was enjoying the warmth and sunshine of December in Jordan. A few maverick clouds dotted the winter sky, but most of it was a pure, bright blue, like the sky in a Ghibli anime. She pulled her sunscreen from her backpack and applied some to her face, neck and forearms, a precaution she had to take because her summer tan had long since faded in the last few months of overcast skies back home. Finally, after ninety minutes of bouncing around in the back seat of the ancient utility vehicle, Natasha was relieved to hear Dr. Khamash tell her father in the front passenger seat, “Harold, look! Just around that bluff up ahead; we’re almost at the dig site.”

Nat glanced over at Marcus, sitting next to her in the middle seat, and they shared a look that meant both “Thank all the gods,” as well as, “Here we go again.” Marcus’ mother, June, sitting on the other side of him, by the window, rummaged around in her equipment bag, unpacking an expensive digital camera. She grinned excitedly over at Nat and Marcus, then leaned forward to the front seat and squeezed Harold’s shoulder. “I can’t wait to see Khirbet Edh-Dharih,” she told him. “I’ve been looking forward to this for months!”

June, Marcus and Natasha had just flown into Jordan from Toronto (where Nat had met up with them) two days earlier. The long series of flights had left the two teens tired and cranky, but June remained her always-cheerful, energetic self. After one night at a hotel in the capitol city of Amman, they had stocked up on travel necessities, including dried fruit and nuts, lightweight scarves, and bottles of water. Then the next morning the trio had been driven four hours south to Aqaba by Michael, one of Dr. Khamash’s archaeology grad students. Natasha, used to the lush temperate forests of BC, had enjoyed the drive through the desert on the smooth, fast highway. The scenery was so different; craggy rock formations and a thousand shades of brown, pink and gold. Once in a while they passed a river valley with a stand of trees, but for the most part, everything looked dry and uninhabitable.

Dr. Harold Anderson, Natasha’s father, was an archaeologist at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. From a young age she’d been digging ‘fossils’ out of the sandbox while all her preschool friends were pushing plastic trucks around. Her mom was not impressed when the ‘coprolites’ her daughter proudly showed her were actually just dried-up cat poop. Later, when her classmates were reading Rainbow Fairies and Captain Underpants, she was reading back issues of National Geographic. She and her dad had a close relationship when he was teaching classes at home, but every year he’d take at least one semester to travel to exotic lands for research and digs. She loved the stories he told her about his trips to Morocco, Guatemala, Egypt and Sri Lanka. She wanted to hear about ancient civilizations; how they lived, what they ate, and the tiny, seemingly insignificant clues he and his colleagues used to put those stories together.

Eventually her mother decided that she wanted a husband who was home the whole year round, and her parents had divorced when she was about eight; her mom remarried a year later. Natasha had stayed at home with her mom, step-dad and half brother for most of her dad’s previous research trips, but now she was a senior in high school. She’d just finished the last semester that counted for college transcripts, and she had three weeks off to spend with her dad in Jordan. This was the first vacation time she’d spent with him since he got remarried the previous August, and they didn’t want her to miss out on seeing each other just because he was working half a world away.

Harold had rented a flat in Aqaba for the duration of his participation in Dr. Khamash’s dig. He’d rented a large enough place for himself and his new wife June, their two kids, and an extra study for the loads of electronics he and June needed for their research and analysis. Dr. Juniper Bale, an engineer and expert on using LiDAR technology to find undiscovered archaeological sites, was joining the research team now that her teaching sabbatical had begun, and she’d brought her only son Marcus, so that the four of them could bond as a new family.

Marcus was… interesting, Nat thought. As pale as her, but with almost white-blond hair instead of her chocolate brown, he was even less suited to this climate of plentiful sunshine. Although December was the beginning of the rainy season, Marcus would be staying here with his mom for the duration of the study, at least six months, and Natasha didn’t know how he would survive a summer in the Middle Eastern desert. He was a few inches taller than herself, even though at sixteen and a half, he was almost a year younger. He’d grown up in many different places, homeschooled by his single mom and dragged along to whichever university or dig site she happened to be working at that year. He’d lived in Peru, Turkey, Mexico, South Africa, Scotland, India, and Israel for months at a time, interspersed with a few years each in Toronto, San Francisco and Vancouver. He spoke goodness knows how many languages, seemed to know everything about his mother’s work, and was chatty with every adult they met. With Natasha, however, he had very little to say. They had hung out a little bit before and after their parents’ wedding the summer before, and she had tried to break the ice with him several times, but despite a few times when she thought he might have smiled a little at her jokes, he never seemed to have much to talk about with her.

She thought she might have broken through his shell last night in Aqaba. They’d arrived just before dinner, and eaten with Dr. Khamash, Harold and June, but when the grownups started talking shop, she grabbed Marcus by the wrist, shouted, “We’re exploring the city!” and dragged him out the door. “Don’t forget your headscarf, Nat!” June reminded them. They were, after all in a country where women usually covered their heads, and Nat didn’t want to offend anyone.

Natasha and Marcus explored the area around their flat, bought sweet flaky pastries and apricots at a nearby market, and walked toward the azure water of the Gulf of Aqaba, a ways down the hill from where they were staying. Marcus steered her away from dodgy-looking alleys and groups of men talking at them in muttered Arabic; he seemed to have an instinct for navigating the strange city, probably from years of travel. The ocean was gorgeous. They sat on a bench along the seawall, eating their snack, and watched the stars come out over the ancient city. People in a nearby café were playing music and singing, and for the first time, the silence between herself and Marcus hadn’t felt awkward.

“I wish we’d had time to go swimming yesterday before we left Amman,” Marcus said. Nat nodded in agreement, and he went on. “The Dead Sea is really cool for swimming, because of all the salt.”

“Yeah,” Nat said. “I remember my dad telling me about it when I was a kid. He put one egg in a glass of regular water, and another egg in a glass of salt water, and the salty one floated higher, just like the Dead Sea, he said.” She slid down a little and rested her head against the back of the bench, looking up at the darkening night sky. “Maybe we’ll get a chance after we get back from the dig next week.” Nat turned her head slightly and thought she caught Marcus looking at her, before he quickly looked away.

Nat studied Marcus’ profile as he looked out across the sea. His light blue eyes and blond hair seemed to sparkle with the reflections of the street lamps and stars, just beginning to glow. His eyebrows and eyelashes were several shades darker, and they set off his features in a way that made her a little jealous of his looks. Add to that his lush lips and slim, straight nose, and he was probably the best-looking boy she’d ever seen, maybe even prettier than most girls she knew. She sighed to herself. As much as she found him attractive, putting the moves on her new stepbrother while they were stuck together, living under the same roof (or tent, later), was probably a terrible idea. What if he just thought it was creepy, and then they couldn’t get away from each other for weeks? No thanks, that would just be unbearably awkward, she thought.