Chapter 41: Instinctive

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January 1, 2358

Mount Rushmore National Memorial


"Okay, I hate to be the first to say it, but we've been walking for three hours and my feet are killing me," Amaris announced, leaning against a tree trunk and holding her right foot off the ground.

Cai stopped at her side, his eyes shooting between her—rare—sheepish expression and the back of Ari's head from where she stopped much further ahead. Silence replaced the steady sounds of their feet crunching dead leaves as the day took with it the last layer of light snow. It took none of the bitter cold, however, and the only noise floating into the air was the sounds of their labored breaths.

Staring at Ari's stiffened back and the determined set of her shoulder blades, Cai could practically see the wheels in her mind turning. Ever since the shooting stopped, she'd been on a very clear mission. And it had worked. She'd done her job. They were far, far away from the hotel and relatively safe. So what was the harm in stopping to rest? Yet, that same panicked nature was still settled on the idea that they had not gotten far enough away and must keep moving. At last, the struggle was decided when her head turned slightly to the left and her eye rested on Eila.

"Fifteen minutes. Use it wisely," she added, finally taking her gaze all the way back to Cai.

A spell was broken. The continuous, weary, grudging march had paused and they went from being tin soldiers to people again in an instant. Cai immediately turned to Ris, who sank to the ground with a relieved sigh. He crouched by her side as she yanked off the shoes that were a size too small and began rubbing her feet.

Meanwhile, Ari seemed to be in silent communion with Eila. Their eyes had locked from a yard away and questions were followed by wordless answers. As soon as she was satisfied, Ari made to sit down. She didn't make it all the way down before she leapt to her feet again. Even Ris couldn't take her eyes from the restless teen as she paced in a small circle. Cai was expecting it when she announced that she was going to do a quick scout around.

When she was gone, Cai turned his attention back to his best friend. "How are you doing?"

Ris barked a sarcastic laugh. "Well, I've watched my best friend get shot at. Had to dive under a table to avoid being trampled. Was dragged out of the room by some girl I don't know, claiming that she was there to help. Been forced to leave every tiny thing I knew in this blasted country. And, oh yeah, been forced to run from the very people hired to protect you. I'm doing just freaking fantastic!" Her bravado coated her words thickly, but he could see the cracks in her eyes. She was barely holding herself together. One more push and she just might lose it. And it was all his fault.

"I'm sorry, Ris. I shouldn't have made you do this," he muttered, unable to look her in the eyes.

"You didn't make me do anything, Cai. Look at me. I mean it," she growled when his eyes flickered to hers. "I wouldn't have stayed. Even if you'd asked me to. I'm not leaving you. Ever."

A small smile pulled at his lips that he tried to mask in a weary exhale. Looking again through the trees, he tried to find some sign of his sister. "How much longer do you think she'll make us travel before she realizes no one's coming after us?"

Silence answered him and when he looked at Amaris, a wry expression had twisted her lips. "I'm not sure. Why don't you ask her? She is your sister, after all."

For a minute, the words rolled around inside of his mind. They seemed strange, when she said it like that. Despite throwing the phrase around for months, it seemed different now that there was an opportunity. Now that he was face to face with the reality.

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