Chapter 44: Attraction

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January 2, 2358

Mount Rushmore National Memorial


Cai could tell the instant something changed for Ari. Not a moment after she'd opened her mouth to say something more, her lips pressed tightly together and her eyes shot off into the trees. She wasn't scouring the dark for the source of some imagined noise. Instead, her eyes narrowed in on the stretch of woods between them and Valor. There was definitely someone or something out there.

Ice seemed to coat his veins while his heart tried to beat out of his chest. After a moment of hearing nothing, Cai was about to ask her what was going on when she hastily put a finger to her lips. Slowly, he closed his mouth and continued to watch his twin creep away on the balls of her feet. If he weren't so close to her, he would swear that she was completely silent in her movements.

Even while he kept absolutely still in fear of what might be coming, Ari moved further away from him. Perhaps what made his mind go absolutely still was what she pulled from her vest. Dark as it was, there was no mistaking the wicked blade that she held tight in her left hand. By the set of her shoulders and the cautious moves she used to stalk whatever she'd heard, Cai was very sure that she would have no problem using it.

Then a voice came out of the dark. "Easy now. Why don't you put the knife back in your pocket, hmm?"

Cai was more than a little shocked when Ari sprang to her feet. "Jace," she said in a voice that was barely audible.

"Ari, put the knife away. Please?" continued the voice as a dark mass suddenly became visible to Cai.

"You're alone?" Ari demanded in a suddenly hard voice. The fist gripping the k-bar only tightened. "You weren't followed?"

"I'm alone, and you know better."

Slowly, Ari returned the blade to her pocket as she stood and waited. Because of how dark it was, Cai could see almost nothing as the man silently approached his sister. When he was finally somewhat visible, Cai could make out the small smirk on his face. It was wiped away the moment he stopped in front of Ari.

Unable to see the expression on his sister's face, Cai was immediately alarmed when Jace's features fell and he leaned closer. Dropping his voice, he asked, "Ari? You okay?"

Ari quickly averted her face and nodded without look at him. "Fine. Just ... glad you're not dead."

Jace gave a relieved chuckle. "Me too. Where are the others?"

"Eila and Amaris are sleeping."

A small silence extended between them before Jace asked in a voice that seemed significant. "And Cai?"

Instead of answering, Ari turned her head in his direction. Before anymore could be said, Cai quickly rose to his feet, waiting to be introduced to the man they owed their lives to. Numerous times, now.

Leading Jace, Ari strode straight for her brother. Placing herself on his left, she turned to Jace and smiled. It was one of the few truly happy smiles that Cai had been witness to. Judging by the look on Jace's face, he'd found them to be even more rare.

"Jace, this is Cai. My twin," she announced proudly.

A smile spread slowly across Jace's face as he watched her before he switched his attention to Cai. The soldier held out a hand and Cai took it in his own for a strong handshake. "Sergeant Jace Naois. It's nice to finally meet you."

"Likewise. And ... thank you. For saving all of us."

For some reason, when he met the soldier's eyes, Cai felt tense. As if the man were assessing every aspect of his soul while their gazes held. The fact that Jace's ever-present soldier's edge was stifling him didn't help matters.

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