Chapter 74: Binding

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Silence reigned in the bus that morning, but Lex had to admit that it seemed due to the fact that they'd started off before dawn, rather than the angry, sometimes sullen silence that fell whenever Lakshmi joined them. Now several days later, Kate seemed to have regained her normal carefree demeanor, but Lex could see the sadness and anger in her friend's face whenever she happened to glance upon Kate while no one else did.

Lex could tell from the way the sky had brightened overhead that the sun had begun to rise, but due to the trees everywhere around, she couldn't see it. The bus had stopped in a quiet parking lot, more an indentation on the side of the road, near the edge of Virginia side of the George Washington National Forest, and as yet most of her companions hadn't stirred, a number of them still sleeping, drawn into it by the tedium of the hours-long drive in the near darkness.

She hesitated at being the first one to move, liking the feeling in the space far more than anything she'd felt there in days, and turned to the side to see Rolf already looking at her, a small smile on his face. Lex kissed him, closing her eyes and savoring the momentary feeling of peace, then snuggled into his side, leaning her head against his.

"I'm so glad you came with us," she whispered, knowing that she'd spoken the truth, but feeling selfish to want him with her, due to the danger she knew she'd put him in.

Feeling him smile against her neck, Lex smiled as well. "My place is at your side, no matter what," he replied.

Closing her eyes again as he kissed her, a moment later Lex felt startled by the hand on her shoulder, glancing up to see Casey.

"Sorry to interrupt, but we should probably get going," Casey said, ducking her head.

"All right," Lex replied, standing to see Lou picking up his and Casey's backpacks from the seat behind him. Glancing a few rows ahead, Lex spotted Lily standing and leaning to touch Kate's shoulder to wake their sleeping friend. Lex nodded and moved to get out of her seat and pick up her own backpack.

About fifteen minutes later, she shouldered her bag and followed as Lou led them into the trees, towering hardwoods in the main with some shorter mid-canopy trees, like dogwoods and redbuds. When she'd talked to Rolf about their journey earlier, wondering if he could lead the party through, he'd shaken his head.

"I can navigate very well through woods, that's true, but I'm probably not going to be able to get us to a specific spot unless I've been there before," he'd replied, and Lex had smiled at the time, thinking that sounded reasonable.

Lou, however, had been an inveterate woodsman since his youth, and seemed to have no trouble leading the group through the forest, Lex noted, but after the first hour of their trip, they'd had to take a break due to the thickness of the woods. Casey sat on a nearby tree stump, winded from having to slash a path through the vines that blocked any possible route through the trees. Lou leaned against a tree a couple of feet away, his breathing slowing as he checked his compass again. When he looked up, he turned to Lex.

"Is it usually like this out here?" he asked, gesturing to the woods around them.

Lex shook her head. "Usually, a lot of the vines stick to where there's more sun, even if it's patchy. In the deep woods like this, I've never seen this many of them. I mean, I know you can see on the roadsides sometimes where kudzu and wild grape have taken over, but it's not like that everywhere, especially not this far into the woods."

He nodded as if she'd confirmed what he'd suspected, and then looked overhead. Casey frowned as he did, asking, "How far have we gotten?"

Lou shrugged in reply. "Not as far as I'd planned; I'm glad we brought camping gear. Let's continue in this direction. At the rate we're traveling, we're barely going to get into the area where most of the hikers disappeared. If we don't run into anything today, we can camp and see what happens tomorrow."

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