RJ was training when the evacuation call finally came. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath to steel himself and grabbed his duffle bag, which he had packed for weeks in preparation for this eventuality. Taking one last long look at his flat, he headed to the park where the defence troops were waiting to direct them to the top secret evacuation zone.
Corinth, they called it. Humanity's last hope in the form of a hidden, domed city.
All around him, the residents of Ocean Bluff were gathering, clutching what few belongings they could reasonably carry with them. He scanned the crowd for any familiar faces, when his gaze landed upon a young mother struggling to carry her young son and her belongings towards a military transport. He jogged over to her.
"Hey," he said.
She looked up at him, her expression worried and wary.
"You look like you could use a hand," he said, smiling softly and gesturing towards her bags.
She nodded and he bent down to pick up her duffels, throwing them both over his shoulders along with his own bag.
"Thank you," she said, holding her son tight against her chest. "Are you sure they're not too heavy?"
An entire life and a hope for the future crammed into two small bags. The weight he carried was heavy, but not for the reasons she thought. "They're fine," he replied.
They walked in silence towards the transport, and RJ glanced sideways at her. She was younger than him, yet the lines on her face told him that she had been through a lot in this war. Now she was losing her home and who knows what else. All things considered, he thought she was holding it together well.
An officer met them by the transport. RJ handed her bags off to him and then reached out to help the woman and her son onto the transport. The transport was open at the back, like an oversized pickup truck. Not much cover, RJ decided, but at least they wouldn't have to walk.
"Good luck," he said to her, but as he turned to leave she called out to him.
"Wait. My name is Leanne. And this," she said, gesturing to the boy in her arms, "is Jacob. We're very thankful for your help."
"I'm RJ," he told her, offering her his hand to shake. She took it. "I wish you both a safe journey and a bright future."
For a moment, her eyes lit up and RJ knew that there was nothing she wanted more than to be free of the menace that threatened that future. "You too, RJ," she said, kindly. She picked up one of Jacob's hands, and waved goodbye with it.
RJ smiled slightly. He looked back at them only once as he walked over to where the majority of the gathered refugees were preparing to march.
An officer in a tan military uniform stood on the peace monument at the center of the park -- the highest point save for the trees. Loud speaker in hand, she shouted their marching orders.
"Your attention please. I'm Major Morales. All of us gathered here know what's at stake, and so there's no need for me to remind you that this journey will be neither short nor safe. We'll head out in ten minutes. Follow the transports east. Do not to stop unless an officer tells you that you can. Do not wander off. Doing so not only risks your own safety, but the safety of the entire group. If you spot anything -- anything at all out of the ordinary -- inform your nearest officer immediately. Take care of yourselves, assist anyone you're able to, and keep vigilant and we'll all get through this in one piece."
RJ would keep vigilant. It had been eight years since RJ walked out of the academy, but he was still a Pai Zhua master. However limited his abilities were, he had a duty, and he would do everything in his power to keep the convoy safe.
RJ scanned the crowd, trying to gauge what probable speed they would be traveling at and if anyone around him looked like they needed his help. It was then that he noticed a teenage boy wearing a backpack staring straight at him with wide eyes. RJ met his gaze, but the kid didn't look away like RJ had expected. Instead, he started walking purposefully in RJ's direction, causing RJ to raise an eyebrow.
As the kid got closer, RJ realized that he wasn't a kid at all. Though he had soft features, the young man approaching him couldn't be more than five years younger than him. He was dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt, his light brown hair was cut short, and he kept his hazel eyes directed on RJ, never once looking away.
When the guy was in earshot, RJ asked, "Can I help you with something?"
The guy looked RJ over and seemed to sigh in relief. Then, to RJ's surprise, he smiled one of the most endearing smiles RJ had ever seen. RJ felt his eyes go wide at the sight. Smiles so open were rare in recent times with the war weighing heavily on everyone's minds.
"I think maybe you can," the guy replied, knocking one of his hands against RJ's chest and looking at him expectantly.
RJ had no idea what he was talking about. "O-okay. What can I do for you?"
The guy rolled his eyes and then hit RJ in the chest again. It was only when RJ glanced down that he thought of a possible explanation. He was still wearing his grey training shirt, and the guy had touched him right where the black Pai Zhua logo was embroidered onto its surface.
"Are you... with the Order?" RJ asked carefully.
The guy smiled again. "Yeah, I guess you could say that."
The guy blinked. "Oh." Then he took a step back out of RJ's personal space and offered RJ his hand. "I'm Casey."
RJ stared Casey's outstretched hand, perplexed. He had never known anyone at the Order who was so... approachable. "RJ," he said finally, taking Casey's hand. "Everyone calls me RJ."
"Okay, RJ. Nice to meet you. I don't think I ever saw you at the Academy, but I was only enrolled for two months before the attack so--"
"Attack?" RJ interrupted, his blood running cold. RJ may not have walked out of the Academy on the best of terms, but that didn't mean that he didn't care for the staff and students there. And just because he wasn't on speaking terms with his father, didn't mean he wanted any harm to come to him.
"Yeah. Venjix. About a week ago. I thought everyone knew. I just... You don't look so good."
RJ blinked and looked up at Casey, who, he noticed, was watching him with a concerned expression on his face, his eyebrows furrowed.
"Was anyone hurt?" RJ managed to ask. His throat suddenly felt like it was made of sandpaper.
"There were some injuries, but everyone came out of it alive. Master Mao got everyone to regroup at the Forbidden Room."
RJ closed his eyes and released a breath he hadn't even realized he had been holding. It wasn't until he felt Casey's steadying hand on his shoulder than he opened them again. Casey was still watching RJ like RJ was someone he had to take care of. RJ found this interesting since RJ had gotten the impression that he should be the one looking after Casey, him being a student and all. RJ also found it interesting that Casey was relieved to meet someone from the Order at a final evacuation call. It made RJ ask, "If everyone regrouped, why aren't you with them now?"
Casey ducked his head, seemingly embarrassed. "Yeah, about that..."
Suddenly, there was a loud whistle and all the chatter around them quieted. When RJ turned, Major Morales was once again standing on the monument. Through her loud speaker, she announced: "We're heading out now. There will be a series of transports at the front and rear of our march. It is important that you stay between them at all times. Good luck and Godspeed."
The march began quickly and quietly. No one said much as everyone filed out of the park and onto a main road leading out of town. RJ knew that, deep down, everyone understood that they would never be coming back. It was, after all, very unlikely that Ocean Bluff would still be standing in a week.
Casey stuck by RJ's side, his silence companionable as they walked by empty, darkened shops.
"You know," Casey said, softly, "I grew up not far from here."
"Oh." It wasn't quite a question. RJ didn't want to pry.
"Down by Riverside Park. After my dad split, my mom rented a townhouse on 38th Street. She raised my two sisters and me there."
RJ wanted to ask if they were still alive, but he knew better than to ask after anyone's loved ones, and he didn't miss that Casey's family weren't with him during this final evacuation. He also didn't miss the way Casey kept his eyes averted as he spoke, or that his eyes seemed a little glassy.
After some time, as if answering RJ's unspoken question, Casey said, "Last I heard from my youngest sister, they were trying to get on a transport. That was weeks ago. I haven't heard from them since."
"They left early," RJ pointed out as comfortingly as he could. "They had a better chance of making it." Than we do, he left unspoken.
Casey nodded, and they were both silent until they were well beyond the city limits.
"So... you wanted something from me?" RJ asked.
"What?" Casey startled, as if pulled away from his own thoughts. For the last few hours, he had said barely a word.
"When you found me in the crowd back there, you said I could help you with something," RJ reminded him.
"Yeah. I did," Casey said. He looked over at RJ and held his gaze for a moment. "I was going to ask you to help me find the Forbidden Room, but now..."
When Casey didn't say anything more, RJ asked, "What changed?"
Casey snorted. "This," he said, gesturing with his hands to encompass everyone around them. "Pai Zhua techniques may not have been designed to go up against an army of killer robots, but they're still something. That's why you're here, isn't it?" He brushed his arm against RJ's as they walked, as if he hoped RJ would find the gesture comforting. "You're here to protect these people."
"I'm here because I'm being evacuated, just like everyone else," RJ said honestly.
Casey frowned. "You're not an active member of the Order, are you?"
RJ shook his head. "No. I haven't been for some time. I'll still look out for anyone I can, if that's what you're asking. There are some duties that... have nothing to do with the duties of the Order."
"That's not what I was asking, but it's good to know. I was asking because I'm sure I've never seen you around. I don't think I've even heard your name mentioned."
"I'm not surprised. I left the Academy years ago," RJ answered. Then, before Casey could ask another question, he asked one of his own. "Why do you need someone from the Order anyway?"
"Like I said, I wanted to find the Forbidden Room."
"I thought you said everyone regrouped there after the attack. Weren't you with them?" RJ asked.
"I was, but I left shortly afterwards. Lily warned me that it was a bad idea to go, and that the magical protections would make it nearly impossible for me to find my way back, but I had to leave. I had to know that... they were safe."
"Your family?" RJ asked, and this time RJ was the one to brush his arm against Casey's.
Casey nodded, looking down at the ground. "Yeah. But I couldn't find them, and then I couldn't get back to the Forbidden Room to help out Master Mao and the others. Lily was right. I shouldn't have left."
The guilt he sensed from Casey surprised him, especially since it was obvious that Casey had done nothing wrong.
"Look, Casey. You have no reason to feel bad about leaving the Order to look after something you felt was important."
"But I have a responsibility to the Order." RJ noticed that Casey's frustration with himself was evident in the way his hands were tight fists at his sides.
"You also have a responsibility to your family," RJ pointed out. "Master Mao understands that. No one there is begrudging you for your decision. Trust me on that."
For awhile, Casey said nothing. Then he sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "You're right. I'm the least of their worries right now."
"And you have taken on a duty to protect this convoy. A duty, I may point out, that you accepted all on your own. If nothing else, that demonstrates to me your sense of responsibility."
"How do you know?"
"That you're responsible?" RJ asked, blinking in confusion.
"No," Casey said. "How do you know how to say exactly what I need to hear?"
RJ found himself smiling. "I'm telling you the truth. But if that's too hard for you to believe, I would be more than happy to make up some sort of story involving psychic televisions and magical harmonicas."
Casey chuckled. "You're really something, RJ."
"It'd hope so," RJ said. "I know I'm not nothing so if I wasn't something, then... what would I be?"
"Exactly my point." Casey laughed again, and the grin on his face was so bright and open and honest that RJ found himself captivated by it. RJ had never met anyone like Casey before. Casey's optimism was refreshing and energizing, and the weight of their responsibility as they marched didn't seem quite as heavy with Casey sharing the burden.
He told Casey, "After we reach Corinth, if you want, I can take you to the Forbidden Room."
"You can do that?" Casey asked, genuinely curious. "I thought only masters could find it when the protection charms were active. I was just going to ask you to help me find a master."
RJ chuckled. "Well, it just so happens that you've found a Pai Zhua master who can find it with ease." RJ waggled his eyebrows in an attempt to make Casey laugh again, but when he looked over, Casey wasn't smiling anymore. He was staring at RJ with wide eyes.
"You're a master?" Casey asked in a rush, like he couldn't believe it.
RJ lifted up the sleeve of his shirt to expose the master stripes tattooed on his arm. "And a pretty good one at that."
Casey stared at him in shock for a beat longer, and then shook his head in what appeared to be amusement. "And you're modest too."
RJ shrugged. "It's a gift."
Casey was still staring at him. "I've never met a master..." he trained off.
"What?" RJ asked when he didn't say anything more.
"It's nothing. Nevermind."
"But now I'm curious. You've never met a master... what? So young? Charming? Handsome?"
Casey rolled his eyes. "I was going to say: 'I've never met a master with the Wolf Spirit before.'"
Now it was RJ's turn to be surprised. He was so stunned that he almost tripped over his own feet. "...what did you say?"
Casey blinked. "Uh. You have the Wolf Spirit. That makes you a Wolf Master, right?"
"How... how could you possible know that?" RJ asked, turning his head to examine Casey. No one, save for a few of the masters, knew of RJ's spirit or status, and RJ was racking his brain trying to figure out a reason an Academy student who didn't even know him was able to figure it out.
Casey started to look worried under RJ's scrutiny. "Your Wolf Spirit," he replied. "I can sense it."
RJ wasn't sure what kind of answer he expected, but this revelation was a further shock.
"You can sense spirits?" RJ asked in awe.
Casey shrugged. "Yeah. I've been able to since I was a kid. Is there... a problem with that?"
RJ rubbed a hand over his own face, and tried to keep from laughing. "Do you have any idea how rare that ability is?"
Casey raised an eyebrow. "Not really."
"One in a hundred million," RJ answered.
"Oh." Casey seemed to consider that.
RJ snorted and slapped Casey on the shoulder. "You know how earlier you said that I was 'really something'?"
"Yeah," Casey replied, the look of confusion on his face telling RJ that he wasn't sure where RJ was going with this.
RJ grinned. "Well, let's just say I could say the same thing about you."
"It's getting dark. We'll be stopping for the night soon," RJ said, once they entered the forested mountains and valleys that would make up much of their remaining journey. RJ knew that the canopy of trees would provide natural cover and that, in theory, this route would be safer that the exposed roads and turnpikes that would take them close to urban centers. After all, Venjix wanted to exterminate the human population. It usually targeted cities, not forests.
"You're probably right," Casey said. The people around them were slowing down. RJ knew Casey noticed their exhaustion too. "Though wouldn't it be safer to keep moving in the dark?"
"Not necessarily," RJ answered. "With all these people and this kind of terrain, it's probably for the best that we rest. Tomorrow will be another long day."
Casey seemed to consider that. "I guess you're right. I wouldn't have thought of it that way."
Shortly after, the officers flanking the convey stopped walking. The officer closest to them shouted, "Attention!" She had everyone's almost immediately. She looked through the crowd and nodded. "We'll be setting up camp here for the night. Lights out will be in forty-five minutes. After that, there will no lights of any kind allowed for fear that it will give away our location.
"If you're going to eat, do so now. If you don't have your own provisions, we'll be distributing limited water and food rations by the transports. If you require water for any other purposes, there's a small river just up ahead by the front of the convoy. If you need anything else, come talk to me or another officer, and whatever you do, do not wander off on your own."
RJ glanced around. Everyone around them seemed to be relieved to have stopped walking, but they also seemed more weary and scared than they had earlier. RJ couldn't blame them. It was natural to feel frightened given that they were out in the forest alone and that safety was anything but a guarantee.
"I'm glad it's summertime," Casey said to him, as they sat down on a log to eat. "Most people might be uncomfortable sleeping on the ground, but at least no one is going to freeze."
"Have you ever been camping before?" RJ asked, offering Casey his bag of rations.
Casey politely declined the offer with a wave of his hand and produced a standard issue ration bar from his backpack. "Nope," he replied as he took a bite. "I've always wanted to go though." Casey frowned. "This isn't exactly how I imagined my first time sleeping in a forest."
"Ah, yes. There is usually some sort of tent and campfire involved," RJ said.
"And singing," Casey added.
If people hadn't already begun to doze off, RJ would've be tempted to gather some of the people around them into a circle and suggest a sing-a-long. Instead, RJ shifted until he was facing Casey as best he could on the log and then asked, "If we were to sing, what song would you choose?"
Casey finished his ration bar before answering. "'California Dreamin'' by The Mamas & The Papas."
RJ smiled. "That's not exactly standard campfire fare."
Casey leaned back on his arms and looked up at the sky. RJ followed his gaze upwards. Through the darkness of the trees, he could make out only a handful of stars.
"My mom had it on vinyl and she used to play it on this old turntable," Casey said. "My sister Megan and I used to beg her to play it over and over again until I think even mom was sick of hearing it."
"It's a nice song," RJ agreed, still looking up at the night sky.
RJ couldn't fall asleep. He was mediating when he heard Casey get up. He listened until he heard Casey's footfalls moving away from the camp. He sat up and spotted Casey about twenty meters away, his back to the camp.
Keeping an eye on the officers on duty, who thankfully weren't looking in their direction at that particular moment, RJ got up and walked over to where Casey was standing. Casey's eyes were closed but Casey must've heard him approach because he whispered, "Can you feel that?"
RJ reached out with his senses. The people at the camp were giving off all sorts of energy, as was the forest around them, but he felt nothing out of the ordinary. "No," he replied, just as quietly. "What do you feel?"
"People. To the southeast. They're far away. Maybe one or two days walk from here."
RJ jaw didn't drop open, but it was a near thing. "You can sense that?"
Casey didn't act like this was out of the ordinary. "Yeah. They're scared, but there doesn't seem to be any Venjix troops after them. I think there might have been. Earlier. Yesterday maybe."
RJ considered this. "Will they rendezvous with us?"
"They don't know we're out here," Casey replied. "And I'm not sure. Depends on what route they take through the mountains. They're trying to find Corinth, but they only have a general idea of where it might be."
"Can you send them a message?" RJ asked.
Casey's eyes blinked opened and he turned to fix RJ with a look that said that he thought RJ was very confused. "I'm not a telepath."
RJ motioned towards Casey with his hands in an expansive gesture. "You could've fooled me."
Casey rolled his eyes. "I can hear the echoes of their spirits. They're particularly loud in the night, that's all."
RJ fought the urge that shake his head in disbelief. "Believe me, being able to hear spirits, and from great distances at that, is not something to downplay. You've got a gift." Remembering that Casey could sense his spirit animal as well, he amended, "Many gifts."
Casey frowned. "But right now all I'm able to tell you that there are scared people out there. That's hardly news."
RJ gripped Casey's shoulder in a way he hoped was comforting. "Thanks to you, we can keep an ear out for them. We may even be able to join up with them. That's not news. That's hope."
Casey slowly lifted his head to look RJ straight in the eye. "You know, none of the other masters I've met have ever been this encouraging."
"That's strange," RJ said, moving to slide his arm over Casey's shoulders. "You're very easy to encourage."
That seemed to startle a laugh out of Casey. Casey leaned into RJ's side, solid and warm, his head resting against RJ's shoulder.
"We should head back to camp before anyone notices we're missing," RJ suggested after a minute went by.
"We should," Casey said, but he didn't move.
RJ closed his eyes, letting himself enjoy the simplicity and comfort of the moment, and when he opened them again, he found Casey watching him.
Casey whispered, "You don't have to answer, but can I ask you a personal question?"
RJ didn't see why not. "Shoot."
Casey asked, "Why did you leave the Academy?"
RJ didn't answer at first, choosing instead to stare out at the darkness that surrounded them and listen to the sounds of insects in the night. This wasn't something he had ever talked to anyone about before. "I got into a fight with my father. You might've met him at the Academy."
"Is he a master too?" Casey asked quietly.
"Master of the Shark," RJ replied, and he noticed how Casey tensed in recognition of the name.
"Your dad is Master Phin?" Casey asked, surprised. "But he's nothing..."
"Like me?" RJ provided. "Yeah, believe me. I know."
"What happened?" Casey asked, craning his head to look up at RJ without moving his head from RJ's shoulder. RJ glanced down at him, then away.
"My dad wanted me to train in the Shark technique like his father did before him. He didn't exactly approve of me training in the Wolf technique."
"So you left?"
"No. First I tried to be the son my father always wanted. I practised the Shark technique until I was almost at the Master level. Before I went in for grading, I realized just how miserable I was. When I tried to go on sabbatical to find my own path, my father was furious. Master Mao was supportive, but my father is a powerful Master and he has powerful friends. They made my life at the Academy very difficult. I left shortly after and... I never went back, even after I became a Master of the Wolf."
RJ felt one of Casey's hands on the small of his back. "Thanks for telling me," Casey said.
RJ turned his head until Casey's hair was brushing against his cheek. "Thanks for listening," he whispered back.
It was well into the afternoon of the second day when one of the transports at the front carrying evacuees broke down. Casey stuck to RJ's side as he navigated through the crowd to investigate.
When RJ finally got a full view of the situation, he noticed that the officers in the area were doing their best to reassure the evacuees that everything would be fine, and that those traveling on the broken transport would be shuffled to others if the broken transport couldn't be repaired.
RJ had to give the defence troops credit for their efficiency. It took them less than five minutes to deduce that the cause of the transport's malfunction was mechanical failure and to decide that it couldn't be fixed within a safe time-frame. It only took them another two minutes to bring other transports alongside the first to begin the reorganization process.
As the officers began ushering all the passengers off the broken transport, RJ noticed two familiar faces. When he noticed how those familiar faces were having trouble finding space on another transport, RJ called out, "Leanne!"
She turned at the sound of her name, Jacob sleeping in her arms and a baby bag over her shoulder, and RJ saw something akin to relief flood her features when she noticed who it was.
"Who is she?" Casey asked.
"I'll introduce you," RJ promised as they walked towards her through the crowd.
She wore a wary smile when the reached her. "Hey," she greeted RJ, looking over at Casey.
Lifting his hands towards Leanne, RJ said, "Casey, this is Leanne and Jacob, evacuees I met yesterday. Leanne and Jacob, this is Casey, also an evacuee I met yesterday."
Casey waved at her and she juggled Jacob's weight in her arms to free a hand to wave back with. Casey smiled at her, and RJ noticed that she smiled back, less wary than she was a moment ago. RJ, it seemed, wasn't the only person Casey had a positive effect on.
"You look like you could use a hand," Casey offered Leanne before RJ could.
Leanne sighed. "Well, the good news is that they can fit our duffels in the storage compartment. The bad news is that there's not enough room on the transport for everyone, so those of us who can walk have decided to ride on the transport in shifts. Jacob and I will be walking for the next six hours, and then we'll switch with another family."
"They couldn't find Jacob a place?" RJ asked.
"They could," Leanne said. For a moment, she looked like she was going to cry. "But I don't want to let him out of my sight if I don't have to."
Casey offered her another smile. "You're welcome to walk with us."
She looked to RJ for confirmation. "We'd love to have your company," he told her and offered to carry her bag.
That settled, when the convoy got on its way again, Leanne walked between them.
"Where are you from?" Casey asked her.
"Born and raised in Minnesota," she answered, just as Jacob began to stir in her arms. She started to jiggle him up and down. "I moved to Ocean Bluff about two years ago. How about you?"
"I was born in Stone Canyon, but my mom, my sisters and I moved to Ocean Bluff when I was eight years old."
"You close with your sisters?" Leanne asked, surprising RJ. Most people didn't ask about anyone else's family.
"Yep," Casey replied. If RJ hadn't spent the last day and a half watching Casey, he wouldn't have noticed the slight tightness around his eyes. "I'm hoping to meet up with them in Corinth."
Leanne nodded and then turned to him. "What about you, RJ?"
"What about me?" RJ asked.
"Are you an only child?" she asked, but before RJ could answer, Jacob started to whine. Leanne jiggled him some more. "Oh, honey, what's wrong?" she asked him, her love for her son and her exhaustion both evident in her tone. "I just changed you and you just ate. You're just cranky 'cause we walking, aren't you?"
"Do you need a break?" Casey asked. "I can carry him for awhile if you want."
Leanne considered the offer for a moment before carefully and attentively transferring Jacob to Casey's arms. Casey easily supported his weight and took up the task of bouncing the kid up and down.
It took maybe thirty seconds for Jacob to calm down and relax in Casey's arms, his wide eyes curiously watching the people walking around them over Casey's shoulder.
Leanne, RJ noticed, was observing the way Casey handled her son. "You have experience with kids?" she asked.
"I practically raised my little sister," Casey said, grinning. Then he looked at RJ and offered him a smile too, sunshine bright, and RJ was powerless not to offer his own smile in return.
When it came time for Leanne to switch back onto a transport, she surprised RJ by declining. "I mean," she explained, "with you two doing the majority of the heavy lifting, I can keep walking until we stop for the night." With the way she was fidgeting, it was obvious to RJ that she was tired, and RJ assumed that the real reason she didn't take her turn on the transport was because she didn't want anyone else to walk.
Jacob had been sleeping, head on Casey's shoulder, for the better part of two hours and didn't show any signs of stirring, so they continued on the way they had until the sun sunk below the horizon and it was finally time to get some rest.
They sat in a little circle on the forest floor. Leanne fed Jacob and RJ and Casey ate their rations. While they were finishing up their dinner, an officer walked by them. RJ recognised her as the officer who had given them their instructions the night before when they had set up camp.
"Hey," he called out to her, and she turned.
"Can I help you, sir?" she said, approaching their little group.
"Well, I couldn't help but notice that you've been working non-stop for quite awhile." RJ gestured to an open space in their little circle. "Would you like to join us?"
She hesitated. "I'm on duty, sir," she replied, but the corner of her mouth quirked upwards a little.
"RJ," he offered, holding out his hand. She shook it.
"Corporal Hae-Won Kim."
"It's nice to meet you, Corporal. Are you sure you can't join us?"
She looked down at where they were sitting, and although RJ thought she looked like she very much wanted to join them, she shook her head ruefully. "I appreciate the offer, though." She wished all of them a good night before resuming what RJ assumed was her rounds for the evening.
When RJ sat down again, Casey said, "That was nice of you."
Leanne laughed. "You two boys seem to have kindness in spades. I'm just lucky I ran into you when I did." Her expression sobered slightly. "Today would have been very hard with you two giving me a hand."
Casey patted her on the knee gently. "Hey, what are friends for?"
She looked up at Casey and studied his expression carefully.
RJ could tell that they were surprising her, and that made his heart ache, for no one, he thought, should be in a situation where they were continually surprised by simple acts of human decency.
Leanne awoke looking exhausted the next morning, and RJ noticed how she didn't protest when she was offered a spot in a transport. Casey promised that they would try to meet up with her and Jacob later, and then Casey and RJ were on their own.
"You sense anything last night?" RJ asked when their march through the mountains had resumed.
"They're closer now," Casey replied staring off into the distance. "They're still shaken up and scared, and I don't get the impression that they have much in the way of supplies."
"Do you think we can get to them?"
Casey frowned. "I'm not sure. I'll keep an ear out. If I sense them close by, or if anything changes, I'll let you know."
"Can you sense them now?" RJ was under the impression that Casey could only sense their spirits at night, but now he wasn't so sure.
"Barely," Casey said, closing his eyes. "With everyone in the convoy awake, there's a lot of background noise."
RJ reached over and placed a steadying hand on Casey's shoulder. "You get any sleep last night?"
"Some. Not enough. You?"
"About the same. Though I did have a dream about a cell phone, a basketball, pizza and twelve mice."
Casey cracked a smile. "Only twelve mice?" he joked. "Are you sure? Did you count?"
"Hey," RJ said, pretending to be offended. "Did I ask you exactly how many mice there were in your dreams?"
It was after lunch when Casey asked, "What are you planning to do when we get to Corinth?"
RJ noted that he said when instead of if. "I was thinking of opening a pizza parlour," he answered honestly.
"Really?" Casey asked. "You like pizza?"
"I love pizza," RJ corrected. "And I've spent years experimenting with my own recipes, figuring out different sauce and cheese blends. It's a hobby of mine, and well, I figure even in Corinth people are going have an appetite for pizza."
"Huh," Casey said. "I somehow didn't peg you for the pizza-making type."
RJ shrugged. "Well, life is full of surprises. What about you, Casey? Any plans?"
"Well, I obviously want to find my family, and check in with the Master Mao and the others, but other than that, I honestly haven't thought too much about it."
"Are you planning to continue your training?"
"Yeah," Casey said and then asked, "Do you still train?"
"It's such a big part of who I am, I don't think I could ever stop."
"Even if you opened a pizza parlour?"
"No one ever said that making pizza and being a Pai Zhua master were mutually exclusive," RJ said, winking at Casey.
Neither of them said anything for a mile or so, and then Casey asked, tentatively, "Do you think maybe I could train with you?"
The question momentarily threw RJ, but although he wasn't expecting the question, he already knew his answer. Casey was smart, passionate, and had more promise at harnessing his abilities than anyone RJ had ever met, to say nothing of the fact that RJ simply liked him. "I would be delighted and honoured."
Casey grinned. "I was hoping you'd say that."
They met up with Leanne and Jacob in the evening. Casey traded Leanne half of his strawberry-flavored ration bar for half of her grape-flavored one, which seemed to amuse her. "What is this, the third grade?" she asked. Despite traveling on a transport all day, Leanne still looked worn out. It was no surprise to RJ when she retired for the night shortly after.
"I think walking all day yesterday really tired her out," RJ commented.
When Casey didn't say anything in response, RJ looked over and noticed that Casey's eyes were closed. He realized immediately that Casey was listening.
"What can you hear?" RJ asked.
Casey gripped his arm. Hard. "They're really close. Maybe two miles south." Casey turned to RJ, eyes wide. "And they're being pursued."
"What should we do?" Casey asked. "They need our help."
"Yeah," RJ agreed. He quickly scanned the camp. Corporal Kim was the closest officer to them and she was talking to a teenaged girl about something. "I have an idea. Come on," he said.
Slipping out of Casey's hold, he jogged over to her, Casey close on his heels. "Corporal," he called.
Thankfully, the girl had walked off, leaving Corporal Kim alone. "RJ," she said, as he approached. "What can I do for you?"
"We need to leave the camp," he told her and she blinked at him.
"No," she said, surprised. "No one is to leave for safety and security reasons."
"It's important," Casey said, cutting into the conversation. "Look, I know this is going to sound totally far-fetched, but I assure you it's not a joke. There are people not far from here and they're under attack. RJ and I might be able to help them."
Corporal Kim stared at them for a moment. "You're serious," she said finally. "And you know this how?"
"Look," RJ said, "There's no time for that. They're under attack. That means Venjix is close. We need your help. You need to somehow convince your commanding officer of the danger. They're south of here. Maybe two miles."
Corporal Kim reached for her radio and then paused, frowning. "What direction are the people heading?"
Casey closed his eyes. "East. They're on a route roughly parallel to ours."
Corporal Kim' stared at Casey for a moment, as if she wasn't sure what she was witnessing, but otherwise she was all business. "From what direction are they being attacked?" she asked.
"Southwest, I think."
"Okay," she said, and took out her radio. She paused again. "And you're just going to go out there alone? And I'm supposed to let you?"
RJ looked her straight in the eye. "We can handle ourselves, and we'll do what we can to keep Venjix's forces from discovering the convoy."
He expected her to ask more questions or even to offer to join them, but she just nodded. "Go," she said. "I'll radio it in. I have no idea what I'm going to tell Major Morales, but I'll think of something."
"Thank you," Casey said, then slapped RJ on the back and took off heading south, away from the convoy and towards the danger. RJ nodded his own thanks at Corporal Kim before running after him.
RJ followed close behind Casey as they ran through the forest. The sun had recently dropped below the horizon, so it was getting continually darker. RJ was having trouble keeping up with Casey while still avoiding the tree roots, fallen branches, and small boulders that made up the unfamiliar topography of the forest floor.
They were making good time, but RJ knew they needed to hurry. Casey, it seemed, must have had the same thought. RJ felt a burst of spirit energy coming from Casey, and then Casey shifted, a red tiger taking his place and bounding through the forest ahead of him. RJ focused his own energy and shifted as well, becoming a wolf that navigated through the forest with ease.
He trailed behind the tiger as its path twisted and turned, and Casey shifted back and came to a stop behind a rock outcropping at the bottom of a hill. RJ followed his lead, barely out of breath as he came back to himself next to Casey.
Up ahead, RJ could hear the panicked voiced of people, coupled with the mechanical sound of Grinders, Venjix's foot soldiers. He could also hear the tell-tale sounds of blaster fire.
He and Casey both snuck a look over the rocks. RJ immediately wanted to curse. There were approximately fifteen people rushing through the forest, and they were being tailed by at least two patrols of Grinders, who were coming up on them fast. The humans were outnumbered two to one.
"Dammit," Casey swore, moving to rush into the fray.
RJ grabbed his arm and pulled him back behind the rocks. "We need to get between the civilians and the soldiers." RJ looked around and took in just how large the rock outcropping was that they were hiding behind. It was maybe a meter tall, but it ran vertically for quite awhile and would provide decent cover. "Let's try to get the people behind these rocks and then take out as many of the Grinders as we can."
Casey nodded. "Alright," he said, and the second RJ let go of his arm, he was off like a rocket, running straight past the civilians and charging into the nearest Grinder with a well-placed kick to its torso. Then, as a group of Grinders approached striking distance of the civilians, a giant tiger materialized out of thin air.
At least ten feet in height, it was translucent, and glowing faintly red in color against the fading daylight. Casey's spirit projection, RJ realized, amazed yet again by Casey's control. The giant tiger moved like a ghost, running straight through trees, but when it swiped at the Grinders with its giant paws, it sent them flying.
With most of the Grinders occupied, RJ ran to the civilians. They looked even more exhausted and terrified than RJ had expected, and they looked from Casey to the giant tiger to RJ and back again with wide-eyes, like they weren't sure if Casey and RJ were a threat or not. RJ raised his hands in the air in what he hoped was a reassuring gesture. "I'm here to help!" he shouted. "There are some rocks up ahead! Get behind them and stay close to the ground!"
No one showed any outward signs that they had heard him, but they ran past him and towards the rocks and that was mattered. To put himself between the civilians and the threat, RJ ran closer to where Casey was fighting. It was then that he noticed two people, a teenage boy and girl, some ways away. They were having trouble running forward. It looked to RJ as if the guy's leg was injured. One of his arms was thrown over the girl's shoulders and she seemed to be supporting most of his weight. Of more concern to RJ was that they were rapidly becoming surrounded by Grinders.
RJ rushed past them into the swarm of Grinders, using his weight to throw one off balance while he kicked another one in the opposite direction. He was charging at a third when he realized that there were too many of them.
Changing tactics, he rushed to the girl and the guy. The guy asked, "Who are you?" just as RJ grabbed the guy's free arm and threw it over his own shoulders to take on most of his weight.
"We need to get out of here," RJ replied and then closed his eyes, focusing on his own animal spirit.
"But the Grinders--" the guy said, cutting himself off as RJ's giant translucent wolf appeared before them. It immediately ploughed into their attackers. "What the hell was--"
"This way," RJ said, cutting him off and leading them towards the rocks.
"What's going on?" the girl asked, continuing to support the guy's weight on his other side.
"I'm not sure," the guy answered her. "But we've gotta move, Tenaya," he added, squeezing her arm and guiding her forward. RJ glanced over and got a good look at her for the first time. She had long dark hair, pale skin, and it seemed that she was relying on the guy for direction as much as he was relying on her to stay upright. This coupled with the way her eyes were unfocused, made RJ realize she probably couldn't see.
As they approached the rocks, RJ found it harder and harder to concentrate on them. His attention was being pulled by the fight, and it was taking too much focus and energy to walk with them while still battling with his wolf projection.
His attention was so diverted that he almost missed a Grinder coming up alongside them. It was only the guy shouting, "A Grinder at three o'clock!" that brought it to RJ's attention. The wolf appeared between them and the Grinder just as it raised its blaster to fire, its energy attacks bouncing easily off the wolf's body.
With a thought from RJ, the wolf crushed the Grinder and then ran back to the fight behind them.
"Holy shit," the guy said.
"Dillon?" the girl -- Tenaya, he had called her -- questioned.
"Some guy and his giant wolf just saved us. Twice," he told her, managing to sound disbelieving and appreciative at the same time.
"What?" she asked.
They were far enough from the battle and close enough to the outcropping that RJ felt they could make it on their own. "Get behind those rocks," he instructed them, before the guy could answer her. Then he let he two of them go and turned his full attention back to the battle.
There were an unequal number of Grinders approaching from two directions, effectively splitting the battle into two uneven fronts. Casey was holding his own at one, striking Grinders as his spirit did the same. He was outnumbered, but he was holding a line, not letting any Grinders past where he stood.
RJ's wolf was at the second front, where there were far fewer attackers, and RJ ran back in that direction, hoping to finish the Grinders there off quickly so he could assist Casey. As he approached his wolf, RJ directed it to strike three Grinders at once, its giant claws ripping into them, sending their mechanical part flying.
"RJ!" Casey suddenly shouted across the battlefield. "There's someone coming from the north. I think it's Corporal Kim!"
While RJ directed the wolf to attack more of the robotic foot soldiers, he looked at the hill above the outcropping, and sure enough, he could see movement near the top. How Casey sensed her in the middle of all this action, he had no idea, but he noticed when one of the Grinders close to him became aware of her as well, and positioned the wolf to take the fire it aimed at her.
"Corporal!" he called when he could make out her armoured figure running towards him. "What are you doing here?" He realized she was looking at the rocks and was taking note of the people hidden behind them, even as she ran past them and straight into the battle zone.
She lifted the blaster off her back, taking aim, and fired, hitting a Grinder square in the chest as she reached RJ. "I was afraid you guys had gotten into trouble." She motioned towards the giant wolf. "But it looks like you two have things under control." She fired at another Grinder. "That being said, I'm actually here to give you a warning. Grinders have transmitters in them. For squads like this though, the transmitters are usually only activated at the end of the battle. When the last Grinder falls, it sends the signal to send in reinforcements."
RJ grabbed an approaching Grinder by its shoulders and pulled it down onto his knee, then kicked it forwards as his wolf swooped in to seize it in its mouth. "So what you're saying is that if was destroy every Grinder, Venjix will know there was a battle here and investigate."
Corporal Kim took out another Grinder with her blaster. "Exactly. Common practise is to leave one standing. Trap it somewhere or take it far away and then destroy it."
As the Grinders fell, the fight was taking them closer and closer to Casey. RJ glanced over at where Casey and his tiger were ripping a Grinder in two. "You get that?" he asked.
"Yeah," Casey replied, sounding out of breath but determined. "The last thing we need is these things calling its friends. We can't let them find the convoy."
There were less than five Grinders left now, all of them clustered around Casey. They would have to leave one unharmed, and RJ was brainstorming how to deal with it when Casey's tiger struck, crushing four of the Grinders before leaning down to grab the fifth in its giant mouth. The final Grinder struggled, but it was trapped in the tiger's jaw.
"I have a plan," Casey said, and then sent his tiger running through the forest away from them. RJ followed it with his eyes, but it quickly disappeared into the dark underbrush.
Casey was sending it away, he realized. Away from them. Away from the convoy.
They had won, and thanks to Casey, the civilians were safe and the convoy was too.
The wolf vanished and RJ sighed in relief as the mental strain subsided. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that the Corporal was heading towards the civilians, allowing RJ to jog over to Casey. Casey was breathing hard, bent over with his hands resting on his knees. RJ knew that it wasn't just the physical effort that was tiring him out, but the mental exertion as well.
RJ also knew that the tiger was still running with the Grinder. Casey was still projecting his spirit, and he was doing so even as the projection was far away and traveling further still.
"Casey," RJ started, not knowing what to say or how to say it.
Casey straightened and smiled at him tiredly. Then he took a step forward and wrapped his arms around RJ, resting forehead against RJ's neck. "We did it," Casey said, sounding like he was about to either laugh or cry, his arms tightening the hug. "We actually did it."
RJ hugged him back. "No, you did it. You... you really kept it together out there. You..."
Casey shook his head, cutting RJ off, the weight of his body heavy against RJ's front. "The important thing is that everyone's safe."
RJ took a moment to study Casey's features and the strain still present in them.
"How far are you going to run?" he asked, knowing that Casey would know he was referring to the tiger.
"As far as I can," Casey answered. "I have a duty, remember?"
He flashed RJ a tense smile, and RJ felt something in his chest clench. Casey was the person who had pulled him out of a crowd, who had been his constant companion since this journey began, who had fought by his side, and who was still fighting so that complete strangers would live to see another day. He was someone RJ was proud to know -- someone RJ had come to care for a great deal -- and RJ tried to pour all his hope and pride and affection into the tightening of his arms. He buried his face into Casey's hair, suddenly so so thankful for Casey and everything that he was.
RJ didn't let go until Corporal Kim called out to them, asking them if they were alright.
The forest was almost pitch black, and although RJ's eyes had adjusted quite well to the dark, he was having trouble seeing more than a few feet in front of him. As they traveled towards the convoy, they formed a human chain, each of them holding on to the person ahead of them.
At the front, Casey and the Corporal led the way, while RJ stayed at the back, bringing up the rear. RJ worried about Casey. If RJ was exhausted, he couldn't imagine how tired Casey must be, but Casey had waved him off when RJ had tried to walk alongside him. He promised RJ that he was fine and stayed at the front to use his abilities to direct them through the forest. RJ tried to keep from being distracted by his concern as they walked. The immediate threat from the Grinders was gone, but he couldn't afford to be careless.
The guy and the girl from earlier -- Dillon and Tenaya, he remembered -- were still supporting each other, and fell behind when the human chain was formed. RJ offered to help Tenaya support Dillon's weight, and even in the dark, he could see Dillon roll his eyes.
"It's just a twisted ankle," he protested, but he shifted his weight against RJ seemingly gratefully.
"Yeah, yeah. Just ignore my brother," Tenaya told RJ. "He acts like a bad boy, but he's really thankful for all your help."
Suddenly realizing that they had never been formally introduced, he told them, "I'm RJ, by the way."
"We figured," Tenaya said. "We heard your friend -- Casey? -- yell during the fight. I'm Tenaya, and this is my brother Dillon."
"Thanks," Dillon said, "For showing up when you did, and for whatever it is you did back there."
"What did you do back there?" Tenaya asked. "Dillon said there was a giant wolf and a giant tiger, and that he thinks you and your friend are responsible for them."
"Tenaya," Dillon hissed.
"Your brother is right, though I would appreciate it if neither of you advertised that information," RJ told them.
"So they were real?" Dillon asked. "The wolf and the tiger?"
"Yes," RJ answered. The nearest people to them were quite a few steps ahead. They were talking quietly to each other and RJ doubted they were listening in on his conversation with Tenaya and Dillon. "They were... made of energy, but they were very real."
He knew he probably shouldn't be giving them this information. He didn't want the defence corps or anyone else asking after them, but Dillon and Tenaya had asked, and he didn't see the harm in two people knowing what had happened.
"Huh," Dillon said. "Corporal Kim said you were from her convoy and that you found us..."
"Casey did, actually. He sensed your party and that you were in danger."
"How?" Dillon asked.
RJ took a moment to consider how to answer. "Casey has abilities. He can do things that most people can't."
"Like make giant animals out of energy?" Dillon wanted to know.
"Actually, spirit projection is something that can be learned."
Both Dillon and Tenaya were silent as they seemed to think about this. Then Tenaya asked, "So anyone can learn to make spirit projections?"
"With enough training, yes."
"Oh," she said. "Could you teach me?"
"Tenaya," Dillon hissed again.
"Oh, come on," she said, jostling her brother's shoulder. "I know you totally wanted to ask the same thing."
Dillon sighed, and in the dark, RJ could barely make out Dillon glancing over at him, seemingly curious.
"I suppose I could..." RJ replied, tentatively. He hadn't thought about taking on students until Casey had asked him about it earlier, but now it seemed like a given, like something he was destined to do when they reached Corinth. "We can discuss it later, if you want."
"Awesome," Tenaya said.
Hoping to change the subject, RJ asked a question of his own. "If you don't mind me asking, how did you end up all the way out here?"
"We arrived in Reefside too late and missed their last evacuation," Dillon explained, reminding RJ of all the other people who were making dangerous journeys just like they were. "That's where we met up with everyone here. An officer had left one of the guys with a radio, a compass and directions to Corinth, so we started traveling on our own. On the fifth day, we ran into a group of Grinders by accident. We managed to escape, but we had to leave most of our stuff behind. We were tired, but we were mostly okay until the Grinders found us again."
"Thankfully, you guys were here to save the day," Tenaya said. Then her stomach growled. "Sorry, I haven't eaten in awhile."
RJ frowned, and then considered how long they had been walking together. He told them, "The convoy shouldn't be too much further ahead. People there can get you some food, and I'm sure someone can take a look at your ankle, Dillon."
"All I want to do is sleep for a week," Tenaya admitted.
RJ shared the sentiment and chuckled. "Thankfully, the convoy should be able to help with that too."
RJ heard some sort of disturbance up ahead. He tensed automatically, until he heard the familiar voice of Major Morales calling out to Corporal Kim.
Casey jogged over to RJ. RJ was stuck by how exhausted Casey looked. "We should probably sneak back into the camp," Casey said.
"You two going to be okay?" RJ asked Dillon and Tenaya.
Dillon snorted. "We'll be fine. Go."
"Take care," Tenaya said, shifting to take more of Dillon's weight as RJ released him. "And we won't say anything. We promise."
Casey raised a curious eyebrow at RJ as they jogged away from the group.
RJ answered his unspoken question. "Their names are Dillon and Tenaya. Brother and sister. They were asking questions about... things."
"You mean like who we are and how we saved them?" Casey guessed. "I'm pretty sure I just had a similar conversation with Corporal Kim and some of the civilians. They were curious, but they also seemed to get that we were trying to keep a low profile."
"Any idea what Corporal Kim is going to tell Major Morales?"
"Well, she already radioed in an edited version of the truth, but when I asked, she figured that the worst case scenario was that the Major will have an awkward conversation with us about giant animals."
"That might be... interesting."
"Well, it's not like we're going to get kicked out of the convoy, and it's not like they're going to hold us up as heroes without our permission either. I think we're good," Casey said.
They took a long route around the campsite, but it turned out they didn't have to worry too much about being spotted. Everyone seemed to be awake, restless and anxious about the new people joining their ranks and about the threat of a Venjix attack, although the troops were attempting to reassure them that no attack was imminent.
RJ and Casey walked over to where they had left their bags. To RJ's surprise, Leanne was sitting with their stuff, bouncing Jacob on one knee.
Her sigh of relief was audible when she spotted them. She carefully put Jacob down on a blanket she was sitting on and stood. Then she rushed forward and attempted to hug both of them at the same time, her arms stretching around their backs and forcing all them together awkwardly.
"You two idiots are too kind for your own good," she whispered.
"Leanne?" Casey asked.
"You don't have to tell me," she said, not letting go. "I probably don't want to know. But when they woke us up and I heard that there was an attack nearby, I noticed that you two were missing and I knew you were involved somehow." She finally pulled back to give them a once over. Casey looked like he had just run ten marathons and RJ figured his own appearance wasn't much better. "You were involved, weren't you?"
"Leanne," Casey said again.
"Shut up and sit down," she said affectionately even as she sighed. "You two look like you could use some food and rest."
She went back to her blanket. She lifted Jacob into her arms and then she bent down to fetch her blanket. She, too, looked worn out, even more so than she had earlier, but she also had a light in her eyes. RJ recognised it as relief.
"You aren't going to join us tonight?" RJ asked.
Leanne looked back and forth between them, and then nodded to herself. "Jacob and I are going to head back to the transport, but we'll see you two in the morning."
She reached out and ruffled Casey's hair. Then she did the same to RJ before turning and walking away.
"Thank you, Leanne," RJ told her retreating back.
Without turning around, she waved, and he heard her mutter, "Well, someone has to look after the two of you."
He smiled after her and then turned his attention back to Casey, who practically collapsed onto his knees and rubbed a hand across his face.
RJ sat down next to him. He reached into his own bag and pulled out two bottles of water. He offered one to Casey, who accepted it with a grateful little smile. RJ also tossed him a couple of ration bars.
"How far away are you?" RJ asked.
Casey closed his eyes, wincing in obvious discomfort as the mental strain took its toll on him. "Not sure. Somewhere near the San Angeles desert."
RJ choked on the water he was drinking. "That's almost the other end of the state. You know you can stop now."
Casey opened his eyes and looked at RJ, weary but appreciative, like he had been waiting for RJ to give him permission. "Give me a second. It's a desert, but I still want to make sure that there's no one around." He closed his eyes again, and RJ let himself be amazed that not only was Casey still holding on to a projection even after all this time had passed, he was also using it to explore an area hundreds of miles away. Casey really was something else, but RJ knew that even Casey couldn't keep up the effort much longer without hurting himself. If he needed RJ's permission to stop, then RJ would gladly give it.
Casey's eyes blinked open again. "The area is clear."
"So let go," RJ said, and then Casey took a deep breath and fell forward, like he was a marionette and all the strings that were holding him up had been suddenly cut. RJ caught him and pulled him against his chest. Casey shuddered. "It's going to be okay," RJ whispered in Casey's ear, holding him tighter. "You did it. Everyone's safe. It's going to be okay."
RJ woke up the next morning with Casey still wrapped in his arms. RJ reached out and ran a hand down the side of Casey's face affectionately. Casey was sleeping steadily and he didn't stir when RJ untangled their limbs and stood, stretching.
Judging from the position of the sun, it was early morning, approximately ten o'clock or so, and that was much later than RJ had expected it to be. He looked around and was surprised to see that many people were still sleeping when the convoy should've been on its way hours ago.
He noticed a familiar face and walked over to where Corporal Kim was sitting at the center of short log holding a thermos with two hands.
"Good morning," she said quietly, when she spotted him. She moved over, freeing up half the log. "Have a seat"
He did and for a moment both of them looked out at the camp. Most people were sleeping, but some people were mulling about quietly.
"The Major said that after the excitement last night, we all deserved to some extra sleep. I'll be waking up everyone in an hour. We hope to be on the road by noon."
RJ nodded. Everyone seemed to need the additional rest.
"You guys alright?" the Corporal asked after a few minutes went by.
"We'll be fine."
She looked down at the contents of her thermos. "I'm still not sure what happened back there, but I know I owe you. You saved those people, and you kept Venjix from finding us. And you don't even want anyone to know that you did anything." She laughed, then looked him straight in the eye and held his gaze for a moment. "So I want to make sure I say it to you aloud: thank you."
"You don't owe us anything." RJ told her. His lips quirked upwards. "And if memory serves, you lent us quite the hand."
She snorted. "Yeah right."
"Now who's being modest, Corporal?" he joked.
"I shouldn't be telling you this, because no one outside the corps is supposed to know, but we're going to reach Corinth soon. It's less than a day away. The Major already radioed for transports to meet us." Her voice was filled with hope, but also with disbelief, like she couldn't believe they were so close. "We're almost there."
Although RJ knew that a day was still a long time in which anything could happen, he found himself breathing a little easier. "Yeah," he said. "We are."
RJ shook Casey's shoulder gently. "Hey," he said. "Wake up."
Casey groaned and curled in on himself. "What time is it?" he asked around a yawn.
"Maybe 11am. The Major let everyone sleep in."
Casey didn't open his eyes. "That was nice of her," he mumbled sleepily.
When he didn't make any move to get up, RJ asked, "You feeling okay?"
"I'm really tired," Casey admitted, yawning again. Then he winced. "And I have a killer headache, but otherwise, I think I'm good."
RJ reached out and as if checking for a fever, felt Casey's forehead with his palm. Casey sighed at the touch. RJ focused, but even with the direct skin-to-skin contact, it was difficult for him to sense Casey's energy. Casey may have recovered physically from the battle, but his animal spirit was still very weak.
RJ pulled back his hand, frowning when he realized Casey had fallen back to sleep.
When he glanced up, RJ spotted Dillon and Tenaya walking towards them. Dillon's leg was wrapped in white bandages and he was on manoeuvring on two crutches. Tenaya was walking next to him, one hand resting on his wrist and the other holding a white cane. RJ stood and moved a few steps away from Casey, hoping to put some distance between Casey's much needed rest and the imminent conversation.
"Hey," Dillon said when they were closer.
Tenaya flicked his wrist with her index finger and thumb and said, "What he means to say is 'Good morning'."
"A good morning to you as well," RJ said. They both looked rested. "How are you feeling?"
"Better than yesterday, that's for sure," Tenaya answered. "We've been given spots on a transport." Dillon made an unhappy sounding grunt and Tenaya flicked him again. "Dillon tried to argue that we could walk, but I, for one, am appreciative we're getting a ride." Dillon looked put-upon, but also fond, like he wouldn't have his sister any other way.
"I didn't want to take someone else's seat," he explained.
"You're not taking someone else's seat when they offer," Tenaya pointed out, and Dillon shrugged, letting the subject drop.
"Is Casey okay?" Dillon asked, glancing in Casey's direction.
"He used up a lot of energy last night," RJ admitted. "But he'll be back on his feet in no time."
Dillon nodded, and then Tenaya said, "I don't know if you remember, but last night you said that you could teach us spirit projection if we were interested."
RJ nodded. "I recall saying... something like that."
"We're interested," Tenaya said.
"You should know that there's more to it than giant animals," RJ said carefully, knowing that they didn't even know what Pai Zhua was and that there was too much for him to explain right then and there.
"We're interested," Dillon repeated, sounding so sure that RJ took a moment to study the silent resolve he was managing to project. Tenaya, too, seemed confident, and it was only when RJ noticed the way Tenaya was rubbing her thumb again Dillon's wrist as if to comfort him that he realized they were scared he would say no.
"Alight then," RJ said, because deciding to take them on as students wasn't a difficult decision for him to make at all. With their determination and perseverance, he knew they would be a pleasure to teach. "When you get settled in Corinth, come find me and we'll go from there."
RJ leaned over Casey to grab one of his hands. He folded his own fingers around it. Taking a deep breath, RJ focused on the weak pulse he felt from Casey's tiger.
Even though RJ had only attempted an energy transfer once before in his life, he found it incredibly easy to access his own spirit energy and send in through their joined hands. He felt the tiger recognise him and then he felt momentarily light-headed as the tiger gratefully took from his wolf what it needed.
Casey stirred and cracked open his eyes. Looking up at RJ though his lashes, he asked, "What are you doing?"
RJ could feel the gossamer tendrils of energy tickling his skin where they touched, and he knew Casey could feel it too, probably more so since his awareness of spirit energy was so much stronger. RJ offered Casey a warm smile. "Energy boost. Think of me as your own personal set of jumper cables."
Casey said nothing, but between one moment and the next, he seemed to awaken, sleepiness disappearing as his eyes opened fully, his attention focused solely on RJ.
"You don't have to do this," Casey said, voice rough with sleep. He made to sit up, but RJ used his other hand to gently push Casey back down, his palm on Casey's chest.
They still had a dangerous journey ahead of them. The transfer would only take a few minutes, and while it would make RJ feel a little more tired, it was more than worth it if it meant Casey would be functional and not exhausted all day. After all Casey had done for him, this was the least he could do. And if RJ was being honest with himself...
"I want to," RJ said.
Casey squeezed RJ's hand. Then he closed his eyes, relaxing as he accepted what RJ was offering to him.
"Are you really okay?" Leanne asked them, not for the first time that morning. She and Jacob had joined them just before they started marching. She looked better than she had in days, and RJ was glad to see that she had gotten some rest.
"We're fine," Casey reassured her. "Don't worry about us."
Leanne eyed them both carefully, like she didn't quite believe them, but she let Casey carry Jacob.
RJ noticed the way she watched them a little more attentively than she had before, but he didn't mind. He knew she was paying special attention to them because she was concerned about their well-being, and that she cared meant a lot to RJ.
Casey caught him staring into space and brushed their arms together to get his attention. "What's on your mind?" he wanted to know.
RJ thought about Casey and, how like Leanne, he had only known Casey for a few days even though it felt like a lot longer. He thought of Corporal Kim, Dillon and Tenaya. He thought of what every single one of them was leaving behind -- of what all of them had lost.
Then RJ thought about what they had all found in each other.
"Silver linings," RJ answered.
RJ knew they had made it when there was a commotion at the front on the convoy followed by cheering.
There was excitement in the air as everyone hurried forward. RJ followed the push and pull of the crowd until he was standing at the edge of the forest, the terrain sloping gradually downwards ahead of him into a large, expansive desert.
Then he saw it and gasped.
The glistening city dome stretched impossibly large against the horizon, its shields twinkling as it reflected the yellow-orange light from the setting sun.
People were rushing past him, he realized, running down the hill to where transports were waiting to take them all the rest of the way.
"We did it," Casey said, his amazement audible and his voice barely louder than a whisper.
On RJ's other side, Leanne lifted Jacob into the air and spun him around in obvious joy and relief. "Corinth!" she said, and then repeated the city's name again and again. She held up her son towards the city. "Jacob, its Corinth!"
She grabbed RJ by the arm and started to pull him down the hill. "Come on!" she said to them, tears of joy in her eyes.
"Give us a second," Casey said unexpectedly, surprising both RJ and Leanne.
Leanne looked between him and Casey and let RJ go. "Okay, but I'm saving you seats," she said and then, grinning and clinging to Jacob, she took off down the hill.
Casey said, "I can't hear them, RJ."
RJ immediately knew that Casey was talking about his family and felt like he had been plunged into cold water. Not knowing what to say, he reached out and placed a hand on Casey's arm, rubbing gentle circles against his skin with his thumb.
"If I can't hear them, then they're not here," Casey continued. His voice sounded raspy, like he was about to cry.
Cornith's shields glowed in the distance and a thought occurred to RJ. "Can you sense anyone in Corinth?" he asked softly.
Casey closed his eyes. "No," he answered after a moment, clearly startled by this discovery. "I was sure I did, but it's just... energy."
"I've heard the city shields are made of bio energy," RJ explained. "They're probably messing with your ability to sense anything inside." RJ reached out and took Casey's hand in his own, tangling their fingers together. "Try again now."
Casey turned to him, startled.
"You can do it, Casey," RJ told him. He felt dizzy as he offered Casey his energy, but the vertigo passed quickly. "Try."
RJ watched as Casey closed his eyes, tilting his head towards Corinth as he listened. Casey was still for a moment and when he opened his eyes, tears streamed down his cheeks.
"Casey," RJ said, shocked. He pulled his hand free so he could turn Casey to face him. He wiped Casey's tears away with his thumbs and then suddenly Casey smiled so wide and bright and happy that RJ's breath caught in his throat.
Casey leaned forward until his forehead was resting against RJ's. "They're here. They're safe," he whispered. Then, as if the reality of their situation was finally sinking in, he added, "We're safe. Everyone is safe."
RJ sighed in relief. He could feel the sting of tears in his own eyes and he heard the awe in his own voice as he said, "We made it."
"There are millions of people down there who aren't scared," Casey said, like he was marvelling at the novelty of it. "They're full of hope."
Smiling, RJ reached out and took Casey's hand again. "So let's go add a few hundred more," he said, and tugged Casey down the hill.