It was night, but the dense clouds and the reflection of moonlight off the snow gave the earth and sky an eerie glow. Rudo, who was pulling guard duty for the rest of his group, had a clear view of the area surrounding their camp. The seven travelers had made their way to the old Guaron fortress, but were waiting until daylight to explore the reportedly haunted structure. Rudo could see the ancient fort a short distance away. He thought he could hear strange sounds coming from it, but maybe it was the whistling wind or some wild animal. Then again, perhaps the planet's thin atmosphere was causing him to hallucinate.
In any case, he was much happier awake and alert than to be caught off guard by roaming beasts and heavily-armed mechanisms—which there were plenty of on Dezolis—or the otherworldly creatures and specters that resided in the planet's ancient places, like Guaron. He didn't know if those creatures would wander outside the fortress, but he wasn't about to take any risks. He kept his weapon at the ready as his eyes continued to scan the landscape. He was a hunter, but right now he was a soldier, a man of duty and responsibility.
So alert was Rudo that at that very moment he could easily hear light footsteps coming closer to him. He immediately charged his weapon: a massive, state-of-the-art automatic rifle, and challenged the figure that was responsible for making those footsteps. The figure stopped at his challenge and answered the hunter timidly.
"Rudo," called a female voice in an almost whisper, "it's just me."
Rudo realized it was Amy and eased his stance. Lately she had paid the hunter much attention, something that confused him, but ultimately he found their time together a great respite from their otherwise harsh existence. He sat up from a prone position and rested his gun in his lap. Amy pulled up next to him and sat on a blanket she had been carrying under her arm. In one of her hands she appeared to have a hot drink.
"You'll forgive me, Doctor, for not recognizing you or anyone else for that matter when we're all wearing about fifty layers of clothing," he told her, as he rubbed some sleep out of his eyes. It didn't go unnoticed by Amy.
"Oh, of course," she replied and handed him the cup of hot liquid she was holding.
Rudo didn't take it immediately. He studied the cup and asked, "This is for me? What is it?"
"Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "It's coffee. I thought you could use something to keep you alert out here." She held her arm out closer to him.
A freezing wind swept across the earth and against Rudo's back. Snow blew into Amy's face and caused her to wince and shield her eyes with her free arm. A few strands of her hair fell in front of her face. She clumsily searched for them with her free hand, but her glove made it hard for her to straighten her hair. Rudo didn't like seeing her struggle, so he took her drink and set it to the side in the snow.
"Here," he inched over to Amy as he took his gloves off and gently brushed her hair back under her hood and behind her ears. He watched her self-conscious reaction; she looked away and thanked him shyly.
"I should thank you," he replied, picking up his drink and observing its rising vapors. "A hot, caffeinated drink and someone to keep me company? I couldn't ask for more." He gave her a gracious smile, and Amy laughed at his remark. "What about you, though?" he inquired, making a motion with his drink. "You didn't make any for yourself?"
"Nah," spoke Amy. "It's already hard enough for me to get any sleep; I don't need coffee coursing through my veins, too. Besides, I can use foi to keep warm."
"Foi?" inquired a confused Rudo. "How is that possible?"
"It's not that hard, really," she casually answered him. "The elemental techniques can be used to help as well as harm. I actually prefer not to use them in harmful ways, though I know it's not useful for our team."
"You know plenty of useful techs, Doctor," Rudo reassured her. "Still, how does foi help you stay warm?" Rudo wondered.
"I guess... well..." Amy hesitated as she thought of a way to describe using techniques to someone who didn't know any. "It's sort of the literal version of having a fire in my belly. Instead of directing the technique's energy outward, like what we use in battle, I direct it inward, keeping my core warm."
"And it doesn't hurt you or damage you at all?" Rudo asked, a little concerned.
"Not if you know what you're doing," she replied with a sly grin. Suddenly she had the urge to ask him why he knew nothing about techniques. His focus was, of course, weapons and battle tactics, but even the best soldier could find a use for a few techniques. She hadn't thought that deeply about Rudo before, but maybe it was all a part of the natural progression of their friendship.
"May I ask you something personal?" Amy asked slowly as she looked down and ran her fingers along the hem of her cape, afraid of making eye contact with Rudo.
A few seconds went by before Rudo answered her. "I suppose. Depending on what it is, I may or may not have a reply for you, though."
Amy drew in a deep breath and released it. "Okay, then. Why don't you use techniques?"
Rudo let out a laugh. "That's it?" he asked. "I thought you were going to ask if I had ever killed someone or..."
"Wait," Amy interrupted, "have you?" She looked up at him in shock.
Rudo glared back at her. "Do you really think that's a question I'll answer?" Amy looked worried. Rudo shook his head and patted her on the back reassuringly. "Oh, come on. Of course I haven't killed anyone," he told her, then stared her down again. "Or have I?"
This time Amy knew he was joking. "Oh, stop it!" she giggled, pushing him playfully in the arm.
Rudo enjoyed seeing Amy in such a good mood. Rudo could see she was smiling despite the darkness of their surroundings. He loved her smile. It was full of brightness and warmth; one couldn't help but smile back when Amy smiled. He liked making her laugh, too, because she would add little gestures that made her seem so down-to-earth and amiable. Right now she was rocking her knees and tilting her head side-to-side with a genial expression playing across the soft features of her face. How could he not be drawn into her gentle, friendly nature?
He realized he might have been staring at her a bit too long, and attempted to get back to their conversation.
Rudo cleared his throat. "Anyway, about your original question, the answer is that I can't learn techniques."
Amy was confused. "You can't learn them, or you don't want..."
"Can't," he interjected. "As in, I physically cannot learn techniques. I've tried, but I'm not able to draw that energy you spoke of earlier. That's why I carry a lot of firepower." He patted his gun.
Amy laughed again, but then her expression became more somber. "I've heard that a portion of the population is unable to use techs, but you're the first one I've actually met. I'm sorry." She looked at him sympathetically.
Rudo was taken aback by her concern. "Are you worried about me? Because I've made it through 35 years without techs; I'll be fine." He smiled at her and rubbed her shoulder. "Tell you what, when we make it back to Motavia, I'll move to Oputa so that any time I might need to use a tech, I can easily find you to do my dirty work for me." He winked at her.
His comment had Amy smiling again. She looked up at the clouds and said, "Funny you should mention moving to Oputa. I was actually thinking of moving to Arima when we get back."
The mention of Rudo's town surprised him. "Arima? Really?"
Amy shrugged. "Well, someone has to rebuild it, right? They'll need clinics."
Always the humanitarian, Rudo thought to himself, admiring Amy's optimism for a town that was probably right now deserted or nearly so, anyway.
"What's really funny is that both of us are thinking of going back to Motavia in the first place," Rudo said and immediately regretted it. "I guess that's not really funny, though."
Amy ceased rocking her knees, sat up from her more casual posture and stared off at nothing. "We'll make it back," she said plainly, without the same naive optimism. "We'll make it back." She repeated her words as if it would help her believe that they were true.
Rudo suddenly felt his stomach turn from mentioning the improbability of their return to Motavia. If it was just him, he'd be content hiding on Dezolis for the rest of his life. The planet had somehow managed to remain fairly immune to Mother Brain's influence, and the natives seemed to care not of the group's status as fugitives. However, Amy had family on Motavia. Hugh did, too, and so did Shir. The rest, including Rudo, had been orphaned or widowed by a system gone awry. Sometimes he forgot that there was still something left worth returning to on Motavia.
Rudo noticed a small tear work its way down Amy's right cheek. She remained still, as if she didn't want to draw attention to herself. He closed his eyes and shook his head, not proud of himself for being insensitive to Amy's family situation. He took in a deep breath and did the only thing he thought would repair the damage: he put his arms around her and drew her close to his chest.
"I'm sorry," he sighed. "We will make it back. All of us together." He could feel her slowly return his embrace, her arms wrapped around his trunk, her head buried in his front as she softly wept.
"Oh, Amy. I'm sorry. I didn't intend to ruin your night."
"You haven't," she mumbled into his coat. "May we stay like this for a while?"
Rudo rested his chin on her head and inhaled, taking in the smoky aroma of campfire permeated in her cape. "Of course," he replied quietly. "As long as you like."
"Thank you," said Amy as she held onto Rudo a little tighter.
Rudo couldn't remember the last time he held someone so closely. He could take a guess, but speaking of ruining a moment, he didn't want to bring up old memories. Instead he let a wall he had built up for over two years fall like it was made of nothing more than a child's building blocks. He wasn't sure how Amy had managed to penetrate his psyche so deeply, perhaps it was purely circumstance that brought them to this point. Rudo needed something to protect, and Amy needed a stand-in family: something to love and nurture. If so, then Rudo still had no regrets. They were banished to an unforgiving planet of ice and numbing temperatures, and they had each other to cling to and thaw out the bitter cold reality and uncertainty of their future.
He kept her in his arms for what felt like an all-too-brief moment before he felt her grip on him loosen until her arms eventually dropped to her sides. He felt her resting more heavily on his trunk and her breathing deepen as she fell into a slumber. Rudo looked up at the sky, watching a silent lightning storm unfold in the clouds. For him it was a perfect moment in an imperfect existence, and he was grateful he was given an opportunity to feel a certain amount of happiness again.
He would have left Amy to sleep against him until the morning if it wasn't also making him nod off, so he grudgingly lifted her into his arms and rose to his feet, making his way to her tent. She rustled slightly in his arms, turning towards his front and snuggling into him. Every step he took, every glance he made at the young woman resting so contentedly in his arms made his heart swell with a feeling he had lost along with his family: love. Amy was his family now. Only, what he felt for her was not the sort of familial love one feels for a sibling or parent. No, the feeling growing in Rudo was much stronger. He thought about how everything in their current situation prevented him from pursuing her, which is exactly what he would be doing now in some alternate reality. He silently cursed himself for feeling the way he did when he wasn't sure how Amy felt for him, and for letting his emotions control him to such an extent.
Rudo placed Amy on her cot and carefully zipped her into her sleeping bag. He wanted more than anything to tell her about everything that was going through his mind, how he had somehow moved beyond considering her a friend, but instead he balled up his unsteady hands into tight fists, as if to choke his passionate thoughts dead.
He took one last look at Amy, and she stirred. Rudo hesitated for a few seconds, then Amy turned onto her side and softly spoke, "Good night, Rudo."
Her words sent a strange sensation up his spine. He wasn't sure how conscious she was while speaking them; he figured probably not very conscious at all. He exhaled deeply as he turned and exited the tent. How he would deal with his feelings would have to wait another time, as he transformed back to a man of duty, in charge of night watch for a strange group of visitors to Dezolis.
He was a soldier, but he was still vulnerable.