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Upside Downtime

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8.12PM, May 18th, 998AB, edge of Dimar Mountains, Central Katolis

It was supposed to be fighting stance lessons, not… whatever this was.

Smiling? Talking?

That wasn’t usually a part of these types of lessons, at least… not like this.

Runaan’s tiny smile, when she succeeded at something difficult-

Pah. Callum hadn’t even tried yet, much less succeeded.

It was a fluke anyway, that weird… ba-dump her heart had done when Callum had leaned down next to her on the boat.

So what if humans were cute?

Some of them, at least.

It didn’t… mean anything. Just a very pointless observation that Callum was one of the unfairly cute humans.

And anyway, she was putting those dumb and pointless thoughts behind her, because they were dumb and pointless. But Callum could at the very least have the consideration to stop smiling at her. Because it was not helping.

At all.

Rayla smiled back. Completely… without thinking about it. She still… would have… obviously. Wasn’t like it was weird, smiling at someone who smiled at you.

His hair had shone in warm, golden shades when the sun hit it.

Hers didn’t. Not like that. Why couldn’t his hair be normal and glow in moonlight? She was used to that.

You could want to touch your friends’ hair, right? If it was all floofy and soft-looking? Like… a shadowpaw kitten or an adoraburr?

Yeah. Ignoring that.

And definitely don’t be weird and tell him he’s an unfairly cute human.

“You look like you lost a battle with the firewood,” Rayla said, instead. That was also true, after all. There was a smear of charcoal across his forehead and cheek. Black on his fingers and cuffs.

“Yeah, sorry. I stacked too much and had to remove some of it. It’s burning alright now, though.” And he smiled. Again. That just… wouldn’t do.

She shook her head and straightened up, determined. “Callum, I’ve been neglecting a vital part of your wilderness education,” she grinned. “Sass. It’s important.”

“Wilderness…?” He looked confused. “Uh… well, I consider myself-”

“Shush now. There was a right answer to what I just said, and it was to rightfully tell me I look like I was repeatedly punched in the face and then eaten by a lake monster. And that I smell like fish guts.” She took a mocking bow. Her damp hair flopped into her face, smelling like lake water and electrocuted fish and solidly proving her point.

But he winced, at that. She was really not doing a stellar job at keeping things upbeat, but it was kinda hard when he failed to see the humor in objectively funny things. She frowned a bit. “Fine,” she sighed. “You can tell me I’m awesome instead, if you really must.”

“You’re awesome.” What?! And he was still fucking smiling!

“You don’t speak sarcasm so well, do you?” she scoffed.

“Yes, actually, I do. I just disagree with you. You fought a whole huge lake monster today? How’s that not awesome?”

You defeated the lake monster. I got eaten.”

“And got yourself and Bait… un-eaten. Under water. That you’re scared of.” He looked honestly disbelieving, but-

But it didn’t matter. She knew herself better than he did. And besides, there were things she hadn’t told him that would change his mind about her real quick. So even if he actually meant that, it wasn’t really a reflection of her awesomeness but of his kindness and… incomplete knowledge of her.

And she was supposed to be teaching him to plant his feet, he had asked after she had taught Ezran, now asleep by the fire.

That ‘I’m standing here, you move’ kinda thing feeling inside and the rooted, strong feeling outside? It was a good thing to be able to do, stand unmoving, against scary things.

Rayla picked up the stick-sword she had used to teach Ezran, abandoned on the grass. She shifted it to her right hand. It was fine. She could use it if she had to, and she was not thinking about it now, because it was irrelevant until it kept her from fighting. Hopefully it would be a while till then. It just kinda twinged a bit.

Okay.

Maybe… more than a bit.

But it was definitely manageable.

“Did you get hurt worse than I know? When you fought my aunt yesterday? Or when you fought the lake monster?” Shit. Her face really was like… a useless, whiny, little tattletale with an F in illusions. And that wouldn’t be a problem except he was always looking at her face-

“It’s fine.”

But he kept looking at her, brows furrowing. Suspicious? “That wasn’t really… what I asked. It’s like yesterday. It’s like you’re answering something different than I’m asking. But you actually believe it, even when it’s obviously not true. Like that you’re not awesome. Or that you were fine yesterday.” No, concerned. Worse.

“I was! And I am!”

“You should be allowed to not be fine right after you were beaten and tied up and almost kill-” He swallowed. “I’m not really fine, you know. After just- seeing that. And seeing… other stuff. Earlier.” The tower. He had been there, in the fighting. He had seen things, and he was not used to violence.

Neither was she. Not like this. Not the opponents she had faced the last few days.

The lake monster.

Callum and Ezran’s aunt.

The human soldiers.

The smoke wolves.

…Runaan.

She was outclassed. She was losing.

Had lost, every time.

Her hand went halfway to her temple, still swollen and sore, proof that she wasn’t good enough for what she was facing. Not even close. And without her left hand she would be way further away from being good enough.

She dropped her hand and straightened up. It didn’t matter. She could damn well try her hardest. This was important. Far more so than anything she had done. She had lost every battle so far, but… she hadn’t yet lost the one that mattered, keeping Callum and Ezran alive and getting the dragon egg home.

Callum was still looking at her though, and the needless concern had gone nowhere at all. “You… were punched in the face and eaten by a lake monster and bitten by those wolves… in the last three days. And you were right, yesterday. I missed stuff. With you. You just… you seemed like you could do anything, like you didn’t even get tired or upset or scared or hurt.”

…felt as if you saw me as both more and less than a person, she had said, and he had listened and not gotten mad.

And it was changing. The way he was looking at her now was different.

Or maybe the way she was looking at him?

Both?

He peered at her temple, where her hair was probably only half-covering the evidence of that beating. “It already looks better than yesterday,” he wondered, relieved.

“Close to the full moon. So yeah.” She rubbed the bite mark from the smoke wolves, almost faded. “I heal faster.” It would be half in a few days though. It wouldn’t last, that boost. And her hand wouldn’t get better, it would get worse until-

“I’m glad you’ll be okay,” he said. “I’m sorry I asked to go there. I really didn’t think… yeah. I didn’t think. Of you. Not until it was too late.”

“It’s really nothing,” she said, squirming a bit under his gaze. “Have you never been punched in the face before?”

“No!” Really?! And he was her age. Huh. “Who would hit you?” he asked, looking comically troubled about it.

Maybe she thought her parents had? And yeah, of course that would be different and bad.

“Just sparring partners and occasionally other kids at school,” she shrugged, assuring him.

“I’ve never been to school.” Oh right, he’d said. “It doesn’t sound great.”

“Ah, it’s okay, except for being mostly really boring. Not like I didn’t give as good as I got.” Usually. The last time, right after her parents had betrayed their mission, it had been… different. Different and horrible. It hadn’t been a fight, it had been a vice grip holding her arms fast, Vareil and Emina taking turns just… doing what they wanted. Toying with her.

Ethari had seen it right away, too, when he found her afterwards, because he hadn’t scolded her at all and had whispered something in Runaan’s ear, and then Runaan hadn’t scolded her either.

She shook her head, pushing those shitty memories away. She was fixing things. She would do this and then go home, and it would be better and people wouldn’t hate her anymore.

“Well?” she prodded, turning back to Callum and the thing they had come here to do. “Square up?”

He had asked her but… he was hesitating now. “Um. Maybe- …uh.”

“Callum? Why are you…” Was he actually afraid of her, unlike his brother? Did he think she would hurt him? She had thought, in the boat and just now… that he saw her as a person. A friend, even. You weren’t supposed to be afraid of your friends.

Or lie to them.

Never mind.

But it seemed important that he knew that she wouldn’t hurt him, even if she could.

She had, she knew. She had used her strength and speed against him, chased him, pushed him down, threatened him. She would never do it again, but-

But she had, and he was allowed to still be wary about her, she couldn’t really complain about that. She set her jaw.

“What’s wrong?” Callum asked.

It tumbled out of her, honest and childish. “You’re- you- you’re afraid of me. You’re nervous. I can tell. That’s why you didn’t want to do it before, with me and Ez.”

“No!” That was honest too, and she breathed out in slight relief. “I’m not afraid of you. Really. I haven’t really been, since… well, definitely it was within a couple of hours of meeting you. I’m afraid of… failing.” Oh, how she felt that sentiment in the pit of her soul. “I told you, I’m pretty useless at… most things. I didn’t want to- want you to… think that.” He was looking down at his feet, his cheeks flushed with embarrassment.

“I don’t. And I won’t, even if you’re rubbish at this… I won’t. And I’m pretty sure you won’t be.” He had looked right at her, at her sword at his throat, and told her he was Prince Ezran. He had gone back into that tower for- for the king. It was pretty baffling how he could think he wouldn’t be good at planting his feet in the face of scary things. He was obviously very brave when it came to the people he cared about.

“You think?” He was smiling slightly, hopefully, he wasn’t quite believing it but-

But she did.

“I know,” she said. “Now square up.”

He did, letting her position his body right.

“You have to feel it,” she explained. “That unmoving thing inside you. I know you have it, because I’ve seen it. You just have to get your head in the right place. I saw your drawing of that room, remember? So, I know you can see a place in your head, if you know what it is.”

“Yeah?”

“So, imagine Ez behind you.

He did, she could tell.

“And plant your feet.”

He did.

She lunged at him, putting on her best scary-face.

He didn’t flinch.

He smiled.