Grounded
By: Manna


…-…-…

Jill tripped, and that was what started it. She was immediately embarrassed by her moment of clumsiness, and tried to cover it up by looking away from Haar, who was walking beside her.

In retrospect, he determined there really hadn't been anything he could have done. Even if he'd been standing closer, it wouldn't have changed anything, because her trip had, perhaps, been something more of a stumble, and really, what could be done about that?

He tossed a glance her way when she caught her balance to ascertain her well-being. Other than her flushed cheeks, she looked fine.

She half-expected an offhand comment from him asking if she'd had a nice trip, but he stayed silent and in turn, so did she. The army had stopped for the night and they were only given a set amount of time to eat and sleep before they had to be up again. Haar would no doubt want to take advantage of it. Once the tents were set up, he'd find his usual corner and drift off only moments after he laid down—if he even bothered to put down his bedroll, first.

He covered a yawn behind his hand. "Do you want me to set out your bedroll for you?"

She blinked. "How unusually thoughtful of you." She gave him a sideways glance and then nearly stumbled again as she felt a sharp pain in her toe. She stopped. "I would appreciate it. And," she continued wriggling her toes in her boot experimentally, "I'll even wake you up later if you do."

"That was the plan," he admitted, watching her actions with mild interest mixed with confusion. "Jill, what are you doing?"

She frowned and took a few quick steps to catch up to him, "I must have ripped off a nail."

He said nothing about it, but sympathized. It was hard to believe that a broken nail could cause as much pain as they sometimes managed to. He noticed that the tents had been raised, and patted her back once before he veered off in that direction. "I'm going to sleep," he told her.

She gave him a critical once-over, "Do you want me to wake you up for dinner?"

He paused for a second, but shook his head. They'd had a long day flying at the front of the army. "No."

Haar had a list of things that ranked in his life according to importance. Sleep was number one. Food might have been number two, but Jill wasn't sure.

"Okay," she said, but only because he wanted so badly to sleep and he had eaten dinner the night before. She refused to let him go more than one day in a row without eating the evening meal. She didn't want him wasting away. Though, really, she couldn't talk, herself. "I'll be there soon."

Except that she wasn't.

She found herself walking from one end of the encampment to the other, retrieving things, checking on her wyvern, dabbing blood off of her armor that she hadn't had time to get rid of the night before, and finally cleaning both her and Haar's weapons.

She managed to squeeze a few minutes' worth the eating in there, too, though she wasn't sure how.

When she finally did make it to the tent, she had to step over the sleeping forms of several other people to make it to the corner that Haar usually reserved for them. The only real way to "reserve" any spot was to throw down bedrolls. It didn't always work, and sometimes the others would hardly leave the two of them breathing room, but it was better than nothing.

She'd much rather sleep too close to Haar than anywhere near people she didn't really know. In that way, she was grateful that he took the five minutes to set up her bedroll. It saved her a night of tossing and turning.

She was so tired that when she saw her bedroll spread out and ready for her near the slumbering form of her lifelong friend, she fell into it, not even bothering to take her boots off. Her right foot throbbed, but she ignored it in favor of a few hours of rest.

…-…-…

Something woke him up. Maybe it was the noise outside the tent, or the fact that the inside of the tent was so…empty.

He yawned and stretched and for a moment, thought of what he would say to Jill when he saw her next—he'd set out her bedroll, and she hadn't even tried to wake him up!—but when he turned his head to the right, he realized she was still asleep, herself.

That was unusual. He watched her sleep for a moment before he shook his head and rolled up his bedroll. When he was finished, he crouched down beside her, sighing a bit as his knees protested the movement.

Jill was still sleeping rather peacefully. Not only had she not bothered to take off her boots, she hadn't made an effort to cover herself up. She could pretend to be as tough as she wanted, but little things like that gave her away—she was just as tired as he was, maybe more so, even if she'd never admit it.

"Jill, wake up," he said after a long moment. She didn't budge. He tried again, this time shaking her shoulder.

She groaned and tried to curl into herself. As if that would let her sleep longer.

She always complained about how difficult it was to wake him up, but at least he was faking being asleep half the time. She was a nightmare to wake up, and someday he would tell her so.

"Hey, wake up." When she still wouldn't budge, he sighed and decided he had only one option—a last resort. Well, there were other options, but he wouldn't dare attempt them.

He tugged on her ponytail.

"We're moving out without you, Jill."

He doubted his words had any effect on her, but she absolutely hated her hair being touched, especially when she wasn't sure who was touching it.

In a confused and tired fury, she swatted his hand away. "What?" she asked irritably, eyes only half open.

He took his hand back. "It's time to get up."

She groaned and flopped back down. "But I just got to sleep!" At least…it felt that way to her.

He tugged on her arm. "Come on," he said lazily, stifling a yawn of his own before squinting at the open tent flap. "It looks like it's going to rain, so we'll be grounded. That means you can't nap in the air."

She let him tug her up to a sitting position, and finally yawned and stretched, herself. Her muscles were all stiff and she gave Haar a particular look at his words. "I'm not the one who naps while I'm supposed to be flying," she said.

He shrugged, "Just in case you thought you might try it."

Grounded. She sighed. And wished to go back to sleep. Being grounded happened a lot. The wyverns and pegasi would get tired if they spent all day every day in the air. They could travel much faster than the foot soldiers, or any other group; having pairs fly ahead to keep an eye out for trouble was a good way to keep the beasts fresh for battle.

While the animals would be fresh for battle, it meant the people wouldn't be. Then again, she could not keep herself airborne, so being grounded was the smartest choice, all things considered.

The thought of marching all day made her inwardly groan.

She new Haar disliked it as much as she did, but he never really bothered to complain about it. It was how things had to be, and it would be better to be tired from marching all day than to have their wyverns be exhausted from staying aloft all day.

"Are you going to get up or do I have to drag you—"

"I'm up!" she snapped, unable to control her early-morning irritability. As she pushed herself out of her bedroll, she berated herself mentally for having slept with her boots on. Not only had she worn them all day the day before, but all night, and now she'd have to wear them all day again.

She got to her feet, and to her dismay, her foot still throbbed. She supposed it was just the toe with the ripped nail that was throbbing, but it might as well have been the whole foot. Great.

Haar noticed her expression changing but he didn't give it much thought. Instead, he rolled up her bedroll and got to his own feet. "I'll put these away," he told her, "but that means tonight you have to set them out."

"Fine, fine," she grumbled, taking an experimental step. It was going to be a long day.

…-…-…

The first few hours weren't too bad. Her foot hurt like hell and Haar kept yawning from beside her, but she managed to ignore it all. One step at a time. The day had to end eventually.

Then it started raining.

Haar almost didn't notice the rain. He was busy thinking about napping. It was when his hair began to fall into his face that he really noticed it, and he absently combed it back with his fingers as he glanced over at Jill. She always made an effort to walk on his left side, for which he was thankful.

The corner of his mouth twitched into a smile to see her hair plastered to her face and water dripping from the end of her long ponytail. It was kind of cute. Well, it would have been except for the fact that she looked positively miserable. "Lighten up, Jill," he said, letting his left hand rest on her back. "It's not that bad."

"Easy for you to say," Her voice lowered to an intelligible mumble as she complained, "My foot hurts like hell."

He missed the last part of her sentence, and leaned closer to her, "What?"

"Nothing," she said, and looked away. It wasn't worth whining about.

…-…-…

Haar began to wonder about Jill after a few more hours had passed. The clouds above were still heavy and grey, but the rain had stopped. She was still sulking. He didn't bother to say anything to her—why waste energy on speaking when nothing needed said?—but he did keep an eye on her.

Her foot had gone from throbbing to aching to throbbing again to an unsettling numbness. It was almost too much effort to continue putting one foot in front of the other. She spent most of the time praying the day would end quickly so that she could sit down to rest her feet and her eyes.

"If your foot hurts, you should go talk to Mist," he said to her after a while. He found it hard to believe that a ripped toenail could cause her that much pain, but Jill never exaggerated injuries—in fact, she always downplayed them.

"It's not that bad," she insisted. "Probably just a ripped nail, like I said yesterday."

She continued to look as if walking pained her.

"Certainly not worth bothering Mist over," she added as an afterthought.

Telling her to go to Mist anyway—or going to find Mist himself—crossed his mind, but he quickly cast the thought aside. It wouldn't be worth getting Jill all riled up. He supposed she'd go to her friend if she thought she needed some help.

Then again, she hated asking for help or admitting that something hurt.

When only a few hours of daylight remained—which meant they'd make camp after perhaps another hour of marching—he turned toward her, halfheartedly trying not to yawn. "If it'll be easier on you, you should take to the air."

The day had been terribly long; Haar could admit to himself that his own feet were feeling a bit sore, partially from the walking, and partially because of his wet boots.

Jill had been walking beside him without any complaint at all, but her walking was looking more like outright limping, and her face had paled considerably—though maybe it was his imagination.

For a moment, she contemplated arguing with him—she was in a lot of pain, but it wasn't as if she couldn't walk. In the end, he made up her mind for her.

"Don't bother arguing. I might be short an eye, but I can still see what's right in front of me."

She turned to look at him, and he gave her a bit of a smile. "Fine," she relented. "It might help."

…-…-…

She was glad he had suggested that she take to the air. Her foot continued to alternate between throbbing and being numb, but at least she didn't have to constantly remind herself to move it forward each step.

When the front of the army began to slow down, she knew they were getting ready to stop, and she turned back toward the rear of her group, where she knew Haar would be waiting. It wasn't hard to spot him—his large black wyvern was difficult to miss.

She circled around overhead until the soldiers stopped and began to make camp, hesitant to land because it meant she'd have to dismount and get dinner and set out her and Haar's bedrolls (since she had failed to wake him up as she had promised).

She pulled back on the reins and angled the head of her mount downward for a landing. Over the course of the day, she had thought to check her foot, but she hadn't so much as taken her boot off even once. A part of her was afraid it was a lot worse than she'd initially thought, and the rest of her wondered if she'd be able to get her foot back inside her boot afterward.

She didn't see how she could have done much to her foot aside from ripping off the end of a nail, considering she'd merely stumbled over…something, probably a root.

She'd have to check when she was back on the ground and could put away her things. They were camping alongside a creek, so she'd have to refill her canteen of water…

She continued her mental to-do list as she descended.

He watched her approaching with curiosity. He doubted the flight had done her any good, but at least while she was in the air, she wouldn't be hurting every single moment. As soon as her wyvern landed, he approached her. It was pretty obvious—at least to him—that something was wrong.

Haar didn't for a second believe that she had merely ripped her toenail. He'd seen her dismount hundreds of times, and only when something was very wrong did she do so with such caution.

Gingerly, she slid to the edge of her saddle and looked down from her rather interesting height. Haar was only a few feet from her, and she almost wished he would offer her some assistance. She'd take it if he asked—but she'd rather die than ask him herself.

She didn't really need his help, but…she had a feeling that jumping down was going to hurt.

In the span of a few seconds, Jill slid off of the back of her wyvern and landed on the ground. The expression on her face changed from grim to blank, and her face paled several shades. He saw it coming right before it happened; her right leg collapsed and she fell to her knees.

He was there in an instant, pushing her back to get her to sit down on the grass.

"What just happened?" She looked and sounded positively dazed.

"If it hurt that badly," he said, sounding harsher than he intended to, "you should have asked for some help!" If he had known, he'd have at least offered it. "This isn't a torn nail, I guarantee it. Give me your foot. And don't be stubborn about it."

"Why?" she asked, feeling a bit defensive, but as if it were a reflex, she used her arms to lift her right leg, straightening it out in front of her.

"I want to see it." When she didn't just stretch it in front of her, but instead moved her leg with her hands, he frowned. He took hold of her calf and wiggled her boot experimentally. He heard her sharp intake of breath, and when he looked up, she was biting her lip.

"What?" she asked, steeling her gaze as he continued to look at her. "It's not that bad!" But when he gave her boot another tug, she squeezed her eyes shut. "Just take it off!" she ordered, but didn't open her eyes.

"I will. You might want to take a deep breath, first." He knew it was going to hurt her, and for that he was sorry. When she did as he suggested, he moved both hands to the bottom of her boot, and with one fast, hard pull, yanked it off of her foot.

She couldn't help the long, low groan that escaped from deep in her throat after he pulled off her boot. She'd felt a lot of different kinds of pain in her life, but perhaps not one quite so terrible? None that felt the same, that much was certain. Had her eyes been open, she thought they'd have rolled to the back of her head, but she still felt dizzy.

Her fingers began to tremble, but not as badly as her leg.

"Now I have to get your sock," he told her, and shook his head at the sight. It was wrinkly and wet and the toe of it was a strange reddish color. As carefully as he could, be peeled her sock off of her foot.

She didn't make a sound.

His frown deepened when he looked at her foot. "Stupid," he muttered, half meaning himself, half meaning her. "You stupid woman… You should have gone to Mist this morning."

She let herself lie down for fear she'd lose consciousness and end up there anyway. "I didn't want to bother her," she protested, but her words sounded weak even to her own ears.

"The girl's your friend—do you really think she'd be bothered?" The lines in his forehead became more prominent as he prodded at her injured foot. "Foolishness like this can get you killed!" She had likely broken her toe, as well as ripping off a good chunk of her nail—it had bled quite a bit. On top of that, her whole foot had swollen, then gotten wet, and if he knew even the smallest bit about injuries, an infection had already started to settle in.

"I don't want to go to her for every little thing." It wasn't fair to bother Mist with every little ache and pain. So many others did that already that the other girl was busy all of the time. She didn't want to add to that number, not if she could help it.

With care, he set her foot down on the grass. "Don't be stupid, Jill." He sighed, and ran his fingers back through his hair as he thought. "Stay here, I'll find Mist."

She didn't have the energy to argue with him, but his words hurt. She wasn't stupid; she just didn't want to bother anyone.

He went off in search of the girl. After a moment of thought, he corrected himself. Mist was a woman, now, no longer a girl.

So was Jill, though he'd realized that a long time ago.

He finally spotted the young woman sewing up a shirt from a comfortable-looking place on the ground.

"Sir Haar!" she said, smiling cheerfully at him. "Do you need something?"

He thought of how he should word things. "It's Jill," he finally said. "She did something to her foot yesterday evening, but didn't think it was worth bothering you about. But it's gotten worse."

Mist's smile turned upside-down. "Bother me?" she asked, sounding a bit confused as she reached for some bandages and a healing staff. "There is no such thing! Doesn't she know I can fix little things like that with hardly any effort at all?"

The corner of his mouth twitched upward in something resembling a smile. "You'll have to tell her that yourself," he said, and if he sounded bitter, it wasn't intentional. "She was too stubborn to listen to me."

"I certainly will!" the younger woman said, and Haar turned on his heel to lead her to where Jill was. Perhaps he walked a bit faster than he normally would, but leaving Jill alone never really sat well with him.

…-…-…

True to her word, the first thing Mist did was approach her friend with a stern expression on her face. "Now, Jill," she said, waggling her finger, "why wouldn't you come and get me the minute it started hurting?"

"I didn't want to bother you."

"That's dumb! There's no such thing!" Mist set her things down by Jill's foot and tsk'd at it when she'd had the chance to take a look. "It's infected," she said solemnly.

Haar nodded, "I thought as much."

"Don't worry," she said, smiling at Haar. "I can fix it. But pulling the infection out is going to hurt, so I'll need you to hold her leg still while I do it."

"Of course," he said, and took a seat beside her, pulling Jill's right leg over his lap and carefully rolling up her pant leg before gripping her knee firmly.

His chest ached as Mist used her staff to attempt to pull out the infection. He knew it was painful, and he wasn't surprised when Jill finally fainted.

When it was all over and Mist had bandaged Jill's foot up after smearing some vulnerary on it to help keep future infections away, the younger girl stood and stretched. "You pick her up and I'll grab your bedrolls. Might as well let her sleep for the night."

He carefully pulled off her other boot and sock, and with a bit of effort—and some protest from his knees—he got to his feet. Carrying another human being was never easy, but he couldn't deny that Jill didn't weigh a whole lot. It made her seem almost fragile.

As he led the way to where the tents were, he couldn't help but feel a bit guilty about some of the things he'd said to her. She wasn't stupid…he had just been worried. Infection had, after all, been the reason he'd lost his eye. Steel had injured it, but infection had ultimately taken it from him.

He would rather die than see Jill suffer a similar fate.

…-…-…

Jill awoke to the sound of someone removing their boots. She forced her eyes open, and when she glanced at the space beside her, she spotted Haar. He was getting ready to go to sleep. It was dark. He'd likely done all her work for her. She struggled to sit up and crawled over to him.

"Haar," she whispered.

He heard her voice on his blind side, and turned to see her kneeling next to him. "You're awake." He felt a bit of relief at seeing it. And then guilt. "You're not stupid," he said softly. "I shouldn't have said it. I didn't mean it. You shouldn't be afraid to go to other people for help."

She swallowed, but did not avert her eyes. "No, you were right," she said. "I was stupid. I should have gone to Mist to begin with."

Even in the darkness of the tent, he could see her expression. It wasn't like her to look so down. He couldn't help but wrap his arms around her in a hug, one that reminded him of the one he'd given her years ago as they stood at her Shiharam's grave.

At first she was confused by his gesture. It wasn't something he did with any sort of regularity, and she herself couldn't deny being unused to physical contact. But after a moment, she relaxed against him and wound her arms around him, squeezing him back gently.

"You're not stupid," he murmured against her hair.

She stirred against him. "Next time something happens, I'll go to Mist."

His fingers tangled themselves in her hair. "Infection can spread quickly," he said. "In a few days, it could have been irreversible. You could have lost your leg." She shuddered a bit in his arms, but his heart was trembling at the thought. He could live without an eye, but could she live without a leg? He would never leave her, but losing her independence would be a big blow to her self-esteem and pride.

And the pain…

"You were worried?" she asked after a moment, sounding a bit awed by the thought.

He pulled her away and held her at arm's length, carefully brushing her bangs to the side before he gave a wide yawn. "Why wouldn't I be?" he asked nonchalantly, and then stretched.

She didn't know what to say to that, and her face flushed at his small show of affection. "If I have to go to Mist every time anything happens, then so do you," she said seriously.

"Fair enough," he said. "Now go to sleep. Tomorrow's going to be another long day."

"That means you'll have to ask her about your knees tomorrow. I can hear them pop every time you bend them."

He cracked open his good eye and resisted the urge to roll it at her. Of all the dumb… "That's just old age," he said.

"Haar…" Her voice was a clear warning.

"Fine, fine." He waved his hand dismissively at her. "Now go to sleep." He was tired, and he knew she was, too. Sleep would help her foot heal faster, too.

She smiled at him before scooting over to her bedroll and getting back in it. It was still warm, which pleased her. After getting comfortable, she reached out across the space between them and felt her fingers brush his shoulder. "Good night, Haar," she said.

There was a long silence, and for a moment, she was afraid he had fallen asleep. But then his fingers squeezed hers, and she heard his voice murmur a response, "Good night, Jill."

She didn't bother to take her hand back.

And he didn't bother to let it go.


…-…-…

Author Notes:

4,400 words of nothing. Oh well, I hope it was cute, at least!