I am so sorry for the much-later-than-usual update. My schedule has been hectic lately, and it's a miracle I was able to get this in before my first day back to school tomorrow. I'm a senior now, so I will probably not have a life anymore after today… Updates will be much slower than usual, so I apologize deeply for that, but placing priority on FanFiction over college paperwork is mad. Really, I am so sorry.
I don't actually have much time, so I'll make this quick. Thank you, Flutterspark, Undertaker5, Goku's Donut, and Le Redhead Merchant for reviewing Chapter 5. As always, your support is wonderfully encouraging and is one of the big reasons why I'm able to stay devoted to writing this story. Currently, the Lon'qu/Libra support is in the lead as the support I will write next. If you haven't voted yet, please stop by my profile page to contribute!
I am so scared that this one will sound a bit rushed, so hopefully my writing's sloppiness doesn't stand out too much here. I promise that the S-support will be much better, especially in terms of symbolism. Enjoy!
Stahl and Sumia — A
If Stahl was a simpleton, then apparently being a bit nutty in the head was one of the stranger norms in this world.
Sumia brought nothing to the meeting site, since Stahl hadn't even given her a hint as to what he'd planned. She'd had a feeling it would be something to this effect; he'd asked her to meet him at the foal training grounds, after all, so she wasn't surprised to see his horse by his side. She'd anticipated he would take her for an innocent, carefree horse ride to lift her spirits, but when her eyes landed on the horse's saddle—or rather, the lack thereof—she started to doubt her earlier conjecture.
Well, she turned out to be right. He was taking her for a ride.
But innocent might not have exactly been the word for it.
"W-where's the saddle?" (And the rest of the darn equipment, in Naga's name?)
"It's called bareback riding for a reason, dear Sumia," supplied Stahl coolly. Steadily, he climbed his stallion, and Sumia took note of his position—slightly more forward than if he actually were sitting atop a saddle. His extended, open palm encouraged her to step forward, and his second hand deftly patted the space behind him, her seat on the ride awaiting.
A fraction of her didn't want to leave him hanging and just wanted to submit her hand for the sake of avoiding infusing awkwardness into the atmosphere, but the larger portion—where her oh-so-prominent insecurities lay—screamed if you care any ounce about your (unattractive) face you will not even consider this ludicrous idea and it would probably be best to (kindly) excuse yourself and start running away now, but the smaller and less self-centered fragment countered but he's so nice and sweet and went through all this trouble to do this just for you and he's smart and gods know he may have something planned and the dominant conscience retaliated you are a madwoman and "Please. Be. Quiet!"
For a split second, she'd thought those words escaped her mouth, and Stahl would get the terribly wrong idea and she'd make a bumbling fool out of herself for apologizing and oh, gods. Get a good, firm grip on your spiraling freak of a mind, Sumia.
Outside, she allowed an innocent tilt of her head and asked, "Is it safe?"
"Hardly," said Stahl.
"For inexperienced riders," he added.
The uncertainty still didn't leave her alone.
"Don't worry," Stahl assured with a chuckle. "I know what I'm doing. I've done this plenty of times with him." He pulled his hand back and stroked his horse's mane, and because anxiety constantly pecked at her heart like the flap of a hummingbird's wings, all she could think about how he wouldn't have anything to grab onto but the mane.
Sumia knew he was trying to make up for what he did, and times over and over again she'd told him that it wasn't his fault, that nothing was necessary. (She was too frail to withstand the blow.) But she didn't think he realized her submitting to doing this would essentially put her through a kind of miniature torture. The scare of stumbling face-first into the ground, with a horse instead of her trippy legs as support, didn't exactly appeal to her easily-damaged psyche.
In response, she uncomfortably shifted her weight from one foot to the other.
"You'll be safe," pressed Stahl gently. He extended his hand out to her, palm open and assuring, once again. "I promise."
His eyes pleaded for her to accept. He wanted to show her something.
It wasn't like she could deny after she'd already accepted his offer. Nor after he'd gone through so much trouble to prepare Operation Inspirit Sumia for the sake of her faltering selfdom.
In the end, kindness overtook her and placed her hand in his.
Stahl's smile was affable, triumphant. Sumia's mirrored it in half of its ways, tinged with reluctance instead of elation.
Before he could help lift her onto his horse, however, a thought struck her.
"Just a moment!"
Sumia's eyes scrambled to search the grass, vision landing happily on a single daisy, beautified by several petals. Yes; this amount should suffice.
She started plucking.
"I won't goof up and fall off the horse, I will goof up and fall off the horse, I won't goof up and fall off the horse—"
Stahl sounded weary.
"I thought you said you trusted me."
She felt the gentle pressure of his hand's grasp on hers, and immediately, she felt her heart plummet. She was so desperate to ensure her safety, she hadn't realized everything she had done—declining Stahl's request, foolishly making a flower fortune—was bred out of selfishness.
Sumia felt the half-deformed flower fall soundlessly to the grass below, and she turned her attention to Stahl's tender grip.
"Stahl…" I'm sorry.
She forced a smile, which, obligingly, enveloped her face and transformed into a genuine beam.
"Let's have fun."
Stahl's dejected expression, to her utmost relief, renewed into something similarly like hers.
Despite the bumpiness of the ride and the scares of marring her face on the ground and the fear of discomfiting Stahl by keeping her arms constantly locked around him, Sumia enjoyed herself. At some point, her plummeted heart began to rise, gradually, and towards the end of the ride, she found it positively soaring, all former scares merrily transformed into jovial thrills. She'd started laughing—though she hadn't an idea why—and Stahl had joined. She'd thought the horse would start cackling as well, but by then she would have questioned if she were truly in reality or in one of her fantastical daydreams.
Nonetheless, she'd enjoyed herself to her heart's extent, and she was shameless to tell him.
"You are much too kind for your own good, Stahl," she said. "No amount of thanks can satiate the magnitude of every generous act you've done for me."
"Nah, don't mention it," he replied breezily, taking a seat by her atop the grass-plentiful field. "I was just so glad to see you like that after you were so torn back on the battlefield. You know, I'd felt so guilty back then, I racked my brain for hours trying to think about how I could make up for causing you and your Pegasus to get hurt."
"You've made up for it wonderfully," said Sumia benevolently. She was more grateful to Stahl than her words could ever describe, but inwardly, she felt lacking. He'd done so much for her, and her so-called "save" now seemed insignificant in light of Stahl's plenty other kind deeds. "When my Pegasus recovers," she offered without a second thought, "why don't I take you for a ride on her?"
His eyes enlarged, shocked and hesitant. "Uh, I don't know about that. If you thought you were a burden to my horse, how do you know I wouldn't crush her with my weight?"
"Oh, I wouldn't worry too much." It was an absurd, almost comical idea now that he'd pointed it out, but her desire to compensate was what made her press on. "She was able to handle the captain's weight without many problems. And since you've met her already, I'm sure she would be more than willing to let you ride her. She can be a bit of a hassle to handle around strangers, after all…"
"Sumia," said Stahl, half-smiling, half-smirking, "don't worry about it."
"What? But you've done so much for me—"
"If you do something to compensate for my compensation, I'll have to do something to compensate for that. It's best to leave things as they are, while we're both on even ground. Besides," he began, his tone shifting from amused to benign, "every time I turned around during the ride, you would be smiling and laughing and having fun, as opposed to when your Pegasus was attacked and injured. I think seeing you finally in high spirits like that is worth enough thanks for me." His toothy smile caught the red-orange illumination of the sunset. "You already gave me what I wanted, Sumia."
She returned the smile, feeling her cheeks warm, but not in embarrassment. "I can see you're not going to let this go."
As many times as he told her otherwise, Sumia knew she didn't deserve this tenderness, this benevolence, this companionship. But if Stahl wasn't planning to take it back, she would gladly relish it.
"But I can at least give you one more thanks… so thank you. For everything, Stahl."