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Two's Company

Chapter Text

Standing in the cleared arena and facing Leader Opeli, Callum tried to hold on to that certainty. It was hard when his heart was pounding a mile a minute in his chest and he was so filled with nervous energy that he had to hide his fingers inside his pockets so everyone wouldn’t see how fidgety he was. Lin had been allowed to stay and spectate, and she was a calming presence at his side. They’d all placed so much faith in him—his pokemon and Rayla. He couldn’t let them down now.

“Choose your pokemon!” the referee called.

Leader Opeli threw out a pokeball and a slowpoke burst out of it.

Callum paused. He’d been planning to use Peanut for the first part of the battle, although the smeargle didn’t have any particular advantages against psychic-types, but… slowpoke, due to their thick blubber, were one of those unusual psychic-types with better physical defence than special, so maybe…

He probably shouldn’t. Sabriel hadn’t gotten much of an outing in battle yet, and he hadn’t talked any strategies over with her beforehand. Logically, it was better to stick with the original plan. But his instincts were telling him that thinking outside the box a little might work here.

If he was the Callum of a few months ago, he would’ve been too scared to try it. The Callum of now had had Rayla encouraging him the whole way here, and suddenly it didn’t feel so impossible that his instincts might be worth something.

Anyway, he’d promised Rayla he would try being just Callum, and sometimes he guessed that would mean losing as Callum, too.

“Sabriel, let’s give it a go!”

The ralts tilted her head in confusion as she took in the arena around her, making a questioning sound at him.

“Last minute change of plans,” Callum explained. “But you said you wanted to fight a Gym Leader, right?”

Sabriel whirled around to peer at Leader Opeli and her slowpoke. She threw her hands up in celebration and made an excited, high-pitched squeal.

Leader Opeli beamed back at her. “I sense an interesting power from her… Let’s see what you can do together.”

Sabriel looked back at Callum and tried to get him to fist bump with her. She’d been exposed to Duster too much during Val and Earl’s training, a clear sign of neglect on Callum’s part. All the other psychic-types were bound to laugh at her if they found out.

She did this cute little hopeful smile and Callum crouched down to fist bump her anyway.

“Are both trainers ready?” The referee waited for Leader Opeli and Callum to nod. “Then begin!”

“Water gun!” Opeli said.

There was a beat before her slowpoke reacted, which was plenty of time for Sabriel to teleport out of the way, but not enough time for Callum to avoid getting one of his legs wet as he skipped to the side. Jeez, there’s some power behind that water gun. It could’ve hit Sabriel from all the way over here?

Leader Opeli held out a hand as an apology, but most of her focus was reserved for the battlefield. The slowpoke continued to spout off water guns without input from her, which Callum guessed made sense. Slowpoke were… shockingly… slow to respond to commands, so if you could train one to act on its own, it would speed up the process a little bit.

But slowpoke were also not very clever, so it didn’t think to change up the water gun strategy, even when Sabriel continued to teleport around the arena and dodge every one.

“Don’t forget to hit it with disarming voice as much as you can!” Callum said.

Sabriel waved her arms by way of acknowledgement and her next teleport landed her behind the pokemon. It was slow to turn around, and she was able to fire off an attack before it could even get eyes on her. Slowpokes were defensive walls, so it would take a long time to wear it down with fairy-type attacks, but as long as they kept this up, they could definitely do it!

“Interesting…” Leader Opeli said. “Your ralts is exceptionally good at teleporting.”

“Ah, I wish I could claim credit, but she came to me like this,” he replied. Her thoughtful expression gave him a bad feeling…

“Change of plans!” Opeli said. “Let’s try a water pulse!”

Oh no, Callum thought, my feet are going to get soaked.

He didn’t realise what her plan actually was until the slowpoke caught up to her words after a few more blasts of water gun. It stopped, considering. Sabriel teleported by Callum’s feet and gave him a questioning look.

Then the slowpoke opened its mouth wide and a water pulse burst out of it, travelling at surprising speed. Sabriel gasped and teleported away, but the other side of the arena was soon swallowed up by the attack as well. She squeaked as she was bowled over by it, quickly pushing herself upright with an application of telekinesis and spitting out some water.

“Try hanging near the edges!” Callum called. “The effects should be weaker there!”

Belatedly, he realised his feet were not as wet as expected. He looked down. The water seemed to hit an invisible barrier near his feet, lapping at the edges before it slowly drained away. Courtesy of Leader Opeli, no doubt.

Callum swallowed. Unlike Harrow, most psychic-type specialists themselves possessed some level of psychic power. It was a little weird to think that Leader Opeli was probably stronger than the average psychic-type pokemon in her own right.

Not the time to think about that. As the water pulse drained away, Callum called, “Jump in and hit it again!”

Obediently, Sabriel used her teleport, landing behind the slowpoke as before. She paused, gathering the energy for a disarming voice attack—

—And barely had a chance to let the energy loose at the slowpoke before another water pulse attack billowed out of the slowpoke and surrounded it, burying Sabriel nearly up to her neck in water. She squeaked and vanished, appearing again at the very edges of the arena like Callum had suggested.

He bit his lip, trying not to swear in front of the crowd. He’d forgotten that water pulse was not a physical attack and the slowpoke wouldn’t have to take time to direct it in the same way. Slowpoke weren’t as talented at special attacks, but ralts didn’t have very good defences, either… would Sabriel be able to last? Think, think.

Sabriel hung at the edge of the arena, squeaking when the slowpoke released another water pulse attack. She teleported to a different part of the arena, but it was a wave of water. There wasn’t a way to escape from it. She sagged as it faded away, already beginning to look a little tired.

Come on, Callum! You were the one who switched the plan of attack at the last minute, so—

Suddenly, the answer seemed obvious. It was dumb of him not to have thought of it before. They weren’t going to last in a war of attrition. What had Rayla been trying to drill into his head over the last few days? How to be aggressive.

“Sabriel!” he called. “We’re going all out! Don’t worry too much about the water, just hit it with as many strong attacks as you can!”

She let out a chirping sound in response and immediately vanished. Reappearing to the left of the slowpoke, she gathered the energy for another disarming voice – and this time she held her ground when the next water pulse came, tilting her head to keep it above the water and taking a deep breath when it went over her head.

“Move,” Opeli said.

The slowpoke blinked, staring at Sabriel.

Opeli put her face in her hands.

Sabriel released the attack and teleported away before it struck the slowpoke. There was enough force in the attack to make it stagger and almost topple over. Callum’s eyes found Sabriel at the edges of the arena, panting, but her hands raised in celebration.

“Good work!” Callum grinned.

It would be close, but… they just might be able to get through this. If they could do it without calling on Val to finish things, that would give them that much more of a chance against Leader Opeli’s final pokemon.

Sabriel steeled herself, her tiny mouth set in an adorable, determined line. Then she teleported for another attack.

It went on like this for several minutes, Callum directing Sabriel as best he could, telling her when to duck out early, trying to spot parts of the arena where the currents produced by the water-type energy in the attack were weaker.

The slowpoke began to look haggard and tired, but it still refused to go down. It was slow enough already that there was no noticeable difference in its reaction times, whilst Sabriel’s reflexes were beginning to suffer. Even with acting as aggressively as possible, the match had dragged on for ten minutes, which was a long time for a ralts to operate at full power.

Callum watched her panting at the edge of the arena after another attack. He bit his lip. She was having to lean against the wall to support herself. “Hey, Sabriel, let’s leave the rest to—”

She let out a sound that he knew was meant to be a growl, even if it sounded more like a skitty purring. Pushing herself away from the wall, she wobbled a little on her feet, but steadied herself and gave him a defiant glare.

Why are pokemon all stubborn idiots? Callum sighed. “If you take another bad hit, I’m pulling you back no matter what, okay?”

She crossed her arms, still glaring.

After seeing the mime jr. in such a bad state, Callum was having none of it. A Gym badge was not that important. “Okay?”

Sabriel sagged as though disappointed. But after a moment, she nodded, which was all Callum needed to hear… see… whatever.

“You better be ready!” Opeli said.

The slowpoke was readying another water pulse. They’d missed an important chance to attack. Callum clenched his fists. We’ll just have to hang on until the next—

Out of the corner of his eye, Sabriel vanished.

Oh no. What’s she doing?!

When she didn’t appear next to the slowpoke, Callum looked around for her frantically. She was nowhere to be seen, until he heard someone in the crowd shout, “Up there!”

Sabriel was hovering near the ceiling, spamming her teleport to stay up there without falling too far at any one time.

It was a clever idea, but teleporting so many times one after the other was surely eating through her remaining energy. “Sabriel! I hope you have a plan!”

She must have been working on something, because she didn’t even acknowledge him. Her hands were pressed together in front of her, a strange glow surrounding her helmet-like head, unlike anything Callum had ever seen in training.

Green wisps began to appear in the air around her, flickering in and out of existence. Callum squinted, trying to make them out, but the shapes weren’t nearly solid enough to recognise. It must be difficult to prepare whilst teleporting, that was for sure. What kind of attack…?

The shapes became crisper, the green becoming nearly opaque. Callum’s eyes widened. Wait, is that a magical leaf attack? I know ralts can learn it, but Sabriel isn’t—

The slowpoke’s water pulse faded away, and it finally followed the lead of everyone else, looking upward and blinking enormous eyes in confusion.

Sabriel stopped teleporting and let herself drop.

Callum’s stomach dropped with her as she plummeted towards the ground, the leaf-shapes trailing behind her like a storm of arrows. Like razor leaf, the intent of the attack was to target the opponent with a storm of leaves, but because they were made entirely of grass-type energy and weren’t actually real, it was impossible to block them and nearly as difficult to dodge. It was also correspondingly much harder to learn and control, especially for pokemon who weren’t grass types.

I guess she found a way around the need to direct them properly, but…

She fell so fast that Callum could do nothing but watch with his heart in his mouth. He reached his arms towards her automatically, like he had any hope of catching her. Opeli was forced to leap backwards, away from her slowpoke, to get out of the field of the rain of leaves. Any other pokemon probably could have done the same, since Sabriel wasn’t able to direct the leaves after them as she should.

But since it was a slowpoke, Sabriel disappeared the moment before she would’ve crashed into it. With a soft thump, she landed in Callum’s outstretched arms and he had to scramble not to drop her—she wasn’t heavy, but the weight was unexpected.

Even in the brief moment it took her to teleport away, some of the leaves flickered out of existence, but enough of them remained and ploughed directly into the slowpoke, peppering it with cuts and scrapes. It groaned, shuddering with each minute hit until the storm passed.

Sabriel lifted up her head in Callum’s arms, watching the slowpoke. He tiny chest was heaving with the effort of what she’d done, yet the slowpoke hardly seemed to be affected at all—

Then, tortuously slow, it slumped to the ground and closed its eyes. Opeli knelt next to it with a wry smile. “So you finally tired yourself out… a good effort all the same.”

The referee looked from the slowpoke to Sabriel with narrowed eyes. Finally, he raised two flags. “Both pokemon are too injured to battle and must be withdrawn!”

Only Callum heard Sabriel’s weak cry of protest over the ‘Ooooh’ of the crowd. He frowned at her. “I know I technically said I’d pull you out if you took another bad hit, but doing the bad hit to yourself still counts, you know. You scared me half to death!”

Sabriel squeaked and tried to hide her face in the crook of his elbow.

Callum stroked her head. He was smiling despite himself. “You did a good job, though. We’ll work on the magical leaf thing so that you can do it properly next time, alright?”

She peeked up at him cautiously, grinning when she saw that he wasn’t really angry. She had time to raise her arms in a victory celebration before Callum called her back into her pokeball.

He grabbed Val’s next, taking several deep breaths. His heart still felt like it was about to burst out of his chest. We are definitely going to work on that magical leaf attack, if only so I don’t die of fright every time she tries to use it in battle…

“Both trainers, select your next pokemon!”

Callum and Opeli threw their pokeballs out at nearly the same time. She released another meowstic—this one largely covered in white fur in contrast to the mainly blue one that Rayla had faced. So this one must be a female… Callum thought he remembered there being some minor differences between the two sexes of meowstic, but his brain was drawing a complete blank on trying to remember them just then.

Val didn’t seem to be intimidated anyway. He was already chattering away to the meowstic. It hissed at him in return.

Callum buried his face in his hands. “Val, can you not trash talk your opponent before the battle even starts?”

Val looked at him blankly.

The sound of the meowstic grinding its teeth was audible even to Callum. At least I know in advance that the battle won’t be off to a nice, easy start, I guess… I don’t know if my heart can take this.

“Begin!” the referee shouted.

Callum hadn’t even opened his mouth before the meowstic darted forward, catching Val off guard, clapping Val’s face between its paws and dizzying him. A psychic attack of some kind sent Val tumbling away with a cry, although Callum thought it was more out of annoyance than anything else. He resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose and say, ‘I told you so!’

Val got to his feet whilst the meowstic preened its chest fur, purring smugly.

Callum didn’t want to tip it off by saying anything out loud, so he raised his hand, holding it flat and upright, and mimed something crashing into it with the fist of his other hand. Headbutt.

Val’s eyes lit up in understanding.

Leader Opeli gave them a worried look. “Pearl—”

Too late. Val charged at full speed and the meowstic only had time to squeak in alarm before he barrelled into it, head first. The meowstic was sent flying, although it managed to cushion its fall with an application of psychic energy. Val cheered for himself and the crowd soon followed suit.

“Val!” Callum tried to get his attention as the meowstic began to gather psychic energy between its paws, eyes narrowed. “Hey, Val!”

The karrablast was still waving and grinning at the crowd like an idiot.

Val! Jump!”

In a smooth motion, Val leapt into the air just as the meowstic released the attack. It ploughed into the ground, churning up dirt before it dissipated. Val twirled in the air, throwing his arms out in a smooth, circular motion like a dancer… before he landed flat on his face.

The crowd laughed again and Callum sighed. At least he listened to me when I said to move, but… “Stop showing off, dummy!”

Val gave him a thumbs up without picking his face up off the floor. Another chuckle rippled through the crowd and he lifted his face up just a tiny bit, trying to look at them whilst pretending not to look.

Callum sighed. “On your feet, Val…”

The karrablast hopped up, waving his hands, still facing towards the crowd.

He’s a born entertainer. Callum sighed. If only he was a born listener, too… “Remember, we’re trying to get in close!”

Val bobbed his head and rushed towards the meowstic again. It had already started preparing itself for another attack but, startled by the sudden onrush, fired the attack at Val in a panic.

As they’d discussed, Val only moved enough to dodge the worst of it and kept going. The crowd oooh’d in alarm.

The meowstic squeaked. Maybe assuming Val was going for another headbutt, it tensed. When Val was nearly upon it, it dodged to the side, twirling on one of its feet in an elegant, efficient move.

Too bad headbutt wasn’t Val’s plan this time.

“Alright, now that we’re close, time to put our plan into action!”

Val slid to a halt directly in front of the meowstic. When Callum squinted, he was just barely able to make out a pale green glow around him—barely a glow at all, something closer to a heat mirage. He only knew it was there because he was looking for it.

Karrablast didn’t have the scythes or claws that bug-types normally used for the fury cutter attack—an attack centred around multiple strikes, building power. At first that had left Callum scratching his head over how to make it work for a pokemon with stubby paws and feet before he remembered the karrablast’s sharp fangs.

Val leapt onto the meowstic and bit its ear.

The meowstic squealed, loud enough to make Callum wince and cover his ears. “Off now!” he shouted, hoping he’d been loud enough.

To his relief, Val did hop away, and then ratcheted back again whilst the meowstic was still finding its balance, biting down this time on the shoulder. The green glow around him intensified.

Opeli’s eyes widened. She must have recognised the move as the power built up—that was the funny thing about specialist Gym Leaders; they often knew nearly as much about the pokemon their type was weak to as they did about their chosen speciality.

“Get clear!” she cried. “You can’t let it keep landing hits!”

The meowstic was eager to comply, but it wasn’t able to dash away before Val got it again, on one of the paws. The meowstic hissed painfully, scratching at Val with its other paw, but he clung grimly on until Callum shouted for him to back off again.

Fury cutter was able to use the pain of the opponent as a feedback loop to double its power with every successful attack. It was hard to pull off with the greatest degree of accuracy, however, since it relied on meeting a specific rhythm with the attacks. Callum was trying to count beats as well as keep an eye on the flow of battle.

Rayla was much better at it. She was the one who’d seen the potential in the move in the first place—in theory, you could end a match in only a handful of good hits.

“Again!” Callum called.

Val darted in, but the meowstic let out a strange noise that made him stagger, and it was able to hop away before he could get a hit on it. The glow around him faded.

Callum groaned. Val had already taken a few big hits. Getting knocked out of the rhythm was going to make things difficult, especially now that they knew the plan. He needed to think of a way to get in close again, since the meowstic would be doing its best to keep distance between them—and Val is just charging at it again never mind I’ll just panic instead.

The meowstic hopped out of the way, letting Val crash into the wall behind it. There was a sympathetic wince from the crowd as Val wobbled on his feet. Callum was pretty sure he was exaggerating for comic effect, because he was pretty careful about where he was placing his feet, inching himself closer to his opponent.

The deception worked on the meowstic, too: when Val abruptly shifted his weight and launched himself at the meowstic, it squeaked and barely dodged out of the way. The crowd were impressed and let out a mix of cheers and groans as Val’s attack missed.

Callum thought, Great, and now it knows that trick too.

“Get into the middle!” Opeli said.

Skipping backwards rapidly, the meowstic moved into the centre of the arena where it had more room to manoeuvre. Callum winced, but there wasn’t much to be done about it now. Before he could say anything, Val charged directly at the meowstic, using the same level of speed as he had for the headbutt.

“No!” Callum called. “Zigzags! You have to change direction, or else it’s going to—”

The meowstic charged up a disarming voice attack which hit Val head on. The karrablast flipped head over heels and landed face down on the floor again. Callum was pretty sure that this time, he wasn’t putting anything on when it took him a moment to stagger to his feet.

“You can do it,” Callum said to him. “Just remember to zigzag! Make yourself a more difficult target!”

Val’s expression grew determined as his mouth set into a hard line. He nodded.

Hopefully he’s taking it a bit more seriously now…

The karrablast charged forward again. The disarming voice attack was difficult to avoid, since it was, at a basic level, just noise. But it was possible to get out of the main blast of the attack, and make it difficult for the meowstic to focus it’s attacks. Val used his natural gymnastics talent not only to zigzag, but to leap into the air and do forward flips.

It was still a crowd pleaser, but Callum could see that it was making the meowstic get more and more frustrated. Opeli’s frown deepened with every attack her pokemon made, each one sloppily put together, or released before it had built up the proper amount of power, or without proper aim—

Psychic-types relied on their brain power in a far more literal sense than most pokemon, which only increased the errors they made when they were off their game. Callum found himself clenching his fists and leaning into the battle, watching carefully and having to remind himself to breathe. We’ve got a real chance! You can do it, Val!

As Val gained ground, Opeli called, “Fall back!”

The meowstic shuffled back a little bit, but it was so focused on Val that it kept trying to pummel him with attacks, slowing him down.

“No, no,” Opeli said. “Leave it and—”

Too late. “Go for her, Val!”

Val dropped the antics and put on a burst of speed as he charged directly at the meowstic. It was caught off guard and jerked away. Nearly stumbling it couldn’t dodge Val’s bite. As his teeth sunk into its side, Callum started mentally counting beats in his head. The faintly green glow around Val grew brighter.

“Back off!”

Opeli called at nearly the same time, “Away, away now!

Callum blinked and nearly lost his count. Did she figure the timing out? Already?

But the meowstic was exhausted and slow. When it tried to back away, throwing an attack at Val to give it some breathing space, it was a psychic-type attack and not the difficult-to-avoid disarming voice it had been using under Opeli’s guidance. Val simply dodged to the side of it and was ready to leap back on his opponent at Callum’s shout.

“Disarming voice!” Opeli called urgently. “Focus, focus!”

The meowstic shook its head—Callum couldn’t tell if it was a response to Leader Opeli, or an attempt to loosen the grip of the karrablast clinging to its ear. Its struggles were weak, and the attempt to channel energy into a disarming voice attack was cut short when Val kicked off it as he broke free. The energy dissipated from between its paws like a burst of static from a television.

Callum could feel his heartbeat pounding in his ears. Victory was close, so close, which made it all the more important not to lose count. “Wait, wait!” he said, when it looked like Val wanted to charge in early. He circled the meowstic instead, and it wobbled as it turned and tried to widen the gap between them. Getting dizzy from such a simple movement must mean it was close to its limits, but Val must be too—both from all the hits he’d taken and from all his acrobatic activities.

Beat, beat… “Now!” Callum shouted.

Val leapt and tumbled and knocked the meowstic to the ground as he barrelled into its chest. It flailed its arms in a panic, trying to force itself up of the floor before giving up and channelling its energy into a psychic attack instead. It hit Val, but didn’t dislodge him.

Hang in there, hang in there! Val, you can—

Callum saw Leader Opeli winced and gesture to the referee.

“Val, back off!” he shouted, just as the referee raised his flag and declared them the winner.

Val leapt off the meowstic, but pawed the ground and continued to stare hard at it. He let out a squawk of surprise when Leader Opeli strode onto the field and picked it up.

“We won, you dummy!” Callum said.

Val whirled around to face him, his little chest heaving. He blinked and let out a quieter, questioning chitter.

Callum was breathing heavily himself, even though he hadn’t done anything. The end was so abrupt that it was almost dizzying. The clapping and cheers of the audience were like a buzzing in his ears; he couldn’t make sense of them.

His karrablast wasn’t having that kind of difficulty. Val stared at the watching crowd with his mouth hanging open, and then he began to parade around the area, waving to everyone and even blowing kisses as he made a victory lap.

Callum’s laughter may have come out a little hysterical, because Leader Opeli put a hand on his shoulder. He’d barely even been aware of her walking over and jumped.

She smiled and shook her head. “You played to your pokemon’s strengths very well,” she said. “I would ask if your karrablast enjoyed itself, but it looks like I already have my answer…”

Someone in the crowd had gotten the hilarious idea to throw flowers at Val’s feet like he was some kind of movie star. Callum hoped he wasn’t going to expect this kind of treatment at all of their Gym matches.

“Ah, yeah.” Callum scratched the back of his head sheepishly. “He’s, uh, a bit of a performer type… I guess?”

Opeli laughed.

The meowstic was still lying in her arms, its eyes closed. It looked pretty beat up and it was bleeding in a few places. It opened one beady eye and looked at Callum with a questioning mew.

“Uh… you doing okay there, buddy?”

“She’ll be fine when she’s had time to sulk,” Opeli said. “She hates losing.”

Her meowstic hissed and batted at Opeli’s hair with one of its paws. It raised its head and glared in Val’s direction. He was still parading about and admiring the nice pile of gifts the crowd had thrown down to him—a few flowers, a bunch of shiny sweet wrappers, and one empty box of popcorn.

Hissing again, the meowstic sat up in Opeli’s arms and narrowed her eyes. One of Val’s flowers rose up in the air and began to float in her direction. Val let out a squawk of dismay as he abandoned his pile to chase after it. He was concentrating so hard on keeping his eyes on the stray flower that he ran straight into Opeli’s leg and fell flat on his back.

The flower zoomed into the meowstic’s waiting paws and she hugged it to her chest. Snuggling back into Opeli’s arms, she curled up around it and began to purr. She stopped and opened a baleful eye when Val let out another noise of protest. He stood on the very tips of his stubby feet and stretched his little arms as far as they would go, as though he might be able to reach.

Callum nudged him with his foot. “Hey, Opeli’s pokemon fought hard, too. Let her have one of your presents.”

Val deflated and the meowstic began to purr again.

Opeli chuckled. “Besides,” she said, peering down at Val with a smile, “we’ll have to clear out the arena for the next battle soon, so if you want to keep all of your gifts, you’d better move them out of the way.”

One of the Gym’s trainers was already approaching the pile with a large brush. Val’s mouth dropped open and he panicked, running over with flailing arms and unintelligible babble.

“Anyway, I must give you this before you get distracted,” Opeli said. She pressed a Gym Badge into Callum’s hands.

He grinned at it stupidly for several seconds before it occurred to him what she’d said. “…Huh? Distracted how?”

“Callum!” came Rayla’s voice suddenly. “You did it!”

He blinked, surprised to see her—so he was totally unprepared when Rayla jumped into his arms. He let out a strangled yelp and fell right on his tailbone in a tangle of limbs.

“Ow.” Callum coughed, trying to get his breath back. “I told you I wasn’t that strong.”

Rayla laughed. “Sorry, but—you did it! You won!”

“I did!” Even though his voice sounded a little wheezy, he couldn’t help but grin! “I won! Me! I did it!”

There was an indignant squawk and a flower was thrown at the side of Callum’s face.

“Val helped a lot,” he added, without turning around.

Rayla laughed again and got off his knees, hauling Callum to his feet. He always forgot how strong she was. “Yep. You beat the Gym.” She grinned at him, her eyes warm and bright with joy. “I told you you could, didn’t I?”

Callum had had exactly the same thought himself, but for some reason, hearing it from Rayla made his cheeks flush. “Yeah,” he agreed. “I should know better than to doubt you.”

He nearly tripped over his feet when she pulled him into a sudden hug. “You should know better than to doubt yourself, you dummy!”

Callum’s nose was filled with the scent of her hair, the faint whiff of lavender, so it was a moment before he remembered to return the hug. “There’s no reason it can’t be both.”

“Well, I suppose I can accept that,” Rayla said softly.