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hold our head up high

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“I told you, I definitely had it handled,” Balance said, propping the door open with one foot to let Rhal step into the tavern past him. "The last thing we need is the one whose entire defense is moving too fast to hit to pull a muscle.”

The door closing behind them was almost enough to cover Rhal’s quiet scoff as they both paused for a beat to glance around the room — Rhal, presumably, for an open seat, and Balance for any signs of open hostility to the sudden appearance of a dragonborn.

“I did not pull anything,” Rhal insisted. “It didn’t even fall.” He took the first empty table, pushed one of the chairs to the side, and tugged a stool over from against the wall.

Always a little more of a challenge, Balance figured, sitting anywhere with a tail.

“Yes, well,” Balance rolled his eyes quickly, not bothering to hide his grin as he did a slightly more focused look at the different patrons, making sure he got a bead on where Zaltanna was already in a vigorous drinking contest with some local, “next time we’ll leave all of the heavy shit next to the cart until we can get our muscled friend over there to take care of it for us, hm? I may not pull the swords out often, but it does help to have functional arms for that.”

"It's fine," Rhal said lightly. He rolled his shoulders once, his own arms stretching out. "I am used to a bit of sore muscles. It's not like I am as strong as you, or especially Zaltanna. In many senses."

Balance found himself blinking, caught the frown just before it fully formed. Then decided that it deserved a frown.

He knew there hadn’t really been anything meant by it, but the flippant tone was part of the problem. It was one he had gotten very used to hearing, and so often around things that definitely did not deserve that nonchalance that Rhal seemed to have for so much.

It could be brushed past easily. Maybe he should — just let the comment go, order dinner, and have a relatively normal night.

But this also felt like as good an opportunity as any not to. Even if he couldn’t shift entire attitudes tonight, maybe getting the thought out would be enough of a start. Anyway, someone needed to say it, and Zaltanna seemed busy.

"Rhal, that isn't --" He had to pause, turning the words over in his head for a moment. "At the risk of sounding like Zaltanna, that might be the stupidest thing you've said."

He saw Rhal's face twist some in confusion, and his arms folded across his chest. "What do you mean?"

Another hesitation. Balance let out a quick sigh and sank into the chair on the other side of the small table.

"Alright," he began, "do you remember when we were in Falsam, when I was...when we learned I couldn't heal you?"

Rhal's head tilted just a little to one side before he nodded. "I remember, yes."

"At that point, thinking back, what would you say your pain levels were? On your own scale," Balance amended quickly as Rhal squinted, "just based on what you're used to."

That got a good amount of thought. Balance was fairly certain he could feel the slight disturbances in the air from Rhal's tail shifting from side to side.

"That day was not too bad," Rhal said eventually. "On a scale to ten? Maybe a four or so."

Balance blinked hard again, leaning forward to rest his arms on the table. "A four." It was more a statement than a question, but Rhal nodded anyway. "See, that --" He cut off and found himself looking down at his hands before pulling his eyes back up with another, longer sigh. "I felt it, you know."

Rhal seemed to take a moment to process that, and he sat back, his frown deepening. "You felt it?"

"For a moment, yes. I don't think that's how the process is supposed to work, but given the unusual circumstances…" Balance managed to keep his shrug looking mostly nonchalant. "For a moment I felt exactly what you did. What you do."

A bottle broke in that stretch of silence, somewhere further into the main part of the tavern. There was a loud burst of laughter following the sound, but Balance only vaguely noted it, a tiny piece of his attention reminding him that there were other people in this building still.

"I'm sorry," Rhal started quietly, "I didn't mean --"

"No, no," Balance cut him off immediately, leaning even further forward, "there is absolutely nothing about that you should be apologizing for. I wanted to try, it didn't work, but we learned something. That's all. And I…"

He pulled in a breath. Rubbed one arm absently as he thought back to that evening. There had been plenty of time spent considering the logistics of the whole thing -- the hint of something more underlying a seemingly common ailment, the possibilities of easing it other ways, perhaps with Zaltanna's magic, which lay in the divine as opposed to his...wherever it had come from. But he didn't spend much time thinking about the pain.

It had come up on occasion, when he watched Rhal step back from a fight, blood streaming from his nose when he definitely hadn't taken a hit in the face. Watching how fast he seemed to fall asleep when they set up camp for the night, no matter what they'd seen that day. Once or twice just sitting around the fire, seeing Rhal laughing at something Zaltanna had said, and seeing him scratch almost unconsciously at the underside of his jaw where the acid had burned it permanently raw.

Then he would remember the pain, the feeling of acid burning at every vessel in his body, every single heartbeat making it flare, feeling like he was a single heartbeat away from just crumpling in on himself like a puppet with its strings cut.

"It was only for a moment," Balance said, "and then I had to pull back. And I would be the first to admit my pain tolerance is not the highest, but I was lucky enough to be able to pull back, because I couldn't have withstood that for more than a minute." He paused, shifting enough to draw Rhal's eyes back to him. "And now you tell me that was a four."

Rhal shrugged, looking almost self-conscious. "It has been worse, that's all."

"Exactly. You are proving my point yourself, you know." That got another quick squint, and Balance huffed another sigh, resisting the urge to rub at his temple. "I have felt what you go through every single day, at an apparently low level. You're sitting there right now in more pain than most people have felt in their lives, and you regularly go out with us and put yourself in even more pain. And I've never once heard you complain."

He realized as Rhal glanced away again that there wasn't exactly an easy response to any of that. But that was fine, it wasn't like it was something that needed a response.

Just maybe if Rhal heard it enough, he might start considering believing it.

"I was…" Balance hesitated, shooting a quick glance around their table and leaning in a bit closer. "I was a prince to plenty who loved their wars. Trained for it every day of their lives. And next to them, you are still one of the strongest people I have known."

It took a bit of effort to not look away as Rhal's eyes seemed to bore through his skull in a way not even their mental link could replicate. Then they crinkled in a smile, and Rhal leaned forward.

"Thank you, Balance. It may not feel like that, but…" He reached to lay a large hand on Balance's shoulder, squeezing with that obviously very practiced pressure. "I appreciate the thought."

Balance nodded, hoping his own grin was equally nonchalant, and wouldn't openly admit to being just a little grateful for the distraction of another, louder crash behind them. The sound of Zaltanna's barking laughter made his eyes roll instinctively, and he pushed himself to his feet.

"Come on then, I think Zaltanna's about to get us kicked out of the bar," he said cheerfully. "May as well go out with style."

He watched Rhal in his peripheral, laughing as he stood too, and shaking out his arms a little once more.

Proving the point yet again.