Ciara isn't expecting anyone else to be awake.
It's late; the moon is a slender, glimmering crescent in the midnight sky and the world around her is quiet except for the faint chirping of crickets and the hooting of an owl in the distance. The rest of the kingdom is fast asleep, laced with relief and exhaustion after the battle against Ryker.
But not her. Ciara had kicked all the silky sheets and goose-feather pillows off her bed and stared at the ceiling until her eyes burned. She can't sleep. Not now, while her body still buzzes with the excitement and fear from the day before, not while her mind still runs in circles with every what if.
A part of her had considered wandering into Eliza's room, falling asleep curled up next to her big sister like she did when she was younger. But she's not a kid anymore. She's a knight--at least, a knight-in-training, and so instead she finds herself in the training yard, her tiara and silk pajamas abandoned for the tight coily hair and leather gear of her alter ego. She'll hack at straw dummies and hit bullseyes until her mind is clear, she decides.
Except, it seems, someone else has the same idea.
"Arc?" she asks quietly. His back is turned to her, blonde hair glowing a dusty silver in the moonlight, twirling his sword in his hands. He's wearing an odd combination of a leather jacket, his squad shoulder pad, and flannel pajama pants, like he'd only half bothered changing before coming out here. At the sound of her voice, he whirls around quickly, sword held out and panic tightening his stance until he realizes it's her and relaxes.
"Oh," he says, and darts a hand through his hair with a sheepish grin. "Sorry, you scared me. Hey, Ciara. What are you doing up?"
"I could ask you the same thing," she says with a flicker of a smile, and he shrugs.
"Couldn't sleep. There's too much on my mind after the battle--same as you, I'm guessing?"
She hums the affirmative, nodding, and there's a brief, heavy silence in the cool air. Then, she says, "I want a rematch."
His gaze flits towards her, head tilting slightly. "What?"
"From the fight before, when you beat me," she continues, leans a little on her sword and lifts an eyebrow at him, challenging. "I want a rematch."
A small smirk crosses his face. "You want me to kick your ass twice?" He takes a step forward so he's looking down at her with his tongue between his teeth, lips tilted upward in a way that is so completely Arc.
She shrugs her shoulders, matching his grin with one of her own. "I think you'll find the outcome a little different this time."
"Yeah, I'll beat you a lot faster."
"Just put your sword down and fight me, hotshot," Ciara scoffs with a roll of her eyes.
Arc drops the blade, kicking it behind him with the heel of his boot. As she does the same, he folds his hands in front of him and gives her a winning smile. "Whatever you say, Princess."
"On three," she says, and his stance shifts immediately, his hands curling into fists and his feet planting themselves firmly on the ground. "One."
"You sure you still want to do this? You can back out any time, y'know, keep at least some of your pride."
"Nope, not giving in, huh?" he huffs a sigh. "Fine. I guess I'll beat you the hard way."
He's the first to move, lunging forward and lashing out with a fist. Ciara sidesteps, grabs it before he can pull back and kicks him in the stomach. He stumbles backwards but recovers quickly, launching a spinning kick at her that catches her in the side and makes her lose her balance. She rolls out of the way and flips back onto her feet. For a moment, they circle each other.
All traces of the bantering goofball are gone; his eyes are intense, focused, filled with the fire that they always are when he's in a fight. She imagines hers are the same. They're alike in that way, in their ferocity and stubborn pride (and in many other ways that Ciara doesn't care to admit).
She rushes at him, throwing a punch, but he dodges it and leaps behind her, hitting her between the shoulder blades. They're locked in a frenzy then, lashing out with flips and fists and kicks, and right as she thinks she has the upper hand his leg sweeps hers out from under her. Ciara hits the ground hard. He's on top of her in seconds, his hands pinning her wrists against the ground.
"See?" Arc says, and grins a little, blowing a lock of blonde hair out of his face. "Nothing's changed."
"I have." Her knee shoots up and hits him in the stomach, and the wind is knocked out of him for long enough for her to flip him over and switch their roles, with her pinning him against the ground instead.
"Dammit!" He struggles against her grip as she counts to ten, holding him firmly down. Her knee is braced on his chest and she doesn't let up even a little, because Arc is known to use every possibility to his advantage.
When the ten seconds are over and her victory is official, she beams triumphantly. "Ha! I told you I'd win."
He rolls his eyes. "You sound like Sage," he teases her, and she shudders and scoffs. "Alright, fine, you win, now get off me."
Just as Ciara lets go of his wrists, his hands shoot up and his fingers attack her sides, making her shriek and tumble backwards off of him.
"Arc!" she yells, choking on her laughter as he tickles her mercilessly, "quit it! You're--such a sore--" she breaks off with a burst of giggles, her ribs aching more from the uncontrollable laughing than they had from the bruises after the battle. She squirms against Arc's grip, manages to reach her fingers up to his neck and then he's laughing too and she thinks it's the best sound she's ever heard.
It's the most ridiculous thing--the two of them locked in a tickle fight in the training yard, but as he chases her up the steps and tackles her onto the platform, Ciara can't remember the last time she's laughed this hard. "Okay, okay!" she yelps, when he's still tickling her sides and she's struggling to catch her breath. "I surrender!"
Arc finally collapses back, still chuckling, and sprawls out on the stone. "Who knew you were so ticklish?" he says breathlessly, tilting his head to the side to grin at her.
"Oh, shut up," she shoots back, but she can't keep the humor out of her voice, not when her sides are still tight with stitches from laughing so hard and he's looking at her with his eyes dancing and a smile on his face that's brighter than the goddamn sun. "You're the absolute worst."
He laughs again, and then they lie there in comfortable silence, staring up at the stars while the cool night air rushes back into their lungs. With Arc, moments like this are calm and easy--no need to fill the quiet, just the two of them and the open sky and the world all to themselves.
"Arc?" Ciara says finally, softly, when the echoes of their laughter have faded. She turns her head to look at him, and his eyes are questioning. "I just wanted to say...thank you. For helping me, when you had the chance to get revenge on Ryker instead."
The smile that crosses his lips is soft. "Of course. We got him in the end, anyway. And it was worth it."
She nods slowly. "Today was...insane," she says, although she knows it doesn't do the events justice, knows that it's not enough to explain the pounding of her heart in her chest when she thinks about everything that's happened.
"Yeah. That's gonna be our lives," Arc replies, as though he's just realizing it himself. "When we're knights--this is probably gonna be a regular day for us, huh?"
Ciara hesitates. She turns onto her side, props her head up on her hand and looks at him, taking a steady breath. "Are you scared?" she asks, the question burning in the back of her throat.
There's a long pause in which he doesn't say anything. Then, "No." He smiles a little, and she finds herself focusing on the way his eyes glitter like emeralds in the darkness.
He shakes his head. "No. I'm not scared. Whatever happens, we'll face it together, right?"
There's something warm that bursts in her chest then, pushing the cold out of her and leaving her whole body humming softly, down to the tips of her fingers. "Yeah," she says, her voice barely above a whisper as she settles back onto the ground, close enough to him that their shoulders brush against each other. She smiles and closes her eyes. "We'll face it together."