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After forty minutes of alternating between sprints and jogging, I arrive at the grove in front of the waterfall emerging from a small bluff with a deep pool at its base. I collapse, gasping for breath as I look up at the sky. The bluff is a relatively short distance from Ma’ro, a part of the same mountain range that the city lies at the base of. But between the waterfall and Ma’ro lies the Ruins, and circling around almost tripled the distance. My chest and legs feel like they might explode. I do my best to breathe evenly as I gaze up at the canopy of trees that stretches overhead through which light pierces in gleaming points. Sounds of the forest meld with the roar of rushing water falling from the thirty-foot drop of the waterfall. The wind breezes through the clearing, cooling the sweat on my skin and rustling the leaves so that the rainbow rays shining through the trees flicker and shift in a subtle yet breathtaking display.
Suddenly, someone bursts into the opening and I lurch up to see Sarya, sweating and panting, but not exhausted like me. She smiles at me. “Looks like Essa’s words struck a chord.”
I smile back. “Yeah. Or maybe Torus has just pissed me off one too many times.”
Sarya shrugs. “Either way, glad you aren’t moping about anymore. You’ve been down in the dumps the past few days.”
I feel myself begin to close off from my uncomfortable emotions, but if I can’t talk to Sarya about this, I can’t talk to anyone. “Sometimes… it just feels like… the world is getting… ordinary.”
“As opposed to when there were dragons around?” Sarya asks sarcastically as she walks over and sits down next to me.
“Ha, ha,” I reply. “Like, the games we used to play, being wizards and all. It felt like there was something magickal about the world then. And lately, it just feels more and more like that…”
“That the wonder is going away,” Sarya finishes, her smile turning sad. “I think that’s part of growing up. We just get used to things being a certain way. Ordinary.”
“Yeah. Too bad. I would really like to give Torus a magickal wedgie,” I say, waggling my fingers demonstrably.
Sarya giggles, and it makes my heart somersault in my chest. I won’t know if she likes me if I don’t try. I think to myself to build up my determination. Gotta hope to make it possible. “Hey, Sarya-”
Just then, as if on queue, Torus bursts into the clearing, gasping for breath. His posse comes in behind him, the slower ones barely staggering in.
“Why is everyone else here?” I ask.
“I invited them,” Sarya answers as she stands up.
“Why?” I groan and push myself to my feet.
“Because,” she leans in and whispers, “I can’t be your only friend for the rest of your life. You gotta at least try to make some new ones.”
I almost tell her that out of all the kids in Ma’ro, let alone in the orphanage, she is the only one who I have ever wanted to befriend. But that feels possessive and creepy, and I know she is trying to be helpful.
“Looks like Eron won fair and square, Torus,” Sarya says as she struts up to the still panting boy. “I think you owe him an apology.”
“For what?” Torus manages to ask between heaves.
Sarya crosses her arms, and even though she isn’t facing me, I can tell she is giving him her ‘really?’ look.
Torus’ eyes meet mine as he straightens himself and snarls like a wild animal.
“Behave,” Sarya instructs.
The aggressiveness building in Torus deflates. He turns to look around at his friends who are watching him expectantly. He looks back at Sarya and sighs. “...Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize to me,” she says, raising her hands and stepping to the side so that Torus and I face one another.
I can hear Torus’ teeth grind over the sound of the waterfall. “Sorry,” he growls.
Sarya looks to me for approval, and I almost pretend I can’t hear Torus, but I decide to be the better man. I nod to her and she smiles back.
“Great! Time to swim,” she says and begins stripping off her tunic.
I freeze and feel my face ignite as I see Sarya’s toned body. She keeps small dark shorts and a loose undershirt on that still excites my imagination so that all I can do is stare. Most of the other boys who don’t turn away in embarrassment likewise gawk in amazement while the girls, at first offended and jealous, begin to follow suit. Sarya then cannonballs into the pool with a battle cry. Torus hollers and practically rips his clothes off except his undershorts and charges after her.
Soon, everyone is in the pool, laughing and enjoying themselves, but I can’t bring myself to join them. Already, Sarya is at the center of attention, playing around with boys and girls alike, splashing, wrestling, and laughing, and I feel like an outsider looking in. She sees me still standing away from the group and waves me over. I feel torn between going over and running away, afraid and frustrated by my fear of reaching out to anyone, of trying to be friends with anyone. When I was little, it took almost a year of Sarya’s pestering for me to let her into my world, and I don’t know how to do that with anyone else, especially when most of the kids surrounding her have treated me with contempt for almost a decade.
I decide to make a compromise and climb the waterfall. I point up to show Sarya where I am going and she nods excitedly. She then rises out of the pool, kicks Torus back in when he follows her out and catcalls her, and then joins me at the rockface on the side of the waterfall.