Training was finally going well. Layla was a fast learner, and her back was finally healing enough for her to fight. Jasper saw her growing in confidence. She was no longer the timid refugee that had escaped from the Fortress all those weeks ago, she was a fighter.
At dinner one night, Layla was wolfing down her food, obviously ravenous after a training session with Zane. Jasper had to smile, she was working so hard to learn, and Zane had no idea how much effort she was actually putting into it.
"Hungry?" He asked, sitting down in front of her, as was his usual spot.
"Very," Layla replied between bites. Jasper couldnt help but smile at the way she approached everything with the same enthusiasm now. Fighting, cooking, eating. She loved it. Jasper had grown to depend on it, nearly. The memories of that black day hadnt plagued him since the day Layla's scars had broken open that night in the baths. Layla kept the dark thoughts away.
"Hey Layla! I reckon we'll soon have you practicing outside; what do you think about that?" Zane's question was loudly pronounced before he was even seated in his usual spot beside Layla. Jasper's smile was gone before the first word was completed. He couldnt quite explain the animosity that he felt for the boisterous swordsman, only that it had grown since Layla had come. Before, it was just distaste for his cavalier approach to danger. Now, was it territorial?
"Outside? You mean, on the mountainside?" Layla asked in answer to Zane's question. Jasper clenched his fist angrily, resisting the urge to pound it on the table. Zane was supposed to be stuck down here as well, as his punishment for his reckless behavior near the border. If he was allowed to leave the Rocks...
"Yes." Zane was saying. "I thought you could do with some fresh air, and a change of scene."
"And this is in no way for your benefit?" Jasper asked angrily, leaning forward to look Zane in the eyes. "How did you get Ceri to agree to this?" It wasnt fair. Zane scowled though, and Jasper realized his mistake.
"I havent asked him yet, but I will." Zane said, almost defensively.
"Let me know how that goes." Jasper replied, with just a hint of smugness in his tone.
The tension rose around their table until Layla coughed.
"Um, can we stop the manly stand off for a minute? I spent a long time on that roast and you're both letting it go cold." She complained.
Zane chuckled and Jasper glanced at Layla in apology, then at the plate in front of him, he'd forgotten all about it. He grabbed his fork and started eating, quietly thinking about how life in the Rocks had gotten so much better since Layla had shown up. He didnt eat alone and in silence anymore. He didnt spend all his time wandering the tunnels in a ruse of patrolling, when really he was just brooding. For now, life was good. Almost. Jasper looked up to see Ceri entering the mess hall.
"I have to go and patrol." he said, standing up. "Zane, Ceri just arrived. Perhaps you can ask him now?" The two locked eyes for a second, and the tension rose again as Zane glared at Jasper.
"You two are hopeless." Layla muttered, standing and marching away with her empty plate. Jasper dropped his gaze first, in silent, unseen apology, before taking his plate and following her for a bit, then turning down a different tunnel. Before he had patrols, he needed to check up on Erik's progress with the armor idea.
Jasper waited around a corner until Durn left the workshop, heading in the direction of the women's dormitories. Maybe he was looking for his sister. Jasper avoided Durn's line of sight and when he was gone, slipped into the blacksmith's cave.
"Erik?" Jasper called softly, there was a soft clang and a quiet curse as Erik came into view.
"What do you want, Jasper?"
"I was wondering, if Durn passed on my message, about a new kind of armor?"
"Message?" Erik seemed confused. Jasper frowned, he knew he should have delivered the request himself.
"I'd like to make a request about a kind of lightweight armor, that could be worn beneath regular clothes, but still strong enough to block a sword blow. Is such a thing possible?"
"Ah, now, Durn did mention something about that a few days ago," Erik said thoughtfully, reaching for a few strips of parchment that lay on the worktable. "These are the schematics for such an experimental suit, why do you ask?"
"I was thinking of having such a suit of armor, to give as a gift." Jasper explained hesitantly. "I want it to be secret though. A gift for a girl."
"Jasper, I know your luck with women is, sketchy at best, but dont you think a suit of armor is a bit much?"
"I think it's important. She's learning to fight, but I'm still worried about her safety. I want to offer her the best protection I can, and I need your help. Please, will you help me?" Jasper was practically on his knees.
"Hmm, alright Jasper. I'll do my best. I'll work with Durn, and we'll come up with something." A thought that Durn with this kind of armor would be more dangerous than helpful wriggled into Jasper's mind, but he pushed it aside. Layla would like the gift, and then she'd be safe.