A/N: This story is femmeslash, aka it includes a romance between two female characters. If you've got a problem with that, I would suggest not reading, because reading things that make you mad is kind of stupid. If you have no problem with that, then please, read on and enjoy! Additional note: "IXH" is what I'm using for line breaks, because FP seems to hate every symbol on the keyboard.
Chapter 1: Loss and Gain
"I always wondered why people would complain about life so much and do nothing about it."
The flames were thick on the ground. They spread about the village burning away its buildings like a cleansing fire, but it didn't feel that way to the woman who strode through the town. Instead it was like a corrupting flame, destroying what people had worked to build. This was the truth of it, but for some reason she'd never seen it before.
She passed a mirror, cracking and bubbling from the heat. Enough of it remained to show her image; dark blue hair that curled about her neck and shoulders, her natural color. Grey eyes that usually showed little emotion. A slightly weary look to her features as if she rarely got enough sleep. Her bright, shining golden plate armor was splattered with blood, tainted almost red. Her white cape was stained as well, sections of it having soaked up the blood. At her side was her constant companion, Merciless, a broadsword kept in its scabbard at all times outside of combat. It was a necessity if she was to follow orders.
Orders… For some reason the woman's eyes narrowed at the word. She'd never had this reaction before… The mirror seemed to capture her thoughts and attention, leading her back through her memories.
"Knight-Commander Enyo!" a soldier shouted, running up to her. "Lord Faust wants to see you immediately."
She nodded, making her way to the keep without hesitation. On this day, her expression was… nothing? Had she always been so devoid of emotion, and simply never noticed it? In her struggle with the voices that tore her in either direction, had she cravenly chosen to cast aside all decision?
"Ah, Isabella," Lord Faust, King of Areya (thanks mostly to Isabella's power) said with a smile. His favorite tool, his favorite pet; had she always been such? "Your great power is needed once again, my dear. The people of High Falls have decided they want their freedom," he said, speaking the last word as if it was a personal insult to him. "They've started a rebellion. You are needed to end it; make an example of them so we may keep peace in our lands."
And she had agreed, as she had always agreed. When he'd needed a town conquered in the first place through violence? She'd gone herself, destroying the defenders without effort. When an opposing king had demanded a duel with his strongest fighter? She'd broken the poor fool without even needing to draw her sword. And when people rose up against Lord Faust, against his tyranny, she was the boot that stomped them back down.
She took a contingent of soldiers. They wouldn't be needed but it was standard practice. She reached High Falls in a day's time, cold grey eyes scanning its buildings. Mostly wood, very little stone. The land of Areya wasn't very advanced, technologically. Not like the lands far to the East, where travelers said an empire had arisen and advanced to create buildings that touched the sky, and strange carriage-like vehicles that travelled without horse or magic.
Lord Faust had been right; the people were gearing up for rebellion. The place was awash with activity as hundreds of people ran back and forth between buildings with simple weapons and supplies. High Falls was build atop a cliff; it had a wonderful view, but it was bordered on one side by a sheer drop thousands of feet, and on another by raging rapids leading to the waterfall the town was named for.
In short, though the town was large, there was only one escape route. Having been told to make an example Isabella set her soldiers up along that path, blocking it. No one would be leaving.
Two voices spoke in her mind as they anticipated the coming release. Idly she wondered which one would take command today, but it didn't matter to her. As she entered the town commotion died down; they recognized the woman, and they knew why she'd come.
"The Golden Butcher," one man breathed, beginning to step back in fear.
"Knight-Commander Enyo is here!"
"It's Isabella of Two Faces, here already!"
Isabella stood in the middle of the main road as cries of the titles and her name spread across the town. Some ran away, others chose to run towards her screaming about their freedom or oppression or other such nonsense. In her experience, the weaker you were, the more you talked; the strong tended to act more than jabber on.
The first man that reached her was young; he had only patchwork leather armor and a simple iron sword. Why he thought he could kill her she would never understand. She swung her sword, still in its scabbard; the impact shattered his blade and sent shards flying before slamming into his chest and hurling him away.
Cries of surprise met her, as if these people didn't truly believe in her power until now. More fighters were coming, some better equipped and prepared. Soon she had slipped into the dance of battle, gliding around blades and polearms and arrows. Her strikes shattered blades and armor and bones, but they kept coming, their numbers growing. Finally, it was time.
Isabella launched herself into the air in a high arc, coming down a fair distance away from the dozens of fighters. She lifted her sword before her and could tell by their eyes that they'd heard the stories. She watched them for a few seconds (fear, determination) before drawing the blade.
The red flame erupted first, encasing her body in an ethereal fire that flickered angrily without burning. Her scream split the air; she would never get used to the pain a State Change caused, but she had long ago accepted it. Her grey eyes took on a crimson hue and her blue hair shifted to a similar, blood-red color. The scabbard disappeared as her sword grew in size, turning black and changing shape into a wickedly-curved two-handed sword. She brought the blade up and rested it on her shoulder, crimson eyes scanning the terrified crowd.
Then she moved.
The blood spray was the first thing they noticed, oddly; then they noticed Isabella was in the middle of them, no longer standing several dozen feet away. Finally they noticed the four men splitting into two pieces, hitting the ground with wet thumps. That's when the screaming started from the onlookers. "Demon! It's a demon!"
The fighters, to their credit, attacked, but at this display of stupidity Isabella couldn't even summon pity for them. She whipped her blade in an arc that took the heads of three attackers. Her blade shattered weapons, pierced armor, separated bone and tendon and muscle, and still they fought. She didn't notice when the fires started; as far as she could tell she'd destroyed the forge, showering sparks and molten metal everywhere.
The wooden buildings caught alight and it spread quickly, aided by the cheering soldiers who began fanning out a bit, tossing torches onto homes and killing those who tried to run. Isabella paid them no heed; she was caught in the dance, avoiding blade and arrow and responding with brutal strikes that send limbs, weapons and bodies flying.
The main force scattered and she began walking through the burning town, cutting down those she could find. She left her Demonic State and returned to her normal form, sheathing her blade and continuing her search. They would leap out and attack her but she had no trouble with these ambushes. A frown was on her face now; she didn't know why they kept fighting. Their situation was hopeless, their deaths inevitable; why not simply accept it?
That was how she'd found herself here, staring at a mirror in a crumbling house, an expression of surprise on her features as she realized there were tears on her face. Crying…? Since when did she cry? She shook her head, yelling in rage as she smashed the mirror to pieces, sending glass shards in all directions. Something was happening to her, something she didn't like.
She heard some of the soldiers she'd brought with her, laughing and joking about the people they'd killed, bragging about the ways they'd done it. She usually felt the same way. It became like that, if you did it enough; a game. They weren't really 'people' anymore, only targets; animals. She tried to remind herself of that as she flicked some blood from her hair. A sound behind her, a sword cutting air, caused her to spin around rapidly, her sword lashing out.
A simple iron sword went spinning up into the air, coming down to stab into the ground beside her. A second, just as fast strike came down at the attacker she'd just disarmed. Blue eyes. She stopped because of blue eyes. The girl that stood before her couldn't have been more than eight years old. What had she done to cause an eight-year-old to kill her?
What have you done? You've done a lot of things. Your cruelty has been quite thorough.
And entertaining! Don't act all innocent now, not with the evidence right in front of you, that's just sad. Hahaha, just look at her!
Her grey eyes examined the girl. Shaking in fear; unlikely that she would attack normally. Eyes filled with tears. Sad? Hands covered in blood but not her blood, she had no injuries. Family death? Parents, probably. She looked shaken. Both parents? If one were alive they'd have a hold on her. A new orphan, then. This wasn't new, wasn't unusual; Isabella had created many orphans. But something was wrong this time, different. That wall that kept all her emotions away was breaking down. Unfortunately that had other effects, as well.
This new freedom is interesting, isn't it? We should do something with it!
Let me have more control! I refuse to let you continue this slaughter!
Shut up! Shut up shut up shut up!
The slaughter is the best part! Hey, kill the girl while the others are watching, I wanna see their reactions!
This is the last time your sinful influence shall be allowed!
The voices in her head were louder now. Both of them yelled at her, tearing at her psyche, her mind, her soul. She gripped her head in her hands, shaking it back and forth as if she could shut them up that way. The little girl was scared, even asked what was going on. Nearby soldiers asked her if she was okay, but she couldn't answer either of them.
The two additional "personalities" in her mind fought for control and their struggle shredded everything Isabella had built up. It was finally too much, she'd done this for too long. Her mind simply couldn't take the strain anymore, and finally, that wall shattered.
Her scream was one of anguish, the sound of not only physical or emotional pain, but the pain of the soul. The soldiers and the little girl jumped back in terror and surviving rebels stared at her from their hiding places, neither group knowing what to think. Isabella fell to her knees, trembling. It felt like her mind was being pulled at by wild dogs, her soul being torn piece by piece. The pain was excruciating, but the worst part was that she felt… She felt it… for them.
Emotion; that powerful force she'd ignored for so long refused to go unheard now. Her grey eyes opened, no longer devoid of emotion but full of it, overcome by it. Tears streamed down her cheeks as the face of every person she'd ever killed flew past her eyes. The dam had broken and she had no idea how to close it again; her mind was too damaged, now, for such control. She fought to breathe, fought the feelings of horror and fear and… guilt.
Guilt. She'd killed them. She brought her hands down, looking at the blood covering her golden gauntlets. Only now did she realize it had bothered her all along, she'd simply shut it out. Her gaze darted around the town, taking in the burning and collapsing buildings, the blood, the bodies in the streets, the young girl. Men, women, children, animals, every living thing was bleeding or burning, and it was caused by her hand.
This was all too much for the little girl, who took off running in fear. The soldiers raised crossbows, taking aim at the small running form as if they were hunting a deer. Isabella moved before she could think about it, pulling the simple, almost crude iron sword from the ground, the one the girl had attempted to kill her with, and dashing forward as a blur, virtually appearing in front of the men out of nowhere. The one in front's eyes widened, his surprise almost causing him to shoot her. "Knight-Comman-"
Her scream of rage and pain cut him off. His blood, and that of the other two with him, sprayed into the air as their now-lifeless bodies hit the ground. Every eye turned to her in shock. Her grey eyes were full of hatred and sorrow now, and the tears hadn't stopped. Her body was shaking as her shoulders rose and fell with her deep, ragged breathing. None of them had seen her like this before; no one had ever seen The Golden Butcher break.
She moved like lightning, cutting her way through more soldiers. Eventually they realized they had to fight back, that she was mad, but it didn't matter and they knew it. She destroyed them without difficulty, hacking each one down whether they resisted or not. At the end of it she stood in the middle of a pile of bodies, dripping with blood and panting heavily. The iron sword in her grip had chinks and dents but it had held.
The survivors of the town came out slowly, staring at her in fear and confusion. None of them knew what to think and she couldn't tell them as she was as lost as they were. Iron sword still gripped in her hand, Isabella turned and scanned the town. She found the little girl beside her parents' bodies, as she expected. She knelt down, ripping her cape from her back and laying it over the bloody forms. The girl watched her nervously, but after a moment they both simply watched the blood soak into the cape until not a trace of white was left.
After several minutes Isabella lifted her cape again, staring at its new, blood-red color. She hooked it back to her armor, giving the girl a final look. She had nothing to say; she briefly considered taking the girl with her, but she knew the survivors here would give her a far better life so she left her. She left her and she started walking, leaving the town and walking for a day straight, making no stops. She was met at her city with confusion, having arrived covered in blood and with no soldiers, but she gave no explanations to anyone.
She walked straight through the city to the keep and walked in without pausing for a step. Lord Faust met her in the hall, confusion written on his own face. "Isabella…? What is this? Have you…" He trailed off as he noticed the look in her eye and the fact that she was continuing towards him, sword in hand. He backed up a step, but before he could call the guards Isabella let out a cry and moved as a blur.
The iron sword pierced the king's chest, erupting out his back as if it met no resistance. His eyes widened in shock as she lifted him bodily into the air, teeth bared and glare full of hatred. She then turned and threw him off the sword and through the keep's doors. The wood splintered outward and his body hit the road, bouncing a ways before coming to rest.
Soldiers and citizens alike stared in surprise and horror, looking from the body to Isabella as she stepped back out into the sunlight. No one made a move to stop her as she walked down the road past the lifeless body of her former king. She continued past hundreds of curious onlookers, guards and soldiers, all of them moving out of her way and making no attempts to say anything to her. It was just as well, as no one had any idea what to say.
She made her way along the road and continued out of the city heading east. Isabella of Two Faces left Areya and didn't look back.
Twenty Years Later
The two assassins drew too much attention in the tavern downstairs, so they spoke in the room they had rented on the second floor, in the comfort of privacy. Night had fallen outside on the town of Stahl and Haruka stood at the window, watching the last light of the sun fade. She was a tall woman, just over six feet in height. Her brown hair was waist-length, straight and silky with bangs across her forehead above her green eyes. Though she was an elf, her ears were small and round, as were those of most elves. She looked like a slender human; only High Elves had the sharp features and long ears that stereotypes were often about.
She had a stern and serious appearance, her body hard and fit. She was easily thought attractive, but her stance and attitude warded off most potential pursuers. She wore a long ankle-length green coat with three-quarters sleeves over a similarly-colored tunic; both were a darker green with cream-colored accents. On her hands were matching leather fingerless gloves with hard bracers on the back of her hands and forearms, with a gap over the wrist so it could bend easily.
The most identifying mark on her was the tattoo of a black sun on her right wrist, the symbol of the Black Sun Monastery, visible in that gap between the bracer pieces. Her partner, a younger but darker woman with blonde hair and a similar outfit, bore the same tattoo in the same spot. This was Sarya, a less-experienced yet harsher monk who took a little too much liking to assassination for Haruka's comfort. At the moment she spoke of their target, but it didn't really matter; it was some politician with no fighting skill. His guards were the only problem and they'd be able to deal with those simply enough if it went well.
After the details had been gone over, Haruka turned to her partner, nodding her head towards the window. "Walk," she said, receiving a nod in response. She opened the window and dropped silently out of it. The town of Stahl was fairly large and, at the moment, colorful; apparently they were celebrating some sort of festival this week.
Almost every building in Stahl was made of wood but very well constructed, each two or three stories tall. Colored paper lanterns were strung up between them on long wires giving the town a friendly and welcoming feel. Larger lanterns with intricate designs hung in intersections of the town's dirt roads. Haruka walked through the town towards the lake; she'd always been partial to water and she wanted to see if it had been decorated as well.
She was impressed once she arrived on the shore, seeing that they had floating colored lanterns all across the lake, as well as colorful lights decorating the piers and nearby gazebo. The gazebo itself was interesting due to the banners streaming from it; it would, she assumed, be used in some part of the festivities. On her way to investigate the gazebo she heard coughing coming from inside, increasing her curiosity.
Inside the small white-wood construct her eyes caught a lone woman who immediately drew her attention for reasons she couldn't identify at the moment. She was a little shorter than Haruka (about six feet even) and softer, but there was both an underlying weakness and strength in her, in the way she moved, that gained Haruka's respect. She had dark blue hair, thick and long, that curled gently about her neck and shoulders. Her skin was lightly tanned as if she spent most of her time travelling.
She wore a simple golden robe at the moment, but on her hip was a belt that held two swords; one was a large broadsword with a grey crosshilt and handle. Oddly enough it was tied into its dark brown scabbard with wrapped bands of grey cloth. Beside the broadsword, slipped through a belt loop with no sheath of its own, was a contrastingly simple, almost crude, iron sword that bore many chips and marks.
The woman turned towards Haruka as she entered the gazebo, grey eyes (with an oddly deep appearance) landing on her as a smile appeared on her lips. "Hello," she greeted softly. Haruka had identified her as a warrior instantly, but she looked tired, gentle even. "I don't recognize you, and I'm pretty good with faces."
"Visitor," Haruka answered, inspecting the woman more closely.
She didn't seem to notice the analyzing, or at least she ignored it. "Oh, so am I. Did you come to Stahl for the festival?" she said with a curious tilt of her head.
Haruka found her endearing already, which was fairly unusual. She shook her head. "Business."
"I see. Well you should take advantage of the festival while you're here; I hear it's pretty enjoyable."
The monk gave a shrug. "Perhaps."
The woman smiled in amusement. "You don't talk very much, do you?"
Haruka blushed slightly, avoiding her eyes. "Sorry."
"No need to apologize. It's kind of cute actually," she said with a soft laugh, increasing Haruka's blush. "Can you at least say your name? I'm Isabella Enyo."
Isabella. What a fitting name; it had a soft, classical sound, as opposed to her harsh name. "Haruka Saito," she answered. She wasn't sure why she gave her real name; it wasn't a normal practice of hers, especially while on a mission, but for some reason this woman made her want to be honest.
"Haruka Saito," Isabella repeated, as if trying out the name on her tongue. She gave her a smile. "I like it. It fits you, Haruka Saito."
Haruka raised an eyebrow. "Fits?"
Isabella nodded. "Sharp, dangerous… A name for a fighter," Isabella said with a smile, and Haruka felt in that moment that Isabella could read every detail of her. "But it also has a lot of promise."
She frowned in confusion. "Promise?"
"Haru," she said with a nod, mentioning Haruka's nickname. "Ruka." She then gave a happy smile. "Ruki!"
Haruka blinked. "Ruki?"
"It's cute," Isabella responded. "And I see no one says it, so it goes unseen." Her grey eyes gave her a more serious look. "Just like that side of you."
Haruka looked away. She didn't know what this woman was talking about, she really didn't. As far as she knew the 'sharp, dangerous' side was the only side of her. She looked back to the blue-haired woman after a few seconds to see her staring out over the lake now. She was glad for that; the woman's gaze had been a little intense. "Yours?"
"Hmm?" She looked back at her. "Oh! My nickname? That would be Bella."
Haruka nodded. She looked around, then back to the woman. "Why?" She gestured around them. "Here?"
"Why am I here?" She turned around to lean back against the wooden railing. "Do you mean in the town or in the gazebo? Nevermind, I'll answer both. I'm in this town because of the festival; someone told me it was something to see. I'm in the gazebo because it looked colorful," she said with a shrug and a smile.
Haruka returned the smile. She appreciated that this woman simply seemed to accept her manner of speech; most people became annoyed with her short, terse responses, and the fact that they had to discern what she said. It frustrated her because it wasn't like she could do anything about it; she'd been born with very weak vocal chords. Using them too much was both difficult and painful; she couldn't really manage more than one or two words at a time without her voice just cutting out. But with Isabella it didn't feel frustrating; it felt simple, even amusing, because for whatever reason the other woman seemed to like it.
The other woman's smile disappeared as her hand went to her chest; she began coughing, the sound Haruka had heard earlier, nearly losing her balance. Fortunately Haruka was fast, able to catch her as he fell. She helped her sit on a bench and Bella smiled weakly. "Thank you, Ruka."
Haruka looked at her in concern, making sure she didn't fall over before taking a seat beside her. "Sick?"
"Unfortunately. It can be a little annoying," Isabella said with a soft smile of acceptance. Something in her eyes told Haruka that she believed she deserved this, but she didn't comment on it. She gave Haruka an appreciative look. "No need to look so worried… I've been so for years."
Haruka shrugged. "Unfair."
To her surprise Isabella laughed at that. The blue-haired woman shook her head. "Don't be so sure. It's pretty much as fair as it can get."
Haruka frowned. "Why?"
Isabella looked away. "I'd… rather not talk about that." Both were silent for a few moments before Isabella looked back at her. "The festival proper is supposed to take place in two days. I know you hadn't planned on it, but would you maybe want to go to the festival with me?"
Haruka blinked. Was she…? The invitation was unexpected; unnecessary, really. Besides, there was the fact that Haruka had a mission in a few hours and really needed to leave after that. Staying longer for the festival wasn't planned. So of course, the answer was, "Yes." She blinked again. Yes? Why did she answer yes? She was supposed to say no!
Isabella smiled brightly, the sadness in her eyes replaced with excitement. "Really? I mean, great! It'll be so much fun!"
Haruka found herself unable to dash the new happiness that had just appeared in her companion. Judging by her surprise at the acceptance, she probably didn't have any friends, which was strange considering her friendly and endearing demeanor. In addition to that, for some reason Haruka found herself actually wanting to go. Well, why not? Why shouldn't she enjoy something for once?
She smiled at Isabella, nodding. "Fun… Rare."
"Fun shouldn't be rare. You just need to learn how to do it right, I think." She looked down, closing her eyes for a moment as a wave of fatigue washed over her. "I'm sorry… I… should probably sleep soon."
Haruka stood up, offering a hand. "Walk?"
"You want to walk me to my room?" Isabella smiled gratefully. "Such a gentleman," she said, laughing softly at Haruka's new blush as she took the offered hand.
Haruka pulled her up and steadied her with a firm grip on her shoulder; it turned out to be a good idea considering the woman's weakening state. They began walking slowly back towards the inn Bella was staying at. "I'm usually not this bad," she said as if in apology. "I'm lucky you were here tonight. Imagine me crawling back to my room like a drunkard."
Haruka smirked. She admired the woman for accepting and joking about her condition like she did; many people would whine, complain or curse god, but Isabella seemed to believe it was simply her situation. "Graceful," she said in response to the joke.
"Maybe I am, but not enough to make crawling look good," Isabella said, grinning as she heard Haruka's chuckle. "That was the first time I've heard you laugh."
Haruka shook her head, putting a hand to her throat. "Coughing," she lied with a grin of her own.
"Sure, fine, make me feel worse," Isabella sighed dramatically. "I'm not funny, nobody likes me, woe is me."
"Life is depressing, my dear. Haven't you read any poetry? The world is sad, life is sad and there's no way out."
"Now that is a dark joke. Though true. I always wondered why people would complain about life so much and do nothing about it."
Isabella smiled at her. "You're very wise and aware, Ruki."
Haruka smiled a bit at the nickname. They reached the inn (a different one from Haruka's) and went all the way to Isabella's room, where Haruka opened her door and watched her go in. Isabella paused in the doorway, looking at her. "Thank you for spending your time with me tonight, Haruka. And for walking me." Her words and expression were sincere as she tilted her head, studying her closely. "No matter what you think about yourself, I think very highly of you."
Haruka forced herself to pay attention to the words and take them in, smiling appreciatively at Isabella. "Thanks." She held her gaze for a few seconds more before pointing into the room. "Sleep."
Isabella grinned. "You're a stern caretaker." She backed away, closing the door with a smile and a wave. "Goodnight, Ruki."
Haruka sighed after the door closed, a smile still on her face as she exited the inn. This certainly wasn't an event she expected, but was it unwanted…? No. No, she actually felt happy. Perhaps this could be a long-term happiness. She wasn't sure how that would work, considering her job, but she knew she was looking forward to the festival. And more importantly, she already knew that the festival wasn't the last time she wanted to see Isabella.
Fortunately her partner Sarya didn't question her about her different mood when she returned. For once she went to sleep that night with other things on her mind than the job.
Early the next morning, Haruka and Sarya sat on a rooftop waiting for their target. He took an early-morning walk each day, the perfect time to strike since his guards would be tired and less attentive. The man, a wiry type with glasses and a simple robe, was humming to himself as he walked along, not a care in the world. Good; it looked like this would be easy. That was fortunate considering that Haruka herself was somewhat distracted this morning, a fact that Arya had noticed but had refrained from commenting on.
The two dropped from their rooftop position, striking quickly. Two of the six guards were down before they knew anything was happening, each hit by a knife-hand to the throat; another two were down before they could react, solid strikes to the head from each monk knocking them out. The last two were able to get their weapons out and put up a bit of a fight, allowing the target to run. Haruka called out a command and took off after him as Sarya stayed to put down the remaining two guards.
Haruka was far, far faster, so even though he had a good head start she was catching up quickly. After she saw the man round a corner she heard him calling out to someone for help, and that was unfortunate. Haruka hoped she wouldn't have to kill them as well; perhaps she could just put them down. She rounded the corner and skidded to a halt, her eyes going wide in surprise.
Between her and her target stood Isabella, clad in dimmed golden plate armor that was almost bronze in color and paired with a blood-red cape, holding her broadsword – still tied into its scabbard – out before her. She, too, seemed shocked at the situation, and appeared to have no idea how to react. "Ruki…?"
Any further conversation was cut off as Sarya rounded the corner, spotting the woman defending their target. Before Haruka could say anything Sarya charged, moving with incredible speed into a spin that would take her around the woman's guard. Or at least it should have; Isabella moved with a fluid grace that seemed slower than it was, her sheathed sword taking the normally perfectly-balanced Sarya's legs out from under her.
Sarya cried out in shock but Bella caught the back of her shirt before she hit the ground, hauling her back towards Haruka who managed to catch her. Sarya glared as Haruka helped her stand. "Okay, looks like we'll have to take her out first."
Those words caused pain to Haruka, especially because she knew they were true. She looked at Isabella and attempted to push emotion out of the picture and focus on her job. In that moment Isabella looked incredibly sad and disappointed, enough so that Haruka almost reassured her, but she bit her tongue and charged instead.
She went for a leg sweep and Isabella slid her foot back just enough to avoid it. She threw a knife-hand strike at the woman's neck, which was blocked by the sheathed sword. She leapt into a spinning kick, but to her surprise Isabella ducked it and brought her sword up, striking Haruka in the back and leveraging her into a throw to the side.
As Haruka flipped and landed she saw Sarya rush Isabella next, going into an attack routine. The blue-haired woman flowed around half the attacks and blocked the rest before hooking her sword against Sarya's thigh and yanking it up as she shoved her shoulder, flipping her to the ground.
The two monks recovered and attacked again. Haruka knew Isabella was sick, weak, and couldn't keep this up forever, but somehow she was holding them off for now. She moved in a manner that implied incredible experience, though it was clear she wasn't perfect against unarmed attackers as she began taking a few hits. Haruka felt a pang of guilt every time a hit connected, but she forced herself to go on; she'd only met this woman the night before, after all, while she'd been a Black Sun Monk her entire life. Who really deserved her loyalty?
A sudden quick attack knocked both monks' arms up; a swipe of the sword hit both of their stomachs, stumbling them back a bit. They were lucky her sword was sheathed or they would've been dead long ago. That was another surprise for Haruka; Isabella could have ended this fight early on if she had simply drawn her sword. Her strikes even seemed designed to cause no permanent damage. Case in point, she performed a rapid spin, slinging out a powerful burst of wind that blew both off-balanced monks off their feet.
Isabella moved quickly, drawing the simple iron sword from her belt as she darted forward, holding it to Sarya's neck. Sarya stared up at her in surprise and a bit of fear, but the woman quickly changed it to anger as she glared at Bella. "So you won. Finish it then, what do I care?"
Isabella was panting heavily now; it was obvious her sickness was taking a heavy toll by the amount of sweat visible and the sound of her ragged breathing. Ending this as quickly as she could was a necessity for her. But she stepped back and lowered the sword, watching Sarya carefully. "I don't kill anyone. Get out of here. Your target's gone, I'm not important, and the guard will be here soon."
Sarya looked confused, but she wasn't stupid enough to not take advantage of this. She darted her eyes towards Haruka before standing and running off, presumably to find their target. Isabella watched her go, distracted; this was the chance. Haruka had held herself back for the entire fight, unwilling to do what she had to, but this was her last chance to do her duty, her purpose, and stop giving it up for this random person, this stranger.
She moved with all her considerable speed, virtually appearing just to Isabella's side. The armor-clad woman had just enough time to notice her, to widen her eyes, as Haruka's hand slammed into her stomach open-palmed. The impact sent her off her feet, sent her iron sword spinning to land a few feet away. One of Haruka's Death Marks appeared on the front of Isabella's armor and exploded as she was mid-air a few seconds later, propelling her with even more force into the side of a building several meters away.
Isabella hit it with a cry of pain, falling to the ground against it. Haruka followed her, racing at her, her open palm aimed straight for Bella's head. This was it, the finish, the final strike; it was over. But she stopped. Her hand froze inches from the other woman's face as her entire body came to a stop.
Isabella raised her head, grey eyes looking from the hand to Haruka's green ones. Haruka wanted to move her hand forward, she did, but as she stared into those grey eyes she found that she couldn't. Wouldn't. Refused to. Her hand fell to her side before she fell to her knees, looking at the scorch mark on the front of Isabella's armor and feeling relief at seeing her Death Touch hadn't managed to pierce it.
"Hurt?" she managed softly, regret and worry noticeable in her voice and eyes.
To her surprise Isabella smiled as if nothing bad had just happened between them, as if she only thought of Haruka as the one she'd had a conversation with the night before. "Only a little. Not enough to worry about."
"Sorry…" Haruka shook her head. What a pathetic response. As if one weak word could apologize for attempting to kill someone.
"You do your job… I do mine."
Haruka looked up in disbelief, seeing nothing but affection in Isabella's gaze. She was about to speak again when she saw an object hit the wall beside Bella's head and stick. Her eyes shot open as she recognized one of Sarya's explosive shurikens; the woman had apparently returned and decided to get revenge on Isabella. It was embedded in the wall; the only reaction Haruka had time for was to grab Isabella's arm and yank her up, grabbing her and turning them away.
The explosion blew both of them off their feet; Haruka covered the other woman as well as she could, feeling an intensely painful sensation on the left side of her face before she blacked out.
Haruka awoke an unknown amount of time later. Much of her body was sore, but her face seemed to be in the most pain. She felt that she was lying in a bed, and when she opened her eyes she found that only the right one could see anything. Lifting her hand up she felt her face, discovering bandages covering the area to the left of her nose and mouth.
"Haruka?" Haruka heard shuffling before Isabella appeared over her, face full of concern. "You're awake... You've been out for an entire day. Do you feel okay? Of course you don't feel okay… Stupid question, I'm sorry… Does it hurt too much?"
Haruka ran her fingers over the bandages. "No," she answered. "Little."
Isabella sighed. "Okay, good. The pain shouldn't last too much longer; I've done everything I can."
She blinked, looking down at her. "Why what?"
Haruka swallowed. "Help?"
Isabella sat in the chair beside her bed that she'd obviously been in for the past however many hours, as she hadn't even changed out of her armor yet. "It's sad that you'd ask that."
Haruka frowned. "Not worth."
Bella shook her head. "I'm sorry to ruin your dark, angsty fantasy, but you're not as bad as you think you are." She smiled. "You're special." She noticed Haruka about to speak and put a finger over her lips. "You saved my life. That proves I'm right."
"At first you fought me, yes. But I don't care about that. It's not what matters."
Haruka sighed, seeing she wasn't going to get anywhere with that. Instead she lifted a hand back to her bandaged face, looking at Isabella as she said, "Damage?"
Isabella became sad again, looking off to the side. "I'm sorry… I… wasn't able to heal it all," she said softly, apparently blaming herself both for the damage and for being unable to heal it. "Your eye is fine… There are no holes in your cheek or anything, but… There's some pretty bad scaring. I'm afraid it's going to look… pretty bad, from now on… I'm sorry…"
Haruka looked up at the ceiling, processing this. In the end she couldn't really blame anyone but herself; she could've avoided the bomb if she'd let Isabella die, but she was much happier with this choice. It was her fault she had to save Isabella from it anyway, she'd been the one to hurt her and put her in that situation. Still… Accepting you'd be scarred forever was a difficult thing to do. "Alone."
Isabella sighed, reaching down to squeeze Haruka's hand. "I'm sorry," she repeated, before leaving the room.
Haruka groaned after she heard the door close, clenching her fists in anger. She didn't want to hurt Bella's feelings, but she always dealt with things like this alone. She didn't know how to share it. She lost herself in her thoughts after that, eventually falling asleep from physical and emotional exhaustion.
When she woke up again Isabella was there once more, back in her simple robe. She must have slept hours because she could see through the window that it was dark outside. Isabella gave her a nervous smile, as if she was unsure if she was wanted here. "Are you… feeling better?"
Haruka gave her a nod; her pain did seem to be gone. She felt her face, realizing she had new bandages on, as the others had been somewhat bloody. Apparently Isabella had changed them at some point; she must have been tired if she slept through that. "You want to hide it, don't you?" Isabella asked softly.
Haruka nodded. "Weakness," she stated.
"I disagree… They're from your strongest moment, I think."
"No," Haruka shook her head, thinking of how to explain. "Show."
"Show? Oh! They show weakness? You mean people will think it's weakness?"
"Enemies," Haruka nodded.
"Okay. I'm glad that's what you mean. Anyway, I thought you'd feel that way, so just in case I wanted to… Wanted to help." Haruka looked at her curiously and Bella leaned down to a bag, pulling something out. "Fortunately a local artisan let me use his shop. I've done things like this in the past for, um, various reasons, but I thought if you're going to hide then you might as well take advantage, so, um…"
She presented Haruka with an artful porcelain mask, designed to fit perfectly over her cheek with a hole for the eye. It was white, with various intricate designs that must have taken hours to do. In truth it was more a piece of art than anything, definitely more impressive than anything Haruka had ever worn. Isabella smiled nervously, handing it to her. "It'll make you look mysterious! And even more alluring!"
Haruka traced her fingers over the patterns, unable to prevent a smile from forming on her lips, which turned Isabella's nervousness into relief. "Do you, you know, like it?"
Haruka nodded, looking over at her. She knew how hard Isabella was trying, how much she was trying to comfort her and make her feel better and give her a bright side, a silver lining, to appreciate. She, who had just tried to kill her. Haruka knew then that she wouldn't be going back to the Black Sun Monastery. She knew she'd lost her place, her home, her job, even part of her skin, but she couldn't help but feel she'd gained more than she'd lost. "Bella?"
Isabella blinked. "Travel? Yes, I travel all over the place."
Haruka swallowed, asking her next question carefully. "With?"
"With…?" Isabella blinked again. "Ruki… You… You want to travel with me?" Haruka nodded and Isabella's expression lit up like she'd just been told she won all the money in the world; even her voice went higher in excitement. "Really? I mean, are you sure? What about your other duties and your partners and…"
Haruka smirked, offering a shrug. "Don't care."
Isabella gave her a smile filled with so much gratitude and joy that Haruka didn't even know how to react. "We're going to have so much fun!"
Haruka smiled, closing her eyes as she listened to Bella describe all the things they could do. Knowing she could make her that happy and excited was worth the decision by itself, but Haruka also knew the kind-hearted woman refused to kill. As admirable as that was, Haruka knew how cruel people could be first-hand; Isabella had already nearly died that morning, been killed by the person she'd let go free.
Haruka would be the one to kill those that had to die when Isabella wouldn't. She would protect her so she would stay alive, so she could keep doing the insane, good things she seemed so determined to do. And because, Haruka admitted, she already cared pretty deeply for the woman.
As Isabella described a certain mountaintop inn she would have to bring her to so she could see how beautiful the sunset looked from that spot and taste this amazing dish they made there, Haruka swore she'd do everything she could to keep the woman alive and, just as importantly, happy.