There are two sides of every coin: light and dark, man and woman, student and teacher. Even Izumi Curtis was once a student.
While Izumi was grateful for his generosity, he could just as easily have told her to go sleep in the barn and so she felt no recompense was due: he had been generous, but it was his choice to make. So when he rode his father's horse up the mountainside on his eighteenth birthday, four days after she turned fourteen, to ask if she would marry him, her answer was to laugh in his face and slam the door.
And now here he was, just a few months shy of nineteen, carrying the weight of the town's whispers on his thin shoulders, a half-drunk bottle of whiskey in one hand, his hat in the other, sobriety swept to the wind.
/And it's not even four o'clock yet/, Izumi mused as she straightened from her weed pulling, lifting the black curls off the back of her neck to wipe away the sweat. Dante was a lenient caregiver, but there were two things she could not abide: slacking in studies, and swearing. Naturally, when Izumi had tripped over her own feet, which seemed to be growing at an unnatural rate in comparison to the rest of her, and fallen down the last five stairs in the entrance hall, she had cussed out the floor, which had so generously broken her fall. Naturally, when Dante had heard, she had pulled Izumi up off the floor by her hair and thrown her out the side door.
"We'll weed out those bad habits by weeding out the sunflower bed, I think," she had said, and slammed the door after herself. Izumi had been left to her chore nigh on an hour ago. The sun had long ago climbed to its zenith, heating the day, drawing sweat and sighs from those foolish enough to be out in it. Izumi was unlucky enough to be one of those foolish people.
"You know," Dean called, ambling up to the edge of the flowerbed, "if you'd married me, you wouldn't be outside in the dirt right now."
"I'd be inside with the sewing and spinning," Izumi quipped, stooping to gather up the basketful of dandelions. "Inside doing boring work is still doing boring work. I'd rather be in the sun."
"Why do you have to be so damn difficult?" he asked, ire rising in his voice, stuffing his hat onto his messy hair.
"Why do you have to be so damn persistent?" she wanted to know, marching past him and toward the house. "I didn't want to marry you last September, and I want to marry you even less now that I've been to town this spring. You think I didn't hear all the things they say about you?"
"They're just bored women gossipin'," Dean insisted.
"Mr. Fields' daughter is expecting, or so those bored women have told me," Izumi said flippantly, halting in her march to turn and face him. "There's been some speculation as to who the father is."
"Ain't mine," Dean lied. She knew he lied. Lillia Fields had told Emmaline Prath, and Izumi had happened to hear the whole thing on passing.
Izumi just snorted in disbelief and continued on her way to the kitchen door.
"Come for a walk with me?" he asked suddenly, falling into step beside her.
She looked at him sharply, pace quickening again as she took the six steps on the porch two at a time, and reached for the doorknob.
His hand on her wrist stopped her.
"Please," Dean said, somehow twisting the plea into a command.
The look on Izumi's face clearly said, "What the hell do you think you're doing?" but drunken men throughout history have proven their ability to ignore reason. His grip on her tightened, and he walked backwards down the stairs. "Just a little walk," he said. "What's a few steps between a friends?"
"I'm not your friend," Izumi growled, digging her heels in and pulling back. "Let go of me!"
Dean just laughed, and gave a hard pull on her arm, affectively tugging her off balance. She fell into him, and together they tumbled down the stairs and into the dirt. The basket of weeds spilled across the path, sending puffs of dandelion fluff flying everywhere. The whiskey bottle shattered on the ground. Luckily Izumi landed on top, knocking the air out of Dean's lungs and avoiding all the glass, and then took the opportunity to knee him in the groin. She scrambled to her feet while he curled in on himself, and then kicked him in the ribs, just for good measure. Not wanting to step over him, she took off for the front door like a gazelle from a lion, praying it was unlocked.
She rounded the corner, Dean's angry shouts ringing in her ears, and saw that not only was the front door unlocked, it was open, and Dante's Guest was just leaving.
Every so often Dante had a visitor: always male, always older than Izumi but younger than Dante, and always slinking around the house trying to avoid them both. Izumi had taken to calling these men "Guests," with a capital 'G'. Today's Guest was a tall, handsome dark-haired man in his early forties, with black, tilted eyes and wiry limbs. He was dressed in brown slacks and a white shirt, his feet bare and his face clean-shaven. She had never seen this one before today.
Who they were or what they did, Izumi did not know and did not particularly care -they were always rude and pretentious, their sole similar trait- but she had never been more glad to see a total stranger in her life.
He looked askance at her disheveled appearance and sidestepped out of the doorway as she bounded up the front steps and into the cool dark of the house. There was a small door off to the left, which she dashed through, catching the frame with one hand and swinging around to look back the way she had come. If she leaned out, the front door was just visible beyond a vase of slightly wilted flowers on a sideboard table.
She saw Dean stumble up to the porch, eyes to the ground, one arm clutched around what was probably a broken rib, muttering angrily to himself. The Guest said something in a low gravelly, voice -Izumi did not quite catch it- that made Dean halt his mumblings and look up sharply. The Guest shrugged, as if in response to his own statement, and pulled an old, dinted carton of cigarettes from his breast pocket. He selected one, dug a book of matches from him jacket, and lit up.
Dante walked down the stairs then, and Izumi wasn't sure what to do. There was little doubt in her mind that her teacher would scold her for the state of her clothing, but she was also certain that Dante would give Dean a royal beating for trespassing on her property. She decided another hour of weeding was worth it, and stepped out from the doorway, making sure to tread heavily so Dante would take note of her.
"Gracious!" Dante exclaimed in the tone most people reserved for swearing. "I told you to get rid of the weeds, not roll in the dirt!"
"I don't think it's her doing, Madam" the Guest called from the porch, in a tone bordering on insolence.
Dante quickened her pace down the last few stairs, her old eyes squinting to see through the bright daylight pouring from the front door. She gave Izumi's hair a hard yank on passing, and grabbed her arm to pull her out onto the porch.
The Guest looked her over again, and then looked at Dean. Dante did the same, before releasing her iron grasp on Izumi. The frail old woman's arm did not fall to her side, but snaked its way around Izumi's shoulders, pulling her close. Izumi cold not help but note that at fourteen years, she was almost as tall as Dante.
"What, exactly, is going on here?" Dante demanded icily, all the cold in her voice directed at Dean.
"Nothing at all, ma'am," Dean gritted out, standing straighter despite the obvious pain. "Just paying a visit to an old friend."
Dante seemed to know exactly what had gone on, as was her way, and while she could have dismissed his lie, she could not forgive whatever harm he might have caused her only student.
"If I so much as hear you've been up to my house," she hissed, arm tightening around her young charge, "my hand to God, I will hang you myself! And no one in your little town will be able to do a damn thing!"
"Show him I make good on my promises," Dante added to the Guest as she let go of Izumi, walking back into shadows of her home, leaving Dean to sputter drunkenly in from of the house. "Then show him the way off my land." The Guest just nodded, and transferred his cigarette from his hand to his mouth.
As Izumi turned to follow Dante, a strange thing happened. Like water over glass, smooth and fast, the Guest leapt over Dean, landed lightly on his slender feet, and launched a series of punches and kicks too choreographed and controlled to have been learned in any street fight. His movements were fluid and graceful, each blow carrying a power greater than the action foretold. The fact that Dean now sported a split lip, a bloody nose, a swollen eye and a few more cracked ribs meant little to Izumi, except to indicate the strength and precision of the Guest.
In less than five seconds Dean was out cold on the ground, and Izumi was madly in love. She had been making cow eyes at the butcher's son for the last month and a half, but he was long forgotten in the face of such fluid form. She was certain there had never been a more graceful creature alive than the one that looked back at her with an idle smile, shook his cigarette ashes off on Dean's prone form, then grabbed the boy by the collar and began to haul him down the mountainside.
He was almost out of sight by the time Izumi could move herself to follow. She took off after him at a dead run, before falling into step just behind Dean's still body, which was throwing up dust form the dry ground. The Guest glanced back at her, all pretence of cheer gone, a dour look on his well-formed features.
"Shouldn't you be cleaning up the garden?" he asked snidely, taking a deep drag on his cigarette.
Instead of answering Izumi asked, "Where did you learn to move like that?"
He stopped then, and turned back to look at her. "I've had a lot of time on my hands," he said vaguely and continued on his way.
"How long have you been practicing?" she asked, watching the rise of the Guest's shoulders as he drew a deep breath that bespoke of annoyance.
"Longer than your father's known your mother," he answered after a moment's pause.
"Can you teach me?" she barely breathed, heart in her throat.
"No," the Guest said immediately, dropping Dean in the underbrush and marching back to her. "Get back to Dante's."
When Izumi stood her ground, he grabbed her arm in a bruising grasp, turned her toward the manor and gave her a hard shove, driving her to her knees.
Izumi knew his type, had meant plenty of them on the journey that had ended at Dante's doorstep: a man more impressed by power and will than logic and words. She took a gamble then. Mustering all the speed in strength in her young body, she swung around and drove her right fist into the Guest's unprotected side. He was turning back to Dean and had not been expecting the blow, most likely the only reason she had gotten through, but he didn't even flinch. Stepping away from her, he rubbed at his side a little, a self-satisfied grin coming over his face.
"Aren't you full of surprises?" he said, chuckling darkly. "I didn't believe the old bat. You're stronger than you look."
"Help me be stronger," she pleaded, still kneeling in the dirt, her fist throbbing gently.
"No," he repeated.
"Why?" she demanded angrily, knowing that if she could not persuade him now, there would never be another opportunity.
"Because," he stated simply, his egotistical smile more maniacal than ever.
Gritting her teeth, Izumi swung at him again, this time with her left. He caught it easily, twisting her wrist, forcing her to turn or break her arm. The Guest knelt behind her in the dirt, pinning her wrist firmly just beneath her shoulder and pushing up painfully on her arm.
"You don't want to get into this with me, little girl," he hissed, his breathe cold against her temple, all love for him gone out of her. "I know a thousand ways to kill a man, and that's without a weapon. It only takes one to end a life. I could snap your neck, and there's not a thing Dante could do about it."
"You wouldn't," Izumi choked out, pushing down the utter terror clawing at her insides.
"Try me," he demanded, pushing her arm farther.
"You won't," she insisted. "You owe her something. They all do. The other men who come, just like you... I don't know what or why or how, but she's got you in her pocket. Killing me won't endear you to her."
With a small grunt of discontent, he released her, pushing her to the ground. She had barely climbed to her feet when he let loose a volley of punches and kicks. The first attack caught her completely by surprise, knocking the wind clean out of her lungs. The second, a closed fist aimed just above her heart, she was able to block. It left her arm stinging and numb. After that, there were too many limbs to fend off. The Guest had mutated into a whirling mass of feet and fists that connected with bone-shattering precision. She felt, clearly and painfully, the first broken rib of many to come, felt the dislocation of her right shoulder, and the painful sprain in her left wrist as he threw her into blissful unconsciousness.
Her last lucid thought was a swelling of pride. She had lasted three times as long as Dean.
The blood leaking from her lip and down the back of her throat finally choked Izumi back into painful consciousness. Coughing and sputtering, she rolled over, crying out as she landed on her bruised side. Pushing herself up on her good arm, she half-tripped to her feet, but had to sit down again in the haze of pain that suddenly assailed her.
When she had scrubbed the angry, painful tears from her cheeks and fought off the vertigo, she looked around at the surrounding woods. The sky was painted with cool shades of orange and pink, just ghosting into purple way off on the horizon. She had been out at least three hours.
The sharp pain in her side and shoulder were making her nauseated, and all the blood she had swallowed was roiling around in her stomach, so she leaned over and heaved it all up onto the dirt path, along with everything she had eaten in the past twenty-four hours.
After laying her head against the cool dirt, a few yards away from the remains of her past meals, Izumi felt well enough to stand. Her knees were shaking, and her right hip felt funny, sore, like she had slept on it wrong.
The Guest was nowhere in sight, and the only sign of him was the faint furrow Dean's body had left in the dirt. There was nothing for it but to get back to Dante's and accept her punishment with as much grace as she could muster in her current state.
Head hung low, she set off for the manor, limping on her sore leg, one arm clutched to the pulsing pain in her side, her lip swollen and scabbing over. It was almost dark by the time she had limped all the way home.
As she was nearing the circle of light spilling off the front porch, a small tin box flew out of the brightness and landed at her feet. Izumi bent, with some trouble, and picked it up.
It was the med kit Dante kept on the top shelf in the pantry.
"Patch yourself up," the Guest called, his cigarette a bright spot even in the brightness of the porch lamp. "I'll show you how to relocate your shoulder. It's likely to happen again, and I'm not going to be doctoring you every time I get through your simply stunning defenses." He sneered, and tapped the ashes off the end of his cigarette before taking a drag.
"You're not half bad, you know?" he said, laughing in a small, derisive manner. "For an amateur, street trained, undersized girl."
Izumi bristled at this, but she couldn't take another beating like the last one dealt her, and so kept her mouth shut.
"You could be good," he added softly. "With my help, you will be."
She froze then, and looked up at him with an expression of almost mindless glee. She could barely speak for the excitement welling up in her.
"Don't slack off with Dante," he added at her hopeful look. "She's not going to take it kindly that I'm injuring her only student, so let's not give her any more occasion to be mad at either of us."
"What's your name?" Izumi said suddenly.
He looked at the porch ceiling for a moment, as if thinking to remember the title his mother had graced him with upon birth. Smiling in his self-absorbed manner, he looked out at the dark forest and said "Tristan."
"Mighty frivolous name for such a practical man," she couldn't help observing.
He continued to smile, answering, "My mother was a literary scholar," before taking another drag of his cigarette.
"What have you done to my apprentice?" Dante demanded softly, turning from the window to face Envy as the short brown hair and utilitarian clothing melted away into lithe, bare limbs and long dark hair.
He shrugged, and swaggered his way over to her, lighting on the windowsill. When he had folded his legs beneath him and settled against the windowpane, he turned to her and said, "I like her."
"You don't like anyone," Dante insisted, picking up the book she had left open on a side table.
"Well, I dislike her less than I dislike you," he replied snidely.
"All the same," she breathed, easing down into an armchair in the corner. "If you hurt her-"
"Hurt her?" he laughed, looking over at her. "Have you looked at her? The side of her face looks like an eggplant!"
"It will heal," Dante said absently, thumbing through her book, "though I may have to take actions if you leave any lasting marks on her. I'll not have you ruining such delightful features."
"You're not planning on transferring your soul to-"
"Oh heavens, no!" she laughed. "No, she's far too rambunctious for me. Have you seen her knees? That one was a tree climber, you can tell by the scars."
"Why the animosity, O Holy One?" Envy inquired, peeling a strip of paint off the window frame idly and pretending not to notice the stiffening of Dante's shoulders at the familiar gibe. She closed her book with a sharp snap.
"You do as I say," Dante insisted. "And you don't ask questions."
Envy shrugged carelessly, and jumped from his perch.
"I'm not doing this for her, you know?" he said, stalking around Dante's chair. "If she fell down a well, I'd probably just laugh and walk away."
She raised an old, drooping eyebrow at him.
"I'm bored," he almost whined.
"Go east," Dante suggested. "There's plenty of work to be done."
"Child's play!" he quipped angrily. "I've been out of practice, anyways. It's been so long since I've been a student, and I've never been a teacher..."
"Well, there's a first time for everything," Dante sighed, opening her book as Envy slinked out the door into the dark.