Chapter XIX: Skinned Knees and Bruised Confidence

“Again!” Vaan shouted as Lucy collapsed on the ground, her mind foggy with hundreds of new rules floating above her head.

She drew herself up, groaning as she put her arms out to defend herself.  Vaan folded his arms together and waited.  Blood pounded in her ears as Lucy’s anxiety reached a peak of despair.  Then he attacked.

Left, right, left, right, right.  Shins!

The Top Hat’s left boot slammed into his apprentice’s shins in a sweeping motion, sending the girl into a face plant.

“Again,” he demanded.

“I have a bloody nose!” complained the girl as she cradled her face. “I’m not going again!”

Vaan simply rolled his eyes, lifting the girl up by the collar. “Let me see.”

She tentatively drew her hands away, and he drew a handkerchief to catch the mess and pinch the nose.

“Now hold that,” he told her.

“Thanks,” she muffled, waiting for the bleeding to stop. After a few minutes, it finally subsided.

“How is it?” asked her teacher.

“Stopped, I think,” she murmured examining the cloth to make certain.

“Good,” Vaan said before grabbing the girl and twisting her over his shoulder and onto the ground.

Lucy cried out in pain as she gripped her bruised shoulder.

“Demons don’t wait for nosebleeds to stop.  If you are bleeding, you are bleeding.  Unless you are trying to hide from them, do not stop to take care of it.  Just keep going.”

“God, save me,” Lucy yelped as she rolled to sit up.

“We are done for today.  Go get cleaned up and ready for dinner.  Tomorrow, we are visiting the dueling arena.”  Vaan said, before turning on his heels.  “Don’t forget, you have your dinner duty as well.”

“Don’t worry,” Lucy muttered as soon as her teacher had left. “You never fail to remind me.”

Groaning, the girl climbed to her feet.  It had only been a week since she had started training, but her body ached with bruises and cuts that renewed daily.  She limped towards the door, feeling her stretched calf she had given herself the day before.  They hadn’t even gotten to any of the fire work and she was already struggling to keep up.

“We must prepare your body before we even think of concentrating your fire,” Vaan had told her on her first day. That’s when she had skinned her right knee.  It only took a few more hours before she had a left to match.

“Looks like you had a bit of a rough day,” Sebastian winced when he saw his sister coming from out of smaller training room.

“Just a bit,” Lucy replied, looking over her brother.  “I take it you had quite a successful day?”

“Oh, it was just brilliant!  I managed to catch Lewis’s tailcoats on fire and even got praised for my form,”  her twin beamed.

“Fantastic,” the girl nodded.  She couldn’t help but feel a stab to her confidence.  She knew Sebastian had been doing this for much longer but it was hard to hear about his success.  Especially, when she spent every lesson on the floor, looking up.

“Listen, I’ll see you back at the hall for dinner.  The boys and I need to go do our Yard duties.” Sebastian explained.

Lucy waved her arm nonchalantly.  “No worries, I’ll see you at dinner.”  She waited until her brother had walked down the hall to join his mates before she slumped forward, leaning on the wall for support.  It took several moments before Lucy centered herself and limped her way towards her dorm.

Each step, her muscles groaned against her bones until she arrived in the dormitory corridor.  There were a few students moving here or there but for the most part, it was abandoned.

Lucy pushed herself down the hall, forcing her body to move.

“Lulu!” a voice chimed brightly.

“Adrian,” Lucy strained a smile as she turned to see her younger brother bound up to her.

“Oi, you are in a bit of a shape,” the curly haired boy winced when he looked over his sister.  “I just wanted to tell you that I made my first flame today,” a grin spread across his face.

“That’s great, Adrian,” she praised.  “When can I see it?”

“Oh tomorrow! Please!  Ask Vaan if he can let you have just a few minutes before practice to see it.  It’s amazing, Lulu.  Brightest gold you’ve ever seen.”

“I’d expect nothing less from an O’Rourke,” she leaned forward and gave him a soft squeeze.  Her arms couldn’t afford much more than that.

“What have you been working on?” Adrian asked, concerning looking over his sister.

“Oh, you know. Combat things. Listen, I need to go clean up,” Lucy quickly darted past the subject.  What she was going through was more of a beating rather than combat.

“Sounds good. I’ll see you before lights out?”

“Of course.  So long as you aren’t too embarrassed to be seen with your sister.”

“Never,” Adrian grinned before running towards his dorm.

Lucy sighed and made her way back to her own room.  She had hardly closed the door before she stumbled and collapsed onto her small bed.  When the rest of her body quieted down, she gently pressed the top of her wrist to her nose.  Crusted blood appeared as she pulled back to look.

A shower.  That is what she needed.  Groaning, she pulled herself to her feet and began to pull out the pins in her hair.  She peeled away the wrinkled black button up blouse, kicking off her small leather boots.  Her dark pants and, now well torn up tights followed suit as she waddled into the small bathroom.  There was one plus to being a Top Hat that she absolutely loved.  An unlimited supply of hot water she could use for however long she needed.  When she finally stepped into the small bath, her muscles relaxed in ecstasy.  The blood and dirt came off as she scrubbed away but the bruises remained just as visible as before.  It was as if they were reminding her of all the work she still had yet to achieve.  All the more mistakes she had made that day.

Lucy found herself sitting at the bottom of the tub as the water rained down around her.  Was she really cut out for this kind of business?  Could she really save someone? Or was she simply going to screw it up as soon as she even tried?  Her curls relaxed as the steam eased away her burden.

Lucy sighed, staring at the water collecting on the cream tile walls.  Her mother’s words tickled her mind.

…never give up and always keep fighting…

She pulled herself up carefully and turned off the water.  It was going to be dinner time soon and she couldn’t be late.

“Always remember that you represent us as the Top Hat Society,” Lucy mocked as she wrapped her towel around her and walked out to go dig through her dresser drawers.  “You must dress as if you were to meet the Queen of bloody England.”

Lucy pulled out a dark navy blouse along with a matching walking skirt.  She carefully buttoned up a tan vest to go on top of the entire look.  Carefully, she began to strap on the back of her hoop skirt.  “Well the Queen would be most disappointed to find I was in pants during all my training sessions.  Don’t see why I have to wear a skirt all the time for dinner.  I’m just going to be cleaning muck off the dishes anyways.”

As she finished pinning her bangs away, the Clock Tower chimed fifteen minutes to the hour.  It was time.

Lucy cracked her back once more before making her way down the hall.  At least her muscles were responding a little better this time.  Other boys popped out from their dorms in crisp button up shirts, fresh vests and well-fitted trousers.  Some were still playing with their cravats and neckties, others were joking with their friends.

“May I join you?” Brandon grinned as he came out of his dormitory room.

“But of course,” Lucy smiled back.  She was establishing a handful of friendships much quicker than she had imagined.  Of course, many of the boys were still wary of her.  Some even scorned her presence.  “How did training go today?”

“Oh, it went,” laughed the lanky boy. “I mean, it really wasn’t that bad.  But Thornton can be quite a stickler on how I start my flames.  He has his particular method and rarely goes around it.”

“I know what you mean,” she replied. “I am constantly memorizing ‘Vaan’s List of Demon Hunting Rules’.  It’s awful.”

“Just keep your head up.  So many apprentices would kill to have your master.  He’s a genius and extraordinarily good at what he does,” Brandon explained as they bounced down the steps. “It’ll be well worth it in the end.”

“Trust me, they would not be envious of me if they knew how many times I ended up slammed into a floor or wall.”

“We all start with our feet swept out from under us.  Seriously, just keep calm and carry on.  You’ll get there,” Brandon smiled handing Lucy a handkerchief.  “Your nose again.”

Lucy groaned in frustration and took the cloth, dabbing carefully at her sore nose. “I’ll try, but I’m not promising anything.”

“Good,” Brandon opened the door for the well-worn girl.

Apprentices were still shuffling around with sleeves rolled up to their elbows.  Sebastian and Adrian were two of those in charge of setting the tables.  The youngest arranged the silverware while the other set up the various glasses.  It was quite impressive to see, actually.  Some of the apprentices were arranging various candle and lights while others carried loads of hot stew to the tables.  It took a few more moments, but soon all were ready to be seated.

Lucy took her place next to Sebastian once more.  She had quickly learned there was an assignment to their seating though she had yet to completely understand it.  The room grew silent and her thoughts vanished.  The Top Hats entered from a side room door and took their places at the long table in the front.

“So there I was,” Sebastian grinned throwing his arms out. “Fighting off Lewis’s blows and I saw the opening-”

“Did you go for it?” Marley jumped in.

“I did,” Sebastian replied, sashaying his shoulders proudly.

“And let me guess,” Brandon smirked. “It was a trap.”

“Correct,” he said, pricking his broccoli with his fork, his smile still not vanishing.

“But?” Lucy asked, carefully sipping on some warm cider.

“But, I knew it was a trap.  That makes all the difference,” Sebastian plucked up the vegetable and started twirling it. “I knew it and countered it with Dragon’s Fire.”

“Ooh!  That’s a tricky one,” Boy added.  Lucy had not a clue what he was talking about but assumed it could only mean some kind of flaming magic.

“I managed to dodge the attack, putting him on the defense and clipped the edge of his coat tails!”

“Nice!” Marley high fived his friend while the rest of them broke out into a loud chatter.

Lucy smiled and nodded along with the conversation though her thoughts were elsewhere.  Her eyes wandered over to the Top Hat table.  Even they all appeared to be in a jolly mood.

Lewis was smacking Thornton on the back as the Weasel teased at James.  Vaan was in a deep conversation with Kivan, and Winston was explaining news about the latest demon hunting to Andrew.  When she turned to look down at the apprentice table end, Adrian was even enjoying himself.  So why was it that Lucy just couldn’t be happy?

Dinner ended and Lucy quickly stood and began to collect the various plates while Boy shuffled together the cups.

“I’ll see you and Adrian after dinner?” Sebastian asked as he stood.

“In the lounge?” Lucy asked, though she very well knew the answer.

“Bingo,” her brother winked before walking off to catch up with his friends.

Lucy felt her smile fall as she sighed and continued building her pile of dishes, carting them towards the large kitchen.

Other apprentices rushed around putting away various leftovers and preparing for the morning.  Lucy yanked down her apron from above the industrial washer and began her job of placing the plates, glasses and silverware into trays to push through the large machine.  Boy wasn’t too far behind and stood beside her to start his job of pulling out the clean loads and drying them off.

“You alright, Lucy?” he asked as she shut the weighty door and the steam hissed around it.

“I don’t know,” she admitted to him, waiting for the five minute cycle to finish as she prepared the new tray of dirty dishes. “I. . .I don’t think I can do this.”

Boy laughed heartily. “You have got to be kidding me!  Seriously?”

The young girl scowled at her bright-eyed friend.

“Oh, come on, Lulu.  I was only teasing.”

“Well, I’m not in the mood for teasing,” she bit back, lifting the door while Boy pulled out the burning hot tray.  She huffed and eyed Boy’s hands.”Doesn’t that hurt?”

“It used to, but I’ve had practice,” he shrugged. “That’s why I think this is all quite funny.  You are putting too much pressure on yourself.  It took me months to even begin to conjure up my first flame.  It took  you only a moment to find that passion.”

Lucy blushed in embarrassment.  He was right, after all, and Vaan had pointed that out the first day they had sparred together.

“That, Lucy, is just a hint of your potential . . .”

“I mean, that right there is pure talent,” he explained.

“Hah, not quite.  That was just the love of an angry older sister,” Lucy couldn’t help but joke.

“And your brothers are very lucky to have that,” Boy pointed out. “A sister to fight for them?  That’s amazing.”

“Clearly you’ve never had a brother,” she sighed, thinking about the bullheadedness of her brothers.

“Clearly,” Boy laughed stitch colder than he wanted to let on.

Lucy quickly caught herself and apologized. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean-”

“It’s okay,” Boy said, pulling the next rack of cups through. “Mum and Dad kept trying after I was born but. . .it just wasn’t meant to be.”

“Do you still go to see your Mum?” Lucy asked quietly. “Or did they make you. . .”

“I came from a very prestigious family of Top Hats,” Boy bitterly smiled. “So when Mum was told I would one day be just like Dad, she was thrilled.  They threw me a party and everything when I was getting ready to leave.”

“But surely you must miss her,” she pressed.

“Of course I miss her.  But there are rules, Lucy.” Boy sighed. “And when did this become about me?  Pass me the last few plates. I can take care of it.”

“Are you sure?”

“I did this all by myself before you came,” he reminded her.

Lucy hung her apron up and turned back to Boy.  Her hand traveled to touch the small pocket containing the last words her mother ever wrote.  “I’m sure she misses you too,” she told him.

Boy didn’t say anything, and Lucy left before he could.  But her words still resonated within him like the final ripples in a tuning fork.

©2016 E. M. Vick

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