the hardest of hearts

One of her arms gave a sickening crack; her right arm always had been a weak spot, and she often failed to guard it. Arra let out a cry of pain through gritted teeth, and though she attempted to keep on fighting, it was far easier with her distracted from the pain to take another shot at the juncture between her calf and knee. Her leg all but crumbled beneath her, and with that, her mentor stepped in.

"That's enough!" Mika bellowed, but he had been standing at the side of the ring all along wringing his hands and scowling, looking for all the world like a child who was afraid his favourite toy was about to be broken. Arra had laid her forehead against the ground, clinging onto consciousness, and though nobody could see it, she clenched her jaw at her former mentor's actions. "How is this helping?"

Larten let out a long sigh, and took a couple of steps forward to hold a hand out to Arra. He despised the process of preparing her for her Trials, but she had selected him when given a choice. Vanez and Arrow had also been assisting her, but it was only Larten who either had the time to spend these extra days with her in preparation, and perhaps only Larten who she was certain would never be inclined to go easy on her.

Bending her sore neck upwards, she glanced at the hand offered, and then focused back to the floor. Pressing down with her good left hand, and making an attempt to stand on her non-injured right leg, she rose halfway and then a pang of pain in her left knee sent her crashing back down to the floor, humiliated surely, but not yet asking for help.

Frustrated that his question hadn't been answered, and unable to watch Arra struggle, Mika stepped into the ring and scooped her into his arms, ignoring a sharp cry of half-protest, half-outrage from his former assistant. Larten, a black eye forming steadily, his shoulder throbbing, and his lip split, found the energy to let out a sad chuckle.

"Let her do it herself, Mika," the red-haired vampire suggested; his voice soft but his tone hard. "She wanted to stand on her own; I offered her the help and she turned it down."

Mika's black eyes cared little for that advice. He resembled a hawk sometimes, with his sharp, harsh bone structure protruding through white skin, and his black obsidian eyes regarding almost everyone with the same mix of disdain and superior pity. Arra remained quiet, perhaps in too much pain for much else, or perhaps not entirely able to decide on where her loyalty lay. "You're hurting her," Mika growled crossly. "That isn't the same as training her, Crepsley. These extra sessions are detrimental."

"They were Arra's choice," Larten responded wearily, turning his back on the two to bandage up his bleeding fist. "She may stop whenever she likes. I will be here tomorrow at dawn as she and I agreed. She is welcome to decide that she no longer needs my help. Perhaps you should take over her instruction."

Mika's mouth was a thin line. What bothered him the most of all about this orange-haired upstart was that he had figured the whole situation out right from the start. Mika couldn't take over her instruction himself – not only did his upcoming investiture occupy a large proportion of his time, too much in fact for the black-haired Prince-to-be to watch Arra's training sessions as often as he would have liked, but also because he had never been able to fight with her properly. He couldn't bear to injure her in the same way as he couldn't bear to watch Larten injure her. In truth, nothing would have pleased him more than for her to bypass the Trials entirely – she had no immediate plans to become a General, and very few of the existing Generals would ever feel a female General a possibility, and so the necessity for her to undertake these life-threatening tests had nothing to do with her position in the clan and everything to do with her pride. The thought of all the pain she would have to suffer was unbearable for him, and he would do anything to protect her from it.

That was the nature of love, after all, wasn't it?

Arra was back in the Sports Hall at next dawn, as expected. Her arm was in a sling but she was prepared to compensate for that. Larten had only been waiting five minutes for her, and it had never even entered his mind as a possibility that she wouldn't be there.

"Mika is busy tonight," she said. She had the ever so slight touch of a limp, but she was recovering nicely. There was a purple bruise blossoming across her collarbone, obscured slightly by the collar of her shirt, but she seemed to have gotten away with relatively little bruising from what he could see. Her healing times were improving at the rates he'd hoped. "So he won't be watching us again, or interrupting." She sniffed, and shook off her jumper. "I am sorry about that," she continued, not meeting his eyes (she had always found apologies difficult). "I meant to speak up. You knew I would be back, anyway."

Larten nodded. He had never considered himself impossibly perceptive, but it hardly took a genius to figure out Arra's reasoning. Mika adored her – perhaps it was only Arra who was unable to see that this total adoration extended past the realms of the platonic – but his over-protective influence had wrecked her training more than once. Her Trials began in the coming weeks, and Vanez and Arrow had both taken heed of Mika's orders. He had even asked the Princes for special considerations on her behalf; they had been refused, of course, but even had they been granted Larten knew she would have turned them down. Vanex and Arrow stopped just where it got difficult, never tested her beyond her capabilities. Larten was the only one that she could be certain wouldn't let her training slip in succumbing to Mika's requests. Larten knew that Mika thought he loved her, in a protective, obsessive sense, but Arra would die in the upcoming Trials without someone who respected her enough to make sure she was properly prepared.

"Are you well enough to fight tonight?" he asked, watching as she stretched slowly. One of her legs was certainly weak. He couldn't help but feel an awful pang of regret for having hurt her. The way Mika looked at him, like some sort of sick, heartless sadist, had left a bitter taste in his mouth. Every night after they finished, when Mika was not inclined to interfere, Larten made sure to bandage her wounds and heal what he could of the damage he'd made, discuss her mistakes and successes in the fight, and take her to the medical wing if necessary. He would never admit to it, especially not when Mika prowled over them, but he was far more inclined to kiss her than to strike her. Equally, he had to admit that her progress – though not entirely his doing – filled him with an odd sort of pride. He didn't enjoy the process of hurting her as Mika thought he did, but he enjoyed occasionally being the victim of a surprise defeat from her, these becoming more and more common.

"Hmm, perhaps not for as long as usual," Arra said honestly. "My arm isn't healing up yet, and my knee still feels twisted. But I'd like to try. I won't have a night's break between Trials. I'll have to get used to overcoming these kinds of problems."

Larten nodded again, and stepped back up to the ring like they had the day before. "The fact that your arm is in a sling," he said as she stepped up to stand opposite him. "Is actually a good thing. Your right arm is always your weakest spot. Having it out of use completely will teach you how to get by without it should you ever need to. Your leg is an inconvenience, but I'm sure –"

"Lartennnn," Arra hissed, but when he looked back at her she was smiling cheekily, her mirror-like eyes glinting. "I know you're the one training me, carrot-top, but I think you have a lot to learn from me about when to shut up."

Unable to stop himself from grinning, Larten clapped his hands together as a makeshift start signal, and let their fight begin.

"Are you nervous?" Gavner asked Arra, who was swaying from one foot to another absently. He was much younger than any of them, one of Paris' assistants, but his cheery attitude and occasional brilliant idea had made him a few valuable older friends, including Larten and Vanez. She honoured his question with a sarcastic little chuckle.

"It's foolish not to be nervous, isn't it?" she said, but bit her lip anyway. "I suppose I am not too scared of the worst, but –"

"She has nothing to be nervous about!" Mika interrupted confidently, reaching out a hand to brush a stray strand of her black hair behind her ear. Larten watched in amusement. In anyone else perhaps it would have been a gesture of affection, but Mika made it feel like something entirely less pleasant. He fixed her appearance in the same controlling way he tackled everything else; rather than to keep her hair away from her eyes to help her focus, he felt she looked scruffy. The irony in his comment, too, was not lost on the rest of the group. Mika, such a noble and upstanding vampire himself, had no concept of how doomed she would be had she trained only to his requirements. Arrow and Vanez too, looked more at the floor than at Arra, perhaps knowing the ways in which they had already disadvantaged her. Gavner, too, despite his fondness for Arra, didn't seem entirely sure a girl would be able to face these Trials that had already killed two since his arrival at the mountain a decade ago.

"Mika is right," Larten said from his seat, breaking the growing tension in a room full of people uncertain as to whether Arra was capable or not. Arra glanced over her shoulder to smile briefly at him. "Arra has absolutely nothing to worry about."

A guard stepped out and beckoned the group into the Hall of Princes. Arra hesitated slightly, the others heading into the Hall ahead of her, but Larten, having expected it, held back himself to offer his hand to her. Smiling shakily, Arra allowed herself to take it.

"Larten," Arra said quickly. "If I don't make it, I just wanted to say thank you for your help. It hasn't been altogether easy training me, with one thing and another, but you've been up every day helping me, and if I get through any of this, it'll be purely due to the fact that you and really only you –"

"Sails," Larten interrupted, though he squeezed her hand a little tighter and offered her a reassuring smile. "Take a lesson from yourself and learn when to shut up."

With those words of obscure reassurance, Arra's Trials began.