"What do you have to lose here? If it's possible for you leave, then I can help you leave. I can continue to do my work and you can go off and do whatever it is that you want to do. Maybe run an orchard upstate somewhere."
"I want to take my mother away from the city," Boheme said, breaking their silence and stepping out of the shadows. They'd put their blade away in the scabbard lashed to their back. The rain had completely flattened their curls into an inky outline of coils and kinks against their skin. Both masters were soaked and shivering at this point.
"I want to paint, too."
Poppy flicked a switch on her blade to render it inert and slipped it into the slim black scabbard at her left hip, which had allowed her an elegant cross-draw.
"I wish I were talented enough to paint," Poppy said, stepping closer. "The only art I was ever allowed was already created."
"So you are a spoiled rich kid."
She ran a hand through her rain-slicked pixie and smiled, but not with amusement. It was a sad smile, filled with disappointment and the barest edge of bottled-up rage.
"My parents wealth didn't make me rich," she said. "It made me a servant to their masters."
"So why stay?" Boheme said, moving towards the balcony door to get out of the rain. "If your parents are loaded, can't you just steal some and disappear?"
Poppy laughed bitterly, gliding past Boheme into the luxurious apartment the balcony was attached to.
"I did that once when I was nineteen."
"And I'm still here," she spat. "It didn't work. I can't just leave. I'm surprised they'd let a master with your prowess leave, now that I think about it."
Both masters made their way to the bathroom opposite the apartment's luscious dining room. Rich walnut furniture peppered the apartment's many nooks with accents of deep slate grey adorning whatever denoted a sitting space. The rest of the common spaces were a combination of cream, cement, and oiled bronze. It was a truly breathtaking space in a world that Poppy had grown up in and Boheme had longed to be a part of.
Fluffy white terrycloth towels sat in piles near the freestanding tub on the opposite wall, which Boheme and Poppy both tore into to get some semblance of the rain off their skin and clothing. Ten minutes later, the duo were sitting on a cream boucle couch, Poppy with her legs tucked underneath her and Boheme's feet on the walnut coffee table. Both had stripped out of their body armour and opted for towels.
"What's the protocol here?" Boheme asked, trying to twist their hair back into coils without exacerbating the frizz that was beginning to set in. "Do you need to take my biometrics or something?"
Poppy shook her head.
"No, I need to bring you in."
"Oh my hell, fuck that."
Boheme suddenly leapt from the couch and dashed across the room to get at their pile of clothing, including their Lapis blade. Poppy, though caught by surprise, was on them in seconds.
"What are you doing?" she shouted, feet pounding on the hardwood floor. "I thought we had reached an accord."
"Not if I'm going to be hauled in front of a fucking benny," Boheme said, fear settling in. "There's no way I'm getting in front of rich bennies again, not after what happened last time. No fucking way."
Boheme looked wild, their hair now fully frizzed, towel half-eschewed on their lithe body. There was genuine fear there as they reached for their blade and flicked it to life.
"I will not go back in front of them, Poppy," Boheme said, almost a whimper. "I can't. You don't understand."
Poppy's hands were up in front of her, open palms for placation.
"I can't get what's owed until I prove that you're alive," she said gently. "I can't do that unless you're with me. I won't send you in with my benefactor alone. I promise you. I will be right there."
Boheme flicked their blade off again, letting it fall to the manicured floor. They dropped to their knees and buried their face in their hands, body heaving with sobs of a long-repressed fear.
Poppy slowly lowered herself to Boheme, putting a gentle hand on the back of their neck, right where her blade had them at her mercy earlier that evening. She was careful not to touch their hair, but kept a warm presence close in case it was needed. She'd seen this reaction before from younger duelists, especially if they came from poverty. Benefactors could be cruel, she knew that firsthand, but they seemed to take perverse delight in harming the desperate.
"There is another way," Poppy said quietly, keeping a gentle hand on Boheme's nape.
They looked up at her, tears streaming down their delicate cheekbones. That fear was unknowable for her. She came from means, which insulated her from the worst of the benefactors. Boheme didn't. They'd likely been forced to navigate her world without guidance or, worst of all, a Handler. Poppy's Handler, a well-manicured gentleman in his twilight years, ensured that no benefactor would cross a line or ask something too grave of her. She was there to duel, after all. But those without Handlers were at the mercy of the pool of benefactors. Poppy couldn't bring Boheme to her Handler, let alone the benefactor – not like this.
"There is another way," Poppy repeated, drawing herself up.
"What else could we possibly do, short of me killing you?" Boheme croaked, head still in their hands.
"I won't make it easy for you."
Boheme looked up. Poppy was already walking back towards the torrential balcony, her jumpsuit no longer set to dry. She was ferocious, a panther, a huntress. Boheme kind of liked her, despite how she frustrated them. There was something about the way she moved that they couldn't quite understand and didn't want to look away from. The length of her muscular legs, her delicate ankles, the lines of her hips and the way she simply commanded power by walking it – Boheme had never seen anyone like her.
And now they had to kill her.
Poppy waited patiently for them to get dressed and meet her outside in the downpour, leaning effortlessly against the beautifully-wrought plasteel that wrapped the balcony. She wasn't going to make it easy on them – she had a reputation to uphold after all – but this was the ending that had been waiting all along. There was no dream waiting for her back home, no one to inspire her to leave or do better. At the end of it, the choices she had made ensured her solitude. Before this duel, there was no real weight to it. It was an ethereal loneliness, barely noticeable on the edges of her stoic life.
But Boheme had dreams, real dreams that had form and weight and beauty to them. She couldn't walk away without fulfilling her Overture, but she could leave a parting gift that was worth more than the whole of her life up until that point. She could give a new friend their beautiful dream, simply by dying.
Boheme stepped outside, tears in their rich dark eyes.
"I don't think that I wa–"
"It's the only way," Poppy said. "At least my last dance is with a new friend."
Where the beginning of the duel was teasing and poignant, the ending of it was delicate and excruciating. Poppy replaced her prowl with an abundance of meaningful flourishes and ripostes. Boheme's lunges reformed into mechanical thrusts and parries. Technically, Poppy still outmatched Boheme but their fury burned away their nerves. In that moment, Boheme couldn't feel anything but rage – rage at liking Poppy, at their predicament, at this life that they shared and will now never share again. These moments had always been fleeting, but Boheme had a feeling that this was a moment that they'd never forget.
Before long they were freezing and soaked again, wind ripping through their suits to set their skin on icy fire. Boheme was breathing hard, Poppy nearly pinned against the railing. They had closed in on her, her energy all but depleted. Her strokes were listless and heavy, the antithesis of her grace and form. Boheme knew that this was the end, but all they wanted was one more moment of this last dance before they both said goodbye.
"I'm tired, Boheme," Poppy said above the maelstrom, shoulders sagging. "I can't do this anymore."
Boheme fought back tears again, raising their Lapis blade to Poppy's throat where it rested gently against the hollow, not quite piercing her skin.
"I don't want to."
Poppy smiled wanly.
"I know, but do it anyway. Then you can fly away and become a great artist of another medium."
Boheme hesitated, keeping their arm steady, tears falling again.
"I can try to come back with you, Poppy," they said, that same fear creeping in. "I can try really hard."
She shook her head without much movement.
"We both know that you won't go into that room, even with me there," she said. "I have nothing left for me, except for my reputation. If I'm going to forfeit what makes me a valuable duelist, then my life is over anyway. I'd rather die knowing that I made a difference for the first time in my life."
Poppy paused to smile again and look into Boheme's eyes.
"And to know that someone liked me enough to not want to kill me outright."
The blade slipped, nicking her throat, but she stayed steady against that edge. Boheme knew that they should, but they just couldn't bring themself to do it, not with another choice just sitting nearby. But Poppy was right. Boheme would never walk into that room with a benny. Never again would they put themself in that kind of fucked up position. But an impasse wasn't acceptable for either of them and that's precisely where they were, drowning in rainwater and indecision.
Boheme dropped their Lapis to their side, flicking it off.
"I can't," they said, barely audible. "I won't."
Poppy leaned forward to place a gentle kiss on Boheme's cheek, getting on her tiptoes to do it.
"Then I will."
And she was gone over the edge.