NFG Season One - A Bright Future

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Description: Following her failure in the first round battle against Nixie Ichika is summoned by the intimidating LYRAELLE. The Kasumoto heir has fretted a great deal about what her unwilling sponsor thinks of her, how she could possibly navigate that situation, and it seems she is right to worry. What is more surprising is that the student's opinion of the Sensei proves equally important. Shocking revelations ensue! The truth of Lyraelle's past bared to her stunned fan. Over milk and cookies a deal is struck, and the world need no longer fear. With young women like Lyraelle Lightheart and Kasumoto Ichika sworn to take care of it what could possibly go wrong?

For most of the first week that Team Thunder has spent in Sunshine City (when not whisked off to who-knows-where by certain members of the leadership), Lyraelle hadn't even bothered to show up. Even her minions - Green, Dodge, Red and Zee - had been off attending to their mistress as she'd spent her time negotiating deals with couturiers, brand sponsorships, and even musical rights for team members who might want their own theme songs. She'd been managing Thunder's social media team - her social media team - and generally finding anything she could do to have an excuse not to interact with the actual prospects.

Now, though, it's important that she make herself known.

The missive to come to Lyraelle's penthouse suite of the hotel Team Thunder is staying at is sent on the evening after Ichika's match with Nixie, in the form of a note on Princess Lyraelle stationery hand delivered by the spindly green imp known as Green Minion, who could easily be mistaken for a goblin. Whether this is intentional or not is open to interpretation.

"Her Royal Highness Princess Lyraelle Lightheart formally requests your presence for a debriefing regarding your performance in the match with Nixie Greene."

* * * * * *

With the messenger dispatched, Lyraelle sighs and raises a hand mirror to check that her make-up and tiara are perfectly in place. She's in her full 'Disney Princess, by Playboy' outfit - even just for the sake of this meeting - and every effort has gone into making herself look effortlessly immaculate, as usual. It's a much more challenging aesthetic to pull off than her old Demon Queen look. Looking good had literally been part of her suite of superpowers back then.

"Okay, everyone. Half an hour to showtime. Dodge, are the cameras in place?"

A silent yellow imp with a white beard and ram's horns gives a thumbs-up.

"Red minion, have you managed to squeeze into the butler suit?"

"Yes, ma'am," the stout pink imp says as he steps around a corner from the dressing area in a black tux that makes him look more than a little like a penguin.

Lyraelle narrows her eyes slightly.

"I mean, yes, Your Highness," Red corrects himself with a resigned tone.

Lyraelle smiles sweetly, then turns her head.


"What ho, Your Highness?" a voice comes from the direction of the kitchen.

"Are the cookies ready? o/~"

There's a sound of an oven opening and closing.

"Five more minutes, Your Highness."

"Good. I want you out of here once they're finished. Okay, everyone, you know what to do."

With that, Lyraelle makes her way over to a pair of luxurious sofas, sitting down on one and crossing her legs. She uncrosses and crosses them again the other way, checks the lighting on her phone master feed, frowns, and switches to the other sofa. A minute or two later, she switches back to the other.

* * * * * *

Oh, if there's one thing Ichika is absolutely sure of, it is that the choice of courier is absolutely intentional. When the imp had arrived, she'd taken the card, given a stiff, "Thank you." And even tipped - or tried to - the minion five dollars. That's what you're supposed to do in this country, right? Just, give people money all the time for doing their jobs because they aren't paid enough if you don't? She... really doesn't like America.

For a full five minutes the girl had stared at the letter. Then she had sighed, and packed away her ruined kimono. She had been trying to save it, but there's really no hope. Between the glue, the thorns, the amount of blood that had soaked into it and then the explosion... her mother's lovely gift has been completely ruined. Best, then, to just try to prepare herself for this.

She does make an effort, but there's really only so much one can do in the state she is in. She agonises over this, as well. Does she go for clothes she will be comfortable in (her Babymetal T-shirt and jeans, Southtown '22 Tour!) or does she try to show respect?

In the end, when Ichika knocks and then is guided into Lyraelle's office, she looks every bit as uncomfortable as she feels. The most formal clothing she owns is her school uniform, so she's wearing the hideous black and orange outfit. She's brought her sword, too. But her hair remains utterly lifeless, and the extensive bandages can't be hidden that easily. She's pale, and tired, but at least there's some light in those bright blue eyes of hers.

"Good evening, Lightheart-hime." She says, bowing extremely low - and staying there, despite the obvious strain that it puts on her in this condition. "Thank you for the invitation. I have been looking forward to meeting you." Her tone is respectful, but so is the tension in every part of the young girl. Ichika is anything but a poker player, and try as she might to hide behind formality to help her not have to meet the woman's eye, it's painfully clear how uncomfortable she is.

The imp appeared shocked and almost nervous at the prospect of the tip.

"What? Oh, no, you don't have to! Really, I - well, I mean, if you insist -"

The green imp had eventually relented before disappearing back down the hall.

When Ichika arrives at the penthouse suite, the short, pink imp greets her, letting her into the smell of freshly baked cookies and the pleasantly lit living space where the pink-haired princess sits on the sofa, idly swiping a white-gloved finger across the screen of a tablet that matches her outfit. She looks up with a smile as Ichika enters.

"Oh, hello, Ichika-chan!"

The smile dims ever-so-slightly at the sight of the girl's school uniform. "Oh, dear. That won't work at all. Didn't anybody pass along the branding instructions I gave the other sponsors?"

She lets out a put-upon exhalation, then smiles again. "Nevermind. They don't really listen to anything that I say. This is supposed to be the 'new' fighting generation, and yet I get stuck with partners who are literally older than the written word. Anyway, here, you might as well take these for now."

She reaches down to a cardboard box sitting behind the couch - apparently she was planning this? - and pulls out a t-shirt and workout pants in electric blue with the words 'THUNDER' with a stormcloud logo on the chest of the top and seat of the trousers.

"I was just going to donate them to charity. For a supposedly wise guy, Peng You thinks so small. As for actual outfits, I've scheduled appointments with a couturier for each of you. Unfortunately, they weren't available until this week. Very in-demand. You'll get to choose exactly what you want your image to be with their advice based on the Team Thunder brand. Just, don't make it orange and black. Red! Cookies! And ask our guest what she would like to drink."

Red Minion clears his throat, then says, "Would you like milk with your cookies?"

Ichika raises when she is acknowledged, and after that -- everything stops making sense.

"Ah, thank you." She says, as she takes the offered clothing. The note about her fellow sponsor's ages gets a nervous little laugh. "Actually, ah, the first writing was in Mesopotamia and is closer to six thousand than five thousand years, so not quite-"

She seems to realise what she's doing. Too late to stop herself from doing it, but she does at least stop before she launches into a full-on lecture. "-that is, ah, yes, it must be challenging." A lame conclusion, especially as the talk turns to bespoke outfits and cookies. She'd smelled them of course, but it hadn't occurred to her that she might actually get any. Why wouldn't Lyraelle's space just always smell like cookies? It seemed like the sort of thing she'd arrange.

Off-balance and still exhausted as she is, she sits down opposite the woman. Normally she'd wait until she was bid, but, she can't. "Milk would be lovely. Thank you." She says, rubbing her eyes before she makes herself look back at the too-perfect pink-haired Princess.

"It is very kind of you to treat me so well." She starts, slowly. And then, with all the grace and subtly of a thrown half-brick, she carries on. "I know that I was not of any particular interest to you in the draft. I have not done anything to earn a change in that opinion. I am, sorry, for that."

The fact that she doesn't think there was any way around that even if she had won doesn't really matter. At least if she had won, she could hide behind that accomplishment. Right now, exhausted and as fashionable as something someone might pull off the bottom of their shoe, she feels completely exposed before the glamorous professional.

The portly pink imp gives as much of a bow as he can muster without ripping his tuxedo before waddling off to the kitchen.

Up until this point, Lyraelle has been somehow engaging, yet somewhat detached at the same time, but with the issue of fashion faux pas cleared and the ventilation of her frustrations regarding her role complete - for the moment - Lyraelle becomes more fully, almost oppressively present with Ichika.

"Ah ha ha - caught me out on a technicality there. You know, I hate when people use literally and really mean the opposite, so I guess I should be more careful with my words!"

She smiles a little too sweetly, a little too self-effacingly. She leans an elbow against the armrest of her sofa and props up her cheek with a gloved palm.

"Well, sometimes my poker face gets a little bit runny when I feel strongly about something. I had a clear strategy in mind for the draft, but I was overruled. Pure ageism, if you ask me. We could have just as easily swept you up as a second round draft pick, obviously, seeing as nobody else bothered to contest you in the first round. In fact, we could have probably even gone for Tamaki after Nixie and picked you up round three. But I have to defer to my less-mortal peers, who managed to get every pick they wanted, and must surely be happy with their decisions."

Red Minion emerges from the kitchen with a plate full of still-warm chocolate chip cookies and two tall, cold glass of milk on a tray, setting them down on the table in front of Ichika and Lyraelle before bowing gracelessly and scampering off.

"And I'm sure that you'll prove them right. After all, saying that losing to my first choice for the draft proves me right would be results-based analysis, and this is about a whole season, not just the first match."

She gestures toward the cookies before taking the glass of milk nearest to her and raising it to take a sip.

Ichika listens, and ... she actually nods along. One of her many talents is absorbing information, and there's a lot of it to gather there. She really wishes that Lyraelle hadn't come to her so soon after her match. She's tired and a lot more emotional than she would normally be; right now, it is difficult to know whether to focus on the second time she's implied Peng You and Ayame are more than they seem to be, the draft strategy, or... the tournament itself.

She's grateful for the distraction that Red provides. A few valuable seconds where she can look away from the intensity of Lyraelle's presence and instead focus on the snacks. "Thank you." She says to Red, though perhaps best for all involved he is away before she can try to tip him as well, and she takes the glass of milk. A long sip buys her a few more seconds.

She'd said to her fellows that it felt as though they were trying to play a game without being aware of all the rules. She'd agreed with them at the time to try and put it out of her head but... sitting here, hearing all this, how can she think otherwise but back to that?

She sets the glass down carefully, and clears her throat. "For what it is worth." She says, "I think you were right. If you wanted me on the team, I do not think there was any rush. I am only a middling fighter, for now. Greene-san far exceeds my worth. As do Tamaki-san and Chevy. In the worst case scenario, you would likely have had the same team but with Greene-san instead of me. I cannot argue that it would not be a stronger team for it."

Her calm analysis done, though, she again strikes right to the heart of the matter. She can't help it. When a question plays on her mind, she must seek the answer to it - otherwise, she is liable to go mad.

"But that would presume that the intention of Team Thunder's sponsors was to obtain the best fighters. If I may be bold, Lightheart-hime... it does not seem to me that this was ever the outcome that Thunder has sought. If it were, the priority of the Sensei's picks would make no sense."

The intensity of Lyraelle's viridian gaze doesn't abate as Ichika takes her time, as the student patiently analyzes her remarks, and... agrees with her. Her eyes narrow as Ichika says that she was right. She had been expecting resistance - to see the girl try to protest - or to watch the girl wither under her papercut commentary. Either way, it would have been an opening. Instead, she's playing philosophical aikido with Lyraelle - giving in, but redirecting the course of her narrative.

It's not getting the results that she wants.

"Team Thunder was made up of four individuals," Lyraelle starts to say, her tone becoming slightly more potent as it takes on a more imperious edge. "Three of whom have inscrutable, unknowable agendas. One of whom has a very scrutable and very knowable agenda. My brand is built on two things, Ichika-chan. One of them is darkstalker empowerment. Can you tell me what the other one is?"

This pop quiz appears to carry some gravitas, as Lyraelle calmly picks up one of the cookies and takes a dainty bite, chewing with just a little too much restraint, dabbing unnecessarily at her mouth with a serviette with her own face on it.

Subconsciously, Ichika straightens at the new edge in Lyraelle's voice. She raises her hand and sweeps it back through her hair, a nervous gesture that she doesn't even seem fully aware of. Notably, though, where this normally only adds to the spikiness of her unruly locks... this time they fall right back down again. She glances, briefly, to the cookies, and to the milk. But she doesn't feel comfortable moving. The hairs on the back of her neck have stood on end, and the truly awful thing is that if she were asked why she wouldn't be able to explain it.

Her tongue moistens lips that suddenly seem very dry, and she tries to find her voice again.

"... Theatre, Lightheart-hime." She says, "Which is not to say that I think you are not earnest in what you say and do. But. When I think of you..."

Her eyes drop down, quite unable to meet the older woman's gaze any longer as she speaks. "... I think of all the flair you bring to your fights, and everything around them."

She could go on. The way she squirms in her seat implies that she might in fact WANT to. But that oppressive air tells her that it is time for her to shut up and listen. Another thing that she's really not very good at.

What Ichika is saying could easily be seen as a compliment. At least it's better than some of the answers that Ichika could have given. However, when she speaks her answer, that invisible electric tension in the Sparkle Princess' movements intensifies. By the time that Ichika has finished speaking, she has crunched her way through the rest of her cookie. She takes a long drink of milk to give Ichika time to squirm a bit more before she finally speaks.

"My brand," Lyraelle says with an incisively straightforward tone, "is built on /winning/, Ichika-chan."

She sets the glass down on the table.

"I have lost two professional matches in my entire career. One of them was a two on one match. The other one... I lost. And then, I decided that I was done with losing, and turned around and beat the same guy in the Neo-League final. People forget that winning is something I am very, very good at. I went from a nobody to Neo-League champion and the number one search on FightTube in a year. I built my media empire on fight winnings and fan donations. You don't achieve that by being a loser."

There seems to be a slip in the mask, a slight flush to her face. "I had my darkstalker status taken from me. That part of my brand now relies on attracting as many darkstalkers to my banner as I can, which I've already been denied. The winning part of my brand now relies on you. So, when are you planning to get on brand for me?"

"... it must have been nice to be born with power."

The words come out before Ichika can stop them, and she wishes she could take them back. But she can't. She's too tired. Too exhausted. The anger is rising in her. She'd kept it bottle up the entire fight with Nixie; swallowed it down again and again to maintain her focus in the hopes that it would be enough. But no. It wasn't. She lost. And now she doesn't have it in her to contain herself any longer.

"Did you have to learn all of this with the whole world watching? Oh, but it wouldn't matter if you had, would it, because you were an all-powerful Demon. You've only lost twice. How good for you."

She stands up. "Do you think that I ENJOY losing? I have NOTHING in this world. Do you think I entered this tournament because I have an abundance of friends begging for my time? Who at Justice High wants to spend their time with the girl who smells like old tempura and has to wear her clothes until they fall to pieces?"

Her voice is increasingly shrill. Her hand has closed around the hilt of her sword. Blood is seeping through the bandages around that arm; muscles tense and reopening the shallow thorn cuts that had been made.

"I'm SORRY that you feel I have let down YOUR legacy, Lightheart-hime. At this very moment, I am forging such a wonderful one for me! The Kasumoto family name will go down in history as the family who strode bravely onto the world stage to be beaten unconscious by blind sex workers and stabbed by metal drinking straws! Truly, YOUR brand, the brand of the woman who made no secret of the fact she never wanted me to begin with, will suffer SO terribly when I prove Peng You-sensei and Ichijo-sensei wrong and YOU right by continuing to fail at every step."

She's red-faced and breathing hard by the time she's done. At least she's not crying, though. After all of the people telling her that it didn't matter if she won or lost... it was almost a relief to hear that someone else understood the importance of the final result. There is a hot, heavy knot of anger in her stomach, but at least as much of it is directed at herself as it is at Lyraelle.

Because once again. She doesn't disagree with Lyraelle's analysis. She has no counterargument. Only bitter regret.

There it is. Exactly what Lyraelle was looking for. The dam to break, the emotional outpouring. This is the kind of drama that will make the Team Thunder channel the next big thing on FightTube. She knew that the role of the disappointed, demanding alpha bitch of the team would be ripe for this kind of thing. Everyone else was mollycoddling the prospects, but it's the bad boss that gets the views.

Something that Ichika says slices through Lyraelle's pristine disappointment and cuts into her core, though, and suddenly, she breaks character.

"Born with power? I was born with /nothing/!" Lyraelle suddenly blurts out, going off-script. All of the practised poise, the pre-planned vitriol, turns into something much more raw. "I was never powerful! I was never amazing! I was never even wanted! And then when I finally did get a family, they went and made a kid of their own and forgot about me! And the only thing that was ever special about /her/ was /cancer/!"

There's an audible gasp from behind the door that Red Minion disappeared behind.

The brakes have given out on the Lyramobile at this point. She stands up and starts to shake.

"And she couldn't just die! She had to take all of my college money with her! I never had any support or friends! I just got stuck cleaning up shit and hanging out with the rest of the freaks online pretending I was somebody cool!"

Lyraelle's own eyes are starting to well up now.

"And then I finally got that mirror, and the letter that said they got it all wrong, and I was supposed to be somebody else all along, and I went with it... and I became awesome! So why can't you be awesome? Because that's been taken away from me, but there's nothing stopping you!"

Lyraelle's pure white gloves move to her face, staining themselves with tears and running mascara.

"No, no, no... DODGE! Cut!"

Immediately, several previously innocuous points of light disappear from around the penthouse as the hidden cameras recording every angle of the exchange go dead. A closet opens, and the sturdy yellow imp sticks his head out of the doorway and gives a thumb up.

"Really? But that was gettin' good, Your Highness," Red Minion says as he eases back into the room. "Especially the part where you started makin' up that new backstory!"

"It's not a new backstory," Lyraelle sobs into her hands. "It's not made up. Delete it. Everything!"


Oh no.

Ichika stands, dumbstruck, as one of her fighting idols is reduced to messy sobbing. Her hand falls away from her sword. Just like that, the anger in her is doused like a candle before a tsunami. What is her self-pity compared to the tragedy that Lyraelle has just had forced out of her? So raw that even when her minion gives her the perfect opportunity to take it all back, she doesn't. Ichika suddenly feels very small, and very selfish.

It's so much worse even than that. When the Princess had explained that her powers had been taken from her at the draft, that had been disturbing; something she wanted to follow up on if they had ever become friends. Now she understands the depth of that. Not only had Lyraelle's power been taken from her, with it so had her legacy. Her place in her community at mortal risk. There are times that Ichika wishes she could turn her brain off. Unconsciousness truly is preferable to the horrifying visions swimming in her mind as to what it must have felt like to lose that.

Empathy is such a painful thing.

For a few seconds she stares. At Lyraelle, at the minions, at her own hands. The minions don't look any more certain of what to do than she does. Which means, it is on her to try and fix this.

"... I'm sorry."

Ichika kneels and bows her head. The sword is taken from her hip and placed between them. She folds her hands into her lap, and tries to ignore the steady drip-drip-drip of blood as it flows from her wounds onto the uniform.

"I am stopping me, Lightheart-hime." She says softly, as though the woman hadn't just bared her soul to her. "I think too much. I have too little experience. I am flustered when my plans do not work. When they do work, I grow overconfident. When I lose my temper, I am wild and easily-led. I have no idea how my powers, such as they are, even work. These are my flaws, as I see them. There are probably many more. But I am told I am a good student. And powers or no, I still admire you. If you want me to be your sword, then there is only one way..."

To focus on Lyraelle's revelation would only be to exacerbate the wound. How could she, an only child with a family who loved her to the point of excess, help to soothe those injuries? She couldn't. Instead, she reaches out the only other way she can. Perhaps it is melodramatic, or old-fashioned, or just plain inappropriate... but she prostrates herself, touching her forehead to the floor before she finishes:

"So please. Teach me to be awesome, Lightheart-sensei."

Lyraelle sinks back down onto the sofa, making a show of trying to recover her poise as she runs her fingers gingerly along her eyelids to try and clear what she can of the unforecasted precipitation from her lashes and cheeks.

"I... I would love to, Ichika-chan, but, I... can't."

Her eyelashes flutter away what's left of the moisture from themselves as she draws in a deep breath through her nostrils. As quickly as the storm arrived, the flash flood of emotion from the celebrity fighter, it has broken, leaving her soaked and gasping.

"I only became what I was because I made a deal with... something bad. It was supposedly my birthright, but I saw through that pretty fast. As far as that goes, I can only tell you that if someone offers you a shortcut to power, it's only so they can control you."

She rests her head in her hands, fingers slipping into her pink mane. "I don't even really know how to fight very well, or how to train. I got stronger by stealing energy from other people. I beat them because I had superpowers. Now, all I can do is... sparkle."

She waves a hand half-heartedly through the air, drawing a heart in glittering chi that collapses and fails like fairy dust to wink out on the floor.

"Peng You can teach you how to use energy. Ariastra can teach you how to fight. Ayame can teach you how to... I don't know, sweep, or something. I don't really know what shrine maidens do."

The false princess lifts her shoulders slightly, then purses her lips thoughtfully.

"But... I might be able to help you learn how to sell yourself. Like, to the fans, and to your opponents. Because selling anything starts with finding the value in it, making it look as good as possible, and then, having confidence - 'cause if you believe in the product, then so will the people you're selling it to."

She smiles a small smile as a little of her own confidence returns.

"And I can /definitely/ help you look good!"

Ichika does at least straighten so that she is only kneeling when Lyraelle starts speaking again. It's easy to see the questions burning in the girl's eyes; there's so much that needs clarity around what Lyraelle just said. But for once, she is able to focus up. The inner mysteries of dark powers which turn people into Darkstalkers can be explored another time. Because there is more to what is being said here than just what Lyraelle can offer Ichika.

"When I first picked up my sword." She says, gesturing to the weapon between them, "It made sense. I thought, 'I am a member of the Super Elite, everything will come easily to me from here, I will simply win every fight and my life will be easy from now on'." She smiles, a sad, wan little thing. "To me, it sounds like you got to live my dream. At a price. And now you have woken up."

Her hand runs through her hair. And this time, a tiny lock does refuse to stick back down as she looks up into Lyraelle's eyes. "I am not good with words, so I will just be as clear as I can." She says, "If we can learn to be fighters, you can as well. Train with us. Join us on the journey. You've already seen further down the Warrior's Road than the rest of us. Retrace your steps. Reclaim your legacy, or forge a new one! As I seek to forge mine."

She feels awkward, making such a strident set of statements - almost demands - to a woman many times her senior and far more accomplished than she; stolen power, dark power, fake power... whatever the source of it, when she looks at the pink-haired woman she still sees the person she admires. Not the 'faux?'-evil Princess and Neo League Champion, but the woman who had stood up in a room full of people and, in one impassioned speech, made her understand that Darkstalkers were just like her.

"I will take your lessons on how to fashion myself. I, will never be beautiful, but I will do my best to be presentable. But the world needs Lyraelle Lightheart. Perhaps more than it ever needed Lyraelle Darkheart."

And her mind, ever-whirling, flashes back to the psychotic man with his green flames and his demand that she simply perish for the crime of inspiring hope.

"... I suspect you know why far better than I do."

The princess' face is nearly as pink as the rest of her outfit as Ichika finishes speaking. More tears have started to run quietly while Ichika was imploring her. She puts on an awkward smile as she starts fixing her hair, adjusting her tiara, and wiping her gloves and face clean with her self-aggrandizing cloth, a stray sniffle emerging from her here or there as she composes herself.

"You know, I was supposed to be the one giving you a motivational speech, here. All of that negging was supposed to be for the cameras. I'm just too method sometimes - all the time. But just to be clear, that stuff about winning was my own issue. It's not on you at all. But I was going to be nice once we had enough footage."

At least admitting to her intended coercive manipulation is a step forward for the social wizard who's never let anyone see the woman behind the curtain, probably.

"'Evil mastermind' just comes naturally to me. Demon or not."

It's the one role that Lyraelle had forgotten how to play... the one that Ichika just drew out of her.

"And enough of this 'I will never be beautiful' crap, it sounds like teenage me. You'll realise it soon enough, and you won't even have to ask a magic mirror to make you the fairest in the land like I did. God, I've just realised what a literal fairytale villain I am," she says with a sigh, exhaling the last of the turmoil currently in her tank - then smiles.

"At least we have cookies. Have as many as you want! I can always get Zee to bake some more."

She reaches for another one of her own. Maybe for once, she decides, she can take a few minutes to just enjoy being whoever it is she is.

Oh yes. There had been cameras.

Now it is Ichika's turn to blush. It hadn't really occurred to her that they would be there at the time, and when the revelation was made there were far more pressing issues to deal with. It should have been obvious; as she'd said, theatre was Lyraelle's forte. But the girl is just too earnest to see such things in the heat of the moment. She hesitates for a moment, and then she takes her sword - has to use the saya to haul herself back up off the ground so she can walk back and sit down again.

She takes one of the cookies at last, and even takes a bite from it. It's good. Warm chocolate chip straight from the oven. Exactly what she needed. But she doesn't wolf the whole thing down; she's still worried. Because Ichika is distressingly sharp at times, and for all the self-effacing and the attempt to throw it back on her, she sees immediately that Lyraelle had not said either 'yes' or 'no'.

"I'm sorry I'm not very good at playing roles." She says, with a little smile of her own. "I don't like lying. It gets me in a lot of trouble, actually. Teachers don't tend to like it when you tell them that you think they are wrong."

A laugh; nervous, brittle. The tension is still very much there.

"As to winning... I know that the rest don't care. But I really do. I try to tell myself that I don't, that just improving a little every day is enough for me, but I have a responsibility. In the end, if I cannot make the world a better place as a fighter, if I can't WIN, then I will have to stop. Take the lessons I have learned, and become... something else."

She'd discussed this with Mint, as well. How she could only justify staying in the tournament at all by virtue of the fact that she could tell herself there were transferrable skills; but that still means the skills will be transferred. That she will give up on her dream.

Her hands curl around the worn wood of her saya, knuckles white.

"I don't WANT that. Fighting is painful, and difficult, and I am bad at it in a way I have never been bad at anything before, and it is humiliating and I love it more than anything else I have ever done. In six years time, I want to be worthy of standing on a stage next to the great Lightheart-hime. I want to cross blades with Baiken-sama. I want to become a World Warrior! I ... do not want to fade back into obscurity."

Her eyes flicker down again, and she sighs, letting out the tension in her. "That is what I want. But, I think, I need to ask, what do YOU want?"

"Playing roles is basically everything I do," Lyraelle says conversationally as she breaks her cookie in half before taking a bite. "And lying, well... I'm good at that, too. Faking it, spinning the facts, wholesale fabrications. If you want to learn to play roles better, I can probably help, but sometimes it's best to stick to your strengths."

She washes the cookie down and looks thoughtful. That might not even be what Ichika was looking for, but actually mentoring somebody isn't something she expected to be doing when she signed up for this gig.

"I understand that feeling. I'll level with you -"

Always a dangerous thing to say with sincerity for Lyraelle.

"- I set out on the whole fighting thing because I literally wanted to rule the world. I think maybe we're kinda similar that way. You want to prove that you can be amazing, right? But you're willing to try, starting from where you are. I was just waiting for a golden ticket. So, really, you're already more than I was."

The fact that she can admit something like that is almost a surprising relief to the royal pretender.

"If you don't want to fade into obscurity, then you have to keep coming, whatever happens. I almost had that happen after I lost my... you know, like, everything, but... I'm back, now."

Lyraelle seems caught off-guard in the middle of eating the other half of her cookie when Ichika asks what she wants.

"Me?" she says, spilling a few crumbs in an un-princess-like manner. She swallows it down and appears to think for a second. "I mean... I guess what I always wanted. It's probably a bad thing, really. It's hard to explain if you've never been an addict. But wanting something and chasing it are different things." All this sincerity might be starting to get to her. She considers Ichika with a look for a moment. Is she safe to be this open with someone? "I guess... right now... I'm just trying not to fade away, either."

Ichika has never had a problem being open with people. It, too, is one of her bigger problems. She simply doesn't have it in her to maintain any shred of a lie, so when Lyraelle says that they are similar and that she wants to be amazing, she smiles, and nods. "In some ways." She agrees, "There are two drives." To help illustrate, she holds up her fingers. "For my family, I am their hope that Kasumoto might be noteworthy. We have been humble for as long as we have existed. Peasants, farmers, menial workers and so forth. I am the first to have any talent." A bit... casually dismissive of the accomplishments of her ancestors, there. No doubt Buck would be deeply upset if he heard her talking this way. But she holds up her second finger, "And then there is Justice High. Where... in a way, we also wish to rule the world. We are the Super Elite. The ones who guide others towards a better future. For myself, I want a legacy my family can be proud of. My duty to the world, though, is greater than that. Selfishly, I hope that fighting will give me both."

It isn't until Lyraelle says that she does, in fact, still want what she always has that the girl's expression lights up. She had been looking rather, serious. But this is the admission she had hoped for; that Lyraelle hasn't given up on herself and still wants what she wants. Sure, world domination is more extreme than Ichika would have thought. But if there is one participant in the Project that could accept that, it might just be the student from Raizo's School for Gifted Youngsters.

They do have form on the whole world domination thing, after all.

"I'm really glad to hear that!" She says, munching down on the rest of her cookie now that she feels she can relax at least a little bit. "I... didn't think that we'd share much in common at all, honestly. I mean, not in a bad way. Only. You're so COOL, and I'm. Not." She pauses, wiping her mouth with her sleeve before she grins - just in case Lyraelle was worried that her saying she is uncool is some sort of additional self-depreciation. She knows she's not cool. She's a nerd. That's just how it is.

"But actually, I think of all the sponsors I've met so far, you really are the first I feel ... close, to. It's a difficult thing, to get the world to acknowledge you I mean. I think Ariastra-sensei gave up on it a long time ago, she is content just being a myth, and Peng You-sensei..."

What could she even say about Peng You? The man read her like an open book. He seemed to know her heart better than she did. But she didn't know a thing about him, couldn't even guess as to why he had taken the approach with their training that he had, she could only marvel at the wisdom he imparted so casually.

"... is, Peng You-sensei. He doesn't care about himself at all. Only helping the next generation."

Which gets, for the first time, a smile that could genuinely be described as impish on the teenager's face. Which given her present company, wounds, and general state of emotional turmoil, is pretty impressive.

"And that happens to be us. Lucky, neh?~ It's not going to be easy, but maybe together we can make sure that none of us disappear back into mediocrity."

Lyraelle listens along to the stories of the Kasumoto dynasty. The idea of birthright and the responsibility of creating a family legacy is oddly resonant with the girl. After all, the narrative under which she'd been operating for the first Act of her fighting career had been that of a lone scion of an abolished bloodline on a quest to reclaim the heritage of her own blood. For Ichika, it's the opposite, but the same. A dynasty that was never known for greatness, rather than one that had been stripped from the annals of history.

Of course, that narrative wasn't true, but being such a consummate method actress means that she can certainly empathise with Ichika's situation and, in fact, find herself feeling enthused about it.

"Well, I certainly understand the importance of family!" she says, a little hesitantly, considering what she had revealed earlier about the less glamorous reality of her family life. "And that's exactly how I felt about it - the world needs guidance. Just look at how many Minions have pledged their loyalty to me - people want someone they can look up to. Who can show them what they want by being what they want. Someone who can serve them by ruling them."

Is that exactly what Ichika said? It feels like the same ballpark to Her Royal Highness, anyway.

"Only the ambitious are willing to step up and ask for power, and most of them are only after what they want for themselves. When selfless and good step back from the spotlight, the corrupt move to fill it. But people like us can stand in the gap!"

Whether or not they're still on the same page, having someone to voice her manifesto to seems to have brightened Lyraelle's mood, even if her vaguely Nietzche-esque speech is a little incongruous coming from an adult woman dressed up like a pretty princess and eating cookies and milk.

Her brow creases. "But you're right. I'm glad that the others chose you, Ichika-chan. I feel like we have a real connection."

She's only had anything like it with two others before, and both times she had messed it up phenomenally. But maybe this time she can get it right. She silently promises herself never to lock Ichika-chan in a bunker.

"And I never saw this as a chance to increase my own power, but you're right about that, too. I should be taking advantage of this opportunity."

She clears her throat and places her hands on her lap as her posture straightens. "MINIONS!~"

The stoplight-coloured imps, who have mostly been sat behind Ichika's couch eavesdropping at this point, all pop out into view, Red and Dodge flanking the sofa from either side, while Green flaps up on small wings to hover behind the girl.

"Yes, Mistress?" they address the Princess in unison.

"Find Zee, and tell him that starting tomorrow, we're going to be joining Team Thunder in their training regimen. You're all going to be placed in a self-improvement program. And I'll be joining you! Isn't this going to be fun? o/~" Princess Lyraelle claps her gloved hands together as the imps look aghast at each other. She looks between the trio as her bubblegum smile strains.

"Well, what are you waiting for? Go find him!"

"Yes, Mistress!"

"O-okay, Your Highness!"


Ichika nods along seriously with every word. It's not exactly how she'd *phrase* it of course. But the ethos is more or less exactly the same. The Super Elite have a duty to guide the world to a better place; if they fail to do so, then the world falls into ruin, as it has for generations. She often wished she wasn't a member of the Super Elite, but literally every other person in her life whose opinion she values has continued to reinforce that fact in her. She deserves to be here. They expect great things of her. She has a destiny. She must, therefore, embrace it. The world needs her; who is she to abandon the call?

To hear Lyraelle acknowledge her as 'people like us' is more than she could have hoped for, and it has the girl straightening a little in her seat. "We have no choice, really!" She exclaims, "If we don't do all we can, the world will be run by men like Buford Maclanky and Kazama Daigo, and then where would we be?!" Okay, so, only one of those names likely means anything to Lyraelle unless she is unexpectedly deep into the internal politics of the Southtown school system, but the point still stands. You can't have the world run by bigots and ruffians. It'd only lead to chaos - anarchy!

When the order is given, she smiles all over again and -- actually helps herself to a second cookie. "It WILL." She adds, firmly, to back up Lyraelle's point to the minions. Oddly, at some point during all of this, likely when Lyraelle's attention was with the minions, a second of those locks has joined the first in rebellion against what had been a flat and lifeless hairstyle, a second spike mussing it all up.

"Thank you, Lightheart-sensei." She says, eyes shining with some of that characteristic blue again. It feels like she's done well here. For the first time without reservations, even. Sure, things had been rocky and even frightening at moments, and she had gotten *very* angry, but with the easy forgiveness of youth, she is past all of that. And unlike her victory over Buford, she had neither relied on trickery OR tried to kill someone when it didn't go her way. This is definite progress! Then something seems to occur to her.

"Ah, if you would like, we could try and film the promo you wanted? Where I get, angry, that you don't have faith in me and so on? I can't promise I'll be a very good actor, but it is the least I can do."

Log created on 12:53:45 06/15/2023 by Ichika, and last modified on 17:35:07 06/16/2023.