Description: The aloof miko of the Meian Jinja finally takes direct interest in the training of Team Thunder's determined swordswoman. Eschewing steel for bokken, the two exchange strikes and words beneath a waning California sunset. Isolated in the peaceful grounds of an old mission, the reserved trainer shares tips on life and sword fighting in equal measures.
There might have been some confusion among the Team Thunder regarding the presence of the fourth so-called teacher of the team. While enigmatic Peng You, mysterious Ariastra, and charismatic Lyraelle were clearly willing to engage with the NFG hopefuls for one reason or another, Ayame Ichijo had demonstrated no such interest thus far. While she would attend some of the larger events, her presence was always at a distance - as if the massive push to jump start a number of fighter's careers wasn't really that interesting to her. What she was even doing on the team was certainly a fair question this far into the event.
Would the strawberry-blonde young woman ever actually teach them anything? She was a known fighter of some renown, certainly, but thus far she had made no effort to pass on any of her skill set to the students, let alone talk to them beyond perhaps brief greetings and acknowledgments that tended to leave little welcome for further conversation.
But finally, Kasumoto Ichika receives a text message from the Ichijo girl. The message is the very definition of laconic, listing only the time of 7pm and an address somewhere in Sunshine City.
There, on time, Ayame would wait as a golden sun sank slowly into the horizon. It would be an hour still before it finally set and darkness washed over the metropolis, but until then, the sky bore a fiery orange hue and the shadows were growing long. The young woman would be standing in front of the other wall of a large Spanish Mission - the Santa Teresa - located well within the urban sprawl of Sunshine City. The wall itself is tall and bars entry from the East except through a metal wrought iron gate blocking the single entrance.
Ayame would be waiting near the gate. Even now, there was a look of simple formality about the young teacher who clearly had opted not to show up in the Team Thunder themed uniform she undoubtedly possessed. Instead, she is clothed in a white, long sleeved, button up dress shirt with a crimson cord neck tie at her throat. The shirt is tucked into a crimson pleated knee-length skirt with her shins covered by white stockings and black leather shoes. Her long hair hangs straight down her back, kept from her face by a thick red ribbon tied into a large bow behind the back of her head. Resting against the wall at her side is a six foot long staff with intricate runes etched into its surface beneath the medium finish. A black duffle bag sits on the ground next to her feet.
The parking lot outside the mission is empty but for a few cars that look like they've been there for a long while - likely belonging to the few who actually live at the mission. Traffic in the adjacent streets is as busy as ever, however, as many brave the slow and tedious trek home from work for the night.
Rather than distract herself with a phone as most tend to do while waiting around these days, Ayame seems to be keeping a watch on the area - on the look out for Ichika perhaps?
It is definitely true that Ichika has wondered a lot about Ayame. Ariastra had rather given the game away after all. She had insisted on telling the Kasumoto heir, repeatedly, that she was the first choice of not one but two of Team Thunder's sponsors. Lyraelle had very clearly wanted absolutely nothing to do with her, and Ariastra had told Chevy that she was her first choice. Ichika didn't even need to be a genius to figure out the rest.
Which made the distance that had been kept between them ... unnerving. Peng You practically could not be escaped; the old man appeared out of nowhere at the most opportune moments, and seemed to know things she had done that she was sure he had no way of knowing. It was obvious that he was paying close attention to her. Ayame? Well. Ichika wasn't even sure that she knew or cared about her performance in the tournament at all. What was her interest?
Now, then, was her chance to try and get answers. She would try not to squander it.
Ichika arrives early. Three minutes; an amount of time calculated to seem less deliberate than five full minutes, still conscientious, but plausibly not over-eager. She walks, of course; a taxi would feel like an extravagance. It has been interesting to see how the world treats her differently in the extravagant outfit Lyraelle had helped put together. The leather jacket, torn denim skirt, multiple belts, heavy boots; these things scream 'fighter' apparently more than the sword alone ever did. She attracts more attention, but fewer of Sunshine City's ever-present thugs seem to look at her like prey. She does like that.
Even if, as she gets closer to the Mission proper, she can't help but start to worry. It IS a costume. And a very different look to the school uniform she'd competed in to begin with; Ayame was a Miko, wasn't she? She was probably very traditional about these things. She... should have thought it through more. Damn. She'd fretted too much about when to turn up. Disaster!
Too late to change her mind now, though.
She takes a slow breath, steadying herself, and then tromps across the parking lot, directly to the (slightly) older girl. She stops a respectful distance before her, and bows low.
"Good evening, Ichijo-sensei. I hope I haven't kept you waiting long?"
As she straightens, she runs her hand through her hair. An unconscious gesture that, along with the tightness in her voice, completely betrays her nerves. And splays her hair out even more dramatically. Though that, at least, suits the outfit more than it has ever suited the pristine uniform.
As Ichika crosses that final awkward span of the parking lot to the teacher that summoned her, Ayame doesn't seem to be looking her way expectantly. In fact, the girl has pivoted a half step to the side, head tilted slightly, as if trying to listen for something other than the sound of the sword wielder's feet against asphalt. Only when she comes to a stop does the Ichijo scion turn to glance her way, eyes scanning down then up to settle on her face as if quickly evaluating the attire she's taken to appearing in as a fighter.
There is a slight hesitation before she reacts beyond that before a slight flicker of amusement tugs at the right side of her mouth - a fleeting, barely perceptible expression that doesn't seem reflected in the young woman's briefly unfocused eyes as if the sight of Ichika had reminded her of some distant memory.
But it's gone a couple heartbeats later. Or perhaps it was just a trick of shadow in the dusk to begin with.
"We both know that you are here three minutes prior to the appointed time."
Her tone is neutral, deadpan but brisk. As to whether this punctuality is a problem, she adds a moment later as she starts to move, bending her knees to crouch down by the duffle bag and unzip a side pocket.
Her rise back to standing is accompanied by the metallic jangle of a hefty looking iron key ring with a number of thick metal, old looking keys hanging from it.
"We should make the best of this time."
Her fingers isolate one of the metal keys as she turns with no further explanation to slide it into the thick metal lock holding the wrought iron gate in place. With a metallic *CHUNK*, the deadbolt is drawn back and the gate is pushed inward with a loud metal on metal squeak of protest. Bending down slightly to seize the strap of the duffle bag and using her other hand to snatch the wooden staff against the wall, the girl in white and crimson gestures for Ichika to follow her into the presumably closed Mission grounds.
She'd wait just inside for the student to follow through the small opening in the broad fortress-like wall before leaning her staff against her shoulder, pulling the gate closed, securing the lock once more and removing the key from it.
"Father Theodore has kindly allowed us to use this place off-hours... A favor for a favor."
A tease of a smile works its way into her expression again as she turns to survey the mission grounds illuminated by lamps atop black metal poles interspersed along the walkways. With the tall buildings linked to the tall wall, the shadows are longer and darker here than outside but for the intercession of the lanterns that provide pockets of helpful light.
"I like it here..." she continues, eyes scanning the grounds. "Almost helps me forget we are in a giant city for a spell."
Sliding the strap of the duffle bag over her shoulder after slipping the keys back into it, she takes hold of her staff and begins walking along a red brick path between thick hedges and tall, broad-canopy trees.
"I have sometimes tried teaching others... well, providing guidance, I suppose. Upon reflection, it... has never gone particularly well in the past."
She makes the statement without any pretense of it being merely self-deprecating humor; simply a statement of fact.
"So." Another heartbeat passes a she walks along slowly under a lamp.
"What do you want to learn?"
Ichika does her best to relax. She can't help but feel she's been called out a little - but, not in a bad way, perhaps. It's difficult to tell. Naturally, she follows when bid to do so, and she can't help but take in the ancient building as they are swallowed by it. "... It's, good of you to call in favours on my behalf." She says, "If I can pay you, or the Father, back, please let me know."
Ayame's comment about the metropolis gets a firm nod from the student. "To be honest, I hadn't expected Sunshine City to be so very different to Southtown but, it is. I dislike it."
Maybe that's a failing on her part. Peng You had said she really shouldn't judge the place, after all. Maybe he was right and the things she didn't like about Sunshine were present in her home, just... hidden. But several weeks on, she doesn't find it any easier to deal with. The perpetual reminder of grinding poverty and suffering contrasting against the opulence of the more touristy districts. At least within the grounds of the Mission, she doesn't have to look at it. That really is an improvement. If everywhere in the world was so corrupt, having the decency to hide it in Southtown's case was a virtue in her opinion.
The question, though, takes her off guard. The others certainly hadn't offered her a choice. "Ah, that's... not an easy question to answer." She admits, bright eyes drifting back to focus on the girl as they pass beneath the trees. "I feel like there's so many things I don't know, I'm not even sure what..." She trails off, hesitating. Is that actually true? No. The realisation comes as a little bit of a shock, but, when she thinks about it, there is something. It might be presumptuous, or foolish, or even impossible for her to learn. But it is what she wants.
"... actually." Funny. She'd planned the exact approach so carefully and now she's already stumbling over her words. Well. She'd embarrassed herself with each of her other sponsors in their first meeting; she'd been chastised by Peng You, failed Ariastra's test, and made Lyraelle cry. Why break tradition? Time to ask for far too much.
"In the Rumble in the Streets matches you used a seal that looked as though it tried to suppress the opponent's energy? It's, difficult to be sure. I think it only had its full effect against Genryuusai-san." Yes. She's watched Ayame's Rumble in the Streets matches - of course she has! What kind of fighting nerd would she be if she hadn't immediately trawled old footage for as much about her tutors as she could get?
"Is that something you could teach me?"
To Ichika's offer to repay the favor of using the Mission's grounds after hours, Ayame answers with a thin lipped smile and a fleeting sparkle of amusement in her eyes. Perhaps that chance might come along sooner than the younger fighter anticipates. But the Ichijo girl speaks nothing of it at the moment as the two move onward through their exchanges.
After posing her question, Ayame pivots on her feet to watch Ichika, clearly showing no interest in speaking up until she has received a request that she can respond to. With her right hand holding her staff horizontally against her side and her left hand securing the shoulder strap of the duffle bag, there's little more for her to do than to fidget slightly as she adjusts the weight of the bag while listening to the Justice High student work her way to her inquiry.
Referencing the only tournament the Ichijo girl had ever excelled at, Ayame looks briefly taken aback, eyes widening slightly before she blinks twice and then nods slowly, expression slipping easily back to the neutral calm she seems to maintain most of the time.
She turns to step over to a low retaining wall adjacent to them, the planter behind it full of flowering plants with blossoms that have already closed for the night. Hefting the duffle bag onto the wall and leaning her staff against her shoulder, she unzips the main section of the container.
"Not starting with the easy stuff, huh?"
She doesn't sound annoyed at the observation as she reaches into the bag to fish something from it. What she ends up pulling out is a folded black blazer-like jacket which she then rests on top of the bag while she continues to speak.
"I am happy to explain what you saw... but learning how to do might require diverting from your current focus."
Unfolding the jacket, Ayame's fingers slip deftly into the open end of the left sleeve before coming back out with a small dark blue parchment secured between her middle and forefinger. White ink decorates its surface, symbols and glyphs that bear some semblance to kanji but different enough as to not match any standard known characters.
Looking at it for a moment, Ayame turns to look at Ichika before holding the paper out for her to take. If taken, it seems innocuous enough. No mysterious tingling, no energy of note, no unusual warmth.
"This talisman houses the technique you are referring to. It is one of... well, many talismans I prepare ahead of time."
She pats the black blazer a few times, suggesting that there are many more where this came from. Perhaps it's why she's never seen without long sleeves?
Then the miko moves her left arm through a motion, palm forward, pressing out into the open space at her aside, slowly mimicking the motion of hurling a ball straight ahead... or launching an energy attack toward a distant opponent.
"You see... I have never been very good at the raw... projection of chi that so many fighters are capable of."
Slowly she lowers her hand against her side and looks back to Ichika.
"I have precision... control... but lack the oomph to really make it count in a fight. So I had to find ways of augmenting the energy I could generate through other methods."
She pats the staff propped against her shoulder.
"The runes you see etched in the surface of my staff help channel and augment the energy I can channel into it. And that," she gestures at the talisman next, "Works on a similar principle... the design of it helps shape and enhance the form that my chi takes when I pass some through it. It is known as the art of Onmyoujutsu. I learned it from my mother and I would be willing to introduce you to it. Though getting to a point where you could inscribe ones in tune with your own chi will take a lot of study."
She holds her hand out then, palm up, clearly expecting to have the ward returned.
"If you are interested in this... I could help you make a few and teach you how to activate it. They are only good for one use, but it might give you an idea as to whether you want to invest the dedication it would take to learn the art for yourself."
Ayame offers the girl a wistful smile before she turns to fold the jacket back up and insert it into the bag with an accompanying rattle of what sounds like wooden objects within. She zips it closed and hefts it back to her shoulder then.
"Okay, my turn for a question then. Why did you take up the sword?"
She turns to resume walking along the path then, though her head is turned, attention clearly on the student.
Ichika is plainly surprised when the request is met with - well, acceptance. Her stomach turns in knots when the paper is pulled out and she gets to hold it. Looking down, those bright blue eyes of hers hungrily drink in the design. It had been impossible to get a good look at them from the fight footage; it simply isn't high definition enough that she could see whether they were kanji or, something else. She's not surprised to find that it is indeed something else, but that only excites her more. A whole new language? One that connects directly with energy? Her mind is racing at the possibilities implied by it. She's definitely getting ahead of herself.
But, to her credit, she doesn't get so lost in her own thoughts that she misses a word. When Ayame start talking again, her eyes lift, and she nods along slowly. Taking in the staff, too. To hear that Ayame used these to make up for a difficulty was... interesting. The amount of energy she'd seen the miko channel in her fights, she'd imagined that it must come easily. Another small lesson in her assumptions about how any of this works being proven very wrong.
She hands the paper back, and nods her head. "I... am the opposite." She says, "The first time I picked up a sword, I felt how I could use it to channel energy. I can't really, explain, very well. Peng You-sensei called me a conduit and... I think, I'm starting to understand what that means."
Frei and Noboru had both been important parts of that journey as well. Frei, illustrating what was possible and affirming that it was okay for her to trust her instinct; that what she was doing wasn't necessarily inferior to other methods of approach. Noboru roughly taking away something that she'd never even realised coloured everything about how she saw the world. Making her connection all the more apparent for breaking it.
"I would very much like to learn, if you are willing to teach. I suspect it may be, difficult, for me. But I need to understand."
So many questions. Every lesson just brought more of them.
She follows along, of course; and now it is her turn to smile. She's starting to relax. This was going much better than she had feared it might!
"There are two parts to that answer." She says, "Firstly... I took up the sword because I thought it would give me direction. My family expects great things from me. It is my duty to take the name Kasumoto and make it, noteworthy. I didn't know how to do that. But I thought, maybe, if I entered this tournament and won it easily, which surely I would do as a 'genius' member of the Super Elite..."
No missing the sardonic note in her voice, there; she is very aware that this assumption was arrogant and of her own standing within the rankings. She might be able to turn it around, but an easy journey? No. It has been anything but that.
"... I would have found my legacy. As to why the sword specifically?"
Here she gives a little nod to the staff. "It was a similar decision to your Onmyoujutsu. With the possible exception of Greene-san I am the physically weakest competitor. I wasn't even particularly athletic before I joined the competition, but the sword's cutting edge greatly amplifies the force I am able to exert. I don't need to be strong if I keep it sharp."
"Maybe... maybe not," Ayame replies equivocally to the thought that the tenants of Onmyoujutsu could be hard for the Justice High student to pick up. She's studying the girl at that remark for a moment before inserting, "I do not have the materials on me to make more right now. But later, we can try."
Then it's on to her question regarding the student's choice of weapon.
"Oh?" the strawberry blonde asks, a hint of interest in her otherwise steady tone at the idea that there were two key reasons behind the choices that have brought Ichika here. But then she's listening, eyes forward, walking along the brickwork path beneath the canopy of trees. The two pass under another lantern at an intersection and Ayame gestures for Ichika to veer to the right, the miko following in turn down a more narrow side path with just enough room for them to walk side by side.
At the mention of finding her legacy, the elite scion would hear a soft snort from the older girl at her side - a subtle thing, barely audible, to the point that it's unclear if she was even meant to hear it. And when she mentions being the physically weakest competitor, a soft 'Hmn' of consideration follows.
"The same could be said for any weapon," Ayame finally speaks up. "All of them amplify what we can do on our own." She glances down slightly at the staff held horizontally at her side for a moment before looking forward again. "Even a gun. I imagine your opponents are glad you did not choose that option though." The statement is followed by a soft 'heh'.
The walkway opens into a more open courtyard. A small stone fountain sits in the center of the bricked over area though power seems to have been cut off to it for the night, as the water in the basin sits still. Here, with the trees no longer blocking out the golden sky, the shadows can stretch across the the ground and a more open view of the adjoining buildings that surround the mission grounds is afforded.
"But bladed weapons are... by design a bloody affair. Even when practicing with them, it is difficult to simulate the danger they bring to a real fight. You may not see it now, at the beginning of your journey, but if you continue to push yourself along this road, you will inevitably rise to a level where there is a clear choice of two paths before you... but we will speak on those later."
The girl moves over to a low retaining wall at the edge of the plaza and sets the dufflebag back down on it before resting her wooden staff against the wall as well, freeing up her arms. Zipping open the bag she reaches inside to pull out what is likely a familiar item from Ichika's training prior to her debut - a sturdy but blunt wooden bokken roughly the length of a katana.
"Here," the miko warns before tossing the bokken underhanded to Ichika. Her hand slips into the bag once more before withdrawing a second bokken for herself.
"I would rather not put my fingers on the line here." she explains dryly.
"Come. Stand here," Ayame gestures to a spot in the courtyard before moving past it roughly six paces and turning to face toward Ichika, bokken in hand.
She demonstrates the instruction by doing likewise, settling down in a full kneeling position and then resting the bokken sidelong in front of her. She waits for her student to do likewise, watching her with a somber expression.
Ayame leans forward at the waist, dipping her head toward the ground, her long hair falling along the sides of her neck to come just shy of brushing the dusty brick beneath her.
Ayame reaches forward for her own bokken, resting it almost ceremonially atop the palms of her hands, then moving to hold it with one hand against her side roughly where it would be sheathed if she wore a scabbard there.
The miko rises gracefully to her feet, raising the practice sword in front of her, holding it with both hands.
"Show me some of your offense with the sword. No need to hold back." She cants her head to the right slightly, as if curious.
"And tell me about the things you have learned from others." A heartbeat's pause. "Please."
She waits at the ready for both of her requests to be answered.
Ichika is glad that she did give both answers as she follows, and she makes a mental note. More interested in the practical side of things than the emotional. That's not a huge surprise, honestly, but it is difficult to tell. It's also only the second time anyone has really challenged her on the choice. Iris had clearly been unnerved by the choice, but it was easy to dismiss a fellow competitor. It was a little more difficult to discount the warning from someone who knew what they were talking about.
"True... I suppose, I've never been particularly worried about blood. The katana felt, right. And I didn't need a firearms license."
A little grin at her joke. When the bokken is revealed she blinks a couple of times, and then she catches it out of the air. Perhaps surprisingly, this does not seem to be something that she has much experience with at all. "... It's lighter." She says, thoughtfully, as she takes the saya from her side and sets it down carefully against the wall.
The whole thing feels very different, in fact. She gives it a couple of experimental swishes, trying to get used to the balance and feel of the wood. There's a slight frown and a pursing of lips; she knew people did use bokken for training, but prior to entering the tournament she didn't have anyone to practice against so she'd just used the real thing. This was very different, and in interesting ways. Yes, she could swing it around more easily than the heavy katana - but her energy felt a lot more distant. If she hadn't had her prior experience, she wouldn't even feel like she could use it at all. Interesting. What did that say about her?
But she's being given instructions, and of course she must obey. She moves to the indicated spot, and mirrors the motions. Kneeling and setting the bokken before her; she's a little behind Ayame of course, but... she appreciates this. The sense of formality to it is comforting. Though her mind is already reeling when she stands. She knows what she's going to be asked to do, and the bokken feels like quite a handicap.
That brilliant blue gaze of hers focuses on the Miko, and she takes a steadying breath. The intensity in that gaze speaks louder than anything she's said; she wants to be impressive, here. "Holding back isn't something I'm good at." She says, "But this new weapon has a different..." She struggles to find the right word for it, settles on, "Heart, to my sword. I promise, I'll give it my all."
And then she is on the offense. The girl draws her 'sword' in a fluid motion and springs forwards. Six paces separate them, and she covers three of them in a jump.
She hits the ground in those heavy combat boots, rolls.
"Taught me to trust..."
The swordswoman comes up swinging in an underarm arc that would - if she were using her real weapon - aim to cut her opponent from hip to shoulder. With this, though, the blunt wooden stick would only risk smacking a painful welt into being - assuming that it wasn't simply blocked. She doesn't have anywhere near the momentum that she is used to; recovering from either success or failure is going to be tough!
"That you sponsors know my flaws, better than me."
This might be easier if she wasn't trying to hold a conversation at the same time, too. Which is another interesting thought. She's definitely not had a problem conversing with her opponents before. Wood, it seems, is far less conductive than steel.
"I have noticed."
The answer comes in response to the student's admission of not being one to hold back. As usual, the deadpan neutrality of the older girl's delivery leaves it hard to tell if she is declaring Ichika's willingness to go as far as she does in her fights a positive reflection of her potential future or underlying cause for concern. Her expression likewise gives nothing away.
There is a slight acknowledging nod as the younger student remarks on the difference of the bokken and Ayame's left eyebrow quirks slightly.
"Did you go straight to steel then?"
The miko's own wooden sword is held in vertically in front of her, both hands on the grip. When the younger swordswoman advances, Ayame moves, sliding one foot back, twisting the sword to a horizontal angle at her left side, blade pointing backward at just below waist level. It would leave her open on her other side, but puts it in perfect position to sweep upward into the fierce but blunt upward swing of Ichika, a resounding wooden *CLACK* echoing across the courtyard silencing the song of crickets in the bushes.
Smoothly, the miko slips back into her ready stance. Even with their single exchange of attack and defense, it's clear that the Ichijo scion is no stranger t the sword. Curious then that she has only ever been seen using a staff in her fights.
"He does have that effect, it seems."
The soft grunt that follows suggests that she's speaking from experience though the sponsor doesn't elaborate further. "If I did not trust him, I would not be here."
"I have observed your fights." the girl in white and red notes as the sky above slowly dims, bright golds becoming dull orange.
"Your risings strikes. You incur considerable risk in performing them, yes? Perhaps someday they will no longer take such a toll."
A soft exhale, the miko's form almost perfectly still, but her eyes break contact for a moment as if considering something. When they flick back to Ichika, she nods, looking as if resolved on something. "Again. With your penchant for risk in mind, I will show you something that might be of use. But please, continue. What else have you learned?"
The question of whether she began with steel gets a firm nod from the girl. "Fadel-san was the first actual person I ever fought." She admits, "Before then, I only practiced by myself." Which is quite a thing, really; though given how hard she is on herself about these things, she can't help but think it would have been more impressive if she'd actually done better.
"It is... a choice." Ichika says of the toll she takes on herself as she backs off two paces. In her mind she is replaying the clash; the way Ayame moved to intercept her strike. She's not surprised. The more experienced fighter has a much better grasp of space, distance, and the coverage of guard her sword gives her than she does.
"Fighting is a matter of resources. Pain is one of them. Sometimes, it is worthwhile to trade that to capitalise on an opponent's weakness. That's, how I see it anyway."
And sometimes, of course, it isn't the right choice. She's not surprised that Ayame watched her fights; that is... expected, really. She is her teacher after all. But there's that nagging part of her which replays the moments in her mind. Djamila's staff bludgeoning her to unconsciousness, Coco kicking her in the face, Nixie blowing up the world around her. It has not exactly been a testament to her ability to marshal those resources effectively.
She brings the bokken up before her, and again steadies herself. She's having to think about this a lot. Plant her feet, hold the blade steady, look Ayame in the eye. She hesitates at the mention of a demonstration - but that will apparently come later. So she nods, firmly.
"Ariastra-sensei showed me that danger can come from any angle; that my opponents will not oblige me by making their strategy clear. Awareness is key. But fear will also hold me back."
A difficult balance, that. But the girl closes again when the lesson is shared. She strikes out - this time not nearly so flamboyant in her approach, she instead puts her effort into speed, aiming a flurry of three quick strikes at the upper body, left, right, left, to try and test her tutor's reflexes.
It's a concession to the bokken; a metal sword can cleave through an opponent's defense, but there's far less tax placed on both of them with this weapon. Finding a way through seems impossible, she's going to need to try and find a way around it - and right now she can't see any weakness at all.
"A good lesson," Ayame replies regarding the guidance passed on from Ariastra.
"Some might think that just because you wield a sword, your own strategy is all but transparent."
At last, a flicker of a smile tugs at the edge of her mouth, her face illuminated just enough in the lanterns bordering the courtyard.
"But we know better, do we not."
The younger girl is on the offense again as requested, taking a different approach, forcing the wooden blade through a series of flickering strikes. The miko's response is faster than last time, as if the increase in speed is forcing her to keep up in turn. The first strike is deflected with a traditional block, the older girl angling her sword just so. The second block however will feel a little different as Ayame's forward foot slides inward along with her block, applying almost aggressive defense back toward Ichika.
By the time she intercepts the the third strike, the Ichijo girl is practically point blank against her, seemingly far too close to be swinging a katana around, wooden or otherwise, and in no position to defend or attack. Yet the third sound of wood cracking against wood is proof enough that she managed somehow - and not only that, but she has moved the tip of her bokken a half inch shy of being dead center on Ichika's chest in the process.
The truth of the girl's invasion of Ichika's range becomes clear as Ayame holds her pose, her left hand still on the grip of her weapon while her right hand is closed over the blunted blade of the bokken roughly halfway up its length. Were it a real sword, it would have almost definitely sliced into her palm.
But the aggressive stance allowed her to use the longer weapon in a range one would hardly expect possible, maneuvering the end of it almost like a smaller kodachi than a full length sword, while retaining the sturdier stability afforded by the grip of her left hand at the end.
After holding her pose for a moment, Ayame steps back, glancing at her hand on the blade before releasing it.
"It is risky to surrender the range advantage of your sword... and a good way to lose your fingers if you do it wrong. But I noticed your gloves and thought it might prove useful. It is only likely to fool someone once. But if you save it for just the right moment, your opponent will not realize your strategy until it is too late."
Ayame takes another step back, raising her bokken back to a ready position and giving the brown haired girl a nod.
Ichika could not be more delighted. At first, the response to her strikes had confused her - she was expecting to push Ayame back or, more likely, for the older girl to hold her ground. When she finds her actually pushing into her territory, she is confronted with a new possibility - and when she looks down to see where Ayame's weapon would have struck if she had completed the motion, her face lights up. She's bad at holding back in more ways than one; the brilliant smile shows so clearly how pleased she is with the possibility of this new trick.
"Haa, that's very clever." She says, as she takes a step back herself. And then, a short bow: "Thank you."
But of course, they aren't done.
"Lightheart-sensei..." What can she even say about the woman? She was undoubtedly the sponsor she had connected with the most. Which was shocking. She'd assumed that they wouldn't mesh at all, but no. Carefully, she begins to step around to Ayame's side; seeking to place the last of the disappearing sun directly behind her, so that she can have what small additional advantage is granted by the dying orange light.
"Her lesson was the most surprising." And... how much could she really share with Ayame? Is it even her place? She certainly couldn't tell the miko everything; that would be a horrifying betrayal of trust. But. She does need to say something.
"That monsters rarely look so on the surface, and there is no strength worth having that you do not earn yourself."
That... was more difficult to phrase than she would have liked, and she prays that she hasn't said too much. But she's in position now, and maybe attacking again will prevent followup questions. So she closes once more.
And it is certainly a move that Ayame will have seen in her fights; the girl bursts from her standing position, sword raised overhead to deliver a diagonal slash across the older girl's front, ending right inside Ayame's guard and seemingly open. But she's already reversing her grip, bending her knees - ready to spring upwards in her signature corkscrew slash. This is her usual answer to opponents with greater reach; close in and invite a counterattack that she could then punish, or if they backed off be ready to let her momentum carry her forward.
The two have reset as Ichika mentions the fourth sponsor of Team Thunder. Ayame's expression doesn't change as she waits through hesitations and considerations of how to speak of what the Justice High student had taken from her encounter with the other sensei. She does pivot in place to continue facing the dedicated swordswoman, even to the point that her vision is forced into the angle facing the last fleeting slivers of sunlight - only then does she squint slightly and turn her head a few degrees to offset her focus all without completely losing sight of her trainee.
"/Really/." Ayame replies to what Ichika took from Lightheart's interaction, the tone of her voice betraying some level of legitimate surprise in spite herself, as if the idea that she was able to get something that important from the likes of the erstwhile 'Demon Queen' seemed ridiculous. She blinks once.
"Etch that first lesson on your heart. And understand that it applies both ways. It will hold true all your life."
She tilts her head slightly to the right then left as if weighing the other half of it.
"As to the second... I would have to think on it."
She sounds undecided.
"Your skill with the sword is not commiserate with the level most would achieve given the same lack of experience. I would not be quick to dismiss that strength."
Again the two clash as instructed by the miko and this time Ichika digs into the more risky tools in her arsenal. The swords might be blunt, but the force behind them would still invite bruising plenty with a solid hit. And perhaps it is with that concern in mind that Ayame weaves out of the way over the overhead slash, twisting to the side and leaning back, the bokken brushing through the ends of her long trailing hair as it passes her narrowly by on its way down.
But now Ichika is in close and Ayame has already made her move - it would take a moment to adjust her balance to move again and the follow up corkscrew slash is swift in coming. But already, her bokken has been twisted into position, left hand on the grip, right hand pressing against the flat of the blade as the student's own sword cracks against it.
With Ichika's strength and momentum behind the rising strike, Ayame is driven back behind her guard, shoes sliding along the brickwork a few feet before coming to a stop, a soft grunt escaping her lips.
"Good." the miko considers, eyeing the chipped sword in her hand with a skeptical look.
"Now you defend. I do not think my sword is up for absorbing another hit like that."
The girl nods off back to where she had Ichika start in the first place, waiting for her to get in position and ready herself.
"Who has been your most challenging opponent and why?" the Ichijo scion asks while she waits.
"What would have made the difference?"
Seeing the way Ayame moves against this is valuable; Ichika must know that Ayame knows what she's doing with the combination of attacks. But, so will her opponents from now on. Maybe not all of them, but anyone who took fighting seriously enough to want to win would watch at least a few of her bouts in preparation and would know that this combination of attacks were highly likely to come up. It is, after all, the pair that she has practiced most and which she feels most confident in. When the miko dodges backwards and away from the first, she makes a mental note - that is how more experienced fighters are likely to counter the opening, readying themselves to block... she can work on a way to vary the followup based on that.
There's a far less restrained grunt from her as she hammers into the guard with everything she has. Ayame's defense, of course, holds true, and when she touches back to the ground again, the girl is clearly taxed; even with the lighter weapon and the lack of counterattacks to deal with, she's pushed herself as hard as she possibly could and it shows. Sweat plasters all but that most stubborn lock down and her breathing comes with considerably more effort.
"Huh." She says, genuinely surprised. "I ... had thought that more or less everyone began from where I am, and that's why I keep losing." She isn't disagreeing exactly; she trusts Ayame to have a clearer idea of where she ought to be. There's a little pride there too; she approved of the offense, even if she hadn't succeeded in overcoming the more experienced fighter's guard, and... she was better than she had a right to be. Maybe she could legitimately claim that Super Elite title as it relates to fighting after all.
Walking back to the starting position gives Ichika a few moments to consider the question which she's grateful for. There have been quite a few fights now, but her most challenging opponent?
"Greene-san." She says, as she raises her bokken into a guard position. "I was intimidated by her position in the ranking and her ability to attack from anywhere at any time, so I fought extremely conservatively in the initial clashes. I just wanted to avoid a humiliating defeat at first. But that meant I didn't press her defense. As the fight went on, it became obvious that I only needed a few hits to best her. If I had more confidence in myself in the early stages, it would have played out very differently I think."
She tightens her grip on the bokken and tries to exhale some of the stress of remembering that particular fight. Defense, then. Always more challenging for her; offense is something she can take the initiative on, but by its nature defense is reactive and as smoothly as Ayame has moved so far, the girl has no idea what to expect in terms of swordplay from the miko.
A few welts are a small price to pay to get a firsthand demonstration of that.
"From what I have seen," Ayame considers briefly, "Everyone is starting with different levels of experience prior to now. Of course, none of you are particularly far along the path." She had used much stronger language than than that when Peng You was recruiting her into this endeavor, even if perhaps she had come to see things a bit differently since then. She doesn't touch on the comment about losing, having been more interested in asking about the most difficult match Ichika had found herself in.
She listens to the explanation - some of what had been on her mind in facing the aptly named participant, the conservative approach that it led to, and what she realized further into the match about what it could have taken to come out ahead.
"I agree." the miko responds to Ichika's concluding thought. "I hope that eventually you will realize the outcome of these matches is inconsequential. Even if giving them your all, holding nothing back, is not enough to come out ahead of your opponents, what matters is what you are learning from them."
She falls quiet for a moment, as if weighing her next words before giving voice to them, then continues.
"A year from now, no one will remember this tournament except for whatever highlights the media plays on repeat. But the things you learned, the experience you gained by facing others who are equally determined to win. That is invaluable. That is lasting."
Ayame inhales then exhales, shifting her bokken to her side, both hands gripping the handle.
"Now. I will be charging you three times. Each approach will focus on a different aspect of attacking an opponent: precision, speed, power. But I will not tell you which. How you react or defend is up to you. I want to get a sense for where you are at with your defenses."
The strawberry blonde tenses, sliding one foot forward, knee slightly bent as she leans into the likely charge to follow.
"Ready yourself. The first attack comes now."
And then she's rushing Ichika, feet smacking against the brickwork as she closes in. She started off swift, her sword held horizontally, angled slightly back, but when she's three strides out, Ayame suddenly bursts forward with greater speed - it might be the fastest attack Ichika has seen directed her way thus far.
The attack itself is a classic from any samurai film: a dashing horizontal sword slash at stomach level, the bokken swishing through the air an almost invisible blur. But it's clear that it doesn't have the power behind it that a longer windup could have delivered.
This might be speed.
"It, will make things more difficult." Ichika says, "At first I thought if I kept losing I would just have to give up fighting when we are done with the tournament. I, don't think I can do that any more. Even if I lose every fight, I have too many questions I need answers to. But the patience of my family and my school are not limitless. Without victories, I will have to continue in defiance of them."
Which, well. Given how she had acted in the earlier rounds, wearing her school uniform and clearly worried about not living up to their expectations, is something of a shift in the girl. The heavy metal outfit is apparently not completely an aesthetic choice. If she has to, she WILL confront those people and continue regardless of what they want. This is what she wants, more than she wants to be the girl that her family and teachers expect her to be.
She gives a sharp nod when Ayame explains the point of the lesson, and readies herself as best she can. The run in was quick enough, but she keeps her eyes focused on the approach - and then.
The surprise in the girl's face is comical. It's one thing to see such bursts of speed on film, it is quite another to experience them firsthand. There's a moment, the space of one heartbeat, where those brilliant blue eyes of hers - wide with shock - stare into Ayame's own, and she just feels... well, foolish.
Taken by surprise as she is, the girl begins to bring her bokken down to intercept - but she's far too slow. She might as well be a statue, her guard position absolutely meaningless when faced with that kind of level of speed.
And she grunts, stumbling back a pace with a hot red welt raised across her exposed midsection. That'd be bad enough, but far worse is the brighter red blush burning in her cheeks.
"... *Please* tell me that was speed." She implores, because, wow. If she was expected to deal with faster than that she was going to have a very bad time here.
Ayame slides to a stop a few meters past Ichika, hair and clothing falling into place as she hesitates in a steeply forward lean, one knee bent, her other leg stretched back and providing additional support. Slowly she stands, turning to face Ichika. There is no judgment in her tight lipped expression but also no appearance of remorse or apology for landing the welt-making mark on her student.
"It was," she affirms. "While not the fastest I can attack... it was not a far cry from my fastest speed either. When faced with such uncertainty, one option might be to embrace a defensive stance that provides as much coverage as possible from the likely incoming angle. It might not always work, but trying to react in real time against attacks of that speed... well, I do not know what my own chances would be in such a situation."
Again, no evidence of being self-deprecating to diffuse the situation is present in her clinical analysis.
The Ichijo scion returns to her start position. There are still two more attacks for the student to deal with.
"As to the patience of school and parents..." the girl looks conflicted, mouth pursing for a moment. Ichika might appreciate the chance to recover from that last attack as the priestess continues after what seems to be lengthy consideration.
"I knew a girl once who decided to walk that path... Like you, she was talented with the sword - among other weapons - with no formal training. Just picking it up and trying it was enough for her to demonstrate competence. This girl decided to carve her own way through life in defiance of those who cared about her, those who tried to guide and provide for her."
There is a wistful, contemplative look to the young woman's eyes, her focus clearly not on the student across from her.
"That defiance bred bitterness, that bitterness became contempt, and after years down that dark road, she found herself miserable, regretting the severed ties... regretting the opportunities wasted... regretting the actions born of her anger and resentment for those who had only ever meant the best for her."
Ayame lifts her bokken, resting the flat of the blade across her right palm, her left keeping hold of the grip. She looks down for a moment at the wooden weapon as she continues.
"Even now, she continues to atone for her past, for the harm she caused."
Ayame looks up, taking in a breath then releasing a short huff.
"I do not know your parents nor am I in a position to judge their merits. I only warn that there could be regrettable consequences in eschewing their council. I would not make that decision lightly."
A slight nod is offered, "Ready yourself."
Ayame tenses once more, leaning slightly forward, feet planted solidly against the brickwork, her eyes fixed on Ichika, expression focused but dispassionate.
No verbal warning is given as she charges forward again with similar initial speed as last time, but this time she holds the sword forward, both hands on the grip, elbows bent such that the bokken is tucked partially beneath her torso and at her side as she closes in.
Unlike last time, there is no last second surge in speed, which makes the attack easier to see. And unlike the sweeping slash from the last attack, Ayame plants her forward foot from three paces out and stabs straight forward with the blunted tip targeting Ichika's sternum with a precise, probing strike.
Ichika listens, and it's clear that she isn't just discounting these words. Even though they aren't what she wants to hear. She'd hoped for encouragement; her teammates had given her nothing but that, after all. But Ayame ... well, the gap between them may only be four years, not long in an objective sense. But four years is a long time to her. In four years, one way or another she will be finished with Justice High. She will be making her own path in the world. Her other tutors had their own perspectives, no doubt; but she didn't trust Ariastra to even remember what it was like to have such mundane concerns. Lyraelle's family life was ... complex, and whilst Peng You had an unnerving way of striking to the heart of the matter, it had clearly been decades - at least - since he had needed to worry about such things himself.
She's glad for the distraction of the attack. It stops her getting too bound up in her own thoughts. She sets her jaw and regains her guard, setting the blade between herself and Ayame. She takes a deep breath, and she tries to clear her mind.
This time, she fares better. Though still far from perfect, her bokken moves in time with the moment the miko plants her foot, and there is a *CLACK* as she sweeps her sword up. She can see where the attack is coming, she can defend that part of herself well enough...
... though the momentum of the thrust is still enough that, though deflected from its precise intent, it still catches her on the side, which makes her clench her teeth. She takes a step back, and then exhales. Trying to ignore the radiating pain from what will probably be a nasty bruise. At least she feels... slightly better about her performance there; she'd defeated the intent of the attack, just, at a price.
"It doesn't feel like it is an optional thing any more." She says, at last. "It is selfish of me. I understand that. I have a duty to use my talent for the betterment of the world, and fighting may not be the best way for me to do so, but..."
Ichika cracks her neck. Her hand, briefly, touches the new, angry spot welling beneath her clothing. "Miyama-sensei opened my eyes. My... gift, has something to do with chi. I don't understand anything about it. But I know it is part of me. I need to see how far it can take me. Maybe... that *is* the wrong choice. Maybe the answer will be that I can't get very far at all and I disappear into obscurity, just another Kasumoto who vanishes to leave the world no better for her presence. And yes, I would regret that."
She grabs the hilt of her bokken in both hands again, and takes a looser stance. She's not a fool, after all; she'd seen speed, and precision. She knows what is coming next. In the abstract, at least, if not the specifics.
"But it would be better to try and be all that I can, and fail, than take the easy path and spend all my life wondering if I could have been more."
Following her partially deflected strike, Ayame pulls the bokken back and slips one step further away from Ichika before stopping to listen. Her expression is neutral as usual, her head canted to the right slightly, eyes focused and attentive, clearly paying attention even if her reactions seem so muted.
When the Justice High student finishes, the miko blinks a couple of times, head canting to the left then as if weighing what she had heard considerably before responding.
"Well," she breaks her silence at last, "You seem to have put more thought into it than she did when she made her decision."
She dips her head slightly and turns to retreat back a few steps before pivoting to face her student again.
"You do not need to convince me of the validity of your choice. It is your life to live. No matter what anyone tries to tell you otherwise. But it would be prudent to continuously reassess... both the potential of your chosen path... and its price."
The girl rests her left arm against her side, holding the bokken in a relaxed, unready way, clearly not about to lunge without warning with the third promised attack. Instead, she continues.
"Miyama-sensei? Noboru Miyama?"
The girl's head leans back a little, studying the now dark sky overhead, the two illuminated only by the lanterns that line the courtyard.
"I wonder what has brought him down from his mountain. It has been some time since we spoke."
She looks back toward Ichika, a faint quirk of amusement at the corner of her lips.
"He is a hard man."
In more than one way, certainly.
"But he can be trusted."
As with the mention of Peng You, the Ichijo scion seems to place a lot of emphasis on the word 'trust' in her statement, as if it is not a designation she gives lightly.
"If he gave you something to think on, then you would do well to do so."
She holds out her left hand then, pointing at Ichika with her weapon.
"You chose well on your defense. It is difficult to simply block a strike like that. Maneuvering it by applying force is often the best option. In the future, you might twist yourself in the opposite way you force the weapon... It might give you a clean defense or at least reduce it to a glancing hit. But your timing was good."
She then leans forward, sliding one foot forward, knee bent, moving the sword down to her right side, right hand joining her left. It is angled now, shallow enough that the tip of it is just a few inches above the bricks beneath her feet.
There is a breath, then the miko rushes forward a third time. She had explained the three types of attacks to expect, so her student is smart in anticipating that what is coming next is not likely to be a light blow. Perhaps it was by design that Ayame saved it for last so that the strike that could be the most painful is the one she knows is coming?
When Ayame closes in, she unleashes an upward sweeping slash with the wooden sword, applying power to it more than speed, though that isn't to suggest that it is exactly slow either. The follow through of the strike is upward and circular, sweeping over her head, back down the other side, the blur of the motion akin to a full moon.
But then she continues through the motion, releasing the grip with her left hand and sweeping it back into a second rising slash a half step forward from the first attack, a blurred crescent moon of motion as she comes to rest with the bokken held in the air.
The design of the strike is clear - the first a guard crushing strike at an angle that could provide difficult to simply defend against followed by a second strike intended to land true after an opponent's defense has been broken!
Ichika can't help but smile at the advice to continually reassess. If anything, she'd like it if she could stop her mind constantly running and questioning every decision she's made. But she dips in a little half-bow. "It is." She agrees, "But I would still like to convince you. Your opinion, carries a lot of weight. I suppose, ultimately, I will have to do so with actions. Not words."
She takes the compliment on her timing and nods again to the note on her defense. Footwork. She'd spent too much time worrying about what she was doing with her weapon; and that was better than nothing, but she needed to get better at moving her whole body at once. Good! This was good. She could work on that. In terms of practical steps she could take and build on, this lesson had already given her a huge amount. Though having receiving two strikes, she is not eager to receive a third. Least of all the one with the greatest potential to actually hurt her. But she has a plan, here. One she's been mulling over since the premise of the test was made known. She couldn't beat Ayame in terms of technical skill, after all, but that didn't mean she could do nothing.
She raises her sword again. Brilliant eyes focused and intense as Ayame comes at her for the third test. It's... more difficult now in practice than it had been in her mind. She knows what she wants to do, but the power feels more distant with this fake weapon in her hands. Something else that she's going to have to think about later - right now, she needs to push through it. She's not about to give up just because it isn't coming as naturally as it normally does.
The Justice High student waits until the moment that the miko has committed to the attack - and then there's a faint grunt of effort from her. A flickering blue barrier of chi, wavy and indistinct, flows into being between herself and Ayame. Which, makes Ichika's intense expression twist into one of distaste.
That simply isn't as strong as she is used to. The first blow passes through it easily, and she has to throw herself back with far less elegance than she would have liked. Where the shields she has come to rely on in the tournament normally shatter quite dramatically, this time the energy just... dissipates, cut away by the blunt bokken with only token resistance.
As the second blow comes down, she's hitting the ground and rolling backwards with a huff of effort. This is not the cool and composed effort that she had envisioned, where she'd end crouched and ready to resume the fight. This is a desperate effort to haul herself as far out of the follow-up blow's path as she can. And she still feels the breeze from the bokken as it passes perilously close to her.
But. Even if she's now covered in dust and her stockings have a brand new run in them, she had at least managed to successfully escape a third injury.
She tugs her skirt back into position as she picks herself up from the floor, and dusts herself off as best she can with one hand holding her bokken. Clearly a little embarrassed that her plan had only been a partial success. "I got out the way, but I had to completely sacrifice any kind of positioning--" She starts, before she realises that she's doing it again. Picking herself apart before her teacher has actually said anything. Exactly what she'd been warned not to do by Peng You.
"-- I mean, uh. Was my instinct right, there, too?" She finishes, lamely. Ugh. She really needs to get better at keeping her mouth shut, too. That has always been a problem.
Slowly, Ayame lowers her arm, holding her chipped bokken with one hand and appraising the blunt blade of it briefly before lowering it even further down to her side. Her attention switches back to Ichika then as the other girl begins speaking during her recovery from her desperate evasion. The miko is quiet at the rapid self-assessment made and even when her student turns things around to end on a question, the Ichijo girl doesn't respond immediately to affirm, contradict, or just put her at ease.
Instead, she seems to be studying her for a long moment. All around them, the crickets have resumed their song beneath the night sky.
Finally, Ayame turns, walking back a few paces back to where she had kept resetting to between each of their exchanges before pivoting around to face Ichika.
She demonstrates, lowering herself to a kneeling position akin to the one she had demonstrated before their training had begin in earnest.
She places her bokken down across in front of her knees.
Ayame leans forward at the waist, dipping her head as when they started. But rather than standing afterward, she lingers in the kneeling position, hands folded on her lap.
"When facing an attack like that, most of the time the important thing is to not get hit. If you can do so and not lose much distance or positioning, then that is ideal... Your defensive technique... the energy you manifested. It seems your sword is a better conduit and amplifier of your power than these wooden replicas. There is nothing wrong with that... as I confided in you earlier, my own techniques require properly prepared tools to work effectively."
She is quiet for a moment and then nods slightly.
"You are ready for what I have planned for next. Next time we meet here, you will be using your real sword. And you will be helping repay the favor extended to us for the use of these grounds."
There is the slightest hint of amusement in her voice at that, though it would be hard to read it in her expression, the girl as somber and neutral as she has been most of the night. She continues, her voice back to neutral.
"For now, approach your matches with the understanding that each of them is a learning experience. These bouts you participate in... they are not matters of life and death. Remain calm and focused, do your best, and then, above all else, learn from them. The difference between those who dabble in this pursuit but then hit a wall and those who excel and grow to achieve greater things comes down to iterative improvements and refinement, sprinkled with inspiration sparked by what you encounter in your battles."
She glances to the side, breaking eye contact for a moment, as if considering something else, before her attention flicks back to Ichika.
"Next time we meet, I want to hear about where you hope to be in four years. More skilled with your sword style, naturally. But why? To what end? What are you trying to accomplish? Is making a legacy for yourself, your family name... the pursuit of fame and recognition... truly your ambition? Or is there something else? If you do no not know what it could be yet, then please think on it. These talents you have, and your potential... Well... we will speak more on that next time. You still have plenty of time to convince me."
There is a hint of a smile teasing one corner of her mouth as she exhales softly, still kneeling.
"Now, any final question for tonight? Any one thing on your mind that burns for an answer sooner than later?"
That long moment where Ichika feels like a bug under a magnifying glass is agonizing. She tries not to let it show, but there's a tension in her; frustration at her own performance, yes, but then compounded by her clumsy words. When Ayame turns and walks away, she actually flinches - that was, not a good sign. But then she gives the command, and again, the ritual helps.
She moves quickly to stand in the right spot, and then kneels, just as she was told. She lays her bokken across her lap just-so. She bows. And all of that quiets the storm of possibilities raging in her mind to focus instead on the moment. So when Ayame begins speaking again, she pays close attention, nodding along.
The reassurance that she's ready for - well, for something - takes some of the tension out of her. This... has gone better than she had expected it might. "I will." She promises; and though she cannot possibly know it at the time, the promise to learn, study and grow from her matches is one that she will think back on a lot after the very next match. There are so many mysteries in this world, even held by her fellow amateur competitors with the New Fighting Generation. To think that she could have learned enough to dominate from books and recordings is laughable; the path now seems very clear.
Her expression becomes even more serious at the note about what will be discussed next time. Perhaps the most important part of all of this. What was the point? And whilst Ichika does already know, at least in broad terms, what she wants... it was also to be discussed *later*. That, too, is a relief. It will give her time to formulate her answer more clearly than she could right now. "I, appreciate that, Ichijo-sensei."
She lifts her hand then, brushing it absently through her messy locks as she considers that last element. A long, slow breath leaves her. There are SO MANY questions she wants to ask. But, wisely, Ayame has specified just one. One thing. Which means... does she ask about fighting, about technique, about the reason why she was Ayame's first choice, even about the Kami? All of those things had been preying on her mind. But. No. When that brilliant blue gaze of hers settles on the older girl again, there is one question above all the others that she knows she can't ignore. It has sat with her since the discussion with Peng You on the beach, and she has done her best not to think too hard on it. Which of course meant, by now, it had embedded itself in deep.
"Peng You-sensei called me deadly." She says, slowly. "And you said, similar, at the start of today's training. Also that I would be faced with a choice. Two paths."
The girl's hands drop to her lap and she rests them on the bokken. Ichika has never found a question she doesn't want the answer to. But this one might be the closest she has come. Still. She faces it. If the answer is one she doesn't want to hear, best that she hear it soon so she can decide how to deal with it.
"If I keep following the way of the sword, is that where it ends?"
The miko waits patiently for Ichika to think on what question she might want to pose at the approaching conclusion of their time together. She seems comfortable kneeling even on the unyielding brick covered ground of the courtyard and as she's demonstrated more than once this evening, long silences don't seem to bother her.
Ayame intones softly at mention of Peng You's words to the student, but otherwise waits.
Only when the question is posed does she blink slowly, leaning her head slightly to the right and breaking eye contact for a few seconds, a habit it seems when she takes a moment to weigh her next words with more deliberation.
When her eyes return to the Team Thunder student, she shakes her head slightly.
"I thought to speak on this next time, perhaps. But your question is an important one to ask and I will try to answer it now."
Another long pause before she lifts her left hand from her lap, holding up three fingers.
"Two paths, but three choices. In some ways, these three choices are the same that all fighters striving to master their art, to be counted among the best, must decide upon. But your choice in style might make it easier to take one path over the other."
She lowers her hand to her lap before continuing.
"You will reach a point where you cannot advance any further without picking from one of two paths. You can decide to pick neither - to be content at having found the limit of your ability, of having enjoyed and learned from the journey, the experiences along the way, but feeling no need to push further. That is the first choice."
A frown works its way into her expression.
"Or you realize that to truly reach the zenith of your art, to see how far it can really go, you will need to push it to its most deadly potential. To do otherwise is to limit yourself, to brush up against that threshold but never break through."
She lifts her hand, waving it back and forth slowly with a dismissing gesture.
"This does not require one to use lethal weapons. Even those who follow the way of the Fist will encounter this temptation. This is the second choice and one many who have climbed to the apex of what it truly means to fight are lured toward..."
She lowers her hand back down, the faint frown fading from her features, her expression taking on a contemplative look that is reflected in her eyes as they focus on Ichika.
"Or you can make the third choice. To put your life on the line defending and protecting others. Using your talent, your power, to be a shield for the weak. This path carries with it all the peril of the second choice but it is kept in check by measured restraint. You will fight at a disadvantage to those who wish to hone their skill on the blood of others, but if you survive, you will become stronger for it."
She lifts her right arm and sweeps it absently to the side.
"There is a whole world of conflict outside these games we play in safely cordoned arenas and regulated matches that are hardly more risky than sparring matches. But to walk in that world, we must know where we stand and what we stand for. Next time we meet here, I will give you a glimpse into that world..."
Ayame exhales softly and dips her head.
She moves, pushing herself back up to standing, bokken in rest position in her left hand.
She leans forward at the waist then straightens out again.
"Leave your bokken with me. I will lock up here."
Another slight nod, a hint of approval in her reserved features.
"Good night, Kasumoto-san."
Ichika listens. It is one of her talents; and no doubt she would play this answer back to herself a lot. It isn't quite what she had feared, and for that she's grateful. She had worried that the choice would be between becoming a killer and accepting her limitations. The fact that she didn't know immediately which one she would choose worries her. She couldn't imagine Chevy, Buck, or Tamaki, having much difficulty with that choice. Her friends are good people. They approached these things with curiosity, but there was just no way she could picture Chevy making the calculated choice to take a life under any circumstances, let alone to hone her art.
But. She is not her friend. She doesn't think of herself as a bad person, but...
When Ayame finishes explaining the third choice, Ichika lets out a breath she hadn't even known she had been holding. Her shoulders dip and she finally breaks eye contact. What follows is important too, of course, but the knowledge that there IS another way helps her more than Ayame might know. Even if she's not so foolish as to think that she will definitely make that choice, either. She's not being asked to make any choice, yet.
She stands when bid, though she's a little unsteady in doing so, and she bows, low. "Thank you, Ichijo-sensei."
A moment's hesitation, and then she rises and adds. "I will, try, not to worry too much about this. These are still early days. I have a long way to go. But. I am grateful that you answered. I'd begun to see the shape of it and it did." No, correction. "DOES, worry me. Just knowing there are more choices than I'd thought reassures me greatly."
She walks over to the wall where she had left her sword, and picks it up, propping the bokken in its place. There is, maybe, a little more reverence for the simple weapon as she slides it back into place. There's nothing remarkable about her katana; in fact, it is a cheap and poorly-made, mass produced example of the art. But it is hers. And after seeing the difference between it and the bokken... she has a whole new appreciation for what it had let her do.
She's grateful that the sun is dipping low, now, and the shadows are deeper. Hopefully, it hides the pink that rises to her cheeks. San, is it? Not chan. Goodness.
Another bow, "Good night, Ichijo-sensei."
Then she is walking away. It was a long trip back to the hotel, plenty of time to think about everything she had learned here. Though she suspected she wouldn't be getting much sleep; the questions thrown up by the answers she had gotten were too fascinating to let her rest quite that easily.
Though maybe the bumps and bruises would help.
"Hmn," Ayame replies with a soft grunt and nod at Ichika's expressed thoughts.
"Yes, well... more could do to concern themselves with where their choices will take them eventually. But it is equally important to temper those concerns with perspective."
She waits for the student to retrieve her sword and leave behind the borrowed bokken before adding.
"For next time, bring parchment, ink, and a brush. Hopefully you have been keeping up on your calligraphy in school."
Her tone contains a subtle hint of amusement reflected by the half smile at her lips.
Another nod is offered in response to the final bow and then Ichika is left to walk alone back to the entrance gate.
Left in the courtyard, Ayame stuffs the two bokkens back into the duffle bag and zips it closed before hefting it to her shoulder and picking up her staff.
She pauses a moment, glancing across the courtyard to where another thick wrought iron gate is closed over a dark passage that seems to lead down under the main chapel building. Brow furrowing, the miko looks thoughtful and, alone with her thoughts, even a touch pensive.
"Tch. It'll be fine," she mutters to herself, opening the side pocket of the bag on her shoulder to fish out the iron key ring with her fingers.
Then she blinks, suddenly remembering that she had locked the entrance gate behind them on the way in. Dismissing whatever other thoughts had been on her mind to hurry after the Justice High student so that they can both get out!
Log created on 01:16:02 07/02/2023 by Ayame, and last modified on 09:11:25 07/13/2023.