NFG Season One - Cracked Masks

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Description: Having just suffered a fairly humilating defeat in her first round of NFG, Junko attempts to slink off to her room for some rest only to find one of her new teammates lying in ambush. Lured in by the promise of food, it quickly becomes apparent that neither the miko nor her new ally are what they seem on the surface.

Ichika had decided not to go and see Junko's first fight in person. From what she had gleaned from their first meeting, she thought such a thing might actually have thrown the miko off - and that's the last thing she wanted to do. She was, though, watching from the comfort of Team Thunder's new base. Which is, rather less luxurious than the accommodations to which she'd become accustomed, but it still has everything that she needs. More or less. The kitchenette is... not ideal, but compared to some trials and tribulations she has had to deal with, it is fine.

The younger teenager had spent the time of the match preparing a meal. It has been a little while since she had to do it herself, and the tiny stove makes it a challenge, but it had been a reassuring chore to undertake. It reminded her of home. Somewhere she increasingly missed.

It also provided a small distraction from the furious rage that Junko had worked herself up to throughout the match. Ah. Djamila. It seems like no other competitor in the Project had done so good a job of infuriating Team Thunder's students. Though, admittedly, she rather suspected that it wouldn't have mattered who Junko was matched against, she would have lost her temper. And Djamila was an awful lot more complimentary about Junko's style than she had been Ichika's.

Which is amusing, really, because Junko's style is just as explosive as it had been at her first meeting with the girl, and far less focused in its devastation.


Ichika prepares a traditional curry. Onions, carrots, potato and pork alongside a thick, sweet sauce. It's not particularly fancy, but all those hours toiling away alongside her mother in the restaurant business has leant the girl a certain skill with the knife.

And she can just leave it bubbling until Junko returns home. She doubts it will be that long, and if her guess is right, the young woman is going to be horrendously hungry when she gets back. What better thing to greet her with than a home cooked meal?

In the wake of her humiliating defeat, Junko finds herself faced with a conundrum.

On the one hand, she is exhausted.

Before being thrown into this absurd spectacle by her uncle, it had been years since the last time she'd engaged in a proper fight. Not so much out of a lack of interest on her part but rather the fact that everyone in her village would rather have thrown themselves off the nearest cliff than risk rousing her ire. It might seem a silly thing to be so terrified of a such a young girl, especially one both blind and crippled by her own stupidity - but then no one outside of her clan is aware of precisely just how dangerous she really is; or, more to the point, how dangerous the -thing- inside of her is.

She hadn't squandered all of her training, at least. With no one to talk to and no responsibilities to speak of the miko had a lot of empty time to fill. Going through the motions of her old kung fu katas had served well enough as a form of rehabilitation for her ruined body. But as the pain in her withered limbs steadily began to heal the pain of her memories started to take its place. It was her father who had insisted upon personally passing down the family arts to her. Despite the many duties of his station and the constant pain he endured as a result he always made time for her. The more she trained the more she was reminded of what she had lost - the damned demon particularly enjoyed twisting that little knife in her soul.

The idea of returning to the quarters that have been provided to her and curling up in a ball on her bed is a tempting one. Her battle with the agile dancer had been a disaster, her swift evasive footwork and irritatingly positive commentary all but riling up the murderous desires of her darker half like a matador waving around a bright red flag in front of an enraged bull. She had lost control again and innocent people had been caught in the crossfire.

Which is one of the many reasons the teen is currently delaying her return to the dormitories as long as she can physically stand to do so. No doubt her fellow teammates will be eager to reprimand her for such a flagrant disregard for the safety of the spectators. She can all but hear the aloof rebuke of the elementalist in her mind, rattling off more of his fortune cookie wisdom as if she isn't already painfully aware of what an embarrassing mess she is.

The miko manages to refrain from giving in to her desire for rest and solitude for nearly two hours before finally relenting. She'd taken refuge in one of the city's many subway trains, trying to cram herself into the furthermost corner of the rear cabin. Her dour expression and pointed glares proved less persuasive at forcing people to reconsider taking the seats near her without the hellish flames to back them up. Not that she wasn't /sorely/ tempted to set a few people on fire just to get the message across but that probably would have resulted in an even more annoying lecture. Eventually the feeling of being stared at constantly combined with the fatigue of her regeneration proved too much.

It's nigh on close to the hour for dinner when the elevator finally announces her arrival in the lower reaches of the old subway tunnel. Junko steps quickly out of the mechanical box, eyeing it suspiciously. While the marvels of modern technology are many, she doesn't yet understand any of it enough to really trust that something horribly wrong won't happen if she accidentally presses the wrong button.

Well, she survived this trip, at least.

Turning swiftly towards the tunnel leading to the many rooms set aside as personal quarters, Junko attempts to make herself scarce before anyone gets it into their heads to try and talk to her. She scowls really hard just to make it extra obvious.

Grr. Moody teenager. Go away.

Ichika has plenty of work to get on with whilst waiting; the time she took out for her little jaunt with Chevy had let the schoolwork pile up. She had already found it challenging to fit it all in alongside the training that she demands both of herself, and that her sponsors give her. Justice High does not relent in its expectations just because she has so many other responsibilities to deal with now, and nor would she ask them to.

The thought of returning to her schooling after all of this does seem strange. There are many paths she could walk, and she isn't sure which of them she ought to pursue. But she is trying to keep the options open, and so when Junko arrives, she is greeted not only be the smell of curry, but by Ichika sat at a small folding table which is absolutely covered in books.

"Daidoji-san." She says, lightly, as the older teenager comes in like a thunderous storm. Much as she had expected, honestly. Junko is many things and there are many questions, but she is not a particularly difficult person to read or predict. Though Ichika had hoped that she would be back sooner than it transpires she is... the girl is hardly going to let that get in the way.

"Please. Stop."

Rising from her seated position, she moves to intercept the wildfire that is the raging miko. She doesn't physically touch her - at least, she tries not to - but she is very happy to get in the way. It's really up to Junko whether that means trying to bowl through the shorter girl, who may prove to be irritatingly sturdy.

"You won't have eaten, I imagine?" She insists. She doesn't know of course; Junko could well have used that two hours to go and get food. But she rather suspects that she would have found Metro City overwhelming, and her mindset after a loss to be too furious with herself to focus through it and overcome that trepidation.

"We needn't talk if you don't wish to, but let's eat together at the very least. Going to bed on an empty stomach after a fight is a terrible decision."

She remembers her own first loss, the amount of self-rebuking she had done, the feeling that she didn't *deserve* to eat and that therefore the gnawing hunger in her gut was a fit and just punishment for her own inadequacy. It wasn't a pleasant thought, nor was it one that had proven in any way helpful to improving results.

"It will only take a few minutes to prepare the rice. You can spare me that long, can't you?"

Much to her chagrin, Junko's predictions prove irritatingly accurate. For a few harrowing moments, it looks as if the older girl might very well just plow right through her well-meaning colleague, consequences be damned. Only when it becomes clear that the threat of being trampled isn't going to win her this particular game of chicken without violence does Junko come to a reluctant stop.

It isn't that she's unwilling to bully her way past the younger girl, were it only a matter of physical force. The problem is she's far too pissed off and unbalanced right now to be sure that touching Ichika won't immediately set the well-meaning little gremlin on fire. Even just being this close to the angry miko is like standing next to an overworked radiator. Trying to touch her would be like putting one's hand on an active stove top.

Brows furrowed, the miko glowers at Ichika, her unnaturally bright red eyes seeming to flash briefly with the promise of fiery mayhem. She doesn't like being forced into this position. The fact that she actually listened and didn't run her compatriot over might give the girl the wrong idea, put it into her mind that getting between Junko and her solitude is something to be attempted again in the future.

And yet, as much as she wants to rebuke the young blademaster, something stays her wrath. Perhaps it's the earnesty in the girl's voice as she all but begs for the opportunity to spend time with her. It's been a very long time since /anyone/ actually wanted to be around her - a mindset she has actively encouraged. The monster lurking within her has made it perfectly clear what will happen to those she cares about and those who care about her. It's safer for everyone that she keep the world at arm's length.

And yet, she's still human, isn't she. How long has it been since last she allowed herself to bask in the simple joy of another's presence? No, she can't. No matter how much she might want to.

Yet even as she turns to wordlessly step around Ichika, a soft rumbling emanates from the miko's empty belly. She freezes in place, body going stiff even as her cheeks flush with raw embarrassment. It has, in fact, been morning since last she ate. Her life in the village provided her with little in the way of proper nourishment. Sometimes a few of the more empathetic residents would come by and leave her something simple - a husk of bread, a bowl of simple soup, a few pieces of dried fruit. Enough to survive maybe but hardly the sort of fare that made meal times something she looked forward to. Eating was a survival ritual, nothing more, and she didn't even really need to do it that often. Yet another boon of her oh-so-wonderful powers.

However, now that attention has been brought to her rumbling stomach there's no way she's going to escape this benevolent little whelp. And, if she's being honest, a warm bowl of rice does sound pretty tempting right about now. The smell alone would be enough to make her salivate if there wasn't an audience.


Crossing her arms over her chest petulantly, the miko stares pointedly somewhere other than towards her self-appointed chef and in so doing reveals the atrocious state that her hands have fallen into once again.

The past few hours have given them enough time to start the healing process but the pale skin is covered with wicked burns, still charred black in some places while the rest of it looks something like melted wax. Other bits of evidence still linger from her battle as well - smudge marks on her face, tears and burns on her fancy clothes, the edge of a nasty bruise peeking out from underneath the collar of her shirt. Honestly, she looks a mess, clearly caring little for her appearance at the moment.

Ichika doesn't smile, but she does give a firm nod. "Excellent."

It's not much, this tiny concession to let someone else help her, but it is an important one. If Junko had resisted, Ichika wouldn't have had much choice but to let the miko wallow in her own despair. That she was willing to accept this much, at least, meant that there was the possibility to build something here. As fragile and precarious as the foundations might be.

The girl sets the rice to cooking, and as it boils away merrily, she clears her books and papers from the small table, carefully putting them back into her enormous backpack which can then be safely stowed at the edge of the room. She is cautiously optimistic that her approach here is going to work, but it'd still be an unmitigated disaster if Junko lost her temper.

'The Miko incinerated my homework' is not an acceptable excuse with any of her teachers.

She does take in the state that her compatriot has gotten herself into. The burned hands are one thing; the fact that she still has unhealed bruises is another. The healing factor apparently doesn't work at the same rate across her entire body, but needs to go injury by injury. She's, trying, not to view this in coldly analytical terms, but it is useful information to know for future.

Whether they wind up being allies, or enemies, further down the line.

Good to her word, Ichika doesn't try to speak to her either. She simply busies herself with the task of cooking, retrieving the curry from the interior of the stove where it had been staying warm and resting.

The equipment here is cheap but functional. Ichika's budget is... well, tiny, at this point. Her allowance is barely anything and she has no other source of income. But she knows how to make that stretch; small wooden bowls, simple chopsticks. Soon, she is spooning two generous servings of rice and curry into the bowls, and one is set down before Junko.


The one word that she does feel compelled to say before she picks up her chopsticks and gets to eating. It isn't her best work. But it isn't her worst, either. Though she can't help but be more interested about Junko's reaction to the dish than her own; hungry as she is, she's not the real target audience here.

Hopefully those burned hands won't struggle too much with the meal.

Mollified somewhat by her companion's lack of attempts to engage her in conversation, Junko meanders over to the small table and takes a seat. Hunger or no, she probably would have reconsidered sticking around if she thought her ear was going to get talked off.

Though she tries not to let it show, her exhaustion is fairly obvious. The miko slumps heavily into the chair, all but flopping onto the cheap folding metal edifice. Her ruined arms fold one over the other atop the table's surface and it isn't long before her head joins them, resting gingerly in the crook of one elbow to avoid putting any pressure on her wounds. Long white bangs drift down over her face, the snowy hair falling like a curtain to cover her weary eyes.

Her mind drifts in the companionable silence as Ichika finishes her work. Heavenly smells assault her senses, the aroma of spices and cooking vegetables bringing back memories of long forgotten happiness.

Her family servants used to make such wonderful meals. Fried dumplings were a staple - quick and easy to make while being delicious and filling. Precisely the sort of easily stored food needed for a busy villager - or an eager young priestess who often forgot to come home for a proper meal. On the weekends they would always prepare the village's speciality: fluffy little biscuits covered with plum sauce. Those were her mother's favorite. But Junko was always more of a meat person herself. She was always begging the servants for an extra serving of roasted pork or sneaking into the kitchen to swipe some of the leftover meatballs that were supposed to be fed to the dogs. Very unlady-like behavior, as she had been lectured on repeatedly, but that never stopped her.

Lost in her reminiscing, Junko doesn't immediately notice when the pleasant smells of roasting meat start to turn into something more sinister. The change is subtle, at first. A faint shifting of the aroma from the rich savory scent of crackling pork to something a little more heavy and dense. The source of this new smell eludes her at first, both maddeningly familiar yet frustratingly elusive. Whatever it is, it smells strangely appealing. She closes her eyes a little tighter, focused on trying to recall where she's encountered that scent before...

And then it comes to her with nauseating clarity. A flash of memory. Dozens of bodies lying scattered around a room shattered by intense hellish flames. Charred corpses burned so badly that their very bones crumbled to ash at a touch.

And the haunting smell of seared human flesh on the wind.

Junko sits bolt upright as the fresh bowl of food is placed on the table before her, all but kicking the chair out from underneath herself in her panic to get away from the smell. She stares at the innocent offering with wide eyes, an uncharacteristic look of wild terror on her face as she claws her way out of the wicked vision and back to reality. It takes her several seconds for the miko to regain her composure, sweat trickling down her pale face and her breath coming in short ragged gasps. And in the back of her mind she can feel the creature's presence all the while, silently cackling at her foolishness.

This was a mistake.

Ichika can't, of course, know what is going on in the young miko's head. There is obvious concern in her features as Junko recoils, though. The food wasn't her best, true, she'd be the first to admit that... but that was a far more dramatic reaction than she felt it deserved. Unless, of course, there was more going on here than she was privy to.

"Oh, of course." She says, snapping her fingers, "I didn't think to get us a drink. How foolish of me."

Rising smoothly to her feet the girl walks back to the kitchenette. Options here are even more limited, but a couple of glasses of water are easy enough to fetch; something that will genuinely be a necessity given the saltiness of the pork. But, more importantly, it gives Junko a few moments to regain her composure.

A glass is set down next to Junko's untouched bowl, and Ichika retakes her seat.

She takes a few more bites, studying the girl opposite her. Rei had been insistent that power was just power and that good and evil were simply labels applied to it; and that might be true on one level, but on another she couldn't help but think that there was more to it than that.

Junko's power tormented her. That much was painfully apparent. The more Ichika had come to learn about her own gifts and attune herself to them, the more she had felt... herself. They truly had been a simple boon; bringing her to a greater understanding of the world and her place within it, even if the full depths of that truth still eluded her.

Her new teammate was obviously struggling with a very different issue. Her power came easily, responded to her emotions whether she wanted to or not, and inflicted terrible pain. It was poetic, really, that Ichika's strength showed itself in bright cerulean hues and Junko's in vivid scarlet. Opposites, in so many ways.

Perhaps there is something more to dwell on there, too.

But that is another thing that will be picked apart in time. The foundations here are fragile, and Ichika can only try to bridge the gap in the smallest of ways.

"Apologies if the food isn't to your liking." She says, "If there are particular favourites you would like instead, please let me know. I'm not, the best, cook. But American food..."

And here she is remembering the Southern 'cuisine' she had sampled with Chevy during their break, and the havoc it had wreaked on her in all kinds of ways.

"... is for different palettes. We have enough to contend with, without diet becoming another obstacle."

Ironically, it is the sound of Ichika's gentle voice that the miko latches onto in order to shake off the hellish vision foisted upon her in that brief moment of weakness. Junko focuses on her words, anchoring herself to the present and the reality of her current situation. Bit by bit, the hateful memory flakes away like an old painting as the demon's influence is recognized and wrestled back down into the recesses of her mind.

There is a long pause as the teen catches her breath, swallowing down the bile in her throat. Her gaze flicks sideways towards the edge of the room, once more considering a swift escape from the threat of pleasant human interaction. Leaving would be the smart thing to do. That had been a warning, a great big red flag that continuing to pursue this course of action would likely lead to yet more pain and suffering. She isn't allowed to have little moments of happiness, can't afford to lower her guard for even an instant.

But, now that the seed of possibility has been planted in her mind, she finds turning away frustratingly difficult. It's been years since anyone invited her to join them in anything, the sole exception being her uncle. Nearly five whole years being spit on and reviled, treated like a rabid dog that might turn and attack with only the slightest provocation. A reputation well earned, sadly, though not entirely of her own choice.

In the end it is a hint of stubborn pride that sees her return to the table. She'd already agreed to engage in this bit of frivolous communal activity. To run away now would mark her a liar and coward both. That might end up being the more pleasant outcome should things take a turn for the worst but...

Against her better judgement, Junko rights her toppled chair and slowly lowers herself back into it. She quickly turns her attention to the bowl in front of her, awkwardly trying not to look too clumsy as she sweeps her hand across the surface of the table to locate the chopsticks. The warmth of the food makes it easy enough to keep track of but everything else is all but invisible to her heat-based detection methods.

The miko's burned hands prove to be another obstacle to her attempts not to look like an idiot. She attempts to hide a sharp wince as she scoops the slender sticks up in her hand, fumbling stubbornly to shift them into a useable position amidst her warped fingers. Once that's roughly accomplished, she daintily scoops the tips of her chopsticks into the curry and brings it to her mouth.

Only about half of the food actually makes it to her face, the rest scattering messily about the table and onto her clothes. Junko's eyes close, her brows furrowing in frustration but she makes a point of quietly chewing the bits she did manage to bite down, refusing to acknowledge her messy lack of control.

At first it had struck Ichika as very worrying indeed that her sponsors had opted for Junko. The girl's flames were disturbing. The danger that she had put the spectators in was also, obviously, a huge worry. Ichika couldn't completely ignore that. It was one thing to endanger fellow NFG participants; that was part of the risk one took when deciding to pursue a professional fighting career, but watching Junko's flames splash into the crowd - even if there were no severe injuries - had still etched a deep frown onto Ichika's features at the time.

Not, though, as she returns to the meal in companionable silence, she thinks she begins to understand.

Junko isn't just her anger and her pain; she is also trying to push through it and become more. Better. Perhaps she wouldn't put it exactly like that, but seeing the prideful refusal to surrender to the limitations of her own body, that is what Ichika sees.

The suggestion that she share meals or comment on the local foods goes untouched, so the younger girl doesn't continue to push the subject. She'd said that she'd be happy to just share the meal in silence if that is what Junko wanted; apparently it is, and she's good to her word.

She's not rushing, though, and nor is she staring at the mess being made. She's just glad that the food isn't going totally to waste; persevering in spite of the difficulties is a good sign, even if it is doubtless not doing much to salve the miko's wounded pride.

Instead of commenting on it directly at all, Ichika does get up and go back to the kitchenette; another little thing she should have thought of before setting this up. She returns with a roll of paper towels, which she tears a few off in order to wipe her own mouth before she sets the roll down close at hand, and takes a long sip from her water.

The tool to clean herself up is there if she wants it; but Ichika makes no sign that she's even noticed the mess directly. Whether she takes it or not is, of course, entirely up to Junko.

To be fair, anger and pain do seem to be the core of Junko's existence these days. She would hardly blame anyone for seeing her as little more than a walking bundle of fiery rage, especially since that's the image she's done her best to perpetuate. Easier to keep people away when they think you're crazy enough to literally set them on fire for trying to be friendly. A few of the more stubborn types might get burned in the attempt but its better for them in the long run if they just consider her a lost cause and spend their efforts elsewhere.

Ichika means well but she'll learn quickly enough. You can't rehabilitate a wildfire or win it over to your side. You just have to get out of its way and let nature take its course.

This quaint little dinner is an anomaly. A one-time happenstance that will never occur again. Accepting the offer of food was simply the fastest way to get the girl to leave her alone while satisfying her own needs at the same time. Junko knows her type - persistent, well meaning, and hopelessly optimistic. She'd gotten it into her head that she can 'fix' the miko, win her over with displays of kindness and friendship.

If only it was as simple as that.

To her credit, the food is excellent. Then again, after years of surviving on scraps and handouts, just about anything resembling proper food would probably taste divine. Perhaps it's the familiar nature of the cuisine that really gets to her, the subtle reminder of things she once considered mundane. Either way, the priestess does her best to ensure that as much of the meal ends up inside of her instead of splattered all over her front - with middling success.

Ichika's brief foray into the kitchen to procure cleaning implements goes unrewarded. Paper towels, like many things modern people take for granted, are an entirely foreign concept to Junko. Of course, normally someone would be able to sus out their purpose fairly easily. But normal people have functional sight - she does not. The object that her companion sets down on the table draws only a passing glance from the ruby-eyed miko, appearing as little more than a room-temperature blob to her heat-based senses.

Perhaps for the best, considering how embarrassed Junko is about the whole ordeal. Her cheeks have settled on a fairly rosy color that stands out all the more against her unnaturally pale skin, her brow twitching with obvious irritation. Having it pointed out to her, even subtlely, that her awkward handling of a simple tool even children can wield with half the mess she's making right now might push her self-consciousness into the realms of anger.

The glass of water goes completely untouched. If Ichika's memories were to drift back to their first encounter she might recall the rather painful reaction that being exposed to the lake had with the miko's exterior. Perhaps there is a similar outcome should she try to consume the liquid. Or maybe, like the towels, she just can't see it.

Several minutes pass beneath the umbrella of this awkward silence. Then, seemingly without any reason, Junko stops eating. A quick glance at her bowl shows plenty of food still left for her to consume - or try to, any ways. But, instead of continuing to haphazardly shove food at her face, the girl rests her hands on either side of the steaming bowl and glowers intently down into its contents as if she might divine some deep meaningful secret from the smattering of chopped up veggies scattered throughout the rice like some kind of ancient soothsayer.

"...why are you doing this?"

The question comes out of the blue, the miko unexpectedly shattering the awkward silence between them. There is a fair bit of heat behind the words, an unspoken accusation of ill-intent. No one ever does this sort of thing for her without a reason. Always there's some favor expected, an onerous chore to perform in return. She has no value to anyone except in the power she represents. Even her uncle treats her little better than a junkyard dog, there only to bark and frighten would-be challengers away.

"What is it you want from me?"

'Why are you doing this?'

It goes against Ichika's nature to lie, but she's also very far from a fool. The question is allowed to hang unanswered in the air for long enough to Junko to follow it up with the second, more revealing, rejoined.

'What is it you want from me?'

That gets a faint smile to twitch at the corner of Ichika's mouth. It doesn't last long. She'd thought in similar terms early on in her time with the team as well. She hadn't understood what it was that the sponsors stood to gain from tutoring their charges. She'd assumed there had to be a lot more to it than just the desire to help them walk down the Warrior's Road.

But then she'd stood in the Rumble and seen how far every single fighter had come. Even Buford, that distasteful swine, was far from the blundering fool he had been at the beginning of their journey. He was no less a fool, but the change was apparent. That growth... it can be its own reward, can't it?

"Because we are teammates." Is what Ichika decides to settle on as the answer to the first question. That is true enough. If they weren't teammates, she certainly wouldn't have gone so far out of her way to try and make this connection. There's more to it, of course, but that part of the truth, she feels, is the least likely to result in an explosive detonation.

As to what she wants...?

"I want to make that relationship a success."

A heartbeat, and then she continues, because there's too much room for misinterpretation in that statement.

"You said that you're not interested in making friends. That's fine. But we are on the same team. We will train and fight alongside each other."

She leans back a little in her chair, letting her gaze settle more intently on the girl opposite her. She still doesn't know how much Junko can actually see; Djamila had an unnerving ability with it. She had seen something in those burning red eyes in the fight; the moment she had been at her best and Junko had been at her worst. But that was precious little guidance as to whether or not the miko could actually be aware of the scrutiny she is under as the quiet dinner comes to its point. Because Junko is right. Ichika can be very patient, and VERY manipulative, when she has a reason. This meal isn't just a meal, any more than the sparring match with Rei had been just a sparring match.

"Buck, Chevy and I have each helped the others grow in the tournament so far. I have my reservations about 'R'. But you..."

A real hesitation here. Is she talking too much? Maybe. But she pushes on regardless.

"In some ways I suspect you are further along the Warrior's Road than the rest of us. In others, there are things we have learned which you may find valuable."

An edge of steel enters her voice as she drives home the final point:

"I believe you will do what is necessary to achieve success. Have I misjudged you, Daidoji-san?"

Junko listens to her 'teammate' as she finally gets the chance to unload her spiel onto the reticent miko. Just as she had suspected there was an ulterior motive to this entire bit of pageantry. It was all just a means to an end, a favor given with the expectation of reciprocation paid in full.

In this case the payment demanded is that of accommodation, a chance for the young warrior to test herself against the unusual puzzle that the priestess's existence presents. By braving the heat, she hopes to forge herself into a stronger blade. An understandable desire - the pursuit of strength has been the driving force behind many throughout history.

Nor is it an unreasonable request, all things considered. Though the decision to join this competition was not hers, Junko is now obligated to fulfill her duties as a member of this little team lest she bring dishonor to her clan - well more than she already has, though that seems like sweeping a little extra dust onto mountain at this point. Training alongside her fellow warriors was naturally to be expected and she has every intention of fulfilling that obligation.

Yet it isn't just that, is it? She doesn't need to be friendly with Ichika or any of the others to fill her role. Even should they hardly interact at all the miko would be more than capable of providing a challenging sparring partner when necessary. No, this girl is looking for something a little more meaningful and deep than a teammate. That or they have very different ideas of what kind of baggage that word carries with it.

Fine. If that's what it takes to earn some peace and solitude around here, she can play this game, if only for a little while. Perhaps in the process of trying to forge that 'relationship' the foolish girl will learn what sort of monster she's trying to cozy up with. It shouldn't take long before she's cursing the name Junko like everyone else who knows her well enough to stay the hell away.

And she might have been content to simply nod and leave things at that - but Ichika's mouth just had to keep running, didn't it?

"...what is ...necessary."

Junko says the words slowly, repeating the phrase in a low voice edged with venom. Her eyes narrow dangerously, telltale whorls of scarlet flame dancing chaotically within. A sharp crack fills the air as the miko's burned hands clench into tight balls of barely restrained emotion, snapping the chopsticks in half between blackened fingers.

Until now the miko had kept her gaze fixed on the table, unwilling to meet Ichika's own for some reason. Perhaps she was afraid that she might be swayed by the steadfast determination mirrored in her voice, her fiery heart soothed by the prospect of allowing herself to be swept up in the embrace of friendship and jolly cooperation.

Or, as seems more likely given the blazing outrage now literally burning behind her scarlet orbs as she lifts her head, it was to keep the girl from seeing just how pissed off she is about being treated like a means to an end yet again.

Lunging forward with a sudden menacing snarl, Junko reaches across the table and attempts to dig the fingers of both her mangled hands into the front of Ichika's shirt and drag her in close. The proximity, should she fail to wriggle free or avoid the move, proves uncomfortably hot and not in a suggestive or romantic way. Junko is literally burning up, her skin almost scalding to the touch.

"And what, exactly, do you know about 'doing what is necessary'?! Precisely what sort of terrible hardships have you endured, Kasumoto, that you feel so confident you can size me up over a bowl of rice?!"

Ichika has had a pretty good hit rate when it comes to her dramatic speeches. It was, perhaps, inevitable that eventually she'd find someone they don't work on. Or perhaps they work too well. The last had been a challenge; and she'd known that there was every chance Junko would respond like, well, this, as much as she might have responded more favourably.

But that's good. If this is going to work, Junko can't think of her as being some weak fool desperate to pander to her. Aside from anything else... she's not that. As the front of her crop top is seized, the girl lets herself be brought in close, and she looks deep into those eyes.

Blue reflects red. Red reflects blue. And the schoolgirl reaches up. There's pain for her, too, in grasping Junko's fingers - the older teenager's skin literally burns - but Ichika has never been afraid of a little pain to make a point, as she steadily, forcefully pulls the other girl's hands off her.

"Not over a bowl of rice, Daidoji-san." She says, calmly. "I summed you up when you fell upon me like a raging inferno and were only extinguished by Hazuki-sensei's unleashed strength. My thoughts were confirmed during your battle with Fadel-san."

She gives the slightest little chuckle, shaking her head ruefully. "She seems to have a talent for enraging us, neh?"

The casual tone belies the girl's more serious turn, though, as she seeks to grasp that tender, rejuvenating flesh and use the weak point to reverse the grip - so that she is the one holding tight to Junko's hands, rather than Junko being the one grasping her.

"In battle, we can't help but show who we really are." She continues, her voice turning more serious. Her gaze still has yet to leave Junko's; completely unblinking.

"In the pursuit of victory, I have shamed myself many times over. I have almost killed myself. I have come within a hair's breadth of killing others, too. All in the name of my pride."

Talking about such things is irritating. She can't stop her mind playing a litany of her most embarrassing moments at her; and the darker ones, too. Raging in her attempt to strike down Daisuke. Genuinely doing her best to gut Buford because she couldn't stand the thought of losing to a man like that. Moments that have shaken her considerably, and which she has attempted to pick herself up from and move on.

"As I say. You seem as though you have walked further down the Warrior's Road than the rest of us. You have encountered challenges we have not. Similarly, I have learned that the only way - the ONLY way - to meet my objective here is to set my pride aside and to work with others. I am sure that this will be a challenge for you."

Never mind that it is hardly proving easy for her right now; the burning sensation in her palms is... quite intense. Though if Junko has the wherewithal to notice it, she may also find that Ichika's hands are surprisingly rough.

For a girl who supposedly comes from the privileged Super Elite, Ichika's fingers are rough and calloused. She worked long hours even before she picked up the sword, and the katana is not a forgiving weapon when it is practiced with the kind of ferocity she demands of herself. Hell. A couple of scars across her palms are ones she has given herself willingly in this tournament, to meet her goal.

"So. What is it going to be?"

Perhaps surprisingly, when Ichika takes hold of the miko's fiercely clenched hands, she does not find them to be mirrors of her own. There are no calluses or scars to be found upon her porcelain skin, no rough palms or wiry tendons to indicate that she's ever done a hard day of menial labor in her life. Aside from the strange misshapen feel of her half-burned flesh the older girl's hands are soft and dainty like those of a noble or, well, a shrine maiden.

Despite the intense ferocity of her emotions, there is very little of that strength in those delicate hands. The smaller girl finds it an easy task to peel away Junko's mangled fingers from her top, casually prying herself free with so little effort it might prove confusing at first.

Pain plays across the miko's face as she is manhandled in such a fashion followed swiftly by surprise when Ichika fails to release her despite the searing heat of her touch. Junko is no stranger to pain herself but this is the first time anyone has been stupid, or perhaps determined, enough to grab hold of her and hang on.

"H-hey... what are you doing?! Let go, you idiot! I can't...!"

Genuine distress colors Junko's voice for the first time, altering it in such a way as to almost sound as if it is coming from a different person entirely. Absent the wild fury of an emotional outburst and the cold threatening growl she affects to warn people away, the miko's voice is strangely... cute? For that brief moment of bewilderment, the mask slips, giving Ichika a precious glimpse at the real person behind the anger - and the concern she has for the foolish girl who dares to brave the flames for her sake.

Junko realizes her mistake almost instantly, her eyes going wide in shock and then narrowing with fresh outrage. She takes a step backwards, trying desperately to pull herself out of her peer's tenacious grip like a wild wolf caught in a snare, but Ichika's strength and determination proves the superior.

Unable to pull herself free of the trap she has unwittingly stumbled into, Junko stares in wide-eyed confusion as the other girl lays it all out for her. Though she cannot see Ichika's face in the traditional sense, the intensity and determination of her stare is like a beacon all unto its own. A trick of the mind perhaps, calling upon memories of days gone by to paint the colors she can no longer see in her imagination. Whatever the case, she finds herself unable to look away from those piercing blue eyes.


It's a sin she is all too familiar with. In more than one religion, pride is considered to be the greatest of all mankind's trespasses against both nature and the divine. To arrogantly believe oneself to be more than what they are, to take more than is due and in so doing bring ruin to both the self and those nearby. Like many before her, Junko's pride had been born from youthful inexperience and a desire to prove herself to those she held in great respect. And she had failed so utterly and catastrophically that the possibility of redemption was naught but a passing dream.

And that /is/ what she is being offered here - a chance to try again, to find her footing and start somewhere new. A sliver of hope that she might find some reason to exist other than simply out of habit. Ichika calls her a warrior, someone who has seen great hardship and lived to tell the tale. But the idea that she has anything of worth to offer them is ludicrous, laughable. She's a monster, a coward, and fake, and completely undeserving of such respect.

Junko slumps, her chin dipping down to rest on her chest in defeat. She stops trying to pull away, allowing Ichika to display her resolve as she holds on despite the heat and pain.


The miko speaks again with her true voice, soft, feminine, and full of anguish. Her head lifts slightly, after several long moments, but she is unable to meet the other girl's gaze directly again. With her face tilted low the long white bangs hang like a shield over her eyes, preventing Ichika from seeing the moisture covering them, though she can do little to hide the quiver in her tone.

"You don't know what you're asking me to do. You're in /danger/. Every moment you stay around me, every word of... of friendship you offer..."

She shakes her head, sniffling softly. Her voice drops into a low whisper, so quiet and full of desperation it sounds like a prayer.

"Please don't make me responsible for another tragedy."

Ichika is relentless. As Junko reveals herself, the girl does not relax her grip. Not even when the miko bows her head and shows real vulnerability. It is a difficult thing to see; it genuinely does pull on the Kasumoto scion's heartstrings. But this is important. It hurts her, physically and emotionally, to reduce her fellow student to such a state.

But if they are going to work together, it must be done. And so, she does it, and she does not regret the decision.

"You are correct." She says, "I do not know what I am asking of you. I have seen only a glimpse of who you are. It is enough to be worth the effort of outreach."

She leans in briefly.

"But Daidoji-san." She continues, her voice quiet, even ... intimate.

"I am going to find a way to change this world. Tragedy is inevitable. I hope that you will join me anyway, because the future I will make..."

And at last, she does release the older teenager, her gaze finally dropping down to acknowledge the blistered palms she has gotten for her trouble.

Tch. This is going to be irritating for the fight with Iris.

"... is worth suffering for."

She stands up, flexes her fingers, and then gathers the bowls, walking towards the kitchenette as though what she had done was perfectly normal and not at all psychotic. She sets the bowls down on the sink, turns on the tap, and begins to wash her injuries beneath the cool water.

"Anyway!" She declares, brightly, a smile returning to her features, "There's some of Chevy's apple pie in the fridge. It really is very good. You are welcome to take some back to your room if you like. I'll clean up in here, and when you've had some time to think about what I've said, we'll no doubt have plenty more to talk about! For now, just try and rest up. You've had quite a testing few days!"

Ichika seems genuinely pleased; she'd assumed that it'd take much longer to work her way through all the layers of the girl's anger and hatred, to make that connection with the person beneath.

Arguing with her over the danger she'd put the crowd in? Getting on her case about the loss, the flaws that she'd seen in her fighting style? Those are things for the sponsors to worry about. As Peng You had put it to her, she has to trust that her mentors can see her flaws more clearly than she can; certainly, she expects the ancient, wise master to see the flaws in her new teammate with far more clarity, and know how to address them far more effectively.

That was, she suspected, the point of the competition for Peng You and the other sponsors, and why Junko had been drafted at all.

But Ichika?

Ichika has her own goals.

A legacy to forge.

A world to set right.

It is early yet, but perhaps, just perhaps, this is one small step closer to that.

What she had begrudgingly accepted the offer of a hot meal this was not at all how Junko had expected things to end. Her defenses had been fully prepared before setting foot into this arena of unknown strangers. The mask of carefully crafted ferocity and unpredictable fury was neatly fixed into place, an obvious warning for those who might get it into their heads to try and cozy up to the cute young miko. She would be a blazing inferno, burning anyone foolish enough to test their luck, pushing them away so that she might protect them from the danger they could never see coming.

She for damn sure did not expect the first person she met on her new team to be a psychopath who grabs hold of people that are literally on fire and stares them down until they cry. Is this how all professional fighters are?! What a terrifying thought. Maybe her life in the mountains had been a lot more sheltered than she realized!

Junko cannot help but wince as Ichika insists on maintaining her grip even as the smell of burning skin starts to fill the air. She would love to turn down the heat and thus spare this crazy girl from her own unhinged determination but sadly it doesn't work like that. If anything, her skin gets a little bit hotter the longer her teammate clings to her pale wrists, the monster within taking perverse pleasure in punishing the younger girl for her foolishness. She wants to prove herself? It will oblige her.

The words whispered as she is drawn in close are equally unexpected, leaving the dazed miko to just stare at her compatriot in wide-eyed silence. Change the world? Inevitable tragedy? Worth suffering for?! What the hell has her uncle gotten her into?!

Finally freed from the madwoman's grasp, Junko takes a faltering step back and glances furtively around the room. No one else seems to have been around to witness their bizarre conversation. In that, at least, she can find some measure of relief. Only Ichika has seen the truth behind the fragile mask she wears. Hopefully none of her other teammates are as possessed of such single-minded determination. While she doesn't really understand what the girl was going on about, it's clear that Ichika is driven by a desire to do something important. And, for reasons she cannot fathom, Junko seems to be a part of that plan now.

The miko watches in silence as Ichika goes to tend to her burns, cheerfully changing the subject as easily as flipping a light switch. Her gaze shifts down to her own hands, holding the burned twisted fingers up to inspect them as if she might detect some meaning behind the incredible heat emanating from deep within. Of what possible use could such raw chaotic hatred serve save to bring destruction and ruin?

*Quite the interesting mortal, that one...*

Junko goes stiff, her eyes wide as dinner plates as the words resonate in the back of her mind as clear and crisp as her own thoughts. It had been years since the entity spoke to her so directly, not since the first few days after it had been sealed away and she had stubbornly refused to acknowledge its existence, in fact. Back then the demon had been nothing but fire and rage, spewing every manner of foul curse and hurling promises of death and retribution to her and everyone she ever met. Now it was calm, calculating, almost... whimsical and yet still every single word burned her mind like a brand, an utterance of sheer malice and subtle rage.

*She wishes to change the world, does she? Believes herself capable of bearing that burden?*

The demon's low cackling laugh is like a thousand needles running down her spine at once, the promise of murder and mayhem swirling through her with such force that sends her staggering back a step as if hit by a physical force.

*How amusing. Let us... lend her our aid... shall we? Ha ha ha...*

With nary a word of explanation, Junko swallows hard and hurries out of the common area towards her personal quarters.

Nothing good can come of this. Nothing good at all.

Log created on 04:33:17 09/09/2023 by Junko, and last modified on 14:59:03 09/09/2023.