Saturday, February 13, 2410|
Deedlit Satori Mandeville Memorial Institute
Jeraddo, Republic of Bajor
The Winterfest activities were well underway, but that didn't mean that Kaname Sterling could rest. There were still brush fires to put out, status reports to read, and last-minute decisions to make. There was also overseeing various of the events (and participating in them, just a little), and keeping track of the residents of her dorm floor.
So it was that Kaname found herself trudging up the path to the Duelists' Castle, surrounded by about a quarter of her floor residents and flanked by Sosuke Sagara.
Every half-year, during Homecoming in A-term and Sanity Week in C-term, the Institute Duelists' Society held an open house, wherein the Castle's doors stood open (albeit not literally, at least not in C-term) to anyone who cared to stop by. The club's officers were on hand, ready to explain to any curious individuals exactly what it was the Society did, and why, and are they insane to let you do that, and so forth. Other members conducted tours of the building, showing visitors the library, conference room, and other non-private spaces. Still others were stationed in the Great Hall, answering questions about or demonstrating the use of various weapons.
"Most people who join the Society are invited, either because they've done something to attract the officers' attention, or because they know someone who's already in the club," Lindsey Willows was explaining to Kaname's student group as they approached the Castle's great main doors. "Potential recruits do have to demonstrate that they know what they're doing, and this is the place where they do it. Others come to our open houses specifically to try and make that first impression." She smiled. "Test matches aren't the same as full-on duels between two members, but they're still quite a workout. We also get challengers coming in from dueling clubs at other schools sometimes. Maybe we'll get to see one today."
Sosuke leaned toward Kaname so the younger students wouldn't hear and asked her, "What is their usual rate of recruitment?"
Kaname wiggled her free hand. "Well, they don't really have formal recruitment per se, but if you split between the scouting and personal recommendations Lins was just talking about, versus the open-house applicants and challengers making the grade, you'd be looking at a sixty-forty split."
"Do you attend these events regularly?"
"Well... yeah, I'm usually here," Kaname said. "I mean, Lindsey and I have been friends since before either of us came here, and since I became an RA there's usually a few kids on my floor who want to check it out. Besides, I mean... " She shrugged. "It's not my own scene, exactly, but it is pretty cool to watch."
The smaller door inset into one of the Castle's great doors opened at their approach, and they found themselves beckoned into the entrance hall by the distinctive figure of the Society's faculty advisor, Professor May, bundled up in the kind of parka that made him look like he might be setting off for an expedition to Ice Planet Hoth.
"Welcome!" he said cheerfully, gesturing them inside. "I'm just off to look after the afternoon round of the lake hockey tournament. Come in, have a look round. The officers and some of the alumni are here to answer any questions you might have."
"I'll stop back by later to see how the hockey's wrapping up," Kaname told May as she ushered her charges past him into the building.
"Righto, don't worry about a thing," he said, then winked and added, "I've arranged things so that Clarkson and Hammond won't be anywhere nearby, so everything should remain under control."
Kaname laughed and repeated that she'd see him later, watched as he hurried off down the hill, and then stepped inside and closed the door. She turned from that task to see the others she'd brought with her all standing in a little knot, gazing (mostly in delighted wonder) at the magisterial creature who had come to meet them.
All except Sosuke, who immediately stepped in front of her with one arm outstretched, his other hand plunging into his coat. "Stay back, all of you," he barked in a tone so commanding it startled several of the freshmen.
Kaname sighed and flicked him painfully on the nearer earlobe with a fingernail. "Ow!" he cried, startled, and took his hand out of his coat to cover the offended part.
"Spirit, stand down, you imbecile," Kaname snapped. "That's Sergei, he's not going to bother anybody unless they make trouble."
Sosuke gave her an is-that-a-joke look, then turned to see that the students had - ignoring his instruction - flocked around the massive Siberian tiger. The tiger's reaction to this was to sit down, yawn gigantically (drawing cries of delight), and settle in to accept the adulation that was his natural due.
"... oh," said Sosuke.
"It is Alumni Day," a young woman with long, slightly curly brown hair remarked wryly from the doorway to the library. "Kaname, nice to see you again. This must be the bodyguard your mom told me about."
Kaname managed to smile and roll her eyes at the same time. "Hey, Kate, long time. Yeah, this is him. Sosuke Sagara, mercenary in need of adult supervision: Kaitlyn Hutchins, mistress of ceremonies, samurai film star, tiger wrangler." She leaned and muttered in his ear, "If you had drawn that gun, she'd have had your arm off at the elbow."
"So noted," Sosuke replied out of the side of his mouth; then he bowed to Kate and said, "I apologize for my reaction. I... wasn't expecting to find a tiger here." He turned and crouched in front of Serge, examining him more closely, then looked back over his shoulder at Kate. "He's most impressive. Siberian Neo?"
Kate nodded. "You know your neocats," she said with a slight smile.
"They're very noble animals. May I?" Sosuke inquired; at her nod, he turned back and gently stroked the tiger's head, then got to scritching, eliciting a low growl of contentment.
Boy soldier bonds with apex predator, Kaname thought. There's something you don't see every day.
"Do you have a minute to go over the setlist for the show tomorrow?" Kaname asked Kate. "This'd be a good time for it, while the Tiger Whisperer's busy."
"Sure, that works," Kate replied, then gestured to the library and said, "Step into my office."
"Sosuke. I'll meet you in the Great Hall in a few minutes, OK?" said Kaname. Then she added with wryly, "I ought to be safe enough with Kate."
Sosuke nodded and replied without evident irony, "I know, I've seen New Century Zatōichi. That will be satisfactory."
I can never tell whether he's messing with me, Kaname mused as she followed Kate into the library.
"Where'd you find that one?" Kate wondered.
"Don't even start," Kaname replied.
Going over the songs Kate and her band were planning for the next day's Winterfest Dance was the work of only a couple of minutes, mainly because Kate didn't like to plan her shows exactly. She and Kaname discussed which songs the band ought to make sure they played and which were perhaps best omitted in a high school dance context (not that the Art's repertoire involved many of those), then went out to find that a test duel was about to begin in the Great Hall.
"Oh boy, here she goes again," murmured somebody in the crowd. Kaname didn't know who "she" was in this context for a moment, until she saw one of her own young charges, making her way out of the crowd to enter the dueling floor proper.
Arika Yumemiya was an interesting study. Cheerful and optimistic, she had a strange combination of wisdom and lack of common sense that seemed to reflect her upbringing on some far-Rim planet that Kaname had never heard of before. She faced the wonders of the inner galaxy with equal measures of confusion and delight, and refused to allow any impediment to hinder her for long.
(Case in point: she had arrived at the Institute at the last moment, just before classes were about to start, due to an unfortunate series of incidents that had left her stranded on Tuchanka for several weeks. When questioned as to why she had endured such hardships just to attend DSM, she'd answered, "I want to become a Duelist!" and that pretty much settled the matter, as far as she was concerned.)
Now, she was clad in what looked to be a cross between workout spandex and a cheerleader's outfit: snug black bike pants and a shoulderless dark magenta top, accompanied by dark magenta elbow-length gloves, thigh-high white stockings, and a small white frill of a skirt. Clutched in one hand was a long thin staff, with slightly clubbed ends that put Kaname in mind of an extremely stretched cheerleader's baton.
Boba Fett, acting as MC-cum-referee, explained the rules of engagement to both the challenger and the audience at large. "This is not a proper Rose Duel, the usual form we use when dueling each other," he said. "We won't be using live edges or the standard rose targets. Too dangerous. Think of this as more of a friendly sparring match. Three touches, no throws. OK with that?"
Arika nodded. "I'll do my best!" she declared.
Smiling, Fett turned to the group of Duelists who had been conducting demonstrations in the Hall until this challenge had arisen, all of whom had gathered in the corner to open the largest possible space in the middle. "Who will take this young lady's challenge for the Society?" he asked.
A tall, redheaded figure detached herself from the group, putting up a hand. "I'll take that action," said Amy Pond with a grin.
No fancy dueling clothes for Amy; she wore the standard DSM uniform, even though it was a Saturday. Her only preparations for dueling were to duck out of the strap of the sword she wore across her back, shrug out of her blazer, and hand them both to the sandy-haired young man who stood next to her, then loosen her necktie slightly, undo the top button of her shirt, gather up her waves of flame-orange hair, and pin them into a haphazard cockernonnie with a pencil. Fight prep done, she snagged a bokuto from the Wall o' Weapons and advanced into the middle of the room, twirling the weapon lazily in her left hand.
"Ready?" Fett asked.
"Ready!" Arika confirmed, eyes shining with glee.
"Always," said Amy, still grinning.
Fett clapped his hands together. "Begin!"/* Big Country
"Fields of Fire (400 Miles)" (02:30 - 04:16)
Come Up Screaming (2000) */
Those in the room - and there were more than a few - who had seen Arika's prior attempt during the Homecoming open house weren't expecting great things this time. That prior attempt had gone down in Duelist history as the shortest duel of all time. No one had kept track of exactly how many seconds it had taken Sakura Byakuro to disarm and simulate subduing the girl, but it hadn't been very many. Nobody could fault her drive or her energy; her competence, on the other hand...
This time, though, to almost everyone's surprise, she seemed to have improved dramatically. Almost everyone's surprise, but not Kaname's, particularly. One other thing that Kaname had noticed about Arika was her remarkable capacity for improvement. Ever since her first unsuccessful duel the previous fall, Arika had engaged in a regimen of study and exercise in her off-hours, often dragooning her roommates' sometimes-reluctant help. It was a common sight to see Arika, Nina, and Erstin jogging around the Common in the evenings, or sparring bare-handed or with staves in the gym's workout rooms.
Apparently, all that hard work had paid off. The length of her staff compensated for her opponent's considerable height and reach advantages, more or less leveling the physical playing field, and though Arika was still plainly the less skilled of the two combatants, she wasn't so outclassed that the fight was over before it began. She and Amy went back and forth, up and down the room, trading strikes, parries, and athletic maneuvers for nearly two minutes, both plainly enjoying the experience.
"She's not bad," Kaname murmured to Sosuke, impressed.
"Miss Pond is sandbagging," Sosuke replied.
"Uh, well yeah, duh; she doesn't want to kill the poor kid at an open house," said Kaname sarcastically, but Sosuke shook his head.
"No, I mean really sandbagging. Watch." He narrowed his eyes as Amy stepped back from a jabbing strike from one end of Arika's staff, knocking it away from her with a slightly awkward twist of her wrist. "There," he said. "That's a two-handed weapon, but she's only using her left hand."
Kaname gave him a so-what glance. "Well, yeah, like I said."
"No," he said. "Look again. Observe, don't just see." He gave her a few seconds to do so, then added, "She isn't left-handed."
Kaname blinked and looked more closely. Yes, now that he'd said it, she could see what he was talking about. Amy's movements were fluid and sure, but ever so slightly hesitant, and she was constantly having to make small corrections - because she was mentally remapping everything she was doing to the other side of her body, overriding what were obviously well-trained muscle memories. She was just that good that it wasn't immediately obvious, at least not to anyone who wasn't Sosuke Sagara.
"She is plainly a far superior combatant to Miss Yumemiya," Sosuke went on, "but does not wish to humiliate her unnecessarily. Very interesting."
And so much for insight, Kaname thought with a mental sigh, then told him, "I think you'll find that's generally how normal people roll."
"I sincerely doubt Miss Pond is normal people, Miss Chidori," he replied, not taking his eyes off the duel, "but you were right about one thing." He glanced at Rory Williams, who still held Amy's jacket and sword as he watched, then returned his attention to the duel. "She clearly does not need a bodyguard."
"Told you," said Kaname a little smugly.
Unfortunately, despite all the effort Arika had put in over the past five months, it presently became apparent that it hadn't been quite enough. Even the handicap Amy had set for herself wasn't holding her back quite enough for the energetic freshman to defeat her. Arika did score one touch, and came within a hairsbreadth of another, but ultimately, the tall redhead was able to parry a slightly-too-enthusiastic overhand strike, spin the staff out of her hands, and score a third and final touch to the center of her chest - though, Kaname realized, she'd had to use both hands to do it.
"And that's that!" Amy said cheerfully, then whirled her bokuto back and rested the flat of it on her shoulder. "Good game, though," she added, slightly out of breath. "Keep at it like you have been and you'll make it next time for sure."
"Grandma said that there's always next time," Arika said with a grin as both combatants accepted towels from Lindsey. She bowed to Amy, who returned it with a smile, her towel draped around her neck. "Thank you for an excellent battle!"
Kaname watched and applauded as Arika left the dueling floor. The freshman was soon surrounded by the rest of her floor-mates, who were congratulating her for having survived the duel, and providing words of encouragement as to her chances for next year. Even serious-faced Nina Wáng gave her grudging approval of her roommate's progress, while Erstin Holstein was much more outgoing with her praise.
Kaname nodded with satisfaction as she watched Amy return to the Duelist contingent.
"Well, that's a relief," she said. "Any day when Arika doesn't have to go to the infirmary... "
With that taken care of, the group from Hamlin 4 was free to take the rest of the tour. Despite the size of the Castle, this didn't take all that long, mainly because it was confined to the building's public spaces. As she conducted them through the halls and showed them secondary practice spaces, the library, the dining hall and so forth, Lindsey explained that it wasn't really a castle, as such, but rather had been an outpost of the Order of Jedi Knights, long, long ago.
"Ah," Sosuke mused. "That explains the lack of proper defensive features," but before he could elaborate on that, Kaname had stepped on his foot.
When they got back to the Great Hall, another round of demonstrations was in progress, and leaving her students to take them in, Kaname crossed to the corner where most of the senior Duelists were hanging around. One, an old friend she hadn't seen in some time, happened to be off by himself at the moment, and she'd been looking forward to renewing their acquaintance today.
Corwin Ravenhair wasn't actually an alumnus of DSM, never having attended the school, but he was a Duelist, for complicated reasons Kaname had never been 100% clear on. She'd always liked Corwin; when they were little and she'd lived in New Avalon, they'd hung out a lot, occasionally having adventures that ranged from "an excellently spent afternoon" to (on one epic occasion when they were eight and seven, respectively) "oh man oh man oh man I can't believe we did that". They'd gone to separate schools after the fifth grade, which had cut into their face time a lot, and since Kaname had left town altogether to come to DSM, their face-to-face meetings had gotten less frequent still, but she always looked forward to them. Somehow, whatever happened to them as adolescence did its terrible, wonderful thing, she could always count on Corwin to just... be Corwin. And not whatever it was that so many other boys turned into when the hormones started flowing.
Mind you, she saw as she approached, he was rather more Corwin now than he had been last time she saw him. (What big hands you have.) Same eyes, though. Same grin, too. Now say it.
Yes. Excellent. Still Corwin. Kaname hugged him without hesitation - that was the same as always, too - and then stepped back and said, "Hey, Corwin. How are things?"
"Things are good," he said, leaning back against the wall next to one of the weapons displays. "Real good." He nodded toward her charges, who were currently watching in rapt astonishment as Sakura demonstrated some flashy ninja stuff. "Looks like a decent group of kids you've got there, Kaname."
"Yeah, they're a handful, but it's rewarding. They've just got this... energy." She rolled her eyes. "I swear, if we hooked Arika up to the power grid, we could power Hamlin Hall with her. And Irina and Mileva would know how to do it, I bet."
Corwin grinned some more. "Mileva's on your floor? Now I really know what you're up against." He reached into an inside pocket of the black-and-grey-checked wool jacket he was wearing and removed a silver envelope, then handed it to her. "Here! For you. I was gonna mail it, but then I thought, wait, I'm going to be on Jeraddo next weekend."
"What is it?" she wondered, taking it.
"A wedding invitation," Corwin replied cheerfully.
Kaname's brow furrowed. "To whose wedding?"
"Oh." She tilted her head and regarded him curiously. "Who are you marrying?"
Corwin gave her a wry look. "Kaname. C'mon."
"What?" Kaname glanced to her right; a few yards away, graduated Duelist VP Utena Tenjou stood talking with Amy about something. "But - "
Corwin nodded, smiling. "Yes."
"And - " Kaname began.
Corwin nodded again. "Probably."
"With - "
Corwin shook his head. "I doubt it."
"STOP that," Kaname said, swatting his shoulder.
"Sorry," Corwin said. "But yes. Utena and me. And probably Anthy and me later, under separate cover. I haven't asked her yet." He shrugged. "Heck, I didn't actually ask Utena, she beat me to it. Anthy might do the same, but she's waiting until this round of crazy is over. She tires easily just at present," he added wryly. "Having a nap upstairs as we speak, in fact."
Kaname shook her head with an indulgent smile, starting to open the envelope as she did so. "Man, what is it with you? Seventeen years of nothin' and then suddenly I need a scorecard."
Corwin laughed. "You're asking me? If I knew, it probably wouldn't have worked in the first place."
"Ha. Fair point."
Utena finished her conversation, saw Kaname chatting with Corwin, and moseyed over, smiling. "Hey, Kaname!" she said. "Been a while. How've you been?"
"Oh, I get by, Utena," Kaname replied with a nonchalance she didn't entirely feel. "Corwin was just telling me the good news. Congratulations! And," she added with a slightly evil grin, "I bet I'm not the first to say, 'bout frickin' time."
Utena grinned a little sheepishly in return, going pink across the bridge of her nose. "Heh, well, thanks," she said.
Kaname finished opening the invitation, drew it out, scanned it, and then said, "Wow, Corwin. I've never seen a wedding invitation that just says 'TBA' instead of where you're supposed to show up."
Utena rubbed at the back of her neck, looking a little more sheepish. "Uh, yeah, we kind of... don't know yet. Dad's supposed to be handling it."
"I see." Kaname smiled her slightly-evil smile again. "Well, I know one place you won't be having it." At Utena's querying look, she angled a thumb at Corwin and said, "Dr. Science here is banned for life from Fumo Fumo Land."
Corwin snorted, facepalming theatrically. Utena turned a raised eyebrow to him, but he replied only, "I can't discuss it. Part of the settlement."
"All I said was that I wished the teacups could go faster," Kaname said.
"Shh!" Corwin cautioned her, though with a mischievous smile. "Lawyers are everywhere. Anyway," he went on as if the digression hadn't happened, "if it's not right around here someplace, we'll take care of transport," Corwin said. "You just need to be available."
"Hmm," said Kaname. "March 5, that's the Friday before Spring Break. I don't think I have any finals on Friday this term." She glanced across the room at Sosuke, who stood with her students and Lindsey near the entrance, explaining something to the kids with unusually expansive hand gestures. "Have to verify that with my adjutant general."
Corwin laughed. "Yeah, OK, what's the deal with that?"
Now it was Kaname's turn to look a little sheepish as she explained why she had a bodyguard - or at least why, insofar as she even knew why, she'd elected to put up with it for the time being. Lindsey arrived for the end of the explanation, enough to know what they were talking about, and agreed with Utena's observation that the situation was just the tiniest bit wack.
"You're just lucky you're not going to my alma mater," Corwin remarked. At Kaname's puzzled look, he angled a glance toward Sosuke's watchful remove and explained, "Mr. Strickland would not be havin' any of that."
"I'm still amazed that they're allowing it here," Kaname admitted. "I shudder to think what he would've gotten up to at ol' Jindai High."
"He might've gotten away with it... if they heavily bribed the school, or something," Lindsey suggested. "But since as far as I know his backers haven't been doing it here, well..." She shrugged.
Corwin dug around in his inside pocket, then said, "Hum. Looks like I forgot your invitation, Lins. Or maybe I mailed it? Anyway, you should come too! It's gonna be good times."
Lindsey looked puzzled. "What is?" she asked.
"My wedding!" Corwin said.
"Ahem," Utena put in.
"Our wedding," Corwin amended.
"You're getting married?!" Lindsey blurted. "And I'm invited?"
"Of course you're invited!" said Corwin with a broad grin. "If I gotta put up with my aunt Freyja going, I can at least insist on the freedom to invite second-degree sorta-cousins I love but hardly ever see any more."
"Oh, that reminds me," said Kaname, consulting her invitation again. "Does it say... aha. Yeah. It might not be a problem, depends on whether you have it in this star system, but... " She glanced at Sosuke again. "You mind if my plus-one is a heavily armed borderline sociopath with a thing about sightlines?" she asked wryly.
"He won't be the only one we get," Utena quipped.
"Sure, bring him along!" Corwin agreed. "Our door is always open to crazy soldiers. Master Chief Spartan'll be there, and all the Repo Men, so he'll even have people he can talk to in his own language."
"Speaking of military stuff, what's with the forts?" Utena asked, gesturing vaguely toward the rest of campus. "We didn't have that at our Winterfest."
"You just didn't think big enough," said Kaname. "Or have Sosuke Sagara on any committees. I envy you. They're for the new event we're trying out tomorrow, in between lunch and the dance. Sort of a regimented snowball fight, capture-the-flag kind of thing."
Utena raised her eyebrows. "You guys are having snowball CTF tomorrow afternoon?"
"That's right," Lindsey said, beaming.
Utena grinned. "I am staying."
Kaname laughed. "You'll have to take that up with the referee board," she said. "I just organized the Fest, I don't make the rules." She glanced at her watch. "Anyway, you guys, good talking with you, but it's getting late. I better round up the sprogs and get them headed back to Hamlin for dinner before the bonfire."
Utena looked at Kaname, a little askance. "You call your floor students 'sprogs'?"
"Well, not to their faces, that'd just be stupid and insensitive." Kaname shrugged. "I could call them 'Gurab', but that'd be insulting to every Gurab'lo and Gurab'pa that I've ever known." Kaname shook her head, apparently not noticing Utena's puzzled reaction (or Corwin's quiet giggling). "I swear, I've got protosapient cousins who have more common sense than some of these guys. But hey, if you're sticking around for the rest of the Fest, I'll see you tomorrow."
She gave Corwin another hug, told him not to be a stranger, and was just turning around and drawing breath to round up her crew when a calm, pleasant voice spoke from the crowd,
"Excuse me, please? Would there possibly be time enough for one more?"
An excited murmur spread through the remaining crowd as it parted in two, revealing the speaker as she stepped forward. Kaname blinked in surprise.
"Spirit of Light, Shizuru's actually going for it," Kaname murmured to herself, drawing a questioning glance from Utena. Seeing that no explanation would be forthcoming from the turquoise-haired teen, she shifted her attention to the figure that had just stepped out from the crowd.
It was a young woman of about Kaname's age, with light brown back-length hair, a reasonable figure, a pleasant face, and playful red eyes. She was dressed not in the usual DSM girl's winter uniform, but an outfit that was similar - a light tan jacket with a short warm-grey pleated skirt, an underlying white blouse with a red bow ribbon at the neck, and black knee-high socks. She moved with the unhurried confidence of one who has no doubts of her abilities or of her place in the world.
"I don't get it - what's the big deal?" Utena asked to anybody nearby as the girl in question headed over to Boba Fett's location, presenting him with a precisely folded missive, which he accepted and unfolded to study.
Lindsey leaned in close to Utena. "That's Shizuru Viola. She's a junior. You probably haven't heard of her, but it's been rumored for years that she might be interested in joining up with us. She's got some sort of weapon training - she often goes off into the Single Acre Wood by herself, or into one of the Gym's free-workout rooms, sometimes for hours - but none of us have actually seen her with a weapon. I think only Natsuki Kruger - that's her over there, green eyes, black hair, cranky attitude - really knows what's going on, and like hell she's going to tell anybody else." Lindsey rolled her eyes slightly. "She won't even admit Shizu's her girlfriend, like anyone could fail to notice that."
Utena nodded, smiling faintly at the last remark, and then looked over at where Fett and Shizuru were in quiet conference. Boba arched an eyebrow, and looked seriously at the younger woman. "Are you sure you want to do it this way?"
Shizuru smiled coyly. "I'm more than sure, President Fett. As you can see, my paperwork is all in order..."
Boba nodded, and then raised his voice to catch the attention of the rest of the quietly-discussing crowd. "If I may have your attention? ... thank you." He gestured next to him. "For our final engagement of the afternoon, we have a unique request. Miss Viola here has recently passed her journeywoman trial for her ancestral naginatajutsu, the Fujino Chougaja Ryū. As such, she has requested a true Rose Duel as her challenge. Given the circumstances, I have decided that this is acceptable."
An excited murmur, and some applause, rippled through the crowd as Shizuru gave those assembled a smile and a polite nod of the head. "Thank you. I hope I won't disappoint you."
Boba turned towards the remaining Duelists, some whom had been packing up their gear. "Who will take this young lady's challenge for the Society?"
There was a murmur from the Duelist contingent as they looked amongst themselves, and then they moved aside to allow the other tall redhead among them to approach.
"This sounds interesting. I accept Miss Viola's challenge," Juri Arisugawa said with her piper's smile as she stepped forward, her crescent-hilt broadsword at her hip.
Kaname stared. "Man, having this open house on Alumni Day was SO not fair," she muttered underneath the more excited murmurs that were building among the students. "What next?"
"It will be an honor to duel you, Ms. Arisugawa," Shizuru Viola said with a gleam in her red eyes. "I hope that I prove a satisfactory opponent. Just let me get ready."
What happened next, Kaname couldn't quite describe. One moment, Shizuru was standing there with her arms relaxed and hands open -
- the next, she flexed her arms and there was a polearm in her hands, held at the ready, as if it had always been there. The shaft of the weapon and its blade were a deep, lustrous red that matched Shizuru's eyes. The blade itself was thick and curved at both ends with a narrower center portion, and it was attached to the shaft at two points at the lower third. Rounding out the entire assemblage was a long purple tassel at the other end, secured with two golden beads.
What made the whole thing so remarkable was that the weapon was half-again as tall as Shizuru herself. There was no way that the thing could've been carried in there without people noticing, but Kaname couldn't figure out for the life of her how Shizuru had gotten it into her hands. Maybe it was like Corwin's thing with Stick? But she didn't think Shizuru was from Asgard...
Juri arched one slim eyebrow, and then glanced sidelong at Boba Fett. "I think we'll need to go to Condition One for this, Mr. President."
Boba nodded. "As you like it, Ms. Arisugawa. Now hear this! Clear the lower level!"
Kaname and the rest were caught up in the crowd as they headed for the doors of the Dueling Hall and the stairs beyond. As they funneled upstairs, she heard snippets of conversation:
"Good god, is Shizuru crazy?"
"Dude, if that's crazy, we need more of it."
"Oh man, Shizuru's so awesome!"
"C'mon, Juri's going to wipe the floor with her."
"Wait, is that a glaive or a guisarme?"
"Does it matter?"
"It's a voulge, you dopes."
Finally, the students and Duelists and hangers-on were ensconced in the upper galleries. Kaname found herself standing near to Lindsey, Utena, and Corwin, with ever-watchful Sosuke standing on her opposite side. Below, they watched as Boba performed his own 'magic trick' and produced two roses: an orange one, which he pinned above Juri's heart, and a scarlet one which he pinned over Shizuru's.
"Now, I'm reasonably certain you both know the stakes. Lose the rose, lose the duel. Aside from that..." Boba Fett looked briefly amused. "... I'm sure you two can figure it out."
"I think I can manage," Juri said with quiet amusement as she drew her sword.
"I do believe that I have the gist of it, President Fett," Shizuru replied as she took several steps back, and made several test sweeps with her voulge, a swish of air passing in the blade's wake.
"Ready?" Fett asked.
"Ready," Juri replied, her eyes now only for her opponent.
"Yes, quite ready," Shizuru replied, meeting Juri's gaze.
Fett clapped his hands together even as he rapidly withdrew. "Begin!"/* Minami Kuribayashi
Mai-Otome Best Collection (2006) */
There was the briefest moment of absolute silence as the crowd held their breath, watching the two below closely, to see who would make the first move.
Then both women sprang into motion at the same time, Shizuru's voulge sweeping in a tight arc, while Juri expertly sidestepped to parry with her broadsword. There was a ringing crash of metal upon metal, and then the Rose Duel was on in full.
It rapidly became evident that both women knew what they were doing. For Juri, that was a given, considering her long membership in the Duelists' Society, but for Shizuru, it was a revelation to most in the audience. She moved with a fluid efficiency, putting her weapon's sizable reach advantage over Juri's to good use, attempting to control the dueling space. Her voulge made great circles around her, the tassel and blade whistling through the air as she blocked and parried Juri's sword thrusts.
The main strengths of a weapon like Shizuru's were, oddly, also its main drawbacks in a situation like this. Its length and heft gave it terrific reach and striking power, but they also made dueling with it a bit like barrel rolling an airliner: technically possible, but way, way off-label. It was a weapon of war, designed mainly to cleave in half the skulls of people standing ten or so feet away, not one intended for personal combat - particularly personal combat in which killing one's opponent would be frowned upon.
It had momentum, which was useful, but also inertia, which was less so. Parries didn't always go quite as planned, and she always, always had to keep moving in order to maintain that momentum. Sudden reversals were more or less out of the question - if something didn't work out as she wanted, Shizuru's only real option was to go through it and try to shape the next evolution more to her liking. Even in a room this size, there wasn't always quite as much space for that as she would have liked.
For Juri's part, she had all the room she could possibly have wanted, but Shizuru's constant motion kept her in constant motion as well, leaving her little time to consolidate her position or form elaborate strategies, much less put them into action. She could cut, thrust, back away, and try new angles more or less at will, but if she had tried to parry a weapon like Shizuru's conventionally she'd have lost her blade, and possibly a few fingers, so she needed all that mobility.
Presently, after taking her measure with a few exploratory passes, Juri penetrated Shizuru's guard - another drawback of the younger woman's weapon was that its great length gave it a substantial minimum range; only a hasty and slightly painful-looking block with the staff part of the voulge saved Shizuru's rose that time. Her counterattack, though, demonstrated the main danger of closing in that much. The move turned her completely around, 360 degrees, and the blade described a helical path that brought it up from below, an uppercut strike that could've cut an unsuspecting opponent clean in half.
Juri sprang up and back, clearing the blade by an inch or two, the evasion so violent that it turned into a neat aerial backflip. She came down in a half-crouch, her free hand splayed on the floor, and slid back nearly to the wall, the soles of her shoes hissing on the stone. Raising that free hand, she brushed her by-now-somewhat-disordered orange curls out of her eyes and smiled at her opponent.
"Oh my," said Shizuru appreciatively, whirling her weapon out of its follow-through and halting it across her back, the blade jutting up above her right shoulder. "I had no idea you were such an acrobat, Ms. Arisugawa," she went on.
Juri's smile changed, becoming more of a grin than most of the onlookers were accustomed to seeing on that face. From some, it drew almost as sharp a gasp as the near-miss had in the first place. With the suddenness of a released spring, she lunged up from her half-crouch, switching hands with a little flourish that reminded Utena (not coincidentally) of Kaitlyn. Shizuru barely evaded her leap, taking the blow on the haft of her voulge again.
"One learns a thing or two over seven years in Utena and Kaitlyn's house of flying daggers," said Juri wryly over their momentarily locked weapons. "And please - call me Juri."
Shizuru went slightly pink, but maintained her calm, polite poise as she replied, "Why, thank you. In which case you must call me Shizuru."
Juri's wry grin turned back to a more personal smile, and her green eyes seemed to smolder slightly as she said (purred, really), "It'll be my pleasure."
Shizuru blinked at her, then smiled faintly and knocked her away, returning to the offensive.
"... are they flirting?" Arika stage-whispered to her roommate, who ignored her. A few places down, Natsuki Kruger thumped her forehead lightly against the railing a couple of times. On the opposite side of the gallery, Utena glanced (a little incredulously) at Kate, who just shrugged, smiling.
"What can I say? She's got good taste," Kate said mildly.
Not long after, Juri thought she'd literally cornered her opponent, having read her pattern and intercepted her just as she ran out of wall; but Shizuru slipped out of the trap with a smooth sidelong maneuver that put Juri in mind of the serpent mentioned in the name of the younger woman's fighting style. On a purely aesthetic level, she readily admitted that Shizuru's performance was almost certainly more fun to watch than her own. Like the other naginata stylist of her acquaintance, Sumire Kanzaki, Shizuru seemed to be as much dancing as fighting.
By a strange coincidence, that same thought had just occurred to at least three of her friends up above. "Man," Utena mused as one of Shizuru's great circular overhand moves sent Juri skipping back out of range. "Too bad Sumire the Elder isn't here. That'd be a thing to see."
Corwin looked around at the normally-capacious Great Hall. "We'd need a bigger boat."
"We'd need a whole container ship at this rate," said Kaitlyn.
Neither combatant showed any sign of tiring, though both were flushed and perspiring, as the duel approached the four-minute mark. By this point Erstin Holstein had actually cheered herself hoarse, and several of the other youngsters looked like they might pass out. Natsuki might well have been holding her breath the entire time. Only the most experienced Duelists in the upper gallery recognized the moment at which the two decided - as if by telepathic mutual consent - that the time had come to end it.
Utena and Kaitlyn both did. They glanced at each other, each confirming that the other had seen it, as Juri and Shizuru swept out of still another inconclusive pass and then seemed, almost simultaneously, to set themselves, their jawlines hardening.
This is it, Utena thought, feeling an echo of that same warm glow she always felt when she reached the same moments in her own greatest battles. She took Kate's hand in one of hers, Corwin's in the other, an unconscious smile tugging at her lips, as Shizuru and Juri sprang toward each other.
Shizuru's move was that same helical uppercut that had nearly scared half the audience to death before; Juri's was a starting-blocks leap not unlike Utena's own signature finisher, her sword held at a lower guard than the Rose Prince generally chose. As they passed each other, Juri threw in an extra twist - literally - rolling her body so that Shizuru's weapon whispered past her. The sharper-eyed observers actually thought they saw her rose move, though it did not fall, as she turned the twist into a fall, down and away to the left. Had she not done so, even if she had managed not to be struck by Shizuru's blade, her own would have stood a fairly even chance of running her opponent clean through, as the momentum of Shizuru's own charge drove her shoulder onto the point of Juri's blade; but the fall-away was perfectly timed so that the uprising point of her sword neatly nipped away the younger girl's flower without unpicking a stitch of her jacket.
Miki, Juri knew, would have managed to hit the floor and roll to his feet in such a way that he came up holding Shizuru's undamaged rose in his left hand; Utena's exploding ki would have blown it apart, showering the entire west end of the Great Hall in its petals. Juri, though, was not the showy type. She merely rode the roll upright again, spun to face her defeated opponent, and swept her blade into the elegant half-curtsey sword bow the Duelists had learned from their friends among the Jedi Knights. As she did, the red rose fell, mostly intact, to the floor at Shizuru's feet.
For a moment, no one seemed able to react; then the room filled with applause, cheering, and more than a little whistling. Breathing hard and smiling without reservation, Juri sheathed her sword, swept her now quite ragged curls out of her face, and walked toward her opponent.
Shizuru righted herself from the slightly-off-balance position her follow-through had left her in, using her weapon to help regain her balance, and turned with smiling acceptance to face the victor; then, having glanced upward while straightening, she smiled a little more winsomely and aimed her index finger up along the voulge's shaft.
Juri looked, then blinked as her emerald eyes focused on the very tip of the weapon's point. There, pierced through the center, was a single orange rose petal.
"Well," said Juri, her smile returning. "Satisfactory." She glanced up into the gallery, making momentary eye contact with Boba Fett, then Kaitlyn, then Utena. All three nodded in turn, smiling. "Most satisfactory," Juri went on. Reaching Shizuru, she extended her hand. A hush fell over the room as the younger woman took it, and Juri's voice was plainly audible to all as she said warmly, "Welcome, Shizuru. Welcome to the Order of the Rose."
For just an instant, the expression of pleasant, dignified reserve on Shizuru's face cracked, revealing beneath it a look of pure and simple delight. Then, blink-and-you-missed-it, the mask was back; but a faintly mischievous twinkle in the girl's red eyes let Juri know that she knew, and didn't mind, that her elder had caught a glimpse of her true face.
The crowd of students surged down the stairs and flooded back into the Great Hall. Adoring younger students and congratulatory older ones mobbed Shizuru, who dismissed her weapon (after removing and carefully pocketing the rose petal) and handled them all with calm, even-handed aplomb.
"So," said Utena cheerfully as she and Kate brought Juri a towel and a bottle of water off to one side of the throng. "That'll be this year's model of you, then, basically."
"Basically," Juri agreed, sipping her water.
"Well, we'd better keep Azalynn away from her," said Kate. "I hear the Kruger girl's a shootist."
That selfsame girl had finally reached Shizuru's side as the crowd began to disperse; from where they stood, Kate, Utena, and Juri couldn't hear what they were discussing, but based on their body language - Natsuki's tense and stiff-necked, Shizuru's calm and faintly but kindly indulgent - they guessed it was something along the lines of "what the hell were you thinking" against "aw, you do care, that's so sweet." (This assumption - which was correct - was reinforced by the scene's ending, in which Shizuru touched Natsuki's cheek gently and Natsuki's face went a very interesting crimson just as they left the Great Hall.)
Corwin, Kaname, and Lindsey, who had taken their time and stayed out of the crush on the stairs, arrived as the mob was breaking up. Most filtered out in the wake of the departing pair, apart from Kaname's group and the various Duelists, who still stood around in little knots talking about all the excitement. Off to one side, Sosuke returned to his earlier study of the Wall o' Weapons, his face in a thoughtful but largely unreadable frown.
"Wow," said Corwin. "One petal, did that even happen in the old days?" he mused to Utena. "What would that have meant? Anthy's still engaged to you but has to do Shizuru's laundry for a week?"
Utena laughed. "We'll have to ask her when she wakes up." She looked at her watch. "For now, we've got just enough daylight to get in a little more sledding."
"I'm up for that. Hey, Kaname, you want in on this action?"
Kaname glanced at her students. "I dunno, I should - "
"I'll take the gang back to Hamlin," said Lindsey. "You go ahead."
"Are you sure?"
"Absolutely. Old times' sake." She grinned. "Take half an hour off, Winterfestführerin. I'll make sure nobody finds out."
Kaname laughed. "OK, OK. Hey, Lins?"
"Not a problem. Yo! Sarge!"
Sosuke looked up from his consideration of a Magnaguard electrostaff. "Yes, Miss Willows?"
"I'm taking the kids down the hill. Kaname's going sledding. Do not shoot anyone," she said mock-sternly.
Sosuke's face was perfectly straight as he nodded and replied, "Wilco, Miss Willows."
Lindsey grinned. "Yeah, we've about got him housebroken, I think. Have fun, you guys!"
"She's enjoying this," Corwin observed as Lindsey trotted over to round up the sprogs.
"Yes, yes she is," Kaname replied with a sigh.
"DSM Panic! Mission 5.67: Two Duels and a Wedding Invitation" (a Symphony of the Sword Mini-Story) by Philip Jeremy Moyer with Benjamin D. Hutchins
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