Kelly sits off to the side, poring over the data while Ortiz runs drills with the girls. The headaches still pester her. The product of exhaustion, no doubt. After so many long nights, trying to devise lesson plans for her class and entirely new training regimens for the girls… the bags under her eyes make it pretty clear how these new rules are affecting her.
Few people enjoy having their time wasted. Now, all that time, working on getting the girls to cooperate with one another and work together…
Dammit… It’s like trying to fit a round peg through a square hole…
Working right up until the moment before a session. Not an ideal position for an educator.
I know I can’t afford to think like this, but… is this really good enough? It has to be, right? For their sake…
Deprivation of rest tends to make the mind wander, drifting along a current of endless tangents. Some connected to the main stream of thought, some not. Such as the image Kelly sees when she lifts her head. Four girls, all training side-by-side, fully intent on surviving their ordeal.
It takes a bit for her to realize. These girls she’s seeing aren’t her students. Yet they’re still known. Still… “hers.” One of them, in particular, even sports a uniquely familiar face.
Yet the young teacher snaps out of it as the sound of her name cuts into her headspace.
“Oi. Kelly. Wake up or I’m gonna feed you my protein drink.”
Ah. Ortiz. That’ll do it.
Kelly shakes herself off and stands from her seat. “R-right. Sorry. So we’re ready to get things started, then?”
Ortiz nods, pointing over her shoulder. “They’re all limbered up and ready to go.”
One day at a time. That’s all I can do, for now…
Clearing her throat, Kelly steps up with her datapad in one hand and the other positioned on her hip. With just a slight adjustment of her glasses, her typical all-business demeanor rears its head.
“All right. Today we’re going to change things up.”
Charlotte is the first to turn away, sneering to the side. “Tch. So that’s it, then. Everything we spent all that time on was completely useless for this next stage.”
“Not at all.”
Three simple words grab Charlotte’s attention altogether.
“No. Not useless. True, it’s not directly or immediately helpful. But we’re here to help you improve. Any progress we make is far from useless. On the contrary, it was actually incredibly useful, believe it or not.”
Charlotte furrows her brow, almost audibly. “How… do you figure?”
“Simple. I don’t believe in wasting things.”
Kelly then turns her datapad around, blowing up the screen into a large holo-projection that the girls can clearly see. Pages and pages of notes. Long lists of references and ideas. Footage from past sessions. It’s all there.
“Information is important to improvement. I got plenty of it on the lot of you. Your styles, your ticks, your abilities, all things I can use to help. Most importantly, though, strengths and weaknesses. And that’s where we’re going to start, for today.”
The girls marvel at the sheer volume of data laid out before them. Not just specs on them, but more research than it even makes sense to have been able to put together on such short notice.
Seeing her students so gobsmacked… it’s enough to put an amused smirk on Kelly’s face, even in a situation such as this.
“So, before we begin… are there any questions?”
“Ahaha! This is pretty different, i’nnit?”
Ragyou stands with her hands at her hips and a huge grin on her face. Opposite her stands an unenthused Diana, her own hands in her jacket pockets.
“Whatever. It’s better than the alternatives, I guess…”
Perish the thought. For Diana, this is easily the best outcome. Partnering up with Charlotte would be irritating enough, but the Extra… No, this is the best possible timeline. Yet there’s still one nagging thought looming over the whole idea.
She’s right. This is different. Why?
The question of what Kelly’s up to becomes even more apparent when looking at the opposite pairing, on the far end of the mat - Mio and Charlotte. The strangeness of the decision isn’t lost on the domineering academic, watching as her new sparring partner all but cowers away from her.
“Hmph. Just don’t waste my time.”
Mio winces, that remark practically driving into the ground like a nail.
Kelly positions herself at the center of the mat, raising her hand over her head. Tutor materializes behind her, mimicking this gesture. Then, sharply bringing her arm down, she loudly declares, “Begin!”
So begins the first session of the new regimen. Exercise One - Sparring against an unfamiliar opponent.
The two battles carry on directly parallel to one another with some sort of invisible barrier keeping them separate. On one side of the mat, Ragyou bounds about, doing her best to avoid a steady chain of Stinger Missiles and using her Rabbit Holes to get away from Swarm Attacks. On the other side, Charlotte uses Little Moth’s silk in an attempt to pin Mio down while guarding against attempts at the Kuroi Dangan.
Ortiz hums to herself, hands folded behind her head as she watches the whole thing. “I’m kinda curious, myself, y’know. Why you broke ‘em up like this.”
Kelly removes her glasses to wipe them off. “You can’t tell from watching?”
“Mmm… I guess I get it. It’s more fair like this, in a way. You matched ‘em up based on their actual fighting ability, then?”
“Is that what you think? I’m that kind? Honestly, I thought I was being pretty cruel. The way I see it, these matchups…” Kelly then places her glasses back on. “Are as unfair as you could possibly get.”
The matches carry on. Mio and Charlotte’s side of the mat transforms more and more into some sort of insect jungle gym with every passing moment. Silk line after silk line whiffs, Mio’s inhuman reflexes doing serious work to keep her out of her opponent’s grasp. Even so, maneuvering in this certainly wouldn’t be so easy for much longer.
“Oi. Boke. I have an idea.”
Another attempt, another miss. Yet Charlotte seems none too bothered. So you’ve improved this much, then. It’s troubling that it’s taken this long, but…
It dawns on her at just that moment. Her eyes follow Mio’s evasive movement to the girl’s current position, leaving Charlotte stunned. Shades of the team battle against Ortiz come right back to her mind, using her silk lines to help launch Ragyou and the Queen Stinger Missile. This time, though, Mio lands on one of those lines, stretching it back with her momentum.
She’s… this is…
This, what she’s made… for her opponent it’s a jungle gym. For her, though… it’s a cage.
Mio bounces from the line, whizzing straight by Charlotte as the Ice Queen narrowly avoids being tagged. Then again. Again. Again, again, again. Mio bounds from silk line to silk line, using them to slingshot herself around Charlotte at greater and greater speeds.
Charlotte’s Air Step allows her to skirt away from harm wherever it may approach from, if only just. A gliding step to reposition herself. Simple, but effective. For the time being. Competing against speed and unpredictability like this, though…
Charlotte follows Mio’s path to the best of her ability as the girl charges up another of her little black bullets, all the while bouncing around to make it impossible to know where it’ll come from.
A clever trick. Firing the instant Charlotte makes to evade with her Air Step, catching her in a slow, predictable movement at an angle she can’t hope to quickly defend from. Charlotte, though, maintains her composure even in the face of such a scenario.
“Not good enough.”
A line of silk from Little Moth snags onto not Mio, but Charlotte, pulling her in the opposite direction. It’s just enough of an adjustment that the shot misses. On the back of this, a stunned Mio misses a jump. Not one to pass on an opportunity, Charlotte points to the girl. A silk line then catches Mio by her shirt. Next comes a free ride as Little Moth twirls in place, swinging her around and letting go.
Out of bounds, Mio flies, landing in the solid arms of the listless gym teacher, who whistles to her. “Hey there. You were movin’, huh?”
Charlotte leaves the mat. “Not good enough…”
Words that pierce through Mio like a spear. All of that. Despite all of that, it hadn’t been enough. Worse, Charlotte doesn’t seem fazed in the slightest.
She doesn’t seem it. Of course, Charlotte knows the truth of the matter as she passes by Mio and the teachers on her way to get a drink. Keep it well hidden though she may, her entire body trembles with adrenaline. She still feels it on her back, the tension from the place where the attack would doubtless have landed.
If… if I’d reacted just a fraction of a second slower…
While she stands at the fridge in the nearby sitting area to get a bottle of water, she becomes aware of exactly how much that ordeal had gotten her sweating. Her mind travels back… to Mio.
Her. She’s able to push me like that. No.
“Not good enough. Absolutely not…”
Meanwhile, the battle inside between Ragyou and Diana comes to its own conclusion. The typically happy-go-lucky gyaru remains quiet. Come to think of it, she’s been suspiciously quiet for the duration of the battle. A far cry from her usual chatty self. Concentration, perhaps.
It ultimately matters little. She emerges from one of her rabbit holes, arcking a wide kick towards Diana’s temple. Unfortunately for her, Diana blocks it with the back of her fist. Maybe the surprise holds her in place. Maybe it’s the fatigue of a long fight. One way or another, Ragyou’s delayed reaction proves damning.
Unable to move in time, Ragyou gets herself grazed by a Stinger Missile. Paying more attention to that than Diana, she fails to realize the heiress has a hold on her ankle, dragging her into yet another Stinger Missile. A direct hit that explodes in both their faces. When the smoke clears, Ragyou sits up, rubbing her head, her barrier shattered.
“Ouchouchouch. C’mon, Di, wasn’t that kinda rough?”
“Seriously? Don’t tell me you think your opponents are gonna go easy on you.”
“Ahaha… well… maybe they’ll be a little nice?”
“Get real, airhead.”
Kelly brings her hands together, drawing the attention of her girls just as Charlotte returns to the main room. “All right, that’s good. Hopefully, you all have a better understanding of your limits, now.”
Diana folds her arms. “How do you figure that. Seemed pretty normal to me.”
“I’ll put it this way. Diana, Charlotte, how did it feel to be in a match that was, in many respects, actively slanted against you?”
“Hah?! How was that slanted against me?! I won!”
Kelly opens her datapad file. “You did. By the skin of your teeth. Of course, I hope you understand, Diana, you’d ordinarily never be able to hit Ragyou.”
Given the way the battle played out, Diana pipes down. After the last several sessions, denial of that fact would likely be another humbling experience. No, she definitely doesn’t want another of those.
Ragyou, meanwhile, twirls a lock of her hair, staring off to the side of the room.
Kelly continues. “I’m honestly surprised Charlotte was able to win as handily as she did. Mio’s faster attacks and reaction times would ordinarily make that far more difficult.”
Charlotte doesn’t say a word, leaving Mio to wallow to herself.
“The Royale isn’t always about Esper Levels. Sometimes your opponent will have styles, abilities, or tactics that counter your own. On the other side of things, sometimes an opponent will just be overwhelmingly more powerful or skilled than you are. To win in those situations you either adapt or you find and exploit their weaknesses… before they do so to you. That was your lesson for today. Now, catch your breath and we’ll review.”
Not one face among the four seems especially pleased with the day’s events. Even Ragyou sports an unusually passive expression as she heads off to get a refreshment for herself. Something that doesn’t get by Mio.
The session concludes and the girls depart. Interestingly, each goes their own way. Ragyou doesn’t latch herself onto Mio as she typically would.
“Ja ne,” she says to the others as she’s the first one gone.
Even her goodbye seems… notably tame.
One by one they leave the dojo. Until Charlotte is the only one left, grabbing her bag after changing back into her school uniform from the gym clothes she’d been wearing during the session.
So… It’s all so…
Kelly catches the girl standing by the entrance when she leaves the training area. “Hm? Charlotte? You haven’t left yet?”
The girl doesn’t seem to hear her at all. No, she’s lost somewhere deep within her own mind. Recalling things she’d rather not. An admission of being unable to defeat Diana. An acknowledgment that Morioka, of all people, is starting to catch up to her…
Her fist clenches tight around the strap of her bag.
“It’s all so annoying…”
Kelly blinks. “What?”
Then Charlotte turns around to face her teacher, getting up in the woman’s face. “More training.”
“Wha- what are you…? Huh?”
Seldom does Charlotte, the even-tempered Ice Queen of the First-Years, exhibit such levels of hotblooded passion towards… anything. It takes the woman completely off-guard, seeing her like this. Barely able to contain her emotions, beneath a trembling body and a bitten lip.
“I don’t like it. My current level. It’s not… good enough.”
Then the girl looks into Kelly’s eyes with a fire fit to melt away the entirety of her ice-cold persona.
“I want you to give me more training.”
Another day brings about the typical rigors of school life back to the forefront of the girls’ minds, at least for the moment. To look at Charlotte now, one would never suspect she’d be capable of the little outburst she’d had just a day ago. Already, she’s back to being as coolheaded and frigid as ever.
During lunch period, she sits at her desk, reading. That is, until members of her posse come barging in. “Charlotte!”
Their leader doesn’t utter a word, simply looking up from her holo-screen.
“The results are up! From the mock exam!”
Moments later, she and Paige join the others of their little group in checking the score postings in the exam hall. Each of the three boards displays a different year. Sure enough, right at the top of the First-Year board… Charlotte Altair.
“Number One again, Charlotte!”
Paige adjusts her glasses. “Don’t sound so surprised. It’s only natural that she gets the top spot. She earns it every exam.”
Interestingly, the one person among their clique who seems the least impressed… is none other than Charlotte, herself.
No. This is different.
Paige is correct. The top spot? That’s expected. Nothing Charlotte seems even remotely fazed by. This reaction isn’t that passive indifference she typically exhibits in these situations, though. It’s… disdain. Disappointment. A subtle difference that gets picked up by a certain diminutive class rep.
Kikaijima Rinko doesn’t look for her own name, right away. It wouldn’t be difficult to find, anyway. No, the first thing she does is laser-in on the top spot of the Third-Year board. The name? Who else? Kikaijima Kikyou.
I still… need to catch up to you, Nee-sama. I’m close, but…
She soon finds her name there on the board. Number Two. Right below Charlotte. Of course. Naturally, she checks to see Charlotte’s reaction to being in the top spot. At this point, poise is expected of her. What she finds, though…
She’s… disappointed? With being at the top?
Then, however, she gets it. She follows Charlotte’s gaze, her own eyes widening the closer she gets to where her apparent better is looking. It isn’t on her own name. It isn’t even on the First-Year board. Those cold eyes are aimed at the Third-Year board… right at the top spot. Kikaijima Kikyou.
Then it clicks.
This woman is also…
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