First. Again. Mio soars across the dojo, slamming back-first into the far wall and bouncing to the mat at the sound of a disqualifying buzz. Her little black friend manifests atop her head. “I’m beginning to think you like the taste of floor.” The girl has no reply, simply choosing to curl herself up, hugging her knees to her chest and watching the others.
Across the room, though, Kelly’s eyes stay firmly locked on her, rather than Ragyou or Charlotte trying to get anywhere against the monolith that is Ortiz. And outside of training. During class, her gaze repeatedly drifts back to Mio, situated in the back, retreated into her own little world as she always is. If she isn’t doodling, she’s peering through the window. Yet when it’s her time to stand up and read, she does it. No slip-ups. No tell-tale signs of distraction. Nothing that’d draw any amount of attention. She does as she’s asked and sits back down.
After class, Kelly passes by a few male students, huddled around the student press bulletin in the hall. “Hey, the Royale Tracker’s out.”
Curious. So they’re still doing that, huh? At this point, the student press putting out a live update on the latest Royale match results featuring their fellow students is a tradition, isn’t it? Right among the top of the First-Years… yup. Diana and Charlotte at three wins apiece. Ragyou and Mio aren’t far behind, with two. She turns herself to go on about her business, but…
“Hold on. Morioka Mio? Who’s that? Says she’s on Ragyou’s team.”
“Mmm… I think it’s that dull kid from 1-C. That’s Ragyou’s class, right?”
“The Extra? No way. Is she super tough or somethin’? How’d she get to team up with those three?”
“Yeah right. If she was anything special, we’d know about it already, right? I bet Ragyou just felt sorry for her and let her join. She’s real nice, far as I’ve heard. Bet the Extra was relieved about that. How long d’you think she’ll last?” So this is how they think of her. It figures. The girl doesn’t go to any great lengths to stand out. But even so, this just feels wrong. Restraint is keeping herself from bringing down the ruler on these boys.
One of them pores over the list a little further. “Man, I bet Diana wasn’t happy about that, though. How much you wanna bet she pretty near threw a tantrum?”
“I wouldn’t talk bad about her, dude. I hear she’s not just loaded. Her family’s got pull in the System. People say she can disappear you if she wants. Plus she’s scary enough on her own. Did you see her put that brat, Alice, in her place?”
“You seriously buy all that, man? She’s just a bitchy brute with a pretty face. She can’t ‘disappear’ anyone.”
Right. That’s enough of that. Kelly snaps around. But she doesn’t get to take one step. As if summoned, a head of honey blonde hair steps out in front of her. “Hmm? I dunno. I kinda want to test that theory.” Diana appears almost from thin air, flanked by her posse. The boys all face her with horror in their eyes and beads of sweat rolling down their brows.
“D-Diana?! Shoot, there was a teacher here, too!”
“Hey, that wasn’t a very nice thing you said, you know that? Ah. But there’s no need for you to discipline him, Ms. K. I’ll accept his sincere apology.”
Kelly’s eyes narrow. So it’s this face, then. Honestly, Diana. The saint, the heiress, the bully… I know your faces already. Who’s this performance even for? These boys? Your friends?
The boy drops to his hands and knees with all his might and fervor as Diana looks down on him with a smile that just oozes smug satisfaction. “I-I’m sorry!”
“Easy as that. Water under the bridge.” Diana brushes by the other boys, stopping just before the one who’d dared speak ill of her, kneeling down. “You can go now.” But still he remains on the floor, continuing to prostrate himself before this First-Year queen. “Hm? I guess you didn’t hear me.” She pokes her nicely manicured nail into the back of his head like she’s searching for the reset button. “I said you’re bothering me. Now disappear.”
She needn’t say it again. He springs up and takes off, immediately joined by his buddies when Diana rises to her feet and looks at the lot of them. Once they’re gone, she smiles to Ms. Kelly and approaches the bulletin. “Oooh. I’m at the top!” It isn’t exactly subtle. Kelly sees it. The glance Diana gives her.
Maddie shrugs as the full posse makes to leave. “Duh. Like there was ever any doubt.”
Kelly allows the clique to pass her by. All but one. “Diana. A word.”
Diana pauses, waving for the other girls to go on ahead without her. This is becoming a pattern. An annoying pattern. She turns around to face her homeroom teacher, the feigned smile wiped clean from her lips. “You wanted something, Ms. K?”
“Still, with this act?”
“Who says I’m acting? Maybe sometimes I just like trying to be pleasant, y’know? Seriously. Do all you teachers just assume you know stuff? Talk about lame. Ah. Man, that whole thing made me kind of annoyed. I should get going.” The girl waves as she parts with the teacher. “Later. Don’t expect me to be around today. Oh. Almost forgot. Ms. K? Keep watching.” When she stops, it’s like the atmosphere becomes charged by the chilling gaze she casts over her shoulder. “I’m gonna prove you wrong.”
Kelly doesn’t utter a word as her student disappears around the corner.
A handful of sessions pass by and Kelly observes the numbers on the Royale Tracker from her Link. Still at the top, Diana, with two more wins to her name. Meanwhile, Ortiz joins her from the mat, leaving the three remaining girls in various states of exhaustion and soreness. “Still nothin’, huh?”
Kelly sighs and closes the bulletin, instead opening her notes on her datapad. “Five sessions and no Diana. At this point, we should probably just not expect her to come anymore.”
Ortiz pouts, leaning over and resting her head atop her smaller friend’s. “Man, that’s a pity. She was tough. And she had some nice moves. She would’ve been super easy to train up.”
“I doubt that. Also, get off of me.”
“Heeeh? But you’re so comfy.” Even despite her protest, Ortiz peels herself away from Kelly when she senses it. The agitated aura the woman gives off, even raising her hands in peace. But with that thought passing, another one enters, turning her back to the students. “Still… whataya think about the little one?”
Kelly stares at her datapad. More accurately, she seems to stare through it. Mio. Right. Such a difficult one to read. Her expression seldom changes. She barely speaks. But what’s important is her behavior in battle. She thinks back to the match just now, recalling the girl’s fluid motions. Her ability to dodge Ortiz, blow-after-blow, like an instinct telling her body to move before anything had even happened. “She’s quick. Not as fast as Ragyou, but her pure reaction time blows them all out of the water.”
“Yeah. She was real slippery, but…” The whole battle plays out in Ortiz’s mind like a holo. In vivid detail. Every glancing blow, every heavy impact. The moment when Mio went for an attack and yet… “She hesitates, right?”
“Mm. Every time she looks like she’s about to make an improvement, something just… stops her. She nearly hit you, today.”
Ortiz doesn’t appreciate that, pouting again. “Hey. Gimme some credit. I would’a blocked it like always. They still haven’t really forced me to dodge yet. But…” Looking at Mio now, laid out across the mat and breathing heavily, it’s hard not to feel a little sorry, perhaps. “She keeps getting dropped out first because of it. That can’t feel good, you know?”
Kelly sighs and lowers her datapad, taking to the mat with her hands in her coat pockets. “Morioka. Could I speak with you for a moment?”
Mio sits herself up like a zombie, still panting for air when she turns her head up to her teacher. An unnerving buzz sets about her entire body. Already a million possibilities for this conversation play out in the back of her mind as she follows Kelly to the next room. None of them pleasant, even despite Ragyou flashing her an encouraging smile on the way out.
Kelly leans against the counter, staring off into space, it seems. “Morioka, I’m honestly concerned about you.”
Here it comes. Where Kelly lays down how she’s causing problems for the rest of the team. Just like Diana said. “Mm…”
Meanwhile, Kelly watches Mio closely. Her slouched posture, her gaze fixed firmly on the floor, her fidgeting. All the tell-tale signs of uncertainty. Nerves. “I don’t want you to feel down on yourself. But maybe I haven’t been especially helpful…”
“Heh? Huh? You… no. That’s not… you didn’t do anything wrong, sensei.”
“I wonder. I don’t know if I’ve conveyed this enough to you girls. You know, I’m not doing this because you’re hopeless. It’s because you have a chance. All of you. So…” From there Kelly stands herself upright and approaches Mio, offering her a rare smile from the stern teacher and even placing a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “I want you to just… try and be a little more confident in yourself, okay? Because I think you can do this, Morioka-san. You can absolutely win the Royale.”
Those words. For some reason, when Ms. Kelly says them, all Mio hears is the voice of another. One awkward boy who’d said something similar to her. Who she’d gotten eliminated in the first place. A strange pressure clutches around her head, squeezing her chest, and she grabs at the neck of her scarf with a halfhearted nod. “Mm. I’ll… do my best.”
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