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“And it's today?!” Mai’s normally kind eyes were wide with panic.

“More like...in three hours, actually.” Midori checked the time on her phone. “But don't worry, it'll be fun!”

“But we don't know anything about Western-style fencing! Since when do we even have a club?!”

“Since like, three days ago, when the principal reminded me that all teachers have to oversee a student club. And all the other clubs were dumb, so I just made my own!” Natsuki edged a little further around the trunk of her favorite leaning tree. She, Mai, and Mikoto had been in the middle of lunch out in the gardens when Midori came bursting into their midst, full of some brand new scheme that was sure to involve effort and--Natsuki shuddered--teamwork. And Midori hadn't disappointed.

Mai was putting a hand to her forehead. “But if the club’s brand new, why do you want to have a tournament so soon? Couldn't it wait until you have...um..club members?”

Midori waved a hand impatiently. “Because Mr. H, that asshole who teaches Class B, bet me that his water polo tournament would be the most popular event of the year. And the best way to make sure that doesn't happen is to hold a better, way cooler tournament on the same day!”

Natsuki could see her point. Against her better judgement, she leaned out from against the tree. “But why does it have to be us? Couldn't you get some of those kendo nuts to rep Fuuka in your tournament?”

“Oh, they're already in! But I invited all the schools in the area, so we need a better showing if we're gonna take home a trophy! And I knew she--” Midori swung a finger towards Mai--”couldn't resist helping a friend. And she--” Midori pointed at Mikoto, who was happily stealing Natsuki's lunch-- “goes wherever Mai goes anyway, and also happens to be, y'know, a sword-wielding magical girl. And you--” she thrust her finger triumphantly towards Natsuki-- “would never be able to miss a little stabbing that's actually school-sponsored for a change!”

Natsuki gritted her teeth. Damn, she was good.

“But if each team at a Western fencing team tournament has four people, who's our fourth?” Mai ruffled Mikoto’s hair, in a transparent attempt to calm herself down.

“Only the finest, best, and bravest first-time fencer this side of Japan!” Midori struck a power pose. Natsuki groaned inwardly.

“Eh?! But how can you compete if you're running the tournament?!” Mai was aghast once more.

“Oh, I'm not running this thing,” said Midori blithely. “No way. I wanna be in on the action!” She struck another pose.

“Then who--” Mai was cut off by a distant shout. “Yukino!!! Do we have enough scoring boxes?! I rush-ordered them so count them to make sure those idiots didn't short-change us. And how many offencers do we have registered?! 200??”

“I think you meant fencers, Haruka,” came Yukino's soft and patient voice. Midori grinned smugly at Mai, who let out a deep sigh.

“Well, I don't really have a reason to say no...what do you say, Mikoto? Could be fun?”

Mikoto looked up at Mai adoringly, Natsuki's last tempura prawn between her teeth. “Let's do it, Mai!”

They turned towards Natsuki expectantly. She rolled her eyes. “Fine, but I'm not helping with cleanup afterwards.”

“Sold!” Midori swept her into a bear hug, heedless of Natsuki's growl of protest. “Now, you’ve got...two hours and 47 minutes to study up! There are clips and tutorials online. And, before I forget--” From her backpack, Midori produced three packages wrapped tightly in plastic. Tossing one to each of them, she kicked over a bag at her side. A tangle of white socks and shoes tumbled out. “I got your sizes from the records in Yoko’s office. Everything else you’ll need will be in the gym before the tourney. See ya on the strip!” Midori dashed gleefully away, calling back, “that's the thing you fence on! I learned it this morning!”

The three of them stared after her, stunned. Finally, Mai smiled. “Well, how bad could it be? She's right, we do have a natural swordswoman on our side!” She patted Mikoto's head.

“And Mai’s a fighter too!” Mikoto had one of the long white socks on each arm.

Natsuki fought a grin. “We might have an unfair advantage, to be honest. We are built for this sort of thing.” She strode off. “C’mon, I'm sure Shizuru’ll let us borrow her laptop to look stuff up.”

“But isn't that for council business--” Mai stooped to gather up the packages. Natsuki thought of how Shizuru would tease her, when she heard of the situation she'd gotten herself into. She blushed, turning so the others couldn’t see. “It's already council business.” The student council room was vacant save for the laptop sitting on the front desk, next to a single empty teacup. Natsuki stared at its rim, imagining it tipped against Shizuru’s lips. In the months since that whole disaster, she and Shizuru had talked, and cried, and clarified, and Natsuki had found that she couldn't bear to keep her own lips from Shizuru's for very long--

“Okay, what should we search?” Mai flopped down in the chair next to Natsuki, smashing her out of her revery.

Rather too brusquely, Natsuki flipped open the laptop. “Er---let’s just start with the--basics.” Pulling herself together, she typed “fencing” into the search bar. The three of them fell quiet, scanning the articles about equipment and etiquette, forms and feints. It turned out that fencing was usually an individual sport, but the Olympics and some other tournaments matched teams of four against each other, one pair of fencers at a time. The scores from each match were added together to determine the team score--and the winner.

“Ok, so that's fine,” murmured Mai. “But then there are three different weapons you can fence with?”

“Looks like you just pick one, and go with it. Like, some teams compete with foils--these little ones--” Natsuki scrolled down-- “and then there are épèes, with the bigger guard thing, and then sabers.”

“Oh, and looks like you score differently in each one.” Mai peered at the screen. “Foil aims just for the torso...saber is the whole upper body...and épèe is...everywhere?”

“Ugh, and then there are more rules--” Natsuki read ahead. “In foil and saber you need to move before your opponent in order to score--hey, did Midori actually tell us which one of these we'd be using?”

Mai sighed. “Of course not.” She leaned in to watch the video Natsuki had clicked on. “Well, I hope it's saber. That seems a little better suited to our skills.” Watching the two women on her screen, Natsuki was inclined to agree. At the referee’s gesture, the two fencers sprung into action, swinging their long, thin blades in elegant attacks and parries. An instant later, they had stopped, red and green lights flashing. The referee seemed to mumble something, then held up his left hand. The woman on his left fist-pumped, and both resumed the funny sideways starting position. Watching the blades crash and the fencers shriek with triumph, Natsuki had to admit that it looked fun. The other two weapons, not so much. The fencers with the foils also leapt to action, but then just prodded their opponent in the chest with the point of their weapon. Half the time, nobody got a point. And then the épèe people just sort of stood there, occasionally twisting their pointed blades around each other. It better be saber, Natsuki sighed inwardly.

It wasn't. After cramming all the information they could into their heads, Natsuki, Mai, and Mikoto had followed the newly-posted signs towards the crowded gym, where Midori had brandished a trio of heavy épèes at them. Mikoto seized one and swung it, narrowly missing Mai’s head. “Why this one?”

“Because foil and saber both need extra equipment, and I'm not made of money. See?” Midori nodded towards where one of the competitors was putting a shiny metallic jacket and helmet off to the side of his bag. “Because foil and saber only let you hit certain areas, you need to wear special jackets that communicate with this scoring box.” She raised the little machine aloft. Mai and Mikoto crowded in to take a look, while Natsuki surveyed the gym. Around two hundred teenage boys and girls crowded the room, all in various stages of excitement, nerves, and undress. One boy was hoisting up a pair of white pants--”knickers”, Natsuki had learned--over his gym shorts, while a trio of girls argued over whose socks were whose. Pieces of paper posted on the wall over their heads identified different schools and independent fencing teams. From the look of it, Midori had managed to cajole at least a few dozen academies into participating. Or at least, somebody had--

“Are you listening to me?!” suddenly, Haruka was taking up Natsuki's entire field of vision, jamming a finger into her chest for good measure. “I said we're gonna get started, so you better go change! And no flashy socks!” Haruka added, glaring at the rainbow stockings of one passing competitor.

“All right, all right, I'm going! Mai, you got everything?”

“Yes, and I have the rest!” Midori answered for her, dragging them all into the girls’ locker room. Once they were safely inside, Midori locked the door and chuckled. “They should all be thanking me that I didn't let her compete. Ok, first--gym clothes on!”

Natsuki trudged to her locker, her trepidation growing. Everyone out there looks like they know what they're doing. We HiME might be able to fake it, but like hell we’re gonna make it. She shrugged out of her uniform, tucking today's choice of lingerie safely out of site. Clad in her sports bra, t-shirt, and gym shorts, she turned to face Midori. “Now what--aghgg!” A thin piece of plastic caught her square in the face. Midori was fastening another of the translucent plates over her own chest.

“These are breast protectors--stop blushing, Natsuki, all the women have to wear them--so strap em on tight! Mai, they didn't have one of these plate ones that would fit you, so you’ll have to use these little thingies--”

“How do they go on?” Mai, clad in her sports bra and shorts, held the pair of white plastic disks gingerly in one hand.

“Like this!” seizing the disks, Midori brandished them towards Mai’s chest. Mai shrieked.

“Mai, I want to play too!” Mikoto bounded over, her chest protector strapped upside down.

“Honestly, you two! I know I told you don't mind, but you've got to warn--hey!”

Natsuki let them tussle, hiding a small smile. She could guess how to finish dressing, based on the kids out in the gym. Pulling on the knickers, she tugged the suspenders over her shoulders. Next, she tied on the weird little half-jacket--plastron, according to the package--over the chest protector. Then came the high-collared white jacket, zipped up the back and buckled between the legs. Finally, she pulled on a pair of high socks, tucking the tops under the elastic where the knickers ended at her knee. Slipping on a pair of grippy white shoes, she turned to the mirror. The gear was form-fitting but flexible, not unlike her motorcycle suit. Black is better, she thought grumpily, unused to the sight of herself clad in white from head to toe. Well, at least I look the part. She turned back to the others, who had finally disentangled themselves. “Anything else?” she mumbled, pointedly ignoring Midori's wolf-whistle. Suddenly, Haruka exploded through the door Midori had locked.

“Just get your glove and your helmet and get out there!”

“They're called masks, not helmets, Haruka!” squeaked Yukino.

“Whatever! Just get to it!” Haruka bundled Natsuki unceremoniously out the door. The other three followed, zipping up jackets and hopping into shoes. Barging over to a cluttered table bearing the name “bout committee”, Haruka seized a microphone. “Welcome to the--hey you! I'm talking here!” she snapped at a gaggle of nearby 14-year-olds. “Anyway, welcome to the First Annual Fuuka Academy Fencing Club Team Tournament! Play nice, or else!” she glowered at the teenage gaggle, who now looked thoroughly abashed. “Bouts will start right after the national anthem, so hit it!” She pointed dramatically at the tiny squad of elementary students huddled at her side, who burst into song like frightened birds. As the crowd stood to attention, Natsuki tried hard not to think of Alyssa.

Before the little choir had finished, Haruka was back on the mic. “All right, each team should look up its strip assignment on the sheets over there. If you're late to the strip I will disqualify you. If anyone pulls any funny business, I will disqualify you. And if--”

“Let's get stabby, kids!” Midori had grabbed the mic, pushing a blustering Haruka into Yukino's arms. With a cheer, the fencers grabbed their weapons and swarmed towards the strip assignment sheets.

“Ohhhhh boy,” whispered Mai under her breath, as Midori herded the group towards one of the long, narrow strips taped out on the gym floor.

“All right, let's do this! Shit, almost forgot--” Midori tossed them each a bundled-up cord. “You gotta thread these through your jacket and out the back, they plug into the weapon at one end and the scoring reel thing on the other. Otherwise we won't score any points!”

“We might not anyway,” mumbled Natsuki, earning a soft giggle from Mai. As they contorted themselves to adjust the cords, a tall man in a suit strode towards the middle of the strip, clipboard in hand. Clearing his throat, he peered over at Natsuki's group.

“Everybody here? I'll be your director for your first round--your referee,” he added, catching their blank looks. “I'll just take roll, and then we'll be off! So on this side, we have Minagi, Sugiura, Tokiha, Kuga?” They nodded in turn. Satisfied, the director glanced at the other end of the strip. “And over here, Yamada, Momomiya, Fujiwara, and...Sato?” The chorus of “yes”s was deeper than expected. As the director moved off to the stride of the strip, Natsuki finally got a glimpse of their first opponents: a hulking quartet of teenage boys, each clenching a well-used épèe.

“But don't girls fence girls?” Mikoto mewed at her elbow.

“Eh, usually. But some meets mix things up a little.” Midori headlocked them both and grinned wolfishly towards the competition. “These nerds’ll be no sweat!”

If these were nerds, Natsuki shuddered to think of what this school's jocks might look like.

“Now fencing--” the director's voice cut in--” Minagi versus Yamada! On deck, Kuga versus Sato!” Yamada strode forward to clip his body cord into the reel at the end of the strip. The director turned to Mikoto, who was already standing at the starting point, brandishing her épèe. “Don't you, uh, want to plug in?” Midori scuttled forward, the end of the reel in hand.

“Don't blow this, dude!” she muttered, as Mikoto stuck out her tongue in response.

After checking to see that everything had been secured properly, the director waited for Mikoto and Yamada to salute, then pulled out a stopwatch. “Score is--zero, zero. Fencers ready?” Yamada grunted. “Fence!” Mikoto went off like a shot, swinging her épèe high in the air towards Yamada’s head. If she had Miroku, Natsuki realized, that guy would be screwed. The edge of the blade came down, down---

A shrill beep rang out, mingled with the director's hurried “Halt!”

Mikoto, who was winding up for another assault, beamed back at Mai.

“Did I do it?!?” Mai bit her lip. “Well--”

“Touch left! Score is--one, zero, to Yamada,” the director paused at Mikoto's growl of rage. “If you use the edge of your blade again, I will penalize you. And if you growl at me again, I will double penalize you.” Mikoto reddened and returned to the starting point.

“It's ok, Mikoto, you're learning! Just hit with the point next time!” called out Mai encouragingly.

Yamada raised his weapon, unphased by Mikoto's sudden attack. The director offered Mikoto a small smile. “Just remember, you're not aiming to kill. En garde! Ready? Fence!”

Mikoto sprung to action once more, this time pointing the épèe like a javelin towards her opponent. “Mikoto! Don't throw--” the shrill beep from Yamada's side of the strip cut off Mai’s voice. Natsuki had to admit she was impressed: Yamada had taken advantage of the huge opening left by Mikoto's flailing arms score a touch on the underside of her right forearm. She filed that particular move away for later.

“Two-nothing Yamada! En garde! Ready? Fence!” And for a third time, Mikoto leapt into the fray, this time parrying Yamada's blade with her own. With a roar of triumph, she drove the point of her weapon home, just as Yamada took aim at her chest. The scoring box shrieked out a halt.

“Nice one, Mikoto!” beamed Mai, as Midori hissed out a “yessss!” Natsuki glanced at the box, confused: both Mikoto's green light and Yamada's red were glowing. And sure enough-- “Double-touch! Score is three-one.”

Natsuki glanced back at Midori, who shrugged. “If you hit at the same time in épèe, you both get a point. Not like the other two.” “Well, we'll take it,” mumbled Natsuki. In the end, Mikoto closed out the bout at 5-2, managing a second double-touch as Yamada flicked his blade once again towards her arm. As Mai stepped in to unclip Mikoto from the reel, the director turned towards Natsuki.

“Now fencing, Kuga versus Sato! On deck, Sugiura versus Fujiwara!” Natsuki gritted her teeth and strode forward. Let's just get this over with. She seized up her competition. Sato was tall, much taller than Yamada, and gaunt. Not much target area, she thought. Still, hitting with the point of this thing isn't all that different from aiming a bullet. She was idly wondering if she could use her power to summon an ice épèe when the director called them both into the en garde. Toeing the starting line, Natsuki caught Sato’s eye through his mask. She fixed him with her best stare.

“Ready--fence!”

She launched herself forward, Duran's metallic howl echoing in her ears. Straight for the chest, nothing too crazy-- “Halt! Double-touch! One-all, ready?”

Damn. Natsuki gritted her teeth. He's not as scared as he should be. She tightened her grip on the handle of her weapon. I can fix that.

“Fence!”

But each time they crashed together, both lights flashed to life on the scoring box. Natsuki, increasingly frustrated, grew more aggressive with each double-score, determined to gain the upper hand. But Sato refused to back down, meeting each lunge with a quick parry and quicker riposte. Finally, with the score tied at 4-4, Natsuki decided to change tactics. Teen boys never know where their limbs are. If I can hit this dude in the knee--hell, he might not even see me from all the way up there. And there's no way I'm losing to this beanpole.

“Score is, four all”--Sato raised his weapon in a courteous salute, which Natsuki hurried to copy--”thank you. En garde. Ready?” the director glanced at each of them. “Fence!”

Natsuki lunged forward once more, this time keeping her body low to the ground. Straight as an arrow, she plunged her weapon towards Sato's knee--which, suddenly, wasn't there. But there was a sudden, sharp pain in her forward foot, and Sato's scoring light blared to light one last time. Natsuki's shriek of rage mingled with Midori's howl of laughter.

“Ohhhhh shit he got you good! One second you were doing the splits and the next he shoooped both his legs together and--bahhahhahaha--fell point first onto your foot--”

Sato overhead and gave a shrug. “Toe touches are legal.”

“--and hilarious--”

Still stuck in her deep lunge, Natsuki somehow managed to glare at both of them at once. Mai, ever merciful, came to help her up.

“It was still a good bout,” she soothed, unclipping Natsuki from the reel. “Four points are way better than none. And now you know what to look out for!”

“Yeah, guys who fence like falling trees,” she muttered, over Sato's faint “it's legal!!” Midori stepped up to take her place opposite Fujiwara, followed by Mai against Momomiya. Both girls scored their fair share of points; Mai even pulled off a win after it grew apparent that Momomiya had just as much experience as the four of them had. And then the pool reshuffled; as Natsuki prepared to face Yamada, she realized they were in this for the long haul. Dammit, Midori. I mean, this is sort of fun, but I didn't sign up for a day-long battle...this better be the only round…

It wasn't. After wrapping up all sixteen of the five-point bouts, Midori shepherded them towards the next strip, where a surprise was waiting. A few more Fuuka girls had evidently been persuaded to join the fun, and Mai took the end of the reel from her classmate Nina with a small smile.

“All done here?” asked Mai cheerfully, without a hint of the exhaustion that Natsuki was stubbornly disguising.

“Done winning, you mean,” Chie grinned lopsidedly. “Nina and Arika fenced when they were little, and me and Ers are quick learners.” Gathering up her things, she waved her team along. “C’mon kids, our next victim's on Strip 10!”

Natsuki watched them go, her weariness forgotten. Well shit, how come they're doing so good? None of them are HiME... although I've always had a weird feeling about the one with the double buns…

“Nacchan!! You're up!” Midori's gratingly cheerful voice cut through her thoughts. A second later, Natsuki found herself facing a tall girl with blunt bangs and a long black ponytail, who promptly dispatched her with supernatural efficiency.

“Way to go, Yomi!” cheered a smaller brown-haired girl on the other side, as Natsuki stared after her in shock. “5-0!”

The rest of Natsuki's team seemed just as unsettled at her quick loss. “Not looking forward to that match,” muttered Midori. “She must be a Category--I mean, Rank A fencer. Only the really good people get their names printed on their jacket and knickers like that.” Sure enough, the name “ISAYAMA JPN” was marked in blue across the back of the girl called Yomi. Fortunately, no one else on her team seemed to be quite as skilled; their jackets and knickers blank, the other girls gave up several victories to Natsuki's group. They ended the round nearly equal in both points and bruises.

“One more round to go, kids!” Midori horse-collared Mai affectionately. “If we keep going on this trajectory, we’ll have the next round in the bag for sure! Now I think we actually--yeah, we stay here for the next one. Make 'em come to us!”

“Hopefully no fencing experts in this one,” Natsuki rubbed her neck. “That last girl was some kind of demon--oh hell, not you guys!” Their last opponents had arrived at the strip in the form of Reito, Tate, Takeda, and some other kendo guy Natsuki didn't know. Even as she stared adamantly in the opposite direction, Natsuki could sense Takeda flushing red like a traffic sign. Hey dingus, red usually means 'stop’--

Mikoto bounded over to Reito, who snatched her up in a bear hug. “Can we fight our own school?” she asked, now perched on Reito’s shoulders.

“It happens sometimes,” mumbled Tate, setting down his mask. “Luck of the draw. Didn't know you fenced, Mai.”

“Well, I do now," Mai shot back with a smirk. A few months ago, she would've snapped at Tate in irritation. But now, Natsuki realized, the two had long since settled into good-natured teasing. A look of concern flickered briefly across Mai’s face. “Are you doing ok?”

“Fine.” Tate gave a small and uncharacteristic smile. “When I was out with my knee I got bored and watched a bunch of fencing clips, I've been wanting to try it for a while. Don't worry, I'm taking it easy!” he added hastily, seeing Mai’s look of concern deepen.

“I'm keeping an eye on him, Mai,” Reito smiled graciously. “And I know Mai’s keeping an eye on you!” He swing Mikoto down onto her feet. “Let's get going.” The director motioned to Midori and Takeda to begin. The first several bouts went smoothly; the boys’ kendo training and the girls’ HiME abilities left them all well-matched. Natsuki pulled off a clean victory over the fourth kendo guy, who Reito introduced as Shimada. The first-year unfortunately seemed to be taking after Takeda, losing his wits completely when Natsuki accidentally body-slammed him on the first point.

“That's it, Natsuki, sex appeal!” giggled Mai, as Natsuki flushed almost as red as Takeda. The next bout paired up Mai and Tate, who faced each other with a grin.

“I’ll go easy on you,” Mai called down the strip.

“You’d better!” Tate responded. Mai blushed slightly and adjusted her glove, feigning indifference.

“Ready? Fence!” commanded the director. The first four points went smoothly enough, although Natsuki was unsurprised to see that they were all double-touches. Meanwhile, Midori was hastily calculating points.

“Ok so--” she stuck a pencil behind her ear-- "if we manage to score a point in the matches we have left...we might not come in last!”

“Last?!?” Natsuki was flabbergasted. “But we’ve been doing ok! We won a few of those! I wiped the floor with that Shimada kid!”

“Yeaaaaaaah, but most of the points we scored were doubles. So if you subtract the points scored against us from the points we scored, well…..” Midori shrugged. “At least I win my bet against Mr. H, look at all the people here!”

“Well maybe if we had more than a few hours’ notice we--” Natsuki's retort was cut off by a grunt of pain from the strip behind her. She turned to see Tate on the ground, Mai standing over him in horror.

“Oh god, are you ok?! Did I hit your knee?! I knew we shouldn't--”

“It's fine, Mai, really. I just over-extended on the lunge.” Tate gritted his teeth. “I’ll be fine in a few--”

“No, you won't be.” Reito's voice was gentle but firm. “The last thing we need is you aggravating that knee further. Hit the showers. No buts,” he added, as Tate opened his mouth to argue. Reito turned to the girls. “Do you ladies have a suggestion for a substitute? I gave the rest of the kendo team the day off, and they're all off-campus.”

“Akira!” Mikoto beamed.

Mai shook her head. “Doing rehab with Takumi. And you know he'd never leave his side.”

Mikoto thought again. “Shiho?”

Natsuki gritted her teeth. “Do you really want Shiho, armed with a sword, fighting Mai, after learning Tate got hurt while fencing her?” They all thought for a long moment.

Finally, Midori turned to Natsuki. “Call Nao.”

Natsuki was flabbergasted. “No way! You do it.”

“I don't have her number. Mikoto doesn't have a phone. And Mai--”

“I left it in the dorms.”

“So there you have it.” Midori prodded Natsuki in the chest. “You might want to go outside, it's so loud in here.”

“Fine.” Natsuki pulled out her phone and stomped off, grumbling. Once outside, she leaned against the wall and hit Nao’s number. Unfortunately, Nao picked up on the third ring.

“Weeeeell, to what do I owe the pleasure?” she purred.

Natsuki rolled her eyes. “We're doing a fencing tournament and we need a substitute. No experience necessary. You in?”

“Why? Can't beat those losers yourself?”

“It's for the other team, not us. The kendo guys.” she mumbled. Nao’s smirk was evident in her voice.

“Well, what good is it if I'm fighting with the boys instead of against them?” She sighed, and grew serious. “But for real, you know I don't do that stuff anymore. Kicking men's asses, I mean. This is too close to that for comfort, and I try to avoid temptation.”

Natsuki couldn't decide if the piety in her voice was fake or not. “Then what about Miyu? Is she around?”

“Oh sure, let's just send an android with a sword for an arm to fence a bunch of 15-year-olds. I'm sure that'd go down real well.

Natsuki ground her teeth. “Well fine then--”

“Oh, for that matter, should a bunch of genetically-enhanced magical girls really be competing with regular kids? Maybe I should tell--”

“Goodbye,” said Natsuki, snapping the phone shut. She rubbed her eyes. Whelp, those guys will have to figure out the sub. God, this day is never gonna end. She closed her eyes and leaned against the side of the building. After a long moment, she headed back in with a sigh. As she arrived back at the strip, she was surprised to see that Midori was already fencing again. They must've found someone. On the other side of the strip stood a tall and slender girl, her body aligned in a perfect fencing stance. Curiously, she was alive with motion but motionless all at once; her feet rocked back and forth in a series of endless advances and retreats, and yet no step was long enough to change her position on the strip. Her blade, too, was constantly engaged, sliding and winding around Midori’s like a snake, and yet making no move to strike. Natsuki could almost sense the stranger's smile behind her mask. Meanwhile, Midori was getting frustrated. Unable to get her weapon free, she struggled to find an opening wide enough to take a shot. Finally, with a roar of frustration, she retreated in two huge steps, bringing her perilously close to the end of the strip. And suddenly, the stranger struck. Faster that the eye could follow, she launched herself towards Midori, as if pulled along by her blade. A heartbeat later, she had dashed off the end of the strip--but not before her scoring light shrieked to life.

“Halt!” called the director. “Touch right. Five-zero, bout!” Natsuki groaned. Another shut-out. Damn, we should've put Yukino in on their side, we might’ve had a chance.

Surprisingly, Midori was grinning as she trotted back to the group. “Should've known she'd wipe the floor with me. I don't know why I didn't put her on this team in the first place.”

“Put who?” Natsuki was confused. Midori snorted.

“Oh come on, Natsuki. You can't tell me you didn't recognize--”

“Shizuru?!?”

Sure enough, the girl at the other end of the strip had just removed her mask, revealing the long brown hair and gentle smile of the student council president. “Fancy meeting you here, Natsuki,” she beamed, twisting to unclip her body cord from the reel. As Shizuru turned, Natsuki caught the words marked in blue across her back: “FUJINO JPN.” Of course she's good at this.

“I could say the same to you,” Natsuki mumbled. I didn't even think to call her... didn't she have student council shit to do today? It's Saturday...

Shizuru inclined her head slightly, as if reading her thoughts. “I finished my council work early, and when Reito called to check if I had time, I couldn't miss a chance to see my Natsuki in action.”

Natsuki scoffed, even as she blushed. “Well, you didn't miss much--”

“Oh, but I did,” purred Shizuru, her dangerous crimson eyes flickering over Natsuki in her tight white uniform. Natsuki flushed harder and bit down a grin as the director called the next bout.

“Now fencing, Minagi versus Takeda! On deck--” Wait. I didn't fence Tate yet. And if Shizuru's in for Tate, then--”

“Kuga versus Fujino!”

Was it possible to go red and go pale at the same time? Apparently.

“My, what a lovely shade of pink you are, Natsuki!” Shizuru called cheerfully, the smooth ripple of her voice betraying only slightly the disturbance beneath the surface. Catching her eye, Natsuki knew they were both thinking the same thing. The last time they had fought each other had been--well, it had been a while. As Mikoto prodded Takeda, she stepped around the strip to take Shizuru's hand.

“You ok with this?” She said softly, into her ear.

Shizuru squeezed her hand. “I am if Natsuki is,” she murmured, a faint anxiety flickering in her gorgeous eyes. “I didn't realize you hadn't fenced Tate yet. If you need to, we can stop whenever.” Natsuki’s heart glowed. God, I love this girl. After a heartbeat, she smiled, and reached up to smooth Shizuru's already perfect hair.

“Whenever I'm done winning, you mean.”

Shizuru's eyes widened only slightly, and she laughed. “That's my Natsuki.” She leaned down to kiss Natsuki on the cheek.

“Hey!! Lovebirds!” Midori roared, shattering the moment. Natsuki made a mental note to kick her ass. “You gonna fence or what?!”

Shizuru turned with a wink. “Go easy on me, darling.”

Fighting a smile, Natsuki strode to her end of the strip. Midori handed her the reel cord. “Remember, for the love of God, get a point. Just one, single, goddamn--”

“Wait. Before you fenced you said before that we only needed one point to not come in dead last...did you not score on Shizuru?!”

“Hell no. That's your job.” Midori grinned wolfishly, swatting Natsuki on the butt before Natsuki could form a retort. “Now go get 'er, tiger!”

“I will kick your ass,” Natsuki hissed, as she turned to face Shizuru.

“All set?” smiled the director. “Ok, test, please!” Shizuru held out the guard of her epee for Natsuki to hit. No scoring light went off, signalling that the weapon was properly wired to protect Shizuru's hand. After testing Natsuki's guard, Shizuru stepped back, raising her epee in salute.

“May the best Natsuki win,” she said cheerfully. Shaking her gleaming hair back from her face, she donned her mask. Natsuki--more than slightly entranced by Shizuru's graceful movements--came to her senses and clamped on her own mask.

The director smiled again, thumb over her stopwatch. “En garde!” Shizuru's body instantly and elegantly arrayed itself. Natsuki, feeling clumsy as a toddler, twisted herself into some semblance of the correct stance.

“Ready?” For a second, they locked eyes. Shizuru’s smile was as serene as a Noh mask, and Natsuki was enraptured. She almost always found it difficult to look Shizuru full in the face; it was rather like looking at the sun. But now, her perfect features partially eclipsed by her fencing gear... Natsuki hardly knew whether to sigh or shudder. And then, Shizuru winked.

“Fence!” All at once, Natsuki snapped to attention. Shit, ok, get this over with fast--she launched herself towards Shizuru, winding up to strike-- --as Shizuru's red light roared to life. Huh?!? Natsuki stood frozen, one foot in the air, right arm craned back like some dumb tropical bird. Her forearm stung slightly from Shizuru's strike. How the hell?! When the fuck--

“Score is, one-zero Fujino.” Shizuru inclined her head politely at the director's words. Natsuki could feel her smile. Dammit, must've moved too big... small moves, small moves, small moves-- The director resumed the bout. This time, when Natsuki darted forward, she kept her body as close to the en garde position as possible. She advanced relentlessly, twitching her epee rhythmically in search of an opening. Up, down, side, side, up, down, side... Shizuru, seemingly unperturbed, stood her ground. Ok, if I can just fucking lunge straight forward and hit her I'll--

“Halt!” sang out the director. “Two-zero, Fujino!”

“When the hell--?!” Natsuki gaped at Shizuru, who was already returning to the starting line. Suddenly, she realized that her palm, the one in which she held the grip of her epee, was aching.

“Natsuki gave me a handy opening,” Shizuru smiled innocently. Natsuki groaned, dismayed by the pun but impressed by the hit. She was timing my wrist movements and got me in the hand. Goddammit, guess I'll watch that too-- But the third and fourth point passed much the same. Shizuru won her next point on a toe touch, pulling off the hit much more elegantly than Shimada had way back at the start of this whole mess. On the fourth touch, Shizuru barely moved at all. With an air of nonchalance and a disturbingly powerful snap of the wrist, she whipped the tip of her epee straight over the top of Natsuki’s guard and into her arm. Behind Natsuki, Midori danced around in agitation, equal parts impressed and enraged.

“Jeezus that was cool, you couldn't even see that last one, dammit--Natsuki! Score a point! I beg of you!”

“You can do it, Natsuki!” called Mai, bravely attempting to make herself heard over Midori.

“One point and we won't be total all-time losers!” Midori pushed Mai aside. This is the last point, Natsuki realized, sweat running down the side of her face. What the hell am I doing wrong?? I keep attacking, and Shizuru barely does anything until she has t-- And finally, it hit her. Of course Shizuru didn't do anything until she absolutely had to. It's literally her entire life philosophy-- Natsuki wanted to kick herself. She waits for the other guy to attack her, and then she uses their attack against them-- She realized she was staring at Shizuru, who waved cheerily from her side of the strip. So that means, if I don't attack--

“En garde, ladies,” called the director, tightening her blonde ponytail. “Score is four-zero, Fujino. Ready?” Shizuru inclined her head gracefully.

Behind Natsuki, Midori roared-- “one fucking point--”

Natsuki met Shizuru's eyes, and smiled. “Fence!” It took all of Natsuki's self-control not to fling herself at Shizuru, as she'd done every point so far. For a heartbeat, they were both frozen in place--Shizuru was clearly anticipating another attack. Her brown eyes widened, only slightly; and then she understood, and smiled.

“Very good, Natsuki,” Shizuru crooned, low enough that the director couldn't hear.

Natsuki fought down a blush, yanking her head firmly back into the game. Suddenly, Shizuru's blade was much closer; the steel had a reddish tint she'd been too busy to notice before. Shizuru, she realized, was changing tactics. Whereas the previous points has seen her feet constantly in motion yet moving nowhere, she was now sliding gracefully towards Natsuki, her steps forward decidedly longer than her steps back. I've got to move. Her feet took a second longer to obey. Finally, she forced herself to copy Shizuru's motion--tiny step forward, tiny step back, tiny step forward-- But Shizuru kept advancing, bringing that curious crimson blade much too close for comfort. Natsuki took a step back, trying to keep up her rocking motion. And still, Shizuru crept forward, forward, forward; Natsuki had no choice but to keep retreating. Shizuru's blade twisted and writhed around her own, red steel on silver, promising an attack that Shizuru seemed to have no intention of making.

“Natsuki!! Do a thing!” Midori bellowed, and all at once Natsuki realized that Shizuru had backed her to the very end of the strip. She gritted her teeth, the edge of her narrow fencing shoe scraping the line painted on the floor. Do what thing, Midori?! How do I--

And then, Shizuru struck. As if in slow motion, Natsuki saw tension coil up Shizuru's back leg, snaking up around the arm that held her weapon. Before Natsuki could do so much as breathe, the tension released, and suddenly Shizuru was on top of her, blade flashing. Natsuki just had time to glimpse those smiling red eyes before she squeezed her own eyes shut, stabbing forward--

And Shizuru had passed her, the force of her attack sending her skidding off the end of the strip. Natsuki's brain caught up with her eyes, and she realized that her own counter-thrust had carried her to the center line. Struggling to catch her breath, she straightened up. “God, Shizuru, did you have to--” she caught sight of the scoring box and stopped short, stunned by the twin lights glowing there.

“Double touch!” confirmed the director, penciling two tickmarks on her score sheet. “Score is--five, one, bout!”

“It seems Natsuki isn't phased by me anymore,” came Shizuru's voice in Natsuki's ear. Natsuki turned to see Shizuru with her mask under her arm, hand outstretched. Natsuki gripped it hard.

“Sometimes I like to surprise you.” Natsuki pulled her close and kissed her on the cheek. As she turned towards where the director was holding out the score sheet for her to sign, Natsuki could have sworn she saw Shizuru blush.

“Ayyyy Natsuki!!” Midori seized her, rumpling her hair roughly. “You did a thing! Don't know what the thing was, but it worked! We're not in last place--”

“Midori, who the hell is in last place?!” Natsuki fought her way free.

“Eh, those guys, probably,” said Midori carelessly, hiking a thumb back over her shoulder. For the first time, Natsuki noticed a group of eight-year-olds, giggling as one of their members tripped over a loose shoelace. Natsuki was dumbfounded.

“Midori, those--are--children--”

“No, they were the enemy, and now they've been defeated!” Midori clenched her fist in triumph.

Natsuki rolled her eyes and turned towards Mai and Mikoto. “Let's get out of here.” She gathered up her equipment.

“Mm, I should check on Tate,” said Mai. “Midori, can we skip the awards?”

“Eh, sure. It's been a long day. And hey--” added Midori, suddenly looking much more like a teacher. “Thanks for helping me out. I uh...I appreciate it.”

Mai smiled. “It was fun, Midori. No problem.”

“Thank god!” The glint returned to Midori's eye. “Because I bet we could kick some serious ass together at water polo--”

“I'm out!” Natsuki stomped away, leaving the other three howling with laughter behind her. At the other end of the strip, Shizuru was just sweeping back her perfect hair.

“Ready to go?” Natsuki asked, her voice low. “I could use a bath...and someone to wash my back. My arms are killing me.”

This time Shizuru's flush was undeniable, but she answered with her usual smooth grace. “Only if Natsuki does the same. Now that we're in the habit of double-touches, after all…” Natsuki reddened too, and Shizuru laughed. She kissed the top of Natsuki's head. “Shall we, darling?”

“We shall,” said Natsuki, with a small smile. Hand in hand, they walked together towards the door.