Metal flashed. Blade clanged against blade in a short sequence, accented by the softer sound of feet hopping to and fro on a mat. His opponent shifted, and Miki lunged. The opening was small, but he had needed to use less than that before, and he was quickly rewarded for the risk. His blade bent as it made contact with his opponent, and the light flashed on as the judge made her call. He shook hands with his opponent, pulling off his mask as he did so and claiming a deep breath. They departed together, but while his opponent would gather their things and depart, Miki meant to obtain water and some rest to prepare for the next round. The final round.
His ears buzzed; his pulse was magnified to unsettling levels, but he counted each breath in an attempt to at least bring that under control. This was exactly what he had trained for, he reminded himself crossly. He should already be in control. He needed to be, especially given that there wasn’t any question of who his opponent would be. Granted, he hadn’t heard the match’s result before he played his own, but regardless, he couldn’t imagine a different outcome. He had mastered pre-match nerves long ago, or so he wanted to believe. But they never went away entirely, even when his opponent wasn’t someone he had taken lessons from for years.
Biting his lip, he slipped into the men’s locker room and immediately started for his water bottle. After a long drink, he lifted it up above his head and gave it a soft squeeze, letting water trickle over his forehead. It was more refreshing than it had any right to be. He closed his eyes and sighed gratefully.
The sound of muted clapping started abruptly behind him. He nearly squeezed the entire bottle over his head. Thankfully, he caught himself and set it down with deliberate delicacy.
“Congratulations,” Juri said. She was still clapping, despite the awkwardness of doing so with her fencing helmet tucked under one arm. She wore a smile that only just barely hovered away from a smirk, but even with such restraint, she did nothing to hide her amusement.
Despite all that, she meant what she said, or she wouldn’t have said it. Not now, to him. He smiled back at her, more amiably. “I take it you won yours, too?”
“Of course.” She brushed her hair back over her shoulder, and Miki couldn’t help but observe that her curls, as always, were pristine. No one should look that way after so much time in a sweaty helmet.
“Congratulations to you, too,” he said. His smile took on a wry note. “I suppose we’ll see if the student can surpass the master at last.”
Juri relaxed, positioning her helmet so that it dangled over her fingers and she could cross her arms. “Oh, so is that why you’re here?”
He started, tilting his head slightly. “I wasn’t being serious. Why I’m here… It’s a fencing competition.”
“And you’ve never been particularly competitive,” she told him, arching an eyebrow. “I had the impression that you didn’t like the pressure, so you must have a reason. Maybe it’s something other than me.”
“That is possible, yes.”
He laughed, and so did she. Not just quiet chuckling, but loud, full laughter. It was a round sound, not melodic, but like bells struck wildly. His cheeks turned pink, and his own laughter turned into a muffled cough.
She took her time, letting the peals of laughter soften into silence and leaving him to stand wide-eyed until she was ready to address him.
“I’m sorry, that was selfish of me.” She sounded, surprisingly, apologetic, though she had hardly stopped smiling. With an apparently unintentional flourish, a simple result of how she moved, she set her helmet down on the bench and wandered close to him.
“Ah, no, I understand… it is unusual…” Miki murmured, glancing downward. To his relief, there were black tiles on the floor. He began counting them carefully as he listened to Juri.
“Hardly. In most cases, it’s normal to want to test your skills.” She said, shrugging elegantly.
“Of course.” His brow furrowed quizzically. “So then why even ask?”
“I was under the impression that you were mainly interested in the exercise.”
He was silent for a moment. Then, somewhat hesitantly, he pointed out, “This isn’t the first time I’ve fought you. As a duelist, it was even more important, but I don’t remember you questioning my motivations then, or mentioning some lack of competitiveness while we were competing.”
“We all had our motivations then. It wasn’t just a club activity, any more than the Student Council was only a club,” she replied. As blunt as she was, she didn’t seem to have minded the question.
“…This isn’t my first tournament, either. And I’ve placed well before, as you know.” He crossed his arms back at her, meeting her gaze now. If she was going to laugh at him like that, he at least deserved to know why.
She inclined her head. “Oh, yes. It’s impressive how much you’ve grown.”
This time, his entire face turned red back through the ears. Pausing, she looked him up and down thoroughly, then nodded to herself. “And in all this time, I think this is the first time I’ve seen you fence for yourself.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, if you want to be so straightforward… You advanced with your impeccable technique before this point. Coldly seeking an achievement, at most. But now…”
He stared at her helplessly, mouth open, but lacking the words to add even if he would have wanted to interrupt her.
“Now, you fight like you want something. Each match means something to you. So I finally have a real competition to look forward to.”
“Ah,” he said. Then he smiled, decidedly brighter than before. In a gesture of good sportsmanship, he offered her a hand.“If you’ll be enjoying yourself, I’m glad.”
She waved him off, however. “Wait. I didn’t actually answer your question, did I? I asked because I wanted to know who to thank for the change.”
He shuffled a hand behind his head, smile fading into something more sheepish. “In that case, maybe it is only fair to thank you, Juri…”
“Oh? Don’t tell me that you did it to impress me”
“No!” He exclaimed, then coughed nervously. “But you stayed so driven, even after everything finished. So I used you for inspiration.”
There wasn’t anything so bad about that, perhaps. Yet it sounded even more awkward aloud, there was no denying it, and to say he used her felt both accurate and unfortunate. It would have helped if he really knew what he meant himself. She had cornered him into admitting something to her that he hadn’t yet brought himself to understand.
“Good, I should have known you’d be smarter about it.” This time, she was the one to offer her hand, and he took it.
“I’m glad to hear you have faith in me.” He shook hands with her firmly, but she didn’t let go immediately.
“I expect to see your best out there.” She told him. It wasn’t a command so much as a statement of fact, and she had an eager gleam in her eyes. In other places, that might have worried him, but he could only feel his own heart pounding in return. He swallowed, but a burst of laughter overwhelmed him – not as raucous as Juri had surprised him with, but certainly more spirited than before.
“I don’t think I could give you anything less.”