"Buds-san, get up."

The SI could only grunt as he tried to control his breathing. His arms and legs were numb, and his lungs were burning. Damn, he knew he was out of shape, but he didn't think it was this bad. Kneeling down on the ground, he could barely look up to see Tsuko (looking pretty tall from his perspective).

She wore the same red and white Aoyama uniform, though her sleeves were folded and tied above elbow. She had a shinai on her waist, and her ponytailed hair was peeking at her left shoulder. Her round glasses looked a bit off, especially when she was trying to mirror Tsuruko's neutral glance. The nuanced worry on the lines of her forehead gave her feelings away, though. She looked like she was regretting putting him through some serious hell under Tsuruko's orders to 'train his foundation'.

He could use that.

"Tsuko-san. . . come. . . on. . ." Buds tried to reply, taking deep breathes almost after every word. "You. . . never. . . made. . . run. . . that fast. Its. . . a bit much. . . isn't it?"

"If you have enough energy to talk that much, Buds-san, you have enough energy to finish your run," Tsuko declared.

"You're. . . a slave driver. . . you know that?"

Tsuko just gave him a smile. "Buds-san. You are this close in finishing your run. Do you want me to increase it a bit more?"

Buds swallowed. "How about. . . some motivation? Like. . . a reward, if I finish the. . . road work?"

Tsuko blinked, and put two of her hands on her hips. "Reward?" she asked with a slight exasperation on her tone. "What kind?"

"I'd settle. . . for a kiss," Buds smiled at her.

Tsuko's form slackened a bit, as if she was struck though only for a second though. She immediately gave him half a glare, and half a smirk. "I have a shinai with me, Buds-san. And from your prone position, I know the perfect place where to utilize it."

Buds almost laughed. He bought a few seconds he needed as he finally got more feeling on his leg, stood up, and jogged back to the Aoyama compound finishing his roadwork for the day.

"I'd. . . go for. . . cheerleaders or. . . flying confetti," Buds muttered as he sat down in one of the stone benches inside the grounds.

Tsuko looked at him, and shook her head. "Don't forget your stretches. And Tsuruko-sama will be waiting for you at the front gate."

"Aye-aye, Tsuko-san," Buds replied, finally catching his breath. "If I tell you right now that you are the prettiest woman who I ever seen, would you take it easier on me tomorrow?"

Tsuko raised an eyebrow. . . and her shinai. Buds raised his hands defensively.

"Whoa, whoa, joke Tsuko-dono. Please don't punish me!"

"You're hopless," she just said. She gently poked the shinai gently at his arm, and said, "Don't make her wait," and left Buds to his devices.

He never saw Tsuko blush.

Buds ended that morning's training with a little more stretching before he left to his quarters, and went straight for the shower. He was tempted to take a cold one but he opted to take a warmer shower as per Tsuko's suggestion, and as the warm water began to hit his body, he thought back to the day when his training began.

It was a week ago, to be exact, the very same day Tsuruko had told him to follow Tsuko's supervision to 'train the foundation'. When they had gone home that day, Tsuko had visited him at his lodgings, and explained to him the basic tenets of Shinmei-ryū.

"A sword is nothing but a tool. The real weapon is the mind and body who holds it. A practitioner is the one that that gives the sword its value and its soul," she had said. "There are five characteristics that build a practitioner's foundation: flexibility, speed, strength, endurance, and spiritual fortitude."

"Basically, the foundation is one's body," Buds had replied.

"Exactly."

Well, it couldn't get any more obvious than that. Besides, Buds had read far enough at Negima to know that she was not kidding. Most Aoyama practitioners he knew had the almost ridiculous ability to negate projectiles, skilled with not just the sword but with other weapons (including mop decks and chopsticks if he remembered correctly). They were also pretty dangerous unarmed, using simple karate-do disciplines to advanced grappling techniques.

After her short introduction of Shinmei-ryū philosophy, Tsuko had led him into the Aoyama grounds, the same area where Tsuruko did her morning katas and had given him two sticks so he could demonstrate what he knew.

Buds tried to get the feeling of his old form back. Making sure his feet were spaced, and his toes slightly bouncing, he slowly practiced the sixteen basic strikes of Arnis. Afterwards, he began to do katas, using multiple hits while keeping his legs on the move after each strike.

He had heard that retraining in martial arts is like riding a bike; that the muscle memory still lingers and after a few moments, he would remember how he was supposed to strike, where he was supposed to move. Either that was a lie, or Buds was really unlucky. Even doing the forms he had known, his body didn't feel like they registered. His strikes always seemed off, and his foot positioning was all over the place. Thankfully, Tsuko was knowledgeable enough to see what Buds was doing.

"Combining two fighting forms," she had said. "Complicated."

Buds had smiled a bit. "I already had gotten it down to a comfortable level before I. . . well. . ."

"Let yourself go?" Tsuko had suggested. "Okay. I know where to start then."

And started, they did. The first three days weren't so bad. She allocated morning training, before Tsuruko had to go to the Academy, with stretching exercises as warm ups before explaining to him the workout that consisted of developing his lower body.

She made him do squatting steps to lower his center of gravity and strengthen his legs, with his arms tied to his back of his neck, as the first aspect of training. Second was roadwork to build endurance, alternating with brisk power walks and jogging for cardio.

At the Academy, Buds had thought he could relax a bit. But Tsuruko had other ideas. She ordered him to the gymnasium while she started her classes, and advised Miyabi to have the girls use their free time to make sure Buds wasn't slacking. And if he was, well. . .

"You really don't want to know, bodyguard-san," Tsuruko had declared.

At first, he thought he could continue his leg training, but when he realized that he was going to be stuck there until late afternoon he began to practice his sixteen strikes and his stances, trying to get the feel of how they were supposed to be executed, and kept doing stretches as a downtime. At the same time, he practiced jabs, hooks and straights.

Miyabi was a delight to talk to. A year younger than Tsuruko, she is vice captain of. . . well, Buds was never too sure. She had explained that it wasn't the average kendo club and Tsuruko created a place that would teach the basics and philosophy of Shinmei-ryū. Anyone who was interested was allowed to join in. All that was required was enough self discipline to complete the activities with the group and while they were not as intensive as the training he was receiving, it had enough to help anyone keep in shape.

He had also met Mayumi, the girl who joked about being okay to be ogled by him. She had a flirty personality, but it really came out more 'friendly' than intimate, and she was one of the few who would talk to him openly. While others had guarded their words or actions around him, she would gossip little things with him, and she was a well of knowledge ranging from relationships between students and where the best place to play arcade near the academy.

The latter was pretty good info. Besides, it was rare to see some honest to goodness female gamers.

Going home, Tsuko continued the training, this time conditioning his upper body. She gave him a pair of grippers to work on his grip, and gave him a pair of weighted sticks (and advised him to carry them with him, and always use them for training) to practice his strikes, had him do pushups (with varying leverage so he could complete a set), and also sit ups.

For three days, the working regiment was tough but doable. Everything was done to slowly ease his body to build up stamina and strengthen back his muscles. Buds thought that he would be doing this for the whole week before Tsuko would intensify his workout.

He was wrong.

Tsuko suddenly began increasing the work load at the fourth day. Lower body exercises now used weights attached to his legs and torso. Roadwork now consisted on alternating between jogging and sprinting, no longer including brisk walking. His grip training now consisted of carrying traditional clay pots filled with water (of varying levels) by their narrow necks. Upper body work consisted of using sophisticated exercise and weight machines at a gym (which Aoyama's own. Buds had wondered if there was anything in Kyoto they didn't own).

Each day, she began increasing intensity of the exercises. While the weights themselves didn't increase, she instead opted to increase the workload with more repetitions and going farther distances for roadwork cranking it up to its maximum on the last two days.

It all led to a natural conclusion. Like today, when he had dropped to the ground out of exhaustion just a few meters shy from his destination. And it wasn't even the end of his day.

Hurrah.

After dressing up, he hurried to the front gate, only to spot Tsuruko in front of the usual black Mercedes waiting for him. He winced. "Tsuruko-sama, good morning!" he greeted.

"You're late," Tsuruko replied, staring at him.

Buds scratched the back part of his head. "Uh. . . yes ma'am. Sorry ma'am." And he opened the rear passenger door immediately, and after ushering Tsuruko in, Buds once again took his place in the front, greeting Inari, the very same driver who had scared the crap out of him the first day he accompanied Tsuruko to the Academy.

On the way (in normal speed this time, thank God), Buds took a moment to relax, his back sinking at the backrest of the comfortable car seat, and closed his eyes. Tsuruko seemed to have noticed.

"You look tired," she said from the back. "Tsuko is working you hard."

Buds began opening and closing his hands. "Yes she is," he replied. He paused. "Maybe too hard. Aoyama-sama, maybe you could ask her to, uh, you know. . ."

"If you still have energy to have me ask her to go easier on you, then maybe she isn't working you that hard."

"Ouch," Inari chuckled.

"Shut up you," Buds muttered to her.

As they arrived, the academy was bustling, as always. With almost a week of accompanying Tsuruko through the crows of what Buds dubbed as 'nubile super models', he got used to their presence enough that he stopped catching himself from staring. Or so he hoped.

Tsuruko took the route towards the gymnasium where she would drop Buds off again. Considering the time and day, he was pretty sure Miyabi and the rest of club members were already doing their warm-ups, jogging in their bloomers (which he got used to real quick as well) or just stretching.

It was neither. The gymnasium was filled with sounds of grunts, shouts and whistling of air. Most of Tsuruko's club members were paired off, wearing kendo sparring uniforms (complete with armor) and were facing each other. Some of them were given instructions by Miyabi (who wore the usual PE blomers) or her assistants. The rest just kneeled around circles of a sparring pair, watching and whispering.

When Miyabi noticed Tsuruko, she whistled loud enough to halt activities, and gathered them to meet the Aoyama heir.

"Good morning, Aoyama-sama!" they advised.

"Hey Buds," Mayumi greeted. She looked formal in her kendo uniform, and even her usually loose hair was hidden underneath the thick bandana. Some of her friends greeted him too.

"Hey guys," he waved at them. "Sparring now eh?"

"Yep! You should join us!" Mayumi invited. Some laughed, which Buds hoped was directed to Mayumi's joke or outburst and not them being unappreciative to his (honestly) mediocre fighting skills.

"Maybe next time," was all he said. "I'm just surprised though. Don't you guys have classes?"

"We have a. . . I guess you can call it a tournament in three weeks time," Miyabi replied. "Sempai made a deal with the faculty to give us a bit of a leeway in our schedules."

"Specifically they are giving the first period of Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays of the next two weeks for club activities," Tsuruko supplied. "As long as academic performance does not degrade, they are willing to give us leeway." She then turned to the others. "As most of you know, the upcoming tournament isn't. . . orthodox. You will all be competing in against different disciplines. So, Buds-san?"

Buds, who was on the process of bringing his things to a corner of the track field straightened up immediately. "Uh, yes, Aoyama-sama?"

"You will spar with them this morning."

Buds blinked, and nodded. "Oh, okay." And after a moment, "Wait, what?"

"You will spar with them," Tsuruko repeated.

Buds looked at the girls all looking at him expectedly complete with kendo uniform and sparring armor. Most looked neutral, some looking like they had warmed up on the idea and others looked pretty apprehensive. He agreed with the latter.

"Tsuruko-sama, maybe now is a bad time. They are preparing for a tournament, and maybe springing this to them may not be such a good idea," he said.

"I have informed them of sempai's plan yesterday, Buds-san," Miyabi said, smiling slightly. "She called me a day before yesterday."

"I. . . wasn't informed," Buds mumbled, looking at Tsuruko, who just returned his gaze with a neutral one. "But still, I'm not. . . well, that skilled. Wouldn't having them spar a lesser opponent be, uh, detrimental?"

"Not to worry," Miyabi replied. "We had planned to have you spar with our least experienced, and work our way up. That way, we can asses who will benefit from sparring with you, and who wouldn't."

"Uh. . ."

Tsuruko cut Buds off. "Bodyguard-san, I have procured pads you could use for the spar," she said as she took out a bundle wrapped in cloth. "You can wear them over your training clothes. You can use the bathroom to change. And be quick as well."

"Um, Aoyama-sama, maybe-"

She raised an eyebrow. "You can either change in private, or I will dress you, here and now."

Well, yikes, Buds thought as he immediately gathered his bag and grabbed the bundle from Tsuruko's hands and went to the men's comfort room (oddly, why one was there, he never knew. He hadn't seen any males in this Academy. . . or maybe he's just distracted with so many young women here). In there, he changed out of his suit and pants and wore his training clothes, which basically consisted of loose red jogging pants, white long shirt, and a pair of trainers.

He unfolded the padding to study. It mostly covered his upper body. It consisted of shoulder pads, chest and abdomen plates, forearm guards, some fingerless gloves (the one with padding only in the knuckles and backhand), and a karate-do helmet (which was like any helmet, but the face was covered in a half dome hard transparent plastic). The helmet was easy. All he had to do was put it in his head, and tie it through his chin. The pads, though, gave him some trouble. While the shoulder pads and the upper body padding were connected, they had to be tied up on the back.

Buds tried to wear it as best as he could, but there was some slack. Looking at himself in the mirror, he turned his body, and jumped a few times. There was definitely some sliding of the armor, but generally stayed where it was supposed to. Forearm guards were easier, and after he put on the gloves, he walked out of the bathroom only for Miyabi to greet him.

"Waiting for me. Really?" Buds raised an eyebrow.

Miyabi just grinned. "Sempai seemed to have an idea you may have just started writing your resignation letter and run away."

"Yeah. Almost went for harikiri, but I couldn't bother," Buds said. "Only you though?"

"Yuna's guarding the window at the back."

"Huh. Can't fault her preparedness," Buds sighed. "I won't run away. Just. . . you know, go easy on the rookie, eh?"

"You need more confidence, Buds-san," Miyabi replied. "And someone to help you with that."

"With what?"

She pointed at his padding. "It's loose." She approached him. "You have to-"

"Whoa, whoa!" Buds turned, his arms coming up defensively. "It's okay, Miyabi-san."

Miyabi raised an eyebrow, and crossed her arms. "Really?"

"Uh, yeah. I like them loose, you know," and Buds did some shadow boxing. "You know, keep it nice and free."

"You can't reach the back, can you?"

"What, of course I can, why wouldn't I. . . uh, yeah, can't reach the back."

Miyabi laughed softly. "Honestly, Buds-san, there's nothing wrong in asking for help. Turn around." Buds reluctantly turned. "You know, acting like that really annoys people who are honestly trying to help you."

"Are you, uh, annoyed?" Buds asked.

Miyabi snorted as she untied the knot. "Really annoyed. In fact, so annoyed I'm going pull this cords so tightly, you won't be able to breathe. Relax!" she muttered the last part when Buds began to struggle. "Just kidding. I'm just going to tighten it enough do it won't go flying during the spar."

"Okay, but. . . uh, Miyabi-san," Buds said.

"Yes?" she asked as she finished unlacing the padding and began to re-knot them again.

"My safe word is 'mangoes'."

Miyabi paused. "What?"

After Miyabi tightened the pads, he went back to the gymnasium and walked in the circle of gathered girls of Tsuruko's club. He felt the weight of the pair of bamboo sticks he was given (which basically looked like shorter shinai). They were lighter than the weighted sticks Tsuko had given him, so he used the time to twirl them around, practice some strikes. He also stretched his arms and legs. The padding was spaced well enough to allow freedom of movement, yet tight enough not to be out of place.

Still, Buds thought, with all the ladies around, one had to ask, "Okay, honestly, do I look silly?"

The girls all looked at each other, and began to shake their heads unconvincingly.

"Yeah, thought so," Buds muttered. He looked around the circle and spotted Tsuruko, kneeling beside Miyabi. "Alright, so. . . how do we do this?"

"There will be no real restrictions on using any fighting forms. Use whatever you are most comfortable in. Fight ends with the fighter that gets two out of three, either by a clean hit, or by submission," Tsuruko looked around. "Remember, this is a spar. Please try to avoid seriously injuring each other. If possible, aim for the padding. Miyabi and I will be proctoring to make sure no one gets seriously hurt. Understood?"

"Yes ma'am," Buds replied, and the girls also said at the same time, "Yes Aoyama-sama."

"First off, Mayumi," Miyabi announced. "Step forward."

"Yes!" Mayumi replied, standing up from her position. She carried her helmet (not the same as Buds. Hers was the same as those used in kendo tournaments) under her left arm, and her sword on her right arm, on her back.. "Hey Buds. You and me eh?"

"Um, yeah," Buds blinked. "Are you-?"

"Just joined last year, so, yeah, I'm the junior," Mayumi replied as she kneeled down again, placed her shinai on the ground in front of her. She then bowed. "Please."

Buds raised his right fist, still holding his weapon, banged it on his chest and gave a slight bow, not taking his eyes off her. "Please."

Mayumi smiled, and put her helmet on, and tied it. She grabbed her shinai, and stood up. "Ready," she said, her voice clear, if not slightly muffled from her headgear.

"Buds-san, you ready?" Miyabi asked.

"Ready," Buds replied.

"Best two out of three," Miyabi declared. "Fight with honor!"

Mayumi positioned her arms and shinai at her right side, her feet slowly encircling her surroundings. Buds himself moved to position as well, placing his hands so the stick on his left was covering his left side of his face, and his right weapon position almost similar to Mayumi's. His feet swept a bit forward, steadying him, readying him for almost anything.

For a moment, there was nothing but Mayumi and him. His eyes kept moving from her weapon, her foot positioning, and finally her shoulders. He could hear his breathe inside the enclosed helmet, and the muted sounds of tortured wood as he tightened his grip on his sticks.

After what seemed to be an hour, Mayumi moved. She shouted as she raised her shinai above her head, and charged right in.

The attack was too obvious, too telegraphed. Buds shifted his shoulders, hips and legs as he let his left weapon deflect the overhead strike, and at the same time, his right weapon smacked right at the side of Mayumi's helmet lightly.

She reeled back, most likely stunned, and out of balance. Buds dug in deeper. Using his left and right weapons in quick strikes, he hit her helmet again, WHAP! WHAP! WHAP!, with the last hit making a resounding echo.

"STOP!" Miyabi shouted. "Score, Buds-san."

Buds moved back from Mayumi, who still looked a bit shocked as she tried to stand up.

"Ouch, nice," Mayumi declared. "You're faster than I thought!"

"Uh, thanks?"

Miyabi didn't sound pleased though. "What was that, Mayumi? Take this seriously already!"

"Wait," Buds blinked. "Mayumi-san. . . weren't you serious?"

"Uh, I will be, no worries!" she gave a nervous laugh. "Anyways, ready!"

Buds wondered for a moment if he was being underestimated, and hesitantly said, "Alright. Ready."

Miyabi nodded, and once again, said "Fight!"

Mayumi went to position again. Buds took a few moments before he readied himself as well. For a moment, the two figures slowly began to inch towards the center in silence, and Buds wondered where Mayumi will attack this time.

"Hey, Buds-san," Mayumi said. "How about I invite you to my room, so I can show you how I can really handle a sword."

"Sure, that's great. . ." Buds replied absent-mindedly, until he realized what she just said. "Wait, what?"

Then she struck. Her shinai came down faster and less readable than before. Buds was barely to block and deflect it as she suddenly went side stepped, and tried to take a whack at his ribs.

"I have been practicing, conditioning my hands with different oils and creams," she continued. "Rub it nice and-" she deflected Buds counter attack aimed at her shoulder, "- slow. Up-" and she slammed her shinai down at him, hard, "- and down."

Holy crap, Buds thought as he blocked the overhead strike, and dodged another. Her moves were not telegraphed anymore, and she was putting some good combinations strikes. It was nothing he could dodge or deflect, but it was the distraction that was making her attacks very effective.

Seduction. She was beautiful no doubt, but her body was unflattering in that kendo uniform. Though she couldn't incorporate any alluring hip swinging, or emphasize any of her assets in combat, it didn't matter as her voice took care of everything.

Imagine a voice as sweet as honey and with the texture of velvet, deep enough to hide her young age while exuding confidence and tease to catch his attention. He had expected it from a professional courtesan who had seduced and bettered men far older and more experienced than he was. It was a sound that would find itself in any male's fantasy, one that whispered promises of heaven, rapture, and pleasure beyond.

Even though she may know, in a level, that Buds himself won't really act on it having known each other better for the past week, she knew the tactic was still valid. It may be double standard, but it is a certain truth. He was a male, relatively young, and therefore had a healthy appetite for the opposite sex. And when Tsuruko had first introduced him to them, he had shown he was attracted to them.

Her current tactic was based in using that against him. But, Buds thought with a small grin, fighting like this was a bit of a double edged sword, especially for someone as young as her. Like any tactic, turn it inward, it will collapse.

"I would love to come to your room, Mayumi-chan," Buds tried to keep his voice steady, letting a little excitement gruff his voice. It wasn't hard. God, that sounded bad, but it wasn't hard. "I would love to feel your hands and see how they handle a sword," and he slowly began to speed up his strikes, slowly putting her on defensive, "And while you show case your skill with your hands, I will also my skill with my tongue."

There was a slight hesitation on her defense. "Really? Like what? Kisses?"

"If you like. Imagine, slow, gentle kisses, slowly working on your cheeks, your neck, and your sweet lips," Buds replied as he positioned on her right, positioning his legs to briefly touch hers.

Maymi was backing up, her steps were becoming clumsy. Her voice slowly broke. "My lips eh?"

This time, their arms almost came in contact. There was a slight feel of fabric, but it was enough. "I know how to give a perfect Australian kisses," Buds gave his most confident smile. "It's like French kisses. Except down under."

"W-what?"

That's when he pounced in, his arms moving in sync as they hit and aimed the left ribs, the stomach, left shoulder, and ended with two strikes to the head that drove Mayumi off balanced as she fell on the matt.

"STOP!" Miyabi shouted again. "Winner: Buds-san."

Buds immediately helped Mayumi up, who removed her helmet once she was back on her feet. She didn't look worse for wear, sweating a bit, and flushed.

"You okay?" Buds asked. "I didn't overdo the strikes right?"

"It was fine," Mayumi replied, taking a few deep breathes. She wouldn't meet his eyes.

Yikes. "Uh, did I overdo the. . . you know?"

Mayumi looked at him for a moment, and then gave a small smile. "My fault. I started it."

"You got that seductive voice down, you know that?"

"Best way I could keep up with anyone here really," she replied.

"Works on girls?" Buds asked, impressed.

"Like you wouldn't believe," Mayumi whispered only for him to hear it. She then bowed to him. "Thank you for sparing me."

Buds bowed as well. "Thank you for letting me win."

Mayumi picked up her shinai, and looked at him for a moment. She hesitated. "Hey, if you survive, would you be interested to eat out with me and some of my friends?"

"If you mean by lunch, yeah, sure," Buds replied and then blinked. "Uh, what do you mean, survive?"

Mayumi began to walk back to her place where she had been kneeling earlier, but not without saying, "We had an audience you know."

Buds blinked once more, and looked around him. The girls mostly tried to avoid eye contact with him, with some looking a bit flushed. He felt slightly worried about that. A handful seemed unfazed by the whole thing, which he thought was a good sign, but with just a glance at Tsuruko, he felt his blood freeze.

She looked at him with almost cold calculating fury.

"Miyabi-san," Tsuruko declared in an utterly neutral tone. "I think it may be more. . . productive, if you will be the next to spar."

Well, crap.

Miyabi looked at Tsuruko, and back to Buds, who looked like he swallowed something bitter. She just sighed, and nodded. "Yes, sempai."

She tied her hair in a tight bun, and grabbed her shinai, stood up and briskly walked at the center of the circle. When she was face to face with Buds, she could only give him a weak smile and bowed. "I'll promise to knock you out as fast as I can," she said. "Ready."

Crap! "Uh, not ready!" Buds replied. "I, uh, seem tired. Mayumi was one heck of an opponent. She took a lot out of me."

Tsuruko gave a serene smile that promised death and suffering. "Does bodyguard-san look tired to you girls?"

A whole lot of them shook their heads in negative. Yeah, thanks a lot for your support, Buds sighed. He looked at his opponent. "Miyabi-san, you don't seem to be dressed appropriately for the spar. Maybe you can, uh, dress up?"

"She won't need protective gear against you," Tsuruko replied. Ouch. "Now, proceed."

"Buds-san," Miyabi whispered just audible enough for both of them. "Don't make it worse. Just bow, and do your best."

Buds looked between her and the circle around him, calculating how fast he could be with his padding, armor, and how high he'd have to jump to go over them. He'd have to throw his weapon at Miyabi to distract her. Maybe throw one at Tsuruko. Unmolested, he could be out of the gym in ten seconds.

And then she would hunt him, hurt him, and if she had mercy, put him down.

Buds sighed as he bowed. Maybe facing Miyabi-san would be a lesser punishment. Besides, what did he know of her fighting abilities? All he knew was that she was the assistant trainer who was directly under Tsuruko. In that case, she must be the second strongest and an experienced member of the club. Of course, that didn't mean anything. She could either be a potential monster like Tsuruko, or maybe just above average.

He hoped for the latter.

"Ready," he said, and went to his fighting form. Miyabi did the same.

Tsuruko seemed to nod. "Fight!"

First thing Buds noticed was Miyabi's posture was different from Mayumi's. Her hands were stretched forward, holding the shinai perpendicularly from her body. Just by her form, he could guess she could easily block an attack from either direction with just a flick of her wrist. Also, the way she held her sword in front of her would make it difficult to do a frontal approach.

He studied her face. Miyabi's eyes seemed to be locked into concentration. Her easy going smile disappeared, replaced with a thin line on the lips. In fact, she looked downright scary. Still, her form seemed to be just good for defense. If she were to attack, especially at that angle, her legs would have to move to a better positioning before she would move her hands, especially if she needed power.

Concentrate on the legs, Buds told himself. Concentrate on her legs!

He inched closer to her, slowly, testing the waters with some mock swings. She didn't react. She just looked at him steadily. Finally, he was just a few meters from her. Still nothing. Buds wondered maybe it was time he took an offensive on this one.

He could lead with his left stick, angle it to upward so he could charge forward with his right, and stab her at chest area. Seemed like a good plan as any.

Here we go, Buds muttered to himself as he touched the shinai with his left weapon.

He felt the contact. It was solid, for just a second, and disappeared. And so did Miyabi. Next thing Buds knew, he felt a hard whack on top of his head. Staggering back, he saw a blur of Miyabi as she struck him again on the side of his head, loud enough to ring his ears, and a last hard smash right in front of his face.

Next thing he saw was the gym roof, and wondered how that got there.

"Stop," Tsuruko stated, almost lazily. "Score for Miyabi."

Buds shook his head, and slowly stood up. He saw Miyabi patiently waiting for him, a knee on the ground, her shinai held steady. He looked at her for a moment, and sighed.

"Crap, you're fast."

Miyabi didn't reply. Heck, she didn't even react at all. She just said, "Ready."

Buds took a deep breath. Just one more fight. Then it'll all be over. A part of him wanted to hold still, let her strike him hard and get this over with. It was logical. Why suffer more than he had to? It was clear she was more skilled than he was. All he had to do was take the hit.

Another part of him didn't. It was either a new found competitive spirit, or maybe wounded pride of a twenty-one year old guy who just got trounced earlier by a younger woman who's below her weight level, but he didn't want to just lie quietly.

Only after a payback, he thought suddenly. After a hit, after a score.

Buds sighed, wondering if he was becoming insane. "Ready."

"Fight!"

Buds immediately threw his left stick at Miyabi, and dashed towards her. She deflected the projectile, and he shouted as he attacked her diagonally in at her right shoulder. He missed. Her shoulders moved and let his attack pass through as she raised her arms, holding the shinai high for an overhead strike. Buds tucked his stomach on, and rolled on the floor as it came down the matt hard and he tried to counter with a strike at the side of her head.

He missed.

The next couple of strikes were blocked, parried or dodged. The echoes of wood hitting wood was resounding all over the gym as Buds, down to one stick, tried to overcome by positioning himself closer to Miyabi.

The length of her shinai made it less effective than his weapon on close range so he tried to get close to her. But Miyabi kept her distance, as if she knew what he had in mind, forcing Buds had to switch his position around her, striking when it seemed safe, hoping that if he could keep attacking, she'd have to try and commit so she wouldn't be overwhelmed, and then he could hit her with a counter.

All he needed was one hit. Just one hit. Then maybe he could lie down and let her hit him.

He felt the opportunity rise when Miyabi suddenly shifted from defensive to offensive. She struck with speed that drove Buds back. He smiled inwardly. All he needed to do was bait her into an overhead strike. Focusing on strikes from the sides, he then blocked her counter until they got into a pseudo-rhythm. He would strike at her left; and then she would block, and then counter with a strike on her right.

It went on until Buds finally faked an opening. He overcommitted a block on her right strike, exposing his right flank and shoulders. She immediately shifted her elbows, raising the shinai for an overhead strike. Buds immediately went for his counter. His right hand suddenly whipped back so the hilt of his weapon would strike the unprotected head of Miyabi.

It would most likely leave a nasty bruise. But. . . it's one hit.

She shifted her legs at the last second, and his hilt hit nothing but air. Buds' eyes widened as he realized Miyabi was now at left side, and struck. He barely blocked it, and with a flick of her wrist, his last weapon flew from his hand, leaving him unarmed and defeated.

"I have been disarmed," Buds declared as he raised his hands, slowly moving away from Miyabi. He looked at Tsuruko, hoping she'd declare Miyabi's victory. Instead, she looked at him neutrally, silent. He repeated, "I have been disarmed."

"No clean hit. The spar will continue," Tsuruko said.

"What, wait- whoa!" Buds dodged as Miyabi suddenly charged at him, her weapon almost striking him on his head. His hands moved automatically to block them, and countered with a jab that hit.

Miyabi staggered back, some surprise coloring her face as she felt her lip with one hand. Buds was about to apologize, when she suddenly smiled, and charged in immediately.

Buds jabbed a few more times to keep her at distance and weaved through her attacks using small movements as he was taught. He tried to get in close, but her foot lashed out and swiped his midsection. Bouncing back, Buds tried again, this time, lashed his foot out to block hers, and unleashed a left hook that she dodged cleanly.

The clear plastic covering was now fogging up. His arms and legs were getting numb, and he was now struggling to breathe. How long was he fighting already? He had to finish this fast.

Disarm her. Then go for the kill, he thought. I have two forearm guards. Use them.

Shouting, he charged in, this time leading with his right foot as he forcibly stepped on hers, and unleashed a fury of light punches on her midsection, and a hook to her head. She dodged the last strike, countering with a diagonal side swipe, which he blocked with his left forearm, and using his right as leverage, disarmed her with a twist of his hips.

Miyabi pushed him out with enough force to free her foot, ran in, and to Buds' surprise, jumped and tried to kick him, twisting her back and hips to add more power to her attack.

He thought she was insane to even do a move like that. No matter how much leverage one used, something like that worked only in the movies. Flashy moves and high kicks were the best way to get defeated, unless your opponent is too tired or stunned to even counter.

Buds was neither. He still had some energy left. Stepping in, he caught Miyabi by the hips; he spread his legs to stabilize himself as he stopped her dead in the air. With his last ounce of strength, he shouted as he lifted her higher and slammed her hard on the matt.

His legs gave way, and he collapsed into her. He tried to get more oxygen to his system, and knew that he probably wouldn't be able to move much on the last round, but at least he got this one. He got a round from a very powerful and experienced opponent. That was worth something.

Suddenly, her legs slithered around his head and right shoulder, trapping his right hand as she hooked her left leg behind his head, and squeezed. He suddenly couldn't breathe. He began to hear ringing in his ears, and the only thing he saw was Miyabi, who stared at him, trapping his right hand useless.

"Mangoes!" he tried to say. It came out weak. "Mangoes!"

"STOP!"

Miyabi blinked, and slowly loosened her legs. Buds took a deep breath that burned his lungs and left him exhausted. He didn't bother to get up. He just turned on his back, closed his eyes and relaxed.

"Buds-san, are you okay?" he heard. He didn't bother to open his eyes.

"I'm not doing that again. . ." the SI replied through his breathes. For a moment, he couldn't hear anything but his breathing. He tried to move his arms, to untie his helmet, but couldn't. He felt someone move his hands aside, untied his headgear and slowly removed it. He let them, and when the helmet was removed, he began to breathe cold fresh air.

It was comfortable. It was good.

He felt a tap on his arm. "Sorry for overdoing it."

Buds just continued to breathe the fresh air. "Just wake me up when its lunch."


Miyabi finishing her second Takoyaki ball when she saw Tsuruko sitting on a stone bench under a tree. No matter how many times she has seen this place, no matter how many times she had passed, the academy grounds was a beautiful piece of nature. Yet even that didn't seem to give her sempai any cheer.

"You could have joined them for lunch, sempai," Miyabi called, approaching her.

The Aoyama heir turned to see her, and nodded in acknowledgement. She joined Tsuruko on the bench.

"What?" the Aoyama heir asked.

Miyabi sighed. "You could have joined Buds-san and the others at lunch."

"I didn't feel like joining," Tsuruko replied.

"Guilt?"

Tsuruko stared at her for a moment, and said, "I may have been mistaken in focusing the training to work on his speed."

"Yes. You did well on getting him back to shape, but his body structure and style doesn't suit it," Miyabi said. "His style is more on overwhelming opponents with positioning and hard strikes."

"Work on his core and strength, eh?"

"Footwork and endurance as well," Miyabi replied. For a moment, they were silent. "Sempai, can I ask why you're pursuing this?"

Tsuruko took out a few photos from her pocket, and handed it to Miyabi. "Inari has been tailing her for a bit. After catching both of them last week, I became suspicious. They both claim it was nothing, but these do not inspire confidence of her word."

Miyabi checked the photographs handed to her, and it was all pictures of Anko, spying near the window on the gymnasium. Around her neck was a pair of binoculars, and there was another picture that had her writing on a notepad.

"You can cut him loose, if you're worried they are using him to strike against your family," Miyabi said.

"I will not do that," Tsuruko replied.

Miyabi looked at her sempai, and then looked at the pantry where Mayumi, Buds and the others were sharing lunch. "Tsuko?"

Tsuruko just sighed. "Yes."

"You know a relationship is not possible," Miyabi said slowly.

Tsuruko sighed again. "I know that too."

Miyabi looked at her sempai. They had been good friends since they first met all those years ago, and if she was to be accepted as an official Aoyama soldier and work for her family, they would remain so in the foreseeable future as well. Years of knowing her gave some insight. She knew the Aoyama heir was in heavy thought. She also knew that, while Tsuruko would never admit it, her position as heir was a lonely future. And while she had her friends now, once she reaches adulthood, graduates from school, she would only have a handful of them, and from those, only a few she would trust completely.

"I should have stopped it when he was disarmed," Tsuruko muttered. "But I wanted to see how he'd react. How he'd adapt, how good his unarmed skills were."

Miyabi looked at her. "Honestly, Buds-san didn't mean any of those things he said to Mayumi. He just countered the tactic she does, and overcame her with experience, and some really suggestive words."

"It's not that," Tsuruko replied. "It's just. . . never mind. I may have earned some ire from our club members with that last spar. I remembered Mayumi-san being a bit. . . vocal."

"Buds-san settled it down with a joke about the spar being 'awesome' because he ended with his head between my legs," Miyabi shrugged.

Tsuruko looked at her sharply. "And how did such. . . vulgarities become a joke?"

Miyabi smiled. "By laughing as he said it. I personally heard him say it myself. He wasn't implying anything. It worked like a charm too. The whole group just stopped on their tracks for a few seconds, and joined in the laughter. Mayumi was the loudest."

"So, either he is completely honest, or he is the most deceptive male we have ever met so far," Tsuruko said. "I do not know which prospect is more daunting."

"It could be because he grew up on a different culture. He's a gainjin, sempai. He may have grown up in an environment where he could look at females only as friends." Miyabi then blinked, realizing something. "Oh. So that's what you are worried about."

Tsuruko nodded. "Tsuko. . . likes him. But, the question is does he look at her more than a friend?"

Miyabi looked at Tsuruko oddly. "They have only known each other for a week, sempai. Don't you think that whatever Tsuko feels, it could be premature?"

Tsuruko didn't reply.

Miyabi finished off her takoyaki, and wondered if she was going to regret saying this. "If Tsuko really feels strongly about this, she would have to ask Buds directly."

Tsuruko looked at Miyabi, and gave a slight nod. She looked at the direction where the cafeteria and asked, "Why didn't you join them, Miyabi?"

Miyabi looked at her sempai, and shrugged. "I didn't feel like showing myself to him."

"Why?" Tsuruko asked.

"I made him helpless, submit. I think we did enough damage sempai." The older teen looked at her suspiciously. Miyabi sighed. "And I also wanted to avoid Mayumi. She's been making cat calls and congratulating me."

"Regarding what?"

"She claims I have permanently given your bodyguard the incentive to stay and spar with them," Miyabi replied.

Tsuruko blinked, for a moment blank, then narrowed her eyes as understanding took place.

"Buds-san's. . . joke was left open enough for Mayumi to act upon. Like she was taught, she pounced on it without hesitation or pity," Miyabi shrugged. "I don't know if I should be angry or proud."

Tsuruko sighed. She stared at the direction of the cafeteria. "I think I am beginning to regret arranging the spars," was all she said.