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"Tsk." Mori stepped back from the intensity of the Hanaka and his fighting stance. "Not good," he remarked as he lowered his bamboo shinai. Hanaka lowered her sword as well, with a puzzled look. Lifting her sword lightly, she tried to recreate the moves she had just acted on - what was wrong?

Mori's grey eyes burned into Hanaka's, and she couldn't place the emotion he was trying to convey. Was he angry? Disappointed?

"You are distracted. Kendo is more than sparring or movement - it is about focus, composure, spirit, and mutual respect. If you cannot focus now and clear away your thoughts, then you are not respecting both my time and the craft."

"What?" Hanaka gave him a look of disbelief. "Are you seriously questioning my faith and respect to kendo?" How could he? He of all people knew far too much about her screwed-up life and the solace she found in kendo, and here Mori was, scolding her for disrespecting kendo? Unbelievable. She'd just started to trust him, and now he basically told her she was a joke. "You know what, forget it."

Taking care not to drop or disrespect the shinai, Hanaka stalked to the edge of the clearing and began to put items away.

"Stop." Mori's voice rang clear through the field. There was an edge to his voice that compelled Hanaka to obey - in the least, she gave slight pause to her ministrations.

In the middle of the clearing, Mori stopped his progression and beckoned for Hanaka to return. She knew that he meant no disrespect and was calling her because he had something important to share, so with a heavy sigh she obliged. Shinai in hand, she stood a few feet before Mori, once again meeting that steely gaze.

"Close your eyes."

She did.

"Take slow inhales and exhales, and relax your shoulders."

She did.

"Listen to the serenity of the garden and the energy of discipline complement your spirit. Allow yourself to release all other distractions."

That alone was quite difficult - it wasn't easy by any means to stop thinking about the various threats she received or the looming shadow of her father's hatred over her head. A 'tsk' noise right above her shoulder made her jump - and to some effect it jolted her out of her reverie.

"Mori-senpai?!" She opened her eyes and stared at the tall boy, who was now standing right behind her. An inscrutable gaze was returned to her, and Hanaka hurriedly assumed the same 'meditiative' posture she had moments before.

"Clearing your mind is a practice, a warm-up, if you will, before you practice kata and especially before any sort of sparring. It's not meant to be easy." Mori's voice now came from where he had been standing before. "It, too, is part of learning discipline. By preparing yourself mentally for the craft, so too the craft prepares your mental state for the rest of your day."

Mori watched as the rise and fall of Hanaka's shoulders slowed in pace, showing signs that she was succumbing to peace and releasing most, if not all, of her worries. It slightly disappointed him that she'd had such a negative reaction to his words - but he recognized that his honesty and inability to mince words like a certain flowery Host Club king were not always the most welcome. Still, he felt that he'd done his best to be gentle, although kendo and the martial arts always brought out a sharper side of his personality.

That wasn't saying much, though. Mori always preferred to speak, not yell, and to let the disciplinary arts speak for themselves. Hanaka's reaction was likely a manifestation of the daily frustration in her life, and Mori was pleased to see the tension leaving her mind and body with every new breath.

Not a single human-made sound touched the delicate silence of the clearing; only the sound of the stream fell upon their ears. The environment was set.

"Now," Mori instructed gently. "We may begin." And with a second try, they began to spar.

Hanaka's technique, which sometimes still held the flair of a fencer and less so one of a kendoka, had been greatly improved by acceptance and internalization of the mental energy required to properly understand the craft. Her moves were less sloppy, although they still required training, but their sparring had improved greatly from the attempt minutes before.

It quickly became apparent that her skills were humiliatingly pale in comparison to the national champion's prowess, but Mori controlled his moves and designed a stroke order that would best challenge Hanaka without overpowering her.

By the time a faint dusk was beginning to settle, Hanaka had been unable to even mark a single defeat over Mori in any of her moves. She, however, failed to notice this, as she was burning with an ignited spirit and calm heart.

Breathless from the exertion, Hanaka bowed deeply to Mori in a sign of gratitude. "Senpai…" she spoke, breaking the silence of the clearing. "Thank you for the lesson."

Mori responded with a gentle nod and smile. So she'd understood - he was here not to provide her with a training space, but to help develop her in a way that brought out her skills and gave her mental clarity.

Perhaps overcome by the exhilaration of experiencing the heart of kendo, Hanaka leapt forward and gave Mori a warm, grateful hug before scampering off to change back into her Ouran uniform.

Mori, however, didn't register the physical contact until Hanaka was out of sight. A warm sort of feeling spread through his chest, and he cracked an uncharacteristically wider smile than usual. He quickly hid it, and prepared to put away the practice materials in the hidden compartment.

Meanwhile, the hosts had been wondering for some time where their tall, dark senior had gone. Today was typically Mori's day off to practice, but he normally arrived immediately after his schedule to meet Honey at the Third Music Room.

Tamaki peered out the window worriedly, noticing the sun just beginning to set. "Mommy," he whined. "Mori-senpai has been missing for thirty whole minutes, and he's never even a second late!"

Tamaki's best friend rolled his eyes. Kyouya had been observing Mori's actions for some time and knew that the entire kendo club had been charged (informally) with the protection of Kasanoda's cousin, Hanaka. No Ouran whisperings ever slipped by Kyouya's ears, and he knew that Honey had a strong inkling as well. Still, Mori had been part of the escorting team for a few weeks now and had yet to come late - perhaps a development was in progress? Kyouya glanced sideways at his blonde, short senior. A slight raise of his eyebrows was met by a beaming, twinkling grin from the very boyish karate champion.

"I'm sure Takashi is doing something that responds to his higher personal ideals," mused Honey cheerfully. "He'll be by soon!" He excitedly began to pack his things, thinking that if he timed his exit just right, he might be able to get a better glimpse of Mori and his new charge interacting.

Tamaki, however, wore a puzzled look on his face while the twins immediately gave each other suspecting glances.

"Honey-senpai…" The twins sidled up to the tiny senior. "You know something."

Honey yelped. Takashi was a very private person, and if something (or someone) had developed greater meaning to him, he would reveal it eventually. "No! I don't!" He thought quickly. "And you can't bribe me with cakes to get me to say something!"

The twins grinned. "So you DO know something!" Hikaru began. "And you're not willing to tell us!" Kaoru finished.

A slapping sound was heard as Haruhi chided the two redheads. "Leave Honey-senpai alone. You know what Mori-senpai is like, so you should know better than to pry into anything uncharacteristic that he does."

The whole room fell silent as they were all struck by the memory of Mori's sleepy persona - an uncharacteristically fliratatious and very host-like Mori.

"...This is true," Hikaru commented, and the twins slunk away to gossip amongst themselves - much to Tamaki's curious chagrin.

"Honey-senpai! I'm the Host King, I'm the protector of my best friends - why are there secrets-" Tamaki wailed as Honey left the Third Music Room, chuckling to himself. As the door closed behind Honey, he mused to himself.

"Takashi, have you found somone else to cherish and protect?" Honey smiled at the thought, before slinging his bag over his shoulder and running off to meet his cousin.

Hanaka and Mori were left relatively undisturbed to continue their sparring sessions after school, a practice that had quickly become a daily activity. Her skills were improving as she let her fears and mental distractions melt away, and she knew she was lucky to have such a skilled opponent to help her develop as a kendoka.

As more days flew by and the hosts began to see Mori walking with Hanaka more often, they began to put the pieces together and (for some, begrudgingly) left him his privacy. But on the days that he came to the Host Club, a certain overly-curious trio found it difficult to restrain their questions for long.

"Mori-senpai!" Tamaki channeled his most commanding voice. "Is it true that you have a new kendo protégé to train?"

A nod.

"Mori-senpai!" Hikaru sidled up to the senior. "Isn't it true that she's a girl…"

"And that you've been giving her private lessons every day?" Kaoru followed up, not without a lecherous tone.

Another set of nods - but now with a slight pink color spreading across the senior's cheeks.

If he had to admit it (at least to himself), it was true that Mori's protectiveness of Hanaka and increasing respect for her skillbuilding was beginning to take other shape. Her kendo skills were still rudimentary, to be sure, but he hadn't seen such fire behind the discipline for quite some time. At best, the last person he'd seen that passion in was Honey - even Chika's obsession with refining his martial art craft didn't have the same motivation.

The desire to reach greater heights of personal development both in and out of a sparring session was what drew Mori in - that was something he revered greatly. To see it in a girl who was battling so many other things… Well, to be frank, it was inspiring.

Mori wanted to preserve the intensity and focus he saw in Hanaka when they practiced. He saw who she was when she was at peace, passionate, and had nothing weighing on her mind. He saw the freedom she gained from the discipline of kendo, and the burdens magically forgotten at the edge of the clearing.

But more importantly, he saw the weight that returned to her shoulders after a match. He saw the fear in her eyes when the quieter members of the kendo club drew near.

And one day, he saw the heartbreak and panic that accompanied any mention of her father.