"One motion. One strike."
Aqua leveled her blade at a hovering orb of light. One motion. One strike. It shattered. Another orb took its place. Aqua breathed- in like a blessing, out like a curse.
"One motion. Two strikes."
She leveled her keyblade against the new target. One motion and two strikes later, it shattered. Eraqus was silent and still at her side as she took her next breath, observing the rules. One breath. One motion. As many strikes as she could count to.
"One motion. Three strikes."
"Kiai," he deadpanned.
Aqua flinched at the surprise. "Master?"
"One motion. Three strikes. Kiai," he explained.
Aqua breathed- in like a blessing, out like a curse.
"One motion. Three strikes. Kiai," she confirmed.
She leveled her keyblade, both hands on, hilt at waist level, tip between her eyes. It wavered slightly under her novice handling. Time and patience she remembered. Focus on the now.
She cleared her surroundings from her mind one strike at a time. First the tree had gone. The hill beneath her feet, and those in the distance, would be harder. For now, she forgot the sky. The target bobbed ahead of her, seemingly slower, now that there was one less thing to distract her.
She lunged. One strike across. Two up. Three, above her head, struck down with all of her girlish might.
"Kiai!" jumped from her throat.
What had felt sure in the process was proven lame by the result. The target bobbed in the air before her, unshattered. In the year of training she had almost completed, nothing had embarrassed her so much as this. Protocol being the comfort it was, she returned to her starting position. The target, a sphere of light, continued to bob. Eraqus, meanwhile, only watched.
"I- it." Aqua glanced over her shoulder to make sure that Terra was too busy with his own target to notice her failure. Bad move. She peeked at the Master apologetically. Seeing on his face what she feared, she retook her stance and addressed the target.
She tried not to scream an apology. "Master?"
With the patience of a man who handles children he said, "You have not destroyed the target yet. Take your foes one at a time."
Aqua glanced at him again. "It didn't break, Master."
"You did not break it."
Aqua bit her tongue, realizing the mistake she had made and hoping he wouldn't notice.
"And that will be an extra minute before supper," Eraqus chided. "'It did not break.' Contractions are vulgar and unbecoming of a warrior."
The orb bobbed, taunting her for every second that it was not broken. Aqua stepped forward and over-reached herself to harshly tap the target. It bobbed.
"Did I teach you to wield that way, Aqua?"
She cringed inwardly. Almost a year of training was falling apart in a single day. "No, Master."
Now in a proper stance, hilt at her waist and tip at her eyes, she faced the target formally. The tip wavered. She struck, formally, and with precision. The target shattered.
"Good. Now start again. One motion, one strike, Kiai."
Aqua resumed her place and addressed the target. In like a blessing, out like a curse.
Terra addressed his target for the one-hundred and thirty-second time. Two hundred was the magic number if he couldn't break it. He focused his aim on a natural crack formed by ice, and then waited. The strike would come when it was ready, and his target wasn't going anywhere in the mean time. Waiting was the worst part. Waiting killed him like no other temptation could. The crack was there, almost a quarter of an inch wide, begging to be sundered. He could take it at any moment.
Or it could take you, the Master's voice echoed in his mind.
Terra sighed and lashed out at the rock in front of him, missing the crack by an unacceptable margin. With any other weapon, the exercise would have been sacrilege- like reading a book to a fire- but the day a keyblade broke was a good day to go find another life entirely. When the reverberating pain in his arms subsided, Terra readdressed his target. One-hundred thirty-four. Terra waited, eying the rock with the utmost content. What it lacked in mobility, it made up for in station.
Terra had to admit, though, the rock did have patience. He chanced a glance at Aqua, and did not envy her the scrutiny of the Master. The rock grabbed his attention again when he realized that it had scored yet another victory of focus. Terra cleared his mind of everything but the crack, and the satisfying thought of it widening under his next blow… as soon as the strike was ready.
"One motion. Thirty two strikes. Kiai."
Aqua lunged and felt her lungs begin burning immediately. The exercise, she decided, was ridiculous, without any conceivable function. Her arms were fermenting, feeling weak in the same places as the night before. She couldn't afford the oxygen to think about it, and tried focusing on the bobbing orb in front of her instead.
She was on her twelfth strike and beginning to falter. It wasn't clear to her whether the target was bobbing or holding still in a bobbing world. Who the Hearts had invented this workout? The mountain under her was swirling under her now in directions it didn't usually take. On her twentieth strike, she lost the count and felt as if it had seized her instead. Twenty-two and Nineteen stared her down. She continued, picking the bigger one. It has to be twenty-two, she thought. Twenty five faltered against the target and sent her rebounding backwards, off balance. Embarrassing un-fluid steps led her back in line to keep fighting.
Swaying, the target waited. She hated it. The target had to die. She felt that same hatred as the night before. Burning coals fueled what oxygen had deprived now. She wouldn't be weak. Not twice in one day. Her keyblade slashed against the target, crunching on it one strike, slicing through on the next, counting down to a victory she couldn't let go of.
Her knee fell to the ground under her, reminding her of the grass she was on. The mountain below her swirled. With five strokes left… three?- she didn't know anymore. She couldn't tell whether she was standing still in a tilting world, or falling in a static one.
Clarity struck as her check compressed against something hard
her hand fell against a boot. A cold wind was blowing against her face from the windowsill in her room. The shadows chilled the air around her even more. But the boot only stayed, burning her with anger like the target had presented, like the shinobi from the night before.
Her hand tightened around the boot, feeling it- him, the intruder to her room- standing over her again, ready to kill.
"Pathetic," he cooed.
Aqua gasped. Her eyes refocused on the hill around her. Standing over her was Master Eraqus, neutral to her plight. She continued gasping for air, trying to block the bobbing target out of her mind. The Shinobi took its place, striking when she was distracted and retreating into the shadows of her mind whenever she tried to evict him.
Her breath was returning, finally. The feeling returned to her body with it as nerves came back to life. She was lying on her back. Eraqus, still patient, was waiting for her. Pounding footsteps stopped just short of her, and Terra's face appeared.
The feeling of death returned. This time the flavor was embarrassment.
Master Eraqus understood the feeling when she covered her face. "Enough for today," he declared. "Terra, fetch me some water."
Terra placed a plate before his master and bowed. The dining room was decorated with an ornate table, at which Aqua and Master Eraqus were already seated, napkins in their laps. Terra had seen to it that traditional rice cuisines were cooked, and Aqua had seen to it that the table was properly set and embellished, and Eraqus was happily seeing to it that they saw to it.
"Domburi with chicken, Master," Terra announced.
Eraqus smiled and nodded. "Thank you, terra. Please, have a seat." He gestured to his right hand side, opposite Aqua. When terra had properly placed his napkin and straightened his back, Master Eraqus nodded and turned to Aqua. She was sitting on the edge of her seat, one knee over the other.
"Would you be so kind as to set the timer for ten minutes, Aqua?"
She nodded to the master, trying to hold back the happiest smile of her life. She had only earned three minutes today, which meant that she wouldn't be the last to eat. Terra was not so fortunate. When the dial was properly placed, and the device was returned to the spice wheel at the center of the table, Master Eraqus lifted his first bite. Aqua and terra stared into each other's eyes, meanwhile, expressionless. Or Terra was expressionless. Aqua only hoped that the glorious satisfaction in her wasn't spilling over to hurt him.
Master Eraqus moaned softly. "I have instructed you well in the kitchen, Terra," he chimed.
Terra kept his expressionless resolve through his tone. "Thank you, Master."
Dinner proceeded as usual, in strict discipline. Terra was responsible for cleaning dishes along with cooking them. Aqua procedurally tended to the table's decorations. Tomorrow, they would switch.
When Aqua was finally relieved of her duties for the day, she treaded to her room. The sun had set long ago, and would rise too soon. She closed her door behind her, placed a small star-shaped charm against her window, and climbed into bed with her shoulder-guard still on. She stayed on her side, eyes fixed on the darkness, feeling the phantom breath of the shinobi against her exposed skin. The image of his mask would flash at her every time she blinked, reminding her that that was impossible. And yet the feeling remained. She lashed out in a sudden fear that the feeling was not an illusion at all, but the darkness around her did not respond.
Hours later, when exhaustion finally overcame her, she dreamt only of fighting him again, of every trick, of every mistake. And when he was confident that she was asleep, his shadow slipped from a corner, quietly set the star-charm flat, and leapt out of her window into the night. And so Aqua slept, nightly searching her room and tossing in her sheets, never without her armor or her enemy and admirer, and completely unaware.