Crickets cried out at the lashing sunlight. Heat permeated every bit it could catch, drying the green surroundings around. Within this seemingly secluded place, near silence reigned. The smell of sun burnt wood and dew refreshing the lone occupant of a dojo.
It was silent, her still form completely unmoving as she balanced her bokutou. She held it in a stance familiar to her, almost intimate as she fluidly switched to the next stance.
The bokutou rent the air as if trying to inflict pain upon it. Each swing became less graceful, less coordinated. By the eighth stroke, it almost felt like the wooden blade was being swung for the sake of swinging it. It was ugly, displeasing to the eyes and the practitioner knew that as well, throwing the instrument down with an angry clank.
"Damn it. Damn it. Damn it.", she pressed worn hands to her weary face, catching tears she didn't wish to fall. "I was first, I was first so why? Why do I even have to compete like this? Why can't he just choose me?".
"Hm? Someone's here. How odd, I was told the dojo was usually empty at this time of day."
The girl looked up, signs of crying barely recognizable on her face. She quickly wiped away whatever trace of weakness was on her face and picked up her bokutou threateningly. "Who are you?", she demanded of the intruder. "This is the property of my family. Are you a dojo wrecker? If you're here to challenge us then I will face you in my father's stead.".
"Ah, you must be mister's daughter.", he concluded in non-chalance. "You must be quite skilled, your father speaks highly of you Tabane-san.".
"Houki!", the girl spat out venomously.
The young man recoiled at the sudden vitriol. "My mistake then Houki-san.", the young man held up his hands in apology. "I was told you were the legal heir of the style.".
Sensing something amiss, Houki narrowed her eyes as she leveled her weapon with his throat. "However?", she prodded for him to continue.
He nodded in surrender, "I heard that your sister, Tabane-san's swordsmanship was flawless. A perfect harmony of blade and samurai, surpassed only by the overwhelming power of another student who was described as a black devil.". He smiled, eyes looked down to his belongings, a sports bag and a regular schoolbag. "I had hoped to meet either of them in this coincidence.", he pulled out a bokutou from the sportsbag. "But I suppose I'm not as fortunate as I assume.".
"So you are a dojo wrecker?", Houki continued her prodding.
The young man held up his hand to dismiss the notion, "Calm down, I'm no dojo wrecker. Just a sparring partner of Mr. Shinonono.".
Blood in raged Houki's veins. "Liar!", she stepped forward swinging the bokutou. Her body propelling itself in motions second nature to her.
A resounding smack echoed through the empty space.
"That's dangerous.", the young man complained from his place on the ground. "You don't just attack people out of nowhere you know.", he sighed as he reached for his own bokutou that had been knocked away.
"I wasn't attacking anyone.", Houki thrust her weapon in his path to his own sword. "I was just keeping an intruder out. Now leave before I make you.".
"Are you sure?", the supposed intruder looked up at her. His eyes no longer showed the civility they had moments ago. What remained was a sense of lifelessness one would see of a machine. Emotionless but all seeing, "Ugly.", he judged.
Without warning, Houki moved again. Her body already in motion even before her mind could process the spike of anger in her heart. She swung at his head, a perfect over-head strike. He dodged the heiress, causing her to miss splendidly as she lost her balance in that strike. By the time she recovered, the tip of his bokuto was pressing against her abdomen.
She stopped, an unknown pressure sapping away at all her spirit. Defeat, a word rarely associated with her when it came to the sword. His back was turned to her but he was surely the victor. As much as the warrior in her wished to continue, the swordswoman that accompanied quelled that thought and acknowledged defeat.
"Who are you?", the asked him once more.
The young man pulled away his bokuto and faced her. "My name is Rin, Morioka Rin. I was given persmission by your parents to use this dojo in the afternoons in exchange for cleaning up.", he bowed, "Glad to finally meet you Shinonono-san.".
Embarassment quickly overtook the girl's senses at the sudden shift of emotions from this young man. "Oh um, nice to meet you as well.", she bowed. Then she remembered what he had said. "What do you mean by ugly?", she demanded, brandishing her bokuto above her head.
"How about a match to find out?", Rin offered the angry maiden a shinai.
No more than ten minutes passed, both kendo practitioners were kneeling before each other in a state of trance.
Houki tried to empty her mind to focus on the task at hand. Face to face with this man named Rin, she couldn't help but feel confident. No man besides her father had ever beaten her. The exchange earlier was luck, it had to be. His claims to sparring with her father had to be a lie. She unconditionally believed them to be lies. But the more she sat there thinking about it, the more her attention was drawn to the person in question. Even behind the masks and armor, she could see his eyes. Those cold calculative eyes no longer present, neither were those of warm civility. This time it was detachment she discerned. It was the only thing she could feel from him. From the way he sized her up, the way his whole frame leaked calm, the way his breathing was even and unchanging.
Guided solely by their breaths, both combatants took their respective shinai in hand and took their stance.
Houki could hear something, in the silence of the dojo, beyond cicadas and tinkling of wind chimes. A breath, she could hear someone breathing as if a song, accompanied by a gentle drumming of her heart. But something wasn't right, it wasn't just her heart. She could hear another beating, weaker, much weaker, far slower.
Weak, weak. She could overpower this, she would overwhelm it. She will!
A hitch in her breathing as she lunged forward with hopes of a short thrust to earn herself a tsuki.
Houki looked up in a daze, where was she? She pushed beneath her. The floor? Why? When did she get there?
The girl looked up to see her opponent Rin already waiting for her in his stance. He had taken her previous position. She numbly stood up again, replaying the moment of her strike. He'd touched his shinai with hers, then the next she was on the ground. There was no force, but her balance had been lost, almost as if she was guided.
"That was only the first point.", Houki panted as she held her shinai with both hands now. "I won't lose this time.".
She charged again, no longer waiting for a mutual agreement so as to catch him off guard.
Their shinai met, she turned her intended thrust to a feint. Stepping to the side, she looked for a reaction. Rin was turning, but he was too slow. Houki would decide it in a moment. She struck with a diagonal slash.
Rin ducked under the attack. "Violent.", he breathed before scoring a men with a thrust.
Houki recoiled and fell on her butt. She could feel her brain rattle in her skull. She began to have doubts with her previous incredulity of his claims. He probably is who he says he is. Shakily, she got on her feet for the second time, waving off his concerned offer of stopping.
"I can still go."
She holds her shinai in the proper form. But it's dipping lower, imperceptible to anyone else but Houki knows, probably her opponent notices as well. 'He's strong. I have to be careful.', she thinks to herself.
The two of them wait for the proper moment, a silent agreement.
Houki moves forward, but Rin does as well. She's surprised and takes a step back. Rin presses his advantage and forces a clash. She can barely hear him whisper, "Hesitant." before he forces her guard up and out of the way for another tsuki to her abdomen.
Defeat, again. She lost, three time straight. Something unbelievable to her. Houki can't accept it, her pride can't accept it.
Rin's shoulders droop, he's hesitant. Houki looks hurt, but her eyes scream to continue. He's afraid that if he continues she'll seriously get injured, but he's also afraid that if he stops then she would break.
So the two of them continue, a dance that was both beautiful and ugly. All the way until one finally gave way to fatigue.
At the end of it all, Rin decided he was glad it was over. He took his protective mask off relishing in the cool air opposing the humidity in his sweat drenched gear. His legs, strained from keeping up with Houki, welcomed the numbing cut in blood circulation accompanying seiza. He caught in his peripheral vision the figure of the heiress still lying on her back.
Houki couldn't believe it, she didn't win, could not win. Not once could she grab a victory. It almost felt like he was far beyond her. Her body was sore but that wasn't why she had yet to move from her unbecoming position on the floor, nor the reluctance to remove her gear. She didn't want to, she refused to move. Because if she moved from there, he would see how he'd broken her. Whatever sense of power and self she had, he'd turned it into dust.
"That is the ugliness I spoke of."
The rustling of cloth and zipping bags told Houki that he was leaving.
"Your kendo reflects the kind of person you are. Right now, you should understand your weaknesses, as a kendo practitioner, as well as a woman."
Her eyes widened in surprise. With a clank and a thud, Houki had gotten herself to sit seiza and threwq her helmet to the side. "H-how did you know?", she screamed.
He didn't turn around, "I told you didn't I? Your kendo reflects your person. If one does not advance, neither will the other. That's what your father taught me.". He walked away, not once turning around.
Houki watched him go, down the stone path and the steps that lay beyond the torii. "Thank you.", she breathed before finally letting her tears fall freely from her face.