As a socially inept pariah and the unluckiest half-demon in Hell, Setsuna can't help but feel her mission to befriend Konoka Konoe is doomed to fail. Everyone has their run-in with fortune sooner or later, however, and she soon finds that her assignment may be going a little /too/ well... Cosmic warfare, magic powers, and accidental romance included. [KonoSetsu]. [AU].
It's like when you look at a Da Vinci painting, and you know that it's beautiful because it must be beautiful with its hype, and its fame, and its classical artistic appeal. But at the same time, all you can see is a blob of color swirled in a way reminiscent of a child's finger paints.
That, in a nutshell, is how Setsuna feels as she's driven into the beautiful city of Kyoto.
At eleven in the morning the business district is loud, busy, and filled with people. Konoka puts her forehead against the front seat of the cab and squeezes her eyes shut.
"Maybe scheduling that meeting for the day we land was a bad idea," she mumbles through the pain of her headache.
"Can we postpone it?"
"Nah, I'd rather get it out of the way so we can enjoy a few days until the next one."
Giving Konoka a onceover, however, Setsuna wonders if that's really the best choice. Although it's morning in Japan, it's technically getting late in the U.S., and Konoka's decision to drink on the plane seems to have worked against her. The combination of alcohol and traffic is obviously causing quite a bit of discomfort despite her two hour nap.
Ten minutes from their destination, Konoka forces herself to sit up and straighten her clothes. She'd changed out of the comfortable ones she'd been wearing on the plane, and she fiddles with the buttons of her blouse and smooths down her skirt a bit nervously. And she's probably right to be nervous.
Her dad had really given her this job to help her learn how the working world functions, not necessarily because she's qualified. She certainly hadn't been a slouch in school; she'd graduated in the top ten of her class at Yale, but when her father offered her an internship for the position she'd had zero experience. Her mentor hadn't helped much either. He'd retired shortly after she started at the company, leaving her to skip several steps up the ladder and take his position (much to the chagrin of several other employees). The practices of the business world, despite her higher education, are very much a mystery to her in practice.
After a few months of trying to de-puzzle all the ridiculous etiquette and sitting on her butt for nine to eleven hours a day, the realization that she's not cut out for this job came quite easily to Konoka. But it's a bit late to change all that, so at least for now she's stuck in these highly uncomfortable, foreign situations. This time, though, there's at least one saving grace. The representative of the contracting firm is a woman her age, so at the very least they should get along alright. Although she'd also heard the woman's personal secretary can be quite hot-tempered.
The cab pulls over and she tips the driver handsomely, partly because she's generous, and partly because she's not used to using yen. The meeting place is an impressively large but disappointingly plain building. They get in the elevator for the sixth floor, and as the butterflies in her stomach emerge, Konoka is once again glad for Setsuna's company. Despite the fact that they hardly know each other, having such an easygoing and nonchalant person around is comforting.
Thankfully the receptionists speak English. They're guided into a conference room and handed soy vanilla lattes while they wait.
Setsuna pulls the lid off her cup and stares at the foamy coffee drink.
"Don't tell me you've never had a latte?" Konoka giggles at the look of concentration on the other girl's face.
"I have," she lies, being strange enough in her habits already without this added oddity, "I was just wondering if they're different in Japan."
"Oh. That's a good point."
Konoka pulls the lid off her drink and the two women stare thoughtfully into their cups.
Which is how the company's representative walks into the room and finds them. She clears her throat to get their attention and is immediately all smiles.
"Ms. Konoe, I presume?" She goes to Konoka and the two shake hands, "I'm Ayaka Yukihiro. It's a pleasure to meet you."
"It's a pleasure to meet you as well," Konoka responds just as pleasantly, although it's hard not to be intimidated by this woman. She's tall and blonde and beautiful, and it only takes one look at her to know that she's rich and important. She's the kind of person who wears her status like a second-skin, and whose presence alone would inform you she's in the room even if she isn't in your line of sight.
"I hope the trip was alright for you and Miss…?"
"Setsuna Sakurazaki," Setsuna shakes Ayaka's hand, trying to match the cheer exhibited by the other two women and failing by a large margin.
"It's nice to meet you. Are you Ms. Konoe's assistant?"
"More or less."
She doesn't really want to attempt to explain their strange relationship.
"I see. My own assistant will be in shortly, but until then, shall we sit down and discuss some business, Ms. Konoe?"
"You can call me Konoka, and that's fine with me. Although, to be honest Ms. Yukihiro –"
"Ayaka will be just fine as well," the woman smiles pleasantly.
"To be honest, Ayaka, I'm not sure how much business really needs to be discussed. On my end, the company hardly has any issues with your work – the building process in New York is going far more smoothly than expected, thanks to you."
"Oh, I'm sure that's an exaggeration, although a much appreciated one –"
The three women at the table look up simultaneously as a fourth person nearly punts the door down. She's walking backwards to hold the door open with her backside, her left hand being occupied by a cup of coffee and the right hand full of papers. Her keys are also dangling from her mouth, and she spits them out on top of the pile of other things she dumps on the table.
Ayaka, although cringing slightly, still handles the situation with grace.
"Ladies, please meet my personal secretary –"
But even before Setsuna noticed the cluttered mass of objects the girl had been carrying, she saw the red pigtails and the hair-ties with the bells on them and already knew.
"You two know each other?" Ayaka glances back and forth between the two women, who are staring at each other in disbelief.
Asuna's mismatched eyes drift to Konoka, and comprehension dawns on her features.
"Oh, so the representative from the U.S. Ayaka kept talking about is – ah, so that makes sense because Setsuna is – Oh. Oh, huh. I probably should've realized that sooner."
Setsuna is still too surprised to say anything quite yet, and besides that, she doesn't know how to answer Ayaka's question.
The short version of the truth is that Asuna's technically (in Earth terms) dead.
The long version is that they'd met while Setsuna had been disguising herself as an angel. Moreover, only a certain class of angels come back to Earth in order to protect people of particular cosmic importance, and becoming a Guardian requires brutal and extensive combat training.
So who had trained her?
Asuna, of course.
The redhead was only in Heaven as a short reprieve from Earth at the time, but Nagi, the gatekeeper that greeted Setsuna when she'd arrived there, had partnered the two together for some reason. Asuna had mentioned that the person she guards is an important business figure, but it hadn't occurred to Setsuna that their two charges would know each other. The chances are pretty slim.
But then, the chances were pretty slim of Setsuna being assigned as Konoka's guardian in the first place – so small, in fact, that Evangeline had to cheat the system for her. So maybe this isn't such a big coincidence after all, in the grand scheme of things.
Regardless, Setsuna's not sure if this is a good thing or not.
After a nudge from Ayaka, Asuna finally answers her question.
"We went to high school together, but we lost touch after that. It's good to see you again buddy," she winks at Setsuna and slaps her on the back hard enough to make the girl almost spill her drink everywhere.
"Good to see you too. It's been a while," Setsuna plays along, replacing the lid of her coffee cup.
"Yeah, seriously. Hey, do you have time for lunch? The food here is great, and I'm sure Ayaka is willing to buy for all of us, right Blondie?"
For just a second Ayaka looks like she's about to drop her air of formality, but remembering her guests, she manages to hold on to it.
"You're more than welcome to go to lunch together after my business associate and I are done discussing –"
"Psh, forget that," Asuna interrupts, completely dismissing her supposed boss. "It's Konoka, right? What do you say we all go out to eat together? It'll be better than talking here, and I'll even let you guys get a separate table to yourselves so you can discuss your business or whatever. That way Setsuna and I can catch up at the same time."
"That sounds great actually." Konoka is more than happy for an opportunity to get out of this overly-formal setting.
"Well, I'm all for accommodating guests," Ayaka concedes. "If it suits you, Konoka, there's a sushi restaurant not too far from here."
Setsuna perks up at that. She's never had sushi.
Seeing her friend's excitement, Konoka agrees to the place, and they all pile into the back of a small SUV with an apology from Ayaka – "my limo driver is off for the afternoon since I wasn't expecting to go anywhere for a bit."
But being the rather extravagant person that she is, Ayaka had a second chauffeur arranged to take them all, albeit in a slightly less fanciful way. The drive should only be about ten minutes long, but an accident delays them and they wait for the policemen to wave their side of traffic around it. It's quiet at first, and Konoka wonders if she should try and start up a conversation. After a couple of minutes she finds she doesn't need to.
Despite their first impressions of the other businesswoman, Konoka and Setsuna have already discovered the hole in her otherwise perfectly glamorous armor. Its name is Asuna.
"So you're going to pay for my lunch, right?" Asuna nudges the blonde sitting next to her.
"Now, Asuna," Ayaka chides gently, maintaining her composure, "I don't see how that makes sense, considering I pay you to accompany me everywhere as it is. Although don't ask me why…" she mumbles the last part just loud enough for the other passengers to hear it. Konoka tries not to smile at the remark.
"Well excuse me, Little Miss Arrogant, if I have to pay to live. Not that any amount of money is worth staying by your side anyway. And it makes sense to pay for my food because it was my idea, and I should be compensated for my brilliance."
"For your information, 'Little Miss Obnoxious,' my company is much coveted. You're just too dense to appreciate it," the composure is slowly melting away, "And I certainly could afford to pay you for your supposed brilliance, since your good ideas only pop up once every year or so."
"Maybe you're just too conceited to appreciate my ingenuity!"
"Oh," Ayaka gasps, putting a hand to her heart in mock surprise, "Was that a five-syllable word coming out of your mouth? I had no idea you'd evolved beyond the intelligence of a monkey. Since you've neglected to inform me of this development, I'll have to dock your pay."
Asuna leans over and pokes Ayaka in the forehead. "Is a monkey smart enough to cover for your ass when word got out that you were sleeping with a guy eight years younger than –"
Composure is officially lost.
"Asuna Kagurazaka, if I hear one more word come out of your mouth, God will never forgive me for the things I'll do to you, you imbecile –"
"As if! I'm pretty sure God still hasn't forgiven you for taking advantage of what's-his-face you damn cougar –"
"If I'm a cougar than you're an incestuous pervert for getting a crush on a guy twice your age who happens to look just like your father –"
"Oh, so you've sunk that low? Well how about the time when –"
The car lurches to a stop outside the restaurant, conveniently preventing the verbal fight from escalating into an all-out physical brawl. Konoka and Setsuna stare uncertainly at the two women, who haven't budged and are still pointing accusing fingers at each other and glaring with unrivaled intensity. And then:
"So will you pay for me?"
"Fine. But you have to do my hair on Saturday. I have a date."
Without another word the two get out of the car, grabbing their respective lunchmates. Konoka and Ayaka are led to a table, and Asuna guides the still startled Setsuna to the sushi bar. Setsuna's still a little too concerned with what she'd just witnessed to even be worried about the unfamiliar high-class atmosphere. The chef asks her something in Japanese, and she stares at him blankly until Asuna thankfully steps in and orders for both of them.
"You alright?" She asks, referring to Setsuna's less-apathetic-than-usual expression.
"I'm fine. Are you alright?"
"Should I not be?"
"I'm not really sure. Didn't you and Ayaka just fight?"
"Yep," Asuna agrees nonchalantly, distracted by the chef placing her plate of spicy tuna in front of her.
"Isn't that bad?"
"Not particularly. Why would it be?"
Why is it bad? Setsuna isn't quite sure of the exact reason, but TV and books have taught her that people fighting is usually a sign of a relationship going south.
"Because fighting creates negative feelings, and don't you and Ayaka have to be close in order for, um, you know," she finishes vaguely, glancing pointedly at all the people sitting around them.
"Oh, that. We are friends; our relationship just doesn't function like normal."
Setsuna pokes a suspicious looking piece of dark yellow fish on her plate before answering.
"How does it function then?"
"I guess it kind of comes down to the fact that Ayaka doesn't take shit from anyone, if you know what I mean," Asuna starts thoughtfully, pausing to shove a piece of fish in her mouth. "People are always trying to take advantage of her through nice gestures because she's rich, and lots of douchy guys in the business world think they can manipulate her through compliments because she's a woman. So now the only way to prove you're being sincere is to, you know, annoy the crap out of her. Does that make sense?"
Setsuna tries, she really does, but just… what?
Asuna shakes her head at the other woman's dumbfounded expression.
"Man, I don't know what your first life was like, but it seems like the Shinmeiryuu or whatever didn't teach you a whole lot about other people."
Damn, she was just starting to forget about the whole Shinmeiryuu ordeal with Konoka and her dad. Did Asuna really have to remind her? Trying not to sigh, she maintains the lie anyway.
"Apparently not. I'm still not quite sure what to do with Konoka, either."
Setsuna finally tries the strange looking thing on her plate and nearly gags at how fishy it is.
"Yeah, sea urchin is pretty gross if you ask me," Asuna offers her a sip of tea sympathetically. "Ayaka and I have a weird relationship, but we're still close – closer than I was with anyone in my first life, even. Relationships come in all shapes and sizes. I'm sure you and Konoka will find a way to get along that suits the both of you; it just takes time. And, I mean, you have to be compatible right? You got chosen as her guardian, after all."
Setsuna grimaces. Normally that might be the case, but certainly not when she'd cheated for it to happen.
"Um, yeah, I guess. I don't suppose you know of any shortcuts?"
"Short of saving her life, not really. Don't worry so much!" Asuna slaps her on the back again in that overly enthusiastic way, "It'll happen in its own time. You made friends with me, didn't you?"
That is true, but only because Setsuna had lied about everything that mattered at the time. Not to mention they'd had luck on their side in the form of Nagi. She remembers her trip to Heaven and meeting Asuna vividly, since it was her first time being completely unshackled.
Her journey started in Hell, of course, with Evangeline snapping her neck.
Usually she would be trapped in the same plane of reality that her physical form existed in; if a soul isn't carried elsewhere, it becomes reborn in a new body in the same dimension. Setsuna hadn't needed much of that particular explanation though. She had been killed and reborn in Hell enough times to know that already.
What she hadn't known was that it's possible to escape your plane of reality. After she'd died, so to speak, she'd appeared, stumbling and frayed from traversing the in-between space, in front of Nagi.
"The gatekeeper wouldn't know blue if the sky fell on his head," Evangeline had once said, and she certainly appeared to be right. He'd taken one look at her wings and marched her right through the gate with only a couple of remarks about how strange it was that she'd seemingly appeared from thin air.
"Normally, recently deceased humans are guided to a different city," he'd explained.
And then he'd introduced her to Asuna and suggested that Setsuna train under her. The redhead hadn't taken too well to that at first. After a rocky, awkward start, they'd started their training together and proceeded to spend an obscene amount of time beating the crap out of each other. Somehow, some way, between the blood and the bruises and the battle taunts, they'd become friends.
But for the life of her Setsuna can't put her finger on how, damnit.
Asuna's chopsticks waving in front of her face snap Setsuna out of her reverie.
"Hey, did you hear me?"
"Um, no, sorry."
"I asked if I can eat the rest of your food," she motions to what's left of Setsuna's sushi.
She grabs one last salmon roll off the plate and pushes it over to Asuna.
"You kind of reminded me of something just now. Why is it that nobody on Earth can remanifest themselves when they die?"
"Earth is weird," Asuna explains with her mouth half-full. "There's a lot of magical energy in Heaven that allows us complete control over our environment, including our physical body and soul. Earth is governed by completely different forces. All the rules are different."
"Is there a reason there's so little magic here?"
Asuna pauses with her chopsticks halfway to her mouth. Her expression is surprisingly serious.
"Most people would tell you it's because we're in a different dimension, but I'm not so sure about that."
"What makes you say so?"
The serious moment seeming to have passed, Asuna shrugs and says flippantly, "Just a hunch."
Setsuna drops the subject. For some reason it seems like every new thing she learns is accompanied by several unanswered questions, but Setsuna is no conspiracy theorist. She cares more about getting her mission done than she does about the details. Although thus far, it certainly seems like the higher-ups in Heaven make a lot of grand, vague statements without much substance to them.
But what do I know?
Setsuna hadn't even known half this stuff existed until a couple of months ago. She's hardly qualified to be deciphering how much of it is true or not.
"Stuffing your face as usual, I see."
They both look up to see Ayaka leaning against the counter and shaking her head at Asuna's rather poor manners.
"I apologize for the way this one eats, Setsuna. I hope she didn't steal all your food."
"She gahv eh to mee!" Asuna shouts indignantly through her sushi.
"I'm sure," the blonde mumbles, unconvinced. "In any case, I've already taken care of the bill. Are you ready to go, oh dear assistant of mine?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm done. Are we heading home then?"
"Not quite. Since Konoka and I had such a good time, and since she's new to the area, we're going to escort her to her next destination."
Konoka appears from the bathroom then, drying damp hands on her shirt. She smiles at Ayaka – a much more natural expression than the strained formality from earlier.
Looks like they really did have a good time, Asuna muses. She turns to Konoka.
"So where are we going?"
"I have to drop a letter off for my dad, actually. I figured I'd get it out of the way now so I wouldn't have to worry about it."
Setsuna feels her heart drop, and Asuna's voice sounds muffled to her.
"Is it for another business or something?"
"Well, not really," Konoka averts her eyes sheepishly. "Have you heard of the Shinmeryuu?"
Asuna's eyes widen in recognition.
"What! No way! You must be excited about that, eh, Setsuna?" She elbows the other girl in the ribs good-naturedly, snapping her out of her panic-induced daze.
"Um, actually, I'm not feeling so well – I think I might just wait in the hotel…"
"Nuh uh, don't think you can get out of this one. I bet you were just going easy on me in – in high school," Asuna catches herself, "Now's your chance to show off how good you really are."
"Er, no, really, I shouldn't –"
More like she can't.
"Wait, show off what?" Konoka interrupts their banter.
"Don't tell me Setsuna here didn't tell you? Shy as always, I see."
"Tell me what?"
"Asuna, r – really, I'm perfectly fine with –"
"That she does sword fighting! Just like those Shinmeiryuu guys, right?" Asuna asks, all smiles and completely oblivious to Setsuna's rapidly escalating terror.
"Seriously? Setsuna, you didn't mention that," Konoka gushes excitedly. "That's so cool! You have to show me."
Asuna nudges her again and glances at Konoka, make an impression! she doesn't quite say, but it's written on her face anyway. It's clear the redhead isn't going to let Setsuna get out of this gracefully, and Setsuna certainly doesn't want to make the situation worse by trying.
Konoka's face lights up, and Setsuna tries to smile in return. The pit of utter dread in her stomach makes that pretty hard though.
"C'mon," Asuna whispers to her when they're all on the way to the car again, "This is a good opportunity! Just show off a little bit and you guys'll have something to talk about – people like people who are cool and interesting, y'know?"
Right. Cool. And interesting. Not people who walk into fights and get their butts spectacularly kicked in a blinding show of failure.
But maybe she won't even have to fight! Why would the Shinmeiryuu challenge her to a duel, anyway?
Setsuna scratches the spot on her back where her wings should be and knows they'd have at least one very, very good reason.
The Shinmeiryuu school's entrance is hidden halfway up a mountain and deep in the woods. The path doesn't allow for travel by car for the last half a mile, so the four women climb out and walk the rest of the way. Ayaka and Konoka seem unusually excited to be taking such a long hike, but apparently the Shinmeiryuu complex is a beautiful example of traditional architecture: flat wooden buildings with ornate roofs, paper sliding doors, the whole shebang.
It hardly seems worth looking forward to since there's enough of that already in Kyoto. In Setsuna's opinion, if they're that impressed by old buildings, they should've just gone to the historical district.
But maybe Setsuna's just being a party pooper about it. Not that she doesn't have a reason to be, considering she's walking into what could literally be a one-way ticket to Hell. She still tries not to rain on everyone else's parade though, but the best she can do is keep silent. It might be suspicious to try too hard to get away at this point anyway. (Probably not to Konoka and Ayaka, since normal people probably don't assume someone running away from a religious-type institution is a demon, but she doesn't need to give Asuna any hunches).
There's a huge stone stairway leading up the last hill, and it crests under a wooden archway. Setsuna pauses at the foot of the climb.
"I'll meet you guys at the top, if you don't mind. I'm still not really feeling well."
"Do you want me to wait with you?" Konoka asks, putting her hand on Setsuna's forehead worriedly.
"No need, I'll just be a second."
When Konoka hesitates Setsuna tries to smile reassuringly. "Really, I'm fine. Go on ahead."
"Okay, if you're sure…"
She turns away unsurely and heads up the stairs with the other two. Setsuna stays leaning against a tree and pretending to catch her breath until they pass under the archway and out of sight. She pulls out her pactio card with Mana and stares at her picture contemplatively. She really, really, really doesn't want to bug the other woman, considering her usual impatience with frivolous communication. But then, she'd probably be even angrier if she found out Setsuna's planning to walk headfirst into danger without telling her first. Relenting, she puts the card to her forehead.
Do I say this out loud, or…?
Say what out loud?
Mana's voice rings loud and clear in her head.
Um, nevermind, I figured it out.
Great. Now what do you need?
Do you remember what I talked to you about, with Konoka and her dad and the Shinmeiryuu…?
Her tone is clipped and Setsuna knows she's already on thin ice.
…I'm kind of there. At the Shinmeiryuu school, I mean. But – but it's not my fault – they coerced me into it –
Who coerced you into it?
Setsuna cringes. She'd also neglected to let Mana know who she'd run into.
Konoka, and the business woman Ayaka, and, um, Asuna…
Asuna, as in, the guardian angel Asuna?
So let me get this straight. You're a half-demon whose walking into a demon-slaying school, while accompanied by the angel on whose ignorance of your nature this mission depends?
Did you have to put it like that?
How the hell else am I supposed to put it?
Setsuna briefly breaks contact with the card – who knew you could yell while thinking?Once the headache-inducing sensation wears off, she places it back on her forehead.
So what do you suggest I do?
Even halfway around the world, Mana's frustration is palpable.
Are you near the entrance now?
Are there little paper tags on top of the archways?
Setsuna squints up the staircase. Indeed, there's a small, rectangular piece of paper with some scribbled kanji on it.
Don't walk under those without everyone else with you. They're wards; they'll detect demonic energy, but you can dilute it by being in a group of humans or angels.
Okay, I won't.
She doesn't mention she'd let the group go on ahead, of course.
Knowing you, you've probably already promised to do something stupid, like duel one of their students, so –
I wouldn't do that.
Wha – how did you know?!
Mana sighs. She hadn't really known, of course, but count on Setsuna to fall for something as simple as that.
Just listen. If you do find yourself in that situation – and I suggest you avoid it – you have to win. Or at the very least, you have to avoid being hit.
I'm guessing that's not just to prevent getting my head sliced off?
That too, but Shinmeiryuu warriors harness an energy called chi. It's similar to magic, but easier to gather on Earth. They imbed it into their strikes and use it to banish demons from Earth.
Setsuna swallows nervously, thinking of the implications.
Will that work on me?
I have no idea. But don't find out.
Easier said than done, but Mana isn't the type to take complaints well.
Setsuna, one more thing. When you come back and open the door to the apartment, clench your jaw.
Okay, but why?
I'm going to punch you in the face.
That sentence effectively cutting off their conversation, Setsuna wipes the slightly sweaty card on her cargo shorts and puts it back in her pocket.
She looks up at the archway and ascends the stairs, keeping a wary eye on the paper tag at the top.
But it's just one. Maybe I can just walk around it – oh.
On the second to last stair she gets a good view of the walkway leading up the main building. There's an archway every twenty feet or so, each one covered in multiple charms. To make matters worse, the path is hedged on either side by dense underbrush, and the rest of her group is out of sight. Setsuna considers using her card to ask Asuna to rejoin her, but can't think of a good enough excuse as to why she'd have to come back. Setsuna wishes, not for the first time, that she could just use her wings. It would be way too easy to just fly over all of this.
But being trapped on the ground, all she can do is sigh and jump into the thick foliage on the side of the path. Deciding it would be bad if somebody caught her doing this, she goes a bit deeper into the forest, but manages to maintain a line of sight on the walkway. Only when the archways end and she can safely step onto the packed dirt in front of the complex does she emerge from the forest.
Asuna is waving at her, standing in front of the doorway of a large wooden building.
"What were you doing?" She asks when Setsuna has caught up to them. They all eye her scratched up legs and muddy shoes curiously.
"I got lost."
"…But the path was straight…"
"Nothing wrong with doing some exploring, right, Setsuna?" Konoka smiles at her, and Asuna looks between the two of them.
Setsuna's a freakin' weirdo and Konoka's too nice to care. Maybe they are good for each other.
They're all, thankfully, distracted from Setsuna's misadventure by the sound of a sliding door. They simultaneously turn to face the person who'd opened it, and a woman steps out with poise and grace that's obviously been perfected by years of combat. Even by the simple act of opening the door it's easy to see this woman wastes no energy with unnecessary movement. Perhaps the most conspicuous thing about her, however, is the giant orange bird perched on her shoulder.
"I'm sorry to keep you waiting, Konoka Ojou-sama."
Her voice is silky and accented, and when she goes to take a bow her black, waist-long hair falls over one shoulder and catches the light.
To put it bluntly: she's absolutely beautiful.
"No worries, Tsuruko – um, Tsuruko-san," Konoka tries out the suffix, "And you can just call me Konoka."
"I see you're just as kind as your father, Konoka," the woman says after she's righted herself and brushed the hair out of her face, "And it looks like that compassion has earned you quite a few friends. Who might you all be?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot to introduce everyone. This is Ayaka, a business partner and friend, and her personal secretary Asuna. They were nice enough to bring me here since I didn't know the way."
Tsuruko smiles at both of them and bows, but when she stands up again her eyes linger on Setsuna. It's only a slight change in facial expression, but Setsuna can see the smile fade just a bit. She fidgets uncomfortably under the gaze.
"And who might you be?"
"This is Setsuna, a close friend of mine," Konoka offers, glancing back and forth between the two women.
"Setsuna, it's a pleasure to meet you," Tsuruko bows, "And excuse me for being so blunt, but what happened to your legs?"
"I took a bit of a round-about way."
Tsuruko's eyes narrow slightly, and Setsuna can already tell this isn't going to go well.
"The path didn't suit you, I suppose?"
Setsuna, not having an answer for that, stays silent. There's a drawn out moment of tension, and she can feel her heartbeat hammering inside her chest nervously. Finally, Tsuruko smiles at her.
"I'm sorry," she laughs, "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. People skills have never been my forte."
"No problem," Setsuna forces a smile and keeps her hands in her pockets to hide the shaking.
"So, Konoka," Tsuruko turns to the girl, "I understand Eishun-sama has a letter for me?"
"Oh, right!" Konoka fumbles for the letter in her pocket before handing it over.
Tsuruko neatly opens the envelope and pulls out a single sheet of paper. Her eyes scan the letter, and her brow furrows as she reaches the bottom of the text. After a moment she tucks the paper inside her red and white robe.
"Thank you for the speedy delivery, Konoka. That certainly explained some things."
"Did it really? Dad's so concerned with keeping up appearances, I kind of thought it was just a formality," she puts her hand behind her head and laughs. Tsuruko catches the action as one of Eishun's mannerisms and smiles fondly at Konoka.
"My, you certainly do take after your parents."
Konoka's eyes widen curiously at the plural.
"You knew my mom?"
"I met her a few times, yes. She used to visit here often when your father lived in Kyoto."
"Really?" Konoka exclaims excitedly, all lit-up like an adorable Christmas tree. "Was mom a swordsman too?"
"Not quite. She had more of an interest in what you might call 'divination.' Spiritual energy and fortune-telling. That sort of thing."
I wonder if that has anything to do with why Konoka's so important, Setsuna wonders passively. She might ask Asuna later, but at the moment she's more than happy just to be out of the spotlight.
"She did have a particular fondness for watching some of our students train, however. Would you like to go see?"
Konoka turns to the other three, eyes sparkling and smiling excitedly, "Can we?"
"Of course," Asuna and Ayaka both agree easily – who could say no to that face? Setsuna shrugs her agreement a bit less enthusiastically, and Tsuruko's eyes again linger on her for an extra moment.
Tsuruko and Konoka take the lead, with the younger girl animatedly asking questions about her parents. Ayaka trails slightly behind, trying to point out the stylistic nuances of the architecture around them. Unfortunately, her knowledge falls on deaf ears; Asuna clearly doesn't care very much.
Setsuna lags behind all of them. She tries to keep a lookout for any more of those weird tags, if only as a distraction to keep her calm. All she can do now is keep her cool and hope nobody remembers to mention to Tsuruko that she swordfights. It would be much, much better if she could avoid the whole situation.
In Hell she'd been forced to fight pretty frequently, but not the kind of fighting she'd be expected to perform here. Back home, if you can even call it that, she was thrown into a gladiator-style battle with little more than a crude metal pole, if she was lucky. Most of the time she went bare-handed. Not that it mattered anyway, since the fights were always rigged so the hundreds of spectators would be appeased, and nobody was interested in seeing her win. All of them showed up with the desire to see the "angel" get violently killed, and so that's what happened. Although, to be fair, she got pretty good at defending herself. Dodging became second nature. It drew out the fight, but at least she could avoid the most painful blows that way.
Only one time had been different. They'd dragged Setsuna into the ring and thrown her a scrap of iron, and she'd glanced across the arena to see her opponent: a muscular, ten-foot tall, beefy looking humanoid. Despite the hundreds of opponents she'd faced, she can still remember his spiraled horns and gray skin and yellow eyes. He was holding a club, and Setsuna had recoiled at that. Death blows from blunt weapons were usually worse than with something like a sword, and she kind of hoped he'd kill her with the dagger strapped to his belt instead.
The fight had gone as one would expect, with Setsuna getting the ever-living crap kicked out of her until she was basically a pile of jelly on in the dirt. Her right leg was broken at the knee and her left shoulder had been pulled out of its socket from when he'd swung her around – really nothing out of the norm.
But she remembers him because he'd picked her up by the arm, and the crowd had cheered at her battered body, and then he'd smiled at her – an ugly gash across his face – and sandwiched her between the wall and his body. He looked like he wanted to eat her, which wouldn't have been so far out of the question, but something about his mannerisms told Setsuna that's not what was going through his head.
Up until that point nobody had looked at her that way. Being an outcast of the lowest kind, a cursed and wretched being, touching her without the intention of inflicting a blow was unheard of. In terms of social standing it would effectively ruin your reputation, and some demons might even consider you to be similarly cursed.
But on this day, with the crowd cheering him on, this guy didn't seem to give a shit.
Setsuna had been hurt and physically abused since she could remember; she was hardly scared of it anymore. But this guy ran his sword up her ribs, slicing through skin and muscle and shirt, and Setsuna was used to pain but not to the potent combination of confusion and sheer, unadulterated panic. Even though she didn't understand why at the time, and still really doesn't, something told her this was a world of pain she wanted nothing to do with.
She'd thrashed so hard the guy dropped both her and his dagger, and Setsuna had grabbed the knife and jammed it right up into his face and through his skull.
It was the most satisfying four seconds of her life.
(Nobody tried anything of that sort afterwards, but the torture she endured for winning the battle ensured she'd never do it again).
Her training with Asuna had been a lot more civil, although still barbaric by normal terms. The good news is that she'd actually learned how to use her weapons properly. Thankfully, she'd been given a sword, so at least she has some experience, but not nearly enough to match the discipline and control of these people, who spend a huge chunk of their lifetime practicing. For them, the sword is hardly a weapon anymore; it's more like an extension of their own arm.
That fact becomes all too evident when they're standing at the edge of a sparring zone. They watch as two men duke it out in a swordfight of near-choreographed grace.
"Wow," Ayaka murmurs, "I have some experience with martial arts, but this is just amazing."
"Don't discredit yourself for your hard work. These boys have all but dedicated their lives to perfecting the art," Tsuruko assures her.
One of them manages to get the upper hand. He knocks the other man to the ground with an elbow to the stomach and points his sword at the winded man's throat. After a moment he reaches down and helps him up, and they both bow politely.
"That's damn impressive," Asuna echoes Ayaka's sentiment, though a lot less gracefully. "But! I bet Setsuna here could take 'em, right, Setsuna?"
"Oh?" Tsuruko remarks curiously, a faint smile on her face. "Setsuna, you're familiar with the sword?"
"Not really. I just did a little bit of training when I was younger, but I'm sure I'm not as good as your students."
"Nah!" Asuna dismisses her statement, "You're plenty good enough! You should've seen her back in high school. She was like a freakin' demon when she had her sword."
"You don't say." Tsuruko gives her that same scrutinizing look, and Setsuna laughs uneasily.
"She – she's exaggerating, of course. Konoka, don't we have to, um, you know, go back now?"
Konoka once again looks between the two women. She's not really sure what to make of the situation, but Setsuna's discomfort is glaringly obvious.
"Yeah, I guess we should head back to the hotel –"
"Not so fast! Didn't you say you wanted to see Setsuna's awesome skills?" Asuna shouts, interrupting with great enthusiasm. "Is there someone she can fight?" The redhead looks at Tsuruko for approval, and Setsuna's about ten seconds from planting her face in the nearest tree just to get out of this predicament and Asuna's horrendously bad timing.
"Actually, I can think of quite a few students who haven't had their lesson today, Setsuna. Just a friendly duel, of course. I'm sure you wouldn't disagree to that, right?"
She's about to do just that, of course, but glancing at Tsuruko she realizes that might be a bad idea. The woman is obviously waiting for her to protest. Setsuna knows she hasn't done anything hopelessly obvious that points to her otherworldly nature, but at the same time, there's a clear challenge in the other woman's eyes. It's as if Tsuruko's waiting for one more shred of evidence against her, and with that intense stare focused on her, saying no would pretty much be a confession. And considering Tsuruko's ties to Konoka's father, that's the last thing she needs.
At the same time though, saying yes and losing would be far worse, and the chances of that are pretty high.
Asuna nudges her in the ribs, giving her a pointed look, and Setsuna knows that the redhead is one more person she'd have to deal with if she refuses.
"That's fine with me," she finally concedes, "But I'm a bit out of practice –"
"Psh, quit being all humble about it! She can take on your tough guys just fine," Asuna boasts second-handedly.
"Is that so? Well, then, I know just the person for you. Reiji!" One of the men turns his head and bows to Tsuruko in response. "Go tell Tsukuyomi her suspension is being lifted for the day."
Reiji hesitates for a moment, and he shares a worried glance with his training partner.
"Tsuruko-sama, are you sure that's –"
She gives him a look of clear authority, and he stutters an apology and hurries off.
"They're not going to fight with real swords, are they?" Konoka chimes in worriedly, and Tsuruko smiles at her.
"Of course not. We don't want anyone getting injured, and at the moment, Tsukuyomi is banned from using sharpened weapons."
"Why is that?"
"Mm, well, she got a little sword happy with one of her opponents last month and nearly cut his arm off. She's very skilled," Tsuruko adds, as if that makes it any better. Konoka pales a little bit at the thought.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"If it makes Setsuna here uncomfortable for some reason or another, then I can call it off…?"
She gives Setsuna a meaningful look.
"I'll be fine," she lies, trying to keep a straight face.
"You must have quite the warrior's spirit to be so brave. There are wooden training swords in the weapons rack at the edge of the ring. Go ahead and pick one, Tsukuyomi will be here shortly."
Setsuna nods and steps away from the group, but not without a nervous glance at Asuna. The redhead smiles and leans over to her, whispering in her ear, "This is gonna be great! You're totally going to kick her ass, and it'll make a great impression on Konoka. Am I a good friend or what?"
Setsuna opts for the "or what," but Asuna doesn't seem to think much of her tired sigh. She walks to the far end of the arena and grabs a sword of decent length and waits.
Someone, somewhere must be laughing at me, she thinks bitterly. This is just a parody of her forced battles in Hell, and she tries to remind herself that her goal here isn't to just avoid being in pain. She actually has to win, or at least dodge every blow.
Resigned to her fate, Setsuna looks over at her supposed friends and wonders if this is the last time she's going to see them. She makes eye contact with Asuna, who's mouthing "you're welcome" at her.
No, really, someone, somewhere, is laughing at her.
Heaving another tired sigh, she turns back around only to come face to face with blond bangs. She has to look down quite a bit to make eye contact with this girl, whose certainly the first person Setsuna has officially met on Earth who's shorter than her.
"Um, hi," Setsuna tries, not quite sure how to interpret this situation.
"Hello, Senpai," the younger girl bows and rights herself quickly, pushing her glasses back up her nose. "I'm Tsukuyomi. I was told we're going to duel?"
This is Tsukuyomi? The fighter who almost cut somebody into two pieces? It's hard to believe this girl, with her impractically long blond hair and her glasses, can even swing a sword at all. The pink shorts and the white t-shirt with the cartoon bunny on it don't help either.
"I guess we are. I'm Setsuna," she tries to imitate the bow. Tsukuyomi maintains that guileless smile as she picks a shorter sword out of the rack. Without further introductions they walk to the center of the ring and stand opposite each other.
"Is that really the girl?" She hears Konoka ask quietly. Tsuruko hums a yes.
"She may look harmless, but don't underestimate her."
Setsuna's eyes snap back front and center just in time to see Tsukuyomi's smile grow just a bit. It doesn't look quite as innocent anymore.
She swallows nervously, thankful that the sword's handle is wrapped to prevent her sweating palms from losing their grip.
"Are you ready, Senpai?"
"Y – yes –"
The word is barely out of her mouth before Tsukuyomi lunges, striking brutally with a forward slash. Stumbling just a bit, Setsuna manages to parry the blow just in time. The shockwaves reverberate all the way up her arms, and if she was apprehensive before, she's plain shaking now.
Tsukuyomi doesn't let up, swinging her weapon quickly and efficiently in a flurry of strikes that are impossibly fast for the weight of her sword. Setsuna dodges two and parries a third, once again feeling her forearm go slightly numb. The fourth blow comes from above her, and she rolls to the side to avoid getting her skull caved in. The blonde steps back then, waiting for her to stand.
"C'mon, Setsuna! You can do better than that!" She hears Asuna yell, followed by Ayaka's quick reprimand.
"This isn't a football game, you monkey. Quit shouting."
Standing up, Setsuna takes a second to breathe deeply. Asuna's right. She can do better than this because she has to do better than this. If all she does is dodge she'll tire herself out eventually. She needs to make a decisive blow.
Setsuna readies herself with a little more confidence this time, trying to remember all her training and experience.
Tsukuyomi appears pleased with this development, and she goes to strike again only to have Setsuna come at her instead. The blonde easily parries two of her strikes – left, right – but she doesn't expect Setsuna to draw her elbow back from the swing and into her abdomen. With an oomf, Tsukuyomi bends slightly and jumps back, holding her stomach.
The smile is definitely not innocent anymore.
"Good move, Senpai. I was beginning to think this challenge was a dud. I'm glad it's not though," she giggles girlishly, tossing her hair over her shoulder, "I prefer strong women."
Setsuna doesn't have very long to dwell on that statement. Their swords crash into each other, meeting in the middle, and both draw back and swing again.
Tsukuyomi ducks back to avoid an upward swing and lets herself hit the dirt, swinging out her leg to catch Setsuna at the ankles. Setsuna, not prepared for that, falls onto her butt and looks up to see Tsukuyomi already on her feet and jumping at her. More out of reflex than skill, Setsuna brings her knee up and juts out her foot at the last second, this time catching Tsukuyomi square in the chin. The blonde goes flying back and Setsuna scrambles to her feet.
She thinks for a moment that she overdid it, but to her surprise Tsukuyomi just laughs from her place on the floor. She's still giggling a bit when she's on her feet again, and she spits blood on the ground.
The blond looks up – still smiling. Except now half her teeth are dyed red and there's blood trailing down her chin, staining her white bunny shirt.
"Oooh," she practically moans, "I like you."
Can this girl get any creepier!?
They lock into combat again, and the three spectators look at each other uneasily. Even Tsuruko is beginning to look a bit uncomfortable by her student's, um, enthusiasm.
Against her will, Setsuna finds herself on the defensive again. Tsukuyomi's swings are quick and backed by a strength you wouldn't expect her to have, and the longer it goes on, the more Setsuna can feel her body grow tired. She's not as used to this formal style of fighting as Tsukuyomi is, and she hasn't done any physical training for quite some time.
I have to finish this soon, or it's not going to end well.
Fueled by that thought, Setsuna knows she has to catch the other girl off guard. She allows herself to be pushed back until she's sure Tsukuyomi thinks she has the advantage. When the blonde goes for a body strike, however, Setsuna puts all her effort into a single upward blow – not a parry, but rather a test of strength. Taken by surprise, Tsukuyomi loses her grip and her sword flies straight up into the air.
Setsuna sighs in relief, but quickly changes her attitude. The sword comes back down and Tsukuyomi catches it by the wooden blade and swings the handle viciously into Setsuna's sternum, knocking the wind out of her. She falls back, unable to breathe, and all of a sudden Tsukuyomi's on top of her.
Blood drips down from her mouth and onto Setsuna's cheek.
Okay, she can get creepier.
"Don't worry, Senpai," she says in a mockery of a soothing tone, "I didn't use any chi with that blow."
"I – I don't know what you're talking about," Setsuna wheezes despite her racing heartbeat and struggling lungs.
"I think you do," she giggles.
How the hell could she know?
She doesn't wonder for long. A more pressing matter interrupts her worry.
Tsukuyomi's outright grinning at her now, and her eyes are narrowed like a predator staring down prey.
"I'm not going to seal you away though. I'd much rather play with you myself."
Setsuna's not quite sure what to make of that, but then she sees Tsukuyomi's left hand reach between them and brandish something metal, and shiny, and sharp. If her head had been a bit clearer she might've wondered where the girl had been keeping it – strapped to her thigh, maybe? (One can only hope.)
There's a panicked, "Hey, wait –" from somewhere across the arena. All three spectators are on edge now, and Konoka turns to Tsuruko in a mix of anger and distress.
"I thought you said she wasn't allowed to use sharp weapons!"
"She's not," Tsuruko says, voice hard, and strides quickly forward to get between the two. Konoka, frustrated and worried, runs ahead of her. She doesn't care if she doesn't have training. As long as she gets there before anything happens –
Too late, though.
Tsukuyomi puts the edge of her dagger against the side of Setsuna's torso and carelessly guides it upward, slicing through skin and muscle and shirt, and even though Setsuna's felt this undeniable panic before it doesn't make her reaction any less dramatic.
Setsuna shoves outward blindly. She feels the dagger slice deeply into her upper arm but doesn't care, and Tsukuyomi falls backwards and then Setsuna's taking her dagger, blinded with instinctual rage and nearly hysterical, and trying her damndest to lodge it in the other girl's chest.
Startled by the sudden power change, Tsukuyomi can only roll to the side and watch as the dagger implants neatly in the dirt she'd been laying on just a second ago. Setsuna lunges at her in a repeat motion and the blonde doesn't have time to roll out of the way. Instead she grabs the other girl's forearm, stopping the blade from entering her jugular by a mere inch.
Setsuna can feel the blood dripping down to her elbow and into the dirt, and it's already drenched her shirt from where Tsukuyomi had cut her down the side. It's in the blonde's mouth, soaked into the ground, on the edge of the blade, and for a moment that's all she notices. Then two pairs of feet pause in her peripheral vision, probably wondering how to intervene without getting cut to pieces.
She doesn't care about any of that, though.
All she knows is her own emotion – it's hard to pinpoint; rage, sadness, fear?
"I should kill you," she hisses at Tsukuyomi, whose expression is strained but cheery as ever. Despite her statement the knife doesn't get any closer, and the blonde manages to shove Setsuna's arm to the side without much more effort.
"Probably," she agrees light-heartedly. The pairs of feet have increased and come closer, and Setsuna knows they're all waiting for a safe moment to haul the two of them apart. Setsuna eases off just enough to let the other girl sit up halfway, although she doesn't loosen her grip on the dagger.
They stare at each other.
"Are you sure you don't want to have a little more fun while you're here?" Tsukuyomi asks, voice dripping with innuendo.
"No thank you," is Setsuna's far more straight-forward reply. Tsukuyomi sighs forlornly and stands up, offering a hand to the other girl.
"Well, I certainly had a good time."
Setsuna thinks about that. It felt pretty damn good to get so angry.
"Me too," she agrees, and they both shake hands just as Tsuruko reaches out to drag the blonde away. In the midst of several harsh reprimands Tsukuyomi turns back to her.
"I'm sure I'll see you again soon, Senpai!"
The four left standing together can practically see the little heart symbol at the end of her statement. Tsuruko yanks her back around by the ear and calls out a "please excuse me for a moment" as she disappears behind some of the dormitories, blonde luggage in tow.
Setsuna glances down at her ruined clothing and then back up to meet Konoka's stare. She's eyeing the blood, not a little queasily, and shakily takes off her jacket.
"Here," she offers, holding out the garment, "Until we get to the hospital."
"Thank you, but I'm fine. I'll just get it dirty."
"Jeez, just take it," Asuna grumbles. She's not quite as disturbed as Konoka, but she's still a little disconcerted over what she'd just seen. "You're half-naked, you know."
Her shirt's been cut completely in half, and her bra is held together by nothing but a small strip of elastic that Tsukuyomi's dagger had somehow missed. She turns away from them and discards the bloody scrap of shirt before pulling the jacket on.
"Setsuna, shouldn't we be taking you to the hospital?" Ayaka asks unsurely. "I can even have a helicopter come if you don't think you can make it back to the car –"
"Oh, um, no thank you. I don't like hospitals."
She'd had a particularly bad experience concerning surgical instruments once, and the thought of being around those tools again makes her uneasy. The other three women glance at each other, obviously doubtful.
There are a few more attempts, made mostly by Konoka and Ayaka, to goad Setsuna into going to the hospital. When it's clear they're not going to get a yes out of her they let it drop, and with a significantly more awkward goodbye than hello, Tsuruko hands a letter to Konoka for her father and watches the four depart the compound together.
On the hike back Setsuna lets herself lag behind a bit with Asuna.
"Do you think I made an impression?" She asks hopefully.
Asuna remembers the vaguely nauseous expression on Konoka's face and tries not to smack the other girl for her obliviousness. She's about to ask Setsuna what kind of a question that is, but looking at the blood seeping through the borrowed jacket and remembering how she'd been the one to goad the girl into fighting, Asuna decides maybe now is not the time.
"Oh, I know you did," she says honestly, and reminds herself to ask Setsuna what planet she's from some other time.