A brown-skinned woman in a red tracksuit sits at her desk in the East Lumos Teachers’ Room, giving the holo-screen in front of her a dim stare. After a time she sits back and stretches her arms with a deep yawn before slouching forward and resting her head on her desk. “Sports history and sports theory, huh? Pa’que? Maybe I can just make ‘em play volleyball for an hour or whatever. It’s only gym.”
“Lesson Plan woes, Ms. Ortiz?”
“Eh?” Ortiz sits back in her seat, craning her neck to get a look at the person behind her… albeit an upside-down look. The dull surprise barely alters her facial expression at all. But there is a slight raising of her eyebrows at the person behind her – One Ms. Kelly, looking down at her seated friend. Ortiz blinks. “Tay?”
“Shall we head out together?”
Minutes later, Kelly and her tall, Latina colleague exit the building, continuing their chat as they walk the path from the campus grounds to the station. With her hands in her front pockets, Ortiz lags behind. “It sounds like you’re adjusting to the life of an educator in one of the city’s top schools.”
Ortiz shrugs. “I guess. The expectations are pretty steep, though, aren’t they?”
Kelly continues on, removing her glasses and wiping the lenses with her jacket. “I think that’s necessary. Beacon is the Education Capital of the world… what’s left of it.” For a moment, it appears that she gets lost in the reflection showing on the lenses. “What you and I do is… it’s really important.” The look in her eye is strange. A sort of sobering optimism, glazed over with the wistful gleam of someone whose mind has long since drifted to another world. But reality comes back to her when a long pair of arms reach out from behind her and snare her in a cushy hug. Then a head rests itself on her shoulder. “Eh… Y-Yennifer? What are you doing?”
“Ehehe. You lecturing me felt kinda nostalgic. But, mmm… how do I put this? You looked sad. I didn’t like it.”
“I… N-no, but… I didn’t give you permission to…”
“Hm? You don’t wanna?”
“That’s not… the point.”
A dim little catty smirk works its way into the corners of Ortiz’s mouth. “You’re not honest at all, Tay,” she sniggers, standing herself up and walking around Kelly with her hands back in her tracksuit’s pockets. Before she gets far, she stops and turns to look back. “So. To what do I owe my thanks for this precious time with my dear upperclassman, anyway?”
Once the red coloring works its way out of Kelly’s face, she puts her glasses back on and clears her throat. “I need your help with something.”
Later, Mio and the rest of the Going-Home Club stand at the heart of what seems to be some sort of indoor arena. A large, seemingly empty room with smooth, white walls and polished ivory floors. The way the room is shaped, though… it’s like a modernized dojo of sorts. Across from them, their homeroom teacher and… gym instructor? “Students,” Kelly says, presenting her friend. “Ms. Ortiz is going to be helping with your training. She’s going to spar with you all.”
As nonchalant as ever, Ortiz raises her hand to the girls in a lazy wave. “Yo.”
It’s certainly right to the point. Still, this introduction doesn’t exactly engender confidence. In Charlotte, least of all. But then she glances down at Mio before returning her gaze to their teachers. Kelly defeated all four of them, right? Surely she knows what she’s doing, getting this lazy woman to help train them. “Fine. Then who’ll be going first?”
Ortiz shakes her head. “Ah. Nah. No need for that.”
“It’s like I said. She’s going to spar with you all.” As one would expect, that announcement leaves the girls rather stunned. All of them? Together? This woman? “I already tested the lot of you individually. She’s going to test you all at once.”
Ortiz cracks her neck, her hands still resting in her pockets. “There ya have it. So c’mon. Whenever you wanna.”
This casual demeanor. It doesn’t sit particularly well with Charlotte. Come to think of it, even Kelly seemed to treat them with some level of seriousness. This woman’s guard isn’t even up. She barely seems like she’s paying attention. But at the same time, if this person is going to take her lightly… Charlotte scoffs. “If that’s how you want it. Little Moth.” Her Familiar spawns on command, fluttering just over her shoulder.
Diana and Ragyou follow suit, respectively summoning out Honey Bee and Maron. But Mio hesitates. She catches herself staring between the Familiars of her partners when a sing-song “Micchin,” calls out to her from nearby. Ragyou grins at her. “Let’s show ‘em what our club’s made of, ‘kay?”
Mio faces Ms. Ortiz, but that worry isn’t completely gone. “Kuro,” she says.
“You rang?” the little critter whispers as he forms from a black mass atop her head.
The dojo falls to a tense silence as the four girls ready themselves and Kelly observes from the sidelines. Who would make the first move? She scans all of them. Mio isn’t confident enough. Charlotte is cautious and meticulously analytical. So her eye falls on the other two. Sure enough, what finally shatters this atmosphere is Diana bursting forward, much to Charlotte’s irritation. “Tch. Diana!”
Ragyou steps up and looks back to those behind her. “No worries! I’ll back her up!” And she’s off, leaving Charlotte and Mio behind.
Ortiz doesn’t flinch. When Diana and Honey Bee get on top of her, she jukes them both. Every thrust of Honey Bee’s stingers, every punch Diana throws, it’s like she has them both downloaded. But Ragyou isn’t so direct. Appearing from one of her rabbit holes in the floor behind Ortiz, she lets fly a powerful kick just as Bee jabs at the gym teacher with another sting. Yet she doesn’t budge. Instead, she meets Ragyou’s foot with the bare back of her fist whilst catching Bee’s stinger between her index and middle fingers.
There’s a certain look that lays claim to a person’s face when the realization hits that they’ve made a grave mistake. A universally understood expression of pure error. Needless to say, it finds its way onto both Diana and Ragyou, with the latter trying to awkwardly laugh it off. “Ahaha… you’re… really strong, huh, Teach? You must have one epic Familiar, right?”
“Hm? Ah. I forgot to mention, didn’t I? I’m not an Esper.”
Just then, Ortiz grabs the smiley gyaru by the ankle and swings her like a flail into Honey Bee before throwing her at the other girl. Luckily for Diana, a string of silk attaches to her back and yanks her out of harm’s way. Ragyou, on the other hand, manages to right herself mid-air and land on her feet.
Diana sits there in a confused daze. Not until Charlotte steps forward, flipping her hair, does it even register what’d just happened. And it turns her blood molten. That o’ so superior little gesture of hers. She gets up and glares through the corner of her eye, dusting herself off. “I don’t remember asking for your help.”
Arms folded, nose turned up, Charlotte glances back at her opposite number over her shoulder. “Funny. The way I see things, that’s exactly why you needed it.”
Diana’s glare turns to a sneering grimace as the heat fills her body, leaving her in danger of igniting where she stands. As Charlotte continues forward to engage Ortiz, herself, Diana sucks her teeth and has Honey Bee return to her side, priming its stingers for another round.
Meanwhile, Mio approaches Ragyou. “Kikuchi-san. Are you okay?”
Ragyou flashes a double peace sign Mio’s way with an ear-to-ear grin. “Totally!” Yet she stops to think with a fist to her chin as the others continue throwing themselves at Ortiz, across the dojo. “But, man. She’s not an Esper? For real? Isn’t she, like, way too tough to be just a person?” She has a point. If this woman is beating them like this and doesn’t even have any powers, then the rest of the Royale…
“Oi, Boke. I told you to quit spacing out. Stop worryin’ about it and just rely on me.”
“Micchin. Now there’s no way we can lose. Ya got that? So let’s go!”
Maybe. Mio nods along with a quiet “Yes,” before moving to join Ragyou in the fight. Though the question still lurks at the back of her mind. Among the lot of them, what could she possibly add?
To the side of the room, Kelly continues to observe without a word, the entire battle reflecting in the lenses of her glasses. Ortiz makes every motion look like clockwork. Meanwhile, the girls are… not doing that. The homeroom teacher sighs, removing her glasses to wipe them off. “Trying a joint attack, then. Still, there’s a difference between that and…”
Ortiz stays on her toes, evading Diana and Charlotte’s best attempts to pin her down. She dodges lines of silk meant to entangle her and disperses entire swarms of attacking bees with the gust from a single swat of her hand. More and more, the two of them get in one another’s way, Charlotte’s silk shots cutting Diana off when she goes for an attack, Diana’s Honey Bee slicing Charlotte’s silk whenever she sends it at their opponent. When Ortiz knocks them both back, forcing them to catch their breath, Charlotte huffs. “Diana. I don’t need your-”
“The way I see things…” Diana gives Charlotte and piercing gaze through her uncovered eye. “Ya kinda do.” Then she charges back into it while Ragyou keeps the instructor at bay.
The girls continue to press their attack, but can’t seem to get anywhere. Between all the punches and kicks thrown by Diana and Ragyou, and all the attempts to snare and slow down Ortiz by Charlotte, nothing is working. And then there’s Mio, still circling the fight with a very impatient lizard on her head. “What’re you waiting for?!”
I… I don’t know if I can-
“Heeeh? Don’t go and try to make yourself useful now. I said to quit worryin’ about it and let me take care of things, right?”
“Oi! Look out!”
“Huh?!” Mio pulls herself out of her head, just in time to find Ortiz looming over her. When did she-? “K-Ku-!” No. Ortiz catches Mio right in the stomach with her forearm, and knocks the words out of the girl, along with all the air in her body. Then, on the follow-through, she sends the girl flying across the room, skipping across the floor like someone kicking a can.
She barely reacts when, her back turned, a line of silk catches on the back of her arm. Instead of letting herself be pulled, she yanks it, clotheslining an oncoming Ragyou. With her now in hand, Ortiz tosses the girl into Charlotte. With Diana the last one standing, the heiress swoops in but Ortiz flattens one hand and crosses her arm over her chest. “Sorry ‘bout this.” She lands one solid chop, right at the base of the girl’s neck. “Ho?” Dull surprise finds Ortiz as there, before her, Diana remains on her feet, albeit obviously shaken. “You’re kinda tough, huh?”
“Thanks for… noticing.” Defiant to the end, this girl. But when Ortiz pulls back her hand, the shock settles in. Her wobbling legs give out and she drops to her knees, the world spinning around her. “Ergh…”
When all is said and done, Ortiz shoves one hand into her pocket and throws up a peace sign for Kelly with that dim smile of hers. “Yay, I won.”
The scene a few moments later sees all four standing across from their two instructors, each nursing the aches and pains that will no doubt linger for a few days. “Honestly, that was about what I expected,” Kelly says, scrolling to timestamps in the video displayed on the holo-screen floating just in front of her face. “Slightly better, in places. Worse in others.”
Ragyou hunches forward. “Eeeh. Hard to imagine you got anything good outta that, Teach. We got beat pretty bad, right?”
“Oh, absolutely. Horrifically so. But you were never going to win. Ortiz is the woman who first taught me how to fight. Her and her grandparents.”
“For real?! Really?! No way! Like, you’re totally jokin’, right?!”
Diana grimaces, grumbling to herself. “What the hell? When you’ve got a secret like that, it kinda feels cheap to keep it ‘til now.”
“Moving on. There were plenty of things to go over. A few glaring issues. Ragyou. You stopped fighting as intensely after you learned she wasn’t an Esper. Why?”
“Eh? Ah… well… I didn’t wanna hurt her, y’know? Kinda seems silly now, though…”
Kelly closes her video and moves to sit, a hard-light chair projecting itself beneath her for her to land in. “Right. But seeing if you’d make that mistake was the point of keeping it from you, in the first place. In the Royale you’re fighting for your survival. For all intents and purposes, it’s war. Your opponents aren’t going to be holding back the way you did. At least not more than they’d need to avoid killing you outright. And I can assure you they won’t all be playing fair.”
The teacher’s sharp eyes then turn to the littlest member of the club and Mio feels herself shrinking in her seat. The first one out. Beaten in just one move. Again. And this time without even really doing anything. “U-um… yes?” Those contemptuous gazes from her own side. They’re back. But she doesn’t dare look up, lest she meet them.
Ortiz cocks her head at the girl. “You were kinda distracted, weren’t you? That’ll be a problem in a real fight. Ya gotta keep your head in it, ‘kay?”
With the flick of a wrist, Kelly wills a measuring stick to appear in her hand. “However, the main problem, here…” That ruler comes down like a gavel, pointing squarely at both Diana and Charlotte. And though the latter only sneers, turning away, the former simply continues to scroll through holo-screens from her Link… that is until Kelly’s ruler extends through it and right up to the girl’s nose. “You two. I suspect you already know that, though.”
Charlotte doesn’t say a word, but Diana closes her Link’s holo-display and looks the woman in the eye. “How do you figure?”
“The Royale isn’t the place for clashing egos. In order for any team to succeed, they need to be more than the sum of their parts. You two need to sort this out.”
“Tch.” How fortunate, for Diana, that an alarm goes off on her Link, just as Kelly seems ready to continue her lecture. Checking it, she turns and walks off. “Yeah, whatever. I got a party to get to, so I’m gonna head out. Have fun with the rest of your little training camp.”
Kelly watches the girl out, staring as she disappears through the door. But then her eyes fall on Charlotte, clearly off somewhere in her own head. Hopefully, though, it’s somewhere conducive to finding a solution. Charlotte is a smart girl, after all. Diana as well. But the thing about smart people is that they tend to be some of the most stubborn.
Heeey, we made it! This is actually the last chapter I had pre-written. So the next chapter might not be next week. BUT there’s a very good reason for that and you will learn it soon, I promise. For now, let’s focus on this. Yes! Finally! I got around to introducing Ortiz! She’s a fun one and a character I think was kind of necessary to show exactly how behind the girls are. Kelly isn’t a great measuring stick (heh) since she’s clearly beyond them in every conceivable metric. Ortiz is one of those situations where the character started as a joke – woman who exhibits Herculean levels of strength with no explanation whatsoever (I’m happy to report that this aspect of her will remain) – but she wound up becoming more prominent as I discovered a need within the story. Also another adult for Kelly to interact with so she’s not ONLY talking to the girls, the entire time.
With all that said, however, this has been a relatively light period for the girls. Yes, they got beat up, but over the past few chapters, nothing especially unfortunate has happened. Part of that is by design. A respite from all the darker overtones the story has before I get back into the more serious events, but part of it was kind of just a factor of my style, I think. Most of these characters, while existing in what is obviously a horrendously broken system, are still quirky and it just wouldn’t feel right having every moment with them be utterly grim. I didn’t want Ragyou to be the only source of levity in the story. Either way, I see the story gradually ramping things up from here in numerous ways. I was looking over the outline and I’m pretty sure I’ve identified where that shift is, when things start getting really serious. Suffice it to say, that time is soon. And I can’t wait to see if I can do it justice.