Valeriya gazed intently at Ageha. “Go slower. Yes, like that. Now gently thrust your hips.”
“Like this?” asked Ageha.
“No, not like that. Geez, I didn’t think you’d be so bad at this. That doesn’t feel good at all.”
Ageha clicked his tongue. “Well, sorry about that. My previous teacher was a lot more hands on when giving instructions.”
“Really? Like demonstrating the movements?”
“No, more like my body was forced to move according to my teacher’s will.”
“Hmm, that’s some strict teaching.”
They were in a dojo at one of her organization’s offices. Valeriya, in a disheveled kimono, was sitting crossed-legged at the kamiza, the room’s place of honor. Mitsuki stood beside her with a dissatisfied frown. Behind them was a small shrine with three sheathed Japanese swords on display. A large frame hosting boldly written calligraphy hung just above it.
In the middle of the hall, Ageha followed, or at least tried to follow, Valeriya’s verbal instructions.
His teacher twirled a lollipop inside her mouth. “You have to keep an image of the movement in your head. Trace that image, and you should be able to feel how well you’re doing.” Valeriya looked up and slowly rotated the lollipop stick, as if trying to unlock her hidden knowledge. “How should I say this, it feels, you know, good when you do it right. Those watching you feel good too.”
“Can you be more vague?”
“Stop complaining. It’s not my fault you’re a slow learner. Mitsuki got this on her first try. When she was eleven.”
Mitsuki nodded her head. “Yeah, that’s pretty basic.” She crossed her arms, creasing the white top of her kendo uniform. The navy blue hakama complemented her slim figure. Her long black hair, tied in a low-tied ponytail, completed her traditional Japanese look.
Ageha frowned at Valeriya. “Why are you teaching me Shaolin kung fu anyway? Shouldn’t it be Systema or something?”
“Because I’m Russian? And you must be a ninja because you’re Japanese, right? That’s discrimination!” Valeriya puckered her lips and pouted.
“…You’re right. Sorry.”
“I’m an expert at Systema, though.”
“Then just answer the question!”
“Your current fighting style is very similar to Systema, and you’ve already mastered that. It won’t do you much good learning something redundant. You could use some lessons in grappling, but that’s pointless in your case, right?”
Ageha’s extensive physical enhancements meant that once he managed to grab hold of an enemy, the fight was over.
“You should be grateful Ria is teaching you,” said Mitsuki with her chest puffed out. “She’s the undefeated former champion of the arena and an expert in many combat styles.”
“I wouldn’t really call this teaching.”
Valeriya took the bright red lollipop from her mouth and used it point at Ageha. “What do you mean? I’m telling you what to do, right?”
“You’re too hard to understand. I have no idea what ‘trace that image’ means.”
The Russian closed her eyes in deep thought. “How about saying ‘Trace On’ before you begin?”
“That’s what I’m talking about. Your instructions are either random or incomprehensible.”
“But I taught Mitsuki the same way.”
“And how did that turn out?” asked Ageha with a skeptical expression.
Valeriya furrowed her eyebrows. “Mitsuki, show him how it’s done.”
The young girl smiled brightly. “With pleasure!” She walked towards the training area, glaring at Ageha as they passed each other.
He joined Valeriya at the kamiza and sat down.
Mitsuki chose a spot near the center of the hall and closed her eyes. After taking a deep breath, her eyelids snapped open. She began demonstrating the forms Valeriya had been teaching to Ageha.
It might be unfair comparing those two.
In truth, Valeriya did not blame Ageha for having trouble with her instruction. She was a genius who skipped fundamentals and mastered techniques with little effort. Learning from someone like that was incredibly difficult. Her daughter Mitsuki, a wunderkind surpassing her in raw talent, was an exception.
Even discounting her parental bias, Valeriya thought Mitsuki’s motions were flawless. Graceful. Powerful. Fluid. Sharp. Those words combined still failed to describe the spectacle in front of them.
Ageha observed Mitsuki’s movements. “I finally get what you meant by ‘It feels good.’ Why the hell am I surrounded by prodigies?”
Valeriya showed a mischievous grin. “Did she remind you of your old boss?”
“Are you trying to show off your information network by saying that?”
Valeriya raised an eyebrow. “That doesn’t even count as information. It’s basic pre-employment background checking. I was just curious.”
“No, it didn’t.”
“…You’re pretty good. I can’t tell if you’re lying or not, and I’m quite confident in my ability to see through lies.”
“Thanks. I learned from the best.”
“So you did recall that Nikaido girl.”
“…Leave me alone.” Ageha turned his head away from Valeriya.
“That’s pretty cute. There might be hope for you yet.”
Mitsuki finished her exhibition and jogged towards Ria. “How was it?” Her eyes sparkled with anticipation.
“Perfect, as always.” Valeriya put her hand on Mitsuki’s head and gave it a rub.
“That was amazing,” said Ageha.
“As if an amateur like you can tell.”
“That’s why it’s amazing. Even without understanding the details, I was awed.”
Mitsuki’s expression did not change. The typical scowl, with her lips shaped like an arrow pointing to the sky, remained. “Do you really think I care about anything you say?”
“No, and right back at you.” Ageha showed a cocky smirk.
“Oh, I have an idea.” Valeriya raised her lollipop in place of her index finger. “Mitsuki, why don’t you try teaching him?”
“”What!?”” asked both of her disciples.
“They say there’s also a lot to learn by teaching. Both of you stand to gain something.”
Mitsuki looked at her mother and bit her lip. “…If Ria says so.”
Ageha glanced at Valeriya and then at Mitsuki. “Seriously?”
“Dissatisfied?” asked the small girl.
“Well, yeah. I’d understand if Valeriya was-”
Mitsuki’s glare intensified.
“…Valeriya-sama was the one teaching. But I don’t think I have anything to learn from someone much weaker than I am. No offense.”
“That doesn’t make sense. Coaching is different from application. You should know that already after seeing Ria teach.”
Ageha chuckled at Valeriya. “You heard her.”
Valeriya’s expression darkened.
“No, I didn’t mean it like that! Ria’s teaching method is… uhmm…that, yes, it’s that! It’s too special for a dunce like this to understand!” said Mitsuki while frantically waving her hands around.
Valeriya’s good spirits returned.
“What happened to your ability to see through lies..?” asked Ageha.
“It doesn’t work on my daughter.”
“That’s some amazing parental love.”
“I wasn’t praising you.”
“Stop wasting time. Get over here,” said Mitsuki.
“Like I said-”
“Are you really that proud of being stronger than a thirteen-year-old girl? While size and cybernetics give you raw strength, they don’t help your technique at all.”
“She’s right,” said Valeriya.
Ageha sighed and followed Mitsuki to the middle of the dojo.
She took a stance. “Now, copy my movements.”
Ageha followed her motions. His movements were a bit awkward but flowed much better than before.
Valeriya concluded that Ageha was a completely different type from her and Mitsuki. Indeed, he was not a genius. But he was no dropout, either. He simply needed a different teaching approach.
“Seems you can do it if you try,” said Mitsuki.
Ageha’s eyes widened a little. “That’s surprising.”
He sighed. “No, I’m not talking about my performance. I was surprised you actually praised me.”
“I wasn’t praising you. I just gave a fair evaluation. I may dislike being in the same room as you, but that doesn’t mean I can lie about your performance, nor would I want to. Wait, that’s a little off.” Mitsuki stopped her kata and approached Ageha. She held his lower back and pushed her foot into the back of his knee. “Keep your back straight, and lower your stance more.”
Ageha obediently followed her instructions. His posture improved significantly, and his hand and leg motions became much smoother due to the increased stability.
“You’re really good at this,” said Ageha.
“Naturally. I’m confident that only Ria can beat me when it comes to technique.”
Ageha silently mimicked Mitsuki. His technique became more refined with each step.
Ageha’s fighting style was like a naked blade. It existed for the sole purpose of killing and nothing else, which made it very efficient and effective. However, that also meant it provided no other benefits for him.
A bit of luxury would do you good.
Valeriya nodded twice while watching the routine she created herself. One of the bonuses of her qigong-based kata was calming inner turmoil.
You may not want my help, but you’ll still get it.
When Valeriya defeated Ageha a while ago, she noticed that internal conflict dulled his concentration. In order to make full use of him, she needed him to get over his problems, or at least not let them affect his work.
“Regulate your breathing,” said Mitsuki. “Extra tension will disrupt your rhythm.”
“Don’t make fun of me.”
“I’m completely serious.”
“…I see. That’s fine then.”
Momentarily forgetting about their disagreements, Valeriya’s two disciples diligently continued training.
“You didn’t answer my question earlier,” said Ageha.
“Huh? What question?” asked the Russian.
The two of them were watching Mitsuki’s sparring session.
“Don’t play dumb. I asked why you’re teaching me Shaolin kung fu. There should be other styles to choose from.”
“Oh that. Because it looks cool.”
“Don’t get angry! I’m serious! The problem with your style, if you can even call it that, is it’s too simple and clean. That’s great for an assassin but horrible for an arena combatant.”
Ageha immediately understood what she meant. The arena existed for entertainment. Running to the enemy and one-sidedly crushing their throat was not exactly the most exciting show.
“I’d appreciate it if you use what you learned to make your matches flashier.”
Easier said than done.
Flashy was fine. But doing that on top of secretly killing people in the audience was a whole new ball game.
“I’ll do what I can.”
“Thank you!” she said with a satisfied smile.
“Not necessary. It’s part of our deal.”
“Haa!” shouted Mitsuki as she smashed her shinai into the kendo helm of one of Valeriya’s subordinates.
“Did you teach her that?” asked Ageha.
“Yeah. She wanted to become stronger, but she’s too small to fight barehanded. A sword supplements her lack of reach and power. That said, they’re only playing for points. The power of her strikes still belongs to a young girl.”
Mitsuki was surrounded by several men in full kendo armor. In contrast, she was not wearing any protective gear. Two opponents dashed towards her. She shuffled backward and parried the closer enemy’s shinai, causing it to block the sword path of the second opponent. She then dashed forward, slipping past the narrow gap between her opponents while landing a head hit on one of them. The other enemy swiftly turned around while slashing horizontally, his sword speeding towards her cheek. Mitsuki calmly bent her knees while keeping her back straight, dodging the attack by an inch. Before the enemy could recover, she thrust the tip of her bamboo blade against the enemy’s mask.
“Isn’t she the cutest!?” asked Valeriya.
“Cute? Scary is more like it.”
“Hmph.” Valeriya turned away from Ageha with her eyes closed. “Maybe you should get your eyes replaced.”
“Yeah, I was thinking about that. I’m still saving up for it though,” he said with a completely serious expression.
“…I was kidding.”
“Ugh. It’s so hard to tell with that dry mug of yours.”
“You just need more practice. There are people with stiffer faces.”
A wave of nostalgia washed over him as he recalled Saya and Arashi. He quickly swept those thoughts away and focused his attention on the practice match.
Mitsuki sidestepped a downward slash while slashing down herself. Her sword hit the opponent’s helm as his strike zipped by her side.
“Isn’t this too easy for her?” asked Ageha.
“I guess. I already gave her a handicap, but maybe it wasn’t enough.”
“You mean her lack of armor?”
“No. That’s by necessity. She can’t fight against that many people without a large speed advantage. I forbade her from attacking anywhere but the helm. Of course, my men know about that too.”
Ageha’s fight against the Nikaido brothers’ cyborg had taught him firsthand how difficult that restriction was, especially if the enemy was aware of it. He was deeply impressed with Mitsuki’s skill.
“But isn’t fighting without armor dangerous? One mistake could lead to a serious injury.”
“I’m the one who taught her, remember? There’s nothing to worry about. Besides, if any of my men so much as touch her skin, I’m going to kill them.”
She was smiling, but the cold tone in her voice reflected her deadly seriousness.
“In that case, wouldn’t everyone hold back?”
“There’s no way Mitsuki nor I would allow that. I told them if they don’t do their best, I’m going to kill them.”
Ageha could not help but feel sorry for Valeriya’s subordinates. From the moment the match began, no, from the moment they started working for this woman, their doom had been set in stone.
I hope that doesn’t apply to me too.
Having lost interest in the one-sided beatdown unfolding before him, Ageha decided to change the subject. “Do you have anything new for me?”
“As a matter of fact, I do. It seems Jin got in contact with Kazuki Nikaido’s former assistant and successor, Akane Kogami. She ran a background check on him and triggered some of our info network tripwires. His current location is unknown. He’s been much harder to find ever since your surprise visit.”
Ageha’s eyes narrowed. He had wasted a valuable opportunity that night. His prey was a lot more careful than he had imagined. Ageha found himself thinking about his former employer. If Kaika had been helping him, Jin would already be sleeping with the fishes. But that was also just another lost opportunity.
“Can you get me information on Kogami?”
“It’s already in your inbox.”
She shook her head with a gentle expression. “Like you said, it’s part of our deal.”
Mitsuki finished off her last opponent and then waved at Valeriya with a proud smile.
“When I first met Mitsuki, I didn’t think you two had anything in common,” said Ageha.
“Really? I guess that can’t be helped. I never told you, but she’s adopted.”
Ageha looked back and forth between the tall blonde Russian and the miniature yamato nadeshiko and said, “I never would’ve guessed,” with as much sarcasm as he could muster.
Valeriya’s shoulders shook as she laughed heartily.
“I meant your strength,” said Ageha.
“The thing you have in common. And I don’t mean physical. It takes a lot more than talent to get that far.” He gazed pointedly at Mitsuki. “You must be doing something right despite how much you spoil her.”
Valeriya stifled a laugh.
“What?” he asked.
“I finally understand why you left your previous employer.”
“And why’s that?”
“You have no eye for women.”