By Logan Darklighter and Mathieu Roy
(No specific date, takes place throughout the Fall of 2033)

It was Lora's turn in the daytime rotation, and Aasha was going to be there in the evening, so Raven figured today was about as good a day as she was likely to have. At least Katsura, being the quiet sort, was appropriate for the night shift. Raven would be asleep and would hardly have to interact with her. She relaxed in her bed, staring into the darkness above her. She had awoken a short time before but was content to just lay there and be lazy. She also didn't feel like getting up and going into the main room until Lora had arrived and Katsura was gone.

She heard the main entrance to her quarters open and faint voices outside. Ah, Lora was here. She heard the front door cycle again and thought maybe she should go ahead and get up. But she lay there not really wanting to move.

Then the bedroom door opened and Lora peered in, the light streaming in from behind her. "Hey Raven, sorry about this, but you have to get up and start getting ready to go."

Raven sat up, pulling purple-streaked black hair and that white braid out of her face. She blinked sleepily. "Trouble? Armor or just normal clothes?"

"No trouble, really, and normal clothes will be fine. Don't bother dressing up."

"Okay then." Raven swung out of bed, rubbing her eyes, and with a yawn and a stretch that must've popped the surveillance tech's eyes, she headed to the closet to select clothes to wear—worn jeans and an old blue sweater. She tossed them on the bed and began putting them on.

"So what's on the agenda today?" Raven asked.

Lora called from the living room, "Training again. You might enjoy this, though. You'll like your trainer. At least I hope you will."

Grumbling was heard from Raven's room. "Davies wasn't kidding when she said she'd have me on an 'intensive regimen'." The esper stepped outside her room, adjusting her sweater. "Hasn't let up for weeks now."

"Well, you do get three days off per week. That's something anyway."

"I get the feeling Davies would get me to work on those if she didn't think I'd break something or go insane." She shrugged and added, "With the 'homework' I get anyway, I'd barely call them 'days off'."

"Here, catch," Lora tossed the young telekinetic a can of breakfast drink as Raven walked out into the main room. Raven lifted a hand; the can arced in mid-air to land right into it. Raven made a face and opened it. "I'm getting tired of those, too." Nonetheless, she kicked back a long gulp.

Lora took a sip from her own can and said, "Sorry, we don't have time for anything else here. But we can grab something along the way if you like."

Raven shook her head and grinned. "I'm just being finicky for the sake of it. Let's save it for lunch. So where are we going?"

"Over to the west tower and the HIT hall." Lora replied. HIT stood for High Impact Training. It was usually used for cyborgs and replicants.

Raven had had a couple sessions in the reinforced gymnasium, but not often. "Wow. They're starting me on hand-to-hand?" It was something she'd never been subjected to; she figured it was partly because her body control had not been up to it, but also because since she had the ability to tear people apart by concentrating on it, her handlers must've thought that beating people up with fists was a little redundant.

"Yeah, and we're supposed to be there in... 30 minutes, so let's get started so we can beat the rush." Lora headed for the door, motioning Raven to follow her.

The esper tucked her hands in her pockets and casually followed the cyborg, winking at the guard post attendant as she walked past.

The cyborg and the esper weapon walked briskly through the corridors in the lower section of the S-T arcology. They made their way to one of the elevator banks that serviced this sector. As it was morning, Lora wanted to start early because they had to negotiate at least one more elevator section and all the employees and guests headed up to their offices in the various towers would make the elevators run more slowly than she liked.

Raven quickly followed Lora, and the two snagged an elevator. Unsurprisingly, other people declined to join them. Raven leaned against the back of the elevator as Lora tapped in the code. "Let me tell you, it's good to not have all those guards escorting me everywhere all the time."

"Well, I think they don't think of you as quite the security risk they once did, for whatever that's worth."

"I guess I should be flattered," Raven mumbled.

"Well, at least it's something." Lora said, as their elevator sped up to their floor. They disembarked and began their walk to the next elevator bank. The floor they were on was one of the main mezzanines and at this time of day, was about as crowded as the average mall. They made their way steadily through the crowd.

"Like I said before, I think you'll like your new instructor. She's pretty tough sometimes, but she's always fair."

"You talk like you know her," Raven noted.

Lora smiled, "I do. She was my sensei."

"Oh!" The esper smiled. "What's her name? How is she like?"

"Doihara Kazuko. And she's nice... when she's not kicking your butt!"

Raven grinned, wondering what sort of person could kick the butt of a combat cyborg like Lora. "Can't wait to meet her."

The HIT hall was a basketball court sized area. Made to seem even bigger than it was by a ceiling that stretched up 5 stories. The structural walls were reinforced and covered in basic, white painted cinderblock. One of the walls had a twenty foot section at ground level covered with mirrors from floor level up to 10 feet high. An observation area was set about halfway up the hall along one side. Tatami mats covered the floor, and an old style weapons rack sat in one corner with practice swords and other weapons in it. There was a double wide and tall set of main doors into the hall, but that was normally only used for moving large equipment in and out, or the occasional large frame cyborg. The usual way to enter the hall was through the entrance from the dressing rooms.

Lora and Raven emerged after changing into loose fitting t-shirts and Gi's to find a small, slight woman doing an intricate kata in the middle of the floor. Her movements were quick and forceful, yet fluid and graceful at the same time. Lora held up a hand indicating to Raven to wait.

Presently, the woman finished her kata and flowed into a ready stance, bowing towards a set of banners along one wall, before turning towards them.

She was shorter than Raven by a half head, with straight black hair pulled back into a braid in the back, but with loose sprigs falling forward and framing her face. She seemed fairly young, although older than both Lora and Raven. She had a classic oriental face that could have been anywhere from 20 to 40 years old without showing her true age. She smiled at them and motioned them forward.

"Nice to see you again, Lora. This is my new student, I take it?"

Raven walked alongside Lora, bowing politely to the Sensei in the hard-learned Japanese custom, waiting to be introduced. She looked over the Sensei, feeling slightly unimpressed by her slight, unremarkable appearance—but knowing full well that appearances could be deceiving and, from the fact that she'd taught Lora and was a HIT trainer, knowing that they would be.

Lora said, "Good to see you too Kazuko-san." She also bowed. "This is Raven Clark."

Kazuko extended a hand in the western fashion and said. "Nice to meet you Ms. Clark. I'm Doihara Kazuko."

Raven shook the trainer's hand, noticing the strength in the muscle—and the control that gave the Sensei a firm, but not crushing, grip. "A pleasure to meet you, Kazuko-san. Lora speaks highly of you."

She grinned at Lora, "Nice to hear." She turned to Raven, "Well, why don't you tell me why you're here and what you expect to learn."

Raven smirked. "Mind if I'm brutally honest?"

"Why do you think I asked it that way?"

"Very well then. I'm here mostly because I'm kept on a very short leash and my bosses told me to come here." Her eyes flashed, then mellowed out. "Mind you, that doesn't mean I hold it against you or anything—I think this can be very instructive and useful. I think I'm expected—and hoping—to learn hand-to-hand combat with you, which is an area I've trained in only as a lark so far."

Kazuko nodded, "I was briefed on your situation. I had some choice words for your boss on the subject of your... protective custody." She had a hard set to her mouth on that last note. "But... I decided to take the assignment anyway. Again, to be brutally honest, the legalities of the situation are beyond my power to change, really. I can't help you in that regard. What I want to know before we begin is - do you want to learn what I have to teach? If not, there is not much point in continuing."

Raven smiled. "Yes, I do. Oh, boy, do I ever."

Kazuko looked pleased and a bit surprised, "Really?"

"Really." Raven folded her arms and tilted her head to the side, a little challengingly. "Should it surprise you? Just because my bosses want me to do something doesn't mean I'm not going to agree. In this case, I'm looking to keep myself in top condition, for useful skills I can use while I'm here, and for skills I can use when I get out of here—and whoever's listening and doesn't like this can go frag themselves." She chuckled at her own outburst. "And I've seen Lora fight. It spoke highly of you, too."

"Excellent, then." Kazuko chuckled.

Kneeling on the tatami in the usual position of students, Raven looked at Kazuko as she finished her kata. The first few weeks with the Sensei had been pretty tame—flexibility training, endurance, that sort of thing. And repetition. Seemingly endless repetition. Of stretching exercises, push-ups, and other calisthenics. And Kazuko would show Raven some basic moves that she would have Raven do over and over again. Punch, punch, punch. Again and again. So that she would get used to the movements and make them second nature.

Raven had been keeping in shape both as a personal wish and at the insistence of her handlers and thus she rocketed through that part with relative ease. At first, it had been very hard. Raven would be drenched in sweat by the end of each session. It didn't help that neither Kazuko or Lora showed the slightest bit of discomfort. But then, not only were they used to this sort of thing, but they had bodies that didn't tire like normal human ones. She had to fight back some resentment at that, but Kazuko always seemed to know just when to let Raven back off from the point of total exhaustion.

This session promised to be interesting; Kazuko had intimated that she would begin to teach her art in earnest.

As Kazuko stopped her kata, Raven spoke a question that had been burning her up for a while now. "So what's so special about your technique? What makes it more suited to cyborgs like Lora and teeks like me than other martial arts?"

Kazuko sat down on the mats in front of Raven and Lora in a lotus position and addressed Raven, "When I was young and began training in the martial arts, I started with basic Kung Fu. Wing Chun style actually. I've since learned a lot about other arts, cross-trained in many of them, and integrated them into my personal fighting style. You'll have to decide what works best for you in the long run, just as I did, and just as Lora did. But what makes what we're doing special is what we've learned in applying the fighting arts to a humanoid frame that is capable of so much more than a normal one. Human martial arts are based on what the unaugmented human body can do. I've merely experimented with what can be achieved when you apply them to someone with greater than normal abilities."

Raven nodded. "I see. Makes sense—from my experience, adaptability is key when dealing with combat in my field. I imagine it'd be much the same with augmented martial arts—you never know what the other guy might pull."

Kazuko unfolded from her sitting position and stood up, "Yes. So - Now that you know a few basics, I'll start with the next level." She backed off a couple of meters and said, "I want you to try and hit me. Only use your physical body. But otherwise don't hold anything back. I'll choose a counter and show it to you."

"Right. Unaugmented strength?" said Raven as she hopped to her feet, and felt a twinge of pride at her ability to do so effortlessly.

"Go ahead and augment if you wish." Kazuko replied. It was hard to tell, but Raven thought Kazuko was hiding a smile. Just standing there, not even in a fighting stance.

Raven's eyes narrowed, but she grinned. "You do realize I fully expect not to be able to hit you, right? I've got a dose of that with Marta Nys." And with that she came at Kazuko with a straightforward one-two combination as fast as she could make it. Her sensei moved slightly, and Raven felt her fist caressed by Kazuko's hair as she twisted. Her other hand came up and Kazuko did something with her hands that Raven couldn't quite make out. She felt a tug on her arm and something hit her ankle and the next thing she knew she was on the floor looking straight up into the lights of the hall, flat on her back.

Raven laughed. "Raise your hand if you didn't see that coming."

Kazuko looked down at her, "Hmmm... You're still too tense. Stiff. You have to be like water."

"Right. Like water." Raven rolled to her feet. "Try again?"

"If you like. But first, what exactly are you trying to do?"

Raven blinked. "I'm trying to hit you—trick question?"

Kazuko sighed, "Raven, don't try and second guess me. Were you listening to yourself when you started? You said, 'I fully expect not to be able to hit you'. That's not the right attitude to take. You're going at this like there isn't a point to the exercise. I am better than you. But that's not the point. I'm not trying to show you that. I'm trying to show you something specific. Now, I'll ask you the question again another way - what is your ultimate goal?"

Raven's eyes narrowed for a moment, then she decided she really was the one being difficult here. "I'm trying to learn how I can hit you despite your defense," she said.

Kazuko's expression softened a bit, "Yes. Did Marta ever actually show you how to learn? Or did she just throw you around the room and expect you to catch on?"

"Marta was more busy trying to cop a feel or a look at my breasts." Raven chuckled. "Ling Ling ended up doing most of the training."

"Oh boy," Kazuko rolled her eyes, "Well, how much training did you get from Ling Ling?"

"Quite a bit, actually. But I wasn't in full control of my body so it was slow going."

Nodding, Kazuko replied, "I see, well, you're much better coordinated now. So, let's get started. Do the same motions that you used a minute ago, and I'll show you what it was I did and how you could counter it."

Raven performed of the last motion of her kata, a wide, sweeping kick, then returned to her easy fighting stance. The stance, as well as the kata itself, felt *right*—Kazuko was clearly a great teacher and Raven, now fully in control of her own body, felt she was learning at a breakneck pace.

And she also felt that she'd found another piece of Lydia's mixed-up puzzle.

Lora was watching from the side of the room, out of the way. As Raven looked up, she exchanged a knowing look with her friend, as if to say, *Now you know what I know. Nice, isn't it?*

Raven smiled back—sure was nice—and swept into another kata, more complex this time. In the back of her mind, she marveled at her own coordination. At how natural it now seemed.

As she continued her kata, she could easily see the imaginary battle it was describing. Three quick punches, turn, sweep an incoming attack aside and kick... Turn and leg sweep... blocking high, low, backfist into sweeping grab, turn inside the opponents reach, elbow back into gut and turn over hip. Back kick behind and follow up with palm strike high... Faster and faster now. Until the last opponent is gone, now into ready stance again. Turn and bow to the front.

Kazuko was standing with Lora now. "Very good, Raven."

Raven smiled brightly, genuinely proud. "Thanks."

"Alright, then. Think you're ready for a little sparring?"

"Sure thing," Raven said.

"Right, then. Lora," she motioned to the taller woman, "I want to see you two spar. But keep your limiters on."

Lora seemed a bit surprised, but nodded and said, "Okay." She walked out onto the mat.

"You should both be at normal human level right now. Except... Raven, go ahead and contact shield. I want you to get used to using your power at a low level. Lora won't be hitting any harder than a normal human will, but her knuckles are still very hard. Fight to first take down or four contact points. Hands are worth one, and feet are worth two."

"Okay. Bet her body'll be hard too," she said with a wink at Lora... and then what she said just struck her and she giggled uncontrollably, blushing. Lora rolled her eyes with mock exasperation.

Lora and Raven bowed to each other and got into ready stance.

Katsura raised a hand, "Ready?" She lowered her hand, "Fight!"

Raven stepped aside around Lora, in a fighting stance, using the staggered step that she'd been taught that'd make her legs more difficult to sweep. She observed her friend's stance and fighting style with a knowledge she hadn't had weeks before.

Lora circled a little to her left then spun around and forward in a manner intended to bring her around the outside of Raven's guard and bring the back of her hand against the side of Raven's head. Some part of Raven observed that Lora wasn't moving anywhere near as fast as she could be. She had to be limiting her speed as well.

Reacting as she'd been taught, Raven snapped up a hand to parry the blow, stepping around Lora's arm to exploit the opening. She brought a knee up, aiming for Lora's ribs, but she twisted out of the way the blow, and Raven's knee only brushed the fabric of her gi. Lora continued her move into an attempt at a sweep of Raven's legs, which she jumped back to avoid.

Raven got herself centered again just as Lora came up out of her crouch, and made as if to continue the circling, but suddenly stormed forward furiously, feinting a left and kicking from the right leg. It thumped home solidly in Lora's side, which didn't give very much at all, and Raven felt the jarring impact all the way up to her hip.

Lora looked surprised as Kazuko yelled "Point!"

Raven nodded in acknowledgement, and stepped back, shaking her foot. "Ouch," she said kiddingly before resuming her stance with a slightly smug grin at Lora.

As they returned to the start position, Lora had a thoughtful looking frown on her face. "Hmmm..." This wasn't going quite like she thought. Was she really that rusty at normal scale fighting? She and Raven bowed to each other and got ready again.

"Fight!" Kazuko called out, and Lora surged forward, going as fast as she could up against the barrier of her limiters, Throwing a combination jabbing feint and backfist strike that Raven barely managed to counter with a block followed by a duck, reacting to the unexpected speed of the attack.

Raven leaped back suddenly, opening the range defensively, but she was slightly over-balanced, which left her open for the follow up move, as Lora extended her leg in a spinning side kick that slammed into Raven's side, just under her attempted block. Her shield absorbed most of the impact, but the air still rushed out of her as her diaphragm got compressed. Kazuko yelled, "Point!"

Raven bent forward and coughed, trying to catch her breath. Lora said, "You okay?"

The esper nodded, taking in a deep breath. "Yeah. Been through worse." She straightened up. "Good hit. I need to set up a tougher shield."

"Okay then," Lora nodded, moving back to her position. "Whenever you're ready?"

"Sure thing." Raven coughed once more then moved back into her fighting stance.

Kazuko looked at both of them, then started the fight again, dropping her arm and moving back out of the way.

Raven took on a defensive stance again, waiting for Lora's attack as she slowly circled around the cyborg. Something had occurred to her and she wished to see if she could pull it off, but Lora had to strike first for that...

This time Lora herself was a little more cautious, satisfied that she had indeed kept her edge. She probed Raven's defenses with a couple of quick jabs that Raven batted away easily. Circling a bit, then reversing, she snapped off a back kick aimed high, hoping that Raven was keeping her shield tough around her head.

Ducking under the scything kick, Raven swept forward, throwing a two-jab combination at Lora's stomach. Lora managed to block both hits, but being off-balance already, was knocked backwards backpedaling. Instead of fighting it, she let herself go backward with the tumble and flipped backwards off her hands and back onto her feet a couple of meters away from Raven.

Raven went as if to charge forward, but seeing as Lora had already mostly recovered by the time she went there, she turned her attacked into a more circumspect side-kick, which Lora turned aside with by batting her foot with an open palm block. Her other hand simultaneously punched straight forward, and Raven managed to barely block with her forearm, the hit stinging. Both of the fighters backpedaled a bit away from each other. Then Lora lunged forward with a straight one-two combination.

Raven blocked the first hit and sidestepped the second, stepping inside of Lora's reach. She grabbed at the cyborg's wrist and yanked hard as her foot connected with Lora's ankle.

'Use their weight against them' was the principle—and Lora had an awful lot of weight.

With her wrist still held by Raven and off-balance as she was, there wasn't any way to avoid the fall. She landed on her back looking up with a surprised expression on her face.

"Huh! Nice move, Raven!" she said.

Raven grinned. "Use your weight against you. With normal human strength you're at a serious disadvantage—you can't control your own momentum. Once you're off in a direction, if I help you along you're in trouble."

"True enough." Lora acceded the point.

"Well, done, Raven," Kazuko added.

Raven smiled proudly from the praise and regained her stance. Then she grimaced. "Foot hurts like hell though. Like if you stub your toe in the dark."

"Yes, it would do that, wouldn't it?" Kazuko said, "If it makes you feel any better, it's never fun to strike bone on bone even on a normal person. I never recommend hitting someone in the face with your knuckles if you can help it. A palm strike to the nose will break it just as easily as a fist."

"Got it," Raven said, resuming her stance. "I'll remember that." She grinned at Lora. "You don't care. Punch'em in the face, I say." She winked.

Lora returned the grin, "Yeah, I can afford to. It won't hurt, but it might tear my synthflesh. I try to wear armored gloves if I'm expecting a fight like that." She got into stance. "Ready to go again?"

"Yep. All set."

Kazuko said, "This time, the fight's going to be less structured. Same point structure as before, but I won't call the hits. When I determine the fight is over, I'll call it."

"A full-on brawl, huh? Sounds like fun. Okay, I'm ready."

"Okay then," Katsura said as Lora and Raven got into their ready positions again, "Set... and fight!"

Lora dived forward and scissored her legs at Raven's, trying to take her down.

"Eeek!" said a surprised Raven, tripping and rolling onto the ground, slamming the mat as she did so to break her fall. That wasn't a good start, and the esper hastily rolled way to regain her footing. Wrestling prone against Lora's weight was not something she was eager to do.

The cyborg kippuped onto her feet immediately, rushing forward, and feinted a backfist toward Raven's face before going for her stomach. The punch hit lightly, not enough to knock her breath out, but enough to score a single point. Raven retreated again, realizing Lora meant to keep her on the defensive.

Raven blocked a combination then, realizing she must regain the initiative at any cost, charged forward, shoulder first, trying to simply shove Lora away with her enhanced strength. The cyborg girl simply had too much mass to move very far that way, but it worked enough to give Raven some breathing room as Lora regained her balance.

Raven pressed on the attack, throwing a long horizontal cycle kick against the distant cyborg. She figured it was to her advantage to keep her distances where Lora would find it more difficult to use her greater weight. Lora was preparing a kick of her own, but modified her move into a block with her shin and knee against the incoming attack.

The two connected shin to shin, and Raven quickly brought her leg back to the ground, grimacing—it HURT, and if it hadn't been for her shield she might have broken her shin. The pained esper didn't want to concede the initiative, though—she stepped forward to deliver a left-right jab combination.

Lora side-stepped one and took the hit on the other, going back into a crouching stance, then springing upward and turning to bring her right foot, originally in the rear of her stance, in an arcing crescent high kick that seemed to come down vertically on top of Raven.

Wondering how she'd pulled THAT off, Raven crossed her hands above her head to catch the blow between her wrists, her legs bent to absorb some of the impact, her shield strengthened around her hands. The force of the blow drove her back knee down to the mat, but this time, she had concentrated enough of her shield that it didn't hurt her arms. At the same time, she managed to bring her hands together and grab Lora's kicking leg.

For a second, Raven tried ineffectually to twist the heavy cyborg's leg with her arms—then she changed tacks and charged forward instead, lifting her arms in an attempt to tip Lora backwards.

For just a moment, Lora looked consternated, then her eyes lit up and she grinned evilly. As Raven pushed, Lora fell backwards and shifted her other foot into Raven's midsection, falling onto her back and using her feet to throw Raven up and behind her into the air.

"Oof!—Gaah!" Raven let out as she went flying, but she had the presence of mind to let go of Lora and break her fall, rolling forwards, slamming the mat and kipping up in one smooth motion that made her inordinately proud of herself.

Turning around, she found Lora just finishing her own maneuver and turning to face her. Lora did a quick sweeping maneuver with her arms that ended in a "come get some" gesture with her hand. She was grinning slightly.

With an equal grin Raven slowly approached, her guard up.

Lora was rather pleased with herself for adapting so quickly to the lowered level of strength and speed that her limiters imposed. Shortly after her cybergraft operation, and for months afterwards, the performance limiters had been hard coded like this, until she learned how to smoothly integrate her extra-human capabilities and reflexes into her overall body sense. These days, she didn't have to consciously think about how to control her strength and speed, and could move perfectly normally one moment, and go into combat mode the next without any hesitation. Going back to acting and moving at normal human speed and strength was also easy. But the artificial ceiling she was working under now forced her to be creative in different ways than she was used to, and she was glad she was up to it.

Raven reeled after parrying another lightning-fast series of attacks from Lora. She was seriously impressed—Lora seemed to have had moments of hesitance at first, fighting with artificial limits on her abilities, but she seemed to have adapted now and was pressing her hard, smoothly flowing from move to move. Raven had to figure out what to do next—too often, by the time she was done, the occasion had passed.

And while Lora's limitations were outwardly imposed, Raven had to consciously restrain her Power—and it *wanted* to lash out, full force, at her attacker. Well, at least it was good practice of her fine control over her PK abilities, but it was a bit distracting. And with Lora pressing her she could not afford to be distracted.

Lora landed another hit past Raven's defenses, an open hand slap to the side of her head after a feint lower down that Raven blocked easily. But there was an opening for just a moment, and Raven dove in, snapping her hand in a quick palm strike that connected with Lora's forehead, hitting her hard enough to actually snap her head back a bit. Raven made a mental note to thank Kazuko for reminding her not to hit with her knuckles to the face. That would have *hurt*!

Raven and Lora both backed off a bit, circling each other and side stepping through their stances. Lora bounced lightly on the balls of her feet, the way she moved belying her actual weight. But the mat did sink in just a little bit more underneath her toes. Raven smoothly moved back and forth, looking for an opening. She was still looking for it when Lora hopped forward, just into kicking range, and let off a side kick to Raven's head. Raven's arms snapped up quickly for a rapid block, and she hesitated for a fraction of a second, wondering how to exploit Lora's position—when the cyborg drew back her foot and immediately swung it back in lower, smoothly avoiding Raven's block and connecting with the esper's ribs. Raven cried out and fell sideways to the ground.

"Match!" Kazuko said, and moved forward to Raven's side as Lora kneeled beside her.

"I'm sorry, Raven, are you okay?" Lora said, worried.

"Yeah, I am," Raven said, picking herself up. "More surprise than anything." She smiled mischievously. "Good thing you did that. I was soooooooooooo just getting ready to thump your ass."

Lora laughed and said, "Sure you were."

Kazuko said, "You actually did very well for your level of training, Raven. Better than I thought."

Raven nodded. "I'm used to fighting," she explained, "just not like this."

"Lora has more experience fighting in the 'real world', so she has the advantage." Kazuko sat down and patted the mat next to her, indicating for the both of them to sit down. As they each followed suit, she continued, "You were doing good in the first round, but that was a very structured fight. It was useful for you to actually use the moves I've taught you and get you to think about them. Lora won the second match because she's more easily able to move between one technique and the next without really thinking about it to set you up. I see you occasionally hesitating, thinking about what you're doing. Don't feel bad, that's the way we all start out. But you're still thinking in terms of discrete movements, and Lora doesn't think, she just does it."

"I think I know what you mean," Raven said. "She does it kinda like I do PK—I used to have to think about how to shape the Power, now it just goes."

Lora said, quoting, " 'When the enemy expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when the time comes, I do not hit... It hits all by itself.' "

"Sounds like the Power. It likes to hit by itself. I gotta stop it all the time."

"Oh?" Lora said, looking surprised. "What? Like it's actually a separate part of you or something?"

"It's... hard to tell sometimes. It's like, you know, when you're really angry at someone, part of you wants to hit them even if they're your friend?" Raven chuckled, realizing she was sounding like a twelve-year-old schoolgirl. "Well, imagine if that part was able to bash someone all by itself."

Lora shook her head, "That's weird. I've felt that way when I've been frustrated with people, sure. But I've never had *that* experience... waitaminute... " she interrupted herself, frowning thoughtfully. She muttered as if to herself, "That couldn't have been..."

Raven quirked an eyebrow. "Maybe it was," she said simply, deducing what Lora was referring to.

Lora looked a little queasy, "That's a very disturbing thought."

Kazuko for once looked a little out of the loop, "What are we talking about here?"

Raven gave Lora an "up to you" look, and waited for her to take the lead.

Lora shook her head, "Some other time. It's not relevant right now. What we were talking about?"

Kazuko said, "Right... Well, my point was that I've been teaching you," she said, referring to Raven, "the classic techniques of Wing Chun Kung Fu. Starting with the next session, I'm going to introduce you to some cross-technique exercises. We'll see what you're most comfortable with in terms of style and go with it. Then later we move to some weapon exercises. And you get to learn how to integrate it all. Finally, we'll get you started on some techniques that have just started coming out in the last few years. Stuff that is only possible with an enhanced humanoid frame. Some of which Lora and I have actually invented ourselves!"

"Wow," Raven said with an actual, delighted smile. "Sounds cool. Gotta admit, some of the stuff you showed me did feel like a little silly. 'Don't do that or you'll break an arm'—like that'd happen to Lora..."

Lora said, "I'm not invulnerable, you know."

"No, but you aren't going to break your arm on a leverage move against a normal human."

"Well, no, I guess not."

"It will be interesting," Kazuko said, "I've taught normal students, of course. And I've taught a handful like Lora, who could do the more advanced high impact moves. But I've never taught an esper before. Someone with an otherwise human body, who might be able to do that."

"Hope I don't disappoint."

"I think you'll do just fine." Lora said.

"Okay," Raven said. "So you've come up with this combat theory that works for cyborg and other, uh, 'enhanced' people. Right?"

"Yes." Kazuko said. "Lora and I, and other cybergrafts, inherently have a combat edge on normal humans. But against other cyborgs and replicants, it's not good to just assume superiority. Use the machine, but don't depend on it for everything. Next years model is always better."

"Sounds about right," Raven said. "But what, exactly, would you do?"

"In general terms, use increased mobility and flexibility in unexpected ways. With faster reaction times comes the ability to hit faster and get around defenses. I've taught you the basic techniques already. The idea is to speed them up and push the limits to the edge of the envelope. With cyborgs, and I think possibly with espers as well, that envelope is much, much greater than you'd expect."

Lora stood up, "It may be easier to show you what we mean."

Raven nodded. "Good idea. A demo would be cool. And useful."

Kazuko nodded, "I think that's a good idea. But... I think it would be safer if you watch us from the observation deck. Besides, there are motion capture monitors in there that can actually give you a better view of what's going on at times."

Raven quirked an eyebrow in amusement. "Safer for who?" she asked cockily. But she stood and left for the observation deck.

Lora watched her exit the room, then grinned at Kazuko, "The scary thing is, she might have a point, there."

"Perhaps." Kazuko admitted. "Right now I get to find out what you've learned yourself."


"Yikes! I wonder if you can put satellites in orbit from here," said Raven as she sat in the observation deck. Behind the thick Plexiglas pane that let her see the entirety of the dojo below, there were monitors over all the walls, hooked to "smart" cameras that followed the motion of the combatants. A few were pointed at Lora and about the same number at Kazuko, while more took a more complete view of their upcoming fight. A keyboard in the center of the room controlled setting such as, if the labels were to be believed, "instant replay," "thermographic," "motion capture," "moment of inertia"... Raven scratched her head at the bewildering array of options and elected to just watch.

Down on the floor, Lora and Kazuko stepped to their places opposite of each other, bowed once, then got into their stances.

Lora looked over at Kazuko, her teacher, and wondered if she could actually take her down. Technically, she was faster and stronger, but Kazuko had more experience and seemed able at times to anticipate what her opponent's move was going to be before it was made. She'd never beaten her sensei yet. Never mind, she thought. No doubts, no thinking, just the fight.

Unlike in the sparring match that she'd had with Lora, there was no preliminary circling and footwork. The two of them just stood there in ready stances. For a long moment Raven wondered what they were doing, staring at each other.

Then Lora shot forward, throwing a back-fist at Kazuko, who slipped aside at the last instant. Almost too fast to follow, there was a flurry of kicks and punches back and forth, none of which seemed to hit. All were either blocked or avoided. Both opponents were lightning fast, and Raven almost couldn't follow what they were doing. Her eyes flickered up to the monitors for a moment, making sure the equipment was recording, since she definitely wanted to replay this later.

When her eyes came back to the fight before her, it was just in time to see Kazuko flip backward out of the way of a punch and then a spin kick from Lora. Then she bounced back onto her feet just long enough to launch herself into a flying sidekick that caught Lora solidly in the gut, the blow knocking Lora flying for a couple of meters.

She tucked into a roll and came back down on her feet instantly as Kazuko recovered her stance. Lora jumped high in the air and slammed a spinning heel strike into the side of Kazuko's head before the other woman could get her defenses up. Kazuko's head snapped to the side, but she kept her feet and by doing so, Lora overshot and wound up with her back to her sensei.

Kazuko took advantage of the position and grabbed Lora's left arm, twisting it up behind her back so fast and hard that Lora was forced to her knees. Raven actually heard a grunt of pain from her at this.

Lora wasn't giving up though, she rocked back and got her feet underneath her and leaped, carrying Kazuko with her...

...up nearly to the ceiling of the five story tall practice hall.

"Whoa," Raven whispered in awe, as Lora took the fight to the air. She hadn't known that Lora was capable of this kind of leap—let alone with another cybered human on her back.

At the apex of her leap, Lora twisted in mid-air so that her arm was no longer trapped behind her, although Kazuko still had a grip on her wrist. She yanked Lora toward her and brought other hand around in what looked like a massive strike, but Lora managed to deflect it, and in the process the two of them spun away from each other as they fell down to the floor. They both twisted in mid-air to land on their feet, a couple of meters apart.

Kazuko nodded to her student, "Very good, Lora, you've improved."

Lora looked surprised for a moment, then grinned back, "Thanks!"

Kazuko beamed back at her student and then did something that Raven later had to see on replay in order to catch all of it. She seemed to glide toward Lora with deceptive calm and placed five kicks in rapid succession past Lora's momentarily lowered guard and into her mid-section.

The younger cyborg went flying back and slammed up against the cinderblock wall, cracking it behind her. She remained standing only through a supreme act of will, staring in utter surprise at her teacher.

"Ah, Lora," tsked Kazuko as Lora levered herself off the wall, "you should have learned by now."

Raven couldn't help but giggle. "Ow, that's gotta hurt."

Lora shook her head to clear out the cobwebs, as the other woman gathered herself into a leaping side kick. She managed to sidestep the blow by inches and struck out with her leg behind her as Kazuko passed, but her own kick met only empty air.

"You missed." They both said in unison.

Kazuko grinned, then added, "Boot to the head" without missing a beat,

Then she hopped up just slightly and snapped off a high kick that indeed caught Lora in the head. Right under the chin actually, snapping her head back and rocking her back on her heels. Lora managed to come back with a feint, then spun around the opposite direction to deliver a back fist strike to the stomach to return the favor. Kazuko folded over to absorb the blow, then straightened and extended a leg in an attempt to sweep Lora's feet out from under her.

Lora caught her foot with one hand and heaved upward, flipping Kazuko high in the air. She cartwheeled uncontrollably in the air twice before landing on her back, slapping the mat perfectly to avoid as much damage as possible when she landed.

Kazuko flipped instantly backwards onto her feet and leaped somersaulting into the air, her legs tucked in. Then with a yell, she uncoiled into a strike with both feet that sent Lora halfway across the room and slamming into the wall behind her. Raven actually felt the impact up the observation booth as the cinderblocks cracked under the impact.

Lora slid down the wall, barely conscious, the room spinning slightly. Her head cleared just in time to see her teacher running toward her and about to hit her with an open palm strike. She rolled out of the way just as Kazuko's hand struck the wall behind her, shattering the cinderblocks into pieces.

Getting up on her feet, Lora backpedaled toward the center of the room as Kazuko followed. After a moment of circling, they both attacked again but managed to slip each others blows. Kazuko attempted to turn a punch feint into another joint lock, but Lora slipped it and almost turned the maneuver back onto Kazuko as a throw, but the older cyborg twisted up into the air and over Lora's head in a maneuver that brought her down behind her student...

... who kicked out behind her as she looked over her shoulder to sight in the maneuver and caught Kazuko just below the left collarbone even as she was trying to dodge out of the way. The impact blasted Kazuko off her feet and sent her flying more than 20 feet across the room.

She got up after a moment. But as Lora was moving in to continue, Kazuko got a somewhat surprised look on her face, then called out "HOLD IT!" And Lora stopped.

Raven's voice came on the PA system. "Something's wrong? Kazuko, are you all right?"

Kazuko tried to move her left arm around, winced, then muttered, "Oh yeah. That's broken. That's definitely grinding in there."

Lora rushed to her side, "Kazuko! You're hurt? Oh shit! I'm so sorry...!"

Kazuko held up a finger in a "wait a moment" gesture, smiling ruefully. "I'll be alright. I'll just have to get my cyberdoc to fix me up and I'll be as good as new. For now, though, congratulations! You've improved a hell of a lot since the last time we fought."


"Shut-up Lora, I'm complimenting you. And I'm not in any danger here. You just cracked my rotator socket and popped a few muscle connectors . I've already shut off the pain receptors there."

Raven came back into the gym, moving over to fuss at Kazuko. "Are you all right, Kazuko?"

"Yes, yes, I'm fine. Lora damaged my shell a little, but I'm all right."

Raven seemed about to examine the "wound," but then realized she had strictly no knowledge of cyborg medicine and instead just stood with a worried look on her face.

"I got carried away, didn't !?" Lora said, chagrined.

Kazuko laughed and said, "No more than I did. First time I've been challenged in a while. You hit like a truck, Lora!"

"I'm sorry..."

"If you don't stop apologizing, I'm going to get upset with you." Kazuko said.

"I'm so... Right. Heh..." Lora grinned a bit nervously.

Kazuko said, "You've gotten to the point where I'm not sure I have much more to teach you, Lora. At least in terms of pure technique"

"Really?" She was shocked, but Kazuko sounded serious.

"Really. You could work on your defense a little bit, but yes, you've gotten that good. I'm very proud of you." She smiled at Lora's embarrassed expression.

"It was really cool to watch," Raven said. "It looked right out of one of those action flicks. If I didn't know better," she smirked, "I'd have sworn you were hamming it up for the camera a little."

"Well, not really, but we did get carried away a bit." Lora repeated.

"Anyway, I guess that's pretty much it for the day," Kazuko said, then turned to Raven and continued. "I wish I could ask you to join us in a celebratory meal out. But..." She shrugged, the motion didn't carry to her left shoulder and arm, which seemed frozen.

Raven sighed. "Yes. I know. Back to the doghouse for me."

"Well, we can eat here in the tower," Lora said, "Raven's allowed that."

"Better tell them now then. They always want advance notice. It won't make them happy but I've been a good girl, I don't think they'll refuse me."

*Pick a weapon*, Raven thought, looking over the rack of staves, swords, chains, and some exotic oriental weaponry like she'd never seen before. *Easy for her to say, she can probably kick Jackie Chan's and Van Damme's asses together with any of them.* Kazuko had indicated she was impressed with Raven's progress—the esper held the sensei in high regard, and that word, "impressed," gave her a warm feeling. Now she wanted to start familiarizing Raven with weapon forms. And had asked to pick a weapon. "Uh," said Raven, "how should I pick? What am I looking for?"

"Try anything," Kazuko said. "Just pick up the first thing that looks good. We'll start from there."

"Right." She looked over the weapons rack. A sword, then—simple and familiar. A weapon that man had used in one form or another for most of history; not one of those exotic chain-weapons invented by a great sage in a backwater Asian province and used only during an obscure dynasty. Looking over the choice, she finally picked a long-bladed Oriental sword and slid it off the rack.

She held it horizontally before her, tip pointed, and immediately knew this was the right choice. She held the blade easily, without effort, and could almost feel along its length, what it would do if she moved her wrist or arm in such and such manner. It just *felt* right.

She took a few practice swings, the blade moving exactly as it thought it would following her motions. She put her right hand on the hilt and swung once, mimed a parry, and struck again. Yes, this felt right. For some reason, she was reminded of Aunt Lydia's puzzle again, and how she'd once found a piece the jigsaw by accident, under the sofa where Raven's telekinetic outburst had sent it.

Kazuko looked on thoughtfully, nodding slightly, "I take it you want to start with that one?"

"Yes," Raven said. "It just feels right. Not sure why, but it does."

"The sword has a few drawbacks in today's world. Portability for one. Difficult to take through security checkpoints and such." Katsura walked around Raven, looking at her with the sword. "But the forms you learn training with one can be applied to other weapons as well. A walking stick can become a deadly weapon if wielded properly. Musashi killed several men with a bokuto."

She stopped in front and to the side, looking at Raven with a critical eye, "Your form is sloppy and untrained of course, but you're actually holding the blade correctly. You've never trained with a blade before, right?"

Raven shook her head. "I don't think I've even ever *held* a sword."

Katsura raised an eyebrow, "Hmm... Interesting. Well, let's get you started on a few exercises." She then asked for the sword, which Raven handed over. She proceeded over to the weapon rack again and put the sword back in its place and picked out a pair of bokuto, wooden practice swords. She went over to Raven and said, "We'll practice with these until I think you're ready for the live steel."

Raven caught the bokuto and held it at the ready—or, at least, what she thought was a ready stance. "Good idea."

"Okay, now I want you to take your bokuto and do what I do," Here Kazuko did a simple downward chop that ended precisely when the blade reached a horizontal position perpendicular to her body at just below chest height. Raven followed suit and Kazuko corrected her slightly, then had her do the motion again.

Kazuko corrected her again, saying, "I need for you to stop the blade precisely on the mark. Don't let it drop further. No wasted motions. Again."

Raven got closer this time, but still the blade did not quite stop on the mark and dipped before she could stop it.


Once more, and Raven stopped it right on target, held out horizontal.

"Good," Kazuko said, " Now do it exactly like that 20 more times.

"Patience is the mother of perfection, right?" It was something Lydia had said once, one of her less cryptic sayings. Smiling slightly, Raven began on the downward motions, taking great care stop the blade horizontally.

After ten repetitions, her arms started hurting. At around 15, she was starting to slip again. And Kazuko corrected her. This was harder than the simple punch repetitions from earlier in her training. When she reached 20, Kazuko let her rest for a half-minute. Then she showed her another basic form, a side stroke, and went through the same process as before. Now Raven's arms were really starting to hurt. But this was a familiar sort of pain. Similar to her training in hand to hand. Start with the endless repetitions. When that becomes second nature, then move to the more complex moves.

After her latest series of repetitions, Raven swung her left arm around to loosen it up. "I'm gonna be sore tomorrow morning," she said kiddingly.

"Good, the pain is letting you know you're learning something. Setting the memory into the muscle groups."

"Awesome." Idly, she performed another repetition of that last series, a sweeping lunge that was a bit more complex than the simple moves she'd been taught so far. "It's fun though."

"Well, be prepared for a lot more fun." Kazuko said with a grin.

Raven was soaked in sweat, and had to tighten her grip on her bokuto in order to keep from having it slip on her. She parried another thrust from Kazuko and set up for a counterstrike. She swung and the blow met the heavy clack of her sensei's wooden sword. How she got it up so fast was a mystery.

Raven half-smiled fiercely and spun her blade against Kazuko's in a disarm maneuver. It was not a move she'd been taught by the Sensei, but one she'd taken out of a Western saber-fencing manual she'd been reading. She did not expect it to succeed, especially since she hadn't practiced it before; but she wondered how Kazuko would deal with it, and what she would think of it.

It almost worked, Kazuko only kept her grip on the blade by the barest of margins, Raven's blade scraping along her knuckles. If this had been a live steel match and Kazuko a normal human, that might have ended the fight right there. As it was, Kazuko acknowledged the hit by switching her bokuto to her other hand on the fly and attacking again with a grin.

*Wow*, Raven thought, *it did work*. Grinning back, but careful not to let herself become overconfident from the momentary victory (and get a sound trashing that would waste all her efforts), the esper swept her sword to the side in a parry, then brought the blade in quickly for a riposte. She was careful though; as Raven was left-handed, Kazuko had shown her how to use the unusual angles to her advantadge against an opponent used to right-handers, and she was determined not to let herself fall into the same trap.

Indeed, Kazuko crossed her up on her next attack, drove her elbow into Raven's sternum, and sent her reeling back, coughing. Then she whirled, her blade hissing through the air, heading straight for the esper's neck. She wasn't about to actually hit Raven. She intended to pull back at the last instant if she didn't parry or get out of the way; but she wanted her student to feel the threat.

Pain was no stranger to Raven. She shoved it away like she might brainburn and forced her muscles to respond, swinging her sword towards Kazuko for a loud parry mere inches from her neck.

Kazuko pulled back and went into a resting position. Holding her bokuto out to the side in a neutral stance. The sparring was obviously over for the moment, and Raven stepped back as well. Kazuko and Raven both bowed to each other. Then Kazuko said, "Decent, but you need to work on integrating your moves. You're reacting better to someone else switching techniques on you, but I want to see you do the same. Any opponents you're likely to fight will be fighting dirty. You need to do the same."

Raven smiled mischievously. "You mean, something like pulling in a circle disarm out of a German Renaissance fencing manual?"

Kazuko smiled indulgently, "I thought that looked familiar! Interesting to use it with a bokuto though. What I really meant though was switching between blade techniques and regular empty hand moves. In a street fight, you'll want to use any advantage you have. Yes, I know you can use your esper abilities, but there may be times when you don't want to. If you have the opportunity, don't hesitate to put a fist in someone's face even if you're holding a sword."

Raven frowned. "I thought this was a sword-only spar. I had a huge opening when you swapped your blade hand and had to stop myself from kneeing you in the stomach."

"I wondered if you were holding back for that reason. I never specifically said not to use empty hand techniques while we're fighting with blades. I should have been clearer. As far as your training is concerned, there are no such things as 'fouls'. If you see an opening, I want you to take it."

Raven chuckled. "Don't worry about that." She glanced at Lora then looked Kazuko in the eye. "People see all the nice creamy skin and the clean and proper exterior and get fooled. Heck, it even fooled me for a while, so much that I forgot this. I'm a vicious bitch. Zero Zone born and bred. PK or no PK, you don't live unless you can take low blows and give as good as you get. I've been in more street fights, real fights, than I can count. I've ripped people apart, twisted joints the wrong way, broken necks, blasted people from behind. Trust me, Kazuko, if I get into a real fight, I won't be squeamish and I won't be limited by 'form'. I've been in enough real, dirty fights to know that the only good form is the one that makes the other guy bleed."

Kazuko nodded and said, "Yes. That's exactly the attitude you'll likely need." She brought her bokuto back into position and said, "Again?"

Raven gave the sword a few practice swings. It was a live blade, this time, not a bokuto, and the balance, though close, was subtly different. She was rather proud that her skills had reached a point where she would notice such a small difference, and that she would need to adjust for it. After familiarizing with the weight and heft of the sword, she turned towards Lora, sitting at the other side of the tatami. She was going to have her first live-sword spar and although Kazuko assured her she was ready, and Raven also felt that way... the esper was very glad that her sword unlikely to cause more damage to her friend's cyborg body than superficial synthflesh cuts.

Lora for her part, had lately been training alternately with a pair of nun-chuks and a three-sectioned staff lately. She currently had the chuks draped around her neck as she sat in seiza at the other end of the hall.

Raven took a few swings then, for kicks, performed a great leaping, twirling slash. The sort of thing that'd get you killed in a real fight.

Kazuko said as much, "You _do_ realize that's really impractical, Raven?"

Raven laughed. "Mostly. It'll scare the bejeesus out of anyone I use it on, though."

"Well, just don't expect to actually hit anyone with it, and you'll be fine. Now..." She stepped out between Raven and Lora to the middle of the hall, "'s all very well to practice theory. But sparring is necessary in order to test your skills. But all three of us, however," She swept her hand to include all of them, "are more dangerous than your average human, simply because of what we are. There's the possibility of major injury or damage taking place when we unlock our full potential. So, I want to say, once again. Be extremely careful. Lora has an advantage over me in this regard. She can sense when Raven's powers are active. Raven, I want you to keep a contact shield up at all times. If for some reason, you falter, Lora can sense it better than I can and can hold back. For your part, try and avoid head shots with your sword."

Raven nodded. "Okay. And no strength boosts obviously."

"Actually, this is another test of your full capabilities. Strength boost if you have the opportunity."

Lora nodded agreement, "It's only fair. I'm going to be unlocked myself. Go for it."

Raven shook her head. "I can dent tanks with my bare hands," she pointed out. "We don't want me putting all the caps."

Lora said, "Actually, I want you to. I consider this as much a test of my capabilities as yours. Besides, I can dent tanks too. You'd better have that field up!"

"Ooookay..." Raven closed her eyes to concentrate a bit, putting up a potent shield that she could keep up without too much difficulty, and increasing her physical strength. Her eyes popped open and she brought her sword in a guard stance. "Ready."

Lora nodded in Kazuko's direction, "We're ready."

Kazuko stepped back towards the side of the hall. "Alright then," She said. "Ready!"

Lora whipped the nun-chuks off her shoulders and whirled them around to catch them in stance.

Kazuko called out, "Fight!"

Raven came in hard, sweeping forward and slashing her sword sideways to draw a parry. Lora transferred both chuks to one hand and held the combined weapon out as a short staff to block the incoming strike. The metal bit slightly into the hard wood before bouncing off. Lora flicked her wrist and one of the chuks spun up and out of her grip before she caught the other one. Going with the spin, she reached under with her other hand and caught the flailing wood and transferred it to her other hand and whipped it out in a strike of her own.

Controlling her blade fully (a bit of telekinesis helped control its unwanted motion from Lora's flick), Raven took the hilt two-handed and brought the blade across and down meeting the nunchuks head-on for a parry.

Struck with immense force, the delicate sword snapped, and the blade went into a spinning flight. Raven gasped in shock as she saw it headed straight towards Kazuko but, suddenly overbalanced, had to struggle to keep from stumbling forward.

Kazuko's eyes widened a fraction as the blade arced toward her. She only had a split second to react, and she reacted by catching the blade in mid-air before it could hit her. She caught it by the thick end near the break and considered herself lucky to have caught it against the back of the blade, away from the edge. It wouldn't have hurt her permanently, but a deep cut in the synthflesh of her palm would have been inconvenient, to say the least.

Raven recovered her balance and spun with a broad kick to keep Lora at bay—but the cyborg was already backing off. The esper turned to Kazuko. "Wow," she said.

Kazuko looked ruefully at the broken blade in her hand, "Maybe strength augmentation wasn't such a good idea after all."

"Looks like we forgot part of the equation when we figured strengths and resistances," Raven concurred. "I could put a shield around my blade. That ought to keep it from breaking."

Kazuko nodded, "Yes, that might work. It's something to try at any rate. She walked over to the weapon rack and got another sword out for Raven. She walked back over to Raven and traded the new sword for the broken one.

Raven took up the blade and brought it in front of her. She concentrated, extending her shield to cover the weapon as well. "There. Won't break now, that's for sure."

Lora had returned to her original position and said, "Okay, ready?"


"Alright, then," Kazuko said, again backing up, "Fight!"

This time it was Lora who moved first, dancing in close, tucking her nun-chucks under her arm. She went into a tumbling move that brought her right to Raven's feet and inside her sword reach, uncoiling into a handstand kick right into Raven's face. Or that was the intent, anyway. With a generous helping of telekinesis, Raven somersaulted backwards, away from the kick, landing into a crouch with blade extended. As soon as she touched the ground she swooped in, blade leading in a series of slashes designed more to force Lora back than cause any real damage.

Lora dodged and weaved, bringing her nun-chucks out and used them to bat sword strikes away from her.

Raven suddenly broke the rhythm, stepping to the side and bringing the blade for an overhead chop. Lora swung her own weapon up to block. The blade caught the nunchaku at the chain, the telekinetic field shearing right through, which left Lora holding two sticks with bits of chain attached to the ends.

"Oops," said the esper. "Too strong I guess."

Kazuko shook her head, "We're going to go through more weapons this way I see..."

"Looks like," Raven said, looking at the sword. "I can try to make the field weaker if you think you can afford more weapons to experiment on. And ditch the shearing effect."

"As I'm not exactly certain I understand what it is you're doing anyway, I'd say, go ahead and experiment. It's not as if I'm risking my own collection here." Kazuko opined.

"Okay." Raven grinned, amused by the events, and looked at Lora. "Got a new set?"

"Hang on a sec," Lora said, trotting over to the weapons rack and depositing the remains of the nunchaku beside it. She picked out a three section staff, checking the heft of it. She swung it around her a couple of times, then caught and held it while twirling the far end around. Satisfied with it, she brought it back to the main floor.

"Okay, I'm ready now. Again?"

"Sure thing." Raven took a few practice swings herself, then shuffled towards Lora with her blade low.

This time, Lora had a reach with the section staff that evened out Raven's sword, and experimented with it, snapping off an extended strike with the tip of the staff toward Raven.

Raven avoided it and stepped forward boldly, attacking with a wide swipe that Lora dodged easily. The blade went on its way, and Raven seemed to have overextended her balance—but she continued the spinning momentum instead of trying to bring it under control, chaining into a spinning kick and completing the feint.

Lora brought the other end of the section staff flush with her forearm and blocked the kick with that. The sole of Raven's foot bouncing off of the wood. Then Lora spun around and whipped the entire length of the section staff at Raven in a long arc aimed high.

Raven dove forward into a roll, dodging under the weapon and hoping to sweep Lora's feet from under her with her body. Normally she'd be much too light to accomplish this, but a little telekinetic help would hopefully give her the necessary force. Raven caught Lora below the knees as she tried to avoid the hit by jumping up, but she was a little late, and bowled forward over Raven, managing at the last instant to get a hand out in front and turn her sprawl into a somersault onto her feet again. She turned with her 3 section staff held out wide in an open stance.

Raven, knowing she wouldn't be able to follow up, continued her roll. She set her free right hand on the ground and used that to redirect her momentum and, in complete defiance of the laws of physics, turn her roll into a twisting back flip that saw her land in a crouch facing Lora, arms swept wide as if she were curtseying. She looked up at her friend and grinned.

Lora gave Raven a sort of "oh really?" sort of answering grin, and began spinning the staff around her, the motion halfway between that of a staff twirl and that of a large chain, almost as if she were juggling the ends of the staff. The weapon twirled around her and diagonally across her and vertically around one shoulder and back again in a dizzying pattern. Faster and faster until it was a blur. Then she darted forward and struck, the end of the staff lancing out of the blur of motion at Raven.

Raven's sword snapped up for a parry as soon as Lora's body moved—but the staff came at an awkward angle and it was all Raven could do to back off while putting her blade in the way of the attack. The staff struck the sword with a loud clang, almost knocking it from Raven's hand. The esper, still backpedaling, brought it in front of her again, curiously noticing that its balance was completely off.

Catching the staff as it rebounded, Lora did a bit of a double take at Raven's sword. It was bent over neatly at a 90 degree angle a third of the way up from the handle. "Oops..."

"I'm getting better," Raven said. "The shield prevented it from breaking at least." She released the Power, and the top part of the blade fell. "Or not..." She picked up the broken blade and looked at the break pensively.

"Ah... " Lora said intelligently.

"Tell you what," Kazuko said. "I think I've already got a good idea of your prowess, and you're doing good. Let's call it a day for weapons sparring. We'll look into getting you something a little more durable in the way of a blade later, alright?"

Raven didn't answer. She was looking at the edge of the broken blade in her hand thoughtfully. "Well, isn't that a 'duh' moment for you, Raven?," she said softly.

"What is it, Raven?" Lora said.

Raven tossed the broken end of the blade into the air, where it stayed suspended. "Medieval sword smiths really knew what they were doing. Whether it was Damascene pattern-welding or Japanese metal-folding, the goal was always the same—an edge of hard metal and a softer, more pliable covering." To illustrate, she waved her left hand, causing the broken blade to bend in mid-air, then return to its pristine shape.

Lora looked at the blade, ignoring the slight discomfort from Raven using her powers in close proximity, "You've made it too pliable or too rigid?"

"Too rigid," Raven said. "All the force went right through it, into the blade—which shattered almost as if my shield wasn't there. Or if the blade was made all of edge-metal. Good for keeping an edge, but very brittle."

"Right, so you can put a little give into it and protect it?" Lora looked thoughtful for a moment. "Could you do that with _no_ blade there?"

"I dunno about not having a blade—it would make it difficult to focus on, too much concentration to be very usable as a weapon. But I *could* do it around a stick." She looked at the broken blade pensively, sent it spinning with a gesture. "That force with 'a little give' won't be very useful for cutting either."

"No I guess not. But it might make a useful bludgeoning device."

Kazuko interjected, "That sort of thing might come in handy if you want to improvise something to hit with."

"True," Lora replied, "but most of the time, I think if Raven has that kind of time and ability to concentrate, she can put her power to more direct use."

"Hmm. But what if... What if I made part of the field into a shearing force, like I did for my hand against these droids? Remember that, Lora?"

"Yeah, that's possible, but like you said, what if it takes too much concentration to keep that all together in a fight? But it's something to think about for later maybe. Maybe if you practice it, it would become easier."

Raven nodded. "It could work. It would essentially be like a blade of force around the metal blade, and working on the same principle—a shearing edge encased in a softer, more pliable field."

Lora nodded, "Maybe."

"Hey, Lora, come check this out." Bearing the sword borrowed from the training racks, Raven led her friend to a park area. Greenery was visible in all directions, and a gentle stream burbled, carrying the fallen leaves of a small copse of treelets along its path. People glanced at the collared esper with surprised, sometimes frightened expressions, but Raven paid them no heed. Instead she approached the edge of the stream.

Lora followed Raven to the water and watched in interest as she unsheathed the blade, "Going to show me some new moves?"

"Something like that." Raven looked at the sword, concentrating a little, then in one smooth motion she plunged the blade into the stream.

Sheathed as it was with Raven's esper field, the blade caused water to flow around it, never touching it—and likewise, the leaves in the stream flowed around the edge of the sword without touching it. Raven watched the process satisfied for an instant, then looked to Lora for a reaction.

Lora smiled, "Ah, the Masamune blade. The blade is virtuous and doesn't cut the innocent. Cheating a bit to use your PK to get the effect though."

Raven shrugged and pulled the blade out of the water. "The Masamune blade has a spiritual effect, which is why it was superior to the work of Muramasa. I've just added the spiritual component myself." She swung the blade at the ready in a precise motion. "A Masamune of my very own, so to speak."

"Would that we could all have a Masamune of our own." Lora nodded thoughtfully.

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