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The room was a mostly empty space and yet it never felt like that. Though the center was cleared with a matted floor, a place that had seen so many sparring matches. So many lessons. Blood and sweat. It had soaked into the very atmosphere of the room. As if you were quite enough you could hear the sounds of flesh hitting flesh and bodies hitting the mat.
Ellie had a broom in her hand but a scowl on her face. She would have rather been practicing, even if only alone against the bag. Instead she had been handed a broom and told to sweep up. She’d immediately gone around, sweeping the entire room with hasty, broad strokes. “A sloppy ass job” Stick had called it when he came to check and told her to do it again and do it right.
So now she was sweeping again, her scowl deeper but with concentration between her brows as she focused on the floor. She stuck those bristles into every crevice, moved every weapon rack, skimmed along every wall. Neat, precise strokes. She’d show them, they’d never see the floor this clean again..
Foot steps were coming from the hall, getting louder. One set she recognized, the occasional tap of the cane a dead give away even if she hadn’t memorized the cadence of his walk. He wasn’t alone though; his steps were paired with a set quicker and lighter. Her head came up and she turned around, broom still in her hand as they reached the doorway. She was surprised to see another young girl with Stick.
She hadn't meant to hurt the boy.
"You gotta save this shit for the Hand, Echo. Can't have half my recruits injured at any given moment."
He'd gotten hurt nonetheless, though - eight-year-old Maya Lopez was an intense child, dead-eyed and singularly grim, and training with her had proven to be equal parts alarming and dangerous for the children her age. Stick was displeased about this, but there was perhaps also a hint of grudging respect in the sigh he'd given her. One could hardly fault one's hand-raised fighting machine for being too good at fighting.
So it was that she found herself being led into a different barracks, following dutifully at the old man's heels. Cold, dark eyes swept back and forth, taking in the spartan surroundings - not too dissimilar to the ones she'd been training in - and at last coming to light on a new face as they entered the room. It was a girl, about her age, maybe a couple years older, sweeping with a graceful precision that belied her sullen expression.
Stick came to a stop at the doorway and Maya, hands behind her back, paused with him. "Alright. This is Elektra - she's your new partner since none of the kids your age wanna spar with you anymore."
Maya narrowed an eye, warily sizing up the new girl. She wasn't sure what to think. This was an unknown, and unknowns didn't sit well with her. It didn't help that, in the years that had passed since the intense, violent trauma of her father's murder and her subsequent
kidnapping adoption by the Chaste, she had become withdrawn and antisocial, rather averse to meeting new people.
"Ellie, this is Echo. She'll keep you on your toes. Copies what she sees - it's complicated, it'll make more sense in motion."
Total silence. At this point, she had yet to start seriously entertaining the lurid, gory fantasies that would predominate her adult thoughts, so her musings about Elektra were relatively harmless, if a bit unfriendly - where did she come from, what style did she fight in, had she ever killed somebody (ooh, gotta ask about that, and what it was like). For now, Maya was quiet - suspicious and rigid.
It was the most awkward introduction of all times.
A mix of emotions and thoughts where buzzing through her head, warring for dominance. None of them seemed inclined to soften the look on her face. Actually her scowl probably deepened a little just as her hand tightened on the handle of the broom. Control. She had to have control.
There was a little confusion, Ellie hadn’t sparred against other kids much. Her training was mostly done against older trainees. Often times multiples of them at the same time. To be told she was now going to be working with a girl, one that was even smaller then herself… Was this an insult? It felt that way and anger flickered behind her eyes.
Or was Stick just that mad at her? Mad enough to make her a babysitter… Stick didn’t usually let anger get in the way of their relationship. Sure she could be trying for his patience sometimes but she also tried her hardest for him. And she wasn’t prone to showing excessive attachment but she still saw him as a sort of a father. Was he really that mad? About a floor? Or was this something else…
Well fine. If Stick was going to stay mad at her, she’d stay mad at him.
Her eyes turned back towards the girl, sizing her up again. Younger, definitely younger. But she didn’t look as soft and baby-ish as some of the other kids. ”Why wont they spar with you anymore?” See, she could be smart, look for the hidden details. Stick was always saying she needed to use her head and not her emotions.
This was...acceptable, maybe, but bizarre. Maya didn't see what set this new girl apart from all the other kids. She was bigger, maybe faster, but technique beat size and speed every time. Maybe Elektra had an ability like hers. That'd be nice - Maya didn't know anybody else with powers, although she didn't think of them that way.
She weighed the name in her mind - Elektra - and her chin lifted as the other girl posed a question. It was kind of like standing to attention, in a military style, but carried a hint of defensive assertiveness. "They're not good enough," she answered flatly. "So they keep getting hurt, and then they get mad about it."
Stick sighed, having clearly expected that answer. "Something like that." His wiry form passed in front of Maya momentarily - with his back to her, so she couldn't see his face. "Echo's deaf. She reads lips," he said by way of explanation. "Be careful, Ellie, the kid's....intense. Kinda like you, but...twisted, a little bit. You'll see what I mean."
With that, he turned on his heel. "I think you'll learn a lot from each other. Iron sharpens iron and all that. Take a while to get acquainted - you'll be running the courses together tomorrow." And as steadily as he'd arrived, the old man was gone, leaving them staring at each other in silence.
Maya's eyes, rather than her head, steadily crept along and watched him recede through the doorway, then snapped back to Elektra. A wordless moment passed, then:
There. She'd extended the olive branch, so to speak. The girl folded her arms, assuming a closed and wary sort of posture, and sized up her newly-assigned partner.
"I kinda know about you. Sometimes I see them talking about you in the barracks. They say you're weird and they don't trust you." A pause. Her gaze was steady, unwavering. "They say that about me, too. But they don't know I can see what they're saying."
Control. It always came down to control. When to loose it and when to hold it tight. Maybe she wasn’t the only recruit that wasn’t getting a good grade in that area of study. ”Maybe instead of getting mad they should get better.” Her voice wasn’t any warmer then her expression.
Stick moved and her eyes followed him, only blinking at his additional information, she was committed to being angry with him now. At least until she got a chance to talk to him and vent her feelings about this new arrangement.
And then they were left alone.
”Hi.” Echoing the greeting back without any change of inflection. Not that it mattered, she thought, if the girl were deaf she wouldn’t catch that part right?
Her brow’s rose at the word. ”Weird?” It was true. She’d never quite fit in. Even with the older classes. No matter how hard she’d tried, she just wasn’t quite like the others. Stick said it was just because she was that good. And she was naive enough to believe him. ”They’re just jealous. Shouldn’t let it bother you.”
Her knuckles loosened on the handle of the broom, her hand sliding down an inch. ”Why do they say we’re weird?” She asked after a pause and with an actual note of curiosity. Just a small one. However, she still had a room to meticulously sweep and she turned, taking the broom back up for the task as she moved one pile of dust towards another on the floor.
Maya would eventually, as she grew older, come upon a certain degree of awareness as to what people found creepy about her. Many of these were things that she would never be able to change - her distressing lack of affect, propensity for coming and going with no regard to basic conversational structure, and the light in her eyes when she was covered in blood, for example - but one of them that she'd eventually get under control was her tendency to unconsciously imitate people's movements with exact, one-to-one precision.
At eight years old, she had not gotten it under control yet.
So it was that she was a perfect mirror of Elektra's body language as they talked. Every shift forward, every tilt of her head, every quirk of her eyebrows. It wasn't on purpose, it just...happened, and it wasn't something she could really control yet.
Apart from that, though, the pair seemed to be getting along swimmingly, at least compared to Maya's interactions with most other people. She watched the older girl return to sweeping, weighed her words in her mind, and then made a very conscious shift to a neutral stance, hands clasped behind her back. Very formal, as if reciting. "I think you're right," she answered. "They're embarrassed because I'm better at fighting, so they blame me instead of training harder. I think they have the same problem with you - they act the same way when they talk about you. The..." A pause. Maya struggled for words. This kind of thing was innate; she had difficulties expressing it verbally. "...the way they move. It's kind of the same. So they're thinking the same way."
There was a moment of inaction, and then she took up the fallen spare broom and joined dutifully in the sweeping, if only to give her hands something to do. It was, at least temporarily, quiet, until Maya broke the silence again.
"Have you killed anybody?" Sweep, sweep went the broom; remarkably tranquil in contrast to the subject matter. "Stick says I can start in about a year or so. I don't know what people look like on the inside yet. I want to see."
There was a certain quality of the creepiness to the girl as they stood their looking at each other. Elektra wouldn’t deny that. She would deny that it bothered her. Even if it did bother her, she had quickly come to the decision that she wouldn’t going to let it bother her past that point of realization. So the girl was a little creepy? Big deal. She’d met plenty of adults that were creepy, in a filthy sort of manner.
Nor did she feel she was really one to be judging Maya. She was right, Ellie knew the others found her weird. That there was some indefinable quality about her that made them give her a wide berth. She could feel it in herself too at times, though she didn’t know what it was any more then they did. So it was a nice sentiment for them to agree the others didn’t like them because they were jealous but she still knew there was more to it.
”So they don’t like either of us and that means we’re stuck with each other then.” She snorted at the idea as if it was amusing but her tone had said it wasn’t. Not that Maya probably got that part of it, if much of what she said at all. She wasn’t accustomed to talking with a deaf person and hadn’t thought to glance up and look at Maya when she answered, she’d just continued to move around as she swept.
She did glance at the girl when she heard the other broom join the sounds of her hers. A regular child might have thanked her for taking up the task and helping. Ellie just went back to her own task.
The question caught her off guard and she paused, straightening up and turning her head around to look at the girl. It got her mind whirling though. She hadn’t asked Stick about killing people yet. She knew that was something she’d have to figure out eventually though, you couldn’t leave a live enemy at your back. ”No.” Would it be easy? Would she be able too when the time came? ”They’re red, and a kind of white… and smelly.” she shrugged, readjusted her hands on the broom and went back to work. She hadn’t killed anyone before but she’d seen wounds, bad ones, and even dead people before.
The other kids, although they had used the word for her in the past, had no real appreciation (nor did Stick, who probably would have rethought his plan if the signs had shown a bit earlier) of just how crazy Maya Lopez really was. It would, as mentioned, take another year or so before her vivid murderous fantasies would really begin to take hold, but even now she was beginning to display troubling antisocial behavior, and had a strong and pronounced tendency towards cruelty. She didn't really commit to it, either - having been raised well, with a strong streak of Catholic guilt, the child was keenly aware that her instincts were leading her down a morally wrong path, and so life had become a cycle of indulgence and subsequent bitter regret. This would continue, gradually intensifying, for another twenty years.
At the moment, though, she was simply a curious little girl with an extraordinary talent for violence, and so she craned her head, scrunching up her face in an expression of dismay, as she attempted to decipher what Elektra was saying. It was difficult to catch more than a snatch or two of her sentence, given that Maya kept losing sight of her lips. Ugh. That was going to be something they had to work on if Stick really intended them to be partners.
"That sounds about right," she mused in response to the other girl's assertions on human interiors. It was right, she felt, although Maya wasn't sure how she knew that; the answer to this question, of course, was that she'd traumatized by the disemboweled body of her father just two years ago, and that although her mind had blessedly blocked most of that out, it continued to fester in her subconscious. "Maybe I'll get to see when I'm nine." She would.
For the moment, the sweeping continued in silence. There was a rhythmic efficiency to the girl's motions, as if she'd learned from mimicking some of the adults who'd been doing it their whole life - which, of course, she had.
Maya was not content to sweep, though. She'd never had a partner before, and the whole situation had piqued her interest. What would it be like? Was this girl as good as everybody seemed to indicate? Could she learn from Elektra?
"So...." It was a leading kind of tone, and even with how stilted and oddly-emphasized the girl's speech was, she was clearly going somewhere with this. "If nobody wants to spar with you either, then you must be pretty good. Right?"
Gently, subtly, her grip on the broom widened as she swept, until she was grasping it almost exactly like a bo staff.
Bodies were just empty vessels. Once a person was dead, that was it. They were no longer a threat and so no longer a concern. Elektra thought hard about the idea of killing someone, or even just hurting them very badly, but she gave no thought to the body afterwards. To her, it didn’t matter. Other then the obvious question of what to do with it if disposal was needed. Maya’s fascination with the body would puzzle Ellie since to her, it was no more then trash once the deed was done.
To Ellie, it would be that moment of death, of seeing that light go out and feeling the heart stop, and knowing you were the best. The better fighter. There was an arrogance of self to her ideas of it all.
The sweeping continued. It would go faster with two, she knew she should be courteous. It wasn’t Maya’s task to do. Though if the girl didn’t do it well enough then Ellie would just have to do it again anyway. Or at least that was the childish argument her head was rolling through. Still… If she had to put up with the girl, and Stick didn’t let her forget all manners… ”Thanks for helping by the way.” There, she got the words out and they didn’t sound off to her ears.
The sound of that single leading word had her switch directions. Now while sweeping she made sure to keep the other girl in the corner of her eye. ”I spar with the older students. But they grumble too. They either don’t want to hit a little girl or they hate it when I beat them.” She’d been tempted to say she was the best but that wasn’t true. Not yet anyway. Stick could still beat her and she was sure some of the other older members could too. She’d already been chastised once for her pride today, she’d at least try to be less obvious about it the rest of the day.
Their sweeping patterns brought them closer together and Ellie started forming a pile with the dust they had gathered. She saw the wide hands on the broom, remembered that tone. Well… Stick hadn’t said they couldn’t spar today… Her attack came swiftly, her hands not changing position on the broom until it was already in motion, sweeping low and out towards Maya’s legs to sweep then aside.
Despite her troubling unchildlike tendencies, Maya was not without her manners. She'd been raised decently, after all - at least, up to the point where she wasn't being raised at all. "Welcome."
With that, she resumed sweeping, busy little efficient motions that steadily tidied up the barracks. It was clear she didn't care much for the conventions of typical conversation. Case in point: things swiftly turned toward the question of how good Elektra was in a fight, and really, that could only lead in one direction.
"Mm." A pause, and her hands steadily widened their grip on the broom in mid-sweep. "I don't have either of those problems. Maybe we're together for a reason." She had meant in the long term, but it was entirely possible Stick was assuming something violent would happen when he put them in the same room. He'd been right, of course. Given Elektra's temperament and the fact that Maya really only knew people after she fought them, it'd never been a question of if something would happen, so much as when.
She felt, rather than saw, the older girl's muscles coil and shift, tensing in mid-sweep. A triumphant grin crossed Maya's face at the pre-emptive strike, and she was in the air in an instant, leaping over the broomstick (which promptly knocked over a chair). In midair, the budding Chaste stabbed out at her opponent with the business end of her broom, trying to drive her back in a series of rapid-fire jabs that continued the second she landed and pressed forward.
Elektra's defense was impressive, but Maya had a lot of aggression and the repertoire of someone four times her age. She was willing to bet she could overwhelm her 'partner' if she was willing to use enough of that repertoire - it'd happened to most of the people she'd fought, after all.
Having gotten some breathing room, the child immediately veered into the unorthodox - she leaped up to one side, kicked off the wall (knocking a framed painting of a sunset down in the process), and brought her improvised weapon around in a massive sweeping attack. It was daring, flashy, and most of all, hard to predict - all points she prided herself on.
The girl was fast and it seemed Ellie had been guessing right. Maya was looking for an attack, or to start one of her own. By taking the first strike, ending that waiting, she’d taken control of her own perception. She didn’t have to waste effort trying to anticipate when it would come. Now they were engaged and there was no longer a question of if or when.
She dodged the first thrust of the other girls broom, spinning low with a fluid motion that brought her own broom up to start deflecting jabs as Maya landed. Defensive might not seem to be the preferred place but it was fine with Ellie for the moment.
She let Maya work up her sweat. Observing the other girl’s moves while giving away as little of her own as she could. Just enough to maintain the status quo. She didn’t know exactly what Stick meant about her mimicking so she was playing cautious.
The other girl was good. Ellie could believe she had trouble with others her age. However Elektra had her own heavy dose of arrogance and wasn’t about to be intimidated. Even by a bit of flashy gymnastics. As Maya leapt Elektra threw her broom, spinning it towards the other girl as she gave up her “weapon” and turned. With a quick slide her retreat was temporary as she snatched a pair of sticks from the weapons stand and spun back around to deflect Maya’s broom with one and strike with the other.
”Was supposed to clean the room, not ruin Stone’s favorite picture.” She breathed the words but her tone said she didn’t really give a damn if they messed the place up. Besides, she was Stick’s prized pupils. The opinion of the other masters didn’t carry near enough weight with the girl.
Maya didn't know this new girl at all, which was part of the reason they were fighting. (She got to know people violently. It was just how she was.) Theoretically, this put her at a bit of a disadvantage, except for one thing: she was pretty sure she knew the people who'd trained Elektra, which meant she basically knew Elektra.
She wasn't really thinking about strategy for the moment, though - this whole thing was all for its own sake. There was perhaps a little bit of bragging rights on the line, but Maya would fight at the drop of a hat. She needed no excuse.
The first hint that she didn't actually know Elektra was when the broom came flying at her, point-first, as she leaped. Maya twisted in midair, narrowly dodging (the broom flew past her and knocked over a vase full of flowers), and took a few seconds to recover on her landing before she could pursue - and those few seconds were all the other girl needed to re-arm herself. Her strike was deflected off to one side, and she barely managed to jerk to the side enough to avoid the subsequent thrust. The edge of the stick grazed her cheekbone like a summer breeze - a fraction of a centimeter closer and it would've smashed her head-on. In mid-dodge, Maya turned her momentum into a backward handspring that got her out of range, and landed in a crouch just in time to catch Elektra's admonition.
"Yeah." Her grin was maniacal-looking, full of exhilaration - it was clear the kid was having the time of her life. If she knew how to enunciate properly, her tone would probably even approach 'playful'. "But I don't see you stopping."
The spinning strike that followed was a feint - it was designed to put Elektra on her guard, to push her back past the weapon rack. Which, in turn, gave the young ninja just enough time to grab a wooden katana off the rack, dive over its side towards the older girl (overturning a Zen statue in the process), and bring it up in a flurry of sweeping strikes. Although there was a sheen of joy in her eyes at the thrill of the fight, they were, for the most part, grim - Maya was an unorthodox child, one who had a great deal of anger issues to deal with.
"Don't go easy on me," she hissed in between slashes. "Come on!"
”I don’t care what Stone thinks.” She took a stance as Maya flipped out from her attack, ready to take the offensive again. She was learning what Maya could do as well. And the easiest way to do that was to lure her out, make her show off. All while trying to give away as little of herself as possible. By tomorrows drills, she wanted to know more about how this girl fought then the girl knew about her.
She slid aside as Maya tried to push her away from the rock, she guessed to arm herself. She was curious what the other girl would pick. What weapons had she trained at? What had the masters determined she was best suited for? Elektra had been training with a few different ones but every pupil was started with what seemed to compliment their skills best.
She was still on guard as Maya rolled away and knocked over yet another pointless decoration in the room. With the amount of ruckus they were making they might not have much longer before someone with a loud voice and ideas of authority came in shouting. Sparring wasn’t frowned upon, making a mess of things could be.
Her lips turned up the corners as the girl seemed to show a little temper. ”Does that piss you off?” Her tone was mocking, the idea seemed to please Ellie. Angry opponents could be led into making mistakes. Stick had taught her that. She didn’t know Maya enough to know which buttons might work best but maybe she’d just found one? ”Come on Maya, you only have a little more time. Someone is going to have heard all the stuff you’ve been breaking.” She taunted the girl.
Her breathing slowed, pulling from her belly and building that Qi all the masters talked about. She tried to find that inner calm within her self but it was often elusive. Instead there was a darkness, an angry beast that felt like it wanted to come out, always on the brink of violence. She slid forward to meet Maya’s attack. Her sticks moving like a blur in response. Block, strike, deflect. The staccato of their wooden weapons hitting each other had an almost hypnotism quality.
It was odd. Most people Maya fought, even in training, generally hadn't lasted this long.
She didn't realize this yet, and wouldn't without quite a bit of introspection later, but it'd been the weapon switch that'd messed her up. Maya had just begun to baseline her sparring partner, to 'download' her moveset, when Elektra had changed weapons and everything had started all over again. It was a conspicuous hole in her strengths, the kind that would've eventually gotten her killed if she hadn't learned about it and taken steps to fix it.
This was the 'learning about it' part.
"No," she snapped, full of fierce joy and the rush of the battle, as their weapons collided in a barrage of high-speed strikes. "If anybody tries to interrupt, they'll get what you're about to get." This was a troubling statement, one that carried all kinds of implications for her future difficulties with authority and violence, but there was really no time to contemplate it because she was shooting inwards a second later.
As it happened, Elektra had been going for a downward swipe with one of her sticks, but it was the second time this had happened, and against 'Echo', that was a grave mistake. Seeing her muscles tense and twist in the familiar pattern, Maya closed the distance quickly, blocking the other stick with her sword. She caught the older girl's wrist and brought the arm down over her shoulder, popping her hips up and turning towards the floor. It was one fluid, well-practiced motion - a judo throw that relieved Elektra of one of her sticks and demolished a wicker chair.
Maya hovered over her downed opponent, wooden katana brandished. Her gaze was cold, steady. "Had enough?"
She hadn't yet developed the situational awareness to realize she'd dumped Elektra right next to another of the weapon racks.
The girl was just as cocky as her. She’d met plenty of people that thought they were the real deal in training. Before now Stick had been wont to pick the best from the older students. Said something about her helping take them down a peg. Then would prove she still wasn’t the best by taking her on himself. Which was one of the large reasons why she regarded his opinion so highly. Why listen to someone weaker then her?
She was thrown but that was old news. She could take a hit and keep going. ”You think that’s all it takes?” She scoffed even from her place on the floor. She only had one stick left, more then enough in most situations but this one was different. Maya was better then most of her opponents. The usual was not working, at least not for long.
She dropped the stick and moved as if she was getting up. Pushing a piece of the chair away her fingers wrapped around a fallen bow staff. In a flash she spun the end out and stuck Maya’s ankles, bringing her opponent down to her level. Then, spinning on the floor she struck out with her foot, a harsh blow to the wrist that was holding the katana. She was switching it up, one style wasn’t enough and she was going to have to take this in earnest.
Grabbing for Maya’s wrist she yank it towards her and leveraged her legs over the smaller girl. Arching her back she held her with an arm bar while sparring a fist to hit her. As Maya rallied though the sound of two wooden bricks smacking together echoed in the room.
“As interesting as that all was, if I had known just how destructive you two were going to be I would have rethought this idea.” Stick stood near the way, casually shaking his head at his two pupils.
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