The trees surrounding the shrine were shrouded in hazy fog. It was cold enough that Rei could see her breath with every exhalation. She was looking down, sweeping the wooden porches of the shrine’s main building. She drew the broom slowly, taking care not to flip up dirt while she rid the wooden planks of leaves. Sweeping at a moderate pace also kept her long hair behind her back, instead of swinging forward into her way.
The shrine grounds were almost empty this time of day, except for a few elderly men and women, walking alone or in couples for exercise. People wanting to visit the buildings wouldn’t arrive until after she had left for school, and the part-timers had come to help Grandpa. She probably wouldn’t see Grandpa before she left; it was rare that she spoke to anybody in the mornings until after arriving at school.
She had been up for an hour. Minako sometimes bragged about being able to work out in the morning before breakfast, but Rei could never do it. She needed a base layer of food in order to fully wake up, but it was best to let the food settle in her stomach before doing anything in strenuous. She grimaced, imagining Usagi teasing her for having the habits of an old lady at the age of fifteen.
Rei was brought out of her reverie by a shout from Makoto, appearing under the torii that topped a long flight of weather-worn concrete steps.
"Rei-chan!" Makoto waved cheerfully, not seeming to be winded after the stairs. This did not bode well for Rei, as they were about to spar. Rei’s endurance had never been anything to be admired, but she hadn’t before considered how good Makoto’s was.
"Good morning, Mako-chan," she said as she walked to the small cupboard to put away the broom.
"Is your grandpa already up? Did you guys eat breakfast?"
"He's still sleeping, but I ate," she replied. She caught herself before asking if Makoto had eaten alone - of course she had. "Do you need to eat?" she asked instead.
"I do, but I brought my own bento, thanks!"
Makoto opened a palm-sized box and took out an onigiri.
“Will we practice out here?” she asked, gesturing to her right.
“No,” said Rei. “There are lots of empty rooms inside, so we’ll use one of those. We don’t need to catch a cold!”
“Right,” said Makoto, nodding. “I’m glad, I don’t think my judogi would be warm enough.”
Rei smiled patiently as Makoto held the onigiri in her teeth while uncapping a thermos of hot tea.
“Oh!” said Makoto suddenly, after taking a drink. “I can follow you while I eat. I hope you don’t mind if I eat while we walk.”
“No, that’s fine,” said Rei. “Onigiri don’t make crumbs, anyway.”
“Ha! That’s why I made it!”
“It’s down this hallway,” said Rei, slipping off her shoes and trading them for indoor slippers. “I didn’t want to use the room we use to study for exams in. I don’t want the other girls to complain about our sweat.”
It had taken Rei a while to find another room where the tatami didn’t smell suspiciously like mold, but she decided not to share that with Makoto.
“Umm, I can leave you in here for a few minutes while I get ready,” Rei said. “I was going to change into a gi, too.”
“Sure!” Makoto said brightly. “I hope it’s okay if I just change in here, quickly.”
“Of course.” Rei padded out of the room.
Makoto finished changing before Rei came back, so she started to stretch.
Her palms were flat on the ground in front of her toes, and just as she started to lift them up above her head, she saw Rei come back in. She smiled without breaking her breathing pattern. This was the first time she’d ever seen Rei’s hair tied back - just simply, at the nape of her neck.
Makoto had taken the time to tie her own up in her usual ponytail, hoping it would stay in place for school. Makoto also noticed that Rei’s gi wasn’t her own - it was worn in odd places, and the shoulders hung funnily - it was made for a man.
“Want to stretch with me?” she offered. “It helps prevent injuries.” She was supposed to be trying to give Rei tips.
“Of course,” said Rei.
She copied Makoto in reaching one hand down the back of her spine, and grabbing the elbow of the same arm with her other hand.
“I brought some water bottles and set them on the shelf there,” she nodded toward a shelf originally used for tea ceremony. “It’s dry in here.”
“Thanks!” said Makoto. “I like hot drinks with breakfast, but cooler ones after working out. I didn’t want to carry two thermoses in my bag, though...”
Rei noticed that conversations were harder to keep up without inane chatter from Usagi and Minako, or dire warnings about study habits from Ami.
“Can we spar now?” asked Rei, hoping she had succeeded in keeping the desperation out of her voice.
“Sure,” said Makoto, a smile breaking the lines of concentration all over her face. She moved a few paces away, and then turned to face Rei. Makoto bowed to Rei, and then lined up her legs and dropped into a stance, raising her fists in front of her.
Rei attempted to copy her.
“Don’t tuck your thumb inside your fingers when you make a fist,” said Makoto. “That’s how you break your thumb.”
Rei frowned as she brought her thumbs out in both fists. “How does that work? Doesn’t there need to be something in there, to make it hurt when I hit someone?”
Makoto took a few steps closer so that she was side-by-side with Rei, and held her own arm in front of both of them. “Sure, but when you punch, you don’t bend your arm at the wrist to do it.” She flopped her hand, showing how weak it was. “You swing with your whole arm - from your elbow.” Her wrist straightened. “From your elbow to your knuckles, that’s a straight line - and then you land it with the face of your knuckles, with the force of your whole arm behind you.”
Rei gave an experimental swing, feeling like her arm was impossibly longer than it was before, now that she was focusing her attention to it.
“You’ll get used to it,” Makoto reassured her. “Let’s just freestyle. You learn better by doing it than by me telling you things anyway.”
“Freestyle?” asked Rei, wondering if you didn’t need to know the basics before being able to freestyle them.
“Sure. Just try to hit me.”
Rei nodded, taking a step back in order to form up. Then she swung with her right fist, and Makoto blocked it by holding her left forearm up vertically.
Rei stepped to the left, swinging with that arm instead. Makoto blocked her, again easily.
Before Rei could swing again, Makoto followed through her block with a swing of her fist. The swing was easy, and Rei saw it coming, so she was able to block.
Makoto smiled, and gave her a minute to form up again.
Rei swung, Makoto swung, and Rei blocked it. Her breath was coming a little more quickly now. She took a half a second to center herself, focusing on the air coming in her nose, her belly swelling slightly as she inhaled. The girls had seen each other fight youkai before, but the bright attacks given in sailor fuku were different than the physicality of fists, than their bodies connecting.
Makoto was swinging at her again with her right fist, and Rei moved to block it - another easy one.
Except that Makoto’s right arm stopped suddenly as her left arm upper-cut into Rei’s stomach, stopping before knocking the wind out of her, and giving her a light tap instead.
“A fake-out! So dishonorable,” said Rei.
“Since when have our enemies been honorable?” asked Makoto, tilting her head to crack her neck. “Better to anticipate it. Instead of watching my arms, watch my chest. See which way my body is leaning to follow-through instead of my arms or my hands. Those are just things that can distract you.” She demonstrated more slowly, swinging wide with her left arm while putting her weight to the right as she jabbed forward with an elbow instead.
Rei nodded. “I see. That’s important, I guess.”
“Right!” said Makoto brightly. “Anticipate the unexpected, and you can’t be surprised.”
“Now you sound like Ami before an exam,” said Rei. She glanced at the clock on the wall and then said, “Speaking of which, it’s probably time we go to school.”
“Oh! So it is,” said Makoto. She walked over to the shelf on the wall to open a bottle of water.
“There are lots of things you know that I don’t know about fighting,” said Rei.
“Well, that’s because I’ve been trained,” laughed Makoto. “You don’t just wake up knowing this stuff. It takes a lot of practice and hard work. And someone has to show you everything.”
“Oh, I know,” said Rei. “I guess I’m just wondering... If it isn’t too much trouble, I mean, maybe we could do this more often? Regularly, even?”
“Yeah!” said Makoto. Her enthusiasm eased Rei’s anxiety instantly. Makoto continued, “That would be really nice, actually. My mornings are quiet and lonely. But mornings are usually when families connect, you know? Pass food around, wake each other up, get each other going.”
“I suppose they do,” said Rei. “Maybe we’ll just have to do that for each other.”
“Yeah,” said Makoto, taking a drink of water and beaming at her. “Maybe we will.”