The registration process was fairly uneventful; they didn't see any other teams near the lobby, only throngs of fans and the occasional bored sponsor, so the now-official Team Sanada made their way to their quarters. One incident stood out before they even made it there, however.
As they were about to turn a corner, Genkai froze in mid-step, eyes darting wildly about. "Did…anyone else feel that?"
"Nothing," Toguro admitted.
"I…thought I sensed someone, almost, but I dismissed it," Kuroko mumbled.
Genkai shook her head. "For just a moment there, I sensed an incredibly powerful force…someone nearby, but they suppressed it again instantly. Why their control slipped at all, I'm not sure…"
"Stronger than you?" Mitarai asked, nervous.
"Hard to say. But they weren't just powerful…for that moment, theirs was about the most hostile and aggressive I've sensed since…" she nodded towards Toguro. "Well, our fight, last tournament." Toguro didn't respond.
"We'll worry about that person, whoever it was, when the time comes," Kuroko decided. "For now, get settled in and get a full night's sleep. Everyone better be at 100% for tomorrow; our fight's up second, so should start sometime around midday."
"And anyone who's worried about sleeping in the vicinity of me," Toguro added, "deal with it. You have nothing to fear from me while this tournament lasts…but if it really bothers you, it probably won't rain too much tonight and I'm sure the grass is soft enough."
The next day, Genkai and Toguro were nowhere to be seen when Mitarai awoke, a couple hours still remaining until midday. "Where—" he began.
"Watching the first fight," Bui answered, calm demeanour belying his impatience. "Now you're up, might as well go."
"But breakfast—" Mitarai stopped speaking as Kuroko dumped a few assorted foodstuffs into his arms.
"Sort it out as you go," she instructed. "I've got a feeling we should get down there."
"…all right." A couple minutes' walk took them to their entrance into the arena, Genkai and Toguro waiting for them. In the arena, a single cloaked figure made a dismissive motion with one arm, and the last of their five opponents collapsed, the simple gesture carrying enough power to utterly crush their body.
"Aaaand Team Kaito is the winner!" Koto, the smartly-dressed, cat-eared announcer declared, indicating the lone figure with an excited gesture.
Is that…the same announcer as last time? Bui mused. They must have paid her a lot to come back…that, or she couldn't get over her thirst for bloodshed.
"Sending only one fighter out to show contempt for an opposing team…" Toguro noted. "A tactic I used to favour."
"I'm pretty sure you just wanted all the fighting for yourself," Bui muttered.
"More disturbingly," Genkai interjected, "that's them."
"The power you sensed yesterday?" Kuroko guessed.
"Indeed. It flared up again momentarily every time they attacked, before vanishing again. This Team Kaito is…worrying." She turned back to face the others. "It's a good thing you're all up—because they won so quickly, it looks like we'll be up soon."
"Mm?" Mitarai paused from stuffing the food he'd been given into his mouth in a makeshift attempt at a hasty breakfast.
"Relax. You'll be fine," Kuroko assured him. "What worries me is that…if we win here, we'll face Team Kaito in the second round…"
"Not necessarily," Toguro corrected her. "Once the final eight teams are determined by this preliminary round, they're going to draw lots to randomly determine match-ups."
"Seems a bit pointless…" Mitarai said. "Why not just make it a 'final sixteen' and save re-ordering everybody?"
Genkai shrugged. "Who knows? I don't particularly care."
Koto's voice echoed down the corridor, cutting off their conversation. "Next match! Team Sanada! Team Shurakai! Please enter the arena!"
Kuroko approached the ring at the head of her team. 'Shurakai'…the realm of warring demigods, one of the Six Realms of Buddhist mythology…they haven't spoken a word yet, and they're already talking big.
Their opponents were a group of five burly, shaven-headed demons, all with the same twitchy, on-edge manner. The leader, war-paint adorning her face and upper body, hopped up onto the ring, meeting Kuroko in the centre.
"Team leaders will now choose the terms of combat!" Koto declared, stepping back.
"So, how we gonna do this?" Shurakai's leader, Jara, asked, picking her teeth.
"I need a warm-up, so the normal way's fine by me," Kuroko replied.
"What, were you hoping you'd have your friends with you to gang up on one of us or something?"
Jara snorted, adjusting her bandana. "'Zif I need any help t'clean up all five a'ya myself."
"Funny as it would be to watch you try, that's not what we've just agreed on," Kuroko said, still not raising her voice.
Koto groaned. "Um…team leaders, while fight banter is appreciated, so is, well…fighting! Please return to your teams and choose your first fighter already!"
"You're not very observant, are you?" Kuroko asked her.
"We already have," Jara added, smirking. "Yer startin' to piss me off, Miss Sanada."
"Oh…" Koto blinked, before giving a shrug. "Well, anyway, it seems we're starting out with our team leaders, so this is sure to be an unusual match, everybody! And…begin!"
I've never really seen a fight like this up-close, Mitarai realised.
Genkai frowned. All right, Sanada…let's see how you are a few years off the grid.
Kuroko immediately had to leap as Jara's right arm swung down, carving through the ground. The power in that attack…is a lot greater than her overall energy level!
She somersaulted, bringing her leg down towards Jara while she was still fully-extended, but the brawny demon's left arm flew up to intercept, Kuroko rebounding painfully and managing to salvage an upright landing a few feet away. She hissed, rubbing her leg. Again…her defensive power on that block far exceeded the strength I can sense from her… "So. You're stronger than…yourself. Mind explaining what's going on there?"
"Nothin' special." Jara cracked her knuckles, advancing again. "'m just an expert at concentrating my energy where I need it. My right arm is the ultimate offence; left's the ultimate defence."
"Unstoppable force and immovable object…" Toguro commented. "Quite a potent combination."
"You don't sound particularly concerned," Genkai said.
"More excited…I've been wanting to see how the original Spirit Detective fights since we arrived. So I'm glad it's at least against a challenging opponent."
Jara attacked again, and Kuroko dodged back, staying out of reach, mind racing. After a few failed swipes, Jara growled, making a determined jump-kick; Kuroko swayed to the side, avoiding it, but it was merely a feint—the deadly right arm came down, aimed for the Spirit Detective's neck.
"Gyaah!" Kuroko blurred into action, swinging up a punch of her own, and a pair of impacts resounded around the stadium, the fighters reappearing and dropping away from each other, coming to a halt. Blood spilled freely from Kuroko's shoulder, and Jara was wincing, shaking her arm.
Mitarai blinked a couple of times. "What just happened? I didn't see any of it…"
"Kuroko knew that attack, if it hit her neck, would be lethal," Genkai explained. "So she struck her opponent's attacking arm, sending it off-course; but she couldn't move it far enough to escape taking a hit completely."
At this rate, we may be in trouble, Bui thought, grim-faced.
Genkai looked even more concerned, however; the two fighters were at close quarters again, and both were fighting fairly cautiously, staying defensive and neither landing any solid hits. Genkai shook her head. Has no-one else noticed? To develop this kind of flaw…I thought you were still keeping up your training, Kuroko. It's not like you to be this out of practice…
Jara had, in fact, noticed. Every time she dodges…she glances in the direction she's gonna move…I haven't taken advantage yet, but now that I'm sure of it… She made a quick jab, and Kuroko's eyes flicked to the right. Jara angled her arm in the same direction, and sure enough, when Kuroko dodged, she moved straight into the redirected attack, the close-range strike taking her off her feet—she just about recovered in mid-air, landing unsteadily at the edge of the arena.
And that test proves it. Jara grinned. Next time, I'll go for the kill. She sprung for Kuroko, clenching her right fist and going for an all-out attack. She's not dodging…she's going to try and take it head-on? Fine! Get skewered, then!
However, as she drew near her target, her arm lashing out, a sudden impact rocked her back, skidding away a couple metres, attacking arm suddenly unbearably painful and hanging limply at her side. Kuroko stood with one leg upraised, lowering it slowly as Jara watched. "You…broke my…how?!" she hissed. And where did that kick come from? I've been able to follow all her attacks so far…did she get faster?
Kuroko declined to answer, going on the offensive. Jara braced herself, watching her eyes. Right again! However, as she swung to the right, raising her defensive left arm, something struck her hard on the back of the head. She went…left… Jara fell forwards, face smacking into the cold stone as her eyes closed. I had her…how did… She lay still for the full ten-count.
"And what a turnaround!" Koto shouted through her mic as the stadium erupted with noise. "Team Sanada takes the first point!"
Kuroko jumped down from the ring, walking back over to her team with an easy smile. "I saw your expression, Genkai. Did I prove you wrong?"
"Seems you weren't out of practice at all…" Genkai gave a slight nod. "You even fooled me for a minute."
"Uh…what happened, exactly?" Mitarai asked.
"S'what…I'd like…t'know," came Jara's voice. The battered fighter had levered herself off the ground, staggering over to Team Sanada's side of the stadium and brushing off her teammates' offers of assistance.
"Sure." Kuroko leaned back against the tunnel wall, inspecting her own injuries. "The whole match was completely under my control, I'm afraid. You played along with my plan perfectly."
"Your two weapons together were too formidable—first of all, I had to get rid of one. So I deliberately fell for your feint in order to get you to put your right arm close enough—that's when I struck it the first time, fracturing the joint. You were running on so much adrenaline and demon energy you didn't realise the extent of your injury. Then when I kicked it near the end, I hit the same exact point, shattering the bone completely."
"Swear you got faster at the end…" Jara muttered. "Were you hiding your power at first?"
Kuroko shook her head. "No, nothing like that. If I was a lot faster than you, I wouldn't have had to be so careful about this. But I did need to be sure my second attack on your right arm would hit…so I set up a fake 'tell' as a distraction—moving my eyes in the direction I was about to dodge—made you focus on that, so you wouldn't hear my breathing. Not consciously, anyway."
"Sure. Every time I attacked, I let out a particular, identical short breath. You didn't hear it consciously, like I said, but your subconscious mind started associating it with my attacks. At the end, I stopped doing it, and you were still expecting me to on some level—so when I attacked without making the noise, you weren't quite expecting it."
"The fake tell had a double use," Genkai added.
Jara grunted. "Got that part. Look right, go left, simple trick."
"To get around your left arm, yes. I chose to take out your right because targeting the left would be pointless—it's the ultimate defence, you said, so attacking it seems fairly futile. But I did need to avoid it, so…" Kuroko looked around aimlessly. "The other purpose of that ruse. Satisfied?"
"Not really. Guess there's nothin' to do 'bout it now…oi, Kublai! Yerrup!" Jara shuffled off, barking more orders.
"They've already chosen their next fighter…" Kuroko turned to the others. "We should too, before that girl with the microphone starts shouting at us again. So, who—"
"I-I'll go!" Everyone looked over at Mitarai, with varying levels of surprise. He continued, voice growing firmer, "I'm…gonna have to fight eventually, aren't I? Might as well…get it over with."
Toguro shrugged. "If you're sure."
Can't say I expected that. Kuroko stepped back out of his way. Well…I suppose there must have been a reason Koenma chose him… "All right…be careful, will you?"
"I…" Mitarai hesitated. "Yeah."