HEARTH #25

<== ==> (Coming 9/10/2019)

They didn’t talk during the walk or train ride, or even when they got back to the office. Grace sat on the windowsill smoking a cigarette while Manna busied herself with some administrative task on her watch. 

It took Henrietta ten minutes to work up enough courage to break the heavy silence. “Well, that went well.”

Grace let smoke out through her nose. “I told you. Enron’s not someone you can negotiate with… and she’s right. She has no reason to meet us in the middle.”

“So what? She’s just gonna get whatever she wants?” Henrietta shook her head. “Fuck that. Fuck her.”

“We’ll figure something out. For now, you should get some rest.” 

“Hell no. I’m way too amped to sleep.” She glanced behind her. “Let’s sweat this out. I haven’t had a good workout in forever.”

Grace finished her cigarette. “Sure. Manna, you coming?”

“Yes Mater.” The Verbena hesitated. “It’s just that we’re on a tight schedule, and the impromptu meeting with Enron pushed things back some. We still have a lot to do-”

“After.” Grace removed her suit jacket. “Let’s go.”

The gym was small but had all the necessary accoutrements: a pair of treadmills, a weight rack, an adjustable bench, a smith machine and a wide open space marked with tape for sparring. “What’s today?” Grace asked, unbuttoning her collar.

“Legs, Mater.” Manna methodically removed her clothes garment by garment. “Perhaps you’d like to spar as well?”

“Urgh… sure.” 

Henrietta had a lot less practice taking off a suit, so she was still unbuttoning her shirt when Grace and Manna finished changing.“… I gotta say, it’s a little bit of a thrill to see the Mater Protectoris in a sports bra and shorts,” Henrietta grinned. She had never seen Grace in anything but a suit or AEGIS armor. 

Grace was tiny, but every inch of her body communicated supple, understated strength. Her shoulders were broad for her sleek build, and while she lacked feminine curves there was a certain allure in how every bit of her body seemed to so naturally flow into every other part. She stretched her arms, her compact muscles shifting. “Imagine that I see it in the mirror every morning,” she murmured.

Henrietta grinned as she took off her own clothes to reveal her own muscular frame. She had at least 40 pounds on Grace, all of it iron-hard muscle. Henrietta was naturally athletic and strong, and had maintained a rigorous exercise schedule during the long voyage. It was oddly satisfying to be undressed in front of Grace. “Hey, I had a great idea for a way to improve your popularity: a racy photoshoot. The Mater Exposed! Grace Diakon dishes to us about her favorite workouts, brands of cigarettes!”

Grace glanced at Henrietta. “On second thought, why don’t you spar with Henrietta first, Manna?”

“Of course.” Manna walked over to the center of a tape circle. She was waifish and bony, and looked sort of like a strong breeze would knock her over. “Henrietta, how much of a challenge are you looking for?” Her voice was gentle and pleasant.

“From a shrimp like you? Give me your best shot.” Henrietta put her hands up. “How hard do you want me to go? Cuz I’m top-ranked in hand to hand. I-”

She didn’t get another word out, because Manna was beneath her.

The Verbena moved so quickly that Henrietta wasn’t able to counter. Manna sent her heel into the back of Henrietta’s knee, and the two of them went down in a heap. After a brief struggle, Manna ended up on top with a knee on Henrietta’s neck and control of Henrietta’s left arm. “One for me,” she said demurely.

Manna climbed off, and Henrietta stood up in a daze. She hadn’t ever seen someone move so fast before. “Not bad,” she admitted. “But you took me off guard. This time-”

Henrietta struck first, throwing a snap kick at Manna’s head- only for Manna to duck, rush into her guard, and push her off-balance. Henrietta tried to cuff Manna’s head, but she dodged the swing as though she had been warned of it months in advance. A palm strike to the sternum took Henrietta’s breath away, then she went over Manna’s hip and hit the ground hard. Manna planted a knee on the back of Henrietta’s neck and took control of her arm. “Two for me,” she said.

They finished twenty minutes later. Final score was thirty-three for Manna, zero for Henrietta. Manna wasn’t even breathing hard, while Henrietta was soaked in sweat, too tired to even raise her arms.

Grace came over to join them. She had just finished her sets on the squat rack. “How did it go?” she asked, her voice the picture of innocence.

Henrietta bent over, hands on her knees. “Your girl kicks serious ass,” she wheezed

. “Namely, mine. Now I get why Enron was scared of her. What the hell do they feed you?”
“It’s nothing more than a lifetime of discipline,” Manna said, her voice neutral. “If I’m to keep the Mater safe from her enemies, I have to be able to defeat stronger opponents. You have every physical advantage in the world over me, Henrietta. But you’ve only fought weak opponents, so your style is sloppy and full of mistakes- you never needed to refine it. With hard work, I’m certain you could dispatch of me.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call BEACON legionnaires and eight hundred pound alien commandos ‘weak’,” Henrietta grumbled.

“Compared to me, they are.” Manna’s planted her hands on her narrow hips. “You’ve taken advanced close quarters combat training at the Proving Ground, yes? But that’s only scratching the surface of what your body is capable of. Verbena train to exploit the weaknesses of those who would harm us or our Matres- and I am small and weak. All I do is use your speed and power and… other attributes, and I turn them against you..”

Grace patted Henrietta’s bare shoulder in consolation. “If it makes you feel any better, Manna has beaten my ass like I owe her money more times than I can count. I usually ask her to go half strength or so, and then she and I are an even enough match.”

“It’s my sole source of stress relief!” Manna chirped.

Bitter a pill as it was, Grace and Manna were probably right. Truly elite combatants would be on a different level from the muscle-headed legionnaires Henrietta had trained alongside. Plus, Grace’s lissome legs looked fantastic after a workout and Henrietta got a chance to stare. 

“Don’t think you can discourage me,” she told Manna. “We’re gonna go at every opportunity, until I can beat you consistently.”

Manna bowed her head, hopefully not to conceal a mischievous smile. “Looking forward to it.”

<== ==> (Coming 9/10/2019)

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