Ever since learning Haruka may still be alive, Ayato has been distracted. Julis thinks he’s afraid his sister abandoned him, but she’s big enough to admit this time she isn’t the person best-suited to bringing him out of his mini-funk.
That person is Saya, who knows her mission and swoops in like the adept climber she’s always been, as when she watched Ayato and Haruka spar from a tree branch years ago. I’ll admit, I half-forgot these two go back so far, but it’s nice to see Saya get to be nice and cozy with Ayato for a change.
In one of the more sustained flashbacks involving Haruka, we see a big sister clearly concerned with the potential of her little brother, whose approach could either be ‘you’ll never beat me so please don’t try’ or ‘you won’t beat me until you not only become stronger, but employ the aid of strong friends.’
Ayato tries both in the flashback, but fails both times. But at least, with Saya on his side (asking a favor of her with “favor cards” they often exchanged to help each other out) Haruka had to fight more seriously than when she was sparring with Ayato alone.
And Saya of the present finishes their little get-together by saying, with a melancholy smile, that as much as she may not like it, sometimes she won’t be the one best-suited to fight beside him either.
The message is clear, and it’s kind of a repeat of what we already know (hence the mere 7): you can be the strongest, but you’ll still never be as strong as if you have someone fighting beside you. That’s why fighters have partners in the Phoenix Festa, and why the fights are often more interesting than one-on-one matches.
The match with the Li Twins doesn’t disappoint in terms of sheer frustration. Having thoroughly researched their opponents, the twins coolly reach deep into their bag of tricks, employing illusory smoke, shadow clones, invisibility, and explosive talismans to make life a living hell for Ayato and Julis and, more importantly, drag the battle out until Ayato’s dreaded 5-minute limit arrives.
The match follows a pretty well-worn pattern of moves, counter-moves, and one-upsmanship. The Li twins grow more and more sadistic and evil-grinny as the match intensifies (Shenhua’s finger caress being particularly creepy), and while they acknowledge the pluck of their opponents, they have full confidence they will emerge victorious, with a wealth of tricks left to use if they ever get into trouble.
Indeed, Ayato uses what seems to be his last ounce of strength to slice the medallion of who he believes to be the real Shenyun, but turns out to only be another shadow clone; Shenyun, like Shenhua, has in reality spent most of the match concealing himself.
But Ayato isn’t alone here, and before he gets blasted to smithereens, Julis flies in and rescues him. As they regroup, she asks him to rely on her, repeating the words he said to her back when they were first starting out: “Well then, who’s going to protect you?”
The line does a lot more than Julis expected, as Ayato seems somewhat restored in vigor, as if he suddenly sees something he didn’t se before; perhaps something involving his sister’s seal on him. Maybe the seal can come undone once he accepts the strength within him is to be used not alone, but in concert with another. Like Julis!