“Take that!” Thwack. “And that!” Thwack. “And that!” Thwack.
Zoro heard Kuina before he saw her. She stood in the practice yard behind the dojo, squaring off against a wooden dummy with her shinai. She had chin-length, dark blue hair, brown eyes, and a confident demeanor. Dressed in a white shirt and green trousers, Kuina took another series of swings at the peg arms protruding from the practice dummy. “Ha!” Thwack. “Ha!” Thwack.
Carrying his own shinai, Zoro sat down beneath a branching cherry tree to watch. He wore his sleeveless gi, and his hair matched the light color of the grass. The two of them were the top students at the dojo, despite their young ages. Kuina was number one, and he was still number two, no matter how many times he tried to best her. Maybe today would be the day.
“It’s not going to be today,” Kuina said, without turning around.
Zoro scowled at her back. “You don’t know that.”
Kuina glanced over her shoulder and shot him a cocky grin. “Yes, I do.”
Zoro jumped to his feet and brandished his shinai. “I’m challenging you, right now.”
Kuina turned, walked across the grass, and stopped in front of Zoro. She gave him a short bow, and Zoro scrambled to follow suit. Lifting her shinai, she rested it lightly against Zoro’s. The grin remained on her face. At an unspoken signal, the fight began.
The sides, wrists, neck and head were all valid targets in competition, but Zoro wanted to be the best swordsman, not the best competitor. Luckily, Kunia felt the same, and she met Zoro strike for strike no matter where he swung or stabbed. Their bamboo shinai clacked at an irregular rhythm, punctuated by sharp exhales of breath. Every time Zoro thought he’d found an advantage, she blocked him deftly. As the fight drew on, he grew more and more frustrated, while she didn’t seem affected at all.
One slip up was all it took, and Kuina pressed the tip of her shinai against his chest above his heart. She’d won.
Sweating and panting, Zoro ceded the fight with a short bow and a lot of grumbling. “I’m going to beat you next time.” He swore to himself that the 994th try would be his victory!
Kuina laughed, and wiped her damp face with the bottom of her shirt. “I look forward to your next challenge.”
Zoro flopped onto the grass, arms akimbo, to rest and catch his breath. Kuina joined him, resting her head on his on his outstretched arm. Their shinai lay discarded beside them. Overhead, faint wisps of clouds drifted across the blue sky. He was comfortable like this, with her. She was his best friend, even if she was worst enemy.
“Hey, Zoro,” Kuina began. “It’s time to wake up.”
“What?” Zoro turned his head to look at her, confused. He wasn’t sleeping.
She smiled softly at him, and repeated in a weird, deep, masculine voice. “It’s time to wake up. You hear me, meathead?”
Zoro blocked the kick to his head with a forearm and opened his eyes. He was seated on the deck of the Sunny, leaning against the stern rail. His three swords were tucked in the crook of his other arm. His shirt was discarded beside him, exposing his broad, scarred chest to view. The ocean breeze brought a salty tang to his lips. Sanji’s tall, lean form cast a shadow over him. The dojo, the practice yard, the cherry tree, Kuina – they were all gone.
“What do you want?” Zoro growled, shoving Sanji’s foot away.
“We’re going to reach shore soon. Nami-swan said to get your ass cleaned up.”
“Tch, whatever.” Zoro scrubbed a hand through his green hair, as Sanji walked off. Zoro pushed himself to his feet, and slid the three scabbards into the loop at his side. He rested his palm on the hilt of Wado Ichimonji, Kuina’s family sword, and sighed. It had been a long time since he’d dreamed of her, even though she was within every strike of his katanas. If she were still alive, she would probably be carving her own path to becoming the best swordsman in the world. Zoro wondered if he would have beaten her, yet.
Zoro chuckled and shook his head ruefully. With a tap to the hilt of Wado, he grabbed his shirt from the deck and went to clean up.