I do apologize for the long wait. I strove for perfection here. Didn't exactly work as planned. Please enjoy.
Chapter 6: Refinement
Shirou inhaled, held the breath, and exhaled. He repeated this cycle as his mind delved inward to his memory house. His notes from school on his desk, computer knowledge in the book on the shelf, some new recipe ideas into the kitchen counter by the stove, and everything Shigure-neesan had given him on facing other weapon users went into the dojo wall where the shinai rested. He went through some practice in the dojo, visualizing the various moves a staff wielder could use.
After the review, he walked and reminded himself of several other places where the memories appeared faded or loose. One such memory showed a particularly painful acupuncture lesson where he kept missing a point on his own leg. Shirou sped up the memory, removing the unnecessary parts to focus on his path of mistakes to getting it right. The struggle, from what Koetsuji-sensei said, would build greater mental discipline. That discipline, as well as what he got from his breathing exercises, both martial and magus, helped to focus his hormone driven pre-teen brain.
It was also a great way to pass the time while traveling.
After he'd finished his usual regimen of mental training, he opened his eyes and looked to his sister/sensei. Kosaka Shigure wore her best kimono top (freshly washed as well), and switched out her usual leggings for pants that fit snugly, but not restraining her movements in the slightest. Her usual chainmail vest glinted through the exposed parts of the kimono, nicely polished. Shirou chuckled as he noticed both the minor nervous ticks she had- clutching her fully covered sword, flickering looks at other passengers, and the determined set of her face, tensed and focused. He patted her arm. He knew she wanted to make a good impression with the other local Katsujinken weapon master, but expanding her circle of friends in the weapon community wouldn't be too hard.
Ma Kensei seemed to think the four stacked snack boxes should help with that as well.
Their bus pulled up to their stop and the two disembarked. While walking to the staff wielder's dojo, Shirou affectionately bumped Shigure's side. When she glanced down at him, he gave her a determined nod and encouraging smile. She responded in kind and they journeyed to their location.
They were greeted by a young woman around his own age with a pair of wooden tonfas. She led them to the main area and there he spotted the girl he would spar with. She stood a little taller than him, already showing signs of puberty's gifts in her curves. He noted the defined muscles in those limited parts not covered by her loose training clothes. Her stance showed she was wary, though not intimidated. She held her staff in a comfortable but not too tight grip in her right hand.
Shirou smiled at her. 'This is going to be fun,' he thought. She would certainly provide the challenge his sensei wanted for him.
An old, tiny man with a proportionate staff sat off to the side. His lidded eyes and vacant smile gave the impression that his mind wandered, but Shirou well knew that with the level of Masters involved, that appearances were often quite deceiving.
Shigure nodded politely. "Thank you for… having us today."
The old staff Master's eyes seemed to take her all in. "So you're old Kosaka's student, huh? He always did sing your praises those last few times I saw him."
She nodded again. "Yes."
He raised a nearly none-existent eyebrow. "Not one for a lot of talking, are you?" He looked to Shirou. "And you bring a student here to spar against my Kaname-chan? How time flies…"
Shirou bowed politely, "Thank you for having us." He held up the snack boxes, "Here are some snack boxes we made in thanks for the opportunity."
Danki Kugadachi shrugged, "I wanted to see what talent Ryouzanpaku was bringing up these days. Set those snacks over here."
Shirou placed and wrapped bundles down and opened them up. The master and all the girls looked at the variety and quality of the admittedly simple snacks. The aged master took up one of the rice crackers and took a bite. His eyes widened slightly and lips curved up at the quality of the simple treat. "If you fight half as well as you cook, Kaname-chan will have a good rival. On that note, shall we begin?"
Shirou nodded. He pulled a bokken from the gym bag he brought their things in and bowed respectfully to his new sparring partner, "Let's have a good match."
Kaname bowed back and took a defensive stance with her staff in front. Shirou probed that defense with his boken and tried to set the pace for their match. Miu's repeated pummeling of him had pushed the tactic of grabbing advantage early without being reckless. He was happy that lesson only took dislocating his shoulder twice.
Kaname started off slow, gauging his offense and checking for any openings to exploit. She spotted one and waited for the next time that sequence of moves came through and jabbed at his right thigh.
Shirou brought the handle of his boken down to tap away the staff. The tap arrived too late to fully block the jab, but he felt glad that he got enough of it to keep from getting a full hit to the thigh. He tried to carry his momentum into a downward slash at her shoulder, but she twisted her hips and raised her staff to block with the middle section. She grunted as she push his boken away and struck twice more with each end of her staff. Shirou scrambled to parry the blows.
He backpedaled to make some space. She took the initiative this time, charging in with a fierce cry. He growled at himself in frustration for losing his momentum, struggling to keep her furious blows to glancing hits. Their eyes focused on the other's movements, both of body and of their weapon. Shirou started to lose himself in alternating his weapon's position, to just keep moving and keeping her whirling staff away. Parry right, parry left, right, left, block down, and spin away from her fierce jab.
She started going more for the legs, trying to trip him up or otherwise slow him down. He kept her staff from cleanly striking either leg, though his bruises kept increasing.
Shirou knew he needed to take back the momentum. He spared a quick moment to grimace. He'd need some unconventional tactics.
So he screamed as loudly as possible while sending quick, light jabs at varied, near random locations along her center body line. His opponent jolted in surprise, as he'd been quiet in the match so far, heavy breathing excepted. She had to focus on defense after the moment of surprise, which allowed Shirou to retake a proper stance and start advancing again.
The pleasant smile he wore when he entered had grown into an exhilarated grin. Facing someone in his own league, even at a higher level, was fun!
Their two Masters watched on, quietly observing and nibbling on the snacks. Shigure observed the other Master as much as the spar, trying to gauge just how to best make a good impression with the elder weapon user. The people of Ryouzanpaku made up her immediate circle of friends and allies, and only with Shirou could she really talk weapons. She wanted to do well as his teacher, and for that, she wanted to see how another weapon Master taught. And this sparring arrangement could grow for her to be welcome on those days that Shirou wasn't at Ryouzanpaku.
So far, she saw Kugatachi Danki as old, yet hiding a great deal of power and skill. The staff he held as a walking stick showed signs of use and great care. He showed similar care and pride regarding his student, who happened to also be his granddaughter. His eyes were alert and tracking everything the students were doing, despite how relaxed the rest of him appeared.
"Hmm, it seems your student has some experience defending against spear attacks, naginata?" The old Master's voice creaked out. His eyes hadn't left the match.
Shigure nodded. "…Yes." What else was there to say? It was obvious she'd prepared Shirou a little for this, but they only had so much time. His conditioning was already improving incredibly, showing the boy's dedication when his Masters weren't watching. Things that didn't require a partner to practice showed great improvement, while his sparring grew less impressively.
Which is why she pulled out her older naginata out for Shirou to practice against. The live steel did guide the boy faster at the cost of lessening his foundation. Striking that particular balance was the reason they were here.
"How long have you been teaching him?" Danki asked.
Shigure thought a moment, "…A few months."
That response got a reaction, "And he's already able to push my Kaname-chan like this? He must be quite the talent."
She nodded. "…Talented in weapons, especially." Ally or not, letting anyone outside of Ryouzanpaku know about how deep Shirou's talent for weapons went, especially with her own involvement, invited either death or kidnapping on the boy by the less scrupulous members of the Martial Arts Underworld. Shigure honestly shuddered at thinking at what a Killing Fist-trained Shirou would be like.
"Yes, at least half as good as he is at cooking, it seems," Danki chuckled at that observation. Even with just nibbling, the older Master had gone through quite the selection of the snacks, making Shigure glad they had brought so much.
They sat in silence as their students continued in their spar. Shigure noted that Shirou was still using a lot of wasted movement, which showed in how tired he had become. His opponent used far less movement, but she didn't have Shirou's level of conditioning. She didn't appear as tired, but she would be needing a rest before long.
Overall, Shigure felt very satisfied with this sparring session. This would hopefully be a regular occurrence for them.
Ryouzanpaku, same time
Miu wondered why she had been asked to come sit down with Emiya-san, her Grandfather, Akisame-san, and Ma-san. They gathered at the table after everyone else had left. Kensei-san sat by the door and kept a look out. The three other older men looked tense to her, not quite meeting her gaze. The girl started to worry when her grandfather visibly cycled through worry, anger, and resignation. "Is everything ok?" she asked them quietly. She kept her face blank, waiting for whatever terrible news they had to give her. Her eyes constantly moving from one face to the next, searching for hints.
The men glanced at each other, and her Grandfather looked down at her. "We have some news for you. It is something that can affect you and that I wish you never had to worry about." He paused to glare at the other men. "But it has been pointed out to me that ignorance isn't the best defense in this case. To put it bluntly, magic exists, and you might be able use it."
Miu blinked at her Grandfather and exclaimed with a beaming smile, "I'm a magical girl?!" Her enthusiastic expression crumbled when her mind brought back the dread feeling surrounding her normally happy, boisterous family when she entered. She swallowed with difficulty, and whispered, "Or… am I an evil witch?"
Emiya-san shook his head, "Neither. You would need to be tested for your magical potential, but in the end, you will likely be what's called a spellcaster. Someone who uses magecraft for practical purposes."
Akisame-san raised a brow at Emiya-san, and wondered, "Not a magus?"
Emiya-san lips twisted in disgust, and Miu felt herself cringe at the snarl in his quiet voice. "No, not a magus." He glanced over at the girl and sighed at seeing her scared rabbit look. He took a deep breath and smiled gently. "You are far to kind and helpful to ever be considered a proper magus."
Miu slowed her breathing in an attempt to slow her racing heart. Emiya-san really didn't like them. "Are maguses bad people?"
Emiya-san sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. "They do tend to be, but I've known some good people that counted as magi. It largely depends on the person." Her confused expression made him sigh again. "You know how people in can be pressured into doing things they may not like to achieve a goal?" Miu hesitantly nodded. Emiya-san closed his eyes, as if in deep thought. "Magi are raised like that. Anything is acceptable as long as their goal is met." He opened his eyes and stared into hers. "So most of them are ruthless as a default, and they will do just about anything to further their own research."
"Research? Like scientists?" Miu asked. She latched onto that word, something familiar. Something she could use to get this more into a context she could understand. She didn't quite feel like she was drowning in what they'd told her so far, but she would like to get her feet on firmer ground.
Akisame-san scoffed, "More like mad scientists. They value knowledge, but most of them don't apply it in any useful fashion, just to hoard it away for themselves." The usually serene man had a fierce scowl across his face.
Bowing his head, Emiya-san sighed. "To be fair, magecraft is a finite resource and the more people using a particular mystery, the less effective it becomes."
Miu tilted her head, "Mystery?" The term made her think of Sherlock Holmes and detectives, not wizards or maguses or whatever they're called.
Emiya-san replied, "A spell basically. Magi like to sound more impressive than common media."
Miu nodded and just stared at the table, trying to process all of this. Her listless gaze barely caught the awkward and worried looks the men threw at eachother.
Finally, her Grandfather cleared his throat. He looked down on her, his eyes hooded by his large eyebrows. "I didn't want to tell you about all this. The dangers you already face as my granddaughter in the Martial Arts Underworld is already…" The giant man broke off and looked to the side. "There is a common phrase regarding magic, magecraft, whatever you want to call it." He lightly glared at Emiya-san when the younger man opened his mouth to correct the terms, but stopped when her Grandfather did it himself. Her Grandfather turned his gaze back to her. "To be a Magus is to walk with death. Every part of their craft has the potential to kill you. Their culture is also filled with death. I didn't want that for you, Miu-chan."
She looked at her Grandfather, thinking on what he had just told her. She knew it was dangerous. She could tell it frightened him to expose her to this. Something about it weighed on him, she could see it. Few things could bring that level of weight in him. "Was… was my Father a magus?" she faltered in asking the question.
Her Grandfather shook his head and gave her a soft smile. "No, he followed me in the martial arts. He made his own name there. He's known almost as well as me."
Miu ducked her head to hide the tears starting to fall. The adults barely heard her whisper, "Wish I knew him." She shook her head and wiped the beginnings of tears away. Her bright, though noticeably fake smile back on her face. "What kind of magic would I be learning?"
Her Grandfather looked down at her, "What kind would you like to learn?"
Miu blinked. He might not force everything he wanted her to learn on her, but her Grandfather certainly made sure she got what she needed to know. She cocked her head in thought. Her mind went to some of the anime, manga, and other media forms that she had glimpsed at school or when traveling with her Grandfather. She remembered the destruction some of the people in those stories could do, and the other wonders that could be done with magic. She fixed her eyes on her Grandfather's and asked, "Could I learn how to help heal people?"
He nodded, looking greatly relieved, "You most certainly can." She thought she heard a snicker come from across the table, but she wasn't sure who made it.
Akisame-san chimed in, "I can help get you started, as that was the field of study I went into as well."
Emiya-san gave an increasingly louder series of hacking coughs and then spoke in a raspy voice, "First, we will need to test you and see where your abilities lie. I didn't do that with Shirou and he is paying for it now."
Miu's eyes lit up, "Onii-chan can use magic too?"
Emiya-san sighed, "Yes, not very well, given his handicaps, but yes, Shirou can use magecraft. You two can compare notes while we're still in the basic stages of study, but later on you two will likely be studying very differently. Shirou… wouldn't do well with magic healing."
Miu pouted for a moment before a smile replaced it. She was going to learn magic! And heal people! It would be great! It made her happy to know that she could learn this new art, as well as share it with her Onii-chan. Then she looked over by the door. She whispered, "Does Ma-san know magic too?"
Akisame chuckled, "Not especially no. He knows of it and can work with it, but he himself cannot perform any magecraft. Some of his Chinese recipes use magically prepared ingredients, which he does know how to use properly. Combined with his advanced ki manipulation, Kensei could quite easily fool some into thing that he can indeed utilize magecraft."
Miu glanced at the Chinese Master and walked over to him. "Am I able to learn how to prepare magic ingredients?"
Ma-san chuckled good naturedly, "That isn't up to me, Miu-chan. I know what to look for in spotting fresh talent for making my special concoctions, but if you do match, I will request that the local suppliers teach you a thing or two."
"Yay!" Miu jumped in glee, as growing their own ingredients, like the herb garden she already had, would cut back on costs a bit. She kept a close eye on how much money they had coming in and going out and did her best to make sure that Ryouzanpaku had everything it needed. Magic, as hard as it sounded, should help with taking care of her home, at least.
And that alone made it worth it.
"Hah!" Kaname Kugatachi cried as she swung her staff around Emiya Shirou and landed the last blow of the match. And the only decisive blow of their entire spar. He'd done well in deflecting her blows away from himself, though he obviously had much to learn about actual combat. She worked to get her breathing back to a proper rhythm, as the spar had pushed her. She wondered how long he'd been training, and how far he could go.
Her opponent picked himself off the ground. She noted that he wasn't breathing quite as hard as herself. Given how much effort he visibly put into their spar, his stamina must be quite high for someone a year younger. His smile seemed genuine, despite losing, and he bowed and thanked her for the spar.
She bowed politely back and they made their way over to their respective Masters. She really wanted to try those snacks. The mochi looked especially appetizing, and she had worked up a good amount of appetite with the lengthy spar. Close to 30 minutes of constant combat pushed her near her current limits.
When they had all eaten the snacks, with tea made by her kohai, her Grandfather smiled at the young Master. "So, would having this once a month work for you two?"
Kosaka-san's expression didn't change much, but faint impression of being pleased radiated from her. It was very odd to witness. The woman nodded. "…Yes."
Some small talk followed, but Kaname didn't really listen. Her thoughts fixed on boy she would fight again in a month. It felt good to know she'd be able to test her skills against someone of a similar level. She could feel a smirk begin to form on her lips. Maybe this would even get her Grandfather to teach her more. He'd been getting less active in her training recently. Though most of that was her thinking he was getting old, and he really did help her a lot in refining her techniques. A constant challenge like this would be great to keep both of them pushing themselves.
Shirou looked up at Shigure as they made their way back to the bus stop. "Did you enjoy talking with him?"
Shigure just kept walking.
Shirou gaped, "You didn't really talk? But you were so excited for that! Why didn't you?"
Shigure glanced at him and kept walking.
Shirou sighed, "Okay, that does make sense, but observation will only get you so far. Maybe next time you can talk about his training or what he's done in his life. His staff has strength, but it doesn't really want to talk to me right now."
Shigure raised an eyebrow at him.
Shirou waved his hands frantically, "No, of course I'm not planning on stealing their techniques. They are friends now, so that would be wrong. It's not like that old Chinese straight sword you showed me. That wielder didn't have any kids or successors that he thought about." Shirou took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "That sword still hasn't opened up all the way yet, but we should be able to get the skills it remembers soon. No special attacks, but there is a cool disarming technique and solid defense to learn from it."
Shirou smiled at her, "Yep, I'm excited too. This really is a weird way to learn swordmanship, but I'm not exactly normal, am I?"
Shigure gazed at him with a faint twitch of her lips.
The boy stared at her for a long moment before groaning. "Augh, I really shouldn't have studied your sword so much, Shigure-neesan. There is entirely too much of you in it." He looked down at the boxes he'd been carrying and mumbled, "Can't even tell when you're not actually talking sometimes." The memory of her sword had a prominent place in the dojo of his memory house.
Shigure smirked and patted him on the shoulder.
His eyes snapped around and stared at her in shock. He stutteringly asked, "Y-you really mean that?"
Shigure nodded, and said, "Time to learn how to make a forge."
I do promise that the next chapter won't take over a year to get posted. I can't promise anything more definite than that.
I finally got into Fate Grand Order, which keeps distracting me with research ideas and who things could go.
Have a great weekend and take care.