"The seven kings of the Stone have died. I was sent to this world find the new ones. To protect them." The only problem is, she had no idea where to find them. Hell, she didn't even know their names.

Just FYI, this is a total K project rip off.

Perhaps it was rude for her to run from the boys, but she couldn't help it.

The little one was nice, he was friendly, he didn't deserve her taking one look at him and shoving past. The biggest one glared at her and she couldn't handle that right then. She couldn't stand other people, she needed a way out.

She ran.

Into the woods, heedless of the shout that echoed behind her. Uncaring of the warning she had heard for ten years about the dangers of the monsters that lived there. She hoped she ran into them. She hoped she never saw civilization again.

Branches scratched her arms and tore at her cheeks, slicing open the soft skin. Her eyes stung but she ran on, until she couldn't run any longer. The ground vanished from under her feet and she went tumbling down the incline, towards the river down bellow.

She shouted, scrabbling for purchase on the rocks and got her hands cut open for her troubles. A bramble bush caught her, tearing apart her dress and her skin. She lay in the thornes for a few minutes, trying to breath. Some of the energy that had been building up in her left, but not enough. Not nearly enough.

It still clawed at her throat, trying to tear its way out of her mouth.

She grit her teeth and climbed out, tears in her eyes and blood on her skin.

The pressure was still there, pounding inside her skull and in her heart. It had been building for a decade and she couldn't take it anymore. That was why she ran from the village, that was why she ran from the boys she stumbled across in the woods.

Did you forget what I taught you?

She flinched away from the phantom's soft voice. She couldn't look at his sad, crimson eyes. She couldn't face him.

She turned away, right into the teeth of a bear.

It growled, low, staring her in the eyes. Sharp teeth, each one longer than her fingers, were bared, threatening her tiny throat.

She lunged.

"Fuck off!" the words were screamed so loud it made her throat sore as she repeated them, over and over, screaming into the air as she tore through the bear. Claws bit into her shoulder but she wrenched them out, the arm snapping back wrong. The great beast caved beneath her tiny fists, glowing soft gold in the shadows of the trees.

She only stopped when it wasn't struggling anymore.

The girl stumbled away from the bloody mess that had once been an apex predator. She couldn't tell where her blood ended and the bears began. Her chest heaved and her shoulders slumped but her hands weren't shaking.

A twig snapped to her left. Her head snapped sideways to see the three little boys she'd run from earlier standing there, staring at her.

She sniffed and rubbed the tears out of her eyes. When had she started crying?

"What're you looking at?" she bared her teeth at him, sure she could taste blood.

The littlest one, a tiny scrap with black hair stuffed under a straw hat of all things, was staring at her with utmost awe. Which really only confused the girl. She was totally covered in blood with a smushed bear at her feet, and she knew very well what her eyes looked like. It should have been a demonic image.

So why was the little one smiling so wide.

"That was so cool!" he shouted. He flung himself at her but the tallest of the trio, the one with the freckles, grabbed him around his middle and hauled him back.

"I guess," she was unconvinced. It was violent and bloody. Not cool.

"How'd you do that?" the awe was absent from the freckled boy. In its place was suspicion.

She shrugged.

"I'm golden," she said, like it was obvious. Then added, "And I was burning. Goodbye."

She turned and walked away, leaving the boy gawking at her back.

The heart rate monitor was quiet in the background, a reminder of the life that he still clung to. He was old and grey and they had known it was coming for some time.

That didn't make the pain in her heart lessen.

Across the bed from her stood his oldest friend, his once long silver hair now much shorter. Each other them, his closest confidant and his only granddaughter, held a hand. They were old, but the strength still in them was there. Callouses, from many years of work and fighting rubbed against her finger tips, equally hard.

She could not recall a time in her life when she had had soft hands.

Even on his deathbed her grandfather held a sort of elegance, an unbending pride that shone through even now. The sickness had ravaged away some of his muscle and all of his fat but the girl would put good money on him still being able to cut down anyone who stood in his way.

He was a tough old man, he had fought through a war that ravaged the whole planet and worked afterwards to unite the country and bring it into an era of technological advancement and peace. They stood amidst the crowning jewel of his accomplishments. The hospital towered over every structure in the city, a hundred stories high if not more. He had worked to build it with his own hands and now here he was.

Dying in it.

"Leave us," he commanded, abruptly. She thought he was talking to her, but no, it was Adolf, with his silver hair and his silver eyes, smiled kindly at her and left the room. His cheeks were wet.

"Grandfather," she said softly. He managed to sit up. She would have offered to help but she knew he wouldn't accept. Prideful and stubborn and utterly devoted to his people.

"Don't start that now, Kaida," he warned, turning his eyes on her. Gold, sharp as an eagles. Stars glittered fiercely in them. "I don't need you to be the kind and caring granddaughter you aren't."

She snorted. "You'd rather I be cold and rude?" she challenged. Under any other circumstances she would have turned a smile on him. Now, she couldn't seem to manage it.

"If that will make you stronger, then yes," he reached around his bedside and picked up his sword, a long, beautiful thing, from the other side. "I need you to be stronger for this. Stronger than you were when you were my Golden Child, stronger than you were when you fought for the Lion King," he ignored her flinch. "I am dying now. All the Kings are dying. The Slate won't stay here anymore and there's no one where it's going that knows a damn thing about it."

"Grandfather," she said again, with more force this time. She did not like where this was going. He managed to use one hand to unsheathe the sword. The black casing clattered to the hospital floor. Cold steel glinted in the overhead light. Outside the window the sky train rushed passed, filled with people on their way.

"You need to find the new Kings, Kaida. Find them, and protect them."

There was a flash and she fell to the ground, her throat cut open. It was fast. She didn't fight against it.

Death came for her, and it was cold. So cold, so horribly, horribly cold. She fell into it, a frozen lake that washed over her and dragged her and her cold, broken heart down with it. The undercurrent was inescapable. Blood rushed into her mouth, filling it and spilling past. Her neck didn't hurt, it just felt cold.

A man stood in front of her, in that cold, dark place. And a woman. And a boy, and a girl, and a baby. They were all the same person, a million people, a billion faces all layered on top of each other. They all smiled at her, with eyes that rippled through color.

It stopped, abruptly, on her own face. Her eyes were black as pitch, the whites swallowed by darkness. She raised a hand, slowly. The other her did the same. Their fingertips brushed, softly. Those were not her hands. Her hands were calloused and hard. These were soft as velvet.

The other her cracked a wider grin, showing teeth, and the world shattered around her. The darkness gave way and she plummeted into light.

She sucked in a sharp breath but didn't move out of her sheets. She didn't sit up, she didn't scream. She just looked up at the window in her bedroom. She wrapped the blankets around her and closed her eyes again.

Still, she was cold.

"Are you feeling better this morning, Kari?" Makino asked kindly.

Katja Kari, who was in fact Kokujoji Kaida and found her name rediculous in both lives, shrugged. She looked up at the kind woman through her long lashes and shoved food into her mouth so she wouldn't have to answer. Half the town was sure she had gone crazy last week when she had disappeared for two days and come back covered in blood and gore. The other half thought she had always been crazy.

Kari didn't talk to people a lot. In fact she could count on one hand the number of times she had willingly started a conversation with another human being since her death. Most folk figured she was mute.

Eddie Murphy, the old man who lived down the street, said that her birthmark cursed her to be a mute. The jagged line that sliced across her throat was nothing more than a reminder of all that she had lost.

People, no matter where you went, were stupid. Kari wanted nothing to do with them, but she needed them if she was to fulfill her mission. She couldn't find the Kings and protect them if she didn't figure out where they were, and she couldn't do that without asking people if they knew crazy strong folks with magic powers.

As small as she was now, she couldn't protect them even if she did find them, though, so talking was a moot point.

Makino handed her a glass of juice without needing to be asked, and Kari mumbled what sounded like a 'thanks'.

Makino was a kind woman. She didn't ask Kari to pay when she ate, not that she could have if she tried, and she didn't pressure her to tell her why she had abruptly run into the woods and destroyed not only her own perfect skin but also a massive bear and quite a few trees.

She also didn't look at Kari like she was going to snap and stab her with a fork.

Kari could appreciate that.

She even said a farewell before she hopped down from the stool and walked out of the bar, into the street outside. It wasn't really busy, but there were enough people that she could disappear in the tide of movement.

How she longed for the vast anonymity of a city of a million people.

She slipped neatly between the legs of the grown up until she could go running into the woods, out of sight and out of mind.

Luffy squinted at her, leaning in close to her face.

Kari blinked at him. He was always weird, but this was pushing it. He was being quiet, and that was worrying.

She had just opened her mouth to ask what was wrong when he leaned in and closed the distance between his mouth and her nose.

"Um," she told his chin.

He pulled back to award her with a sunny smile.

"What was that?"

"I saw the grown ups do it in town!" Luffy proclaimed. "Dadan says that that's what a boy does when he likes a girl. He kisses her!"

That was probably the cutest thing she had ever heard. Kari's eyes softened and for the first time in a decade she smiled for real. Her tiny, broken heart warmed and she pulled Luffy into her arms, hugging him tight.

He laughed, delighted, and flung his rubber arms around her small body.

They stayed like that for a while, just Kari soaking up the warmth of Luffy's hug and the knowledge that she was cared for. They didn't even pull away when there was a loud exclamation from the door of the 'super secret fort'.

Kari looked over Luffy's shoulder to see the other two had come to stand in the doorway. They're staring at her, Ace with his brows drawn tight and a scowl on his face, pulling his mouth down. Sabo's expression is bewildered, with an underline of worry to his stretched smile.

They don't jump apart, her and Luffy. She knows its innocent and Luffy is too innocent to think to leave her arms. Even if he wasn't he was touch starved as fuck and probably wouldn't let go anyhow.

"What are you doing?" Ace asks. More like demands. His arms cross, his fists are tight. It's cute, with his freckled face all scrunched up. He was probably jealous that he wasn't the one getting the hug.

Ace was funny like that. He was tough, and would reject any offering of affection, but Kari had seen the signs. When he did something flashy in his little fights with Sabo and Luffy he would look over at her for approval. When he found a piece of metal that looked cool he cleaned the crap off of it and gave her shiny gifts from the dump, never meeting her eyes.

He was cute, in an angry little kid way.

"Hugging," she said, shrugging.

"But you never hug," Sabo said. Which was true. But Luffy had done something special today.

"It's because I kissed her," Luffy said, quite proud. Kari watches Ace's face change color and he draws himself up, red.

"You what?!" he yelled. All the birds in the tree took flight and Kari cringed.

"On the nose," she added, like that will placate him.

Sabo frowned and, in a certainty only a child can possess, said "You're only supposed to kiss girls you're gonna marry when you grow up."

Kari doesn't quite know what she expects to hear, but it sure as shit isn't the haughty sniff that comes from the boy who had tightened his arms around her when his brothers started yelling at him.

"Then I'll marry her when I'm all big!"

"...excuse me?" she did not agree with this.

"You can't marry her!" Ace was still yelling, his face getting so red it was hard to find his freckles anymore.

"Why not?" Luffy shot back, pouting at Ace over his shoulder. The older child sputters.

"Because I didn't say yes?" Kari offered.

"Because- because you're too little to marry her! She'd never marry a squirt like you! You're way to weak!" Ace lunged at them then, grabbing Luffy by one arm and trying to yank him away. Luffy wrapped the other one around her like the snake in the jungle book, threatening to break her ribs. She gasps for breath.

"I'll get stronger and then she'll marry me!"

"No, I'll be the strongest person ever and I'll marry her!"

And now she knew how Olive Oyl felt in every Popeye cartoon ever.

"Hey!" Sabo must have felt left out, "Who says I can't marry her!"

"I do!" Luffy and Ace chroused before glaring at each other.

"I'm the only one who kissed her!" Luffy snapped, tearing his arm free of Ace's grip at last.

Kari struggled to pry Luffy's other arm off of her throat. She could finally breathe against when she found herself in an ASL sandwich. Ace kissed her right cheek, Sabo kissed her left, and Luffy made made her a burrito when he kissed her nose.

Deep in her chest her heart started flum-flumpin' away. Her pale eyes got wide. It wasn't the small fluttering that proved she lived. It wasn't the pounding ache that gripped her chest with the loss of her King.

It was beating, beating blood and life and for the first time in fifteen years she felt like she was actually alive.

"Luffy! She's crying! What did you do?!"

"Take a walk with me!"

It wasn't so much a question as a demand that he yelled at her face. Still, the girl who had once been Kaida stop spinning her baton around long enough to tuck it under her arm and trail after him. She fell into step right after him.

It only took half a minute before she noticed that something was up. Ace was never relaxed, not really, but he usually wasn't this tense. Especially in the woods, in his domain he moved with confidence. This time there was something different.

Kari stepped up, closer, letting their arms brush.

"You okay?" she asked, surprising herself with her actual concern.

You always had a penchant for bastards.

Her eyes flickered to the phantom, and his half smile. She could almost meet his eyes these days. He turned from her, the chain in his pocket clinking.

She looked back at Ace. He didn't look back at her.

"This way," he grumbled, climbing over a log. Kari hopped over it with easy grace that a ten year old shouldn't have had. But, she was cheating, so that didn't count.

They ended up on a cliff, looking out over the sea. Kari had seen the ocean before, and this sight wasn't breathtaking as it should have been. It was beautiful, of course. The sea was sapphire, the sky was burning and the sun drowned in the distance. But, she had more on her mind than the scenery.

A glance at Ace and she knew she wasn't the only one. Ace sat down on the tall grass, drawing his knees in his arms. Kari sat cross legged far enough that they didn't touch, but close enough she could grab him if he did something stupid. It had been too dark to see before, but now she could notice the puffy redness lining his eyes.

"Ace?" she said his name, softly. He closed his dark eyes off from the world.

"What if- What would you think if, if Gold Roger had a son?" he asked, out of the blue. Kari's brows furrowed. That was a weird question. She had the brief thought of 'he's an orphan who wants a famous father', before her phantom snorted.

You're smarter than that, Golden Girl.

"Don't -" Call me that. "Know why you're asking stuff like that, Ace."

"Just answer the question!" his little hands curled into fists.

Kari sighed. She thought, though she only needed long enough to formulate the sentence.

"I would feel sad for him, I guess," she shrugged. When Ace's head snapped her way she went on. "His dad would be dead, and more than that, people are mean. They would never let him forget that Gol D. Roger was a pirate, that the world hated him, even if the kid had nothing to do with that. People are too stupid to understand that it's our own acts the define us. Not the sins or the saints that make up our heritage."

After all, a King could be born in the slums or silver sheets, and only the Slate would know.

Ace's small head landed on her shoulder. Kari wrapped an arm around his little body and pulled him in while the sun finally vanished in the waves.