It's been four months since Ace officially joined the Whitebeard Pirates and he's back in Paradise with a few members of the Second Division on a routine mission to wipe out some troublemakers on one of Pops' protected islands. The relatively calmer seas of the first half of the Grand Line actually make for a wonderful reprieve from the overall craziness of the New World, but Ace is getting antsy, wanting to get back to his crew-his family. So it's to no one's surprise when he orders the men to stay on the damn ship since the assholes lording it over the citizens of Acabole Island were apparently smart enough not to be caught out in the open (although they had to be some level of stupid to try and possess an island with Whitebeard's mark, so who knew?) and it's almost definitely going to be a pain to gather information if he tried it with a bunch of drunk, rowdy, overprotective pirates in tow.

Ace is just tipping his hat and sliding a few gold coins discreetly over to the burly woodsman when his head snaps up to watch the shadows in the trees to his left intently. It isn't really a noise that catches his attention, just a gut feeling that he had learned not to ignore after growing up with a little brother who was a horrifyingly efficient magnet for trouble. With a quick apology and thanks to the woodsman, Ace sets off at a trot to find the source of his unease.

After a few minutes, several presences begin to register on Ace's recently acquired haki. Ace speeds up because they're from about the same direction his information pointed the bandit hideout to be in.

He comes to a stop only to duck behind the cover of a tree at the discovery of a small clearing covered in dead bodies. There are at least a dozen lying on the ground, all with necks and spines and arms and legs twisted into unnatural positions. In the midst of them all stands a woman, arms crossed before her chest, smiling calmly even as the three men still standing back away from her in fear.

Her waist length black hair is barely ruffled and she hasn't even broken a sweat yet although all of this is most likely her handiwork. Ace watches her warily, because he knows what danger looks like when he sees it. As if to confirm his suspicions, she calls something out in a soft voice; arms appear without warning on the shoulders of all three men and they panic, stumbling back as they attempt to run for it. They don't get very far.

Ace steps forward when the last man falls with a sickening crack, disembodied arms disappearing in a cascade of petals from his shoulders. He clears his throat to announce his presence, pointless though it was as she had turned to him immediately after disposing of her assailants.

"Good afternoon, miss," he says, keeping his voice polite even as his eyes glint darkly with the promise of pain if he didn't like her answer. "May I ask what business you might have in this area?"

She surveys him for a second and Ace is surprised to find he has to resist an urge to fidget under her scrutinizing stare.

Finally she smiles, letting her arms fall to her sides. "Just taking a stroll through the forest. I find it clears the head and allows me to get rid of many of my unnecessary... distractions."

"I see." Ace frowns at the delicate stress on the last word, not liking at this woman's admission of having to deal with these types of attacks on a regular basis. He hesitates, but pushes on. "And do you make it a habit to take these strolls in areas under Whitebeard's protection?"

He casually sets his shoulders aflame, stretching languidly to highlight his point. He notes how she's poised like a cat, ready to run or attack at a moment's notice, and Ace wonders why that bothers him. But what she says in response drives all other thoughts away as he's thrown completely off balance.

"Do you know who I am, Portgas-san? I happen to know who you are."

And Ace tenses, fear rising, dread clogging up his throat, because there is no way, no way in hell she could possibly know. Ace readies his denials, prepares himself to fight to the bitter end for his secret not to be revealed-because once it came out that he was, indeed, Gol D. Roger's son, it would be just that. The end.

He laughs, casually settles his tense shoulders, starts to reply with his trademark smirk. "Of course you do, everyone knows who Fire Fist..." He trails off midsentence because there's something knowing in the woman's gaze, something that speaks of a different understanding of Ace's identity. She waits patiently for Ace to continue, smiling enigmatically as Ace struggles through the amusement and wariness in those eyes.

"You never answered my question," she finally says when Ace fails to respond.

And Ace finally looks at her, really looks at her. Recognition sparks.

"Nico Robin." Her epithet is on the tip of his tongue but something about her serene smile bothers him and it clicks when he remembers a split second glance of an old bounty poster with a young girl on it and the sinking sense of dread at the confirmation the World Government would truly place such a death sentence on a child (and the implications it had for himself). Demon of Ohara. The title tastes foul on his tongue when Ace finally realises what's been bothering him about her.

Her perfect smile and haunted eyes, the way she stood like she expected to be attacked at any moment, her composure surely forged by years and years of unbridled intimacy with disgust and fear and hate. Everything about Nico Robin is so very familiar to Ace.

He sees the same thing every damn day in the mirror, after all.

Ace forces the words through his teeth and hisses, "The Demon of Ohara," as spitefully as he can.

She inclines her head in a way that tells Ace she knew what he meant, acknowledging the hate in his tone that wasn't directed at her. Acknowledging the familiarity with which he spoke the words.

Ace struggles with what to say, sucking on the back of his teeth, thinking hard. He finally settles on repeating her words back to her. "You never answered my question."

There is cruel amusement in her laugh, complicated and dark. Ace wishes he hadn't heard the same sound from his own lips a million times before.

"Distractions choose no time or place, Portgas-san, as I'm sure you very well know. It is there in every pair of eyes, in every set of lips so ready to utter the word monster. I learned early on that there is no better way to move past such difficulties than to deal with them immediately."

Ace's answering chuckle is the same as her laugh even as thoughts (memories) swirl through his mind of monster, should have died, doesn't deserve to live, drown him at birth, son of the devil, die die die DIE and when he meets Robin's eyes again, he can see that he hadn't been the only one engrossed in seeing his reflection in the other's eyes.

"I know what it is like to be the monster in the woods, Portgas-san," she says simply when the silence has stretched on too long. "To be the beast hunted by the gallant knight, the demon who corrupts innocent souls. I know the weight of the shackles given to those who have overstepped the boundaries of humanity simply by existing. And I am aware that there are stains that cannot be washed away no matter how persistent one is."

She doesn't say the rest of it, doesn't say she knows all these things because this is the life she lives. Doesn't say she's sure Ace knows these things too. But it's there nonetheless. Ace has to force himself to breathe because god, how he knew.

"But you're alive," he counters, daring her to disagree, disregarding the whispered thoughts of yes, but for how long? lingering in his own mind.

She smiles back because there is no response to that, not really, for the answer was in the fact they stood face to face now. Even monsters had dreams, and you either clawed your way through hell to reach them, or you sank into the depths in disgraced resignation of the hand you had been dealt. Nico Robin had made her choice-so had Ace.

The noises of someone searching the woods is enough to bring their odd impasse to a halt. Neither of them startle because neither of them have dropped their guard this entire time. There's no way to know which demon is being hunted, but that hardly mattered; it was the cue for Robin to leave and for Ace to return to business restoring peace to his Pops' island.

With a last incline of her head, Nico Robin turns away to fade into the undergrowth. But before she can disappear completely, Ace surprises himself by calling out to her. He doesn't know why he does it, only that he understood that pain and knew he would regret it if he didn't say anything to this woman who might perhaps understand him even better than his own brothers ever could.

"I hope one day... one day, you find what you're searching for. There'll be a man on the seas soon in the future, and I hope you're fortunate enough to meet him then."

She pauses and she doesn't turn back, but Ace can tell she's watching him all the same.

"And who is this man, Portgas-san?"

Ace laughs softly in reply. "My little brother. He... in so many ways, he saved me."

And maybe he'll be able to save you, too.

At this, she does turn around and gives him what he figures is something closer to what her real smile would be.

"He sounds wonderful, Ace-san. I will be sure to keep your words in mind."

With a wave, she seems to melt into the forest even as Ace watches, and he places a hand on his hat to hide his smile. She didn't believe him, he could tell. That was fine. He wouldn't have believed himself either if someone had told him the same thing before he had Luffy.

But he'd bet on his brother's luck any day.

So with a vicious kick to the tree nearest his left, Ace sends it toppling over three men who'd sneaked up just as Robin had left. The groans and expletives from underneath the trunk confirmed that these men were part of the crew he'd been sent to deal with. Another presence carefully darted around his reach towards the same direction Robin had gone.

Ace let it. She was more than capable of taking care of herself. (Although he hopes one day she will no longer have to.)

Cracking his knuckles, he approaches the three grunts and lets his fire flicker around his fists. It's time he finished his work here and returned to his family.

Man, I fricking hate character studies and lordy these two have some of the heaviest backstories in the whole show. I couldn't resist though, not after rewatching the Marineford and Enies Lobby arcs and noticing how similar Ace and Robin's reactions were in the face of execution.

Anyway, reviews and comments are highly appreciated! I hope you enjoyed~


PS. I've been dead lately so all my projects were put on hold. I've got my rhythm back now though, so maybe I'll be able to post that multichapter one soon!