A/N: Another chapter for you, Enjoy. It's winter break, so I actually have a modicum of time free for my various hobbies (including this fic). Lots of fun descriptions and conversations, as far as I'm concerned as writer, in here. Blame Mr. Darcy and Miss Elizabeth for it all.

Chapter 14:

Zoro didn't stop running until the sounds of chaos had faded completely, and the scent of smoke only came from what lingered on his and Tashigi's clothing. He trotted into the cover of a cluttered alley, the sound of water and the scent of salt informing him that he had apparently found his way to the dockside area.

Tashigi had stopped fighting him a while ago, which concerned him much more than any dire threats of harm to his person. Spotting a solid looking packing crate shoved against the side of a nearby building, he moved toward it purposefully. Shifting her weight carefully, he settled Tashigi down on the rough sawed wood, maintaining his grip on her shoulders.

She seemed to awake with the the abrupt change in position, drawing in a gasping breath and shaking herself a little. Zoro leaned forward, trying to get a closer look, inadvertently bringing himself nose to nose with Tashigi as he inspected her closely. Her glazed eyes focused slowly on his face, leading her to jerk backwards at his proximity, the reaction somewhat belated.

"Wh-what are you doing?"

"You look like crap. What the hell, you didn't let those morons back there hurt you, did you?"

"No!" She paused to cough painfully for a moment, "They cornered us inside, and I ended up inhaling a lot of smoke before I could get out, that's all!"

"Liar." Zoro sighed and dropped down into a crouch at her feet. "Well, I guess we need a place to go to ground for a few days now. Until you're up to dealing with all this again."

"Don't be ridiculous. I'll be fine in a few minutes, I just need to catch my breath."

"Well, whatever you say then." Zoro decided to concede the argument, since she really couldn't do anything about it in the state she appeared to be in. "At least we left them pretty far behind us. Did you manage to get any clues out of that lady last night about where we're headed next? We should at least plan something."

"Uhm, well, a few." The female swordsman was starting to sway where she sat, so Zoro absently reached up to steady her with one hand.

"Never mind. We'll talk about it later." Zoro turned to look over is shoulder, peering into the gloom behind him. "For now, just stay put."

Apparently she wasn't so out of it that she wouldn't notice his abrupt tensing and battle aura. "Wait, you -!"

"Stay!" Zoro's voice was harsh enough to set her back long enough for him to turn, launching himself toward the presence he had detected. The sounds of frantic scrabbling erupted as the spy attempted to escape, too late. Throwing himself bodily over another stack of abandoned crates and other chunks of wood, Zoro tackled the man before he made it five feet.

"Hah, before you can report back..." He trailed off as the flattened person became familiar, despite the fact that he was face planted into the stone of the street. "Wait a minute. You're -"

"Ah, heh. I caught up to you." The young man that had escorted Zoro to the scene of the fire, after various attempts to get him to abandon Tashigi and run away. The memory of that scene caused the pirate to narrow his eyes, though he did have to admit that he had abandoned the man in the middle of a fight. Well, not so much abandoned as left to his own, apparently capable, devices. That was why he was willing to back off a bit, dragging the other man to his feet by the collar of his shirt and pointedly slamming him back against the building wall.

"Following us again? Better give me a good excuse to let you off this time."

"Ah, come on! I'm just here to offer some assistance."

"Assistance?" Zoro was puzzled by the suggestion.

"Yeah, I guess you're more capable than we thought. Your friend is hurt, right? We have some people that can look at her, at any rate."

Zoro was disinclined to go along with this suggestion right off the bat, but he had to admit that Tashigi needed some help that he wasn't capable of providing at the moment. He'd always just survived his injuries, and lately he and the rest of the crew had gotten quite used to regular treatment by Chopper. At least he'd gotten a little better at recognizing the sorts of things that would require a visit to a doctor, even if he never intended to purposefully put himself under one's care.

"..." He paused to look back at Tashigi, who had disobeyed his order and risen to her feet. Leaning heavily against the wall of a nearby building, she was determinedly making her way toward Zoro and his prisoner. "I guess you have a point. Keep in mind, though, that there's nothing wrong with me."

"Heh, naturally." This was said with a bit of nervousness, just as obvious as the swordsman's not-so-veiled threat had been.

Zoro warily stepped back, glancing around for any other threats and taking the opportunity to move over to Tashigi's side. Grabbing her arm, he steadied her while moving into a better defensive position. It was also a good spot for catching her should she decide to collapse, as she appeared quite likely to do.

The young man stepped away from the wall, coughing quietly as he straightened his shirt collar, eying Zoro and his companion for a moment before nodding to himself and turning around.

"Come. It's this way."

---------------------------

Tashigi gradually became aware of a faint sensation of warmth. She then had a moment of panic as the memories of smoke and fire came to the forefront of her mind. The fear quickly faded as she analyzed the sensation though, the more rational parts of her mind reasserting themselves. This feeling was not unpleasant – more of an overlying tingle, like being immersed in sun-warmed water. As she contemplated it, she slowly came to detect a certain amount of directionality to the feeling, the sense of outspreading ripples that washed over her. Fascinated by this, she focused more on the warmth than any of her other senses as consciousness returned to her in bits and pieces.

What is it?

Her investigation was brought to an abrupt end as she became alert enough for another thing to catch up to her. Pain.

Ah, right. I was injured. The fire... She'd been running on adrenaline during her fight and the period after, knowing that any injuries that had her so incapacitated that she was struggling to stand would hurt like hell after a bit. She hadn't thought it would be this much though. Burns really were the worst kind of injury to have. Specifically, spots on her lower legs and forearms, on bad patch on her shoulder, and her neck. Her neck was the worst, a ring of fire sending shocks through her body as the muscles moved involuntarily.

Just swallowing is going to hurt at this rate. Never mind moving. Nevertheless, Tashigi resigned herself, having fairly well identified all the parts that were going to cause her pain at the moment. She opened her eyes.

The ceiling over head was made of smooth boards. Slowly turning her head to one side to get a more interesting view, she noted that her wounds had at least been tended to, cleaned and bound. She winced slightly, but was already acclimating herself to the pain. She couldn't avoid it, so it was best just to deal with it.

She blinked a couple of times to fully clear her vision, and was greeted wit ha sight that was becoming altogether far too common. Roronoa was slouched against the wall of the room she found herself in, his swords – and hers – arrayed on the floor next to his right hand. He was aware of her return to consciousness, a his eyes met hers calmly.

"Finally up?" He spoke quietly, not bothering to move from his apparently comfortable spot on the floor.

There was no challenge in the question, simply some polite interest as far as she could tell. Imagine that, Roronoa being something other than smartass or surly. Perhaps her wounds were actually fatal?

"Ah - " She cleared her throat, painfully it must be added, before her voice returned to her. "Where is this?"

"Some locals with a sense of vigilante justice volunteered their facilities and their services." He shifted himself slightly, lifting his chin to give the illusion of looking down at her. "How's your throat?"

"Hurts." She answered simply, lifting one eyebrow at her companion for a bit more explanation.

He reached down by his side and casually lifted a circular piece of metal that she hadn't noted before, dangling it lazily off one finger. She stared at it, puzzled for a moment, before it became familiar. It was, in fact, one of those blasted metal collars that she, Roronoa and every other prisoner in the island fortress had been so charitably equipped with. This one had apparently been cut open for removal, and the green haired swordsman gave a further bit of revelation by pulling down the collar of his dark turtleneck to reveal his own unadorned throat.

"This one's mine." He stated simply. "I'd almost forgotten we still had these damned things on, but it was pretty unfortunate for you, being in the heat of that building."

She nodded slightly. "Burned me, huh?"

"Hot metal will do that, though how you managed to let yourself to get it into a situation where it would become that warm..." He trailed off. "Well, whatever. The doctor was all worked up about it, and had yours removed right away. I got mine off only a little while ago, since I'm not as noticeable as you."

She snorted in disbelief – Roronoa being unnoticeable was beyond her range of conception – but quickly regretted it, as the pain it caused was rather excruciating. She felt the muscles of her throat contracting, stealing her breath. Ah, so this is one reason I was having trouble getting air back then.

Lack of oxygen was also an excellent reason for her loss of consciousness that had landed her in this strange place without her knowledge. She heard a scuffling noise as Roronoa bolted to his feet. "Oi, should I call the doc back in here? You look -"

She waved him off, literally using one hand to ward off the concern as she knew she wouldn't be able to speak for a few moments. After a few more seconds her breathing came easier and both she and Roronoa visibly relaxed.

Taking a few more deep breaths, Tashigi determined to take the next step and hoisted herself up onto one elbow. Roronoa was wise enough not to say anything, though his expression bespoke disapproval. Sighing in something like resignation, he moved over to her bedside and grasped her free arm, using a bit of his strength to help her into a sitting position. His hand lingered on her elbow for a bit, until she lifted her gaze to glare at him. Then he proceeded to jerk back as if he had just been burned.

Glancing down at the floor, he backed up a couple of steps – notably still within range to act if her injuries caught up with her – muttering under his breath. "The doc'll be pissed."

Tashigi gingerly moved to swing her legs out of the bed. She was still mostly clothed luckily, though her trousers and sweater had seen better days. "I have far too many things to deal with to be worried about the wrath of a doctor I don't even know."

"Ah, how ungrateful." An amused voice sounded from the doorway of the room, revealing a middle aged gentleman in worn but clean clothing. "But I guess I'd be used to it by now." He stepped into the room and moved to her bedside, giving her a critical head to toe inspection in a glance.

Stubbornly, she continued her motions to rise, dropping her bare feet to the rough wood floor and sliding forward to put some weight on her legs. She paused as she carefully noted that the muscles felt too weak to support her at the moment, and opted to desist from her ambition for a few minutes. After all, it made no sense to wound herself and her pride further by trying to stand before she was ready and collapsing ungracefully to the hard floor.

Roronoa was still hovering rather annoyingly, just out of easy reach for the young Marine invalid. She could really use to drive him out of the room for a few minutes at least, but her voice certainly wasn't up to the task and she couldn't do it physically, so she resigned herself to his presence for the moment.

"I have to say, I didn't think you'd be awake and moving so soon. Youth is a wonderful thing, eh?" The doctor stepped forward briskly, grasping Tashigi's chin with the fingers of one hand and gently lifting her head, turning it equally gently from side to side. "This hurts?"

"Only a bit." She answered fairly truthfully. The pain was minor compared to what she had experienced so recently.

"Hmm." He appeared to be watching her expression, particularly her eyes, very seriously. He released her and stepped back. "Well, as I said, you're young and the wounds are fairly superficial. There may be some scarring, but there's nothing to be done for that." His tone was apologetic, but Tashigi nodded stoically. She hadn't become a soldier with expectations of maintaining an unmarred physique for the rest of her life, after all. Glancing up at Roronoa for a moment – why, she didn't care to guess – the doctor continued.

"Take things only as you feel able. You're not one of my regulars," he quirked an eyebrow at that, "so you know your limits better than I do, most likely. Don't push yourself too far would be my advice, but you seem to be a levelheaded young woman."

The male swordsman made a soft noise at that statement, but his expression when she turned her narrowed eyes on him didn't betray what he'd meant by it. Instead the doctor gave her a few instructions on caring for her wounds and the rest of herself, and then made a quick but graceful exit.

Silence reigned for long moments, both of the young pair staring blankly at the door where the older man had disappeared for no real reason other than that it was better than contemplating each other. Finally, Roronoa broke the stillness by sighing irately, turning on his heel and retreating back to his chosen spot by the wall. He didn't bother sitting, just leaning against the worn, unpainted boards with his arms crossed over his chest. Tashigi glanced after him, then recalled her earlier goal and returned to her aim of rising to her feet.

After a few stalled attempts, she managed it, cautiously and keeping one hand firmly planted on the thin mattress of the cot she had occupied. When she felt her legs capable of a little more work she stepped away from the furniture, pointedly ignoring the presence of the pirate in one corner of her room.

For his part, Roronoa simply watched silently. And then he followed equally silently, barring the slight noise as he bent to retrieve the swords, as she moved out into the hallway to explore her new surroundings. Really, she just wanted a bit of escape. She knew full well it must have been Roronoa that had dragged her unconscious and bloody form to this place, somehow.

She also knew that she really needed to thank him, or show some sort of appreciation at least, but had no idea how to go about it. Not that she had trouble saying her thanks normally, but this was Roronoa Zoro. She had no idea how to be more than barely civil to the man, damn it.

She made it to a broad window, the building feature naturally drawing her attention as she attempted to determine her new location. She reached the sill and peered out, analyzing the view. Water, mostly. It looked like they were still in town – a town anyway – and perhaps in a dockside warehouse. On one of the upper floors apparently as well. She wrinkled her nose slightly at the revelation. This place had both its good and bad points strategically. The water provided a good means of escape to be sure, but only if you had transportation, and furthermore transportation that was faster than anything the enemy sent after you. Other than that, you essentially had cut off your back as a means of escape. Being on the second floor or higher limited avenues of flight as well, and she paused to consider why Roronoa had agreed to it, with an injured person no less. Surely he wasn't so incompetent not to realize these factors.

Perhaps more of his arrogance shining through? That unerring confidence to see him through any fight, no matter how unfortunate the circumstances. Well, his luck might be that good, but it was quite plain that hers was not, being injured so badly in such a pathetic way.

And that brought her mind circularly back to the point that was digging at her consciousness very annoyingly. Roronoa was still following her like a ghost, now leaning against the far edge of the windowsill, apparently attempting to figure out what she found so irritating about he view outside.

Sighing deeply, ignoring the pain it caused in her still tense throat, she leaned gingerly against the frame of the window and took a page from Roronoa's book, crossing her arms over her chest and giving the man a dark stare. He turned toward her and returned the look.

"What?" His rough tone made her grit her teeth a bit, attempting to force the words out.

"Th-thank you." She tried her best to look and sound completely sincere as she said it. Not that she wasn't, but...

"Ehn?" He blinked at her disbelievingly. "What?"

"What, you want to make me say it again?" She snapped irritably. What the hell was the man's problem? He certainly wasn't deaf.

"No, don't stress yourself." He replied acidly, "I'm just not sure why you're thanking me." At her incredulous stare he stepped closer and elaborated. "Not for dragging your sorry ass down here to get patched up, right?"

"What else?" She growled irately. Was he rubbing it in her face now?

"Why?" Now this was interesting, he sounded genuinely confused. "It's not like I can abandon you in some alley somewhere. You're my partner, you needed help, so I got it. That's what you're supposed to do, it's natural right?"

"What's this? Those kind of sentiments from you-"

"Loyalty?" He asked bluntly. His glare was coming at her full force now. "Damn, how can you still be so pig headed?!"

"What the hell does that mean?!" She resisted the temptation to cough or gag as the rising volume she found in her voice caused the increasingly familiar constriction in her throat.

"How can you, after all we've been through these past few weeks, still think I'm completely incapable of any kind of unselfish emotion or act?" He stepped even closer, now nose to nose with her, his eyes snapping with fire, "Do really, honestly, think I'm that shallow, that inhuman, after all this? After everything?"

If she hadn't been physically incapable of speaking already, she would have been shocked into silence. She sucked in one painful breath after another for a few tense moments. In the end, her intentions had been to honestly thank him. To let him know that she was, in fact, grateful for his care and concern. How did it end up as yet another shallow, pointless argument?

Worse, many of their most recent arguments had been irritating at the time, but had ended up with him or her walking away, cooling off quickly and bringing out thoughtful insight after a few minutes. She would even swear that he'd been enjoying the last few, riling her up for his own amusement perhaps.

This was different. He was angry, perhaps even... hurt by her words. It was hard to believe that mere words could cause pain to such a man, but her lack of faith seemed to have that effect. She was stunned. She was speechless.

She was gratefully distracted by a commotion from somewhere below.

The sounds of raised voices and clattering erupted, echoing strangely through the building. A warehouse indeed, it seemed. She didn't move until Roronoa did, dropping his eyes and stepping back, turning toward a nearby stairwell. Tashigi remained still, watching him move away, her fingers gripping the hard wood of the windowsill painfully.

The green haired man slipped over to the railing of the stairs, cautiously peering downward and very pointedly ignoring the presence of the only other person present in his vicinity. She stood back, not even bothering to follow him over to his vantage point. After all, she was less than useless in her current state for anything other than insulting the man who had so recently saved her life. Guilt was an unwelcome intruder in her conscience.

He finally deigned to glance back at her, but only with an expression that told her silently to stay put and only for a moment. Without another word he disappeared down the stairs, leaving her alone.

--------------------

The sounds lessened after a while, without Roronoa reappearing. Eventually, after standing motionless for she had no idea how long, Tashigi decided that there was nothing served by remaining in the open. She retreated to the room where she had awakened, closing the thin door behind her as quietly as possible. She listened for any new noises, indications of enemies. Nothing but the faint sounds associated with the oceanside graced her strained ears.

Her wounds began to burn again, the pain slowly increasing as she stood. Finally she sunk down to the floor next to the door. Waiting.

Her injuries, among other things, caught up with her as time passed and nothing changed. Her chin dropped to her knees and her eyes closed. She wouldn't let herself sleep, but she dozed lightly to take the edge off her exhaustion.

She jerked back to full wakefulness at the sound of footsteps. They approached, stopped outside her door, and then entered. She wasn't frightened by the sound or the entrance, because she knew who it was instinctively.

He sighed in irritation, his boots in her vision for a few long moments before he dropped into a crouch in front of her. Roronoa glared at her, obviously still enraged but controlling himself admirably.

"You should know, all that commotion downstairs would interest you. These bunch of amateurs we've fallen in with have some good connections for information, and they got word of a jailbreak almost as ambitious as ours."

He paused for a moment. "Your boss escaped. A couple other Marines got out with him. You should be happy, you have some trustworthy comrades to seek out and join up with." He shifted, then rose to apparently leave.

"I'm sorry." The words left her before she was aware of it. She meant it, but she nearly bit her tongue nonetheless.

"Hn." The sound was noncommittal. A long pause followed, and then, "Again?"

She lifted her head to look him in the eyes once more. "What now?"

"Apologizing? To me?" The bastard was smiling. Grinning, dammit!

Irritated, she just had to ask, "Why not?"

"Because it's not like you. Where's that confidence, that assertiveness? You're in the right, you are Justice, aren't you? Why apologize to a pirate?"

"I'm not!"

"Sure you are. Surely a few good deeds don't erase a lifetime of criminality?" His amusement was increasing, but she was deadly serious.

"No. I'm apologizing to my partner, to the person who saved my life more than once." She tilted her head to one side. "I meant it when I thanked you earlier too."

"I know." He rocked back on his heels, one hand dropping to his side. She didn't break eye contact, but she heard a few soft sounds culminating in a rattle and a clank on the floor beside her left hand. "Rest up. If we're gonna hunt down your Captain, you need to be in good shape."

"Naturally." With that, he gave her one last smirk, then rose and actually did leave. She smiled herself, shaking her head slightly. What a change in atmosphere in such a short while. She glanced down at the floor to inspect his gift.

Her sword. The borrowed one she'd carried for the last few days, carefully arranged next to her hand, the sageo cord wrapped not intricately but neatly despite apparently being done one handed and too quickly to notice.

"Strange man."

Ending Note: There are a few movies I like to watch (repeatedly) while I write this fic. Kill Bill is a good one. Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (Tashigi fodder) and Pirates of the Caribbean (uh, yeah) are excellent too. But you know what? When it comes down to it, the best one for watching while writing relationship development for Zoro and Tashigi is Pride and Prejudice. What on earth could be more appropriate? Though I do rather think the roles are reversed – or perhaps a little fuzzy....

Imagine this if you will – Zoro, walking dramatically out of the mist, wearing a long coat... yeah, it makes me laugh too.