The woman was an enemy, no matter what the Princess said (another blasphemous thought on the mounting pile of heresy); a fiend, a demon.

Once a sinner, always a sinner, and she certainly looked like sin.

"Would you like to say it, Guardian-san, or shall I?" Nico Robin asked, leaning elegantly—something that shouldn't have been possible—against a pillar in the palace courtyard. She was shrouded partly by the midnight darkness and lit by the glow of the moon, smiling slightly as if she knew something he didn't…she looked


evil, and he took a step back, staying on guard and wondering sharply how far into the sky her dreadful arms could reach. "What?" Pell snapped, wanting her to stop playing games, wanting


to tell him flat out what was going on instead of hiding in the shadows like a lie and acting as if she had every right to be there.

"Fancy meeting you here," she said softly. The smile grew, and so did Pell's trepidation. He forced himself to stand taller, to act as if this was not affecting him, as if she was as inconsequential as the faint night breeze.

Useless, and they both knew it.

"Nico Robin," he said, and she raised an eyebrow, "I understand that Princess Vivi trusts you, and thus I will...accept you. I will tolerate your presence in this country, even in this palace, but under no circumstances do I wish to spend time alone in the dark with a person who once tried, nearly successfully, to snap my neck."

She tilted her head, smile evolving into something twisted


that made Pell's skin creep, made him want to run. "Guardian-san, I can assure you that I harbor no ill will toward you and have no intent to harm you in any way. The unfortunate business I once had with you is passed; I do not consider you an enemy."

That stung, like a slap in the face; he never forgot, she never remembered. How many men had she destroyed, that his life was so unimportant? He knew he was sneering. He didn't try to hide it. Her smile didn't falter, only faded.

"I meant no offense. I want us to be friends, Guardian-san, if you can forgive me."

It sounded like genuine remorse, that velvet voice that still rang in the dark corners of his mind filling up his senses in the midnight quiet. The words made part of him ache, but he couldn't trust her to be sorry. "No."


She smiled again, and it was sad and dark just like her eyes. "I understand. But I want you to know that I am sorry for what I did to you."

He laughed, short and bitter, and looked away. "Right. You're sorry? I'm sure you are. 'Sorry' doesn't quite make up for the way you nearly killed me. The way you nearly killed my country."

When he looked back, her—impossible, beautiful—eyes were fixed on the opposite side of the courtyard. The smile was gone. "I know." She looked back, and he couldn't keep the honest sorrow in those eyes from stealing some infinitesimal part of his soul and shredding it raw. He wanted to look away, but he couldn't. "No amount of remorse will ever excuse the things I've done. I know that. There was a long time during which I thought I deserved to die for it, and I nearly did, of my own free will. But my nakama taught me that existence is never a crime, and that redemption is possible." She smiled again, sadly. "I hope to atone for my past actions someday, but I won't be surprised or grudging if you can't forgive me. I understand."

Pell watched her face, saw the sincerity there, so different from the impassive mask he remembered. He wondered if she felt like this when she translated ancient texts; he wondered if she was doing this on purpose. He swallowed and licked his dry lips. "Why are you telling me this?"

"Because, Guardian-san," she replied slowly, "I want us to be friends. I want to help you understand. And because I believe that you know how I feel."

Something inside him snapped. His heart raced like he was freefalling and nearly hadn't pulled up in time. "How you feel about what?" he asked, and he knew it sounded frantic


and he tried to regain some dignity by averting his eyes. She laughed, a dark chuckle that sent electric current shivers racing over his skin. "About atonement, Guardian-san. I know the earmarks of a former troublemaker."

Pell winced. He had no doubts that she knew plenty of earmarks, for every kind of person imaginable, and it made him feel painfully transparent. "I was never like you."

"Of course not. But you did get into trouble."

"I'll thank you not to assume things," he snapped, knowing it was futile, that she had read him as easily as a book and probably had long ago. He didn't know anything about her. He didn't want to know anything


about her; he just wanted her to…to stop. To stop examining him, to stop smiling and talking and being vulnerable. Pell was used to seeking out the cracks in an enemy's defenses, breaking them and using them as improvised entryways, but this one...he wanted her armor to be impenetrable. And he couldn't decide whether this was because she scared him, or because he wanted her to be safe, and he didn't like either of those possibilities.

But, gods help him, he remembered. He remembered the forgiveness King Nefertari had granted him and how much it had helped just to have someone trust him for once, and he wondered if anyone really trusted Nico Robin, if she believed that anyone trusted her

maybe I can trust her

and whether it would help her find her redemption…

He couldn't look at her anymore. It hurt to see her eyes, and he had the vague intuition that it shouldn't have, that he should be able to meet that gaze. He licked his lips again, considering the possibility that he was developing a nervous habit. "Nico Robin…"

"You needn't call my by my full name all the time, Guardian-san."

"Is it too formal? Maybe you should follow your own logic. My name is Pell, Robin."

She looked surprised. He smirked, but only because he couldn't help it.

Slowly, Robin stood away from the pillar and walked across the courtyard toward him, twenty feet ten feet five feet until she was standing directly in front of him, and he had probably invited it but he still felt tense, guarded, as if she would strike at any second.

He tried to ignore that, but when she lifted her hand, he flinched. She stopped, and all was still until he uncrossed his arms and forced himself to relax…he wasn't expecting it when she moved again, but he kept motionless.

She reached out, slowly and steadily, and brushed the side of his face with her fingertips; he swallowed hard and, with some difficulty, closed his eyes. He remembered Robin's hands on him before, hard and merciless and vicelike, but this was so different, gentle, that he had trouble connecting the two…the way that hand moved to rest against his skin, and now the other was on his shoulder, was as if she was apologizing for the damage those hands had done before.

Pell could hear Robin breathing. When he opened his eyes she was closer than before, much closer, and she smelled faintly of coffee and sea salt and some kind of flower. She was tall, possibly taller than him, but for some reason it didn't seem like she was much different in height…she wasn't looking him in the eyes, and he wondered briefly if she was ashamed, somehow, but then he realized that she was looking at his mouth.


He didn't hesitate, really; he put his hands on her waist and pulled her forward a little and didn't think about kissing her until he was doing it, at which point it was too late, and he didn't care.

She tasted like a few things he couldn't name and moved like a few things he could, wrapping her arms around his neck and pressing against him like she was trying to convince him not to let go, and she was doing a very good job of it but he couldn't shake that feeling…

arms around my neck pulling back until I break

Robin seemed to understand, somehow, and she let her arms drift down from his shoulders to link around his back instead, so in response he kissed her harder, desperate, and she made some kind of soft noise against his mouth that shot through him like a bolt of electricity—he had one of his hands in her hair and the realization was creeping up on him that this was far too intimate and probably uncalled for and he hoped she stopped this soon because he didn't know if he could.

She did stop, breaking away and loosening her grip on the back of his robes, and Pell felt relieved and mildly disappointed and somewhat horrified at himself, all of which stopped when Robin gave him that dark chuckle and looked at him lazily through half-lidded eyes.

"Tell me…Pell," she said softly (and the pause was less taunting than hopeful), "that comment you made earlier about not wishing to spend time alone in the dark with people like me…would you be willing to make an exception?"

He took a breath. "I never said anything about people like you; only people who have tried to kill me. And as far as I'm concerned…for the sake of this particular situation…that's in the past. However, I, ah…don't usually…"

Robin nodded slightly, and he suspected that the smile that followed was perhaps a little embarrassed. "Yes," was all she said, apologetically, and tried to move away, but Pell caught her arm.

"I said usually," he explained, and Robin's new smile came on an exhalation of laughter.

"Of course," she said, as if this was a completely obvious statement in a completely average situation, and Pell gave up and wrapped his arms around her.

This is a very ill-advised idea.

Pell's internal voice of warning sounded a bit like Chaka, but Robin's chin fit into the curve of his shoulder like they were designed as two pieces of the same puzzle, and Pell couldn't decide which was more important.

He wanted to be someone she could trust. He wanted her to be someone he could trust. This was obviously stupid


but it was also unavoidable, and there wasn't long before the sun rose and the country awakened and their respective nakama called for them, and Pell decided that they both needed a chance to do what they were best at.

He would protect her as a guardian, and she would read him like a book.