Swords and Promises 10

So...I died.

Well, not really. Or else, I am writing you from the underworld. But, if you've lived a life like mine, you would understand. A life dedicated to others, but not your own.

Years of searching, and I found happiness disguised in the most unexpected of packages.

Truly, life is unexpected. Thank you for reading this, even after an eternity.

-0-

Zoro wandered into the rain again, shirtless, barefoot, into the muddy courtyard. The damp soil squelched between his toes, as he passed palace guards marching about on their lookout. They gave him simple greeting, a brief nod of the head to show some respect.

It looked innocent enough, just a palace guest in search of quiet.

In their minds, they just thought he was going to do some meditation/soul-searching that is appropriate of swordsmen, perching on a large garden rock in a lotus position. Eyes closed, shoulders hunched, he looked more dejected than actually connecting with his inner being. There was nothing to suspect him of at all, besides, he was an honored guest of the Ruler of the Palace. And nowhere in the direction of the current commotion.

Zoro wasn't meditating, he just needed to clear his head. He needed to think.

And to wash away his feelings.

It was so unlike him, to lose concentration. It was so unlike him, to forget his true goals, in the middle of a task, in the midst of a fight, to lose his head. But with her…

Everything was different with her. She screwed up his head; screwed up his mind, got him thinking of things he never knew he wanted…things he had buried long ago…things he knew he didn't deserve…

But it was funny. With her, time seemed to stop. With her, things were crazy and unpredictable. With her, he forgot many things he should do, but all that was fine, and all he could think of was holding her close and making her happy, then he would be happy as well, to claim her as his.

And he didn't care. He didn't care, because right now, she was his.

With her, he had everything he ever wanted.

Why? Why was it her?

Why was he here?

In the farthest reaches of the world, there must be someone who fit better in this role...so she could pretend better...

Ha, he thought. Pretend better.

Ever since he set foot here, everything was far from pretend.

It was anything but pretend.

That was the problem. Everything was too real.

It was real to him.

The stolen glances, the soft laughs, the scorching hot kisses they shared under the moonlight...

Those weren't pretend.

Try as he might, he could not turn away.

And tonight, for a time, she was willing and pliant in his hands. He was a man, goddamnit, and it was the most difficult thing to turn away.

God help him, but he didn't want to run anymore. Not anymore.

And the rain came down in torrents, down his bare skin, and bare soul, but it would not wash away these thoughts in an already muddled mind.

-0-

The dry maple leaves made a crunching sound under passing feet, as Advisor Yuan made his way through the southern grounds of the palace. He clutched at the jewelled handle of his walking cane, pressing his weight down on the hardened dirt of the area. Called the Akikaze, or fondly as "Kouyo", this place held a perpetual beauty of its own. This region was dotted by tall Japanese maple trees in an explosion of vivid color. It always seemed like autumn in this place, all the green of the grounds replaced by gold and orange and burnt amber, seeming like momiji-gari season all year-round. Local legend blamed magic for the trees' refusal to follow the seasons, others cited the soil type, but for whatever reason, the leaves stayed this way for as long as anyone could remember. He walked on, with the fallen leaves swirling in the blustery wind, eventually parting to reveal in the clearing the man he was looking for.

His emerald green head stood out brightly as a stark contrast to all the colors around him. Sensing the presence of the older man, Zoro sheathed all his swords carefully, and turned with a curt nod. "Advisor."

"Good day to you, Roronoa-san," the elder of the two smiled at him affably, lending his calm demeanor to the atmosphere of their surroundings. "I was wondering if you would have some tea with me."

"Of course," the younger swordsman nodded in assent.

"But—" and the older man holds up his walking cane in front of him menacingly. "After our sparring match."

The former pirate hunter's jaw dropped when the normally shaky advisor developed a warrior's stance, his former mild limp disappearing, as he slid out a long, menacing blade enveloped in his cane.

A shikomi-zue, he observed, and proceeded to feel a rather disturbing, unmistakable feeling of an impending battle.

The old man is dead serious.

Zoro unsheathed his swords and prepared himself. The worst thing to do is underestimate your opponent. Appearances are quite deceiving, as he has learned in the past.

Yuan pointed his blade straight at Zoro, holding the hilt almost at the very tip. He held it steady and arrow-straight for a few moments.

What came was a barrage of attacks, each one stronger, faster, more vicious than the next. It was all Zoro could do to deflect each strike, coming at him like a hail of bullets through the air. His momentary bewilderment evaporated quickly and reflexes took over. However, even these reflexes were barely enough to protect him from the strikes. He knew if he slipped even a little, he could get hit, or worse, his head lopped off. But Yuan, seemed gleeful, even letting out a few laughs through his blows, chuckling at Zoro's expense.

Yuan got close enough, while in mid-air, and gave him a sharp rap on his head with the cane handle from his left arm.

"Graagh!" yelled Zoro.

"That's what you get for dawdling! Stop trying to hit me and hit me!" Yelled the old man back.

Zoro knew he needed to muscle in a victory soon. He took a second pause, ground his heels into the leafy expanse and angled his swords correctly.

"Tatsuma-"

But he was cut off by a massive blow- or rather, 10 successive blows-to his right, shaking him off balance, enough to drag him to the ground.

"Kuh!" He spat out as he hit the leaves with a softened thud.

Yuan from a distance, did not even seem flustered. After these strikes, he lightly landed on the ground with barely a sound. He smiled slightly at the scene. "Should we go on?" He said casually.

By this time, Zoro was huffing, winded by the effort. A split-second thought ran through his mind, that this was due to sheer shock and being caught off guard. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. A momentary setback, he thought. He needed to be back and swinging. He looked at the old man, who looked spry and ready, bewilderingly different to what he was moments ago.

Breathe, he instructed himself.

Yuan readied his swords, then charged forward for another attack.

There was a brief shot of panic and dread that shot through Zoro, anticipating his deadly and rapid attacks.

But he steadied himself.

You would expect him to act quickly, let loose his power immediately. But his opponent kept getting closer to him in the next tense moments.

Zoro did something else entirely.

He closed his eyes. And sheathed his sword.

To the casual observer, this may seem like giving up.

But Zoro is no mere swordsman. The killing instinct, sharpness of his impulse, all tightly wrapped up in sinews of his body, ready to strike at any moment.

The movements around him slowed to a crawl, and in his mind's eye he could break down each tiny movement into its infinitesimal nuances, and predict the next one. It was almost as if the lines of action remained in space like colored lines, and you could draw connections in the air with the tip of a finger.

But all of this happened too quickly to see.

Zoro collapsed all of it, processing it within a millisecond in our time. For every single moment could make the difference between life and death in a fighter's life.

And his actions spoke true of a warrior's spirit.

He aimed one blow, perfectly angled to receive the weakest points in Yuan's strike path, strong enough to counter the already enormous force emanating from the multiple attacks.

"Ittoryu Iai: Shishi Sonson! "

That one blow sent the old man cart-wheeling through the air, airborne for an good amount of time before bouncing one, two, three times onto the ground, disrupting the leaves on the ground, limbs flailing in every which way. He skidded to a halt after the third bounce. Then he finally lay still.

Zoro nearly tripped on his own feet, running to where the advisor lay on the ground, half-covered by the amber leaves, some sticking to his face and skin, which had become an ashen color.

"I've gone and done it!" Zoro thought, panicking. "I've killed the old man!"

"Don't be dead, don't be dead, don't be dead," he chanted repeatedly, as he brushed the leaves off his former opponent.

But the advisor lay still as stone.

Zoro pressed an ear to the old man's chest, straining his ears to hear something, anything, resembling a heartbeat or breathing.

Nothing. There was no heartbeat.

He pressed his ear harder, willing something to stir underneath. Still nothing.

When he pulled away, the skin under his fingertips were cold as ice.

"I DIDN'T MEAN TO!" Zoro half-shouted, shaking Yuan's lifeless body like a rag doll, the old man's head flapping back and forth like it was ready to snap off his neck. This may very well be the first time Zoro was sorry to have killed anyone. "I DIDN'T MEAN TO KILL YOU, HONEST!"

Suddenly, a giant fist comes out of nowhere, connecting with Zoro's chin in a massive uppercut, sending him flying off into the leafy landscape.

"I'M NOT DEAD, YOU IDIOT!" came the booming voice of the advisor, who had miraculously returned to a lifelike color, complete with fiery eyes a-blazing. "Not yet. I simply got knocked out, that's all!"

No response.

"Uh...Zoro-kun?"

The green-haired swordsman lay on his back, arms and legs all at angles, with eyes swirling like pinwheels. "Well," he starts, in a voice that's swirling as well. "I may...be...the one...who's dead...from being on this island..."

-0-

Steam poured from the spout of a delicate blue and white tea kettle. Golden veins criss-crossed across its surface, its texture gently fingered by Yuan as he poured out the promised fragrant chrysanthemum tea for the unlikely pair.

Zoro was hunched over towards the side, looking the very opposite of the cheerful advisor Yuan, busying himself with the tea. He looked the epitome of health, when moments ago-Zoro was quite sure of it-he had seemingly died, and then resurrected by some unknown force.

"Ho ho ho," chuckled Yuan genially. "Cheer up, Zoro-kun. No need to pout."

Zoro was not too sure about that. He kept getting upper-cutted by people since arriving here.

"I'm sure by now you've heard about the latest goings-on in the palace," continue Yuan. "Seems there was an intruder of some sort last night."

Zoro did the smallest (as least he thought so) of double-takes.

"Seems they could not locate this intruder, and he simply disappeared into the night," Yuan continued. "However, I do believe this intruder has an innate knowledge of certain things in this palace."

The younger swordsman gave him the briefest of side-eyes. But he kept doing it, so his eyes kept moving back and forth towards the other man, so it didn't help his cause.

"You, know, such as a 'secret' passageway," a smile crinkling the elder's eyes as he said this. "I always thought it was a good touch to this place."

Zoro was sure he could see him trembling. He was sweating buckets in agony.

Yuan clapped him on the back, rather affectionately. "Don't worry, Zoro-kun. I won't ask you anything that will compromise you. I can tell you aren't very good at keeping secrets or telling lies. You're a very honest young man."

The young swordsman gave an almost imperceptible gulp enough to confirm it as affirmative.

"But I will ask you this," the advisor's eyes gleamed. "Why do you think you deserve our princess?"

I don't, he thought. Even if they were indeed in love, he would never match up to her. And he was a pirate being hunted by the World Government. The very same she was serving in.

"I'm not...well-made like her. I'm dirt poor, a pirate. Everything I have are my nakama and my swords."

"I don't…I don't even know, why she chose me." He could hardly say it, with the lump in his throat.

That was the truth.

It had bothered him from the start. Why him? There were countless others out there, far more befitting her, in terms of wealth, prestige, power. She could have easily used her rank to find someone. Even with her initial explanation, about finding a real swordsman for her, he was sure there was someone else out there, someone who wasn't a criminal that she was duty-bound to fight against.

And he was here, falling into the trap, falling head first as though he really wanted to be in it. He may have fallen in much sooner than he would have expected him to, if at all he did succumb to the trap.

"It's true," the advisor fiddled with his long beard, white with age. "At first you would think it strange, almost inappropriate, to have a pirate as a candidate for our princess to marry. I am sure everyone has doubted your credibility. I myself had these doubts."

A smile crinkled his wizened face. "Yet every day, I feel more and more that she made a good choice. I daresay the right choice for our princess."

"You mirror her here," the point of his cane briefly tapped the center of Zoro's chest. "You have the same spirit as hers. So much fight in you. It comes out of you, you know. Almost like an aura."

His glazed eyes looked at him, as if straining to see, almost as if he saw the air around him snap and crackle with the aura he was talking about.

"I'm sure, that the princess sees something special in you. She's putting her entire life in your hands. She has faith in you."

Zoro looked down at his hands. If he only knew…

The old man pulls out a thin leather pocketbook from his robes, and shows it to Zoro. The first page had a faded picture of a beautiful young woman in a silk kimono.

"I carry this around everywhere, to remember how we were back then," Yuan sighs wistfully. "She was the love of my life. We would have celebrated fifty years to this day, if she were still alive."

"I'm sorry," Zoro says. And he means it.

"It is fine. We had a wonderful life together. Before I met her, I was the village ruffian! But look where I am now, advisor to one of the greatest industries in the Grand Line. She worked for the Shigatsu and changed my life completely."

"Look at this," says the advisor, holding up the blue cup in his hands in front of Zoro's eyes. Like the teapot, it had glimmering lines of gold running across the surface. "Are you aware of Kintsugi?"

Zoro nodded. Village artisans had practiced it back home. His old master had a few tea sets made just like this one, but reserved for special occasions due to their worth. The ceramic item was broken first then pieced together with gold or silver lacquer.

Yuan continued, "As a philosophy, this art embraces the flaws and imperfections. What was once broken, can become whole again. What was once a defect, must be celebrated as part of its history."

The advisor hands the cup to Zoro. "We are all Kintsugi in our life, we are also broken at one point or another. The key is to embrace the past, and let it guide our future."

"You must let things fill in the cracks, and mind you, many people will try to fill the cracks for you, but will not be successful. Gold, platinum, bronze; these are the things that hold best, and make you better than before."

Zoro looked at the teacup. The gold lines sparkled beautifully in the sun while he turned cup over in his hands. Yuan was right, it looked much more special than if it were whole and a plain blue.

"When you meet that person, that precious gold, you must let her fill in your cracks. Then you will be better than before. Better than you ever will be."

"When you meet that certain someone, it changes you forever." He smiles at him again. "You are young, and in love, it is the best time in the world to be alive. You can travel the world and reap all its wonders and wealth, but nothing comes close to having someone who will love you back."

Zoro felt for a moment like he should say something, but found he had no heart to deny his words. Half of him knew the truth. But the other half clung desperately to a little sliver of hope...or was it just foolishness?

"The best feeling in the world, to have someone."

-0-

Zoro winced, scratching at the heavy iron helmet on his head.

Today was the day of the big match. As usual, this was also steeped in tradition. Both parties were supposed to dress in elaborate customary armor. Zoro had put on most of his own armor, but as was dictated by tradition, the princess had to complete the process for him.

He studied his reflection in a small mirror provided in this preparation room. The helmet was an elaborate piece with a flared face opening and a V-shaped horn in the middle, built to look like a kabuto beetle. I look ridiculous, he tells himself, and tosses off the helmet onto an adjacent wooden table with a soft clang. He had never worn such headgear, preferring his black bandana, well, just because. Honestly, it just made him look, badass.

The rest of the armor was quite beautiful, though, with red and black polished lamellar kozane scales on the front and back, laced together with leather and silk thread. Jutting shoulder protectors and leg protectors were built in the same fashion. Red and leather cords hung in front, to be tied later for him. Its heft was only matched by its durability and elegance.

In the semi-darkness, he let out a shaky sigh. He didn't know what to expect, when he finally had to face her again.

He heard a rustle of silks, and soft footsteps at the door.

She was here.

There she was, resplendent in her 12-layer kimono, looking every bit the princess she was.

He couldn't look at her eyes. He felt like he would break apart if he did.

She moved to him silently, reached out and adjusted the ties in front of his chest plate. She began tying a very intricate knot that secured the tiger's eye beads on the strings. His heart hammered in his chest, and he was sure she could feel his heartbeat beneath her fingertips as she worked. He kept his eyes unfocused and trained to the floor.

Her fingertips worked surely and he could not help but marvel at their skill and gentle strength.

What should he say to her?

For a brief moment, he considers telling her everything he's thought of these past couple days. Every single thing, every single reflection and hope and longing thought, of his fight with Yuan and the subsequent talk with him, every stab to his heart when thinking of her. All of this is now bursting through every fiber of his being, ready to spill at any moment...

But her hands slowly left him. Finally, she was finished, with a last adjustment of cord tassels.

It felt almost like...

A goodbye.

She took a step back. Zoro felt like his real self was floating, and away from his body at that moment.

"Zoro."

Her voice cut through the silence. It felt like water to a dying man in a desert.

"Zoro." Again, there it was.

It was impossible to resist. He lifted his head to look at her, and then...

God...

What he saw floored him. She had never looked so beautiful as she did now. Layer upon layer of luxurious fabric; thick swirling brocade in an array of dazzling patterns and colors with gold and silver trim. Her small hands peeked out of the sweeping sleeves, and her neck craned elegantly out of the immense collar, lovely like in those ukiyo-e paintings his sensei kept in his rooms. She wore a golden headdress in her hair, which was tied at her nape into a dark straight line.

"There was a question you asked me days ago," she started. "I never got to tell you my answer. Of why I chose you."

He remembered that he asked her that, while he was in the throes of anger, almost crushing her neck in the process.

"Tell me!" he had demanded of her. He hung his head in shame, remembering his uncontrolled rage at that moment.

"It's actually a funny story," she said, wringing her hands in front of her, half-enveloped by the enormous sleeves of her gown. "You see, I met this guy in Loguetown. He was nice enough to give me back my glasses. But he broke them. Ordinarily, I wouldn't have cared. But I asked him back to the marine base and offered him a job. I don't know what possessed me to do that to a complete stranger.

She continued her speech. "But he had katana, I thought we could make a connection on that level. Then he tested the will of a katana, risking an arm to prove it. And I was impressed. Later on, I found out he was a pirate, tried to arrest him, but he refused to kill me even when he had defeated me."

"I should have been angry, and I was outwardly so, but I never actually stopped admiring him. He was-is-the only reason I entered the Grand Line. The only reason."

She smiled. "You see, you don't meet a guy like that every day. The man of your dreams doesn't just fall out of the sky like that. But it happened to me. I met you. I met you that day."

"Yeah, it wouldn't be so bad," she said aloud, "if he were strong, and courageous, if he were skilled and honourable, if he never laughs at my dreams. If he holds on to promises like they were his life. Someone who challenges me, everyday, to become stronger. If I had to marry anyone, he would have to be all those things."

Everything stood still. Even the dust motes in the air seemed to have stopped moving.

"If…if I had to choose anyone to marry, anyone at all, right now, it would be you, Zoro."

She looked at him right then, her eyes shining, beautiful in the lamp-light. Eyes he had come to love, eyes honest and true. "I would choose you."

All the anger, and the hurt, collapsed around him. Somewhere inside, there was that realization of something broken, shattered, the pieces swirling aimlessly within him. Somewhere along the way, his spirit, his own heart had broken, and he was struggling to fill the void. Meeting Luffy, then his nakama, had certainly filled some of it. They filled in the cracks somewhat, begun his healing.

But here she was. This woman, this infuriating, exasperating person that made him want to hide and run and stand his ground all at the same time...this one person that made him question his beliefs then hold true to them the next moment...this beacon of power and wealth, and yet wrapped up in a most unassuming and humble package of a marine, eschewing vanities she was entitled to...and at the same time being incredibly beautiful, both inside and out, true kindness of heart and nobility pouring out of her every action and thought...

She wasn't the only one lucky that day, at Logue town.

He had found her. The little pieces of his heart had bonded together, and he felt whole again.

She was his gold.

"I'm sorry, Zoro, " she stammers, suddenly self-conscious. "I have no right to tell you this."

He shakes his head, looks at her with eyes filled with incredulousness, and says to her: "You have every right to." And he means every word.

A tiny smile comes to her lips. She too, has had an incredible weight lifted off her. "Good, then I will say one more thing..."

"Go kick his ass for me."

They both burst out laughing at that moment. "You bet," he says through the laughter.

And it is a touching scene between the two that unfolds. He pulls her in, trying to bring her as close as possible, clutching impossibly through all the layers of her robes. He brings his face next hers, and she laughs, with the top of his head almost knocking off that elaborate headdress. She steadies it with one hand, the other one finds its way towards his strong neck as he picks her off her feet, and she is swept away, all head and heart of hers, all the ache and pain and weariness of the years erased in that moment that their lips meet...

In all his life, Zoro believes, he has never known a joy like this. The great, big, sudden rush of it all. Feeling so alive.

So this is what it feels like, he thinks, as she smiles through their kiss, and he grins as well, as she looks up at him.

The best feeling in the world. Better than winning battles, better than finding enormous treasure and endless riches.

To have someone.

-0-

I love you. You know that? My love will never leave you.

Two failed relationships later, and I am none the wiser.

Yet, I find my heart again, years later. I find you.

And it was worth all the waiting.

-0-

Culture Notes:

Momiji-gari/Kouyo - from the Japanese momiji, "red leaves" or "maple tree" and kari, "hunting", is the Japanese tradition of going to visit scenic areas where leaves have turned red in the autumn. It is also called kōyō. Kōyō is another pronunciation of the characters for "momiji" which means "fall colors" or "leaves changing colors".

Akikaze - "Autumn wind" was a Minekaze-class destroyer, built for the Imperial Japanese Navy immediately following the end of World War I. The Minekaze class of destroyers were considered advanced for their time; these ships served as first-line destroyers through the 1930s. The class was considered obsolete by the start of the Pacific War and served in a number of roles including minesweeper, aircraft rescue ships and Kaiten-carriers.

Shikom-izue - is a Japanese swordstick. It is most famous for its use by the fictional sword master Zatoichi. The name shikomi-zue is actually the name of a type of mounting; the sword blade was placed in a cane-like mounting (tsue) as concealment. These mountings are not to be confused with the Shirasaya ("white scabbard"), which were just plain wooden mountings with no decoration other than (sometimes) a short description of the contents. Some shikomi-zue also concealed metsubushi, chains, hooks, and many other things. Shikomi-zue could be carried in public without arousing suspicion, making them perfect tools for shinobi.

Ittoryu Iai: Shishi Sonson - One sword technique: "Lion's Song". This is an Ittoryu (one sword technique) Iai attack. Iaido is a very quick style of swordsmanship that consists of four parts: drawing the blade, killing the opponent, flicking the blood off the sword, and returning the sword to its scabbard. This technique is capable of cutting even steel. Used against Mr. 1 in Alabasta.

Kintsugi - is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum, a method similar to the maki-e (Japanese lacquer mixed with gold/silver) technique. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.

Juunihitoe - is an extremely elegant and highly complex kimono that was only worn by court-ladies in Japan. Literally translated, it means "twelve-layer robe". The older term, still used by scholars but not widely recognized in mainstream Japan, is Karaginu Mo. This is in reference to its Chinese coat (Karaginu) and apron-like train (Mo), the defining parts of the costume.

The jūnihitoe started to appear around the 10th century during the Heian Era. The various layers are silk garments. The innermost garment is made of white silk, followed by other layers which have various names, which are finally closed off by a final layer or coat. The total weight could add up to 20 kilograms. The colors and the arrangements of the layers are very important. The colors have poetic names, such as "crimson plum of the spring". The only place where the layers are discernible is around the sleeves and the neck. The arrangements of the layers and their colors were a good indication to any outsider what taste and what rank the lady had. Apart from their robes, Japanese court ladies also wore their hair very long, only cut at the sides of their faces in a layered fashion; the longer hair was sometimes worn tied back.

Samurai armor - As far back as the seventh century Japanese warriors wore a form of lamellar armor, this armor eventually evolved into the armor worn by the samurai. The first types of Japanese armors identified as samurai armor were known as yoroi. These early samurai armors were made from small individual scales known as kozane. The kozane were made from either iron or leather and were bound together into small strips, the strips were coated with lacquer to protect the kozane from water. A series of strips of kozane were then laced together with silk or leather lace and formed into a complete chest armor (dou or dō). A complete set of the yoroi weighed 66 lbs.