Though A Bird Can't Fly, That Doesn't Mean It Never Will
Foreword: When I first started this fic, I'd only meant to write a series of shorts where the first line would always echo the last, to practice my somewhat rusty writing skills. But somewhere along the way, I ended up with a full-blown story on my hands, and of course I had to do the right thing and see it through to the end ;)
This fic supposedly really starts coming into its own on the third chapter (I call it the part where the rust came off), so I do hope you'll keep reading until at least that far! Either way, thanks for looking!
Chapter 1: Burning
Out in the execution ground, the sun shone down scorchingly.
It was that time of the day when right after the midday meal, citizens of Shelltown would push aside their emptied plates and retire for a hour's repose to escape from the heat.
But out in the execution ground of the marine base, such creature comforts were but a dream to a miserable figure currently tied at the stake.
It had been seven days since the incident at the inn where the so-called Pirate Hunter, Roronoa Zoro had tangled with authority for the sake of a little girl named Rika. As his (bad) luck would have it, authority came in the form of Helmeppo, the snotty, spoiled son of Captain Morgan who even more unfortunately, had the town in a grip of iron. In the end, he had been coerced into making a pact with Helmeppo: If he survived for the month at stake, he'd get off scot-free, along with Rika and her family.
Helmeppo probably didn't believe he would make it, else he wouldn't have taken up the offer. But survive he would. He would show them all.
At the present moment though, he was wasn't surviving too well. Oh, he was surviving and even the hunger and thirst was nothing... but the heat was another matter. Stoic as he was, even he was wilting in the unforgiving sun.
Mind over matter. The easiest way to endure the torture of the elements was to sleep. Zoro had always been able to sleep almost anywhere and anytime, and it was a skill that served him well now.
As he tried to nap, the unbidden image of a girl flashed before him.
He dreamt of his childhood. Of always trying and never beating his childhood rival. The grueling race to catch up to her skill even as she raced ahead of the adults in the sheltered world of the dojo.
Their 2001st duel out in the moonlight. Kuina's despair at her handicap of being a female swordsman. His own disdain at her attitude and the Promise.
"Promise! That one day one of us will be the greatest swordsman in the world!"
He awoke from his brief slumber to the scorching sun once more. This time, he fancied it was a bit lower in the sky than it had been.
The execution ground was still empty. After the first few days even the curious onlookers had deigned him an uninteresting object and left him alone.
The burning sensation of the sun against skin caused his brow to furrow. It reminded him too much of what had happened to Kuina after that night.
"Zoro! Something's happened to Kuina!"
She had gone to the storeroom to get her whetstone.
Indirectly he felt responsible for what had happened. The duel had been his idea. If he hadn't had insisted on real katana, Kuina would never have had to use hers. It wouldn't have been dulled in the fight and she wouldn't have felt compelled to sharpen it afterwards.
And consequently she would never have had missed her footing on the stairs while carrying a katana in one hand and the lighted oil lamp in the other.
Luckily, she had fallen "right" and avoided a broken neck.
Unluckily, the dropped oil lamp had shattered and splashed burning oil all over her face. They'd awoken to the sound of her screams in the night.
To her credit, she had had the presence of mind not to panic, and even managed to extinguish the flames herself before succumbing to the pain. What she hadn't known then was that the horrifying vision of her immolated visage would be the last thing she would ever see.
"E-excuse me, are you sleeping?"
Zoro was awakened from his fitful sleep by the timid voice of a little girl. Please don't tell me she snuck back here again...
"Rika! What are you doing back here?"
"I brought you some rice-water."
"Didn't I tell you to stay away?"
"Stupid brat! Get lost!" He was harsh this time, knowing that if she were caught the consequences would be dire.
Predictably, her eyes welled up with tears and she hared off without another word.
"Sorry, but it's for the best, kid." he muttered to himself as the forlorn little girl disappeared into the maze of roads.
Dust swirled in the light breeze and mixed with his sweat, offering some slight relief. The sun, relentlessly cruel, continued shining overhead as the seconds ticked by, agonizingly slow.
Seven days... only twenty more days to go.
What would she have thought of him if she had known he had put himself into this predicament?
"Zoro, you idiot! How could you be so careless with your life when we both have a dream to fulfill?"
Yes. That would probably be the most likely response. Hadn't he said the same thing to her after her accident? (And he'd gotten a sharp whack from his master Koshiro for it too. Even years later he could still feel the bruise from the back of the sword.)
But I will not die here. I made a promise.
No, the even the flames couldn't break this promise. And neither would the whims and fancies of injustice.
The wind blew.
And there, on the execution ground, the sun still shone down scorchingly.
To Be Continued...