A fanfiction by Velkyn Karma

Summary: Zoro smirks widely, and says with all the confidence and contentment in the world, "That kid...is the man that is going to kill me one day." Set post-series. One-shot, complete.

Note: Even more idle speculation, although this time along a less depressing route...I always wanted to explore the motives and drives of the Greatest Swordsman. :) Setting is post-series, years after everyone presumably achieves their goals.

Warnings: Rated K+ for a little blood...think that's it, though.

Disclaimer: I do not own, or pretend to own, One Piece or any of its subsequent characters, plots or other ideas. That right belongs solely to Eiichiro Oda. The only thing that belongs to me here is the concept for the story.

"To win, you have to fight to win. Yet, if the opponents are equal, then you must have something more than skill. Call it luck, or a gamble, but you must feel the flow of the match, and wait for the perfect moment to risk everything to win."

~Benitora, Samurai Deeper Kyo

Zoro is tired of all the challengers.

It's been years now since he's been the World's Greatest Swordsman officially. Years, too, since everyone else accomplished their goals and dreams. Years since he finally, finally, after so much blood, sweat and tears, managed to defeat Mihawk and claim that title.

Mihawk warned him, back then, when he relinquished that name. "There will be challengers," the former master had told him. "There will always be challengers. And almost all of them will be fools. But you must honor that challenge regardless."

Zoro accepted that responsibility with the title—it was a part of being the Greatest, he understood, that everyone else would try to take that mark of greatness from him. And for years he accepted every challenge, defended his hard-earned title vigorously without a trace of hesitation or restraint.

But years are wearing, and Zoro is beginning to get restless. Not once has he ever met a challenger of merit. Not once has he met a man (or woman; there are more and more female challengers of late, he thinks smugly) that he thinks really, genuinely deserves a chance at the title. A few are skilled in their own right, and provide challenges that, if not satisfying, at least keep him from getting bored. But most are, as Mihawk put it, fools. They blindly challenge him, not knowing they are a small breath of air in the face of a tempest, not even skilled enough to realize they are hopelessly outmatched.

Zoro rarely, if ever, shows those challengers mercy. To be the best means risking your existence at every moment, living life on the edge of the sword blade you wield. Those foolish enough to take the challenge without understanding the depths of it don't deserve the right to walk away cleanly. It's disrespectful of the title and the art of swordsmanship itself.

He still draws all three katana for the battles the Pirate King Luffy leads them into. He has not drawn all three blades during a sword master challenge in years. No one has ever been worthy enough to see them all.

So the years go by, and more and more challengers fall to his single sword, and Zoro begins to silently despair that there may not even be anyone left in the world who can challenge him, who deserves the title he now holds. He has long since earned the right to the Greatest Swordsman title, but he does not want to see it die with him, either, and he is sure Kuina would feel the same way.

Another challenge is issued bright and early as they dock at the small island of Sappheria to pick up supplies. Luffy has been mercilessly irritating due to the lack of meat for the past three days, and the love-cook is just about ready to commit murder for having to deal with it, so everyone on board is more than willing to make a quick stop and help load up the Thousand Sunny with their new goods before moving on. The island is miniscule. The people are in awe for witnessing the Pirate King and his ship and crew, and all but fall over themselves to sell their merchandise, what little they have, to their visitors.

They're about as small as a civilization can get on the Grand Line, and no one expects to see any trouble here, especially with the citizens vying for the right to help the Straw Hats. So the whole crew, even Zoro, is a little surprised to see three people come tearing through the crowd towards the dock and their ship, just as they begin pulling up the gangplank.

"Stop, please stop a moment, Mr. Pirate King!" comes a high-pitched, squealing voice, which Zoro immediately identifies with a wince as originating from the smallest of the three figures, a scrawny girl waving her arms frantically.

Luffy does so obligingly, with an enormous grin on his face (even so many years later, he's still enormously proud of his title), and leans on the railing with arms crossed. "Okay," he says. "Who're you?"

"I'm Amie," the girl offers brightly. "My brother—"

"I'm here to challenge him," the tallest of the three figures interrupts, and points straight at Zoro.

Zoro blinks, cocks his head, and regards the new speaker with measured boredom.

It's just a kid, probably around eighteen (well, he admits to himself, he looks young now, seeing as Zoro is well into his thirties, but when he looks back on it his first challenge against Mihawk was right around that age, too). He's dressed in simple village attire, nothing flashy like some of the so-called 'swashbucklers' that have challenged Zoro in the past (he scowls at the very thought of it). He looks skinny, with a thin build that resembles Sanji's more than his own.

There is an enormous broadsword strapped across his back.

Zoro wonders briefly if the kid even knows how to use it. Considering how thin his arms look, he seriously doubts it.

Luffy regards his first mate curiously, waits expectantly for the swordsman's response. By now, everybody on the Thousand Sunny knows the drill, but this is still one of the few incidents in which Luffy will ever defer judgement to one of the others, even when it affects something as critical as when the ship leaves or where it goes. He knows Zoro's dream better than anyone else but Zoro himself, after all, and he knows exactly what responsibilities come with that dream. So he waits for Zoro to make the call.

Zoro shrugs, looks the kid square in the eye, and says, "Fine then." And to Luffy, he adds, "Five minutes, Captain."

"Sure," Luffy says, cheerful as ever, but Zoro can detect (just like he always can) the solemnity in that acknowledgement all the same. Because Luffy also knows Zoro despairs over finding the right challenge, even if he has never once said so out loud, and he knows how frustrated Zoro gets when that five minute estimate turns out to be true.

Zoro starts down the gangplank now, in no particular hurry; even if he takes his sweet time, he knows he can finish the fight up before his allotted five minutes are up. The crowd gathered at the docks backs away quickly, almost frantically, faces still filled with awe. Most of it is for him, but a few of those looks, Zoro can tell, are for the boy facing him, as though the crowd is stunned he is even issuing a challenge. Many of those looks contain pity, as well. They don't seem to think the kid will fare well.

Zoro sighs. If not even his own village believes the kid can handle the challenge, then he imagines this fight won't be much fun, either.

He's close enough to overhear the group of three, now: the challenger, and what he presumes are his younger brother and sister, seeing as they look pretty similar. The younger brother regards the challenger anxiously—his timidity rival's Usopp's, Zoro notes, back when they first met him—and says fearfully, "Are you sure, Erec? You can't be serious—look at him, it's Pirate Hunter Zoro, you don't stand a chance—"

"He's the World's Greatest Swordsman," the challenger, Erec, responds simply. "He's the one I have to beat."

"You don't have to be the best, Erec," the younger brother says pleadingly, as Zoro paces ever closer. "You just have to be strong, that's all it'll take—"

"Don't be stupid," the kid answers grimly. "Aren't you tired of getting raided all the time? Pirates and bandits and even the bloody Marines treating us like we're worth less than the dirt they walk on? Sappheria doesn't deserve that. I'm sick of seeing my friends and family die. It doesn't matter how much you fight back or how strong you are alone. I have to be the best. They have to know I'm the best. I'm not backing down for anything." His tone is final, resolute, and the younger brother nervously snaps his jaw shut, regarding the World's Greatest Swordsman like a guppy might a tiger shark.

Zoro is intrigued despite himself.

"Back up," the kid orders his siblings, "I don't want you to get hurt by accident," and they obey. The little girl cheers her brother enthusiastically with orders to 'kick that guy's butt,' and even the timid sibling offers wishes of good luck.

And then it's just Zoro and the kid, the challenger, standing alone in the middle of a wide ring of almost silent village spectators. Zoro can feel the eyes of a few of his crewmates at his back, too; he is sure Luffy, at least, and maybe Chopper and Usopp, are perched on the railings to watch the fight in interest. Most of the others don't bother watching, anymore. They know the fights will be over too fast for it to really matter.

"You know what you're getting into, kid?" Zoro asks warningly. One hand rests casually on his three katana, comfortable as always, but he still makes no move to use any of them. "Once you draw that sword, this is real."

"I've never been more aware of anything in my life," the kid says grimly, eyes narrowed, tone determined, and he reaches over his shoulder to wrap his fingers around the hilt of the enormous broadsword and pull it free.

Zoro merely shrugs—he's heard all manner of tough talk, before, and nobody has yet been able to back up their claims. He reaches across to his hip and quietly draws a single katana, holds it in one hand by his side, not even raising it defensively.

The kid frowns at him. "Aren't you Santoryuu Zoro? You've only drawn one sword."

"I won't waste time using three swords on you," Zoro answers, flatly. "And I'm not disrespecting my katana by using them all against an unworthy opponent. Kitetsu is only sated in challenges anyway because opponents bleed for it."

Zoro notes a bead of sweat has formed on the kid's forehead, but the boy doesn't back down or try to flee in terror. He grips his sword hilt in two hands, and watches the World's Greatest Swordsman over the edge of the blade, as though trying to consider, to judge.

Then he makes his first move, darting forward and lashing out with that thick blade with a wordless roar. Zoro is pleasantly surprised to find that, despite the kid's ropy arms, he can not only lift the huge weapon but swing it with surprising speed as well.

Of course, that speed is relative to the kid's own skill level. To the Greatest Swordsman the boy crawls at a snail's pace, and he effortlessly lifts his single katana to bat the huge blade away. The kid reacts quickly again (for him, anyway) and leaps back a pace while bringing the sword up to block, and while Zoro can see half a dozen openings for a quick kill right away he lets the kid back off with only a warning tap on the blade that rings through the morning air.

He's not entirely sure why he does, other than he's curious. He decides to let it pass. He still has about four minutes before they need to leave, after all.

The kid frowns and lunges forward again, this time trying a different technique, attacking lower at the legs. Zoro deflects this easily as well, and again—despite the fact that he could easily end the boy's life there and then—allows him to dodge back with only a minor slash to his left shoulder.

Now the kid knows he's being toyed with, and his narrowed eyes meet Zoro's in confusion and—for the first time—a mark of real understanding. Zoro is actually a little surprised the revelation comes so early. When he plays with his challengers in the past, they seem to think they have the upper hand for a long time, up until the point when he actually grows bored and ends the fight. This kid here, though...only two strokes, and he already knows Zoro is on another plane entirely when it comes to mastery of the sword. That was natural talent, there.

"Why are you..." the kid begins, and then stops, shakes his head. "No," he cuts himself off, "It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. I can't hope to hold my aces now, not like this." He raises his head, and his eyes, when they meet Zoro's, burn with fierce determination.

Zoro can't help it, now; his curiosity is definitely piqued. This kid isn't stumbling into something he doesn't understand. He knows, at least on some level, just how far above him the World's Greatest Swordsman really is. And yet he's not running in fear, or cowering and begging like dozens of other would-be swordsmen Zoro has been challenged by in the past, when they finally make that realization. He is still determined to fight. He is afraid—Zoro can see that clearly in his eyes, as well—but he doesn't let that fear rule him, or override his desire to win.

For the first time in years, Zoro actually finds himself starting to enjoy a challenge for his title.

The kid shifts his stance now, breathing deeply, and then launches himself forward with a cry of "Wolf's Fang!" The wind howls furiously as the broadsword razors through it, so fast that to any but the best even that enormous weapon is a blur, and Zoro can hear very well where the move gets its name. It is a powerful strike, a technique that certainly has the potential to be deadly and magnificently efficient all in one, and it is aimed straight for Zoro's head.

The World's Greatest Swordsman grins, and in a blur of motion, draws his second katana.

Black and silver blades cross just above his head, and the broadsword stops bare inches from his skull, straining with a keen of metal on metal to reach it. The kid grunts in exertion and surprise, and kicks back quickly, recoiling and bringing his weapon into a guard stance before him. His eyes widen momentarily in shock, and he eyes the black blade of Shuusui in confusion.

"Two swords?" he asks, slowly. "I'm hardly worthy of one."

"I'm the one who decides that," Zoro says, with a smirk still on his face.

The kid still looks confused, and his eyes glitter with a little more fear than before. He knows he was screwed with even one katana in Zoro's hands, and now that there are two, he knows his chances of actually succeeding are even more miniscule than before.

But though Zoro has only known this kid for a few minutes now, he already knows the boy won't run, even if he can't say why he knows. And the kid doesn't; for all his knowledge that there's almost no way he can win, he still tightens his grip on his broadsword in determination and glares fiercely right back at the best, not backing down an inch.

"Okay," he says, and then louder, "Viper's Bite!" as he throws himself forward furiously again.

He tries again and again, hurling himself forward each and every time with a new powerful technique, a new approach, a new angle. The Dragon's Roar, Leopard's Furious Slash, Chimaera's Song, Crushing Jaw, one after another, and Zoro witnesses half a dozen powerful and deadly sword forms, masterfully designed and so close to completion it is chilling. He turns them all aside effortlessly, ignoring the screams and shouts of awe from the crowd, ignoring the calls behind him as somebody, maybe Usopp, shouts for the others to come watch. Nothing else is important. The challenge is all that matters.

At last, the boy falls back, gasping and panting so hard his shoulders heave and the broadsword trembles. He is beaten, and he knows it; Zoro can see that his forms have come to an end, and while the boy is exhausted the World's Greatest is barely breathing hard at all.

"You're so high above us all it will be a wonder if anyone can catch you," the kid says suddenly, still rasping. "I didn't realize this was what it meant to be the best."

Zoro smirks, because he recognizes that quite well from personal experience. He stood years ago where that kid stands now, in the shadow of the World's Greatest Swordsman, staring up and up and up and realizing suddenly just what it would take in order to ever reach that level of strength. Wondering, in that one fateful moment, if he would even have the chance to reach it, or if that shadow would swallow him up, if death would be the price for making such a bold challenge.

Only now he knows what it's like to look down, to see that tiny little figure buried in his own shadow, staring up and up and up at him. He wonders if this is how his predecessor felt, to stare at a soul that is afraid but wildly determined in spite of it all, that knows it is utterly outmatched but refuses even so to back down an inch.

"My last attack," the kid says suddenly, and levels his broadsword one final time. "If it does nothing...if it means nothing...well. We'll see." And lifting the sword, he lunges forward one last time and roars, "Judgement of Cerberus!"

There is a flurry of movement, and the furious chang of metal on metal rings over the whole island like a gong. When the blur of motion comes to a halt, it reveals the kid's broadsword, stock still, its motion ground to a halt against three katana blades.

Zoro smirks around the hilt of his final sword, Wadou, and the white wrapping seems to shine in the morning sunlight.

The crowd roars in surprise and awe and excitement. Over even that Zoro can hear the stunned gasps behind him—his entire crew is watching now, it sounds like—and Luffy is laughing loudly, but that doesn't matter anymore. Zoro is still focused on challenger, and the boy meets his gaze, staring wide-eyed. He says nothing.

"Was that your strongest attack?" Zoro asks, his voice cool and even, with not a hint of strain as he holds the massive broadsword at bay.

"Yes," the kid answers, quietly, and though he can clearly comprehend what that means, and the fear and disappointment in his eyes is obvious, he still doesn't once break eye contact or try to pull away.

"You're going to die, you know," the World's Greatest Swordsman says, so casually that several of the villagers screech in fear and back even further away than before.

"Yes. I know," the boy answers, still quiet, and still he doesn't try to run, or withdraw his sword.

"So then," Zoro says, and his gaze and his voice are intense now, "Do you give up? Accept that you'll never be the best?"

"No," the boy answers, and his voice is so furiously adamant that some of the villagers behind him actually jump. "I said I would be the greatest swordsman, or die trying. And I meant every word of it."

Zoro's grin around the hilt of his most valued sword is positively demonic, and his eyes seem suddenly wild, frenzied. The kid knows he's dead, but in his final moments, he refuses to tear his eyes from Zoro's, meets him glare for glare.

It's in that moment Zoro realizes, unexpectedly, just why he let the kid live this long. Why he toyed with him. Why he drew Shuusui and Wadou to face him in Santoryuu, to really accept a challenge, and not just go through the motions as his title required. The kid wasn't just a regular brat trained with some skill in the sword arts; he had the spirit for it, the guts it would take to keep pushing forward, to keep getting stronger, to keep reaching for his goal, to die for it if he had to. The kid was raw yet, but with time, and with the drive that he had, he could get there. He could, just maybe, be deserving of the title World's Greatest. And unknowing, he had acknowledged that for the kid, testing him, showing him the respect that potential deserved by facing him head-on as the World's Greatest.

It is at that moment, too, that he understands, really understands, his predecessor. Until now, Zoro has only ever experienced the challenging fight from his own perspective, as the one striving to become the best. Never before has he seen, really seen, what it means to be the best finding a worthy challenge, a worthwhile fight, an acceptable successor. Mihawk had acknowledged him, marked him, and waited for him to grow into what he could be, all for the knowledge of a worthwhile fight waiting in the future, for a worthy successor to such a powerful title. Maybe he, too, had been despairing of his station, restless with the thousands of opponents that couldn't even begin to compare. Maybe he, too, had wanted to see somebody who deserved it seize that dream and never let go.

And how Zoro has found someone with potential, someone worthy. And even though that someone will one day threaten to take away the very thing he struggled for for years, he somehow finds himself all the more enthusiastic.

His katana sing as he lashes out with them, all three, and the boy—no, Erec, they said his name was—screams as he falls backwards, and the broadsword finally clatters to the ground from his limp hands. Blood spurts, and cloth flutters, and as the swordsman crashes to the ground the vicious 'X' across his chest is visible even through the shredded, damp linen shirt.

Several of the villagers scream, but none of them dare to move close. None but his challenger's family; the girl runs forward, shrieking "Erec! Erec!" over and over as she crashes to her knees at his head, and the timid younger brother whimpers fearfully as he presses a torn cloth to the wound and gazes up at Zoro with round eyes.

"I didn't kill him," Zoro says, staring down at the younger brother as he calmly returns his katana to their sheathes. "It'd be a waste."

"But...you...he's..." the younger kid stutters, and looks back and forth frantically at his unconscious brother and the World's Greatest Swordsman.

Zoro smirks at him. "Take good care of him. Can you take a message? Tell him exactly what I say?" The wide-eyed boy nods hesitantly, and Zoro says, "Good. Tell him this: You're still untempered, but you got what it takes. If you're still serious...then get stronger. Whatever it takes. Do that," Zoro says, and his grin widens, and that wild look is back, "and I'll meet you at the top again."

The boy nods, and without a backward glance Zoro turns and heads back up the gangplank to the Thousand Sunny. Every one is there, every single crew member, watching him with stunned looks. They know as well as as anyone that he hasn't treated a challenge so seriously in years. Only Luffy doesn't look surprised; he's grinning from ear to ear, and appears positively thrilled.

Zoro can't help but grin back. Even as they leave, that smirk stays on his face, and it remains there for the rest of the day, a look of quiet contentment.

The challenge is the topic of the day, and Zoro offhandedly hears most of the crew chatting about it more than once. Even Robin abandons her knowing smile in favor of discussing the event with the others (mostly Nami), and Chopper and Usopp outright ask him why he used three katana against that kid, of all people. (Zoro just shrugs, and replies that 'he deserved it.')

That night Zoro is on first watch, a farce if there ever was one—nobody is foolish enough to try and attack the Pirate King anymore. He naps through most of it, with Luffy sitting companionably nearby, still grinning.

His watch ends when he receives a sharp kick to his side, Sanji's usual signal to switch, and wakes with a yawn and a stretch. Sanji sends another sharp kick slicing down at him absently, which is roughly the equivalent of Hey, how's it going, and Zoro deflects it with one sword sheath just as absently, as if to say, It's all right, I guess.

This is usually the end of the shift-switch greeting, but Sanji decides to extend it tonight by commenting, "That fight today was very...familiar."

Zoro raises an eyebrow and shrugs. "Oh? Why's that? You've seen me fight a thousand times by now."

Sanji sighs in exasperation, and says with annoyance, "Idiot marimo. Your first fight with Mihawk was at the Baratie, remember?"

Zoro does remember the fight—he will never forget that fight—although he had forgotten Sanji was even there to begin with. "Yeah. So?"

Sanji snorts. "I've never seen you that excited about a challenge since you got the damn title," he says. "And you've been like that all day. What the hell's going on? That kid wasn't any stronger than any of the hundreds of other idiots that have tried to kill you in the past."

On Zoro's other side, Luffy chuckles knowingly, and Zoro isn't surprised that he gets it even if the love-cook doesn't; Luffy always understands the things that really matter. Sanji seems irritated, and his foot twitches as though barely restrained, but he doesn't lash out for once.

"He wasn't," Zoro says truthfully. Erec was good for his level, but there had been others just as strong or stronger in terms of technical skill alone.

"So what the hell, marimo?" Sanji scowls. "There has to be a reason you practically re-enacted your first fight with Mihawk on the opposite side. What the hell does this kid mean to you?"

Luffy is still chuckling knowingly, and Zoro gives a small laugh as well at Sanji's irritated look. "Don't know yet," the World's Greatest Swordsman says. "We'll have to wait and see. I can tell you one thing though," he adds.

Luffy and Sanji lean closer to hear; they know something monumentally important has just happened today, after all. Zoro smirks widely, and says with all the confidence and contentment in the world, "That kid...is the man that is going to kill me one day."

Bonus points if you know where the challenger's name comes from.

I always wondered, based on Mihawk's actions back in the Baratie arc, if he really was just sick and tired of all his challengers. He seemed incredibly excited about Zoro even if Zoro barely compared to him, and even promised to wait for another challenge. A challenge that could mean giving up his title, or even worse, his life. Why do that? So I explored it a little, here. :D

As always, your feedback is appreciated, and I take constructive criticism pretty well, so don't be afraid to offer it. :)