Guardian Devil

"Oogh," Zoro grunted, feeling the pain ratchet throughout his body in response to his attempt to incline himself but a few degrees. What felt the most strange was not the pain; he was accustomed to pain of great severity, but the weird feeling was the blood that caked his skin under the copious bandages. Stranger still was his new lack of depth perception, afforded by his now permanently-closed left eye. Zoro being, well, Zoro, he let none of this stop him from trying to raise himself to a sitting position again. Again he reached only a tiny incline before pain shot through him. "Akch!" he grunted anew, and again collapsed.

Then he received pain from another quarter, a dainty, girlish hand that still hurt like hell when its knuckles made contact with his forehead. "Ow!" he shouted more cleanly this time, "what the hell?"

"Idiot!" Perona said, then hit him again, a surprisingly hard tap for an elegant gothic Lolita who disdained physical labor of any sort. "Mihawk said three days before you should even try to move this time."

"I thought it had been three days…" Zoro said sullenly.

"It's been four hours," Perona replied.

Zoro cringed. "Then what the hell am I supposed to do for all this time? Stare at the ceiling?"

"Just, go to sleep or something," Perona said, trying hard to sound like she didn't care.

"But I'm not tired!" Zoro replied. Even he was surprised hearing himself say that. Naps were his ever-present timewaster next to physical training. He was just being petulant because of everything he had gone through recently, he knew, he was acting like a bratty child.

But if Zoro was playing the child role, Perona would not play the Mother. She would not soothe and coax him into doing what was best for him, rather she would use a more direct approach. "You go to sleep or…" she used her powers to create the giant-sized illusion of herself, which towered over the bedridden Zoro menacingly "you're really gonna get it!" she finished.

"Alright, alright!" Zoro conceded. "Wake me when it's time, though."

"Yeah, whatever," Perona scoffed, and then left the makeshift infirmary.

Zoro lay prone, ensconced in his bandages and waiting to drift off. He had been working so hard lately that he hadn't had any time to think, either viciously training or unconscious due to his training, he never had time to reflect on what it was all for; his nakama. Nominally, he didn't know if they were alive or dead. He knew Luffy had been alive at one point, back when he had appeared in that newspaper, but there was no guarantee that any of the others had even survived their encounter with Kuma. A few hints dropped by Mihawk indicated that Kuma was some sort of double-agent, though Zoro hadn't been too keen on paying attention to the details.

When he thought about it, it made a bit of sense. He had been sent to the best place in the world for him to be able to train and grow stronger, and Luffy had been sent somewhere to allow him to intervene in that Marineford War. If they hadn't been sent straight into a volcano or something (or into the sea in Chopper, Robin, or Brook's case), then likely they would survive. They had to. The alternative was unthinkable, and Zoro believed in his nakama. He wondered what they were up to. Some had probably been scared, like Chopper and Usopp, but those two were more resilient than people gave them credit for. Luffy was training, obviously, probably lying low somewhere relatively close to Sabaody Archipelago. Sanji was pining for Nami and Robin, and was hopefully separated from other women so he would take his training seriously. Franky and Brook were likely causing a stir wherever they were, and hopefully weren't drawing too much attention to themselves. Nami and Robin were likely the most safe. Stealthy, secretive manipulators, those two. Nami had played a dangerous double-game with Arlong for years, and Robin had been running around much longer than that. What had it been, 20 years or something on the run? Hell, two years would seem like a vacation to her.

His mind on his well-missed nakama, Zoro drifted off to sleep.

"Ride, ride! We have to return quickly!"

"The horses can't do this kind of speed forever, we have to slow down!"

"But a storm is coming! If we don't get back soon we won't be able to go back at all!"

Dust, grit, overwhelming heat, and a red sun that was steadily descending towards the western horizon, as well as the constant sound of thundering hooves were the only sensations Nico Robin could perceive. She rode in a small pack with some of the other Revolutionaries, four altogether including her. They had just struck at a military supply depot out in the midst of the desert, and were moving quickly from the desert heartland towards the shore, where a sleek little boat awaited to whisk them back to the shadows that the Revolutionaries called home.

They rode hard, driving their horses beyond any safe limits as they tore through the desert. A different desert than Alabasta, Robin had noted; more alive with peripheral plant life and less sandy, a hardpan desert with rocks and scrub and mesas instead of empty rolling sandy wastes. Wind was an equal threat here as in Alabasta, however, even if it was stirring up rusty-red dust instead of shifting gold sand. Riding at the rear of the pack, Robin was quite inconvenienced by the veritable hail of dust being kicked up by her fellows riding before her, coughing occasionally and trying to keep her eyes open as narrowly as possible.

Their second-worst fear was quickly realized (their worst fear being well-equipped Marines suddenly appearing in front of them) when a rust-red wall of dust sped towards them from out of the northeast.

"Dust-storm coming in!" the lead rider called.

"We can't stop! There's nowhere to take shelter and we have to get back!" the mission leader replied. "Press forward as best as you can!" Robin knew that was correct, that they were entirely out of options, but didn't like what inevitably came next.

The charge into the dust storm was all that Robin had feared and more. Visibility dropped to zero, and she felt constantly obligated to close her eyes, though she knew that was dangerous, there was really little point to her keeping her eyes open in the poor visibility. She could feel the dust and grit everywhere, even slipping inside the riding cloak she was wearing, getting under her clothes, all over her skin. It clung unpleasantly to her sweat-moistened skin, and aggravated her already-parched throat.

The persistent noise of thundering hooves was the only thing telling Robin that she was not completely lost, but then it happened. Her horse hit some sort of obstruction, just as blind as she was in the storm, and went sprawling to the ground. Fortunately Robin managed to extricate herself quickly, diving sideways, and good fortune was further with her in that she dived into a tough, brambly bush of some sort. It was a painful fall, scraping at even her tough riding cloak and putting a shallow scratch into her cheek. It hurt, but she didn't twist or break anything as she might have otherwise.

It took a few seconds for Robin to get her bearings, such as she could. The storm was still in full-swing, and visibility was near zero. "Are you there?" she shouted into the void. "Anyone?"

She couldn't hear anything, neither sound of hooves or other people responding. She had expected as much, as the Revolutionaries were very mission focused, and wouldn't waste time looking for a lost comrade in the storm like this. Very different from her nakama, but then again this whole thing would have played out differently if she were doing this with the Straw Hats. Likely they wouldn't have been using horses, but some sort of self-propelled motor vehicle devised by Franky and/or Usopp. She slid out of her nostalgia and crawled forward, hoping to find her horse. As she crawled, she pieced together what had happened. The horse's leg had gotten caught in a small hole in the ground, then it tumbled forward and… yes, she found it, it was dead, having fallen forward straight into a large boulder and bashing its skull against it.

She had no time to mourn the horse, knowing that she was in significant trouble as it was. Incredibly dehydrated, sweaty, exhausted, and hopelessly lost. From the general direction the dead horse seemed to have fallen in, she guessed at which way they had all been riding, and shambled off. She had to proceed, she would die of dehydration or exposure at some point, given how long storms like these were supposed to last. She knew she was dead, barring some sort of miracle, but she had to try; laying down to die was not in her nature any longer.

Robin had no idea where she was going as she plodded aimlessly through the storm. She felt the fatigue overwhelming her, her whole body feeling as if it were cast from lead. Her eyes were only barely open to try to divert the endless streams of dust and grit, but open in an attempt to guarantee that she did not end up like the horse, crashing into a rock.

She fell to the ground, her exhausted body giving out beneath her as she collapsed into the ground. She couldn't give up, she couldn't surrender, but there were no options left to her at this point; her body would go no further. She lay on the ground, waiting for what would inevitably come next, that long, eternal sleep that would remove her from this hellish waste. On a whim, she rolled onto her side, about as much motion as her enfeebled body could muster.

As she stared off into the dust-ridden haze, she saw it; a shadowy figure, vaguely familiar to her, a ringing of déjà-vu. The figure approached her from out of the haze, then stopped, remaining only distant enough that it would still be indistinguishable in the dust. Her brain, in that twilight-state of near-shutdown, took a while to process why the figure seemed so familiar. With a sudden burst of clarity, she remembered. This was the figure that had haunted her dreams every so often since Enies Lobby. It was always too vague to see properly, with the only distinguishing feature it had being its six arms rather than the normal two. She had spent many dream-hours running from this thing, trying to strangle it, or merely staring it down in a contest of wills.

Robin was no interpreter of dreams, but from what she had gathered, this multi-armed, persistent, shadowy, demonic apparition was a manifestation of her old self. The dark creature with the multi-armed power who had lived her life in the shadows, relentlessly pursuing all she desired. She imagined that the current happiness she possessed was coveted by that her, the old her, which then haunted her dreams occasionally, lusting after it.

That the phantom was here, now, meant that she was passing from waking into some sort of dreamlike state, that her grip on reality was softening, and that death was very near.

"You can't haunt me anymore," she said, or tried to say. Her parched throat only let out a vague groaning sound rather than the intended words. The phantom responded in a way that it never had before; it motioned towards her with one of its many hands, beckoning her to come closer.

"I can't," she mouthed silently. "I can't move."

The phantom cocked its head to the side, as if puzzled, then proceeded to step around to her other side where she could not see it. She could not hear the tread of any sort of feet, but chalked it up to her pre-death delirium. Suddenly she felt a strong, powerful grip on her shoulders. The phantom was bound to kill her, but she didn't mind. She was knocking on death's door, and the outcome was inevitable. But she found the phantom's grip strange, it was stern, powerful, but in its firmness it was almost reassuring. In its grip, the phantom eased her up from her prone position onto her knees, then adjusted its grip to put her back on her feet.

"Why?" she asked. Perhaps the phantom wanted to torture her in her fatigued state, though none of this was real, so she shouldn't feel too tired to stand. She was correct, and she felt light on her feet once she was up.

The phantom reappeared before her, this time further away, and again motioned towards her, indicating that she should follow. Robin couldn't think of a good reason to resist the phantom's urgings, and so she followed. She felt incredibly light on her feet, fitting for a hallucination like this, and thus it was easy for her to try to follow the phantom, though it didn't make it easy for her. As hallucinatory phantoms were wont to be, this one was wayward, first appearing in one direction, then in another, always just out of reach. It seemed to be leading her nowhere in particular, just further and further away from her old life, and onward into the blissful void.

Once in that strange trek, her tread suddenly grew heavy again, and she collapsed to the ground before she knew it, or at least she almost did. On her way down, the phantom caught her, those strangely powerful arms again protecting her from harm and setting her back on her path, only to get her completely lost in the desert again.

She could not place what exactly about this phantasm was so familiar, but it was not a representation of her dark side. Her dark side was smarter than this, and more cruel. This being was more dim but courteous, though also with its own darkness about it. It was like a guardian angel, but demonic. If it was not her, however, how did that explain the multiple arms? Who or what did it represent?

Robin realized that because she was able to really comprehend what was going on meant that her brain was very much alive and active, and not about to slide into death. It was when she made that realization that the rest of the pieces fell into place. "Aha! I know you!" she said, and was amazed that her near-fatally-dehydrated throat could utter the word aloud in a clear voice, in a tone of joy and understanding that was normally entirely uncharacteristic of her.

"Robin? Nico Robin, is that you?" came a voice that she recognized as one of the Revolutionaries, stepping in out of the haze.

Robin's strength suddenly gave out again and she began to collapse. She observed two things as she fell this time, the startled form of the Revolutionary rushing to catch her, and the phantom still in the background, though something about its visage changed. A point of light appeared in its face, right around where the mouth should be, a point that set into a slight but warming smile.

"Thank… you…" she said, then finally passed out.

Perona checked up on Zoro a few hours later. She moved in closer, carefully making sure that he was sleeping and just not fake-sleeping while he attempted to sneak more exercise in.

"Tch," she heard Zoro grunt suddenly, causing Perona to jump suddenly. "Damn woman, why do you keep following me?"

"Ahh, Zoro," Perona suddenly tried to apologize. "I was just…"

"There's lots of desert for both of us, so why chase me?"

He's just dreaming, Perona sighed, then left.

Author's note: a nice ZoRo one-shot to prove that yes, I'm still alive. Alive, and in SUMMER SCHOOL! Terrible events conspired to bring me to this fate (and no, it's not about bad grades, it's about having to skip the last semester altogether due to huge forces beyond my control). Summer school will drain me a while, I've had requests stacking up on my DeviantArt account, and I have an idea for a rather involved Metroid fic. So I wanted to pitch something over here. Not that it's entirely needed. Good ZoRo stories seem to be in a revival, and life is sweet.