Zoro ran through the dense, dark forest of Kuraigana, lost. Following him, Perona's Hollows hid behind rocks and trees when there was a chance Zoro might see them. They covered their mouths, looking on worriedly at the disoriented swordsman. They mirrored the way their creator felt, as she herself wandered another part of the forest. Except that, outwardly, she was glowering.
He was going to get lost and end up on the moon. He was going to destroy his bandages and his wounds would reopen, she thought as she gritted her teeth. He was going to find out she had no idea where his swords were. And then what?
It was a thought she didn't want to finish. She bit her pinky nail, frowning even deeper as she reassured herself that the swords disappearing was in no way her fault. She'd taken perfectly good care of them! She even understood what they meant to him! (at least she thought she did).
But her pride wouldn't let her confess these things, even as an apology—which wasn't warranted, so it was not going to happen. Her plan was to get the swords back by herself, so she wouldn't have to explain anything, just present him with the blades and go, Here! I got them back for you, so not a word!
It was better than having to find out what he'd do if she couldn't fix this.
Perona stopped, resting her hand on a tree and gripping the handle of her umbrella. To think she would come to care about something like that. To think (but she didn't like to) that she feared more than his anger, because she knew she couldn't fight back against his disappointment. If he thought she didn't care for his ambition, would he assume she'd rather go back to being enemies?
Sometimes it seemed like that would be easier.
Somewhere else in the forest Zoro nearly fell into a hidden hole on the ground. Her Hollows saw it as if she was right beside him, and she bit her tongue to stop herself from telling him to look where he was going. Sighing and looking up to the darkening sky, she reassumed her search.
The only good thing about that day was that night was taking over, and at night she came alive. Just as she had when the clock at Thriller Bark rang midnight in and she rose from her comfort to take care of their ship. That seemed so long ago, so far away, but the full moon shining on the twisted mountains and the sounds of the old forest made her feel in her element, and when she found whatever had taken the swords –because they had been stolen– it would regret ever crossing her.
There was no more going back to the castle for the night, so Zoro made a campfire. The sole source of warmth, he sat before it and couldn't do much more than watch the flames dance. Mihawk's blows, even when mimicked by the humandrills, were nothing to laugh at. They hurt badly even now, and he hated to admit that his wounds had been winding him down ever since he stepped out of the castle. Putting his hand on the bandages on his flank he felt them damp with fresh blood.
She was going to have his head for that. Or at least his ear.
But he wouldn't be in this situation if it wasn't for her. She disappeared without a word, right after she told him she'd give him his swords back. He had caught a glimpse on one of her Hollows hovering over the forest hours later, and that was when he realized she had left the castle.
What the hell was she doing? Zoro sighed deeply, pinching the bridge of his nose. He had suspicions, none appealing— or coherent. If she'd messed up with his swords somehow he'd—he'd…. He didn't know what he'd do. She would have to tell him what was going on and then he'd figure something out.
Resting his back against a tree, he looked up at the dark sky that peeked from between the leafs. Trusting someone that way… was hard.
This was not—it was not like other times. They may have been enemies once, but there was a debt, a gratefulness he couldn't ignore. And yet his instincts kept making him envision sour scenarios that he wasn't sure how to end.
The forest, for its part, was quiet. There was the occasional hoot of an owl, but he had not come across a Humandrill in all this time. Not that he was complaining, but it was odd. He still had Mihawk's stupid dagger, and for now that would suffice if trouble arose.
He slept for some time without meaning to, soothed by the breeze among the branches.
A shiver ran down his spine. Recognizing it as his still-developing Haki sense, he snapped awake, expecting something to be lurking in the shadows. What he wasn't expecting was a Hollow floating right beside his face.
"Gah!" He punched at it, his fist going through. As he sprung to his feet, he came face to face with it. On the other side of the forest, Perona froze.
"What are you doing?" He yelled, squaring off.
"I…" the Hollow began. "Uh,"
"Why are you running around the forest when you said you'd get my swords back to me?"
Far away, Perona retailaited, her voice coming through the Hollow, "What is it with you! You should be resting! Look at you, your wounds are reopening, after I took such care of them!"
She had been trying to take a look at his bandages while he slept, and had found them in the condition she had feared. Zoro's narrowed eyes stopped her from saying anything else.
"Where are my swords?" Zoro asked, each word its own statement. He took a step forward; the Hollow floated back. That small gesture made Zoro stop. He exhaled, and looked the ghost straight in the eye. Still, his voice was harsh as he said, "This isn't a game. Those things are as important to me as my life!"
The Hollow's answer—and by consequence Perona's, though he could only imagine her face—was to twist its lips in a deep pout. And after a beat, it bolted—up and above, and though Zoro tried to catch it, it slipped away into the night.
"Stupid! Stupid idiot!" Perona cursed as she stalked through the forest without paying attention to where she was going anymore. Her cheeks were flushed, her frown deep and her fists clenched tight. She kicked a stone in her path, sending it far. What she really wanted to do was plop down and throw a tantrum.
"What an idiot! Why can't he just let me fix this? After all I've done for him—he'd be dead, dead if it wasn't for me!" And she didn't even ask for much in return.
Finally she let herself kneel down, grabbing the flaps of her hat and pulling them down over her face, her lips twisting into a deep pout.
"Dammit," She muttered. She really could lose it— lose his trust. Worse of all, she still didn't understand why the idea made her heart sink, heavy as lead. It was something she had never had to do before: fish her heart out of the depths of her chest because of someone else.
She frowned then, trying to make herself believe it was because her pride was on the line, but it was too obvious that wasn't the truth.
On rainy days, when the sky was so dark that it looked like dusk and there was nothing to be done, she went to him. Usually at his own room, or Mihawk's gym, both of which had large windows that let the sound of the raindrops echo through the thick stone walls. She would flop down on any comfortable surface to watch him train, and, inevitably, start talking about whatever was on her mind. Talking, even to him (especially to him) was better than the silence.
As a little girl, she became used to Moriah telling her to leave him alone even if she wanted company— couldn't she see he was taking a nap? It hadn't bothered her, not really; she learned to be persistent to get what she wanted, but it didn't change the fact that her boss remained only her boss. Her other two crewmates were a doctor obsessed with a dead woman and a pervert who only ever gave her grief.
Zoro was not like any of them.
On occasion she would catch glimpses of him sitting quietly in a garden ruin, or at the terrace, and she knew then to leave him alone, because his mind was both in the past and set on the future. But on other occasions? He listened to her—even if it didn't seem like it, he would acknowledge her presence, follow her conversation, respond with his own. Laugh with her. Their snarky come backs became less and less genuine until they were left only as playful banter, once their need to be defensive lessened.
Zoro was used to living with giant pants-less men, positively negative boys, and a skinny young man with bright eyes and monstrous determination. Those were the kind of people he listened to, bickered and laughed with. He would fight for them, because he had deemed their dreams as worthy as his own. And in his pride, in his heart, they were intrinsically, irrevocably connected in a way that was foreign to Perona.
At least until she had met him. The thought that they may have forged something similar between them was making a smile try to fight its way to her lips.
So lost was she in her thoughts she almost didn't hear the rustle in the leafs on a bush nearby. Unsticking her cheeks from her hands, she turned to peer into the darkness. For all that she loved the forest and that the moon was full, this part was particularly dark, and she could not see well.
But she caught the glint of red eyes and the sound of steel being drawn, and she knew, knew at last, where to go.
Closing her umbrella and gripping Bearsy tightly, she assumed a fighting stance as the ape beast emerged from the shadows.
Zoro heard it— or felt it? It was hard to know for sure, but his instincts were driving him towards the center of the forest, where the ruins with the giant cross were. Even though it was the deepest part of the forest, the trees were growing scarce, and soon he was running over old cobblestones and overturned pillars, trying to find the source of the fighting noises. The giant cross finally came into view, and he leapt over a low stone wall to land at the edge of the clearing. He skidded to a halt.
Perona stood some meters away from him, surrounded by wounded or fainted humandrills. Scorched stone surfaces and small craters in the ground were evidence of the noises Zoro had heard.
"Perona!" Zoro yelled as she used Bearsy to hit away one of the last humandrill's standing. The sound the doll made against the ape was too heavy to be normal.
She turned around, patting dirt off her dress. "Oh, you finally came."
"What are you doing?"
"Getting your swords back, so not a word." She leaned down, picking up something from besides her feet. When she straightened up, she was holding Sandai Kitetsu. She extended her hand to him; Hollows sprung from it, taking the sword from her and carrying it over to Zoro.
He sprinted to it, snatching it out of the ghost's hands. "What's going on?"
"It's you who they want. I managed to snatch that one, but the humandrill who has your other swords is still waiting for you. He retreated."
Zoro grunted, stomping towards her. "What is going on, Perona?"
"How am I supposed to know? I took good care of your swords, ok? These brutes must have seen them from the window and climbed up to get them."
As she spoke, she looked on to the shadows beyond the wooden cross, from where a lumbering shape was emerging. The humandrill was not as big as their best warrior, but it was strong; it bore Wado Ichimonji and Shuusui in each hand, their scabbards tied to its waist.
"They thought this rabble could beat me," she said, and Zoro glanced at the bloodied humandrills still unconscious around her. "But you got here just in time! Now that you are here, he's going to challenge you."
Zoro stepped forward, unsheathing his katana. "Then I'll—"
"No." Perona held up a hand, stopping him. "Not only did they steal your swords, they're underestimating me."
Zoro's hand slowly lowered. He watched. The humandrill warrior had noticed the obstacle between itself and the swordsman. Baring its fangs, it crossed the two remaining swords in front of itself and charged.
Perona's shoulders slumped; she lifted her arms before her, like a ghoul come to haunt the night, and she traced arcs in the air from whence long Hollows sprung. She flung her arms forward, and the Hollows flew to meet the beast.
They collided with force, the Hollows exploding on contact. The humandrill quickly dodged, and the fight started.
Zoro's grip tightened on Sandai each time an attack from the ape should have hurt Perona but instead went through her spectral form. The beast had learned well. Its speed and strength were almost— almost as good as Zoro's. It mimicked his attacks to the letter, even the newest ones.
But Perona was better.
With a snap of her fingers she would send an army of miniature Hollows at the humandrill; it avoided some, some others exploded on him. When it got too close long Hollows would lift it up and, when Perona swung her arm down, slam it into the ground.
Zoro paced around the ruins-turned-arena, watching, a little bit in worry, a little bit in awe. The true danger was in the humandrill getting close enough to catch her off-guard and hurt her, and she couldn't use the negative Hollows because her enemy was only a beast, but Perona was quick, and commanded the Hollows to not only shield her but —Zoro suspected with caught breath and a grin— also see different angles of the battlefield through them. The movements of her whole body were so like and unlike her at the same time. She wanted to be elegant, cute; but her true strength was in those forceful, unexpected moves that showed her determination to stay in control.
Finally the humandrill started staggering, driven into a corner.
"If you think you can run away, you're wrong!" Perona yelled.
The humandrill bared its fangs, never having intended to give up the fight.
Zoro's heart sunk as Perona seemed to swoon on the spot, her body falling on her knees and haphazardly staying in a sitting position. Seizing the chance, the humandrill leapt at her.
In a flash Zoro unsheathed his sword and ran for it, but both of them stopped when a thundering voice called from behind the humandrill, "Hey, ugly!"
Perona's giant form was glaring down at the ape, angry yet leaning on the ground with her cheek on her palm as if she couldn't be bothered with this anymore. The humandrill was frozen in fright, and it made her smile. She lifted her free hand, ready to snap her fingers as a giant Hollow appeared besides her.
"Astral—" her voice boomed. Instinctively, Zoro ran for cover.
"EXPLOSION!" was all he heard before a blinding flash came from behind the chunk of wall that was his shelter. The shockwave sent dust and stone flying all around him.
Everything went quiet, except for the slight ringing in his left ear. Charred pebbles crunched beneath his boots as he came out of hiding.
Perona stood at the center of the burned land. The humandrill was nowhere to be seen, probably blown away, but she held the two remaining swords in her arms. For a few moments, neither said anything. Zoro's sight caught her own, and at last a smile broke on his lips.
"That was great." He said.
"I know." She answered. She rearranged the swords in her arms, and then seemed to remember they were not hers, so she went towards Zoro.
"I didn't think they'd end up trying to mimic me," Zoro scratched the back of his neck, only mildly interested on the issue. It was of no concern of his, what the humandrills ended up doing, though it raised the vague question of how the other humandrill had gotten a sword so similar to Mihawk's. "The fuckers learn easily… and well."
"No, they don't. That one could mimic your moves, but it's nowhere near the same. They don't have the mind for it, they don't get why they move the way they do, or where the technique comes from," she said in exasperation, as if she was talking about an annoying child instead of martial philosophy, making her shove Shuusui into Zoro's chest.
Zoro breathed out heavily, but before he could say anything, Perona continued.
"It's all brute strength," she said as Zoro reached for Wado Ichimonji. "And I don't believe in brute strength." She pulled the sword away from his reach.
"Fighting them, I realized that, even if you could beat their best warrior a dozen times over, it would never be the same as fighting Mihawk. Yet you hurt yourself training over and over to achieve only a fraction of what he can do. So tell me one thing—" As she spoke she rose from the ground, lifting Wado Ichimonji above her head so he wouldn't reach it. Zoro was too befuddled to do anything. "Why are you doing all this? Why did you first set out to become the greatest swordsman?"
Now Zoro reacted, instinctively grabbing the hem of her dress to stop her. It took only one more second of him looking into her eyes to realize the crux of the situation: she did not plan on giving him the sword back unless he answered.
And thus, he found himself speechless. His mouth opened and closed as he stared, but at least his grip on her dress strengthened. He couldn't explain why he didn't just tell her or pull her back down. She had accurately guessed that she'd have to wrestle an answer out of him.
Maybe it was because almost no one had ever asked. The few people who knew about Kuina, he had told them because he felt he owed it to them. Luffy knew, and so did Usopp, if only because he had been on that small boat near the Baratie after Mihawk defeated Zoro, and in his infinite curiosity, had asked, "Who is there in heaven that has to hear your name?"
But the rest only had an inkling of who Kuina had been, or what had happened to her. They had figured Zoro for a man who preferred not to talk about it.
Maybe they had been right. He thought that it was because what had happened was something between Kuina and himself. No one else.
The daily challenges, the easy conversations afterwards, and the occasional children's games despite it all. The feeling of shame and awkward indignation at a world that would make the strongest person Zoro knew cry about what she had been born as.
The deep, cutting pain of a promise unfulfilled that Kuina had left Zoro all alone with, and the sudden, clear realization that if fate willed it, there was nothing you could do to oppose it.
That pain remained as a dull ache somewhere in his chest, not the ragged scream of anger it had once been, and it only acted up in certain circumstances—looking at the face of a woman who should have had another name, a different strength… or when someone knew him so well as to guess that Wado Ichimonji was his most treasured possession, and that she had to demand answers.
And even though it was a demand, he found he didn't mind. There were scars on him that would be open wounds or part of a corpse if it weren't for her. She was now another person whom he owed it to.
"It belonged to my friend." He spat out, looking Perona in the eye. "She and I were going to compete for the title of world's strongest swordsman. She had a strength I'd never seen, but people didn't realize that; they told her she was weak, and hopeless, and that she couldn't challenge the world. That's bullshit!
"…But she died. So now I carry her sword to fulfill that promise. And when I defeat Mihawk, my name will be known even in heaven, and she'll know that my victory is her victory!"
He would remember Perona's eyes at that moment for years to come. For a minimal second they were soft, almost sad, before being filled with surprise. "You are carrying the will… of a woman?"
"That never mattered! She was the strongest person I ever knew, and if she had had the chance, she'd still be, over everyone else, no matter what they said!"
Slowly, Perona lowered herself. Her arms were still above her head, but when her feet touched the ground, she had to look up at Zoro's face. As she lowered the sword at last, presenting it to him, he grabbed it right besides where her hands were, and holding it together it came to be between them.
At last she let go, and took a step back.
Zoro felt exhausted, as if it had been him the one who had fought off all those humandrills. His chest rose up and down as his breathing normalized, and he kept his sight down as the dull anger subsided in his chest. And then the roaring monster became asleep again. He closed his eyes, breathed out heavily, and let it rest.
"You know what?" Perona said, making him snap back to reality. She was smiling softly, looking him in the eye. "I hope you succeed."
He nodded and was surprised to find a smile had formed on his lips. His eyes rested on her, forming her image from half-seeing, half-remembering her. Her face, her hair, her slender shoulders had become such a constant in his life, they were memorized. And still he couldn't believe the time they'd spent together was already longer than the one he had spent with his crew. He still wondered what twist of fate had caused that.
Impulsively, he brushed his fingers against her cheek. When she looked at him quizzically, he stammered, "I, uh, just wanted to make sure you weren't a projection."
For a moment it seemed like she would protest, but her expression softened. She leaned into the touch, and in an impulse of her own dived for him, wrapping her arms around his waist. Her face buried in his chest, she smelled sweat and dirt and the forest, and didn't mind. His heart beat as fast as hers.
And when he wrapped his arms around her, something changed.
Neither of them could tell what it was, but after every word exchanged and every one bottled up, this all seemed like the natural conclusion of that one and a half year they'd spent together.
So many things were different for them both, she thought. Perona felt unrooted, unsure of where to go from here. That ambition; she really was jealous of such purpose, such… loyalty. She didn't have that. But she was not angry or scared, and when he squeezed her just a little tighter, it only reassured her: she was happy.
When she looked up, he was already watching her and the satisfied smile she was sporting.
But the shift came heavier than either of them expected, making them tumble over an edge neither had noticed.
An instant of silence passed between them before Zoro leaned his head slightly, and she stood on tiptoe to reach him.
They closed their eyes; the loss of that sense intensified the feeling of the kiss tenfold. Their forceful wills made them hold onto each other, neither of them daring to breathe. Still, it only lasted a few seconds.
They split, stepping back from one another as if in a standoff. Perona stared, eyes wide, trying to fight a strange smile. Zoro had a look of surprise—pleased surprise, which he didn't try to hide.
For a moment they said nothing.
"K— should go…"
"Back." Zoro finished, motioning with his shoulder in a random direction. The movement pained him, making him wince.
And it was easier to fall back into old habits than keep pilling happening upon happening upon happening on an already heavy night, so Perona recovered her composure and said, "Ugh, come. I have to redo all those bandages!" She grabbed him by his good arm to guide him.
The moon was long past its zenith, the forest quiet once again. They would not reach the castle before sunrise.
With nary another word exchanged, yet close to one another, they walked in silence into a new day.
am deeply sorry for the delay, so you get an extra-long chapter to make up for it. I honestly, honestly hope you guys enjoy this chapter; even though it was very difficult to write, I greatly enjoyed it. So, I leave how effective it actually was up to your judgement.
Also I'm glad I finally finished because now I don't have to write the word 'sword' so much.