Title: Six Pasts that Could Have Been: The Interlude
Spoilers: Fishman Island, Dragon, Ace, Dressrosa...
Timeline: AU, taking place after chapter 17 or 21, depending on the section (So I guess the chapter order for this AU is 32, 17, 21/33, 22)
The silence was incredibly awkward.
There was really no other way to put it. Kuzan and Robin had been traveling together for two days now, and besides their one, kind-of conversation in which Kuzan tried (and failed) to explain why he had saved a condemned criminal while Robin cried her eyes out, they hadn't really spoken to one another except when completely necessary.
And it was getting really, really awkward.
Kuzan didn't mind silence. Quiet time was nap time, and nap time was always a good thing in his book. But this…this wasn't natural. The girl just had her home blown to smithereens, along with all her friends and family. She was a wanted criminal. The rest of her life was ruined. But besides the aforementioned bawling-spell she didn't talk about it. She didn't cry, either, which was great because Kuzan didn't know if he could handle any more of that, but at least crying would have been a normal reaction. There was nothing normal about Robin.
Since waking up from her crying-induced slumber she hadn't slept. She refused to eat the food Kuzan caught or drink the water he created with his power. Robin just sat, knees close to her chest, and stared out at the ocean. It was impossible to tell what she was thinking or if she wholly understood the ramifications of their situation. Kuzan figured if she really was an archeologist she'd have to be pretty smart, but he had no way of knowing if Robin really had received Ohara's official accreditation or her supposed guilt was just another screw up to add to the giant mess that was the Buster Call.
Kuzan didn't know how to talk to her. On the best of days he wasn't exactly a conversationalist, and kids might as well be a different species for all he knew. He didn't have much time to figure something out, though. They had just reached an island, and the whole world would soon know about the government's version of Ohara—if they didn't already.
"So, uh, yeah." Kuzan scratched the back of his head. "We're going to have to find some place to hole up for a while. You know, get some things sorted out."
"Information," she agreed softly. There was a dark, haunted look in her eyes that made Kuzan's stomach clench. "And clothes."
"We smell like smoke."
Kuzan blinked, then discretely sniffed his trench coat. Damn, she was right. He hadn't even noticed the strong odor that had ingrained itself into his clothes. A bath probably wouldn't hurt either, now that he thought about it, but it was best to take things one step at a time. That way it didn't feel so much as if they were trying to climb uphill against an avalanche.
"Yeah, clothes too." There was a flicker of surprise in Robin's eyes, as if she didn't expect him to believe her so easily. "And you probably need to eat, or something. We can't have you fainting in the middle of an escape."
For a moment Robin stared at him defiantly, but after the words sunk in her face crumpled and she hung her head. Picking at the hem of her dress, she gave him the tiniest of nods. "Yes, sir."
"Don't call me sir. It's weird and…" And he wasn't in the marines any more. "…Just call me Kuzan."
Feeling his shoulders droop, Kuzan sighed. They were totally doomed.
The trick to being sneaky was not to look like you were trying to be sneaky. Kuzan strolled around the city, trying to blend in with the throngs of people as best as a nine-foot tall guy could. He had ditched his bandana earlier (that marine insignia was less than useless to him now) and just played it cool, bag of clothes that he hoped would fit Robin hanging off of one arm. She was what, ten-ish? Whatever. The shorts he picked up had a draw string in case they were too big and the shirts were better than the ratty dress she wore now.
Kuzan frowned. It was kind of sad to think the kid had to go on the run before acquiring a decent set of clothes.
Come to think of it, where had she lived before? Kuzan knew that the marines had been chasing Nico Olvia's group of archeologists for years. Had her father been killed in the Buster Call? Robin had made no mention of him during the attack. Maybe he was out traveling as well. Or maybe he was dead.
The question, while puzzling, was irrelevant at the moment. Kuzan knew he would have to keep on his toes if he didn't want to die. There was always an initial push after the break of a big story to apprehend the ones responsible. It made the government look a little bit better. Then the next calamity would happen, and the world would move on. Surviving the first wave, that was the key.
Turning a corner, Kuzan nonchalantly entered in an alleyway. It wasn't the best of hiding places, but he didn't really trust going to a hotel. Robin was crouched down reading a newspaper. He hadn't wanted to leave her alone, either, but his gut was telling him that she wasn't fit to be tromping around the city. There was something not quite right about the way she had stared at the sailors at the dock. It was too many people too soon after that wholesale destruction. Kuzan couldn't have her draw attention to them by falling to pieces in the marketplace.
"Here, catch," he said, tossing her a sandwich. "I hope you like turkey."
She caught the food, hesitantly unwrapping the wax paper covering. She looked at it for a long time before tearing off a small piece of crust and putting it into her mouth.
Kuzan made sure she actually swallowed before pulling out their new clothes, satisfied she was finally eating something. "Where'd you get that? I told you to stay here." he asked, nodding towards the paper.
Robin froze, eyes going impossibly wide. "I didn't leave."
"Then how'd you get it?" Kuzan didn't mean the words to sound so accusatory, but he couldn't help it. It was one thing for him to be out and about; at least he had experience avoiding trouble. She could have been seen.
Robin looked away. Then she raised one of her arms, and a second arm grew right out of her elbow, along with a third and a fourth. Kuzan felt his eyebrows rise. A Devil Fruit user. And she was just a kid.
"Oh, my. Well, I guess that settles that. Anything interesting in there?"
Again, there was that flash of confusion, like she didn't comprehend the words he was saying. "You're not angry?"
"Should I be? You stayed in the alley," Kuzan said, nonplussed. "Yeah, I kinda wish you would've said something about your fruit, but I can understand why you wouldn't. Besides, we needed a newspaper." He sauntered closer, looking down at the print.
"…It says you killed a Vice Admiral and deserted," Robin began, her voice so quiet Kuzan had to strain to pick up all of the words. "And it says…it says I made you do it, and I destroyed eight warships, and…" For the first time her voice wavered, and Robin wiped her eyes angrily. "It says Ohara wanted to destroy the world."
"Oh…" Kuzan breathed, horror filling every fiber of his being. He kneeled down and took the paper. There were two freshly minted bounties. Ice Demon Kuzan, Wanted Dead or Alive: 150,000,000 bellies. Demon Child Nico Robin, Wanted Dead or Alive: 85,000,000 bellies.
85,000,000. For a kid. Unbelievable.
"Well, at least they got one of us right. Shit." Kuzan ran his fingers through his hair, the implications crashing down on him. It was one thing to know you were in deep trouble; it was another to have that trouble shoved in your face.
"What's going to happen?"
That question, asked with a mixture of fear and timidness and grief, cut him to the core. Kuzan had no frikking clue was going to happen. He closed the paper and tucked it into his pocket for more careful evaluation later.
"We eat, we get changed, and we go. It's not a good idea for us to stick around in one place for too long."
At that moment, Kuzan heard the rushed stomping of combat boots against cobblestone. Their time was up. The marines must have seen him trying to be sneaky in town.
He'd have to work on that if he didn't want to die.
"Change of plans," Kuzan said, filling his voice with the same deep calm he used around rookie soldiers. "We leave now, eat later." He looked down mournfully at the clothes he had just acquired by semi-legal means. It would be a shame to leave them behind, but he would need at least one hand to fight his way back to their boat.
Without a second thought Kuzan scooped up a terrified looking Robin, ignoring her surprised yelp. He shifted her weight so he was carrying her in one arm, leaving the other free to attack.
"Hang tight. Things'll be rough for a couple a minutes."
The first wave of marines rounded the corner, only to fall on their asses as Kuzan froze the ground in front of them. He rushed past. These guys were just grunts; there was no reason to seriously hurt them.
But that didn't mean that the marine soldiers didn't attack Kuzan for all it was worth. Most didn't make it that far, but those that did had the increasingly-befuddling tendency to trip over themselves. Then Kuzan saw it, small arms reaching out of the ground, grabbing the marine's ankles.
It was creepy as hell but very effective. Kuzan burst through their ranks without much effort. They made it to where they had docked their little boat, and pushed away from the island. It all happened so fast Kuzan didn't think that there was enough time for their enemies to gather a pursuit, but he kept his eyes peeled anyway.
Robin just sat on one of the benches, trembling. Kuzan almost laughed when he noticed she was still holding onto her sandwich.
"You should really eat that," he said.
"We almost died!"
Kuzan sobered. It occurred to him that Robin was not an adult in a child-sized package. She wasn't a trained solder, or used to such violence. She was likely to be terrified and confused, and he had to help her understand what they were up against.
"Those guys were just small fry," Kuzan explained, as gently as he could. "We'll be facing marines who are a lot tougher than that before long."
"Tougher?" Robin repeated weakly. "Like…the magma-man? Like CP9?"
"Yeah, like them." Robin blanched. "Kid, we're going to have to work together. We can't be keeping things like Devil Fruits secret if we want to survive. I know you don't like me, but I'm the best you've got right now. We just got a little taste today. It's gonna get a whole lot worse."
"Yes, s—Kuzan." She looked away as tears began streaking down her face.
"Hey now," Kuzan mumbled, sliding in next to her. "You did good today. You were the one who got the paper, and those moves you pulled with your Devil Fruit were pretty slick. We can do this."
Robin didn't look convinced in the slightest, but she sort of scooted a little closer to him and leaned against his side. At this point Kuzan almost wished they went back to their awkward silence, but he wrapped his arm around her, just like on their first day on the run.
They could do this. At least that's what Kuzan kept telling himself, hoping someday he could convince his brain that it was true. There was one thing he did know for certain, and that was they could only take things one day at a time. Tomorrow the sun would rise as it always did, and with it the unlikely duo once again would defy the whole world.
The learning curve would be sharp and the odds poor. But Kuzan swore that he would do everything in his power to help the kid Saul had died protecting live into adulthood.
Dr. Indigo heard his captain slam the door of his laboratory. Based on the speed and sound his sword-legs made as he walked, the doctor assumed Shiki was angry. Suppressing a sigh—he was in the middle of a delicate experiment involving deadly chemicals—Indigo quickly cut the flame of the Bunsen burners and neutralized the acids he was playing with.
When forced to choose between an experiment blowing up in his face and Captain Shiki's rage, Dr. Indigo always chose the former.
Turning to face his boss, Indigo grinned wildly and cocked an eyebrow. Shiki stood in the back of his lab, arms crossed. Yep, his was definitely irritated. No need to test his patience with a mime routine today.
"Yes, boss?" Dr. Indigo asked.
"That…girl," Shiki spat the word like some would a curse. "Fix her!"
Indigo tilted his head. "I'm afraid I don't understand your meaning."
"She holds the key to world domination, but half the time she stares of into space, or talks to walls, or…or…Fix her!" Shiki demanded.
"Ah. I see." Dr. Indigo paused for dramatic effect. "I can't."
Holding up his hands defensively, Dr. Indigo laughed. "The girl has spent an unknown amount of time in Impel Down, boss. Most adults, yourself excluded of course,have the mental fortitude to withstand the prison, let alone a child."
"Then what am I supposed to do?" Shiki snapped.
"You could always cut your losses. Go back to the original plan."
"Unacceptable. I want those weapons, Indigo. And crazy as that girl is, she holds the key."
"Hmm," Dr. Indigo replied noncommittally. He wished his captain could look past his obsession. Unlike the girl, there was nothing wrong with his SIQ serum. Oh well. Captain's orders were captain's orders. Indigo trusted Shiki would get what he wanted eventually, it was only a matter of how and when. "In that case, it would probably be best to train her."
Shiki looked at him sharply. "What do you mean?"
"There is something wrong with her brain," Dr. Indigo drawled, spinning his finger in a lazy circle by the side of his head, making the universal sign for crazy. "She is, to put it simply, a devolved being. Not quite human, but trainable. Like a dog."
"Punishment and reward."
"Exactly. Use her neurosis, Captain. She hates the World Government, yes?" Shiki nodded. "Its destruction is the ultimate reward. Divide it into steps, a seeable plan. And if she pushes the boundaries, punish her. Be honest. Despite her insanity the girl is quite intelligent."
"She does enjoy learning…" Shiki muttered to himself.
Dr. Indigo could see the gears turning in his captain's mind. Grinning, he turned back to his work. Now that his captain had an idea of how to deal with his problem it was best to leave him to his scheming.
"Where is the girl now?" Dr. Indigo asked out of curiosity.
"Oh?" Shiki shook himself, clearing his thoughts. "I hung her up in the Great Hall. She was being cheeky, so I felt it was best to put her in timeout."
"The Great Hall's ceiling might not be the best place for timeout."
Shiki flapped his hand dismissively. "It's where we were, and I was annoyed. Thank you for your assistance, Doctor."
"Any time, Captain."
Shiki left the laboratory, his sword-legs clanking softly against the linoleum. As he left to deal with his newest 'pet' the good doctor fired up his Bunsen burners, deftly pulling out half a dozen compounds from his storeroom.
Could he have come up with something to help the girl? Possibly. But the brain was a dangerous thing to play with, and if he failed Shiki would lose his chance at the Ancient Weapons. Indigo didn't want to be held responsible if that happened.
But more importantly, Dr. Indigo wanted things to go back to the way they were before the acquisition of the insane girl. Dr. Indigo hated Nico Robin for supplanting his plan. He hated her for taking so much of his captain's attention. If he were honest, he simply hated everything about her.
Dr. Indio couldn't kill the child directly without Shiki finding out. However, if the girl proved herself to be more trouble than she was worth Shiki was sure to take matters into his own hands.
"Piro piro piro," Dr. Indigo laughed quietly as he mixed chemicals. They would be free of the Demon Child's presence eventually. It was only a matter of time.
"…Happy birthday to yoooouuuu!"
Bellemere sat back, an amused smile on her face, as Genzo and her three adopted daughters finished serenading her. Nami in particular was belting the song from the top of her lungs. Eyeing her cake (and trying to ignore the fact that it was getting closer to thirty candles every year), Bellemere basked in the happy atmosphere that filled her little house.
"Blow out the candles!" Nami said.
"Make a wish!" Nokijo exclaimed at the same time.
Chuckling softly, Bellemere took a deep breath and managed to blow out all twenty-something (she really didn't like thinking about it) candles at the same time. Nami clapped, nearly bouncing with glee. Bellemere was fairly sure this was more to do with the fact they were getting to eat cake than anything.
"What'd you wish for?" Genzo asked slyly.
Nojiko punched her sister on the arm. "She can't tell or else it won't come true!"
"Ow! Don't hit me; Gen asked!"
"Girls, no hitting," Bellemere warned as she cut the cake. Plating a piece, she handed it to the quietest member of her household, the thief-turned guest-turned family member named Nico Robin. Technically speaking, Bellemere shouldn't have known the kid's last name, but after a week of observing some rather odd behaviors Bellemere (always a marine at heart) had taken it upon herself to figure out where the hell the girl came from.
It had taken some digging, but Bellemere was nothing if not tenacious. Finally the pieces had clicked together, and Robin's unsettling, unchildlike demeanor made sense. The kid wasn't just a runaway; she was an outlaw.
Robin, who probably would have bolted if she had even the slightest indication of what Bellemere knew, accepted the plate with the smallest of smiles, politely waiting for everyone to be served before taking a bite. After passing out plates, Bellemere leaned back in her chair, grinning. "Besides, I already know for a fact my wish is going to come true."
"Then you don't mind sharing?" Genzo asked, slightly amused.
"Of course not. And you have frosting in your mustache." He turned bright red, and Bellemere laughed. "I wished for a year of health and happiness for my family. I've been blessed with three amazing daughters; there's nothing more I could ask for."
Genzo blinked, giving her a strange look that was a mixture of pride and something unfathomable. "Bellemere…"
"Oh, loosen up, you big lug," Bellemere interrupted, shoving a forkful of cake into his mouth. "And eat your food. This is supposed to be a party."
Genzo choked and began sputtering profanities. Nojiko and Nami both laughed outrageously. Bellemere loved the sound of their laugh, so high and full of innocence. Glancing sidelong, Bellemere thought about how to best engage Robin in the festivities. The girl was oftentimes timid and somber—not really a surprise considering her dark secret. Still, it was hard to be so scared and unhappy all of the time. Bellemere had to find a way to show her it was okay to feel safe. No one was going to hurt her here.
But no matter how Bellemere tried, Robin looked down at her plate and refused to meet her eyes.
It took a great deal of effort to calm her youngest two girls down enough to put them to bed. Genzo somehow managed, telling them (highly embellished) stories of Bellemere's misspent youth. Eventually their eyes grew heavy, and Bellemere settled them in bed without too much protest.
That task done Bellemere was free to find Robin, who had disappeared from the table without even finishing her cake. The kid was sitting on the back porch, tearing a piece of grass into tiny pieces. Bellemere could only see her silhouette in the darkness, but there was a tense set to her shoulders that made Bellemere think she was brooding. Again.
"Hey, kid. You feeling okay?" Bellemere asked, sitting next to her.
Her fidgeting quickened. "Yes."
"Really?" Bellemere asked doubtfully. "Because I couldn't help but notice your abrupt departure from the table."
"I'm fine, Miss Bellemere. I'm just…thinking."
"Okay, first things first, I know I just had a birthday, but I'm not a Miss," Bellemere teased. She instantly regretted it when Robin cringed and made herself a little smaller. Most of the time the kid was perfectly composed, managing to hide whatever her true thoughts were behind a blank mask. It took someone who knew what they were looking for to see the subtle signs of her insecurities: the shiftiness to her eyes, the guarded response to certain questions, the fact she rarely allowed Bellemere out of her sight for more than a few minutes at a time…
Bellemere supposed that's what came with being a highly wanted pirate since the age of eight, but it was enough to break her heart. "A penny for your thoughts?" she asked quietly. Robin hesitated, going completely still for a moment before shaking her head.
"It's nothing," she said, her voice hardly above a whisper.
Slinging an arm around her skinny shoulders, Bellemere brought Robin in close. She stiffened for a moment before allowing herself to melt into the embrace. It was quite an improvement from a month ago. "I'm pretty sure it's something. You can tell me."
"I…you called me your daughter," Robin said, her voice cracking.
"Oh." Bellemere looked out at her trees, confused. She had been nearly certain that something else was the source of her anxiety tonight, namely her bounty. "Yeah, I suppose I did."
"That means you're my mom."
"Um, yeah, I guess that's true."
"But I have a mom," Robin said, sounding equally parts miserable and confused as she buried her head in her hands. "I mean, I had one. She…she's gone now, but she's still my mother."
"Oh." The thought had never really occurred to Bellemere. "Oh."
"I don't know what I'm supposed to think," Robin continued. "You're everything…" she cut herself off with the sharp shake of the head. "She's still my mom," she whispered.
"Of course she is. I would never try to replace that." Bellemere sighed and looked down at Robin. She was a special kid. Bellemere was pretty sure that at thirteen Robin was smarter than she was, and even though she was going through the awkward, gangly stage of puberty it was obvious the girl was going to grow up to be a beautiful woman. It was completely unfair she had to live through so much crap at such a young age, but if there was anything Bellemere knew it was that life wasn't fair.
"Robin, were you listening to all those stories Gen was telling?" Robin looked up at her, confused, but nodded. "There's a reason he knows all those stories. When I was a kid, probably around your age, I started hanging with the wrong crowd. My mom tried to keep me straight, but she worked nights at the bar and wasn't really around. My dad was a mess and drank through whatever money he managed to make working at the docks, and then some.
"Anyway, I got into a lot of trouble, but it would have been worse if it weren't for Genzo. He was the new guy on the police force back then, and for whatever reason never gave up on me. I can honestly say that it's because of him I joined the marines. He was always there, even when my parents weren't."
"I don't understand," Robin said quietly.
"My dad will always be my dad," Bellemere explained, "but I also think of Genzo like a father, especially after all the stuff he's done for you girls. Everyone has a family they're born into and a family they choose. Even though we're not bound by blood Nami and Nojiko are sisters, and I'm their mother. There's plenty of room for one more, but it's something you have to want." Bellemere paused. "I've been watching you for a while, and I think you want a family. Am I wrong?"
"No…I don't know," Robin said uncertainly. "I've never had a real family before."
Bellemere didn't want to think about how Robin could have had a mother and not had a family at the same time. "It's okay to be scared, she said gently. "New things are often frightening. But Robin, I promise I'll do my best. I'm not perfect, not by a longshot, but I'll try my very hardest to provide for you girls, and I'll always love you. Nothing can take that away."
A small, pained noise escaped from Robin's throat. Bellemere brought her in tighter as Robin broke down into tears for the first time since coming to Cocoyashi. Rubbing her back softly, Bellemere sighed again. "It's okay. Let it out."
"I-I didn't t-think I could h-have a f-family."
Despite Robin's tears, Bellemere felt like she had just been given the best birthday present in the world. It had taken over a month of painstaking effort, but she had finally earned the girl's trust, or at least part of it. Gone was the thief who had come to her doorstep with hardly enough strength to stand, and in her place was a kid who was finally being given the second chance she so obviously deserved. With a little more time, she might even trust Bellemere with the truth behind her miserable past.
"Of course you can. I'm honored to call you my daughter."
"That should do it." Careful hands peeled away the last dressing on her back, the one that covered her brand. Robin lay on the examination table as Aladdin prodded the scar, making satisfied hums of approval as he did so. She tried not to think about that mark, the one that looked just like the emblem of the Sun Pirates. Fisher Tiger said it represented her freedom, but she wasn't so sure. At the moment it felt like an unbearably heavy weight, reminding Robin of another debt she had no hope of ever repaying, especially now.
After a few more seconds Aladdin handed Robin her shirt and allowed her to redress. "You're healing well. Exceedingly well, I should think, after everything that's happened."
Robin's breath caught in her throat. Did he suspect? She had always recovered relatively quickly from her punishments, and had once overheard a handler say it was probably because of her Devil Fruit. The Sun Pirates didn't know about her power, and she wanted to keep it that way. Devil Fruits were rejected by water—the symbol of purity and life itself—making every ability user a monstrous abomination by default. It was sinful to keep such horrible secrets, but Robin had little choice. The denizens of the sea wouldn't allow such a monster to exist. They couldn't.
But Aladdin smiled amicably and made no indication that he noticed her discomfort. "Yes, all that's left is to get you back up to weight."
"Yes, sir," she said, looking down at her hands she had folded in her lap. Five years of hard labor had covered them in a myriad of fine, white scars. Baggy clothing hid the rest, as well as an unnaturally thin frame. Since Fisher Tiger's rescue Robin had received regular meals, but she was tall for a human female—approximately six foot—and it would be quite some time before the gaunt, haggard look to her face filled out.
As Aladdin said, Robin looked better, but by no means did she look well.
The doctor leaned back in his chair. "There is something I wanted to ask, privately."
"I know this is rather…sudden…but do you have any family at all? Is there any place you call home?"
Robin felt herself go completely still, like a cornered animal, the blood draining from her face. She forced the fear away and shook her head as normally as she could. This was just like dealing with a handler or a Dragon. Doing or saying the wrong thing would get her hurt.
Aladdin's face softened. "I was a slave once too, you know," he said quietly. "I know how hard it is to talk about things. I know what sort of darkness surrounds that life."
"Please don't give me back," she whispered, doing everything in her power to keep her voice steady and failing miserably. "I'll do anything. A-anything you want. Just please, don't give me back."
"Don't…? Robin, why wouldn't you want to go home?"
"I don't have one, I swear," Robin said, hanging her head. Fringes of short black hair obscured her vision, making it easier to talk. "I'm nobody. A-all that's left is Mariejois. Please don't make me go back."
"Why do you think Fisher Tiger, the man who razed that hell to the ground, would ever go back?" Aladdin asked, appalled.
Because she wasn't blind? Robin had heard the whispers and seen the strange looks she garnered by the crew. The marines knew the Sun Pirates were harboring a human, and it was ridiculous to think that with their intelligence network that her identity as an escaped slave would stay a secret forever. Robin's masters had paid good money for her purchase, and they would pay good money for her return.
At the thought Robin doubled over and hugged herself. The memories came flooding back: Being forcibly held in a tub full of ice water for walking in front of a Dragon, denied food for failing to complete her duties, locked in a cell for days because she had talked back…Flashes, snippets. Each by itself was agonizing yet bearable, but when compiled together they threatened to overwhelm her fragile psyche. She squeezed her eyes closed and tried to force them back down, but it was impossible. Mariejois was hundreds of miles away, yet a part of her was still trapped there.
"It's okay to say what happened…before…no matter how bad it is," Aladdin pressed. "Whatever happened in the past, we won't make you go back. It's just important that Fisher knows where you came from."
Robin's eyes snapped open at the implication. Aladdin—no, the Sun Pirates as a whole—had taken her refusal to talk about her past before her enslavement and assumed the worst. They still didn't know the truth.
It was the out she needed. "I-It was my father," she stammered, placing the blame on a man she had never met. It was the only way Robin could manage the lie at all. Just thinking the blasphemous, dishonest words made a small part of her want to die. Ohara was the only reason she was alive in the first place, and now she was about to disrespect its memory with malicious slander.
But first and foremost Robin had been charged with the order to live, and she couldn't do that if the Sun Pirates found out who she really was.
"It was after my mother died," Robin continued, clenching her hands so they wouldn't shake. "And we needed the money. H-He made it perfectly clear he never wanted to see me again, and no one tried to stop him. I-I don't have any place to go, I promise."
Aladdin closed his eyes, a pained expression flickering across his face. "I believe you. Truly I do."
Robin shrank down at the undeserved trust, feeling small and unworthy.
"I thought it might be something like that," the doctor said after taking a moment to collect himself. "It's not that we want to get rid of you, but technically speaking you wear no brand, and you're not a wanted pirate. We're criminals, Robin. If we're caught by the marines, you would be executed just by association."
She was a criminal, too, with the third highest bounty on the ship, and this was a better life than she deserved. But Robin didn't say anything, her mouth suddenly too dry to speak.
"With your permission, Fisher would like to send word to the Royal Family on Fishman Island. It was Jimbe's idea, really. He thought that the queen might be willing…"
Aladdin kept talking, but Robin didn't hear. "Q-queen? You want to give me to a queen?"
"You've heard us speak of Queen Otohime. Robin, I swear it, the queen might be royalty but she is nothing like the Celestial Dragons. She…she heals people in a way that I cannot."
Robin took a deep, shuddering breath. Nobility, the government, authority…in her experience they were all the same. Absolute power corrupted absolutely. The queen the Sun Pirates described was prone to violent mood swings, forcing her agenda on an unwilling populous.
"I'll go. I'm not…I'm not good enough here. I'll go."
A firm had clasped around her shoulder, making Robin jump. Aladdin looked down at her, his eyes serious. "You have a choice. We're not marooning you on an abandoned island or throwing you overboard. This isn't a punishment or a trick meant to hurt you. You can stay if you want."
That was a lie, too. Robin's curse had not gone away during her enslavement. If she stayed the rescuers she had come to think of with an almost reverent awe would betray her. The signs were all there; the life she had just begun to appreciate was already starting to unravel. Besides, if she stayed the marines would identify her, and then Robin would go from being an irritation to an additional burden on the already perilous Grand Line. She would get them hurt.
Robin didn't think she could stand that.
"I'll go," she repeated, not quite managing to look Aladdin in the eye. "It's for the best."
The night before her departure under the sea Robin did not sleep. After hours of tossing and turning, she quietly gathered what few possessions she had and went out onto the deck, where pre-dawn light was beginning to fill the sky. It would be queen and her entourage would be here soon. The transaction was to take place early in the morning, hoping to avoid the watchful eyes of the marines.
Fisher Tiger was already up. Robin hung back, not wanting to bother him with her presence. He wore his usual scowl. The crew said that in years past Fisher Tiger always smiled, but not anymore. They thought that the weight of his responsibility had subdued him, but Robin didn't think so. She thought he just looked angry.
It had to be difficult to keep all that anger pent up inside, but Robin had never seen him lash out without reason. Fisher Tiger was a fair man, even to people like her who didn't deserve it. He refused to stoop down to the level of his enemies. He had freed everyone from Mariejois, not just his brethren.
There were times when he could be terrifying, but he was consistent and predictable, and Robin didn't want to leave him.
"Queen Otohime has the right of it, you know," he said after a long silence.
"Her philosophy," Fisher clarified. "She works for a future where there is no distinction between the races, when the fish folk can live on the surface as equals. But I can't ignore the suffering of today." He sighed. "I can't sympathize with those who would sell their own as slaves."
Robin didn't know what to say, so she wisely kept her mouth shut.
"But it's not just humans, is it?" There was a dark bitterness in Fisher's voice now. "I remember seeing horrible things the fish folk have done to one another. Parents selling their children, slavers that prowl the bottom of the sea…"
Robin nodded. She didn't know exactly who he was talking about, but she had heard similar stories. Greed and depravity drove people to sickening extremes. She had only been sold because one of the officers involved in her arrest had a long-standing deal with a certain family of Nobles, and he used that connection to override the Government's execution order. Between her bounty and the market price of her Devil Fruit, Robin had been deemed worth 100,000,000 bellis, an astronomical number for a human child.
"I have to believe in a better future," Fisher said, looking out to the open sea. Robin didn't think he was really talking to her anymore, "Because otherwise I just see the filth that fills the present and I can't see anything that's worth fighting for."
"You freed the slaves," Robin mumbled. "That's more than anyone else dared to do."
"And as we speak the Celestial Dragons are out there buying replacements for us all, and slavers make a fortune trying to meet their demands, while humans hate fishmen more than ever. I've freed some, but I've damned a new generation."
"You freed me."
Fisher turned towards her just as a ship crested out of the water. Robin ignored it, the knowledge that this was goodbye helping overcome the powerful instinct to look away. He might never want to see her again, but it wouldn't be right to leave without saying a proper thank you.
"You freed me. And I know that isn't worth much, but they were killing me, a little more every day." Robin closed her eyes as the memories echoed again. "You freed Aladdin, and now he's using his skills to help people. You saved kids can grow up and change the world, and people who had never known freedom. You gave us a chance. If that doesn't mean something, I don't know what does."
There was so much more she wanted to say, but Robin didn't know how to articulate her thoughts and the little speech was already the longest thing she had said at one time in years. The Sun Pirates busied themselves around them, trying to get read to receive the queen. Fisher stared at her silently as if he didn't understand something, which made Robin very uncomfortable.
Finally he moved beside her, standing a little closer than he normally would. "The queen should be here soon."
Just as he said the words, someone shouted, "All hail Queen Otohime!"
Robin's heart began to race. While this meeting between the royal dignitary and the Sun Pirates had to be secret, she had expected a little more fanfare than this. She wasn't ready. She would never be ready. Robin had enough of nobility in her life, and no matter what the crew said having anything to do with the Queen of the Sea would only lead to disaster…
Then Robin saw her. She looked human, a scale-patterned kimono completely covering her tail, and she walked calmly among the pirates. Wide jade colored eyes swept across the deck, taking in the scene around her. Queen Otohime had come alone, the rest of her men staying on the other ship.
It didn't take long before the queen found Robin, and she smiled. Her round face practically shone with warmth and kindness. Robin couldn't remember ever seeing such a beautiful expression on another living being, let alone directed at her. She had no idea why the queen would be smiling at her in such a way and shrank back.
The queen blinked, a flash of confusion going across her features, before she put her hands up to her lips. "Oh…oh, it hurts."
Fisher Tiger stepped forward. "Your Highness, thank you for coming. This is the human I wrote you about." He gently pushed Robin towards the queen, whose eyes were now bright with unshed tears. Unnerved, Robin fell back on her slave training and forced an emotionless expression on her face.
The queen nodded. "Yes. You were right to send for me." She turned and addressed Robin directly. "Child, I am Queen Otohime of Fishman Island."
"My name is Nico Robin. I am honored to be in the presence of Fisher Tiger's queen." Robin said stiffly as she bowed. The furrow between the queen's eyes deepened, and she took a sharp intake of breath.
"Is there something wrong, Your Highness?" Fisher asked.
"One can learn much of how a person thinks of themselves by how they say their own name, provided they know how to Listen properly," the queen said cryptically. "And I assure you, Nico Robin, you are worth far more than you think."
Robin flinched and looked away. Cool fingers wrapped under her chin and lifted her head up, forcing her to look at the queen. Robin was nearly sick with fear, but refused to allow it to show on her face. She didn't understand why a queen would willingly touch someone like her, unless she was about ready to be punished. Robin didn't understand why a queen would look at her with such open gentleness or compassion. New emotions were beginning to stir up deep inside of her, and Robin didn't understand those, either.
Then the queen did the unthinkable and hugged her. Robin nearly had a heart attack at the unexpected contact. In her world touch only led to pain. As the queen's arms enveloped her memories—fire, beatings, electricity—tore through her mind. Instinctively Robin broke the contact and stumbled backwards, hunching over and grabbing at her temples as she tried to force the past down, down, down, back where it belonged.
After a second realization struck her, and cold horror gripped at her heart. Robin had just offended the queen. She had just offended the queen who had come to the surface at a great danger to herself and her country, who for some unfathomable reason willing to consort with pirates on behalf of a no good piece of trash like herself. Robin had just ruined everything without even meaning to, just like always.
"I-I…" she stammered, trying to think of the right words to apologize with.
"I am so sorry," the queen said, a faint tremor going through her voice. "I should have known. Forgive me, Robin."
"For touching you without asking. I should have expected…" Tears began to leak out of the corners of her eyes, and Robin's confusion grew. The queen was looking at her oddly, as if she knew something Robin did not. "The so-called punishments you have endured were nothing more than barbaric torture, and you will never have to suffer in such a way again so long as I have breath in my body."
Robin's eyes darted between the queen and Fisher Tiger. He nodded once, showing his support for the queen. Feeling lost and out of her depth, Robin scanned the familiar faces of the Sun Pirates. She saw Aladdin's knowing smile, and Hatchan clapping with joy. They all believed what the queen said, even though it didn't make any sense.
"This is your chance, Nico Robin," Fisher said in a low voice. "It's up to you whether you take it or not."
She couldn't argue with him. Hunching over to avoid the gaze of everyone around her, Robin followed the strange queen to her ship. Her journey with the Sun Pirates had come to an end. Now it was time to start a new beginning ten thousand meters under the sea.
"It was dangerous for you to come here alone."
Robin looked at the girl across the table. She seemed to be in her mid-teens, although her petite frame made it hard to judge. She somehow managed a small smile despite the stony-hard glares she received from Robin's subordinates. How she had managed to find this place was a mystery Robin would have to explore later. It seemed if nothing else the girl was tenacious and resourceful, although her timing couldn't possibly be worse.
"I had to," the girl explained, folding her hands in her lap. "I need to join the Revolution."
Suppressing a sigh, Robin leaned forward. "This isn't a fight for little girls who should be at home with their parents."
"I'm seventeen," the girl answered calmly. "And I can't go back home."
"I don't have much of a home to go back to. Nothing would be the same."
Robin frowned. Catching the eye of her lieutenant she nodded to the door. He murmured something to the man next to him, and before long the room was empty save Robin and the girl.
"What's your name?" Robin asked.
It would have been impossible to see if Robin hadn't been studying the girl's reactions closely, but she relaxed. She breathed a little easier, and her smile grew. "Koala."
"And why is it you can't return home? Is there war in your country, pirate attacks…?"
"Nothing like that, no." She looked away and tucked one strand of light brown hair behind an ear. Robin noticed a scar that ran across her knuckles. "It's just…I learned something that changed everything."
"You're going to have to be a little more specific," Robin said, not unkindly.
"Isn't enough to know that the world's a rotten place? How we treat people who are different is wrong, and somebody's got to change that. I can't sit around doing nothing knowing that people are hated and killed because they tried to do the right thing." For the first time Koala's smile faded, replaced by a look of deep sorrow. "It's bad enough that slavery exists, but then there's how whole species are persecuted, and the World Government doesn't do anything to change it."
"You know about the slave trade?"
Koala nodded. "Yes. And I know that fishmen aren't as bad as everyone says they are, and that the World Nobles get away with whatever they want because they're rich."
Robin's mind raced. Seventeen (if Koala was indeed seventeen) was an awkward age. Once she saw how difficult the Revolutionary life was, would she want to quit? If found by the World Government how much would she tell? Would her parents try and hunt down their wayward daughter?
Some would have sent her away based on her age and gender alone, but Robin wasn't sure if that would be the smartest thing to do in this situation. Her instincts were telling her if Koala didn't get what she wanted here she would simply look elsewhere, until she was allowed to join. That in and of itself was dangerous. Koala was either very good or very lucky to have found this hideout without catching the marine's attention.
Robin suddenly understood Dragon's reluctance to allow her to hunt for the poneglyphs all those years ago. Koala was so young. She shouldn't have to fight this war.
On the other hand, Koala knew of slavery and fishmen and corruption. She was young, but she was hardly innocent.
"If you did join—and I make no promises—you would never be able to go back to your old life. Do you understand that? There's a great possibility you would never be able to see your friends and family again. You could die, or worse."
"It's probably best if I didn't go back," Koala said quietly.
"Do you understand that the government's policy is to send anyone connected to the Revolution directly to Impel Down?" Robin asked.
"Do you understand that you will be expected to follow the order of your superiors to the letter? This is a war, and a very bloody one at that."
"I won't kill anyone," Koala said, meeting Robin's eyes with sudden fierceness. "That's half the problem. People default to violence to get what they want. There are better ways."
Robin's eye brows shot up. "The other side won't be so accommodating."
"There are ways to work around it," Koala said with a shrug.
"You've given this a lot of thought," Robin noted.
"Only every day for the past six years." When she saw Robin's inquiring gaze, Koala sighed. "It's a really long story, and one I'd rather not talk about."
"You are aware that the enemy can and will dig up dirty laundry on suspected Revolutionaries. We have safeguards, but they're not absolute. And you can be assured that Revolutionary agents will look into your past." Koala stiffened. "Just as we have moles in the World Government, the World Government has agents amongst our ranks. It's simply a precaution," Robin explained.
"If you don't like it you can leave."
"No, it makes sense, it's just…" Koala looked at the ground, smiling wryly. "I really don't like talking about it."
Robin drummed her fingers on the table, deep in thought. Having laid out the risks, at this point she would usually ask one of her men to ship the girl to Baltago for a background check and initiation. The problem was Robin was currently on a tight schedule and could spare neither the time nor the manpower to send Koala on her way. Nor would it be safe to keep her here and call for someone to pick her up, even under supervision. The nearest Revolutionary cell was several islands away. Whomever she left to babysit Koala wouldn't be able to catch up with the main group before they reached Alabasta. Something foul was cooking in the desert country, and Robin wanted to be at full strength when they touched ground.
That left her with the equally unsavory option of taking Koala with them to Alabasta and having someone pick her up there. On the off chance the girl was a spy for the World Government (which Robin doubted) it could spell disaster to not only her group of men, but to the Revolution as a whole.
"Very well. We can talk more about this later. Right now there's a ship we need to catch," Robin said.
"Yes, now. Revolutionaries have to be ready for anything at any given time," Robin said curtly.
"Um, okay. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity," Koala said as she stood, before bowing deeply at the waist.
"Don't thank me yet," Robin warned. "Consider this an initiation test. If I see something I don't like or if you fail to obey my instruction you're out. I'll spread word through the entire network that you aren't to be accepted into the ranks."
Koala nodded, her eyes wide. Suppressing a sigh, Robin led her out of the underground base and to the ship that was waiting to depart. It would be difficult trying to balance the wannabe Revolutionary as well as concentrate on the mission at hand, but Robin had little choice.
Then again, Koala had shown initiative and sense, managing to leave her home and find a group of Revolutionaries that very much didn't want to be found. There weren't many who could manage such a feat, and fewer still who could do it at the age of seventeen.
Sabo would probably appreciate having someone his own age to talk to as well. Keeping an eye on the girl would be a good task for him while he was on his first mission.
Who knew, maybe the girl would be useful after all.
The journey wasn't going as planned. To Robin's right, the Second Division Commander of the Whitebeard Pirates sat sullenly, hat pulled over his eyes. They had just hit another dead end, and Firefist Ace wanted to get back out on the ocean. They were staying on the island for the night at her insistence, and he wasn't happy about it.
Robin didn't know how to bring him out of his mood, so she ignored him. She was frustrated as well, although she hid it better. Their prey, who was now going by the name Blackbeard, was very good at not getting caught. If she didn't know better, it would almost be as if he had disappeared off of the face of the earth.
But they needed rest. The two of them had been hunting incessantly for weeks and were no closer to their goal. The lack of success was affecting their thinking. It was time to take a small step back and reevaluate before someone did something that would ruin their chances entirely.
Robin watched Ace from the corner of her eye. He was starting to get fidgety. Calmly she turned the page of her newspaper. Any minute now he would demand they leave, and it would be fifty-fifty chance whether or not she could convince him that staying for the night was for the best.
Thumbing through the bounties Robin looked for the name Marshall D. Teach. Like before, there was no mention of the traitorous Whitebeard Pirate anywhere in the paper. Whatever the man was planning to do with his new Devil Fruit, it was a secret for now. She noted with mild interest some of the names of the new up and comers: Law, Drake, Capone…it seemed these days a rash of young pirates were stirring up trouble all around the world. Even in the East Blue, the weakest of the seas, there was a rookie deemed worthy of 30,000,000 bellies…
"Oh," Robin said softly, eyes widening in surprise at the name. There was another D out on the ocean? What did it mean? Ace claimed he had no idea what his middle initial meant, and she believed him. It was so odd, though, that so many powerful people shared the same mysterious name.
"Hmm?" Ace grunted.
"It's nothing," she replied quickly. The picture attached to the bounty was utterly ridiculous, lacking any malice whatsoever. That smile reminded her of Ace on his good days. "Just a new pirate making a name for himself in the East."
He perked up a little at that. "The guy got a name?"
"Monkey D. Luffy."
Ace jumped up instantly, his black mood nowhere to be seen. A grin cut across his face, a look of boyish happiness taking over him entirely. "You're kidding! He finally did it?!"
Robin offered the poster before he could snatch it from her hands. Ace let out a whoop of joy that carried through the walls of the hotel. "I can't believe it! That's my little brother!"
Unable to hide her amused smile, Robin returned to her paper. Ace had made a few vague references to his family before, and it was clear he cared for them. Despite the difference in surname, there was quite a bit of resemblance between the boy in the picture and Ace.
"I wonder if there's any relation to the Vice Admiral," Robin said offhandedly.
Her crewmate's dance of jubilation ceased. Eyes flickering around them, Ace brought a finger to his lips. "Shh! You can't go around saying that, Robin!"
Oh. Robin blinked. So Ace's brother was related to the famous Hero of the Marines. Which, obviously, could only mean one thing.
Ace had relations in the marines. Of course he had accepted Whitebeard and his crew as his family, but still. The implication was huge.
Sitting down next to her, Ace took the newspaper from her, and Robin was too shocked to do anything about it. His grin widened as he read the exploits of his brother and the newly formed Straw Hat Pirates.
"This is great," he said, barely able to contain his excitement. "Do you think Pops would mind if I invited him to the Moby Dick? Luffy was always a weakling, but it says here he beat up a bunch of fishmen. I wonder if he ever figured out how to use his Devil Fruit right…Robin, are you okay? You look kinda pale."
"I'm fine," Robin replied, perhaps a little too quickly. Ace studied her for a moment, before a careful, guarded expression settled over his face. Inwardly, Robin winced. They had been crewmates for two years now, and traveling companions for about a month. As much as she tried to hide it, he knew when she was lying.
It was none of her business if Ace had family in the marines. He had proven his loyalty to Whitebeard a hundred times over and had the right to his secrets.
"I was just surprised," Robin admitted, looking away. "You don't speak of your family often."
"Whitebeard is my family," Ace growled.
"Yes. And your brother would be lucky to have the opportunity to join, should he choose to do so."
"I don't care…wait, what?" Confusion flickered through his dark eyes. "You don't care who my grandpa is?"
Robin thought about it for a moment. "It's not that I don't care," she began slowly. "I just don't see how it's relevant. It would be very hypocritical of me to judge you based on your relationship to the Hero of the Marines."
"I was always hated because of my connection to the Ohara. I am the daughter of a criminal. Even if I wasn't an archeologist I would always be guilty of having the wrong last name." Robin smiled sadly. "It isn't fair or right, but that's how the world is."
"You should've changed it," Ace said, flopping back on the bed, still holding the picture of his brother up to the light.
"The world doesn't change so easily, Fire Fist," Robin said quietly. "Especially when it's totally against you."
"No, your name," he clarified. "It's too late now 'cause everyone knows who you are, but when you were little it would have worked."
"Why would I want to do that?" Robin asked sharply.
He rolled over and looked at her, perplexed. "You've been judged because of Ohara, right? Well, if you would have changed your name no one would have known, and they would have judged you for who you really are."
"You realize that would mean I would have to give up my legacy? Abandon where I came from?" Robin said angrily. "My name is the only thing I have left from my mother. Even if I never had any intention of doing what the Government claimed, I am an Oharan archeologist, and I am proud of that."
Ace's eyes widened. "Whoa, sorry. I didn't think—"
"That's right," Robin interrupted coldly. "You didn't."
There was a tense silence. They were sitting right next to one another, yet the gulf between them seemed miles wide. After a moment Robin stood and turned her back to Ace. "I'm going to town. There are some things I need to get if we're leaving tomorrow."
He jumped up and grabbed her shoulder. "Hey, don't be like that! I don't even know what I did wrong!"
"Unless you want to see if my Haki is strong enough to break your hand I would suggest that you let go."
Ace did as she said, but instead of letting Robin leave he inserted himself between her and the door. Robin's glare did nothing to detour him. Hands on his hips, he jutted his chin defiantly. "No. None of this running away crap. If I upset you, I have the right to know why."
Angry as she was, it took Robin longer than normal before she could articulate her thoughts. "How would you like it if I asked you to completely remove your tattoo? Not cover it for a while, not hide it for the sake of a mission, but completely remove it?" Ace gaped at her. "That is what my name means to me. By so flippantly saying I should have willingly changed it, you…I…" Robin gritted her teeth. There were a great many things she wanted to say to Ace, none of them productive. "That is why I'm upset. Now please, move."
"Look, I'm sorry. I had no idea…I mean, come on! It's what I did!"
"You have a bad habit of assuming everyone thinks the same way you do, Fire Fist. Changing your last name from Monkey to Portgas has no bearing on what I experienced as a child."
"And you have a bad habit of thinking you know everything!" Ace snapped. The temperature of the room rose several degrees as Ace pointed an accusatory finger at Robin. "For your information, I was never a Monkey. Gramps adopted me. I changed my name because my no-good father almost ruined my life before I was ever born. His name haunted me even though the bastard was dead. Everyone knew who he was and wanted me to join him!"
Robin looked from Ace's hand (which was now smoking) to the look of barely controlled fury on his face, knowing she had somehow stepped over a line. What that line was, she had no idea. Before this…expedition…Robin had only known Ace as a good-natured young man, fiercely loyal to his crew and monstrously strong, but generally pleasant and enjoyable company.
After Thatch had been murdered a new side emerged. His past was a complicated one. They were in many ways very similar, too similar, but their philosophies couldn't be more different.
Why was she even considering apologizing? Because they needed to work together to kill Blackbeard? Because they were crewmates? Because he was right? She had assumed. Then again, so had he. They were both in the wrong.
Robin suddenly felt very tired. She was no good at managing open conflict like this. Sighing, she gently forced Ace's arm down, ignoring the heat that he generated. "It's obvious there are some things about each other we still don't know. I'm sorry. I let my temper get the best of me."
Ace nodded curtly. "Yeah. So did I. I really didn't know your name meant that much to you."
"It's all I have left to prove where I came from. It's my history, so to speak."
"I can see that." He scratched the back of his head, a sheepish smile appearing. "But I wouldn't say that's the only thing you have left."
"You've got your smarts. That had to come from somewhere, and I doubt it was from running around with a bunch of pirates."
Laughing softly, Robin nodded. "I suppose you're right. And you've managed to carve out a legacy that's separate from your father, whoever he was."
"I guess I have."
There was another beat of awkward silence. Finally Ace moved out of the way of the door. "Well, if you need to get stuff for tomorrow…"
"Actually, I was thinking we should move out tonight. Blackbeard can't be too far ahead, and the faster we clean up this mess the faster we can find your brother."
Unyielding determination filled Ace's eyes. Together they gathered their belongings and left the hotel. The hunt for Blackbeard had resumed, and no matter the differences between them nothing was going to stand in their way of completing their objective.
AN: In case anyone ever doubted how awesome Bellemere is, here's some interesting math: Bellemere died at age 30 when Nami was 10 years old. She had rescued Nami when she was 1, making Bellemere 21 when she left the marines. Yet it was shown in chapter 0 that Bellemere wore the fancy coat that has only been seen on marines ranked captain or higher, meaning Bellemere held the same rank as Louge Town Smoker (age 34) when she was 21. Granted this is East Blue power levels, but still. If anyone writes a fic about the life and times of Bellemere I'd read it.