The Years After

A soft breeze gently rustled the palm fronds on the beach, the grains of white sand spilled over the beach with a soft sigh, and the short green hair of the little girl standing on the shore as the tide lapped at her ankles with cool tongues, her toes curling in the wet sand. Her skin was soft and bronzed both due to her natural tan coloration and the near-constant caress of the sun on the tropical summer island, limbs smooth and lean and yet unscarred. Her hair was a sharp contrast to the soft pastels of the ocean and the clouds and the crystal-colored sky, a vibrant shade of green that helped to bring out the flecks of turquoise in her mesmerizing azure eyes.

She stood still as the tide grew bolder, kissing her ankles now as well as her toes with a wistful sigh each time it was pulled back by the rhythm of the ocean. She loved the sea, the same sea her father had sailed for years and had many an adventure. Those adventures she liked, too, and even though she was only eight years old she often begged to train with her father's swords, deadly weapons when he wielded them but more often objects of balance now, used to keep himself as well as the blades sharp when he meditated and practiced his katas daily. One day she wished to have adventures, too, and meet the man who called himself Pirate King.

"Kuina." The sound of her name being called, not loudly, brought the girl from her fantasies. Even as she imagined herself a great swordsman like her father- the greatest by now- she was still only eight years old. Kuina turned to look at the modestly sized dojo that was her home, blinking her blue eyes slowly at the tatami door. Home beckoned.

She gave the sea and the sky one last glance as she turned away, her bare feet on the sand whispering a goodbye to the outstretched fingers of the tide as she turned and ran, with only the slightest reluctance, towards the house, her dress flapping around her knees as the wind ran its fingers through her hair and batted teasingly at the folds of her clothes.

Inside was cool and quiet, like it always was. Her father liked it quiet, and she preferred it to the noise of fighting and arguing. That had only happened a few times, but all the same she wished it away. Her bare feet made only soft padding sounds on the bamboo floor as she slipped through a partially open door to where she knew her father to be.

Their living room was sparingly furnished, yet not Spartan in its decorations, which were simple but pleasing. Zoro had never been one for extravagant designs or displays. He sat in the middle of the room with his legs crossed, his eyes closed in meditation. The white sword he so cherished was displayed almost reverently upon the mantle behind him, and Kuina's blue eyes flickered from the sword to her father.

He opened his eye, the other long since sealed shut by a vertical scar, and met her stare with his steady obsidian gaze. "It's almost time for lunch," he told her, more gently than one would expect from a man so gruff-looking.

Kuina nodded her affirmation as she slowly wandered toward the mantelpiece, where several pictures were displayed along with the katana. She knew she was forbidden to touch the sword; she was still too young for that, her father had told her, but one day it would be hers, just as it had belonged to her namesake. The pictures told another story, though, of a different love. She felt a flicker of recognition upon seeing the blond man standing with her father in most of the pictures, but she could recall neither his name nor his place in her memories.

He was handsome, though, with almost shaggy blond hair that hid his right eye, and a dark goatee. His eyes were blue, too, the color of the ocean when the sun made the water sparkle like a great sapphire. A bit like her own, though she did not often linger on her own face in the mirror. Her father and this man seemed to get along, though. They laughed and smiled together in the pictures, stood by the sunset with their arms around each other and drank. There were even a few that included a small child she assumed to be herself, only an infant wrapped in blankets at the time and sleeping in her father's arms, sometimes squirming. One was of just her and the nameless blond man, his bangs hiding all but the smile on his face as his slender, pale hand gently caressed the cheek of the baby held in his arms.

It made her curious. "Papa, who's that man in the picture?" Kuina asked, turning to look inquisitively at her father as she pointed to the picture of the blond man holding the baby.

There was a pause before Zoro responded. She knew it was because he was thinking; he did that a lot. After a moment he let out a soft sigh, getting up from his spot to come and stand next to her. He looked at the photograph for another moment before returning his gaze to her. "He's your father," he replied, and Kuina was confused.

"But you're my father," she said, looking at him with eyes that begged for the logic of his statement.

"So is he," Zoro replied simply, after another pause. "He's the one who brought you to me." He picked up the photograph in his rough, calloused hands, handling it gently as if it were delicate china. He knew Sanji would have scolded him for touching it in the first place, saying he'd smudge it with his dirty marimo fingerprints and couldn't he at least wash his hands first because lunch is ready.

A small smile pulled at the corners of Zoro's mouth, and for a moment he let the memories take him back through time. There had been no denying after so many years that he loved the damn ero-cook, not so much an insult now as a fond pet name that he still called the chef sometimes.

"Where is he?" Kuina's voice pulled Zoro out of his thoughts, her inquisitive blue eyes that reminded him every day of Sanji's fixed on him with acute curiosity.

"He's… away," Zoro told her, looking into her azure eyes, the color of that ocean the damn ero-cook had spent his whole life trying to find, hoping that she would find no fault with the half-truth.

"Is he coming back?"

Zoro couldn't bring himself to answer that, for his sake as well as hers, and he looked away, his grip firming on the photograph in his hand. There was another pause, a long one this time, and Zoro could only say, "Maybe someday."

Zoro had achieved his ultimate goal, gotten what he wanted. They all had, in the end. But afterwards, in the years without Sanji, they were never really the same.

It was nothing like what they had before. But as Zoro looked at Kuina, he knew.

He still had something.