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Three Demons Walked Into a Bar

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Part 1: Enter! Uzumaki Maiha

Uzumaki Maiha stared at her reflection in the water taking in the wide blue eyes, small nose, and cheeks pudgy with baby fat, along with the long golden blond hair hanging in twin pigtails around her face. Bringing her hands together she forced as much of her chakra into a single burst as she could attempting to dispel whatever henge had been placed on her. The wave burst from her core, but was far weaker than normal, her chakra feeling strangely slippery under her skin in a way it hadn’t felt since before she’d become a genin ten years ago.

Still despite that the burst was powerful enough that it could have, and should have disrupted any form of genjutsu placed on her person, but her reflection in the water didn’t so much as ripple. Which meant that the face looking back at her, truly was her face, not the face she’d seen in the mirror what felt like only hours ago but her much much younger face. If she had to guess she’d say the face looking back at her belonged to her five, maybe six-year-old self.

Her hands shook as she glanced around the strange place she’d landed in, the blackened, burned, deep crater that she’d woken in was only a few feet away. She’d crawled out of it and to this stream in an attempt to get what felt like ash out of her eyes only to find the face of her younger self staring back at her.

She wasn’t exactly sure what had happened to her. One minute she’d been destroying the last of Orochimaru’s bases still scattered among the Elemental Nations even after the Fourth Great Shinobi War, and the next she was here. However, a part of her, the part of herself that was all gut feeling and instinct told her that she had died, that she should very much be dead right about now. Thinking back, she was pretty sure she remembered pain, lots and lots of pain, and Kurama, telling her, well she wasn’t sure exactly something about the seal, and then she’d woken up here looking like she was all of five years old again.

More than a little concerned she reached for her partner, only to come up empty. She reached, again and again she reached, but she felt nothing, zip, zero, nada. It wasn’t like the times before when he’d tried to block her away, or the times when he’d been too tired to interact, even then he’d always had a presence in her mind. Now though when she reached it felt like there was a void, a place where he’d been, but no longer was.

Admittedly at the age she now appeared to be she hadn’t had any sort of contact with the tailed beast sealed within her, hadn’t even known he existed. However, she was pretty sure that when she reached for him she should be feeling something, anything.

Shaky and more than a bit afraid, she slowly leaned further over the water and lifted her shirt, doing her best to channel as much chakra as she could to her belly to make the inked lines of the seal appear on her skin. Nothing, there was nothing, however she wasn’t about to give up, reaching for the slippery, slippery chakra and doing her best to use as much as she possibly could, pushing herself farther and farther. Unfortunately no matter how hard she strained, no matter how much chakra she collected, not a single speck of ink appeared on the smooth skin of her belly.

She collapsed next to the stream panting in exertion, her whole body shaking both from fear and from exhaustion. This couldn’t be happening. Kurama had to be here, there was no reason for him not to be here with her. After all, to separate him from her would require her death, and she was in far too much pain at the moment to be dead. She just didn’t understand.

Terrified she turned back to the crater, trying to figure out how she came to be in it, and where the hell she was only to pause as she realized something. She hadn’t noticed before but there was some kind of seal under the soot that covered the crater. Heart leaping in her throat she stumbled over to it, tripping over the edge and tumbling into its center, almost squashing a strange looking ball.

Confused she picked up the ball, which was about the size of an orange and cleaned the soot off of it. She gaped at the strange thing, which was burnt sort of orange and covered in strange black designs that reminded her of ink and seals. However, none of the scrolling appeared to be an actual seal, so she carefully put it in a pocket and set to work attempting to discover what the hell it was and what the seal underneath the soot was.

Despite its size and complexity, she was certain she could do it. She was an Uzumaki after all and seals were in her blood. There was no way she could fail! She’d figure out what the hell this seal was, find out what happened to Kurama and rescue him if necessary, and then get back to Konoha in time for dinner dattebane!

…~oO*Oo~…

Maiha stared blankly at the fruit in her hands, sitting at the bottom of the crater with red rimmed eyes. It had been four weeks since she’d arrived and three since she’d discovered what the seal had done. It had taken her a good long while, but eventually everything had become clear.

It was just like her gut had said. She was dead, or she should have been. However instead of dying and going to the afterlife to meet her precious people Kurama, her beloved partner, the person who had known her best had made a bargain. He’d saved her life at the cost of his own and sent her into an entirely new dimension, along with the fruit, which was apparently the last bits of his power converted into a form of chakra that melded better with this dimension. It had also had the unfortunate side-effect of making her five years old again.

She didn’t understand, oh sure she could see the evidence in front of her. She understood what the seal was telling her, she just couldn’t or perhaps didn’t want to believe it. It felt like she was in shock, a strange sort of fog where she couldn’t seem to react, her emotions locked away tight.

The only reason she wasn’t completely numb was because of the mystery tugging at her mind, curiosity keeping her from becoming catatonic. She’d never much cared for mysteries and wasn’t the type to leave them unsolved, and this one was pretty big. One part of that mystery was the fruit sitting innocently in the palm of her hand, the fruit that supposedly had some of Kurama’s power in it, a gift from him to her, and the other part was something she’d found when she’d done her best to wash all the grime off herself in the nearby stream.

Words. Words written in black ink on her skin, words that she was absolutely certain hadn’t been there when she was five and certainly hadn’t been there when she’d been blown into this world. One the simple phrase Fight me! written in surprisingly neat calligraphy down her right bicep. The other had only come to her attention after she’d found the first one and had, alarmed, checked over the rest of her body.

It had taken producing a shadow clone, a feat which had taken several hours and nearly wiped her out of chakra, to be able to read the untidy scrawl on her back which read What the hell? How are you doing that? .

She didn’t understand, didn’t understand at all. Why the hell was there writing on her? At first she’d wondered if because this was a different world if this was a different kind of seal, but then there was no chakra in them, and a little bit of poking and prodding at them with her own chakra had provoked no response whatsoever. She was stumped.

There was nothing she could do about those for now, though she was determined to figure out what they were eventually. However, she could do something about the fruit, after all it was clearly a fruit, with a little stem and everything, and thus it must be meant to be eaten, which had led her to where she was now, staring at it.

Frankly it didn’t look all too appetizing, but she supposed she’d probably eaten worse over the years. It couldn’t be worse than some of the stuff she’d eaten out of dumpsters over the years when she couldn’t afford food. That in mind she promptly lifted it to her lips and bit down.

Regret, there was so much regret. Her eyes and nose were watering, and she was gagging and retching the second it hit her tongue and it took a lot of work for her to choke it down. It tasted like decaying garbage, held together by rotten eggs, lathered in sewage for taste. It honestly tasted like death and only the knowledge that this was Kurama’s last gift to her saw her scarfing down the rest of it, even when holding her nose didn’t help in the least.

Once it was all down she felt a warmth settle into her belly, a familiar warmth. Relief and hope surged for a moment, until she realized that despite the bit of Kurama’s power didn’t have Kurama himself in it, of course it didn’t. She could literally feel the last bits of hope she’d been clinging to that he might not actually be gone fade away.

Her whole body trembled with pain, rage, and grief. The numbness she’d felt before was nothing compared to this tidal wave of emotion, perhaps in part because in the back of her mind she’d been holding on to a tiny shred of hope. Oh she’d accepted that she was in another dimension and that everyone else was gone but Kurama. Kurama was different because Kurama wasn’t like humans, he was made of chakra there was no way he could be killed, only sealed away, and she’d hoped he’d been sealed in the fruit and that eating it would restore their bond.

Apparently it wasn’t to be, and she was well and truly alone.

…~oO*Oo~…

When she came to she realized that everything around her was burning, confused and a little alarmed she raised her head only to find the forest she’d been in burnt to ash. Climbing shakily to her feet she nearly fell right back down again, as she realized the enormous amount of destruction all around her. It was on the same level as a bijuudama, everything, burnt, blackened and destroyed, the remnants burning in a crater that was reminiscent of the one she’d woken in only far more expansive.

Bile crawled its way up her throat as she realized that she had done this. She was to blame for this wonton destruction. She could only hope, hope and pray that no other people had been nearby when she’d lost herself to the madness of her grief and pain. Just the thought of another person getting caught up in this because of her was enough to make her sick.

She wretched pitifully as she realized she’d temporarily become just like those she’d always fought against, like Sasuke, Obito, Madara, Nagato, Gaara and so many more. She’d allowed her pain to dictate her actions, taking it out on the innocent without thought or care.

Her friends and family would be ashamed of her. Kurama would be ashamed of her. All her life she’d striven to prove to him that she was different, and then she went and did something like this? Even if there weren’t any humans, and she was going to make damn well sure that there hadn’t been just as soon as she could walk without collapsing, this kind of wonton destruction was wasteful, inappropriate, and stupid.

Another wave of grief came at the thought of the lecture she’d be getting right about now from any of those she’d called companions, but she didn’t allow the darkness to claim her vision again. She couldn’t, wouldn’t go on another rampage. She’d do her best to clean up the mess she’d made and then… she wasn’t sure what then but she’d think of something.

It took her days to cover the blackened patch of earth, putting out fires as she went to keep them from spreading, in a thorough enough search pattern that she could be certain no one had died because of her temporary loss of control. However, it had been a close thing, very close, because one edge of the crater came within seeing distance of a thoroughly bustling seaport.

The only reason no one from that town knew or was worried about the damage she’d caused was because there was a small mountain range between them and her, one which would’ve been all but impossible for civilians to climb especially considering how sheer the face on their side was, almost as if it had been shaven off, or sliced in half.

Either way she was incredibly lucky that her only victims had been animals, though that hadn’t stopped the guilt or the tears when she found the small family of foxes dead in their burrow. What had happened, that loss of control, could never, ever happen again.

She couldn’t allow herself to give into grief or risk hundreds if not thousands of innocent lives. The chunk of power Kurama had given to her, had entrusted to her, was far too powerful for that. She needed to learn its limits and how to control it, so that she would never unintentionally harm anyone ever again. It was time for her to get to work, and then, maybe, once she got some control, she’d go see what was in that town that had narrowly escaped a massacre at her hands, to try and figure out where she was and if she could ever go back.

Still that would have to wait. She wouldn’t even think of getting close to them until she was sure she hadn’t become the monster the people of Konoha had once accused her of being. She would get her power under control, and she would not allow herself to fall into grief, she wouldn’t let anybody be hurt because that was her nindo her ninja way!

…~oO*Oo~…

Maiha waved back to the people crowding the shoreline of the town she’d come to know and love as they cheered and shouted their good wishes for her journey.

It had been twelve long years since her landing here in this strange world, and while her grief for what had been left behind still sometimes gripped at her heart with painful intensity, more and more often over the years instead of just pushing the pain down she’d instead countered it with the blessings she’d learned she’d still had, and the new opportunities Kurama had given her here in this new world.

The first six years had been the toughest. Those years she had confined herself to the blackened wreckage on the half of the island she’d nearly destroyed doing her best to come to grips with her powers and ensure they never went out of her control ever again.

That time had been hell, much like the same time period from when she’d actually been five. She’d been all alone, and this time there had been no Sarutobi-jiji, friendly ramen stand owners, or exasperated Iruka to help stem the tide of loneliness.

Only sheer stubborn will power, the hope of returning to her world, and the mystery of the words on her skin had kept her moving forward instead of succumbing to despair again, that and the fear of what she might become if she let it overtake her.

By the time she was eleven physically she felt she had a much better grasp over her powers and so had allowed herself to enter the village on the other side of the mountain for the first time. She’d gotten a few strange looks at first, her bright blond hair and whiskered cheeks as unusual a sight here as they had been in Konoha, but unlike Konoha the people had been friendly enough.

Luckily, she’d gotten enough control over her chakra to henge by then otherwise she might’ve really gotten some strange looks for the hodgepodge of animal skins she’d cobbled together over the years to keep herself from having to run around naked. Never had she been so grateful for the kunoichi lessons she’d always hated as when she realized it was sew or risk flashing anyone who came across her.

It had taken her a bit of time, but eventually she’d learned she was on an island in a place called East Blue. Apparently, the world she’d landed in was comprised mostly of oceans, seven of them, four of them named after the Cardinal directions, two sharing the same name of Calm Belt, and the last called the Grand Line.

It had taken some snooping, a lot of eavesdropping, and more reading than she’d ever done before in her life, but eventually she’d gotten a feel for where she’d landed. The idea of pirates had been a fascinating one to her, where she came from the only pirates were actually rogue ninja and they were only a problem near Mist. Even more fascinating was the idea of Devil Fruits, strange fruits that apparently gave whoever ate them unique kekkei genkai. It didn’t take her long to figure out that was exactly what she’d eaten, or to be very, very grateful that she’d never felt the need to attempt to swim in the ocean.

As it was she was suddenly feeling extremely lucky that she’d spent her time relearning water walking on a very shallow section of stream. Though it did explain why the exercise had been so abnormally draining at first.

Even more important than learning about the name of the gift Kurama had left her, was learning about the other gift he’d given her. Soulmates. Apparently in this world there was something called soulmates where each person had words on their skin, words that contained the first words their soulmate was going to say to them.

A soulmate was apparently someone that was destined to be a perfect partner, a match that could and would understand their other half better than anyone else could. They were apparently people who loved you unconditionally, a perfect fit.

Maiha wasn’t sure if all that was true or not, but the idea that there was someone, not just one someone but two someones out there in this world waiting to meet her, people who might want or need her was more than enough for her. She’d always done her best work when trying to protect her precious people, and learning about her soulmates had pushed her to greater heights. Especially since she couldn’t be sure where they were.

After all the world was a pretty big place, and some of the rumors she’d heard about the Grand Line meant she had to be in tip top shape to even have a hope of surviving, let alone finding her soulmate(s).

Thus for the next six years she’d spent her time devouring every scrap of information she could get her hands on about this world. She became a familiar face around the village, and in a strange twist of fate that involved pirates, orange string, a bowl of ramen, a lucky pig and a case of mistaken identity she’d also become something of a protector for the island.

It had made leaving difficult, but Maiha wasn’t the type of person to sit still, especially when she knew there were people out there waiting for her. Luckily the village had been very understanding, especially with soulmates involved, and so despite their sorrow at losing her was sending her off with fond farewells, a large boat just the right size for her to maneuver by herself, a full larder including as much ramen as the tearful vendor had been able to press into her hands, and enough money to last her a good long while she was on her way.

She was anxious to see what her soulmates were like, especially since she was almost certain Kurama had, had a hand in choosing them for her. Whoever they were they were sure to be interesting at the very least. She couldn’t wait.

Part 2: The Lost Swordsman Roronoa Zoro

He wasn’t lost damnit, he was just a little turned around. If the trees and buildings would stop moving around on him things would be a lot simpler. Honestly Zoro didn’t know how people managed with everything always swapping places.

Still despite his frustration he couldn’t bring himself to regret leaving Isshin Dojo all those months ago. He hadn’t had anything left there to learn, and being out on the open sea, tracking down the strongest people in the area, usually pirates, to test his mettle against them had been good experience for him. Hell, a couple fights had even been somewhat challenging, or at least more challenging than any of the fights he’d had back at the Dojo outside the few times sensei had agreed to spar with him.

Plus, when he inevitably beat the pirates he also got to turn them in for money, which meant that he could usually afford a hot meal and some booze if he was lucky.

Unfortunately, he’d had yet to find what he was truly looking for when he left the Dojo, which was a challenge, someone to push him to his limits and beyond. He knew that he was nowhere near his goal of being the best swordsman in the world if even half the rumors he’d heard over the years were true, but he was stumped on how to find worthy opponents.

He supposed he could try actually tracking down pirates with high bounties, but considering how the universe seemed to be actively working against him in terms of finding his way he was a little hesitant to follow that route. Especially since simply finding a pirate and following them had worked out decently so far as a methodology even if it wasn’t as well as he’d hoped.

His thoughts were interrupted by his latest target, a weakling who’d been calling himself Captain Flappity Jack to any poor sucker within earshot forced to listen to him prattle on about himself. His target had apparently decided that he’d had enough liquid courage to approach one of the women at the bar he’d stopped at.

She was pretty enough he supposed, with big blue eyes, bright golden hair, and a nice lush figure, and he could see why the supposed captain had, had to work up the nerve to approach, but considering the sheer amount of bluster the man was producing Zoro was pretty sure he’d been shot down, and rather quickly at that.

Getting closer Zoro was able to make out the words ‘pirate’ and ‘bounty’ and ‘you dare’ from the so called captain’s speech though it was a little difficult given the amount of slurring he was doing. The blond, who upon closer inspection appeared to be wearing a dress in eye catching shades of orange appeared completely and utterly unimpressed by the man’s blather, and Zoro was reluctantly impressed by her nerve if nothing else.

After all, in his experience so far civilian women tended to either quickly cave to pirates in the hope that they would leave them be, or search for help, either way they hadn’t been nearly as calm and collected as the blond appeared to be, even though all the patrons around her were cringing away looking extremely concerned as Flappity Jack kept flapping his gums and getting louder and louder with each passing second.

As the man’s aggravation apparently rose to a fever pitch and his hand went for his sword Zoro decided it was probably about time to step in. He didn’t approve of harming civilians and he wasn’t about to let a weakling like Jack do it right in front of his face where he could stop him. With a sigh he reached for his katana, his hand closing over the hilt of Wado Ichimoji but…

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” the woman’s voice was surprisingly husky, but loud enough that it cut through the bar, and for a wild moment Zoro wondered if she’d read his thoughts and was speaking to him, but when he glanced at her he saw her eyes were fixed on the man in front of her.

“What did you say stupid woman?” Flappity snarled his hand closing around his sword.

“The only stupid one here is you,” the woman countered calmly apparently not afraid in the least, “And I said I wouldn’t draw that weapon if I were you. If you did I might just have to do something about it.”

Jack sneered clearly unimpressed by the woman’s threat, but Zoro took a moment to consider. Either the woman was extremely confident, or extremely cocky, honestly, he was more than a bit interested either way. Deciding to see how this played out, at least for a little while longer he released the hilts of his swords.

He was surprised to see the woman’s eyes flick over to him for a second before returning to Jack, apparently, she’d sensed his presence after all. Impressive considering none of the other people in the bar had so much as twitched in his direction when he’d walked in, too preoccupied with Flappity Jack.

“This is your last chance lady, I suggest you apologize and come along nice like, before I slit that pretty throat of yours,” Jack informed her coldly.

“And I’ll repeat what I said again in smaller words with clearer meaning since you obviously didn’t understand before,” she returned a bored expression on her face, “go to hell.”

Jack snarled and went to draw his sword, and Zoro took half a step forward only to pause in shock at the sight before him. Jack was crumpled on the ground dead or unconscious he wasn’t sure, the seat he’d been next to crumbled into pieces and he hadn’t even seen her move. The only thing he’d really been able to process was the sound of wood breaking and the aftermath.

“Sorry about the stool,” the woman apologized to the bartender who was staring at her with huge eyes, “Here’s some money to replace it, and feel free to turn that guy in for the bounty he was bragging about. Thanks for the meal.”

“U-um sure,” the bartender told her clearly dazed as his gaze moved between her and the downed man, “H-have a good day miss.”

“Same to you,” she called back as she brushed past Zoro and into the street outside. It took another second for Zoro to process just what the hell had happened, but when he did a wild grin appeared on his face, inadvertently terrifying any of the poor bar customers who happened to be looking at him.

He didn’t pay them more than a second’s attention, not even bothering to give his former prey a second look as he whirled and sprinted for the door. Finally, a worthy opponent had appeared!

…~oO*Oo~…

It took Zoro over an hour to find her again. She was even faster than he’d originally thought! Still he counted himself lucky to have found her before she got off the island as it was plain from the way she was moving around the boat that, that was exactly what she was planning to do. He wasn’t about to let her get away so easily though.

As if sensing his presence, she looked up from the ropes she was adjusting and glanced at him. Her eyes roved over him taking him in, resting for a moment on the three swords at his hip before she shrugged and turned back to her boat an obvious dismissal, one that had him grinding his teeth at the insult to his pride.

“Fight me!” the words were out of his mouth before he even had a second to really think about them, though while not nearly as eloquent as he might’ve wanted got his point across seriously enough.

The blond straightened up from what she was doing looking him over again, this time with much more interest than before, before meeting his eyes holding them for a second, clearly assessing before she slowly hopped down off her boat and on to the wharf she was docked at.

“Why exactly should I fight you?” she asked hands on hips looking at him expectantly.

“I…!” He began then paused as he reassessed what she’d said. He could almost feel the blood draining out of his face as he realized just what words she’d said to him; his right hand automatically came up to clutch at the bandana on his left bicep that kept the tail end of the words written there from showing.

He had considered briefly what might happen if he came across his soulmates during his quest to become the World’s Greatest Swordsman, but he’d never given it a whole lot of thought mostly because one set of words was complete and utter nonsense and the other, the other he probably should’ve given more thought damnit. Especially since it seemed fate had decided he would meet that soulmate first.

Still despite everything soulmate or not, he’d sworn nothing would get in the way of his dream so, “Soulmate or not! I have a dream to reach and a promise to fulfill. Fight me!”

The blond, his apparent soulmate looked taken aback for a moment, and he wondered for a moment if she’d refuse, instead a strange look crossed her face and she nodded slowly, “Alright then. Come at me.”

He thought that despite not necessarily wanting or needing a soulmate, let alone two of them at the very least he could respect her for that. It was his last thought before he allowed himself to be swept up in the battle.

They clashed steel on steel as she pulled strange looking knives seemingly from nowhere and met his blades head on. He came at her again and again each time blocked and not just blocked but blocked easily. He snarled in frustration and tried to push faster, his strikes becoming harsher, wilder, but she kept up with ease, not even bothering to strike back. Dancing around his attacks with an effortless grace that despite the situation he couldn’t help admiring.

He wasn’t sure how long it lasted, minutes, hours, but one thing was extremely clear from the outset. He couldn’t beat her. She was too fast, he couldn’t land a strike on her, and on top of that she was surprising strong for her size and stature with the endurance to match. Hell, he wasn’t even sure she was working up a sweat as she flowed effortlessly in and around his blades whereas he was beginning to pant for breath, his lungs beginning to ache and muscles beginning to shake from the strain.

He could already tell that if he kept up the way he was he was going to fail. Figuring it was all or nothing he went for her one last time, putting his all into his final attack. He saw her eyes widen in surprise and for a second, he thought he might have her only to have the two blades he held in his hands shatter to pieces falling to scrap as she blocked him deftly one last time this block a lot harsher than the ones she’d done before which only served to prove to him what he’d been suspecting for more than half their fight. She’d been holding back the entire time.

Slowly he sheathed Wado and turned to look at her. She was watching him calmly and just as he suspected there wasn’t really any visibly sign of exertion despite the fact that he was soaked in sweat. The only reason he wasn’t sporting a multitude of cuts from those strange little knives of hers was because she hadn’t even bothered to attack him.

He couldn’t think of a single time he’d been so far outclassed, not since Kuina had died all those years ago, and it burned, burned just as much now as it did then. However at least Kuina had respected him enough to strike back at him! This woman hadn’t even bothered and he had to know, he had to know, “Why?”

The word was a ragged gasp of sound as he glared at her for all that he was worth, “Why would you hold back? Why wouldn’t you take me seriously?!”

“You’re right I held back,” she admitted seemingly not at all bothered by it as she met his gaze with hers, “I could’ve ended that fight within the first few seconds.”

“So why didn’t you?!” he snarled angrily stung, because despite suspecting it and hearing it said aloud by his opponent were two different things.

“Because if I did that, what would you have learned?” she asked not even flinching in the face of his anger holding his gaze with those impossibly blue eyes.

The words took him by surprise and for a moment he could almost see Koshiro-sensei telling him the exact same thing.

“You were trying to teach me? What the hell? Just what did you think I would learn from that? You didn’t even try to hit me!” he demanded.

“Are you saying you didn’t learn anything? Nothing at all?” she asked her head tilting to the side like a confused puppy, an innocent expression that considering she had just thoroughly kicked his ass he was more than a little annoyed with. Still it gave him pause as he thought about it for a second.

“I learned that it doesn’t matter how hard I hit if I can’t swing fast enough to hit in the first place,” he said slowly turning the fight over in his mind, “And a block can be just as effective as a strike in damaging an opponent.”

“Good enough,” the woman shrugged offering him a sweet kind smile that was thoroughly unnerving.

“But why help me at all?” he asked his temper cooling a bit in the face of his confusion.

“Well because we’re soulmates aren’t we?” she asked as if the matter was that simple, as if that was all the reason she needed.

“And I said soulmates or not it doesn’t matter I have promises to keep and a dream to fulfill,” he snarled back at her temper reignited by her casual manner, as if things could ever be as simple as she said.

“Alright,” she told him with a shrug turning her back to him and moving back to what he could only assume was her boat.

“Alright?” he repeated incredulously. He may never have planned to meet his soulmates, but he had suspected they’d be angry when they learned he was placing his dream above their bond, “That’s all you have to say?”

“Is there something more to it?” she countered glancing back over her shoulder, “Dreams are important, and so are promises.”

“I… You’re not even going to ask about it?” Zoro asked completely and utterly confused, “You don’t even want to know why?”

This was definitely not the way he would’ve predicted this meeting to go. If anything, this was the exact opposite of anything he ever would’ve expected and it was throwing him completely off balance.

“Well I’ll admit I am a little curious, and I would like to hear about it,” she admitted giving him a calculating look, “But only if you want to tell me about it.”

“I don’t mind telling you,” Zoro told her slowly realizing that it was true, strangely enough he actually minded telling her less now than if she had demanded an answer from him.

“Alright,” she agreed with a sunny smile that caught him off guard again, “How about over dinner then? I haven’t gotten to eat yet because that asshole interrupted me, and after a fight like that I’m sure you’ve worked up an appetite.”

His stomach gurgled in response and he clutched it in surprise, a flush taking over his face as she let out a bright laugh amused and surprisingly light for someone who could apparently kick his ass ten ways to Sunday.

“Come on then,” she offered gesturing toward her boat, “I think I’ve got enough supplies to whip us up something.”

Figuring that it couldn’t hurt, and that he couldn’t really decline since his stomach had already outed him Zoro nodded in agreement and followed her aboard the vessel.

It was a nice little boat, just the right size for one person to be able to man on their own, and nice and clean. He was a bit surprised to be led into the cabin, which was sparser than he would’ve suspected from someone wearing such a bright dress, with only the bare essentials a hammock, suspended over a trunk he assumed held the essentials, a table strewn with navigating equipment, and a small kitchen with a couple of pans, plates and glasses.

“It’s not much,” she told him with a shrug, looking a bit embarrassed as she glanced around herself, “But it gets the job done.”

“Better than where I’ve been staying,” he admitted easily with a shrug a bit taken aback by the shy smile she offered him in response before making her way to the fridge.

Faster than he would’ve guessed a wonderful smell filled the cabin and he was seated at the table across from her with a big bowl of piping hot ramen in front of him. The food was delicious and surprisingly filling, more than enough to fill his empty stomach as he haltingly told her about Kuina, Isshin Dojo, and his promise to be the World’s Greatest Swordsman. All the while she watched a serious look on her face as she digested everything he was telling her.

“So that’s why I can’t be bothered with my soulmates, because my dream comes first and I’ll die trying for it if I have to,” he explained unable to help the slight gnawing of guilt as he said it. Sure, he was firm in his convictions, but it was much harder keeping to them when what he was giving up was staring him right in the face. Especially when she was being so good about it.

“Can I ask you something?” she said after a long moment of silence, “And not have you bite my head off? Keeping in mind I’m not trying to be insulting just genuinely curious.”

“Um sure,” Zoro told her with a shrug figuring it was the least he could do for her a little puzzled but willing.

“Why is keeping your promise to Kuina and fulfilling your dream something you can’t do with your soulmates? I mean is there a reason you can’t do both at the same time? Be with your soulmates and achieve your dream?” she asked frowning, looking so genuinely puzzled that despite the challenging words he couldn’t get mad. In fact, he could sort of understand where she was coming from.

“Because I agreed to put my life on the line for my dream. It would be selfish of me to ask my soulmates to do the same, and besides they’d only hold me back,” Zoro explained and was surprised when for the first time he saw her stiffen and fire flash behind those cerulean eyes of hers.

“Firstly, I think whether they want to put their lives on the line or not should be a choice your soulmates make for themselves don’t you think?” she pointed out her voice still carefully controlled despite the fact that he could see something he’d said had sparked her temper, “And secondly get in the way? I don’t know where you were earlier but I handed you your ass and I did it easily.”

Zoro twitched at that, but didn’t have a ready response, especially considering what he’d seen of her skill earlier still, “Just because you’re stronger than me for now doesn’t mean it will always be that way. Besides people can only hold you back, make you soft. Besides I want to do become the World’s Greatest Swordsman on my own, my pride demands nothing less.”

“Maybe that’s true maybe it isn’t, but it will be a long, long time before you catch up to me, especially since I don’t plan to stop getting better,” she countered, “As for your second point. The only thing I can say to that is, you’re an idiot worse you’re a liar and a hypocrite.”

Zoro stiffened angrily, and was going to retort until her hand slammed on to the table in front of him rattling the dishes jarringly, as she stood looming menacingly, and he was surprised by how intimidating she managed to be considering she was a couple inches shorter than him and at first glance looked more like a sweet little doll than anything else.

“I just just listened to you tell me about Kuina, about how she’s the one who truly motivated you to become the World’s best, and you’re trying to turn around and tell me you’re stronger alone? That she must have somehow held you back? Is that what you’re telling me? That if you’d never met her you would be stronger for it?” she demanded leaning forward and glaring at him her eyes like cubes of ice and a pressure in the air around her that made it hard for him to breathe.

However, she had a point, a good point. He never would’ve made it this far without Kuina, it was his word to her that kept him going, kept him motivated, kept him pushing forward even when he’d worked himself to the bone. Her and Koshiro-sensei.

She must’ve seen the realization on his face because her posture relaxed and the pressure decreased, though it never truly went away, “Someone very wise once told me, that true strength comes not when we fight for ourselves but when we fight for those who are precious to us. It’s a creed I’ve spent my life adhering to, because people, people make us stronger.”

“The fact of the matter is we can’t get anywhere without bonds to other people, because bonds give us something to fight for. All of my strength comes from my bonds, both from the people who have supported me who’ve taught me, and from the people I may meet in the future,” she explained the pressure fading to nonexistence as she settled back down into her chair.

“You say that someday you’ll be stronger than me, but looking at you, as you are now you never will be,” she told him frankly, her tone calm, not insulting just stating facts, “You’re a big frog in a small pond but when you finally set foot into the wider world you’ll see just what I mean. Until then you should just give up, because until you can see, until you can understand, until you can match my conviction, you’ll never be anything but average.”

“Now if you’ll excuse me I have to restock my ship. I’m heading for the Grand Line and I need provisions before I go,” that said she turned on her heel and left heading out the door, leaving him alone gaping after her.

He wanted to shout at her, to run after her and force her to fight him again, to teach her a lesson about who was average, but he couldn’t. He only had one sword, and even with three he hadn’t been able to put so much as a scratch on her. Worse something about what she’d said had rung true to him, reminding him of several of the lessons Koshiro-sensei had tried to give him over the years, the ones about discipline and conviction, the ones he’d sometimes tuned out, instead focusing more on what he could do to make his body stronger.

He knew he wasn’t the most intelligent guy out there, but he didn’t think he was stupid either. He needed to think, really think, and then maybe get some more answers out of his mysterious blond soulmate.

He didn’t know how long he sat on her boat waiting for her to come back, lost in his thoughts and memories, about Kushina, the dojo, and her, the things she’d said and done.

When she finally came back she was carrying quite a few bags, some of which were several times her size. She didn’t even spare him more than a passing glance as she moved around her cabin, putting her haul away obviously preparing for a long and arduous journey. Finally, when she finished she turned toward him, hip braced on the counter, arms crossed and eyebrow raised clearly prompting him to explain himself.

“What do you want?” he asked finally, the most pressing of all his questions.

“What do I want?” she repeated looking more than a bit baffled, apparently not having expected his question.

“We talked about my dream, a lot, but what do you want?” he clarified.

She was silent for a long time and Zoro was beginning to think she wasn’t going to answer.

“A home,” she said finally, “Somewhere I can belong, with someone I can trust at my back, maybe a family someday, but not for a good long while. For now, I’d like to find my other soulmate and see what they’re like, other than that…”

She shrugged clearly unconcerned, “I don’t have any big ambitions, not like yours, not anymore.”

“So why bother with the Grand Line then?” he asked curious.

“Well I’m not the type of person to sit still and wait for my soulmate to come to me,” she answered with a shrug, “And I figured may as well go somewhere new and exciting, someplace with adventure and challenge and the Grand Line seemed like the best answer to that. Besides whoever this other person is, their goals must be pretty lofty considering how you turned out, so I figured that’s probably the best place to start looking.”

“You wanted to find us that badly?” he asked confused.

“I was lonely,” she admitted bluntly, “The island I lived on was nice, but boring, people there just didn’t understand. They liked their nice peaceful lives. I wanted something more than that. Yes, my eventual goal is to have a home, but it can’t be just anywhere because I’m not the kind of person to let just anyone guard my back. I’d have to find pretty exceptional people and again the Grand Line seems to be the place to find them.”

“I see,” and he did. He understood what it was like to stand head and shoulders above everyone around you in terms of sheer ambition and skill. He was lucky to have found Kuina when he did, because up until then, despite his success in taking down every dojo he’d come across he’d still felt empty, hollow. It was so long ago he’d almost forgotten about it.

It was a feeling he wouldn’t wish on anyone, least of all his soulmate. He’d been thinking a lot and now that he had his answers it seemed like there was really only one course of action.

He slid out of the chair and bowed deeply to her in supplication letting his forehead touch the floor in submission, “Take me with you!”

“What?” she squawked and he risked a glance upwards to see she was more flustered than he’d ever seen her before.

“Take me with you!” he repeated straightening up sitting on his knees so he could see her better, “You said you’re going to the Grand Line right? That’s where I need to go. I can’t keep wandering around the East Blue hoping to stumble on some kind of challenge. I need to get stronger.”

“Why should I?” she asked with a frown, “I thought you said you were better on your own.”

“I was wrong,” he admitted, galling though it was to say the words aloud they needed to be said, “I was wrong, and I was being a hypocrite. Kuina would’ve taken my head off, and Koshiro-sensei would be ashamed. Pride is a source of strength for a swordsman, but Hubris is a source of weakness. I let myself get prideful because I was beating everyone around here so easily that I forgot the first lesson he tried to teach me, which is that no matter how strong I may get eventually there will be someone stronger.”

“I won’t forget again,” he swore vehemently, meeting her startled blue gaze with his own fierce one, “I won’t forget that I can’t do everything on my own. With your help I could get stronger, strong enough to be the World’s Greatest Swordsman and strong enough to guard your back, so take me with you!”

She studied him for a long moment, taking him in, the same way she had when he’d first said his words to her. He stared back holding her gaze with all the conviction he could muster. Even if she said no, his mind was made up, he wasn’t going to let her leave him behind. He’d just have to follow her, the same way he’d followed those pirates before. He’d dog her all the way to the Grand Line if he had to.

Slowly her expression shifted and a soft smile made its way across her face, the sincerest smile he’d yet to see from her, and it took his breath away as he realized that this was the first real smile she’d given him.

“Alright, you can come,” she agreed still smiling, “I think the least I can do for one of my soulmates is give him a second chance.”

The smile fell off her face at that though and for a second her expression went cold and distant, “But you won’t get a third.”

“I won’t need it,” he told her firmly, and he wouldn’t. Once he made up his mind about something he stuck to it come hell or high water. And while his mind might not be made up about their third soulmate, feeling his fears about them holding him back or getting in the way by being unable to pull their own weight, he was sure about her, and for now that was enough.

“Let’s start this again, my name is Roronoa Zoro, and I think I’m your soulmate, my goal is to be the Greatest Swordsman in the World do you think you can keep up with me? I can’t have anyone who might hold me back,” he held his hand out for her, and was relieved when she took it easily.

“Roronoa Zoro I am Uzumaki Maiha, and I know you’re my soulmate because no one but the strongest would be able to handle standing at my side and at my back,” she countered confidently eyes bright and wild and fierce in a way that made butterflies swarm through his belly, “And I think this is the start of a wonderful partnership.”

Part 3: Firefist Ace A.K.A the Hot Head

Ace laughed as another member of the crew sank beneath the table unable to drink anymore. Next to him Izo hid a smirk behind his hand as they watched their Division members stumble happily around the crowded bar. It was a good night. He and the rest of the Second Division along with Izo’s Sixteenth had been given a mission for Pops which had been more difficult than they’d been expecting about a month ago and now it was finally complete.

Now though as a reward for all their hard work they’d been given the next couple days off while the rest of the crew restocked the Moby and ran errands. Izo had suggested that they all celebrate together, and so here they were getting drunk and having a good time at one of the better bars on the island.

Ace himself was pleasantly tipsy for now at least. It was nice to have enough conscious control over his body to be able to literally burn off the alcohol whenever he wanted, unlike Marco whose body had apparently deemed alcohol poisonous and rendered it completely harmless the moment it hit his stomach making him completely and utterly unable to get drunk or even buzzed for that matter.

He was enjoying himself, relaxed in the company of his brothers and in hindsight he probably should’ve known that it was destined not to last very long.

His first sense of trouble was when his observation haki picked up the bullet headed right for his skull. His reflexes were a bit poor thanks to the alcohol, but luckily because of his logia defenses it passed right through him. Unluckily it also managed to hit the person standing behind him, or their drink at the very least shattering the glass bottle and spraying alcohol everywhere.

Everyone froze as killing intent surged and turned to look at the person whose booze was dripping all over them. It was a green haired man dressed in an open blue short sleeved button up shirt leaving his chest bare and revealing a massive scar across his body that looked like someone had tried and failed to cut him in half. He had a green harimaki around his hips a black bandana tied around his upper arm and three gold earrings glinting in his ear.

“Roronoa Zoro,” someone whispered in horror.

Ace stiffened as he recognized the name. Roronoa Zoro was an extremely famous bounty hunter, one of the few strong enough to hang around the New World half of the Grand Line. He was supposed to be extremely strong and rumor had it the marines had tried more than once to recruit him, but he’d turned them down every time saying he preferred to roam freely.

“Run ru-urk!” someone shouted only to be cut off and Ace slowly turned his head to see the other reason the appearance of Roronoa Zoro was so dreaded.

There she was sitting like a queen on the back of someone ten times her size, and around her were several downed bodies. A quick glance had him breathing a sigh of relief as he thanked whatever deity might be listening that none of them were Whitebeard pirates.

Her golden hair was down in a cascade around her shoulders, and her bright blue eyes were narrowed in annoyance. She was wearing a white tank top with a black short sleeved jacket over it and a bright orange skirt with knee high black combat boots.

Despite her being far prettier than rumors had hinted at there was no mistaking the whisker marks on both cheeks. She was Roronoa’s partner Uzumaki Maiha. No one was really sure what all she could do. It was general knowledge that she had a Devil Fruit ability of some kind but the rumors about her were so crazy that even Oyaji had dismissed them as ridiculous.

Still these two were dangerous, and while any other day Ace would’ve been happy to try to take them on, he didn’t want to do it here, not when his brothers were all around him, drunk out of their minds and vulnerable. He knew his fighting style well and if he had to go all out, which he suspected he might against these two, then the collateral damage would be massive, and he didn’t want to risk hurting his crew.

“That was rude,” Uzumaki’s voice cut through the silence of the bar as she spoke to her ‘throne’ one of her hands wrapped tightly into the man’s hair yanking his skull backwards painfully.

“What are you doing?” the man yelped unhappily, “I’m not a pirate I’m a bounty hunter just like you. Let me go!”

“I’m well aware you aren’t on the wanted lists, but I doubt you’re a bounty hunter,” Uzumaki snapped clearly unhappy, “Because if you were a bounty hunter you would know and adhere to the unspoken rules that even the most depraved of our kind follow.”

The man paled so rapidly you would’ve thought he’d seen a ghost. Curious now and not feeling quite so defensive Ace cast a look at Izo who shrugged looking as mystified as he felt.

“I-I can explain!” the man protested weakly.

“Explain? Explain why you decided to interrupt our casing of the bar and our target, despite the fact that we were clearly here before you and so far above your weight class it’s laughable?” she asked flatly. The man opened his mouth to reply but she yanked his hair eliciting a pained yelp that immediately made his mouth clamp shut again.

“On top of that discourtesy, your attempted assassination almost let our actual target get away, and it’s only thanks to my partner’s quick reflexes that our payday didn’t just run straight out of the bar along with the rest of his crew!” she continued gesturing at Roronoa causing Ace to cast him a glance as well.

Sure, enough despite the man’s relaxed demeanor as he casually took a swig from a new bottle of alcohol that he’d gotten from who knows where, there was actually a rather frantic looking pirate, again Ace noted with relief not one of his crew members, bound and gagged, with the hand that wasn’t holding his alcohol holding an extremely sharp looking black blade to the man’s throat without so much as a waiver.

“And as if that wasn’t bad enough,” Uzumaki continued returning all attention to her, “Your attempted target was the Second Division Commander of the Whitebeard pirates? Are you stupid, crazy or just suicidal?!”

Ace smirked slightly at that, pleased that his reputation had proceeded him in this case, only for it to drop off at her next words, “In this bar I’m the only person who could take him on one on one, and while I could do it easily, the problem with that particular line of thinking is that it would be a one on one fight.”

“She’s awfully cocky,” Izo muttered to him quietly as he steamed in annoyance, just who the hell did she think she was anyway? “But she does have a point.”

Ace whipped around to look at Izo mouth open to snap something, but his cross-dressing brother held his hands out in surrender, “I’m not talking about her fight with you, I think she’s underestimating you, no I’m talking about what she said after that.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, the Moby Dick is docked in the harbor, the island is literally swarming with Whitebeard Pirates including all Sixteen Division Commanders and Edward Newgate himself. Even if you had managed to take down Firefist, what the hell were you planning to do afterwards?” she demanded shaking the man’s head like a terrier with a rat as she vented her frustration with his stupidity.

“You can’t even take me out, did you honestly think you could take on the Strongest Man in the World along with his entire crew?” she demanded shaking his head again for emphasis, “I repeat what reasoning in the name of the sea and sky could be going through that thick head of yours that would possibly think that, attacking Firefist, and poorly at that, would be even remotely close to a good idea?”

“None of your business,” the man huffed out angrily in a move that Ace had to agree was only stupidity at this point, “And why do you care anyway?”

“I don’t,” she informed him flatly, “Care that is.”

That got dropped jaws all around including from Ace himself at the sheer nonchalance in her tone and the man himself began attempting to shout at her only to get his head bounced off the ground just hard enough to make him be quiet and not hard enough to knock him out.

“I phrased that badly,” she admitted a bit sheepishly, “I couldn’t care less if you were only a danger to yourself, but what did you think was going to happen when word got out that a bounty hunter attempted to take out one of Whitebeard’s sons huh?”

“The old man’s been pretty lenient on us being in his territory so long as we didn’t go after any of his crew or allies, somehow or other I don’t think he’d be so hospitable to any of us, regardless of whether or not we were associated with you or not if someone actually managed to hurt one of his,” she explained calmly.

“Now do I think my partner and I could get off the island and out of Whitebeard’s territory?” she asked aloud, “Maybe, depends on how fast they could mobilize and who we ran into on a direct trip to our boat, and whether Edward was mad enough to cause tidal waves.”

“However, there’s no doubt in my mind that there would be a lot of casualties involved, which would not only actually make Whitebeard angry with us personally, but also would involve the civilians, and as a rule my partner and I don’t do civilian casualties, ever,” the tone in her voice was both vehement and a little frightening, and he was surprised by how firm that stance was. Most of the people in her line of work couldn’t care less so long as they got paid at the end of the day, and the marines didn’t bother to care either unless someone important enough complained and even then, depending on how big a name the pirate captured was they might simply write it off as necessary or worth it so long as they had the pirate in question.

“Do you understand now?” she asked the man anger still clear in her voice, “I couldn’t care less about your life, but what you attempted just now endangered every single person on this island from pirate to bounty hunter to civilian.”

“You don’t understand!” the man shouted at her apparently still unbroken, “You don’t understand my pain, the pain that demon has put me through.”

Ace nearly winced at the moniker and only years’ worth of practice let him keep his face clear of the sting that always accompanied that particular word to instead glare at the man wondering what the hell he could’ve done to him. He sure as hell didn’t recognize him.

“I kind of doubt…” Uzumaki began only to be interrupted by the man’s agonized shout.

“He murdered my family! My parents my sisters my brother! Everyone dead because of him! Because of him I grew up alone, in a rank little orphanage forced to fight for my food how could you possibly understand my feelings?” the man asked and Ace couldn’t deny the anguish in his voice, and apparently neither could she as she sighed and got off the man’s back, prompting him to sit up a confused look on his face.

“Look, I do understand your feelings,” she informed him solemnly, “I also grew up alone fighting for survival because a demon killed my parents. However, that doesn’t justify putting innocent and unsuspecting lives on the line for your revenge. Today if you had succeeded in your goal, you would’ve become exactly like the demon who murdered your family.”

“I want him to feel my pain! I want him to suffer!” the man hissed, “Don’t tell me you didn’t feel the same!”

Ace had tensed when he’d been let up, ready to be attacked, either by him, by her, or by her partner who was still sitting behind him. Luckily it seemed attention wasn’t actually on him for the moment. Glancing at Izo he saw the other Commander frantically signally some of the more sober members of his Division to get the insensate out of the potential line of fire, and to go get reinforcements just in case.

“That won’t be necessary you know,” Ace nearly jumped out of his skin and he heard Izo squawk in surprise as Roronoa spoke up for the first time ever. Despite the man’s presence he’d almost forgotten about him.

“Not necessary?” Izo hissed quietly, “If you think for even one second we’re about to let you and your partner attempt to gang up on Ace. I don’t care what that man thinks he’s done. Ace is our brother!”

Ace’s heart warmed at Izo’s vehement defense of him even if at the same time he thought it wasn’t needed. He was more than ready to take these jerks on if they came at him.

“That’s exactly what she’s preventing,” Roronoa informed Izo apparently not at all phased by the Sixteenth Division Commander’s ire, which was entirely stupid in Ace’s opinion as there wasn’t a whole lot more pants wettingly terrifying than Izo in a snit, except maybe Marco at the end of his tether, or Oyaji when he was actually hacked off and not just pretending to be.

“Her ramen talks never fail to get her what she wants,” Roronoa assured him completely and utterly serious as both Ace and Izo boggled at him.

“What do broth and noodles have to do with the price of tea in Wano?” Ace demanded annoyed at the strange bounty hunter playing around with them.

He was surprised when his question drew all of the man’s attention his gaze, which had been relaxed up until that point becoming entirely sharp and predatory as he looked at Ace. His dark eyes, which Ace suddenly realized weren’t actually black but a very dark green, slowly looked him over a smile working its way on to his face as he met Ace’s gaze again.

“Her ramen talks make her the most terrifying woman on the Grand Line,” Rorona informed him even as Ace flushed unnerved under that predatory gaze.

“And how’s that?” Izo demanded looking more relaxed and not just a little suspicious, especially with the way he was looking at Ace, which only served to unnerve him further.

“Because I’ve never once seen her version of weaponized charisma fail to turn someone to her side,” Roronoa admitted a glint in his eyes that was decidedly proud and not just a little affectionate, before he ordered, “Watch her.”

Unable to help himself Ace’s curiosity made him turn back around to look at the Uzumaki despite a small voice in his head trying to remind him that the words ‘ramen talk’ were familiar and important, tuning it out for now.

He nearly keeled over as he realized that somehow during his short talk with Roronoa the big man who’d been a second away from attempting to kill him again was bawling away on Uzumaki’s shoulder as the blond gently patted his back smiling fondly as the man babbled on about kindred spirits.

Ace felt his jaw hit the floor. Damn it they’d only turned away for a minute or two at most! How the hell did she do that?

“I understand Mickey,” she told him kindly, “I really truly do, but I have to ask. If you were away from your home at the time, how did you find out it was Firefist who killed your family?”

“Well it took some work,” the man sniffled, “And a lot of time, but eventually I found the marine commander who was stationed on my island at the time. He was the one who told me it was Firefist, he’s the one that pointed me in the right direction to enact my revenge!”

“Mickey,” she told him solemnly, “I hate to say this to you because you seem like a great guy, but I think that marine lied to you.”

“No hear me out!” she ordered holding up her hands to stop the protest the man who was apparently named ‘Mickey’ was trying to make.

“Look at him,” she told Mickey gesturing at Ace who froze in surprise at suddenly being the center of everyone’s attention again, “With that face? I really doubt he’s more than twenty Mickey, twenty-five at the most and maybe thirty if you add in Grand Line bullshit.”

Ace wasn’t sure whether he was insulted or not to be called out on not looking very old. He didn’t have a baby face damn it, not like Lu! He looked like a fully-grown man and it was only the freckles that made him look young. That was his story and he was sticking to it!

“So, it can’t have been him Mickey,” Uzumaki was saying her tone gentle and reasonable, “Because you’re at least forty aren’t you?”

“Forty-five,” Mickey admitted wilting as both he and Ace realized where this was going.

“That’s right, so when you were eighteen even if we leave my high estimation of thirty for Firefist, he would’ve been three max. There’s no way he could’ve been the one to kill your parents,” she confirmed, lightly patting the man on his shoulder.

“But it still could’ve been him, right? He could be older? I mean the Grand Line is crazy right?” Mickey asked desperately but even Ace could tell he was clutching at straws.

“I’m sorry Mickey, but even discounting the age thing it couldn’t have been Firefist,” she consoled, though her tone was still firm and sure, “My partner and I followed his journey for a while, mostly trying to decide whether or not to go after his bounty or not, since it would’ve been easy given his Devil Fruit.”

Ace narrowed his eyes in annoyance. Seriously why the hell did this woman think he was going to go down so easily? It was starting to really get under his skin, and if she wasn’t in the middle of ensuring that no one in the bar got hurt he probably would’ve already challenged her to a fight.

“The fact of the matter is, he came out of East Blue, same as us, and around the same time too, just three years ago,” she explained, which actually took him by surprise. He’d been under the impression that she and her partner had been around for a while, apparently not.

“So, it really couldn’t have been him,” she finished firmly.

“But-but if it wasn’t him then what am I supposed to do?” Mickey asked bleakly looking completely and utterly lost, “I – I dedicated all my life to hunting down the man who killed my family, and that marine was my only lead. What am I supposed to do with myself now? I can’t just let a pirate get away with murdering my family!”

“So, don’t,” Uzumaki told him firmly, “Don’t let them get away with it, but also maybe change your way of thinking. Keep hunting pirates, but do it because you’re preventing what happened to you happening to anyone else. That’s what my partner and I do!”

“Really?” Mickey asked surprised.

“It is,” she affirmed with a bright smile, “Zoro’s goal is to be the strongest swordsman in the world, so we go after the biggest baddest pirates we can handle to give him a challenge, so he can improve. My only stipulation was that we only go after pirates who either attack us first or who really deserve to be dead or worse. Even then sometimes if Zoro gets a good enough fight out of it, and the pirate in question hasn’t done anything too terrible, we’ll sometimes let them go.”

“What?” Mickey demanded clearly shocked and voicing aloud the thoughts of the majority of the bar, several of whom had choked or performed fantastic spit takes, “Why?”

“Because punishment should fit the crime, and I don’t believe in punishing people who haven’t done anything wrong,” she told him with a shrug, “It’s why I make sure the pirates we hunt are the scum of the earth and deserve whatever the hell is coming to them whether that be execution or Impel Down.”

“For example, that guy,” she pointed at the man who Ace was startled to notice was still being held captive by Roronoa, “While normally below our skill level we made it a point to capture. You see before he even started his career as a pirate he liked to beat and sexually assault his wife who he’d tricked into thinking he was her soulmate, which was bad enough, but one day he went too far and killed her, and so he turned his ‘affections’ on their thirteen-year-old daughter. Luckily that didn’t go on too long, local law enforcement found out but he escaped before they could capture him and he became a pirate, famous for raping, pillaging and plundering any town he came across, with a taste for younger girls.”

“He sounds like scum, but how can you be sure he did all those things?” Mickey asked hesitantly.

“Now you’re thinking like a top-notch bounty hunter,” she told him cheerfully apparently not at all affronted that the man was questioning her.

“In answer to your question, the reason we came after him, is I happened to meet the young daughter in question a couple weeks back. She’s the one who told me about him, apparently, she’d heard of Zoro and I and thought we could help. I then made sure to stop on some of the islands he visited, and got to meet with a few of the girls he actually left alive, traumatized though they were, they were all able to give me a matching physical description along with his name and his Jolly Roger. It takes a little bit of work sure, but we have the time to do it and I’d rather go slow and maybe miss out on some money if I’m wrong then be wrong and get an innocent person sentenced to death or the like.”

“So, he really is a monster then,” Mickey noted staring at the man Roronoa still held with disgust, and he wasn’t alone. Ace was feeling pretty disgusted himself. Rape was disgusting period and to rape not only young girls but his own daughter? On top of soulmate fraud? Frankly he was the kind of man Ace would’ve happily killed himself if given the chance.

“He really is,” she assured him, “and he’ll face punishment for his crimes we’ll make sure of it.”

Mickey nodded slowly, “I’d like to do that, make sure monsters like him get punished. I just don’t know how to start. So far in my career I’ve just gone for whoever had a bounty trying to work my way up to Firefist.”

“If you really want to I can put you in touch with people who can help you,” she assured him with a bright smile that made her whole face seem to shine with warmth and sweetness, enough that if he hadn’t known who she was Ace never would’ve guessed she was a bounty hunter.

“Really?” Mickey asked surprised, “You’d do that for me?”

“Of course!” she replied easily and with so much sincerity Ace couldn’t help believing her, “But first I think you owe someone an apology.”

To his credit the man blanched at first but then slowly nodded and turned to Ace, who nearly swallowed his tongue as the man bowed to him politely and said, “I apologize for accusing you of things you didn’t do and for attempting to kill you. I hope you can forgive me.”

“Ah sure,” Ace accepted feeling more than a little awkward, after all it wasn’t every day someone actually apologized for attempting to kill him, “No harm done right?”

He glanced at Izo for help but his brother had whipped out his fan and looked like he was desperately trying not to laugh, so there would be no help coming from that direction.

“Thank you,” Mickey told him straightening back up to his rather impressive height, “And I promise from now on I’ll make sure the pirates I kill have done the crimes they’re accused of.”

Ace nodded hesitantly in agreement, but that seemed to be more than enough for the man who grinned and offered a hand, which Ace shook, still extremely bemused from this strange turn of events.

“Alright then, here’s a list of contacts for you, some islands and places along with Denden mushi numbers, and the one in orange is for me and Zoro, just in case you ever need our help,” Uzumaki told him waving a paper at Mickey who hesitantly accepted it.

“You’re giving me your personal Denden mushi number?” Mickey asked clearly as shocked as Ace was still feeling, “But why?”

“Because we’re friends, and that’s what friends do,” Uzumaki told him earnestly, which prompted the man to burst into tears and hug the woman tightly.

“I see what you mean about deadly charisma,” Izo muttered to Roronoa who just shook his head a tender smile on his face as he watched his partner hug the other man back and then shoo him on his way with a beaming smile on her face.

“Right,” Uzumaki cheered turning back to the bar with a smile on her face, moving so she was standing just in front of Ace speaking around him to her partner, “Mission accomplished! We got our guy and made a new friend! Ready to head out?”

“I would be, except it seems we have more business here than I expected,” Roronoa replied casually.

“Really?” Uzumaki asked clearly surprised, “Like what?”

Ace flailed in surprise as he suddenly found himself falling, realizing only belatedly that Roronoa had used a haki coated palm to his back to shove him forward straight into his partner.

He only caught a glimpse of startled blue eyes for a second before he knocked into her, and they both tumbled to the floor in a heap. Once he got his bearings he immediately lifted his head to glare at Roronoa who just looked flat out amused, even as flames danced over his arms and back.

He nearly jumped out of his skin as a hand touched his chest, and he stared down in surprise as the small, scarred hand moved easily through the flames licking at his skin without even a flinch of pain and no haki anywhere in sight.

“You’re so warm,” Uzumaki’s now familiar voice informed him her other hand tracing over his shoulder and down his arm raising goosebumps on his skin.

“What the hell?” he asked her puzzled, and caught more than a bit off guard, “How are you doing that?”

Her blue eyes, which he realized now that he was up close were actually a gradient of blue starting dark at the edges and lightening toward the center, opened wide with surprise and she gaped up at him, her hand which had been touching his arm paused in its movement.

“I think he might be a little slow,” Roronoa spoke up clear enjoyment in his voice, “But he’s ours, no doubt, said the right words and everything.”

Something clicked in Ace’s mind as he realized just why ramen talk sounded so familiar to him. It was because the words were written in neat calligraphy on his thigh. Along with his other set, the one Sabo had always teased him about on his lower back, just below the waistband of his shorts. Words that said…said…

“You, the two of you are…?” he asked hesitantly wanting to be sure.

“We’re your soulmates,” she affirmed with a gentle look on her face, soft and with a foreign emotion that made his stomach feel odd, “And you are ours.”

Ace stared at her baffled before a snort from Roronoa had him looking up to see the man leering at him a wild grin on his face as he offered, “So you up for a spar?”

“Zoro!” the woman under him complained heaving a sigh, “We just met him and the first thing you do is challenge him to a fight?”

Ace however was grateful for the excuse and the option to look away from that face and try to get his head sorted out. Honestly a fight sounded like the perfect way to do that, beating the hell out of something was always therapeutic for him.

“Hey it’s traditional for our soulmates to fight first thing,” Roronoa defended still grinning.

“How can it be tradition if we’ve only done it once and it was only you and me?” she asked exasperated but obviously fond as she sat up, extricating herself neatly from underneath him.

“He doesn’t mind,” Roronoa pointed out.

Uzumaki glanced at him and he shrugged, “Fine by me.”

“Alright, so how are we doing this then?” she asked heaving a put-upon sigh, “We’ll need a pretty deserted place if we’re going to actually run wild, wouldn’t want anything cut up or set on fire that shouldn’t be.”

“There’s a small island just off shore that’s completely deserted and no plants or animals either, more like a really, really big hunk of rock,” Ace offered feeling more and more enthusiastic the more he thought about it though he was a little worried about how reluctant she seemed to be despite Roronoa’s obvious eagerness.

“Fine,” she stood and offered him a hand, which he accepted to get to his feet, “Guess the only question left is if it’s a free for all or if it’s two against one.”

“You two against me?” Ace asked eagerly only to earn a snort of amusement from her and a wide taunting grin that assuaged his earlier worries about her not wanting to spar.

“Please, if anything it’ll have to be you two against me, otherwise neither of you stands a chance,” she boasted.

“We’ll see,” Roronoa retorted with a smirk.

“Please you’ve never won a single spar against me,” she retorted eagerly.

“Seriously?” Ace asked surprised. He knew that especially here on the Grand Line you couldn’t judge a book by its cover, but of the two of them he definitely would’ve pegged Roronoa as the bigger threat.

The green haired man didn’t answer but he couldn’t meet his eyes either and there was a light blush, just barely discernable on his cheeks. One that provoked a burst of laughter that earned him an annoyed glare.

“Oy! I’d like to see you do any better!” he protested.

“Oh, I will,” Ace assured him feeling more than a little fired up.

“Neither of you is going to beat anyone let alone me if you don’t hurry it up,” Uzumaki informed them from the doorway to the bar, “Move it or lose it boys.”

Ace grinned and hastily followed her out the door with Roronoa on his heels sending a quick wave to a bemused Izo who would no doubt let everyone know the minute he recovered from his shock, he hurried after her ready to have a nice long spar and finally show these two that he was no pushover.

…~oO*Oo~…

“What kind of bull shit Devil Fruit do you have?” Ace wheezed out between breaths. He would’ve been embarrassed if Zoro wasn’t laid out right beside him equally winded while the laughing Maiha stood over the two of them, looking a little sweaty but not too worse for wear.

The fight had gone on for hours, but it had quickly become apparent that Maiha was only playing with them, especially with him, because for some reason his flames didn’t do anything to her, if anything they almost seemed to rejuvenate her! His strongest attacks hadn’t even made her flinch!

“I ate the inu-inu no mi model Kyuubi Kitsune,” she informed him brightly all nine fiery tails waving behind her and a pair of golden fox ears on her head.

“As far as we can tell it’s a mythical zoan,” Zoro grunted from beside him.

“That just figures, devil fruits are bullshit to start with and those kinds are even worse than the normal ones,” Ace groaned, it just figured, no wonder she’d been so confident she could beat him handily, so could Marco, the only other mythical zoan he knew.

“Says the logia,” she replied with a laugh plopping down on his other side, though she didn’t lay down, just sat her eyes dancing in the light of the fires that were still burning around the island thanks to the two of them.

He would’ve been surprised that Zoro hadn’t sustained some serious burns except he’d been working with Maiha for years and thus knew his way around fire extremely well.

“You weren’t bad yourself,” the green haired man informed him rolling up on to his side so he was within Ace’s line of sight, “Guess the knife wasn’t for show after all.”

Ace smirked, he’d almost gotten a hit on Maiha with the knife once he’d realized his Devil Fruit wasn’t going to do anything for him, but she’d managed to block at the last second and sent him careening into Zoro, still he’d managed to tear a large rip in her jacket which she’d been forced to discard.

“It was fun,” Maiha agreed beaming a smile at the two of them.

Ace hummed in agreement. It had been fun, the most fun he’d had in a while honestly. It had been nice to cut loose without worrying about anything or anyone getting hurt or damaged. Watching the two of them he’d also gotten to see just how well they fit together. He could see why they were soulmates. He just wasn’t sure where or if he fit in.

He’d always been surprised that he had soulmates at all, considering whose son he was. However, Sabo had always been quick to point out that he not only had a soulmate he was doubly blessed with two, which must make him extra special. He’d never been able to voice to Sabo that the reason he’d suspected he had two in the first place was so that they could have each other when inevitably they realized that he wasn’t something they wanted to be associated with.

Seeing the two of them together had only finalized that opinion. Sure, they were being kind now, including him, laughing with him, sparring with him and looking at him with soft eyes, but he knew if they ever found out what he was that would change in an instant, and he’d be back to cold eyes, and hard fists instead. He couldn’t risk that, he wouldn’t be able to bear it if the worst came to pass, it was a miracle in and of itself that Oyaji had accepted him so readily, he couldn’t ask for more than that, it would be selfish something someone like him didn’t deserve.

“Ouch,” he hissed in surprise looking up at Maiha in shock, “What was that for?”

“For whatever stupid thoughts were going through your head,” she informed him a scowl replacing the smile she’d been wearing for the last hour.”

“They weren’t…ouch!” he hissed annoyed as she flicked him in the forehead again.

“They were,” she insisted fiercely, “I’ve seen that look on too many people to not recognize it. You were thinking you weren’t good enough.”

“Look Maiha, it…” he began only to be flicked in the forehead again.

“No!” she insisted looming over him, getting right in his face, “You are our soulmate, you are part of us, you are worth it, and everything we could’ve asked for in a third. You don’t get to just decide you aren’t good enough and try to martyr yourself and walk away, that’s for us to decide, for us to choose, and we choose you.”

Ace turned his face away from her vehement one, unable to look her in the eye, only to come face to face with Zoro who was looking at him just as intently, “She’s right you know. If that really is what you’re thinking if you try to leave because of something stupid like that we won’t let you.”

“We’ll follow you,” Maiha insisted heatedly, “we’ve gotten plenty or practice following pirates around and we’re not about to let you go now that we’ve found you.”
“I…!” Ace tried to protest again only to get flicked in the forehead, again, “Damn it woman will you stop flicking me!”

“I don’t remember you being quite so violently insistent with me,” Zoro mused with a snort clearly amused.

“You weren’t sure you wanted soulmates period,” Maiha informed him flatly, “And thus required a far more delicate touch. He on the other hand wants soulmates, wants us, and wants us badly he’s just too afraid to reach out and take what he wants, so one way or another I’m going to make him.”

“Terrifying woman,” Zoro told her, though the tone was infinitely fond.

“Don’t act like you don’t agree,” she said seriously, “You know it just as much as I do even if you’re not as vocal as I am. We are his and he is ours.”

“Agreed,” Zoro said his tone startlingly fierce for such a laidback guy, so much so it actually took him by surprise.

“You don’t understand,” he insisted, finding the strength to sit up effectively pushing Maiha away, as he pulled his knees toward his chest, wrapping his arms around them and glaring out at the sea doing his best to ignore the words hammering at his battered heart.

“So, make us understand,” Zoro said calmly as he too sat up and moved so he could be looking at Ace.

“I…” he began, he hesitated for a second then plowed right in, after all might as well get it over and done with, might as well rip it off like a band aid so he could move on from this awful day and maybe get away so he could lick his wounds in private before his crew caught up to him, “What would you say if Gol D. Roger had a son?”

“The pirate king?” Maiha asked her head tilting to the side, “you…oh…oh!”

“Dense,” Zoro hissed at her and Ace flinched in response unable to help it.

“What does it matter if the pirate king had a son?” Zoro asked surprisingly speaking up first, his tone brutally blunt, “The guy’s dead and the only thing that matters is what a man does for himself with his own hands.”

Ace stared blankly at the sea trying to process that, no one had ever, ever put it quite that way before, but that was, was… He jerked in surprise as blonde and blue filled his vision as he realized that Maiha had put her face in his.

“Ace, is that really all that’s holding you back?” she asked gently.

“Is that all?” he repeated flatly, “You act like having the blood of a demon in my veins is no big deal, like the fact that I exist is no big deal, like it’s no big deal that my mother died trying to extend her pregnancy so I could live because the marines were slaughtering every pregnant woman in the South Blue because it was rumored he had a lover there!”

“Firstly,” Maiha informed him gripping his shoulders in a fierce hold, “You don’t have the blood of a demon in your veins. I would know I’ve met demons before. Roger was executed right? That means he died, that means he couldn’t have been a demon therefore you are not a demon.”

“Secondly for us, for your soulmates that fact that you exist is a blessing and a miracle, you’re our missing piece Ace and that’s important,” she insisted and he was surprised to see tears welling in her blue, blue eyes.

“And Ace my mother died on the day I was born too, she died protecting me, because she loved me, because she wanted me to live more than anything, because that’s what mother’s do, they love you unconditionally,” Maiha told him her tone still intense despite her tears.

“Finally, what the marines do is not on you,” she finished shaking him slightly, “You can no more tell them what to do then they can tell you what to do. Don’t take blame for something that isn’t your fault.”

“I didn’t ask if that was all, because it wasn’t significant or important to you Ace, I asked because it doesn’t matter to me, to us. Why the hell should I care where you came from so long as you’re here now?” she asked gently.

Ace searched her face, that stupidly open honest face, but couldn’t find any hint of disgust, or fear, no hint of a lie to be found anywhere. His heart ached so fiercely he was afraid it was shattering into pieces. He wanted this, he wanted it so badly, he wanted to belong, to have someone who thought he should exist, should live but…

Gently she pushed his knees apart and clambered into his lap wrapping her arms around him and pressing his face into her neck. Hesitantly he slowly reached out and put his arms around her holding her to him. He nearly jumped as he felt a warm weight at his back, and arms wrapping around his waist gently tugging him backwards until he was leaning on Zoro’s hard muscled chest.

“We’re going to fight for you, you know?” the man asked his voice unwavering in its conviction, “And the two of us, we’ve never lost a fight when we fought together.”

Ace took in a shuddering breath. It was going to take some work, they were going to have to figure out just where the hell he fit, but if they were so willing to reach for him, to accept him, to fight for him, then really the only thing he could say was, “okay.”

“Okay,” he repeated and was rewarded by the two sets of arms tightening affectionately around him in a cocoon of warmth and strength that he was afraid it would be far too easy to get used to. Still for now, for now it couldn’t hurt right? For now, to have found his soulmates, for them to have accepted him, that was more than enough. Looked like it was going to be a good day after all.

…~oO The End Oo~…