When she first joins the Strawhats on their journey, Robin maintains her usual distance. She does what she’s expected to - she helps the navigator, yields to the swordsman, smiles at the cook, plays with the doctor and the captain, encourages the sniper - and she does what she must. She waits on the sign that it’s time to take her leave. She listens, but the whispers of betrayal never come; she watches, but she only sees them standing beside her, steady as a rock the sea beats against (and she has a terrible habit of being the sea, whittling away at the people around her).
But they are all so different from what she is used to. They shift aside for her as if it were the most natural thing in the world for them, like new water in a glass that is already half full. She stirs them up, but they settle, and in the end they have melded so seamlessly that it is impossible to tell where one of them ends and the other begins. It’s strange to laugh so easily, to feel so welcome and so unimaginably loved.
Chopper climbs into her lap, seeking refuge from one thing or another and a quiet conversation. Luffy tells her around a full mouth that she has a really nice reading voice and falls asleep at the galley table listening, late in the night when he has crept in for a snack. Usopp’s voice no longer wavers when he talks to her, when he tells her his boisterous stories or asks her advice, and Zoro sleeps more soundly on the deck - the two of them more at ease than she has ever had the chance to be.
Sanji asks her, with wide earnest smiles as he slides her a teeming coffee mug, what she’d like for dinner. Anything at all.
In a crowded shopping district, Nami takes her hand.
Robin - so wary and careful - is taken aback by these small, honest things, left at a loss for words. She smiles and answers softly, returns the gesture. And when she begins to understand, some time later when she has dwelt on it, when there is still a deep chill settled in her bones and a solid warmth pressing in from all sides - breathing easily, sleeping noisily, tossing and turning under the sheets, hugging pillows and kicking feet, faces burrowing into shoulders and hair - the reality of it only breaks her heart.
She has friends.
And the longer she stays, the more she doesn’t want to go.