"Very well," the old man says. "The two of you, together."
A feeling like being wrapped in a heavy blanket, the sun in the sky dimming like a candle flame cut off from air. The Thousand Sunny drops away from them, but there's no falling sensation, just weightlessness and disorientation, everything muffled.
Darkness closing in on them like the jaws of a giant seaking. How does that go? That's right.
"What the fuck is that noise?"
It's the cook's voice. Zoro opens his eyes and blinks, edges of black ebbing from his vision. He's on his back, looking up at a translucent canopy of trees, a latticework of blue sky showing through the leaves. He goes through a mental checklist: katana at his side, all limbs accounted for, everything functional, no pain, no blood. Looking good so far, although his ears are ringing a little bit. It's loud here, all right, but it's a familiar sound—the persistent, dissonant screech of cicada song.
How'd they get here? He can't remember. He can hear the cook getting to his feet somewhere off to his left. He lays there a few extra moments, feeling lazy, but then the cook is looming over him and nudging his side none too gently with the toe of his shoe.
"Wakey wakey, marimo," the cook quips. "Almost didn't see you there. You blend right in with all this green."
"Asshole." He bats away the offending foot with a growl and sits up. "Where's everyone else?"
"Search me. Climb a tree and look around some, would you?"
"Why don't you do it?"
The cook ignores him, already walking away to poke around at their immediate surroundings, which consist of a lot of undergrowth and gnarled roots. Zoro stands reluctantly and grumbles something about bossy, insufferable, useless idiots. But he chooses a tree anyway, one with good footholds and handholds for climbing, and starts his way up. He pulls himself up onto the topmost bough, startling a wide-eyed squirrel that scurries away with a squeak. The cicadas are even louder among the branches.
"Well?" comes the cook's voice from below. "See anything?"
He cuts away a swath of branches and leaves obscuring his view and is treated to the sight of more treetops. He swings himself over to the other side and does the same. More trees, no surprise there.
"Nothing!" he shouts down.
"What do you mean 'nothing'?!"
"What part of 'nothing' are you not understanding, cook?"
There's a loud thump and the bough he's standing on starts to wobble, the sound of cicadas wavering for a moment before picking up again with a renewed frenzy. He puts a hand against the trunk to steady himself. "What the hell did you do that for, jackass!"
"Keep looking until you find something or I'll kick this tree so hard you'll come crashing down with it!"
"I'm telling you there's nothing but more forest! Come up and see for yourself if you don't believe me!"
"I'm not a fucking land monkey like you! Would it kill you to be useful for once? We have to find Nami-san and the others!"
Zoro grits his teeth, scans the leafy green distance a second time. He doesn't need the cook to tell him that finding the crew is first priority. Heknows that, but that doesn't change the fact that there is literally nothing around for miles except trees and more—
He squints, shielding his eyes from the sun. Something in his line of sight seems to shimmer and shift. Are the trees moving?
Another impatient thump and this time he almost does fall over when the bough bounces beneath his feet. "Quit it before I cut your legs off!" he hollers. "I think I see something over there!"
"Well, what the fuck are you waiting for?"Another insistent thump and Zoro contemplates sawing off the adjacent bough and dropping it on the cook's head.
He decides against it, but just barely. He hops down from bough to bough until he lands on the soft floor of the forest. The cook is waiting and staring at him with an expression of scarcely concealed contempt. He makes an irritated gesture with his hand, as if to demand well, asshole? Zoro shoves him aside and starts walking in the direction he is one-hundred-percent positive is the right one.
"Now what have we learned? If you're going that way..." The cook grabs the back of his shirt, abruptly halting his progress. There's a look on the cook's face like sincere contemplation but Zoro knows he's just being facetious. "Then that means we should go the opposite direction. This way."
The sun is just starting to set, making it all the easier to trip over tree roots and loose, inconveniently-placed rocks. The cook is absolutely livid, which means veins are popping in his temple and his eye is developing a tic. He's even stopped yelling for Nami and Robin at every second. Now the only sounds accompanying them are their own footsteps and the ubiquitous cicadas.
"I can't believe this. Your incompetence is beyond mortal reasoning."
"My incompetence?! I'm just following you, shitcook!"
"Doesn't matter. It's always your fault. You're screwing us over just by being you."
"Should have gone my way to begin with."
"Then we would have been even more lost."
"I never get lost."
"You—YOU'RE ALWAYS LOST, YOU IDIOT. HOPELESSLY, PATHETICALLY, IRREVERSIBLY LOST."
"IS IT MY FAULT THAT THEY KEEP MOVING THINGS AROUND WHEREVER WE GO," he snarls indignantly.
"YOUR HEAD REALLY IS JUST A MOSS COVERED ROCK, ISN'T IT."
"SAY THAT AGAIN, DARTBROW. I DARE YOU."
"MOSS. COVERED. ROCK!"
He doesn't even bother unsheathing any of his katana. His patience is long gone and he wants the satisfying impact of his fist colliding against the cook's infuriating face. The cook meets him head on, the both of them blowing off all the frustration and nagging worry that's been building up since they woke. All this nervous energy, useless if you can't do anything with it but trudge through an endless forest with only each other for company. He lands a few hits and cook lands a few, hard enough to hurt but not enough to break, until he finally manages to grab hold of one of the cook's legs and send him crashing into the nearest tree.
Or, at least, that's what he meant to do.
He rubs his eyes and blinks. There's no one there. Which means he had definitely seen the cook vanish into the tree. Well. This is inconvenient. When he said he was going to punch the cook into next week, he didn't mean literally.
"Uh, cook?" he ventures. "You alive?"
"What the fuck," comes a voice from the other side of the tree, "just happened."
Zoro quickly walks around to see the cook patting himself down, confused but not exactly alarmed.
"You went through the tree."
"Like, through it."
"I am aware of that, Zoro!"
Zoro huffs and crosses his arms, annoyed but grudgingly relieved. "Well, that's that, then."
"What do you mean 'that's that'? People don't just go through perfectly solid objects!"
"You do. You just did."
"I—" The cook takes a deep breath, eyebrow twitching. "Zoro, come here."
"Why?" he asks suspiciously.
"I want to test something."
"You're not kicking me through any trees."
The cook shoots him a glare. "Fine." He walks up to the tree he had just passed through and puts a hand against the trunk—and then through the trunk. His arm sinks into it as if there were nothing there at all. He looks back at Zoro, eyebrow raised.
"Shut the fuck up and try it too, marimo."
Zoro rolls his eyes but complies. He walks over to another tree and pats its trunk. It's obviously solid beneath his palm and he can feel the roughness of the bark, but there's no resistance when he presses into it, and his hand goes through just like the cook's did.
"Yeah." He withdraws his hand and frowns at it, flexing his fingers. Then he draws Wadou and swings the blade in a sweeping arc. It cuts nothing.
Zoro thinks back. He was able to cut through the branches of that tree he climbed after he first woke, and the cook was able to kick it hard enough to make it shake all over. And just a little while ago, they were still stumbling over half-hidden roots and stubbing their toes and crashing into low-hanging branches. This must mean that they stepped over a line somewhere recently, crossed the border between normal and really weird ghostly shenanigans.
"A new development," he says slowly. "Which means…"
"Maybe we're finally closer to getting some fucking answers," the cook finishes.
Zoro nods, starts to take a step forward, but the cook sighs and grabs his collar, whirls him around to face the opposite direction.
"That's back the way we came. This way is forward. Idiot."
They're at the edge of a large clearing, standing atop a slope leading down to a village surrounded on all sides by the woods. Everything is awash in the orange glow of the setting sun—houses and their tiled roofs and walled courtyards, the neat grid of streets, the simple wooden bridges over the river that splits the village in half. It's an idyllic scene, all of it overlaid with that perpetual, high-pitched racket that's making his head throb. What did Zoro say was making that noise? Cicadas? Some sort of bug. Figures. Fucking pests.
"Oi, Zoro… are you all right? You're looking a little greener than u—whoa!"
Zoro sits down hard on the ground and Sanji is next to him in an instant.
"What the hell is wrong with you?"
"Nothing," Zoro says, but he sounds breathless as he struggles back to his feet. "Nothing. I—" He stops and Sanji can see Zoro's eyes darting this way and that, can almost hear Zoro's brain whirring away, overheating. Zoro turns suddenly and snaps, "This way."
"What? Wait!" He jumps after Zoro, who's already starting down the slope. "I said wait! I don't know where you think you're going, but that's probably not—"
"This way," Zoro repeats, voice flat and eyes hard when he looks at Sanji, and he turns to walk away again.
Sanji stares after him for a moment, then rakes a hand through his hair. "Fine! Bastard." He follows.
They pass people on the streets, parents walking with their children, the elderly bent over their canes. Nobody so much as glances at them, not even the stray dogs lounging on the bank of the river. Sanji takes a moment to look into the water as they cross one of the wooden bridges, and he's not completely surprised when he sees that he has no reflection.
He's about to point this out to Zoro but Zoro is already two streets ahead of him. He catches up to Zoro outside the gate to a large, walled estate. He can just make out the tops of tiled roofs over the high walls and he can hear the synchronized voices of young children. There's a sign hanging besides the gate in a language he can't read. Before he can ask Zoro just where the hell they're going, Zoro sets off again without a word, this time at a run.
"Fucking marimo swordsman," he mutters under his breath as he takes off after the idiot, trying to convince himself that he's not at all worried.
Soon they're at the outskirts of the village, heading towards another clearing just beyond a threadleaf maple tree with winding branches like veins. He catches a glimpse of their destination up ahead and his heart drops into his stomach.
It's a cemetery. Tall headstones in grim lines, smell of incense, flowers and earth. He stops just outside its perimeter, swallows hard. Zoro has already disappeared inside but Sanji can't bring himself to follow. He hates the concept of cemeteries, of the dead packed into the earth so tight instead of being set free at sea. But he knows it's different for Zoro and for everyone else who calls land home. He won't ever understand it, but he knows his place.
So he walks back to the maple tree, forcing himself to take calm, slow steps. He hops up and sits cross-legged on one of the lower branches, watching the entrance to the cemetery out of the corner of his eye, waiting for Zoro to come back. The cicadas are quieter here, for which he's grateful, although still too loud for him to successfully consign them to background noise.
He has a pretty good idea where they are now, considering the dojo they passed and the cemetery. Zoro's reaction too was telling. He'd be lying if he said it didn't put him on edge, but the question now is how they got here, why they're here, and why they're in the state they're in. He swipes a hand at the branch above him and it passes through with no resistance. He grimaces. Fucking fantastic.
He sees Zoro running back to him now, backlit by the setting sun, and he notices that Zoro has no shadow. Zoro is frowning, expression confused, uneasy, wary.
"What? What's wrong?"
"It's not there," Zoro says quietly.
"What's not?" He already knows the answer the moment he asks. But it doesn't make sense.
Zoro looks at him, jaw tight, thumb running over the hilt of Wadou. He glances back over his shoulder and then to Sanji again. He speaks as if he can't believe himself. "Her grave. It's not there."
Sanji opens his mouth to say something—but what could he say? Stay? Don't go back? Wait, wait—but Zoro is already running back to the village.
He's outside the dojo again. It's quiet now. Practice must be over. It's evening after all. Cicada song in the air. Of course. It's summer. They'll be singing throughout the night. He won't mind. He's used to them.
He steps through the gate, past the sign with the proud characters that read Isshin.
Now that he's inside, he can hear the clack of shinai coming from the rear courtyard, the sound of children's voices. He knows instinctively what today is, knows it deep down in his gut. He thinks he might be afraid. He's not sure.
He toes off his boots anyway, and goes up the steps and into the dojo, straight into the training room with the row of shinai he knows are lined up against the wall like waiting soldiers, their shadows a long salute. And there, sitting on the floor with his eyes closed, legs folded underneath him, unmoving, is his sensei. Zoro walks up to him, drops to his knees in front of him. He looks younger than Zoro remembers, his face not as lined, his hair not as streaked with grey.
Koshiro's eyes snap open suddenly and this startles Zoro, who has to stop himself from diving for cover. He's staring straight at him—or through him. Zoro can't tell, only knows that his breath has caught in his throat and he can't move. They stay like this for what feels like hours, Zoro's existence narrowed down to the line of Koshiro's cutting gaze. Sensei, it's me, he wants to say, but can't. Koshiro's eyes behind his glasses are focused and sharp.
But then Koshiro smiles, expression softening, and his eyelids drop again. He looks content, at peace, and the tension evaporates from the room, leaving Zoro feeling cold. Zoro whips his head around, heart hammering in his chest, to see the cook standing by the door to the dojo. Zoro spares Koshiro one last urgent look before he gets up and strides over to the cook, grabbing him by the elbow and steering him down the steps, all in silence.
The cook doesn't even complain about being manhandled. "Zoro, this is crazy," he whispers as he waits for Zoro to pull his boots back on.
Zoro nods. It is crazy, but that doesn't explain anything. Instead he says, "I know what today is. Today is her two thousandth win."
As if to punctuate his statement, the clatter of shinai falling to the ground sounds from the rear courtyard, followed by a boy's disbelieving voice announcing, "K-Kuina wins, two thousand to zero!"
Zoro knows what happens next. He can see it already. She will call him pathetic, angling her shinai and glaring down its length at him. Sensei will come out to poke fun, and then he'll throw his shinai to the floor in a fit of childish rage, and then he'll proclaim—
"I'll go out to sea and become the strongest! I won't lose to anyone!"
The cook is looking in the direction of the voices, cigarette smoldering between two slack fingers. "Zoro," he says, brow furrowed. "That's not…"
The cook freezes as a small boy darts past them and out through the gate, disappearing down the street. There's no mistaking that head of green hair, that headlong run. The cook plops down next to Zoro on the steps. "Shit," he sums up succinctly. "That is you. Should we follow?"
"No." Zoro shakes his head. "Let's stay here," he says gruffly, his stomach churning, fingers of dread closing around his throat, prickle of apprehension.
He knows the boy is only running off to train some more in isolation, lifting boulders and swatting at training dummies. And later tonight, when it gets dark, he'll sneak back in, dragging with him the two katana he had taken from the dojo in his hometown, long ago. He'll challenge her to their two-thousand-and-first duel. She'll win. And then—
He can hear sensei's voice behind him, and hers. Their footsteps, soft. The swish of sliding doors. Then quiet but for the cicadas, the whistle of a single shinai cutting through air, a girl's lone voice muttering kiai. Zoro shivers, closes his eyes against the sun, a deep orange disc sinking into the horizon.
They sit there until the sun goes all the way down and the stars and moon come out. It's a warm night, and the cicadas are still clicking away. The cook has been smoking nonstop, but Zoro notices that every time he stubs out a cigarette, the butt of it disappears as soon as it hits the ground. He takes the carton of cigarettes from him, counts the sticks and hands it back. After the cook goes through another three cigarettes, he takes the carton again and counts the same number of sticks, not even one less. He tosses it back and the cook pockets it quietly.
He nods, dips his hand into the stone of the steps for the hundredth time, wiggles his fingers. Punches the cook's arm lightly—his fist doesn't go through. That's something.
The cook doesn't even react, only asks again, "Are you sure you don't remember anything else?"
"We left Water 7 on our new ship," he recites for the third time, closing his eyes. "Franky joined us. Everyone was excited, happy. It was smooth sailing as far as I can remember. And then something happened and I woke up here with you."
"There was an old guy. In a little boat. He's what happened."
"But what did he want?"
"Maybe," Zoro says, voice low, "he sent us here to change something."
"Zoro." The caution in the cook's tone makes him angry. "I don't think that's—"
"Shut up. Look, I'm coming back."
And there he is, a scrawny boy with his green hair cut close, awkwardly scaling the outer wall of the dojo. He drops to the ground, runs past them towards the rear courtyard, the scabbards of his two katana tapping a staccato rhythm against his heels.
Zoro blinks and suddenly he's there again, in the courtyard standing witness to their last duel. Her two-thousand-and-first victory against him is much like her previous two thousand victories. Quick and effortless, discipline and singular form against desperate, furious ambition. Even back then he had realized, deep down in some secret place, that he was no match for her yet. Their two-thousand-and-first duel ends with him in a heap on the ground, her kneeling over him with a look of burning disdain. The only difference this time is the gleam of metal blades in the moonlight.
"She's better than you," the cook says from behind him. He doesn't mean it as an insult, Zoro knows.
Was she really that small, he wonders? She seemed so big back them, always taller than him, always leaps and bounds ahead. Eyes dark like her father's, but her mouth is solemn where Koshiro's is always smiling. Now, with the advantage of all the years he got to live and she didn't, he towers over her, almost twice her height. And if he reaches out, he could enclose the entire girth of her arm in the circle of his fingers.
"You're lucky, Zoro," she's saying to him, the two of them sitting on the back steps of the dojo.
Their voices crackle, like den den mushis with bad reception. She's crying and he's yelling. Their words are dropped, distorted, fizzing and popping like soda water. But that's fine. He knows this conversation by heart. He watches them clasp hands, he sees her laugh. The boy turns to leave—
In a flash it's daytime, sudden blinding sunlight. He's in the street again. There are people calling his name, but when he turns around, the group of kids rushes past him. Someone else grabs his arm—it's the cook—and pulls him over to the side of the road.
"Zoro, what's going on?"
Zoro stares after the kids, hears them yelling his name at the top of their lungs. They're looking for him, they need to tell him—it's the day after—she's—
Something sweeps across his vision and when he blinks, it's night again. The young Zoro and—what was her name? Kuina—Kuina are on the steps again, talking in their static hiss voices like white noise, like cicada song. He can make out words—best, promise, number one. They clasp hands, she laughs. He just watched this.
Zoro—the real Zoro, the Zoro who is still solid to him—strides forward just as his young counterpart gets up to leave.
"Get back here!" Zoro is shouting, frantic and angry. "Don't you dare go!"
But the young Zoro doesn't listen, is already walking away from them and from Kuina, glancing back only to nod a goodbye. Kuina gives a little wave.
"Zoro, stop it."
But Zoro lunges, tries to grab the kid and pull him back, but his hand passes through again and again and again. "Listen to me, you idiot! You have to stay with her!"
He tries to drag Zoro away and gets an elbow to his nose for his trouble. "Fuck!" He tastes blood, but he can't concern himself with that right now. "Zoro, stop it! He can't hear you!"
"No," Zoro growls. "No. Back. Again."
Everything shifts, and they go back. Kuina and the young Zoro on the steps. Crying, yelling. The promise. The young Zoro won't stay this time either.
Rewind. Again. The same.
Zoro shouting himself hoarse. Rewind. Steps, promise, goodbye. Static and cicadas. Rewind.
"Zoro, stop!" He knocks Zoro over, pins him to the ground with his knees on Zoro's forearms. Zoro is breathing hard, feral.
"Get off me."
"You can't keep doing this!"
"Get off me! I have to go after her!"
Sanji is taken aback, and Zoro takes the opportunity to throw him off like a rag doll.
"Wha—" But Zoro is already bolting inside and Sanji can do nothing but pick himself up and follow. Inside it's too dark to see clearly, but he can just make out Kuina's silhouette at the top of a set of stairs. A chill runs down Sanji's spine. Something's about to happen. He doesn't know what, but he feels it.
She pauses to answer Koshiro in the other room. "Everything's fine, papa. I'm just getting my whetstone." Her voice is stretched and warped, too deep, and it seems to hang in the air even after she's done speaking, seems to cling to the walls and unfurl along the corridor like a musty, moth-eaten carpet.
Her pause gives Zoro the time to step in front of her, but she doesn't even notice him when she turns around, already starting her way down.
He can see Zoro's arms out in front of him, as if trying to push her back by sheer force of will. He can see Zoro's wild-eyed look. Zoro is taking a step back for every step Kuina takes forward, a precise give-and-take except she has no idea. He can see Zoro mouthing the word don't.
Sanji reaches the top of the stairs, and he knows he has to help Zoro stop her. Stop her, something bad is going to happen, stop her. He throws out a hand to take hold of Kuina's arm, the back of her shirt, anything, anything.
What's down there that Zoro is trying to keep her from? Is this when it happens? Is this how she—
"Wait!" he calls out, even though he knows she can't hear him.
What happens next seems slowed down to quarter speed. Gratuitous, he will think later, bitterly. His heartbeat pounding like drums in his ears, and the cicadas outside, always the fucking cicadas.
She pitches to the side, a misstep in the dark, her ankle twisting sharply. Sanji imagines he hears a crack, loud but languorous, like thick, ancient ice giving under a heavy weight.
A gasp escapes her; sounds like an echo from within a deep, deep cave. Sounds young too, even years and years removed.
She's falling forward. Sounds like nothing.
Over the top of her head Sanji can see Zoro's expression morphing into one of absolute, crushing fear.
She's falling, and then she's falling right through Zoro, right through Zoro's open arms like he's not there at all, and he isn't, he isn't really, he must have realized that by now and the knowledge must burn and burn. And then Sanji can hear it, her body thudding and tumbling down the stairs, the sounds so vivid he can actuallysee what he hears, like dark spots bursting in his vision.
And then it's over, a keening pulse in their ears, and slowed-down cicada song, their heartbeats, their breathing.
Time picks up again.
Zoro hasn't moved, the whites of his eyes so wide that his irises look like pinpricks. Sanji's still standing at the top of the stairs with one arm outstretched. Just over Zoro's shoulder, he can see her body, in a pool of inky blackness—just a body now, just flesh and bone, what used to be a girl, a life. Is this all it takes? The length of a flight of stairs, going down.
Zoro must have noticed something flash across his face, because he starts to turn around, but Sanji is quicker, needs to be quicker. He snaps himself to attention, grabs Zoro's collar, grabs his chin. "No," he hisses. "Don't look."
Zoro says nothing. He says nothing when Sanji hauls him back up the stairs, presses them flat against the wall to let Koshiro run past. Says nothing all through the suffocating silence of Koshiro's voiceless mourning that fills the entire house like a miasma.
Says nothing when dawn finally breaks after what seems like an eternity. Says nothing when they see Koshiro emerge from the dojo, head held high but moving with the gingerness of new grief, as if waiting to fall to pieces, as if convinced the world will end, must end, right now, and then constantly surprised that it doesn't.
Koshiro stops at the dojo's gate. He's swathed in black, which makes him seem taller, narrower. Sanji blinks and Zoro appears behind Koshiro, standing with his hand clenched around Wadou's hilt, his head bowed.
"I'm sorry," he can hear Zoro say. Just once, just two words, but already it's too much. It's now that he has to look away.
Sanji's never seen a funeral like this before. He spots the green head of young Zoro amidst the crowd of black-clad adults and the way it keeps twisting around, as if he were waiting for something or someone to show up. The hush is stifling. Sanji almost welcomes the cicadas.
He follows the funeral procession out of the village, though he can't feel the ground beneath his feet. They walk past the threadleaf maple tree and towards the cemetery. He stops just outside the perimeter again, and Zoro briefly rests a hand on his shoulder before leaving to join the rest of the procession, to walk next to his younger self like a specter.
Sanji goes back to the maple tree and takes his seat again, and waits. He tries not to think about the sprawl of her body at the bottom of those stairs. Zoro's eyes bright with panic. Zoro apologizing. The self-inflected guilt. He knows how it catches under your skin and digs deep. He knows it cuts to the marrow.
It's late afternoon by the time the last of the mourners trickle back home. It's early evening by the time Zoro shows up again, eyes blank. "You have blood on your face," Zoro states, deadpan.
Sanji breathes out slowly, letting the smoke haze the space between them, watching Zoro watch him. Then he pats the spot next to him on the tree and says softly, "Sit down, Zoro. Do you want a cigarette?"
Right now, time is standing still. Zoro can tell this because the cicadas are not singing and the leaves are not moving. The blades of grass look like actual blades when suspended in motion like that.
He has no way of knowing how long it's been like this. The sun hangs suspended over the horizon at eight o'clock. He can't count the cook's cigarette butts because they disappear as soon as he's done smoking them.
But he's not in a rush to go anywhere. They still don't know where the crew is, but it's safe to assume they're not on this island or else they would have shown up by now. Maybe they're all off reliving and struggling through their respective pasts, like he's been doing. He feels a pang in his chest to imagine his nakama going through the same pain, the same fear, this insidious feeling of helplessness. But it's clear to him now that he wouldn't be able to help them anyway. He tried his best here, tried and tried, reached and reached, and nothing came of it.
He punches the trunk of the maple tree, snarling in frustration when his fist fails to make contact yet again.
"Don't do that."
"Do what?" He scowls at the cook, who meets his gaze without flinching.
"Beat yourself up."
He gives a disbelieving snort and turns away, hand on his katana, on Wadou.
"You didn't have to apologize either, you know. Before."
"Shut up," Zoro snaps. "Shut up. You were there, you saw what happened."
"I saw that there was nothing either of us could—hey, where are you going?!"
"Don't follow me!" he snarls, walking quickly towards the cemetery, where he knows the cook won't tread. He blinks and he's at the gates, blinks again and he's inside, before her headstone with her shinai propped against the side, fresh flowers laid under her name.
He kneels before it again, willing his breathing to slow. What is he doing? He doesn't know. Can only think back to how she had passed through him like he was smoke, like he didn't matter, nothing he did mattered.
He closes his eyes. What did it feel like? Nothing. She had felt like nothing, no warmth, no cosmic collision—just terror rattling in his chest, but that was his own. She hadn't looked scared at all. Just surprised, a little confused. As if she didn't know why she should be afraid, as if it never crossed her mind that she was going to die. It hadn't crossed his either, that night.
People are fragile, sensei had told him, afterwards.
He's flown halfway across the cemetery before he registers the intense, bruising pain in his side. He lands without a sound, rolling through half a dozen headstones before finally skidding to a stop at the steps to the temple. He gets up with a growl, drawing Wadou, and in a heartbeat he's back at her grave. The cook is there, glaring at him and pointing the burning end of a cigarette at his face.
"Don't walk away from me when I'm talking to you, asshole!"
He smacks the cook's arm away, stepping in close, pressing the tip of Wadou up against the underside of the cook's jaw. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't gut you right now," he seethes.
The cook has the gall to roll his eyes at him. "Don't be dramatic," he spits, pushing Zoro away with his knee. "And listen to me when I have something important to tell you."
Zoro doesn't sheath Wadou, slants the blade between them like a threat. "Why should I?"
"Because I'm smarter than you. Zoro, look, it's—" The cook glances at the headstones, shoulders hunched just enough for Zoro to be able to tell his discomfort. "Look," he starts again, forcing his eyes back to Zoro, jabbing his cigarette in Zoro's face again. "It's not your fault."
Zoro scoffs. "I've heard people threaten to behead me with more benevolence than that."
The cook covers his eyes and heaves a sigh. "You are insufferable," he mutters. He looks up, puts a hand on Zoro's shoulder, struggles for a moment to coordinate his features into what Zoro suspects is supposed to be a pleasant expression. "It's not your fault. All right?"
"Stop making faces at me."
The hand on his shoulder tightens painfully as the cook attempts to placate his urge to murder him. "Zo-ro," the cook grounds out. "It's not your fault. Think about it. If we were sent here to change things, to… to save her, do you think we'd be so… incorporeal?"
"Powerless, you mean." He sheathes Wadou and turns back to Kuina's headstone, the cook's hand sliding off his shoulder. He can hear the cook anxiously tapping out another cigarette. "What're we here for, then?"
"I don't know," the cook answers honestly. "I don't remember. But we're probably being tested. And we're obviously not doing so hot right now. We're stuck in this limbo, and I think it's because of you."
"What do you want me to do about it?"
Clink of a lighter, then a long, calming exhale. "Zoro, look at me."
He does. The cook is frowning at him. Not angry, just—sincere. "I understand. I do. But it's not your fault she's gone. Don't blame yourself."
"She went right through me."
"It's not your fault."
"I couldn't feel her at all."
The cook takes a step towards him, their noses just inches apart. Neither of them blinks.
"Zoro, if it were even remotely possible for you to will yourself into being tangible, I have no doubt you would have done it. It's not that you weren't good enough to save her. It's just that you weren't supposed to."
"Not supposed to? How was I not supposed to?!"
"Because it wasn't your place, Zoro!"
Zoro opens his mouth to retort, realizes his throat has closed up. It feels like the wind had just been knocked from him. He closes his eyes, wills his head to stop spinning. Is this what panic feels like? He tries to empty his mind of everything, tries to evoke the soothing lull of the ocean. It doesn't work. His heart is still beating too fast and everything is fixed, stagnant.
He hears the cook say his name. He ignores him.
Not his place? The thought comes with a dizzying sensation, and he has to ball his hands into fists to make sure they're still there because he can barely feel them.
His place is between his nakama and danger. It's always been there and no one can tell him otherwise. It's where he belongs, where he's needed. It's his job to keep everyone safe, to be there for them, to always, always be there. He knows exactly where his place is. He won't budge from it.
But he recalls her face as she was just beginning to fall towards him. He wasn't there for her then, not really. No form, no shadow, no voice. How could he not be present, not be in his place, for the single most defining event of his life?
Maybe this isn't panic. Maybe this is what failure feels like. Real failure, different from his two-thousand-and-one losses, different from Mihawk slicing him up on deck. This is failure without the chance of a rematch. She's dead now, and she will stay dead.
Maybe the cook was right. The cook had said—
The cook had said it wasn't his place, and maybe it wasn't, and maybe it had never been, and what does that mean? If he wasn't supposed to—
Think. Anchor yourself and think.
What defines him, what defines her isn't her death, the cold ashes buried under her name. What's defining is her life, clipped though it was like the wings of her flightless namesake. Her legacy isn't that she had died so young, ambition guttering out with her life. When he remembers her, he does not think of her body lying prone, but of the live spark in her dark eyes, like a glimpse of fire deep within a forest. Their promise under the night sky.
So he goes back further, to her two thousand and one uninterrupted victories. To her hand clasping his hand tight. What did it feel like? He remembers that, though it was years ago. Her hand was calloused and warm. Solid, the both of them, and unwavering, the as yet untapped potential crackling like electricity between their bodies. The best in the world had to be one of them. Her eyes were still bright with tears, but she had looked happy, and it was because of him. Her voice was her own, and so was his, when they swore to meet at the very top. He was there for that. He was there for that, where he belonged—in place, in time.
She wasn't nakama. She wasn't. He had never promised to protect her, had never thought to, and—
He will always be wherever he had promised to be. To Luffy and the crew, he made the promise to see their dreams through to the end, and that entails keeping them alive and well—happy too, if he can manage. He hasn't failed them yet, and he doesn't intend to. He won't. His place with the crew is between them and whatever the world deems fit to throw their way.
And to her? To her, he made the promise to be the best. A crown for his head, a throne for his seat. He won't fail her either. His place with her is first, at the very top.
And her place is with him, at his side, in Wadou. In this way, he's kept her alive. In this way, she's more than ash. Not nakama but something like it, not loved but cherished nonetheless. He's not afraid to make that distinction. He doesn't dream for his nakama, his nakama who are alive and who will stay alive as long as he's around—but he will dream for her. That's a promise.
What he's supposed to do? Yes, he knows. Will he be good enough? Yes.
When he opens his eyes, he gets a face full of smoke. He doesn't grimace because his place with the cook doesn't allow room for such concessions. They're still nose to nose, and he knows neither of them will step down, and for that he's glad.
"I know it's hard," the cook says, kinder but still gruff. "But you understand, don't you?"
Zoro's answer is the breath of a summer breeze, the papery rustle of leaves, the cicadas that start again to sing.
They're back at the dojo. Zoro's younger self is on his knees before Koshiro, before the katana that Sanji knows is Wadou Ichimonji.
"Sensei! Please, gift me with her katana!"
Zoro's kneeling too, his hands on his knees, his head bowed low. The two of them side by side before Koshiro and what Kuina left behind. Like someone had grabbed time by its years and pulled—folding a decade together so that its beginning and end meet, just like this. The Zoro now and the Zoro then, and Kuina between them. Zoro is taller now, broader, stronger—what a difference the years can make—but Sanji can also see that he has always been the same. Determination and strength and promise. There's no room in him for anything else.
"That's fine," Koshiro says, and Sanji smiles as the kid takes Wadou, not reverently, but fiercely, protectively. Zoro mirrors his stance, holding Wadou in front of him with both hands.
"I'll become the world's number one swordsman! I'll become so strong that even heaven will hear of my great name!" Two voices in perfect unison.
And you better, Sanji thinks. Or you'll have me to answer to.
Zoro places a hand on the head of his younger self, who's sobbing over Wadou with all of a child's earnestness. He bows once more, deeply, to Koshiro, whose eyes are the same as Kuina's and who is looking at young Zoro with guarded expectation. But there's a daring hope there as well, and Sanji knows it will grow to become trust.
Zoro gets to his feet, his three katana secure at his side.
"All good?" Sanji asks, and Zoro smiles a little smile.
Suddenly, the room, the entire dojo, seems to tilt, as if someone had knocked the world over onto its side. Zoro crashes to the floor again as Sanji's thrown into the hall. A roaring, rushing noise drowns out the cicada song, a noise that Sanji immediately recognizes as ocean waves.
He turns to look down the hallway and his heart almost stops. He sees the old man in the little boat, watching him. The old man raises one hand, slowly, slowly. He's pointing at Sanji.
He's pointing and he's mouthing the words you're next.