READ ME! READ ME! READ ME! READ ME! READ ME!

First off, over 1000 views in three days! That's good right?

Secondly, I've gotten a lot of mixed feedback over Mihawk's death, so I felt I should clear things up and explain my reasoning

When it comes to him dying in the first place, I honestly didn't know so many people liked him, so sorry for making him go the way of the dodo if it hurt you, but it was the only real conclusion. You honestly think Mihawk could have lived with the shame of losing? True, it was Zoro that said "Death before dishonor," in the anime, but it clearly resonated with Mihawk, so it makes sense he'd have the same attitude.

As for ZORO being the one to do it, I've gotten a lot of shade over how that's out of character for him, with references to all the enemies he left alive after he beat them. I would remind you of Zoro's original loss, when he turned around and offered himself to Mihawk. Yes, old Dracule spared him, but ZORO DIDN'T KNOW THAT! He fully expected to die after losing, because that's how honor-obsessed bushido think. It only makes sense that Zoro would return the favor when the tables were turned. Plus, this was a DUEL. Zoro sought it out and Mihawk agreed to it. All those other fights were more like business; Zoro and (insert villain here) were on opposite sides and had to deal with each other however they saw fit.

Finally, concerning the WAY Zoro killed him, clearly not everyone did a project on seppuku for Japanese History. Yes, as a form of suicide to just get it out of the way, it's restricted to just the cut across the stomach. However, in more formal cases, such as when it was the sentence to a guilty criminal, there was more ritual involved. The condemned would be led before a group of witnesses and knelt. He was then offered a knife. If he had the courage to make the cut himself, he regained some of the honor he lost, whereas if he chickened out he dishonored himself more. In either case, the second (usually chosen by whoever decided hara-kiri was the way to go) would then take position beside the condemned with a sword. He would then bring the sword down through the condemned's neck, ensuring death. This was a surprisingly loaded ordeal, because the second was expected to kill the condemned by severing the spine without actually decapitating them. It was a test of their skill with a blade. If he failed to kill the condemned cleanly or went all the way through, he was dishonored himself, but if he stopped just right, he brought honor to his name for being an expert swordsman. I was trying to honor the fact that both Zoro and Mihawk are old-school by mimicking the motions. Let's put down Zoro being a putz and going all the way through to exhaustion.

I hope that settles any confusion over why I wrote it the way I did. Now, on to the story!


"And… mark! Zoro has officially broken the record for longest recovery!"

"Can you not joke at a time like this, Usopp?" Nami snapped.

"Ah, Nami-swan, go easy on the long-nose. He's just trying to lighten the atmosphere. He means well." Sanji offered her a cup of tea, just the way she liked it.

Nami sighed. "It's been six days. I mean, logically, it should take months for him to recover from that many injuries, but I'm so used to him grumbling the next day, already taking off his bandages."

"Not if Kadoo and I have anything to say about it!" Kaya injected, looking up from taking Zoro's temperature.

The First Mate of the Straw Hat crew looked like a secondhand mummy. They'd quickly exhausted Kadoo's supply of gauze when treating him in those frantic hours after his victory, so the patchwork wrappings were all stained with various bodily fluids that need not be named. Zoro had almost collapsed right into the sea after his odd apostrophe to the sky, only to be caught by Luffy. Then he'd been immediately moved to Merry's galley, where Kadoo and Kaya bit off way more than they could chew, trying to combine herbal remedies and beginner's knowledge of medicine to try and keep Zoro from dying. They might well have failed were it not for the unexpected aid of Myassa (A/N: Russian word for 'meat', in keeping with theme set by Patty and Carne). He'd been patching himself up after bar fights for years, and he had an unlimited number of surprisingly effective street hacks to help trauma. The two medical women would never have thought to use glue to seal the gaping wounds, and vodka doubled as disinfectant on top of being a pain killer. The gruff cook had just shrugged when offered profusive thanks. "Is nothing. We comrades now. Must look out for each other," he'd said in his odd accent.

Still, it was a miracle that Zoro was still alive, given the amount of damage and the level of care they could provide. The core crew had never longed more for Chopper.

The only one that didn't seem to be getting grey hairs was Luffy. "I can still hear his voice. It's weak, but it's there. He's not dying on us. Not right after he reached his dream."

"It's odd, thinking that the sword-brain got his dream already," Sanji spoke up.

"Well, mine was pretty vague. If you interpret 'brave warrior of the sea' as 'famous pirate', then I already got it after Enies Lobby." Usopp grinned smugly, though his heart didn't seem to be in it.

"You're making it worse," Sanji hissed.

"Oh, please Sanji-kun, don't tell me you're so petty as to be jealous that Zoro beat Mihawk before you found All Blue!" Nami demanded.

"It's not that!" he protested. A grim look crossed his face. "It's just… dreams are the glue that held us together. Now that he proved he's the strongest… what reason does he have to stay with us?"

"Really, Sanji, I'm surprised at you," Luffy spoke up, coming into the office. "We're nakama. Did you honestly imagine we'd just go our separate ways when we finished everything? We're family. We'll find new dreams, and help each other reach them all over again. Zoro's not going anywhere."

"Aye, Captain," Sanji answered, mollified.

Kaya looked up. "I'd have thought you'd like it if Zoro-san left, Sanji-san. He only seems to vex you, after all."

Sanji looked away, blushing. "Um, well… who else is going to help me keep my skill sharp? Sure he's uncouth and misogynistic and unhygienic and a total pain in the ass but… I'd miss him if he left. I guess. Maybe a little."

A chuckle dry as the desert rasped from a broken throat. "I'm never going to let you forget you said that, love cook."

"ZORO!" everyone screamed.

The corner of the swordsman's lip twitched up, and even that simple move seemed to exhaust him. "Damn, I feel worse than after that run-in with Kuma." He glanced over to Luffy and his eyes twinkled. "Did I make you proud, captain?"

"Fit to burst!" Luffy proclaimed proudly, smiling so wide his cheeks looked ready to burst like balloons.

"Congratulations, Zoro! You've given me the perfect story! It's so outrageous that no one will believe me. I can lie by telling the truth now, the ultimate achievement. Of course, I'd attempted it many times before…" Usopp went off on some compulsive tangent.

"You're slipping, marimo. If it were me fighting Mihawk, I wouldn't have gotten a scratch!"

"Fuck you, dartbrow."

Sanji hid a grin. "Ah, never mind. Precious little patients shouldn't be getting worked up with arguments they can't win."

"Shut up," he moaned as harshly as he could manage.

"For the record, even though I cleared your original debt, I'm charging you for all the medical supplies we had to pick up to save your reckless ass. So you better pay up soon or it won't end up helping you much."

"Heartless witch."

Luffy laughed. Zoro bickering with everyone. All was right with the world.

"I've got some catching up to do. The Strongest Swordsman in the World deserves nothing less than the Pirate King as his Captain."

"No rush. I know you'll get there," Zoro breathed. He tried to swallow, and Kaya appeared with a glass of water with a straw like magic. Zoro suckled, hating how weak he felt. It was like he was a helpless baby.

"So what happened… after?" He managed. How could talking feel as hard as fighting his sensei?

Luffy shrugged. "I got to you right after you passed out. For some reason, you were holding his hat, so I picked that up along with you and got you over here so Kaya and Kadoo could patch you up. Then I went over and gave Mihawk a proper send-off."

"I still don't understand why you burned him with the sword. That thing was probably worth millions," Nami grumbled.

"Nami, it was his sword. He deserved to be buried with it." Luffy was unyielding.

Nami shrugged. She'd never understand this stupid thing men called 'honor'. "Anyway, you were practically on death's door, so we rushed the fleet over to the nearest island to get all the stuff the girls needed to fix you. I had those annoying friends of yours turn in Krieg to the local Marine base. I didn't even need to weasel them to get a good cut, they gave it all to us. They said 'tell Brother Zoro it was a true honor to have known him'. I think they thought you were already dead and we were going through the motions."

Usopp shrugged. "It's not unreasonable. They're just average blokes. They don't know how much punishment people at his level can take. Hell, considering Kaya's just starting reading medical books and Kadoo's barely better than store-bought medicine, I wasn't sure he'd make it myself."

"Again with the lack of confidence," Zoro huffed.

"Anyways, we stayed long enough for Zeff and Nami to get us resupplied. And we've basically been slowly making our way to Nami's island while waiting for you to wake up. The Black Cats seem particularly interested. Most of them have built shrines to you. I think you've earned yourself some lifetime disciples."

Zoro sighed. Didn't even get any time to enjoy being the best. Already he had apprentices clamoring for him.

"Speaking of which, we've moved up to two-a-days now that we've got Sanji and his special food to help get everyone strong. Plus everyone got really eager to train for some reason when I said we'd be seeing lots of guys on Mihawk's level on the way to One Piece." Luffy shook his head. "It's amazing, really. All the 'normal' guys on Buggy's crew are almost as strong as Buggy and his officers were when they started by now. Why didn't we get stronger that fast?"

"We were winging it. We didn't have teachers helping us every day that knew exactly how high up the big leagues are. Plus my Attack Cuisine can work wonders." Sanji popped a lollipop in his mouth. Kaya had absolutely forbidden smoking near Zoro, so he'd settled for this crutch while waiting for his nakama to awaken. "We're just lucky they bought my excuse that I've been experimenting with recipes with medicinal properties. That and that my old geezer never went to the Kamabakka Kingdom. I'd have a time and a half explaining how I got my hands on their national treasure."

"Um, on that note," Usopp spoke up. "The other crews are going to start asking questions eventually; no matter how much we awe them, it's hard to swallow us popping up out of the weakest sea already ready for the strongest. Do we tell the truth, if so to whom? If not, should I start working on some backstory now?"

Luffy waved a hand like brushing away a fly. "We'll tell them the truth, duh. They're our nakama. Let's not bother till they start insisting though. Hopefully by then they'll stop worshipping us and just accept it instead of acting all weird."

The captain suddenly pounded his fist. "Speaking of the men…" Luffy ran to the door and threw it open, looking out on the Big Top, Bezan Black, and Baratie. Between the pets, Buggy's crew, and the displaced Don crew, the circus ship was finally filled to capacity. Luffy had sworn to get his newest crew a ship of their own at earliest opportunity, but they insisted they were fine with their cramped situation. "Oi, everyone!"

"HAI, CAPTAIN/DON LUFFY!"

"Zoro's awake! So now we can stop holding off the party! Anchor for the night, boys! We're celebrating having the World's Strongest Swordsman in our Armada!"

"KANPAI!" came thunderous approval.

"Oi, moustache-guy! Prepare for a feast!"

"Don't tell me what to do, eggplant king!" Zeff shouted back. He'd swiftly learned that the calm, collected leader he'd made a pact with was a very rarely seen side of his 'employer'. Zeff insisted he and his men weren't pirates, just working with the Armada on an indefinite contract. It actually worked out, since the Baratie were designated the 'guard' force; they would be inconspicuous, not obviously with the crew, acting as a secret last line of defense. After all, they were brought on for their cooking skills, not for combat, though Zeff had begun pounding his Black Leg style into their heads so they wouldn't be, quote, "helpless ninnies out there".

The Don Pirates, on the other hand, were going to be made the 'demolition' squad. They already favored maces and axes over plain swords, so it wasn't that much a shift to make them the heavy-hitters, just a massive increase in expectations. Luffy wouldn't allow them to coast on numbers; they had to be ready to defend their nakama from anything if they expected to stay on his crew. Gin has assured him he'd get them ready in a timely manner, unaware that all his men, even Pearl, wore expressions of terror behind him. Gin was a notorious task master as Commander under Krieg, and it appeared he'd only gotten worse now that he was Captain and had an even higher ideal to hold himself too. Through sheer persistence, he'd gotten his crew to roughly the same level as the Black Cats, despite the head start.

Nami looked up as Luffy came back in. "I'd hate to bring up an inconvenient topic, but we all realize we're now doomed, right? Soon as word gets out that this idiot beat Mihawk, he'll be public enemy number one, and we'll go down with him."

"Wow, Nami, way to kill the mood," Usopp grumbled, clutching Kaya close.

Luffy rolled his eyes. He was getting tired of Nami's belly-aching. Really, if she thought about it for a second, she'd see there was no reason to worry… yet. "And how will word get out exactly, Nami?"

"Well obviously, um…" Nami drew a blank. She'd kind of just assumed to knowledge would get out. But now that she tried to logically ascertain the means, she found herself stalling.

"The only people in the world that know what happened to Mihawk are on these four ships. I didn't spend the whole time just watching, you know. I was listening for people coming, and scared them off with Conqueror's before they got close. They might have seen some pretty lights before they got a sudden overpowering urge to run away, but no one knows the exact details but us."

"So they'll never find out?" Nami asked, her eyes lighting up with hope.

"Oh they'll find out. In a couple weeks, the higher-ups will realize it's been awhile since Mihawk reported, so they'll send a messenger bat demanding a response. When it comes back with its letter unopened, they'll panic and realize he's either dead or hiding. So they'll set up a massive task force to find out what happened. And these guys have information-gathering to a science. They have people all over the world whose only job is to listen in at bars and town squares for information. And people talk. Those folks that I turned away, at least one will mention to a friend something weird happened when he tried to catch dinner at the Baratie, who'll tell it to a another friend or a cousin or his shoe-shiner or someone, who'll eventually exaggerate it while sloshed to try and give a good story to his pals or impress a lady, and someone with the World Government will hear it. Some tired clerk will read the report a month later, see it happened around the right time within the maximum distance Mihawk could have traveled from his last known location, and decide it's worth investigating. They'll track the story back to the source and get the most the poor sap can remember with some harried interrogator battering them. Said interrogator will give the report to his supervisor, who'll give it to his supervisor, and so on until it reaches someone that has seen or at least heard of a duel between serious swordsmen, notice the signs, and raise the idea that Mihawk was in a serious fight. By that point, we'll have built a bit of a reputation for ourselves, and people will start to notice how insanely good Zoro is. Some bright, eager new recruit will boldly suggest that Zoro is the one that fought him. Occam's razor being what it is, and in the lack of any better theories, they'll decide Zoro killed or at least didn't lose to Mihawk. To appear strong and decisive, they'll then plaster Zoro's face all over the news and give him some record-breaking bounty that will make every hunter who hears it drool. All of this being just the most likely scenario if we don't do anything to brag or otherwise control how the world finds out."

Nami's face fell. "Damn."

Luffy sighed and reached over to rub her shoulder. "Look, Nami, I know that I'm tempting fate here. And if anyone wants to avoid the kind of clusterfuck that got us here, it's me. But in all seriousness, I think I could take on an Admiral alone and reasonably expect to survive. Zoro just beat Mihawk. We're all up to the level we used to be, if not above. And if Buggy's goons could go from 'cannon fodder' to 'half-decent grunts' in a month, I'm sure they'll each be as strong as I was starting out by the time we get to Water 7, and the other crews we pick up won't be that far behind them. And all the other captains and their officers are going to level up like we did the first time. If the Marines and World Government crap themselves and send everything and they kitchen sink after us, we'll be ready for them."

Nami hung her head. "Luffy, I want to trust it'll be okay. I wish I could trust all our new nakama like you can. But all I can think about is some Marine geezer panicking, naming you the next Whitebeard, and sending a Buster Call on us before the other crews are ready. We might make it out, but… damn it, all those bad guys aren't bad guys anymore. They're our allies. And somehow, the thought of us surviving while they get mowed down is even worse than us all dying." Nami angrily swiped at her eyes. "Damn it, why'd you have to complicate everything? Why couldn't we have just done things the same as last time?"

Zoro croaked, though it might have been a laugh. The crew turned to look at him. He seemed ready to pass out after only an hour awake, but it was understandable. "Idiot. Last time didn't end well, if you don't remember. Besides, things change. We're not the same people we were. We couldn't do things the same if we tried. It's a whole new start. We have more information this time, but we're going to get caught off guard as many times as last time, I guarantee you. So suck it up and remember you're a pirate. It's an adventure."

"Couldn't have said it better myself, Zoro!" Luffy grinned.

But the man was already asleep.

"I'll start working on some Hormone Soup. If he's not unusually stupid, he should be able to move by Loguetown." With that, Sanji moved over the stove and began to prepare the food. He left off on dinner for the rest, knowing Zeff would provide as part of the party.

After one last check on her patient, Kaya wandered outside, dragging Usopp. She'd been on alert for almost a week, making sure Zoro didn't slip into a coma or worse at all hours. She needed rest, and Usopp had a sleeping pill with her name on it. (Not really, though she might give that argument another go. She'd go for the 'tattoos are sexy' angle).

Luffy gave Nami one last look before going out to mingle with the crew and prepare for the party.

Nami sighed. They'd just passed one of the biggest hurdles they'd ever faced as a crew, even if Zoro did most of the work. Soon, she'd face her childhood tormentor, and even though they were a million times better prepared than last time, she still felt a twinge of fear at the thought of Arlong. And past him, the horizon was dark and stormy. She thought knowing the route would make it easier this time, but she of all people should know how quickly the weather could change. This wasn't going to be an idealized repeat of their early adventures. The Tale of the Straw Hat Armada was going to be its own unique story, with its own surprises and heartbreaks.

But she was the navigator. It was going to be her job to guide them all through the storm. And she'd have her nakama at her back, ready to help her.

Nami grinned and stole one last moment of peace before the waves began.


Extremely short and overly philosophic for me, I know. I just didn't want to squash the aftermath of last chapter and the whole Arlong arc into one chapter. This is purely to settle all the loose ends and, if I'm being honest, to push the word count over 60k. Promise that Arlong will be arriving soon. Until then, tell your friends about me!