Wakefulness was slow to return to the Straw Hats as they woke up back on Rusukaina Island. One and all, they were lying on the bare ground of the forest, and as they stirred from their sleep, they felt simultaneously as though they had just awakened from the best sleep of their lives and as though they hadn't slept in days. The fatigue slipped away as they got better hold of their senses, but as all of them—even the heavy sleepers like Luffy and Zoro—got to their feet, a different sort of weakness made itself clear to them in the form of a familiar growling sound.
"Ohh, I'm so hungry," the rubber man moaned.
"So am I," Usopp agreed, clutching his belly.
"I'm feeling rather famished myself," Robin said with a frown.
All attention snapped to where a familiar old man stood alongside ten more figures, shrouded in black just as the Straw Hats had been.
"Thought you said you'd be gone by the time we got back?" Zoro asked quizzically.
"I suppose I underestimated your efforts. You see, my powers work by sending a projection of your consciousness across time and space. Your real bodies have been here on this island the whole time; it was only your minds that returned to the past. And I regret to say that I underestimated the amount of energy you would be using; I had no choice but to draw it out of your own stores, as I didn't have enough energy of my own to preserve you all for the full eleven hours. The resulting fatigue has had you all asleep for the last two days."
"Two whole days?!" demanded most of the crew, none louder than Luffy.
"Yes, but on the bright side, that afforded me enough time to recover my powers so that I could show you how you've changed things."
The Straw Hats stared at the man.
"I told the truth when I said that what you did would change nothing in this world...not as far as history goes, anyway. But it appears that even my studies are not enough to understand the exact mechanics of how time and dimensions work. After all, in my allowing you to return to your pasts and save your loved ones...I saved my own life."
With that, the old man's form began to change. The raggedy black outfit with which he was shrouded smoothed out, and grew more curvaceous. His grizzled hair straightened and brightened, growing only over the back of his head, rather than over his eyes. The face grew more youthful, and the blue eyes beneath were revealed.
The crew as a whole stared in shock, but Robin was outright gaping. "M...Mom?"
The form of Nico Olvia smiled lovingly. "I promised your younger self that I would stay with her, but while her powers' development helped her to come and go from Ohara as she wished, the rest of us were not so fortunate. Then, one day, she came across the Astral-Astral Fruit, and thought that it would be the perfect way for us to stay together despite being apart. But looking more closely into the fruit's mechanics, it didn't take me long to understand that it was the one that sent you back to me in the first place.
"I trained my powers until I gained the ability to look across space and time, and while much of my research has gone to expanding the Tree of Knowledge, I never stopped searching for the one timeline where you had found that strange old man. Then, when I found this one, I understood: it was a future that I had already written, but had yet to experience myself."
"I'm getting a headache from all of this," Nami grumbled.
Olvia chuckled. "Don't think about it too hard. But anyway, I should get to the main point: I'm not the only one who's here to thank you."
The remaining figures lowered their hoods in unison: Portgas D. Ace, Kuina, Bell-mère, Banchina, Doctor Hiriluk, Tom, Yorki, Fisher Tiger, Donquixote Rocinante, and a strange little girl...one that they all recognized with merely a thought: Going Merry.
The Straw Hat Pirates continued to stare as their deceased loved ones smiled back at them.
"I can't maintain our presences here for much longer, we've been waiting for you all to awaken for quite a while. But suffice to say that your efforts will bear fruit for you in this world as well," Olvia smiled.
"We may not be able to be together as much as we'd like to, Luffy, but I can still visit you," Ace said with a smile.
"All of us have gone through our lives for the better thanks to your interventions," Fisher Tiger continued.
"Well, so far; after all, besides Olvia, it's only been a year for each of us since we last met you all," Kuina smirked.
"But the fact remains that we can return the favor thanks to Olvia," Banchina smiled.
"You should bring Trafalguy, too, when we can all be together again," Merry suggested.
"It would be wonderful to see how strong Law has become," Rocinante said quietly.
"Bring all your friends, we'll make a party out of it," Bell-mère chuckled.
"Now, that sounds like fun," Yorki grinned.
"I'm really looking forward to seeing and hearing more of what you've done, Chopper," Hiriluk said with a wide, proud smile.
"And it would be my honor to see the Thousand Sunny as it will one day be," Tom finished.
Not one of the Straw Hats was capable of speaking. Silence fell for ten seconds before Olvia sighed with a chuckle, and spoke again.
"Allow me to clarify. My powers do have limits, but I can manage a group projection like this every once in a while. So, once a year, on the anniversary of the day you saved us all, we'll come to this world from sunrise to sunrise. One day out of the year, we'll be together again."
It was Luffy who finally broke out of the stupor first; even his growling belly seemed suppressed as he rushed forwards and crushed his brother tight within his grasp. "Ace can come back...I'm so happy," he cried. The fire-man simply held his brother tight.
"Once a year? Considering that I never thought I could ever see you again, that's more priceless than One Piece itself," Nami whispered, tears of joy coming from her eyes as she embraced her mother.
And so it went, the Straw Hats embracing their loved ones, Merry taking turns hugging each of the crew. The only exceptions were Zoro, who merely grasped hands with Kuina as they had the day they made their vow, and Sanji, who was content to simply sing the praises of Olvia for all of her goodness and mercy.
Alas, it couldn't last longer than a minute or so, for it was then that the light began emanating from the ten figures. The Straw Hats slowly, most reluctantly, released their friends and family and stepped back. Olvia faced them all with a warm smile.
"Remember, this isn't goodbye. It's just 'see you later,'" she promised.
"We'll be counting the days," Robin promised fervently.
"So will the rest of us," Brook swore.
"T-Take care, Mom. I'll be sure to bring Dad for the next time you show up," Usopp promised.
The two groups exchanged smiles and waves. And then, at last, the morning light faded, and the formerly deceased loved ones of the Straw Hats with it.
For a moment, nobody moved. Then all of them once again became acutely aware of how hungry they were.
"Hey, cook? How about a banquet fit for a king to celebrate the best thing that's happened to us since Luffy took the throne?" Zoro suggested with a grin.
Sanji puffed a bit of smoke out of his cigarette, matching his rival's grin tooth for tooth. "A momentous day indeed when I have no choice but to say 'Excellent idea, Mosshead.'"
"Last one to the ship does the dishes!" Usopp's voice echoed, his afterimage fading.
"HEY, NO FAIR!" Luffy and Chopper called as they pursued him.
One by one, the crew all vanished, racing back to their ship. Just another day in the Grand Blue ocean.
Just another impossible wish come true.
So, that's that. If the Straw Hats get another member further down the line, then I'll be editing this whole story appropriately, and I'll be tweaking it as the story goes on in order to keep it faithful to canon, but for now? The story is complete. Perhaps I'll brainstorm a continuation(s) or midquel(s) to it, if my mind comes up with enough good ideas, but time will tell. And until it does, this is The Patient One, thanking you all for your patience along the way here. Thank you to Blueh for this fantastic concept and allowing me to adopt it. Thank you to The-Lost-Samurai and especially lunanime for help on perfecting this story. And last but not least, thank you to all of you for reading.