So many grateful thank you's to: Lucinda M. H. Cheshir, Dragondancer81, razbliuto, gloriious, , and read a rainbow! Your reviews warmed my heart and motivated me so much ;A; I cried a little at each one.
Special thanks to kinjiru and wordlet, for beta-ing this chapter, and nart, whose commentary on it i wouldn't have wanted to miss!
This chapter starts off slow, but bear with me; things have the ability to escalate very quickly ...
What happened so far:
Lana had been enjoying some years of quality ghost-free time when a guy called Portgas D. Ace and some little girl, both dead as can be, came around and made short work of that beautiful reprieve. Unfortunately, Ace also brought along another ghost who wasn't taking no for an answer and had to be dealt with, before Mr Portgas could then drag his new ghost mediator and her newly self-appointed guardian angel off into the proverbial sunset. A very stormy sunset, that is.
PART II (who stops your bones from wondering just who you are)
There's a town with a harbor – and yes, isn't that how it usually goes? The people here are a little rattled, for more reasons than one, but right now the main concern is the tail end of the hurricane from the east, in particular the trails of destruction it left behind. Not for the first time, the people are unwillingly glad for the heavy padlocks securing the boats to the docks next to the ropes and chains – and not for the first time, carpenters and thatchers have a busy morning, checking over their shoulder with wary eyes. Things aren't how they used to be, one of them muses to the matriarch who is overseeing the cleanup at the harbor. Her warning glance silences him. A magenta flower is pinned behind her right ear, glowing vividly against short grey hair, and her sharp gaze speaks of experience. Men in uniforms stand nearby rigidly. Their eyes keep jumping back and forth between the matriarch and the pink-golden hair of the woman and the two children who make their way around and pour palm wine for the volunteers. In the depths of the brew, silvery white mist coils and uncoils in unease.
Foot patrols have been sent out along the coastlines, and back out at sea, ships are fishing half-drowned soldiers out of the water. The old structure up on the hill watches on, waiting, windows like bottomless, judging eyes. Things haven't been how they used to be for a very long time.
(This is not a town of hospitality, these days, even though —or maybe because— the unrestrained laughter of a woman with swirling wild hair is still penetrating their very foundations. This town is filled to the brim with tension, one should be mindful of turning over rocks — because even a pebble tossed into a pool of water will cause ripples, however small. It might be enough to make the basin overflow.)
—Addressed to newly appointed Fleet Admiral Sakazuki, dated six months past:
"–Request for Level Beta Blockage around B. Island to bring a stop to development as previously reported. Involvement of citizens suspected and evidenced. Unregulated exchange of goods and unrestricted travel needs to be prevented. Urgent. Further backup requested with ongoing issue.–"
Stamped 'GRANTED', signed. Note underneath: "If you don't get the damn place under control, Fidel, more drastic measures will need to be taken. Why it has not been wiped of the map is beyond my understanding."—
Further away, seagulls are soaring up and down in the cloudless sky above, the hurricane but a bad dream. Their cries echo in the steep hills that surround the beach and that grow into mighty cliffs toward the south — it is a gorgeous beach, by all accounts. Ocean waves wash over sand soft and fine, perfect for burying your toes, and palm trees swing their leaves with the gentle breeze and whisper soft, sweet nonsense. But this delightful, picturesque scenery is marred by pieces of what once might have been a little boat – and, incidentally, the as of yet unresponsive body of Portgas D. Ace's new … spirit guide? Who is absolutely missing out on the scenery, snoozing away all morning.
"And to think," he muses, idly tapping out a rhythm on her back, "that you are the only one of us who's actually able to feel the sun on your face and the sand under your feet." He suspects Lana is one of those grouchy-as-hell-types upon waking after a shipwreck, glaring at the beauty that surrounds them and cursing it into oblivion. He sighs. "You know, this piece of paradise was between you and drowning, or getting crushed against that cliff. You're very, very lucky."
The body underneath his fingers finally twitches with a muffled groan. Ace leans over with baited breath, anticipating her displeasure. If he were alive, the piece of wreckage he is leaning against would shift in the soft ground, feel warm and solid behind his back — but he isn't, so it doesn't. "Sorry, what?"
She coughs out some sand, shuffles onto her back and braces herself on her elbows, skin dusky and a little grey against the bright sand. Then, she looks around and just … stares, apathetic. "Huh."
Ace blinks. "… Huh?"
"We ended up in paradise," she says dispassionately. "Yay."
That's– that's not a reaction. He twitches as irritation tugs at him. Where are the curses? The sneer? Or the delight, the curiosity? There should at least be something, he reasons. After what they, she, went through to get here––
Lana sighs and scrambles to her feet, swaying for a moment and eyeing the dirtied wrappings around her fingers. "Okay, so transport's gone, and I possibly have a concussion, and sand in my bandages. Where's Pigtails?"
Pigtails? He squints at her, both parts confused and annoyed. She can't mean her frankly adorable companion? Doesn't she know her name? Lana stares back, her face blank. He tries, "Do you mean Remi?"
Several seconds tick by. The waves lap at a piece of driftwood. Lana does not seem to blink. Then Ace decides to have mercy despite not feeling very merciful. "The little girl that came with us?"
That finally gets a reaction: "Obviously," she raises an eyebrow, "Probably. Yes. Pigtails."
"She's gone to explore," he says, and tries to shake off her apathy with a roll of a shoulder, picturing blue hair and shining, excitable eyes. He has to smile at the image. "She told me she's never been off her island."
"She's like, four, so no wonder."
"I'm pretty sure she's older," Ace ventures, his lips twitching down. Ignore the apathy, his mind chants. Ignore.
"Was," she corrects absent-mindedly, eyes searching the wreckage, "Was older." Ace opens his mouth, but before he has even figured out a retort––
"I found agrimony!"
"Mouldy—," Lana yelps, whipping around to glare at the child, who popped out of thin air right behind her. "Don't- don't do that," she hisses and presses a hand to her head.
Ace winks at Remi, who had been appearing and disappearing the whole morning while he sat vigil over their unconscious ward. Remi beams back and turns back to Lana. "But it's fun! Did you know I could do that?"
Lana eyes her apprehensively. "… No?"
Liar, Ace mouths over the kids head, and smirks. She squints back in warning.
"And I found agrimony," Remi repeats, "You should pick some. Also, there's a town that way," she points, "and there are lots of boats. We can't use the old one," she adds solemnly.
Lana keeps staring at her. Ace can almost hear her thinking No shit, Captain Obvious. "What's ag-money," she asks instead.
"Agrimony. A herb that's pretty useful," Ace responds without missing a beat. He hasn't played indulgent audience to the kid's ramblings since before sunrise for nothing. "Stops bleeding, among other things. Remi here is a wizard when it comes to herbs." He reaches out and tugs at one of her pigtails, and she puffs out her chest in pride.
"Cool," Lana sighs and finally spots her backpack amongst the rubble, hoisting it over her shoulders. "Then let's go."
The waves rush over sand and flotsam, wind erasing their footsteps.
(Childish giggles had pierced the early morning air, unheard by the twitching furry ears of the night, while two ghosts had dug out and de-sanded the only girl that could hear them the best they could. The pigtailed child delighted in the feel of grains of sand trickling through her fingers, the only sand on the entire beach that would do so. The pirate brushed some more off of Lana's legs into his hands and shook them out over the top of the kid's head, laughing when she squawked and shook her pigtails, grains glittering in the air as hair flapped against the sides of her face.
"Hey," Ace said, to distract her from noticing how the rest just floated down through her body after a scant few seconds. "You know how you appeared back at your mum's side when you've just been on a ship?" And then he showed her how she could disappear and reappear in the blink of an eye, if only to place she had seen and been to before. He could ignore the bitter taste it left in his mouth, the fact that he could go to place sbut not seek out people – even though that connection should matter much more than to simple locations, even though it was the people that made places important first – he could forget it all a little by watching the bright, contagious curiosity in Remi's eyes, her elated cheers after she got the hang of it and was flickering all over the beach. He could sidetrack the kid from worrying over the prone body in the sand, from the weight the storm left on their shoulders:)
(Biting gales filled with salt and misery kept them trapped inside the storm for days, tossing the woman around in her cabin with little care. Despite being unaffected except when she happened to bowl into one of them, Ace felt the cold, and he felt the movement of the boat; both of which he thinks is due to habit – only one of which is the case, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. It matters that he could notice and anticipate the motions of the rolling waves, that he could try and steady the woman when it was necessary, point her in the direction of the right stars for the direction to Reverse Mountain. It matters that everything seemed so familiar but the cold, and that he got distracted for just one moment. One moment was all it took for the woman to be knocked off her feet by a particularly nasty wave and to bust her head open on the edge of the cabinet, and he and the child scrambled for her, he'd just found her, she needed to be okay––
Neither of them paid attention to where the wind was blowing them. None of them were looking out to see them passing silhouettes that were distinctively not wave-shaped, the boom of distant cannons drowned out by howling winds. Their unwitting patient barely woke up long enough to see the coastline hurtling towards them, only muttering: "… that can't be good for my head—"
For the ghosts, crashing was more unpleasant than anything else. They just had to take care not to wince every time a piece of wreckage swooped through their heads, with the woman in Ace's grip to slow her fall and Remi clinging to his side.)
This is a truth, a fact: They are dead, and she is not. It should be such an obvious, simple thing, but they will catch themselves overlooking what it means constantly. And it's easy; they can touch her, talk to her like any other ghost, while anyone alive would walk right through them – they're alive with her, and she's dead with them. But it's a lie. Mortality is suddenly a lot more fragile once it's out of your hands and you remember it matters, that while its shadow has left you, it still has her in its grip: she can die, or they could kill her — and not even mean to.
"We might have saved your life, you know," Ace tries, after a period of silently trekking past palm trees and through wild shrub of fern, following glimpses of blue hair. "In that storm. Just so you know. Maybe be a little nicer to the kid?"
"Sure. Thanks." She barely glances at him. "I guess I shouldn't have set sail so soon."
"Do you know—" he swallows back 'anything'"—much about sailing?" He does remember how Pierre's ship had been ready to go when he got there with the bastard ghost in tow. How she left the sails of her own boat rolled up when they left into a storm, though also the way she didn't seem to know north from south.
"Hardly," she replies. "But I spent a few months as a hand on deck, before leaving the ship on that island. Muscle memory and nothing beyond that."
"So what—" he trails off and shivers. An icy chill seeps through the gaps in the trees, but at the same time it seems accompanied by a heatwave that makes even him break out in sweat. Without any input from his nose, some part of him registers that it smells like flowers and salt. Goosebumps rise on his skin and he musters them, bewildered. "… happened …", he finishes belatedly. "Do you feel that?"
Ace stares past her through the vegetation, has taken a few steps into the direction before he's aware, heart in his throat. "That— chill? —Hey kid," he calls, "Remi!" The girl appears at his side immediately. He points, shivers, sweat trailing down his brow. "Do you know what's this way?"
Remi cocks her head. "A house. It's all overgrown and pretty, but nobody was there."
Ace doesn't hear if there's anything else she has to say, already phasing through the trees with urgency, his heart beating in overdrive. Something is this way, something– he stumbles out onto a clearing, his head swivelling wildly, eyes flitting around. The only sound is the blood rushing through in his ears and crashing undergrowth of the woman behind him making her way through the wilderness. He takes a gasping breath, thinking, bizarrely– I don't even breathe anymore, my heart is not beating– but it feels like it really truly beats and not just seem like it, for a moment, for a moment—
Then he sees the house.
For a moment, there was nothing to see but fern and wild hibiscus under the shadow of dozens of palm trees. The open sea should be but a few paces beyond. It might strike as odd, then, that you can't see the blue of the sky and the ocean flashing through between the trunks – until the breeze shifts the palm leaves overhead and the sun reflects off the windows.
It's as if it is sleeping, that house, more a cottage, laid to rest beneath a thick green blanket of vines, pillowed on a myriad of red and orange and pink hibiscus. The low stone wall has long surrendered to the overgrown garden. ("Philodendron," the kid might supply helpfully, "and clematis.") It looks utterly abandoned. It looks–
—white stained in redyelling in his ear must try harderpain he can't dieyet fingers crushed in his grip bones breakinghe wants to apologize but can't, not while it feels like an axe is cleaving him open—
—euphoria a laugh brimming with pure spiteand this is everything this is it and oh was it worth it, it was, it must be, has to be—
The echo of a scream rings in his ears, his lips feel crusted with the salt lingering on his tongue. He's staggered three steps in the direction of the door before a small hand tugs him back. He looks down and sees a child, a girl with her blue hair in pigtails, baggy overalls, vividly red rain boots and a queer tilt to her eyebrows–
"There's nobody in there," the child before him says, there's flowers printed on her red, red boots and he remembers, Remi, yes, that was her name– and his name was– "I checked, too."
Ace shakes his head so violently his hat almost falls off. His cheeks feel wet; he wipes them hurriedly. "Right … right." He turns away with a reluctance that makes him want to shake himself again. It makes no sense, but he's hot and cold all over, both despairing and filled with elation–
At the edge of the clearing their living company awaits them, her eyebrows raised. "Do I want to know?"
"Don't you feel that?" Impressions just at the edge of his being. He feels like bawling his eyes out, like laughing so hard he can't breathe, aching in his skin. The air is rich with the fragrance of flowers, with the salty tang of the sea – or of tears, maybe–
"I–", Lana looks past him, then rubs her arms and abruptly swivels around on her heels, starting back through the trees. "Feels like not-our-business."
(He's reminded: Her first reaction is to run away. He can't help the sneer gracing his lips; remembers how he practically had to force her to turn around and help her own people. His first instinct has always been to stay, run forward, face everything head on – guard the retreat if nothing else. Every fiber of his being protests against leaving; something is not right, even when the old stones and hibiscus whisper wistfully, it's alright, it's fine, it's done, it's how it is supposed to be– It is grieving, that house, has been for a long time, maybe decades.
He wonders if he can feel death, now. What he just ... felt, he can't imagine anyone surviving that. He knows what dying is like. But he's been dead for a while now– and even when he came to at Marineford, he hadn't been this affected, despite the chill soaking everything in that place, the bitter mix of salt and metal in his mouth, despite what followed. And every place he's been since– nothing like it. This is different. This feels wrong, out of place.)
Once they are back making their way through the green in silence, Ace finds himself wishing for the forest line, because every flower they pass makes his thoughts fly back the way they came.
When Lana opens her mouth, he's grateful, thinking he'd take any topic right now to distract him. "So what's that thing on your back, anyway?"
For several seconds, he thinks there's some sort of insect or maybe leaf clinging there, and wastes some time with twisting and craning his neck – then he realizes, belatedly, that it'd be impossible. Irritation bubbles up inside him. "What are you talking about?"
She pokes his shoulder blade. "Don't tell me nobody told you about the tattoo on your back."
"You can't – don't tell me you don't recognize–" He's afraid, suddenly– they've already made people forget, it's all been for nothing, but that can't be possible– and something wild and feral rears its head in his chest. "You have to know!"
She blinks. "It's a purple cross with a big blob and a white banana slapped in the middle."
"It's a mustache! And those are crossbones!"
"Why in all blights would you tattoo a mustache on your back!?"
(He still sees it, clearly: The giant silhouette of his captain stands proudly against the sky, defiant and strong even in death. A sob lodges itself in his throat and won't let go – his father– how many of his brothers and sisters– he didn't ask for this, he didn't, he swears, why did they come– but oh, he wished, yearned for this, didn't he, for an answer to the question clawing at his insides – if this is the answer, he doesn't want it. Still he drinks their words in like a starved man, laughs with relief and joy. What kind of person does this make him?
I chose you, booms the silhouette, we want you to live, scream his siblings, the face of his little brother shining in determination, and he's so fucked up because he's happy while everything is going to shit– This is our choice.
How can she not know? How–)
(It went something like this: Boy meets death, smiles, and embraces him like an old friend. He knows he lived his life to the fullest, that he'll be missed, and that's all he ever yearned for. As story endings go, it could be worse, right? No place for sadness, only acceptance. It couldn't be better. What matters is this: There are no regrets.
So why is he still here?)
It will go like this, every time:
"How can you be this clueless? The entire world–"
"Listen, I'm sure it's conspiring entirely against you, personally, but I don't care a blight about what 'the world' is doing. Just tell me what it means and skip the drama."
(Lather, rinse, repeat.)
He doesn't know whether to laugh or to cry. "It's a jolly roger. Of Whitebeard," he stresses, and adds a hopeful: "You know, the greatest pirate who ever lived?"
And the ignorant woman has the gall to just, shrug. "If you say so." The name inspiring respect, maybe fear, and she doesn't even blink. The tilt of her lips tells him she regrets asking at all.
Maybe it's better this way, he thinks. Half of him expected her to say something along the lines of "Didn't he die for nothing?" but then he'd have gladly taken it as an invitation to introduce his fist to her face. Now he's left hanging, tripped up by insults that didn't come but still seem implied by this willful disinterest that's almost patronizing, presenting him as vexed without valid reason.
"I—yes," he flounders, like an idiot, "I say so."
(She doesn't know, so she doesn't care. She doesn't care, so she doesn't know. Does that make her impartial, or just terribly naive?)
A few paces later comes relief: The undergrowth clears suddenly, right where two palm trees form a gateway to the path they are on. Below them, a town is sprawled on the seaside, climbing up the hill across the valley to a small castle, and filled to the brim with cottages and more palm trees. The forest creeps around and crowds the hills rising beyond it all.
That's the last thing he sees before he blinks his eyes open, almost feeling the ground digging into his back, to find both girls gone.
(In Lana's defense, she does try to wake him — she prods him with her foot repeatedly and calls "Firefly. Oi, Sparks!" a few times.
Pigtails bounds back to them and crouches down next to his unmoving body. "Is he dead?"
Really? Lana raises her eyebrows. "Yes," she deadpans.
Startled, Pigtails turns her head and blinks up at her; Lana can almost watch the gears turning in her head. Then a one of the butterflies flutters right through Pigtails, and the girl's eyes light up. "Oh, right!" she chirps. She looks back down to Firefly. "So what's he doing?"
Lana shrugs and steps over the guy. "He'll catch up, I guess."
Pigtails makes her stop and pick some of that herb she is so keen on, then makes her stop again for a flower with five large, orange-tipped pedals. The kid insists on weaving it into the hair behind Lana's left ear, a look of utter concentration on her face and tongue sticking out between her teeth. There is also a speech as to why Lana should wear this particular flower this particular way, but she is a little distracted by the worn down sign she passes at the edge of the town.
She sends the kid off to explore some more and breathes gratefully into the blessed silence. Then she shakes off a shiver, and goes in search for a place to eat.)
(Nailed to the crossbeam is what can be assumed to be the name of the town, but on many places, empty nail holes are all that is left of the letters. What is left of the caption currently reads: LATER.
It had previously also read RAT BILE, B TALLER, EAR BALL, ATE BILL, BEAT ALL, LIL BRAT and —on one memorable occasion— LIABLE, among other things the culprits were able to come up with the limited set of letters at their disposal. Each time sign and letters would be dutifully repaired by tired recruits, who are secretly only too glad to be out of the town for just a little while.)
This is not a town of hospitality, they say.
As soon as Ace puts his spiritual foot inside, his skin is crawling. The hot-and-cold-shivers ambush him randomly in the streets, his hands clammy and heartbeat throbbing in his ears, breath uneven — and that is a clue, right there, isn't it; he has mastered breathing and clearing his head years ago, he had to, with his devil fruit. This is not his fear, his grief, his anger, just like he was not dying back in the cottage, just like he had already died on Marineford.
He passes brightly colored little cottages, palm trees on every corner, cracks in every fifth wall. Blooming hibiscus battles garden fences; the air tastes like salt and iron, heavy with the fragrance of long wilted and dried flowers. There always seems to be a baby crying in the distance. Two of the taverns which Ace finds near the docks have their windows nailed shut and the sign graffitied over with the same hibiscus-design that decorates every other facade; the paint even covers the official-looking notice on the door, making it unreadable. The boats and the single ship in the harbor are chained to the bollards, with honest-to-god padlocks, and he's been around more than enough to know that it can't be due to some frequent storms, like the one he passes people cleaning up after.
And normally— normally Ace is all for the intrigue, the adventure that beckons behind the instinct telling him something's off. But the hairs on his arms are rising with each step, he is wrestling with a panic that might not be his own — and he's dead. He's dead and his chance of closing the only unanswered chapter of his life appears to be a willfully unobservant brick of a woman sporting a head injury, who doesn't even recognize a goddamn Jolly Roger. It occurs to him that she might not even know who he is.
So when Ace finds her, daintily handling food and looking absolutely unconcerned, in a tavern with a well-oiled sign proclaiming it "Twelve Palms And A Fork", he's ready to jump out of his skin after phasing all through town looking for her. There are familiar white-blue uniforms heading inside and he rushes through the patronage to her side, fire ready in his hand and reaching, words in his throat–
This is what Ace means to do:
He plans to pull her aside, chastise her for leaving him in a meadow, for walking around blindly, and ignore the hypocrisy of something like that coming from him. He wants to say something along the lines of "I have a bad feeling about this" or any other way to express "This place creeps me the fuck out and I can literally set my problems on fire and awoke on a bloody battlefield, nothing more traumatising than that, we should definitely be worried–"
Ace doesn't see the wad of cash in Lana's hands, about to be counted to pay for a good meal. He is not entirely aware of more eyes on her than should be normal in a tavern in a harbor town, or any run-of-the-mill tavern, the entire room watching her with something like confusion painted on their faces. There have been spoons paused in the air for the entirety of her visit, mouths open and soup and stew slowly dripping to the tabletop without notice. He barely registers the many obligatory bounty posters and newspaper clippings and notices on the wall behind the bar.
No, Ace is a little preoccupied by the three men and two women with white-blue uniforms marching up to Lana with purpose, and doesn't really think when he goes to grab her, dead breath stuttering.
The bills in Lana's hands are made of paper — in an unsurprising turn of events, they happen to be very flammable and don't waste time catching fire. The room holds their breath as she drops them with a yelp and stomps out the flames, when she whirls around, pointing, "Why are you burning my money, what– what in all rotten blights is wrong with you–"
It might have been entertaining, it's just– Lana isn't growling at her current number one cause for irritation, not for everyone else, no; she's pointing and hissing at an Ensign of the Marines. And the Marines take one look at her, the ashes to her feet beside her worn backpack, the flower in her hair, and promptly arrests her.
(The tavern is deathly silent after the curly-haired stranger is dragged out.
"So," says the barman, a wiry young man with a shock of carefully brushed back, pink-tinted golden hair, into the empty space where the stranger was just standing. "Who's paying me?"
"Gotta get her back first for it," notes a woman, the green vest of the constabulary slung over her chair. "And good luck with that. Have you seen the flower in her hair? The nerves on that girl!"
"She just walked right in, absolutely unconcerned," someone whispers with awe, spoon still raised. His beard is peppered with grey, as well as with half his lunch. "Takes me back."
"How on earth did she manage to pass the blockage?"
"The storm was pretty bad, it hit them too …"
"Is anyone going to say something about how her hands were on fire? Because–"
"All I'm hearing," grimaces the barman against the rising canopy of voices and sighs, "Is that I'm not getting paid."
Grabbing her vest, the woman from the constabulary rises to her feet. "Don't fret. I'll go inform Lady D."
"That's not helping!" he yells after her, "Torres! You know she never pays either!"
"Go drink some of your tari, P-boy!")
Excerpts of File 10-6830: Collection of Official Notices, Town of B., Vol. 2-6.
(...) In accordance with §11 Level Beta Blockage, security checks are mandatory. This includes travel intentions and luggage inspections. Also in accordance with a §11 Level Beta Blockage, all seafaring vessels will remain locked by appointed officials and all outgoings controlled. (...)
— Addendum #23-5: Any Marine neglecting to report confiscated palm wine or any other goods will be on lavatory-duty for a month. No rank is exempt.
Flowers of the genus hibiscus are banned from open wear until further notice. This includes hair, clothes, objects et al. To do so otherwise will be seen as Open Resistance, no matter any pretexts of "Cultural Tradition". Refer to Regulation #5, symbolic uses of fire. Violations will be punished accordingly by law.
(Scrawled underneath in precise, displeased letters: Lady P.D.B. is exempt from this simply because we cannot stop her without inciting a goddamn mob. She is unable to pay a fine. Stop arresting her, the paperwork is not worth it.)
— (...) Addendum #153-62: The flower is further prohibited from being displayed and drawn on any surfaces. One is to refrain from literally any use other than a garden plant.
Curfew within the city is from eleven p.m. to five a.m.. No citizen is to remain outside during these hours without certified reason. Any citizen apprehended within these hours will be punished accordingly by law. (...)
(Added in crisp, very displeased handwriting: Lady P.D.B. continues to insist to reside just outside city borders and is currently exempt from this regulation. She will always be "just on her way home" and none of you incompetent idiots will prove otherwise. Just stop arresting her.)
(...) Please cease messing with the place-name signs. Ensign H. just suggested putting it on the roster for the higher ranks with claims to division of labour.
(Attached a napkin, laminated: With all due respect, Commander Fidel, consider looking for the culprits among your own. Vice is using the stacks of official complaints from citizens regarding this issue as a couch during lunch break. We have nothing to gain from these pranks but cheap furniture that gives us paper cuts. If you find the ones responsible, do tell them that we found "ATE BILL" particularity inspired. We never did find out what happened to him. "LIL BRAT", while surely justified, was just bad taste. — signed, Chief of Constabulary, TORRES; stamped OFFICIAL, ink bleeding into the tissue.)
(This is not a town of hospitality, they said. It's true, in a lot of ways, or some; but there's still pink-tinted, golden-haired laughter echoing in the alleys, drifting in the salty air from the sea. There used to be a statue in the main town square for about twenty one years, before it was destroyed. Now the people have their grim and determined smiles, edged with fondness, whenever they pass a new graffiti of a blooming hibiscus; the gardens in between almost bursting at the seams with the very same flowers. It helps against the shivers, the echoes of wailing infants.
Neither the ghost kid nor the pirate had noticed that on their venture through town, they both gave the main town square a wide berth. There are more cracks in the walls there than anywhere else — except for the small castle on the hill, weathering tremors and waiting.)
Lana is not in a particularly good mood, understandably, what with being frog-marched with hands bound behind her back. "Can someone please explain what in all mildewed moulds is going on?"
"You got arrested," Ace replies helpfully, in a much better mood now that they have left the town and the crawling in his skin behind and are on their way up the hill to the old castle, which is probably where the local seagulls are roosting.
"Oh really," she comments, voice dry. "I didn't notice."
The female marine beside her throws her a strange glance. "What didn't you notice? Landing on this island? Passing a Level Beta Blockage?"
"Passing a what now?"
Ace feels his lips twitch in amusement. It's either that or exasperation bordering on annoyance, or giving into the nagging worry that getting out of this might not be as easy as he's used to. "She's talking about a Marine blockage around an island. It controls what and who gets in and out."
"What is your intention here?" the Marine continues, undeterred, "You might want to think of a good reason before the Captain or the Commander himself questions you."
Lana looks at them like they all have taken a temporary leave of sanity. "Lady, I shipwrecked. There was a storm, I'm told it happens. Why am I being arrested?"
"Why are you wearing the hibiscus, then?"
Lana blinks. "Wearing the what?"
"In your hair?"
"What's wrong with my hair?"
"She means the flower," Ace supplies hastily, facing the horrifying certainty that the questions might continue to circle around into eternity. "Why is it in your hair, anyway?"
"Pigtails insisted," Lana humphs, "Why is this an issue?"
The Marines falter in their steps. "Is 'Pigtails' a person?!"
"Careful," Ace warns. The shade of the castle looms over them, and he suppresses a shudder. The windows seem to look at him and find him lacking, reflecting the dark clouds gathering above them. "If people can't get on this island uncontrolled, then-"
"You be quiet, I'm still mad at you for burning my money. And someone tell me why for all mildewed blights I am being arrested, because if this is about a rotten flower, just pull it out, what the hell?"
"Madam," the Marine from her other side speaks up, "Did you just tell us to be quiet?"
"No," Lana says flatly. "Not you. I have very annoying imaginary friends." Ace shoots her a wounded and slightly offended look.
The main gate swallows them, uniforms nodding to their group and rubbing their arms. "Is this Pigtails–"
"Yes, can we get back to the mouldy flower?! Look, if you untie me, I'll even get rid of it myself!"
"We are dealing with two violations and identifications of resistance! The severity–"
The courtyard opens before them, greeting them with clouds looming above and hot-and-cold, tense air. Something else that greets them is a body literally thrown right into the group and through the two Marines in front, bowling Lana over and into her captors. Across the way two people are locked in furious combat, another person whose face is in the process of rearranging its bone structure back into order, hiding a little blue-haired girl half behind her — a girl who brightens and yells: "Hey Ace! Lana! I found some friends!"
"Portgas D. Ace!?"
And in the following minutes, all hell breaks loose.
(Listen, Portgas D. Ace is aware that he is a very important person across all seas. He was a world-renowned pirate with a five hundred fifty million beli bounty. His scheduled execution started a war that killed hundreds, maybe thousands, that destabilized the world order and started another wave of piracy. He knows. Countless encounters since have taught him very well exactly how many deaths are placed his shoulders, the shoulders of someone they really identify as Gol D. Ace. He has been recognized and ambushed enough times to settle into a routine:)
His grin shows entirely too many teeth to be friendly. "Who's asking?"
"Commander da Costa," growls the taller of the two previously locked in combat, all wild black curls and gnashing teeth, "And you are a dead man!"
Ace laughs. That's almost funny. "True. What do you want?"
"It's you," the woman in front of Remi murmurs, steps forward, her face twisted in an entirely different manner than before, "You're the reason. Bluebird, why didn't you tell us?" Her hand strokes Remi's hair. "He's no friend to anyone here."
Something in Ace begins to boil, spill over, and he has the ghost trying to sneak up behind him hanging in his fist by the throat in a second. It's the one that flew into their group of escorting marines, he notes, regarding her with a smile he doesn't feel. "Hey there," he says pleasantly, vaguely registering Remi's protests in the background. The woman in his grip meets his gaze unflinchingly over his fingers, eyes full of distaste, as if he was just something nasty sticking to the sole of her shoe rather than in the process of strangling her. In the corner of his eyes, he watches da Costa seething, the woman with Remi shaking, da Costa's opponent stalking to her side, stony face in Ace's direction. All of them are closing in on him, slowly, loathing dripping from every pore.
"Want to explain your problem with me, or is it the usual?" Ace thinks he's heard it all, from blame for the war or the root of piracy, has listened to insults thrown at him and the names of his family cursed. Some of those will accelerate the situation more than others, and feeling the stabbing fear and rage permeating the air, just like down in the town, he suspects–
"The Pirate Prince," the woman in his grip purrs, "He finally graces us with his presence. Did you miss your mommy? Too bad, the whore is not here."
Ace's vision goes red.
—(He woke up on a battlefield among rubble, the stench of blood still in the air and iron and dust on his lips, between his teeth – already knowing, with utter certainty, that he was dead. He'd known even before stumbling straight through the first of the marines who were working cleanup, shivering in an unnatural cold. What he didn't know was–
"What are you doing here." Ace looked up, almost flinched at the black hatred pouring from the eyes of the other ghost, his coat blazing with the letters for justice. "You do not get to be here, just like the other pirates. But especially you."
His tongue felt like lead. "My brother– Luffy."
"If you don't disappear right now, I and the others will do what we've done to the ones who woke before you and did not leave at once."
The air seemed to press against his head, his lungs. "What— who? I don't know—"
And Ace finally snapped, shook himself. "How?! I just died! Give me a second!"
The Marine smiled, utterly devoid of joy. "It's been days. You don't have it."
They did not care that Portgas D. Ace hadn't wanted a war, hadn't asked anyone to die for him. That every pirate knew what they signed up for, just as every marine should know the same. They and theirs were the ones having called for his execution in the first place, knowing full well what it could mean, had prepared for it, what right did they have–
Ace died another six times before he figured out how to get off the god-forsaken island, and he never went down without a fight. Afterwards, he was quick to learn how to keep the ghosts from reforming for longer periods, what needed to be done to prevent them from trying again.
It is, after all, quite handy that he got to keep his devil fruit in the afterlife.)—
Lana only saves herself from being incinerated in the inferno by launching herself from the marines she'd bowled over back into the tunnel between gate and courtyard. The heat still scorches the soles of her shoes, singes her pants and turns the ropes binding her hands brittle enough that she can snap them apart. She only stops cursing up a storm when breathing becomes too difficult around the smell of burning flesh and smoke in her nose, tortured shrieks and cries ringing in her ears.
Her marines stumble after her in half determination, half disorientation. Lana doesn't know what they are feeling, but the tremors wracking her body and the pressure in the air, the feel of despair and hatred sinking its hooks into her skin– she can't imagine there isn't anything to be noticed, even for them. She's barely hanging on herself.
It might only be seconds, a minute until it stops, even though it feels like eons. When Lana gulps in a deep breath, her stomach turns; her head, already pounding all morning, seems to split into two for one agonizing second. Then she notices she's halfway climbed on and is gracelessly clinging to the female Marine who had been at the head of her escort. Every marine around them looks like they just walked through hell, not remembering the place, but still left with the feeling.
"That was so much worse than usual," her crutch ventures shakily, "What was that?"
Lana has only one appropriate response, and promptly pukes all over her uniform.
What Lana would like to tell them, once they pick up the flower that has fallen from her curls and 'Crutch', with vomit all over her, has stopped screeching, is that none of this was her idea.
She didn't want to leave her cosy hide-away island. She wasn't the one who suggested she needed a guardian angel or some rot like that. It wasn't her notion of fun to go challenge a storm and crash, and she had no preference for flowers anywhere on her person. She certainly hadn't proposed to host a violent barbecue, with every ghost she disagreed with featuring as the main course, though she could see the appeal.
Lana imagines herself saying, "So yeah, remember those imaginary friends i mentioned? It's all their bloody fault."
Instead she wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, presses her other hand to her head and stomach in turns, and offers, "In my defense, my boat crashed here and I got knocked on the head a few times?"
They still take her backpack and lock her up, but she figures it was worth a try.
(There's unseen ashes in the air of the courtyard, moving against the wind and seeking one another. A little girl creeps along the walls, hurrying after streaks of red hair before they disappear through a door. The pirate surveys the black specks with a hard look, then follows.
The base is in uproar, marines of all ranks hurrying across the yard with quivering knees. Is this from the storm from last night? There's normally weird backlash from a storm, but this one came from out at sea, and has long cleared up – the Commander, up in his office, lets out a trembling breath. This was worse than usual, and even though the old lady insists it isn't anything from town, he can't help but think– and what about the stranger they brought in? A headache announces itself in his temples.)
Years ago, people died, and stayed. It was not a pleasant affair; deaths rarely are. A husband fought for his wife, a wife shielded her unprotected middle. A commander was betrayed, a lieutenant failed to save him. There's others, but they know better than to get into the middle of this.
Children were crying in the distance; they could do nothing else.
"You bloody rotten canker! What the hell was that for?!" Lana's hands itch to wrap around his mouldy neck. "Never even mind why! Have you thought that I almost got nice and crispy, too?!"
"Sorry," Firefly says, entirely unrepentant. "Desperate measures. If they're like that, it usually doesn't help to talk to them."
She growls. "I don't care! Don't do it when I'm around! Are you listening to me? There almost wasn't a mildewed 'medium' for you anym–" she gags, but there's nothing to heave up than dry air. "God, my head hurts."
"Maybe they have ginger tea," Pigtails pipes up for the first time, her voice hesitant. "Or maybe toothed moss or yellowroot grows here? Should I massage your head? I can do it like Mum always did when I felt sick."
Lana sinks to the ground in the middle of her cell, leaning her forehead against her knees, arms locked around her legs. "Thanks for the offer, kid. It's okay."
Still, after a moment, she feels the child kneeling beside her and sliding cool fingers into her hair. Lana tries to concentrate on the pressure, think about the fire, flowers and the last time she hit her head this hard and if she puked on someone important then, too – but thoughts are trickling through her fingers like water. The hot-and-cold shivers and pressure are still around, like they've sunken into every stone in every corner of the building, seeping into the very mark of her bones. Something is squeezing her chest, her eyes, and she knows she would cry if she wasn't sure, somehow, that this grief is not her own. The salty taste of tears and the scent of dried flowers still linger. She has no idea how much time passes that way.
"Two of them were nice," Pigtails says after a long while. She sounds brittle. "I just wanted to explore the castle, and they found me and told me it's not safe here. I didn't feel safe here before, but I felt safe with them."
Lana keeps silent. What does it matter who they were? Their scattered ashes would reform just the same. Firefly sits somewhere to her other side, cross-legged and quiet, and Lana notices for the first time that she's sitting between him and the kid, forming a human barrier.
"Rosa said that something terrible happened a long time ago, and that she and her husband Corin have been 'trying to get justice' since," the kid tells them, in a way that seems parroted. "I think the other two did the terrible thing. Or maybe they were two of the ones doing the terrible thing. I think Rosa and Corin died then. Tens of years ago." She pauses, then continues pressing and moving shaking fingers through Lana's short curls. "They were so angry. And sad. Could you feel how sad they were?"
"The whole town is sad, Remi," Firefly replies softly. "I–"
"You didn't have to do that!" the girl burst out, sniffling, "Why did you do that? It was terrible! I'm scared of you now! I don't like being scared!"
Firefly breathes out. He might be sighing, he might look remorseful, but Lana still has her face pressed against her knees, counting her own breaths. "They would not listen. They'll be back. Just like they have been back for the tens of years they've been dead. Remi, I– I'm sorry you had to see that."
"But you aren't sorry that you did it!" the kid cries. "You–"
"So much noise," Lana mumbles into her knees, interrupting Pigtail's hysteria, "For things gone for decades. I'm not gone, and apparently in deep shit. Can we focus on that?"
"What a succinct summary of your situation, my girl," comes a worn voice from above, together with the sound of a key fighting against metal echoing against stone. "Though you should care about all that noise from tens of years ago. You maneuvered yourself right into the middle of it."
Lana slowly raises her head and stares.
"You can call me Lady D," the old woman says, flower in her hair, "and I expect a thank you later, for bailing you out."
(Flowergirl, they used to call her, but now she takes care of her people with steel in her spine and a smile on her face. Her laugh rings just as loud as that of a younger woman, lost in history and still echoing from the sea. She's been here for a long time, long enough to know how things used to be — there is no tragedy that could break her, because she has met them all and bared her teeth. Her hands are full of flowers and she will bind them together in new ways every bloom, because she knows – things have never been how they used to be.)
This Lady D possesses a striking beauty, even in her old age, short silver hair streaked with white. A violently pink, five-petaled flower, like the kind Pigtails had stuck into Lana's curls, is clipped behind her right ear and glowing defiantly. Lines of laughter and grief, of countless stories, have carved her face to perfection around sharp, gleaming eyes reminiscent of Firefly's flames. Whenever they pass a light, Lana can see the freckles dotting her skin, admire the laugh edged into the corners of her mouth.
The whole way back to town, Lana focuses on the flowing folds of the lady's colourful dress, trying not to lean on Pigtails too much whenever she feels like the ground is moving. The moon is bright and almost full in the sky, lighting their way through the clouds. Was she really in the cell the whole afternoon into the night? Her last and only meal in two days has probably already been scrubbed off the unfortunate Crutch. But just thinking of food makes Lana want to throw up again, the smell of burning bodies still crawling up her nose.
She attempts to feel some sort of surprise when she finds herself dropped into a chair back at a table in the tavern which she had been dragged out of in the first place, but she can't muster the effort. There's a glass of water in front of her the next second. A gentle warmth, one that threatens to press on her stomach again, tells her that Firefly has settled next to her. Pigtails hovers, then drops onto the floor on her other side and puts her arms and face into Lana's lap. Lana pats her hair a few times without looking down. The tavern, she registers with tired eyes, is empty but for them.
"I'd offer you the divine palm wine of this place," Lady D asserts, "but considering that head wound, I suppose I better not. Jack, dear, would you bring the girl an ice pack?"
"Is she going to pay for her food?" comes the muffled reply from someone whose voice Lana vaguely matches to the strawberry-blonde barman from earlier.
"Oh, just put it on my tab," Lady D calls back irritably from somewhere behind Lana, "They're keeping her things until they figure out her crime."
"You never pay your tab!"
"Young man, I think a lifetime of labour–"
"Put a sock in it!"
"Jaune! Get the girl an ice pack, please?"
"Jaune, don't you dare!"
Lana takes careful sips of water and doesn't even notice someone coming until glorious, soothing cold is pressed against the back of her head. "Thanks," she whispers, grasping to hold it herself. She pillows her face onto an arm and secures the ice pack by slinging her other arm over it. Voices drift in and out of focus. Once, she makes a valiant attempt to listen, only they speak of flowers and dimes and cracks in the wall, and Lana can't make sense of any of it.
What a rotten day, she thinks, and falls asleep, her ghosts and those of a different kind keeping her company.
(This is not a town of hospitality, but a barlady would sling the arms of a stranger —lighter than expected, but she can't see the ghost helping them along— over her shoulders and put her into a bed. She would peel back the wrappings on and wash bruised fingers, brush back curly red hair and tie a poultice mixed with herbs, made by a grumbling brother, to the stranger's wound – then sit there and look around the room in thought, listening to her sleep until reassured.
She thinks that some rocks might be overturning, some pebbles dropped into a pool of water. The beds have not been used by strangers for some time, a memory holding an island hostage.)
Ace spends the night on the floor, his back leaning against the bed and facing the window. The kid is snuggled into Lana's side, pretending to sleep, even though they both know she can't.
"I am sorry," Ace says into the silence. "I don't like doing– I'm not proud of it. It's terrible, you're right, kid."
The quiet stretches, Lana's deep and regular breaths are the only sound, assuring them that she's fine. He almost think there won't be an answer, until a quiet voice ventures, "Why did you do it?"
"I'm," Ace hesitates, then sighs. "I'm a very famous pirate who died in a war some time ago. A lot of ghosts think their deaths and others' are my fault. They are so angry and hate me so much that– in a nutshell, they do to me what I did to them. Me doing it first stops them from trying it again."
"Is it?" Remi asks, cautious. "Your fault, I mean."
"No." It isn't. He can't– he isn't responsible for other people's choices. If they were there, then they knew what they signed up for. He never– he's not responsible for goddamn piracy. Isn't that the whole idea of being a pirate — that you only have yourself to answer both for and to?
Remi shuffles around and Ace turns his head to see her looking at him in the darkness. "Then why do they blame you?"
His breath hitches, because it all comes down to one thing. He tries to smile. "Because the man that– my f–" he grimaces, but he has to, or Remi won't understand what he means, "because my father was a very bad, very famous pirate, and a lot of people hated him and are out for revenge for the things he did and caused. I'm the son of a monster, so I'm a monster."
Remi hums and settles back in. "That's silly."
"Hating you because of your dad. Burning Rosa and Corin and the others was all youand still horrible. Everyone's their own person. Hating you for your dad is stupid."
She doesn't understand. Ace winces, disappointment clogging his throat. He turns his head back around and looks out the window, watching the moon and swallowing his first instinctive retort. He's not my dad. "Is it really?"
The night breathes, and doesn't respond.
(It went like this: Boy meets death. No matter the effort, or the pain, or the complications surrounding his very existence: It's that simple, and maybe that inescapable. There's everything tragic about it, and that should've been the end of it. Normally. People have better things to do than hunt down the holes in their own stories.
Consider the way we tell children of spirits – watching over us, remembering, chastising. A draft from nowhere, something that might feel like a warm embrace, sometimes a whisper; we think it's the people we lost, because we want them to be. So what are spirits, other than simply remnants made of memory?
Years ago, people died, and stayed — nobody really gets a say in the matter. But these ones here, they fancied to know exactly why, to have all the right reasons; how could they not, considering the circumstances they died in, just who was slaughtered (and had to die)? They still hear the memory of helpless, desperate cries (they listen to the price of justice), the sound of children weeping (feel the knife in the back). They will not forgive, and they will not forget, because what are they, other than what they had been? They will not stop until they've seen justice.
People here in the streets shiver, sometimes. They feel their hearts in their throats, choke up, remember old wounds, hearts breaking all over again. Sometimes it's stronger than others. Sometimes their pain turns to liquid, raging fury, and cracks appear in the wall as if agreeing. There's a tragedy that will not be forgotten, that does not seem to heal. Tensions are high because they were once high, and have been stoked by something since — just as laughter has sunk into the very soil, so has the sorrow. The sky clouds over and gales shake the palm trees, claw and tear at roof tiles and anchored boats, before falling silent.
The sun rises over old sorrow and old pain, each day anew.
(A little girl had called forth a storm from a small cemetery, a door closed on its own, a pirate stepped through a barman and caused him to shudder. Now a whole town has been on edge for decades, a base full of uniformed sailors is ready to jump at every provocation.
What is there more powerful than a memory?)
"Okay, girlfriend!" The barlady plops into the seat opposite Lana with no fanfare in the morning, dropping a plate of scrambled eggs, rice and sausage slices in front of Lana in the process. The woman has a lot of the same features that Ace has observed on Jack, the barman – the same big, brown eyes and the same shade of yellow with those soft red undertones in her hair; though her own, long tresses are loosely tied in a side ponytail, shadowing parts of her face. A hibiscus is perched behind her left ear, this one pink and yellow. "Being locked up for "suspicious behavior" is less sexy than it sounds, né? Had a nice chat with the seagulls?"
Without conscious thought, Ace slides onto the bench beside Lana, who sighs with the air of the long-suffering. "Will you, or anyone, please explain what this is about and why I don't have my backpack? What in all blights is up with the flower?" She gestures to the barlady, "You seem to wear it just fine?"
"Oh, it's forbidden to wear them," the other woman grins like she eats rules for breakfast. "Because this place has History, with capital H." She leans over, hair trailing over the tabletop, glinting golden in the morning light. "Portgas D. Ace was born here."
Ace chokes. Stares at her. What.
Lana frowns. "Wait, why does that name seem familiar?"
"It's mine, you moron." Ace's voice comes out strangled. He belatedly remembers to roll his eyes.
"Oh," Lana spears some eggs with her fork. "Huh."
"He was hot," the woman confides in her cheerfully.
Lana raises an eyebrow. "Literally."
The woman snorts with laughter and Ace feels himself go pink. He feels himself go numb. 'Something terrible happened a long time ago', Remi's voice relays in his head, echoing, 'tens of years ago. I think the other two were ones doing the terrible thing.' The ghost in his memory sneers, not even attempting to get out of his grip. 'He finally graces us with his presence. Did you miss your mommy?'
The barlady opposite them stretches. Her back pops. "Well, before we start– I don't think we've been introduced! You are?"
Idiot, he thinks. I'm an idiot.
"Just," Lana flaps her hand around, "Call me Lana." We're both idiots.
"Alright, Lana! Dig in, because my name is Portgas Jaune, and this is the story of my fabulous family and a once-martyr called Portgas D. Rouge," Jaune's smile disappears. "And if you're anywhere near halfway decent, you will not feel hungry anymore after hearing it."
Flowers bloom, a woman laughs, the sea whispers and offers up flotsam. The sun rises, day and day again, and does not care how things used to be.
tbc in part II. II
End Notes: … you didn't think I would set this story off in South Blue and not touch this particular can of worms, did you?
Jack and Jaune, alive, owners of the bar 'Twelve Palms and A Fork', both in possession of shining, strawberry-blonde hair.
Lady D, alive, mysterious elderly matriarch, whose voice seems to hold quite a sway.
'Torres', alive, chief of the local constabulary. Should probably show more respect.
Da Costa, spirit, late Marine Commander, and his dead female comrade, who know exactly who Portgas D. Ace is and were locked in combat with
Rosa and Corin, spirits, who apparently made a good impression on little Remi.
Crutch, alive, Ensign of the Marines, name as of yet unknown. Had to clean vomit off herself.
Commander Fidel, alive, Commander of the local Marine Base, probably needs some sleep.
hope you enjoyed the kick-off into the second arc! I was going to wait with posting it till i finished the next chapter, but alas, life is kicking my butt and it's been longer than expected. I shall remain very self-conscious about characterization and pacing in the meantime. /blows kisses