Even if he hadn't recognized the voice, the grip which fastened around his wrist left no room for doubt. There weren't a hell of a lot of people with the strength to stop his swing dead in its tracks, and but one whose arms could stretch that far and yank back with an elastic snap.
The sword dropped from his suddenly numb fingers, as if that hold, though not overly tight, had unstrung all his nerves. The spinning blade harmlessly buried itself into the hard earth to halfway up the shaft. Bourne by the wind, the straw hat wafted down to hang on the hilt. Slowly, Zoro turned around.
Luffy, releasing his wrist and drawing back his extended arm with a crack like a whip, raised his hand and grinned at him. "Yo."
Zoro stared. This wouldn't do. He had vowed never to lose again, and not only had he lost his captain, but now his mind as well.
"Zoro?" Luffy's grin didn't shrink, but his brow furrowed slightly.
Luffy continued to regard him, puzzled, for a moment, then brightened with sudden insight. "Ah! See, I'm not dead." He waved his arms, to indicate what, Zoro couldn't imagine, since presumably a corpse would not be talking or staring at him any more than it would be flapping its arms.
"I see," he said, or tried to, but it came out as more of a baffled gulp than genuine language. You're alive, crossed his mind, as well as, Really? and Great!, and You son of a bitch, do you know how much we--, but the first thing he managed to articulate was, "What are you doing here?"
"Oh, it was so cool!" With that wrenchingly familiar wild smile, Luffy started to explain, a fantastic tale of storms and sea monsters and eggs, which Zoro would have believed every bit of, given Luffy's pathological truth-telling, except that he couldn't understand any of it. The actual words washed over him like so much white noise, and he just listened to their lively rhythm, comprehending nothing but the dawning realization that this was indeed real.
By the time Luffy's gibberish was winding down, his other three crewmates had pounded up the hillside, panting for breath--Luffy must have rocketed to get up here so fast, practically the only time he had managed it without smashing into Zoro. Obviously he had encountered the rest of the crew already, because they looked first to Zoro rather than their astonishingly not drowned captain.
The nervousness he had seen in their expressions for the last couple days was still there, but up here in the moonlight he noticed it looked less like fear, and more like concern. Probably worried he had done something unforgivable to the hat. He stepped aside to let them see it, hanging on his sword, and smiles surged across all their faces like a dam had broken, wiping away that weird anxiety. "Look, Zoro," Usopp cried, loud from having been quiet for too long, "he's here! --How'd you get here anyway?" and he looked at Luffy. "What were you saying about watching the beach?"
"Not the beach," Luffy corrected, "what's under it," and Nami excitedly asked, "Buried treasure?" and then they were all talking at once, a cacophony just as impossible to understand. Folding his arms and ducking various excited gestures, Zoro didn't attempt to make heads or tails of it for now. It didn't really matter anyway.
The others kept stealing glances at him, but most of the time they were staring at their captain, like they weren't entirely sure he was here for real. As if it were so difficult to believe. Luffy was cheerfully oblivious to the limelight, laughing as he answered their questions and not caring that he couldn't complete a single sentence without two or three interruptions. Zoro, listening to that chatter, felt himself relax, days of tension draining from his muscles like poison leeched from a wound.
"Hey." Sanji, slouched against the palm trees, raised an eyebrow at him. "Aren't you going to say it?" He gestured with his cigarette toward Luffy, presently trapped under Usopp's arm for a knuckling while Nami pulled at his cheeks like taffy, limbs flailing as he tried to justify his absence with an account of busy turtles.
Zoro glanced from that sight to the cook. "I'm gonna say what?"
Sanji's smile was just a fraction too wide to be his usual sardonic smirk. "Say, 'I told you so.'"
Zoro had a hell of a time keeping his own grin contained at that, and from the look in Sanji's eye, he hadn't been entirely successful, but the blond didn't comment. Instead he pushed off the tree and started ambling down the path, hands stuck in his pockets, remarking over his shoulder, "The barbeque should be almost done, I better make sure it's not burning."
Luffy was at his cook's side so fast he might have teleported. "Meat?"
"Yeah. I would say as much as you want, but you'd get mad at me later for lying."
Luffy beamed. "But lots?"
"Yahoo!" And Luffy took off down the hillside, crashing his way through the forest toward the beach.
"Hey, leave some for us!" Usopp shouted, and shot down the trail their captain had broken.
"Don't worry, Nami-san," Sanji called, "if you're still hungry, I'll save the best cut for you!" Then he was running down the hillside as well, heedless of the branches tearing at his suit.
Nami glanced back at Zoro, and her teeth gleamed in the moonlight in a quick grin, before she plunged into the dark tangle after them.
Zoro knew he should follow, before he lost their voices to guide him back to the beach, but first he went to retrieve his sword, and almost walked into Luffy, popping up behind him like some bizarre, extremely fast-growing shrub. "I almost forgot my hat!"
Plucking it off his sword's hilt, Zoro withdrew the katana from the ground, carefully wiped off the earth before sliding the cleaned blade back into its sheath. Then he planted the hat firmly on his captain's head, pressing it down snug over the unruly black locks. "We better get down to the beach, before they start wondering where you got to," he said.
"And before they eat everything!"
Zoro's stomach chose that moment to remind him of his skipped dinner with a rumble, and Luffy laughed, ringing in the quiet night. "Let's go!" he said, and blazed a brand new trail through the underbrush, Zoro right on his heels all the way down.
They set sail the next afternoon. Luffy had been torn--something about a promise to a mother--but when Sanji mentioned that turtles could take months to hatch, he was content with leaving a flag over the nest in the sand, emblazoned with a warning and his straw hat Jolly Roger. By now it was notorious enough an icon that many would think twice before disturbing it, not that many ships were along here anyway. Nami was amused to think of the sailors who might come to the island years or decades later, see that famous emblem and search for a treasure that would be no more than a few leathery shells.
By evening the isle was long gone over the horizon and they were past the Far North current. "Smooth sailing to the Grand Line," she announced, and Usopp and Sanji cheered. Zoro, dozing against the mast, grunted an affirmative before settling his head back on his crooked arms and shutting his eyes again, and Luffy--hadn't heard at all.
Nami climbed up to the bow, where Luffy lay on his stomach on the figurehead, chin on his hands, looking forward at the sea. For someone with as seeming a short attention span as their captain, he never tired of that sight. She wondered what he thought about as he watched it--their destination, the Grand Line and the One Piece? Or the journey itself, the passage of the waves? Or something else entirely? Maybe nothing at all.
He didn't look back, but when she told him how close they were to the Grand Line, she could hear his grin in his answering, "Good!"
There wasn't any reason for her to stay, but she did, leaning into the wind and smiling at the cool spray against her face. Through half-closed eyes she watched her captain, his black hair tousled under his hat and his skinny legs kicking idly in the air, like a little kid's.
'Nothing's changed', Zoro had said, but it hadn't been true, even if the sun had still risen and set, and the waves had still rolled, and the ship had still sailed.
Usopp and Luffy had fought over the final serving at dinner, and Luffy had compromised by stealing the last off Zoro's plate, and Sanji had made extra dessert to make up for it, and from the way they all carried on nothing might have happened. Certainly Sanji hadn't hesitated to stomp on Luffy's sneaking hand when he made a grab for her chocolate mousse, and while it looked for a moment that Usopp might forsake his bid for the largest spoonful, those qualms had lasted all of half a second, and then he was shrieking in outrage at their captain's appetite. Zoro grumbled about the noise--being done eating, he could have left the mess anytime, but had instead tucked himself into the corner of the bench to snooze, not bothering to open his eyes to snarl at whoever got shoved close enough to disturb him.
Nothing changed at all, and Nami had had to hide her goofy smile behind her hand.
Now, though, watching Luffy, she couldn't help but wonder...this time, and last time, and the time before that, with luck, or fortune, or fate, but if they counted on that forever... But maybe they could. Zoro had been right this time, after all.
"Zoro believed in you," she found herself saying, only loud enough for her voice to carry to the guy lying on the figurehead. "The rest of us, Usopp and Sanji and I, we all thought you drowned. We really thought you were--"
When she looked, he was sitting up, watching her with his wide eyes even larger in the twilight. "Zoro didn't," she said. "Zoro knew, he was sure. We should've all been, by now you think we'd know, nothing's going to kill you--"
"That's not true," Luffy said, not sharply, but so plain it sent a shiver down her spine. "Something might. Anything might. Not if I can help it, but I could die," and he shrugged, altogether too casual.
"You shouldn't say it like that."
"Why not?" He didn't sound angry, but then he rarely did, and there was a gravity to his tone that she hadn't heard much. It reminded her of not that many months ago, when a strange not-quite-a-boy in a cage was watching her with far too much confidence, knowing what she was going to do before she did it herself. "I'm not immortal," he said now. "I don't want to be immortal. If you can't die, then it doesn't mean anything to put your life on the line."
"Fine," she said. "Fine. But you don't have to say it. ...I don't want to hear it."
"Okay." Luffy hopped down from the figurehead. "I won't, then."
"Won't say it?"
Why did that idiot stare make her feel like the moron here? "Yeah. I won't say it."
"Luffy..." She didn't know why she was bothering. But talking about it, not talking about it...didn't really change anything. "If you did--drown. Or something. What would you want us to do?"
"Hmm." His careful consideration surprised her. "One of those funeral boats that you light on fire, and then you push it out, and it sails off until it burns away, and nothing's left? Those are really cool! But if I drowned you couldn't, I guess."
"Oh." What were you supposed to say to that? "But what about us?"
"What about you?"
"Would you want..." She swallowed. "Would you want us to go on to the Grand Line? Even if you--"
"You need to go, don't you?" Luffy cocked his head. "You can't make a map of the whole world unless you see what's there, can you?"
As simple as that. "No. I couldn't." And why shouldn't it be? "But..."
"You have to make that map, Nami," Luffy said. "I won't be able to find the One Piece without you navigating."
There was but one answer to that. "Aye-aye, Captain," Nami said, grinning. She saluted to boot, and Luffy laughed, then held up his hand. Nami slapped her palm across his, and felt like she was locking something safely away, closing a seal over a treasure too precious to lose.
"Nami says we'll be at the Grand Line soon, isn't that great, Zoro?" Luffy asked over her shoulder.
"Yeah, I heard," said Zoro. She wondered how long he had been there, leaning against the side of the ship with his arms crossed and yawning.
"I can't wait, it'll be so fun. Won't it be cool? I wonder if Sanji's made more of that chocolate stuff, he said he might. I'm gonna go find out." He bounced down the steps past Zoro, who watched their captain go with an expression of warm bemusement at odds with his gruff countenance.
Nami said, quietly, "Nothing's changed, huh?" and the swordsman's head swung around to pin her with a fierce-eyed stare.
Before he could answer, they heard the mess door bang open, Luffy's merry shout for more dessert and Sanji's alarmed cry, "Usopp, catch that!" Then a thud as Usopp bravely threw himself to the floor to catch whatever it was, and Luffy's cheer as the save was evidently successful. Must be food, for Luffy to applaud him like that.
And Nami was not surprised when all Zoro did was throw back his head and laugh out loud.
I nearly called the penultimate chapter "turtle ex machina". One can only do so much angst in One Piece, after all, before the inherent giddiness of the series intervenes.
*Waves to everyone who reviewed* You really made posting this a blast! Thanks for reading, and hope some of you will join me on my next endeavor!