He Comes for Us All
Blood washing the deck, waves hammering the hull, typhoon winds tearing the sails. Typical pirate case; his presence was only to be expected, in this sort of storm. The attacking marine ship had already sunk, but whoever was on board could wait; they kept well enough in the water. Would take a couple minutes anyway, for the last ones to give up their breath. Plenty of time for the pirates.
One saw him coming. He was still sitting up, slumped against a barrel, rain and blood matting his hair, drenching his shirt. Swords were scattered about him, two of his enemies', and his own blade also fallen, his fingers curled around the hilt but not clenched; the strength to hold it had already bled away.
The man's eyes widened a little at the approach, and he shivered--not in fear, just the final convulsive tremors. There was no terror in his eyes, just grim--recognition?
He frowned. That sort of familiar reception was unusual in one so young and obviously strong. Though looking at the man, there was a vague tickling of recollection in the back of his mind. The black bandana shadowing those eyes...well, he probably had seen the man somewhere before. Any swordsmen worth his salt had more than a passing acquaintance with him, after all. He couldn't afford to remember everyone whose paths he crossed; hard enough to keep track of his own clients on a day-by-day basis. Any post on the Grand Line was busy. He had been thinking lately of asking for a furlough somewhere else, maybe a corner of North Blue, where there was just a little freezing, a bit of drowning, old age...dull as dirt, maybe, but he wasn't as young as he once was.
But for now he had a job to do. "Right, then," he said briskly. "I see you know the drill already. You've not done it from this side, but really, it's not very complicated. Just come along, and--"
It wasn't aloud, obviously; the man was long past being able to move his tongue, and besides there would be no way to hear him over the storm's racket. But it was a remarkably clear statement, given how new he was.
Of course denial is one of the very first things you learn to deal with, and there's really only one method. "I'm sorry, but yes. You're--"
"--dead, you see, and there's not much to--"
"I'm not dead."
"--be done about it, so you might as well--excuse me?"
It wasn't the first time he'd heard that by a long shot. It was just that the man was so matter-of-fact about it that he double-checked, just to be sure. Mistakes can be made, after all; but there was no pulse, and brain activity had passed beyond the point of resuscitation. "I'm very sorry," he repeated, trying to sound like it was less a rote phrase than it was. "Now if you'd just--"
A problem case. He sighed and slowed time, inwardly cursing the price that entailed. Three different forms to justify a single stretched second; who came up with these regulations? "Look, I'm afraid this isn't a choice, whatever you might have heard. Those are special cases, in circumstances with more leeway and less bloodloss. If you've really got a problem with it, you can always apply for a reincarnation subsidy, or appeal to the resurrection courts. But for now you're dead, so you've just got to--"
"I'm not dead."
He rubbed his temples. North Blue was sounding better every day. "Sir, dying is a natural process." He hadn't had to give one of these talks for a while. Folks on the Grand Line knew what death was, at least. Usually. "It happens to every living thing, sooner or later, and there's no way to prevent it. I'm afraid I don't have anything to do with how it happened, so I can't do anything to change that. Once you've died, you've died. Do you understand?"
"Great. So if you'll just--"
"I haven't died."
"You have a hole in your abdomen the size of your fist." Looked like a gunshot wound, if not a cannon blast, but you never could be sure on the Grand Line. "You've lost more than half the blood in your body, which dropped your blood pressure to the point that your heart stopped pumping." The man was listening without protest. Encouraged, he went on, "Starved for oxygen, your brain shut down, first the higher functions, upon which you lost consciousness; followed by the autonomic responses, until they entirely ceased. That is to say, you died. You are dead."
"No, I'm not," the man said, with the patient, measured tone of someone trying to explain to an imbecile. "There's something I have to do, which I haven't done yet. So I'm not dead."
Ah. This was more familiar ground. "Unfortunately the cycle of existence doesn't take our personal ambitions into account. You'll find that whatever was so important to you in life doesn't have the same meaning in death; it will take time to adjust, but--"
"Don't care whether it has any meaning. I'm going to do it. So you can just go for now. Come back when I've died."
Stubborn son of a bitch. Usually they were too confused or surprised or frightened to put up this much of an argument. "All right, look," he sighed. "I've got some other cases in the area I need to take care of. I'll just finish those up, and then we can discuss this."
The man's eyes flashed--trick of the lightning, most likely. "Who's the other cases?"
"Death is a strictly confidential matter--"
He sighed again. "Oh, very well. Let's see, there's an Usopp, from Syrup Village--"
"No," the man said, quite simply. "You're not touching him."
"I'm afraid that I--"
"Not Usopp. Who else?"
"I have a Nami--"
"No. Not her, either. Next."
"And a Monkey D. Luffy."
"That would be no."
"But that's it, for this area!"
"No marines? Heh. Bet Luffy knocked that lifeboat off their ship on purpose. Idiot. Well, looks like you've got nothing to do here, so you might as well beat it."
"Sir, I'm not going to--" he began, exasperated, and stopped.
The man--the dead man--was sitting up, was lifting the sword, though the motion forced a spurt of blood from the grievous wound in his side. The man ignored that, ignored the shaking of his hand, the sword wavering unsteadily up and down its length, to lock eyes with him. And there was still no fear in his own, under the bandana's shadow. "We can do this the easy way, or the hard way," he said flatly.
"Do what?" he demanded, trying not to be alarmed by what was, for all intents and purposes, a corpse waving a sword at him. Something decidedly unnatural about that. Damn Grand Line. "There's nothing to do here, except for you to--"
"No," the man repeated, and there was a new note to that denial. "I told you, I'm not dead, so you have nothing to do here. But I've got plenty. So go."
"You're making this a lot harder than it has to be. I'd be lying if I told you I had forever, but I've got plenty of time. But the more of a hassle you cause now, the less favorable they'll be about your case later. It would be in your best interests to just--"
"No." And now he recognized it was spoken in an actual voice, forced through clenched teeth, using air from lungs that shouldn't be breathing.
At the same instant he belatedly realized that he had yet to release his hold on time, which meant that even a perfectly healthy, living man shouldn't have been able to move more than a millimeter in the millisecond which had truly passed, much less speak, or lift a sword, or--
It was too late. The man moved again, a hell of a lot more than a millimeter, grabbed one of the other katana in his other hand and surged to his feet, bringing forward both swords until they were against his neck. The blades were long silvery arcs curving in from the edges of his vision, and it was very difficult to believe that physical contact with the material world was completely impossible when he could feel that cold steel.
The tendons of the man's neck stood out like cords, agony drawing them tight, but there was no pain in his eyes. Nor fear, nor in fact anything recognizably human, and he wondered if a mistake had been made. Demons really weren't his jurisdiction...
That fleeting thought struck a chord. Demons. Demon hunter. Pirate hunter.
He hadn't more than glanced at the memo; to be honest he thought it had been a joke. The East Blue block were all pranksters, and he had assumed it had been intended for April Fool's and gotten misplaced on the way to the Grand Line. And there hadn't been any follow-up directives issued, just that one warning, and it had seemed too absurd, about a simple human, of all things, not even a Devil Fruit involved...
Not a very funny joke, really. At all.
Screw hazard pay. He was definitely not making enough to put up with this.
"Right, then," he said, in an undignified squeak, but if he lowered his chin he would be putting his throat to the blades. "I'll just come back--later. A couple years. Decade or two. Er--what would be good for you?"
The man shrugged. "Whenever I die. That's fine."
"But--you--already--" Admittedly he didn't look dead. The look in his eyes wasn't a dying man's, much less a dead one's. The dead never looked so terrifyingly annoyed.
He swallowed. "I'll just be going, then--"
"Without any more stops here."
His glance around the ship, to the other fallen pirates, was interrupted by the swords pressing that much closer. "Right?"
It was difficult to nod, but he managed to bob his head slightly. "Right."
The man nodded, withdrew his swords and sheathed them, then turned away with monstrous, mind-boggling nonchalance, like this happened every month or so. He limped over to the body of his closest crewmate, poked the dark-haired young man with more irritation than concern. "C'mon, get up already."
He hesitated for a moment. Perhaps if he could catch him caught off-guard...it wasn't as if he could simply refuse an assignment...much less seven...
The man didn't look back, but his bloody hand dropped, almost casually, to the hilt of the white katana.
Definitely North Blue.
He gulped, and departed.