There aren't really any pairings in this, but faint Zoro/Luffy is there if you really want to see it. Smoker/Ace is also implied. Like, once. Really obscurely. And by 'really obscurely' I mean that you might miss it even if you're looking for it.
MAJOR DEATHFIC. I'm serious. Tragedy ahoy. It's half a page of ambiguity, half a page of happy, and ten pages of knowing that certain people are dead, folks.
It isn't who you are that determines how you deal with a tragedy. It's what you lose.
He doesn't remember when he took up smoking, but it is not for enjoyment; it is something of a tribute to one long dead, the wafting smoke keeping a silent, subtle vigil for the lost as it drifts out toward the sea.
"The sea answers nothing." She speaks softly. Though he does not turn to see her, he knows the way she stands: primly and calmly, her chin high and her hands folded at the waist, her blonde hair rustling in the wind, like the figurehead of a grand galleon, speaking of hope.
The irony is not lost on him.
"I ask it no questions," he responds. The cliff he sits on is lovely. The view, beautiful. The symbolism, unbearable.
He wonders how long she stood here, where he sits, waiting. He wonders how long it took her to turn him into a ghost in her mind.
"I am a god of spirits," he says, in his grandiose way, though it has deteriorated into a sorrowful royalty over the years. "A king of ghosts. I do not truly exist on this plane."
"You never did," she says.
It was a happy day. Quiet (or as quiet as the Going Merry ever got), but happy. Zoro trained in the bow of the ship, sweat dripping to the deck; the result of one-armed push-ups with Luffy sprawled across his back, the boy-captain staring up at the sky and pointing out cloud formations. Apparently, today the clouds had all decided to look like meat.
"Um... should we be worried about those clouds?" Chopper asked, tapping his hooves together and nervously eyeing the sky.
"No," Nami replied absently, frowning without any real displeasure at the map spread across the small foldable table she often brought on deck. "There may be a lot of them, but there won't be any storms."
"Nami-swan is so talented!" Sanji managed to perform a ballet step (frighteningly similar to something Bon Clay would do) without spilling a drop of the drink he placed on Nami's table.
"Thank you, Sanji-kun."
Little sparkles followed a dancing Sanji all the way back to the galley. Usopp smiled after the cook, taking a few minutes' break from his latest invention.
Robin, looking through a spyglass, frowned suddenly. She brought the spyglass down, searching the seas unaided, then raised it to her eye again.
"Marine ships," she announced calmly. "Coming fast." Multiple arms abruptly grew from her regular arms, stretching out across the sea. The final hand on one chain held the spyglass up to the palm of another hand, where Robin had presumably placed another eye. "Only two. And I do believe that one of them belongs to Captain Smoker."
Luffy squawked as Zoro stood, unceremoniously dumping his captain on the deck.
"Can we outrun them?"
"No," Nami said immediately. "The winds are in their favour."
"That Smokie guy's on a ship this time," Luffy said confidently. "I've just gotta knock him into the water so we can get away."
"Luffy—" Chopper began.
"Don't worry, his crew will save him," Luffy interrupted cheerfully, patting his hat down firmly on his head. "It'll be a good fight."
The ship – it cannot really be called that, small as it is – is widely recognized as the ship of the Greatest Swordsman. Pirates and citizens alike either run or freeze at the sight of him, as though they somehow believe that they can escape him if he decides that they are to die. He is one of the greatest terrors of every part of the ocean.
Even the Grand Line.
That is about to end, however. He has travelled long to reach this place, this person, and finally his journey is over. Every journey.
Life is a journey. And this is where the Greatest Swordsman will end his.
The third cannon ball fired had come from behind, from Captain Hina's ship. Unlike the two fired from Smoker's ship, this one connected.
It took Sanji's head off.
The moment of stunned, utter horror seemed to stretch out, everything and everyone moving in slow motion. Sanji's body collapsed to the deck of the Going Merry, blood flowing from his neck across the wood.
Luffy roared in animalistic fury. It was indescribable. He flung himself at the marine ship, still bellowing.
"Wrong ship, you idiot!" Nami screamed, hysterical, her fingers clawing at her arms in a mutilating self-hug. "Wrong ship!"
Luffy did not bother with yelling his attack name, but all the crew knew it. The same attack that had destroyed Arlong Park now came slamming down to smash the marine ship in half.
Smoke wrapped around Luffy in a desperate attempt to keep him from moving. But Luffy was ready for it. He didn't try to fight to the solid smoke; as his elongated leg connected with the ship, shattering the ship in messy halves, he did not try to right himself. Instead, taking advantage of Smoker's currently solid form, he dragged Smoker down with him, letting himself fall into the cold ocean, the nightmare of the akuma no mi.
It was never supposed to be like this.
Zoro felt like screaming in frustration (terror) as he floundered in the water, desperately yelling Luffy's name, screaming himself hoarse to be heard over the roar of cannon fire and physical combat. He dove down again and again, but found no sign of his captain; not even the buoyant straw hat was in sight when he came up for air again and again and again.
Down again. And again. Deeper and deeper, until his lungs were bursting because he hadn't even thought about needing to come up again for air, and he dove deeper still. The darkness was a vicious, cruel enemy, denying him the one thing that might save his captain: his sight.
He didn't know how he made it back to the surface, choking and gasping, unable to tell the water streaming down his face from the tears.
"Luffy! LUFFY! LUFFY!"
In desperation, he prayed to a god he didn't believe in.
Please please please—!
No one answered.
Robin's hands – all 213 of them – were working as fast as she could make them all go, spreading her concentration incredibly thin. No time to think about lost crewmates or captains. Only time to avenge them.
Marines screamed as hands sprouted from their shoulders and broke their necks, strangled them, jabbed them in the eyes. The ship itself seemed to scream as dozens and dozens of hands worked together to physically pull it apart; eyes appeared and vanished and appeared again, leading Robin's vision further into the ship until she would be able to see the magazine room. From there, her hands could do the rest.
She should have been paying attention to her body, but frankly, her concentration had been stretched to unbelievable limits to begin with.
The bullet from Hina's gun ripped through her windpipe as though it were tissue paper. The hands and eyes vanished as she fell back, clawing at her gushing throat, choking, thrashing.
The last thing she saw was Miss Navigator kneeling over her, blood-smeared hands pressed to Robin's throat in a futile, absurd attempt to save her.
Robin tried to smile, but died before she could manage it.
Usopp dragged a near-drowned Zoro back aboard. The swordsman's face was an unnatural grey, his arms appallingly empty.
Usopp refused to lose anyone else.
Zoro's eyes flared open, and he jerked up with superhuman will.
Robin dead. Sanji dead. Luffy... Luffy...
Usopp moaned, unable to take in all of the grief.
Zoro stood. Superhuman will.
Zoro drew his swords. Superhuman will.
Hina's ship split into three pieces.
Sometimes, when Usopp swims, seaweed touches his feet and legs and he imagines that it is their fingers, grasping, pulling him down. He wants to believe that it is just his overactive imagination, but when he looks down into the water, sometimes he catches glimpses of hands and arms and faces.
And sometimes he desperately wants to join them.
He doesn't go swimming, anymore.
The survivors had sent messages to family; in Sanji's case, that meant the Baratie; in Luffy's case, that meant Ace and Vivi. As far as they knew, Robin had no one.
The message hadn't reached Zeff in time; it was doubtful that he would have made the trip anyway. He'd loved Sanji like a son, but one couldn't lose one's practicality because of a death. You do what you can in life. You mourn the dead and move on.
Ace was a different matter.
He'd shown up within three days, before the message ever could have found him. He did not explain how he knew where they were or when and how it had happened. He barely said a word, and did not emote. No tears for a Mera-Mera.
Vivi, of course, hadn't made it. The letter they'd received after had been full of grief and pain, and a invitation to return to Alabasta.
The funerals were small and simple; a traditional burial at sea for Luffy, Robin, and Sanji. There were no tears for the dead during the ceremony; the grief was beyond tears, beyond pain, beyond anything but the knowledge of a vast emptiness within. As with losing a limb, nerves (emotions) were firing off, but nothing was there to receive the signals. The brain in confusion. The consciousness trying desperately to explain. The subconscious in denial.
As soon as the ceremonies were over, Ace made to leave, his hat pulled low over his eyes.
"Please stay," Nami whispered, placing a shaking hand on his arm. "For a little while."
Ace turned to look at her with a flat, dead stare and shook his head.
"I have another funeral to attend."
It's been years since they've spoken – almost a decade – but as far as Usopp knows, Ace still cannot talk about what he lost that day.
It took him three years to track her down. Three years of relentless, single-minded pursuit to find the woman he could do nothing but blame.
Zoro once told two women that he cared nothing for gender.
A third woman would discover that tonight.
While he was utterly silent in his approach to the captain's lodgings in the marine headquarters, once he closed the door behind him he did not try to be silent. He wanted her to fight.
And fight she did.
She bound him, strangled him, tripped him, struck him, but she could not stop him. He was relentless in the way only animals are: not cruel, but simply vicious. Mindless.
She died with a blade through her heart. It did nothing for him. It did not heal the wound she had inflicted with her murders. It did not give him back his soul.
He hadn't expected it to.
The blade that swung toward the back of his neck he blocked without looking.
"You need to work on your approach."
"You bastard!" Tashigi screamed, tears dripping down her flushed face. "You utter bas—" Her mouth opened in a silent bid for air as he slammed the butt of his second sword into her stomach. One kick to the knees sent her to the floor, sprawled beside Hina's mutilated body.
To his mild surprised, she did not try to attack again, instead crouching like an abused animal over Hina as if to somehow protect the woman even now.
"It's not enough that you take my captain from me," she sobbed out suddenly, "but you have to take her, too?"
"She took my captain, and with him, she took my life." There was no pity in Zoro's voice; no regret or sympathy. There was simply cold, hard pain. A wound he could never let go of, never allow to heal. "She took two of my friends. You talk about your justice. This is justice."
He left her there alone. Despite the belated vow of vengeance she screamed at his back, she would never see him again.
They accepted Vivi's invitation to Alabasta. Usopp remembers it blearily, hazily; he'd been lost in a well of grief and pain so deep he still doesn't know how he managed to claw his way up from the bottom of it. The only clear memory he has is of Nami's decision to stay in Alabasta, as the royal treasurer and the head navigator for Alabasta's navy fleet.
Vivi – the least affected of them – is good for her, but Usopp knows that Nami, like he, will always have a hole in her chest where most of her heart used to be.
Usopp still talks to them sometimes, but while Vivi is a pleasure to speak with, Nami's voice only brings him pain.
He's sure that his voice does the same to her.
Luffy put too much of himself into them all. Usopp can hear him every time she speaks.
A year after Luffy's death, they crossed blades again.
"So. You have returned."
There was silence.
"Do you really believe that you have improved enough over so short a time?"
"In you, I sense nothing."
There was a loud clang as swords clashed. Three silver against one black.
"You are empty, swordsman."
Grunts and pants as the fight dragged on, wind whistling across would-be fatal slashes and thrusts, sweat dripping from straining muscles and blood flowing from gaping wounds.
And they were equal.
Mihawk drew back, panting, and Zoro did the same. Their once-fluid motions were slightly ragged with exhaustion and pain, the ground made slippery with spatters of blood and sweat.
They came together again, a vicious dance of death and pain and redemption.
A sudden movement, slashing upward, finding an opening. A scream. The clatter of a sword.
Both drew back.
Blood flowed from Zoro's wrist. A stump. His left hand lay on the ground, still clutching the blood-slick blade.
Zoro's shock was an opening.
"Goodbye, swordsman. You fought well."
Mihawk drove his blade forward.
Usopp can hear startled screams behind him, coming from the villagers. Kaya gasps, whirling, but he does not jump in fear the way he once would have. Instead, he throws the finished cigarette over the edge of the cliff.
He can hear the familiar, soft clink of sword-sheaths rustling against each other. It seems impossible that he could perceive the sound of it from such a distance and over the shrieks of fear, but it feels as though he's waited the past ten years just to hear that sound again.
The yelps die down as people scatter and the man leaves the village, reaching his destination.
"Go home." A low, rough voice unused to speaking but very used to being heeded. Kaya hesitates, being no coward, but a faint shing of a single sword being unsheathed sets her off jogging toward home.
The sword is not resheathed as the Greatest Swordsman walks to the edge of the cliff to stand beside Usopp.
"Zoro." A statement, not a question. Slate grey eyes are impassive as Zoro tilts his head to look down at Usopp, his stare every bit as unnerving as Mihawk's once was.
You cannot kill a dead man any more than you can defeat death. It is this simple principle that made Mihawk unbeatable, just as much as his mastery of swordsmanship did. The death of his captain – the greatest pirate – killed him, too. It gave him a blankness that gave him his edge. A swordsman must be as sharp as his blade.
You cannot kill a dead man. Mihawk was a dead man. But he was not empty. Zoro was empty.
Zoro was death.
A king beats a jack.
"Chopper didn't see me," Zoro says. At first, Usopp thought the detached tone was Zoro's way of expressing awkwardness between people who haven't seen each other in ten years, but now he realizes that it is simply Zoro's natural state. Detached from life.
"You avoided him?"
Now Usopp understands. Since returning to Syrup Village with Usopp and sharing doctoring duties with Kaya, Chopper had managed to convince himself that all his time with the Strawhats was simply one of Usopp's wild tales. He lives in a delusion: happy, yet separate from reality.
"I know," Zoro cuts him off, his single hand straying to the three swords at his hip, more out of habit than anything else.
Usopp wants to ask how he uses three swords with only one hand, but he doesn't want to end up with only one hand as well.
Mihawk drove his blade forward.
The blade in Zoro's mouth had deflected Mihawk's sword up and to the side so that it had slid past Zoro's ear instead of into his heart.
The blade in Zoro's right hand was buried firmly in Mihawk's chest, piercing the long cape through the back.
"An empty man, empty of everything. An empty man without his own dream, without his very self. That is who I am. A man who has lost himself, defeating the greatest swordsman in the world: the greatest insult."
Zoro slid the blade from Mihawk's chest. The man fell to the ground at Zoro's feet.
For the past ten years, Zoro has been a living ghost.
Usopp keeps up with news outside of Syrup Village for more or less just this reason. So he knows what is happening in Alabasta between the months of Vivi's correspondence. So he knows that Ace and Zoro are still alive.
After Mihawk's defeat, he knows that Zoro became one of the most, if not the most feared man in the world. With Mihawk's little craft, he'd floated to wherever the ocean decided to send him, his deeds inspiring terror in pirates and citizens. No matter that Zoro never touched innocents.
At least that has not changed.
And now the ocean has sent him here.
"Why are you here, Zoro?" Usopp asks after a moment, wondering if the swordsman has learned the ocean's reasons yet.
Zoro is quiet, staring out at the sea, and for a moment Usopp can lie to himself again and pretend that it is ten years ago and they are about to leave in the brand-new Going Merry with Luffy and Nami, and they are going to meet a blonde chef and many others...
"It is time for the Greatest Swordsman to die," Zoro says.
Usopp opens his mouth to say something, but Zoro continues,
"These are not my swords. They are good swords. But they are not mine."
Usopp looks again, but he cannot tell the difference. He is not a swordsman, and never will be.
"They are imitations. A swordsman must always have a sword. But the Greatest Swordsman's swords... her sword..." He stops himself, seeming to struggle with something Usopp has never understood. "I buried them next to Kuina."
He very much wants to ask who Kuina is, but resists. He understands what Zoro is saying.
"Nobody lives forever," Zoro says quietly. "What matters is that when you go down... you go down clean."
There is silence for a long time between them, but it is not awkward. It isn't companionable, either, but...
It's a start.
Luffy's voice exists in Zoro, too, far more than it ever existed in any of the rest of them. Luffy was always a beginning, never an end.
"There's room in my house... until something can be built for you. If you're staying." He doesn't stutter the way he would have, long ago.
"What does he mean to you?" Sanji asked Zoro, lazily gesturing to the figurehead and the boy-captain perched there.
"My life," was the answer, delivered without anything attached to the phrase. Even confidence didn't resound in the reply, as confidence is assailable the way that fact could not be. "A part of my dream."
"So what are you without him?"
The question was a calm one, a curious one. The swordsman paused in his exercises to spare the cook a glance, as if uncomprehending of why the answer wasn't clear.
"Less than all of me."
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