Homecoming Hill

24

The Last Line of Defense

A cricket would have missed them passing in the halls. Zoro could hear only his own bare footsteps on the carpet, and the soft swish of his pant legs against each other as he walked. Chopper rode still in his arms, hands latched around Zoro's neck tightly and legs clamped high in front and back. Brooke and Franky walked on either side of them, Franky slightly more in front and Brooke barely taking up the rear.

Together they made their way to where Zoro thought he had heard the earlier sounds of possible fighting, but as the walked, it was as Brooke had said; all traces of inhabitation other than their own were gone. The pressing cold and threatening auras that Zoro had sprinted into Ace's room to escape had gone. But there was still a tingle in the atmosphere suggesting they were being watched.

"Are you sure you heard it from this part of the wing, Zoro?"

"I thought I did," Zoro said helplessly, running his free hand through his hair.

"What did it sound like?" Chopper asked.

"It sounded like something breaking. Wood being hit hard, being smashed in. But it was muffled by the ceiling, so I can't be sure."

Franky nodded. "Let's keep looking around."

"It's hard to look at anything when it's completely dark," Zoro observed.

"Light is too risky. It just wastes power. We've had lots of light lately so you Outsiders are comfortable, but normally we don't light anything up at night. Sight is unreliable in this place. We depend on our abilities to sense what's around us."

Zoro adjusted Chopper in his arms. "That's the very thing Luffy said to me my second day here."

On either side of him, Brooke and Franky opened doors and peeked in, feeling for a presence, and stepped back with nothing.

"It's one of the lessons that he and Ace teach all new Everlastings, though it's just been Ace these last few decades," Franky murmured, moving to the next door.

"You make it sound like they run everyone through a basic training course," Zoro said to take his mind off his anxiety. He had the oddest feeling that they were being watched, though he could sense no presence around them.

Franky snorted, "It would feel like that, if they hadn't taught us as we adjusted to our new lives. It's natural to use too much power in a simple task at first, because power is new to us and we can't control it well yet. But since they work to teach us how to make the most of our starlight while we're first learning how to use it, then doing it the conservative way will always be the most natural to us, and overexertion doesn't become a habit. Ace and Luffy made it a point to learn as much as they could about using their powers in the early years when there were only a few others here, and then they taught us to learn from their mistakes so we wouldn't make them. It's how they would bond with people when they first arrived, so everyone looks up to them."

"That, and they're super strong and they protect us," Chopper added loudly.

"Shhh," Brooke shushed. "We mustn't be too noisy."

"We may as well be," Franky frowned. "We've opened every door. Whatever Zoro heard isn't here anymore. I think we should go downstairs. By going up they'd have backed themselves into a corner. There's nothing upstairs worth being near, unless they're getting sentimental about the bedrooms they abandoned ages ago."

He pushed past Zoro to lead again, and the rest followed him swiftly around two corners. Zoro looked behind them toward where his and Luffy's room was as they went the opposite way to the stairs.

Luffy…

"We shouldn't drop our guard," Chopper lectured. "Ace says alla time that we shouldn't do that."

"I don't understand where they could have gone to," Brooke said. "I wasn't that far behind them, and six people don't just disappear. Even here."

"Eight if you include Luffy and the Croc," Franky said. The twisted staircase wrapped around in the distance, and they approached it. "This is strange to me. Why did the small fry come here early if it wasn't to fight stragglers like us or get the Outsiders? They could have waited and come in later if they won, but instead they charge in here like Croc's wing men and then, except for being stupidly seen, do exactly what Croc and Luffy have done, so they obviously know something we don't."

"Maybe I should call Ace again, ask if anything's changed."

"Do that," Franky said, leading them single-file down the stairs. "I've been trying. He isn't answering me, but that might be because he just can't hear me. I don't have telepathy, so all I can do is hope he hears me."

"If you can't do telepathy, why can I?" Zoro asked. "I don't have any powers."

"Doesn't matter. Ace has telepathy, so he can hear you, and he can establish a link between you two, or even three or four of us if he wanted to. But alone we wouldn't be able to do anything. You said you could feel his feelings a little, right? That means Ace must have a channel open with you already, so he should hear you, no problem."

"A channel? As in what Luffy created when I first got here?"

"You've had one before? Aren't you popular."

"Ace told me they were involuntary and impossible to control."

As he spoke, Zoro focused on projecting his calls outside of himself. He felt empowered when he was heard, despite Franky words. But this time he got no answer.

"Ace?"

He felt pain, mild to him, but doubtlessly severe to Ace, and Zoro thought about how far apart they were. "Ace? Luffy?!"

Franky quirked a brow in the darkness, talking as if Zoro wasn't busy. "They are. Ace isn't channeling you on purpose. He's doubtlessly keeping track of you, which is kind of like a link, but his emotions and stress are strung tight, so thoughts and feelings that he's not meaning to share are leaking into it. Anyway, he's formed one."

They got quiet as they stepped off the stairs, sensing around for anyone besides each other. A sign, hint, clue, sound. But there was nothing, and they picked up the pace, opening and closing doors noisily, practically begging for something to come and investigate them if it would lead to answers.

Franky continued talking, and Zoro wondered if it wasn't just to keep the atmosphere from suffocating them. "But Luffy keeps at a distance so he won't accidentally channel with anyone. Channels aren't the same as simple telepathy. It would make him vulnerable to you, because you'd feel whatever he was feeling, and vice-versa. Luffy's too guarded. How could he have formed one with you?"

"He wasn't thinking about that at the time," Zoro said distractedly. He opened a door and barely glanced inside before closing it again.

"Perhaps they are part of a failsafe wave," Brooke suggested in a whisper, bringing the conversation back to the missing intruders. The three with power were no longer going into rooms, but Zoro could see them moving their hands now and then as if feeling for presences behind the doors without wasting the time. "A back up plan in case they don't win. They're hiding now to attack later when we're weak after fighting. Then once they've started their second attack, their comrades who have recovered can force their way into our wing while we're distracted, and act as a cavalry."

He grew quiet and felt out with his power again. They turned a corner and kept moving.

"A Trojan Horse attack without the horse?" Franky looked doubtful. "Maybe. But I can't swallow so many West Wingers acting in camaraderie at once."

"Ace isn't answering me," Zoro injected finally. "I can feel him, but it's like he's too distracted to hear me. Every few seconds I keep getting these little bursts of panic that come and go quick, and I know they don't belong to me because some of them have names attached. My heart has skipped beats over Nami like four times in the last two minutes."

"Mm," Brooke frowned. "It could perhaps be that he is unable to answer. Telepathy is not a gift for the weak, and every bit of power he uses is important now. I fear this battle is going to end very soon, and we have still not found our comrade."

"Luffy isn't answering either."

"Luffy can't hear you. You're channeled with Ace and it's blocking you," Franky informed.

"I used telepathy with a Dweller outside a few minutes ago."

"Of course you could. You were across the barrier. You couldn't feel Ace outside, could you? He must have had to find you again when you came back in." Franky walked faster. "Why did you have to say that before, Zoro? Now I'm worried about Nami."

"I'm worried about all of them," Chopper admitted tearfully. "What if something really, really does happen to one of them?"

Zoro pushed back Chopper's bangs. "Then we'll all get through it together. We aren't going to lose anyone and we're all going to take care of each other, because that's what we do, right?"

"Even you?"

"Even me."

Chopper hugged closer to Zoro's neck and nodded.

"But we need to find each other first," Franky intruded. "Luffy's not answering me, either. And I can't feel a damn thing." He stopped, frustrated.

"This isn't happening fast enough," Zoro said. "We should split up."

"If we split up and you get kidnapped, everything will hit the fan," Franky said.

"They need help down there. We need to move faster. You find anything, you shout for the others. And you should keep Chopper with you."

Chopper looked back and forth to the others while Zoro slid him down his hip to the floor and squatted beside him. "They'll target you for your power, right? They'll want to make you unable to help anyone. If you stay with me, I won't be able to protect you as well as they can, and I might need free hands."

"Kay," Chopper said, glancing around and squeezing his hands.

"Zoro!" Franky shouted.

But Zoro turned and ran down the hall. He knew the others were behind him, but they didn't prevent him from going, so he hoped they would go through with splitting up. He slowed to look over his shoulder and saw Brooke flash straight past the hall he'd turned down to finish checking that corridor. He didn't see Franky or Chopper, and guessed they'd gone down to the first floor ahead of them.

Rounding the next corner, Zoro began throwing open doors, one after the other, not bothering to close them when no one was behind them.

"Luffy!! Luffy, answer me!" He finished the whole hall and half the next corridor that way before he started throwing his thoughts out as hard as he could, not caring who heard or showed up as long as there was some evidence that the boy he was looking for was there.

"Where are you?!"

But nothing happened, and no one came. Zoro finished hunting the corridor in less than a minute, careful not to miss any doors in the dark, and then ran back to the hall, one hand on the wall to guide him, then around to where he knew the main staircase was. They'd used only the inner, twisting stairs thus far, and it obviously wasn't working. Zoro wasn't afraid to take the more dangerous route to find Luffy, and moving to the next floor via the main stairs would let him see how the battle was going. If he really was channeled with Ace, why was his every call going unanswered?

He approached the hall leading to the front stairs and slowed his walk to a quieter pace. He was risking enough without being stupid about it, and he didn't want to attract morass that would likely get him killed.

"You will not find anybody."

Zoro's heart leapt into his throat and then fell with a 'thunk' into his left foot when he twisted around at the top of the stairs and saw who was standing where he himself had been, ten feet ago.

"You will not find anybody," Luffy repeated, "because there's nobody here to find. And I won't let you get out of this wing again, Zoro. Nice job on our door, by the way."

Almost melting with relief, Zoro stumbled to Luffy, steps heavy with gratitude. He pulled Luffy into an enveloping hug without a word and felt his warmth. Luffy's body went rigid upon contact. His breath caught and his eyes grew wide and confused.

"Luffy!" Zoro let out expressively. "Geezus! We're searching the whole mansion for you! Where have you been?"

He pulled back slightly to push Luffy's hair away from his eyes, and made note of the precautious hint of longing he saw there. He looked the boy up and down once before meeting his eyes again, and any channel he'd had with Ace was broken.

"Are you okay, Luffy?"

"A-Aye…" Luffy whispered, nodding faintly.

When Zoro pulled him into a hug again, Luffy slowly relaxed into it. Zoro rubbed his back, and neither cared about time.

"Why are you looking for me?" Luffy asked quietly.

"Because no one knows what happened to you," Zoro said, giving him a squeeze. "You followed Kaya and then you were gone. You never made it downstairs."

"It was never my intention to go there. I'm doing what I'm supposed to be."

"Why didn't you tell anyone?"

"Ace knows."

"Well, he's not acting like it."

"What?" Luffy laid his head absently on Zoro's shoulder as he puzzled over it. "I-I'm holding my line. He told me to."

"He couldn't find you anywhere."

"Of course not!"

"Zoro? Luffy!!" Brooke's voice came echoing down the corridor. Luffy pulled away, and Zoro let him go. The pair left the short hall to the stairs and reentered the corridor.

It appeared that Franky, Brooke, and Chopper had regrouped and returned when Zoro hadn't eventually followed downstairs after them, for all three of them were jogging toward them.

"You found him!" Chopper cheered.

"We're okay," Zoro assured.

The three came to a stop in front of them and Franky grabbed his side like it was still sore despite Chopper's healing. When he noticed he was doing it, he let go and straightened up. "What's happening?"

"That's what I'd like to know," Luffy quipped back.

"There's no one downstairs."

"Of course there's no one. What do you think I've been doing up here?" Luffy asked.

The others turned to him, and when Franky spoke, it was clear he was becoming more than exasperated at the whole situation. "That's a great question. What have you been doing?"

Luffy looked down passively. "I couldn't leave this wing empty and unprotected; there would be no safe place for anyone to return to. Their sheer numbers assure that they will continue to trickle up here during the fight. I am to pick off West Wingers as they come in, gradually evening our number to theirs without restricting any of them from leaving the battle. It's the last defensive line the enemy gets caught in, and tonight that line is me."

"…Is it working?" Brooke asked.

"Aye. They simply stray and don't return. It may look to the other West Wingers like they are succeeding in seeding here, which has thus far encouraged more of them to follow, while truly we have little to fear of a creeping invasion."

"That's… a good strategy," Brooke complimented.

Franky was not so intrigued. "If you've been picking the invaders off one by one, what have you been doing with them?"

"I've barricaded them in a fourth floor bedroom. They're not strong enough to break out of it, for I assure you it's of a much different quality than the one I used on our door, Zoro," he said with a sideways glance.

"So you've been here this whole time?" Franky gestured wildly. "You sensed us searching high and low, and you didn't come out."

"Aye," Luffy said simply.

"Aye, he says!"

"I'm doing as I was asked," Luffy insisted. "And Ace can't find me because I'm blocking him. I'm blocking everyone. If I drop it for some then others might sense me too…because it's hard to balance all the energy…"

"Yeah, it must suck to have so much power," Franky said sardonically.

"But what about now? You're communicating with us now."

"I'm blocking all of us now."

"YOHOHO!!!" Brooke exploded in surprise. "That's amazing!!"

"If Ace can find me, other telepaths can, too. Or they'll pick up scattered bits of our plan in moments we aren't focused. That would defeat the purpose."

"So you're saying you went into telepathy silence for cover," Franky finished. "I get it."

"But you didn't tell Ace you'd be blocking him, did you?" Zoro said. "No wonder he panicked when you weren't the only no-show."

"No show?" Luffy asked.

"I told you Ace is paranoid," Franky disregarded.

"He did have good reason to be," Brooke defended.

"He wouldn't have gotten this way over anyone else."

"Because Sir Crocodile isn't interested in anyone else."

"Drop the 'Sir'. And it was real super of Ace to mention the 'Luffy booby-trap' plan before he sent Zoro on this hunt," Franky finished sourly.

Zoro wasn't listening. He was talking to Luffy. "If you've been here guarding this whole time, how is it you haven't seen Crocodile?" Zoro asked. "He'd be hunting for you, right?

"What are you all talking about?"

"Crocodile is missing, too. That's why we're here; you never showed up, Crocodile never showed up, and then no one could sense you anymore."

Luffy's brows rose to accompany his bewildered head shake. "He's miss--? Well, he's not here!"

"Could he have covered his trace like you did?"

"Perhaps, but not as well as I. And not if he's planning to seriously engage in battle."

"But that's… that doesn't make any sense," Zoro said. "Lucci was getting Ace all worked up about Crocodile coming after you as they spoke."

Luffy frowned, crossed his arms, and looked down the corridor they hadn't lit up. "He lied," he said simply. "Or he's being lied to. If Crocodile were in this wing, I would know about it."

"So…" Brooke trailed along.

"Something's wrong. We need to go downstairs right now."


In Sanji's hindsight, Zoro's knack for befriending all the ghostly monsters with the strongest mad superpowers first was no longer as spooky nor freakish as it was convenient. Not only was he able to avoid a war by waiting outside in miraculous comfort under the circumstances, but no other single wraith-thing (the title he'd bestowed upon the Residents for that particular evening) had come to disturb them yet.

Sanji now sat within Shanks' barrier in the courtyard waiting for a sign from Zoro to come. Kuina, who had been upset to discover Zoro missing each time she slipped groggily into awareness, had fallen into a deep sleep when Shanks had asked to hold her. Giving her over had been a wary act, but their safety was all on Shanks anyway and he was exhausted of paranoia. Now his eyes were trained on the front door.

"You think he'll be okay?"

"People spend their whole lives hiding in the shallows because they fear the freedom of the deeper water's unknown. Be grateful your cousin isn't like that. He'll be the one to lead you."

"Lead us where?"

Shanks smiled and looked at the house, within whose walls a revolution was coming. "To whatever is coming," he said, and looked out at the tree line, beyond which a cluster of stones were glowing more brightly than ever before.

Sanji followed his gaze, and considered the shape he knew was out there. What sort of power was associated with animal imagery? Foxes were nearly always described as the shape-shifting tricksters of the animal kingdom, and raccoons were the granters of backfiring wishes most carefully made. But most animals represented different omens depending upon where on the globe they were. Ravens and crows were symbolic of death in European culture, but in Asian cultures the Raven was a sign of promising fortune to come. Bears were likewise a symbol of strength and mercilessness to several Native American tribes, but in other tribes as well as in Alaska, Canada, the bear was viewed as an exemplary model of love and compassion due to the devoted protectiveness of mothers to cubs. Germany had its deadly Red Ridinghood myths, while still more of the frozen countries acknowledged them for their loyalty.

What, then, was the specific shape of the stones selected to mean? Which animal, if any, was being depicted by the stones still buried beneath the dry creek bed? And why were they glowing now?

"Shanks?"

"Aye," Shanks said, relaxed.

"When did you guys first discover the shape out there behind the trees?"

"Oh," he said. "We didn't recognize it for what it was right away (and really it could be said that we still haven't) because of the aura the culvert exudes. My memory here is choppy because a lot was going on back then, but since we never just went down into the trench, I suppose someone must have taken first notice of the shape the day Nathaniel fell from the wall. He lost his grip climbing down, and came to join us minutes later with severe head trauma. Poor family never had a body to find. Their boy simply finished breakfast with his mother one morning and went outside to scout for a sturdy tree. He tells us he had hopes of building a fort in one with his father in the weekends to come. Instead his mother from then on cried herself into sleeps riddled with nightmarish possibilities of her missing child's fate. Very tragic," Shanks said in a casual tone that belied he had long since become accustomed to tragedy. "That happened in what was likely the mid-fifties. He fell down there during a time of ignorance when people would walk along the tree line on a daily basis, so his fall was witnessed from a distance, and then everyone who was bored flooded down there to get in on the action. Since that encompasses just about all of us, the latecomers on the outer rim of the crowd began looking around at other things instead. That was when they discovered a cluster of rocks to be more than a mere cluster of rocks. Of course we all passed it off as either a landscaping decision or the consequence of drunk hunter before the vineyard's time. That is, until we saw them glow. Due to the reaction in 1969, myself and others in positions of leadership have kept this new glow on a need-to-know basis. We don't want to scare the children or give our resident doomsayers more to moan about day after day. Rays of sunshine, they are."

Sanji would not be dissuaded by Shanks' intentional long-windedness. "And the first person to ever disappear was the daughter of the man who founded the vineyard?"

"And built the manor, aye. Cobra was his name, and his daughter was Vivian, so the story goes. This place was like any other before that happened."

"Can you tell me about that day?"

"I have told all that I know to your cousin, whom I assume has passed it on to you." Shanks turned on the fountain to look toward the direction of the town they could not see from their position. "Are you forming your own ideas about it now?"

Sanji pressed his fingertips together in his lap and spoke slowly. "I think that in order to figure out the instances that changed history and how they worked, you have to start looking at an earlier point, and from there retrace the footsteps of those directly involved."

"How early are you thinking?"

Sanji looked around himself at the courtyard they sat in. "I'd love to go back as far as the manor's construction, but I'll accept as early as I can get. I understand why Zoro's had so much trouble figuring all this out. I've started feeling it myself. When I saw a transparent woman pour herself coffee in my kitchen this afternoon I was ready to run for the hills, but now I'm sitting under an invisible barrier in a rainstorm being colloquial with you while wraith-things tear my house to pieces and my cousin searches for a seventeen year old who had his death certificate signed 80 years ago. And this already feels no where near as unnatural to me as it should. The more accustomed we become to the unusual, the less surreal everything appears. Zoro and I haven't gotten an explanation for ANY of this yet, but we accept it as truth. Hell, Zoro's been doing this since we first pulled up the driveway. He's probably walked past dozens of clues with no double-takes. Because translucent undead people with superpowers are casting spells on everything, we can't recognize what's truly out of place."

Shanks laughed. "That's sort of funny."

"Hysterical," Sanji deadpanned.

"It's the very definition of irony."

Sanji rolled his eyes. "You aren't even taking this seriously."

Shanks took a deep breath and let it out with a smile. "Not true," he amended. "But you've got to have a sense of humor, son. You can't lose that. You have to laugh when things start to get really bad, or you'll lose yourself to stress and anger. I smile, but I do take this seriously, and I feel for what you're saying. You must remember I've been going through this for a lot longer than you have, so I've taken a handle over it and deal in my own way."

Sanji slumped again. "Hm. Well, maybe you can tutor me on that soon--coping with the hopelessness and sorrow in these places will be hard. I can feel it--misery and pain. reaching from the ground beneath us. It's heavy. For me, anyway. Not sure about Zoro."

"'These places', you say?"

Sanji worried the soft fabric of his sleeve between this fingers. He was diligent about it, looking nowhere else as he talked.

"I was talking to Zoro earlier, telling him that this isn't the first time in history that a vast number of people have simply vanished at once. And people still disappear all the time from the same places again and again over the course of centuries and no one knows what's happening. Like the Bermuda Triangle. This place is the closest I think anyone's ever gotten to understanding those things. So whatever is happening here isn't unique. I don't believe that Homecoming Hill is confined to Homecoming Hill."

"Do you mean there's more than one Hill, or whatever is here now used to be somewhere else, or this place is just a small part of a bigger entity that's spread it's wings out to the odd corners of the world?"

"I don't know. Any of them, all of them maybe. Or it could even be a footprint. The mark left behind by an event that happened here, or by something that passed through when the vineyard was new."

Shanks looked back at the house. "Having seen so many things here, I can't be quick to discount anything completely. But I do think that in this, you are wrong."

"How do you know? If whatever went down was major enough it could have left behind some seriously nasty residue."

"I just don't believe that's what's happening here."

"Why not?"

Shanks unwrapped an arm from Kuina and pointed to the house. "Because it's still waiting to fix the manor."

"…Oh." Sanji's shoulder's slumped. "Oh."

"It's intelligent, Sanji. It does not need eyes to watch nor ears to hear with. But it knows jealously. It is cruel and interactive. It can even punish."

Sanji sat up slowly. "Punish… punish you?"

"Aye."

"For what?"

Shanks said nothing.

Sanji glanced around awkwardly. "For what, Shanks?"

Shanks ran his hand over Kuina's back when she stirred, and she fell quiet again.

"Take care, boy," Shanks thought to him. "You are not as immune as Zoro is to the Hill's observations."

"I get it," Sanji frowned. "You can't talk about it. Zoro told me there were things like that."

"Aye. Sometimes for merely speaking of those unspeakable things, we feel it. I've only ever seen warnings, but I know it can do more. I've been in clandestine discussions about the Hill before--most of us have--wherein cold rushed up from the earth beneath our feet, icing the soil and winding around our bodies as the ferns and grass became silver and crystalline with frost in a matter of seconds. We heed these warnings, but we remember when we're on to something."

"Are past warnings what you use to gauge the fine line around how much you can tell us?"

"Mostly. We've learned to toe that line and even slip over it a little using metaphors and riddles, but you can only say so many things indirectly without becoming confusing. I figure there's a lot to keep track of here, because unless someone does something it doesn't like, it ignores us completely. When it focuses on something, we can feel the atmosphere become black and strangling, and thick with malice in that place. So we think--I think, anyway--that the Hill's attention mostly stays spread thin over everything, and if conversations are harmless at face value, it doesn't care to listen too closely."

"Hmm," Sanji noised.

"This is no residual phenomenon. Over this patch of earth rocks shift alone, tombstones conjure themselves, and air itself exhibits conscious behaviour. If you're still, you can feel it all around you. If you listen, you can almost hear it. Here; now. It breathes. It lives. Of this one thing all of us are certain."

"I thought you said it would sweep down upon us for being so forward in our talk."

Shanks' eyes stayed themselves on the manor cast in the shadows of night. "It would have," he agreed. "It should have, but I feel safe somehow. It's focusing on something bigger than me."

"The battle."

"Aye. Likely."

Wind battered the rain into sweeping torrents that reflected the light given off by Shanks as they sat, making the storm visible. Sanji watched these water sheets warily, as if suspicious that some giant black creature to emerge from them and attack. It occurred to him that if the battle inside did not end in their favor, there would be no sheltered place for his family to return to. The manor would be too dangerous for he and Kuina to reenter and Zoro could perhaps be trapped inside, forced to hide in the manor from the West Wingers and incapable of quick escape.

"I think it punished Luffy once," Shanks reminisced quietly, breaking the silence after a while. "Many, many years ago. Back when the stones were glowing the first time. I wasn't there, obviously, and no one can tell me to confirm my suspicion, but I know. I went to visit him at his glass door one evening, and he was changed. His eyes were filled with guilt and despair. From then on he was withdrawn. I saw him in his room all the time, and rarely did he receive visitors. He's acted like a prisoner for all these years, and he's his own warden. I gathered what I could from Ace--that something had happened to him, something had been done to him, and I don't think it was anyone else inside. I think it was the Hill that did it. And it worries me. Not just for then but for now. You see, I've noticed the Hill only actually physically interacts with one of us when it becomes aware of a serious or imminent threat to its existence. And the night my boy changed was the last night before the stones stopped glowing. Whatever it didn't like, it silenced."

"And now they've started glowing again," Sanji finished gravely, "right after Zoro made friends with your sons and started poking around. I understand."

Shanks nodded. "Hurting one of us is the wrong reaction for the Hill to make because of invaders. I sometimes wonder if what it feared so much wasn't my own son, himself."

"How do you think that could be? You said the threat was silenced."

"And it was. That's what makes it most likely. It wouldn't want to kill him. He's too powerful. A main food source. He carries within him a lot of starlight. An awful lot. The only way to defeat Luffy full stop is with a two-front attack his heart and his mind. Blackmail, fear, confusion, guilt. It's emotional trauma: the perfect recipe to brew self-punishment. He feels things so strongly--I know how susceptible he is. Perhaps the Hill does too."

Sanji returned his chin to his knee. "After hearing all I have, I'm curious to meet Luffy."

"He's a good boy," Shanks agreed nostalgically. "They both are. Just…depressed, I think. I feel they've been through more than possibly any of us."

Sanji's lips tightened. "I'll keep that in mind."

"Thank you. Now," Shanks redirected, "These other places--the places like here--what interests do you have in them that may require you to learn coping skills?"

"I…I just have this feeling. A compulsion, sort of. Every time I think about the possibility of other places after this one, I can't sit still. No matter what distracts me, my mind won't stop coming back to it. Maybe it's only me."

Shanks looked the guarded boy up and down thoughtfully. Then he looked back at the manor.

"I've been trapped on this Hill for longer then most people will be alive. It's boring, and lonely, and painful. It's torture having my life stolen, my children locked away from me. I've never considered that there are other places like here, but your interest causes a compelling feeling overtake me. After seeing this hell, living it, I am changed. My won't be able to move forward until I know this evil is gone for good. Indeed, I may grow to find that this will be my purpose for as long as I am free and alive."

He looked back to Sanji. "Perhaps you will find that it is yours as well."

Sanji idly tugged on the toe of his slipper. "…I haven't been through what you have. I can't possibly share your drive."

"I don't believe that. You are a compassionate young man. Like your cousin, what you experience here will deeply effect you. After such a short time knowing of us and seeing what little you have, you're thinking and speaking aloud of possible other places with a note of decision in your voice. In your heart, a commitment you're not ready to inform others of has already taken form. You're not as forward about it as Zoro, and it's certainly not tattooed on your arm, but you possess a heroic nature. Helping those in need is a personal virtue you value in yourself."

Sanji rubbed his hands over his damp jeans to heat them. "I don't mind living a quiet life, but I'm not a teacher or a coach. I'm not a doctor, or a councilor. I manage hotels. Hardly an inspiring career choice. It's a job that will one day make me reflect and wonder whether in my life I made a difference for anyone." His hands slowed to a stop mid-thigh and he craned his neck to watch the top of the looming house. On all levels a window or two looked back where a shutter had been ripped off by the wind and fallen to the brick drive path below. "I don't really want to be here. It's not my idea a picturesque destination spot, and it's sure as hell not a desired hobby. The idea of doing anything like this again eventually is less than tempting. But it's important."

Shanks felt oddly proud of the boy beside him. "You're not alone in your thoughts," he projected to him. "If I ever do escape from this place and all that's happened here, I could never go back to my life as it was. That life is gone now, and I'm sure you feel the same way. The way you view this world, magic, people around you, and the very history of the ground you walk on will be changed forever. You'll never stand alone in a room again without wondering whether or not you're really by yourself. Mere shadows and starlight are now anything but. Our fates were sealed when we first stepped onto this land, and we will be drawn to fight until either it is gone, or we are. This will not be over once Homecoming Hill falls. You haven't abandoned us--I won't abandon others." He glowered at the manor in the darkness. "If there are other 'Hills', they will have an enemy in me. They will not thrive without adversity. I'll see to that."

He watched Sanji adopt a pensive quietness that showed no sign of quick departure. The boy was aware of the danger, and, like his cousin, was ready to meet it head on. Shanks considered something he'd been pondering telling the boys for days, and reached a decision. "You know, Sanji, the best way to examine something is to see it with your own eyes. To best understand a pinpoint in history, you must be present for it. None of our powers encompass such a talent as time travel, but if you're commited to this and ready to see it, I know a couple of people who can give you the next best thing."


AN: Ok, the quotation marks are back. Don't know why they disappeared in the upload... Anyway, I meant for more to happen here, but the Sanji and Shanks scene ended up having more to say than I thought it would. So next chapter will (hopefully) answer a lot of questions.