Title: Final Betrayal
Pairings: Somewhat irrefutable hints of Luffy/Zoro visa-versa. Other pairings hinted at and/or mentioned.
Warnings: Rated T for swearing, violence, blood, and angst. Alternate Timeline. Contains Spoilers. Additional warnings for me just making shit up, like future crewmembers, fighting abilities and whatnot.
Spoilers: Spoilers span up to and possibly beyond the Thriller Bark arc. Do not read if you care about spoilers and are not up to date.
Notes: And the finale arrives. I hope it meets expectations. Thanks to everyone who read and commented to this story. Especially you regulars, who's bullying kept me working hard. I couldn't have done it without you all.
Final Betrayal – Chapter 13
"Sakura Island, straight ahead!" Brook called out before his afro retreated back inside the observation deck. Brook had pretty much barricaded himself in as barrelman, complaining that the cold made his bones hurt. He hadn't set foot outside since the first snowflake hit the deck.
Bundled up in coat and gloves, Usopp wandered out on deck, blinking against the blinding whiteness around him. He'd been sick since Whiskey Peak and had spent much of the remaining journey bedridden. Chopper hadn't worried much, figuring it to be exhaustion. After all, they'd all been working themselves ragged (to the bone, Brook joked) in order to make it to Drum before the deadline. But Usopp knew his sickness had been more mental than physical.
His neuroses about Zoro's fate had plagued him continually, making it impossible to work or eat or rest until finally the others had banished him below deck. Whenever someone had looked in on him (during all too temporary lulls) they inevitably found the sniper huddled up on the sofa in the boys' room, pieces of something he'd been idly tinkering with sitting abandoned on the table. They looked at him, saw the dark circles under his eyes, and couldn't find the heart to yell at him for not helping.
But today the cards would finally fall, and Usopp couldn't lock himself away from the truth-- whatever it happened to be.
Sanji was back near the survey room, moving around large sheets of canvas as he went about making sure Robin's flowers and Nami's tangerine trees were well insulated from the cold. The blond looked down, saw him, and called out in greeting. Usopp nodded back. He spotted Franky at the foremast. The cyborg was pulling at the rigging to the boom vang, apparently adjusting the sails again as per Nami's order. Sideling closer, Usopp cleared his throat.
"Need any help?"
Franky blinked at the sniper's sudden appearance. "Nah…I got it." With a sharp twist, Franky secured the rope, tying it into a bowline before turning to face Usopp's wan figure. "Strawhat is up by the lion's head," he said without preamble. "He hasn't moved for hours, not even for food."
Usopp rubbed his arms as if chilled. His gaze rose towards the front of the ship but he made no move forward. Franky sighed and grabbed the smaller man by the shoulder.
"I know what your thinkin', but don't worry. Roronoa is the strongest human I know. He gets by with his own blood and sweat-- no devil's fruit, no alterations. He's not the kind of man that'd be taken down just like that. Not a super guy like him." He gave the other a light shove towards the prow.
Hearing those reassuring words, seeing his friend's confidence, helped raise Usopp's own flagging spirit. Franky was right. Everything would work out, he told himself. It always did.
"No prob, Bro." the cyborg raised his thumbs and gave the other an outlandish wink. "Now go on! I need some cola." He sighed heavily. "And some pants. My ass is freezing!"
Usopp couldn't help but laugh and the two parted ways; Franky headed back into the hold and Usopp made his way past the foremast. Nami was sitting at the helm, bundled up in a thick coat and mittens as she kept constant vigilance over the air pressure and the ever-changing ocean currents. She gave him a tired smile and a half-wave when she noticed him. Looking back sheepishly, Usopp did the same. Watching her work so hard made the sniper feel guilty. After all, they wouldn't have even gotten this far without Nami; what had he contributed?
He made a motion towards Sunny's smiling figurehead and Nami nodded. Luffy was standing on the lion's bust, staring out with arms crossed. He seemed frozen, unmoving like the bronze statue he always wanted of himself. Snow had gathered on the brim of his straw hat and his face was red and chapped from the cold. His eyes, however, were blazing expectantly. It was like his mind had already reached Zoro and was impatiently waiting for his body to catch up.
The silence seemed almost too sacred to break. Usopp stood quietly behind him for a moment, thinking about everything that had happened to get them to this point. He leaned against the keel, his chin resting on his crossed arms, and stared at Luffy's back and the unwavering faith it carried. Usopp's fingers clawed at the Adam wood, wishing the stalwart timber would lend him a little of its strength-- just enough to bolster his faltering courage. He kept seeing Zoro's wanted poster in his mind, crossed out in heavy black ink.
Luffy's eyes flicked down to give him a second's glance before homing in on horizon once more.
"Hey," he said.
"It won't be long, now," he promised as Usopp crept up the steps leading to the lion's head. Luffy's mouth was pulled into a tight smile, one showing determination to get what he wanted. Staring at him, Usopp knew that not even the Devil himself could stop Luffy from reaching his goal. Summoning a weak grin of his own, Usopp forced himself to nod.
Luffy looked out across the sea, his smile softening just slightly. "You can see the Drum Mountains now."
Usopp stopped, frozen to the last step. He swallowed, his throat feeling tight. "Do…do you really think he's there?" the sniper asked, voicing his doubts about the mission for the first time.
In answer, Luffy pulled out Zoro's gold ring from his pocket. It looked oddly heavy in his hand: a reminder of Zoro's dreams, whatever they were (he and Luffy had both been oddly tight-lipped about them). The sun glistened on the inscription, by chance lining up perfectly with the band on Luffy's forefinger. Usopp saw them and suddenly understood. To Luffy, no more credible proof could be had. To Luffy, there was nothing he could do but believe.
But Usopp just couldn't be that confident. He was a coward at heart and he couldn't face the idea of coming all this way –full of hope—just to lose the swordsman all over again. He opened his mouth to ask what if…just, what if the ring in his hand meant that Zoro's body was the only thing waiting for them: that the rest of him had gone on, out of their reach—forever. Usopp felt the words burn against his tongue but, seeing Luffy's face as he held that tiny piece of Zoro, he swallowed them back.
Luffy pocketed the ring and Usopp forced his feet to move, carrying him over to stand next to his captain. Together the two stared at the white splotch on the horizon.
"Shanks' ship…" Luffy's voice was amazingly calm. "Can you see it?"
"Hold on…" Usopp lowered his goggles and squinted, looking for a dark speck against the snow. He grunted in frustration and tugged one glove off with his teeth so he could adjust the lens's focus. He held his breath to keep it from clouding his vision.
"It's there! I see it, with the dragon prow!" Usopp sagged in relief only to immediately go rigid. "Wait--!"
Luffy started at the sniper's tone. Usopp's jaw moved, but no sound was forthcoming.
"Usopp!" Luffy said the name like a demand.
"The ship…" Usopp's hand reached out and clutched onto Luffy with a vice-like grip. "It's leaving! Luffy, it's leaving!"
It took a moment for Luffy to process those words. When their meaning finally came, they seemed to slam into him with the force of a cannon. Luffy gave a sharp intake of breath before twisting around. His next words were called out in such a decibel that the very ship seemed to shake.
"Tie up the mainsail!" Nami ordered. "We don't want to cause a drag. Secure anything that isn't fastened down."
"We've got less than 4 barrels of cola," Franky appeared on deck, out of breath. "There wasn't enough at that last island to restock."
"Use what we have," Sanji called back as he tied off the lines. "Pull some bottles out of the fridge if you have to."
"Right!" Franky turned and disappeared back below deck.
"We're losing sight of them!" Usopp called down from the crow's nest, having usurped Brook for position as lookout.
Cold forgotten, the skeleton was lashing down the barrels Luffy rolled his way. Kidd was handling the helm, using his eye for detail to line the ship up precisely with their mark while Nami was busy shouting orders. Chopper scrambled around sickbay, trying to store away beakers and vials and protect his strange concoction of medicines.
Robin appeared on deck and jogged over to Nami. She handed the navigator Kidd's megaphone, to help her orders be heard clearly by everyone. Kidd didn't complain; he'd give whatever needed to help. Nami smiled in thanks and lifted the device to her mouth.
"Luffy, Chopper!" her voice echoed throughout the Sunny. "Go down to the soldier dock and prepare to open Channel Zero when we land. We may need man-power to close the remaining distance." She paused to look over at Robin. "Could you go down and help them? They could probably use the extra hands."
"Of course." Robin disappeared from her side as Luffy quickly sent a stretchy arm past, using it to hurtle him across the ship and into the hold. Nami turned toward the helm.
"Go help Franky in the energy room," she told Kidd as she quickly shed her coat. She needed freedom of movement to control the wheel once they landed. She raised the megaphone one last time before tucking it away.
"Franky, you can launch as soon as you're ready. Everyone else better hold on to something." Nami sat at the helm's chair and grabbed the spokes of the wheel in a firm grip.
Down below, Franky shoved the third barrel into its slot on the compressor. He flipped a few switches and the device began to hum to life. Rubbing his chin, Franky turned to regard the last barrel. It wasn't even full. Just how were they going to catch up to Red Hair's ship?
"It's got to be at least 20 kilometers away." Kidd appeared at Franky's side, speaking the words that the cyborg himself was thinking. "We would have to do six Coup de Bursts to cover that distance."
"That's a dozen and a half barrels of cola we don't have." Franky punched his palm in frustration. "This is all we can do. Once we land, Nami will pull the sail back down and Paddle Sunny will have to do the rest. If we can at least shrink the distance, hopefully the other ship'll notice us."
"We don't have the cola to run the paddles; we have to do it on man-power. Plus, there's no reason to think that those guy'll be looking anywhere but ahead of them," Kidd shot back, his expression cross. " What we need is more pressure…"
"I can't make cola out of wine, you know." Franky sighed.
Kidd's eyes widened.
The boy's face lit up as if a light turned on. "I'll be right back!" he said in a rush as he darted out the door.
"Oiy! I'm about to fire this thing, Shortie!" Franky shouted after him. "You need to brace yourself!" Cursing and running out of time, the cyborg whirled around and slammed his palm against the compressor, depressing the large red button. A warning bell began to sound on the bridge.
"Launching Coup de Burst!" Franky called into the pipes as he twisted a massive handle. Flicking out the safety pin, Franky heaved back with a grunt, and the handle slowly pulled outward.
A great rumbling began to shake the room and a hissing noise like a giant teakettle filled the air before being drowned out by a sonic-level boom. Franky felt gravity suddenly pushing down on him and began the countdown. Sixty seconds would be spent rising up into the air until they hit approximately one kilometer. From there they had one more minute as they descended, before landing back into the water. If the winds were with them, they'd travel three, maybe four kilometers.
But the brat was right. They were using the fastest means of transport available on the Thousand Sunny, and it still would only take them about a sixth of the distance they needed to cover. Franky cursed himself, feeling like a failure as a shipwright.
The ship hit the water with a jolt that nearly knocked him off his feet. He could feel the its momentum causing it to scud the waves, like a stone skipping across a pond. But the initial burst of speed would soon fade, and they'd have to decide what to do next.
Kidd burst through the door, his arms loaded with assorted bottles that Sanji would have probably throttled him for touching. There was a small cut across the boy's forehead, and he was panting for breath.
"I told Nami…not to use the paddles yet…I told her to wait…."
Kidd held up his burden. "Because, if we increase the carbonation: we should increase the pressure." He spoke in a rush. "You know how much force a cola bottle has when it's shaken up? If we do that, we should be able to cover the distance in three bursts."
Franky's momentary feeling of elation was crushed under the weight of pragmatics. "We still don't have enough fuel for that."
"That's why we'll use this."
"What's this? Champagne? Shortie, this thing runs on cola."
"It runs on carbonation. Therefore, It should run on champagne."
For the first time, Franky considered the nature of the fuel that the machines he built --and himself-- ran on. He always used cola because he liked it best, when it worked he didn't bother trying to see if anything else could be used as a substitute. And now this kid comes up and pinpoints the exact element of combustion. Plus, thanks to Zoro --the same damn swordsman they were trying to catch up to-- they now had the fuel to do it. Franky felt himself tearing up.
"Shortie, you're a Super Genius!" he sobbed shamelessly. He tried to reach down to give the boy a hug and was violently kicked away.
"Get a hold of yourself, you ox!" Kidd growled, red-faced. "I'm gonna need your help!"
Franky wiped his eyes, still bawling. "You little bastard…you really are a pirate…."
"Right." Sniff. "I'll go get the beer."
"That sure is a neat trick, getting their ship to hop all froggy like that." Shanks sounded impressed. "Any more of those and they'll be flying over our heads."
Zoro stood at the rail, staring at the Thousand Sunny, which was slowly but surely closing in. His face was expressionless but drawn and pale, like he'd seen a ghost. His fingers had bitten so hard into the wood railing that it was tore his nails, causing them to bleed. Through it all, he hadn't said a word. Ben's heart hurt to look at him.
Ben slipped in next to him, putting a hand on his back and feeling alarmed by how cold it was. "What do you want us to do, Zoro? If you still don't want to face them…"
Zoro was silent for several heartbeats, his eyes glued to the distance. "…Don't stop," he croaked finally out between frozen and barely moving lips. "Keep going." It was a plea rather than an order.
Ben turned around. "You heard him, Captain."
But the redhead just stood there.
"Shanks." His eyes bore into his friend's, fighting a silent battle of wills. Surprisingly, Shanks was the first to break away.
"All right," he said, his face twisting briefly with a mix of anger and frustration. "Full-sail ahead, lads."
"Are you serious, Captain?" Yasopp's eyes were wide. "We just gonna ignore them?"
Shanks turned away from them. "I for one have nothing to say to the lad that I haven't already said." He pushed his cape away from him. "I'll be in my room. Ben?" he called out, expecting the other to follow him as he disappeared below decks.
Ben sighed and scratched his head. The way his name had fallen tightly from Shanks' lips told him that he had a fight ahead. He started to follow, glancing back once to check on the newest addition to their crew. An addition that his captain never bothered formally announcing to the rest of the crew.
As for Zoro, he just stared out into the distance –at that painfully familiar ship-- like one would stare at a descending axe blade.
Sighing again, Ben went inside.
The Straw Hats still needed to use the paddle wheels when they landed from the last burst. Normally powered with cola, they had to be operated manually through two built-in capstans. Chopper –in human form—pulled mightily on one crank while Luffy manned the other. Robin stood between the two, her extra hands helping to steady them and pull on the heavy wheels.
With sails at full and paddles whirling, they slowly gained on the other ship. All the while the great dragon ship continued sailing westward as if they hadn't even noticed the Thousand Sunny plummet from the sky. Luffy --overcome with impatience-- finally abandoned his crank, letting Franky take his place as he shot up out of the hold. His sandaled feet made slapping noises against the deck as he ran full speed to the ship's prow. There he stood, panting and crestfallen that the distance was still too far for his Devil's Fruit powers to reach.
"They had to have seen us." Nami stepped up beside him and let out a frustrated noise. Kidd had once again taken over the steering, letting Nami try to find a way to milk more speed out of a ship that was already moving at flank. "Our splash sent their boat forward at least twenty meters! What's going on over there?"
"Don't worry Luffy," Usopp's voice called out from above. "I'll make them notice us!"
The two watched, openmouthed, as the sniper stood atop the observation deck. The strong wind pulled greedily at his hair and clothing, trying to push him over. But Usopp stood confidently, his feet spread out for balance and his long sling grasped firmly in hand.
"What are you doing up there? Get down!" Nami cried, looking like she thought Usopp had gone crazy. "You're going to get yourself killed, you idiot!"
"I'm not going to fall," Usopp replied with an adrenaline-fueled laugh. "I'm going to attack them!"
The sniper raised Kabuto and pulled back on the sling. He let go with a snap and something small and dark shot towards the other ship almost faster than the eye could see. A few seconds passed with nothing before a giant fireball bloomed in the air between the two ships. Usopp held two fingers up in Luffy's direction, his grin visible even from so far above.
"I'll keep firing until they see us," he promised. "If it's to get Zoro back, I can't let myself do less."
"Usopp…." Nami's whisper held surprise, awe and worry all jumbled together. Beside her, Luffy's face broke out into a slow smile.
Usopp took aim at his target and fired three more shots in quick succession. They all fell short, but the explosions they left behind gave Luffy a sudden idea.
"Why don't we fire our cannon at them?"
Nami's look showed she clearly thought she was in the middle of a bunch of lunatics. "Are you kidding? Our Gaon Cannon would blow them out of the water!" She paused. "But, our side cannons…."
A broad grin crossed Luffy's face. Snatching the megaphone out of Nami's hands, he began shouting orders through it.
"Listen guys, it's time to get their attention! Prepare to fire all starboard cannons!"
"You're crazy!" Nami muttered. "We'll only have one chance at this."
"I know," he said quietly before raising his voice once more. "Aim to miss, but not by much. Let's show 'em we don't like being ignored!"
"Aye-aye, Captain!" Their reply floated up through the layers of wood and pitch. Luffy's grin widened.
"Damn it, turn us hard to port," Nami told Kidd, who promptly spun the wheel around. "Usopp! Hold on to something!"
"Ehh? What am I supposed toyaAHH!"
The ship started to swing around. The broach was made so sharply that the water sloshed over the gunwale, threatening to capsize the ship. Luffy reached out a long arm to catch Usopp as he fell off the masthead. He dropped the sniper next to Nami and they all grabbed hold of the helmsman's bench as they struggled to keep their footing. At this speed, the Sunny would only have one chance to get a round off before whirling around in a circle caused by it's own momentum.
The wood below their feet vibrated with five sharp stutters. The four watched with bated breath as five iron balls the size of Franky's fists flew towards the Red Hair Pirates' ship. There was just enough time to see the projectiles explode --three grazing the great dragon ship, two landing in the water-- before momentum swung the Thousand Sunny in a stomach lurching 360°.
Hearts pounding, they clutched at the back of the bench as the ship spun out of control. Kidd hung onto the wheel for dear life, not having the strength to pull out of so sharp a turn. Nami started to let go, with a wild thought of jumping up and grabbing for it. But Usopp's arm snaked around her waist and tightened. He shook his head, a deep frown on his face. Nami slumped against him. He was right. If she tried anything while they were at this angle, she'd likely slide straight overboard. Besides, the ship was finally beginning to slow down and right itself.
The sails were luffing idly as the ship came to rest. They flapped against the masts like laundered sheets hanging on a line. Sunny floated, adrift from the air currents that had been pulling her forward. Below, the ocean bobbed and weaved as the last ripples settled into a normal pattern of blue swells. Nami and Usopp lay on the deck, clutching each other and shivering slightly. Kidd was still riding the helm's wheel, his face white and seemingly unable to make himself let go of the spokes. By the time the three pulled themselves together Luffy was already up and running towards the port side of the ship. The others quickly hurried after.
Their spin had caused them to be perpendicular to the other ship. Luffy stood at the rails, staring out with sharp eyes. Shanks' ship seemed to be carrying a few new scorch marks, but otherwise looked unscathed. What's more, it seemed to be turning about. Luffy grinned and Usopp whooped in triumph. Nami strode up and snatched the megaphone back, muttering about how crazy their scheme had been. But the she was smiling too, as she held the up megaphone and called to the others.
"Weigh anchor and all hands on deck! The East Wind has swung around. Let's prepare to board."
"I'm sorry, Zoro. But I'll not risk my ship," Shanks said as he ordered his ship to stop. Ben stood behind him, saying nothing though not looking happy about it. "If you're still feeling shy, you can hide below decks and mum's the word about you being on board."
Still standing at the rail, Zoro closed his eyes, remembering how cold the waters around them had been, years ago. If he jumped overboard now, even if he didn't make it back to shore, he would at least find escape of one kind. He pictured the world darkening as he fell beneath the waves, disturbed on how inviting the image appeared.
Gritting his teeth, he pried himself away from the side and forced his feet to move. He walked past Ben and Shanks without a word and disappeared into the hold.
"Who's all going?" Franky asked when everyone had gathered onto the main deck. The East Wind had weighed anchor a short distance away, apparently not so willing to be boarded. Franky frowned and crossed his arms. "Four people can fit on Merry II."
"Just me, guys." Luffy stated as he stood at the rail and fiddled with the tie on his hat, wanting to make sure it didn't fly away. "That's what Shanks wants, or he'd have pulled up along our side."
The others watched him, wanting to protest but knowing better not to. It seemed that --for better or worse-- this was a task for their captain alone. Usopp's worries appeared to be catching; everyone stared at Luffy silently, both hope and fear warring for dominance in their hearts.
"I'm off," Luffy chirped, seemingly unaffected by the tension pulling at his crew. His strong hands grabbed hold of Sunny's railing with a tight grip. Luffy began walking backwards, his arms stretching taut as they prepared to launch their human ballista.
"Luffy!" Chopper called out as he hopped forward suddenly. "You bring him back, okay? No matter what: bring Zoro back."
"I will." Luffy answered, his smile shadowed by the brim of his hat. "I promise." He unlocked his knees, becoming a flying blur of color against the snow.
And then he was gone.
"Ho, Luffy!" Yasopp looked up from mending a sail when Luffy touched down on deck, slipping slightly on the snow-covered planks. "Didn't expect to come under friendly fire! You sure know how to call attention to yourself." He shook his head, his dreadlocks bouncing around the rueful grin spreading across a mouth that looked nearly identical to Usopp's. "How's my boy?"
Luffy didn't reply as his eyes roved the ship's deck. Familiar faces looked up here and there and smiled in greeting. Unknown faces crossed his periphery, whispering to one another in shock at the appearance of the Pirate King on their ship. Luffy felt adrift on a sea of faces, yet none were the face he searched for.
"Where is he?" Luffy demanded as he squeezed through the press of bodies. His eyes locked onto a tall, grey-haired man leaning against a wall with a rifle tucked in the crook of his arm. "Ben!" he called out excitedly before running forward. "You have him, don't you? I--" here Luffy's voice nearly failed him. "I wanna see him."
"See who?" A red-haired man asked from off to the side. "Me?" Shanks, perched on a barrel of ale, gave Luffy a cheeky smirk. "I'm flattered, Mr. King."
Luffy advanced with clenched fists, impatience already getting the better of him. "I came just like you said to," said Luffy with an air of expectancy.
"You're a bit late, actually. As you can see, we were just setting off." His eyes met Ben's for a second before he continued. "Well, as much as I love to reminisce, not to mention be shot at, we have a schedule to keep to. So, if you don't mind…"
Luffy felt the frustration within him begin to boil at the man's casual dismissal.
"Don't give me that shit!" barked Luffy, losing hold on his emotions. "I don't know what you're playing at, Shanks but --if he's alive-- I have to know!"
"I'm afraid I don't know who you're talking about." Shanks said lightly. But there was something, some glint in his eye that said otherwise.
Luffy felt despair begin to fill him for the first time since receiving the letter. "Shanks, please," he begged. "Zoro…is he--?"
Shanks looked about to cave at the raw emotion pouring from his young friend. He opened his mouth to speak, but another voice filled the silence instead.
"I didn't take you for a man who'd break his word," the voice said, resigned. An unforgettable face topped with green hair stepped out from the shadow of a nearby doorway and into the light.
He looked pale and ragged, and thinner than when Luffy last saw him. Too thin, Luffy thought. His carefully built muscles had all but vanished, replaced by the firm sinew of an ironwood tree. But the eyes… they were just as piercing, his glare just as sharp.
"Zoro…." Luffy breathed out as his vision narrowed to focus solely on the figure before him.
"You wound me, Zoro," Shanks bemoaned in mock hurt. "I never mentioned your name even once, just as you asked of me." The redhead was shaking his finger with reproach. "I told ya you wouldn't be able to hide from him, though. This kid's too stupid to give up."
Zoro's eyes narrowed at this fool's act. Shanks stared back at him shrewdly.
"Zoro!" Luffy, repeated joyfully, dragging the swordsman's attention away.
Feeling overcome --taxed beyond what an hour's shoveling merited-- Zoro swayed slightly. Ben was immediately at his side, a strong hand grabbing his elbow to steady him. "You should be resting," The older man admonished quietly. "Your fever will come back."
Luffy's relieved gaze faltered. Anxious eyes checked his friend from head to toe, zooming in on his bared chest, where two large scars stood out starkly. They were red and raised and ugly in their newness and, as Zoro turned, Luffy could see the awful marks mirrored across his back. The one on the left side seemed particularly gruesome, thick and broken where the flesh had been torn rather than cut. Luffy swallowed.
"Zoro, are you--? You're okay, right?" Luffy asked haltingly.
Zoro shrugged off Ben's help. "I'm fine," he muttered, staring at some distant point past Luffy's shoulder.
Ben frowned at him before turning to address Luffy's question. "It was touch and go for awhile," he said, ignoring the glare the swordsman quickly sent his way. "We thought we'd lose him before getting him to the Isshin Twenty. Even then, things were shaky. He was breathing, but we weren't sure if he'd ever wake up." Ben met Zoro's glower impassively.
"But then they met that scary old lady on the mountain." Yasopp spoke up, having at some point come up from behind. "After that your young swordsman here began to pull through."
"I guess he's also too stupid to give up." Shanks beamed from his perch. "Haha! What a fine pair you two make!"
"Zoro all but ran away from the doc to sail with us. We knew you'd eventually be along to get him," Yasopp shook his head. " But nothing we said could talk him out of it."
"Stupid, I tell you!" Shanks had acquired a mug of ale from somewhere and raised it in a toast.
Luffy stared at his swordsman, wishing others would leave for a bit and give the two of them a little privacy. Their noise was like a buzzing headache behind the eyes. As for Zoro, he looked like he wanted to murder the lot of them. Luffy's brow furrowed suddenly as he finally processed what Shanks had said earlier: that Zoro had not wanted Luffy to know where he was.
"Zoro…" He took a couple steps forward. "Why--?"
"Go home, Luffy," Zoro said flatly, still refusing to even look his way.
Luffy felt like he'd been sucker-punched. "What?" he asked, because surely he hadn't heard right. The laughter around them trailed off into a subdued silence.
"All right you lot," Shanks interrupted, addressing the two dozen or so of his men who were affecting to eavesdrop on the unfolding drama. "Sod off, will you? I'm sure there's plenty of work to be done out of earshot. Any man caught being a looky-loo goes sober tonight!"
A unanimous groan erupted from the crew and they scattered, Yasopp going with them to urge them on. Ben and Shanks remained, unmoving, with Lucky Roux puttering around not far away. Soon enough, even Yasopp returned quietly to the sidelines. It seemed the core of Shank's crew wanted to see how things played out.
Luffy hadn't even acknowledged the interruption. He stared at his first mate through the shifting bodies, his eyes demanding an explanation.
Zoro sighed and ran a calloused hand through his hair before finally meeting the other man's gaze. "What's done is done," he explained coldly. "There's no going back from here. It's time to go our separate ways."
"What are you talking about?" Luffy demanded angrily as he leaned forward, the tension surrounding him making him appear about to attack. "Are you stupid or something? I'm not going back without you! I promised the others I wouldn't!"
"The others will deal, so just leave me alone." Zoro's voice was still so cold, like he was talking to an enemy.
"No!" Luffy cried, his voice strained and cracking. "I need Zoro!"
When he jumped aboard Shanks' ship, the worst he had tried to prepare for was that it'd all been a misunderstanding; that Zoro really was dead. (Even he had had his nightmares, his moments of doubt-- though he tried not to let them consume him.) But not even in his nightmares had he expected this. "Why are you doing this?"
"My heart's shot, Luffy. I can't even fight at full strength anymore." Zoro rubbed at his face, the admittance seeming to pain him. "I'm not fit to be the Pirate King's swordsman."
Luffy stared at him as if he'd started speaking a different language. But bits and pieces of past conversations started to become a little clearer. He shook his head, banishing them. "You think I care about that? It doesn't matter if you lost both your arms and legs; I'd still need you!"
Zoro's face twisted and he punched the wall beside him, denting the wood. "You don't need a man that stabbed you in the back!" he snarled.
"And I don't need a captain who'd make me sacrifice my principles!" Zoro's voice was low and harsh and the angry words clouded the air between them.
Luffy couldn't tell which way was up. Zoro was right there in front of him, but he could feel him slipping further away every second. He needed to say something—anything—but he couldn't even get a word in edgewise. "I never asked you to—"
"No, you didn't." Zoro's tone lost its edge, now sounding bone-weary. "And I didn't do it for you. But I did it because of you all the same."
Luffy shook his head again. He felt like he was drowning. "I don't understand… Why won't you come back?"
Zoro looked away again and Luffy found himself hating him for it. Zoro had never before been the type of person afraid to meet someone square in the eye. Luffy wanted to stride up and physically force the other man to look at him.
"With one move," Zoro began in a quiet voice that nearly sunk into the lapping waves. "I stole both your title and your dream. I've managed to hurt you in a way that none of our opponents have been able to." His voice thickened. "I should have been proud to stand there and watch you die as the Pirate King, but I was too damn weak." Zoro met Luffy's gaze briefly, willing him to understand. "That's not the kind of man who should be sailing with you. Greatest Swordsman or not, I'm just not good enough."
"I've made up my mind, Luffy."
Luffy's shoulders slumped in defeat. "So that's it? We're done?" he asked brokenly.
The silence that followed was thick with pain and hurt. Zoro clenched his hands, wishing he could take it all into himself. He didn't want to do this to Luffy, that's why he hadn't wanted to see him. Damn Shanks for taking that decision out of his hands.
His captain --former captain-- stood in the center of the ship, saying nothing, moving nothing. His eyes simply looked around aimlessly, as if lost. Zoro couldn't take it. Unable to keep himself away, he stepped forward on knees that felt weak and jelly-filled, his second hand boots barely making a sound as he crossed the deck. Reaching his goal, he lifted his hands and rested them carefully on Luffy's shoulders.
"I…Luffy…" He trailed off in exasperation. Zoro could feel the other man shaking beneath his thick coat.
He was thankful for the straw hat that hid Luffy's face. Zoro didn't think he could handle seeing the hurt he'd knew he'd find there. This is for the best, he told himself. He had to keep telling himself, because his body was beginning not to listen. Unwittingly, his fingers moved across the back of the other man's neck: rubbing at the tension found there, occasionally brushing against a lock of dark hair. Zoro swallowed heavily.
He wasn't good at consoling people, but he knew he needed to give it a shot. He owed the other as much. Besides, he found he needed a little assurance himself. He closed his eyes and tried again.
"Look, we'll probably see each other agai--"
That stopped Zoro cold. His eyes shot open. "What?"
Luffy tilted his head up to glare at Zoro, his mouth set in a stubborn line. "I've already decided! You're coming back with me."
Zoro made short, incredulous noise before his expression turned stone-faced. "I refuse."
"We're a team!" Luffy shouted into the other's face.
"Yeah?" Zoro tried shoving him back, but Luffy wouldn't budge. "Well, from now on, I fight alone."
Luffy let out a low growl deep in his throat and he reached up and grabbed at Zoro's arms, his nails scratching carelessly into bare skin as they scrabbled for a firm grip. He jerked Zoro closer, his words breathing hot against the swordsman's face. "I won't accept it! Even if I have to knock you out and drag you back, I'm not giving you up!" He shook Zoro to illustrate his point, until the man had no choice but to grab on to him for support.
"You want a fight, bastard?" Zoro growled, staring Luffy straight in the eye.
"Yeah, fine; let's go! We can fight all you want back on the ship."
"You're getting on my last nerve, Luffy!"
"Well, that's too bad, because I've already decided."
"Don't decide things on your own!"
"Zoro's coming back with me."
"Damn it, you really are dense!" Zoro yelled.
They both froze suddenly, realizing that this argument had occurred before. In fact, they'd uttered nearly the exact words over five years ago: on the day Zoro joined up with the irrepressible, elastic boy. Disbelief bubbled up their throats, escaping as body-wracking sniggers. Finally, unable to help themselves, Luffy and Zoro fell against one another and began to laugh. They each held onto the other as all their hurt and frustration fell away in tears of mirth. The sound was freeing, giving their onlookers a bit of hope that the two friends would not end up tearing apart.
Zoro's laughter died down first and he head-butted the other good-naturedly. "You'll never change, will you?" he asked in an exasperated tone-- one that seemed to already know the answer.
Luffy's grin was hard. "Never!" His hands slid down Zoro's arms to snatch up his wrists in an iron grip. "So just give up and come home!"
Zoro's grin fell. "Luffy--"
"Hold on now." Shanks jumped up from his barrel, apparently tired of being in the audience. Grabbing Zoro's shoulder, he pulled. Luffy let go of his wrists in surprise and --unbalanced-- the swordsman had no choice but stumble backwards to the man's side. "I've taken this young man into my care; accepted him as a member of my crew. I can't let him go just like that."
"What?" Luffy stared at Shanks in disbelief. "What do you mean?" he asked in a guarded tone. The redhead was well known for his tricks.
"I mean: what will you give me for him?" Shanks amiable expression turned sly. "I am a pirate after all; I won't just hand him over for free. I need compensation for all my time and effort."
"But I'm not going anywhere!" Zoro protested with exasperation.
Shanks ignored him, his eyes on Luffy. "Well, Little Anchor? Are you willing to barter for this guy? The Greatest Swordsman in the world, right? He won't come cheap." He patted Zoro's shoulder like a prize.
Luffy stared from the man he looked up to the man he'd do anything to get back. Shanks was obviously testing him, but what could he want? The right answer would get his First Mate back. But the wrong one… Money? Title? Treasure? What did Shanks want?
Luffy's eyes widened in realization. Slowly –carefully-- he reached up and took off his beloved straw hat. Gazing down on it, he spent a moment memorizing every last braid and weave.
"Here," he said and tossed it to Shanks, who caught it easily in with his one hand.
"A hat?" Shanks looked offended. "That's all?"
An aggravated sigh was heard from the nearby doorway.
"Quit teasing the boy, Shanks." Mihawk scolded, his gold eyes glittering in warning. Shanks glared back at him, pouting slightly.
"You're such a wet hen, Hawk Eyes," he complained, spinning the hat around his finger. Mihawk rolled his eyes and, grumbling, Shanks turned back to Luffy. "You sure?" he asked, serious this time. His voice was soft, finally showing some warmth for his beloved protégé. "You wanted it so badly before. You've kept it safe all this time."
Luffy didn't hesitate. "I don't need it anymore," he stated proudly.
"Luffy…." Zoro stood before him, stunned. "You'd--?" The very lengths to which Luffy would go to get him to come back were finally sinking in. Zoro swallowed against the sudden lump in his throat, his eyes lowering.
From the corner of his eye, Shanks watched the swordsman's reaction. Honestly, the things he had to do to beat some sense into that blockhead! If he had to deal with Zoro on a daily basis, his hair would become as grey as Ben's. The redhead quickly schooled his self-satisfied expression.
"Hmph. It looked better on me anyway," he huffed as he jammed it on his own head. But his eyes were tender as he gazed upon his old charge. "Take your swordsman," he smiled kindly.
Luffy broke out into a relieved grin. He turned to Zoro.
"Come back with me Zoro," he pleaded. "It's all right. There can be two Pirate Kings; I don't mind."
"No!" Zoro's voice was so harsh that Luffy flinched.
Zoro moved until he was but a breath away from the other. Lowering his head, he knelt down before him.
"There can be only one Pirate King," he said, bowing.
Luffy's stricken expression quickly transformed. Smiling, he took a step forward, letting Zoro's head rest against his stomach. His arms wrapped around the swordsman's shoulders and clutched at handfuls of moss-green hair.
"There'll be plenty of Pirate Kings…." Luffy smiled down at his mate. "But, there'll only be one Zoro. And that's one thing I'm not willing to give up."
Luffy felt the shoulders he held relax and he tightened his embrace. Not too long afterwards he felt the press of arms against his back as Zoro returned the hug. Closing his eyes, Luffy couldn't hold back a sigh of relief as tears of pricked at the corners of his eyes. It seemed like one of the hardest battles he'd had to go through, but he'd finally won his 'treasure' back. Though the aftermath had left him exhausted and hungry. Come to think of it, he hadn't eaten anything all day!
His stomach gurgled loudly in complaint. Zoro snorted and pulled away slightly, moving to plug his ears at the noise.
"Lucky Roux! Drop a dingy, will ya?" Shanks called out suddenly, laughing. "I'm not for losing a restocked larder just to feed this mongrel. Besides, I doubt our ex-patient is in shape for flying anyways."
Usopp studied the two tiny figures as they embraced. With a shuddering sigh, the sniper's face broke out into a grin as he pulled his goggles off (while surreptitiously dabbing at his watering eyes.) He turned to his companions.
"I think they're going to be okay, now." He announced, his relief making him sag against the rail. He watched everyone's expressions light up and the cold ball in the pit of his stomach vanished.
"Zoro's coming back?" Chopper was bawling. "I'm so glad!"
Usopp nodded, still grinning like an idiot. Everything would be okay now.
Sanji pitched his cigarette and began walking toward the galley, patting the sniper's shoulder as he passed. "Let's go everyone."
The air turned suddenly cold, and it had nothing to do with the snow. Staring at the others, Usopp shivered. There was a new undercurrent flowing through the group. It was a difficult feeling to describe but Usopp felt that, as happy as everyone was, they were also very, very angry.
"W-what are we doing?" he asked as everyone began filing inside. Franky cracked his knuckles loudly and Usopp winced.
"We're getting ready to welcome that shithead back." Sanji replied darkly.
Usopp exchanged troubled glances with Chopper and Brook, neither of whom seemed to share in the negative feelings towards their returning swordsman. Sanji noticed the exchange and frowned.
"If he wants to come back, he has to take responsibility for his actions."
"He saved Luffy's life," Chopper protested.
"He made Robin and Nami cry," Sanji said with his face averted. "I can't forgive that easily."
"If it wasn't for him, you wouldn't have met Kaya," Usopp pointed out, scowling.
"And if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have had to leave her!" Sanji snarled before checking himself. "Look, intentionally or not, his actions hurt all of us in one way or another. I won't accept him back without some restitutions."
"It's no less than he expected of you, Usopp," Nami said quietly, her eyes downcast.
Those words effectively silenced the sniper's argument. Sighing heavily, he nodded and motioned for Chopper and Brook to follow the others inside. Nami grabbed his arm and Usopp reluctantly trailed after them.
He felt that ball of ice hit his stomach once again, and found himself suddenly dreading the moment Zoro stepped foot back on the ship.
Their goodbyes were good-natured but brief. Despite the quip about the food, Luffy and Zoro had been asked to stay; The Red Hair Pirates loved an excuse to party, after all. But when they declined the issue wasn't pressed. All of them knew that the Straw Hats had a lot to work through before the Marines again caught upon their trail.
Luffy met Shanks' gaze and nodded. He didn't say thanks aloud, knowing that the other pirates would just tease him for it, but the emotion was there as plain as the goofy grin on his face. His mentor motioned him to the rail and together they stared out at the slate-grey ocean with peaceful-looking expressions.
"Where will you head now?" Luffy asked, as he watched Zoro disappear to have a last word with Mihawk.
"Banaro Island, I should think," Shanks smiled. "Rumors have it a young, narcoleptic punk with a logia power has taken over there and is trying to fix the place up."
Luffy's eyes widened. "You mean Ace?" His elder brother had been unheard of for so long that he would have thought him dead if it weren't for the slightly charred Vivrecard sewn into his hat, right next to Shanks' own.
"If rumor is to believed, yes." Shanks scratched at his stubble. "I heard he's staying there, waiting to kick his little brother's arse for defeating Blackbeard before he could get his hands on him."
"Haha, I'll make sure to stay away then." The younger man laughed.
"And you?" Shanks asked after a moment of companionable silence. "You've got a lot of people after you, you know. Your fight hasn't ended yet."
"We'll be okay." Luffy's smile was serene as he looked over to where the Thousand Sunny floated. "Dragon wanted me to join his revolution, but I don't see anything wrong with the world the way it is. So I think we'll head to one of the other Blues 'til things calm down. Besides, Nami's still got a lot of places to map; we need to get around to exploring them."
"Hmm…you know North Blue's pretty nice this time of year," Shanks said casually as he leaned against the rail. "I've got a lot of friends up there. Lots of strong fighters too."
"Heh. North Blue, huh…?" Luffy beamed out at the water, feeling the tugging of wanderlust once more.
They waited in silence until Zoro reappeared, fully dressed in some of Ben's hand-me-downs. He walked towards them, reaching up and touching his three earrings with a thoughtful expression. Shanks straightened with an exaggerated stretch and held his one hand out in parting. Luffy shook it warmly, his eyebrows lifting in surprise as he felt something hard and round being palmed to him.
"For later," Shanks whispered, winking.
Luffy looked at the seashell in his hand. He'd been around Usopp long enough to recognize it as a Voice Dial. He looked up at Shanks questioningly but the redhead merely shrugged.
"Take care, Mr. Pirate King." Shanks ruffled the other's dark hair.
"Take care of my hat," Luffy shot back, knocking the hand away.
"Excuse me, my hat." Shanks corrected as he adjusted the brim pointedly.
Luffy made a face at him before hopping onto the rail. He grabbed the rope ladder and called out a "See ya!" as he began his descent to the dingy below. Shanks watched him go, feeling inexplicably proud.
Shanks turned to regard the green-haired swordsman, as his First Mate moved to his side. "Maybe you were right, Ben. Maybe he should've stayed and worked for me." Shanks sighed. "Strong guys like him are hard to come by nowadays. Besides, I think I might just miss having his stubborn ass around."
"He knows where he belongs." Ben smirked. Meeting his gaze, Shanks smiled and put his arm around the other's side.
"Thank you." Zoro bowed solemnly to the two. He straightened and moved towards the edge of the ship. He had one foot on the railing when he turned. "For everything," he added over his shoulder, a rare smile crossing his face. Ben nodded back at him while Shanks just smiled knowingly.
With nothing more to say, Zoro turned and hopped off the ship, ignoring the ladder entirely. A surprised cry sounded from below. Shanks and Ben moved to watch from the rail.
"What are you doing, stupid?" Luffy was ranting angrily at being pressed into the bottom of the boat.
"Sorry." Zoro didn't sound it. Not in the least. "Didn't mean to land on you. Didn't see the rope hanging there."
"I think Zoro did it on purpose but whatever, just get off!"
"Oh, am I still on you?" They heard Zoro chuckle.
The two eventually separated and Luffy's hands went reflexively to his head. "Wait! Where's my h--?" he stopped abruptly.
"What was that?" Zoro asked as he settled down at the other end of the boat.
"Nevermind." Luffy turned to face the other way. "You ready?"
Ben turned to Shanks, his cigarette smoke wafting around his captain's head. "You aren't really going to keep it, are you?"
Shanks pulled off the yellow hat and stared at it as if it were a lost friend. "Nah…" he said after a moment. "Makes my head itch."
"I thought it might," said Ben as he looked away, hiding his grin.
The two Straw Hats were just beginning to move away from the ship. Shanks leaned over the rail. "Oiy, Luffy!"
The boy looked up.
"Take it!" Shanks called down, a roguish grin stretching across his face. He let the hat fall. For once the battered straw thing didn't flit away on the lightest breeze. Instead it dropped down right into its owner's outstretched hands.
"Shanks…" Luffy's expression was too blurry at this distance to make out, but his voice sounded choked.
The redhead waved him off. "Like I have a choice!" Shanks shouted down. "You can't be captain of the Straw-Hat Pirates without it!" he explained with a laugh.
Zoro stared at the Thousand Sunny stoically as their little rowboat drew near. Luffy pulled the oars with smooth deep strokes, grinning and saying that he didn't want Zoro to get lost before reaching the ship. But Zoro could tell, from one look at his captain's face, that most of the reason lay with the angry scars across his own chest. Too tired to fight about it, Zoro returned his gaze to the ship.
The deck was empty when they finally boarded. No one hung on the rails, eager to welcome them back. The ship felt abandoned, and Zoro's jaw clenched tightly as he looked around at it. He nearly wanted to run, just so he didn't have to face the others' accusing stares. But that'd be cowardly --and selfish-- considering what his friends must've gone through to get him back. Zoro's will held steady. He'd face them all, without wavering: just hoping for their forgiveness.
Even though he felt he didn't deserve that forgiveness, he needed it all the same.
Luffy stared across the sea, watching the Jolly Roger baring three slashes slowly shrink against the horizon. His blunt fingers bit into the straw of the battered hat he carried and his eyes were fogged over with nostalgia. Zoro stood behind him, waiting for his captain to say a silent farewell to his childhood idols, feeling a little overcome himself. Too soon, it seemed, Luffy stuffed the hat back atop his head and turned, walking across the deck, up the stairs and into the dining room. Zoro followed him, his footsteps heavy.
Luffy let out an involuntary shout when Franky's steel fist plowed into Zoro's face, sending him crashing through a wall that the cyborg himself would have to repair later. The giant man bent over and plucked Zoro from the rubble, holding him up like a rag doll.
"What the hell?" Luffy ordered. "Knock it off, Franky!"
Franky ignored him as he grabbed Zoro's face in one massive hand and shoved his head into the wall with a sick thunk. Wood splinters flew.
"Stop it, I said!" Luffy snarled as he grabbed Franky's arm and yanked him away, sending the shipwright flying into the opposite wall.
The rubber-man watched in disbelief as Sanji stepped up next and spun a devastating round-house kick into Zoro's unguarded face. The force of the kick ripped Zoro from the wall and hurled him onto the floor. Luffy threw a wild punch Sanji's way, but the blow was skillfully dodged.
"What's gotten into you guys?" Luffy demanded as he jumped between Zoro and the rest of the crew. His expression held rage and confusion.
"Don't stop us, Captain." Robin warned; her eyes shadowed. When Luffy didn't budge, a dozen limbs materialized from the ceiling to scoop him up, holding him with the strength of iron bands. Luffy struggled futilely as the dark woman stepped forward, blooming more arms: each delivering a stinging slap in quick succession across Zoro's cheeks.
"Gomu Gomu no Fuusen" Luffy's body ballooned outward, breaking the archeologist's hold on him. He landed in a crouch next to Zoro's prone form.
"Leave him alone," he ordered in a low voice, his eyes hot and hard.
Sanji lit a cigarette. "This is a gauntlet, Luffy. If he wants to come back to us, he has to accept back all the pain he's caused us," he turned to the fallen swordsman, a glint of something unnamable in his eyes. "You can do that, right, Zoro? You can take all our pain onto yourself?"
"This is stupid—!" Luffy burst out, but was interrupted.
To everyone's shock it was Zoro who'd spoken.
Zoro pulled himself upright with painstaking slowness, not even a grimace crossing his bruised and bloody face. "In order for them to accept me back," he murmured, his voice low and thick and beginning to slur as blood dripped from between his lips. "They have to do this. I have to do this." The green-haired man stumbled forward.
Luffy watched his friend, clearly unhappy with his decision yet unable to refute something that seemed so integral to the other man's honor. He thought back to his fight with Usopp, and Zoro's demand for the sniper to make a proper apology. Luffy figured this was Zoro's way of doing the same: of apologizing not only to his captain, but the entire crew, for all the pain and grief he put them through. Eyes somber, Luffy stepped back.
"Well?" Zoro spat a tooth onto the floor. "Who's next?" He stared at the others challengingly.
The steam seemed to have gone out of the mob surrounding him, though true to their own pain they didn't back down. Nami stepped up with Clima-Tact in hand; her eyes were red as though she had been crying. Whirling the staff around, Nami suddenly pulled it up into an overhead arc that cracked into the top of Zoro's skull with deafening force. The blow nearly felled him, and Zoro swayed slightly as his vision went double. The damn wench was stronger than she let on.
Next the kid strolled up, all bluff and bluster but with an undercurrent of fear underneath. He hadn't been with the group long enough to know that the swordsman wouldn't dice him up and feed him to the fish later. Still, the little shrimp showed spunk as he socked Zoro a good one right between the legs. Zoro felt to his knees, cursing the half-pint little punk. But now he was in the shortie's range. Kidd hefted one of Sanji's cast iron skillets and plowed Zoro in the face with it.
Kidd scurried backwards as Zoro reached up and rubbed his reddened face, a rueful smirk twitching his lips. In any other situation he wouldn't be allowed near the shitty cook's kitchen junk. Zoro laughed silently for a moment before stopping himself, realizing he was close to cracking. Painting a bored look across his face, he looked up at his friends. He decided to stay on his knees, figuring it was better this way. (Besides, he wasn't sure if he could even get up without toppling over, so this saved him the smallest amount of dignity.)
Brook stepped forward with some hesitancy before stooping over to meet the swordsman's gaze.
"Please take more care of yourself in the future," he whispered, before drawing back and embedding his bony knuckles into the bridge of Zoro's nose. The skeleton caught him as he fell back. "Forgive me," he said, making sure the other steyed upright before pulling away.
"Chopper." Nami called out; a silent order for the Doctor to move forward next.
Out of them all, the diminutive reindeer seemed least willing to strike the swordsman. Big eyes watered in a way that tore at Zoro's already battered heart. He didn't want to force Chopper to do this, but they had to get everything out if Zoro were to return to the crew. This gauntlet was necessary for all of them to help clear the air.
Zoro pulled out Doctorine's letter. "From the witch," Zoro said without emotion, tossing it to the floor. "She wanted to know how her idiot son was doing." As planned, that was enough to cement the reindeer's resolve.
A look of aching rage slid across Chopper's face as he darted forward, transforming as he ran. One mammoth hand grabbed up Zoro by the shirtfront and slammed him against the bulkhead. The humanoid reindeer brought his other hand up and slapped Zoro across the face before backhanding him with it and then cuffing him across the other side yet again.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid!" Chopper cried as he delivered the barrage of strikes, tears streaming through his tightly clenched eyes.
This continued for some minutes until someone finally decided to pull the doctor off him. Zoro didn't know who his would-be rescuer was, as he was too busy trying to stay upright by gripping the wall he leaned on. His ears were ringing painfully and his vision showed only a pinprick of light against the swarming darkness that was threatening to pull him under.
"Usopp…" the name was a buzz against the imaginary clanking of bells.
Someone else spoke, though Zoro couldn't make out the reply.
"Usopp!" The first voice was louder now-- harsher. Sanji.
"I refuse!" That one would be Usopp, Zoro's fuzzy mind supplied.
"Usopp…" Zoro mumbled through the blood and swelling. "It's okay." He was just able to make out the sniper's outline.
Usopp wouldn't look at him, or anyone else, it seemed. "I won't," he said mutinously.
Sanji strode up and forcefully turned the man around. "Those years ago, when you quit the Straw Hats, it was Zoro who told us not to let you back!" Sanji bit out harshly, revealing a truth that by some silent, mutual agreement the others had never spoken aloud.
Usopp's shoulders shook under the cook's pinching fingers. "D-dammit…"
Sanji pushed him Zoro's way. Fist raised, Usopp swung a violent uppercut at the swordsman's jaw. The swordsman closed his eyes against the blow but --at the last minute-- Usopp pulled the punch, and what struck Zoro's cheek was nothing but the faintest rap of the sniper's knuckles.
Usopp gave his perplexed comrade a crooked grin. "Nobody's helped me become a real warrior more than you. And, to tell the truth, these guys should be punishing me right along with you."
His eyes showing all the gratitude that he couldn't force past his lips, Zoro nodded once, effecting to look away at the 'unwarrior-like' tears brimming in the sharpshooter's eyes. Usopp patted the swordsman on the arm brusquely before retreating, trying to keep up his manly postures over his audible snuffling.
"Before we end this, I think there's something you need to say," Sanji spoke around the cigarette he was lighting.
Zoro started to nod but stopped when it felt like his head was going to split open.
"Here," Kidd muttered as he appeared at his side holding an ancient-looking DenDen Mushi. "I have it wired so that everyone in the four Blues should hear it. This button here will record it, so we can play it back over the next couple of days and make sure the message gets across," he added, holding up the receiver.
Zoro held it to his face with a hand that shook imperceptivity. He cleared his throat and licked at his lips that were cracked and bleeding. The swordsman looked around at the others, at Luffy, before turning away. "This is an announcement that everyone needs to hear…" he spoke into the receiver, his voice gravelly. "My name is Roronoa Zoro. I am very much alive --despite what the military says-- and I have something to say, so listen up."
Zoro felt the words welling up his throat but he choked on them. He bit his tongue hard enough to draw blood, trying anything to lighten the paralysis that had stolen over the offending organ. Why was it that this was so hard to say? Was he worried about his honor? Did it bruise his ego to admit that he lied?
No. It was neither of those things.
It was just that, every time he closed his eyes, he was back before those judges once more. He watched the words that left his lips so smoothly then tear into Luffy like razor-sharp blades, each aimed for a killing blow. Zoro knew that even this --even going through the Gauntlet and admitting to the world the truth-- would never be enough to fully heal the invisible wounds he'd dealt; the wounds that were like deep tears in the ties that bound them both together. A simple glance to his empty finger contested to that. Zoro screwed his eyes shut.
"Monkey D. Luffy…" his captain's name came out near to a croak. Zoro could hardly bear to repeat himself, but this had to be done right. "Monkey D. Luffy is, and always will be…"
Zoro was startled to feel a solitary tear slide down his cheek. "The one…" his voice began to crack, and he was glad he was facing away from the others; that he could at least hide the torrent of emotions that was rolling over him.
"The one, true…" Another tear followed its brother in suicide on the wooden deck below. He took a ragged breath inward, filling his battered lungs to full capacity for his finale. He felt his scars pull and it seemed like they would tear open but he didn't care. Even if these words were the last he spoke, Zoro could die at peace with himself.
"PIRATE KING!" Zoro shouted the last, ripping the words from his chest as if he were ripping out his own heart. He dropped the receiver and fell to his knees, unable to hold his emotions in any longer. He shuddered and coughed as rivers of tears streamed down his face.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. "You have one last person's forgiveness to receive." Sanji told him, not unkindly.
Zoro nodded and covered his eyes with his hand, trying to compose himself.
"It's your turn, captain."
Luffy voiced the beginnings of a protest. "I already--"
"Luffy." The way Zoro said his name dried up whatever he was going to say.
His first mate was standing once more, his voice steady and his eyes, though red and bloodshot, firm and unwavering.
"I need this," was Zoro's only explanation.
Luffy stared at his first mate, his face an open book, relaying a rush of unspoken things-- things that Zoro couldn't even begin to sort out in his current state. Wordlessly, Luffy pulled a fist back, his arm stretching as he put more and more force behind it. Zoro matched his stare unblinkingly, determinedly not bracing himself for the punch. The fist arced towards him without warning, flying as straight and true as a sniper's bullet. Zoro barely felt the pain of the blow as a wave of darkness reached up and eagerly pulled him under.
"I never want to do that again," Nami said. She slumped into a seat and buried her head in her hands.
"Help me move him into sickbay," Chopper said as he gathered the fallen swordsman into his arms.
"Right," Usopp and Kidd both replied, jumping past to open the door.
"Are you all right, Sanji?" Brook asked as the blond stood there, staring at nothing.
"What? Yeah, fine." The cook pushed his sleeves up. "I was just thinking that there's an eel in the aquarium that would make a good soup." He scratched his head. "Did you see how skinny that idiot has gotten? Looks like he could use the nourishment."
"Indeed. He was nearly ALL BONES!"
"Shut up, Brook," Robin sighed.
"I'll go fish it out for you, Sanji!" Kidd stated as he darted past.
"Kidd, wait," Franky grabbed him by the collar. "I got something for ya."
Kidd looked up at him in curiosity.
"But, if I give it to you, you got to promise to call me Bro from now on."
"Franky…" Robin gave him the look.
"All right, all right." He slid something out of his pocket and held it out to the youngest Straw Hat.
Kidd stared at the small band uncomprehendingly. Looking up, he finally noticed Franky's ring hanging from the chain around the cyborg's neck. The ring that was a few sizes smaller than before: too small now to fit on the man's thick fingers. Kidd's vision blurred.
"You… you took a piece of your own ring… Why?"
"You weren't there when we found one piece, true. But you are a member of this crew. You've fought and bled and cried with us and, 'cause of that, you've got a claim to the treasure. As a Straw Hat Pirate, your captain won't accept anything less."
Kidd looked over at Luffy, who nodded solemnly.
"Besides," Franky grinned and posed. "Doesn't it look super on my necklace?"
Luffy moved towards the door, ruffling the boy's hair as he walked past.
"Find a good dream, Kidd, and we'll help you achieve it."
"You guys…" the kid was crying in earnest now.
"I'll be in the bath," Luffy waved. "Let me know when Zoro wakes up." He disappeared up the ladder.
Knowing whatever message Shanks had for him was meant for his ears alone, Luffy locked himself in the bathroom. He sat on the edge of the empty tub, turning the voice dial over in his hands. Finding the activation switch, he pressed it.
Voices came through the opening of the shell, tinny but clear. Luffy wasn't shocked when Shanks' voice came through, muffled slightly, as if the dial had been in his pocket or something. But Zoro's voice rising in answer was the last thing Luffy had expected. He listened to the recording with wide eyes, a strange, twisting, flying feeling in his heart as he heard Zoro's ragged voice break.
"…I was fool… A goddamn selfish fool…"
"… I didn't want to see him die-- not like that…"
"… I just… wasn't prepared to lose him…"
"…Far better for me to die than have to witness that…"
After a few minutes, the recording ended. Luffy pushed the button, listening to it again as realization flooded his brain. After months of angst and uncertainty, Shanks had slapped the answers right into his hands.
He could have laughed, if his throat hadn't felt so tight.
They were the same. What they'd been feeling; it was exactly the same. Maybe it always had been. All these years, and Luffy never really got it. He'd treated Zoro like an extension of himself without even thinking about it—about exactly what that meant.
Maybe it was time he finally did.
Luffy sat in the bathroom and thought for a long, long while.
Zoro opened his eyes, silently marveling when pain didn't reveal itself upon waking. It took a few moments to process the fact that his back was cradled by a soft mattress. The smell of antiseptic was heavy in the air. He was in sickbay, then. Apparently the others had forgiven him enough to not leave him crumpled on the floor.
Zoro stared up at the ceiling with a blankness that felt drug-induced. A heavy hand questing around confirmed that his clothes had been removed and his bloody, tear-stained face had been carefully washed. A cool washcloth had been draped soothingly across his forehead. Fresh clothes were lying folded atop a nearby stool, and leaning against it were his three, precious swords.
A ball of warmth formed in Zoro's stomach, melting away the tension that was beginning to reform there. Such compassion would have been impossible had the others felt any hatred towards him.
There was some strange gold bracelet around his right wrist and as much as he tugged he couldn't get the thing off. Zoro regarded it curiously for a moment before shrugging and struggling into a sitting position. When his head didn't immediately roll off onto the floor, he tried standing. He nearly fell back again as he came face to face with his bronze likeness.
Zoro rubbed his eyes, wondering groggily what sort of drugs Chopper had given him. When he looked again the statue was still there, standing in a proud pose that was marred only by the Love Cook's Doskoi apron that it was inexplicably wearing. Lifting the hem, Zoro immediately saw why and snorted to himself.
"Chopper was the only one willing to live with it," he heard Sanji say from behind him. "Besides Luffy, that is. But that idiot wanted to weld the thing onto the figurehead." The blond leaned against the doorway. "I said I'd throw the shitty thing overboard first."
"The only shitty thing about it is that girly pink apron, stupid cook."
"Why don't we send it back to your hometown then? You can show off your little Zoro there."
Zoro smirked and rubbed his chin. "That might not be a bad idea, actually."
Sanji rolled his eyes and motioned him out of the room. "Get dressed and come get something to eat. Most of the others have gone to shore already."
"Huh?" Zoro looked confused as he struggled into his shirt. "How long have I been out? What island are we anchored at?"
"We're still at Drum, stupid, and will be for a while. Miss Nami said the Log Pose takes a month to set."
Hearing those words, Zoro fumbled while trying to put his other leg into his pants and crashed noisily to the floor. "Another month with that witch? Just kill me now," Zoro moaned.
"Don't tempt me." Sanji pulled the man to his feet and handed him his swords, which Zoro put on with no little amount of relief. It hadn't been right without them. He stroked the hilts, as one would a lover.
"Come on," Sanji pushed him forward impatiently. "Before Luffy catches the scent of food."
"He's still on board?" Zoro asked as he allowed himself to be manhandled over to the bar. Sanji hummed in affirmative.
"Him and Usopp too."
The blond sat the bowl up on the bar and ladled a generous amount of soup into it, watching a waft of steam rise up and send the dish's mouthwatering aroma airborne. Zoro stared at the fluffy white meat floating cloudlike in the yellow broth. His stomach gurgled despite himself.
"Conger soup." Sanji stated gruffly, setting down a spoon. "I expect you to eat every bite."
The cook leaned casually against the bar, his hands loosely clasped atop it, as he watched the swordsman blow on the spoon before taking his first bite. The flavor of it flooded Zoro's mouth even after he'd swallowed.
"It's good," Zoro murmured as he dug into the bowl with more exuberance. "Don't let it go to your head," he spoke into the bowl. "But I really missed your cooking."
But, while that kind of comment normally brought a happy grin to the man's face, Sanji only bowed his head. Zoro paused in his meal; unable to miss the way the cook's hands were trembling.
"Oiy." Zoro's voice was soft.
"Don't ever pull that kind of shit again." Sanji's shaking increased, matching the tremulous note in his voice. "I—you are not replaceable, you bastard."
Zoro nodded, pretending to ignore the wetness trailing down the blond's cheeks. For a while there was nothing save the light slurping sound of the swordsman devouring his soup. Eventually Zoro sat the empty bowl down.
"Thanks for the meal."
Sanji sat up, wiping his face under the subterfuge of lighting a cigarette.
"You're welcome." He stretched his arm up and retrieved a mug from the overhead cabinet. Pulling a pitcher out from the fridge, he poured the swordsman a large glass of tea. Zoro frowned as it was set in front of him.
Sanji saw the look Zoro gave him and smirked. "We're out of booze," he said, enjoying the way the other winced in response. "And I may have forgotten to add it to Miss Robin's grocery list."
"You really are a bastard," Zoro growled, downing the tea with a look of distaste.
Sanji grinned evilly. "I missed you too."
Not long later Zoro left the kitchen and –after disengaging himself from Usopp's sobbing embrace—made his way down to the aquarium bar to sneak in a little more rest. He stretched out on the long couch and watched the fish swim around with lazy eyes that soon slipped closed as sleep took him.
When he woke, Luffy was standing over him, his hands jammed into his pockets. The two stared at one another silently. Finally Zoro sighed and shifted into a sitting position, patting at the cushion next to him. Luffy wordlessly took a seat, watching Zoro out of the corner of his eye as the swordsman leaned his head back against the couch and closed his eyes. The air felt weighted around them.
Luffy was the first to break the stillness.
"Thanks," he said simply. "For earlier."
Zoro didn't open his eyes as he thought back to the words he'd shouted into the DenDen Mushi. "I owed you."
"Mm." The sound was short and soft, but agreeing.
"I'm sorry, you know." Zoro said quietly after a moment.
Luffy stared him straight on. "Did you want me to die back there?"
Zoro looked at him like he'd gone insane. "No!"
Luffy shrugged. "Then you're not sorry."
"I betrayed the trust that a first mate must have in his captain. For that," Zoro sighed, "I am sorry."
"We're more than that to each other."
"I can't say I wouldn't have done the same."
Zoro chuckled humorlessly. "Liar."
Luffy slid off the couch and moved to squat down in front of the swordsman. "If it were you, I would have done whatever it took." He stated firmly, his hand coming up to grasp Zoro's own. Zoro stared back at into those dark, steadfast eyes, feeling the tight band of tension across his heart ease slightly. Feeling a bit more himself, his lips quirked up in the faintest of smirks.
"Thanks for dragging me back."
Luffy squeezed his hands. "Alive, dead, or in hell: I'll always drag you back."
"I'll make it easy on you then," Zoro said with a grin. "I promise you: I die along with my captain, or not at all."
Luffy rose back up as he silently regarded his friend. He suddenly smiled.
"I think I can live with that."
Zoro snorted, "It wasn't like I was asking for your permission." He yawned and put his hands behind his head. "Now go bug someone else, will ya? I need a nap. One that doesn't come from one of your Gomu Pistols."
His eyes closed on the image of his captain's grin. He heard Luffy's sandals slap against the polished wood as he moved across the floor. Zoro felt the man pause by the door.
"Oh yeah," Luffy muttered, seemingly to himself. "I think this belongs to you."
Zoro's eyes shot open as something small and shiny arced his way. Zoro deftly caught it in mid-air. He stared down at the gold band in his hand before raising his eyes to stare at Luffy's back.
"Thanks," he murmured.
"Try not to lose it." His captain stated without turning around. His voice carried an obvious smirk, mixed with a hint of mischief.
Zoro tried to slide the ring onto his forefinger and was surprised to find that it wouldn't fit. He stared at the little piece of gold in confusion. "What gi—" Zoro's voice failed him, as his sharp eyes caught the inscription on the band.
T O M O
Zoro's throat tightened. "Hey," he called out, his voice strangely hoarse. He looked up, but the doorway was empty.
Smiling ruefully, he slipped the ring onto the only finger it would fit.
Still smiling, he laid his head back against the arm of the couch as his eyes drifted closed. The ring felt comfortable: as if it had always been on that finger. The iron band around his heart snapped, and Zoro finally felt peace flowing out from the battered organ.
'That idiot,' Zoro mused absently as his thumb moved to fiddle with the object on his third finger. 'I wonder if he even knows what that's supposed to mean…'
Luffy stared at the ring sitting loosely on his finger, hoping Zoro got the point of his little bait and switch. He was entrusting his dream to his first mate and, in return, he himself was taking charge of Zoro's own. He had done it on a whim, and was surprised at how right the idea felt.
"Hey Usopp," Luffy called out, emerging from below. "Do you got a hammer on ya?"
"Sure, Luffy." Usopp reached into one of the many pockets of his overalls, not looking up from his current snowy masterpiece forming on the main deck. "It's just a small one though," he said apologetically as he handed it over.
Luffy smiled at the ball pane hammer. "It's just what I need," he stated cheerfully.
Without further warning, he slapped his hand down on the deck –fingers splayed out-- and raised the hammer high. Usopp stared in shock as Luffy brought the hammer down heavily across his third finger.
"W-wh-what the heck did you do that for?" he demanded incredulously as Luffy gave the hammer back.
Luffy hopped to his feet, looking bright all over from the falling snow. He was alternately grimacing and smiling as he rubbed his swollen finger, satisfied that the gold band sitting on it no longer felt loose. He gazed at the ring fondly for a moment, fingers trailing across the scratchy engraving across it.
R R O W
"Just reminding myself of what I'm living for." Luffy answered Usopp with a grin.
Usopp wanted to know what exactly that cryptic answer meant but Luffy laughed and challenged him to a snowball fight. And with his thoughts suddenly sidetracked by a face of icy white snow, Usopp never remembered to ask.