Zeff drifted along the Grand Line, letting the faint tug at his center guide him toward his destination. Other ghosts- and the Grand Line was littered thickly with the ghosts of the pirates who had died there- were faintly shocked by his cursing.
"That damn eggplant! When I find him, I will kick him so hard that he flies into geosynchronous orbit! And then I'll-"
One ghost- a young woman who had been murdered by her brother at sea- drifted up to him solicitously. "You seem to be in a fine mood," she said dryly.
"Like hell I am!" snapped Zeff, glad of the opportunity to vent. "I died yesterday, right? So I was pretty much counting on a nice afterlife, 'cause I settled all my karmic and monetary debts during my life and all. But it turns out that since I saved this shitty eggplant's life, I'm bound to haunt him until he achieves his dream or dies trying or some shit like that."
"Wow, that bites," the young woman replied, not unsympathetically. "Is he far from here?"
"I have a ways to go. Bastard was sailing around the Grand Line with the future Pirate King," Zeff grumbled.
"Oh, I bet you I saw those guys when they passed by here! Which one was your eggplant?"
"Blond idiot with weird curly eyebrows. Cigarette in his damn mouth all the time. Stupid as hell around women."
"I definitely saw them. They were doing great! Kicked Foxy the Silver Fox's ass at the Davy Back Fight over on Long Ring Long Island, back a few kilometers. It was the most interesting thing I'd seen in years!" She smiled broadly; the eggplant's work in the Groggy Ring with the crew's swordsman had been admirable.
Zeff snorted fondly. "Davy Back Fight? Hah, I wouldn't have thought that shitty eggplant would participate in something so piratical. Anyway, I should get going…"
"Oh, right, right. It was nice talking to you, Mr. …?"
"Oh, I've… forgotten, I'm sorry. It tends to happen, after being dead so long, with no one remembering my name…"
"Yeah, it sucks," she said with a slight grimace. "But I've gotten used to it. Now go on, Zeff. Eggplant is waiting."
With a wave, Zeff drifted on, increasing his speed as he neared eggplant's ship.
After several hours of flight, the pirate caught sight of a ship on the horizon. Redoubling his speed, Zeff soon found himself hovering over the huge ship Thousand Sunny. Feeling the tightness in his chest urge him downward, Zeff drifted into the galley.
The smell of roasting meat assaulted Zeff's incorporeal nose. Out of habit, the pirate cook identified the spices his eggplant was using. Pepper. Ginger. Thyme. Sage. Marjoram. Probably salt, and maybe a little bay leaf.
Zeff remembered that recipe. It had been one of the first ones he had let the shitty little kid make on his own, since it was just a matter of getting the spices in the right ratios. He smirked and looked down at his rather more grown-up eggplant.
To the untutored eye, Sanji was the same as when he left Baratie. Same stupid eyebrow, same stiff blond hair, same lanky frame. But his attitude was completely different- he hummed as he worked, an old song that Zeff never remembered teaching him, and the way he waltzed around the kitchen, twirling his knives through his fingers, was relaxed and powerful.
Zeff felt his features soften into a smile. That damn eggplant had been so stiff back at the floating restaurant, never so much as whistling. He was happier now than he had ever been back there, without a doubt.
"Hey, you. Dead guy."
Zeff turned to see another ghost sitting on the galley table, watching him interestedly. A battered cigarette balanced precariously on her lower lip, and her reddish purple hair was shaved in a stylized pattern.
"You new on board?" she asked lazily.
"What?" Zeff asked blankly. "Who're you?"
"Call me Bellemere. Are you here to watch over the cook boy?"
"Uh… yeah. Who're you here for?"
"I'm here for the navigator. She's my daughter." Bellemere's smile at that was proud, though it faded as she went on "There's a bunch of guardians on this ship. They'll all want to meet you- you're the first one to arrive after everyone became pirates. We've all been with ours for years."
"Well, I do hope you'll forgive my lateness. I only died yesterday," Zeff said sarcastically.
"Let me guess- you were expecting heaven? No such luck. Better hope Blondie there finds his mystical sea quick, then," Bellemere said easily.
"Bellemere-san? Who are you talking to in there?" came a voice from the end of the galley. Zeff turned to see a young girl poking her head through the wall and examining the scene with wide, dark eyes. As she stepped through to join them, Zeff eyed the expensive-looking phantom katana at her hip: an odd accessory for a little kid.
Her eyes widened as she took in Zeff's ghostly form. "Oh! Is he here for Luffy-san?"
"Nope," Belleremere said with a wicked smirk. "He's here for Cook. You owe me ten Beli, Kuina-chan."
"You know you're never getting it, right? I mean, I've never seen a ghost with ghost money. Though I bet your daughter could manage it…" Kuina grumbled in reply, hopping onto the table and placing her ghostly sword beside her.
"Yeah, whatever. Kuina, this is… hey, what's your name?"
"Zeff," Zeff replied shortly. "So... who're you here for?" he asked Kuina; it seemed a fair icebreaker with the other guardians, and he could anticipate spending a long, long time with them in the months (years?) to come.
"Zoro, the swordsman. We made a promise when we were kids, but then I died." Her voice was matter-of-fact, which belied the extremely vague answer.
"Ouch," Zeff said for the second time that day. "Anyway, how many guardians are on this ship?"
"Seven, including you. Everyone but Straw Hat himself has one now."
"Oi, Sanji! When's dinner?"
Zeff turned to see a (living) long-nosed man in chemical-stained brown overalls standing in the doorway. As Sanji shot back a reply- probably something like, 'In five minutes, but longer if you pester me!'- Zeff saw that, hovering behind the long-nosed kid, was an equally long-nosed ghost woman, with kinky black hair and a slight smile as she watched the boy begin to bicker familiarly with the eggplant.
"Banchina! Come meet out the newcomer!" Bellemere called to the woman. She looked, up, surprised, and beamed as she saw Zeff. Drifting over (through Eggplant and Long-Nose, Zeff noticed) she offered her hand to Zeff.
"Hi! I'm Banchina. It's a pleasure to meet you!" she said enthusiastically. "What's your name?"
"I'm Zeff," Zeff said, nonplussed.
"You'll have to forgive her," Kuina said, rolling her eyes. "Banchina-san get excited really easily, and you're the most interesting thing to happen since… I dunno, Enies Lobby?"
Bellemere nodded. "Did you read about that? Since you died yesterday, you must have gotten the paper…"
"Oh, I heard about it all right. We posted Eggplant's Wanted poster in the restaurant." This time it was Zeff's turn to smile proudly.
"Eggplant?" Banchina asked blankly, perching on the back of a chair and giving Zeff a curious look.
"Sanji," Zeff clarified. "The crew's cook. I call him Eggplant because… well, I forget why, but it's such a stupid nickname that there must be a good reason."
Bellemere nodded in agreement, while Banchina looked confused and Kuina seemed exasperated. "I'll go find Olvia-san, Tom-san, and Hiruluk-san," the girl offered, scooping up her sword and drifting through the ceiling, presumably to go find them..
Banchina sighed, looking up after her. "Kuina-chan is always in such a hurry," she said sadly. "It's that swordsman of hers— he makes her worry."
Bellemere nodded, but Zeff blinked, getting the feeling that the history of this crew was rather more complicated than he might have suspected. "How so?" he asked.
"Oh... he loses so much blood after every battle. He's come so close to death so many times, and if he dies, then he's broken his promise to her… I get the feeling that there are things she doesn't tell us," Banchina explained.
"Why-" Zeff began, but was cut off by the entrance of another ghost. This one was a paunchy man, wearing a black top hat and a wide grin. His white hair stuck out at right angles from his head in large clumps.
"Kuina-chan said we had a guardian for the cook? Ah!" he exclaimed, noticing Zeff. "Sir! Welcome to the Thousand Sunny! I am Dr. Hiruluk, guardian of this crew's doctor, Tony Tony Chopper!"
"Pleasure to meet you," Zeff replied shortly, leaning back slightly as the doctor grabbed his hand and pumped it enthusiastically in greeting.
"No, the pleasure's all mine! Really! You're Zeff, yes?"
"Give the poor man some air, Hiruluk," came a voice from the door. Zeff turned to see a middle-aged woman with white hair, slanted blue eyes, and a small smirk leaning against the doorframe.
Bellemere smiled at the other woman. "Olvia. I didn't think Kuina would manage to tear you away from Robin's shoulder."
"Oh, I had read this one already, luckily enough," Olvia said carelessly. "I wouldn't want to miss meeting our newest member."
She smiled at Zeff. "Nico Olvia. And you were Red-Leg Zeff, am I right?"
Zeff grinned. "I gave up that title a long time ago. Just call me Zeff."
"Very well then… Zeff," Olvia said, smile returning to its earlier smirk. Righting herself, she drifted to the empty area of table next to Bellemere.
Kuina stepped through the wall. "I can't find Tom-san. I think he's with Iceburg again."
Bellemere smacked her forehead. "That reminds me. It's time and past for me to visit Nojiko."
"And I should see how my husband's doing," Banchina said, nodding. "It was nice to meet you, Zeff."
Zeff nodded in understanding. When he looked back up, Banchina was gone.
Kuina hopped onto the table. "Where'd Hiruluk-san run off to?" she asked Zeff.
The old cook looked around, but only saw Olvia, Kuina, and Sanji, both nose-boy and Hiruluk having slipped off at some point. He shrugged.
Olvia sighed, looking Sanji over. "So, Zeff. What's your connection to the cook?"
"I saved the bastard's life, years back. Cost me my leg, though," Zeff said, raising his peg leg for inspection. When he had demanded to know why his leg hadn't returned, he had been informed at the leg, not bound to the world when it died, had moved on. He'd get it back when he entered the afterlife. Meanwhile, Zeff was haunted by images of his severed leg hopping around heaven and learning how to play the harp with its toes. Or something.
"Most of us here are parents. Adoptive more than biological, though Robin is my blood daughter. I guess Kuina here was the only friend figure." Olvia said.
"You only just noticed?" Kuina asked shortly. "Frankly, I prefer it. I'm not bound to Zoro because of some accident of birth, but because he was worth trusting with my dream. Not that there's anything wrong with your relationship with Robin-san," she added hastily.
Zeff shifted, feeling rather left out of the conversation. Olvia, noting, chuckled at him. "You'll get used to it. Things are pretty crazy for both the living and the dead on Thousand Sunny. A week'll go by and we'll have known each other for years."
As if to underscore her remark, the ship shuddered and muffled yells began to come from the deck of the ship. Olvia looked up, expression bright. "Sounds like an attack."
Kuina grinned, picking up her katana. "Zeff-san. Do you fight?"
Zeff nodded, and the girl grinned. "Come on. Let's go kick some Marine ghost ass!"
As the dead cook followed the young swordswoman out through the wall, he reflected that maybe, just maybe, his eternal peace could wait.