As always, a thousand thanks to all who took the time to comment! It's great to see some of the old names are still sticking with this story along with some new ones cropping up. I hope you've enjoyed this little flurry of chapters – I've been on a lovely relaxing holiday away from everything and a lot of writing being done was the result. I'm back home now, so I expect things will slow down again, but I'm trying to get back into the swing of writing regularly again.

It's really great to see some of you seriously thinking about all the little details I write into the plot. Sometimes I'll spend several months on a chapter and by the time I post it, I've forgotten about many of the smaller details. It's always amazing when people pick out little bits they enjoyed that I'd forgotten all about.

One more time, thank you all for your patience with this story. After 8 years, I feel like 2016 could be the year to finish this one. Wish me luck, guys.

A million blessings to my amazing beta readers, Kenau and Deathgod; without whom I don't think I could have got this far.

Dark Truth

Chapter 18: Anger

"What the hell do you mean 'you're leaving'!?"

The outburst wasn't unexpected, yet Luffy still winced on behalf of his brother. Franky stood before them, red faced and nostrils flaring like an angry bull.

"Ace has his own things to deal with." Zoro said. He was stood a few metres from the gathered crew, training with ridiculously oversized weights. They clinked softly as he thrust them forward in a slicing motion, then drew them back.

"More important than this? More important than his brother!?" Franky hollered back, openly enraged. Whilst the remaining crew accepted the news of Ace's departure with a mix of reluctant understanding and quiet disappointment, Franky bristled with an uncharacteristic fury.

"It would be more dangerous for him to stay though," Usopp explained feebly, a silent plea for his inflamed crewmate to calm down. "Ace is doing what he thinks is best."

"He's already fallen under the influence of ghosts once before," Robin agreed. "Luffy is in no shape to defend himself against both Ace and us if the worst should happen."

"That's bullshit and you know it!" Franky roared as he jabbed one of his huge fingers at his nakama in accusation. "Luffy can't fight off any of us right now, so what difference would one more make!?"

All eye drifted between Luffy and Franky at the cyborgs brazen statement. Luffy's head was bowed ever so slightly, his face shrouded in shadow from his straw hat. Chopper, atop Usopp's shoulders, gave a swift, urgent tap to Usopp's head. Usopp nodded silently and backed up a couple steps. Nami gaped and beside her, Sanji seethed. Unconsciously, the cook lifted a foot and tapped the toe of his shoe against the deck in a move in a familiar motion that promised pain would follow. He took a step forward, but then Luffy called, "Oi." And Sanji froze and looked back at his captain. Luffy gave a curt shake of his head without looking at any of them. It wasn't Sanji's place to act, as much as he might want to and so the chef settled again, reluctantly. Ace too was itching to give the cyborg a piece of his mind but he wasn't a part of Luffy's crew and if Luffy denied that right to his crew then Ace wouldn't act in their stead. He wasn't a Strawhat after all, and reprimand was Luffy's responsibility as captain. It was Brook who offered retaliation in the form of words.

"You may wish to reconsider your words, Franky-san," Brook said, a foreign chill to his usually light-hearted tone. "Underestimating Luffy is a mistake too many have made. You should respect the man you choose to follow, or risk the wrath of those who do!" Brook moved his skeletal hand to rest upon the hilt of his sword.

Franky's anger quelled to a simmer at Brook's veiled threat, though he floundered to muster an argument against his crewmate. Zoro picked up the battle of words as without pause from his training he challenged, "What difference would it make if he stayed?"

Franky turned, shocked that even Zoro wouldn't have any protest in Ace's departure. Heatedly, he replied, "Everything! His presence on this ship makes Luffy stronger! You all know it's true!"

"And if I turned on my brother?" Ace questioned, icily. His patience had run its course. "What strength will I offer him then?" Until now he had accepted Franky's tirade passively. He respected the man for his outrage simply because it showed how much he cared for Luffy. In truth he had expected more resistance from the rest of the crew and was grateful instead for their understanding. His decision wasn't one taken lightly. Now Franky's bull-headed arguing had started to touch on a nerve and Ace wasn't well known for how well he held his temper.

"More than you could offer abandoning him!" Franky seethed.

"Abandoning!?" Ace hissed, flames licking at his shoulders as he made a move to advance on Franky.

Luffy was quick to intervene as he reached out, closing his fingers around Ace's upper arm to stop him. The flames didn't deter him as he gave his brother's arm a firm squeeze. "Ace…" he uttered, a soft warning and slight reprimand. It was enough to quell Ace's fire and bring his temper back under control.

Ace looked back at Luffy and his anger transitioned to sulkiness as he sighed and lifted his hands up defensively. "Alright, alright," he placated with an apologetic smile. "I know." It wasn't his place after all to argue with Luffy's crew – that didn't mean he wouldn't defend his kid brother until he was blue in the face but this time Luffy had asked him to back off, and so he would. Moving past his anger, he instead allowed himself to feel gratitude that his troublesome little brother had gathered together such a devoted crew. "My brother and I have our own battles to fight," he explained, as he looked at Franky. "Any man that strives to be the Pirate King doesn't need his big brother holding his hand, ne Luffy?"

Before Luffy had a chance to answer, Franky bit back with, "Family should always have each other's backs – always!" his fists clenched at his sides in frustration at his losing argument. "No matter what." He finished and turned away from the group, stalking towards a section of railing he'd been repairing before they had all been summoned.

Usopp heaved an audible sigh at his departure and said, "Phew! I thought that was gonna get ugly!"

"Here I thought I was hot blooded." Ace agreed as he scratched the back of his head.

"Somehow I don't think that was just to do with you." Nami said as she rubbed her temples and willed away the headache rising. "Franky is very passionate about certain things."

"Sorry to cause you such trouble." Ace apologised and bowed. "I didn't mean any offense."

Nami scoffed and waving a hand dismissively she said, "Don't worry about it."

"That idiot's just being hot headed," Sanji agreed and approached Ace offering up a small bag he smiled and said, "Here, for your journey."

Ace took the bag and gingerly peeked inside. His uncertainly was quickly replaced with delight as he caught a whiff of the contents. "It smells delicious!" he enthused, "When did you get a chance to make it? I thought you wouldn't be up for dawn, let alone on time to make meals!"

"It's my job." Sanji replied, a satisfied smirk on his face at Ace's reaction. He truly did love the open appreciation he wrought from both Ace and Luffy. He hadn't realised exactly how much until the attack and Luffy's subsequent loss of appetite following. Sanji shoved his hands in his pockets. "Gotta feed the crew, whether my head's pounding or not - we got a long day ahead."

Ace nodded and laughed. He expected Sanji had a pretty rough hangover from last night. After a short bow and word of thanks, he turned back to Luffy. The two brothers regarded each other quietly for a moment before Ace reached out and tugged Luffy into a hug. They lingered a moment in the embrace, then Ace gave Luffy a squeeze and pulled back. He turned to the crew and said, "Thanks for taking care of my little brother – he can be a handful!" A chorus of replies assaulted him, from shy rebuffs to grateful acceptance. Ace stepped up onto the railing of the Sunny-Go and over the edge, falling to land below on his waiting skiff, secured to the ship. The crew rushed to the side of the ship, sans Franky, to bid him farewell. With one final wave his flames roared to life, singing away the rope that secured the skiff and propelling it out into the open sea. He didn't look back again, lest he reconsider staying.

Luffy watched Ace's retreat for all but a moment before he turned and glanced over the deck. "Zoro," he called. The swordsman acknowledged him with a grunt as he swung his weights. "Look after everyone." Luffy continued as he walked past Zoro, pulling his hat off as he did and placing it firmly on his swordsman's head. Zoro paused in his swings to gaze after Luffy as he went, before he once again resumed his training. Within the hour they would set sail and this time he would be mentally prepared.

Franky hammered angrily at the railing, grateful for the Adam Wood's durability as he unleashed his frustration on the material in his repairs. He pulled his arm back from his seated position to deliver another brutal blow to the railing but strong fingers closed around his oversized wrist and held his hand mid-swing. Franky knew the owner of the fingers without turning and was surprised at the strength behind their grip. They didn't cover even half the girth of his wrist, yet Franky found he was unable to thrust his hammer forward again. He expected nothing less of his captain.

"It's not Sunny's fault." Luffy said, soft but firm. He left no room for argument. The Thousand Sunny was as much a part of their ship as the Going Merry had been. He wouldn't allow abuse on her any more than he would any crew member (Nami's beatings didn't count). Franky relaxed his muscles and felt Luffy's grip release. He lowered his arm and kept his back to Luffy, sulking like a scolded child.

"He shouldn't leave you," Franky grumbled, defensively. His shoulder hunched in dejection when Luffy said nothing and he continued, "He's your family!"

Luffy eased himself down onto the deck beside Franky and sat cross legged. He regarded the cyborg thoughtfully, then confessed, "I told Ace to go."

"EHH!?" Franky shrieked, a look of horror on his face.

Luffy winced at Franky's outburst and laughed softly. He slapped Franky's back twice sympathetically.

"This is our fight, not Ace's," Luffy explained, "I wanna become Pirate Kind with my own strength and my own crew." Luffy folded his arms across his chest and finished, "You guys are my family too, so Ace can go without feeling bad."

Franky snorted softly at Luffy's words and smiling, he said, "You're a real charmer, you know that?" Luffy grinned cheekily which only made Franky laugh. Anxiously, the cyborg asked, "I guess I acted like a real shit-wipe, huh?"

Luffy laughed softly again and shook his head. "Ace was happy – he was mad, too, but I could tell he was happy." He explained. "Because he knows you were only angry because you were worried."

"I guess so…" Franky mumbled as he scratched at his chin thoughtfully, trying to hide the slight blush staining his cheeks.

"I was glad, too." Luffy said, "You were quiet, until today with Ace. You didn't talk to anybody, not really."

"Ah, well, I guess." Franky admitted. "I just didn't have anything to say. I mean, what can I say? 'Sorry I fucked you up, Cap'n' doesn't quite cut it, y'know?"

"I was worried." Luffy said.

"You were worried!?" Franky scoffed. "I was the one worried! We all were! For a while there we thought… I thought…" Franky trailed off to silence. The prospect of losing Luffy, of their journey together as a crew ending, was still too fresh to give substance with words. It could still happen yet – today! The thought made Franky's stomach roll. Leaving Water 7 he hadn't dreamed he'd become so attached to his new crew.

"It's okay to be scared." Luffy said.

"Are you?" Franky asked. He felt stupid for asking considering how things had been recently, but Luffy always seemed so unshakeable.

"Mm." Luffy noised with a nod, a content smile on his face.

"You don't look it." Franky muttered.

"I have all of you," Luffy explained. "That's what nakama are, we're family."

Franky felt his eyes well up with tears. He scrubbed at his face and shouted, "I already know that, idiot!" he blubbed softly and sobbed, "I'm not crying! Shut up!" Those ghosts had fucked up big time in Franky's eyes. Revenge on abusive captains should not have been dealt to Luffy. He heard Luffy chuckle at his outburst but didn't care. There were few people on this earth he respected and Luffy was one of them. Franky sniffled a couple more times as Luffy waited patiently for him to get himself under control again. When the waterworks finally ran dry, Luffy pushed himself to his feet and offered Franky a hand; the cyborg took it gratefully.

Captain and shipwright regarded one another with a mutual air of respect until the moment was utterly destroyed by an intrusion from Usopp. The sharpshooter danced by the pair, hopping from foot to foot as he jabbed a finger from either hand at Franky in time with his steps. Chopper sat atop his shoulders, mimicking Usopp as they sang in unison, "You got in trouble! You got in trouble! You got in trouble!"

Franky outraged at the teasing and hollered, "You wanna say that again to my face!?" as the duo fled and he gave chase. Usopp and Chopper shrieked in a mix of fear and humour as Usopp sprinted away with Franky hot on his heels. "Such a delinquent!" Usopp called over his shoulder, "Getting told off by the captain!"

"Such a delinquent!" Chopper parroted.

"Raaahhh!" Franky roared as he gave chase.

Luffy laughed heartily at the display. Franky grumbled breathlessly and shouted a curse as his pair of tormenters escaped him. He huffed and glanced back at the half finished repair before he decided the railing could wait. Between him and Usopp they had already repaired the galley table and door. Right now he would focus on readying the barrels of cola for the day's journey. He spared a final glance Luffy's way before he disappeared below deck. Luffy had gone to retrieve his hat from Zoro. For such a free spirited, often childish man, Luffy was unfathomably wise when it came to emotions. Franky resolved to make things right with his nakama as soon as the day's work was done and they had crossed the haunted waters. He would make sure Luffy was there to see it happen, too.

Zoro heard Luffy's approach before he felt the worn straw hat tugged from his head. The muted pastels that had painted the dawn sky had given way to a brighter morning blue. They would set sail soon. He put down his weights and regarded Luffy's retreating form thoughtfully. 'Look after everyone' Luffy had said. Though it wasn't meant as such, it had an ominous feel. Zoro was determined it wouldn't come to a point where he would need to take Luffy's place, owning that responsibility permanently. He'd sworn to make Luffy the Pirate King – what kind of swordsman would he be if he couldn't even do that? With a grunt he stretched out his knotted muscles and reached for his katana. If he could cut stone and diamonds, why not ghosts?