LENGTH: 4,300 words approx
SUMMARY: Zoro is dead, and Luffy struggles to decide the fate of his swords.
NOTES: Challenge fic for opfanforall, prompt: "One of the Strawhats is dead."
DISCLAIMER: They belong to Oda Eiichiro, so... not mine, no profit, yadda yadda yadda.
One stray bullet, that's all. The Marine behind the trigger isn't even looking their way. But somehow, he misfires, and in the middle of just another skirmish, Zoro is dead, and his captain and crew can't even take revenge.
Luffy doesn't like the idea of burial at sea. Maybe it's a devil fruit user's horror of the depths. Maybe not. "I don't want to leave him alone under all that cold water," he tells the rest. "We'll bury him on land."
He can be meat for the worms instead.
Nami hits him for voicing that, then apologises as he blinks confusion at her.
They evade the Marines and double back. The island is quiet and peaceful, green and lush. There's plenty of dirt to choose from.
Luffy chooses a gnarled old tree near the crest of a tree-dotted slope. There's no other marker for the grave, nothing to say 'Here Lies Roronoa Zoro'; if there were, Marines or bounty hunters might dig it up. But they'll know where to find it again later, when they return after all their travels. Not a one of them will ever forget the afternoon they stand on that hillside, the skies blue save for the odd fluffy cloud and the lush surroundings comprehensively failing to match their mood.
After they've said their words and made their peace, they peel off from the graveside one by one. Eventually there is only the Navigator and the Captain left, and finally she leaves with a parting squeeze of her hands upon his, and there is only Luffy.
Luffy, Zoro's swords, a tree for a grave marker and an empty hillside.
The daylight starts to fade and still the captain doesn't come down. The crew-minus-one leave him be. Let him have his time to say goodbye.
Had they known, they would have gone back up there and dragged him down by force.
He sits there as the light fades; him alone -- and Wadou, Kitetsu and Shuusui, who just now feel like a presence of their own. He's barely registered the way that Chopper couldn't stop crying, or the grief on all his nakama's faces. He doesn't even remember the words he spoke for all of them, as captain, to bid Zoro on his way. When he holds the swords it seems almost as if they are grieving too.
He is trying to decide whether he will leave them with Zoro -- Nami said that that was best. Brook doesn't want them... he claims his own skills would shame them... and none of the others can use them at all.
Nami has more experience with death than he does. Luffy deals in life. Death is just... final. That's that, and nothing more to say, and he doesn't know how to put niceties on it. So he should listen to Nami, who is better at those things.
He'll miss Zoro.
He can't imagine what things will be like without him. The swordsman was the first he chose. He's always been there, such a unique piece he really doesn't know how the others will shift around to fill his place. There's no target for his rage, and no focus for this blank emptiness that he feels when he thinks of Zoro being dead.
He doesn't even know if Zoro has family he needs to tell. If there are, they must be in East Blue, and he cannot go back from halfway around the Grand Line. That will be a task for later... if he himself lives to be Pirate King.
Luffy doesn't often think about failure. But it's a thought that preys heavily on his mind at the moment.
Teach me how to fight with a sword, Zoro!" Their little boat rocks with his energetic swing, and his new and only crewmate lunges, slaps him down, and wrests the stolen blade from his hand.
"Not a chance! Damn it, Luffy, just leave those alone."
Zoro's fingers stroke the grip of that sword like he's caressing a friend's face, and Luffy understands there is a boundary here he cannot cross.
Sitting cross-legged by the shallow mound of newly turned-over earth, three swords across his lap, memories playing across his mind, he starts to feel bad about the plan to leave them. They might've been as good as an extension of himself, but Zoro also loved his swords like nakama, and they were wielded by other hands before him. They're tools of battle, needing the clash of steel and taste of blood. They should be wielded by other hands still, not left to rust with a man who'll never use them again. Zoro, he's sure, wouldn't want that.
Luffy makes his decision. He will not leave the swords. Rather, he will find them a new master or masters. "You hear that, Zoro?" He pats the ground, like knocking for the sleeping swordsman's attention. "I'm going to take them away, but I'll find them all a place, even if one of them is cursed and tricky. I hope that's what you'd have wanted."
He waits, a little bit expectantly, but there is no sign of approval or otherwise from the silent dirt. He looks down at the sword both his hands are wrapped around. Wadou, Zoro's favourite. The one he's always been apprehensive about, even more than Kitetsu, down to the general feeling that, nakama, captain or not, he'd die quickly and efficiently if he messed with it.
It's both curiosity and reverence that drive him to partially draw the blade from its sheath.
The sense of unfulfilled longing and foiled desire sweeps through him. It feels as though he's pinned by a gaze staring out at him from the shimmer of light that catches on the polished blade. He doesn't hear the words, but he feels them in every fibre of his being:
"I need you to finish it for me."
And for the second time in the space of a day, nothing will ever be the same again.
When he returns it's dawn, and he still has the swords, Wadou clutched in his fist like a drowning man's rope and Shuusui and Kitetsu dangling less ceremoniously from his trailing hand. The new obsessive fervour that burns in his eyes doesn't seem very much like Luffy at all.
His eyes, shadowed by grey daubs, blink around at them. They seem, despite their intensity, almost unseeing.
He says, "The sword spoke to me. No... Zoro spoke to me." He clutches Wadou against his chest. "There's something I have to do." He looks... there is only one way they can think to describe it. A man possessed.
But he's still Luffy, and he's still the captain, even though -- or maybe because -- Zoro isn't there any more; the one who always backed his crazier ideas. Nobody can bring themselves to question.
And it's possible they want to believe it too, that it's Zoro's spirit and not Luffy's madness driving them from inside that sword. Or maybe they're waiting to see their proof in the making, because-- well, there's surely nothing else in the universe that could bestow upon Monkey D Luffy the dexterity and discipline to complete that dream.
They scour two islands, and purchase an eternal pose to a third, detour days and weeks out of their way to a tiny bare rock with a sprinkling of grass, craggy cliffs, and a wooden shack tucked below the brow of its wind-battered peak.
They should be prepared, but nothing can really brace them for the moment Luffy finally lays Wadou at the feet of the New World's most renowned master of the sword and, bluntly, asks the man to teach him to be the greatest swordsman in the world.
He's known throughout this part of the Grand Line; famed, a legend... though they don't know his name. Sometimes, a name is whispered, one they ascribe to him that harks back to an era before Mihawk, before Mihawk's predecessor, before the man before him. But all of that is speculation. Nobody knows the truth.
They only know that he is the master of his art and the last resort of all hopeless causes. Not the Swordsman any more, but the Teacher.
He's also old and fat -- no, not just fat but round like a ball, with a pipe behind his ear and leaning forward on his creaky stool, hands and chin rested on his ratty cane. His tiny hovel behind him, and in front -- the green grass sparsely covers a steep hillside, stretching all the way down to the notch between the cliffs and the route to the sea.
The last resort of all hopeless causes narrows his eyes, gives Luffy a long look up and down, and says, "Not a chance in hell."
"Please teach me!"
"Waste of time. No."
Luffy stands his ground. The Teacher responds in kind. The volume rises and pleading turns to yelling on both sides. Brook, despite being an animate skeleton, manages to cringe, and among the watching crew is a certain gathering sense of, Oh, another one, and they remember that the name they've heard in whispers bookends an initial D.
Finally, the old man stands up. He takes Wadou from its sheath and slaps the grip into Luffy's palm, draws a thin blade from his ratty cane, and in a swift, merciless motion the sword slices, collapsing the captain's legs beneath him.
Luffy falls on his face without time to even try to block. With its next slice, the blade nicks an ear before stabbing the ground. Wadou, knocked from his fingers, lies on the grass. The Teacher stares down his nose, down the length of the bright, thin blade on which he leans, and says, in tones dripping with spite and spittle, "Get up."
He says it with a challenge that anticipates failure, but Luffy grunts, fumbles for Wadou with a shaking hand, and rises inch by painstaking inch on damaged muscle and bone. Blood trickles down each leg from the matching cuts below his knees as he stands, arms hanging slack and legs braced apart. "You'll teach me?" The words drag from his lips in a feral growl.
"Be here at dawn," is his only reply.
"You're too old--" thwack "--too stupid--" thwack "--You've the co-ordination of a drunken mule--" thwack "--and I can't work miracles."
The last slice scores his knee again, above the healing wounds of the day before. His leg buckles again. The slope of the hillside snares him and keeps him rolling, over and over, shedding blood on the grass till he finally spins to a stop in a panting pile of rubber limbs at the bottom. Wadou slices down after him in a spinning arc and misses his hand by a hair's breadth.
"And no true swordsman would be caught dead eating a devil fruit!" is Old Fat Sensei's parting shot.
"I CAN'T HELP THAT!" Luffy howls back.
He stares at the ground and bleeds on it some more, body and mind hurting too much to move. It takes half an hour before he can haul himself to his feet, drag Wadou from the mud and clean it, and stumble to the Sunny for more bandages.
He's still back at the old man's shack for dawn the next morning.
The days wear on, and every one of them Luffy returns cut-up and miserable. It weighs upon all of the crew. It's enough losing one of their number. It's starting to feel that they've lost their captain as well.
The sense of futility grinds. Everyone knows there's no way Luffy will ever be the greatest swordsman in the world. Sanji tries to reason with him, the way Zoro might have. Nami tries to scream sense into him. It is in every way like talking to stone.
Nobody is sure what to make of the dream the sword whispers to him. It's supposed to be the other one that's cursed, but Kitetsu sits quiet in the hold, no whisper from it.
Each evening Luffy returns to them -- in the loosest sense, for his mind is somewhere else miles and worlds away -- and Chopper lays out the salves and bandages, and Nami brings clean water to help, and Brook tries to find a tune that carries enough cheer to break the bleakness of the mood. Robin hasn't stopped researching the history of swordcraft and cursed or haunted blades since the funeral, and Usopp and Franky busy themselves creating improvements for a ship that hasn't moved from anchor in weeks.
He's so tired, now, every night. He's fought hard before, and he's shed pints of bloods before, but not every day from dawn to dusk, and not with a wizened old beach ball beating all hell out of him no matter how much he tries -- and not with this constant sense of failure beating down on him as well.
Yet he touches the sword and still feels that ghostly whisper, not a voice but the words in his head: "You can do it."
Zoro wouldn't lie to him... would he?
Luffy deals in confidence and certainties. He doesn't doubt. There are things he can't do, and this he knows; for this reason he collected nakama to him who could. But the things he sets his mind to, the great dreams, great ambitions -- when he narrows them in the focus of his will to win, those he succeeds.
Or dies trying.
Grandpa first put a sword in his hand when he was eight years old, and then took it right out again. Zoro barely let him so much as touch his swords in all the time they sailed together, no matter how much he begged.
He could beat Old Fat Sensei without a sword in his hand.
Luffy doesn't understand any of it.
His body hurts horribly, scratches upon scratches upon older scratches that haven't even had time to completely heal. He's lucky he heals fast. He's lucky his altered skin doesn't scar. He'd be a human patchwork.
He had Grandpa, should be used to the idea of learning by pain and terror, but even he's sure teachers aren't supposed to be like this.
He curls up his stinging, aching, bandaged limbs, buries his head in the soft pillow, and settles into uneasy, fitful sleep.
The sword Wadou rests silent beside the bed.
Wadou rests beside him every night. Like Zoro, he eats, sleeps, breathes with it. It's all he has left of his nakama's dreams. And in any case, he's supposed to be being a swordsman now himself. More prosaically, he also doesn't trust Nami not to take it and throw it overboard where he could never retrieve it. He's seen the murderous glances -- from all of them, they all hate what it's doing to him. They hate that Zoro can't just die and be at peace, and let them mourn and move on. Hate the frozen limbo it's trapped them all in.
He keeps the sword by him. Nami -- Sanji, too -- would destroy it. They don't understand. How could they? It hasn't spoken to anybody else.
Each night, he eats, he washes -- well, if someone remembers to make him, he washes -- staggers into his cabin on heavy feet, rests the sword beside the bed, then falls into the sheets like a puppet whose strings have been cut, only just enough energy in him to carry him that far. The weeks wear on. Old Fat Sensei doesn't grow any more merciful. Luffy doesn't seem to get any less useless.
The one time he uses his devil fruit power while sparring, the old man gets back up and expressionlessly runs him through.
Luffy returns the next morning anyway, full of meat from Sanji and iron supplements from Chopper, swaying on his feet, but convinced it's the only way the old man takes him back. Old Fat Sensei grunts and treats him like nothing ever happened.
It's not long after that, he comes back to the Sunny so very tired that he falls face first onto the bed with Wadou, sheathed and silent, still clutched in his hands.
In his dream, the girl stares at him with huge eyes and says, in a voice tinted by confusion, "I don't know you."
She's can't be more than thirteen or fourteen, and she's familiar somehow, like a marine he saw once who made Zoro pull a weird face. Hair so dark it shimmers blue. Skinny and sinewy, limbs too raw and muscled for a normal child.
Luffy crouches in front of her on his hands and knees, because it seems that even in his sleep he's too tired to stand. Everything around them is blank space. Just him, the girl, and a sense of wrongness. He doesn't belong.
"You're not Zoro," the girl says.
"I'm Luffy." He blinks at her, watching her small forehead crease. "Zoro's dead." He thinks that so is this girl, and it seems to his memory that Zoro perhaps spoke of her once, or twice, or -- but Luffy never pays attention to things like that.
"He never did it, then," she says. "The Greatest Swordsman. He swore that he'd become the greatest. One of us has to."
"He would've," Luffy insists, knowing it's true. If it wasn't for that damn bullet... and all over again it hits him, how unfair it is, and he's angry -- at the marines, for being so stupid as to kill Zoro; at Zoro for not getting out of the way in time; at himself for not being quick enough to stop it from happening. Angry, too, at the girl, for her daring to doubt... He bares his teeth and reaches out to catch her by her t-shirt, but his hand slides straight through. Ghost-girl, nothing but air.
She touches her fingers to a cut on his cheek and she feels solid enough then.
"You're a mess. And you're dumb. What did you think you were trying to do?"
This time the rage is colder. He raises his chin. He'd stand if he could. "What Zoro wanted!"
Except... that's not right, is it? "What you wanted."
His anger and anguish start to fade as he finally begins to understand. Somehow the aches in his limbs lessen too. He flops backwards onto his ass in the ghostly void, leans back on his hands, and crosses his legs. Faces her more easily. He... for the first time in a long time, he feels like himself again. "You still want it, right? To be the best? Even if it's not with Zoro."
She's fading. He's waking up. But he hears her reply.
"You can't take me there."
That much, he knows.
Luffy wakes face down with his arms twisted underneath him and Wadou a painful bar digging into his wrists and chest. His face is damp, and it isn't just because the cut on his cheek has reopened to seep blood into the bedclothes.
He sheds tears for Zoro and his lost dreams -- the ones he can't follow for his friend, because though they shared the journey, they never shared the goal. Sobbing harshly into the pillow he presses against his face to muffle the sounds, he's finally able to let loose his grief. Further tears, he sheds for the freedom and dreams he has back; the power to take everyone forward again, even if it is without Zoro.
It was never meant for him.
He should have known Zoro wouldn't do that. Zoro is dead and at peace. It's someone else's dreams -- a someone who never had the chance to even start to realise them -- that cling on now.
Luffy sits up, drags the back of his hand across his face, scattering moisture though the tears still flow. He doesn't pay them much heed, blinking as he draws, once again and for the final time, the sword Wadou Ichimonji. Gazes into the shimmering surface of the blade and almost sees the ghost of wide eyes too youthful and innocent to be Zoro's. But the sword doesn't speak to him, and he knows it never will again.
He drives it back into its sheath and hides the blade from his eyes for good.
He takes Kitetsu and Shuusui from their storage in the hold; leaves the ship in the off-light of pre-dawn and treads back up the steep grassy slope of the hill, dew dampening his sandaled feet as he walks, the ground slippery underfoot.
At the top of the hill waits Old Fat Sensei, seated on his stool outside the shack. Maybe he doesn't ever sleep?
"Arrogant boy," he greets with a grunt, then looks away. "Too early."
Luffy walks up to him and without hesitation drops the swords at the old man's feet. Picks up Wadou and holds it out. "Help me find the right person to give the sword to."
Old Fat Sensei scowls, and shifts, then looks up at him again with eyes more clear of animosity than he's ever seen them. "So you admit it, at last."
"No. The girl in the sword told me. I don't have to be a swordsman now."
The old man kicks his legs out from under him. "And that lack of real desire is why you never would have been one, fool boy."
Luffy gets up. Now that he doesn't need the old man, it doesn't matter. "You can have Shuusui and Kitetsu for trying to teach me. Zoro's gone now, so he won't care. But Kitetsu's cursed, so you gotta be careful. Tell me where I need to go to find someone to give Wadou."
Old Fat Sensei sits back and lights a pipe, smokes and looks contemplative. Looks at Luffy, who stares back and wonders if they're both seeing something entirely different from what they've been seeing all these past months. The old man jerks his head toward the wooden steps of his little shack. Luffy hesitates only briefly before sitting down.
He explains what it is that he thinks he's looking for. The old man chuckles at and confirms or corrects his guesses, then tells him what he needs to know. He also makes him some tea, and tells him his name, although Luffy forgets the name again even before he's left.
"You've delayed here a long time," Sensei says, when it's already way past dawn. "Best go catch the morning tide."
And that's that.
He thinks that's that, till he's thirty feet away and the old man hails him back. He raises his hand just in time to catch the spinning object headed his way.
"A meitou's payment enough for wasting my time, and I don't need a cursed sword, boy. If it's been quiet enough for you these past months, it's certain to be kinder to you in the future than that other."
Luffy doesn't understand, but still waves his thanks to Old Fat Sensei before he turns and walks away.
On an island three days hence, a youth with straggling dark hair and a body full of healing scars carries Wadou Ichimonji to the doors of a small, well-kept dojo and a master who greets him with puzzlement. It's an emotion that only deepens as the youth tells him he has a meitou to give away and asks to be shown the right student to give it.
"Our best student..." the master mulls, weighing the merits of his flock.
Luffy cocks his head, grins, and corrects him. "Nah. The one with the biggest dream!"
When he gets back to the Sunny this time, the funeral atmosphere is palpable. He understands that today was the day they buried Zoro for real.
Sanji has made a special meal, and for once Brook isn't trying to cheer them up with wildly gyrating melodies. As for the rest... Robin has exchanged most of her books on swords at the bookstore in the town. Chopper has restocked on bandages. The Sunny has emerged from the months at anchor even cooler and smoother sailing than it was before. They talk to him again, at last, like they always did, and nobody avoids his gaze.
There is still a gaping absence where Zoro should be, but there is love, and there is memory, and there is freedom. And with those, they have all they need to keep pushing forward.
As the afternoon progresses, the mood starts to lift. He can feel the last of Zoro leaving them, floating free as if into the breeze. It took a long time. Maybe that was the sword's fault, maybe it wasn't. Maybe it was the ghost who muddled his brain... but maybe it was himself.
"I still don't understand why Old Fat Sensei gave me back Kitetsu," Luffy says, turning the sheathed cursed blade over and over in his hands. It's nice to have at least one solid memento of Zoro, and he doesn't feel the uneasiness about the blade that he always felt before, when it belonged to Zoro and not him. But... what's the point, anyway, in having a sword he can't use? Surely Kitetsu deserves better?
"Yo ho ho ho!" Brook laughs, spins across the deck, and draws on him.
The cursed sword is in his hand and he's blocking the strike before he's even had space for thought.
Brook tests him, a jab here, a jab there. It's nothing like fighting the old man.
The skeleton finally spins to a rest. Luffy, breathing heavily, lowers Kitetsu and is relieved to realise he hasn't added any new slices to his finally healing skin. Realises too that they're all staring at him openmouthed, save for that grinning skull-face.
"You'll surely never be the greatest swordsman in the world," Brook declares. "But it would be a great indignity if the pirate king couldn't use a sword at all!"
Luffy feels a shiver travel through his chest -- as though, somewhere in infinity, a green-haired swordsman is laughing at him.