This is the final chapter. For disclaimer, content warnings, spoiler warnings etc, see previous chapters. An afterword follows directly after the chapter.

Disclaimer, setting, and more author's notes and warnings: see Chapter 1.

Nitpicks, general concrit and other feedback is extremely welcome.

Absence, chapter 14: Epilogue: On

Over the following few days, the Strawhats went about preparing themselves for the next step on their journey. They were not in any hurry: they didn't have a log pose, after all, and while that fact would no longer stop them from setting sail, they knew it would be arduous and chancy to travel that way. Best to be as thorough as they possibly could. And although they didn't say it to one another, they all still felt the effects of a fatigue inside.

The most vital thing to take care of was their food supply. Sanji set about it as best he could on an island with little in the way of agriculture, apart from the seaweed the merfolk grew and harvested. He sent out most of the crew on assignments to go hunting and gather fresh water, fruits, spices, berries and other edibles they could find, though he took the brunt of the work upon himself. At Piriko's urging, he finally accepted a sack of hand-ground seaweed flour once he had seen for himself the merfolk still had plenty left for themselves.

By then the merfolk was more than just the one small family. On the fourth day of their stay, six more members of Ananshio's and Piriko's tribe came to the island, in response to messages sent out weeks earlier. Piriko's sister, nephew and brother-in-law were among the new arrivals. At first they were sceptical of the reported big changes, and very wary towards the Strawhats: but soon they were convinced the reports of the slain King of Seakings and the broken curse were quite true. "It's in the air, you can feel it, and the animals are so calm it's crazy," they said to each other, as they decided to settle there for good again.

It turned out that Piriko's sister had befriended a human woman, and now she argued that they allow her friend and her friend's fiancé to come to the island for at least a little while. They were in trouble with their hometown's government and needed a place to lay low. Ananshio was in favour of letting them. "Humans will come whether we want them to or not," he said, "and with the curse gone they'll be able to stay much longer. Might as well let them come on our conditions and as friends instead of strangers... or enemies."

Piriko agreed, and then surprised even her husband by suggesting they build new main dwellings for the tribe in the shallow waters of the protected northern cove, even though that way the top of their houses would stick up over the water, very visible from land. "That's the point," she said. "If we're supposed to live with humans, we can't go on being super-secretive. Let's build alliances and make it more in their interest to stay true to us than it would be to betray us."

The next day, two more people of the tribe turned up: an enterprising young couple who had found a recent shipwreck on the way and gone through it quite thoroughly, picking out all the valuable things they could easily carry. After they had heard the full story from Ananshio and Piriko, they were happy to present the prize of their haul to Nami. It was a log pose.

Turnweed Isle's magnetic field only took an hour for the log pose to set, so at this point they could have chosen to leave right away. But when the crew talked it over the same day, they either had no firm opinions or felt, like Nami did, that they were still in the middle of stuff they'd like to finish up with first. So they stayed on a while longer.

Brook was one of the ones with no firm opinions. He roamed the island, helping out when he was asked to, or where he saw a need, but mostly he just played songs to anyone who would listen, from mermaid elders to platypuses. These days, he wasn't as scared of solitude as he once had been. A lot of the time he would simply stare into the air and pluck the strings in a desultory fashion - but it was during those days he came up with the words for the first verse of "Captain Usopp".

Luffy was more rarely alone. He spent his time in the company of one or another of his crewmates: he was subdued and quiet a lot of the time, but he couldn't suppress his curiosity whenever it was woken – which was often. The others found it quite comforting not to see him either grimly aloof or full of false and deluded cheer.

And he also started to give Nisi some basic fighting lessons, stances and techniques. That should hardly have worked, given that Nisi could only move slowly and with difficulty on land, while Luffy couldn't get into the water and teach her there. But she seemed to get something out of it, even so.

Zoro hunted, meditated, and trained. When they had enough meat for the day, he might fight some of the big animals barehanded or with the flat of his sword, for sparring rather than killing. There were those who kept seeking him out for a rematch.

Nami mapped the island, made sure necessary chores were taken care of both on and off the boat, and went swimming with the mermaids. Since there was time to be thorough, she also took a tour with the Mini-Submarine to note the underwater topography in the surrounding sea, keeping an eye out for interesting spoils (but saw nothing). The only thing she left out from her island map was the hide-out inside the mountain and the tunnel that led there: that wasn't her secret to disclose.

Franky took the rubber band from Nisi's slingshot and dipped it in a special mixture that made it preserve its elasticity even when exposed to water. Now she didn't have to worry about getting it wet anymore. She still couldn't use it to shoot with under the sea, though; for that she would need something different, like a harpoon gun. Franky started to make a small and light one for her, but when Nami told him rather forcefully that it wasn't a great idea to give that kind of thing to an eight-year-old, he actually listened.

"Oh yeah, I guess you have a point," he said, scratching the back of his head and changed the proportions as more suitable for someone with longer arms and bigger hands. Then he finished the weapon and handed it over to Nisi's parents. "You'll have to be the ones to judge when she's strong 'n' smart enough to handle this. Uh, just don't be too stingy, okay?" Because it was a pretty super weapon if he said so himself, the kind he'd have just loved to own when he was that age.

Nisi was still very happy with just her improved slingshot, however, and swam up the island streams a lot those days to practice. Zoro got quite used to hearing the sound of her target-shooting – still mainly using pebbles and pine cones – even in the innermost depths of the forest.

Robin would hear the sound, too, as she went through old half-buried ruins with her archaeological tools and a notebook. She had plenty to do in those days. On the day of the funeral itself, she walked back to the poneglyph stone and read it, finally. Nodding solemnly at the end, she let the message sink in deep into her mind. She had to take care of it: no-one else would. "I'll trade stories for it," she whispered to herself, still seeing in her mind's eye the Going Merry with near-invisible wings, floating serenely through golden sunlight.

She also re-read an old book of hers about the warriors of Elbaf, paying particular attention to their traditional design styles. Then she spent an afternoon putting that knowledge to good use. And then there were the ruins and the two different mountain tunnels to go through, which proved quite interesting indeed.

Sometimes, she went fishing.

Chopper kept as busy as Sanji or even more. He spent a lot of time with Piriko, as they gathered medical herbs together and she pointed out the ones he wasn't familiar with, species unique to this island; he would also forage alone or with a crewmate. Some of the herbs were so common on the island that the mermaid told him he could fill up many sacks with it and there'd still be more than enough left for the merfolk, and Chopper wouldn't stop collecting until he had no more space to store them on the Sunny.

They also talked plenty of shop in Piriko's cave and in his own infirmary, when she came for a visit there; they'd compare potions, tools, and literature, discovering they owned some of the very same books. Above all, they exchanged case studies, and discussed each other's methods, learning new ways to approach different situations. Soon he got to hear even more, as other healers from the tribe turned up, eager to talk to the reindeer doctor from Drum Kingdom – and Chopper didn't really mind. He was far from as shy as he used to be, these days.

Even as his eager hands would often still, his voice lose its shine and falter, when the weight and pain and emptiness hit him harder, again. It will always be like that. It can't be helped. He'd wipe his eyes, and nod to whoever he'd been talking with to go on.

And then one day around noon, things changed.

Luffy was fishing at a secluded spot on the island with Kabuto next to him, as it often was, when suddenly he felt an invisible shift in the air. He raised his head, sniffed uncertainly, then reached out to touch Kabuto only to start back with wide eyes. He looked at the weapon for a moment.

Then he nodded. "Okay. I get it." He got up, returned to Sunny, and gathered the crew together.

"It's time," he told them.

Nobody objected now; they had all been given enough time to see their different tasks through. Within the next few hours, everyone brought back the things they needed to Sunny, then either followed Nami's commands in preparing the ship to sail the next day, or Sanji's instructions for a big dinner.

It was still too soon for them to feel like holding a real party, but they did invite the merfolk to dinner, at least. As a way to say goodbye. And there was, eventually, music and some singing, if not yet dancing. "That will come," Brook said quietly. "At a different place." They suspected he was right.

Piriko gave them a big pile of cloth made of the island's special seaweed, and her sister Dina followed up with five big jars of fruit preserves. Ananshio told them very seriously, "What I said before is still true. There is nothing we don't owe you." He handed over a Dendenmushi, one of a set of two that his younger relative had also found on that same seawreck. "These two are already on the same wavelength," he said. "Anytime you're in big trouble, just let us know and we'll send as many of us to help as we can spare. We may not seem like much, but we can swim very fast and we are very good at healing."

He paused, then added more cautiously, "And I think once the local seakings get back from the Calm Belt they'll be agreeable again, like in the old days. We could never command them, but I've heard that we did use to come to agreements with them, including trading our medical help for their assistance with combat and transport."

Luffy nodded, accepting the offer along with the gift. "But it goes two ways," he said. "You can phone us too if you get trouble."

"That's right," Sanji agreed. "We still have the shitty Eternal Pose to this place, after all."

"And Sunny's no slouch in getting places quickly, either," Franky pointed out.

At that point, Nami came up and put something soft and black that had been folded up into Luffy's arms. Luffy handed it over to Piriko and Ananshio, but looked at all the merfolk when he said, "You guys can have this if you want to, but you're gonna have to decide for yourselves. 'Cause it might keep some jerks away, but it could draw some others. Like Marines."

"Marines are no friends of us anyway," muttered one of Ananshio's cousins, who had also spent some time as a slave.

"True, but we'll all talk it over first," said Piriko. Then she hugged Luffy, Nami and Chopper in turn, shaking hands with everyone else; Ananshio shook hands with them and nodded, the others all bowed deeply and waved as they left the ship to go home. Nisi had turned all shy and sad in the last few minutes but managed to smile as she waved the slingshot towards them when they left.

The next day, the merfolk raised a pole at the high mountain pass where it could be seen from far afield, and hoisted their present to the top: a pirate flag, unfurling in the wind (an old spare, painted long ago) declaring to the world at large that this island was now under Strawhat Luffy's protection.

-x-x-x-x-

From that time onwards, the veterans of the island would bring every new settler to the place on the cliff at the southernmost tip of the island, where the great red rock now served as a tombstone. Those from the tribe who returned were also taken there. The humans needed to be told a longer story to understand than the tribefolk, but in the end everyone learned the essentials of the island and its history, why it was a bad idea to mess too much with the wildlife, and why this one place should be honoured. It was also explained why they had chosen to put themselves under the Strawhat flag. Children born on the island grew up hearing the story, particularly on the anniversary on the day the bone whistle was destroyed, when they went with their families to put fresh flowers on the grave.

But in truth, it wasn't the fallen warrior alone they honoured. Great though their gratitude was, that might not in itself have kept the tradition alive. No, when they stood there they also honoured the memory of all their dear ones who had left this world much too early, even the ones who had never set foot on this island. On an isle like this, where rebels and escaped slaves could seek refuge, few people did not grieve for several such losses.

At the base of the cliff, by the forest's edge, they had put up a bench where people could sit, planted a well-kept hedge around it, and made a small round flowerbed with seashells marking its borders. Piriko had wanted to grow more all over the cliff, while Ananshio had argued that leaving it untouched would look more romantic and piratelike. The patch by the forest was a compromise that all the islanders who liked gardening took turns taking care of.

One settler, who had travelled widely, looked at the ancient great red rock and remarked that the inscriptions on it reminded him of Elbaf, the home of brave giant warriors. Piriko and Ananshio couldn't say much about that. But they and Nisi had been present right next to the Strawhats when Nico Robin had very carefully carved into the rock, and they could recall she had had a book close at hand she sometimes paused to look into.

The words on the stone were written in ordinary letters that everyone could read, but they were put inside a long loping band that ran from one side of the rock and then back to the other, with curly ends and small patterns and figures around it: boats and waves, birds and fish, a cloud, a slingshot...

There weren't too many of them, the words. First came the name of the man whose grave it was, followed by two dates of birth and death, too short a time between them. Then it went on to say,

Warrior of the sea / Born in East Blue / Sailed and fought on the Grand Line

Fell bravely in dire battle / Going On.

-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-

In the grey light of the early dawn, before the last few stars had faded from the sky and the new day was only a reddish glow on the eastern horizon, the pirates hauled their anchor and set their sails. They caught a good strong breeze that quickly sent them forward, the ship leaning sas they steered in the direction the log pose pointed.

The island was already a mere spot far behind them when the sunlight shifted from sunrise-rosy to a strong morning glow on a bright blue sky. By then the breeze had shifted in direction, and the ship sailed straight again, letting it fill the sails. Salt air filled the nostrils of the crew as the seagulls who had followed them so far finally gave up and turned back. There was a certain taste to the wind that made the navigator think there'd be rough weather ahead later in the day, but she didn't let it worry her. The ship and the crew could handle it, and it wouldn't come here for hours yet.

And if some in the crew couldn't stop themselves from glancing behind them to a final glimpse of the island before it disappeared over the horizon, they all turned around after that, facing forward.

Their captain was standing on the figurehead, eyes glittering as he looked at the endless stretches of ocean before him. With one hand he held on to the great lion-head of the ship, its solid wood a reassuring strength beside him; with the other he held Green Kabuto. He raised the weapon high in the morning sunlight, drinking in the whole day ahead of them. He blinked a few times, more hastily than normal, but he wouldn't look down or turn away.

The others in the crew, after making sure the ship was running smoothly, found themselves coming over to the bridge, gathering behind their captain and also looking ahead at the grey-green waves. There were so many things in their heads, so many memories that no longer had a warm, breathing physical anchor right next to them, only a tingling presence in the weapon that Luffy was holding and the beat-up old bag lying on the bench by the steering wheel. For the rest, they would have to hold onto the memories by themselves now, making sure the link held steady. And it still hurt, it still wasn't fair, and they knew there would be times when it would hurt terribly.

But that was how it was. The hurt and the weight and the great gaping absence were part of them, too, and part of their journey to come. That wouldn't make them stop, not anymore.

We're no longer just surviving. We're alive again.

They looked at each other, then up at their captain, and back towards the sea. Their ship wouldn't steer itself, nor would breakfast be cooked on its own, and there were a dozen little things that would soon need doing. But they still had time to stand here for just a few minutes, together.

Morning sun on their skin, wind at their back. A great strong ship under their feet and around them; a log pose to show them the way. And ahead of them, invisible on the ever-shifting waves yet still always waiting for them, was the path of Adventure.

- The End -

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AFTERWORD.

Since this story took such an unholy long time (and energy) to write, I thought I could indulge myself with an afterword of sorts. Note: there'll be manga spoilers up through chapter 598.

First, some words on the setting of the story.

I first started writing this story in the last days of 2008, in reply to an anonymous prompt at the old anonfic meme op-fanforall. I posted the first few chapters on the meme, unbetaed, then moved the story to my journal and revised those chapters in the process, now with beta, eventually posting to ffnet as well.

By that time the manga was still in the midst of Impel Down. Like the rest of the readership, I had no idea how the Marineford arc would end, nor did I suspect a two-year timeskip was coming up. I set the story in the New World - what I pictured as "a few months into the future from where the manga is now" - pretty much for sentimental reasons. Though at the start I didn't yet know if Usopp really had died, if it turned out he had I wanted him to have had a few more adventures with everyone than in canon before the fic started. While I didn't really know where Oda was going, I did expect Ace to be saved from execution, everyone learning something useful where they'd ended up and then re-union in a near future.

Then chapter 574 happened. I was shocked, stunned, and heartbroken, as I think most fans were. I considered abandoning the fic as possibly redundant now. Eventually I decided to continue it but (as you have seen) retcon it to be a Divergence AU where Ace survived. In part because otherwise Luffy might not react in such an extreme way as he does in this story; in part because it simply felt too cruel to let something like that happen to a canon post-Marineford Luffy.

I couldn't do the same thing later when the timeskip occurred, though. The Sabaody defeat still happened in this universe, therefore so did the timeskip. In retrospect it would have been easier to set the whole fic pre-Sabaody, but my sentimental reasons still held and were in fact even stronger than before. Thus the fic was now post-timeskip by default, and still set in the New World. But I must admit the characters are largely based on the pre-timeskip selves, as I have not gone back to revise those aspects in earlier chapters. And while the end of the Fishman Arc looks set to Joss this fic even more as I write this, I'm not doing any more rewrites. The fic exists in its own conceptual space now, I guess, its connection to canon more nebulous than I could wish. But them's the breaks.

Now, about the plot and writing process.

The plot of this story developed in a fairly organic fashion, or in other words through "making it up as you go along", pretty much – which may have been the major reason it took so long to finish. At the start I wanted to plumb Luffy's reaction, just as the original prompt said; but for a long time I was unsure whether Usopp was truly dead or not. Nevertheless I widened the scope to the whole crew from early on, as it just didn't feel right otherwise.

The longer I wrote the story, the harder it felt to make it into a "Surprise, he was alive after all!" plot. It felt like that thing had been done, and to use it again in an interesting way needed a more skilful writer than me. Meanwhile, watching Movie 6 had made me wonder what would happen to Luffy if he did lose someone in the crew for good, and to the crew. But it still took me quite some time to find out what had actually happened on the island, and what would happen once the Strawhats returned there.

In retrospect I wish I could have been clever enough to provide for narrative tension without raising futile hopes for Usopp's survival. But to be honest I'm still not sure how that could have been done, even if I had been more clear-eyed about the outcome when I started out. If there wasn't uncertainty, there wouldn't have been the same drive for closure in the cast – or so it seems to me now. I could be wrong.

A minor remark: I did find myself surprised at how troublesome it was sometimes, on a purely practical level, to write a Strawhat ensemble fic without Usopp around. There were quite a few times when I needed someone in the crew to do or say something that I'd normally give to Usopp, and now I had to cast about for an alternative.

This was a hard fic to write in many ways, and if I hadn't gotten feedback I suspect I would have abandoned it a long time ago, despite being very invested in the story. So I'd like to express my sincere gratitude to each and everyone who's ever commented on the fic, no matter how briefly. All of it has been helpful, believe me!

I also want to thank Wendy for stepping in with feedback very early on, when it was sorely needed, and then providing much-appreciated beta and encouragement up through chapter seven.

Most of all, though, my very heartfelt thanks to Tonko, who has not only gone way over and above beta duties for the whole story but was also my sole audience during the writing of the last five chapters of the fic, which has taken quite a few months. Her contributions have been truly invaluable.