Fortunae Gauntlet

Part fourteen of a fanfiction by Velkyn Karma

Note: Last chapters always make me sad :( But we need a conclusion, so here we go!

Disclaimer: I do not own, or pretend to own, One Piece or any of its subsequent characters, plots or other ideas. That right belongs solely to Eiichiro Oda. The only thing that belongs to me here is the concept for the story.

"I don't belong here,

We gotta move on, dear

Escape from this afterlife—

'Cause this time I'm right

To move on and on,

Far away from here!"

~Afterlife, Avenged Sevenfold

The first thing Luffy recognized when he came to was that his eyes were open; and not only that, but he could see, too. The images were blurry and indistinct, and mostly gray, but they were sharpening quickly. He was bored with waiting for them to focus all the same, though, and decided to leave his eyes to it. They could take care of that, and he could figure out other things.

The next thing he was aware of was the shocking realization that he laying on his back, and he wasn't on fire anymore, which was nice. It had been rather inconvenient after all. There was a dull throb throughout his entire body though, and his head felt like somebody was trying to chop it open with an axe. That wasn't so fun, but he'd felt worse before after some fights, so he ignored it. More pressing still was the angry rumbling in his stomach, and he realized he was absolutely famished. Why hadn't Sanji brought him any meat yet?

Sanji! Sanji was—

Luffy sat up with in seconds, pulled himself to his feet in seconds more, and had both fists at the ready before his vision had even finished swimming and righted itself. His memories of the past three days came back to him in a rush, and he looked around wildly for Sasori, ignoring the clawing and banging in his skull. The man must have gotten out from underneath him somehow, but he wasn't going to let the man get away, not with his friends' lives at stake—

But he wasn't on top of the astral mountain anymore. He wasn't even outside anymore, which was a little puzzling. He was, again, often used to waking up someplace different after a fight, but that was usually in the Merry's infirmary, and this definitely wasn't the Merry. It was a domed, stone building with slits at the top, and he didn't remember seeing one of those in the astral-world either.

"Remarkable," a voice murmured. "Challengers never recover that quickly...especially after something so traumatic!"

Luffy spun, came face to face with twenty-four old people sitting in seats all around him. There was one old granny standing just before him, and with a start he realized he was back where the challenge had first been given. That meant he wasn't in that funny space-world anymore, which meant...

"What happened?" Luffy asked slowly, confused.

"The challenge has been completed," the old granny answered him. She was trying to speak calmly, but Luffy could see plain as day that her eyes were wide, and she seemed genuinely surprised.

"You okay?" He asked, puzzled. He didn't really like the granny, since she made the whole challenge happen, and it hadn't been a game. But it wasn't really her fault. She was only doing what she was told to, and that scorpion guy had been the real bad one. So it was probably a good idea to ask.

"I am...fine," the woman said, a little shakily. "It is just that we have rarely seen a challenge such as yours in quite some time. The decision was made by mere seconds..."


The woman took a deep breath. "You died, Challenger Strawhat Luffy," she said, trying to force some authority and ceremony into her voice. "However, you died exactly two seconds after the final Defender, Scorpion Hunter Sasori. Therefore, the victor of the lawful challenge is the Strawhat Pirates, as witnessed."

"As witnessed," the twenty four elders repeated dutifully, and their voices echoed in the round chamber.

"In addition," the old granny said, a little less formally, "I find myself...satisfied...with the results. We watched all the proceedings, Captain Monkey D. Luffy. Your crew fought more honorably than I have ever thought pirates capable of. It is not by the law that I say this, but by my own opinion: it would be a shame to see such lives go to waste."

"I won? Then..." Luffy turned around again, searching the strange round building hastily. And there was that other younger girl, Shira or something. She was sitting with her legs crossed, eyes closed in concentration. On either side of her, several bodies were laid out in a line, breathing evenly but otherwise unharmed. The seven on her left were already being covered with sheets and blankets, and the captain spared them little more than a glance as he turned to the ones on the right.

Luffy couldn't hold back a pleased cry as he saw his nakama. All six were there on the girl's right side, stretched out in a quiet line. Each of their bodies were spotless, and looked perfectly healthy. Nami's and Zoro's torsos were thankfully free of blood, and Zoro's earrings and swords were back. Chopper's forehead was clean and intact as well. Robin and Usopp both looked comfortable, neither contorted nor bearing unhealthy looking skin shades. And Sanji's neck wasn't bent and knobby anymore.

It was one of the best sights Luffy had ever seen in his life, but there was just one problem: none of them were moving. They were all there, and nobody looked injured, but they did all still look asleep. Or maybe worse.

Whirling around again, Luffy had his left fist cocked back and ready to launch in less than three seconds. "You said if I won I'd get my nakama back," he growled warningly. His right hand was clenched over his left bicep so hard that he was squeezing his rubber muscle into an entirely new shape, and his teeth were bared.

The old granny held up her hands placatingly, defensively. "Please reconsider your actions!" She gasped, now looking thoroughly panicked. "If you strike an elder member of the council, that is a grave lawful offense. We would not be able to give you your friends back then!"

Luffy was still tempted to hit her anyway, but forced himself to drop his arms to his sides after another glance at his prone friends. As far as he was concerned they were still hostages. He had to be careful or he would never get them back, and that was something he wouldn't accept.

The old granny sighed in obvious relief when he lowered his fists. Now that the situation was more or less calm, she explained carefully, "Your friends will be returned to you. This I promise. Some of them have been dead longer than others, so it will take Shira a few moments to collect all their souls and return them to their bodies. And, of course, the council needs to give her the official and ceremonial command to do so."

"So my nakama are still alive," Luffy said. "And they're okay."

"Yes," the old woman answered, and Luffy released a tired sigh. He suddenly felt terribly exhausted, but didn't plan on resting, not until he had seen each and every one of his crew mates up and walking out of that building and onto the Going Merry.

What followed was the longest five minutes of Luffy's entire life. All the old people did some sort of chanting, and said a whole bunch of weird things, and made a few ceremonial gestures he didn't understand and didn't care about anyway. Through it all he fidgeted impatiently, watching the six prone bodies of his crew anxiously, and tried very hard to ignore his stomach, which was now roaring loudly. His splitting headache had thankfully gone away, as had the throbbing in his body, at least.

And then, finally, finally, something interesting happened. The chanting finished, and the old granny walked over to that girl, Shira, and said something to her in a very formal voice. Shira nodded once, and murmured something low under her breath. There was one huge flash, or maybe six successive flashes all in a row, very fast; Luffy wasn't entirely sure. And then the prone bodies of his closest friends seemed to sigh, breathing deeply, and they began to move.

They all woke differently, Luffy noticed with interest. Some of them really looked like they were only waking up from a long nap. Nami, Robin and Usopp all sat up dazedly as though they had merely been out in the sun too long and had accidentally fallen asleep. Sanji came up fighting, kicking out violently with a yell before he realized where he was. And Chopper woke with a wail, shaking fearfully before he, too, realize he was in the midst of friends again.

Luffy had about five seconds to register that they all woke up with headaches, too, or at least he could guess as much from the way they were holding their heads. Then he couldn't take it anymore, and had catapulted himself enthusiastically at the closest crew member, which happened to be Usopp, and wrapped him in a bone-crushing rubbery hug.

"You're back! Just like I promised," he said delightedly.

Usopp overbalanced out of confusion and they both tumbled to the floor. Luffy seized the moment to snake two rubbery limbs out and drag the still teary-eyed Chopper and a bewildered Sanji into the huggy mess, still laughing happily. Nami looked confused and a little frightened, but her expression broke into a shaky grin as she watched Sanji protest the hug vehemently, and the weak grin turned into a relieved, but strong, burst of laughter. Robin joined her with her own quiet giggle, and within seconds it had caught, and Usopp and Chopper were laughing at the sheer joy of being alive again, and even Sanji was cooing enthusiastically over how beautiful and happy the girls looked.

The sounds cut off abruptly as Chopper wiggled free of Luffy's grip, looking suddenly worried. "Oh, no," the little reindeer gasped. " he okay?" And he pointed, causing the others to turn in concern at the worry in his voice. The happiness melted from their faces instantly.

Zoro hadn't moved from where he had originally fallen when the game began. He looked just like he always did (Luffy checked again, just to make sure his swords and earrings were still there), but he hadn't gotten up when the others did. His chest rose and fell, but it was the same shallow, almost empty breathing Luffy had seen before, when all of them were still in the astral world waiting to be returned.

Chopper dived forward instantly to check him, pressing his little cloven hooves into the prone swordsman's neck. Luffy and Sanji had turned on the old granny, meanwhile, eyes narrowed, expressions deadly.

"You said I would get all of my nakama back," Luffy said, his voice murderous. His fists were clenched again, and Sanji was tapping one foot warningly, as though warming up.

"You should have!" the old lady said, bewildered. Glancing at Shira, she added, "That was the deal...all souls from the winning party, returned to their bodies."

"I'm sure it worked," Shira added, looking equally confused. "I held the swordsman's soul within my mind's eye, along with the others. I released it at the same time."

The old granny looked nervous now, as Luffy fixed her with a spine-chilling glare. "It was not our intent to steal one of your crew members from you! Mistakes have been occasionally known to happen, and souls do on very rare occasion become lost in the void between the astral plane and the real, was not intended! We have not had that problem in over five hundred years, and Shira is very well trained!"

Nami looked horrified, and had one hand pressed over her mouth, eyes wide. Robin looked grim, Usopp was shivering, and Luffy was sure he heard Sanji mutter under his breath, "Hell, of course that shitty swordsman would manage to get lost coming back to life..." But he didn't look annoyed, he looked helpless, which made him angry.

"What happens to those people?" Luffy asked, very slowly, voice low.

"We was recorded that they were never located again, and their bodies eventually died of starvation," the old granny said uneasily. Sanji swore, brought one foot smashing down to the marble tiling almost (but not quite) enough to break it, and the others looked sick.

Chopper panicked the most. Unable to find any hurt to cure with his medicinal skill, the reindeer finally climbed onto the prone Zoro's stomach, grabbed his shoulders with both hooves, and shook him as hard as possible. "Don't get lost, Zoro!" he begged. "Please come back, please..."

Zoro didn't respond. His head flopped ungracefully, tipped back when the reindeer finally stopped shaking, mouth open wide—and released a reverberating snore.

The Strawhats, all six of them, couldn't help but stare at their unconscious crew mate, and the elders and Shira couldn't help but join in. The silence stretched for nearly a full minute, broken only by the occasional snore from the swordsman, likely prompted from his head being held at such an awkward angle.

Luffy finally broke the silence. He burst into laughter, planting one hand on his treasured straw hat as he did so, and stated the obvious: "Zoro's not lost, he's asleep!"

That did it. Nami's eyes were still watery, but she started laughing again as well from the sheer stupidity of it all. Usopp and Robin joined in, hesitantly at first, but soon laughing just as loud as their navigator. Chopper did as well, but had to scurry from his perch on Zoro's chest quickly as he did so. Because Sanji had broken from his daze by launching himself forward furiously, and delivered a full-force kick straight to the swordsman's side, roaring, "Don't you fucking worry us like that, you shitty marimo bastaaard!"

Zoro took the hit in the side and was awake instantly. He came up with two swords in his hands, and the two had exchanged at least ten blows before he even bothered to examine his surroundings. Then, while in a standoff, his two swords crossed to block Sanji's one-footed assault, he paused and glanced over at the rest of the crew, who were still laughing. "What's so funny?" he asked, confused.

Luffy only grinned at him, and the others couldn't seem to find their breath, so Robin spoke up to answer. "We had a little scare, Swordsman-san," she explained. "But it was a false alarm, and everyone is quite relieved."

"Everything's back to normal," Luffy decided to chip in. Still grinning widely, he added, "We won."

"Oh." Sanji finally lowered his foot and backed off, still glowering, and Zoro, seeing their impromptu duel was over, sheathed both his swords. "Well, we knew we'd win. No reason to be laughing like idiots."

"Why, you ungrateful—" Nami began, but Robin placed a hand on her shoulder, everyone else was still grinning delightedly, and it seemed she just couldn't stay angry. Sighing, she shook her head, and instead allowed Sanji to lavish her with enthusiastic praise.

Luffy didn't blame them all. He couldn't stop grinning himself. Everyone was back, and everyone was okay, so everything was all right again. The elders had thrown blankets over the seven motionless bodies nearby, so none of his nakama had spotted them, and that was good, too. He didn't want them worrying now, not when everything was all good again!

"Captain Monkey D. Luffy," came a voice, and he turned to find the old granny staring at him intently. He nodded to show she had his attention, and she said, "We have instructed the city guard and the harbor guard not to obstruct your leaving. If you would like a guide back down to the harbor—"

"No," he said, very cooly. "We'll be fine."

"Very well. Please heed my not cause any more trouble! You have dealt with the charges brought against your sniper, Usopp, and those charges have been nullified. But if you were to accrue more lawful challenges, we would have no choice but to put you through the same ordeal, and I do not think you would survive a second time...even though I am sure you would accept the fight a second time." Her old lips quirked in the suggestion of a grin, and she added, "You seem like that sort of man."

"Yeah," Luffy said. "That's me. I'm going to be King of the Pirates. I won't back down, not if you threaten my nakama, and not if you challenge me."

The old granny's eyes widened, but then after a moment's thought she nodded. "I see. That is quite a high claim to make, and yet somehow, I think you might even be capable of it."

Luffy only grinned.

"You are free to leave at any time," the old woman finished. "Again, please be careful on your way back. I must follow the law, but I would be lying if I were to say I wanted to put you through the Fortunae Gauntlet again. It would be easier for all of us if you simply avoided trouble and left as quickly as possible."

Luffy nodded, turned to his crew mates, who were still laughing and chattering to each other and simply reveling in being alive, in each others' company. Chopper was perched on Zoro's shoulders, Sanji was wiggling between Nami and Robin, and Usopp was for once silent, but seemed happy just being around the others.

"Hey, guys," the captain said, still grinning. "Let's set sail. Captain's orders!"

They didn't need to be told twice.

Hours later they were out on the open sea, course fixed for their next destination. Nami's log pose had set two days ago, while they were in the astral world, as time there and time in the real world were exactly the same. Sanji-kun had thankfully restocked the ship with food supplies before exploring the island's city, so they were all set in that regard. And while Chopper hadn't been able to do his own supplies shopping for their infirmary, he assured Nami that they were fine until they reached the next island. The reindeer clearly wanted to get off the island just as much as she did. They knew their heading, and for a while once they reached the Going Merry the air had been filled with the comfortable chaos of shouting and foot stomping as the crew ran here and there, securing lines, drawing the anchor, and dropping the sails.

But now that that was over, Nami realized she had plenty of time to think about the past few days. Not that there was really much for her to remember, she thought with a shudder. She had been the first to die, after all—she had died, and realizing that still shocked her. And death in the astral world wasn't anything like she had thought death would be like. She couldn't watch her nakama, couldn't follow after them as a spirit. It had been black, blacker than black, and empty. She had barely been aware. There had been no way to keep track of time, and she couldn't tell how the game was fairing, had barely cared anyway. It was like being asleep, barely on the edge of consciousness. And while she had heard the occasional snatches of conversation, that was about the extent of it.

So she didn't know how the game had progressed, other than the obvious fact that they had eventually won. She was curious, but knew better than to ask. Everyone was uncomfortable with the subject, she could tell. And it was easy to see when they were thinking about it; everyone shared the same drawn, empty expressions when whatever had happened in that world came to their minds.

She could feel it on her own face herself, every time she thought of the staggering pain blasting through her body, and as the hours went by she felt herself pressing her hand to her chest uncomfortably. There was nothing there. She had even checked in the mirror out of morbid curiosity, but there was no trace of the crossbow bolt injury, not even a scar. And yet in moments when the memories of that horrible game came on strongest, she could still feel the blast of pain, felt her chest throbbing. Her body might not bear the wound, but her mind still did, and probably always would. She wondered briefly if the same thing happened with any of Zoro's major scars, like that one lashing across his chest.

Nami wasn't the only one remembering either, she knew. All seven of them had been acting rather subdued since their basic sailing duties had been taken care of, and the deck of the Going Merry was the quietest it had been in weeks. Sanji-kun had made them all a huge breakfast after discovering that they had all gone three days without eating (it had been morning when they first awoke). Everyone had enjoyed it, just as delighted about the close company as the food itself. But once they had all dispersed, the ship became silent as the grave, and an uneasy, uncomfortable tension filled the air. Zoro and Sanji-kun hadn't engaged in any of their stupid fights since Zoro first woke up back on the island. And while Sanji-kun had dutifully brought her and Robin a pair of drinks that afternoon, it had lacked its usual whirling dance and poem recital. Luffy, Usopp and Chopper weren't careening around the deck in a rousing game of tag or keep away, and even Robin seemed to be having trouble focusing on her book. Nami supposed death would do that to a person, and shuddered again.

She had noticed that everyone was out in the sun, however, even at times when not all of them were. Luffy had taken to his favorite perch on the Merry's sheep-head, and was watching the calm waves and open sky with a contented look on his face. Usopp and Chopper had both dragged some of their tools outside on deck and were now making explosives and Rumble Balls respectively. Zoro was training on deck, swinging ridiculously over-proportioned weights with a look of extreme concentration. She and Robin were, naturally, sunbathing on the deck, in desperate need of some relaxation after that terrifying affair. And Sanji-kun was sitting against one of the rails and smoking like a fiend (he'd burned through an entire pack and a half in an hour, probably to make up for the three-day withdrawal his body had had).

It was unusual behavior, to say the least. Zoro would be napping at this time of day, with it being so hot out, not training. Sanji-kun was usually hidden away in the galley at this hour, deciding what to make for dinner or preparing snacks for the crew. And Luffy, Usopp and Chopper ought to be doing something irresponsible and stupid so that she could yell at them for being idiots. It was unusual, but she could understand it. She was breaking her usual habits specifically for today, after all. Rather than sitting up her deck-chair near her mikan, where she normally went for some nice quiet alone-time, she had instead chosen a spot on the lower deck simply so she could keep everyone else in sight. After that terrifying separation from the rest of her crew mates, it was bewilderingly reassuring just to know that they were all still there, alive, breathing, and not going anywhere any time soon. She had a sneaking suspicion the rest were all thinking along similar lines, and had chosen their afternoon activities accordingly.

So it wasn't surprising that Nami kept noticing sneaking glances in her direction, most often from Sanji-kun but from many of the others as well. Nor was she innocent of that particular action either. She had brought her own book to read, but kept glancing up from it furtively to study the others. Most of them were busy and didn't notice her gaze, or if they did, they pretended not to. But whatever they were doing, it gave her time to discover some interesting new habits that hadn't been present three days ago.

Nami didn't know what happened to them all, and just as she had determined before, she wouldn't ask. But she could still feel that pang in her chest, and pressed her hand to it on occasion—and the others did some curiously similar things. Sanji-kun often massaged his neck in between cigarettes, frowning as though he'd slept on it poorly and couldn't properly move it. Usopp scratched his own neck as well, and had sat down to his chemistry kit unusually, tucking one foot to the side as though it pained him to sit on it. Chopper would often rub his forehead as though he had a headache, then shake his head furiously and glance around, hoping nobody had seen him (Nami always looked down quickly at her book when he did). Even Robin would occasionally scratch one arm, almost unconsciously, as though she wasn't even aware she was doing it. Zoro's habit was perhaps the most unusual: on occasion he would set down his weights and raise a hand to his earrings, fidgeting with each one carefully as though confirming their presence.

Nami actually had been about to ask about that one despite herself, since she wasn't sure how losing the earrings, or even an ear, could cause a death. But Sanji-kun had coughed over one of his cigarettes right about then, and when she turned to see if he was alright he shook his head warningly at her and quietly raised a finger to his lips. It had been the fact that Sanji-kun was warning her not to annoy Zoro, more than the warning itself, that caused her to abandon the question.

Luffy alone seemed relatively unaffected by the entire ordeal. He was quieter than usual, to be sure, but it wasn't unusual to see him sitting on that ram's head for hours at a time, watching the sea. And he grinned the entire time, seemed happy by the thought alone that they were all back together again and his crew was safe. That reassurance was catching. And if Nami saw him staring at each of them a little longer than was necessary every once and a while, with an unusually solemn expression on her face, she decided to think nothing of it. They were all together again, and that was all that mattered.

Still, the crew remained painfully silent for most of the day, and the tension was still thick in the air when night fell. Everyone was still pretty affected by the challenge, and nobody really wanted to talk about it, making the crew's interactions awkward at best. As they piled into their bunks that night, Nami wondered briefly how badly the literally deathly ordeal might have affected their dynamic, and she quietly prayed it wouldn't have any lasting negative effects. She didn't think she could bear it.

Her prayers were answered that very night. She woke close to midnight in a flurry of panic, clutching her chest, where she could feel the bolt still gritting against bone and pushing through her with agonizing accuracy, and that unending, uncaring blackness that followed. "It's all in my mind, it isn't real," she told herself, over and over, but that didn't stop the tears from flowing, or the memory of the pain.

It was then she looked over to Robin's bunk, seeking a friendly hand and a reassuring word, and realized it was empty.

Nami panicked, and for one horrifying moment wondered if she was all alone again, if everyone really was dead, and if they had really lost. Maybe this was just some form of hell, tormenting her further after losing that horrific game.

Her conscious mind recovered a moment later. It wasn't Robin's watch (a quick glance at the clock told her Zoro should have taken over from Usopp half an hour ago) so she concluded shakily that the archaeologist had likely just gone out for a breath of fresh air. Wiping her eyes to hide the nightmare tear tracks as best she could, she threw a fluffy, warm bathrobe on quickly to combat the chilly night air and stepped out onto the deck, thinking to find her.

She found Robin, but not quite the way she had expected. The other woman was sitting near the mast, but she was sitting next to Zoro, who was calmly curling an oversized dumbbell out of habit while sitting on watch. Usopp and Chopper were also there, looking a little nervous but strangely reassured for the midnight company.

Nami trotted over to join them, hesitantly at first, but Chopper scooted over to give her room (and snuggled up next to Zoro in the process, though the swordsman did nothing to protest other than shifting his weight to the other arm). Nami took the offered place, and Usopp said sympathetically, "You couldn't sleep either?"

"Not at all," Nami agreed, a little embarrassed, but strangely reassured at the same time. She knew she wasn't the only one with problems after the challenge, but being on a crew where more than half of its members were insanely strong tended to influence some bad not wanting to admit one's weaknesses. It was nice to see that the others understood, and not only understood, but didn't mind.

"Zoro wasn't even sleeping on watch when I came out," Chopper whispered to her conspiratorially, "and you know he always does that." The swordsman only grunted lightly in response.

"What were you about to say before Navigator-san came out, Longnose-kun?" Robin prompted, turning back to their sniper. Apparently they had been in the middle of conversation when she appeared.

"Oh...I was I was gonna say it alone, but nobody's been alone all day, so," Usopp began, looking fidgety. "I was just gonna thank Zoro for beating up Kawazu a little for me...I don't think I could've beat him otherwise..."

Zoro shrugged. "You would have figured something out."

"I don't think I would have," Usopp said, very seriously, looking a little frightened. Nami remembered Kawazu from the introduction, the man who had a pair of hookswords strapped to his back, and frowned slightly. It sounded like Usopp had been the one to beat him, but Zoro had wounded him enough to make it possible, first. Zoro wouldn't have left a fight half finished like that unless he was dead, which meant...had Zoro actually died early in the game?

"Don't thank me," Zoro said flatly. "You don't need to."

Usopp looked like he wanted to protest, but about that time there was a series of loud clinks behind them, and the next second Sanji-kun had arrived with a pair of large trays balanced on either hand. He set them down quietly in the middle of the circle and squeezed in between Usopp and Nami. The cook had somehow prepared a number of little snacks and boiled hot water, which he now used to pass out cups of tea, hot cocoa, and one mug of coffee (for Robin).

And then Luffy had arrived, too, and it was all they could do to guard the little sweets from him before he had devoured them all. It turned to joking anger and exasperated laughter, and that in turn shifted to more serious talk of the game, and when Robin's arms started quietly passing blankets out to each of them from the cabins Nami knew it was official: they were camping out tonight on the main deck. But it wasn't so bad, really, and even discussing the challenge it still felt so much less terrifying and so much more comfortable when they were all together. And by the time she drifted off to sleep with her head resting on a gleeful Sanji-kun's shoulder she knew that they were safe again, that everything would be alright, and that they could get through anything together as nakama.

There was no need to all sleep snuggled together the next night, or any nights following; they were reassured enough for that, and knew that none of their nakama would be dying and leaving them any time soon. They understood each other after that night, and the challenge didn't seem quite as spirit-crushing as it had before, because they had all survived and they did it together.

But there were a few habits that were difficult to break, and didn't disappear for several weeks after that. While there were no more camp-outs, it wasn't unusual to find one or two crew mates up in the middle of the night, sitting on deck with whoever was on watch or nursing a cup of tea or warm milk in the galley as they recovered from a nightmare. And Nami still caught her crew mates fingering their astral wounds unconsciously, almost as if they didn't realize they were doing it, though thankfully with less and less frequency. She herself felt that terrible pang in her chest and the deafening blackness less and less as time went by, as though the vivid memory was slowly fading away from her, though she knew it would never disappear completely.

Nor did anyone go out of their way quite as much as they used to, trying avoid unexpected company. Instead it seemed as though the opposite occurred. Zoro took his naps straight out in the open instead of stretching out in a corner, and Sanji often loudly announced he was going to make lunch or dinner before he did, subtly enticing company to sit at the galley table while he worked with the excuse of free samples.

And it wasn't uncommon for any one of them to stop in the middle of whatever task they were performing and make a silent but quick head count, eyes flickering around quickly to try and find everyone before they were spotted. Chopper, as the youngest, was the worst offender for this. He often acted more like a sheepdog than a reindeer, sometimes going so far as to run around the entire ship until he had found everyone. But everyone else was guilty of the action at some point in time.

But eventually even those little signs decreased, and things gradually returned to normal. Sanji's sing-song mellorines and drink-delivering dances returned, as did his furious matches with Zoro when he tripped over the sleeping swordsman. The raucous cries of Luffy, Usopp and Chopper soon returned as the three youngest crew members played their games, listened to the sniper's outlandish tales, and argued over who had caught the biggest fish. And Robin had already read through a number of other books, even forlornly mentioning to Nami late one night that she would need to do some shopping soon to find new titles as she had nearly cleaned out their small library again.

Through it all Luffy never stopped smiling. And while Nami had wondered about it at first—how could he be so happy, even with all the memories from that terrible challenge, even seeing all of his nakama leave him?—she soon realized that he was in the right all along. And she couldn't help but smile with him, then. Because Luffy was naive, and silly, and stupid, and so many other annoying things, but he was also unerringly faithful to his nakama, and would do anything to protect them and keep them safe, even fight against death itself. And really, how could anyone not feel reassured with such steadfast determination and loyalty in their leader?

Everything would be okay, Nami knew, no matter what adventures came their way next. Because they were a pirate crew, and the best nakama in the world, and everyone there would protect everyone else; and that was enough for her.

Thanks to all of you for reading! This'll be the only time I ask outright for reviews. The fic is over, and it was quite long, so I'd like a little final feedback if you don't mind! :)

No questions from reviewers, but I am going to answer one asked by Taryn Streambattle in the chapter before: "What does Fortunae Guantlet mean?" Fortunae Gauntlet is a combination of Rota Fortunae, aka the "Wheel of Fate," and the expression Running the Gauntlet. The former basically states that Fate is fickle, and anything can happen because of it. The latter is a corporal punishment when you run down a line and everyone in that line beats on you; in modern use it also suggests having to get through a series of tasks. In other words, the Fortunae Gauntlet challenge is a punishment with a multitude of tasks (multiple kills with a time limit), and anything can happen in that challenge.

Aaaaand that's a wrap! I hope you all enjoyed this (somewhat bizarre) installment of another One Piece fic. :)

And for those of you who've asked, I do have a few more One Piece fics currently in the works. However I don't know if they'll be completed, and I like to finish my stories before I post them or they never get done. Just keep an eye out if you're interested, or if you want a notification from me when I update say so in your review.

A good voyage to you all :)