Disclaimer: I own nothing recognizable from One Piece.
Author's Note: Spoilers up to chapter 490 of One Piece.
If nothing else, none of them had been taken surprise.
By the time they'd met at Sabaody, most of them had already heard of the incident through newspapers or hearsay. Rayleigh had happened to have a copy of the recording as it had broadcast, and despite an irritating period of blackout in the middle of the battle, the Straw Hat Pirates found this more informative than any amount of words ever could have been.
The crew was struck by horror as one when they saw the moment of Portgas D. Ace's death. Nami screamed; Chopper cried out and covered his eyes; Usopp inhaled so quickly that it made a high-pitched sound like a whistle; Sanji choked. Robin, Franky and Brook looked horrified, though not nearly so much as those who had met Ace. Zoro sat in place, stoic and outwardly calm.
Had they been any other crew, perhaps they would have set out to "save" their distraught, injured captain. Perhaps they would have taken it upon themselves to help the captain who had always been there for them in their times of need. Indeed, Brook, Usopp, Nami and Chopper were all in favor of this plan.
It was Zoro who stood firm and convinced them to wait. "He's our captain," Zoro said. "If he needs us as much as you say, he'll be back here of his own accord. If we have a responsibility, it's to trust him and wait."
And so they waited. The week and a half that they waited felt like forever, and Chopper once came very close to suggesting that perhaps Luffy was too far gone to want them at all anymore—a swift blow to the head from Usopp made Chopper clamp his mouth shut so tightly that a small trickle of blood escaped the corner of his mouth.
They needn't have worried. The day after Chopper's almost-slip-up, Luffy was back. He was in the company of a Warlord, an ex-Warlord and another few Supernovas, and appeared supremely unconcerned by this fact.
If any of them had had any doubts about how Luffy felt about his crew, such thoughts were dispelled at once when Luffy saw them…and smiled.
No Straw Hat had ever seen that smile before. They had seen their captain grin, laugh, and they had been sure that they had seen him go through the entire spectrum of happy.
Luffy's smile was as wide and sincere as ever.
So were his eyes.
He was neither triumphant, nor amused. He was neither jubilant nor joyous. There was something soft and loving about the way he looked at them all, as if they were the most dear things in the world that he had ever seen.
Which, they quickly realized, they were. He had just lost much—how happy must he feel to see something that he had not lost?
Chopper was the first one to launch himself at Luffy with a sob. The remaining crew followed, and the Straw Hat Pirates shared their first group hug (if Zoro had to be dragged into the hug, it went unmentioned since he ended up in the squash of people anyway).
They couldn't be off to Fishman Island immediately, of course. There were a number of things that had to be done first: such as the placating of Boa Hancock.
For on realizing that Luffy was truly about to depart with his comrades and leave her behind, she insisted on meeting his crew to be sure that everything was well. It was, the girls quickly figured out, a bad case of jealousy.
"You're in love with Luffy," gasped Nami, jaw dropped in awe that anyone could actually be in love with that moron. She did, however, have better sense than to call Luffy a moron in front of a woman who had risked her position as a Warlord to defend him during the war.
Hancock blushed, and then glared. "And he is mine."
Nami sighed. "Robin and I have no interest in him that way," she explained carefully. "If he's anything to us other than a captain, it's something more like…a brother."
Nami's explanation was not accepted immediately; however, after a great deal of talking, Hancock accepted this explanation and bade Luffy farewell. There were tears in her eyes as she swore to him that they would meet again.
While the women of the crew were occupied with Hancock, Chopper checked up on Luffy's wounds with the other men crowding around. Jinbei drew Zoro away covertly.
"You are Luffy's second-in-command," said Jinbei. Zoro blinked, for this was a statement, not a question. Jinbei didn't need a reply either. "I'm sure you don't need me to tell you this, but I shall say it anyway for my own peace of mind. Look out for your captain—he has brought you this far on faith, and now that faith is broken. His devastation was…heartbreaking."
Jinbei had to close his eyes against the tumult of memories of Luffy's self-destructive rampage in the forest. When he opened his eyes after a moment, Zoro was looking at him steadily, and inclined his head in a nod.
Law returned Luffy his hat—why did he have that? the Straw Hat crew wondered as one—and told Luffy with a smile that he was looking forward to the day when they met again. Luffy grinned and replied that he felt the same.
Luffy said nothing about being certain to beat Law; the crewmembers who noticed this absence shook it from their minds.
Once they set out on their journey, it became apparent that Luffy, though always and forever the same, was not precisely the same Luffy he had been before their separate adventures.
Luffy was no coward. He had never been and never would be remotely cowardly.
But he had developed a sense of caution. Not on behalf of himself, his crew noticed. No—his caution was on behalf of them. If anyone shouted about so much as a sea king, Luffy was there in an instant to knock it out. Luffy began to train with Zoro. Not religiously, but between meals, sleep and play, he fit in a good amount of training time. It was as though he had suddenly developed an acute fear of losing them—any one of them—and was fighting with all his might to alleviate those fears.
Yet he laughed. He smiled. He was happy. His eyes were never as carefree as they had once been, but they still gazed forward, clear and true. If there was a touch of calmness or perhaps grief to his demeanor, it was barely perceptible.
No one dared address the matter. Ace's name was never mentioned, nor the war. If Luffy wanted to talk about it, then he would.
Of all places, it was at the dinner table that he broke down one evening.
"I'm not hungry," Luffy declared, putting down a piece of meat that he had picked up, stared at, and then not so much as bitten into.
The table went quiet; the Straw Hats stared. Luffy got up and headed for the door.
"We know about Ace," said Zoro from the corner. Eight pairs of eyes went wide; the captain's back tensed. "We know that you're captain. But we also know that you've been through a lot."
"The shit-head's right," said Sanji, leaning on the counter. "In fact, I'd say it would make us all feel better if you'd just give in and cry."
"Er, if you're holding it in, that is!" added Usopp hastily.
"The loss of a loved one is…more painful than can be described," whispered Brook gravely.
"We're here for you, Luffy," said Robin.
"We just wish…" Franky trailed off, but everyone knew what he meant. If only they could make it better. If only they could take some of the pain away.
"We can't make it better," said Nami.
"But we're here," said Chopper, echoing Robin.
Luffy stood stock-still, his back to his crew.
Then his shoulders shook. "You guys…" The tears that they couldn't see were thickly coating his voice. "You're all wonderful, you bastards!"
And their strong, stalwart captain sank to his knees in tears.
This time, Zoro was the first to go to him, seating himself behind Luffy without a word so that they were back-to-back. Next came Nami, sitting beside Luffy to lean a head on his shoulder. Chopper curled up in Luffy's lap. Franky reached out to ruffle Luffy's hair. Usopp and Sanji sat at Luffy's side, echoing Zoro's gesture with their backs to their captain, leaning on him and offering their own backs for him to lean on. Robin sat in front of Luffy, and Brook sat at her side.
"You're all awesome," sobbed Luffy. "I'm sorry, I know I…I just can't…I'm useless and weak, and you-"
And as one, the Straw Hat Pirates began to scold their captain, explaining to him just why that was a ridiculous thing to say.
Somehow, huddled together on the kitchen floor, the Straw Hats as one knew that they had never seen their captain so vulnerable nor so strong. Nor had they ever felt the bond between them run so deep. They didn't leave until their captain had cried his fill, and nor did they feel any desire to.
They knew for certain in that moment that together, they would be more than alright—together, they could do anything. So it was that the crew declared to the captain that he would be Pirate King.