A/N: I haven't written for this fandom in roughly 78 years so bear with me. D:
He didn't tell them. They had to figure it out on their own.
The day they left Omatsuri Island was strange; all the inhabitants of the island had disappeared, leaving nothing but empty rooms and a tangled mess of weeds in their wake. A small family of four followed them back to the resort, the youngest two children holding Chopper's hooves as they walked, and the little mustache man and his goat were following Luffy closely, almost hovering at his side.
Luffy, for his part, laughed and laughed.
He laughed at Brief, who tried to catch him the moment Luffy staggered and instead sent them both sprawling to the ground. He laughed at Zoro, whose eyes were dark when he hauled Luffy up in strong arms and didn't set him back down. And from his place on Zoro's back, arm wrapped around the first mate's shoulder, he laughed at everyone's expressions as they sank from amused to confused to concerned.
"Luffy, what happened to you?" Usopp exclaimed, circling around behind Zoro to lift up the back of his captain's tattered vest. "You're like one big bruise!"
Chopper rushed around to look and made a choked sound, then ordered Zoro in his Doctor Voice to be very careful and to take Luffy straight back to Merry.
Luffy beamed down at the reindeer. "You're right. We're getting off this island right away." He shuffled to glance back at Brief and the Tearoom pirates, offering them a ride on his ship if they needed it, and they all declined with smiles and plans of stealing one of the Baron's ships together. Luffy laughed at that, too, and waved goodbye when it came time to part ways.
"Take care of yourself, Straw Hat Boy."
"They were fun," the boy informed his crew cheerfully.
"What happened to the Baron?" Sanji asked, his voice reverberating a little across the polished marble, exacerbating the sense of desolation. "And- everyone else?"
"They went away," Luffy said, his smile undaunted and somewhat hard. "I don't think we'll ever meet that old Baron again. Too bad we won't get to thank him for the fun we had! Na, Zoro, hurry up. Merry's waiting for us!"
He was eager to leave, eager to put Omatsuri behind him. He pointed at the figurehead, but Zoro took him to the kitchen instead despite his "Ara? Zoro? My spot," and deposited him on the table. Chopper climbed up on it immediately and lifted Luffy's shirt out of the way again to check the damage done to his back.
Luffy frowned the way he did when confronted with a confusing turn of events; his gaze swept over them all, and immediately the frown gave way to another bright smile. "You all look really serious," he told them happily. "We had a lot of fun on that island, didn't we?"
Zoro folded his arms, leaned on the table by Luffy's side. Chopper didn't find anything more than cuts and bruises that Luffy put down to "just a fight." None of them were comfortable with the missing time, but with Luffy smiling at them like he was, it was hard to deny him. The atmosphere lightened, and they found themselves smiling back.
"Let's set sail, everyone!"
When Zoro didn't show up to dinner, Sanji drummed his ladle on the counter, snarling, "I called dinner ten minutes ago, where the hell is that shitty swordsman?"
Luffy swallowed an impressive mouthful of fish and stood abruptly. "I'll go get him Sanji, don't worry! He can't miss out- your food's always the tastiest!"
It was a little odd that Luffy voluntarily abandoned his meal to go fetch their wayward nakama, but Sanji chalked that up to the special relationship between captain and first mate. Luffy played no favorites, that was certain, but he and Zoro understood each other on another wavelength and no one begrudged either of them for it.
"Zorooo, get up! It's time to eat!"
"Those who didn't cheer me on will not be allowed dinner."
The wooden spoon in his hand snapped in half like a twig at the sharp recollection, and Sanji leaned against the counter for a moment against a sudden wave of nausea.
He had denied someone- no, he had denied one of his crewmates a meal. It went against everything he believed in to let a man go hungry while he had the means to feed him.
The door swung open a moment later and Luffy all but pranced in with Zoro. Sanji wasted no time in dishing out his plate and sliding it in front of him with a heated, "You better clean that plate, you bastard, food doesn't go to waste on this ship."
Zoro rolled his eyes and muttered something unflattering, but tucked in nonetheless; apparently either not remembering Sanji's heated words that night on the island, or not caring.
Sanji wasn't sure if it was a blessing or a curse not to be forced into a confrontation, because no discussion meant no chance to apologize properly and he was admittedly too ashamed to bring the matter up on his own.
Even if he could hardly stand Zoro at the best of times, it made something in him ache to think of one of his nakama going hungry. When the swordsman's plate was empty, Sanji leaned over with the pan to refill it at once, spooning a heaping portion onto his plate the way he would for Luffy or Usopp, in what he knew was a childish attempt to make up for the meal that Zoro had missed out on.
It wasn't quite an apology, but it was the best he could do.
What the hell happened on that shitty island?
If anyone else noticed how energetic Luffy was lately, they weren't saying anything. Chopper blinked at his captain when the boy scooped him up off the deck, hugging him fiercely for no reason at all. His good mood was contagious as ever, and seemed undaunting- he'd been really really happy for days now, almost bursting with it, and it was so like him to be full of cheer that it didn't really seem that out of place, it just... was.
Because he was still healing from a horrific amount of bruising, almost as if he'd been beaten in a thousand different places at once, his hands and feet in particular. Chopper had rebandaged those, because it seemed that someone already had, and he couldn't shake the feeling that there was something missing, because for all that he could only find bruising, the original bandages had come away bloody.
It had to hurt, or at least ache a little, but Luffy's spirits were soaring.
Chopper wished he'd had a chance to talk to Brief or maybe Daisy's papa for a moment before they left Omatsuri, but he'd been so concerned with getting Luffy back to the ship at the time that he hadn't thought to stop and ask them for some clarification.
The first time Chopper met the rubberman, his fingers were bloody stumps and his skin was blue with cold. From that moment on, he had been the one to give Luffy medicine and bandage his body and sit with him through the night when he was feverish and sick.
At the moment, Luffy was laughing again, a warm, gleeful sound that made Chopper nuzzle him involuntarily.
He loved his captain so much, and he wanted to be useful to him- it was just so hard to heal wounds he couldn't see.
A peaceful day was rare aboard the Merry Go, and Nami wasn't surprised in the least when she was interrupted from her book by a sudden bout of raucous laughter from the resident sharpshooter and rubberman. It was a common sound, almost comforting in its familiarity, and she leaned back with a smile. Their voices were drifting in from the deck, but at Usopp's excited "Did you see that?" the book slid from her fingers.
"How could you leave me and escape on your own?!"
She could almost still feel the sting in her fingers from the moment she had slapped him, and she sat up stiffly, horrified. It wasn't like she never knocked some sense into her boys, but that moment had been different, accusatory, and Usopp had cradled his face in one hand and was hurt by her.
On impulse she rushed out the door, as if there was a chance she had somehow lost him even though she knew right where he would be, and sure enough she found him sprawled on the deck, an acting pillow for their captain, whose head rested on Usopp's stomach, and the two of them grinned up at the sky.
"That was amazing, Usopp!" Luffy praised, watching the lion-shaped kite drift away. "It just flew up, all on its own! Make another!"
"Of course!" the sniper crowed. "I'm a master at- " He broke off when he saw Nami staring at him, and after a beat of silence he smiled crookedly at her expression. "I'll make the next one for Nami," he told Luffy, who tilted his head to grin at him in approval. "What shape should it be?"
She felt her eyes sting, and moved over to sit beside the two of them, even helping to fold the next kite and arguing with Usopp over what colors it should be. When Luffy started the painting, tongue stuck between his teeth in a show of absolute concentration, Nami reached over to tap Usopp's shoulder and mouth an apology, regardless of the fact that she'd already been forgiven.
Usopp flushed, shrugged a little. "Me too."
"Ara? You what?"
"Ah, I was- I was agreeing with Nami that it should be blue not green, Luffy, what kind of shark is green?!"
"But Zoro has green hair!"
"What does that have to do with it?"
She laughed when they startled wrestling, making a mess of the deck and themselves as they knocked the paint tins flying, but inwardly her mind was racing.
She was more determined than ever to remember the events of that island in full- if she had gone so far as to attack a crewmate, what other things could have happened?
"Na, na... Why do we have to have a meeting about that island?" Luffy muttered, cheeks puffed out immaturely. "It's all you guys ever wanna talk about anymore. We were having a lot of fun with the kites, Namiii."
"Nami's right," Sanji said, arms folded too tightly for it to look casual. "I don't like only knowing bits and pieces of what happened the other night."
"It's like a bad hangover," Zoro admitted, and Nami smacked his shoulder.
"It's nothing like that! Honestly." She turned to Robin, who sat at the table with a book closed in her lap. "Robin, how much do you remember?"
"Like the rest of you, I remember the events leading up to the dinner challenge," she said quietly. "I also remember that I wanted to investigate the lack of flowers around the island. I- believe that I saw the Baron for a moment. Perhaps we spoke? But the next thing I can recall is waking up with all of you on the beach."
"Same here," Usopp contributed, looking uneasy. He shared a glance with Nami, and hedged, "I remember fighting with Nami before dinner, though. Zoro and Sanji fought too."
Sanji flicked a glance at Zoro and looked away again quickly. "I remember that."
"And didn't the Baron show up and say something about- "
"Missing nakama! He said we were missing three nakama, we hadn't even noticed it."
"You don't really have to remember," Luffy interjected, swinging his feet from his seat on the tabletop. He was smiling, but it was with a lot less exuberance than they were used to from the last few days. "Let's talk about where we're going instead, our mystery voyage!"
"'You'," Robin said suddenly, and Luffy blinked at her. "You said 'you don't have to remember,' instead of 'we.' Does this mean you remember the events of that night, Captain?"
Luffy wasn't a liar, and he didn't pretend to be one. It was one of the few constants of the world they could take comfort in. "Well, yeah. But like I said, it doesn't matter."
"It matters to us, Luffy," Chopper said, gazing up at him in earnest. "You were hurt so bad, please tell us why."
"Luffy, we're your nakama," Usopp insisted. "You can tell us. Please?"
Luffy scowled, for the first time in ages, and it was sort of a shock to see that expression on his face all of a sudden. "Jeez! Okay! The Baron was a jerk and got Robin, Usopp and Chopper away from us. Sanji got mad and everyone split up and I met Brief when he saved me from the Baron's weird arrow. Then I beat up the Baron and we all woke up on the hill." He got up to leave, fully annoyed. "See? I dunno why you guys don't remember, but it's not a big deal. I'm gonna go fish now."
He was vague- probably on purpose- but at least it was something. They all put their heads together and got to work on piecing together what they knew; all but Zoro, who followed Luffy.
"I don't wanna talk to you if you're gonna talk about the island," Luffy said frankly when Zoro leaned against the railing beside him.
"Fair enough," his first mate replied, and Luffy relaxed with a wide, grateful smile. Zoro's purpose, as he saw it, was to be Luffy's right hand; an extension of his captain's own self. Most of the time he knew without asking what it was Luffy needed, and he would do exactly that. Call it obedience, the way Sanji or Nami might, but it was really a special brand of care.
On the day they left Omatsuri, Luffy had stumbled and fell; and when Zoro had reached for him, he saw without warning a visage of a Luffy whose eyes were blown wide in panic, mouth dropping open in a horrified cry, face suspended in midair and then slowly slipping away, and within the recesses of what could only have been a memory there was a bone-chilling scream of "Zoro!"
He had blinked himself out of it, focused intently on the Luffy clinging kaola-like to his back, giggling and cheering in his ear, instead of the nightmarish scene his mind had provided him. But after, when the Merry's sails were full and there was nothing but blue seas no matter where he looked, Zoro meditated.
And Zoro remembered.
He had lost to that baron on the island, they had all played right into the bastard's hands, and the consequences were great- Luffy was left lost and on his own.
He remembered, but Luffy obviously wanted to forget. And so he stood by him, because he knew why Luffy had been so happy and clingy, he knew Luffy was trying to reaquaint himself with the knowledge of his crew all alive and healthy, knew he was still burning off the remains of fear and panic and loss in his own way.
Luffy needed him close, needed him not to push or crowd or question, needed him to be strong and steady and immovable, needed him to be living proof that all was not lost and he was still there.
Luffy shuffled a little closer on his rail, and Zoro felt the slight weight of him as Luffy leaned against his arm. He allowed it, because he would always do what his captain needed; and in any case, it was a secret comfort to them both.
It wasn't until after dinner the following night that the topic was broached again, when everyone was out on the deck watching a meteor shower. Luffy, from where he was perched on the railing, legs crossed tailor-style and hands gripping his ankles instead of the ship for support, leaned back and said a little wistfully, "Lots of wishes are getting made tonight."
The wandering remark was met with weighted silence, and Luffy didn't notice as he leaned back a little farther still, following a particular comet with his eyes.
Nami hesitated, then asked him, "Are you gonna make a wish?"
The captain spun to look at her, grinning. "What would I wish for? All my nakama are safe and sound and watching shooting stars with me!"
Sanji cursed under his breath, and Usopp got up and rushed over to throw his arms around Luffy's shoulders, looking suspciously near tears.
"We're safe and sound," the sniper repeated firmly, and Zoro shot him a proud smile. "Thanks, Luffy."
"You are fit to be captain," Sanji said fiercely, eyes burning, "and none of it was your fault. I should never have told you otherwise, you didn't deserve to hear that. Not when three of us were missing, and you were already worried and confused." He took a long drag from his cigarette, but never broke eye contact. "I'm sorry about that."
Luffy was obviously unhappy at being forced into another conversation about Omatsuri Island, and glanced at Zoro for help; the swordsman only tilted his head as if to say 'best to just get it over with.' "It's okay, Sanji. The Baron twisted everything around- he knew just where to tug and pull to make everybody mad at each other. It wasn't anybody's fault."
"He warned us," Nami said miserably, hugging her knees to her chest, "that we had to have absolute faith in each other. And you had faith in us, Luffy, but it looks like we didn't have faith in each other."
"And the arrows," Chopper whispered. "There were so many arrows- they all disappeared when you beat the Baron, that's why you weren't full of holes, but you were still so hurt."
"But it's all over," Luffy said reasonably, in that simplistic, practical way of his. "I sent that old man flying, and everyone has apologized to each other, and everything's good."
It was like him, to notice the apologies. Robin smiled at him warmly, and the others glanced at each other in uncertainty; it seemed too much like they were getting off lightly with all of this.
They could remember Luffy, his skin covered in a layer of dirt and debris, the whites of his eyes standing out from his face and hair starkly as he looked to them in undisguised anguish, his feet and hands pierced straight through and pinned to rock.
But they didn't remember any pain; they had discussed it, and they could remember seeing him, hearing him- and they could each remember trying to call out to him through a haze of what felt like sleep, because they could feel him struggling and hurting and they needed him to know they were there.
Despite the hurt, and the misunderstanding, and the anger that had festered between them and erupted into something ugly, they had all reached for him as one. And when they woke up on the beach at sunrise, they ran to Luffy the moment they saw him, and gathered around him like there was never any other place for them to be.
Maybe, in the end, they hadn't lost to that man- maybe they were more of a crew than he saw coming, all along.
It had all worked out in the end, the way it always would; thanks to their captain, who giggled at them now, that familiar and very dear "shishishishi" sound they knew to associate with absolute contentment, while behind and above him stars were falling, and there were no words to describe how much they loved him.
"Everything's good," Zoro agreed, and that was that.