Luffy fell behind, and then stopped completely, stock still in the middle of a busy square, staring away with eyes blown wide.
"Luffy?" Nami called back, and frowned when he didn't acknowledge her in the slightest. "Luffy, we can't just linger around, who knows who knows we're here!"
Usopp started to trudge back to their captain, obviously planning on guiding him back to the group, but Zoro stopped him, dark eyes narrowed and intent as he tried to follow Luffy's gaze. "What? Zoro- "
"Luffy, what's wrong?" Robin asked quietly, and from her tone and Zoro's expression, the rest of them went on guard. Sanji took a drag from his cigarette, as well as a few steps forward to put himself in the front, alongside Zoro; because a threat to their rag-tag family could come at anytime, from anywhere, and it was easier to be battle-ready than caught by surprise, and with Luffy so quiet and still it seemed like danger was imminent.
The crowd thinned just enough that they caught a glimpse of an unremarkable man across the square, only drawn to their eye because he was mirroring the same stone stillness as Luffy; and because he was returning stare for stare, with shock and what looked like hunger-
and brave, wild, unassuming Luffy took a step back.
"Okay, back to the ship," Nami declared, plans of shopping and supplies abandoned, because the middle of town was absolutely no place for confrontation- and because anyone who made Luffy look like that, made his arms curl up in front of him and his expression stutter uncertainly, was not someone she intended to allow near him. Usopp ducked past Zoro successfully this time, to reach out and grab Luffy's hand, tugging him away from the stranger and back into step with his crew; but Luffy only stumbled along, head twisting around, eyes locked on the man swallowed up in the crowd, and didn't seem to notice he was moving at all.
It was only when they turned the corner, and Luffy lost sight of him, that he snapped out of it.
"What are- Usopp, let go," he said, pulling free and doubling back toward the square. "Where is- where did he- " He turned, frowning, eyes a little manic, face sort of pale. "That guy- did anyone see where he went?"
"He's gone? He was there just a second ago."
"Luffy-san," Brooke said gently. "Do you know that person?"
"No. Well- I mean, no." Their captain looked positively bewildered. "He looked just like- but it can't be. I mean it couldn't be. But..."
They all stiffened, but Luffy started. Whirled around so quickly he almost tripped, head whipsawing around as he attempted to locate the source of his name.
"There," Chopper said, pointing a hoof, and there he was; coming at them from behind, hands crammed into the pockets of a fine, royal blue tailcoat, eyes bright beneath the rim of a tophat, a tentative smile on his face.
He didn't look at all threatening, but they weren't lowering their guard. Because Luffy's next breath was absolutely pained, and he raised his fists, eyes snapping with fury and fear.
"That's not fair," he bit out. "Stop- stop looking like him! That's not fair!"
The stranger did stop, and he withdrew his hands to hold them out in front of him in a gesture of complete peace. His hands were shaking, Luffy's crew couldn't help but notice, and his smile had vanished.
"I'm so sorry, Luffy," he said quietly. "It isn't like that, it's nothing like that. It's really me."
"No it isn't! You're not him!" One of Luffy's hands flew to his chest, clutched over his scar, fingers digging into the ruined skin like it was a touchstone. "He's dead. They're both dead."
Chopper leaned against Luffy's leg, eyes round and concerned. The rest of them didn't like it either; it was bad news when Luffy started thinking about that scar, that represented the war and the loss and the days spent without his nakama.
Hurt and grief flashed so quickly through the stranger's eyes that the Strawhats might only have imagined it; he cast his gaze down, shoulders trembling for a minute, and his next words were gentle. "I visited his grave last year."
Whatever they were expecting, it certainly wasn't that. Luffy twitched, curiosity winning over wounded rage as he lowered his arms slightly. The stranger took it to heart, and met Luffy's eyes again.
"I brought the sakazuki cups," he said quietly, "three of them, one for each of us. Just like that day when we were little. Same sake, too, even though it didn't taste the way I remembered." His face fell. "Oh, Luffy, don't cry."
But it was too late for that, because Luffy was already crying; shoulders shaking with the utterly silent despair, tears rolling down his cheeks, hands clenched into the fabric of his jacket. "Stupid," he muttered bitterly, "stupid, stupid, stupid big brother, coming back from the dead and telling me not to cry."
And that was all it took for the stranger, who wasn't really a stranger at all, to stride forward and pull Luffy into his arms. And Luffy abandoned his grip on his own shirt to grab onto the front of the man's coat, trembling fingers forming fists and pulling as close as he could.
"Stupid," he sobbed, and the arms around him tightened. "If you didn't die where did you go?"
"I'll tell you everything," he swore. He lifted his eyes over Luffy's shoulders to look at his comrades; they had relaxed only slightly, and regarded him in turn with equal parts curiosity and suspicion. "Is this your crew?"
Luffy sniffed, and came back to himself; wiping his eyes with his sleeve, and smiling, because mentioning his crew always made him do that. "They're my nakama," he informed his brother. "My treasure. Guys, this is Sabo, my other big brother. He died when we were little."
"Nothing about you makes sense, Luffy," Usopp assured him, and they all grinned when Luffy laughed; his brother looked relieved too.
"Well, any brother of yours is welcome aboard Sunny, dead or alive," Franky conceded. "That being said, we should probably head back now. Sanji, do you need to pick anything up for dinner?"
The cook shrugged elegantly, flicking a glance at his captain. "I was going to, but it's not necessary. We could have a barbeque tonight instead,"
which worked in lighting Luffy up, and even if he did cling to Sabo's arm as they walked, and snuck looks at the taller man that weren't at all discreet, he was chirping, "Sanji's the best cook," like his usual self, and beamed at Zoro when the swordsman fell into step beside him, and the world, which always seemed to stop turning in lieu of Luffy's tears, spun on again.
Terrible things happened, and people were cruel; but good things happened, too, much more often when Luffy was concerned. And maybe it was a happy miracle- maybe Luffy's mysterious brother hadn't died. His friends didn't know the story, but they would soon. And if there was a chance, well, they'd give this "Sabo" the benefit of the doubt. Luffy was hopeful and trusting, even at his most suspicious, so they would decide for themselves.
And if "Sabo" was some villain or bounty hunter or Devil's Fruit user, out to hurt their captain in ways that would wound him, cripple him, cut deep and destroy him-
well, they were pirates.
And the sea was an awfully big graveyard.
"Na, hurry, everyone, I want to introduce Sabo to Sunny!"
We'll see, stranger.