The seas were particularly choppy today, despite the otherwise sunny weather. But considering this part of the world used to be a part of Paradise, it was goddamn calm.
Taking a swing of whatever was in the decently-size barrel that towered next him, Zoro lounged on the topmost deck of the ship he had…commandeered. It was a huge war galley, and not too shabby considering it didn’t have a crew anymore. Those who weren’t bodies at this point had literally jumped ship. So now he was just waiting for the ship to drift near an island that held even the hint of a strong bloodlust. Anything that promised a decent challenge.
Or, eventually, when he was well and truly bored, he’d just swim until he hit something.
Yeah, that would work.
Until then, he would just enjoy whatever alcohol he was consuming and take a nap. Enjoy the weather. Meditate. Maybe train a little later. There were some things on the ship that he could lift, and plenty of room to swing. The ship was large and well built, enough that he estimated that it would last a little longer than most before starting to sink from the resulting damage that came from the World’s Greatest Swordsman deciding to do a warm-up.
“Hello, Doctor Tony Tony Chopper speaking! How may I help you?”
“ZORO!” the little doctor squeaked excitedly in delight. “You called! Wait…DID SOMETHING HAPPEN! DID YOU PULL OUT YOUR STITCHES?! ARE YOU BLEEDING?!?!”
“Eh? When did I get more stitches?!”
“Eee?” the reindeer paused in his panicking. “…Oh yeah…Nevermind! What’s going on, Zoro?”
“Nothing,” the swordsman snorted fondly. “Saw that article about you managing to produce six more cures from that heal-all stuff. Congratulations. Another step to curing all diseases, eh?”
“Ah shucks~! I’m not happy at all, you stupid bastard~!” Chopper sing-songed, no doubt squirming in happiness. “It’s just a matter of finding the right combination of herbs, chemicals, and ingredients to mix with and the right incubation periods. But...didn't that article came out a month ago?"
The swordsmen gave a wordless shrug that managed to translate over the Den Den Mushi, “Took me some time to find a snail. I was…occupied for a while. Anyways, I’m thinking of visiting next week.”
“So you’ll get here by next year?” came the innocent inquiry.
Face-faulting, Zoro felt he was perfectly justified in growling angry, indignant protests through the receiver.
Muzzily, Zoro registered another ship drawing up alongside his own. Awoken by a couple of promising signatures on the new vessel, his eye lazily opened halfway in interest. Still, at the moment, it wasn’t quite interesting enough for him to budge from his comfortable spot. From what he could sense, almost a dozen of the people on the approaching ship exuded a presence of something wild and bloodthirsty and bestial.
A thin, eager smirk stretched across his lips. None of them were quite up to par yet, but there was potential. Now if they had a swordsman, Zoro could really get a good fight in. And if they didn’t…
Well, he was bored enough that he might have a go anyways.
“Holy shit!” the sharp exclamation reached his ears. “What the hell happened to this ship?!”
“I don’t think there’s anybody on here...”
“Don’t fucking assume. I know old raiding groups that would make their boats look abandoned, only to jump anyone stupid enough to get careless while investigating.”
“But look at the damage to the masts and hull…This doesn’t just look abandoned, this lady isn’t gonna hold out much longer unless she gets some proper repairs.”
“No. Seriously. GUYS. I don’t think there’s anybody on this ship. And by anybody, I mean any living person or any body. And that’s just not right.”
“D-Do you think it’s h-h-haunted…?”
“Aaaaah, not this again…!”
Zoro’s lips twitched in amusement. If there was one thing in life that only got more amusing as one gets older, it was the sight and sound of newbies scrambling.
“Kurama-nii, com’on! Let’s go EXPLORE!”
His single eye shot open fully as he jolted up in surprise at the high-pitch, squeaky voice, because—whatthefuck?! Was that a KID?!
“Oh for fuck’s sake…BRAT!”
“Boo, boo, stray swordsman, stray swordsman!”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Zoro growled. “Carrot, you know my fucking name!”
“Hey!” one of the Dog Minx guards barked. “How dare you speak so disrespectfully to Lady Carrot!”
“It’s okay~,” the rabbit Mink sing-songed cheerfully, waving the guard off. Out of all the crew, she probably aged the best. Even now, though she looked so different with her long hair and the formal robes befitting of the station she gained, she seemed to have retained so much of the energy and childishness Zoro remembered (when she hadn’t been out to kill them). “Zoro is just grumpy!”
“Jeez,” he grumbled, crossing his arms. “Why do I even bother?” A large bottle was dropped into his lap. Blinking down in surprise a couple of times, he picked it up and glanced at the label before looking back up with a smirk. “Ah. That’s why.”
Unstopping it with a twist, he threw back and drained half the bottle in one go. When he pulled the bottle away, he gave a delighted HAAAH in satisfaction and grinned happily. Watching him, Carrot giggled in amusement, rearranging her robes around her as she settled in for a chat.
“Do you like the new shochu?” she asked, picking up some kind of fruity drink provided for her by one of the bowing Mink maidservants. “Apparently, some of the brewers have figured out a way to use the new species of bamboo on the island’s southern tip to distill alcohol. What you’re drinking is the result.”
“Not bad,” Zoro complimented, draining the last of the bottle before moving to the next. “Not bad at all.”
Carrot smiled happily, her nose twitching and ears bobbing in delight, “I’m glad to you like it!”
Sighing again in satisfaction, the swordsman let his eyes drift to the open wall panels that allowed them a panoramic view overlooking most of New Zou. It was nighttime, but the moonlight and flickering lamps of the city among the thick jungle made everything visible enough. Instead of a solid black, the night was colored with shades of dark blue and silvers, the forest with multitudes of dark, dark green. Even up here, strains of laughter and soft music drifted up to where they were. It was truly a night of warmth and peace; beautiful and for sweet dreams.
“I’m glad,” he admitted quietly, “After the elephant of yours was killed in the War and Zou gone with it, we were all worried about how you guys would do in a new home. Luffy especially. Heh! If that idiot were still here, he’d be absolutely gleeful at how far you’ve guys have come in the two decades since he was last here.”
“And we’d have a big party too!” Carrot chirped excitedly and giggled. Sobering a little, her smile becoming more wistful and she hummed softly in thought, “I know, though. It’s why I eventually decided to come back. So much of this is possible because he insisted on finding us the perfect island. Without the Straw Hats, we would have all died many times over. And after seeing the world outside Zou…it was only right to bring everything I knew back and help all Minks. Not just to rebuild our home, but to make it better. To connect Minks more to the outside world, to show them that there is more to the world than just our village. That they can explore and see it for themselves too.”
He took another draught, “He’d approve.”
Carrot’s smile widened, truly bright and so at peace. He was glad she was content and so fulfilled.
He wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or scoff at the redhead man’s killing intent. Veritably impressive overall; would probably drop a lesser man. It felt distinctly like a cavernous maw ready to devour its victim whole at a moment’s notice. But Zoro had been around for a while now, and it wasn’t doing much for him.
“This your ship?” rumbled the man that the child had called Kurama and another crew member had addressed as Captain.
This was further confirmed by the way the others had gathered around. Some protectively, others in a way that clearly spoke of being fully ready to follow, all of them tense with hands hovering over weapons. Legs crossed and muscles deceptively loose, Zoro guessed he still gave off the scent of a predator even while just sitting there on the edge of the top deck, because none of the newbies were letting their guard down.
Good. They weren’t stupid. Might survive longer.
Letting his eye roam over the motley collection, his senses stretch lazily over the area. From what he could tell, there were nine especially strong individuals in this pirate crew, if the Jolly Roger on the other ship was anything to go by.
Foremost was the short redhead with dark skin that looked suitably hotheaded, ready to lunge up at the one-eyed swordsman despite the distance. However, instead he hung back, braced protectively in front of a spiky-haired little blonde boy peeking out from behind his leg with wide blue eyes. Tilting his head, Zoro could spot another kid, another redhead, practically glued to the back of the older man’s leg. The other noteworthy individuals included: a woman with blue hair and heterochromatic eyes, another short redhead man with pale skin and distinctively jutting brows, an androgynous fellow with gold-frosted, white hair, and a shifty-looking, sandy-haired twerp with dark blue tattoos curling across tanned skin. The other four he had sensed seemed to have stayed behind on their ship. But even without all nine, the others who had boarded in addition to those five and the brats weren’t completely weak.
“No,” Zoro shrugged, finally deigning to answer, “But you won’t find anyone else here anyway.”
“Yeah?” Kurama hedged suspiciously. “And why would that be? This ship is a bit too big for one person.”
Zoro grunted and took another swing of the barrel. Getting to the dregs, he pulled it away from his lips and shook it upside down to see if he could get just a bit more. But nope, this particular barrel was well and truly finished. Sighing, he glanced at the other crew to see that most of them were well and truly peeved at being ignored. The wood underneath the pale redhead man with the jutting brows was starting to smoke and the quiet, deadly schlik noises that seem to result from the blue-haired woman and her teenage girl shadow rubbing their nails together were particularly ominous.
However, curiosity was obviously winning over fear and caution for the two brats that were clinging to the captain. Zoro couldn’t help the way his lips twitched into a faint smile at the two wide-eyed, little tagalongs staring up at him with a curious gleam in their eyes. The blonde brat was particularly bold, only just barely being held back by his (Guardian? Parent?) captain’s hand hovering in front of him.
“Does it matter?” the swordsman finally grunted. So much for a good bout; not with a couple of kids hanging around anyways. Waving a lazy, encompassing gesture, he turned his head slightly to consider what was left on the ship. “I’m going to start training in a bit, so it’s not like this ship is going to be floating for much longer. Salvage whatever you want, I could care less,” he paused as a thought occurred. “Except if it’s booze. Then leave it.”
“And…you’re just going to let us?” the redhead captain narrowed his eyes incredulously. “Are we going to find that some toxic mushroom or shit like that mixed in with the supplies?”
Zoro shrugged inattentively as he gathered his swords in one hand, “If there is, there is. If you’re not gonna take it, then don’t. Do I look like I give that much of a damn?”
With a thunk against the wooden deck, he used his collective swords like a short staff to brace and help him stand back up. The peace had been nice while it lasted, but if these others were going to strip the ship, might as well gather the rest of what he wanted now. Most of the young’uns these days didn’t appreciate good booze anyways.
“Sage Bless…,” someone cursed, voice growing louder and more panicked with every word as the realization seemed to truly dawn on the speaker. “Those…those three swords…Holy fuck, that’s Pirate Hunter Roronoa Zoro!”
“…Who?” asked the shy redhead child, the quiet squeak still managed to carry over the offended confusion.
Casually stepped off the side of the roof-top deck, Zoro landed lightly on the deck below. Given that the group had boarded from the middle while the rooftop deck had been at the bow, Zoro was still a story up from them. However, in the end, it didn’t matter how far or close he was. Upon hearing the name of the infamous pirate hunter, the blonde kid broke away from their captain, running up closer under Zoro with excited stars shining his blue eyes.
“GAARA!” the child admonished excitedly, half turning around back towards his friend with a big, toothy grin. “Roronoa Zoro is the SECOND PIRATE KING’S FIRST MATE! He’s one of the strongest guys around, BELIEVE IT!”
The child’s half-twist revealed what Zoro had initially missed. Attached to a cord tied around his neck and dangling behind the bright poof of blonde hair, was an old straw hat. A serviceable thing with a ragged, red band, it showed signs of having been repaired many times but managing to keep its shape and deceptively simple character. Like this, half-turned to give Zoro a full view…No, it didn’t matter how far or close Zoro was, he could recognize that hat anywhere.
Without making a conscious decision, Zoro moved.
The kid fell onto his backside, staring up with slack features at the man suddenly towering over him. In a blink of an eye, it was like the looming figure had teleported from the spot a few yards away on the upper deck to right in front him. He could feel his hair s whisper across his scarred cheek in the resulting small wind created by the speed, but for all other purposes, he was frozen. Among the crew and their tight-knit family, there were members were huge in stature and certainly more than a few that were taller than this greying swordsman in front him. But the pressure that the figure of legend exuded, the sharp intensity of the one-eyed stare focused on him, was unlike anything the child had ever felt. To his great shame, tears involuntarily welled up his wide blue eyes as he could do nothing but gaze back at the man simply staring down at him. One that studied him intently before suddenly asking in a quietly astounded whisper:
“Where did you get that hat?”
Zoro barely finished asking before he was forced to bring up his sheathed swords to block a vicious swipe with the scabbards. His eye widened as an invisible force accompanied the snarling swing, forcing him to slide back a few more feet.
“Stay away from him,” Kurama snapped in a truly hair-raising snarl, teeth bared and looking like the physical embodiment of a living rage. From the little fangs to the claws on his hands and bare feet to the way he was literally breathing little curls of fire, Zoro guessed that this captain probably wasn’t completely human. Now whether it was a Devil Fruit or a new race, the swordsman couldn’t be sure. However…
“Eeeeh? You want to fight?” he couldn’t help the excited barring of his own toothy, bloodthirsty smirk. Looks like he would be getting his match after all. “Well…then let’s test how sharp your fangs actually are.”
Zoro grunted, “Who do you think?”
“Well hello to you too, Zoro,” Nami sang faux-innocently. “Are you finally going to pay a proper installment for once? It could go a long way toward paying back your debt~!”
Grimacing, he heavy-handedly changed the subject. At this point, he didn’t even know how much he owed her except that it was a lot.
“Chopper’s having me deliver the next shipment of medicine and shit for your sister,” he grunted. “The soothing stuff that helps with the aches and old injuries.”
He was met by a more serious silence, one drained of the previous malicious, anticipatory humor, “…I’ll consider taking a portion out of your debt.”
Zoro blinked in slight shock at the orange-haired Den Den Mushi now pulling a sullen expression, looking off to the side, “Is this really that important? I thought Chopper usually sent you a shipment every few months or so.”
The snail visibly transmitted Nami’s eye roll, “I may be getting it free from Chopper, but the shipment itself has a high market value. It’s like any other painkiller; in large enough amounts it can be made into a narcotic. Usually, I have to hire an armored ferry to get it to Nojiko, but if you’re playing bodyguard…”
“Then you save having to hire anyone else,” he finished resignedly.
“Exactly!” Nami chirped brightly. “Besides, it’s not like your lazy ass is good for much else nowadays, Mr. World’s Greatest Swordsman. From what I've heard, you haven't actually been getting any real challengers lately.”
Zoro simply grunted a non-answer. She wasn’t wrong.
‘Oops,’ Zoro mused off-handedly, but now with a bit of annoyance. ‘I guess nobody’s getting any of the supplies now.’
Readjusting the grip on his blade, he shifted it to press the tip just a little harder against the side of a dark-skinned throat. Around them, the wreckage of the war galley surrounded them like so many random chunks of jutting rock in a grass field. He himself was standing on one of the last, limply bobbing chunks of deck left afloat. And, grudgingly, Zoro found himself impressed even while it warred with the confusion of the unexpected blast from the past.
Why did the kid of some random pirate crew have Luffy’s hat? How, even? Law had been keeping hold of Luffy’s hat for a couple decades now, tied to the scabbard of his cursed nodachi like a flittering charm. A soft, gritting groan disturbed his confused musings, and Zoro’s attention was drawn back to the figure sprawled face-down at his feet.
Peering down unfeelingly at man shifting back into wakefulness, he ignored the desperate and enraged cries directed at him from the man’s crew. Credit where credit was due, the swordsman was impressed with how far the captain and his crew had pushed him.
And they had pushed him.
He certainly hadn’t meant to reduce the galley to quite this much debris, to say nothing about the amount of damage the others had dispensed. Immediately upon attack, most of the boarded crew had retreated. The teenage girl who had been shadowing the heterochromatic woman immediately rushed forward and scooped up the fallen blonde boy while the sandy-haired man with the tattoos had snatched up the redhead child. They and most of the others had quickly gone back to the ship. Besides Kurama himself, that left the blue-haired woman, the short redhead with the brow, and the androgynous crew member to linger tensely at the edges of the fight.
Zoro was quick to notice the unusual speed and the above-average strength, allowing the captain to deliver fast, heavy flurries of swipes and kicks. He also observed that the younger man could control certain elements and forms of energy; including fire, wind, and some kind of spinning orb of ominous, dark purple energy. And if that wasn’t enough, Kurama seemed to have a healing factor that almost instantaneously sealed up cuts. The result was an amount of casual chaos so carelessly dealt out that it was almost nostalgic. But Zoro hadn’t lived or held his title this long because he wasn’t just as able to cause even more amount of damage, and he had learned more than a few things about cutting through fire from Kin’emon. And with enough hits, delivered quickly and severely enough, the healing factor stopped being able to keep up. When he really decided to let loose a bit, he unsheathed two of his swords with a metallic shing! and let his bloodthirst and battle hunger unleashed for the first time in a while. Sensing a change in the flow of battle, or perhaps the amount of danger, the other three bystanders jumped in despite their captain’s protests.
But the World’s Greatest Swordsman had set eyes on his prey. And nothing would get in his way.
“Guh,” Kurama choked, his claws shakily digging into the wood underneath his hands. Gritting his teeth, he struggled to turn his head, glaring up defiantly at Zoro with one vividly red eye. Even like this, nearly cut to ribbons, hair pooling under his head much like his blood pooled underneath his body and hung messily tangled over his half-turned face, whole body trembling with the effort to move…
He was still trying to fight.
The single, narrowed eye staring back at him held no fear despite the blade digging pointedly into his throat. Only a dark and fierce kind of determination, a hard defiance, and a clear refusal to back down. It didn’t matter that he was standing on the brink, this was a man who refused to take a step back. Zoro smirked.
Now here was some potential.
Zoro glanced off to the side carefully, noting the struggling, blue-haired woman clinging one-handedly to a tilting piece of debris. Her other arm was a mess after meeting one of the swordsman’s attacks head on and she would need to that one eye looked at soon. But the remaining yellow eye that stared at them with a look of wild fear, snarling hatred, and barely constrained desperation was more than enough. If he wasn’t careful, she’d probably take his head given half the chance even in her current state. Nearby, the other two who had also jumped in to assist were in varying states of unconsciousness. The pale redhead, in particular, had to be saved when he had dropped unconscious into the water, his head now barely kept afloat by a similar looking crewman who had jumped into the water.
Zoro’s momentary distraction was all Kurama needed. In a desperate move, he flipped onto his back, using the same motion to bat the blade away from his neck and used the momentum to arch half his body up to kick at Zoro’s stomach. Having sensed the incoming attack, the swordsman smoothly turned on one foot and felt the kick brush along his side as he shifted. Without pausing, he quickly drew the tip of his blade back level to the young captain’s throat, abruptly stopping the forward momentum that would have had the man back on his feet. Chest heaving and Adam’s apple bobbing in an attempt to pant through gritted teeth rather than openly in front of the enemy, the redhead refused to break his defiant eye contact with Zoro’s half-lidded one.
“Not bad,” the swordsman finally assessed. “Too wasteful with your movements and a limited variety of attacks, but you’re clever about it. Dodging’s decent, but that seems to be the beginning and end of your defensive capabilities. You fight too much like a beast and rely too heavily on instinct and your healing. So what do you do in a situation like this when your healing factor can no longer keep up? Or do you think you can heal if I cut you in half, head to groin?”
At the blonde blur and scream, Zoro almost jerked back as the now dripping, blonde kid literally jumped in between Zoro’s swords and the kneeling, bleeding captain. Tears angrily streaming down his face, he met the swordsman head on, and Zoro wondered why he was even the slightest bit surprised to be met with another powerful gaze. For all that fear or cold from swimming here was causing the small boy’s body to tremble as he held his arms out protectively, there was a steadfast, immovable determination that gleaned in his eyes and stubbornness that twisted his brow and mouth. With that look, that stance, and that protectiveness paired with the image of a young, pudgy boy with a straw hat hanging around his neck, Zoro couldn’t not stare a little. His only consolation was that his opponent was just as shocked and wrong-footed as him.
“NARUTO!” Kurama yelped. He struggling harder to pull himself up and forward, blood spurting from wounds as he shifted. With a badly hidden frantic note in his voice, he angrily babbled, “What are you doing?! You shouldn’t be here do you not understand how dangerous this is?! GO!”
“NO!” the boy, Naruto, yelled defiantly. “I WON’T GO, BELIEVE IT! I’LL PROTECT YOU NO MATTER WHAT, KURAMA-NII! THERE’S NO WAY I’M GOING TO RUN AND LEAVE YOU BEHIND!”
Grabbing onto the child, Kurama pulled the kid back to himself, too weak to truly move but clearly holding on with all his remaining strength. Only now did fear and desperation enter his eyes, making him look truly trapped and desperate. An animal with its back to the wall and its cub tucked into a corner behind it.
“…Fuck…,” Zoro swore softly, mood firmly killed. With a sigh, he sheathed his sword and grumpily glared at the kneeling, tense captain and his tiny, blonde ward. “Why in the world would you bring a couple of brats into dangerous waters with you anyways?”
A truly poisonous glare was returned as the younger man bristled and spat, “Mind your own fucking business!”
Rolling his eyes, he determinedly strode over and scooped up his beaten opponent and his tiny attachment like a sack of potatoes. Ignoring their annoyed protests and making sure they were properly tucked and restrained under one arm, he leaped off the slowly sinking piece of deck and used the various debris as stepping stones. With a quick pace, he made his way towards the smaller, floating vessel full of people that probably wanted to kill Zoro very dead.
“UNCLE ZORO IS HEEEEEERRRREEE!!!!”
Zoro winced at the noise but huffed in amusement. He had a sudden and vivid image of another long-nosed boy running through a village, screaming on top of his lungs about pirates arriving. So instead of shrugging the brats off, he just stoically plodded along up to the large house sitting on top of the island’s tallest hill and let them hang off him the whole way.
It was truly like stepping back in time. The same dirt roads and the same trees and the same quaint houses that characterized the peaceful East Blue. Despite the vast changes the rest of the world and seas had gone through, these small bubbles managed to remain the same. Part of him was still half expecting to be met by a weedy 17-year-old Usopp in brown overalls. Though with the kids still hanging off like so many strangely shaped burrs or fruits, he wasn’t that surprised to be met by an older Usopp with gray strands running through his curly, black hair. Still skinny, but managing to maintain his lean, New World muscle even under the small paunch he was developing.
Shooing his children away, Usopp chattered excitedly as he (physically, at some points) guided Zoro to his “office”; a mash-up of a workshop, greenhouse, lab, and trophy room. From floor to ceiling on the parts of the wall that were not glass, shelves were filled with old trophies and souvenirs. And while it wasn’t his first time here, the older man was still filled with a swell at warmth at the quiet, almost overwhelming fondness of seeing so many familiar, nostalgic things as he raked his eye over the shelves. Still, he wasn’t so distracted as to wander to close to the braces of carefully-tended, exotic plants that lined the towering windows. Whether or not they were dangerous, he avoided them out of habit and instead looked over a work table holding equally familiar tools and dials. No doubt Usopp’s latest tinkering and prototypes to make small, convenient, everyday things for his family and village.
The swordsman drew up short in front of the fireplace, caught like every other time he visited by the aged flag with its ever-familiar smiling Jolly Roger proudly hung over the mantle. Looking at the lovingly preserved standard displayed so blatantly, he could almost see Usopp bringing kids in here to show them the old thing while telling his tall stories. It was a picture that aroused a mixture of fondness and bittersweet feelings.
Instead of dwelling on it, he smirked, “Heh. Your place is as nice as always. After all this time, it’s still hilarious that you got exactly what that Black Cat bastard wanted.”
Usopp snorted derisively as he scrambled to clear a tablespace, eventually throwing Zoro a bottle of good ol’ East Blue sake (and it smelled strong enough to actually have been distilled when these waters were still called that), “Kuradeel didn’t live on this island his whole life. Even if I’m the ‘crazy boy who cried pirates’ or a ‘no-good pirate’, I was born here and raised by the village. They’re not gonna say anything when I’m married and settled with kids and ‘trying to make something of myself’. It’s too much like an extended family. We’re insular like that.”
They talked in a way they didn’t use to very often on the Merry or Sunny. Back then, it was all about focusing on the next big thing or goal, the next adventure, the next danger. Their relationship was simply different. Zoro was the protector, and Usopp the best friend and a reminder of kindness.
Now, the sharpshooter was married, had four kids, and lived a quiet life as his island’s guardian and local handyman. Now, when they talked, it was catching up on how Usopp’s kids and wife were doing, any problems he had to deal with in terms of other pirates or bandits, what Zoro had been up to and who he had faced off with recently, and what the others’ have been up to.
“I didn’t realize how weird it was before,” Zoro admitted, taking a sip of the scotch, “But most people don’t return home and settle down after they leave like we did. Well, Franky, Carrot, and Brook have. But Water 9 is a moving city and frankly its own shitshow, New Zou is still getting back on its feet, and Brook deserves retirement. Even Robin’s still traveling around for research, rather than staying in Prometheus.”
“Aaahhh…” Ussop sighed with a slightly tremulous smile and muttered. “I still can’t believe she named the center of learning she established after a guy who keeps getting his liver picked out. Her humor is as dark as usual…”
They shared a mutual nervous look before breaking out into chuckles. Zoro finally took the chance to flop down onto one of the couches with a heavy sigh before taking another swing. So comfortable.
“But really,” he drawled, gesturing lazily towards the gathering of maps pinned up on the far wall. “With all that talk of Noland, I always thought you were going to continue exploring for a while.”
Usopp fiddled with a screwdriver, his lips pressed in a thin line.
“I was,” he admitted. “And I kinda did? I still take trips sometimes with Kaya and the kids, but before? By myself?” The long-nosed man sighed. “It wasn’t the same by myself. It just…”
Wasn’t the same without Luffy.
A tense silence fell between them. It wasn’t so much hostile as it was just an old, mutual sore. For a bit, only the cheerful chirps of birds tapping outside the window and the distant, muffled sound of children thundering around could be heard. But their silence was a heavy one, isolating and muffling despite the sunlight streaming in.
Always one to try to lighten the mood, Usopp cleared his throat awkwardly. “But it was also because of Kaya, too. After Raftel and the War and coming back, I saw that Kaya had really come into her own! And she waited for me and kept waiting for me and that was amazing! My dad…,” the curly-haired man paused again. “My dad was a great man. A brave warrior of the sea. One of the famed Red Hair Pirates, the Red Hair Emperor’s Sharpshooter.” Zoro raised an eyebrow at him to continue when the younger man paused again. Usopp huffed in something like fond, weary finality, “But he was a lousy husband.”
He knew it was something that took years for Usopp to come to terms with. Like Luffy, the sharpshooter was a child at heart, innocent in a way that made it hard for them to keep grudges. The boy that told tall tales just didn’t have that kind malicious personality. However…
Zoro’s eyes subtly drifted to the gathering of framed photographs on Usopp’s personal desk in the corner. The light of the setting sun gleaned off the glass protecting the pictures, but he that there were two photos there devoted to the man’s parents. One with a grinning, mischievous child with his long-nosed mother, and another with a young pirate grinning rakishly with an older pirate. Yasopp would always exist in a space of longing, grief, and admiration for Usopp. Even now when those scars were old and tough.
“It’s just…I was—am the Straw Hat’s Sharpshooter. Just like my dad was Shanks'. Always will be, doesn’t matter if we don’t sail together anymore. But I’m not my dad. I remember my mom raising me alone, us living on the outskirts. People weren’t unfriendly, but Mom got all these pitying looks about a husband that ran off and left her with a kid. And she was alone. Mom was understanding and she kept saying she was okay…but she was alone without the man she loved right up ‘til the end and she didn’t have to be,” Usopp swallowed. “And I don’t want the woman I love to go through that.”
Zoro smirked, “A man has to follow and honor his own code.”
“Yeah…,” Usopp returned with a sheepish but proud smile. The maturity and contentment of it changed the other’s very being, made him look like a warrior of the sea that Luffy had steadfastly believed some 17-year-old, little, lying punk could be. “What about you? Did you go home again for a bit?”
Zoro knew what Usopp was implying. As a crew, they went through a lot of shit together. That meant, at one point or another, their pasts came back to haunt them, Zoro’s included. But whatever the case, when he thought about home, he didn’t think of that place he had first ran from as a kid, before he had started taking on martial arts schools. He thought about a dojo that now lacked any of those familiar and comforting faces, a stone gravestone he left incense in front of, a wooden marker on a cliff overlooking the sea, one ship with a lion’s head, and another with a sheep’s.
Besides, his old captain had taught him long ago that the meaning of home was as flexible and fluid as anything else in their lives. Journeying with him meant learning how to walk the entire world and always be home no matter where you went.
Zoro glanced at Usopp, who glowed with contentment surrounded by his home, his wife, his kids, and his work. A satisfied smile twitched on his own face.
He had homes in plenty of places.
When Zoro set foot on the ship of the Tailed Beasts Pirates, he was almost immediately approached by a small, green-haired girl smiling brightly at him. However innocent it seemed, the smile instinctively raised the hairs on the back of Zoro’s neck and put him on his guard.
And rightly so. Because, while still smiling, she sharply kicked him in the shin hard enough to break most people’s bones and then tried to throw some kind of sparkling powder in his face. Thank whatever deity was out there that Zoro still retained the instinct to dodge around whatever wayward puffs of pollen Usopp’s plants would let loose.
It took some calming down, a good deal of shouting and threats, and fishing back up remaining members (all while everyone eyed Zoro suspiciously). But eventually, all injured parties were being examined and treated. Somehow, Zoro was left sitting against a wall outside the medic bay with the tiny blonde rugrat and a few hovering, hostile crew members. Glancing out of the corner of his eye at the sullen (but at least now dry) blonde child, he wondered what in the world did he do in a past life to end up being stuck with such a sorry-looking brat. Curled up into himself with the most kicked-puppy expression Zoro had ever see, he looked so lonely that the older man felt an uncomfortable pang and the rare, quiet, seating panic he had because he did not do crying women or children.
“So,” he cleared his throat. “How did your captain end up hauling around a bunch of teenagers and four-year-olds with his crew?”
“HEY!” the kid yelped, uncurling and flailing and not seeming to realize just how LOUD he was. “I’M SIX, NOT FOUR! GAARA IS TOO! WE’RE NOT BABIES, BELIEVE IT!”
Raising an eyebrow at the speaking quirk, he peered down at the glaring little boy. Well, in all fairness. it didn’t seem like this kid was all that normal either. Somewhere in the back of his head, Zoro wondered if this was how Luffy was like as a child. According to Sabo, his younger brother use to be such a loud brat and would swear up and down that ‘grown’ Luffy had much approved.
To this day, there were still some doubts about that.
“Okay…,” he tried again. “So why are a bunch of kids tagging along with a pirate crew?”
“BECAUSE…!” the kid started then trailed off, voice becoming quieter. Lips set back in a stubborn pout, he glared back at Zoro with his chin jutted out and arms crossed. “Because Kurama-nii’s the captain! And we go wherever he goes!” he finished stubbornly as if that explained everything.
And maybe it did. Looking more closely, there were definitely some facial similarities between this kid and the guy Zoro had put in the medic bay. Earlier, the shy redhead boy, the little green-haired girl, and the teenage blonde from earlier (who had a glare that promised a knife in the dark) had also referred to the captain as ‘Kurama-nii’. That, along with the sheer amount of redheads onboard was making him wonder if they weren’t just all related in some way or another. With the way the kids (everyone) gravitated around the guy, Kurama might very well be the head of the floating household rather than a pirate ship.
“Anyways, whelp,” the swordsman side-eyed the small, pouty boy. “Where did you get that hat?”
“I’M NOT A WHELP!” was the immediate, reflexive response. But then the kid drew up like he finally registered the question. Blinking a few times as the wheels almost visibly turned in his head, he then narrowed his eyes and examined the older man suspiciously. “…Why?”
That look was sure something. For all that it probably was supposed to be intimidating, Zoro was reminded more of a suspicious baby fox unsure whether it should eat the butterfly or not. But still…the look of examination was pretty piercing for a kid. It was that weird, jarring mash of impressions that made Zoro decide to be honest with his answer.
“I knew the man who previously owned that hat,” he answered. “And I know the guy who was supposed to be holding onto it. It’s an important hat. I hadn’t realized he given it to someone.”
“Oh,” the kid blinked up at him in clear surprise. Pulling the cord over his head, he held the hat between his hands and studied it with furrowed brows. Looking back up at Zoro, he asked, “The guy who owned it…Was he your friend?”
Zoro nodded. “My captain,” he answered quietly.
At the edge of his awareness, he could sense the current of shock that ran through the crewmembers within hearing distance. It didn’t seem like anyone knew or had quite made the connection until now, and Zoro was starting to wonder if maybe the hat really was stolen. In which case, somewhere out there, one Surgeon of Death was making life very miserable in that part of the world. Meanwhile, here, the swordsman wasn’t quite sure what was going on in the kid’s head, but there was clearly some internal struggle going on.
“Kurama-nii gave it to me, believe it!” the kid confessed. “When I still lived in the village, Kurama-nii came to visit me a lot and he gave it to me one day when I was a baby,” he declared in a manner that clearly stated that he didn’t think he was a baby anymore. Thrusting the hat up, he held it out with a mixture of resolve and reluctance. “But if this was Monkey D. Luffy’s, then it’s super-important to you, right?! You can have it back!”
Blinking in surprise, Zoro eventually huffed in amusement and gently pushed the hat back at the kid, hearing an amusing little oof as the kid got straw smoshed into his face. “It’s fine. I think maybe you are supposed to have it. I just want to know where your captain got the hat from and how.”
“If you know what that hat is, then you know damn well who I got it from.”
Upon hearing his voice, Naruto spun around in his seat so fast that he ended up flopping onto the deck in his excitement. By the time Zoro had raised his head to meet the scowling captain’s gaze, the kid and managed to scramble back up and physically throw himself at Kurama as the red-haired man pushed fully past the medic bay. Without missing a beat, the captain carefully leaned down and scooped the child into his arms, letting himself be practically strangled in a hug without protest (despite how the bandages indicated that he was probably in a lot of pain).
Zoro simply grunted, “Had to be sure.”
He was answered by a sneer that was at odds with the gentle way the redhead ran his claws through scruffy, blonde hair, “Well now that you’re sure. Can we move onto discussing why the fuck you’re still on my ship? Or what happened back there?”
The swordsman simply raised an eyebrow, “You mean where you overreacted in the most destructive way possible?”
A look of embarrassment flashed briefly across his face before Kurama was back to scowling, “And you were clearly chomping at the bit for a fight and decided that the best response was to have a full-out, bloody war?!”
“Hey, I rarely get decent challengers nowadays,” Zoro replied unapologetically. “So kudos for getting me to draw a blade at all, much less two, I guess.”
“…Okay,” Kurama muttered, taking a bracing breath. Practically speaking through gritted teeth, he seethed, “Let’s…try again. I’m Uzumaki Kurama, Captain of the Tailed Beast Pirates. This is my nephew, Uzumaki Naruto.” Briefly interrupted by a cheerful ‘hi!’, he continued, “You’re currently aboard my ship, the Bijuu. I’m not sorry for attacking you, but I am sorry I didn’t kick your ass.”
Much to Kurama’s clearly growing frustrations, Zoro simply smirked mockingly in amusement. “Roronoa Zoro, World’s Greatest Swordsman. I’m not sorry for escalating. It was fun.”
“Of course it was,” the redhead muttered, rolling his eyes with an expression that distinctly reminded Zoro of the times Nami complained about getting a migraine from all the surrounding stupidity.
“Still wondering,” he snickered. “How did you end up with so many brats onboard?”
“I’m family,” Kurama barked defensively in such a way that suggested it had been asked before in a less friendly way. Shifting, his scowl at Zoro deepened before sighing and sliding down the wall into a sitting position next to the lounging swordsman. Muttering grumpily, he rearranged a delighted Naruto to rest in his lap. “Besides, with how it was where they lived, they’re better off here. Even with all the dangers.”
Studying the way the man was worryingly taking care of his younger charge and the reluctant way he spoke, Zoro suddenly had an epiphany.
“…So…,” he drew out his conclusion, “Apparently, for all that you play the tough guy, you’re actually a mother hen that picks up every sad case you come across.”
Seeing movement out of the corner of his eye, Zoro jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the corner off to the side with a mocking smirk, “Well if those aren’t baby ducklings, I don’t know what is.”
Looking over, there was a gaggle of children and teenagers peering around the corner. More than few were glaring daggers at Zoro, while the rest were obviously trying to restrain themselves as they focused worryingly on the short, injured captain. Someone had clearly instructed them not to rush the man while he was injured. Leaning over, Kurama sighed in exasperation when he caught sight of them, but wasn’t quite able to hide the fond quirk on his lips. Pushing his nephew back onto his feet, he gently scooted the boy towards the others.
“Go tell the other brats to help get dinner ready,” Kurama ordered. “I’ll finish talking with our…guest here and then come join you.”
Hesitatingly, Naruto peered apprehensively at Kurama, then Zoro. Clearly, there was still some confusion and worry, especially now that he had a semi-friendly talk with one of his idols. However, he hadn’t forgotten that the man had threatened to cut his uncle in half either.
“Listen to your captain, whelp,” Zoro urged, amused despite himself.
Puffing up his cheeks in annoyance, he pouted at the green-grey haired man. “I’M NOT A WHELP!” he shouted indignantly. Moodily, he yanked the straw hat firmly down over his head. Squaring off with a seated Zoro, he declared determinedly, “I’M GONNA BE THE GREATEST PIRATE KING EVER! EVEN BETTER THAN MONKEY D. LUFFY! THEN THE WHOLE WORLD WON’T DISRESPECT US AND EVERYONE WILL START TREATING ME LIKE I’M SOMEBODY! BELIEVE IT!”
As if it would prove his point, he stuck out his tongue and blew a very demonstrative raspberry before running off. In his wake, he left behind a stunned Zoro and a snickering Kurama.
“Aren’t you suppose to be restoring books or something?”
Robin just smiled that frankly irksome mysterious smile at him, “I needed to confirm a few annotations in some of the scripts. As you were in the area, I thought we should take this opportunity to spend some time together.”
Which was just fine, except for the new wave of challengers that made the mistake of thinking that aiming for Robin would leave Zoro wide open. And though she was able to take care of them herself, she was perfectly happy to just sit there and giggle in amusement as Zoro dispatched them with much grumbling and a certain amount of prejudice.
“You obviously have things to do and I don’t need a damn keeper.”
“Some would say otherwise,” Robin hummed innocently while flipping through another page of notes.
“And some would say that the damn witch ought to mind her own business,” Zoro growled. “I have gray hairs now, no thanks to you lot. It’s not like I’m some young punk or frog in a well anymore.”
“Zoro,” the woman scolded with a single word. Staring at him with those owl-like, blue eyes, she looked at him with her personalized neutral face of disapproval and determination. “Luffy wouldn’t want us to leave you alone.”
He huffed grumpily before turning away from her to continue his nap.
Like he didn’t already know that.
Zoro stared after the retreating blonde brat incredulously.
“Are the two of you D’s?” Zoro grunted.
Kurama blinked back at him with clear confusion written across his face and in the furrow of his brow, “What’s a D?”
Zoro didn’t know whether to be disappointed or sigh with relief. Instead, he just waved off the question with a vague gesture.
“Nevermind,” he grumbled. “Seriously though. If you really met Law, then you ought to know who that hat belonged to. And why I need be sure you actually got it from him.”
Watching him as he was, he couldn’t have missed how Kurama exchanged speaking glances with some of the hovering crew members. No doubt, they were really there to guard Zoro and try to make sure he didn’t do anything they didn’t approve of, but they apparently also served as advisers. Something conveyed between those silent looks seemed to displease the redhead captain because he grimaced before letting out a gusting sigh that bordered on a weary, reluctant growl.
“When he gave it to me, he said that I might meet with people who recognized the hat,” Kurama mumbled. “But he also warned that they might not recognize it a good way.”
“Yeaaaa...,” Zoro agreed, grimacing himself when he recalled the incident with one of Kaido’s Calamities. “Fine, I get it. You were right to be wary. How did you meet Law anyways?”
“…This isn’t my original body,” the other admitted. “I was…a prisoner before. All my siblings were. We were too powerful to be allowed to run around ‘unchecked’,” Kurama snarled, clear resentment and hatred burned into every line of his body. “When I finally escaped, I was badly injured. Trafalgar D. Water Law saved my life. In the state I was in, my body apparently gave out while healing. Apparently, because there was a fresh, compatible body around at the time, he gave me a new one.”
Well…fuck. Theoretically, Zoro had known about the implications of Law’s power. In fact, so many had come after their allied captain because of the extent of his powers. But this…it was something that Law couldn’t even offer Luffy back then. It was one thing to switch the “hearts” between living beings, another to shift it into a dead body. And at the time, there was none available, especially one that was compatible with a D. Luffy wouldn’t have accepted it anyway, but Zoro remembered Law silently agonizing over the lack of being able to do something or even present viable options.
“We met up a couple of times here and there after that,” Kurama continued. “Not that I knew who this creeper actually was the first few times. Just that he had a look that curdled milk, the worst bedside manner known to man, and was a weirdo that carried around a giant sword he never used with a straw hat tied to it. But I owed him, and I was unlucky enough to keep meeting up with him.” Here, the younger man shifted uncomfortably. “Truth is, he didn’t give me the hat so much as he had me deliver it to Naruto like some errand boy. At the time, they hadn't even met yet. I'd told him about Naruto before, showed him a picture once, complained about him being a little shit and how the village he was in didn’t treat him right. And…I don’t know. One day, we’re talking and he suddenly plops the thing in my lap, said he was taking a gamble, and just walked off.”
Aaaannddd it was Zoro’s turn to grimace. Because that sounded right but told him exactly nothing about why Law would make such a choice. “Yeeeaaahh…He tends to do that.”
“…Huh,” the redhead’s nose scrunched in thought. “Glad to know it’s not just me then. But now I owe the fucker twice over. Once for saving my life, and another for helping me escape from pursuers when I first stole Naruto.”
“So you are a kidnapper,” Zoro drawled.
The green-gray-haired man shrugged, “At least no one would contest the family resemblance. Not sure about the others though. Are you sure you should be allowed to have so many kids?”
“Sage Bless, I think I preferred when you were trying to kill me,” Kurama growled, half to himself and half to the surrounding crew. Unfortunately for the captain, half of his present crew members were snickering. Off to the side, Zoro spotted money surreptitiously changing hands. “Well there’s your explanation. Happy?”
“Still finding it a bit hard to believe,” Zoro answered frankly. “From what I’m hearing, you’re saying that Law—LAW—apparently gave you my captain’s hat because he got—begrudgingly—charmed by your kid.”
“The brat kinda does that. He grows on you,” was the answering shrug, though there was a hint of smug pride in Kurama’s voice. “Like lichen or a tapeworm. When the two first met, my brat actually had the balls to call Trafalgar-fucking-Law Traffy.”
“No shit?” Zoro grinned disbelievingly. Ah, maybe he could see why Law might have decided to take a gamble. Why he chose these people to see if they could carry on the era. “So…what exactly are you sailing for? Money? Fame?”
Making an offended noise like a cat with its tail stepped on, Kurama practically jumped out of his skin while rebuking Zoro’s implications with an angry scowl, “Money? Fame? Try wanting to be free!” The swordsman couldn’t help but notice the mixture of stubborn defiance and yearning, bone-deep rage and hunted fear in the way the other spat out that last word. It echoed in his speech as he continued, “I want to never be put back in a cage or chained up. Or be used as someone’s weapon or personal attack dog. I want to never have my free will stolen away again or follow the orders of someone who looks at me as if I’m nothing but an animal or mindless beast!” At this point, his voice had risen enough to attract attention to his tirade, but he didn’t seem to notice. When he paused and visibly seem to reel himself back in, it was on his volition. Grimacing to himself, he continued more levelly, “I…want me and my people to not have to be worried about being ripped away from all…this,” he waved over the bustling ship. “It ain’t much but it’s more than what we ever had before and we’re stronger together. We can help and defend each other like this. I want the kids to have an actual childhood, and grow up among others who get them. Where they’re not alone or outcasts or treated like they’re less than human for something that was decided for them by the very people who then mistreat them. To know they have a place here where they can be children and not weapons or soldiers. That there are people who love them and that they know, without a doubt, that they have a goddamn support system that tells them they can, even when the rest of the fucking world keeps telling them they can’t.”
Staring at the heavily breathing, angry captain with a shocked eye at the tirade, Zoro couldn’t help but recall another pirate, one he hadn’t met but had heard plenty about, who also mainly focused on his own family. One who had adopted hundreds of men and women, called them his children, and encouraged them to sail free under his banner. And while the swordsman primarily knew the man through the infamous legacy left behind, he could still vividly remember Luffy’s accounts of a man who ordered his children to flee as he held off the enemy, and died standing proudly like the bigger than life figure he actually was.
“You’re pirates,” Zoro scowled. “You’re not exactly trapped anymore, so what’s the problem?”
Kurama gave a moody shrug, “There are still people after us,” he confessed. “But there always is. At the moment though, if we could take out motherfucking Akatsuki and that bitch Kaguya, then at least we don’t have to worried about being sacrificed to a tree or absorbed.”
“And in the meantime, you’re just on the run?” the swordsman asked skeptically, needing confirmation because geez. As he lived and breathed, the world just somehow never stopped getting weirder.
He blamed Luffy. He never noticed or stumbled over shit like this before they met.
Without really thinking about, he said as much out loud. From the way some of the others were snickering and giggling though, he had grumbled it a little too loudly. He was most surprised to hear a sputtering laugh off to his side and turned to look just quickly enough to see the genuinely amused smile on Kurama’s face before he slapped a dark hand over his mouth to hide it. It was enough to bring an amused smirk to Zoro’s own lips, one without the eager bloodlust or the helpless sadism.
“But I guess it’s never boring,” he snickered. Suddenly, the atmosphere was a good deal warmer, more companionable. They were still two warriors, two bestial monsters, who would go for each other’s throats in a heartbeat. But at least now there was a feeling of mutual respect buzzing between them.
Hell, Zoro was starting to understand why Law got on so well with the guy. His own relationship with the Surgeon of Death used to be the exact same, though that had evolved over time into the camaraderie of people having fought on the same side of a war together. And possibly, given time, he could see his relationship with this young man turn into something similar. Though instead of a war, Zoro would get the benefit of a proper challenger.
“There’s that,” Kurama agreed wryly, rolling his eyes because the guy just couldn’t seem to do anything without a goddamn attitude.
Like Robin, Jinbei had taken on the responsibility of “routinely hunt down and bother the One-Eyed Swordsman” after they had gradually drifted apart. But at least with the Fishman, Zoro could always count on a quiet and consonant companionship without the studying stares or mysterious half-smiles.
Oh, and the booze. Jinbei always made sure to bring some of the best booze.
“Will you be going to the Gathering?”
Aaaannndd there went his buzz.
“Has any of us ever actually missed it?”
Jinbei rumbled thoughtfully, “No.”
They both took another draught before continuing to meditatively stare out over the sea.
A single lifetime that had simultaneously felt like centuries and seconds had passed. A single lifetime, but so significant. Eras had risen and fallen, and they were the ones who had changed the world. But like all things, even they ended.
There simply was no Strawhat Pirates without Straw Hat Monkey D. Luffy, Captain of the Straw Hats and King of the Pirates. For a long time afterward, anyone who tried to console or taunt Zoro with something along the lines of “the brightest flames burn the fastest” had an intimate encounter with sharp, cutting glances or sharp, cutting blades. Then there was always that one idiot that would try to taunt him about outliving his captain. That one idiot always died.
But Luffy had created both big and small legacies without even meaning to. Over time, the crew may have drifted their separate directions, but Luffy had created a family with bonds that could weather time and distance
They maintained communication. They met up. They gossiped and kept up with each other’s’ lives. And once in a while, they would all meet up to drink and laugh and tell stories and cry and celebrate because that would be what he wanted them to do. That was what they needed from each other. There was only ever moving forward for the Straw Hat Pirates.
And among them, there was a silent, unspoken agreement. As one whole yet divided team, they would watch over and guide this era that Luffy had ushered in with all the force and violence of a hurricane.
As the crew of the Pirate King, they would see to that his name never died.
“Oh, it’s you.”
Sanji snarled back, “Don’t look at me! It wasn’t my fucking idea to come here dammit!”
Among everyone in his old crew, the Shitty Cook was the only one whose Zoro’s relationship with somehow got worse. During the last few days before they split, things were said that Zoro somewhat regretted but refused to ever apologize for and vice versa. As a result, he probably saw the blonde the least.
But the idiot was always the one sent to find him when the others wanted Zoro found or fetched as quickly as possible, and Zoro always kept an ear to the ground about anyone aiming for the infamous Black Leg and his floating restaurants.
“Stupid ass swordsman, always making Nami-swan worry,” the graying blonde huffed moodily as took another drag of his cigarette. For all that he was aging, it didn’t show much on his face. Besides a few crow’s feet around his eyes, he remained the suave, princely looking figure he always strived to be.
“I didn’t ask her to have you check up on me,” Zoro rolled his eyes.
“Nami-swan checks up on everyone, crappy cyclops,” Sanji sneered, the narrowed look down his nose telling Zoro exactly what the other thought of his intelligence.
“Get lost already,” Zoro snarled back, getting more and more pissed off. “I’ll be there on time, so tell her not to get so damn riled up.”
“Whatever. Fucking see you at the Gathering, you wandering piece of molding seaweed!”
“Not if you bleed to death, you perverted geezer!”
“WHAT DID YOU SAY, SHIT FOR BRAINS?!?!”
At some point, they had established the Gathering. It was a bi-yearly reunion where they met up where the Thousand Sunny was being kept, and no one missed it. What would happen if you missed it for anything less than recovering from a near-death experience went unsaid. And even then, Zoro distinctly remembered being bodily dragged to the reunion when his legs were still recovering from a new move gone wrong. Whatever you were doing, wherever you were, you were to drop it immediately and headed towards Fishman Island.
(Though the Witch kept saying that it was because he had a shit sense of time as well as direction. Seeing as it was the same time every two years, most people planned for it and therefore didn’t actually need to suddenly drop anything.)
And for decades, they met like this. To drink, laugh, joke, and talk about what they had seen and the going-ons in the world. But suddenly, a year after Jinbei’s funeral, Zoro looked up during the Gathering and it really hit home that there was one more person gone. And he couldn’t have protected them against it because what could a blade do to age or the ache of old wounds? What could his swords do for a body that just failed to go on?
Over time, he stoically bore witness as, one by one, less and less of his nakama showed up to the Gathering.
Eventually, he stopped going too. He still visited Sunny on his own time, but it wasn’t a Gathering when there was only one person there.
“Eeeehh?!” Franky peered over his sunglasses up at the deck in shock. “ZORO-BRO! YOU GOT HERE FIRST?!”
“Heh,” Zoro smirked. “That’ll show the Perverted Cook. I’m still Number 1.”
And it only involved him threatening a pirate crew he overheard was heading for Fishman Island to take him there at sword point and then having one of the huge Mermaid Princess-Queen’s brothers take him to Sunny. That Shirahoshi had not only kept the Thousand Sunny safe, but also well maintained, never failed to warm Zoro. Especially when seeing the gleaning ship and the smiling sunflower-lion head.
“Iceburg and your Family doing okay?” Zoro grunted.
“SUPPPAAA~!” Franky cheered and grinned, climbing up to join Zoro.
He really should have seen that answer coming.
Gazing over the bustling Bijuu with his one eye, Zoro wistfully remembered another time, other moments. He wasn’t one to dwell on the past, but even he had been having moments of weakness when his mind was quiet lately. Moments where he could recall little events that shone like jewels in his memory. That drove him throughout his life, glimmers of a foggy past colored in pale, ordinary-but-loving colors. Like the time he had with Kuina, and their promise to compete and reach for an impossible dream. Those were the most important. They were what drove him towards the goal that had dominated so much of his life. And when that dream was achieved, he had attained reasons to keep maintaining that title. After all, the Pirate King deserved the World’s Best Swordsman at his side. Their little family deserved the very best and strongest in protectors.
To this day, he doesn’t quite remember the time leading up to that moment when he met the boy with a toothy grin, a worn straw hat, and a dream even more impossible than his own. All that remained of that before-period was his epithet. There was a slew of islands. A line of pirates in the form of bounty heads. Lukewarm fights. Alcohol. Then it was hot, he remembered that. It was hot and he was starving, thirsty, and drowning in his own stench and filth. Young as Zoro was, he hadn’t really thought through what being tied to that execution post had entailed. Hunger and thirst and exposure to the elements were obvious factors. But he had sorely underestimated the boredom that made time suddenly stretch dauntingly out in front of him, and it had not occurred to him when he had recklessly made that bet that he literally had no other choice but to shit and piss his pants once bound.
He had been the first. And yet somehow, it was fitting that he was the last. And side-eyeing the man slumped next to him who watched over his ship and his crew with warm eyes, being able to pick out the yelling, bouncing brat with a familiar straw hat, Zoro may very well be the one that made sure the seas remained free for the ones who dreamed and couldn’t stop running.
He found Brook at the foot of what was once Reverse Mountain. The skeleton was humming to himself in a way that put Zoro on edge. Not in fear of himself, but because he recognized better than anyone the feel of someone lost in a dark part of their mind. And frankly? Brook never had the most stable mindset. Time among the Straw Hats never allowed anyone the time to truly rest in the shadowy, hungry parts of their psyche, but it didn’t fully dissipate them. And spending half a lifetime alone in the dark, shadowed by his own death as well as the death of his entire crew, made marks.
Brook abruptly stopped humming. He just sat there for a few moments, completely still, before slowly turning his head. There was a still emptiness that Zoro wasn’t used to from the animated skeleton, and he waited until the older man registered who was there.
“Ah, Zoro-san,” Brook finally greeted warmly. “I was just singing for Laboon and Crocus-san. Laboon loves music.”
Zoro’s heart sank, but he didn’t let it show on his face. Striding over, he sat down heavily next to the old skeleton on the short wall that used to be part of the lighthouse.
They rested there in silence for a bit, Zoro rubbing a thumb gently across the edge of Wado Ichimonji’s guard. For some time, there was simply the lap of waves against stone, crashing as it hit and hissing as it receded. Birds cried overhead. But for all purposes, there was only barren rock, the last bit of worn ruins, and the ever-stretching ocean. Zoro was the one who finally broke the silence, not quite able to hide the tension running through his body.
Side-eyeing the musician, he tried faux-casually, “The nurses said you suddenly disappeared. Something up?”
Brook simply hummed a non-answer, “No, I was just feeling a little bit lonely. The ladies are wonderful, but unfortunately, I find that the facilities aren’t quite the same without Chopper there anymore. So I decided to come here.”
Zoro blinked in confusion, before scowling into the middling distance, “If that’s the case, then it would have been better if you waited for me. You could come with me, or I could stay there. You don’t have to come here.” By yourself, went unspoken.
“It’s better that I came here,” Brook rebuked him gently.
The response only served to deepen Zoro’s frown, “Brook—“
“I know Laboon has passed, Zoro-san,” the skeleton cut him off. His tone still warm, but now with a note of weariness in it. “I know sometimes I forget, but I remember my time living alongside Crocus-san and Laboon. I remember Crocus-san passing away. And Laboon…120 years old…He was old even for his kind…”
“Then why did you come back here?” Zoro pressed insistently, not liking the direction this was going, what he could sense in his fellow swordsman. But at the same time, how could he stop it? “There’s nothing here left for you.”
Brook simply hummed, and they both sank back into silence for a while longer. Slowly, the sky started to color as the sun sunk closer to the horizon. The sky and water turned from its usual blue to shades of red, orange, purples, and blank, all tinged with flashes of gold.
It was beautiful. Beautiful and made the horizon seem like it was right there. Like if they sailed towards the line, they could touch the sun itself. A yearning stirred in Zoro; a want to rush at it, even though he knew there would be nothing there for him.
"Zoro-san,” Brook finally disrupted the silence, his voice gravely serious. Even as he spoke, his eyes never left the horizon or the sinking sun. “I think it’s time for me to go.” A soft sigh left from between his teeth as skeletal hands tightened on the purple sword cane he carried to this day. “I have lived for a very long time now. I have outlived eras and two Pirate Kings and seen the rising and setting of the world over and over again. I have seen wonders that a man simply couldn’t imagine and I have been blessed over and over again with wonderful friends, a second chance, the ability to keep my promise, and wonderful lives.” There was another brief pause, long enough that Zoro turned his head to look at his old friend. With just bones and the odd stillness that Brook had taken to lately, there were no physical signs, but the living swordsman could still sense the others’ struggle. “But I have also outlived my first captain, outlived my crew, outlived my second captain, outlived Laboon...And as I look at you Zoro-san…,” Brook turned his face to meet Zoro’s eye, a sadness in the eye sockets, “Your hair is no longer green…”
“No…,” Zoro agreed stoically, “It’s not.”
“And I have remained the same,” the musician sighed. “Once you have also passed on, I will have officially outlived my second crew. I think I have outlasted enough families, Zoro-san.” Taking his cane, he hoisted himself up, all elegant gentlemanly posture and lines. “And I will not live to see you pass before me.” Placing his top hat jauntily, Humming Brook raised a sweeping arm dramatically and cheerfully laughed, “Yohohohohoho! Farewell…Zoro-san!”
With that, he strode away.
And Zoro was left sitting there alone.
It wasn’t at all like looking at a snapshot of the past, but Zoro found that he preferred it that way. He wanted to see what these young ones could do. With the way others looked towards Kurama, the man could very well be the next Whitebeard, even if he physically was the pure opposite of the man who was once the most feared Emperor of the Sea. And with the way Naruto seem to draw in people’s reluctant affection, even Law’s apparently, there was the whisper possibility. It really sunk in that, maybe, after all this time, the Surgeon of Death had decided to choose someone.
“Then I guess it’s my turn,” Zoro muttered, a bittersweet memory of a chat he had with Rayleigh long ago. Straightening up, he lazily cracked his neck, groaning as he finally got the crick out and announced more loudly, “Fine, I’ll train you and your lot.”
This announcement was met with shocked and incredulous looks. Both from the ship’s captain as well as the ones not so subtly hovering nearby.
“What,” Kurama finally managed to respond flatly, looking like he’d really like to try again at drowning Zoro.
“You and the other eight that feel the same,” the swordsman clarified. Lost in thought, he scratched at his chin as he thought about the logistics. “Maybe even your kids too.”
“If you’re going up against that new Moon Empress or whatever she calls herself and those cloud-cloak brats, you’ll need to be stronger,” Zoro continued as if not hearing or noticing Kurama’s rapidly rising indignation. “But if I’m training multiple people, then I guess I’ll actually have to stick around for a bit. Or at least come back.”
“Kurama,” a bubbly voice interrupted anxiously. A younger, rounder man quickly made his way over to stand by the fuming captain. Placing a hand on the man’s shoulder, he muttered quietly to Kurama appeasingly, “This might not be a bad idea. He’s strong. And if he really means well and wants to teach us, the rest of us are definitely willing to do our best to learn.”
Kurama clearly wasn’t any better than his nephew at hiding his feelings, and Zoro had a front-row seat to see the pride, resentment, wariness, and practicality warring with each other across the younger man’s face. He seemed to have to consciously unclench his jaw as he practically hissed an unhappy but defeated sigh
“Fine,” Kurama relented. “But we’ve got things to do and places to go and we can’t afford to stop, so we’ll have to learn on the go. Also, I’m not going to help if the kids try to kill you, you shitty cyclops.” Oh, well that was familiar. “But if you touch a hair on their heads—!”
“I won’t touch your chicks, you flaming mother hen,” Zoro rolled his eyes and ignored the answering squawk. Studying the crew members, plans forming in his head, the swordsman couldn’t help the anticipation that rose in him and made him hyperaware of every fiber of his being. He would help them, train them, then let them loose. Watch them evolve. And eventually, they would also make their mark on the world.
Eventually, they would challenge him.
“Come on then,” Zoro smirked, blade-thin and dangerous. “Let’s see what the new generation is made of.”
Hey, it's been a while.
Yeah. So. Revision after revision after revision. And then you realize that you've hit a certain page number and it's time to turn your one BIG second chapter into 3 smaller, bite-sized chapters.
Hope you enjoy!
He had read the papers and seen the blaring broadcasts. When passing through towns and villages, he had picked up on the excited chatter and gossip. Even the number of challengers had dipped in recent days, distracted as everyone was.
And somehow, he still managed to be somewhat surprised when Kurama appeared before him like a storm with bruise-dark bags under red eyes and an almost unperceivable tremor in his clawed hands. Small but alarming things that weren’t immediately obvious with the man’s usually loud, blustering, and biting tongue. It wasn’t like stress was an unusual look for him. Zoro had accompanied the family during the when the man was essentially raising a gaggle of children while mediating the extreme personalities among his crew. It had been a spectacle of herding cats, but with the actual two-tailed-cat-turned-woman helping and sabotaging her brother’s efforts in turn. However, now the signs of exhaustion and worry dominated even the determined set in the redhead captain’s shoulders and his vicious glare.
No, this time, around the dark-skinned fox-turned-man…There was the air of something…
“Well,” Zoro drawled. He didn’t bother moving from where he sat cross-legged on top of a boulder. “If it isn’t the one of the Natural Disasters himself.” Shifting the swords leaning against his shoulder, he examined his former student with a narrow, critical eye, “Captain Uzumaki ‘Kyuubi no Kitsune’ Kurama. Why the hell is the ‘Monster Fox’ looking for some decrepit, old man?”
“Don’t even start with me!” the redhead snapped at him, his lips pulling back to bare too-pointed teeth. “There’s no way you can be that isolated! Everybody fucking knows! And you of all people know there’s only two reasons why I’d be here.”
Ah…so it really was that.
The gray-haired man sighed thrown his nose. He kind of wished that there was some decent booze to take a swing from at the moment. It pissed the younger man off to no end when he was trying to talk about something serious and Zoro seemed to be more focused on the bottle. Well, that or give in to the temptation to tell the redhead to reign in control of himself. But he had the distinct feeling neither would go over well at the moment. More likely, it would cause whatever remaining control the man had to snap like a fraying thread.
Kurama’s answer was pretty much a confirmation of everything that Zoro had suspected since the first rumors started flying around. It also confirmed what exactly he was looking at in front of him.
Worry turned to bloodlust. Panic leaking out as lashing violence. Desperation made into almost jittery force and prickly determination. As usual, this brat had no sense of restraint. One push too hard and he was already on the edge of exploding and throwing everything to the winds. Though, to be fair, few parents tended to be calm with his or her children on the line. Certainly not this parent.
Much less in this situation.
“Akatsuki,” the swordsman grumbled, absentmindedly tapping his swords against his shoulders.
The group had always been a threat to anyone involved with Kurama’s circle. But in the last few years, they had caused even more trouble and recruited enough troublesome people to become a threat big enough to merit a summit involving the world’s leaders earlier this year. Now, word was, they had laid hands on a Bijuu and a Jinchuuriki. There was no way the Kyuubi’s family was going to take that lying down. As much as Atatsuki had grown, so had Bijuu-Jinchuuriki family into a force to be reckoned with and with allies extending throughout the seas.
The world was moving once again.
“They have Gaara,” Kurama confirmed. The levity of the blunt statement rang like a death knell, and Zoro could see from the captain’s tightening expression that he heard it too. His voice was tight with rage and a barely buried note of fear, but clear in its promise of repercussion. “They caused trouble in one of his and Shukaku’s territories and ambushed them when they went to deal with it. Everybody is gathering for an all-out assault to save them from being sacrificed like sheep to that demon tree.”
Zoro studied the younger man. It had been ten years since that first meeting, and almost eight years since he’d finally left the kid and his crew to do their own thing. After two years of training, it was something that had to be done. If they didn’t develop by themselves, didn’t stomp and burn and rampage their own path through the world, it wouldn’t be interesting.
(And maybe, just maybe, he had realized just how attached he’d become. The feeling of a warm, caring ship. A crew tied together with something stronger than blood. Family that would defy anything and anyone for each other. The realization of how much he had missed waking up to cheerful chaos in the evenings and hopeful dawns that dared them to push further.)
He took another moment to muse over what he could remember from Chomei and Fuu’s occasional but insistent visits, trying to recall bits and pieces of their updates on various Jinchuuriki news. By now, Most would consider them adults. Even the captured redhead kid and the blonde brat with Luffy’s hat (the youngest two of the brood) had the power, bounties, standings, and ties to stand on their own. Unfortunately for those that targeted those two, thinking that younger meant weaker, Kurama was a decent (albeit protective) parent for all his snarling, hostility, and general unfriendliness. And he had a tendency of not…reacting well when people started shit with his brood. The bratlings could probably be old and gray, and the redhead fox-mom would probably still turn into a snarling ball of rage if someone so much as looked at one of them wrong.
And this wasn’t just anybody. This was the terrorist group that had been hunting their family since before there was even a crew. They were the reason the group had fled to the sea in the first place. Little surprise that the man in front of him looked like he was about to shake apart with rage and stress.
Exhaling through his nose, the gray-haired man reminded the other, “It’s not my place to interfere with the path this age takes. That’s not part of our deal—”
“I don’t care!” Kurama exploded. Literally. A boiling, red miasma erupted from his body, immediately killing the moss under his bare feet and burning everything it came in touch with to ash. The whisker-like marks on his face darkened and become more prominent while his pupils narrowed into enraged slits. “He is mine! Screw you and your pompous bullshit about non-interference and SCREW THE DEAL! And I will pull in every resource I have to—!”
He stopped himself, practically choking on his own volatile emotions. Panting and almost visibly wrestling with his temper and impulsiveness, the captain was eventually able to take a couple of deep breaths through gritted, gnashing teeth and a clenched jaw. It took a few more long seconds and Zoro almost didn’t think he could do it, but Kurama finally managed to compose himself enough to continue more calmly.
“I know about the Marineford War. I know about how the Whitebeard called all his forces together to save Portgas D. Ace and ultimately failed. He couldn’t save his adopted son and your captain couldn’t save his brother.” His glare hardened. “That’s not happening here. That’s not happening now. I won’t let that history repeat itself.”
The elder man’s stare became flatter, “I don’t see how that involves me. Why should I help?”
“For starters,” he growled between gritted teeth, “I won’t care about challenging you if I’ve been absorbed into a demon tree, I can tell you that much. And here’s another thing.” He stalked closer. “Akatsuki’s goal is to put everyone in the world under an illusion,” Kurama stopped just a mere foot from the bottom of the boulder. “And while they’re under—while you’re under—everyone will get wrapped up and drained like a fly in a spider’s web. None the wiser when the demon moon goddess uses the combined life energy to descend from on high, absorb us remaining Bijuu, and then destroy the world.” He narrowed his eyes at the old man, something calculating in his gaze now that he’d calm down. “And finally, here’s why I think you should be interested. According to Akatsuki's leader, we should all want to be put under. His goal is to ‘save’ everyone in the world by putting everyone into individual little dream worlds where all our dreams have come true or are fulfilled. ‘Everything as it should be’, or something like that. That kind of thing—”
“Would be the death of dreams,” Zoro finished thoughtfully, grim exhaustion edging his tone.
It was a good point.
But he still felt hesitant. The Straw Hats as a crew had made a pact after Luffy’s disappearance in that storm-tossed battle (death, after their captain’s death) to take a step back. They would guide this age Luffy had brought as the Pirate King, and they would do so from the shadows. As a whole, they were too powerful, too feared. And there was a fear of being caught up in warring political scenes. It would have been easy for them to become tyrants the same way Doflamingo had subversively taken over Dressrosa, and not at all something any of them wanted. He wasn’t sure he wanted to break that pact.
He started absentmindedly tapping his swords against his shoulder again.
What would Luffy have done? It had been so long now, and Zoro was exhausted and a bit numb. His captain’s smile still shone brightly in his mind, but his face had long since become a blur. Lately, he had even started doubting courses of action he thought Luffy might have taken.
What did his gut say?
He snorted. Indecision suited none of them. His old captain would have done what he wanted. And that probably meant helping, if only because he’d rarely turn away people who earnestly ask him for help. Not when it was in the way Kurama needed it. Not in the way of defending people’s dreams and freedom.
Zoro studied Kurama’s face, musing over the badly hidden desperation and the worry masquerading as anger. And as he stared thoughtfully, he remembered a little redhead boy hiding behind this man’s pant leg, shy and wary of this stranger. Levelly meeting his gaze with green eyes that spoke of too many bad experiences to not be at least a little suspicious.
Aaaahh…what the hell…
“Well, it’s not like I’m getting any booze around here anyways,” he grunted, scratching at an itchy part of his jawline. “Your ship nearby?”
The barely perceivable relieved slump in the man’s shoulder made it feel like Zoro was taking the right direction.
“Fu brought me here,” Kurama grunted, already turning back towards the direction of the shore, already straining to get back to his kids. “Her Seventh Division has the fastest airships.”
The swordsman tsk’ed resentfully even as he reluctantly rose to his feet and followed. He should have guessed. Maybe it was his age talking, but he didn’t really trust those vessels that could transform back and forth between regular ships that sailed in the seas and blimp-like “airships”.
“Oh, shut up,” the captain snapped, stomping ahead. “It’s thanks to them that we’ll be able to catch up with the main forces by tomorrow. And the faster we meet up with everybody else, the faster we can get you refueled, you drunkard!”
Said drunkard did not move faster.
It wasn’t until after they got their hands on the copy of the final Road Poneglyph that Rayleigh popped up again like a bad penny. Not that Zoro didn’t respect the former first mate’s strength and appreciate all the ways the old-timer helped Luffy, but the man’s presence set his teeth on edge. On one hand, it would be fun to challenge the strong-as-hell old geezer. On the other…this wasn’t the time. Not yet. Not here.
Getting the last Road Poneglyh had involved another mad adventure that was a mess of daring, just plain fucking dumb luck, and the help of a lot of good and bad people. And after a whole lot of chaos and destruction and the usual emotional rollercoaster, in the end, the Straw Hats were left with smudge copies in their hands, dumbfoundedly staring at each other in a moment of utter disbelief before breaking out into cheers.
This was it. This was them making history. Their entire journey and all their dreams combined with Luffy’s, of One Piece, now in their reach. That they could now get to Raftel and that a dream was now so close to reality, was unbelievable and they had done it. The cheer and excitement were infectious and overwhelming.
So of course, first chance they got (which turned out to be a sandbar off the coast of an empty Summer Island that reminded them of Long Ring Long Island) the Straw Hats partied. And of course, with the temptation of free booze, how could Rayleigh resist?
The Straw Hat Swordsman could understand that part completely.
What he didn’t understand was how he and Brook ended up being the ones sitting with the old geezer, half-full tanks in hand, while the others partied it up. With Brook in one of his quieter and more contemplative moods, Zoro’s skin prickled with how conscious he was of the Silver King. If the weird, suspicious characters wanted to bother somebody, he could do it with somebody who wasn’t him. He wasn’t Luffy, for gods’ sake!
“You’ve all done well for yourselves,” Rayleigh hummed as he raised his tankard to his lips. “And each other.”
Zoro was already finishing off the dregs in his. Afterwards, he pulled his tankard away with a sharp, exhaled PAH! in satisfaction before looking off towards the main party and yelled in that general direction.
“HEY! PERVERTED COOK! WE NEED MORE ALCOHOL OVER HERE!”
After a moment of growling, teeth baring, and glares that could spark fires even from across the deck as they were (which was as good as confirmation that he was getting his booze), he turned back to see Rayleigh quietly chuckling. The green-haired swordsman shrugged and scratched the side of his neck to hide his sheepishness. Some part of him couldn’t help but squirm childishly and he resisted defaulting to sullen look he usually took on when embarrassed. Fighting with the stupid pervert wasn’t exactly the most mature behavior, and this old man was someone who could give Mihawk a run for his money.
(To be fair, the idiot was the one who always started it anyway.)
“I guess we’re doing pretty good,” he admitted to Rayleigh’s earlier observation, casually catching one of their larger bottles of booze aimed for his head. Despite himself, he wasn’t able to stop the small smirk from crawling onto his face.
Look how far they had gotten. Farther than anybody else.
His eyes were momentarily drawn to the ruckus in the main knot of the party, and he snickered and thanked whatever was watching over their crew for Jinbei. Now there was a responsible guy. Zoro snickering blew into a full, smirking chuckle as he watched Luffy’s fit of wild, crippling laughter bounce him right overboard into the sea, causing a frantic, exasperated Jinbei to dive right after him.
He wasn’t unaware of the former first mate’s heavy, assessing stare in the meantime. For all the gentile manners, Rayleigh was way too intense to not raise the hairs on Zoro’s neck with every little thing he did. While he had all the intention of challenging the old man soon, in the meantime, it wouldn’t do to give off the impression of constantly startled cats. So, he was doing his best to just…ignore it.
Too bad the old fart was so nonchalant about not letting him.
“Hmmm, yes,” the Dark King, smiling over the rim of his tankard ominously. “One might even say that your crew seems to be the one furthest ahead in the race. However,” he paused, something dark and shadowed flitting over his smile. “I would be careful not to get cocky. There are still many obstacles to come.”
Zoro didn’t say anything, but his eye narrowed as he took a drink, glaring from the corner of his eye. Seeing as the man had to be know all the details of where One Piece was and any of said obstacles, that didn’t sound good. He carefully glanced towards Brook. And while you can’t exactly exchange glances with someone who doesn’t have eyeballs, the most minute tilt of Brook’s skull told him that their Musician had taken note of Rayleigh’s warning as well. However, his skull almost immediately dipped right afterward, a tiny movement that usually indicated that he had withdrawn into his own head.
He didn’t like it. Brook’s head was a melancholic place to be in at the best times.
“Speaking of which,” the old fart continued as if he didn’t drop a quiet and insidious bomb. “Zoro-kun. Are you the First Mate?”
The younger man blinked in confusion, startled by the sudden switch in direction and change in topic before reflexively answering, “I’m the Swordsman.”
This seemed to somewhat puzzle the former first mate, whose face looked openly befuddled. The exchange did seem to draw Brook out from whatever mental shadows he had been dwelling in to join them, though.
“That’s so…I really thought it was you,” Rayleigh seemed to muse over this. “But if it isn’t, then who is?”
Here, the green-haired man exchanged another look with Brook, who shrugged. Most did assume that Zoro was the First Mate, and it was something the Straw Hats collectively just…let happen. The reality was a bit more complicated and something that people only really understood once they hung out with the crew for a bit. Afterward, the truth was something silently more understandable once you had been part of the crew for long enough. But in the simplest terms, it was more like Zoro and Nami shared Vice-Captain duties. But without the official title.
It just was what it was.
Zoro finally just shrugged, “We don’t really work like a traditional pirate crew.”
Rayleigh seemed to think over this for a bit, his eyes wandering over the gathered crew members and examining each individual. “Then who takes command when your captain isn’t around?”
Instead of answering, the younger swordsman took another draught as he thought about it.
“Depends on the situation, I guess,” he concluded. “Everyone has something they’re good at.” Or good for, he noted silently in his head. The only thing the cook is good for is to feed Luffy’s gullet and be a meat shield. “We work together to do what we need to do and what needs to be done. It’s actually not that complicated, just different.”
“That does sound like a remarkably functional crew,” the old man smiled. “But in that case, why is our young Emperor captain as opposed to anyone else here?”
‘Because he wants to be’ was Zoro’s first and reflexive answer. ‘Because he simply is.’
He stopped himself.
Because that’s the crux of the question isn’t it.
Zoro drank instead of answering. It wasn’t much of a question. But this was Luffy’s teacher and the man who helped the first Pirate King hide One Piece. And this conversation felt important.
Yes, Luffy was captain from the get-go because he was the initiator. He was the one who wanted to, and he and Nami hadn’t exactly been willing participants earlier on. But then Ussop had come along and made some noise about being captain and that certainly didn’t happen.
“Because Luffy’s the one with his eyes on the horizon,” Zoro answered as he brought his tankard up. “Always. Franky once called him the engine and navigational system all at once, and that’s probably not a bad description.”
“But in that case, what happens if you outlive your captain?” the old man hummed. “What happens when there’s no more pull?” Zoro’s startled look and Brook’s start was met with a sharp look, an intimidating smile. “Hmmm, I’m glad to see that you believe in your captain so much, but that is the question, isn’t it? In the case the crew needs a new leader, will you take the head? Zoro-kun.”
“I won’t outlive Luffy,” Zoro snorted, casual as hell but with a look just as hard and sharp. He didn’t know where the man was trying to go with this, but he wasn’t backing down. This was something he knew for sure. “It’s useless to think about that kind of stuff.”
“Perhaps,” Rayleigh shrugged. “But I’m afraid it is a subject you all must consider. Especially in the upcoming days…”
He had enough of this.
He put his bottle down on the deck with a too controlled thunk.
“…What are you trying to get at, old man?”
Instead of answering, Rayleigh turned his body just slightly; his switched focus to Brook made all the more intense because of such little movement.
“Bone-kun,” the old man gleamed at the now sweating skeleton. “How important do you think it is to have a First Mate?”
“A First Mate…,” Brook trailed off before seeming to gather himself. He spoke as if reciting something written in his very bones. “A First Mate ensures the safety and order of the ship, its crew, and its passengers. Fighting against threats. Enforcing the ship’s law and the captain’s Orders and Will to the last.”
Zoro side-eyed Brook, not sure what was with this reminder that Brook was once the first mate of another crew.
“And what happened in case the captain dies?”
Brook was silent for a long while before answering, “The crew votes for who should be captain next. More often than not, it would be the First Mate.”
“It’s not like we’re hurting for leadership here,” Zoro rumbled. “I don’t know how it was in your crew, but we have our own way of working. Yeah, I could take over when Luffy’s not around. But so could Nami. Robin and Jinbe wouldn’t be bad either. Hell, even the Perverted Cook, Chopper, and Usopp have spouted off orders before.” His expression tightened as he pointedly stared down at their captain’s former mentor. “What’s your point?”
The Silver King ignored his look yet again to take a very peaceful drink. His Adam’s apple bobbed a while as he finished off the booze, sighing in contentment before reaching for another bottle that had been thrown at them earlier.
“When I was a young man,” he started, seeming to change tracks altogether. “I stole a small ship from the richest man in my hometown on a whim. I told people that it was because my house burnt down, but really, I just wanted to stick it to the bastard. I did a lot of things like that as a young man, no aim and no idea what to do, just sailing it from island to island.” A nostalgic, softer smile took over his face. “One day, as I was lazing around on that ship, a man appeared on the shore with a bag and a yellow straw hat.”
He ignored Zoro and Brook’s shock, their slightly shaken expression, and stared into his drink with half-lidded eyes and a smile.
“I can barely remember his face now, but I will always remember that big, reckless smile. He looked over me and my boat, overjoyed and too impressed. He asked me my name, and after he got it, he said ‘I’m Roger! I think we were destined to meet, Rayleigh! Do you wanna turn the world upside down with me?!’” The old man laughed at the two’s increasingly shocked faces, at the cold sweat he could see breaking out on their faces from the chills up their spine from hearing this almost familiar story. “Whehahahaha! I thought he was crazy! I laughed at him and told him to go away, but he just said, ‘Your ship is small, but it looks like it can endure storms if you handle it right. It’s perfect for us to set sail in.’ I kept telling him I didn’t want to and asking why the hell I’d join him, buuuuttt…,” he shrugged. “Before I knew it, I was sailing with him.”
The story was too familiar, and so were the similarities. It wasn’t the first time hearing about such things, but sometimes, there were these eerie reminders. As if all their movements were authored by some kind of fate…
Zoro swallowed audibly, “Your captain sounds like a troublesome guy,”
Rayleigh shot him a wry smile that clearly said the green-haired swordsman had no right to talk.
“He became friend,” Rayleigh continued, something in those three words emphasized and weightier. “My friend and my comrade and my captain. And at some point, I ended up swearing that I would follow him no matter what. That if at last there was a battle he couldn’t win or that was tough enough to bring him down, then I would be going into it besides him.” The old man shrugged, and there was an old, tired grief to it. Their surroundings seem to grow darker, the weight around them heavier. “But that didn’t happen.”
A silence descended upon them, one that the two Straw Hats were waiting for the third man to break. This was no longer a story they could intervene or comment on without permission.
“Roger was dying,” he confessed quietly. Zoro wasn’t quite able to hide his eye from widening in shock. “He had a sickness that our doctor couldn’t heal. We sailed everywhere, trying to find some method of saving him. But any doctor who could help wouldn’t help the Pirate King, and Roger wasn’t about to force anybody to. At most, the doctors who could and would help could only prolong his life. And can you imagine that? Roger spending the last few months of his life in a hospital bed? No. No, it was just a matter of time. We all knew that. The Silver King gestured with his tankard, “Roger asked me a favor. It was then, that for the first time really, that I understood the role of the First Mate.”
It was Brook who asked.
“What did he ask of you?”
It was Zoro that Rayleigh looked at.
The old man looked at him with that enigmatic smile, as if saying that the green-haired swordsman should already know. “He asked me to stand aside,” he confessed with that goddamn smile. “To stand aside and Watch.” He took another drink. “And I did. My captain died. Would you say I failed as Roger’s first mate?”
Zoro grimaced, tensed and unamused.
No one would dare say that.
“That’s just something to think about though,” Rayleigh rumbled. “You Straw Hats work very differently from other pirates, that’s plain enough to see. But maybe it’s time you thought a little bit more about your own roles as well. Separate from him and each other.”
Zoro finally couldn’t resist snorting.
“It doesn’t matter now,” he dismissed. “Don’t kill our captain off on your own. If it becomes an issue, we’ll deal with it then. But it’s not now, so there’s no point in worrying about such things.”
Rayleigh laughed again, the sound ringing across the ship along with the other laughter, “You are a very straightforward one, aren’t you?! I thought so. Alright then, here’s my final question. Let me ask you,” he leaned forward to refill his tankard. “How many times has someone compared your captain to Roger?”
An old man in a floating castle, screaming that he would not be taken down by another man from the East Blue. A half-dead creature, wailing about ghosts. Dozens upon dozens of people like Rayleigh who stopped up short or paled like they saw a ghost when looking at his captain proclaiming the world was his.
“More than a few,” Zoro admitted.
Rayleigh laughed, low and old and amused. “I’ll tell you this now,” his voice rolled, heavy and solemn but as if he were telling some secret joke. “As people, they’re nothing alike. But their craving for the sea, for freedom…I have never met another man that was so recklessly free until I met Monkey D. Luffy. And those who tend to burn bright tend not to last as long. The question remains…”
For all that he had drunk, that look of a blade-thin smile and sharp eyes was completely sober.
“My captain brought on the Golden Age of Pirates,” Rayleigh murmured a dangerous note in the silky rumble of his words and a challenge in the thin curve of his smile. “He created One Piece, inspired generations to chase after their dreams and take to the Sea. He overcame insurmountable giants, the most powerful of enemies, and the World.” At this, teeth flashed as Rayleigh grinned. “Do you really think your captain can surpass mine?”
They weren’t doing anything. Not anytime soon, but the shift in Rayleigh’s aura, the sharpened, almost predatory look in his eye stirred up Zoro’s blood. A bloodthirsty, toothy smirk stretched helplessly across the younger swordsman’s face because he couldn’t help the rush he got from a challenge or a threat. Something he could really push back against. The instinct that rose when someone applied pressure, to meet it in force and push back harder.
“Without a doubt.”