"Ebbing and flowing and pushed by a breeze,
I live to make you free, I live to make you free.
But you can set sail to the west if you want to,
And past the horizon, 'til I can’t even see you,
Far from here where the beaches are wide,
Just leave me your wake to remember you by."
Boats and Birds, Gregory and the Hawk (x)
When Rayleigh is somewhere between twenty and twenty-one, an idiot comes out of nowhere and asks him to become a pirate with him.
Of course, because Rayleigh is a reasonable man, a smart man, he declines.
Of course, because the idiot who asked him isn't just an idiot, but Gol D. Roger, wielder of the will of the D and an insufferable humor sense, his declination is more of a polite agreement; which is why for the years following their meeting, Rayleigh is a witness to all of Roger's life, all of his adventures and decisions (many of which make no sense, no, Roger, we will not sneak into the Marines Headquarters to piss Sengoku off and steal his goat, what even-).
Rouge is the first to join, but he's still labeled the first mate, despite not agreeing to this role, ever.
This leads to being a witness to many more almost-made bad decisions (no, Rouge, we can't have carnivorous plants onboard-), stupid conflicts (for the hundredth time, Buggy, threatening to sink the boat you're currently one is not a good move- you ate a Devil Fruit, not Shanks!), ridiculous complaints (why. Why do you want to piss off an actual dinosaur.), and general insanity (what do you mean, you heard the Poneglyph speak?!).
He loved Roger, with all that he had and more, but God, his captain had been an idiot.
(He can't help but miss his idiocy, now.)
Rayleigh meets Marco in weird circumstances.
He and his crew are fleeing from the Marines (-Sengoku can't take a joke, nowadays, Rayleigh, did you notice? -I will drown you.) when they run into Whitebeard.
Well, more precisely, they run into one of his earthquakes, and Roger smiles eagerly and announces that he's going to "fight Edward, I got better since last time, I probably won't fall into the sea that time, promise!".
Because Rayleigh is a fool and would sell his soul to the darkest entity in this world for this man, he just sighs and lets his child of a captain go.
Of course, what he doesn't expect is a blue chicken barreling into Roger's side when the man tries to climb onto the ship. What he does expect, though, is Roger pushing said blue chicken into the sea before it has even touched him.
"- MARCO!," scream several voices, and Rayleigh feels a headache building up.
Roger stops mid-climb, looking at the slowly-sinking body with what is probably meant to be guilt but looks more like amusement, and sends a look to Rayleigh, silently pleading for help.
His first mate shakes his head and considers for a second letting Roger deal with this alone, because his headache seems to be worsening.
"- And why, pray tell, did you just throw my Devil-User first mate into the sea?", asks Edward in a carefully controlled voice, and Rayleigh reaffirms his vow to strangle Roger in his sleep for the thousandth time, at least, before jumping after the chicken to save him.
"- You tried to kill me," says the chicken-who's-apparently-not-a-chicken when he wakes up, which is true and slightly hurtful, because Rayleigh swam very deep and nearly drowned to save this kid, so he feels like his he deserves a little respect, okay?
"- You tried to kill Pops!" he continues, in an outraged kind of voice, because apparently, it's common for first mates to value their captain's life more than their own.
"- I mean, he tried to kill me first", says Roger, because he's an idiot who has never heard of tact.
(At this point, Rayleigh's headache is less of a bother and more of a comforting companion.)
"- What- that's not true!", protests the kid, and Rayleigh sighs very heavily.
"- He's a friend, Marco", intervenes Whitebeard, and in return, he gets a look of total incomprehension.
"- He tried to kill you!"
"- In a friendly way, though!", says Roger, and one day Rayleigh will drown him.
Instead, he sighs.
Because Roger is an idiot, as stated previously, and because despite what he pretends or what his children say, Edward isn't much better, Rayleigh sees Marco a lot over the course of his career.
The first mate never warms up to Roger too much -understandable, since Rayleigh's captain nearly killed the kid not even a second in their first meeting and tries to kill said kid's captain on a monthly basis-, but he and Rayleigh manage to have a few nice conversations when their captains are attempting to murder each other in a friendly way.
(What has Rayleigh life become?)
Mostly they complain.
"- Lor complained to me that the beds were too hard," says Marco. "He lived in a prison for two years! He didn't even have a bed there!"
Rayleigh nods empathetically.
"- You'd think having a child for captain would be enough," he answers, "but no, Roger had to recruit a crew of children too. Of insane children! I had to stop them from setting on fire the Oro Jackson yesterday! It's the third time this week!"
"- I don't ask for much. I just want people to stop throwing people overboard. That's it! We live in a world where people magically lose their ability to swim, why don't they stop throwing people overboard?"
"- I throw Roger overboard daily, though", points Rayleigh. "I'd probably still do it if he had a Devil Fruit."
Marco stays silent for a moment. There's an explosion on the island they're facing from far, far away.
"- I think your captain blew himself up. Again."
Rayleigh closes his eyes.
"- Fourth time, right? We have roughly five hours of waiting left."
"- What do you mean, he's sick?" Yells Rayleigh at the doctor of the village they docked at.
The woman stares down at him, apparently unimpressed with his outburst, and says:
"- I mean exactly that. He's sick, and it's serious. By my estimate, he has 5 years left to live. Maybe 6 years if you find a good doctor to travel with you and fix him up, maybe 7 if he settles down somewhere and leads a calmer life."
5 years left to live, hears Rayleigh, and feels like someone just stabbed him. It must show on his face, because Roger takes one look at him and says:
"- Rayleigh, Rayleigh, let it go, I'm fine."
And it's so tempting, to believe that lie, like he believes anything that Roger says; so tempting to deny the reality of it all, to let himself think that this is just another obstacle that Roger will tear down any second now; but he did that when Roger collapsed, two months ago, and when he stayed bed-ridden for six days afterward ("The infamous Gol D. Roger, defeated by a common cold," had said Rayleigh, and looking back on it he feels sick); he did that when he started coughing, and he did that when he looked a little more pale than usual, and now they're at an island of expert doctors, and denial just isn't the solution anymore.
"- You're not fine," snaps Rayleigh. "You're not fine, Roger, not at all! In fact, you're dyi-"
He stops in the middle of his sentence, like a scared child who thinks that if he stays silent, it won't come true. Roger looks at him like he thinks he is singlehandedly responsible for every bit of anguish Rayleigh is feeling right now, which is a little true and a lot more false.
"- I'll give you a minute," says the doctor, and she walks out of her office and closes the door behind her, leaving Roger staring at Rayleigh and Rayleigh staring at the wall.
There's a heavy silence then, and just as Roger opens his mouth to say something -a lie or reassurance or joke or anything, anything that will make the worry disappear from his first mate's face-, Rayleigh whispers:
"- You're dying, Captain."
"- You're dying and I didn't know. You're dying and you knew it and you hid from me. You hid it from all of us!"
"- I didn't know," answers Roger immediately. "I didn't know, or I would have told you."
"- You can't- you can't die. You can't- you-"
"- You're my captain, you can't die!"
"- I'm not dying right away, partner. 5 years- that's a long time."
5 years. It's unbearably short.
"- Not 5 years. I don't care what it costs, we're finding you a doctor. We're finding you the best doctor ever."
Roger laughs, and Rayleigh clings to that familiar sound.
"- We have to tell Rouge. We have to tell the rest of the crew," he states, ever the realist out of the two of them, and Roger shakes his head.
"- Don't. You'll just worry them."
There's a second during which Rayleigh registers what was just said, and then it takes all his strength not to slap his beloved captain.
"- You're not hiding this. I'm not letting you hide this."
"- That's an order, Rayleigh," says Roger, and his first mate looks at him incredulously.
"- Fuck you," he spits out.
"- No, you're not making me the only one to know! We're not carrying on as if nothing happened! You're dying, Roger, whether you want to acknowledge it or not!"
They're staring at each other, furious in a way they haven't been in a long time, and then Roger sighs and all the fight goes out of him.
"- Yeah, exactly, I'm dying. Telling it to the others won't change a thing, and they'll just look at me like I'm already a ghost. There's no point."
It's a terrible sight, Roger looking so defeated and subdued, and Rayleigh loses all the resentment he had and feels exhausted, weighted down by this brand-new grief.
"- Rouge," he offers as a compromise. "We're at least telling Rouge."
"- Rouge," agrees Roger, looking relieved, and small and vulnerable, and the image of his captain looking like that sticks in Rayleigh's brain for a long time.
(It's the beginning of the end.)
They leave Rouge just before the beginning of the Grand Line.
Rouge leaves them just before the beginning of the Grand Line.
(Roger wants an adventure, and Rouge will not navigate the Grand Line, and Rayleigh loves her but he has never been able to deny his captain anything.
So she decides to leave, and they watch her do exactly that.)
It feels so strange. It's always been the three of them, since the first time their idiot of a captain approached them with no certain destination. It was them, bickering without noticing the storm approaching; them, running for their lives while screaming at Roger for pissing off another murderous being; them, standing on the front of the ship, trading insults and sharing dreams.
Them. Roger, Rayleigh, Rouge; Rouge, Rayleigh, Roger.
Well. Only Roger and Rayleigh, now.
The ship is unusually quiet, today, and Rayleigh knows it's because she left. Roger has been standing at the front of the ship for an hour, staring at the waves in a way that he probably thinks makes him look dramatic and nostalgic, but only makes Shanks wonder out loud if their captain is asleep. Buggy's overwatering the flowers again, a clear sign he's upset.
Rayleigh nudges the kid to stop him from killing Rouge's garden, but doesn't say anything. Instead, he makes his way to his cabin.
("- I want a cabin," had said Rayleigh the second their shipwright had announced they'd need a new ship if they wanted to move further along the Grand Line.
"- I'm the captain! I get a cabin!"
"- Captain, no offense, but if you want me to stay on this crew you will let me have a cabin."
"- But I'm the captain!"
"- You're aware that you can ask for two cabins on the ship, right?" Had cut their shipwright, but neither Roger nor Rayleigh paid any attention to him.)
He started writing Rouge letters, right after she left. Now, almost a year after her departure, he realized the many reasons why that's a bad idea.
(A simplified list of those reasons would be:
1. Writing letters takes time, a time he doesn't have because his crew is made of children who apparently can't survive without him for a single hour;
2. He mostly writes about his days in there, and Rouge wouldn't care about that. Rayleigh doesn't care about the tear in Roger's favorite hat, and he's the one who had to listen to his captain whine about it for an entire afternoon;
3. He's mostly doing an itemized list of what Rouge is missing, and that's just cruel;
4. It feels like writing a diary or writing letters to a dead person, and Rayleigh's not a fan of both options, as it turns out;
5. Sending her letters would be a great idea if Rayleigh had any idea where she was or if he'll ever see her again.)
He wanted to get some rest in his room, but something in Roger's posture makes him frown and walk to his side.
"- I miss her too, Captain."
Roger doesn't lift his eyes from the water.
"- Right, right, Rouge," he answers distractedly. "Rayleigh, is it me or is this Sea King talking?"
(After they solve this particular mystery, Roger knocks his shoulder with Rayleigh's and mutters: "I do miss her, you know. I haven't forgotten her.", as if Rayleigh had ever doubted that.)
The Grand Line turns out to be as crazy as it is supposed to be, and the fact that Rayleigh loves it might make him crazier.
They pick up Crocus at the start of the first half, more because he and Roger strike an immediate friendship upon meeting than because of his medical skills.
They're nine minutes into their first discussion when Crocus says:
"- So you're sick, then. It's a terrible idea to navigate the Grand Line in your state."
"- I know," grins Roger. "Hey, do you want to come?"
Crocus glances at the whale beside him, and asks:
"- Are we coming back here after?"
"- Sure, if we survive 'til then" shrugs his captain.
"- Then yeah, sure, I'll come. I have some people I need to find."
"- Roger," screams Rayleigh as he runs towards the cabin. "Roger, talk to the Sea King before it kills us!"
"- I'm trying!" Yells back Roger, and to his credit, it looks like he is. There's blood running down from his shoulder, and a shard of wood planted in his left eyebrow.
"- It's the middle of the night, do something!"
"- It's not listening! Who was on watch?"
"- Shanks, and he fell overboard trying to fend it off alone!"
Roger frowns heavily, and nearly loses his balance when the ship lists dangerously to one side. "Can he swim?"
"- Not sure, which is why you need to hurry-"
At that moment, the ship shakes and there's a cracking sound; Roger snarls and makes his way out on the deck. The wood is slick with rain and blood and saltwater, and the wood is splintered- it looks like the Oro Jackson could sink any moment, and if it hadn't been made of Adam Wood than that's probably exactly what it would have done. He stares down the mix of fox and turtle that's attacking them, and he says, very clearly:
"- Leave. Us. Alone."
There's a weird pressure in the air then, like something invisible exploded, like the ocean just caved, like there's not enough and too much air in the same place. Rayleigh turns to Roger, like his captain is the center of a typhoon he's been caught in, and barely notices the rest of the crew crumpled on the ground.
Roger is breathing heavily, pissed off beyond measure. The Sea King's eyes widen, apparently just realizing that maybe he shouldn't have attacked this particular ship; and then, before any of them can react, he sinks back from where he came from, leaving the sea just as calm as it was moments ago.
"- I'm fine!" Yells Shanks from wherever he is.
"- What the fuck," says Rayleigh.
("- Roger, did you really engrave a message on a Poneglyph?"
"- What did you say?"
"- I was here and I'm going to find out what happened during the Lost Century? "
"- Did you really have to engrave that on one of the oldest monument of this world?"
"- Probably not, but isn't it really cool, Rayleigh?"
It's the greatest thing Rayleigh has ever done, and it's heartwrenching. All these places that he won't ever see again with Roger by his side, all these things that will soon be nothing more than reminders-
He tries not to think about it, and mostly, he succeeds.
They get to Raftel, and as they watch the rain fall onto the sea, Roger says, "I'm thinking of disbanding the crew."
"- You what?" Answers Rayleigh, suddenly very tired of feeling constantly off-balance.
It never used to be like this. Rayleigh used to be the only one to understand Roger; or at least, used to be able to keep up with him. But nowadays, it feels like Roger has stopped waiting for him to catch up.
And maybe it's just because he's feeling nostalgic, lonely, desperate, standing here, having reached the last step of his last journey with his captain-
(Last, last, last- what an awful word, what an awful reality.
Last, last, last- last implies an end, implies an empty space where there used to be something, and Rayleigh wants to breathe but finds that he's forgotten how to push air past the overwhelming panic settled in his throat.
Last- oh, but it's the end. Rayleigh doesn't want it to end. Roger doesn't seem like the kind of person who ends; Roger feels constant and unmoveable and he's going to be gone.
He's already gone, and Rayleigh-
But no, no, he's here, he's alive and breathing, (he's going to die,) and it's nowhere good enough, this situation they've found themselves in, and-
Oh, but Rayleigh doesn't want it to end.)
"- I want to disband the crew," Roger repeats, firmer, and Rayleigh almost protests, but protesting never worked with Roger.
"- The Marines- once I'm dead, the Marines won't leave any of you alone. We know what happened during the Lost Century- they would burn worlds down for less than that."
"- And? You can't exactly fix that, Captain, we already know. It's too late. They'll be after us whatever happens."
"- Not if I disband the crew, pretend I'm the only one who knows about it, and surrender myself to them-"
"- What? Absolutely not- Roger, they'll kill you."
"- Right, well, I'm already going to die anyway-"
"- With us by your side, in your bed, on your ship! Possibly with Rouge being here! You're certainly not going to die alone on some fucking executing block-"
(When did their discussions start to become fights so easily? When did they stop being able to sit peacefully next to each other? Why is Rayleigh so angry, and why is Roger so reasonable when he's the one dying?
Why is he trying to cut down what little time he has left?)
"- What, you think that'll protect us? Do you think they won't know you're lying? You can't lie to save your life, Roger!"
"- Not my own, maybe, but yours-"
"- I'm not going to be the reason you die! We're not going to be the reason you-"
"- I'm dying anyway!" Roars Roger, and Rayleigh stills, certain that drowning couldn't possibly be more painful than seeing the absolute anguish on his captain's face.
"- I'm dying, Rayleigh," he repeats, calmer. "I'm- I don't even have a year, according to Crocus, okay?"
The rain falls on.
"- I'm supposed to be your captain, so obey this order, at lea-"
"- I've always followed your orders," murmurs Rayleigh, quiet in a way that doesn't quite manage to hide how hurt he is. Supposed to be your captain, Roger said, like it was all a joke, like Rayleigh had agreed to follow him onto the Grand Line on some whim and not because he would have followed him into the heart of a burning star, and stayed there if that was what he wanted.
"- I know, I know, Rayleigh- I'm sorry, I'm being- unfair."
Rayleigh doesn't answer, and Roger sighs, sounding weary and tired and terribly un-Roger-like.
"- If you really disband the crew, it'll break the kids' heart."
It would have broken Rayleigh's heart, but that one had been thoroughly crushed into a fine powder some time ago already.
"- I'm protecting them- Buggy will understand."
"- And Shanks? He looks up to you."
"- I'm protecting him."
"- So you've decided to die alone, then."
"- Nothing I could say will persuade you to do otherwise, will it?"
"- So the last image I'll have of you is your head rolling down in front of a crowd."
The sentence is unnecessarily cruel, and silence follows. It's probably Rayleigh's turn to apologize, but he's feeling empty and too detached to do so.
"- Well- do what you want. Who are you surrendering yourself to? When are we disbanding?"
"- I truly am sorry, you know."
"- Then stay, and don't go sacrificing yourself like a moron. You promised Rouge you'd die with us by your side."
"- I'll visit Rouge, I think."
Rayleigh snorts and doesn't call him out for deflecting his plea. Roger's never been one to be deterred.
"- Don't go putting her in danger after getting us out of it."
"- She'll be fine. I'll stay hidden."
"- Good. When you decide to destroy everything, do try to warn me, will you?"
(It's probably stupid, to spend the precious time he still has with Roger mad at him.
Well. Rayleigh figures that he has earned a little time as the idiot of their duo.)
("What are you doing, then? You can't just disband the crew. We're wanted, and we have no way home except for the Oro Jackson."
Roger waves his hand dismissively.
"Don't be stupid, Rayleigh. I'm bringing everyone back to their home."
You're our home, wants to say Rayleigh. You're not saving us- you're destroying everything we ever held onto before you need to.
He wants- wants to scream and protest and maybe plead, maybe beg, maybe drown. He wants- wants Roger happy and Rouge by his side, wants the crew laughing and not so awfully silent and full of resentment and grief. He wants back those early days, him and Roger and Rouge conquering the world, stumbling onto an adventure. He wants it all gone, wants it to be a bad dream or one of Roger's numerous bad jokes.
"One last adventure, eh?" He says instead, and Roger grins at him like their world isn't falling to pieces.
Rayleigh closes his eyes and lets himself believe his captain's lies.)
(They don't exactly take it well. Especially the going-to-get-executed-by-the-Marines-for-your-sake bit.
But Roger is their captain, so.)
In the end, it's just the two of them, because Roger asked him to stay, which frankly is reason enough to do so.
"- You'll have to visit Rouge, after it all," says Roger brightly. "Oh, and after some years you'll be able to visit the rest of the crew!'
"- You think the Marines are going to forget us so easily?"
"- Oh, no, definitely not. But when have we ever let the Marines dictate what we do?"
"- Fair enough, Captain."
Roger doesn't even try to correct him. It'll take an eternity before Roger becomes something other than Rayleigh's captain.
(He doesn't say that he won't be able to see the crew again. He doesn't tell him that he has no idea what his future holds, now that Roger isn't in it.
He doesn't tell him that Rouge might not want to see him again, because he let Roger die, after all-
It's a first mate's duty to take care of what might harm his captain, and Roger never minded Rayleigh lying to him.)
"- I have a favor to ask."
Roger turns a questioning gaze towards him.
"- Well, I don't have much to offer. I've mysteriously lost all the riches I had from pillaging innocent villages," he says in a wry tone, gesturing to the houses standing below the hill they're on.
"- When you see Rouge, tell her I'm sorry."
(Of course Roger is going to see Rouge after leaving Rayleigh. He'd be jealous, maybe, but having to let their captain depart knowing he's going to face certain death alone is a task he's perfectly fine delegating, as selfish as it is.)
Roger loses all the humor on his face.
"- She'd say you're being an idiot."
"- I know." A pause. "Tell her still."
"- ...sure, partner. I'll send along your love while I'm at it."
(Days later, when Roger has found Rouge again, after all the yelling and the tears and the narrowly-dodged punches, he tells her.
She scoffs and says "you're both idiots", and he has never loved her more.
He takes a moment to be grateful that they'll have each other when he's gone.)
After that... Well. It's a year, a year of grief and fear.
Grief, because- because he's never going to see Roger again, or talk to him, or be by his side. Grief, because it all vanished so fast, with so many warnings that didn't lessen the pain one bit. Grief, because he spent thirty years surrounded by his crewmates, and now he's alone; because the Marines are after him and he can't catch a break; because Roger's is going away and he's taking half of Rayleigh with him.
The fear part is a little more tangled. He's not scared for himself- or he is, but not in the conventional meaning. Sure, he has a small army after him, but that he can handle perfectly fine. No- the fear is a fear of the future, of what may happen, of what is going to happen. It's fear that someday he'll open a newspaper and find Roger's face smiling back at him; fear of what will come after that. It's fear of the unknown -what am I going to do once he's gone?- and fear of the inevitable -he's going to die-.
He doesn't spend a great year. He hopes that Rouge and Roger are happy, at least.
He spends most of his time missing someone, something- missing Roger, Rouge, the crew, home.
(Roger is the king of the Grand Line, but they kill him in the East Blue.
Rayleigh hates them.
East Blue is the beginning. East Blue was their home, their anchor, the still sea they had such fond memories of. East Blue was supposed to be untouched by it all.
But no, of course not, because now it's the place Roger died.
His starting point, and his ending point. Like he never moved at all. Like he didn't conquer it all, escape the Marines for thirty years, carved himself a place in their world's tapestry of myths.
Rayleigh doesn't think he'll ever visit Loguetown.)
And then, well, Roger dies.
There's no Roger Pirates anymore, no idiot captain, no Oro Jackson, but he still finds himself climbing onto the Moby Dick, a few months after his captain's death.
(Seas, his captain is dead.)
He stumbles onto the wood of this ship he didn't realize he considered a safe place, and almost right away Marco is at his side.
"- Rayleigh", he says, looking concerned. "I'm- I'm sorry."
It rings true, his apology. Because- Marco's the same. He has a captain, and he has a world, and without the first the second is meaningless. He can't understand, and the part of Rayleigh that's not bitter and hurting and selfish prays that he never will have to, but- he can imagine it.
"- I-" he says, and immediately hates how lost his voice sounds. He puts himself together, harshly, all the sharp corners that haven't been smoothed yet reopening the same wounds inside himself. "You owed me alcohol."
"- Rayleigh-", says Marco again, and the former (former, oh Seas) first mate of the Roger Pirates has never been more grateful for Whitebeard's voice, loud enough to drown out his thoughts.
"- Of course", the man says. "Come. Tonight- tonight we mourn our friend."
Rayleigh almost laughs. He's bitter and angry and lost.
You mourn a friend, he wants to say. I mourn a world.
He stays silent, instead, and stays on the Moby Dick two days, just enough for the memories of Roger to start hurting.
And then he flees, because he just lost his guiding star, and the world seems so, so, so dark.
He avoids Marco for the better part of five years. He avoids everything that could possibly remind him of his captain, which is hard to do, since he had been with Roger for thirty years.
It's just- every island he sees is one Roger would have been fascinated by; every food he eats is one Roger would have stolen; everything makes him thinks of his captain, and it's so hard, so hard, to remind himself, every time, that Roger is gone, is dead, that there's nothing left of his captain if not for rumors and memories.
It's so hard to remember Roger, but it's so hard to forget him, too- sometimes Rayleigh searches for more than half a second what his favorite color was, or how his smile looked like when he looked at Rouge, or how his voice sounded like when it was empowered by his Will. And it hurts, it hurts so much, because he has nothing left of his captain if not for this meaningless knowledge that he clutches onto like a drowning man. And he knows- he knows, that eventually, he will forget, because that is how time heals, by smoothing the corners of grief, by fading the colors of joy and sadness alike.
But it's not fair, because it feels like letting go of his King, feels like failing him once again, feels like denying what he was and what he meant. Yes, it hurts when he remembers what Roger's laugh sounded like- but it hurts worse when he wakes up one day and realizes he forgot what his favorite song was.
So yeah, he avoids pretty much everyone during half a decade, because the world doesn't make much sense during that time, and doesn't mean anything to him.
(Somewhere along the way, Garp the Hero finds him and says: "You were a friend of Portgas D. Rouge, right? She's dead."
Rayleigh writes another letter to her, that day. It starts with You idiot and ends with, please.
There's nothing more to say about it.)
And then he almost drowns, gets saved by a Fishman, and realizes that if Roger could see him, he would be furious.
Him? Drowning in a shipwreck? The right hand of the Pirate King?
He can almost see Roger, looking at him, disappointed (and concerned, but hiding it well). He finds that it still hurts, to remind himself that he'll never see his friend again- but not quite as much as before, when that was all he focused on.
And so, unwillingly, step by step, Rayleigh looks around him and starts discovering what the world has become while he was mourning.
The first thing he does, of course, is go home.
To the Oro Jackson.
(It's a pretty terrible decision, really.
He just spent five years avoiding Roger's- everything, and so when it gets back to his- their- his (former) ship, it all hits him at once.
The ship is- different than what he remembers.
That's the first thing he notices. It's not the silence, or the stillness, or how much he missed it; or how much it feels wrong, now that Roger isn't here anymore.
No. He notices that the wood is a lighter color than he remembers; notices that the doors aren't exactly the shape he thought they were.
And if he forgot that much of the Oro Jackson, which doesn't change, how much has he forgotten of Roger? How much of his knowledge of him is just a little tweaked, just a little wrong?)
The ship is on Raftel, along with pretty much everything Roger loved, and Rayleigh stays there for about two months, feeling a little lost now that his immediate goal isn't just the next drink.
He also discovers that during five years of drinking way too much, he built up his resistance to alcohol, which means he has to try very hard to get drunk.
So of course, his next destination is the Moby Dick- well, more importantly, Whitebeard's alcohol.
Marco, he finds out, has become the first mate of a much larger crew, which mainly means that he has more headaches.
"- I'm sorry- you have divisions now?"
Marco groans and looks up at the sky, as if pleading some superior being to help him.
(He should better than that- the superiors beings of this world, from what Rayleigh has gathered over all his years of living, are more likely to laugh at him than help him.)
"- It's a nightmare. They keep trying to kill each other over nothing and Pops keeps laughing."
Because Rayleigh is a good friend, he does not laugh.
(He's pretty sure he's forgotten how to, anyway.)
"- Sounds like him. Apart from that, everything okay?"
He tries to sound unconcerned, but something in his voice must betray him- or perhaps Marco is watching him too carefully, unwilling to believe he really is here.
The kid's eyes soften, and he smiles.
"- Yeah, everything okay. The seas are as insane as ever, and it's just as fun as ten years ago. The crew is doing well, Pops is happy, I'm happy. Can't ask for much more, yeah?"
There's something in Marco's simple happiness that's a little too close to the barely formed scars that are scattered over Rayleigh's memories, and he breathes through a spike of loneliness and grief, and tries to keep his head in the present.
"- Sure. Happy to hear that."
He gets up, because even if it's good to know that his old friends are doing okay -more than okay, apparently-, it still hurts, to see that his world has been destroyed and that others kept turning as if nothing happened.
"- I should go. It's been lovely stealing your alcohol, as always, but I have business to attend to."
(He does not.)
"- Sure. It's been good seeing you, Rayleigh. Don't- don't disappear again, okay? I was -we were- worried."
Rayleigh smiles, makes no promises, and dives into the sea.
He finds himself settling in Sabaody.
Well- more like, he finds an abandoned building, kicks the asses of the gang that was using it as their headquarter, and throws in there a mattress. His home is the Oro Jackson, not a random partially-destroyed former-bar in Paradise.
Still, he stays there for about a year, and over the course of that time, he finds himself realizing that things- changed.
The Sabaody he remembers was- was safe, and peaceful, and an utter nightmare disguised as a cheerful island. They hadn't stayed there long, and managing to find someone to coat the Oro Jackson would probably have been incredibly complicated if not for Roger's charisma.
Saboady now is- is just as full of life as it was, just as terrific in its cheerfulness. But- well, there's a lot more pirates than there used to be.
Rayleigh remembers his captain's last words- of course he does, it'd probably take a Devil User to erase them from his memories. But his recollection of them is blurry, tainted by grief and despair and memories of happier days- to him, it represents the past, all the treasure that they had acquired and that now means nothing. But to the younger generation? It's a goal, a mysterious treasure, a motivation to go out on the seas and chase after the title of King.
(It's Roger's legacy, something else than hateful words and scorn; and when Rayleigh first hears a group of young pirates speaking of Roger like an idol, like someone to admire rather than to mock, he has to fight back tears.
They'll never love him like Rayleigh loved his captain, of course not; but Roger was his captain, his world, a man that would have sacrificed everything for the sake of his friends, a man that valued friendship and freedom over riches and glory, a man that wasn't a monster, no matter what the Marines claim, and it's- good, that he is not completely hated.
Roger wouldn't have cared, if everyone had hated him, as long as his friends stood by his side- but still, it means something to Rayleigh that he is remembered for something other than atrocities he hadn't even done.)
Of course, it takes him a moment to realize that in executing the King of Pirates Sengoku created even more pirates, and then he can't stop laughing.
Good old Sengoku. Maybe Rayleigh should steal his goat again, at some point.
Rayleigh finds himself returning to Sabaody, after that realization. It's not a conscious decision, not really; it's more like-
Well, he wants to see the potential successors of his King.
So he becomes a coating mechanic, because the only logical thing to do when you're heavily researched by Marines is having a distinct and difficult-to-learn job, staying in one place most of the time, and being in contact with a lot of pirates.
(Over the years, a few Marines that don't recognize him try to pay him to sabotage ships' coatings, which is hilarious.
He takes the money, and then does not do it.)
He still travels the sea, of course, but- he finds himself thinking of Sabaody as home more and more, over the years.
(He tries to ignore his feeling of betraying the Oro Jackson, of betraying his crew, of betraying his captain.
It doesn't quite work.)
"- I heard they're calling your old man the Strongest Man in the World."
Marco sighs heavily, which is not the reaction Rayleigh was expecting. He thought pride was more likely.
"- Don't remind me. Everyone wants to kill him, now."
Rayleigh smiles. It's nice, talking with Marco- he doesn't do it as much as he should.
"- What, are you worried about him? He was on par with Roger, I doubt one of these rookies could even touch him."
"- No, I know," answers Marco. "That's not the problem, none of them have done him any damage so far."
"- Then why does it bother you?"
"- He keeps inviting them to join our crew, Rayleigh, and they're so much more insane than our regulars."
Rayleigh laughs. Marco lets out another long-suffering sigh.
"- Well, keep your friends close and your enemies closer, right?"
"- Shut up!"
Now- even if he had become the first mate unwillingly, let it not be said that Rayleigh did not care about his crewmates. He did.
That's how he knows that Buggy became a small-time pirate in East Blue, and that Shanks is carrying Roger's legacy of making Sengoku insane proudly.
(That's how he knows that none of the rest of his crew have reappeared since Roger's death, but he prefers not to think about it. The what-ifs and should-have hurt too much.)
He keeps tabs on Shanks, because even if the Roger Pirates disbanded, Shanks is still a member, and more importantly- he stayed a kid in Rayleigh's mind, and he has to know if he would have to break said-kid out of Impel Down one of these days.
What he doesn't really care about, though, is Shanks' crew.
Which is why, when he finds himself meeting them, he's surprised to see himself in Shanks' first mate.
Well, he's more surprised to see that Shanks lost an arm, what the hell, brat, I leave you alone fourteen years and this is what happens, but once the kid-who's-not-a-kid-anymore-and-probably-hasn't-been-since-Roger's-death explains the loss of his arm and hat -one of which he should eventually get back-, he lets his gaze linger on the first mate.
"- So," he says. "I hope this one isn't giving you too much to worry about."
"- He's an idiot," states Benn, and while Shanks splutters indignantly, he continues: "He spent all of our money on a magic wand that was supposed to make alcohol appear, and now he's complaining because we don't have enough money to buy actual alcohol. Or anything else, for that matter."
"- We were on a floating, shimmering, golden island! The guy who sold it to me had wings! What was I supposed to believe?" Protests Shanks, and Rayleigh smirks.
"- My captain was an idiot too," he confides, and Shanks subdues immediately, his face pulled in tight lines and hard edges, dark shadows and hidden scars that Rayleigh doesn't recognize anymore. He tries not to linger on the time that passed. "Take care of this one for me, will you?"
There's a moment of silence, Benn studying Rayleigh's face even though there's no way he could read it anything on it.
"- Sure," finally says Benn. "He's lucky he's fun."
"- You're the worst crewmate ever," declares dramatically Shanks in the background, and Benn ignores him with an easiness that speaks of practice.
Rayleigh decides he likes Shanks' crew.
"- Apparently your captain took Fishman island under his protection?"
It's phrased like a question, but it's not really one; not in the sense that Rayleigh's waiting for a yes-or-no answer. It's more of a "what the hell is happening, by the way?".
Marco sighs, in a defeated way. It's rare for his friend to feel like that- Rayleigh straightens to look at him.
"- Yeah, he did. After Otohime's death and all that followed, kidnapping was more frequent than ever and- well, we couldn't just stand by and do nothing."
"- The Marines," Rayleigh asks softly. "They're not doing anything?"
Marco scoffs angrily, looking at the horizon as if he wants to go and fight Sengoku personally.
"- Of course not. My best guess is that the Celestial Dragons forbid them to, but it could just be them."
There's a silence, then, because Marco seems really upset and- well, Rayleigh's not used to it. Out of the two of them, he's usually the emotional one. He takes a moment to think, then decides that there's pretty much nothing that could make the situation better.
"- At least your captain took care of it?"
"- I- yeah, but we're criminals, Rayleigh. What does it means, that civilians have to rely on us, rather than the Marines?"
He sighs, and does not answer.
"- Yeah," mutters Marco. "My thoughts exactly."
Years pass, slowly. Rayleigh observes the world, smiles and spares a thought for pirates with potential, visits graves that aren't really graves and grows flowers on a hidden island hundreds of people are searching for. He keeps contact with Whitebeard, watches Shanks slowly rise to be one of the Emperors of this world, and pointedly does not think about the fact that Roger will never be able to meet Shakky.
The world is as crazy as ever, as unexpected in its miracles and tragedies, but- Rayleigh takes the back seat, for a moment, after being one of the major actors of the previous era. He waits and watches, and he's content like that.
At least, until a boy with a familiar straw hat and an even more familiar smile arrives on Sabaody.
("- Shanks was part of your crew, wasn't he? I remember him squabbling with one other boy on the Oro Jackson."
"- Yeah. Roger liked him. He gave him his hat, and then Shanks gave it to another boy he liked."
"- So they were both idiots who made impulsive decisions, is what you're saying?"
Rayleigh will admit that arriving to see that Shanks' successor just destroyed three World Nobles is pretty great.
His crew is standing by him, none of them looking panicked that they just called an admiral to the island, and if he wasn't a little preoccupied over the fact that Hachi just got shot and is currently in the process of bleeding out, he'd probably grin, because- this? This reminds him a lot of his old days, him and his crew standing by Roger's side, them against the world, unafraid as long as they all stood together.
Even with his friend wounded at his side, though, he can't quite stifle his laugh when he comes out of the building and the Marines have been- well, annihilated.
(Seas, he misses Roger. His friend would have been- but, well, it's too late for that, now.)
They get back to Shakky's bar, and Rayleigh lets himself drown in his memories for a moment, remembering Roger's execution and life, recounting the past for the sake of the future.
And then the dark-haired girl he recognizes as Nico Robin stands and asks him about the Lost Century, serious and with intent, focused-
He looks at that girl who chases after knowledge while knowing how heavy it can get- looks at that band of dreamers, of kids, chasing after the secrets the world is hiding from them without a care in the world-
(He remembers how quiet everyone became, when they learned the story of the Lost Century, how many hours it took them to shake off their misery, and does not think he could bear it, if this band of reckless adventurers went quiet.
And so he does not answer.)
"- I'm sorry," says Marco, brisk and worried, the shadow of the looming war accentuating the darkness under his eyes.
"- No, no, of course. It's your crewmember, I understand."
"- I'd tell you if I could," adds his friend, looking a little desperate, and Rayleigh wonders what exactly is the secret the first mate cannot tell him, the secret their captured crewmember seems to hold so close to himself and that convinced the Marines to go after him. He wonders what it is, why this Ace thinks it so terrible.
And then he refocuses on Marco, who looks so tired, and old, and scared.
"- Be careful," Rayleigh says, a plea and a command all wrapped together into one sentence, fear neatly hidden under his practiced uncaring attitude.
"- Sure," answers Marco, his smile a tired and weak thing, almost invisible, and Rayleigh wonders if this is the last time he'll see it.
(He does not add anything, because it'd be useless, because Whitebeard is as willing as Roger was to die for his crew, for his children, and Marco is exactly the same as Rayleigh, would walk to the ends of the world and watch it burn if his captain wanted him to.
Still, he hopes for the story not to end in a tragedy.)
When has the world ever granted Rayleigh's hopes?)
The War of the Best, the Marines call it. Like their side wasn't made of monsters.
The War of the Best, where they executed someone for the crimes of his father. What a great demonstration of Justice's might, they triumph, and Rayleigh wants to bury their heads under burning lead.
The War of the Best, and Sengoku is gone, and Edward is dead, and he managed to let Roger and Rouge down even after their deaths.
Well. At least they got the war part right.
The boy fights in the war, fights and fights and fights, on and on and on, until the only thing keeping him upright is sheer will. Rayleigh can't help but think of Roger, of a hidden island on which birds sing and flowers grow.
The boy fights against Marines and pirates, pain and despair, and he loses family and gains respect, enemies, and allies.
(Or maybe he just looses, but- Rayleigh can't consider it like that.
Because losing family, to this boy who tried and succeeded so many time, and who failed when it mattered most -or maybe it always matters the same, to him, if he really is similar to Roger- losing family, that might break him.
But Rayleigh doesn't allow himself to think about this.)
The boy fights, and survives.
(Rayleigh doesn't let himself think of those who didn't.)
"- Marco", Rayleigh says, and finds himself short on words.
The room isn't dark; there's a window the afternoon sun is streaming through, and the wood of the ship, dark, is illuminated and becomes a deep amber under the rays. The sun is shining, there isn't a cloud in sight, and the sea is calm like it rarely is in the New World.
(The room isn't dark, but it feels like it should. Gentleness is out of place when you're grieving the loss of a world.)
Marco doesn't answer, still sitting on the bed like he was when Rayleigh entered. He is silent and terribly still, staring at the floor, looking terribly lost and vulnerable and like someone touching him might break him, and Rayleigh wonders if this how he looked after- after.
(The war has reopened old wounds, and they are bleeding sluggishly, calling for his attention; but Rayleigh doesn't have time for them.)
Just as he's about to speak again, wondering if his friend wasn't just lost in his thoughts and hadn't heard him, Marco raises his head, slightly. Not completely, as if not ready to face him, and Rayleigh wonders, and thinks, and does not pray, for Gods are treacherous beings who took his captain from him despite his pleas.
"- Rayleigh," says -whispers, really- Marco. "Can you- can you leave?"
Rayleigh stills, inch by inch, until the sadness has reached his heart and settled in it; and then, very softly, trying very hard to mask his feelings, though Marco has always been able to read them-
And, as he's about to leave, feeling a little more tired than he was when he entered-
"- I'm staying around for a little while, okay? So you can always-"
But Marco's head has dropped down again, and he lets the end of his sentence slip away and steps out of the room.
Rayleigh attends Ace's and Whitebeard's funeral, because he didn't get to attend Roger's.
(Because Roger didn't get to have one, and that's just another way Rayleigh managed to fail him. All his failures seem to make their way back to the forefront of his mind, these days.)
It's a long funeral- there's no actual ceremonial burial, that was done as soon as the survivors got to the island. It's mostly people standing together, in silence, and murmuring to each other, crying and aching and letting the wounds begin to close, maybe.
During all the ceremony, Marco is deathly silent, impossibly still, staring at the two stones like they'll disappear if he turns away.
Rayleigh stands on the outskirts, feeling out of place, and as useless as 21 years ago, watching Roger smile for the last time.
He looks at all these people, who fought the world and lost, and who are left with no precise destination, and he wonders- how?
How did he survive this?
(But did he survive this?)
And Marco's silence goes on, and on, and on, (and Roger's, Rouge's, Whitebeard's, Ace's. They all, all, all stay silent, on and on and on and on, until that's all Rayleigh can hear); and, well, he-
What can he say? There's no use in him being there, because time is the only thing that could possibly ease the pain a little; and Marco even asked him to leave- so what is he doing here, on this grieving island?
(But that's not the truth, and he knows it.
He remembers- stumbling onto the Moby Dick, half-blinded by grief and praying for it all to be a dream while knowing it wasn't. And he remembers, thinking, at some point, that there was something left- that it wasn't all gone, gone, gone.
There was something left, he wasn't alone; Seas, he wasn't alone.
It had seemed so small, at the time, so useless- so what if Marco and Edward are there? Roger isn't, he isn't, he's gone, gone gone gone gone-
It had seemed small, but- but it had been so much, in hindsight. To be able to grab onto something.
And so he will stay.)
And then it's finished, and the graves are there, white and standing proud, another monument to remind Rayleigh of his failures and his ghosts.
(And his captain wanted him to live, and he will follow that order until he can't anymore, but-
There are moments where Roger's absence hurts more than death, there are moments where the world is just so heavy, and he just-
But Roger was his captain.)
"- I know you'll always think of him as their son, but, I wanted you to know- he was much more than that."
Marco's voice would have surprised him, maybe, if Rayleigh hadn't been the first mate of the Pirate King and used his Observation Haki near-everywhere.
(When he waters flowers, there's no need for it.)
"- He was- polite, I guess. Ate way too much, would fall asleep without any reason, loved setting things on fire. He had a tattoo, on his arm, of his name- but with an s before the c. I never got to know why that was."
Marco's voice quietens at that, and Rayleigh keeps his thoughts at bay and waits- waits, waits, waits.
"- He loved us, I think," whispers Marco in a shaking voice, and, oh, there are so many wounds bleeding in unison hidden in his friend's voice, huge, ugly gashes that are tainting his world grey, grey, grey. Rayleigh fights the urge to run and hide from this, to cover memories with alcohol, because- because this is not about him, this is not for him, and Marco has done so much for him.
Marco inhales, exhales, and speaks again, because he was always braver than Rayleigh.
"-He loved his brother most of all, though." He chuckles a little, weakly. "You should have seen him, when Luffy's first bounty came out- he was so proud. He showed everyone- you would have thought the kid had just found Raftel, not beat a no-name in East Blue. And- well, he would have had the same reaction after their insane Enies Lobby adventure, I guess- I don't know if he ever heard of it. I- well, we weren't there."
Marco sighs, just a little. Rayleigh stays quiet, quiet, quiet, trying to distract himself from the pain in his chest.
"- He loved his mother, so much. Knew next-to-nothing about her. When we told him we had known her, he wouldn't leave until we had told him every story we knew. I didn't- I didn't know Rouge well, so I borrowed your stories."
Rayleigh does not smile, does not speak, fears that even breathing might stop the influx of words and return Marco to his silent state. He waits, and listens, listens, listens.
"- He hated Roger."
And Seas, that hurts.
It's not like the Marines, or the no-name pirates, or even the famous pirates- he can't tell himself that it doesn't matter, because Roger wouldn't have cared.
Because Roger would have cared, so, so, so much. Roger would have been destroyed to know that his son hated him- delighted to know that he loved Rouge, yes, but destroyed still.
And it's not fair, not fair, that Ace got to know his parents only through stories of strangers or pseudo-friends. He should have known about Rouge's favorite dish, about Roger's stupid way of making enemies to easily. He should have known- he could have known, if Rayleigh had-
"- I couldn't tell you," apologizes Marco. "He didn't want anyone to know. I'm- I'm sorry, Rayleigh."
(And- Rayleigh knows, intellectually, that it's not Marco's fault, nor Ace's or Whitebeard's or Roger's or anyone else's; it's the world's fault, really, and Rayleigh is too old and too alone to fight the world.
But it's so much easier to be angry at Marco.)
At some point, he has to leave.
Well- he could stay. There's no one screaming at him to leave, but there might as well be: he's out of place here, on this island he doesn't even know, with these people he has never talked to.
He was staying here for Marco, essentially; because his friend had needed him and he couldn't fail him, fail another friend.
But Marco is so very silent, so very still, seems so fragile, like he might shatter if someone pushed him a little too forcefully, like the world suddenly is too harsh and violent, and Rayleigh-
(He doesn't want to be the one to shatter him.)
So once it becomes clear that Marco won't talk to him, clear that he doesn't need him, doesn't need anything but time and his memories, really, then Rayleigh leaves.
He has an offer to make.
(He doesn't let himself think about what Roger would say about him leaving without a warning. He doesn't let himself imagine the disapproving stare his captain would direct at him- he does not, does not, does not.
Rayleigh, over the years, has become quite skilled at navigating the vicious memories he hates and yet hangs on to with all his strength.
But he doesn't think of that, either.)
He gets there, and Luffy is-
Well, not fine, not by any stretch of imagination. He's covered in bloodied bandages, and his eyes are red and full of a mixture of emotions Rayleigh wishes he didn't have to see. He's on Jinbe's back, which probably means he's so hurt he can't even move, and even if he's smiling, well-
Rayleigh is a little selfish and a little dramatic, and so he usually thinks, deep down, that nothing can compare to the pain of Roger's disappearance. But that's wrong, so wrong, because there's a gaping emptiness, a feeling of what's-even-the-point-now, to Luffy, now; a feeling he knows too well, an overwhelming and so, so, so painful one-
But the boy is smiling, and there's still this challenge to the world hidden in his smile, still this cheer to his voice that's undoubtedly forced but there-
Oh, Captain, thinks Rayleigh for a split second, bones weary with lassitude and grief so deep it might as well be engraved in his heart- oh, Captain, how I miss you.
And then, because he can't linger on those thoughts for too long, he just can't, he turns around and distracts himself with three little girls he rescued once and had almost forgotten.
"- Are you going after Akainu?" Asks Rayleigh to fill the silence between him and one of his oldest friends, and he realizes his mistake almost immediately- still too late.
Marco does not flinch, does not move; almost like he hasn't heard his friend. But Rayleigh knows better. He hears the blond let out a soft sigh, sounding defeated and so exhausted, and then:
"- ...No, I don't think so. I mean- he killed Ace, yes, but he's a Marine and this was Ace's execution. He didn't- Blackbeard is so much worse."
Marco's voice is quiet, hesitating, and- detached, like he's talking about business between islands and not the death of one of his brothers; it only gains a spark of life on Blackbeard's voice, the anger and resentment and pain quite literally piercing through the blanket of apathy the former first mate seems to have chosen as his shelter. Rayleigh would like to shake him out of it, except he spent five years drinking after Roger's- after Roger, so he's not exactly the perfect example for healthy coping mechanisms.
Instead, he nods softly, silent.
He misses Rouge. She always was better at comforting people.
(And, if Rayleigh had had a son, she probably wouldn't have let him died.
But Rouge always was the best out of the two of them. It went like that: Roger, Rouge, Rayleigh.
The top two are gone, though, so Rayleigh guesses he's the only choice left.)
Rayleigh trains Luffy and prays to gods he ceased believing in 24 years ago that it will be enough to keep him alive.
He spends a year with this boy who's not exactly a boy anymore, which is more than enough to get caught in Luffy's orbit.
(But Rayleigh has had more than enough practice, navigating thirty years with his sun of a captain. It's hard to not get caught in Luffy's momentum, to always wrench himself free of this magnetic pull Luffy's never aware of, but Rayleigh has done plenty of hard things, and he cannot -will not- risk losing another star.
So he smiles and tells stories about Shanks, and asks questions about the crew Luffy loves more than all the treasures he has left behind and is after and laughs with -and sometimes at- this boy who will someday outshine him and his past.)
And then- one day, in the middle of winter, of what is somewhat akin to winter on this ever-changing island, he finds himself talking about Roger, and Rouge, and all that comes with them.
Luffy is uncharacteristically silent, during Rayleigh's whole story. He doesn't sit still, not exactly, but that's not surprising: he never does, or almost never. Rayleigh has learned, over time, that if Luffy isn't moving that means he's sad, and really that's the last thing he wants, to see this loud whirlwind of a king go silent and thoughtful.
(On days he does, though, Rayleigh sits down next to him and asks a question about Luffy's crew, which never fails to cheer him up. The kid turns around and starts going on and on about them, about Sanji's sweets and Usopp's drawing and Franky's inventions and Robin's books and everything he can think of, everything he believes they will one day achieves, and-
Rayleigh hopes, with all he has left, that none of his crewmates will get taken away- because either the world will burn, or the boy will break, and he doesn't know what he fears the most.)
Rayleigh has just finished recounting a story about Roger challenging a king for the right to govern a land because his captain had decided that the flowers are pretty and maybe Rouge would like it here, don't you think, Rayleigh? Then she'd finally be in the Grand Line and we could visit her!, when Luffy smiles a soft smile Rayleigh's not sure he has already seen, and says:
"- Ace's dad seems okay. That's good."
Rayleigh stays silent and tries very hard to keep his heart from shattering right here and there.
"- I think he would have liked him, if he had had a chance to meet him."
Luffy lowers his voice a little then, and tells him solemnly, as if sharing an important secret:
"- Ace always hated people before loving them. Except for Sabo. I think he liked Sabo right away, but that's 'cause Sabo was smarter and forced Ace to like him!"
He grins then, delighted, like his brother didn't die less than a year ago in one of the most awful circumstances Rayleigh can imagine.
The older man is tempted to ask him who is Sabo, exactly, but he didn't miss the past tense and he's not sure he's allowed to ask about that, so he just files it away as a question for later, or never.
(It sits right next to all the questions he never asked Roger.)
"- Ace loved his mom, though. Do you have any story about her?"
"- Well, yeah-"
"- Not now! I'm hungry! I miss Sanji's food!" He pouts. "Your meat doesn't taste as good as his."
"- Wha-" protests Rayleigh, feeling very much like he's being faced with a seven-year-old. "At least I can cook meat! Be grateful about that, brat!"
Luffy only laughs and dodges Rayleigh's haki-reinforced staff.
(Somewhere, Rayleigh is sure, Roger's spirit is laughing at him.)
Training Luffy is... Strange, to say the least.
The boy -though Rayleigh is not sure Luffy still deserves this name, not with all that he's been through- is more dedicated than Rayleigh thought he would be. It's his fault, really: he saw Roger's hat, Roger's smile, Roger's will, and imagined the successor to be just like the previous king.
It was a foolish thought, really, because there had never been someone like Roger.
Roger was -is, will always be- his captain, and perhaps it's because Rayleigh is old and sentimental, but it seems that no one can even begin to compare to him.
That's the thing, though- Luffy is so different from Roger. He laughs when Rayleigh's captain would pout, he stays silent where Roger would complain, he acts and moves and breathes and lives all wrong.
And yet- Luffy is so similar to Roger, so like him that it hurts; sometimes Rayleigh will catch a glimpse of that hat with that smile, and think he's still on the Oro Jackson, even though he hasn't lived on the ship for decades. But- the energy is all wrong, there are none of the jokes Rayleigh had grown so fond of, and his heart aches in a quiet way, in the worst way.
(It's exhausting to miss someone.
It's tiring, so tiring, to look up sometimes and remember that his captain is dead, to be at peace for once and then to get hit with the unbearable loneliness that comes with knowing that Roger is gone.
And- shouldn't his sadness have passed by now? Or, not passed, but at least be somewhat faded?
Because it doesn't feel like it. It feels like his grief and pain is as fresh as it was two days after Roger's death, and that's not true, because two days after Roger's death he was a mess, a wreck, an empty shell of a person filled with pain, but-
Missing Roger is exhausting, and it never ends. If it did, it'd mean Rayleigh would have forgotten his captain, and there's no power powerful enough in this world to make this particular nightmare come true.)
Luffy is not quite understandable, never predictable, always moving and searching for another thing to distract him; but Rayleigh knows from experience how difficult it is, to bear the kid's full, undivided attention, so maybe it's better like that.
Luffy's a fast learner, surprisingly so. Or maybe it's unsurprising; Rayleigh's not quite sure.
When he wants too, the boy can seem like a prodigy, understanding concepts that took years for Rayleigh to comprehend in a few hours; but sometimes it takes days of the same exercise for Luffy to actually start making the littlest bit of progress.
Through it all -through highs and lows, through the cataclysmic days, where Rayleigh could swear that the island took offense of being in the Calm Belt and decided that if the ocean couldn't try to kill him and the boy, then it will gladly take its place, and the painfully calm days, where it feels like the island is just waiting for them to relax and lower their guard to spontaneously start splitting apart,- through it all, Luffy stays almost frighteningly determined.
He's not always focused, no, of course not- but it's rare to see him completely distracted. He's serious more often than not, and his smile is different from the one he wore on Saboady. Rayleigh has a feeling that's because he's away from his crew, or because he fought the world and lost, for the first time.
(He doesn't blame him.
Rayleigh has been too serious and too bitter and completely depressing since Roger died, and it's been 24 years.
He's hardly in any place to criticize Luffy.)
So- training Luffy is strange. It's frustrating, and painful, and Rayleigh hasn't had that much fun in decades.
(Roger would have loved you, he doesn't say to Luffy.)
"- You're going to lose," states Rayleigh from the barrel he's sitting on, and all the (former) commanders of Whitebeard turn to glare at him.
"- You don't know that-", retorts someone whose name he never bothered to learn, before getting interrupted.
"- We have to avenge Pops." Says Jozu, voice uncharacteristically quiet.
No, you don't, thinks Rayleigh. He never asked that of you.
But he can't convince them of that- he doesn't know them enough, didn't really know anyone on the ship except Marco and Whitebeard, content as he was to cling to those who had known Roger and not risk losing someone else.
They're angry, and hurting, and they're trying to get revenge because they can't have what they lost back- and it seems like a good idea, now, until they stop and look back and realize they've just destroyed everything.
(Rayleigh speaks from experience.)
Marco could convince them, though. He's the first mate, he's the one they trust, the one they're used to looking up to.
"- Marco," whispers Rayleigh, soft and worried. "You're going to lose. You know that, don't you?"
The room grows silent, terribly so.
"- I know," says Marco, sounding defeated and lost and- tired, most of all, so tired. "I know, but- what else can I do?"
And Rayleigh lets them go, all these lost children who have decided to die for a man who wanted nothing for them than to stay alive, who had declared war because one of his own was going to die. He watches them set sail, grim and determined, somber and silent, and thinks of what they looked like a year and a half ago, and-
He watches them go, and wonders what it feels like.
(There was nothing he could have done for Roger.
An illness- how do you fight an illness? You can't.
Crocus couldn't, and Rouge couldn't, and Rayleigh couldn't, and Roger couldn't. They were all powerless.
(Rayleigh would have apologized, would have begged his captain for forgiveness, if Roger wouldn't have thrown him offboard should he even think about actually doing it.)
And this man- Rayleigh's captain, who had a habit of accomplishing miracles just because he wanted to, who had destroyed and rearranged Rayleigh's world without even realizing it-
Roger smiled and asked for one last adventure, instead of the hundreds he should have had. Roger smiled, because he was a D., and it was almost his duty to smile when faced with death.
Roger smiled, and Rayleigh-
Rayleigh didn't, of course. His captain was dying, his whole world was crumbling, and it all felt like a twisted nightmare or a cruel joke.
Roger took it well, his death. Of course he did- it was his death, and as long as it was him and not a member of his crew, well, it wasn't so bad.
Wasn't so bad. No, it wasn't so bad, wasn't it? Wasn't so bad for Rayleigh to lose Roger, and along with him Rouge, and along with her his home and his family and the air in his lungs. It wasn't so bad.
It wasn't so bad.)
The ships leave all at once, and the island is left deserted.
It's strange, the sudden silence. The island Ace and Whitebeard -Edward- was buried on is a peaceful one, so it's not out of the norm, but-
It feels like the calm before the storm, even though they've just gotten through one.
(Rayleigh has given up on gods a long time ago, so when he looks at Edward's grave and asks the immaculate monument to keep them all safe, it can't be considered a prayer.
It still feels like it.)
"-Would you like, eventually," asks Rayleigh after a full day of training, hesitating, "-would you like to see Ace's grave?"
Luffy hums from his position on the ground, his scar glaringly obvious against his tanned skin. It's summer on Rusukaina, or something approaching at least, and the heat is truly awful, which the rubber-boy doesn't seem to like that much. Luffy's been quieter than usual, lately, and Rayleigh's not exactly worried, per se, but-
Well, no, that's it, he's worried. It's- unusual, to say the least. He's not usually worried about Shakky, doesn't need to be; Hacchi he doesn't see much of, and even then, the Fishman can take care of himself; Shanks is an Emperor and has an entire crew to protect him, he doesn't need it; Buggy is sensible and followed Rouge's example, and Rayleigh has faith that he will be fine; he would worry about the rest of the crew if he had any idea if they were still alive; Marco had enough people to be worried about him before and now worrying about him is all that Rayleigh ever does; Roger and Rouge, well...
So yeah, maybe Rayleigh is a little (a lot) worried.
"- I don't know," says Luffy after a moment of silence, and then- "Ace never went to Sabo's very much, so I don't think he cared about that kind of stuff. And graves are for remembering, right? I don't need that to remember Ace."
There's a lot Rayleigh could say, here- he almost does, almost.
Instead, he nods, and that's the end of that.
Rayleigh hears the news just as he's about to leave Rusukaina and go back to Sabaody.
"The Payback War", the world has taken to calling it, and Rayleigh hates how perfectly it fits.
He hasn't heard from Marco for ages, and he probably shouldn't worry, because Marco fought against Roger, because he was the first mate of Whitebeard, because his fruit makes it practically impossible for him to die-
But still. Still, there's so much that could have gone wrong, and Rayleigh might be an old man now, not quite as strong or idealistic as in the past, but if he sees Blackbeard or Blackbeard's mimicry of a crew with Marco's power, then it's possible that he'll call all his allies and start his own War of the Best.
(Rayleigh has lost a lot, over the years, and the things - the people- he still has he cares about fiercely.
He can't fight their battles -won't, that's not his place, never has been and never will be- but vengeance isn't quite the same.
(He couldn't avenge Roger; had no place in avenging Edward or even Ace; but Marco? Marco he can fight for.)
He's a pirate, and rules don't apply to him.)
Things get- quieter, when he leaves Luffy.
As much as he had appreciated training the boy, it's a relief to finally have some peace and quiet. Rayleigh's used to being alone, and he hadn't realized how much he had missed it until he was again.
He goes back to Saobody. He stays there for two months, maybe three; spends most of his time with Shakky. He goes to see Luffy's ship, the Thousand Sunny, and finds it surprisingly well-guarded.
And then he goes again. He visits Crocus, passes by Rouge's hometown and watches from afar, and wanders.
(He was always perfectly fine with being alone.
Well- he was always perfectly fine with being alone, until Roger.
It was just another thing that had changed when he had met his captain.)
He had forgotten, caught up as he was in old wounds and friends' sorrows, how much he had come to like the life he had built for itself.
(It doesn't feel like a stab in Roger's back, anymore. His captain- his friend, if he had been there, had looked at Rayleigh's life, would have smiled, of that Rayleigh is sure.
There are still few things Rayleigh wouldn't do for just an hour more with Roger, for a hug or a word of comfort even. But-
But there would have been nothing he wouldn't have sacrificed, back then.
I miss you, Captain, he still thinks. There's still a warmth missing in his chest, still a laugh he can never stop himself from expecting to hear.
The echo of what had been is softer now, though, kinder. Rayleigh clings to that.)
I miss you, Captain.
He goes back to Saboady, and finds Marco there- or, more accurately, Marco finds him.
Rayleigh's taking a nap near Luffy's ship when the blue phoenix lands next to him.
"- There you are," says Marco, like Rayleigh hasn't been worrying over his wellbeing since the news of the Payback War reached them.
"- There I am," he agrees softly. He closes his eyes once again, and waits.
Marco sits by him, hesitant.
"- I'm sorry if I worried you," he murmurs, sounding genuinely apologetic. "I was- remembering."
Rayleigh is a little mad, because he was worried, yes, when he didn't hear from Marco for almost an entire year. He refrains from telling him that, though, stops himself just before saying that he has few enough friends as it is, Marco, and would like not to lose another so soon.
Because Rayleigh remembers losing Roger, feeling disoriented and angry and so, so full of grief; remembers disappearing for months and sometimes years without warning, when Marco was gone for a fairly short time; remembers stumbling onto the Moby Dick without a warning, always expecting his friend to be there, never once apologizing, and Marco never saying anything about it.
"- It's alright," he hums, steady. "I understand."
"- I wanted to thank you, for trying to help after- after. And for warning us that we were going to-"
Marco cuts himself off; sighs deeply.
"- He never wanted us to avenge him, did he?"
His voice is oh-so-quiet, fragile in a way Rayleigh should be afraid of.
"- No, he didn't. But," -and there the old man's voice softens, compassion trying to ease the harsh reality- "he's not here anymore."
"- What am I supposed to do, Rayleigh?"
"- I'm not sure," he answers finally, quite certain that telling the truth is the best option. "I sort of stumbled onto everything by inadvertence after Roger died. I don't know if it'll be the same for you."
(What a sharp contrast they make, Marco and him. Old and new grief sitting side by side; remnants of the previous eras watching over the home of the next King.)
"- You should- get away from the world for a bit. And I don't mean disappearing without letting anyone know you're alive, like you just did, more reminding yourself what life feels like when you're not one of the main actors. It all seemed less overwhelming, when I did that."
"- Maybe," sighs Marco, and stays silent and still at his side for a moment. Then: "I really am sorry, for pushing you away after-"
He cuts himself off; curls up onto himself, looking small and tired.
And Rayleigh aches, because this quiet, vulnerable man isn't Marco, not at all- Marco is the boy who threw himself at the Pirate King to protect his captain; Marco is the man who sighed of exasperation when hundreds of people claimed to want to kill Whitebeard because the Marines had called him "Strongest Man in the World"; Marco is the boy who complained about idiot crewmates with him and he's the man who was there for Rayleigh when Roger died.
(But maybe Marco isn't that version of him anymore, just like Rayleigh isn't the man he was before he met his captain and after his guiding star died- maybe he hasn't been the reckless boy Rayleigh knew since Roger's fall, and maybe Whitebeard disappearance made him grow past the exasperated friend Rayleigh knew, too.
It's not necessarily a bad thing, but Rayleigh misses the past nonetheless.)
"- It's alright," he just says. "I didn't go anywhere."
"- No," agrees Marco so softly Rayleigh feels like he wasn't meant to hear it, "no, you didn't."
And then- well, Luffy departs for the New World.
It's an odd thing, watching him leave, so radiant, so much happier now that he's surrounded by his crewmates- Sanji and Zoro, if what he remembers from the boy's stories is correct. For a long moment, Rayleigh looks at Luffy and thinks of him and Roger, of ascension and downfall, of all the things he could do and all the things he won't do.
Pride and sorrow mix in his chest, as he watches this future king run, smiling brighter than should be possible.
(Luffy is not Roger in so many ways that count, but in so many little details Rayleigh can see his captain.
He closes his eyes for the tiniest moment, lets future and past fade together, lets old sorrow and new hope battle for his attention.
Safe travels, kid.
"- I met your investment," mentions Rayleigh to Shanks one day, after having stumbled over the Emperor's crew.
"- Luffy?" Says Shanks, and the rest of his friends turn towards their captain.
"- What about Luffy, Captain?" Calls their sniper.
"- What did that kid do?" Asks another man.
"- Is he alright?"
"- Fine, fine," says Rayleigh when he notices Shanks' frown. "He's fine. Terribly reckless, too."
Shanks grins, the worry already gone from his face, as if Rayleigh had imagined it.
"- He is, isn't he? How did you meet our little Anchor?"
"- He crashed into an auction house's wall, then punched a Celestial Dragon in the face."
"- That sounds like him!" Calls the sniper again, a fond smile on his face.
"- Luffy's great, isn't he? Such an unbelievable kid. Did you know he stabbed himself under the eye to try and convince me to take him on my crew? He'll drive the world crazy, for sure. I'm glad you met him!" says the captain, confident in his choice of successor; and it hits Rayleigh all at once that Shanks grew up.
(It's easy, to remember Shanks as a kid who looked up to Roger and bickered with Buggy. It's easy, to remember him running through the Oro Jackson, or hiding in the kitchen. It's easy to remember Shanks as he was, and not as he is.
It's been 24 years since Roger died, and in the meantime, Shanks grew up. While Rayleigh grieved and grieved and grieved, Shanks became someone other than the scared child he had been when the crew had been dissolved, someone other than the young man that was exploring the world and not doing much else. He's an adult, or at least as much an adult as he ever will be.
He found his own crew, had his own adventures; he stands at the top of this era.
He's far from the kid Rayleigh once knew.)
Roger was close to Shanks, and the boy admired his captain, looked up to him so much. Rayleigh remembers that with an undeniable fondness, a kind of nostalgia that always comes with remembering Roger.
But their captain died, and Shanks grew past his admiration. He radiates self-confidence, now, at ease where before he would have been too eager to prove himself.
Shanks is an Emperor, now, has been for a long while, and it's not exactly a surprise, but it takes a little adjustment.
Rayleigh couldn't expect the world to stop while he grieved his captain; he couldn't expect people to stop living, like he did.
It's still somewhat a surprise, that they did live, and grow, and change.
(A good surprise, though.)
"- Roger's hat fits him well," Rayleigh says to break the silence, and Shanks smiles, proud and fond and nostalgic, soft and quiet in the middle of his crew's noise.
"- I imagine it does, yeah. He must have grown into it.
(Rayleigh never understood why he had Conqueror's Haki.
He understood why Roger did; because Roger dreamt of impossible and asked the world to give it to him, and the world complied; because Roger had asked him to become a pirate, when Rayleigh had been somewhere between twenty and twenty-one, and he had agreed like it made perfect sense; because Roger was audacious, never willing to back down or to be inferior to anyone.
(Shiki hadn't understood that about Roger.
Shiki had deserved his ass-kicking, in Rayleigh's humble opinion.)
So Roger having Conqueror's made perfect sense, because he embodied every characteristic a Conqueror had ever had (and maybe that's because Rayleigh bases his definition of what a Conqueror is on Roger, but it has worked well enough until now, so).
But Rayleigh- Rayleigh has never been ambitious, has never reached high and high and higher yet. Rayleigh became a pirate because, put simply, he had nothing better to do; he just got lucky to meet Roger, and if it hadn't been Roger, then he'll probably have drowned the idiot and turned back home.
Rayleigh is not a D, has never had any intention to change the world or revolt against something. Rayleigh is fine with doing what little good he can do, and living on.
Though- though that's not true, because once upon a time Rayleigh would have shattered all that had ever mattered if Roger had asked him to, would have marched straight into Marijois and maybe set it on fire a second time if it would have saved his captain.
Maybe it was not the actions; maybe it was the intentions, the potential, what you would do, what you would sacrifice, what you were prepared to tear from the world and keep for yourself. Maybe it was the blood you would shed and the consequences you wouldn't care about. Maybe it was the fact that you would stare down Death itself, and when you had done that, then the world didn't seem that dangerous, or the people hard to crush.
Rayleigh has Conqueror's haki. He likes to think he earned it.)
Marco ends up at Edward's home island, where he and Ace are buried. It seems strange, to Rayleigh: when he had been grieving, he had fled from anything that might have made him remember Roger.
But then again, he and Marco are quite different people, and Marco seems at peace, here, on this quiet island. He can hardly criticize his choice.
They're sitting side by side, observing the graves silently, when Rayleigh speaks up.
"- Do you remember Roger?"
Marco smiles a bit and says:
"- Yeah. I always make sure to remember the people who tried to kill me."
"- You're never going to let that go, are you?"
Marco only grins brighter.
"- Roger liked you."
"- That's a lie," retorts Marco. "He liked annoying me. I think Red Hair got that from him."
"- Who, Shanks?"
"- Yeah. He was always asking me to join his crew before- before it all."
Rayleigh laughs lightly.
"- I think he just wanted to perpetuate the tradition. Who knows, maybe Luffy will ask you to join."
"- Don't say that," groans his friend, laying down on the grass and lifting his arm to shield his eyes from the sun. "From what Ace told me, the kid would be capable of doing it."
"- Oh, definitely," agrees Rayleigh easily. "But then again, maybe he'll know better. He's difficult to read."
"- Like Roger, then."
"- Yeah. Yeah, very much like him, actually."
There's a silence, filled with memories, and then:
"- Why are you asking me if I remember Roger?"
"- Well- not everyone spent 30 years by his side. It'd be quite reasonable for you to forget him."
"- Roger was the King of Pirates. How am I supposed to forget him?"
Rayleigh sighs, an old melancholy rising again in his chest.
"- That's not who he was, though. That's what the Marines want people to remember him as."
Marco frowns, and turns to stare at Rayleigh.
"- I mean, I'm pretty sure he was very proud of his title. "King of Pirates", what kind of epithet is that? He lorded it over Pops for over three months, if I remember right."
"- Yeah, he did," reminisces Rayleigh fondly. "It's just- that's not all he did. The- the pirate thing- it isn't what's most important."
(What is important is the way Roger hugged Rouge when she left them, and the way his jokes never failed to cheer Buggy up, and the way he stood silent by Rayleigh's side sometimes without needing any prompting, just the two of them against the world.)
"- I would still say that inspiring several generations to become pirates is quite an impressive achievement."
"- The Marines are annoying, people would have done it eventually," counters Rayleigh, and Marco raises an eyebrow but doesn't say anything. "It's just- Roger wasn't just a pirate, you know? He was- more than that. But these days it feels like the world has forgotten it."
"- I think," says Marco very softly, "that the world never knew that. But you do."
Rayleigh looks over at the graves, and the flowers, and the gifts-
( -graves are for remembering, right?, asks Luffy in his head, and Roger doesn't have a grave, and of course, of course Rayleigh remembers Roger, but-
-graves are for remembering, and who still remembers Roger like Rayleigh does?
Because Rouge is gone, and Shanks is different, and the rest of the crew might be dead; because he's terribly alone-)
"- If it makes you feel better, I remember exactly how stupid he looked when Pops threw him overboard."
(-graves are for remembering, and once Rayleigh's dead then Roger will only be remembered as that nebulous title, "King of Pirates".
But at least he'll be remembered.)
(The flowers on Raftel are just as beautiful as they have always been. Those don't seem to change, no matter the weather; it makes sense, because they endured the Grand Line's storms, after all.
Rayleigh watches them as he thinks. There are footsteps approaching, out of place on this ever-silent island.
But those can wait just a little bit more, can't they?
There was a time where most of Rayleigh's life could be traced back to Roger's.
It's not the case, not anymore, and that particular truth never seems to stop hurting.
Rayleigh- Rayleigh has seen more of the world than most people ever did, more than Rouge did, more than Roger did.
It's- sometimes it's surprising, to look back and realize how many years have passed since Roger's death. He spent thirty years with his captain; soon he'll have spent thirty years without him.
It still hurts, because of course it does, but-
(It's like his scars- the one on his eyes, the ones on his chest. They're reminders of good times on good days, they're just as painful as the day he got them on bad ones.)
-but he lived, and he likes his life, and truth be told he's happy with what he has, even though he misses what he had.
There's a new Dawn on the horizon, and Rayleigh thinks it's just as bright as the one there used to be.)