“Rocinante, you say?"
With one hand resting under his chin, Vice Admiral Panza Sancho looked to the young Warlord sitting directly across from him.
Having just saved the Vice Admiral's life during a chaotic melee, this young man demanded a simple yet most curious payment: He wanted information on a certain Donquixote Rocinante, a man who joined the Navy in the same year as Sancho, some twenty years ago. Though puzzled by the request, Sancho was quite willing to take a walk down memory lane—there was no great secrecy surrounding that name, and he was more than happy to reminisce about his fallen comrade. So here they were, the two of them, sitting in a small cafe and chatting over a cup of coffee.
"As I recall...I was probably 10, and he was around 11. Back then, he was unbelievably shy. When I arrived with the other new recruits, all the other kids ran out to greet us, all excited. But him…he hid behind Admiral Sengoku—well, Fleet Admiral by now—and just poked his head out, peering at us. I remember thinking, what a scaredy-cat, could he really become a real Marine? Heh..."
Trafalgar Law stirred his coffee, expression hidden from Sancho's view.
"...But he was full of surprises. When we did the drills, it looked like he was afraid of fighting, but he always gave it all he had, always the last one to leave. You could sense that he was driven by a certain purpose. Later on it occurred to me that maybe he had already decided that he wanted to stop his brother, all the way back then. Basically, he wasn't interested in fighting, but he practiced the hell out of it. That earned my respect.
"...And he was no scaredy-cat, that one. There were a couple of rotten apples in our year, kids who got in because of their parents. These were real bullies, and nobody wanted to get on their bad side. Well, Roci was this gangly kid, and an instructor's favorite to boot, so that didn't sit well with 'em. One day I forgot something in the classroom, so I went back for it, and saw those guys surrounding Roci..."
Trafalgar's hand stilled in mid-motion. He still didn't look up, but his voice was cold.
"Err..." suddenly Sancho felt a cold sweat breaking out. He swallowed and soldiered on: "I was too scared to go in...heh...and then, I heard the ringleader saying that Roci was an orphan, or maybe Sengoku's illegitimate kid with some tramp...and that he shamelessly sucked up to the instructors. Before I knew it, words turned into blows..."
Sancho's voice dropped lower and lower still. A palpable chill was emanating from the man sitting across from him.
Law's voice, calm as it was, sent a terrible shiver down his spine.
"It wasn't a fair fight. Roci had no chance of winning that one...what he did have, though, was guts. He hurled himself at the ringleader and didn't let up, even though they were all ganging up on him. It got real bad, and nobody was going to back down. I had to run to get the instructors to finally get them to stop... But that ringleader never dared to pick on Roci again. He was beat up as badly as Roci was..."
The chill was still there, but Sancho saw the hint of a grin on Law's face.
"The names of those guys. Every single one of them."
Law was clearly not the chatty type, but Sancho could sense his grim intent behind every syllable.
With a trembling hand, he wrote down a list of names.
The next day, several local residents—some of them Marines, some of them civilians, but all offspring of Navy brass—were found lying on the streets, battered and bloodied. The government was unable to issue bounties because none of the men saw their attacker. Nor did they have any inkling as to why they were assaulted.
Sancho thought of his conversation with Law and decided to keep his mouth shut.
“Rocinante? Oh, he was one of the good ones..."
Dorotea the Cook Lady has been in a good mood lately. Now pushing fifty, she has been employed at the Marine mess for more than thirty years. For the last couple of days, a young man has been hanging around the mess hall, helping her with food preparation and chatting with her about the old days during the lulls. The young man is rather easy on the eyes, his golden irises sparkling with a beguiling charm; at the same time, he is so earnest that Dorotea just can't help but keep on talking.
"When Rocinante was around twenty...lemme tell ya, blond hair and mile-long legs, you couldn't find a better looking guy in the entire Navy. All the girls suddenly got shy around him, talking in tiny voices whenever he was around. He was friendly to everyone, always smiling and saying hi, telling jokes. But he was so absent-minded that he would trip over nothing at all. That worried the girls to no end. Not me, though—I was used to it. I heard that he was actually good at fighting, but somehow he always managed to trip, or run into something, or burn himself...it was so easy to worry about him. At the end of the day, you were bound to feel sorry for him, you know...a kid with no parents..."
Dorotea wipes away her tears with a pink handkerchief while stealing a glance at the young man, whose expression is odd to say the least—there is a ghost of a smile dancing around his lips, along with a soft and faraway look that she has never seen before.
"Oh yeah so, around that time, Roci took up smoking. Always told him, didn't I, that it was bad for his health and he oughta stop. But he never listened. It was like he had all this hurt inside, being an orphan and all, but you couldn't tell what was going on in his head. Sometimes he had this real serious look on his face while poring over newspapers, then he'd go out and light a cigarette.
"And I gotta say, him smoking was a nightmare, 'cos now he'd set himself on fire. Every time he lit a cigarette, he lit himself up, too. Always had to put it out in a hurry."
"...Yeah, careless, that's him," the young man replies in a soft voice.
Dorotea doesn't catch his exact words, but the look on his face is enough to fill her with a nameless sorrow.
"I have a picture of him. Kept it in my drawer, all these years. Want to see?"
"Yes, please," the young man turns to look at her, his smile as warm as the sun.
She goes back into the room and digs up a photo from the bottom of a drawer, handing it to him with painstaking care.
"That's him with Bell-mère. She was three years older and loved to pick on him, but if anybody wanted to give Roci crap, she'd be the first one to defend him. Like brothers and sisters, they were. Poor Bell-mère, she was so young, too..."
"Passed away on a small island in East Blue. Trying to saving her daughters, I think. It's just all too much to think about... I heard that Roci died protecting a child, too..."
The young man lowers the brim of his hat, his eyes hidden in the shadows. He sounds a little hoarse.
"...Do you think I could borrow this photo to make a copy? I spent some time with this man, Rocinante, and I'd like something to remember him by."
"Sure thing," Dorotea wipes her eye, "here you go. We lost so many young Marines in these last few years."
"Thank you," the young man's voice is still a little raw, "I am most grateful."
The next day, Dorotea shows up at the mess in her favorite dress. Every time the door opens, she would look up expectantly with a nameless hope in her heart, only to be disappointed again and again.
He doesn't show.
Another day passes. And another. And many thereafter.
At some point, she learns his name from a wanted poster.
He never sets foot in her mess hall again.
He sought out anyone and everyone who had been living among the Marines back then, twelve years ago—from janitors to vice admirals, young and old alike. He cajoled and threatened, using every trick in between, to extract any and all information about him.
There were so many things that he did not know. He didn't know that Rocinante preferred black tea to green tea. Or that he loved eating grilled fish but could never learn to cook it right. Or that bread was the bane of his existence. Or that Rocinante was the quintessential gentle soul who had to take up violence so that he could save him, save them.
And he had been wrong about so many things. He never knew that Rocinante was the goofy class clown, because Corazon never smiled at Spider Miles despite the makeup. He never knew that Rocinante was good at fighting, even though Corazon couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger against Doflamingo. He never knew that Rocinante was also an orphan who understood the pain of losing one's family—he had either rebuffed Corazon or clung to the man like he was drowning, because he thought Corazon couldn't possibly have known how he felt.
And every piece of knowledge adds to the guilt, followed by gratitude and a bottomless longing. The more he learns about Rocinante, the more desperate he grows for the warmth he had once received. The night is quiet and black as he rests his hand against his forehead, his memories devouring him like an incoming tide, every ripple echoing the pang of regret.
He lies in the darkness, eyes wide open. Like turning off a water faucet, he tunes out all the emotions and starts to plan with perfect rationality—how to save Dressrosa, how to destroy Doflamingo, step by step.
A single crack in the dam would be enough to bury him under the flood.
Guilt – Gratitude – Longing – Regret – Despair - Need.
He has an album. It contains all the spoils he has obtained during his search, and there is a Roci in every single one of them: group photos, single photos, candid photos, and ones with him lurking somewhere in the background. The photos are extensively annotated, everything from his favorite candy as a child to the first enemy he defeated as a marine. The man who lives in this album is a careless goofball who has a loud laugh. He receives love letters from young girls and gets picked on by an older one. To the amazement of his opponents, he would trip face-down during fights. He makes food for stray dogs in the backyard. Here is Rocinante, alive and breathing.
But when Law closes the album, the laughing goofball instantly becomes silent and disappears into thin air right before his eyes.
Just like his Devil Fruit power—one snap, and all falls into silence.
He lightly drags his thumbs over the Navy profile photo on the cover. Slowly and carefully, like it's a treasure most priceless.
But you are gone, after all.