Chapter 1: The fire is banked
Because Oda has just about stabbed one of Endgame's characters in the heart and left him bleeding in the dust, I am now required to explain to certain people why Ace is still alive in my story.
No beta for grammar correction, so excuse the mistakes wherever they may be.
There was battle somewhere outside this moment - a part of him knew that - but right now, he couldn't give a flying fuck.
He sat in the midst of the chaos, slowly brushing his brother's hair. He'd really made a tangled mess out of it while he was in prison.
There was something screaming in the distance. The sound was piercing, high-pitched with pain and panic. Luffy wished it would stop - it might wake Ace up.
There was a sickening squelching sound. Ah. Blessed silence, without even moving a muscle.
Nami and the crew - indeed, the entire world - watched in horror as the blanket of haki covered the injured marine and crushed him like an insect. Blood and matter oozed from under the smoke as the haki moved on to a next victim.
"What has he become?" the navigator whispered, trembling under her personal burden and the adrenaline spiking in her body.
"The devil fruit?" Zoro grunted in stereo, nine swords fending off a platoon of marines as they tried to break the defensive ring the Straw-hats had formed around their captain.
"The curse doesn't do shit like that," Sanji wheezed, pausing only briefly before his legs began swinging out again.
"This is the King's Haki," Robin informed them as her arms broke three backs out of the four men rushing her. The fourth man jumped high in the air to dodge her whip of arms, only to be shot out of the sky by Weapons Left.
"Whatever it is, we need to get Rubber-bro back in his right mind," Franky coughed, fanning the gunpowder smoke from his vision. "We can't stay here!"
"Franky-kun's right! My ammo is already running low!" Sogeking yelled over the bedlam, already using his Impact Dial to dispatch an over-sized marine that tried to carve him up. "Chopper, how does it look?"
The only person close to Luffy at this point was the reindeer man, who was working to heal what he could on the corpse of Portgas D. Ace.
"This is bad, really bad! I'd need to make him into a cyborg to keep him...he's slipping way too fast."
The whites of their captain's eyes - Luffy had long ago gone stark raving mad, but he was still their captain - rose up to stare at Chopper. Haki circled the little reindeer man's neck, but even in this precarious situation, they believed wholeheartedly that Luffy would not kill his own crew mate.
The reindeer nodded, his eyes brimming with tears.
"I'm trying, Luffy. I'm trying."
"Franky, we will need you here."
Brook's imposing height shadowed Chopper as he worked on repairing what damage he could. The skeleton seemed fey, a surprising state of being for the musician despite being a person who had died and returned once before. The cyborg shifted over as quickly as he could while the rest of the crew held the line.
"Whaddya need, Bones-bro?"
"Assist young Chopper here in remaking and replacing internal organs. You may need to use these."
Dead Bones Brook took a number of jars filled with preserved, human body parts out of his jacket and rib cage; a spleen, a liver, lengths of intestines, kidneys, a heart. Franky and Chopper looked on in amazement as the entire innards of a human were laid out before them.
"How did-?" Chopper began, but Brook waved him off dismissively.
"The island where I landed practiced ritual sacrifice and necromancy, among other things. These are the unfortunate spoils of one young woman. No more time for questions, Doctor-san! Work quickly! We only have a certain amount of time!"
Franky lowered his sunglasses and frowned as Brook withdrew a human leg bone carved into a crude flute.
"Bones-bro, what are you going to do?"
The skeleton looked at his crew, who all watched him with deep concern written on their faces. His jawbone smiled tenderly.
"I am going to bring Ace back."
Zoro and Sanji straightened up. The first mate's scowl grew deeper as he spoke.
"You mean to challenge Death? Are you insane?"
The skeleton chuckled fondly at the swordsman.
"No more insane than I was when he scouted me fifty years ago."
The Straw-hats watched as Brook unsheathed his sword, their eyes widening as Brook deftly rearranged the blade and cane to create-
"A scythe?" Sanji gasped, his cigarette dropping to the ground. "Shit, that means you're a-"
"A Shinigami? Angel of Death? Shepherd of the Damned?" Brook answered with dark amusement. "Yes. I was all of those titles, but I'm on - how you might say - suspension."
The skeleton twitched, the hair on his afro suddenly curling tighter. He swung his eye sockets out to the boiling sea, and a grimace covered his face.
"Roronoa, you have met that being before, yes? On Thriller Bark?"
The swordsman remained still for a long while - he had time, as Killer jumped into the fray in his place. Around the Straw-hats, the melee was growing fiercer, but they were now aided in their defense by supernovas, escapees, and Whitebeard pirates. Buggy was besides himself with rage, his whole body raining down Muggy Balls on any squads foolish enough to approach the area. Kidd, Law, Apoo, and Bonney in particular seemed pissed off to the gills; X Drake and Hawkins were busy taking their rage out on the marines in measured swathes of destruction. Capone and Urouge were more laid back, spreading their destruction a bit more indiscriminately. Marco, Joze, Vista and the other Whitebeard pirates had long gone off the deep end - there was literally an ocean of blood growing in Marineford.
Zoro shrugged away the panorama and answered his crew mate truthfully, "Yeah, I've seen him, but he's not too pleased with me. Keeps saying he needs to take my ass back home."
Brook smiled ruefully - if you could tell the emotion behind a skeleton's smile. He dug a bony hand into his afro and eventually threw a bottle of liquor to the Straw-hats' first mate.
"I thought as much. You need to rest for as long as possible, then get ready to battle him. I am about to anger him, and he is un cabron de puta, as they say in the vernacular - a motherfucking son of a whore."
The swordsman looked at his compatriot with stark surprise, a look echoed by his crew mates. Did Brook just cuss? Was the world about to end?
"Just what are you about to do?" Nami asked sharply. "I don't think we need to battle the fucking underworld right now, not when every marine above ground is already trying to kill us."
Brook cast a calming gaze over his comrades, and sighed.
"Fear not, Miss Nami. What I'm about to do - well, you will all see. But, dear navigator, please stand by with your lightning - we will need it."
The skeleton turned his back away from them to approach Luffy. The young man looked so small and broken under the weight of his own haki - it amazed Brook how misleading some appearances could be. The musician stuck the handle of his scythe into the earth, then gently lowered himself to the ground an arm's-length away from his captain. He waited patiently to be acknowledged. Franky and Chopper tore their eyes away from the tableau to address the pressing needs of recreating the human known as Ace.
Luffy did not turn his head away from his brother's face when he spoke, his voice barely above a cracked whisper.
"Why are you here?"
Brook lifted the flute to his lips, pausing only to answer him.
"I have come to play for the dead."
Ace felt the burning in his body subside, the agony twisting his insides receding as his nerves were incinerated - he would no longer feel pain, he was sure of it. He had already left his body behind, heading towards the light in front of him where the shadows of a large man and a svelte woman were waiting for him.
"Mother?" he wondered aloud, his feet - dead men have feet?- moving faster. How he longed to meet the amazing woman that had brought him into the world! He stretched out his hand to the shadows, now running and stumbling in the silent dark, his breath - why would dead people breathe? - breaking the gloom in harsh pants. He was so close! Why was she shaking her head? Why was the shadow next to her laughing, its huge chest puffing like this was all some sort of comedy?
"Portgas D. Ace?"
The young man slammed into the skeleton and, instead of floating right through it - don't ghosts and spirits go through solid things?- toppled to the ground on top of the piles of bones in an undignified heap. They both groaned as they pulled themselves back up, their heads ringing loudly.
"Who the hell are you?" Ace moaned, clutching his aching skull - I thought I couldn't feel pain! - with both hands.
"Yohohoho! Dead Bones Brook, at your service. I'm here on your behalf."
The young man shook his head in confusion. Behalf? What?
"There are many people who would prefer to see you alive," Brook continued, now standing and brushing off his suit. Ace stared at the skeleton as he offered him a bony hand.
"I can't live. I sacrificed myself for Luffy," he explained to the very lanky gentleman in front of him.
"Yes, well, it would appear that he refuses your generous gift. Furthermore, your parents are none to pleased with this predicament."
Behind the skeleton, the large man waved cheerfully, while Ace thought he saw pearly teeth glisten in a brief, feminine smile. He blinked, and turned his attention back to Brook.
"You're kidding me, right?"
"Afraid not, dear lad. Whitebeard is also quite upset with you, son. Allow me to show you."
Suddenly, with a blast of music - where the hell did the flute come from? - Ace and Brook were floating over Marineford. Ace's eyes widened in shock as he saw the turmoil below.
Whitebeard, barely standing as he was, was bringing about a quake fit to wake the holy undersea volcanoes. Luffy's haki was crushing and strangling everything in its radius. Jimbei had the water frothing with sharks, the carnivores growing fat off of the choice marine bits that he tore off and threw in the ocean. Sengoku was restraining Garp, but he was weakening against Gramps' horrendous strength. It was nothing less than apocalyptic, the violence spreading like an infection from the site of his fallen body.
"What happened?" Ace cried out, struggling against the skeleton's powerfully grip on his shoulder. "They were supposed to escape! They were supposed to run! Why are they still fighting?"
"You do not understand love, do you, Ace? What would you have done if it was Luffy lying there?"
Flames crackled ominously under the Brook's finger bones. The skeleton took heart.
"Wait - what is Luffy's first mate doing? It looks like he's fighting the air."
Brook frantically searched the chaos to find the swordsman - and the cook, not surprisingly - fending off a large mass of absolute blackness carrying a massive scythe.
"Oh dear. We must hurry. Ohohoho, I do hope that they have finished with your body, or this could become a bit gory."
"When he said Death was a right royal bitch, he wasn't fucking kidding!" Sanji gasped, still trying to breathe after the slash that he'd barely deflected. Gods! It had felt as if the blade was going to suck him into an abyss feet first!
"Don't touch him with your skin!" Zoro barked as he blocked a strike with his swords. "He'll take you just as well as he'd take a soul!"
"Roronoa Zoro!" Death intoned, anger tinting its bellowing voice. "Do you think that my kindness on Thriller Bark was an invitation to defy me at all turns? Have you forgotten how your life laid in my hands?"
"I haven't forgotten," Zoro panted as Sanji pulled himself up on the swordsman's right side.
"Sanji! Have you forgotten the gratitude that you gave to me when I granted you release from Hunger's maw?"
"You know I haven't forgotten, goddammit!" Sanji snapped, clutching the burning graze that he earned while dodging Death's initial onslaught.
"Then why are you both facing me now? Is this Ace so important as to warrant your deaths and dreams as well? Who has put you up to this impossible folly?"
"That's none of your business," the swordsman answered defiantly, he and the cook turning subtly such that they stood shoulder to shoulder. Both men took in air to roar at the shade in front of them.
"We will not let you pass!"
Chopper was grimly pleased to note that the magma had been excellent at cauterizing Ace's wounds and cleanly excavating the man's innards. He and Franky were making headway in rebuilding Ace, the body parts proving to be a remarkable fit, except for one.
"Fuck! I need another heart!" Chopper swore loudly as he secured Ace's lungs to the esophagus. "This one is diseased!"
"Where the fuck am I supposed to find you a heart?" Franky yelled, cauterizing a length of digestive tract in the process. "Doc-bro, d'ya think I just have an extra one handy in my stomach?"
"Dammit! I don't know what the hell Brook is going to do, but we need a heart if we plan to save him!" Chopper wailed, gnashing his teeth as he clutched his fists futilely.
"What about mine?"
The dark shadow grew above Luffy, blocking out the paltry sunlight. To find someone still capable of walking through the murderous swath of haki surrounding Ace's brother was a sight to behold.
"Whitebeard-!" Chopper gaped at the bloody man, amazed that the nigh-gigantic yonkou could still move. "I...yes, I guess so, if you aren't sick with anything..."
"My illness isn't contagious - unless my fool son does something like this again. Does old age matter?"
Chopper shook his head, then bowed respectfully as an after-thought.
"In your case, Whitebeard, sir, I am guessing it does not."
There was a sort of silence that spread over the battleground as Whitebeard's trembling hand rose to his heart.
"Please...tell him..." the yonkou began, his voice quavering ever so slightly. He paused, then let his voice rise in a powerful roar. "Please tell Ace that he was my son, with whom I was well pleased!"
With that, an era ended as Whitebeard plunged his own hand into his chest, and ripped out his still-beating heart.
"Pops!" Ace screamed, his fists pounding the insubstantial darkness beneath his feet as his sobs ripped through the ethereal flute music. "No, Pops! Not for me! Why?"
"Do you understand, now, why throwing your life away carelessly is wrong?"
Ace whipped around, only to have his sight covered by swathes of sweet-smelling hair. The woman standing in front of him had her back towards him, her head bowed.
"Mother?" he croaked, reaching out to this beacon of comfort in front of him. She moved out of his reach.
"Yes, my dearest son, my Ace. I am your mother, and as much as I want to be with you, I do not think that this is your time!"
The sharp words made Ace flinch, his fingers curling back as his hand dropped. The woman continued.
"You need to live, Ace. Oh my sweet boy, this is not what your father and I gave up our lives for! We wanted you to live, to learn, to love - to understand that no matter what, there was no wrong in you that anyone should say that you shouldn't exist!"
Ace hunched his shoulders, his mother's rebuke staining his cheeks red.
"But, mother, you know what people wanted to do to me! Even Squad stabbed the old man because of me!"
"No!" the woman shouted loudly. "Squad did that because of himself, not because of you! No child should bear the sins of his father! Those who say so are fools!"
Ace felt fresh tears tracking down his face. The woman in front of him grew blurry and began to distance herself from him. The large man was waiting for her further ahead, looking forward expectantly, as if waiting for someone else.
"Please, Ace. Your fathers - both of them - gave themselves up for you. I bore you through those long months. Luffy is almost at the brink of death himself, due to his efforts... If you value anything that we have ever done for you - please. Please go back, and learn the real meaning..."
Ace wiped the tears from his eyes as the flute music drowned out the woman's last words. When he looked back up, she was with the large man and another, all-too-familiar shadow. They waved at him, never looking back, and the light disappeared.
He was in the dark, but he was not alone as bony fingers patted his crying form.
"Let us go."
Chopper sewed the corpse up and prayed that he was not becoming another Doktor Hogback.
"Brook!" the reindeer yelled, now taking the time to wipe the sweat from his brow. "Brook! He's ready!"
"Whatever you're doing, Bones-bro, do it now! Swords and Cook-bro can't hold that guy off much longer!"
Brook did not respond immediately. His fingers moving over the soundless flute were the only indications that the skeleton was actually still alive. Luffy turned his head away from Ace for the first time, and peered expectantly at his musician.
With a sudden, loud, screeching blast from the flute, Brook stood up. He panted harshly, sweat pouring from his ivory forehead as he stood up on shaky legs with the help of his scythe.
"Miss Nami! I have need of your lightning now!"
"Where do you need it, Brook?" Nami yelled, already twirling her Perfect Climatact.
"Strike Ace with it, please! Now!"
"What the hell? Are you trying to kill him again?" Franky growled angrily, but Chopper placed a placating hand on the cyborg as he scrambled away.
"No, he's right! The lightning bolt might just have enough energy to restart everything!" Chopper exclaimed as he dragged the shipwright away. "Leave this to-"
"Dead Bones Brook! I knew I should not have granted you free time!"
Death shouted loudly as he tried again to break through Zoro and Sanji, the two men barely able to push him away.
"Yohohoho! Long time no see, sir!" Brook chortled, belying his extreme discomfort at the current situation.
"Do not dare to greet me! How dare you defy me?"
Brook bowed low, plucked his weapon from the ground, and strode towards his boss.
"Forgive me, sir, but after all these years, I have found a new crew, and a new captain. They have already sacrificed themselves for me, thus I will do anything and everything to aid these nakama of mine, even if it flies in the face of heaven itself!
With that, Brook's scythe clashed against the Grim Reaper's own weapon, accompanied by a flaming steel shoe and three great swords.
"If this is what it takes to bring my captain back," Brook cried out as he parried the next slash, "I will not stop for you! Nami, strike Ace now!"
The navigator did not need to be told twice. The thunderbolt followed her staff with unerring accuracy to Ace's body.
Luffy found it funny to watch Ace sleep. Usually his brother was so...alive. His body never seemed so still before, even when he dropped asleep while eating.
"Ace, are you having good dreams?" Luffy asked softly, his voice a scratchy breath of air. "Na, when you wake up, let's me and you go beat up those bullies again, ok?"
The rubber man never felt the electricity as it engulfed him.
"Na, Ace? Let's just be together again when you wake up, ok?"
Luffy hugged his brother's head tenderly, awkwardly, as tears sprung from his eyes and his world exploded in light. The young man's haki faded and he slumped over Ace's form.
Luffy woke up with a start. He was back on the Thousand Sunny.
"Shh, you idiot! God, my head still hurts, you know?"
In the neighboring bunk was Portgas D. Ace. In a dark corner of the room stood Brook, playing a mouth harp. Luffy 's eyes watered, and the skeleton nodded once before leaving the room.
Chapter 2: The fire is banked
What the hell have I done? No, no, no, I won't indulge you, accursed Endgame One Piece dimensional vortex in skull!
*author is sucked in. vortex burps.*
Dammit. I continued.
Eustass Kidd looked over at Portgas D. Ace once more, skepticism clearly lining his face. They were still seated at the table in the restaurant where the pirates had coincidentally shared breakfast after the world's most boisterous wedding reception, his plate untouched for the past half-hour.
"You're fucking shitting me."
Ace smirked and rubbed the bottom of the large, circular scar that surrounded the top half of his torso. He shrugged nonchalantly, jostling the infamous orange hat on his back.
"Believe what you will. You acknowledge him for a reason, don't you?"
Eustass began to brood. When the hell was he going to get another shot at being the Pirate King if the current one's underlings could tell Death to go suck a long one? 80?
The King's brother gave the pale criminal a knowing glance and a soft chuckle.
"Relax. It wasn't without repercussions, you know. There's a reason why Nami wants four of us."
Brook stepped from the men's living quarters into the gloom of the evening, dully illuminated by the red of the dying sun. He briefly covered his eye sockets, then ran his hands through his afro before resettling his hat on his head and his cane over his arm.
"Yohohoho, nothing ventured, nothing gained!" the skeleton cried with false cheer as he steeled his nerves, striding across the (burnt, ruptured, pock-marked) lawn deck with a slight swagger. Why, other than the fact that he had no visible flesh, one would believe his cojones to be the size of coconuts!
Brook opened the door to the galley with a flourish. The rest of the crew, save for Sanji and Zoro, was somberly assembled around the grand dining table along with their esteemed guest.
Death. Who was currently inhaling dinner at a rate commonly associated with newly-formed black holes.
"This meal is fabulous! You really stuck to your guns with the cooking! I've got half a mind to assign you to the Hell's Kitchen district when you come my side."
"Not if I can help it, mother-" Sanji grumbled under his breath as he basted another turkey from his wheel-chair. The cook's legs were swaddled in poultices and bandages, but only time would reset the cracks in his femurs and the scarred skin (and tell if he would ever walk again).
"Oh, by the way Zoro, nice job with Ryuuma - you finally made him want to leave the mortal coil. He wanted to thank you for the duel, and he hopes to have another one as soon as you arrive."
Zoro's snores from the infirmary (in traction again, give him a week to see if his spine will heal) were broken by evil-sounding muttering for a full five minutes before they resumed.
"W-w-with all d-due respect, Death-s-sama," stammered Usopp - no, Sogeking - no, Usopp, the bandanna was on top of his head. "Are you r-r-really here j-j-j-just for dinner?"
Death sat back from his feasting to belch loudly and pat his mouth with a withered, napkin-covered hand. From under the dark hood came a brilliant knife of a grin.
"Of course not, young Usopp. You vermin have no idea what you have done - no doubt you would not have wanted to scar them, now would you, Brook?"
All eyes turned to the skeletal crew mate, who laughed jovially (but he could not feel it).
"Ohohoho, quite right, sir! I wouldn't want the youngsters to be unable to sleep. Miss Nami, young Usopp, good doctor Chopper?"
The navigator coolly regarded the crew's musician (shadow of Death) with caffeine-reddened eyes. Chopper's own were dull and unusually large, sucking in the dim light of the few candles on the table. Usopp did not respond at first to his name - he passed his hands in front of his face several times before latching on to Brook's empty orbitals.
Robin and Franky were barely able to catch their teenage comrades as they succumbed to exhaustion and Brook's lullaby. Nami and Usopp would be particularly cross with him when they all woke up later. More likely than not though, it would not be this week.
"Dear friends, please take them to bed - they have been tending to everyone else without rest ever since we escaped. This conversation will not be of importance to them."
Sanji wheeled over to take Chopper while Franky hauled Usopp onto his back and Robin secured Nami in a brace of arms. As they left the room, the cook stopped briefly.
"Watch the oven. The turkey shouldn't be done for another few hours. Milk's in the fridge."
Watch yourself - sacrifices will not be accepted.
Brook had a feeling that the chef would actually use his hands to attack if his bony partner in lechery didn't return unscathed. Death watched the procession hobble and roll away, amusement oozing from the shadows.
"So kind, aren't you, Brook? Couldn't let the children be terrorized, now could we?"
"You were once as I, sir," Brook added mournfully, his skull downcast. Death shrugged and the hooded cloak fell to the ground in a pool of abysmal black. Brook smiled sadly at the familiar face of his senior officer. The blonde hair was still the same, and the tattoo beneath the thin, mummified lips hadn't faded in 80 years.
"Once, long ago, when you were my captain," Brook added remorsefully.
Night had fallen. For a week after Death's visit, the entire crew slept, hardly able to rouse themselves to breathe far less eat the results of Sanji's laborious cooking. During the second week, Franky ensconced himself and Sanji in his workshop, where much sawing, banging, and yelling could be heard all day. Zoro woke up and immediately attempted to remove his bandages with his numb fingers, prompting Chopper to hold him down and re-swaddle the paraplegic man, along with much swearing and struggling. Nami busied herself with tending to Ace and Luffy, although neither of them were moving very much. Robin busied herself with close observation of Usopp - the young man often seemed confused about the time, had lost his usual grace on the ship's rigging, and entire stories would pass him by utterly unnoticed.
Brook felt confident that he had been overlooked. He slipped into the gloom, paddling the Mini Merry gently against the still waters.
When he came back, red foot steps stained the deck. An early morning shower washed them away.
"Hmm? Yes, Usopp?"
The dark young man was sitting on the railing of the ship, patiently fishing, while Robin flexed her fully healed arms. Unlike most of the others who had healed significantly over the past month, Usopp had fresh injuries everyday - more dislocation of his joints, broken nose, fractured jaws, shredded fingers. It was worrisome to say the least, but it was just another symptom of the fugue the crew had slipped into with Luffy still recuperating. Zoro was back in the infirmary, having made a beautiful attempt at seppuku that had moved Brook to tears - of wrath. Robin had never seen the musician so angry as he slapped Zoro awake, roughly scooped intestines back into the young man , and screamed for Chopper, who was trying futilely to refeed their anorexic cook. Franky was not able to hear the hue and cry - he had been busy creating the support rails and other accommodations Sanji needed to be able to work in the galley while his legs healed. Nami hadn't even moved - the woman had not left the men's quarters since she last woke, her eyes always trained on Luffy. It seemed as if she even forgot to go to the bathroom sometimes. Robin tried many times a day, but her presence, her voice, her touch - nothing was reaching her younger sister yet.
She despised her helplessness right now.
"Sogebin Spider Scurry was cool, wasn't it?"
The last Oharan cast a quizzical eye on the sniper as her mind reluctantly went back to the war.
Luffy was slumped over Ace, his haki dissipating rapidly as he fully lost consciousness. His hand spasmodically clutched at his brother's rough, black hair, but otherwise the young man was still.
Ace, however, was not. To the shocked eyes of the entire world, his back began to rise.
Coby's voice rang out across the plaza as clear as a summoning bell, his back turned to the commotion as he stood up slowly, painfully.
"I can hear the voice again. He - Flame Fist Ace - he's alive again! Let's pull ba-!"
The slick sound of blood and flesh being crushed and removed entered the arena. Akainu had not even blinked when he attacked the young marine, who'd barely had the time to Soru away from death by magma. Helmeppo clutched at his partner (friend), wheezing hard as he tried to contain his panic. Coby's right leg was missing from the thigh down, and burns were quickly traveling up his leg.
"Wh-why?" Coby stammered, fighting off a deep blackness that loomed over his eyes. "Why? Why, why, why?"
Helmeppo helped him to his feet. Foot. Coby, tears streaming down his face,
"This is stupidity! Whitebeard is dead! Isn't that what we were supposed to do? Why are we still fighting? Nearly half the voices on Marineford have disappeared! Stop this insanity!"
"Little boy, if you think a real marine would let these mangy bastards get away now, you should be removed from service. Stop? Look at them!" Akainu roared, spreading his arm wide over the mass of pirates now retreating behind Whitebeard's corpse (I died standing and so I shall remain. Like a giant 'fuck you' to the marines, my sons).
"They are all pirates! They all deserve death! They all kill, rape, and pillage! They are all the scum of the Earth, and here and now is our chance to crush them!" Akainu continued, launching a molten fist at Luffy.
"Fuck! Luffy, get moving!" Chopper cried, yanking on his captain futilely. There was no doubt that they would become a smear on the ground if that fist hit them-
"Sogebin: Spider Scurry! Chopper-kun, hang on!"
Usopp - no, Sogeking - sprinted towards them at top speed, a darting blur of yellow light. Robin, already being carried by Franky, closed her eyes and crossed her hands in concentration.
Was the sniper king getting faster?
Chopper didn't have time to think. He reached out a hand (hoof, I'm not really human, I'm a monster) and felt the rough, dry grasp of his crew mate engulf it. The reindeer was barely able to process that Usopp (oh wow he's Sogeking? Awesome!) had also grabbed Luffy by the scruff of his neck and Ace around the (gently, I just repaired it) waist.
"Fall back! Follow the old man's last words! Fall back, Whitebeard Pirates!" Marco screamed, wreathed in blue flames once more as he circled over the fleeing criminals. Despite their best efforts, some were still lost - a wreath of pink hair disappeared under a stampede of lesser pirates, only to reappear in the midst of a marine squad, bloodied. A mask, torn and stained crimson, fluttered to the ground after another rush of people.
Yet Sogeking was still scampering towards the marines on the other side of the cliff.
"Oi!" Chopper yelled, the wind howling past his ears. "That's the marines' side! What the hell are you trying to do, Usopp?"
"Just watch, Chopper-kun! And please, do not address me by that fool's name!"
Sogeking had reached the edge. He ran straight off.
"Usopp's Super Web!"
The net was taut as drumskin as it latched onto the rocky face of the opposing cliffs - unfortunately, it had not been made to carry four people. The fleeing Straw-hats and the net stretched low in the gorge, only to bounce right up into air.
And into the unsuspecting upper half of Buggy.
"Gah! What the hell is this?" the clown pirate shrieked as he clutched at the mass of ropes and arms.
Sogeking - no, Usopp - was swinging from Buggy by two brown arms and the remains of the net. Four paler arms held on to Chopper, Luffy, and cradled Ace tenderly. Below them, a group of new world pirates screeched and cowered, crying "Anansi, Anansi!" and "Spider God!"
"Get us back to the ship!" Chopper howled to Buggy, "Before they find you!"
Robin nodded slowly in response to Usopp as she paused in the midst of a yoga pose, standing on one foot with six arms in various positions. Sogeking considered her a goddess of beautiful, cold, wrath. Usopp saved the image for a later artistic rendition. The goddess closed her eyes in contemplation.
"Yes - that was quite effective, and it certainly saved our captain, but Usopp's web was vital."
Usopp hid a small smile. She did not know yet how much her words helped.
"But you were better with Dos Cien Fleur: Butterfly's Dance."
Buggy was falling.
The cannon had clipped the back of his head as he flew over the gorge and past Whitebeard (did he just wink?), causing his ears to explode and his balance to fail. He most certainly had a concussion, but there wasn't much Chopper could do to save them anyhow.
"Oh shit!" Usopp screeched as the waves grew before them. Sogeking was long gone.
Chopper closed his eyes resolutely, resigned to meet Death as serenely as possible. The sea was rising towards them, and there was no doubt that they'd all be crushed by the impact before the frothing ocean could drown them-
Their descent was rudely (thankfully) halted. A loud rustling noise came from overhead.
Robin clutched at all four of them with her real arms, two in the crook of each arm, as more than hundred - nay, close to two hundred - arms sprouted from her back in all directions, forming four wings. Her brow was laden with sweat as she dipped and swayed above the mob, who cheered and whooped as the four Straw-hats, Buggy, and Ace escaped.
Until the fist struck Robin in her back.
Robin opened her eyes, surprised to see Usopp in her face as she escaped the memory.
No, wait. It was Sogeking.
"Brook-kun is in trouble. Usopp and I have seen him come back very early in the morning, red as the dawn."
Robin blinked. Sogeking blinked. Usopp blinked.
"Save him like you saved us," Usopp pleaded. "I'm...we...I'm in the middle of my own battle."
Robin remained in the pose for a long time after Usopp left with his fish.
"The skeleton's in some deep shit."
Franky looked up from the ramp to the kitchen sink that he was planing smooth.
"Curly-cook, you say something?"
Sanji sucked his cigarette slowly, wishing he could feel his leg striking out. Stupid blankets were too thick on them.
He'd definitely do physical therapy with the marimo. If the shitty kelp-head lived.
"I said Brook in in a hopper full of shit."
Franky scratched his head, puzzled.
"Whaddya mean, Cook-bro? What's wrong with him?"
Sanji exhaled a cloud of calm that he couldn't - didn't - feel.
"I mean the stupid bonehead made a fucking pact with Death that we don't know crap about. Zip. Zero. I can't find shit in my folktales and Robin has never heard of anyone cutting a deal with Death that didn't involve a pile of horseshit fit to drown in. He's in danger. Now hurry up with that ramp so I can clean up after I make lunch."
Franky, still confused, watched as Sanji deftly turned the wheelchair to take the fresh catch from Usopp - no, Sogeking - no, Usopp, the bandanna was on his head. The cyborg frowned and glanced at the crow's nest, where Brook had secluded himself since Zoro's latest suicide attempt.
"Nice tally tonight. You've gotten much better."
Brook stood in front of Death, his skull looking up, up, up, at the bright moon. It was pinkish in his eyes - the haze of the burning ship (and the blood of marines, innocent ones), no doubt.
The Mini Merry rocked mournfully. Brook would not mind if it cast them both into the depths.
"Another 3 million souls should do the trick. Should only take you another 80 years at this rate."
Brook loved the moon. It had been his only light for so many years.
"I'm giving you a bargain, Brook. You know that you and your crew caused a rip in the dimensions with your actions. Usopp's going mad because of it - he's more sensitive than you think."
Brook was trying to remember the song he used to play for moon-viewing nights. The melody was somewhere in the back of his head.
"You cannot hate me forever, Brook," Death - the former Captain Yorki - intoned melancholically.
"But I can hate myself for far longer, Captain."
Brook did not expect them to be in his face as he pulled himself out of the Soldier Dock.
Robin and Franky cast cold, burning eyes on him, as if this was the first time they had seen him in the flesh (yohoho, skeleton joke).
"Not cool, Bones-bro. You shouldn't have kept this from us."
"Indeed. How many have you killed tonight?"
Brook looked at his bony hands, stained ochre in the places where he'd failed to clean off the drying gore.
Not cool, indeed.
"Only 10. It was a small scouting party."
Franky glared at him, cyan eyebrows furrowing deep on his forehead.
"Was it painless?"
Brook remembered the sobbing scullery boy and winced. Franky closed his eyes.
Robin hugged him.
"You are doing this for us, are you not? Thank you, Brook."
Brook could feel the tears welling (but I have no eyes! Skeleton Joke!) as Franky hugged both of them, but he did not want to cry when the cyborg was doing enough for both of them.
"You silly skeleton! That is such a manly thing to do! Let us help you!"
"No!" Brook cried, tearing himself away from the warmth, receding to the shadows. "Don't you understand? I'm murdering innocents to pay for Luffy's and Ace's life! Zoro's life! Sanji's! Usopp's! I'm - you don't understand! I'm-!"
"I was Miss All Sunday, second-in-command of Baroque Works. I worked hand in hand with Crocodile to bring the nation of Arabasta under our heels. I've killed to stay alive - marines and pirates alike - since I was 8."
"I was the head of Franky's Family, bro. Top scrappers and bounty hunters in the ocean. I've drowned more wannabe pirates than I can remember. Let's not even start on what the family did to Usopp."
"There are no innocents here. Just comrades." Robin assured the skeleton as she and Franky embraced him again.
This time, Brook's tears welled over.
Chapter 3: The heart of the coals glows no more
"Congratulations. You, Portgas D. Ace, are the first person still living to have fed me such a huge pile of bullshit."
Kidd sat back from the table, kicked one booted foot up on the wooden surface, and regarded his fellow yonkou coolly.
"Are you seriously telling me that Dead Bones, Demon Child, and Cyborg killed 3 million marines? Seriously? And the world knows nothing about it?"
Ace snorted and raised an eyebrow at the red-head's cold, overflowing plate. Kidd waved nonchalantly and the food started to disappear down the tanned yonkou's throat.
"I wasn't done yet, you know!" the Pirate King's adopted brother mumbled around a stack of sticky, syrupy pancakes. "Those two were just the first to find out the details!"
Brook was falling in love - he just wasn't sure if it was with the cyborg shipwright or the cursed librarian or both. Both were absolutely gorgeous silhouetted in the moonlight, splattered with brilliant shades of crimson. They had worked together in an inhuman triad of destruction that easily rivaled the teamwork of the Monster Trio or the Strategic Triad.
Menage a Trois somehow had a nice ring to it.
"This ship had about 200, Bones-bro," Franky's voice rasped through the night, as sure and steady as he would saw wood. "Nico, what's our tally?"
Nico. In the dark, the word rang in his skull like a chime, triggering some long-lost sort of understanding. Brook watched Franky a bit more closely...
Ah, yes. Yes, that was the timbre of a man wavering between being in love and loving with all his heart. It was one that he had once carried in his younger singing voice - a note of longing, almost blind devotion, hopeless adoration of one individual - one that you thought unobtainable.
Brook fell in love some more and decided that making a choice in such a situation would really be a bit premature...
"Oh dear. I see old habits die hard. I should really warn them about your...predilections."
Yorki - Death - materialized behind Brook, his wintry, bone-dry breath fit to wither away his ears. If he had any. Brook stifled a giggle under a brisk yodel. Damn the man, he always did know his ticklish spots!
Yorki leaned over Brook's shoulder to peer at Robin, who had just stood up after carefully determining that the marine corpses were, indeed, all dead.
"Oh my, what a handsome lass! I'd kiss you, dear, but that big, blue bullock over there looks a might...wait, hold on. Cutty Flam?"
Franky's angular, ever-present shades dropped onto his steel nose, cutting off a bright, murderous sheen as suddenly as it had appeared.
Did Brook mention that he was in love?
"Ain't no-one named Cutty Flam that I know of. He's just a Water 7 legend."
That did not fool Death one bit. The blond drew up his hood and started muttering bleakly about a whole damn crew of death-defying degenerates. Brook almost chuckled - the muttering was similar to the former Rhumbar captain's poor attempts at dismissing a hangover while listening to scratchy renditions of Black Handkerchief of Happiness. The skeleton didn't suppose that Death had hangover headaches anymore.
"Pardon me, but what is our current tally?"
Robin's voice blew warm and sweet like a sea breeze, but it had an undertone of acerbity. Brook's pants grew tighter - a sensation that he hadn't had the pleasure of experiencing for 50 years.
Hey, one has to take what little good one can find from a bad situation. Yorki glanced at him with a knowing smirk before responding.
"Sorry folks, you haven't even hit one thousand yet. You have, however, made the Calm Belt 890 times more feared than ever. Congratulations!"
Robin was unamused. She flicked blood off of her fingers and Franky swiftly handed her the shop towel that he'd had hanging out the back of his Speedos while Brook nobly bent on one knee to scrub out a spot on the historian's tall leather boots.
"You know, you could just kill Ace. That would solve everything."
All action ceased. Brook could feel his non-existent heart lurch into his throat.
Put to any other crew member and Brook might stand a chance, but Franky and Robin certainly weren't dreamy-eyed teenagers who still had enough lifetime left to gamble on happiness. They displayed the hardened practicality of those living on bad times and slim pickings for far too long. Would they want to protect Luffy's naivete as much as he-
Robin merely spoke the words, but with Franky wiping her hands off tenderly and Brook shining her shoes obsessively, it was the same as an edict from a queen. No. No way in hell. Not to see the captain broken again.
But then, they didn't know the side effects-
"So would you prefer to see your whole crew go mad?"
Why couldn't Yorki keep his fool mouth shut?
Robin stared at Death for a long while with a Zoro-worthy scowl wrinkling her smooth forehead, but it was Franky who seemed to have connected the dots on Robin's face before Brook could get his own mouth to work.
"What the fuck does this have to do with Usopp?"
Franky loomed over him. It had been - well, forever really - since Brook had actually been intimidated by anyone based on height, but as he knelt there on the ground at Robin's feet, he felt rather like a naughty child. His predilections fled to the back of his mind.
"Oh. I see you're not oblivious. Well then, Brook, thanks for the latest donations, see you tomorrow night."
And then Death disappeared and left Brook in the lurch again, like that one night they went to dinner on Yorki's tab only to find out the captain had left out the bathroom window, sticking his regiment with an impromptu session of kitchen duty.
Or the time he sailed off to die on a dinghy by himself, leaving Brook to lead the others to their doom.
"Not here," Brook intoned slowly as he rose up on creaky joints. "I'll explain when we get back."
Robin narrowed her eyes cruelly and her imperious voice returned.
"No. We discuss this now. What is happening to Uso-"
"I said not here!" Brook snapped, drawing on his full height and somehow achieving a malevolent aura with naught but a bow and a fiddle. Franky jumped in front of Robin with his arms outspread, covering as much of the dark female as possible. The Oharan already had her hands crossed, limbs waiting for anything.
The two former captains eye-balled each other darkly before Brook sagged wearily, covering his face with his bony hands.
"Pardon me, but I will not talk of madness and death on a ghost ship like this. I just...cannot."
Understanding spread over Franky's and Robin's faces as the early morning fog began to wrap around their feet like spider webs.
"Very well. We will leave it for now, but you have much to explain, Skeleton-san," Robin stated icily as she deigned to let Franky help her onto the Mini Merry.
Brook sighed as his adrenaline faded, taking his arousal with it. As he watch Franky and Robin make space for him on the Mini Merry, though, he still decided that he was indeed in love.
Chaos met them soon after they docked and boarded the Thousand Sunny.
"Usopp! Ah, sorry, Sogeking! Come down from there! We're right next to an island called Amazon Lilly- I understand that you've never really seen this much water except in a dream, but- Shit, no! Chopper, catch him! Fuck!"
There was an almighty thump as a brown body crashed onto the main deck below, having been flung from the top of the crow's nest. Brook, Robin, and Franky glanced at each other very briefly (checking for tell-tale signs of battle) before clambering up the ladder to view the disaster.
"Where's the...desert...cliff - flying with them...ah! Franky-kun! Don't you need your wings out? Robin-kun, your arms...who debarked you? I'll kill'em... ... Brook Bones-kun, ghoul dude, where's the guitarro? " Sogeking mumbled in a daze, barely able to move his crumpled form. His yellow bandanna was askew and one of his goggles was cracked.
"Stop it, stop it! You're Usopp! Usopp from Syrop!" Nami wailed as she knelt next to the sniper, thumping her fists on the grass. Chopper changed to Heavy Point and carefully lifted the gunner.
"His neck's not broken, praises be. Nami, come with me to the infirmary - I'll need you to help move Zoro so I can work on Usopp.
"Soge...king - I'm Sogeking...gun-sharp, eye-keen, lord of the fly-killers and beasts unseen. Orzo, Rozo, Zoro-kun! Three tribal kings from the desert come~! Sleepy Prince Sanji-duck, never runs outta luck!"
"Long nose-bro," Franky whispered as Chopper passed, resting a large hand on the smaller man's curls. He brushed them, once, twice, then Chopper shook his head and took the dark man away, still singing of deserts and blighted lands and pools that shone their own green light in dark caves.
Looking in the galley door as Chopper went through it, Brook observed Sanji, hunched over the desk in his wheelchair. He was listening to the den den mushi, collecting information from Trafalgar Law's submarine at the bottom of the sea. The skeletal musician took in a sharp breath as Sanji raised his head to the doorway.
He looked like Yorki, only worse. His cheekbones were much more prominent, to say the least.
The galley door swung shut, sealing the image in Brook's imagination.
"I can't take this!" Nami screamed, her voice high and panicky even as Robin consoled her (restrained her) with multiple arms. "I can't take it! We need Luffy! We need Zoro! We need to be nakama again! Usopp's blown himself up three times this week and keeps talking about strange places not on my maps and Zoro's cut his hand just eating in the infirmary and he's stopped talking and Sanji doesn't sleep, he just cooks and cooks and cooks and he's not eating and...and you three!"
Nami whirled away from Robin's grasp and drew her ClimaTact.
"Dammit where have you three been? I couldn't find you last night and your clothes smell of blood. What the hell is goin-"
Nami's eyes rolled up in her head and the remaining three crew mates had to scramble to catch her. Franky hefted her in his arms where she struggled pitifully for a few moments before fully losing consciousness.
"Girly's knocked right out. I'll take her in to Chopper," the shipwright murmured lowly, gently rocking the young navigator from side to side like a sleeping babe. He passed the other two and only paused his stride in front of the galley door.
"Nico, I want to hear everything when I get back. Everything."
Then the cyan cyborg was gone, and the door swung close with a solid click.
The historian swung her dark, drilling gaze onto empty eye sockets. Brook no longer noticed Sanji's panicked cries seeking Nami's well-being.
"Lead on, fair maiden," Brook chuckled drily with a deep bow. Robin blinked once, then stalked to the aquarium bar, skeleton in tow.
If asked, Robin would have admitted that she was not listening to the lilting, complicated symphony of violin music that filled the aquarium bar. She had not slept for hours and the events of the day had already drained her. She poured herself something very cold and very alcoholic from a pitcher that Sanji had obviously sent up in the dumb waiter before making herself comfortable on the enormous couch. A few sips of the pleasant cocktail helped her to begin the unwinding process...
She was on the edge of a cliff and then she was plummeting, six arms tucked close to her body as the wind ripped past her face, her body twirling in dizzying circles until she couldn't stand the vertigo and she stretched out - feathers and leathery webbing bursting to life as her plummet was halted and she swooped past her black and red and green and yellow and blue brothers with a vicious caw, echoed by her orange feathered sister next to her...
She had almost dozed off when Brook began to speak. The dream receded, but not very far.
"Music is eerily like life. A note heard by one person may incite them to war, while the same note may sooth a rending soldier. The effect is dependent on every facet of the situation, the environment surrounding the musician and his audience."
The skeleton stopped to pluck desolate notes in a strange key.
"Music can be manipulated by the environment, but it can also create it. A tapestry of notes can provide more information that several walls of maps and charts. There is a reason why we immediately rely on our hearing when sight is deprived."
"With all due respect, Skeleton-san, what does this have to do with the situation?" Robin interjected, her lips shiny from the cold drink. "I have been awake far longer than necessary and I am covered in the decaying filth of marines. Please be swift with your explanation and allow me the luxury of a warm bath and my bed!"
Brook looked at her in a manner that Robin was certain would have been a smirk on his former face.
"Our actions are like musical notes - they are often reactions to the environments in which we dwell, but occasionally, we are the masters of our destiny and we lead the rest of the symphony."
"And this concerns us how?"
Brook paused, then placed his instrument under his chin once more. He began the violin symphony again, but something was - different. The song was no longer lilting; it was far more somber and mournful.
"Do you know how this song has changed?" Brook asked while playing.
"You changed one of the three notes in the fifth bar in the beginning stanza, then you let the sonata carry on in that key," the brunette answered quickly. "How does this matter to..."
Brook smiled ruefully and continued.
"To me, the note I changed lay in a pivot point - a spot where the song could easily be altered, whether it be by drawing out the note, shortening it, or by altering the note completely. Whatever is done there, the rest of the song cannot remain exactly the same. Neither can any musician play in exactly the same manner as the composer - the song will be different, be it timing or breathing or interpretation."
Here, the skeleton turned his sockets to peek over his shoulder at Robin's countenance. He could literally hear the gears in her nimble brain churning over his example.
"Time and music are very similar. Our actions during a pivot point of time can change everything we do, as you can very well guess. The only problem with time is that possible actions aren't dropped and forgotten like discarded, ill-fitting notes. They...live on, so to speak, splinters of speculation that are often played out nowhere else but in dreams unless...Unless some earth-shattering power happens to accumulate in the midst of the pivot, at which point those...speculations...become a new dimension."
Robin gazed at the skeleton's serious visage before draining her tall glass with a grimace and refilling it to the brim.
She would require much more alcohol than she'd anticipated.
Zoro watched as his captain suffered the agony again, his adopted big brother nothing more than a corpse on the ground with a charred hole through his strong, tanned body -
The green avian roared as the black dragoons attacked his younger broodmates, and iron-like claws slashed one of the machines into three -
'Watch out! Rad-scorpions! Duck!
"So basically, we're tiptoeing around the edges of a new dimension?" Franky asked much later, over dinner in the galley. The kitchen was lit only by candlelight, the cyborg and his dining companion far too complacent to turn on the electricity after forcing Sanji into bed.
"Not just one, many. And all of us have the potential to slip in between the cracks - unfortunately, the ones from outside the Grand Line are more susceptible due to their age, or lack thereof. They are still relatively close to their near-death experiences, although Nami seems to be immune thus far, having lasted the longest without crossing the Great Divide."
"Whoa, whoa, Nico; the Great What?"
"The Great Divide - a metaphor for the separation between life and death. Why don't you ever call me girly or Robin-sis, as you do with Navigator-san?"
Franky sputtered and stewed, trying to form a reasonable sentence while choking on his meal. Robin cocked one svelte eyebrow before resuming their conversation with a flick of her hair.
"As Brook was explaining to me, it takes about two decades for a person to truly climb out of the divide, physically and mentally. Then there are people who are particularly sensitive to the dimensional perturbations - people like Usopp. Usopp probably met himself in another dimension during a near death experience and the persona...remained."
Franky sat back and frowned, thinking about the implications. Robin shrugged, unperturbed.
"Ok, so if Usopp is sensitive, what does that mean for Cook-bro - the man saw his life flash before his eyes when the paralysis set in. And Swords-bro? I mean, he's been the poster boy for dead on your feet since Thriller Bark. And Luffy wasn't even able to breath on his own by the time we got him on board. And what about Ace? He actually kicked the bucket - I know, I had to put him back together! How close are they to-?"
Robin shook her head, ending the comment. Neither of them truly wanted to dwell on the possibilities and she knew it.
"Essentially, all the power gathering to either harm or rescue Ace and all the power of the people watching the execution converged over Marineford. It's part of the reason why the battle was so wild. That much power - power of emotions, haki, Devil Fruit curses, raw physical strength, speed, any sort of ability - amassed in such a way... Suffice it to say that the rip was forming, but our actions - reuniting, rescuing Luffy, bringing in the other supernovas - were apparently near to the tipping point. Reviving Ace sealed the deal - we essentially tore away from the script of destiny and wrote our own stageplay."
Robin paused to sip her glass of water while Franky digested the information. His eyes flickered to her mouth as she subtly removed excess droplets from her bottom lip, lingering with a hazy look before he returned to the topic at hand.
"So how does this fit in with Bones-bro needing to kill 3 million people?"
Robin gently placed her knife and fork down and daubed her lips with a crisp white napkin.
"Apparently, that's how many lives were lost across all the known dimensions when Ace was left to die and Death does not like to miss his quota - even he answers to a higher power. Our only question now is whether Ace's life is worth the sanity and lives of this crew."
An air of melancholy tinted Robin's features briefly; Franky frowned again as he gathered the dirty wares from the counter. As he leaned over to take Robin's empty plate, his breath whispered hotly in her ear.
"You of all people should know the answer to that, Nico Robin. If you don't, come by and I'll remind you."
Before the last Oharan could respond, Cyborg Franky had dropped the dishes in the sink with a loud clatter and stomped out of the room, obviously heading for his workshop. Robin sipped her water quietly for almost an hour before following his lead.
Brook was unperturbed when Robin answered Franky's workshop door dressed only in a sheet, but her sated, smoky eyes did so set his heart a-twitter - except he no longer had a heart! Skeleton Joke!
"Who is it?" Franky rumbled from his cot. "Bones-bro? Come in and stop letting in the chill, man!"
The skeleton obliged, brushing past Robin to stilt over to the back of the room. He was greeted with the sight of Franky' muscular back just before the cyborg found the shirt he had wanted and donned it. Robin returned to the cot and artfully arrange herself on the nest of pillows and blankets.
"Ohohoho, time's a-wasting! We have to leave soon if we are to return before daw-"
"We aren't going."
Brook would have blinked if he had had eyelids. He tipped his hat briefly in puzzlement.
Franky handed Robin her clothes, strewn as they were about the room. The archaeologist explained her thoughts as she dressed, heedless of her nudity.
"I mean that we are not going out hunting, at least not tonight, not with the sum being so high," Robin stated plainly, muffled only slightly by her dress as she slipped it over her head. She adjusted her garments and regarded the men with determination burning in her eyes.
"We are going to renegotiate this deal, and make Death a better offer - one that he cannot refuse."
Chapter 4: Flint and steel spark
Oh look, here's where I left it. I knew I hadn't misplaced Ace's sanity yet...
Kidd pinched his nose and closed his eyes to ward off the oncoming migraine as Ace suddenly dropped to sleep. If the man wasn't a fucking mutant in a fight and if Luffy's chef wasn't such a pansy-assed neat freak, he would kill the fiery yonkou right now, with all of Sanji's knives.
Fortunately for Ace, Franky and Usopp dropped from the now completed living quarters above.
"Yo, Red-bro, whatcha still doing here?" Franky asked brusquely, swallowing a few extra nails that Usopp tossed his way. "I thought you'd be long gone terrorizing some poor marine training camp."
"Did that on the way in," Kidd responded absentmindedly as he pinched the bridge of his knife-like nose. "I was trying to figure out how the hell Ace stayed alive after Marineford, but the fucking, sleep-walking, sack of shit nodded off in the middle of his story. I hate unfinished stories. They make me cranky."
Usopp gave Franky a fearful, sidelong glance before smoothly insinuating himself in the seat furthest away from the magnetic yonkou.
"Where'd he leave off? Maybe I can pick it up for you," Usopp gently suggested, attempting - and failing quite spectacularly - to convince himself that a cranky Kidd was everyone's problem.
Everyone with an interest in living, that is.
Kidd filled them in as Franky spun a chair around and straddled it, idly positioning himself between the red-head and his long-nosed brother-in-arms. Usopp frowned quite a bit as Kidd jumped from point to point, mimicking Ace's storytelling style.
"Jeez, you really can't rely on a D. boy to keep a straight line, can you?" Usopp muttered peevishly after Kidd wrapped up. "So basically Ace hasn't told you anything that actually happened to him and Luffy after they got back? Let me fill in the gaps for you as best as I can."
"Finally!" Kidd barked as the sniper warmed up to his topic. The yonkou even ignored the way that Luffy's shipwright patted his shoulder in consolation.
Ace opened his eyes in the dark once more, but somehow he knew that this was not the dark of a moonless night or a lightless room. This dark was much more visceral and complete gloom - even though he could feel that his eyes were open, he couldn't see his the end o his nose far less his hand.
He felt like someone had interrupted him in the middle of a great quest, his hands still feeling around the abysmal shadow for-
"Luffy!" Ace screamed into the gloom, his voice barely moving the air in the silence. The Pirate King's son turned this way and that, feeling the air blindly, ears straining to catch the slightest sound, even the minuscule echo of his breathing.
"Luffy! Where are you? Answer me! Luffy! Li'l bro, where are yo-"
Ace could feel the hairs on his body sticking out, as if he'd just avoided a lightning bolt. That voice...he hadn't heard it in about 10 years...
"How's it been hanging?"
Ace wanted to do something - run, scream, kick, bite, flame on, anything - but he couldn't even move a muscle.
"Yesss, say it. It's true what they say; names are power, you know..."
He could feel the strong, wiry arms as they snaked around his throat, squeezing just that little bit too tightly. He didn't mind in the least. He'd missed this person so very much, especially the first day he went to sea.
"I'm so glad that you're alive. When I saw that hole in your chest..."
Head on a gibbet...
Briefly the tanned young man saw himself dead in six million different ways. He felt the scream bubbling in his throat as a synesthesia of images and sounds and scents slammed into his brain and nearly short-circuited it - involuntarily he closed his eyes and just flowed...
The images flickered out. His eyes opened to the darkness, but he could sense a lightening of the atmosphere - a glimmering that slowly bobbed directly behind him. From the very corner of his eye, Ace could make out a ragged top hat and a pale swath of hair. The stinking, seaweed breath was hot and moist on his ear.
"Come on an adventure with me," the voice crooned, cracking now man-deep, now boy-high. "This is the free-est ocean on earth - we'll find Luffy and sail away like we promised...!"
Ace was twelve seconds away from retching. He'd had this type of nightmare about his lost brother before, but never this vivid; so tangible that he could feel his gorge rising rapidly, even as he knew the horror behind him would be wet and caked with kelp; watery, bloated body sloughing off runny patches of charred skin...
"Oh, geroff 'im! Who the hell told ya that ya could impersonate me, you ass-fucker?"
There was a solid impact and Ace was suddenly able to move again. The darkness lightened considerably, but he still couldn't make out the figure pounding his nightmare to death with an old pipe.
"Ch," the figure hawked up a loogie and spat it contemptuously over the prone mass of rags. The top hat lolled on the ground, crumpled badly in the middle.
"That'll learn ya sodding void-walkers when ta geroff."
Ace blinked stupidly as the figure swaggered over to him. The voice and face were the same as in his nightmares, but he'd never come up with Sabo shining quite so brightly. The young man, now wearing a ragged top hat that fit his head just a bit too tightly, grinned his cracked-tooth smile and began to run towards Flame-Fist. The devil-fruit user was too stupefied to even protect himself.
"Oi, Ace, what took ya so long? Motherfucking, gluttonous narco!"
And then there was another impact and both young men were bowled ass over teakettle as Sabo slammed shoulder first into Ace's chest. Ace found that 10 years of nagging Luffy about his cry-baby ways couldn't stop the snot and tears running freely down his own face.
"Sabo! You're alive! Oh God, I've missed you, you cock-sucking, snaggle-toothed klepto!"
Luffy walked on and on in the absolute darkness, turning at random and even doubling back as needed. Zoro would have approved highly. Nami would have beaten his head in by now.
"Ace! Ace, are you here? Come on, Ace, lemme know if you're here!"
The rubber boy stopped momentarily and strained his eyes and his ears, quite literally stretching the latter into platter-sized satellites. He could hear something...just on the edge of sound...
And then gone.
Luffy scratched his head for a bit, his straw-hat - wonder why I didn't notice it before? - resting comfortably on the nape of his neck. He shrugged and decided to following the whisper back to its origin. It wasn't as if he had to avoid anything - the roads in his dreams were always flat and clear, although he was used to them being ocean blue.
After walking, rolling, bouncing, skipping and inching along with his chin -
- Briefly he thought he saw a yellow-haired dude doing the same thing, but he was doing it to rescue Team 7 or something like that. It seemed really mysteriously important to the foxy looking kid, so Luffy stopped and went back to walking -
Luffy realized that a small glow was growing in the distance, shimmering and winking minutely in the gloom. As he approached, he realized that it was a small, sallow boy, hunched over himself with crimson speckling his fingers. A sharp piece of glass was in his hand. It dripped red.
"What's the matter?" Luffy called easily, not even remotely suspicious about the fact that he could see such rich hues of vermilion in a darkness that was nigh impervious. The boy raised his head, sniffling. He wore a snow leopard skin as a crude hat that slipped over his brow rather easily.
"Who're you?" the boy snuffled loudly, streaking red across his top lip as he tried to clean himself up. Luffy eyed the lad with barely restrained curiosity, rocking from foot to foot with his eager hands laced behind his head.
"Name's Luffy. What's yours?"
The boy's eyes grew wide. His bottom lip trembled as he sucked in great gulps of air.
"You're real..." the youngster gasped, rapidly breathing through his mouth, "Even though you aren't wearing the Holy Vault-suit... You're not just one of Baso-papa's stories!"
"I feel real enough," Luffy reasoned in agreement, moving to crouch near the skittish boy. The rubber man gave a quick nod in the direction of the jagged piece of glass. "Hey, are you okay?"
The boy's eyes grew watery again, but no more tears fell.
"Mother...she died again. Even though I tried to cut it out - it was a huge lump in her throat, she already couldn't drink soup any more - she died again. Again. I tried it out on pig-rats and kree-cats and mutie-dogs and everything, but she still..."
For many minutes, there was no sound or movement from either of them until Luffy finally, resolutely, took off his hat and placed it on the small boy's head. Then there was a series of hiccups that devolved into heartbroken wails as the boy threw his scrawny arms around his bony knees and wept.
Ace blinked at Sabo again. He realized that he'd gotten pretty comfortable with wearing banal incredulity on his face - he swore it'd been that way since he watch the carnage that Luffy and his crew wreaked in Alabasta.
"You're a what?"
Sabo grinned and slurped loudly from the bottle marked "Ninjin's Pick-me-Up."
"I'm a ghoul - undead's the closest explanation, I guess. I'm of the vampire subspecies t' be exact. One of the Shiners - I glow like a neon light when I get pumped up."
"So wait, by vampire, do you happen to mean that you're drinking..."
"Oh, don't worry, it ain't human - it's pig-rat. The next best thing!"
Ace tried very hard not to shudder as he observed his friend's sharp teeth nibble the glass bottle a little too eagerly. He was beginning to wonder about the way Sabo kept glancing at him - not at his tatts, but at the nape of his neck. Sadly, he found that he'd offer it up to him, if the pale man ever asked. Better not to pursue that thought any further.
"Anyway, what in hell are you doing here?" Sabo asked in annoyance. "I know you two D. boys are stupid as hell, but so stupid as to walk into a mind-mire? Willingly?"
Ace looked at Sabo purposefully, trying hard to follow his train of thought. Tanned met pale and they stared at each other for a while before Sabo dropped his head in his hands, muffling his speech only slightly.
"Oh. So that's it. You fell through - not quite all the way, but still...Ah shit, now I gotta save you too."
Ace couldn't resist cuffing Sabo in the back of the head, leaving a few conspicuous scorch-marks
"Oi, no fucking reason to sound so smug about it!"
The young men looked at each other for another long moment before they burst into side-splitting laughter that left them bent over double.
"A Flame-Flame devil fruit, huh?" Sabo wheezed, tears still standing in the corners of his eyes. "That's so fitting, it's disgusting. You were always flaring up about something or the other!"
"Says the kid-turned-vampire who used to dress in black all the time anyway," Ace muttered with a smirk. "Now all we need to do is find Luffy and get out of here to celebra-"
"No, I gotta find Traffie first. I can't leave my kid here."
To say that Ace's eyebrows shot into the air would be an understatement proportional to the size of his stomach. Sabo snorted in ill-concealed mirth.
"Not my real kid - can't have any of them anyway. Traffie's one of my urchins from my new world. Fool boy went into a mind-mire hoping to save his mother, but... you can't control the when or the where with these things. For us to meet is just pure chance."
Ace nodded slowly - Sabo had been explaining a lot to him about the mind-mires and their roles as gateways to new dimensions. The pale vamp's voice caught his attention once more.
"Actually, I don't think this mind-mire existed before," Sabo continued, albeit a bit hesitantly. He sounded like he was trying to tiptoe around the edge of a bed with a monster lurking under it. "Usually that means something real big and real unexpected happened somewhe- Oi, Ace! Ace, you okay?"
Ace stood frozen in shock as his mind connected the images from his nightmare to Sabo's words.
"Alive, I'm...I'm not...I made it...I'm not supposed to be alive!"
Sabo now mimicked Ace's petrification, while the sun-baked man in the orange hat began to speak rapidly.
"Oh hell, Sabo, I'm supposed to be dead! Dead! I mean, I was dead, I had a frigging fistful of lava gut me like a kidney pie, but now I'm not dead and I saw it, all the ways I was supposed to be dead, but, oh fuck, Luffy and the old skeleton in his crew saved me, so now I'm alive or kinda, I guess, 'cause I haven't woken up in about a month it feels like, but I know I'm alive and that's what caused the mind-mir-"
Sabo slapped Ace across the mouth twice before the darker man would shut up.
"Stop it! None of that matters now, what's done is done. You're not dead and the universe will work with whatever else happens. Now listen to m- I said listen to me or I'll shake you like a bottle of pop!"
Ace gibbered for a bit, wild-eyed still but capable of functioning. Sabo nodded in approval, his control over his radiance slipping a notch in his haste.
"We need to find Luffy and Traffie as quickly as possible and get to hell out of here. New mind-mires are chockful of those void-walkers; they prey off of the energies of the new dimension and drag off anything that wonders in between the worlds. Unless you want to go back a blubbering lunatic, or not at all, we've gotta start running."
"But running where?" Ace asked plaintively. "This place is a wide as all of the Seas combined - we can't possible find them!"
"We don't need our bodies or minds in here. Here, the best way to navigate is from the heart."
"Wow, you're really smart, Traf!"
The little boy gave Luffy a sallow smirk in reply before going back to his rearrangement of the rubber man's ears. He was on Luffy's shoulders, perched precariously through the power of his long legs alone as he arranged a rusted piece of wire over the straw-hat and into each ear.
"Ok, Mr. Luffy, now swing your head around, again. Maybe we can pick up the signals a little better now."
"Cool, Traf! Help me open my eyelids some more, maybe I can see something!"
Traf nodded in quiet agreement as he took hold of an eyelid in each hand and slowly pulled them over Luffy's forehead. Preparations complete, the Goat-Donkey-Pig-Rat Rubber Satellite began to spin in its stationary orbit.
Time passed. Luffy idly realized that he wasn't getting dizzy anymore - if Bon-chan were alive, he'd have gone wild with approval, but the Straw-hat captain had not been able to save the ballet dancer either. On so many levels, Luffy had failed the people around him, but now wasn't the time to worry about that. He needed to find his way out of the dark and back to his crew and his brother.
"Hey Traf, this isn't working eith- Oh wait, I see it!"
Stopping mid turn, Traf peered into the darkness, his eyes following the twist in Luffy's body position.
"Maa, I still don't see-"
A blink, sickly green, then out.
"See! See! It's a cool, mysterious light! Let's go see who it is!"
Traf hugged the rubber man's head tightly as the young man began jogging at a deceptively swift pace.
"I know Baso-papa's glow anywhere!" Traf yelled in excitement. "If anyone knows how to get us out, it's Baso-papa!"
Chapter 5: Tinder alights
One advantage of being a sniper was knowing when anything was trained on you with the intent to kill you as dead as possible. As the world's foremost sniper, functioning sufferer of multiple personality disorder, and husband of a functioning schizophrenic, Usopp was about as highly trained as any paranoid pirate could be in that survival skill. Thus, even before Kidd could drag out and throw his dagger, the darker man had already ducked and covered under the table until Franky could tackle the red-head. He even managed to dodge the dagger as Kidd's magnetism pulled it out of the wall and back into its sheath.
"What the fuck is wrong with you people?" Kidd roared, even as Franky wrestled him back into his seat. "This shit is making even less sense than before! How the hell do you know what was happening to Ace and Luffy? In fact, how the fuck did Ace know what was going on with you guys? I can't understand this shit! It's too complicated! My head hurts-!"
Franky was very thankful for Chopper's Insta-Tranq - a must for dealing with most of the pirates that had made it to Raftel. While the mental and physical attributes of these top criminals were very advanced, mental stability had never been a strong point. They all had triggers; Kidd in particular did not like anything that skirted around logical thought. He was very straightforward, with a tendency to obliterate anything that proved too confusing or tiresome.
"Easy, Red-bro," Franky calmly stated as he placed Kidd back in the chair. "We don't mean to confuse you, honest, but - well, lemme explain."
Brook giggled in a most unseemly manner as he and Franky goggled at Robin.
"Yohohoho, I must have water in the brain! I swore that you said that you would renegotiate with Death?" the skeleton asked questioningly, too shocked to even bother with the obvious joke.
"Yes," Robin replied, her voice as calm and reasonable as a rock explaining why it could not fly. "That is exactly what I plan to do."
Franky loved this woman with all his heart, but he knew for a fact that she was bat-shit crazy. She had to be, springing this on him not one hour after she'd been kind enough to let him show her how important she was to him.
"Nico, babe, are you trying to kill me?" he wheezed, blind and deaf to everything else but her - but not quite so blind as to miss the fiery look that Brook gave him. "This is Death we're talking about."
"Yes," Robin answered once more. "I believe he likes me, so I figure that I can appeal to him."
She did not miss the way that both Franky's and Brook's eyes went bleakly blank. Apparently she had stated something without any forethought to tact. She shrugged mentally - they were nakama. They would get over it.
"Quite frankly, I believe I can charm him somehow - perhaps with my body - and then weasel-"
No-one in the small workshop missed the way that Franky's hand went through the bed and dented the floor below. The cyborg was not even pretending to breath as he shook the splinters that remain of his bunk off of one gigantic forearm.
Brook, concerned for the mental well-being of the emotionally vulnerable shipwright, made a conscious decision to leap into the fray.
"Robin, you may appeal to Death, as you so deftly put it, but he and I have a long...relationship, as it were. I think, if any one of us should do the sacrificing and appealing, it should be me."
Robin paused as she rolled her fish-nets up, her head cocked to one side. She nodded once in agreement to some internal discussion.
"Yes - I do suppose it makes sense for him to be bisexual. We could possibly double-team him - combine our powers of persuasion and-"
They watched with growing discomfort as Franky pulled his other hand out of his workbench. His metal workbench. His eyes glowed electric blue, forcing them to hold their tongues as his throat worked noiselessly in fury for a full five seconds.
"You two," he finally ground out, "are doin' nuttin. Fuck all this half-assed shit - we're gonna do this the right way and have a crew conference. It's what we shoulda done in the first place."
As he spoke, the cyborg advanced on both Brook and Robin, malice, jealousy and anger glittering in his eyes.
" So right now, the only one either of you two need to bother appealing to is me!"
Nami sat in the womens' quarters, Chopper hugging her comfortingly, still in his larger Heavy Point form.
"Is this how we're going to end it all?" the orange-haired girl whispered tersely, her voice strained and broken - she had been crying for a long time. "Luffy is in some sort of...never-ending sleep; Usopp's crazy as a loon; Sanji and Zoro keep trying to kill themselves with shame; Robin, Brook and Franky are out wading in blood - this is not us! This isn't the Straw-hats! This isn't what I threw away everything for!"
Chopper held the young girl as a ragged shuddering set up in her bones. He had already examined her and found what he expected - mild malnutrition, anemia, over-exhaustion, depression. She was working herself too hard, trying to keep everyone else alive and sane. She was not a mother, not yet - this should not have been her chore.
Of course, the young reindeer was no better. The elation of bringing Ace back to life had worn off quickly after he and Law treated masses of pirate casualties. With his own two hands he had poisoned and suffocated pirates who wanted to die right now rather than wait for their injuries to take them off. With his own two eyes, he watched Law discard of such people, switching bad limbs and organs for healthy ones. He himself had hacked and sawed at mutilated, twisted limbs for hours on end, screams being drowned into nothing more than buzzing in his ears. His last patient stuck in his mind - a marine, of all people. The one who was Luffy's friend-enemy - Coby. His tall, blond friend had screamed the phrase with a broken, cracked voice, followed by vicious snarling and warning strikes from his blades - incipient berserker, no doubt. The marine had braved his way through the pirate encampment, one kukri knife in his mouth and one in his hand, the injured Coby being half-dragged by the other arm, which was already trailing blood and nearly useless. There had been no leg to save - that much was obvious from the knife-wielder's face and the non-existent pants' leg - but they both wore such looks of utter despair and confusion...
Chopper could remember Zoro grilling the knife-wielder.
"You're a suicidal cunt, you know that? You're a goddamn marine! Why the fuck didn't you let your own doctors treat him?" Zoro snarled, his hands twitching hard on the hilts of his still-drawn swords. Both he and Sanji were on makeshift boards for their injuries, but Chopper had no doubt that no restraint would stop either of them from carving up any further threats to their captain's safety.
"Because I don't know who to fuckin' well trust!" the blond marine growled in return, holding his hands to his head, both cruelly-curved knives still in his grip. "Fuckin' well Akainu is the one who took it! Right now I...I..."
The man looked up and Chopper could see the manic sheen - definitely a berserker, this one.
Zoro seemed to sense it too. Chopper watched the green-haired man clench and release his hilts rhythmically before coming to a decision.
"Treat their asses and throw them overboard, Chopper. You got 15 minutes."
Chopper looked down at the horribly pink stump. What the hell was there left for him to treat...?
And yet right now, with Sanji self-starving, Zoro and Usopp drugged insensible, Luffy and Ace unconscious, and Robin, Franky and Brook in secret conferences, Chopper honestly had never felt so absolutely, truly, hopelessly useless, save for trying to preserve what little sanity Nami still possessed. He held the navigator closer, licking away her tears with his broad, rough tongue - something he'd always wished that his mother had done for him.
"I mean, we won right? Well, I mean, we didn't win because Marineford's still standing, damn them all to hell, and Whitebeard is dead and Blackbeard's now got two fucked up Devil Fruit powers...but Ace and Luffy are alive! They're possibly public enemies number 3 and 2, in that order - Luffy's dad's still gotta be number 1. And besides, they can't even find us out here - Boa's keeping us hidden and guarded really well! So why the hell are we still falling apart, Chopper? What if...what if Luffy wakes up and there's nothing left for him?"
Nami sat up stiffly and turn to hold Chopper's face in her hands. She stared him dead in the eye, brown on brown, and saw her worst fear reflected.
"Or wh-what if Luffy...never comes back?" she whispered, her sight already blurry with unshed tears.
And there was the true poison in all of their minds. What if their captain - a boy-man that had inspired them to throw away everything they had for anything that they'd ever dreamed of - what if he never woke up and graced them with his idiotic grin again?
Chopper suddenly found the thought of a cup of belladonna tea refreshing.
"Hey, girlie, Nami-sis, stop crying. We ain't gonna let that happen," Franky crooned as he walked into the quarters, Brook and Robin in tow. "Nico, help her out, will ya? And Brook, get Chopper some tea or somethin' until I get back with Swords-bro, Long Nose-bro and Cook-."
Nami wailed and flung herself on Robin, who soothingly patted the younger woman's copper tresses. The Demon of Ohara could not help the swelling of guilt in her breast. Truthfully, she had been somewhat selfish, even given her inabilities to understand some human emotions. She should have been sitting next to Nami, holding her hand and helping her through this ordeal - that was what Ane-sans were for.
Brook carefully sat next to Chopper, who looked ragged and peaked.
"Ohoho my, it has been rough on you tw-!"
Brook had not expected the suddenly small, furry weight in his lap, silent sobs wracking Chopper's body. The bony musician smiled softly, remembering the myriad number of boys that he and Yorki trained from this age - shivering on the cusp of adulthood, some too hard and dark already due to the ravages of war. Yet, at some point, these boys would shatter like this and he and Yorki would have to pull them back together and remould them into men. He had not been there to do that, as he should have been.
Robin and Brook glanced at each other and gave small, wan smiles of support. Franky cleared his throat, bringing their attentions back to him.
The cyborg's eyes were, obviously, full of tears, but he did not let them fall this time. His own smile was more of a self-deprecating smirk, crooked and tenuous. It managed to stay on his face as he turn away from them and went out the door.
"I'll bring Zoro and Usopp and Sanji," Franky rumbled gruffly, his throat thick with a mess of emotions. "This time...this time, we'll be the adults we should be. We'll finally stay here tonight and help them."
The women's quarters were crowded as everyone sought a small place to get comfortable around the invalids. Zoro and Usopp were immediately confined in the beds with Sanji tucked into his wheelchair between them. Chopper sat next to Zoro's head and Nami squeezed in next to Usopp on the bed. Robin sat on Franky-centaur's knees as Brook patiently explained what had happened over the past few weeks.
"And so, we have a debt to Death for the sum of 3 million souls, barring which he will take Robin, Franky, myself, and Ace. Not to mention the likelihood that you survivors will all go mad in the meantime, dealing with visions from multiple dimensions," the ambulatory skeleton concluded. "It is the price for creating a new dimension, knowingly or otherwise."
Brook sighed deeply, preparing himself for a severe dressing down on the danger he had dragged the crew into - at least he had Franky and Robin's support. That little fact warmed the area around his (former) heart as he glanced at them seated close by. Robin smiled gently to the skeletal musician, then continue with her hypothesis.
"I believe that Death has been toying with us - keeping us busy while he goes for his real target - Ace, and quite possibly Luffy too. I believe that he has locked them into this static state to draw them to his nexus. We will need to cajole or force Death into a new deal, soon, or risk losing them both."
Here Franky put a gigantic hand over Robin's lap, making her pause at the surprising bold contact. Sanji and Nami raised their eyebrows speculatively, but were otherwise mute.
"So we think we need to follow Luffy and Ace into this...this..."
"Coma?" Chopper supplied helpfully, his eyes as wide as saucers as he tried to assimilate the information he'd just received.
"Yeah...I think we need to follow those D. boys into this coma and bring them back. Then we can deal with Death properly, without any Aces up his sleeves, so to speak. Whatcha guys think?"
After a long period of silence, where eyes looked around shiftily, Sanji decided to speak.
"So Brook, these - uh, dreams, I guess - that we've been having...These are real dimensions?"
Brook nodded slowly in confirmation - the poor teens must have sworn that they were going crazy. What he did not expect, however, was dreamy smiles to cover the faces of all five teenagers in the beds.
"Oh, thank fuck!" Sanji exclaimed loudly, his shit-eating grin breaking out over his face. "I was seriously going to start hitting the whiskey if the dragon world was just my imagination. I'm definitely all for protecting that place!"
"Was that your favorite?" Chopper asked gaily. "Mine was the garden world."
"Ugh, flowers," Zoro groused. "I liked the one where we're all air pirates."
"You're too fixated on being a pirate!" Nami laughed out loud, "But the one where we were faerie kin! Now that..!"
"Ah, so you were seeing the dimensions as well," Robin coolly added, smirking as Nami blushed. "That explains why you were so mentally sensitive and exhausted - yes, the images were rather vivid. I doubt a stressed mind could see these worlds without breaking somewhat - I know I was beginning to. My favorite was the rainforest world - life was very interesting as a bird. I too would be happy to protect that."
"Do-does this mean, Brook-kun, that there's a chance that I can go home?" Usopp whispered, his eyes lowered as he twisted his hands together nervously.
Everyone's joyful babbling died off with Usopp's soft murmur. Slowly he raised his eyes and looked around, licking his lips nervously.
"Uhm, hi all. I kinda know you guys, but I don't think you know me too well. I'm Sogeking."
Not a sound could be heard. If a pin were to drop in the room at that moment, it would have been heard halfway around Amazon Lilly.
"I - I'm sorry for hijacking Usopp-kun's body. I didn- I didn't mean to do it for long, but it just got harder and harder to get back, and this world is so much better than where I am now, and he's such a coward when he's begging-"
"Slow down, Long Nose-bro," Franky eventually intervened, an enormous hand raised in the air. "Let's start by figuring out which world you're actually from, then how you keep getting here - cause this ain't the first time, is it?"
"No, no. You're right Franky-kun, it isn't the first time," Sogeking continued, calming himself visibly. "Did Usopp-kun ever mention how he almost died as a young boy?"
The others looked at each other in puzzlement while Sanji's face became introspective. The blond chef bit his bottom lip as he racked his starved brain for an elusive memory-
"Ah! Yeah, I remember now! Shitty long-nose was saying he ate a poisonous mushroom and almost died or some shit," Sanji muttered, scratching behind his right ear. "It's why he hates mushrooms so much - not as much as you, Chopper, but at least I can reason with you."
Before Chopper could retort, Usopp - Sogeking - nodded.
"We met then, at the Crossroads. Everything meets there - people on the brink between life and death, meaning mainly old folks and babies. Whole dimensions of people either being born or dying pass through that Crossroads - it's actually Life and Death's domain, y'see."
Sogeking glanced up once to make sure that he hadn't lost anyone. Brook nodded slowly, understanding clearly seen on his skull. One look at the musician satisfied the Straw-hats' first mate. Zoro's hand waved twice - a signal to continue.
"You know how they say everyone has a twin somewhere? Well Usopp-kun is mine, I guess. Anyway, somehow I was dying too, and we met at this Crossroads. I saw him, crying his heart out in a sea of people, just the same height and face and body as me, and... Well, we ended up holding hands under a huge tree and waited for Death to take us, but in the end, he didn't. We returned to our own worlds, but we promised to be there for each other in a pinch. You can't make promises in the Crossroads - the power there will make it next to impossible to break them..."
"Which world are you from anyway?" Chopper piped up quickly, his curiosity overwhelming him. "Sorry, but I really think it would help explain things."
Sogeking looked up and out of the small porthole, his eyes far away - they looked like they were actively drinking in the wonder of blue skies and miles of oceans. After some time, when Nami was just about to apologize for Chopper's rudeness and change the subject, the sniper continued.
As soon as he said the words, the entire crew was gripped with a horrific, shared migraine and the images drowned them.
"Three-headed ball of mad weed!"
"Duck for dessert, boys!"
"We need Rad-X, stat!"
"Sis, come bunk with me!"
"Mother truck needs tuning.."
"Hustory is important!"
"This song right here..."
They screamed as one as they watched their captain go up against something that could only be glanced at in bilious, green pools deep in the blackness. And then, they passed out.
When Zoro woke up, he was already walking. He had no idea where he was and he barely even knew who he was. All he could make out was three hilts on his right hip and the echoes of other familiar, footsteps.
"Don't think so much about where you're going, everyone," he heard Sogeking say. "And try not to get too spooked if you see some...stuff. We're gonna see each other's memories in here - it just...happens. Anyway, all we have to do is follow our hearts to find who we want. Just so we don't get lost - are all of us are thinking the same thing?"
"Yeah. Monkey D. Luffy," the swordsman stated gruffly with a tone of finality as he walked past Sogeking. By the time Zoro shrugged the kinks out of his shoulders, the remaining Straw-hats had formed up and begun to walk as one.
Usopp lowered his shot glass, his face wrinkling into a frown. Death took a quick glance at his suddenly quiet drinking partner.
"Something the matter, Usopp? You were just telling me how you bested a giant in a drinking contest?"
'We're coming. Just keep him busy.'
Usopp laughed loudly and shook his head.
"I was gonna tell you that one, but that's boring compared to the time I..."
Chapter 6: Kindling feeds the hope
Kidd looked like Law had hit him over the head with the Heart Pirates' submarine - again. His eyes were heavy and lingered at half-mast as the tranquilizer continued to pacify his typical insanity. Franky and Usopp were busy trying to gauge Captain Eustass' ability to follow the story thus far, as well as preparing to rescue a certain narcoleptic in case the red-head decided to launch into a homicidal flurry of flying metal upon noticing that Ace was waking up.
"Huah~hahahahum! Wha~? Who...? Oh, s'up guys?" the fiery yonkou garbled as he tried to speak while yawning. "Hey, any of you know what I was doing before I dropped off?"
"You were finishing your story."
The three men turned to look at Kidd as he slouched in the chair, his foot dangling over one arm. There was no hiding the irritation on his face, but he also looked like a sleepy child watching a good dream playing out on the back of his eyelids. His left hand drew lazy circles and figure eights in the air before the index finger fell to point at Ace.
"I'm on Insta-Tranq and I'm having a bad reaction - you get thirty minutes to tell me the rest of this, or I swear I'll turn your raft into a pile of smoldering twigs with a broken pin-wheel for a motor after I wake up."
And then, in quite possibly the most dangerously hilarious move ever, Kidd petulantly began sucking his thumb as he made himself comfortable for his impending nap-time. Shuddering under the burden of not laughing his fool head off - unlike Ace, who promptly dissolved under gales of guffaws and hiccups after asking Kidd if he wanted a blankie - Usopp continued from where Franky left off. The cyborg wisely plucked his guitar from under the table and began strumming a lullaby.
Usopp felt like a rapist.
Usopp felt violated.
The sniper sat next to Death himself and tried hard to keep the entity entertained, pouring sake and grilling meat next to the mummy, yet he was also walking next to his nakama, one part of his mind still tied with Sogeking's psyche. He flinched minutely as his life unraveled itself before his crewmates in random snippets, shadowed closely by Sogeking's life at the same time period. He flinched subtly as secrets from his crewmates were revealed, noticing the faint tremors and jumps and nervous twitches that sprouted every time some personal memory was broadcasted in the darkness.
He watched a young Zoro weep angrily, utterly defeated by circumstances for the first and last time in his life as he found out that his greatest rival, a female if it could be believed, had died of an accident down a flight of stairs. Death laid a wrinkled hand on the boy's shoulder, consolation that could not reach the child.
He watched a gaunt, bleached Sanji turn murderous as Hunger gnawed on him day by day, the hope of salvation shrinking with each bleak, endless horizon measured by the rising and the setting of the sun. Death stayed the boy's shaking hand and introduced cooling rain as he tucked the child to sleep against his withered husk.
He had to choke back his emotions as he re-lived the death of his mother, his sweet, beautiful mother who he had tried to bolster with fantastical tall tales after mornings of scanning the seas for his father, and his last kiss on her grey cheek before she was buried. He choked again as Sogeking watched his mother cough blood in an unending flood until her breath rattled and died in her chest, the blood never stopping its flow as it came to wet his hair where it laid on her chest and stomach. In both scenes, Death wrapped the woman's sickness-ridden corpse from behind, a hug that held no discernable warmth, but created a host of emotions for the Banchinas who missed their husbands and mourned their children's fate.
He watched a precocious Nami stifle her crying as she sat in a room high up in a tower, her only illumination a candle on her desk as she tried her best to properly map some remote island, her still chubby fingers shaking with exhaustion. Death used a hand to steady her lines, smoothing out the miniscule tremors in her illustrations.
He watched a young reindeer, barely two days old, be pushed by his own mother outside of the herd, left as prey - almost like an offering - to the wolves circling the animals, all because of his too blue nose and his too small body. Death sat among the wolves, his own teeth yellowed and cracked, yet gleaming wetly with Hunger.
He watched a darkly intelligent teenager use her powers to break a man in half from the shadows of an alley, her face terribly emotionless and accepting of the fact that pirates, marines, simple villagers, everyone wanted her dead. Death stood behind her unseen and clapped politely as his massive scythe took the man out of his misery.
He watched a young man stand up to an enormous train, body scrawny and useless in the face of all that power bearing down on him, only a deep well of anger and hatred and love and determination strengthening his quaking body. Death too stood in front off the train, facing the young man, his own arms stretched wide in a mockery of protection.
He watched a gentleman sweeping beautiful fingers over a ragged piano as one by one, his crewmates were collected by Death, the entity's embrace unusually warm as each musician fumbled their instruments for the last time. Death treated that gentleman with particular tenderness and care as he took his last kiss...
Usopp's mind swam free of the Crossroads influence and he turned to look at Death with trepidation lining his face. The entity smiled - that cutlass-sharp smirk - and giggled drunkenly.
'Shit! I can't let him know!'
"Oh now Usopp, don't be like that. You were blocking me out pretty well for a while, till I finally pulled out that image of Sogeking's Banchina. And you thought she'd died poorly on your side?"
Usopp glowered at the dark-cloaked entity as it reclined on a pile of cushions. He bristled as he built up his mental defenses again, one brick at a time, just the way Sogeking had taught him.
The entity and the spirit of the Straw-hat's sharpshooter had been partying in the House at the Crossroads - a magnificent, semi-tangible, ever-changing structure that had been built by the passing souls' thoughts and dreams as they transitioned through the nexus of Life and Death. With unerring accuracy, Death led the young spirit he'd just retrieved to a sumptuous room with myriad bottles of liquor floating behind him, picking themselves up and setting themselves down at random.
The room itself was devoid of chairs, its wooden floor covered with bamboo matting that abruptly disappeared into a gaping maw of darkness on three sides. Sweet-smelling oil lamps were ensconced in the single wall, and it seemed like hundreds of cushions were piled at random around the room. A drinking set had appeared on a low, ebon table in the center of the space the minute that Death had flung himself on a nearby pile.
"Do you play an instrument, Usopp?"
The sniper found his bland, soothing reminiscence broken - Death was trying to worm his way in again! Usopp huffed in irritation and took a swig of his sake before answering, trying to cover his stumble and replace his blocks of concentration.
"I guess I can play some - harmonica, guitar kinda, bit of piano..."
"I have to destroy one of them."
Usopp almost tore his hair out. Death was switching topics too quickly for him to follow - he knew that if he even tried to focus on the ever-changing conversation, the entity would learn how close the others were and what their goal was. On the other hand, this new topic seemed to be a grim confirmation of Sogeking's suspicions. Usopp hesitantly took the bait.
"On- one of what? The bottles? Well, they are kinda cluttering up the place..."
Death snorted and broke his absent reverie of the pile of empty bottles rolling around the table. He took in the shivering young man before him - scared witless but still trying his best to protect his friends including those in a whole different dimension.
"Your twin's right," Death began again, his tone bleak and bitter. He always did his job, to the point of being a complete hard-ass about the rules, but that didn't mean that he liked all aspects of it. This time was one of those. Usopp audibly swallowed a large lump in his throat, the sake bottle shaking in his grip.
"Whu...whuh?" the sniper began before shaking his head and covering his ears with his hands. "Lalalalala~ Lululululu~! I'm not listening!"
"The music of the universe is strained - jarring. The dimensions are flying into disarray with the introduction of a new one - this new one. Yours. I have to swallow one of these dimensions to maintain the equilibrium of all the others. The final decision on which to destroy is currently being made by the other Entities. You can't hide from this, Usopp. There were already disruptive elements in both dimensions, even before you and Sogeking started uniting and Ace's rescue. Something has to give. Don't let it be you who's left behind when you already have a dead man walking that could help balance the Scales."
Death neatly plucked the bottle from its place in front of the gibbering young man and refilled their cups. He watched as Usopp drained the liquor in a long swallow, then silently asked for another helping. With a deep breath, the second helping was drained. Silence descended over the two as Usopp almost tangibly drew up Sogeking's blanket of battle calm while Death refilled their cups.
"That something won't be any of us," Usopp finally replied in a quiet voice laced with lethality, his back straight, his gaze sharp and piercing like one of his shots. Death could barely hide his snort of annoyance - and approval - as the sniper's deadly stare met his own ice-filled eyes, never wavering.
"We've saved Luffy in two dimensions and we've saved Ace in one. My nakama and Sogeking's will save us from the Crossroads. We won't stop - ever. We won't let anyone else but us decide what we do."
The Straw-hats' gunner slugged back his newly filled cup, barely feeling the burn as he tediously began to reestablish his psychological defenses behind the mask of an absolutely insane grin.
"Besides," he added darkly, "I think we youngsters can teach you Entities a thing or two about underestimating new generations."
Zoro's narrow eyebrows rose high in the air as a shadowy trio on a small bunk engaged in a rather acrobatic session of fornication. Sanji's response was more immediate - both Franky and Brook were suddenly forced into defensive positions as the cook's legs came flying out at them.
"What the hell are you two shitty bastards doing to Robin-chwan? That shouldn't even be physically possible! I'll avenge you, Robin-geh!"
Robin's arms none-too-gently restrained the flaming ero-cook in a pretzel-contorting shape while Nami's fist connected with his blond-covered head.
"Sanji-kun, can it! Besides, you're the last one to talk!"
Following one of the navigator's accusatory fingers, Sanji and Zoro suddenly blanched as a translucent quartet surrounded a moaning, ginger-haired figure. Robin's lips quirked slightly as she met Nami's angry eyes and embarrassed blush. Franky and Brook leaned on each other and tried not to snigger too loudly as the younger men suddenly resembled a pair of tomatoes.
"Holy shit, you guys were already corrupting Usopp," Sogeking muttered in approval as he and Chopper were forced to lean as far to their right as possible to follow one of the shadow-Nami's legs - which, coincidentally, merged with one of the shadow-Robin's arms.
"I totally never saw anything like this in the Doctorine's medical books," Chopper whispered in awe. Zoro tried to smother his snort as Sanji managed to look even guiltier. He could just bet what sort of books that horny old bat had to hide from the impressionable reindeer. Clearing his throat, the swordsman gruffly took back control of the situation.
"We're getting out of line," he rumbled as he tapped his swords and took his bandanna off his arm. He had the distinct feeling that someone - or something - was hunting for him in the dark. Something with great, carefully leashed power.
"Sogeking, what's going on here?" Sanji asked, suddenly feeling the deep need for a smoke as his hackles rose. Franky's left arm whirred as Weapons Left was prepped; Nami and Brook drew their weapons while Chopper transformed to Heavy Point. Robin's eyes started to multiply as she scanned the area.
"Shh...let my twin do his job," Usopp's doppelganger replied, his eyes darting nervously behind his closed lids. "As soon as the feeling subsides, we'll need to run - Death'll be on us like ants on honey otherwise."
"Just great," Zoro grumbled as he tied on his bandanna and stuffed Wadou in his mouth. "I should get hazard pay the number of times I see his ugly mug - I'd finally pay off the damn witch."
Sabo and Ace sat on the non-existent ground, their heads cocked to the left as they shared the ghoul's last bottle of 'Ninjin's Pick-me-Up' while watching the smutty displays before them.
"Are ya seriously telling me our li'l bro got lucky with that fine piece of ass?" Sabo croaked as his eyes leered at the shadowy scenes in front of him. "And that tall, dark drink of water's a necrophiliac? Fuck me, I think I'd kill ta be able to join his crew."
"I call dibs - the Whitebeard Pirates are a total weiner-fest. I totally knew this was happening though. Those brats were too cozy from the moment I dropped in on them. At least the reindeer wasn't in on it," Ace murmured in amazement as the shady young men of the Straw-hats did absolutely unspeakable things to their sex-pot navigator. Sabo turned to Ace, totally aghast as he offered his darker-skinned brother another swig of the alcoholized blood.
"Do you seriously think that Luffy would ever be into bestiality-" the undead man croaked, before he shivered in dawning horror. "Wait...wasn't there that time with the teddy bear...holy shit! He wouldn't even know what he was doing, would he?"
Ace felt the heavy buzz in his head increase as he passed the bottle back to Sabo, a smug yet highly disturbed smirk on his face. Smacking his lips, he began to worry a bit - should that swill really be tasting better with each sip? The ghoul could only shake his head at the semi-inebriated fellow and stand, pulling the other man up with him.
"At least if we're seeing these things it means Luffy or one of his nakama is nearby," Sabo reasoned clearly, smothering his shudder of worry over his little brother's sexual preferences. "We can't be too far from an exit."
"Thank goodness. I'm actually getting tired of-" Ace started, before some sensation of searching made the skin over his shoulders tighten and his body instinctively couch his internal fire. Sabo slowly capped his bottle as both sank into a low, ground-hugging stance - his green-glowing face was banked like a smothered eldritch flame as he tensed himself in preparation. Only their fingertips and toes touched the blackness beneath them. The two men remained that way for several minutes as the overwhelming presence swept over them multiple times, barely passing its awareness over their minds. Eventually, the feeling disappeared, melting back into the abyssal darkness.
"Shit," Sabo whispered as he finally released his whipcord muscles. "That was close. There's gotta be a Master Void-walker on our trail - we'd better speed it up. Oi, Ace, what's wrong?"
The flame-wielding man turned to the irradiated vampire, his eyes as wide as saucers.
"Do you think there's a chance in hell that Luffy would hide from something like that?" Ace panicked in a frenzied whisper, his heart leaping into his throat. Sabo's eyes grew to match the other man's, then they both broke out in another frantic, break-neck dash to where their hearts told them to go.
Traffie frowned from his perch on top of his ambulatory rubber tower. The faint, green glowing that had been radiating in the distance had suddenly disappeared and Luffy no longer complained about people whispering in his ears.
"That's strange," the unhealthy looking boy muttered, shifting on Luffy's shoulders. The rubber teen did not answer him. He merely shrugged and continued marching in the same direction that they'd been headed. He walked obliviously through the highly lurid visions of his nakama that sprung up in front his face - Traffie tried to squeeze a random tit, then snorted in disgust and dismissal as his hand passed through the enticing flesh.
"Baso-papa's never gone totally dark - not since the day the Brotherhood of Steel recruiters came through town. Wonder what he's hiding from?"
"Maybe us...we're playing hide and seek now?" Luffy suggested absently, digging a finger in his now wire-free, non-satellite ear. "Or maybe he's like Ace - kinda just drops asleep sometimes?"
Traffie shook his head.
"Naw, Baso-papa don't do stuff like that-"
A dark wave of seeking nearly swept the boy off of Luffy's shoulders - he was exceedingly fortunate that he had been able to wrap some of his wire around the Straw-hats' captain's neck before the gust could blow him off into nowhere. Never mind the fact that he was essentially garroting the young man; Luffy was too busy bracing his body against the probing air.
"What was that?" Traffie wailed as soon as the onslaught passed. Luffy didn't bother answering. He took the boy off of his shoulders, unraveled the wire around his neck and pushed the shapeless snow leopard cap back on the dark hair.
"Kid, keep running to the light. I'll take care of this," Luffy stated with quiet, absolute, deadly confidence - the tone made the boy wet himself shamefully, even as he scampered for dear life.
'Some day...some day I'll be that sort of man...!'
"Oi! Whoever you are, do you know where my brother Ace is? Hey, if I find out that you're holding him prisoner, I'm gonna kick your ass!"
Luffy's voice carried through the Crossroads, shaking the ground with the strength of his challenge. Usopp didn't know whether he wanted to cry for joy or throttle the idiot for announcing his location to everything in the spirit world.
Even if he wasn't sure which idiot it was.
Death barely flinched, leisurely draining his cup before pushing himself up and away from the table.
"It's been fun, Usopp, really it has, but it looks like your captain wants to get down to the nitty-gritty right now. Never let it be said that I don't aim to please."
Death ruffled the sniper's curls in a mocking display of fatherly regard, then snapped out of existence.
"Shit!" Usopp whimpered as he darted out of the room and ran through the maze of semi-translucent hallways. "I can't find my way out of this!"
'Sogeking, get my nakama moving! Death's going after my Luffy!'
The Straw-hats and their guide screeched to a halt as Luffy's voice suddenly carried through the darkness, as loud and clear as the bell on Skypeia.
"Piss on a stick. I forgot your Luffy does this shit too," Sogeking grumbled as he tried to pinpoint the sound. Brook, with his musically trained hearing, quickly zoomed in on the location; Franky raising his shades in a vain attempt to pierce the veil of blackness with his cyan eyes. Sanji tapped a cigarette out of his pack and struck a match on the heel of his shoe; Chopper settled his hat on his head and pulled his pouch of Rumble Balls to the front of his belt. Nami twirled her staff nervously while Robin fixed her garters one last time. Zoro merely shrugged as he readjusted his grip on his weaponry.
"No matter what dimension it is, a Luffy is still a Luffy. Let's go, before the shit hits the fan!"
"Hey! Did ya guys hear that?"
"Ouai, Capitan, mais - it sounds jus' like ya quand t'desires ta lay down th'law. C'est impossible!"
"Oi, Captain, Duck, Doc, come feel this!"
"Orzo! Where're the walls in this place? How the hell am I going to treat Sogeking in this darkness? In fact, how the heck did he drag himself this far? And I'm still smelling more blood ahead."
"This is gettin' outta hand, bitches. Dorothy to Tinman, do you copy?"
"...ahead, Doroth... We cop..."
"Shit, we almos' outta range. Listen up! We need light bad, so git down here, pronto! Wait fer the rest - I'mma go 'head!"
"No, Luffy don't-! Ah fuck a duck, I'mma go follow-!"
"Mais non, Madweed Bushel - yer fit ta pitch yerself int'hole wid yer sense o'direction. Merde! Scarecrow ta Tinman, d'ya copy?"
"Dorothy gone tout seul t'hunt Toto - Lion 'n' me go follow 'im. Bring Patchwork, Glinda 'n' Pumpkinhead - follow Chopfyt quand vous arrivez."
"...ll in, th...?"
"Lion here. That's a copy - Vault-suits are goin' all in t'Oz. Don't step on no damn yellow bricks, else we're all goin' t'Heaven instead. Over."
Chapter 7: Eager tongues flicker
Kidd pulled himself upright (well, as upright as his teddy bear and blankie allowed), yawned broadly and began to summarize everything that he'd heard so far.
"Okay, lemme get this straight. Franky, you and Chopper basically re-made Ace-boy over here. Brook brought his soul back from Death and stuffed it back in the corpse cause he used to be a Shepherd of Death. Nami re-animated fry-boy with her lightning and Zoro and Sanji whooped Death's ass long enough to let everything happen. Then Usopp and Robin got Luffy and Ace and Chopper to safety afterwards. Am I missin' anything here?"
The other men in the room looked at each other quizzically, but nothing was missing. Kidd continued.
"So Death comes to visit your asses and oh! You guys have fucked up big time and made a whole new dimension. As far as Luffy goes, probably not his biggest fuck-up yet. Brook tries to deal with Death, but Sanji and Usopp find out and put Robin and Franky on the case since they're still fucked to high heaven and on the injury list. You and your dark lady get put on the deal with Brook so you can get the deed done faster, but it's some ridiculous shit like 11 trillion deaths or something- Don't you dare interrupt!"
Franky closed his mouth with a clang as Kidd glowered at him balefully. The red-head shared his scowl around the table, then went back to his summarization.
"Meanwhile, Nami's going nuts taking care of Luffy and Ace, Chopper's going nuts taking care of Zoro and Sanji, and you, Long-nose, take a dive off the friggin' deep end so fast no-one can take care of you. Brook, Franky and Robin shag each other's brains out then decide that Death has got to be shitting y'all - trying to keep everyone off balance or something. Usopp's almost permanently stuck in an alternate dimension until something happens in that...world, I guess...and you get stuck permanently. I left out anything?"
Usopp rubbed the stubble on his chin before grunting in agreement and shaking his head. Kidd barreled on.
"You, Franky, finally get a clue and call the crew together. Everyone explains what they've been going through and then Usopp, your alt throws them into some...massive meeting place of all dimensions or some shit to go confront Death while you try to keep that mummified freak off the trail. All this time, Ace, you and Luffy've been wandering around in this same dimensional meeting place looking for each other while everyone thinks you guys are just mega-unconscious. You find an old friend named Sabo who like...forcibly emigrated to a whole new fucking dimension. He's looking for a kid that sounds an awful lot like that fucked up Doctor of Death we all know and despise - by the way, remind me to drop a ship on him when next that fucker comes through. So now, Ace and Sabo are looking for Luffy, you guys are looking for Luffy and Luffy is supposedly looking for Ace and Sabo - even if it more sounds like his lazy stupid ass is goofing off. Then you guys get the joy of seeing everything in everyone's memories while you're searching - so far, so good?"
"Yep, you've covered it pretty much," Franky agreed. "Any other questions before we finish up?"
Kidd looked thoughtfully at the ceiling and scratched his jawline before answering.
"Real quick - any chance you guys could go back in and make a Tone Dial of that threesome or use a surveillance den den mushi on that hot ass gang-banging act-?"
"Hell no!" Usopp and Franky snapped authoritatively, utterly missing the way that Ace winked at his fellow yonkou. Kidd would be sure to follow up on that look later.
"Shit. Biggest loss in the Grand Line's pornographic history, I swear! Anyway, it now sounds like Death is about to jump on Luffy's ass and I'm almost too sleepy to kill anyone far less care. Killer! Yo, Killer!"
The Kidd Pirates first mate appeared from the main dining hall door. Other than his hair appearing a bit more curly and frizzy than normal, he was none the worse for wear considering the fact that he'd only gotten into the area when the reception was already well underway - which meant that Kidd was loosing an exhausted, cranky, thoroughly annoyed Killer on their tale. The other men blanched rapidly. This could be worse than dealing with a sleepy Kidd.
" You called, Captain?" the blond man asked smoothly - a bit too smoothly. Oh yes. The Massacre Man was sure enough still sleepy and cranky and it looked like Sadi-chan was making him wear a rather particular ring as an accessory today. Shit just couldn't stop getting worse, could it?
"Listen to the rest of this story and lemme know if you think they're fucking around with you. I want a full report when I wake up. Oh, and we need to burn this fire-eater's pontoon before we leave."
Killer made a very tiny sound as he grudgingly sat down next to his drowsy captain. Usopp wanted to run for the hills. Franky and Ace weren't far behind.
"As you say, Captain. Now, go to sleep. I just got word that Helmeppo and Coby are on vacation, so we can probably catch up with them for a brawl in a week or so."
Ace watched apprehensively as Killer tucked his captain in and seriously began to consider retirement from piracy. Honestly, the kids nowadays were crazier than all hell, and the next generation was only proving to be worse! The kukri knife-wielder made sure his captain was comfortably asleep, then turned his blank mask towards them.
"I- I'm gonna take that as a hint to continue, yes?" Usopp asked in a cautious whisper. The knife-wielder grunted in assent, then took out one of his knives and a polishing cloth. No-one commented when he spread his legs and slouched in the chair while looking particularly miserable, full metal jacket mask or not.
Somewhere in front of them, there was the loud report of a rifle. The noise bounded and echoed through the darkness, filling their ears with ringing dread.
"Luffy!" they screamed as they pounded forward blindly, their guide trying his best not to outpace them with his body's superior speed. The dark-skinned teen threw his mind out into the darkness, praying that the right person could be attracted.
'Shit! Usopp, talk to me! What the fuck is going on? Why the hell are you firing Kabuto?'
All Sogeking got was static. Usopp was shielding out everyone and everything with the thickness of his psychological walls.
"Shit!" the sniper hissed as he drew the gigantic slingshot on his back and fumbled in his twin's man-purse for shots. "We'd better go in hot, Zoro! Usopp's not answering me!"
The Straw-hats' first mate answered that with a tightening of his grip on Kitestu and Shuusui. Wadou's sheen had been steadily growing, lifting off the darkness ahead of them like the veil off of a bride. The marksman pulled down his twin's goggles and strained his eyes to see ahead...
A small, solitary figure stood in the dark; an unwavering pillar of determined wrath. And above him, behind him, in the dark, stood-
"Luffy, look out!" Sogeking screeched, even as his nimble fingers let loose a flaring Swallowtail Butterfly Meteor shot that had a strange, twinning reverberation as a Meteorite Shower Flare burst overhead. The shots' explosions were overwhelmingly bright in the cavern as it hung high overhead, illuminating the surroundings with fiery intensity.
At that point, many things happened at once.
Monkey D. Luffy rolled and dived and stumbled as he gracelessly avoided a deadly attack thanks to the momentum of D. Luffy flying into him.
Usopp, in Sogeking's body, flew along on D. Luffy's back while Sogeking, in Usopp's body, began to kick his feet into high gear.
Both Zoros went from a run into a kneeling slide, their voices clashing harshly as San Tou Ryuu Rashomon and Three-Man Vault Door Opener reverberated through the still air, two glowing white Wadous clenched in their jaws.
Both Sanjis launched up in attack, Diable Jambe Frit Assorti and A Side Of Cajun Fries raining fire down onto their target below.
Two Choppers ran in to check on and disentangle the two Luffys while two Robins created protective cages of branching arms over their captains.
Two Namis sent Thunderbolt Tempo and Lightning Storm sweeping towards the unseen enemy while two charged up Frankys sent maximum Coup de Vent and Air Cannon blasts right behind the storms and two Brooks combined flying strikes of Three-Verse Humming Arrow-Notch Slice and Six-string Guitar Strumming Pick-Slash.
And just as suddenly as all motion began, it all simply ceased.
Death carefully detached himself from the murky blackness and aloofly observed the battle tableau frozen below him.
"I see you've sent out the Void-Eater already, Lady Luck. Has the Council decided then?"
A flame-haired, flame-eyed female entity wearing an immense cloak of the purest, richest, deepest smoke-grey hovered over Death's shoulder, irreverently leaning on his back as she eyed the scene under them.
"Nah - they couldn't get past the whys and why nots, so they called us in to consult."
Another female entity, wreathed in colorless clouds of hair and blind-white eyes riveted by the frozen war huffed sharply as she lowered herself to Death's side while rewrapping her cloak of every conceivable color.
"Consult? Those fools just added to my work," Fate growled, her motherly face and young body and older than dirt wisdom clashing into a gruesome snarl. "I thought they swore to stay out of these worlds in particular? Religion's never gotten them anywhere with these two."
"Don't matter none to me," Luck cooed, pulling sharply at Death's hidden earlobe - trying to annoy the Grim Reaper was one of her pastimes. "They told me to roll the dice. If the Void-Eater eats one, none, or both - it's all up to the plebes down there now."
"Good. Maybe I'll get lucky and it'll save me from having to click-clack at that loom for the next 700 years- Hey, wait a minute. Death, I thought you got all of them!"
Death peered into the darkness, following Fate's arthritic index finger as it pointed out the fiery specks racing towards the scene.
"Oh fuck me," he snarled insidiously, stomping one foot in an unusually petulant motion. "Why does he always escape me?"
Sabo was having a hard time keeping up with Ace, whose common sense had gone completely AWOL one he'd been able to identify the silhouette ahead. The last identifiable word the irradiated vampire had been able to get from golem of flame next to him was Teach. After that, the ghoul had been forced to use his stiff muscles to keep up with his brother and secure the terrified, gibbering Traffie in his grip.
The young boy had slammed into his side a few - hours maybe? Probably just 30 minutes ago. He'd been completely out of breath and stumbling all over the place, but he wasn't out of it enough to not recognize Sabo for his typically old, ghoulish guardian, Baso-papa.
Yeah...that conversation'd gone real well.
"You liar! You make us bring you dinner and everything but you're really young!" Traffie had bawled in blind rage, his wire trying futilely to garotte Sabo as Ace stood to one side laughing.
"Traf- shit kid, when'd yer grip get this good! Traffie, listen ta me! I had ta do it! The Steel can't know that there's a young vamp ghoul out there that's actually regeneratin' - growin' even! Come on, Traffie, yer smarter'n the rest! Ya know they'll have ma ass back in a lab inna heartbeat!"
Somehow he'd calmed the boy down (he figured that sheer physical and mental exhaustion helped a lot) and learned the general direction the child'd come from. Then, before he could even think, he'd had Traffie on his shoulders and set off with Ace.
"You're a good pops," the flame-wielder'd snorted out as Sabo gave Traffie the honor of holding on to his top hat. Sabo'd never thought about it, but the praise meant a whole lot coming from his brother. Therefore, the only reasonable response had been to punch the darker man in the shoulder as hard as possible, then help him reset it before moving on.
And then, they had seen the shadow.
And all hell broke loose in Ace's head.
Death was exceeding glad to be who he was when he stepped in front of the explosive ball of fire that barely glanced at him before trying to step through him towards its ultimate goal. With the Grim Reaper in his hand, he collared the man by his beaded necklace, thereby immobilizing him.
"Portgas D. Ace, cease this useless attack at once!"
Death listened carefully to identify the negation in the mindless howling that followed that statement. Rubbing his lined forehead with abandon, he made a sudden, wild, executive decision
"Right, fuck the rules."
He sighed loudly, then snapped his fingers.
"Shit, dude, where are we?" Sabo asked as he suddenly appeared next to two frozen Luffys. Traffie was already looking around in awe at the snapshot of unfolding carnage. Ace, still immobilized and hanging from the Grim Reaper, shot glances around the area with his eyes wild - the only parts of his body not on fire. Death stuck the hilt of his scythe into the ground, then made himself comfortable on the ground and took out a very large bottle of premium sake. With a disgruntled shake of his head, life resumed in the bubble, which had moved to encompass the Void-Eater.
"Bruhewheh, uh, whuh, wha-?"
The Vault-suits and Straw-hats sputtered and peered at each other in complete amazement. Slowly, Sogeking and Usopp tried to raise themselves.
"Oi, Fate, can you speed this up? I'm a little testy here."
Two snorting Brooks muffled their laughter as they both remembered one of their captain's favorite puns. The scream of pain quickly solved the problem of inappropriate mirth.
Usopp and Sogeking were screeching under the touch of the oddly colorful - yet colorless - woman that had just laid her hands on both of their foreheads. Before either of the Luffys could move, Lady Luck was tripping them up.
"Now, now, darlings, you just sit tight and watch," the grey-wreathed woman chirped cheerfully while throwing out an absolutely blinding aura of "Do not fuck with me!"
They wisely didn't, even if the Zoros had to hold their captains back.
"You two really have become very co-dependent. Damnation, this body can't survive the re-implementation process. I shall have to speed up the changes a bit."
If anyone had thought the two dark-skinned, long-haired men had been screaming before, they were disabused of that notion in the next fifteen seconds, as Fate twisted Sogeking's broken frame, its golden glow flickering and waning as the pain almost forced both he and Usopp over the edge. Eventually, a form made itself apparent to the unwilling audience - the skin on Sogeking's body appeared to shift and harden, minute cracks appear over it as it thickened relentlessly. His legs and arms became thicker and a bit shorter, yet they still appeared to be more powerful that before. The yellow-brown pallor over his skin became permanent, and his back became more flexible as both men defensively tried to roll themselves into protective balls.
"Done. Now, to switch you both back- There! Easy as pie! He already had the mental constitution for his new form anyway, the bug freak."
The screeches of agony stopped as Fate let both men slip bonelessly from her fingers. Doc Chop and Chopper threw caution to the wind as their lieutenant and first mate ordered them to check on their respective snipers
"Oh my- What the- You've turned him into an armadillo!" Doc Chop wailed as he tapped experimentally at Sogeking's armored body.
"He sucked up damage like a sponge anyway," Fate shrugged as she joined her sister. "At any rate, I think Death over there needs to speak with you."
"Damned straight," the abysmal entity growled as he waved a hand and brought all of the mortals crashing to the ground before him. "Now sit down and shut to hell up while I learn you brats real good."
Both Brooks looked at each other as the colloquial language rolled off of Death's tongues.
"Yohohoho - it would appear that we are in for a bit of a lecture," Brook offered en sotto voce.
"Si, senor, we are most certainly about to get a tongue-lashing of epic proportions," B. Bones agreed. "May as well get muy relajado. We're going to be here a long, long time."
Luck and Fate watched with ill-concealed amusement as Death lit into the assembled mortals, being particularly vicious with Brook, Robin, Franky, Zoro, Sanji, all five of the D. boys and the sniper twins. Ace even managed to stay awake through the entire rant - but that may have been because D. Luffy was staring at him much the same way a starving wolf stares at a dying elk. By the time Death had finished, D. Luffy had tucked himself into Ace's side right side, much to Monkey D. Luffy's displeasure, and the entity was out of breath and nigh-apoplectic.
"And now," he snarled while throwing one shriveled thumb over his finger to point at the encased form of the Void-Eater. "Despite all of my most persuasive and sneakiest efforts to resolve this without outside interference, I have failed. To my extreme disgust, you are all representatives of your dimensions in a fight to the death with this brute, with the end results being pretty simple: both, one, or none of the dimensions are going to end up as his lunch. I, at this point, really don't give a shit which one of you goes kaboom - I pretty much expect none of you to leave my grip this time. However, you are the only ones capable of keeping your respective worlds alive at the moment. Any questions?"
Despite the finality in the entity's voice, a very small hand rose up in the sky. As Death followed the limb to its owner, he resisted the urge to growl. The person in question had quite possibly even less respect for him than any D. in existence - he truly wished he could snatch his life now, but Fate was already shaking her head at him and Luck's dice kept rolling sevens. Sighing loudly, he returned his attention to his future nemesis in at least 8392 dimensions.
"Yes, Traffie? What now, you thieving brat of a doctor-wannabe?"
"Are ya open ta some...negotiation?" the sallow boy asked tremulously, though his eyes glowed with the beginnings of an insanely brilliant idea. At his words, both Namis' eyes began to gleam.
"Negotiations?" Fate interjected, already snapping her fingers to create a large table and a multitude of chairs sprung up from the ground. Luck snapped her fingers and suddenly the mortals and entities were seated with Traffie and Death at either end and the crews staring at their mirror images across the table. The entity was flanked on either side by Fate and Luck, while the small boy who'd steepled his fingers together with malicious delight was flanked by two wickedly smirking, ginger-haired females.
"We're all ears," Luck purred eagerly, leaning forward in her seat like a cat on the prowl.
Chapter 8: Flames burn and bite
"First things first," Death declared as he leaned his scythe over the back of his chair, "I'm willing to give you guys an easy out - hand over 'Flame-Fist' Portgas D. Ace and twenty years off of your natural lifespans and we can all get out of here and let the Council chew my ear off. Whaddya say?"
Every mortal present spent five seconds blinking before crossing their arms in front of their bodies in blatant negation of the proposed terms.
"Hell no!" they all stated flatly. Death rubbed his brow and sighed resignedly while Luck and Fate licked their chops - er, lips - and surveyed the buffet of souls to torture - er, at stake.
Usopp and Sogeking were being poked and prodded by the two physicians on hand, even while they protested that they were "better than ever." After much discussion on the effects of radiation as compared to the waves emitted from devil fruits and the side-effects of treatment by nonhuman entities, the reindeer doctors formed an absurdly cute tag team of medical mayhem as they drew out syringes and chased the twin marksmen around the table in an attempt to draw blood samples. Everyone ignored them when the whole affair devolved into a wrestling match.
"Hey, Uncle Old-Mummy-Mysterious-Guy!" Luffy called cheerfully as he poked around in his nose. Sanji got the pleasure of kicking his piratical captain's head hard enough to cause the round face to dribble on the table. Zoro and Robin clapped (grudgingly in the marimo's case), while Franky and Brook gave the chef nine out of ten for the difficulty of the technique.
"Shit-head, he's Death - Death! What the hell, that's about seventeen times easier to say than whatever that crap was you just made up!"
"Shishishishi, thanks Sanji! I knew I'd get that annoying booger!" Luffy chortled in response, utterly oblivious to the way the others present turned green as he wiped the snot off on the hem of his vest. All except for D. Luffy, who was trying to examine the drying mucus (and Ace) from afar with obvious interest, despite Zoro's restraining grip on his Vault-suit.
"By the Sands," Zoro and his brothers groused as all three heads slapped a hand over their faces. "He really is as stupid as our captain."
"Guess some things just can't be changed across dimensions - like good music!" B. Bones hooted loudly, strumming his guitarro in an attempt to tune it to Cyborg Franky's guitar
"Or fine cola! You bros do know what cola is, right? If not, I bet I can get y'all hoes and bros a recipe from the D... Hey wait, where's the Duck?" Android Franky cheered before looking around in confusion.
A resounding smack echoed under the table. Robin scowled briefly as her dainty hands rummaged under the solid wood, only to come back with a red-faced, feathery lecher in tow. A hand-shaped bruise - it looked like it might have been caused by Brook, judging from the bony imprints - glowed in sharp relief as the skeleton smugly smoothed Nico Robin's dress back over her shapely knees. Robin the dryad retrieved the contrite Cajun fowl before Cyborg Franky could descend into a jealous rant.
"Suitably chastened now?" both Robins asked the young Duck.
"Mais oui, mademoiselles! Ya know Ah couldn' not try!" the Duck chirped before being deposited opposite his doppelganger. The two blonds quickly descended into a fight-cum-lively discussion on which mellorines were les plus belles filles.
Zoro was too busy introducing the Siamese triplets to sake - compliments Death's forgotten bottle - to take note of either ero-cook. Zoro's namesake loved the liquor and displayed a disturbing tolerance; Rozo didn't like the burn in his throat, but the aftertaste was pleasant. Orzo got drunk after two sips and fell asleep muttering about Mihawk and Kuina and oh yeah, right there, harder bitch.
Even such semi-corporeal entities as Luck and Fate could feel a cold sweat breaking out at the thought of these people in the Afterlife. No wonder the dimensions were in disarray! How the hell had the Council expected Death to deal with these weirdos?
"Just trust me - we need them," Death assured both preternatural ladies with a calming pat on their shoulders.
"Oh yeah, what was I saying?" Luffy asked briefly while rubbing his straw-hat over his messy hair. "Oh right! Uncle Death-guy, how about I trade my life for Ace's and everyone else's?"
"Hey, yeah!" Vault-suit Luffy chirped up, pulling idly at the collar of his clothing. "That's a great id-"
The gnoll and her fully human counterpart were quick to pound the comment out of either of the Luffys' skulls. When Vault-suit Luffy made a move to shout "Captain's Orders!" his lieutenant and sergeant were ready - he was forced to try speaking around two half-boots. Zoro and Sanji used the more expedient method and gagged their captain with hastily formed "Simon Says" commands and the swordsman's bandanna.
"Please ignore these idiots," Nami the human giggled lightly - most of the men and the Robins would have sworn to the brief presence of an orange, demonic tail and evilly sharp golden horns, but everyone had wisely decided to shut their mouths with the snarling, inter-sexed hyena threatening them all with a horrible death and a mass paupers' grave as their final resting place if they even thought about speaking out of turn.
Sabo shielded Traffie's eyes (as if that could somehow protect the boy-genius from the insanity taking place) then looked at Ace, who was yawning broadly despite the commotion.
"Dude, are they always like this?" Sabo asked, a bit of incredulous fear tainting his coarse voice while Traffie tried very hard to get a glimpse of some panties or blood around the ghoul's fingers - he wasn't a picky kid.
"Man, you have no idea," Ace muttered before yawning loudly and head-banging the desk as he fell asleep. Sabo sighed and rolled his brother's head to one side, freeing the tanned devil-fruit user's nose.
Lady Luck and Femme Fate turned back to regard Death skeptically.
"Death, hun, talk to us seriously. The Council actually needs these people?" Luck asked en sotto voce, clearly disturbed that she had been unwittingly favorable to such misfits.
"I must have mis-woven the Threads somewhere. Fingers must be getting arthritic again. I let these morons loose?"Fate muttered to herself, drawing a number of colored cloths from under her robes and inspecting them meticulously.
Death merely sighed and nodded, before swiping the liquor from the Zoros and draining back a goodly set.
"Yes, the Council needs these people in particular - even more so than that Naruto kid, and you would not believe the troubles I had with that one." the male being groaned while rolling his eyes at the traumatic memories. Rearranging his black cloak, the Abyss, around his knees in a much more comfortable manner, he brought the two crews back to the matter at hand
"Alright, you trans-universal nuisances, can it and listen up!" he yelled loudly, making himself heard over the din. There was an almost audible grinding of gears as everyone's chatter and motions froze dead. Aokiji would have mistakenly assumed that he'd casted Ice Age in his sleep again if he'd been present.
"This is what we're going to do." Death bellowed. "I want a list of everyone you want exempted from these dealings. Then, my negotiators and yours are going to go to work and you others can go do something non-destructive, for fuck's sake! I have enough penalties on my head without you people spawning another universe and quadrupling my workload."
"Yes, that sounds plausible," the Namis replied in synch before scooting out of their chairs and stepping away from the table on either side.
"Oi, you ingrates and Ane-san!"
"You muties and freaks, get over here! You too, big sis!"
No-one bothered to claim Ace as yet, so Sabo just shrugged and removed his top hat, allowing him to scratch his impossibly matted hair before drawing out a package of jerky and a spare bottle of "Pick-me-Up" from inside the tattered head-wear.
"Lunch?" he offered to the entities still seated at the table. Traffie shrugged as the powerful beings scorned the meal, grabbing two handfuls of the suspicious jerky as his Baso-papa swallowed the maroon, fermented drink in large gulps.
"Who invited you again, zombie?" Death groused as he reclaimed his own, never-ending bottle of liquor. "You know, I get this funny feeling I should remember you..."
"Sabo! You're alive!"Monkey D. Luffy suddenly wailed as he jumped onto the ghoul's head, causing him to broadcast his liquid lunch across the table. The East Blue pirates slapped their hands over their faces while Franky and Brook sighed and shook their heads wisely as Robin explained the situation to Chopper.
"Seriously, he only now noticed that zombie?" Usopp asked in a tired tone. He tried very hard to pretend that his crew could negate the obvious, but that never had worked very well for him.
"Come on! You and Traffie need to meet my nakama! Oh, and bring Ace too!"
As the Straw-hat captain dragged Ace and Sabo off in his wiry arms with Traffie on his shoulders, the Vault-suit leader tracked them with large, opalescent eyes.
Death merely sighed and asked the Weird Sisters for a good laundry detergent. And headache relief.
Monkey D. Luffy was choking on so much - so much! - emotion, but something told him that this was not the time to reveal it - even if he'd just found out that not one, but both of his beloved brothers were still alive! A sort of foggy feeling was weighing very heavily on his mind, effectively smothering the sheer joy trying to burst through his body, the massive guilt he'd carried for ages weighing down his back, the raw rage of Sabo being alive and not telling them - he'd cried for weeks after hearing the news!
Still, in retrospect, the death of Sabo had not destroyed him as completely as Ace's death had threatened to. It was still there, lurking just outside the corner of his mind he'd labeled "Mysterious Stuff Not to Think About Ever." As he'd journeyed through this dark, weird place looking for Ace with Traffie on his back, he'd had to fight the images that'd sprung unbidden in front of him.
Ace, manacled in seastone - wade on through.
Ace, blocking an unstoppable fist of lava - march forward.
Ace, blood (so much gallonsandgallons of) and few remaining guts pouring out onto his knees - step right over it.
The rubber teen struggled briefly against a greater force, his will-death-kill-fortheyareMINE building up to near-maddening, inhuman levels before he glanced to his right and caught Ace's face glowing next to him.
The fog descended again, just a bit heavier than before. His haki was smothered out, but he knew - somehow - that the sensation of powerlessness would last for mere moments. He took that time to regard the person lecturing him.
The old uncle was really, really, really skinny, even skinnier than Brook! He was wrapped in a really, really, really dark cloak - no telling if he wore anything under it. Not even shoes were visible under all that- that- Blackness. Everything about the old guy was really, really, really familiar - maybe he was a zombie like the ones they fought in that mysterious, foggy place?
"But Shanks! Your arm!"
"They lit up all of the trash!"
"Looks like I can't get out of this one!"
Oh. Wait. That's why he was familiar.
The old guy had been right in front of him for years now - Luffy actually didn't know if he had ever not been aware of the shadowy figure's presence. True, he'd only catch a glimpse of him out of the corner of his eye, but now that he was in front of his face - yeah, he was pretty sure it was the same guy-
The fog pressed down again. Luffy was beginning to wonder if it was from thinking too hard. He never did like thinking - it always tended to muddle up the easy stuff. Instead of continuing the annoying task of thinking and making things more complicated than necessary, Luffy took some time to observe the mysterious version of himself. The Not-Him? The Other Luffy - yeah, he like that!
The Other Luffy was constantly wiggling closer to Ace - it was really weird. He'd look up into Ace's face with a freaky look and big, shiny eyes (were his eyes that bright and shiny? Is that how he got Sanji to give him more meat?) - sorta like when he was thinking about Nami-
Like how Sanji would think about Nami and Robin. Yeah, that was it! He could almost see the hearts in the Other Luffy's eyes when he looked at Ace and that was just creepy. Not cause he liked a guy (cause hey, you like what you like), but because it was his Ace, not the Other Luffy's Ace!
The Other Luffy met his eyes briefly. It was enough.
Monkey D. Luffy felt it down to his toes. They had made a connection. Like lightning to earth – raw power to rank stubbornness. There was a crater in his mind from the sheer force of it.
But this was still his Ace. His brother. He wasn't going to lose him to anyone. And now that he knew Sabo was still alive and still kicking and still carrying lead, he was pretty sure that Death would have to take both him and Ace out to get his hands on the ghoul. No matter what the estranged noble boy had become, neither of his brothers were going to leave him again.
They would never be apart. Ever. With that in mind, Luffy pulled down on Hat and actually made an effort to understand Nami's scheming machinations.
Chapter 9: The inferno blazes high
Brook watched with a peculiar sort of detachment as his crewmates argued vehemently about who could and could not be sacrificed. The strange lassitude lifted briefly when Franky laid a large, metallic hand on his forearm.
"Brook, you okay? You're not looking really super right now," the cyborg whispered in his ear, ruffling some of his curls in a manner that would have sent goose-flesh pleasantly traipsing down his neck. If he had any flesh!
"Yohoho, I'm fine, Franky. However, I do believe that we're going to have to do something about Robin. I am certain that she will insist on paying her dues in this negotiation. We've already seen how well that went with Nami."
Franky frowned and nodded again. Indeed, it had taken a direct order from Luffy to get Sanji to sit down and stop begging Nami to take herself off of the list. After such an impassioned plea and an unexpected pledge from the first mate to match anything the cook could offer, the navigator had reluctantly removed herself from contention. Her mood only improved once Luffy grinned and spoke to her from his seat on the ground next to the slumbering Ace and the ghoul mock-fighting with the dirty, too-smart boy.
"Don't worry, Nami! I trust you to do your best for us still!"
Even after minutes spent drowning in the cottony feel of his head, Brook knew how important this was for the ginger-haired young woman. That her almost palpable nerves could drag Luffy away from what had been a very loud and tear-filled reunion with both of his adopted brothers - well, that spoke to something else altogether.
At any rate, it was obvious from the set in Robin's jaw that she suspected the same sort of thing from her two older crewmates. She was, of course, right. Brook clapped Franky on the shoulder manfully, then pushed him into the line of fire. While Franky talked to the impassively glowering historian, the lethargic feeling returned twice as strong.
'Just fatigue, Brooky,' the old Yorki's voice seemed to say in his head - soothing, caressing, and lulling him further into the mental fog. 'Just relax and let me take care of everything from here."
Nodding slowly, the skeleton barely caught the end of someone playing a winsome refrain from his homeland far off in West Blue. When next he woke up, his head was clear, the list was being submitted to Death and everyone was returning to the table.
He shook out thoughts of a happy young woman and two eager suitors as Franky raised one eyebrow quizzically at the tears slipping down his skull. Mercifully, the shipwright did not ask questions; the angular shades fell back into place. Brook ignored the slow-rolling shrug that was sent to Robin, already seated at the table.
"Yohoho! Let's get on with this," Brook chuckled dryly as he stood up and joined his crew, Franky at his side.
"Snegrk- sneheheh~ Aahm... Uhm, hey there," Ace began nervously as he awoke from a brief narcoleptic fit to the sight of the unhatted, stretchy suit-wearing Luffy scooting closer. Some time after the lists being delivered and recognized, Fate and Luck had surrounded the negotiators in impervious, black shields.
"To drown out unnecessary distractions," had been Luck's deceptively mild reply, even though it was painfully obvious that she planned to eat the bargaining mortals for lunch.
"Ace..." the younger man sighed, his eyes slightly unfocused - guilty, elated and pretty damn near crazy. Was this what his Luffy would have looked like because of his sacrifice? Ace made a mental note to avoid dying in front of his younger brother ever again before narrow, chapped lips began rubbing his own pair with wild abandon.
"Yer alive! By the Wastes, yer still alive! I thought- I thought-"
"Get to hell off my bro!"
Monkey D. Luffy wrapped both legs around D. Luffy's neck and threw the would-be molester over the heads of the negotiators. They didn't even blink as the irradiated rubber man crashed into the invisible barrier around the Void-Eater.
Zoro and the green-haired Siamese triplets were up in a heartbeat with their swords half-drawn. Sanji and the Duck stopped sharing observations about the mellorines and belle filles to growl across the table at each other, cigarettes puffing harshly, the flaring light in the tips bobbing wildly. The dryad and the Flower-Flower devil fruit user paused in the middle of their conversation regarding the differing histories of their worlds. Brook and B. Bones stopped making comparisons about the evolution of popular music since rising from the dead in their respective dimensions. The Frankys halted in mid-gulp of their colas while Doc Chop and Chopper looked up from their examinations of the drastically changed Sogeking and the amazingly resilient yet unchanged Usopp.
Ace, on the other hand, grabbed Death's long-forgotten sake bottle and proceeded to gargle with the liquor. Liberally.
"The fuck is up with your captain, ha? There's such a thing as personal space you know!" Zoro growled to the Vault-suits lieutenant, his own dark aura flickering unconsciously, two shadowy copies of his head phasing in and out of existence.
"You tell me, mutie-wad - whut da hell's juicin' up dat scrawny Hat-bitch?" Orzo snarled in response, Zoro and Rozo already muttering and licking their blades.
"Oi, your captain was rubbing up on our captain's big bro!" Sanji spat out while he brought one red-glowing foot up on the table.
"So what? Vous salopes neva heard uh sibling affection?" the Duck quacked loudly as his claws dug into the wood of the table.
The crews, minus their negotiators, were so engrossed in the brewing battles between their sub-leaders that they would have missed the unfolding drama if Ace hadn't squealed like a pig in an abattoir.
"Shit, it is breezy in here! Monkey D. Luffy, if you don't gimme back my shorts right now-"
"See? He's a bro, not a sis! We don't have any affection anywhere!"
Everyone, including D. Luffy, stared frankly at Ace's bait and tackle while Monkey D. Luffy danced around the table just outside of the Flame-Fist's range and Sabo dissolved under a torrent of mirth.
"Oh Lawd, ya freakin' perv, ya still goin' commando?"
"Ewww Ace, I thought we told you to wear boxers?"
"Luffy, I swear on Whitebeard's coat, if you don't give me my pants right now- Sabo, shut up! Luffy, get back- Oh hell no, don't you dare, they're flame-retardant and that'll give you indigestion-!"
D. Luffy croaked wordlessly from the floor where he'd fallen, his hands scratching at the ground below him. Eventually he found his voice to repeat his cry.
"No! It can't...no! He can't- my Ace can't be-"
A shaking hand reached into the blue, stretchy vault-suit to pull out a leathery, decorated blanket. He sat forward and spread the blanket out on the ground, revealing the gruesome memoir to its fullest.
"Oh shit," Franky bit off as he and his full metal counterpart easily recognized the shape from personal repairs on their metal bodies. "It's a- He's a- That's the skin off a human!"
When Ace looked at the huge, purple tattoo on the back, thoroughly riddled with holes as it was, the wave of images assaulted him, flooring him with the flood of memories and thoughts and feelings and scents and secrets and-
"Luffy! Doan mind ya ain't gotta daddy, I ain't got one neida no more!"
"Yeah, I'm diff'rent from ya down dere, but doan tell nauwn!
He was dry-heaving on the floor.
"Ah! Harda, Luffy! S'good!"
He was flat out hurling.
"Merashishishi~! Luffy! I love you!"
He passed out before the second round of bullets pierced (not his - hers!) body. Only quick action from Sabo (Luffy's crying, why is he crying?) saved him from landing face-first in his own vomit.
Zoro and the Straw-hats not busy with negotiations or passed out devil-fruit users were back at the table with the other Vault-suits. They were attending closely to the vampiric ghoul's words as he caressed the skin that was now spread out on the table.
"Yeah," Sabo croaked dispassionately. "Lovers. This Luffy was Ace's first and only. He - ah, sorry, forgot for a sec. In that world, not a whole lotta tribes use a different pronoun for males 'n' females. Luffy and Ace - the D. tribe - they only used 'he' cuz they lost most of the language. Anyway, she and Luffy were cousins and lovers for a long, long time."
"I was born fer Ace," D. Luffy croaked through his tears. "An' I thought- He tol' me ta keep ever'thin' under his kilt a secret! So I neva took off tha' kilt, jus' took the skin off his chest 'n' back like we did for his papa... Then I hoped..."
A straw-hat wafted down on D. Luffy's head as its owner tumbled into a seat near his first mate - Luffy had been busy fussing over his older brother with a mother hen attitude the others had never seen from him before. As soon as he'd made himself comfortable in the chair, he began to speak - Straw-hat Luffy didn't look at his mirror image, but there was no question that he was addressing him.
"I watched my brother die in front of me."
Sabo choked on the words - his face drained of all possible color, even his underlying greyish, deathly hue, as he grasped the nature of his younger brother's words. Ace hadn't mentioned this - he hadn't told him that Luffy had watched him slip into the Void!" Sabo tried to imagine how he would have reacted if he had been there to see Ace take a hit for him and die in his arms - the radiation-soaked vampire knew that he had been very happy that Ace and Luffy weren't there to see him go under. His eldritch-green shine went from a low, subtle, under-skin pulsing to flickering erratically. For the love of- he was going to kill Ace again for making their little brother go through that! He suddenly snapped himself back to Luffy's words.
"I watched him...slip away. Did you watch him - or is it her - it's her right, Sanji? Yeah, so, did you watch her die?"
Luffy the raider didn't look up, but he shook his head. Luffy the pirate seemed to fall silent, content to flop all over his chair and clean one of his ears with his eyes closed. Eventually, without opening his eyes, he continued.
"It's worse," he breathed out, suddenly ragged and deflated and small. Sabo watched with sad eyes as the Straw-hats' first mate all but tucked the younger teen under his arm (in a very poor imitation of a headlock) while the others formed an invisible, protective ring of comfort around them. "It's so much worse - mysteriously, badly worse. You're so...lucky...not to have that sort of memory of her. Even if she's not coming back, you won't get your mind..."
Here Monkey D. Luffy paused, his eyes half-closed as he thought - sought - for the right word to describe what had happened to him the moment he realized that Ace had died. Finally he shrugged and went with the word that had first come to mind.
"Your mind won't be broken like that. By that."
The silence that grew now as pregnant and uncomfortable as a brooding hen. Everyone was waiting for something...anything...to happen.
Ace's groan was like a rifle shot in the dark, spurring the Vault-suit captain's mouth into action.
"But dat - none uh dat... None uh dat doan solve how broken I is already..." D. Luffy all but wailed before his very surprised gang as he stumbled away from his chair and the table to crouch in a quivering ball of pain. This was a Luffy that the Vault-suits hadn't seen before - one whose physical strength and stamina were utterly useless in the face of something as basic as the Universal Leveler. Sobbing and snuffling, the straw hat and vault-suit quickly became wet and salty as half-murmured, barely known platitudes filled the air. There was the sound of a chair scraping noisily, the quick slap of footsteps, and suddenly there were two Luffys crying, back to back.
Zoro, Orzo, and Rozo were obviously torn. Rozo addressed the palely flickering ghoul with panicicky aggression and uncertainty tinging his voice.
"How the hell do you know all of this shit? We've never even fucking met you! Who the fuck are you to know all of this-?"
Sabo didn't look up from the skin, his fingers tracing bullet holes with morbid fascination even while the Duck kicked his seat away and Sogeking clumsily leveled Kabuto at the back of his head.
"It's pretty damn obvious, don't you think?"
Sanji shook out his match as he exhaled the fresh nicotine.
"You met this female Ace, didn't you?"
Sabo didn't raise his head, but the smallest of smirks graced his face.
"Une looks like her. Well, maybe more Luffy's eyes and chin...but really.."
And it hit them all like lightning.
"You're looking after their child?" Usopp choked out loud.
Something was wrong.
Leaving the Weird Sisters and the Namis to their enjoyment, Death was looking at the commotion outside with only mild interest - he knew most everything that the mortals were discussing thanks to his Morpheus fog combing their minds. He'd already placed the Sabo ghoul in his memory - another one of the annoying ones who slipped between the cracks of his bony fingers when he was lazing on the job. The problem was not over there in either the vampire, the Straw-hats, or the Vault-suits.
It was in Ace's mind.
Ace's mind, now that he was fully unconscious, was screaming warnings into the air, jumbled in snarls of the purest, most undiluted hatred and vengeance.
There was something wrong with the Void Eater, but that made no sense. Only the Entities could control the Void Eaters, and this one was under the dual control of the Weird Sisters. There had never been a rogue one.
"What's wrong, Mista Death?" Traffie asked quietly. Mentally.
Damnation, this child was already a pain in his ass.
"Nothing that should concern you, bratling-"
Death whipped his head around to gaze in amazement at the encased form of the Void Eater. No! He could not have just heard that spark of power!
"There's a crack," Traffie whispered in awe, even while he began to shake with fear. "Holy shit, Death, why is it cracking?"
"Zehahahahaha! Aw, ain't dat touchin' Ace? Dey is still cryin' over ya!"
The pirate crew and the raider gang stopped babbling, their mouths audibly closing with resounding snaps and the sound of drawn weapons. The shields around the negotiators flickered and dropped as Death and the Weird Sisters banished their enchantment in favor of maintaining the main shield over the area. Both Luffys dried up immediately, breath hitched between one sob and the next as Sabo cursed violently, his skin melting away in rays of garish green.
Ace woke right up, snarling and blazing into terrible, raging life.
The Void Eater was moving.
The Void Eater was going rogue.
The Void Eater was-
"Marshall D. Teach!" Ace howled, his voice curiously echoing and hitting strange, discordant notes as his flames filled the cavern completely.
Chapter 10: Now, fight the dark
Ace was incandescent with his - her - their combined rage. The purity of the hatred created a here-to unparalleled source of power; the devil fruit curse gorged itself on the rank emotion, giving Ace access to unimaginable prowess and capabilities. The hatred was so pure, so instinctive, that Ace had no room for love - no room for Luffy or Sabo, or his fellow Whitebeard commanders. There was no room for reason - reason of Death, Fate, Luck.
The beautiful, caring, loyal, dedicated, willful mind of the one known as Ace had been seared, melted into a shimmering, glittering, deadly-keen crystal facet of hatred. This incomparable emotion would explain how he - she - they, fused into one body, were capable of throwing off Death's subduing Morpheus fog and shattering the protective barrier in their need to remove all traces of the traitor from existence.
Like a wayward comet, Ace - muscles forged of adamantine loathing, reflexes honed on razors of vengeance - streaked into the heart of the Void.
"Ace!" the Other Luffy howled as he struggled to follow the Flame-fist's trail of destruction. Straw-hat Luffy was hard-pressed to hold his counterpart back, his rubber body straining as the raider leader fought tooth and nail.
"Stop it!" Monkey D. Luffy barked as he punched his twin in the face. "That ain't what Ace wants!"
"Den what da fuck does he want, dong-boy?" D. Luffy retorted with a snarl as he bit into his doppelganger's shoulder. "It's Ace 'n' he's gone ta fuck Teach up da ass wid a flaming foot! He needs me now!"
"You idiot!" the pirate captain snapped as he ripped the raider off his shoulder and threw a few strong knees in the other man's gut before kicking him back from the still-smoking hole in the barrier. "Ace is stronger than either of us! He'd just end up protecting our stupid asses from Blackbeard! We'll get him killed again if we interfere-!"
"Break it up!" Sabo roared as his signature lead pipe hit his younger brother in the solar plexus, flinging the rubbery teen into another quadrant of the remaining barrier. The vampire was in full fury now, his illusory skin more like a pale shroud over his luminescence, which painted the enhanced musculature over his skeletal frame in stark relief when compared to the darkness of the cavern. His teeth no longer vaguely resembled anything human - he had the fanged countenance of a hairless, incensed panther.
"If ya two fucknuts ain't noticed yet, dis shite's bigg'r than Ace!" Sabo continued, pointing to the commotion going on behind him as both Zoros went to their respective captain's aid. The negotiation table had been overturned and now laid on its side, charred in the back-draft of Ace's exit. A minor cave-in was still causing stones and pebbles to rain on the assembled crews. Sogeking and Sanji were crouched over the Namis while the Frankys and both Choppers were clearing stone rubble off of Traffie, who was cradled in dryad-Robin's arms and holding his ghoulish father's top hat. B. Bones, Robin, and the Duck were busy helping the very groggy Weird Sisters to sit up, while Usopp and Brook worked to stretch Death out without touching the dark Entity.
"We've got a bloody unconscious Death back 'ere with two head-sprained weird-women 'n' you two gob-smacked wank-offs are worried about a whoreson dragon-belching wannabe!" Sabo bit off as he tried to bring himself under control - not that he had much left after learning about both Aces' deaths and keeping his overly-brilliant son safe. "For fuck's sake, worry about yourselves a little more! Ace has mor'n'enuff malice and horsepower to get the job done!"
"More than enough to stay alive for the moment," Death groaned in correction as Brook and Usopp used their weapons to help the Entity to sit up. "Furthermore, that isn't just Ace in there - too much strength for one body. Fate, check your weaving for me."
"No need, I'd wager," Luck struck up, her care-free tone long gone as she shakily rose to her feet and shook out her dust-coated flame of hair. "Fry-boy left out and his twin's skin is gone. D'ya really wanna bet me that it's already been woven in?"
The expression of unbridled anger on D. Luffy's face almost literally melted away. Scrambling on hands and knees, he used his own brute strength to flip the table upright, regardless of who might or might not still be injured under the heavy, ancient furniture. Sifting through the rubble and dirt with his bare hands, the raider adamantly refused to believe that his sole memento of the person he knew as Ace - the love of his life! - had simply vanished. Hope only began to fade as Fate unraveled the scorched, bullet-riddled leather, inserted piecemeal into the weft of an incendiary orange bolt of whipcord.
"Even worse - since this isn't my work, I can't unravel it."the pale-haired woman muttered angrily as she carefully inspected the fabric of Ace's life. "And to top it all, it's got in bits and pieces of every other one of the incarnations. That Ace is now running around with the capabilities of every single version of him - or her - that ever existed! It's a violation of all Time and Nature, which means it can only be His or...His work"
"I'm sure you can take it up with our Papas later, sis," Luck muttered as she tried to sooth the distraught being, "But right now, we've got to patch back this barrier if we hope to survive any activation of the Void."
"Truly," Death intoned as he too took to his feet, swaying heavily. Turning to the Straw-hats and the Vault-suits, the macabre reaper addressed them in cold, clipped tones as he reached for his infamous scythe.
"We Entities are going to fix this barrier. You mortals will sit down and stay still until we are done. Ace is obviously under the protection of much more capable powers than my own. You, however, are not...not yet at any rate."
His mummified face was riddled through with ire and a trace of something very akin to panic flashed through his icy eyes. In spite of everything that had happened before, no-one was so addled as to cross the Great Leveler when he was obviously scared. Death's blatant fear forced even the Luffys to simmer quietly as the cavern was slowly shut out once more.
"Get back here, Teach!" Ace screeched as his passing caused another stalactite to explode into biting fragments of limestone. The hardened calcium could not even scratch his skin - the razor-sharp flakes merely bounced off of his hardened skin like bullets off of Luffy.
"Negh! Get out!" the young man known as Flame-fist screeched as he clutched his head between both fiery hands. The voices and beings and selfs were growing in number and volume - he could barely stand under the cacophony.
Kill that fucking traitor!
He took Papa! Papa!
Eat him! Consume him!
Ace howled and turned himself towards a gigantic, yet barely visible stalagmite. Rearing his head back, he slammed it into the stone pillar.
Ace could not tell you how long he stood there banging his head against that limestone, but by the time he had finished, it had been reduced to a blackened pile of rubble. However unfortunate the loss of that once-ancient rock formation, the result was worth its weight in gold.
The voices had dulled to a low murmur. Ace - "Fire-fist" Portgas D. Ace, second commander of the Whitebeard Pirates, son of Gol. D. Roger and Portgas D. Rouge - was back in control.
The silence and gloom of the cavern overwhelmed him almost immediately. His harsh breathing and racing heart slowed painfully as the darkness brought up a murmur of old loss.
Too much; it was too much like being inside of Teach...
It was horrible.
The voice in his head - one of the Aces-that-wasn't - made him aware of the fact that he had to have a plan. Before his fight with Teach, he'd been unaware of the full extent of the man's powers. Now that he had Pop's powers-
He ain't even the Teach you knew.
Well, yes. Even more reason to plan this assault this time.
"Wish we'd thought of that before running after the bastard," Ace whispered before snorting derisively, his brain almost wriggling with guilt. A myriad number of voices, all sounding a touch bashful, murmured lowly. The sensation was painful, making him hiss in agony. There were an almost inconceivable number of...himself? Herself? Was every one embodied in his hide now?
Some won but died in the running.
Pyrrhic victory, wat?
Dey dun got da freak 'n' dey dun gone on.
"So many of us is hard to handle," he managed to groan out loud, burdened heavily by the strange sensation of multiple lifetimes of memories. "One at a time, please, or my head may go up in smoke!"
The murmur rose again and Ace was suddenly very, very afraid that he would end up killing himself on another stalactite before he even got to knock out some of Teach's teeth. Endless voices buzzed inside his head like an overactive hornet's nest before a sudden curtain of silence descended on his mind and all became blissfully blank save for one question.
"How did Teach get the old man's powers?" Ace whispered to himself, ignoring the heart-wrenching hole in his chest that Whitebeard now occupied. As the voices tentatively responded one by one to the painful query, he banked his flames and listened intently.
Slowly, a spark grew from the worn ashes of their combined minds. It might have been a miniscule chink in Teach's armor, but it was all they had to work with.
More importantly, they needed their little brothers' help.
"Okay, let's go back to Luffy and the others right now- fuck!"
Ace's battle-hardened senses had his body moving before he even registered the attack. A large void retreated quickly, leaving a gaping absence in the rock formations.
"Zehahaha, Ace, you's still good! Gonna love havin' yer bitch-head on me belt."
Ace (and Ace and Ace and Ace ad nauseam) looked up as this version of Teach licked his lips eagerly. The humanoid creature was clearly close to seven feet tall and a good four feet wide. His unnaturally black and grey-splotched skin had cracked and blistered from far too much radiation exposure, looking almost like a beetle shell. The only hair present was on his chin - a stiff, spiky out-cropping more like whiskers than facial hair. The only color on the creature was the enormous blue denim jeans it wore, patched together from myriad jeans off of untold numbers of victims, and the gruesome belt of heads that secured the jeans to the gigantic waistline.
One of those heads belonged to Whitebeard.
"No," Ace croaked as wailing echoed through his mind, the flames of manic wrath gathering far too quickly for reason to withstand the onslaught. Around him, the limestone rocks began to char as the trans-dimensional fury manifested itself physically.
"No, it... Pops, but... but why...? Old man, why're you lettin' him...? The old man's... How dare you carry the old man's head? TEACH!"
Death cocked his head to a side as Fate stomped a foot and Luck shook her head angrily. Apparently the higher Two had determined only one way out, and the three of them were only messengers for Them
"It has been decided. You must lessen yourselves if you want the power to save him, to save yourselves, and you must do so on certain terms," Death intoned dryly as the back-draft of flames sheeted the shielded area once more.
Sabo and Traffie, the Straw-hats and the Vault-suits looked at one another quizzically, all save Brook. He muttered and seemed to be shaking off his lassitude, but Death frowned and the skeleton's struggles soon ceased.
'Only the young ones need answer right now, old friend. You're input is most certainly not welcome.'
Monkey D. Luffy didn't need long to puzzle it out. He was already up and walking to Death with his hands fisted tightly. D. Luffy was quickly in pursuit.
"I told you before, I'll give my life to save my brother," the Straw-hat captain snapped loudly, "but not for you to kill him right afterwards like last time!"
"Count me in s'well!" the Vault-suit leader barked, his breath coming in erratic pants. "Gonna do it right 'n' not be late!"
Death froze them in their tracks with a bony hand on each of their chests. His eye sockets darkened as he measured the remaining span of their lives.
"Not nearly enough. I couldn't even take ten years off of each of you and guarantee that you walk out of this cave, especially given how you fight. I need 30 years per person at least, or blood of blood, or sacred memories, or world-changing knowledge, or... Look, neither of you Luffys have enough to spare in any form."
All but the Luffys were stricken dumb by the pronouncement. Not even ten more years? That would have either version dead before the age of 30! Their captains had already lost so much life just getting halfway through their journeys! Most of it just to recruit them!
The howl of an unnatural vacuum shrieked around the enclosed space. Fate and Luck winced and the shield flickered noticeably.
"Listen, all I really need to know is that you others are willing to lessen yourselves in ways you may not even know yet for the power to help your leaders. Speak up, people, these are your dimensions at stake! I don't know or care how that Teach creature managed to siphon the power of a major Void-Walker but he needs to be stopped now!" Death barked loudly, his own cloak beginning to stream under the influence of the invisible power of the vacuum. A fiery scream echoed throughout the cavern, lighting the depths in waves of orange light before being followed by insane laughter.
"You guys," Luffy whimpered, his hat slipping over his eyes as he turned towards the closest crew member - always his first mate, always Zoro. The murderous haki started to coil around their ankles like ill-tempered hounds. His rubbery hands slapped and clawed at his ears as the laughter and shrieking began to reverberate wildly. Tears began streaming from his tightly-shut eyes.
"Please, guys, think of something...anything...before I... I... By the Line, I can't listen to him dying again!"
D. Luffy chose to ignore everything else. He broke his lieutenant's hold and began to sprint, his rubber legs pounding the ground violently before he bodily launched himself at the shield. Fate and Luck had to grit their teeth and throw their hands up in order to keep the shield stable.
"Lemme out! Lemme go! I's gonna save him, doan give a fuck about rules...Ace! Ace! Wait fer me! Doan leave me!"
"We will do it."
Death hissed as he felt Brook shake off his control with a sudden, powerful heave of spiritual energy that left the enclosure covered in otherworldly icicles.
"Brook, damn you, can't you hear to stay still?"
"You can't protect me from myself, Yorki, not at the expense of my crew!" Brook snapped back, unaware or uncaring of the unholy drop in the temperature. His skull had somehow managed a ferocious scowl over his eye sockets, which flickered a nauseatingly chill blue color.
"Damn you, Yorki, they brought me back to life even more than that cursed fruit! Without them, I'd have come back to you in...in ways that wouldn't have been good. Yorki, I was suicidal when they found me - I wasn't breaking away from the dreams, I wasn't able to tell you when or where I was... Not until they came to Thriller Bark. You saw me then, when you came for Zoro and Sanji."
At this, Sanji blinked, then turned to stare harshly at his skeletal crew-mate, his tongue deftly rolling the ever-present cigarette from one side of his mouth to the next. His blue eyes sparked with some emotion bordering fury, but Zoro had beat him to the punch.
"Fucking hell, Brook," Zoro snarled, his hands clenching Shuusui and Kitetsu so hard that the veins in his hand stood out in stark relief as he withdrew the swords from their scabbards suddenly, "Did you bargain with Death that time too?"
"Shitty skeleton, my life has always been mine to give, but especially when it's for Luffy! We aren't just a bunch of kids who don't know better!" Sanji barked, his legs twitching in his rage.
"The fuck is this, huh? Have you been trying to kill yourself on our watch?" Franky muttered angrily as he re-calibrated his arms with Robin's help. The historian could only chuckle darkly, shaking her head with a knowing grin.
"We did meet him after Enies Lobby, so it is entirely possible that he doesn't know what that means on this crew."
"Ah, that's true! But still, I thought he would figure it out by now," Chopper mused as he checked his stock of Rumble Balls.
"Now's not the time for this!" Usopp snapped as he adjusted the band on Kabuto and checked the ammunition in his shot purse.
"But that should be more than enough of an answer for you, Death," Nami concluded as she gave the Clima-tact a test swing before looking Death straight in the eye - she and the entire crew.
"You know any one of us would give up our life for Luffy. Hell, he gave us life. It's all we can do for him."
There was a sudden lull in the battle outside as every Straw-hat knowingly stared Death in the face, shoulders set. When he turned to the Vault-suits, there was nothing he could say to them. They too were all ready for battle, eyes feverish-bright as they held on to their only reason for living. The quiet intensified as Luffy's sobs slowly died down and D. Luffy tripped and fell, effectively stopping himself from ramming the barrier.
A rustling wind, filled with quiet weeping, the faint taste of salt, minute grains of crushed leaves, the smell of ancient secrets and the icy grip of winter filled the barrier as Death's hood slipped off.
Suddenly, it was only a very old, tired, dessicated sea captain from a dead kingdom standing in from of them. Yorki passed through their midst to stand in front of Brook, his hands fitfully reaching to grasp the skeleton's bony arms before remembering the taboo.
"Brook..." he began, his voice a dry, croaky whisper as ancient as parchments in a tomb. There was no longer the sound of omnipotence and sacred mysteries, just the timorous undercurrent of forsakeness. He raised one hand as if to savor the springy afro and Brook inched just that bit closer to him, his scowl fading.
"Brook," Yorki began again, his hand dropping as the taboo overwhelmed his desire, "Are you sure? You know what you will be asked for and I can't get away with suspending you this time. You'll never ever be free again, you understand that? I would want you free, not chained to me."
It was not "Dead Bones" Brook that answered, but the ghoul, Brook Bones, who had come to stand behind Yorki - for he was once his captain as well.
"Capitan, I probably should not speak for this fellow but I...I feel that if it was you in Luffy's place right now, he...me?...todo lo mismo We'd do the same thing; offer the same thing."
Yorki's head turned sharply to regard the ghoul, eyes opening slowly in wonder.
"You too?" he croaked lowly, disbelief and poorly concealed, desperation-laced hope lingering in his words.
Yorki shuddered violently, a slow shiver that began at his fingertips and soon began a full-body fit of shaking. Somehow, he managed not to fall under the powerful convulsion, but the shield flickered disturbingly for a few seconds. Yorki could only shake his head as the fit left him, a lone tear sliding from his left eye. Raising his hands futilely once more towards the skeleton and the ghoul, he sighed greatly and moved to shrug the abysmal cloak over his form.
Death returned immediately. There were no more tears.
"You've spoken your promises. You can't complain when the price is quoted afterwards; bitch to the Big Guys instead and good luck with that."
Fate and Luck sighed and again the rustling wind filled the cavern. The floor began to shake as the cracks in the barrier became easily visible.
"Thanks, guys. I can always count on you," Luffy croaked as the barrier peeled back and shriveled away like burning parchment. He slipped his hat back on his head and wiped a grimy hand on his vest, which was already damp with tears and mucus. The fire in his eyes was steady despite the drying salt under them and the power of his hope almost overwhelmed the jolt of strength that slammed through their veins.
He grinned broadly, brightly, the smile stretching farther than it ever had a right to. Eight other grins and one Skeleton Joke were his response.
"Oi, Death, what about me?" Sabo hissed as he kept his eyes on the cavern far ahead where Ace had disappeared. "I'm in on this deal as too, aren't I? Just bill me after I make sure my Traffie gets out of here; after my kids are good and grown!"
"But Baso-papa-!" Trafalgar began, speaking for the first time since the negotiations had been overturned.
"Baso-papa, my ass!" Sabo snapped, all of his jagged teeth on display as he rounded on the boy. "Yer the smartest of the lot 'n' you ain't really needed me since you could hold yer bladder. Y'all gonna be fine without me. Y'all gonna be...be safer, too. Let Une live in peace from them damn Brotherhood."
The boy glowered under his ratty cap, but said no more. Sabo's gaze turn melancholic, but Traffie chose to break their connection by snarling and turning his head, attempting to choke down his sniffles by stuffing his fists in his mouth. Sabo roughly reached out for the boy and dragged him into an awkward embrace.
"My name's Sabo, Traffie, and I loved you gits like you were my own."
For a minute, Traffie relaxed and shuddered helplessly. Then, in a frenzied burst of energy, he twisted recklessly in Sabo's undead arms.
"Lemme go, fuckin' wanker! Lemme go! Go 'n' fuckin' die fer all I care! Fuck you and Ace and all of you!"
The boy wrenched his head to a side and snapped quickly, like a crazed dog. Sabo howled as small, human teeth bit into his arm, but only released Traffie when he was back on his feet. The boy whirled away as soon as the ghoul's grip loosened, ending up in front of Death.
"Fuck you most of all, Death!" he cried shrilly, streams of tears running down his cheek. "Fuck you fer takin' e'eryone I love, fer killin' all my legends 'n' all my people. Don't think I'll let you win if I see you again. I won't let you win!"
With that, Traffie took one last, teary-eyed look at everyone assembled - the Vault-suits, heroes of the Wastes; the Straw-hats of the mythical ocean world and his dear, undead father, Sabo - then took off out of a crack in the barrier, turning to blindly scramble back along the way that the Vault-suits had run in from.
"Best not to overwhelm him like that, really." Luck chided as her control over the enclosure continued to ebb, gently ignoring the vampire's tears as he set his ragged top hat back on his head and picked up his trusty length of iron piping.
"Death and Trafalgar already feud on so many other planes" she murmured, her fiery hair shaking back and forth as she turned a pensive eye on disintegrating shield. "So really, I guess what's one more? Anyway, Sabo-san, you've been a clever bugger to slip out from under ol' Sourpuss before, so Fate and I will take you instead, if They let it be. Sounds good, sis?"
Fate nodded mutely before closing her eyes and furrowing her brow. A large sheet of glowingly-white parchment appeared in the middle of the crews; they watched dourly as their names wrote themselves on the document in gilded letters.
"Word is bond," she intoned ritualistically as the writing ended. "Now get to it."
"Hold for one moment, please," the dryad asked in a stern voice, her twigs and leaves creaking they rubbed together in agitation. "We have yet to determine what powers we have received. We are going into this fight without time to understand what we can do."
Fate sighed loudly and began rubbing her temples.
"I'll answer this one. Haven't you ever felt as if something was holding back your full potential?"
There was quiet grumbling and nods of assent. Yes, they had often felt as if some force was restraining them, only allowing them to tap into some vast reservoir of ability and raw power in their core when Death hovered over them.
"The brakes are off, for now. You can figure it out as you go, like you always do." she added nonchalantly as her figure grew hazy and indistinct. "We are being recalled now. If you see us again and the Void Walker - Teach, was it? - well if he's still alive and you see any of us, you can pretty much guarantee that Death's already got his clutches on you."
"What about the dimensions?" the gnoll asked suddenly, head cocked to one side. "I mean, how will we know if the choice has been made? Isn't that why you even brought out the Void-eating bitch?"
"You won't know if your dimension is lost because you won't even be - not a memory or a dream, not anything. The slate will be cleaned from everyone," Death intoned formally as he reacquainted himself with his scythe, now unnaturally warm in his fading hands after stamping out a scant trail of Ace's residual flames.
"Darlings," Luck cooed as her translucent hand ruffled the black hair on both Luffys mischievously, "Roll sevens for us all, okay?"
Without another word or sound, the entities simply turned and vanished. The pall of darkness grew oppressive in the tunnel and all light simple ceased to exist for some time.
"Lucky bastards," Sabo jeered as the light returned to their eyes. He had sprinted ahead of them all, his leer promising destruction as he glowed brightly, even though his cheeks were still wet with his own tears. "Bring those crews of yours and come on before fire-for-brains gets himself stomped out!"
Luffy turned back around as his dimensional doppelganger strode up to him and stared at him. There were emotions both familiar and foreign wracking D. Luffy, but only his counterpart would have understood this from the bland look on his face. Their eyes spoke to each other about something dreadfully important in a type of semaphore that only the captains could understand, before both young men broke out in slightly crazed smiles.
They silently knocked fists and followed after the vampire, laughter bubbling up in their throats at some unspoken joke.
"Two of them! Can't even survive the one we have now," someone muttered as they all took off. They never really figured out who it was, or even if it was just a shared thought of the group, but the truth of the statement was irrefutable.
And they were bringing the Hell to prove it.