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DISCLAIMER: The world and characters of One Piece were created and are owned by Eiichiro Oda, exceedingly brilliant cartoonist. They are used here without permission. This fic is intended for entertainment purposes only and is not to be used for profit in any way.

 

Absence, Chapter 1: Survivors

*

One b one and step by step, the survivors dragged themselves on board the ship. All but the captain were conscious, now. They didn't want to talk to each other, didn't want to say and hear words that confirmed the truth out loud. But they forced themselves to, even so: pale, shaking, nauseous and bleeding as they were, they made the barest of words stumble out. They all – all seven of them - felt like failures; like a being that had been whole but was now broken, crippled, depleted.

Limping and pale, unable to stop trembling, Nami coughed out that they needed to get away from the island, this place of death where the enemy had lured them, hoping to trap and capture or do away with all of them. Granted, they would have gone there anyway since that happened to be where the log pose was pointing, but they might not have rushed in so eagerly, let down their guard that much…

They’d dealt with most of the enemies, but there were still some strong ones left, bent on revenge; and the crew was wounded, heavily outnumbered and deathly tired. None of them objected to Nami’s words. Aching and bandaged, with several bones broken, they still managed to make their limbs do their part, hauling anchor, raising the sails, filling up the engine with cola… But they worked slowly, terribly slowly and somehow not caring at all, their faces gray and empty, everything too stunned and still inside them.

They shouldn’t have been so stupid, shouldn’t have sailed into that trap, should have realised what was going on sooner, shouldn’t have allowed themselves to be split up, should have finished their respective opponents sooner; they should have known instinctively where to run, who to follow, who to fight, they should have, should have, should have…

They had all learned in their lives that it was fruitless to be stuck in the past, blaming yourself for what couldn’t be changed. They all knew the best way to honour those who had sacrificed for them was to keep going forward. But that old, dearly-bought knowledge seemed meaningless to them right now.

Eventually, their captain woke up. Chopper announced this in a tired, toneless voice, and they all shuffled over to where he was, some with a great growing fear inside them, others still too numb to feel much at all.

He might already have seen and understood it back when it happened, before collapsing in an unconscious heap once the great Seaking was slain. Nami said she thought as much, but also that she wasn’t sure. They might need to say it again. That was… bad, because somehow it felt that saying it out loud once more would make it even more real. It was a childish way of thinking, but they didn’t care.

In any case, some of them were lucid enough to realise that even if he knew already that might not make things any easier.

Luffy was lying sprawled on lawn deck, all bandaged up, squinting in the daylight as he looked up at them. His gaze went from one to the other, then to the grass underneath him, his mouth forming words silently. Their names, perhaps?

“We got fooled, didn’t we?” he whispered in a hoarse, cracked voice. “Those guys set us up. That guy in the rowboat” – Luffy meant the one they’d picked up miles from here, who’d seemed so grateful and who’d told them such interesting things about the island, like poneglyphs and wondrous medicinal herbs – “he wasn’t really…”

“He was lying, likely” said Zoro harshly, “planted by the Marines to lure us in." It wasn't absolutely certain, but given that the guy had vanished at the first sight of problem, Zoro rather assumed as much, especially since they'd been ambushed. Zoro was in no mood to give people like that the benefit of doubt.

“And…” Luffy’s eyes sought Robin out, holding her gaze, which was as bleak and dark as the others’. “…Robin, you… did you get to read the poneglyphs?” His voice was still just a dry whisper.

She had to look down, shaking her head slowly, swallowing. “No,” she murmured. “They were there, but… I didn’t get the chance to.” There really were poneglyphs on that island; Robin had seen them, on a stone placed high in the centre of the land. Now that she thought about it, it had been remarkably conspicuous. Normally the forces of the World Government would try their best to hide any poneglyphs they found, since the stone itself was too hard to be destroyed - but this one, they'd left standing out in the open. At a highly conspicuous place, no less.

The enemy had made its first charge right then, driving her and the other Strawhats back. Once they'd realised the island was a trap, full of suicide-mission Marines on land and surrounded by a particularly ferocious type of sea monsters, who seemed to somehow be under Marine control… once that was clear, it had felt important to all of them that at least Robin should get to see and read the poneglyphs, so that the adventure wouldn’t be a complete failure.

What a stupid, reckless, arrogant, young way of thinking, Robin reflected now. They had all agreed to it at the time, though she had objected a bit in the name of common sense. But much too weakly. She at least should have known better, should have refused it, have persuaded them to do otherwise. If they had retreated right away instead, then… then all might still have been well.

And yet she knew that Luffy simply would not have listened to her, no matter how loudly or how eloquently she might have argued. He knew it was her dream they were talking about, and there was no way he wouldn’t have let her pursue that. After all, this was the man who’d blithely incurred the wrath of the World Nobles simply by encouraging a young mermaid to follow her lifelong dream of riding a Ferris wheel.

“I see…” said Luffy now slowly, his gaze growing distant, looking at something none of them could see. They all held their gaze fixed at him, forgetting to breathe. He hadn’t asked about the missing one. Surely by now he must have noticed…? Or he knew already, as Nami suspected.

Then Luffy looked back up at them all, eyes bright and smile wide.

“Well, they sure fooled us, but at least we’re all here! So we’ll get them next time! As long as everyone’s okay, it’s fine! Right?!”

“But we’re not!” Chopper burst out, eyes wide with shock, tears welling up. “Luffy – how can you – we’re not – he’s not -”

“Luffy – don’t you – can’t you remember –” Nami began at the same time, her voice going high and shrill, but stopped when Sanji bent down to put a hand on Chopper’s shoulder, and Brook said in a low voice, “Not now.”

“He needs time,” the skeleton added when the others turned to look at him. “We’ll talk to him… but later.”

Luffy lay still on the lawn, still looking serene and sunny, as if he hadn’t noticed a thing. “I’m gonna sleep now,” he announced. Moments later, he did. Chopper swallowed repeatedly, trying to blink back the stream of tears; then managed to control himself enough to sit down next to Luffy in order to check that he was indeed on the mend. In body, at least.

Later, Brook would often wonder if he’d said the entirely wrong thing

 

***

Luffy couldn’t see why everyone was still looking all sad and gloomy now. So they’d been stupid and had fallen for an enemy trick, but so what? That was in the past. Now they just had to follow the log pose to a new island and keep the flag flying, as they always had.

And that was odd, too, with the flag. Once he got well enough to run around the ship again, he saw it hanging halfway down the mast now. It didn’t look right that way at all, so he climbed up and put it back on top where it should be. That was where it wanted to be, after all. What other place could there be for a pirate flag?

When he’d jumped down Nami had stood there, staring at him with that weird look that looked both sad and angry and which had even started to annoy Luffy a bit. It wasn’t as if he was doing anything wrong, he was just putting things back where they were supposed to be. But maybe there was some Mystery Gloom Sickness going around? He shrugged and decided it was better to just ignore it, sidling past Nami to go somewhere else.

The next day he looked up at it the flag was back halfway down the mast again. It was still wrong. Luffy frowned but left it be this time around. Sometimes you had to humour your crew.

But he really couldn’t understand it. They were all here after all, all eight of them! He, Zoro, Nami, Sanji, Chopper, Robin, Franky and Brook! And Sunny, too! Wasn’t that what was really important, after all? That they were alive and well and kept going after their dreams together? Sure, it felt better winning battles against your enemies, but that still shouldn’t count for so much! They were all being weird.

Well, that just meant it was up to him to keep things as they should be. Even Chopper was way too serious these days, sometimes bursting out in tears for no good reason at all. All the more reason for Luffy to keep after him, Brook or whoever else wanted to fish or play games or sing or dance with him! It was for their own good, after all. And often they did start to smile or laugh eventually, so that proved he was doing the right thing!

Granted, maybe those smiles didn’t always look quite right and the laughs could sound a bit weak, but maybe people were just out of practice. It would get better! Brook would often be stupid and start playing sad songs that Luffy didn’t like to listen to, and he wouldn’t play “Binks’ Booze” at all, no matter what. But eventually, if Luffy nagged him enough, he might play something faster and happier-sounding, something you could dance too.

But the sad songs, there was something wrong with them, something Luffy hadn’t noticed before. They were like claws grasping after you, tearing into you. Brook wasn’t doing it right any more. Still, when Luffy shouted at him, the songs would either change or he’d stop playing. That was better at least.

Sometimes the others would even start saying words to him that didn’t make sense, as if they thought Luffy could speak all the languages in the world or something. Normally maybe Luffy would have asked about strange words he didn’t know, but this just sounded like gibberish and he didn’t feel like trying. Besides, he couldn’t even recall them. They just slid right through his head without sticking to anything. So Luffy would just ignore that stuff since it couldn’t have anything to do with him. He’d go look for something else to do instead.

“It’s all right, it’s all right,” Luffy would mumble to himself at times, almost without quite hearing what he was saying. “I’ll be King of the Pirates, it’s all right…” He didn’t know why that would feel necessary to say since he already knew it. But somehow saying the words felt better. “It’s all right,” he’d whisper, “it will be all right, I’ll be a good captain…”

***

It was Nami who had been the one closest to them when it happened, not all that much behind. And since Luffy was in no state to tell them about it later, it was Nami the others had had to turn to, one after the other, as they had tried to puzzle it out. Too many times, she’d had to take deep breaths and force herself to retell what she'd seen. She managed to control herself and not snap that she really didn’t want to recall all that again; that she felt as if the others were accusing her. She knew that was wrong, and she knew it was her duty to her crew to let them know, so she always got past her reluctance and told the story one more time. At times it would all sound unreal to her ears.

They’d taken different routes when they’d split up for the intense fighting with the Marines on the island, who were all much harder, tougher and more ruthless than normal Marines. Apparently, if their commander were to be believed, these troops were all part of a punishment battalion and would have faced Impel Down or execution but for accepting this mission. Some of the enlisted men even wore explosive collars, similar to the ones the World Nobles used for their slaves.

Nami had fought a fierce battle of her own, facing a creepy squad of pale, thin, disturbingly similar Marines who kept quietly chuckling as they launched their clever combination attacks at her. They hadn’t been as strong nor as fast as some opponents she’d defeated in the past, but they’d been vicious, surprisingly tough and very well-coordinated, before she managed to lure them into a weather trap which took out the lot of them.

It was by then that Nami had seen Luffy and Usopp run into a mountain tunnel leading away from the Marines. She’d followed, calling out to them. They had shouted back enough to let her realise they thought Thousand Sunny might be under attack, and that this tunnel was the quickest way to get there and stop it.

By then, Luffy had already defeated the Marine in charge, but not before that self-righteous, boasting bastard had used his power to summon the greatest Seaking Nami had ever seen, itself the leader of all the other gigantic sea monsters that had converged around the island. And when Luffy and Usopp had last seen that enormous creature, its head had turned in the direction where Sunny was.

In her dreams now, Nami would constantly find herself back in that seemingly endless mountain tunnel, lit by torches and lanterns as far as she could see ahead of her. Holding her ClimaTact ready, she was trying to force herself to run faster, faster, faster… In truth the passage hadn’t been all that long, but in dreams or reality the result was the same. She was always too late to change the outcome, too late even to see the fatal blow.

Running as fast as she could towards the open doorway, Nami had heard the sounds of fighting, of crashing impacts, of explosions, of shouts and great splashes, of the strange, alien, whining-snarling sound from the King of Seakings as it struggled. She’d heard familiar attack names from Luffy and Usopp both, and had tried to ready herself to join them in the fight. She prepared an attack as she ran, keeping in mind that she’d emerge high up the mountain, if this tunnel led where she thought. Then just before she reached the entrance she’d heard a sickening, tearing sound.

These sea monsters weren’t just particularly large – they were different from all others she’d seen. They weren’t octopuses or giant squids but they had some kind of weird limbs that were long as tentacles, along with more usual fins. Only, they weren’t soft and wriggly… they were sharp. Real sharp, like blades, or spears; or like enormous single-digit claws. Earlier, Nami had seen one of them accidentally slaying one of the nearby Marines by cutting his body entirely in half, with just one careless blow.

Now, she kept wondering if she was recalling the moment correctly or if that earlier shocking memory of the unlucky Marine had made her mind alter what she really saw. But she couldn’t stop seeing that image of a monstrous, bloody spear-like limb, waving as if in triumph over a body cut entirely in half before it started to fall down... And near it, flailing wildly in wide arcs, was a lengthened rubber arm that had been trying to catch hold of his sniper before it was too late.

She’d screamed – whether it was wordlessly or Usopp’s name she didn’t even know, but she did remember Luffy turning towards her, and then she’d seen his eyes were full of blood running down from wounds in his head. The King of Seakings must have been right outside the opening, maybe waiting for them to arrive so it could land the first blows. Luffy would probably have fought blindly most of that short time, as he still was.

All this was things she’d realised later, making sense of what she’d seen. Right then she’d only had time to register Luffy screaming too, then her gaze had been drawn down to the body of her crewmate, falling down, down towards the distant shore below them. Except later she couldn’t remember the… the body still being in two pieces then, just one. So maybe that first terrible image was wrong after all. Or maybe it was the second memory that was wrong, her mind trying frantically to protect her from what was too late to deny.

Luffy had moved, managing to wipe away blood from one of his eyes, and Nami would swear later that his gaze had gone where hers did, following that frail human body going down, either torn in half, as Nami’s first memory said, or run through and mortally wounded, as her second memory thought. He’d screamed once more, trying to reach Usopp, but the sea monster had struck again, slamming Luffy’s body into the mountain at the same time that one spear-fin reached for her. She dodged it and then unloaded a Thunder Lance Tempo into the creature, but it had been enough to make Luffy realise it was too late.

Or so she had thought, at the time. She’d been afraid to look at his face, but the way she remembered it, the King of Seakings hadn’t lasted very long after that.

- end of Chapter 1 -