Chapter 1: Romance Dawn
It was a great day to set sail.
Roger grinned as he watched the boy take out the Lord of the Coast with a well-aimed rubbery right hook.
Fate was a funny thing, he'd realised over the years he'd spent observing the world as a spectator. When he had made the decision to entrust his unborn child to Garp's care, he'd never imagined that Ace would grow to develop such a strong bond with Garp's young grandson, much less that said grandson would end up being a pirate with aspirations towards Roger's own legacy.
Roger remembered with clarity the day that Garp had appeared at the bandit's hideout with his small grandson in tow. That in itself wasn't too notable, though Roger had noted the boy's fast friendship with Shanks during some of his short visits down to Windmill Village. No, it was the straw hat that the boy clutched protectively to his head, one that was unmistakably his, that immediately caught his attention. Roger had straight burst out laughing on the spot, and his laughter was only egged on by Luffy's loud proclamation that he was going to become the Pirate King, because wasn't that a delightful piece of irony?
Finding out later that Shanks had lost an arm was a bit of a shock, but it soon became clear that the boy was no less lively for it. His former apprentice had found good crewmates as well, who would loyally guard his back with their lives, and Roger knew that he could leave Shanks in their hands.
In more recent years Ace had found a place to belong as well, with Newgate of all people. Roger had been amused and Rouge concerned when Ace first started challenging his old rival, but Roger had been quick to reassure her that Newgate was showing all the signs of having taken a liking to Ace and no deliberate harm would befall their boy aboard the Whitebeards' ship. His words rang true when several months later, Ace officially took on Whitebeard's mark. This brought a bittersweet pang to their hearts, grateful to the Whitebeards for giving their son a family, regretful that they hadn't been able to give it to him themselves.
Normally Roger would have been right by Rouge's side in watching over their son on the decks of the Moby Dick, but today was special. Roger had wanted to be here to witness as the boy who had inherited his straw hat finally set sail.
And so far, the boy wasn't disappointing him one bit.
As he swayed on top of the barrel that Luffy was currently hiding in, the two of them bobbing away without any clear direction across the ocean after escaping from a giant whirlpool with what could only be described as pure blind luck, Roger laughed heartily.
This boy would make a fine Pirate King indeed.
Chapter 2: Promise of a Swordsman
Roger returned to Luffy's side a couple of days later for a quick check-in to find that the boy had somehow acquired a new dinghy and two new members to his crew in the time that he'd been gone. Or to be exact, one crewmember and one unseen tagalong.
He instinctually felt a pang at how young the girl was, knowing that spirits generally appeared the same age as they had died, but her eyes were firm and strong in a way that told him no pity would be appreciated. He could respect that. She had a wooden bokken strapped to her side and Roger had a feeling that the modest training weapon would prove itself in her hands no less than a real sword.
But now she merely glanced up at Roger's appearance from where she sat casually next to the green-haired swordsman.
"They're lost," she informed him succinctly in lieu of a greeting, her tone of mixed amusement and bone-deep exasperation telling him that she had extensive past experience with being in exactly such a situation.
Roger's grin only widened at this information. He'd just been back for less than a minute and things were getting interesting already. As if on cue, Luffy took that very moment to catapult himself up into the air, three pairs of eyes following his movement through the air with varying levels of incredulity, and Roger burst out laughing as Luffy immediately got snapped up by the very same bird he had tried to catch.
Across from him, Kuina raised an eyebrow as she watched Zoro snatch up the oars to row frantically after the runaway bird and rubber boy.
"Is Zoro really going to be alright with this captain?"
Roger just laughed harder.
Chapter 3: Orange and Mikan
Of all the things Roger thought Luffy might get into when he flew off with that giant bird, ending up locked in a cage by Buggy was not one of them. Add to that a potential new crew member, in the form of a pirate-hating navigator no less, and it had all the makings of a splendid disaster. Then Zoro had shown up with Kuina in tow and the whole situation erupted into perfect, unadulterated chaos.
In short, Roger was having the absolute time of his life and Kuina was clearly starting to suspect that he was clinically insane.
On a more serious note though, this Zoro kid had since gained Roger's firm approval as a first mate worthy for a future Pirate King. Roger was perhaps a little biased, but a swordsman as a first mate had already been a good sign in his book and the past few minutes had only proven that. Those three swords of his were clearly not just for show, though he clearly still had a long way to go with training before they would be anywhere near ready to take on the New World. More importantly, he had stood by his captain through the whole fiasco, taking lengths to not leave his captain behind even at personal risk after the injury he had taken.
He had to give it to the kid, Luffy knew how to choose his crew members.
"That boy going to be alright? Looks like he's lost a good bit of blood."
Roger glanced over at the source of the voice to see an old man sitting on the raised wooden porch of the pet food store, beard and hair grey under his simple wool cap.
Kuina looked up from where she was crouched down next to Zoro, the teen having finally collapsed from exhaustion half the town away from Buggy's base. The way she didn't look overly concerned despite this spoke volumes of the swordsman's resilience. "He'll be fine." Her lips turned up in a small smile as she looked back down at her old friend. "Something like this isn't going to take him down. He's going to become the World's Greatest Swordsman, after all." There was a gentle yet sure conviction that translated into her voice as she said this. Roger approved.
"A fine ambition for the first mate of the future Pirate King."
"And you'd know all about that, won't you, Gold Roger," a new voice added in an amused drawl.
Roger's grin widened in pure glee as he turned, delighted at the immediate recognition. He'd begun to wonder if he was losing his touch. "It's Gol D Roger, but yes, I would."
The newcomer, a red-haired woman dressed in simple farm clothes and with a heavy-duty rifle slung over her back, grinned around her cigarette. "You're lucky I haven't been on active duty for years, I'd have loved to take you down and turn you in, Pirate King."
A Marine, then. That was even more fun.
"The name's Bell-mère. I'm assuming you're with that crazy kid over there," the Marine said, nodding towards Luffy as he spoke to the town mayor. "He tried to recruit my Nami earlier, thought I'd come scope out the company."
A Marine on a pirate ship? It just got better and better.
A deafening roar interrupted them then, cutting off any further exchanges. The old man on the porch stood up, face turning grim. "That's Mohji the Beast Tamer. Your kids better get out of here soon, he's bad business."
"Oi, your kid's gonna be alright?" Bell-mère nodded at where Luffy still sat stuck in his iron cage as the lion stalked down the street.
Roger just grinned, not at all worried. "Nah, boy's tough."
Even though Roger knew that Luffy would be fine even after the beast's attack sent him flying, it didn't stop Mohji from setting fire to the Pet Food Shop. They stood by Hocker as the store burnt down, tears leaking from the old man's eyes, partly for the destruction of his legacy but more for his beloved pet's sorrow.
"Goddamn pirates," Bell-mère muttered, mouth twisted with distaste.
Their attention was drawn suddenly towards an approaching figure. They watched with varying levels of surprise as Luffy sat down solemnly next to Chouchou, setting down a last crumpled box of dog food.
Roger's grin widened at the sight. Shanks really had chosen well back then.
Hocker rubbed his eyes, finally smiling through his tears as Chouchou barked happily. "That boy's a good kid. Crazy, but a good kid. I owe him one."
Standing next to Roger, Bell-mère looked thoughtful as she considered the young captain with serious dark eyes.
Later that evening, Bell-mère dropped down to sit next to where Luffy was splayed out dozing on the floor of the dinghy as they sailed away from Orange Town. The thin stream of smoke from her cigarette curled lazily into the air as she stared out at the wide expanse of sunset-tinged sea.
"You're a crazy one, I'll give you that, kid. And maybe crazy is what is needed here. Hey kid, do you think you could save my Nami? I may not be a big fan of pirates, but if you can do that… I'll put my trust in you too." She blew out a cloud of smoke, smile tinged with hope for the first time in eight years. "Captain."
Chapter 4: Wado Ichimonji
Kuina crouched at the top of the oil-covered slope, watching Zoro try futilely to run up it for tenth time that past minute. He barely made it halfway up before he inevitably he slid right down to the bottom again. Sighing, she propped her chin up in one hand, prepared for a long wait.
"Idiot…" she muttered, but there was fondness underlying her tone and eventually a smile quirked irrepressibly at the corner of her lips.
A light tinkling giggle, sharp like the chime of a silver bell, drew her attention to the girl who had materialised next to her, dressed in a pure white kimono embroidered with a soaring ivory crane. Her smile blossomed wider in greeting at the familiar personified form of Wado Ichimonji, who tilted her head to mirror the smile.
As swordsmen training in her father's dojo, one of the first things they had been taught was to respect their swords, to view them as partners and not tools. Swords have hearts, her father would tell them, the whole class listening enraptured as he wove the lesson into a tale. They may not live and breathe as humans do, but they have souls all the same.
Of course, it was only after Kuina had become a spirit herself that she became able to actually see those sword spirits in their personified appearance. Swords with long histories like Wado Ichimonji, family heirlooms wielded by countless successive generations, tended to have humanlike forms. They also tended to some extent to resemble their wielders, blending together features from past and present. When Kuina had first met Wado, not long after she had died, the sword spirit had rather closely resembled Kuina herself, with shoulder-length dark hair and the appearance of a young girl. This apparent age and build had for most part stayed unchanged even as the years went by, but Kuina had noted with a fair bit of amusement that Wado's hair now tended more towards a dark shade of green rather than Kuina's own blue-black.
Zoro's two other swords, on the other hand, had no solid appearance, more aura than spirit. Still Kuina thought that she could see them gradually taking on form. Perhaps one day they too would hold a human-like form like Wado, fuelled by the firm heart of the swordsman Zoro had grown to become.
Zoro finally, finally got to the top of the slope, heaving with exertion as he looked around before setting off in a seemingly random direction. Kuina caught him as he rushed past, swinging herself effortlessly onto his shoulder while Wado did the same on his other side.
"You're going the wrong way!" she yelled in his ear, but of course he didn't hear her. She sighed. Chime-like laughter carried on the wind with Wado's delight, and a smile shone through on Kuina's face even as she sighed and traded a half-exasperated glance with Wado.
He was an idiot, but well… He was their idiot.
Chapter 5: A Straw Hat's Legacy
Bell-mère watched as Syrup Village faded away into the horizon, once again leaving endless blue sea all around them. Overhead, the Going Merry's sails billowed in the sharp breeze, sending them full speed ahead to wherever their next destination may be.
She grinned, stretching her arms out lazily above her head before she continued to explore their new ship like the others were doing. Between three living crew members and two regular ghostly ones, the two dinghies they'd been sailing in for the past week or so had been getting a little cramped for space. It was only thanks to the fact that Roger spent most of his time away, presumably watching over someone else, that had stopped them short of tripping over (or walking through) each other every waking moment. That wouldn't be a problem anymore though now that they had the Merry, not even with the new members on board nor if Roger decided to show up again.
"Ooh, this is a nice ship they've got here."
And speak of the devil.
She turned to find the former Pirate King looking around the sheep-figurehead caravel with bright interest. Sensing her regard, he glanced over at her with a wide grin. "Can't match up to my Oro Jackson, of course, but a fine ship nevertheless."
Her lips curled in a responding smirk. "So you're back, Roger."
"You aren't getting rid of me quite yet," he returned without a single falter to his grin. "So I see that we've gotten a new kid?"
Bell-mère pulled away her cigarette from her mouth to blow out a stream of smoke. "A new companion as well. I suppose we'll have to introduce you to her. Try not to scare her off."
Roger mock-pouted at that. "I'll have you know I'm always on my best behaviour."
Bell-mère raised an eyebrow at the childish expression from the most infamous pirate of all time. "Now that's even less reassuring," she commented drily.
Roger threw his head back laughing, the sound echoing across the ship so clearly it was a wonder the living still couldn't hear him. Someone else did, though.
"Oh my, Roger-san?"
The new voice made them both turn to look at the dark-haired woman emerging from the cabin area.
Roger smiled broadly in greeting. "Banchina!"
Bell-mère looked between them, eyebrows arching. "What, so you two already know each other?"
Banchina smiled, coming up to stand by them. "I did mention that my husband is a pirate, didn't I? Well his captain used to be Roger-san's apprentice. I've met Roger-san every now and then on Shanks-san's ship."
Bell-mère looked amused at the information. "The dad's sailing with the Pirate King's apprentice, and now the son's following a crazy kid who wants to be the next Pirate King. Quite the set we have here."
Roger's eyes lit up. "So the new kid on board really is the son Yasopp always jabbers on about?"
Banchina beamed as she nodded, her love for her family clear in her face. "Our son, Usopp. Honestly, that boy's just like his father. The sea calls to him."
The old Pirate King grinned. "Sounds like a fine young man."
A rustle of movement nearby prompted them to glance over to see Kuina landing nimbly back on deck, intangible form allowing her to jump from the crow's nest down to the upper deck with none of the impact a physical body would have made. "It seems like they're deciding on the symbol for their pirate flag," she informed them, eyes twinkling.
Trading amused looks, they gathered at the railing that bordered the upper deck to peer down at the centre deck where the Straw Hats had gathered. They found the teens all crowded around Usopp as they watched him draw out a jolly roger that was gradually taking shape on a large piece of black cloth. Around them, pots of paint in various colours were scattered around, along with what was clearly a reject pile of flags. The topmost one was… unique, so say the least.
But it was the end product that made all of them grin widely, because it was just so fitting. Roger laughed aloud at the sight of the straw hat sitting proudly atop the jolly roger's skull and crossbones. Who would have known that his trusty old hat would come this far?
Bell-mère chuckled, leaning against the railing as they watched the Straw Hats cheerfully scramble around so that Usopp could paint the symbol on the Merry's main sail as well. "The Straw Hat Pirates, huh?" Her lips quirked as she exchanged bright looks with the others, their delight clear as well. "Doesn't have a half-bad ring to it."
Chapter 6: The Baratie
"Welcome to the Baratie! Table for three?"
Bell-mère, Banchina and Kuina had to pause for a moment before confirming that yes, that warm greeting had in fact been directed straight at them. Roger had left again soon after the Straw Hats had run into the bounty hunter duo Johnny and Yosaku, as usual not staying for long beyond his customary short visit. That left just the three of them on board the Going Merry when its crew disembarked at the Baratie.
The pretty blond lady who had addressed them was dressed in a neat waitress ensemble of a light blue button-up shirt, black vest and black pencil skirt, shoulder-length hair curling loosely over her collar. She smiled as she waited expectantly for their reply. They traded another set of bemused looks with each other before nodding.
The waitress clapped her hands together happily despite their hesitant response, tone unfailingly bright.
"Wonderful! My name is Sora, and I'll be serving you today. I'm afraid we're at a busy time so we won't be able to give you a separate table, but I hope you won't mind if we put you together with your companions?"
Glancing over towards the table in question, they found a man in waiters' shirt-coats already at work efficiently conjuring up chairs to place in-between the seats already taken by the Straw Hats, followed by full sets of cutlery and glassware to match. Once he was done, he turned back to them and bowed with a flourish, pulling out the chairs for them to sit.
The whole experience was quite unlike anything they'd experienced before since their deaths. Normally spirits kept interactions to a polite minimum when encountered in passing, nothing like this warm hospitality. Still confused, they took the offered seats, and were quickly presented with handwritten menus by the cheerful waitress.
"These are our specials for today, but feel free to request anything else if there's anything you would especially like to eat."
Their questions must have clearly shown on their faces. Sora's eyes twinkled warmly. "It's our policy at the Baratie to serve all and everyone who passes through our doors. And while it's true that us spirits don't actually need food to survive anymore, why should that stop us from enjoying the taste?"
"And you don't even have to worry about getting fat!" another waiter added laughingly as he passed balancing large plates of food which all smelled downright heavenly. "So order whatever you like, it's all on the house! This is the sea-faring restaurant Baratie, proudly serving food to both living and non-living alike for ten years now and counting!"
"Mmm…" Banchina sighed in bliss as she sampled the creamy seafood risotto Sora had recommended. "I'm going to be spoiled forever after all this."
Kuina gave no answer in favour of slurping down her ramen, no matter that the steaming bowl of noodles still looked hot enough to scald her tongue.
Bell-mère grinned, cutting off another bite of herb-crusted salmon and happily popping it into her mouth. It was cooked to just the right texture and served with a side of salad and roasted potatoes. "Well we are here in this place to look for a cook, aren't we? Let's hope that whichever one the kids end up recruiting, there's a ghostly cook who comes with the package."
Chapter 7: A Matter of Trust
"What do you mean Nami's gone!?"
Kuina and Banchina stared at each other at this shouted piece of information, concern creasing their brows. Bell-mère had shared her story with them one day during their time at sea after leaving Syrup Village. She'd confided in them about the circumstances of her death, the threat held over their home village, and the deal Nami was locked into with the Arlong Pirates to protect it. They had no doubt that Nami's hasty disappearance now had something to do with the unscrupulous pirate, and the knowledge only made them more worried for her safety. They would never forget the brief vulnerability their strong-willed friend's voice when she had implored in a hoarse whisper almost to herself, that if Luffy could save Syrup Village, surely he could save her and Nami's home as well, right?
Banchina had taken Bell-mère's hands in hers as Kuina sidled up to press their shoulders together in silent reassurance. Bell-mère's responding grip had been tight almost to the edge of being painful, but it was nothing in comparison to the anguish in her eyes.
But it was Roger who finally spoke the words, crouching down in front of Bell-mère to look into her eyes with a seriousness so unlike his usual self. His voice was not subdued however, but as clear and sure as ever to match his confidence. "You know, I've watched that boy growing up. If there's one thing he values over everything else, it's family and nakama. Luffy is going to be the Pirate King, and he's not going to leave even one of his nakama behind on his way to it. He'll save your daughter, Bell-mère. Put your trust in him."
Kuina had nodded, and Banchina's eyes had warmed in agreement. "Just like the rest of us already have."
And their belief of Luffy wasn't let down. Instead of being angry at the deceit, the young captain immediately announced without a single waver in his conviction that they were getting Nami back as their navigator, absolutely no question about it. The remaining Straw Hats scrambled into action at their captain's words, preparing to set out to chase after their wayward crew member. Her heart feeling lighter already, Kuina turned back to grin at Banchina whose eyes mirrored the same hopeful fondness she herself felt.
"Well, looks like we've got a couple of runaway crewmates to catch. Captain's orders."
Bell-mère's heart broke a bit more with every wrenching sob that shook Nami's body, hating her own inability to even offer comfort to her daughter in such a time. Her eyes were sharp with the sting of tears as she stared back at the quickly shrinking silhouette of the Baratie. She wondered if the speck of bright red she could still faintly see was really Luffy looking out at them. What was he thinking, now that Nami had by all appearances betrayed him?
'Put your trust in him.'
Was she a fool, to still be buoyed by the hope in those words even after all the betrayal they had both experienced and dealt out? But perhaps a little hope in the impossible was what they needed, for both Nami's sake and her own.
"Show me, Luffy," she whispered at that fleck of brightness. "You said that Nami is your nakama, didn't you? Prove it to us. We're waiting for you, Captain."
If there was anyone who was capable of doing the impossible, it was Monkey D Luffy.
Chapter 8: Dracule Mihawk
"IT'S HIM! IT'S THE HAWK-EYED MAN!" The cry swept across all of them, drawing eyes from across the deck towards the lone figure emerging from between the debris of Krieg's mangled warship.
Banchina knew, of course, of Mihawk. Had seen him in person during her time by Yasopp's side, heard many tales of the momentous duels between Shanks and the golden-eyed swordsman during their early days though she had never witnessed them herself. She also remembered the tension that had lined Kuina's shoulders at Gin's first mention of the 'Hawk-eyed man', and the matching dark glint in Zoro's eyes. It was nothing compared to the current moment, the very instant that they laid eyes on that man's person.
The man sailing up to the Baratie in his distinctive coffin-shaped sailing boat was unmistakably Dracule Mihawk in the flesh.
And she knew that their young swordsman, for all that he moved with determination and the fierce grace of a predator, was still just a boy in both years and experience in comparison to the skill of this man who held now the title of World's Greatest Swordsman.
Zoro would lose this fight, and from the quiet flicker of fear in Kuina's eyes as she watched Zoro step up to Mihawk with tense but firm strides, she knew it as well.
"You're a reckless, stupid, terrible, moronic idiot," Kuina ground out at Zoro's prone form from where she sat cross-legged by his head, fists clenched in her lap. He had slipped unconscious again as the sailboat sailed away from the Baratie, leaving Johnny and Yosaku scrambling around applying first aid to the best of their abilities. "You're so lucky you're not dead, because if you were I'd kick your spirit ass all the way back to Shimotsuki. Going against Mihawk like that… You knew you weren't ready. But of course that wouldn't stop you, would it? And I shouldn't even be surprised, because you're still the same bull-headed kid that ran yelling into my father's dojo ten years ago, jumping headfirst into any fight without looking back and never stopped trying no matter how many times the same girl beat you on your ass. No matter that you're outmatched, no matter the danger or the stakes, charging in with that same stubborn determination every single time."
Her voice had softened somewhere through her tirade, and she chuckled wetly now through the lump that had formed in her throat. "But then again, I've always admired that about you, Zoro. I could only wish to have even half of that spirit of yours. Just like today – you could have pulled away; you could have stepped down, bowed defeat. But you didn't. You pushed forward and fought him anyway, and you… you got him to acknowledge you. You got Hawkeyes to acknowledge you, Zoro, and…" Her eyes fixed on the shallow rise and fall of his chest, proof of his will to live accompanied now by the proof of his will to fight and Mihawk's approval. Kuina's voice quavered, but it was no longer out of anger or fear.
"I'm so proud of you."
Chapter 9: A Mother's Gratitude
Sora stood on the newly patched deck of the Baratie's side wing, where all the Baratie's staff, both living and ghostly, had gathered to send her and her son off to the next stretch of their journey.
Feeling a lump forming in her throat, she looked around at the spirits around her. Many of them had been with them since the beginning, former crew members of the Cooking Pirates under Red-leg Zeff, who would follow their captain to the ends of the Blues even after death. Then there were the cooks of the Orbit, those who could never bear to give up the sea and their passion; and the people who had followed their loved ones on-board, crewmates and family and friends alike. These were the people she had lived and worked alongside for years now.
In the past they'd lived separate lives, but in death they had all come together to form this ragtag bunch of misfits, this family.
No longer able to hold her overflowing emotions at bay, her eyes filled with tears that blurred her vision and spilled down her cheeks in uncontrollable rivulets. The response to that was instantaneous.
"Aww no, don't cry!"
"S-S-Sora, come on, there's nothing to cry about right!?"
She let out a wet giggle at the alarm in all their voices. All these big burly sea-hardened men, brought to their knees by a woman's tears.
Sniffling, she lunged forward to grab as many of them as could be reached in a tight hug. She felt them stumble out of balance in surprise for a moment before righting themselves and catching hold of her just as firmly. Her throat tightened further with the strength of her emotions. "I'm going to miss you all so much!" she wailed.
Laughter echoed from all around, large calloused hands coming to pat her comfortingly on her head as the rest of the staff crowded around as well in a big group hug.
"We'll miss you too, Sora. Don't forget to visit every now and then, alright? And we'll visit you too, gotta check up on our best girl and our little eggplant."
If all their eyes were suspiciously damp as well, no one mentioned it aloud.
Sanji emerged from the living quarters then, walking silently across the deck to where Luffy was waiting. His impassivity was an effort to restrain his emotions, she knew; it was a mark that Judge had left on him, a fear of showing weakness in the form of feelings.
Yet it only took one gentle line from Zeff to break that façade.
Sora's eyes filled anew with tears to mirror her son's as he spun back to prostrate his whole body down towards Zeff, tears pouring down his face and choking his voice. This was just one part of what Zeff had gifted to him, this unrestrained expression of genuine emotion. Unlike his brothers Sanji had always been a sensitive child – given time Judge would have crushed the tentative bud, had already attempted to do it, but Zeff had cultivated it instead, showed him how to bloom free.
She bowed down low to match Sanji's form, tears overflowing to blur into the wooden deck of the one place they had both come to call as home. She spoke the words aloud even knowing that Zeff couldn't possibly hear her.
"Thank you, Owner Zeff. Truly, thank you so much. For loving Sanji. For giving him a home. For giving him a father. This debt is one that I can never repay in full. Everything you've done has meant more than the world to both of us." Her voice caught in her throat, overwhelmed. "I can never say this enough, Owner Zeff. Thank you so very, very much."
She knew it every day she watched him. This boy, this shining boy who had once smiled only for her but could now smile for the world, who was more Zeff's son than he ever was Judge's, who was so full of life and love – this was everything she could have wished for her child.
She turned back to her friends, eyes bright and warm. "You'll watch over him?"
The Cooking Pirates rallied immediately, nodding immediately in gentle reassurance and understanding. "Of course. He's our captain, after all." The rest of the staff chimed in with their affirmation as well, only proving just how respected Zeff was. "You and your kid take care of yourselves too, alright?"
She caught them for a final hug goodbye before following Sanji onto the boat that would take them away towards their new adventure. She waved to them as the sails caught wind, and they waved back noisily until the figures aboard could no longer be seen.
Still, the remaining staff members couldn't help but all feel a little glum as the boat sailed away. In the back of the crowd, someone sniffled valiantly. The Baratie's staff had been filled with men on both the side of the living and the dead, and the pretty blond lady with her sweet smile had been the goddess of this bunch of hardened sea-faring men. Sora with her cheerfulness and Sanji's ever-amusing spats with Zeff had never failed to brighten up the atmosphere aboard the ship they called their home. It wouldn't be quite the same without them.
"I miss them already," was the plaintive complaint, echoed by several others.
Rubbing away his own tears, the Cooking Pirates' first mate and head chef of the ghostly side of the staff looked around at his fellow moping staff members, amusement tinging his eyes. They were going to need to set up a roster to schedule visits, else the whole Baratie was going to descend on the Straw Hats all together in the name of checking up on their two favourite blonds. He shook his head with a fond smile as he clapped his hands together sharply to catch everyone's attention.
"Alright, everyone, back to work. This restaurant isn't going to run itself."
Chapter 10: Arlong Park
There was a commotion in the Arlong Park's central courtyard. Bell-mere's brow furrowed in worry as she followed Nami closer, catching hints of chatter about a captured human. She could only hope that it wasn't one of the villagers, someone they cared for. From Nami's carefully controlled demeanour, she knew that her daughter feared the same thing.
But even that didn't prepare either of them for the sight of Zoro sitting cross-legged and bound in the centre of a circle of hostile fishmen yet somehow retaining his customary air of brazen confidence. Bell-mere stumbled to a complete halt, eyes widening even as Nami hardened her long-trained mask of indifference to step forward.
Kuina, who sat cross-legged as well next to the swordsman, glanced up to Bell-mere
"Captain's coming soon, we're just the advance guard. You didn't really think Luffy would leave Nami behind, did you?" She met Bell-mere's startled gaze with a sharp little grin. "We're here to pick up our missing crewmate, Captain's orders."
It was insanity. No matter how strong and stubborn each member was, the Straw Hat Pirates' tiny crew of four members (five, because Luffy would always count Nami) going against the full might of the Arlong Pirates was nothing short of suicidal.
And yet they had done it, and succeeded.
Just in one event-packed day, they had freed an island of people from almost ten years of tyranny.
The whole island was rightfully celebrating now, the festivities lighting up the area to a degree that certainly had to be visible even miles out at sea. Spirits mingled easily with the living, unseen yet ever-present, reminding them of the sacrifices and losses they'd all faced over the years. But now it was all over, all because of a single young man with a heart bigger than he could ever stretch his body.
That young man in question was currently running around eating everything that he could get his hands on, already with two large chunks of meat stuffed into his mouth and holding on possessively to at least another four pieces while still enthusiastically hunting around for more.
Watching him go, Bell-mere could only shake her head fondly at the young captain's liveliness and cheer. "He's really something else."
Banchina laughed. "That he is."
"He's already done more good than most men would do in a lifetime," Sora agreed with gentle wonderment in her eyes. "And by the looks of it has no intention to stop anytime soon."
Luffy had saved both their homes too, had done the impossible yet another time and would do so for as many times as necessary and more.
Bell-mere raised her glass in a toast, her grin wide and genuine. "To our Captain."
Banchina, Kuina and Sora echoed it readily, sharing bright smiles.
Sipping her drink, Bell-mere spotted Genzo from the corner of her eye slipping away from the party with a bottle of alcohol in hand. She excused herself from her friends to follow him, tailing him just as she had expected to the location of her grave.
She listened to him speak with an ache in her heart, smiled wetly at the gruff fatherly promise he wrangled out of Luffy.
Not for the first time, she truly wished that the living could somehow hear their voices, hear their words. "Gen… Thank you for watching out for Nami and Nojiko all these years. They grew up strong because they had you to love them even after I was gone." She rubbed away the errant tears from her eyes, chuckling. "Just look at me here, crying like a sap. I bet if you could see me now you'd be panicking, you were always weak to things like that. But you'd try your best, just like how you'd patch up my scrapes when I was small, like how you started wearing that silly pinwheel in your hat just so see Nami smile. I don't know what we would have done without you. We owe you so much." She smiled at him through the tears that wouldn't stop. "Live well, Gen. I'll come back to visit soon."
Bell-mere chuckled as she ran after Nami towards the port where the Straw Hats were waiting with the Merry, able to guess from her mischievous grin that the girl was intending to pull a final prank as her parting gift to the villagers. Sure enough as she darted through the crowd Nami speedily divested everyone she passed of their wallets, which only made Bell-mere shake her head with even more laughter. She took the final leap off the shore in sync with Nami, landing easily on the wooden deck of their ship. She could only continue laughing as Nami cheekily revealed her prank, eliciting exasperated shouts from the villagers which were unmistakably inlaid with fondness.
Bell-mere's heart squeezed tightly in her chest with sheer joy and bursting pride at the sight of Nami's smile, so bright and true. For the first time in eight years the girl was truly free and happy, setting off for the first time on an adventure that she had chosen not because of necessity but because she wanted it.
As for Bell-mere herself…
Turning, she found her friends grinning warmly at her.
"Welcome back, Bell-mere."
And she found that just as for Nami, her next words rang doubtlessly, unchangeably true. "I'm home."
Chapter 11: Interlude: First Bounty
I call this chapter an interlude because unlike most chapters which take place on the Straw Hats' ship (currently the Merry but of course will eventually be the Sunny, like the title suggests), this and further interludes will be set elsewhere, "From the Decks of the World"-style, so to say. But our favourite spirit crew will still be featured, of course!
The sun that day was flawlessly bright in the cloudless sky, casting its brilliant glow to light up the seas below to gem-like radiance. It was as such a perfect day for the news that would soon sweep the world, heralding hints of the beginning of a new age.
With the Moby Dick far out from any nearby islands and with no other ships in sight, the Whitebeard Pirates had been settling back to enjoy one of those peaceful days out at sea when a loud yell snapped the gentle lull of muted chatter and splashing waves. Startled, half the crew twitched instinctively towards their weapons before relaxing again when they realized that the cry had been made with enthusiasm, not from danger.
A moment later, their Second Division Commander barrelled from the other side of the deck towards where their Captain sat in his chair, a piece of paper clenched in his hand. The youth vaulted easily in one leap to stand on one of the chair's wide handles, brandishing the paper out with a proud grin that stretched all the way across his face.
"Oyaji, look! This is my little brother!"
Whitebeard's laughter rumbled in his chest as he leaned forward obligingly to inspect the bounty poster his son was presenting to him. Below, a curious crowd had gathered, the idle crew wandering over to find out what had gotten their crewmate into such spirits.
At a called-out request, the bounty poster was passed around among the crew. Thatch whistled, impressed as he took in the printed information. "Man, a 30 million beri starting bounty is pretty damn decent, especially coming from the East Blue."
Ace's responding smile was wide and blindingly proud. "Isn't it!" His whole body fair vibrated with overflowing excitement. He then plunged into an enthusiastic recounting of all sorts of tales about his 'cute little brother', talking the ears off anyone who would listen. In the background, Whitebeard's continued chuckles washed over them like waves.
Roger shared a fond grin with Rouge at Ace's unrestrained delight. Both of them had a soft spot for the boy their son called brother, starting from the time they spent watching them grow up together. Luffy was one of the few people who made Ace truly happy, and that was more than enough for them to love him as well.
Fierce approval bubbled up to the surface in the form of warm laughter as Roger looked again at the photo displayed with Luffy's first bounty. That was a fine expression for a future Pirate King to have, a smile unrestrained and daring in its message to the world. His grin widened in kind.
"Looks like the kid's been busy while I've been gone. I daresay it's time for another visit."
Miles away across the sea but still in the New World, another notable pirate crew had likewise received news of this milestone event. Banchina popped onto the island that the Red Hair Pirates had made dock at to find the crew in a mood of high spirits, with a cheer greater even than their usual merrymaking ways.
Catching a glimpse of the slip of paper being proudly passed around, her eyes crinkled in delight. The news of Luffy's first bounty had clearly reached Shanks and his crew, and they'd taken to celebrating this milestone event in classic pirate fashion. Even the newer members, who had never met Luffy in person, had thrown themselves alike into drunken song and dance, cheerfully fuelling the festivities.
Smiling fondly at the familiar antics of this boisterous crew, she made her way through the laughing crowd towards Yasopp, who was seated as per usual in the circle of Shanks' closest and oldest crew members. As expected this group was the source of the greatest revelry, the captain's loud laughter carrying clearly across the island as they all toasted to his young protégé's growing success. The presence of Mihawk seated by the red-haired captain's side, similarly tossing back a hearty swig of rum, was a bit more of a surprise, but fitting considering his newfound stakes in this rookie pirate crew.
Luffy's bounty poster eventually made its way round back to the officers, and Yasopp snagged the paper as it passed, lowering his tankard to stare at the photo again, this time with a considering furrow between his brows. "Could it be?" he muttered.
Banchina felt a burst of pride and affection as she followed his gaze towards the tiny, barely perceptible figure at the back of the picture. The angle only showed the back of his head, practically unidentifiable without further clues, but at the end of the day few things could outmatch a parent's instinct.
"Yes, Yasopp, that's our son. Our Usopp," she told him. "He's grown up healthy and strong, with a flair for storytelling just like you. He's sailing with Luffy-kun now, heading closer to you with every moment." She leaned her cheek into her hand as she smiled, watching over her two precious boys and the new comrades they had found in this vast blue ocean.
Parent and child, mentor and protégé, brothers, sisters, friends, family… Their fates were entwined in a myriad of ways, each string pulling them unerringly towards each other. One day their paths would certainly cross again, in this endless blue sea of freedom. Because what tied them together were the bonds of love, and therefore it was never a matter of if but a matter of when – in life, in death or somewhere in-between.
And so till then, they would wait together; waiting for that day when they and their loved ones would meet again.
Chapter 12: Spectacles and Swords
There were many things Kuina had been expecting from Loguetown – she knew that being so close to the entrance to the Grand Line, it would be a bustling port town; that it held the execution stand where Roger had died; and because of both these facts, the place would be teeming with pirates, merchants and tourists alike.
What she had not been expecting was to run into a clumsy swordswoman with a face that could have easily been her own, 10 years older.
She witnessed her would-be doppelganger's brief fight on the streets, the way she swiftly defeated the thugs who had attacked her with notable ease. A skilled swordsman, though lacking somewhat the edge that would have made her a brilliant one and further offset by her habitual clumsiness that manifested instantly out of battle.
When she and Zoro encountered her again at the arms store, Kuina took the chance to re-evaluate her initial impression of the older (in appearance, though perhaps not in years) swordswoman. Swordsmanship aside, it was her love of swords that truly resonated with Kuina. Perhaps her views were a little naïve in her hard distinction of black and white, good and evil, but her heart was in the right place. Even without being able to see the sword spirits for herself, she was firm in her belief of their independent will, and that respect shone from her eyes as quiet strength.
The familiar sound of tinkling bells attracted Kuina's attention away from her lookalike. Wado Ichimonji had materialised to stand next to her, gazing around at the swords around them with clear ageless eyes. All of these swords must surely also have souls of their own, lingering within while patiently waiting for the next wielder worthy of pledging their loyalty to.
A sudden chill that ran up Kuina's spine tore her mind away from these thoughts. Her gaze snapped back to Zoro and unerringly to the sword he now held in his hand. As she watched, a wispy darkness misted out from within the sheath to materialise in the shadowed corner of the room, in the form of a crouched figure clad from head to foot in pitch black. Even from the little skin that was visible, she could see that scars that littered the spirit's face. His eyes were chillingly red as they fixed on Zoro, the half-feral gaze of wild animal. A cursed sword.
Unnerved, she glanced a little uncertainly over at Wado Ichimonji. The spirit's attention was completely concentrated now on Zoro but still she made no move, merely watched on with a calm unflickering gaze.
It was trust, Kuina realized with a warm surge of pride. Wado Ichimonji was by nature a protective sword, crafted with the task to safeguard each generation of her wielders. But no protection was needed here. Zoro's own strength would prevail in earning Sandai Kitetsu's loyalty. The swordsman had chosen his sword; and as they all watched Sandai Kitetsu's unsharpened back edge roll harmlessly off Zoro's arm, it was clear that the sword had chosen him in return.
As the blade sank almost to the hilt into the wooden flooring, both the shopkeeper and Kuina's older lookalike thudded to the ground, shaking legs giving way beneath them now that the adrenaline rush had passed. Kuina knew exactly how they felt. Every time she thought she had seen the limits of Zoro's brazenness, he just had to go that further length to surprise her again.
Yet nothing less would have gained Sandai Kitetsu's respect. Moreover, in this single act, there were others whose respect Zoro had likewise won. Yubashiri took the form of a young samurai, dignified in manner and agile in his movements, as befitting a sword of his fine make. His clear aura stood as a contrast to Sandai Kitetsu's darkness, the balance completed by Wado Ichimonji's harmony.
Zoro walked out of the arms shop that day accompanied by three proud swords who had claimed him as their master. Together, they would pave his path towards becoming the World's Greatest Swordsman.
Standing in the middle of the bustling main street, Roger looked around at the town the Straw Hats were currently docked at, taking in the familiar sights and scenes. Loguetown had grown abundantly from the sleepy fishing village of his time, but there was no mistaking it. A smirk lifted his lips.
"So you've made it here already, kid."
Tucking his hands in his coat pockets, he set forth towards where he knew for certain he would find Luffy.
At the square that Roger's own execution had been held in.
"I'M THE MAN WHO'LL BECOME THE PIRATE KING!"
"Well said, boy," Roger murmured as he surveyed the scene unfolding in the execution square with a seriousness that belied his usual demeanour of good cheer. "But how will you get out of this sticky situation, I wonder?"
And a sticky situation it was indeed, cornered on all counts with a sword very literally hanging over his head.
What would the scales of Fate decree, on this day?
Would the story of Monkey D Luffy end here, poetically in the same place as his would-be predecessor, before his tale had even truly begun?
Or would his dogged luck and his sheer will to run for his dreams prevail yet again, just like it had so many times in the past?
The boy smiled in the face of death, and the answer came from the sky.
Roger laughed aloud when he recognized the figure who had emerged to hold Luffy's Marine pursuer at bay. What did Dragon think of his son's determination to be the next Pirate King? Marine, Revolutionary, Pirate; this family was anything but normal. Roger still bemoaned the fact that he had missed out on his old rival's reaction to his grandson setting sail under a black flag. It was sure to have been a sight to behold.
With his stunt that day, Luffy had made his first mark in the memories of the world, proving that he had both some very powerful allies lurking in the woodwork and the devil's luck itself. But at the same time he had also gained some dogged pursuers.
The stubborn light in the Marine Captain's eyes foretold that he would not easily let this go. That enemy was a dangerous one, and their first uneven fight had proved that Luffy was still sorely outmatched with his current ability.
And then there was Buggy, who had taken Luffy as a personal affront to his pride. Roger wondered sometimes if Buggy's jealous rivalry with Shanks hadn't been the primary fuelling factor of his obsession with the young rubber captain. Both he and Rayleigh had always tried to be impartial between their two boys, but perhaps there were still places where he had done him wrong and there was no accounting for favouritism from the rest of the crew. His former apprentice too often bungled up his plots which made people underestimate him, but Roger himself had seen past that to his potential. The Straw Hats would do well not to disregard Buggy as another adversary to look out for.
But that was a concern for another day.
The straggling members of the Straw Hat Pirates had finally reached the port, rushing full speed towards their ship. Through the pouring rain, Roger spotted Bell-mère standing at the stern of the Merry next to her daughter. Her smirk widened at the sight of them.
"All aboard now!" she yelled over the whipping wind. Kuina grinned and took a running leap off the shore, pulling a laughing Sora along with her. The heady adrenaline was affecting all of them, excitement rising up as they faced the next big wave in their shared adventure.
Later on, enthusiastically recounting the entire fiasco to his first mate's unknowing ear, Roger's eyes shone with glee. "Just wait till you meet this kid, Ray. He'll surpass me yet. He's still wet behind the ears right now, but I bet you could whip him into shape for me."
He knew that their paths would inevitably cross, because such was the entwined Fate of the D bearers and those who followed them.
"I'll leave it in your hands, partner."
"Set sail! For the Grand Line!"
Aaaaand the East Blue Saga is a wrap!
Chapter 14: Interlude: Thatch
The second interlude drops in again on a certain whale-shaped ship sailing in the New World, but what we find on this visit couldn't be further from the happy celebrations that we saw before.
*throws down angstiest chapter of the story thus far for the last day of the year* (But hey, things can only look up after this, right?)
Thatch opened his eyes to dark clouds rumbling overhead, the heavy depths threatening rain at any moment. It looked to be daytime but the sunlight barely pierced the thick clouds, the ocean grey and stormy as well. Such weather wasn't uncommon in the often-turbulent seas of the New World, and so it wasn't the weather but rather his own relative position to it that threw him off.
A perplexed frown weighed upon his lips as he sat up. Why was he lying on the deck? It wasn't like him to fall asleep in unexpected places, he wasn't Ace. And he certainly had no recollection of getting roaring drunk either, which would have been the most likely reason for such a predicament. Not to mention if that was the case, he would have expected to see a good number of the crew likewise inebriated on the deck with him. But this portion of the deck was empty save himself. Admittedly it was a relatively secluded in the area behind the galley, though that begged its own questions about just what he was doing there.
The pompadour-haired chef stood, dusting off his clothes as he continued to rack his brains for an explanation. He remembered washing up after dinner as usual, then closing up the galley to retire to his room. He'd sat in bed reading for a while, too keyed up (by what?) to fall asleep. And then…
As he turned, his eyes landed unerringly on a patch of unmistakable dark red decorating the wooden planks, and it all came crashing back to him. The Devil Fruit they had looted from the last mission, the unsettled feeling it gave him, taking a walk at night to clear his thoughts, and… Teach.
Even as he stared, mind whirling, droplets started to fall from the sky, the rain threatening to wash away even that meagre evidence. Spinning on his heel, he dashed up front towards the bow where he knew his captain would be.
He was too worked up to notice that he couldn't feel the raindrops falling on his person.
Bursting onto the main deck, he found the crew all gathered there. Even with that, their father's towering height made it easy to single him out from the crowd. Thatch hadn't quite realized how worried he was that Teach had already managed to harm others besides himself until he laid eyes again on his captain, but his racing heart settled a little as he made a beeline for that reassuring figure.
"Oyaji! Oyaji, you've got to listen to me, Teach is a traitor! He came at me with a knife, and took that Devil Fruit we got from…"
Thatch faltered. "…Oyaji?"
The captain didn't turn, didn't even give any indication that he had heard Thatch, which in itself was highly unusual. Their father always gave them his full attention when they asked for it, no matter how tired or preoccupied he was.
A furrow creased Thatch's forehead. Turning in search of someone else to speak to, he found their First Division Commander standing at his customary position by their captain's side.
"Oi, Marco-" His voice died in his throat as the hand that he reached out passed futilely through his friend's shoulder. Like something out of a ghost story. Like… Like…
He felt his lungs seizing up, struggling to take in air, but no, breathing was an illusion, wasn't it? Just like his illusory heartbeat.
There were figures in that crowd that should not be there. Friends and crewmates he knew to long gone, lost to the sea and the years; faces he had never seen before, but bore detectable resemblances to people he knew. His eyes landed on a familiar face he never expected to see again, the man it belonged to weaving through the crowd towards him. The previous Second Division Commander, Kibble, disconcertingly younger than when Thatch had seen him last.
A hollow feeling had taken root in Thatch's chest. He ran a hand over his face, feeling suddenly tired. "I'm dead, aren't I? That bastard got me good."
Kibble's expression was grave as he stepped forward to clap a sympathetic hand to the younger man's shoulder. "I'm afraid so, kid."
The contact, solid unlike his previous attempt, grounded him enough to give him the strength to look around once again.
In the crowd he spied Izo, usually impeccable make-up smeared around the eyes. Haruta stood beside him, biting his lip so hard it had turned bloodless in a futile effort to hold back sobs. Marco's face was tight and drawn, almost impassive unless you knew where to look, and Thatch had more than enough experience in reading his friend's expressions to hone in on the tell-tale signs of grief. In contrast Ace's eyes were obviously puffy from crying, fresh tears mixing with the dried tear tracks already running down freckled cheeks. Vista reached out to clasp a comforting hand to the boy's shaking shoulders, the swordsman's ever-expressive face likewise ravaged by grief.
And above all stood Oyaji with tension in every line of his body, staggering anguish in his shadowed eyes, a father's sorrow for a child gone before him.
The crew wasn't all gathered on deck for no reason.
It was a funeral. His.
It was an unbearably painful thing to watch one's loved ones grieve without being able to offer comfort. It was even greater injustice standing there knowing that you are the cause of their pain, and it was that more than anything else that brought mirroring tears to Thatch's eyes. The other spirits were quiet, offering their wordless understanding and solidarity. They too had been through this, knew all too well the helplessness of such grief. Thatch supposed it was small mercies that he had arrived late enough to not witness his own body being lowered into the sea.
There was a sudden rustle as the crowd parted, a figure slipping through. Thatch startled a little as a warm weight cast itself onto his chest, slim arms with surprising strength pulling him into a tight hug. Under different circumstances he might have made a cheeky quip about being irresistible to the ladies, but now he leaned into the comfort offered by the embrace.
When she pulled away, lifting her head to look up at him, he saw sincerity shining from eyes that also brimmed with tears. "I really wish that we could have met under kinder conditions, but I want to thank you for all the kindness you gave my son."
Thatch took in the familiar features. "You're… Ace's mum?" he hazarded a fairly confident guess. The freckles were the first giveaway, but there were other little things as well – the waves in their hair, the height of their cheekbones, the way their eyes crinkled at the corners when they smiled.
She smiled broader at his words though the sadness still remained, and the resemblance was truly stunning. She squeezed his hands briefly before drawing away. There would be time for proper introductions later. Thatch looked around, at the fellow spirits who haunted the Moby Dick, unknown by the living crew. The faces, some familiar and some not but soon to be, shone with understanding and support and offered comfort. Thatch wasn't alone. He didn't have to face this alone.
Yet even so he couldn't help but look back, at the crew he had left behind. I'm here, he wanted to yell, even though he knew that they would never hear him. I'm still here.
The rain was falling in earnest now, turning the whole scenery grey.
He and the family he loved were now separated by the unsurmountable barrier of life and death, and nothing would be the same again.
Chapter 15: Laboon
Enter the Grand Line!
"The poor child," Sora murmured sympathetically as she stared up at Laboon from the shore of the Twin Cape Lighthouse.
The captain of the Rumbar Pirates, a friendly man named Yorki who had smiled when he first greeted them, now sighed deeply in sorrowful regret. "It really hurts that we can't send word. That there isn't some way we can tell Laboon that we didn't deliberately leave him behind." He looked over at where Crocus sat by the waterside, Roger standing beside him. "Crocus as well. We're so very grateful to him, both for spending that time and effort looking for us back then and taking care of Laboon on our behalf. We owe him so much. If only we could tell him that." The rest of the crew chorused their melancholic agreement to their captain's words.
All of them knew how heartbreaking it was to not be able to comfort the loved ones they had left behind.
Banchina reached out, squeezing Yorki's hand in an offer of comfort. He mustered a wan smile in reply.
A commotion drew their attention then back to beyond the shoreline.
"Okay, what's that captain doing now?" Bell-mère muttered with a raised brow, bemused but far too used to the youth's mad antics by now to be overly surprised. They all watched, perplexed, as Luffy ran up the giant whale's side, holding the Going Merry's mast of all things… And stabbed the base right into the tender skin at the front of Laboon's large box-shaped head.
The Rumbar Pirates shot to their feet, collectively stunned and outraged. "What the hell is he doing!?"
"Oi, don't bully Laboon!"
"Just shit does he think he's pulling!?"
"IT'S A TIE!" Luffy's first words after being slammed back against the shore, however, made all of them fall quiet again to listen. The young captain's grin was sharp, a clear challenge held within it. "Look, I'm pretty tough, see? Your old friends may be dead, but I'm your new rival! And once my crew sails around the Grand Line, we'll be sure to come back here to see you again. And we'll duke it out again!"
"BUOOOOH!" Laboon's tearful reply, loud and resounding, had more life to it than it had for decades now.
The Rumbar Pirates too had started to cry openly, in genuine gratitude for a boy who had done what they could not. Yorki smiled through his tears. "That's a good captain you've got there."
Bell-mère came up to stand beside the captain, likewise watching over the scene with a smile on her lips. "We're reminded of it every day."
"A friend of ours is stuck in the Florian Triangle. We've been keeping him company, but he's been left without living human contact for far too long. Please, find him and help him."
"You know as well as us that we have no real way to influence these kids' journey. But," Bell-mère grinned around her cigarette. "If there's anyone in the world who can do the impossible, it'll be this crazy captain of ours. We'll keep an eye out for your friend."
Yorki smiled and held out his hand to grasp hers in a firm handshake, in farewell and a promise to meet again. "That's all we can ask."
The Merry sailed away a few hours later to the ghostly music of the Rumbar Pirates, a cheerful and energetic harmony that echoed their recovered happiness. It was a pity that the melody was one that went unheard by the living.
"Your musician is out there waiting for you," Bell-mère told the rubber boy sitting atop Merry's sheep figurehead, grinning widely as he faced the sparkling seas of the Grand Line. "So, go find him, captain."
And she liked to think that he heard her, or at least some feeling of her words.
Roger stood beside his old friend on the shore, watching the Merry sail off. There could only be adventures ahead, the nature of which he suspected would be beyond even the imagination of any of those aboard. Such was the Grand Line, beautiful and unpredictable.
"Perhaps they're the pirates we've been waiting for. That captain has got quite the aura about him," Crocus murmured, looking thoughtful as he too gazed out at the ship now rapidly shrinking into the horizon. And it was almost like he could sense Roger standing there, right beside him, for it was to him that he addressed those words. "What do you think, Roger?"
"Do you really have to ask?" Roger grinned. "Watch that kid, Crocus. He's going to change the world."
With those parting words, he turned to head back to the Moby Dick.