The streets are well-lit and the sky is dark. Around him the crowd buzzes with cheerful laughter and conversation. There are people who look like Minks, some who look like demons and others who look like nothing at all. One in particular looks like a fading mass of shadows moving forward without haste down the paved avenue. Marco stares at it a long moment before his gaze is caught by the shimmering light of a paper lantern overhead.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?” asks a voice behind him.
He whips around, surprised to see a young man standing there, looking up at him with eyes that shine like two dark suns.
“Yes.” he answers dumbly still eyeing the only human-looking individual he’s glimpsed so far.
The dark locks look soft and silky as they shift ever so slightly in the faint breeze. But what holds Marco’s attention is the scar under the boy’s left eye. It’s shaped like a moon crescent or like a sword on display.
“Who are you?” he whispers.
He wants to reach for that white skin, to touch, to make sure the boy is real. Amidst these surreal surroundings, he is the only familiar thing Marco has to anchor himself. A human, just like him. Someone who might know why he is here, and where here is.
“I’m Luffy.” the boy grins.
There is ease in the way he is happy, in the way he speaks and reaches for Marco’s hand to hold it in his own. He is still innocent like a child, but his eyes have depths that belong only on those who have seen the darker side of the world.
“See?” he laughs. “I’m not a ghost!”
It startles Marco how easily this boy can tell what crosses his mind but the warm fingers wrapped around his are comforting so he smiles back.
“Yeah, seems like it.” he answers. “I’m Marco, by the way.”
“Marco.” the boy repeats and nods.
This time Luffy’s smile stretches up so high that his eyes wrinkle. He pulls gently on Marco’s hand, pulling him along.
“Come on! Let’s go get some food!”
Looking around Marco realizes for the first time that the street is lined with stands. It is like standing in the middle of a festival, the air is heavy with the oily smells of various types of food and every so often a mask vendor pops out amongst the food stands. He follows Luffy past a goldfish scooping stand where a little fox girl is playing with a one-eyed child. His gaze lingers on the pair before drifting to Luffy’s back.
It’s a small back with thin shoulder. A teenager’s back. But then, in this strange place even Marco looks young. The hand hanging at his side is less calloused that the one who holds ropes and steadies the helm every day. There’s no telling how young or old anyone is. Time flows here in a different way than it does in Marco’s world. Somehow Marco understands that. Time has come to a standstill for Luffy and himself, it is only for those around them that it continues flowing.
He feels the pull on his hand and smiles. For a little while then, he can enjoy himself in this small window of frozen time. He can rest until the time for answers comes.
They stop almost at every stand. Luffy’s appetite seems endless as he orders dish upon dish. Everything is handed to him in good cheer, with money being neither exchanged nor mentioned. Marco watches Luffy eat, a small smile and a perplexed look on his face as he continues observing his surroundings. Their hands are still connected so he does not need to worry about losing his companion in the crowd of ever-stranger beings.
“What is this place?” he asks at long last, once Luffy is finally satiated and they are simply standing on the side of street, observing the merrymakers as they walk past.
“It’s the bridge. A place that is neither near nor far.” Luffy answers.
His voice sounds wistful and serious in a way Marco would not have expected from him.
“I don’t understand.” Marco answers truthfully, his blue gaze turning to look at the boy still holding his hand.
Their eyes meet and they stare at each other for a long time before Luffy smiles.
“What were you doing before you came here?” Luffy asks gently.
Marco frowns, thinking hard but as his mind reaches for the memory it evades him, again and again, revealing nothing but a flash of redness.
“You don’t remember do you?” Luffy does not sound upset, just resigned. “You died. Or should I say, you might die.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“This is the place where it is decided.” Luffy explains.
His gaze is deep like an ocean of wisdom yet impenetrable like a secret that must not be spoken. He still smiles though, tenderly, carefully.
“It is the bridge between the near shore and the far shore, where you go from there is your choice.”
“My choice? I can choose?”
“Yes.” Luffy’s eyes close softly, reopening a moment later no longer looking at Marco. “Your life has come to a crossroad and it can go both ways. Whether you live or die all depends on your own will, it’s why you have come here. To choose.”
Marco’s gaze drifts upwards. The sky looks like the one he knows, velvety black dotted with stars. There are two moons however, one crescent and one full, standing side by side like flawed reflections of one another.
“What about you?” he asks after a while. “Are you also here to choose?”
Luffy’s pale face suddenly looks more fantastical than the little straw doll hopping past them. It is as if he has already become part of the bridge-world, one of those extraordinary beings who engage in the festivities, sparing not a glance for the humans in their midst.
“Yes.” the boy whispers.
“How do you know so much about this place?” Marco persists, unwilling to let go of the string of clarity he has finally gotten hold of.
“This is my second time here.” Luffy explains, his bright happiness faded to wispy nostalgia. “The first time I came, I wasn’t even born yet. I was given a choice here, to live or not to live.”
Unconsciously, Marco tightens his grip on the boy’s hand. In response, Luffy presses himself into Marco’s side, letting his head lean on the man’s shoulder.
“You see,” he begins softly. “you learn things when you come here. Things you need to know in order to decide. You’ll forget once you leave but while you’re here you know them.”
A small sigh escapes Luffy lips as he continues his tale.
“My mother was already dead. She had been isolated in her pregnancy and without help or medical assistance, she could not survive the birth. But before I died along with her, someone found her. And me. So I was given a choice. To live or not to live.”
“You chose to live?”
“I don’t know.” Luffy admits. “I told you when you come here you learn things, sometimes you forget as well. I seem to have forgotten why I wanted to live in the first place but I know very well what would make me want to cross over to the far shore.”
“What is it?” the boy’s puzzled look prompts Marco to elaborate. “What would make you want to cross over?”
The boy’s stare is insistent but not uncomfortable, so Marco returns it steadily.
“My brother will die.”
For a single moment, Marco feels like he is losing his footing. A feeling of vertigo pulls him down and sideways, warping his being before vanishing as if it had never been there. Coincidence or fate, he does not know which he believes in the most.
“My brother will die too.” he says. “I guess it’s what I learnt when I came here. My father will die as well and someone else I don’t know yet but who will be precious to me.”
“I see.” Luffy murmurs and this time his smile is genuine. “So we’re the same.”
It is not cold in the bridge-world but their connected hands feel warm as a fireplace does in winter. Comforting as only things belonging to home can be.
“What will you do?” Luffy asks.
“I’ll go back.”
There is no room for hesitation or doubt. His brother will die, so will his father and the stranger. It’s because they will die that he wishes to return and spend time with them. As much as he can.
“What about you?”
“I don’t know.”
Luffy’s eyes shine in the lamplight. It makes him look tearful, almost fragile.
“You should go back too.” Marco says. “So we can meet again.”
“Even though we’ll forget?”
“Even then. We’ll still meet each other. What else matters?”
Luffy chuckles and the sound reverberates in Marco’s arm.
“I see. I guess so.”
The boy detaches himself from Marco’s side and steps away from the man. They face each other, their hands still connected.
“I’m going to go back.” Luffy announces, steady and determined. “So, when my brother dies, come and comfort me.”
“You too.” Marco grins as their grip relaxes and their hands slip out of one another. “We’ll share the burden.”
The last thing he sees is a smile so wide that Luffy’s eyes wrinkle.
He opens his eyes to blinding white and a tall figure slowly coming into focus. He blinks several time before the blot of blue above him takes the shape of a woman he knows well.
“Bay?” he groans as his hand reaches to touch his forehead.
He has the odd sensation that something has been removed from his mind, but the feeling disappears quickly. He is left to squint at his father’s ally as he tries to recall the events that have led him to wake up in the woman’s medical bay.
“You’re finally awake, Marco.” the woman comments.
The lines of her face are soft and tinted with relief. It’s a far cry from the belligerent expression she always seems to be wearing in the presence of men.
“What happened?” the phoenix asks, pushing himself up into a sitting position.
“Pops got worried when you didn’t come back so he sent us to look for you. You weren’t in good shape.”
The woman’s words bring back images from the fog of his memories. Pirates he was sent to deal with. Marines and their unexpected arrival.
“They managed to get seastone on me.” he recalls aloud.
“Yes, we got it off straight away but your wounds still wouldn’t close. The doctor said you were likely poisoned by the seastone that got into your wound.” Whitey Bay explains. “He said all that could be done was for your body to fight it off. So we had to wait and see.”
From her tone, she did not find it fun.
“I see. Sorry.”
“It’s fine.” the woman sighs, brushing a strand of pastel blue hair from her shoulder. “You’ve been well for a few days now, we were just waiting for you to wake up. You’ve been sleeping for a long time.”
“Yeah. I feel like I had a very long dream.” Marco agrees with a faint smile. “I can’t remember it at all though.”
The woman chuckles.
“That’s how dreams are.” she shrugs. “And now that you’re back to reality you might be interested in knowing that Pops has picked up a new kid.”
“Has he now? Is he going wild while I have my back turned?”
“Pretty much. I hear that new kid is a ferocious one.” her smile is conspiratorial as she continues. “His name is Ace.”
As the woman shares the gossip from the Moby Dick, Marco reaches a hand to his chest. Something has clicked in his mind and faded right away. His memories still feel hazy and lacking but there is one thought that stands bright and clear amidst the confusion. Time has started moving again.