She was just a little girl the day the Pirate King died.
Akina was young, but she remembered the details of that day more clearly than any other. She was meant to stay at home and keep all the doors locked, but it wasn’t every day the most infamous criminal in the world was executed. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity she wasn’t willing to miss. She snuck out, right from under her big brother Maes’ nose, and made it to the square all on her own. She only made two wrong turns, which, considering her previous attempts at independence, was pretty good.
She still made it to the show with plenty of time to spare. There weren’t any people on the execution platform yet, not even the World Government officials, but a large crowd had already gathered. Everyone in the world knew what was happening today. Everyone would be watching. Except for her, of course. She, for one, couldn’t see anything at all. It was a blessing and a curse being such a small child. She pushed her way through the crowd, right up to where a statue of some marine hero guy was slowly being coated in bird shit. It wasn’t the most sanitary, but it made a good perch.
She remembered badly scuffing her knees as she tried (and failed a few times) to climb up the statue and kneel behind the bronze cannon at the dead admiral’s feet. It was the perfect place to watch the execution without anyone she knew seeing her. All that effort would have been wasted if someone told her brother where she was.
She didn’t have to wait long before some official looking people in neat, white suits mounted the steps to the high platform. Two ordinary-looking soldiers followed them, each holding a long blade, reflecting the sunlight painfully. Even at a distance, She could see they were intricate weapons, probably more ceremonial than anything else. Or at least they would have been if they hadn’t been so deadly sharp.
Not long after, the crowd went silent. It was a strange thing for a child to see. There must have been thousands of people in the square, but they had all been hushed in an instant. The only sounds She could hear were her own heartbeat and the slow plink plink of chains falling around moving feet.
The kids at school called that sound the Pirates’ Dirge. It was hardly the first execution her town had seen, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. The older kids liked to scare the little ones with stories about how, for seven days after the pirate’s death, you could still hear the chains rattling at night. Supposedly, it was his spirit wandering, looking for his lost head, like a cockroach. When she was five, her brother scared her so badly with that story, she thought she’d never go out to sea out of fear of ever meeting a pirate. She was terrified that one day he’d die and come looking for her, thinking she’d taken his head! She only learned later that the government officials hung the chains from the rafters of the platform for a week to scare other pirates. She wasn’t sure which story seemed worse. Ghost pirates at least didn’t hurt anyone. Taunting pirates with the remains of a friend, or even an enemy, sounded a lot more gruesome, not to mention cruel, than a ghost. But she was just a kid. What did she know?
As the sound of chains drew nearer, she peeked out of her hiding spot to get a look at the man who had turned the world on its head. He surprised her. She hadn’t really known what to expect, but she’d imagined him like the pictures of kings in her books at home; all wrinkles and scars and long grey beards. This man wasn’t anything like that. He had scars, but he wasn’t ancient or wise-looking. In fact, he looked rather ordinary, and not even that old. Maybe just few years older than her brother. He couldn’t have been that young, but the smile splitting his face made him seem that way. He was very full of life for a man about to die.
There was no fear in his face, nor any false sense of confidence. Just an easy-going smile. It didn’t seem to faze the two guards flanking him, but there was a mounting unease in the crowd. No one looked that laid back on their way to be beheaded! Not even the strongest or cockiest pirates did that. It was unnatural.
As the procession passed her statue, Akina felt something. It was like the air was popping with static and yet pressing down on her. She could tell others around her felt it too. Like the presence of a king, even a defeated one, still deserved respect. Awe even. She saw some people kneel. Many others, closer to the advancing group, passed out on the spot. One of the guards jabbed at their prisoner’s shoulder and whispered something threatening in his ear. He looked back, innocently. They kept moving.
The group reached the platform much faster than she thought they would. What little she knew about these sorts of things included the Navy’s flair for the dramatic. They usually liked to stretch it out for as long as possible so that they could make an example, but this one was rushed. It was almost as though they were afraid that he was going somewhere. Maybe they were. Maybe he was.
A short, thin man read out the charges in a short, thin voice. It was a rather long list, which seemed to amuse the pirate now kneeling on the platform. The two great swords were crossed against his neck, but even that did not phase him. His grin never faltered. The official read faster. By the end of the list, he was out of breath. And then the man asked if he had any last words.
It might not have been a remarkable moment if it had been left alone, as he didn’t appear to have thought of any final words at all. But then someone in the crowd spoke up. She couldn’t hear the man’s question very clearly, but the answer was one that she, and every soul who lived in that era, knew by heart.
The words caused such an uproar, that hardly anyone noticed when the deed of the day was done; the outcry drowning the sounds of the swinging swords. Everyone was in a frenzy. She was terrified that she’d be lost in the mob, and in that moment she wished her brother was there, not just to protect her, but to reassure her that he was still there. Bodies pushed against the sides of the statue, jarring her. Everything was a blur of constant motion, making her feel dizzy. She looked for a fixed point in the crowd to steady herself, and found it in a figure in a long cloak, standing utterly still, not far away. She couldn’t see much in the crowd, but she caught a flash of red hair under a straw hat.
Akina stared intently at the stranger. Like the Pirate King, there was something different about how Red-Hair was acting. It was weird and out of place to be so still and steady in that storm of people. After a few moments, she realized Red-Hair hadn’t been still at all, but was shaking, with tears or rage she couldn’t say. She didn’t know why, but she felt as though she should do something to help. Offer some sort of comfort. The execution had been upsetting for everyone, for different reasons, but this looked like it was more personal.
Brother always told her to stay away from strangers though, especially if she thought they might be pirates, so she kept her distance. It was better if she stayed in her perch until the throng died down anyway. She kept watching Red-Hair. Not long after, a silly looking man with a weird nose appeared and bumped the other maybe-pirate’s shoulder. He said something to his comrade, and they started to walk back towards her. She hid behind her statue again, and peeked at them. She only caught a few words of their whispered, but heated, conversation as they passed, but they were enough.
She had never told another living soul what she learned that day. She wasn’t sure what would have happened if she had. It’s unlikely the government would have believed her if she’d told them that the Pirate King’s crew was in the crowd that day. Or that they were under their Captain’s orders to do nothing.
She was afraid of whatever wrath might come down on her, so she kept her mouth shut.
When the government found no trace of the notorious crew for five years, she kept her mouth shut.
When the most feared ship on the seas was spotted in the Grand Line, she kept her mouth shut.
When there were reports of impossible destruction and raids on Marine bases, she kept her mouth shut.
Because no one wanted to believe it. They couldn’t. Until now.
“You’ll have to believe me now, Vice Admiral. You can’t deny the evidence!”
“Ships sliced in half.”
“Bases reduced to rubble.”
“The whole goddamn whale attacking your ships!”
“What other evidence do you need?!”
The asshole steepled his fingers and looked at her like she was some paranoid lunatic.
“Miss Hirai, I realize how these things might look, but none of it means that they are back. There are plenty of pirates who could have done just the same thing, disguised as imposters.” He regarded his clipped fingernails for a moment. “Even if that crew has returned, my dear, they have no captain. He has been dead for nine years. If they have finally decided to exact their revenge against justice, we will deal with them as we would any other pirates. We have nothing to fear from a ghost.”
“You’re wrong,” she said. “We have everything to fear from his ghost.” She circled around Vice Admiral Helmeppo’s desk. If her brother hadn’t been a Navy hero, she knew she never would have gotten an audience with anyone, let alone multiple hearings, even if they were with the same infuriating bastard.
“Do you know the Pirate King’s last words, sir?” she asked.
“Of course,” he sounded bored. “A man in the crowd asked him what he’d done with his treasure. He said something like, ‘you’ll never have my greatest treasure. I am the only King,’ and then we killed him. Simple as that.”
Akina hated being talked down to. Especially by slimy little men like Helmeppo.
“You’re wrong,” she said, as patiently as she could. “He said, ‘You can look for the One Piece, but you’ll never get my greatest treasures. Not if you look for a hundred thousand years. My treasures will always be mine…’” She cut off. The last part always gave her chills. She didn’t need to say it. Even higher up Marine assholes knew verbatim the last words of the Pirate King, ‘Strawhat’ Monkey D. Luffy.
The Vice Admiral huffed into his cigarette. “So he was an arrogant dipshit.”
Akina gritted her teeth, but said as politely as she could, “Sorry sir, but you’re wrong again. I overheard a conversation between two members of his crew.”
“Yes, yes I know,” he interrupted. “Red-Hair and the Nose. So you have said. Red-Hair was supposedly Cat Burglar Nami and the Nose was the Strawhats’ sniper, the man known as God Ussop.”
“Yes,” she continued. “I know it was them. I saw them. I heard them! He was telling her to stick to the plan. That if everything went right, all they had to do was wait it out.”
Helmeppo leaned back in his chair. “So you’re saying the Strawhats betrayed their captain? Left him to die. Pirates have no sense of loyalty, Miss Hirai. You of all people should know that.”
She felt her cheeks grow hot and her eyes sting. That was a low blow, even for him.
Sensing that he’d gone too far, the Vice Admiral had the grace to look ashamed.
“I apologize, Miss Hirai. I did not mean that as a slight against your brother. He was a good, honest man, and a great marine. The pirate spy’s infiltration of our ranks was no fault of his. He did his duty to the last and kept a great deal of valuable information out of enemy hands.”
She nodded tersely. She’d never liked pirates. She may have been curious about them once, but after Maes’ death, she’d grown to hate them. She didn’t know what group that scum had been with, but anyone who called themselves the King of Scum must have had connections and alliances. His crew may have been pissed at the Marines and had their operative take it out on Maes for all she knew.
Well, the Strawhats weren’t the only ones capable of revenge. She took a deep breath.
“The Strawhats didn’t leave their captain to die. They’ve shown too much loyalty to him in the past for that. You should know that, sir. It’s what made him so dangerous in the first place.” Directing a little low blow of her own felt good.
“The tone the sniper was using wasn’t the kind you would hear from someone who couldn’t care less,” She continued. “He sounded as though he were comforting Cat Burglar. She was tense and crying, the way anyone would be if they’d just seen a friend get executed.”
Helmeppo played with a pencil on his desk. “Your point being?”
“They had a plan that day. God Usopp kept saying that they had to ‘trust in Luffy’ that everything would be okay. There was a reason they were all there that day. They wouldn’t have come just to watch him die!’
“I don’t see why not,” Helmeppo’s droll voice grated on her nerves. “Roger’s crew did.”
“That was different. This was…organized. They had something in the works. Something to save their captain. I’m telling you, sir, Strawhat Luffy is alive!”
The Marine gave her a sanguine smile.
“I know you want information, Akina-san,” The Vice Admiral patted her hand good-naturedly. “But chasing ghosts is no way to go about it.”
She snatched her hand away and sneered at him. “Fine. Don’t believe me! But when the undead Pirate King shows up at your door, don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
She marched out of his office and slammed the door. This was getting her nowhere. She sank to the floor in a crouch and let out a frustrated scream into her hands.
‘No one believes me! No one ever believes me!’
She thumped her head against the wall and sighed. From the outside in, it did look like a crazy, grief-stricken delusion. Just because there were thousands of eye witnesses who saw him die doesn’t make them right, right? Who was she kidding. Still, some part of her wanted to believe. Even the Strawhats had nothing to do with the pirate who earned Maes’ trust and killed him, at least it had been a lead. Without that, she didn’t know where to look.
Maybe Helmeppo was right.
Purru Purru Purru click
The walls of this building must’ve been really cheap. Even on the other side of the door, she could make out Helmeppo’s conversation with someone on the other end of the Den Den Mushi, as easily as if she’d still been in the room.
“Coby. It’s been awhile.”
“I’m trying to escape paper work right now. Help me. Please.”
“No can do, old friend,” Helmeppo actually sounded chipper. “It’s your own fault for getting promoted. I guess Admiral Hina still hasn’t forgiven you for last month, huh?”
“It wasn’t that bad.”
“You tried to throw her a surprise party.”
“It was her birthday!”
“She’s the fleet admiral.”
There was a groan on the other end of the line. If Akina could have seen the snail phone’s face, it would have looked absolutely miserable.
“I think she’s trying to kill me.”
“You had it coming.”
“How was I supposed to know she’d hate it?! Anyway, distract me. What’s new out East?”
“Not much. A few scuffles, but no big fights. Nothing like the New World, thank God. I still can’t believe you chose to be stationed there.”
“I like the action.”
“Yeah, I know. You’re a crazy bastard.”
“Oi, you’re talking to a superior officer!”
“Not in all the ways that count, I’m not.”
They chuckled for a moment before falling into comfortable silence. When he spoke next, Helmeppo’s tone had changed.
“I haven’t had it so easy either. The kid, Hirai Akina, came by again today.” Helmeppo’s voice was soft, tinged with something like regret.
“Oh. Is she still trying to—“
“That poor girl. I wish we could’ve turned up something more in her brother’s case so she could stop doing this.”
“I know. She’s started sniffing after the Strawhats again, too.”
The other end was silent for a few moments.
“What did you tell her?”
“The truth. That she was chasing a ghost.”
“Ah,” the Admiral sounded grave. “And have you heard from our ‘ghost’ lately?”
“No more than you. Last report placed them heading to Fishman Island.”
“Why? Do they think they can help Luffy-san there?”
“I stopped trying to understand anything they do years ago.”
She clamped a hand over her mouth, afraid they might here choke on her breath. What the hell and fuck were they talking about?!
“I hope they will. The seas are a emptier place without Luffy-san.”
“Not being challenged enough there, Admiral?”
“Oh, you know what I mean.”
“Never.” Helmeppo’s tone was almost teasing.
“The seas need Luffy-san as much as Luffy-san needs them. A King needs a bounty and a bounty needs a King. Luffy-san’s treasure has always been freedom on the seas.”
“Well, not his only treasure. Anyone can be free, but nobody else can have those ‘greatest treasures' of his. Ya know, that always seemed weirdly poetic for him, if you ask me.”
The Admiral hummed in agreement. “I wonder how they’re doing.”
“Well, like you said a pirate needs treasure to be a pirate. Treasure needs pirates to be treasure.”
“That’s not what I said. At all.”
“Close enough. Point is, I’m guessing they've had it rough, but they’ll be okay once they can figure out how to wake him up. That rubber idiot’s their treasure too after all.”
And suddenly pressure was building inside her ears. There was a buzzing drowning out Helmeppo’s words, but it didn’t really matter. She finally understood.
In many ways, the final words of Strawhat Luffy had been like those of Gold Roger. A cryptic message when asked about his treasure, a haunting grin as the swords came down. But in all the subtle ways that mattered, they were so, so different.
Because his final words weren’t about the One Piece at all.
She stood up on wobbly knees and made for the door as quickly as her feet would carry her on their pins and needles.
She had been right all along, but also, so stupidly wrong. Strawhat Luffy was dead. That much she could be sure of. She’d seen the blood up on that platform herself. But the Strawhats, brave, stupid, impossible people that they were, were still going to bring him back. Somehow.
For all that she hated pirates, she had to respect that.
It also finally made the attacks on Marine bases make sense. They weren’t after revenge (and if she was being honest with herself, they’d never send an operative to do their dirty work anyway). What they were after was him.
Not much was known about what power the One Piece had on human bodies (ordinary treasure her ass), so the World Government had always played it safe. Any corpse that once bore the name of Pirate King was kept under careful lock and key, frozen solid, and guarded. The Strawhats had bided their time for five years to break a dead body out of prison. Or it had simply taken that long to track the body down. In all fairness, they’d done stupider.
Just as he’d done stupider things for them. His greatest treasures.
“You can look for the One Piece, but you’ll never get my greatest treasures. Not if you look for a hundred thousand years.”
If she could just hunt them down, she could get answers. They still had connections. Pirates or not, they could still help her.
“My treasures will always be mine…”
If she helped them.
“…and I’ll always belong to them. However I get remembered by any of you guys doesn’t matter. All that matters is that with them…”
If she could help save him.
“I was the man who became King of the Pirates.”