Betaread by The Patient One.
Chapter 29. The Ones Left Behind
"So, what do you guys think of this?"
"What do I think of this?" Zoro muttered.
"Yeah," Sanji replied. "Anyone have any explanation for this?" He blew out a puff of smoke as he, as well as everyone else on the ship, stared at the view in front of them.
A peaceful little island floated innocently in the serene greenish ocean, framed by a backdrop of blue sky with white fluffy clouds. A nice little cottage stood in the middle. Trimmed grass, a laundry line full of clothes, and a sun chair under the lone palm tree indicated that this place was indeed inhabited.
When no one offered any bright ideas of what was going on, Sanji continued, "I could've sworn we were swallowed up by that whale, but…"
"We're just dreaming, right?" Usopp piped in. His eyes, brimming with hope, shifted to the two brothers nearby. The older one especially. No doubt, after living ten years in the Grand Line, he would know.
Sabo still held onto Luffy, having pulled him off the figurehead and into the safety of his arms just as the giant maw closed. Good thing he did, the trip down the whale's throat was anything but gentle.
"We were eaten by a whale!" Luffy cheerfully exclaimed.
Sabo unwrapped his arms from around his brother with a sigh. "I have to say," he started, finally giving the new surroundings a more judging sweep, "getting eaten is a first for me too."
"Nooooooo!" Usopp wailed. "We were not eaten! It's a dream! A dream!"
"It definitely feels like an illusion…" Nami agreed.
"Pretty sure the whale's stomach shouldn't look like this," Sanji added.
While everyone gawked at the island, waiting for answers they all desired, Luffy bounced up and down like an effervescent ball of excitement. "Ne, ne, Sabo," he called, a grin dancing on his lips, "do you think we taste good?"
The blond glanced down at him, then back at the island with a contemplative hum. "Considering you're made out of rubber, you'd probably be hard and chewy." He smirked. "Though that alligator that swallowed you when Ace kicked you into a river didn't seem to complain about your taste."
"Ace was so mean…" Luffy pouted. "But you were always nice to me. I think you'd taste very sweet!"
"Ace would taste super spicy!" Luffy scrunched his face in distaste. "Like that pot of stew we stole from the house next to a barbershop."
Sabo grimaced from a mere memory of it. His throat suddenly felt like it was on fire again. "How could I forget? That thing was nasty," he grumbled. "But you have a point. Ace would taste extra spicy."
"Wait, wait. I think I just heard something very disturbing," Usopp said. Sanji and Zoro nodded in agreement. "Luffy was eaten by an alligator?"
Nami couldn't endure anymore. "Why are you two so relaxed?!" she exploded, throwing her arms up in pure frustration. The two brothers only blinked at her outburst. "We were eaten by a whale! It's not the same as getting eaten by an alligator! Why and how did you get eaten by an alligator?!" Nami's anger simmered down into a panic. "What do we do?! What's going to happen to us?! I don't want to get digested!"
"Don't worry, my sweet mellorine! I'll gladly get digested instead of you!" Sanji exclaimed as he pirouetted towards the navigator with his arms outstretched and hearts in his eyes and—
—got decked by a single punch. "I don't want anyone to get digested!" Nami yelled, still holding her fist up as if daring anyone else to offer themselves up.
"Isn't this easy to solve?" Luffy asked, completely serious now.
So serious, in fact, that his crew straightened up unconsciously. Their undivided attention focused only on their captain, ready to soak in his wisdom.
"In one way, out the other!" Luffy declared, head held high in pride and hands on his hips. "We just have to find the whale's ass and get—!" Before he could finish, he ducked under Nami's punch with a yelp.
Zoro facepalmed. Sanji groaned, hiding his face behind his hand as if embarrassed himself. Usopp just sighed.
Sabo watched Luffy weaving around enraged Nami's attacks, like a swirling wind around her fists. There was a playful grin on his brother's face and mirth in his eyes. With what he knew about Luffy, he wouldn't take this situation as a game if Nami attacked with a genuine intention to hurt him. Sabo shook his head at their antics and looked away, instead choosing to study the rest of the crew.
The three teens were discussing the fake sky and birds and why there was light in here. Even Usopp, who Sabo observed was more on the cowardly side, offered his input about their current predicament. It seemed that Luffy's silliness helped in easing the tension among these young pirates. Sabo wondered if his brother did it on purpose. The latter could be incredibly unpredictable and hard to read sometimes.
"If you don't like it, we can go back through where we came from," Luffy suggested, sidestepping yet another clumsy hit. "We just have to climb back up the throat and—"
"Namiiiii~," Luffy whined. The girl paused to catch her breath, and he took the chance to retreat to a safe distance. "Why are you so angry? I just—hm?" His gaze flicked down at the deck, the intensity of his gaze seeming to look through the ship, and Sabo mirrored his action a few seconds later. "Something's coming," he warned, now deadly serious.
Sanji tensed. Zoro grabbed the hilt of his sword. Sabo reached for his pipe.
The water rippled violently and then the surface broke as the huge pink beast burst out of the depths. It towered over the Merry, furious eyes boring into the tiny humans on her deck and tentacles flailing aggressively, threatening to smash the ship into smithereens.
"A GIANT SQUID!" Usopp and Nami screamed.
The others were about to make a move when three harpoons speared the squid through its head. In the fountain of spurting blue blood, the squid dropped back into the water, dead. The group traced the ropes of harpoons to the cottage. Someone was standing in the doorway, holding the other end of those ropes, but the light didn't penetrate the lingering darkness inside the cottage, so all they could see was a vague silhouette.
Zoro flicked his sword out. "Looks like someone's home."
"Better hope it's a person," Sanji muttered.
The ropes tautened and the squid started slowly getting dragged towards the island. In a nerve-racking silence that made most of the Straw Hats sweat bullets, the hunter pulled his prey closer and closer until he finally stepped out into the light himself.
"It's a flower!" Sanji exclaimed. Then, he blinked. "Ah, no. It's a person."
It was a person. At least, he looked like a human. Like an old man, to be precise, with his white hair and beard and wrinkles on his face. Curiously, he had yellow-purple flower petal-like things growing in a semicircle around his head.
Apart from the brief interruption, the silence continued. The old man reeled the squid all the way to the island and secured it to a wooden stake. The pirates felt their hearts start racing as the stranger straightened up and fixed his steely eyes on them. They felt paralyzed by that gaze, like powerless prey in front of an apex predator.
The man began walking, not lowering his penetrating glare from the ship.
He plopped down on the sun chair and opened up a newspaper.
It was such an underwhelming turn of events, Sanji's strained nerves snapped, "Say something, you jerk!"
The man looked up from his reading material.
"W-we'll fight you if that's what you want!" Usopp stated, legs shaking. "We have a cannon on our side!"
The man's eyes hardened, boring into each of them with the intensity of a warrior ready to cut an intruder into the smallest of pieces.
"Don't. Or someone will die."
Nami and Usopp whimpered. Zoro and Sabo narrowed their eyes. Luffy tilted his head curiously as he regarded the stranger.
Sanji cracked a tight smirk around his cigarette. "Oh?" he asked, feeling a cold sweat sliding down the back of his neck. "And who would that be?"
"You?!" Sanji seethed. "Freaking bastard…" He looked a second away from jumping to the island and strangling the guy. "Making a fool out of me…"
Grinning at the cook losing his temper, Zoro pulled him back and stepped forward himself. "Oi, old man! Mind telling us where we are? And who are you?"
The man glared at the swordsman for a few seconds that seemed to stretch into an uncomfortable amount of time.
"It's proper manners to introduce yourself first before asking someone else's name."
"Yeah, right. Sorry about that," Zoro floundered. "I'm Roro—"
"My name is Crocus, the Lighthouse Keeper of the Twin Capes," the old man interrupted. "I'm seventy-one-year-old, Gemini, blood type AB…"
As information got less and less relevant, Zoro's patience snapped. "Can I kill him now?!" he snarled, his sword halfway drawn.
Luffy burst out laughing.
"Please, calm down." Sabo patted the swordsman's shoulder. "He's just messing with you."
Crocus' eyes widened furiously, pinning them all down without effort.
"CUT THAT OUT!" Zoro, Sanji, Nami, and Usopp howled.
Sabo let out a sigh. "What a weirdo," he said under his breath. He had met his fair share of weirdos until now—the Revolutionary Army was full of them, honestly—but this one turned out to be quite unnerving. Looking at his brother who was still busy giggling, he couldn't help a smile that made its way onto his face. Luffy was enjoying himself, so the man probably wasn't a threat. "Never a dull moment while traveling with you, is there?" he teased.
"Shishishishi, I like that old man."
"You're wondering where this place is? You trespass into my private resort and—"
"I'm Luffy!" the rubber teen cheerfully cut the lighthouse keeper off to introduce himself. "Do you happen to know where the exit in this Mystery Whale is?"
"How rude of you to interrupt while others are talking," the old man scoffed. And promptly got glared at by a few people.
"You're the one to talk…" Zoro grumbled.
Crocus didn't seem to hear him… or if he did, he paid no mind to it. "The exit is over there." He pointed at the huge steel gate in the distance.
The Straw Hats blinked. A huge steel gate. Surrounded by a fake sky with clouds. In the wall of what was supposed to be the whale's stomach.
"…how did we miss that?" all five of them asked.
Sabo squinted. "It's not painted, is it?" he wondered.
Usopp pulled his goggles down and took a couple of seconds to adjust the lenses, everyone waiting for his report. "Looks real," he affirmed. "There is a steel platform at the side with a smaller doo—gah!" With a startled gasp, he was thrown off his feet when the deck under him unexpectedly shifted.
The waters around them began shaking and churning. Both Going Merry and the small island rocked in violent waves. Before anyone could catch their breath, the acid ocean around them tilted: one side rose, swallowing the fake sky, and the other side sank in, revealing numerous skeletons of various creatures and half-digested ships. Merry's front rose together with the rising water.
"Brace yourself!" Zoro shouted as he hooked his arm around the nearest railing.
Like a wooden shaving in a glass of water that was tipped over to the side, Merry slid backward down the forty-five-degree slope.
Luffy wrapped his rubbery arm around the mast and at the same time, his other arm shot out to snatch shrieking Usopp who got tossed into the air by the sudden shift. At the corner of his eye, he saw Sabo jumping up to catch Nami in midair before landing safely on the galley's wall. Zoro was hanging onto the front railings with Sanji next to him.
Everyone was safe for now. Not for long, though, because they were about to crash into that steel gate they had been looking at earlier. Exiting in such a way was not what any of them had in mind.
Fortunately, the Merry started slowing down and, as the acid sea evened out, they came to a stop.
"Is everyone alright?!" Sanji called out from the front.
"Yep!" Luffy cheered.
"I want to go home…" Usopp sniffled from where he laid face down on the deck.
Once Sabo's arm withdrew from around her, Nami collapsed, her trembling legs unable to keep her on her feet. "What-what-what the hell was that..." she whispered, trying to get her bearings. They had barely entered the Grand Line and it was one thing after another without a pause.
Sabo tugged his overcoat up, shooting a glance down at the navigator, and fixed his hat. "All good here!" he answered.
"Hmm, I don't see Flower-ossan on his island," Luffy commented. He looked around before his gaze inevitably drifted to a single spot in the water, though he seemed to look through it rather than at it. "Ah, he's fine," he murmured.
"What the hell?!" Sanji yelled.
Indeed, the island somehow got misplaced together with their ship. The palm tree, the cottage, the squid—everything.
Sabo's eyes flicked over the edge of the island where it met the water. "I think it's a ship," he said. "Probably made out of iron or steel to fend off the stomach acid."
"Who cares?" Zoro growled. He was so done with this whale. "The exit is right there!" He pointed at the gate, all frustrated aggression. At least, they got lucky by being thrown towards it and not farther away from it. "Let's just get out of here."
The small door in the gate suddenly slammed open. Everyone startled, heads whipping up to look at the possible new threat. A man and a woman in flamboyant clothes burst out through the door onto the platform, carrying heavy bazookas on each of their shoulders, and…
…immediately keeled over and started vomiting.
The Straw Hats stared.
"What's up with those clowns?" Usopp asked no one in particular.
"Urgh…" the man with a crown groaned. "I didn't expect the whale to move so much while we were inside…"
The blue-haired woman pressed her hand against her mouth. "I'm not feeling well, Mr. Nine…"
"This is the last chance, Miss Wednesday," her companion replied. "We have to focus…" The woman nodded. "For the whale…" A nod again. "For our village." They both reached for bazookas which lay abandoned on the floor. "For our mission!"
"Ah, that's not good," Luffy said.
"What?!" Usopp instantly panicked. He didn't know what he should be panicking about, because the two strangers didn't seem to be targeting them, but maybe the captain noticed something he didn't. "What's not good?!"
With a roar, the duo brought bazookas up, intended to blow a hole in the whale's stomach...
…only to shoot back into the steel gate. The force of the explosion slammed into their backs and hurled them clean off the platform.
"See? They had their weapons backward," Luffy pointed out dryly.
"You're right. Not good at all," Usopp agreed calmly. "Seriously, what's up with those clowns?"
"AAAAAAAAH!" screamed the duo, plummeting down. "IT'S A SEA OF STOMACH ACID!"
The Straw Hats stared, too baffled at the moment to even think about saving them. During the time they were distracted by watching a flailing bazooka pair, the old man resurfaced and started climbing the steel ladder. Just as the two splashed into the water, he reached the top.
The world shook again. Less than the time before, but it still was strong enough that the pirates had to grab onto something in order to stay on their feet.
"Arrrgh! I've had enough of this!" Nami yelled. "How do we open the exit?!"
"I'll open the gate for you kids in a bit," Crocus called out to them from the platform. "In the meantime, can you keep an eye on those two for me?"
The weirdo pair managed to resurface, but the rough waves tossed them back and forth and threatened to pull them back under.
"Alright!" Luffy agreed instantly. "Usopp, get the rope!" Both his arms shot forward, stretching to the pair and latching onto them. He ripped them off of water and pulled onto the Going Merry, forgoing any thought of their safety.
The man faceplanted onto the deck, slid across it, and slammed into the railing, barely missing Usopp who darted to the side with an eep. He slumped where he stopped, and the woman escaped the same fate only by Sanji swooping in to catch her.
The old man turned to leave through the smaller door in the gate, but the two abandoned bazookas caught his eye. With a disgusted sneer, he kicked them into the acid below and only then proceeded to leave.
"…this is how you tie people up," Sabo said as he tightened up the ropes around their prisoners, not paying attention to their groans. "No one ever escapes tied up like this. And they can even feed themselves if you keep them long enough that you have to feed them."
Usopp eyed the blond man warily. He was grateful to learn a useful trick, but the way he talked implied that he had to use it quite often. "That's a weird skill to know."
Sabo hummed. "Something I picked up here and there."
His lighthearted comment only strengthened suspicion in Usopp's gaze.
Sabo smiled amiably at the heated glares sent his way from the weirdo duo. He stood up, his eyes shifting to his brother.
After returning to the real world and the real sky above their heads, they settled around the stone table at the base of the lighthouse where Crocus shared the story about the whale waiting for his nakama for fifty years.
Throughout the story, Luffy sat cross-legged on the table and stared at the looming colossal form of the whale—Laboon—without uttering a word. No one could read his expression, his face was completely blank. He never touched the cup of tea that Crocus offered either.
"To think he's been waiting here for fifty years and still believes his nakama will return," Usopp muttered. "I hope they still really come back!"
As if he heard it, Laboon let out a sorrowful cry.
"Idiot," Sanji flicked the ash off of his cigarette. "This is the Grand Line. The answer is obvious. There's no reason to wait for them anymore."
Sabo moved to stand behind his brother. "What are you thinking?" he asked.
"Ace waited for me," Luffy murmured. He never noticed when his hand drifted to rest on the left side of his neck where the scar was hidden under the bandana. "He didn't know if he should, but he waited anyway." The loud wail shook the air once more and the teen stayed silent throughout it. His gaze never strayed from the whale. "Maybe these guys are also in a bad place and can't come back. No matter how much they want to or how hard they try."
"The truth is crueler." Crocus shook his head. "They ran away from the Grand Line."
That revelation distracted the crew (or at least half of it) from the little tidbit their captain shared about his mysterious past.
"W-what?" Usopp stuttered in disbelief. "And the whale continues to believe in his nakama's promise?!"
Even Nami felt agitated by the news. "So they just left the whale behind?!" she shouted. "If that's the case, then why haven't you tried telling him the truth? This whale understands human words, right?"
"He knows," Luffy muttered.
"The young lad is right. I've told Laboon everything, but he refuses to listen."
"He won't listen?" Nami whispered to herself.
"Ever since I told him the first time, Laboon has been bellowing at the Reverse Mountain and bashing his head against the Red Line." Crocus let out a breath of utter defeat. The end of his words was swallowed by a mournful cry reverberating throughout the area. "I've tried telling the truth many times during all this time, but Laboon refuses to accept it."
They never talked about it, Luffy recalled, he and Ace. Ace never asked what he had to go through after his disappearance, but Luffy never questioned how Ace lived through losing both his brothers either. The scars on Laboon's head reminded him of faint scars on his brother's knuckles; the way Ace would sometimes punch the tree disregarding his own well-being, then would simply wave it off with a perfectly fake smile when it left another bleeding wound.
The ones left behind. A pain they suffered. And the dwindling will to keep themselves safe.
Laboon reminded him of Ace, Luffy couldn't leave the whale be.
Abruptly, the rubber teen hopped off of the table. "Hope is a horrible thing to hold onto," he said as he started walking. "But living without hope is even worse." After a few more steps, he paused and turned around with a frown. Beelining directly to Sabo, he flicked his forehead.
Sabo rubbed the stinging spot, barely able to maintain eye contact with those demanding dark eyes. Others might have been confused at this exchange, yet he knew exactly what his little brother wanted. For him to not feel guilty. "I can't," he told him quietly. Sincerely.
Luffy pursed his lips, every inch of his expression radiating disapproval. "You had that memory-thing happen to you. They are to blame." His insistence, unyielding and full of certainty, was met with silence. The two brothers stared at each other, ignoring the odd looks from others. "Would you have waited fifty years for me?"
This time his brother replied, "Of course," without a shred of doubt. Because there was none.
Luffy's expression shifted, softened. "Isn't that enough?" he asked, bouncing backward. Not your fault, he didn't say, but Sabo heard it anyway. A bright grin straight from the heart banished the shadows that fell upon the boy's face. Flinging his straw hat to his brother, he spun around. "Hold onto it, I'll be back in a bit!" And then jogged off.
For some time, no one spoke. Eventually, the curiosity won over. "That memory-thing?" Nami was the first one to ask the question on everyone's mind.
"Ten years ago, they blew up my boat while I was on it. I got saved, but suffered a complete memory loss," Sabo explained. His words were heavy with thoughts like he was still going through a million things in his head at once. "My memories returned only recently."
Usopp worked up the courage to cautiously inquire, "Who are… 'they'?"
The burn scar on his face started aching. Sabo's fingers tightened around the brim of Luffy's straw hat and he couldn't stop the sneer from twisting his features. The silence stretched on, and it quickly became clear that he wasn't going to answer.
"Gomu Gomu no…"
Everyone perked up at the familiar voice, but Luffy was nowhere to be seen.
Soon Usopp yelled, "There he is!" as he pointed at the mountain behind the building. Luffy stood on the rocky slope with his arms stretched all the way to a weathervane on top of the lighthouse.
"Huh?" Nami put a hand above her eyes to ward off the sunlight. "What is he doing there?"
Sanji wondered the same. "What is he up to now?"
"I have a bad feeling…" Zoro muttered, gripping his sword for some reassurance.
"…Rocket!" Rubbery appendages snapped back and catapulted Luffy over the lighthouse and in the direction of—
"He's going to hit Laboon!" Crocus shouted in alarm, jumping to his feet. "Hey! Hey, kid! Watch out! You'll get hurt!"
Even if Luffy would have wanted to heed his warning, it would have been too late. He slammed into the whale's side with such a powerful momentum that, regardless of massive size and weight, it staggered Laboon.
Luffy rebounded from the whale's body. "Hey, you big dummy!" he called out as he descended. "Remember me? I made you move earlier!"
An entire sea shifted under his body as Laboon turned sharply, eyes narrowed, anger and indignation flitting across them like lightning, and rammed the still airborne pirate.
Despite having only a split second to do so, Luffy managed to right himself in midair to stick the landing. He crashed, red rocks crumbling away from the force of the impact under his feet. The ground shattered even farther when he sprung back into the air like a released coil. The world blurred around him. The power bloomed, thrumming through him, pulsing in time with his accelerated heartbeat.
A tiny fist hit Laboon's eye dead center and the whale let out a pained whine. It grew in intensity and volume until the whale was all but roaring as he charged the human.
The moment Luffy's feet touched the ground again, he whirled around, sending both his arms behind him. Moving to meet Laboon head-on, he whipped his arms forward with a roar on his own.
The resulting shockwave of their clash rocked the area. Laboon lurched back and Luffy was sent flying into the mountainside.
"Luffy!" the crew yelled in worry.
"I'm hungry," was what they heard in return. The dust settled down, revealing their captain sitting among the rubble with an easy smile dancing on his lips.
The whale glared at the human, ready to attack, yet not taking an initiative.
Sanji tsked. "What the hell is he saying…" Despite sounding slightly annoyed, he was already running through the list of dishes he would be preparing as soon as this situation was resolved. It was such a rare occasion to hear Luffy say it—honestly, Sanji wasn't sure if he had heard him say it even once till now—he would have to cook a feast and see to his captain having his fill while they were still on land.
Luffy ignored the confusion pouring out from his nakama, staring the whale dead in the eye. "We'll have to postpone our fight for now," he said, heaving himself up, "but we must fight again someday to see which of us is the strongest!" Luffy walked to stand in front of the whale and extended his fist. "Once we're finished sailing the Grand Line, we'll be back to see you!"
Laboon stared at the tiny human, then tentatively leaned closer, yet not close enough to touch his still outstretched fist. He huffed, the puff of air ruffling Luffy's hair.
The boy's smile widened into the D-shaped grin. Powerful, honest, and confident. "That's right." He tapped the whale's head with his knuckles. "It's a promise!"
Laboon's eyes watered.
"We might be rivals, but from now on, we're nakama too!"
Laboon threw his head back and bellowed into the sky. Not out of despair or sorrow this time, but out of pure joy.
Zoro couldn't sleep. Usually, he would simply lie down and be out like a light. Not this time. Luffy, Usopp, and Nami making a ruckus in the distance had nothing to do with it.
He felt restless. Frustrated. It boiled inside of him, nerves threatening to rapture, agitation rising slowly but surely, until his own skin felt too tight. Until he couldn't stay still anymore.
With a click of his tongue, Zoro rose to his feet, pushing his katanas into their place at his side, and peered up at Laboon. Could Zoro make a dent in the whale's thick and tough skin? Doubtful. Could he even be able to make Laboon move with his current strength? Also doubtful.
But Luffy could. He could make such a huge creature move without even touching him. His physical strength was on par with the whale too.
Zoro was too weak.
With an irritated grunt, the swordsman started walking.
Usopp almost bowled him over, an angry Nami hot on his heels with a splash of white paint now adorning her hair. "It was an accident, I swear!" the sniper shrieked.
"I don't care!" She brandished a brush, coated with paint. "Come back here!"
Hanging on the side of Laboon's nose, high up in the air, with a huge brush in his hand, Luffy laughed at the scene below. His eyes briefly landed on Zoro and his laughter faded. His swordsman obviously had something bothering him. Luffy looked after him for a minute… then, with a shrug, he let him be. Sometimes people had to work out their issues on their own. He knew that better than most.
With a nod to Crocus who observed the antics of the youngest pirates with a warm smile, Zoro passed the Going Merry where he could hear the cook humming as he busied himself in the kitchen and strolled straight to the person who seemed just as restless as him. "Yo, Sabo," he greeted. "Wanna spar?"
It came as no surprise when the man pushed away from the rocky wall he had been leaning against till now with an immediate, "Yes. Gladly." He grabbed his lead pipe that was propped against the same wall. "I need to clear my head."
In a mute agreement, they moved away from everyone to have space for their sparring match. Once they were adequately far, they came to a stop in front of each other.
Sabo twirled his pipe between his fingers as he measured his opponent. "What's the story behind the famous East Blue bounty hunter joining a pirate crew?" he asked. There was something in his voice and in his gaze, a keen sharpness, as though gauging the man Luffy had chosen.
Zoro paused with his katanas halfway drawn. It wasn't that long since he met Luffy, yet the events of roughly a month felt like years with how much he had learned, seen, and grown. The reason why he joined, huh. There were several. He went against Marines. Luffy saved his life. He didn't laugh at Zoro's ambition. Most importantly, "Luffy's dream is bigger than mine." He finished drawing his swords. "That's why he's my Captain."
"Oh?" was all that the blond said, those steely eyes of his still on the swordsman, studying him, judging.
Zoro bit down on Wado. Time to try his new blades. He attacked. Weapons collided, metal on metal. Sabo's pipe was a whirling blur as he parried or blocked the fierce slashes and countered with smashing strikes of his own.
Two katanas slammed down on the pipe, but it didn't even budge. He pushed and Sabo pushed back in equal strength. "Why a pipe and not a Bo staff like Luffy?" Zoro asked while they were locked in a battle of pure muscle power. He was also genuinely curious about it.
Sabo chuckled. "It's a strange choice for a weapon, isn't it?" He looked at his pipe and his eyes softened with fondness, though his stance against the swordsman held just as strong as before. "The three of us used to run around with these when we were little. The heavier head was surprisingly helpful in fights with adults and beasts in the forest, giving needed weight to hit harder than we would have been able to do otherwise."
A mighty swing of the pipe sent Zoro skidding backward.
"After I got separated," Sabo continued, "I accidentally picked it up during my training and it felt right in my hand. Maybe my body was just trying to tell me that I—" Sabo's knuckles whitened from how tight he gripped his weapon. Realizing it, he eased it with a sigh. "That I forgot something very precious."
Zoro used the momentary opening to strike again. His eyes narrowed when the blond sidestepped his attack with ease without even looking. It reminded him of Luffy's mystery power. His teeth clenched around Wado's hilt.
He was too weak.
Sabo went on the offensive this time. Zoro managed to fend the onslaught of attacks, but he felt each of them in his arms, his muscles, and even bones. Sabo was definitely stronger than him, he realized with sudden clarity. Instead of feeling discouraged, though, he could feel it coursing through his veins and making his heart race—excitement. Strong people like this lived in the Grand Line. He might be weak now, but he could become stronger if he fought against such people. Following Luffy on this journey was the best decision Zoro could have made in his life.
Sabo slammed his pipe into defensively crossed swords. "Have you ever sparred with Luffy?"
"Yeah." Zoro flipped Yubashiri around and turned, pushing the other man away. He continued spinning until a violent tornado roared to life.
Sabo stayed rooted to the ground, despite the wind threatening to topple him over. His hand shot up to hold his hat in place. He secured it by pulling it down and lifted the same arm, fingers rearranging into a strange, claw-like position, and then brought it down. The rock shattered upon impact, exploding outwards and ripping the tornado apart in the process.
Zoro's eyes widened. For a split second, before he lost sight of the man in a cloud of dust and debris, he could swear he saw Sabo's hand turn completely black. What the hell was that? He had no time to mull over whatever he had witnessed, because his opponent was on him again.
"As far as I know, Luffy uses his staff only against opponents with bladed weapons," Sabo commented, effortlessly swinging his pipe around. "His primary style is unarmed, but his Haki isn't strong enough just yet to protect him from blades." A grin swept across his face, brimming with pride. "Considering that he's purely self-taught, his control over it is truly impressive."
Fending off those precise, relentless blows, Zoro had no choice but to start retreating. "Haki?"
"I believe my brother calls it a mystery power," Sabo laughed. It caused his guard to slip, because he only barely dodged the diagonal slash from Sandai Kitetsu.
Zoro used this opportunity to turn the tables and forced Sabo onto the defensive. "The thing Luffy used to force the whale to give us the way," he guessed.
The blond let out a quiet 'mhm'. "There are three types of Haki. The one he used on the whale was the one a person can't simply learn, one has to be born with it to manifest," he explained, ducking under the blades and letting them pass harmlessly above his head. Exploiting a perfect opening this maneuver created, he launched a punch into Zoro's stomach.
Keeping his feet firmly on the ground, Zoro skidded backward. Once he came to a stop, he dropped to one knee, Wado clattering on the ground. He hadn't been in this much pain since he lost to Mihawk. Looking up, he met the other man's expectant eyes. "But you can learn the other two?" he growled out.
A smirk pulled at the corner of Sabo's mouth as he lifted his hand. "Yes, you can. I'm also a Haki user." This time the swordsman clearly saw the black sheen that spread from his fingertips to his elbow. It faded a moment later and the blond swung his pipe to point at the kneeling pirate. "Let's proceed?" It was as much an invitation as it was a challenge.
Zoro rose to his feet. There was a grin on his face. A wild, predatory sort of thing. "Gladly."
Next Chapter: Miss Wednesday
Meeting Crocus is one of my favorite scenes in OP. I don't even know how many times I watched it and it still cracks me up every time lol I just had to put it in!
Btw, how many of you noticed that Luffy had never said that he was hungry in this fic? :P
Also, also! Someone's writing a reaction fic to this story, so check it out! Strawhats React to 'Boy With A Scar' by AnnaDaFujoshi on Ao3