Chapter One

"A Devil of a Decision"

Ten Years Ago

January 1, 1512

The Ringmaster surveyed the newest crop. These were East Blue stock, which meant nothing exotic except perhaps a rare coloring or two, but that didn't matter. East Blue stock was hardy. The Ringmaster didn't know what it was about this weak sea that produced such exceptional specimens but he wasn't above taking advantage of it to turn a profit. Joker was always eager for a new crop and nobles all over the world would pay a good price for a slave guaranteed to last a few years.

He walked down the line of slaves, cataloguing them in his mind, deciding who would be best placed where. They needed to be taught before they could be sold if he wanted to make a proper profit. Unused slaves with good training always sold higher even if they weren't exotic specimens. That was how the Ringmaster made such a profit despite taking most of his pickings from the weakest sea.

There were quite a few boys in this crop; several of them likely had once belonged to farmsteads going by the muscles in their arms. One had ink stains on his fingers – perhaps a scholar? Hmm, not many people paid for intelligent slaves without assurance that the fight had been beat out of them. That one would have to be trained especially before he could be sold.

Most of the slaves were already cowed. Whatever fight they might have had in them when they were freshly caught had been worn out of them by long days of travel and work. The Ringmaster sent his harshest hunters out when the circus didn't bring in a good crop as a way to kill two birds with one stone. He got more slaves to sell and they came to him with broken wills, making them much more malleable to his training.

The Ringmaster stopped at the last slave in the line. He peered down at it and felt a faint stirring of interest. There were no bruises on this one's skin, nor any signs of discipline by the hunters. The Ringmaster gripped its chin in his hand and tilted its face up. It looked to be a female by the delicateness of its features; dull eyes stared up at him with only the barest stirring of fear.

"Are you not afraid?" he asked.

The slave tilted its head and replied in a foreign tongue. The Ringmaster felt his interest peak; East Blue was a sea of common speakers. Finding any who spoke a language aside from common in this sea was unheard of. All the bilinguals and polyglots came from the other seas. Ohara had hosted a great many of them before the fools poked their noses into things best left alone and got blown up.

It had been a long time since the Ringmaster was interested in a slave. Those he had personally picked and trained had each become some of his key enforcers and the perfect hunters. Several were excellent thieves, ghosting into the homes of the elite and spiriting away portions of their wealth. Two had become the perfect assassins; one his bodyguard and the other currently hired out to a nobleman's usage.

All had complete loyalty to the Ringmaster and the Ringmaster alone.

And it appeared he had found his next protégé.

Present Day

"Well, shit."

The barmaid looked at him with sympathy as she set Roan's drink down in front of him. "Not your intended destination?" she inquired, gesturing towards the small, well worn map he had rolled out in front of him.

"Not even close," Roan said. He traced the path from Cocoyashi to Shells Town and groaned when he found Dawn Island. He'd gone too far north during his sailing. "I didn't mean to get this close to Goa at all."

Goa, a kingdom and a city of unparalleled cleanliness and beauty, festered with the rot of corruption. Roan remembered it from his time in the circus. The Ringmaster had made a number of dirty deals with the nobles there, smuggling drugs and people in and out. The elites paid a lot of money to have certain undesirables "disappear" and the Ringmaster had always been happy to acquire a fresh crop without the hassle of kidnapping.

The barmaid looked sad. "You've been to Goa before?"

"More than enough to last a lifetime," Roan said, rolling his map up and putting it back in his pack. "That place leaves a bad taste in my mouth."

Ironic, really, since Roan wasn't a paragon of moral righteousness. He'd helped the Ringmaster out with his vile schemes and even now he'd sold his skills to the morally corrupt for a little extra cash. It was a dog eat dog world out there and Roan was trying to survive. What did he care for the moral high ground if it was going to get him killed?

Roan was about to ask for a meal to accompany his drink when the door to the bar burst open. Conversation faltered and silence fell over the bar as a group of thugs stepped inside like they owned the place. Roan noticed that the barmaid remained calm despite the white knuckled grip she had on the rag in her hands. At the end of the bar, a young looking kid in a straw hat glanced up from his meal with a frown.

"Oya, oya, what's with those faces?" the leader said with a leering grin. "You act like you ain't happy to see us." He spread his arms out wide in a mockery of a welcoming gesture. "Come on, where's the hospitality? Shouldn't you be welcoming such valued customers?" He turned to his companions. "We're good customers, ain't we boys? Paying and everything."

"That's right Boss Tora," one of the lackeys said eagerly. 'We're payin' customahs!"

"Right, right!" Boss Tora said. "So bring out the sake, dollface."

The barmaid plastered on a pleasant smile. "Of course, sir," she said, reaching under the bar and pulled out a bottle. Boss Tora took it from her with a charming smile, turned, and swung.

Glass shattered. The barmaid flinched back with a startled cry. Roan leaped away from the bar and the spilt sake as it dripped onto the floorboards and his pack. Glass crunched under his heels. Boss Tora had swung the bottle right at Roan.

"Now, I like to think I'm a reasonable man," Boss Tora said in a drawling tone. He narrowed his eyes at Roan. "So I'll give you a few seconds to consider carefully, Bounty Hunter, what you're going to do."

"Well, I was going to have a meal and leave," Roan said. "I'm only a part time bounty hunder and I don't hunt egoist pricks like you; the money's not enough to make listening to your bullshit worth it, see."

Boss Tora took offense to that and drew his sword. "You – !"

Roan side stepped his wild swing easily. Looked like he wouldn't even need to use his own sword. "I was going to do that," he continued as if the interruption hadn't happened. Boss Tora's blade dug deeply into the wooden floorboards. Roan smiled nastily and stepped on it, preventing it from being pulled out. "But then you spilt perfectly good sake to get my attention. Now tell me, what kind of man would I be if I ignored such a blatant cry for attention?"

He grabbed Boss Tora by the hair and slammed him face first into the edge of the bar. The thug slumped to the ground in an unconscious heap. His lackeys took offense and charged Roan all at once.

"How dare ya do that ta Boss Tora!"

"Die Bounty Hunter!"

Roan caught the first with a round house kick to the throat. He flew into an empty table, gasping for breath and clutching at his throat – Roan might have crushed his windpipe. Oops. The second lackey got a right hook to the nose and a knee to the gut. The last one went after Roan's head with a sword. Roan ducked under it, got behind the idiot, and kicked him hard in the back. He hit the bar hard enough to knock the breath out of him. Roan took advantage and slammed his head into the hardwood until he was knocked out on the ground next to his boss.

The silence in the bar was broken by boisterous laughter. Roan flicked his gaze to the boy at the end of the bar, the one in the straw hat. The kid grinned like a lunatic, pleased as punch, unfazed by the sudden violence. The barmaid sighed shakily and pressed a hand to her face. Still, a smile pulled at her lips so Roan suspected she was familiar with the kid and not at all surprised by his reaction.

"That was so cool!" the kid said. "Hey, hey, join my crew!"

Roan stared. "Your…crew."

"My pirate crew," the kid elaborated. "I'm setting out to start my journey to find One Piece today, so I need crewmembers."

"Did you not hear the part where I'm a bounty hunter?" Roan asked with an incredulous expression. "What makes you think I'd want to be a pirate?"

The kid pouted. "What's wrong with being a pirate?" he asked. "Pirates are the freest people on the seas! They see the world, go on adventures, find treasure, sing good songs and eat good food! What's not to like?"

What an idealistic view, Roan thought with a touch of bitterness. He didn't have the option to see the world like that. He never had. Survival was a bitter battle and his goal a desperate endeavor. Besides, Roan didn't trust people. His faith in this world's humanity had taken to many hits.

'How about all of the above?" he said, picking up his pack and slinging it over one shoulder. It was soaked with sake which meant his map was probably ruined. Damn. That was his only translated map and it'd cost him a pretty penny. Without it, his chances of making it to Shells Town on time were slim to none.

Roan turned his back on the Straw Hat kid and looked at the barmaid. "Do you know where I can get a new map, ma'am? I'm afraid the sake might have ruined mine."

"Call me Makino," she said. "And yes; there's a cartographer's office just down the street, near the docks." Her smile took on a mischievous cast. "I'm sure Luffy can show you the way."

Roan grimaced as Luffy – the Straw Hat kid – cheered. "I'm sure," he said in as pleasant a tone he could manage. "Thank you for the help."

"If I get you a map, join my crew!" Luffy demanded as he led the way outside.

"Why would I want to? I have my own goals to pursue." Roan brushed off his demand. He had his goals and becoming an outlaw wasn't conductive to them. But he was curious. "Why do you want to be a pirate anyways?"

Luffy reached up to his straw hat, grinning. "I made a promise to return this hat after I become the Pirate King. I'm going to gather a crew and set out for the Grand Line." His expression turned contemplative. "Ten or so crewmembers seems like a good number."

Roan stared at him incredulously, but Luffy was completely serious. Ten members? That was the barebones of a crew and that depended on what skill sets the people he recruited had. Luffy needed quality people if he wanted to survive with such a small crew.

"Thought about it a lot then?"

"Yep. It's been my dream since I was a kid." Luffy turned so he was walking backwards, facing Roan. "What's your goal?"

There wasn't any harm in being honest. "The Grand Line, ultimately," Roan said. "If half the rumors are true, that's the only place I'll find my answers."

Just wait a little longer sis. I'm on my way.

"Then join my crew!" Luffy demanded again. "If you're going to the Grand Line you can come with us!"

Roan glared at him. "What part of the word no do you not understand? I have my reasons for saying it, so listen!"

"Then what are they?"

Roan was tempted to tell him none of your business but that was rude and he doubted it'd make Luffy back off. Still, explaining that he didn't want to be an outlaw when he technically was an outlaw (even if only in certain circles) seemed redundant and hypocritical.

"I'm not good at following orders," Roan settled on. "I'd be a bad addition to any crew."

It was a shit excuse, but Roan didn't want to explain. He'd rather continue as he was, raising money for his own ship and crew than shackle himself to a crew whose goals didn't align with his own.

"So I won't give bad orders," Luffy said like it was obvious. He grinned at Roan's disbelieving expression. "And since I'm the captain, if I think you're a good addition to my crew, you are."

That…Roan had no response to that. It was the most ridiculous, convoluted logic he'd ever heard. He stared at Luffy in frank disbelief, expecting him to take the words back or falter in some way, but the stupid kid just continued to grin.

Where does he get that sort of confidence?

"Doesn't matter," Roan said, shoving past him. "I won't join your crew."

Roan could see the sign for the cartographer's now. The sign was worn and the paint was peeling, which didn't inspire much confidence, but it wasn't like Roan had a lot of options. One of them trotted after him like a puppy, poking him and asking too many questions and demanding he join.

No. No way. I have to get to the Grand Line under my own power. I can't be under someone else's rule again. I just need the money to buy a ship. I just need to keep doing what I'm doing and I'll be fine.

Somewhere a bell tinkled as Roan pushed the door to the cartographer's open. The shop – if it could be called that – was small, cramped, and dusty. Luffy sneezed loudly behind him, stirring up a cloud of dust. Roan tugged his shirt up over his nose in an effort to avoid sneezing or choking on the dust. He was less than impressed with what he'd seen of the shop so far.

A little old lady toddled out from the back room, squinting at them. "Hello?" she said and when they didn't respond instantly, "HELLO? Goodness, are you deaf?"

"Yo!" Luffy said.

"Hi," was Roan's rather flat response. "I was told you sell maps."

The lady smacked her lips and tilted her head. "Maps, mm? Well, I think I do some of that…yes, yes, that's right. And what do you want with my maps, eh? I DON'T HAVE ANY GRAND LINE CHARTS!"

Oh, lovely. The cartographer was senile. Roan barely restrained the urge to groan and face-palm. Instead, he wrestled his irritation down and put on his best and most charming smile.

"I'm not hear about Grand Line charts, ma'am," he said in his most polite tone. "I just need a map of East Blue – preferably one that can get me to Shells Town from here."

The old lady squinted at him suspiciously, smacked her lips some more, hemmed and hawed and carried on. "Well…hem…I see, I see. Shells Town, eh? Heh-hem…" She shuffled over to a filing cabinet and pulled the bottom drawer open. It was filled to the brim with papers, not all of them maps, and no sense of organization.

Roan shuddered. He'd learned the value of cleanliness and organization at the hands of the Ringmaster and it'd been a harsh lesson. The Ringmaster didn't tolerate mistakes of any kind. And even though it'd been years since the Ringmaster, there were habits Roan had never managed to shake and organization was one of them. That drawer was a horror show to the part time bounty hunter.

The old lady dug through the papers, mumbling to herself and tossing them everywhere. "No, no, definitely not – what the hell is this? – no, no, no – aha!"

"Did you find one?" Luffy asked curiously.

"I did," the lady said with pride. She shuffled up tot eh counter slowly with joints that Roan would swear creaked. The map was laid out proudly and Roan leaned forward to inspect, expecting something great and perfectly clear –

"This isn't a map, it's a picture," Roan said flatly.

And a child's drawing at that. Not even a good one. Sure, you could tell that it was a picture of an ocean and meant to emulate a map but the islands weren't distinguishable as anything more than green blobs. There weren't even any latitude or longitude lines.

"It is not!" the lady croaked indignantly. "This is the finest map in – he-hem – in East Blue! I paid good money for this map!"

Roan closed his eyes, took a deep breath through his nose and breathed it out slowly. Yelling at a senior citizen was a bad idea. He could go back and yell at Makino-san for being a conniving, information withholding liar but that wouldn't help anything. Really, Roan was screwed, so very, very screwed.

"That's not the map I need," Roan forced out, "but thank you for your time, ma'am."

He turned and stalked out before she could respond. He shot a glare towards the bar and then turned his feet towards the docks.

"Hey, does this mean you'll join my crew now?"

Roan spun around, intending to tell the kid to fuck off, but the words died in his mouth. Luffy was grinning, completely guileless and it was such an open expression that it left Roan at a loss. He stared and tried to contemplate how this naïve kid could see anything of worth in him.

I'm a betrayer, a murderer, a thief, a saboteur, a liar.

What do you see in me that makes me worth anything?

"Why," he asked abruptly, "do you want me to join? You don't even know my name."

"So?" Luffy said and shoved his pinky up his nose.

Roan wanted to scream. This impossible paradox of a kid tested his patience and they'd only known each other for maybe ten minutes. And yet he was still considering…

"So, what do you see in me that makes you want me as part of your crew? As, if you're just starting out, your first crewmember? Why a stranger for a first mate?"

"Because I decided," Luffy said without elaborating.

Roan was at the end of his rope. Sure, he could continue to say no and continue trying to raise funds for a ship and crew of his own, but it was taking so damn long. Bounty hunting paid well and working for Along put food on the table, but Roan was always aware of the fine line he was skirting. Between Smoker's interest in him, his past deeds, his current deeds, and the many, many unanswered questions surrounding his circumstances, Roan balanced on a knife's edge. One wrong move and he'd fall.

He wasn't sure he'd make it back up if he did.

What do I have to lose? I have nothing, I am nothing. If it comes down to it, I can abandon ship. It wouldn't be the first time. And I need to get to the Grand Line.

Roan had never considered himself impulsive, but when he looked at Luffy and prepared to say yes, it felt a lot like jumping when he couldn't see the ground.

"I guess you've got a first mate, then," he said.