Notes: This is a rewrite/re-start of the fic "walk with the dead" from - god, 2013/4. tags for it would include but not be limited to: action/adventure, dubious writing style, dubious sense of humor, so many 'i see dead people' tropes, author drunk on melancholy, Ace is Dead and it's Still Too Soon (a story in six parts), mild-ish descriptions of gore, listen there are a lot of dead people in this what did you expect, ocs and canon cameos galore, slowest of burns, canon compliance, the people left behind, Oda your world is ridiculous but also so very morally grey and you can bet im gonna take this and run with it, viva la revolution
Fair warning: this fic swings between taking itself way too serious and serious crack — violently, with a bat. Critiques and comments are so so appreciated, i will love you forever.
Many thanks to my silly little pirates & the judgement-free club, i would be so lost without you. Special shoutout to wordlet, who gave me the final push to just stop editing and publish! Also to ohpineapples/razbluito (author of methyl nitrate pineapples and an amazing artist) who drew the full picture of the section I used for the cover!
walk the plank, eyes wide open
(wear this necklace of rope, my friend, and never think about dying, — or: a requiem)
This is the end of the story: Wide eyes stare into nothingness, a smile frozen in place. Cries of victory and despair mingle, rise and fall, and ricochet back and forth between cold stone and tired, battle-worn bodies. Beyond, the open sky stretches to infinity, and waves whisper, nabbing fitfully at the shorelines.
That's how the story ends, they say, and remind you: Everybody dies. They advise you, insist, to make it count. Dress up a little; you only meet death once. Normally.
People are silly like that; this is not a story about death.
It goes like this: Boy meets girl; girl meets boy. Stuff happens – battles and bruises, glares and glances, hellos and hell-nos – cause and effect; you know the drill.
Except, they never met; not according to anyone with eyes in their skulls and a bit of common sense, because the boy had died in the wake of a widely broadcasted battle, half the world away — at a time when the girl had never even left the sea she was born in. Nobody ever sees the child with sky in her hair that's hovering head over heels, tongue-in-cheek, high above a battlefield. A marine with a repeatedly patched-up uniform, a fool, leaves the career of a lifetime for some fever hallucinations. Nobody has even heard of The Architect before he disappears. And most papers know better than to speculate freely about the fire in the hands of the girl. They don't dare to print the whispered and frankly awfully pompous names they give her, nevermind the events that seem to be unfolding in her wake – coincidences, the lot of them. The dead need to stay dead, and keep silent. Airtalker, that's all she is; for who addresses empty air as if it would respond?
So maybe it's like this: Death meets girl, boy meets death.
PART I (If you don't like the peaches, don't shake the tree)
Sunshine fills the air on a small island in South Blue. Leaves rustle, birds bicker, and off in the little village, people go about their business. It's peaceful, here, and small-minded, and a cause of great yawning for anyone bored enough to go out of their way and stop by. Nothing ever happens.
A girl runs through the forest, a sprint, a jump – she does this on her off days, all day long, her short and curly hair bouncing to the beat of her feet. Ways off, a child plucks some juicy red berries, opens her mouth, swallows. And to the west, a ship parts the waves, on board three passengers – or maybe just one, depending on who you ask.
Nothing ever happens here, they say.
(In the morning, almost midday, tankards and glasses slip off a tray, crashing to the tavern's kitchen floor in an explosion of a million shards. Someone died, a kid, a poisonous herb; that's what her big and kind boss tells her. The girl with the curly hair and empty hands pales, because there had been a heavy chill in the air a few hours ago — because she's afraid the past three years of peace is all she's going to get.
She'll be right.)
There is probably someone dead out there, so ten minutes ago, this seemed like the most reasonable and wisest course of action. That being said ...
"What the–" Her boss blinks down at her, still gripping the door handle. "Are- are you hiding in the broom closet?"
She retreats a little more into the narrow space, "… maybe?"
"You look like you've seen a ghost."
The irony is choking her. "Right. Wouldn't that be weird?!" Outside in the kitchen, some lone shards of glass still hide in the corners, glimmering.
And so, barely delayed, the inevitable follows:
"Tell me a story?" the child asks. Her eyes are red-rimmed, legs kicking back and forth as they sit on the stone bench overlooking the quaint cemetery. She died – yesterday, or the day before that? (A kid, a poisonous herb. The math is simple.) It doesn't matter though, does it, when the child is still here. "Tell me why you see ghosts."
"No," the girl with the curly hair says. Her sleeve is soaked with child's tears, for what kid watches their own funeral and doesn't lose a piece of themselves? A storm had been brewing, called by its ghostly cries of anguish, and the only self-preserving thing to do was to pick the kid up and endure the hiccups.
"Pleeeeease, Lana?" Heaven knows how the child knows her name, since Lana won't - can't - remember hers in return. (It's Remi, the child will tell her repeatedly, R-e-m-i; you're not very good with names, are you? Her hair has caught the blue sky and tamed it into two pigtails. Pigtails, Lana decides to call her.)
She sighs. "Will it help you move on?"
Lana watches as the mother of the kid caresses the flowers on the fresh and much too small grave, and how her shaking fingers seek the hands of the father. Calla Lillies, Pigtails said, flowers for funerals, as well as marriages. They were also poisonous. Nice, Lana commented, and tried not to think of the last grave she'd seen.
"There once was a foolish little girl," she says now. "She snuck in her parent's merchandise and took a bite of a fruit that would be the most disgusting thing she'd ever taste. She would regret it all her life. Stuff happened. The end."
Pigtails pouts, a shadow flitting across her face. "You're horrible at this."
A blackbird settles on a withered tombstone and joins the scolding. Lana rubs the faintly aching scar at the base of her throat. "Tough," she says.
(Faded scenes of sun-kissed orchards fill the recesses of her mind. It's a jumbled, beautiful mess: A symphony of voices haggles over the most exotic breed of fruit and echoes in the sweet, heavy evening air, hailing the harvest. She still sees streets, lined with colorful stalls under clay tiled roofs – building blocks of a golden city that listens to the playful sound of marbles clinking against each other. There's laughter drowning out the soft impact of a falling fruit, cut off the branch by the rapidly improving aim of a little sister – who had been getting better with the boomerang each passing day. Lana remembers the ever present streak of dirt on her mother's dark bronzen cheek, kissed away by her father's bearded smile, and she remembers tiptoeing into the storage with her brother-by-design, both of them giggling, to admire their latest merchandise: A fruit, so swirly and beautiful, and the taste so foul. Forcing the bite down anyway, gagging, laughing, the incident soon forgotten.
The future is bright.
And then … then there's also this: The hand closing around her neck, bring me back, you can see and touch me, I know you know how. No air to breathe, tears spilling over cheeks, a knife against her bobbing throat and her legs kicking in the air uselessly, marbles still clutched in her fist, and: The dawning realization that only she could see and touch him; that nobody would be able to save her from something they couldn't see. How something slammed into her and wrenched her from the ghost's grasp, his knife slipping. Worn-down cobblestone just beyond her nose; hot, scarlet liquid slowly dripping down the cotton of her dress.
The air so sweet and heavy. The sound of marbles tumbling down tiles.)
"… hey, what did the girl eat?"
"A devil fruit. Now how about you, i don't know, move on? You know, like take that ferry across the river already or whatever."
"You're mean. Is this because you're alone all the time? It is, right? Cuz I've got an idea! In stories, ghosts always stick around because they still have things to do, right? And you're lonely (-"I'm not!"-), so I should stay with you! I'll be like– like your guardian angel!"
"Oh no, don't you dare– what are you doing? stop it– mouldy hell, no, go away–!"
(It's like this: Death meets girl, again and again. It's that simple, and that inescapable, for someone who can see, hear and touch the dead-but-not-departed with the power granted by the sea devil. There's nothing tragic about it: It just is. Or should be. Mostly. Ghosts have better things to do than bothering with some no-named girl.
Children have a short attention span – hold on, no, that's not quite right; they positively excel at keeping themselves busy. But, imagine: A child who does not need sleep and cannot consciously touch a single thing – who cannot be heard no matter how hoarse they cry themselves; who cannot show off their creations, nor tug at someone's sleeve and hold their hand – in short; cannot pick up a pebble, nevermind hope to accomplish anything with it but watch it phase through their fingers.
Imagine this, too, then: A girl with an innate talent for indifference and years of drilled-in self-interest, harboring a deep desire for everyone to just please mind their own rotten business, who would rather climb the nearest ten-foot wall with her bare hands before engaging – and who is, unfortunately, the only person not affected by any of the child's aforementioned difficulties; the only one solid to spirits and vise versa.
… what a match.
"Are you awake yet?" Pause. "What about now? …. Now? … aaaaaand now?"
A groan. "Gerroff. 'm sleeping."
"No you're not. You're talking to me!"
"'talking in m' sleep."
"But you didn't talk until now!"
"But I'm bored."
"Don' care." Silence. "Stop trying to blow into my ear!"
The morning dawns with the kid sitting on her. Of course when Lana shoves her off, she is denied any sort of satisfying, audible thump of what would be the kid's body hitting the floor because screw you, incorporeality. Then she endures several comments about her chopped hair, a lecture on names and on the kid's life story as a gardener's daughter, all of which Lana won't remember. And then later, downstairs, she gets called out by her very concerned boss, who asks her if she's trying to spoil the milk by death glare.
She can't very well say: There's a kid in the middle of the kitchen table, who is marveling down at her chest, a chest that is sticking out of the table top ... and the jug of milk is hidden in her rib cage, firmly out of Lana's grasp. Instead, she says: "It's nothing."
The girl blinks up at her. "Did you know the milk is different when the cow eats some specific herbs? It's–"
Lana survives the morning. She sets up rules. She summarizes: "No distracting me when there's living, breathing people around. No talk. No touch. No being in the mildewed way." She actually has hope to succeed for exactly four minutes, before getting a very earnest lecture on the exact shape and color of the herbs a cow must eat to give the best milk. (Those herbs grow in higher altitudes, Lana is told, but she doesn't comment on the lack of the island's mountain-y geography. She would need to listen, first.) She runs her errands with small hands tugging at her shirt, and a resigned curse on her tongue.
"Listen," her boss had said, among other things that were almost drowned out by a rambling kid, "A trader came– ah, you know what, I'm gonna have a look at it myself."
And that's how Lana stops paying attention to long talks, to things that might stand out. When she thoughtlessly passes a young man on the street, shirtless and with a penchant for orange-red accessories, shadowless and with searching eyes, Lana doesn't blink and wonder.
(Had she paid attention; would it have gone differently? If she had been more attentive in the past, she might never even have ended up here. Other times in the future, it might've made things easier. The truth is, however: People's actions do not always depend on each other. Most times, the butterfly will bat its wings, and not a single leaf will be moved by a breeze.)
This is how it happens, later: They're outside because Lana is serving drinks on the patio, and while skipping after her with flying pigtails, the child spots him.
"Lana, look! He's naked!"
Lana looks, and immediately wants to melt into the ground. Not because he might be good looking (he is, but she's had her share of bare chested, muscled men – oh, get your head out of the gutter, not like that), but because– Her fingers grasp empty air instead of the kid's arm and Lana stumbles to the side, stones in her stomach–
"Really? She's right over there, with that pretty skin – she's pretty, right?", the kid prattles, "I think so. She can be really mean sometimes, and her hair is a little weird –"
They guy's voice is laced with amusement. "A friend of mine has hair like a pineapple, you should see him–"
"What's a pine-apple? Is it a plant? Can it do anything useful?"
"Uhm. It … uh, tastes good?"
Lana's heart races and she squeezes her eyes shut, because–
Her stumbling flight is stopped by a blistering touch on her wrist, by a hand that– "I can touch you!"
The kid squeals in response. "We can! Awesome, right?"
The guy tugs her around. "So you can hear me too, right?"
Lana opens her eyes to a burning, curious stare, to the sun beating down on her and the glaring color of a ridiculous cowboy-hat.
His feet are touching the floor, but the light leaves no shadow.
(Boy meets girl. Somehow, that's how it goes, isn't it?)
"What do you want?"
He blinks. He bows and lifts his hand. If he makes a move to kiss her knuckles, she swears they're going to kiss his–
He grasps his hat and lifts it. "Pleased to meet you, I'm … Ace, and in need of your- well, your help." The hat is crammed back on his shaggy black hair and he looks at her expectantly, beaming.
She stares back, non-plussed. "I'm I-Don't-Care, sometimes known as Not-Happening."
His left eye twitches. "You don't even know what I was going to ask."
"Doesn't matter," she says, turns, and catches herself almost reaching for the kid – Pigtails, who looks at her like– "Ghosts always want things I can't give," Lana licks her lips, suddenly parched, "Don't ever tell them about me again."
If he's honest: He expected a little … more. As for her, don't bother: She never expects much of anything, these days.
Granted, it wasn't a terrible first impression; there are worse, to say the least. Nobody nose-dived or killed a comrade, threatened death, over-shared some embarrassingly personal details, introduced the entirety of a lovely greeting cake to a face— Lana looks over her shoulder and has two sets of eyes blinking back at her. The cowboy winks, charming smile glued in place and are those freckles —but if there weren't so many oblivious people around, eyeing her skittish moves, she'd have no problems substituting said cake for the bottled sake on her tray.
"Yo," he says, lifting his hand.
Ignore them, her mind chants, and they'll go away eventually.
He yawns and wonders about the nature of the fear in her eyes. Must be him, he concludes.
(Don't blame him: A lot of things did happen just because of him. His name is revered, whispered among all seas – whether he likes it or not, or how much he now occasionally wants nothing more than to shut them up. Not usually, mind you; you don't become a world-feared pirate with a five hundred fifty million bounty if you didn't mean to.
This is different, but he can't know it's possible for someone to skip classes on what they call common knowledge and not be concerned with something simple like piracy.)
Her boss corners her eventually.
"I guess yesterday was a tough day for you, but– " He hesitates. "I remembered I promised that nothing ever– you didn't even know her, but – you've been so jumpy and keep looking around, is everything alright?"
She feels their stares drilling into her skin. The kid tugs at her arm and Lana forces herself to breathe.
"I'm dealing with it."
(This is how it goes: Death meets girl, and won't be turned away. She doesn't have to like it, nobody asked her; but since nobody ever bothered to answer either … well – she shall always first try her damndest to avoid it until there's no other way.
Her curiosity died a long time ago, on a cobbled street polished from use.)
The afternoon sun burns low and unapologetic. The voices of the patrons float around the corner of the tavern, where Lana crosses her arms and glares. Between them, the kid sits cross-legged and attentive, picking at grass that won't cooperate and be picked at.
"Alright," Lana goes, because it seems like the sooner she gets this over with, the sooner she will be left alone. "What do you need help with."
The cowboy lights up like a kid on his birthday. "Finally!" He taps his left arm, marked by dark letters. "Okay! Okay. I'm looking for my brother. You can see why that's a bit hard – I can't ask around like I used to, but I thought he was a ghost, so it wasn't like it mattered. I lost him when we were kids. But I thought about it and there's a high chance he's not —dead, I mean— so." He moves to clap her shoulder, and Lana blocks him.
He huffs. "Obviously, I need someone to play … what's the word? Medium? Someone to ask around for me and stuff. Shouldn't be too much of a problem to find him this way, at this point I'm pretty sure he can only be somewhere on the Grand Line and–"
"Hold on." Lana edges back and raises her hand like warding herself physically against his words. Then adds her other hand for good measure. "Let me– you want me to find a guy who could be either dead or alive," she takes a breath, "a kid or an adult with unknown features, possibly name? On the mildewed Grand Line where you're, loh behold, guessing he is?!"
He shrugs. "Pretty much, yeah."
The kid jumps up. "I heard a lot of people die there! Can we go?"
Lana gapes, struck speechless. Then she announces: "That's the most moronic and time-wasting thing I've ever heard of. No."
"Oh, come on! I've worked with less. Please?" He smiles winningly at her. She could cut stone on that condescending edge. "Don't tell me you're scared."
"Damn right," Lana scoffs under her breath and runs her fingers through her hair. Evidently, he's one of those types. "Death equals dead people equals ghosts, you moron. And I'm going to stay far, far–"
She spots the new ghost the moment he turns the corner to join them, and somehow, she knows. She knows even before the other part shuffles after him into view. Her skin crawls, up from her sweating hands and down her back, and between one inhale and the next–
"Hello," it says.
Fear is ice dripping into veins, shivering hands, rattled breathing. Fear is the glow surrounding their every visage. Fear is the words, I was looking for you and I'm positive you won't deny my proposition. Fear is an empty, haunted gaze and the disheveled, neglected shell of a living being hovering behind the dead in a gruesome twist of the natural order, following his wishes like a puppet on strings.
Fear is the familiar demand in different clothing, from a different mouth:
"Since you have the ability to converse with us, I wager you know a way of revival, am I correct?"
(This is what happened: The new arrival was dead. His companion was not, but looked like it anyways. More, if spoken honestly; let's not beat around the bush. The ghost introduced himself as Jean, then his companion as his brother Pierre; not that their names are of any importance.
What matters is: Once, there was a storm waging around their quaint trading vessel. One lived, and one died, resentment keeping him. It's the old tale: How could he let go, if this spineless, easily-influenced old idiot survived? He was younger, stronger, and had taken the reigns years ago. He deserved to live. Then, the divine sign: He met another ghost, in need of a passage, looking for a girl who could do the impossible.)
She takes several deep breaths in an effort to calm her racing heart. In a moment, she might be able to make herself move. The cowboy stands frozen, his fist opens and closes. "What?", he bristles.
"Can you do that, Lana?", Pigtails asks, eyes huge.
The other ghost goes on, undeterred, "I'm sure with a proper life-sacrifice …? See, I've thought a great deal about this. Exchanging our souls shouldn't be a problem. Even if I'd be stuck in such a pitiful—"
"No way, you asshole–"
Ten years ago, ghostly fingers closed around her windpipe and held a dagger to it for good measure. Ten years ago, her world tilted, slipped down a path far past the warning: cliff edge. Ten years ago, she was eleven years old.
Lana is not eleven anymore. "I'm terribly sorry, but unable to help you," she tells the guy who wears cargo-pants and a matching friendly sneer, but who is also very dead and just like the ghost who haunts her dreams; a thought that Lana tries to shove down and back where it belongs. This time, she doesn't stop her arm from pulling the open-mouthed kid behind her, offering her other hand to the jerkface. "Good day."
… It goes as well as you'd expect.
"I know I can touch you, so believe me, you either do what I tell you to or else–"
This, though, might come as a surprise:
She steps up to him, smiles. (It's bitter, and baleful, but nobody needs to know.)
She responds: "Go to hell."
She rams her knee into his midsection, grabs his head, and breaks his neck.
(It's where you point out the obvious: You can't kill a ghost. They're, well, already dead. See, though, there's a difference between damaged and dead. The dead part is already done, base-line, no take-backs. But that soul of yours, the spirit of it, it remembers how its body worked – damage is ingrained into your very being. All it needs is some time to repair – a little depending on your spirit shape but mostly on how much of a mess you've made; if bones should be in shambles, appendages hacked off, the insides been given a good stir.
Pain means you're alive? Ha.
Even if you're dead, dying still smarts like a bitch.)
"Hey, Miss!" the patrons call from the patio, "Wait–stop! Where's the Mr. Trader? He went around that corner a while ago–"
Lana runs past them and away, feet hammering on the ground, her heartbeat echoing in her ears, trying not to think about this: There's nowhere to run.
("If you don't get away from him while you can, you'll die." That brother of jerkface-the-ghost won't heed her warning, not while he's blinking away the haze of being taken over and under the influence of jerkface, but at least she tried, right? She tried.)
It's not the panting kid pleading for her to slow down that make Lana's feet screech to a sudden and dusty halt, nor a need to catch her breath. It's a dead cowboy, perching on a roof above like an overgrown orange rooster and crowing. "I admit, that was impressive. Up until you ran with your tail between your legs." He jumps and lands in front of her with practiced ease, and there's his shit-eating grin and pretentious, chiseled chest and what do you know, more jewelry, and —she snaps.
"How did you know about me!? You mildewed piece of blight-infested rot brought him here, who else is–"
And he has the nerve to lift his hands, and- "Calm down, lady! I'm sorry he turned out to be such an asshole, he just gave me a lift, I thought he had some questions! I promise I didn't mean to–"
"Who. Else. Knows!"
He throws up his hands. "I don't know! I haven't even talked to anyone else about you! The dead ossan who told me where you were, he might've spread the news more, maybe? Said he came from here!"
Black spots dance at the edges of her vision and her knees decide it's a good time to go weak. Lana lets go of Pigtails hand. "Oh Fey," Her voice is hollow. "If that chatterbox is going around telling, who knows– I'm not–can't–"
Pigtails tugs at her. "Who?"
—("This island is peaceful", the old man tells her, and takes a drag out of a pipe that will never exhaust, now. "Nothing ever happens here." There's a patient twinkling in his old eyes, but Lana sees him looking out at the ocean behind her, a hunger there that she can't understand. She's tired, and hollow, and all she wants is to be left in peace.
"No deaths with attachments?", she presses.
"No deaths except the old," he confirms, patting her shoulder, his hands gnarled from years under the sun and buried in the earth. "Rare visitors. Not worth the effort, you see."
He leaves on the trading vessel she came with, phasing through shuddering sailors, eyes fixed on the horizon.)—
A crash echoes on the streets, the sound bouncing back and forth, building up a delighted crescendo and unwilling to ebb away.
The cowboy tilts his head. "I think that was the lovely patio of your tavern. Shame." They hear confused shouts, a scream, someone howling in pain– "Aaand that would be the unsuspecting people enjoying a drink. Pardon, were enjoying."
Lana's teeth chatter. He regards her, waiting, and she stares at his crossed arms, the bold letters on his left swimming before her eyes.
"What's going on?," the kid asks, grips her hand. "Lana?"
"Nothing much," he tells her, "Your lady just sicced someone with, say, violent thoughts on your tavern. By not sticking around to deal with him."
Lana wants to punch him. She wants him to go away. (She wants to throw up.)
"Oh, shut up!", she snaps at the kid, who recoils and drops her hand. "I need– I need to–"
"Fight," he offers, tipping his hat. "You can, right? So you should."
And he smiles, smiles with such a rotten, patronizing quirk of his lips, as if he'd know a mildewed blight about– She rakes her fingers through her hair, whirls around, "Oh yeah? And you think he'll be so kind and stay down?!" Oh, she's, she's– Another crash, muffled, accompanied by the bright tinkling of breaking glass.
He watches her. "Time's running out."
Time is long gone, Lana thinks, time has never started up again– not for her, and especially not for him– Her eyes widen. This cowboy-guy, right here, he's also a ghost. He, too, will get back up no matter what.
"You," she points, "You'll help."
The cowboy's grin widens. "Sure. I'll help you, if!", he raises a finger, "You help me find my brother."
Lana growls. "You brought him here– go clean up your own rotten mess–"
"Our mess," he corrects, cocks his head in thought. "… I think. Doesn't matter! You're in, or you're out."
Behind her, her shelter of three years is being wrecked – the home and life-work of a man who welcomed her with open arms and promises of nothing ever happens. What choice does Lana have? How would she even get away from this place? It's a mouldy rotten island. She chokes. She breathes. "Fine," she spits.
He whoops. "We have a deal! Good, I really wanted to beat him up."
Distantly, Lana considers recommending him therapy. A laugh, delirious and strangled, dies before it can reach her mouth.
(Was it stupid, agreeing? Maybe. Certainly worthy of regret. She had the same affinity for small-talk as a pine tree growing far up on a barren, frozen hill – and he had no plan besides blazing through towns and "asking around". But, see, you can't hide from the world forever – especially if it's hell-bent on finding you.
He would know.)
"Pigtails," Lana says, crouching and trying for a smile. It slips from her like swirling leaves on a stormy autumn afternoon. "Remember the rules?"
"Don't talk. Don't be in the way," the kid whispers.
"Yeah. Stay here, alright? Stay out of it."
(She follows them, always. Lana doesn't know why she bothers.)
The patio is a glorified heap of timber, and the last parts of the once merry bat-wing doors cling desperately to their last hinge. If he had time for it, the burly, kind-hearted barman would sob, but he's too busy wrestling a half-dried wisp of a man. And if he had time for it, he might feel embarrassed, because while he himself looks a like mirror of his trampled, broken, wrecked furniture, the man he's fighting is not even breaking a sweat, despite his weak appearance.
The barman doesn't –can't– see the the ghost sitting idly on top of the bar, legs crossed and wrinkling his nose at the chair leg sailing through his chest. He doesn't hear him laugh and call, "Now, Pierre, don't break any bones, you'd be useless!"
The barman does hear the encouraging shouts of his patrons, and he hears: "Hey, you piece of rotten mold! It's me you wanted, right?" And he does see, after the grip of the man goes slack and he almost lands a hit before the voice registers, and he whips around, his heart in his throat, because what is she thinking–
The sun is setting, and her face is shrouded in shadows. "Come and get me."
(What made her come back, really, overriding what you'd call "common decency" could not: The barman's name was Jet. He had a build that eclipsed the sun whenever he would enter a room, large, warm hands, and was, fortunately, in possession of a nice, short, memorable name on top of an open spot for waitress. It didn't matter that he had never needed help before a girl with chopped, curly hair and weary eyes collapsed on his barstool, only asking for a place to stay and a curious need for assurance that nobody at this place dies before their time.
Nothing ever happens here, he promised.)
"You take the dead one," Lana instructs, "I take the Brother."
The cowboy cracks his knuckles. "Sure, but you do know we need to come up with something else, right?" He shrugs. "As much as I will love kicking his ass, infinite healing drags things out a little … Infinitely."
"No shit, Captain Obvious." Lana pretends her hands aren't shaking. It was his rotten idea in the first place, to fight. She doesn't want to– can't–
He turns his eyes heavenward. "How do we make him stop?" She doesn't mouldy know, does he think she would be here if she– "Have you met someone who could do that, this …" His hand makes a vague notion to the open doorway of the tavern, several feet above the ground and crowded with splintered wood, just as the brothers appear in it.
Ha! Has she met someone like it before! Her fingers clench and unclench. She watches him clambering down, slipping, under the annoyed eyes of his dead kin. Pigtails is hiding in that timber. "It's – I call it a takeover. The ghost takes over the mind of peo– a person. Controls them like an extension of themselves. And I don't know how or why it works–" she adds, with an edge, "Since I try to stay away from ghosts."
He has the decency to look slightly sorry. For about two seconds. Then he lifts a shoulder and asks: "So, how did your last 'takeover' work out?"
There, in the middle of the beaten-down, dusty street, dusk on the horizon, he looks right at home. It's silent, a tumbleweed gently floats past them. She could swear there's an harmonica playing in the distance.
They come closer. Air leaves her lungs. "It didn't."
(This is how it went, years ago: Death meets girl, glances past to her sister, and takes her stupid, smart, self-sacrificing brother. It doesn't exactly stop there. There's a story to it, sad and complicated in it's own way, and this is not the time to untangle the threads. What matters is this: Death took her dream with him.
What are you, without someone to be?)
Consider: The power of spirits, as passed down in stories. After all, those must've come from something. What if the sudden chill on a summer's day, the whispers in empty corners, the scraping of chairs by invisible hands, the man struck by insanity – what if it was more than just the mind playing tricks, or ill-advised wishful thinking? Or: Why does it often seem to rain right when things take a turn for the tragic?
See, the concept, as far Lana knows, is this: Ghosts are dead people, held back by varyingly significant regrets, doomed to stalk the living until whatever issue they have is resolved. That should be it. Normally. They shouldn't be able to make a dent in the living, physical world.
(The day before, a small girl had called forth a storm, the air growing heavy and charged, pulled in by deep-rattling despair. Earlier, a collective shudder seized the passers-by while a young man made his way right through their bodies, another pushed and laughed when they jumped at the door closing on its own.
Many of these blasted ghosts somehow meddle in the physical world. There's probably a million different reasons why each of them can do what they do, but Lana never wanted to know. Never needed to. They are as physically real to her as any other living person, so what's the point, when it makes no difference to her? At least, that's how it used to be.)
She steps forward: "Listen – John, Luke, whatever–"
The ghost stops smiling. "It's Jean."
"Close enough." She nods. "The thing is, I don't know a blight about bringing the dead back. There ain't a way. You died. Deal with it."
(He doesn't believe her. They never do.)
Instead, this happens: He attacks, and she's ready for it, wide stance and all – his fist closing in, faster that she thought – he catches fire, howls, and her kick sends him crashing to the ground, rips bruised if not broken. She blinks and stares at the fading flames and scorch marks, turns her head, and there he is: The cowboy, his shoulders and arms covered in flames.
She blinks again. "You're, err–" On fire goes unspoken.
"Handy, right?" He laughs and turns his fingers into merrily dancing flickers. "Did you know you get to keep your devil fruit power in the afterlife? Makes life easy." He frowns when he goes back over the phrase in his mind. "Err."
Joy, he's the gloating type. She sees the ghost –uh, Jason?– moving, and there is another presence behind her – ducking out of the way of a fist, she grabs the arm and then his brother is sailing over her shoulder, straight through Sparky-pants perplexed face.
"Hey!" he complains. "Don't–"
She barely catches Jim's (?) foot with her hands, twisting it, kicking his legs out from under him. "Focus, Firefly!" They are getting back up, fast, strong, and her hands and legs are stinging –when was the last time she fought like this, hand-to-hand, blow-to-blow?– and they will get back up, again and again –they are untrained, but still strong, how?– if Lana doesn't inflict more damage.
She jabs her finger at him. "Don't just stand there! Get to it, Firefly!"
"I would," he huffs, "But someone just threw a guy through me, and called me Firefly – I resent that, by the way–"
"I don't bloody care, Sparks!"
"How is that any better!? I have a name, you know!"
And she's blocking and kicking, and Jaiden-or-something thinks it's a good time to cock his head, "What are you trying to accomplish? Especially you, Mr. Portgas, I thought we were comrades–"
Sparks snarls. "Nobody who treats his brother like that is worth shit, you– taking care of him my ass–"
"Oh, don't be naive." His eyes glint. "I expected more of a pirate."
Suddenly the asshole is charging at her, right through the brother she was fighting and the next second she hits the dirt, chokes back a gasp. Her left shoulder protests vigorously –and she should've handled that blow, it's nothing compared to what she had to take, back in– and he's hovering above her, sneering–
A large blast from the side, a fireball the shape of a fist right past her nose, sends him sailing through the air. "You're welcome!", the cowboy's voice hollers from the distance.
Lana jumps to her feet, panting, "It's your rotten job, you–" and tries to assess the damage to her shoulder, catches sight of black, charred fabric– "You singed my shirt!" Of course it figures that Sparks' powers affect her just like any other rotten thing about ghosts.
"My bad!" Sparks calls cheerfully. "Eyes on the prize!"
She barely blocks the brother's punch in time.
Lana breaks his ribs, he doesn't scream. She breaks his nose, and he doesn't even blink. She tosses him to the ground and flips him through the air when something soars above her head– He sails right through brightly-lit Sparky-pants, who winces and instead of landing a punch, gets hit by his opponent instead. Both of the ghosts crash to the ground and Lana hears Sparks squawk, "Stop tossing people through my face!"
"My bad!", she yells back and barely avoids incapacitation from both sides when both of the brother close in – just as red-hot flames shoot past her and careen into Josh, rocketing him away and also resetting the seam of her shirt on fire.
"Are you trying to burn me to a goddamn crisp?" She tosses the brother over her hip, quenching the flames, and no pained sound escapes him, and she doesn't get it. "You rotten– are you listening to me?"
Sparks mumbles, "He should be going farther. It's always the same distance."
Lana throws up her hands. "Fan-mouldy-tastic! Ladies and Gentlemen, It's spirit-long-throw!", she bites out, blocking a punch. She grits her teeth at her smarting shoulder, and rams her knee into the brother's gut and wrestles him to the ground – he should be howling in pain, why isn't he in pain–
She meets his eyes, then, over his crooked and swollen nose, and she gasps. Her next action is reflex: A jab to his temples, and his body sacks to the ground with a weak thud.
—(Let's hear a little story: When Jean turned ten, he was allowed to accompany his father and Pierre for the first time. Sure, he'd been out to sea before, but never this long, never this far. It was a momentous occasion, and Pierre had to tell him to grab a rope four times before he could tear his eyes away from the way their home island disappeared beyond the horizon. Pierre had laughed, then, tousled his hair –something he knew his little brother hated– and told him to watch out for the waves and changes in the sky. Pierre remembers how Jean had piped, "I always pay better attention than you anyways!" with all the indignation his freshly-ten-year-old voice could muster. It was true, he did; always eager to jump to their father's hand, always the first up the rigging, the first to spot the right cloud in the wrong place. But Pierre saw how the light in Jean's eyes grew dimmer and colder each time father turned to Pierre instead, consulting only him, even though Jean's ideas were bolder, sharper. That would be their father's legacy: Pierre trying to bridge the gap to his little brother, struggling with every decision that seemed too daring, Jean scoffing in the background.
Fifteen years after Jean had first joined them, Pierre had paid attention. He'd seen the cloud in the wrong place. But he didn't say anything, because if Jean didn't think it dangerous, then it wouldn't be, and Pierre was trying not to be a coward, these days. So they sailed — and the storm caught them.
(These days, his brother's voice lives in his ear. He thinks Jean has died, before, but then again, Jean is always with him. Pierre watches himself doing things without meaning to, moving before he's aware of it. There's a haze over everything — somehow, he's more than one person now, has been for longer than he really remembers. He'd marveled at the strength with which those his-but-not-his actions were carried out, at first, but then the pain set in. When he breathes the air is full of jagged shards, each time he lifts his hand a wicked blade hacks him apart. There's blood in his lungs, his kidney stutters around a fractured rib and warm urine leaks down the inside of his thighs and he wishes he could stop, he doesn't understand why he can't stop, how can he stop, brother, but brother–
Those are his constants, now: The pain and his brother. The terror.)—
(Before the fight:
"Don't kill Pierre–"
"The brother," the cowboy repeats, "He's still alive, and doesn't deserve it."
"Of course not," Lana responds and tastes bile, "Do I look like I want to deal with more ghosts? Grant them the joy of sticking around – don't look at me like that! In my world, 'Deserving Death' is an antiquated concept.")
Knocking someone out has more consequences for them than waking up with a headache, usually; Lana knows that, it's been drilled into her. But the look in her opponent's eyes – gone the haunted, hollow glaze, replaced by screaming without a voice, its anguish slicing through her ribs, because she recognizes that terror, and she can't –
Flames burst past her, followed by a growl from Firefly, and he's still measuring the distance and why, why is that so important when there's a frightened, powerless human at their feet, stuck in a nightmare, trapped inside his head, tied to the looming echo of his brother – tied to –
A fist meets her skull, hard and fast, and she crumbles.
—("Think on your feet. Think with your feet. Don't get distracted."
Lana's on the ground, spitting out gravel. Who's rotten idea was it to lay out any of the training grounds with crushed rock? Her arms and legs are scraped raw, and she'll spend the night picking pieces of stone out of her skin, trying not to let her brother see and failing. He'll get that tortured, worried look in his eyes again. She'd even take the sand any day–
"Pay attention! Tell me why you're here."
Lana breathes and inhales dust. She hacks it back up. "To learn t-to –" Fight, no, that's not it, she thinks, feebly– "To defend myself long-" she takes a shaky breath, "- long enough to run away."
"Which means, for you?"
She struggles to her feet, meets Sensei's eye. "Inflict the ultimate damage in the shortest amount of time."
Someone is shaking her, yelling: "Lana!"
She opens her eyes and sees blue. The air is filled with the smell of burned hair and scorched fabric, and there, underlying: A sharp, fresh poke to her nostrils.
Her head pounds sharply and propels her up, almost colliding with the blue above her–
"Pigtails!", she hisses, and with a fast look that makes her head swim, sees: The brother, still out, and beyond – Firefly using Jamie as a punching ball.
"He's so cool," Pigtails sighs and pokes at the pitiful remnants of Lana's attire. She fixes her gaze on Lana with with big, honey-colored eyes: "You're hurt. Are you hurting?"
Bruises and scrapes cover her skin, her skull is throbbing, her left arm is three blows away from dislocation. No blisters yet, Lana notes. "Pains like a rotten mildew." She swats the kid's hand away, then reconsiders. "Help me up." She wobbles on her feet, announcing: "I think I know what to do."
Right on cue, Julian is sailing past her, trailing fire like some very exotic, very ugly bird. Pigtails waves.
"Do tell," says Firefly, beside her.
The plan is simple, as simple as the clap of thunder in the distance:
"I need to haul the guy to their ship, and you need to keep Justin from stopping me."
"Jean," he corrects out of reflex, knitting his brows. "Why?"
"Same difference," she says, hoping to look more confident than she feels. "It's the distance. We need to–" Jay roars, charges, "– you know what, just do it, and don't burn what's left of my clothes."
The look he shoots her is so dirty she feels the need to wipe her hands.
Ever tried hauling an heavily injured, six foot, unconscious guy with bad breath along, trying to ignore your shoulder screaming at you? It's not exactly an afternoon walk in the park … even if there is a kid beside you, pulling at you insistently.
Jesse realizes what she's doing halfway to the docks, the rushing of waves growing louder in a way she hopes isn't just due to the wind picking up. Pigtails yells, and Lana is ducking – to the wrong side. The hook aimed for her jaw grazes her cheek. She hisses, unclenches her teeth, takes a swing. Jake trips over the kid.
"You!" he screeches, trying to get up and failing, his shirt getting eaten by flames, "You won't take him away! I won't let you–"
"Go faster!" Sparks yells.
And she's got a million things to say, but she's sick of it, her head feels like it's split into a thousand pieces and– She bends down and flips the limp body over her shoulders, winces, and takes off, stumbling blindly after bouncing pigtails, her own hair whipping around her head. Then she sees the ship, and it's there, her feet stagger up the plank and she dumps the body at the mast. She doesn't dare spare a glance behind her, let alone rest. The boat has to leave, so she blocks it all out and wills her hands to remember, tying and loosening knots with trembling fingers, tugging flapping sails into their hooks, securing the poles. Promptly, the sails billow and the ship pulls impatiently at the ropes.
"He's waking up!" Pigtails screams over the sound of crashing waves and groaning wood, but it doesn't matter now, as Lana sprints to the rudder–
She cries out, toppling to the planks, hand flying to her shoulder, but Jerome is already on her, pinning her down with wild grey eyes and hair stuck out in every direction, and is someone cooking?
Blinking and panting, she wonders where the sparking cowboy is.
"Seriously? Why does it still work like that– yeah hello to you to, Mr. and Mrs. Codfish, oh don't–don't swim through there – that's disgusting, you know."
Jared is giggling. "You'll give me life, now," he mutters, "I know it." He presses his elbow into Lana's damaged shoulder and a whimper escapes her throat. Then his lips are at her ear, and now she can hear him over the howling wind: "I'm better, always – but he," his arm shifts, squeezing her windpipe, "–he always deserved to die."
She croaks, "Goat shelter."
"What?" he lowers the pressure, sceptical, "Is that the way, to sacrifice a goat?"
Lana's eyes turn. "I said," she rasps, "Goodbye shoulder!"
She swings her injured arm and punches him with all she has under his ear, hitting a pressure point. He yelps and recoils, and Lana flips their positions. Her good arm presses down on his throat.
"You, buddy," she gasps and blinks back stars, "are fighting a lost battle."
He grins. "Really? What are you going to do now?" he taunts and misses her point entirely. "It's just as well you made the ship ready, I was planning to take you with us anyway!"
She feels cold pinpricks on her arms, shudders, and then the first raindrops splatter against the wooden deck. The rigging creaks and moans in the wind. Her mind races. She gulps. "Where's–"
Pigtail's shout barely comes a second before Lana is yanked away, landing on her bad shoulder and letting out a pained moan.
"That," Sparks states, his hat dangling from his neck in a much too soft breeze and his gaze clouded, "was dirty, you bastard."
He lights up.
(Have you ever seen how fire braces a storm? It ducks, crawls along the ground, desperate for shelter, feeble, dying. But fire personified – the air sizzles, dries up, doesn't dare to come closer.
None of these things happen: His fire isn't of this world anymore. It's impossible, water and flames overlaying each other, coexisting, every drop of water gleaming, giggling as they bat the flickering light back and forth between them, no mortal eyes able to follow, and the heat–
It evaporates the rain falling on her instantly.
Show-off, some last coherent part of Lana scoffs.)
—(Two ghosts had met on a busy dock, several islands to the northwest. The one with the bright orange hat had surveyed the ships preparing to hoist anker, and the one with cargo-pants and a sway in his step had asked him where he wanted to go.
"I still have a connection to my brother," Jean said. "Luckily for both of us. He could get you anywhere. What are you looking for, Mr. Portgas?"
"There's a girl that can see us, apparently," Portgas D. Ace responded easily, because Jean knew of him and didn't blink, and he liked trusting people with things that didn't need to be kept secret. He had never thought of his death anything other than permanent. "There's a brother I need to find and I hope she can help."
"Brothers," Jean japed, "Always need looking after even from the afterlife, eh?"
The pirate had laughed sheepishly, agreeing.
"Well, come on then," Jean beckoned him, eyes sharp and awake, "Let's find that miraculous girl in the name of brothers.")—
The ship groans, pivots, and one of the ropes tying it to the docks snaps. Like a whip, it thrashes around and chases Lana as she ducks and staggers to the railing. And there's Pigtails, helping her along it, guiding her where she points, while water runs down her face and makes her hair stick to her skin, dripping down on the bone-dry child. When Lana reaches the helm, she steadies herself on the kid's shoulder, and swings her leg: The sound of splintering wood is barely heard over the driving rain. She almost breathes in relief.
Then the second rope tears off, and she can only watch as the plank skids to the side and disappears underwater. Lana stares at the churning waves. The last remaining rope laughs at her, straining and quivering in the wind. She won't make the jump, not with her her exhausted legs and single functioning arm. Gripping the kid's shoulder harder, she half-listens to the insults Firefly and Jude throw at each other over the howling wind.
"The big man is coming," the kid whimpers. "Lana?"
Lana draws in a sharp breath, moves, climbs onto the railing next to the last rope. There, she stands, teetering in the wind.
The plan was simple: Get the brother to the ship. The ghost would follow, because he had no choice. The ship would leave.
She has some talents, admittedly, but good plans, well. They have a habit to turn around at the end, to point and laugh at her.
The kid screams.
Lana's right arm catches the rope, it strains and god, what now, but then it snaps and she's slamming into the stone wall of the docks with a wet splat. The storm doesn't think that's enough, turns and tosses her, making her watch the parting ship, catch the eye of the brother, a knife in his hand and the fluttering severed rope below. Is–is he nodding? The sea rises and crashes down on her, roaring let go, let go, drowning out the child's voice calling to her through a sick and broken snail connection. What is it saying? Let go? Maybe, yeah, that would be best – so easy and so simple, she's so tired, so heavy. What's her body doing, what's– her left hand blindly grasps the rope and that shoulder screams.
Let go, the rest of her hums back.
"Stupid, this is stupid," Lana hisses, sobs, spits out a soggy strand of hair, "It's just salt water, isn't it, just mildewed, rotten– so bloody dumb–" A wave swallows her words and settles around her like a heavy coat, pulls at her, the rope sliding through her fingers– or is it going up? What is up and down anyway, it's just a matter of perspective–
(She won't remember anything else. Those who stole from the sea devil never tell the truth about it; the drowning. They say the water makes you weak, make up elaborate stories, spin tales about the exact weight in your limbs, and it's not a lie, precisely – simply not the entire truth. Most of them forget about it immediately, again and again, and that is probably for the best.
They would never fall asleep again otherwise.)
She wakes: Wheezing, hacking, water spurting out of her nose and sliding down her chin, and turns her face right into a puddle.
"What on earth is going on?" drones a familiar, deep voice above her. "Why did you– what–"
Closing her eyes, Lana tries to savor the raindrops on her skin and shivers. She counts them, the shivers, and takes stock.
"It's raining," she rasps. "And I almost drowned."
Jet protests, "That's not–"
She tries to sit up and falters. "Would you do me a f-favor and help me p-pop back my shoulder? I'd do it myself, but I'm still–," her teeth chatter, "a-and, well–" She holds up her right hand and shows him the rope burns on her fingers.
(Winning a fight, they always used to tell her, is glorious. There you are, a bloody mess, but your opponent –opponents– are bloodier, down on the ground to your feet, slowly painting the gravel a deep, beautiful red. And you: Standing above them, filled with triumph, and everything will be worth it, for this single, shining moment–)
Lana throws her head back and howls when the joint is pushed back into place. Tears mingle with rain and lingering salt, burning a trail through the grazes on her skin. Her eyes open to a cowboy crouching down in front of her.
"You're pathetic," he tells her, but there's no heat behind his words.
She grimaces and lets Jet help her up. "Shut up, it hurts."
Jet stills. "I didn't say anything."
"Of course you didn't," she sighs, looks up, spots the crowd,
(–glorious, what a complete and utter, bloody rotten bullshit, she would hiss, watching her wounds and purple blotted skin disappear beneath bandages, and missing home, because:)
Post fight is always pre fight. It never fails to be true.
Between the hulking figures flashes a pair of bright blue pigtails, barreling toward her, babbling, crowing, ("–and I thought of Mum and Dad, see, and then I was here, and she was right there, and–") but Lana watches, sees how they duck away under the canopies, children peeking around their backs. Their mouths open and close, but whatever they are saying– the wind carries the words away, whistling around the corners and shaking the old woodwork. It tears at the charred remains of her clothes, cold and filled with salt and frightened, reproachful glances, that cannot comprehend what they saw.
What happened to the trader?
Lana raises a trembling hand to sweep the locks sticking to her face, and they flinch. "I put him back on his ship. He left."
Behind her, the sea roars. And the voices, they grow, they overlay, intertwining and echoing, hissing and spitting and pointing fingers–
(It's peaceful, here, and small-minded. Nothing ever happens. Nothing can ever happen.
The Mr. Trader, the patrons reported, had spoken to her just before, and only attacked when she ran away. She had obviously been the target, for reasons they could not fathom, but did not desire to find out. And to think, they let someone so dangerous, someone who would not stop punching after drawing blood, so foreign, serve them drinks? See her catch fire out of nowhere, go down from blows that never were? Have a storm brewing outside the season?
For a moment, the world beyond the shore, foreign and terrifying, set foot in a harbor filled with grief. A kid died, a poisonous herb. We cannot forget that.
It was simple: She had brought the trouble, so she needed to go.)
The cowboy frowns a little. "What's their deal?"
Pigtails wails: "She beat the bad guy! Why aren't you happy?!"
And Lana? She stumbles, slipping between Jet's hands. She takes a breath, chokes, takes another. She says, "Shut up."
She says, "I'll leave."
(Raindrops pierce her skin, freezing her bones. Her feet splash through puddles and dirt, steady, not faltering, leaving it behind. Sparks keeps up with her easily.
"That could've gone better," he offers, and anger sleeps in his voice.
It couldn't have gone any different, she thinks. "Do me a favor?"
"Shut the hell up.")
This, Lana learned: There are so many battles, and she can't win any of them. Her only choice is to save her skin, get out as fast as she can, then try and make injuries vanish with ointments, gauze and painkillers. The other wounds, the ones she can't reach with remedies, buried, those ones she will just have to live with.
(Pick your battles, they say; None of them, she sighs, please; but nobody ever listens.)
She came with little, and she will leave with little. Lana can count what she owns on one hand: A worn notebook, filled to the brim in a neat, immortalized hand, unopened and sealed closed. A small leather pouch, contents clinking together with a soft, comforting sound. A silly spotted neckerchief, a pair of dainty leather gloves, and a tailored olive coat, painstakingly embroidered with delicate swirls and circles, all faded and remembering years, some more fondly than others.
Things she takes: Medicine, money, provisions, a change of clothes. Things she leaves behind: A trampled home and hearth, a broken promise. Isn't that a terrible thing to feel familiar?
Firefly watches her packing with unreadable eyes. "So ... who's the kid?"
Lana shrugs, takes out a towel for her hair. It's a little awkward, with only one of her hands, so she grits her teeth through the pain and uses both. "She died a few days ago. She's been hanging around."
He raises his eyebrows. "Wow, that sounds enthusiastic."
Lana stops herself from rolling her eyes. What use would it be?
"What happened?" he asks, and she wonders – he clarifies: "Back there?"
"Jean. What did you do?"
(Much later, Remi will call what Lana described as a 'takeover' as becoming a Poltergeist: An experience and rejection so cutting, so deep, so obsessive, that the whole being of the ghost, or what is left of it, strikes out to the closest living person and latches on; closing a binding contract that none of the parties ever signed.
The kid knows her stories: A poltergeist was this troublesome spirit, usually malicious, loud and commonly haunting a particular person. And she has to call it something tangible, because Naming things always makes it easier to understand.
Fair enough, Lana will offer, struggling to decipher the all-too familiar handwriting of a memory, looking for answers.)
Now, she tries: "Something," she fumbles, pushes away stray thoughts, "something happened, and jerk-face - became? - part of his brother, able to make him do what he wants by –"
"– locking him away inside," Firefly finishes. "I knew something wasn't right, but I just figured … it was a way for them to stay together." He quirks his lips. "Always flew the same distance. Yeah, I knew it wasn't me."
"Those two are tied together, where one goes, the other has to follow."
"So, you put him on the ship, and Jean would have no choice but follow. And they can't return, because they're drifting with a broken helm."
Lana's hands still on the clasps of her bag. Silence reigns, loaded with the unspoken implication. Then he ventures: "You know what this means for his brother, right?"
She closes her eyes. Tells herself that she tried, that the injuries weren't– it wasn't like she– he could be fine. He could find help. "I know," she whispers.
Firefly gives her a half-hearted smile. "Well. It's not like we could've done anything. Right?"
The ship had parted, on the reeling the brother, a knife in his hand and the fluttering severed rope below. He'd nodded. Did he understand, she wonders? (Does it make a difference who does the deed?)
"Let's go," she says.
(The dead pirate wonders–
"How did your last 'takeover' work out?"
Jet blocks the doorway, little out of breath. "Lana! Lana, listen– they don't mean it like that–"
"They do," she interrupts him. "It's okay. I need to leave."
"No!" He throws up his hands, then takes a hasty, unsure step back. "No, listen–" He gulps. "I'm sure we can figure this out. I'm – somehow I think you saved me, back there."
She looks at him, his open, round face, marred by a black eye and bruises, and she feels– a little like something is squeezing the air out of her chest, and her eyes prickle at the corners.
"I thought I– had you figured out." He shuffles his feet. "You're a good girl, Lana. I've never been wrong about someone and I know … I know you're a good girl, so I never asked what happened, what made you come here. But now … today–" he spreads his hands, reaching, helpless, "Please help me understand."
As fates go, in this world, hers is not the most tragic sort: Leafless Lana, as her full name goes, was born into a loving family, privileged and well-off, trusted and able to trust, and most of them are arguably still around. Daughter of councillors, always supporting, miles of orchards and deep shop storages ready to be explored, a sibling's hand in each of hers. People would give up precious things for a setup like that, and part of her, a part that she keeps close to her heart, is very aware of it. She knows she couldn't have done anything, but– But.
It's not her fault it went to hell in a handbasket. One day, she might even believe that. One day, she will find out how much it wasn't. There's a story, with plenty of corruption, greed and complications, and on some tomorrow, there will come a time to untangle the threads. Today, though:
Lana stays simple. "I can see and interact with ghosts. After one of them tried to kill me as a child, I was trained on Karate Island until– until I realized how much danger I was putting my family in. So I left, and came here to escape ghosts, because nothing ever happens here, right?" She barks out a hoarse laugh. Her throat hurts, pounding in time with her head. "Tell the kid's parents she's fine. I mean not fine fine, since she's dead and still around, but you know. Still talking people's ears off."
Jet looks much like as if she'd taken one of the tankards downstairs and smashed it over his skull. He's still dripping on the floor from the rain outside. "Remi? You saw– her ghost? Where? Is– is she the reason why the trader– I can't imagine–"
"No," Lana shakes her head, "that was something else. It doesn't matter. They're gone. Do you know of a boat I can use?"
"Yes, but– George offered, it's down behind his house. He's the fisherman we buy - listen," he catches her arm as she tries to squeeze past him, "I'm not sure I understand–"
"It's alright." Lana pats his sturdy arm. "Just be wary of sudden weather changes and traders going berserk in the future and you'll live happily ever after."
She manages to push past him. On the topmost stair, she hesitates, looks back, watches how he shivers when Firefly steps through him. She smiles ruefully. "Sorry for the ruined tavern. And ... Thanks, Jet. It means a lot to me."
(For the past three years, one of the three spare rooms in the only tavern of the island had been occupied. Jet had often, privately, thought of the girl like one might think of a stray cat with a shredded ear and wary eyes, wandering through the door in search of a dry and quiet place to curl up and a jug of milk in the morning. Jet had been feeding stray cats for most of his fifty-three-years, and old Harriet from down in the kitchen did not mind cooking for one more person regularly, just as she didn't mind stopping. But the key to the spare room would remain on its hook for three months, thirteen days after the girl left it, and even though Jet didn't really drink milk, he would be leaving the jug out in the mornings for another month and nine days.)
(There's probably something to be said about kindness and kind ones, now: Some of those people, you owe an explanation, some, you owe lies. Some, Lana remembers, you just say goodbye to. So if she finds it, she holds on tightly, collects it piece by piece, so that it may serve as armor for less kinder times.)
There's one thing, maybe, that surprises Lana:
"I'm coming with you," the kid declares, perched on the threshold of the tavern. "No duh!"
Lana sighs, runs her fingers through her damp her. She's just so tired. "What about your parents, kid? Don't you want to stay with them?"
Pigtails sniffs, eyes red and blotchy, and stares determinedly into the downpour. "I'm your guardian angel now. They don't see me. They don't…"
She's just a kid, Lana thinks, and tries to catch Firefly's eyes, but all he's doing is observing the child, deep in thought, and doesn't offer an answer. Lana gives up and shrugs, then winces at the pain. "Fine. It's not like anything's gonna happen to you anyway."
Lana doesn't leave like she came; there's no hope for peace in her future. Her boat is small, manned alone. It leaves in the dark, rain drenching her and the wind at her back, tearing at every fiber of her being. There's death behind her, and death before her, so in the end, maybe it makes no difference.
("I'm sorry," Firefly offers into the howling wind. Pigtails is humming.
"Yeah," Lana sighs, "You probably should be.")
(Miles away, a beat-up trading vessel is tossed and turned by the waves like a plaything. Fix it, screeches an echo, raving and raging against the injustice done to him. His brother, unruly hair whipping around his head and into his face, clings to the railing, shivering, smiling. A trail of blood drips from the corner of his mouth, mixing with rain and saltwater. He remembers, hears: You, buddy, are fighting a lost battle.
"I'm sorry, brother," he whispers –the spirit whirls around, wild-eyed, what?– and then he lets go. The waves devour him with gusto, as the last, furious scream of a dead man echoes over an empty deck. A lightning bolt chases across the sky in response. And the storm? It chases across the sea, hunting, reaching a small ship with three passengers – or maybe just one, depending on who you ask.)
This is how it goes: Death greets girl. How else could it possibly go?
tbc in PART II (who stops your bones from wondering just who you are)
notable characters that appeared:
Lana, alive, 21yr old born on Pianta Island, South Blue. When she was eleven, she ate the Spirit Spirit Devil Fruit, whose exact properties as well as those of spirit's she will be forced to discover as the story goes on.
Ace, spirit, deceased some time ago, who is looking to put any lingering business of his life to rest. The brother he lost as a child must be it. Alt. 'the cowboy', Firefly, Sparks.
Remi, spirit, a kid that just got a little too curious in her quest for herbal secrets. If she's put her mind to something, good luck trying to convince her otherwise. Alt. Pigtails.
Jean, spirit and poltergeist, who inadvertently bonded slash melded his spirit to the soul of his living brother Pierre. He's one in a long line of ghosts who couldn't accept their death. You're not special, Jean. Alt. John, Luke, whatever, Jason, Jim, Jaiden-or-something, Josh, Jamie, Julian, Jay, Jesse, Jerome, Jake, Jared, Jude a.o.
Pierre, alive until his suicide, unfortunate brother to the late Jean and victim of the latter's 'takeover'. His soul's command over his body was overpowered by his brother's spirit. Alt. 'the brother'
Jet, alive, barman with a big heart. Just trying to live his life and serve the patrons in his tavern. You did great, Jet.
stay tuned for tales involving lots of dead people and unfinished business, featuring our own favorite hothead, ladies kicking butt and getting their butt kicked, and all the mess of choices that make up life and the people left behind – because everyone's the hero of their own story.
(for more oc shenanigans, visit me on stumbling-to-sea on tumblr!)