uhhh happy belated one-year-after-last-update-anniversary? /dodges rotten tomatoes
Funny story, I had this chapter basically done back in april, but I realized it didn't work with how the rest of the arc was going to go. Then I realized instead of three chapters, this arc would have at least four and I had no idea how i'd structure that. I promptly developed a writer's block that has lasted until recently.
I cannot thank thank you enough for the continued support and for every follow-notification or comment-notification that randomly showed up in my emails, even though I haven't updated in so long. I promise it won't be another year until the next one *cough*
Special thanks to: Myherogal22, read a rainbow, Snickering Fox the two guests and keyboard-smash-guest for your comments! I try to be worthy of them. Thanks for the compliments on my style; I am glad that its all-over-the-place-ness and patchwork-ness appeals to someone :')
Onwards to the chapter! In which I out myself as a big Rouge-fan. Incidentally, also in which Ace does not have a good time, at all. (or: the written equivalent of me repeatedly punching Ace in the face while sobbing "I'm sorry!")
What happened so far:
Our trio was stranded on an island via storm, and proceeded to discover that something definitely doesn't seem right on the tropical paradise – boarded up taverns, locked-down ships, arrest-happy Marines who seem to have something against hibiscus ... a lot of uneasy vibes all around and some unhappy ghosts with a major grudge, particularly against Ace – who temporarily torched them as a deterrent. Lana was taken in by the friendly twin owners of a tavern, and eventually told just what island she had stranded on: Baterilla.
There used to be a girl, a woman, a daughter, with wild golden hair and an even wilder laugh, who left to greet the sun out at sea and washed back up on land periodically like the tide. Home was out by the horizon, was the sway of waves beneath her feet, the unknown just a breeze away — but home was also bright cottages and flowers blooming in an overgrown garden, palm wine and fireflies bright against the night sky, where women wore hibiscus in their hair — left side free, right side spoken for. The girl had always worn it on her right; she was married to the sea, her island, the world, she argued, ten years old and already tall.
"Rouge," they told her, "You can't marry any of those things."
Little Rouge had stuck her tongue out and showed them all of her pearly white teeth. "Watch me."
Baterilla returned her smile fondly, and watched.
Prominently pinned on the wall behind the bar of the tavern "Twelve Palms And A Fork", covering several bounty posters:
"NOTICE. Following the alarming rise of so-called "Pirate Tourism" after the execution of Gol D. Ace (also known as Portgas D. Ace), disrupting the public peace etc., a Level Beta Blockage in accordance with §11 will be implemented effective immediately. It will remain until further notice. — MARINE BASE BATERILLA, Commander B. Fidel"
Beside it, a wanted poster, bounty crossed out. A young man laughs down at the patrons, freckles dancing and bright orange hat casting shadows over his eyes.
"You see," Jaune says, "For over twenty years, we didn't know this was about Rouge. I mean, looking back, it was really darn obvious. At least I have an excuse: I was twelve."
"Okay," Lana replies, uncomprehending. "Who's Rouge, again?"
Ace itches to shake her, something hot and unpleasant churning in his stomach, and tries to remind himself of the hassle he'd had to get to the woman. She can't know it's the one name he had clung to since before he can remember, the only proof that someone had wanted him to live so much they gave their life–
Jaune eyes her. "You … do know about what happened with Portgas D. Ace's mother, right? Old Sengoku had a jolly grand time telling all the world about it at the broadcast."
Lana sighs. "I understood maybe half of what you just said. What broadcast? Who's 'Senkoko'?"
A part of Ace wants to die again. (Dying would be kinder than listening, because he knows this story already, doesn't he? He was there when it was told). "You can't not—"
"Wow," Jaune interrupts him, staring at Lana like she's just grown a second head. Ace doesn't think he has ever related to someone more in this moment. "Where did you come from? Under a rock? I hope the weather was nice there. Probably not nearly enough sun."
Ace snorts despite himself. Lana hums. "Close enough," she says. "Okay — let's skip this and start over. If this is all necessary to explain a mouldy flower, fine, assume I have enjoyed the perfectly acceptable life of a hermit crab and know nothing. Or maybe I fell from the sky! I don't care. Go."
"Uh." Jaune lets out a breath. "Pirate King Gold Roger, ring any bells?"
A shudder runs through Ace, even as Lana shrugs and stuffs some rice into her mouth. "Probably not. Should it?"
The barlady barks out an incredulous laugh, then leans back and tugs at her hair, not taking her eyes off of Ace's personified growing headache. "This is. Going to be more complicated than I thought. But, uh. Okay." She clears her throat.
Let's spare us some of the more tedious rehashings of the crash course in world history as taught by consensus and skip to the part where a small island in South Blue got involved – an island very unimportant to both its governing kingdom and the world as a whole, except, of course, to the people living there. Baterilla offered some excellent palm wine –known locally as tari, and the brew from the "Twelve Forks" was widely agreed on to be one of the best– and small but nevertheless fabulous beaches, tropical forests, a picturesque but sizable town on one side of the island and rice paddies on the other, a splatter of villages in between. They were perfectly content being extraordinary to themselves and ordinary to everyone else. Until, twenty three years ago, an armada of Marine ships suddenly darkened the horizon and blocked the harbour.
"We call it "The Purge" around these parts," Jaune explains, her voice filled with cheer so bright that it has to be forced. "Beautiful name, isn't it? So clean and efficient."
Ace's throat is dry at this point, and he knows he doesn't want to hear this. He knows what happened, he doesn't need the reminder– The off-hand comments by Gramps, once or thrice, back when it used to be comforting to know– 'They hunted for you, but your Mother made sure you didn't end up like the other kids. She was one fine woman, if you ignore her taste in men.'
And Sengoku– he said. He told them–
"It lasted ten months," Jaune continues. "They came right after Gold Roger's arrest and execution, and any kid born five months before and five months after was – well." She draws her finger along her throat, before dropping her hand back on the table. "Since they came five months late, they stuck around five more to make sure they cleaned up okay." Her tone remains bright, light hearted, as if talking about the weather and not, not– she just keeps talking. "At the end of it, the town registry was close to two hundred crossed out names richer. Our sister islands shared of the pleasure. Babes, mostly, a hundred here, but also a lot of almost-mothers, and some fathers who thought it was smart to challenge their say-so."
Jaune stops to take a breath, smile still fixed on her face. The silence stretches, wraps long spindly fingers around Ace's throat and squeezes, cutting off air he doesn't need anymore but yearns for all the same. They sink into his chest, tear and claw at the one gift his mother had left him with, the flickering flame of being wanted that was tended to by brothers, by comrades.
"I'm sorry," Lana offers quietly into the pause, for once reading the goddamn mood. Ace's nails are leaving imprints in his heated palms, disappearing and reappearing over and over, but he can't seem to unclench his fists.
Jaune makes an aborted hand movement as if she wanted wave the useless apology away. "Nobody knew who they were looking for, or realised that they were looking for Rouge. At least–," the corner of Jaune's mouth quirks up further, "nobody is openly admitting it. That would be treason. After all, the Marines left behind a nice little flock roosting in our castle."
Ace is starting to hate the nonchalant tone of her voice. He despises it. How can she be talking about this so lightly, as if reminiscing about a bad joke she was told while tending the bar? They were looking, hunting for– she said her name was Portgas– A shock goes through his system when he realizes that she's talking about her own family. She knew– she knew his mother–
"That's why … well, Rouge didn't die in the Purge. She died after, in childbed, her child with her – or so we all thought. She wasn't involved. She was safe to honour publically – so she promptly became the face of what we, of what happened. So! We did what every self-respecting community does to honour its losses."
"Uhm," Lana says, obviously at loss. Stop opening your mouth, Ace thinks. "You named a fruit after her?"
"Yup, we– wait, named a– what?" Jaune blinks, momentarily thrown. She'd known his mother. "Why–? No! We built a statue! Named the main town square after her." Ace swallows, his eyes burning. "We wore hibiscus on our right side regardless if we were taken or not, just like her – first for months after her death, then every year on the days before and after she died."
They honoured his mother, Ace thinks, numb and burning and aching, for the very thing she was responsible for– no, he corrects himself harshly, for what Gold fucking Roger and the damn Marines were responsible for. She'd been a victim as much as any of them. It wasn't her fault the bastard had left her pregnant at the worst possible time. It wasn't her fault.
She died so he could live; this is a truth he took to his grave, and he will die a thousand deaths to keep it. Nothing could invalidate her act, her sacrifice.
"Now, you think that would be it. Nice tragedy, every community got at least one of those, right? What's the saying? Get back up, fix the flower in your hair, carry on?" Jaune shrugs. "Problem is, things never really calmed down. Misfortune loooooves courting us and the seagulls –y'know, Marines– never had a good night's sleep. We've had eight captains and two commanders in the last two decades." She twirls a strand of her hair, her smile secretive. "So, that's Baterilla like, nine, ten months ago. Perfect harmony between us grieving and the seagulls getting grief. But then they get another brilliant idea." Her eyes gain a manic gleam while she leans forward, her smile widening to the point where she reminds Ace more of the alligators he once hunted, teeth bared and ready for the kill.
"They put up a big screen and livesnail Portgas' execution, and tell a world full of pirates looking for the Pirate King's treasure and wealth where his son was born."
It's one thing to hear the story of your birth from your enemies, people who hate you and who you know to not take by their word, because they will twist and contort it until the truth is warped so much you don't recognize it anymore. It never hurts any less, but at least you can tell yourself that you know better, and brandish that knowledge like an iron shield in the hope that only your arms will smart after. It's another matter entirely if it's told by witnesses, by those who you might have, in another life, considered family. Suddenly your shield is being eaten up by rust and comes apart with the slightest blow, leaving splinters buried deep in your flesh.
(This is the truth: Golden-haired Rouge gave her son life with a smile, damn the consequences.)
Lana is sure of three things: She needs to get back to most of her old training regimen pronto, she needs to get the blight off this island yesterday, and neither of these things are likely to happen anytime soon.
For one, she's had her brain knocked about enough times to intimately know what happens if she moves too much too soon even without well-meaning barladies to tell her so, thanks – and two, apparently nobody gets off this island if they're not signed off or possibly dead. Which, considering the apparent cause of all this unease, is patently ridiculous. What's even more ridiculous: Neither she nor those preventing her from leaving want her to stay. So the logical conclusion is that if they just returned her backpack and put her on a boat, she'd be on her merry way and everyone would be happy.
Except Yellow and a fuming Firefly, apparently; when she presented her reasonable solution, Firefly had basically called her a cold-hearted bitch, only in a few slightly nicer words, and the barlady grasped her hand and exclaimed she just had to stay, launching into post-concussion recovery and the natural beauties of the town and how she'll have such a jolly good time here and it has been so long since they had visitors! Also, seeing as how her backpack is stuck in 'customs' and getting it back will be a 'bureaucratic nightmare' she might as well get comfortable.
Her word-vomit leaves Lana disorientated and parked on a shaded, rickety bench in the backyard with orders to rest, glaring at the flowers that started this mess. Well, her mess, because apparently it's not about the mildewed flower.
Not for the first time, she wishes she could still swim. She wishes she weren't so damn attached to some things in that sorry sack of textile that the Marines took — it's not like there's anything of worth in there apart from a few belis, not to anyone but her. If not for these sad facts, if she could, she would've already jumped off the dock in that harbour and sliced through the waves like demons were after her. Which isn't far from reality, is it? Even here in the quiet, hot midday sun she can feel the unease trickling down her spine.
Lana closes her eyes and breathes in, holds it, and then lets it go slowly. She concentrates on the sorrow, the pit in her stomach, inhales the scent of dried and withered flowers and then tries to put it aside, wrap it up slowly, gently, until the flowers feel alive, the pressure of grief manageable. Breathe. She feels the throb in her temples lessen, but meditating, like always, leaves her exhausted and still buzzing with restless energy and her own worries.
None of what Yellow said really explained the heavy cloud of dread lingering everywhere, and Lana is almost sure she doesn't actually know, either. It's one thing for kids to have been, well, butchered, and another for that atmosphere to stick around for decades. It might be something only she and the ghosts feel and know to attribute correctly, and isn't this a great revelation of one more bothersome side-effect of that damn devil fruit?
She is brought out of her thoughts by the sound of a sniffle, and sighs. She's been doing a lot of sighing, lately. "Want to blow your nose again?"
Pigtails nods and hiccups, and Lana fishes up the tissue from beside her and folds it over Pigtails' nose to blow into. In the beginning, the kid had protested that she was old enough to blow her own nose, but she'd seen sense when the tissue phased through her fingers within two seconds of Lana letting go. The arrangement has the added benefit of the snot disappearing once Lana puts it aside. She'd rather not be in the position to explain how she'd collected a mountain of used tissues while keeping dry eyes and perfectly clear nose.
"Alright now?" she asks once the kid is done.
Pigtails hiccups. "No! It's still terrible and awful and sad!"
Lana fights another sigh. The kid has been crying in fits and spurts since Yellow started her story and hasn't stopped since. "Fair enough. How's the nose?"
"Fine," the kid responds mulishly. "Why aren't you sad?"
"I don't know any of these people," Lana feels obligated to point out. "And terrible things happen all the time." Everyone has their own tragedy to carry around, don't they? They live and carry on – they have to.
Pigtails sits up. "That doesn't mean you can't be sad!", she exclaims and throws out her arms, brandishing her objection.
She really is a nice kid, Lana muses. "But it doesn't help any, does it? Not them and not you. Only dredges up memories for them and makes you feel terrible." (makes you think of blood on your hands and everywhere else, of being useless while your head splits in two, of your sister's horrified eyes screaming my fault, your fault, your fault and what use is it?)
Pigtails lowers her hands and frowns, worrying her bottom lip. "But it's right to feel terrible," she decides after a while. "If you don't, people wouldn't do anything to make it better."
Dread pools in Lana's stomach. "If you mean to get me involved in any way, you're officially uninvited from this field trip."
That makes Pigtails giggle a little, before a thoughtful look crosses her face. Mouldy hell, now Lana went and gave her ideas. "No," she tells the kid, before it can go any further. "I'm not talking to any ghost that isn't you or Firefly, provided he calms down enough not to set me on fire again."
Pigtails bites her bottom lip again. "Will you talk to other people, here? For- for him?"
Lana blinks down at her. "For who? ... Firefly? What for?"
"I think– I think he wants to ask," the kid says, looking at her imploringly. "But he can't. About, about his family? And, and his mum? He doesn't like his dad much and I think he never had people tell him about his mum."
Rotten blight, that girl wields big, golden eyes with some lethal precision. If it weren't so inconvenient, Lana might be impressed. She hesitates, then relents. It can't do any harm, right? Besides – if she's honest, she can't imagine what it must be like, to have never known where you come from.
(She spent her childhood on wooden counters, knees scruffed and grass-stained from playing hide-and seek between crates full of fruit and tag between orderly rows of trees. Sometimes she still feels warm cobblestones underneath her feet, hears giddy laughter from striking the marbles at just the right angle and sending them tumbling. She knows the coarse feel of her father's hair when it slides through her fingers, the sound of her mother's good-natured scolding, the shape of the notch between her brother's eyebrows when he worried, the gleam in her sister's eye when she feigned innocence.
She wouldn't give those memories up for anything.)
Ace may have noticed it before, but now he recognizes the traces of destruction for what they are:
"Welcome to Pirate Tourism!" Jaune had exclaimed with a grand gesture. "We were the hottest hotspot this side of the Grand Line. After all, the Pirate King might have left some treasure! The place was booming – in more than one sense of the word, if you catch my drift. Then like half a year ago, the seagulls had enough, and cut us off from the outside world. Nobody and nothing's getting in or out without their say-so. And doesn't that just give us a nice sense of deja-vu?"
He can't think, he can't– he's dealt with this, goddamnit, there was a whole event about it and everything, a war was going on, people were dying, him included–
"Remember how I told you we made Rouge our martyr? Well, we're kind of an obstinate bunch. Problem isn't so much that she was our hero. Problem is she stayed that way. The people who killed all of ours told us to stop loving one of us? Well, screw them, apparently! Rouge did not die for this. So our tradition of wearing hibiscus flowers in our hair? We made that about her, too."
"It escalated. First, it was just us, wearing the flower exclusively on our right, all day long. We pinned it on our clothes. Then we decorated our houses. We printed it. The seagulls scrambled to forbid every way we came up with to show solidarity. We countered by painting it on walls, while we planted our gardens full with all kinds of hibiscus."
Ace stands before the empty pedestal in the town square, surrounded by bushes with bright, five-petaled flowers that hide the now unidentifiable remains of a statue, shivering and fighting against the oppressive despair pushing him back, and pretends the world underneath his feet hasn't tilted on its axis. He pretends he doesn't feel the moisture collecting in the corner of his eyes, that his throat isn't closing up.
This makes it twice now that he brought these people grief, without even goddamn existing. Just the fact that he would be, that he once did– people, no children died because– because of him. So many died, just so he could be born. In the end, that's what it boils down to, doesn't it? If he hadn't existed, if they'd been smarter— These people are still grieving, are all but locked up in two different prisons, one of ghostly sorrow and one of physical making ... because of him.
It's familiar: The churning in his stomach, the bile rising in his throat. He thought he had gotten over it, that he was past this, but– Ha! Tough luck.
He can't even keep her – Portgas D. Rouge was something to these people, too. They'd known her. Of course they'd known her! Objectively, he'd always known his mother must've had a life before giving it away for him. But he'd never really– he doesn't even really have the right to mourn her, does he? She carried him for twenty-two months, and he doesn't know a single thing about her beyond what little Gramps told him: Strawberry-blonde golden hair, brown eyes, freckles. Her name; one that he took and made his own greedily. But they've talked to her, laughed with her, greeted her every day on the street and– and he doesn't even know where she's buried.
The people here, they've been through terrible things because of his existence and he's– he's just so goddamn jealous. He's jealous and ashamed and he's back to wishing he wasn't born and he screams out his rage at it all, glad that nobody can hear, nobody can see the flames going wild, nobody can judge him, nobody is here because he died and–
He takes in a shuddering, gasping breath and tries to tamp down on the fire immediately. Can't let her– he already made her afraid before, not again, he's sorry–
When he thinks he can breathe again, he opens his eyes and looks around, sees the kid hovering at the edge of the square. "Sorry," he forces past the lump in his throat. "I'm just–"
"It's not your fault," Remi says hurriedly.
Ace watches her fidgeting, grieving for the ease of – was it only yesterday morning?
"It wasn't your fault," she insists. "You didn't kill them. And– and mum said mothers die in childbirth a lot! So, so it's not your fault."
Ace huffs out a quiet laugh and tries to keep the bitterness out of it. Is he that obvious, that a kid can see right through him? "Okay," he lies. When he hesitantly offers his hand, she slides her small fingers between his. Then she takes another two quick, small steps and buries her head in his stomach. Ace chokes a little, the touch and embrace warm and reassuring, before sliding his arm around her small back and trying to feel like he deserves it.
–(It was a long, long way down from the executioner's block.
He is terrified– not, not because he will die. He is sort of– counting on that. But his little brother made his way through the hell that was Impel Down, is maybe still down there — and here, all of Marineford is armed to the teeth, expecting his– his family to show up, and he can't say what would be worse, if they make it, or if they won't come. He hopes they won't. If they do, and they get hurt– He couldn't live with himself, and ha, isn't that funny? Because he won't have to. He's been sentenced to die from the very beginning, before he even took his first breath, and he's, he's okay with that. As long as everyone else will be okay, he can– he's okay. It's just–
It's a long way down. He can see everyone, and everything, the sea sparkling in the sun toward the horizon. The world is laid out before his feet, which– how perverse and cruel is that? To elevate you in your last moments, to mock you– he remembers spitting on the ground before that aging structure in Loguetown; the immature, pointless gesture of a seventeen-year old. To be here, see the world and the masses just like he must have–
He's okay with dying. He's found a family, he's got no regrets. He just wishes he could die in any other way than like him. He wishes he could give his life away like his mother.)–
(Tell me, would you want to know how you would die – or if you had a choice?)
Remi leads him to the tavern backyard, where Lana leans back against the house's outer wall beneath the shade of the overhanging roof. She opens her eyes and gives him a once-over. Her gaze makes him bristle. She has no right to judge him, with the detached way she had sat through the story, and Ace had been justified, allowed to let his temper slip, be broken up about it–
–(he curses under his breath, his hands itching, burning– long fingers curl around his right wrist, and he jerks around to Lana. She doesn't even glance at him, eyes fixed on Jaune, fingers of her left hand holding his wrist more than foot above the table in an iron grip and his flickering, hot palm facing away from her)–
"Listen, hotshot," she starts, "I'm stuck here, so might as well– If you want me to ask about your mother, I will, under one condition."
The wave of sheer need that hits Ace makes him freeze. Because– because he wants to know everything, desperately, but until now, he's had no means of finding out. He didn't think– he didn't think she would offer, impassive as she insisted on being. He's almost grateful, and at the same time resents that he can't do it himself and has to rely on her. He reminds himself that he looked for her for exactly things like this: Asking when he can't. "What's the condition," he asks wearily.
"It's going to be hard one for you: No matter what they say, you're not allowed to lose your bloody temper."
He blinks, feeling the sting of the insult. "That's easy," he insists. Besides, they love his mother. They are wearing flowers for her, still, twenty three years later.
She narrows her eyes. "People aren't some hivemind. You have no idea what they think, and they are perfectly right in having their own opinion on whatever, no matter how bloody rotten it might be."
Ace opens his mouth but finds he has no retort, because … she might have a point. He's only heard the story from one person, and that person was– was a Portgas. Still, it's like she thinks he goes into a fit over the littlest things– it's not like he hasn't lived with his powers for years, or anything– but he swallows the irritation and says:
(He has always cared about the world and its opinions, and that led to asking, to needing to know people's opinions, their stories, the state of the world. And he knows, has always known, so he cares – he needs to care; there is no choice about it. To care is to know, to know is to care. Does that make him responsible, or just awfully self-important?)
("You didn't have to– you can't tell her everything," Jack chastises. "What if she tells?"
"Relax!" Jaune laughs and heaves the sleeping toddler on her arm higher up her hip. "She's got a concussion! She's not going to remember anything."
Her brother brings his palms together in front of his face, pressing his index fingers to his lips. It looks much like he was praying to someone for patience. "Jaune. That's– that's not how it works."
She blinks. "Oh? Isn't it?" She cocks her head, then shrugs. "Oh well. I have a good feeling about her." She cards her fingers through the wild, blond hair of the child, her smile soft and fading, before she shoots her twin a knowing glance. "Something's changing, I know you feel it too."
He can't protest that, but– "Jaune," he ventures. "She calls you Yellow." He pauses, scrunches his nose. "She called me Daffodil. That doesn't even make sense."
"I know! Isn't she perfect?")
Transmission between Den-Den M-ID: 0180773, speaker identified: Commodore B. Fidel, with Den-Den M-ID: 00101, speaker unidentified.
"I heard you have a hole, Fidel. A young woman, really?"
"Sir, there was an unforeseen storm– there were waterspouts, Sir!–"
"Oh dear, did South Blue move to the Grand Line since I last checked?"
"... No, Sir–"
"And you still haven't found the perpetrators of your little problem, nor have you squashed the last of that pesky little resistance."
"Sir, it's not–"
"CP7 will be there in six weeks. You have until then to find the hole and get your jurisdiction under your damn control. Consider this a generous period of grace."
"... yes, Sir."
End of Transmission.
She's still on her bench, Firefly having taken to leaning on the wall with a closed-off expression, when Lana is forced to figure out how she's probably supposed to earn her stay in the tavern.
"Here, hold this." Lana sputters, finding herself with a lap full of toddler, while Yellow waves cheerily and hurries away. The child and her regard each other bemusedly, though Lana thinks she has more right since the boy is chewing on his fingers. After a moment, he withdraws his hand and sticks it out to her, dripping slobber. "I'm Ace!"
Firefly draws in a sharp breath, but she's too preoccupied with tracking the slowly descending line of spit to pay him any mind. The toddler continues, unperturbed, "But I'm not the other Ace! That's important, cuz Mum and Dad didn't name me after Other Ace."
"Greeeeat," Lana drawles and cautiously pushes his weirdly thin arm away from her, keeping her hand well away from the slobber. Suddenly Pigtails eeps, and when Lana turns her head, she has to double take, because there are two children in one place, overlapping each other. One of them, the blonde newcomer, promptly shudders and sends Lana a suspicious glance until Pigtails hurriedly clambers off the bench.
"You're new," the blonde girl states, shaking herself briefly. She's significantly older than the boy in her lap, but Lana was always terrible with guessing the ages of children. Her hair is cut slightly below her ears and a slight curl gives them an untamed impression. "How'd you get here? The boats can't bring people now."
"She didn't fly," the toddler on Lana's lap chimes in. "She has no wings."
"Auntie said she shipwrecked," says a new voice, and great, there's another one, they keep multiplying. And least this one's not blonde, but has part of their chin-length black hair tied back and secured with a clip, though a few errand strands have escaped and frame their face. All three children are positively covered in freckles and are sporting identical expectant stares.
"I … did. Shipwreck," she offers. Their eyes light up and Lana is immediately overcome with an acute sense of regret. She spends the next few hours awkwardly recounting daring adventures she didn't have on sea in fits and starts, courtesy of a chuckling, still shell-shocked looking Firefly, who breathes funny again when he hears the black-haired child's name ("Deuce," the boy chirps, leaning against her other side).
Personally, she finds the name of the eldest at least memorable. Who even names a blonde kid Noire?
—("We're not naming her after a colour if it's a girl, no matter your family's weird naming traditions," Roger insisted with a pout. "Call her … Ann. 'To favour'." "But Ace, for a boy," Rouge insisted and grinned. "The card that trumps them all.")—
(The boy who tried and failed to guard his heart to the notion of brothers, to that of a father, the boy who found a family by trial and error — somehow that boy never really, truly considered that his parents, or the parent he cared for, had had a family. That she'd had brothers, and sisters, and–
He has – cousins? Nephews? He has– whatever children of cousins are called– there are children he's related to by blood, not so distantly. There's a little boy who has his name and his freckles and a shade of brown that used to stare back from his own reflection; there's a boy who wears his first mate's name but none of his somber mien, and their existence– It feels like a revelation. It feels like a miracle.
He can almost imagine what she must have looked like, and aches inside.)
What's in a name? Around these parts, if someone said they were Portgas, it was almost as if they said Suez, or Torres, or even Cardoso. It means area of Baterilla, it means old blood; it means you're of one of the families who good naturally bicker who once might have used to live in that castle on the hill and rule over them all. It means you have relatives out there at sea; the Portgas' had always been an adventurous bunch with nothing to show for it but a peculiar fancy for specific names and no shame in recycling them; there are only so many cards in a deck, only so many colours that can pass as a name. This was commonly agreed on to be not much stranger than the Torres' tendency to add a tower to any residence and join the constabulary, or the Cardoso's inherent love for sharp, pointy things. Especially if you knew that there was a Yonkou who named all of her children after food. If you were a Portgas, you'd always been here, you were one of the 'us', and if you happened to have a bounty poster, yours would be up on that wall behind the bar of "Twelve Palms" next to any newspaper article.
This is the truth: Portgas D. Rouge had a family, and wore their name with pride.
(This is the reality: Nowadays, if you said your name was Portgas, everyone thought of blood and dying children.)
—A nervous clearing of a throat. "Ahem. Uh, Flowers– flowers bloom all year?"
Pause. Then an answering voice: "They're red and pink and yellow." Pause. "Your turn."
"Right. They're, uh, home at the sea? Who came up with–"
One put-upon sigh. "I know. What's the message?"
"They're sending them. Baterilla only has a few weeks."
Silence. "You mean …?"
Muffled curses are the only answer.
In the end, Lana gets handed a tray and a broom and is told to help with anything that needs doing in the tavern, including the occasional babysitting, especially when Yellow and Daffodil are otherwise engaged. Which is frequently; people are in and out a lot despite the lack of hearty meals due to the ongoing blockage, and more often than not just sit down with some palm wine in the corners and start whispering furiously.
Sometimes the twins are nowhere to be found, and a black haired woman with amber eyes (Lana is pretty sure her name also is some sort of colour) is the only one smiling softly at her from the bar. There's also another distant relative of the twins' and ergo Firefly's, a middle-aged guy sporting a perpetual three-day stubble and a receding blonde hairline, who instructs Lana to leave a very generous helping of palm wine next to the construction sketches that he spread over an entire table at the tavern (his name, the kid informs her helpfully, is actually a number). Lana gets used to Pigtails skipping after her and to Firefly stalking the patrons while she wipes down tables and tries to ask questions for him.
It's quite easy getting people to talk about saint what's-her-name, and a lot more difficult to make them shut up once they've begun. Everyone has something to say about her; from frequent remarks on her beauty that apparently rivalled the wild spirit of the hibiscus and thus of the entire island (what does that even mean? Lana has never understood flower comparisons), to someone remarking how she'd ran holes into their kitchen walls when she was young –– clear one side in, one side out, two girl-shaped holes. The face Firefly makes at this is hilarious, while it also fills Lana with mild respect.
"The Portgas have always been so enterprising," a patron of the Twelve Palms says and wipes his mouth after taking a deep swig. He's barely forty years old and like all the others, his memory is clouded by melancholy. "It was in her blood! From both of her parents; she was the spitting spirit of her mother, but had the look of her father, that old fox!" Lana has to dodge a particularly enthusiastic gesture. "There's always been a few Portgas' out at sea. Why, I think half the family is still out there! That's why we didn't think too much of the Ace boy, you see. Just another distant offspring sailing the seas."
And, well –– that's the problem, somehow. Lana still doesn't get the entire thing, but it always seems to come back to Firefly and the fact that Red was his mother – and some other guy his father:
"That Roger was a selfish bastard, but honestly, Rouge was a selfish bitch," someone else interrupts one time, when a guy talks Lana's ear off while refilling his tari. "They fit like a glove. You know Roger spent his last month here, before turning himself in?" The accompanying eyeroll is worth witnessing; it seems to include the entire body. "They should've known better, they weren't born yesterday, for fuck's sake. I bet they did know better, but just didn't care; they didn't even stick around to deal with the fucking consequences. The poor boy." Entirely oblivious to how Firefly is fuming confusedly beside her, the woman in the green vest nods to Lana and slides into another booth. "Torres Ondine, chief of constabulary. Sorry to say you're not getting your things back any time soon. The seagulls love their bureaucracy."
Lana sighs and nods in resignation; she's figured that she's still stuck for a while. She eyes Firefly. "Say, you seem to feel pretty strongly about Saint Red."
The chief guffaws. "Rouge? A saint? God help me." She wipes tears from her eyes. "I loved the woman but shit she was a handful. I bet my life that while we all sure cried when she first left, half of us was crying out of relief that she wasn't going to be just our problem anymore." She beckons her. "Let me tell you a secret: Half of the demolished towns they said was old Gold Roger and his crew, it was her and her gang. I'll bet my life on it."
"You're lying," Firefly breathes. "She would never–"
(Lana had asked, back when she first offered. "What do you know about your mother?"
Ace had raised his shoulders on instinct, almost defensively. The list of what he knows – her hair, her freckles, her death— stared him in the face and mocked him. "She died giving birth to me. Because– they were hunting her because of Roger, because of me. But she wanted me to live, so she held out for almost two years, until– until it was safe. She named me Ace. She–" His shoulders slumped. "She was beautiful, Gramps said."
"So, nothing," Lana had concluded, and her ruthlessness had cut him, had made him want to retort that she was wrong. His mother was a beacon where his father was a black hole.)
What do you do when it turns out you've been believing a lie you were never told?
"It's impossible," Ace whispers. He's been repeating it to himself so often he should be hoarse, and it still is not – it's not–
Torres hadn't said anything else because a guy who looked asleep on his feet had joined her table and she had shoo-ed Lana anway and– his mother had not been a pirate, she couldn't have been, not with the way Gramps had spoke so fondly on her. And Ace knew she wasn't, because he'd checked the old catalogues and asked Skull under pretense just to be sure, because if anyone knew his history, it was the pirate enthusiast of the Spade pirates – Whatever Torres believes, it's not possible, no matter how sure she sounded, because if it were true–
He paces the backyard, eyes skipping over Lana going through a complicated looking kata, and shouts in frustration. "She was NOT a pirate!"
Lana barely looks his way. She'd been fixated on her training ever since her head had stopped pounding. "Why are you so sure? I mean, weren't you one? Family tradition, or something?"
"Do you think I'm an idiot?" he spat, clenching and unclenching his fist. "I looked, okay! There was no bounty."
"Temper," Lana reminds him, sounding bored. "I can feel the temperature rising. Do you need to be put in time-out?"
Ace growls. He doesn't need her goddamn condescension. Not from her, who does not have a single damn clue about anything. Who doesn't care a whit about what happened here, who can't even keep his mother's name straight–
Lana heaves a deep sigh and stops punching air. "You'd think you'd be happy about, i don't know, sharing something with her."
"You don't under–"
"Who are you talking to?"
Ace jerks around and catches sight of the old woman mid-step out the back door, her eyes intent and sharp. She's been walking in and out of the house like she lives there, even though she goes back to wherever she actually sleeps every evening; at least ever since they have started to stay here. Ace sees the way everyone nods to her in respect, how she wears the hibiscus in her hair openly and apparently unbothered by the marines. Whenever she enters a room, it's immediately hers and everyone's shoulders seem to relax – even though she has no problem giving someone a slap on the back of the head. His eyes keep catching on the laugh lines on her face and he … he hasn't yearned anyone's approval more since Pops. Which doesn't make any sense.
Just like his mother being a pirate.
"Hey, Lady D," Lana says and seems about to resume her kata when she stops. "Maybe you can clear something up for me. Whatshername, the one everyone makes a fuss about even though she died like, 22 years ago–"
Bloody hell, she can't be serious–
"Rouge?" Lady D raises a perfectly sculpted eyebrow.
"That's the one," Lana nods. "Was she a pirate captain or something?"
The other eyebrow joins the first. "That depends on your definition, I suppose," she says carefully, a smile lurking in the corners of her mouth. "You should ask Torres."
"Who was that again," Lana sighs and makes a face.
Ace wants to strangle her. "The woman who you just spoke to."
Lady D laughs, then she lowers herself on the bench and pats the space next to her. "I suppose I can tell you a little about it. Let's see …" She closes her eyes while Lana sits down cross-legged next to her, stretching her arms. Ace goes back to pacing. "Rouge and her girls. The Tourists, I think they called themselves ... 'Just touring the seas, sir!' they would say and flutter their eyelashes prettily. Why, Roger was just smitten. After she punched him clear through five buildings, of course."
Ace stumbles. He suddenly wants nothing more than for her to stop talking. He doesn't want to hear about, about him– He whirls around and demands: "How do you know all this? How are you sure?"
She can't hear him. Of course she can't. But Lana can, and for once does her damn job and repeats his question.
"Why, because I'm the Lady D, of course." The old woman's eyes glitter. "Everybody tells me their secrets. And Rouge was terribly bored, in her last two years, stuck here." Her smile fades. "She was in dire need of a shoulder to lean on."
There once was a girl, almost a woman with her sixteen years and razor wit, who tucked flowers from her mother's garden behind children's ears and danced her way down to the harbour with a promise to return soon. Baterilla echoed her laugh, and never had any reason to doubt her; not after watching her grow up with one eye crying, one eye laughing.
There once was a woman, grinning wide and unapologetic, who liked to show girls the ocean and how to have an adventure, and always brought them back home safely when they'd had their fill.
(Listen, these are the facts: The people of Baterilla had always worn hibiscus, ever since before they could remember. They had always made tari and liked to share it with travellers — provided they knew how to throw a party. Some of them even stayed and had bright-eyed children, who grew up chasing the sea.
Here is the truth: Portgas D. Rouge was a person all of her own, long before she was the mother of the Pirate King's son and died: She was a pirate captain in everything but name, embracing the ocean but never intending to bring all its troubles back with her.
And this, this is the reality: Rouge was Baterilla, and part of their culture was outlawed because she had been proud of it. And Baterilla was quite sick of being defined by a tragedy and branded criminals by association. They were sick of crying. They were growing hungry.)
"They will be here in less than four weeks. What will we do?"
Firefly is sulking, which is just as well. When she looks closely, she thinks he might have grown paler, his ghostly glow even less noticeable for her than usual. Lana doesn't get what his deal is, but as long as he doesn't set her on fire, that's not her problem.
After Lady D disappears, Daffodil teaches her card games. Or rather, is tasked with teaching Lana card games, by order of Yellow, to 'recalibrate her memory after her concussion', and even though there's nothing wrong with her memory, Daffodil seems fine with going along.
"Our family loves playing cards." He shrugs. "It's a thing. This way, you can play with the kids." There's something unreadable in his face as he regards her. "Great poker-face, by the way."
Lana contemplates her deck. "Thanks?"
"Not a compliment," he says. "I don't like not knowing what to make of you. Though that is the point of the game, so great job." He pauses, frowning. "You are way too good at this for your first time."
"Alright?" Lana blinks slowly. They seem to be the only one in the tavern. Behind Daffodil, Pigtails peers into his cards and gives her thumbs up and Firefly makes a distracted 'go on' gesture. "All in. So, I've been meaning to ask, the kids yours or Yellow's?"
"Mine," he says, and snags a finger on one of his cards. "Amber is my wife."
Lana nods. "Cool. So what's your opinion on Red –("Rouge", Firefly sighs exasperatedly, then his eyes widen, "No, don't–")– Rouge." Daffodil's eyes whip up and narrow. Lana shrugs. "Inquiring minds want to know. What was she like? Your move, still."
Her opponent mechanically lays out a straight flush of hearts, straightening the cards afterward. A joker is replacing the Queen of Hearts.
"Nice," Lana says, and lays out a royal flush in spades. "All mine, then. Does this lessen the amount I have to pay you back? Like, when they return my stuff?"
Firefly makes an annoyed noise, but then seems to stop breathing when Daffodil reaches out and picks up the Ace of Spades from her flush. Both men stare at it, transfixed, as if the mouldy card holds all the secrets in the world.
"He was an idiot," Daffodil says, suddenly, almost making them all jump. "That Ace. Took her name and threw it all away." Firefly twitches, and Lana sends him a warning glance. Pigtails immediately takes his hand. Daffodil continues, "After all that shit, and–" He sighs and taps one of the fingers holding the card against its edge. "But I guess– I can't imagine how his childhood must've been like, what the Fist told him, for him to reject Roger and elevate Rouge. Even though–" he stops again.
"Even though?" Lana prompts.
Daffodil picks up the joker from where he's replacing the queen in his flush. He twirls the card and is suddenly holding the Queen of Hearts. "Well," he comments, unaware that Pigtails is leaning over his hand, ahhing in wonder, "She was just as bad, wasn't she?" He meets her gaze. "If it weren't for her, my mother would still be alive, and I would have a little brother."
Tell me, would you want to know the names and lives of who you killed? (Would you want to know that you killed family?)
—(Twenty-three years ago, Portgas Page, younger half brother to one Portgas D. Rouge, succumbed to a bad case of meningitis. He was just shy of thirty years old, but he supposed he didn't have a half-bad life, even if he was considered the most dull of his siblings. His tavern was popular, his little twins an adventure; he had a beautiful wife and his recipe for palm wine was proving to be a roaring success. The hibiscus was ever in full bloom, and his wild half-sister had returned to Baterilla once again shortly before he fell ill. He was glad for it; there had been pirates again on the island lately, and she'd always been good at dealing with them and keeping them jolly.
He couldn't have known that in a few weeks, his lovely Jade would find out she was pregnant, nor that four months hence, Gol D. Roger would climb the steps to the execution platform and make himself immortal.
Little Portgas Roy had a little fluff of green hair when he was born, courtesy of his grandma's genetics. He had but four days to live before the Marines came.)—
These are facts: Rouge wasn't the only Portgas, and not the only one who left behind a child to grow up without their parents.
(This is a truth: Portgas D. Rouge is the reason her sister-in-law and nephew are dead.)
Excerpt of File 10-6829: Reports, Town of B., Vol. 5, "Final Report re: Purge of Baterilla"
Ages 0-1: 102 (61 female, 41 male)
Ages 1-2: 7 (2 female, 5 male)
Ages 2-16: none
Ages 17-25: 32 (30 female, 2 male)
Ages 25-35: 23 (17 female, 5 male)
Ages 35-60: 10 (4 female, 6 male)
Ages 60+: none
Total number of executions: 174.
Who considers those left behind?
(This is the truth: Portgas D. Rouge loved her island and was fiercely loved in return; she embraced her home, and always, always chose to return.
This is a reality: When it came down to a choice, she did not choose her people.)
He– he can't.
He can't stay here.
(The only family he knew came and saved him, and gave him the choice to give his life in return. This is the truth; this had been enough.
The family he never knew– it's not her fault, it's not–)
Lana watches how Firefly loses whatever hold he had over himself; he stands abruptly then sways and stumbles backwards, right through the tavern wall, but not before she can't see the fire licking up his arms. Pigtails yells his name and throws her an anguished glance and Lana–
"Rotten mildew," she curses. That probably counts as a fire hazard, right? Technically only for her– but what if the thing from up in the castle repeats, that's not just her, that's– She springs up and leaves Daffodil blinking after her without explanation and runs outside. Mouldy hell, the kids are here, and they're quiet and huddling together. Just a few meters from them is Firefly, bent over and heaving, Pigtails trying to reach him with her hand but jerking back when a flame flares up. And when Lana looks up, she sees that the sun has disappeared behind clouds and how cold it has gotten, even though she's sweating and what the blight-infested rot is she supposed to do when she wishes she were literally anywhere else–
And then, well. It gets worse. Because of course it does! Because between one flicker and the next, two ghosts are suddenly there, right beside Sparks and they raise their hands– metal glimmers in his firelight–
It hurts. It just really bloody hurts every time like the first time and Ace can't breathe; the air rattles through his punctured lungs with a wet sound– no, not his lungs, because there is a hole where some of it used to be and his mouth is filled with blood, gurgling in his throat, choking, choking him–
He doesn't remember jumping but there's a fist through his stomach and his little brother's exhausted eyes are filled with horror and he's not sorry, he's sorry, it hurts so bad he can't get air but he has to get the words out this is the end after all it's okay he's going to die it's okay but why does it have to hurt so much Luffy, Luffy–
Luffy is okay.
Devil's spawn, they whisper. Go back to hell where you came from!
(You can't kill a ghost, but your spirit will always remember dying. In life, your soul could hide their lowest points behind a flesh facade — in death, the leftover of your soul is all you have. It will scream out the image of your pain for whoever will be able to see, the only way it knows.)
When it is over, the children are trembling in the corner, crying hysterically, sounds rushing through Lana's ears while her hands are covered in ghost blood and she can see her hands on the other side through his broken spine, dip her fingers into the charred remains of his lungs, there's—there's a rotten hole in his chest and it's the width of both her hands— Before her numb eyes, Firefly's ribcage knits itself back together one cell after another, second after second, minute after minute. Bone, fiber, cartilage– He was only stabbed, but this is not a stab wound, this is– and why is he smiling–
"What the hell did you do?"
Daffodil is with his kids the second after he screeches at her, and behind him people pour into the backyard, staring at her wide-eyed and shivering, and–
The ghosts disappeared as suddenly as they appeared, and–
Pigtails is gone.
(There's an island in South Blue; it has bright cottages and flowers blooming in overgrown gardens, palm wine and fireflies bright against the night sky. It has proud people who like to wear colourful dresses and laugh at wilderness.
There's an island in South Blue with a deep, violent grudge more than two decades old, spewing and boiling, frothing behind a muzzle.)
tbc in part II. III
I sincerely apologize pleasedontkillme
notable characters aside from our dear main trio:
Portgas Jack and Jaune, alive, twin owners of the popular tavern 'Twelve Palms and A Fork' and orphaned during 'the Purge' 22 years ago. alt. Daffodil (Jack) and Yellow (Jaune)
Daffodil's kids Noire, Deuce and Ace, who are collectively adorable and to be protected at all cost.
Lady D, alive, mysterious elderly matriarch, skulking around in the background.
Portags Dime, alive, the poor sod charged with keeping buildings stable despite growing cracks.
Torres Ondine, alive, chief of the local constabulary and apparently not afraid to cuss out dead people (sorry for her potty mouth); and her second Cardoso Noe, who "looks asleep on his feet".
where were they?
Da Costa, spirit, his dead female comrade and Rosa and Corin, spirits, who Ace collectively burned to a crispy crisp last chapter. Maybe he's kind of regretting that now.