These author notes are annoying I KNOW but I must, once more, extend my sincerest thanks to every single person that is opening this chapter— THANK YOU so so much for your kindness, whether it be through views, comments, or bookmarks. My heart is literally overflowing. I am insanely overwhelmed with the support and the love for this story, I truly did not expect it haha! Please enjoy the final chapter of this (much longer than it was supposed to be) story! Cheers!
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN - END
It's several hours later when Zoro is finally, blissfully, left alone in the dull bedroom.
He's not too sure where the others have gone, but he knows they're not too far away. They definitely assigned some stupid watch schedule over me, he thinks sardonically, with perhaps just the smallest drop of fondness. I probably have less than a minute before whoever my babysitter is comes back from their bathroom break, checking to make sure I didn't wander off or something.
Which is a valid concern, because Zoro decides now would be a great time to get out of this dull bedroom.
With that, he throws the covers off him, slips on his boots, and returns his swords to their rightful place beside his hip. Their collective weight grounds him to reality, like a ship's anchor to the seafloor. That's more like it.
He makes his way over to the window and easily slips outside again, this time with more ease. The bowl of soup Sanji had fed him earlier has brandished him with newfound energy he'd been severely lacking in. He's sure that with real, solid food his normal vigor would return, but according to the stupid chef he's stuck with eating mush for the time being. Something about starvation and his body not yet ready for solid food. Zoro's sure he's right, but he can't help thinking, screw that idiot, I can damn well eat whatever the hell I want.
Outside, the rising sun's rays breathe hot air onto his skin. The small village of Plume Island is awash in golden light, coating the houses and trees and ground in a bronze shimmer. Foreign songs of the local birds fill the air. Morning dew dots the weeds and grass that grow between the cobblestones. Zoro touches the damp wood of the house, feeling the chill.
He stretches his arms until he hears the satisfying pop in his shoulders. With no particular destination in mind, Zoro lets his feet carry him wherever they please, and eventually he finds himself back in the entrance of the village's market square.
In the bustling area, the village's natives go about their business at a leisurely pace. Some carry bags or push strollers or pull carts, while others walk with a companion or a child or a group of friends, chattering and laughing and waving their hands to extenuate their conversations.
After a while, Zoro realizes that some people are looking him. A few folks are outright staring at him with amazed expressions, and there are even those who whisper excitedly after he walks past them. The hell is going on . . . ? Zoro starts to wonder before it hits him. Ah, that's right. Now that he thinks about it, Usopp had told him that he's something akin to a celebrity now, a medical phenomenon. Zoro snorts at that, thinking, my epithet better not change to something stupid like Memory Loss Survivor Pirate.
Outside the residential district, he steps into the more commercialized area, where the numerous food carts and street vendors are stationed side by side to form a large circle. This is where the Cook and I were when we came back to the island, Zoro recalls.
He passes by a fruit stand. The vendor does a double take at the sight of him and starts waving excitedly. "Ah, ah! My friend! Look at ye, not sick anymore, ah!" The man says with a lopsided smile. "See, my oranges did the trick, heh! Good as new!"
"Sure," Zoro says, waving back halfheartedly.
He walks past several more stalls, allowing himself to fully experience the village in his right state of mind. When he was last here with the Cook, he was so out of it that he felt like he was floating through a sequence of dreams. Most of that day passed by in a blur with him unable to retain most of it, less because of the memory loss and more due to the mental and physical exhaustion he had endured. This is where we met the butcher, too. Usopp was there, and I felt like absolute crap in that house. There were other people there, too . . . who . . . ?
Zoro uncurls his face from the scowl it finds itself in. Stop. No point in dredging that up again, he thinks, knowing that even though his mind is eager to dive deeper into that rabbit hole of a memory, all he'll get from that inquisition is a mental dead-end and a crappy headache. Whatever is missing will come back, Zoro tries to reassure his mind. Trying to force it to show up is not worth it.
With a deep inhale, he pulls himself out of his thoughts and continues his immersion with the physical world.
He kicks a rock out of his way, watches as some weird looking bird fly overhead, listens to the mundane chatter of the carefree villagers, and relishes the different, delicious smells of the street food. He thinks, this is pretty nice island. If it wasn't for the fucking bug problem we might have actually enjoyed relaxing here.
He passes by the large, decorative fountain from last night. There are multiple children swarmed around it, tossing coins and trying to touch the water that sprouts from the stoned carved dolphins. Then, he spots something familiar.
Well, unfamiliar might be a more fitting a word.
On the other side of the fountain, he sees a hulking, black shape sticking out like a sore thumb in the sea of people. It stands several feet taller than the crowd, like a large, dark ghost lost in the world of the living. Similar to how Usopp and the others looked, it is completely washed in darkness like a tear in the universe. The entire village is oblivious to its ominous appearance.
This one's huge, Zoro can't help but think. I wonder what nakama it could be, to be this absurdly large. Unless my mind is just playing tricks on me.
Whoever it is, it seems to have spotted him as well. "Oi!" A booming voice calls out to him, grabbing not only Zoro's attention, but the entire crowd within vicinity. "Oi! Zoro-bro! Oi!"
Here we go. Zoro stops, watching as the large black shape closes the gap between them by awkwardly zigzagging and pushing past the townsfolk. He hears the sheepish, "'Scuse me— my bad—comin' through—ah, sorry, sis, sorry!" get louder as the blob of black gets closer.
Someone Zoro actually remembers tags along with hulking shadow. The name escapes him, but Zoro recognizes the old man as the butcher. The man is dressed casually, his work attire (mainly consisting of a bloodstained apron) set aside for this leisurely day. His bushy eyebrows and bushy beard and bushy mustache run wild with the wind, each one blowing in a different direction. Him and the black shape are holding bags of supplies, brimming with fruits and vegetables.
They stop in front of Zoro. The butcher greets him easily. "Yer lookin' well, son!" He says after giving him a quick once-over. "Did the little doctor o' yers give ya the OK to be walkin' about?"
The large person laughs loudly. "Yow! Knowin' this guy, he definitely did not get anyone's OK to do anythin', hah! Am I right? Let me guess. You snuck out without letting anyone know?"
Zoro shrugs. "You guys know."
The two laugh. The butcher says, "He got us there. So, where ya heading to, this early in the morning? Hope you ain't planning on eating out by yourself. Yer friend and I were just picking up some grub for breakfast."
Zoro shoves his hands into his pockets. "Just out for a walk. Fresh air and all that."
The black shape hums knowingly, the sound like a mechanical whirr. It hands the butcher his bag, saying, "Yo, Meat-bro. Why don't ya head back to the house, let the others know Zoro's with me? The two of us have some manly catchin' up to do."
Zoro raises a brow at that. The butcher takes the bag and pretends not to balk at the additional weight. "Aye, aye, not a problem!" The old man flashes Zoro a toothless grin. "Take care, now. Don't go touching any bugs, ha ha!"
The old man gets swallowed by the crowd before Zoro can retort with something rude. The dark blob chuckles. "Crazy old bastard. Anyway, you up for a little detour? I'm heading over to the beach and can use the company."
Zoro shrugs, neither opposed nor enthusiastic about the offer. The blob gestures him to follow, and together they trail out of the marketplace and into the path leading towards the vegetative area.
Their new surrounding replaces the bustling village's townspeople with looming trees and branches sagging from the weight of their soaked leaves. The sun's rays are divided into beams of light as it shoots through the gaps between the trees. Memories of roaming through a similar forest trickles into his head like rain drops.
Right . . . he thinks as he steps over an enormous centipede that crosses in front of him. This is the forest . . . Usopp and I came here on that first day on the island, where it all started . . . and painstakingly ended.
He grimaces at the memories that follow. He glances over to his mysterious companion, clearing his throat. "Just so you know," he says slowly to the black blob. "I don't remember who you are."
The person ducks underneath a low hanging branch. "No need to tell me twice. I can already tell."
Zoro frowns. "Really?" The way he'd spoken to him earlier had Zoro thinking otherwise. "How?"
"It's all in the eyes." The dark shape shifts its form, as if it were pointing at its head. "The way you look at me, I can tell there's nothin' clicking in there. It's like you're lookin' at a brick."
"The barrel of a gun looks at me with more familiarity than he does."
His blood chills at the memory. An image of Nami's tearful and distraught eyes flashes in his mind. Anger and despair and hurt had twisted together in her face to give her expression a truly wounded look. He's reminiscent of how she'd specifically avoid looking him in the eyes throughout the entire ordeal. They all did, Zoro remembers with a wince. After I forgot them. No one had the stomach to look me in the eyes.
He wonders if this large shadow is also avoiding eye contact. He grimaces.
The dark blob notices. "Aw, don't look like that, bro. Ain't like it's your fault!" It kicks a large rock out of the way, and Zoro watches at it plops into a puddle of mud blandly. "Sure, it's not a super thing to be on the receiving end of, but I got used to it. We all did. Necessary evil and whatnot. But don't worry about it, 'cause now we know it ain't permanent anymore! Nami-sis told me you've gotten back your memories of the others already."
Zoro nods, stepping over a tree stump. "Yeah. Nami, Chopper and Usopp, and that idiot Cook."
He touches the bandages around his head distractingly. Memory loss is weird, Zoro decides. Because these memories are gone, yet his mind doesn't even realize that it's missing something. When he remembered Nami, he was so sure that it had always been just the two of them. He wouldn't have known he was missing memories of more people if she hadn't told him. It weirdly made sense, being a pirate crew of just two. Then when I remembered Chopper, it made more sense of being a crew of three . . . my stupid brain is just believing whatever the hell it has in front of it.
Now, in his mind, he has memories of only those four— of his adventures with Nami, Chopper, Usopp, and Sanji. It was always the five of them, his mind convinces him. Sure, there's some memories that are a bit foggy and choppy, and some events don't really add up, but . . .
But, along with these black ghosts that roam the physical world, missing pieces of his mind that his brain and eyes cannot process, there's a pull. A pull within his chest, somewhere between his lungs and heart that makes it hard to breathe, where he knows that things are still missing. It pulls him forward.
"Now that's SUPER!" He's yanked away from his thoughts by the exclaim from his companion. A hand is clapped down on his shoulder, the suddenness nearly knocking the wind out of him. "Looks like I'm the only one from our little group that's left. No worries there, 'cause I've got just the thing that'll jog your memory back quicker."
Zoro grimaces. "My memories aren't jogged by anything, they just randomly come back."
An assured laugh. "Nah, nope, nu-uh! This'll definitely do the trick. Once you get a look at her . . . YOW! You'll kick yourself for letting her be forgotten!"
"Uh . . . Her?" Zoro blinks. He's got a bad feeling about this. Now that he thinks about it, this person hasn't even told him where exactly it was taking him. Maybe I should have just stayed in the house . . .
"Ohhhhh yeah!" The trees seemingly rattle from the booming voice. "She's a real beauty, this one. Absolutely perfect. Built like a castle, and sturdy like one, too. But, with the grace of a stallion, if I do say so myself. A damn shame how we had to hide her away, though. No one should be robbed from beholding her gorgeousness, but those Marine bastards didn't give us much of a choice."
"Uh," Zoro starts.
"Broke my heart when you forgot her." The black silhouette is oblivious to Zoro's apprehension, pushing him forward to quicken his pace. "Yeah, that one hurt. I can tell it hurt her, too. But, with pain comes strength. No pain no gain, eh? Mhm, she kept her mind on the mission and powered on, no matter how much she was hurting, 'cause that's how us pirates do it."
They weave through the forest with ease from familiarity, his enormous shadow prattling on more praises about this unknown beauty. The sound of an ocean's lazy waves slouching over a bed of sand grows louder as they make their way deeper. The scent of wood and moss is suddenly interrupted with salt and sea spray. It has a strange effect on Zoro.
The trees thin, and the sun's light grows wider. They step over a fallen tree, and the forest ends. A massive beach greets him, and Zoro is absolutely mesmerized by the sea.
The sea . . .
"Over here." He's nudged on the shoulder, his attention stolen. His companion pivots to the side, leading him to a crevice underneath a massive cliff. "We couldn't have her docked on the port, not with the Marines lookin' for us. So, we hid her here for the time being."
They step over a few jagged rocks. The ocean's water filters into a cave underneath the cliff, still and untouched by the sun's light. The crevice is narrow, but just large enough to fit a vessel if it needed to.
"There she is." Franky says, grinning madly. "A beauty, ain't she?"
Zoro inhales sharply. Just inside the mouth of the cave sits The Thousand Sunny in all her glory. Even with the massive cliff providing it with shade and shelter against the sun, the ship seemingly glows.
Zoro doesn't say anything. He and Franky approach the cave, and when the ship's massive height completely towers over Zoro, his breath comes out as a shudder. He steps forward, stepping on a rock that's closest to the ship.
Reaching out, he touches Sunny's hull softly. The wood is warm. The water underneath picks up just slightly, and the ship leans into his touch.
"Yeah." Zoro smiles. "Yeah. She's perfect, Franky."
He glances back at the shipwright. The cyborg's clothes are ragged and filthy, like he'd been laboring out in the sun for an extensive amount of time. He has his enormous toolbelt wrapped around his waist, and a few planks of wood tied to his back. His blue hair is styled upright, the outline eerily similar to the shape of Plume Island's infamous mountain.
Franky's grin wobbles slightly when their eyes meet, but he doesn't look away. "She," Franky starts to say. He pushes his sunglasses closer to his eyes, then turns away. He tries again, "She really missed you, bro. S-She was worried there, for a second."
Zoro pretends to not hear the thickness in his voice. Or see the tears streaming down from behind the sunglasses. He shakes his head endearingly. "Yeah, yeah. I missed her, too."
A rope ladder is thrown down, smacking the space next to Zoro's hand.
He starts, and both he and Franky look up. The cave is too dark to make out the silhouette that looks down on them from the deck above, but Zoro knows he wouldn't be able to see this person even with light.
"Hello there, boys." A voice greets from above, echoing against the stone walls. "Need a lift?"
Franky grabs the ladder, steadying it with one hand. He quickly wipes his face with the other hand. "Yow! Thanks, girly!" To Zoro, he hands him the ladder and says, "Go ahead, bro. Sunny's been waitin' for you."
Zoro grabs the rope ladder and hauls himself over. His heart beats excitedly with every step.
When his feet touch the deck, he instinctively balances himself against the leap and sway of the ship. A gust of wind passes through, whistling hauntingly. He looks over to the mouth of the cave and towards the horizon, then down to the lawn covered deck. He kicks off his boots, the pair muddled with dirt and filth, and curls his toes into the grass.
Home . . . he thinks with awe. I forgot I had one.
A dark shape comes to stand beside him. Its outline is slim, especially in comparison to what Franky looked like before. "I wonder . . ." It says with coy thoughtfulness. "Does poor Chopper know his patient is out of bed?"
Franky hauls himself over the railings noisily. "What he doesn't know won't hurt him, right?" He says with a wink.
"How naughty." A low chuckle, like they're sharing a secret joke. To him, the voice is warm. "It's good to have you back, Zoro."
Zoro is still looking around— that mast, that's where I dodged a Marine's sword when they boarded us . . . over there was where I was sleeping when I first forgot Nami . . . —but he doesn't miss the earnestness in the stranger's tone.
"Not back," Zoro shakes his head. "Not yet."
Whoever this person is, they understand. To his vague answer, they provide an equally vague reply. "That's true. But, you're nearly there, aren't you?"
"Yeah," Zoro breathes in the sea. "Nearly."
He hears Franky pull up the rope ladder behind him. "I'm gonna hit up Cook-bro and the others. Is the Den-Den Mushi still in the library?"
"Do they not know you're both here?"
"Nah, I let the meat guy know he's with me. Just want to tell the others to pack up and head on back. Looks like we're all done with the island now. Is Strawhat-bro still fishing on Sunny's head?"
"I think he took a break, but he'll return to his spot soon. I told him the water is too shallow here catch anything, but he swore he saw an eel lurking about. Do you . . ."
Their low conversation starts to dissolve as Zoro walks away. A rush of melancholy pumps along with his blood. As he looks around the open deck, memories bloom in his mind like a field of poppies at the crack of dawn.
His feet are weightless, and like a ghost he glides towards each piece of cognition; the mikan trees that Nami brought along with her from Going Merry— all the way from Cocoyashi Village, where we fought with Arlong and got our navigator back—the hatch that opened and led to Usopp's Factory—Usopp was a wreck when we had to say goodbye to Merry. She brought us all the way from the East Blue, and was the first home we ever knew. Franky hardly knew her but poured his heart out to make sure her spirit lived on. God, he was so freakin' happy when Usopp liked the Sunny—
The memories keep flooding back. He walks around the ship quietly, taking stock of everything and letting himself to reminisce— that ladder leads up to the Crow's Nest, and that door leads to the dining hall and kitchen, and around the back is the infirmary, and there's a library down below, and the aquarium bar . . .
—Everything, he realizes, everything is exactly as he last remembered it.
But . . .
But the pull is still there.
Something is still missing.
Almost there, but not yet.
He's not sure how long he spends wandering around the Sunny. Franky and the other occupant of the ship leave him to his own devices, and if there are others on board, they don't interrupt him.
When he finally finds the door that leads back outside to the deck—did Franky remodel the ship while I was gone? It's like all the doors have moved— the sun has risen just slightly above the horizon to paint the sky a pastel pink.
Zoro climbs the stairs to the upper deck. His original destination was the Crow's Nest, mainly to assess just how much of his strength had deteriorated, and thereby begin establishing a rigorous training routine to whip it back to shape— but, something stops him on the way.
There's a soft noise in the air. It doesn't belong to this world. He concentrates on the sound, straining his ears.
It's music. He hears music.
Zoro pauses. He frowns.
Behind one of the doors, a violin is playing lowly. The muffled music carries a stream of wistfulness with every note. It chills the warm air.
He pads his way over to the kitchen door, where the song is loudest. When he pushes it open, the music becomes sharper, but doesn't stop from his interruption.
Sat across the dining table is a looming slither of blackness, like a drop of ink sliding down a blank canvas. It rocks gently in rhythm with the music it plays. The lifelike splotch of dark gently holds a violin close to it, stroking out the haunting tune.
The melody continues, the pitch only picking up with the sway of the ocean's waves.
The bow dips, the strings hold tight, and the last note is played. It spreads out in a mournful hum, before it softly fades away, and the song ends and silence steals the spotlight.
The violin and bow are carefully placed on the table. A string of black picks up a teacup and takes a sip.
"Did you enjoy it?" An eerie voice asks him.
Zoro realizes he's still standing by the door and straightens. He hums noncommittally. "Pretty depressing."
"Yo-ho-ho-ho!" The laugh bounces off the wooden walls as Zoro crosses the room and opens the corner cupboard. "I must admit, that has been my muse as of late. But the tune can be adjusted to make it more cheerful. Yes, yes, now that the sun is shining, and the smiles are returning, I should probably play something more cheerful, don't you think?"
He grunts, rummaging through the top shelf where the vinegar and oil are stored. Sanji had kept his word when he said Zoro would only have a little rum. Screw that, Zoro thinks with a scowl, knowing somewhere behind the apple cider vinegar is a bottle of sake. I can drink whenever I want and however much I want.
The space where the good rum had been hidden is empty, but the sake is still there. The bottle hasn't been touched since the last time Zoro stole a quick sip. The cook really needs to learn how to hide his alcohol better.
He grabs a glass from the sink on his way to the table and plops down besides the room's only other occupant.
His unknown companion makes a mischievous sound. "Self-medicating, are we?"
Zoro smirks, filling his glass to the rim. "Something like that."
Noisily, the dark silhouette drinks the last sip of its tea, then nudges its empty cup closer to Zoro. "May I?"
Zoro gives it a generous pour. "Oh my," it laughs. "And what are we drinking to?"
"Nothing." Although, Zoro does pause to think about the answer a bit more thoroughly. He looks at the murky content of his cup, seeing a fog over his reflection. He corrects himself. "Nothing yet."
Because I'm not there yet. I'm still being pulled—
"Ah, yes." The ink stain says knowingly. It sets its teacup of sake on the table and sits back, its body seemingly clattering against the wood of the chair. "Saving the celebration until your full recovery, I presume?" It murmurs. "I suppose, then, we can call this a small reward for making it thus far. After the perilous battle you've fought, it is a small reward that is very well deserved, if I do say so myself."
Zoro's mouth pulls slightly. "I didn't really do much fighting," he says, not once recalling any feeling of being victorious the past week. The amount of times I felt defeated, though . . .
"Perhaps not in the sense you're thinking." He can hear a meaningful smile in the reply.
Zoro's brow furrows. He doesn't quite follow, but doesn't press.
The ghost continues. "Ah, apologies for not asking sooner, but how are you feeling, Zoro-san?"
He doesn't need to put much thought into that answer. "Better." And he truly does. His head no longer pounds with every drum of his heartbeat, and the sand in his blood has nearly dissipated. Even the taste of foulness and despair has washed itself away from his mouth.
An enthusiastic breath of relief, followed by a joyous exclaim, "Oh, that is wonderful news to hear! Ah, but I don't have any ears to hear with, yo-ho-ho-ho! Sku—"
"Skull joke," Zoro mumbles without much consideration.
His head shoots up.
"Indeed," Brook says. The skeleton sits on the chair with its legs crossed and its hat nowhere to be seen. The ridiculous afro is still ever present, and his attire is as impeccable as ever. Impossibly, Brook has managed to make his static body as expressive as he sees fit, and right now the skull seems to be stretched in a wide grin. "Skull joke."
Zoro can't help but chuckle tiredly. "Hell," he shakes his head. "Brook. Of course. Shit."
He grips the side of the table, steadying himself as the onslaught of memories rush back into his mind. Of course it's Brook, he thinks breathlessly. Who else would it be? He swallows as the emotions of those memories begin trickling into his head.
And then one particular memory splashes him with cold water. Oh, crap. He blanches. The last time I talked to him, I told him to fuck off.
"It's good to see you, too, Zoro-san," Brook chortles. He's surprised that the musician isn't outright sobbing with joy like most of the crew already had, especially considering how overtly dramatic he can be at times. Instead, Brook is spookily collected.
Zoro pinches the bridge of his nose and groans pitifully, still dwelling on the memories. "I thought you were the grim reaper," he groans. "For fuck's sake."
"Ah, you remember that!" Now Brook's dramatics are pulled out; he cranes his neck back as he laughs, clapping his boney hands excitedly. "What a surreal moment that was for me! I should have known something was amiss from the start! You were so serious and determined when we spoke, yo-ho-ho-ho!"
Zoro wants to chuck himself out the window and into the ocean. "Ugh, don't remind me. Sorry about that, by the way. That must have been even weirder for you."
"Nonsense, nonsense! Don't apologize! Who are we to control what our minds show us? We are but slaves to our brains, after all. Well, except for me, of course, since I don't have a brain, yo-ho-ho-ho!" He nearly falls off his chair with each hysteric laugh. "Come now, don't be embarrassed, Zoro-san! I imagine anyone would come to the same conclusion if they awoke to find a skeleton sitting on their bedside."
Zoro scrubs his hand over his face, nearly pulling the bandages off his head. "Well, whatever. Glad it was just you. If it was the actual grim reaper, I don't think he would have even bothered saying hello. Would have been zapped to hell on the spot."
Brook seems to be thinking along the same lines. With a mischievous glint, he says, "Undoubtedly! Why, with the amount of times you've escaped Death, any grim reaper would have swiped you at the first chance it gets, just out of spite! I guess that makes you Death's least favorite customer." He brings a hand to his face, tapping his jaw thoughtfully. "Ah, but with my unique ability, I suppose I am, too! Oh, dear! We make quite the troublesome pair!"
Zoro grins and raises his glass. "To screwing over Death, then."
Brook eagerly picks up his teacup. "Cheers, indeed!"
But before they can clatter the cups against one another, the door behind Zoro opens and he hears Franky's boisterous voice. "Ya'll having a party in here?"
"Come in, come in!" Brook beckons him over enthusiastically, his other hand still holding the half-raised teacup. "We're toasting to our youths and our ever-extending mortalities!"
"Super! I'll get in on that, too!"
Then another voice says, "Mind if I join, as well?" and Zoro turns his head quickly.
"Robin." Zoro breathes, the name rolling off his tongue as naturally as an exhale.
She stands by the open door with the light bursting in from behind her. Her long hair is loose, flowing freely with the wind, and her eyes . . . Zoro can't seem to look away from her eyes. The sight of them alone makes the memories rush back into him, filling his lungs with cold air—
"I hope we can get along."
He remembers, now, sitting in the ship's infirmary with Chopper, recovering from one of his bone crushing headaches, when Robin had walked in. To him, it wasn't Robin. It was a stranger, walking into the room and talking freely and casually. It was only when their eyes met that Robin realized she was a stranger, and the change was instantaneous.
Like a flicker of light, her eyes dulled. A curtain of reservation closed over them. She understood immediately that Zoro had forgotten her, and to save herself the pain and hurt she removed herself willingly, not just physically. It was as if she'd shut down and reverted back to the wary and closed off person she was two years ago.
But now their eyes meet again . . . and that person is gone.
Now it is truly, without a doubt, Robin who looks back at him.
"It's good to see you, Zoro," she says meaningfully, a glint of perceptiveness in her eyes, and Zoro knows they share the same stream of thoughts.
"Yeah," Zoro smiles back. "You too."
She takes a seat beside him, and Franky returns from behind the counter-top with two glasses in his hand. "Oh, nice. The good stuff!" He says as he pours himself a drink. The sake's last drop fills Robin's glass, and Franky adds, "Wonder how long it'll take before Cook-bro notices it's gone, heh!"
Brook snickers. "It'll be our little secret."
Robin lifts her glass first, and the others follow suite. "A toast to youth, then?"
"Don't know how youth applies to you, skeleton-bro. You're basically a talking artifact."
"How rude! I'll have you know I'm at my prime of my life! Why, I'm just getting started!"
Franky snorts, jerking his chin towards Robin. "If you're at your prime, then what does that make us?"
Robin answers. "Fetuses."
They all have a laugh at that.
Zoro holds his glass as well but doesn't lift it.
He's watching the three of them—Franky, Brook, Robin. Watching as they smile and laugh and tease one another so easily. They look just as relieved as Nami and the others looked at his return, but it's a different kind of relief with these three. Zoro can't quite put his finger on it, but they look . . . accomplished?
They're looking at him, waiting.
"No," Zoro says suddenly.
The holes in his memory begin to fill. In those gruesome days where he disintegrated, mind, body, and soul, he sees Franky, Brook, and Robin. He sees the shipwright, gruff and solemn, pulling the crew aside to speak soberly and very much unlike himself. He sees the musician, advising the others with firm words and clinical wisdom. He sees Robin stepping in quickly and reprimanding sharply, stopping things in their path before they become volatile.
The memories return, and he realizes these small interactions are something he managed to pick up even while his mind was dissolving. Even then, he was able to appreciate the subtle battle plan these three implemented.
Zoro shakes his head. "No," he says again. "A toast to you guys. For holding it together."
Robin and Franky's expressions turn curious, while Brook places a hand on his chest, abashed. "Zoro-san! How kind! Why, I'm blushing! But you give us far too much credit. The whole crew worked effortlessly to ensure your recovery, not just us."
"I know," and he wholeheartedly does. Everyone stepped forward and stretched themselves far too thin to help fight Zoro's battle with him. It is in their nature, after all. But . . . his mouth pulls. But . . .
"But you guys worked differently," Zoro finally says. "When everyone was emotional and freaking out, you weren't. You kept them afloat."
And not for the first time, Zoro is painfully aware that he was not the only one that was drowning in a whirlwind of emotions. In that last week, everyone was suffering. Usopp was wracked with guilt that bled him dry. Nami was hurt from a wound that made her curl within herself and disappear from fear of further injuries. Chopper was devastated with helplessness that wore him down to dust and misery. Sanji was succumbed with an anger that lay rotting inside of him, blinding him with a senseless curtain of rage.
Their emotions festered like an infection. It festered and festered and festered, until it spread throughout them and affected everything they did. Because when this crew feels something, they truly and unreservedly feel it with their entire being. It is something that they all suffer from, and something they all take with brazen stride.
And it could have very well led to a disastrous outcome, if it weren't for Franky, Robin, and Brook. He meets the eyes of his three crewmates, each one not without resolve and endurance. He remembers now.
When he forgot Sunny, it was Franky who was with him. Franky who immediately understood the gravity of the situation. He spoke to Zoro soberly, asking him questions to ensure he truly grasped what was occurring. He remained composed, even though Zoro was sure that on the inside, he was absolutely crushed.
"Listen up," Franky had said, when he called everyone to the deck and announced the latest development to them. Faces were shocked, surprised, devastated, but Franky's words cut through all of them. "He's probably gonna start forgettin' more things now. Maybe one of us next. When it happens, we gotta accept it and keep it business as usual, no questions asked."
And Usopp timidly said, "But he's the one that's not accepting it—"
"Don't matter. It's on us to keep our cool. Just bite your tongue and hold it in. It's gonna hurt like it hurt Nami-sis, but if we don't accept it on the spot, then we're just gonna end up lashing out and sayin' some things we'll regret. If you want to get angry or lash out, you come to me, but not at Zoro-bro, 'cause that's when things get messy. Everyone follow?"
It was hard for everyone to follow that, and naturally Zoro immediately forgot that conversation and returned to his endless supply of denial. But Franky's words resonated with the others. When he and Usopp were in the aquarium bar and Zoro had suddenly lost his memories of the years following their visit to Sabaody, the sharpshooter was doing his best to keep his reaction at a minimal. Because if Usopp kept freaking out and panicking, I would have probably mirrored him, and who knows what I would have done or said . . .
And it was Brook, who later presented them with a proposition that was too hard to swallow.
"I think," Brook says softly. "I think it would be best if you remained out of . . . sight, Nami-san." He'd tried to be delicate, but Nami was insulted by the prospect almost instantly.
"And just sit back and just do nothing?" She roared.
"Yes." The word was simple, but still heavy with remorse. "I apologize for how harsh it may sound, but sitting back and doing nothing will be the most helpful thing you can do right now. Because Zoro-san doesn't know who you are, he is incredibly agitated by your presence, as I'm sure you've noticed. Moving forward, when he forgets another one of us, we must herd them away, and feed Zoro-san a story that will ease his agitation. You understand, I hope?"
She did. They all did. When he forgot Robin, she accepted the loss, made up a story about her being a temporary guest on the ship, and disappeared. Brook later did the same when his turn came, and then even Chopper, who'd remained by his side during the very start of the situation, had to be pried away so Zoro wouldn't look at him with hostile eyes. It would have been a repeat of me and Nami all over again. I would have been incredibly suspicious of them, seen them as strangers or possibly even enemies . . .
And it was Robin who enforced it all.
She was always watching. She was the one who that said Zoro shouldn't be left alone, that someone should accompany him throughout the ship. It was Robin who was on deck with him that night his headache was at his worse, and that definitely not by chance. Robin who stood up when the glass shattered in the galley, reprimanding and reminding with just one stern word. Robin who gently told Chopper that it would better that Franky accompany the group into Plume Island, and not him.
It might have been their experiences in life, or possibly their ages, but they possessed a type of foresight that let them know how to stop a disaster from irrupting into a shitstorm. The three of them had worked together meticulously, making their efforts seem small and insignificant, so the others would not be burdened with more emotional baggage.
"Ah," Brook says softly. He shares a glance with Franky and Robin. The cyborg purses his lips into a flat line. Robin sets her glass down slowly, bridging her fingers together and setting her chin atop them. Brook hums noncommittally. "So, you remember? My, you are quite perceptive. And here we thought we were being subtle."
Robin says, "There are times, when the enemy is not a physical thing, but rather a mental thing, where emotions can do more harm than good. Sometimes, the only way to win those battles, is to push away your emotions. This crew has a very bad habit of not being able to do that."
"Sanji-san's initial reaction gave us a look into at how disastrous the situation can become if we let emotions fog our vision." Brook adds.
"Call it Adult Intuition," Franky chuckles. "You young-ins are fun and carefree and all, but when things get serious, us adults need to step in and balance things out. Gotta make sure everyone is thinkin' straight, make sure no one does or says anythin' they might regret."
"Yeah." Zoro breathes out steadily. His chest swells as he looks at them. "And for that," He grips his glass tightly and raises it high. "To you guys."
Three more cups are raised, and they slam against his, the sake sloshing and bouncing from one glass to the other.
It was the most refreshing thing Zoro had tasted in a very long time.
But it doesn't wash away the pull—
After a second bottle is stolen and emptied and the wine rack is raided, Zoro leaves the elder three in the galley to celebrate on their own. Sitting in one spot has made him incredibly anxious. Plus, he still hasn't had his fill of the sight of the ocean.
He excuses himself from the table before Robin pours him a glass of white wine, and she smiles astutely without contention.
Zoro closes the door behind him with a soft click. He closes his eye and breathes in the wind and the salt. They fill his lungs and stomach with a wondrous euphoria. It clears away the fog in his head and the heaviness in his soul. The ocean's presence is nothing short of purification.
He opens his eye and adjusts the swords on his hip. Kitesu and Shuusui rattle in content. He takes a step forward, intent on hopping down to the main deck, but stops when his eye catches an oddity.
There's a large moth perched on the rail, staring directly at him.
The blue insect perfectly camouflages with the ocean behind it that Zoro nearly misses it. He stares at it with a deep frown. Don't moths usually come out at night? He wonders.
Zoro cocks his head. The moth does the same.
His eyes widen. "Are you. . ."
He stops himself, feeling ridiculous talking to a bug, but regardless he still recognizes the moth as the one Moya had kept perched on her shoulder. Her assistant, she called it, he thinks, approaching the moth. It flutters its wings, but doesn't scamper way like a normal moth would. It's definitely the same one from before.
Zoro's frown deepens. The only reason it would be all the way here is if Moya sent it, he realizes after a long stretch of silence.
He scratches the back of his neck. "Er," he clears his throat. The moth's antenna twitches again, its head bobbing. It, impossibly, looks like it's staring at him. Studying him. Oh, Zoro thinks. That's why it's here.
"Tell the old hag that I'm fine," he says to the moth gruffly. Then, he purses his lips, and sighs, defeated. "And . . . tell her thanks."
The moth's antenna twitches once more.
Then, it flaps its wings and flies away, heading back to the island.
What a weird Devil Fruit power, he thinks, shoving his hands into his pockets. But I guess it's resourceful . . . somehow.
He finds himself back on the main deck, facing the ocean.
It's absolutely mesmerizing. The sky is like a ripening fruit, the warm colors by the horizon steadily cooling over to a wide blue over the sun. It makes the trailing clouds look purple.
And the sea has no problem reflecting the colors, adding a glimmering overlay that makes the scenery dreamlike. The pastel ocean widens and widens and widens, endless and infinite. Zoro's hands nearly tremble from excitement at the thought of soon being able to sail back out there.
Back there, he thinks. Just a ship in the ocean, in the middle of the world—
Not yet— Something tells him.
Zoro's hands curl around the rail. He's not there, not yet.
Because, once more, he feels it. The tightening in his chest—the pull.
Somewhere inside him lies a sensation. It's neither solid nor liquid nor gas. It's just there.
And it pulls.
It's pulling him, gravitating his soul towards something.
Where, he wonders, then, more curiously, why?
So, he follows it.
He lets himself be drawn to wherever it needs him to be. His body turns, facing the front of the ship, looking out to the Sunny's figurehe—
His blood has solidified into ice; he cannot move or breathe.
Something fell into the water, the weight heavy enough to make a loud noise, and for some absurd reason his mind is screeching at him to move, move, move, move—!
He doesn't understand the sudden urgency he's drowning in. He doesn't understand why his body abruptly snaps into action, why he's unexpectedly throwing his swords onto the ground, why he's climbing over the rail, jumping over—
What!? He thinks wildly. What I am doing—!
He dives into the water headfirst.
Another SPLASH, this time from him.
He breaks the ocean's surface like a bullet, the brisk water swallowing him whole. His limbs scream at the cold contact, but he has no power over them. They're kicking with all their might, pushing him deeper and deeper into the ocean's abyss with each wide stroke.
What am I doing!? He thinks again, lungs on fire as he tries not to drown from the water and from the roaring alarms in his head. Just because something fell in the water—?
And yet, he continues to swim down, his eyes scanning the void desperately. The salt is assailing his eye, making it harder to see, but he never blinks, never looks away. He doesn't even know what he's looking for, and yet the urgency to find it will ultimately drown him before the ocean does.
His mind and body are working as one, and they are telling him to keep going, deeper and deeper, don't stop until it's found, don't breathe, don't breathe, don't breathe, keep going until you find it—
He finds it.
The ocean is mercifully shallow where the Sunny is currently docked, so the seafloor has already caught what had sunk into its clutches. Zoro reaches with a hand, kicking hard with his feet.
His fingers find something. He grabs it with a grip that not even death can relinquish. He plants his feet onto the seaweed covered floor, bends his knees, and kicks.
Momentum pushes him forward with his haul. Above him is a twinkle of light, the surface of the sea like a window across worlds. The ocean's belly is a cold, dark world, without sound and soul. A harsh and ominous contrast to the pastel laden world above him.
He crashing through the surface, and the worlds shatter.
He takes a shuddering breathe—
For a moment, he is blinded by the intense light of the sun, and all he sees is white. The world resets.
The pull in his chest scatters. He feels it disappear like a breath in the dead of winter, evaporating into the rest of his being.
Suddenly . . . he is whole.
Suddenly . . . he is complete.
He is filled with hue and color. He is melded into his right mold. He is complete.
And then, he blinks, and the white is gone.
He is back in the correct world, staring at the ripening sky. The water is calm and lazy, carrying him with little effort. Everything is blissfully quiet. Everything is right.
He takes a deep breath, feeling his lungs expand and his chest rise. There's nothing else there; the pull is gone.
Zoro swims to land and grabs onto the jagged shore for leverage, pulling himself over. He slaps his gurgling baggage onto the ground like a dead fish.
"Dumbass!" Zoro snaps when he's finally managed to catch his own breathe. He gives his captain a kick to the stomach, and water sprouts from his mouth like the fountains back in the town. "How many times did we tell you to be careful when you're sitting up there!"
"Bwah," is the first noise out of his mouth, then Luffy moans miserably, "I swear it wasn't my fault, though!" He flops over onto his back, staring up at Zoro pitifully. "I got sleepy and the eel pulled on the line so fast I didn't have time to pull back. It even took my fishing rod!"
"Then don't—" Zoro glares and Luffy pouts, and when their eyes finally find each other, time freezes—
They come to the realization together.
For him, the world stops, then rights itself. He nearly falls over from the momentum. He stutters into life, because whatever he was before this very second, it was nothing short of lifeless. His entire soul flickers on, the feeling violently akin to his heart stopping—
His face breaks into an easy grin, teeth blaring and lips curling. His snickers are at Zoro's expense, probably laughing at him for taking so long to realize his memory was back. He laughs and laughs, letting the cave walls join in. His rubber body, splattered on ground like a starfish, shakes with the mirth.
If the seawater didn't cling to his body and the drowning episode didn't happen, he's sure Luffy would be on his feet cheering excitedly, probably even smothering him with a suffocating hug.
And Zoro is glad none of that happens. He needs a moment, he needs a long moment, because this realization sits in his chest like a block of cement. His mind is ranting madly, disbelievingly repeating Luffy, Luffy, Luffy, Luffy— saying it over and over and over again to try and make up for all the times he didn't say it. He's still out of breath, still trying to breath, breathing and breathing and breathing and staring—
"Zoro's back!" Luffy sits up and announces to the world. He cheers again, the joy unmistakable. "You're back!"
Back. He makes it sound so simple, like Zoro had gone out and gotten himself lost. When, in reality, it was Luffy who was gone. Zoro was the one who had to navigate this lightless universe alone, tethered to nothing and orbiting emptiness. Luffy was the sun, larger than life and brighter than all the stars combined, and he was snuffed from Zoro's world for so long that he was sure he'd be condemned to live the rest of his life blind.
But he returns Luffy's grin with his own smaller smile.
Because, now, he can see. There, in front of him, dripping wet with his straw hat hanging limply around his neck is Luffy. The cave is dark and cold, but Luffy's warmth cuts through it with ease, shining towards Zoro, pointing its light at him as if it found him.
If Luffy is the sun in this universe, then a universe in nothing but cold and empty without planets to keep it company. Zoro is a world of his own, and so is Nami, and the cook, and Usopp, and all the others. They're all planets orbiting around Luffy, and even if one were to go missing, they would all feel the crevice it left behind.
"I'm back." He says at last. Because, yes, he is back. He woke up lost, with his soul trying to pull him back in the right direction. He was nearly there, he was almost there, and now, finally, he is home.
Luffy snickers again, inching closer to Zoro. "I'm glad," he tells him. "You were gone for a loooooong time, you know."
The words weren't meant to twist the knife in Zoro's stomach, but they do nonetheless, and Zoro blanches.
He expected this, after all, but it doesn't make it any less painful. He made his captain worry, and now that the memories flood back, he is agonizingly aware of how betrayed Luffy must have been. He was gone for so long, he abandoned the crew, and it doesn't even matter if it was knowingly or not. He abandoned his captain. He abandoned Luffy.
He clenches his fist, head bowed. "I'm sor—"
"I'm sorry," Luffy says first.
Zoro's eyes widen. The abrupt apology has the same effect as a punch to the gut. Zoro doesn't understand, and that makes him feel ill. No, no, why the hell wou—
Then, Luffy pulls the rope that crosses his chest, and from his back rounds a glistening white sword. Luffy unties it from the rope and holds it to Zoro with both hands. "Sorry," he says again, this time sheepish. "I got your sword all wet."
Wado drips with seawater. A tear slides from the hilt down beneath the sheath. Zoro stares at it, speechless. Luffy is saying, nonchalantly, the words coming from deep within the sea, "I would clean it, but I don't know how to properly clean swords. Plus, it was in water, so doesn't that make it cleaner than it was before it got wet?"
He swallows thickly. Brisk, cold air slithers down his throat. "No, it's . . ." His hands shake slightly when he reaches over. He curls his fingers over the white sheathe. The sword is cold as ice, and trembles under his touch. "It's . . . fine."
The dam holding back the final stream of memories bursts, and like a raging waterfall, it comes crashing down onto his shoulders. He grasps a pointed rock next to him, curls his toes into the hard ground, clinging to any kind of purchase, anything to hold him up while he is crushed by the onslaught of memories—
And then he remembers. That memory becomes as clear as day, now—
The cook was cleaning up the mess of the broken glass from the floor, while Usopp was dusting himself off. Franky and Robin were murmuring in low voices to one another, while Brook and Chopper hovered over Luffy and Zoro's straight forms.
They hadn't moved since Luffy had promised to make everything make sense again. "Just leave that to us!" He had declared, after the glass shattered in his hand and after Sanji, Usopp and Franky stepped back. And Zoro was so awestruck by the assurance that he felt the anxieties of the moment bleed away.
But they didn't completely disappear. Worry still lingered. A specific worry.
"Luffy," Zoro had said in the crowded yet quiet galley. He didn't continue. Everyone had stilled. They waited. Zoro couldn't find the rest of the words.
The captain glanced at the swordsman. Then, a sharper glance to Sanji. An unspoken command, a flash of understanding. The cook cleared his throat and said loudly, "Oi, shitheads. Come on. Let's go make sure the ship doesn't crash into a mountain or something."
Then it was just Luffy and Zoro in the galley.
Zoro sheathed his sword, then grabbed the other two from his waist. The swords were snapping at him with disapproval. He held them towards Luffy and said, "take them."
Luffy didn't even blink. He looked at Zoro, unimpressed. "Why?" It wasn't even a question. It was a prod. Luffy wanted to hear Zoro say it.
Zoro hesitated. "I'm a danger to this crew if they stay with me."
"Wrong," Luffy said almost immediately. "Zoro is really stupid. What, you think we can't kick your ass if you try it? Sanji already stopped you the first time, and the others stopped you here a second time."
Zoro didn't respond. Luffy said again, "Why."
They both already knew the answer. It didn't have to be said. However, saying it and hearing it brought it to life, and once it's given life, it is, in parallel, given the opportunity to be killed.
Zoro said, "I'm going to forget them."
There. The danger is now alive. It hurt to say, but Zoro had to face it. The realization occurred to him when he accepted that the two years of memories were erased. His mind had thought, if I could forget years, what else could I forget? And instantly, his eye fell onto his hip, and he knew.
The scenarios were running wild in his mind. Waking up only to forget he was a swordsman, tossing his shared dream with Kuina overboard or even selling it for spare change. Or waking up and forgetting he was a pirate, lowering himself back to his bounty hunter days only to attack his crewmates one by one, hurting them with his own blades. A voice tried to reassure him by reminding him that his crewmates are strong, they can take him on. Only for so long, however, said the other voice in his head. Only until drastic measures need to be taken and his crew have to suffer with the guilt of knowing they'd hurt their nakama. His mind had been a whirlwind of these hypotheticals, one worse than the other.
Quieter, so quiet that the waves outside nearly swallowed them whole, he told Luffy, "I can't carry them if I forget them." It had hurt. It hurt so goddamn much admitting it. He never, in his wildest dreams, ever thought this could ever be a possibility.
Luffy's eyes hardened with a resolution that was as solid as iron. "Then I'll carry them." He grabbed Wado, and the sword did not object. "I'll carry your dreams until you're ready to carry them yourself. So, don't give up. Keep fighting, OK?"
At that moment, he wondered when Luffy had gotten so insightful. Zoro had expected an extravagant argument, but Luffy had understood the severity of this situation with somber resolve.
Zoro was the one that had wanted to argue. He intended for the swords to be hidden away, kept safe somewhere in the ship. He never intended for Luffy to bear this burden. To carry his dreams, all this time, to carry its memory and the weight of its importance. It must have been har—
"It was hard." Luffy says. He isn't grinning anymore. Wado sits between them, a white line of separation. The sword feels too unbelievably heavy for Zoro to hold onto right now.
Luffy doesn't go any further in his statement. His lips are pursed, and he shrugs halfheartedly. Water leaks out from the hair pasted on his forehead. His eyes are soft, despondent.
He doesn't need to say anything else, because Zoro understands. Luffy isn't complaining or asking for pity. He is acknowledging the battle.
"Yeah." Zoro agrees, because it was hard for him, too. They both battled the same fight, but not together. It was the same enemy, but each one of them had to tackle it alone. It was hard for Luffy, and it was hard for Zoro. "But you did it."
"Of course." Luffy's nose flares in defiance. As if the alternative was ever even an option. As if Luffy would sit back and not do anything. As if Luffy would let his emotions deter him, as if he would give up, as if he would for a split second even consider throwing in the towel when Zoro's life was on the line.
"And you did it, too," Luffy tells him. "You didn't give up."
Zoro falters. "I . . . did."
Zoro can't lie about that. He remembers the house at the top of the mountain, remembers Luffy being there, remembers how hard his captain struggled to keep Zoro alive. He also, vividly and harrowingly, remembers when the last sliver of trust for Luffy died—
"I trusted you"
The image of Luffy's hurt face is something that will forever live in his mind. That was when he gave up.—
"No, you didn't. Zoro," Luffy is firm. His fists are curled. "Even when you forgot everything, you still kept fighting. You fought me, you fought the witch-doctor, you fought the marines. You never stopped fighting for your life. You never gave it up. Because Zoro is a fighter, and he could never forget that."
He nudges Wado closer to Zoro. This time, he doesn't hesitate. He grabs the sword. It's as light as air and warmer than candlelight. He holds it with both hands now, holds it closer to him, brings his dream back into his soul, merging the two.
"Not a fighter," Zoro murmurs. His grip tightens. "A swordsman."
"My swordsman," Luffy agrees, that blinding grin back. The sun, the stars, the moon— nothing even compares. Nothing stands a chance at being nearly as brilliant. "The greatest swordsman in the whole world!"
To that blinding grin that can brighten the deepest depths of the ocean, Zoro smirks and says, "Can't be anything less for the Pirate King, after all."
"Hell yeah!" Luffy whoops.
And Zoro wonders, awestruck and overwhelmed, how he managed to live these last few days. How he managed to walk, eat, and breathe, knowing that Luffy, a fragment of his very soul, was missing.
It could not be called living. He was drowning in oblivion. That's what it was. He was not alive until Luffy. Life before him was nothingness.
Luffy jumps to his feet, and Zoro stands by his side, that magnetic pull ushering him to his position. Luffy gives his head a quick shake, releasing the lingering water, then plants his straw hat atop his head. Zoro slides Wado into the sash around his waist, Kitesu and Shuusui welcoming it back happily.
Luffy asks him, "Ready get back out there and make some memories with me?"
And Zoro, who has never felt more alive until this very moment, says, "Aye, Captain."