Luffy rubbed his hands together, dropping the straw back into the pile the Beast had collected and brought to him. "Mister?" he said, looking up at the silhouette of the Beast, keeping watch over him in the snow with his mirror-eyes. "I d-dunno if I can d-do this."
"Of course you can, Luffy," the Beast said, tilting his head. "If you can't spin that straw into gold, we can't save your brother."
Luffy blew on his hands, shivering in the cold and regretting as always not having heeded the warning to bring a coat earlier. He sat in the snowy clearing, the wind blowing around him and threatening to knock off his hat. "But I keep spinning it, and it's not doing nothing."
"It's changing, Luffy. It just needs a little more time. Look, it's turning shiny already."
"It is?" Luffy said, blinking. He could barely see in the fog, the sun above him a white disk through the clouds.
"Would I lie to you? Hurry, now. Your brother is counting on you."
"I know." Luffy picked up the straw again, his hands numb in the cold, and spun it around and around as he yawned. "Don' worry, Sabo . . ."
Ace and Sabo leaned into the wind as they walked, the snow falling thick and fast. Sabo shivered in the cold and wrapped his cape tighter around him. The pale disk in the sky told them it was past noon.
"Where have you looked?" he said to Ace, speaking up over the wind.
"Hard to say," Ace said, turning to speak more clearly. "These woods all look the same, and the snow keeps covering up my footprints. Haven't been able to see too well till now."
Sabo looked over his head at Brook, who was struggling to stay on top of the thick snow as he walked beside them. "Why wasn't he helping in the first place? No offense, Brook," he added as Brook gave him a look. "I just thought he would've been the first to volunteer."
"I asked him to help, but he insisted on guarding you," Ace said. "Must've been something Luffy said."
"Oh," Sabo said, hoping the guilt that pierced his throat didn't come out with his words. "Right. That, um, reminds me. How'd you find Nami's family?"
"Ace, is that you?" someone called. Sabo looked down and, to his shock, saw Nami struggling forward in the snow. "Thank goodness I found you again. I think I saw—"
She froze, seeing Sabo and Brook. "Sabo," she said. "I'm glad you're awake—"
"What is she doing here?" Sabo demanded, whirling around on Ace. Nami flinched and crouched down, looking away.
"Sabo, I know you're mad, but it's okay," Ace said quickly, raising his hands. He lowered them again, catching his cloak and wrapping it around himself. "She brought us to her family so you'd get out of the snow, and she's been helping me look for Luffy. She said she wants to make it up to us."
Sabo's glare softened and he looked at Nami. "Okay," he said, exhaling. "Thank you."
"What were you saying?" Ace asked.
"I think I saw Luffy."
"Where?!" Sabo and Ace yelled as Brook's jaw dropped and his hands flew to his face.
"Is he okay?!"
"What's he doing?!"
"I think he's okay," Nami said, tamping the snow down with her paws. "He looked busy, and I thought I saw him with someone, but maybe it was just a big tree." She trotted a few steps away. "I think it was this way."
"Thank you so much," Ace said in relief, holding out his arms. Nami jumped into them and against Ace, trying to keep warm. "Sabo, do you want my cloak?"
"No, I'm fine," Sabo said even as he shivered. "Let's go."
The sun had long since set by the time Cobra sat on the couch in the house with the destroyed mill. He had finally used up the bundle of edelwood sticks he'd been carrying, had ground them into oil with a machine put together from bits and pieces of the destroyed mill machinery, and now he had run out of his source of oil, his one hope of keeping his daughter alive.
"Vivi," he whispered, holding up the lantern and staring inside. "I'm so sorry. Your old dad'll get some more, just wait and see."
He paused, thinking he saw a strangely familiar shape in the lantern, but it was gone in an instant. Heaving a sigh, he stood with the lantern and his axe and headed out the front door, intending to go into the forest to seek out more edelwood, wherever it may be, but he stopped when he heard the echoes of a song.
"I know that voice," he muttered. Following the melody, he ventured into the forest, wading through the snow, still thick even after it had stopped falling, and lighting his way in the darkness with the lantern.
"Sorrow and fear are easily forgotten . . ."
He came upon a clearing. A little ways away stood the Beast, his haunting melody reverberating through the trees as he gazed at something with his mirror-eyes. At Cobra's feet was a pile of straw, some of it bent as if it had been bitten into, and just beyond the straw was—
"When you submit to the soil of the earth. It is good to see you here," the Beast said. "I knew you would come."
"What have you done?" Cobra whispered, his lantern casting light on a gruesome image. Luffy rested still inside the beginnings of a tree, its trunk supporting him above the ground and its branches embracing him. His eyes were closed and he did not move.
"I've brought you another edelwood tree, of course," the Beast said, gesturing to Luffy. "He will burn nicely in the lantern, don't you think?"
"You monster," Cobra said, gripping the lantern as he shook. "How could you—?"
"Monster? My dear woodcutter, just what did you think you were grinding up all these years? Those lost souls had no other use."
"I had no idea! I didn't know this was where they came from!"
"And would that have stopped you?" the Beast asked, approaching and circling behind him. "What about your daughter? Would you have let her soul burn out? Or maybe . . . oh, my. Don't tell me you just don't care for her anymore?"
"Begone, Beast!" Cobra cried, turning and swinging at him with the axe. The Beast dodged it easily, laughing. Cobra approached Luffy with the lantern and set it down, reaching for the wood. "Let's get you free, boy."
The Beast reached for the lantern, but Cobra snatched it away, just in time, standing and backing up as he picked up his axe again.
"Be reasonable, you old fool," the Beast hissed.
"You dared insult my love for my daughter," Cobra snarled, advancing on the Beast. "Nobody loves my daughter more than me! That's why I know she would have rather died than see me here, feeding innocent children to the flame to keep her soul tied to this world!"
He set the lantern down near Luffy and ran at the Beast, swinging his axe again and again, and the Beast dodged the swings again and again, laughing as their fight was taken out of the clearing.
"Are you sure it was this way, Nami?" Sabo asked.
"Yes, now stop asking me," she hissed.
"Is that a light?" Ace said, pointing.
Sabo, Ace, and Brook hurried forward, Nami still curled up in Ace's arms. In the dark of night, in the shine of the snow, they came upon a clearing.
"Footsteps," Ace said. "Someone was here."
"That looks like Mr. Cobra's lantern," Sabo said. "There, next to that weird tree . . ."
He crossed the clearing. As he knelt by the lantern and picked it up, the thing he had thought was a tree caught his eyes, and he gasped.
"Luffy!" he exclaimed. "Ace, guys, get over here!"
"Luffy?!" Ace exclaimed, running forward with Brook. Nami jumped out of his arms, and the four of them surrounded Luffy.
"Luffy?" Sabo whispered. Luffy stirred and opened his eyes.
"Sabo," he whispered. He gave him a grin, weak for his numb face and the branch squashing his cheek. "Did I do it? Did I save you?"
"Did you—yes, you did," Sabo said, cupping Luffy's face in his hands. "You saved me. Luffy, I'm so sorry I—"
"It's okay," Luffy said, his eyes fluttering. "Everything's okay. Sabo, can you say sorry to Usopp and Chopper for me?"
"What? What are you talking about?" Sabo said as Brook started puling on the branches surrounding Luffy.
"I lied to you. I said they went home but I ditched them. I just wanted to find you, and go on a beetle-hunt. So, can you . . ." Luffy shuddered. "Say . . . sorry?"
"No," Sabo said, shaking his head. "No, I won't, because you're coming home and you're going to say sorry to them yourself."
Luffy drew in a breath to speak again, but his eyes slipped shut and he went limp. He was pale, his veins visible through his skin, his lips blue and chapped, and he was cold, so cold—
"Luffy?" Sabo whispered. "No, no—" His eyes welled up and he yanked on the branches, Ace copying him and Nami biting the lower ones. "Please, not this—"
"He's gonna be fine," Ace said through gritted teeth even as he wiped at his own eyes. "Luffy, hang in there—"
A groan from the edge of the clearing made the four of them look up. The woodcutter Cobra was there, collapsed on the ground, and a moment later his axe came flying out of the woods, landing bladeside-down in the snow at Sabo's feet.
"Who . . . ?" Sabo whispered as a large silhouette appeared from the trees, branch-like antlers sprouting from its head and staring at the group with mirror-eyes. "Is that . . . ?"
"The Beast," Ace whispered, his hands frozen over the branches.
"You," the Beast said, his voice echoing in the clearing. "Sabo. Give me my lantern."
"Your lantern?" Sabo looked between the lantern and Cobra, who struggled to sit up.
"Poor, poor Luffy," the Beast said, shaking his head. "I'm afraid it is too late for him. He will soon become part of my forest."
"Like hell he will," Sabo snapped, pulling at the branches. "Why won't these things come off—"
"But," the Beast said. "If you like, we can make a deal."
"No way," Ace said, trying to pull the tree out of the ground as Luffy's head sagged onto his shoulder. Brook supported him, stroking his cheek with one finger and opening an eyelid.
"What sort of deal?" Sabo said.
"I will put his soul into the lantern." The Beast pointed to it as he spoke. "If you will take on the task of lantern-bearer, and keep the flame alive, your brother will live on, inside the lantern. What do you say?"
"No," Sabo said. He picked up the lantern and straightened up, backing away from the Beast. "Even if that's possible—even if you're telling the truth—Luffy wouldn't want that. He would want to be free. He'd want me to go home, even if . . . even if he couldn't."
"Foolish boy," the Beast said, his words trembling. "I'm trying to help you."
"Help me? Yeah," Sabo said, his voice shaking. "I bet that's what you told Luffy, isn't it? Is that why he came out here all on his own? Is that why he's like this? It's your fault, isn't it?" He glanced at Cobra, gripping the lantern handle so hard it was a wonder the metal didn't warp. Nami looked up at him, her bite marks left in the branches at the base, and even Ace and Brook paused in their task. "Mr. Cobra was carrying this lantern before. I bet you fed him the same story. If anyone's soul is in this lantern, it's—"
The Beast shuddered, his mirror-eyes flashing and his form flickering as if he was being viewed in stop-motion. All at once, he, Ace, Luffy, Brook, Nami, Cobra, and everything else in the clearing vanished, leaving only Sabo, holding the lantern and staring into the nothingness.
"Are you ready to face true darkness?"
Sabo opened the lantern door and drew in a breath. Several things happened in rapid succession: A hand landed on his shoulder, the light abruptly returned, and the Beast was back, reaching out to Sabo with a cry.
"Sabo," Ace whispered. He nodded to Cobra, who was dazed but awake, and was staring at the lantern with distraught eyes.
"Okay," Sabo said reluctantly. He shut the door and brought the lantern over to Cobra. "Here. You deal with this." He walked back to Luffy, picking up the axe. "Me and my brother are going home."
As he made Nami and Brook stand back and chopped at the base of the tree, Cobra sat up and held up the lantern, staring inside. "She was never in here," he whispered. "Was she, Beast?"
"Cobra, my friend," the Beast said, kneeling behind him. "Listen to me. Listen . . ."
Freed from the trunk, Sabo lifted Luffy up and peeled the branches off of him, dropping them. He held Luffy up to his ear, listening next to his mouth and nose.
"He's breathing," he said. He held Luffy close to him. "Thank god. I don't know what I'd do if he . . ."
He shook his head. "Ace, help me with him."
Ace took Luffy, feeling his forehead as Sabo removed his cape. "Nami," he said, wrapping the cloth around Luffy to keep him warm. "What will you do?"
"I'll go back to my family," Nami said. "I'll tell them it's my fault we got turned into cats, and I couldn't get the shears from Adelaide."
"Shears?" Sabo said, surprised, as Brook and Ace helped adjust Luffy on Sabo's back, Luffy's limp arms draped over his shoulders and his hat at an angle. "Brook—"
Brook checked on Luffy one more time before reaching into his shirt. He rummaged around in his ribcage and pulled out a large pair of golden shears. Nami gasped.
"Wh—you had them?" she shrieked.
"I didn't know you needed them?" Sabo said, shrugging as Brook placed the shears in front of her. "Brook used them to get us free, and . . ."
Nami ran up to Brook and nuzzled his leg, and he knelt and patted her head. "Thank you," she said to him, looking up. "And thank you guys, too," she added to Ace and Sabo. "If I'd never met you, I don't know what I . . ."
She pressed her head against Ace's leg and Sabo's leg in turn. "Goodbye, Ace, Sabo. Goodbye, Luffy," she said, looking up at him.
"Goodbye," Ace and Sabo said together. Brook waved. Nami picked up the shears in her mouth and ran off through the snow.
Ace, Sabo, and Brook started walking through the woods in the dead of night, the moon shining above them. Sabo supported Luffy on his back, his arms tucked behind him to keep him from slipping. As the clearing vanished behind them, the Beast whispered into Cobra's ear.
"All who perish in this forest will become edelwood for the lantern," he hissed. "Go! Strike them down!"
Cobra stood and whipped around, shining the lantern directly on the Beast and catching a glimpse of a grotesque figure made up of a thousand screaming faces locked in wood for eternity. The Beast flinched from the light and backed away. Cobra held the lantern close to his face and opened the door.
"Don't do it," the Beast said, reaching out. Cobra took a step back. "I warn you. You'll never see your daughter again! Can you really go back to that empty house?!"
Cobra grit his teeth and drew in a breath.
With a strong puff of air, the lantern went out, and so did the Beast.
"Ace?" Sabo said as the clearing vanished behind them. Brook was at his side, keeping an eye on Luffy. "Are you sure you can't come with us?"
"You know I can't," Ace said, stopping and looking down.
"Yeah. I know. I just . . . yeah." Sabo looked up at Brook. "What about you? What will you do?"
Brook rattled his bones.
"Sounds like he'll escort you back," Ace said. "Good man, Brook."
Brook straightened and saluted.
"I guess this is goodbye, then," Sabo said.
"I guess so."
In sync they stepped forward and hugged each other, each one gripping the other's arms. They never wanted to let go, but let go they did, their hands lingering for a moment. Ace stepped forward and leaned in, pushing Luffy's hat aside to kiss his forehead, and Luffy mumbled something, leaning into Sabo's back.
Sabo opened his eyes, his vision blurry, and found himself floating, floating in the cold cold river. He looked around, eyes widening, and spotted Luffy and Brook sinking below him. He let out a breath, willing himself to sink, and grabbed them both in one arm, kicking his legs and sweeping his other arm. Please if I only swim once in my life let it be now please please please
He broke the surface and gasped, clutching Luffy to him while Brook tumbled onto the shore. Up the hill, by the train tracks, were several silhouettes of people holding flashlights and calling out his name.
"Help," he croaked, before he blacked out again.
Sabo opened his eyes, squinting up at the white ceiling. "Where . . . ?"
Sabo blinked, becoming aware of the smell of hand sanitizer, the I.V. in his arm, the stiff pajamas he wore, and the bed he lay on. "Luffy . . . Luffy," he said, trying to sit up and wincing. "Where's Luffy?"
"Hi, Sabo!" Luffy exclaimed. Sabo turned, looking to his right, and found Luffy on a bed next to him, an I.V. in his arm, his hat on the bedpost, and wearing fresh pajamas.
"Luffy," Sabo said, relieved. "You're okay?"
"Yeah! I wanna go home."
"They were saying you might have to stay overnight." Sabo looked back and found Koala at his side, still wearing her costume.
"Koala," he said, surprised. He tried to sit up again and gave up, lying back down. "Where's everyone else?"
"Downstairs. They sent me up to check on you since the staff said no visitors yet." She pointed to the open window behind her, and then rested her head in her hands, staring at Sabo. "You really scared us, stupid."
"Koala, I'm really sorry."
"It's not like you meant to—"
"No, I mean—" Sabo winced. "I mean for . . . avoiding you guys. I should've talked to you all way before now. I thought maybe you . . . hated me, for not . . ."
"Get better soon so I can punch you," Koala said, grinning.
"We're not mad, stupid. You needed time. That's okay."
Sabo let out a weak laugh, sinking into his pillow. "Wow. Okay. Thank you."
"Wanna talk in school on Monday?"
"Yeah. Yeah, of course."
"Sabo, where's Brook?" Luffy interrupted.
"Brook? He's . . . the pi—police probably took him away, Luffy. He is a skeleton."
Luffy frowned. "But he's our skeleton."
"I know. They probably want to find out who he is."
"We know who he is. He's Brook."
Sabo smiled. "Don't you think he deserves a proper burial?"
"Luffy, tell you what," Koala said. "We're paying a visit to the pi—police station in a couple weeks. We'll try to find out what happened to Brook when we go there."
"Okay!" Luffy said, placated.
"See you Monday," Koala said, standing and swinging back out the window.
"See you," Sabo echoed as she shut it behind her. He tried to sit up again and managed it this time, turning to look at Luffy. "Hey, Luffy?"
"Wanna go beetle-hunting tomorrow?"
Luffy's eyes widened and he sat up. "Really?!"
"Yeah," Sabo said, smiling even as Luffy lay back down, too weak to get up yet. He himself lay back down, staring up at the ceiling. "And . . . we'll go visit Ace. What do you say?"
"I say yes! Let's do it!"
"Tomorrow," Sabo said, turning his head to look at Luffy with a smile. "I promise."
Cobra sat on his porch, staring out into the snow, unable to bring himself to go inside just yet. But through the window, a light turned on, and the front door opened. A girl with blue hair in a ponytail stepped out, a shawl around her shoulders and a candle in her hand.
"Father?" she whispered.
Cobra gasped and stood, his eyes welling up. Vivi stared at him, stunned, and began to cry.
In the town of Floria, skeletons rested in their houses, their pumpkin costumes removed, for the harvest was over. And in the town barn, two skeletons holding hands lay side-by-side, one with a white hat, one with an afro, and the grizzled old black cat curled up between them, purring.
"No, you can't go out until you all put on your winter clothes, you'll catch colds," Sanji said, dressing up Toko so thickly she could barely see. As he forced mittens onto her, he continued, "Winter should be illegal, honestly."
"You worry too much," Zoro said, leaning against a wall. "Guys, I'll throw you into snowbanks as soon as the mother hen stops fussing."
"Sometimes I wish you'd stayed a gorilla!" Sanji snapped, whirling around on him as the girls cheered. "And you are not going outside in that T-shirt! Go get your winter stuff!"
"I do just fine in the cold, and look at me," Franky said, pointing to his hotpants. "Besides, you think that suit will keep you warm?"
"I'm going to change as soon as I finish with the girls! Honestly," Sanji said, beckoning Tama over. "With the way you two act, I wish we had another person on the staff!"
A knock at the door made them look around. Zoro crossed the room and opened the door. Sanji stood and he and Franky went over to see who their visitor was, and the girls trotted over (Toko wobbled due to her excess clothing) and peered around Sanji's legs.
"Pardon me," Robin said, shivering. "Could I ask to stay the night?"
A girl with short orange hair leaned against the window of her house, watching the snow fall outside.
"Nami," someone said. "Come on, get it while it's hot."
"Bellemere, I don't even like bean soup," Nami complained, turning around and coming back to the table anyway.
"And what are you doing to do about it?" Bellemere said, her hands on her hips as Nami sat down next to her lavender-haired sister. "Turn us into cats again? I'd like to see you try! We're only having this because for some reason we couldn't pick fresh crops this fall—"
"Okay, okay," Nami said, rolling her eyes.
"Yeah, Nami, quit complaining," her sister Nojiko said, poking her. "Besides, we've got a guest."
"I don't mind, really," Ace said, grinning. "You don't have to stop fighting on my behalf."
This made everyone laugh, and as Bellemere fixed her ponytail and Nami and Nojiko picked up their spoons, Nami said, "So, what do you say? Would you like to live here for a while?"
"That's very generous, but no, thank you," Ace said, sipping his soup. The fire crackled in the fireplace. "I prefer to wander. Then again . . ." He glanced at the door leading to the former mill. "If you want me to come by again in spring and help fix the mill . . . ?"
"Unless you can find a professional, that'd be great," Bellemere said, relieved. "I don't know what could have caused that kind of damage—"
"Uh, yeah, me either, I don't know a thing about it," Ace said, hastily shoving a spoonful of soup into his mouth and making his eyes water with the heat.
"Do you think your brothers got home okay?" Nami asked as he recovered, looking out the window again.
"Of course they did," Ace said, grinning. "They're tough. They'll be just fine."
"Want more soup?" Bellemere asked, noticing his bowl was half-empty.
He looked down at it. "You're being very generous already," he said, starting to stand. "I wouldn't want to impose. In fact, I should probably be going—"
Bellemere came over and rapped him on the head with her spoon. He winced and sat back down.
"Bellemere," Nojiko hissed.
"Nobody at this table is imposing, least of all you," Bellemere said, folding her arms. "You're staying right here and enjoying some hospitality until that snow lets up. Do you understand me?"
"Ma'am, yes ma'am," Ace said, rubbing his head.
"Good! Now finish your soup." She eyed Nami. "All of you."
Nami rolled her eyes again, but smiled and went back to her soup. The snow falling outside laid a blanket of silence over the world, and the brook just before the woods had frozen over, its babbling muted. All was well.