Chapter 59

Cross-Brain AN: If you haven't been keeping up with the One Piece manga, stop reading this story until you have caught up, because Oda's brilliance must take precedence over ours; we are the fans, he is the master. And Chapter 908 has demonstrated that with particular effectiveness.

And if you have…well, then, you must have noticed that the last several arcs and chapters have been a roller coaster of whams that completely redefined the story over and over again. While we may only dream of being anywhere close to Oda's level of brilliance, we have confidence enough to say this now that we've reached the final saga before our hiatus:

Buckle up, because from now until we hit the time-skip, it's going to be a wild and crazy ride.

I honestly don't know why I expected that sign to make any difference in the amount of time I had to plan. I was a Straw Hat sailing the Grand Line for crying out loud. Did I really think that this crew would be able to let me have that kind of peace and quiet for more than a day or two? Indeed, it was halfway through the second day that things came to a head, and I couldn't deny that it was my own fault…

~o~

My sleep-deprived neurons suddenly flared to life, and I stiffened and cast aside the page I was working on as a realization most horrific blared through my mind.

"Son of a BITCH!" I roared, slamming open every pipe I had available. "GUYS!"

"GAH!"/"Holy mother—!"/"What the hell is it, Cross?!" several angry voices demanded.

"I can't believe we've gone this long without thinking about it!" I lamented, admittedly pumping more drama into my voice than was strictly necessary. "We got back one of our crewmates when she had been stolen, we defeated a tyrant who threatened us and almost destroyed our home sea, and we all came out of it in one piece, right?"

"Yeeaaaah?" Goldenweek drew out, the raised eyebrow plainly audible.

"And we all have a clean bill of health, right, Chopper?"

"Aside from Bartolomeo's broken arms and that examination I need to perform on Conis's wings at some point, yeah, but—"

"So, then, let me ask you something: Why haven't we thrown a victory party yet!?"

The following silence was deafening.

I nodded solemnly. "Thought so. Allow me to tender my ultimatum: Our ships had better be festooned with lights and pumping with cheer and music in exactly three seconds, or else we all officially fail at life. GOGOGO!"

My already present grin grew to banana-esque proportions as the ships below us erupted into a crazed flurry of activity. "Dontcha just love the madness of this crew?" I asked Soundbite.

"THERE IS A SORT OF TIMELESS quality to it, yes," the snail agreed.

"But there's always room for improvement," I grinned, punching another pipe. "Franky, is Gif's rig ready?"

"Eh… about 90%," Franky said distractedly. "Still working on how to balance mobility and cola storage. It's functional, but a full tank will only get you an hour."

"Push it up to two and that'll be enough! Let her rip!" I ordered, grinning.

"You crazy son—ah, make that 'bastard'," Franky amended with an audible chuckle. "Fine, she'll be out in time for the fun."

"Glad to hear it!" I nodded proudly, closing the pipe before smirking at Soundbite. "Sooo, ready to go down and watch the rest of the crew get totally wasted?"

"I'M OFFENDED YOU EVEN ASK!" the achromatic gastropod cackled. "Oooh, do you think someone'll fall overboard? I HOPE WE SEE SOMEONE FALL OVERBOARD!"

-o-

"ALRIGHT! TIME FOR THE USOPP ANTHEM NUMBER ONE-TWO-SEVEN! OOO—WAGH!"

SPLASH!

"YAY!" Soundbite cheered ecstatically as the party-goers scrambled to avoid the collapse of Usopp's table-tower. "I did, I DID SEE SOMEONE fall overboard!"

"SHUT THE HELL UP AND HELP ME BACK UP, YOU IDIOTS!" Usopp howled.

"WE'LL GET RIGHT ON IT AS SOON AS WE FIND SOMEONE SOBER TO HELP US!" I assured him before snickering into my cola. "Like that's going to happen anytime soon…"

Yeah, the thing about victory parties? The closer the brush with death, the crazier the rager. And seeing as we'd just walked off the edge of the reaper's scythe, none but the most hardcore non-alcoholics, like myself, could be defined as even 'not sloshed'.

"WOOHOOHOOHOO!" Vivi cackled as she passed me by atop a throne of hands, a cyclone of confetti spinning above her. "YES! BOW TO THE QUEEN OF THE SKIES! HAHAHAAA!"

…and even then there were, shall we say, one or two new converts to the bottle. Who I imagined would be sorely regretting their new life choice in the morning, admittedly, but for now, a fun time was a fun time.

"HEY! WILL SOMEONE HELP ALREADY!? I THINK MOHMOO'S STARTING TO RECOGNIZE ME!"

Huh, that could be an interesting sight… bah, he'd been treading water long enough.

I snapped my fingers at Mikey, pointedly not looking as he did who-knows-what to a punch bowl. "Oi, you. Get the longnose out before we need to find some scrub to replace him."

"I'm busy," he deadpanned in response, his flipper's 'middle finger' flashing over his shoulder. His demeanor changed real fast when my fingers clamped down over his skull plate, though.

"That wasn't," I grit out, my shoulder tensing in preparation. "A freaking REQUEST!" The last word was belted out as I hauled off and fastballed the amphibian martial artist.

"YOU DI-HI-HIIIIIIC—!" SLAM! "GAH!"

Mikey's panicked howl cut out into a pained yelp as he bounced off the mainmast and plummeted into the drink.

"WIMP!" Boss proclaimed, mockingly toasting his fallen apprentice.

"You're one to talk," came a cool young voice. Boss turned around to see Merry with a smile of pure concentrated malice on her face, sitting on one side of a nearby table with a mug in her hand and a second cup opposite hers.

"Our crew has gone through all kinds of hell, and yet they all seem to wimp out when I challenge anyone to my kind of drinking contest," the shipgirl sighed mournfully, punctuating the statement with a deep slurp of her… 'brew', to be polite.

"Yeeeaaah…" Boss drew out nervously, a heavy sweatdrop hanging from his shell. "That's because what we chug only kills livers. Yours kills, period."

"Wi~imp," Merry sang right back, shaking her mug.

I was going to snicker at that, but the fire that ignited in Boss's eyes dropped a stone in the pit of my stomach. "Well, when you put it like that—!" he leered, reaching for the free mug's handle.

THUNK! "GWAH!"/"HOLY MOTHER—!"

Only started, mind you, on account of a bonesaw spontaneously burying its blade in said mug's lip.

"In the spirit of the party and what we're celebrating, all I can deliver is a fair warning," Chopper said, strolling up and wrenching the saw free with far too practiced ease. "But what I can promise is the willingness, authority, and capability to sedate the both of you so that you miss the rest of it if you force me to do so."

Boss, eyes wide, slowly backed away from the table while Merry sighed in disappointment. "All work and no play, doc," she whined.

"Your 'play' guarantees more work for me. Deal with it," Chopper retorted before trotting off. Merry and Boss stared after him, making absolutely sure he was gone before chugging their cups.

I sighed and leaned against the nearest mast, though there was a smirk playing across my face. "Ah, moments like these need to be memorialized. Pity that I left my Vision Dial upstairs."

"Don't worry about it, Cross, we've got you covered."

"Eh? What're you—WAH!" I jerked in shock away from Franky. The natural response to something like an RC chopper buzzing in my fa—Waaait, this world's tech base isn't anywhere near that high, how the hell—?

My train of thought skipped a track when I noticed a second fact about the so-called chopper: while the thing did have a fully-functional rotor assembly, it was not helicopter-shaped. Instead, it was bulbous… and had eyes!?

"GIF!?" Soundbite voiced for me.

"╰(✧∇✧)"

The vis-snail waved her eye-stalk eagerly, her expression gleeful. Quite logical, of course, seeing as her shell was suspended by an attached rotor that allowed her to hover.

"You two wanted a rig that would let her switch to any angle SUPER fast, right?" a grinning and flexing Franky stated. Gif flitted around him, eyeballing him appreciatively and, if the flashes coming from the corner of her rig were anything to go by, snapping a few shots.

"If Shiki got one thing right, it's that the best way to do that is defying gravity! YEAH-YAH!" The cyborg snapped into his trademark pose, prompting a flurry of orbiting shots from Gif. "AM I THE MOST SUPER SHIPWRIGHT IN THE WORLD OR WHAT!?"

"Meeeeh," Soundbite said with an ostentatious and dismissive roll of his eyes, though he never stopped tracking his cousin's rig. "I'M GONNA HAVE TO go with OR WHAT! WHERE'S THE CHARIOT OF THE DIVINE, HUH!?"

That snapped Franky back to serious, and he held up a finger and proudly jutted out his chin. "Two reasons! First off… I don't particularly like you. As a crewmate, I trust you with my life, but you're also a raging jackass."

"That's fair," Soundbite conceded.

"(︶ - ︶)" Gif nodded in agreement.

"No argument from me!" I added.

"Though you assholes don't need to agree THAT fast…" Soundbite groused.

"And second!" Franky popped his second finger, along with a smirk. "Look me in the eyes and tell me you want to give Cross an easy way to ditch you."

For a few moments, Soundbite just blinked at Franky. And then…

"YOUR LOGIC IS IRREFUTABLE AND I AM NOT ABOVE ADMITTING MY OWN MISTAKES."

"Right…"

And as for me…

"Hey, wait, don't I get a say in this or—?"

"HEY, EVERYONE!" came a voice from above, neatly directing everyone's attention away from my protest.

"This isn't over…" I grumbled under my breath. "In fact, I think I'll look into getting my own way of flying!"

"With blackjack and hookers?" Soundbite needled.

I could either ignore that, throw it back in his face, ooor just build on it. "Aaaand dragons, don't forget the dragons," I nodded sagely.

"THANK YOU!" Lindy barked from the Cannibal.

"If you want to beat that, you've got your work cut out for you," Merry laughed, pointing up at… Conis standing on the edge of the mainsail's boom!? Oh lordy…

Before anyone could say or do anything, the visibly tipsy angel leaped off the mast and snapped her wings out to full length. Conis closed her eyes and let the wind guide her, and for a time, she just soared peacefully, curving around back toward the ship when she went over the water. It was actually all quite impressive. At least, up until she narrowly missed the main mast's main mass (try saying that three times fast) and wound up flying face-first into the sail like a bird into a window.

"Oooooh."

I joined the general chorus of sympathetic groans as she slowly peeled off the cloth. Seriously, I'd been whipped by that monster in more than one storm, that thing was not as soft as it looked. I tensed to wince again when Conis peeled off enough to start falling to the deck, but that actually turned out to not be necessary.

"Woop! Watch it now!" Ever chided as she swooped in, catching Conis a few scant feet from the deck despite wincing under our gunner's weight. She then gave the other angel a catty grin. "Eesh, careful there, sis! Don't you know better than to drink and fly?"

"Firsht off, allow me to call bullshit on that aque—ach—on zat," Conis slurred through a drunken giggle. "You haven't been flying any longer zan me. And shecond…" She raised her nose with a proud sniff. "Excuuuuuse me for not knowing how to use a body part I hafn't had for more than a week."

"And haven't tested yet," Chopper frowned, walking up to her and taking hold of one of her wings. "Though it looks like you got the hang of it pretty quickly…"

"Yep!" Conis chirped, head bobbing in a disturbingly bird-like manner. "It wash a loooot of fun! I shink I'm really gonna like flying! Weeee!"

The human-Zoan rolled his eyes with a disgruntled huff. "Yeah well, from what I just saw? That's not happening anytime soon." In support of that point, he tugged on her wing. "See, the difference between your wings and Ever's? Ever's are on her arms, with muscles she's been developing her entire life, meaning that they're strong enough to lift and support her weight. Your wings, however, are attached to freshly grown, undeveloped muscles. Nowhere near strong enough to let you fly. Sorry."

Conis blinked blearily as her alcohol-addled mind processed the information. Then she turned a tearful gaze on our doctor. "R-Really?"

Panic flashed over Chopper's face at that expression. "Ah, well! I-In a couple of years, with training and exercise, they'll probably be strong enough. But, uh, for now, like you already saw, you can glide, at least."

"Exschelshior!" she cheered, throwing her arms up.

I exchanged looks with Soundbite, but before anything else could be said, Ever hauled Conis to her feet. "Alright, softie, I'd say you've had about enough. Hey, you two!" The Merveillean snapped her fingers at a pair of her Barto Club men and handed the Skypiean off to them. "Take her to her room, tuck her in. Got it?"

"Eh?" one of the two grunted in a decidedly disgruntled tone. "And why should we do that, ya rook?"

Ever's perfectly cordial smile twitched ever so slightly, but shouted voices drowned out whatever she had been going to say.

"AND I'M TELLING YOU, IT'S GIF! GUH!"

"THAT DON'T MAKE NO SENSE, YA SCRUM! TOTALLY GOES AGAINST ALL GRAMMATICAL WHOSITS! IT'S! PRONOUNCED JIF! JUH!"

"BARNACLE-BRAINED BUFFOON!"

"SEAWEED-SUCKING SHITEBIRD!"

More specifically, a rapidly-devolving argument between a nearby pair of mooks, snarling in one another's faces over—

"Are… they arguing about how to pronounce Gif's name?" Franky asked incredulously.

"∑(O_O;)" the heli-snail in question boggled, just as incredulously.

"WE AIN'T TALKIN' 'BOUT A CAN OF PEANUT BUTTER HERE!" the first mook shouted.

My eyes narrowed as I connected the dots, looking to the increasingly bemused people surrounding me and the snail on my shoulder, who was visibly fighting the urge to burst out laughing. "You little shit."

And that was the limit. "HOOHOOHOOHEEHEEHEE!" Soundbite roared, not even trying to deny his culpability. "THROUGH ME, THE ARGUMENT IS IMMO-O-ORTAL! HAHAHAAA!"

"Ooooh, not as immortal as all that," Ever countered.

SLAM!

Right as she slammed the mooks' skulls together, sending them on an express vacation to dreamland. "See? It just died." She then turned to the first pair, having yet to lose her sunny disposition. "Sorry, got distracted. What were you saying, boys?"

"Right away, Miss Ever!" they yelped, grabbing Conis and making tracks for the female Straw Hats' room.

Ever nodded in satisfaction, and after a glance towards Sanji to find him staring a hole through the two—and more importantly, that they noticed the attention—she relaxed and turned back to… scanning the party?

"Keeping an eye on things?" I inquired.

"Mm, what can I say, old habits die hard," she mused, her eyes continuing their search. "Shiki was an ass and I sure as hell didn't like being eye-candy in his bar, but damn if it wasn't the best place to learn how to handle a rowdy crowd. I'm just making sure that nothing… oh damn it," she cursed out of the blue, stalking away.

I followed the direction she'd been looking and promptly winced in understanding. After all, I doubted there were many things more concerning than the sight of a buzzed dragon making his way toward the casks from which the lifeblood of the party—read: the booze—was flowing. "Ooooh boy," I groaned.

"She 'gon get EAAATEEEN," Soundbite sang before glancing up at Gif. "GET A GOOD SHOT of the gore, wouldya?"

"( ﹏⁰)" she whimpered, visibly nowhere near as eager as her cousin.

"He's joking, Gif," Franky snorted. "Just watch." That said, I didn't miss the slight click that came from his wrist.

Reluctantly, she watched, as did the rest of us, as Ever swooped to interpose herself between the dragon and the cask, both her stance and demeanor making her intentions very clear. Lindy regarded her with a chuff as he drew nearer. "Move it, chicken wings. I've already had my fill of fresh meat, let daddy drink his medicine in peace."

"Yeeeaaah," Ever drawled, giving the dragon's wobbly stance a dry once-over. "Thing is? I'm pretty sure you've had enough 'medicine' for a week straight, and the last thing any of us needs is to find out what happens when you go nuts pouring more fuel on your sparking fire. I'm cutting you off. Now go back to your quarters and sleep it off. Now."

Lindwyrm blinked, once, twice, before busting out into a deck-shaking chortle. "Oh, oh this is rich! The cute little birdy's standing up to the big bad dragon? Such a classic storyline, almost cliché even!" Then, just as swiftly, the dragon's good cheer died and he gave the Merveillean a flat glare. "Get out of my way before I make you an appetizer."

"Hmm…" Ever made a show of tilting her head in thought, finger on her chin. "Let me think about that. No." And before the dragon could appropriately react, Ever flapped her wings to vertically spin in place and crack an ax-kick down on Lindy's snout.

For a second, both of them stood there, frozen, and then they both recoiled, howling in pain.

"You rotted oversized lizard!" Ever bit off, hopping on one foot and clutching the other.

Lindy's howl was more of a wordless snarl, talons clawing at the bruised scales of his snout. Still, he recovered first, spinning in a horizontal manner so that he could try and swat Ever with his tail. Thankfully for her, the rookie pirate had already recovered enough to flap—and thus flip—over the limb.

The victory was short-lived though, a massive reptilian claw batting her to the deck. Before she could recover, the beast rolled her aside with a thrust of his claws, turning eagerly back toward the casks—and then recoiling at the newcomer standing in his way.

"Well, haven't you made quite the scene," Apis bit out, her fingers drumming on her crossed forearms.

"Uhhh," Lindy dragged out, sobering up very fast. "IIII can explain?"

"Roost," the whisper-girl all but snarled. "Before I scale your sorry hide. NOW."

"…doing-this-because-I-want-to-not-because-you-told-me-to!" And with that brave blurt, Lindy leaped back onto the Cannibal and all but clawed his way through the largest hatch.

"Aaagh…" Ever ground out, trying to knead the throb from her forehead as she got back to her feet. "Remind me again, exactly what it is that makes him listen to you so easily? I thought your power was talking to animals, not controlling them."

"My power is reading their minds and letting them read mine when I allow it," Apis corrected, pinching the bridge of her nose. "From there… just use your imagination."

"Egh, whatever," Ever nodded, casting a glance at the barrels. "At least I managed to save the booze."

"You've managed a hell of a lot more than that."

Ever blinked in shock as she suddenly found an arm slung around her shoulder. "Wha—huh?" she very intelligently said, she and Apis both turn to their smirking captain.

"Care to explain what you were doing butting heads with half the crew?" the infamous Black Bart snidely inquired.

Ever swallowed and self-consciously shrank into herself. "Ah… just making sure the party stays on the up and up, captain? Not letting jerks ruin everyone else's fun and… all that?"

"Hmm… and you think that you have a better grip on 'fun' than the rest of us? A little brawl here and there is pretty common for us—" Bartolomeo continued.

"And for other crews like yours, but I know the difference," Ever insisted.

Bartolomeo kept staring at her with that trolling smirk for what seemed an eternity. Then his smile widened and became more genuine.

"That settles it, then! From now on, you're our MC!"

"I… uh… what?" was Ever's very intelligent response.

"You know how to keep the party at the right level and you're a decent match for almost everyone on this crew," Barty elaborated. "Coolheaded and wild parties don't often mix, but you've got it down. So you'll be our Mistress of Ceremonies, in charge of knocking heads when there are heads to be knocked. Got a problem with that?"

I could see the gears churning in Ever's head, and it wasn't long before she gave a small, sly smile and a nod. "Nothing I'm not used to already, Captain."

"Then let's hear it for our new MC!" Barty cheered, shaking Apis and Ever's shoulders as the crew responded in kind. When the cheering died down, the captain turned back to the newly promoted officer, his grin suddenly far more rictus-like in nature. "Now, how about getting me the strongest stuff that we've got?"

Ever's expression flattened. "I saw you chugging your vodka earlier and I can smell your breath, I'm not going to make you an exception just because you're—"

"I just used my real arms instead of my barriers to grab you and Apis," Bartolomeo ground out, his held expression not twitching an inch.

"…one bottle, and then you're seeing the Straw Hats' doctor again."

"I will not be GENTLE!" Chopper called out, emphasizing the declaration by snapping a length of gauze taut.

Ever rolled her eyes fondly as her captain cowered, reveling in her newfound power. And then her newfound responsibility suddenly reared its head—

"HEY, THOSE ARE MY CHIPS!" SMASH!

"HANDS OFF MY HAT, ASSWIPE!" CRUNCH!

"HOW DARE YOU RIP OFF MY HAIRCUT!?" KEE-RASH!

—in the form of three fights started almost on top of one another.

The Merveillean's eye twitched viciously at the sight. "Right, no way in hell am I dealing with this alone. HEY, PERVERTED SKELETON!" she belted out.

"You called?" Brook answered without hesitation, looking up from his piano.

"You know any slow, relaxing songs that can cool these idiots' raging adrenaline?" Ever asked.

Brook tilted his skull in thought and promptly nodded with a gri—er, with his mandible tilting into a grin besides the natural one his skull always had. "I have just the piece!"

Predictably, his ivory fingers tickled the ivory keys to ring out the familiar opening chords of Binks' Brew. Equally predictably, the thugs stopped fighting before Ever could even consider berating Brook for his taste in music.

"Hey, guys! Let's put Shiki's gift to better use!"

All attention turned to Luffy, who was holding up the yellow Tone Dial that still contained Nami's farewell. Or at least, it once did, before Luffy erased it with a double-click of the Dial's button and tossed it over to the musician. "Take it away, Brook!"

"YOHOHO!" Brook cackled victoriously, reaching up to catch the Dial. "A NEW SONG, BORN OF A NEW GENERATION! ALL TOGETHER NOW!"

And it was slow and clunky in coming about, and most definitely beyond off-key for the first few verses of its performance… but in the end?

"~YO-HOHOHO, YO-HO-HO-HOOOO!~"

It was a song that shook the very waters around us.

~o~

…Yeah, it was a fantastic party, stretching on into the night. But as obligatory as the celebration was, it delayed my planning for a while yet after it ended.

See, at some point in the party, the crew had asked me if I really needed all hours of the day to plan with our destination still a few weeks away. When I grudgingly responded in the negative, I no longer had sufficient reason to excuse myself from meals, training, or fighting off the Grand Line's storms. Nor, more blatantly, did I have any reason to put off the debut of the new SBS and let the world share in a whole new level of insanity.

After all, the Straw Hat Pirates and the Barto Club were still sailing amicably with each other.

…Well, as amicably as the most insane crew of their generation and their most fanatic fan and his crew could sail. The antics between the two crews were nutty enough on their own, but with the two of them sailing near enough that anyone with sufficiently superhuman strength—read, almost all of them—could leap from deck to deck on a whim, it had taken things to a new level. The new developments from Merveille still sinking in were the cherry on top.

I think the worst of the antics may have been when we discovered what happens when you multiply a moron by an even bigger moron…

-o-

"WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING STEALING MY FOOD, YOU DAMN BRAT?!"

"AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

"FUCKING HELL! DUCK!"

KRA-BOOM!

Despite it being the middle of the night, I couldn't just turn over and pretend that that much noise was just a dream. In short order, I was shuffling down to the kitchen. I wondered for a moment why I was able to walk inside so easily, without even opening the door myself. Then I realized that a wall had been blown out.

I gave no regard to this as I filled a mug of cola for myself and walked out. I didn't get very far before the sight of Luffy and Barty being chased by Merry, Franky, and Usopp stopped me in my tracks.

"What."

"Luffy found the camera obscura of Garp in the fake fridge. Bartolomeo, meanwhile, blew out the wall."

I glanced at my dark-haired sister beside me, who had an empty mug in her hand. I looked back at the chase, down to her mug, and then to my mug. Then I set my mug down on the nearest counter.

"I am too tired to properly enjoy this, cola boost or no cola boost. I'm going back to bed."

"I don't blame you in the least, Cross."

-o-

But of course, even that paled in comparison to what we shared with the rest of the world. With the new visual component to the SBS courtesy of our one-snail camera crew, we were getting more calls and coverage than ever before.

Vivi and Robin's ongoing feud—the origin of which Soundbite naturally blasted to the world—was no small source of comic relief, even more than the typical antics. But more blatantly, we had the capability now for visual programs like cooking shows with Sanji and Valentine, medical discussions with Chopper, and workouts with Zoro, which were nice, sane ways of sharing good information with the rest of the world that would help improve our PR even more.

…If you thought that I wasn't being sarcastic when I said 'sane' there, shame on you. Between a female co-host that always wanted to do desserts and Sanji keeping his face masked by esoteric cooking gear—giving the excuse that he wasn't going to take the risk of Gif having found a way to superimpose his wanted poster's face (not an unfair accusation, the vis-snail was definitely looking into it)—the cooking shows had a healthy bit of insanity in them. Chopper's medical discussions would have been sane if he didn't have the tendency to slip into Spark mode every now and then, which was a funny sort of scary, and always necessitated someone on hand to 'bring him to his senses', as it were, before he did anything 'untowards' on camera.

Out of everything we were showing, however? The most 'popular' program we were putting on was the absolute last one I wanted to be showing.

-o-

I let out a tired groan as I craned my neck back, staring up at the crow's nest I unfortunately knew Gif to be in. "Remind me again why the high holy hee-haw I'm introducing what I'm pretty sure qualifies as frickin' softcore video pornography to the world? Let alone focusing it on the bloodthirsty beast who's got all the sex drive of his frickin' swords?!"

I did not know, nor did I have any desire to know, exactly what Gif was broadcasting to the world. But I could imagine. And believe you me, that was bad enough.

"Two reasons," Vivi primly informed me as she settled in on the couch that had been set up in front of the Barto Club's own broadcast-snail, taking in the display on the screen I was refusing to look at.

I slapped a hand to my face. "Why do I feel like both of them will make me regret asking?" I groaned between my fingers.

"First," Vivi explained, her gaze never leaving the screen. "Zoro's one of the stronger members of the crew, so broadcasting his exercise routine will be sure to benefit others seeking such strength, and intimidate our enemies by showing just how out of their league he is."

I parted my fingers ever so slightly to actually look at Vivi. "Acceptable… meaning that number two's the problem. What is it?"

"Oh, that's easy!" Conis grinned brightly from her own place on the couch. "The second is that Zoro is… ah, what's the word…" She tilted her head thoughtfully before snapping her fingers. "Ah yes, he's 'ripped' and women the world over will tune in religiously to catch even a glimpse of his sweat-soaked abdominals." She glanced at the feed. "As will other swordsmen around the world who will decide to step up their training to stand any chance against him."

I shut my fingers and clawed my hands down my face. "Yeeeaaah, there's both the regret that I was expecting and the reason why that moron accepted this in the first place…" I glanced skyward miserably. "Remind me, how could this get any worse?"

"DOT DOT DOT DOT!" Soundbite suddenly blared, shooting the bastard child of a grimace and a smirk at me. "Ask and ye shall receive."

I knew I was going to regret this, but…

I gingerly picked up the transceiver mic as though it were diseased. "Yes?" I queried.

"Uh, so, ah, do you think you could tell your first mate about how olive oil, like, helps develop—!"

CL-SLAM! I don't know what rattled my transceiver first, the mic slamming back into its cradle or the finger I almost broke against the blacklist button.

"Oh, yeah, now I remember!" I grit out through my twitching smile. "It can get worse by how I've had to blacklist half of my female viewership at this point! That's how it can get worse!"

"I still say you're overreacting," Robin mused, idly glancing up from the book she was reading from a lawn chair that was a little too close to the 'show' for comfort. "It's not as though they were the two who accidentally dialed their snail while they were, shall we say—"

"I KNOW WHAT THEY WERE DOING!" I snarled. "And for the record. First, I maintain that it's Soundbite's fault for inspiring their snail to act on its own and connect them—!"

"CAVEAT EMPTOR, BITCH!"

"That means 'buyer's remorse'."

"WHATEVER!"

"And second," I ground out. "I maintain that I don't want to inspire that kind of passion in my viewers, and the, to reiterate—" I shook my finger as I pointed at the crow's nest. "Softcore video pornography that I am inventing against my will is not helping!"

"Whatever, dweeb," Nami scoffed as she passed by me and plopped herself down on the couch. She then cocked an eyebrow in a thoughtful way I did not like. "And, uh, just a thought… you think he'd actually go for that olive oil thing or…?"

"That's it. I never thought I'd find a line, but apparently watching porn on the deck in broad daylight is it. People of the world, I wash my hands of this affair; do not blame me for it. I'm out," I declared without remorse, turning around and marching off in defeat. The only thing I took comfort in was the fact that I wasn't alone in my suffering, as a certain smoke Logia was most definitely going to have his hands full keeping a certain someone else from calling in about this.

-o-

The new captain of the Big Top watched with a carefully neutral expression as Luffy's first mate strained against his weights. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the chief of staff making his way toward the snail, a scowl on his face. Making a decision, she slid out of her chair and over to him, her frictionless skin allowing her to close the distance faster than anyone on board.

Without missing a beat, she wrapped her arms around him, threw him against the nearest wall and slid back into her previous position. All in one fluid, seconds-long motion.

"I want to watch," she said plainly to the incredulous glares shot her way.

Cabaji groaned. Though whether due to exasperation or his budding concussion, none could say.

-o-

'Well, now, it's no wonder that he beat Mr. 1', Bentham mused, watching the sweating swordsman with respect. While the specific goals and exercises were different, he knew well the torturous tedium that one had to endure in order to forge the body into a true fighting machine. He was no slouch in physical strength, but his focus had been on dexterity, flexibility, and speed. It hurt just watching Zoro lift those weights.

"Goodness," Inazuma breathed, half-consciously running her (for the moment) hands along her arms. "The last time I saw someone lifting that much, they were under an overdose of adrenaline hormones."

"Yes, and neither that nor our efforts to remove the resulting stains from the palace drapes ended well, as I'm sure you recall," Ivankov simpered as he (at the moment) tapped his fingers on the arm of his makeshift throne. "It's quite rare to see anyone willing and able to go to such lengths in the present day. Or rather, it's rare to see their process."

Bentham glanced back at the okama queen, the latter's expression thoughtful. "Hmm… Inazuma, do you think you could fashion us some decent weights out of the stone?"

"Easily, my queen, I'll get to it as soon as the SBS is over," Inazuma nodded, her attention never straying from the broadcast. The reason why became particularly evident when she licked her lips. "My my, just look at them. So well-polished…"

The former Mr. 2 sprouted his own salacious grin. "Indeed, aren't they just—!"

"I wonder what kind of whetstone he uses?"

Aaand just like that the mimic's million expressions all fell flat at once. "…you're talking about his swords. Because of course you are."

"Hmph!" the Scissor… person raised their nose in a prim sniff, taking a sip from their ever-present wine glass. "Philistine! I hardly imagine that I'm the only one doing it."

-o-

Cross had certain expectations about how Lieutenant Junior Grade Tashigi would react to the broadcast. Several scenarios played out in his mind, and while the one that was actually happening was one he had considered, it was not one that he honestly expected to happen in this lifetime. Rather, the expectations he put most weight in involved screams of unholy rage, fire, and brimstone.

Allies though they may have been in purpose, Tashigi had never gotten over the way Zoro beat her in Loguetown and learning the reason behind it had only stirred her to push her skills ever-harder. And no matter how much she wanted to deny it, she knew that his methods yielded the results she wanted, so now the blue-haired Marine was rather mindlessly mirroring the Pirate Hunter's workout to the best of her ability with the resources available on Smoker's ship.

And this included being naked from the waist up.

…Well, not completely. There was just a bit of a difference between men and women in this regard. However, she was down to her tight, midriff-baring sports bra, which was about 80% more skin than she'd ever shown on board. Skin that was, also in imitation of her Straw Hat counterpart, now glistening with sweat.

Needless to say, the otherwise-male crew of the Marine ship was very appreciative of this fact, and many had resolved to buy Roronoa Zoro and Jeremiah Cross all the drinks they could ever want, first chance they got.

Those poor, foolish Marines. And not just regarding the negative relationship between the Pirate Hunter's iron liver and their drinking funds.

"Ahem."

The sailors all stiffened as a deep, growly voice announced its presence.

Those poor, foolish Marines had, in their folly, just so happened to forget that their captain preferred his XO above all of the jarheads he had under his command. Combined.

"We can explain?" a hopeful petty officer tried.

Smoker murdered said hope with an excess of sadistic authority and without a hint of remorse. "You can run. Which, frankly, is more than you deserve. Now move."

For all that the Marines were marginally suicidally stupid, they weren't completely suicidal, nor stupid.

Within a minute only one being on the ship aside from Smoker was still watching Tashigi, and Smoker paid no heed to it in favor of musing on the best punishments to offer his men; this watcher, he knew, had no perverse interests.

The creature in question, situated beside her, had taken one look at the sight on the monitors and any doubts about the prudence of joining Smoker died. His purpose further settled in his mind, he had secured a few weights to his hammer and was mirroring the two swordsmen.

Smoker nodded in satisfaction and turned to make good on his promise when a detail of the scene suddenly leaped to mind. He gave it another look and nearly bit clean through his cigar.

"Is she using my jutte as a bar?!" the commodore snarled to himself, trying his damnedest to deny what his eyes were telling him.

But he couldn't… and indeed she was….

For a few seconds more, he just stared, the sight so dumbfounding that he wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Tashigi finally noticed his presence during those seconds, sparing him a glance before returning to her workout.

Then she got another look at him and recoiled in mortal terror. "A-Ah! C-C-Com-Commodore, I can e-e-explain!"

Smoker pinched the bridge of his nose, finally coming to a decision. "It can wait until the end of your set. But not a rep more, understood?"

Tashigi swallowed, fighting the urge to smile in relief. "Y-Yes, sir!"

The wolf-rabbit at the officer's side gave her a flat look and flashed an unflattering sign with his paw.

"You're right, Popora!" Tashigi nodded confidently. "We're lucky for now, but we should still finish! Let's get right back to it!"

Popora blinked, then glared at the spectacles Tashigi had abandoned nearby, one paw dragging down his muzzle in exasperation.

-o-

But even through all of the positive and negative insanity, I took every opportunity I could to plan. Before long, I had everything that I needed for what was to occur on Sabaody, as far as I could recall the details. Which… wasn't as good as I might have liked, but it was enough.

…Meaning that I couldn't put off telling my confidants anymore.

And so it was that two weeks after the fall of Merveille, I lay awake until the moment that Soundbite confirmed that everyone else was asleep. I descended from the crow's nest with all the silence Soundbite could give me and made my way through the depths of the ship. As I reached my destination, I turned to my partner.

"Cottonmouth, Copperhead, Sidewinder, Callie…" I paused, biting my lip before nodding firmly. "Black Mamba." Soundbite boggled at me but nodded. "Come to the aquarium lounge. Do not let anyone else see you leaving."

I settled down on a seemingly random cushion, though I didn't really need to wait that long. Merry emerged from one of her secret passageways about a minute later, and the other four entered shortly afterward, though Robin's presence was surprising to all of them. Herself included.

"May I ask why you're suddenly including me, Cross?" she queried. And while it appeared that she was her usual debonair self, I could see that hint of nerves in her posture.

And unfortunately, my dead serious expression prompted her to let that 'hint' be broadcast to everyone else. "Because you've got the brains and discretion for it, and because you've been eavesdropping on us anyway since day one."

"…I don't know what you mean," she responded. Everyone turned to face her, and I found myself unnerved by just how sincere she appeared. But that wasn't possible, she had to have been listening in, who else could have—

My eyes narrowed and my hand clamped onto my face. "Oh, that complete and everloving jackass. Are you seriously telling me that you weren't eavesdropping on any of our calls?"

And then her sincere confusion vanished, a smile appearing in its place. "No, I was just lying. Of course I was listening in," she said pleasantly.

WHAM!

Robin chuckled as we picked ourselves up from the group face fault, and she gave me a warm smile. "I just thought you might appreciate someone lightening the mood."

I blinked in befuddlement. Then, finally, I managed to crack a smile, albeit a shaky one. "Yeah… and I appreciate it, Robin. I needed that." My smile then faded as it had appeared. "But unfortunately, it can't be too light for something like this. Merry, open the…" I grimaced slightly before forcing myself to say the dreaded words that I would see dead some day, so help me Roger! "'Secret planning room of secret secrecy.'"

The ship-girl snickered at my admission of defeat, and smacked a specific part of the wall, then walked to the shelves in the center and struck each of them once. She finished by stomping on the floor in front of the sofa directly beside me.

The effect was immediate: the section of sofa sank into the floor. At the same time, the aquarium wall behind it slowly split apart, the water relocating to the vacant space at the top of the tank. And in the opening left behind was a staircase, hidden beneath the opaque glass that made up the tank's floor.

Robin cocked a brow at the display. "Well, that's certainly cloak and dagger. And seeing as my last employer had an underwater lair hidden below his casino, I should know. How did you arrange this little hideaway?"

"Slipped Merry the request back on Water 7, she arranged the empty space and mechanisms when Franky wasn't watching," I explained, shrugging. "Franky's probably already figured out something's down here, but he hasn't brought it up yet, so meh. Anyway…" I indicated the stairs, prompting everyone to start walking down them.

At the bottom, we found ourselves in a wide room with mirrors on all sides, as well as four tables; they and their chairs had a futuristic metallic sheen and, at the same time, a plush look to the cushions. Two of the tables had twelve chairs, each one marked with a sign of the Eastern or Western Zodiac. The third table was plain with several unmarked chairs around it.

My confidants and I headed for the last one, placed at the head of the room. Each had a plaque imbued with a jolly roger specific to the crew member as well as a picture of a serpent. The five of them took the seats appropriate to them, and I sat in the chair at the head of the table.

The way back up had already sealed itself behind us, and now skylights opened around the room, allowing moonlight shining into the aquarium and silver-shrouded Lamp Dials to provide light. The entire room was heavily reinforced and soundproofed to hell and back; not even Soundbite could hear anything from the outside in, and vice-versa.

Nami glanced around at the Zodiac-emblazoned tables. "Expecting company? Fair warning, I doubt Ox will be able to fit in their seats."

"Plans have been in the works for a while, and now that Gif is aboard, we can implement them," Merry piped up, her legs swinging off the edge of her seat. "She, Soundbite, and I have been looking over the Transceiver in our spare time. We're hoping we can get two-way video and fill the seats with images of our partners in rebellion. It'll probably still take awhile, but worth it, neh?"

"…Alright, even I have to admit that that's impressive," Robin said, running a hand over the glass.

Zoro nodded, then grunted, casting a disgruntled look around the room. "Same here, but only if this place has a—"

Merry offhandedly knocked her knuckles on the table, and a compartment popped open in front of the swordsman. A bottle-filled compartment.

The green-haired monster grinned eagerly as he fished out a sake jug and took a hit. "Like I said, same here."

A sigh wafted up from Nami, who also shook her head. "Honestly, do you really think this is the best—?"

"Actually."

Everyone looked over at me, and I can't imagine that I was the most reassuring of figures, what with my fingers being folded before my mouth and everything.

"You're all going to want some to process what I'm about to tell you," I solemnly informed them. "There's only one reason that I haven't argued harder against Merry's name for this place, and that's that any conversation that justifies us using this room is going to be too serious to even consider laughing about it."

My co-conspirators all stiffened at that little tidbit, and everyone else joined Zoro in acquiring their own bottles of liquid courage. Well, Nami and Robin did, anyway. An autonomous hand slapped down Merry's attempt at the liquor, but though she groused and scowled, she contented herself with a mug of pitch she pulled from her hold.

Once everyone was settled with their poison of choice, I heaved a tired sigh.

"As you all know, we are coming to the end of the first half of the Grand Line. And I will be perfectly frank with all of you." I glanced between them, staring each person dead in the eye, one after another. "The difficulty spike from Paradise to the New World is as steep as the 20,000-meter journey to and from Fishman Island." I closed my eyes mournfully. "You want the cold, hard truth, here it is: we are not ready."

I preemptively raised my hand to silence the protests that I knew were coming, but thankfully, for once, that wasn't necessary.

Not because they didn't try to say something, mind you, but because before they could open their mouths, said mouths were clamped shut by the hands that sprouted from their shoulders.

"If any of you bite me, I will tie your tongues in knots," Robin warned them all before giving me a solemn nod. "Continue."

I nodded in gratitude before looking around at all of them again, my expression sorrowful. "I don't like this any more than you do, but you know that I know what I'm talking about."

My eyes drifted to our navigator. "Nami, do you know how to navigate in the New World?" I asked.

Nami glanced at Robin, and once her mouth was free, her brow furrowed in thought. "I… my gut instinct is to just go at it like we usually do, but since you're asking, I assume you have something different in mind?"

I leaned forward, my gaze unblinking. "Were you aware," I droned tonelessly. "That in the New World, the magnetic poles of islands can spontaneously shift, thus necessitating that all ships carry special, tri-needle log poses?"

The blood draining from her face was answer enough. "B-But, but that would mean…" she choked, staring wide-eyed at the table.

I left her to stew in her thoughts as I looked to our resident Logia.

"Vivi, you may have gotten a reality check from Robin. But people in the New World who can hurt a Logia without sea prism stone are everywhere. I wasn't kidding when I said that Eneru would have been chickenshit down here; even an Emperor's flunkie could swat him like a fly. How many seconds do you think you could last?"

Vivi flinched, biting her thumb, and I moved on.

"Merry, if your life depended on it, would you be able to fight off one of the leviathans that tried to crush us at Enies?"

A restrained snarl and the table suddenly creaking were answer enough to that.

"And you, Zoro…" I made my eyes as pitying as possible, explicitly because I knew it would piss him off. "Do you honestly think that as you are now, you stand even the slightest chance of walking away from another clash with Mihawk?"

That last one was the most unpleasant since I swear he was trying to cut me with his glare alone. But as unpleasant as it was, it was enough, and everyone sat back to reflect in either anger or worry.

"To repeat, we are not ready for the New World," I stated. "We all have different talents that we need to refine and awaken before we stand a chance of lasting five minutes in that place. And doing so will not be fast or easy, nor will it be possible for us to accomplish this like we've conquered all other challenges before: together, as a crew."

At those words, the air of the room froze over despite the intensity of the gazes directed my way. And it said a lot that Robin was staring in just as much cold shock as the rest of them. Silence reigned for a good minute, and ultimately, I broke it myself.

"I'm overdue in saying this, but here are the cold facts: Bartholomew Kuma is an executive of the Revolutionary Army. I don't know exactly what Dragon's plan is with him, that was yet to be revealed, but I do know that his Pacifista upgrades are nearly complete." I closed my eyes in tired regret. "And before they are completed, he'll ask Vegapunk to grant him one last act of free will. The act he will perform before the final surgery strips away his humanity will be to meet our crew on Sabaody Archipelago…" I spread my hands helplessly. "And use his powers to scatter us all over the world."

I paused for a second, letting everyone chew on that before continuing. "Each of us will end up in the single best place for us to refine our respective skill sets, but the process will not be fast. The Straw Hat Pirates will need to disband for two years' time before we begin the final half of our journey."

There was a minute or so of shocked silence, and then…

"What the hell, Cross!?" Nami demanded, shooting to her feet and slamming her palms on the table. "Why are you only just telling us this now!? And if you give us that 'spoilers' bullshit, I swear to high heaven—!"

"For this exact reason," I coldly shot back, stopping her tirade in its tracks. "Because I knew that bringing up something like this would incense you, or anyone else on this crew who heard it, and you wouldn't even consider thinking straight about these things. You've just forgotten everything that I just told you: We. Need. This training. Without it, we will die."

"C-Cross… come on, you screwed fate when you saved me, can't you do it again now—?" Merry asked pleadingly.

"In the story," I said. "The first threat the Straw Hats had to face after their hiatus was another Shiki-grade maniac, complete with armies, monsters, and xenocidal ambitions. And for all that…" Red eyes swam through my head, and my expression darkened. "That monster is as dumb as a rock compared to Shiki, he trumps him by packing an army bigger than any we've faced before. And despite the fact that the ten Straw Hats in the story completely and utterly curb-stomped that army, they still came within seconds of being creamed by something that would have wiped out the island." I stood up and leaned forward, matching Nami's glare with one of my own. "Do you really want to mess around with something like that, Nami? Want to risk the fate of an entire species on pride? Arrogance, even?!"

Nami's expression twitched, ever so slightly, and I pounced on the weakness.

"Let me make this real simple for you all: When we arrive in the Ryugu Kingdom, a metric ton of whoopass is going to be unleashed. Make no mistake, that island is destined to host a major curb-stomp." I dropped into my seat with a heavy sigh. "The only question is whether we'll be the ones delivering it… or receiving it. Because trust me, that's what our preparations will decide. And for the record? While matters might, might be ambiguous on Fishman Island, that's just the front porch of the New World. One island in and we'd run face first into an unbeatable foe. A Logia, with no weaknesses and no openings. If we don't fall to the fangs waiting on Ryugu…" I shook my head in despair. "Then we will disappear into the miasma of Punk Hazard. Of this, I am positive."

Nami sank back into her seat, emotions swirling on her face like storm clouds. The rest of the crew was in similar condition, but also eyeing me expectantly.

"Here's another fact for you: My knowledge isn't going to last much longer." That got everyone's attention but good. "Once everyone gets blasted across the world, until we regroup I am blind. Whatever everyone found, however they found it, they found it themselves. I don't know what happened over those two years any more than I know what happened in the blind periods between islands. Meaning that I can't help you all become stronger anymore. Or at least, I can't help you become anywhere near as strong as you would be on your own."

At that point, faced with everyone's worried expressions, all the energy drained out of my body, leaving me slumped in my chair, one hand sweeping up my forehead. "Make no mistake, I hate that this is what we need to do, but the only way we're going to maximize our potential is with Kuma's help, and we only get one chance to take it. And between my knowledge running out and the effects of the SBS continuing over the next two years even if I don't run a single broadcast, we can't afford anything less than the maximum potential. And not just for our sakes…" I bit my lip. "And… I think you all know that. Have to know it, at this point. Don't you?"

Every last one of them looked down or away. I don't know how long we sat there in complete silence, reflecting on my words. And then the silence finally broke in the worst way possible: with a whimper that I hadn't heard since the aftermath of Enies.

"C-Cross…"

All eyes turned to Merry, who was staring at me with watery eyes. And it was plain to see that it was no act this time; she was horrified to the point of tears.

"I… I don't think I can handle it," she gasped, seeming on the verge of a panic attack. In seconds, the rest of us were holding her in our arms.

"Merry—!" I started weakly, but she cut me off with a frantic, tearful shake of her head.

"Two years… a-alone… without any of you…" she sobbed, hiccuping miserably. "I-It'll be… l-like I sank… w-without anyone else, I-I might as well be… m-might as well—!"

I grimaced, wracking my brain for something to say, but thankfully, someone else beat me to it.

"You're wrong."

Merry blinked, staring at Vivi in bleary despair. "B-But—!"

"Yes. You. Are," the princess emphasized, kneeling down in front of the shipgirl. "Merry. Everything about you is a composite of us, right? Small bits, small pieces, but still us?"

"I-I…" Merry hiccuped again before rubbing her eyes and nodding. "Y-Yeah? Pretty much…"

Vivi nodded and looked up at me. "And in the story," she forged on. "We came out of this… ordeal perfectly fine, right?"

I was going to answer in the affirmative, but I flinched as a small detail popped up. "Sanji… had a bit of a complication that I'm going to help him with, but it was gone within… I think a day, two at most."

The glare Vivi was forming faded, and she nodded before giving our helmsgirl a kind smile. "Merry, you have what you need to make it through this because you have all of us inside you. Because we are always with you. And not just the original crewmates, but the rest of us who wouldn't have been here otherwise… and you have your own strength on top of all of that."

The princess leaned forward and gently folded her arms around Merry, drawing her into a close, gentle hug that the rest of us quickly joined. "In the words of a surprisingly wise man… shut up and stop worrying already."

"…Shi…shishishi…" Merry chuckled weakly, a warmer smile spreading over her face as she leaned into Vivi, burying her face in the crook of her neck.

The silence lasted, warm, comforting, until Zoro gave me a hard look.

"Whatever you do, Cross, we'll have your back," he stated, and the ladies all nodded in agreement, Merry even turning from her sobbing, ever so slightly, to flash me a tearful smile.

I returned the sentiment with a smile of my own, but I couldn't hide my sadness as I stood up and headed for the stairs. "Yeah, well, we'll see how you all feel in the moment. For now? Rest up. Because soon…"

I paused as I used the obvious switch on the wall to open the door back to the lounge, leaning against the wall. "Soon, we'll be arriving at the last stop in Paradise. And as much as we have to fear from what comes afterward?" My grip on the stair railing tightened. "We're still waltzing into a whole new circle of hell."

-o-

A week had passed since that particularly uplifting meeting, and despite their stated acceptance of what had to be done, more than once I had to answer questions that I already answered. Is there no other way? Can't it wait? Why aren't you telling anyone else? And as much as I wanted to give them an answer that would satisfy them—and me, for that matter—the facts remained stubbornly unchanged.

I had explored every resource that I had, from the Masons to the fledgling newspaper plans, and I had actually managed to map out the locations of all nine of the islands where the crew would be sent… that I knew of. I had ideas for where the rest of our crew would go, myself included, but nothing solid. And the only methods of transportation I knew of that were even remotely close to as subtle or fast as Paw-Paw Airlines were the Glint-Glint Fruit, which was impossible, and whatever Dragon used, which was pointless when Kuma was a Revolutionary anyway.

With the fact that I had prevented the war, there should have been a lot less stress about timing the upcoming situation right. But the fact was that unless things had changed beyond what I could anticipate, Kuma was close to being converted completely into a robot, which meant that we didn't have any room for error; if we missed this window, there wouldn't be another, and we simply didn't have enough time left to put off the next level of our training.

This held especially given that, most likely in spite of whatever interference I tried to run, we'd be ticking off the Celestial Dragons right next to their attack dogs' kennel. If we got cornered there, then there would be no words in existence for how screwed we'd be. It was either slip out or bust.

And as for not telling anyone, well, how was I supposed to bring something like this up!? Luffy had already learned the hard way that he needed to get stronger. Several times, even. But considering what this would entail? No… no, I trusted the crew, but I just couldn't think of a way to even start until the last moment. And though Zoro in particular hated keeping it from Luffy, the fact that neither he nor the other four had any better ideas spoke volumes about the entire situation.

And, unfortunately, a big reason I was keeping it to myself for now was due to the whispers of doubt that had been stirring in my mind since Thriller Bark. I tried to keep them silent, Luffy himself could tell with how often I snuck looks at Ace's perfectly healthy and sea-level Vivre Card, but they just wouldn't leave me alone. And if by some unholy miracle they turned out to be justified…

I shook my head, dismissing the utterly impossible nightmare in favor of the matter at hand; per Sanji's advice, I had tried thinking of fail-safes I could use, but the best I could manage was a little project that Merry had taken to working on in every spare moment she'd had since that meeting.

And if nothing else about it was distracting, the magnitude of BS that came from turning a ship into a human was…

-o-

Sanji sighed as he put the finishing touches on the most dangerous meal suitable for human consumption that he had ever prepared, sealing it shut before turning back to the helmsgirl in the kitchen.

"OK…could you run this by me again, because I still don't get it," Sanji said, eye twitching at the orange and gray duffle bag Merry was fiddling with.

"I'm getting supplies from everyone for emergency care packages, which I'm putting together just in case we run into someone like Shiki and wind up separated for an unknown amount of time again," the ex-caravel explained.

"Yeah, I got that part." Sanji sighed out a cloud of smoke so that he could start on another drag, hoping that this would be the lungful that killed his migraine. "A little overblown, I think, but better not to take any chances."

"And it's just a chance, of course, so all we're doing is planning for the worst possible situation. And I'm focusing all of my attention on Luffy first since he's the strongest."

"And while it's the biggest challenge I've had since your diet, I've got it done; it'll stay good for at least three months, and it'll do what it needs to if it comes to that," Sanji responded. "I got that part, too."

"Then what are you confused about?" Merry asked in slightly annoyed confusion.

"That," the chef snorted as he jabbed his cigarette at the bag. "Explain to me again exactly what that is?"

"Ohh," Merry nodded. "OK, it's like this: my raincoat and leggings were… mostly analogous to my hull in my ship form, so it was easiest for me to use it to focus my access to my storage. So, since I've got this new outfit now—" She flicked the brim of her cap proudly. "—I decided to turn my old one into a duffel bag that still has all of the hammerspace access I need, and I can share it with everyone else." She then grimaced in annoyance. "The only problem is that I only had enough fabric to make one bag this size; everyone else could only get these."

She held up one of several coin purses that matched the duffel's coloration; a handful were bigger than the others, but none were particularly large.

"Yeah, I get the theory behind it," Sanji ground out. "But how exactly do they still link to your storage if they're not connected to you anymore? And how did that new coat connect if your old coat is still connected?"

Merry perked up and put up a finger. "Oh, well, that's easy, see—!" And just as swiftly her expression froze. Sanji blandly watched as she dramatically paled and was about to make a snarky comment when her white face contorted into a glower.

"Sanji, I'm warning you right now," she rumbled, her voice resonating like a battleship's timbers. "If this stops working because of you questioning it? I will end you."

So saying, she snatched the box that Sanji had prepared, stashed it in her bag, and slunk out. The chef stared after her before shaking his head and getting back to work.

Honestly, someone needed to talk to that girl. Someone other than him, because he had no idea where to even begin helping her through what was clearly a bad bout of separation anxiety brought about from that whole Strong World mess. Chopper had only just started researching mental health… the dugongs were meatheads… Vivi and Robin were still two focused on their little feud…

In the end, it boiled down to one of two people. Cross was probably the girl's closest friend, while Luffy… well, was Luffy. And with Cross blatantly stressing out over something, that left Luffy as his best option.

Lovely. Well, at least he knew Luffy would prioritize talking to Merry above anything else, including his meat obsession…

Sort of like how Cross had put whatever he was planning above eating for those first couple of days…

Thinking on it, Merry hadn't been having any troubles for the first couple of days… or even the first couple of weeks. It had started a week ago… right around the time that Cross stopped shutting himself up in the crow's nest every free minute he got.

And Merry was one of Cross's confidants.

"Damn it," the chef swore. With a growing sense of dread, he turned back to the fridge and pantry, recipes for bento boxes not unlike what he had just prepared forming in his mind.

-o-

Now we come to the present, two days after that. The first noteworthy occurrence of this day found me hoping all the more that I would somehow run into Tashigi soon, especially since we'd come across the last real threat between us and Sabaody. If the way Nami's clouds were collaborating with Sunny's rigging in an attempt to strangle me was any indication, neither she nor our ship was particularly happy about me forgetting about the Sea Snake Currents. Nor, for that matter, was anyone else.

"JEREMIAH CROSS, THE SECOND THE WIND ISN'T LIABLE TO BLOW ME BACK TO THE WEST BLUE, I'M GOING TO PUT YOU THROUGH THE DECK OF YOUR SHIP!" Valentine shrieked from the deck of the Cannibal, her threat slightly diminished by how she was being used to anchor a good dozen ropes at once.

"GET IN LINE, VALENTINE!" Vivi roared back, her arms swinging in an almost demented dance to shanghai the gales in our ships' vicinity into not sinking us to the sea floor. "AND TRUST ME, IT IS A DAMN LONG ONE!"

"OH, SUE ME, YOU BLUE-HAIRED BIMBO!" I roared right back, absolutely refusing to take this kind of shit. "ONE WEATHER-EVENT THAT SLIPS MY MIND, ONE! IT WAS BARELY EVEN A DAMN PAGE! IF ANYONE SHOULD BE COMPLAINING, IT'S US ABOUT HOW OUR NEW LOGIA IS MORE USELESS THAN—!"

"The schmuck who should be pulling levers instead of running his mouth?" Merry inquired tersely as she steadfastly wrestled with the helm.

"Ugh, right," I grunted, getting back to tugging on whatever Merry identified, a job I'd been assigned after the third time the rigging yanked me off my feet.

It really said a lot about the Straw Hat Pirates, not to mention Paradise in general, that a cluster of apparently autonomous ocean currents that wove and moved like snakes huger than Nola was a freaking footnote in the story. I probably would have spared more time to marvel at the whole thing, sights and experience alike, if it weren't for just how crazy it was being smack-dab in the middle of it.

And the worst part, of course, was that we couldn't just coast our way up one of the tallest serpents and fly away with a Coup de Burst. Doing so would have meant leaving the Barto Club behind, and it wasn't like we could attach them to us and fly away; no matter how much we tried to bind the ships with our Devil Fruit users, Coup de Burst was by design a maneuver that would inflict heavy damage on any ship that tried it unless it was made of Adam wood, and I seriously doubted either Merry or Sunny would have been okay with cracking another ship's keel.

Well, unless it was flying white and blue, but you get the general idea.

Anyway, that was only scratching the surface of the problems sailing alongside a friend had gained us. Too close, we swapped paint, and too far, we'd lose contact up until Sabaody; as it was, it was a struggle even with Soundbite's help. This was definitely one of the greatest tests of our sailing expertise yet!

"Meaning that if Barto says even one word about his granny, I'm going to bash his head in with a—!" I cut my grumbling short with a confused blink. "Waaaait, how do I—?"

"Duck!"

WHAM!

"GAH, MOTHER!" I roared, shooting a particularly vicious glare at Merry while clutching my new pully-made lump. "Watch it, half-pint, I can either help you or throttle you, and there is a thin line between the two!"

"NOT—GUH—ME!" Merry bit out, bodily wrestling with the particularly uncooperative wheel. Her eyes shot wide in terrified realization. "SOMETHING'S WRONG! I CAN'T CONTROL WHERE SUNNY'S GOING! IT'S LIKE HE'S CAUGHT IN A—wuh-oh."

I slammed my forehead into the helm's spokes with a groan, refusing to look behind me as I recognized that tone of voice. "Don't tell me: we're being sucked into a gigantic whirlpool," I sighed.

"Yep," Nami calmly confirmed from her position right behind Sunny's mane.

"Sharp rocks at the bottom?"

"You already did this bit in Drum!" Usopp hollered down from atop the masts.

"If you don't have a solution, cram it and let us have our jokes!" I hollered back.

"I HAVE ONE!"

All eyes fell on Donny, who was gesturing to the Monster Trio and his master. "If two of them can punch a tunnel through a tsunami, what can all four of them do?"

For a long moment, the only sound on board was the creaking of the Sunny and the roar of the whirlpool. And then, as one, everyone turned towards the whirlpool, matching grins on their faces.

"Well, recquiescat in pace and all that rot," Robin remarked, leaning against the railing with infuriating ease. "Cross, make sure you get a Vision Dial shot of this."

"Bitch, please," I scoffed, waving around my already-readied Dial en lieu of my middle finger.

"Come on, boys!" Boss pounded his flippers eagerly, grin stretching from ear to ear. "Whaddaya say we teach the ocean who's in charge?!"

"Right! Let's filet these currents!" Sanji nodded proudly, scraping his heel across the deck and building up a moderate glow in his leg.

"Let's get this over with, you morons are keeping me up with this nonsense." Zoro was far more restrained as he unsheathed his blades and held them at the ready. "Seriously, couldn't you have—?"

"Don't even think about it," Nami and Vivi snarled in synch, the navigator's threat emphasized by a rumble of her own personal thunderhead and the princess's by her sheer force of will.

Zoro flinched at that particularly well-enforced command for all of one second before rolling his eyes and brushing it off. "Like either of you would be able to stop me," he responded.

The veiled message drew dark looks from the crew, but fortunately our captain broke the tension, as he was so very wont to do.

"Hey, guys, hang on a second!" Luffy protested. "We can't do it yet! We have to come up with a name first!"

"SKIP IT!" shot back several of the crew, myself and several of the Barto Club included.

"Just wing it, boys, we've done it before," Boss scoffed, pounding his wrists together as he prepared for his ultimate technique.

Luffy considered it for a moment longer before shrugging indifferently. "Eh, fine." He started swinging his fists. "Gum-Gum…"

"Full-Shell Style…"

"600 Caliber…"

"Flaming…"

And then, as one, the Monster Trio and—oh screw it, the Monster Quartet blasted out their combined attacks at the water. "CANNON!"

The burst of air dwarfed even Franky's Coup de Vent, and no matter how awkward the name may have been, the results were too epic to care: the aquatic serpent's nest fell still around us.

…For all of ten seconds before the waters started to churn again.

"Let's get out of here!" Su demanded in panic.

"Uh…" Nami hesitated as she watched the currents rouse themselves again, and then that hesitation evolved into straight-up terror. "I-I can't see a way out! All the currents lead back here, and we can't sail out fast enough before they drag us right back in! We're trapped!"

"Are you telling me…" I said, my voice low and dangerous. "That we got so caught up in the awesomeness of step one that we forgot to plan out step two? Aren't we smarter than this?"

"Apparently not," Donny sighed regretfully.

"Well, I wouldn't say that," Robin simpered.

"A lifetime of natural training shows through again," Goldenweek added through a rice cracker from under the cover of our pavilion. "Still, it does feel nice to hold our own for once."

"Come again, half-pint?" Vivi tersely queried.

The painter summarily ignored her ex-subordinate in favor of addressing the crewmate sitting next to her. "How's our way out, Apis?"

"Any second now," Apis muttered, biting her thumb as she looked over the roiling waters.

I looked over the edge of the foredeck down at her. "Something you're not telling us?"

"Just need a little more time," the dragon priestess-in-taming muttered.

"Seriously, what are you—?!"

"Moooo!"

SPLASH!

"Whoa!" I jerked away from the edge where the erstwhile attack steer of the Arlong Pirates and a sizable group of assorted aqua-animal titans surfaced among the stirring sea snakes, gazing curiously at us.

"Don't need to tell you what we need to do, do we?!" Barto shouted at them, hauling a hefty towline to the prow of the Cannibal.

"I could use a clue!" Mikey shamelessly stated.

THWACK!

"OW! WHY DOES CROSS GET TO JOKE ABOUT THIS AND I DON'T?!"

"SHUT UP AND GET THE DAMN ROPE, DINGUS!" Boss and Raphey furiously ordered.

"BELAY THAT!" Merry hollered.

The Dugongs froze, while ropes flew from the Cannibal around the sea beasts' necks and Barrier harnesses formed for them to bite on.

"She's right! You guys may be strong, but my friends are bigger and more experienced with the Grand Line's currents!" Apis called.

"Not what I meant!" Merry replied, ignoring the Dugongs' reactions. "Now that you guys have got your way out, we don't have to hold back ours! Furl the sails! Time to activate Channel 0!"

"Oh, yeah, the paddle engines! Alright, secure the sails and stand by to attack the snakes!" Nami ordered, turning her attention fully to the currents.

Everyone on the crew aside from Brook and Billy, thinking back to our first usage of the paddles in the lead-up to the Accino fiasco, either took our places on the sides of the ship or accelerated Merry's efforts to furl the sails.

"Er, pardon my confusion, but, the paddle what-nows?" Brook inquired, even as he too went to work manipulating Sunny's rigging.

"Heheheh," Franky chuckled proudly, thumbing his sunglasses up his nose. "Watch and learn, grandpa. You think you already know why Sunny's the King of the Seas, but the truth is? You've only seen the start of what our ship's got to offer in his arsenal! The Burst was one thing, and this? This is another!"

And with that, our shipwright slammed his forearms together. "HIT IT, LIL' SIS!" he proclaimed.

"HITTING IT, BUT REMEMBER THAT YOU DON'T GIVE ME ORDERS, IRON-SIDES!" Merry cackled, giving one of her helm's levers a sharp yank. "HERE WE GO! THOUSAND SUNNY'S SOLDIER-DOCK SYSTEM, CHANNEL ZERO!"

And with a sound of grinding wood and shifting steel, the gates on the sides of the Sunny opened and allowed the cola-powered paddles that would be the envy of any ship back on earth to deploy, tearing through the currents and keeping even pace with the Cannibal's towing party.

"BEHOLD!" the White Menace pumped her fist victoriously. "THE BANE OF ALL CURRENTS! PADDLE-SUNNY!"

"Oh, my! Oh, my!" Brook gasped, staring over the side at our lion's paws. "This is incredible! Extraordinary! Beyond all words! I—!"

"Can't believe your eyes, but you don't have any, right?" Funkfreed blandly interjected.

Immediately, Brook was on his knees, a cloud of depression over his head. "Funkfreed, you can't just steal my line like that…"

"Either come up with some new material or get a new shtick," the Zoan-weapon dismissively replied.

That show of comedy aside, the Sunny's paddles allowed us to continue onward, a few extra bursts of force here and there giving us the agility we needed to dodge the serpent currents that surfaced around us. The Cannibal was having a slightly less easy time with it; I guess Nami was even better than Sea Kings at current-reading. Or it was just their young age, one or the other.

Then one serpent current came up right in front of us.

And just as fast, a few bursts of flame shot from Conis, Sanji, and I while Zoro and Leo (for the most part) threw in some wind blasts. And given that we were already soaked from the storm, nothing really happened.

"HEY, LUFFY!" Barto called over from the prow of the Cannibal, his shark-toothed grin on full display. "YOUR CREW JUST NEVER RUNS OUT OF CRAZY NEW SHIT IT CAN PULL, DOES IT?"

"NOPE!" Luffy called back, his grin just as wide. "ISN'T IT AWESOME!?"

And with that fantastically rhetorical proclamation, our crews continued through the final stretch of Paradise.

-o-

Have any of you ever visited a place like the Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef, or the Rock of Gibraltar? A grand and majestic natural edifice, celebrated the world over? And if so, have you visited it more than once? The wonder of what nature can do never really gets old, does it? Never any less incredible, never any less jaw-dropping, never any less magnificent.

So, you can imagine that coming face-to-face with the Red Line for the second time didn't make it any less incredible.

"Hello, old friend," I breathed solemnly, thumbing up the brim of my cap as I stared up and up, trying once more to see what I could not see before, what I still could not see now. And as I stared, the sea breeze licked at me, the salt wormed its way past every bandage, every barrier, into every scar, and made me feel the sting of each and every last one of them, as fresh as the days I got them.

And I reveled in every second of it.

I bared my teeth at the wall. "I've come to visit once again. And oh, the stories I have got for you."

"HEH. 'There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.' Mandela was right…" Soundbite angled his eyestalks back as he preened before the earthen horizon. "NOTHING BEATS A HOMECOMING."

"Tch. You little idiot," Nami huffed, her cloud offhandedly giving one of Soundbite's eyes a minor flick. Her eyes never left the Line, her free hand lightly running over her tattoo. "This isn't even close to a homecoming. This? This is the halfway mark."

For a moment, we were silent. And then…

"To come face to face with such a monstrous monument, that so perfectly exemplifies the might of the eternal adversary we call 'nature', while surrounded by comrades and gearing up to face it…"

"Aaaandd there goes the moment," Nami sighed in defeat, shoulders slumping.

"There's no other words!" Boss continued through the interruption, leaping up and pumping his fist in the air. "IT'S A MAN'S ROMANCE!"

"GO, BOSS, GO!"

"The more things change, the more they stay the same," Vivi hummed in a wistful tone, spinning the mist about her finger.

"At weast thish ish one of thosh times thatsh a good thing!" Carue pointed out.

"No kidding," Merry breathed, staring unblinkingly at the stone. "Between the storm and the fact that I wasn't really lucid last time, I couldn't be happier about the changes."

So, all in all, the moment wasn't so much over as warped around a little.

…still nice, though.

-o-

"A new perspective… new train of thoughts… new set of emotions…" Goldenweek wheezed through clenched teeth, fingers scrabbling at her side and pupils blown wide. "Need paint. Brown. Lots of it, in so so many different shades… need it now!"

"Aaand we've lost our navigator," 5 grunted in clear dismay.

Goldenweek picked that moment to shuffle away, still in a daze. "I'll go and make sure she doesn't walk off the ship in a stupor," Valentine sighed, striding after the young painter. "Again."

"Wooow… and to think I was living barely even a day's sail away from this…" Apis breathed before looking up at her twice-oldest friend. "Lindy… you've probably seen this more times than you can count, right?"

"A few centuries can wear away some of the shock, milady…" the dragon grumbled, shaking his hide dismissively. "But, at the same time, we Millennial Dragons all agree that there remains a…" He nodded his head, a wry grin splitting his muzzle. "Comfort, I suppose, to see this mass of stone remain constant as the world changes around it. To know there's something else in the world that's eternal, aside from us. Something that, when we're long gone, will still stand proud and unbowed."

Apis smiled fondly and idly ran her fingers across his scales, though without taking her eyes off the colossal stone mass.

"At the same time, though… it's just a really big rock that goes close to space," Lindy added.

"Well, take it in, everyone: as long as Goldenweek is still painting, we're not going anywhere," Bartolomeo said, his grin making it clear that he had no problem with that. He then waved his hand at the neighboring ship. "We've done our share of nutso adventuring up and down the Grand Line. For now, it's the Straw Hats' turn."

"Aye-aye to that, Captain." Gin toasted his flask at the Barrier-Man with a grateful grin. "Aye-aye to that."

-o-

While marveling was all well and good, eventually I left the rest of the crew to sequester myself away in the dining room with a mug of cola; one of the comments made had shaken me and made me remember something that I had wanted to put off until the last minute.

But now, that last minute was here and I couldn't wait any longer. And so here I was, waiting for my opportunity to talk to Luffy.

This was between the captain and myself, after—well, I flinched slightly as I reminded myself of the facts, between the captain and myself and one other, but given the circumstances… Anyway, back on topic. Those who knew about Kuma were smart enough to put the pieces together themselves if they were inclined to, but if they didn't, so much the better. I did not want any bias or pressure in this situation. I made this mess, and I had to fix it.

The minutes ticked by, Soundbite relaying me the crew musing outside over the needle pointing to the seafloor…

"…same problem we had with Skypiea. We know where we need to go, but not how to get there."

"And by 'we,' you mean—wait a second, where did Cross go?" Merry asked, a slight hint of panic in her voice.

I patiently rapped my knuckles on the table.

"Oh, kitchen, got it. Well, if you're listening, could you—?"

This time I tapped my finger.

"Uh… Guess… nooot. Luffy, Cross wants to talk."

I double-tapped my finger.

"Now, Cross wants to talk now."

I heard the rubber man grunt, followed by a pair of giant rubber bands stretching. In no time at all, Luffy stepped inside and closed the door behind him.

"Hey, Cross, what's—" Luffy's expression changed mid-sentence, his face hardening at the sight of my own. "What is it, Cross?"

I didn't answer for a moment, staring at him before taking a deep pull from my mug. And then, my nerves as steeled as they were going to get, I looked him in the eye. "Luffy… your crewmates' happiness is the most important thing to you, right?"

Luffy's brow furrowed in incredulity, but he nodded.

I clenched my jaw slightly. "And does that include allowing them to leave the crew if they wanted to? If they never really wanted to join in the first place?"

"What?!" Luffy shouted. "What are you talking about, Cross, everyone here joined because—oh." He cut himself off, grimacing again. I could almost see the connections sparking in his mind. "What are you trying to say, Cross?"

I let out a hissing sigh and closed my eyes. "Pardon the wholly necessary vagueness, Captain Luffy, but… in the very near future, an opportunity is going to present itself. An opportunity that will give Vivi the choice that the World Government stripped away from her: stay with our crew…" My expression tightened. "Or return home."

I opened my eyes and locked them with Luffy's. "Captain, I know that none of us would be happy to see her go, but she deserves the chance to choose, free of expectations. I want to tell her that whatever she decides, we'll accept. But a pirate isn't allowed to leave their crew without the captain's consent. So… I'm asking you if I can tell Vivi, when the time comes, that she and Carue have your full permission to leave the crew and return to Alabasta if that's what she wants."

Luffy's straw hat shadowed his eyes, but I could still see his frown. It was a full minute before he looked up again. "When you tell her, tell her that no matter what she chooses, both of them will always have a place on our crew."

I smiled, bittersweet as all else. "Never would have thought different, Captain. Now then!" I clapped my hands together as I shoved off from the table and made for the door. "Let's see about getting ourselves onto the next leg, shall we?"

With that done, I slammed the door open, ducked under the trio of projectiles that were flung at me with cries of "WATCH IT, BASTARD!" and pounded my knuckles together. "BOSS! Front and center!"

The dugong was before me in an instant. "Aye, sir?" the elder amphibian asked expectantly.

I smirked. "Gather your boys and dive, ASAP. You're all going fishing."

Boss perked up, quirking his eyeridge… well, quizzically. "Ohoh? What's the request, light brunch or is the captain in on this feast?"

"Ooooh, big game, my friend, big game."

"Ohoh?" Interest gleamed in Boss's eye, and I prepared to elaborate—

"Hold it."

—when of course Vivi interrupted my fun with a tap on my shoulder.

"Just how necessary, exactly, is this expedition?" she asked primly.

"Let me answer your question with a question," I replied with just as much decorum. "How much do you want to get to Fishman Island without swimming all the way there? And how much do you want to go down in the Shark Submersible and act as bait yourself?"

"Carry on," Vivi replied with an offhand wave.

I chuckled as I turned back to Boss. "Alright, where was I?"

"The point where I was liking this request more and more!" Boss chuffed out a ring of smoke as he eagerly wrung his flippers. "Anything special we should be looking for?"

I spread my hands demonstratively. "Five klicks down and sporting some big—!"

"MEATY CLAWS!"

I felt my jaw twitch and clench at that particular reminder of what was to come. "…fangs. Big fangs. And I mean by Sea King standards, got it?"

"Yep! Bo-oys!" The guard promptly assembled behind him, ready and raring to go. "We'll have it up for you in no time, just you see! Heck, want us to slice it up a little for you while we're down there?"

"Gah, nonono!" I waved my hands frantically on account of suddenly having that stuck in my head. "Thanks for bringing that up because no! We don't need it alive, but we do need it intact, got it? Intact."

Boss paused, cigar bobbing slightly. "That… does make things a tad more complicated, doesn't it? But!" He clapped his flippers proudly. "Challenges are what keep life interesting, right, boys?"

"With all due respect, sir?" Raphey replied a strained tone. "Go suck on a gooseneck."

THWACK!

"GAH!"

SPLASH!

"So noted," Boss growled as half his cigar fell to the deck, his knuckles still smoking from punching his disciple clean off the ship. He then cast a glare over his shoulder at the other three. "Anyone else have something they want to say, with all due respect?"

SP-SP-SPLASH!

I smirked, eyeing the trench the dugongs had dug in the lawn. "You've trained them well, Boss."

"Ohohoh, nononooo," Boss said as he casually hopped up onto the balustrade. "I didn't train even a twitch of that into them." He cast a final smirk at me. "They just know better is all."

And with that, he dove off the edge and was gone.

Once the ripples from the Dugongs' descent vanished, I hung my head and brought my hand up to press the knuckles against my forehead. "Of course, all of this is assuming that I haven't changed the world enough so that our future friends aren't trapped in said Sea King's stomach, and with how minor a detail it is and how double-sided our luck can be, that is entirely possible," I muttered to myself. I mulled on that for a second more before slowly starting to massage my face, groaning even more. "Then again, Hanlon's Razor."

"Hm? Hanlon's Razor?" Conis queried innocently from where she was performing her daily maintenance of our armaments. "What's that?"

"YE OLDE APHORISM FROM CROSS'S WORLD," Soundbite explained. "BASICALLY, never attribute to malice WHAT CAN BE ADEQUATELY EXPLAINED THROUGH—!"

KER-SPLASH! "GRO-ROOOAAAR!"

The snail's explanation was suddenly cut off by—what else—the very subject of our discussion breaking the surface of the waves in all its floppy-eared, buck-toothed 'glory', for lack of a better word, roaring and snarling and thrashing and very noticeably not dead/K.O.!

"Oh, for the love of… HEY, BOSS! WHAT'S THE HOLDUP!?" I shouted out over the water, pointedly ignoring the overgrown and undercooked barbeque meal. "IF YOU'VE ALREADY FOUND THE DAMN THING, THEN JUST PUNT ITS SKULL IN AND GET IT OVER WITH!"

"GIVE US A SECOND, WOULD YA?!" Donny shouted as he surfaced right next to the Sunny, nursing a veritable puzzle of bruises. "JUST BECAUSE WE MAKE THIS LOOK EASY DOESN'T MEAN IT'S DAMN EFFORTLESS! Though admittedly we are close. OI!" He directed his focus down into the water. "PULL!"

We all looked down in confusion, the rabbit Sea King actually joining us in the motion—

THWACK! "GRGHK!?"

—and receiving a hefty chunk of reef between his jaws for the trouble.

"Speaking from experience here: that is not a good feeling to have in your teeth," Luffy winced.

"I'm not even going to ask," Franky sighed, prompting several nods of agreement.

"Now for the big finish!" Mikey said eagerly as the TDWS jumped back onboard. Boss, meanwhile, flew out of the water toward the poor, doomed rabbit. Then he began spinning like he was Sanji winding up for a Concassé.

"Half-Shell Style… REEF STOMP!"

And with that final roar, the dugong slammed his aquatic lower half on the rabbit's skull, hard. And with the coral between its jaws?

CRACK!

"Owww," Billy winced, rubbing his beak sympathetically as the rabbit's eyes went white. Its form slumped over in the water as shards of coral and… I'll just be discreet and say calcium crumbled out of its slackened mouth. "That has gotta hurt."

"That was the plan!" Boss barked as he flipped onto the deck, chest proudly puffed out. "Now, Mikey!" He snapped his 'fingers' and pointed at the groaning aqua-rabbit. "Make 'er blow."

"AYE-AYE, SIR!" the orange-bandana'd dugong proclaimed, leaping at the Sea King with his weapon brandished. "Now, eat my chucks!"

SLAM!

I winced as Mikey rammed said chucks into the Sea King's gut, causing it to double over in agony. "Eesh, don't know what hurt worse, seeing the poor thing getting ready to ralph, or that god-awful quip."

"Oh, piss off, you try coming up with this stuff on the fly," Mikey sniffed as he landed beside me, brushing off his non-existent sleeves.

"Came up with 'Gastro-Blast' within ten seconds of first using it."

"I reiterate: Piss. Off."

I rolled my eyes, but instead of responding I scowled and leaned over the edge of the ship. "HEY! BIG, TOOTHLESS, AND UGLY! WE DON'T WANT YOU, WE WANT YOUR LUNCH! COUGH IT UP AND YOU'LL LIVE TO GUM ANOTHER GALLEON!"

The rabbit froze, its watery eyes turning toward me and narrowing. Then its expression contorted into sweat-dripping nervousness as it presumably eyed the ones behind me. More specifically, the eager lip-licking I could hear from Luffy's position. Grimacing, it stopped holding back and started actively lurching forward in its dry-heaves.

"Uh, Cross?" Sanji said, warily eyeing the Sea King. "Not to doubt you…"

"But you have some serious questions about this whole thing," I finished for him.

"You had the dugongs hunt down a Sea King, apparently for the sole purpose of making it blow chunks." Sanji grimaced, waving his hand at the still-retching beast. "How could whatever this thing possibly ate help us get to Fishman Island?!"

"Simple enough, really," I said with a pleasant smile. "It's not a 'whatever' that ugly over there ate, but a 'whoever'."

Nami snapped her head my direction, confusion written on her features. "Wait, a fishman got eaten by a Sea King?! They'd never go down their gullet alive, it's considered the most embarrassing way to die!"

"Riiiight species~" I sang. "Wroooong end of the spectrum. Flip. Everything."

It took only a moment's thought for Nami and Sanji to both stiffen up in realization.

"You mean…" Nami started slowly.

"It ate—!?" Sanji breathed.

At that instant, the Sea King hocked up its lunch—and all of Sanji's objections died, right there. As did most of his higher brain functions… and my sinuses, god, what did that thing eat, island whale ambergris!?

Anyway, along with the mess was a pair of living creatures. One was star-shaped with a hat and a face. The other was green-haired with a yellow and dark pink (almost red) shirt. And a lower body covered in pink scales. And given the force with which the Sea King spat them out, they were flying directly towards us.

It was one hell of a leap, to be honest. Beautiful, admirable, awe-inspiring—!

Aaaand then they both slammed face-first into both of our masts.

"Owww," Billy said again, draping one wing over his eyes and glancing away as they peeled off. "Shooould someone catch them?"

"YES!" Sanji declared, darting below Keimi and spreading his arms wide.

I took one look at the arrangement and pinched my nose in despair. "Right. Chopper? I'd recommend grabbing whatever treatments for anemia you have on hand."

"WHAT? They need blood?! Why didn't you say so before—?!" Chopper yelped hysterically, scrambling left and right in a panic.

"Not for them," I interrupted, jerking a thumb at Sanji. "For him."

"Eh? What are you—?" Chopper froze, his pupils glowing in realization. "Oooh. Got it."

A second later, our cook's nearest, dearest and most sacred of all wishes, a wish shared by most all of mankind, even, came true: a mermaid, an actual, honest-to-God mermaid literally dropped into his arms.

"GWAH!" SPLAT!

And a starfish splatted onto our pavilion's roof, but who cares about that.

Keimi blinked blearily for a moment, obviously having a harder time shaking off her concussion than our crew. Soon enough, though, her eyes focused enough to lock onto Sanji's face and—her gaze became dreamy!? "You saved me," she crooned, reaching out to caress his face. "How can I ever—?"

Aaaand that's as far as things got before the inevitable occurred.

SPLURT!

"GYAGH!"

"Oh, lordy," I winced sympathetically. Seriously, on this crew, you got used to seeing inordinate amounts of blood, but so rarely is it in a situation that is so… ugh. And it didn't help that the three people onboard who shared Sanji's blood type were his rival, a tyke whose blood was probably toxic with her diet, and someone who may or may not weaken Sanji by sharing blood with him.

…No, I don't keep track of everyone's blood types, but the ones who share mine stick out in my mind, especially seeing as I had a one-in-three chance of getting alcoholism, perversion, or who-the-hell-knows from them.

"Moooo?"/"Groargh?"

I snapped a glare at the sea beasts that were sniffing around inquisitively. "Beat it before our chef gets a transfusion and bakes you into surf-based gumbo."

"GRAO!"

That sent them running but good.

"And someone get her a towel already!" I ordered. "We're going to be here awhile."

"Hey, guys, how much longer—HOLY CRAP IS THAT A MERMAID?!"

"A long while," I repeated, resigned.

-o-

Cutting ahead for the sake of sanity, it thankfully didn't take long for Keimi to towel off (and repress that little incident), for Papugg to get his cartilaginous head back on straight, and for everyone on both ships to assemble around our new guests.

It did take us a fair bit to punt off the more ogle-y of the Barto-bastards, even with Gin and Ever's help.

Not that I could really blame them for that, mind you. 'Cause, well… remember how way back on Jaya I deduced that a lot of fishman racism was due to uncanny valley? Well, I can now confirm that, after getting a look at a mermaid that Father Time hadn't gotten his hands on, it worked in reverse for mermaids.

See, I'm not someone who would go all "HEL-LO, NURSE!" at a pretty girl. To be completely frank, I hadn't really understood what it was about the idea of mermaids that made them so much of a man's romance. And I wasn't about to fall head over heels for Keimi, either.

But as before, it made a lot more sense when you weren't seeing it through ink and paper. Keimi was, to be generous, above average in attractiveness and clearly not overly concerned about her looks. But, where in fishmen the tiny details made them just inhuman enough to trigger all the wrong signals, apparently in mermaids those differences triggered all the right ones. Cheekbones, jawline, skin tone, even the glimmer of her scales beautiful beyond any fish I'd seen thus far, making for an overall vision of beauty that, while not remotely justifying Sabaody, did explain a hell of a lot.

Made me wonder what the island itself would be like. Of course, that was still a long way and a heck of a lot of effort away, but hey, a guy could dream.

"Sorry about earlier…" the mermaid said, rubbing her head sheepishly… and also toweling off some the last of the blood on her. "It just felt like I had fallen right into a scene from The Little Mermaid, and I couldn't help myself."

"SO, would that make you ARIEL?" Soundbite snarked.

"Of course! All mermaids dream of being just like Ariel," Keimi sighed wistfully.

"Of course they—! Uh, wait…" the snail narrowed his eyes in confusion. "CONSIDERING THE HUMAN-MER RELATIONS, WHY THE HELL—? Say, what's the story about, exactly?"

"Oh, it's a wonderful tale of romance and adventure, and love triumphing over the barrier of land and sea!" Keimi crooned.

"But that still doesn't make—"

"I think my favorite bit was when the Sea Kings ripped the evil slave merchants to shreds!"

"…MIIIIIGHT be thinking of a different story."

"Mmph. Well, the romance issue is all on him, not you," Franky snorted, jabbing his thumb at a recovering Sanji, which prompted a round of nods from most of us and a flurry of curses from him. "Anyway, nice to meet you, but who the hell are you?" The conk Robin's autonomous arm delivered to the back of his head was ignored.

"And if you don't mind me asking, what kind of mermaid are you?" Conis inquired with innocent curiosity.

"And, just asking for a friend, how long do we need to cook you for maximum savoriness?" Su inquired not so innocently.

THWACK! "YIPE!"

An inquiry that Conis thankfully repaid with a quick swat.

"OH! I'm sorry, I completely forgot!" the mermaid exclaimed, straightening up into the closest semblance of standing she could manage. "My name is Keimi. And no, I don't mind; I'm a kissing gourami mermaid." she bowed politely, an honest grin on her face. "It's very nice to make your acquaintances!"

"Ohoho no, trust me, it's our plea—!" THWACK! "YEARGH! WATCH IT!" Barto snapped at Ever, who simply grinned and made a show of rubbing her knuckles.

"Hi, Keimi! It's nice to meet you!" our captain proclaimed enthusiastically, walking up to her and sticking out his hand. "I'm Luffy!"

The mermaid gasped in surprise. "Oh, wow, is that really your name?"

"Recognition in three, two—" Funkfreed counted down.

"Don't hold your breath," I warned.

"You've got the same name as Straw Hat Luffy!" Keimi 'deduced', eyes sparkling.

The elephant's jaw tipped open, one eye twitching and both staring unblinkingly at the mermaid.

"Actually, I am Straw Hat Luffy!" Luffy clarified, through either unwavering patience or total obliviousness.

"Really? That's so—WHAAA!?"

Remember what I said about understanding the beauty of mermaids? That does not by any means extend to when they make shocked faces that have no right to rival Eneru's yet do.

"…Soundbite," Franky grunted. "That last word in that Razor thing wouldn't happen to be 'stupidity', would it?"

"How ever did you guess?" the snail crooned.

By way of answering, the cyborg directed another question to our guest. "Hey, just wonderin', but how'd you, of all people, get eaten by a Sea King? I thought mermaids were supposed to be the fastest swimmers in the world."

"Hm?" Keimi looked over at him, her shock completely forgotten. "Oh, I was chasing after an octopus and accidentally swam into the beast's mouth! It's really more common than you'd think, this makes about 20 times that I've been eaten."

"Call it a hunch," Franky remarked in my general direction.

"But, wait…" Keimi said, also turning toward me with wide, sparkling eyes. "A talking snail… that would mean you're Jeremiah Cross and Soundbite?!"

"A pleasure to meet you, I assure you," I said, bowing with as much pomp as I could muster. "Always an honor to meet a loyal fan! Autographs are a thousand beris each." Suddenly, clouds delivered me some shade. Dark, angry clouds. "Ten thousand beris?"

THWACK!

Now I actually did twitch as Robin chopped the back of my head from a few feet away. "Five hundred."

THOCK!

"OOF! FINE, FREE!" I snarled at Vivi, rubbing my side where she'd elbowed me. "JUST STOP HITTING ME!"

TH-WAP!

I growled as I clutched Raphey's sai in my grip. "You have one chance to tell me why."

"Everyone else was doing it?" she tried. The complete unrepentance in her answer lasted long enough for me to haul her off the deck and wound up for a punt. Maybe, if I was pissed enough, I could actually hit the Red Line. Shoot for the horizon and all that! "A-A-And I wanted to remind you that seeing as we're at the Line, our hitchhiker—!?"

I paused and blinked as I considered that factoid. "Huh, good point. Go get him, would you?"

"Oh, yeah, sure—!"

THWACK!

"JACKAAAASS!" she howled as she arced to the other end of the Sunny.

I dusted off my hands and lowered my foot with a contented smirk. "Well, that was fun. Now, where were we?"

"Oh, fair maiden of the seas~!"

"Of course, how could I forget." I smoothly stepped aside, allowing the Love Hurricane to bluster by unimpeded. I was tempted to try and trip him up, but I abstained on account of not exactly being eager to get my leg ripped off by his momentum.

"To finally meet a mermaid, the fairest jewel of all the oceans, the dream of all mankind! Oh joyous day, oh joyous day!" Sanji cheered, more lovesick than I'd seen him be in weeks. He veritably blurred with excitement, and radiated hearts like an enamored rod of uranium.

Keimi leaned back slightly, eyes wide. "Uh…"

"You get used to him," Merry smoothly offered.

"She's lying," Ever countered.

Any further commentary from the peanut gallery was interrupted by Sanji melting down harder than when he'd gotten into a fight with Zoro not thirty minutes ago, directed at the heavens above. "WHO'RE THE BASTARDS THAT DARE TO COMPARE SUCH FLAWLESS APHRODITES TO THE WRETCHED COWS OF THE SEA!?"

"Those who've seen Granny Kokoro," Su snarked.

"HWEEHWEEHWEE! Man, that's just mean!" Lassoo snickered to himself. "True, but mean."

I wasn't honestly sure if he meant the insult to Franky's surrogate mother (not that he wasn't nodding in agreement, mind you) or the PTSD attack that the comment sent Sanji into.

"Oh, oh, are we asking her questions now! My turn, my turn!" I surreptitiously stepped well away from Luffy as he raised his hand, casting pointedly un-subtle glances at my more… sensible crewmates. "I'm just wondering, cause you're part fish and everything… how do—?"

"GET HIM!"

"GWAGH!" Luffy was promptly and literally choked off by Nami, Sanji, Conis, and half of the TDWS tackling him and doing their best to tie him into a pretzel.

"Uhh…" Keimi, bless her dangerously naïve heart, tilted her head in innocent confusion. "Are they playing a game?"

"Tsk tsk tsk." Brook shook his head in chastisement, somehow clicking his nonexistent tongue. "Youngsters, so very unrefined. Not a hint of manners in them! Now then!" He spun and addressed Keimi, doffing his top hat with the most proper of decorum. "If you don't mind, milady, might I…" The skeleton trailed off, giving Keimi a slow, deliberate onceover before coughing into his fist. "My apologies, I realize that what I was about to ask was out of line. Let me try again: May I borrow some mone—GRK!?" Brook suddenly choked, clawing at his neck(bones) in panic. "Can't! Breathe!"

I caught sight of Robin leaning in close to Vivi, who was scowling and strangling the air. "How are you accomplishing that when he doesn't have any lungs?"

"Don't know, don't question it and make it stop working," the princess growled back.

Keimi, meanwhile, still showed a considerable nonchalance towards our crew's madness. She blinked at Brook before smiling and reaching over her shoulder to rifle through her bag. "Oh, you need money? Sure, that's the least I can do for you!" She brought her arm back out and flashed a wad of beris!? "How much do you need?"

"What the—?!" I squawked, but before I could properly react, Barto's forcefield-arm reached past us and swiped the roll of cash from the mermaid's hands.

The captain loosed a low whistle as he thumbed through the bundle. "Holy cow, this is real! Impressive!" Barto then… stuffed the bundle in his back pocket without even missing a beat, because of course.

A roll of her eyes, and Nami promptly tossed the very same bundle back to Keimi. "I think this belongs to you," she drawled.

"Hey, this looks like my money!" Keimi exclaimed in surprise. And then she promptly flipped out. "WAIT, THIS IS MY MONEY!"

"Wha—how the hell!?" Barto yowled, patting his pockets down in panicked confusion. "My wallet's gone, too!"

"Idiot tax." Nami waved him off before turning a cocked brow on Keimi. "But still, I am curious: what's a nice girl like you doing with that much money? You're not doing anything… unsavory are you?" She leaned in with a sharp grin. "And if you are, can I get in on—AGH!"

"Down, girl," I tsked, yanking her back by her ear.

"Oh nonono, it's nothing like that, I assure you!" Keimi cut in, waving her hands in denial. "I work at a seafaring restaurant, gathering the ingredients we need. Business has been booming lately, and I've got a lot of extra cash on hand because. We've been expanding into a few different kinds of seafood, but our focus and our biggest hit is still takoyaki."

"A seafaring restaurant?" Sanji perked up, his attention thankfully much less perverse this time, though one of his eyes was still a heart. But still, small progress is progress. "Any chance I could get a look at the recipes sometime?

"Someone talking about food?" Raphey piped in, of course choosing that exact moment to rejoin us. In her flippers, she was carrying a large, upside down samurai helmet, within which was a sizeable, wriggling mass of tentacles.

Keimi perked up at the sight, reaching down to rifle through her bag again. "Oh, is that an octopus? That's great, I can show you some of our recipes right now! Just give me somewhere to cook it up and—!"

"Whoa, what!?" Raphey yelped, jerking the helmet away from the mermaid. "Cook him!? Are you out of your mind!?"

"Uhh…" Keimi paused, clearly out of her depth. "Am I… missing something?"

"I SHOULD SAY SO!" Soundbite sniffed in the snootiest tone he could muster. "'Cook him', the absolute nerve! MADAME, I WILL HAVE YOU KNOW THAT THIS FINE gentle-cephalopod is our guest! Who we fished up in our catch a few days ago, but still."

And with that little clarification, the octopus' tentacles took hold of his helmet and flipped it out of Raphey's flippers, centering it on his bulbous brow before gurgling in a particularly chastising tone at Keimi.

"O-Oh! Oh!" the mermaid recoiled, her cheeks coloring in embarrassment. "M-My mistake sir, so sorry sir, won't happen again sir! A-Ah, here!" She withdrew a slip of paper from her bag and handed it to the cephalopod. "A coupon for the esteemed marine eatery of Takoyaki—!"

"COUGHcannibalismCOUGH!" Pappug 'subtly' coughed into one of his arms.

"Eight…" Keimi lamely concluded, face paling dramatically. "Uh… we… also serve… duck eggs?"

The octopod gave the mermaid a flat glare before snatching the coupon from her hands, stuffing it away in his helmet and waddling his way to the ship's railing.

I shook my head with a weary sigh, giving the octopus an apologetic smile. "Sorry about that. Regardless of the rough ending, we hope you enjoyed your time with us and that you enjoy your time on Fishman Island, Ambassador Octarius. Give our regards to King Neptune and Shogun Octavio both!"

The glare briefly vanished, and the octopus snapped us all a salute before flipping overboard.

After a moment of silence, Pappug asked the obvious question. "…So, you wound up on good terms with the Shogun of the Surf?"

"Admiring someone who beats you instead of hating them isn't that out of the ordinary," Zoro said knowingly. "Though I still wish I'd gotten the chance to fight them. By the way…" The swordsman cocked his brow at my invertebrate. "When did you learn to speak fish, Soundbite?"

"Meh, getting there, not quite," Soundbite shrugged, though he was grinning. "BELIEVE IT OR NOT, HE'S TALKING ON HIS OWN!"

"Oh, right, I forgot to introduce you!" Keimi picked up the rasta-star and presented him, smiling brightly. "Everyone, this is my pet, Pappug. He's also my master, and a starfish!"

"Nice to meet you!" Pappug waved his arm in greeting.

"…Is anyone else just now realizing that we're really not questioning the fact that we're talking with a naturally speaking starfish right now?" Billy asked slowly.

"Not even top ten on our charts. This week," Apis noted.

"Honestly, I'm more concerned with the master aspect of their relationship," Ever drawled, giving the starfish a onceover.

"As in 'master and apprentice'," Pappug drawled, puffing himself up. "You guys are looking at the head designer of the Criminal fashion line, after all. This fine dear should be and is honored to be under my tutelage!"

Nami blinked in surprise at that. Then her eyes snapped wide in shock and she lurched—"GAH!"/"WATCH IT!"—er, make that shoved her way to the front of the crowd, her Eisen Tempo sending the unfortunates in front of her tumbling. "Wait, I know that name! Criminal is one of the major brands in the fashion world! It's sold up and down the Grand Line! Even a single piece goes for—uh…" She suddenly trailed off, glancing to and fro as her Eisen Tempo huddled around her oh that little bitch. "A-A perfectly normal and reasonable—GYEEP!"

"Noooo, please, don't stop there," Zoro grit out, his teeth set in a twitching grin as he loomed behind her, hand planted on her shoulder.

"Yesss," I hissed out in agreement, patiently tapping my finger on her other shoulder. "Do tell us just how much of our treasure, which we shed blood, sweat, and tears for, you've spent on your wardrobe."

"Ahehehe…eh…" our navigator chuckled nervously, pointedly refusing to meet our gazes. Then her mood reversed and she snapped an accusing finger at Pappug. "Hey, if you want to blame anyone, blame him! It doesn't matter how good he is, his prices are extravagant! That little boneless fleshbag's the one with all our hard-earned gold!"

Pappug had the gall to flip his sunglasses down and raise his nonexistent chin in pride. "The beautiful young witch is right! I am indeed a very sublime starfish! Wealthy, popular, influential… why, I'll even have you know that I am personally acquainted with the beautiful Mermaid Princess Shirahoshi herself!"

A few of my crewmates shot me questioning looks, and I shook my head with the blankest expression possible. None of them were surprised.

"As such!" Pappug forged on, cupping his 'chin'. "You're all probably wondering what someone as important as I is doing here on the surface, working at a lowly Takoyaki stand. Well, you see, the answer is… uh… is…" The starfish trailed off, his expression disturbed as he… looked at my shoulder? "I'm sorry, but is he supposed to be doing that?"

It was at that point that I became aware of what I can only now describe as a sparkling sound coming from my shoulder. Turning to look, I saw Soundbite grinning with demonic ecstasy. Aaand he was staring straight at Pappug with positively manic glee.

Riiiiight…

"Ugh…" I groaned, reaching up to rub my forehead. "For the sake of my sanity, I have to at least try; please don't sing the entire song?"

"NEVER!" the snail dashed my hopes with a single cackling bark. "I'VE WAITED TOO LONG FOR THIS! Oooooooh—!"

"Hold it!" Nami interrupted with a sharp snap of her fingers right in his face. "I'm going to need a little help for this."

And with that, she wrenched herself out of mine and Zoro's hands, marched over to the pavilion, and used her Tempo to wrench out a large wooden trunk marked "Zoro's Secret Stash; You touch this, I touch you!", whose lid she threw open in spite of Zoro's indignant snarl. After several moments of rummaging and clinking glass bottles, she took out a small bottle out and slammed the lid shut.

Nami held the bottle to her eye and scrutinized its faded label. "I don't know what this is, but it has three and a half out of five stars on the label so that's either really good or really bad." She cautiously took a sip. "GAH! It tastes like pistachio ice cream, cough drops, and those 'Skittles' things Soundbite had Sanji try to whip up! And not in a good way."

And it was with that particularly appetizing statement that Nami knocked the bottle back and drained it completely.

"You raging witch-bitch!" Zoro snarled, veins pulsing in his neck.

Nami's oh-so-polite response was to flash him her middle finger. Once she finished off the bottle, she tossed it overboard with a heaving sigh. "Pah! Okay! Now that I'm sufficiently fortified—and can feel sounds—please continue, Soundbite."

Merry tilted her head inquisitively. "I thought your tolerance was best defined as 'ungodly'?"

The infamous Weather Witch donned a catty smile, just filled with innocence. "Yeah, it was. And then I joined this crew and became one of the most feared pirates on the six seas."

"Most feared rookies."

Nami's grin twitched. "Rookies that burned down the World Government's front porch."

"…POINT. ANYWAY, Ooooooooh~!"

-o-

One last flute riff, and the spectacle was over. I gave Soundbite an annoyed, somewhat mad glare. "You've been planning this for a while, haven't you."

"OH, you have NO IDEA. Thought I was gonna BURST, SOMETIMES."

"Mmph. Well, even so, did you have to sing the entire damn song?"

"If he's been waiting since the St. Briss, you should just count yourself lucky that there isn't a second verse," Robin stated.

I sighed and turned back to our guests. "Alright… moving right on from this insanity… Keimi, is there anywhere you'd like us to take you, so that you can avoid the Sea Kings? You mentioned a restaurant, right?" I clamped my teeth down on the inside of my cheek. "Takoyaki 8, I think you called it?"

"Huh?" Keimi glanced at me, Luffy, Nami, Sanji, and Brook perking up at the same time. "Oh, yes! That'd be fantastic, thank you! Ah, and I could even give you a discount on our takoyaki! Ah, well, I just work there, but I'm sure my boss would be glad to give you guys a discount!"

"Or for free," Pappug cut in. "That would make more sense."

"GAH! That would make more sense!" Keimi shouted.

"Takoyaki?" Luffy parroted, his eyes turning to fried octopus delicacies.

"Free?" Nami echoed, her eyes turning to beri symbols.

Zoro, meanwhile, wasn't quite so enthusiastic. "Is your store's octopus really—" He casually caught Sanji's heel on his forearm. "—that good?"

While Keimi nodded and was about to explain, I decided that there was no way in heck I was going to be able to get through this without a damn drink. So, I casually knocked the back of my fist on Franky's gut and fished out a bottle of cola.

"Wha—hey!" the cyborg yelped, slamming his stomach shut. "I'm not your damn fridge!"

I snapped a caustic glare up at him. "No, you're our cooler, so shut it." And with that, I tilted the bottle back before he could object further. After all, I had to do something to distract myself while Keimi was speaking. So, I tuned back in…

"—and while all the extra business was really nice, it was kind of hectic for a while with just me, Pappug and Hachin," the mermaid sighed despondently. "It was just too much! For every beri we made, we were losing two more! It almost wasn't any fun anymore…"

And then Keimi's mood flipped and she beamed with pure glee.

"But that all changed when Hacchin hired Kurochin and Chewchin!"

WHAT.

I heaved, my drink suddenly shooting down the exact wrong tube as I tried to speak or shout or I don't know what damn it all!

"Cross, I have had it up to here with you wasting my cola for spit takes; if you don't swallow that, I'm force-feeding you a biscuit," Franky threatened.

"F-Fuck—grk," I gurgled, hastily forcing the cola back down the right track and shoving the bottle back in his hands. Once my airways were clear, though, I snapped a panicked look at a concerned Keimi. "Wh-What were those names again?" I demanded.

"Huh?" Keimi tilted her head innocently. "You mean Hacchin, Kurochin, and Chewchin?"

Yup. No mistake. Definitely no mistake. And seeing as Zoro, Usopp, Sanji, and Merry had all tensed up at once, snapping wide-eyed looks at me, they'd managed to put the pieces together, too.

They didn't concern me, however. What really, truly terrified me was the combination of the raging typhoon churning behind Nami, and the perfectly, terrifyingly blank expression with which she was staring at absolutely nothing.

Audibly gulping, I tentatively croaked, "Y-You wouldn't happen to be talking about a ray fishman named Kuroobi and a… um… garfish, I think, named Chew?"

The whole time, I was silently pleading for her to say no. To please, please-please-please refute me, even if she was lying—!

"Garfish? No, Chew is a smelt-whiting fishman," Pappug corrected.

FUCK.

"So, you know them?" Keimi perked up.

Okay, okay, this was bad, this was bad, but maybe, just maybe I could still salvage it, with careful planning, the right combination of words—!

A hand crushed my shoulder. "And you're not asking about the octopus?" Zoro said dangerously.

I froze, and then slowly looked at Zoro with a bemused frown. "My mind's a blank," I admitted.

My terror wasn't forgotten for long, however, thanks to my other shoulder getting grabbed and the rest of me getting hauled off almost faster than my feet could follow.

"We need a minute," Nami informed Keimi, her voice nice and even.

"Um… o… kay?" Keimi trailed off. Apparently, even a goldfish-brain like her could read the subtext.

I shivered at that little unspoken ultimatum, but nevertheless followed Nami with minimal complaint as she led me, Billy, and the rest of the East Blue crew around the side of the pavilion. Once there, Merry rapped on one of the pavilion's pillars and brought up the side wall, blocking Keimi and Pappug from view, which Soundbite backed with his own impenetrable wall of blurred noise.

Once we were nice and private, Nami slowly looked at me. "Talk," she calmly ordered.

Well, I wasn't one to pass up that invitation… for better or for worse. "Okay, okay," I jabbered frantically. "I know you're pissed, and you have every right to be, but I can explain—!"

Any further explanation was aborted on account of the fist that was suddenly two inches from my face!

"Thanks…" I breathed at Zoro, who was holding Nami back by the wrist. Behind her, I could also see Luffy holding her Clima-Tact, thank God.

"Thank me by explaining instead of saying you will," the swordsman shot back, before turning his eyes to Nami. "You done?"

She nodded mutely.

"Good."

"In all fairness, I think—er, know I deserved that," I shamelessly admitted. "And only that, so I swear to you upfront, I only knew that Hach—tchan was free and I had nothing to do with it."

Nami's already icy frown tightened, now on the verge of an outright scowl. "Talk fast, I'm already figuring out how to slip this."

So I did just that. "Alright, to start, I realize that your sentiments on Hach-tchan and all fishmen are justifiably tainted, but you need to acknowledge that he's a good guy. He probably didn't even want to go through with the Arlong Empire plan, he only did it because the other three were his closest friends, his brothers! His equivalent of me, of Zoro, of Luffy! Hell, his childhood dream was to open a takoyaki stand with—!" I froze in realization, and going by the rainbow of emotions that flashed across Nami's face, she'd made the same leap I did.

Acting fast to forestall the building (metaphorical) hurricane, I ducked my head around the pavilion and waved down Keimi's attention. And I assure you, I did not miss the fact that Nami was glaring holes in the back of my skull the entire time. "Ah, say, you two wouldn't happen to know where a fishman by the name of Arlong is, would you?"

Surprisingly enough, the gourami's expression grew ashen and sprouted an ugly grimace. "Hopefully still rotting in the jail Hachi said he was sent to, if there's any real justice in the world. I actually met him once, you know? When I was younger. Went to the Fishman District on a dare, heard him speaking. The things he said…" She shivered in revulsion. "He… He was a very bad person, and I'm happy he's locked away."

I nodded my thanks and turned back. Nami was visibly more relaxed, but her glare's intensity had barely diminished.

"OK, from the top," I repeated, unwilling to try to fit my other foot down my throat. "I knew about Hatchan; in the story, he was the only one who escaped from the gaol-ship that was carrying Arlong and his men. He went through some convoluted undersea adventure that ended with him quitting piracy and living out his old dream of opening a floating Takoyaki stand."

"And you didn't warn us about that, why?" Nami asked quietly.

I grimaced, and chose my next words very carefully. "Because there was nothing to warn about, because that is all he has been doing. In the story, we only met him because he was captured trying to save Keimi and Pappug from being kidnapped. He was locked up and begging to be set free to help, and… you were surprisingly okay with it. I think the way you put it was that he was…" I oh so carefully cracked open an eye. "Harmless?"

Nami's expression was unreadable for several seconds. Finally, she slipped her arm free of our swordsman and sighed in defeat. "…He's probably the only one who never tried to hurt me without Arlong's orders, and his antics cheered me up sometimes," she muttered absently before looking at me again. "If things happened like that, I can imagine… tolerating him. But if you're going to tell me that I let bygones be bygones just like that—"

"No-hoho-hooo, it pretty much was just tolerating him," I quickly clarified. "You only really forgave him and started considering him a friend after he took a bullet for us. Literally."

Nami's head snapped up, her eyes wide, and the rest of the East Bluers seemed surprised as well. But that lasted for all of a few seconds before the icy grimace returned. "I guess I can imagine that…" Aaaand there was her hand snapping into a fist and the snarl asking for blood. "But Kuroobi and Chew? They weren't as bad as Arlong, no one ever could have been, but I wouldn't consider saving them."

"Hey, neither would I, Kuroobi was a bastard and Chew a sadist! I'm as shocked, shocked as you are!" I protested. "The way I saw it, Hachi was the only one who got away. And there's no way that I could have changed that, I was either back in my world or stranded on that island until after that went down."

"We've been over this, Cross," Sanji grit out, a factory's worth of smoke chuffing from his mouth. "If something goes differently than what you saw, it's automatically your fault."

I frowned and, for lack of any other options, ducked around the pavilion again. "How did those two start working with you?" I called out to Keimi.

"Kurochin and Chewchin?" she asked, bless her kindly heart. "Oh, that was a couple of months ago. After you started the SBS, business boomed for us; the Davy Back Fight alone had us struggling to keep up with all the orders, but after Enies Lobby, Hacchin decided that we needed more employees, and since Kurochin and Chewchin shared his dream of running a Takoyaki stand, he called Boss Jinbe and asked him to release them to his custody."

"Boss Jinbe dropped them off himself," Pappug continued. "I still remember how furious he looked; he told them that he was letting them all off with a warning, and if he heard a whisper of trouble, he'd have them back in prison before they could say Neptune. I'll admit that in the early days, Hachi had to hold their paroles over their heads, but they love the job enough that there aren't any more problems. Sure, they do tend to provoke fights with humans, but from the grins those humans had when the fists started flying, they were looking for fights just for the hell of it, sooo…"

I sloooowly came back around, expression pointedly blank as I worked out that chain of events. "Okay. So maybe, maybe it was my fault. Slightly. Tangentially." I was silent for a second before knocking my forehead on the wall. "Blame me if you will, but I will not go silently into that good night."

With that, we lapsed into a tense silence blanketed by the Gastro-Scramble. All eyes were on Nami, who was slowly caressing her heavily tattooed left arm. Billy stood beside her, a wing resting over her shoulders. And slowly, the tension bled out of her body.

"…the scared little thief girl that was helpless against those fishmen is dead and gone," Nami said at last, her tone quiet but proud. "I'm strong enough now to face my past. And if they try anything, they're mine."

"Works for me," I nodded thankfully, both for her confidence and the sanctity of my body. "So, if that's everything—?"

"Not so fast, Cross."

I groaned and dragged a hand down my face. "Because of course not." I glanced out the corner of my eye at our chef. "What, Sanji?"

"One other thing I need you to clear up for us first,," Sanji replied, arms crossed and a scowl on his face. "Keimi just mentioned that Jinbe let those two loose. And as I'm sure you of all people remember, Yosaku told us about him way back when; about how a fishman became a Warlord in exchange for releasing—"

"Jinbe 'released' jack squat," I snapped. "He sprung Arlong from Impel Down when he became a Warlord, yes, but entirely because they were crewmates on the Sun Pirates and because they were once brothers in arms, that's it. Hell, when Arlong started hinting at what he was going to do, Jinbe thrashed his ass but good. You wanna know why Arlong tolerated Nezumi? It wasn't because he was worried about the Marines, it was because if Jinbe heard one word about Cocoyashi, the Arlong Empire would have crumbled like a sandcastle in the face of Jinbe's wrath."

"You're sure?" Nami asked.

"I guarantee that when we meet Jinbe, be it today or… later, the first thing he will do upon recognizing you is fall on his knees and beg your forgiveness, not just for himself but for fishmen as a whole. For not killing Arlong when the saw-toothed bastard gave him the chance. That is the kind of fishman he is. And no that's not an opening for you to offer to filet him," I added, also directing a scathing glare at Sanji, who'd been looking just a tad too thoughtful for my liking.

The cook snorted and rolled his eyes, but I could tell he'd done as I asked and dropped his ill-conceived notion.

"Alright, so does anyone else have any chinks they want to poke? With full knowledge that I have every intention to—" I held my hand out and strangled Funkfreed's grip when he dropped into my palm. "—poke back?"

Nobody had anything to say. Imagine that.

"Good." I marched back around the pavilion, signalling that the conversation was over and allowing everyone to disperse, and then promptly conglomerate back around Keimi.

All wasn't as we'd left it, however, as Keimi was facing away from us, apparently speaking into her hand. She turned back around at the sound and I saw she was holding a Baby Transponder Snail with a star-spangled shell. A snail that she'd just put back to sleep and slipped back under Pappug's rasta hat.

"Is everything alright?" she asked, clutching her hands in concern.

"Don't worry about it," Vivi said before anyone else could open their mouths and let out trouble. She then glanced at the starfish. "Did you need to call someone?"

"Hm? Oh! No no," Keimi waved her off, though she looked concerned and was trying to hide it. Poorly. "I just called Chewchin to say that I'm on my way back and bringing some guests. He usually handles to-go orders…" She nervously bit her thumb. "Though, for whatever reason, he did sound a little woozy."

"Puwe cuwiosity, but did you mention who yoah gueshts wewe?" Carue asked dryly, casting a look at the rest of our crew.

"Naaah, I suggested we don't," Pappug answered. "I thought it would make a cool surprise!"

Now that left me and a few others more than a little confused.

Ultimately, Sanji just waved his hand dismissively. "Eh, probably just a long day and a few shitty customers. Happened all the time at the Baratie."

Most everyone else murmured agreement, but… mmph, I don't know, something about that explanation didn't quite sit right with me.

"Anyway…" With that, he went back into a Cat 3 Hurricane and dropped into a bow. "If you would be so kind as to lead the way, Keimi dearest~! It will be our honor to follow you every step of the way! Tail-turn of the way!"

"Heheheh, yeah, honor. Hehahaha—!" THWACK! "GAH!" Barto yelped before snarling at his snickering MC. "YA GET TWO A DAY, EVER! TWO!"

"I shall use them wisely and like clockwork, sir!"

"Gah—!"

"Is everything alright?" Keimi wondered.

"C'mon, Keimi, let's get out of here," Pappug sighed as he plodded towards the railing before any of us could respond.

"Hey, hold it a second, how about some directions to this place before you beat it? We're stuck here until she's done," Valentine cut in, jabbing her thumb at the very deeply engrossed Goldenweek.

"And don't worry about any problems with the Log Pose, just give me some seamarks visible from the sky and I can relay them," Apis added, a notepad ready.

"Actually, I'd also like a word," Ever added. "Do you have any catalogs on hand? And do you deliver?"

"Mmm… fine, but then we're gone," Pappug sighed in defeat. "Whatever their problems are, I'd bet my top-arm that if we stay here even one second longer, we'll be infected by their crazy."

"Don't those things grow back anyway, PATTY?" Soundbite snidely queried.

Pappug's response was to shoot back a cocky smirk. "Yeah, actually, they do! Bet your guy could have used that a while back, huh?"

"WHAT!? YOU LITTLE—!" Soundbite roared, before a snort ruined the image. "Alright, I'll admit, that was actually a pretty good burn, RIGHT CRO—WHU-OH." That was probably due to the thoughtful look I had on my face. "THAT LOOK NEVER MEANS ANYTHING GOOD. WHAT'S CAUGHT IN YOUR BRAINPAN?"

I pursed my lips as I mulled events over. "Something doesn't make sense…"

Nami let out an incredulous tsk. "You mean besides the fact that two of my mother's unrepentant killers are free, along with a third who's on the fence?"

I ignored the crack so as to not lose my train of thought. "Remember how I said we originally ran into Hachi again after he was captured?"

Soundbite cocked an eyestalk. "Yeah, why? We gonna arrive to an empty TAKOYAKI STAND OR SOMETHING?"

I shook my head. "No, you don't get it: that call she made, that was supposed to be the ransom call. And Chew would have said something if anything had happened to Hachi, so…"

"Mmm…" Soundbite crossed his eyestalks in thought. "MMMAYBE WE GOT HERE EARLY? AND NOW WE'RE gonna ARRIVE TO AN EMPTY STAND?"

"Mmrph." That made sense… "Except… the Macros aren't exactly what you'd call powerhouses." My frown evolved into a scowl as that trio of brainless faces flashed through my head. "In fact, they're cowardly weaklings. They had to hire a gang to kidnap Hachi for them because they couldn't do it themselves. And that was Hachi alone. Even with superior numbers, I just can't see all three of Arlong's lieutenants getting taken all at once. Especially not with Chew's firepower and Kuroobi being a… what, black belt in fishman karate?"

"Yodan, specifically," Nami clarified, jaw clenched. "And with the way he trains, he's probably even higher by now."

"My point being," I continued before she could get started. "He and Chew are almost as strong as Hachi, each. And unlike Hachi, they don't have any qualms about bashing heads in instead of just bashing heads. They wouldn't get taken easily."

"And they wouldn't be taken alone either," Sanji chipped in. "If Takoyaki 8's as famous as those two say it is, then in waters as rough as these, any customers present would be more likely to help their favorite cooks, rather than lose their food."

"Geez, the more we talk about this, the stupider and stupider it sounds like attacking Takoyaki 8 is!" Usopp muttered incredulously. "Why would they even do it?!"

"Oh, that's an easy one: Keimi." I jabbed my thumb over my shoulder at our guest. "See, the thing about the Macro Pirates is that besides being unrepentantly stupid, they're unrepentantly evil. And by that, I mean slave traders. Fishman slave traders."

It took Nami a second, but when it hit, she was the first of the crew to pick her dropped jaw off the floor. "…I may be remembering wrong, Cross, but I have vivid memories of Arlong and his crew going on drunken ragers about how every fishman alive hates slavery with a bloody passion."

"Yeah, well, that makes the Macros race traitors," I growled in disgust. "And believe me, with what I know about their pasts, their actions are even more despicable than you can imagine. Insulting, too." I frowned in thought. "Now that I think about it, I really should get a branding iron ready for when we run into them, there's something on their skins they should not be wearing anymore—"

"Let's put a pin in that," Merry hastily interrupted. "You were making a point?"

"Uh, right, motive, and as I said, it's Keimi." I shook my head sadly. "As you'll recall, the slave trade does exist, and it's actually centered in these waters. It's in the flesh-market that human fantasies take a turn for the worst. And tragically, there's no more valuable fantasy out there than that of the mermaid. It's disgusting, but the fact is that Keimi's worth a literal king's ransom. And when that much money's on the table?"

"People do disgustingly stupid things a stupid number of times, right, right," Nami sighed.

I nodded in solemn agreement. "Eeyup. Stupid like attacking Takoyaki 8 over and over again, no matter how many times Hachi beats them up and throws them back to the Sea Kings…" I paused as a thought occurred to me. "Although… with Kuroobi and Chew present, they wouldn't get off so easy anymore, and they'd know that, so they'd stop…"

I cupped my chin as my train of thought accelerated. "Or at least, they'd stop attacking the stand, but they wouldn't give up on Keimi. Instead they'd keep an eye on her at a distance, follow her, waiting for the perfect moment when she was most vulnerable. And for a mermaid, that means when she's out of the—"

Close to the entire crew stiffened as realization washed over us.

"Oh, sunnova KEIMI WAIT!" I howled in panic, spinning around and reaching for the mermaid.

"Huh?" Keimi blinked and looked our way—

SPLASH!

"KYAH!"

—just as a blur shot out of the waters and snatched Keimi clean off the deck before anyone could react.

It was just so fast; she was there one second, and the next we were left gaping dumbly at where she'd been just a second earlier.

Vivi was the first of us to find her words… or at least some of them. "W-What just—!?"

That got everyone else's brains working.

"KEIMI!" Pappug wailed in mortal terror.

"GUARDS! AFTER THEM!" Nami snapped.

"RIGHT! MOVE IT!" Boss barked, leading the dugongs straight over the edge.

I reached after the dugongs, trying to stop them… "No, wait—!"

SPLASH!

Aaand failing. "Don't," I groaned, letting my arm drop in defeat.

Pappug whirled around, face contorted into a tear-streaked snarl. "Why would you tell them to stop, you heartless—?!"

"Because there's no point," I groaned, pinching the bridge of my nose in an attempt to ward off the battering ram trying to punch a hole in my skull. "That was a Flying Fish, they're the second-fastest things under the sea. Boss and the TDWS are strong, no doubts about that, but…"

The dugongs chose that point to crawl back onto the deck, and I couldn't help but wince as I took in their state. Their disheveled, urchin-covered state.

"You didn't stand a chance in hell, did you?" I summarized sympathetically.

Mikey stuck his tongue out at me. Or he just stuck his tongue out so he could try and yank off the hermit crab that had latched onto it, either or.

Donny, meanwhile, sagged in place with a tortured groan. "So fast. They left us in their bubbles…"

"I almost had them," Boss snarled as he yanked a particularly clingy urchin from the tip of his cigar. "But then they took a right turn through a reef and left me fighting off a bastard of a barracuda!"

"Well, we're not just letting them take her!" Luffy swore, grinding his fist into his palm. "Cross, where are they taking her?"

"Mmrph," I grunted, wracking my brain for all the details on this mess I would need. "Well, the bastards who use those things, the Flying Fish Riders, have a floating base near here, but!" I cut the crew off before they could leap into action. "Assuming they're working for the Macros, they've got no reason to keep her there. We can double back and kick their teeth in later, but right now, we need to head for the belly of the beast. Pappug, which way to—?"

"Puru puru puru puru! Puru puru puru puru!"

The sudden ringing of Pappug's rasta cap did a good job keeping him from answering, which he responded to by whipping out his baby snail and answering with an irate snarl. "Hachi, this is really not the time—!"

"And this isn't Hachi, so shut the hell up!"

Pappug's face contorted in shock and rage as the snail's face turned to look at us, one eye wide with hate.

"'Bout time. I've been waiting for you chumps for a while now, even set up base here 'cuz I knew that you'd show up eventually… and whaddaya know, my boys go out for a nice and easy dash-and-snatch, and they tell me that the mark's on your tub of all places. Ain't life just funny like that…" The eye flashed with the vilest of malevolence. "Straw Hats."

Never one to drop the ball on matters like this, Luffy grabbed the snail. "Give us Keimi back right now and we'll kick your ass!"

"Uh, Luffy—?" Usopp raised a finger uncertainly.

"If you don't," our captain continued in a low growl. "I'll feed you to the bananagators Boss knows."

That shut us all up right quick. Heck, I think even Duval was a bit taken aback!

Leo actually summarized it best in two words: "Well, shit."

Sadly, apparently not even super serious Luffy could cow stupidity for long, as a second later Duval was right back to scowling and spitting. "Yeah, well, tough nuts. I'm not afraid of you and I'm not letting your piece of tail go without a fight, so you're just gonna have to come and get her."

"You do realize that deliberately PROVOKING US IS both more dangerous than AND MESSIER THAN poking a sleeping dragon in the mouth, RIGHT?" Soundbite summarized incredulously.

"Psh, what do I sound like to you, an idiot?" Duval scoffed. "'Course I know that, ain't no one in the world who don't by this point, and I don't doubt that this whole base o' mine is gonna be ruins in a couple of hours."

Several of the crew blinked in confusion.

"But see, thing is?" the gang-leader continued. "One o' you already ruined my life an' forced me into this business to start with, so I'm going all-in to get my revenge. I never wanted to do this, but considerin' what happened the last times someone went after one o' yours, what choice have I got?! Either way, I don't give a damn if you punt me straight to hell, so long as I take the bastard with me!"

Su slowly cocked an eyebrow and leaned in close to Soundbite. "Call me crazy, but am I the only one who's finding this guy's moxie pretty damn respectable?" she muttered.

"I'm sorry to say, but I see where you're coming from," Conis hesitantly agreed.

"But that still leaves a big fat question!" Usopp blurted out. "If you had a problem with one of us that you wanted to fight out, why kidnap Keimi to piss us all off!?"

I glanced aside, wisely stowing away my opinion that Duval most likely hadn't thought of it until just now.

"Who the hell says that wasn't the plan the entire time?"

Especially wise considering Duval's response!

A resounding "WHAT?!" echoed across the Sunny's deck and from out of Pappug's snail, courtesy of three incredulous voices.

"Yeah, you heard me," Duval stated. "The mermaid is just makin' sure that you guys don't leave me high and dry here. You show up and give me the fight I want, you'll get her back."

"HEY, HANG ON A SECOND!" the snail yelped in panic, its teeth suddenly turning into a miniature, panicked beartrap. "The hell are you talking about, this wasn't part of our deal, you—!"

The cathartic schadenfreude the meaty THWACK that blasted over the connection produced probably would have powered everything on the Sunny that needed powering. For a week.

"I WASN'T PLANNING ON HANDING HER OVER TO YOU SCHLEPS EVEN IF THE STRAW HATS WEREN'T INVOLVED!" Duval roared, pure fury coating his voice. "The Flying Fish Riders are a kidnapping gang only! We do not fucking sell slaves! I was just gonna use her to get a neat sum out of Takoyaki 8 once I kicked you jerks to the curb… but now there's an even better prize on the line! THE HEAD OF THE MAN WHO RUINED MY LIFE! SO! You Straw Hats want her?" The snail's eye bulged to almost cartoonish, vein-popping proportions. "Come and get her!"

And with that, the line disconnected.

For a few seconds, nobody spoke. Then Luffy turned to me, his silent question clear in his gaze. After a moment of thought, I responded thusly:

"This… is a bit different from what I expected, but…" I shrugged. "I'd call it a good change if it gets Keimi out of danger. As for the threat level…" I waved my hand side-to-side. "Duval's a jerk, at the moment, but he's still better than the average hoodlum. Which is to say he's more polite than Barto—"

"OI!"

"—but right now he's royally pissed at us, so he's not being nice. Honestly, I'd say that once this duel goes down, he'll honor his deal and let Keimi go."

"So, they're going to be our friends?" Luffy asked. He pouted in response to the incredulous looks he got. "Hey, it's not that hard to figure out! We've never fought someone who wasn't a total bastard who didn't become our friend, right?"

"That's not—!" Nami started to protest.

"Wiper, Jonathan, Perona," Conis rattled off.

"Smoker, Tashigi, Hina, T-Bone, CP9," Merry added.

"Cough-Hachi-cough," I coughed into my fist.

"Aokiji."

Aaand Robin's comment stopped that momentum dead.

"Never," I outright snarled, hands clenching at my side.

"Guess it only counts if we actually win," Luffy grumbled.

"EXCUSE ME!" Pappug shouted. "Can we save whatever you're talking about for after we've rescued Keimi?! We need to get to their base!"

Puru puru puru—KA-LICK!

"WHAT!?" Pappug yowled, slamming his snail's connection open.

"Yeah, sorry to ruin whatever dramatic mood you all mighta had goin', but I'm guessing you guys don't know how to get to my base?"

"Whaaat, in the middle of the Grand Line where compasses don't work and we don't have a compass-beak bird on hand?" I deadpanned. "Nooo, what ever could have given you that idea?"

The other line inhaled and then exhaled in a clear attempt to keep his temper.

"You're lucky you're funny, you little—alright, I just had one of my guys drop off a custom Eternal Pose in the reef where we lost ya. Find it and then get your asses over here, fast. KA-LICK!"

Boss glanced at his students. "Alright, who's got the least crossed vision."

Donny stuck his flipper up. "I'm only seeing one-and-a-half instead of double."

"Good enough. Find the compass."

"Aye sir!" the purple bandana wearer saluted before leaping off the edge.

Well, there was really only one thing to do now.

"Sanji," I said.

"Yeah?" the chef asked.

"Start kindling; 'Iron Mask' Duval is all yours."

Sanji stiffened, smoke already wafting from his form.

-o-

"I can see it! Another five or ten minutes and we'll be there!" Usopp called from atop the crow's nest.

"Got it!" Luffy raised his thumb at the sniper. Then he looked over at Sanji, who'd been throwing practice kicks for the past hour. "You feeling ready, Sanji?"

"GRAH!"

CRACK!

Luffy casually ducked under the ballistic training dummy head Sanji had inadvertently launched at him. Our captain blinked at the destruction our cook was unleashing before grinning and raising another thumbs up. "Yeah, Sanji's doing just fine!"

"Mm, nah, no he's not," Zoro grunted dismissively, casually unsheathing Kitetsu. "Here, I'll help him get up to snuff."

And that was my cue to GTFO before the sparks really started to fly. So, I turned my back on the raging blitz that erupted between the terrible twosome and made my way around to the quarterdeck. Honestly, right now I wasn't in my happiest of states so I just wanted to find somewhere nice and secluded so I could be alone for a—

My eye twitched as a contemplative sigh wafted from around the corner, exactly where I was headed. Yeah, now that I think about it, my plan to try and get some alone-time at the Sunny's patented 'Alone Time Spot' might have a flaw or two in its conception.

Well, it wasn't too late, I could always turn around, find some place below decks, fester in my—

"HEY, ARE YOU GUYS FIGHTING? GANGWAY! FULL-SHELL STYLE—!"

Then again, misery (or other such melancholy emotions) does so love company.

As such, I walked around the corner, and winced at who it was leaning on the railing and gazing out at the horizon. Well, I already saw them, sooo…

I leaned next to them with a hearty sigh all my own, not even getting a glance. "So," I started, "You're down in the dumps too?"

"Mm-hm," Nami nodded, her Eisen halo flickering to and fro. "Care to share?"

"Meh, you first."

"Nah, you go right ahead."

"No no—"

"For the love of the Great Mother Snail in the sky that I just made up, EITHER GAG ME, KISS, or one of you start already!" Soundbite demanded.

"Well, in all fairness," I began. "My concerns are a bit selfish: if we're not raining unholy destruction down on the Flying Fish Riders, then I'm not going to be able to say Number Three on my bucket list of lines I absolutely want to say before I die."

"…Wow, you were right, that is selfish," Nami declared, her expression as flat as her tone.

"Heh," I snickered before nodding sympathetically. "Anyway, I'm guessing you're thinking about Hachi?"

"Oh, no, not at all," Nami immediately denied. "I'm repressing that can of worms until the last possible moment."

"Unhealthy, but I have no room to complain," I shrugged. "Go on, what are you thinking about?"

The witch's expression twisted into robotic neutrality. "The fact we're going up against a bunch of slavers that vastly outnumber us and rule the sky and seas."

I waited, and upon a lack of elaboration, I acted on the assumption that she never expected to say that sentence in her life.

"So, you've come to terms with the fact we're all mad?" I needled, a devilish grin on my face.

"No, I did that a long time ago," she waved me off indifferently. "This time… I think I'm coming to terms with the fact that I'm… actually pretty badass?"

"Huh?"

Nami looked at me with a dead serious expression. "Cross, the first thing that ran through my head when I heard we were going up against a gang was 'I hope I can actually get my hands on some before the others take them all down'. And even before that…" She started to count down on her fingers. "First I stood against Fleet Admiral Sengoku on my own terms, then I withstood the attack of a Warlord, and then I went up against a pirate on the same caliber as Gol D. Roger, all without missing a beat."

She turned and stared out at the horizon with a wide-eyed gaze that I now recognized as one of numb surprise. "I… I honestly think I'm finally starting to accept that I'm not normal anymore. I'm the second mate of the Straw Hat Pirates, one of the Thirteen Supernovas, and I'm… actually pretty powerful. And, in the end… I actually think I'm alright with that."

I stood up straighter, surprise written all over my face. "Really now? What, no freaking out about not being a 'normal, sane person' anymore?"

Nami scoffed. "If I were normal, we'd have sunk at Reverse Mountain, and if I was ever sane, this ocean's wrung it out of me." With a rueful chuckle, she shook her head. "But still… I think the real deciding factor of it all… was back on Thriller Bark with Kuma. Because if I was still the person I was when we entered the Line…"

She smiled endearingly at me and placed a hand on my shoulder. "Then I wouldn't have been able to stand up. At the least, Zoro would be dead and at the worst…" Nami shook her head. "So no. No, I'm not normal anymore."

Nami stood up and stamped the butt of her Clima-Tact in the deck, her Eisen Tempo billowing out. "I'm a badass, a mon—…no." She shook her head and donned a proud smirk. "I'm a demon, just like you. And I'm alright with that, because demons…" She turned to gaze out over the horizon, dreamy wistfulness in her eyes. "They're strong enough to protect their friends."

"…Damn straight, Weather Witch," I smiled, turning to gaze alongside her. "Damn straight."

A comfortable silence fell between us, lasting a few minutes until we made our way back to the main deck, where the rest of the crew waited, battle-ready. As we came within firing range of the Flying Fish Riders' base, the riders themselves were plainly obvious, their mounts visible around the edges of the island and ready to duck down or soar up at a moment's notice. And as we drew nearer, Duval himself emerged on his loyal buffalo, iron mask and all.

"Go, Sanji," Luffy calmly ordered.

"Gladly," Sanji declared, taking a running start and then leaping off the edge of the Sunny, spinning through the air before landing on the edge of the base.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the TDWS holding up scorecards.

"Where's Keimi?"

"Right over there," Duval grunted, jerking his helmet at the hanging cage in which a bundled form was propped up against the bars.

"Actually, she's in the THIRD HUT TO the right," Soundbite murmured in my ear. "BUT I THINK THEY'RE ON THE UP-AND-UP, THE MACROS ARE ALL HOGTIED TOO; it's just insurance. Kudos to them for the effort, though, METRONOME IN A DUMMY AND DECENT SOUNDPROOFING AND EVERYTHING."

"Mrr, yeah…" I cocked my head in acknowledgement. "Makes sense. Duval's an idiot, believe me, but one thing he's not is stupid…" I slowly hung my head in despair. "Which, actually, describes a disturbing number of people in my life, oy vey…"

Down on the pier, Sanji lit his cigarette and graced Duval with a glower that was noticeably less heated than before. "So, you do have some honor, then," he said. "Alright, one last question before we get to the fighting: why the hell do you want my head so badly?! Look, if I kicked your ass back on Baratie, I'm sorry, but you probably had it—"

"You… don't remember?"

Sanji blinked. "Er, no? Should I?"

A deep, mildly hysterical chuckle, much akin to powdered glass, wafted out of the mask. "Oh, I'm going to enjoy this, Black Leg. You'll scream so hard your mouth splits before you die."

Snorting, Sanji crossed one arm behind his back and used the other to beckon Duval forward. "Yeah yeah, nothing I haven't heard before. Let's get this over with."

"Yes, let's," Duval growled, holding up what looked to be a remote trigger of some kind.

Sanji, recognizing it for what it was, dashed forward. Of course, there was no way possible that he was fast enough to stop a button press, and when several hole-studded cylinders popped up on the sides of the pier he was already changing direction. With a whirr and a click, metal darts shot out of their launchers, Sanji ducking, weaving, and leaping around them. And a good thing, too, because hissing smoke rose wherever they struck.

"Poison," Sanji grunted as he landed, before leaping forward under a barrage of harpoons that Duval had just launched.

"Right you are, Black Leg!" Duval roared. "And you won't—"

"Hey, I remember that smell. He's using that Scorpion poison stuff Crocodile used," Luffy noted from the Sunny.

"Oh, good, I should have some antidote left…" Chopper sighed in relief.

"Tarnation!"

"Concasse!"

Anything else Duval might have said was lost when Sanji's heel nearly consummated a date with his face, instead slamming into his harpoon launcher. Impressively, the thing did not break, though it did acquire a prominent dent.

Landing on Duval's mount's head, Sanji launched a barrage of kicks. Impressively, Duval blocked or ducked under a majority of them.

"Hurk!"

Less impressively, that still left several to hit him, and they all landed in his gut.

At this pained grunt from its master, the buffalo brayed and shook its head. Footing lost, Sanji flipped off the animal and right onto a trap door that opened the moment he touched it.

"Sky Walk!" Sanji barked, pushing off onto solid ground.

"Good job, Motobaro. Now, run him down!"

Snorting, the big black buffalo Duval was riding pawed at the ground and then charged Sanji. Charged him at speed of ten miles an hour, or thereabouts. Sanji rolled his eyes.

"Really? Oh, well. Poitrine—!"

"Not so fast!"

Eyes widening, Sanji jumped back from another spread of harpoons—just as two more launchers popped up, aiming right at him.

"Hahaha!" Duval cackled. "Midair, no way to run!"

"You think so?" Sanji wryly replied. "Aperitif!"

Razor air lashed out, neatly decapitating one of the launchers. The other survived long enough to fire its darts, but without its brother Sanji twisted in midair, feet rising up in the perfect position to kick the first harpoon of the latest salvo into the rest of them.

Appreciative ohs and ahs rose from the Sunny. Duval was less appreciative, judging from the audible grinding of his teeth.

"So, what else can you do?" Sanji asked.

One remote trigger was discarded, and another took its place.

KABOOM!

An explosion engulfed the part of the pier Sanji was standing on, spraying shattered wood every which way. The cook, though, was well above the blast, soaring into the air. With a cry of "Sky Walk!", he shot down, reaching Duval before he could react, and landing a heavy kick on the man's helmet.

The sound of a ringing bell filled the base. Most notably, though, his helmet went flying.

"Fine!" Duval barked. "Take… Take a good look at my scarred face!"

The helmet hitting the planking echoed over the entire base, audible mostly due to the complete and utter silence that had descended.

"I've waited for this day… In order to send you to hell, I set out to sea! But finding you has been a problem, because the face on the wanted poster is different from the face of the person himself!"

Clearly, Duval was winding up for a pretty impressive rant. I almost wish I could have heard it.

"PFFFHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAA!"/"HOOHOOHOOHEEHEEHEEHAHAHA!"

Unfortunately for him, I couldn't be made to give half a fuck on account of how I was absolutely, positively busting my gut at the sight of DUVAL'S FRICKIN' BRILLIANT FACE, PFHAHAHAHA!

I'M SORRY, BUT EVEN TO THIS DAY I CAN'T THINK OF THAT WONDERFUL, WONDERFUL MOMENT WITHOUT CRACKING UP! PFFHAHAHA! IT WAS ALL JUST SO BRILLIANT!

S-Seriously, seriously, you know how up until now I've been giving Oda-sensei a hard time about how his art can't match up to reality? Well, in this case, he got it exactly right! Down to the last detail, Duval's face looked like… like—PFFHAHAHA! OH MY GOD HE JUST LOOKED SO! FREAKIN' STUPID! PFFHAHAHAAAA!

But ah, ah, before you judge me too harshly for laughing at another man's… unfortunate lot in life… let me claim thusly in my defence:

"MWAHAHAHAAA!"

I was so not the only one howling like a maniac.

Seriously, at least I was standing up. Merry had collapsed, she was laughing her ass off so hard. And it wasn't just her!

"YOHOHO! YOHOHO!"

Brook was busy rolling on the deck, pounding his bony knuckles on the grass. "M-My gut—! No, my sides—! Can't breathe—! Oh for the love I'm laughing too hard to think of a good skull joke! YOHOHO!"

"HAHAHA!" Boss was wheezing like a chimney, leaning against the railing for support. "A-A duel to the death for honor is a Man's Romance… " He threw his head back, cackling like a Romanian vampire. "BUT THIS IS DEFINITELY A MAN'S NIGHTMARE RIGHT HERE! HAHAHA!"

"GO, BO—AHAHA!" the cackling pile of blubber and shells that was once our ship's guard howled.

"Wow…" Conis covered her mouth in awe. "They look just like each other!"

"Like two peas in a pod," Zoro calmly agreed.

"Ohh, hon—ey?" Su cut herself off mid-word, glancing off to the side with narrow(er) eyes before hopping off our gunner's shoulder. "Chopper, can I see you for a second?"

"Huh?" The reindeer looked up from… whatever madness he'd been scribbling in his notebook before shrugging and following the fox to who-knows-where.

"Must not laugh, must not laugh, laughing will make daddy oh so cross and start a war!" Vivi repeated to herself, teeth clamped on her thumb's knuckle with almost religious fervor.

"Exshept thish time you won't shtawt a waw, wemembah?"

"…oh, right. HAHAHA! I'M SO SORRY, SANJI, BUT-BUT-BAHAHAHA!"

"-(๑ ‿ #)ᕗ" Gif's eyes flashed gleefully, searing the scene into her memory.

From Sanji's expression, he so wanted to cuss us all out. But given that a handful of the ladies on the crew were laughing just as hard…

"I am conflicted…" he muttered. Then his eyes locked on me and his blank expression became one of undiluted rage. "Conflicted because I don't know whether to murder you now or after I deal with this. Either way, Jeremiah 'Voice of Anarchy' Cross? You are a dead man walking."

"Drag me down to the ninth circle and out through Satan's ass, I couldn't care less, I'm dying happy today! PFHAHAHA!"

"RRRRRAAAGH! YOU DARE!?"

Apparently Sanji wasn't the only one intent on making me suffer today.

"You little pricks! You dare to laugh at my misery!? The hell you bastards brought down on me!?" Duval bellowed, waving his harpoon gun in our general direction. "I was gonna let you go, but now once I'm done with this life-ruining bastard, I—!"

CRUNCH!

" —GWUH!?"

"Shut—!" THWACK! "Up—!" SMACK! "You—!" CRUNCH! "Idiot!" "CONCUSS!" "AND YOU STAY OUT OF THIS, ESCARGOT!"

Panting, Sanji removed his foot from Duval's skull, letting the former mafia boss collapse in an unconscious heap.

"You ever think of changing your hairstyle?!" he snapped. "Growing a beard? Anything?!"

"W'ld… ruin… m' h'ndsome l'ks…" the swollen-faced bandit boss slurred out.

As one, the Flying Fish Rider audience slapped their fists in their palms and gaped in dawning realization.

"Really?! How stupid are—Ugh, forget this," Sanji grumbled, glaring at the downed Duval. "Stay unconscious for a bit. I'll deal with you in a minute." With that, he blurred from the dock, reappearing on the railing to loom over me with a blazing glare. "Any last words, Monsieur dead man?"

I paused in my laughing, thought long and hard, and then I looked Sanji, Black Leg Sanji, third strongest on our crew, dead in the eye and smiled. "I," I announced without shame. "Have been waiting for this since Water 7, and I was not disappointed."

CRACK!

"Pfhahaha!" I giggle-cackled as I rolled on the deck from the punt Sanji had delivered unto me. "Pfhaha—ow!— haha! Argh, damn—pff!—damn it Sanji, did you have to kick me in the ribs?! It hurts when I laugh!"

"Yeah, and I did it because you wouldn't stop laughing!"

"I-I can't help it! This is just so! Fucking! Hilari—!"

THWACK!

That one actually made me black out. When I finally came back around, it was to the sound of much rejoicing. It only took a moment for me to connect the dots, though it took a bit longer for me to get back up and see the proof with my own eyes: the Bishōnen Duval flexing before his cheering men while the rest of the crew looked on with varying degrees of interest. Sanji, for his part, was giving the made-over mob boss an odd mixture of boredom and satisfaction.

"Sooo…" I drew his attention with a tentative cough, tugging at my collar when he glared down at me. "Yooou gave him the facelift?"

Sanji's cheek twitched viciously. "I was going to ask you if it would work or if it would kill him, but then I decided that both were acceptable outcomes," he responded darkly.

"Er…" I swallowed heavily. "Right. Acceptable. Let's go with that."

"More importantly… HEY, MORON!" Sanji barked at Duval.

"What? You called me handsome?" he responded, winking at oh that is not considered winking in any part of the multiverse!

If the full-body shudder that ran through our cook was anything to go by, he agreed. "If you don't give us back Keimi right now, I'm still going to kick your ass inside out!" Sanji paused for a second, and then redoubled his scowl. "And your face, too!"

Duval's expression flashed panic, and then snapped right back into a warm smile. "Of course, of course, she's free to go! Honestly, now that I'm so dashing, the whole thing seems foolish!"

"'Now'?!" Donny hissed incredulously.

"Ryota, go get her."

"Right away, Head," one Rider saluted, running for the building in which they were keeping Keimi.

"He's in for a nasty SURPRI-ISE~" Soundbite snickered with a wicked grin.

"Huh?" I glanced at the gastro-ass. "What are you—?"

"AAAAAHHHHHHH!" the Rider suddenly wailed in horror, running back out of the hut. "HEAD, SHE'S GONE!"

"WHAT?!" Duval roared, his handsome features turning fearful. Then they turned ferocious. "Wait, that's also where we were keeping—! Damn it, the Macros!"

He raised his head, and fear promptly replaced his outrage again at the sight of Luffy and Sanji glaring at him. "Y-Y-Young Masters, please don't be angry. Fishmen can't outpace our Flying Fish, we'll track them to Sabaody and get her back. A-And of course, you're free to come with us!"

Soundbite cocked his eyestalk as he smirked at the gangboss. "CONGRATULATIONS, you pass the sincerity test."

All eyes turned back to Soundbite, who rolled his eyestalks before jabbing them at a spot near the building where Keimi had been. "YOU WERE RIGHT, the Macros TRIED TO TAKE HER. That doesn't mean they succeeded."

"Aye! And we made damn sure of it too!"

All attention turned to one of the base's alleyways where a Heavy Point Chopper was holding Keimi in his arms and had three bound and gagged fishmen beneath his foot, with Su resting contently on his hat!?

…eh, I wasn't even that surprised at this point. Still…

"Dare I even ask how this came about?"

"Weeeell," Chopper trailed off as he scratched the back of his head sheepishly.

~Ten Minutes Earlier~

Macro warily eyed the blitz still ongoing in the base's bay from the dubious safety of behind a corner. Still, the fight didn't look to be winding down anytime soon. "Come on, come on!" he hissed at his crewmates. "We gotta beat it while they're still busy beating each other's brains out!"

"I told ya we never shoulda messed with these dumbasses!" Gyaro whispered harshly, narrowing his eyes; even narrower than usual, to be clear. "That Duval was always known as a moron even before the whole 'false bounty' thing! This is your fault!"

"And we woulda done so much better going up against Hachi, Kuroobi, and Chew?!" Macro snarled back, shoving his fanged face in Gyaro's pinched one. "You can stow that 'Goldfish Fencing' malarkey, because we both know that his six would dice your one in seconds!"

"Why you—!"

TH-THWACK!

"OW!" the two yelped in tandem, falling back clutching their aching skulls.

"Cram it, the both of ya," Tansui grumbled through his lantern jaw. "We're out, we're gone. Now c'mon, let's get the merchandise-" He emphasized the word by shrugging the struggling sack in his hands onto his shoulder. "To Sabaody. Once we split the money, we won't have ta deal with each other ever again."

Macro ground his teeth indignantly. "Ergh, the day I get told off by a moron like you… fine, fine!" He threw his hands up in defeat, stomping towards the ocean. "Let's just get back to our ship before anyone—!"

"He-llo, boys."

The fishmen all froze at the voice that suddenly sounded out in front of them, in spite of the open, clear ocean surrounding them. It took a minute for them to consider looking down, at which point they finally saw the small, white, ever-snarky form of the Straw Hats' pet fox.

"Please, please tell me that you're either the special kind of stupid who underestimates harmless-looking critters like me," Su pleaded with brazen glee and grin. "Or that you're desperate enough to try your luck anyway. I really want it to be one of the two."

Before either of the stupid underlings could respond, the desperate captain stomped his foot to loom over the fox.

"You really think you can take all three of us?" Macro scoffed.

The fox tilted her muzzle ever-so-innocently. "All of you?" Su inquired sweetly. "Tempting, truly it is, but naaaah. I'll just be playing second fiddle in this hoedown."

The Macro Pirates all blinked in confusion, but before they could wonder what she was talking about, a shadow fell over the three of them. Acting on their Grand Line-honed instincts, the trio spun around, expecting the worst… and were befuddled to find a mere three-foot silhouette that bore cyan eyes and a biiiig smile instead of the massive behemoth they were expecting.

"He'll be the one beating your skulls like bongo drums," the fox concluded.

"Good eve-ning!" the midget drawled casually.

The two Macros to recognize the silhouette and connect it to the very well-known name and bounty, stared at the silhouette in silence. Stunned, slack-jawed, terrified silence.

The one who wasn't that intelligent, however, chose to remove all doubts in regards to his own intelligence. "And how's he gonna do—?" Tansui began.

The hulking arowana-fishman's composure crumbled when 'Spark of Genius' Tony Tony Chopper snapped into his Heavy Point, maintaining his grin as he towered over the fishmen and cracked his knuckles with a few idle flexes of his fingers. "You have my thanks, Su," the third of the Demon Trio grinned malevolently. "I've been looking for a chance to brush off my pugilistic capabilities and pair them with my intellect, and you've provided me with the most acceptable targets I could imagine!"

"No-ho-ho, thank you!" Su purred, dropping into a ready stance, her tail waving eagerly. "Now… allow me to start things off by showing these raging bastards my PEARLY WHITES! EAT IT, CHUMPS!"

"AGH—!"

We draw a veil over the scenes of indescribable carnage, due to intense ultraviolence, general vulgarity, and the fact that half of the techniques performed by Tony Tony Chopper were illegal in the great state of Texas.

We humbly apologize for the inconvenience.

~Some time later~

SPLASH!

Soaked in freezing cold water, Macro jerked awake with a panicked yelp. "GWAGH! Tansui, you damn—!" At that point, he went quiet, because in addition to the yelp and the awakening, he'd tried to clock his dumbass of a crewmate. Key word being tried, given they were chained to his sides and all that. "What the hell's going on here!?"

It was at this point that the macropharynx fishman noticed two important things. First, when he tried to look around his head knocked back against two other individuals he was back to back with, who he had a sneaking suspicion were his crewmates, which put him in even deeper shit than he'd initially suspected.

And second… second was the ominous weight of a metal collar around his neck. Specifically, the watertight metal collar that he and his boys had whipped up. Made so that when it was locked around another fishman's gills, they wouldn't get any bright ideas about escaping.

Considering what the Macros had used those collars for in the past, the fact that they were wearing them now could only mean they were in the deepest, direst of shit possible.

Keeping his head still, Macro glanced around in growing panic. Then, abruptly, he stopped, finally grasping where he was. It was some sort of brig, unsurprisingly. And there were a few human figures standing just out of the light. His eyes picked up some sort of deformation on one's shoulder, a hat on another one, and an unorthodox-looking staff and an aura hanging around the third—

Oh… oh Oceanus' barnacle-crusted balls, they weren't in deep shit. They'd dug clean through to shit bedrock.

"So," the voice that was the bane of their business drawled ever so casually, the word undercut by the tink-tink-tink of his fingers drumming on his elbows. "Do you intend to take what's coming to you with what little dignity you have left, or are you gonna squander that away too?"

"You won't get away with—!" THWACK! "ACK!"

Macro ground his teeth as he ignored the throbbing pain from slamming his head against Gyaro's. "Just get it over with," he demanded.

"Psh," the witch scoffed, the noise accompanied by a wave of ozone. "You only wish you were getting off that easy. No, we have something much worse in mind."

The one who had to be the Captain ignored his crewmates' comments in favor of glancing over his shoulder. "So. What do you want us to do with these three?"

For a moment the Macros wondered who the rubbery human was talking to. Then the person came into view, staring at them with an uncharacteristically blank expression, and the three fishmen realized with complete and utter certainty that this time… this time there would be no mercy waiting for them.

"You were going to sell me," Keimi stated blandly.

Macro glanced nervously back at his boys. "Uh…"

The mermaid's gaze narrowed into a glare. "Like you've sold dozens of fishmen and women over the past five years."

Aaaand just like that Macro felt his already clammy skin drain of blood.

"In case it wasn't clear, WE FOUND YOUR BOOKS," Soundbite said ever so tauntingly.

"Yeeesss, and now that I consider the extent of your crimes…" the big-mouthed pirate stated contemplatively before leaning towards the mermaid. "Oh, Keimi, a thought occurs. You said that Chew and Kuroobi are working at Takoyaki 8 on parole courtesy of Jinbe, correct?"

Keimi glanced at him. "Yes?"

"Which makes Jinbe their parole officer, right?"

"Yes."

The pirate slowly turned his razor-sharp expression on the captives. "Which means, as their employer, in case of emergencies or them breaking parole… you have Jinbe's snail number, right?"

The Macros all saw the moment that the connection clicked in Keimi's eyes, and they never forgot it. Because right after, a fire lit in the mermaid's eyes. A fire that straight-up murdered the last of their hopes in cold blood.

"…right. Can I borrow Soundbite for a moment?" she asked, her tone as dead as the rock her expression seemed to be hewn from. She didn't even look at Soundbite as she accepted the snail. She was far too busy glaring at the sun symbols burned into the Macros' sorry hides.

"Ohohoh, please, take all the time in the world, I insist," Cross assured her. "Really, I want them to stew in the thought of just what the Knight of the Sea is going to do to them."

By this point, the three fishmen had gone deathly grey, much to the satisfaction of their captors. The witch was looking especially pleased at the sight, but when Cross casually strolled by her she glanced towards him.

"For all that their reactions are proving what you said right, Jinbe seems to have a lot of connections to evil, slaving fishmen," she remarked neutrally.

"Normally I might explain," Cross replied, shrugging. "But since it looks like we'll be meeting him two years sooner than I expected, that story is for him to tell. Now… time for the coup de grâce."

Cross strolled right up to the cage's bars and shoved his grin in their faces. "In any other circumstance I'd call you dead fish walking… but the fact is, nobody you're gonna see any time soon is going to be so merciful as to grant you the release of sweet, sweet death." He took on a few more shiny, malevolent molars. "No… no, you boys are going to live for a very, very long time. Ain't that just spectacular?"

And that was when the screaming started in earnest.

-o-

As we emerged onto the deck, we were met with a crowd of faces absolutely marred with disgust.

"Eesh…" I winced, recoiling slightly from the veritable maelstrom of fury before me. "Dare I ask what got stuck in all of your collective craws?"

"That would be my doing, Cross."

I turned to see Robin, whose visage was the calmest of them all. Which is to say she was spinning her knife like a baton and looked fit to shiv someone. "Upon noticing the sun tattoos that they bore, I got a little… ah…"

"Stabby?" Soundbite provided.

"Blunt but accurate. Naturally, my behavior drew attention, and just as naturally, it led to a bit of…" The spinning stopped, and the knife's structure creaked ominously. "Storytelling. I'm sure you know more than I do on the subject, but as it is, the public record on the Sun Pirates provides some excellent context."

"Forget 'race' traitor, those three are the most disgusting traitors to every kind of decency in existence!" Vivi raged, a minor dust devil blustering up around her.

"Any chance I could talk to Keimi for a few minutes?" Boss grunted, idly bouncing his hook in his palm. "I have a few questions I'd like to ask her, regarding fishman anatomy. Professional curiosity, you understand."

"Likewise," Chopper and Donny added.

"There'll be no need for that, I assure you," I said, dismissing the threats with wave of my hand. "If Robin already told you about the Sun Pirates, then you'll understand the significance of what we chose as their punishment: we're handing them off to Jinbe himself."

And just like that the mood… well, it didn't lighten, per se, but at least it sharpened, so that was an improvement.

Well, almost everyone sharpened, anyway.

"Ah, you mean we're going to be meeting Jinbe ourselves? As in, the Warlord, Knight of the Sea, and crewmate of Arlong? Today?" Billy clarified. He waddled up to Nami and gave her an uncertain look. "Are… are you sure you want to do that?"

"I… no, not entirely," she admitted after a moment's hesitation, kneading her brow with the butt of her hand. "No matter what Cross says, he still let Arlong loose, I can't just forget that…" She then cracked her eyes open in a forceful glare. "But at the same time, I need to do this. He knew Arlong; in fact, he probably knew him better than anyone alive. Which means that I can look him in the eye and get something I've wanted for eight years."

"And… that would be?" Leo asked.

"The same thing that every survivor wants to know," Conis quietly answered. "An answer for 'why' that isn't just 'hate'."

Nami made a gesture of agreement before turning her attention back to the starfish. "So… how long have we got left?"

"About… an hour or so, I would say," Pappug responded nervously.

"Anyone have a good distraction in the meantime, then?" Nami asked.

"I have one, actually," Sanji said, turning to me with a murderous fire in his eye. "So, Cross, would you mind explaining exactly how keeping that abominable picture intact was, and I quote, 'vital for our future'?!"

A memory of a spherical tank in a hellish auditorium sprang up in my mind, and I matched Sanji's gaze blaze for blaze.

"You really think I would pull something like this just for my own amusement?" I demanded. And even I held my serious expression for a few seconds before busting out snickering! "Alright alright, fine, that was part of it, but the rest of the reason I did it is that the chain of events that came from that poster resulted in Duval and the Flying Fish Riders becoming our allies."

"Mmph," Sanji grunted. "And we needed a group like them on our side because—?"

"Eh…" I spared an uneasy glance towards Keimi and Pappug, one that I knew that Sanji saw, before answering. "Well, we're headed to Sabaody, remember? The place is a nightmare and a half to navigate, and I'd rather have someone who's familiar with us just in case, you know?"

For whatever reason, that answer just seemed to put Sanji even more on edge than he already was, though if he understood the real reason that was no surprise. "Alright, Cross. I can live with that," he admitted, his anger almost completely gone. Almost, however, in that he was still staring at me. "But at the same time, not telling me about what was actually underneath that guy's mask—"

"—falls under the category of 'harmless', thank you very much," I cheerfully replied, grinning shamelessly. "But in all seriousness, that was the only reason I didn't ping my contacts; I can have them fix your poster any time now!" I smiled winningly (and more than a little fearfully) as I whipped out my Vision Dial and held it up. "Just strike a pose and we'll get started!"

"…Cross, wait."

I rolled my eyes. "No, I won't help you get a white horse and roses blowing in the breeze. That's someone else's schtick and, no offense, no matter how much it kills me to say it, they pull it off better than—!"

"Not that," he interrupted, his expression grim and hesitant, something clearly weighing on his mind.

Zoro, the very picture of boredom, scoffed and dug his pinky in his ear. "Cook, if you're not going to get Cross back for the picture, just—"

"Zoro." Against all odds, the swordsman froze under Sanji's gaze. "Just this once? Shut it."

Slowly, Zoro turned around and regarded Sanji with wide eyes. Then, rather than reach for his swords, he instead sat himself against the nearest mast and stared straight at Sanji, giving his rival his full, undivided attention.

Sanji nodded, turning back to the rest of the crew, scanning over everyone before settling on our guests. "Keimi, dear, could you and Pappug give us a few minutes?" he requested in the most polite tone he could manage. Which, considering that he was talking to a freakin' mermaid, was wildly out of character for him.

"Say no more, lots of secret talks going on, we got it," the starfish remarked before Keimi could say anything, patiently leading her back inside. "Besides, I've got some new designs to work on anyway. Have fun with your skullduggery."

"Ooh, you mean the—?" Keimi started to ask, the closing door cutting her off.

Sanji looked my way and chopped his hand across his throat, prompting me to nod at Soundbite.

Once the buzz of static went up, Sanji sighed and bowed his head. With obvious trepidation, he walked over to a barrel and sat down on it with a tortured groan, teeth grinding as he massaged his brow.

"I never planned to bring any of this up again," he lamented, speaking as much to himself as he was to us. "And the only reason that I'm doing it now is that the past keeps taunting me no matter how much I try to stomp it down, over and over again. So, if my choices are keeping my mouth shut or being blindsided…"

He looked up at us and holy hell what the hell was squatting in his soul!? "You all need to understand something," he croaked. "You've all been reading my name wrong this whole time. My name… it's not Sanji. It's San-ji."

A case of the confused mutters broke out on deck, one that included me while I tried to figure out just what wait a—!? "San—? GRK!" I choked in horror, prompting looks of surprise from several others. "Number three… Mister PRINCE YOU'RE THIRD IN THE LINE FOR LEGITIMATE NORTH BLUE ROYALTY!?"

A round of incredulous inhalations echoed throughout the crew as we all boggled at our crewmate.

Our crewmate who, for his part, took a sharp hit off his cigarette. "Bullseye, Cross… and a million miles off mark, at the exact same time." He exhaled a cloud of smoke before giving us all (even the women) a blistering glare. "Let me clarify first that Sanji is the only name I have; the man who I used to call my father disowned me and made me promise to never use his name again. Not like I'd ever want to; my mother is dead, and I don't have any good memories left of the rest of them that would make me want to say that we were related… except maybe my sister. But the point is…"

His fists clenched, smoke hissing from everywhere on his body.

"I was born to a family of Underworld mercenaries whose power once allowed them to conquer the North Blue," he explained, dragging the words out like they were barbed wire. "A family that has been trying to reclaim that power ever since they lost it and still rules over their own kingdom, complete with the Reverie invitation. I was born under the name…" And here he was wracked by a full-body shudder. "Of Vinsmoke."

Before anyone could say anything, a vacuum of a gasp snapped everyone's attention over to Vivi, who was staring at Sanji in complete stupefaction. "That explains how you moved from the North Blue to the East Blue, even though crossing the Red Line is a costly, difficult, almost impossible move for most civilians!" she babbled. Her eyes then widened as she looked Sanji over. "And now that I think about it… swirly eyebrows, one eye always hidden, suave but a complete mess around women—! You're exactly like your brothers!"

Sanji proceeded to simultaneously yelp in shock and choke on his cigarette. "WARK!?" Before anyone could do anything to help, though, the crazy bastard actually swallowed the damn thing, the better to quickly clear the passageway. "Y-You've met them!?"

Vivi's shock transitioned into a disgusted grimace as she shuddered at the memory. "Somewhat, yes. It was two years ago, at the last Reverie I attended before I went undercover. The entire time, Niji just would not stop hitting on me, and he was just terrible at it! I mean, you might be overblown, but at least you're a romantic! Him?! Eugh," she spat, sticking out her tongue in revulsion. "I swear, it was so painfully obvious that Judge had put him up to the whole thing, he even told me to my face that it was his mission to try and secure a political marriage with me when I asked! If it hadn't been for the risk of war, I would have broken my hand on his jaw…"

Sanji, for his part, looked like he was torn between dying by aneurysm or heart attack. "Why," he choked out. "Out of everyone at the Reverie. Would Judge choose you for a political marriage!? And why would he send Niji to do it!?"

Vivi, gestured at her hair for whatever reason, expression as dry as her homeland. "Your sperm-donor is a real romantic, Sanji, truly he is."

As curious as I was about why her hair made her an attractive marriage prospect to this 'Judge', I had something more important on the brain. There was one thing that really stood out to me from all of these revelations (besides the entire paradigm shift in regards to our cook, of course), and I took the liberty of clapping my armor-covered hand on Vivi's shoulder, who had the good grace to stiffen fearfully.

"So, Sanji," I tersely stated. "Let me guess: you're warning us about them now because they have a lot of destructive force at their beck and call?"

A nod and a grimace. "Judge put all of us through training that Zoro would be proud of from the day we were old enough to understand, and he disowned me because I was the runt of the litter. I don't doubt they've all only gotten stronger since then. And then we have the… armies." Sanji winced on that last one, which got a cocked eyebrow from me.

"Something you're not saying?"

Sanji flinched again, refusing to meet my gaze. "The… name of the Vinsmoke army is… Germa 66."

I practically swallowed my tongue I choked so hard. "Well… alright, better now than whenever I would have tried to approach them for an alliance. But getting back to my point." I emphasized my words with a pointed squeeze of Vivi's shoulder, eliciting a very nervous gulp from her. "To reiterate… Sanji looks exactly like his brothers, and his family is particularly infamous in the upper echelons of this world's nobility… which you were and still are intimately familiar with. So, Your Highness, tell me…"

My face contorted into a rictus of fury, and I sure wasn't the only one giving her the evil eye either.

"Why, in the name of every one of your mange-ridden deities, from Anubis to Wadjet, didn't you think to make the connection and mention this earlier?!"

"I… uh…" The princess shrank back from our collective glares. "It… slipped… my mind?"

I let loose a garbled slew of pejoratives, forcefully suppressing the urge to do something more physical. "Woman, if this weren't the single most critical piece of information I've learned since coming to this god-forsaken puddle and an extremely emotional moment besides, I would be choking a bitch right now!" I swore.

"So noted!" Vivi squeaked, literally breezing out of my grip and cowering behind Sanji. Who, by the way, looked thoroughly volca—uh… wait, no he didn't. He just looked befuddled.

"You… guys do remember what we were talking about, right?" the chef asked incredulously. "I… I lied to you all! My family are all monsters! Shouldn't you all be angry, o-or—!"

"Oh, oh! I recognize this bit!" I cut in, gleefully clapping my hands. "Can I do it, captain? Can I, can I?"

Luffy snickered and shot me a thumbs-up. "Go for it!"

"Joy!"

"Huh? What are you—!?" THWACK! "YEOW!" Sanji winced as I slammed my fist down over his skull.

"Stop being an idiot," I cheerfully informed him. "The past doesn't matter to us, and you came clean on your own. No matter what, you are and always will be our friend and crewmate, so don't you forget it! Got it?"

"Seriously, Sanji, I thought you were supposed to be one of the smarter ones here," Usopp tsked.

"You came from a dark place and found your light with the Straw Hat Pirates. It's hardly the first time," Robin agreed.

"In addition, you must think twice when you contemplate using the word 'monster' to describe people!" Brook chimed with a chastising (not to mention impossible) cluck of his (nonexistent) tongue. "I, for one, find the idea of being compared to the individuals you describe to be quite tasteless! And I don't even have a tongue! YOHOHO!"

"The skeleton's got a point," Franky nodded, jabbing his thumb at our musician. "We really should see about unionizing."

"Sorry, but I agree," Conis offered.

"And, getting back on subject, it's not like any of us were asking you to tell us that you were disowned and abandoned before you found Zeff," Merry added.

"Plus, in the end, at least you told us about this before things became pertinent, rather than when they were knocking down our door." Two guesses who that last bit was directed to, and the first two don't count.

Vivi opened her mouth, but closed it under the weight of everyone's stares.

Meanwhile, Sanji more focused on the first half. "You… really think we'll run into them down the line?" he asked nervously.

"Well…" I winced and wobbled my hand back and forth. "It seems likely? I never saw them myself, but then the story was still ongoing when I left. And what you're describing? A secondary tragic backstory, hidden behind the first? Well, that's just the kind of literary genius Oda would pull, which makes the likelihood of us running into them… not insignificant. Sorry."

Sanji grimaced and massaged his face in tortured resignation before nodding. "On some level, I always knew I'd see them again," he admitted, as much to himself as us. "A man like Judge… he's not the kind to let someone go, no matter what he says about it. Yeah, he'll definitely come…"

And with that, Sanji's hands snapped into tight fists, and the lawn blazed at his feet.

Just like that, our Sanji was back, familiar hellfire blazing in his eye.

"And when he does," he declared. "I swear, it'll be one of the last things him, his sons and his rotten nation do before I grind his world to dust beneath my heel and burn it all to ash."

THWACK!

"DAMN IT, LUFFY, WHAT WAS THAT FOR?!" he roared, actually bursting into flames.

"You said 'I' again!" Luffy chastised, giving him the patented 'you're an idiot' look. "It's 'we', you idiot! We're gonna kick his ass!"

Sanji took that in, the flames dying down. Then, bowing his head, he let out a chuckle. "Yeah… stupid. After Arlong and CP9, you'd think I'd know better." He looked back up, looked at me. "I can fill you in on the details of Germa later, Cross. But for now—?"

"Rush of bad memories, don't want to talk, no worries," I said in understanding. "Now, anyone else have any distractions for us?"

"Well, now that you mention it—!"

CLONK!

"We're good!" Raphey and Donny chorused, surreptitiously placing themselves in front of a twitching orange body.

"Then let's hurry up and burn foam for Takoyaki!" I declared, glancing down at my partner. "Soundbite?"

"Yeh yeh."

The everpresent buzzing stopped, and Keimi and Pappug came out of the lounge, the mermaid giving us inquisitive looks and the starfish wandering off as he shuffled through a sheaf of papers.

"All done with your top-secret conversations of secrecy?" Keimi queried.

"Yup!" Luffy confirmed. "And now we're all really hungry! Come ooon!" He started pumping his fists. "I've had to sail with an untouchable octopus for days now! Daaays! Ta-ko-ya-ki! Ta-ko-ya-ki!"

Nami, for her part, gave our captain a long-suffering look before loosing a defeated sigh. "You heard the man: one thing on his mind and and one thing only: takoyaki. If you'd be so kind as to lead the way?"

"Mm-hm!" Keimi nodded confidently. "Just stay on my tail, and we'll be there before you know it!"

And with that, the mermaid made her way to the edge of the Sunny, jumped back into the sea, and we were on our way!

CHOMP!

…right after we fished our guide out of another Sea King's gullet.

-o-

"Hm, and let's see here, this one's Urouge, the Mad Monk, who—oh, dear Cetus! That-That is just obscene!"

"Interesting reading, Pappug?"

"Gweh!?" Pappug jumped in shock, flinging the papers he was flipping through to the winds. Or at least, they would have gone to the wind, had a metal-laden trunk not snatched them up before they could be whisked away.

"Well, what do we have here?" Funkfreed cocked an eyebrow as he looked the papers over. "Thinking of practicing the more literal brand of head-hunting?"

"Hmph!" Pappug snorted, pulling off a surprisingly nimble leap and snatching the papers back. "Hardly, I'm designer, not a fighter. But the fact is, knowing the big names is beneficial in any business, and not just for security."

The starfish tapped the poster's image. "You see, clothing is one of the few things that you can count on every sentient being having some interest in. And when the big names with gold by the literal ton come around, I want to be sure that I've got something that they'll want to buy!"

Funkfreed gave the poster Pappug was holding a flat look. "Yes… because he looks so interested in wearing shirts."

Pappug winced as he realized he'd placed Urouge's poster back on top and hastily shuffled the posters again. "Alright, bad example, bad example… ah, but this one works much better!" He held up a new poster for the elephant to see.

"'Surgeon of Death', huh?" Funkfreed scratched his chin contemplatively. "Well, he's one of the more valuable Supernovas, so he probably has the money for it, but do you really think you can interest him, of all people, in fashion?"

"Oh, indubitably!" the designer nodded with confidence. "It will be no mean feat, mind you, but as it is I already have all the tools I require!" He tapped the top of the poster. "This article alone tells me all I need to know in regards to this young man's sense of apparel!" Humming thoughtfully, he began to amble off. "Though, it will take quite a few dives into quite a few libraries. Honestly, I don't know when I last saw a hat from the White City, but—GWAGH!"

The starfish yelped in panic when he was suddenly snatched off his legs and suspended upside down before a furiously intense gaze.

"He's wearing a what from where?!" Funkfreed demanded.

-o-

"…Hey, Cross? You're going to want to see this."

Sighing as I heard Merry's deliberately calm voice that promised nothing but good times beckon, I made my way up onto the bow.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Takoyaki 8 ahead of us. Keimi hadn't been exaggerating, the place was doing incredibly well for itself: it was as big as I assumed the Baratie to be!

I also wasn't surprised to see the Cannibal approaching on the horizon, seeing how complicated even navigating a short distance in Paradise could be, not mentioning how long Goldenweek must have taken.

However, I was completely surprised to see the small craft that was already docked at the floating restaurant. It looked more like a palanquin than a ship, flying a jolly roger with nine serpent heads surrounding a skull, and with a large serpent towering alongside it.

"Oookay, so the Boa sisters took up my recommendation, though I'm guessing only one of them is here," I nodded numbly. "That's… actually convenient, I was hoping to talk to them in person."

"Uh, Cross?" Merry eyed me warily. "What about the other boat?"

I blinked at her in confusion; there was one other craft there, sure, but it was a pretty plain boat. The only remotely noteworthy feature was a small, triangular, all-crimson flag flying from the top. "What about it?"

Soundbite boggled at me, then sighed and slumped in defeat. "Guess that's a SPOT CHECK YOU MISSED… THAT LITTLE RED FLAG THERE? It belongs to THE REVOLUTIONARY ARMY; the fire-and-jaw cracker is inside AND GABBING WITH THE SNAKE!"

My eyes widened briefly, then narrowed. "Of course they're here at the same time, why wouldn't they be…" I cracked my neck to the side. "Well. As if this wasn't going to be an experience enough already. This… is going to be fun."

"Oh, dear," Lassoo whined, clamping his paws down on his head.

Soon enough, we pulled ourselves in to dock next to the adolescent Yuda and stood ready to enter the establishment's door.

Nami was at the front, reaching for the knob… and reaching… and reaching… until finally she looked back at me. "Could you…?"

I nodded, gently pushing her hand away and stepping inside.

And… there they were. Chew and Kuroobi, lieutenants of Saw-Tooth Arlong, tormentors of Cocoyashi Village and the whole Conomi Islands, vicious bastards and bigots both… and currently, very beaten-down looking busboys for their far more successful friend.

And when I say beaten-down, I mean they hadn't even seen me yet. Eesh, how tired were they? …oh, right, there were Koala and Sandersonia chatting like gal pals in the back, with Hachi hanging around them. Yeah, that'd do it.

I raised my fist to cough—

"First an old friend and ex-slave that became a Revolutionary, then a high ranking officer of a Warlord's crew… now all we need is a Marine walking in and this day will be perfect!" I heard the ray mumble sarcastically.

—aaand I promptly paused because no way in hell could I pass up a straight line like that. Glancing around, I spied a Transponder Snail near the despondent ray, and pointed it out to Soundbite, who nodded with a snigger as I walked up to him, the karate-capable fishman so out of it he totally ignored me.

"Hey, Kuroobi," Chew started to respond as he finished bussing. "I've been thinking—"

Whatever he was thinking, it was lost to history when the ray's Snail rang, and he groaned as picked it up. "This is Takoyaki 8, how can I help you," he said, his dull tone emphasizing his tiredness even more.

"You can look up, for starters," I said dryly.

The ex-pirate's head snapped up like he'd been struck by lightning, eyes bulging from their sockets.

"Jeremiah Cross," Kuroobi breathed. Beside him, Chew had already gone rigid with shock and was staring at me just as incredulously.

I noticed everyone else in the room looking towards me, but I kept my focus on the two who were keeping my friend from coming in.

"In the flesh," I responded with a glare, making my displeasure with their very existences very clear. "And while I'm certainly no Marine, I'd like to think that given the situation, I'm a close second. Gotta say, I never expected to see you here."

I was vaguely aware of the sound of someone coming in behind me… Keimi and Pappug based on the sounds of their movements. They didn't get far inside before stopping.

"Uh…" Keimi raised a finger as she took in the room's mood. "I… did tell you all that I was bringing guests, right?"

Chew let out a strangled wheeze, his already clammy countenance becoming… well, clammier.

"…hello? Will someone explain to me what's going on here?" Pappug asked uncomfortably. "Anyone?"

"You're gonna want to take that up with these two," I dryly informed them. "Specifically, the exact details of why they were in prison and have a Warlord as a parole officer in the first place?"

The two started to stammer out an answer—

"Hello, Hachi. Chew. Kuroobi."

That they never got that far was most likely due to Nami finally walking behind me, staring down the fishmen with a stormy expression and aura. Billy and the rest of the native East Bluers surrounded her with weapons at the ready. Naturally, Zoro and Sanji were in front.

"N-Nami…" Hachi choked out, his eyes glued on our navigator.

"Hey, half-rate hors-d'oeuvres, remember us?" was Sanji's ever so polite greeting.

"YOU—!" the pair snarled in synch, surging out of their seats—

SLAM!

Or at least, they tried to surge, but only got about a foot each before Hachi shot across the room and rammed their foreheads into the floorboards.

"I am so sorry for my employees' rudeness, and I assure you, these two will apologize for their unapprovable behavior," Hachi stated, shooting scathing glares down at his friends. "Or at least, they will if they have any intention on remaining employed and unincarcerated, do I make myself clear!?"

I winced and glanced away from the display. "Well, this is awkward."

"I agree, I expected our first meeting to be under better circumstances than these."

I turned to meet the tall, green-haired form of Boa Sandersonia. I inclined my head.

"A pleasure nonetheless, Boa Sandersonia," I said formally.

"So, there is some respect for authority there?" Koala mused, coming up beside her.

"I remind you that I'm crewmates with a princess," I responded evenly. "I give royalty as much respect as they deserve." I paused and glanced back up at the amazoness. "Any chance your big sister has stopped kicking small animals yet?"

"She is actually making progress," the Zoan confided with a triumphant grin… one that swiftly crumbled in despair. "She only steps on them now…" She then blinked, glancing back at Koala, who'd mirrored the motion.

"She knows as much as you do," I confirmed.

"Oh, that's a relief," they sighed together.

"But in other news…" Sandersonia said. "Care to explain why, despite your recommendation, there seems to be some bad blood between the fishmen and your crew?"

"Ehh…" I grumbled sotto voce, rubbing the back of my neck. "We ran into them early on as enemies, and I was only expecting the octopus to be here. He's forgivable, the manta and… smelt-whatever much less so. Point is, this-" I waved my hand at the ongoing display at the front desk. "Is not a good situation."

"And it is about TO GET SO MUCH WORSE!" Soundbite gleefully announced.

I snapped an incredulous look at him. "The hell are you—?"

DING-LING! "Hello there! I'm here to make a mass order, I think we called earlier to confirm—Cross?!" SHING! "RORONOA!"

As Koala and Sandersonia's expressions flattened, I turned towards the door with a sharply rising sense of dread, and bore witness to none other than Lieutenant Junior Grade Tashigi standing right there, blade drawn and murder in her eyes, and a wolf-rabbit thing with a hammer in one paw standing behind her and slapping its other paw to its face.

What. No, seriously, what!?

"…So," I began weakly. "A Revolutionary, a Warlord's sister, and a Marine all walk into a bar with the Straw Hat Pirates."

"…and then what happens?" Keimi asked.

"WELL, WE'RE ABOUT TO FIND OUT, AREN'T WE?!"

Cross-Brain AN: We are evil geniuses and we love it. Though rest assured, that evilness by no means extends to butterflying away the Gaon Cannon. We may have stopped its canon usage, but you have our word on this: we will be using it before Sabaody, and it will be at least as epic as it was in canon.

Patient AN: Oh, and by the way, remember the omake that Storysmith put out alluding to this outcome, and that we said we couldn't change our plans to include? Well… that's because our plans already included them. Remember when we said that Evan's omakes weren't the last ones we'd ask our fans to write for us? We were involved the whole time.

BrokeNZone AN: Hey, I'm gonna let you three finish up this chapter, but first I got a announcement to make… Hello, readers! My name is BrokeNZone, the new Vocal piece of the Cross-Brain, and I've come to join in on the fun. Though I am but an apprentice and understudy to the trio as a writer, that is not the main reason I'm here. So a drum roll, if you please…

Coming soon… from the 'BrokeNZone Audio' Youtube channel is… 'Audio Bites! The Official 'This Bites!' Audiobook.' Now this will be a lengthy endeavour, I'm sure. But the best part is that we will be wanting you, the fans, to help volunteer your voices in making this project a reality. Voice actors, amateur or experienced, are welcome to come audition.

Spoken AN: Auditions for the audiobook will be taking place on Thiscord, the official This Bites! Discord, reachable at invite link tqeby9j. Personally, I'm looking forward to the Lindy audition I'm gonna put forward, "Vaguely New Englandish Sexy Bass" is something I can do passably well, and there's not something I ever saw myself saying.

Cross-Brain AN: A welcome addition he is, and we're looking forward as much as the rest of you to what comes from his generous efforts.

And one last note. Just to avoid any complaints, credit to Saphroneth for the first part of the 'indescribable carnage' line used earlier in this chapter.