Chapter 83

-4 Days After the War-

"Don don don don!"

Across the globe, activity ground to a screeching halt. Pirate, Marine, and everyone in between reacted the same to that familiar noise: they picked up the snail the instant they were able.

Cross's expression this time had the snails' eyes closed and their breathing deep and even, as though he was steeling himself. When the snails opened their eyes, they held a quiet fire, but none of the madness from the time of the war. And when his lips turned up in a small, tired smile, even the Marines relaxed a bit in the naïve belief that this one broadcast, just this one, wouldn't drop another mess in their laps.

"Hello, people of the world, and welcome back to the SBS."

And then those godforsaken words made them check their hopes at the door.

"I'm not in a good place right now, physically or mentally. I haven't been for a couple of weeks. But I've got help now. I've even found a good therapist! That's why I need to make this broadcast now. I won't take too much of your time, but there are a few things that I still need to share with the world before I bring the SBS to a close."

There was a brief pause as those words sunk in, and the world trembled at their possible ramifications.

"I should have your attention now, so let me confirm what I just said: this is going to be my last broadcast for a very long time, so I'm going to make it count."

-o-

Even with its namesake duo gone forever, Little Garden was an inhospitable death trap on a good day. Nobody's idea of a good day involved the prehistoric preserve getting encircled and invaded by a hostile nation. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, the hostile nation was winning, culling dinosaurs, clear-cutting the jungle, and surveying the land for potential mineral deposits.

More immediately problematic, though, was that the army's commanders had gathered in one of the new clearings to set their plans for the world abroad. Red, blue, green, and pink sat around a table with a computer monitor built into its surface, the quartet themselves and the technology proof of their family's nearly unequaled technological prowess.

And so it was that in the wake of calamity, Germa 66 sat down to decide where they would unleash their own fresh, new hell upon the world.

"Water 7 is ideal," Vinsmoke Ichiji declared. He tapped at a spot on the digital simulacrum of Paradise—though the resolution wasn't good enough to render more than basic geography—displayed on the screen-surface of the table. "An island in revolution without access to the Revolutionary Army, it would be unable to resist an assault by our forces. Seizing the island would grant us their entire shipbuilding capacity, as well as the Sea Train and by extension the entire rest of the region. Not to mention whatever's left in the corpse of Enies Lobby."

"Nah, no way!" Yonji disagreed. He swatted at the table with excessive force and centered the focus on a much larger—and much more inhospitable—island. "We've been on a hot streak lately, I say we catch ourselves a true prize! The fallen jewel of the World Government, Alabasta itself! Let's see what riches and weapons they have left over from that rebellion. Not to mention I wanna see if they've got anyone else half as hot as that princess of theirs!"

"You're thinking with the wrong head again," Reiju sighed, raising her hands in mock surrender when her youngest sibling snarled at her for the remark. "I, for one, believe there's more potential to be found in calmer waters." She flicked the display to a wider ocean, and pointed at the vicinity of the planet's South Pole. "Ever since the Enies Lobby debacle, the Vantruskan Coalition has been rebuilding itself. In less than a year, it will be the most powerful organization in the South Blue. We should move in before they reach that point, and both curtail their growth before they become a threat as well as take their considerable wealth for our own ends."

Left unsaid was that it would also drive their nation's attention away from Paradise—and the East Blue, for that matter—therefore minimizing the odds of running into their estranged brother.

"Now you're being too cautious, sister," Niji said, not unkindly, as he lowered his hand to the map. "This location is somewhat riskier, but the potential payoff is far greater."

The map's display now rested on a hazy section of ocean, a single island marked by a skull within.

"Father has been considering an alliance with Charlotte Linlin for some time now. Were we to present her wayward daughter's skull as an opening gift, it would go a long way to build good will with her. The Florian Triangle is a terrifying place even to the Emperors. But for us? It will only be a question of breaching the fog. And after that?" The blue-haired monster's expression twisted up into a sadistic grin. "We burn the rat hive to the ground with every one of the vermin still inside, and pry whatever loot is left from their hands."

Ichiji and Yonji tilted their heads. Mirrored smiles overtook their faces as they followed their middle brother's train of thought. Reiju quietly bit her lip, trying to conjure a counterargument that would dissuade them from a course that was not only foolhardy (the Florian? They honestly wanted to try and attack the Florian!?), but also seriously risked drawing the only human member of their bloodline in to fight.

Maybe if she backed Ichiji's proposed operation. Alabasta was almost as bad a target as the Florian; Water 7 was still in Paradise and still had ties to the Straw Hats, but from a military perspective it was the only sensible option her brothers had floated. She leaned forward to interrupt her brothers' enthusiastic brainstorming—

SLAM!

"All fine choices."

The Generals of Germa all snapped to attention as their Lord himself marched in and sat at the head of the table.

"But I regret to inform you that none of those locations shall be our next destinations," Judge declared.

While her brothers had reverted to the emotionless machines that he had designed them to be, Reiju had to put actual effort into maintaining her mask over the sense of foreboding that had suddenly bloomed in her chest. Vinsmoke Judge bothering to actually compliment someone was rare enough; the ear-to-ear grin on his face was practically an omen.

"And what brilliant plan do you have to promote Germa's prosperity, Father?" Niji asked (simpered at, really) their progenitor.

"Indeed! Where do we start, Father?" Yonji asked eagerly (sycophantically).

In response, Judge slammed his fist down upon the table, and the display shifted to present not an island, but an ocean. An ocean all in the ranks of Germa were intimately familiar with.

"Home," the Tyrant declared, his voice almost reverential.

Emotionally stunted though they were, such a shameless declaration brought the boys up short, and they showed a rare flicker of humanity—of doubt—when as one they exchanged wary glances. And in their inexperience at such emotion, it was Reiju who got over her own dumbstruck reaction first to voice her concerns.

"Father…" she drew out, her gaze locked on the javelin strapped to her father's back. "The World Government already despises us. If we were to attempt to… reacquire the North Blue… it was made well clear to us at the last Reverie what sort of a reaction any such attempt would invoke."

Judge's grin, if anything, only grew wider. His free hand reached into his jacket and presented a letter, the Government's seal visible upon the portion that folded backward near the top.

"Don't think of it as conquest. With this letter of marque, it's merely… pacification."

And it was with that declaration that the four Vinsmoke children began smiling. Three out of genuine (if empty) viciousness and desire for violence, and one born of an instinct for survival, the mind behind the smile already churning with what her 'family' was about to gain.

-o-

"Let me begin by issuing my sincere gratitude to the Five Elder Stars. The fact that they decided to execute Ace when they did, and tip my crew off beforehand, was the biggest reason we were able to intervene. The day we raised our revolution on Sabaody was always going to be the last day that the Straw Hat Pirates were together before we disbanded. Our time was finite and our separation was unstoppable. And so, you see, I'm thanking the Elder Stars for when they chose to announce the war. Because if they hadn't warned us before we disbanded, if they had waited just one. More. Day. …They would have succeeded."

Driiiing.

Over the past year, Cross's actions had given the Elder Stars a chronic case of acute indigestion. But it was only now that they felt legitimate fear because of him.

Driiiing.

Because now, in what they knew was a direct response to what Cross had just said, a device in their possession was ringing. A device that was never supposed to ring.

Driiiing.

The katana-wielder slowly got to his feet, leaving his sword behind, and walked over to the unique communication device. It had a solid base with a receiver at its top designed to be held in one hand, and the small speaker hung at its side on a hook, designed to funnel sound directly to the owner's ear. The Elder lifted the phone and braced himself.

Driiii—KA-LICK.

"Hello?"

Silence gripped the room for exactly 42 seconds. Then the speaker was returned to its hook and the phone to its stand.

"…We have been summoned," he said quietly.

Not another word was said. After all, there was not a single word that could be said.

Not when THAT PERSON deemed it so.

-o-

Every hospital within a day's sailing to Marineford, and many even further away, had been filled to the brim with war casualties. Morale in the hospitals was overall gloomy, but most Marines were still very happy they weren't in one particular wing, where Akainu was cuffed to his bed with a sea prism stone bracelet to ensure his powers didn't impede the surgery on his hand.

And for many of them, Akainu wasn't even the person they wanted most to avoid.

"Ulawun… no. You're not…"

Sighing in resignation, the Admiral regarded the cyclops in the bed across from his, her sole eye staring at his maimed arm. Most of her physical injuries would be fixed within a matter of weeks, but mentally…

"I told you as much before," he grunted. "And I told you no lies at all. Don't fault me for your own stubborn assumptions."

The look in her eye was one of hurt and anger, and no small amount of manic fervor. But that was par for the course for any good Marine, so Sakazuki paid it no mind.

"Your generous aid was appreciated and you will be compensated as we agreed," he recited. "From there, the Government's arrangement with Laut Kecil will be maintained. But your continued service in the Navy is your choice; if you are no longer committed to the cause, then you are free to leave. The Navy has already proven itself to be overly encumbered by sentimental liabilities. We will not waste our time catering to one more."

Indignant rage and, more importantly, pride overtook the other emotions, and it wasn't long before her expression cooled to a properly volcanic glower.

"…If not for the will of the Divine… then for the Will of Justice. I will follow you still, Admiral…" And there was her mania flaring back to life as her face twisted up into a mask of fury. "So long as it means bringing down divine judgment on those vile, pumice-spined—!"

Sakazuki tuned her out as her rant spiraled into a string of increasingly creative promises of agony towards Whitebeard's forces, the Straw Hats, and everyone who flew a black flag in general. His eyes closed briefly, and he saw in his mind's eye the deranged visage of Marshall D. Teach. Fury clouded his expression again, and he channeled every ounce of resentment he felt in his body towards the unholy monster who'd given the Admiral no choice but to prioritize anything over ensuring that the heirs of Roger and Dragon died screaming.

Then another face came to his mind. One he knew as an equal, who wore a blindfold in his mind's eye. It was surprising how outspoken Kuzan had been. It was uncharacteristic, even, and that was something he'd been thinking over for days. He had learned before the war that Aokiji was responsible for it, and it was easy—surprisingly—to see that he resented it as much as Akainu, or more. But on the battlefield… it raised the question: was his demonstration something to worry about or, for once in his lifeless career, praise?

The door to the room opened, and Akainu's frown shrank some at the sight of Vice Admiral Onigumo marching in, flanked by a pair of grunts. Onigumo was in hale shape himself, a half-dozen limbs in slings and most of his face held in place by what looked to be stitches and skin grafts. But he was actually capable of standing on his own, and that made him one of the healthiest individuals on Marineford by default.

"A status report, sir. The Vikverir are in high spirits. They've scattered the ashes of their fallen comrades, finished their grieving, and are celebrating their accomplishments. The Angevins are performing rites for their knights with honor and swearing vengeance on their foes. They've left the deceased footmen and banner-carriers where they fell. The Suomi are the most problematic. They seem to believe that the results of the war speak ill of the Government's longevity, and are threatening to resign en masse unless we offer a significant renegotiation of their expected duties among our ranks."

The Admiral processed all of this with no change in his expression. As the seconds stretched into minutes, Onigumo took the silence as a sign that his superior needed more time to think, and turned to leave.

"I assume that you are… curious about the motives behind this war."

He turned back slowly, noting in his peripheral vision that his escort was biting their lips, so hard it was for them to not demand answers. He understood; even the infamously ruthless Vice Admiral couldn't help but feel hesitant at such a question. "I… wouldn't presume to question—"

Either Akainu didn't hear him, or he didn't care. Either was possible, both was most likely.

"The Five Elder Stars made this decision personally, to fight this war before the Voices of Anarchy could cause any more damage. They saw to it that the Straw Hats learned of the execution. This guaranteed that, if they made it out of Sabaody alive, they would attempt to intervene and be crushed in our strongholds. Whitebeard was never more than a tertiary consideration. The deaths of Roger's heir and the Straw Hat Pirates, especially Monkey D. Luffy and Jeremiah Cross, were always the ultimate objective."

Onigumo and his escort shifted nervously at this, deeply uncomfortable at the revelation that one of the Four Emperors had been such a low priority for a war against all of his forces.

"And why were they so determined? For the same goal as twenty-two years ago: to kill the spirit of piracy itself. With Straw Hat, Fire Fist, and the Voices of Anarchy slain before the world, they would prove that no matter how far you ran, Justice would come due, and nobody would be allowed to escape the World Government. That defiance of the law has no option in the end save for death."

"…Well, that seems to have been as spectacular a failure as the last time they tried it," Irian scoffed.

"Whitebeard's dying words will have almost as much an effect as Roger's," Onigumo concurred grimly. "So… what's their plan now?"

"Their plan is irrelevant. But I will tell you what our plan is," Akainu said, rising to his feet. "We are going to take that information and disseminate it to every single person who still bears the Navy's colors. I will not take the slightest risk that they will learn it from Jeremiah Cross instead. If we are going to lose soldiers from this revelation, then we will purge them now. We have already lost too many good men and women and I am certain that the turncoats still have spies within our ranks."

He clenched his fists.

"Justice falls to us to enforce. And we do not need the continued presence of anyone who will hinder or betray us in the face of what that means. Now, where is T-Bone's apprentice?"

"Seagirl Apprentice Yoko?" piped up one of Onigumo's escorts. "She and the beetle are two floors down, being treated along with the rest of the Glutton's victims. She's been swearing bloody vengeance against the Ship Cutter since she heard that he got away, and she damn near concussed the MP who tried to accuse her of knowing anything about the mutineers beforehand. I know we have to exercise all due caution, especially in these treacherous times, but it seems rather self-evident: T-Bone betrayed everyone, her included."

Akainu regarded the speaker with his usual scowl, nothing overtly concerning.

"I will judge that for myself," he declared. And though there was no accompanying heat to accentuate the contrast, not a person in the room mistook the chills that shot down their spines.

-o-

"Next, on an equally sincere but much less provocative note… to those who have already given so much, and who, sadly, will yet have to give so much more. In particular, all of those who turned against the Navy in the middle of the war. You really cannot comprehend how much it means to me. Thank you for everything that you have sacrificed. Every one of you, what you've done means more than I can ever pay back. All I can say is thank you for listening to me."

Kobato wandered the docks of G-8, eyes focused on nothing in particular. With her resumed study of medicine still ongoing (a renewed willingness to practice unfortunately did not translate to an immediate ability to do so), she'd been shunted off to the daily base care while the more seasoned doctors handled the flood of casualties from Marineford. But with most of G-8's personnel having been deployed to Marineford, she found herself without any daily care to perform. All that had left her to do had been to track the soldiers arriving: too many in critical condition, yet not enough for how many had been deployed, especially since G-8 had to handle overflow casualties from other bases. Hence, the dockside walk.

She came to a stop, her gaze wandering to the ships that had come back, all of them in the midst of repairs. After so long listening to the SBS, to the ship that had become a person, she had grown to feel as much empathy looking at a damaged vessel as a damaged human. And she knew, very well, that what she saw now was only the fringes of a tempest whirling to engulf the world.

As the loudspeakers around the base broadcast the SBS (a desired lack of ignorance was the only excuse Jonathan needed), and as she felt her own heart stir within her at the realization that she was among those he was addressing, her eyes closed, stinging beneath their lids.

"…How am I supposed to feel about this, Dad?"

She turned to the old shipwright, who stood next to her, his own gaze also upon the ships.

"I know… I know that this has to be the right way, with everything that's come to light… but I'm scared." Kobato clutched her hand to her breast, her teeth worrying at her lip. "The world is changing so fast, and so is what I thought I believed. So many people are suffering because of it. How am I supposed to feel? How am I supposed to trust that I'm doing what's right?"

For a long moment, there was no answer but the waves against the pier and the distant sounds of ship repair.

"Have you been keeping up with your studies?" Mekao asked at last.

Kobato blinked at the non-sequitur. "Dad?"

"Ever since you met that furry whipper-snapper, you've put your desire to help people ahead of your fears of hurting them," he said. "You know the tradeoff that entails: a little pain in the present to spare a lot more in the future. So, have you been keeping up?"

"…Yes. I've been working hard to match the other doctors on the base," she answered slowly.

Mekao's gaze remained resolutely aimed forward. "There's an unfortunate fact of life, Kobato: nobody ever comes into this world without hurting someone. It all comes down to what their actions can do to make up for it. If you believe you're on the right side, then that's half of what matters. And the other half…"

He finally turned to look at her, revealing a pair of weary, bloodshot eyes.

"Whether we turn out to be following the right path or not, our roles take precedence. You fix people. I fix ships. Let the ones working to change the world have their battles. Regardless of who wins in the end, every life and soul that we save along the way is proof of our convictions. Never forget, Kobato: nobody deserves to die in pain. Come hell or high water, new regime or old, that's what we decided, and that's what we'll stick to."

Kobato managed a tearful smile at that, and they embraced, Mekao patting his daughter's back.

…Then a few choice memories of the past few days sprang up, and his smile dropped into a scowl.

"Well, not quite," Mekao muttered. "Almost nobody deserves to die in pain."

Kobato's smile dropped as well, and she slowly broke the embrace. "…I think Jessica is serving bouillabaisse today."

Mekao's only response was to begin trudging towards the mess hall, Kobato following close behind him.

-o-

"Alright, let's run through this one last time…"

"Come oooon, can't we just go home already? I'm tired! Plus, I remembered everything this time, we don't have to do this every day!"

"So you locked the doors."

"Yup!"

"And the windows."

"Aaaaand the medicines!"

"Swept?"

"And mopped!"

"Records of all the patients we saw?"

"Alphabetized!"

"The tools?"

"Cleaned and put away! Like I said, I remembered eeeevery last thing!"

"Which, of course, means you also laid out all the pills and bottles for everyone coming to pick up their prescriptions in the morning?"

Lori paused with her mouth open and finger raised in Martin's face. Almost immediately, she turned around. "Mr. Aladdin, we need the keys again!"

The Sun Pirate shook his head fondly as he handed over the keyring. "Almost perfect this time, just keep it up. You're good helpers, both of you."

Clownfish and blue tang beamed as the latter sped back into the infirmary. Aladdin, meanwhile, peered out the door at the darkening district.

"Mmm. You two had better stay the night, it looks like I've kept you over too late. Pray forgive me for asking you to shoulder such burdens." He bowed his head in apology.

"That's OK, Mr. Aladdin, we like helping around the clinic!" Lori said as she ran back out of the newly locked room and returned the keys to the old pirate. "Mr. Jinbe was right, working with you is a great way to talk with people who've met humans! We've heard lots of great stories 'cause of it! Er…" Her grin became noticeably shakier. "While you're, uh, stitching them up, I mean…"

Martin winced at that particular reminder of the current state of affairs, and glanced around the darkening (even for the Fishman District) streets warily. "A-Anyway, you don't need to worry about us, w-we can… get home ourselves…?"

"The number of bite marks on today's patients can only mean that Daruma is on a tear," Aladdin answered, shaking his head. "It's not a risk you need to take."

Neither objected this time. Aladdin led them out, his charges clinging to his legs as he locked down the only entrance to his clinic. The only free medical center in the Fishman District, and the only one that had physicians willing to go to the main island and treat humans, was becoming more and more dangerous.

The New Fishman Pirates normally paid little heed to the SBS, but two weeks ago, when they heard a member of the royal family's voice, they had little choice. And ever since then their simmering hatred had begun to boil instead…

-o-

"And third… I'm not usually this philosophical, but I've had what I've done literally shoved in my face recently, so I can't go without saying this. I need to express my gratitude for everything that this cruel, crazy, beautiful world has to offer. For all the little pieces aligned in just the right ways, in just the right times. If just one thing had gone wrong then I, any of us really, might not be where we are today. It was a long, hard road. Some moments were incredible… others were incredibly cruel… but I will remember each and every one. Every instant that led us here to today, and that will still lead us into whatever future awaits."

The elder heard every word, as he had for the past many moons. He never spoke a word of his feelings, but they were as acute as anyone else's.

Yet there remained a nagging feeling that had grown stronger the longer it had gone on. A feeling that only now seemed to settle into a restful realization.

I don't think that this is what you intended, he reflected, nobody there to bear witness to his words. It does not seem like this was meant to be… and yet…

In a very slow motion, he raised his head and looked over his shoulder. His time-worn eyes beheld the ones he now lived to protect. They ran about, shrieking happily, oblivious to his gaze. One and all in a far better place since this stranger had reached out to them and touched their lives.

And yet… I do not think you would begrudge it… Joy Boy.

-o-

"But I have more to share than just gratitude. For this final broadcast, there's one thing that I need to share. One thing that I need to stick in everyone's minds when they think of me and what I've done. One final piece of knowledge I want you all to chew on while we're away. And that's the why of my actions. The first reason I started the SBS was and still is what they did to Vivi, but from the moment I joined the Straw Hats, I had always planned on changing this world. I didn't expect it to be this fast or this widespread, but since it is, let me share my motivations.

Beyond the Straw Hats, beyond Alabasta, beyond Ohara and Baterilla… beyond even the scope of my knowledge. I started to oppose, and will always oppose the World Government, because of their perpetuation of The Most Despicable Lie, and their denial of The Most Glorious Truth."

You wanted to talk, and you have nothing to say?

Far from Marineford's bloodstained battlegrounds, the only Admiral to have escaped the war without grave injury stared blankly at the horizon in front of him.

You should know better than to expect someone to hand you a straightforward answer. I believe you've already made that mistake.

The place he had come for much needed reflection was utterly private. An island with no name and no life upon it, more of a rock at this point. A rock that was quite literally in the middle of nowhere, so unimportant it could not be found on a single map.

I'm starting to see why he gave up on you.

The only feature that was worth noting was a pool near its center.

Fine.

One that to this day, for reasons none dared fathom, contained thousands upon thousands of books.

You need a direction that much, Kuzan? Go back to where it all started, and remember the first answer that you got.

Coming back to where it all began and hearing Cross's words echo out in the present, Tsuru's words echo out in his mind, pushing him to the brink…

But if you can't accept it, don't bother coming back. You wouldn't work under the mutt anyway.

Nobody would bear witness to it. It would be a long time—years, most likely—before anyone would know.

But from that day onward, the ashen ground of the place once called Ohara was covered by an ever-present sheet of snow.

-o-

"Now, I imagine that many of you must be wondering to yourselves just what in the hell I'm talking about. Well, I'll tell you. To start with, the Most Despicable Lie. It is a lie that the World Government has told for centuries on end, a falsehood that they have proliferated incessantly for hundreds of years, because it guarantees their dominance over this world. And that lie is thus: you are capable of nothing. Such a small thing, yet so profound: they tell the people of this world, over and over, that they are worthless. That they are nothing, can do nothing, and will never be any more than they already are. That what they have is as good as things will ever be, and that to dream otherwise is folly. The World Government tells you that without them, you are nothing, that without them, you have no purpose or hope. They say that you are capable of nothing.

And it is, and will always be, nothing more than a lie."

-o-

One place thus far only lightly touched by the war and its aftereffects was a seafaring nation shining like gold.

Actually, scratch the 'like': Gran Tesoro was, in the main, literally built out of gold. And where anywhere else such ostentatious vanity would be tacky and tasteless, in Gran Tesoro the sheer overwhelming wealth so carelessly put on display intimidated.

The architecture was strongly aided by the individual in charge. A single, deranged, ruthless demon of an individual, who at this moment was lounging at the head of a long table.

While normally Gild Tesoro would be spending his time rehearsing for his next live performance or contemplating new attractions and forms of entertainment to lure in new victims patrons, today was different. Today, the (second) Gold Tyrant of the New World was entirely focused on business.

Specifically, he and his executives, and his island's middle-management—pit bosses, bookkeepers, et cetera—were assembled for the single most important task in any casino: setting the odds for bets. Though unlike similar establishments elsewhere, the stakes that Gran Tesoro's customers put money down on?

"Deaths of captains, hundred to one odds," Gild Tesoro declared, his voice as confident as ever. "Collapse of crews, thousand to one odds. Deaths of royalty, ten thousand to one odds. Countries turning revolutionary, ten thousand to one odds. Outright collapse of countries, hundred thousand to one odds."

Were of the highest order, and not an inch less.

Murmurs of agreement and scratches on paper met his words, as the odds that would set the standard for Gran Tesoro's 'economy', so to speak, were all but etched in stone for the years to come.

"Suggestions on the cut-off point for our high-rollers to have 'turns of fortune'?" a pit-boss grunted inquisitively.

"Alert the house when a patron hits the ฿400 million mark, then direct them to the usual complementary VIP Suite," Baccarat declared.

"But that's a whole hundred-fifty million more than three months ago!" another pit-boss protested.

"And? What of it?" Dice grunted around his cigar. "With the rate we'll be pulling down whales, we can afford to take the hit on our margins. We'll make it back in no time, especially if fresh-faced rookies get pushed over the edge before we turn them around."

"Just make sure to keep an eye on our new guests and all should be well. Gold misters at full functionality, security working double overtime, the works," Tanaka drawled, patiently tapping out a staccato rhythm on the table. "If we've said it once, we've said it a hundred times: so long as we see where the money is going, we can ensure it does not go where we do not desire it to."

The second speaker slowly nodded and subsided. It was Baccarat, however, who turned to their boss and asked the next question.

"What's our policy on the involvement of the Straw Hats?"

The Casino King flashed a far too shiny smile before cackling and flinging his arms out wide, sending instinctual chills down his soldiers' spines. "If any of them are involved, all deals become void! Blanket policy, no refunds and no debate! After all…" The man leaned forward, a mad glint in his eye, and an even madder smile on his face. "The house must always win, and that's one game you can only win by not playing."

Few showed pleased expressions at this declaration. None spoke disagreement.

"At least…" he added with a menacing smirk. "Until we can rig it, just so!"

Absolute silence met that declaration. Unconcerned, he sat back down, a casual smirk on his face.

"And if the opportunity never comes, then that's a win on its own. Now, moving on… I'm in need of a new female lead. Usual business, reach out to our contacts, and make it happen before the next show or I'll skin you all alive. Especially with the model industry dead in the water, you should have no trouble finding candidates. Got it?"

"Aye, sir!"

As the meeting's mood lightened (as much as it could be in this golden hell), a maid just outside the meeting room slipped away from the door with a smirk on her face.

'And there's my in,' Carina mused cheerfully, humming her scales as she got back to work.

-o-

On a scarred but unbowed island that had once been the Navy's foremost training grounds, scores of soldiers stood in lockstep formation before their scowling commanding officer.

"MARINES! What is our duty on these glorious seas?"

"TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND PUNISH THE GUILTY, SIR!"

"And has our flag upheld this duty thus far, Marines?"

"SIR, NO, SIR!"

"What crimes do you levy against our flag, Marines?"

"BLINDNESS TO CORRUPTION! INDIFFERENCE TO INJUSTICE! PARDONS FOR THE UNFORGIVABLE!"

"Heavy crimes indeed! And what does this make our flag?"

"GUILTY, SIR!"

"Indeed so… a terrible tragedy indeed. And worse yet, for having sailed under this flag, so too are we guilty of these self-same sins. Sins that can never be forgiven, nor forgotten. So I ask you, Marines! What would you guilty, damned souls do with your lives?"

"UPHOLD OUR DUTY, SIR!"

"Even should you yourselves be judged? Even at the cost of your own lives?"

"SIR, YES, SIR!"

"…Then so be it. Henceforth, let us quit the purity of white, and don the black cloak of the damned! Henceforth, we shall venture into the deepest of pits, the darkest of nights, and we shall fight! Until our last breath is spent! Until our last drop of blood is shed! UNTIL THE BLUE SEAS RUN DRY! WE, THE NEO-MARINES, SHALL NEVER SURRENDER, UNTIL THE SCOURGE OF SIN IS CLEANSED FROM THIS WORLD!"

"YES, FLEET ADMIRAL ZEPHYR, SIR!"

-o-

"Now, I realize that learning of The Most Despicable Lie is jarring, I understand, I truly do, but do not lose hope. Do not lose hope, because as horrible as the World Government's Lie is, it is countermanded by that which they have tried to obfuscate with their Lies for all these years. And The Most Glorious Truth, which they would deny to their dying breath?

That you are capable of anything. Again, so simple, yet inherently true. No matter how much the Government might Lie and call you capable of nothing, the Truth is that anyone is capable of anything! For ill sometimes, yes, but just as often for good! If you can imagine it, if you can dream it? If you have the will to reach for it? Then it is possible for you to achieve it. Oh, it will be hard, harder than any of you can possibly imagine, but it is that alone which is most Glorious: the possibility of it all. People are filled with boundless potential which cannot be denied once acted upon, and no amount of Lies will ever, EVER! be able to suppress this single. Shining. Truth."

-o-

It was a dark and stormy night.

While this literary device normally served to indicate the beginning of a hero's journey or of a villain's grand design, this instance was different. Rather, it instead marked the… 'regrettable' end of a villainous scheme. More than one, in fact.

On the island in question, the ground was muddy and ashen from the destruction that had ripped through its inhabitants but a scant few hours ago. Yet the fires had barely managed to properly rage before the heavens gracelessly broke their floodgates, and a veritable deluge plunged the ravaged island back into darkness, the gloom of devastation broken only by the occasional crack of lightning.

The pirates that had aimed to take their first giant step in conquering the world a few days ago were, at present, a (subjectively) sorry bunch to see. Their shanghaied submarine was little more than scrap metal, the result of pushing it to its limits for too long with no expertise on how to repair it before it was too late, and their rampage to vent their anger now left them without any substantial shelter.

And so the now-infamous Blackbeard Pirates were huddled together under a makeshift tent—a hastily and haphazardly erected bunch of tarps, really—vainly trying to fend off the wind and rain around them from extinguishing the only source of heat and light left on the island.

They were a (again, subjectively) pitiful motley bunch: ranging from a wrestler to a drunkard to a twice-fallen tyrant, one and all monsters in their own rights, all left in varying states of discontent and decrepitude, moral or otherwise.

"MRMRMRMMMMPH—BUT BIG BROTHER—RMMMMMRPH!"

…Though at that moment, the biggest slimeball among them was quite literally a ball of slime, in that he was currently in the form of a massive amount of sentient mud gagging a big-mouthed lizard-haired gravedigger.

"Hmm—hurk…" the most deathly looking of the bedraggled lot hummed—and hacked—thoughtfully as he watched Caribou seemingly smother his brother. "Interesting technique to wire a jaw… are you—wheeze…—sure you don't want me to help? It wouldn't—huff…—be a problem…"

"Not to worry, Doc, not to worry, I have it all under control! No need to check him at all! Just stay right there, everything's fine!" Caribou declared with an ear to ear grin - that twitched spasmodically as he leaned in close to his yet-struggling brother and lowered his voice to a desperate growl. "Keep your mouth shut, fool!"

Was attempting to smother Coribou a bit of an escalation in the brothers' usual antics? Perhaps. But this time, the sweaty idiot's brainlessness was really taking the cake. The last thing Caribou needed at the moment was for the last words he heard to be his brother dopishly clarifying the swamp-human's lies.

Yes, he knew he'd only absorbed the unconscious—and regrettably poison-drenched—Blackbeards so he could turn in their heads.

And yes, he'd only gone looking for an infirmary to save his own neck when it turned out the poison could get him from inside his mire.

And of course he only vomited up the Blackbeards within grabbing distance of the antidotes they'd needed by sheer coincidence!

But they sure as hell never needed to know that!

And though in his slimy heart he still cared about his brother, Coribou had trouble exercising his survival instincts against anyone who hadn't tried to kill him already.

Speaking of which…

"Hey, swamp-shit, when's this so-called 'employer' of yours calling?" Avalo Pizarro growled, the bestial tyrant cracking his knuckles ominously as he glared down on the literal walking pile of primordial ooze. "We need a new ship yesterday, and I'm getting sick and tired of this mudhole!"

"We wouldn't be stuck on said mudhole if someone!" Catarina Devon snapped, shooting a gimlet eye at the member of their group who was obliviously knocking back a bottle. "Had actually done his job and kept that last salvo from hitting the sub's engines!"

"Hey, I hit one of 'em, don't that count for—hic!—nuthin' at all?" Vasco Shot slurred back, any real threat in his tone somewhat belied by how he was pointing to Devon's left.

"YOU WERE SEEING DOUBLE, YOU IDIOT!"

"Hey, who'ze you callin' an idiot?! …No, really, who? I forgot what we weres talkin' 'bout…"

"RAGH! USELESS! EVERY ONE OF YOU, USELESS! THERE ISN'T ANYONE WORTH EVEN HALF A DAMN IN THIS ENTIRE CREW!"

"I mean… if it weren't for me, holding up the sub, you'd have all sunk already?" piped up Sanjuan, as sheepishly as a mountain-sized Wolf could be as he stood on the ocean floor.

"SHUT IT, WIDE-LOAD!"

"Okay…"

"And as for the rest of you—!"

"Pshhh-koh…"

Devon's nascent tirade was cut short by the sight and sound of the most inhuman member of their group shoving his way to his pseudo-feet and shambling away from the dying fire.

"And where do you think you're going, iron-sides?" Burgess rumbled, glaring daggers into the ex-jailer's back.

"Anywhere… Pshhh-koh… but here…" the killing-machine ground out impatiently, meeting the wrestler's gaze with a mask of indiscriminate, but at the moment low-burning, hate. "There's no reason to keep up this charade."

"The hell are you—?!"

"We all joined Teach because he said had a plan to seize the world. And we believed him. But… Pshhh-koh… his plan failed… so now there's no reason to stay." Shiliew turned his back on the group, his coat rendering him little more than a silhouette in the torrential downpour. "So I'm leaving. And anyone who stays… is nothing short of a fool."

That statement took about two seconds to sink in before half a dozen more people stood up to leave.

Lafitte shot to his feet, his plastic-y smile cracking as he waved his hands in a panic. "N-N-Now now, let's all calm down and just try to talk this—"

"Get in my way, Mime, and I'll kill you," Pizarro spat, busily looting what scarce resources they had left.

"Yeh, whut he said! I'm goin' back to doin' my own thing! Ain't gonna do nuthin' for nobody, no how!" Vasco Shot cackled as he started pocketing bottles.

"Shoulda done it from the start, no fucking idea why I bothered listening to a crazy bastard like that to begin with! Screw this crew, I'm gonna go start a war or two to take the edge off!" Catarina sneered, hooking her sword into her belt.

"And I should, um, probably go back to Elbaf…" Sanjuan started shifting about in the sea thoughtfully. "I need to see if there are any giants that I need to kill for threatening my title…"

"Now, see here—!"

While Burgess and Lafitte busied themselves trying to dissuade the deserters, Van Augur and Doc Q (and Stronger) remained quiet. Whether they too were contemplating leaving or simply wished to remain out of the worst of the storm was anyone's guess. Meanwhile, the burgeoning argument continued to drift away from the light, words rapidly becoming heated.

But before the first fist could be thrown—or worse, more likely—the one pirate who hadn't said a word or moved an inch since they settled around the fire spoke two short sentences.

"Go right ahead. But you won't live long."

The escalating argument went dead, everyone present turning to look at the speaker. Shiki the Golden Lion's tone was calm and casual, almost to the point of being carefree. It was this abnormal shift, more than anything else, that garnered him everyone's attention.

Of course, their silence didn't last long, and Shiliew was the first to speak up. "And why… Pshhh-koh… is that?" he huffed. "Feeling sympathy… for your fellow failure?"

A round of snickers and mocking chuckles passed through the blackguards, but despite mockery that would have once sent him into a frothing rage, Shiki just shrugged.

"It's true, you have very little reason to listen to me. I've lost a lot of respect. It's all my fault, really, for letting my pride take control," Shiki declared, his zen demeanor unshaken. "Before Straw Hat, before even Roger… my biggest mistake was that I thought I could go independent. Thought I could go my own way, start my own empire."

The Blackbeards had quieted down at this point, unease stirring in their hearts, and they outright froze when Shiki chuckled darkly.

"But now… now I know better. Know that that was folly, idiocy to ever dream otherwise. That man's crew… once you join it, you can never leave. I never knew Teach before he came to Impel Down, but 'Blackbeard'? Oh, I knew him the moment I saw his face. The others, they'll pay for their treachery, they'll pay. Hell, Edward already has… but not me. No, not me. I know my place, and I'll live in it for as long as he'll let me."

A core handful of the crew could genuinely say that speech didn't scare the living spit out of them. Of the rest, some were doing better than others at hiding it. All of them, though, were paying very close attention to one of the proudest pirates in the world shamelessly boot-licking. Shiki met their gazes with a grin.

"Plan A. But it's a minor setback. Our Captain is destined to shake this world. And if you need any more convincing… has anyone noticed that he's not the only one missing?"

That got everyone to stop pretending. All the gathered buccaneers, even Shiliew, knew fear in the face of Byrnndi World. Impel Down, after all, had quite vigorously agreed with the Government's decision to keep that man on ice. And more than fear of World, it was uncertainty that kept them all rooted to where they stood: uncertainty as to who would come out on top of the clash they all knew was happening right now.

Uncertainty as to who they'd prefer to come out on top.

"Jihahahaha… You all just sit back and watch. Watch… and bear witness to the darkness that shaped our world into what it is today."

-o-

It was a dark and stormy night. And it was even darker than usual in a particular cave at the opposite end of the island to the Blackbeards' camp. The Logia of Darkness fumed, just barely in view of the mouth of the cave, muttering feverishly as he had been since they finished destroying the island.

He had lost before. Recently, in fact, he had lost to Magellan. But he always got back up and took his revenge in less than a day, and all was well again.

But this loss was different. This time, he'd been thwarted. Utterly. There was no way for him to claim the prize he'd poured all his effort into acquiring. It was a new sensation for him, and he found he didn't like it. Even the idea of revenge felt hollow when he imagined it.

He needed time alone to decide his path forward. Time to get the urge to destroy everything the light touched out of his system.

And the towering silhouette that appeared at the mouth of the cave was the opposite of what he wanted. Even if it was exactly what he needed.

"…World. You're on the edge of mutiny right now. I said don't disturb me."

"Mutiny?" World grunted. "Barororo! You can't mutiny against a Captain you never followed, you fat fool!"

Utterly unbothered that Teach was now getting to his feet, World jostled a handful of pebbles he'd picked up.

"You're just another rookie who blew it when it mattered most. And you blew your weakness to me, too. So, any last words?"

"…Good."

"Eh?"

"Means I won't have to justify killing you."

He still hadn't turned around when World saw him yank on a rope. And it was less the absence of light and more the muffled sound of the rain that told him that something had now blocked the cave entrance.

Something that he realized very quickly was a black velvet tarp.

For the first time in a very long time, Byrnndi was acquainted with the feeling of panic. He spun around, as fast as he could. Swung his hand, pebbles arcing out to perforate his captor—

They hadn't gotten two inches before something grabbed the wrist holding the pebbles, prompting them to clatter harmlessly to the floor. Something drained at Byrnndi's strength, and his legs gave out, bringing him to his knees.

"It was always my plan to make the world tremble before me, and I'm still gonna do it…"

For the first time in World's life, he felt scared… and small.

"One way… or another."

So very, very small.

-o-

Shiki's words had had an effect on the hardened criminals. For a good few minutes, they stared apprehensively into the storm. But let nobody say that these were the most mentally sound people in the world, nor the most patient.

"Ya know what? I think I'd rather take my chances," Pizarro scoffed, levering himself to his feet again.

"Chances with what, exactly?"

The CRACK! of lightning tearing through the air served to both herald Teach's return from the darkness, and to stifle his crew's cries of shock.

Marshall D. Teach looked like a drowned rat, his eyes squinted to keep out the rain and his hair and beard matted across his face. But the number of new injuries he sported… was zero. He was disturbingly clean.

The only one not shaken was Shiki, who merely chuckled, "Welcome back, Captain. We've been waiting for you."

Teach grunted in acknowledgement, his expression not shifting an inch. "You were talking about something?"

Catarina covered her shaky breathing with a quick cough. "We, uh… were wondering when you and World would be getting back, is all? Just, you know… worried?"

"World won't be coming back."

The assembled pirates stiffened, and Pizarro opened his mouth to say something asinine—

CLANG!

Only for all words to die when a mangled helmet was tossed into the center of the camp. World's helmet.

"Ever."

(In the years to come, the Blackbeards would several times contemplate returning to the site of ruin that rumors rechristened World's End Island, to look for its namesake corpse.

Every time, they would lose their nerve.

For fear of what they might find.

For an even greater fear of what they might not.)

Everyone stared at the helmet, be it in shock, horror, or in Shiki's case, dull interest. He let out a puff of cigar smoke before voicing the question none of the others dared to:

"So, what happened with him?"

Shiki actually straightened as Blackbeard began walking towards them, but his eyes and the rest of the crew's quickly turned towards his apparent target. Sanjuan Wolf, who hadn't moved from where he was, stared at him warily.

"World made a decision. We all make decisions in life. That's part of life. World? He made a stupid decision. And it cost him. But surprisingly… I did respect him for it."

Vasco Shot swallowed audibly. "You… respected him for trying to mutiny?" he asked, in a terrifyingly sober voice.

Blackbeard's tone didn't change a whit as he paused on the shoreline.

"Well, of course I did. Even if he made a stupid decision, he decided to follow through with it. All the way to the bitter end. And I can respect that. Because in that regard…"

Blackbeard held his hand out, as though he were reaching out to grasp something. Sanjuan Wolf stared down at the little man in confusion…

And then from one moment to the next, found himself, for the first time in as long as he could remember, staring up at a hand bigger than he was.

The World's Largest Giant had one second to squeal in terror before the palm slammed onto his head and forced his head beneath the waves.

"He was just like me."

Shiki blinked, mildly unnerved. Everyone else was terrified beyond words. How could they not be, when there was a Titan—a pillar of darkness, stretching to the sky itself—within spitting distance of them who was effortlessly drowning the largest man in the world with one hand?

"Stubborn, determined, dogged."

And then there was what he was saying. The voice of sheer evil, like massive boulders grinding against one another, terrifyingly casual, drowning out the thunder on high. Casual and even, even as Wolf flailed in the waves, fighting for even a single gasp of air.

"These are the inherent qualities of greatness. The sheer force of will needed to make a decision, and stick with it through everything the world throws at you. No matter the pain you are dealt, or the suffering you endure, or the agony you survive by the skin of your teeth… you hang on to your decision, with all you have, and you follow it to the ends of the earth. Past the very mountains of madness."

Before long, Sanjuan Wolf's flailings started to lessen and weaken, fading away into a terrifying stillness. The Titan's hand jerked his head from the waves, letting the mega-giant cough and wheeze and hack up hogsheads of seawater as he tried to get his breath back.

"Of course I respect World. After all, I've been sticking with my own decision all my life. Through hell or high water, I have had only one driving force in all my life, and I intend to see it through. No matter what I have to do, where I have to destroy, or who I have to kill."

The Titan slowly turned around and stared down at the pirates cowering before him.

"I am the man who will be King of the Pirates. And you're going to do everything you can to make that happen."

A deaf man could have heard the 'or else' that those words carried. Then, in the blink of an eye, the Titan was gone, and Teach stood in its place.

His stance was relaxed.

His expression was blank.

And his eyes were pits of darkness.

"Is that clear?"

Twelve of the Blackbeard Pirates snapped into shaky, desperate salutes, and from all of them—even Wolf, especially Wolf—the cry of "YES, CAPTAIN!" echoed to the ends of the island.

The thirteenth of their number, meanwhile, merely raised his cigar in a casual acknowledgement, and gave him a wide, resigned smile. "As ever and always, my captain. To the end of the world."

Satisfied with the declaration, Blackbeard marched up to the campfire and planted himself beside it, ignoring the exceptionally wide berth his crew was giving him.

As for Caribou, he was now gripping his brother in a much less menacing way, as Coribou didn't seem likely to be raising his voice again anytime that month. Both of them were now fully aware that they had stumbled into something that they would never get out of alive. But at the least, maybe if they kept their heads down, didn't draw a lick of attention—

"Hey. Caribou."

Why did the world hate him so much?!

"Y-Yes, Captain?" the slimeball simpered in mostly-concealed panic, rubbing his sleeved hands as grovelingly as he could manage.

"This employer of yours, the person who put you and the Worlds up to hitting Impel Down," Blackbeard said, not looking up from the fire. "You're sure he can get us a new ship, right."

"Ah—y-y-yes, yes he can!" Caribou's head was a blur, he was nodding it so fast. "Our employer is—I-I-I mean, was? Was! A very resourceful individual! Price was noooo object to them, and I'm sure a ship will be of no issue, particularly as I still have the prisoners he wanted me to acquire! Once I call him, he'll get us a ship for certain! And-And-And! I'm sure you'll be quite interested in conversing with him yourself! After all, a person like this… their services would be very… ah, beneficial, shall we say? To an undertaking like ours! It just, you know… might be useful?"

"Hmph. I'll keep that in mind." And that, mercifully, was that.

Caribou's heart rate didn't slow for the rest of the night. He wasn't fool enough to say that things couldn't get any worse, but when his idea of improvement was having one boss who punished failure with death instead of two, things had definitely never been worse.

-o-

"And so, the world knows the Lie and the Truth. Honestly, been thinking about spilling those for a while. Now, as to the consequences of these revelations… well, let's be honest: for many people these truths must seem too self-evident to be of any real note. Or perhaps they're unrelated to your lives, and will have no great effect on how you go about your days. And that is all entirely fair. Because these revelations are only meant to be of any import to those who weren't aware of them. To those who have had the Lie ripped away, and the Truth unveiled to them. If even one person has had a revelation from my words, has found the courage to set off in search of their dreams, and fly in the face of what is apparently impossibility itself… then this all will have been worth it.

"Because I guarantee you… now that the Truth is out there, there will be so many who set forth in search of their dreams, in search of achieving the impossible. And not a single one of them will forget who it was that has Lied to them. All. Their. Lives.

"So enjoy that parting shot, for as long as you can."

-o-

The living war machine stood in front of the elevator out of Level Six, the unconscious, moaning bodies of the impertinent fools who'd tried to stop him lying on the floor around his feet. Two guards remained standing, resolutely guarding the door, and while their ability to maintain bowel function did them credit, the fact remained that they were absolutely terrified. Case in point, the mere fact that they had used their Transponder Snail to dial the Warden instead of futilely attempting to stop the war machine.

"Warden Hannyabal speaking."

"This is Douglas Bullet. I'm leaving."

"WHAA—how in the—?! Why—! How did you get out of—"

"The intruder unlocked my shackles. Nobody locked them back."

The blandness of his tone caused a vein to appear briefly on the snail, which grumbled to itself for a moment before frowning silently.

The guards' hands twitched towards their weapons, awaiting the order to subdue him. Hence, they nearly fell over in shock when their orders came through.

"Let him pass."

They boggled at the snail, which was still frowning heavily.

"Escort him to Level 1. Vice Warden Magellan will meet you there."

Understanding and relief flooded their beings as the snail hung up. Their fear didn't fully subside as they entered the elevator—it couldn't with Douglas motherfucking Bullet riding up beside them completely unshackled—but the promise of Magellan's presence was a massive reassurance.

Minutes ticked by as the elevator climbed, the ride otherwise silent, nobody saying a word.

When Level 1 finally came into view, the doors opened to Magellan already clad in a violet sheen. The guards retreated quickly to a corner as he addressed Bullet.

"What, exactly, makes you believe that you are allowed to leave simply because you have decided to?"

"I have decided to accept the deal."

"…Deal? What deal?"

"The only one relevant for anyone in my position."

It took less than a second of consideration before Magellan's eyes widened. The Vice-Warden's mouth dropped open, fully prepared to tell Bullet exactly where he could stuff said 'deal.'

"Accepted. Vice-Warden Magellan, stand down."

Only for his mouth to slam shut when fate declared that it had other plans for the abomination before him. A declaration made in the form of a group of individuals who had not been present several seconds prior, let alone standing directly behind him. The venom staining his body bubbled in fury as he turned around. His anger didn't dim despite his surprise at the white-clad Government agents standing there.

Bullet, for his part, simply walked past them all towards the exit. Trying desperately to keep his temper, Magellan glowered at the man leading them.

"Cipher Pol Aegis Zero. What business do you have here?"

"Just a bit of cleanup," huffed a woman with puffy blonde hair and a prominent white choker. Her voice was tinny and metallic, completely in opposition to her prim demeanor. "That self-absorbed fool Ratchet tried to break his agreement, yes? We'll take him off your hands, and you can rest assured you'll never see him again."

That was almost enough to fully calm Magellan. He might have preferred Ratchet dead, but he definitely wanted him gone.

"Very well, his holding cell is on Level 4," he said as the earlier pair of guards returned to the elevator.

"We will also be taking Nightin of the World Pirates."

Magellan's anger began simmering again, and he looked at the black and white face of the man who had spoken.

"By what reasoning? She is a wanted pirate who broke into this prison."

"She also has yet to receive a proper trial, or been sentenced to any form of internment. We will be taking her, so that Justice may be properly carried out. Naturally, we will also need for you to provide the necessary antidotes so that she does not expire during transit."

The concentrated rage nearly made Magellan black out. Now that it was convenient for them, they chose to bother by the book. Just so that for whatever reason, they could take the one single person who had violated Impel Down and not escaped or died—the slight consolation that the prison's staff had for their pride—and spirit them away for their own devices.

His mind seized on the only other thing he could argue at this point.

"Bullet is a non-entity. He was charged with hundreds of crimes against humanity, terrorism against the stability of the world, sentenced to thirteen consecutive life sentences—!"

"All of those charges are hereby suspended."

Magellan swore he chipped a tooth, so hard was he scowling.

"That. Thing. Is a demon."

"And it has taken the deal. So now, it is the World Government's demon."

"Magellan, has it still not sunk in?" the metal-voiced woman simpered. "You've already been demoted because you haven't been showing the Government the proper respect. It's time to come to heel, and acknowledge that we know best."

The smirk on her face made it clear that she knew exactly how Magellan felt about the situation. She held his gaze for a moment longer than the others before turning her back and entering the elevator. Only one of the guards escorted them down; the other stood by, his mouth tight as he looked at his superior.

"Inform Hannyabal that I am going to jump into the hole to Level 6. Headfirst. Hopefully, the concussion will help this migraine," Magellan said as soon as the elevator was out of sight.

As Magellan was freefalling a minute later, he reflected on the irony of what had just happened. The past four days of conversation with 'Cancer' and 'Pisces' had been promising, but not quite enough to convince him to make their alliance permanent. Yet the past four minutes had obliterated whatever reservations he had left.

-o-

"Now, with all that having been said, let's wind this down. Lastly, and perhaps the most important thing I need to say, is this final promise: the Straw Hat Pirates will return. We have disbanded, dispersed, and disappeared for now, but it won't be forever. We're not yet equal to the challenge of the New World, so we're going to change that. We've gone into hiding to train for the second half of our journey. And someday… maybe a few years, maybe a decade, they'll come back together. And when they do, they're going to take the world by storm."

'How did I get here?' That was the question running through Vice-Admiral Momonga's mind at the moment, as he sat in the dark.

There were two answers to such a loaded question.

On the one hand, in a personal sense, Momonga's story could be simply described. For, at his core, Momonga was a simple man: in his youth, Momonga was a person who sought out strength. He knocked over every dojo he could find, challenged every swordsman he encountered, all simply for the thrill of it. To better himself, to fight ever stronger people. A hollow existence, upon reflection, but a simple one, and no less enjoyable for it.

Then, by coincidence, Momonga happened to save a town from a gang of attacking pirates when he challenged their captain to a duel. There were no stakes, but the aftermath of his victory - the relief of the people he'd saved, the praise he received, instead of the usual scorn - and on top of that, the pirate had been quite a bit stronger than the usual fare he'd challenged was also worth noting.

After that, Momonga put his skills to use by backing a cause: he pledged his blade to the Marines, and never looked back. And for the longest while, life had been… acceptable. Better fights, a decent sense of purpose, even men he could admit to being proud to serve with at his beck and call. He'd even managed to stay out of politics during his rise to his current position, attaining his coat with skill and will alone. In all, a respectable life and a career well lived, by his reckoning.

By his reckoning, anyway.

This past year… to learn of all that had gone on in the shadows, the lies he'd been told and believed for so long, everything that had been hidden from him! But then, it wasn't as if he'd ever bothered to look much to begin with. His attention hadn't been on anything that he couldn't perceive or touch with his own hands, and that was on him.

Which left the Vice-Admiral where he was now: lost and confused as he pondered where he belonged in the world, and to what cause he should pledge his blade to now. All because he'd been so focused on his own pursuits, to the exclusion of all else.

Of course, this was only the personal answer to his initial question.

The literal answer was that Momonga had frustratingly little clue as to how he'd come to be seated in a dark room: the last thing he remembered was going to sleep in his personal cabin, still exhausted from the war a few days prior, only to reawaken chained to a wall in a prison cell. A prison cell that looked a lot more like a well-kept, if Spartan bedroom than a place to keep criminals, but he was still bound in place, so his already uncharitable mood was downright Scrooge-ian.

Fortunately, this question was answered when the door to his cell abruptly opened. A very recognizable silhouette stood in the frame.

"'Ship-Cutter' T-Bone," Momonga drawled, staring down the gaunt man. "I will admit, I thought your actions during the war were the height of your audacity. It's rather disconcerting to be wrong so often in so short a period of time."

The decidedly ex-Captain of the Marines hummed noncommittally as he stepped into the cell, pulling the door shut behind him. "You will find, Vice Admiral, that one comes to question many things when one finds the temerity to look beneath the surface of what the world presents to you. And no, sir, that was not a jab at your expense."

Momonga snorted dismissively. "First, don't call me 'sir' anymore. We're no longer in the same chain of command, not that I ever cared for honorifics to begin with. And second…" The Marine bit out a sharp tsk. "It might as well be. Focus can only be an excuse for so much."

T-Bone strode forth into the room and seated himself before the Vice-Admiral in the seiza position. "The past is immaterial. What matters now is your present, and how it will shape your future."

"A recruitment offer, then," Momonga surmised, his expression blank.

"Or a day that never existed, if you decline," T-Bone said calmly.

"And if I accept, mutiny against the Marines?"

"Among other things, though our reach and goals extend far beyond just the Navy."

Momonga's eyes closed.

"…Tell me everything. But keep in mind," Momonga stated firmly. "I do not accept yet. I simply intend to have all the facts before reaching a decision."

"Very well, then. But you will accept, Momonga."

"Because you think you can break me?"

"No. Because while you are a simple man, Momonga… I also believe that you are a decent man. And that as such, you will make the right decision. So! It begins with Jeremiah Cross."

"And just like that, I have a migraine."

"I'd be surprised if you didn't."

-o-

"As for why I'm saying 'they' and not 'we', I'm not confident in my chances of making it. But don't you white-hats start dancing on my grave just yet, because I'm sure as hell going to try. I'm going to fight, and claw, and scratch by as much as I damn well can, until I've got nothing left to give. But even if that should come to pass, then I'm not going quietly. One way or another, I leave you this last message with absolute certainty: regarding Monkey D. Luffy. Regardless of whether or not I return, he will. And when he does… one last time for the road, Captain?"

The world fell silent for almost a full minute.

"Dot dot—KA-LICK!"

And then the unforgettable voice of the man who had challenged the world three times and never lost spoke. And the entire world bore witness to his will.

"My name is Monkey D. Luffy. And I am the man who will be King of the Pirates."

-o-

"Thank you… and thank you all for listening to me. This is Jeremiah Cross—"

"AND SOUNDBITE—"

"Signing off… for what might be the last time."

And with that, I put down the microphone with a heavy sense of finality. It was… harder to let go of than I'd expected, only emphasized when, for the first time since I received it, I hovered my finger over the power button. And… then I held my finger there. Because if I pressed that button, it would mean…

"Not even a full second. Fastest case of second thoughts I've ever seen, I'll tell you that."

I raised my head at that comment, looking across the safehouse we'd appropriated at one of the first… well, 'allies' I'd made in this place since getting my head on straight.

Would have been nice to call her a friend, but I'd nearly been literally stabbed in the back three times over the past week, and the roster of those around me kept shifting on the regular to boot. If she managed to survive past a month, then maybe I'd upgrade it.

Still, it wasn't normal circumstances that I'd be accepting therapy from someone in a black cloak and an unmarked white mask. Didn't even have the temerity to ask for a beri for it.

"It's… not exactly a small decision, Duze," I grumbled.

Her mask tilted patiently. "No, it isn't, is it? After all, according to you, that device has defined your life for the past year. It's not just a part of your identity, it is your identity. So to set it aside, even temporarily… do you think you're prepared for that?"

I rolled the words over in my head, a grimace on my face. It took less than a second for me to have my answer.

"No, I'm not."

And with that, I pressed the button. I swear, that click might as well have been a gunshot.

"But I wouldn't be me at all if I didn't boldly go where others didn't dare tread," I said, plastering a shaky grin on my face as I stowed the now-inert piece of machinery back in my bag, all too aware of how it'd be the last time I'd have reason to look at it for a long, long time.

She nodded slowly. "All that being said, keep your past in mind as you move forward. Retaining a firm grasp on who you are is going to be key to maintaining your sanity. Forget it, and you'll be no better than the beasts hunting us. And I don't just mean the ones with more than two legs."

She had said that at least a dozen times already over the past few days. But when part of the daily routine was fending off howling and literally bloodthirsty lunatics, it was a very mandatory part of survival.

"Keep moving forward," Lassoo said, nudging his head beneath one of my hands. I let out a sigh as I petted him, the action helping me keep myself anchored.

"Trust in the friends around you," Funkfreed agreed, his trunk pressing gently against my face.

"YOU'RE not alone," Soundbite concurred, looking me in the eye.

I took the precious time that I needed to breathe, then opened my eyes again and turned to look at the commotion going outside. The few lights we had, dancing in the endless darkness as they worked to reinforce what little of the perimeter we'd managed to hold since the last attack.

"When you're ready, Cross," she prompted, her posture relaxed. "We can continue with your session if you wish."

I took a moment to draw in a steadying breath as I contemplated that. My only response was to slip my gas mask down over my face. Wish I didn't have to wear the stuffy thing, didn't even really work with the crack in its visor, but as I'd come to quickly learn, a measure of anonymity was a necessary part of survival when going out and about in Serpent. When you're locked in a human slaughterhouse, you really didn't want anyone to draw a bead on your face so they could hunt you down later.

"Later, then," Duze nodded. I returned the gesture, promising to continue soon.

With my head as centered as it was going to get, I stepped out of the shack and cast my gaze over my assembled "forces".

Almost everyone who had joined up only did so out of survival and/or because I was, apparently, the outright craziest bastard in this hellhole. Most of them were bedraggled and vagrant-looking survivors, the majority of whom would either shuffle off or bite it before the "day" was out.

But there were a few who naturally caught my eye. A few who had affirmed that they would lay down their lives for my plan, who I had at least a modicum of confidence and trust in.

Like a figure who was twice as tall as I was easily hauling an armload of rubble across our encampment.

Like a white-haired woman casually erecting and collapsing string figures with the silken threads strung between her fingers.

Like the hunched-over man warming his hands at a fire, which in turn was burning brighter for his presence.

And like Duze. She had been a godsend. I hadn't even realized how jumbled my thought process was when I saved Benedia, and I probably would have shattered if I had kept cracking like that.

…Benedia… wait, where in the hell was—?! …oh crap.

NOM!

"SONNUVA—!" I strangled a bluestreak in my throat as I felt an outright bear trap clamp down on my left shoulder. I jerked my head around to glare at the culprit who was gnawing at my scapula. "For the last time. Stop. Doing. That."

"Mmmm, but yu tashte sho goo…" was Benedia's garbled response as she kept trying to bite off my arm.

"…Hey, Cross? You can THANK ME ANYTIME, Y'KNOW."

"What the hell are you talking about?" I snarled as I worked on levering my quote-unquote comrade's teeth out of my flesh, which was not as easy as it ought to be. Seriously, was she spring-loaded or something?!

"Giving you PAIN TOLERANCE FOR BITING~" Soundbite sing-sang.

"Yeah, and you can thank me for every day I haven't drowned you in your own mucus yet. Keyword there being yet, by the way, I'd suggest you mind it." And with that final declaration, I managed to yank Benedia off and shove her in front of me, keeping a firm grasp on the back of her collar in the process.

I then raised my voice to the rest of my followers. "ALL RIGHT, PEOPLE! The 33rd Block Reavers hit us hard a few hours ago and I know we're still smarting from it, but we've built up a bit of a reputation at this point and we cannot let it slip now! Everyone who's good to fight, group up so we can split you in half. Usual deal: away team makes them bleed, home team keeps shit locked down. We hit them hard, hit them fast, and we do not stay separated for any longer than we have to. We clear?"

A general chorus of agreement made the rounds of the assembled convicts. Only about half of them had any real heart to it, but at this point that was as good as a resounding majority.

"Right then," I grunted as I dumped Benedia to the ground like a sack of flour. I stalked through the middle of the pack, the cannibal trailing close behind me. I stuck my hand out, and Funkfreed wasted no time in filling my hand with cold steel.

"Let's get this done."

And with a small army at my back, we strode out into the Darkness.

Just another day in Hell: fighting for the chance, however slim, however impossible, that the next would be our last.

-o-

Alvida wouldn't deny that she was nervous when the 'small-time' pirate she had regularly belittled while they were allied (and outright usurped when he was arrested) returned to the Big Top. And contrary to what she'd have once thought, the army of ex-Impel Down prisoners following him wasn't the main reason for her trepidation.

The nervousness only grew when the first thing that the man did upon setting foot on the Big Top again was walk right up to her. He looked her in the eyes for a few seconds, and then walked right past her, up to a balcony where he could stare down on the whole deck. It was a dramatic position, she had to admit. Within seconds everyone present had his eyes on him, riveted.

"The truth of who and what I am is out now," he announced without preamble. "All of you know it. And all of you know the kind of fire that's going to bring down on us from now on."

Every man and woman present listened in utter silence. The clown's lips slowly split into a wide grin.

"So, let's make this clear: I don't want to be the Pirate King, never have. Witnessing the first king's journey was more than enough for me. I just want to carve my own path on this sea, with loot, adventure, and most of all, plenty of flashy carnage. And I'm the last person in the world who'll hold it against you if you don't want to face the danger. Whoever wants to stay, whoever wants to go, now's your chance to make your choice."

The words sunk in, and there was a wave of huddled, muttered conversations. It was really only to be expected with a revelation of this scale, but it left a stifling tension in the air as an answer was awaited. And when the tension was finally broken, it was in the only way possible for the Buggy Pirates: flashily.

"Bu-ggy! Bu-ggy! Bu-ggy!"

Cabaji and Mohji (and Richie) raised the chant first, drawing everyone's eyes. And from there? It spread like wildfire. From old crew to new, a singular chant extolling their newly returned and newly badass boss.

"BU-GGY! BU-GGY! BU-GGY!"

"THREE CHEERS FOR THE BOSS!"

"GOOD TO HAVE YOU BACK, CAPTAIN!"

"YOUR NOSE IS AS GREAT AS EV—AARGH!"

That particular dimwit got tackled and gagged before Buggy could be tempted to blow a hole through his own ship, but then they wouldn't be the Buggy Pirates without some (or a lot) of idiots thrown in the mix.

Oblivious to the near-miss—and really, anything besides the roaring acclamation—Buggy grinned from ear to ear.

"ALRIGHT, EVERYONE!" he roared over their chanting. "THE BUGGY PIRATES ARE BACK AND FLASHIER THAN EVER! BEFORE WE PROPERLY CELEBRATE, WE'VE GOT A FEW THINGS TO TAKE CARE OF! SO EVERYONE GET YOUR NEW OUTFITS AND QUARTERS SORTED OUT, CHOP-CHOP!"

Alvida, who had remained silent the whole time (albeit pumping her fist with the others), remained where she was as the crew began scrambling. Buggy, meanwhile, descended down to the deck again and came to a stop next to her, ostensibly to watch the crew get settled in. Instead, Alvida heard a whispered, "This way", and noted a subtle hand signal towards his cabin.

At this point ready to leave the raucous crowd on the deck behind, and also eager to get this meeting over with and settle her nerves, Alvida followed Buggy to the captain's cabin in the stern. She noted his visible relief and pleasure at seeing the room undisturbed: though she'd have been well within her rights to claim it for herself while the clown had been incarcerated, something had stopped her. Some sense that somehow, Buggy would return, and that in that case, it would be incredibly rude to mess up his room.

Buggy opened one of the sea chests, producing another fine reward for her discretion: a very, very high-quality bottle of rum. That had tempted her, certainly. Two glasses followed.

"Go ahead and sit down," Buggy stated, pouring a finger of rum into two glasses.

Alvida sat, curious. She accepted the rum and took a dainty sip that slipped down her throat like honey. Oh, that was good stuff.

"So," Buggy stated. "First things first. I'm okay with keeping up our previous dynamic if that's what you want."

"We can try. Though I expect we'll have to settle into something new regardless. I… saw what you did to the Marines. Can't exactly unsee it," Alvida answered tersely.

He nodded, unbothered.

"Second. What I said to the minions on deck goes for you, too: you want to stick around, you'd better be ready to handle the kind of battles the Pirate King's crew is expected to get into. Because like it or not? We're New World-bound."

Left unsaid was precisely how hellish such battles would be. After all, one such battle had been broadcast to the world mere days before. Alvida took another sip of rum to hide her disquiet. She was no stranger to violence, and with the defenses of her Smooth-Smooth Fruit she fancied herself a formidable combatant—for Paradise. She had no illusions about how long she'd have lasted at Marineford.

"Well," she said, putting on some bravado. "I do like a challenge."

Buggy scrutinized her for a long, hard moment. Just long enough to make Alvida start to sweat. And then, mercifully, he nodded again. "Good. That leaves one last item," he said as he stood and turned to look out the stern windows.

"The former prisoners," Alvida ventured, taking another sip. "They're all from Impel Down, and all a lot stronger than the thugs we've been dragging around up until now. You're certain they won't be a problem?"

Buggy scoffed. "I make a point of surrounding myself with minions of a certain quality."

"Brave and loyal?"

"Greedy and gullible. Stupid's a good bonus. Now… I'll defer to you to get them all situated."

Alvida turned that duty over in her head. Well, it would be a good head start on improving herself in combat, and it made her the de facto second in command. Not too bad a demotion after her stint as captain. She exhaled briefly. "Fine. Not the first time I've had to wrangle a large pack of meatheads. When do we set sail again, and what's our heading?"

"As soon as possible," Buggy answered. "And…"

Fear stirred once more in Alvida's breast as he turned back to her, his face serious as a heart attack.

"See to it that the Big Top's extra-large reins and chains are still in good condition. The moment that we're ready to set sail, we're grabbing some Sea Kings and paying a visit to Amazon Lily."

Alvida blinked several times. Opened her mouth, a litany of objections ready to spill forth. Closed it. Finally…

"Why there? Even if the Empress would see you, Isn't it a Revolutionary island now?"

"Boa Hancock left with Straw Hat after the war. If he's anywhere in the world right now, it's there," Buggy answered, waving his hand dismissively.

At the mention of Straw Hat, the fear bloomed into outright terror. "You cannot be thinking of trying to get revenge after all this!" she shouted, shooting to her feet. "We've tried before, and look where it's gotten us! To try again against even greater opposition—"

"It was never about 'revenge' to begin with, Alvida," Buggy interrupted, expression still as serious as ever. "So no. It's about what this has been about from the very beginning: hedging our bets on our survival."

-o-

"And what news is there of the Straw Hat Pirates? Has there been any luck in tracking them down?" Rear Admiral Brannew asked his assembled Marines.

Despite the fact that the forces committed to Marineford still remained combat-ineffective, the world waited for no one, and the Straw Hat Task Force had been reassembled almost immediately despite almost the entire team consisting of walking wounded. They couldn't go after the Straw Hats anytime soon, but Brannew and his officers all knew that any successful operation was preceded by weeks or months of preparation and intelligence-gathering.

"We know with certainty where some of them are," one Marine officer said. "Boss Dugong and his four apprentices never left Sabaody: they seem to have made the archipelago their training grounds. Their strength is trouble already, but they can also disappear at a moment's notice just by diving into the water. If there's any good news about it, it's that they're attacking pirates at least as much as they're attacking Marines."

"And we have confirmed that Nefertari Vivi and Carue have returned to Alabasta," another piped up. "They have resumed their roles within the royal family, and the princess's Gust-Gust abilities have removed what little potential we had left for blockading the country following the Accinos' arrival and the Giant Squadron's defection."

"Hmm… she may not return to the Straw Hats at all. She only accompanied them for lack of opportunity before." Brannew paused, and when nobody else spoke, he asked, "Are those the only ones?"

"We had a confirmed sighting of Nico Robin in Tequila Wolf shortly before the war began. But she disappeared not long after the war when the Revolutionaries invaded; she has most likely joined Dragon's forces," a new officer said. A ripple of disquiet ran through the room. That had been a nightmare scenario for many of them, and there had been sighs of relief when she'd joined up with Straw Hat. That relief hadn't lasted long. "There have been unconfirmed sightings of Conis around Eden's Cinders, but with the amount of war and carnage in that place, it's hard to be sure."

More silence. Yet another officer sighed before putting in his two beris:

"And a rumor is going around that Tony Tony Chopper is somewhere in the South Blue; it's barely worth mentioning, but we haven't heard anything contradictory."

Brannew made a final note before sighing as well.

"So, the remaining Straw Hats have disappeared completely. If they're training for the New World, then it's likely that they'll be in places that correspond to their skill sets. Gather up the psychological profiles we've established for the Straw Hat Pirates and identify their strongest suits, then start cross-referencing them against any notable places for those skills in the Four Blues and Paradise."

He straightened up. "There are no words to describe how much trouble will result if they are permitted to enter the New World after putting forth the effort to grow strong enough to challenge it. We must find and destroy them before they are ready to reunite."

"And if we fail?"

The question received no response, simply because nobody in the room would know the answer until the new Fleet Admiral was decided…

-o-

Song wafted out the Hard Shell Tower, Manboshi and Ryuboshi doing their best to ease their sister back into her confinement in the tower. Sadly, she was still nearly inconsolable at the idea that her one reprieve from that confinement had been discontinued, possibly never to return. The two princes detested the necessity, but a necessity it was: a small armory's worth of 'gifts' had been sent in the minutes since Cross's farewell.

Father and Brother had mobilized the troops in force in an attempt to run down Vander Decken, hoping the sheer exertion and volume of such a barrage would leave him vulnerable, leave a visible enough trail that they could use to hunt him down! But in her heart, Shirahoshi knew it wouldn't work. After all, it hadn't all the times they'd tried before, so why would now be any different?

Despite her grief, Shirahoshi didn't blame anyone involved. She knew why the Straw Hats had to go radio silent: they had their own voyage to complete. And she knew why she had to stay in the tower: Vander Decken had an almost preternatural ability to tell when she was vulnerable, and even leaving her tower's door open for a few minutes posed an all-too-real risk…

But just because she knew why things were happening and that it wasn't the fault of anyone she liked didn't make the situation any easier to bear.

She'd had a chance. A chance at happiness, a chance at peace, a chance to say goodbye… And now, once more because of factors outside of her control, that chance was at an end before it could begin.

Almost as soon as her brothers left her alone again, Shirahoshi threw herself onto her pillows, and she cried and cried.

Puru puru puru puru! Puru puru puru puru!

The familiar sound broke through her miserable haze, and Shirahoshi slowly sat up, wiping her face. She blinked a few times at the snail, curiosity replacing grief as she wondered why it was ringing. It looked up at her with the same curiosity, and she slowly nodded.

"KA-LICK! Ah, hello? Do I have the right number?"

Shirahoshi's hands came to her mouth. "Wha—N-Nami? 'Weather Witch' Nami, of the Straw Hats?"

"Yep, that's me! And is this Shirahoshi?"

"Wh-Why, yes, but—?"

"We heard about your situation from Cross, all of us did," Nami warmly answered. "I can imagine what you're going through. Locked up for eight years, not able to mourn your mother… believe me, I get it. Hell, I even think I had it better than you, and from me that's saying something. When we get there in a couple of years, I promise you, we'll get you out of that tower for good."

The tears were flowing again now, and she smiled a watery smile. "Th-Th-Th-thank yooouuu," she sobbed.

"You're welcome. But, in the meantime…we can't do much while we're so far away, but like Cross said, you can call us anytime. I've got everyone's numbers; we won't always be able to pick up, got training to do and all that, but we'll make as much time for you as we can. Soooo… what do you say? Want a couple dozen pen pals over the next two years?"

Shirahoshi's tears continued to flow, but now, she was smiling from ear to ear.

-5 Days After the War-

Dracule Mihawk was in a decidedly sour mood on his arrival to Kuraigana Island. While Marineford had left him buoyed, the long and extremely tiresome 'visit' with that red-haired nuisance had drained every drop of what little goodwill he had left for the decade. As he walked up to the door of his castle, he wanted nothing more than to relax on his comfiest chair with a bottle of wine and polish Yoru for a few hours. Or days.

Unfortunately for his mood, the sight that greeted him when he opened the door was… well, not the last thing he wanted to see, but it was definitely in the bottom five: Roronoa Zoro, slouched in one of his chairs, surrounded by a pile of his wine bottles (he knew his wine cellar top to bottom, and he recognized his entire stock of thirty year Déesse), chugging down one last bottle like it was water.

And he didn't even have the decency to look buzzed.

"Welcome back," Zoro stated as he shook the last drop into his mouth, a shit-eating grin plastered across his face. "Just so you know, I drank all your wine, moved everything two inches to the left, and let the humandrills in to finish the rest. And they've been watching my crew, sooo…"

There was precisely one second of silence before Mihawk drew Yoru from his back. But his expression did not remotely resemble one ready for combat.

It was much more reminiscent of a certain lightning-empowered lunatic.

"Mars Ultor above, Roronoa Zoro, have you lost all sense of self-preservation?!"

"You say that like I ever had one."

The World's Greatest Swordsman could only shake his head in sheer disbelief. "Truthfully, I'm shocked that you didn't go the extra mile and soil my rugs."

Roronoa shrugged, and Hawk-Eye felt something crack in the back of his mind.

"Like I said, humandrills."

Mihawk's eyes twitched. And for the first time of what would be many over the next two years, he thought back to the question Cross had asked him on the battlefield.

"…Your first lesson: DIE."

It was very, very hard to find an answer.

-o-

When their newest addition's mood had, during that dreadful battle, turned quite literally stormy, the scientists of Weatheria initially saw it as an opportunity. An opportunity to witness a hitherto unseen meteorological phenomenon! Oh, the papers! The accolades! The petty one-upmanship in the bars!

The novelty wore off quickly. At this point, they were all just relieved that the most recent newspaper delivery had calmed that mood to something normal and non-meteorological. They still gave her a wide berth: a little due to fear of triggering a relapse, but mostly because her latest experiments involved lightning in truly unsafe voltages.

"Ah… pardon me for saying so, young lady… and I fully acknowledge that I'm no expert in these matters-" Haredas gulped audibly, tugging at his collar as sparks flew between Nami and Billy. "But, ah… while I will always applaud your innovations, I am a tad confused about the direction you seem to be taking them. It's just… you don't seem the type to go for overwhelming firepower in combat?"

"Oh, I'm not," Nami responded calmly, if absently. Most of her attention span was being spent on carefully maneuvering a beam of lightning linking her staff's tip and Billy's body across a shirt hanging on a clothesline between them so as to pass the plasma through every inch of the fabric. "I've always relied on wits and speed more than brute strength, and that's not about to change. But… how should I put this?"

She hummed thoughtfully, then nodded to Billy, who killed the current. Nami set down her staff, and reached for the hem of her shirt. Haredas barely had time to turn around before she removed it.

"I could say this is about wanting to get stronger. To not have to rely on others, even though it's really nice to be able to," Nami explained to the sound of rustling cloth. "But that's not it. Or, not all of it. See, here's the thing: my dream, quite simply, is to chart a map of the entire world. But now that I've seen a bit more of the world, I know that's just the end of the road. I'm sure lots of other navigators have tried the same and failed, so I'm going to have to do the same, but better. Oh, by the way, you can look."

Haredas slowly turned around and blinked at the form-fitting top covering everything between her neck and skirt. Even her fingers were covered by the sewn-in gloves.

As she kept talking, she moved over to the workbench nearby, where a tangled mess of wires lay around a golden frame. Slowly, she worked her covered right arm through the wires, fitting it around her forearm and over her hand, before withdrawing a seashell from the drawer and securing it to her elbow.

"Better maps are drawn by better navigators. So if I'm going to draw the best map in the world, then I'm going to have to be the best navigator. So all of this? This isn't me wanting to be stronger. That's just a bonus. This… is just the next logical step. I'm doing this because I can. Because this is something I can do. Because this…"

Nami raised her hands before herself and snapped her right's fingers, and a spark leapt from one hand to the other with a crack.

"This is me."

-o-

Heracles peered around the tree he was hiding behind, finding his new friend standing over a massive pot, a pointed black hat on his head and a grin a few molars too wide on his face. Where the devil did he get that hat'n? he wondered.

"Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble," Usopp chanted gleefully, moving his hands like a conductor as he and the handful of bugs that had already fallen under his spell—and Heracles had thought that was figurative, but given how many were glaze-eyed and drooling, he couldn't be sure anymore—fed ingredients into the spice-filled concoction.

"Giant rhino beetle's horn,

In the brew now, freshly shorn.

Reaper's Pepper, seeds and all,

Scorpion's sting and monkey's gall.

Nettles brought by hand of toad,

Boiled right quick with yellow-woad.

Sear the poisoned snakeskin 'way, Char and bl—"

"GROARGH!"

Heracles's hand whipped to his side, going for his Pop Greens as an absolutely massive Komodo Dragon burst through the brush of the clearing—

"YOU THREW OFF MY GROOVE, YOU SCULLION! GET HIM, MY PRETTIES!"

BZZZZ! "GRAAAARGH!"

—only to be pre-empted by an enraged shriek from the 'potion master', whereupon a buzzing cloud slammed into the uber-lizard's mega-sized frame and knocked it back in a panic of flailing limbs. Heracles stared at the thrashing undergrowth for a moment before slowly retracting his hand from his side.

"Gah, so annoying…" Usopp sniffed as he re-straightened his hat. "Alright, where was I…?"

Heracles considered for a moment, before cautiously replying, "Er… 'poisoned snake—'"

"Oh, I'll just take it from the top. Twice as potent this way!" Usopp cackled. "Round about the cauldron go—"

Heracles groaned, pressing his hands to his helmet. Just two years and he'd be left alone with the normal monsters. Why had he missed having other humans around again?!

-o-

"Double double, skirt steak plate, Gorgeous slices, that's just great~

"Cooked quite rare, with searing heat, Crisp the crust and red the meat…"

Such was the red-clad Newkama's chant as she practically juggled ingredients with all the grace and skill of a bartender, never pausing in stirring the deep red sauce in her pan.

"Chase the classic sous vide craze, Zhoosh with bittered rhubarb glaze.

"Garlic butter pat, delish, Sea salt flakes, and there's the dish~!"

Meanwhile, Sanji, Ivankov, Inazuma, and Bentham all watched with mildly disturbed expressions.

"…I'm sorry, I haven't met too many of the island's masters yet, but is it typical for them to be this—?"

"Weird?" Inazuma asked bluntly. "No, Ann is a special case."

"I admit, she's one of the more eccentric ones, but she makes it work," Ivankov shrugged. "And she makes a damned good steak dinner."

"I'll take your word for it," Sanji said, rather blatantly of two minds about the whole thing. "But I don't suppose you have literally anything else—food-related, anything else food-related that I could be doing instead?"

"Actually, I was very interested in dissecting your Death's Door Lunchbox," Ivankov said with utter seriousness, leading him out of the kitchen (to everyone's relief). "I've been meaning to bring it up since yesterday, now that we know Cross-boy is…well, as well-off as he can be," he (at the moment) trailed off.

"But it performed its task perfectly," Inazuma picked up with a frown. "It was an impossible show of willpower to begin with; he was emaciated with no other recovery from the operation other than a nap, and he was still almost too healthy to eat it safely."

Sanji shuddered at the image, grateful that he could help his captain but horrified both by his gift's necessity and near-failure.

"You can rest assured, Sanji-boy, it will be my absolute delight to help you refine it," Ivankov said with utter seriousness. "This would be a worthy recipe to make the 100th."

Despite the circumstances, Sanji grinned with no small amount of pride as he withdrew his recipe book. "Well, I've gotten a few tips already, but what have you got to suggest?"

FWOOOM!

Fire blasted out of the windows of the kitchen they had just left.

"Dinnertime, ladies and gentlemen~" Ann sang.

"…though I suppose I'm morbidly curious about this recipe first," Sanji murmured.

"I'm just morbidly terrified!" Bentham wailed melodramatically… or not, given the circumstances.

"Yeah, I thought that went pretty much unsaid."

-o-

At the Torino library's entrance, Chopper smiled as a News Coo touched down.

"Nice hat," Chopper complimented. "Your new boss lets you wear what you want?"

[Mmm, it's still kind of a uniform,] the gull shrugged, tipping the blue and orange newsboy cap atop her head. [But we get to choose whatever style we want now. Who knows, maybe in a few months we'll get around to diversifying a bit more. At least now we won't get our tailfeathers plucked for asking.]

"Couldn't have gotten worse than it was, huh?" Chopper sighed. "Well, I'm glad for you."

[Thanks. But one thing that hasn't changed is the busyness, so can we get to business?]

"Oh, right, sorry." Chopper held out a thick yellow envelope along with a few beri notes. "This needs to go to Sakura Kingdom, as soon as possible."

[You got it,] the gull said, slipping the package into her satchel and turning away.

"Oh, wait! Sorry, take this too!"

The coo looked back in mild annoyance as Chopper handed off a postcard. Her eye twitched as she saw what was written:

Dalton,

I hope you're the first of many to benefit from this treatise. But I'm sorry for probably making you Doctorine's test subject here. Don't bother running, you'll just be tired if she catches you and she'll be mad if she doesn't.

Tony Tony Chopper

The coo slowly raised her head and stared at the human-reindeer. […]

"I don't think you want to ask."

[You're a Straw Hat, that was a given.]

-o-

The Revolutionaries were very hospitable. They had raised no objection to her desire to remain on the deck and had immediately relocated furniture and refreshments from inside to make her more comfortable. And there was no sense that they were doing it out of fear of her, either; they knew what she had gone through and respected the lingering trauma she still had.

Robin had little to no reason not to trust them. It was only old instincts that made her prefer the open air, and she hoped that it would be a short-lived paranoia based on this experience.

"So, how far to the island?"

"About a week's sail. Hopefully, we should be out of the snow by tomorrow, the day after at the latest. We'd have gotten you there sooner, but our express route is busy in the North at the moment," the nearby Revolutionary answered.

Robin nodded and settled back in to wait, sipping her coffee with a soft smile. All things considered, with Luffy's mission successful and Cross, if not ideal, then as good as he could be in whatever training ground he was at, her mood could hardly be better.

"Hey, look alive! They're here, the commanders are here!" another voice called.

"The South and East commanders?" Robin asked, standing up at once. She had been warned of their arrival but hadn't expected it to be so soon. Nor had anyone else, it would seem.

But as she observed, a pair of rappel lines came upon the ship's edges, swiftly heralded by a purple-haired woman dressed all in red and a cat-man who looked like he belonged in a more steampunk-centric setting.

'I have been spending entirely too much time with Cross if that's the first word that comes to mind,' she reflected with a snicker before walking over to them.

"Hello, nice to meet you. I believe that we'll be working together for a while. I'm Nico Robin," she introduced herself politely.

The two of them immediately looked at her, the cat-man with a grin and the woman with a neutral expression.

"Belo Betty, nice to meet you too."

"The name's Lindbergh, the honor is entirely yours, I promise ya!"

"Hmm, indeed," Robin said with a small smile. "Will the other two commanders be joining us as well?"

"Probably at Baltigo, yeah," Betty shrugged. "Karasu was on assignment with the boss to begin with; your—" her lip twitched as she visibly swallowed part of what she wanted to say, "— brother… did exactly the right thing to get his help."

"Oh?" Robin's expression became one of curiosity. "And how is that? I was certain that the Revolutionary Army would find no cause to intervene?"

"Under the original context of the war, sure 'nuff, we couldn't do spit! Marines executing Pirates, that's the law and that's entirely and totally fair! Eh, no offense," Lindbergh coughed slightly.

"But then," Betty said, actually managing a smile. "The very first thing that he did was have Sengoku admit that the execution had nothing to do with Ace being a pirate; only that his father was one, and that furthermore there is no law that can lead to someone being convicted on their bloodline alone. That tipped the context from lawful to tyrannical, and the moment that Dragon heard it, he took flight to join the war."

Robin silently filed that away as something that she would definitely tell Cross at the earliest opportunity. She could only imagine he could do with any sort of triumph, given his state of mind when she'd last seen him.

"And you know how that turned out… but anyway, to answer your question, if Karasu's already there, he'll probably have Morley show up, too," Betty finished.

"I see. I hope you won't mind me picking all of your brains for how I can improve myself. Although I'll be surprised if you have any tips on stealth that I've yet to learn."

"Maybe, maybe, but in terms of the other fine and feral arts of revolutionizin'? Sorry to say, you're still a small guppy in a large pond! But!" Lindbergh popped a finger up in a totally confident style. "Don't you worry your pretty little head: We'll teach you everything we know and a few things we don't before our time together is up! We'll make you into a bonafide, Lindbergh-approved badass before you know it, toots!"

"I'll keep that in mind, Mister Lindbergh. And for the record?"

"Ye—?" The engineer's nascent question was interrupted by an arm sprouting atop his head, grabbing his goggles and yanking them out—

SNAP!

"YEOWCH!"

—aaaand letting them snap right back into his eyes with a decent amount of force, causing him to double over and paw at his face as he spat out a blue streak.

"That's 'Nico Robin', 'Miss Robin', or 'ma'am' to you," Robin chuckled lightly, her favorite Smile™️ affixed to her face.

Betty took ten seconds to take in Lindbergh stumbling away and swearing bloody vengeance before grinning from ear to ear and throwing her arm across her newest comrade's shoulders. "Congrats, you're my new favorite person."

"How nice," Robin said with a small smile. "And my relationship with Cross makes no difference?"

"I am actively ignoring that," Betty answered with a cheerful twitch.

"Razza frazzin…" Lindbergh grumbled as he stumbled away, navigating into the ship's comms room easily despite still fumbling with his goggles. As he finally succeeded in getting his vision clear and his eyepieces back into place, he couldn't help grinning.

"…Well, at least we've got someone else with a sense of humor here," he chuckled before reaching for the nearest (non-black and non-white) snail. The answer came quickly.

"Wait, how did you get this number? Who are you?! WHO DO YOU WORK FOR, WHAT DO YOU WANT?!"

The Mink stared cock-eyed at the snail for a few moments. Then he burst out laughing.

"ZIZIZIZIZIZI! Good one, Koala. Though maaaybe you've been hangin' around Cross a tad too much recently? Just sayin' is all."

"Oooh you don't know the half of it, Lindbergh. But anyway, what's the report?"

"According to the X.O., Tequila Wolf's sacking had no resistance… that wasn't taken out by Nico Robin well before the main force arrived," he chortled. "Sooo yeah, full success on that mission. No new Devil Fruits acquired yet, but we've got a report on the new shipyard that the Navy's building here. Though, heh, something tells me construction's going to stall even more now that their stores of pitch have mysteriously vitrified. Aaaand lastly, we scrounged a few new recruits from the Grey Terminal, which is smelling as delightfully pungent as ever!"

The engineer's good cheer abruptly died down into an out-and-out scowl. "…And you may want to tell Sabo that his so-called family, which I do not so-call, are making a grab for the throne with that thing they're calling their 'son' making moves on the princess. Like it or not, unless we meddle like he's told us not to, we'll probably be seeing him at the Reverie. So, yeah, two years to brace for that screaming nightmare."

"Isn't there already a king and an heir?"

Lindbergh's response was grim silence and a flat stare through his goggles.

"…Right. Forgot that when you think of rock bottom with these people, you need to bring a pickaxe. Well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. And your ETA is on track?"

"Should be, yeah. Oh, but while I've got you…" Lindbergh trailed off, and his voice was gentle as he spoke again. "You're doing all right, right? I mean, an assignment that brought you that close to Mariejois in the middle of a war… plus what you had to take care of first. You sure you don't regret goin' on that mission?"

There was a pause as Koala looked away, her gaze elsewhere…

~The Day of the War~

One of the very few top Marines who hadn't been called to Marineford for the war lay in a hospital bed, a day or so away from recovering to the extent he'd be more an asset than a liability on the battlefield. Such was the diagnosis that the physician beside him had given him as he woke up.

It took a minute for him to realize that the dread he felt in his heart wasn't from the inability to help the Navy when they needed him most. Rather, it was because he recognized the speaker's voice, but it wasn't because it was a doctor or nurse. His eyes snapped open and forced into focus, and he felt his breath catch as he saw through the medical disguise.

The one standing beside him was the one who had put him in his hospital bed.

"You didn't really think you'd get away, did you? An execution was promised today, and I can't let you ever recover. Maybe a lethal injection isn't the best way to end this…"

Vice Admiral Strawberry tried desperately to muster enough Armament Haki to reinforce his arm where she was holding the syringe at the ready, right above—

Where the last one had gone in, he realized. Which was followed by the last realization of his life as she set the syringe down beside him: it was empty.

"…but what's done is done. Say goodbye…"

And she didn't speak another word. She just sat there, staring him in the eyes as the poison grew steadily stronger despite his willpower. Something desperate shone in his eyes as he stared at Koala… and the Revolutionary shook her head disapprovingly, reached her hand out, and closed his eyes.

Nobody was there to save him. No mercy was to be found. Koala simply stared at him until he finally, mercifully stopped moving. She gripped his neck and pulled back an eyelid, and it wasn't until ten minutes later, when she was fully satisfied that her task was finished, that she left the corpse of one of the Navy's best men to be discovered.

~Present~

Koala shook her head softly to clear her mind, and gave her commander a sincere smile.

"I'm doing just fine, Lindbergh. Thanks for asking, but this was one of the most fulfilling assignments that I've had in years. I have no regrets for what I did."

Lindbergh nodded. "Just makin' sure. Can I count on seein' you when we get there?"

"Hopefully. A week, then, give or take."

"Yep. Take care."

KA-LICK!

-o-

"Mister Franky! As impressive as it is that you've managed to keep from blowing yourself—or our island for that matter—to high heaven, as well as the fact that you've uncovered our dear Vegapunk's long sought-after inner sanctum, I'm afraid that the grace period we've afforded you has expired. If you cannot provide what you promised, we will have no choice but to alert the Navy of your presence and place you under citizen's arrest."

Franky looked away from the machine he was working on to give the gathered council a flat look.

"OK, first of all, do you really think you can take me?"

"We think that we have a good enough grasp on your character to be confident that you wouldn't hurt a group of defenseless elders simply trying to do their due diligence."

"...Yeah, alright, that's fair. Would be SUPER uncool of me to crack your skulls like that, Granny Kokoro raised me better than that."

"Apparently not well enough to wear pants an appropriate amount of the time…" Another of the elders grumbled.

"Oh, she tried. Didn't take," Franky laughed. "Aaaanyways… second question! You folks listen to the SBS that often?"

"As frequently as we can manage: dubiously legal content aside, it is being broadcast from one of our national pride's masterpieces."

"Well, then, let me play you a little number that I don't think Soundbite has shared with the world yet."

His grin almost split his face as he gripped the blatantly grandiose lever before him with both hands.

"It's called 'Here Comes the Sun.'"

He slammed the switch upward with both hands, and immediately…a klaxon began blaring.

"WARNING, WARNING. ISLAND WILL SELF DESTRUCT IN T-MINUS 10… 9…"

"WHOOPS!" Franky yelped, slamming the switch back down.

"SELF-DESTRUCT ABORTED. PLEASE BE MORE CAUTIOUS IN THE FUTURE, DOCTOR VEGAPUNK."

"Eesh," Franky huffed, snorting in frustration while the assembled governors worked their heart rates down from 'impending heart attack.' "You know, your 'national pride' seemed to have a bit of a habit, ya know? This is the third damn one I've found in this place!"

"So noted…" the lead governor grumbled acridly as he mentally upped the dosage of heart medications he'd have to take tonight. "But in the meantime, I assume that that wasn't what you intended to show us?"

"Eh? Oh, right, right. It waaaas… ah, this one!" Franky reached out and grabbed a much less grandiose and normal-sized lever, located just to the side of the self-destruct switch. "So, uh, like I was saying, 'Here Comes the Sun!' And hopefully not a nuclear fireball…"

The switch slammed into place, a spark jolted through the lab's circuitry… and all at once, a hum started to sound out.

Not from any one location, but all around the spectators: the entire mountain, humming and vibrating with newly awakened energy. An energy that was surging forth in the form of a thoroughly noticeable rise in temperature.

The governors gazed upon their surroundings with untempered awe as the mountain came to life, and their admiration only grew as they took in the readings being displayed on the surrounding monitors.

"I… I don't believe it! The climate control system, it's… it's actually—!"

"By thunder he's done it, he's actually done it!"

"The long night… is over?"

"Well, I'll be damned…"

"Hey, do me a favor?" Franky said, already walking away. "Since winter's about to end, toss all of your coats in my room on your way out, I could use the down for a SUPER! Mattress! And once you're all done celebrating with your families…"

He shot a madcap grin over his shoulder. One that would stick with them all for a long time to come.

"Send someone back up here to pick up my shopping list. I've got a few ideas in mind… and you can bet your asses that they are, one and all, SUPER!"

-o-

A long-armed crook and a living skeleton stood on opposite sides of a table. Their focus was on the contract awaiting signatures between them.

"Alright, let's go over this one more time," Sancrin muttered. "You're one of the Straw Hat Pirates, and your reason for sticking with me is to grow stronger…by making yourself a music star."

"How I improve myself is for me to worry about. Your role is to manage everything else," the skeleton answered coolly.

"And the time frame…you're not promising me any more than a year?"

"I have insight on what I must do, which may accelerate my growth. I will stay with you for no less than a year, after which I will stay until I need to try something different for my training, or until the crew reunites," Brook clarified. "And I believe it goes without saying: attempt to sell me out and bankruptcy will be the least of your worries."

Sancrin felt an urge to mop at the sweat that had suddenly bloomed at his hairline, despite the fact that 99% of any desire to try crossing a Straw Hat had died long ago. As for the remaining 1%…

"…And the profits. You're sure about this division?"

"I don't anticipate I'll need much," was the answer. "The 5% I've requested is only for emergencies. You're welcome to the remaining 45%."

Sanction grimaced. "Yeah, that's the part that I'm not clear on. You get 5%, I get 45… who the hell gets the last 50!?"

"Nami," was Brook's matter-of-fact response.

A vein popped on Sancrin's skull, and his eye twitched.

"…Yeah, hell no, there's no way I'm paying that much to a gold-digging sk—!"

KRAK-A-THOOM!

Both of them jumped at the sound of a thunderclap outside. It sounded rather close.

"…That was a coincidence," Sancrin muttered. It wasn't particularly convincing, especially since he had already snatched up the nearest pen.

"Then why are you signing so fast?" Brook asked knowingly. One of his empty sockets was warped, an imitation of a raised eyebrow.

"None of your boneheaded business, that's why!"

-o-

Cross-Brain AN: To anyone savvy enough to expect us to pull a prank on April Fool's Day…we hope you appreciate this 20,000-word preview of our final (pre-time skip) chapter.