A/N: Sorry about the unplanned hiatus, everyone! Two months ago, I kinda got stuck for inspiration on this chapter, but last week I finally completed it. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get it out then because my laptop had decided to quit on me and I had to get it fixed. I was able to finish it on my phone, though, and my editors did their magic. Now my laptop's finally fixed and back in my possession, so here's this chappie at much too long last!
I may have paid to get my computer fixed, but that doesn't mean I own One Piece!
Chapter 27: Smoke, Rubber, and Sand
Luffy dashed forward with all his speed, kicking up water droplets into the air that hit his fist. He threw his arm backward and it stretched far. As the pirate drew closer, his arm retracted and blasted forward like a rocket. Crocodile, wary now of the punch, dodged it in the nick of time as it sped by his face. He felt the wind displaced by it make his hair ruffle.
"Did you seriously think the same attack would work on me, a Warlord, twice?" he snarled, and reached up to grab Luffy's arm with his right hand—
Luffy gave him a look that made him feel way dumber than it should've. "Nope," the captain deadpanned, and promptly grabbed his own arm, then flicked it down.
Crocodile stared. "What the…?" But he didn't even need to complete his question, because the next few seconds answered it for him. The wave of energy released by Luffy's flicking of his arm caused the rest of the stretched-out limb to fling up and down, like a taut rope some kids waved up and down… except it was also going in circles. And retracting back to its normal position. Crocodile's eyes widened. "Shit!" he cursed, and immediately ducked as low as he could without face-planting into the water.
With a crack, the straw-hatted boy's arm returned to its normal length, missing the crown of Crocodile's head by several inches. Luffy glared at him and threw out a disturbingly powerful kick. For a boy, this kid had impressive speed and strength. Frowning, the Warlord dashed out of the way…
Right into a plume of smoke that burst forth from behind Luffy, a jutte clenched in its hand.
"White Launcher!" Smoker shouted, and just before the smoke reached Crocodile, it congealed and transformed into the Marine's physical form. His seastone-tipped jutte pointed at the Warlord, Smoker crashed through the air at him; gritting his teeth, Crocodile broke into sand. This gave him the movement necessary to avoid the tipped butt of the weapon.
"Smoker," both he and Luffy growled.
"You're in my way," Crocodile told him dangerously. Sand curling through the air, he swept harmlessly around the weapon as Smoker splashed into the water. "Get out of it or you won't like the consequences."
Luffy seemed just as pissed. "This is my fight, you smokey guy!" he said with a deep frown. "I have to avenge my crewmate. Don't interfere with it."
"I'm a Marine, and there is criminal activity happening that could result in millions of civilian deaths," Smoker hissed back, the words directed at both of them. "I won't get out of your way, you bastard of a Warlord, and I can't sit this fight out to let another pirate fight it for me."
Crocodile reformed fully into his human body and gave himself some space from the other two Devil Fruit eaters, annoyed. This could be a bit of a problem.
Tension hung in the air as Luffy and Smoker exchanged glares. The sounds of water gushing through the crack in the window, Tashigi pulling Shigure from its sheath, and Vivi pulling out her peacock slashers were the only sounds for several seconds.
"Tashigi, Princess, sheath your weapons," Smoker said after a moment. "This kid and I will handle this ourselves."
Luffy clearly didn't like it, but he nodded and turned his hateful gaze at Crocodile. "Fine. This bastard is going down."
On the inside, the rubbery pirate was steaming. This was his fight! Evan was his crewmate! He could kick this bastard's ass on his own and he had every right to do so! But he doubted his Fist of Hate would work on Smokey; he liked the guy, after all, and getting into a fight with him now was pointless, anyway. It would only cause more mayhem and make saving Evan slower. Because there was no way Evan was dead.
He didn't know why Evan was here in the first place, but there was no way Evan was dead.
"Tch," Crocodile spat, eyeing the situation carefully. The water level in the room was rising much quicker since the eyepatched-kid controlling it was out of commission. It was halfway up his calves now. Soon, the entire place would be flooded, and then this would all just be far more of a mess than he wanted. He couldn't simply leave the fight; Luffy and Smoker blocked the way, along with Vivi and Tashigi who remained at the foot of the stairs, their weapons dripping with water.
How many people had that Evan bastard told his weakness to, anyway? Crocodile growled in annoyance. None of this was going as planned.
Unfortunately, the Marine and pirate captain facing him were done waiting.
"Gum-Gum Gatling of Hate!" Luffy roared, and began slamming his fists at Crocodile rapidly. His fists extended forward with each punch thrown, and when they snapped back, their next punches had greater speed. Crocodile weaved in and out through the flurry of attacks, but his dodging was not as good as it had once been. The more the speed escalated, the closer Luffy came to connecting.
And Luffy wasn't the only one who decided to take the initiative. The greenish-grey haired Marine had turned into smoke form and billowed around Crocodile's side while he dodged Luffy's Gatling of Hate, and now came in for an attack.
"White Blow Rush!" Smoker exclaimed, stabbing his jutte forward at Crocodile's back. The warlord's well-honed instincts raised his hackles, and he immediately formed a hole of displaced sand where the jutte would've touched him. It passed through his body, and with another annoyed growl, Crocodile reached back and grabbed it with his right hand.
Smoker immediately yanked it free, though, just as the small amount of moisture in the weapon started to dry up. The Marine billowed back, checking his jutte for damage. Not much had been done, thankfully. Nodding to himself, he watched carefully for openings.
"You two are rather annoying," Crocodile grumbled. Luffy didn't reply; he just kept punching. Finally, though, he realized this wasn't working, and decided to go for a different tactic.
One rubbery leg shot up high into the air, clean through the ceiling of the aquarium room and into the room above it. "Gum-Guuuum…" Luffy called slowly as it continued to rise. Then it stopped and came down like a backwards rocket. "Water Gun!"
Crocodile had a brief second in which he remembered Evan's literal water guns, and thought wildly that somehow Luffy might replicate that, but the moment of stupidity passed when Luffy's sandaled foot smacked down into the floor in front of him. A giant fwoom shook the room as water cascaded around them. Both the rubber-brained captain and the sandy Warlord were soaked by the spray, although only the latter was bothered by this. His eyes widened, and he tried to touch his chest to dry off as quickly as possible, but Luffy was already a step ahead.
"Gum-Gum Bullet of Hate!"
Crocodile coughed as one powerful fist drilled into his stomach and knocked him backwards; he nearly lost his balance thanks to the water licking at his thighs and pulling at his feet. He had lost a precious moment of time thanks to the surprise upon realizing Luffy's actual plan, and he'd paid for it. It felt like a condensed tornado had decided to burrow into his stomach.
Up above and behind him, Smoker grinned wickedly. "Not bad, Straw Hat," he said, and swept downwards. His upper half had transformed back into a human form, while his lower half remained smoke. "White Cloud!" he roared, and brought his jutte crashing down on Crocodile's head.
That hurt like hell. The Warlord bit his tongue from the force of the attack and spat blood as his head jerked forward and downward. The whiplash was brutal, and for any normal person, it would've caused their brain to bounce against their skull, but Crocodile was made of much sterner stuff. His head throbbing, the president of Baroque Works rolled away from Luffy's Bullet and from Smoker in general. This made him even wetter, but since he was already soaked again anyway, it didn't matter.
"You think you have any chance against me, a Warlord, pirate?" he grunted at Luffy furiously. "How dare you continue to insult me like this!" He glared at Smoker. "And you—the Marines have stayed out of our business for years! Do you think they'll allow you to keep your rank when they find out you attacked a Warlord without a warrant? You have no evidence, and you'll just be sacked like the dog you are."
"If you think that's an insult," Luffy returned with equal ferocity, "then why don't you have some more!? Gum-Gum Whip!"
Crocodile gritted his teeth and leaped over the sweeping kick that extended far beyond his own body.
"Evidence?" Smoker said, his voice dropping in pitch. "Evidence? I have all the evidence I need, Crocodile, when a princess has to turn to pirates to save her own country from utter destruction! I have all the evidence I need when you are running a backhanded scheme, hiring dangerous Devil Fruit eaters as assassins! I have all the evidence I need when a country loses all of its rain for three straight years and a Logia whose power just so happens to be able to hold back moisture is the perpetrator of all this suffering, by word of the princess's own mouth!" Enraged, he turned his arm into smoke and sent it blasting towards Crocodile. "White Snake!"
These bastards… Crocodile thought, running from the smoke; it turned and followed him, and his eye twitched. Fighting one of them at a time would be something he could handle in his sleep, but both was turning out to be a large pain. The water on the floor lapped at his knees, now, too, and it begun to draw from his energy ever so slightly. Luckily, both Luffy and Smoker seemed to be experiencing the same problem. That Gum-Gum Whip had been slightly slower than Straw Hat's other attacks, and the smoke chasing him was also not quite as fast as it should have been based on Smoker's reputation and previous attacks.
Still, going on like this would be a problem. Crocodile placed his hand on his side and drew out the excess water on his skin. At least his upper half would be able to transform now. He turned into sand with a smirk just as Luffy fired off another attack at him, and Crocodile sent the sandy parts of his body high into the air.
And experienced pain.
"URGH!" Crocodile gasped from the sheer shock of the lightning tendrils of pain coursing through him while in sand form. "What the hell!?"
"GUM-GUM BAZOOKA!" Luffy shouted below him, and the sound of rubber snapping again resounded through the room. At the same time, some part of him crashed into a wall and was lodged there, and with a chill, Crocodile understood. His lower legs had been unable to transform, so Luffy had simply went for those instead. He almost wanted to cry; it felt like his untransformed leg bones had been shattered.
Still being restrained by Robin near the closed secret entrance, Nojiko whooped savagely. "YOU GO, CAPTAIN!" she yelled. "BREAK HIS DAMN LEGS! WHILE YOU'RE AT IT, BREAK HIS DAMN FACE, TOO!"
"I normally frown upon people taking enjoyment in others' agony," Vivi said darkly, "but that felt good. THAT WAS FOR ALABASTA AND FOR EVAN, YOU DAMN BASTARD!"
King chattered and shook his fist, his tail swishing angrily behind him.
"Y-YOU… STRAW HAT!" Crocodile shouted, so lost in rage now that he couldn't even insult properly. It had been years since he'd been injured like this, and to think that it was some small-time East Blue nobody who did it after all this time! His pain seeped out through his voice, and with a throaty cry, he turned his golden hook back into its physical form and slid off the casing. The poison hook glinted in the light of the aquarium room as his sandy arm shot towards Luffy.
Robin's eyes widened. She nearly shouted for the boy to watch out, but that would alert Crocodile to her betrayal, and that was not worth it at this point in time. Vivi, however, had no such worries holding her back, and shouted a now-terrified warning. Luffy simply didn't need it, though; he looked up, saw the hook, and jumped back. It stabbed down where he used to be harmlessly… and then swept back at him.
Luffy blinked. Oh. That probably wasn't good. He'd seen purple, steamy liquid like that before on weapons from some of the poor people who'd been cast out of Goa Kingdom. Ace had told him that touching that was bad and that eating it was even worse.
"GUM-GUM RUN AWAY!" he cried, and promptly did just that.
"GET BACK HERE, STRAW HAT, SO YOU CAN DIE IN PAIN AND MISERY!"
King's eye twitched. "Somehow this is funnier that it's supposed to be," he signed, looking torn between snickering and worrying for his captain.
Smoke billowed back to Smoker's main form with a whistle like a tea kettle. The splashes of Luffy's feet wading through the rapidly rising water echoed through the room, and the Marine frowned. This was getting to be too dangerous for all three of the Devil Fruit users. If something wasn't done about the water… He frowned. His eyes flicked over to where Evan lay on the floating bits of the broken desk, a dried-up shell. After a brief moment of thought, he blasted some smoke over towards the blinded pirate and pushed him into the water. He held him there and winced as Evan's body immediately quadrupled in weight, and not just from suddenly fluffing back up to normalcy.
"Oi, let go of Evan, Smoker!" Nojiko hissed, and he sighed.
"Calm down," he told her. "I'm not drowning him; I'm rejuvenating him." He lifted Evan's now once again moisture-filled body in the air for her to see, and the bluenette calmed down slightly. The brown-haired kid choked and spat water; evidently that had been enough to wake him up. Whether it was his moisture being restored or the innate fear of drowning that all Devil Fruit users had instilled in them, though, was up for questioning.
Still sending his poison hook after a Luffy randomly running in circles, Crocodile felt his annoyance rise even further. That waterbender still wasn't dead? Curse that smokey bastard! All of this just kept going even more wrong. Luckily, Evan was weak enough that he definitely wouldn't be able to keep fighting, but it still pissed him off.
"You okay, kid?" Smoker gruffed.
"S-Smoker?" Evan choked weakly, coughing up the last bit of stray water that had gotten in his lungs. "That was you who dunked me in the water? Please… never do that again… GeezIthoughtIwasgonnadie."
The broad-shouldered man released him and motioned to the water. "Think you could stop that from flowing in any more? It's getting to be an inconvenience."
Evan sent his senses out to the water rushing in the wall and nodded. "My mind's really kinda fuzzy right now, and if I do anything too strenuous I think I'll just go right back to being unconscious, but ah… I think just holding the water back should be fine."
While Evan commanded the water to stop flowing, Luffy, tired of running, turned and fired a Gum-Gum Whip at Crocodile's hook. His foot smacked into the gold it was attached to, knocking it away and out of his sand's grip. It splashed into the water and sank, and Crocodile's fury only rose even further.
"I've had just about enough of this," he growled, a vein on his forehead popping against his skin. "You damn imbeciles… just die already!" He brought all his sand back up to the main cloud hovering in the air, and then charged down at the ground, turning his right hand back into its human form. "Lake Secco!" His hand contacted the water on the floor, which immediately began to dry out with a hiss like a dying cat.
Luffy pounded his fists together as the water level dropped with surprising speed. "I won't let you do that!" he cried; the water was their main weapon against him, and letting it disappear would just be bad. So thinking, he kicked out his foot and drove it straight towards Crocodile's face, which remained untransformed so he could see better. "GUM-GUM STAMP!"
One soppy sandal connected with Crocodile's already-broken nose, and the Warlord bellowed.
"WHAT IS IT WITH YOU STRAW HATS ATTACKING MY FACE!?" he snarled, and lifted his right hand from the surface of the water long enough to form a blade of sand. "Desert Spada!" he growled, and the blade reeved through the air. Luffy gulped and dodged to the right, but it was still quick enough to cut a deep gash in his side.
The pirate howled in pain as his red desert robes stained even redder with his own blood, and Nojiko and Vivi's eyes widened. "LUFFY!" they shouted.
Smoker grunted. That looked like it had hurt. He couldn't waste time in concern for an injured pirate, however, even if it was an injured pirate who had been helping him take down the bastard with too much sand up his ass; he needed to stop Crocodile from attacking as much as he could, and take him down. So thinking, he dashed forward, turned his upper arm into smoke and blasted his jutte forward. "White Blow!"
"Haven't I already said that the same attack wouldn't work twice?" Crocodile said in a tone that was a strange mix of bored and annoyed. "And that's considering whether it worked once." He turned the part of his body that would've met the seastone tip of his jutte into sand and made a hole, just before Smoker's attack could connect; but the motorcyclist had been expecting it.
"Sorry," he said, not sorry at all. "I lied. Jitte Ranbu."
Crocodile's eyes widened slightly as instead of going for a straight jab, Smoker instead suddenly turned his fist and smacked the tip into his side. He only barely avoided it with a sandy hole in time, but the Marine Captain immediately switched to another blow, this time from the opposite direction, upon his weapon passing to the other side of Crocodile's body. The Warlord avoided that one, too, but the strikes became noticeably faster. Smoker didn't let up, either. Annoyingly for Crocodile but pleasing for Smoker, the random position of each separate attack—solar plexus, left calf, right side of the neck, and more—made it impossible to predict where each one came from. As many as he did dodge, the criminal agency's president couldn't dodge every strike, and so ended up getting hit by a few.
"Straw Hat!" Smoker boomed as Luffy staggered up to a full stand, clutching his heavily bleeding side. "Don't let up! Give him any chance to attack and he could take all of you out! I'll be fine since I'm smoke, but you won't be!"
Luffy's hate-filled eyes fell on Crocodile chillingly. "Don't worry," he snarled. "I never planned to give him a chance to fight back. Gum-Gum Gatling of Hate! RAAAAAAAAAH!"
A flurry of attacks rained down on Crocodile from both sides now, and his eyes widened in slight fear as he hastily tried to dodge each and every one while at the same time, drying up as much of the water on the floor as he could. It was only his years of Grand Line experience and sheer fighting prowess that kept the man from falling to his two opponents. He weaved in an and out through the abnormally fast punches and jutte swipes, growing gradually weaker and weaker each small time he was hit. Veins continued to pop on his forehead, and his annoyance grew greater and greater. There was no way for him to fully escape Luffy's and Smoker's flurry now, not like this, and so Crocodile did the next best thing: he maneuvered himself around just enough so that he could aim at the stairwell.
He ducked down beneath a blur of a fist and a jutte, turned his upper left arm into sand, and shot the human part of it forward. The metal hook shone like a beacon of danger as light bounced off of it, its poison's deathly purple fumes leaking into the air.
"Shit!" Luffy gulped, in the way of the attack, and he rolled out of the way… but Crocodile's arm kept on going.
Nojiko's eyes widened as she followed the hook's path. "Dammit," she cursed, and hurriedly dunked two bullets in what little remained of the water on the floor. She hastily brought out one of her pistols, loaded the bullets in it, and fired at Crocodile's arm. The cracks rang out loudly in the room, and the wet bullets pierced Crocodile's sand and drew blood. He hissed in pain… but the deed was already done.
Blood splattered and mixed into the rest of the water in the room. But it wasn't Crocodile's, nor was it Luffy's.
"VIVI!" Nojiko shouted, eyes widening in fear, and with a howl she finally broke free of a stunned Robin's grip to dash forward to her falling friend's side.
Smoker's own eyes widened, chilled so fiercely that his body stopped moving for a few seconds. "TASHIGI!" he yelled, and his vice-captain staggered a couple steps before slumping forward and tipping over.
Both the Princess of Alabasta and Smoker's Vice-Captain splashed into the water, twitching and sobbing in pain. Their faces pale as if they'd seen a ghost, they shakily reached up and clutched at their sides; Crocodile had ruthlessly impaled them with his poison hook, and they could feel it spreading through their systems. It burned, it melted, it ate at them.
"D-Damn… you…" Vivi choked out weakly. "I can't die here! I'm going to… save my country…"
Evan gritted his teeth and turned to Crocodile. If a blind look from behind a couple eye patches could kill, the Warlord would have been six feet under Alabasta's lifeless sand. "You're going to pay for that," he promised woozily.
Luffy didn't even hesitate. "GUM-GUM BAZOOKA OF HATE!" he shouted with all the fury of an army of preteen girls facing a spider, and as Crocodile's arm came back to him, the pirate slammed both of his palms into the man's chest. Or tried to, at least; his hands simply passed through the smug Warlord's body as it again broke into sand before he could hit it. Smoker had to turn into his namesake element and haul ass out of Houston to not get accidentally Bazooka'd instead.
"Now, now, Straw Hat, that's not good," Crocodile chided him, smirking. At last, he had the advantage! "That Marine girl and the Princess have been poisoned by a substance that will kill them incredibly quickly. Fighting me is pointless; they'll only die by the time you win, if you even manage that. What was that you were screaming about earlier, hm? Revenge for your friends? You care about them a lot… but what good is all that care for if they're dead?"
A look of horrified realization passed over Luffy's face and he froze halfway through pulling back for another punch. "Y-You…" he choked out hesitantly. "No way would they die! Vivi will save her country! And I don't know about the Marine girl but she wants to help out, so no way would she die until she helps save this country, too!"
"Wanting is all well and good," Crocodile gloated, "but all that is meaningless in death."
Luffy hesitated further, sparing a look at the woman he'd promised to protect and bring to her home, as well as the woman he very vaguely remembered from Loguetown.
It was all Crocodile needed.
"Straw Hat, look out!" Smoker hissed, and then the hook was flashing through the air again, and it stabbed through the center of the pirate captain's chest.
Dead silence fell over the room as every Straw Hat present felt a little part of them die.
"LUFFY!" Nojiko, Evan, and even Vivi (albeit in the latter's case, it was more of a croak) yelled. Smoker grunted and blasted his jutte forward desperately, vengeance gleaming in his eyes, but Crocodile just smirked.
"Sables: Pesado!" he announced, and a small but dense mass of swirling sand gathered in his right hand, growing larger with surprising speed. He hurled it forward at the approaching Smoker. It connected with the seastone-tipped weapon, and Smoker only had time to growl. Then the swirling sand exploded against the metal, and the weapon shattered. The resulting shockwave blasted the Marine back, his Logia powers of no help, and the glass of the window that wasn't yet broken shuddered.
Smoker slammed into the wall behind him and stared at his broken weapon. Due to the fact that he hadn't expected to meet the Straw Hats at that specific time in that specific restaurant, he hadn't brought any sea prism stone other than what was on the jutte. He'd have to fight Crocodile fist-to-fist now… but that would be much slower, and Tashigi, Princess Vivi, and that damned Straw Hat might die from the poison by that time.
"All it will take is a couple of minutes," Crocodile laughed, everyone tense as he threw Luffy to the side like an empty box. The pirate hit the floor hard and tumbled several feet. He struggled to get up, but it was clear that he was in egregious agony. "Then their suffering will be over." He turned his smirk on Smoker. "I will take my leave, now. I have business to attend to in Alubarna. You can continue to fight me, or you can look for a cure and pray that you're lucky."
Evan used his water senses to find Crocodile's location and glared at the bastard as he strolled forward as if he owned the damn place (which, really, he did). The teen didn't make any moves, however; he knew just how dangerous a situation they were in now. "You're lucky we're not anyone else besides the Straw Hats," he said quietly. "Otherwise, by the time Luffy gets done with you, you wouldn't be merely a grease stain on the damn sand. You'd be nonexistent."
"Want to be dried up a second time, Waterboy?" Crocodile said testily, pausing and raising up his right hand. Evan wisely shut up, but didn't stop his sightless glare. Crocodile's smirk widened, and then he walked straight past Nojiko, who knelt by Vivi and Tashigi worriedly. He then cocked his head at Robin, who flinched and cast a worried glance at her soon-to-be captain. "Come, Nico Robin."
Smoker's eyes widened and he stared at said woman, stupefied.
"You're… Nico Robin?" the silver-green haired man breathed.
Robin hesitated, gripping her arm nervously in response to Smoker's comment, and then followed Crocodile up the staircase, pausing only the slightest of seconds to hand something to Nojiko, who glared up suspiciously at her. Before the Warlord could find out anything happened, the raven-haired second-in-command of Baroque Works hurried up the staircase.
King didn't stop glaring at them until they were so far up the slightly winding staircase, he couldn't be seen anymore. "That bastard is going to pay," he signed furiously, then sighed in relief as the arm on his back disappeared in a flurry of flower petals. Then he, Smoker, and Evan dashed to Nojiko, who clutched a small vial of some clear liquid in her hands.
"What did Robin say, Nojiko?" Evan asked quickly.
The bluenette studied the vial in her hands as Vivi and Tashigi began to cough up their lungs. Luffy struggled to stand, but failed and faceplanted back in the remaining inch or so of water on the floor.
"She gave me this and said it was a cure for the poison," Nojiko explained darkly. "She said to administer it to Vivi, Tashigi, and Luffy, and that they'd live if we did." Then she frowned up at Evan, who looked barely conscious. "Evan. Are you one hundred percent sure we can trust that woman?"
"If that's really Nico Robin," Smoker growled, "then no."
Evan turned his glare toward the Marine. "Smoker, I may like you ten billion percent better than just about anyone else in the Marines, but don't you dare suggest that one of my future crewmates is untrustworthy. I'd trust Robin with my damn life. I don't have time to explain now, but she is without a doubt one of us."
Smoker blinked. Where had that come from?
"Well, that endorsement's enough for me," Nojiko said with a nod, and King stamped his foot.
"Just give them the damn antidote already!" he signed rapidly while Evan translated. "They're going to fucking DIE if you don't!"
Quickly, sparing not even a single second, Nojiko administered one-third of the vial to each poisoned individual. The moment that was done, she looked at the Marine. "Even without the poison, these are serious wounds. Do you have anything—?"
The broad-shouldered man frowned and shook his head. "I'll have to make do with this," he sighed, removing his white Justice coat and ripping off the sleeves, then ripping those down into thinner strips which he tied around Vivi's and Tashigi's sides in place of bandages. Nojiko blinked and followed suit with the sleeve of her desert robes, which she used for Luffy's wound.
"Better than nothing," Evan grunted as Nojiko helped Luffy get to his feet.
"Where's Crocodile?" Luffy demanded, looking around.
"Gone," Evan spat. "Damn it… I knew it wasn't likely that we could beat him the first time around, but with everything we had going for us, we had a chance."
"Less grousing, more foresight," King signed. "What do we do now?"
Evan frowned, then looked up at Smoker. "First things first: do you believe me now?"
Smoker grimaced, not replying for a few moments. Then he turned his attention to Vivi, who spoke firmly. "The Straw Hat Pirates are the only reason I've managed to return here alive and safe. If you're here to arrest a pirate, arrest Crocodile."
Smoker huffed out a sigh before straightening and looking back at Evan. "What's Crocodile's plan in Alubarna?"
Evan hesitated for a brief moment, but shook his head before speaking. "I'll worry about you interrogating me once this fiasco is over and done with. There's a bomb somewhere in the city, designed to destroy everything in a five-mile radius; it should be in the clock tower, but he may have moved it for all I know. He's planning to blow up the whole city and both armies so that he can take over the country." This drew several horrified gasps from those present and not yet aware of the future. "There's more to it than that, but the other part hinges on Robin cooperating with him, and that won't happen."
Smoker's grimace returned, deeper than before. "You are going to owe me a lot of answers when this mess is over," he promised. "Tashigi."
"Sir!" The swordswoman straightened and sharply saluted her commanding officer.
"Once we've escaped this casino, gather all the troops and make a course for the capital city. I'll use my Billower Bike to go ahead of you; if I can't take Crocodile down myself, then I'll buy as much time as I can for everyone else to catch up. We're not letting that thrice-damned Warlord get away."
Tashigi bowed. "Yes, sir!" she affirmed. With that, the two Marines headed towards the staircase. As they ran past Vivi, who now struggled to her feet herself, the blue-haired princess lifted up a hand.
"Captain Smoker, wait," she gasped. The buxom princess winced and clenched her throbbing wound. The two Marines paused and looked at her. "Thank you for putting aside your differences with my friends and deciding to work together to save this country. On behalf of all the citizens of Alabasta, thank you."
Smoker hesitated. Then he nodded and looked forward. "You're welcome, Princess Vivi," he said firmly, and he and Tashigi again raced up the stairs.
The pounding of their footsteps against the stairs echoed down the stairwell, getting softer and softer until they at last petered out completely. Silence filled the aquarium room, except for Luffy's and Evan's labored breathing. They'd fought hard as short as it had been since the beginning of the battle, and it showed.
Luffy glared at Evan and broke the silence by stomping over the wet floor and grabbing the boy's collar. "Dammit, Evan!" he roared, slapping his crew member across the face. "What were you guys doing here!? How did you get here before we did!? And why did you almost die!?"
Evan's face fell. "Sorry, Captain," he mumbled, ashamed. "I forced Robin to bring us here so that I could fight Crocodile on my own. After I was blinded, I… I just needed to prove to myself that I could be useful to you again. That I could learn and grow from my past weakness. And in the end… I only managed to get one hit on the bastard." He bit his lip and tasted blood; his hands clenched into fists, and had his tear ducts still been properly working, he'd have likely started to cry. "It's just…" he choked out, "it's just so frustrating…"
Luffy's anger faded away and his grip slackened. Nojiko frowned sadly at her close friend. She recalled how he'd wanted to get ten hits.
"You were facing a Warlord, you dumbass," she said quietly, her voice breaking a little. "It's amazing you were able to touch him at all, much less dodge his attacks. Especially considering you're…" Her voice strangled for a moment, and pain flashed across her eyes. "You're blind. And even then you gave him one hell of a show."
Luffy looked blankly at Nojiko while she said this, and when she finished, he faced Evan again.
There was a moment's pause. Then…
"OW!" Evan cried, rubbing his now-red cheek where Luffy had slapped him a second time. "What the hell was that one for!?"
"For being stupid and reckless!" Luffy barked, frowning and shoving his hands in his pockets. "Only I get to be stupid and reckless, got that!? Don't you dare do something like that again!"
The brown-haired waterboy's mouth opened in indignation. "B-But…!"
"No buts! You're a dumbass, Evan! Don't ever question how 'useful' you are to me! You're not a tool, you're my friend, and how well your eyes are working doesn't change that, dammit!" Luffy huffed furiously, a tic-mark pulsing on his head, and Evan just gaped with his two eye patches. "Got that!?"
"...Uh, got it," Evan confirmed. A sweatdrop hung off his head. Off to the side of the room, King Kong and Nojiko just smirked.
"Captain isn't very eloquent with his words, but he certainly nails it when he needs to," the vervet monkey signed, shaking his white-fur free of water.
Nojiko chuckled. "That's Luffy for ya."
The straw-hatted man cracked his knuckles. "Now! How do I catch up with Crocodile, Evan?"
"Uh, I think Pell's in the city right now, or he should be anyway, so riding him is probably fastest," the Earthling offered. "He's an Alabastan warrior with a falcon Devil Fruit, so he can fly really fast. We'll have to find him first, though."
"I'll help with that," Vivi promised, leaning against the wall for support. "Oh, Ra, my side hurts…"
King's tail flicked worriedly. "We need to get her to Chopper soon," he signed.
"I'm starting to regret leaving Ace and Sabo back at the Merry to guard it," Nojiko grumbled. "We could use all the help we could get."
Evan fell backwards in shock, sputtering. "What the hell!?" he gasped when he sat up. "Ace and Sabo are here but they're at the Merry!? Why!?"
"Take a guess," Nojiko deadpanned, jabbing her thumb at Luffy.
Luffy grinned and straightened up. The straw-hatted pirate captain rolled his wrists back to loosen them up. "Nah, we don't need them," he decided. "How can I be King of the Pirates if I rely on the help of my big brothers to win the most important fights when they aren't even a part of my crew? I'll beat that Croc bastard on my own."
"Oh," Evan said flatly, facepalming. "I should've known."
"Alright, enough of this, let's get moving!" King signed, stamping his furry foot impatiently while Evan used his new watersense to translate.
"Yes, we're wasting too much time," Vivi agreed. "Let's find Pell! Luffy, what do you say?"
He grinned widely and pointed to the staircase. "Everyone, it's time to leave!" he announced.
"Aye-aye, Luffy!" everyone shouted, and with that, the present Straw Hats plus the Princess of Alabasta ran back up the staircase to leave the casino.