This story is a collaboration between Naye and me; the writing is mine but the original (genius) plot bunny was hers. She generously shared it with me, and we raised it to storyhood together. It rose from our burning desire to see-ah, but that would be telling.
This version may have some missing scene breaks etc, thanks to ff. net's wacky ridiculous formatting rules. Check out the version on AO3 (link in author profile) for proper formatting.
Gen crew-fic; everyone should get their moment in the spotlight. Set on the Grand Line, after Arabasta and probably Skypiea.
No sooner had he lit the cigarette when the wind dashed the rain into his face, extinguishing that ember. Spitting the damp butt into the mud, Sanji drew his poncho tighter around his shoulders, cursing out the wind, the rain, the muddy streets, the whole town, and of course the damn moron of swordsman whose fault it was he was out here to begin with.
It was almost sundown, not that anyone could tell. In three days the dark cloud cover overhead hadn't parted once, and the rain, while occasionally slackening to a few teasing drips, always resumed downpouring within minutes. Just their luck that they had come here during the spring.
Regretfully opting not to waste any more cigarettes, Sanji thrust his hands into his pockets under the poncho and continued slogging down the street. This must be the wealthier side of town, going by the brick buildings and wrought-iron gates, and the utter lack of people. Anyone who could afford it fled Monsun for the season; the streets were as deserted as a soggy ghost town. Sanji doubted he had seen more than half a dozen people since they had arrived, and not a single beautiful woman among them. The owner of the sole open store, down by the docks, was an old grandmother, and even she had been veiled in oilcloth, hiding from the leaks in the sagging ceiling.
The locked doors and tightly shuttered windows made the town all the grimmer, and through the driving rain all the street corners looked the same. Small wonder the idiot had gotten lost; Sanji was a bit confused about where he himself was now, and he didn't have Zoro's unique directional sense. The swordsman was probably hiding from the rain in the most out-of-the-way place on the island-or else lying drunk in a puddle, taverns being the one thing he could locate with a reasonable success rate. Wherever he was, he better be at least as damp as Sanji himself, or there was going to be hell to pay.
Sanji snickered at the thought of the swordsman growing moss to match his hair, but was interrupted by a sneeze, which he followed up with more swearing. Two hours out in this and he was soaked to the skin. And no sign of Zoro.
It wasn't like it was the first time the swordsman had gotten lost on an island. He was bound to be wandering back any minute now-unless he had already. Sanji considered returning to the Going Merry, just to be sure. Brew up more coffee for Robin, who was keeping watch at the harbor. Change into something dry.
Which wouldn't long stay that way, if he had to go back out in this. And searching wouldn't be any easier once full night had fallen; there wasn't anyone around to light the streetlamps, even if a lantern flame could survive this damp. They would be better off waiting for tomorrow, like he had tried to argue earlier, to no avail.
Of course he understood Nami's wish to be gone from this wretched island. The log pose had set this morning, and they had already gotten what supplies were to be had in this sad excuse for a port. The only delay was their crewmate's absence. Directionally-challenged dumb son of a bitch. Even for Zoro, three days was ridiculous. It wasn't as if the island were that big, hardly more than this one town. Maybe he had wandered into the ocean and gotten lost under the water.
Hell, in this rain, that wouldn't be such a ridiculous mistake. The streets were more muddy rivers than roads anyway.
They could have just left without the swordsman; Zoro could catch up on his own. Nami had looked like she was considering it-but it hadn't been her choice to make, even if Sanji would gladly obey her every wish; a ship isn't a democracy. Not that they followed most marine traditions, but even on the Going Merry, the captain's word is law. Which wasn't a privilege Luffy abused by any means, but when he did on occasion have a command, there wasn't much choice about following it. Even out into downpours and deserted streets.
They had grumbled-most of them had grumbled, except for Robin, who only nodded silently, and Chopper, who had already been pacing the docks for most of the day and was quite soaked for it. But none of them had argued. Captain's orders.
Maybe it was because Luffy was as anxious as any of them to get moving again; the guy was going stir-crazy, shut up inside out of the rain. He had been on edge for the last few days, unable to sit still for so much as half a minute; at night he had been shouting and fighting in his dreams. Sanji hadn't even been able to keep him occupied with food; he would devour everything at double-speed-which, given his usual pace, was nothing short of incredible to watch-and then resume bugging whoever he had fixed on for that instant. Which gave them all reason to regret Zoro's absence, because the distraction of one more crewmate would have meant an extra minute of peace for all of them.
Except for the nagging feeling that there was more to it than boredom. Sanji had thought he was just imagining it, until he overheard Usopp pulling Luffy aside to ask seriously, "Is something wrong?" And Luffy had shrugged it off, and insisted on starting a game of checkers in which he lost interest after three moves. But Usopp had noticed it, too. Nothing they could put their fingers on, exactly; but maybe Luffy hadn't been laughing as much as usual, or else there was something wrong about the way he did.
Probably just the rain. The relentless patter on the cabin roof wore you down, and the air was so heavy with moisture it felt difficult to breathe. What else it could be? If there were any threat on this little island they surely would have encountered it by now. But they had all been debating the wisdom of a Zoro-hunt, or just saying to hell with him and sailing anyway, and Luffy had been sitting there, quiet as he had been noisy before. Then he had stood, said, "We'll all go look for him," and had walked outside without looking back, knowing they would follow.
They had split up to search, with the agreement that whoever found him would return to the ship to let off one of Usopp's signal flares. But in two hours, though Sanji kept looking to the harbor, no bright light had broken through the rain's constant grays.
Maybe the stupid swordsman had drowned after all.
Maybe Luffy had found him, and then they both had gotten lost. Having Luffy search for anyone on his own was a spectacularly stupid idea. Not that they had had any choice; their captain had run off faster than any of them could follow.
Or maybe Sanji had just missed the flare. His wet hair kept getting in his eyes, obscuring his vision. He could return to check. What if Robin were getting lonely? The idiot could find his own way back, if he were anywhere around here.
It wasn't like anything could have actually happened to him. Nothing in this damn town but the damn rain, and if Zoro were stuck out in it, that was his own damn fault. No reason for them all to suffer; nothing was stopping him from going back right now and waiting this out in a dry cabin.
Sanji swore again, and kept forging down the street.
o o o
From under his hood, the bounty hunter watched the rain stream down the window, blurring the reflections of his employer and the man with whom he was negotiating. The marine commodore's finery was soaked and bedraggled, silk coat stained with the rainwater, peacock feather in his hat drooping and dripping. His sour expression might have been because of that. Or else it was merely impatience. "So, you're ready? As you promised you'd be two days ago?"
"I apologize," his employer replied, in a low voice that was probably meant to sound ingratiating, but he couldn't pull it off. He was too large a man, too confident in his own strength; the hunter could have taken him in a second, but he was used to being a power among lesser men. Though the commodore seemed appeased, so maybe that raspy baritone grated on his nerves for other reasons. "There were unforeseen delays. But everything's ready now. As long as you'reready to hold up your end of the bargain."
The commodore sniffed. "May I remind you who's the wanted criminal here?"
"Shut up," growled the man, his eyes flicking to his associate. The hunter didn't even bother to shrug. He knew the man had been hiding something from him; if he had been lying about his Marine rank, it didn't matter. Not if he could still give what he promised, and the commodore's presence made that possible.
"I have the contract with me," the officer said, taking a parchment out of the oilskin pouch at his hip. "Already approved; all it needs is my signature. A full pardon-"
"And my rank restored."
"Yes, yes." The commodore pushed the paper at him, waved at it dismissively. "It's all there. Including your captaincy. I can't promise you jurisdiction over a base, but if this does work out-"
"You'll be in very good standing with the admirals by this time tomorrow night."
"And I won't forget who got me there." The officer smiled, a thin, mirthlessly triumphant smirk. In the distorted reflection of the dark glass, his head looked like a skull in a curly wig, then lost the resemblance as he frowned again. "If this works, of course. You're lucky they haven't left already."
"My man won't fail." He gestured to the hunter, who didn't turn from the window.
The commodore squinted at his back through his gold pince-nez. "Him? Doesn't look like much. What's his devil fruit power?"
"He doesn't have one."
"He doesn't have one?" repeated the commodore, incredulous. "My dear man, we're talking about one of the higher bountied pirates on the Grand Line. To say nothing of his crew-two of his officers are also enemies of the state, you realize. No one's ever succeeded in capturing Nico Robin, and as for the swordsman-"
"The swordsman," his employer cut in, "has already been taken care of. And the rest of them...well, we have a swordsman of our own." He pointed at the hunter imperatively. "Show him."
The hunter turned, brushing back his hood enough to glare at his employer. "Show him yourself. I'm your dog, not your trained monkey."
But the lamplight falling on his face was enough for the commodore. The officer sat up, his eyes widening a little, and then he leaned back again, the smirk tightening his skeletal features. "Ah, I see. So the rumors were true. Interesting. But will he do it?"
"Absolutely," his employer said. "He's been promised his share of the reward money-"
The hunter didn't say a word, hardly moved, but to rest his hand on one hilt at his belt. But the look the man shot him was familiar. Many people did recognize him, and many who did were afraid, though he rarely permitted himself to enjoy it. In the case of this son of a bitch, however, he made an exception, though he didn't let the smile reach his lips, as the man hastily added, "And he wants his name pardoned. You can help me with that."
The commodore's thin brows raised. "Easier said than done, in his case. Though I'm sure arrangements could be made, if he does succeed..."
"He'll succeed," his employer said. His tone was unbearably smug, and the hunter considered again how much he disliked this man, that superiority he took such pleasure in. If the hunter had known earlier that he was a wanted criminal-but the man could get him what he needed, and it wasn't worth it to be more than irritated. Hatred is too powerful a force to yield to lightly. "He has his own reasons. More important than anything else."
"And what might those be?" the commodore inquired, a note of challenge in his soft tone, unless it was simply curiosity.
The man's face was not really able to smile, but the snarling curl of his upper lip had the bloodthirsty amusement of a cat playing with its prey. "Justice, of course. Like any innocent man wants." He stood, looming over the hunter, who didn't bother to angle his head up to meet his eyes. "And the chance for just revenge, of course. What's a hundred million beri, compared to that?" He set his good hand on the hunter's shoulder, bore down. "Who have you been waiting for the chance to fight, all this time? Of all the pirates you've gone after, who's the only one to escape?"
The hunter said nothing, just grabbed the man's arm and wrenched it back, forcing his employer to his knees, so their eyes were level. The commodore sprang up, knocking over his chair as he fumbled for the jeweled pistol at his belt.
But the man just laughed, yanked his wrist free and climbed back to his feet. "It's not me who got you into this. You know whose fault it is." His laughter was as harsh as his voice; it buzzed in his ears, as incessant and irritating as the rain outside. He was so damn sick of that voice. But this was the only way, and as soon as this nonsense was over he would have his chance. That anticipation was a rising tide in his blood, powerful enough to wash away his annoyance with this petty man. "You've been waiting for this long enough, haven't you? You won't fail. So tell us, who will be defeated tonight?" His heart was pounding in his ears, so loud he could hardly hear the rasp of the man's question. "Who are you hunting?"
The hunter's eyes narrowed, his mouth curving in something too fierce and full of hatred to be a smile. "Monkey D. Luffy."
to be continued...