I am crap at updating. In fact if there were an equivilant for the Oscars for slovenly updating then I'd bloody well clear the podium before the trophies had even been forged. I am rubbish and I'm very sorry for taking so miserably long, but here it is at last- the final chapter! Thank you all for being so kind and curtious as to keep reading, and although I must have been very frustrating I hope you enjoyed the ride. Thank you again, a good night to all and to all a good night!
To many people's mind there is no phrase quite so aggravating to be found within a work of writing as this combination of two such simple, monosyllabic words. An end is to cut something off, for it to be finite, to cease, stop, die; but as we well know no story truly finishes so neatly and clinically as to suffer some metaphorical literary coronary arrest. Life could well be considered to be a story- it does not end at death, and I speak not of the philosophy of what lies thereafter (for that in itself is another intricate and curious tale, far beyond our own meagre knowledge of what we consider to be existence, and is not something I care to speculate upon at the present time), but I speak of how no single life is an entity separate from all others; "no man is an island", to quote the observations of John Donne. Discerning where one life begins and another ends becomes a task that is akin to discriminating between the beginnings and ends of clouds in a storm. Life is an organic thing, and, as with other organisms, lives intertwine, affect and are affected by others, even if they are themselves completely oblivious to this. The most chance and brief encounter can alter the direction and determination of two utterly disparate individuals, be it negatively or positively, for the rest of their permitted occasion in the world that they are witness to. The extraordinary coincidence of existing within the same epoch, let alone the same physical dimension or area, of another that in some way resembles or resonates with your own apparent being and character is an event of astoundingly uncelebrated rarity, the probabilities of which would confound the most advanced of devices for calculation, but which is no more marked by the observers than the passing of another year. Exceptional to this could be the advent of love, but even then love is so often misunderstood, missed and maltreated that it more often goes unnoticed than embraced, and more often than that unrequited. Despite this it carries on, wanted or no; as with life, love is not a thing that can be so easily ended.
So to say 'the end' is, in all honesty, to lie, for surely there is no story that is not in some way instilled with love, or why would it have been written?
One could argue, however, that something of a more tangible substance can come to an end, in a sense- once something has been burnt it no longer exists as what it was, and in that instance has indeed ended that particular existence. This is an issue of considerable concern to several people who have, by the chances and fortunes of their own individual but somehow intertwined lives, convened in the stronghold of the marines, which contains a select individual who holds in his hand, quite literally, the decision of whether the current state of the Hallavic Islands will, or will not, end.
This singular man is currently exiting (with some alacrity), the final interior stairwell of the marine stronghold of these same islands, feeling the unpleasant peppering of sweet upon his upper lip so heavily blanketed by his pridefully cumbersome moustache. What drives a man to invention? Necessity- it has been claimed as the mother of invention time and time again and, surely, what greater necessity in life was there but to climb as high as one is able? It is the very act of humanity, further yet, nature, to do so. All he was attempting to do was to live as outstanding and productive a life as was possible- if it happened that to do this it also had to be lucrative, what of it? In order to serve the government loyally, for the sake of justice, to strive to create a safe and fair environment one needs funding, obviously. Surely what he was doing was a noble cause, a work of genius? Why, in pursuit of this objective the boundaries of scientific knowledge had been clearly expanded by his efforts, couldn't those obtuse beggars comprehend that? So often genius is seen as madness, alas, a curse for someone of so high an intellect as he, what trials the gifted must face! Petty fools, all of them. Seeing the world so small- for the advance and benefit of the many a few must suffer, this is a truth, and so it has been and always will remain, so why did he have to suffer their inability to grasp this most basic of ideas? Reality is harsh, unloving, fate is blind, and yet their refusal to admit to this concept worsened his own so sorely as to drive him to insanity. Believing that everyone could survive on hope and dreams alone; what madmen were these that dogged him? The highest pedigree of fools, to be sure.
Hearing the advance of his pursuers Gallee hastened his preparations to meet them.
"Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit."
Crass though it may have been, Sanji's cyclical command of prose was in fact quite an apt summary of his situation.
For one, he was still four floors down from his destination, for another there was an increasing number of people appearing to prevent his perpetrating the achievement of this goal, and, for a third, he was still a freaking horse. Breathing the forelock from his face heavily he cursed the predicament bitterly; the sweat he couldn't wipe away from his stinging eyes, the frictionless keratin of his hooves so scraped and knocked by the hard, narrow, polished steps, the danger, all the danger he couldn't stop, he couldn't solve. Was it so hard? Was it so hard to think of a way? Was he so stupid that he couldn't save them? He couldn't even save one?… but thinking like that was no good, no, he had to keep going. Keep going, he just had to get there in time, there had to be enough time, he had to save them, he had to save everyone, anyone…
He had to save her.
As for the thoughts of the adroitly scattering marines that had just been dealt the volcanic blow of a charging black steed punishing the stairwell with all four legs working like so many steel belted pistons, there was something of a unison of contemplation with the inclination to clear the immediate vicinity and to never take riding lessons at any point in their dearly precious futures.
"But how do we know this isn't a set up?"
Zoro's breath ran ragged through his lungs, his heaving ribcage and buckling legs beginning to show the toll of constant uphill fighting in a fashion he was neither physically trained to nor mentally adapted to, the wound from the farmer's bullet straining against the carefully crafted stitches within his chest, painfully threatening to work itself loose from the aggravation of fighting. Regardless he continued to lay siege to the constant swaths of marines that seemed to materialise at every turn the staircase flung them in.
"Couldn't Maragou still be working for them, or even simply for himself? I can't trust a guy that did this to us without any particular remorse…" further commentary was temporarily stemmed as his teeth were (temporarily) situated within the posterior of an unwieldy and highly unfortunate commander.
"Well, it's true that he may well still be working towards his own advantage (in fact I suspect this to be the case regardless)," Robin replied casually, inhibiting the usage of a rifle by a front soldier by the application of her claws to his face, "…but it seems to me that he is, at present, willing to assist us. If he was really against the idea he wouldn't have written the note as he did- the hand writing would have looked more forced and the paper might have been crumpled or ripped, or Doctor-san could have done it instead. As it was the handwriting didn't looked rushed or unwilling and the paper was intact."
The wolf gave a reluctant snort of admittance as another marine fell beneath his paws, allowing him to jump to the next set of stairs.
"Hnh, I suppose. Still, I don't like it…"
"If you were enjoying the situation I would be a little concerned, Bushido-san…" Robin's characteristic head-tilted smile shone through despite her feline appearance, as they continued to plough their way upwards...
"Open it open it open it!"
"I am attempting to do so, but you're not exactly aiding the situation…" Maragou snarled deprecatingly at Luffy, who was throwing the keys one after the other around the ring in the magician's hands, thus confusing the order of which had been tried and were yet to be fitted in the door ahead of them.
"Luffy will you get off him for one minute so we can actually move on, you aren't helping anything! Nami will you tell him…?"
Usopp's pleas were not met with sympathy however, as Nami's fury at their quarry was currently suppressing her consideration of how to proceed logically.
"Why that overblown, power mad, egotistic, inconsiderate… I'll make him pay Five-hundred percent's worth of that stupid diamond's value for this when I get my hands on him! No! Ten-hundred! Ten-thousand-hundred percent! Luffy! Why aren't we through that door yet?!"
"I'm trying I'm trying will you blasted creatures just let me… ah!"
Pure luck assisted the exasperated conjurer to select the correct key, the door slamming open from the weight of his hands fervently working the handle. Practically falling into the room they barely had time to observe the contents as they immediately ran to find the moustached mayor. The only impact that was unanimously noted was that the space was immense- whereas the previous floors had been split into various rooms and segmented areas, the entire floor was open, the ceiling and floor stretching away to a length and breadth that would have been more fitting for a cathedral, made all the more strange for the fact that it maintained the usual height of the rooms in the building. The effect was disconcerting- vastly spacious, and yet claustrophobic, as if the ceiling was too low, even through it would still have been more than accommodating if they had been their usual sizes.
Pausing for a moment to look about them the group instinctively formed a small circle, backs to one another as they gazed about the sparse surroundings. As they peered out into the long, empty spaces, occasionally broken by large crates and indiscernible machines covered by tarpaulins, Nami gave a slight shiver.
"I don't like this… we gave him too long, this feels too much like a trap."
"If he's even still in here- for all we know there's a way up to the roof, he might have already flown the coop… pardon the expression," Maragou apologised half-heartedly to the diminutive magpie at his feet.
Usopp could feel his tiny heart beating faster than was natural even for his usual state of tepidity, the tiny organ creating more of a whirring sound than the usual thudding noise he was used to hearing pounding against his ribcage. Wiping sweat from his nose with a paw he attempted to get his breathing under control, and in doing so noticed something that, once more, he had yet to fully realise he was capable of doing.
"No… Nami's right, I can… I can smell him- the strange ink scent that Chopper described, he's still in here."
"Woah, Usopp, you can do that?! Awesome! It must be from having such a long n-"
"I can't usually, dumbass!"
"Is that right?" Maragou looked from one cloth-hidden bulk to the next, "it's true, I suppose he could be hidden under any one of those, but there's so many… I suppose we'd better split up and search all of them, as fast as possible."
Nami nodded curtly- she didn't like taking orders, least of all from him, but it seemed to be the only option at the moment, and their slippery companion seemed to be genuinely adamant about catching Gallee, so she would just have to trust him… for the moment. However, just as they were about to set off in separate directions a muffled voice came rather laughingly in reply to their plans.
"Actually, I rather think it would be more advisable for you to stay exactly where you are…"
There was the heavy sound of cloth being thrown in the air, as they swung to the east where the sound had come from to see one of the masses being unveiled by a manically grinning Gallee. As the canvas sheet fell to the ground Nami gave a sharp intake of breath as she recognised the machine that was now in sight (and, ironically, that they were within the sights of) - the contraption that Maragou had used to transform them on that fateful night in the opera house. A slight whine made it evident that the machine was still in full working order, Gallee's fingers resting lightly on the levers.
The command was a redundant one, as all four had immediately ceased their progress at the jarring instant role reversal of hunters to captives. It was small comfort that the hand that had been holding the detonation controls was empty, but the over sized diamond was still clutched tightly in the pudgy grasp of the other. The lieutenant chuckled at their apparent confusion.
"Ahem-hem, I expect you're wondering how this thing can possibly work without this? Moreover, why I would choose to aim this machine at you, as opposed to one of the various items of artillery stored in this room- after all, this is only a device for menial distraction, surely? A toy for entertainment, albeit of an unusual kind, no? Well, that is correct; if it is constructed as the original creator had intended- isn't that right, lemur-boy?"
Maragou flinched slightly at the uncivil method of address, but remained silent, his tight-lipped expression only causing Nami's uneasiness about the situation to increase. Gallee sneered unpleasantly at this response.
"Hnh, that's right, it wasn't just your ignorance of perceptual worth that led you to choose this particular diamond as the main focusing lens, was it? You see, one of the reasons this gem is so remarkably valuable is not only its unprecedented size and cut, but its remarkable clarity- see how perfectly transparent it is?" Usopp could see Nami's eyes changing to Belli symbols as the stone was held tantalisingly in a shaft of light from the skylight, the facets showing a sparkling array of dazzling lights of all hues whilst remaining flawlessly clear at the same time.
"Most stones have a slight discolouration from tiny traces of chemical impurities- in fact this is sometimes what gives them the unique colours that give them such value, as with emeralds, rubies, sapphires… even diamonds usually contain trace minerals, sometimes resulting in pink, yellow, or even the very rare red diamonds that are occasionally found, but this… this is an item of perfection itself. It contains absolutely no impurities, it is flawless, unspoilt, an ideal. Such is the world I yearn to create, void of contamination, the infection of the vulgar populace…" once again the strange contortion of disgust turned his rotund, jovial features into a mask of revulsion. "Alas, a dream only halfway to completion… but this diamond is already far above such standards. As such, it has no affect upon the beam generated by this contraption, other than to concentrate and converge it. Now, say we place another similar lens within the machine, but one that is not so faultless… would you care to hazard a guess as to what might happen?"
From the resentful, knowing look in the glowing, ember-like eyes of the sullen magician he needed no guesses to state what would happen; "The beam would not be a pure manifestation of the effects of the source, in other words, the treatment and resultant physical consequences of being hit by it would not be predictable, and it would have a high chance of being irreversible."
"EEEEEEEEEEH?!" The clamorous shock voiced by the three pirates sounded nothing like the human translation, but the amalgamation of the alarmed squawks and screeches was enough to let Gallee know that they had understood the basic implication of what faced them.
"So you at least have enough intelligence to comprehend the situation- the threat is perhaps even more potent than you even now realise; in your already altered state, the result of yet another dose of the protransformatory treatment is unknown even to myself, even if it were via the original machine…" At this Usopp noticed that amongst the various switches there were two main activation slides which the lieutenant's fingers were hovering slightly above- one marked 'pro' and the other 'anti', presumably 'pro', in other words 'forward', must mean applying the effect, 'anti' for reversing it… He noted this as Gallee continued to expound, evidently enjoying the sound of his own voice, "-It may not even affect your current form at all, but what is certain is that should you come into contact with the beam as it is now, you will never return to your original state, you will never again be human- of course," he tilted his head consolingly at Maragou, "some of you have never had the privilege in the first place."
Riling at the mocking sympathy it was all the strange lemur could do to grind his teeth in suppressed anger, but the threat was a very real and dangerous one- even one such as he, who was already under the effects of a zoan-type devil fruit, might be irrevocably mutated by the unrefined power of the Ikimono fruit. As it was the future of their corporeal existence was currently in the hands of a power crazed and highly strung madman, hardly a favourable position. Gallee had chosen to continue this vein of thought, bloating his own self esteem whilst belittling just about everyone else in the cosmos, his hand clutching the diamond in a enthusiastic, sweaty grip as he rambled along in his fervent monologue. Tiring of his arrogance it was with some relief that Maragou became aware that Usopp was imperceptibly whispering to them- his quiet rodent-based noises out of the hearing range and interest of the lecturing captor.
"Listen, I think I understand how that machine works, at least from the outside, but as it is I won't be able to get to it or even operate it without any hands. Luffy, you have to listen very carefully- if we get the chance, you have to get to the machine on the side that Gallee is standing on, right?" Luffy nodded with the tip of his tail- even their simple minded captain was aware that this was no situation to act conspicuously in.
"Good, when you see it you'll find two green switches right in the middle: they're what control whether the machine can turn people into animals or animals back into humans, is that right, Maragou?"
The magician made an assenting noise which could have been mistaken for vague interest in whatever Gallee was blabbering on about.
"Okay- the one on the right is the one we need to have activated, got that? The right side. When that switch is all the way down you can throw the main lever- the big one at the front, that's the one that fires the beam, I remember from the performance. Maragou, we'll probably need you to handle that, it looks pretty hard to operate, even if you have dexterous paws like Luffy's. The main problem is going to be getting him away from the machine…"
"I can try to do that."
"Are you sure, Nami? It'll be pretty dangerous…"
Magpies are rarely seen to give courageous shrugs, but none the less the avian navigator had a glint in her eye that brooked no argument at the idea.
"No problem, I've done decoy work before, I'll see what I can do."
Unfortunately, the twitter of her bird-like voice was enough to rouse the attention of the garrulous marine, breaking the flow of his sermon.
"Ahem-hem, say now, no talking there, what are you conspiring about? Do I have to remind you about your situation…?"
"Oh blimey, if we don't do something he's going to start up talking again…"
"Alright then! Let's go!"
"No! Luffy, I didn't mean…"
But the half-prepared plan was already taking flight before their eyes, as the small lithe mammal set off at a bouncy sprint towards Gallee's shins. Momentarily startled he jumped back at the unexpected advance, giving the group the split-second they needed to separate.
"Blast, you damned ape, fine then! Reap your reward for defying me!" As he swung the aiming barrel of the device towards the floor his progress was impeded, as his vision was blocked by a flurry of black and white feathers. As Nami flapped and whirled around his eyes, threatening his face with her talons, Luffy managed to clamber onto the side of the machine, Maragou gradually making his way towards the contraption using the other canvassed masses scattered around the area as cover, cautiously flitting from one to another. Thrashing his arms about in a panic the huge diamond was sent flying from the lieutenant's sweating palm, as he made a swipe upwards, knocking Nami out his path.
She landed with a soft thump some metres away from Usopp, who had made a hasty barrel roll manoeuvre to avoid being crushed by the falling diamond. Swiftly Nami attempted to right herself, her plumage haven taken most of the impact of the landing, but the blow had still slightly stunned her as she slumped, trying to catch her breath. Snarling at the upstart Gallee turned his head sharply to see Luffy clambering over the machine to the activation lever.
"Oh no you don't!" A well aimed kick sent the scraggly form flying over to where Maragou was ducking low to avoid discovery. Fleetingly a long, striped tail shot out from the cover of a tarpaulin-clad cannon, arresting Luffy's imminent collision with the floor and pulling him to safety behind the make-shift shield. Gallee laughed violently with crazed eyes as he reclaimed control of the apparatus.
"So you think you can save yourselves?! Ha! Well, I suppose that serves me right for being so benevolent, you don't deserve my pity! Now," he yanked the device sharply to aim at Nami's dazed form, "Suffer whatever fate awaits you!"
Only having time to realise what was happening Nami's pupils constricted at the sound of the lever clicking down into position as once more the horribly familiar flash of light struck her. The painful yet oddly invigorating electrical impulse shooting down every neurone in her body caused her to instinctively curl her body around into a protective ball, although she knew it was already too late to defend herself from the results. I got hit… that's it, I'll never be human again, I'll never speak again, for all I know I'll die, that's it, finished, I never got to draw a map of the world, I never saw Luffy become the pirate king, or help Sanji find All Blue, just nothing, that's all I did, nothing, the story's over, no happily ever after, the end…
A dreadful moment passed.
Hesitantly aware that she was still breathing, Nami dared to slightly open one of her eyes. Peering through a gap in her fingers she could still see Gallee and the machine, the former with an expression somewhere between abhorrence and utter shock. Scared, she wondered what could have happened to her that would be so horrific to cause such a reaction from the instigator, when it suddenly occurred to her what she was doing…
She was looking through a gap in her fingers.
Suddenly unravelling herself from her cowering position she gaped as she saw and felt her arms, her legs, her hair- she was her again. A half laugh, half gasp of joy juddered its way out of her as she embraced herself with a relief and love that she was sure she'd never felt before.
"I… but, how…?"
Looking up again she noticed that Gallee was no longer looking at her, but slightly ahead of her. Following his gaze she saw, to her astonishment, Usopp, evidently straining under the weight but steady and stern despite his meagre size and strength, holding the oversized diamond aloft like some comical, hairy Atlas with his globe. Had Nami not been so very small and closely in proximity to the ground the alignment would never have succeeded, but as it was the sniper's judgement of aim had proven to be as sound on the receiving end as it was on his delivery- he had positioned the diamond and held it at the exact correct angle to direct the beam straight through the gem onto Nami, re-establishing the original focus by negating the supplementary, impure lens within the machine.
The small creature toppled over, the mass of the burden finally overwhelming him, the portly man still staring at him in disbelief.
"This… but this is impossible! Impossible! Even if you refocused the beam, the machine was set to change the form positively!"
"But it was focused twice."
Gallee swung his face to see Maragou emerging from behind the blockade, Luffy sat petulantly between his downy ears.
"The double effect of first being directed through the lens, then the diamond, must have had a slight refracting effect, reversing the beam's power."
"That's nonsense, the diamond is a lens, it should only have focused the beam- true it might have nullified the impurity of the first, but reversing it…?"
Looking at the magician carefully, even with his intense but cool amber hued eyes Nami could tell he was bluffing, though it seemed Gallee was halfway to believing him. Glancing at the machine she now saw that the slide Luffy had been told to activate had indeed been moved, I see… so he doesn't want him to realise yet so we can use the same method to get Luffy and Usopp back to normal… Gallee and Maragou's dialogue was being somewhat tested by Luffy, who was obviously trying to inform Maragou that in fact he had been the one to alter the machine, and was evidently rather proud about it, despite all of Maragou's attempts to disguise this fact from Gallee, who was starting to become suspicious. Realising the situation would not last Nami swiftly took to her feet, heading towards the device- if I can just get to the machine and hold Usopp in front of it I'm sure he can get the beam to hit Luffy, then it'll be plain sailing… Catching up the stoat and diamond as she ran the Lieutenant had obviously caught on to the ruse, as he turned rapidly back to the machine. She was almost upon it when the marine sent a surprisingly strong arm slamming into the side of her head, causing her to drop Usopp and the stone as she fell to the ground.
The sound of the diamond clattering to the floor, along with her own gasp of pain and Maragou's yell of indignant anger, were left unheard, as a voluble crash accompanied the explosion of wood and plaster that was the net result of three animals hurtling at the once close (and intact) doorway. If one had been within earshot and had the ability to discern the different meaning of the various brays, whinny's, growls and barks that were being vocalised by two of these creatures, one may have been inclined to laugh at the exchange despite the surreal circumstances, the third member merely jumping aside from the destruction in a vaguely jaded fashion.
"Well it's your fault for getting in my way that it took us so long to get here!"
"My fault?! You were still stuck sliding about on the stairwell with those stupid fancy hooves of yours, horse-features!"
"And who started going back DOWN the stairs when we were nearly in the right pla…"
The pair stopped arguing with each other momentarily as there was a feeling of eyes upon them.
"… oh, we're here already?"
"It took you that long to realise even THAT?!"
"Oh! Luffy! How's it going? Woah, is that the magician guy?"
"Nice tail, better than the cape at any rate, but never mind that, where's…"
There was something of a fearfully strained silence as Nami shakily got to her feet, her right cheek blooming a painful shade of bright scarlet from Gallee's blow. A glint of the madness Sanji had suffered in the opera house lit up his features in a dark light as he turned to look at the bloated marine with a fury that needed no words to express it. Sensing his life was at real risk the lieutenant swung the machine hastily in the horse's direction, swiftly changing the settings to 'pro' as he prepared to fire at the newcomers, the swing of the fight having moved decidedly against him with their arrival.
"Guys! No time to explain but that thing's dangerous; just run!" Usopp squeaked as loudly as he could, dodging the wheels of the trolley the machine was mounted on whilst keeping as tight a hold on the diamond he could, having retrieved it from under the feet of the rampaging marine.
Taking the sharp-shooter's warning to heart the group fled at full tilt, a shot of brilliant light striking the floor with a strange hissing sound as they vacated the area with alacrity.
Although his words were incomprehensible to her she understood, as Sanji swooped past her and ducked his shoulders, allowing her to grab onto his mane and launch herself onto his back, clasping the blonde hair close to his withers as he shot away to the north face of the building, a beam landing a hair's breath away from his rear hooves as Gallee began to fire indiscriminately around at the dispersed crew.
Reaching the shelter of a large crate he skidded to a halt, carefully trying to keep from jolting his valuable cargo from her seat, as she lay close to his neck to stay below the cover of the wooden panelling.
"Where's Usopp? We need him and the diamond to stop this mess!"
"I think he's still over there," Maragou yelled over to her over the sound of the machine's whining and clanking, the impacts occasionally causing their cover to vibrate, the smell of singed cloth and timber stinging the air, "but he's so small Gallee might not have seen him yet."
"You mean if he hasn't been trodden on yet," Nami gritted through her teeth as another beam sailed overhead. "Can you see him from where you are?"
"Without getting hit by that lunatic? No, actually, not really."
The navigator made a disgruntled sound to match her acerbic expression, Sanji pulling his ears back in disapproval at his disrespectful addressal. Luffy made a series of vehement chatterings, which nobody bothered to translate as yet more insistencies of letting him go to kick Gallee's ass with absolutely no heed of the danger.
"We need a plan to at least disable him from using the machine for a short period of time, but with this heavy fire it's impossible to get near him."
Nami sighed, "if only Robin could use her ability, or I had my climatact, or Usopp could shoot… damn it, all of our ranged fighters are out of commission, even Luffy can't stretch at the moment."
A particularly strong blast caused the crate to shudder disconcertingly. Breaking cover the fugitives sped to new hiding spots, Sanji briefly catching a glimpse of Zoro running past Gallee on the opposite side managing to snatch Usopp up off the floor by the scruff of his neck, causing the irate militant to spin around yelling something about green dogs and wretched weasels (an indignant squeak once more insisting that he was a stoat, with eight thousand followers to boot). As the viridian tinged wolf rocketed to a new hiding spot Sanji noted that in his abduction Usopp had been forced to drop the heavy diamond, which was now lying unnoticed by Gallee's feet. Halting behind another piece of machinery he tried to locate where Maragou had chosen to hide, catching a glimpse of him disappearing behind what looked oddly like a grand piano covered in waterproofed sheeting. Braying as loud as he could above the clamour of the fight he tried to keep as far behind the blockade as possible, his outburst resulting in a considerable salvo of shots in their direction.
"Oi! Maragou! There's no way we can hit him from a distance, but he can only fire in one direction at a time- if we can cause him to turn him back to us while he's shooting at someone else we might be able to get to him before he can turn around!"
Listening from his hiding space the performer grinned with fiendish approval. Replying in a strange sort of jabber (which the others could only presume was his actual tongue as a lemur) to prevent Gallee's understanding of the plan he expressed his sanction of the idea.
"Misdirection, eh? Very old hat, should have thought of that myself. Very well, you seem to be fairly fleet, if you could charge him from behind when he's turned away from you this might just work: we'll provide the decoy work, alright? Good luck!"
Sanji gave an assenting neigh. Looking back at Nami he indicated the ground with a gentle nod of his head in a request for her to dismount. In reply she simply crossed her arms and pouted.
"Oh no you don't, I don't know what he said, but I think I can guess what you're up to, and let me tell you I have no intention of getting off you."
Widening his eye in a pleading sort of manner she only stared at him in a more determined manner.
"If you're doing the running I'll do the attacking- your job is to get there as fast as possible, right? You can't afford to be thinking about how to attack him on the way or how to stop to hit him when you're not used to this form. Besides I can feel you're still suffering from your condition, don't try to deny it," she interjected as he moved his face away in refutation, "I could feel you shaking as soon I got on you. Just get concentrate on speed and I'll knock him for six," she swung her legs cheekily to either side as she winked at him mischievously, "you're not the only one who can kick you know."
Trying hard not to collapse into a love-struck heap Sanji reluctantly accepted her commands, peering around the side of the enveloping cloth to watch for their cue. Gallee was laying some heavy fire on a set of crates to their left, when suddenly Maragou, Robin and Zoro all broke cover simultaneously, Luffy safely encased within the coils of the magician's tail to prevent his disrupting the plan. Enraged and disorientated Gallee hefted the machine around to face the South wall as he chased Robin clockwise to the next barrier, inadvertently knocking the diamond on the floor skidding towards Maragou's path. Nami could feel the powerful muscles bunch and coil beneath the black pelt as Sanji tensed, watching as the machine turned gradually around to face the opposite side of the building from them.
Nearly there, nearly… yes!
Powering himself off his haunches the equine chef set himself hurtling off towards the exposed back of the be-whiskered lieutenant like a bullet from a rifle, Nami letting out a small yelp as the impetus almost left her behind with the colossal change of speed. Hearing her cry of alarm Gallee was alerted before he even heard the hooves hammering the floor so violently that they were leaving considerable dents in the wooden boards- spinning around he yanked the device through one hundred and eighty degrees so viciously that the trolley tilted up onto two wheels, threatening to discard the mechanism on top as it span in a perfect volte-face. Moving too rapidly to stop it was all the pair could do to look in front of them with horror to find themselves cantering straight into Gallee's aim several metres short of their destination, his face lighting up with a demonic grin as fixed the sights at the galloping steed and his charge. Swiftly changing the settings he laughed in a crazed manner at his triumph.
"He may be a monster as a horse, but let's see what good riding a mere cook will do you!"
Throwing the lever so hard it made the entire casing judder, it was with such speed that Maragou managed to catch up the diamond on the floor and threw it, smashing it into the front of the machine so hard that the beam was refracted through every facet, that it almost seemed like he had thrown himself at the contraption in fast forwards. The beam split into what appeared to be a thousand shards of iridescent light, scattering around the room to strike every perceivable surface and every member of the crew, who had immediately left the safety of their hiding places as soon as they had observed the imminent catastrophe facing the cavalry charge.
Removing his hand from shielding his eyes Gallee looked up to see the girl riding the great black stallion leap from her station as he began to change, reverting from the charging beast into a black suited young man, easing from running on four hoofed legs to two clad in neat, polished shoes as smoothly as if it happened to him every day.
Reverting, but not stopping.
A small revelation occurred to Gallee in the last few seconds of his consciousness regarding the fact that Sanji had not, in fact, slowed down with his return to his human form, but had in fact sped up considerably, allowing him to appreciate that the previous statement he had claimed was the most inaccurate estimation he had ever made, or would ever have the opportunity to within the remaining microseconds of awareness he was witnessing.
Brushing the rubble from the newly formed hole in the wall off his jacket, Sanji observed that the building really gave a rather pleasant view of the city from nine floors above ground, a slight vapour trail of dust the only indication of the route the ill fated lieutenant-come-mayor had taken.
"Well he was annoying. Is everyone alright?"
It was strangely nostalgic hearing everyone's voices replying in unison.
"Er, mister Maragou, can you perhaps let go of the Captain? I don't think he can breathe under your tail…"
"Oh! My sincerest apologies…"
"Phwagh! Oi, what's the big idea?! I just wanted to send him flying and then you let Sanji do it anyway! No fair!"
Zoro smirked in an affectionate manner as he patted Luffy consolingly, who was pouting in high dudgeon at this injustice. Sanji smiled apologetically.
"Sorry captain, I promise you can do it next time, how about I cook you some meat to make it up to you?"
From the exuberant exclamations and dancing that was resultant at this offer it appeared that all sins were forgiven in the advent of food, the initial insult all but forgotten already. Nami smiled at the ease of his placation, as turning back to look at Sanji she began to speak but found the words were forgotten as he swayed slightly, a strong wave of shaking consuming him once again with perspiration appearing on his cheeks as he put a hand to his forehead.
"You mean it wasn't just the change? Shit, what's wrong with you?!"
Usopp quickly went to offer him an arm to lean on but was waved away, as Sanji's trembling hand went to the contents of his shirt's breast pocket. There was a flurry of familiar hand movements, followed by an ecstatic, shaking breath of relief, the others looking on in slight disbelief at the ridiculous simplicity of his condition.
"A~~aah, damn, I was dying for a smoke."
The momentary pause preceding the tidal wave of scolding was brief.
"That was it?! You just had withdrawal symptoms from cigarettes?!"
"Jeez man, scaring us all like that when it was just cold turkey! You heartless bastard!"
"Mind you, breaking off the number he smokes a day isn't easy…"
"It's still his own fault! You dumb-ass cook, making us worry for no reason, I'll kick your freaking ass into rehab!"
"Oi oi, you worrying about me again? I never knew you were so motherly, moss-head."
As he fended off the various affectionate beatings from his companions there was undoubtedly an air of relief at the solution of his mysterious affliction, if in a slightly aggressive and exasperated fashion. Robin was hiding her elegant laughter behind her hand as usual but Usopp looked less amused, as he tapped her on the shoulder in a concerned manner.
"O-oi, is this okay? I mean, this is all great, but what about Gallee? He still had that device, right? He could still set off the explosives any second, it might even get activated when he lands by accident!"
"Oh, you mean this?" Nami produced the small grey cylinder from her person to a crowd of astonished faces, causing her to smile innocently, "oh, I just accidently found this in his pocket when he knocked me over, is it important?" She raised an eyebrow audaciously with her usual charismatic wink. As the crew expressed their relief in their variety of methods, Usopp simply fainting outright, Maragou approached her with something he hadn't overtly demonstrated towards her during the advent their exploits- an air of heart felt respect.
"Madame, you have done these islands and myself a great service by your deeds that will likely never be forgotten, you have my eternal gratitude… If I may?"
Blushing slightly at his change in demeanour she carefully handed the trigger to him, which he promptly vanished into thin air before their very eyes as easily as he might have done a pack of cards. To where he sent it and why would be the subject of speculation during the consideration of their adventures in the days to come, never to be answered.
"Thank you, and for my next trick, I suppose I shall have to disappear myself…" he gave a sad smile through his fur rimmed face, "after all, half of the illusion is not knowing, now that I am discovered I supposed the trick is blown. It's a pity, but perhaps it's better for this place if I leave…"
"What are you talking about? Are you an idiot?"
The animalistic conjuror was somewhat staggered by the blunt remark made by the straw-hat sporting boy with scraggly black hair.
"He's right, why on Earth would you have to leave? Besides, it's only us who know what you look like; none of your followers have seen you."
"Yeah, and who cares if they have or ever do? I think it makes you more interesting, I mean just look at our Doct…"
The crew looked at each other with sudden realisation.
"Where is Chopper anyway?"
Sanji's stance became decidedly more sheepish.
"Ah… er, yes, about that, we'd better go and help him."
Zoro sighed in an exasperated way while Luffy simply proceeded to roar with laughter, Nami giving Maragou a final clip around the ears before they set off down the stairs to reclaim the medic.
"And don't be a fool- it doesn't matter who you are or what you look like, you're one of the best performers I've ever seen; trust me, it takes a professional to pull the wool over a pirate-thief's eyes. Stick to it, you're hardly good for anything else." She stuck her tongue out at him in a teasing manner, "See you around! Break a leg."
Maragou looked on as they filtered out of the room with their various goodbyes and cheerful faces. As the door closed there was a settling of dust, then a long silence. It felt so strange, the cavernous room so quiet and still after having been a surreal but hectic battleground only a few moments before. The sound of the wind toying with the canvas of the storage mixed with the calls of seabirds high above in the sky outside. Spending a quiet moment of contemplation Maragou turned to look at the soft, sand-hued buildings sloping away down into the city below him. A rueful smile and a half-laugh curled around his snub face.
"Hnh, 'see me', eh?"
He commenced slowly walking towards the exit himself, his arms crossed behind his neck in a casual manner.
Two Days Later~~~
"A-aah! I'd like to go back there sometime; I want to see more magic shows, that was really awesome…"
"Mm, maybe, but only if they don't involve us this time."
"Eeh? You're no fun, hey, Nami, how long 'til the next island? I'm bored!"
"How should I know?! We're just lucky the log pose didn't set before we managed to get off the island- Poppy said it usually sets within a week and a half so that was really close! I just want to get as far away from there as possible for now."
"I was wondering about that- why didn't you hang around for longer? I'm sure the locals would have given us a reward or something for saving them."
"Don't be an idiot Zoro, what good would telling them do? Just off-handedly informing them that the whole ring of islands was wired to blow while we were provoking the guy who was in charge of the detonation? Yeah that'd be real nice for them…"
"Usopp's right, there wasn't any point in worrying them unnecessarily- as it is the lava beneath the crust will be setting from the temperature of the sea, and with the Rip Tide dismantled it won't be getting worn down any more. The sea bed will recover and the fish will return to their usual habitat in a while- in the end nothing happened, not that I approve of the notion 'ignorance is bliss' but perhaps it's best they only ever see it that way."
"Cook-san makes a fair point, and when the authorities discover the failure of the project was they'll almost certainly send the scientists back home to their families, and if they ever find Gallee (if he's alive) he'll be permanently discharged, perhaps even arrested for wasting so much money."
"Eh? But Robin, what if they don't send the scientists back?"
"Hmm… in that case I suppose they'll die working for the government, sniper-san."
"What?!? How can you say that with such a calm expression, that's awful!"
"Oh calm down Usopp she's just teasing you, right Robin?"
The typical disconcerting unreadable smile of the historian caused Nami to abandon the subject with a slight chill and return to her cartography room, leaving the others to continue their debating.
"Still, we were lucky, oh, and well done for putting the anchor down Usopp, I'd never have thought the tide would come that far up the beach where we landed."
"Huh? But, I didn't put the anchor down, Chopper? Was that you?"
"No, I was unconscious when we landed, remember?"
"We have an anchor?"
"Sometimes I think this ship takes better care of itself than we do."
"Oh don't start up on that again…"
"But I tell you I did see someone that night!…"
"Oh, just forget I said anything."
"Nami-san?" A gentle knock and the soft creak of the door being hesitantly opened announced the cook's presence outside of the women's quarters bearing a tray of refreshments.
"Oh! Thank you Sanji-kun, could you put it down on the dressing table over there?"
Closing the door quietly behind him Sanji moved to deposit the tea where the navigator had indicated, carefully moving the foundation and blusher aside. Walking over to see her latest craft he observed the various accurate renditions of the Hallavic Circle in its various forms, complete with contours, volcanic fault lines, rock types, and even the most minute details of the streets and plazas of the city. A small but extremely carefully drawn rejoin in the valley basin to the Eastern side of the Island depicted a small rural holding labelled Eruc Farm in neat, scrolling letters. Sanji smiled at the memory of the young girl and her dedicated parent as he looked at the talented drawings; the materials Usopp and the guards had managed to obtain for her research looked imprecise and outdated compared to her delicate work.
"They're very beautiful."
"Mm, thank you, well, I've been able to spend the last two days on them so I could make them as accurate as I needed to, it really was a very interesting region…"
It went unsaid that another of the reasons she had been working on them for two days was that underneath the applications of makeup on her face her cheek and eye were still sporting a very impressive amount of dark bruising.
"Yes, yes it was."
There was a small pause, the silence occasionally intermitted by the scratching of the nib on the parchment.
"… do you mind if I sit for a little while? Only Luffy's being a bit of a handful out there, honestly, I should never have offered to cook him meat without stipulating a limit."
Smiling wryly she nodded, indicating the bed, the other chairs having been taken out onto the deck to enjoy the sunlight. Perching on the covers Sanji sat, his fingers interlaced and palms pressed together as he balanced his hands on his knees.
"… I'm sorry I was late."
"In the building, I'm sorry; if I'd been a little faster, or not arguing with that damned marimo so much I might have got there before-"
Nami put the pen down with a slightly irritated sigh, "If I'd have, if I'd been, if, if, if; look, it doesn't matter, what happened happened, and it wasn't your fault no matter what you think or say, it was his fault for being a jerk. Anyway, there are endless possibilities in the world: if you hadn't arrived at that exact moment perhaps things wouldn't have worked out as well as they did, perhaps they would have been better, who knows? Just don't keep wittering and wondering about what might have been when it doesn't matter. What matters is what is now, and that's all. Okay?"
Sanji nodded wordlessly, blushing slightly abashedly at her sharply spoken lesson.
Continuing to work for a little while she finished the last few strokes, then rose to hang the new map from the line, attaching both ends with the small wooden pegs. As she lifted the second side up the first slipped loose, but before she could catch it another set of slender, pale fingers had reached out before she caught the paper.
"Well, at least I could help this time, hm?"
He gave her a disarming smile as she frowned slightly, trying to cover the slight pink flush on her face as he held it still while she reattached it to the string. The job done the room held a slightly awkward quiet for a moment after.
"… Are you still here?"
"Oh, er, sorry, I'll leave you to your tea…"
Retracing his steps he fumbled with the handle to let himself out, a little too reluctantly, perhaps, but as he was halfway through he was caused to hesitate, Nami's voice hailing him on the way out.
"You were a very nice horse, by the way."
The curtain of yellow hair all but hid the coy smile as he left whilst replying.
"Thank you, Nami-san, you were a very beautiful magpie," he sent her a subtle grin, "and a very considerate rider."
Leaving her response unknown he closed the door to the ladies' quarter's with a soft click, walking away to face the galley once again to meet his captain's insatiable appetite.
"… I still think she's a cat."
Or at least, he would, after chasing the swordsman the length of the ship and back.