Zoro caught Robin when her legs crumpled under her. "What the fuck are you doing here? Going to try and off one of us?" he snarled at Aokiji. "Just because I don't have my swords doesn't mean I can't take you." He glowered at the taller man, his muscles tense and ready to spring.
"Relax. I came to check on the young Baratie," Aokiji said, putting his hands up in a motion of peace. "I am not your enemy."
"Aren't you?" Sanji stood on his good leg; he was strong enough in either that he didn't tremble, and even managed to light a cigarette while balancing on one leg. "From what I've heard, you haven't exactly been a gentleman, either." He took a deep pull from the cigarette and blew the smoke into Aokiji's face. The older man was unperturbed.
"Are you familiar with the practices of acupressure?" Aokiji asked, coming closer to Sanji. "Relax, Baratie! I am not here as one of Sengoku's men…not today, at least."
"Very reassuring, you bastard," Sanji replied shortly. Cigarette between his lips, he sprung into a backflip and landed just out of Aokiji's reach. "Why don't you tell me what you've got in mind before you lay your hands on me?" He balanced himself on one foot easily, smoking his cigarette as though he hadn't just performed an amazing set of acrobatics.
Aokiji blinked sleepily. "Ara ara, if that's the way you want to be, then that's fine." He folded his long legs beneath himself and sat on the floor. "What will it take for you to trust me?"
"Why don't you replace the old man's leg?" Sanji hissed, nearly cleaving his cigarette in two between his teeth. "Oh, wait, you can't, because he's dead."
"I may not be able to replace his leg, but I can mend yours. There is still time," Aokiji said. "Although the nerves and blood flow to your legs are faulty at the moment, I can repair them now. If you wait much longer, you will have to amputate as the pain gets worse."
"Why are you helping me?" Sanji asked suspiciously.
Aokiji pulled out a crumpled envelope from his back pocket. "Read this. Orders from Sengoku to patch you up in time to compete."
Sanji perused the letter. It was short and to the point; apparently, Sengoku was not a man of many words when addressing those directly under his command. "Marimo."
"Yeah?" Zoro had has arms around Robin, making sure she felt safe.
"You think we can trust this guy?"
Zoro looked down at Robin. "I can't really say—if he was wily enough to fool Robin for so long, then I'm not going to trust my instincts."
"What do your instincts say?"
Zoro paused before saying, "Trust him."
Sanji nodded. He could sense no ulterior motives to the man's actions. "Mine, too. Alright, do your magic—but just remember that I still have one good leg if you try any funny business, okay?"
Aokiji nodded, already rubbing his hands together to warm them up. "You'll have to lie flat on your back. Legs straight." Sanji obeyed; he didn't have a choice, if he wanted his leg to be in shape for the tournament. "Ready? Brace yourself."
Sweat beaded on Sanji's forehead the moment Aokiji touched his leg, and he was not gentle by any means. Aokiji seemed to be targeting the tenderest areas, using his palms and fingertips to send spears of pain up and through Sanji's entire body. Sanji snapped his jaw shut and clenched his fists in his pockets, refusing to let a single squeak past his lips. Zoro watched with pursed lips; it wasn't hard to see that Sanji was in immense pain.
Just when Sanji thought he would black out, Aokiji stopped. "Done," he sighed, running a hand through his afro. "You might be a little sore, but you should be able to move normally. Try it out?"
Sanji took a deep breath and leapt to his feet, bracing himself.
He felt fine.
"It's better!" Sanji crowed in delight, forgetting himself for a moment to jump into a series of flips and kicks. He had missed the feeling of freedom afforded by the support of both legs; the first few days had been unbearable. "Zoro, I can jump! Shit, I can probably—" A single aerial brought Sanji up to Zoro's nose. "—kick your ass right now!" His body was pure joy at the rediscovery of his abilities. Only reflex saved Zoro from the leg that came whipping up towards his sternum.
"You should be careful…" Aokiji said idly as he watched Sanji and Zoro squabble with their fists.
"…because your legs still need to adjust to the new blood flowing through them," Aokiji continued. "It should only last for another thirty minutes, though." He turned around and sauntered out the door, slipping a business card into Robin's hand as he left.
Sanji's eyes widened as his leg buckled under him, giving Zoro the opportunity to put him in a headlock. In the commotion, the conflicting emotions on Robin's face as she read the card went unnoticed by the two men.
He walked, he strolled, he sauntered. Easily, on both legs. He never realized that the loss of his legs would affect him so profoundly, or that their recovery would give him so much pleasure.
"Ouch! What was that for, asshole?" Zoro roared, rubbing his thigh.
Robin stepped out of her Lexus and looked up at the quietly classy restaurant positioned beside the ocean. A few hardy plants climbed up the gray walls and around the sign that read Spice Bean. She passed her key to the valet and gave him her customary warning look before striding through the black double doors that led into the restaurant.
The interior was just as unassuming as the exterior. The large dining room was softly lit and decorated in seashell whites, blacks, and grays touched with a little gold and blue here and there. The maitre d' looked up when he saw her, but he had been trained well enough not to react too indecorously to gorgeous women walking through those doors.
Robin smiled and handed him a white business card. She tucked her long hair behind one ear and smoothed an invisible wrinkle from the burgundy evening gown she wore.
The maitre d' swallowed, but managed to keep his composure. "Right this way, madame. Tajio will take you to your table." The freckled, bespectacled waiter bowed and led her past the other tables to a secluded area in the back of the restaurant, beside a window. Tall potted plants with wide leaves and thick stalks protected the area from the prying eyes of the other patrons.
"Would you like anything to drink? Perhaps something from our wine list?" Tajio asked, handing her the menus.
"I'll have a glass of the same as my friend here is drinking," Robin requested politely. Tajio bowed and left her alone with Aokiji.
"I thought you might not come," Aokiji remarked softly, peering at her over a glass of red wine.
"I wasn't going to come, but…" Robin looked out the window. The sun was crawling quickly towards the horizon, casting a dazzling array of unlikely hues of light through the glass.
"You have questions." It was a statement, not an inquiry.
"Yes. Something is going to happen in Sengoku's tournament. I want to know what, and whether my friends will be safe," Robin stated flatly. "Furthermore, I want to know what mischief you have been up to over the years."
"Ara ara, you ask a lot of me," Aokiji said, putting his hands up. "Even before the appetizers have arrived, to boot. This tournament will be special, but there are political lines you could never have imagined being redrawn."
"Your calamari, sir. And a glass of wine for the lovely lady," Tajio said, returning. "Have you decided on your meals, or would you like a little more time?"
"I'll have the braised black cod, please," said Aokiji.
Robin had not even opened her menu yet. "The Columbian salmon, if you will. A tad less mustard dill sauce than the good chef normally puts, please." Tajio bowed and disappeared again.
"You've been here before, I see."
"I was here when it was the Baratie. Zeff has taught these chefs well, and they faithfully keep his old recipes on the menu." She sipped her wine. "Political lines. What do you mean?"
Aokiji sighed and looked around. There was no one within eavesdropping distance. "Why should I trust you with this information?"
"Because once upon a time I trusted you with my life, and you saved and betrayed me." Robin's face showed no emotion.
He sighed again, more heavily. "You must not speak of this to another person. There's only one week until the tournament—you can say whatever you like after it."
"It won't matter after the tournament, will it?"
"Fine. Go on."
Aokiji folded his large hands on the table. "Your friend, Portgas. He doesn't like the Letters much, does he?"
"He enjoys the benefits of being at the top, but not the process of getting there," Robin replied delicately. "But then again, who doesn't? We become absurdly wealthy because of skills affirmed by an anonymous organization whose words have been taken as credible for as long as any of us can remember. What does he have to do with this?"
"Let's just say that there was an Alpha who was not content with the status quo. A savior to the lower Letters, if you will imagine…Someone who wouldn't mind losing the benefits of his station to give every underdog a chance." Aokiji waited for her to make the connection.
"Ace empathizes with them because he was once in their position," Robin said, realization dawning upon her. "But before he could make his mark on the world himself, he was given the Alpha position and automatically gained everything he wanted. He has always been unsure of himself, because he didn't want to compromise what he had or his desire to make it on his own."
"Very good, Robin Nico. Now, ask yourself—does Portgas seem to be the person to do things on his own, or will he try and find allies?"
That was a tricky question. "On one hand, he won't want to compromise his friends…on the other hand, he's not the type to be a loner, either."
"Sengoku will let him enter the tournament, and all of his friends. The sole purpose for this decision is to enable us to keep a closer eye on him and to be able to act accordingly."
Robin paused, a piece of calamari poised before her lips. "Act accordingly?"
Aokiji didn't respond. He ate the fried squid without saying another word until the meal came. The two ate, exchanged polite pleasantries, and split the bill. The burning questions on Robin's mind had been replaced with one objective.
She had to talk to Ace before he did anything foolish.
"Ace!" Luffy whined, hanging upside-down over the bed as he looked at his older brother. "Where are you going?"
Ace adjusted the garish orange tie around his neck as he inspected his reflection in the mirror. "Can't tell you, little brother. You'd just go and blab to everyone."
"You'll see, 'k? I promise it won't be long." Satisfied with his appearance, Ace left Luffy in his room and went out the door, grabbing his keys on the way out.
Luffy pouted to himself at the sound of the slamming door. He spied something on the floor beside Ace's discarded pajamas.
"Ace! You forgot your phone!" Luffy grabbed it and ran to the hallway, but his brother was already gone. "Hmph. He must have been in a rush."
Across the city, Robin was frantically calling Ace from her car. "Pick up, you silly boy, pick up!"
Luffy looked at the vibrating phone in his hand. There were five missed calls, and one incoming call. He pressed 'talk.'
"Luffy!" Robin's heart fluttered in panic again. "Where's Ace?"
"Dunno. He just went out, dressed all snazzy and stuff. He forgot his phone at home."
"Quickly, Luffy—where is he going?"
"He wouldn't say. He promised he I'd see soon enough or something." Luffy began to pick his nose absent-mindedly. "If you're in the area you might see him. I think he took his motorcycle, 'cause the car keys are still here."
"Thank you, Luffy." Robin turned the wheel sharply and made her way towards Galley-La. She wracked her brain for ideas as she tried to think of who Ace would trust with the mission he was going to carry out. If he didn't trust Luffy with the task, then it must be a very different crowd from the one they were accustomed to. She found the first number on her speed dial list and pressed the 'talk' button.
A panting voice on the other end responded. "Hello?"
"Hello, Zoro. This is urgent—are you at Galley-La?"
There was a grunting sound, coupled with a yelp. "Yeah, sort of."
"'Sort of' won't cut it, Zoro. What are you doing?" she demanded, losing patience.
"Ah. I need you two to extricate yourselves from each other for a minute. Can you sweep the area and look for Ace? He might be on his motorcycle."
Zoro sighed as he looked at the phone. He had been this close to initiating the first preliminary steps to 'maybe can we have a little bit of sex even a blowjob would be nice?'
Few would call Zoro a pussy, but he feared the day was coming when he would be mocked for his inability to start things with the prissy-cook, of all people. Plus, he wanted it really badly.
"Okay, Robin. We'll do one better—we'll pull the aerocraft out."
Robin ended the conversation, feeling a little less anxious. She had forgotten that he could search from the skies.
"Oi, shit cook! Robin has a chore for us!"
"The lovely, rosy Robin?" Sanji was about to launch into a repertoire of nauseating endearments when Zoro put a finger to his lips.
"Hush. It sounded urgent. Let's go rev up the aerocraft—I'll fly, you'll search. We're looking for Ace. Possibly on his bike. Okay?"
Sanji nodded. "Let's do this shit, then."
Five minutes later, they were out the door and in the air.
"Fuck, I forgot how freaky this is," Sanji mumbled, pushing Zoro's swords down. "Did we really have to bring these?"
"What was that, cook?"
"I said fuck, you suck at flying, and your sticks are in my way."
Zoro did a loop in the air.
Zoro grinned. "Look for Ace, then. Robin, you there?" he yelled into the Bluetooth secured firmly to his ear. He had decided to keep a constant stream of conversation up with Robin in case either of them made any headway.
"I can hear you perfectly well, Zoro. Do you see him yet?"
"Not yet. Any idea which direction he might have gone?"
"I was hoping you could just listen for the sound of a motorcycle. There can't be that many around Galley-La at this time, can there?"
"True. Better slow down so we can hear better, then…" Zoro hovered in the air, scanning the streets. Unfortunately, it was dark; the sun had already set.
"Look for a single tail light," Sanji said. "Cars will have two, but he should only have one."
Zoro squinted at the streets. Rush-hour traffic had already passed, thankfully.
"There!" Sanji cried. "Three o'clock!"
"Looks like he's heading towards Earth Sector," Zoro whistled. "Robin, he just passed the old IKEA and is heading towards the heart of Earth Sector."
"Roger that. I'm going to follow him."
"Into Earth Sector? Screw that—we'll follow him, and you bring reinforcements." He paused. "Why are we following him, by the way?"
"We'll find out the answer once we stop him," Robin replied. "I'll call Luffy and the others, then. Believe me, this is very, very important. If you catch him, try to stall him. Tell him we know about his plans to undermine the Letters."
"What?" Zoro yelped into the Bluetooth. "Robin, what the hell are you talking about?" She had already hung up. "Damnit…"
"What's going on?" Sanji asked.
"I'm about to speed up. Hold on tight, sweetie."
"Oh, f—" The obvious profanity that followed was lost in the rush of air as Zoro pressed the limits of the aerocraft. They were fast, but Ace was going fast as well. He also seemed to be mindful of followers, and weaved down alleyways and side streets at alarming speeds.
They didn't catch up to Ace until he had stopped in front of a dubious-looking nightclub. The doors were wide open, revealing a clientele that was even more suspect. All in all, it was a fishy situation.
"I didn't think Ace hung out with this kind of crowd," Sanji whispered into Zoro's ear as they lighted down on the parking structure beside the club. From this vantage point, they could see that they name of the club was Moby Dick.
"You know this place, don't you?" Zoro muttered in return. Sanji nodded. Everyone in Earth Sector knew about this place's existence; finding it and getting in was another story.
"How does Ace know about it, though?"
"We should wait for reinforcements."
"You're not scared, are you?" Zoro asked tauntingly. "C'mon, we can get in, no problem. We know how this place works."
"Yeah, but the others won't be able to get in, and I don't want someone like Luffy forcing his way through," Sanji said patiently.
"Good point. Let's wait, then."
It wasn't long until a line of expensive cars that did not belong in Earth Sector pulled up to the club. One of the drivers spotted Zoro and pulled into the parking structure before the parade drew too much attention.
Zoro looked over the 'reinforcements.' Naturally, Robin was there, as was Luffy. Franky and Brooke were reliable, but he looked skeptically at Usopp, Chopper, and Nami.
"Tashigi was on duty, but she said to call her if we need the pigs to break anything up. She and Helmoppo are nearby," Robin explained, correctly interpreting Zoro's incredulous look. "Zoro, I would not unnecessarily bring anyone into this business if I could help it."
"What business is this, anyways? You had better explain yourself," Zoro said harshly. "The more I look at this situation, the stranger it seems."
Robin took a deep breath. "I have word from a reliable source that Ace may be trying to get rid of, or at least revolutionize the Letters. It makes sense, if you think about it—he has never been happy with the system or the society it has inevitably created."
"What reliable source is this?" Nami asked. As a newspaper editor, she was always wary of anonymous sources.
Robin hesitated. "I—cannot say. He's someone I trusted with my life."
Zoro's ears perked up at the past tense. "Aokiji." Robin nodded mutely. "Robin…"
"What reason would he have for warning us?" Robin tried to reason, her hands folding and unfolding.
"Maybe he wants us to get rid of his problem without having to dirty his hands. You know, internal strife…messy for us, clean for him," Sanji noted. "Just saying. You don't get to the top without learning a few nasty tricks."
"There's only one way to find out, isn't there? We have a week until the tournament—less, even, since the day is almost done." Robin pointed down at the club. "If you don't want to go, that's fine. I was planning on confronting him myself, but had no way of contacting him until now. If you want to come with me, I will be very grateful, but don't take that as pressure."
The group was silent until Franky stepped beside her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
"I'm with you, babe. I've got to kick that punk's ass for making you worry this much," he said, his sunglasses glinting under the streetlamps as they sat on his forehead.
"And I can't let a lady enter that hellhole without protecting her," Brooke said, joining the duo.
Sanji blinked. "By that logic…" He joined them.
One by one, Zoro was the only one left standing next to Nami.
"Hey, I don't have any investments in this," Nami said, looking at Zoro.
"Your boyfriend's brother?" Zoro asked, leaving Nami as the last man out. She rolled her eyes and reneged.
"Fine, but I forgot to bring a silencer for my pistol," she sighed, patting the firearm that was hidden under her jacket.
The Moby Dick had never seen such clientele.
"We've got a party of nine," Robin said with her most charming, enigmatic smile at the bouncer. He looked over the mix of serious and playful faces, and did a double take when he saw the swords at Zoro's side. Robin leaned over slightly, revealing her full cleavage and the lacy top of a racy bra.
They stepped into the club without further trouble.
"Where do you think he'll be?" Franky asked, looking around. It would be impossible to find a single person in this crowd. "Luffy, what was he wearing when he left?"
"Ummm…a black shirt. And an orange tie?" Luffy strained his memory as he tried to remember.
"That's good enough. Let's split up into groups of three, and text everyone if you find him," Robin said, running off with Franky and Brooke.
Zoro and Sanji infiltrated the crowd with Luffy, looking high and low for a bright orange tie.
"I don't see him anywhere," Luffy said plaintively. "Are you sure he came in here?"
"Absolutely positive. You don't think he's upstairs, do you?" Zoro asked, pointing up. "Cipher Pol has an exclusive upstairs section. I don't see why even a place like this shouldn't have one." He had to yell over the sound of the pounding speakers and shrieking, drunken girls.
Luffy nodded in affirmation and sent out a mass text. No Ace. Checkin' upstairs.
They made their way upstairs past the throngs of drunken clubbers and over spilt drinks.
"Private party going on up here," said another (significantly larger than the first) bouncer. "Buzz off, gentlemen."
"Did he just tell us to buzz off?" Sanji asked conversationally.
"I think he did," Zoro replied. "Luffy?"
Luffy's fist met the man's face before he had time to blink.
"Thanks, but we were invited. Unofficially," Luffy said, patting his fist. "I'm sorry I didn't show you the invitation earlier. Let's just call that our RSVP."
For dramatic effect, kicked-in doors work wonders.
"Maybe we should have just opened it the normal way," Sanji said, looking down the barrels of at least six guns pointed his way. "So we wouldn't die at a premature and handsome age."
"Shut it, cook." Zoro already had his swords out. "We can handle this."
"Guys?" Ace looked up in shock from where he was conferring with a behemoth of a man. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Who are these boys?" the giant asked, his wide white moustache quivering with every word.
"Sorry, Pop. They're just my friends. I didn't know they'd be swinging by." Ace frowned. "Seriously, what are you doing here?"
"Tell your other friends to put their weapons down so we can talk," Zoro growled.
Ace waved a hand, and the guns were reluctantly put away. "You sheathe your swords too, man. Jesus Christ, that was a surprise."
"Why don't you tell us what you're doing with Whitebeard?" Sanji asked, pointing at the mustached man. "Or should I say…Edward Newgate?"
"How do you know me, kid?" Whitebeard asked, getting to his feet. Standing upright, the top of his head brushed the roof easily.
"My old man told me stories about you. You kept the peace, letting little shrimps like me run around without worrying about getting killed," Sanji said quietly.
"Who was your father?"
"Ah, Zeff!" Whitebeard laughed a deep, rich laugh that shook the floorboards. "I heard he died a while back. Shame, really—he was a pretty damned good cook."
Sanji didn't flinch at the carefree way Whitebeard referenced Zeff's death. "What are you doing with this guy, Ace?"
"Just having a drink," Ace said smoothly. "Want one? Lucci might be an Alpha, but I bet Marco here could give him a run for his money." A man waved at them from the bar, his hair mussed up and his face neutral.
"Sure. As a matter of fact, we should celebrate—we've got a lot of important people here tonight." The sound of many people running up the stairs reached their ears. "Alphas and Betas, in fact. I'm sure you know them very well." Sanji gestured to the stairs behind them, where the rest of their group burst through the broken doors.
"Ace!" Luffy yelled, bounding through first. "We've been looking everywhere for you!"
"How did you all find me, bro?" Ace asked in astonishment. "I went as fast as I could." He took one look at Franky. "Ah, it was that souped-up bike you built for Zoro, wasn't it?"
"Yep." Zoro looked around at Whitebeard's men. "So, I heard you're trying to start a revolution. Change the Letters or some shit like that."
"Don't tell me you're trying to protect that fucked-up system?" Ace shook his head. "I thought that you of all people would understand…"
"As much as I might disagree with the group, there isn't any other way for me to fulfill my promise to Kuina. You know that, Ace," said Zoro.
"If I were to hypothetically try to overturn the Letters, how would I do it?" Ace spread his arms wide. "Look, guys. Things are going to be fine. Don't worry."
"They're not forcing you to do anything, are they?" asked Luffy, stepping forward and rolling the sleeves of his jacket back. Despite the straw sandals and frayed cuffs of his denim shorts, Luffy looked less childlike and more threatening than he ever had.
"Luffy, step down," Ace growled. He stepped forward and placed a hand on Luffy's chest. "Don't get involved. I'm doing this for you—for everyone."
"This is your brother?" Whitebeard looked down his nose at Luffy's slim figure. "He looks just as much of a rascal as you described, but he's a bit scrawny, ain't he?"
"I'm strong," Luffy asserted. His voice was calm and confident.
Whitebeard regarded Luffy for a moment before scoffing.
"Get these whelps out of here."
"I'll see you guys at the tournament! Don't worry!" Ace called cheerfully as the group was ushered out of the room. The broken door slammed behind them, and the voices inside were too low to be heard clearly.
"Well, that was a stunning failure," Usopp said. "What do we do now?"
"That wasn't a failure," Robin said, her eyes gleaming. "To handle a man on Whitebeard's level, we're going to need a little support. Luffy, do you know if we could meet with your uncle tomorrow?"
"His uncle?" Sanji whispered to Zoro.
"I'll explain later. It's not a name to be said lightly in company like this," Zoro said, gesturing to the club. Sanji nodded.
"Uh-huh," Luffy nodded. "I'll call him tonight."
"Excellent. For now, it would be best if we returned to our own residences. Luffy, stay in contact with me until everything is arranged," Robin said. Everyone slipped out of the club and left Earth Sector in a hurry, feeling out of place.
"I became a chef so I wouldn't have to deal with politics. What are we going to do? Whatever he's planning, he's clearly doesn't intend to share it," Sanji stated flatly. He and Zoro sat in Sanji's apartment; both were too wired to sleep.
"Ace has always been a wild card. This is big even for him, though," Zoro said. "Right now, all we can do is wait for Luffy's call."
"Want some coffee?" Sanji asked. The next few days promised to be very tiring.
"Nah. Got any fruit juice? Better for maintaining energy levels."
Sanji poured them both glasses of orange juice and pulled a rough loaf of bread from the cabinet. "What do you know about Ace, anyways? You've known him much longer than I have, after all."
Zoro tore into the bread and sprayed crumbs all over the table, which Sanji cleaned up with a frown.
"He and Luffy were raised by their uncle and grandfather. Their dad got into a spot of trouble with the law a long time ago. No idea about their mom. Ace and Luffy had a rough childhood until Garp really took responsibility for their upbringing. Luffy was kind of an idiot in school but it doesn't really matter. Ace would have done well if he'd given a damn." Zoro took a gulp of orange juice, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "I guess we should have seen something like this coming."
"Their dad got in trouble for leading the group that tried to overthrow the Letters," Zoro replied. "Dragon the Revolutionary. You ever heard of him?"
Sanji choked on the juice in shock. "The Dragon? He's their dad?"
"Yeah. Ace and Luffy took on their mother's maiden name."
"Next thing I know you're going to say their uncle is-Sengoku or someone."
"Nah, their uncle is Shanks."
Sanji rubbed his forehead wearily. "Shanks. Leader of the RH Group."
"The international company that deals in stocks and barely-illegal business ventures."
"That's the one."
"What. The. Fuck."
"I know, right? Blew my mind when I first heard it, too. I've never met the guy, though." Both men jumped when their cells rang at the same time. "Mass text? It's from Luffy… 'Meet at the corner of Seventh Street and Grand Line.' Hm…that's downtown, isn't it?"
"Pretty posh part of town," Sanji said. "I cater to them, sometimes. What's there?"
"Could be anything. C'mon, let's go," Zoro said, draining his glass and grabbing his jacket. "We're taking the aerocraft again."
Although Navarone's residential areas were quiet at this time of night, downtown Navarone never slept. Flying over the grid of lights and skyscrapers was like flying over an enormous motherboard. Zoro ignored the stares from bar hoppers and socialites as he lighted down beside the cluster of cars waiting near the corner of 7th and Grand Line.
"What's going on?" Zoro asked the group who had disbanded not long ago. Luffy held his straw hat down with one hand, looking up at the enormous building sitting on the corner of the two streets.
"Shanks told us to meet him here," Luffy said quietly. "The main headquarters of the RH Group." They all looked up at the bright logo blazing dozens of floors above them.
"So…do we just, uh, walk in?" Chopper asked. "I feel a little underdressed." He was still wearing his hospital scrubs.
"Yeah. Now that we're all here, we can go in," Luffy said. He walked up to the pair of glass doors and pushed them open, leading the march inside.
"I'm surprised the doors are still open at this time. It's past midnight," Sanji mused to Usopp. Usopp didn't respond; he looked grey in the face and slightly queasy. "Usopp? Something the matter?" Chopper automatically turned around, ears perking up at the sound of a potential patient.
"It's nothing," Usopp muttered. "Let's just get this over with."
They passed the empty receptionist's desk and stood in front of the elevators. There were no up or down buttons. A keycard reader waited. Luffy pulled a card from his wallet and swiped it; the elevator opened with a chime.
"Floor?" Franky asked, squished against the wall near the floor buttons. It was a large elevator, but they were also a large group.
Luffy's arm snaked through and pressed the gold button engraved with a P.
"Penthouse? Fancy schmancy," Franky said. "Oi, give a brother a little room here, will you?"
The elevator was fast, and the ride surprisingly short. The elevator doors opened to a sprawling penthouse that definitely housed a bachelor. Luffy stepped through the foyer and into the lounge where the sound of music, chatting, and clinking glasses could be heard.
"What's this Shanks guy like?" Sanji asked as the followed. "Because I don't know about you, but I feel like the kind of guy who lives here must be really serious and sophisticated."
"LUUUUFFY! WHY DON'T YOU EVER VISIT ME?" a slurring voice bellowed.
Men in various states of drunkenness were splayed across the room like seals on a beach. A crate filled with (mostly empty) fast food wrappers sat on a table carved from white oak. Someone was doing a keg stand in the corner. Luffy was held in a firm, one-armed headlock by a red-haired man on the floor.
Shanks looked up at the newcomers and wiped a line of drool from his mouth, trying to act a little more decorously in front of guests.
"Ah, you must be Luffy's friends. So, what can I help you with, kiddo?" Shanks asked, plopping Luffy upright beside him and trying to look very serious. It failed; his eyes kept crossing.
"I told you about Ace," Luffy said. "He's strong, but he's going to make the same mistake as…"
"As your father did?" Shanks finished gently. He seemed to be sobering up quickly. "Planning to overthrow the Letters and all that jazz?" Luffy nodded. "Okay, what are we up against? What do we know about their plans?"
"We know that Ace is collaborating with Whitebeard and his men," Robin supplied. "As for their plans, we are fairly sure that it revolves around Sengoku's upcoming tournament. Alphas and Alpha-hopefuls will gather from all around the world, not only to compete but also because that is the very nature of the competition. To bring the best. Every pertinent Alpha has been invited to the competition."
"Whitebeard makes things tricky," Shanks sighed. "Ben, how many altercations have we had with them?"
"Financial or physical?" the man beside Shanks asked, already tapping at the touch screen of his iPhone.
Ben shrugged. "Financially, it's hard to tell how many were from the Whitebeard family directly and how many were from his puppets. Physically it's the same…but more than all our other competitors combined."
"He has vast resources, and much influence," Shanks said. "Sengoku's competition will be big. There's a big generational leap that's going on here, and I don't have any doubts that he'll try to guide it in the 'right' direction." He stood, revealing a stump where his other arm should have been. "This is going to be a delicate operation…everyone, gather around."
A/N: Poor ending to this chapter, but I was in a bit of a rush to get it out. So I have been bad. Very bad. Very, very bad. So bad that while I'm sure I had a set plan for this story, I have forgotten it by now. Yeah. I'm really winging it. I had to go back and reread the whole damned thing-which was longer than I thought it was-and then find a way to wrap it all up. Yes, the next chapter will be the last. I had grander plans for this, I'm sure, but I know I won't be able to carry them out. I'll also be wrapping up EOS as soon as I figure out what the hell is going on in it.
But I hope you enjoyed this chapter. There are reviewers that need thanking, feedback that needs consideration…sigh. Just know that I save all the emails with the reviews and read them in my idle time…