Never let a story stretch on this long; work on it constantly, if only little by little. This will reduce the likelihood that you will start wanting to go back and edit it from the beginning.
Seriously, if I had no self-control, I would go back to the beginning and start cutting out whole sections, re-characterizing, incorporating my kendo experience into Boy's education... Yeah, a lot of things have happened since I posted the last chapter. It's almost been a year, geez, ugh, I kind of hate myself for that.
I can't believe this story has been running as long as it has, but rest assured it's going to finish come hell or high water. Two more chapters, tops. And then I will no longer be tormented by the intervals between them.
All I can do is apologize and hope you enjoy this.
Part XV: Investment
"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them." -Ernest Hemingway
He had a millisecond to hear the sword coming before ducking under it and spinning to send a flying strike into his blind spot. Mihawk narrowed his eyes in satisfaction at the resulting scream, and then surged forward at what appeared to be a crocodile man. His blade met resistance at first, and the Zoan laughed gutturally, swinging one heavy, green-scaled hand toward Mihawk. Mihawk spun to one side, drew back, and slashed again with increased power.
Around him, the melee raged on. Everything further than five feet away was obscured by the bright blue fog rising from the waves, and above the brawling pirates sepulchral green flames crackled along the mast and yardarms. Mihawk had almost forgotten Grand Line weather, but his first few days with the Blind-eye pirates had provided several helpful reminders.
At least, he thought, driving his sword through an opponent's mace, it hadn't started raining turtles yet.
(But the journey was young and the universe had a cruel sense of humor.)
Mihawk dispatched a large-nosed pirate wielding a walking stick and turned just in time to see "Tabby Cat" Isaac slide onto his back and kick his opponent in the gut with such force that the man was propelled at least twenty feet into the air.
"Mihawk, that one's for you!"
More to humor the Cat-Cat Zoan than because the idea of a combination attack appealed to him, Mihawk fired off an arc of bladed air at the airborne pirate. There was no time to watch the spray of blood; four more people were trying to kill him.
Mihawk had initially been bored by the very idea of a pirate war—after all, he was mainly interested in man-to-man combat and there was little room for honor in such a disorganized event. However, the phrase "...and count ten thousand foes" had been echoing in the back of his mind for several weeks now.
So here he was. Practicing.
There was a certain technical prowess necessary to fight several people at once, like playing four exceptionally fast-paced chess games in the same ten seconds. At close range, however, surrounding opponents tended to leave themselves open to flying attacks. These had quickly become Mihawk's favorite method for dealing with any combatant of greater-than-average skill. Such techniques could also be used to bring down the enemy ship's mast, which tended to cause general panic.
Mihawk surveyed the groaning, blood-soaked pirates lying around him in a ring, and enjoyed the feeling of invincibility.
"What." He turned to face Sleeper with no great enthusiasm, making sure to take a few steps backwards simultaneously; whenever she appeared behind someone, she was invariably at least two feet too close.
"They're almost beaten! It's your turn to issue the terms for defeat."
"I don't do turns," said Mihawk haughtily.
"I have a bottle of forty-year-old Shedonne in my cabin."
"…Which you will surrender to me, should I perform this unnecessary and humiliating task?"
Mihawk took two great, light-footed bounds up to the ship's wheel and then turned to overlook the now more subdued fracas below. Sleeper was right—this crew was much weaker than the last, no match for her men. Mihawk would never have said it aloud, but the Blind-eye pirates had earned a little of his respect, if not his fondness.
He inhaled a deep lungful of (apparently harmless) blue mist and projected the announcement so that even those to whom he was hidden could understand him. "The Thunder Pirates are losing. Get off our ship and give us all your valuables or you will die."
As the clamor started to die down, Mihawk stepped off his platform and glared down at Sleeper on the deck below.
"It's supposed to be 'In the face of certain defeat, surrender to us your fates and your treasure, as your lives are in our hands'," Isaac interjected, stepping forward to stand by his captain.
"I could not care less," said Mihawk. "I want wine and then I want to duel a swordsman with skill that rivals mine. So far, the most dangerous aspects of the Grand Line have been natural and that is extremely disappointing to me."
"You at least have to admit that Captain's fortune-telling came in handy this time," said Isaac, apparently unconcerned with the low quality of Mihawk's recent opponents. "It would really have been a surprise attack without the captain's prediction!"
Sleeper's crew were just as ignorant as Mihawk as to the gender of their captain, but were apparently unfazed by the fact. Different crew members used different pronouns, and some even switched back and forth at random. Mihawk found it all very bothersome and would really have preferred that Sleeper just tell them. Unfortunately, she seemed to rather enjoy it.
"I have difficulty trusting premonitions that are interpreted from the patterns made in the leftover sauce on someone's plate."
"But it was correct!" said Isaac with an air of affronted loyalty. Mihawk glared at him and then at Sleeper. She shrugged, still smiling, and walked away in the direction of her cabin.
At least the wine was good. Mihawk downed it in increments, the bottle in one hand and a small crystal goblet in the other. At the beginning of his stint with the Blind-eye pirates, some of them might have asked him for a cup of their own. By now, however, most of them knew better than to interfere with Mihawk and his Shedonne.
That didn't stop the crew's navigator from sitting down next to him in their post-battle respite, however.
The navigator of the Blind-eye pirates was a dour, sandy-headed teenager named Gator Navi. Either this was purely coincidence or the boy's parents had had quite a sense of humor. It would likely remain forever a mystery; all Mihawk's inquiries had been met with blank silence.
"Any sign of land?"
Gator shook his head slowly, staring out at the distant horizon. "No, but we're coming close. Ask Captain for a reading, see if he can get anything about the next island."
Mihawk didn't even bother to justify this suggestion with a response. He would have thought that the crew would give up on trying to convince him of the legitimacy of Sleeper's predictions by now.
The rest of the Shedonne vanished relatively quickly after that, leaving Mihawk with faint dizziness and nausea. He should have saved it, but he had been waiting for Deep Island for weeks and he wait had begun to make him restless and irritable.
Well. More irritable than usual.
Mihawk tossed the bottle into the ocean and stood abruptly, stretching his stiff back. Gator stared up at him bemusedly, saying, "You going looking for a place to sleep again?"
There was usually at least one given place on board where Mihawk could nap unbothered for a few hours, but the issue was that it seemed to change every day. It was a bother to hunt down a quiet corner, but on the other hand it was far better to make the effort and get some decent rest than to settle down on deck and be tripped over. Repeatedly.
He visited the helm first. The space went unoccupied for a startling amount of the time, especially given the risks associated with the Grand Line, but today the wheel was occupied. The ship's helmswoman was an amiable old lady who preferred to hold a book with her hands and steer with her feet. She was ensconced, as usual, in an enormous, threadbare easy chair that had been securely bolted to the deck. Her bare feet rested on the spokes of the ship's wheel, and today's book… Mihawk spared it a passing glance and grimaced, recognizing the title. He'd heard it quoted far too many times.
The kitchen was no more appealing. Though Gator was absent (he doubled as cook), the table was currently occupied by a rowdy council of crewmates arguing over the division of today's haul.
Definitely not, though Mihawk, and slipped back out before they could call him to join in or some other nonsense.
The rest of the ship yielded little better in the way of resting places. In the end, a scowl on his face, his stomach churning a little from the alcohol, Mihawk reluctantly headed fort he captain's cabin. He had no intention of entering the place, but there was a small nook a little further down from the entranceway. It was comfortable sized for a man of his width, and had actually yielded several hours of uninterrupted sleep in the past. However, its proximity to Sleeper's room made it something of a risky choice.
Mihawk dropped off quickly, shoulders wedged snugly between two walls, legs crossed in front of him. It was a deep, sound, uninterrupted sleep-he didn't dream much anymore, or if he did, he remembered very little of them.
Whether or not he dreamed, however, whether he slept a minute or an hour, the rude awakening was enough to make these things inconsequential.
It began with an almighty metallic, ringing clatter, Mihawk lunged forward out of the corner, one hand reflexively drawing his sword and aiming it at the perceived threat.
It was Sleeper. Certainly not a threat, then, thought Mihawk, but he kept his blade leveled at the captain purely out of irritation. There was a great number of brass instruments strewn across the wooden floor, accompanied by two or three conch shells, one leather boot, and a small, bemused-looking orange lizard.
"Not again," Mihawk muttered, looking from Sleeper to the pile of miscellany. But even as he spoke, she had already dropped to one knee and begun to sift through the random objects, talking over him.
The really annoying thing about Sleeper was that she didn't even bother to add any mystique to her clairvoyant act. Her prophecies were infuriatingly matter-of-fact, with no additional wailing or mumbling.
"Well, let's see—an island. Two weeks. Five days." She tilted her head in the direction of a trumpet, frowning, and rolled it slightly towards the wall. Then, face brightening as though this change makes all the difference, she concluded, "Two days. An island. Mm. There's going to be a fight. A big one. And, see, this is you." She pointed to one of the conch shells. Mihawk glared. "You're—one moment—" She moved one of the other shells closer to it, then further away, then picked the first one up and dropped it abruptly on top of the lizard. "Oh! You're going to get shot on an island in two days' time."
"Go away," said Mihawk.
"See, now you've interrupted me and I didn't get the island's name," said Sleeper. "I think it started with an F."
"I don't care," said Mihawk flatly. "I was trying to sleep and I despise being roused suddenly."
"Are you implying—"
"—that I dropped these violently on the floor specifically in order to—"
"—wake you up?"
"I hate you," said Mihawk.
"…Because it's true."
Mihawk sliced the air an inch from the pirate's nose—a warning shot of sorts—and Sleeper seemed to take the message for once. She ambled back into her cabin with a satisfied smile on her blindfolded face, leaving her media on the floor. After a moment, Mihawk tipped the conch over with one toe and watched the orange lizard scurry away. Then, without a second thought about the island whose name possibly started with F or being shot there, he lay back to sleep again.
Two days later, the Blind-eye pirates arrived at Shiranka Island.
"It's the S," said Sleeper, shrugging. "F and S. They do tend to get mixed up."
Mihawk gave her his most unamused glare and vaulted over the side of the ship, landing heavily in a smaller boat waiting below. The boat's occupants exclaimed and protested at the sudden impact and violent rocking, but Mihawk kept his balance and eventually the clamor died down into grumbled complaints.
The journey ashore was an entirely agreeable one, not least because the island's localized climate was pleasant. The air was warm and brisk, indicating that Shiranka was a Spring Island, and beyond the beach of white sand there rose a green hill spotted with beautiful yellow flowers.
Mihawk felt an instant mistrust. In his experience, no land this inviting could possibly be what it seemed. He was already listening for heartbeats when he stepped from the little boat onto the sand, one hand on his sword. In general, attacking another human induced a kind of adrenaline rush, making the attacker's presence easily noticeable.
It was something of a shock, therefore, when he spotted the bullet. Mihawk had improved since his last encounter with firearms, and he unsheathed his sword almost unconsciously, letting his wrist flex just the necessary amount to—
Damn, he still hadn't mastered it yet. The bullet gashed his right bicep, not deep enough to disable him but deep enough to cause serious pain and probably (Mihawk sighed, disgruntled) a decent amount of blood loss.
To Mihawk's left, Isaac had begun to enter his entirely useless danger mode, which mainly consisted of his hair standing on end and his limbs trying to reassert themselves as tabby-cat feet. To his right, the Blind-eye pirates' explosives expert withdrew her blunderbuss from one bandolier and a handful of small, horrible bombs from a pouch on the other. Mihawk knew they were horrible because he'd seen them dropped down the back of a man's shirt—from fifty feet of elevation, no less, which just goes to show what you are capable of if you try.
Beyond the pyrophile another woman, whose name Mihawk had never learned, let the cords around her wrists uncoil to about two feet, and let the shiny, round black stones hanging from the end of either cord clink together meaningfully. More unpleasant weapons, combining blunt force and the ability to garrote an enemy. Mihawk despised both methods; swords were neater than the former and more straightforward than the latter.
-Let us say that these observations were made within the fraction of a second.
Directly following that infinitesimal passage of time, the presence of humans became noticeable (a little too late, Mihawk thought bitterly), and the sound of guns being prepped for fire echoed faintly over the dunes.
"…Retreat?" muttered Isaac. The second woman looked uncertain, but both Mihawk and the bomber shook their heads, eyes fixed on the shooters.
"They'll probably give some kind of warning first," said the bomber, in a voice that was gravelly from years of inhaling chemical smoke.
"I think they did," snapped Mihawk, gesturing to his bleeding arm without taking his eyes off of their attackers. "I'll take the ones on the left, you can look after the ones on the right, and then we'll—"
"Excuse me, who's the first mate here?" snapped Isaac. "We should get reinforcements! They have guns!"
"So do I," volunteered the bomber, swinging the shiny muzzle of her blunderbuss to her left. Mihawk and Isaac both stepped instinctively out of its way, just as a round of gunfire crackled above them and a line of bullets struck the sand three feet away with an inauspicious piff piff piff sound.
There was silence for a moment.
"…Alright," said Isaac, "They're not trying to kill us, then."
Mihawk was about to protest again—his arm was burning now—but thinking back, insofar as he could remember, the bullet's original target had not been a vital area. This could simply be a sign of bad marksmanship, but any gunman who could so totally calm his breath and heartbeat before a shot could hardly be unaccustomed to shooting.
"Well, I'll be!" said Isaac with sudden, bizarre cheer. He stepped forward, waving courteously at the welcoming committee. Another shower of bullets peppered the ground near his feet, but he paid this no apparent heed and shouted, "We've found ourselves unwelcome a great many times, but usually the attempts to kill us are a little more enthusiastic! You've nothing to fear from us…we're simply here to resupply and—"
And, immediately, Mihawk knew something was wrong. He thought that maybe the others had heard it too; the voice was not simply belligerent or fearful. There was an unmistakable note of despair in that single word.
He instantly, inexplicably knew it to be true and if the furrowing of Isaac's brow was anything to judge by, so did Isaac.
"What's wrong with this island?" asked the first mate, hands akimbo, glaring up at the locals.
"Just go back to your ship and leave right now! There isn't much time!"
Mihawk felt the familiar thrill of apparent danger (or maybe it was just the light-headedness of anemia). Time to enter the conversation. "Until what? What threat is so horrible that you would even spare pirates an encounter with it?"
"That's our business, now GO!" The speaker actually stood up and came forward, revealing himself as a slender young man in a plain brown suit. From this distance, it was readily apparent to Mihawk's eyes that he was terrified.
But not of us, he thought. And that was strange, because despite how small the Blind-eye crew was, their cumulative bounty was not unimpressive. Surely news of them would have reached this far by now…
He opened his mouth to inquire further—and more forcefully—but Isaac cut him off, stepping forward again with an odd look on his face. "
"…Will one of you come and speak to me? I promise that we will return to our ship afterwards!"
There was a moment of hurried congress beyond the dunes. Mihawk's hearing was nowhere as acute as his vision, so only small, insignificant pieces of conversation were audible. Eventually, however, the brown-suited man strode down onto the beach with long, jerky strides and Isaac went to meet him.
After a minute of talk, it became evident that this was no brief discussion, and Mihawk dropped to the sand for a nap. The bomber, whose old white shirt was already quite tattered, tore strips of cloth from the hem and handed it to him wordlessly. Mihawk accepted it, also wordlessly, and began the to tie it into a tourniquet. As it had to be wrapped above his wounded upper arm, this proved to be a long and irritating task.
By the time Isaac had finished, however, the bleeding had slowed and another strip of the bomber's shirt was cinched around the wound. Mihawk, faintly suspicious, wondered whether her shirts commonly served this purpose, and exactly how far she would be willing to decrease this one's coverage before finding a new one.
Isaac's face was grim, his eyes narrowed. He took many things too seriously, but this time he might be worth listening to for once. Mihawk slowly got to his feet, ignoring the way his head spun.
Isaac nodded to the three of them as he strode past. "Back to the ship."
There was an instant outcry, but it was a brief one. A glare that refused all argument cut it off. "We need to consult with the captain," said Isaac brusquely. "Until then, do as I say."
Mihawk disliked following orders, but he had no interest in attacking people without killing intent, and therefore no reason to argue.
The occupants of the boat were silent on the way back save for the occasional grunt from those manning the oars. (Or perhaps womanning in the case of the starboard rower, who happened to be the bomber.) Sleeper was waiting for them when they boarded, an odd expression on her face. Not that this was saying much, in Mihawk's opinion, because most of her expressions were odd.
"Well?" she said, glancing at Mihawk's bandaged arm. He immediately shifted so that it was out of sight. Not that she should have been able to see it anyway, with all that cloth over her eyes. Yet another bothersome thing about a bothersome pirate.
Isaac hesitated for a moment, glancing around at the rest of the crew as they gravitated towards him with expressions of mild interest.
"…Captain, they fired upon us, but we have determined that they did not aim to kill. Rather, they wished to ward us off and spare our lives from some even greater danger."
"Do they know who we are?" said the helmswoman's disbelieving voice.
"They knew we were pirates," said Isaac gravely. "That's why they fired, or so I was lead to understand. They thought there was no better way to make us leave."
A murmur of understanding ran around the circle. "Only fair," said Gator. Mihawk shook his head ever so slightly.
Sleeper still wasn't satisfied. "Well, I'm all ears, Isaac. What was this great danger?"
"More pirates," said Isaac bluntly. "A fleet of five ships, all full of named, bountied men and women. This is a hospitable-looking island, especially for the Grand Line, and a hospitable little town makes excellent bait. It has the protection of this fleet and the pirates benefit from plunder gained from slaughtering visitors."
"Clever, but not something I'd be interested in doing," said Sleeper. "Does that mean we've arrived just in time for a glorious revolution?"
Isaac nodded once, eyes still fixed on Sleeper's face—this could have been the last word, but it was clear from the remaining tension in the air that the discussion was not over.
"…Five ships?" said the bomber, frowning.
"Do we know any of the bountyheads?"
Isaac scratched his head, eyes rolling up in an obvious effort to remember. "That would be… 'Blackjack' Davey, 'Lion Man' Mamfado Makasu, 'Diamond-shoes' Poru Saymon, 'Alligator Rock' El Tonjon—"
Mihawk had an extensive knowledge of pirate swordsmen, but none of the names making the Blind-Eye pirates shake their heads so gravely were ringing any bells.
"I still have scars from the last time we came up against Lion Man," groused the helmswoman. "Tell me they don't have his sons as well."
"That's not relevant," Sleeper said easily, waving one hand. "We know the enemy; now all that remains is to cast a vote on our course of action."
The ship's rigging expert removed his bowler hat ostentatiously while Sleeper pulled an enormous handful of pink, lacy stationary paper squares from one voluminous sleeve. Gator slid his satchel off one shoulder and started passing out quill pens and pencils. Mihawk somehow found himself in possession of a pink lacy square and a drawing compass with a blunt piece of lead in one of its legs.
"On the subject of returning the good will of the townspeople," said Isaac in his best I Am Making an Announcement voice, "Aye or nay, and drop your votes in Canbass's hat."
"A pirate democracy?" Mihawk muttered to Sleeper as the crew settled down on deck to write their answers.
"They might die," she said, shrugging lopsidedly. "It's a risk that comes with the job, but this could spell obliteration for all of us."
"I thought pirates who picked their fights were considered cowards."
Sleeper tightened the scarf around her eyes and cast a set of five-sided dice on the floor. "That depends on what fights they pick, wouldn't you say? I'm starting to think you haven't gotten to know us well at all."
Mihawk conceded mentally that he had never had any interest in doing so. He let his unfilled ballot fall from one hand while around him the pirates crowded around Canbass with folded pink squares.
"You didn't vote."
"My decision depended on the outcome of the crew's choice. I have no personal investment in a crowd of pathetic farmers waving their sickles at five ships' worth of deadly pirates."
"But you have investment in us?"
"I have investment in honor."
While most of the village evacuated to higher ground, there were a few pathetic farmers who weren't quite as pathetic as Mihawk had expected. The marksman who had fired first, for instance—he was a dark-skinned, middle-aged man who had learned to slow his heartbeat and breathing without the aid of a Devil Fruit. There was a family of five called the Karjaki Clan whose bonding experiences over the years had apparently revolved around learning to kill people bare-handed.
For the most part, though, the revolutionaries were predictably ill-prepared for conflict. From what he gathered, they had even intended to announce their intention to revolt to their oppressors before doing so. Mihawk himself was fond of some degree of ceremony, but even he could see this was not the time for it.
Isaac, Gator, and Sleeper were discussing strategy with the remaining local fighters. Mihawk, who had settled unobtrusively nearby, tried to keep himself from looking sour every time his name was mentioned.
"Are they likely to fire on us?" Isaac asked the head of the murderous household. She shook her head, glancing at the ocean.
"They always send a small party ashore to do the dirty work…there may be more this time, though. They've been watching and they probably know at least that you're fellow pirates."
Isaac wrinkled his nose. "I understand the sentiment, but fellows with a bunch like that…"
"You seem similar enough to me," said the Karjaki matriarch coolly. "Ragtag brawlers somewhere in a gray area of morality…the decorated ship, the ratty black flag—"
"I'll have you know there are no rats aboard this ship!" snapped Isaac, rapping off the words with a speed that made the retort seem almost involuntary. There was a moment of silence in which someone giggled, and Isaac's face colored slightly. He settled back down on the sand, coughing genteely into one fist. "Ahem—what, then, do you suppose they will do after they realize we're fighting back?"
Karjaki shrugged. "They might fire once or twice, but if we retreat beyond their range the captain is likely to grow impatient and send a first wave of pawns."
"If we can target their boats—" Isaac started, but Karjaki was already shaking her head.
"They don't need boats. They have a road-road man."
"Damn. How broad of a path can he make?"
"Broad enough for a cart, and he can split them into multiple paths."
Gator and Isaac grimaced in unison. Isaac pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. "Well, then…we can still pick a few off before they reach the shore, and if they're not named and bountied, we could have a shot at beating down over half before they've sent their lieutenants. I'm sorry, Lady Karjaki, but could you ask one of your sons to find that rifleman—uh, Samson, wasn't it?"
"I'll look for him," said Karjaki, already turning away. "He is not an easily-found man."
"Alright," said Gator slowly, spreading out a map of the coastline, "we need a list of our long-range hitters."
"Faxia," Isaac said immediately, counting on his fingers, "and Bleedish is mid-to-long-range, we can use him… Does Delburn still carry that horrible crossbow?"
Gator nodded distractedly, tracing the outline of an inlet with one finger. Isaac grinned. "Excellent. We can find him some fuel and put him to work on a clifftop somewhere. And then there's Hawkeyes and his flying strike…"
Mihawk hardly bothered to disguise the scowl tugging at his mouth. Isaac and Gator, absorbed in their respective activities, seemed not to notice, but Sleeper…
"Teamwork not your glass of wine, Hawk-eyes?"
"I…prefer independence," he said, glaring and wondering how she could have noticed with her back to him.
Isaac shook his head slowly (Mihawk tensed involuntarily at how utterly patronizing the gesture was). "Believe me, I've noticed. But you're one of our heaviest long-range hitters. If you're going to stay and help us, the least you can do is cooperate by thinning the ranks before they close in."
"I assure you," said Mihawk, "that is hardly the 'least' I can—"
He was interrupted by an inconspicuous motion. Sleeper, who had been slumped over, sat upright with a short but violent shock and sat there, trembling with some painfully-restrained energy. Gator and Isaac stared alternately at her and the ship, eyes flashing worriedly back and forth. Mihawk recalled with disinterest that most of her fortune-telling paraphernalia was still aboard.
"Captain, do you need—"
"I can run and get—"
"No!' Sleeper raised one shaking arm and turned it slowly back until it pointed, at an unnatural angle, in Mihawk's direction. "Hawk-eyes. Your. Sword. Please."
Mihawk recoiled instinctively, one protective hand going to the sword's hilt. "I wouldn't consider giving it to you even if you weren't likely to use it for your ridiculous charades!"
"Now. It could—be—relevant—" Sleeper's voice was almost guttural with effort.
Mihawk stared, frowning, unconvinced. "You think it might tell you something about the battle? I should think you'd prefer to know less about that in advance. If you predicted all our deaths, that would just make the situation more hopeless than it already—"
Sleeper turned to face him. It was a full-body movement that she almost threw herself into, the sand beneath her flying. Without even standing, she was suddenly face-to-face with him, one hand jerking the blindfold away from her eyes.
"Dracule Mihawk," she said, in the voice that made Mihawk wonder whether the crew members using male pronouns were closer to the truth, "we would not surrender at the prospect of death. Do not look down on our resolve."
Maintaining eye contact, Mihawk slowly reached down and drew his sword, offering Sleeper the hilt. In one motion, she replaced her blindfold, snatched the sword from his hands hurled it forcefully across the beach, threatening to cut several of his fingers off in the process. Mihawk sprang to his feet, uttering several popular pirate swearwords as well as a few that hadn't been popular for at least a century. The sword skidded over the sand, eventually hitting a rock (Mihawk winced) and bouncing upwards. It came to land with its point buried in the ground, hilt pointing to the sky.
Mihawk had no time to wonder at the improbability of this; his mind was full of nicked edges and scratched steel and how long the damned sharpening process was going to take. He put on an undignified burst of speed running to retrieve his sword, and barely kept himself from kicking Sleeper on the way back.
Isaac, apparently unconcerned by the inappropriate use of bladed weapons going on in his immediate vicinity, was staring in awe at Sleeper. "Well, captain? Did it…what did you see?"
Sleeper paused for a moment and then shrugged. "It would seem as though Hawk-eyes was right. Every last one of us is going to die in this battle."
Mihawk glared, unimpressed. Gator and Isaac glanced at each other, wearing the same unreadable expression. After a long, tense moment, Gator said, "…Was that it?"
"That was it," said Sleeper.
Isaac's face acquired a certain thoughtful aspect. "Nothing about how many we take down with us, then?"
"Okay…" The cat-man stood decisively, turning to address the gathered pirates nearby. "Lads and ladies, Captain Sleeper says we're all to die here, so let's aim for all-round obliteration!"
The roar of assent that greeted this peculiar proposal was neither a battlecry nor a cheer but somewhere in between. The volume of the chatter around them seemed to rise several notches, taking on an energetic quality that one would not normally associate with a death sentence.
"Fanatics, all of you," muttered Mihawk, running one careful hand down the flat of the sword in search of abnormalities.
Five hours later, he took his place in the dusky forest along side the Blind-eye long-range specialists, watching five ships approach steadily through evening mist.
"You're gonna like this, Chickenboy," said the helmswoman. "The natives say these bastards have a count of at least a dozen swordsmen."
The helmswoman's combined age and cheek had severely lowered her standing with Mihawk. He said nothing. Around them, night fell.
Mihawk had been curious to see whether the first small group would be as easily defeated as Isaac seemed to expect. As it turned out, the Karjaki Clan easily dispatched the invaders sent to do the "dirty work", as the matriarch had so delicately put it. There were a few distant screams from the general direction of the village, and a minute or so later the family reappeared one by one, each cleaning their hands with dark clothes. Whether the cloths had started out as dark was a question Mihawk had no interest in pondering
While the Karjaki parents indulged in a moment of embarrassingly matrimonial behavior, the first wave of real attackers came rushing across the sea on roads only visible by a certain glassy flattening of the water.
Isaac cursed and abruptly began shouting out orders, hair standing on end in a halo of ginger and developing brown stripes. "I was not expecting this," he growled, pointing to Mihawk and five other crew members in turn. "All of you out! Thin the ranks as much as you can! Snatchbat, you're our fastest—run and signal Delburn to get started!"
"I thought I was supposed to do that when—"
"When they started firing their guns on us, yes, that was the idea, but they're not doing that!" He turned to the Karkjakis and the rifleman. "Their captain must really want you to suffer."
"Oh, we knew that," said the rifleman softly, and stepped forward to stand beside Mihawk. "You'd better get going, boy. Wide-range damage and then precision, right?"
"That's right," said Sleeper serenely from behind them. "They'll slow down after a broad barrage, and then you can start picking them off. Bleedish, Daedelus, Faxia, all of you as well."
Mihawk had heard the name Daedelus said, and seen the man before, but never put the two together. He and Bleedish (the bomber) were generally mentioned in the same context, usually a very violent one, and it was no wonder. Daedelus was a flint-man who snapped his fingers to light his own explosives. Apparently the two spent a lot of time in competitions, and Mihawk had somehow found himself unable to avoid hearing all about these.
Now they both stepped forward, readying their respective weapons and eyeing each other. Mihawk, who had no time for incendiary rivalries, decided to take initiative. He took a deep breath, savoring the open space he had to work with—on a ship, flying strikes had to be contained, controlled.
Time to see what brawling experience had done for him.
Two quick, perfectly precise slices took out swathes of pirates to the north and south, greenish flares of cutting power biting into their ranks. The damage was not as great as Mihawk had hoped, but the distance was formidable. He allowed himself a moment of pride before a sparking keg and a shower of firesticks arced over his head, each propelled by intimidating arm-strength. To his left Faxia, a flash-flash man, slammed both hands on the ground, sending white sparkles racing away from one grain of sand to another and then into the water. In the surf, the tiny points of light finally ignited into blinding bars of light amongst reeling mass of invaders.
The Blind-eye pirates who had for this instant been true to their name, removed their hands from their eyes and returned to watchful alertness.
"That's their night-vision gone," said Sleeper happily as the rifleman and Longbow (conveniently named after his weapon) took their places.
"They know we mean business now," said Gator over the crack of the gun and the hum of the bowstring. "They're sure to have fliers somewhere on those ships; they'll be coming over to draw our fire away from their men on foot."
"In the end," said Sleeper, "they will reach us and we'll be forced to discard long-range tactics."
"Is that a prediction?" asked Mihawk coldly, stepping forward for another flying strike as the rifleman and Longbow reloaded their respective stocks of ammunition.
"Not one I need my powers to make," said Sleeper blithely, and then, with a little more alertness, "Ah, that's Delburn. Eyes covered again!"
A scarlet streak of fire arced from a clifftop to the north, cutting through the night and dying abruptly in the ocean.
Missed, thought Mihawk, and then a patch of sea exploded into a wash of flames with a thick, oily whumpf. He blinked furiously, despising even this temporary absence of sight.
"Airborne!" shouted someone and immediately there was a clamor of shifting weapons and shouting voices.
"Looks like two or three bird Ability Users and one—no, two people on some sort of flying device."
"It's a broomstick," said Mihawk, the green glow finally dissipating from his vision.
"If you can see that well, Hawkeyes, I want you to fire off a shot at them when they're within range!"
"Seconded," said Lady Karjaki uneasily, staring at the darkened sky. "Don't give them a chance to drop anything on us. Doesn't your crew have any fliers?"
"Sadly, no," said Sleeper, who was slowly unwinding her scarf. "But I like to think we make up for that. Ready!"
Everything happened in a moment; the broomstick riders fell, bleeding, with a flash of Mihawk's sword, a bundle of feathery limbs crashed to the ground nearby, entangled in a loop of Sleeper's scarf, and a rain of feathers like steel blades sank into the earth all around. Mihawk barely dodged three aiming straight for his chest and spun to see the third Zoan plummet, clearly with the intention of dive-bombing, and have the misfortune of choosing Daedelus as his target.
Flint is not easily injured by blunt force. The Zoan fell away from a rather bemused Daedelus and Mihawk turned his attention back to the final enemy to see it executing some impressive evasive maneuvers; with every weapon in the area trained on it, there was no time for projectile pinions.
There was a sharp whistle, its source invisible, and for an empty, breathless moment all attacks ceased. The Zoan drew back its wings in a triumphant gesture…and then the helmswoman leapt from a nearby tree and landed on its back.
Mihawk considered cutting the enemy out of the sky while it was distracted, and possible consequences be damned. He decided against it because firstly, no one else knew how to do the helmswoman's job, and secondly the rest of the crew would complain if they had to unbolt that stupid chair from the deck.
Anyway, there was something entertaining about the sight of an eighty-year-old woman wrangling a fearsome, steel-feathered Zoan into submission. And indeed, after some flailing and bucking and trying desperately to gain altitude, the third Zoan dropped like its fellows.
In the relative calm that followed, Mihawk took stock of the situation: the bladed feathers had caught Gator through the foot, and two had struck one of the Karjaki girls in the shoulder. Two Blind-eye pirates who had been standing near the broomstick riders' landing place were on the ground now as well, twitching faintly. There was a green haze hovering the bodies.
Down below, the first wave had reached the shore.
"Same tactics as before until they're within mid-range," said Isaac grimly. "Anyone using ammo, do not waste it. I know it can get harder to—"
"Shut up!" snapped Longbow, sighting down one arm.
"I told you we could deal with the pawns," said Gator's voice behind Mihawk. Lady Karjaki grunted, apparently unimpressed.
"That just means their lieutenants will come faster," she said. "They're not the type to be picked off so easily."
"We know," said the helmswoman sourly. "We've run into most of them before. Speaking of which…does anyone else hear banjos?"
There was a moment of silence save for the groaning of the wounded and the ambient noise of battle…and out in the darkness…
The sound of faint strumming.
"Damn and blast," said the helmswoman. "He did bring his sons. Get ready, children, here come the big guns."
As Sleeper and Isaac had stressed, long-range attacks were not applicable for much longer after that point. The full forces of five ships are not a threat to be taken lightly, especially when the leading powers are all bountied over a hundred thousand. Mihawk still had no intention of letting Sleeper's morbid prediction prove true, but there was some supporting evidence.
The battle was spread out among the trees, in darkness that was never quite complete with the constant flashing of explosives and unnamable powers.
The scope of the battle was beyond any of Mihawk's previous experiences. There could have been fifty bountied swordsmen among the enemy, and he would not have had time to seek them out or even recognize them as such. There was no respite, no pause to catch his breath, and barely any time to distinguish between friend and foe. More than once he turned to cut down a presence behind him, only to realize it was a comrade (for want of a better word).
Matters were not improved by the rough terrain, which grew increasingly rougher with the addition of uncountable prone bodies. Mihawk soon gave up looking down to find out who he had stepped on—or what he had stepped in. The world was a blur, a cacophony of action and unearthly noises. Occasionally a Devil Fruit user's voice could be heard above the clamor, followed generally by some unearthly noise and accompanying screams.
Mihawk fought on. He fought until he was no longer a man with a mind, or even a man with a sword. All things were one; mind, sword, and body. It was a delicate, unconscious balancing act. Time was no longer relevant. Even when fatigue finally began to affect him, the burning in his limbs was only a distant sensation.
After a while, a timeless interval, he noticed off-hand that the sun was beginning to rise and…there were less pirates surrounding him than there had been. In fact, in his immediate vicinity there were only five. Beyond this tattered circle of aggressors, the lingering sounds of battle were faint. And even as the five pirates edged closer, two of their number fell, on with a scarf cinched around his throat, the other with a knifehand protruding from his chest.
Mihawk dispatched the remaining three in a fit of pique before any other "rescuers" could arrive.
"Tired, Hawkeyes?" asked Sleeper cheerfully as her victim slowly ceased to struggle.
"No," said Mihawk, glaring. But the sense of perfect balance was fading even as he spoke. Every muscle ached, and when he tried to step forward over the frothing pirate, he almost tripped.
"Nonsense," said Sleeper a little less convivially, "we're all tired. We've won. Get some sleep."
"Don't take orders from…" said Mihawk, and collapsed onto the ground.
"I don't believe you."
"You don't have to," said Sleeper smugly.
"I believe it," said Isaac nearby. Mihawk scowled at him, although by now this did little more than amuse the nearby Blind-eye pirates.
"Why can't you just admit that your predictions are faulty? Even you would not be so capricious as to lie to your men about their death en masse!"
"Wouldn't I? If I was already assured of their survival, wouldn't I?"
"She would, though," Bleeder said helpfully. Mihawk didn't even bother to glare. Around them, the smell of the ocean mingled with the savory aroma of a cauldron of stew brewing in the kitchen. The helmswoman, who had temporarily left her armchair by the wheel, settled down on the deck with the rest of them, one hand absentmindedly going to the stump of her right upper arm. So far, her only complaint about the injury had been that it made reading something of an ordeal.
"If you're so fed up with us, you could just find a different crew," she said, waving the halved limb in Mihawk's direction. "Next time we end a battle on even terms with the other bunch, you could jump ship to them."
Mihawk didn't answer; there was no way to phrase his reasons for staying with the Blind-eye pirates that wouldn't come across as overly-sentimental, and sentimental he certainly was not.
He was…invested in honor.
Two months later
Captain Puffi Sleeper stood on the deck, surrounded by crewmates, all of them staring after the small, dark boat making its way persistently towards the black sand of Deep Island.
"…Did you tell him?" asked the first mate quietly, eyes not leaving the "him" in question. Sleeper's mouth quirked into a strange half-smile.
"He wouldn't have believed me anyway. I almost wish we could stick around and watch, but we wouldn't want to be in the area when they meet. The collateral will be truly impressive."
"And we have places to be," Isaac added. They kissed once, in a rather businesslike way, and went back to issuing their respective orders.
And thus Dracule Mihawk parted ways with the Blind-eye Pirates.
General self-dislike over the wait aside, I'm actually okay with this chapter. And I have fairly high hopes for the next chapter, too.
I will address questions, concerns, and recent reviews only. Some of you have probably not looked at this fic in the almost-year since the previous chapter, and I'm sure you don't remember what you said. Know, however, that I am deeply deeply grateful for your feedback and kind words, and I wish I could be the author my reviewers deserve. SLER, Sir Gar the Bold, Phalanx, Ysaye, TheDML, ImmortalMelody, so many other regulars, new readers and old...I hope I can give you a punctual and enjoyable Part 16 if you're still reading now and in the future.
Lily Noir: Ah, you commented back in December! Not that long of a wait for you then, comparatively. Let's start here.
Oh, man, I didn't even think about Aokiji's chronology! Well, I suppose that part doesn't necessarily have to be read as a reference to him... -_- But I can actually say that yes, you're spot on, I intentionally started with a slightly different personality from the one Mihawk has in canon. :) It's not often I can say I did something like that on purpose, heheh...
VheeriTheSuccubus: Sadly yes, as much as I try to keep it real here there are plenty of real-world issues that are ignored. However, as you say, bloodloss in One Piece never seems to be come that much of a problem. I actually get a lot of my names from english words put into a kind of bastardized katakana style! Of course, that might be painfully obvious in this chapter. I was running out of ideas, so sue me... ;p
Andelevion: Thank you! Sometimes I forget people actually like this story still and I'm glad you're enjoying my big Mihawk headcanon mashup! And my OCs, of course, always a sensitive subject because they're such a gamble. The affirmation means a lot! I've been wavering on bringing Curry back, but even if I don't I still want to write a couple drabbles about his life. Thank you again so much!
alynawatlovers: I'm honestly not sure how so much discworld ended up in this story. Something about the dry humor that fits Mihawk best seemed to demand it. XD Garp actually hasn't appeared yet, but as mentioned above, Aokiji was there...anachronistically. :/ I'm glad you also enjoyed Curry, and don't worry, there will be more Shanks soon!
Next chapter will of course take place on Deep Island, with the introduction of a very important character and yet another epic battle. There may even be a timeskip.