A/N: I'm terribly late, I know. This was a monster of a chapter to write (and with appropriate monster length as well). Thanks must go to my beta, callosum, for doing an express job on the beta.
It didn't help that I hit a Writer's Block and had to resort to writing a couple of chapters of 'Marie D Suesse and the Mystery New Pirate Age!' to break that block.
I didn't waste my block time either. I've actually gone back and revised the previous chapters as well. Nothing too major, mainly fixing a lot of spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. I've also added additional lines and fixed awkward sentences and dialogue. Since this chapter is the last chapter of this arc, it's a good time to reread the entire story arc in one shot. If you should feel so inclined, of course.
So, without further ado:
Though a Bird Can't Fly, That Doesn't Mean It Never Will.
Chapter 14: Making Peace
It might sound strange that mere rain would bring peace to a country torn by civil war, but it did.
But while the rain had soothed the unrest amongst the people, it had yet to bring peace to a different conflict.
Kuina stood before the silent ship, gathering courage to step on board.
"So there you are! Where have you been?" The voice, shouted down the gangplank, was angry and accusatory.
"You're too late," the doctor said bluntly. "He's gone."
It took her several minutes to let this sink in. "You mean P-Piers...?"
"Where were you? I thought he was your friend!"
She tried to speak, to explain, but as much as she tried, no sound came out of her mouth. She wanted to cry, but her eyes remained dry.
"You didn't deserve him for a friend," said another voice. "I'm surprised you even dared to show your face!"
Kuina stiffened. "Tashigi-san..."
"Don't Tashigi-san ME, Ms. Traitor," her superior replied coldly, "I saw you with fraternising with Roronoa and the Straw-Hat pirates."
"I am disappointed in you, Kuina," rumbled Smoker's distinctive voice. "You've betrayed my trust, consorting with the enemy."
"Captain Smoker, I—"
"I don't want to hear your excuses. You're under arrest and awaiting court-martial. I would advise you not to try and resist. Briggs, take her to the holding cells!"
"With pleasure. I always knew that blind girl wouldn't amount to anything much," sneered the voice of the navigator as he approached. She could hear the cold ring of the cuffs he carried.
Kuina took a step back, her heart hammering. She couldn't beat Captain Smoker. She wasn't even sure she wanted to try. To outrun him was the only chance she had, but what level of shame would she bring to her father and family name by turning into a criminal fugitive? She didn't even want to think about that.
In a panic, she turned and bolted, only to crash into a flat expanse of cold, unyielding stone...
The voices in her head faded away, only to be replaced by the soft patter of falling rain against stone. Kuina lay still, breathing heavily, her forehead beaded with sweat. She could no longer hear the hostile, accusatory voices of her former crew, just the soft voices of a man and a girl speaking in the background.
It took her several moments to gather herself. The cold stone hadn't been a stone wall. It was the marbled floor of Alubarna Palace. She had fallen out of bed and head-first onto the floor.
"A dream," she muttered as she extracted herself from the tangle of blankets. "A nightmare. None of that was real. Just... my mind making up nightmares..."
At this she suddenly gave up and slumped dejectedly, resting her cheek on the cool marble floor. What was the point?
No, none of that had been real. Except for one thing...
"Sake? Where'd you get that?"
"An old innkeeper from Rainbase was kind enough to provide me with this little bottle. And these two cups."
"And you carried these everywhere with you throughout the whole war?"
"It was important. I wanted to be able to do this with you if there was a chance."
Kuina knew from his silence that Zoro was looking at her oddly.
"It's something that that crazy captain of yours—" here she nodded at the aforementioned captain's senseless form, "—said to me. When two people exchange cups of sake, they become brothers."
"And you want me to be your brother?"
"Do you want the sake or not, Moss-head?"
He grinned. "I never say no to free sake."
Without further words they both toasted each other, and downed their cups. With this action there was the feeling of having officially acknowledged something that had always been an unspoken understanding between them.
Kuina felt a rush of triumph at the affirming of their bond. But this warm feeling did not last long— she was too busy gagging a moment later.
The taste of the Alabastan liquor was wildly different from the rice-wine of her village. Unlike the simple, malty and bittersweet brew of home, the local sake was extremely sweet, and heavily flavoured with cloying spices and seemed more perfume than drink.
"What the hell was that?" complained Zoro as he,too, recovered from choking down his drink.
"I think the inn-keeper called it a—"
"—I don't want to know. I just never want any of it again. The next time we drink together, I'm picking the alcohol, ok?"
Kuina laughed, for what seemed like the first time in a very long time, but her laugh abruptly died as something that she should have noticed earlier finally registered in her consciousness. A familiar presence.
"Oh crap. Marines."
How long her superior had been silently standing there, at the end of the street, Kuina couldn't even tell. But there was no doubt that she had seen everything.
Kuina's heart sank. There was no explaining this one. How could she have forgotten about being discreet while in the company of wanted pirates?
Working together to save the city during a desperate situation was one thing, but to be seen happily sharing a drink with a wanted fugitive that she had known prior connections with? No way the Marines could overlook that. She'd be thrown out of the Marines, if not arrested along with the pirates she had been seen associating with at the very least.
The injustice of it all stung her. The Straw-Hats had saved Alabasta. And now that it was all over, this very important fact was going to be conveniently ignored and the heroic pirates were going to be rounded up like common criminals.
"You'd better make yourself scarce. Let me handle this."
Zoro was attempting to get to his feet, but Kuina knew that he was too spent. For him to be able to beat a whole squadron of marines in his currents condition was doubtful at best.
"Zoro, no! It's too late anyway. I'm the only one fresh enough to fight— they've all seen me anyway."
She did not want to do this. She did not want to fight her own people. She did not want to fight Tashigi either, but she could not turn her back on her newly sworn brother and the people who had saved all of their lives.
As it turned out, she didn't have to.
"...this is an order!" Tashigi seemed to be arguing with one of the men.
"B-but this is a chance we can't lose!" the marine was protesting.
"You will not lay a hand on them!" Tashigi's voice, in a passable mimicry of Captain Smoker's, was harsh and did not allow for any argument. Both she and Zoro listened in amazement as the marines, Tashigi included, made their way out of the area.
Just before Tashigi left the scene she stopped. Kuina knew, from the silence, that Tashigi had given the two of them, still sitting leaning against the wall, a long, last look.
"What the hell was that?" Zoro said for a second time, after the marines had gone.
"That," said Kuina miserably, as the reality of her situation sank in, "was me not being able to go back to my ship again."
The voices were lowered, punctuated with footsteps and the rustling of linen as someone moved about and straightened covers.
Kuina lay awake quietly. She hadn't intended to eavesdrop, but her sense of hearing meant she could hear every word of Vivi's conversation with the other man.
"...ah Pell. He was the bravest, noblest warrior I ever knew," the man said fondly over the snores of the sleeping pirates. Kuina did not recognise the voice.
"Yes, Igaram," Vivi's voice was thoughtful, wistful, yet not entirely sad. "I really wish I had the chance to thank him."
"It would have been the greatest honour for him, I think."
Kuina started. So that man speaking to her was the 'Igaram' Pell had admired so much. How ironic it was that he should have survived after all and Pell hadn't.
"If only you could have known your mentor survived. If only you could have lived..." the voices in her head whispered.
It hurt to think of Pell. While the war raged on, she had been able to put him out of her mind. But here, in the dark of the night and her own restlessness, there was no escape from from the ache that still burned inside her heart.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. You barely knew him. And nothing ever happened. And nothing ever will now.
There hadn't even been a body to weep over. How powerful was that bomb? Would there have been anything left of his body? Perhaps it had disintegrated into nothing but dust to be blown by the wind.
Or perhaps... perhaps he had managed to escape and had been caught by the blast and was lying out there alone and injured in the middle of the desert...
Stupid! her rational mind reprimanded. He's dead. Stop hoping he isn't. It only makes it hurt worse.
Hope was such a cruel thing. And yet, Kuina knew, with frightening certainty, that if she could do it all over again, she still would have chosen to have those few precious hours she had had with Pell and the lifetime of heartbreak afterward, than the even more terrifying possibility of never having met him at all.
It made no sense. And yet for her, it didn't have to.
Her hand, dangling over the side of the bed, made contact with the smooth scabbard of a sword. His sword. It was still covered with the grime of battle, the Alabastan sword that Pell had entrusted to her that she had had no idea what to do with.
Much like herself.
What was she to do now? Take up Luffy's offer and turn pirate? Surely she couldn't go back to the Marines, not after Tashigi had seen her with Zoro.
Sure, she'd have Zoro by her side, and the pirates he ran with seemed nice enough, but the idea of turning pirate and having the ones who had been her friends turn into her enemies filled her with dread. The memory of them all... Doctor, who had always been kind, Smoker-san, whom she respected deeply, and...
It felt as though the old, unhealed wound in her heart had reopened and it hurt.
Was her friend still alive?
If she had had a little more courage she would have known the truth a long time ago.
But I didn't. I just ran away, Kuina thought miserably.
"...to lose one's fear of death, one needs to learn to face it instead of running away from it," the memory of Pell's voice suddenly echoed in her head.
So do I go back, like a lamb to the slaughter? thought Kuina morbidly. Do I have the courage to do what you would have advised me to do, Pell?
In the peace of the night, the voices in her head had quietened, but as she silently asked her question, she still wished it could give her an answer.
But there was nothing.
What was she doing, talking to the dead? Pell was gone. She couldn't hear his voice anymore.
There was nothing left. Nothing, not even a scrap of —
And then she sat up in shock, her heart hammering painfully.
"What is it?" cried Vivi in alarm. "Are you all right, Kuina?"
"I'm fine," Kuina replied distractedly, her mind racing. "I just thought I heard something..."
Just for the briefest of moments— had she imagined it? It was patently impossible for her to be able hear such a thing. And yet...
Loose white linen, with dark embroidered stars, flapping in the wind.
What if you're wrong? Do you think you'll feel better going out there and finding nothing? Or worse, finding something but it not being what you had hoped for? the nasty voice in her head whispered.
"I can't be a coward and run away this time!" she snapped back at it. "I have to know!"
"K-kuina-san?" stammered Vivi in confusion.
With a start, Kuina realised that she had said that last bit out loud. She forced herself to calm down.
"Vivi-sama. I have to go. Somewhere. But first I have a request to make of you..."
"Are you sure you won't try a riding duck again?" Vivi asked as she helped Kuina gear up. "You've just never had time to get used it it, and the Super Duck Squad are all excellent mounts!"
"It's just the gait of the duck... I don't think I can handle riding one of them, I'd fall off again."
It had been most embarrassing experience for Kuina when she had discovered that her motion sickness would kick in if she tried riding a duck for more than ten seconds. Falling off on the eleventh had simply been the most embarrassing end to her attempts.
"All right. I'm sure Eyelashes will take care of you," Vivi said as the camel she had opted for instead gave an approving grunt.
"That's the camel's name."
"Does it have very long eyelashes?"
"I suppose it does," said Vivi after a moment of amused silence.
They both had a little laugh at that, which helped to break the tension and Vivi's anxiety.
As the camel began its sedate walk out of the royal palace, Kuina could hear Vivi call out after her, "Kuina, what do I tell Zoro when he wakes up?"
"If I'm not back by then, tell him to go on and not to wait for me."
"But where are you going?"
Kuina replied softly, "I don't know, Vivi. I just know where it is."
The sounds of the city faded behind her, and the sound of rain on paved roads gave way to the soft patter of rain falling on sand. Kuina kept the heavy cloak Vivi had loaned her wrapped tightly around her person, grateful for its waterproof lining. The nights in the desert were cold, something she found bizarre considering how hot the place was during the day.
The camel and her were getting along splendidly. Whether because her Mantra made her extra sensitive to its emotions or because this was a particularly intelligent animal, they seemed to understand each other fairly quickly. 'Eyelashes' also seemed very willing to please, and she was able to set their direction without having to give any verbal commands or actions.
It was also because of this connection that she suddenly sensed the fear in the creature as they passed near the river.
She wondered what it was that had spooked it, a split-second before her senses too picked up a familiar presence. A hated presence, one she would never forget.
It was her. Miss All-Sunday. The woman with the sprouting hands who had beaten her, mocked her and thrown her down the stairs.
Kuina cringed at the memory, now made worse by the remembering what that woman had done to Pell.
Back then, Pell to her had just been The Man Who Smelt of Feathers, but now he was the reason why she had left the safety and comfort of Alubarna palace on a lonely search with only wistful hope driving her on. Revisiting the memory now only made her feel worse than when she had first witnessed it.
A sudden flash of anger gave her the resolve to act. She did not hesitate further, knowing the darkness of the night was on her side. At her urging Eyelashes changed his course, straight at where the devilish woman was hiding near a docked ship.
Seeing that she was going to be flushed out, the Miss All-Sunday reacted as one would have expected: she sprouted pairs of arms, which succeeded in stopping the charging camel. She must have been exhausted, though, because her reactions were slower than Kuina remembered, and it took her far too long to realize that the camel had no rider.
By that time, Kuina had closed in on her from her blind side, sword out and the hooded cloak covering her face so not a single inch of bare skin showed.
Her opponent was not about to go down without a fight, however. Before Kuina could cover the full distance between them, more arms sprouted out from various points from her own body, grasping at—
—an empty cloak that had been loosened and discarded.
Their silent battle was over. Kuina stood with Koyojaku at Miss All-Sunday's throat, breathing heavily from the speed that her dash had required, but knowing that she had won.
"You again. And very clever," Miss All-Sunday said to her softly. "I don't think anyone's ever tried covering up fully and then stripping to escape from my devil-fruit before."
"Spare me your flattery. I will give you a minute to make your peace with this world —"
"— before you send me to the next?" the woman finished for her tiredly, almost as though she was resigned to her fate. "You have enough reason to want to. Do it then. I have nothing left to make peace with."
Kuina was taken aback at this. When she had last fought Miss All-Sunday, the woman had been arrogant, cruel and confident. Here, she seemed almost a different person, like a soaring raptor that had lost its wings and had been reduced to crawling on the ground in fallen indignity. Kuina almost felt cheated of her victorious rematch.
"That's it?" she demanded of the former Baroque Works vice-president. "You're not even going to try and bargain for your life?"
"What would be the point? I have no more hope left to live for."
Where was that the horrible, cruel monster of a woman that Kuina had wanted to defeat? She was certainly not present in this broken shell of a person. No, this voice belonged to one who had already been defeated and didn't so much as care whether she lived or died.
Koyojaku's sharp blade, a scant touch away from cutting Miss All-Sunday's jugular, was withdrawn as Kuina lowered her weapon. "Then I won't."
This seemed to anger Miss All-Sunday.
"First Straw-Hat, now you? Why do you all keep insisting that I live?" the woman suddenly burst out. "I told you I have no more hope! What purpose do I have left? What am I supposed to do with myself?"
"I don't know," Kuina replied. "But there is no point in beating someone who already has been defeated. Figure it out yourself."
This seemed to push the woman over the edge.
"If you don't kill me here, then I will tell you what I plan to do! I was going to stow away on this ship — the Straw-Hats' ship! You have some connection with them, don't you? Are you going to allow that?"
Kuina could barely mask her surprise at her failing to recognise that the ship they had been fighting next to was indeed the ship she had chased for so long. And knowing what that woman was planning, possibly putting Zoro and the others in danger, she couldn't help but feel alarmed. Still, she knew with certainty, as much as she worried for Zoro and Luffy, that this was not her call to make.
"And what do you plan to do after that?" Kuina challenged.
Miss All-Sunday's voice was bleak. "I don't know."
In a way, it was terrifying how closely that woman's situation mirrored her own.
"I had thought to convince the captain to take me into his crew. After all, he spared my life when he should have left me for dead."
This new revelation stunned Kuina. Yet there was no doubt that this was not a lie, not from the way that woman's voice sounded. Perhaps it was also what that made her decide.
"All right, then."
There was a shocked silence.
"You're not going to stop me?"
"If Luffy saved you he must have had a reason to, and I trust Luffy's judgment. Between him and Zoro, I am sure they will be able to handle the likes of you. But —" Kuina projected as much menace in her voice as she could, "— if I do hear that you've so much as caused them a single whit of trouble or harm, know that I will hunt you down myself."
"You wouldn't be the first to say that," Miss All-Sunday replied wryly.
"I have no doubt — hey, can you write?" Kuina asked suddenly.
"C-certainly," Miss All-Sunday replied, understandably confused at the non sequitur.
"Oh good. Do you have paper and something to write with?"
"Yes... I do."
Kuina smiled slightly. Another idea had just occurred to her.
The ship of Black Cage Hina was moored at Tamarisk, Alubarna's eastern port. Anchored next to Smoker's modestly-sized brig, it looked positively enormous.
"Tashigi, nice to see you," began the marine captain. She was interrupted by an overly triumphant exclamation.
"AHA! HINA! I knew it! It was you Smokey ended up running to for help. KNEEEEEW IT!"
Briggs' voice came from the stretcher that was being carried by the two marines following Tashigi. The injured marine had managed to raise his head to look at his surroundings. "Some things never change. Saved by a girrrrrrl!"
"Briggs, I'm sitting right here, you know?" Smoker pointed out from where he was sitting the top of the stairs. "I can hear you."
"Like I care, Smokey-bear," retorted his subordinate in an uncharacteristically carefree voice. "Serve you right for sending me alone on a dangerous reconnaissance mission, and not sticking around to receive my report! Stick-around... get it? Ha!"
"What happened to Barkskin? He looks terrible!" said Hina, interrupting the beginnings of a quarrel.
"Officer Briggs engaged the warlord Crocodile in combat," Tashigi felt obliged to explain. "He was severely outmatched and sustained serious injuries."
"Not what Hina meant," the marine captain replied. "Barkskin! Why did you chop off your beard and hair? This new look of yours is terrible, your chin now looks like a plucked turkey! Hina hate!"
"That's what I told him when I first saw it," drawled Smoker as he exhaled a puff of cigar smoke. "I think he was trying to go incognito, though."
Tashigi briefly wondered if taking up a captainship in the marines turned people a little crazy.
"Thank you Smokey. You're the only one who understands me!" Briggs sighed happily, shifting in an attempt to make himself more comfortable. His height meant that his feet dangled awkwardly over the edge of the stretcher. "You're always pretending to be mean but you're really such a great friend... like Hina. By the way, Hina, I go by the name 'Briggs' now."
"Hina hates the new name too. Hina hate! 'Barkskin' sounded a lot better."
This caught the attention of a nearby Marine, who until then, had been content with silently (and besottedly) following Captain Hina around.
"Did someone say— Barkskin! Is that you?"
"It is you! Haven't seen you in ages! Hey! What happened to your arm?"
"Oh, it fell off."
"Oh, so it did."
There was a choking sound from Tashigi at this.
"Aw, that's a shame. By the way, have you met Jango? He's a great dancer. Hey Jango, you gotta meet this old pal of mine." The marine elbowed his companion. "He doesn't look it, but he's a pretty mean dancer too."
"Reaaallly?" There was an ominously interested tone from the voices of the gathered marines.
"...he does one hell of a mean rhumba..."
Behind Hina's amused face Briggs was motioning at Fullbody as if in protest.
"It's waltz! Waaaaaltzh! I don't rhuuuummba!"
"Laws, he's even more obnoxious while he's doped up," came an irritable voice from the moored ship. Doctor Francis had emerged from the sickbay and was making his way towards his latest patient.
"Captain Hina, how lovely to see you — ah Tashigi, my dear! I hope you are all right." Then the doctor turned to the field medic who had been tending to Briggs, who was still prattling semi-coherently about dancing. "All right, stick-bug*, enough running your mouth off. Since you didn't have the decency to just die, let's get you into the infirmary— Seaman Wharf, just how much of a painkiller shot did you give Officer Briggs?"
"J-just the standard..." stammered the intimidated seaman.
"Laws, don't stare at me like a frightened rabbit," Doctor-san said in impatiently. "I heard the reports. Briggs must still slightly dehydrated from the effects of Crocodile's attack. The side effects seem to have hit harder."
"Hina noticed," said Hina.
A series of hysterical giggles emanated from the stretcher as it was carried onto the ship.
"That explains why you have that Tone Dial out as well," Smoker added.
The doctor only grinned evilly in response. "I can't wait until he becomes lucid again. He's never, ever going to live it down."
Chaka stood before the gravestone. Like the others in the graveyard, the memorial was in the shape of an ankh with the epitaph in gold lettering. It had been hurriedly prepared on the request of the royal family, but the stonemasons had done a good job for all that. It did not look any less impressive than the others in the Heroes' Memorial Cemetery.
There had been no body.
Chaka knew perfectly why it was an empty grave, but somehow it still bothered him.
At least Igaram had returned. He had been as affected to hear of Pell's death, just as Pell had to been to hear of Igaram's (supposed) death. As for Chaka himself...
"We were the greatest of friends, and I can't even shed a tear at your death. What does that say about me, old friend?" he said aloud to the marker, his smile forced and cynical.
Everyone had agreed that there was no chance of Pell's surviving the explosion. He had been in the heart of it after all. In fact, it was doubtful that there would even be a body left.
But until Chaka had seen the Pell's body with his own two eyes, there was always that lingering doubt there in the back of his mind, whispering that Pell might have survived, and that pretty monument was nothing but a block of carved stone.
The bouquet of flowers had been laid on the stone earlier that day, by a teary Vivi. When the requirement to keep up appearances had no longer been needed, the princess finally allowed herself the luxury of weeping long and hard over the loss of her friend and guardian.
Yet she too had difficulty accepting that Pell was gone, and he had caught her gazing out into the desert more than once, scanning the horizon for...
In the ribbon that held the bouquet together, someone had tucked a single feather. It was brown, with black barring and tip. It looked far too big to belong to any ordinary bird of prey.
The chill of the night had long since been chased away by the arrival of the sun. It was still cool, however. Kuina guessed from the feel of the fitful light on her skin that there were more rainclouds coming, and it would rain again perhaps later in the day. For now she had to make the best of the good weather and hurry.
But the desert was vast and empty and wild. How could she ever have thought it possible for her to find the exact place? It was a stupid hope. A false hope that she had been afraid to even confide to anyone. No. Better she do this alone and discreetly.
Yet, out in the desert, the silence was her ally. She could hear the tidings of the wind. She could hear almost everything for miles around. The shifting of sand on the dune tops. The slow breathing growth of the cactus. The scuttling of the sand-lion claiming the prey that had fallen into its pit.
The circling of vultures far, far above in the slate-grey sky. She knew from how the flapping of the flight feathers got louder that they had spotted a possible source of nourishment and were closing in on it.
And there, in the distant dune, she recognised the sound of fabrics best. This sound was of loose linen, white with dark stars, ragged and torn and half buried in the sand.
Beads of sweat rolled down her forehead, but it was not due to the weak rays of sun that had filtered through the clouds.
Zoro shook his head in disbelief. That Baroque Works woman, Miss All-Sunday or Nico Robin, whatever she called herself, had been an enemy. Yet one by one, all of his crewmates had succumbed to her charms and were positively warming up to her.
He snorted. Talk about short-term memory loss! More than ever he missed Kuina's presence. At least Kuina was a better judge of character when it came to people.*
"You're Zoro the Swordsman, aren't you?" Nico Robin's voice interrupted his thoughts. "I have a letter for you."
His eyes narrowed as he glared at her suspiciously. "From who?"
"A girl named Kuina."
At this the woman handed him a sheet of folded paper the looked like it had been torn out from a notebook. The script on it had been written in a strong, clear hand. One look at it convinced him that Kuina couldn't have written it any more than he could have sewn one of those fancy kimonos she wore.
"Liar!" he snapped. "Kuina can't read or write! She's blind!"
"My, my, don't be so hasty," replied Nico Robin in amusement. "You didn't let me explain. I wrote it down while she dictated. She also said that if you did not believe me, I was to call you an idiot-moss-head-upstart and remind you to take care of her Wadou or else."
This sounded genuinely like something Kuina would say. "Why would she...?"
"I presume the explanation is in the letter itself. Go ahead and read it — I'll let you have your privacy. See you around, Swordsman-san."
With this, the annoying woman strutted off as though she had just conferred upon him some great favour.
He was tempted to just toss the paper overboard, unread, just to spite her. For all he knew it could still be a trick. But there was the possibility that this was the real thing, so he unfolded the paper and read it anyway.
I send this letter by a strange messenger. It is not my place to influence what you think of her, I trust your judgment.
By the time you receive this message, you will probably be far away from Alabasta, and by my absence you will know that I am not joining Luffy's crew.
Please understand that it is not because I still hold a grudge against your captain, or you. After meeting him I think I understand a little of what you all see in him, and why you choose to follow him of your own free will.
However, from the recent events that I have experienced in Alabasta, I have come to understand that we need to travel different paths to meet again.
Most of all, I need to find the true reason for my wanting to become the greatest swordsman in the world...
Somewhere amongst the dunes of the Alabastan desert there is a little clinic. Long ago King Nefertari Cobra had commissioned this humble outpost to be built to service travellers seeking to cross the desert. With the war, most travel had ceased, so the clinic was empty and its staff idled.
Naturally, they were completely taken by surprise when a girl wearing a strange robe suddenly burst in without warning.
"Please..." Her breath came in ragged gasps."I need help."
… I never understood it before, Zoro-kun. I wanted to prove to my father that I could be just as good as the son he never had and inherit the dojo. I thought that just aiming for becoming the best and proving a woman could do it would be enough.
But something has changed...
In the distance, Alubarna loomed. To the weary figure leading the camel, it was welcome knowledge.
"We're almost there," Kuina said to Eyelashes, or more accurately, the figure being carried atop the camel. "You're almost home."
They had seen her and that which travelled with her. Kuina knew this because one of them suddenly broke away from the other and came running pell-mell across the desert sand. As that person came closer, she was sure it was Vivi. A Vivi running with all her might, with tears streaking down her cheeks.
But as the princess neared them, she slowed down, then advanced slowly, as if afraid to believe her eyes. Behind her, the large man who had been talking to her had slowed his similarly mad dash into a slow stagger. None of them had eyes for anything but the figure swathed in white atop the camel.
Vivi's voice was barely a whisper.
"Chaka, it's— "
"— Pell," the voice of the man finished for her.
Kuina spoke haltingly. "I found him... out in the desert... brought him back home. It was what he would have wanted. It's..."
At this point her voice broke, unable to continue.
She had sewn the shroud herself, from the bedsheets the doctor had kindly given her. There had been nothing they could have done. Death had been nigh instantaneous, he had said. Pell had died even before his body even came to rest on the sand.
It had given her some measure of comfort to know that he had not suffered. The body had been surprisingly intact considering what it had been through. The theory was that it could have been due to his devil-fruit's latent power, but Kuina had not been spared the morbid mental image of a grievously-wounded guardian lying out in the wasteland, dying a slow, agonising death alone.
Behind Vivi, Chaka had fallen to his knees, his hands on the ground, clenched. His head was bowed, and one could not see his face, but his shoulders were shaking.
There was grief, yes, but there was also relief.
At last, the tears could fall.
...something has changed, and now that I have seen true death that dream no longer fills me with determination as it used to. It is empty now...
Kuina sat by the window, feeling the cool wind caress her face while the rain continued to drizzle anew.
Somewhere out there, Zoro would be sailing to a new adventure, each island bringing him closer to becoming the world's greatest swordsman.
And she wasn't with him. Once again she'd let herself be left behind.
No regrets. She told herself firmly. There had been a chance and a possibility, and she had risked it. Maybe it hadn't turned out the way she had hoped, but...
"You gave us closure," Vivi had said amidst her fresh tears. "Thank you, Kuina."
A war had come and gone. Lives had been lived and lost. And what did she have to show for it?
Hands stained with blood?
A broken heart?
Voices in her head that would drive her mad if she ever lost control?
The possibility of being court-martialled for treason?
She shuddered at the possibilities.
"What are you going to do now?" Vivi, who had come to check on her, asked her softly.
"Go back to the Marines, I guess. I have no other choice. Zoro and the Straw-Hats are gone. I have no place to turn to."
"But won't you get in trouble?"
"I will. But I can't keep running away from my problems, can I?"
Vivi seemed to be on the verge of saying something when she was interrupted by the arrival of a servant. The princess went to the door and conversed in hushed tones with said servant, but Kuina's sensitive ears meant that she could hear it all anyway. Even so, she made no sign of having heard, because she did not want to acknowledge it.
"Kuina!" Vivi said hesitantly, after dismissing the servant. "There is a den-den mushi call for you... from the Marines."
Kuina took a deep breath, steeled her courage, and picked up the receiver.
...Please understand, Zoro, that I am not giving up on becoming the greatest.
But it needs to be something greater that drives us on. Something greater than mere title and status. Something that makes such a trivial dream no longer meaningless...
Chaka peered into the room, and was surprised to see only Vivi there, a somewhat shell-shocked den-den mushi in hand.
"Where did Kuina-san go?"
"She received a call on the den-den mushi and just... ran off."
Chaka's brow furrowed. "Vivi-sama, I know you consider that woman an ally, and I am grateful to her for bringing Pell — " there was a strain in his voice as he spoke the name, " — back. But she is a marine from the World Government. You don't think she could possibly be..."
"I don't think Kuina-san would betray us now," Vivi assured. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop but I did overhear parts of the conversation. It didn't sound like anything of that sort. In fact, it was something about..." Vivi trailed off, as if trying to remember the exact words.
"Something about her 'peers out of danger'?"
… I don't know what this 'something' is yet, or how I can find it.
But the one thing I do know is that I can never become the world's greatest swordsman by solely aiming to be the world's greatest swordsman. And I cannot do it alone and at the expense of others who have stood by me.
Please send my regards to Luffy, and do let him know I appreciate his offer although I did not take it up. As much as a part of me wishes I am going with you, I'm not meant to just keep following in your wake. I have to find my own path.
Let us meet one day and cross swords again, brother.
Oh, and tell Zoro that if he doesn't believe this letter is from me, he's a idiot-moss-head-upstart and he had better take good care of my Wadou or else.
PS: Please ignore the above line, I transcribed that in error. -N.R."
Zoro scratched his head. Some of it he understood of course, that Kuina wanted to stay back in Alabasta and that she was searching for something. But all the talk of aiming for higher to become the greatest swordman made no sense. Kuina had always been the type to think too far ahead.
He sighed, folded the letter and put it away, and relayed to Luffy Kuina's message, and life aboard the Going Merry went on.
It wouldn't be until a time far in the future, deep in the waters of the Florian Triangle, when he, too, would finally come to understand the same truth.
The sickbay on board Smoker's brig was separated into two sections. One was the infirmary, which functioned as an intensive care unit for patients who were seriously injured. And then you had the doctor's office, which also housed a couple of smaller bunks for patients who were being treated or whom the doctor wanted under observation. They also served as spare beds for when the infirmary was full. Naturally, the doctor's office connected the infirmary to the rest of the ship, forming a buffer zone so the patients could rest in relative peace.
Kuina burst into the doctor's office breathlessly. She had rushed all the way from the palace to the ship.
"Would it kill you to knock?"
The voice came from the figure who was lying on one of the bunks, and it didn't belong to either of the two people she had expected to be there.
"Officer Briggs! I didn't know Briggs-san was injured."
"Ah yes. Got a bit dried up. And a bit of trouble with my arm. As in... it got torn off." The normally sour voice of Briggs' was lacking its sarcastic edge and sounded distinctly... what was the word for it? Floaty?
"Bit of an inconvenience, that." Briggs genuinely sounded as though he had left his umbrella at a restaurant and it was a trivial occurrence. "Expect you've come to see that fisherman eh? In the other room, that cranky old Francis is with him. Did you manage to get them?"
"Sorry?" Kuina wasn't sure how to respond. Given the offhand manner Briggs had just announced the loss of a limb, she wasn't sure if she should be taking anything he said seriously at the moment.
"The Balrog Wargs." She could hear him give a little shake of his head, as if trying to clear it. "You know, as in the Balroque Warg- Baroque guys who raided the ship?"
Oh, that. She did not like thinking about it. It reminded her too much of how she had almost gone over the edge in her hatred, and would have, if it hadn't been for – Pell.
The very memory of him brought a fresh new stab of pain and grief, but strangely enough, it didn't seem to hurt as much as it did before. Which was a good thing because the last person in the world she wanted to break down and cry in front of was Briggs. With effort she managed keep her composure and answer his question.
"Yes. Yes, I did."
"Good. Good." Briggs was now nodding his head in an uncharacteristically amiable manner. "Thought you would have been able to. They weren't that strong, you know. If you had been on the ship when they came they wouldn't have stood a chance."
If Briggs had stuck a knife into her gut and twisted it around, it couldn't have hurt her more.
But the galling thing was that it was true, and she knew it. She had always known it since that horrible day in Rainbase. If she hadn't accepted Piers' offer to join Smoker's group instead— and she knew he had done it just to oblige her— the raid would have turned out differently. And Piers wouldn't have been so grievously injured or so nearly killed.
Indirectly, some of it was her fault.
"Don't apologise. It's not like you disobeyed an order and deserted. Hah!" For a brief moment the floaty tone was gone and there was Briggs' normal, slightly mocking voice.
"Actually, I... "
"Well even if you did, you two are beaux, so no one would blame you..."
"Oh, you're still at that stage, are you? How oblivious... By the way, why did you forgive him?"
"Piers? It's not his fault he..."
"No! Not that backwater fisherman. The pirate hunter!"
It was something of a bolt from the blue. "W-what?"
Briggs sounded extremely annoyed at having to stoop to explain his words to her. It also seemed to have given him a brief moment of lucidity.
"I'm taking about Roronoa Zoro. Why did you forgive him?"
"Briggs-san, what do you...?" Kuina's heart started racing at this unexpected confrontation.
"Oh come on, you don't have to keep that façade up with me, you know? You had some cockamamie story about going after Roronoa because he had your family sword, but you ought to know I was the one who did your background check before Smoker agreed to let you join the Marines. Didn't take much digging to figure out the real reason you were all afire and wanted in on this chase was because that pirate hunter was your childhood friend."
The revelation that Briggs knew that much about her, when previously she wasn't even sure he remembered her name, nearly had Kuina sitting down in shock.
"To be precise, you felt betrayed because Roronoa turned his back on you and turned pirate. Possibly because he was as close as a brother to you and what he was doing was going against the honour of your dojo."
The way Briggs prattled was extremely unnerving, and dangerously close to the truth.
"But today, you have a different, more relaxed expression on your face compared to what you had previously. I would assume something happened that settled the issue. Now, if you had killed or defeated Roronoa, I would expect to see you holding that sword of his, but you don't have it. Which means you must have forgiven him. Which brings me back to the question — why did you forgive him?"
In times like this, perhaps the most suitable answer would be the simple truth.
"I found out the reason why he turned pirate."
There was a ringing silence in the doctor's office after her confession.
"That's it?" There was an unaccustomed depth of feeling to Briggs' voice that Kuina wasn't sure how to interpret.
"What do you mean, 'That's it?' " she said cautiously.
"Just that? How could that — possibly be a reason good enough to excuse for betraying someone who's always stood by him — how...?" Her answer seemed to have broken him into a state of deranged semi-incoherency. "No. That can't be true — it's disappointing. You disappoint me. Go away Kuina. Just — just go away!"
Kuina, a little hurt and confused, wondered if the navigator had gone mad.
"Don't mind him, Kuina-girl."
She jumped. Briggs' ranting had disturbed her so much she'd failed to notice the Doctor enter the room from the infirmary.
"He's doped up on painkillers. I don't think they agree with him, he's been rambling about all sorts of nonsense." The doctor patted her comfortingly on the shoulder. "I see you got my message about Piers."
"Will Piers really be all right?"
"Why don't you come in and see for yourself?"
Minutes later she was in the infirmary, sitting by Piers' bedside and listening to his slow, steady, natural breathing as he slept. It was a relief, especially in contrast to her memory of the last time, where every breath had been a bloody, gurgling, desperate struggle for air. She shuddered at the memory.
"Has he woken up since...?"
The doctor shook his head (she knew this by the sound of his swishing hair).
"I did hope you'd be around though, just in case he did. You would be the one person he'd want to see most, I think."
The guilt was overwhelming.
"I wish I could have been here too. C-can I hold his hand?"
"The one that isn't in the cast, yes."
Piers' hand felt rough and calloused, as one would expect from a someone who had grown up doing menial work as a fisherman's son. It felt strange to clasp his hands, now weak and limp, and remember how not too long ago, how steady and strong they had been.
For a while they sat in silence, and Kuina kept his good hand clasped between both of hers, hoping that somehow, the life from her own hands would flow through and help. A fanciful notion, really.
"His hands.. they're so cold," she said at last, breaking the silence.
"Blood loss. While he's out of danger, it'll be a while yet before we will know whether he'll make a full recovery or not," the doctor said gently. "I had a word with Captain Smoker about having him transferred to a base. It would be better for him to recuperate there —"
She'd stopped paying attention to the old doctor's words at that moment, because just then, she'd felt it. The tiniest of twitches in one of his fingers, sending a tingle of hope up her spine.
"Piers?" she gasped, hardly daring to believe it.
Beside her, she could hear the old doctor's sharp intake of breath. "Laws... he blinked!"
His voice, faint and incoherent, rose into her consciousness. But it was there. And thanks to the Mantra, she could hear it. Her heart was singing with an indescribable joy.
"Piers! Can you hear me? Piers!"
There was a stirring from the bed, as eyes that had lain shut and unused for days slowly opened and focused on their surroundings. Then, the soft rustle as a head on a pillow turned a little bit towards where she was sitting.
"H-hey... Miss... Kuina." His voice was hoarse and feeble, but it still carried an incongruously cheery note to it. It was so stupidly like him that she could feel a treacherous brimming of her eyes.
"Do you remember what happened?" Doctor Francis asked sharply, whipping out a clipboard from nowhere.
"No. Throat hurts. Did I get... hurt in … fight?"
"You could say that," the doctor said wryly. "As for the throat — must be from the intubation. I'd tell you not to talk but I know from experience how futile that is."
"M- Miss Kuina... you're... crying."
"I'm not. I — I don't know why," Kuina replied, inelegantly sniffling and discovering that silk was a terrible fabric for wiping away tears. "I'm just so glad — you're alive."
Piers smiled and gave a feeble little squeeze with the hand that she was holding.
"Then... me too," he murmured before sipping back into unconsciousness again.
"Don't panic, dearie. This is just natural sleep," the Doctor assured her before she could react. "But he sounded quite lucid there, didn't he? I think we won't need to worry about brain damage, at least."
Kuina didn't reply. She was too busy bawling her eyes out in the cotton handkerchief that the doctor had tactfully handed her.
Tashigi was still struck speechless by the actions of her captain. Telling the Marine High Command something like that... how could he get away with such a thing?
"Hina can't believe you, Smoker," Hina said with a toss of her pretty head. "You disregard orders, insult the higher-ups, and yet your entire crew somehow gets promoted while Hina still stuck covering for you. Hina disappoint."
Not keen on being involved in the caustic exchange of words between Hina and Captain Smoker, she cast her eye towards land and noticed something.
"Captain Smoker, there's a procession coming from the royal palace. It looks like someone important."
That stopped the bickering between Hina and Smoker very quickly.
"Hm, Hina recognises one of the royal big shots, and they're definitely heading for Hina's ship. What did you do this time, Smoker?"
Captain Smoker just shrugged.
"I'll check the communications, Smoker-san," Tashigi volunteered and headed for the room in which the den-den mushi were kept. A quick check with the marine on duty confirmed that a transmission had just come from the Alabasta with a request for an audience with the officer in charge of their group of marines.
As another marine went trotting off with the den-den mushi to find Smoker and Hina, Tashigi wondered what the royal palace could possibly want with them to send a high-ranking member of their own Royal Guard all the way to their ship. Perhaps something about Crocodile...?
Rounding the corner on her way back to foredeck, she nearly tripped over Briggs, who was sitting sprawled across the passageway with his back against the cabin-wall and his long legs jammed against the side-railing.
"Briggs? Shouldn't you be resting in the infirmary?"
The older man scowled as he looked up at her. "Too depressing. That Doctor Francis has the worst bedside manner in the entire medical corps."
"Does the doctor know you're out on deck like this?"
"Who cares about that sadistic old man?" Briggs scowled, then winced as he adjusted his robe. One arm-sleeve hung conspicuously empty, a reminder of the price he had paid in his fight with Crocodile. "The drugs wore off and I told him I would blind him if he came near me with that syringe again. He said he'd shoot me with a sea-stone bullet if that was the case."
"Doesn't it hurt? Shouldn't the painkillers help?"
"No. Devil-fruit perks," Briggs replied non-chalantly. "Anyway, I decided to escape after that. Bunk was way too short — damned uncomfortable."
"And why are you sitting out here?"
"Well, I was trying to make my way back to my quarters... but I er... got a bit light-headed and had to sit down."
Privately, Tashigi reflected that Doctor Francis' bedside manner was indeed sorely lacking. What the doctor really should have done was pretend to humour his difficult patient while surreptitiously handcuffing the distracted patient to the bed. In this case, preferably with a pair of sea-stone cuffs*.
"Well, what did you think would happen?" she scolded her colleague. "The doctor said you had a bunch of broken ribs, not to mention your arm and the rest! You shouldn't even be out of bed!"
"Oh, not more nagging now. I'm fine — Tashigi, what are you doing?"
"Helping you get to your quarters. You're obstructing the passageway and posing a safety hazard."
"I don't need any help," he protested. But he also didn't resist as she helped him to his feet.
Briggs, being an officer, had the luxury of his own quarters on board. Fortunately, they got there without incident. Limping and with some difficulty, the wounded navigator made his way to his bunk and gingerly lowered himself into it without a word.
"You're welcome," Tashigi said, somewhat sarcastically.
"I didn't say anything."
"It's all right. I didn't expect it."
Her curt remark seemed to get through to Briggs' none-too sensitive consciousness. Because instead of saying something sarcastic in return, he took on a slightly more pacifist tone.
"Say, Tashigi. I heard what you were saying to Smoker ealier. About getting stronger. Well, couldn't avoid hearing it, actually, you were yelling it out for the world to hear."
Tashigi's face turned red at the memory.
"The truth was, I knew who was responsible for the whole thing and what I had to do, but in the end, I couldn't do anything. All I could do was help a bunch of pirates and do what I was told."
"You idiot. If those tears of weakness pain you so much, then become stronger!"
Briggs continued speaking earnestly. "If you really want to get stronger, I can introduce you to someone who can help you. A Captain T-Bone. A bit intimidating-looking and way too emotional, but decent chap. Most importantly he's a skilled swordsman who can probably help you develop more than you tagging after Smoker."
"What's wrong with my following Smoker?" Tashigi asked, her voice dangerously low.
Briggs did not seem fazed by the warning note in her voice. "Look, Smoker's Smoker. He's good at heart, but all brawn and ideals, and he's not a swordsman. You need someone who actually specialises in the same thing you do."
"I'm not sure if Captain Smoker would —"
"— if you're worried about that, I can arrange it with Smoker. He owes me." At this Briggs motioned at his missing arm. "The reassignment doesn't have to be permanent."
Tashigi felt slightly uneasy. It seemed strange and unnatural that Briggs was suddenly so interested in her progression. "Thanks for the offer, Briggs-san, but I don't think —"
"Woman, stop dithering already!" Briggs snapped. His patience, which had never amounted to much, had given out. "Just take the damn offer! You're probably good enough by East Blue standards, but out here on the Grand Line you are nothing! Do you want to spend the rest of your Marine service being weak, inefficient and overshadowed by that blind girl you're so envious of —"
She acted without thinking. The next moment left Briggs clutching his cheek where Tashigi's hand had left a red imprint. She herself was still trembling with rage, so much so that the hot words she wanted to say couldn't even make it to her lips and stayed choked in her throat.
"Well, that's the second time you've slapped me in the space of a week," commented Briggs slowly, gingerly bringing his hand away and examining Tashigi's handiwork. "I forget how overly emotional some women get. I guess you're still in denial —"
"You insensitive ingrate! Who do you think you are, rubbing Kuina in my face?" Tashigi found her powers of speech again, but the pitch of her voice was still out of control. "You have no place lecturing me about my swordsmanship! You just use guns! And your devil-fruit!"
At this, Briggs gave her a look. Then, without saying anything, he leaned forward, reached under the bed with his good arm, and pulled out something that had been hidden underneath. Without comment, he passed it to her.
Tashigi stared at the object in disbelief. It was a sword. A very beautifully crafted navy sabre, with a rounded guard and curved handguard that was the prevailing fashion in the North Blue. Judging from the wear of the blade and grip, and the slight fraying of its scabbard, it had not been an ornamental weapon. In fact, despite the fine workmanship and material, the only decoration it bore was the engraved "B" on the base of the guard.
"This is...yours?" Tashigi felt her head whirl. If Briggs turned out to be another swordsman, it would be the most unfair thing in the world.
"The only blade I've seen you touch is a butter knife!"
At closer examination, Tashigi couldn't help but notice the layer of dust over the weapon, and the fact that the sword, while well-used, hadn't been maintained for a while. "H-How good are you?"
"I don't consider myself a swordsman, but I'm probably good enough to beat you," Briggs replied, with no trace of modesty or tact. "It's amazing what a devil-fruit with an extended reach can do when it comes to giving you the advantage in sword-fighting*."
Little by little, Tashigi felt her identity being chipped away. First Kuina, and now Briggs? Swords had been her thing, and now here was the revelation that she was nothing special, just a mediocre second runner-up.
"Well... first you're hiding a devil-fruit, and now you're a swordsman. This is just — great. I don't know why I even bother anymore!" Tashigi threw her hands up into the air in frustration. "Normal people just don't stand a chance out here in the Grand Line, do they? Why don't I just get a devil-fruit and be done with it?"
Briggs was absolutely unsympathetic. "Blaming that now? I should point out that that blind girl doesn't have a devil-fruit either, you know..."
Of course, they had to start talking about Miss Perfect Swordswoman now.
"That's because she's ridiculous. She's just... just —"
"— superhuman? Lucky? Born with a gift? Which excuse are you using this time?" Briggs was always so unrepentant when it came to pushing people's buttons and this time was no exception.
She realised must have looked as though she were about to slap him again, because Briggs suddenly flinched. Catching herself in time, she controlled her anger, and to her surprise, it suddenly gave way to tired defeat. She lowered the hand that she wasn't even aware she had raised.
"Argh! I don't know," Tashigi found herself saying as she sat down heavily on the side of Briggs' bunk. "Better, I guess. I don't know how, but she's just —"
"— trained harder, and for longer," Briggs finished for her. "Under a sword-master who knew what they were doing. The same thing I'm trying to arrange for you," he added pointedly, before discreetly scooting away just in case she decided to slap him again.
She didn't. True, she wanted to strangle him then and there but the problem was she couldn't, because deep in her heart she knew he'd hit the nail on the head.
"All right, Briggs," she sighed, after the rage had ebbed away. "I know you're trying to be helpful in your own way, but why can't you do it without being such an insensitive, arrogant, ass?"
"An arrogant ass who's right," he reminded her.
"Don't you ever get tired of being hated by everyone for being such a prick?"
"I'm fine with being a prick. And friendship is overrated. Is that a yes then?"
"Yes." It took Tashigi all her pride to say the next bit: "and thank you."
"About time you came to your senses," he replied gruffly.
Tiring of his abrasive company, Tashigi got up to leave. She'd worry about the ramifications of this encounter later. "I'll be going now. Good evening, Officer Briggs."
"Tashigi..." Briggs started self-consciously just as she put her hand on the door.
There was a moment of silence as Tashigi waited curiously.
"I didn't intend to... look — I'm not good at this... well... just wanted to say — thanks. For coming back for me back in Alubarna," he said stiffly and quickly at last. "You probably did save my life by getting me to medical help in time."
Tashigi stared at the gaunt figure with a feeling of surreality. Briggs thanking someone? It was almost unheard of. Then it sank in why he was trying so hard to help her and she smiled for the first time since the disaster at Rainbase. "You're welcome... Barkskin."
Briggs made a face. It didn't look as though it was being caused by the pain of his injuries. "Don't call me that. It's a dead name."
She was about to say more, but a look at Briggs' unhappy countenance convinced her that the tactful thing to do would be to drop the topic. Or at least change it.
"By the way, I'm taking your sword with me. It needs a cleaning and sharpening. Honestly, Briggs, this is a beautiful sword but you're treating it like some piece of scrap metal! I'll bring it back when it's done —"
"Oh, don't bother. I don't use it anymore."
"W- why not?"
There was a brief pause as Briggs suddenly avoided her eyes and regarded the ceiling. "It was a gift. To celebrate the occasion of my being awarded the captainship of the Golden Hind."
"Oh." And then it all started to make sense. Suddenly, Tashigi found herself feeling sorry for the fallen captain. Perhaps that was what spurred her to say something to make him feel better.
"Well... while we're at it, that thing you did — saving me from Nico Robin and then taking on Crocodile instead of just leaving me and running away, not a lot of people would have done that. I —"
"Don't," Briggs cut her off. "Tashigi, you shouldn't get too chummy with me. I'm a disgraced officer with a bad rep, it's bad for your career."
It wasn't until she was half-way out the door that a suitable reply struck her. Turning around to face the morose man, she said: "Well, too late. You're going to have to deal with it. I'm already serving with Captain Smoker, you know."
As she left and closed the door, she could almost have sworn she heard a surprised chuckle from the room behind her.
"Seaman Kuina, the captain would like a word with you. He's on the bridge."
Kuina froze at the entrance of the marine into the sickbay. They had been most considerate and let her see Piers first, but the moment she had dreaded had finally come.
Still, there was no running away this time. Calmly she rose to her feet and followed the marine out of the infirmary. "I'm ready."
What were they going to do with her? Just dump her into a spare cell? Throw her out of the crew? Take her to the deck to be executed by firing squad?
As she stepped out into the brightness of the open deck, to say she was surprised would have been an understatement.
"Ah there she is," a familiar voice said. Kuina placed it immediately. That voice belonged to the canine-like man who had wept when she'd brought Pell's body home. He been a friend of Pell's — what was his name again? Chacha? Chuck?
"As you were saying, General Chaka...?" said a female voice that Kuina didn't recognise. It had a commanding quality to it, however. Kuina instinctively identified her as a Marine, and a higher-ranking one at that.
"Yes, Captain Hina. The royal house of Nefetari is immensely grateful for the support the Marines have extended during our difficult civil war. We have already sent a message of thanks to the World Government for dispatching you all here."
"I see..." Smoker said slowly, and Kuina could smell the cloying scent of his cigars — he must have been breathing faster than usual. Kuina had been a member of his crew long enough to know that this was a bad sign.
"We would particularly like to commend Seaman Kuina for her invaluable assistance to the Royal Army during the battle of Alubarna. Now that the peace process is underway, the royal family would like to request that Seaman Kuina remain as our liaison with the Marines, at least until stability returns to Alabasta."
So this was what Chaka had come for.
This had to be Princess Vivi's idea, Kuina had no doubt of that. And even with her limited understanding of politics, she couldn't help but realise that it was a stroke of diplomatic genius.
The World Government was currently in a bad position thanks to Crocodile having been outed as a criminal. By approaching them in this manner and offering them such an easy way to save face, there was no doubt that the higher-ups would jump at the chance. Granting the Alabastan's government's request for her to serve as a liaison would be such a minor thing in comparison that no one would think twice about agreeing to it as a show of goodwill.
And even if the liaison candidate had been suspected of some dubious behaviour, court-martialling her would be a diplomatic faux pas. Overlooking any complaints would be easier; just one more speck to add to the mound of unsavoury scandals they were already sweeping under the rug.
Kuina was oddly touched by the princess' concern for her. How many people would have had extended their influence to help someone they barely knew?
With a start she suddenly realised that Captain Smoker was speaking, and she had been so deep in her thoughts that she had tuned him out.
"...Kuina is a member of my crew," Smoker was saying to the general. "This expectation that I leave someone behind to serve as liaison is absolutely — "
"— the least the Marines can do," Hina cut in diplomatically. "However, General Chaka, the choice of a simple low-ranking seaman for this task may not be most suitable — "
"We insist," the general replied firmly.
"We will keep your recommendation in mind," Smoker said replied, and Kuina knew her captain was giving the general one of his formidable glares as he did so. This did not intimidate the other man, maintained his expectant silence. It was a standoff of wills.
"Very well. We will await your answer," General Chaka said at last when it became clear no one was budging.
"Kuina," Smoker said to her immediately after their visitor left. "To the officer's room. Let's have a talk."
Kuina sat nervously as Smoker paced the floor of the officer's room.
"Well?" Smoker asked suddenly.
"Kuina, don't you have anything to say about this whole situation?"
Every ounce of self-possession Ichii-san had drilled into her served her well now. She kept calm.
"Captain, about what happened back in Alubarna, I can explain —"
Which was a lie actually. She couldn't.
Fortunately, Captain Smoker didn't seem interested in listening. "Yes, yes. Tashigi told me already, you were assisting the Royal Guards in finding the bomb. And you were also doing something else afterwards, weren't you?"
Kuina waited for the next part, expecting the worst. Smoker was going to go into the part where Tashigi had caught her with Zoro and how disappointed he was that she had betrayed his trust...
"What were you doing anyway?"
She couldn't believe her ears.
"Tashigi-san didn't say anything?"
"No, we've been... busy," Smoker replied. "Busy dealing with corrupt warlords and World Government bullshit," he added under his breath. "Anyway, why did it take you so long to get back to the ship?"
For a moment Kuina's mind went blank. Then there was a sudden dawning of hope and a way out.
It was ridiculously straightforward, she just told Captain Smoker the truth. At least, the truth about helping the royal army search for the bomb, and then the body of the royal guard who had saved them all from the bomb afterwards. Smoker listened in silence until she had finished.
"One thing I don't get, Kuina. How in the world were you able to locate the body of that royal guard considering your...?"
"Condition, sir? It's something I've recently discovered — I'm able to sense... things. I don't know how to explain it — it's like I can hear people's intentions. And sometimes I'll know the way things will happen before they happen. And other things besides —"
"Hell. Haki," Smoker-san said, almost as though to himself. "Should have seen that one coming. That explains a lot."
"Explains what, sir?"
"Never mind. We'll discuss that another time. We need to deal with the current situation first. That royal guard you found was one of the important commanders of the Royal Alabastan Army, so that at least explains why those royals suddenly seem to be so attached to you."
"I had no idea the royal family would request for my continued services, sir."
Captain Smoker still wasn't paying full attention to her responses. "Did Doctor Francis tell you about Piers? I'm making arrangements for him to be transferred to a nearby Marine base, G-8, while he recuperates. If you want to, you can go with him."
"I — I would like that very much, sir. But what about the request from the Alabasta?"
"You don't have to do it if you don't want to, Kuina," Smoker told her sternly. "Screw what those royals want, you're not a diplomat — you're a member of my crew!"
Suddenly Kuina was overcome with an overwhelming sense of appreciation for Captain Smoker.
They were interrupted by the sound of the cabin door opening. Kuina knew from the sound of the footsteps that Tashigi had entered.
"Captain Smoker, there's been another call from Marine High Command about Alabasta's request. They're saying that Kuina is to be transferred—
" — as liaison, yes I know. But I'll be damned if I let those assholes think they can tell me what to do!"
"Smoker, stop being so difficult!" interjected another female voice. Kuina recognised this as one belonging to 'Captain Hina'. "You're on shaky ground already, thanks to your earlier outburst!"
"Well, the ground's going to get even shakier! Tashigi, get me the den-den mushi!"
"Smoker, Hina cannot keep bailing you out— "
"I'm sorry to have put you in a such a difficult position, sir," Kuina said suddenly. She had made up her mind. "It's all right. I will go."
"See, Smoker? Even your subordinate agrees with Hina!"
"Kuina, I told you — you don't have to go play diplomat if you don't want to."
Kuina was silent for a moment. "I won't lie, sir. I would much rather go to G-8 with Piers. But I need to start earning my keep. You've all done too much for me as it is." She turned to face Tashigi as she said this and knew from the change in Tashigi's aura that the other girl had understood the hidden message.
"I am very grateful to you all. If by my going to Alabasta as liaison I can help Captain Smoker and Tashigi-san, I will gladly do it."
"Very sensible," approved Captain Hina. "Any other objections, Commodore Smoker?"
"They've been handing out promotions like candy," scoffed Smoker, bristling at the new title.
"Smoker has no idea," there was a crinkle of paper as the Captain Hina handed something over to Captain Smoker. "Look at this! They even got past Hina's 'just a seaman' objection."
"You have got to be kidding me!" Smoker said after a moment's reading of whatever it was on the paper. "They went this far?"
"What's going on?" Kuina asked curiously.
Smoker cleared his throat and spoke. "Well, Kuina, I suppose congratulations are in order..."
"A double-promotion! How wonderful for you, Kuina."
Kuina was back in her seat in the infirmary. She wondered if she looked as dazed as she felt.
"My head is still swimming from it all. A petty-officer? Me?"
"You should be very proud. That is quite a rare feat. I don't think I've seen that happen since my former captain — he was quite a remarkable person — jumped ranks from lieutenant to captain!"
"There is the caveat that I have to stay at Alubarna. Tashigi-san says it's not permanent, only a few months at most and I will be back with you all again."
"Still, it is terribly short notice. You have all your things packed already?"
"Yes, I didn't have much to begin with." Kuina hesitated as she considered Piers' sleeping form. "I don't suppose we could wake him to say goodbye?"
"It would be best if we didn't, dearie."
Kuina smiled sadly, and gave Piers' hand one last squeeze. "I understand."
"Would you like to leave them a note? I could write it for you."
"I would like that very much, Doctor-san."
"Right, let me get my notebook... let's see, what should I write?"
Kuina racked her brains. There was so much she wanted to say.
Sorry for not staying by your side. Sorry for not being there. You are very important to me. I went crazy and nearly tortured a man to death because of what he did to you. I can hear voices in my head. I met and lost someone wonderful in the space of day. It still hurts. I found Zoro. We made up and he is now my sworn brother.
But so many things that she wanted to say, and paltry words on a single sheet of paper would never be able to fit them all.
"Well Kuina-girl? What should I write?"
"Just write: 'Get well soon. — Kuina'."
The doctor sounded a little disappointed at this. "Are you sure that's all?"
"It's all right, Doctor-san. Piers will understand."
"If you say so," the doctor grunted as he handed her the sheet of paper, which she carefully folded into quarters and slipped it into something that she had tucked in her obi. She then placed it next to the pillow Piers' head rested on.
The doctor peered closely at the object. "Th-this is-"
"Yes," said Kuina. "Keep them safe for him, Doctor-san. And thank you, for everything."
After she had left, the doctor picked up the pair of carefully cleaned and mended knuckle-duster gloves, and tucked them away for safe-keeping.
It would still be quite a while before their owner would be using them again.
It felt strange coming back to the palace again, knowing this time it was going to be her home for the next few months.
Kuina had said her goodbyes to the crew earlier. Much to her surprise Tashigi had volunteered to accompany her to the palace. Given that her superior officer had apparently been promoted to ensign and was surely above such duties now, Kuina hadn't expected it at all.
"Captain Smoker expects at minimum, a den-den mushi report every week. More frequently if anything of importance is happening."
"Well, this is it, the royal palace people are waiting for you ahead. I guess we say goodbye here."
Kuina didn't need Tashigi to tell her this. She could sense Vivi's and Chaka's presences right outside the door. But for the moment, she and Tashigi were alone.
"Good luck, Petty-Officer Kuina."
"Tashigi-san," Kuina put down her bag, and bowed deeply. "There are things I have said previously that I regret very much. Please let me apologise for them. I am in your debt for all that you have done for me."
What Tashigi had done remained unspoken, but they both knew what she meant. Despite the bad blood between them, Tashigi had kept her silence and covered for Kuina even though she had no reason to do so. And Kuina knew that this was something she could not leave unacknowledged.
For what seemed like a long time there was no response from her rival. And then —
"What do you think you're doing? Don't bow to me! Stop that, Kuina!"
"Don't 'Tashigi-san' me! Just stop that!"
Kuina did as she was told, feeling extremely foolish. "Tashigi-san. I meant no offence. I just don't want to part as enemies."
"We're not enemies," said the other girl. "We were never enemies. We're rivals. The only time you're going to be bowing like that to me will be when I've defeated Roronoa for the title of the world's greatest swordsman before you have. Got it?"
A slow smile of understanding crept across Kuina's face. "Got it, but like that's going to happen."
"Don't get cocky, or you might just see me getting the Wadou Ichimonji from Roronoa before you."
"We'll see about that —" Kuina said as she extended her hand and shook her now-official rival's, "— but welcome to the race."
His gravestone had been wrought of a fine stone called alabaster. It was symbolic of the country, they said. Kuina had no idea why, but beneath her sensitive fingers it felt cold and smooth, and radiated a sense of tranquility that was very different from the rough sandstone her mother's marker had been hewn from.
Two graves, two different worlds.
The graveyard back home was situated on a lush grassy knoll, and always smelt of the mountain wind, incense and ashes. This one smelled of the desert, and the heavy bouquets of cloying flowers that had been laid out to honour the dead. She wondered if what she was going to do here was appropriate. Their cultures were so different, after all.
"Do you require assistance with something here?"
Kuina jumped, startled. Then she whirled around to face the person who had spoken.
It was General Chaka.
How had he managed to sneak up on her like that? She'd been sure that her Mantra should have been able to detect his presence but he'd seemingly popped out of nowhere and she hadn't heard a thing.
"It's all right. I was just —" she trailed off here, sudden disturbed by the aura she was getting from the man, " — reminiscing."
Her control over the skill had improved somewhat, but she still didn't understand much about it, and it would take much experimentation and training to be able to hone it to a level where it would be useful. Belatedly, she wondered why Captain Smoker had called it 'haki', and pondered how much more he knew about it.
In hindsight, she should have used that opportunity to obtain more information. Perhaps when she next reported in she would ask about it.
"So it would seem. You appeared to be lost deep in thought."
"I must admit I was. I did not notice your approach."
"The form of the jackal is silent and swift," General Chaka's words were cryptic, and she wondered what it meant.
"I was just thinking," she began, thankful for Ichii-san's drilling in controlling her display of emotions. "Of how I owed Pell-san a very great debt."
"We all do." There was a guarded evenness in General Chaka's voice.
They stood in awkward silence for a while after that. Feeling as though she had intruded into a place she didn't belong, Kuina decided to defer her own errand and attempted to excuse herself hastily.
"I'm sure you want to pay your respects to Pell-san in private. I should go."
General Chaka caught her by the arm as she passed, "Why did you go so far for him?"
Kuina froze. She had carefully kept her foolish feelings for Pell hidden, or so she had thought. But this man supposedly knew the deceased very well. Did he suspect?
"In Rainbase, he saved me from myself. And even though I knew him for a very short while, he... changed the way I perceived the world. I am very grateful to him."
General Chaka seemed to consider this for a while. Kuina had a suspicion that for all he had done for her, it had been mostly for Vivi. To him she was still an outsider, and he didn't quite trust, or accept, her yet.
Much to her surprise, his manner seemed to thaw a little. "Then there is no need for you to go. Please, continue with what you were doing."
Refusing would have been rude. Self-consciously, she turned back to Pell's gravestone and unwrapped the item that she had brought.
"What do you have there?" asked the other man, "— wait, that's... where did you get that sword?" The tone was more astonished than accusatory, but it still startled her in its vehemence.
"Pell-san told me to keep this safe for him. Right before he left."
Kuina had been intending merely to leave the weapon at its master's grave, but now she realised that this was perhaps not such a clever thing to do. Then a thought occurred to her.
"General Chaka-sama, would you please take Pell's sword for safekeeping? I know he did leave it with me but I think you would have more right to it than anything."
Kuina had the impression that General Chaka was suddenly seeing her in a new light.
"Certainly, but — this is quite a revelation."
"I don't understand."
He was giving her an odd vibe again. "I've known Pell for a very long time. If he entrusted his precious heirloom sword to you, he must have taken to..." the man trailed off, as if lost in thought.
"Uh... General Chaka?"
"Never mind. And please, no need for 'General'. Just Chaka will suffice," It was strange how much friendlier he had gotten suddenly. "By the way, is that perfumed incense you are holding?"
Kuina coloured. "They were the closest things I could find to what we use at home. In my homeland, we burn incense sticks to honour the dead. I wanted to pay my respects in my own way."
"He would have liked that, I think. Let me light it for you."
"Thank you," said Kuina softly, as she put her palms together and knelt with the scent of the burning incense rising up to the heavens.
The sun was sinking low over the horizon. The innkeeper sat upon the threshold, once again looking out as the sun set over Rainbase. A train of wagons had just arrived from Alubarna.
He was surprised to see a familiar figure leave the group of travellers and approach his inn.
"Innkeep-san," the girl bowed respectfully despite his protests. "It's been a while. I apologise for not coming earlier."
"There is no rush. All good things come to those who wait. I am sure that Pell-sama and yourself must have been too busy keeping order in the kingdom in the aftermath of the rebellion to come visit yet."
Even as he said it he knew it was the wrong thing to say. A sudden grimace of pain crossed the girl's face.
"Innkeep-san..." There was a controlled grief in her voice. "Pell-sama... fell. In the final battle in Alubarna. He sacrificed himself to save everyone."
There was only quiet as the sun set upon Rainbase.
"I... see," the innkeeper managed to say at last. "So that was why he didn't return. I hadn't heard. How tragic. As they say, only the good die young."
She could only nod. But the innkeep was a kind man, and he could see the pain that it had caused her.
"You came to fulfill the promise on his behalf, I think," he said shrewdly, but kindly. "I truly appreciate it. Come, sit here and drink with me. There is a magnificent sunset in progress, and I shall describe it to you..."
A sake cup clasped in hand, Kuina smiled as she listened to the old man's words, describing the beauty of the desert sun as it set over Alabasta.
Not too far into the future, the world would soon begin to change.
Unbeknownst to Kuina, the capture of Fire-Fist Ace would irrevocably change the course of history. And few could have predicted that the fate of that same Whitebeard Pirate should have affected hers so profoundly.
But it did.
End of Season 1
 Kuina being a good judge of character = Given her misconceptions about Luffy and Sanji, it was all I could do to type this out with a straight face.
 Briggs and Fullbody = FYI, Fullybody was actually Briggs' marine friend mentioned in chapter 9, whom Piers' knuckle-duster gloves were originally meant for. How did they know each other? Through dancing! Of course!
 "Stick-Bug" = Term originally coined by reader RusalkaHime! I loved it so much I decided it had to go in this chapter!
 What Doctor Francis should have done = My beta, Callosum, came up with this gem of a comment while proofreading. Paraphrased here because I HAD to find some way to put in somehow!
 Extended reach giving the advantage in sword-fighting = A good enough swordsman can still overcome this, but it sure makes life for the person with the shorter reach harder.
A/N: And that's Season 1 complete! Bring on Season 2!
Sorry for the "TO BE CONCLUDED" scare last chapter. Admittedly my original plan a year or so ago WAS to end the story at this point, but I found that I had much more that I wanted to write about, and I was not happy with the way my original ending went. So I bit the bullet and changed it and extended the story to a Season 2.
I apologize to Pell and PellxKuina fans for how this romance turned tragic. Initially I really DID intend to write a happy ending for them, but no matter how I tried, every ending I came up with where Pell survived did not work out right and the story would stall and die halfway.
Eventually I figured out that after Pell's sacrifice and all the talk of having the courage to face the possibility of death, having Pell survive and have a happy ending was rather hollow. I do like Pell's character, so on thinking it over, I decided I had to do his sacrifice justice.
But for those of you who would prefer the romantic happy ending, I have included my best aborted attempt below (after the Q and A) as an alternate ending. I hope that makes up for it somewhat.
In other news, this fanfic now has its own TV Tropes page! It was quite a pleasant surprise, so thanks go to Andyroid who set it up! (Link's on my profile if you want to get to it)
Q and A:
Ninjagirl987 (2011-09-25 . chapter 13) ...please please bring Pell back! They're to cute together to end it now! Pell doesnt get enough love as it is.
A: Oh dear... I am truly sorry I couldn't. But I did keep in the alternate happy ending in just for those of you who wanted to see this. In this continuity Pell IS dead. But if you feel like continuing the romance, feel free to make use of it whatever way you want. Because AUs can have AUs too!
Someone (2011-08-25 . chapter 13): Regarding Marie she was the nurse Charloss forced to marry him and shot her fiance just before Zoro showed up? Anyway I'm really curious what direction you're going to take the story since it will take a while before we get our next canon Smoker appearance( Just after Enies Lobby if I'm correct).
A: You know, I've been dodging questions right and left about Marie since that single line was dropped, but I think I'll just say now, there is a reason why the story didn't end here and why there's a Season 2 coming up ;)
Darth Luffy (2011-07-27 . chapter 13): ...the addition of Kuina to Smoker's group works so well and you fill in gaps in the manga that we were only shown the end result.
A: Thank you! I do firmly believe that good fanfic should expand canon, not overwrite it completely. I hope to do more of that next arc!
Heart Of Zeo (2011-07-27 . chapter 13): I most certainly did get the feather duster refrence, and I would get some grog, but the only kind at hand seems to be the kind that can melt through prison bars.
You're wandering into dangerious territory here though, no telling what sort of cameos we'll see eventually.
A: Look behind you! It's a three-headed monkey! ;)
Pom Rania (2011-07-19 . chapter 13): ... Pink wings. I just looked stick insects up, and they DO have pink wings; but it's still hilarious.
This stick-insect zoan is actually incredibly cool, once I got past my first OMG SLENDER MAN NO reaction. It... "tastes" like the kind of thing you'd find actually written by Oda; its most "powerless" form, that of a small bug, can be used to appear to vanish.
A: :D This is the first devil-fruit I invented, so I tried to keep to the spirit of canon devil fruits as much as possible. You know, something that doesn't seem powerful but becomes so through creative use. What was the trope for it again? "Heart is an Awesome Power"?
Pom Rania (2011-07-19 . chapter 13): Continuing my TV Tropes Imaginary Drinking Game (pretend to take a shot whenever I see something that I can name the trope associated with it):
A: * looks at list * You know, in hindsight, my work is so Tropper-rific it was really a matter of time before someone made a page about that XD
Bisepadi (2011-07-18 . chapter 12): My wife and I have finally gotten round to commissioning an idol in your literary likeliness. It should do...at least until we can finalise our kidnapping plans. Keep up the pace!
A: Uh... thanks. * nervously glances over shoulder *... I think.
PS: You get to read fanfic with together with your wife? You lucky lucky person!
Xoroth (2011-07-11 . chapter 13): I have to say the reveal of Briggs's DF was a pleasant surprise. Looking back, I realize there were several hints but dismissed because that was simply the way he was.
A: I was dropping quite a number of hints for several chapters. At one point I wondered if I was going too far for describing Briggs as having a 'stick-like' frame, heh!
ShineX (2011-07-02 . chapter 13): This is a truly awesome fic, I definitely hope you continue this :)
A: Yes I will indeed. Season 2 incoming!
Paper-chan (2011-06-27 . chapter 13): And as glad as I am for her to have finally met Luffy, I sincerely mourn the loss of the 'Evil-Luffy' scenes.
A: I miss writing them too... they were ridiculously fun to do. Still, it won't be the last we'll see of Kuina's imaginary mind-theatres (to borrow a phrase another reader coined) for sure!
PyrpleKnyght (2011-06-24 . chapter 13):
I can't say that this is another excellent chapter added to this fanfic, simply because it is so much better than all the others. That's not to say that the previous chapters are bad, quite the opposite in fact, but this chapter was an amalgam of everything that Phalanx does wonderfully.
Perhaps the one thing that I dislike is what has happened to Tashigi. This isn't to say that it's a bad idea, but it has certainly made her the least likeable character in my eyes. My hope is that Phalanx will take the time to help Tashigi get over the feelings of jealousy.
A: Whoa! You scared me with the first line there! (but thanks!)
I did intend to develop Tashigi further, as seen in her scene with Briggs which I wrote as far in advance as a few chapters ago. I have a feeling I stopped at the wrong point last chapter and left the wrong impression though. I hope this chapter makes up for it!
Kisdota-The Freak Gamer (2011-06-23 . chapter 13): ...ARE YOU GONNA DO SOMETHING WITH THE ENDING OF ALABASTA? OR SOMETHING NEW?
A: Something with the ending of Alabasta. And then something new. :D
Lord of Murder (2011-06-23 . chapter 13): ...yay kuina and zoro are friends again I'm really glad that's finally happened.
A: Thanks! I wrote the original scene where they made up a long long time before I even reached chapter 13. I wrote it during the Loguetown chapter actually. It was one of those things I knew was going to end that way.
Yuriski-1st (2011-06-22 . chapter 3): Yeah, you are right that Kuina joining would change the whole dynamic of the crew...on the other hand, is it not fun to imagine what would happen if somethings were different?
A: Indeed! I think I saw a couple of other fics where they had Kuina alive and part of the SH crew, so I think I'll leave those continuities up to those other writers ;)
BoredBluejay (2011-06-22 . chapter 13): I love the part with Pell! I really wish we'd got to see more of him in the original, so thank you for this! But he didn't really die in the original, right? Are you going to keep that the same?
A: I guess this chapter answered the question :(
But Pell also plays a significant part in my other fic "The Supernova Eleven", if you still want to read more fics with him in it...
Vi-Violence (2011-06-22 . chapter 13): ...I loved how Tagashi called Kunia while she was running around with Zoro and he was all "tell her to shut up!" that was great...
A: ^_^ That was actually a last minute addition, but it brought to mind so much of real-life mobile phone shenanigans I HAD to put in it.
Ultra One Piece Fan (2011-06-22 . chapter 13): By the way, can Kuina become a stowaway in the future chapters? I wanna see more interaction between her and the crew.
A: Since I did promise more interaction, I hope Robin counts!
SilverRainFalls (2011-06-21 . chapter 13): I must admit, Briggs is a lot more...likable...after that battle with Crocodile. Pompous and and a pain he may be, but Briggs has my everlasting respect now.
A: I'm so happy that you get what I intended to do with Briggs. :D I wanted to write him as a very blunt and tactless character, but not without redeeming qualities. I do confess that I enjoy writing him very much because he's so very flawed, which makes it more interesting (sounds a bit strange I know).
SilverRainFalls (2011-06-21 . chapter 13): I love how you connected past and present with Crocodile's failed attempt in the New World. Never thought you would bring that up...
A: The Crocodile/Briggs parallel thing wasn't planned. It just popped out while I was writing that scene. I realized the similarities and decided to put it in XD
Majin Hentai X (2011-06-21 . chapter 13): Kuina has to stay with the marines, but if they don't follow the Strawhats into Skypiea what will they do until the war?
A: Since a few people have asked... yes, there will be a slight time-skip after this chapter. . All I'm saying for now.
Sorakage Sama (2011-06-21 . chapter 13): Even though it was a beatdown, Briggs vs. Crocodile was one of the most interesting brawls yet.
A: I think the Briggs vs Crocodile fight was definitely one of the most brutal I've written, but it's not easy to make fight scenes interesting in the written form. I'm glad to hear you found it enjoyable!
ijpowers92 (2011-06-21 . chapter 13): I am thinking that Nico Robin should probably do some research on Briggs herself. I can totally see her making some sort of comment how someone like Briggs should know better than to believe anything Marine HQ says.
A: Sadly, Briggs IS a marine, so it would take something more to make him see through the world government's propaganda. It would be interesting to see this topic revisited, though. Perhaps something for the future...
Lupus-Cantus-Grimoure (2011-06-21 . chapter 13): poor pell! how would affect the story when she finds out that Pell is alive! only time would tell along with your godly guidance to the story on what would happen IF she finds out, will she retain feelings for him?
A: I did try, but unfortunately it didn't work out. I am so sorry :(
I think the below alternate ending I made sure to include for you more than anyone else. It's a shame it didn't make it to the final version, but I hope you'll enjoy it nevertheless.
Season 1 alternate ending:
"Lady Kuina, Pell-sama has awakened."
Kuina darted past the doctor and into the room.
"Pell-san! I'm so glad!"
Moments passed, and Kuina knew by the puzzled silence that Pell hadn't understood the movement of her lips. He was there. She could feel his presence, somewhat disoriented, but something was not quite right with him.
"I'm sorry Kuina," Pell said softly, "I know you are trying to say something, but I... I cannot hear you. I cannot hear anything any longer."
There was a horrified silence as realisation sank in. Pell had survived the bomb, but he hadn't escaped unscathed.
"I didn't realise... oh no." Then she composed herself. "Pell-san, there is still hope. The doctors back in Alubarna..."
Still silence. He hadn't understood. It was as though there was now a one-way barrier between them. And frustratingly, she could understand him, but she couldn't make him understand her.
And worst of all, and she could sense this failure of communications, something that most people took for granted, was upsetting him.
"I appreciate the sentiment, Kuina, but this isn't working. We should just give up trying to talk. Just leave me be."
At a loss for words, Kuina could only obey and leave the room. She wondered how in the world she could have thought that finding Pell alive would be the end of her quest and there would be a happy ending.
"With time most of his other injuries will heal, but...I do not want to disappoint all your hopes. It is highly unlikely Pell-sama's sense of hearing will return. If it returns at all," Dr. Ooh looked haggard. The royal doctors had swarmed and done what they could for the damaged guardian, but there had been limits to their medicine.
Vivi was aghast, but she kept her composure. "I see. Thank you, doctor."
The princess waited until the doctor had left he room, then sat down hard and buried her face in her hands, overwhelmed.
"How am I going to tell him?"
Kuina put a comforting hand on the other girl's shoulder .
"You don't have to. Pell-san already knows."
"I know he knows. But I was hoping for hope. Something to break him out of his... you know what I mean Kuina. He's trying not to show it, but I can't help but feel it, it's like he came back a different person."
Kuina knew what Vivi meant. Ever since their return from the desert, Pell had been distant. Always polite, but somehow detached. At first they had attributed it to shock and trauma but as time went on those who knew him well could feel the difference. It was as though he was physically there but in spirit... he wasn't.
This feeling was brought home again later that day, when she came to visit him, and found him listlessly sitting up in his sickbed, still swathed in splints and bandages, his aura uncharacteristically dark and morose.
"Pell-san," she greeted, touching him lightly on the arm to let him know of her presence, "you look better today." She mouthed the words slowly so he could read her lips.
"You say that every day, Kuina."
"Because it's true. Everyone will be glad to see the Hero of Alabasta back on his feet again!" She had never been the cheery type. That had always been Piers' role, but for his sake she tried.
"Does anyone truly believe that what's left of him would be capable of it?" replied Pell bitterly.
The unsaid thoughts in his heart carried through to her Mantra with horrifying clarity.
It was better to die a hero than to live a cripple.
This despondence was so unlike what she remembered of the man that it shook her.
"Vivi, Chaka and Igaram do."
There was a pause. An awkward one as well.
"I can't deny that," he said after a while. Perhaps he had also seen the crestfallen look on her face. "They do. Which makes it worse when I have to disappoint them."
His voice, previously steely and sure, now seemed hollow and tired, and there was a depressed tone to his voice that Kuina was sure had never been there before.
It almost sounded as though he almost wished he hadn't lived through the bomb.
It also disturbed her because it was hauntingly familiar. She had been there before, right after the flames had claimed her eyesight, her dreams crushed and her future shrinking in on her. Her prison had been the darkness, and his would be the silence.
And she would have remained in it if it were not for Zoro.
Her experience gave her the intuition to know what to do. She picked up Pell's sheathed sword, the one that he had left with her, and placed it back into his hands, forcing her face into an expression of determination.
"You asked me to take care of it for you," Kuina mouthed the words slowly and firmly, so that Pell could read her lips without any possibility of making a mistake, "But I didn't hold on this sword to see it remain unused. You saved me, and I won't let you give up. I have faith in you."
Impulsively, she put her hand on his, willing him to come out of the dark shadow. With her other hand she swept back her hair, laying bare to him the ugly scars that the face paint could not fully conceal.
Just like her feelings for him.
At first he froze at the unexpected contact. Then he understood. She could feel his change in mood and braced for the inevitable rejection. For stumbling words about how he was flattered by her attention but the feeling wasn't mutual.
But Pell said nothing of that sort.
And he did not pull his hand away from hers.
It was strange how in a single moment of silence, the world could change so much, and one's world could open from such a set path into an endless ocean of possibilities.
There would be a time in the future, when old wounds would heal and the broken bird would fly again.
There would be a time in the future, when she would eventually master Mantra and leave the sandy island of Alabasta to be the greatest swordsman in the world.
But right now, there was time. And Kuina knew that at this moment, she held in her hands someone who needed her, and someone who was no longer out of her reach.
THE END (alternate)
A/N: And that's it. Looooong chapter, wasn't it? I can't believe I've actually completed Season 1!
Season 2 should commence hopefully December/January. I should be releasing another chapter of 'The Supernova Eleven' first (unfortunately I don't think I will make it in time for the 1-year anniversary, which falls on October 10th), then it will be TABCF's turn again!
Thank you all for your reviews, favourites, and patience. I can safely say that they are what kept me going, especially through the Writer's Block!
Oh, feel free to write in and let me know what you thought of this chapter, or to yell at me for killing Pell off, or to speculate on what you want to see in the next!