Third in a series. Please read the previous two fics first, if you haven't already. Also references the Adventures of Young Roronoa Zoro (Chapters 12-15).
Title: The Second War of Marineford
Theme: Set #3 - War
Warnings: Future fic, Alternative Timeline, strong language. Spoilers for recent manga chapters.
Disclaimers: I don't own One Piece.
Marineford Battle Command Centre, 14:20
"Yes, sir. Another three thousand down in the last ten minutes, sir." The ensign hesitated, then added, "That's an estimated count, sir."
Of course it was, dammit. Smoker exhaled slowly as the words sank in. Three fucking thousand. How could they possibly get an exact count, at the rate the Marines were falling? If anything, that was a lowball estimate.
The Video Den Den Mushi screens blurred for a moment as two puffs of smoke rose hazily into the air. All too quickly, they dissipated, revealing the extent of the carnage once more. Smoker had to resist the urge to jump out of his chair and swoop down to join the tiny dots on the screen. Every bone in his body told him he should be down there, doing his part as a soldier on the battlefield. But orders from the Pan-Fleet Admiral were orders from the Pan-Fleet Admiral. There was no way he could have organised the defences of Marineford from the fray. So he was stuck here, in the false comfort of the command centre, watching the little dots that were his men, his responsibility, die.
If there was one thing keeping him sane right now, it was knowing that he'd done his duty, and couldn't have done it better. He'd faithfully relayed every order as it came in from Sengoku, efficiently directing the forces under his command. And though he was still annoyed with the admiral for putting stock in Roronoa's nonsense about Tashigi, his annoyance had gradually been replaced with a grudging respect for the man's ingenuity. As each of Sengoku's commands filtered through the Den Den Mushi, he'd been struck by the sheer military senseof it all. The Revolutionaries should have been defeated ten times over by now.
Only they weren't. Instead, every stroke of tactical genius had immediately been met with an equally efficient and even more ruthless counter-stroke. Monkey D Dragon might not have thirty years' sparring with Sengoku to draw on like Whitebeard had, but he apparently had wiles to spare, and plenty of aces up his sleeve, not least of which were his evidently well-trained men. Smoker wouldn't be surprised if some of those well-trained men were planted square in the ranks of the Marines as well, sabotaging machinery, sowing confusion, destroying morale.
It was working. At the resolution of the Den Den Mushi screens, the Revolutionaries were just a mass of grey ooze clashing with a mass of white, but they were ooze with momentum, pressing forward steadily, surely, probing for key weaknesses in the Marines' front line and breaking through where it could, closing around isolated pockets of white and shrinking them. The white mass was giving way a little too readily now, now that every single Marine down there knew how formidable an enemy they were up against. And in the backs of their minds, they were surely wondering the same thing Smoker was wondering. How could one man possibly be worth all of this?
For one small, determined band cutting through the fighters in the plaza like a scythe, the answer was clear. There was no need for guile, no apparent nod to strategy there, other than to just move ahead. They were no more than a tiny clump of colour on the battlefield, but Smoker knew. Up close or from afar, there was no mistaking the Strawhats' determination to retrieve a nakama.
No mistaking, either, the despair of the Marines crumpling under their single-minded onslaught. For when would their own commanders ever go to such lengths to rescue one of them?
Oris Plaza, 14:22
"Luffy, calm down! He's here somewhere, of course they're not going to put him up on an execution platform for you to rescue, not like – " Nami trailed off, not wanting to remind her captain of his worst memory.
"He'll be down in their jail cells, under heavy guard," Robin reasoned calmly, even as the clenching of her crossed fists signalled the breaking of thirty Marine necks. "We have to get out of this plaza."
"Trust that shitty marimo to be late for his own rescue," Sanji huffed, lashing out at an unlucky captain who'd thought his Devil's Fruit ability would offer at least somedefence against Red Leg technique.
"Hey, where did Mihawk go?" Chopper asked, looking around for his patient. "I told him not to over-exert himself!"
"Yohohoho! He's just as bad as Zoro-san! These swordsmen are all alike!" chortled Brook, seeming to forget the fact that he was currently wielding a sword to great effect himself.
"Let him go, Dracule Mihawk can take care of himself," Usopp said, amused at their doctor's indignation even in the midst of a frantic battle. "We've got bigger things to worry about!"
"Yeah, like, why are those doors closing?" Franky asked, pointing. They followed his finger, and saw the thick steel doors that divided the plaza, where the fighting was taking place, from the main buildings of Marineford, slowly heaving to cut them off.
"It doesn't make sense," Nami said. "Last time they did that, it was to trap the Whitebeard Pirates in the bay and then drown them by melting the ice. But this time, their own soldiers are going to be trapped in with us."
"Nevertheless, history does appear to be repeating itself," Robin said, looking skywards.
Marineford Battle Command Centre, a minute earlier
"You want me to do what?" Smoker snarled at the Den-Den Mushi.
"Your duty, Commodore Smoker, which is to carry out my orders," the voice on the other end of the line said acidly. "Close the plaza doors!"
"What possible military reason can there be for shutting those doors? And where's Sengoku?"
There was a brief pause, before Akainu said coolly, "The Fleet Admiral is currently indisposed. Close the doors, Commodore, I will not tell you a fourth time. If I do not see them closing in the next ten seconds, I'll bust all of you down to cabin-boys and rip out your spleens." The Den-Den Mushi returned to a snoozing state, leaving the threat hanging in the air.
Smoker unleashed a torrent of curses directed, rather unfairly, at the Den-Den Mushi, before turning to his men. "I'm countermanding the order," he informed them curtly. "On no account are you to close the doors."
Their jaws dropped to a man, and the ensign sitting at the engineering console jumped. "But, sir, it was a direct order from Admiral Akainu!" he protested.
"That was a direct order to me. This is a direct order to you from yourcommanding officer," Smoker said. Then he recollected that guilty start the ensign had given, and he looked up at the screens. "Why the hell are those damn doors closing?"
"I thought...when Admiral Akainu said he'd rip out our spleens if we didn't obey..." The hapless ensign cowered, his eyes darting around frantically, as if he would rather be anywhere in the world, even a body on the battlefield below, than here facing Smoker's wrath. Which, he reflected sourly, could well be arranged.
"And what do you think I'lldo to you for closing those doors without my permission?" he growled.
The ensign squeaked in horror.
"I don't care what that damn Sakazuki said! Open the doors!"
"B-b-b-b-but sir!" The ensign's registered a token protest through chattering teeth. Smoker decided he would have to work on appearing more intimidating, if Akainu was as menacing through a Den Den Mushi as he was in person.
"You're refusing to carry out my order?" he growled. The ensign looked ready to faint. "And how would youlike to be one of the Marines who's going to be trapped down there?" Already he could see a wave of Marines hurling themselves against the doors, scrambling to get through before they closed.
"It's not that, sir! It's just that, the doors have to close fully before I can re-open them!" Smoker could have strangled him.
"Who among hell's minions designed such a shitty system?" he snarled. "How long?"
"Five minutes, sir!"
Smoker grit his teeth, almost decapitating his two cigars. He flung himself into a chair, drumming his fingers impatiently against the armrest. Nothing he could do, except to silently curse at the ensign, Akainu, at time itself. And to ponder just what Akainu intended with this new move. Was it just to give the Marines down there a kick in the butt, and use their increased desperation to reverse the flow of the battle? After all, a cornered cat fights the hardest.
If Smoker was confused about the new tactic, so was everyone else. Activity on the screens slowed as Revolutionaries and Marines alike paused to watch the closing of the doors, which seemed to herald a new phase in the combat. But what? It couldn't be a means to trap the Revolutionaries in the plaza after all, Smoker reasoned. Many of their own men were still in there, and any weapon that could target only the enemy would have to be very sophisticated indeed. He knew that Sentomaru was standing by with the Pacifista unit, but no orders had yet been issued to deploy them to their stations.
And then Smoker realised the flaw in his reasoning. He wrenched himself to his feet, and crossed over to the engineering console, where the ensign was scrunching himself as small as he could in his seat, and jumped to find his commanding officer right behind him.
"Get those doors open, now!"
"But the five minutes aren't up yet!"
"I don't care what you have to do to get them open, get them open!" The ensign began to hammer away at his controls, but still the doors slid inexorably to a close, the gap between them so small now that only one man could slip through at a time. The rest crushed up against the doors, practically stampeding in their haste to get out. A couple more seconds, and a dull boom rang throughout the battlefield, as the two sides finally met.
"Initiating the opening sequence, sir!" the ensign cried in relief.
Too late, Smoker realised.
Too late, too late, damn Sakazuki, fuck absolute justice, what kind of justice calls for slaughtering your own men -
"What's that?" One of the officers pointed innocently towards the uppermost screen, which showed the closest thing they had to an aerial view, from a Den Den Mushi perched on the highest cliff of Marineford. They'd finally noticed.
"Akainu's fists of lava," someone whispered, almost reverently. The same move that had caused so much damage to the Whitebeard Pirates in the last war of Marineford. But back then, the balls of magma had only been enough to melt the ice and consign the pirates to the freezing waters of the bay. Sakazuki hadn't been resting on his laurels in the intervening years. This time, they would annihilate all they landed on.
"All the Revolutionaries in the plaza will be wiped out!" someone said hopefully.
"And our own men along with them!" Smoker bellowed.
There was a brief silence, as the men gauged the trajectory and quantity of the great balls of fire, and realised that he was right. What was aimed at the Revolutionaries would engulf their own.
"Order the men to pull back as close as they can to the edge of the walls. You – get those bloody doors open! You – is there any way to open up the other gates, and let in the sea water?" Let the Devil's Fruit users among the combatants fend for themselves, Smoker thought furiously – it was the ordinary soldier he was concerned for, the thousands of regulars who were about to die on the altar of Absolute Justice. But as soon as he said it, he realised it wouldn't help. To flood the plaza with enough water to have any chance of neutralising the magma would take minutes.
The men in the plaza had only seconds.
Absolute justice, indeed.
A concealed location in Marineford, 14:29
"Incoming Den-Den Mushi call, sir."
The leader of the Revolutionary Army took the telephonic snail from the hands of his newest lieutenant, who stood listening while dusting his powdery hands off on his trousers. "Dragon," he said crisply.
The voice at the other end of the line spoke in a tone of controlled calm, but the hidden agitation showed on the Den-Den Mushi's expressive face. "Sir, they've closed the plaza doors, and above us..."
Dragon glanced up at the sky. "I see them. Stand your ground. Dragon out." He handed the Den Den Mushi back to the young man, who was gaping at him in incredulity.
"You just...you didn't..." he stammered, to his leader's amusement. He still had a lot to learn.
"Sakazuki is showing his hand early," Dragon observed, for the young man's benefit. "That's good news."
The hidden message of reassurance flew straight over the lad's head. "Good news? What about our soldiers? It's bad enough that the Marines are tossing their own men away like flies, without us following their lead!"
"Quiet, kid, or I'll start regretting that we ever liberated a certain prison camp in East Blue," a third voice rejoined. They were a study in opposites, these two: his newest lieutenant and his oldest, one still wet behind the ears, the other as grizzled as the bear's head that concealed his grey hair.
The younger man's abashed look lasted only a second. "But what're we going to do?" He wrung his hands, casting an appealing look at his two elders.
"We are going to do nothing. We're too far away to do anything. Think, boy!"
"Nevertheless, we should draw nearer," Dragon intervened, seeing that the preparations had been completed. "Now's our time."
"Don't just panic, boy, use your eyes!"
They all looked, in time to see a gigantic pair of hands blossom in the sky above the plaza.
"...her," Dragon agreed.
"But she'll be..."
The hands came together in a graceful cupping movement, just in time to catch the hailstorm of magma.
The faint echo of a scream reached them as the hands tipped their contents into the sea surrounding the plaza. Jets of steam sizzled skywards as the seawater heated to boiling point, obscuring their view of the plaza. But when it cleared, they were still there – his men, his enemies, and most importantly, his son.
"What did she do that for? She's probably...she might be hurt!"
"Our men are alive. Isn't that what you wanted, kid? Better one, than many."
"I don't believe that. I've never believed that," the young man said, his voice suddenly fierce. "It's too hard on those of us who remain behind."
"Idealistic young pup," his older counterpart complained. "I don't know why you insist on continually picking 'em out of the gutter, Dragon."
"Perhaps because we were once them."
"Once, a very long time ago. Well? Shall we get started on this plan of campaign?"
Dragon nodded. "It's time for us to dictate the terms of this battle," he decreed. "Let's go."
He strode out into the open, in the direction of Luffy, his two men jogging behind him, while around them, a shower of scorched rose petals drifted to earth, then vanished.
Marineford Battle Command Centre, 14:32
"What on earth," one officer asked, "was that?"
The Marines manning the command centre were still on their feet, gaping at the screen, wondering what they'd just seen.
"It looked like a giant pair of hands," someone ventured in disbelief.
"Maybe that was Sengoku the Buddha! It could've been a partial transformation!" one young ensign conjectured, excitement and relief written all over his face.
"Oh, you're right! I heard that Admiral Sengoku is huge when he transforms! And it would be just like him to sacrifice himself to save all our men!"
"No," Smoker intervened. "No, that wasn't Sengoku." They were too young to have fought in the last war, too young to have seen Sengoku's transformation, only heard about it from their older comrades. The colour was all wrong, for one, and those hands...those weren't the hands of an old man. And that scream...it had been the scream of a woman.
"No, that," Smoker concluded heavily, "was the Demon of Ohara."
Oris Plaza, 14:33
"Robin! Robin, are you all right? Robin, answer me!"
"Robin-chwaaaaaaaaaan! That damn volcano bastard, I'm gonna kill him!"
"Robin's hands are burnt! Fetch a doctor! Oh wait, I'm the doctor!"
Robin's eyes fluttered open. "It's not so bad," she said softly. "Franky's fire-retardant gloves really helped."
"But you're still badly burnt, Robin!" Chopper said, frantically digging in his bag for salve and bandages. "I need to find a water source, you guys!"
"Robin-chan, hang on! I'll go fetch some water for you!"
"Vun moment." A huge, cloaked figure stopped Sanji in his tracks.
Sanji stared at the figure, taking in the purple hair and fishnet under the grey cloak. "What the hell? Ivankov? What are you doing here? And you brought themalong with you!" He goggled at the hordes of okama behind the Queen of Kamabakka, some of whom were giving him little flirtatious waves.
"Ve are rendering you assistance, dear boy. Perhaps I may assist this gallant young lady..."
"No vay - I mean, no way! I know what your hormones can do, and I'm not gonna let you shorten Robin-chan's life! Chopper'll take care of her!"
"Sanji, the water!" Chopper reminded him frantically.
"Okay, okay! I'm going!" But he was stopped again, by yet another tall, cloaked figure.
"Who the hell are you, old man? Get out of my way!" Sanji protested.
The man ignored him, addressing himself instead to the girl kneeling beside Robin. "Your name is Nami, I believe? You should find the conditions perfect for a local rainstorm."
"Eh? Oh, I see!" Nami took out her Clima-Tact. "Rain Tempo!" she declared, and within seconds, a gentle rain had begun to fall over the entire plaza.
"Thanks, Nami!" Chopper said gratefully.
"Is Robin going to be okay, Chopper?" Luffy asked. Everyone looked up, startled at the tone of his voice. But his expression could not be seen, for he was standing a little further ahead of the rest of the group, hat pulled low over his eyes.
"I'll be fine, Luffy," Robin said. "First, don't you want to say hello to your father?"
"Ehhhhhhh? You're Luffy's DAD?" the others boggled at Dragon.
"Huh? Oh, hi, dad," Luffy said, sounding a little more like his usual self. But then he took two steps forward, took a deep breath, clenched his fists, and yelled out in a voice that none of them had ever heard, save in an old newsreel from years ago:
"AKAINUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!" The battlecry shook the entire plaza.
"That's torn it," Nami said in chagrin. "Luffy, wait – we agreed to go together – you'll be a sitting duck!" she screamed after him, as Luffy took to his heels, racing through the staring Marines and Revolutionaries alike.
"You guys get Zoro!" was Luffy's receding response.
"Vell, that vas a charming family reunion," Ivankov commented. "I only hope it ends more happily than the last...oh, do not fret, child. Straw-boy vill not be targeted. Not vhile his father is present."
"I flatter myself that despite my son's best efforts, I am still the more wanted man," Dragon said modestly. "Come, Ivankov." Dragon threw back the hood of his cloak, and strode forward.
"Zis rain brings back peaceful memories," Ivankov commented, sniffing the air. "Our little friends vill be happy. It tastes sveet."
"It tastes of victory," Dragon agreed. He came to a stop a safe distance away from the remaining Strawhats. And though he had not yelled out a challenge as his son had, it was true what Ivankov had said. Apart from the Marines who stood directly in Luffy's path, all others had turned their attentions to Dragon. There was no ignoring the head of the Revolutionaries, the most wanted man in the world, as he stood in the middle of his army, the plaza echoing to cheers of his name.
Marineford Battle Command Centre, 14:37
"Is that really Dragon the Revolutionary?" one officer asked. They had zoomed in as far as the Den Den Mushi could focus. "He doesn't look anything like Vice-Admiral Garp." His voice sounded vaguely bemused, as if he was trying to imagine a Vice-Admiral with a tattoo across half his face.
"That's him all right," Smoker said grimly, recalling that stormy day in Loguetown, when Monkey D Luffy had slipped through his fingers. All of this could have been avoided, if it hadn't been for the man on the screen. He had to hand it to Dragon, though. He had some gall, parading himself like a giant target. Any moment now, Sengoku or Akainu would give the order. They wouldn't miss this chance.
Sure enough, the Den Den Mushi began transmitting in the voice Smoker had grown to loathe: "All units fire at will on..."
"Damn kid," Akainu grunted. "Hellspawn of that trait-"
The admiral's voice faded unexpectedly into a crackle, and the fierce expression on the Den Den Mushi's face was replaced with one of...if Smoker didn't know better, he'd have called it "ecstasy". The damn snail was grinningat him, its eyes half-closed in an attitude of sheer bliss.
"I don't think Admiral Akainu's on the other end of the line anymore, sir," one ensign said helpfully.
"No shit," Smoker said sarcastically. It was impossible to imagine thatlook belonging on Akainu's face. "Get one of the Video Den Den Mushi focused on the platform, I want to see what's going on."
But as he looked up, the screens began to fizzle with static. "The hell?"
"I can't repair the Video Den Den Mushi, sir. Something's wrong with them," one communications officer reported tersely after a few moments' puzzled fiddling. "And not just them – I was just trying to transmit the admiral's order to all units, but I couldn't get through. The Den Den Mushi are acting...really weird."
"Can we hail anyone?"
"No, sir. It's like they've gone on strikeor something."
As if to underscore this diagnosis, the Den Den Mushi began gliding away from their posts and towards the door. Smoker followed them, perplexed by their erratic behaviour. Their emergence into the open only seemed to heighten their bliss. They were practically frolickingin the rain – or as close to frolicking as a mollusc could manage.
"It's this rain," Smoker said grimly. "It's doing something to them."
"But we've never had any trouble operating them in inclement weather, sir, only in the cold..." The communications officer stopped, and ran his tongue over his lips. "It's sweet," he realised. "Den Den Mushi love sugar. That's why they look so pleased!"
"They must have seeded the clouds with something. Like Dance Powder, only with some kind of sugar additive." Smoker shook his head, feeling suddenly weary. It was a master stroke. "He's just disrupted our entire communications network."
"Surely his own as well, sir," the officer argued back.
"He no longer needs it. He's right down there in the middle of the battlefield, directing operations for himself." As he himself should be doing, Smoker realised. Never mind the Den Den Mushi, he still had a bird's-eye view of the battlefield from up here. The ooze of Revolutionary grey had turned into a torrent, washing out the Marine white.
Smoker ran through a mental catalogue of what weapons they had left. Roronoa's arrival and the subsequent twin declarations of war had been so sudden they'd had to scramble to collect even what they had. First, the Admirals. Sengoku seemed to be out of commission, Akainu was engaging Strawhat, no one ever knew what was going through Kizaru's head. If Aokiji hadn't quarrelled with Akainu and left the Marines...it was too late to think about that now. The Vice-Admirals were all thick in the fray, with one significant exception. They hadn't had time to call in the remaining Shichibukai, which was just as well from Smoker's point of view. Boa Hancock would just side with Strawhat Luffy, and the rest were pieces of shit anyway. All their elite platoons were already deployed. That left just one weapon.
"Any way of getting word to the Pacifista division, short of hiking over there?" he asked.
"No, sir - hang on, I've just remembered!" The communications officer dashed back into the command centre, then came out again bearing a small piece of machinery. "This will work better out here, anyway."
"What is that?"
"It's something called a radio, sir. A brilliant invention of Dr Vegapunk's. The Pacifista Division are fully-equipped with them. This is just a prototype, but we should be able to get in touch with them. Thesearen't affected by the rain!" The officer twisted a few knobs, then spoke urgently into the mouthpiece. "I have Commander Sentomaru on the line, sir," he said presently.
"What is it, Smoker?" Vegapunk's former bodyguard barked into his ear. "I'm busy."
"Too busy to get your Pacifistas into action?"
"I'm way ahead of you grunts," Sentomaru said smugly. Smoker looked up and saw a ring of black-and-white-clad figures pop up on the plaza walls, clearly visible despite the distance due to their enormous size.
"I presume Monkey D Dragon is the target?"
"Can you hit him at that distance?"
"Dr Vegapunk has been hard at work improving the Pacifistas over the past few years. They could hit an ant at this distance," Sentomaru said proudly. "All PXes, the target is Monkey D Dragon!"
A series of muted voices reported that they had acquired the target.
"Ready your beams. On my command. Five. Four. Three. Two..."
Smoker shook his head. Too easy.
Oris Plaza, two minutes earlier
"Drrrrrrragon, look! There is poor, dear old Kuma! And another Kuma...and another Kuma..." Ivankov sighed. "I still cannot believe you allowed him to do such a foolish thing!"
"It was not my choice, Ivankov." Dragon's face had tightened the moment he'd seen his old comrade, now reduced to a shell - many shells - of the man he once was.
"You must get out of here," Ivankov said, seeing the Kumas fall into position. "It is as that girl put it. You are a sitting duck. I vill cover for you."
"I stay," Dragon said firmly. "It will be fine."
"Do not forget, Drrragon, that Kuma is no longer an ally! His brain, his personality, his vill have all been taken away from him. He even shot at me the last time ve vere here! Me! Now go!" Already, the Kumas on the ramparts were dropping their jaws open, readying to fire.
"Then you are the one at risk, not I," Dragon said. "Go. All of you." He nodded at his lieutenants, who silently dispersed into the crowd.
"I suppose you have planned for this eventuality. You always do." Ivankov shook his head at his leader's stubbornness, obeying the order, but only just.
"All eventualities, save one," Dragon replied. Now in the centre of a small circle of space on the battlefield, he looked like a bull's-eye in the middle of a gigantic target. He spread out his arms, making himself an even more enticing mark. "Come, my friend," he muttered. "Shoot me."
Platform outside the Marineford Battle Command Centre, 14:39
The Marines on the platform watched the cyborgs expectantly. After two seconds, they began to fidget.
"What's going on, Sentomaru?" Smoker bellowed into the radio.
"We appear to be having technical difficulties." The radio couldn't display the speaker's emotion the way a Den Den Mushi could, but it was obvious that Sentomaru was fighting to control his rage and confusion.
"Cannot target Monkey D Dragon," another voice - a Pacifista's voice, only it was all of them, in perfect sync - reported.
"Couldn't miss an ant at this distance, eh?" Smoker muttered.
"Shut up, Smoker! PX! Why can't you target him? He's right there in the centre of the battlefield!" Sentomaru exploded.
"Cannot target Monkey D Dragon," the Pacifistas insisted. "Nakama."
"NAKAMA? You're Marine property! You're a cyborg, not a person! Cyborgs don't have nakama! Get that into your miswired skull!"
"Cyborgs have no nakama." The Pacifistas processed this new piece of information calmly. "But Monkey D Dragon is nakama. Therefore, we are not cyborgs. But we are cyborgs. Therefore, we cannot exist."
"What the hell kind of logic is that?" Smoker interrupted.
"Logic that's about to cost us weapons worth trillions of beli! All PXes, listen to me, Monkey D Dragon is not your nakama!"
"But Dragon is nakama. Dragon has always been nakama." The Pacifistas sounded more human by the minute, sounding less like cyborgs and more like the once-Shichibukai, Bartholomew Kuma. "I remember."
"PXes, shut down immediately!" Sentomaru ordered frantically.
"My name is not PX-anything. My name is Bartholomew Kuma. But I am not supposed to remember my name. These memories have been wiped. But I am remembering," the Pacifistas continued doggedly. "I am not following orders correctly. Therefore, I must self-destruct. Goodbye, world."
And then they exploded in a salvo of inexorable logic.
Oris Plaza, 14:41
"What did I tell you, Ivankov?" Dragon asked, but there was no triumph in his voice as he gazed at the smoking shells that had harboured the last vestiges of his comrade's soul.
"But...how? He was supposed to have been turned into a robot!"
"Not a robot. A cyborg. A union of man and machine. And there are some parts of a man's will it is impossible to submerge."
"Vell!" Ivankov huffed. "It is a sad pity Kuma is no longer vith us, or I vould have a great deal to say to him about shooting at me during the last var." But under the faux indignation there was genuine sorrow in his voice, even after years of having to say goodbye to his comrades-in-arms.
Out of the mouths of babes, once more. The lad had been right. It wastoo hard on the ones who were left behind.
"Yes," Dragon murmured in reply. "A great pity." And one he was determined to spare his son.
One he wouldn't have had to spare him, he reminded himself, if he hadn't sent Roronoa Zoro his way in the first place. But he'd seen something in that young man, four years ago...fourteenyears ago, that had told him he and his son would make a good team. The same quality that had led him into his present predicament.
"This is more than just a battle, isn't it?" Ivankov asked, giving his leader a strange look. He could be shrewd when he wished.
Dragon nodded an affirmative. "This is a rescue." But the fate of its target was the one eventuality he couldn't control.
Marineford Battle Command Centre, 14:45
"An order for you, sir. From Admiral Akainu." The messenger was panting as he made his salute. A trail of blood marked the side of his face and had leeched into his once-starchy white uniform. He'd have had to fight through the Revolutionaries to make it here, all for the one grubby scrap of paper he was holding out to Smoker.
So this was what all their fancy technology had come down to. None of their attempts to coerce the Den-Den Mushi into anything resembling a communicative state had worked. They'd been defeated by the simplest of weapons - a bit of sugar and the bonds of friendship. And now the Marines had nothing left to fight with except blood, sweat and tears.
"Is Akainu still alive, then?"
"He and Strawhat Luffy are duking it out on the platform, sir. But just before that started, he told me to pass this to you." The messenger held out the note once more.
Smoker took it without unfolding it. "Dismissed," he told the messenger, and the rest of the men who stood awaiting orders, uncertain of their role in the battle now that they were out of a job. "Go join the battle. Or go hide in headquarters. It's up to you." The men glanced at each other uncertainly, then saluted and marched away. He didn't bother to watch which way they went. He unfolded the note.
The next moment it was a crumpled ball in his fist. "Dammit." He stared out at the plaza for a moment, then groped for two fresh cigars. His fingers clutched empty air. "Tashigi!" he barked. "More..." And then he reminded himself, for the thirtieth time since the battle had begun, that she was consigned to quarters, and his spare stash with her.
He'd been wrong. The Marines did have one last secret weapon, one he'd never have dreamt of resorting to himself. And it was sitting in a jail cell in the opposite direction from the battlefield.
"I don't fucking have time for this," he snarled to himself.
For the first time in his professional career, Smoker began preparing to follow an order he didn't agree with.
Oris Plaza, 14:45
Sanji watched the self-destruction of the Pacifistas in a mixture of bewilderment and satisfaction. He'd no idea what had just happened, but there was no way that wasn't a good thing. It was impossible for him to look at those giant cyborgs without remembering Zoro pleading for Luffy's life and winding up drenched in his own blood for it. Or seeing Zoro zip into nothingness under that shitty cyborg's paw at Sabaõdy Archipelago. And once again at that shrine, knowing what fate Zoro was letting himself in for, knowing the sort of treatment that awaited him.
Who knew, maybe the Marines had already killed him, Sanji thought with a shudder. He wouldn't trust them as far as he could kick them. Maybe all this was a farce, designed to draw Luffy and his dad here...
He shook his head firmly. No, they'd already know if Zoro was dead. That damn Akainu would have rubbed the evidence of it in their faces, mocking them for their futile efforts to rescue their friend. But there was no telling what would happen the longer they delayed. "C'mon, let's get out of here," he said. "Luffy's taking care of the Admiral, and his father's taking care of the rest of the Marines. We'll go find that shitty marimo."
"Good idea, Sanji-kun," Nami-san said said. "Chopper, can Robin be moved now?"
"Yep," Chopper said. "All well. I'll still have to fix her up later, but..."
"I feel fine now, Chopper," Robin-chan assured their doctor, getting to her feet. "You did a great job."
"Shut up, idiot! I don't want your compliments!"
Sanji shook his head, grinning. He ought to be taking Chopper to task for calling Robin-chan names, but since he'd just fixed her hands, he'd give him a pass for now.
"Brook, Usopp, Franky! Ready to move?" he called. The four guys had stationed themselves around their nakama, guarding them against Marine attacks while Chopper and Nami-san treated Robin-chan.
"Yeah!" they whooped.
"Mind if I come along?" One of the grey-cloaked Revolutionaries popped up next to them. Sanji recognised him as one of the men who'd been standing behind Dragon during their short conversation. He'd particularly remembered this one because he'd been making eyes at Robin-chan.
"We don't need Revolutionary help," he snapped.
"Please. Zoro and me, we go way back," the man said.
"Way back?" Another one like Johnny and Yosaku, Sanji supposed. It was amazing how an uncouth boor like Zoro had managed to collect so many friends.
"Fine, I guess. You handy with that?" He nodded at the man's sword.
"I'm not Zoro's standard, but I'll do in a pinch."
"Good. Then c'mon, let's move out and find Zoro!" And when they found him, Sanji decided, he was going to murder him himself.
Marineford Female Officers' Quarters, 14:47
As Smoker headed towards the battlefield via a short detour, he found himself thinking about Garp, and what he would have done if he'd been in Smoker's position.
Garp wasn't here, of course. Scuttlebutt had it that the Vice-Admiral had been tactfully removed, screaming and kicking, to East Blue for the duration. He'd taken his two protégés with him. Smoker remembered the scrawny pink-haired kid who'd turned the tide in the last war. Just as well that he was out of this really. Just as well too that Tashigi had had no part to play in this battle.
This wasn't their place. This wasn't even their Navy. They'd signed on to be upstanding officers, not ones who found themselves upstaged in the field of honour by mere pirates. They'd volunteered to be the forces of Justice, not the pawns of an absolutist philosophy that brooked no opposition. They'd sworn to protect the people. How could they do that while failing to protect their own?
One day. One day the Marines would be different. These kids would take over, and they'd rebuild the Navy to serve their justice. And maybe then, when the Navy could stop lying to itself and the people and the world, Smoker would be able to hold his head high and say he was proud to be a Marine.
He rapped at the door at the only occupied room among the female officers' quarters. Tashigi opened it in a flash. He raised an eyebrow at her appearance. Her hair was dishevelled and there was a pinched, white look to her face. She looked as frazzled as he felt. Apparently inaction didn't become either of them. But she brightened when she saw him.
"S-s-smoker-san! What are you doing here? How is the battle going?"
"I'm out of cigars. How well can it be going?"
Tashigi knew her cue. She fumbled for her glasses and then for an extra pack of cigars. "Here you go, Smoker-san."
"Good. Now take this." He lit two fresh cigars while Tashigi uncrumpled the document.
"This is...a prisoner transfer, now? To...them?" She looked scandalised, as well she should be.
"For one Roronoa Zoro. You take care of it." Smoker turned and exited the room.
"But what am I supposed to do with this?" she called after him.
"Whatever you want. Whatever feels right. I'll take the responsibility. You're no longer confined to quarters, by my authority."
"Yes, sir! But what about you, Smoker-san?" Tashigi asked timidly. "What are you going to do now?"
"Me?" Smoker chomped down on his new cigars and began striding away. "I've got a battle to lose."
Marineford Prison Wing, 14:47
Far away from the battlefield, Temporary Warden Hannyabal wrung his hands perplexedly, while casting a suspicious look at the flamboyantly-dressed shichibukai in front of him. "I don't know," he bleated. "This all seems highly irregular."
Donquixote Doflamingo gave his boa a careless twirl. "Akainu'll send along a lackey with the order soon enough."
Hannyabal brightened. "Well, if all the proper paperwork is going to be filed, then that's all right. Come, I'll show you the prisoner." He beckoned his guest and entourage into the brightly-lit corridor, which only served to heighten the dismal dreariness of each heavily-barred cell. "All the other Level 6 prisoners were shipped back to Impel Down the moment war was declared," Hannyabal said regretfully, "but I understand there was some disagreement about what to do with this one."
"There isn't anymore. Akainu wants him beyond rescue."
"Of course, of course. Very sensible." Hannyabal nodded at the Marine squad standing guard in front of the cell and they moved away to allow Doflamingo a view.
"What have you been doing to him?" Doflamingo asked, eyeing the chained, slumped figure beyond the seastone bars.
"Whippings, sleep deprivation, the usual."
"Delicious." Doflamingo's mouth stretched into a wide grin.
"Unfortunately, he slipped into unconsciousness yesterday and we haven't been able to wake him up since. A tad unprofessional, that." Hannyabal sighed. "Ah well, he'll be docile enough while you transfer him."
"I'll need him cleaned up, for where he's going. And changed into something that actually resembles a shirt rather than rags. And...this is to go around his neck." He handed over the collar.
"I'll have that all done for you in a jiffy, sir," Hannyabal said with alacrity, bustling away and motioning for the Marines to follow him.
Doflamingo looked back at the hapless prisoner. "Time to pretty you up, my little moneymaker," he murmured. "The world's greatest swordsman is about to go on the auction block." He threw his head back and let loose a bout of maniacal laughter that echoed up and down the prison wing. "Fufufufufufufu! Fufufufufufu!"
Roronoa Zoro was too far gone to hear it.
TO BE CONTINUED
A/N: This is actually only half of what this chapter was supposed to contain, but it's already the longest in this entire series as far as I can remember, so I decided to split them (also so this chapter doesn't take like another year and half to appear). If you've been reading along and reviewing, thank you, your words of encouragement have really helped me get this monster of a chapter written.