Elise was a charming girl.
Bright blue eyes, pale blond hair, a flirtatious smile and ready, gurgling laughter, along with a willing acceptance of Sanji's compliments and flattery, without seeming to think the flirting was anything other than what it was – a brief, light, enjoyable flirt to pass the time - made her an ideal companion to share a cup of coffee with.
It was a shame it had to be interrupted so soon and in such a rude manner.
Sanji had just been tucking a rogue curl behind her ear as she sipped at her drink and twinkled her eyes at him above the rim of her cup, when the bakery door was thrown open on its hinges with a window-shaking bang.
Elise jumped, splattering the white tablecloth with a swish of dark liquid from her cup, her previously flirtatious eyes now wide and flitting about like a timid bird.
"Blackleg Sanji." The voice was gruff, deep, and vaguely familiar.
Sanji turned, an irritated glare already taking over his face.
Slade. The burly, deep-voiced thug from the cliff. A gun in his hands, and about fifteen similarly armed men spread outside on the street – Sanji recognized a number of them from the scuffle on the cliffs. And no marimo or annoying tagalong kid in sight (no doubt both lost, the idiots).
Before the thought was even finished, a cigarette was between his lips and lit, and Sanji was tilting back in his chair, giving the intruder a deliberate, unperturbed glance through the fall of his hair.
"Nice to see you again," he said easily.
The muscled thug's eyebrow twitched irritably at the reminder of their former meeting (which had mainly consisted of Slade getting his ass kicked), and Sanji didn't bother to suppress his grin.
"Step outside," Slade growled, gesturing roughly out the door with his gun.
"And if I don't want to? I was enjoying a cup of coffee with the lady." The lady who currently looked positively terrified, frozen in her chair.
Damn it. If Sanji hadn't already been planning on kicking the bastard's ass, he definitely would now. No one got away with frightening a woman in Sanji's presence.
The man leveled the gun at Elise pointedly and repeated, "Outside."
A tiny murmur of fear passed between Elise's lips. Sanji's knuckles were white with anger as he stood, though he kept his movements smooth and unhurried. He bowed slightly to the lady, his usual charming smile painted lightly on his face.
"Thank you for the pleasure of your captivating company. Please excuse me for leaving so early, and for causing such a disgusting specimen to come into your lovely presence."
Elisa gave him a pale, anxious attempt of a smile and a nod.
Then Sanji's measured, purposeful stride was carrying him out of the cheerful bakery, past the aforementioned disgusting specimen and under the bright, indifferent sun, where at least fifteen guns were immediately trained directly on his chest.
He blew a stream of smoke into the outside air; the dirt road crunched beneath his shoes as he stopped in the center of the semi-circle of thugs. Slade shut the door behind him.
One member of the ranks – the asshole that had sneaked up behind him on the cliffs – stepped forward warily, a pair of leg shackles in his hands. It seemed they had learned their lesson.
Slade spoke, standing behind Sanji and digging the barrel of his gun into his back. "Put your hands behind your head while he restrains your legs. Don't even think of trying anything, Blackleg," he grunted.
Sanji's cigarette rolled casually around between his fingers.
Those poor, deluded bastards. They seemed to think he intended to comply and go with them easily.
This was going to be fun.
Nami was not happy.
One minute she had been striding down the street at Luffy's side, looking for their lost crew members (and keeping a firm eye on her captain to make sure he didn't dart off in sudden pursuit of meat), the next she had been snatched away, dropping all her shopping bags, and roughly dragged into a nearby alley.
She had fought back fiercely, until the gun shoved in her face persuaded her otherwise.
Now, coarse rope dug into the soft skin of her wrists, chaffing and irritating, as she was rudely shoved stumbling forward down a small, bright street, the opposite direction she had been traveling before.
Her captors – two smelly men that she had no doubt belonged in Miser's gang – were making no attempt to hide themselves or her from the frightened townspeople they passed. Clearly, they knew no one would dare – or have the motivation – to question or stand against them. And as Luffy was blissfully unaware of her current capture, it seemed unlikely she would be escaping any time soon.
One thing was for sure: as soon as she got out of this mess, someone was going to pay.
When a particularly vicious prompting shove at her shoulder almost sent her to her knees, she twisted around to glare at the jerk to blame.
The man – no, boy; he probably wasn't any older than she was – leered down at her with a disgusting sneer.
"Whatcha gonna do about it, sweetheart?"
Oh, gross. Nami glared and suppressed a violent shudder.
The boy's partner, an older man with cold grey eyes, placed a hand on the boy's shoulder and turned his chilly, impassive gaze on her.
"Walk," was all he said, but the ice in his eyes caused her to obey without further protest, though it didn't stop her from fuming silently.
Oh yes; someone was going to pay.
With no further incident, they shortly reached a small, dark shop startling close to the center of town – Nami could actually see the fountain from there – and she was quickly thrust staggering inside. She landed hard on a dirty stone floor, her bound hands unable to stop her and her shoulder taking the worst of the fall.
"Ow!" she yelled accusingly, but her captors had already shut the door, leaving her alone inside.
Or not alone.
She looked up. A tiny, dimly lit room with the only window shuttered up tightly…a single door, other than the one she had unwillingly entered, no doubt locked…a table, covered with nothing but dust and dirty plates…and Chopper and Usopp, both bound and looking slightly worse for the wear.
Chopper in particular was looking especially unwell, and Nami realized his hands were cuffed with seastone.
No wonder he looked sick.
"Are you alright, Nami?" Usopp asked her in obvious concern, but she wasn't in the mood for concern.
"No, I'm not alright," she snapped, pushing herself up onto her knees, and then her feet. "Miser wasn't supposed to be this sneaky and go after us one by one! What was he thinking?"
"Well, it's a good plan, if you think about it…" Usopp began.
"It's not a good thing for us, you idiot!"
"It'll be okay," Chopper spoke up weakly from the floor. "Luffy is strong, and he's surprisingly hard to sneak up on. And it doesn't seem like anyone else has been captured yet…it'll be okay."
"Oh, I'm sure it will be fine," Nami said crossly. "But they made me drop all my new clothes! They'll have to pay for that! Plus interest for taking up shopping time! Now," she switched her attention to the more immediate problem, "have you guys looked around the room? Is there a way out?"
Usopp shook his head unhappily. "No…both doors are locked, and there are guards in the front and back. And they took away my satchel with all my weapons. We're stuck until Luffy or someone else comes to get us."
What a pain. Nami paced angrily back and forth, mentally griping. If only they hadn't caught her by surprise! She could have easily taken them out with her clima-tact, no question.
"Usopp," she said excitedly. "I've still got the clima-tact! I can't get to it, but you can!"
Usopp had already perked up and was by her side, though he had a slightly incredulous expression on his face as he took in her outfit – a short skirt, sandals, and a fitted tee-shirt.
"Um…Nami? Where…do you keep it?"
Nami grinned at him evilly.
"Let's just say, when we get out of this, you're going to owe me at least 3,000 beli."
"This is the last time I'll warn you, Roronoa. Put your sword down."
Asher glanced anxiously up at the pirate next to him. Despite his previous, unshakable determination to fight by Roronoa's side (and possibly die – as much as he admired the pirate, thirty guns against one sword weren't very good odds in anyone's book), Asher couldn't help but think he had made a mistake. He didn't actually want to die…
But then, abandoning his idol was out of the question as well.
"Not happening," Roronoa grinned at the thug, a cool, frightening smirk. "Are you gonna fight me, or what? I don't have all day."
"Alright, if that's the way you want it," Miser's thug said, then he nodded to the man on his right. "Shoot for a nonfatal wound; Miser wants him alive. Oh, and try not to hit the kid, if possible."
Inevitable fear raced up his spine, his breath coming in fast, adrenaline-laced pants now, but before Asher even had time to fully grasp what was happening, the underling had pulled the trigger.
Asher's jackrabbit of a heart threatened to kill him of an early heart attack, but his brain had already grasped the important information – that Roronoa was alive, had blocked the bullet easily with his sword and sent it into the shoulder of one of the gang members, and that Asher didn't have any unnatural holes in his own body. Always a good thing, that.
Considerably shaken, Asher glanced up at the swordsman and saw his smirk had become positively demonic.
"Is that it?" Roronoa cocked an eyebrow, somehow looking both bored and playfully taunting.
The lead thug frowned then nodded to his underling again. The trigger was pulled once more.
Another thug dropped, this one clutching his stomach.
Asher wondered if he could die from pure adrenaline overdose and if Roronoa could tell how much he was trembling.
Swish, clang! Swish, clang!
This time, two guns had gone off at once, two bullets sent back into the gang's ranks.
Then silence, save for the pounding of Asher's heart in his throat.
"This is getting boring," Roronoa said lazily. "Let's finish it."
And before Asher could blink, the pirate had lunged forward and was in the middle of the thugs, boxes still balanced perfectly in one arm as he danced with his sword in his other, and Asher's dream of watching the swordsman fight finally came true.
It was even better than he had imagined it would be.
There was an intensity, a breath-stopping mixture of raw power and refined skill that Asher couldn't have imagined without ever seeing with his own eyes – and that was with only one sword and his other arm weighed down with supplies.
In a word, it was awesome, and he couldn't wait to see Roronoa fight all-out.
Because it was painfully obvious that he wasn't – going all-out, that was. Even to Asher's inexperienced eye, he could tell Miser's men couldn't fight worth shit. No doubt they had relied entirely on a sneaky plan and a large number of firearms; once the fight was too close for their guns to be effective, they were pretty much hosed.
Didn't they know this was the infamous Strawhat crew they were taking on?
Sanji was about five seconds away from getting his legs shackled and therefore rendered useless, but that was fine – he only needed one second to snap his leg back into Slade's dirty mouth, and another two to pivot around and send a bone-crunching kick to the chest of the thug with the shackles. Two seconds more to reach back, grab the still falling Slade, then whip him around in front of himself to serve as a human shield, and Sanji was good to go.
Not a second too soon, either, as it was at that moment that the rest of the thugs' brains caught up with situation, and they opened fire.
"Stop, you idiots, stop!" Slade tried to yell, but with his mouth full of broken teeth, all that came out was, "Shtop, 'ou i'tsh, shtop!"
Luckily for Slade, the men seemed to understand post-kicked-in-the-mouth speech, or at least were smart enough to use their eyes and realize that shooting at one of their own was not the best idea. The bullets whizzing past Sanji and his live shield immediately stopped.
Keeping a firm hold on Slade's shoulders, who was swaying slightly and looked likely to topple if Sanji let go, the Strawhat cook peeked around his unwilling guard and grinned at the rest of the thugs.
"Thank you," he said. "Now, if everyone could please drop their weapons, I would greatly appreciate it."
The thugs shared a few hesitant glances (except for the idiot with the shackles that Sanji had kicked, who was still moaning on the ground), before one of the bolder (stupider) thugs stepped forward – one of the younger members of the gang, and clearly with something to prove.
"Or what?" he asked defiantly, challengingly. "You don't have any weapons. Whatcha gonna do? There's no way you can take us all down. If anything, you should be the one surrendering."
Sanji smirked. Obviously, this one hadn't been present to get his ass kicked on the cliffs last night.
"Did you know," Sanji said pleasantly, "that if done correctly, it only takes one kick to break someone's neck? Or shatter a femur? Now, unless you want a demonstration on little Sladey here, drop your guns."
More hesitation and uncertain glances, then the bold, young thug spoke up again.
"It's his fault for screwing up. 'Sides, Miser will have our balls if we let you go. So either let go of Slade, or we'll just take both you down."
Sanji sighed. It seemed there was no group loyalty among Miser's men.
"Ten seconds," he said.
"Ten seconds. In ten seconds, you're going to wish you had put your guns down." Then Sanji flipped over Slade and launched himself towards the considerably startled thugs.
Ten seconds later, every single thug was on the ground, in various states of consciousness and pain. A good number of them had been taken out by their own men shooting wildly at the pirate in their midst, and Sanji had taken care of the rest without even breaking a sweat. It was so easy, he was almost embarrassed for them.
Sanji strolled up to Slade, who had earlier dropped to his knees after Sanji's bracing hold had been released. He was tall enough that, even on his knees, he came up to Sanji's shoulder.
Slade opened his mouth to speak as Sanji approached, no doubt to start cussing and spitting garbled threats through his shattered teeth, but Sanji shut him up with a swift, slicing kick to the jaw.
Slade fell backwards to the ground. Sanji wasn't sure if he was knocked out or not, but either way, he knew Slade wouldn't be getting back up for a while.
"That was for threatening a lady, asshole."
Now then. Time to track down a certain green-haired swordsman and his annoying sidekick.
The good people of Case Ridge had learned several important lessons over the years, each of which made life in their town much easier in general for almost everyone involved.
First: Never buy meat on Thursdays, as butcher-san did his slaughtering on Fridays.
Second: Understand and accept that the old women in town would always gossip about anyone whose life was more interesting than theirs – or in other words, everybody.
And third: When Miser and his men were in town, stay the hell out of their way.
So on that sunny day, just around noon, it was no surprise that people seemed to be avoiding the usually busy fountain at the center of town like it had a bomb strapped to it – because really, that wasn't very far from the truth. Although the reason was not an actual bomb but rather a man, the man in question did posses an extremely explosive temper and an unfortunate inclination towards destruction.
At first glance, Miser – for he was the volatile man lounging against the fountain – did not seem to be a particularly unsavory, violent person, or a person to be avoided. His greying hair was neatly trimmed and his clothes tidier and cleaner than most, and he had a sturdy, strong jaw, the sort that tended to inspire trust in others. However, at a closer look, his small, mean eyes betrayed a greedy glint, and his smile gleamed cruelly. At a closer look, his true nature was put on blatant display.
Not that it mattered, as the people of Case Ridge were only too well-acquainted with his true nature, which was why there was currently a thirty-five-foot radius of empty space around the lone man at the fountain.
But while the townspeople desperately avoided being in Miser's immediate vicinity, they found themselves – human nature being what it was – drawn by some morbid fascination to stick around, hiding at the fringes of the scene, and see what happened – despite the third and most important of their town's unofficial rules. Because when Miser was in town, interesting things tended to happen.
For a time, it seemed like the cautiously nosy townspeople wouldn't have their curiosity fulfilled. The man at the fountain just sat there, accompanied only by the ruthless smirk curling the edges of his mouth, without any indication of moving or terrorizing any unlucky townspeople. The watchers couldn't help but wonder if they'd been mistaken and nothing of interest would occur.
Then a boy came.
A stranger to their town, but a well-known stranger, one whose name and childish grin most were at least vaguely familiar with.
With an easy, carefree stride he meandered towards the center fountain, seemingly oblivious to the danger waiting there. Dark, curious eyes examined his surroundings; a worn straw hat hung from his neck. His faded red vest hung open, shamelessly revealing his sun-tanned torso, and his sandals slapped against the soft dirt of the street.
When Miser's smirk widened at the boy's approach, the townspeople watching knew something interesting was about to happen – for better or worse, but most likely for worse.
"Strawhat Luffy!" the gruff, commanding voice called out, the voice they were unfortunately so familiar with.
The boy's head swung around and he met Miser's eyes with relaxed surprise and a happy smile.
"Yep! That's me," the boy answered, and those watching were horrified at his apparent unconcern of whom he was speaking with. "Who're you?"
"My name is Miser."
The change that came over the boy was shocking, to the say the least. Gone was the innocent smile, the carefree attitude. In their place were a murderous smirk and a surprisingly dangerous aura that rolled off the boy in subtle but undeniable waves. As he cracked his knuckles and grinned in fiendish delight, the townspeople started to get an inkling of how the young teen before them could warrant a staggering 300 million beli bounty.
"You're Miser?" he asked. "You're the guy who tried to hurt my nakama?"
When the man nodded confidently, smugly, the boy let out a low chuckle.
"Oh good. I was looking for you. That was dirty trick, to try hiding in a cave like that. Good thing it didn't work, but I'm still gonna kick your ass."
Miser's smirk didn't fade a whit, if anything stretched a little wider, even as the young captain strode purposefully towards him, his fist winding up for a punch. Although, to be honest, most of the townspeople were much more concerned for the boy, who may have had a high bounty but obviously didn't understand just whom he was dealing with – Miser had been taking out bounties, even ones almost as high as the boy's, for years, and most likely wasn't about to get his ass handed to him by an upstart pirate who had probably survived so far by luck and a mistakenly swollen bounty.
"Speaking of your nakama, do you know where they are?"
The boy captain stopped dead in his tracks, his clenched fist dropping to his side.
"What do you mean?"
A deep, rough chuckle. "I mean, do you know where your crew is? They're not with you right now, are they? So do you know where they are?"
Young, hard eyes met an older, malicious pair.
"What have you done?" The boy's voice was low, deceptively calm, yet very, very dangerous. Townspeople began backing farther away.
"Invested in insurance." Miser raised his voice then, calling out, "Akio! Bring them out here." He turned back to the Strawhat captain. "I have something to show you that I think you'll be interested in seeing."
Sanji found Zoro and Asher surrounded by the bodies of defeated thugs, most of which he was moderately sure were still alive.
On the up side, Zoro was alive and uncaptured, so at least Sanji didn't need to save his ass, which would have been a bother. On the down side, the apparent display of the marimo's ability to swing a stick around seemed to have made the kid even more idiotically obsessed, if the crazed awe in his eyes was anything to judge by. And that was just annoying.
Sanji decided it was time to make his presence known to the two idiots.
"You better not have damaged any of that food."
The swordsman, with the precious supplies still balanced in his arm, spun around at Sanji's voice and ran a quick, casual eye over his frame.
"You look alright, then," Zoro grunted and turned away.
Sanji smirked inside. Honestly, the guy had set himself up for this one; it would've been an absolute shame not to have taken the opportunity.
"Thanks, Zoro," he drawled, taking a drag from his cigarette, and let his smirk sneak to his face. "You look pretty alright yourself." Had it not been below his dignity, Sanji might have winked at that point.
"What!" the swordsman's shoulders instantly jumped and tensed, then he scowled fiercely back at Sanji. "I didn't mean that way, you damn perverted cook! I meant you obviously didn't run into any of Miser's guys. If you had, you woulda been bleeding and shit all over the place."
"Your concern is touching, marimo," Sanji said, sarcastically sweet, "but I'm afraid your reasoning is off. They jumped me outside the bakery. The same bakery, incidentally, where you were supposed to be waiting for me outside. What happened – you get lost, or something?"
Zoro's flush and defensive, "Shut up," answered the question clearly enough, and Sanji grinned again.
"You got lost, didn't you? And you even had someone with you. Asher-kun, why didn't you tell him he was going the wrong the way? Or are you like the marimo and don't know north from up either?"
Asher flushed as well, but he looked hesitantly between the fuming Zoro and smirking Sanji before answering.
"I thought he was going somewhere else, so I just followed…"
Sanji couldn't help chuckling as he took another pull from his cigarette. "Don't worry, kid," he said. "The marimo consistently gets lost on his way to the bathroom. It wasn't your fault."
Asher, the poor kid, still looked uncertain, like he had no idea what to do in this situation, and Sanji felt no shame in the vindication he felt. After all, those two had been ganging up against him all day, and he deserved a little revenge, even if it was just getting on the swordsman's case for his usual atrocious sense of direction.
"Alright, that's enough," Zoro growled irritably, his eyebrows creased. "You wanna fight, shit-cook? 'Cause I won't even have to put these boxes down." The swordsman meaningfully drew out a sword one-handedly and pointed it at Sanji. "If I can take care of all these guys with guns, a single unarmed pansy of a cook isn't gonna be much trouble."
"Unarmed?" Sanji scoffed. "These two legs are all the weapons I'll ever need, especially to take out an overcompensating swordsman like you. And you damn well better put those boxes down, shitty marimo, 'cause if you drop that food I'll be kicking your ass into next week."
"Whatever. You just don't want to embarrass yourself by getting beaten by someone using only one arm."
"Oh yeah? Maybe should just put the food down and stop using it to hide behind like a little girl."
"And maybe you should just quit stalling and admit you don't want to fight me 'cause you know I'd beat you anyway."
Sanji could feel a grin creeping onto his face and the usual prefight excitement sneaking into his veins. Taking out Miser's goons hadn't been any sort of challenge, so if Zoro was looking for a good fight, then Sanji was more than willing to give him one. And judging from the competitive smirk on the tanned face in front of him, Zoro was just enthusiastic as he was.
All other thoughts and concerns quickly faded from his mind and probably would have stayed that way for a while, if it hadn't been for one factor Sanji had forgotten about.
"Hey, guys…? Do you think the rest of your crew got into trouble with Miser's gang?"
Zoro's eyes met with Sanji's, and the cook knew in that moment they were both thinking the same thing.
The door swung open; light flooded the small room. In the doorway stood one of Nami's captors, the older man with icy eyes.
"Get up. It's time to go see the boss."
7/1/2011 Edit: Hullo. I wanted to let you all know that this story hasn't been abandoned. It is, however, on a break while my attention is busy being distracted by other projects. I'm very, very sorry for this. I promise I am still interested in this story, and it is actually not anywhere near the end yet. The fun's just starting! Er…and will be starting back up eventually.
Thank you everyone for your patience and support! Believe me when I say it makes a big difference.