Hello everyone, and welcome to What The Fuck Is Your Excuse This Time? My excuse? Christmas. That is all.
This is probably the last chapter I'll get out before… February, realistically, but if I can stop dawdling, this story won't last too much longer.
… Which I may have said multiple times, but it's really true this time, I can feel it.
Twenty minutes earlier...
Luffy was fidgeting to get away from him, but Sanji held fast. The Marines had docked on the other side of the large rock they were hiding behind. Sanji could see the tops of the masts over the rock and somehow he could no longer blink.
He could hear the hum of a chattering group of soldiers, but no words jumped out at him. The Captain continued to struggle against his hold and Sanji shushed him quietly. Even though he'd covered the ship in vines and branches to hide the hell out of it, the Marines weren't making enough noise of their own to miss it if Luffy started screaming again.
"Calm down," Sanji ordered in a whisper. "They'll leave soon enough, and then we can go find the others and get the hell off this island."
Luffy didn't seem to be listening. He stopped fidgeting just long enough to straighten his hat, and then he started slapping at Sanji's arms like he was swatting mosquitoes. All the while, he was trying to talk through Sanji's hand.
The cook lowered himself and Luffy to the deck, just low enough that they wouldn't be seen over the railing. He knew it wouldn't help if the Marines were to climb up the large rock, but if they only scouted on land there wasn't a chance they'd see the pirates.
Everything but Luffy and the waves fell silent and still, it seemed. That, Sanji felt, was an immeasurably good thing. Or a horrible thing. But, his nerves were soothed and his pulse was calmed. Peace was welcome. Expressions like "the calm before the storm" didn't register in his mind; he just knew it was nice to relax for a minute, even if Luffy didn't seem to know what relaxing was.
And then Luffy flung out his arms and legs and Sanji couldn't hold on and the Captain slipped out of his grip and vaulted over the edge of the ship, stumbled in the water and ran across the sand. Sanji started to call out after him, but in light of how close the Marines were, he decided to just chase Luffy down and hoped to catch him before they were spotted.
o End flashback o
After chasing him around the bluffs and into town, Sanji was keeping a tight hold on Luffy's wrist. The captain was trying to pull him along, very uncomfortably, Sanji thought, but he was being muck more cooperative overall. Well, except for the part where he didn't want to go back to the ship, but aside from that they were having a dandy afternoon.
"Let's go look in there," Luffy said suddenly and swerved sharply toward a storefront, yanking Sanji along behind him. The cook had very little choice and even less time to react as he was dragged into a little mint-green shop.
The shop seemed to specialize in odd doo-dads that doubled as pens. There were other things, non-pen things, like plastic bouquets and generic pictures specifically purposed for ship cabins, but mostly it sold weird-looking pens. Pens disguised as chopsticks and "pen-pen mushi" and bird-shaped pens. It was strange. But to Luffy, who was predilected towards weird, it was just a fun little shop.
"Hey, Sanji, look at this!" Luffy held up a pig pen and laughed. He then presented the pen to Sanji. "Here! Make me some meat! Shishishishi!"
Sanji shook his head and put the pen back on the shelf, trying to keep his smile fond if only for the benefit of the lady at the counter in the middle of the store. "If you want some meat, we have to go back to the ship," Sanji mentioned, trying for subtly persuasive. The woman behind the counter glanced at them and Sanji smiled at her. "It is about lunchtime," he said to Luffy.
"Nah," the captain rejected, "I'd rather have an adventure."
The lady at the counter, who had short red hair like a certain navigator, was doing a poor job of making it look like she was doing paperwork. She held a very lifelike bonsai tree pen, hovering over the page, but she was staring right at Sanji and Luffy. A little watching was expected, as they were the only patrons in the shop, but she was downright leering at them. Attractive though she may be, her stare gave Sanji a bad feeling.
"Whoa!" Luffy snatched up a cartographer's compass shaped like a generic jolly roger. "Sanji, look how cool this is! Can I get this one?!" Luffy shouted, inserting himself forcefully into Sanji's personal space.
The cook stepped back once. "Why would you need a compass?" Sanji asked. "All you do is eat and dive headlong into trouble, no compass required."
Luffy turned his head to look at Sanji, his bottom lip jutting out. "Pleeeaase~?!" he whined, holding the compass up next to his face as if that made any difference to Sanji. No matter what face he made, Luffy still didn't need a compass, even if it looked like a jolly roger.
"Put it back, Luffy. There are better things to spend your allowance on," Sanji assured him, resigning himself to perusing the shelves as long as Luffy wanted to remain in the shop. He thought that would be that and Luffy would be on about food, but the straw-hats' captain gave a great and bizarre whine. Sanji turned back to Luffy with a reprimand on his tongue. However, he couldn't get the words out before he was tackle-hugged.
"Pleasepleaseplease~ let me get it, Sanji, please! I promise I'll use it and I won't ask for anything else ever again, I swear!" Luffy wailed, hugging Sanji's waist tightly and at the same time poking Sanji in the back with one end of the compass.
The lady at the counter wasn't even pretending anymore. She was staring at them point-blank, and Luffy wasn't paying a lick of attention, but Sanji was and her odd sneery look was unnerving. With another glance at the shop attendant, Sanji began prying Luffy off of himself. "Okay, okay, okay, you can have it," Sanji said quickly, "but you use your money and you don't ask for anything else, got it? And the second you put it down, I'm giving it to Nami-swan as a present!"
Luffy stepped away from Sanji and cheered, apparently ignoring the fact that Sanji would give his compass away, among all the other things—straightforward or not—that should not have been ignored. Sanji supposed he should have been happy that Luffy had agreed to his terms, but he'd really hoped to avoid the lady behind the register, above all things at the moment. Aside from her leering, Sanji couldn't think why he would be so rude as to avoid her.
With another shout of delight, Luffy blew past all the other shelves, apparently having lost all interest in shopping around, and bounced up to the counter. He seemed to miss the fact that the lady was looking at him like he'd just stolen his chosen item from a child before her very eyes. "I'm gonna buy this now!" he told the woman and she scowled further. While, under normal circumstances, Sanji would think something to the effect of it being a shame to mar such a beautiful face with a sour expression, he did not feel such a thought applied to their circumstances.
"Are you sure you don't need to look around a little more?" the redheaded clerk woman asked tightly. "We have an excellent array of fine knick-knacks and souvenirs, as well as unique souvenirs." Her tone was robotic and a little snarky, if Sanji's ears weren't mistaken.
Luffy nodded and began regaling the tale of his love affairs with jolly rogers very enthusiastically to the woman behind the register. Sanji came up beside him, waffling between kicking Luffy to make him shut up and just leaving, when he noticed the woman's impressive bosom. He grinned at her, appreciatively, he thought, but that only proved to upset her further.
"Now stop you yakking!" the exceptionally lovely clerk woman snapped. "If you're sure, just hand it over so I can check the price!"
Sanji was taken aback. Her rudeness was extraordinary, but that wasn't what bothered him. Something about her was suspicious, and not just a little bit. Whatever it was, it was sufficiently jarring, which was a lot, he realized, coming from a pirate and chef of the sea. Something was really wrong.
"Luffy…" Sanji began trying to warn his friend, but Luffy had already snatched a handful of his allowance out of his pocket and tossed it on the counter, ready to be on his way.
As much as Sanji agreed with that sentiment, he stopped himself from making a break for it. Nami would kill him if she found out that he'd let Luffy grossly over-spend on a compass he didn't even need. And she always found out.
With a sigh, Sanji grabbed onto Luffy's shirt tail to keep him from leaving. The cook walked up to the counter with Luffy obliviously attempting to walk in the other direction behind him and he cleared his throat. "I apologize, madam, for my obnoxious friend," Sanji cooed at her, leaning his elbow on the counter and smiling his most debonair smile at the woman. "We aren't that close, but I'm pretty sure this man has brain damage." The woman gave him a "no shit" look. "My charming blossom of a woman, if you would be so kind, I believe my stupid friend's purchase was marked at thirty beli, and though it is natural for a man to want to give you anything and everything, my friend and I have other errands we must run today," Sanji said, finishing with a look that he usually found brought him empathy.
The clerk woman didn't seem to care. He supposed he couldn't blame her for whatever bad mood she was in, but instead he wondered if he were slipping. His suspicion may have taken its toll on his demeanor. Maybe he didn't sound as cheerful or adoring as he thought he did, he realized, as the woman continued to stare boredly at him, but then she made a disgusted sound and turned away.
"Whatever," the redheaded lady said witheringly. She picked up the cash that Luffy had carelessly thrown on the counter and thumbed through it slowly. After counting through twice, both times slower than a snail, she pulled about one thousand beli from the stack of bills and shoved the rest across the counter to Sanji. "That should cover it," she said snobbishly.
"Sanji, this store goes on forever!" Luffy shouted, sounding a little drunk and a lot alarmed. Sanji rolled his eyes. He was holding on to Luffy's shirt still and Luffy had, apparently, forgotten that he could stretch, so he was just sliding back to where he started on the hardwood floor. However, while Sanji was not at all bothered by the length of the store, he was uneasy for a much harder reason to pinpoint. He couldn't quite lay a finger on the reason yet, but it made his skin itch in anticipation of something bad.
The cook turned around and patted Luffy on the back, perhaps pushing him a little. Over his shoulder he called, "Have a nice day!" for some illogical reason, and then he urged Luffy back out onto the sidewalk.
"W-wait a second!" The redheaded clerk stumbled out from behind the counter a bit, gaping at the pirates. "You- Don't you want your change?"
That was the last clue he needed. Marines and official-looking locals Sanji thought he'd seen on the road earlier were coming towards them from both sides and, now that he'd noticed them, they were moving fast.
"Luffy," Sanji called, holding on to Luffy's arm. "Run."
"Can you smell them yet?" Usopp called from the crow's nest, the only uncovered spot on the ship. Chopper was halfway up one of the bluffs in pursuit of a scent, but everyone could see it clearly when he shook his head.
"Nothing's missing in here," Nami called from her room/the treasury.
Robin nodded, surveying the foredeck and the storage room at the same time from down on the beach. "Indeed. There is not a crate or rope out of place."
Zoro paced heavily across the deck, hurrying down to the anchor deck. The cannons didn't look like they'd been fired recently, and there weren't any traces of battle above deck either. To the best of his reasoning, they had just picked up and left, but that didn't make any sense. Both of them were sick and injured and, unless someone had cleaned the ship after a fight, there didn't appear to have been any danger. So why had they gone? And where?
"Does anyone see a note anywhere?" Nami shouted, sounding to be directly above Zoro. "Sanji-kun wouldn't just leave the ship unattended without saying anything."
From a muffled distance, Usopp gave an alarmed yelp. "G-g-guys! I don't know about a note but-" If he said more, Zoro didn't hear it. The swordsman stalked out of the anchor deck using some effort not to run, trying to make it onto the main deck before he completely missed what was going on.
"You're kidding!" Chopper squeaked across from where he'd nearly reached the top of the giant rock he was climbing.
"No," Usopp wheezed, "no, I'm not."
As Zoro was about to ask what was going on, Robin made a thoughtful sound and he looked to her. "That explains it," she said, putting a hand to her lips thoughtfully. "Captain-san and Cook-san must have hidden the ship and left to avoid drawing the Marines' attention to our hiding place."
The invisible knife in Zoro's chest turned. Great. While he was off in a huff, annoyed for some reason that he couldn't remember anymore, leaving Sanji to manage their ill captain by himself, the Marines had almost discovered them. A powerful guilt was wriggling its way through Zoro's entire body. "Where are they?" he croaked.
Nami turned her whole body towards him sharply. Her eyes were alight with worry and rage and she looked like she was about to explode. "On the other side of that cliff right there, you goddamned idiot!" she spat, flinging out her whole arm just to gesture to the bluffs on the portside. "Didn't you pay any attention before you went on your little walk? The ship could've been blown to pieces with Sanji-kun and Luffy on it and you were, what? Picking wildflowers?!"
"Obviously, it wasn't that stupid! The shitty cook was giving me hell about making Luffy worse or some shit like that, so I left!" Zoro shouted back at her. Those words didn't help expel any of his guilt. Rather, it made him flinch, hearing how selfish he sounded. What had been going through his mind at the time that he had been so idiotic, he couldn't think.
The navigator started to say something again, but very suddenly she snapped her mouth shut. A look he didn't often see on Nami crossed her face—a relinquishing look. "Whatever. I don't need to make you feel bad about it, I can tell," she said, turning away from him. "Besides, if I were to give you what you deserve, the Marines would hear me shouting." With that, Nami clomped off into the galley.
Zoro felt someone watching him and he frowned. He looked around until he met eyes with Usopp, who then yelped and ducked down inside the crow's nest. The swordsman was aware of Robin and Chopper listening in, and all the attention made him uncomfortable. They were blaming him; he was sure of it. And he—in that instance—was a part of "they." The weight of it was crushing him, but Zoro couldn't bring himself to believe he didn't deserve it.
"I'm gonna go find them," Zoro said suddenly, though he hadn't been fully aware of the thought in his head. Now that it was permeating in the air, though, he realized he actually was going to do it and he felt very strongly about that decision. Zoro nodded to himself, confirming his intent, and then he jumped off the ship onto the beach a few feet to Robin's left.
"I shall accompany you, Swordsman-san," Robin volunteered, stepping forward.
"No," Zoro refused flatly.
Robin smiled at him. "I was not requesting your permission."
There was a thud on the ship and Usopp appeared at the top of the rope ladder, straightening his bag on his shoulder. "I'll go too!" he called, starting down the ladder quickly.
"No," Zoro growled, more emphatically than before. "This is my responsibility. You don't have to-"
"I know, I know," Usopp interrupted, hopping down the last foot and a half to land. "But they're my friends, too! The Great Captain Usopp will not allow his friends to be hurt in any way!"
Zoro was about to commend Usopp's sudden bravery, albeit with some skepticism, but Robin beat him to speaking. "Sniper-san, are you only volunteering to help search for our nakama because the Marines are very near here?"
The long nose jumped. "N-n-no, obviously I'm just c-concerned for my friends! Yeah! Don't question me! How dare you?" Usopp hurriedly stuttered, puffing out his chest. "Now, c'mon crew! We're wasting daylight!"
Zoro rolled his eyes. It wasn't the most valiant cause ever, nor was it admirable, but he supposed that Usopp would help cover more ground. He glanced at Robin wondering about her questionably valiant motive, but then he turned his attention elsewhere. He wasn't likely to get an answer from her.
"Chopper!" Zoro called to the doctor who had one hoof on the top of the cliff, about to pull himself up. The reindeer turned his head. "When you get down from there, stay with the ship. Make sure everything's ready for us when we bring the other two back." Even at that distance, Zoro could see Chopper nod, and then all his business there was done. He had a captain and a shitty cook to find.
"I'm tiiiiirred~!" Luffy whined, nonetheless allowing himself to be dragged along behind Sanji. He'd almost dropped his compass when Sanji had suddenly yanked him forward a few minutes ago, shouting something about trouble and "ma" something after making Luffy run. The captain figured it was revenge for when he'd pulled Sanji around earlier, though he couldn't think why that deserved revenging.
"Shh!" Sanji hissed, pulling him down a narrow street with no people. "They're still after us, Luffy, can't you hear them? Be quiet so we can get away!"
The raven-haired boy was agreeing, or trying to, when he became lightheaded. Somehow, his running straight wasn't the same as the person who was pulling him and the world was moving too fast for him to keep up. He was tripping over his sandals and walking upside-down and hearing weird sounds and then he was very forcefully lying down.
"-ffy! Are y-… ay?" A fuzzy voice disturbed the small amount of peace he'd gotten between finding the ground and finding out it hurt.
"Owww…" He groaned, trying to push sit up. His head was hurting and he couldn't find his arms, but he had a feeling there was something else that he was supposed to be remembering. "Where are my arms…?"
Someone grabbed Luffy under the arms he still couldn't locate and pulled him up. "Oh, God…"
"What happened?" Luffy asked, trying to see through his swimming vision and figure out where he was.
"On my end of things, you fell, but," the voice was telling him, as he was rearranged by a pair of hands behind him, "I'm not sure what happened on your end…"
Luffy found himself upright and being turned around and nothing seemed familiar. He had come face-to-face with a blond man who had just one eye and a curly eyebrow that sparked an itch in Luffy's brain, like he knew the man from somewhere, but he didn't know from where right off the top of his head. Maybe if he just thought about it long enough…
"What's wrong?" the blond man with the funny eyebrow asked him, still gripping his arms. "Are you alright?"
The man looked genuinely concerned for him, which was very nice, he supposed, but there was something bothering him. "Who… are you?" he asked, pointing at the blond man just in case he got confused. He was almost sure he recognized the man, but he'd never been very good with faces and certainly not with names.
The blond man gaped and, in the same moment, released Luffy's arms. "Wh- You… You don't…? Luffy, are you… scared of me or anything?"
He raised his eyebrows. To humor the man, he thought about it, but he knew right away that he wasn't scared of the man. In fact, for a stranger, he rather liked the man with the funny eyebrow. "Nope," he replied merrily, popping the "p," because that made it fun.
The blond man sighed. "Thank God. That'll make this a lot easier," the man said. He put a hand on Luffy's shoulder. "Let's make this quick. I'm Sanji, you're my captain and we're running from the Marines. We have to get going before they catch up, okay Luffy?"
"Captain?" Luffy questioned, perking up. He was a captain. Unless that Sanji was lying to him, but he hardly knew the man so he couldn't think of any reason why Sanji would lie to him. That logic, Luffy thought, was very sound. "Alright. I'll come with you. Do we have a ship?"
Sanji smiled. "We sure do. This way to the port."
"Zoro, you're going to get lost if you keep wandering off!" Usopp called after the swordsman, who had strayed from the three-person group for the umpteenth time.
Robin shook her head as the two men began to argue about which way was the right way. Obviously they had passed over her offer to look around the island with any number of her spare eyes, but she was still doing it. They could argue all they wanted between the "gut-feeling" path and the "superior instinct" path, but Robin was doing things the right way and when she found out where the cook and the captain were she would point the bickering nimrods in the right direction.
Tuning them out, the archaeologist closed her eyes and focused on a building somewhere towards the middle of the island. Behind her eyelids the image came up, the view of the street from the front of the building. The locals looked uncomfortable and they all kept glancing to the left of the building Robin was currently a part of, so she used an arm to extend her eye away from the wall of the building and see what they were looking at. There was nothing out of the ordinary that she could see, but if she was not mistaken that path lead back towards the edge of the island. Excellent.
"Pardon me, Sniper-san, Swordsman-san," Robin interjected into their conversation before Zoro could finish telling Usopp to shut up. "I believe we should go this way." She pointed without ever having to open her eyes or move her arms from their x shape in front of her chest. If she was correct in her assumption, which she often was, the arms she was sprouting from the ground would make a trail to where they would hopefully meet up with whatever had the townspeople so uneasy.
With a small but audible hesitation, the other two predictably altered their course to Robin's. She allowed herself a small moment of satisfaction at the victory and the relative silence that followed, but then she had to focus once more on locating their crew members.
Robin summoned a new arm with an eye every twenty feet in town, paying attention to where people were looking and who was most uncomfortable. It wasn't unexpected when, after stumbling upon a commotion, Robin found the Marines. They were ten or twelve of them at a glance and not one of them was happy. A man who dressed a little more sharply than the rest of the citizens was arguing with one of the Marines by the look of it, but Robin moved on quickly. She wasn't looking for the Marines.
Another distance down the street and around a corner, she spotted some more Marines looking around. She didn't care to bring forth an ear, so Robin just watched them angrily pace around and attempted to read their lips.
"What're you doing back there?" Zoro asked suddenly and loudly, interrupting her concentration.
"Quiet," Robin ordered and fell back into tracking the upset Marines. She moved her eye closer to the cluster of three Marines and watched closely. "Damn pirates," one appeared to be saying. Robin altered her course accordingly. How convenient.
"Why are we changing? I thought you knew where we were heading!" Usopp questioned her, causing her to lose sight in the town for a moment.
Peeved, Nico Robin opened one eye to leer at Usopp. "I have almost found our missing nakama. If you wish to keep interrupting me, we could just stand back and allow the Marines to find them before we do."
The sniper gulped, and then turned to face forward. "N-no thanks, you- you, uh, do your thing," he stuttered, looking wide-eyed at Zoro as if pleading for rescue. To Robin's great pleasure, Zoro did not even look at him.
With renewed silence, Robin went back to where she had been on the side of a vendor's cart. From that vantage point, she spotted a thin little backstreet that looked like a perfect escape route. If the Marines had been chasing Luffy and Sanji, which she believed was very likely, then they may have escaped down that or some similar road.
Further down the small service alley, Robin could see a shopkeeper picking up trash from a fallen bin. The shopkeeper looked aggrieved and kept glaring over his shoulder, and then leering at the end of the alley the Marines were on. Interesting, she thought. It looks like there was a disturbance that way. Perhaps even caused by the Marines. Promising…
Robin sent her spyglasses like a wave down the wall of the alley and one to either side of it. After a minute or two of walking physically by the edge of the island and mentally in four different areas around the middle of the island, she found another shopkeeper, disheveled and eyeing a particular path with disdain. She followed that path with similar results for a while longer and, before her physical body even got as far as the edge of town, she saw them.
They were apparently having a conversation, which seemed very casual, considering how close the Marines were to finding them, but they looked for the most part unharmed. Sanji seemed perhaps a little anxious, but that could be explained by their situation that was common knowledge amongst the crew; it didn't have to have anything to do with what had happened since the cook and the captain left the safety of the ship.
"I've found them," Robin said, keeping one eye closed. "Take this next right."
With minimal complaint or questioning, the boys followed her directions through the town, avoiding the Marines and angry townspeople that she'd seen while searching the island to meet their nakama in a quiet section of the island overrun by vines.
"Robin-chwaaan~!" the cook cooed upon spotting her. He began to noodle towards her but stopped before he got too far from Luffy's side. "Oh. Sorry," Sanji said to Luffy, who was calmly advancing to stand near Sanji again, looking unlike himself in every way but appearance. Even from the back of their little troupe, Robin could see the surprise on the others' faces. She could not say she disagreed with that sentiment. "Luffy, this is Robin-chan, Usopp and Zoro. They're in your crew as well."
Luffy raised his eyebrows in a much milder display of surprise than Usopp and Zoro were expressing, perhaps even milder than the surprise Robin felt. "Oh, really?" Luffy asked, grinning at Sanji. "Cool! They all look so fun!" He turned to the other three. "Hey, are we good friends? Am I the best captain?"
"What…?" Usopp's shoulders dropped.
"Not this again," Zoro groaned.
Sanji just shrugged. He didn't seem too bothered by Luffy's recurring memory-loss, and yet he did not leave Luffy's side, not even to do his usual fawning. Robin found that very curious. Telling, perhaps, of their close bond, but Robin could see a glimmer of something else beneath the surface of it all that, although obscure, seemed much more telling.
"Is everything alright, Cook-san?" Robin asked, arching one brow at him. A tiny bubble of amusement formed in her chest, but she swallowed it down, waiting for Sanji's answer before she got excited about secrets. "Apart from Captain-san's condition, of course."
"Whoa!" Luffy leapt forward at Robin. "She talks like an old lady! That's so funny!"
The boys sputtered into shocked laughter, except Luffy, who full-on guffawed.
"How could you say that?!" Sanji barked, looking enraged but laughing in spurts of lingering surprise.
"You can't pretend that's not the truth," Zoro warned Sanji, still grinning at their captain's exclamation.
In the span of some five seconds, Robin noticed many things, the first of which was a distinct snub from Sanji aimed at Zoro that she felt Nami would want to know about. The next things, in no exact order were that they all seemed to think she talked like an old lady; the empty street had become somewhat populated by on-lookers who were all focused on the pirates; and the group of Marines from before had rounded the corner, guns drawn.
Dun-dun-DUUUUUUNNNNN! Sorry if the last few paragraphs were a little weird, but we're picking up steam, people! This story probably won't take until next Christmas! xDD