C'mon. The theme was Mad Scientist and my character is Zoro, and we all know how horrible a person I am.I had to do it! (And fulfill one final time-honored Oda tradition in the process, too...)

Title: Espionage
Theme: #6: Mad Scientist
Claim: Zoro
(Words:) 13,572
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: Swearing, some blood or disturbing imagery (or references to it), mildly AU. This fic also won't make any sense at all unless you've read Mindshattered and The Panaceam Report, two other fics by me, since this references it and one particular character a lot.
Disclaimer(s): I do not own, or pretend to own, One Piece or any of its subsequent characters, plots or other ideas. That right belongs solely to Eiichiro Oda. I do not own the prompts either—those are assigned by 30_OnePiece.

It was a relatively simple day on the Grand Line. The crew had arrived at a large island with a heavy marine presence two days ago, and discovered they were stuck there for the better part of a week while the Log Pose set itself. They'd decided to play it smart and lay low in the only pirate-safe port on the island, although some Straw Hats understood 'laying it low' better than others; Luffy needed a babysitter every time he set foot on the island or he'd inevitably draw attention to them.

Not that Sanji had much to worry about, at the moment. With such a heavy marine presence, the crew had decided to keep two of their number aboard the ship at all times to guard it, and Sanji had pulled one of the short straws today. His guarding partner for the day was, most unfortunately, the marimo, but Zoro was behaving himself for the moment and sleeping out on deck. With no bickering and (thankfully) no marine attacks, Sanji had finally decided to start early on a more elaborate dinner for that night—Nami-san and Robin-chan would be so delighted!

He was barely a half hour into the preparations, however, when he heard an unexpected snarl of rage from outside on the deck that sounded suspiciously like the marimo, and seconds later the ring of steel as swords were drawn. It would be just his damned luck that the marines attacked right in the middle of his cooking, Sanji thought with irritation. After setting everything aside carefully he went out to give the marimo a hand.

Only his eyes weren't met with scores of marines leaping over the decks of the Thousand Sunny to try and capture the ship or make an arrest. Instead, Zoro was standing at the base of the mast, all three swords out, an expression of sheer hatred on his face as he glared upwards. And when Sanji followed his gaze, he found his own expression quickly melding into something almost identical. Because perched far above them on the mast, staring down at them cooly, was a man in a dark longcoat and wearing a bowler hat, with a face that Sanji would never in all his days forget.

The Alchemist was on board the Thousand Sunny again.

"What the hell are you doing back?" Sanji yelled angrily, and tapped his leg warningly on the deck. If the bastard thought he could win a fight so easily this time around he had another thing coming! Sanji had been the one to beat him last time, and he was a hell of a lot stronger now than he'd been almost two years ago.

"Good afternoon, Black Leg Sanji," the Alchemist greeted calmly, in his usual unemotional monotone. "I should think my presence is obvious—I am merely here to talk."

"Bullshit," Zoro snarled, and although the Alchemist was out of range for most of their attacks, three pound cannon slashes could reach. The compressed air slices rocketed upwards with stunning accuracy, barely missing the mast and the lines as they arrowed for the Alchemist.

Panaceam was, unfortunately, equal to that. As the attacks closed in he leapt, far higher than a normal human should have been able to, and landed easily on the roof of the crow's nest. He was probably, Sanji realized, currently under the effects of some potion or other that let him jump to ridiculous heights, or one that strengthened his legs. Damned cheater. Sanji wanted to beat his head in again—he should have killed the bastard all those months ago!—but he'd never be able to close in time to launch an attack before the man evaded.

"Certainly it is not," the Alchemist said cooly. "It would be completely and utterly pointless for me to lie about such a thing. And not to divert the subject, but that was a very impressive move, Roronoa. It is very rare for swordsmen to be able to attack outside their blade range, is it not?"

Sanji was actually inclined to think the Alchemist was being genuinely impressed, and not provoking Zoro, but the end result was still the same. Zoro snarled furiously again and slashed out with another full caliber of pound cannon, heedless of the target's location. The Alchemist leapt nimbly aside, back to his original position on the mast, and the compressed air slices shattered several of the boards that made up the nest's roof. Franky would not be pleased.

"You can't expect us to believe a piece of shit story like that," Sanji snarled up at him, for lack of anything else to do. The bastard was staying out of his range, probably on purpose. Although Sanji thought it was a bit odd, that the man hadn't actually attacked them yet. After all, last time he'd attacked them with five able-bodied members of the crew on deck; he'd probably consider just two very favorable odds for him.

Zoro sent another blast of sliced air at the Alchemist, snarling wordlessly as he tried to hit the man, or at least knock him down to their level. Panaceam skittered easily to the left to avoid the attacks, and responded cooly, "No, I do not particularly think you will. I informed my employers that this would be a waste of time, but they insisted that I visit you first, and I cannot very well say 'no.'"

"Employers?" Zoro spat, entering the conversation for the first time. He looked livid. Sanji had never seen him so mindlessly angry before. But then it was infinitely preferable to the last time Sanji had seen him react to the Alchemist; that had been mostly fear and hopelessness, two things that most certainly did not belong on Roronoa Zoro's face. "Did the goddamn marines send you to collect a few heads, or are you just back for revenge?"

He sent another pound cannon in the Alchemist's direction, and the man scuttled left again across the mast easily. "Have a care, Roronoa Zoro," the man warned cooly. "Your aim seems to be getting progressively worse the angrier you get. It would be a great shame if you damaged your own ship. It is also perhaps a weakness you should be aware of for the future."

This was entirely the wrong thing to say, and Zoro looked furious as he charged the mast, probably about to do something extremely stupid. Sanji grabbed him by the collar and hauled him back, hissing under his breath to the swordsman, "Calm the fuck down, shitty marimo! Don't let him bait you." Zoro looked furious, and Sanji could hear his teeth grinding on the hilt of his white sword from here, but he stepped back after a moment and breathed deeply, visibly calming himself. The swords did not lower, however, and Sanji didn't blame him in the least. There was no reason to be hasty, but there was no reason to drop their guards, either.

"Very good," the Alchemist said calmly from above. "That was quite impressive, Bla—"

"Shut the fuck up," Sanji shot back at him, cutting him off. "I am not on your side and never will be. You've got one minute to start explaining, or I'm going to get mad, and I think we both remember how that turned out for you last time." He gave the Alchemist a flat glare that said very clearly he was not kidding around on this, and after a moment the other man nodded.

"Of course. I prefer to get directly to the point, anyway. I am no longer employed by the marines, so no, I am not here to collect your bounties. I am reasonably sure my hunting license has probably been revoked by now, anyway." He gave Zoro a cool look, and then turned back to Sanji. "If you recall, I was...transferred...to some acquaintances of Nico Robin's. After learning about some of my techniques, they decided I would be extremely useful as an operative on the field, and I have been in their employ ever since."

"In other words," Zoro said coldly, "You cracked and sold out to them in order to save your worthless life."

The Alchemist's lips twitched just slightly in what might have been an amused quirk, if he hadn't been so otherwise emotionless. "I am not, nor have I ever been, as idealistic as you, Roronoa Zoro," he stated calmly. "Personally I find my life the only worthwhile possession I own. Naturally I will go to great lengths to keep it. This was not a particularly great length."

Zoro looked disgusted. Sanji couldn't blame him. Zoro had held out for more than a month at the Alchemist's own hands, enduring torture rather than betraying his crew. He'd been broken eventually, but against his will, and he'd never so much as considered taking the Alchemist up even once on his deals to have his own life spared. It spoke volumes about Zoro's belief in loyalty, and to see something so important to him so easily disregarded by another—especially the very man who had tortured him—had to be terribly offensive to him.

But Sanji wasn't especially surprised by the revelation, either. From what he'd learned of Panaceam, the man was obnoxiously practical, and out for only one thing: himself. To a man who did things by rote, not by belief, it had to be far too easy to swap sides like that. "Fine," he said curtly. "You're not with the marines. We still don't want you around, so get the fuck off our ship."

"That is very unfortunate to hear," the Alchemist said cooly, "Seeing as my current mission largely involves your captain, and my employers sent me here first to invite your crew to join it. I will inform them of your refusal in my report. Good day."

Sanji and Zoro both froze as the Alchemist turned on the mast, walking calmly down its length towards the harbor. A mission that involved Luffy? It couldn't be assassination, at least; if the Alchemist was really working for the Revolutionaries, and Sanji at least had no reason to doubt that, then there was no way Dragon would order a hit on his own son. Sanji couldn't fathom what on earth could tie the Revolutionary Army, the Alchemist, and Luffy together, but he had a sudden feeling that they had to find out—and that meant the man above couldn't be allowed to leave.

"Wait," he said sharply. The Alchemist froze on the mast, and glanced down at them with his head cocked to one side, waiting patiently. Smug bastard. He knew dropping bait like that would work. "Explain," Sanji ordered shortly.

"Of course," the Alchemist answered immediately, as if the conversation hadn't been interrupted at all. "Though it might perhaps be easier if I could speak to you at eye level."

The Alchemist stared down at Zoro as he spoke. The swordsman's grips on his katana hilts were so strong his knuckles were white, and his teeth were displayed in a snarling grimace around the white sword. He looked ready to attack the moment the man was in range, regardless of the consequences. He might have gotten over most of the problems the Alchemist had caused him months ago, but he clearly still didn't think reasonably when it came to the man, and it was evident in the violent fury he all but exuded.

But after a moment he took a deep breath again, and although his eyes never left the Alchemist's face he growled slowly, "You don't try any funny business, and I won't slice you into pieces. And if your hands go into your coat even once you're a dead man."

"A reasonable enough demand," the Alchemist said cooly. "In that case, I am coming down." And he promptly did, dropping the distance from the mast to the grassy deck with relative ease. He stood fluidly, checked his watch once, and murmured, "Just in time," before striding forward to meet them. He stopped at exactly ten feet, and looked unperturbed by the fact that both Sanji and Zoro were at the ready, prepared for combat at less than a moment's notice.

"To business, then," the Alchemist said calmly. "My employers have quite a vast intelligence network throughout the world. Recently they discovered an unusual object in development at one of the marines' research facilities. The files and information surrounding the object are heavily encrypted. However, my employers have decoded enough to know it is meant as a weapon designed specifically to be used against Straw Hat Luffy."

Zoro's eyes narrowed, and Sanji frowned. "A weapon against Luffy?" he repeated. "That's ridiculous. Most weapons don't even hurt him."

"A fact I am well aware of," the Alchemist stated calmly, with the barest flickering glance towards Zoro. The swordsman's eyes narrowed and he started to take a step forward, but Sanji intervened hastily, deliberately standing in front of him to keep him from doing something completely idiotic (if entirely justified). "However," the Alchemist continued, as though nothing had happened, "It is only true that most conventional weapons do not work against Straw Hat Luffy. Under normal circumstances it is safer to snipe a Devil Fruit user from afar. But Straw Hat is invulnerable to blunt-force attacks, making guns useless, and things tend to become hazardous to one's health when he is engaged at close range. Were I to offer a guess as to their plan, I would suggest they are trying to find some way to engage and kill him at range, without risking his powers."

Shit. If that were true, it would also work against the haki Luffy had started to develop when he was on Amazon Lily too—if the attack came from far enough away, Luffy probably wouldn't sense it coming. Zoro apparently saw the dilemma too—though he was still glowering at the Alchemist, he was also frowning at the thought of a threat against his captain.

"I can see you understand the situation," the Alchemist said calmly. "So do my employers. As you no doubt know, they have a...vested interest...in Straw Hat Luffy's survival, for various reasons. I've been ordered to infiltrate the research facility and destroy both the object and the research itself, to prevent such a thing from being built."

"And the facility is on this island," Sanji realized. Suddenly the heavy military presence on the island made sense—they were protecting major anti-pirate interests.

"Precisely," the Alchemist said with an approving nod. "When my employers learned your crew was also on the island, they instructed me to invite your members on the mission, since, naturally, you have your own interests in seeing it destroyed. I informed them that you would likely not be willing to work with me, but in the interest of time and a lack of other suitable operatives, not much could be done about that." He shrugged. "The offer still stands, should you choose to accept, but it has a very small window of opportunity. I must leave within the hour to take advantage of the codes we've uncovered before they are switched."

"And what's to stop us from taking care of you, and busting up the facility ourselves?" Sanji shot back. "It's not like we've ever needed help wreaking havoc before, and we sure as fuck don't need you."

"I assure you," the Alchemist answered cooly, "Should you try to attack the facility outright, you will die. This is an operation that requires a good deal of subtlety in order to achieve success."

"You seem very confident about that," Sanji growled.

The man spread his hands wide. "I will admit my information on your abilities is outdated," he stated cooly, "but I am still familiar with the defenses here, and I can make well estimated guesses on your rate of growth in strength since we last met. This facility is enormously important to the navy, second only to Dr. Vegapunk's own personal facilities, and will be heavily guarded with both manpower and high ranking technology. If you attack, even with your full crew, you will die. However, I possess the knowledge of the facility and the codes necessary to infiltrate with only limited chances of being discovered. If you desire to be a part of the mission, you will have to deal with me as well."

Sanji grit his teeth. He sure as fuck did not want to deal with this abhorrent bastard. Every time he looked at the shitty son of a bitch's face he could hear Zoro's wavering, exhausted voice explaining how he'd been starved and tortured to the point of giving away his nakama's weaknesses, and there was no forgiveness there. There was absolutely no way they could—

"We'll do it," Zoro said flatly, interrupting his thoughts. "Both of us."

Sanji's head whipped around, and he stared in unabashed shock at his crew mate. Of all people, the last person he expected to take the offer was Zoro, the one who had suffered directly at the hands of the Alchemist himself. And for a moment he thought he'd imagined it, because Zoro's expression was still one of cold hatred, and he glared at the Alchemist with nothing but contempt.

But Panaceam did not appear surprised in the least, and merely cocked his head as he regarded Zoro. "Of all of them, I thought you might see the most reason," he said, with remarkable calm. "But then, we know each other quite well, don't we? You've made quite a fine recovery, Roronoa Zoro. I'm impressed, since I was quite thorough with you...were my mother still alive, I expect she would inform me I did a terrible job conditioning you. There isn't even a hint of fear left."

Sanji snarled and took a step forward, and this time it was Zoro to stop him. Zoro's eyes narrowed dangerously at the Alchemist, but when he spoke it was with measured calm, with smoldering hatred only just barely grating at its edges. "We're not going to get anywhere like this," he told Sanji flatly. "This bastard will go one way or another, whether we're with him or not. We can't kill him here—he doesn't want to fight, so he'll run, and we can't stir up trouble on this island. And there is no way in hell I am letting this son of a bitch get his hands on anything that can kill Luffy, even if it's research. So I'm going. You can join if you want, curly-brow."

Sanji swore under his breath. It made sense—Zoro was dead set on safeguarding the crew, had been even more since that incident two months ago when the rest of the Straw Hats finally figured out what the Alchemist had done. Even if it meant working with this contemptible bastard, he'd do it, if only to keep everyone else safe. That was just how Zoro worked.

But there was no way in hell Sanji was letting him do it on his own, especially not with this guy. Zoro might act like he was okay now, and maybe for the most part he was, but with the Alchemist right here Sanji knew he was walking a fine line on the edge of a blade and that the wrong push could put him over the edge. What Zoro needed now was backup, and Sanji was definitely going to provide it—Zoro could look after the crew, and Sanji would make sure he didn't get himself killed. "Like fuck I'm letting you go on your own, shit swordsman," he scowled. "You're stuck with me. Nami-san would be furious if I let you wander around on this island on your own and you didn't come back."

"Asshole," Zoro shot back, but he smirked in Sanji's direction, and the cook knew Zoro understood as well—and might even have been grateful for it.

The Alchemist regarded their exchange with idle interest, and waited patiently for them to finish before speaking. "Very well," he agreed. "Then the two of you will accompany me for the infiltration. In that case, we are allies, so if you would put your blades away? I have no intention of attacking you."

Zoro narrowed his eyes over the white katana's hilt, but after a moment he grudgingly slipped the weapons into their sheaths—although not without glancing at Sanji, first. It was a mark of how much he trusted Sanji that he was letting a potential attack ride on the cook's reaction time—Sanji couldn't be disarmed, after all, and would have to be the one to stop the Alchemist should it all be a trick.

But Panaceam did not leap to attack them. Instead he strode forward to meet them, keeping his hands crossed unthreateningly across his chest for the moment. This close, Sanji could now see that there was an addition to the Alchemist's otherwise identical outfit from almost two years ago: a thick metal collar, dulled black to keep it from reflecting light, fit snuggly to the neck. It looked tight enough to keep it from moving around, while still giving the man enough room to move and breathe. On the right side of the collar was a small, round reinforced glass pod buried halfway into the thick metal, with what looked like a clear liquid tainted just slightly with red sloshing around in it. "What the hell is that?" he muttered, before he could stop himself.

"Insurance," the Alchemist answered him cooly. "My employers thought, and rightly so, that allowing me out on the field as an operative unsupervised might lead to disastrous results. They are not without their own technological advancements, however, and decided to fit me with this to ensure...good behavior."

Zoro was staring at the glass pod, and said abruptly, "That's fireblood serum."

"You are quite observant, Roronoa Zoro," the man answered. "And also correct. The collar is programmed with my missions and parameters. To step outside of them is...unpleasant, shall we say. A simple but effective use of negative punishment." He shrugged. "I believe this will act as added insurance for yourself as well—one of my programmed parameters is that I may not intentionally attack or betray Straw Hat Luffy or his crew."

An almost sadistic, unpleasant-looking grin twisted onto Zoro's face at the revelation, but Sanji couldn't blame him much. He had no pity whatsoever for the Alchemist's ironic karmic retribution, especially since he'd tortured Zoro with the same serum for almost a month to great effect. "Not so fun, is it," Zoro spat, "when you're on the receiving end of that 'potent weapon,' huh?"

The Alchemist seemed unperturbed. "I have always known it was potent," he answered cooly. "I test all of my concoctions upon myself before utilizing them on others, including fireblood when I first created it. It's how I knew it would be so effective as a questioning device." Zoro looked both enraged and disturbed at the uncaring response, and Sanji felt more than a little weirded out himself as he was reminded just how much of a nutcase this guy was.

"Now then," the Alchemist continued, withdrawing four vials from his coat, "I have taken the liberty of preparing a few potions designed around your own abilities as I knew them a year ago. In the event that we fall under attack, these will temporarily boost your skills in order to take on the dangers of the military base. Black Leg Sanji, these two are for you—this one will enhance the fire-based powers of your Diable Jambe for maximum efficiency, and this one boost your defense, since you were particularly vulnerable to some forms of damage in our battle. Roronoa Zoro, these two are—"

Zoro interrupted him as he started to hand out the vials. He calmly snatched all four of the reinforced crystal containers, and hurled them over the edge of the Sunny's deck into the ocean water below.

The Alchemist sighed in what might possibly have been exasperation (it was a bit hard to tell, the man was so emotionless), and said, "I wish you hadn't done that. Chimera blood is amazingly difficult to come by and extremely expensive."

"You'll deal with it, so shut the hell up and stop bitching," Zoro said coldly. "We're not drinking anything you have to offer."

"You are being unreasonable," the Alchemist said. "As I have just finished explaining to you, I am no longer a threat—"

"Shut the fuck up," Zoro snarled, his voice low and deadly, "and lead the goddamn way already. You might not be able to attack me, but I have absolutely no qualms about killing you. And I'm sure you're just as aware of the irony as I am when I point out you don't know a damned thing about Santoryu, so when I say I can kill you, we both know I can do it without you pulling of a single counter. You never bothered to learn anything about me, and you never fought me at my peak, so piss me off and you'll regret it."

The Alchemist snorted lightly. "You are right, of course," he answered calmly. "It would have been foolish to question a starving man about his fighting style that he wouldn't employ ever again. Unhappily I did not expect that you would be using it again."

Zoro growled warningly under his breath, a rumbling, dangerous noise so low it was almost under range of hearing. The Alchemist seemed to pick up on it, however, and checked his watch. "We must move," he said curtly. "If you will follow me, and please do your best to remain unseen, since I doubt either of you will accept stealthing potions?"

He was met with identical glares, and with a shrug calmly headed for the rope ladder on the side of the Sunny to lead the way. Sanji exchanged glances with Zoro quickly, and they both seemed to ask each other simultaneously, You still up for this? Both of them were, it seemed, and so with a deep, reinforcing breath of determination Sanji strode forward after a rigid and stiff-backed Zoro, making a mental note that this was a shitty day of shitty days.

Zoro was not thrilled about the situation, and made no secret of the fact. To be perfectly honest, he'd long expected a reunion with the Alchemist one day, whether he hunted the bastard down himself, or the bastard came after him. But he hadn't expected it to happen so soon—or under such circumstances.

Because Zoro knew instinctively that absolutely nothing the Alchemist had told them was a lie. He'd been around the bastard enough to know that Panaceam was an almost compulsive truth teller; he saw no need to hide facts or smooth them over with subtlety, preferring to be coldly blunt and to the point. Based on Zoro's own experiences, it served him enormously well with his questioning techniques, but it seemed to extend to everything else about him also. And that meant this threat to Luffy was real, and so was the danger at this facility the Alchemist was taking them to.

And there was something else, too, that grated on Zoro's mind. Panaceam had stated that he could not willingly cause violence towards or betray the Straw Hats, but he'd said nothing about protecting them. Not that Zoro wanted the bastard's protection, but on a deeper level it meant that Panaceam could easily step aside and watch them be slaughtered by whatever was located in the facility without triggering his own fireblood serum dose. Zoro didn't like the implications of that, and he didn't trust the Alchemist at all, no matter how helpful the bastard was trying to appear now.

And even worse, Sanji was here too, which didn't sit well with Zoro either. Curly-brow could take care of himself in most situations easily, Zoro would admit. And if he had to deal with the Alchemist with a crew mate he'd have picked Sanji anyway, just because the cook was the next closest to understanding everything that had gone down with the bastard. But the Alchemist was clever, and dangerous, and Sanji still couldn't know the guy one hundred percent, not like Zoro could. The swordsman appreciated what Sanji was trying to do here to back him up, but he didn't like putting the cook in danger like this, either. Especially when it came to the Alchemist; even if Zoro had finally been ordered to forgive himself two months ago, he'd still caused enough damage between this guy and the crew to last him a lifetime.

He'd just have to keep an eye out for the cook then. As far as Zoro was concerned, when it came to the Alchemist, the bastard was his responsibility, and looking after the crew fell directly on his shoulders. Panaceam wouldn't get another chance at his crew, no matter what. Zoro would be dead certain of that.

The two of them were following the Alchemist through the crowded industrial streets in the civilian section of the island right now. With the alleyways so choked up with people, it would be almost impossible to spot or identify them. Zoro waited for the Alchemist to get a little more of a lead ahead of them, and then fell back next to Sanji. As soon as the cook was within earshot he growled low under his breath, "Don't use anything you learned after Kamabakka."

Sanji frowned, but responded low enough for only Zoro to hear while staring ahead through the crowd. "Think we'll get in a fight?"

"It's guaranteed at least a little," Zoro said with a shrug. "If the place is really as well guarded as he said there'll be guards we have to take out. But don't use anything he doesn't already know from me. He'll catch it, and file it away for later in his head."

"You really think he's still collecting information on us?"

"He caught Perona just to drag out information about Moria, even though we'd already beaten him. She didn't even have a bounty. Yeah, he'll definitely be on the lookout for updating what he knows about us, so don't give him a fucking chance." Zoro narrowed his eyes. He'd definitely be holding a few Santoryu moves in reserve for sure, although he hadn't been joking in the least when he'd made his threats earlier. He still remembered, in the throes of unbelievable, burning pain that scorched him from the inside, the Alchemist cooly disregarding his attempt to report his own sword style. The bastard would regret it now. If he so much as thought about harming Sanji, or utilizing that weapon against Luffy, or going after one of the other Straw Hats, he was going to wish he was dead.

Zoro wasn't half dead this time, or wounded from Thriller Bark, or starved to a skeletal husk, or locked in his own mind. The Alchemist didn't know what he was dealing with now—he didn't know what he'd unleashed.

Zoro glared at the back of the bastard's head as they pushed through the crowded streets. It took almost an hour to reach the end of the civilian areas, and that was when stealthiness became necessary as they slipped through less crowded alleyways and over the rooftops of the more strictly guarded military sectors. The Alchemist led the way, often scouting ahead with ease, though Zoro suspected he was cheating and supplementing his own lack of experience with some potion that made everything better (he detested the thought). Sanji went next—Zoro grudgingly had to admit the cook was pretty decent at sneaking, and even more grudgingly that Sanji was better than he was. Zoro didn't much care for stealthing about; it seemed a bit pointless to go crawling around like a coward, when he could just win his way through with strength and skill.

But again the Alchemist's compulsive truth came to mind, and while Zoro was loath to admit it, the man was good at assessing a situation based on skills. If he claimed that Zoro and Sanji couldn't bust their way in, and that stealth was necessary, it was probably true. So Zoro sucked it up and did the best he could, with Sanji rudely slinging whispered insults at him whenever he got a moment, which Zoro understood to actually be encouragement. Sanji appeared to have called a truce for the duration of their dealings with the Alchemist, at least, which gave him one less thing to have to deal with.

But at last, after another forty-five minutes of sneaking about like shadows, they reached a squat, wide building that crouched like a fat toad before them, ugly and unassuming. The building was surrounded by a wide, walled-in parade ground, with marines patrolling the area, but the Alchemist did not seem particularly disturbed at the sight. He led them around the back of the building, and the three of them crouched behind a storage unit, where they proceeded to do absolutely nothing.

"What the hell are we waiting for," Zoro growled finally, glaring across at the Alchemist. He didn't want to spend a second longer than he had to in the bastard's presence, nor did he want to waste time when some Luffy-killing weapon was in the hands of the marines.

"The guard shift," the Alchemist answered curtly. He was staring down intently at his watch. "The outside his heavily fortified and carefully watched, but there is a weakness in the guards' rounds at the moment they shift. Be prepared to jump the wall at my signal."

"There's a couple surveillance den den mushi on the walls," Sanji reported with a frown, peeking around the storage unit.

"Leave those to me," the Alchemist said calmly. "I will go first to deal with them."

They waited another ten minutes in near silence, and by the end the tension was so thick Zoro almost felt like he could reach out and grab it with one hand. Which was not helped any by the fact that Sanji kept glancing at him, like he was worried or something. Zoro supposed he couldn't be entirely surprised by this; Sanji had been the one to see him at his all-out worst moments after all, and he was probably expecting some sort of crazy breakdown at exactly the wrong moment. But Zoro was better than that, and he didn't have time to think about himself anyway, not when his captain and crew were at risk. He'd deal later. For now, he just wanted the damn waiting to be over with.

But then, with a sharp, "Now, hurry," from the Alchemist, they were moving. Panaceam ducked out from behind the storage unit first and sprayed something into the air as he did so; it rapidly turned into a pink-tinged smoky haze, and the surveillance den dens drooped sleepily, stalk eyes closing. Then the three of them moved for the wall, quickly, to take advantage of the bare minute of opportunity they had. The wall was a good twenty feet in height, but without even having to discuss it Sanji flung Zoro up to the top with a well placed Power Shot kick, and Zoro gripped his hand to pull him over all the way when he leapt after. The Alchemist leapt the wall easily, probably utilizing the same cheap trick he had earlier on the Sunny, and the three of them were in the parade grounds a moment later. They made a mad dash after the Alchemist as he made a beeline for a door at the back of the compound, keying in an entry code on the pad next to the door. It slid open with a woosh, and they ducked inside, hiding in an empty room nearby just in time as the new guards darted down the halls to take their place.

So far, so good. They were in—whatever it would mean for them.

"The guards in this facility always patrol in pairs," the Alchemist briefed them, as they waited for the noise outside the room to stop, "and at least one of them always has a baby den den mushi. In order to infiltrate successfully we must avoid detection. If we must fight, and it will be necessary at a few of the checkpoints, it is imperative that both guards are taken out quickly and quietly before they can call for help either aloud or on the den den mushis."

Zoro and Sanji both nodded. That part was easy enough to understand, and they could both grasp the necessity of it.

"Additionally," the Alchemist continued quietly, "There will be several checkpoints ahead in which it will take me several minutes to break the technical barriers. There are many confidential code sequences that must be punched in, and at one juncture I will need to replicate a Devil Fruit ability used for identification here. Since I now have backup, it is vital that I am given time to break these codes down successfully, without guard interruption."

"We get it," Zoro said curtly. "You do your work, we'll do ours. Let's get this over with already."

"Patience is a virtue, or so I am told, Roronoa Zoro," the Alchemist said, giving him a cool look. "Certainly it worked with you. Do not rush things."

Zoro bit back a loud snarl just in time when he remembered their surroundings, and growled under his breath, "Keep pushing me, jackass. You won't live much longer."

"I severely doubt that. You now know how crucial I am to this mission, and you will not risk the life of your captain so easily."

"True," Zoro conceded, "but that won't stop me from taking a few fingers. Or maybe an arm, if you really make me angry."

"You favor a traditionalist approach, I see," the Alchemist responded without the slightest hesitation. "Effective, if inefficient. I—"

"You're going to shut up and lead the way," Sanji said helpfully, glaring daggers. "We're wasting time."

The Alchemist inclined his head slightly to the cook, as if admitting defeat in the debate. "Come, then. We will begin."

So they did, following the Alchemist down a twisting, turning series of halls as he led them towards their objective. It was a confusing mess of lefts and rights, and all the hallways looked the same: sterile white and cold gray, and soon even Zoro had to admit privately to himself that he was totally lost. Which was not a particularly pleasant feeling, since the Alchemist seemed to know exactly where they were going, and Zoro didn't relish for a second having to rely on the damned bastard to get out if he had to. Fortunately, a few quick glances at Sanji told the swordsman that the cook was cataloguing the whole route in his head, making notes of turns and room numbers, and Zoro was confident that if it came to it they'd still be able to get out of the building without Panaceam's help.

Not that it was all just running. As Panaceam had warned them, the facility was heavily guarded, and they moved at a staggering pace. Paired guards were located practically everywhere, and had to be taken down very fast before they could sound the alarm. Fortunately, most of them seemed lax in their duties—none of them seemed to expect a covert break-in, apparently thinking their outside surveillance would warn them of an attack. Zoro and Sanji were able to take the guards down easily in their moments of surprise, and stow the unconscious bodies out of sight in closets or empty rooms to make sure they weren't discovered too early.

The Alchemist almost never helped, instead focusing on their next routes, or scouting ahead for more enemies, and the further into the facility they pushed the more Zoro realized that Panaceam didn't intend to engage in combat at all if he could avoid it. Probably can't fight at all without knowing all his enemies' weaknesses, first, Zoro thought in disgust. His power-enhancing alchemic potions were admittedly a powerful boon if used correctly, but the man could doubtless only carry so many, and likely couldn't afford to waste anything on trivial grunts if he could avoid it.

Not to say that the Alchemist was useless in their attack—because, much as Zoro loathed to admit it, they definitely wouldn't have gotten this far without the bastard. They had to go up four flights of stairs to reach the top of the facility, where the weapon was being stored, and at every stairwell a keypad with special required codes was located, in order to restrict access up to the next floor. The codes appeared different every time, and were extremely long and complicated; while keeping a watch with Sanji for potential guards he could hear no less than fifteen tapped keys from the pad. And the Alchemist said the codes rotated too. The security here was tight.

And that was just the basic codes, for general security, from what Zoro could tell. On the fourth floor itself there were no less than five different levels of increased security, with thick steel doors and increasingly more guards that had to be taken down fast and quietly. Each wing had a different method of securing access, and the Alchemist had chemical ways to circumvent all of them. One door required a fingerprint match, and Panaceam lathered his hands in a thick, oily substance from a vial in his cloak before pressing his hand to the pad, which promptly blinked green and admitted them. A second required him to produce a viscous, almost alive liquid from the depths of a much larger vial, which pressed itself into the cracks of an unusual keypad that human hands could never fit into, but a logia Fruit user's might, if melded. He did other things as well, that Zoro couldn't quite place, but the end result was that at each station the guards were quickly and quietly taken care of and the door was opened, allowing them through without detection.

Until at last, an hour into the break-in, they were nearing their goal. "The next wing of the facility is, according to my employers' information network, dedicated to the development of this weapon to be used against Straw Hat Luffy," the Alchemist told them in a low voice, as he worked on the last technical barrier. "This section of the facility is devoted to several other high-risk pirates as well, so it will take a moment to locate the research and weapon specifically for Straw Hat Luffy. There shouldn't be any guards, but a few scientists or researchers may be present." The pirates nodded quickly, relieved to finally be at the end so they could finish up this stupid mission and get the hell away from this bastard. When the door opened with a hiss they darted through it.

The first room they entered was almost disappointingly anticlimactic. It still had the cold, sterile colors of the rest of the facility, but while it was enormous it possessed little more than hundreds of filing cabinets and several drafting tables, where blueprints and scraps of paper were tacked down. Probably the planning room then, and where they stored all the information they'd researched. Hell, the marines probably had a copy of the Panaceam Report somewhere in here, if they were really that devoted to taking down high-risk pirates. Ironic, really.

The bastard himself gave the room one cursory glance before heading to its back, where a second wide steel door stood ajar. The Alchemist gave the open door a puzzled look—clearly it wasn't supposed to be open—but made for the room anyway. When he reached the doorway, he froze, and backed away smoothly to put himself out of line of sight. Zoro and Sanji, no fools, braced themselves on either side of the doorway as well with an exchange of frowns. Something wasn't right.

They'd get no answers waiting around, so Zoro took a quick peek into the inner room. This was more like what he was expecting. There were rows of machinery with various blinking lights and whirring noises, delicate tools were neatly arranged over dozens of surfaces, and the subtle, crackling hum of electricity could be felt just barely—the room bristled with energy. This was definitely where the weapons, whatever they were, were built—but Zoro's attention wasn't drawn to any strange guns or machinery. His eyes went straight to the three men standing in the room, loading a large wooden box onto a trolley with an air of professional boredom as they chatted to each other.

Zoro pulled his head back before any of the men could catch a glimpse of him, and hissed low enough for Sanji's and Panaceam's ears alone, "Who the hell are they?"

"I have no idea," the Alchemist responded immediately.

Zoro had to admit, of all the failings he could blame the Alchemist for, he definitely hadn't seen this one coming. The man made it his professional business to know anything and everything about a mission before he dedicated himself to it. Zoro could attest to that firsthand, since he'd personally been the means to the man's research before he even considered trying to claim the Straw Hat bounties. The fact that the Alchemist would go into this mission not knowing every single major identity in the building had never even crossed his mind.

"How the hell do you not?" Zoro hissed in frustration.

"That is simple," the Alchemist said, with obnoxious calm. "They aren't supposed to be here. The guards outside showed no agitation before we attacked, so it is reasonable that the military expects them to be here, but this is certainly not part of the usual schedule in this wing of the facility."

"So you don't know anything about these guys," Zoro growled. "Who they are, or what they do." Shit—and if they weren't normally here, it probably meant that they were better than average fighters, too. Zoro could feel that almost instinctively. It would be difficult to take them down without attracting attention; the fight would inevitably cause a ruckus somehow.

"I do not," the Alchemist confirmed. Although he sounded calm, Zoro noticed for the first time that his expression had broken from its usual unemotional coldness to something like extreme displeasure. Zoro recalled Sanji's battle with the man almost two years ago—the way Sanji told it, Panaceam had been defeated just as much by his shock over a lack of information as he had been by Sanji's use of his kitchen knives in a fight. The man didn't like his information being wrong, and he didn't like kinks in his intelligence—that much was painfully obvious.

The cook had been listening in on the three unknown mens' conversation, and reported suddenly, "One of them said this was a good transporter gig. Mean anything?"

The Alchemist's head cocked quizzically. "They are transporters? That answers a few questions."

"Explain," Zoro ordered.

"Transporters do exactly what their name suggests: transport things. Often things that are high-risk items, or in great danger of being stolen or destroyed, as they are capable fighters in addition to being movers. It is likely they are transporting one of the weapons developed here to a new facility, or for deployment. It may perhaps even be the weapon designed for Straw Hat Luffy."

Zoro's eyes narrowed. "We're not letting them take it anywhere," he said. "We'll have to ambush them and take them down fast before anyone catches on that we're here. Sanji, you take the guy closest to you on the right, I'll go for the center, and—"

"I would refrain from including me in your combative plans," the Alchemist stated cooly.

Zoro's eyes narrowed. "Why, can't take the heat?" he asked scathingly.

"I can, quite literally, if called to," the Alchemist said with maddening patience. "Your friend can attest to that in particular. However, without knowing the combative abilities of my opponent, I dare not employ alchemical supplements, especially for a quick encounter."

"So you're saying you're useless in a fight if you can't torment the weaknesses out of your opponents, first," Zoro snarled at him, barely keeping his voice low enough. "You only went for my injuries too, when we fought on your island."

"Out of practicality," the Alchemist said, and then sighed in exasperation, as if he were explaining a very simple subject to a particularly dense child. "My combative style allows for a lot of modification, but that flexibility comes at a price. Why do you think I spend so long researching my opponents? My alchemical supplements in each individual battle are specifically tailored to those I fight, requiring a great deal of preparation in advance. Without that information, I am effectively fighting blind, and anything I use could theoretically backfire. What if I used an iceblood supplement, and my enemy is a cold-based Devil Fruit user? What if I utilize a strength potion, and my opponent's fighting style circumvents an enemy's power? Make the wrong choice, and it is too late—the potions cannot be mixed without hazardous results. The minute details of alchemy are both a blessing and a curse; I dare not attack without studying my opponent first, even if it is in combat, and that requires time we simply do not have."

"You're useless," Zoro snapped at him coldly. "I can't believe you were ever a threat to us."

"I have you to thank for that, of course," the Alchemist riposted easily.

Despite their precarious situation Zoro's last nerve was in danger of snapping, and he was seriously considering leaping across the open doorway to slice the man's head off. Sanji interrupted sharply, giving Zoro a warning look. "Marimo, calm the fuck down. Look, I'll take the big guy on the right, he looks like the leader, and you take down the two goons, you're closer. On the count of three, okay?"

"Fine," Zoro said, and drew his swords slowly to keep them from making noise.

"I will ensure the sound does not leave the room, at least," the Alchemist said calmly, reaching into his coat, "but if they call for help on a den den mushi the attempt will be useless."

"Shut the hell up," Zoro growled. "You're not one to talk about useless."

The Alchemist seemed unfazed and withdrew a bottle with smoky contents from his inner coat pockets. Sanji glanced around to make sure they were all ready, and then hissed, "One...two...three...go!"

Zoro dashed into the room at the signal towards the first of his two opponents. With a vicious slash he took the throat of the first man, slicing into it cleanly. The man's surprised scream as he was overwhelmed too suddenly turned abruptly into a burbling moan as the blood began to foam at his neck, and he crashed to the ground, no longer a part of the battle.

Zoro ignored him, leapt over the body for the second man. This transporter was more difficult, having been forewarned in the bare few seconds it had taken Zoro to wipe out his companion, and already he'd managed to draw a baby den den mushi out of the voluminous pockets of his sweatshirt. He raised it to speak, but Zoro smacked it out of his hand with an extended sword, dazing the little creature and shattering the receiver on its back. He took a clout to his left shoulder with the transporter's mace for his trouble, and grunted in pain around Kuina's blade, but taking the hit had been worth it; they couldn't allow a call for help to occur.

The transporter seemed to realize how much danger he was in now, and started yelling frantically for help even as he swung out with the mace. He was a decent combatant compared to most people located in the New World, but it wouldn't save him, not when Zoro was determined and his captain's life was potentially on the line. He deflected the mace easily, and one powerful use of his Oni Giri set the man screaming as he collapsed to the laboratory's ground, bleeding out. Zoro flicked blood from his blades even as he turned, to see how Sanji was faring with the last of the opponents.

The largest of the men was on the ground, sporting several broken limbs and almost certainly unconscious thanks to Sanji's footwork. He'd clearly been the best of the transporters though, judging by the way Sanji himself was panting heavily, and bleeding from his neck where he'd probably been sliced by a blade at a very close near-miss. The cook glanced up, nodded once to Zoro in acknowledgement when he spotted the other two downed men, and stepped back from his opponent to regard the box they'd been trying to shift with mild curiosity.

The Alchemist entered the room calmly when the transporters were down, and studied the lines of numbers and letters on the side of the wooden crate with interest. Zoro gave him a dirty look for his cowardice, but he did have to (very grudgingly) admit that for all the screaming of their opponents no one had come investigating yet, so whatever he'd done to dull the noise had been effective. He glared anyway. He didn't particularly care about being fair to the bastard.

"We are extremely fortunate," the Alchemist informed them suddenly. "Based on these registration codes, the content of this box is in fact the weapon designed to destroy Straw Hat Luffy, along with a copy of the research. I shall have to inform my employers of this. They hadn't the slightest clue this weapon was already so far ahead in development."

"Just a copy," Zoro repeated with a frown.

"Certainly. It would do no good at all to send away the only version of the research and blueprints. Likely there is also a copy of it all in the files we passed in the other room. That way, even if—"

The Alchemist blinked once as he was unexpectedly interrupted by a gagging cough from Sanji. The cook had doubled forward suddenly, leaning heavily against the weapon crate, and had one hand pressed to the cut on his neck and an expression of confusion and pain on his face.

Zoro was almost immediately alarmed. While he wouldn't put it past Sanji to interrupt the Alchemist's long and inevitably dull explanation, he wouldn't do it like this—something was wrong. "Shit cook?" he growled hesitantly, taking a step forward. "What the hell are you—"

"Breath," Sanji gasped, and the hand over his neck injury was so tight now Zoro was almost afraid he was going to start ripping skin off in a minute. "Can't...air...n-not—"

He started to collapse forward. Zoro caught him quickly by the shoulders before he could hit the hard tiles of the laboratory face first, and lowered him more carefully to the ground on his side, feeling increasingly more worried. Sanji started to curl up into a tight ball almost as soon as he was on the floor, fingers twitching spasmodically as they clamped still tighter over his neck, turning the skin white. Zoro gripped his wrist and pried it back—it was surprisingly difficult to do, even with his own high levels of strength, since Sanji's muscles appeared to be seizing up—and frowned down at the single injury Sanji appeared to have taken. It wasn't a cut, like Zoro had expected when he'd seen the blood earlier. Instead the wound was a ragged, round hole, like something sharp and precise had hastily stabbed him. A throwing needle, maybe, or—

"A syringe," the Alchemist's voice said from behind him, voicing Zoro's thoughts almost at the same moment he came to the conclusion. Zoro's head whipped around immediately, but the man was several paces away, standing near Sanji's opponent. A small glass syringe, still with the dregs of some bluish liquid inside, dangled from the bastard's fingers as he held it up for display.

Zoro saw red, and stood in a rush, hand already on one of his katana. "You did this," he snarled, taking a step towards the bastard. He should have known better than to even remotely believe him—

"I did not, actually," the Alchemist said. His voice was calm, but he spoke quickly as Zoro stalked towards him. "I assure you, I would use something far more practical—if I were even allowed to attack you or your friend to begin with." He tapped the collar at his neck delicately, and then flipped back the main transporter's coat and dragged up one of his sleeves, exposing several more filled syringes strapped to the inner coat pockets and wrist-sheathes. "It seems," the Alchemist continued, now pulling a card free from one of the inner pockets and reading it, "That this wasn't just any transporting agency—this man seems to work directly for Dr. Vegapunk's research facility, which is likely where he gets such interesting medicinal weaponry." He plucked a loaded syringe free and studied the liquid inside with idle curiosity.

"This isn't interesting," Zoro snarled at him, and glanced back worriedly at the cook, who was now curled up even tighter and struggling for breath. "What the hell is wrong with him?"

"He's been poisoned, undoubtedly," the Alchemist said with a shrug. "Probably with a drug that will preserve the bodies after death for study. You are of course familiar with the Pacifista Cyborg project, but Vegapunk's research facilities are always looking for new subjects to study for additional permanent reinforced strengths or abilities." He waved his hand absently, as if shooing away the notion. "A bit of a tasteless branch of science, if you ask me. Dead bodies don't speak of nearly so many discoveries as live ones."

Zoro cursed at him uselessly, and paced back to Sanji, who was getting worse by the minute. Shit. Poisoned, just to be some goddamned cadaver for a psychopath doctor who rewired humans as robots in his spare time. He shouldn't have let Sanji come with him, should have knocked the stupid shit cook out on the Sunny like he had at Thriller Bark and left him in his galley for the others to take care of later. He'd have been alone with the Alchemist through all this, but it would have been worth it; nothing was worth a friend dying. And it had been Zoro's fault again, it always was when this bastard came into the picture—

"I believe I can save him, if you like," the Alchemist offered abruptly, with the air of one commenting on the weather. "I recognize his current symptoms, and he still has a few minutes left."

Zoro's head whipped around in surprise, and he glared at the Alchemist in confusion. "Save him? You know Vegapunk's drugs that well?"

The Alchemist continued to study the loaded syringe he'd pilfered idly, saying, "I am an alchemist, Roronoa Zoro. Drugs, potions, and poisons are my forte. And in the interest of professional rivalry, I've long since developed an antidote for those serums, for my own personal safety. I never attempt a major mission regarding the navy without having them on hand, just in case." His eyes slid to Zoro's, and he said with irritating casualness, "But of course, I can only do so if you rescind your ban on accepting any concoctions from me. Science is not magic, after all—I cannot snap my fingers and make him better."

Zoro narrowed his eyes hatefully at the unforgivable bastard. Every fiber of his being screamed not to let the man near Sanji; Zoro knew what he was capable of with chemicals, had suffered to the point of breaking because of Panaceam's own serums. But he was out of options. Zoro could treat the injury from experience, but he had no skill with poisons, and he knew instinctively there wasn't enough time to get Sanji out of the building and to find Chopper. It went against his every grain, but if Zoro wanted Sanji to live, he was going to have to let the Alchemist administer his own countermeasures.

It was not ever an option to let nakama die. Not even the shit cook, obnoxious and irritating as he could be. Gritting his teeth, Zoro growled low under his breath, "Fine. You can treat him."

The Alchemist nodded, and tossed the loaded syringe aside carelessly as he stood. Zoro almost wished the bastard would display some sort of smug superiority at having won out, in the end; at least it would be natural. But the man looked as emotionless as ever as he approached, already reaching into his own coat pocket for supplies.

Something about that was frighteningly familiar, and Zoro absolutely wasn't going to stand for it. Before the Alchemist could so much as blink, the swordsman had drawn Kuina's katana and slashed out, halting the blade just barely with its tip pressed lightly against the Alchemist's skin, above the collar. The man halted immediately, and regarded Zoro with watchful calm, waiting.

"I do not have much time to treat him," Panaceam said finally. "If you wish for your friend to live..." He let it hang.

"Don't misunderstand," Zoro said coldly. "I'll let you treat him, because we both know I don't have another option. But if I catch you so much as thinking about pulling any sort of trick, using anything that isn't this antidote..." His voice trailed off in a low growl, and the threat hung heavy in the air between them, a wisp of just barely realized potential for violence.

"I understand, Roronoa," the Alchemist responded cooly. "I am not the only one here who excels at causing pain, after all."

Zoro gestured for him to get on with it, twisting the katana blade just barely, enough to keep the Alchemist at deadly sword-point while still allowing him to approach Sanji. Panaceam did so with maddening calm, coming to kneel beside the cook, who was curled up so tightly it looked painful and struggling to take in shallow-sounding breaths, his wide eyes unseeing.

"The later stages, so quickly," the Alchemist mused absently under his breath. "Your friend is unusually weak to the drug. How interesting. Yes, I understand, Roronoa Zoro," he added, as the swordsman dug Wadou's point a little more insistently into his neck, and the bastard reached deep into the recesses of his longcoat, pulling a square case free.

Zoro shifted position enough to keep an eye on the proceedings while still having his katana blade against the Alchemist's throat. He watched with narrow, suspicious eyes as the man cracked the square case open, revealing three small syringes of his own, and three small vials filled with different colored liquids. With fluid, practiced ease the man filled all three syringes to capacity from different vials, tapped the first one carefully to free it of bubbles, and brought it close to the rasping cook's neck.

Then he paused, glanced up at Zoro, and said with disgusting casualness to his tone, "I expect you will not enjoy this next part. The cure is not exactly...pleasant."

"Things won't be pleasant for you either if you waste time and he dies," Zoro snarled back. The Alchemist merely shrugged in response, slid the first needle into the cook's neck, and depressed the plunger.

Almost as soon as he'd withdrawn the first needle Sanji seemed to recover some of his movements again, although it was uncoordinated spasms more than his usual grace and fluidity. He thrashed in pain as the ironlike grip of the poisonous drug started to recede, and a yell escaped him, sounding parched and ragged, like his throat was dry and sandpapery. Zoro grit his teeth in helpless frustration. His initial instinct was to remove the Alchemist's head from his shoulders for causing a crew mate pain like that, especially when he felt partially guilty for letting it happen to begin with. But he held the katana steady, if only barely. The fact that Sanji could move at all right now was an indication that the Alchemist was doing something positive, and anyway if he interrupted now there was still a good chance that Sanji would still die.

His willpower almost snapped a moment later, though. Sanji's spastic thrashing was increasing, as were the pained yells, but the Alchemist was coldly uncaring about any of it. Instead he tapped the second syringe to prepare it. Then, with disgusting calm and not a shred of mercy, he buried his fingers in the cook's hair, forced his head back to the tiles with a painful looking wrench and another agonized yell from the cook, and stabbed the second needle home in the Sanji's neck.

It was painfully, violently familiar to Zoro. Despite himself for one black moment he was back in that cell, feeling every pang of hurt as cold, cruelly efficient hands wrenched his head back to drink, forced pain-inducing drugs into his body; felt once again the experience of the black void in his stomach, the air smothered from his lungs to force compliance, the sensation of his entire body and mind being on fire from the inside out, burning him away. A moment, and it was over, but it felt like years. He swayed slightly on his feet, but the katana remained as steady as ever, a forceful, reassuring presence in his hand—

"Roronoa," the Alchemist said flatly, "I need my head firmly attached to my body in order to complete the procedure."

Zoro blinked, but with sheer force of will managed to keep the surprise from showing on his face. Wadou Ichimonji was pressed dangerously far into the Alchemist's neck, and blood was already beginning to drip in rivulets over the collar he wore. A fraction more of pressure, and his throat would split open. It would be so easy, and after that violent memory, at this man's hands no less, Zoro was so tempted to do it—

But a glance at Sanji told him the consequences were still too high. The cook wasn't thrashing anymore; whatever had been in that second syringe looked like it made his whole body heavy, and Sanji drooped unmoving like gravity was dragging him down with unrelenting force. Only his breathing, shallow and still pained sounding, indicated that he wasn't dead—or okay.

Zoro could change everything in just one moment, solve his problems, kill his last demon, and yet it wasn't worth it. And unexpectedly the swordsman came to realize, with that man that had tormented him quite literally for two months, and in spirit for more than a year, helpless at his sword-point and still not caring, that none of it fucking mattered anymore. This man was a waste of space, not worth his time, his effort, or even his anger, and any single one of his crew was infinitely more important than this bastard.

The thought was unexpectedly calming, like a weight he hadn't even been aware of had just vanished, and as he pulled back on the katana he said cooly, "Finish."

"Of course," the Alchemist said, and promptly did so, plunging the last needle deep into Sanji's neck.

The heavy rigidity seemed to melt out of the cook not too long after the final needle was removed, and a soft, relieved sigh escaped his lips a moment later. Zoro stood vigil over him, remained watchful but no longer aggressive as the Alchemist calmly packed up the vials and syringes in his square case once more. He motioned that he intended to back away, and Zoro let him for now, sheathing his sword again.

Then Sanji stirred, and Zoro glanced down at him, appraising. "You okay?" he asked after a moment, as the cook wearily lifted his head and glanced around blearily.

"Definitely been better," Sanji said slowly. He winced, and asked, "What the hell happened? One minute I was fine and then—"

"You got yourself poisoned, shit cook," Zoro said with a scowl. "How the hell did you manage to get yourself injected with a loaded syringe, dumbass?"

"It's not like I wanted to!" Sanji snarled back, and then blinked. "Wait, that was a needle? He tried to pull out a den den mushi, so I had to close range fast to stop him. I figured he just cut me in the neck." He sat up dazedly.

Zoro shook his head in exasperation. "If I knew you needed this much babysitting, curly-brow, I'd have taken on the guy instead of you. Tch."

"Shitty marimo. As if you could have taken him down at all." The cook winced, felt his neck injuries, and frowned at his hand when four spots of blood came away. "Wait," he said slowly, "If I was poisoned, and now I'm not—"

"It's taken care of," Zoro said curtly. "Promise." Which also doubled for Yeah, you guessed right, but I made sure he didn't try anything nasty, and judging by Sanji's grateful look in response Zoro knew he'd picked up on it. "You gonna be okay?"

"Need to rest a bit, I think," Sanji said, "But I'm pretty sure I'll be fine by the time we leave."

He did look a little shaky still, and it probably explained why he hadn't tried to stand yet. Zoro helpfully dragged him over to the doorway to lean back against for now, and said, "That's good, love-cook, 'cause there's no way I'm carrying your sorry ass through this whole place."

"Thank fuck," Sanji shot back. "We'd never be seen again if you were directing us anyway."

Zoro was about to make a brilliant comeback, but a cracking noise behind him caused him to fall flat. Glancing over his shoulder, he was unsurprised to see the Alchemist beginning to break open the wooden box with the weapon to use against Luffy to take a peek.

Zoro shook his head, and said instead to Sanji, "Can I borrow your lighter for a minute?"

Sanji tossed him the item without question, and Zoro turned back to the box and the Alchemist, drawing all three swords. He flung out a full caliber of pound cannon, and the Alchemist leapt aside just in time upon sensing it. Pity, really, but he hadn't been the target; with a crash the box containing the weapon collapsed into three sliced pieces, the wood of the crate just barely revealing something metal and gleaming beneath.

The Alchemist gave him a cold look. "You will make it more difficult to confirm the notes in the package—" he began, but Zoro ignored him, and sliced into the crated mess again with another round of pound cannon, and again after that, and again after that. The pile of pieces rapidly began resembling a collection of scrap metal and splinters more than any sort of machine, and when Zoro was sure he'd done all he could with his swords he set fire to the pile, completely obliterating any trace of whatever it was that had been made to kill his captain.

The Alchemist actually winced when the remains were set alight, and gave the same tired sigh he'd emitted when Zoro had thrown his concoctions overboard on the Sunny earlier. "That was very risky," he said after a moment, sounding displeased. "For all we know there could have been explosive material somewhere in the device. We could all have died—"

"There wasn't," Zoro said curtly, "And we didn't." He sheathed two of his swords, and then very pointedly pressed Wadou's blade to the man's throat again, adding in what was very clearly a command and not a request, "Go over near Sanji and sit."

The Alchemist glanced down at the sword blade, and then up at Zoro. "This is a puzzling development," he said cooly. "What are you planning, I wonder?"

"I'm going to finish up the mission," Zoro responded, "And I don't need your help. Sit," he added, pressing the blade deeply enough to add another thin slice in the man's skin. The Alchemist gave him an appraising look, but he'd stated before quite simply that all he really cared about was his life, and so he obeyed, sitting across from Sanji in the doorway.

"Cook," Zoro said next, as he stood next to Sanji and held the katana steady at Panaceam's neck. "I know you can't stand yet, but think you can handle a little guard duty?"

"Sure," Sanji said, with an air of boredom.

"Good," Zoro said, and handed him Shuusui, sheath and all. "I'm keeping your lighter a bit more, so you can have this for a bit. If he tries anything suspicious, feel free to gut him."

The Alchemist blinked once as he watched Sanji unsheathe the black-bladed sword across from him, and didn't flinch when Sanji laid the blade against his neck, opposite Zoro's. He did, however, observe coldly, "It seems your policy has changed since that moment we met, Black Leg Sanji."

"Not really," Sanji said, with a rather nasty smile. "I'm just always willing to make an exception when we're dealing with you." His grip on the sword hilt wasn't perfect, but with the blade at the Alchemist's neck it didn't have to be—if the man was anything other than perfectly still, he'd slit his own throat.

The Alchemist returned the gaze, but did not appear to be particularly pleased again. He also wasn't going anywhere, so while Sanji kept the bastard at bay, Zoro went back to work, cleaning up the remains of the mess that had brought them there to begin with.

His first stop was the filing cabinets in the outer room. He located the Straw Hat entries with relative ease—like he'd suspected, the Panaceam Report had a copy tucked away in the files, and there was additional information on the entire crew that hadn't come from the Alchemist's interrogations. They had an entire cabinet to themselves, and Luffy had an entire drawer devoted entirely to him. Zoro burned them all with Sanji's lighter, kicking the ashes apart once finished. He scoured the rest of the filing cabinets next with Luffy's project codes, found two other locations in which Straw Hat notes had been hidden in the back of other files, and burned those as well. Finally, he headed back into the building laboratory and destroyed every single tool, blueprint, and piece of metal with Luffy's project sequence written or etched onto it, and burned them as well for good measure.

Satisfied that no trace of the mysterious Luffy-killing weapon existed anymore, he headed back to Sanji and his prisoner and calmly tossed the cook back his lighter. Sanji looked much better by then, enough to hold Shuusui with one hand, and casually caught it and tucked it away in his coat pocket.

"Got it all?" he asked casually, deliberately ignoring the man he had at sword point, who still looked distinctly displeased about the information being destroyed without him getting a chance to look at it.

"Positive," Zoro said, taking Shuusui back. "Let's get out of here."

So they did, backtracking the way they came, and this time it was Sanji, not the Alchemist, who led. Indeed, the two Straw Hats were ignoring him now more than anything else—Sanji mostly at Zoro's lead, but the swordsman would admit that the cook at least knew how to take a hint, when it counted. The Alchemist followed them, but mostly it was only because there was one way out, and not because he considered himself a part of the group. Zoro and Sanji took care of the guards they encountered, and codes weren't necessary to leave. Only once did the Alchemist speak up, when they were at the exit to the building, to caution them to wait until the appropriate moment in the guard shift once more.

And then at last, after one more mad dash across the parade grounds and another leap over the twenty-foot perimeter wall, they were out. The three of them crouched behind the same storage unit as before, for a quick rest after everything they'd been through, and then the Alchemist spoke up curtly.

"Your assistance in this mission was most appreciated," he stated, sounding almost formal. "I will, of course, report to my employers that the mission was successful, and that you accepted the invitation. Since there is no further reason to stay, I will be on my way."

"Whatever," Zoro said. Sanji only nodded in agreement.

The Alchemist turned to leave, and then paused for a moment. "Roronoa Zoro," he said, after the tiniest hesitation, "I will be quite frank. Might I ask you one more question?"

Sanji tensed beside him, and growled angrily, "Stupid shitty bastard, you don't have the right—"

"Go ahead," Zoro said flatly, meeting the Alchemist eye to eye. He knew what the question would be, anyway. The Alchemist was right—they did know each other, a little too well. "I have the freedom not to answer if I don't want to."

The Alchemist nodded, accepting the subtle accusation for what it was, and said, "After I cured your friend, you had me at sword point again, and yet you did not kill me, even though at that moment my usefulness was at its end. Yet several times previously during the mission your friend had to convince you not to attack me. What stayed your hand?"

Exactly what he'd expected, and he had the answer ready. "I just realized you're lower than garbage, that's all," he answered flatly. "You're not worth it. You're not worth anything from me. It's just sad it took me almost two years to see it."

The Alchemist cocked his head quizzically, and for a very long moment he seemed to be studying Zoro again, like he had all those months ago. Even an hour ago Zoro would have killed him for it. Now he just didn't care anymore—the man was a soulless, empty wreck of a human, a black hole that ate away at any emotions hurled at him without any payoff. It didn't matter anymore. He didn't matter anymore, and never would again.

"You are a very interesting man," Panaceam said finally, after a moment. "My mother would be highly disappointed by you, I think, but I find it oddly educational to see such a miraculous turn in a human being. Goodbye."

"Don't come back again," Zoro said coldly in response. "I might not care, but I can't say the same for the rest of my crew...and I've got a captain who'd love to kill you."

"I shall not bother you with my presence again," the Alchemist answered smoothly. "I think my employers will agree." And then he was gone, vanished into the shadows of the buildings like a ghost.

Zoro and Sanji left without hesitation as well, wanting to get some distance from the research facility. It was only when they were back in the thick crowds of the civilian section of town that they bothered to speak to each other.

It was Sanji to break the silence. Zoro half expected the cook to ask about his decision to let the Alchemist go free, or to berate him about the exchanges in the facility itself, or even—gods forbid—to force him to talk about it, which Zoro recalled was all too frequent in his early days of recovery from that bastard. But all Sanji said was, "Hold up, marimo, I've got to detour to buy some supplies for dinner, I forgot the sea king yesterday. And don't wander off, shithead, or Nami-san will be very angry," and that was all it took to know that Sanji understood his decision completely and wouldn't argue it.

So he supposed that having curly-brow along wasn't as bad as he'd thought, after all.

Later that night, after the witch had reamed them out royally for abandoning the ship for several hours, and Chopper had frantically attended to Zoro's injured shoulder and Sanji's puncture wounds, the crew inquired curiously as to just what the hell happened. Zoro and Sanji exchanged glances, and came to the same silent agreement: there was no need to worry anyone, not when no one had been hurt in the process.

"Not much," Sanji said casually, lighting a cigarette.

"There was a bounty hunter," Zoro just barely elaborated, truthfully enough.

"But we took care of it," Sanji finished.

"You'd better not have attracted attention out there," Nami warned sharply. "We don't need the navy catching wind of us right now!"

"Please, woman," Zoro growled, "You think we're stupid enough to attract attention here?"

Sanji kicked him in the head, and said with a trill to Nami, "What this ignorant lout means to say is that we were very careful, Nami-swan! No one will ever know what we did!"

Which was definitely the truth, Zoro realized thoughtfully—not that any of them would ever know it. But it was okay. Unlike the incident two months previous, there was no shame behind this secret, and everyone was fine, and that was enough for Zoro.

Okay, I think I can safely say I can put this AU to rest now, with the last loose end tied up.

And that's a wrap! Thirty Zoro-centric fics for your reading pleasure :) Don't believe the site...the actual word count overall is more like 130,108.

Tell me which piece you liked best!