Hello everyone! How's everyone doing? Sorry this is a bit late, but its AP exam time and SAT and bleh, the worst time of the year. And I really should be working right now, but writing this fic is so much more fun!

Since some people were wondering, this fic is pretty much planned out, not something I'm making up as I go, so don't worry about it being abandoned or discontinued.

And look! New, nifty chapter titles! And also, flashbacks will begin with a noun and occupation, current events while be stamped with a general time. Pay close attention to who is doing what when, not everything is in chronological order.

Disclaimer: Pretty much nothing here is mine, besides the fingers that typed the words and the mind that threw them together.


Interference and Coleopterologist

The secret had been entrusted with him six years ago. A revelation so grave that he would have denied it if not for his leader's cold, hardened stare and the unspoken request that hung in the air. No others were entrusted with the knowledge, only him, not even their closest friends and allies. He carried the weight proudly on his broad shoulders, but it was still heavy.

His heart pounded as he approached the island. He hadn't known if his heart could even still beat until this moment, when curiosity finally overwhelmed duty and respect and he made the journey to look upon the secret with his own eyes. He went unaccompanied, though he was questioned and harassed by painted lips and blinking, fake eyelashes when he first announced his coming absence.

He felt that his leader suspected his destination, but still said nothing.

In the days of his youth, trekking through the forest was a simple thing, but now his every step caused a disturbance, his bulk pushing aside foliage and entire trees. Still, he had to keep his presence on the island undetected; it would not do for the Navy to ever learn of this. He would never be able to forgive himself if a simple slip-up of his revealed the truth to the world, and put the little one in danger.

But he was by birth a conspicuous creature.

With great care he continued through the flora and found his prey. A little boy of five crouched at the base of a tree, coated in dirt and smiling as he played by himself. He was a skinny, bouncy thing, with skin as dark as his fathers' and the same wild black hair. Without a doubt the heir of the Monkey name, but his eyes were brighter than the sun and his jubilation as he giggled at some bug crawling up the tree made the spy's lips almost curve.

His leader had told him that he planned for the child to grow up wilder than the wind, unhindered by education of laws, kingdoms, and man's societies. Or practically unhindered by any education at all, it seemed, as the little village to the east had no schools or scholars.

As it was, this child knew nothing of authority and government; his only rules were that of nature herself as he stumbled through the jungle, eyes wide with awe and delight.

Bartholomew Kuma knew better than to be worried, the child bore the brand of D in his name and would not fall as easy prey to any creature, and yet…

He was so small. Everything seemed small in the revolutionary's eyes, in exception of castles and the giants of Elbaf, but the boy even more so with his spindly limbs and large eyes. As if the wind could sweep him up and take him away. Which, it literally could, if his leader only willed it so. If only, and for a moment Kuma felt a longing for something he could never have. He avoided that thought.

Worryingly, the delicate features of the child told him that the boy would never have his grandfather's enormous bulk or his father's subtle but imposing height, and would likely take after his mother instead, a pixie in stature to the very end.

He could probably balance the child on his thumb, and even carry him in his hand in the distant future. What was the saying? Great things come in small packages?

He watched the child play in the forest for hours, and found quickly enough that he adored the little woodland creatures—the animals did not seem bothered by the little one's presence in the least—but the beetles in particular. In a shocking display of patience, he had even managed to sneak up on several large, shiny-armored insects and collect them in his arms, very nearly humming with jubilation as the crawled over his skin.

So entranced by the honest innocence of the display, Kuma slipped up.

Just one misplaced step and a cracked stick later, the little one was staring up at him with enormous eyes, just barely taller than his shoe.

And Kuma felt terrified.

"Woah, mistah," The child spoke clumsily, lisped with missing baby teeth, "You're huge!"

The revolutionary could not find any words to speak, and remained silent.

"Who are you?" The child wondered, no, demanded really, and he almost answered, so compelled that he opened his mouth to speak.

To avoid seeming silly, he improvised. "Do you like insects?"

The child blinked, but hesitated only for a moment. Along his arms, great arthropods the size of fists roamed. "Yep! They're super cool!"

Immediately the child was delighting in selecting the brightest, shiniest and largest of his collection, holding them up with pride and glee. Kuma had to kneel down, lumbering and awkward, to even get a good look as the boy chattered away.

It was odd to see with his own eyes a D. with such a mundane and innocent passion. Any who bore the letter were driven by some irrepressible, inner force to inevitably break the world. D. bearers were people born with hurricanes in their veins and flight on their minds, burning through life with ferocity that… always ended the same way.

A D. was obligated to challenge the world, and lose.

He believed with all his heart that Monkey D. Dragon would break that cycle. But Dragon's son was cursed with the name as well. A little, fragile child up against an entire world.

Within him flowed the blood of Dragon, and yet, Kuma was too weak to have faith in heritage. It seemed too cruel to just stand by and watch the little wild boy grow and expect him to be tenacious enough to take on the harsh future that awaited him. Bartholomew Kuma had long ago grown accustomed to his hardened skin and cybernetic body, but there were days when his heart felt all too soft.

"Child," He interrupted the little one's ramble, "What do you want to be?"

A strange, difficult question for a child. After all, childhood dreams rarely lasted, lost when the realities of maturity and the fickle days of adolescence took hold. But the answer could change everything about this child's fate.

"I dunno," The boy said, frowning. The beetles skittered over his fingers and along his slender forearms.

"What do you like to do?"

"I like adventure!"

Ah, that was a bad answer. A dangerous path.

"What else?"

The boy hesitated and pondered for a moment, before glancing down at his prizes as one took flight and danced around his head.

"Bugs!" He giggled, tracing the long, horned crown of a particular beetle with a smooth, black coat. A good answer, or at least better. Kuma could work with that.

"There are people who spend their lives chasing insects," He told the little one, who stared up at him in awe, as if truly comprehending the difference between their sizes for the first time. "They journey to far off jungles and search for them."

"Like treasure?"

"Like treasure, like pirates. They are called many, many things, arthopodologist, entymologists, or just biologists in general."

"They're scientists?"

"But they are explorers as well."

"Explorers?"

"They go out and find things nobody else has seen. They know things nobody else does. They go all over the world searching for amazing discoveries."

The little one seemed completely enraptured, eyes shining with delight. Every word had hit home with some inexpressible desire within his heart, filled his lungs and throat with anticipation and longing.

Kuma left the island that day grimly satisfied with his work. The child was a stubborn, dreamy one. Once he got an idea in his head, it was unlikely to ever get out.

He would be safe, the revolutionary liked to think. Separated from the war of his forefathers.

It was never that simple, he would realize, years later on an operating table with a goggled face looming above his prone figure as the scalpel slowly slid through his skin.


Arrival and the Captain

"Did you hear?"

"Duh, but I can scarcely believe it!"

"I thought for sure it was a rumor, but he's real!"

"How's the captain handling this?"

"He doesn't seem pleased..."

"He'll probably crush the new guy as soon as he steps in the base, just to establish a pecking order. Nothing's gonna change, who the hell could stand up to the captain?"

"But he's from Headquarters! He's gotta be tough."

"Or he's spoiled as all hell."

A busy Marine base in the eastern seas was usually a bad omen, but on this day the townspeople shared in the sailors' enthusiasm and anxiety. The uniformed soldiers of the Navy took special care with their weapons, carefully unloading and reloading rifles and polishing swords, ironing fresh shirts and hoisting new flags of white and blue on every pole. Every man, and the occasional woman, was desperate to keep busy, unable to sit still in lethargy as they were usually prone to. Asides from the patrols sailing across the seas, due to return in weeks or days, each Marine compulsively prepared himself for presentation, over and over again, fixing caps and straightening neckties.

In the town, villagers whispered to each other over market stalls and bar tables, before awkwardly returning to normal conversation.

Some dared to hope for a savior, some dreaded another tyrant.

Only a single man was ignorant of the news. He watched the marines bustle around the yard, more nervous energy flowing about them than usual, with disinterested eyes, paying notice only because he could see naught else besides the stone wall and blue sky from his position, tied to a wooden cross like a dog. Most days the bold soldiers would come nudge him with their rifle butts, or kick dust into his face, or that cruel child would have them actively beat him, but today they all let him alone.

But damn, was he starved. Could do with some booze too...

Only another, very different man was aware of the situation and felt no anxiety. Marine Captain Morgan was a ferocious, giant man with an axe that dwarfed even his huge mass imbedded in his forearm, a more violent replacement for his lost limb. He had been the first to hear the news, and was far from pleased. Headquarters was sending over another, freshly promoted Captain to join his base and hopefully gain experience. Morgan was expected to take the young man under his wing, but he had other plans. Anyone who presented a challenge to his authority would be crushed under his boot, because on this island, in this base, he ruled supreme. He was a king and lord of this island and villages, the commander of navy's might.

Fledglings from Headquarters would very quickly be put in their place.

The tyrant had no idea what he was in for.

When the battleship carrying the new arrival came into port, the villagers hid in their houses and shops, but peeked out their doors and windows constantly, unabashedly curious.

A crew of Marines disembarked, dark circles under their eyes and exasperated expressions almost permanently carved into their faces. They all wore the typical sailor uniform; no captain could be identified among them.

The townspeople whispered and gossiped, but gradually relaxed. The arrival of seatless soldiers was nothing unusual, and they all looked too tired to cause a ruckus. The troop marched to the base and was welcomed by their comrades at the gate, a long line of men posed in salutes, ready to greet the new officer.

Who was mysteriously absent.

"Where is your captain?" Morgan demanded when the newcomers stood at attention, left hands posed alongside their pure white caps.

"He flew off, sir!" was the unanimous response, completely straight-faced but with no hesitation. The men were all too exhausted to care how ridiculous it sounded; they were beyond the point of attempting to find reason in any of the actions of their missing commander.

Morgan raised a blond eyebrow. "You insubordinate little punks think you can mess with me?" He lifted his battle axe threateningly, allowing the light to catch its razor edge. The sailors flinched, some baffled by the aggression the commander displayed.

"No, sir! It is the truth, sir!" One spoke out as the leader, and the Captain turned on him, his bared teeth hardly visible past his iron jaw.

The sailor gulped.

Meanwhile, a young man strolled through the village in a tank top and slacks, a Marine cap shadowing his eyes from the sun. Behind him trailed a short kid with rosy hair, nervously stumbling in his footsteps.

The town was nice, Luffy thought, and the jumpy villagers were hilarious. He'd be just walking down the street, humming, and stop to ask for directions, and suddenly everybody in a ten foot radius would just drop everything and become statues during an earthquake, frozen but shaking all over.

He had no idea what kind of comedians these guys were, but they were great!

Usually he'd be lost about now, except the base was in clear sight, looming over his head, a turquoise volcano slashed with deep blue.

But of course, he was faced with a dilemma. While maybe jumping off and moonwalking with the kid they had picked up just a few hours ago to the island so he could grab a meal in the village had been a good idea at the time, he was now expected to report in and face the Base Commander, which meant saluting to a stuffy superior and being yelled at and possibly being trapped in the base. He would much rather wander around the village for a while, but the longer he waited the less likely he'd get a mission. And he wanted one right now. He'd only just returned to East Blue, and already he was bored without a ship rocking underneath him and pirates on the horizon. The sooner he faced his new boss, the sooner he'd be given a crew and orders to patrol the area, and the sooner he could ignore those orders and catch himself some scumbags.

But there was also a delicious smell in the air.

Ah, decisions, decisions.


Now Day 2: 9:00-12:00 A.M.

It was going to be another hot night (not that it ever wasn't). The activity on the base slowed as drills broke up for the day and divisions returned to their barracks, replaced by the night patrols and routine maintenance.

For some though, the barracks were not an option.

Fortunately for Robin, Luffy arranged for Nami to have a small quarters connected to her cartography study, separate from the women's rooms, and very few dared to venture there. Tales of horror and murder, of predecessors that stumbled in and ruined a single map, of a raging weather witch who hung her charred victims from the conjoined balcony, kept everyone away.

So she and Robin shared the rooms quite happily, merging their massive closets and libraries and were closer than sisters.

The rest of them had only one place safely rest their heads.

Luffy wandered into his spacious quarters with a yawn and dragging feet, throwing off his coat, not particularly caring if it made it to the chair or ended up on the floor. His rooms were large, considering he was the highest ranked in the base, and generally messy beyond belief anyway. They other occupants didn't quite mind it; they each were used to far worse, and appreciated the extra furniture like the couch and fireplace.

His sandals were kicked off as he belly-flopped on his cushiony bed.

Zoro followed after, stretching before he removed the swords from his waist and carefully leaned them against the bed post. He shoved the younger over to make room for himself on the only bed in the room. "At least take your freaking tie off." He muttered, but the only response was a childish "meh" as the boy buried his face in the comforter. "You'll choke yourself in your sleep."

"Who is choking?" A skeleton asked as he entered the room through the mahogany double doors, rambling along unfazed by the sight of the bounty hunter wrestling with the marine vice-admiral's tie.

"Luffy if he doesn't let me get this damn thing off." The tie finally came loose—honestly, Zoro swore Sanji tied it around their leader's neck so firmly so the brat actually would get strangled and never steal food form the kitchens again—and the annoying thing was cast aside. "Where's Franky?"

"Still at the docks, I'm afraid." Brook answered, recalling the cyborgs excited proclamations of 'Suuppper!', "He says he's going to work through the night, he's so excited about this new project." The tall musician slipped into the closet and came out with arms loaded with blankets and pillows, which he ungracefully dumped on the rug. He stripped off his day clothes, unlike the others he preferred the pajamas Nami had bought for him a while back, right in the center of the room.

No point in modesty if there was nothing to be modest of, yohohoho.

Zoro stretched out and fell asleep almost instantaneously, the commander also in a similar state alongside of him. It would be suspicious if the base commander kept multiple beds in his private rooms, so the two of them shared. Luffy was a tactile person, after all, and was apparently used to curling up with an older brother.

Brook had heard stories of the two of them, a bounty hunter and a ditsy marine captain, floating around East Blue in a tiny dingy together in their early days. Personal space probably didn't exist after that.

As a skeleton and a cyborg, the other two roommates each had bodies harder than any floor, so Brook and Franky did not mind napping on the hard wood amid a mass of blankets and pillows. They were both a tad tall and large for most beds anyway.

Tonight Brook was alone in his nest, listening to the snores of his younger companions, unless Chopper elected to join him.

Or Luffy did, as he was very, very tactile, and there were times when they would all sleep on the floor, piled up together in the blankets, and the vice-admiral's fingers would wind around and between Brooks ribs and Franky's too heavy, too hard arms became a steely pillow for the swordsman. The reindeer would come too, fully grown now with fur all poofed up, and awkward, hoofed feet would nudge them in their dreams.

And for lonely souls, it was heaven.

It had been the same on the ships before, but now they were locked in this base together, wistfully gazing out to sea day in and day out. Little things like their close sleeping arrangements kept them going.

He knew without a doubt the two on the bed were dreaming of adventure. They all did, and woke up with their tongues stuck to the tops of the mouths, strangled by words they couldn't say. Sorry, I hate this, and Dressrosa.

They did not speak of Dressrosa or Saboady Archipelago. Words felt impractical to express the regret, the longing, the betrayal.

So instead, they talked of happier times, happier things. But Brook could not keep his thoughts from turning the subject over and over on nights like these.


They obtained an island map from a division member's old friend's drinking buddy's cousin's ally's captain's super secret, unnamable contact—which was more than just a tad sketchy and a terribly suspicious, but god, they didn't have time to waste on a luxury like skepticism—and they decided to just accept their blessing and get started.

So Marco and Ace had loaded up on the Striker and set off, blasting through turbulent waters from early morning all the way to dusk.

The sun was setting when they finally entered the Blistering Strip, crimson rays painting the seas magenta, but even still Marco could feel the stifling heat all around him. Ace was unbothered, eyes set dead ahead with stony resolution, unlike the sweating phoenix who did not quite have the same absolute resistance to heat. There was a difference between being a creature of fire, and being made of fire.

The steam that rose from the constantly boiling waters would scald the skin of other men's bones, yet for them it was only a hindrance to their sight and a bit inconvenient, but the air was muggy and unpleasant.

Temperatures began to cool as they finally neared their destination, the steaming waves giving way to water that was about as hot as a shower dialed all the way up. The island the Marines had set up on was not small, it was a huge landmass comprised of mostly wasteland, except for a single side of dense, humid jungle. Cutting through the island's entirety was a river, separating it into two halves and splitting even G-9 down the middle. According to the map, the buildings of the base were all connected by bridges over the river, which dumped into a cove before emptying into the ocean. Surrounding the entire base and a great deal of land set aside for training and agriculture were patrolled, monitored walls. The river was the only way in or out, approved ships slipping into the base's bay and eventually into their sheltered docks, carved into the island's rock faces.

The plan was that they would help the others slip in that way once they motored down the river to the back entrance and found a way in.

By all likelihood, the security would be weak.

Unfortunately, going down the river with a trail of fire blazing behind them would probably make that irrelevant.

So, they would be either walking or sailing and paddling.

Joy.

So they drifted downstream, with all the grace of children in a canoe for the first time, bumping into banks and struggling to navigate the current.

"You're on the wrong side!"

"I'm steering! You're on the wrong side!"

"That's not how you're supposed to steer, yoi."

"Then why don't you do it?!"

"No, you need the practice. Keep going."

"Like hell! You just can't do it either!"

"Hey, I'm much older than you, yoi!"

"Is that supposed to mean you have more experience, or just have Altzheimer's?!"

Good times, not that Marco would remember later on since he apparently had developed some kind of mental condition.

But eventually they could make out a huge wall rising above them in the gloom, by all appearances unmanned.

The walls continued into the water a few feet on each bank, where they connected with a tall, steel gate emblazoned with the Navy's symbol. The gate must have been designed to accommodate wildlife—that is, if there was any—as each bar was two-inches thick and almost a foot apart. The water bubbled through, only slightly choked by the restrictions, and the current still flowed strong.

"That's a problem." Ace said. He gazed up at the obstruction, searching for any windows, but the darkness was too thick. There were no signs that the walls were manned, but they could be booby-trapped. Just one wrong move, one bad decision, could trigger an alarm.

Did they risk it and climb here, or look for another way in?

"So much for getting in by river." His companion relented. Of course it would have been too easy for everything to go right. They couldn't even just fly over, Marco's flames been ridiculously flashy and horrendously bright blue.

Ace groaned. They were going to have to climb. At least he had some rope stored away.

Wait.

Waiiittt. Now there was an idea: a suicidal, crazy idea, but an idea nonetheless.

"Actually," He smirked at his friend. "I know a way in."

Marco raised a blond eyebrow, clearly skeptical. "What?"

Ace rummaged around, risking a small flame to give himself a little light to find the coil of rope in the Striker. There was about thirty feet of it, which would probably be enough. And of course, a latch to act as a heavy weight.

Hah, this was going to be great.

They took the Striker back upstream and left her a decent way up the bank, not really worried about anyone stumbling upon it in the uninhabited desert wasteland, before trekking back on foot.

"Okay, here's how we're gonna play this." He began, examining the gate more closely. Every five feet up or so was a horizontal bar linking the vertical ones together; it would be bad if he chose one that wasn't high enough to provide the proper leverage.

"Ace." Marco muttered dubiously, not appreciating the mischievous expression printed across his freckled face. "What are you planning?"

I'm not planning anything, he almost replied, this is all Sabo. But he didn't, and instead just grinned cheekily.

He uncoiled the rope, finding one end and securing the latch to it, before moving as close as he could to the wall and the edge of the water. He swung the rope in a circle a few times to get the hang of the weight and length.

Then he took aim and released. The weighted end flew up and through the air, slipping right between the two closest bars, before falling down on the other side, catching the connecting bar ten feet up.

"Oh no. No. Absolutely not." Marco said, and Ace chuckled.

"Come help me grab it and pull it back through." He demanded, and with a slight struggle and a considerable amount of teamwork—meaning Ace pretending to be an ice-skater as Marco lifted him and extended him over the water—they managed to snag the weighted end of the rope again and bring back through the bars.

"This is a bad idea." Marco must have felt obligated to point out as the retrieved end was tied around his waist. "Suicidal, yoi."

"Come on, are you man or chicken?" Ace teased, "Or pineapple?"

Marco glared. "Hammer, actually."

"Stop ruffling your feathers and jump in."

One heartless push, an indignant squawk, and a splash later, the phoenix was gone.

Ace gripped the remaining end of the rope as it tightened in his hands, counting down.

Then, he pulled and pulled, feeling the deadweight dragging against the current, until a white-clothed torso broke the surface. Another tug, and the head emerged, gasping and spluttering.

Marco struggled for breath, limbs still hanging dead in the water, suspended on the other side of the gate by the rope around his stomach.

"You alright?" Ace called in a stage-whisper.

"Fu—" Cough. "Fuck you."

"Just grab the freaking gate and get to the bank."

Once Marco had successfully dragged himself ashore, Ace tied his own end to the rope around his own waist while the blond undid his.

"Now, I'm gonna dive in. It's gonna be harder this time, 'cause the rope is wrapped the wrong way, but it should hold."

"Should?"

"Yup."

"Maybe you should just risk being seen and—"

"Relax, pineapple, I'll be fine as long as you pull me up."

Giving the rope a sharp, final tug, Ace jumped right in.

Marco wasn't quite sure how long he was supposed to wait before pulling Ace up. Trying to see into the black water was pointless, he obviously couldn't hear anything but the thunder of the current, and the rope was not tightening in his grip.

If anything it was slack.

Had the stupid hot-head gotten stuck between the bars? Or had he not been able to position his body correctly to slip through at all?

Moments slid by like minutes before he realized something was very, very wrong.

A quick jerk on the rope confirmed his sudden fear—no weight fought against his tug—as well as a quick scan with Observational Haki.

There was nothing on the other end of the line.

It had snapped.

"Fuck everything, yoi."

He waited another few moments to figure out what to do.

Ace had apparently been swept away by the current, unfortunate since the water coursing down the river was terribly salty, and the others would be hanging about the marine base bay in a tiny boat by now, waiting for them to give a signal.

Marco could not exactly dive in after his brother, that course of action would do far more bad than good, but just walking away and continuing on seemed kind of heartless.

Well, Ace had gotten out of worse before.

And the punk did shove him in. And called him a pineapple.

"Sorry, buddy." He shrugged. "The show must go on."


Now: Day 2: 4:00 A.M.

Vista was getting sick of being stuck in a dinghy with a crossdresser and a twerp.

Sure, he loved his brothers, but damn, they were annoying after twelve hours of being cramped in close quarters. It wasn't like him to get annoyed, so he couldn't imagine how the two of them, much more prone to bursts of bad temper, were feeling.

Izo had taken to polishing her pistols in the dark. Real useful.

Haruta had taken to being a little pain in his ass.

"What's taking them so damn long?" and "They should have contacted us by now!" and "Let's just bust in a slaughter 'em all!"

"I really do not think that's advisable." Izo drawled, attempting to decipher in the blackness if the smudge she was wiping was actually just her imagination or was really just that stubborn.

"Yeah, relax already."

"You're too relaxed!"

Vista ignored the angry huffing and turned his eyes to the sea. It was a humid, stifling night, as if they were trapped under a thick, damp blanket, and a marine layer was forming above their heads and blocking out the moon and stars, a sign that the rising sun would be soon to follow.

He trusted his superior commanders, but they were cutting it close…

Speaking of cutting something close though, what was that shadow looming above them?

It kind of looked like a battleship—Oh.

Wow, could he be more moronic.

"Shit! Move, move!" He snatched up the pathetic pieces of wood they called paddles and began to stroke through the water as quickly, powerfully, and silently as he could as the arriving warship plowed through the waves.

He only barely managed to them out of the way of the bow, and the wake of the ship itself handled the rest, pushing them away from the large ship's flank. Haruta was freaking out a bit, snarling about how Marines should watch where they're fucking going or something, but Izo looked contemplative.

"We don't have time to wait for Ace and Marco. There's only an hour to sunrise if ships are returning from night patrol." She whispered, removing the barrel of her gun by twisting it to the side. Reaching into her robe, she pulled out a more specialized barrel, and fitted in the necessary ammunition.

"We gonna hitch a ride with them?" Vista muttered as the grappling hook gleamed slightly in the limited light. He never really properly appreciated the practicality of Izo's multipurpose and interchangeable pistols; the technology came from the strange marksman's home country, a place that was never really acknowledged for its great advancements due to some crazy isolationist polices (Vista couldn't find it on a map even if he wanted to; the place was so adverse to visitors). [1]

The shot was on target, the hook catching a back rail of the ship almost soundlessly, and Izo dismantled the contraption again, leaving the barrel containing the cable tied to their bow so they wouldn't need to hold it and possibly dislocate their arms.

Vista hoped there was no Haki users aboard the ship that was unknowingly towing them into the base, because they were sitting ducks if they were discovered.

That thought jinxed them.

A tall marine appeared on deck, the coat of justice hanging around his shoulders, though they could only tell due to how adjusted their eyes had become to the darkness. He was striding along the aft with long steps and a steady gait; they could not see his face, but he was holding up a transponder snail to his mouth.

"Rear admiral X Drake reporting in."

He was answered by a garble the Whitebeard Pirates were too far away to identify, despite how clearly sound traveled over the water.

"There have been no further attempts at breaching the perimeter. All the pirates seem to have withdrawn."

No, they just loaded up into a paddle boat in the middle of the night and are now hitchhiking on your rear.

"Please inform the replacement patrol to make use of radar. We cannot rule out the possibility of an underwater attack."

Damn, why didn't they think of that? Maybe they should have called up Jinbei after all. Maybe they weren't acting as rationally and clear-headed as they liked to think when they hatched this plan to begin with.

Fortunately, the rear admiral did not catch a glimpse of them tagging along on his aft in the dark, and soon enough they were in the base's main cove, heading towards what looked to be a renovated cavern.

Which was lit up, clear as day.

Great.

"Vista!" Izo hissed in his ear, releasing the grappling hook from its anchor before they were dragged in the light and sight of the enemy. She pointed across the water when he grunted inquisitively. They were surrounded by rock wall on three sides, inside a natural cove carved by the sea, but in the hard stone the marines had blasted out great caves to serve as shelter for their ships. Most docks were well lighted, manned by little figures in orange from what he could see, in exception of a select few. Izo was directing his gaze to one of these vacant caverns, in which he could just barely make out a little blue light. It flickered on and off, barely larger than a lit match, easily mistakable for a trick of the eye.

He picked up the paddles again and began to row towards Marco, wondering what had taken the phoenix so long.


Day 2: 2:00 A.M.

He didn't get much sleep due to his absurd workload. But when he did have the chance to sleep, he never took it.

So here he was, night fishing. He wasn't the kind of guy that feared the dark. No, he feared scary things he could and couldn't see, but he'd also grown up running around the village forest chasing down spiders, so mundane things didn't tend to trigger his mysterious-knee-knocking disease.

He may be a coward compared to his insane friends, but he wasn't all that scared of being alone in a marine base. The place was pretty safe.

Or so he tried to tell himself…

Maybe he should have asked Luffy to come fishing with him? It was kind of lonely. Or he could have gotten Chopper out of the medical staff's quarters. The vice-admiral and the little doctor liked fishing, it wouldn't have been too much to ask.

But it would have been dumb, because the commander also liked to sleep, and there wasn't actually anything to catch.

While there was sea life out there in the blistering strip, horrifying scary monsters that had adapted to resist the extreme temperatures, most marine life didn't bother to swim up the river. The fish out in the bay enjoyed the lukewarm water, but the river flowed from the hotter side, carrying with it tremendous heat that bothered even the native aquatic creatures.

So, here he was, fishing in an empty river.

Last time he had stolen a fish carcass from the kitchens, stripped it to the bone, and pretended he caught it, claiming the water had boiled its meat right of its bones.

Luffy and Chopper had been awestruck. Sanji had kicked him fifteen yards for wasting food.

But, ah, at this point, he'd do anything to avoid sleeping. It was why he signed on as Lu's secretary. It was aggravating and stressful, but the exhaustion was a handy deterrent of night horrors. Anything to keep the nightmares away.

He was contemplating the different shadows that were forming in the obscurity all around him, chills creeping up his spine, when the unexpected happened.

He felt something tug on his line.

Weird. He tried to reel in, but whatever had gotten caught on his hook was heavy. Realizing he might actually have caught something besides a cola bottle, he leapt to his feet excitedly and pulled as hard as he could, fear forgotten. Whatever it was, it was big, but put up little resistance.

He jerked the fishing rod, and it broke the surface.

And by it, Usopp meant he.

"A person?" Oh god, oh god, he pulled out a murder victim, didn't he? Some crazy psychopath had slaughtered someone on the base and dumped in the river, hoping that the flesh would be boiled off their bones—

Okay, maybe his imagination was getting the better of him again.

He dragged the man ashore, the body was warm, unsurprising considering where they were, but his hands were shaking and he had no idea what to do.

CPR? But that required immediate follow-up medical attention and nobody else was around, and god what should he do? Call for help?

But then, the man suddenly began to breathe, the air rattling through his teeth like stones on the river bank. He turned over on his side and began coughing up water and heaving all over the sand, but he was breathing.

Whew. Not a murder victim after all.

"You alright?" Usopp asked a little uselessly. He couldn't make out much in the dark, besides the fact that the man must be fair skinned with dark, shaggy hair. Oh, and he seemed to have a hat hanging around his neck, and his torso was complete bare.

Had he been going on some kind of late night swim?

"Yeah," The man spluttered, trying to regulate his breaths. "Thanks."

"No problem. But what were you doing in there?"

The man paused for a moment. "Oh, uh, you know. Swimming." Usopp would have found nothing strange with it if not for the awkward way he said the words. Everyone he knew had much weirder hobbies than night-dipping. Though the guy was dressed oddly, like some sort of cowboy-themed stripper. Still not any stranger than Franky.

"Swimming? Really?"

"Uh, you know, swimming."

Oh, damn. Lucky bastard. Usopp wondered which pretty lady on base was in the river scantily clad, and shamefully wished he had rescued her from drowning instead.

"Well, best go find your girlfriend. I hope she's okay."

"Uh, yeah, I'm sure she's fine. She's, uh, a better swimmer than me." The man was on his feet, slightly jittery about something or another. That's probably what happened to people who nearly drown in the river of their own base while getting some. Or maybe he hadn't been with a girl at all.

He figured it was best not to ask as the man gathered himself. "Uh, which way back to, uh, the docks?"

"The docks? You must be new, huh? Guess it's kinda hard to tell in the dark."

"Uh, yeah. New, that's me. And I have this awful sense of direction." Great, just hwat the base needed. More attractive, muscley guys getting lost and ending up in the lady's quarters.

"Just follow the river down that way." Usopp pointed towards the bay, packing up his rod. Might as well head back inside, before he came across any other skinny-dippers of the male gender.

The muscular, bare-shirted man hurried off, pulling on his soaking wet cowboy hat, without so much as a salute.

Geez, save a sucker's life and they don't even realize you're their superior officer.


Lost and Found and the Bounty Hunter

The Pirate Hunter was an interesting man.

Particularly his green hair. Luffy watched the moss ball bob up and down, up and down and side to side, as the starving man shoveled food into his mouth. With some nourishment in his stomach, some ale warming his blood, and clean clothes, the former prisoner looked remarkable better, and considerably less demonic than before.

"Hah, that was great." Zoro sighed, leaning back into his chair and patting his stomach, evidently satisfied. Luffy spun his fork in his hand, Zoro had finished three plates, but he had polished off six, and knew better than to eat more, no matter how much he wanted to.

His companion came to the same conclusion, eying the stacked plates with a raised, disapproving eyebrow. "How'd a scrawny guy like you eat so much?"

Luffy grinned, but ducked behind his cap as the nice tavern lady took their platters away.

"He always does." Coby said, still shifting around in his new uniform, uncomfortable but glowing with pride.

"Hardly the strangest thing I've seen today." The swordsman snorted. "So, you're head of this base now?"

"Uh huh, well, I guess."

"There's nobody else, really." Now that Morgan was locked away in the holding cells, beat to a pulp and thoroughly unconscious, Luffy was the top dog of the entire area. Which was kind of sad, considering he only arrived a few hours ago.

Zoro must have noticed how lackluster the captain's response was, as dark eyes followed his gaze out the window, all the way down the village street to the glittering harbor. The calloused fingers of the swordsman twitched, aching with some undistinguishable whim.

"We'll be seeing a lot of each other, then."

Immediately the captain's head snapped towards him, "Eh? Really?" There was a note of excitement in the boy's voice that made a smile quirk at Zoro's lips.

"I have to drop off my catches here."

A smile shined like the sun, and didn't fade even as the swordsman gathered his blades and rose to leave.

"Er, sir?" Coby whimpered when the Pirate Hunter was gone, "Did he take any supplies with him? Any on his boat surely went bad while he was in custody—"

"Eh?"

"Hopefully he won't try to eat them, he could die of food poisoning—"

"EH?!"

Ten minutes later the new captain of the marine base was dashing through town with a sack of sailing supplies slung across his back.

The Pirate Hunter's boat was already gone, drifting away from the docks, at least two miles away. Undeterred, the marine hopped off the dock and continued on, dashing through the sky as if he was stepping on wind.

"ZORO!"

"WHAT?"

"YOU MORON!"

"WHO THE HELL ARE YOU CALLING A MORON?"

Back on shore, Coby and the marine lieutenant groaned.

They groaned even more when the little boat disappeared over the horizon without the new captain returning, and they both just knew the two had somehow managed to get lost in plain view of the harbor.

"He'll be back, right?"

"God I hope so."


Day 2: 7:00 A.M.

"Luffy," He called as he stomped into the office, weighed down by another stack of papers that he knew were doomed to inevitably end up back in his arms anyway, "I need you to look over these."

His vice-admiral was sitting in his desk chair for once, something that happened very rarely, as the whimsical teen typically preferred to lounge or perch on top of the desk itself and nap on the official documents he was supposed to be filling out. Or he was found just staring out the window for practically hours on end.

Behavior like that was something Usopp was used to, Luffy had done the very same before his promotion on the ship's bow. Living within a base didn't suit the energetic young man, and it showed some days. They avoided speaking about why they were here in G-9, as guilt still twisted in Usopp's gut at the thought.

But today, Luffy was intently focused on a few sheets of paper, pen in hand and scribbling away with concentration the sniper rarely viewed on his childish superior's face outside of battle.

Immediately, he was curious. Luffy, working? Without Nami or himself looming over his shoulder and practically forcing his hand along?

Absurd. Too good to be true.

So Usopp placed down his burden on the desk's corner, hoping vainly that maybe this time nobody would topple it over, and stole one of the pages. The vice-admiral looked up from his occupation with an encouraging grin.

"Luffy," He said, "Are you doodling?"

"Shishishi~! They're pretty good, huh?"

Usopp stared at the sheet in his hand, trying to comprehend the ovals and circles with jagged lines sticking out of them in all directions, and the chicken scratch the filled the margins.

"As if! What even are these?" Usopp snorted, casting the sheet aside and made a grab for the others, fully intending to just throw them out and get his commanding officer back on task. Luffy, stubborn child that he was, was faster and gathered them to his chest defensively.

"They're beetles! Duh!"

"God, Luffy, you have zero artistic ability, huh? Can't even get bugs right."

"Can to!"

"Whatever, what would you even know about beetles anyway? Everybody knows the only thing that goes through your head is dinner!"

Luffy didn't flush—he never did, embarrassment and mortification meant nothing to him—but he did shoot the sniper a scorned look, brow furrowed and tight and low, his lips drawn in an angry line.

Usopp knew the beginnings of a tantrum when he saw them. And sure enough, Luffy had swept by him in seconds, scribbles and unintelligible scrawl crumpling in hands that shook with frustration.

Zoro, who had just wandered in with a yawn, blinked as the younger stormed past him without a word. "What's up with him?"

"I snapped at him for doodling," Usopp sighed, handing the swordsman the one paper he had managed to confiscate. "Probably shouldn't have, but I really do need him to work, Zoro. We'll all be in deep trouble if we don't sort through the orders here."

"What's the orders say?" Zoro smoothly dodged the topic of the commander's scribbles.

Usopp's hands shook as he scanned over the documents; they had been faxed over as soon as dawn broke across the sky. "They're from Sengoku. He… he wants us to transfer the pirate now." He didn't mention that Luffy had been dodging the Fleet Admiral's calls all of the day before. The swordsman knew their vice-admiral better than anyone in the world, as far as the sniper knew, and had probably already gathered that much.

Zoro frowned, one hand rubbing the hilt of Wadou. "Isn't that too risky? Whitebeard could be waiting for that."

"Yeah, that's kind of the point."

"…War?"

"…War."

The word tasted like a gravestone on Usopp's lips, and he could almost smell the scent of lilies in the air at the memories that arose. Tonight would be another sleepless night.

Zoro turned and went after the pissy commander. Not that Usopp was worried, Luffy would be back on his own, as he was never able to stay mad at anyone for more than a few minutes. Everything was water under the bridge to him.

But best check the drawers again, in case he had stored away more distracting doodles.

The magazine page was still there, as well as the usual trinkets and broken pencils, candy wrappers, scraps of torn up paper, and little plastic toys of bugs.

Wait.

Usopp gazed down at the page for a second time. The grinning, freckly second division commander of the Whitebeard pirates stared back.

But why did the guy look so familiar?

Shaggy black hair, bare chest, and…

An orange cowboy hat.

Luffy's doodles slid from his fingers.

"ZORO!"


Whew. Bleh, chapter 3. Hope you enjoyed? It's kinda more flashback than I originally wanted, but Kuma's scene turned out really long so I had to cut a bunch of stuff out. Originally, his identity was not going to be made clear, but since not as many people caught on to the mystery man of last chapter as I expected, I decided to give y'all a break. Do any of you recognize the song lyrics that will be our chapter titles from now on?

Also, as for the mystery man, if its really bothering you, go read the section again. I guarantee the character is one you are all well acquainted with; however, not knowing just yet will just make things more intense later on!

Chapter five will be out soon enough, with a SUPPERRR STAR leading the show. With his lovely raven-haired assistant, of course.

Thanks so much for every review, I appreciate every single one. I feel bad that I don't respond to every review personally, but feel free to send me PMs or anything, I'd be happy to talk to each and every one of you!