1 Day to the War: Kuraigana Island

Roronoa Zoro, after a few days sparring with the Humandrills, had needed to get away. He'd gone to the belfry of Mihawk's castle, cut down the massive bells, and then tied them all together. That loop of rope had then gone around his chest while his feet were hooked on the heavy support beam.

He was currently up to fifty-seven hanging crunches out of his first set of 100. He focused the entirety of his being on the motion. On the pull of his muscles, on the sweat dripping down his skin, on the rope biting into his chest.

He focused on those things so he didn't have the attention to think of anything else. Not about how his captain was diving feet first into hell to save his brother. Not about how broken Cross had been, his body fairly rattling for all the pieces the events of Sabaody had left him in. Not about his looming training with Mihawk.

And most certainly not thinking about how he hadn't been good enough.

The rope, slick with sweat along with his chest, slipped, and Zoro had just enough time to pull his chin out of the way as the entire set of improvised barbells went crashing down to the floor.

Panting, Zoro flipped himself over the beam and onto the floor. Might as well call that the set. Taking a deep breath, the swordsman went into a series of cooldown stretches.

And all the while, several Humandrills watched, awed, from the belfry windows.

"…damn it. Now I'm thinking again," he grunted angrily. The stretches weren't enough to distract him… well, he could at least control what he thought about. Forget the past, think about the future.

Sighing and closing his eyes, slipping into meditation, his mind ran through what he knew. He refused the possibility of Luffy dying, but in the end, it didn't really matter for his own training whether his captain wound up with an even bigger target on his back or a mental breakdown. Both results meant that everyone standing beside him, especially Zoro himself, needed to be stronger than strong.

But what could he do to push his two years of training further? He had dedicated himself to breaking any limits he had, but Mihawk was the zenith, even by New World standards. Nothing but more time and more practice could improve on whatever Mihawk could teach him, and more time was out of the question.

There was only one solution: he needed to accelerate his growth rate. And now that he put some thought into it… he knew how to do it.

"…oh, brother," Zoro lamented, shaking his head and grinning as Cross's face flashed in his mind. "If this works, I'll be stronger than ever… but it'll be a miracle if I make it back to Luffy." After another moment of thought, he shrugged and chuckled ruefully. "Eh, why the hell not? I've done stupider things for less. Now, which way to his wine cellar?"

And with that, before the bemused eyes of the Humandrills, Zoro clambered onto the belfry's ladder.

And if any of the apes had been near enough to hear what he said, the fact that he was climbing up would have prompted a round of facepalming.

-o-

1 Day to the War: Weatheria

Nami scanned over the abstract of the latest paper she was studying. The Extreme Weather department tended to produce writings of one of two kinds: observations on and theories derived from practical experiments and direct study of natural extreme weather…and purely theoretical texts that made even her eyes glaze over. Still, it hadn't taken her long to figure out how to read abstracts to see which was which, which saved her a lot of time and eye strain.

The door creaked open, and she looked up to find Haredas shuffling in, his body language very nervous. "Miss Nami, I understand you're busy with your weather studies, but the budget committee was very interested in the work you did with the Extreme Weather department, so…" Shuffling forward, he dropped a foot-high stack of paper on the table. "Well, they wanted similar savings in all the departments, and, well, I'm sure you know how anyone reacts to having their budget threatened—"

"Done."

Haredas blinked. Twice. Then once more for good measure. "Beg pardon?"

Nami slid over the stack, which had abruptly gotten a fair bit higher with a stapled sheaf of papers. "That'll explain exactly how much each department can cut and how without affecting their operations. Give me a few hours and I can write up some justifications for your department heads explaining exactly what they need to do."

Now Haredas couldn't stop blinking.

"Ah…should we expect this level of promptness regularly?"

"Only when I'm trying to avoid thinking about something else."

Nami looked over her shoulder at him, her eyes bearing an emotion they hadn't carried since her last return to Cocoyasi. Haredas trembled at the chained hatred in her eyes, the look of someone who wanted to destroy everything around her and held back only because of the futility of attempting.

"And for everyone's sake, I hope this is the last time during my stay here."

Wisely, the old man didn't pry and left without another word. Nami returned her attention to the documents before her. But all the while, her eyes kept straying to the snail sitting on the nearby desk.

-o-

2 Days to the War: Boin Archipelago

Usopp was about ready to tear his hair out. With how easy it'd been to track down all the bugs on the island he had not been expecting this much trouble earning their help! There had to be a way that he could manage it without dressing up as a giant beetle like Heracles'n; he had some standards!

Not to mention that the damn slimeball would never let him live it down if he did so…

The only good news he'd had was that the giant bugs hadn't attacked him at all. Unfortunately, that was because they were completely fixated on the island's food, oblivious to everything else so long as they were devouring something tasty. Case in point, the one whose head Usopp was jumping up and down on. Completely ignored him in favor of sucking the juice out of a mangrove-sized mango.

Frustrated, Usopp hopped off and stormed off to find another group. It didn't take long; with the amount of food on the island the population density was very high, and Usopp settled in to watch a colony of rhinoceros beetles. Sized the same as actual rhinoceroses.

"All right… so how do I draw their attention without provoking them into attacking me?" Usopp wondered aloud, rubbing his chin.

Heracles watched from a distance, frowning beneath his helmet.

"At least he's not making the same mistake as before'n," he muttered. "But this is not a good place for taming'n."

Heracles had asked why Usopp was so adamant about his plan, and the sniper gave three reasons. First, his crew had a member that could remove the language barrier between humans and animals (he had accepted 'Devil Fruit' as the explanation) and was, to paraphrase his rant, an incorrigible trickster. As such, Usopp wanted to prove he could tame a beast without his help, and the fact that his prospective companions were insects—like said fellow member—was the icing on the cake.

And on less… demented-cackling notes, his other reasons were quite sound as well: second was the fact that a few of his crewmembers had animal companions that boosted their abilities, and he wanted to try it himself. And third, well, the reason one would want a companion of any sort: someone to be there to help and talk with when otherwise alone.

The sole survivor of the island's ill-fated research team wasn't willing to argue with the final point, so he gave whatever help he could.

"What to do, what to—"

"USOPP'N!"

Such as grabbing his new friend's arm before he could shove a chunk of salmon-tree trunk into his mouth.

"Woah-crap!" the sniper yelped, hastily whipping a bottle out of his satchel and dousing his would-be downfall in a crimson sauce.

Usopp gave the food a tentative sniff before snapping his arm out at full length, a pained grimace on his face. Heaving a sigh of relief, he shot a smile at his new mentor. "Thanks, Heracles'n. You just saved me from turning my two steps forwards into twenty pounds back!"

"Uh… yes, no problem, but… if I might ask?" Heracles indicated the refused food. "What did you just soak that in and why?"

"What, this?" Usopp held up the bottle. "Just some of my personal Tabasco blend. Dousing stuff so it's blazing is the best way I could think of to make anything too delicious for me to resist inedible. I don't mind some spice, but so long as it's 'mouth on fire' hot, I'll spit it out for sure."

"Oh, really? Do you mind if I…?"

Raising an eyebrow, Usopp tossed the beetle-armored scientist the side of salmon.

"Ah, wonderful, wonderful!" Heracles popped open his helmet's mouthplate and eagerly dug in. "Mm, delicious! Now this, this is a taste I've missed all these years, mm-mm!"

Usopp blinked in surprise. "You… haven't had fish in years? But can't you just pick up… literally any food on this island?"

"Hm? Oh, no." Heracles polished off the last of the fish before continuing. "Not the fish, though that was good too. No, I was talking about the sauce. Haven't had a spiced meal such as that in years! You see…"

Heracles straightened, slipping into his newly dusted-off 'lecture mode'.

"Make no mistake, while the Boin Archipelago is indeed capable of producing truly blazing capsaicin-filled foods, peppers from all walks of life, I have yet to see it produce anything in the way of condiments. Not surprising when one thinks about it; sauces and the like are not naturally occurring foods, but rather of wholly human origin! You know what they say, 'God created food—'!"

"'But the Devil created—' that's it!"

Heracles jolted out of lecture mode to find Usopp lit up with inspiration.

"I've got it, I know how to get those bugs to listen to me! Food is the answer… it just has to be something that they can't find anywhere else on this island! I have an idea, come on, I need ingredients!"

Grunting uncertainly, Heracles followed Usopp through the foliage to find out what he was up to, and if need be, knock him out and lecture him on why it was a bad idea.

Again.

-o-

2 Days to the War: Kamabakka Kingdom

Grimacing, Sanji stared up at the okama he was attempting to beat, Juliet by name. Getting one over on him had at first brought the expected, infuriating reaction of smugness to 'her' face, but at this point, she was starting to look upset.

"Sanji-boy, I don't know what's on your mind. But if you're serious about conquering this island, the only things on your mind should be food, fighting, or embracing your inner woman."

A full-body shudder racked the chef at the last point, not helped by the glint he thought he saw in Juliet's eyes. It was that, more than anything, that prompted him to tell the truth before the okama could follow up on that idea.

"It is food that I'm thinking about. Specifically, how my food could end up killing my captain."

Juliet blinked in bewilderment, and Sanji sighed as he struggled to his feet and withdrew a small book from his coat.

"Each of us had the chance to give Luffy something that could twist the odds of saving Ace in his favor. I've been thinking up a recipe like this on and off for the last nine years. Something designed to bring an army of normal people or one superhuman back from the brink of starving to death. But I'm talking about Luffy here…" He flipped to the correct page, groaning at the list of ingredients and the interactions they'd cause. The ones he knew about, anyway. "I warned him, but how likely is it that he'll really listen?"

"Hmm? May I?"

Sanji looked up to find Juliet giving him a curious look. He held out the book, and the okama scanned over the recipe. 'Her' eyes widened.

"My, my. This is a fasc~inating idea, Sanji-boy," crooned Juliet. "I see why it's dangerous, this load of vitamins would poison all but the most dead on their feet individuals!"

"But it would work?" Sanji prompted.

"Oh, yes, it would work. But I think you miscalculated the dosages a tad." Juliet quickly scribbled something on the recipe and handed it over. "Here, this is how dead someone would have to be to safely eat it."

Sanji took the recipe, looked it over, and blanched. "Maaaybe I should've run this by Chopper before making it…" he muttered, before turning to the Okama. "Please tell me you know how I can refine this."

Juliet chuckled, and Sanji had to tamp down on his instincts at what the motion did to her face. "Oh, Sanji-boy: you've come to the exact right okama."

Turning around and bending over (and that nearly killed Sanji right on the spot), the okama rummaged around in a cabinet before pulling out some sort of machine. "Your first step is learning how to use this!"

'This' was an unholy fusion of what looked like an electric mixer, a glass corkscrew, and one of Chopper's chemistry sets. "What is that?" he asked warily.

"A rotary evaporator! It's for preparing distillates and extracts," Juliet answered. "As you've already guessed for your own recipe, such ingredients are key to making such a dish work."

'I'm not sure I like this future of cooking…' Sanji grumbled to himself.

-o-

2 Days to the War: Torino Kingdom

Chopper stood in Heavy Point form, panting and exhausted with a look of acute frustration on his face. Behind him were the birds, silent and motionless, and before him were the villagers, who were likewise motionless. For several of them, that was because they were unconscious.

"You were the ones who kept raising those pile bunkers at me whenever I tried to come and explain in peace. I didn't want to resort to violence, but you left me no choice. So, do you get it now? If I or they wanted you dead, you would already be BIRD EXCREMENT. WE ARE NOT TRYING TO KILL YOU, YOU STUPID HICKS!"

Half in fear, half in reserved shame, both mixed with traces of anger the villagers shifted. Chopper sighed, shaking his head.

"Sorry for that last part, but this week has been a nightmare," Chopper grit out, pinching the bridge of his nose as he slowly shrank back to his Brain Point. "Let me… gnnnnrghh… calm… caaaalm down."

The habitually mad doctor considered it progress when nobody took the opportunity that his new diminutive form (seemingly) presented, and decided that he could speak sanely again. Albeit in a forced calm.

"Now… let's. Start over. My name is Tony Tony Chopper. I am a reindeer who ate the Human-Human Fruit, which lets me understand both humans and animals. The birds aren't after your food, your weapons, or your lives, they just like shiny things. Give them what they want, and the problem goes away. You can even barter with them if you want to collect some of the herbs from the treetops."

Several villagers exchanged looks. Hesitantly, one of them moved to a nearby house and emerged shortly afterward with a golden goblet, holding it out questioningly. The birds' eyes lit up and they nodded eagerly.

"Good," Chopper sighed, about ready to keel over in relief. "Now, as for me… I'm a doctor. I was sent here because I'd heard about your advances in herbology and I'm very interested to learn more. I'd like to compare my notes with yours. Especially about one particular plant."

Very carefully, Chopper extracted a small safe from his backpack. Twisting the lock, he revealed a flower with a Q-shaped bulb.

Recognition flashed in many of the natives' eyes. And after several seconds of stunned silence… one of them fainted, foaming at the mouth.

"That's about the reaction I expected, yes," Chopper dryly remarked.

-o-

1 Day to the War: Tequila Wolf

It was, in theory, the perfect hiding spot. Security on the great bridge was, understandably, focused on the construction areas, where slaves could escape and sabotage could be done. There were a thousand and one places where you could set up a little hidden base where nobody would go until the bridge was opened for traffic. In this case, the vanguard of the Revolutionaries had rather easily set up a hidden staircase leading to a hidden room underneath the bridge.

Of course, to someone experienced in covert ops it was about as obvious as the Straw Hats on a mission. Or someone who had a hundred eyes and ears that they could deploy at the drop of a hat. Or someone who knew that they were there.

…bottom line, Robin found them almost effortlessly, a smile on her face and a knife in her hand. No need to make enemies if she didn't need to, of course, but she wasn't about to take any chances—

Yeah, no, she was stringing them along for the fun of it.

Muffling a chuckle, she crossed her arms and manifested an arm in a hidden corner of the small base, the limb sprouting an ear.

"—like a bat out of hell. You ever seen him that motivated?"

"No, never. Well, maybe that one time when Koala got most of her clothes blown off in training."

"Ouch, yeah, I remember that. Didn't think bones could be broken so many times. At once, I mean."

Robin smirked at the mental image that conjured.

"Alright… but the ETA of the main body remains unchanged?" one of them asked.

"More or less," the CO answered. "We got one supplementary order in light of Nico Robin's appearance: if she makes contact with us—only if she makes contact with us, not the other way around—we can accelerate our plans if we consider it worth it."

A sigh came from inside.

"Of course, if she hasn't contacted us yet, she's either not planning on letting us in on her plans or she's just screwing around with us."

"She is Cross's sister," the other one huffed. "She's aware of us, that's certain, so she'll make contact at some point. Though honestly, no idea why we can't be the ones to initiate contact."

"Simple, really."

"YEARGH!"/ "SONNUVA SAINT!" the Revolutionaries howled as one as the World-infamous 'Devil Child' abruptly appeared between them. They tried to go for their weapons, but that was a non-starter due to Robin 'holding' them over a foot away from their reach.

"The last time footsoldiers of an organization were searching me out, I did terrible things. Simply…" Robin hissed in a tense breath through her teeth. "Unspeakable, things. And over the years, doing that to anyone who seeks me out has become something of a habit. Which, I imagine, your superiors wanted to spare you from. Honestly, you should thank them. Very much."

"We will, we totally will!"

"We'll buy Koala a gift basket! Ten of them, no, a hundred, just don't hurt us!"

And as the Revolutionaries pleaded on bended knee for her mercy, utterly terrified of her very presence, Robin tilted her head with a contented hum.

"Hm… I'll be honest: despite the tragic circumstances?" she mused to herself, an impish smile upon her face. "I do believe I'm going to quite enjoy the next two years."

Her smile remained in place for a few moments before she sighed, her smile and intimidating aura fading away.

"Before anything else, I trust that you have a Visual snail," she said quietly.

Grimly, one of the soldiers looked towards a section of the room with a screen on the wall and a snail dozing nearby. Robin took a seat on the weathered sofa before it and settled in to wait.

She had distracted herself as long and as efficiently as she could. But the war was upon them now.

And above all else, she needed to know how it would end.

Everyone would.

-o-

2 Days to the War: Baldimore

The opening of Vegapunk's lab was something of a momentous occasion, Franky joined by the island council and a large portion of the armed islanders. After all, when opening the long-closed lab of a Mad Scientist, you could never be too careful about the possibility of Abominations of Science that might have survived the long confinement. They tended to be extra ravenous in such cases.

Thankfully, no such Abominations of Science came galloping out to munch on delicious morsels, and after a moment everyone relaxed.

"Well," said one of the councilmen. "I'd wish you good luck, but frankly I'm still not sure how I feel about the concept of you succeeding in your endeavors. Honestly, it would save us considerable trouble if you got blown up."

"Yeah, that's fair. You are not the first person to want that," Franky chuckled with a dismissive wave of his hand. "But, they didn't get their wish and you won't either. I'll see you guys for the first supply run. After I've bumped up the temperature a dozen degrees."

And with that promise, Franky strode into the crucible of the world's foremost genius.

The first thing that struck him was how unweathered everything was. A lab sealed this long, it was only natural to expect some decay, but no, it was as pristine as Vegapunk had left it.

But, as much as Franky was equally impressed and disturbed by the unnatural cleanliness, first things came first. And so, the cyborg set about mapping the place. He wasn't Nami, but you didn't become a shipwright without a good head for spacing, and in any case, he was probably better at enclosed spaces than her. Mostly, though, he got a sense for just how gigantic the laboratory was. The main chamber was reasonable, but there were corridors stretching all across the facility to maintain that island-wide heating system. And that was without mentioning the slew of storage areas squirreled away he had a feeling he hadn't found yet.

Finally, his search culminated when he came to a squirreled-away room whose wall most prominently featured a large, square button with a skull and crossbones on it. "Oh, hey, a pirate symbol!" Franky said, reaching out to touch it.

But no sooner had his hand brushed the button than a memory niggled at the back of his mind. Frowning, he reached into the bag Merry-sis had gifted him and pulled out a note Cross had left him. Most of it was recommendations on how to get stronger, simple enough suggestions really, and quite a few he thought he could implement, but there was one section that had been written in bold, all-caps, underlined multiple times, and was three times the size the rest of the handwriting:

"AND FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, FRANKY, DO NOT PRESS THE SQUARE BUTTON WITH THE SKULL AND CROSSBONES. IT IS THE SELF-DESTRUCT BUTTON, NOT A 'PIRATE BUTTON' OR WHATEVER NONSENSE YOU WERE THINKING. DID YOU LEARN NOTHING FROM CHOPPER TELLING YOU HIS BACKSTORY!?"

…Yeah, that was pretty clear. But really, did he have to go overboard like that?

It was at that moment that Franky became acutely aware of the fact that his fingers were still touching the top of the button.

…alright, so maybe Cross had under-sold it a bit…

Very reluctantly, Franky put away the letter and started to turn away from the button. But before he could do so fully, he paused as a thought occurred to him. "Honestly…" he muttered himself, turning a wary eye back on the button. "No clue why Vegapunk lived with something like that in this place, but no way am I stupid enough to do it!" He reached for the cables leading out of the button and its panel. "Alright, let's see, how can I kill this thing stone—eh?"

The pirate blinked in surprise as, in the process of shifting aside the button's cables, he found another button, covertly hidden out of sight unless someone knew… where to look…

Franky's eyes widened as he looked from the hidden button to the overt one. "Camouflage the real way into your real lab… okay, I'll admit, now I think he's pretty clever." His face broke out into a massive grin. "But not clever enough to fool me! Inner sanctum, here I come!"

And with that, he poked the button without a second thought. Immediately, a false wall slid away a few feet to the side, revealing a heavy steel door, which promptly sprouted a 9-square keypad.

Oh, yeah, and a hideously loud alarm started blaring.

"This laboratory will self-destruct in 60 seconds," an electronic voice stated.

"…okay, maybe he is clever enough to fool me," Franky deadpanned. No, no doubt about it, Cross definitely hadn't gone overboard enough. But he could mull over that thought when he wasn't in danger of being blown up!

Shooting over to the keypad, Franky saw the bottom-left button light up. He quickly pressed it. The bottom-left lit up, followed by the center-right, and Franky pressed them in sequence too. This continued until the fourth set when he aimed a little too high and hit the wrong button. Miraculously, the mountain didn't detonate at the mistake… but the fact that the buttons reset to zero was a close second.

"Stupid sausage fingers…" Franky muttered as he went back to it, twice as fast as before.

Finally, he finished the fifth sequence, and the keypad slid away…

At which point a chime drew his attention to a card reader on another wall, mercifully close to what looked to be a discarded wallet on a nearby table. Franky grabbed the wallet as he dashed over to the new device, rifling through to find a card, and then pulled it out and hastily swiped it through.

"Too fast. Try again," the machine droned.

Growling, Franky slowed down his swipe.

"Too slow. Try again."

"Oh are you SUPER kidding—!" He swiped it again.

This time it worked. But the door was still locked, and the alarm still blaring. A scan around the room showed that there was another keypad on the door now, a normal alphanumeric one. A glance at the card he was holding showed a simple 5-digit code. How much time did he have left?!

In all likelihood, not enough to waste looking for anything else. He sprinted back to the door, jammed in the code, held his breath—!

"—two, on—self-destruct system disarmed. Well done. Welcome back, Doctor."

The cyborg let out an explosive sigh, falling back onto the lab's floor. He waited a moment, and then, with no forthcoming threats of detonation or immolation, allowed himself to catch his breath.

"I can't start upgrading soon enough…" Franky wheezed miserably, weakly pounding his fist against his chest. "Because damn do I need a new heart, this one's shot…"

-o-

1 Day to the War: Namakura Kingdom

Sancrin and his Longarm henchmen had a slight air of unease as they proceeded again to the village of Harahettania. The unease for what should have been a routine snatch-and-grab came from the way the world had quaked mere days ago. Even with the news of the looming war taking precedence, the damage that those pirates had wrought upon the slavery industry was irreversible. That didn't immediately paint a target on his back, but kidnapping was one step away, meaning allies to his cause would soon be in very short supply. He didn't deal with slaves, no, just ransom, but he knew that wouldn't earn him any mercy if anyone decided he needed to be put down. Or if some overzealous pirate was looking for pocket change even, seeing as that seemed to be the direction the world was going!

The world was changing, and that meant that Sancrin's racket needed to change with it. The only question was how…

Sancrin shook off his doubts and affixed his usual cocksure grin as the gloomy village came into view. Questions like that could wait for later. For now, he had a pack of easy marks to rip off. Granted, this may well have to be his last raid, but he wasn't worried. He would just need to hope that he could find one or two people that could pass as a golden goose this go, and then—wait, what?

"Wait, what?" Sancrin froze as he realized the clear path to his next paycheck wasn't as clear as it should have been. Literally.

The Long-Armed bandits warily eyed the figure coming towards them from the village. Very tall, very thin, and clad in one of the black robes that the villagers had taken to wearing over the last month or two. The face beneath the hood, however, it appeared to be a genuine skull. But that wasn't possible—

"I've been expecting you."

His voice had just enough chill that they found themselves hesitating. And that hesitation turned to genuine fear when he drew a sword out of the cane he was carrying.

"Are you the feckless scoundrels who've been robbing these people blind?" the hooded entity droned, holding his blade at the ready. "Taking them for all they're worth, stealing their friends and family in return for coin, leaving them praying for mercy and salvation from whatever source they might find?"

Sancrin swallowed heavily, sweat coursing down his face. Now he knew just what kind of demon he was dealing with, and though he knew it was a foolish move he knew that this time, lying would only make things worse. And so, he uttered out the best answer he could manage. "…maybe?"

The figure was before them as soon as the word left his lips, unmistakably skeleton hands seizing around the Long-Arms' wrists.

"Good. You're coming with me."

Sancrin felt like his heart was about to burst out of his chest, he wasn't ready to die, HE WASN'T—

"Actually, my mistake: I meant to say that I am coming with you. Hold these, would you."

His heart kept pounding, almost not believing his eyes when they told him that instead of any deadly actions with that sword, the skeleton had instead thrown traveling bags into his flunkies' hands.

"Thank you in advance for carrying my baggage. Now, shall we depart?"

"Ah, w-wait, what?!" Sancrin blurted out, trying to wrap his head around this turn of events. "What the hell are you—!?"

"HURRAY! HE'S DONE IT!"

"—eh?" The Long-Arm was cut off by a wave of cheering, turning to see the cowardly villagers he'd been planning on ripping off assembled and applauding, showing more energy than in the entire time he'd been screwing them over.

"THE DEMON LORD HAS DEFEATED THE BANDITS! HUZZAH!"

"OH MIGHTY DEMON LORD! WHAT SHALL YOUR HUMBLE SERVANTS DO NOW!?"

"GO SOAK YOUR HEADS!" the skeleton-man roared back at them, starting to stomp away from the village, and then spinning right back around and jabbing his bony finger up at them. "AND COME UP FOR AIR, YOU MORONS!"

He snapped his head back around to snarl at the Long-Arms. "Get me the hell away from these people before I throttle them."

Very confused and more than a little nervous, the bandits obliged. When the village was out of sight and the skeleton let out a sigh of relief, Sancrin thought it was safe to speak up.

"Uh… who exactly are you?"

The bony visage turned towards him once more.

"All you need to know for now is that I am someone who can help make you very rich. We will discuss the finer details when…" The skeleton faltered momentarily, before turning away and marching down the road. "When the war ends."

There was a grim finality in his tone, and Sancrin decided against pressing his luck, particularly when he was starting to suspect that it was, in fact, finally starting to turn for the better.

And so, once Sancrin signaled for his boys to not bash the skeleton's skull in with his own luggage, they set off back to their base in silence.

-o-

2 Days to the War: Alabasta

King Nefertari Cobra laid in his bed, rubbing at tired eyes. Worry of what the Government could have sent—with no indication of what it was yet—had been a source of additional stress to him over the last week, and his health had finally given out.

He was unhappy about being relegated to bedrest, but the fastest way to get past it was to oblige. Closing his eyes, he was just beginning to doze…

"…Daddy?"

When he sat bolt upright in bed, wincing when the action pulled at aching muscles. He strained his ears, listening for the voice he had heard. "Vivi?" he asked tentatively. He'd had that particular experience dreaming far too many times to count, but still, he couldn't help but ask each time, hoping each time he would get an answer.

And this time, he did.

"…Hi, Daddy."

For one second, he was frozen. Then, thoughts of his illness forgotten, he threw the covers off and made to run for the door. "Vivi! Gods above, what are you—!?"

"Stop!"

He stilled with his feet on the floor. That was definitely his daughter's voice, but she sounded on the verge of tears. And for her to tell him to stop, after months-

"Please… Father, please, please don't open the door. I… being here, hearing your voice… already feels like I'm being torn in half, I-I can't see your face right now," she pleaded, and it was clear that she was crying.

That revelation left Cobra reeling, still trying to process what he was hearing, but the idea of it… Shoving that thought processed, he reprioritized, focused on understanding what he could. For starters…

"…Vivi… how are you here?" Cobra breathed, steadying himself against the doorframe. Then he froze. "Wait. Bartholomew Kuma? You were the one he sent here?"

"…yes. Carue too," Vivi said after a moment, her voice still shaking. "He's… it's a long story, but he… he used his powers. Scattered us all across the world. Cross saw it coming. The crew needs to train before they can enter the New World, so Kuma sent everyone to the best place for them to grow stronger. And I… I ended up here."

Cobra's heart clenched at the sheer pain she packed into that one word. "And now… you feel torn because you want to stay here, but feel obligated to return?"

Vivi let out a gasping sob. "…That's just it, Daddy," she whispered. "Cross's note… he said that Luffy gave his full permission for me to leave the crew and come back to Alabasta if I wanted to. I…I'm home. I can stay, I…I…"

And that was apparently as far as Vivi could get. Cobra heard a thump, probably her collapsing to her knees, and she just… quietly cried.

"I don't know what I'm supposed to do!" she wailed. "I… how am I supposed to choose? I have two groups of people that I love, that love me… that want me, if not need me… and both of them are telling me that they'll be fine with whatever I choose? I… the only reason I'm here and talking to you at all… is that I've been driving myself insane over the last week. Father…what am I supposed to do?"

Cobra raised a hand to his head, shaking it. Telling her he would be happy whatever she chose was the source of her conflict, that wouldn't be of any help. He exhaled softly.

"…how much time do you have, Vivi?" he asked gently.

"T-Two years. Th-The crew meets back on Sabaody Archipelago in two years," she answered just as softly.

A long time, but it was clear that Vivi was suffering now, and that to fight with herself over this would be nothing short of torture. No, what was needed was to remove the pressure of the choice. Once and for all.

The doors abruptly shuddered, and he realized that his daughter's crying was starting to be undercut with a howling wind.

Cobra swallowed audibly. Not only did he need to calm his daughter down for her own sake, but for the sake of avoiding the mother of all sandstorms as well!

"Vivi," Cobra pressed, doing his best to keep the nascent fear he felt out of his voice. "I know that you've grown into a wonderful, selfless young woman. You've dedicated your life to doing what's best for your home. Tell me… what are your reasons for considering the Straw Hats so strongly?"

There was no bite or accusation in the words. Even still, Vivi choked on another sob.

"I can do so much good, I can help so many people—!"

"And they're your friends."

"And they're my friends and I want to stay with them so much because I love traveling with them and I want to be with them to the very end!" wailed, both with her voice and with the wins.

Cobra winced at the adverse reaction, but continued, "Vivi, you're tearing yourself apart because your two choices are telling you two different things, so let me say this clearly so that you know what to do. Vivi…" The king paused, struggling with what he was about to say, with what he knew he had to say. "I want you to stay a Straw Hat."

"Daddy—!"

"Vivi, my beautiful, wonderful princess," he interrupted, "Your love for our country is boundless, but honestly, your faith is sorely lacking. No matter how you might fret or worry, Alabasta has stood strong and undaunted for eight hundred years now. We can survive without you for a while longer. Be it a few years, be it even a decade, we know that you'll come back eventually. And when you return, you will come bearing years of experience that will make you a greater ruler than myself or any of our ancestors who have come before us.

"But until then… Vivi, you've made me the proudest father alive because unlike so many other unworthy pretenders who bear your title, you have been nothing but selfless all your life. You have put your country, your people, and even your average fellow man above yourself, every step of the way. But now… for once… I'm asking you to take the easy path. To take the simple choice. Vivi, please, just this once… choose yourself."

The gales began to calm, slowly. When the door stopped vibrating, Cobra spoke again.

"You're here for now, Vivi. You will have plenty of time with us before you return to them. And when the time comes, you will leave of your own volition. Not to escape from an unjust law, but to help your friends who will need you. And when your journey is finished, we will still be here for you."

Silence fell on the room. Cobra held his breath as it stretched on, and on. "Vivi…?"

The door flew open, Vivi soaring into the room and embracing her father, carrying him down to the floor. Tears streamed down her cheeks but a watery smile came over her face. "I missed you so much, Daddy!" she sobbed, her wavering voice ecstatic.

"And I missed you, Vivi," Cobra replied, tears streaming down his own cheeks as he held his daughter close. And for that brief moment, in spite of the world falling to pieces, in spite of the catastrophe looming on the horizon… all was right with life.

-o-

2 Days to the War: Eden's Cinders

Su sat in the darkness, eyes closed but ears open, monitoring Conis' breathing. She hated this, hated that she was planning to abando—leave Conis, even for a short while. But they'd gotten situated—the old bunker they were in was as secure as anything they'd found or were likely to find—and she was anxious to seek out clues to the Children of Inari.

Giving it a few more minutes to ensure Conis was truly asleep, Su stood and, with one last guilty look at her friend, padded for a small gap in the bunker wall. Too small for any human. Not too small for a small cloud fox.

Ooor a grenade. She'd need to remember to conceal the outside of this passage on her way out.

But right as Su poked her head into the hole, she heard a muffled whimper and froze. Slowly, she turned around to find Conis shaking, more of the muffled whimpers slipping out. Su glanced back at the hole, back to Conis, and then back to the hole, a toxic mix of emotions swirling in her gut.

And then one of Conis' hands reached out, blindly grasping at nothing, a burn scar shining on her palm as she grabbed at her phantoms. "N-No… don't… Don't take him away…Please…"

Su stared for a few seconds more before letting her head loll down with a groan. [Fuck it,] she spat. [The Children of Inari have hidden here for centuries, they can wait a few days more.]

Spinning on her paws, she padded back over to Conis, carefully climbed over her, and nestled herself into her friend's arms.

From the tight squeeze she promptly endured (and relished), she knew she'd made the right choice.

-o-

2 Days to the War: Davy Jones' Locker

"Inventive."

"Not bad."

"I'm still confused… how is she going to use the corkscrew and electric eel again?"

"You'll find out~"

"…"

The silence spoke volumes, and the contents were music to Merry's ears. A little time, a lot of company, and a big target for her frustration had done wonders for her panic and fear. The first day had been enough to get a grasp on the situation - and stoke a burning rage that wouldn't burn out anytime soon. Over the following two days, she considered and discarded various plans. And after four days of preparation, she was as ready as she would ever be for the clash.

She just hoped that it would be enough, because going at them head-on, however much she was tempted to do so, was not a good idea. Even by her crew's standards.

When the fallen vessels of the Locker had told Merry of the real intruders into this sanctuary of the naval lifecycle, Merry hadn't expected to find much trouble. Maybe some overzealous salvagers like Masira's band, maybe some juvenile Sea Kings or other that were nosing around the wrecks, looking for corpses to chow down on. Either way, simple enough matters for her to run off.

What Merry hadn't counted on was finding a full-blown Fishman pirate war camp anchored at one of the coral trees!

Not an outpost, not a supply depot, a war camp. With barricades, buildings, supplies by the boatload, a sizeable operation established to strip down the fallen ships that should have been enjoying their well-earned rests, and all manned by plenty of well-armed fishmen who were, if not as battle-hardened as they could have been, undeniably well-organized. And more infuriatingly well-established.

And there wasn't anything she could do about that immediately, either. Her advantage was in the element of surprise and the fact that she, and nobody else, could hear the voices of this wasteland of scrap and use them to evade and navigate without any issue. Step out of that and onto their turf? Well… there was a reason that the crew's fight against an army of fishmen wasn't happening until after they trained. Even for her, it was no simple feat: proportional strength of a caravel meant jack all in the face of someone who could crush her like a damp cracker without even breaking a sweat.

But still, the challenge didn't deter Merry even an inch. She couldn't use her strength to dominate? That was perfectly fine, her crew didn't always. Or at least, only relied on brute strength most of the time. And if there was one thing that Merry had inherited from her crew, it was the ability to be a pest risen from the depths of hell.

And there was one group of schmucks oh-so-kindly breaking away from the pack! Merry grinned like a shark that spotted a bare behind, and flipped up the translucent and very ghostly veil she'd salvaged from an old passenger ship. Then she followed them.

As the salvagers picked their way through the wrecks, Merry flitted along beside them, picking her route to give them tantalizing glimpses through the holes rotted in the wrecks. And it did a very good job, too. After ten minutes or so, the fishmen had their heads on a swivel, clearly at least mildly unnerved.

Time for stage two.

The fishmen were picking their way around a wreck to a spot with a ship wedged broadside in front of them. Merry scurried over to that ship, and clambered up onto the railing, fully visible.

"You… who have desecrated this sacred place of rest. Long have you caused suffering for the souls entombed here. No longer! I am the Drowned Lady, and I speak for the ships: Leave this place and never return!"

Merry knew she cut a very spooky figure. Aside from the veil, she'd scrounged up a stringy, water-damaged auburn wig and a ratty white shift. Combined with some improvised stilts it both made her look bigger and also made her move quite a bit different from human norms. So she was just a little disappointed that the fishmen, though clearly spooked, decided to charge and attack rather than flee in terror.

Only a little, though, because charging and attacking was probably the better outcome for her long-term plan.

Merry hopped off the ship she was on, wincing at the crashing noises coming from behind her as the fishmen smashed through the old hull. At least that old-timer was actually a corpse instead of just retired, further proved when she heard the tell-tale creak and crash and muffled swearing of the ship collapsing around their ears.

A pause to let them catch sight of her again, and the chase was back on. Now that they were being cautious, Merry gave them the slip by diving into an opening too small for anyone much bigger than her. From there, she watched and waited to coordinate the perfect moment with the nearby ships.

Her opportunity came sooner than she ever expected.

"Oh, waitwaitwait, Marianne's Fury, they're getting close to you!" she giggled malevolently. "Running, running, ruuuunning... aaand!"

BLAM! And just like that, the air was filled with the sounds of both panic and agony.

"SUDDENLY PINEAPPLES, OH YEAH! THANK YOU, USOPP!" Merry cackled before going right back on the observation, her grin stretching from ear to ear. "Oooh, I'm gonna have fun with this! Oh, Height of Glory! Off your starboard bow!"

CRACK! "MY LEG!"

"MWAHAHA! Nasty!"

-o-

3 Hours to the War: Sabaody Archipelago

Boss Dugong yawned, sitting up on the lawn of the Thousand Sunny. He'd gone to sleep after the last attack the night before, entrusting the watch to the rotating cast of Flying Fish riders that had enthusiastically volunteered for the task. He ran through his morning stretches, limbering himself for the battles to come, and waddled over to the side. His students had elected to sleep onshore to minimize reaction time.

Then he actually saw his students, and knew that at least one of them hadn't slept at all.

Sighing, he Rip Tided from the deck to the shore, appearing in front of Mikey, who despite his bloodshot stare didn't flinch.

[Mikey, what the hell are you doing.]

[Oh, I was on first watch,] the young dugong answered. [Raphey said she'd take over for me in four hours.]

Boss regarded his student with a very flat and mildly disbelieving look. [Mikey, it's morning.]

[Oh,] the dugong said. [Permission to pass out right now, sir?]

[Granted,] Boss grunted, at which point Mikey keeled over flat on his face and began loudly snoring.

After taking a moment to ensure his student was comfortable, Boss waddled over to the rest of his students, lightly dozing in the grass, took a deep breath, and—

[OHHHHHHH- IT'S TIME TO WAKE UP TIME TO WAKE UP TIME TO WAKE UP NOOOO~OOOOW! IT'S TIME TO—!]

[We're awake, we're awake!] the three no-longer-sleeping dugongs shouted as they leapt to their tails.

[Good,] Boss nodded, before putting on his best 'disappointed' voice. [What was not good was leaving Mikey up all night on watch! Not because it was mean, which it was, but because he was completely useless five hours in! I'd have thought we'd had enough night attacks for you lot to realize that!]

Leo and Raphey looked appropriately sheepish. Donny, on the other hand, raised a flipper and said, [In my defense, I got outvoted.]

Boss narrowed his eyes. [And you didn't wake up Mikey anyway because…]

[I drew the long straw to not have a watch at all.]

Boss nodded again. [Understandable. Regardless, get your tails moving, you three!]

[Yes, Boss!] his students yelped gratifyingly.

As they scampered off, Boss was struck by the sudden feeling that he was forgetting something. And not the sort of something you could just shrug at, something important. Something about the passage of time.

Before he could remember, however, he spotted a Flying Fish Rider out the corner of his eye, tearing towards the Sunny like his ass was on fire. The rider skidded down to the ground, a wild look in his eyes, and with a start, Boss realized he hadn't seen any of them on guard duty like usual.

"Boss Dugong, what are you doing here?!" the rider demanded.

Boss blinked. {Guarding the ship? What else would I be doing?}

The rider opened his mouth, then closed it, muttering to himself, "Oh, right, if anything would make him forget it would be all the attacks they've had to deal with…"

Okay, now this was just getting ridiculous. {Forget what? Speak up and stop muttering, boy!}

"Fire Fist's execution!"

And just like that, Boss went deathly still. Of course. The execution. How could he have lost track of the date? Oh, wait, the rider was still talking.

"The Government snuck onto the archipelago, set up screens in some of the public squares with vis-snail feeds! Everyone's declared a truce!"

A truce… that made sense. Unfortunately, he doubted that everyone left on the island had enough honor to abide by it. As much as he wanted to, they couldn't all go.

No sooner had he thought that than his students blurred into existence in front of him, all wearing pleading expressions. They didn't even need to say anything.

[Go,] Boss said. [I'll guard the ship. And don't forget to take Mikey with you.]

They all nodded somberly, and clambered onto the flying fish's back, Raphey none-too-gently throwing Mikey's unconscious form on.

[ONE MORE THING!]

The three conscious dugongs looked back at him to see him fighting a grimace. Actually thankful for once that Soundbite wasn't around, he shouted, [Nobody ever finds out that we forgot. Fights or no fights, I don't want anyone thinking that everyone from Alabasta forgets life-threatening information.]

The three of them winced and nodded. Boss watched them fly off, a grim feeling in his heart.

'So Plan A failed. And Plan B… sorry, boys, but this is going to be rough.'

-o-

1 Hour to the War: ■■■■■■■

In the shadows of the world, for a brief and fleeting moment, there was peace.

Not a single movement, not a single sound, not a single sign of either life or death. Simply an absolute sense of nothingness.

And then, in the deepest part of that nothingness, two eyes cracked open. Eyes that were filled with fear and terror, darting about frantically in search of anything and everything that might be looking to end their bearer's life.

And as the eyes blinked and stared into the nothingness, that very same terror intensified at something that only they could perceive.

"Cross," a quiet, quavering voice rasped out. "Something's happening. I… the world is, it's… everything is tensing. Readying. Holding its breath… I can feel it, Cross. It's time."

Silence returned for a few seconds. Then, a second pair of eyes cracked open. And these eyes weren't scared. And nor were they angry, sad or… anything, really. Instead, the eyes just displayed exhaustion. A bone-deep lack of energy, with only the barest hint of concern for anything else.

But that 'hint' was enough. The tiniest wisp of a flame sparked to life in those eyes, and they narrowed.

And slowly, a vindictive glower rose up, and stared into the nothingness.

"…then let's get to it. Everybody to their places. It's time to raise the curtain… on the final act."

And in that nothingness, a single sound rang out…

CLICK!

Which, in turn, triggered the final death knell of the current world.

A knell heard all around the globe… and that had been heard so often before.

"Don don don don! Don don don don!"

Cross-Brain AN: No more trolling; Cross is back, and his next broadcast is going to turn the world upside-down. As for his location? Well… here's a hint for when you'll finally find out. Remember what we asked at the start of Impel Downfall: Who can say exactly what goes on in Hell? And the answer is…

.

.

.

why, it's the Divine and the Damned, of course.

12 Hours to the War: Impel Down

Tensions were running high in Impel Down, for which nobody could blame the staff. At any second now, they expected to hear that their prisoners had begun the jailbreak attempt of the century, and that was if they didn't try to be subtle about it at first.

Momonga had found himself stationed close to the top of the prison, hovering around the top side of the passage between Levels 2 and 3, and the beasts on the floor wisely gave him a wide berth.

All save for the Minotaurus, who was giving him a notable leer whenever he paced near enough. And a few hours of putting up with that was all that the Vice Admiral could take. Ensuring that he kept to the proper passageways, he stalked over to where Sadi stood at the ready, her scowl deepening when he arrived.

"Your displeasure at the situation is one thing. But since neither of us want me to be here, would it be too much to ask for you to tone down your animosity? If you need to vent, then by all means, you can use me."

Raising a brow and beginning to smile, she lifted her whip.

"Verbally, you deranged cow."

"Tch. Prude…" Sadi groused, but she didn't lower her whip. Instead, she snapped her attention to the side, causing all the prisoners within her line of sight to tense in terror. "But while the thought is on my mind… guards, the keys."

Momonga watched with antipathy as the Floor's guards opened the doors to about a dozen cells and prodded the prisoners out into the open, where they were surrounded by the Beast Hell's slavering denizens.

"Alright darlings~, here's the deal!" Sadi barked out, voice equal parts playful and menacing. "Anyone who doesn't suck and suffer the most and manages to amuse me enough for the next few minutes doesn't get their rations cut in half! Sooo basically, usual game night rules! Have fun~! GET TO IT!" And with those last words belted out, she cracked her whip—

"GROOOOAR!" "AAAARGH!"

—and screaming and rapid footfalls filled the air. Background music that only a torturer could love.

Case in point, Sadi was visibly calmer when she turned back to Momonga, her expression (or the half that could be seen) as sober as Momonga had ever seen it.

"When you get down to the bones of it, our world's justice system is simple: catch the criminals, convict the criminals, punish the criminals, all while protecting the ones who abide by the law," she summarized. "And while we here in Impel Down do keep up with the news, we haven't had much reason to focus on the activities of the Navy or the Government. Not for centuries. Not until the SBS began."

Momonga's eyes narrowed, and a far too familiar headache bloomed in the back of his skull.

"The first broadcast? That merely had our interest. A strange piece, but at least it was an interesting diversion. But once Cross decided to guarantee himself a penthouse suite in the deepest pits of living hell we could manage, we've made a point of not missing so much as a single broadcast, no matter how trivial. And after cross-referencing it with the newspapers and by asking the prisoners that we've received the right questions… Well." Sadi's lips twisted in a vicious scowl. "You can imagine that we were quite concerned that for once, a pirate mouthing off about the injustice of the World Government wasn't speaking out of his ass."

Momonga's already attentive posture somehow became even tenser, and he leveled a full-blown glower at the Chief Guard. "That. Is a very dangerous opinion to have."

Never mind that it was one that he himself had been entertaining over the past week. And by the slight lengthening of her face as if she were raising an eyebrow, she had heard what happened to Level 3's abomination. After a moment, he spoke again.

"Assuming that your opinion has some basis," he said, choosing his words carefully. "You realize what living by it would mean. Not only in the context of your own life, but your occupation. How can you be so composed about that statement of yours…" His gaze turned to regard the moshpit of violence that was ongoing mere feet away. "When it means that even as we speak, you could be responsible for the torture and suffering of innocent people.

In direct contrast to Momonga's lengthy deliberation, Sadi didn't even take a second before responding with a flat "Meh," and waving him off dismissively. "That's no concern of mine."

"No…?" Momonga stared at her, only the last vestiges of his discipline keeping him from going the extra mile of gaping at her.

"No concern, yes," Sadi confirmed, casually inspecting her nails. "Obviously, I'm not going to intentionally inflict mind-warping aaaagony~ upon innocent people, mmmm~ but even you must understand how effectively a wolf can make itself look like the most innocent lamb that ever sailed the seas. We wouldn't make any attempt to stop someone who we knew to be innocent from leaving, but that kind of certainty could only come if someone had been born here. We are jailers and enforcers. It has never been our job to act as judge, jury, nor even executioner. The burden of proof, innocence, and now guilt?" She casually waved her hand in his direction. "That's always been yours."

"And if you want to talk about innocence? I have words on the subject."

Both spun to find Domino standing behind them, a crossbow in one hand.

"Impressive stealth," Momonga muttered.

"I have to keep up with the likes of Mistress Sadi and Hannyabal somehow, and psychological terror is one of the many fields we practice in our domain. Now." She flicked her glasses up, catching the light just so. "If I may continue?"

"By all means," the Vice-Admiral invited.

"Then as I was saying, it is rare but possible for prisoners to appeal to us. If they make a sufficiently convincing case, we submit a report to issue them a retrial." Domino's professional frown twitched down in disapproval. "A process that has done nothing to help the Government's case. Nobody in living memory has ever had their case overturned… that is, until we had almost a dozen successful appeals during the last four months. A time period that just happens to be the exact length of time those very retrials have ceased being conducted upon Enies Lobby. But even then, with any failed retrial our job has always been to assume that they're very skilled liars and punish them accordingly. And that the World Government bears incontrovertible proof of their guilt, justifying whatever happens to them as a result."

She then slid past them. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm just passing through. I need to fetch more poisoned bolts, just in case."

Sadi harrumphed slightly before looking back at Momonga.

"As Little Miss Oh-So-Perfect explained, Impel Down is a prison. It has never been in our job description to verify the innocence of every person brought here when. Even if Cross is right, the majority of our prisoners are guilty as charged. There's never been a case of a member of our staff knowing with certainty that the person in question was innocent. If there were, we would not stop them from leaving. We are those who have dedicated ourselves to making criminals' lives a living Hell. And you are the ones that are supposed to be dedicated to making sure innocent people never end up here."

Her frown deepened. "My 'displeasure' with the situation, as you put it before, is how deep the problem runs. There will always be mistakes in the process, and they're not our responsibility. But when it comes to something like this… this much evidence, this much proof that the problem is deliberate, endemic to the point that the World Government is no longer trustworthy…"

She stepped close to him, enough that he could see traces of her eyes through her locks. And of the unholy fury that burned in them.

"I hope you realize I'm only telling you this much because I can see the same feelings in your eyes," she hissed, almost twice as sultry as she was menacing. "Because things going that far now, as they have, has made us feel something that we haven't felt in centuries. That we never should have been given cause to feel. A little emotion called… rebellion."

"And you… do not see any problems with confessing such a thing to a Vice Admiral?"

"Oh, of course not~! After all, if I thought for even one second that you would make an issue of this…"

A heavy hand fell on Momonga's shoulder, and he tensed furiously as an air-rumbling growl rippled out from behind him.

"Then you'd be dead where you stand."

She chuckled and turned her back to him.

"I am very good at perceiving pain. And I can see clearly, no torture I could muster now would be worse than how much your sense of honor is shredding you from the inside out. And it is simply marvelous~"

The conversation ended there, and after a minute, Momonga returned to his post more frustrated and conflicted than when he had left. And the tense confrontation before he left the prison three hours later did nothing to make him feel better.