Chapter 82

Xomniac AN: Well...it's September 19 somewhere, isn't it?

Patient AN: Once again, before we get to the chapter proper, here's a recap of the previous one. If you skip it, pay close attention to where it ends or you may end up a bit lost.

The day after the war, Smoker, Tashigi, and Popora met with Impel Down's five executives. Smoker revealed that they borrowed from the Sea Kings' armistice with pirates, using the password Cross provided, and Tashigi admitted that they helped Luffy with his jailbreak as the price for the chance to stop the war from happening, a failed attempt to save countless lives. They revealed that they had turned against the Government because of its self-centered definition of Justice, and that another reason that they had come to Impel Down was to recruit them for their cause. And despite the jailers' indignation at the idea, Smoker pointed out that the only reason that he was still alive was that they were already considering it.

After a lengthy interrogation about what they had done, what their motivations were, and what they would give him in return, Magellan agreed to join the Zodiac of the Damned, vowing to hold them to their promise of transparency and thoroughly evaluate the New World Masons before he decided whether or not to permanently join them. He chose the codename Boar and, at Tashigi's insistence, led them down to Impel Down's seventh level.

Back in the present, Ace had just been released from his Sea Prism Stone handcuffs, and cut off their pursuers with a wall of fire. Luffy and Ace enjoyed a brief reunion before Cross warned them to leave. Luffy gave Ace his last bottle of seaweed alcohol as well as a pipe to help him fight their way out, and as Cross tried to urge them again, he coughed up blood, revealing that he was nursing a stab wound at his stomach. Soundbite urged them to run still, and grimly, they acquiesced. Whitebeard stepped in to block the pursuing Vice Admirals, and he shared a final hug and farewell with Ace before they retreated: Luffy, Ace, Lucci, and Jinbe in one direction while Jabra (still carrying Kaku) and Isuka headed another way.

Whitebeard blasted away Bartholomew Kuma and began fending off the Vice Admirals. Akainu appropriated a loudspeaker and, with Sengoku still recovering from his heart attack, assumed command of the remaining Navy forces, ordering them to kill anyone not on their side, anyone who ran away, and anyone who objected. As the Whitebeards sounded the retreat, Vice Admiral Momonga found a group of Marines supervising a group of pirates that had surrendered, in defiance of their orders. He demanded to know what they were doing, but Akainu appeared and killed them all—pirates and Marines—before they could answer, then demanded Momonga's excuse for not killing them. Momonga admitted that he did not have one, which satisfied Akainu. The Admiral headed back into the battlefield oblivious of Momonga's discomfort; the Vice Admiral saw a target for venting it in Hina and charged towards her. Unconcerned, she ordered Jango to "start the encore," to which with Soundbite's help, Jango triggered prearranged hypnotic suggestions all across the battlefield, causing countless more Marines—including Devil Dogs—to begin fighting against the Navy. Momonga was forced to miss his window against Hina as his erstwhile comrades attacked, and Fullbody taunted Akainu about being able to differentiate the real traitors from the sleeper agents.

Two agents of CP-0 interrupted Doflamingo and Hancock's fight, giving the former new orders while revoking the latter's Warlord status. Doflamingo left, hating taking orders from them but agreeing that their 'suggestion' sounded like more fun, while Hancock began fighting with the agents, vowing that they would never take her alive. They answered that they didn't plan to, and Hancock began drawing them away from where she assumed her sisters had retreated.

Amidst Ace and Luffy's retreat, Jabra and Isuka returned to their group alongside Ivankov, who recharged Luffy with his energy hormones. Isuka had already received the same hormones along with healing hormones, as had Kaku. Ace melted the ice behind them, disrupting another attempted charge from the Angevins, but Akainu appeared behind them, solidifying a path forward with magma. Cross panicked, and Soundbite shifted his focus from battlefield-wide support to calming Cross and reassuring Luffy: drowning out the rest of the world in both directions, he signaled the other Straw Hats to call in from all over the world, reigniting Luffy's passion and drowning out whatever Akainu had to say. Akainu tried forcing their attention onto him by killing a group of retreating soldiers, but they kept running, and Lucci and Jabra taunted Akainu by saying he was acting like a baby. Ivankov switched to female as she began stalling Akainu. With Akainu's attention on her, the Admiral was blindsided by Whitebeard, the true reason for Ivankov's stalling. Whitebeard knocked Akainu out, leaving him buried in a pit of ice, but Aokiji and a swarm of Vice Admirals arrived and prevented him from killing Akainu.

T-Bone engaged Vergo, drawing his attention away from Whitebeard and Ace with his vow of Justice that made Vergo suspicious of how much he knew. Doflamingo, meanwhile, hid in the island's highest shadows and, using the full power of his strings, puppeted Little Oars Jr. into attacking the retreating forces. Buggy made to join the retreat, but Mihawk nicked his nose, and Buggy's retaliatory projectile exploded when Mihawk cut it; he parried the explosion with his cross-shaped dagger, which shattered from the strain. Buggy parried Mihawk's retaliatory slash with daggers in his disembodied hands, which immediately zoomed after the rest of his body to join him in retreat.

The Devil Dogs' remaining leaders organized their forces for battle and charged as the aquatic BioMEGA wiped out swathes more of the pirates. Kizaru fell out of his stalemate with Marco when Jonathan coerced him into trying to use the sea prism stone handcuffs, which he'd held off on using out of paranoia; Marco snapped the cuffs onto Kizaru's own hands before engaging Doflamingo, trying to burn the strings controlling Little Oars Jr. Crocodile and Daz finished killing the land-based BioMEGA and, seeing that Whitebeard was planning to die, commandeered a battleship off of the coast and left the war, observing its remainder from a distance.

Whitebeard's other Division Commanders headed back for the front lines to protect the retreat, calling Ace captain as they went, to his shock. As they continued retreating, the remaining two BioMEGAs attacked; Ace brought down the jellyfish with his fire and Jinbe engaged the sea serpent. Kaku began carrying Isuka, who was coughing up blood from the hormone overdose, and the Pacifistas briefly gained ground before Kalifa swamped them with her soap again, Jabra parting from the ranks to help her. They neared the Moby Dick, but Akainu, who had tunneled through the ice, erupted in the middle of the Moby Dick, destroying it and the three other whale ships.

Whitebeard mourned his ship briefly, but Moby Dick's Klabautermann appeared and bade him a fond farewell. Akainu snuffed out the Klabautermann, vowing that anything existing because of outlaws, miracles included, had to die. Outraged, Whitebeard tossed the Marines opposing him aside, Aokiji distracted by a flashback of Akainu mercilessly destroying a ship, and charged for Little Oars Jr., seizing Doflamingo's strings and sending a category 11 quake through them; Doflamingo released his hold on Oars fast enough to survive, but not fast enough to avoid having the bones in his arm crushed to dust. He swore vengeance on whoever arranged for him to puppet Oars before retreating to the background to fix his arm.

Ace, though thoroughly shaken, mentioned that they have a fifth whale beneath the waves, which Squard is already coordinating. Akainu remained where he was, and a very disheveled Irian appeared and attacked them, stunning Ace, parrying Jinbe, and preparing to kill Luffy. Rob Lucci struck with a Finger Pistol that she barely turned in time to make non-lethal, but lost her left eye to the attack. With her reeling from pain, Ace burned her with a Fire Fist and Jinbe sent her flying with a Three Thousand Tile True Fist, accidentally hurling her into Marineford's tower instead of the sea.

Luffy's group made for the edge of the ice to wait out the escape ship, but as they ran, a sea prism stone bullet shot out Luffy's uninjured ankle. A bullet that came from someone other than the Devil Dogs' sniper Halvar. Soundbite struggled to find the source, but with him already overstrained, a concentrated burst of Haki accompanied by Blackbeard's menacing laughter knocked him out. The final sound from the battlefield he transmitted came from a clash between Akainu, Ace, and Luffy; amidst the otherwise frozen battlefield, Akainu charged and prepared to snuff out their lives, and the last thing Cross and Soundbite heard was the agonized scream of a man with an unshakeable will, leaving Cross catatonic.

A day later, in Impel Down, Magellan directed Tashigi to a trapdoor that led to Level 7. As she attempted to open the door, Soundbite began panicking at someone trying to break in, trying in vain to rouse Cross. Tashigi looked in horror as she revealed only a file room, and shared a Tone Dial recording of a panicked Cross begging her to help him out of the Seventh Hell, the Hell of Darkness.

As for Cross, the person breaking into the isolated cell where he had sequestered himself for the broadcast was a feral and cannibalistic woman who Lassoo and Funkfreed fended off, destroying the cell and preparing to wade back through a dark labyrinth. At last, Cross's location is revealed: a secret prison on the island Nox Vestibule, a Never Day Island in the Red Line's shadow in the North Blue. Upon the island was the gargantuan structure that the World Nobles had appropriated into their personal prison: the Eternally Rotting Tree, Serpent.

And now begins the end of Marineford Misery. Pardon the exposition along the way as we welcome you to our Hell…

The Necrophage Tree—called 'Eternally Rotting' for the sake of the less-sophisticated—was a secret prison for the World Government, established for one simple reason: Impel Down was too regulated. For all its hellacious punishments, law and order held absolute sway within its walls.

And law and order were an obstacle to what the World Nobles had decided certain people deserved for opposing the children of the gods. The light was theirs alone, and if someone tried to use it for themselves, there was nothing for it but to cast them into darkness.

And what a darkness they had chosen.

-o-

[Gif, is the coast clear?]

The Visual Snail had made the choice herself to tag along with Cross instead of remaining on the ship for two years, and she had quickly proven a valuable ally. Even if she was starting to vaguely regret the decision. The whir of her rig's propellers was soft enough that she didn't attract the enemies lurking just out of range of their collective senses, and her subspecies had exceptional eyesight even in the darkest of darkness.

"(T∩T);;" The smallest snail of the group sank in the air, her eyes low, sad, and very, very afraid.

Lassoo whined acknowledgement. [Yeah, I know. This entire hellhole isn't safe. But right now, is anything around?]

Gif glanced warily back into the darkness, before wavering side-to-side, the best approximation of 'probably' she could manage.

The haggard hound-weapon gave an exhausted nod. ['Maybe' is the best we've had in hours, I will take 'maybe'. Alright, let's budge up to here and see what we can—!]

Thump.

Lassoo and Gif went very, very still. Lassoo clenched his teeth to the point of cracking, and Gif's rotor ground to a halt, dropping her to the floor like a rock. The impact hurt. Staying in the air would have been outright fatal.

Their paralysis was broken only by the two tilting their eyes up, right at the near-certain death looming above them.

-o-

The horror of Serpent begins even before you look into its geography, for what does it say about a prison that it has its own geography in the first place?

Approaching from the outside, the guardhouse was the first threat encountered. 'Guardhouse', though, was a misnomer used by the bureaucracy to help hide its purpose. In reality, the structure was a fortress built around—and into—the base of the trunk, tall and thick enough to stymie even a giant from both directions. This, however, described only the ground defenses, for the guardhouse kept more than the inmates confined. The island was naturally home to territorial beasts unwelcome in the light, and one species, in particular, ruled the skies…

-o-

Three red orbs ringed in silver glowered balefully down at the cowering duo, rapidly cocking back and forth. Their owner was almost completely hidden in the ever-present gloom, and what little they could see showed a beast at least the size of a small elephant (and they would know), straddling the alley they cowered in on viciously taloned legs.

For the longest time, the two non-human pirates held their breaths, not daring to twitch a muscle as the hungry eyes scoured their hole.

SNAP!

They didn't even flinch as a third leg abruptly shot out of the dead center of the shadows, talons sinking into and skewering a discarded corpse before yanking it back up and out of sight.

There was a rip of meat, a rush of movement and displaced air, and the beast was gone.

The less-monstrous beasts waited a full minute before they allowed the breath they'd been holding to whoosh from their lungs, collapsing to the ground in relief.

[I really hope that that's as big as they get,] Lassoo groaned.

"TT^TT" Gif shuddered, nodding her eyestalks in agreement.

The two took another moment to catch their breath, before Lassoo peeked over his shoulder and let out a hissing whine.

Moments later, another creature approached them. Thankfully, this one was familiar.

[You suck at whistling,] Funkfreed sniffed.

[Well, I'd howl, but from what we've seen, I'm not eager to find out whether those things consider anything smaller than an adult human enough food to be worth hunting.]

-o-

Moving up from Serpent's roots, the trunk itself is almost totally barren: the only signs of life are the galleries of tunnels densely studded in the bark. An ever-shifting labyrinth where with every second your risk of being eaten approaches one, whether by the train-sized entities that bored the holes, or by the tree itself, sealing its own wounds and devouring anything trapped within.

The only other means of ascending or descending unharmed is the highway, colloquially known as 'The One Way Trail'. Carved through the rotting wood and lined with metal-reinforced stone, the tunnel spirals up the trunk, connecting a chain of heavily fortified checkpoints, connecting the earth to the summit of Serpent. Fortresses one and all, they were designed to keep the guards within safe from whatever dwelt in the tree, and render even the merest notion of escape an impossibility.

But for all that the trunk and branches were vast and labyrinthine, Serpent was still a tree. Though the outer limbs had all the inclination to release their captives a Venus flytrap did, it wasn't impossible to break through. Just unwise.

Those few who managed to break through enough branches to penetrate to the outside would, if they were lucky, get caught on twigs and eaten alive by the yatagarasu. If they weren't, they'd be met with a seemingly bottomless drop down to the earth below, and be lucky if they were killed on impact. Invariably, whether they were or not, they were bound, gagged, drugged, and added to the next shipment of provisions to the prisoners.

Oh, no, the guards didn't kill them. They were simply left to soak in the bouquet of actually humane and decent food while unable to eat any. And then delivered, with the rest of the food, by trebuchet. Given the delivered supplies were deliberately kept to half—three quarters, on more bloody weeks—what was needed for the whole population, their final fate was both obvious and rarely pleasant.

All part of driving the prisoners to the greatest heights of depravity imaginable, of course. Prisoners delivered to Serpent tended to be in unsound states of mind even before being detained, for only a madman opposed the Government in the sort of manner to get them delivered to Serpent. Add delirium from chronic lack of food and sundry nutritional deficiencies, the cruelties of the guards and Nobles, and above all else the paranoia from the perpetual darkness, and food delivery on the Serpent side tended toward a similarity to a piranha school's feeding frenzy.

After all, fear of the dark, at its heart, is fear of whatever might be lurking in it. We learn, as children, not to be afraid of the dark, because there isn't anything there. Those condemned to Serpent last less than a day before reverting back to childhood form, for in Serpent, there is always something there: monsters as bad or worse than the prisoners themselves.

-o-

[Yeah, well outweighing them by a metric ton doesn't seem to be doing the trick lately, so we're all having a shit time. Especially!] The quadrupedal blade hefted his trunk, shaking the limp body he was carrying. [Seeing as I'm the one hauling and protecting the dead weight here—!"

[Don't Use The D-Word,] Soundbite rumbled, Funkfreed flinching. Only briefly, however, before he collected himself and glowered at the snail.

[Listen, you slimy little basta—!]

And then they all froze at the soft, harsh sound of metal scraping on stone.

A man lumbered by the alley. He was massive by normal standards, possibly due to a giant somewhere in his family tree. His torso was bare, exposing a ripped barrel chest and abdominals on his front, crisscrossed with ragged and ill-healed scars, and a half-dozen broken swords sticking out of his back. His equally muscular legs dragged stiff feet listlessly through the dirt, one arm loosely dragging a machete the size of a person behind him. And his face? There was none to be seen. Only an expressionless iron mask welded—outright welded, the molten seams glinting in the minuscule torchlight next to raised ridges of once-seared flesh—to his head.

Cross's band hadn't quite managed to nail down what the misshapen, humanoid monsters stalking this hell were. Some form of experiment like what Shiki and Indigo had done, most likely, but applied to humans instead of animals. What they did know was that they were freakishly stealthy, even more freakishly strong and tough, and compensated for their thoroughly mediocre night vision with distressingly keen hearing.

For a heart-stopping moment, the monstrous human(?) paused in place, his head panning across his surroundings. The animals all held their breath, tensed to fight for their lives. The sighs of relief when he began trudging once more were all mental. It was only once the scraping faded from their senses that they let their breath rush out.

[We need a new place to rest so I can actually snap at you,] Funkfreed murmured.

[Yeah, well, half the buildings around here have only two walls standing if we're lucky, and the other half are already occupied, so unless you think we can evict some crazies without kicking the hornet's nest again, this is the best we're going to get,] Soundbite ground out. He nodded his eyes at the wall. [Just… drop Cross, and plant your hide in front of the entrance so that maybe anyone passing by mistakes you for more wall. Then maybe we can try and snap him out of his head.]

The elephant grumbled something deeply unkind under his breath, but he nonetheless gingerly laid Cross up against the wall of the alley, doing his best not to aggravate his wound. They had bound and treated it to the best of their ability, but their best was just barely better than a stopgap measure.

Funkfreed then maneuvered his way past Lassoo and Gif so that he could press the bulk of his flank up against the alley's opening, closing it off to the outside. With that done, the group turned their full attention to Cross, and after a look of confirmation at Soundbite, Funkfreed spoke.

"Cross, come on, wake up!" he pleaded, shaking his wielder with his trunk as hard as he dared. "I know that things look grim for the world, but things are dire for us right now! Being deadweight isn't doing us any good, we need all hands on deck, or we're all going to get very dead, very soon! Come on, show us that you can hear us! A twitch, a blink, I'll even take an angry rant! Just… come on, react!"

But regrettably, the plea evoked absolutely no reaction from Cross. Not even an acknowledgement that he'd heard anything. Funkfreed's actions had all the effect they'd have had on a string-less puppet.

"…okay, round two. Partner, look," Soundbite said. "I know that THAT was a BAD LAST THING to hear. But WE DON'T KNOW WHO SCREAMED. I WAS TOO OVERLOADED to ID the voice. IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO."

Cross still didn't stir, his eyes dim and unfocused.

Growling to himself, Lassoo stuck his face around Cross's jacket, sniffing out an item within. With a grunt of victory, he slowly pulled it out: an orange bag, a foot long and an inch thin, the biggest of Merry's backup bags. Catching the zipper in his teeth, Lassoo tugged it open, carefully extracted the bag's most recent and most important item, and forced it back onto Cross's head.

"If you're not going to think about what could be true, think about what is," the dog-gun snarled. "Luffy is our captain. We all know that he will be the King of the Pirates!"

This finally sparked a reaction, a shiver running through Cross's body. Soundbite leaped onto the opportunity before it could drift away.

"He's our Captain, Cross, AND our friend! He survived EVERYTHING, and he had all the help we could give him! And he trusted you with his hat! THE KING'S CROWN! HE WOULD TRUST YOU NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENED! EVEN IF SOMETHING DID HAPPEN—!"

"Which we're damn sure it didn't!" Funkfreed cut in.

"Then he'd never blame you for it! But only as long as you get up off your ass AND ACTUALLY START SHOWING A PULSE!

-o-

The actual 'prison' is a cobbled-together complex at the apex of the tree's trunk. The fact that they could build any sort of structure there in its natural state meant that it was the safest place in the tree itself. A problem solved by the fact that the highest point of the complex was a fortified tower that served as the guards' headquarters.

The warden was never seen, for there was none to be had. No single authority, no uniting leaders - and no single point of failure. Rather, the guards of Serpent only followed one will, and only followed a single directive: the will of Serpent itself, to consume and devour all within. All the guards did was ensure that that process, that ongoing carnage, continued unabated, no matter the circumstances. And since to the World Nobles the mere continued existence of Serpent fulfilled their will, that was sufficient.

Of course, the fact was that no matter how feral a beast was, it would always have the instincts to survive and, subsequently, seek out nourishment and shelter. Cheap buildings made of materials just developed enough that the tree couldn't absorb and digest them immediately ensured that the prisoners of the hell-pillar did not die of exposure—such was far too boring a fate to be allowed.

And then there was the biggest point in their favor: even the most barbaric man could see the potential of fire, and never more than when it could make the Darkness turn, run… and solidify.

-o-

For a few more heartrending seconds, Cross remained immobile, staring at nothing. Then he finally twitched, awareness chasing away the thousand-yard stare. The pirate groaned, a hand coming up to massage his eyes.

"You finally back with us, or are these just your death throes AND I NEED TO FIND MYSELF A NEW TALKING HEAD?" Soundbite attempted to heckle, but his efforts were undercut by the genuine worry that seeped into his tone.

The only response was another groan, but at least it was a response.

Soundbite heaved a weary sigh, glancing at his cohorts. "He's waking up. KEEP PUSHING."

"Luffy's waiting for us, Cross! He's out there, waiting for us! You can't give up!" Funkfreed asserted.

Cross shook his head, a grimace sprouting on his face as he ground his palm against his forehead.

"Because that's what this really comes down to, you know! That's the deciding factor that you have to, have to acknowledge!" Lassoo barked, his voice rising to the point where Soundbite had to muffle it for him. "Answer us, Cross: do you believe that there's any chance that Luffy didn't make it out alive!?"

And that was the tipping point: Cross jerked in place, his head snapping up with more life than he'd shown in the past twenty-four hours.

For a few seconds, Cross's expression was one of shock, the fitful surprise of someone only just woken from a deep slumber. But then, his expression fell. His face collapsed back into an impassive mask, tears falling silently down his cheeks. It was a testament to the faith that Luffy inspired that even with his prior state, Cross had to deliver an honest answer.

"…no."

Relieved at the response, Funkfreed followed up:

"Then you know that we'll bounce back from this. Why are you acting like it's the end of the world?"

"…why?"

Cross shuddered, full-body.

"…have you been paying attention at all? Look at what's happened. The Straw Hats are bigger, richer, and more well-connected than they were in the story. The Government is weaker and the Revolutionaries are stronger. The slave trade is fatally damaged and the world hangs on my every word."

Another shiver came over him, and he fell over onto his side, instinctively curling up into a fetal position.

"And what do I have to show for it where it matters most? The war in Alabasta, the war in Skypiea, the Davy Back Fight, Robin going to Enies Lobby, Kuma on Thriller Bark and Sabaody, and the Paramount War still happening... Who cares about the rest of the world? It's always been about how I can help Luffy. And… And I…"

Another shiver wracked Cross' body, a shiver that graduated into full-on trembling. He clutched his head in despair, silent tears cascading down his face.

"…what difference have I made? Everything crucial to the main plot hasn't changed at all. I called in every favor that I could to twist fate in Luffy's favor, and it wasn't enough. If all I can do is watch fate have its way and comment on it. Why should I keep trying? Luffy has never needed me."

Tears mingled with the blood coating his face as he lay there, staring blindly into the darkness.

"This entire world has never needed me."

"Are you serious?" Funkfreed all but hissed. "Are you really saying that if you failed to save Ace, everything you've done, every wrong you've exposed, everyone you've saved and helped—including the four of us, is completely meaningless!?"

"Yes," Cross answered immediately, sending his companions reeling back like he'd slapped them all in the face. "There is no number of miracles I could pull that wouldn't be scarred by a tragedy like this."

Lassoo's mouth contorted into a sharp-toothed snarl, his eyes narrowed in anger. He opened his maw—

"Don't bother," Soundbite warned him in a mutter quiet enough so that Cross didn't hear. "He's bluescreening hard, AND ALL HE'S PROCESSING IS THIS ONE THING. Look, progress is progress: we've got him reacting, NOW WE JUST NEED TO BREAK THE BREAKDOWN!"

"…why is this so important?" Funkfreed cut in with Lassoo capable of nothing more than inarticulate sounds of intense frustration. "Luffy would have bounced back in less than a week!"

"But Luffy didn't know. Luffy didn't have a chance to stop it, even back then. Luffy wasn't responsible—"

"And neither were you!" Funkfreed forcefully interrupted. "No one could have known what was coming, not even you! Look, you can't take this all on your shoulders! The Straw Hats made it this far because they build off of each other! If Ace died—and we still don't know if he did—it just means all of us have to grow stronger so that this doesn't happen again."

"And just as importantly, so we can take REVENGE FOR THIS," Soundbite sneered, his teeth set in a vicious grin.

Cross just stared at his first partner emotionlessly for a second before looking away. "Revenge won't change the fact that it happened…"

Lassoo and Funkfreed started at a discordant sound, which they quickly realized was a vein popping on Soundbite's face.

"Oh yeah, that's deep and profound. HEY, MORON, WE'RE IN A SHOUNEN, NOT A SATURDAY MORNING SPECIAL! SCREW THE AESOP, GET PISSED!"

"That's what got us here in the first place."

Soundbite deflated, his teeth still grinding and eye twitching. "HOW is he STILL winning arguments when he's despaired OUT OF HIS MIND?"

"W-W-Well… um, ah…" Funkfreed's eyes darted about, looking for something, any thread to grasp on. It took him a long moment, but when he chanced upon it he shot his trunk out and pressed it down onto his ace in the—er, his trump card. "Well, what about this then, huh!? What about the hat?! Luffy's hat, remember?! He gave it to you, he trusted you with it, you need to—!"

Cross ignored the elephant in favor of pushing the trunk out of his face. "It'll find its way back to him," the tactician huffed dismissively.

"How!? It's just a hat!" Lassoo demanded.

"No, it's not. It was Roger's hat," Cross explained, ignoring his companions all flailing in shock at that revelation. "Then Shanks's, and now Luffy's. All of them, even that hat, have a destiny waiting for them. And they'll reach it, eventually. It's their purpose."

Cross reached up and slid the hat off his head, followed by his own cap that he brought down to his eyes. He stared despondently at the cross and crossbones emblazoned on its brow.

"…but I don't figure into it. I'm just a bump in the road. Always have been from the start…"

He carelessly flicked the hat away to clatter on the ground.

"Always will be."

CLUNK!

Something mechanical hit Cross's face, startling a reaction out of him. Gif hovered before him.

"( Ĭ ^ Ĭ )!" the mute snail sobbed.

And at least some of Cross's despair gave way to a different sort of discomfort altogether. Gif held his gaze for several seconds before turning to Soundbite and soundlessly communicating something. The other snail's eyes widened a bit.

"Wow. Thanks, cuz. AND CROSS, picking up on what she's 'saying', you promised that no matter what happened, YOU'D COME BACK STRONGER!"

"…when did I ever—?"

"No matter what happens. No matter how we change, we'll always be friends. We'll all get stronger. And then we'll all meet back here again. It's a promise."

Everyone present saw Cross' eyes widen, though the rest of his body didn't react. Lassoo and Funkfreed saw the chance and seized it.

"It's captain's orders, Cross. If Luffy is what matters most, then think about how he'll react, how you know he'll react: he'll know you did your best and say that we just need to make sure that it doesn't happen again."

"Luffy may not have needed any of us, Cross, but we're all here for him. We've come this far and grown this much for him. And if we don't come back, he'll come after us anyway and catapult us kicking and screaming back onto the Sunny."

Cross's eye twitched at that. He sighed and lowered his gaze to the ground, to his armored hands, and to the cap he had discarded.

Slowly, Cross reached beside him and picked up the cap that he had discarded, staring at the symbol of everything that he had become. The constant thoughts of 'not good enough,' 'missed a spot,' 'failed again,' and 'useless' slowly and unwillingly gave way to thoughts of what he had done. Who he had helped. Who still wanted him in this world despite everything.

"No matter what happened, Cross, you can do this. We can do this. But you have to stand beside us for us to—"

FFFWUMP!

All five of them suddenly stilled at the sound of something landing nearby, sounding very much like a large bird falling.

Carefully, in a move he had gotten far too much practice with over the past few days, Lassoo brought the fumes of a Cani-Blast to his mouth and held them there, letting the fire illuminate the newcomer. He nearly bit out the light from both the sight and the incredulous gasp that Soundbite gave a split second before the light came on.

The fallen figure was a three-foot bird with a mess of ruffled white feathers, bloodied and scratched all over. The beak flopped wide open to suck in oxygen, and the eyes betrayed exhaustion that would have him pass out any second now.

It was a miracle that he had found his way there at all, a greater one that he had made it inside, and the greatest of the three that he had found his way to literally the only people there who wouldn't murder him on the spot. Including the guards, of course. Not even animals were allowed to leave, and roasted gull had become a delicacy due to the fact that the Government didn't tell the news agencies and their Coos to cancel the prisoners' subscriptions. After all, they all wisened up after the first loss of a delivery bird.

Not knowing any of this at the moment, the Straw Hats reacted appropriately:

"Coo!?" Soundbite, Lassoo, and Funkfreed demanded.

"O.o" Gif concurred.

Cross had just enough life to blink blearily at the bird. "…You should not have come here. This is not a place of honor—"

"Funkfreed," Soundbite snapped.

The elephant's trunk slapped into the side of Cross's head, knocking him for a groaning loop.

"OK, he's still out of it but slightly better if he can MANAGE TO QUOTE," Soundbite muttered grimly before focusing on the half-dead bird before them. "Skipping the aimless shock and incredulity, WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING HERE?!"

"Ngh…Cross… had to find…had to find Cross…" the bird wheezed out, a half-working wing flapping weakly over his messenger bag. "Had to get it to him… Special delivery… from the new… Chief Operating Officer of the…Free Feather Reporrrghhh…" And with that, what little strength remaining fled his body for blissful unconsciousness.

Funkfreed quickly snatched him up in his trunk and stashed him further out of sight, while Lassoo nosed through his bag and withdrew the crumpled paper within. A quick cough and hack, and he had a small blaze smoldering in his maw. Small enough to give them enough light to read by, but not big enough to paint a giant target on them. The fugitives in the alley all took one look at the front page, Cross even finding the strength to glance down at it. And all froze in shock from the headline:

THE TRAGEDY OF MARINEFORD

THE BLOOD PRICE OF JUSTICE

Funkfreed wrapped himself around them. Gif and Soundbite monitored the area with an eye each. And Cross took in all the details that he had missed…

-Two Days Before-

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGHHHHHH!"

When Luffy had been shot, almost the entire battlefield had frozen. Those few that hadn't, did as a direct result of this new development, of the scream that tore across the battlefield.

History would look back on that moment as the turning point of the battle. It was, in truth, the point where the loser was decided. And many on the losing side, if you put a gun to their head, would have agreed, considering how many of them chose that moment to lay down their weapons and fall back.

After all, if it wasn't enough to hear the Marines' most powerful supporter of Absolute Justice screaming in agony, the sight that caused it absolutely was: his massive fist of magma crushed and mangled. One of the Navy's ultimate powerhouses had just lost his hand. The only thing more shocking was the identity of the one who did it.

The still-outstretched hand that had maimed the Admiral, coated in obsidian Haki, belonged to a man clad in a green cloak with a mane of black hair. The tattoos on the left side of his face did nothing to mask his deadly glare.

"You will not touch my sons."

Monkey D. Dragon spoke with the calm of a hurricane's eye, and the force of the storm itself.

Then, ignoring the rapidly climbing temperature from the blazing volcanic hound before him, he turned to regard the two nearest thunderstruck pirates.

"I've tipped the scales back in your favor. I trust that you three can handle the rest."

Before they could respond, someone else grabbed them from behind, hoisted them on his shoulders, and sprinted away from Dragon, cursing the two as he went:

"THERE'S REALLY JUST NO OTHER WAY I COULD HAVE FOUND YOU IDIOTS AGAIN, IS THERE?!"

With his sons together, Dragon returned his full attention to Akainu, who'd pushed through the agony enough to raise his other hand and try and finish what he'd attempted to start.

"No," Dragon said firmly, striking the Admiral's arm and redirecting his lava plume into the ocean.

Akainu snarled at the interference, glaring bloody, infernal murder up at the Revolutionary. "You… why are you doing this?! This fight, those pirates… they have nothing to do with you! Why are you here?!"

The words carried all of Akainu's vitriol, his hate, his fury, along with a blast of air scalding enough to strip the scales from a Sea King. And Dragon weathered it all without a flinch.

"I am here because it was my decision," he declared solemnly. "Mine alone…"

Dragon's left hand snapped open to drop what was left of Akainu's right, then clenched back into a fist—

CRACK!

—and slammed into the middle of the Mad Dog's face, sending him bouncing back across the length of the battlefield.

"And no one else's." Dragon took a moment to wave out his gore-soaked fist, and after a brief moment, allowed himself the slightest of smirks. "Though I will admit, that was disproportionately enjoyable."

The Revolutionary cast his gaze over the still shell-shocked Marines facing him, his smirk deepening as his fingers curled into claws, black lightning crackling.

"Would anyone else care to contribute?"

It was a third of what the Navy had left, generously, that didn't flee in search of any excuse that they could find to not fight the world's most wanted man. And a good many of those who didn't flee only failed to do so because they were still frozen in fear.

His appearance even had an impact on those no longer loyal to the Government. By the time anyone's attention moved on from Dragon's appearance, every fighter in a gray suit had vanished and the bandana-wearers were not far behind.

-o-

"Wha—? No, nonononono!" exclaimed the Beast King's child. Yamato ran his fingers angrily through his hair. "Nggggh… is there any other outgoing broadcast you can tap into?"

The snail's eyes narrowed in focus, its body shifting to and fro. Then its eyes lit up and it smiled. A moment later, the din of battle echoed through the room once more. After a few moments listening, Yamato sighed in relief.

"Thank goodness you're OK, Ace."

Thunder rumbled through the room, and Yamato's eyes snapped in the direction of the sound.

"Ugh… looks like Father's attempt to join in on the 'fun' didn't pan out. Great schadenfreude! Not so good for me."

Already resigned to the consequences of Kaido's return, the self-proclaimed Oden sat down to keep listening.

-o-

It took a few seconds after the battlefield unfroze for Jozu to notice that one particular combatant had yet to rejoin the fray.

"Cross? Soundbite?" he asked as he tossed around any Marines with enough courage or not enough sense to keep coming after him. But no answer came, neither a voice nor a hint of static. He grimaced.

"Guess they hit their limit. But they've done more than enough."

A quick glance around the immediate vicinity showed his siblings—all seven sisters and all thirteen brothers, only Ace excluded—converging on his location, while Pops had rendered their assistance unnecessary, burning the candle at both ends as he held off the strongest that the Navy had left. His jaw and eyes tightened at the sight, but he shook his head. They had already said their goodbyes.

He resumed his path to the edge of the ice, the rallying point for the other Commanders. They couldn't stop Pops from dying. But if the worst still came to pass, they would protect his legacy with their lives.

-o-

Nothing about this situation should have been as much of a surprise to Ace and Luffy as it was. Yet, there they were, toted on the backs of a very familiar blond-haired man toward where the rest of the Whitebeard Commanders were clustering, and struggling just to say his name.

"HONESTLY! THE FIRST TIME I SEE YOU MORONS IN YEARS, IN YEARS, AND EITHER ONE OR BOTH OF YOU ARE ABOUT TO DIE!" Sabo roared. "HOW IN THE HELL DID YOU TWO SURVIVE TEN YEARS WITHOUT ME, HUH?! IT'S LUDICROUS, ABSOLUTELY LUDICROUS! I SHOULD JUST TRADE YOU IN FOR A PAIR OF LEMMINGS, AT LEAST THEY'D HAVE BETTER SURVIVAL INSTINCTS THAN YOU TWO TROGLODYTES! AND YOU, ACE! WHAT ARE YOU THINKING, RUNNING AROUND WITHOUT A SHIRT!? I DON'T CARE IF YOU CAN SELF-REGULATE YOUR THERMALS, YOU'RE GETTING A SHIRT ONCE WE GET OUT OF HERE, EVEN IF I HAVE TO SEW IT INTO YOUR IDIOT FLESH!"

"Shishishi!" Luffy snickered, grinning over his and his brother's shoulders at his cursing sibling with tears of joy streaming down his face. "We missed you, Sabo!"

"I MISSED YOU MORONS TOO! NOW SHUT UP SO I CAN CONCENTRATE ON PULLING YOUR ASSES OUT OF THE FIRE, AGAIN!"

"Hey, I take offense to—OOF!" Ace let out a pained sound as Sabo pointedly bounced his older brother on his shoulder, jabbing the joint into Ace's solar plexus. "Point made… also, good to see you again too, but can you put me down now? I'm not the one who got both of my feet shot out."

"They got lucky! And I don't know Observation yet, so they cheated, too! Also, I can run! Just get this sea prism stone out of me!"

"Considering you're also the person that was comatose in cold storage for four months after a massive beating, and you're the one who literally went to Hell and back for the other guy?" Sabo turned his head around, facing Ace with a sickly grin. "All your opinions are rejected! I'm carrying you anyway! Don't worry, you lummoxes, you'll be safe; remember, I'm the responsible one!"

"YEAH, RESPONSIBLE LIKE A BULL IN A CHINA SHOP, YOU DIMWIT!"

Sabo's head snapped around at the familiar shout. He saw a Vikverir barreling towards him with an axe held high over his helmeted skull—for all of one second before a salvo of high-velocity water drops knocked the berserker clean on his ass. A petite woman shot into the air from the direction of the water, elbows bent behind her.

"ARABESQUE DOUBLE BRICK FIST!"

The resulting shockwave knocked the Vikevrir for even more of a loop, and more immediately, turned the ice beneath him into shrapnel. The force was almost enough to break clear through to the water.

"FLAMING AXE KICK!"

The final blow that her heel struck on the berserker's battered helmet finished the job, breaking the ice and sending him into the drink. Koala landed on the edge of the crater she'd made, giving the trio a thumbs-up.

"But hey, that's why you've got us," she grinned, giving the brothers a jaunty wave and a cheeky grin.

Said grin became pointedly vicious as she glanced over her shoulder at the Angevin who was raising his mace over her head. "And no, I didn't misspeak. When I say 'us,' I mean 'us.'"

CRASH!

"SHORYUKEN!"

The ice shattered beneath the knight, and a yellow fist slammed into his chin, sending him flying off his feet.

CRACK!

"FIVE-THOUSAND BRICK FIST!"

Backward, and clean into the waiting blue fist of the newly-arrived whale shark fishman.

"Flawless victory," Jinbe declared proudly as he shook the blood and shattered metal from his fist.

"Victory? Indeed. Flawless? Well…" 'Hundredth Dan' Hack huffed as he stepped up. "I wouldn't go that far. Your footwork was out of position, your fist is much too tight, and don't even get me started on your breathing. Honestly, old man, have you forgotten everything about how to throw a punch?"

"Even if my sojourn to the bowels of Hell knocked a few habits loose, I've still got enough experience to wipe the deck with you, brat," Jinbe shot back, jabbing his finger in Hack's face.

The two held their expressions for only a second more before they cracked into matching grins and clasped each others' forearms. "Good to see you again, Jinbe!" the Revolutionary chortled, giving his old friend a punch in the shoulder. "Sorry to have missed the Conch Tournament, I was busy starting an insurrection in West Blue."

"Ahh, we made do, even if it wasn't the same without the chance to break your face again. But for once, I'm glad that I'm fighting with you, rather than against you." Jinbe's good mood dropped into a grim scowl at the frozen, blood-soaked hell around them. "Though the venue leaves a thing or fifty to be desired."

A horrible screech filled the air, drawing the attention of those present to the Hebrides, its two mouths the source of the noise and its spiked arms and body threatening anyone who drew near.

"And I can't say much about the quality of opponents either," the whale-shark-man added.

"What a monster. Honestly, I thought that the things that lurked in the trenches were horrifying." Hack raised his hands in a shrug before glancing at his old rival. "Think you can keep up if I offered a collaboration? Ravage its insides so it can't move anymore?"

"Hmph," Jinbe grunted with a smirk. "Well, with Namur occupied, you'll do for backup. Try not to break a hip, old man!" And with that declaration, he shot off at the flailing monster which happened to be in the sea.

"For the last time, my hair is naturally like this! I'm younger than you, damn it!" Hack barked, lunging after the paradoxically nimble whale fishman.

The pair's griping and sniping didn't slow them down by even a step, and in seconds they drew up alongside the flailing monstrosity. Talons scythed down into the ice in an attempt to slice upo the attackers, but they always hit too late, the fishmen having long since dodged by the time the attacks were even initiated.

In a flash, they both arrived at the creature's flank, their palms pulled back into mirrored stances.

"Fishman Karate," they rumbled as one, thrusting their palms forwards and slamming them into the beast's hide. "Shark Fist Tile Breaker!"

For the first moment, the Hebrides barely even flinched at the strike - and then ripples blasted across the monster, sending it writhing and shrieking in agony as its very innards systematically imploded. Organs and muscles were shredded, bones were powdered, and with a keening wail the creature's body lost all enemy and plummeted beneath the waves, sinking to the bottom of the harbor.

Jinbe nodded in satisfaction, turning on his heel and strolling back towards the gaping humans. "Well, that was satisfying. … Even if you were a half-second late on your strike."

"I'm never going to win with you, am I?!" Hack laughed, clapping his old friend on the back.

Long-since inured to the sheer feats that Fishman Karate could accomplish, Sabo was the first to recover, breaking his brothers out of their shock with a polite cough. "Well, now that that's handled… Who else do we need to grab before we get out of here?" Sabo asked, mainly directing the question at Luffy. The rubber-man looked back the way they came, frowning.

"Hancock, Sonia, and Mari. I want to say they should be fine, but the Government wants them dead, so I'm not risking it." He grimaced and shook his head. "But everyone else who broke out with me is either on Whitebeard's side, Ivankov's side, or their own side. They can take care of themselves."

Both Sabo and Ace felt Luffy grip them, as if to remind himself what was most important. Despite the rush of… well, unfamiliar emotion Ace made a mental note to unpack later, he grimaced and shook his head.

"One more person. We're not leaving without Isuka," he said, his tone brooking no argument.

Everyone scanned the battlefield to find nothing, and Luffy snorted.

"Darn, shouldn't she have just shown up when we said that?"

"I don't care what Cross says, we're not operating on narrative logic," Sabo hissed back.

Sploooosh!

All present snapped their attention at the harbor, where a fourth blue whale had surfaced relatively close to the entrance.

B-B-B-BOOM!

And almost immediately, it jerked out of the way of a salvo from a battlement that neither pirates nor Masons had managed to reach.

"Oh, come on! Pequod is Pops's last whale, if it can't get here—"

"There," Jinbe cut in, staring at battlements on the other side of the field. Which, seconds later, opened fire on the one attacking Pequod. "Looks like your friend was coordinating an attack against the Navy gunners," he observed.

"Which, might I note, is nowhere near as easy as you might think. Seriously, there is a fine art to it. I'd still be over there if they hadn't been planning for this all week."

The assembled outlaws collectively jumped as Isuka limped up to them, clutching her elbow at her side and her expression almost bored.

"Shishishishi," Luffy, one of the only ones who hadn't been surprised by her arrival, snickered. "Oh, look, she's here. On cue. Ya know, you really shouldn't say bad stuff about Cross, he's almost always ri—oof!"

"Shut up," Sabo grumbled, rolling the shoulder he'd just rammed into Luffy's gut.

"Still, sorry for the wait," the ex-Marine apologized, waving her free hand at her trembling legs. "Still dealing with the aftershocks from Sengoku, plus Akainu's broken up the battlefield something fierce—"

SHONG!

"Oh, and this bastard," she deadpanned, jerking a thumb over her shoulder where Jinbe had just intercepted Vice Admiral Dalmatian's attempt to chop off Isuka's head.

"You filthy, flea-bitten—"

"Bitch, yes, how original," Isuka sighed. "Haven't had that shouted at me fifty times in the last few minutes. And this time coming from an actual dog, doesn't that make you a hypocrite?"

"How many of our gunnery crews have you subverted, fiend?!"

"Well, points for classics, so I might as well inform you that Gunnery Crew Phi-12 over there have had something of a change of heart in the past week." Isuka pointed off to the side with a(n ironically catty) grin.

Pointedly ignoring the directions given, Dalmatian snorted derisively. A snort that quickly turned into a choking gurgle, as Jinbe's hold on him was too tight for him to dodge the Water Shot that shot over the whale-shark-man's shoulder and smashed into Dalmatian's throat. Haki mitigated the damage, but still left him coughing long enough for Jinbe to throw him over his shoulder and slam him hard onto the ice—

CRACK!

—swiftly followed by a solid kick from Ivankov as he (at the moment) spun over to them.

"Well, that was certainly exciting," the King of Queens declared grimly.

"And it's only going to get worse, fast," Koala said, eyeing the remainder of the forces on either side. The retreat was in full-tilt now, and as a result, the quagmire that the battlefield had become was fading. The line between friend and foe was beginning to reform in the middle, and without that confusion, the more disciplined soldiers were rallying the rest of them into battle.

"Even with the Commanders and, well, our commander drawing attention, the Marines are making a hard push, and flag officers like him are starting to seep through the cracks. Surprise surprise, they are not happy that the guest of honor and his escort are two steps away from skipping out on the main event."

"They can get over it, I don't give a shit," Ace snapped. "On the topic of getting out of here, is taking your way in an option?"

"Nix on that," Sabo answered. "He dropped us off and then we snuck our way to the battlefield, he's already left. Exfiltration is on us. We were actually hoping you guys could give us a lift."

Ace cast a dark eye towards the burning warships that, just a few scant months ago, had been his home. "Yeah, slight problem with that plan."

"Clearly."

"Do we have any hidden cards left to play?" Jinbe inquired.

"For a certain measure of the term," Ivankov said quietly, wary of any potential eavesdroppers. "As far as more fighters, I don't think we'll get another miracle like Dragon, but concerning an escape route? If things are even half as accurate as Cross-boy foresaw, it's an inevitability that we'll make it out of here alive. We just need to run out the clock, so as long as nothing distracts us—"

The reason Ivankov never finished that sentence, and the reason that the entire battlefield—literally everyone still fighting—stopped what they were doing and froze, was the same reason that Soundbite had cut out several minutes earlier. Only those whom Cross had already warned thought that they were prepared.

They were not.

"ZEHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"

The laugh echoed with pure menace across the entire island, and the force it carried was an aura of concentrated malevolence, an unmitigated contempt for life. For many on the battlefield, their pause lasted only as long as it took to shudder, but everyone did pause.

As for Luffy's group, they were able to fend off their anger and dread at that awful sound for precisely ten seconds. In which time—

WHAM!

—Emporio Ivankov was almost punched through the ice, and all present followed up the physical assault with a verbal one.

"You. Idiot," Luffy growled.

"Ivankov! How could you, you taught us to avoid saying things like that!"

"Excuse me, I barely survived going face-to-face with the one-armed mutt! Pardon me if my mind is a mite scattered!" He blinked and straightened up. "On that note, excuse me while I coordinate my candies, I wager we'll need to get involved."

As he winked away, the voice of pure evil spoke once more.

"I was aiming for getting one of them killed. But getting the mad dog maimed? I'LL TAKE IT!"

Gritting his teeth as he felt his brother's tension rising, Sabo coated his fists in Armament and ran through a set of light punches across Ace's body before putting him back on his shoulder.

"S-Sabo, what the—!?"

"Like hell am I leaving you to your own devices with him in the area," Sabo spat. "You just forgot every warning and almost charged straight into death."

"I ONLY LOST LAST TIME BECAUSE OF AOKIJI SHOWING UP!"

"Even if that's true, he's got too much backup this time," Luffy noted.

And though the SBS had been cut off, the visual snails set up in advance by the Navy's own forces had not. The truth of Luffy's words was clear to everyone who could see the battlefield, some of them closer than others.

-o-

"Sanjuan Wolf, Catarina Devon, Avalo Pizarro, Vasco Shot… and those are the less infamous ones," Daz observed, analyzing the newcomers through a telescope. "Quite the group. And he somehow managed to convince them all to bend the knee for him?"

He waited. At the lack of response, he lowered the telescope and eyed Crocodile instead. The ex-Warlord had a heavy frown on his face, though it had little anger in it. Irritation, yes, but mostly bewilderment.

"Is it that surprising, sir?"

"…that brat broke my hook."

Daz blinked, his expression blank. "…yes, but why are you thinking of that now? That was almost a year ago."

"I used to be able to kill people. And they stayed dead when I did."

Daz gave a slight nod, otherwise impassive. He knew the start of a monologue when he heard it.

"And I was good at it too."

Daz nodded again.

"That stopped after I fought Straw Hat. I stabbed him and left him in a sinkhole. I dehydrated him and left him in the sand. I poisoned him and left him in a crumbling mausoleum. And he kept coming back. I came to the conclusion over the past few months that it was just because I underestimated the wrong person. That the only problem was his ridiculous will to live."

His fingers traced the grooves of his hook.

"But now we have this. I left Shiliew of the Rain emaciated and limbless in literally the deepest pits of Hell. Yet there he stands, more of a monster than ever."

There was, after all, no other possible description when his new crew seemed to have cannibalized the BioMEGAs for parts to replace his missing limbs. Daz nodded again, adding, "I can see how that would be… aggravating."

"The brat broke my damn hook. I swear, the next time I get a shot at killing him, I'm going to make sure it sticks."

Daz didn't respond. He didn't believe it would be quite that easy, and he knew that Crocodile didn't think it would be either.

But he didn't say that. After all, he was a professional. And quite invested in living a day longer besides.

-o-

"ZEHAHAHAHA! Well, I have to say I'm surprised, I was expecting a lot more dead Whitebeards by the time I got here!" Marshall D. 'Blackbeard' Teach cackled from his perch on the seawall.

Both sides of the battlefield glared at the man who had betrayed them. But not even Whitebeard was glaring with as much rancor as Luffy and his brothers.

Of course, for Luffy, his glare was mixed with disbelief and no small amount of horror, on account of three specific individuals in the Darkness-monster's retinue, who he had not expected to be among Blackbeard's recruits.

"JIHAHAHA! Third time back here, and I'll make certain that it's the charm! Let's sink this wretched island, once and for all!"

The first was a rehash of the past: the Golden Lion Shiki, taking to the air once more. Haggard, bloodied, legless, and half-starved in a ragged prison jumpsuit, but there was no mistaking his mane, his wheel, or his rampant ego. The bastard floated over the assembled tyrants, arms spread wide and raucous laughter spilling out from his rakish grin, as he lorded his second successful escape from Impel Down over the world.

"Pshhh-koh… Do… whatever you want… Pshhh-koh… Just so long as they bleed… make them all bleed…"

The second one was the entire reason the cavalcade of scum was even alive to begin with: the entity that Luffy could only assume was Shiliew of the Rain, and if it was, then he was definitely going to kill Crocodile when he got his hands on him.

But that having been said, the sand-man apparently hadn't lied: the ex-Warden's limbs had been removed, and violently at that. It just hadn't been enough, somehow. And whatever else could be said about Blackbeard, it was impossible to fault his choice in underlings. After all, it took a special combination of skilled and downright demented to take a man with no limbs and little to no bodily fluids left and replace his ruined flesh and appendages with metal.

Metal, outright bolted to Shilliew's mummified flesh and stumps, his prosthetic arms ending in rough facsimiles of hands that twitched spasmodically. And not only his limbs, but his actual body too, cables and other machinery lacing through his torso. Tubes flexed and pulsed with god knows what flowing through them. And the mask welded over the lower half of Shilliew's face flexed with his every tortured, wheezing breath. The only human parts left of the man were his eyes, and there was no humanity to be seen in his maddened glower.

"Been meaning to come here all my life! This place and you bastards have had this coming for forty years coming! AND I'M GOING TO ENJOY EVERY LAST SECOND OF IT! BARORORO!"

And finally, there was an individual that very few had seen before that day, but that almost nobody could ever forget. The one prisoner among the ex-inmates who wasn't wearing prison stripes, because when that man—that monster—had been imprisoned, they hadn't even dared let him loose long enough for him to change. Towering over most of his compatriots with nearly ten feet of muscle and menace, and clad in fur, armor and horns that made him look oh-so-similar to the Vikverir, more than a few members of the old guard, pirate and Marine alike, felt a stirring of mortal terror in their hearts at the idea, the concept, that Byrnndi World was free once more, and clearly just as deranged as the day he'd been imprisoned.

But for one pirate, the fear that his presence stoked was deeper and far fresher. Because as he looked up at the maliciously guffawing pseudo-giant, and saw that there was no sign of his crew, Luffy knew immediately that something had gone very wrong with Byojack's plan.

And, in a small part of his brain, he was forced to acknowledge the fact that he would never see his new friend again. A fact which, in that moment, served to supremely piss him off.

Besides the star maniacs were eight others: a wrestler, a sniper, a corpse riding a horse, a demented clown, a drunkard, a tyrant, a witch, and a giant that made Oars and Oars Jr. look tiny in comparison. Luffy didn't recognize any of them, but the giant was an obvious problem, and from the whispering and pointing around him, he could guess that several of the others were pretty nasty individuals in their own right.

In all, an all-star lineup of eleven of the most dangerous, most reviled individuals in all the six seas, all under the command of a single unrepentant, unmatched monster.

"Shiki. World," that monster sneered, leering down at the battlefield with yellowed teeth. "There are way too many rats scurrying around for my tastes. Do us all a favor, and show us who here deserves to stay alive."

"JIIHAHAHAHAHAHA! My pleasure, Captain," Shiki intoned, raising his hands. And the sound of a large amount of displaced water came from nearby a moment later. In a twisted echo of his 'taste of what's to come' a few months prior, half a dozen of the battleships still on the perimeter of the island floated up and hovered over the battlefield, ready to crash down.

That was bad enough on its own. But Shiki was levitating one other thing: a large chunk of metal that World was effortlessly balancing upon. And it was carrying him straight for the ships.

"CLEAR THE AREA! RUN!"

Vice Admiral Garp's bellow echoed across the battlefield and did wonders for stirring Sengoku back to awareness. For all the good that it did.

In the time it took to blink, the stormy sky that had heralded Dragon's arrival became invisible. In its place was a Marine battleship that had spontaneously grown huge enough to cover the entire island. And Shiki kept World flying so that the five above it increased in size just as fast.

"More-More Hundredfold—" World declared, his mouth stretched in a bloodthirsty leer.

"—Meteor Shower!" Shiki finished in a roar, matching his 'crewmate' tooth for tooth.

Immediately, the battleships dropped. And the events of the next minute were enough on their own to ensure that by the time Cross read the newspaper, everybody in the world had Blackbeard's name engraved in their minds.

In the wide seas, there is a saying that relates to combat: the man who least defends himself is the man who least needs to. And of course, no sooner had such a phrase been uttered than some wise-ass spoke its corollary: anything that gets such a man to properly defend themselves is an attack that can kill him in one hit.

To put it plainer terms: any attack that got all three Admirals, the Fleet Admiral (who the world had seen suffering a heart attack barely ten minutes prior), and Whitebeard himself to defend against was a big fucking deal.

The skies over Marineford erupted, animal-shaped constructs of magma, light, and ice coalescing in seconds and shooting up to consume the gigantified, falling battleships, all perfectly coordinated. A mere second later, the sky erupted again, two visible shockwaves—one glimmering gold and one bright baby blue—taking the flaming and/or frozen debris and forcefully ejecting it out to sea.

All this, and the attention of all five combatants was locked onto the man having the time of his life, cackling with sick, unhinged glee while flanked by some of the nastiest human beings ever spat out by the seas, while the sky was rent apart. The man who had ordered World and Shiki to launch this attack.

It was a sound that would be engraved in the minds of everyone for the rest of their lives.

"ZEHAHAHAHAAAA!"

Years after the war, surviving combatants would swear, to the very end, that those moments felt like the end of days.

And most unfortunately, that was not the only intent behind the attack. Another could be seen in the combatants that had deflected the attacks: the three Admirals winded, Sengoku a breeze away from passing out, and Whitebeard doubled over and coughing up a fresh lungful of blood.

"Teach… what the hell are you doing!?" Sengoku hissed into his snail.

"Zehahahahaha. You have to ask, Fleet Admiral? As pirates that were enemies of the Government, it would be impossible to open the Gates of Justice and enter Impel Down! And of course, that's the only reason I needed the title of Warlord!" Teach answered, before adding, "You can have the title back. Now that I have my powers, my crew, and my soon-to-be army?"

He pounded his chest.

"The One Piece is mine. And nobody can stop me!"

"Yours, Teach? Don't get too big for your britches."

Blackbeard turned to Whitebeard, on his feet, stalking towards him with an icy rage and a tremor formed at the tip of his bisento.

"Tch," Blackbeard scoffed, pointedly ignoring the sweat beading on his brow. "Doesn't know when to stay down. Shiki, keep him busy until I give the cue."

"Mmm, a bit of a challenge. But I won't disappoint," he drawled, raising his hands again. Once more, a sound of displaced water came from the outside, but this time, accompanying it was the cacophony of wood splintering and, faintly, the cries of hundreds more doomed men.

Two large, curved, soaking-wet objects soared over to Shiki, flanking him on either side: keels, ripped from the battleships and laced with sea prism stone. And with that, he shot down to hover before Whitebeard, his arms folded.

"Once more for old time's sake, Whitebeard?"

Whitebeard's glower passed from Shiki to Teach and back. A question had been in his mind, briefly. Now he understood the answer.

"I'm disappointed that this is how it ends for us," Whitebeard answered.

"Jihahaha… well, what can you do?" Shiki chuckled.

Then they clashed, and the sky itself quaked. Yet among Blackbeard's crew, nobody else moved from their perch save for World, who headed for the remnants of the execution stand.

-o-

High above the battlefield, on the island-fortress's battlements, three Warlords observed the entire spectacle dispassionately.

"…this isn't fun anymore," Doflamingo grumbled, his tone petulant.

"You're only saying that because you got hurt," Mihawk huffed.

"Exactly," the Yaksha grunted, still in the middle of lacing together the powdered bones in his arm.

The least powerful of the three gave Doflamingo a thoroughly unimpressed stare. "You really are the textbook definition of a manchild," Perona coldly remarked.

Doflamingo's head slowly turned to stare at the Hollow Girl. "Want me to test Cross's theory about you becoming a real ghost, girly?"

Perona shrugged indifferently, not even deigning to look at him. "Feel free to try, might be interesting."

The Warlord paused, giving Perona a curious look. "…when did you get the balls?"

The ghostly girl waved her hand out over the havoc. "Look around you, Doflamingo: the world is ending. Hell, nobody's even noticed that my pets—three ten-ton bioweapons—have left the battlefield. Sorry, but you aren't the scariest monster around anymore. Not even close."

"...Fu," Doflamingo sighed as he looked back out over the spectacle playing out before him. "Well, you've got me there."

"So this is the company I have to look forward to…" Mihawk groaned, running a hand down his face.

-o-

Boa Hancock had had worse days. But not many. Her left arm was completely numb, and would've hung limply at her side were it not for Salome curled around it to make it move. A necessary maneuver, because otherwise the CP-0 agents warily watching her would've taken her down by now.

Thankfully, that was her only direct injury. In exchange, she had been patently unable to do anything to the agents. They were slipperier than a duck eel, never took risks, and seemed content to just wear her down. Bastards didn't even have the decency to look out of breath. She needed something that would get her an opening.

Her eyes landed on someone in the distance, someone who very quickly went from "in the distance" to looming ominously over the agents. Hancock's eyes widened, her mind whirling for a way to take advantage of this person's presence… and decided on a plan that was, even in her head, decidedly Luffy-esque. Mentally groaning, she put it in action anyway.

"Oh my, is that Monkey D. Dragon behind you?"

A delightful series of emotions crossed the normally stoic agents' faces: panic, then annoyance, then panic again, and then resignation. Extremely reluctantly, they turned around.

Monkey D. Dragon promptly grabbed both of them by their throats.

"And just when I thought this day couldn't get any better," Monkey D. Dragon veritably purred. "Crush an Admiral's hand, reunite my two precious sons, see Dad flat on his ass and some perspective sinking in - and now, two CP-0 agents literally in the palm of my hands. The only way this could get any better is if the Elder Stars all dropped dead at my feet."

There was a long pause, before Dragon sighed wistfully.

"Oh well, worth a shot."

"Slave Arrow!"

Huffing, Hancock lowered her hands, leaving Dragon to blink in surprise at the two statues he was now holding.

"They were about to try something," Hancock stated, flicking her eyes to one agent with his hand in his pocket.

Dragon nodded. "Dyna-Stone, I would wager, these scum do not like to be taken alive. And now, I suppose, I'll have to help you escape from this battle so that you can unpetrify my prizes. Preferably right in front of my interrogators."

"Preferably," Hancock nodded. "And I suppose it wouldn't hurt to state that I am not averse to a more… long-term professional arrangement."

Dragon grinned, and in that grin Hancock saw the relation to Luffy. "I look forward to it. Now, let's get out of here before someone tries to rescue these fools."

Hancock nodded, though a look of concern came on her face as she looked back to the sea. "I need to find my sisters first, I won't leave without them. And—Luffy!"

Dragon was already looking in the same direction, and the same dark anger he'd had when he intercepted Akainu had now reappeared. This time, however, it was directed at someone else going after Luffy.

-o-

Chaos was the best word to describe the battlefield's state now. Even among the staunchest supporters of Absolute Justice, Ace and Luffy took second place to Blackbeard's opening salvo.

Even Akainu had grudgingly put Ace and Luffy out of his mind. For all the trouble that they would undoubtedly cause in the future, the menace now before them had nearly single-handedly vindicated his worries that the price of the war would put Justice beyond their power to enforce.

At this point, anyone on the Navy's side with a brain and emotions was most interested in simply surviving the day to fight again.

Unfortunately for the Whitebeards, there was a rather large group of powerhouses who lacked those qualifications, and the soap bubbles that had been keeping said group at bay were diminishing fast. And the bubbles' mistress was nowhere to be found.

In her place was a single Pacifista who had broken through the waning foam and landed a sneak attack on her. One that would leave her out of commission for the next three days. And with Kalifa down, the foam started to dissipate as well, and the Pacifistas were able to rapidly re-coordinate with one another and break through the ex-Agents' attempts to impede them. It especially didn't help that the violent shifting of the ice had thrown one particular agent off-balance, allowing the Pacifistas' commander to nearly take his head off before rallying their troops.

Which led to the current situation of Sentomaru standing before the would-be escapees, tapping the haft of his axe in his palm while his cybernetic troop surrounded them, jaws dropped and hands raised and at the ready.

"Now, normally I don't care much for fieldwork. Don't take things personally, try not to get too invested in things. But just this once?" Sentomaru grit his teeth as he veritably strangled the handle of his axe. "I am willing to make an exception, because that rubber-brained imbecile you have with you has made the past two weeks nothing short of hell for me. So here are your choices: bow your heads and let me make it quick…"

The outlaws' various glowers and grimaces were all illuminated by the manufactured warriors' charging armaments.

"Or fight and die to them. And rest assured, I've given them the orders to make it slow."

"You and what buoyant army?" Ace sneered, aiming his palm down at the ice. "FLAME COMMANDMENT!"

A tidal wave of fire shot from his hand and towards the Pacifistas, steam soaring from wherever it touched. Sentomaru grimaced, but a sweep of his Haki-infused axe extinguished the flames nearest him, leaving the rest to—disperse harmlessly when the lead Pacifista pushed the air out of the blaze.

The Revolutionaries' expressions ranged from the murderous to the distraught, and the pirate brothers both grimaced. Sentomaru, however, actually allowed himself a grin.

"You won't sink us without getting past PX-0. And I think you know better than anyone: nobody gets past him."

"His name… is Kuma!" Koala snarled, ice shattering around the foot she stomped in Sentomaru's direction.

"It is PX-0, and it's a walking corpse. Just like you're all going to be once Vegapunk is through with you." Sentomaru raised his hand. "All units, fire at will."

The glow from over two dozen Bartholomew Kuma lookalikes intensified, lasers charging.

Luffy withdrew all of the electrified feathers he had left while flames clustered in Ace's hands and Sabo's staff gleamed obsidian. The fishmen (and honorary fishwoman) readied their fists. They prepared to strike, to parry—

KRRRRRRRBOOM!

And then the world exploded around them, several feet away from actually hitting them.

"What the…?" Ace stared in gape-mouthed shock as smoke and fire swirled around them all, somehow kept at bay. "What just happened?"

As the smoke cleared, revealing the wrecked forms of a half dozen of the androids, everyone understood what just happened. The air shimmered in a circle around them, barring even the incredible force from the cybernetic weapons from breaking through.

"No…" Sentomaru gasped in horrified fury, casting his eyes around the area. Because he knew what that power was, he'd seen it before, but it wasn't possible, it just wasn't possible—!

"HEHAHAHAHAHAHA!"

Impossible or not, he couldn't deny the truth. Sentomaru's eyes found their mark on the edge of the shattered seawall. Green hair, sharp teeth, fingers held up and crossed before him; the user of the Barrier-Barrier Fruit, one of the Thirteen Supernovas, and Straw Hat Luffy's number one fan.

"Go ahead and try again, metalheads! Maybe I'll actually feel it this time!" 'Black Bart' Bartolomeo cackled ecstatically, his tongue wagging over his crossed fingers and arms. "Though you might want to focus on keeping your heads!"

That sunk in for all of two seconds before more than half of the robots' heads twisted around with all the grace of an exorcism. And at the same time, all present had to hold their weapons extra hard as countless fallen swords and guns flew into the air, whirling around like a tornado. A tornado centered around the corner of the opposite seawall.

"The Magnet-Magnet Fruit—Eustass Kid!" Sentomaru roared in disbelief.

Immediately, a familiar figure stood up from where the shadows had hitherto hidden him. Red hair and a mad grin on his face, and the totality of the weapons formed into a literal giant middle finger towards Sentomaru.

"Thought you knew better than this by now, Straw Hat," Kid sneered. "You're not the only crazy bastard who wants to hog the spotlight! We're the superstars of this age!"

Kid raised his massive conglomerate hand above his head, his maniacal smile stretching from ear to ear.

"THIS IS OUR ERA!"

The mismatched metal mass snapped its fingers, and the world exploded.

The water in the bay bulged again, before bursting in a blast of spray to reveal one of the last things the Navy wanted to see: Iron Tramp. Nostra Costello. Liberal Hind. Grudge Dolph. Stay Tune. Jewelry Margarita. Hanjomaru. And Cannibal. A good-sized fleet of the most dangerous pirates in this sea, all assembled in the same place at the worst possible moment.

And at that worst possible moment, those pirates did what they did best and leaped straight to raising seven circles of hell, right in the middle of the Navy's already gargantuan problems and scrambled ranks.

"APAPA! 'Superstars', eh Kid? But Cross and I are supposed to be the dramatic ones of our number! 'Supernovas' is a better description than just stars. After all, you've always been one to do things with a BOOM!" 'Roar of the Seas' Apoo belted out, ramming his chest hard enough to send a platoon of Marines flying.

As a direct contrast, Capone 'Gang' Bege had a sober expression as he cradled his face in his hand. "Honestly, you young punks and your obsessions with titles and accolades," he groused. "And I just had to have the misfortune of being associated with the lot of you… though that being said…"

KA-BLAM! "ARGH!"

A maniacal grin showed under Bege's palm as he stuck his free hand under his shoulder and blasted the Vikevrir behind him with a cannon. "I'm not innocent in this either! This is the most fun I've had in my life!"

"Indeed, my brother!" 'Mad Monk' Urouge chortled, one hand raised in a show of solemn prayer - while his other cracked his pillar down upon the ice and sent a slew of Marines tumbling into the drink. "The path to enlightenment is fraught with conflict, and through this endeavor, we march ever closer to salvation! SO COME NOW!" Urouge spread his arms wide, his usual smile alone sending more than a few Marines running. "Raise your voices in prayer! Or pain. Neither I nor the divine are picky."

"None of us are particularly inclined to come all the way here and not leave our mark," the demonic scarecrow form of 'The Magician' Basil Hawkins droned. He and his allosaurus compatriot had made their entrance by tearing into the Pacifistas, already weakened from dealing with the defected Cipher Pols for so long. The walking weapons were formidable, but not even they could shrug off a demonic scarecrow ramming its iron nails into their sparking wounds and ripping them open.

Amidst all of this, Sentomaru barely hesitated, tearing away from the ones they were there to kill and instead after their latest reinforcements. If this kept up, their entire Pacifista line would be reduced to scrap metal in very short order. And the bodyguard had no illusions about who would be next on the chopping block if that happened.

Unfortunately, the remaining Supernovas didn't give him the chance. And he nearly lost his temper when the one that tore away from the fray and kept him from surging any further forward was—

"What do you think you're doing, Drake!?" Sentomaru barked, weapon straining his attacker's.

"I think it's rather obvious, don't you?" 'Red Flag' X Drake growled back, the demi-allosaurus going all-out to shove Sentomaru back. And through a combination of force and skill, he was actually forcing Sentomaru onto his back foot, the blade of his own weapon perilously close to his face.

The Government agent got an unexpected reprieve, however, when 'Massacre Soldier' Killer flanked Drake instead, his scythe scraping at the scales on the underside of his neck. The pressure let up slightly, giving Sentomaru enough room to breathe, but not much more.

"Why does it sound like this walking eating disorder knows you, Drake?" Killer calmly asked, a quiet promise of bloody slaughter in his voice. "And why is he surprised to see you here?"

Drake, entirely unconcerned with the explicit threat to his life, proudly raised his scarred chin whilst he glared down at the indignant bodyguard. "He's surprised because up until now? I was an undercover Marine assigned to infiltrate the pirate world so I could bring down an Emperor from the inside."

Astoundingly, this admission did not shock everyone in hearing range into paralysis again. It was certainly shocking, everyone just kept fighting. Not least because more than a few who heard it were enraged rather than shocked.

In particular, enraged one pirate enough for him to loom over the entire group, a small meteor's worth of metal along for the ride.

"And what, exactly, is stopping me from skinning your traitor ass alive and turning your scaly hide into my fucking codpiece!?" Kid seethed, his eyes nearly blank from sheer outrage.

Drake's only reaction was to turn his head enough to look back at his fellow pirate. "Because that was all before. Before I got a good look at the group that I'm already a part of. Before I saw what my old flag thought justice was worth, and what they were willing to do to achieve it. I joined the Marines because I wanted to be better than my old man, I wanted to be somebody who was worth something. But now… now, I know that I was wrong. I don't have to be better, I am better. So let's make this fact clear, no mistakes or doubts about it!"

What little ground Sentomaru had made back during this conversation was shoved back as Drake surged forward, fangs bared, ignoring Killer's blade digging into his throat.

"From this day forth, I resign from the Marines!" he bellowed, his saurian voice carrying across the battlefield, and enraging no small number of Marines. "Utterly, irrevocably! I'll take justice into my own hands, and enact it under my own initiative! I will never let someone dictate right or wrong to me again! And make no mistake, unlike my father, I don't intend to break my word: I'll still do my duty, I'll bring the Emperors to heel… but on my own terms."

His piece said, Drake allowed his jaws to quirk up into a smirk.

"But. That's all just me. If you want a reason to let me live a little longer…"

In a blur of motion, Drake unlocked his blades from Sentomaru's, causing the bodyguard to surge forward in shock as he overcompensated—

SLASH! "GAH!"

—before Drake spun around and lashed his taloned foot up in a roundhouse kick that ripped across Sentomaru's arms, forcing him to drop his axe. An axe that Drake grabbed out of the air and tossed back to Kid, who caught it with an understated but present expression of surprise.

"How does that work as a peace offering for you?"

Kid weighed the axe in his hand, hefting it and swinging it around like it was made out of paper. After a minute, he snorted and swung the weapon up and onto his back.

"Let him live for today, Killer."

"Aye, Captain," the slaughterer replied, removing his blade and turning away in search of different prey.

For his part, Sentomaru was furiously trying to think of a way out of his current situation. He had about ten seconds, he reckoned, before he'd be losing far more than just his axe.

"BACK OFF, YOU MANGY, SCURVY-RIDDEN DOGS!"

Thankfully, fortune intervened in the form of an oversized beetle dive-bombing the area with a stream of fire precise enough that the attacking Supernovas had to pause and give it some distance. Sentomaru immediately took the opportunity to flee the scene, waving down the beetle and its rider as he left, while also running through the very unfortunate sequence of events that had led him to this point.

"This overtime," Sentomaru snarled to himself. "Was not worth pension and a pay bump!"

Then he felt a hand clamp down on his shoulder, and as a taunting, female voice rang in his ears, a sense of wrongness flooded his entire body.

"Nope, totally wasn't. And don't expect those to be the only scars you walk away with."

The next thing he knew, he was flat on his face, tripping over his own clothes, and he vaguely registered a crashing sound a couple of seconds later from the direction of his reinforcements. As he tried to regain his bearings, he felt someone grab his clothes and fling him somewhere. He struck what felt like cloth over metal, just in time to yank his now-oversized shirt out of his face.

And saw a teenage girl, if not a young woman, in a too-tight Marine outfit, clutching a glowing beetle larva almost as big as she was. And Sentomaru was shorter than her legs. In fact, he didn't even measure as long as the arm of the Pacifista holding him. Oh, yes, and there was a chorus of muffled snickers and outright laughter in the background.

But amidst all the amusement, there was one individual who was perfectly unamused by the development.

'The Glutton' Jewelry Bonney stared up at Sentomaru with a dangerously sober expression, her fingers tapping rhythmically on her arms.

"Most people have a problem with hitting kids," she declared, her voice low and foreboding. "I don't. So take this one chance I'm giving you: leave, before I demonstrate that fact to the world."

Any lingering inclination to stay Sentomaru might have had, in that moment, violently died.

"…PX-0," Sentomaru squeaked in a too-high voice. "Override current command settings, authorization Sigma Theta Hyperion Omicron Ultraviolet. Get us the hell out of here."

And one second later, Bartholomew Kuma was gone, no longer a factor in the war. Which was, of course, exactly what Bonney had intended in the first place.

While all of this was going on, the three brothers and their companions had been… understandably dumbstruck. Ace was the most shocked of them, as the only one unaware of Cross's alliance with three of the Supernovas, but even for Sabo and Luffy, who did know, that didn't explain the other seven.

"…I'm starting to wonder if I should be surprised anymore," the flame-human said, still processing the sheer providence of being saved by pirates that, while not as strong as him, had precisely the abilities needed to brick the latest threat against him and his brothers. He wasn't, however, so poleaxed as to not notice one specific individual walking up to them.

"I mean, Barty isn't a surprise, but—huh?" Luffy tilted his head at the man striding up to them. "Voodoo guy? What are you—OW!"

Ace stared at the strands of straw shoving themselves into the open wounds all over Luffy's body. It did not distract him from the other strands that did the same for him.

"SONNUVA—! THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?!" Ace roared indignantly, instinctively flaring up in a few patches.

"Attempting to fix the both of you. As matters stand, you are liabilities," Hawkins bluntly declared. His demeanor then shifted to one of annoyance, his brow furrowing. "For some reason, it is not working on Straw Hat."

"Ah, yeah, I think the bullet they hit me with was Seastone, so—YEOW!" Luffy let out another howl of pain, this time caused by Hawkins unceremoniously digging his fingers into the wound in his leg. "OOOOOW! AT LEAST GIVE ME SOMETHING TO BITE ON, JERK!"

"Why?" Hawkins droned, examining the metal ball he withdrew from the wound before pocketing it and shoving his straw back in. "You literally cannot bite off your own tongue."

"THAT—…huh, good point." Luffy perked up at the thought, and then perked up further as he felt his wounds start to close up. "And that feels really good! I actually think I'm feeling a lot better—!"

"You're not," Hawkins promptly shot him and his brother both down, several more stalks of straw lancing out to hold the injured pirates to the Revolutionary's shoulders. "Hold still, this is the first time I have ever thought to apply my abilities in an altruistic manner. I would prefer not to mar it by incorrectly regrowing your tendons and crippling you."

"You should talk to Robin, she'd like you."

Hawkins's mouth twitched and he spared a glance at the visibly strained Isuka. "I only had two proxies prepared for others," he said by way of explanation. The ex-Marine frowned a bit more deeply but offered no comment.

"What about Law? Don't tell me he's the only one who skipped out," Koala asked.

"He is…" the (literal) straw-man's gaze momentarily flicked aside. "Otherwise occupied at the moment, but present."

"Yeah, speaking of which, big question still unanswered, what the hell are you all doing here?!" Ace demanded, looking around at the assembled 'Rookies'. "This war doesn't have jack to do with you all, why would you help us!?"

"Not that we're ungrateful, so if you'd do us all a favor and keep helping, we would greatly appreciate it!" Sabo hastily tacked on, warily eyeing the cyborgs being dismantled around them. Kid, apparently, heard that, because he turned around and gave them all a textbook 'Are you an idiot?' expression.

"Tch, ain't it obvious, dumbasses?" he scoffed, wrenching his new axe out of a Pacifista's bisected cranium and examining its edge. If his smirk was anything to go by, he was very satisfied with the results. "This is the biggest bloodbath of this generation. No way in hell I was going to—"

"—get away with pretending," Apoo cut in, an ear-to-ear grin on his face and a very familiar seashell rolling down his double-jointed arm and into his palm. Kid choked on his spit and brandished his axe at the sight of it.

"FOR THE—you recorded that!?"

"Are you kidding? I record everything! Eeeeeverything!" Apoo's leer only deepened at the bevy of incensed and terrified looks his fellow rookies shot him. "And on top of that, I've grown a pretty good instinct for when a good speech is about to be belted, now shut up and let the world listen!"

~o~

"YOUR FATHER WAS GOLD ROGER, THE PIRATE KING!"

For the first ten seconds following Sengoku's announcement, the world hung in tense silence, people trying to process the bomb that had just been dropped in their laps.

And then on the eleventh, that bomb, and the world, exploded.

The media workers' frenzied rush cooled down remarkably quickly when they realized that this breaking news had already broken everywhere thanks to Cross. That meant they were just another group of people crying out in shock and awe.

Even in Sabaody, a nation that was fresh on the heels of a revolution of its own, the populace was whipped into the fringes of an outright riot from the sheer shock at the idea of one of the most infamous men in history—the most infamous man in living memory—leaving behind a son. A departed legend now had a new chapter - and they were about to bear witness to its end.

As for the Supernovas, seven showed varying forms of surprise, running the gamut from jaws on the ground to simply unmoving with blank looks. And even the three who already knew felt some shellshock from hearing it again. None of them had reactions that would seem out-of-place.

At least not until one of the ten abruptly turned on his heel and started power walking away, with a second hot on his heels.

"Are we leaving already?" Killer asked, raising a baby snail in front of his mask and signaling for it to call their crewmates.

"Damn straight we are. The chaos is gonna be a right hook to the world's politics, and assuming the old son of a bitch bites it when he goes to war, it'll especially hit the New World," Kid grunted, rubbing his knuckles in anticipation. "We're gonna take advantage, slip in, and fuck up all the bitches we can get our hands on."

Killer nodded, repocketing the snail. "The crew's assembling and the Tramp will be ready to set sail when we get there. We can be in the New World in—"

"No."

Kid came to an abrupt halt. The word itself wasn't the cause, though the implications of it caused him to run his hand down his face, hoping against hope that he was just having a stress-induced stroke, that this wasn't really happening. When he opened his eyes again, however, the green-haired object of his irritation was still there, having sprinted in front of him and held out his arms to bar his path.

Probably the only thing that kept Kid from forcing him aside immediately was the fact that Bartolomeo was using his body, not his barriers. Which left one question.

"Are you an idiot who has something to say, or are you just an idiot flat-out?"

"We need to go. All of us," Barto stated firmly, his voice brooking no argument.

That gave Kid a moment's pause, and he shot Bartolomeo a cocky smirk. "Ahh, alright, so you want to get in on this, make a bigger bang? Hehe, sure, why not! Maybe you're not as much of a dumbass as I—!"

"To Marineford."

Kid's smirk was swiftly murdered by the scowl that followed it. "What."

"We need to go to Marineford. All of us," Bartolomeo repeated. "To stop this execution!"

"And why the hell should we do that?" Drake snarled out, his eyes slitting maliciously.

"Because we owe him, damn it!"

"Tch," Bege scoffed, waving his hand dismissively. "I owe only one man, and I don't see him in that hellhole."

"Not Luffy, Gang," Bartolomeo retorted, pointing out at the screen. "I'm talking about saving Ace! I'm talking about Roger! We need to save his son! We owe it to him!"

"Are you cracked?!" Kid spat, jabbing a finger into his own temple. "The man died twenty years ago, none of us knew him! We don't owe him squat!"

"WRONG! WE OWE HIM EVERYTHING!"

In the silence that followed that roar, every eye in earshot stared at Bartolomeo, who for his part stared right back with a blazing passion.

"We. Owe Roger. Everything. And I'll tell you why: in case you dipshits forgot, I come from Loguetown, so I know more about Roger than any of you, and I can say for a fact that not one of us would be here, if not for him." Bartolomeo gestured vigorously. "Think about it! Without Roger, piracy woulda died out ages ago, crushed by the Marines. Wherever we were before we set out, we'd still be there today because we'd have nowhere to go. I mean…"

Bartolomeo swept his gaze over the suddenly shifty-eyed pirates, his gaze knowing.

"I want you to tell me… if you weren't here, where would you be? Go on, say it! How many of you would be dead?"

Law winced, involuntarily rubbing his throat. Hawkins shuffled his deck, then reshuffled it, his expression pointedly blank. Bege… Bege just looked away and tilted his hat over his eyes.

"How many of you would be worse?"

Trails of blood trickled down from the thumb Bonney was actively gnawing on. Killer's hands snapped into trembling fists. Drake let loose a bone-rattling snarl directed at no one in particular.

"So yeah, if you weren't here, you'd be fucked six ways to Sunday. But you're here! You're right here, halfway through the Grand fucking Line, and even if being a pirate ain't all you want in life, achieving your dream is still possible because you've still got a flag to sail under: your flag, the flag, the pirate's flag! Roger's flag! Roger started the Age of Pirates! Our age!

"So some people call Roger a monster, so the hell what!?" Barto snorted derisively. "We've all done shit we ain't proud of, that's just fucking life! So I say to hell with 'em, because even if he was a monster to them, even if he was a monster to the world, to us? To real pirates?" He thumped his fist against his chest. "He's a hero! Our hero! The hero of all true pirates, who we all owe our lives to! We owe him… and I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm not the kind of asshole who goes belly-up when I've still got debts to pay! So I'm going to that war, with or without you, so that I can save his damn son."

Silence greeted the end of Barto's speech, the silence of an impending explosion. For a few seconds, Barto stared at his fellow outlaws, waiting, daring for one of them to contradict him, the only sound Sengoku's ranting in the background.

"…he's right."

All heads snapped around to look at the only woman among their ranks, who looked like she'd bitten into a rotten lemon.

"So help me, he's a complete idiot and he smells like shit, but he's right," Bonney spat. "I ain't keeling over till my books are even, and that bastard Roger has a chip on all of us that I intend to pay back. And if I can pay it back by giving the Marines a black eye, then so much the better." And with that declaration, Jewelry Bonney rose to her feet, fire in her eyes. "I'm in."

Two more seconds and a smoke-filled sigh later, Bege was the next to rise.

"When you put it like that, I don't have much choice myself," he groused, though the ghost of a smirk played on his face.

"I suppose not," Law agreed.

"We must all walk through the Valley someday. Let that day be today, my friends!" Urouge grinned.

Hawkins spread his cards across the straw-covered table in front of him, a cursory glance over them drawing a frown from him. "Our chances of success are suboptimal, at the most optimistic…" And then, with a smirk, he folded them all back into his deck. "But if I have learned one thing from Straw Hat, it is that life is not worth much without some measure of risk."

"Ugh… good sentiment, but is this really a good idea?" Apoo groaned, knocking his fist on top of his head.

"And there we have it."

What might have turned into a drag-out argument was put on hold so the Supernovas could turn their undivided attention to Cross. And just in time to hear…

"I'd expect better from you."

Much to the surprise of most of the Supernovas, it was that that set Sengoku off hard enough for him to transform into his Zoan form.

"Wow. Cross definitely hit a nerve there," Bonney remarked. "Damned if I know which, though."

In this moment, Law was very thankful the Supernovas were so engrossed with the broadcast that he only barely had to hide the grimace that crossed his face.

"How… dare you—?"

"Of course I dare," the pirate scoffed. "I dare because it's the right thing to do. What any person with a sense of morals and integrity would dare to do."

"… WELP!" Apoo barked, getting to his feet and shooting his fists skyward, albeit bent a bit so as to avoid hitting the ceiling. "No way in hell I'm gonna be able to compete with this kind of trouble any other way. Marineford or bust!"

The broadcast was silent as Sengoku fought to get his temper back under control. During that time, the three who hadn't answered Barto's call to action glowered between the screen and their peers. After a moment, Killer coughed uncomfortably, eyeing his captain beneath his helmet. Kid sighed explosively, and threw up his hands.

"FUCK ALL Y'ALL. I can't let you assholes show me up. Drake, you in or you lose your spine again?"

"I have had more than enough of this nonsense," the (quote-unquote)ex-Marine declared. "Call me whatever names you want, but I am going to do the sane thing and stay right here. If the rest of you want to keep letting the Straw Hats' influence drive you to the gates of insanity and back, be my guest."

The gathered pirates collectively blinked, processing that idea. And then…

"Even if it is their influence making us willing to do something this stupid, I don't give a damn," Bonney declared.

"Just leave him, we're losing time here," Bartolomeo huffed, leading the way out. And as the last of them left, Sengoku finally regained his composure.

Drake was thus the only one present to witness his reaction to Sengoku's attempt to justify the war, Ace's backstory - and Cross allowing Doflamingo to speak. The words of the tyrant that had killed his father—wretched man though he was—reverberated in the Ancient Zoan's mind, and it was to his utmost horror and fury that he realized…

That he was thoroughly unable to refute them.

"…DAMN IT ALL! WAIT THE HELL UP!" he roared, tearing off after the others.

~o~

"So don't try to pretend you don't have a soft spot here—"

"'SOFT SPOT' MY ASS, I JUMPED ON THIS BANDWAGON BECAUSE I WASN'T GOING TO BE LEFT OUT OF THIS SHITSHOW!" Kid roared. Then he turned back to the three brothers: specifically, Ace himself, who was still gaping at the Dial in shock.

"And as for you!" the punk-pirate barked, shoving his finger in Ace's gobsmacked face. "Let's make one thing clear! We're the superstars of this era, the Thirteen Supernovas, minus your brother's two schlubs! If anyone is going to kill that rubber moron, it'll be one of us on the way to Raftel. And if the rest of the world calls Roger a demon?" He waved his hand with a derisive snort. "Then to hell with them. He's our hero, and this is our way of wiping the slate clean. And if you can't get over your fucking daddy issues?" He flipped Ace the bird. "Then fuck you."

"Tasteful, Kid, truly the height of sophistication," Hawkins drawled.

"Kiss my ass, you all know what I'm about," Kid snapped back, turning his ire to what remained of the Navy's forces, but especially Blackbeard and his crew. "And I'm proud of it. I'll carve my path to the top in blood and steel, and I'll rip through anyone who gets in my way. Especially rancid cheating fucks who think they can steal my fucking spotlight!"

That just served to send Blackbeard into another fit of laughter, which in turn pissed off Kid—and the rest of the Supernovas, for that matter—even more.

"Look, I think I speak for all three of us when I say I'd love nothing more than to join you in giving him the most painful death imaginable," Sabo said. "But as much as it physically pains me to admit, he's currently a mile outside our collective weight class, and I'm pretty sure we've maxed out our karmic balance simply because none of us have died screaming. We need to get the hell out of here."

"Oh, that's fine, you go ahead and do that," Kid replied, grinning maliciously as he focused his powers on what used to be the Navy's human weapons. "But I've got some new toys to try out before I go."

"We're all at peak stamina. Fat chance of us not using it while we're here," Killer agreed.

"The only problem is the lack of targets," Bege groused. And indeed, the entire battlefield had gone alarmingly quiet. The Whitebeards were still in full retreat, while the battered Marine forces were busy staring down Blackbeard and his forces, both sides waiting for the clashes between Whitebeard and Shiki, and Garp and World, to finish. Even the remaining Warlords seemed reluctant to rejoin the fray.

"What the fuck!" Kid damn near whined. "All this drama and no one to fight?!"

"No worries, Eustass Kid," Hawkins intoned, clapping his hands together with his tarot cards in between. "Your bloodlust will be sated today. The fates demand it."

The gathered Supernovas followed his line of sight to the Marine right, where a fresh block of Marines were marching up to the seawall. Very, very fresh Marines who looked like they hadn't seen the fight at all yet.

"Huh. Where'd those fuckers come from?" Bonney wondered.

"Someone desperate pulled them off the ships," Drake answered. He glanced behind him. "And yup, it's only the ships on the left that are moving to cut us off."

"Oh, please, as if a bunch of Marine grunts are going to do anything to stop us!" Bartolomeo cackled.

There was a faint cry of "Tempos!"

And then Bart hastily threw up a barrier, the head of a squared-off warhammer slamming into it barely two inches from his face. As quickly as it came, it zoomed back, Kid reaching up to grab hold of it with his powers. But his control slid right off.

"How the fuck—!" he demanded, before biting his tongue at the two people standing in front of the pack of Marines: Angmar of the Vikverir, and Lyonel, dismounted, of the Angevins. "Oh, good, then this won't be boring!"

Reaching out with his powers, Kid wrenched one of the heads of the downed Pacifistas un-cleanly off, bringing a good chunk of the mechanical wiring that was its spine with it. He aimed it at the approaching small army, before tearing a panel out of the back of the head.

"Yo, castle-man, think you can—?"

"Hotwire the laser cannon to fire on command?" Bege finished, kneeling down next to the head. "Brat, I've forgotten more about firearms than you know about cursing. Short answer is that my engineers think so, though don't expect many shots out of whatever the power source is."

"Not a problem!" Kid replied, clawing his hand through the air and ripping more heads their way. "We got pleeeenty of room for trial and error."

While the two went to work, most of the remaining Supernovas gathered in a knot ahead of the marching army, waiting for it to get closer.

"Hammer fuck's mine," Bartolomeo declared. "I got a bone to pick with him for nearly taking my damn head off."

"Yes, yes, and now you need to go mano a mano to prove how macho you are," Bonney snarked. "Just don't complain if one of us has to bail you out."

"Fuck you."

"You're so not my type."

"What are we waiting for, anyway?" Killer demanded just a little louder than normal.

"For them to get into range of my songs," Apoo answered, squinting mightily. "Without Soundbite to boost me, they're out of range. But they'll be in range in three… two… one…"

Grabbing his left arm and wrenching it straight, Apoo let out a screeching guitar riff that cleaved apart the ice where Angmar and Lyonel had just been. Angmar's hammer came screaming at him, and with Bartolomeo charging at the Vikverir screaming at the top of his lungs someone else had to stop it.

That person was Urouge, who caught it with his chest - and was knocked clean off his feet, to go tumbling over the ice. While Apoo hung back and continued to direct sonic attacks into the crowd of Marines, the remaining Supernovas leapt into the fray, neatly diverting their gunfire away from him.

Well. Bonney and Hawkins did. Killer went straight for Lyonel, who drew his sword and parried the first swipes Killer tried. His pommel flashed out and smashed Killer in the face, and if it weren't for his mask taking the brunt of the damage it would've cost the pirate teeth.

As it was, Killer staggered back, reeling, but Lyonel was unable to follow up. Drake, in hybrid form, had swooped in behind him to smash the knight's head in with his mace. Or, well, he tried. Lyonel spun around and would've taken Drake's head off had the pirate not used the ice to slide under it.

It was at this point that a laser blast, much larger than the usual Pacifista beams, caught him square in the chest and immolated him. When it cleared, the knight was slumped on his knees, eyes glazed over, and his armor melting off of him despite his sword somehow surviving the blast.

"Fuck yeah, that was awesome! Not bad, castle man!" Kid whooped from where he and Bege were still set back from even Apoo.

"Just send me another head already, this one burned out the lenses," Bege replied. "Typical government wastage, why spend money on proper lenses that can take overload power when you can save ten percent and get lenses that burn out on the slightest power fluctuation—!"

A head slammed down in front of him. "Quit bitching about the government and actually start shooting at them!" Kid spat.

Bege rolled his eyes, but got back to work. "No damn respect around here…"

Bartolomeo, meanwhile, had closed to melee range with Angmar. The burly Vikverir was certainly a capable hand-to-hand fighter, and built like a slab of granite, but Bart was faster and his barriers were a heck of an advantage. He'd been pressing, pushing the man back-

And naturally that was when the hammer came back around and smacked him clean in the back of his head, smashing him face-first into his own barrier. Spitting blood from a crushed nose, Bartolomeo struggled to lift his spinning head up, though he at least got a barrier in between him and the hammer that came down. And then came down again. And again.

'Fucking—for the love of Luffy, what do they feed this guy?!' Bartolomeo shouted in his head as the distinct headache of overloading his barriers began to overpower the headache of getting smacked in the head by a hammer. 'Fuck, I actually need some help here!'

Salvation arrived in the form of Urouge, twice his normal size, rugby-tackling Angmar. Bartolomeo struggled to his feet, taking in the situation. With Angmar distracted and Lyonel down for the count, they seemed to be winning handily. That… was good, he was pretty sure.

Because clearly the head injury was even worse than he thought, if the origami frog he'd hallucinated jumping into the battlefield was any indication.

Then it exploded. And Bartolomeo felt it. So either this was a really bad hallucination, or the frog thing had been real. He wasn't sure which he preferred.

He didn't even protest when Urouge grabbed him and hauled him away like a sack of potatoes.

"I think I'm concussed, I just saw a frog go boom…" Bartolomeo slurred weakly.

"You are concussed, but you did indeed see a faux-amphibian detonate, my friend. Truly, a day filled with miracles! And we have not even seen the Promised Land yet! Such a wonderful world we live in!" Urouge declared proudly.

"Yoooou talk fuuuunny…"

"And you could use a bath, so I'd say that makes us even!"

-o-

Ivankov eyed the explosion with a grin of satisfaction.

"Hee-haw! That's finishing with a bang!" he (at the moment) declared as the ice disintegrated in front of the surviving Marines. The tank's inhabitants, of course, were at his side. "Now, let's get going. Oh, come now, Inazuma, you did splendidly," he added, eyeing his right hand.

"I know, my queen," he responded, tears coming down his face despite his unchanging expression. "But it was a masterpiece."

Sympathetic smiles surrounded the stoic scissor-man as the entire company of newkamas used a lengthy barrier gangplank to leave the battlefield and board the Cannibal for their escape.

"Well, Mr. 2. You seem to be doing quite well for yourself," someone drawled as they came aboard.

"And you still look like you could use a decent haircut, Mr. 5!" the ex-Agent chortled, slapping his hand to his cheek to mirror the bomber-man's dreads. "And for the record, it's Bentham now, thank you very much!"

"To each his own, Kyahaha~!" Valentine chortled. She shot her ex-coworker a jaunty salute as she came down onto the deck, the rope she was holding hauling up a cannon that several grunts hauled onto the ship. "Alright, there's another one, get it mounted and ready to fire ASAP! We don't know when they're going to organize enough firepower to shoot at us, but we damn well know they will! And someone get 5 more water and shells!"

"From assassin to living nitroglycerine pump, I really need to get into a good union…" Mr. 5 groused, though he still went ahead and chugged down a bottle of water in preparation.

"I'd expect that the amount of… what's that phrase, 'bang for your beri', will be more than enough to justify this," Miss Goldenweek serenely stated. A serenity not remotely matched by the paintball turret she was currently manning on the battleship's forecastle. "Also, wasn't Mr. 3 with you?"

"He split when we set the frog tank to self-destruct," Bentham shrugged. "I think he's planning to stick with Buggy."

"Smarter than being anywhere near where I can get him under my heel!" Valentine declared, her ever-present grin taking on a much more vicious quality. Below her, deck planking splintered under a sudden weight spike.

"Promises of vicious murder aside…" Gin grunted, a look of bone-deep weariness writ across his face. "Welcome aboard the Cannibal, infamous ship of the dread pirate 'Black Bart' Bartolomeo, scourge of Loguetown and puncher of World Nobles, sonnuvabitch I am going to murder him later for making me say this." This was said all in one breath without ever changing his long-suffering tone.

"You will try and the only way you will hurt him is when he busts a gut as you flail uselessly against his shield," Desire said as she stepped up next to Gin, nodding as respectfully as she could manage (which wasn't much) at their guests. "Anyway, you lot are welcome aboard for now, though you'll have to shove off once we get back to Sabaody, because that's as far as we go. Apart from that, feel free to sit back, relax, maybe pick up a rifle or two and help us send these white-hatted bastards to Davy Jones Locker before—!"

KRAK-THOOM!

A thunderous rumble rolled across the battlefield.

"MAGMA SHOWER INCOMING, FIRE AT WILL!" Apis shrieked from the crow's nest.

"—Before almost exactly that happens—ALL HANDS, PREPARE TO INTERCEPT!" Desire cursed, sweeping her hand out.

As if signaled, all the Supernovas' crews upended fire at the incoming hunks of molten rock, so fast and well-coordinated that it was as if they had been expecting such an assault. Because they had been.

Impressive results were achieved by the Nostra Costello and Iron Tramp through sheer volume of fire. But not the most impressive in the ad-hoc fleet.

"FIRE!"

The Cannibal took the cake. Mr. 5's extra explosions shattered what remained of the magma into shards that rained down across the battlefield. Dangerous, but not immediately deadly.

"Alright…" Gin breathed a sigh of relief, wiping his brow as he scanned the skies of the battlefield. "Alright, I think that's the last of—!"

"INCOMING!"

The pirates all suffered a collective heart attack as a final meteoric fist burst through the smoke clouds, completely missing the interception volley—

"GALAXY WINK!"

But detonating a ways away from the ships thanks to a sudden blast of air knocking it apart, with another volley wiping out the debris.

"Whew…" Ivankov exhaled, just as relieved as everyone else. "Well, I would say that I've paid for me and my boys' passage now, yes?"

Ghin and Desire nodded dumbly.

"Ahhh, how wondrous to see you live up to the name of Miracle Worker, your wondrous, your exalted—!"

"Later, Ben-boy. Preferably after I trade this migraine for a hangover."

-o-

Galdino, who observed all of this from a different spot beside the sea, rubbed his chin.

"Well, Bentham was not remotely exaggerating about Emporio Ivankov… an impressive person in all respects. Even still…" He glanced aside at the man he was tentatively entrusting his safety and allegiance with. "It says something when I would rather accompany a literal monster clown because you're the less flamboyant option."

"I can't even be offended," Buggy grumbled as he watched his new crewmates—or minions, as he mentally labeled the unaffiliated inmates who'd decided to follow him—flooded onto one of the battleships that the Navy's last-ditch effort against the Supernovas had left unmanned. "But what's your plan after getting out of here?"

"Well, I don't see any reason to part ways. If you're amenable to it, I intend to follow you for a while longer," Galdino answered, primly adjusting his glasses. "I found you reasonably cunning when we were incarcerated, and now I know that you're world-class in strength and guile alike. I have no other prospects at the moment: my debt to Straw Hat is paid and none of my former comrades from Baroque Works are likely to want anything more to do with me. And I could do far worse for a new patron."

"…survival and prosperity, hm?"

"Well, that and I prefer to place myself in the hierarchy of another so that in the worst-case scenario, I can pass the buck for any of my wrongdoings onto you if and/or when the time comes for it." Galdino shrugged indifferently. "It's just good business, really."

Buggy hummed thoughtfully, giving the candle-man a sidelong glance. "You're quite the cold-blooded son of a bitch, aren't you?"

Galdino's answer was an unassuming smile that did not reach his icy eyes. "Remind me to show you my art portfolio sometimes. One I can only pray Straw Hat joins someday, I might add." The wax-man's demeanor cracked with a venomous scowl. "And for once, that's not me brown-nosing, that's genuine."

"Hmm… egomaniacal tendencies coupled with an irrational hatred of that rubbery moron…" Buggy's face split with a wide grin, and he spun around and stuck out his hand. "Like looking in a mirror! Put 'er there!"

Galdino matched him tooth for tooth, clapping his hand into the Chop-man's - before squeaking in terror when that hand was crushed in Buggy's grip, and he was yanked nose-to-giant-nose with Buggy's scowling face.

"Double-cross me and I'll feed you to my crew's lion feet-first," Buggy hissed. "Mohji keeps him… hungry. Understand me?"

Galdino whimpered miserably as he nodded frantically.

"Glad to hear it!" Buggy laughed good-naturedly, leaning back and clapping Galdino on his shoulder, taking no small amount of pleasure in the flinch that produced. "Ah, and look, my new recruits have finished acquiring our new vessel. How fortuitous! ALRIGHT, MEN!" the clown barked, focusing all attention on himself as he strutted up onto his newly ill-acquired ship. "Drop the sails and take us out to sea! BUT!" He stuck his finger up with the last word. "Don't take us out too far."

He turned to the battlefield, his eyes locked on the two titans clashing.

"We're not leaving until we see this through to the end…" he solemnly stated, his tone almost wistful.

-o-

Most of the forces that were on Luffy's side, broadly speaking, were now well into escaping the battlefield, needing only to finish boarding and sail away. The Supernovas' ships parting to allow Pequod to the 'shore' only reinforced this. And as far as most everyone was concerned, it was well past time to get out.

Most everyone.

"Not yet," Ace said firmly, staring out onto the battlefield. "I know it's stupid when it's a miracle that I'm still alive, but… Pops. I can't leave without seeing this to the end."

Sabo and Luffy both grimaced. As did Isuka and Koala alongside them. But surprisingly, it was Luffy who spoke an objection.

"If Akainu catches up to us or they try sniping us again—!"

"Luffy," Sabo cut in. "Believe me, I know how you feel. But I know how Ace feels, too. Imagine if it was you up there. How would your crew feel?"

Luffy, the only one of the three brothers who had never been subordinate to anyone, understood the point immediately and sighed angrily. "This bites."

"Welcome to our lives," Sabo softly replied.

"No worries, Luffy!"

A haze came over their vision, as though they were looking through glass, and they turned back to see Bartolomeo crossing his fingers behind them, a dome-shaped barrier covering the four of them.

"We didn't come this far to fail at the last minute. No sniper bullets will make it through my barriers," he said with a grin.

Luffy smiled, a bit more subdued than usual. "Thanks, Barty."

Sabo shook his head as the rookie pirate swooned.

"Though while we're waiting, might as well start taking inventory. For one, does anyone have a twenty on the Boa sisters?"

"Huh? Yeah, they're all in their twenties, why?" Luffy asked.

The older brothers promptly shared a flat stare.

"Didn't miss that about him, did we?" Sabo blandly remarked.

"No, no we did not," Ace agreed.

"He means if anyone sees where they are, genius," Koala deadpanned.

"Oh. Why didn't you just say that?"

It took a conscious effort for all three of them to not punch their brother (or friend, in Koala's case) through the ice.

"Anyway, I saw Dad helping Hancock, but I haven't seen Sonia or Mari. Which is weird. They're too big for me to not see them, especially with Zoro and Nami's hair colors…"

"Mrgh…" Ace rubbed his jaw. "Well, they might hang around Paradise, but they're the elites of a warrior society living in the Calm Belt, and that's a level of crazy all its own. I'm sure they'll be fine."

-o-

"SET DAMN IT, I DIDN'T LOSE ALMOST A FOOT OF INTESTINES TO THAT DRILL-FACED RAT JUST TO DIE LIKE THIS!"

"KEEP RUNNING AND WE WON'T HAVE TO! NOW MOVE YOUR TAIL!"

-o-

"Well, on that totally unjinxed note…" Sabo muttered, before adding, "Last I saw, the felons you managed to break out of Impel Down have found their own means of escape, and all of Whitebeards' Commanders are converging on Pequod, with their men right behind them. Looks like they're lining up on the ice to make sure the crew make it onboard first, and those daughters of his are working on the wounded. Still…" His mood dimmed. "They… They're leaving with a lot less than they came with, Ace. I'm sorry."

Guilt welled up in Ace to be savagely shoved down into the box labeled "later", which was at this point getting rather overstuffed. He shook his head. "They all knew what they were getting into. I won't insult their sacrifices by shouldering the blame. At the least, our allies are walking away at all. That's better than things could have been."

As soon as he said that, however, his head snapped up and he realized that something was missing from the battlefield.

"Wait a second, what happened to all of the Marine turncoats?" he asked.

"Looks like they're on the retreat, too," Isuka said, eyeing a few specific places in the battlements where small groups of bandanna-clad Marines could be seen disappearing. "Dragon's arrival must have been their cue to call it quits early, plus we've pretty much run out the element of surprise by now. As I'm sure you can imagine, mutiny on this scale tends to make people, oh, what's the word, murderous. And with the Pacifistas gone, Jormungandr must have bowed out, too." At Ace's 'get on with it' expression, she hastily added, "Aaanyway, we should be fine: The ships of the Black Cage Fleet were safe in the Air Door before the battle started and we've had exit strategies outlined for weeks. We won't have a problem getting away."

"Well, at least that's handled," Ace sighed in relief. He then grimaced as he moved on to the other half of the equation. "And how are the… new arrivals handling themselves?"

"Disturbingly well, looks like," Sabo groused. "Unfortunately, Shiki's really showing off his ability as one of the Old Generation, he isn't giving Whitebeard an inch. Of course now is when he decides to stop holding back."

"WHAT!?" Luffy bellowed, his irate expression mirrored by Barto's own indignant squawk. "You're saying he was holding back against me!? That no-good—I'LL KICK HIS ASS!"

"Later, and debatable," Sabo chided him before resuming his observation. "Anyway, as for the other old-timer, he's currently throwing down with Gramps, and that—!"

"INCOMING!"

That was all the warning the pirates had before a massive chunk of stone blurred overhead and slammed into the water like a meteorite, kicking up a plume of water that caused the floating footing to heave and crack from the resulting wave.

"—is a fight… that's going about as well as you could expect…" Sabo finished weakly, warily eyeing the clash of senior citizens.

-o-

"BARORORO! You're weak, old man!" Byrnndi World bellowed, his words and expression alike delighted despite his taunts. "Weak and feeble!"

World punctuated those words by hurling a handful of small stones at Garp. Stones that, once they reached the apex of their arc, suddenly saw their speed and weight multiply so that they fell more like meteors.

This did not matter to Garp the Fist, who simply punched in the direction of the stones. Regardless of their enhanced weight and, apparently, enhanced durability, they were still blasted off course, devastating the landscape around him but leaving the Marine himself still unharmed.

"Yeah, well you're just as ugly and stupid as you were twenty years ago, so I'd say I got the better end of the stick, then!" Garp retorted, his expression one of grim determination.

Reaching down, Garp yanked up the mast of one of the fallen battleships World had originally thrown at him, hefted it like a javelin, and then hurled it with all his might. In response, World kicked at the ground, throwing up a slab of stone that he enhanced with his power, before digging in his heels and bracing his hands against. The mast impacted and shattered into pieces, but not before shoving back World a good twenty feet, his shoes digging furrows into the ground, and punching a short way through the improvised shield.

Growling, Byrnndi threw it aside—to find Garp in punching range with his fist reared back. World's eyes widened, and he barely had time to enhance his own durability before Garp's haymaker smacked square into his forehead.

To those watching, it was an open question which was more gobsmackingly impressive: the fact that World was still standing, or that blood now trickled down from under Garp's fist.

Grinning fit to burst, the pirate grasped Garp's wrist and slowly, agonizingly slowly, moved it off his forehead. "Not bad, old man! I didn't think you'd have the courage to get this close!" he taunted.

"I can't beat the shit out of you without getting closer," Garp snarled back. With that, he wrenched his wrist out of World's grip and threw another punch.

Or rather, he threw a hundred, all in the span of about five seconds.

"BARORORORORORO!" World howled, matching Garp punch for punch.

No thought was given to blocking. Each was focused solely on offense, punches capable of shattering entire castles landing in the dozens. Dust swirled around the two like an angry tornado, and Marines who'd been stupid enough to be close enough were blown into the air like ragdolls. It wasn't long before the sheer force of both blows blasted them both back. Back, but not off their feet, and both promptly swayed back in and grabbed each other's hands in a brawler's lock.

A lock that sent an outright ripple of force blasting across the entire island, throwing many a fighter off their feet.

-o-

Three of the few who weren't thrown for a loop were those who'd experienced such force with alarming frequency in their youth.

"Gramps is scary," Luffy sagely stated.

"I mean, we knew that already, but it's really something else when he's going all-out…" Ace agreed, shivering.

Sabo nodded along, before blanching at the cracks forming in their icy footing. And he wasn't the only one.

"Ahhh… Ace? I respect you wanting to watch your father's final moments, truly I do, but might I suggest we relocate a bit in order to do so?" Koala piped up. "You know, away from the insanely overpowered Marine and Pirate, maybe?"

"And where we're not liable to get dunked in the drink?" Isuka sourly tacked on.

A large part of Ace did not want to listen to that suggestion. Another, slightly larger part that was his (neglected) survival instincts, managed to win out after a slight conflict. He nodded.

"We'll wait on one of the ships. But if we try to leave before…" Ace grimaced and trembled, before forcing the words out. "Before things end, then I'm burning it out from under us."

"I'll take those fucking odds!" Kid interjected before raising his voice to a roar, swinging his arm violently. "ALRIGHT FUCKERS, THE HOTHEAD'S GROWN A BRAIN CELL! FALL BACK TO YOUR SHIPS! HAUL ASS!"

And with relief coloring their every action, the Supernovas started to retreat from their position on the battlefield, intending to wait out Whitebeard's final moments from the safety of their ships.

The key word, of course, being 'started'. They didn't get far before a single, horrible sound froze their retreat in its tracks. A sound, and the force it carried.

-o-

"FUFFUFFUFFUFFU!"

The Supernovas' salvo had taken out what everyone could tell was the Navy's last chance to stop them. Anyone of significance left on the side of the white hats was either engaged against Blackbeard's forces or no longer a factor, either standing by, retreating, or mauled into ineffectiveness.

Of course, the thing about standing by is that you can always jump right back in.

"You might say that they're going to pull this off after all. That would be fun… but it just seems too easy. Besides, I said I'd break Cross's will to live…and I intend to do it!"

Suspended high above the battlefield, heedless of the cannonballs and shrapnel still whirling through the air, the Heavenly Demon's hand shot skyward, a mass of strings winding around one another in his palm. Winding harder and faster and tighter until the very air above Doflamingo's palm was shimmering with hellish heat. And it kept winding from there.

"If I only get one shot at them, then I'll make it count!" Doflamingo grinned madly. "Either of those two dead should DO IT! OVERHEAT!"

The air shrieked as the cable of superheated string blasted at the three brothers, the strings out-speeding their sound.

-o-

It was at about the same moment that Doflamingo began charging his attack that someone looking through a periscope noticed that the number of Warlords standing on the sidelines had dropped to two. That realization came immediately before a yell that shook the submarine.

"DO IT NOW!"

"AYE, CAPTAIN! ALL HANDS, BREACH-BREACH-BREACH!"

-o-

Mere moments before Doflamingo launched his attack, the ice between him and the would-be escapees exploded from beneath. Then a wave of Conqueror's washed over them, breaking Bartolomeo's concentration to maintain the barrier, sending Koala reeling, and sapping the last of Isuka's strength, knocking her out. And at the same time, a blue haze overtook the area. The attack still launched, and the power and speed behind it were such that not even a New World veteran would be able to properly counter it.

Unless, of course, they were intimately familiar with the String-String Fruit's capabilities.

"SHAMBLES."

In place of one stray chunk of ice headed for the string appeared the last Supernova, 'Surgeon of Death' Trafalgar Law. Suspended in midair by momentum alone, he braced Kikoku with his full body as he caught the supersonic strings with his blade. It was beyond his power to counter, or even to properly parry, but the precision of a surgeon allowed him to angle his weapon just so, and deflect the attack off the flat of his sword's edge.

An outright unholy shriek of string on metal blasted across the battlefield, forcing everyone who suffered it to clamp their hands over their ears in agony. It was only by employing all the energy he could muster in his legs to use the Moonwalk technique he'd only just puzzled out that kept Law from being sent flying, and all the force he had in his body to keep Kikoku from shattering under the strain, but though sparks flew and steel shrieked, neither he nor his blade broke.

Even with all that effort, the Overheated string only just missed its intended targets by a scant meter, searing the air as it blasted past them and into the sea, where it tore a steaming chasm through the water.

The attack persisted for four seconds—four seconds that felt like they lasted four eternities—until the weight of the string soaked in the sea forced Doflamingo to abort his attack and disconnect the cable from his palm. Once the remnants of the assault finished whipping past him, Law allowed himself to plummet back onto the Tang, where he landed hard and only just managed to keep himself upright by leaning against the boat's sail. He couldn't feel his legs, and his left arm was hanging dead at his side with a steaming Kikoku clutched in his rigor-locked fingers, but he did have just enough life left in his neck and other arm to angle a casual smirk up at the rapidly angering Warlord, and flick the brim of his hat just so.

"Hey there, Captain," Law drawled in an ever so casual tone. "Long time no see, huh?"

"YOOOOOU…" Doflamingo outright rumbled, his face pulled back into a smile so wide it was visibly painful, and his voice and body both quaking with a raw, primal fury. "You, you of all people, did not just do that!"

"So what if I did, huh?" Law asked, swinging (flopping, really) his arm out wide in invitation. "What are you going to do about it?"

The Yaksha twitched, spasmodically, before he slammed a palm into his face, his entire body twitching. "FufufufuuuuOooooh…" He peered out from between his fingers. "You. Little. Bastard, I am feeling so many emotions right now, all of them murderous~!"

In response to the unholy fury bearing down on him, Law's amusement only deepened, and he lowered his head, his eyes glaring up at the demon through the shadows his hat cast. "…Doflamingo."

At that name, the intensity of the Warlord's focus somehow intensified.

"I'm making you a promise. Two, actually." Law's arm rose up, his index finger raised. "The first… so long as I'm involved in things, you will not kill anyone else."

Doflamingo's twitching increased as his head jerked into a curious tilt. "And the second?"

A second finger joined the first. "That the next time you see my face…"

Law's smirk matched his nemesis's in malevolence, and his arm twisted upside down to flip the Warlord off.

"It will be the day you lose your smile," he declared without shame, and with absolute confidence. "And the day you fall."

"OMINOUS!" With that single bellow, the Warlord righted himself and soared higher up, doing a good impression of Christ on the cross as he cackled. "And just intriguing enough to buy you shitstains your lives! Congratulations, I won't kill you today! Any of you who survive and make it to the New World, consider yourselves cordially invited to face me yourselves! Dressrosa's shores will forever be open to anyone who's stupid enough to want to try and test their luck. And hey, who knows…"

Doflamingo Smiled down at the assembled pirates, his glasses and teeth flashing with pure evil.

"Maybe it'll work out better for you this time. FUFUFUFUFUUU!"

And with that final taunt, the Warlord flung himself back to the sidelines, so that he could resume watching the world rip itself to shreds.

Kid let out an irritated tsk as he hauled his way up onto the Polar Tang's deck, glaring at Yaksha's feathered back. "I'm really starting to hate that feathered bastard," he snarled out.

"Yeah, he has that effect…" Law grumbled, his good cheer gone as he poked at his deadened arm. "And if you're all done enjoying the show and would like to get the hell out of here, I'd suggest you get on right the hell now!"

"HERE'S HOPING THAT'S AN OPEN INVITATION! INCOMING!"

Two massive serpents tore into view, slithering with desperate speed toward the Polar Tang. The source of their panic came into view a moment later: a lone figure in a white robe and mask tearing after them, razor winds flying from his arms. And they noticed quickly that the serpents' bodies were covered in not-so-shallow cuts that were sure to cause scars, and that with the way they were desperately wheezing and gasping, the two of them were on their last legs… metaphorically speaking, anyway.

Something that their pursuer had obviously noticed. He suddenly blurred into being right behind the pair's heads, arms pulled back and fingers poised to perforate their brainstems. And he would have followed through on that action too…

"NOT ON YOUR LIFE!" CLANG!

Were it not for an illegal interfererence in his ever so legal assassination.

At first, Marigold and Sandersonia were too winded by their ordeal to even properly grok the fact that they were alive, more focused on getting oxygen into their shrieking lungs. Once their lungs stopped rioting, though, they did notice, and whipped their heads around.

And froze.

Because what they saw was Ace and Sabo standing with all the implacability of a pair of mountains in front of their pursuer. Their pipes were crossed against his hands, not budging an inch.

Any sign of sparkles around them was merely a hallucination brought on by hypoxia. Nothing else.

"Ahhhh, Aegis 0! I'd say you bastards always show up at just the wrong time, but really, there's never a right time to look at your pasty skulls!" the Revolutionary blond grit out through a rictus grin.

"Speak for yourself, I always get a thrill out of polishing the collection I've picked up from all the idiots the Nobles have sicced on my head!" the Pirate chuckled, tinged with a low and broiling rage. A rage that slowly manifested in flames playing along his weapon and shoulders. "What do you say, stooge, think I'm going to be getting a new piece?"

Rather than respond, the Aegis agent whipped his hands back from the lock, ducked low and made to dodge between the outlaws so that he could rush his intended victims—!

CRACK! "GRGH!"

Only to run face-first into Sabo's waiting Claw, his blackened talons shearing clean through the mask and digging into his face beneath, effectively holding him in place.

"FIRE FIST!"

Right before Ace shattered what remained of the mast and sent the agent flying, immolating his clothes in the process.

"Awww, sorry, Ace, looks like that's a no," Sabo chuckled, his mood significantly lightened.

"Don't worry, I'll settle for his bleached skull," Ace replied, extinguishing his flames. He then looked over his shoulder and ran his hand through his hair as he smiled at the Amazons they'd rescued. "Hey, you ladies alright?"

"Ah-ah…w-we're fine…" Marigold breathed weakly, staring up at him in awe.

"Well, of course you are!" Sabo laughed, tipping his hat politely as he offered them a hand. "These two are Amazons, they're tough as nails! But still, that's no reason to not offer some aid, it's only polite after all!"

"R-Right. Thanks, Sabo," Sandersonia simpered, lightly placing her hand into his, staring deep into his eyes—

"Hey, snakes! What's with that stoolie trying to turn your hides into handbags!?"

The Amazons snapped their heads around and hissed bloody murder at Bartolomeo for ruining the moment.

Who, as was typical for him, was either entirely unrepentant or completely clueless. It was hard to tell which. "I mean, why would the Government's goons be trying to off the two of you? I thought that your sister was their bitch or something."

Veins popped on the sisters' foreheads. In a swift motion, they reared up to give 'Black' Bart a lashing, tongue and otherwise. Which, as a result of their collective distraction, gave the Aegis 0 agent just the space he needed. Despite being rather thoroughly carbonized, he snapped to life, reached into his coat—

And then jerked forward as over a dozen heart-tipped arrows slammed into his back. Boa Hancock stepped up beside them and turned him over with her heel. Then, looking him in the eye, she fired a beam from her hands and left only a statue.

With that done, she faced the assembled—and rightfully wary—Supernovas with a cold stare. "I've recently terminated my employment with the Government due to… irreconcilable differences. Though I'd advise that you watch your tongue, mongrel. I don't need the Government's incentive to neuter you if you keep yapping at me."

With something of a sneer, Kid opened his mouth.

THWACK!

And then coughed, massaging his throat and glaring bloody murder at Killer.

"We're alive, for a miracle, and I won't let you ruin that with your big fucking mouth," Killer hissed quietly.

Kid grumbled, but remained quiet as Hancock strode imperiously aboard, her sisters limping on beside her. Then the attention of all nearby fell onto another figure who picked up the statue she had left behind, joining the two he was already carrying.

And while nobody was overly surprised at his presence, most everyone felt some mix of awe and anxiety with the Revolutionaries' leader before them.

"I'll be in touch soon," he said, to Hancock's nod. Then he smirked. "And while I'm not sure I have the right to say this, if it matters, you have my blessing."

Hancock blushed like a schoolgirl and looked away, smiling demurely. Around her, a collective gasp sucked in all the oxygen on board.

Almost all, anyways. Koala, for one, heaved out a weary sigh as she hefted the unconscious Isuka onto her shoulders. "And that's about all the drama that either of us can take. We'll head belowdecks, call us when we're out of this madness." And with that declaration, she headed into the depths of the submarine.

Ace, meanwhile, looked down at Dragon for several seconds. Then he bowed.

"Thank you for taking care of Sabo… and thank you for saving us," he intoned formally.

"I may not be much of a father, but there's no need to stand on ceremony with me," Dragon replied. Idly, the Revolutionary deflected a stray sniper bullet. "Take your time catching up, Sabo. And Luffy… I'll look forward to when you return. The world is still waiting for our answer."

Luffy and Sabo both nodded. Dragon made to turn, hesitated briefly, and then shot his son a warm… smirk over his shoulder.

"And… good job. Try not to die."

"Shishishi! Okay!"

And between one breath and another, Dragon was gone.

-o-

"You are a fantastic father," Karasu drawled.

"Spare me your sarcasm, I let Garp raise him. I'm under no illusions. Besides, there'll be plenty of time to catch up once he reaches Raftel," Dragon responded, the smile he'd given his son still on his face as the murder of crows set course for Baltigo.

-o-

"JIHAHAHAHAHAHA!" Shiki laughed as he hurled the first of the ship's keels he was floating about him at Whitebeard.

The old pirate was having the time of his life. As much as he'd hated Roger, he had no love for Whitebeard, either, and to see him on the backfoot like this… well, it was quite the balm on an ego brutalized by the loss to that damn Straw Hat brat. Who, yes, he could see attempting to escape and who was his next target. Him and Roger's spawn.

Below, the keel made contact with Whitebeard's Haki and earthquake-infused fist, shattering like the others before it. But this time, Shiki had put enough momentum on it that the shower of splinters that action produced still carried on and shredded Whitebeard in their wake. And no part of him was damaged worse than the arm doing the deed.

It could not move fast enough to stop the second keel, which slammed into Whitebeard's shoulder at high speed and obliterated the delicate balance of bones and tendons there. And with his arm destroyed, Shiki's last keel slammed into Whitebeard's chest and outright impaled him.

"JIHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"

Shiki floated down in front of Whitebeard, hauling the keel out in a spurt of blood. He loomed over the old pirate, grinning fit to burst, and taunted, "What's the matter, old man? Run out of heart medication? Arthritis getting to you?" With a twitch of his hand, the bloodstained keel member floated up again. "C'mon, give me a last word worthy of the legends they'll tell about me!"

Whitebeard's mouth moved, but what he said was only barely audible. Still grinning, Shiki leaned in close. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch that."

"I said…" Whitebeard rasped, before slamming the pole of his bisento into Shiki's temple with enough force to send the pirate skidding a mile down the ice. "I still have my right!"

"Black Hole!"

Darkness pooled around Whitebeard's feet, trapping him in place. Blackbeard himself followed, looking just as pleased as Shiki had mere seconds ago.

"I have to thank you before you die, Newgate! I thought I'd have to pull Shiki off you myself!" he declared. "But now, I get the honor and privilege of killing you personally!"

Wordlessly, Whitebeard mustered the last of the strength in his ravaged left arm, earthquake power brimming in it. And yet, when he swung his fist, Blackbeard caught it on a hand wreathed in black, to no effect.

"Sorry, old man, your powers don't work anymore! Especially not backed by a punch that couldn't—!"

THWACK!

Whitebeard's bisento crashed down on Blackbeard's shoulder, biting deep and almost taking the arm clean off. Teach collapsed to the ground, howling in pain.

"GYAAAAAGH! THAT HURT, YOU BASTARD!"

"Overconfidence… and carelessness… those are your weaknesses, Teach," Whitebeard intoned, taking a step toward Blackbeard, who frantically scooted away on his rear. And with a flick of his eyes towards Shiki's prone form… "And you seem… content to surround yourself… with both."

Another step, and something came into Whitebeard's eyes. Something few had ever seen from the Strongest Man in the World: contempt.

"You're not him," Whitebeard wheezed, wetly. "The man Roger is waiting for… is definitely not you, Teach! That man is elsewhere, already shouldering centuries of history, already leaving the World Government in fear!"

Another step. Blackbeard frantically glanced at the new crew he had brought with him. "Stop him… stop him! Somebody kill him already!"

"I'm not interested in the treasure… but when it's found… the whole world will be turned upside down. That day is at the door… it is lifting the latch."

A dozen flintlock pistols cocked as Whitebeard reached for Teach's head. They did not drown out the words that were heard all around the world.

"The One Piece… does exist! AND IT WILL NOT! BE CLAIMED! BY YOU!"

Blackbeard desperately fired into Whitebeard's chest, the hand inches from his face…

And the hand stopped.

But these two events were entirely unrelated.

A second after firing, Blackbeard realized that very fact.

"H-He's dead… but still standing?!"

-o-

Across the battlefield, communication officers found their snails abruptly crackling to life, an unauthorized voice broadcasting over the island. And to the shock of the officers, while the face and voice they relayed was certainly familiar, it was absolutely not the person they'd expected and feared.

"I said get off me, you flashy idiots! Someone has to do it, and seeing as everyone else is fighting for their lives, it might as well be me! Now cram it before I cram you into a coffin! GOT IT!?…good. Now then…"

Buggy the Clown cleared his throat, and any levity he might have shown before morphed into a truly uncharacteristic solemnity.

"My name… is Buggy. I was a Roger Pirate, I sailed with the King of the Pirates, so too did I know his great rival, Edward 'Whitebeard' Newgate! The two met on many occasions, as friends and enemies alike, and as such, I feel that it is only right that upon his passing, I say these words! That I make sure that none can refuse him the respect he is due! I speak, to ensure that the world knows that even in death, his body did not fall. That in life, his figure, wading into the depths of war and hell, even as he was actively dying with every step, was truly monstrous."

-o-

In the seas of Wano, above the skies of Onigashima, a colossal dragon cursed up a literal storm. His mile-long length of sinuous, war-torn scales and coils tore through thunderclouds as fast as they formed, the lightning breaking against his armored skin and failing to dull the feelings in his heart. Winds howled in time with the Beast King, thunder roared as he roared, and lightning screeched across the air with his every vocalization.

The damage wrought upon the island as the typhoon bore down was devastating, stripping buildings and sending objects flying, but to its inhabitants? It was merely an annoyance, albeit one that they very much wanted an explanation for.

And one that King, who had been with Kaido not long ago for his clash with Shanks, couldn't provide:

"Kaido was carrying me back after the fight, bearing his defeat at the hands of Red Hair with good grace when, once we sighted land, out of nowhere he damn near dropped me into the ocean and went into a frenzy. I have no idea what's bit him."

As the Beast King whipped about in a frenzy, the winds howled, thunder roared and lightning screeched…

And throughout it all, the heavens wept.

-o-

"The total number of sword wounds he received in this battle was 402. He was shot by 96 bullets and was hit by 23 cannonballs. He died at the age of 72, with a kidney missing, several feet of scar tissue scattered across and throughout his body, failing vision, a bad lung and knee…" The testimony trailed off into a dark grumble, snails across the world glancing aside. "And a cast-iron liver that I don't doubt was still in perfect condition to this day, lucky old geezer…"

Even without the SBS, the broadcast continued through the government, displaying images of the hellish War to Sabaody. There, beneath the shade of the Grove where the screens had been installed, the gathered journalists attempted to take up where Cross had left off, to faithfully relay the end of the War to the rest of the waiting world. And while the person now relaying the information was a fair margin less reputable than Cross, the journalists endeavored to record (nearly) his every word for posterity.

"BUT DESPITE ALL THIS! Despite all of it! His proud back… over the entire course of this day's events… over the course of his entire life as a pirate…"

Right on cue, the old man's coat fell to the ground, exposing the flawless skin beneath, and the proud, proud mark of a true Pirate Emperor emblazoned across it.

"Never, not once, received a coward's wound! He never received a single scar from running away!"

And in the shadows at the edge of the grove, a grizzled gray-haired man and black-haired bartender observed it all with small, solemn smiles. Without looking away from the screen, they clinked together the bottles in their hands, and drained them after speaking in unison:

"To a life well-lived."

-o-

As tragic and terrifying as it was, Charlotte 'Big Mom' Linlin's constant rampages through her domain had gained an air of predictability. Terrifying though they were, you learned to spot the signs in advance. Sacrifices had to be made if one expected to live in paradise, and in Totland, those sacrifices consisted of a month of life for every six, one's own bodyweight in food, and the random whims and rampages of their 'benevolent' overlord.

Ultimately (and depressingly) it was all quite routine, particularly for anyone who chose to live in the capital of Totland.

So when the matriarchal Emperor whipped herself into a frenzy, screeching high and low for sake, her children and underlings alike leapt to their routine roles: half acted to mitigate and contain the damage of their ruler's madness, while the other half sought out her current cravings. For a mercy, her present one was common enough, and a sufficiently sizable cask was filled and brought before her.

Totland heaved a sigh of relief as one as Linlin downed the liquid.

And that relief morphed into more panic when Linlin went right back to screeching, still demanding that sake be brought to her.

At the expense of no small amount of lives, cask after cask was filled and brought within perilous grabbing distance of the titanic woman, and she downed them all, one after another.

But not one of them, no matter the vintage or the quantity, served to slake her unholy thirst.

And so, the inhabitants of Totland resigned themselves to drastic measures: Whole Cake Island was evacuated, and the citizens of Totland could only watch as their ruler—their mother, in many cases—burned herself out.

And in the days it took before she finally subsided, they could only listen as she cried out that the sake, for whatever reason, did not taste right. That it didn't taste the same at all.

-o-

Teach huffed and wheezed as he finally managed to force his heart rate back down to acceptable levels. Honestly, that damn geezer, why couldn't he just keel over die like he was supposed to?! Saying something like that at his moment of glory… and that fucking clown. Teach had been planning to assault and occupy Pirate Island first after getting his new powers, make it his headquarters before dismantling the rest of Whitebeard's little empire, but now? Well, honestly, he'd already won by this point, and what was life without a few diversions here and there?

But for now…

Teach shot a smirk at Lafitte, jerking his head at the massive corpse before him. "Hey, let's finish this."

"At once, captain, at once," the pale-faced hypnotist simpered, tipping his hat respectfully. He gave his cane a spin and tapped it on the pavement in signal. "Alright, lads! Time to draw the curtains!"

There was no small amount of grumbling from the haphazardly assembled pirates—every word of which Teach caught and noted in case he needed to act on it in the fragile days to come—but they all set about to carry out the order. With quick and clean movements, Burgess withdrew the tarp he'd been carrying since before they'd set foot in Mariejois—vantablack, and not a shade lighter—and passed it around the assembled 'crew'. One heave, and the curtain of sheer black rose and fell, encompassing Teach and the corpse. Gave Blackbeard the privacy he needed to retrieve his prize.

'This is it…' Blackbeard thought gleefully, his heart rate soaring back up, his grin growing wider and wider as the world was engulfed by the abyss. 'This is it, this is it, this is IT!'

The last inches of the curtain fell, the last slivers of light shriveled and died…

And then…

FWOOSH!

It all went wrong.

"AAAAARGH!"

Blackbeard loosed a howl, a shriek of a mythic proportions when suddenly, his world was flipped upside down.

Pain, as a searing lash of heat slapped him square in the face.

Confusion, as light, impossible light, branded itself in his eyes.

Outrage, because at the moment of his triumph, his TRIUMPH!, something was going wrong.

And when all of those emotions finally passed, Blackbeard was struck dumb by one final, overwhelming sensation.

Shock.

Shock, at the impossible sight before him. Shock, at the sight of Whitebeard's corpse, HIS PRIZE, somehow set alight in a pillar of flames, and burning away to cinders before his very eyes.

That shock froze him for a moment, but once that moment passed, Blackbeard screamed in a final emotion.

"NOOOOO!"

Horror.

"PUT IT OUT!" Blackbeard ran up to the inferno before him and batted at it in a panic with his bare hands. It burned, oh how it burned and burned, but he didn't care, it didn't matter, no amount of pain mattered when HIS PRIZE was in the process of burning! "PUT IT OUT, PUT IT OUT, PUT IT—!"

FWOOOM!

"ARGH!" Blackbeard cried out again, the noise swallowed up by the bonfire's own roar, the intensity having redoubled and flung the pirate back off his feet. And little time he needed to sit up and refocus his eyes, it was too late. What was before him wasn't a 'corpse' anymore. Just a tower of flames with a pillar of charred bone at its core.

It was gone. His Prize… was gone.

For a moment, disbelief was all that Blackbeard felt. But that only lasted for moments before being overwhelmed by sheer wrath.

"How… HOW DID THIS HAPPEN!?" Blackbeard raged, nearly every vein in his body throbbing with physical fury, his eyes bloodshot as his head snapped to and fro, his mere glance causing his shell-shocked underlings to reel back in terror. "HOW DID THIS HAPPEN!? WHO DID THIS?! WHO DARED—!"

And then, it all snapped into crystal-clear focus.

His hopes had just gone up in flames.

In flames.

Blackbeard's head snapped around so fast he nearly had whiplash.

~o~

The eulogy that Buggy the Clown issued was the key that Ace had needed to snap out of his stupor. Even knowing that Whitebeard was going to die, and with no regrets, didn't prepare him for the stunning realization after that the old man was gone. And Ace wasn't.

Absently, his hands snaked out to grasp his brothers on either side of him, the first people to ever love him despite all the conditioning saying he didn't deserve it—

Then he stilled and snapped his eyes to Luffy's back at the sensation of moisture on his hand. In the moment that he reflexively pulled his hand away and turned it so he could see his palm, his mind caught up to him and reminded him how much humidity was on the battlefield thanks to how much of the ice coating the battlefield had been melted and evaporated. By all rights, it was rather unlikely that his little brother had an injury on his back that he had missed.

…except that when Ace looked at his hand, it did come away red.

"Luffy!" Ace snapped, yanking up the fabric to look at his back. "When did you get hit from behind!?"

"What? I didn't! Let go of my vest, Ace!"

The cloth came easily out of Ace's hand, the fire-man too confused by what he saw: his brother's unscathed back, the blood merely soaking his shirt.

"Geez, your Pops even told me not to get—oh, yeah," he said, wincing as he saw Ace's hand. "Sorry, I didn't mean to make him cough up blood."

No matter his present state, Ace was still a New World Pirate, the end result of the most ruthlessly Darwinian environment possible. It took only a second for him to read the unspoken in Luffy's words, and another for him to connect the dots to their current situation.

All at once, everything snapped into place. He understood his captain's plan.

Whirling about, Ace called out, "HEY, MAGIC MAN!"

"It's 'Magician' or 'Mage,'" Hawkins dryly answered.

"Whatever. I need a spell, now!"

Without missing a beat, Hawkins held up his hands—ignoring how his fellow Supernovas yelped and reeled away from him— to display a straw doll in his left and a shrunken head hanging from his right. "Hoodoo or Voodoo, and yes, there is a difference."

"Whichever does more damage."

"You got it, brudda."

Sabo couldn't help but boggle at the head that had just spoken. "Oh, that is not right."

A shimmer came to life around Ace's body. "It is for what I'm planning."

~o~

And then, far off on the battleground, he saw it.

Marco, Jozu, Vista, Blamenco, Rakuyo, Namur, Bienheim, Curiel, Kingdew, Haruta, Atmos, Speed Jiru, Fossa, and Izo. Tate, Iris, Hannah, Mila, Shion, Camellia, and Sayuri. And in front of them all, the rest of those wet-nosed, runty weakling Rookies, Straw Hat, a blond-haired stranger, and HIM.

A small army of eyes glaring directly at him, filled with hatred and defiance. And in the bastard's hand, there it was. The key to his downfall. The one thing that had stolen HIS PRIZE from him.

A straw doll. That was currently on fire.

"No…"

The word was a mere whisper. In that moment, only in that moment, his anger took a back seat to horror. Horror that it was more than Ace leaping for revenge, more than some respect for his captain. Horror superseded anger because looking into their eyes, he understood something.

They knew. They had planned over his plan. And that realization rocked him to his core.

"No! NONONO—!"

The eyes of the band of brothers said more than words ever could. And the next second, the fire in Ace's hand became an inferno.

Edward Newgate's body became a pillar of sky-reaching flame, scorching Teach and sending him flying back from the blaze. No sooner had he gotten to his feet than the fire went out, not even a corpse remaining of what had seconds ago been HIS PRIZE.

Something snapped in the back of Blackbeard's mind, and the fury of the abyss was set loose on the world. From that moment onward, there was one thing that was more important to Blackbeard than the Pirate King's throne: hate. Hate unyielding. Hate everlasting. Hate blacker than the darkest night, and deeper than the lowest abyss.

A hate that would not, could not, would never die before the death of one very dead man.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAACE!"

The amount of hatred concentrated into that screech was more powerful than anyone present had seen in years.

-o-

"Hmm… I think we might have made him angry," Marco remarked, eyeing the pillar of darkness threatening to blot out the sun.

"I'm terrified, truly I am," Jozu drawled as if he were discussing the weather.

"Well, I don't know about you all, but I think we've just landed ourselves on the shitlist of a very dangerous and unstable individual," Law bluntly shouted up from the Polar Tang. "And all before we even hit the New World yet. We're really ahead of the curve now."

"I know, isn't it great!" Bege cackled so gleefully that the Supernovas around him inched away warily.

"Tcheh, worth it if you ask me," Kid declared. "Something about that rat-bastard's ugly face just pisses me the hell off."

"You and me both…" Luffy grumbled in a rare show of solidarity with the metal-studded pirate. An act which, itself, disturbed the Rookies even more than Bege.

"Hmph," Ace huffed, turning his back on the traitor. "If I can't kill him myself, it'll be vengeance enough for him to go down like this. We're done here. Let's go home."

The other Whitebeards turned as well. And as one side prepared to withdraw completely, it seemed as though the war was over.

"ACE! ALL OF YOU! I SWEAR THAT YOU'LL PAY FOR THIS! I'LL DESTROY EVERYTHING THE OLD MAN PROTECTED! HIS ISLANDS! HIS PEOPLE! HIS TREASURE!"

Ace did turn back at that threat. So did the remaining Whitebeards. And they looked at Teach with as if he were a housefly.

"Go ahead and try," Ace called back, his tone utterly dismissive.

And that was the last straw.

"YOU… I'LL KILL YOU! I'LL KILL ALL OF YOU! EVERYONE GET THEM! BLACK WORLD!"

The Blackbeard Pirates charged at their captain's command. Sanjuan Wolf was the most conspicuous, sneaking around the perimeter of the island in plain view of everyone. Nonetheless he was closing in fast on the pirates and their ships. And Shiki and Lafitte's rapid advance through the air, Van Auger taking a perch on a nearby wall, Shiliew's fast and destructive advance, and everyone else charging behind them were all bad news in their own right.

Not to mention, of course, that darkness had spilled out of Blackbeard's body and had already spread widely enough to cover a small town - and it was still growing.

"DESTROY! DESTROY! DESTROY! DESTROY EVERYTHING!" Blackbeard screeched.

And it was at that point that the Whitebeard Pirates paused in their retreat, because it was becoming rapidly apparent that certain Marines weren't about to let Blackbeard proceed unopposed.

Magma and ice coalesced at different angles to Blackbeard while deadly light glittered high above the ground, resisting the pull of Darkness. And the magnitude of the attacks being charged up forced the Whitebeards to begin charging their own.

They may not have seen Punk Hazard as Cross did. But they knew that they'd never outrun this much firepower.

Ace grit his teeth as he disembarked the ship and slammed his hand to the ground.

"GREAT FLAME COMMANDMENT!" he roared, spiraling fire out from his palm and coalescing it into a ball big enough to cover half of the sky above the bay. "FLAME EMPEROR!"

"WHAT ARE YOU DOING, ACE!?" Luffy demanded.

"The only thing he can, Luffy," Sabo said grimly, Haki blackening his hands and pipe. "One Logia putting out this much power can destroy an island. The Admirals aren't going to let him take down their last stronghold without dragging him down too. Against this much power, we either go all-out and parry it, and maybe survive, or run away and definitely die."

There was a pause as every Supernova and their crew in earshot processed that. Then the pause was ripped asunder by every bit of invective they could think of. With the Blackbeards approaching, they set to work preparing to deploy maximum force.

-o-

Grimly, Mihawk drew Yoru, gripping it with both hands. The air sliced itself to shreds as it blew against the black blade's edge.

Doflamingo, every tooth displayed in his grin, coalesced strings in his hands—reality dissolving into strings all around him—as he rose into the air. His mad cackling, sheer, honest glee at the madness about to transpire, would haunt the survivors for the rest of their days

As for Perona, ectoplasmic sweat coated her frame at the magnitude of destruction that was about to occur. The drops quickly coalesced into the biggest Special Hollow that she had ever created, pumping all of the energy she had left into the construct in a desperate bid to survive. It was stupid, it was panicked and frantic, and it was the only thing she could think to do.

Much like countless other people across the battlefield: Pirates and Marines, ability users and proficionados, anyone who had the strength to do more than stand and the brains to realize that retreating was futile prepared to unleash their power. Prepared to kill everyone around them so that they might survive.

And in the center of it all, watching from every angle at once, Sengoku could only watch. He didn't have enough energy left to take his Zoan form again, and even if he did, he didn't have half of the power it would take to stop the madness about to occur.

And then someone else spoke.

Someone else on the battlefield with less strength, less power, less clout, and less likelihood to survive than Sengoku, than most anyone else present, yet more desire to see the madness around him halted.

"PLEASE, STOP!"

And back by the pirates, several people started.

"Who the heck?!" Sabo demanded.

"Oh, no…" Luffy groaned, one eye scrunched shut and the other unable to look away from one speck of pink in the middle of the storm.

-o-

"PLEASE, STOP! STOP ATTACKING, STOP FIGHTING! YOU CAN'T DO THIS!"

Amidst the Darkness, beneath the Light, caught between the Magma, the Ice, and the Fire, caught between these unstoppable forces of nature, one single man could no longer keep silent. Allies and enemies alike gaped at his audacity, especially the one who had gagged him all this time, but overwhelmed by the chaos of the war—and subsequently, the chaos of his newly awakened Haki—Master Chief Petty Officer Koby still screamed.

"ALL THIS DEATH! ALL THIS PAIN! HAVEN'T WE DONE ENOUGH!? ALL THESE PEOPLE WHO FOUGHT AND DIED, AREN'T THEIR LIVES ENOUGH!?"

The wind howled and roared, black lightning danced and sang across the heavens. The forces of nature continued to grow, Armageddon moving inexorably closer.

"IF YOU DO THIS, IT'LL ALL BE FOR NOTHING! YOU CAN'T WASTE THEIR LIVES LIKE THIS! YOU CAN'T WASTE THEIR DEATHS LIKE THIS! THERE'S BEEN ENOUGH BLOOD, SO PLEASE, STOP!"

The pressure and growth continued, and his voice grew louder, screaming even over the raging flames and sound-sucking gravity.

"ALL OF THIS WAS ALREADY FOR NOTHING BUT POINTLESS PRIDE, AND THIS IS ALL STILL JUST FOR PRIDE! WE'VE ALREADY SHED TOO MUCH BLOOD ON EMPTY CAUSES, ISN'T THAT ENOUGH?!"

The air surged and heaved, the pressure reaching its breaking point, the world seconds from exploding into a madness of a scale that hadn't been seen in decades.

And then out of nowhere, a hand clapped down on Koby's shoulder, the sudden action wrenching him out of his panicked despair.

"You all heard the boy."

Those words somehow, somehow caused the world to hiccup, the sheer energy and momentum that had built up grinding to an abrupt halt. The world held its breath, waiting in terrified anticipation for the action to restart.

Slowly, haltingly, Koby's head ground around so that he could look up at who had spoken. He almost collapsed into a gibbering panic when his eyes beheld a head of Red Hair.

"Enough."

And with that one word from 'Red-Haired' Shanks, an almighty pressure slapped down across the battlefield, striking each and every combatant, Marine and Pirate alike, in the deepest part of their souls. And everything ended.

With that one word, the almighty BANG! that everyone had been building up to, all the energy accumulating, the sheer rage suffusing everything, evaporated. All the air fled from everyone's chests, in a quiet rush.

-o-

Blackbeard snarled viciously as he whipped his head back and forth around the suddenly quiet battlefield. What… What the hell were they doing!? Why wasn't anyone attacking! They couldn't stop! This wasn't over! This war wasn't over, NOT UNTIL EVERYTHING WAS ASH AND DUST!

And in an attempt to rectify that, Blackbeard called on the Dark again, started to ramp up his power, prepared to drop everything and everyone back into the Abyss where they belonged—!

And then he had to freeze every muscle in his body, particularly his throat, lest a single twitch rip his neck open on the cold steel the fucking Red-Haired brat had pressed against his jugular.

"That. Is. Enough," Shanks enunciated slowly, filling every word with his will. On some level, he wanted Blackbeard to try something, the Emperor wanted the debatably human scum before him to give him an excuse, but for now, he'd settle for making him put off whatever madness he had planned. "This war is over, Teach. And if you try to fight, then the only one who'll die is you, because nobody is going to join you."

Blackbeard ground his teeth at the statement, unwilling to believe it, to give up on the vengeance he was due, but then Shanks jerked his head to the side, Blackbeard looked where he indicated, and saw that much as he'd love to reject it, he was telling the truth.

Saw Benn Beckman standing beside Akainu, his rifle trained on the Admiral's remaining hand.

Saw Lucky Roo's arm slung around Aokiji's shoulders, his trademark meat snacks white bones.

Saw Yasopp standing before the Whitebeards and the brats, one pistol aimed at the mass of light above the battlefield and another trained on the members of Blackbeard's own crew, Shiliew's limbs already disabled from shots to the joints and everyone else sensible enough not to try anything.

Or, well. Almost everyone else.

"I don't care who I have to go through if I can BRING DOWN THIS ISLAND WITH ME!"

WHAM!

A solid sucker punch from Garp sent Byrrndi World skidding back across the ice. The pirate promptly jumped back to his feet, but before he could move again, he was pinned in place not only by Shanks's glare, but also Blackbeard's. Even still, he made to charge forward—

BOOOM!

Up until a cannonball blew up in his face. Shanks eyed a small package that floated down alongside it, coming to rest on his shoulder. Seeing the eyestalks within, Shanks half-smirked.

"Thanks for that, Buggy," the Emperor said to the snail.

"Tch, if only I'd had a few minutes alone in Level 6, I could have rigged his cell to blow sky high. But so long as I've got your ear, I've got some frustration to vent, Shanks. When you're done with Mihawk, we're finishing what I tried to start. And this time, the old man's not getting in our way."

"You're on. And thanks for reminding me," Shanks added, glancing at the back of the battleground.

-o-

"Of course he's here. Why wouldn't he show up as soon as I need to avoid him?" Mihawk fumed.

Doflamingo and Perona laughed. Doflamingo out of sadistic schadenfreude, Perona out of hysterical relief at being alive.

Though perhaps also with a hint of sadistic schadenfreude all her own.

-o-

Blackbeard's glare, meanwhile, remained on his underling.

"Enough, World. We didn't come here for a pyrrhic victory. We'll pay them back in the future," Teach grit out, unholy fury barely bridled. World glared back, but ultimately chose not to invite that anger upon himself. Satisfied his subordinate wouldn't try anything, Teach turned his gaze back to Shanks.

"I swear… I'll see the world tremble at my feet. I swear it," he promised, promised, with every ounce of strength he had.

"Maybe you will. But not today," Shanks replied.

"This is enough," another voice echoed over the battlefield. All eyes turned to see Sengoku weighed down by every one of his years, his expression grim.

"The waters and land have been stained red. Countless lives have been lost and ruined. It's time to pick up the pieces of what's left. All Marines on the battleground, gather the injured and get them the necessary treatment. This war…is over."

And with that, the Fleet Admiral emeritus turned from the battlefield… and stepped down. Once, and for all.

And that was the end of it.

The Tragedy of Marineford had inflated and inflated, distending to the point of a positively—if not literally—earth-shattering bang, before all the air was let out in a sad, mournful whimper.

The pirates withdrew to their ships, boarding slowly and painfully as the loss of adrenaline left them all drained and exhausted. Those who were whole and less-injured carried who they could manage, either helping their injured comrades to safety, or carrying those less fortunate so that they could be given respect, one final time.

The Admirals, with varying degrees of reluctance, moved to coordinate the Marines as they returned - and to ensure that none of Akainu's volunteers upheld their honor by attempting to stab their retreating enemies in their backs. For a measure of mercy, the Marines' own rank and file were more than willing to help preserve the peace: they'd already seen their island—their headquarters to all, their home to more than a few—razed to damn near its bedrock. Any taste for blood that the Marines had once held, now devoid of their rage, had long since evaporated.

And as for the Blackbeards, more than a few of the combatants on both sides of the law attempted to follow them as they retreated, intent on finishing what they had started away from prying eyes, but their endeavors were all for naught. To hear the would-be pursuers tell the tale, the universally abhorred outlaws simply slipped into the darkness and vanished. And yet everyone knew for certain that this would not, could never be the last they saw of the monsters who had so thoroughly scarred the world.

Perhaps, most stunning of all, was how all of this took place in near silence. Not total, there was too much debris, too much damage, too many men crying out for water or their mothers for something like that. Neither pirate nor Marine spoke a word that they didn't have to.

But there was one instance of speech that stuck in the minds of those who heard it.

"There's still a silver lining, you know."

Shanks said these words, if only to himself, as he turned his gaze towards the pirate ships that had already begun sailing away. On the deck of a submarine, he saw Ace and a blond-haired stranger looking at him with soft smiles and eyes filled with gratitude. And between them, Luffy had his back turned to him. But at a nudge from one of his brothers, he raised a single hand in a thumbs-up.

Shanks kept watching and smiling until his protégé disappeared beneath the waves. Even after ten years, he shouldn't have had the power to be half as much of a menace as he was. And the man he came to save was alongside him, safe once again.

And once more, Shanks was reminded that the world was an incredible place: filled with horrors and tragedies of uncountable magnitude - and yet, dotted with honest miracles.

"Nobody won, but that doesn't mean everyone lost."

~Present~

"…of the 50 battleships deployed for the war, 13 were destroyed, 7 more damaged, and 9 more stolen. Out of 90,000 Marines mustered for the war, confirmed casualties are north of 30,000 and still climbing. Pirate casualties have been estimated at 50,000; several confidential sources have described the accuracy of such estimates in ways not fit to print.

Marine casualties do not include the nearly 8000 mutineers, among them multiple officers up to the commodore level, whom the Marines have failed to apprehend. Several thousand more claimed to have been hypnotized and are undergoing strict interrogation. Preliminary damage estimates run into the billions. Banks globally have reported runs on their holdings, and the maritime insurance industry teeters on the brink of collapse.

With the resignation of "Knight of the Sea" Jinbe, the dismissal of "Pirate Empress" Boa Hancock, and the outright mutiny of Marshall D. "Blackbeard" Teach, the Seven Warlords of the Sea now number at merely four. The Government deployed numerous prototypes of their erstwhile secret Pacifista and BioMEGA projects for the war, which were destroyed one and all by the combatants. The sole exception is the now roboticized "Tyrant" Bartholomew Kuma.

All of these costs are nothing short of catastrophic, and yet the cold statistics fail to properly convey the true tragedy of this horrible calamity.

The amount of blood spilled as a result of pride cannot be undersold. The number of lives sacrificed, knowingly thrown away, was a travesty. And the death of the Emperor Edward 'Whitebeard' Newgate is hardly a consolation. The number of crimes committed by him and his is uncountable. But compared to the modest stability they brought, the imbalance left by his death, his dying words, and the very man that the Navy tried in vain to kill stepping up in his place to lead them is unlikely to improve the state of the world…"

The horrors of the war spoke in black and white, glorifying neither side and ensuring that it would be remembered as the tragedy it was. Yet amidst it all, the readers had eyes for only one small detail.

"…they're alive…" Cross breathed weakly. The paper slowly slipped from his fingers, his eyes staring through his hands, but the words freshly branded on his mind. "The war happened, but they're still alive… Ace is… is…"

"He's alive," Lassoo woofed softly, before quickly gaining energy, his tongue lolling out and his tail wagging frantically. He nudged his head against his partner's side. "He's alive, they're alive, you did it! Cross! We won! You won!"

Funkfreed shook his head, letting out a quiet chuckle as his trunk reached out to flick the back of Cross's head. "Hundred, a thousand to one odds, blindsided in the clutch, and you still manage to pull a miracle out of your hat? Remind me, why do we ever bother doubting you again!?"

The Zoan weapons continued to congratulate Cross on this ultimate victory, but two individuals in that alley didn't share that good cheer: the human, who was still staring at nothing as his brain processed, and the gastropod who was staring up at him just as blankly.

"…how?" Soundbite asked, softly at first but with increasing incredulity, silencing his partners' cheer. "How is this not enough for you!? WE. WON! ACE IS ALIVE! AND LUFFY, AND EVERYONE ELSE WHO MATTERED, ALL ALIVE! So why, in the name of every PSYCHOTIC NUTJOB IN THIS HELLHOLE, DO I STILL HEAR YOU HAVING DOUBTS!?"

"…I just… gnrgh…" Cross let out a miserable groan, slowly sinking his face into his hand. "I don't know… this is good. And I'm happy. I'm so… so happy…" His companions relaxed slightly, but still remained tense for the but.

"But. Look at… at what it cost. At what it came down to. The last second, the most unlikely of miracles… Every ally that I could gather, every warning that I could give, every trick… we could pull. And it still took the one ally that I couldn't guarantee showing up to save both of them from getting killed."

His head slowly tipped back, and he stared into the starless abyss that loomed above.

"And more than that… I haven't let myself focus on anything but being able to help in the war since the fight with Kizaru. Now that it's done and Ace is actually saved… I still have to process that… that monster literally stringing me along in Sabaody. I thought… I thought I had his number. I thought I knew… his every trick, and that I was ready for everything that was coming, when really, I didn't have a single clue. And I'm supposed to try again in two years, two damned years… and it's going to be on his turf, his terms…"

Cross's head slammed back against the wall and he let loose a bark of laughter, uncaring for the volume or how it made his partners flinch.

"And I'm. Supposed. To do better. Always do better, always win. Supposed to have faith in my ability to win, to make the right calls, this time, each time and every time… But…" Cross flung his arms out incredulously. "What 'faith'!? What 'ability'!? Nearly a fucking year I've been on this waterlogged rock, and I've been flying by the seat of my pants this entire time. I've been lucky. But as we've all seen, as we've experienced, luck. Runs. Out. And in our lives… a bust doesn't mean going bankrupt. It means people getting hurt. Or worse."

"Before, the consequences were… a possibility. There, but never real. But now. Now, I know they are. I know that I can, and will lose, and that when I do…" Cross slowly ground his jaw back and forth. "And all the while, this world… crazy, beautiful, but most of all cruel, just keeps grinding on. And I can fight, and fight, and fight… but against the full weight… against all of time and space and fate… how am I supposed to compete? How am I supposed to keep marching forwards, head held high…"

Cross slowly curled in on himself, his hands clutching at the back of his skull. "When I've got as much chance at shrugging off the sky as fucking Atlas…"

And with those words, the alley lapsed into a heavy silence. Cross's words weighed heavy on every being present, and try as they might, his partners couldn't find a counterargument. Because he made a fair point. A logical, terrible, tragic point, but a point, and one they couldn't refute.

"Now, I wouldn't say it's that bad."

And then everything stopped. The unnatural nature of the stillness and silence themselves may have gone unnoticed for a time in such a place as they were.

But the sudden burst of light nearby coupled with a mechanical whirring triggered the company's fight-or-flight response. Before they could bolt, however, the group actually saw the reason for their panic. Or, at least, what little there was to catch sight of.

A pane of light, illuminated against one of the alley's walls without any logical point of origin.

A pane of light… with a smiley face on it.

Gif stared in awe. Soundbite, Lassoo, and Funkfreed stared in apprehension. Cross had his eyes shadowed beneath Luffy's hat.

"I mean, Atlas is really just a big sore loser who got stuck once he failed," continued the same androgynous voice. "You, though? A bad situation, to be sure, but unlike him, you can just climb higher. So to speak, anyway."

"…shut up."

Cross's response was barely muttered, his body shaking with rage, and the voice let out a huffy sigh.

"Oh, I know where this is going. Look, can we skip the rant for once? I'm actually—"

"Why don't you just shut the hell up and enjoy the show, damn it!?" Cross spat out furiously, whipping his head up to stare at the screen with bloodshot eyes. "This is what you wanted, isn't it?! The whole human experience, there for you to observe and enjoy, start to finish?! Well, here it is! I've had my highs, my victories, and now I'm paying for it! This is the end of the line, depth of despair! Where we all end up eventually! So why don't you get it over with and laugh already!? That's what you've been doing this entire time, isn't it? Man plans, god laughs, so these past few months must have been hilarious to you, haven't they! Knowing that I was so confident, so sure of myself, and so very, very doomed. Well, congratulations: Joke paid off and I'm left in the ashes."

Cross sank back to the ground.

"So why don't you just shut the hell up and move on to your next fleeting fancy, huh? THE SHOW'S OVER!"

Cross's words echoed through the city of the damned, not one soul able to notice the sound. No answer came for a solid two minutes.

And then, the screen glitched slightly, and the vapid smile became a frown.

"…you're wrong."

Cross didn't react to the declaration.

"What you do does matter."

But he did twitch at that, indicating he was at least listening.

"But earlier… you were also right. When I did what I did… you weren't wrong. I dropped a mortal ant in a big pond to watch it drown. I've done it more times than you can count, for longer than you can imagine. And every time it's been funny, and every time, it's been the same. Human flails, human dies without purpose, I get a laugh. The end. And you? Weren't meant to be any different."

Cross snorted and waved his hand dismissively. "And lo, I turn out not to be."

"For the love of—you are not hearing me. The fact that you are still speaking to me, right here, right now, proves that you are!"

And that, right there, pierced through the skulls of every three-dimensional being in that alleyway. "W-What are you—?" Cross stammered out.

"Loguetown. You were supposed to get your skull caved in by a certain cigar-huffing bloodhound. You mouth off to him, say the wrong thing, gray matter paints the pavement. I get a laugh, and then I move on. Except that. Didn't. Happen."

Cross's jaw worked fruitlessly, trying and failing to come up with a response. "I… t-that…"

"Was it an impossibility? No. But it was stupidly lucky, like a natural 20. So I thought, 'hey, fluke and a bit more fun, what the hell', so I settled in and waited to see when you would finally bite it, so that I could get my laughs and move on. Except that clearly didn't happen."

The pane of light angled forward, the entity looming over a dumbstruck Cross.

"You catch Primal Cholera, your innards don't melt out through your bowels. You fight the Marines and the Wax-Man, at the same time, and don't become a museum exhibit. You fight the Unluckies, head-on, and don't become roadkill. Time and time again, the odds stacked against you, and time and time again, you managed to overcome them. Which led to me deciding 'hey, what the hell', and I doubled down."

Cross's hand jerked, clamping down on his bag.

"I multiplied your odds into an entirely different factor, and you somehow still keep succeeding. Your words did touch the people, and somehow, so many other long odds start to cascade. And slowly, piece by piece, inch by inch, the world starts to change. And honestly? You were right earlier. Not enough for true change, not enough for anything particularly significant. So your overall worth? Improved from a mere 'laugh' to 'interesting', but that's it."

"And then. You did it. You went. And did it."

"What are you—?"

"Saving that oversized bath toy shouldn't have been possible."

Cross's heart stopped.

"For the small stuff, the stuff that ultimately doesn't matter? There's wiggle room. There's doubt. But not for this. Not for something like that. 'Going Merry dies', that's how that day should have gone. And yes, it only became possible because you appealed to me. But that still shouldn't have changed anything, what I did shouldn't have been enough. Nothing but a blatant intervention should have been enough. But you made her spirit manifest after the first time. You persuaded Galley-La to fix her. You found the spare Devil Fruit and stole it before it was lost to the abyss and kept it safe long enough to feed her. And you supercharged the furball's growth rate so they could fix her fast enough. I didn't save her. You did."

Lassoo, Funkfree, Gif, Soundbite… all were silent. No wild expressions. Just… silence. Cross's brain seemed to be short-circuiting, but his attention didn't leave the screen for a moment.

"Still, since I helped, anyone could doubt that. Things should be completely impossible without that. So I knew that I couldn't expect that this time, this person would have a different fate. When I tuned into this time-space, it was to watch 'Fire-Fist' Portgas D. Ace die in his brother's arms. Because that's what happens to him, every time."

The pane jerked forward, mere inches from Cross's face, and the world around him rippled with power.

"And now it didn't happen. You want proof that this goes beyond 'luck'? Then read the paper I crammed down your throat again. Those words are proof. You did the impossible. You changed this world. YOU MADE A DIFFERENCE."

The mire of Cross's mind, threatening to eat him alive before the tree did with the endless insistence that he hadn't, wouldn't, and couldn't make a difference, blew away in the hurricane of his patron's revelations. The doubts fell to weak whispers. It was really only shock that kept him from responding, and B.R.O.B. likely knew it, but it was still the one to break the silence.

The pane paused for a moment, and then the 'expression' on it 'glanced' aside. "You know, I really can't believe I'm going this far. But if the only alternatives are being 'O, Mighty Smiter' or you staying stuck in self-doubt? Well, take it from me: there isn't a lot to watch nowadays, so either I salvage you, or I go numb with boredom until the next evolutionary turnover, and I don't have the attention span for that, so here goes."

The para-causal entity's focus snapped back to Cross, somehow appearing hyperfocused, even without any actual features. "Let me hammer this home for you: Kronos and the Norn and the Moirai and every other fate-weaver and clock-keeper there is, they're all tightasses who have tight grips on the reigns. You mortals can talk about fighting fate all you like, but at the end of the eon, that doesn't actually happen. When it comes to any story that bleeds into your world's subconscious? Everything is supposed to be predetermined, A to B to C, and that's how it goes, and how it went… until now. Until you. Don't ask me how, but you've managed to loosen their grips but good. It's not perfect, but damn it, you've done more and come farther than anyone in existence has ever thought possible. Even me. Especially me. And if you don't believe me? Well first, fuck you. And second, look at this."

The face faded, and in its place, images began to appear.

Images… of Cross.

Cross talking to Smoker and Bartolomeo in Loguetown—

Cross giving a 1000-beri note to a News Coo—

Cross yelling at the sky with a flour-covered snail—

Cross kneeling beside Bellamy—

Cross smirking as he stood before Eneru—and Aokiji—and the gates of Enies Lobby—and Spandam—and Garp—and Hogback.

Cross livid as he stood before Robin—and Aokiji again—and Shiki—and the very world itself.

And the images fanned out from there, the pane growing to cover the entire wall he was looking at. Chains linking from the most insignificant events to his best efforts and spiraling into outright insane results, people he had never seen and some he barely recognized, events he couldn't have imagined and places that had never existed. Several images leaped out at him for things he knew he had caused—

A town-sized carnival-like base with giant cacti in the background—Alabasta roaring in agreement as they seceded—Water 7 as a massive ship, giants manning the rigging—Skelter Bite beneath the dancing Obelisks—Grove 77 thriving with smoke rising ever close by—an unfamiliar royal court of animals with Pappug speaking animatedly.

—and people that he knew he had changed the lives of—

Bartolomeo setting out to sea, burning a discarded mainsail with hourglasses on it—Apis lambasting a laughing dragon for flying her through a cloudbank—Wiper and Montblanc Cricket clasping hands—Jonathan openly smirking as a pair of South Birds lambasted a weary Drake—Vivi bringing down Captain Gorilla with her Lion Cutters—Conis and Su blasting Captain Sharinguru—Merry hugging the crew as she became human—Dorry and Broggy hugging and sobbing in joy as they were freed—Vivi offering Don Accino an Eternal Pose—T-Bone triumphing over Rob Lucci—Princess Shirahoshi out of the Shell Tower with her family—Lola as Governor-Captain of Skelter Bite—Perona ruling over Merveille—Trafalgar Law smiling honestly—Rob Lucci fighting alongside Luffy and Jinbe—Magellan accepting an alliance with Smoker—Hancock and her sisters kneeling, their backs exposed to the Kuja Pirates, as three Amazons approached with new branding irons.

—and all finishing with two solid pictures at the bottom.

One of the crew's last party before they separated.

And the other of Luffy, Ace, and Sabo—at 17, 20, and 20—exchanging saucers of sake once more, tears of joy and bittersweet smiles on their faces.

Cross's breath caught in his throat, a choked sob escaping him.

"You've gone further than even I thought possible, fought harder than I thought possible, than I've seen most humans fight," The extra-dimensional being declared. "I wanted fun, and instead, I got a spectacle. I chose you for shits and giggles, kid. I chose you thinking you were one of infinity, and instead you turned out to be one out of infinity. I wanted ordinary, and instead, I got you. So… know that I don't use my vast knowledge when I say this. Know that I'm not calculating the odds or looking ahead or… whatever. I'm just telling you what I know. Me. And what I know is… that you can do this. You can go the distance. You can give them hell. You can do things none—none even up here—have ever contemplated. You. Can. Do this."

The blatant encouragement left all of them thunderstruck.

"There's a quaint little saying your carbon-based specks have: 'You miss one-hundred percent of the shots you don't take'. Well, that's true here. You have a chance. It's small. Microscopic, really, beyond the smallest quark your kind has ever perceived… but hey, what's that matter to you? After all… you're a Straw Hat."

The face returned, its eyes locked on Cross's.

"So. It's time you get the hell up, wipe the bitch off your face, and get to it. There's work to be done. After all…"

The face slowly rotated until it was completely upside-down, its subtle frown turned to a subtle smile.

"I'm starting to get bored here : P"

Then the mouth literally stuck out its tongue at him.

And Cross?

"Get back in your seat. I don't see any credits rolling here, do you?"

"Now, that's more like it. Good thing, too, now I don't need to pay a king's fortune to that literally pickled drunk bastard. Alright, back to it, walking petri dish! I'll take care of my stage prop. Everything else is on you. I'm out!"

The pane winked out of existence like a television's display, and Coo vanished as well, most likely to somewhere safe. In the moment before time unpaused, Cross smirked.

"'Break my will'… points for effort, but I've never been one to oblige before."

Cross's movements were slow and jerky, his muscles weak from a prolonged lack of use, but he managed to brace a hand on the wall behind him, and with that hand, he hauled himself to his feet. His other hand reached up and slipped Luffy's hat off his head and replaced it in his bag, before withdrawing his own cap and cramming it down on his head, his defiant grin directed at the world.

"And I sure as hell am not about to start now."

Soundbite gaped at Cross for a second before hastily shaking what little head he had and re-donning his typical, if shaky, grin. "Well… alright, that just happened. GOOD. HAPPY YOU'RE PARTICIPATING AGAIN! SOOOO… current situation: weeee're still locked up in hell, we have minimal supplies, LITERALLY EVERYTHING THAT MOVES WANTS TO KILL US, AAAAAAND YOU HAVEN'T BATHED IN OVER A WEEK. SO…" One of Soundbite's eyestalks dipped down. "WHAT THE FUCK DO WE DO NOW?"

Cross didn't answer, though at least this time his partners could tell it was out of careful thought instead of catatonia. He didn't seem any closer to coming out of it when footfalls and crashing came from just outside the alley. Funkfreed immediately reverted into his sword form while Lassoo swallowed the flame down his gullet and swapped back to his cannon form.

Stowing his partners back in their proper sheaths and holsters, Cross carefully edged towards the corner of the alley, and once he had a view on the street, he spied a figure collapsed in the middle of the street.

A familiar, feminine, feral figure that had all of his partners hissing.

A figure with seven other prisoners of various sizes had circled around her, with roiling hate and vicious pride in their stances, as though they had just brought down a shark.

The scene sunk in quickly. And for a few seconds, Cross just stood there, staring.

CRACK! "AAAAAAGH!"

And then, at the sight of one of them dislocating her shoulder with a solid kick, he began to move. Immediately, Soundbite piped up.

"Ah... Cross, I know that you were out of it at the time, but you're headed towards the maniac who tried to eat us. YOU INCLUDED, WHICH, MUCH AS IT PAINS ME TO SAY IT, MAKES IT A LOT WORSE!"

Cross nodded in acknowledgement, not stopping his march down the center of the street. "Yup."

Soundbite's eyes widened, and he started to retract into his shell. "… I feel the need to point out that this is a very unwise decision. AND THIS IS ME SAYING IT!"

"Maybe." Cross cracked his head to the side, fists clenching and unclenching at his sides. "But it's mine to make."

"COULDA SWORN WE WERE A DEMOCRACY…" Soundbite rolled his eyes with a grumble… but his jaws were set in a fond smirk.

"Still, we'll have to watch our backs more than usual after this," Lassoo muttered.

"That won't be a problem."

Cross's tone was matter-of-fact and cold, and something unspoken seemed to pass between the small group.

Cross stopped a half-dozen feet away from the attacking inmates and cleared his throat. He was definitely disturbed by how the mens' heads all snapped around to stare at him in a distinctly bestial manner, but he didn't let it show. Instead, he just glared at them through the gloom, his back straight, his stance firm, and his hand resting on Funkfreed's hilt.

"Step. Away. From her."

The tallest of the group—its leader, most likely—let out a growling scoff as he jerked his head to the side. "Fuck off, toothpick, and we'll give you a head start before ripping your tongue out through your eyesocket."

"Hey, I'll leave," Cross acquiesced, before pointing past them, at the bewildered, disheveled person they'd surrounded. "But I'll be taking her with me when I do."

Everyone present—the woman, the thugs, and even his own partners—looked at Cross in disbelief.

"You're protecting this... thing?!" the leader snarled, swinging his arm back at the person his gang were ready to lynch. "Do you know how many people this monster's killed? And eaten!?"

Cross paused for a moment, staring past him. Taking in the woman's disheveled form, the sheer amount of filth caked over her body. Of blood and worse spattered and dried across her clothes, on her collar and sleeves. Examination done, he grit his jaw, and redoubled his glare, staring the man dead in the eyes. "Yeah, I know. I was almost one of them. And I also know that I'm not going to let you kill someone right in front of me without saying something. Might be crazy and even a little… a lot stupid, but that's who I am."

"Well, here's a newsflash, brat," the man bit out, his every word heavy with bloodlust. "People with that mindset don't get to live long. And you look like you're about to run out the clock, so take the last friendly piece of advice you're ever going to hear before you roll over and die: leave it alone, and find somewhere to curl up and die."

Cross was silent, considering. Then he took a slow, patient breath, and reached up to tip the brim of his hat down, staring through the shadow of it at the men. "You boys ever hear of the river of truth?" he drawled in a low tone. A second of incomprehension later he shrugged. "…didn't think so. Here's the summary of it: Move, now, and you'll live to see tomorrow."

Sighing in exasperation, the leader raised one of his hands and waved it impatiently. In response, one of the thugs charged out of the circle and lunged at Cross, sword raised to split his head in two. His mouth opened, likely so he could say something that would undoubtedly be witty, cutting, sophisticated...

SHLK! "GRKL!"

But instead, all that came out was a mouthful of blood. The thug dropped his blade and clawed at his throat, trying to staunch the flow of blood, but considering how Cross had opened his neck in one swing, all he managed was a pitiful gurgle before keeling over to finish bleeding out.

Cross stared down at the rapidly draining body before him, a myriad of emotions flashing over his face as he took in the blood on his body, on Funkfreed's blade, on his hand…

And then he took a long, deep breath, and his expression cooled as he resumed glaring at the far warier thugs.

"I would give you all one last chance to run…" Cross slowly drawled, his left hand reaching over his shoulder and drawing Lassoo into place, a round loudly clicking into position. "But I'm guessing you don't have the survival instincts to do something like that, do you now?"

"KILL HIM!" the leader bellowed, leading the five of them to rush him at once.

They were bigger. They outnumbered him. They had been in Serpent for far longer, and were far more brutal and vicious than anyone could ever humanly expect for it.

And against a Straw Hat with a new resolve?

They were completely outmatched.

"Beast Blitz."

Fire and ice spilled from the weapons in Cross' hands, and a Demon lunged at the monsters arrayed before him.

Cross's first move was to swing Lassoo's bulk at the leader, knocking him aside and allowing him to lunge at the nearest of his underlings, shoving Funkfreed into the chest of the first one he got to. The blade managed a few inches of penetration before halting, the blood and muscle around the point freezing solid and leaving the man wheezing pitifully.

"I will not die in this place," Cross declared, his visage cold and determined. "And if this is the only way to stay alive? So be it."

And with that declaration, he ripped his sword out—the swing dislodging the flesh frozen to the blade in the process—and snapped Funkfreed up to catch another goon's swing in a hilt-lock. It only lasted long enough for Cross to wrench his arm and his enemy's weapon to the side, so that he could swing Lassoo up—

FWOOSH! "ARGH!"

And scorch off most of the flesh on his torso.

Attempting to learn from their comrades' fates, the other two goons tried to split up and take Cross from two sides at once. After all, he was alone, and if they could get in his blind spot, then he'd be dead.

The one thing they didn't count on, however, was that Cross was anything but alone. A fact he demonstrated by throwing his weapons in their faces. It only took Lassoo and Funkfreed a second to transform. The same amount of time the men took to transition from murderous fury to mortal terror.

The lucky one was immediately squashed under eight tons of elephant. The unlucky one got two hundred pounds of angry dog in his face. He did not die fast.

That left two. The leader, and one shaking, trembling underling. Who took one look at his "buddy" getting mauled by Lassoo, and turned around and sprinted the other direction.

"Hey, where the fuck do you think you're going?!" the leader demanded.

"Away!" the underling fired back, right as a writhing mass of something popped down from the ceiling and closed its jaws around his chest before dragging him screaming away.

"Idiot!" the leader spat, before turning back to Cross. "Useless weaklings, the lot of them! I'm not dying here! NOT TO YOU!"

With that, he wound up and threw a punch that would have shattered a wall. A haymaker that Cross caught on his palm without so much of a tremble. The leader tried to pull his hand back, but all the action did was prompt Cross to squeeze, drawing a cry of pain from the man and sending him to his knees.

"You feel that?" Cross intoned. "That's just a taste of the pain you've inflicted in your time in this pit of misery." Pulling on the arm, he steadily wrenched it back, drawing a further cry as the movement threatened to yank the leader's arm out his shoulder. "And believe me, I'd love to give you a bigger taste of it. But I'm already crossing one line today, so I'll make this quick."

With that, Cross reached up and plucked Soundbite off his shoulder, placing it on the leader's.

"Gastro-Blast."

There was a deep whump, the kind of bass you feel with your chest more than hear. The leader's eyes rolled up in his head, a bare second before blood fountained out of his mouth, and he collapsed bonelessly to the ground with a splat.

Silence fell as the fight ended. Cross took the time to breathe and shake off the feeling. Something that suddenly became easier when Soundbite nudged him and he saw the erstwhile victim crawling away in obvious fear.

"Wait right there," Cross said, stalking toward her. She flinched before trying to double her pace. But even with a head start, her dead arm and overall state meant that she couldn't outpace someone on two uninjured legs.

Once he caught up, Cross grabbed the back of the rags that were covering her torso and shoved her face to the ground while his other hand landed on her injured shoulder, inviting a hiss of pain and fear. He felt around for a bit, and then…

"Funkfreed, numb the area."

The elephant's trunk extended, exhaling a small cloud of icy mist. The cold seeped through her skin and left her shivering. When Cross poked against the skin and she didn't hiss again, he gripped her shoulder carefully—

SNAP! "GYAGH!"

And jerked it back into its socket. She shrieked and bucked fiercely, forcing Cross to move back. She flailed for a moment with her new freedom, but slowly stilled as she discovered that she wasn't in anywhere near as much pain as she'd expected. She gingerly raised her other hand to her injured shoulder and moved it tentatively, but the pain remained mercifully numb for the moment.

It was as the woman was testing her limb that Cross took the time to take stock of more than her injuries, and realized that she was definitively not a woman. With her stature, visibly a head shorter than Cross himself, it was possible that she was a diminutive adult. But the likelier truth was an answer that Cross didn't want to contemplate any longer than he had to. And on that note…

"Now you can go," Cross said, walking backward several paces before turning his back on her. The second Lassoo and Funkfreed fell into stride alongside him, the pirate spun his finger and jerked his head back, which they both responded to with nods of their own.

It was a precaution that appeared to pay off when moments later, Cross heard footsteps behind him, and the group tensed to attack…

"W…Wait, wait!"

Before relaxing—marginally, anyway—and turning around as the ex-victim and ex-attacker hobbled up to them, still massaging her shoulder. Her face was shadowed by her tattered hood, but there was just enough visible to see her eyes staring up at Cross, an earnest- innocent confusion in her gaze, and her toothy maw in a frown.

"W-Why… why did you… h-heeeelp… me…?" the girl got out, her voice vacillating between a low hiss and a rasping growl.

Cross stared at her once more, taking in her filthy demeanor, the sheer amount of blood that she was coated in, and finally, he responded with a question of his own. "What's your name?"

The woman's mouth opened slightly and her eyes widened. Her head tilted, a look of honest confusion visible—Cross had to strongly beat back the implications of that reaction, and instead gestured at himself.

"My name is Cross." He then waved his hand at his companions one at a time, including the smaller pair of gastropodal eyes peeking out of his jacket. "And these are Soundbite, Lassoo, Funkfreed, and Gif."

The girl's jaw worked for a moment. "…it's… I don't—" Her eyes abruptly widened, and she let out a sound of understanding. "B-Ben-e-dia. My name is Benedia."

Cross winced at how she definitely sounded unsure as to how to pronounce her own name, but nodded. "Alright then, Benedia. And… you want to know why I helped you?"

Benedia's head jerked up and down erratically. "Y-You… s-saved me. He-elp-ed me…" Her head snapped side to side, her eyes darting about and searching the darkness with an age-deep wariness. "P-People don't 'help' people… 'sa-ave' them…not here."

Cross chewed on his lip as he joined her in carefully scanning their surroundings. He then stared her dead in the eye. "I did it because… you needed it. You might have tried to hurt us—" He politely ignored how she flinched at that reminder. "—and I know that this place has stolen a hell of a lot from me, and it's going to take a hell of a lot more…" He steeled his expression, giving his head a firm shake. "But there's no way in hell that I'm going to let it take my humanity too."

That comment caused Benedia's head to slowly tilt to the side. "Hu…hu-man-ity?"

The comment triggered something a question in Cross's mind, and he slowly lowered himself onto one knee so that he was more on her level. "Are you… human yourself? It's just a bit hard to tell, so—"

Benedia lurched back from Cross, jerking her head back and forth almost fearfully, as if he'd spoken taboo. "N-No, no, no, not human." Cross started to open, but she plowed on. "I… m-may-be was… once… but not here. Humanity… not allowed here. Humanity dies here. Me… you… every-one." She slowly angled her head back, staring up and off into the abyss above. "Thiiiiis place… is all I've ever known… sooooome p-people… they saaaay things, about a blue sky…" Her head snapped back down, and she shook it even harder. "But I've never seen it… it's not real, it doesn't exist… only black…"

And then, she went very still, and her head inched back around to stare at Cross, eyes blown wide.

"It'll take yours too…"

A chill crawled down Cross's spine at the certainty in her declaration. It was promptly shoved aside by a flame that raged its way from his stomach into his head.

Cross shot back to his feet, causing Benedia to snap back fearfully, but he ignored her as he slammed his fist into his palm with a rebellious snarl.

"Sorry, but I have other plans. Insanity and demonhood on my own time and dime, and there's no way that this hell is going to make me late!" An outright madcap grin blasted across his face as an idea roared to life in his head. "And as a matter of fact, I think it's time I make this fact perfectly clear to any and all whom it concerns, and even those it doesn't! Soundbite!"

"ROGER-ROGER!" the monochrome snail replied, slipping his head out of his shell with an eye-to-eye grin.

Cross spun his finger in a circle, even as he ripped his mic out of his bag.

"Gastro-Amp, to 13. But keep it local, would you? Don't want to disturb the good people of the world… just yet."

"HEEHEEHEEHOOHOOHOO! ON IT!" Soundbite chortled in agreement, and moments later, the abyssal sky sang with a static whine. "AND YOU! ARE! LIIIIIVE!"

"HEEEEELLOOOOO, SERPENT!" Cross roared, his voice booming and echoing from border to border of the prison and scaring what little daylights there were out of the prisoners, one and all.

-o-

"So sorry to bother everyone's fine… what, evening, morning, noon? WHATEVER time it is, I'm just going to go right ahead and say my piece, and then let the vast majority of you all go back to being RAVING LUNATICS! Alright? Alright!"

A massive silhouette, easily ten feet in height, slowly tilted its head at the voice from nowhere.

"Now then, for those of you who don't know, which I can only imagine is a lot of you, my name is Jeremiah Cross, Third Mate of the Straw Hat Pirates and co-host of the Straw Hat Broadcast Station, or SBS for short! It's a name and voice that carries quite a bit of weight out there in the rest of the world, the world under that big, beautiful blue sky, buuuut I'm guessing that in here, that name means less than spit to you all, doesn't it? Well, that's fair!"

Its head tilted to the other side, reacting as much on instinct as emotion to the voice. It raised an arm to scratch its head, not noticing the arm tearing through bricks in its path as easily as water. An entire building crumbled down beside it, all without the being even giving it a glance.

-o-

"Now, in case it weren't perfectly obvious, I'm rather new to this hell on earth, only been here about a week or so, and let me tell you… I am already SICK OF IT! This place is truly horrible, awful, just an absolute negative-hundred out of ten, truly it is! And me, well, I've got sensitive tastes, a delicate bearing, all that, and most importantly, I got places to be and stuff to do, SO! So… I've come to a decision, which is thus: I'm not terribly fond of this place, so I am going to leave."

Strung between two protruding branches that nearly matched skyscrapers in scale, numerous threads criss-crossed to bind anyone who came near. In its center, a gargantuan figure with eight legs and eight eyes clicked her mandibles together at the words she heard, her blood racing at the message. Normally, she'd dismiss who declared such as a soon-to-be-dead lunatic. And he still was, probably, most likely, definitely. But his voice was reaching everyone. That was enough to pique her interest…

"Now, you all probably think that's a pretty common thing to hear, a plea for mercy, a last gasp of sanity. Well let me tell you: that's not what this is. This? Is a promise. A FACT. I, Jeremiah 'Voice of Anarchy' Cross, am going to leave this hellhole. I don't care how long it takes, I don't care what I have to do, I. AM. LEAVING. Now, I imagine that more than a few of you are going to take issue with this, probably going to try and stop me from doing just that, maybe because it's your duty, maybe out of spite, whatever. And you know what? I invite you to go ahead, and do just that. Because you know why?… In the end, it won't matter."

The entire web trembled from the arachnid's shaking. It was a testament to her skill and decorum alike that it didn't even fray.

-o-

"Because, you see, here's the thing: I have people waiting for me, on the outside. I have unfinished business waiting for me on the outside, I have THE WHOLE DAMNED WORLD! WAITING! Right out there, past the borders of this… godforsaken evil place. And I… don't intend to leave anyone, not one person, waiting for one second longer than they have to. So. I don't care who or what you are, or how strong you think you are, but I'm leaving. Through you, if necessary. Over you, if it comes to it. I'm leaving… and there's nothing any of you can do to stop me. So instead, ask yourself this: why stop me? Why not join me?"

Deep in the labyrinth, one man's hands glowed like the sun. A pitiful light, not enough to cause harm, but enough to illuminate his position like a lantern. And enough to show a fresh spark burning in his once-dull eyes.

"Because here's the thing, folks: When I leave this place, I intend to take the gates off their hinges, and burn this place, darkness and all, to ashes and cinders. So rather than sticking around and getting caught up in the blaze, why don't you come with me instead? Open offer, to anyone, anything, anywhere, at any time! Doesn't matter who you are, who you were, what you've done, none of it! In here, we're all sinners. And none of us can afford to be picky, if we really, really, want to live one. Day. More. So you all tell me then… who wants to come out of the night?"

This man, perhaps the only person in the world who could long for the sun more than any victim of the Shadow-Shadow Fruit, was the first to move. The first to be moved by the Voice of Anarchy, the first to choose to put his life on the line for escaping. But… he was the second prisoner in Serpent to join Cross.

-o-

"I know…" I swore, my voice dropping into an almost reverent fervor, as I stared up into the lack of sky. "That a lot of you are likely going to ignore me. More are going to laugh. And others are going to curse, and try to put me in the ground. Squash me like any other insect. But to those of you who've heard me. Listened to me. And are sick and tired of letting this place grind your faces into the dirt… find me. Find me, join me, and trust me. Trust me, with your lives, because I make this promise to you, here, now and forever."

I stared up into the abyss, and stared through it, at the beautiful blue sky I knew lay beyond it.

"We. Are. Leaving. And none of us will ever. Ever come back here again. So until then… stay safe, and hold onto hope. Because this night. Is done."

I hung up the transceiver, my blood racing for what I had just brought down on my head. This would be the hardest thing I'd ever done. But I would do it. Dying was not an option.

And so I turned to the girl I had saved. The girl, who was looking up at me with shock, and awe, and even, I dared to dream, a little bit of hope, all her own.

I dropped to my knee again, and put my hand on her shoulder. "Benedia, do you want to eat people all your life?"

She was silent for a moment, before jerking her head… in a nod. "…yes."

…and now all that determination was bemusement and a bit of anxiety.

"Uh…/∑(O_O;)" all five of us hedged, sweatdropping as I hesitantly started to raise my hand from her.

"But," she forged on in a rasp, determination blazing in her hooded gaze. "I waaaant to do… it under the b-blue sky."

The sweatdrops doubled, I'm pretty sure.

"Is…this progress?" Soundbite asked, an eyestalk twitching.

I heaved a heavy sigh as I levered myself back to my full height, running my hand over my forehead in an effort to knead away the migraine I was already starting to nurse. "For the sake of my sanity, we'll call it a start…"

"So, to confirm, we're taking in the savage animal who was trying to outright kill us less than a week ago, and making her a friend?" Lassoo whined, tentatively pawing up to Benedia and sniffing her, his ears flattening as she gave him a way too sharp grin. "I gotta express some doubt here…"

"I don't agree with the mutt on much, but…" Funkfreed waved his trunk side-to-side.

That prompted me to shoot them a flat stare. "Why not? I took in all three of you, and the third still makes my life a living hell to this day."

I swear that Soundbite was sweating bullets as he glanced aside, chuckling sheepishly. "AHEH, w-well…"

"…well, he's got us there," Funkfreed shrugged. He then swiped his trunk forwards, encircling myself, Lassoo and our new friend and effortlessly lifting us onto his back. "So! We've got the five of us, plus a cannibal lunatic. Where do we start?"

I smirked softly, planting my foot on Funkfreed's head and leaning on my knee. "Simple. We head for where the most chaos is… and then, come hell, high water, or anything in between, we stand our ground. No matter what…"

Funkfreed began moving forward, and as the darkness fell over us once more, swallowing us into its depths… I stared into it, and refused to blink first.

"We will stand our ground."

MARINEFORD MISERY

-o-END-o-

Cross-Brain AN: First things first: for mood music while reading B.R.O.B. showing Cross what he's done, we suggest "Human" by OneRepublic. And with that said…

This is it, everyone. Our hiatus is just around the corner; only one arc remains for the first half of This Bites!, and we're going to knock it out in one last mega-chapter. But for this half's final update, we have a particular plan in mind. It won't just be about writing this time; we're going to commission a very important picture to cap off the end of the first half. When it's finished, those of you on FFN might want to look at our other sites (SB, SV, and AO3) to give it a look, because much like our Grand Finale preview, you'll miss out on a lot of crucial context if you can't see it.

Meanwhile, just a reminder that once our hiatus begins, we won't be idle; plans for post-skip will always be on the back burner, while we focus our attention on a couple of original works as well as SIs in other fandoms. And, of course, we'll keep commissioning the comic and fanart for This Bites! as long as our Pay-tree-on funds permit.

also, just in case anyone is crying foul about Hancock's powers affecting the Aegis-Zero agents? It is canon that she can petrify killing machines with the emotional depth of a corpse. And we've had enough people demonstrate immunity to her powers as it is.