Chapter 84

"It all started so innocently…"

-5 Days After the War-

The ongoing celebration on Amazon Lily was their most exuberant in living memory. Less than a month before, they had celebrated their Empress's recovery and safety from an assassination attempt, and that party had been rocking. Now they were celebrating something far grander: liberation from the World Government and the continued assurance of safety that came with their new allies. The previous celebration now looked like a child's birthday party.

The entire civilization was decked out for a festival, good food and drink flowing from every cook with a kitchen or outdoor grill. Straw Hat-inspired party activities sprang up in every corner of the village, and the female pirates whose ships were anchored off Amazon Lily's shores brought bawdier games of their own.

Only female pirates, for even for this celebration, men (aside from Luffy and his brothers) were still not allowed into the village. There might have been jealousy among the many male pirates who had sallied forth to provide Luffy his last reinforcements if not for the steady stream of curious, greedy, and/or grateful Amazons that made the trek out to the ships, bringing with them all of the festivities. They were simply too drunk and raucous to be jealous.

The village arena was host to specific festivities of its own. Amazons, snakes, and several pirates had gathered for a round of glorious combat, letting off their pent-up energy and showing off their strength to each other. In a society where power equated to beauty, it naturally became a competition for the prideful corsairs. And a steady stream of party-goers cooled off from the festivities by watching their fellow pirates and Amazons beat the snot out of each other.

Many of the Amazons were also taking the opportunity to see how their skills stacked up to the warriors of the outside world. There would be training to be had after the party. No longer was their island's obscurity a guarantee, not with the World Government's nominal cover gone. Even with the Revolutionaries' new alliance with their captain, peace now would only come by arrow, fist, and fang. So they came, they fought, and they took notes on how to improve.

Of course, nobody said they couldn't have fun with it, and the combat was very fun indeed.

And still, some of the best festivities were yet to come. The Revolutionaries were still waiting on the delivery of their 'exotic' cuisines; one or two of the Kujas providing the raw ingredients had mentioned 'raw ham melon,' among other things. And several of the Kujas were out doing some hunting of their own, seeking out another Sea King or two for the party. Fresh food was always the best.

Not to mention the fireworks being prepped. Those were for nightfall.

BOOM!

As such, the explosions from the palace were not the sort of fireworks most of the island was thinking of. Such concerning sounds would have drawn the Boa Sisters' attention if not for one tiny detail.

They were the cause of it.

-o-

"I'm going to kill him," Sabo swore vehemently, bent over and wheezing in exertion. "I'm going to crush him, grind him into dust, then feed the dust to the wolves. Then blow up the wolves."

"You don't like him at the moment, do you?" Ace asked, subtly flaring his fire to draw in more oxygen.

"Not especially, no."

His tone drier than the Starvation Hell, Ace mused, "Y'know, I feel like we might be acting a little harsh towards our little brother."

CRASH! "THERE THEY ARE!"

"Oh, wait. I forgot: I'm mad at him for the same reason."

With that, Ace flared fire from his feet, rocketing down the halls of the Kuja Palace, Sabo running flat-out beside him. The reason for their running? Two lovesick snake Zoans coming after them with all the grace and control of sharks in a feeding frenzy.

"I know that I can't just burn this Palace down around them, so I'll just have to save my revenge for Luffy instead," Ace declared in an eerily calm voice. "I'm going to burn him to ashes, turn the ashes into ink, paint him burning alive, and then burn the painting."

"That sounds healthy," Sabo quipped.

"Quite."

It took another three minutes before they finally found a window leading outside, and they leaped through without breaking stride.

"Morbid fantasies aside…one way or the other, that idiot is going to suffer for this," Ace grumbled.

-o-

"OWOWOWOWOWOWOWWWWW!"

"You were the one who wanted to forego the anesthetic. Normally I'd tell you to bite into something, but seeing as you're you, your tongue should work."

If Luffy hadn't been doing this explicitly because he wanted the pain—and no, despite all evidence to the contrary, he was not a masochist—he would have called it off right there. He did decide on the spot that he would not be getting another tattoo.

"Do you have to make it hurt this much?!"

"Sorry, but I've got the steadiest hand in the crew. Daisy used to do it, but she kept remembering jokes halfway through and that… well, that didn't end well for anyone," Rindo answered.

Luffy winced again as she continued stitching across his bare chest. It felt like being stabbed by a burning needle a hundred times, probably because that was what was happening. Even after taking the advice to bite his tongue, the air was still filled with his exclamations of pain.

Still, he never asked her to stop or slow down. The design was simple. It would be done in a few minutes, and it would still hurt for a while afterward. Which was exactly what he needed.

Rindo didn't speak again until the pain stopped, and she held up a mirror to show him the results.

"So, not that I haven't seen or applied worse tattoos—Blue Fan's still paying me off for my silence on the dumbass face I plastered on her…er, you don't need to know—but I know you're normally not the type to sit still long enough for someone to use your hide like a canvas. So why'd you ask for ink?"

"Because I need to remember this," Luffy answered, grimly taking in his new feature. Two stitch-like lines, just like the one Zoro sported from his fight against Mihawk, stretched from his pectorals to his hips, forming a simple X across his torso.

"If it weren't for Cross, this would be a lot worse, and Ace wouldn't be here. It took everything my crew could give me to make it as far as I did, and it was so close to not being enough," Luffy reflected quietly. "And I don't think Cross will ever be able to rig things that hard again. I need to get stronger so that next time, I can protect the ones I care about without having to ask everything of them again."

Scooting a bit more upright, Luffy gingerly placed a hand on his chest. "This is a reminder of the time I needed that strength most, and I wasn't good enough. So that I push myself harder and farther, so that it never happens again."

The solemn moment was only slightly ruined by Rindo grabbing his wrist and moving it off the tattoo. "Well, if this is meant to be a scar, treat it like one," she said as she retrieved bandages and disinfectant. "It needs to heal to set properly, so keep those in place for the day. And let me remind you again: the Snake Princess is never to find out about this."

Luffy groaned. "Come on. I asked you to do this!"

"Nobody in the world is going to believe me if I say, 'I made Monkey D. Luffy bleed because he asked for it!'" she snapped back. "I don't care how reasonable you think she or her sisters are, I'm not taking that chance! Not when it could mean—!"

GRROOOOOOAAARRGH!

"AAAHHH!" Rindo screamed, hiding behind the chair. "PLEASE CALL OFF BACURA, HONORABLE SISTERS, I TOOK EXCEPTIONAL CARE—!"

It was an embarrassingly long time before she realized that the growling had been Luffy's stomach and that he had already run off in search of meat.

Luffy, for his part, almost ran into a passing woman in his haste to go find meat. Taking advantage of his good fortune, he shoved his face in hers.

"Hi! Where's all the best meat!?" he demanded, his eyes wide with pinprick pupils and his mouth pulled back in a deranged, drooling grin. The woman blinked once before pointing toward the coast.

"The Supernovas' ships," she answered curtly.

"THANKS!" he all but roared as he took off, a cloud of dust kicked up in his wake.

She let out a heartfelt sigh, removing her glasses and wiping the dust off them.

"Thank goodness I'm not assigned to keep watch over him. I'd lose my wits in seconds. That man is insufferable."

"Now, ya sure that there ain't sexual harassment, mate?"

"Why, yes, agent Longshot, I will recommend your team for remedial training with Jabra at the first possible convenience. How kind of you to volunteer them, I'll make certain you receive all due credit for your outstanding initiative," Kalifa simpered without missing a beat.

"SO! Cutting loose, are we?" said her snail, its tone thoroughly panicked.

"He sent me on a vacation. I am taking one," the platinum-haired bubble mistress answered, an easygoing smile on her face and a swimsuit-like outfit on her body as she moved through the streets.

"Hmph. We should all be so lucky."

Rolling her eyes, she stepped into the nearest alley and Shaved to a nearby rooftop,

"I am still doing my job while I'm here, of course," Kalifa scoffed, her well-trained eyes taking in every scar, misstep, or sway in those mingling beneath her. "We should have less to fear from the Kujas than most of the Zodiac crews after everything Ophiuchus has done, but knowing one's assets is always valuable."

"Well, you won't hear any arguments from me. I always say you should have a plan to kill everyone you meet."

Kalifa smirked. "A properly professional mindset."

"At least someone agrees, me bloody dad keeps dropping me all these hints for psychologists he 'just so happens' to know," the man retorted, though a corner of his mouth was tilted upward. "Well, I'll let the bosses know and see what they want you to do. KA-LICK!"

Kalifa stowed away the snail and hopped down back into the festivities, her eyes and ears open for anything that could be useful and her nose open for the scent of mutton.

"It's a good thing Straw Hat is occupied," she murmured. "I might be able to get some quality meat after all."

"Maybe we can help each other, then."

Kalifa turned just slowly enough that it seemed natural rather than sudden. She immediately recognized the Kuja known as Marguerite, and not only because of the patch hiding her missing eye. The question that she asked, however, sent Kalifa's stomach down into her sandals.

"Do you work with Rob Lucci?"

-o-

None of the present Supernovas save for Bonney herself knew for sure how old she actually was. But if she wasn't actually a juvenile, she was a very good actress.

"I can get on the island~ I can get on the island~" she sang, all but hopscotching between Jewelry Margherita's gangplank and the shoreline where numerous Amazon archers watched and laughed.

Plenty of the Supernovas and their crews ignored her. Plenty of others did not.

"You're really not going to let even a single one of us on the damn island?" Bege groused.

"Not unless you're known for wearing a straw hat or are related to him, no," one of the sterner ones said.

"We helped save your rulers' hides! Doesn't that earn us any goodwill!?"

"Notice how you are within eyesight of our capital and miraculously not dead," she retorted, before sighing. "Look, it's not up to us. The Snake Princess considered lifting the ban for one night, but Elder Nyon put her foot down. Men are not supposed to be on this island."

"That, and the Snake Princess changed her mind after some of the comments from Magnet-boy's crew. And his own vocabulary and manners," another said.

"And finally, there's him," another one indicated, pointing at the Hanjomaru. Specifically, its captain, who was tied to the bow with all the willingness of Odysseus meeting the sirens.

"…that's entirely fair," Bege admitted, eyeing the ample platter of spaghetti and meatballs in front of him. "Well, can't be too upset with so much high-quality free food and entertainment."

Nobody needed to ask what he meant by entertainment, as Urouge took that moment to howl again.

"Ohhhhh, why must I suffer like this? The temptation is too grave, my spirit too weak. To restrain myself for the sake of goodness…this is truly purgatory," he bemoaned, matching Hanjomaru's oni figurehead with his own expression.

"I, too, am quite regretful, Urouge. I would have enjoyed some time on this island."

Bartolomeo was not the only one to turn a surprised and/or incredulous look towards Hawkins, but he was the loudest.

"You, mister 'face hasn't twitched once no matter how much I've tried to piss you off?!' Seriously, what the hell happened to the tack I put on your seat!?"

"You forgot he can turn his body to straw and predict the future," a passing Gin deadpanned.

"Oh. Right."

"And to answer your question, I will have you know that the fairer sex is quite appreciative of my mystic atmosphere and deft fingers. In many a port have I managed to acquire, as it is said in the common parlance, 'some sweet tail, dog.'"

"…LEMME ON THE ISLAND! AIN'T NO WAY IN HELL I'M LOSING TO THIS BASTARD! NO WAY IN HELL!"

"It's not the island that's the problem, dipshit," Mr. 5 growled, seizing Bartolomeo's collar and tossing him backward, where Miss Valentine promptly sat upon him.

Mr. 5 raised an eyebrow at his partner. "I'm surprised you aren't out partying your ass off like Ever, Apis, and Lindwyrm." Right on cue, a cackling dragon soared over the island in a drunken loop before audibly crashing back to earth. Ignoring that with great difficulty, he added, "Even Goldenweek is cutting loose."

-o-

In a room tucked away from most of the festivities, Miss Goldenweek lay sprawled on a floor of cushions. Her eyes were glazed and half-lidded due to the smoke that filled the room. Her pigtails had come undone, leaving her black hair splayed across a square foot of cushion, and a boa constrictor lay wound across her torso and shoulders, staring into her eyes.

"He likes you," slurred the Amazon Davi, who'd provided the room, the snake, and the herbal substances. "That's rare. More absinthe?"

Minutely, Goldenweek nodded.

-o-

"Eh, I considered it, but there's one very simple fact that made me choose to stay here instead," Valentine answered.

"And what's that?"

Valentine wiggled her weighted body on her captain's back, smiling primly at his garbled sounds of protest. "This is just more fun."

From his smirk and the fact that he sat down on a convenient barrel, he agreed.

Meanwhile, one of the calmest of the Supernovas was speaking with one of his newest recruits, another among the minority of women who weren't partying in the city.

"So what are we now… er, captain?" Pascia tried tentatively.

"Captain. No matter our flag, I am still in command of my vessel. And as to what I am, what we are… a difficult question, yet one with a simple answer. I'm unwilling to let the law get in the way of enforcing my vision of justice, which makes us outlaws. But 'vigilante' seems more appropriate."

He turned his attention to the other ships, eyeing the generation's boldest rookies, whose ranks he was now indelibly part of. He saw Bonney cackling, still hopping between land and ship; Bartolomeo being wrangled by one of his crewmates while another was right beside Bonney; Apoo loudly collecting bets for the brawl; Urouge continuing his lament; and all the other surprisingly mundane interactions in between.

Almost unbidden, a corner of his mouth turned upward.

"But if the world calls us 'pirates'… I won't hate it as much as I used to."

Drake stood there, resolute and serene, for all of ten seconds.

"MEEEEAT!" CRASH!

"Then again," Drake growled, strangling the hilt of his mace as he worked himself out of the crater he'd been slammed into.

As Luffy attacked the buffets as if they'd hurt his brothers—the half that he hadn't already stuffed in his food hole, anyway—everyone else paused whatever they were doing.

"STRAW HAT, GET YOUR MOUTH OFF MY MEAT!" Kid roared. "I KILLED THAT SEA KING! IT'S MY CUT!"

While Law doubled over in a harsh fit of coughing, Luffy gave no indication that he had heard Kid, and another tenth of the buffet had disappeared before the enraged punk captain snagged him with his oversized gauntlet and gave him a hard yank - for all the good it did.

"Huh, looks like Cross was right. Straw Hat is stronger than you, Captain."

"CRAM IT, KILLER! AND ONE WORD OUT OF YOU AND I FEED YOU TO THE FURNACE, SHURAIYA!"

Law had now given up all pretense, leaning on Kikoku to keep his footing as he openly laughed at the sight of Kid trying, and failing, to tug Luffy off of his shank of Sea King.

Apoo, Bartolomeo, and Bonney were laughing as well, while Hawkins and Bege watched with smirks. Drake probably would have been smirking, too, if he didn't still have splinters to pluck out of the back of his head.

When after thirty seconds of this struggling, Luffy had devoured seventy percent of the buffet, Kid was practically glowing with anger. The arm he grew shifted around until it formed a massive pair of scissors instead, and he moved to pull him away or kill him trying. Then Luffy suddenly stopped, straightening up and looking around at Kid.

"…oh, you're all here? That's good."

"I'M GONNA TEAR YOU INSIDE-OUT, YOU ABSOLUTE MORON!" Kid raged, slamming the shears shut on Luffy's torso. Or at least he tried to; he wasn't completely surprised to see Luffy standing atop the blades, but it did nothing to calm him down.

But then Luffy held out the sizable shank he had been about to bite into.

"Sorry. Go ahead and take it."

And that shocked him right out of his anger. Along with everyone else watching, though some hid it better than others.

A blue blur later, Law was standing on the deck, frowning at Luffy. His eyes fell quickly on the bandages on his chest, but he knew the aftermath of a fresh tattoo. No blood was visible there or anywhere else, and his sky blue vest would have shown such a stain at once.

"Are we sure that Bentham left with Ivankov?"

"IT'S REALLY ME, DANG IT!" Luffy yelled, stretching out his cheeks.

"Then what trauma have you suffered in the last few hours to make you consider sharing your meat? Let alone with Kid?" Law demanded.

"I know that the world as we know it is ending, but this is a little much," Bonney agreed.

Luffy rubbed the back of his head, seeming almost sheepish.

"Well, it's just that there's something I need to talk to you guys about," he said. And that casual sentence set off an explosion.

"OH, HELL NO!" Kid burst out, wheeling away and slashing his arm down. "No way, not a chance in hell! Three times that shitty third mate of yours has led me around by the nose, I'll tie myself to the anchor before going for number four! You can take this 'talk' of yours and shove it up your—!"

"Cross doesn't know about this."

Kid stopped dead in his tracks.

Luffy stared solemnly at his back as he continued. "Cross doesn't know; this is all me. It's something I've been thinking about ever since I lost to Kuma. Had to think a lot about it… but I've got a pretty good idea, and I just want you guys to hear me out."

"…why does that sound more terrifying when it's not coming from the actual tactician?" Apoo asked, having already made his way over.

"Because Straw Hat-ya isn't the tactician. He's an idiot. Meaning that even if it's the stupidest idea ever, he will still do it."

"And succeed," Bartolomeo tacked on loudly.

"…yeah, that sounds about right."

Kid didn't move from his position, despite being acutely aware over the next minute or two that the other Supernovas were making their way to his ship as well. When a particularly heavy thud showed that even Urouge had made his way over, he threw his hands up and stormed back over.

There was a tense moment of silence as the assembled pirates all regarded the boldest of them all (no matter what they might say in public). Finally, Luffy spoke.

"The other Emperors." Three words, and the Supernovas were all on-edge, not helped by the sober look on Luffy's face. "Big Mom and Kaido. I don't know a lot about the world, but… they're monsters, aren't they? Like Blackbeard or Doflamingo."

"Worse than even those lunatics. By a mile," Drake declared, his eyes slitting dangerously. "Kaido is a despot who holds absolute authority over dozens of islands, ruling them all from Wano Country. He deposed the country's last shogun, a man who sailed with both Whitebeard and Roger, and nothing comes out of the place now except weapons and destruction."

"I heard about Oden from Izo, ya know," Apoo chimed in, nervously plinking his teeth. "The man was an absolute legend, practically unbeatable, fearless in every way. And Kaido had him boiled alive in oil. Before eating him."

"And where Kaido is an animal, Linlin is insane. Literally insane," Bonney droned, a haunted, thousand-yard stare on her face. "Her 'kingdom,' the Totland Archipelago… she likes to call it a 'paradise,' but really, it's just her personal playground. Whenever she finds someone or something she considers 'interesting'... she 'acquires' them. No matter what it takes. And her appetite… you and I are gluttons, Luffy, but countries have burned to fill her maw."

"And don't even get me started on her kids," Bege snarled. "She's worse than the World Nobles when it comes to spouses, collecting them for unique kids and then throwing them into the garbage. And unfortunately for the world, her blood tends to run true: they're all either as crazy as her, as strong as her, or both. Last count puts her at almost eighty children. That's a small army of pirates as strong as most New World captains, all working for a raving madwoman."

"And even though you didn't ask about them, I'll just point out that we saw Whitebeard and Red-Hair in action at Marineford, so that's the power scale those two operate on. There's a reason the World Government needs the Warlords to counter them," Law said.

"Why the hell are we talking about this!? We all know that the Emperors have kept their titles for a damn good reason! What's your point, Straw Hat!?" Kid spat.

Luffy remained silent, reaching up to lower the brim of his hat, only to fumble the action when he remembered that he didn't have his hat. Still, once he got his composure back, he looked up, and every pirate present stepped back at his expression.

"You said it back at Marineford, Kid: This is our era."

The small, sincere, dangerous smile on Luffy's face was enough that everyone waited on tenterhooks to hear more.

"I don't know much about what's waiting for us in the New World, and neither does Cross. But I know that the Emperors are gonna block our way to Raftel. And even if they didn't, I still don't like the idea of them being out there, messing up the seas, while I know about them. And all of us together were able to do something that even they couldn't. So why stop there?"

Luffy's eyes passed over all of them.

"If I'm fighting anyone on the way to the One Piece, I want it to be one of you guys. I don't want to lose to anyone else on the way there. Not Blackbeard. Not Doflamingo. Not Kaido, not Big Mom, and not even Shanks. If this is our era, then let's take it with both hands. All of us together, working for the same thing we're all after: the path to the throne."

"And what, once you become king, we all bow down or some shit?" Kid asked dryly.

"Shishishishi! Nah, feel free to come at me for it! And if you manage to take it, good for you!"

Kid blinked in naked surprise, Luffy grinning his D-shaped grin.

"'Course, then I'll come right back for it too, but it'll be pretty fun!"

Kid's eye was one of many among the Supernovas that twitched, and Bartolomeo was the one to speak up.

"Luffy-senpai, what brought this on?"

Luffy's grin shrunk, and he raised a hand to his head, rubbing where his hat was still missing.

"The Tragedy of Marineford never should have happened."

Looks of confusion passed between the Supernovas, though thankfully, Luffy continued quickly.

"I know this isn't like me. Normally it's Cross who wants to change the world… but for once, I want to try and change it too. I want to make sure that something like what happened can never happen again, not while I'm still alive! And now, after all this, I know there's no way I could do that alone. So… what do you say? Are you in?"

Silence fell for all of two seconds.

On the third, Law opened his mouth—and was beaten to the punch.

"Luuuuffyyyy…"

Luffy's grin turned nervous, and he began sweating as he turned around to see his brothers. Both of them were tapping obsidian pipes in their palms.

"Shishishi…uh, hi, guys? What did I do?"

"Are you aware, or did Cross tell you, how Hancock feels about you?" Ace asked far too calmly.

"Uhhh…kinda? I think? I forgot what he wrote after we got out of there, aaaand I didn't really get what he was talking about?"

"Did it occur to either of you that she has two sisters the same way you have two brothers?" Sabo asked quietly.

"…uhhh, why does that matter?"

Ace's response was to grab Luffy's head and twist it 180 degrees on his neck. The other Supernovas abruptly glanced over their shoulders and scattered to the edges of the deck, all wondering exactly how the three most powerful women on Amazon Lily had somehow snuck up behind them. Two of them were literally salivating, and all three of them had red faces and wide smiles.

Not even Luffy was oblivious enough to not sense the danger.

"Uh, but, uh, wh-why are you mad at me?" Luffy whined, twisting his neck around. "I didn't do anything!"

"Blaming you for them falling for us? That would probably be too far," Sabo conceded, nodding his head.

"But we've agreed it is fair that if two of them are chasing two of us, then three of them can chase three of us," Ace added.

"Oh, yeah, that makes—uhhh, wait a minute."

"Run, Luffy."

All ten Supernovas watched in complete bemusement as the three brothers fled off the Tramp and down the beach from the three lovesick sisters.

"…they're overreacting," Bonney said, not quite managing to scoff.

"Not really," Drake said quietly. "A couple of Carnivorous Zoan reptiles in love for the first time? They're high on their own blood right now. Quetzalcoatl only knows what they'll do before they calm down. And if anyone asks if I'm speaking from experience, I'll eat your face. And no, that is not hyperbole."

"Nonsense aside, as hard as that may be," Law cut in. "I think we all agree that there's only one sane answer to Straw Hat-ya's question."

A general rumble of agreement made the round of the captains. They were of one mind on the matter, with no hesitation.

-o-

"Oh, thank goodness. You can talk some sense into him."

"Trying to get out of bed so he can try and help people on broken bones, is he?"

"So you're familiar with this particular brand of idiocy…"

"I'll remind you that I graduated with Sengoku and Garp."

"My condolences."

"Save them for when I'm dead, brat. Maybe then my headaches will show me some mercy."

"You know I can hear you, right?!" Koby snapped through his room's closed door.

"Along with enough others to give Soundbite a run for his money, yes," Tsuru said dryly as she entered. "Which is why you're in the isolation ward. Young man, the desire to be helpful despite the circumstances against you is an asset in the Navy. But as we're no longer in the middle of an active warzone, helpfulness is no longer compatible with self-destruction. We have lost and will lose many soldiers from this. The best thing you can do is ensuring you are not one of them."

Koby's fingers raked through his hair at Tsuru's gentle but firm directions. He knew it made sense, but—

Old, wrinkled fingers closed on his hand, and he looked into her eyes.

"I know it hurts. As I said, you're not the only one to endure this, hearing so many people crying out and falling silent. You will have help to get your new powers under control. And what you feel now will only aid you in the future."

There was a hint of bitterness in her tone and face, but she didn't look away.

"You'll understand when you're older," she said, slowly releasing his hand. Koby still looked anxious and restless, but at least no longer deranged to the point she needed to strap him to his hospital bed.

"What happens next, then?" Koby asked quietly. "I mean…the Navy and the Government are falling apart. How are we supposed to enforce justice? What even is justice anymore?"

"What do you two think that it is?"

Tsuru's voice carried a distinct magnitude that cemented their full focus on her. Slowly, Koby's fists clenched.

"Permission to speak freely, ma'am?"

"Granted."

"Justice is doing the right thing for the right reasons and stopping people from hurting others. It's as simple as that."

"And not letting yourself be paralyzed by fear… or by the luxuries that injustice can buy," Helmeppo added.

"Mm. A bit too simple, to be brutally honest. But then, in days like these, perhaps that simplicity should be valued, not dismissed."

And from that point, the conversation turned to talk of treason.

"Should I worry that you may consider those turncoats the less unjust Marines on the battleground?"

Both of them jumped and opened their mouths. Then they paled when no sound came out. Slowly, their expressions turned guarded.

"What's the point of asking a question like that right now?" Koby demanded, his voice slowly rising. "Why are you challenging my faith to the Navy when I'm dealing with all this? I was scared to death on that battlefield that someone would kill me for speaking out! And not someone on Whitebeard's side—FINE! YES, I think that the turncoats had the right idea! I WISH I HAD BEEN ON THEIR SIDE!"

"KOBY!" Helmeppo roared, looking between the two others in the room and sweating bullets.

"And you?" Tsuru asked darkly, turning her gaze to him.

Helmeppo felt the same as he had back when his father had held him hostage. Powerless, on the cusp of death, and tempted to be obsequious just to survive the day. Yet, in the depths of his heart, there was too much he'd be giving up. And weighing it against his life…

Helmeppo's kukri knives were spinning in his hands almost before he knew what he was doing.

"Tell me one thing, Vice Admiral. Why did you do this? You're not one of Akainu's supporters. Why did you condemn two more loyal Marines to the ranks of the turncoats?"

Tsuru's dark expression melted into a soft smile, and her next words created an entirely new tension in the office.

"Because I'm one of the turncoats' commanders. And now… so are you."

-o-

"Until it started to truly pick up steam, and became a behemoth."

-6 Days After the War-

When the morning broke after the wild celebratory party, the ships off the shore weighed anchor and shipped off. After almost a month of insane but worthwhile alliances, the Supernovas were finally going their separate ways.

And as three brothers and three sisters watched the ships sail for the horizon from the water's edge, five of them were consoling Luffy.

"I'm sorry, Luffy," Ace sighed.

"Huh? What for?" Luffy blinked up at his brother.

For a strange definition of 'console,' anyway.

"Uhhh…" Sabo drew out hesitantly, already predicting an imminent headache. "That they didn't say yes?"

"Oh! That! Eh, it's fine," Luffy turned back around with a carefree grin. "They didn't say no, either."

There was a pause and several exchanged glances.

"Um… they did say no, actually," Marigold corrected. "In fact, I believe the rude—er, the rudest one with the flaming hair yelled it loud enough to be heard in the city. Along with many other words…"

"And that was just him," Sandersonia noted.

"Oh, yeah…" Luffy said, tilting his head. Then he grinned, carelessly scratching under his nose. "Good thing I don't listen, then! Shishishi!"

Four heads promptly bounced with substantive sweatdrops and exasperated sighs, while the fifth swooned with a much more… amorous sound.

"Luffy…" Ace dragged out in a thoroughly long-suffering tone.

"Hey, refusing refusals has always worked before, I'm sure it'll work this time, too! SHISHISHISHISHI!"

All of them stared at him. And this time, even Hancock brought a hand to her face. She was still smiling fondly, though.

"Ugh…what's worse here? The fact that he's that oblivious? Or the fact that somehow, he's probably right?" Sabo asked.

"Speaking as the one with the most firsthand experience with the Straw Hats?" Sandersonia sighed, 'subtly' leaning against Sabo and sending a shiver down his spine. "Yeah…he's probably right."

"Speaking as one who had it violently inflicted on me, I second that," Ace groused.

"Except that they're almost all captains this time, and peers of yours," Marigold frowned, sidling closer to Ace but focusing on the departing ships. "Even if three of them are already on our side, none of them are the kind of people you get to cooperate by force."

Hancock nodded slightly in agreement with her sister's words, but seeing the wide grin on Luffy's face, she couldn't believe it was impossible.

"We'll just have to wait and see what the future holds," she said calmly.

-o-

Even several hours and blue streaks later, Luffy's words were still lodged in the Supernovas' minds, and though few of them were willing to admit it, some of the points he'd made did sound appealing the more they thought about them. Kid was almost alone when he let out a sigh of deep resentment, and even that wasn't as deep as he wanted it to be.

"I am getting fucking sick of being manipulated into helping the Straw Hats like this…"

"Yeah? Same here."

Kid and Killer looked to the side to see X Drake staring back at them from the prow of his own ship, speaking to them through a Baby Transponder Snail.

"But the fact that you're doing it again isn't the worst part."

"The fuck are you talking about?" Kid snapped.

Drake looked over his shoulder at the retreating island, his expression cold, angry, and resigned.

"The worst part is that even knowing you're sick of it, we'll all still come running the next time a situation like this comes up. Won't we?"

The silence between them could have been cut with a butter knife.

"…damn it."

-o-

Jewelry Bonney wasted no time with pleasantries. The ships had just crossed the horizon from Amazon Lily when hers pulled up beside the yellow submarine, and she jumped down onto the deck before he could dive.

"You're out of your mind. You know that, right?"

"I've been well aware of that since the first time I let Jeremi-ya talk me into all this, tell me something I don't know," Law answered, almost smiling.

Bonney frowned for a moment, hesitating. Then the moment passed.

"Do you mean the Dead End Race or whatever alliance you set up with him?"

It said something that Law didn't immediately draw his sword or deploy his Room. Nevertheless, his veneer of good humor dropped into surgical frigidity.

"The latter. But I'm not sure how much that should matter to you."

"I heard your talk with him four days before the race. He was scouting—" She winced self-consciously as Law's expression turned even colder and his hand dropped onto his sword's hilt, and she immediately snapped her hands up. "Tone it down, saw-bones. I only heard him talking about wanting to recruit me. I left as soon as he started looking around before he spilled whatever the other thing was. Was already up to my neck in his shit, wasn't looking to dive any deeper."

She lowered her hands then, folding her arms. An annoyed scowl marred her face. "Though looking back, it probably couldn't have hurt. To think, I was going to blow off hearing that I was supposed to run into Blackbeard… I owe him one either way for steering me away from that death sentence."

Law stared at her for a few moments before allowing his grip to relax, though his hand didn't move from his side.

"Well then, I suppose there's no reason to keep up the façade. Interested in another crazy escapade?"

Bonney threw her head back and barked out a derisive laugh. "He says with a straight face like this would be anywhere near what we pulled before!" She then lurched forward, giving Law a hungry stare. "Depends what's on the menu, brat. Better be hella tasty!"

Law allowed a wry grin to slide back onto his face as he raised his arms in an oh-so-casual shrug. "Eh, you know, usual Straw Hat hijinks. Places to go, conspiracies to crumble, Warlords to topple—"

"And settling a grudge we share?"

Both Captains jumped in place at the familiar voice from out of nowhere. Or rather, from Bonney's waistline. The Glutton patted herself down before withdrawing a Baby Snail with X Drake's stern countenance.

"How the hell—? It didn't even ring!"

"You should really keep a better eye on your snails. They can be frightfully easy to bribe."

Bonney scowled at her now-sweating communicator, her eyes promising a fate far worse than mere death.

"Impending escargot dishes aside…" Law drew out. "You were saying?"

The snail turned in Bonney's palm to regard Law with an impassive stare. "Minion Island, eleven years ago."

Five words, and Law had practically forgotten Bonney's presence.

"Well," Law chuckled grimly through a rictus smile. "Cross got one thing right: We have got a lot to talk about."

"…It's way too late for me to back outta this shit, isn't it?" Bonney asked slowly.

"Yes," the other two captains declared in unison.

"Fuuuuuck…" Bonney drew out, scratching irritably at the back of her head. "Those fucking Straw Hats…"

And slowly, a smirk crawled across her face as she contemplated the insanity to come.

"They'd better have one hell of a victory feast waiting for us on the other side!"

-o-

"So what gives, Straw-Man? Bad odds in the cards or something?" Apoo quizzed, staring curiously at Grudge Dolph's aft.

"Our odds were actually favorable this time," Hawkins responded. "Better than even odds of great success in the near future, were we to go along with Straw Hat's scheme."

"Oh? Then why the refusal, hm? It seems quite out of character." Urouge inquired.

"Because if I have taken away one lesson from all that has transpired, it is thus: sometimes, numbers aren't everything. Fate, fickle or set as it might be, is something we forge by our own hands. Even so, I would not consider my current stance to be one of 'utter refusal.'"

"No? Then what would you call it?" Bege deadpanned.

"In poker terms, I believe it is called…" A smirk quirked the Magician's expression. "'Playing the long game.'"

A long pause fell as that sunk in. Then the other three started laughing.

"APAPAPA! Now there's a shocker! Last thing I ever thought I'd hear from tall, dark, and spooky!" Apoo whooped, clapping his hands in amusement.

"AHAHAAAAH! Taken to gambling with destiny, have we?! A most perilous pastime, the heavens are not kind to those who take them lightly!" Urouge chortled.

"Perhaps so, but well worth it nevertheless," Hawkins stated, his demeanor unchanged at his peers' amusement. "I've come to find it more invigorating than simply playing the hand one is dealt."

"Gehgehgeh! You're not wrong there, witch boy, not wrong at all! Gehgehgehgeeeeeh!" Bege cackled. As his laughter slowly died down, he heaved out a smoke-filled sigh. "Geeeeh… you know, never thought I'd say this, but I'm honestly going to dread running you lot into the ground. Things'll be a lot more boring without you meatheads stirring shit up."

The mood sobered slowly at that particular reminder.

"You knoooow…" Apoo mused, scratching contemplatively at his chin. "Just because we're likely gonna be fighting in the not-so-distant future doesn't mean we have to be enemies, does it?"

He waved his hands at the mixed stares his snail sent his way. "I ain't sayin' we go as far as what Luffy's suggesting, just that there's no reason we can't keep things civil, ya know? Even friendly! We can try to kill each other and still not be on bad terms. Ain't that the normal way for the Grand Line anyway?"

"Hmmm. Greetings over cannon fire, farewells over ale? I, for one, can find no issue with such an enlightened path!"

"Heh. No qualms from me either," Bege agreed. "You mooks are one and all crazy to a fault - but that just makes the messes you drag me into that much more fun!"

"One can never know with certainty what the future holds, not even I," Hawkins declared, before letting himself, if one was generous, smile just a little. "But whatever may come, I hope for more endeavors that allow for our cooperation."

"APAPAPA! Works for me! Now come on, enough lip-flappin', more sail-droppin'!"

And with that declaration, Scratch-Man Apoo whipped out his double-long limb and pointed towards the horizon.

"There's a whole New World out there waiting for us, and it doesn't have a damn clue what's about to hit it!" Apoo punched his fist into the sky. "Let's go and make these next few years some that nobody's gonna ever forget!"

-o-

"Don't you dare make us ask," Valentine demanded, glaring at Barto's back as he posed valiantly with his foot propped up on the Cannibal's figurehead. "You can stay there looking like a dumbass all you like; I will throw you overboard before any of us asks."

Bartolomeo just smiled an infuriating smile. And nobody had any illusions that they'd be able to force their way through his barriers.

"Hey, Lindy, haven't you been saying you've wanted an indoor roost?" Apis mused. "Looks like the Captain's cabin will be free for the foreseeable future."

[Ooh, fantastic! I'll go and char it to perfection right—GRK!] The dragon's joyful tirade was cut off by a psychokinetic appendage clamping his toothy maw shut.

Bartolomeo snarled out an aggravated sigh that was almost a scream of frustration as he released the grip.

"Serious question here: Is it really too much to ask to let me be dramatic for one minute? Come on, we kicked the Marines' teeth in! Doesn't that earn me any respect? Just, like, ten seconds of you shithorns playing along!?"

"We see you picking your nose every day. 'Respect'? Not a chance," Five declared bluntly.

Silence fell, because what could be said to that? Evidently, Desire thought of something, because she scoffed, walked over to where Bartolomeo was standing and turned around to face the rest of the crew.

"A few years back, he was just as annoying as he is now. He was so good at riling people up that he got on multiple gangs' most wanted lists. Everyone else in the gang told him that if any blowback came from it, they'd throw him to the wolves. But the thing is that he got so many people coming after our gang at the same time that they kept crossing paths when they tried to get to us. And the more they went at each other, the more that they wanted to be the ones to take Barty's head. Soon enough, all of their forces went up against each other in an all-out war. And with them all focused on each other, we waited until they were on their last legs, then finished the job like shooting fish in a barrel."

The crew stared at her in collective incomprehension. Desire ignored their confusion, folding her arms and glaring out of the corner of her eye at Bartolomeo.

"And considering that that's what got him appointed as the group's leader, a position that he held until he turned pirate, it's the last plot he'll ever forget. No matter how much evidence he shows against it, he knows how to handle charisma. His refusal right now? It's the start of a long con. Manipulating them so that they know he was on their side. And when Luffy finally comes back? We'll be the first in line to join him. And everyone else will follow."

The ex-gangster chuckled harshly. "You're stealing my thunder here, ginger," he said. "Buuut, you're not wrong, either. We're waiting for the once and future king to get back on the seas, yeah. Because when he does, oh boy…it'll be all of us at once again."

He grinned even wider.

"But you missed one important thing. When the time comes, the world isn't gonna know what hit it. And for once, neither is Cross. Let that sink in."

They did. And despite Five's claim, every last one of the ones that hadn't been part of his Loguetown mafia found themselves respecting Bartolomeo's foresight a bit more.

A few moments passed in silence.

"…hmm. Nobody ruined the moment, for once. I'll take that," Apis shrugged, heading for the galley. "Miss Valentine, do we have any brownies left? And not the 'special' ones!"

-o-

Once the other crews had crossed the horizon, the three brothers exchanged understanding smiles.

"It's been nice to see each other again. But we have our own journeys to follow," Sabo said.

"We'll meet again in the New World, Luffy. You had better be able to give us a challenge in two years," Ace said, his tone only half-teasing.

"I will," Luffy replied.

"You're not going to leave without a proper goodbye, are you?"

All three turned to the Boa Sisters, and the anxiety that had been stirring in their guts died at the sight before them.

"A new beginning should be commemorated," Marigold continued, offering three small cups while Sandersonia held out a bottle. Hancock, for her part, had somehow produced a table.

Without a word, the three of them circled around the table, Ace accepting the bottle as Sonia laid out the cups. He filled them with all due ceremony before returning the bottle. All three raised their cups, their eyes moist and their grins wide.

"Time doesn't matter. Distance doesn't matter. And injuries don't matter. The three of us against the world," Ace said.

"Along with anyone else who's brave and stupid enough to fight with us," Sabo agreed.

"No matter what happens, we're never alone. Brothers for life," Luffy finished.

They clinked their cups and drained them.

Luffy lasted a couple of seconds before sticking out his tongue with a laugh. "Shishishi, tastes just as bad as last time!"

"Oh, I dunno. I think I've gotten a taste for it over the last few years," Ace chuckled.

"Meh, I can take it or leave it. I prefer wine," Sabo shrugged ambivalently.

"Noble brat," his so-called brothers deadpanned at him.

"Oh, screw both of you!" he snapped, though he couldn't help but chuckle.

The laughter slowly died down, but their smiles remained.

"Two years. We'll meet again in the New World. It's a promise," Luffy said.

"Promise," Ace and Sabo agreed.

"Orchid should still be waiting for you, Sabo," Sandersonia said, a longing lilt barely hidden in her voice. "We'll get you to Water 7 by sundown."

Sabo smiled politely despite the cold sweat on the back of his head. "I appreciate it, Sonia."

She let out a far too pleased-sounding sigh as the two headed off.

"And I've got a crew to rebuild," Ace said, frowning. "Hopefully, Isuka and Deuce haven't killed each other yet."

"Your Striker is waiting at the Palace, loaded with food and supplies," Marigold said in the same voice as her sister. "It's honestly a relief to find someone who likes ghost peppers so much."

"Thank you for all your help, all three of you," Ace said, bowing politely. And while Marigold blushed, Hancock smiled back warmly.

"It was my pleasure, Brother Ace."

Ace's smile was much more fragile as he followed Mari towards the city. And then there were only two.

"Rayleigh is waiting on the other side of the island, Luffy," Hancock said quietly. "I'll escort you there. I'm sorry I can't help you train more."

"Shishishi…you've already helped a lot. I could never have saved Ace without you, Hancock."

She swooned, her mind spinning with delirious fantasies. Her grin and blush stayed in place all the way around the island.

What was waiting for them there was surprising enough to snap her out of her infatuation.

-o-

"But, as all tales must… it's time for this one to come to an end."

-o-

Buggy stalked below the decks of the Big Top, his eyes and ears straining to catch anything out of place. No unexpected brawls, no missing supplies, nothing appeared to be amiss. Slowly, he nodded in satisfaction and walked back up to the deck, leaving a few quiet sighs of relief behind him.

My flashy charisma got me this far, but dealing with anyone worth a trip to Impel Down demands caution, he reflected. The last thing he needed was another surprise when he was planning to talk with Luffy again, the last chance he'd get for the foreseeable future.

When he reached the door leading out to the deck, Buggy closed his eyes and breathed in deeply, bracing himself for the surprise that he would inevitably have to re-witness as soon as he walked out. And he believed himself prepared when he opened the door.

The sight that had greeted him less than an hour prior on the shores of Amazon Lily remained. Boa Hancock, Silvers Rayleigh, and Monkey D. Luffy sharing drinks and food on the deck of his ship as though he had (or ever would have) invited any of them there. At this point—and especially in the face of that smile from Rayleigh when he'd tried to give them a piece of his mind—he had no energy left to be angry.

"Everything and everyone is properly secure, and we're ready to ship out," Buggy sighed in the voice of one who badly needed a vacation. "That being said, to where will I be generously offering you a ride, sir? The pantry? The old vacation spot? The pet store we had to drag Captain away from?"

"Hmm…" Rayleigh hummed. He thoughtfully swirled his mug before smiling and raising it with a calm and definitive, "Yes."

The clown snorted to hide the grimace of over a dozen old scars flaring to life. "Rusukaina it is, then. You'll forgive me if I drop you off a few miles offshore; I don't fancy trying my luck with the volcanic schedule after the last three times."

He looked over to his nearby crew. What few he had allowed on deck were all cowering behind whatever odds and ends they could find, caught between the sheer terror of being on the same ship as the Dark King of the Roger Pirates and the irresistible allure of the immaculate, jaw-dropping, utterly wondrous—Buggy bit down hard on his tongue, choking down a curse. Back to his senses, he sent a sidelong stinkeye at the shameless siren sitting on his ship.

Point being, the mood of his crew was, for lack of a better word, thoroughly conflicted.

"Cabaji, get the purple book from the map room and set a course for Rusukaina Island. Mohji, keep the Sea Kings moving. Alvida, Galdino, keep the crew below deck. I don't need any screams about our 'guests' making my migraine worse. And!" Buggy snapped up a finger before the wax-man could turn away. "If you find any suspiciously positioned statues anywhere? Throw them overboard. Got it?"

That parting shot prompted them to salute again, harder and crisper, before they split up to their assigned tasks.

Buggy ran a hand down his face, sighing to himself. Nothing for it. Turning around, he walked straight toward the trio giving him all this trouble. This was about what he should have expected as the price for his plan; the most important thing now was to enact it as soon as possible.

"As… enjoyable as it is to host you all, and while I'm… happy to offer you all a ride—"

"To and from, m'boy, don't forget that the good Empress still needs to get back home and doesn't have a ride to do it," Rayleigh interjected in that oh-so-reasonable tone of voice he'd always use when giving him or Shanks (or both of them together, more often than not) the literal shit duties.

Buggy swallowed a curse at the thought of the two-week round trip he'd just been suckered into before continuing. "Right. Of course. Anyway…The fact is, I came to Amazon Lily for a reason. I'd like to borrow Straw Hat for a bit."

Buggy tried his hardest but couldn't suppress a wince at the quiet but deadly look on Hancock's face. A breeze away from letting her Conqueror's Haki loose—

"He won't try anything," Rayleigh said softly. "They won't be out of earshot either."

"He is trying to encroach on my time with Luffy," she rumbled.

"Woman, you will have a full week with him. Just drink your booze, will you? I mean, unless you can't actually hold it down, of course."

"What was that?!"

"You heard me."

While, technically speaking, having a Roger Veteran and an ex-Warlord glaring thunderheads at one another on his ship's deck wasn't much of an improvement, Buggy took the fact that the glares weren't aimed his way as a net gain.

Without a word, he moved to the ship's bow, almost fully isolated from eavesdroppers, Luffy dutifully following. He stood on the elephant-shaped cannon house while Luffy stretched out over the cannon that formed the trunk. He rolled back and forth for a few seconds before breaking the silence.

"…meh, my special spot is better."

"Oh, shut up," Buggy snarled. Sensing a glare turn back his way, he took a deep breath and forced himself to be calm again.

"Straw Hat. You've shown the propensity for basic logic now, so I want you to tell me something."

"… uh… OK?"

"You heard my rant at Marineford. You witnessed firsthand how dedicated I was to pretending I was a small-timer, even in my mind. And yet, I returned to the Grand Line. Can you tell me why?"

The obvious answer came to Luffy's mind immediately, and he dismissed it just as fast; Buggy may have been an idiot, but he was smart, too. But as Luffy actually put some thought towards it…

"…No? I mean, if you wanted to lay low, you should have stayed in the East Blue."

"Correct, for the most part. Has Cross ever told you about the gathering storm?"

Luffy blinked and scratched his head. "Yeah, he mentioned that when we recruited—ah, er, nothing."

"Hmph," Buggy snorted. "Ignoring that your lying hasn't improved, I was there when Roger breathed his last. And amidst all the tears I shed for my captain, it wasn't long before I realized the kind of storm he had conjured with his final words. And it meant that someday, someone would come along and pick up where he left off. Someone was going to be the spark that broke the storm. And that was a problem for me."

Buggy folded his arms. "My intention was never to defy my captain's will. Not permanently, at any rate. I wanted to live the rest of my life in peace and sanity. And that wasn't going to happen if the storm broke, so I planned to delay it until I was in the ground. That was the one threat that I prepared myself to risk everything against: anyone from Roger's sea who showed the same spark that he carried. When you beat me, I planned on revenge as a matter of suspicion. But when I failed to kill you in Loguetown, I started worrying that you were the one. And now, because of you, my secret is out in the open. I'm never going to be able to lay low again. Which means that there's only one thing that I can do."

His stance didn't change, and he didn't move. He made no move to attack. Several seconds ticked by, and Luffy's head slowly tilted in confusion. Then Buggy spoke, slowly and deliberately.

"I don't think I've made it clear yet, Straw Hat: even in Impel Down, even on our way out, I was looking for a way to kill you and dodge the blame. How much I tempted fate, how I destroyed all of their cold-resistant clothing, how I kept hiding behind you. I would do anything in my power to stop the gathering storm from happening in my lifetime because, and I freely admit it, I am scared to death of what it will bring. So, tell me, if you can: why am I explaining all of this, alone and unarmed, in front of two of your allies who are both stronger than me?"

Luffy stared at Buggy for a minute, looking into his eyes. There was no hint of deception, but something else was there. Slowly, the pieces fell into place with regard to what he had gone through, and Luffy realized the answer.

"Something else scares you more."

"You really have gotten smarter," Buggy grumbled, his expression darkening. "That's right, Straw Hat. There is one thing, one single thing, that scares me more than the gathering storm. Or rather, one person. The one man who is capable of causing more damage to this world than Roger if left to his own devices. His name… is Rocks D. Xebec."

Something in the back of Luffy's mind shook. He had never heard the name in his life, he was pretty sure, but there was a strange recognition. Strange and unpleasant.

"Remember that name, Straw Hat. Carve it into your memory. And the next time you talk to your third mate, tell him to reach out to whatever contacts he has to find out everything he can about it. Find all the information you can and use it to destroy Xebec. That is my price for leaving you alive."

"Who is he?"

"…He was one of the most infamous pirates in history. The likes of Whitebeard, Kaido, Linlin, and Shiki were all part of his crew. He was an out-of-control monster who aspired to be the King of the World before my captain and your grandfather brought him down together. He is no longer among the living."

Buggy's eyes filled with flame as he glared at Luffy.

"But as plain as you've inherited Roger's will, Marshall D. Teach has inherited Xebec's."

Luffy's eyes lit up in a glare as well, and Buggy turned his back on him.

"I've told you everything that you need to know. There are now two inherited wills vying for Roger's throne, and there's no contest which one I need to not succeed. As for me…the Government has already invited me to fill one of the vacant Warlord positions. When I finish this trip, I am going to accept it and spend every single day for the foreseeable future enjoying the fact that you're not on the sea right now. Because I know that when you come back, the storm will be on the horizon."

He looked back over his shoulder.

"There's no more chance of avoiding it. One of you will claim Roger's prize. The other will die. And then… well. I suppose you'll have to wait and see. I couldn't tell you what waits on the final island even if I wanted to."

For a good few minutes, silence reigned as the two pirates—two captains—two enemies, tied by fate—stared at one another in profound silence. Finally, Buggy started to turn away…

"Just one question."

When he was given pause.

The clown looked back at Luffy, who was staring at him as blankly as before.

"You say you respected Roger… but you stood against his dream. Do you really think he'd have let that go?"

Buggy scoffed immediately. "Where do you think Shanks learned how to laugh everything off, Straw Hat? And besides, I'm not an idiot. If I wanted to stop Roger's dreams forever, I could have done a hell of a lot worse. But I never did. And no matter what, I never would. I didn't want forever, just a few years. But of course, I had to relearn the first rule of the Roger Pirates the hard way."

"Eh?" Luffy tilted his head in confusion. "What's that?"

Buggy scoffed again as he turned and walked back onto his ship, hand waving dismissively as he went. "Be ye god or demon, no matter how you fight or flail, there is one law in all the world that is immutable: No matter what… Roger always gets the last laugh."

"Hear, hear," Rayleigh called.

-o-

Hancock frowned heavily as Buggy trudged past them back to his captain's quarters, and the reason wasn't only that Luffy seemed to be thinking about what he heard.

"Trouble was inevitable," Rayleigh said calmly, drawing her attention back to the first man she had ever trusted. "But for all that the world is spiraling toward it, there's a lot that's already pulling in his favor, and time is on our side."

"I'm well aware," Hancock said quietly. "Even still…"

"I understand," Rayleigh said, smiling gently at her. "You've done well to come this far, but now that you're willing to bare your heart again, the world's come looking to rip it out. Quite literally, this time. But, however much it helps, know this: the game hasn't changed."

"Oh?"

"People have been after your head your whole life. Now there's just more of them. Do what you always have: line them up, knock them down, and trust the people at your back to do the same."

"Hmph. Quite a different game, then. Now, I trust my back to more than two."

Her tone was wistful, and her hand absently strayed to her back. Rayleigh frowned as the action highlighted the bandages he'd noticed earlier.

"Speaking of your back, what happened there?"

Hancock stilled, and though her face was still wistful, a smile slowly grew on her face.

~2 Days After The War~

Marguerite knelt before the three of them in the throne room.

"I apologize for my boldness, Honored Sisters," Marguerite said for what must have been the hundredth time. She had also said a dozen times that she hadn't done anything to even hint at their secret around anyone unaware, but Hancock was running out of patience.

"So you have said, Marguerite," she said testily. "Now, would you kindly present what you have been so bold about?"

Marguerite swallowed, but shakily withdrew outside and brought in a cart covered by a white cloth, struggling visibly with its weight. She brought it to rest before the sisters. Impatience overpowering anything else, the Empress tore away the cloth—

And all three went stock-still. Trauma danced weakly before their eyes as they comprehended what they were looking at.

One normal-sized and two giant branding irons with the Kuja Pirates' Jolly Roger upon them.

"I-I-I know it's not as perfect a fit as the Sun Pirates, but I just thought—"

"Silence."

Marguerite all but swallowed her tongue at Hancock's quiet command. For several seconds, the room was still. Then Hancock got to her feet, shrugging off her coat as she took up the smallest iron.

"Mari, how well does it overlay?" she asked, handing off the iron and brushing her hair aside to reveal her brand. Scowling as she always did at the infernal mark, she received the iron and, glancing at the design, pressed it a bit forcefully against Hancock's back. She leaned in as she removed it to see the imprints, trying to ignore how Hancock was shivering and clutching Sonia's hand.

"Hmm," Marigold murmured. "It covers most of it, but the bottom toe is still exposed, and one of the top ones isn't perfect."

"I see. Do you have any suggestions?" Hancock asked, a bit hollowly.

Marigold stared at their emblem for a few moments.

"…we could give those snakes cobra hoods," she said. "That would overtake the toes. And if we gave it to another one on the left side, it would be uniform, every third snake with a hood."

Hancock allowed her hair to re-cover the brand and looked back at Marguerite as Marigold laid the iron back on the cart.

"Make the corrections at once. We will see you back here in no more than a day to destroy these cursed marks."

"Y-Yes, Empress!" Marguerite answered, speeding the cart out of the room.

A few seconds passed in silence.

"…she will have whatever she wants after this is done," Hancock whispered.

Her sisters nodded in fervent agreement.

And with that, all three of them allowed themselves to cry in absolute relief.

~3 Days After The War~

Kikyo and Rindo stood beside Marguerite, every ounce of willpower in their bodies dedicated to keeping themselves composed. Their rulers were trusting them to lift the curse that had plagued them for seventeen years, and they only got one chance. Despite having practiced for most of the day, they fully felt the weight of the glowing red irons in their hands.

"Do it."

The voice of the onlooking Elder Nyon was barely audible. Steeling themselves, the three Kuja stepped forward, approaching where Sonia, Hancock, and Mari knelt with their backs exposed.

The three of them drew near, and as they went, the situation truly sunk in: the depths of their rulers' anxiety and the mark that represented it all. Cold rage purged all doubts and worries from their minds. In one fluid motion, they raised the irons and smothered the Celestial Dragons' brand.

Steam hissed from the touch of the iron, but not so much as a grunt came from any of the Boas.

The Kujas withdrew and plunged the irons into the waiting ice buckets as the three sisters moved to the prepared mirrors. And the Kujas could only smile at how the tension melted off of them as they saw their backs.

"Stay for a moment," Hancock requested gently, all three sisters approaching them with a soft smile. "I've done this more this month than I have in the past seventeen years, but you deserve nothing less."

She led her sisters in placing her hands in front of her waist and bowing deeply.

"Thank you so much," they intoned together.

When they looked up again to find that Marguerite, Kikyo, and Rindo had fainted, they were surprised that they hadn't expected as much.

~o~

"…a physical reminder of the new beginning we have now. Perhaps you're right: no negative changes have come to the game."

Rayleigh smiled proudly. Neither looked away at the sound of a door slamming open, stone crumbling, and a certain clown grumbling shortly before the sound of chunks of stone striking the water echoed up to them.

"And aid can come from unexpected places."

-o-

Prince Fukaboshi had yet to leave Grove 77, and indeed, it was unclear when he would return home. The Minister of the Left had borrowed a ride on a departing ship to negotiate matters with his brothers, and odds were they'd trade off monthly going forward.

But they were well aware of the potential danger that could come to the lawful protection that they had secured, so leaving the Grove unprotected was out of the question. They were confident in their abilities but not fools enough to repeat the mistake of Enies Lobby and believe that nobody would dare to touch them.

Which was the primary reason that Fukaboshi had deigned to see a Government Agent who had arrived to speak with him privately. Or, rather, to act as a courier for whomever he served. The snail was already connected as they convened in the makeshift cottage that Fukaboshi was living in, and its expression was blank.

"I apologize for not being willing to face you," the snail conveyed in a male voice, its expression not changing. "But I am here to offer my aid to your cause. You may rest assured that the World Nobles will be unable to harm you."

"Who are you to make such a claim? You're a Noble yourself; why aid us!?"

"I am someone who witnessed Otohime's fervor during her visit to Mariejois eight years ago. And I am willing to put myself forward as a shield for the sake of a living being as amazing as she was."

Fukaboshi's eyes had widened at his mother's name, but he gave no other reaction for a minute. His fists clenched and unclenched.

"How do I know that I can trust you?"

"Time will tell you the truth. If it comes to it, I will intervene personally. But I will remain a silent partner for your sake and mine. The alternative is to have World Nobles descend on this place whenever they please, to pick out people to bring back to this white hell at their leisure."

Fukaboshi frowned and exhaled. "And will we hear from you again?"

"Ideally, not for the next two years. You have my word, however, that I will introduce myself to you and your family at Reverie."

Another minute passed before Fukaboshi finally nodded. "Alright. I'll take your word for this. If you're remaining anonymous, what name can I call you?"

A minute passed, and it became apparent that the other speaker hadn't considered that. Finally, he replied with a simple answer.

"Call me… Vanir."

-o-

"Heh. Speaking of endings, did you know that in another world, so very different from this one, an android spoke about her thoughts on life?"

-o-

"I'm so glad you survived!"

"Only with a scar. A crescent cut at the base of my neck. I distinctly heard him say 'to be continued' when he left our fight," the person on the other end of the snail answered.

"What a nightmare. Why did he go after you?"

"I can't say. Maybe I wronged him in the past. Maybe he knows something about my family. All I know is he hated me."

"Well, you're still alive. That's the important part."

"I suppose so. Though I may be paranoid for a while about other turncoats trying to finish the job."

"You're only paranoid if you're wrong. Keep yourself safe."

"Of course. You take care of yourself too. KA-LICK!"

"Hmm, how disappointing," Doflamingo said as soon as Pica hung up the call. "I wish I could support those turncoats; it would be a wonderful way to break the world. But if they're acting out of justice, it can't be helped."

"Beheheheh…Vergo should move even higher once he purges a few more," Trebol snickered.

"And we can't slow down either," Doflamingo said, grinning widely. "Trebol?"

"I've got my ears to the ground, Doffy. When Blackbeard comes back to this ocean, we'll know."

"Good. The old man wasn't much fun, but once this newcomer gets on his feet? I think we can come to an understanding. Diamante?"

"I'm keeping the colosseum's most wanted list updated constantly, Doffy, and the crew knows to look out for anyone without a wanted poster. Still up in the air if we can do a Trojan Horse gambit, though."

"Well, tell her to work on it. If it works, I'll double her salary. If it doesn't, I at least want to know as soon as possible so we can figure out something else.

Diamante nodded, and Doflamingo slowly turned his gaze back to the stone giant.

"…and Pica. You said you found it?"

By way of answer, Pica reached into the ground, pulling a treasure chest out and holding it out to his master. Doflamingo immediately opened the lid.

It contained a Devil Fruit.

"So… you're sure this is it, then? Because I'm telling you right now, if I catch wind of this thing being a Zoan, or even a Logia—"

"We're positive, Young Master!" Pica defended.

"While the Encyclopedia is a reliable guide, there are also numerous independent records scattered across the seas," Diamante agreed.

"And they all concur, this is the exact Devil Fruit you demanded half a year ago!" Trebol finished.

"Mmm… only half a year? Whaaaat a world. Alright, I trust you." Doflamingo closed the chest and waved Pica off. "Two miles deep. And not with the rest of the stashes: this gets its own vault."

"I… of course, Young Master, but…?"

"Speak."

"You've spent billions of Beris searching for this one Fruit, Doffy. Do you truly intend to keep something this… this significant as a contingency?"

"Hardly, Pica, hardly. That Fruit will have its time and its place. But not just yet. Don't want to show our hands too early, after all. When the time comes…"

A crescent grin of gleeful anticipation grew on Doflamingo's face.

"This Devil Fruit will be key to one of the biggest, brightest Smiles in my entire life."

-o-

"That android said these words: 'Everything that lives is designed to end. We are perpetually trapped in a never-ending spiral of life and death.' And you know what? That android was right."

-o-

The number of people that former World Economic Journalist Yukiko Ohya could trust had decreased drastically over the past two weeks, and it only kept going down. After days on the run from her ex-boss's hired thugs, a tip from a source she thought she could still trust had turned the day into a long game of cat and mouse.

The thugs may not have been anything special, but they were still strong enough that she'd nearly lost her head earlier and still would if they got the jump on her. But she was running out of options for asylum fast. The Marines weren't worth considering, but—

FWUMP! "GAH!"

Something slammed into her head and knocked her over. Rubbing her temples and backside and shaking her head free of stars, she looked around. She blinked at the figure lying nearby.

"I just got brained by an albatross?" she said incredulously. Then she paused. "Not something I ever thought I'd say."

"SquuaAaAaaawk…" the Albatross—or rather, the News Coo if its hat and bag were anything to go by—gurgled in agreement, his head lolling dizzily.

It took a second, but once the pounding in Ohya's head faded, she grabbed the Coo by its shoulders and stared at it intently. "You just tried to answer me! Which means you're used to speaking, w-which means you know the Straw Hats, don't you? Don't you?!"

He blinked blearily at her. Then, shaking off what remained of his concussion, he stood, smoothed out his feathers, and nodded.

Ohya's mind raced. "Are any of them near here?"

The Coo's gaze turned flat, and she sagged.

"Yeah, I know it was a long shot, but I'm desperate here! What about one of their friends or allies?"

The bird's head tilted, and it held out its wings in a so-so movement.

"Good enough, I'll take it if they can help me get away from the kill squad after my—ohshit!"

She huddled against the wall, one hand grabbing the Coo and the other clamping his beak shut as a couple of torch-wielding thugs stalked by the alley. She glared after them with as much fear as hatred.

"I swear, if I ever get the chance, I'll pluck every feather from Morgans's overstuffed a—!" It hit Ohya too late that she'd just badmouthed Morgans in front of a News Coo. A fear she thought borne out when the bird abruptly started thrashing and letting out muffled squawks of fury in her arms.

Then a pair of hands seized her shoulders and yanked her up before slamming her against the wall by her neck, and Ohya found she had much bigger concerns to worry about.

"Dumb rat," the thug sneered. "You burned up way too much of our time! Stop breathing already!"

"AAAAAWK!"

Ohya was confused but very relieved when the thug's grip slackened, and she dropped back to her feet. She turned to see the thug trying and failing to swat the News Coo out of the air, the bird lunging at his head and eyes. Looking frantically around, she found the alley depressingly bare of potential weapons she could use.

Grimacing, she grabbed the only blunt object she had in reach and, seeing the Coo was high enough, rammed it into the grunt's face with all her strength.

CRUNCH!

She almost shed a tear as her precious camera crumpled, but at least the would-be assailant fell unconscious. The bird landed atop his prone form, and she saw the vindictive gleam in its eye.

"No love lost between you and the big birdbrain, then?"

Due to a lack of lips, the Coo was incapable of spitting, but the way it jerked its head to the side certainly communicated the intention to do so.

"Good enough for me." Her eyes fell back on her ruined camera, and she sighed. "Well, any idea where I can get an upgrade?"

In response, the Coo shot her a cocky grin before spreading its wings and taking off. She watched with wavering hope as he flapped upwards but sighed in relief as he alighted on a nearby rooftop, looked around for a moment, then looked back to her and waved his wing.

"Alright. Lead the way, you crazy Coo."

-o-

Spring-heeled dickweasel…

Despite everything that had happened since that day, that insult had refused to leave his brain since he arrived on this island.

Anger and dread could both be blamed. Obviously, he was furious at the return of that nickname. But the dread came, ironically, from when the natives had led him to the pillar of gold.

The fact that Cross had known from the moment he met him that Bellamy would come to this island in the sky to find some remnant of treasure that he could use to get back in Doflamingo's good graces? That was intimidating on its own. But even without considering Nami's usury, it was downright ominous for them to allow him to take what was rightfully theirs.

Yet, with the Straw Hats disbanded, for now, the dread at the inevitability of meeting them as enemies again took a backseat to the treasure in his grasp and the possibilities it held.

The only problem was—

"I can help."

Bellamy started in place, whipping around to see… a kid? Bellamy blinked, but it didn't change what he saw. A little girl with an overstuffed bag on her back and the same little wings as everyone else up here.

"You were wondering how to get the gold down to the Blue Sea, right?"

He froze, a finger raised. Then he scowled at her. "I didn't say that out loud."

"No, but you were thinking it really loud. Which is a shock because, frankly, you don't look that smart."

Bellamy's scowl deepened even further, his forearms coiling viciously. "Alright, you little—!"

"I'm here to make you a deal," she interrupted, stepping back just enough to be out of his normal range before shouting over her shoulder.

"Oh, Nooooolaaaa! Diiiiinnertime!"

The ground began to rumble, and Bellamy took a step back as a gargantuan blue and white serpent emerged from the trees, looked at the pillar the girl was pointing towards and moved its coils to wrap around it. Carefully avoiding the carved jolly roger, the snake snapped the pillar into pieces and unhinged its maw, to Bellamy's horror.

"What's with that face? You seem upset," the girl cooed.

"That damn monster is eating my gold!"

"The Straw Hats' gold, and of course she is. How else would we move that much metal? Don't worry, it won't weigh Nola down even a bit, she was carrying waaay more than that for centuries, and she's been letting us clear up her stomach for a while now. She's all set to cart down as much shiny metal as you need, wherever you want. Though, of course…" The tyke's expression slowly morphed into a vicious grin as she started to sway back and forth on her heels. "Getting her to give it back isn't an easy feat. Nola's got quiiiiite the protective streak going, you see."

The girl pressed her hands to her cheeks in a look of mock-sorrowful despair. "Oh, if only there were a precious, wondrous child who's spent the last few months gaining the God-Serpent's trust and who could convince her to surrender her riches on demand, as well as direct her wherever she might be needed. Oh, if only!" The tyke kept up the facade for about ten seconds more before 'gracing' Bellamy with an impish smirk. "Can you read between the lines, or do you want me to be a bit more obvious?"

"What are you getting out of this, besides making me angry?" Bellamy ground out as he fought very hard against the instinct to concuss the brat before him.

"Brass tacks, I want adventure," she said, her expression turning firm. "I want to get down and onto the Blue Seas. I've got a destination in mind, and while I'll eventually get there on my own, I need somewhere to stay. Someone to lead me. Someone to follow for so long as you're headed in the same direction I am, and I'm fairly confident you are. You don't ditch me or betray me; you let me stay with you until I decide I want to leave."

Bellamy leered at her.

"No, I'm not going to be deadweight," she snapped, cutting through his train of thought again. "I'm not a big tough guy like you, but I've got more than that going for me."

She tapped the side of her head. "I wasn't kidding when I said you were thinking too loud. Like right now, you're thinking about taking a swing at my head from the left. Baaad idea, by the way. Nola's nicer now, but a Sea King will always be a Sea King." The girl swung the sack off her shoulder and opened it, revealing a colorful collection of shells. "And I've got more than enough Dials to make up for what I'm lacking physically. I can hold my own in a fight, and I promise you, I won't slow down in trying to get stronger."

Bellamy was still frowning heavily, but there was appraisal in his eyes instead of annoyance now as he weighed what she was saying…

Right up until the girl suddenly seemed to sag in place, her gaze becoming downcast.

"Please, mister… I just… I don't want to wait. I don't want to be left watching from the sidelines when I could be out in the action. For once in my life, I don't want to watch, I want to do, and I can only do that on the Blue Seas. I just…"

And then the girl looked up, and Bellamy reeled because there was no way her eyes had been that big a second ago!

"I just… want to follow my dream…" the girl whispered softly. "Is that too much to ask…?"

Bellamy sucked in a hiss as that word slammed right into his skull.

"GYAHAHA! 'Dreams'?! What a jo—!"

The spring-man growled, shaking his head to banish his own cackling voice. For a moment, he berated himself for even considering this. It was stupid at best, insane at worst…

And then Bellamy swayed as the ground slightly shifted beneath him, and he remembered exactly where he was standing.

'Then again…' he thought, dragging his hand down his face before giving the girl a final, contemplative look. 'Maybe, a little insanity wouldn't be the worst thing…'

"…fine, you little brat," he huffed. "You've got yourself a deal."

Bellamy's stomach dropped as the girl's head snapped right up, all traces of her prior sorrow traded for a bright and cheery grin. "Glad to hear it, partner! Heh, knew that word would tickle you just right! Come on, let's get going!"

Before Bellamy could allow himself a backslide by throttling a tyke, an ear-splitting shriek rent the air, causing damn near every bird in the jungle to set flight in panic.

"AISAAAAAA!"

The girl—Aisa, if the way she'd become white as the clouds was anything to go by—stiffened furiously, her bright grin turned rictus. "Now, let's get going now, because Laki just realized I've cleared out my stuff and half the camp's weapon Dials, and I think she's literally going to tan my hide if she catches me this time."

"Still need a ship to get off these clouds, brat."

Aisa scoffed and waved her hand dismissively. "Hey, do I look like a liar? I said I'd give you transportation, and I have. Though fair warning, this is not what I'd call 'comfortable.'" And before Bellamy could think to question that concerning tidbit, she brought her fingers to her mouth—

FWEEEET!

—and loosed a shrill whistle worthy of Soundbite.

"SHULALAAAA!"

Bellamy had just enough time to glimpse the snake's yawning maw bearing down on him before he found himself tumbling through what seemed like a very big, very dark cave. Veins popped on his skull.

"YOU DAMN NO-GOOD SHITTY BRAT!" he roared, lunging after the cackling brat, who was running through the writhing dark with infuriating ease.

"You're gonna be saying that a lot from now on, partner! I guarantee it! Oh! Just one thing!"

Amid the writhing darkness and mayhem around her, Aisa whirled around and planted her fists on her hips, baring her teeth in a proud grin.

"That's no-good shitty pirate brat to you, mister!"

-o-

"It's inconceivable, dahling, simply inconceivable. Somehow you've saddled me with a pack of fools who are half as beautiful as you yet twice as brainless. Where did you even find these pretty little idiots!?"

"You geniuses are always so condescending, Dame Onde," Cavendish simpered. "They're more than capable of the job. You're free to keep reminding everyone that you're the smartest person in the room, but if you're going to join my crew, you need to show some manners."

He daintily sucked down another candied rose petal before continuing.

"As for the boys, they were running a local fashion magazine out of their host club. Orange-something or other."

"…remind me why I'm bothering to help you again?"

"Because you're too good a person by half, and when the World Government found out you were helping ferry the World Nobles' latest 'Most Wanted' to the Revolutionaries, they put a price on your head, and I was the only person left with the graciousness to help you."

"Hmph. Well, the first part must be true if I'm bothering to sail nearly a quarter way around the world just so I can pick up this tub of yours."

"Hey, now, this is hardly a tub! It's meant to be the single sturdiest cruise ship to sail the six seas! … And, to be completely honest, that's not quite right either. Our new ship isn't quite done yet."

"…do you care to repeat yourself?"

"It isn't finished yet. The general framework and hull are well underway, don't worry yourself about that, but the interior design and proper aesthetics? I'm leaving that to your refined palate and sensibilities. Unless, of course, you'd rather live somewhere designed by a…" Cavendish sucked in an offended breath at the blasphemy he was about to spit. "Day laborer, would you?"

"…I suppose it would be nice to rest my head someplace without the everpresent desire to tie myself to the anchor chain… still! Quite the assumption you're making, hm? That I'll actually be sticking around after I do you this favor? I could just go off on my own, try my chances with the rest of the world!"

"And all it would cost you is the chance to live amongst and endlessly design beauty for a bastion of the veritable demigods who define the balance of this world," Cavendish said pleasantly.

"…hmph. If that spineless hors-d'oeuvre can turn a profit with his patchwork abominations when his primary canvas is unwashed swashbucklers, I can't imagine I could turn up less than double his profits working with someone like you." A brief pause fell, the snail scowling and Cavendish still smiling. "Assuming I say yes to all this… what is the name of this tub I'm to oversee, hm?"

"Undecided thus far, but I was thinking something like… 'Elegant Swan of Truest Beauty'?"

"…unbelievable. You really do need me around to keep your dense head from dragging you straight to the bottom of the sea. Oh, honestly, I'm just too nice sometimes. Very well, dahling, if only out of a misguided sense of pity, I'll play your silly little games. Until we meet in person, Little Cabbage. KA-LICK!"

"Wait, wha—!? Hey, where the hell did you hear that name, Onde?! Onde!?"

-o-

In the depths of the Government's secret laboratories, two conflicted scientists pored over the after-action reports and scant remains of the three prototype BioMEGAs.

"The Hebrides design seems to have the best endurance," Hogback noted. "Shipfuls of an Emperor's crew, and it took two masters of fishman martial arts to strike its heart after the wearing down. Yet for offense, it leaves something to be desired."

"Indeed, it made no headway against the titan crane. Further proof of my own genius, of course," Indigo simpered, summarily ignoring the glare Hogback shot at him. "But if it has prodigious endurance, we need only sap its opponents'."

"Yes, yes," Hogback waved him off, pacing to a nearby desk. "I've already got a list of Magellan's imports here, but you know we need a subtler approach than the Lofoten's acid bombardment."

"Well, we'll need the technical aspect for that. Where's that engineer when we actually need him?" Indigo asked.

They immediately looked at the door to Typhon Labs. And almost immediately, it slammed open with a thunderous crash, followed shortly by a lump of twitching, tenderized meat thrown onto the floor. Hogback and Indigo looked back at each other, the door slamming shut again, and nodded in satisfaction before approaching the quivering mass, close enough to lean over it. For a moment, neither spoke.

"Hogback, biology is more your specialty than mine. What do you think this is?" Indigo wondered aloud.

"Well, my first thought was that someone had made human carpaccio again," Hogback answered. "But on closer examination, I think—"

"I'm still alive, you assholes…" Ratchet husked out in a death rattle.

"Ah! My apologies, Ratchet," Hogback lied. "Not to worry, a preliminary analysis suggests that you have suffered no permanent damage! Though you may need some reconstructive work in the pelvic region…"

"Maybe actually install a new spine in him?"

"Oooh, removing the in- from an invertebrate? Truly outside the box thinking, doctor. I do so hope we don't lose the subject. I mean, he is highly replaceable, but I find myself becoming marginally attached."

"Fuck… you…" Ratchet gurgled as his eyes rolled back in his head.

Both scientists sighed in disappointment as he lost consciousness.

"Save him, would you? I can only stabilize him for so long."

The two double-took at an unfamiliar woman's voice, and they looked to see a short crone limping in, patches of barely healed skin all across her body and one lens of her glasses cracked. The eye revealed beneath carried hatred and madness the likes of which they had seen in their old captains.

"And you are?"

"Nightin, doctor and last surviving member of the World Pirates, and the most masterful of herbalists you'll ever meet. The Government has stuck me with indefinite service for my crimes."

"You have our sympathies," Indigo and Hogback deadpanned as they carefully (to their annoyance) relocated Ratchet to the nearest surgical table. Nightin, meanwhile, patted herself down for a few moments before withdrawing a sample jar and following them, unscrewing it as she went.

"Use this for disinfectant, it'll—agh!" she cringed, one leg locking up and sending the contents of the jar throughout the room. Hogback and Indigo looked back at her in anger and panic, and she sighed.

"It's harmless, don't worry," Nightin huffed, getting back to her feet. "I suppose you'll have better disinfectant anyway."

Slowly she made her way over to them. A few minutes passed as they worked on Ratchet…then she broke the silence.

"The powder has taken effect now."

"YOU SAID IT WAS HARMLESS!" Hogback howled as Indigo turned to her with a snarl.

"It is…to humans. To gastropods, on the other hand, it has the potential for inducing temporary seizures. Which, I've found, causes their occipital lobes to loop ever so slightly for several minutes without them recalling anything after."

Hogback and Indigo slowly looked around the room, fully grasping that their ever-present watchers had become cross-eyed and bleary and that, consequently, nobody could see them right now.

"We don't have much time until they regain their wits. From what little Ratchet let slip in his twilight state and from what I've managed to read of your attitudes in the past five minutes, I take it that neither of you wants to let your genius selves remain in these circumstances for an instant longer than you need to, yes?"

"As if you even need to ask!?" Hogback all but spat, as though the notion of having to ask the question offended him.

"But if you are, then I'm assuming you have a plan to… alleviate our current circumstances?" Indigo said, a clear undertone of hope audible.

"Mmph. Not one I ever thought I'd have to use, but as it happens, yes. Somehow fully aware of what would happen to someone of my nature were I to be captured alive, and somehow fully aware that I had a trump card to save myself from Magellan's poison? Our 'patron' who funded our jailbreak attempt pulled me personally aside from my crew and gave me a fail-safe," Nightin said, withdrawing a single slim object from her clothes.

A pen.

Both held their tongues, waiting for the other shoe.

And it came as Nightin held it sideways in her hands and twisted it, releasing an image of light. The first image displayed was a note:

'Until we are properly acquainted, you may know me by the moniker… of Pennywise. Until we meet in the flesh, my fellow erudites… should you survive, that is! Shurorororo!'

Another twist once they finished reading revealed a map, which they easily recognized as the base they were in. They needed no more proof.

"This will not be fast—" Indigo began.

"—but it will be sure," Hogback finished.

She snapped the pen closed and stowed it away.

"So unless there's anything else, we'll start planning once their guard is down again, and Ratchet can actually walk. Agreed?"

Both of them nodded, grimacing but not hesitating.

"But in the meantime, I heard you were looking for subtle venom? Try the gympie gympie. It's only deadly in great doses, but the pain it causes is acutely horrible."

This group may never be friends. They may all clash with their pride.

But Hogback, in particular, would never deny that he was seeing far more nightmares now than Moria had ever offered.

And he looked forward to unleashing them upon the world at his leisure.

-o-

"Another machine would later go on to follow up the android's words, and say that while life is indeed a spiral of life and death, that life is all about the struggle within this cycle. That machine was also right."

-o-

Angmar, King of the Vikverir, sat fuming on a plush chair outside a nondescript office in Marineford. Every few minutes, his eyes would dart to the door, where a Suomi civilian neither he nor Sir Lyonel—finally up and mobile, though still bandaged up—recognized had gone in with a World Government official they also didn't recognize. Then they would dart back to his hammer, clearly contemplating its use.

It had been two hours since then. Lyonel gave the Vikverir king another fifteen minutes before he at least threatened to break down the door. Twenty before he followed through on that threat.

Lyonel, personally, didn't particularly care whether Angmar broke down that door, but duty compelled him to at least attempt to distract his nominal comrade.

"I take it the party was still ongoing?" he ventured.

Angmar growled, his fingers whitening around his hammer's haft.

"Yes, and what a party it was. Fit for the battle we just finished," he growled. "And I am missing it. The skalds promised to have their ballads on the battle finished by today."

Lyonel hummed thoughtfully. "Do you mind if I send a few scribes their way once we're done here? I'm curious as to your styles of poetry."

"Sure, sure," Angmar said dismissively, waving his hand. No, his attention was reserved for Lyonel. "You a poet, then?"

Lyonel harrumphed. "It was that or religious texts during my schooling. I decided that poetry at least might help me with the ladies in court."

Angmar grinned. "Did it?"

"My future wife certainly liked them. I may pick it up again once I return home."

And there was the pressure again, Angmar now staring, narrow-eyed, at the knight.

"Home," he said, turning the word over. "Your king get scared off by the battle?"

"Oh, far from it. I understand he had to be restrained by his guard to keep from joining the fresh army we're assembling," Lyonel dryly answered. "And even if he were, plenty of young firebrands among the nobility are chomping at the bit to seek gold, gore, and glory. I wish them good fortune; may they dye their steeds' hooves red with pirate blood. My war is over, barring an attack at home."

Now Angmar's look was questioning. Respectfully so, even. Lyonel chuckled.

"Do you know how old I am, Your Majesty?"

Angmar hummed thoughtfully. "At a guess, around fifty."

"Good guess. Forty-eight," he answered. "To put it another way, around the time when knights like myself, who have lands and sons, start thinking about retirement. And after the injuries I sustained during the battle…"

Angmar winced, having been there. Lyonel had suffered second-degree flash burns over practically every inch of exposed skin from the laser blast that had hit him, and far worse burns where his armor had melted onto him.

"The doctors here can work miracles, but even they were unable to restore me to full functionality," Lyonel continued. "In an emergency, I can fight. But I would better serve my liege by imparting my wisdom to our many young knights instead."

Once again, Angmar nodded. "Aye, a respectable calling. Gotta have someone around to teach the young and stupid. But I repeat myself."

The two men shared a chuckle at the old joke before falling silent. Naturally, within a few minutes, Angmar looked at the door again.

"I wonder what they're talking about in there," he mused.

"Well, you probably haven't heard, partying for days as you have, but I've heard rumors that the Suomi are attempting to…" A grimace curled on Lyonel's face. "Renegotiate their obligations towards the World Government."

Angmar whirled around to the knight. "You're joking! Why would they do that?!"

"Apparently—just a rumor, mind you—they find themselves unconvinced of the World Government's long-term prospects. Honorless curs."

As he'd spoken, Lyonel's voice had gotten colder and colder. Angmar, as was his wont, burned hotter and spat in disgust at a convenient spittoon.

"If that's the case, I agree. Honorless curs," Angmar growled. "If they weren't so good at fighting, I'd have lost all respect for them."

The door creaked open, drawing a muttered 'finally' out of Angmar. The same Suomi they'd seen earlier strode out, almost smug in his body language. This was followed by a tired "Come in."

The two warriors shared a glance, then stood and walked in. The office was just as nondescript inside it as it was outside, devoid of any personal touch and furnished with old furniture with little character. Sitting behind the desk was the same World Government official they'd seen earlier, now looking harried and his hair askew.

"Okay," he said as soon as the two walked in, Lyonel closing the door behind them. "There's a bunch of formalities here, but after that negotiation, I think I'll cut to the chase. Do either of your governments wish to amend the terms of your enrollment?"

A dark look passed between Angmar and Lyonel, along with a shared thought of 'I knew it.' Thankfully, they both had an answer they knew would please the man.

"My king and my peers have only become more enthusiastic for your cause," Lyonel reported. "Our sword arms remain at your disposal."

"That was the greatest battle my people have fought since the Dragon Extermination!" Angmar declared. "Of course we're in!"

"Oh, thank Poseidon," the official said, slumping in his chair. "You would not believe what that Suomi bastard tried to pull."

"Well, don't leave us in suspense," Angmar stated.

"Well, he started with attempting to pull the Suomi out of the agreement entirely," the official said, to noises of disgust from both warriors. "Quite. Had some loopholes built into the treaty we drew up, which he pointed out."

Lyonel frowned. "Then, are they still in your service?"

"Oh, yes, because we're the World Government, so we still have the option to say 'Sign or we'll burn your island down,'" the official stated with vicious glee. "I didn't actually say that, but we both knew I could've. Anyway, I managed to talk him down to restricting Suomi deployments exclusively to New World theaters."

Once again, Angmar and Lyonel shared a look, but this time it was one of confusion.

"How is that a concession?" Lyonel asked.

"Got me," the official shrugged. "But they're on board, and that's what my superiors wanted, so I'm calling it a win. That being said, on to more palatable business: what resources will your people need to hurry along your respective deployments?"

-o-

Several levels down, Ilmari, diplomat of the recently established Suomi Foreign Service, stepped out into the sunlight of Marineford. Reaching into his briefcase, he retrieved a Transponder Snail and dialed a specific number. After two rings, the line picked up.

"They agreed," was all he said.

"Excellent," was the innocuous reply.

Satisfied, Ilmari hung up and power-walked his way to the ship the remnants of the regiment they'd committed were embarking on. Returning to the background gave them their out, one way or the other.

-o-

The Masons were not the only covert contact that Impel Down had established. The same day, with the truth of the 'Demoning Away' now known, they had left notes in isolated cells far from any guard or snail. Notes that had received answering notes from the few prisoners that hadn't absconded with Ivankov, confirming their existence.

Confirming that there were still prisoners in Impel Down who were out of their control. And despite innocence and guilt being more subjective terms than ever now that the staff had turned against the Government, allowing them to go unchecked was out of the question. Yet, of course, so was going about things the normal way.

Which brought Mistress Sadi to an isolated room on Level 3 of the prison. The verifiable lack of prying eyes had persuaded one of the renegades to meet with them and begin proper negotiations. The dominatrix was somewhat tense at the situation; it was unfamiliar territory, and more importantly, she had no idea who would be coming up.

They had a solid list of everyone who had disappeared. But with all of them having been under Ivankov's care, Tartarus only knew if they'd ever recognize them.

At long last, the door on the opposite side of the chamber opened, and a long leg wearing a leg-length high-heeled boot slid into view. Mistress Sadi was unsurprised to see that its owner was an okama.

The specifics were still a surprise, though. The okama wore a red jacket with pink tulle around the waist and collar, and a black leather belt with a bronze buckle. Their hair was short and black in a prominent widow's peak, and they wore black lipstick with pink splotches on their dimples. But what shocked Sadi most was how devilish the figure looked: pointed ears, a curly goatee at the end of a pointed face, and every inch of exposed skin lobster-red, with lobster-like claws covering their hands.

"I'm terribly sorry to have kept you waiting," the okama purred, the voice as flamboyant as she had expected.

"Oh, not to worry, I was simply thinking of using thumbscrews on you…ah…?" she trailed off, failing to recognize the prisoner as she had suspected.

"Ohh, I do hope you were thinking of the toes," the okama giggled. "Oh, and don't fret about formalities; I've gone by my initials for quite some time now. Just call me… HIM."

Beneath her locks, Sadi's eyebrows rose. But he continued before she could properly connect his identity.

"Although, if you truly wanted to make me suffer, darling, you ought to have opened with an apéritif."

"Mm, I'd think poison to be an obvious choice, given our most gracious overlord."

"Hmmm? Ohhh, nonono, darling. Nothing so banal as poison. I was more thinking of a wolfkiller."

"Oh? What's that?"

"Why, it's simply the most marvelous device you've ever seen and so utterly brilliant in its simplicity! You take a piece of baleen, bundle it up as tight as you can and tie it with some very light string, and hide it in some food. When the victim swallows it, the baleen seamlessly passes through into the intestines. Whereupon the string is dissolved, and the baleen unfolds. From there, it slowly tears through the length of the intestines. What follows is a slow, agonizing, excruciating pain… and at the end? The victim is left begging for the sweet, tender release of oblivion."

"…I've never heard of such an exquisitely awful way to kill someone…" Sadi breathed reverentially.

"Oh, rest assured, darling, I can teach you things about agony that would make your pretty little head spin. But, I suppose we had best get negotiations out of the way first—"

"Oh, no, no, no, don't worry, I believe we can wait. Please, sit down."

Him graciously took the only chair in the room, only for a sudden knock to interrupt. Both of them stiffened in annoyance, even more when the guard actually opened it.

"Mistress Sadi, the Warden is calling a staff meeting," he explained hurriedly. "We found a Devil Fruit in the pantry."

The annoyance turned to intrigue and shock, and Sadi rose from her seat. She glanced back at the okama, who waved her off.

"Oh, go right along, dear. I'll be right here when you get back," he said.

Sadi smiled before she realized it, and he settled patiently into the seat as she left the room.

It was the beginning of a match made in Hell.

-o-

Despite its reputation as a festival island, San Faldo was not a place for blood sports. They were built for family-friendly fun and kept their more adult entertainment very strictly regulated in content and location.

Thus it was a good thing the Jormungandr had set up camp in the woods outside the city. Else the constabulary would've been compelled to at least attempt to arrest them for the fight that was soon to begin.

An arena was set up, with two opponents on opposite sides. A one-eyed amazon and the undisputed top dog—top cat, rather, of Jormungandr.

"We have no issue welcoming a competent warrior into our lower ranks," Lucci enunciated coldly. "Time will prove if you deserve to stand among us."

"Time is something I can't afford to waste," Marguerite answered without flinching. "I'm prepared to go through hell to improve faster."

"I'm not interested in taking on an apprentice, least of all someone who hasn't mastered the Six Powers," Lucci countered.

"I don't know the Six Powers. But do you know Haki?"

Lucci hadn't moved from his spot. He hadn't expected her to offer anything that could make him change his mind, but stranger things had happened. And here was another.

"No, I do not," he answered.

"You won't find a better teacher outside of the New World. Armament Haki is a daily part of the Kujas' lives; we know it inside and out. I'll teach you as well as you teach me."

"And your Captain? Are you forsaking the Kuja Pirates?"

"No. But I have leave for as long as I wish. The Government carried their fight to our home, and I intend to return the favor. And nothing would be better than turning their power against them."

Lucci's eyes narrowed as he finally sized her up properly. It was a minute before he spoke again.

"You will be third-class among Jormungandr until you have learned the Six Powers. With your proficiency in Haki, you will be held to standards twice as strict as the rest of us, with no regard for your missing eye. You will not challenge me after tonight until you have bested the rest of those who were once CP9. And you will submit to any training without argument or complaint."

"And you and anyone else who wants to learn Haki will do the same, even to possible degradation."

The pair of them held each other's eyes for a moment.

"I accept," Marguerite said.

Then she ducked, and a second later, a Finger Pistol stabbed into the space where her eye had just been. Forgoing her bow, she drew a knife and stabbed at the assassin's quadriceps. Unfortunately, despite his weight being thrown into a lunge, which should've made the move he pulled impossible, he limboed back hard enough that the knife passed an inch in front of his knee.

Her Observation screamed an attack coming at her blindspot. Trusting it, and remembering both their respective positioning and how the Tempest Kick worked, she stabbed her knife into the ground and used it as leverage to dodge out of Lucci's line of fire.

Or, at least, she tried. Despite the forewarning, the razor wind came faster than she imagined possible, catching her at the top of her arc with no way to dodge except to fall.

That, along with her Armament, saved her life, at least.

"AUGH!"

But the razor wind still carved into her chest, leaving a bleeding trench in its wake. She hit the ground, rolled—and took a Finger Pistol to the shoulder, her Observation blaring a warning the second after it made impact.

His opponent now bleeding from two wounds and down an arm, Lucci turned around, flicking considerably less blood than he had expected off his finger. The next instant, his instincts demanded he move.

A quick change to his leopard form and back allowed him to duck under the arrows Marguerite had fired. He eyed the wound in her shoulder: bleeding sluggishly, it was clearly shallower than his finger.

This Haki, he decided, was annoying.

But, he mused as he slowly returned his gaze to the Amazon, flaring his claws in anticipation, it was also just the slightest bit interesting. Interesting enough to warrant him giving his would-be opponent his attention for a little while longer.

In the spirit of this decision, Lucci lunged at Marguerite with a blood-curdling snarl, and the fight roared back to life.

~One Hour Later~

On one side of the arena, aside from having doffed his trademark hat, Rob Lucci was as impeccable as ever, completely unruffled by a solid hour of combat.

On the other side, Marguerite was almost unrecognizable with her blood-coating face. Her good eye had swollen shut, and the left side of her jaw was swelling, clearly broken. Blood oozed from a long, shallow cut on her torso, her left arm hung limply from a shredded shoulder, and her right was only working because her snake Kaa had wrapped himself around it in an unknowing imitation of her queen.

Lucci raised an eyebrow. In response to this unspoken challenge, Marguerite declared, with surprising vigor, "I can do this… all day!"

On the sidelines, Jabra scoffed derisively. "Not the last words I'd have chosen if I was standing where she is."

"At least she had the class to not say 'thank you, sir, may I have another?'" Kalifa retorted, the sunlight glinting briefly off her glasses.

"I TOLD YOU, THE BASTARD CONCUSSED ME!"

Back on the field, Lucci's eyes finally graced the Amazon with respect before he nodded. "I can work with this," he declared.

Then he Shaved in front of her and swept her ankle, all present wincing at the angle it bent at.

Unable to support her weight any longer, Marguerite crashed to the ground with a cry of pain.

Expression unchanging, Lucci turned to one of the more junior members of the organization, a bespectacled man in a white lab coat. "Get her patched up, with priority to that sprained ankle," he ordered. "I want her up and mobile as soon as possible." He paused, then added, "And no modifications this time."

"I am never going to live down sewing Hattori into Kaku, am I?" the medic groused rhetorically as he went to work. "It was an accident! But do zey believe me? No! Honestly, he'd have coughed him back up eventually! Sooner, if the dummkopf had shortened his neck! "

Had she not been thoroughly concussed, Marguerite would've been scrambling away from the man fast enough to impress even Lucci. As it was, Kaa decided that discretion was the better part of valor and was already up the nearest tree.

Assured that their newest recruit was taken care of, Lucci retrieved his hat and accepted from the masked, besuited former member of CP2 several manila folders. Most of them veritably bulged with documents, but rather than any of those, Lucci pulled out and opened the thinnest.

Inside were several pictures of people in white suits and odd masks. Their next targets.

They wouldn't be going after them today, or tomorrow. Likely not for years to come. But they'd get them eventually.

However long it took, Jormungandr would finish the job.

-o-

Most new members of the Zodiac of the Divine weren't given such a major assignment as their first one. But most new members weren't on the incredibly short list of Marines who could still casually approach the recently retired Vice Admiral and not get glared away.

Or get too bewildered upon entering their old training ground to see that, as was (stereo)typical of a retired old man, he was kicking back with a fishing rod.

And judging by the giant sea snake on the shore beside him, it seemed like he was actually doing a good job of it.

Still, Koby and Helmeppo approached Garp carefully. Fortunately, there was no need to worry; he cracked a grin and stood up as they came up to him.

"Hey, boys! Shouldn't you two still be in bed resting or something?"

The silent, utterly flat looks the two boys gave him communicated just how little they wanted to hear that from someone with his family name.

"Heh, that's fair! So! Here to do some fishing with a retired, feeble old man who's lost half his marbles? Won't stop you if you are; just pick up a rod and—!"

"Actually, sir—"

"That's Mister Monkey to you brats!"

There was a moment's pause before Garp joined the boys in grimacing.

"Okay, yeah, no, that sounds horrible. But still, knock it off with that 'sir' crap! I didn't go through three straight days of paperwork and ass-chewing so I could keep getting called that. I'm retired, and there's nothing you or anyone else can do about it. Just call me Garp."

Helmeppo and Koby trade glances, and then…

"About that. We wanted to discuss something of a job offer with you, G…G…ugh, no, can't do it. Sorry, sir."

"Ha!" Garp chuckled. "Yeah, that's fair. I remember ol' Zeph had a hard time getting used to not calling me 'sir' when he got promoted. We'll work on it."

His smile faded to a wry smirk. "But who's putting you two up to whatever this is? I'm not planning on coming back to the Navy after all of this."

The two of them exchanged looks again.

"You're not exactly the only one who feels that way, sir. You could say that, er…"

Koby stepped closer and lowered his voice.

"You could say that you'd only be putting on a mask."

All levity fled Garp's face, and several emotions flashed over his face. Then he frowned, narrowing his eyes. It wasn't a normal thing to see him taken aback or in deep thought. But they thought nothing of it, considering what they had just said.

Veins popped on both of their skulls, however, when they heard him snoring a few seconds later.

"Oh, for the love of—wake the hell up!" Koby snapped, grabbing one of Helmeppo's knives and slamming the flat of it against his nose.

Garp snorted and straightened immediately, and an amused smirk came back on his face at the glowers of his former apprentices. It stayed in place as he shrugged.

"Eh, what the hell? What's life without giving Senny another heart attack or twenty?"

The veins turned to sweatdrops.

"Well, at least he's enthusiastic?" Koby asked.

"Like a dog after a bone…" Helmeppo groaned.

-o-

"But something that should also be known is that some cycles of life and death, of beginnings and ends, are longer than others."

-7 Days After the War-

Certain parties worldwide would wait no longer now that the war was solidly behind them. Its aftermath, of course, was not.

"With our Warden and Adjutants occupied until further notice, if there are no objections, I will conduct this meeting."

Silence met Tsuru's request. Even among the Damned, nobody was brash enough to contest her.

"Then let us begin. Before we move to business, we have many newcomers to our roster. Beginning with the Damned, ladies first."

"As it should be," came a cool, imperious female voice. "'Pirate Empress' Boa Hancock, Captain of the Kuja Pirates and de facto liaison for the New World Masons and Revolutionary Army. The Snake seat, of course, is mine. The full might of Amazon Lily awaits the chance to destroy the Government."

"I have chosen Boar," rumbled a deep, ominous voice. "Vice Warden Magellan of Impel Down. I now rank among the criminals I have dedicated my life to persecuting, something I accept only because of the naked bias of those making the rules."

"Sorry to cut in—I mean not really but still—but how exactly are you going to help?" Bartolomeo cut in. "Nobody here is stupid enough to think you're a pushover, but do you and yours ever leave that hellhole?"

"Rarely, if at all," Magellan conceded.

"I hope you're not saying that you have doubts about him deserving to be here because of something like that?" Foxy drawled.

"Meaning what? This ain't like Rabbit where we're turning another island into a base."

"Fehfehfehfehfehfeh…Boar, allow me to venture a guess: you know the World Government's lawbook cover to cover and by heart, right?"

"Naturally."

"And can anyone else tell me precisely what you can do if you know all of the rules?" Foxy asked, his grin ear to ear.

"Find every possible way to cheat," Apoo said, grinning even wider. "Geez, even with Cross AWOL, I'm meeting my match for troublemaking."

"Back on track, if you please," Tsuru's voice cut in. "We have filled three seats on the Divine as well. Taurus and Gemini cannot attend this meeting, but that leaves one other."

There was a tense pause.

"Vice-Admiral Momonga. Leo."

"We welcome our newest members. Before we list our full roster, a final verification: the three of you vow now to stake your lives on destroying the World Government and forming a world of freedom in its place. Not a world of disorder and chaos, but not a world of fear and slavery. We will strive constantly for the balance of the freedom to be who we wish to be and the safety of everyone. Victory or death, one way or the other, with all you can offer behind our efforts. Do you accept?"

"Of course."/ "Obviously."/ "Until their end, we cannot begin to know peace."

Whether their motivations were born of trauma, guilt, or duty, they all agreed with iron determination.

"Then that is that. Now we shall introduce ourselves. Vice Admiral 'Great Staff Officer' Tsuru, Aquarius."

"Commodore 'White Hunter' Smoker, Cancer."

"Lieutenant 'Inquisitor' Tashigi, Pisces."

"Former Captain 'Black Cage' Hina, Capricorn."

"Former Captain 'Ship-Cutter' T-Bone, Scorpio."

"Vice Admiral 'Chessmaster' Jonathan, Sagittarius."

"Back on the Damned's side of things, 'Fiendish' Foxy, Goat."

"'Roar of the Seas' Scratchmen Apoo, Monkey!"

"'Black Bart' Bartolomeo, Rooster."

"'Blue Ogre' Dorry—"

"And 'Red Ogre' Broggy—"

"—Ox!"

"'Mist Maiden' Lola, Rabbit."

"'Surgeon of Death' Trafalgar Law, Tiger."

"And last but definitely not least, 'Hellbeast Princess' Perona, Puppy."

There was a moment's pause as the new arrivals processed these names before finally responding.

"Well. The loudmouth has certainly been busy, I'll give him that much…" Momonga mused.

"At least he has some sense in his choice in allies…" Magellan grunted. "Most of your number are difficult enough to condone. Had Kid been amongst your ranks, I might very well have walked. Some offense intended."

"Some taken, buuut not much. Trust us, we hate the punk bastard too!" Apoo snickered, the sentiment echoed by his fellow pirates.

"Mmph… I quite dislike the idea of working in conjunction with so many men, but needs must. At least the number of women present inspires some degree of confidence," Hancock said.

"HEY! We saved you and your sisters' asses out there, doesn't that count for squat?!" Bartolomeo barked incredulously.

"Yes, it does: you all laying eyes upon our island and living to tell the tale. Truly, I am most generous. And you will, of course, allow me this, for I am—!"

"Enough." Tsuru cut in with a harsh knock of her cane on wood.

"GRK! Damn crones, not even on the same damn island…" Hancock hissed petulantly.

"Now that the introductions are out of the way, to business."

That simple declaration served its purpose, the snickers from that last interaction dying abruptly.

"The war has come and gone, and as Ophiuchus said, it is from these ashes and in this time that we must focus on rebuilding the world. Or, barring that, focus on fortifying our position and gathering our strength for that faroff day. The Straw Hats will return in only two years. Capricorn and Scorpio, what is our current status report?"

A stern, tired face came over the snail.

"Overall, the evacuation was successful. The Black Cage Squadron's recovery has proceeded smoothly, as nobody has thought to search the ruins of Enies Lobby. Our medical camp has done all that it can."

"Now that we finally have another storm on the horizon, Puffing Tom will arrive this evening to transfer you and your injured to Water 7's hospitals," Dorry cut in. "If the chance to seize Punk Hazard still surfaces, we have plenty of nondescript boats for the operation, and meanwhile, you'll have all that you need to recover and contact the families of the deceased."

"Something we will need," T-Bone sighed exhaustedly. "A final headcount reveals that we lost approximately 23% of our mutineers, including those that succumbed to their injuries upon leaving the war. A further 36%, myself included, are still recovering from injuries sustained. We are notifying the families of those who lost their lives or were unable to inform them before the war."

"For what it's worth, from what I saw, you nearly had the flat-faced bastard. Got nearly halfway through his neck before the damn Yaksha made you fumble that parry," Law summarized in a grim tone.

"Next time, I intend to finish his sentence with gusto," T-Bone ground out in much the same voice.

"Very good, then. Pisces, Cancer, your status?"

"Despite the jailbreaks, all of our men are present and accounted for," Tashigi answered softly. "Physically, we're all fine. But a bit shaken at being unable to respond to Ophiuchus's distress call."

"We intend to keep our ears open for any further leads on this 'Hell of Darkness,'" Tsuru answered with a dark frown.

"Our current orders have us returning to Marineford. I'll be attending a hearing on my actions in failing to prevent Straw Hat's jailbreak before receiving my actual marching orders, so it shouldn't be more than a week or two. In the meantime, Pisces will be checking in before heading down to Water 7. Apparently, there's something there she needs to acquire."

"We'll be sure to welcome her with open—"

"But subtle!"

"—Arms! Well, subtle for us, anyway!"

"And you aren't worried about the hearing?" Magellan posed.

"Not particularly. I've got it on good authority that this will all be a formality."

"Is the source reliable?"

"He should be. He's the judge."

"…Turnabout is fair play, I suppose."

"Not sure where I'm aiming for next, though. It all depends on whether Sakazuki still takes the seat."

"We shall see. Tensions are high concerning the appointment. And Sagittarius?"

"First of all, grave news: former Admiral Zephyr and his most loyal troops and trainees have departed without leave or notice. Given their already precarious states of mind at the time…I fear this bodes ill for the future. I do not believe them to be of any immediate threat to the Masons, or at least the Divine, but to themselves and others, well…"

"That… does not sound good, no…" Apoo hedged warily. "I'll put out some feelers, see what comes up. An army like that can't hide forever…"

"He said, forgetting about Shiki and his hordes…" Perona pointed out.

"Unfortunately well said…" Jonathan nodded grimly before continuing. "As for our own efforts, Navarone remains unshaken, both the island and the soldiers. The war cost us only 4% of our soldiers with the organized formations. We will still need to be wary of the 'conscription campaign' that Ophiuchus referred to. And indeed, I heard rumors of it as we were returning. It's still early days, but I imagine they'll begin by delving into areas ravaged by pirates recently, where Cross's voice won't have resonated particularly well with anyone."

"Tch. All of these contacts, entire islands turned, and still too many more islands out of reach," Apoo bemoaned. "Hopefully, we can use this time to spread our network wider. We got anyone at ground zero for this fresh blood hunt?"

"Yes, you do: me," Momonga declared bluntly. "I've already been tapped for deployment on this assignment, both to keep me away from Marineford a bit longer for my apparent insubordination and because my background is amenable to the individuals we seek to recruit. I shall take the measure of as many as I can. And, in particular, to keep an eye out for this 'Issho' character."

"Very good. Now I'll share my own news from the top of things," Tsuru said. "Sengoku and Garp have struck bargains to remain within the Navy's ranks as instructors for future Marines in exchange for three months paid time off in their home oceans. Sengoku will, I hope, be doing soul-searching in the South Blue. As for Garp, he will be taking the time to recover as well as fortifying certain islands of interest. When he returns, he will be actively involved with our operations as Taurus."

A brief pause came over the connection.

"So, we've got all three of those Monkeys on our side now?" Apoo deadpanned.

"For a given definition of the term in regards to the middle generation, but essentially."

"Well, better with than against, that's for damn sure. So, is Gemini Koby, then? After that show he put on at the end…"

"He is still recovering from the trauma of awakening a powerful talent for Observation in the middle of a war, yes. But he and Chief Petty Officer Helmeppo will report for duty as soon as they are recovered."

"Yeesh. That'll probably take a couple of weeks," Lola said with a wince.

"Indeed. Now… the last item on the side of the Divine is the status report of Jormungandr. With the other eight Cipher Pols subjugated and Bison commanding a means of covert aquatic transportation, they will be able to resume their information gathering, but for our own ends. They will primarily focus on locations with vulnerabilities, either for recruitment to our cause or destruction to detract from our opposition."

"It's the damnedest thing: usually, I'm not what you'd call a fan of spooks and suits…" Barto grumbled, before abruptly sounding more chipper. "But when it's to help us, well then hell, I'm all for it!"

"Truly, a phenomenon that boggles the mind," Law snarked, to a bevy of laughs.

"Hmph, quite," Tsuru concluded with a curt nod. "All that being said, I believe that is all we Divine have to offer at this stage."

"…So, transitioning to the Damned now? Well, our newest island base is coming along nicely," Foxy said with a grin. "The bounty hunters here and I have come to an understanding, and we're in the middle of building a permanent base. Really more of a permanent carnival ground-slash-amusement park, but believe me when I say that in our hands, it's set to become a butcher's shop! We'll see how much we vary between recruitment and hunting based on the visitors, but at the moment, I'll focus on raising the quality of who I've recruited rather than expanding the quantity."

"Water 7 is doing well also," Dorry concurred. "Iceburg and Galley-La have been working overtime on the plans for the last two weeks, and we've got a solid plan to get the place floating, though not mobile, within a month."

"Meanwhile, our fortifications and weaponry are making excellent progress. And I think I heard Iceburg mention designing a water cannon using the fountain or something," Broggy added with a grin. "Aqua Laguna's made an impression on the city over the years, and for once, it'll be for the better!"

"Got to keep your home well-guarded," Lola concurred with a sage nod. "Skelter Bite is fine as well. The Obelisks are as unfailing as always, and we're not seeing a lot of new clientele. Although the Great Kung Fu Fleet hasn't set off yet." She paused. "I could possibly try recruiting them."

"I would advise an unofficial alliance, at the most," Jonathan opined. "They've been stationary for a while now, but I don't exactly foresee itinerant warriors such as they remaining rooted in one location for much longer than they have been."

"A fair argument," Lola conceded. "I don't have much else to report, though. Whatever pirates are still here seem to be largely permanent residents, and not many are incoming right now."

"The full impact of Whitebeard's dying words hasn't sunk in yet. Trust me, we'll get the swell of new blood soon," Apoo said, grinning ruefully. "I should know; I'm the one spreading the news! The Free Feather Report is starting off strong and reaching as far as the WEJ does, or rather did at this point, and we're pulling down a hell of a lot of subscribers and payment for it. And applications to work for us are pouring in at a good pace, too. We'll just have to make sure none of them are the birdbrain's moles."

"Pass the resumes on to Jormungandr. You won't hear back from the ones who don't pass muster."

"…aaaand I'm gonna just spend a minute snickering at the fact that the world's second-best—for now!—source of free and honest information is embroiled in a lethal global conspiracy! APAPAPA!"

"Horohorohoro…it is pretty funny, I'll admit. On my end, Merveille is standing strong. My Peerage is growing stronger, the rest of my pets stayed tame while I was gone to the war, and it seems like the new species are growing more docile. A few more generations and the natives may be able to tame them without me. If that happens, I'll double down on my powers. I intend to be ready for the real trouble when it shows up."

"As will the Kujas," Hancock said regally. "The crew is already aware of our new alliance, and it largely makes no difference in how we have acted in the past. It has been a long while since I have taken orders from anyone, but…I am willing to cooperate."

"I, personally, would like to discuss the possibility of comparing our forces," Tsuru said with a soft smile.

Hancock blinked slowly before returning the smile. "Ahh, yes. I do recall that your crew was exclusively female. I think a cultural exchange would be a fitting beginning."

"Well, this should be fun," Bartolomeo snickered. At a slap from someone, he shook himself and refocused with a heavier-than-necessary frown. "Anyway, as for those of us who don't have entire islands at our command yet…not much shit to share, honestly. We're fucking off for the New World and seeing what we can do."

"Although I have a few plans of my own in motion," Law interrupted. "An alliance here or there, a mid-term goal to aim for in the meantime… I'll share them as they come to fruition."

"And before anything is likely to blow up in our face, right?" Apoo cut in.

Law just smirked.

"So I am the last," Magellan exhaled. "Well, we have established a liaison with the remaining Revolutionaries who have escaped their cells and have begun a lengthy process of going over the prisoners and determining them innocent or guilty."

"Kyuuu."

"Yes, Popora, we greatly appreciate you remaining here to help us," Magellan said tiredly but sincerely. "From here…where we can release the innocent, we shall. Where we cannot, they will be 'demoned away' to join the new 'Prisoners' Resources Department.'"

"At least it'll be a fair sight better than their typical treatment, that's for damn sure!" Bartolomeo snickered.

"Would you care to compare them for yourself? Rest assured, our doors are always open for individuals of your particular… reputation."

"GRK!"/ "SONNUVA—!"/ "Oh, what the hell—!?" A chorus of panicked cries rang out as a dozen snails simultaneously growled out a noxious cloud.

"And that sounds like a fantastic stopping point," Smoker grunted with a raspy huff. "So unless anyone else has anything else to bring up—"

"One moment, if you please."

The Masons collectively sobered up and quieted down. Not merely because Tsuru had spoken but because she sounded uncharacteristically subdued. She sounded… old.

The wizened Vice-Admiral visibly took a moment to collect herself before speaking. "I have been alive, and served the Marines, for… for a very long time. And in that time, I have gone to battle countless times. To war, countless more. And in most every instance that I have done so… more often than not, I have left it with fewer friends than I entered it. I would just like to say that I am… I am glad that this instance was not one of those times. So… thank you. Thank you all for surviving this ordeal, no matter how harrowing it proved to be."

There was a lengthy silence as the Masons processed this statement. Then, a dry chuckle rasped through the connection.

"Hehahahaha…" Bartolomeo chuckled, seemingly to himself. "Two years to go before things kick off for real… gonna be a hell of a long time. Lot more fights… don't none of you dipshits go dying on me, you hear? When all's said and done, I want to see just how big of a crater we leave once we all get good and brickfaced!"

A fresh round of chuckles rippled out across the conspiracy, not even the most recalcitrant of their members able to contain themselves at that proclamation.

"A good point made crass, Rooster…" Tashigi sighed wistfully. "But, not a wrong one. Whatever fresh hell this world throws at us… I just hope you all will be ready and waiting on the other side so that we can see it through together."

Another chorus of general agreements and assents, and then Tsuru spoke once more.

"Well then, with all that said… much like the Straw Hats, let us not consider this a goodbye. Merely an… 'until we meet again.' But until we do… for the moment, let this meeting of the Zodiac of the Divine and the Zodiac of the Damned of the New World Masons come to an end."

And with that declaration, snails worldwide let loose a final KA-LICK and fell silent.

-o-

"For those of us with longer cycles, we often find some solace in the shorter cycles. In watching their fleeting struggles, and how they rally against an ending they know will come all too soon. Watching them live, as we could never live, and die as we could never die."

-14 Days After the War-

At the slowly rebuilding site of Marineford, Sakazuki straightened his tie as he prepared to address the subordinates awaiting him. With Kuzan AWOL and Borsalino undergoing remedial training after getting grievously injured for the third time this year, his promotion to Fleet Admiral was guaranteed. And with the current state of things, he couldn't afford to wait until its finalization to prepare the troops.

The war had shaken the world. And they needed to stabilize it before it crumbled apart.

As he marched out, his gloved hand traced over the obsidian prosthetic that had replaced his missing hand, and he reinforced to himself how important it was. He walked to the prepared parapet and wasted no time as he saw the soldiers' eyes upon him.

"Two weeks ago, the Navy experienced the greatest blow to its pride and numbers in living memory. The heirs to the two worst criminals in recent history slipped through our fingers, making every sacrifice and loss that we took along the way for nothing. And the strength of our collective enemies is now excruciatingly clear.

"I stand before you now as Sengoku's successor, and I tell you now that Justice falls to us to enforce. Our enemies are great and many and growing every day. It falls to us to preserve a world of order—"

Bong…

"—to ensure that all threats—"

Bong…

"—both old and new, near and far—"

Bong…

"—will not go unchallenged."

Bong…

"We are the ones tasked with—"

Bong…

"—keeping the peace, and now—"

Bong…

"—that we have lost so much—"

Bong…

"—it is more vital than ever before—"

Bong…

"—that we keep our focus."

Bong…

"WHO IS RINGING THAT!?"

Bong…

All eyes turned to Marineford's plaza.

Bong…

All eyes fell on the Ox Bell, where a single figure stood.

Bong…

The gathered crowd parted for Akainu, who moved toward the bell and its ringer barely slow enough to be called walking.

Bong…

And all thoughts of his speech vacated their minds when they finally realized who was standing there and ringing the bell. And the amount of trouble that it was likely to cause.

Bong…

And it wasn't because of anything that they could see of the figure's features. That barely helped them confirm his identity.

Bong…

It was because of what they could see in the bay leading a straight line from the horizon to the Ox Bell: one long line of ice.

Bong…

Sakazuki slowed his approach upon realizing this fact, his frown deep as he came up behind him. But even as he spoke, he could tell that something was wrong.

"What is the meaning of this?"

"I think it's appropriate," Kuzan answered, his back still turned. "So many things have ended now. And so many more things are starting. For me, the past is in the past. But I'm not going to forget it as I focus on the present."

Sakazuki stared, his expression not changing. After a moment, he sighed angrily, deeming any further protest or chastisement not worth the effort.

"If your sabbatical is over, then get back to your post, Admiral Aokiji," he huffed, turning on his heel.

"No."

The response came immediately, before he could take a single step away. Slowly, dangerously, Sakazuki turned back to glower at the man.

"What was that, Admiral Aokiji?" Akainu growled.

"I said 'No,'" he repeated, and as he turned to face him, Sakazuki almost flinched. The scowl on Aokiji's face was even more ferocious than his own, his eyes practically shining with cold fury. And then, it hit Sakazuki, what was wrong with this image: for the first time in years, the Red Dog didn't need to angle his gaze downwards; the ice-man was standing straight. It was more energy than he had seen Kuzan show since…ever.

"For the past twenty years, I've ignored my better judgment and followed orders because it was the easiest thing to do. But following the order to let Blackbeard live has caused one of the worst disasters in living memory. I doubt I can ever make up for what I've done anymore. But I'm going to try, starting now."

He ripped the sleeping mask off of his head, and it crystallized in his grasp before he crushed it into diamond dust.

"The era of Lazy Justice is over. From this point forward, my Justice is that of Atonement. I will put everything that I have into fixing the mistakes that I've made, and I'm not going to let anyone tell me that I'm wrong. Not the Elder Stars. Not Jeremiah Cross. And not you."

He held his hand out to the side, and an ice partisan materialized in his hand.

"Former Admiral Sakazuki. You are guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the genocide of the civilian population of the island of Ohara. The weight of these crimes makes you fully unsuitable for serving the Marines, let alone leading them. I challenge you to a duel, Sakazuki. The island of Punk Hazard, one week from today. The winner will succeed Sengoku as Fleet Admiral. The loser will die."

Sakazuki stared at the man without a word for several moments, processing everything he had said and the unprecedented fire in his eyes.

Then his glower returned in full force, and he raised his new fist.

"I accept. I could list off the plethora of charges that you have on your own head, Former Admiral Kuzan. But frankly, I've wanted to excise your lackluster justice for a long time."

As the air above and around Marineford crackled and raged with conflicting temperatures, all who bore witness to the standoff knew that this fight would represent one of the greatest conflicts in the history of the Marines.

What few suspected, however, was that this duel would only be the harbinger of the true conflict yet to come.

-o-

Upon the peaceful isle of Sphinx, the remnants of the Whitebeard Pirates stood solemnly around their captain's newly erected gravestone. His naginata stood tall and his coat, its back immaculate but its edges singed, fluttered proudly from it.

The fifteen commanders stood before it, a long moment of silence as the overdue funeral for their father came to a close. The only one who stood on equal ground with them was Isuka, her new coat rather Marine-like but still looking good on her. But as the solemnity faded, a feverish tension filled the air as Portgas D. Ace stepped up, walked a few paces away from Whitebeard's grave, and turned to face all of them.

"I know you're all furious. I know you all want revenge. You want Blackbeard's head on a spike. His fleet in ashes, every one of his lieutenants driven before us, and everything he's ever built reduced to rubble. You want payback for every last thing that bastard's done, to us and in general. Believe me when I say that I understand. I feel the exact same way, the exact same fury, if not more so than most of you here. So believe me when I say that it kills me, kills me to say this…"

Ace paused, long enough to draw in and release a deep, thoroughly super-heated breath… before he spoke the six words he would never have said over a year ago.

"But it's not going to happen. Not yet."

For whatever reason, nobody shouted at this declaration. But the shock, confusion, and outrage were practically palpable among the gathered pirates, even among the commanders.

"I'm going to say this once, and only once, so that my words are clear and there is no room for doubt and ambiguity: The Whitebeard Pirates will not go on a crusade of vengeance against the Blackbeard Pirates. Not today, not tomorrow, not next month, not even next year. There will be no immediate retaliation for Marineford."

He turned away, staring at the horizon beyond. In doing so, he allowed everyone looking at him to see his new tattoo. On the back of his neck was now a small jolly roger with a long and curly mustache.

"Pops warned me not to go after Blackbeard, and I didn't listen. An oracle—" Ace trailed off at the number of rolled eyes he could feel behind him and rolled his own. "—alright, fine, Cross told me I would die in my brother's arms if I went after Blackbeard, and I couldn't back down. Now Pops is dead, and the only reason I'm not under a gravestone right beside him is that Cross pulled every connection he had and then some to rig the war for us. For Luffy. And I still might have died if I hadn't had Isuka and my brothers there to keep me from losing my head and going after him again. It's nothing less than a miracle that I'm standing here right now. So the last thing I'm going to do is make it all for nothing by getting us killed at the first chance we get."

The outrage subsided into simmering anger. Anger at the fact that as much as they one and all hated his words, they knew that Ace was right.

One of them broke the tension by stepping forward, his usual expression of neutrality marred by a frown, but otherwise head and shoulders calmer than the rest. "So what's the play, Acting Captain?" Marco asked patiently.

"First of all… get used to calling me that. Because no matter what else happens, no matter what may come…" Ace pointed up, indicating the monument in whose shadow he stood. "We are the Whitebeard Pirates. And no matter how the world changes, no matter who's giving the orders or charting our course, who our Captain is will not. Aye?"

A resounding "Aye!" bellowed back in turn, and that was that.

He turned back to face them, a ghost of a smile on his face.

"Glad to hear it. As for our current plans… for now, we're playing the long game. We focus on standing our ground and keeping Blackbeard from gaining more than we can stop. He's been planning this for a while, so losing some of our territory is inevitable, but we can still hold onto enough. We take the time to get as good a look at the powers on his side as he already has of us. We recruit whoever wants to join us and meets our standards. And above all, we grow stronger. All of us. But we're not going to make waves. Not when there's already a tsunami in the making. We're going to wait for that wave, and we're going to ride it over the Blackbeard Pirates and straight to Laftel.

"Our captain survived countless fatal wounds over a few hours. I think our crew can stand tall for a few years."

And slowly, almost unwillingly, the tension of discontent among them turned to determination.

Edward Newgate was dead and gone. But no force in the New World would extinguish his legacy.

-o-

"But while the struggle within the cycle can often be the most interesting part… sometimes the ending, even one ending, is what changes everything that comes after. The ending is where a single spark… can turn into a firestorm. A blaze, bright enough to illuminate entire worlds."

-o-

The good news for Totland was that Big Mom's hunger tantrum had subsided. But her feelings in the face of Whitebeard's death were nowhere close to burning out.

A funeral was too somber, and a party for the new opportunities too disrespectful. So she threw a Celebration of Life on Whole Cake Island and rejoiced in the past, present, and future.

The four Sweet Commanders and a handful of her other children were there. Around the rest of the room were many mirrors reflecting the faces of many other Charlottes across the archipelago, all smiling happily as they watched the celebration. A good part of that happiness was that they were far, far away from the risk of their mother… losing her composure again.

Charlotte Linlin grinned throughout the feast, laughing and dancing and gobbling any Homies that crossed her path. She laughed, she cried, she created, and she devoured.

Because in the end, that was all she knew how to do: to devour and consume. To engulf anything and everything in her path without a second's thought or a moment's remorse.

Until the seas ran dry and the stars burned out… Charlotte Linlin would devour it all.

-o-

In the wastelands of Wano caused by his many factories, Kaido, the King of Beasts, stood bloodied but unbowed. With the way Whitebeard had perished, the legacy he had left behind, the future was bright. One way or the other, destiny was on the horizon.

In the face of the countless impossibilities that the last year had wrought, he had begun to entertain the possibility, the slight possibility, that the rising generation would bring someone who could defeat him. That Joy Boy would soon come. And if that was a possibility, he had an excuse to do something that he hadn't had to do since before Roger had died: Train.

And in the wastelands of Wano, he had engaged in that training and executed a new horizon of despair for Wano's civilians.

Because he had challenged his crew, the entirety of the Beast Pirates, ordering them to fight him with all they had. And he was winning.

Waiters were wallopped, Pleasures were pummeled, Gifters were gifted with nearly a dozen broken bones apiece, Headliners had their headcases rattled. The Three Calamities were the only ones who remained standing, and all three were on their last legs. Kaido observed this with a small smirk. It would not be the last time he tried this.

Orochi watched with excitement. If all the force Kaido could bring to bear couldn't defeat him, what could?

And Yamato watched by snail from Onigashima, chains intact. No matter how much of an additional challenge it could be, Kaido would never risk freeing him, especially with Ace still alive.

But if Kaido thought that losing was a possibility, no matter how remote, then the hope in the self-proclaimed Oden's heart couldn't be stronger. But there was no way he or anyone else could prepare for just how many souls would return to Wano when Ace fulfilled his promise…

-One Month After the War-

Buggy had no reason to put up a façade before anyone anymore. The comical overreactions that made him seem less of a threat were something he was unlikely to revisit.

Hence, when he entered Pangaea Castle for his inauguration, the reaction that he gave to seeing Douglas Bullet waiting there was not overblown in the least. The only reason he wasn't slack-jawed and buggy-eyed at the sight was that it was wholly unsuitable to show weakness in front of him.

"What in the Nine-Ringed Circus of Hell are you doing here, Demon?!"

"Hmph. Clown. So you're here too. Apparently, they want pirates worth their salt in the ranks now."

"How have you been standing here for any amount of time, and nobody is dead yet?!"

"Captain's almost back. So I need to be patient. Just a bit more… until he's here."

It was nothing Buggy was unaware of. But he'd hoped it hadn't gotten that much of Bullet's interest.

"Until then…" Bullet rumbled, rolling his shoulder and causing a series of loud cracks, like an old tree splitting in half. "Need to get ready. Knock off the rust. Kill some time… until I can meet him again. Being a Warlord… should be interesting for a while."

Buggy ground his teeth darkly. "Sure, 'interesting.' One word that keeps popping up whenever our damn crew is involved…" Even as he cursed his luck and fate, Buggy tried to process and plan through this development. It was inconvenient, but it wasn't as catastrophic as it could be. With any luck, Bullet would leave enough of a burning trail to steer well clear of him, and only the most cataclysmic of events would be capable of garnering his interest. Until there was no other choice, Buggy could do as he'd always done and keep out of the Demon's way.

And since he knew that he had a while before Straw Hat got back, that gave him significant lee—

"And more than that…"

'There's more?!' Buggy thought incredulously, side-eyeing the Demon with outright near-paranoia.

"The other one."

It took all the decorum Buggy had to keep his stomach from dropping clean out of his torso. "'Other one'…?" he repeated numbly, hoping against all rational despair that Bullet wasn't talking about who he knew he was—!

"Last time, Captain and the Hero fought him on their own. I could only fight his crew. But this time…"

And then, Buggy witnessed one of the most terrible sights of his life.

Bullet smiled, and the world seemed to tremble with the phantom sound of some titanic round being chambered.

"To fight the man who nearly killed the Captain… I can't wait."

Buggy didn't react again. He simply took his place beside his past and now present crewmate, staring ahead at nothing as he waited for the titles to be made official. But after a few minutes, he voiced his thoughts.

"All these years, I've tried fending off the storm. I always knew it would come eventually, and I was alright with that so long as it was after my time. But now, I know that was a mistake."

He shook his head, and his eyes darkened as he glowered up at Bullet.

"I should have hoped it would come after you were dead."

Bullet answered his glare with that damn smile as he looked right back. "You're still as funny as ever, Clown."

-o-

"What new endings will this one bring about, I wonder? Heh… I'll be honest with you: I haven't the faintest idea. And for the first time in aeons… I can't wait to find out."

-13 Days After the War-

Like many of the most dangerous things in nature, Rusukaina Island was a picturesque place, filled with the natural beauty of being too inhospitable for anyone to begin developing it.

Now, before the sacred tree that invited no harm in its vicinity, "Dark King" Silvers Rayleigh stared at Monkey D. "Straw Hat" Luffy as he laid his duffel bag at the foot of the tree. The silence between them was tense and contemplative. No stomach grumblings or snoring broke it.

"Still thinking, Luffy?" Rayleigh asked at last.

"We need to be able to rely on each other," Luffy answered quietly. "Zoro, Nami, Usopp, Merry, Sanji. Cross, Soundbite, Vivi, Carue, Chopper, Lassoo. Boss, Mikey, Donny, Raphey, Leo, Robin, Conis, Su, Funkfreed, Franky, Brook, Billy, and me. This needs to be the last time that we can't handle it, the last time all of us need to take this much time to focus on improving ourselves. And I know we'll find more friends on the way, maybe even more crewmates. But we need to be ready."

Luffy turned to face Rayleigh. And in that moment, the old man's brows rose as he saw another silhouette over him. One that he knew well.

"Cross said that I only needed a year and a half to get the basics before. So I'm going to use the head start he gave me: I want to know everything you can teach me. And I'll do it by the time two years are up."

"You seem pretty confident."

"Well, sure. After all, this isn't where my story ends. No matter what happens…"

Luffy finally grinned, and Rayleigh swore he saw the shadow of the young man who had convinced him to set out to sea with him so many years ago.

"I'm gonna be King of the Pirates!"

And for only the second time in his life, Rayleigh believed in those words with every fiber of his being.

DENOUEMENT

-o-END-o-

Author's Note of Xomniac, Ego of the CrossBrain: Seven years. Seven. Years. I started this in highschool. I started it when I was 18. Just a no-name, no-talent kid with more ideas than actual sense or taste, rambling off ideas to a guy he barely knew over Skype… and then one of them stuck. One of them stuck, and it grew… and it grew… and holy shit did it grow. Grow beyond belief, beyond reckoning, beyond all reasonable measures of sanity, probability or possibility. I just… I can look back on this, all I want, and it will never be any less amazing.

Because the fact is… for the past 7 years, This Bites! has shaped my life. Literally shape my life. Through my last years of high-school, through every year of college… hell, even in terms of my social life—which I distinctly didn't have for the longest time, let me tell you—there isn't a part of my life that This Bites! hasn't touched or affected in some shape or form.

And now… it's over. At close to two million words and seven years of hard work… it's over. And that's just hard to get over…

But then, don't count us down and out just yet. This Bites' first act might be over, but the story? Dream the hell on. We've got no choice but to wait for Oda to finish laying out the finishing touches of his masterpiece—no chance whatsoever of us going in there blind—but once he does? Once we know what we're getting ourselves into? Then come hell or high water, however many years we'll have had to wait, we're coming right back here, and we're getting right back to the grind.

Because This Bites!... it's a story that just won't quit. Not like that.

But! Until that day comes… don't touch that dial. We of the CrossBrain have so much more to offer than just fanfiction. Keep an eye out, and who knows… maybe there'll be an original story or two that catches your eye, just so.

Until then…

This is Xomniac, signing off.

~o~

Author's note of CV12Hornet, Superego of the Cross-Brain: I don't think I've ever stuck with something as long as I have This Bites! Before this, I barely wrote anything. I didn't have the discipline to stick to an idea. I still don't, most of the time, an experience I'm sure most authors are familiar with. It was helping Xomniac write this fic that showed me I could take an idea and stick with it long-term. It was this fic that told me I could write myself. Still wish I could be more productive, but what can you do.

As the years on This Bites! dragged on, and our update speed slowed, and especially this last year of hammering out the denouement, it wound up being me who would prod us back into working on this. Me who reminded us what more we had to say. And as we watch Oda's masterpiece finish unfolding, I suspect I'll be the one to keep up our own interest, and try to incorporate his many curveballs into our story.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I'm proud of This Bites!, and the work I've put into it. At all the jokes that landed well, at some desperate improvisations to close plot holes, at the battle scenes - and above all, the reactions of all of you when you read it. More than the rest of the Cross-Brain, my interest in this is sustained by you guys and your comments.

So thank you for reading, and stand by for new content from us, collectively and individually.

~o~

Author's Note of The Patient One, Id of the Cross-Brain: Once upon a time, a 22-year-old young man by the name of Mitis on TV Tropes started making pages for prominent One Piece fan fictions. Xomniac reached out to him and asked him to make a page for his story as well, a relatively recently published Self-Insert story with 11 chapters. Having little experience with good SIs, Mitis looked at the story, liked the story, and agreed to create the page. A few weeks later, with a bit of spare money in his pocket, he casually asked Xomniac for a physical description of his character, which he took to a deviantARTist named Nouin. Nine days after that, he presented the sketch to Xomniac, who was so blown away that he invited him backstage, where he allowed him to help write This Bites! with CV12Hornet. It wasn't long before Xomniac gave him leave to write the bulk of the chapters, channeling Xomniac's own ideas…and a few weeks later, the three of them formed a Freudian Trio.

Seven years later, I owe so much to Xomniac, CV12Hornet, and this story. I recognize my own abilities as a writer and editor, I've made so much progress towards reclaiming the heart that I lost as I grew up, I've met real friends and the love of my life through this story…and I've discovered how very, very fun it is to be on the giving end of a writer's trolling. Despite my ample experience on the receiving end, it's simply too much fun.

But even now, I'm a fan first and foremost. A fan that just so happens to have gotten this far thanks to a couple of simple acts of kindness that led to this story becoming all that it is. It has been my great pleasure to uplift this story, to help make it all that it could be, and it will be my pleasure to continue aiding this story and others in the future, inasmuch as I can.

Thanks be to God that I've made it this far, that I've been this fortunate and blessed. Thanks be to all of you for supporting all of us. And of course, thanks be to Eiichiro Oda. All of our brilliance simply builds off of his for this story, so let all credit go to where it is due. We'll be back, God willing, soon enough.

it's honestly rather unnerving for me to say this. But the future won't wait, so we can't either. It's time to let this story rest until the time comes to pick it up again, and turn our attention to works that we can truly call our own…and likely some more fun fan fictions along the way. But I'll leave a few of my own recommendations for anyone looking for quality One Piece stories. And by no means is this a comprehensive list:

Boy With a Scar by Syluk

Coby's Choice by SwordOfTheGods

Come Morning, Together Again by mapplepie

The Coward's Redemption by Ssjhadic

For Better or For Worse by Syluk

A Gamer in South Blue by LordVishnu

The Hero That Never Came by TheGleeman

Justice by Black' Victor Cachat (Justice League/DCAU crossover)

Little Iron Giant: Reforged by Maximusmax

Platinum Pirate by Your Teammate (Pokémon crossover)

Somewhere To Belong by Pizza yum

Tomorrow's Romance Dawn by TheOtakuWithHazelEyes

Twelve Red Lines by Vikingr

thirteen is a good number to stop on, yes…it's still just surreal to me to be concluding this. But it's time. As the last of the Freudian Trio, I leave you an expected message until we meet again: Patience is a virtue.