AN: Well. It's been quite some time. Sorry about that and for the average length chapter. Life has been pretty hectic since I was last able to update anything, really. Between my daughter being just old enough to entertain herself and being young enough to not want to, I have been pretty distracted. Add on the pretty lights on my keyboard and you can guess what her number one favorite toy is. The job hunt has been pretty much a wash, so we're plodding along as best we can. One thing you might notice is the title changed slightly. I'm breaking the story up into three arcs. True Justice: The East Blue Saga will hopefully wrap up here relatively soon following a stop at Loguetown after Syrup Island is done. After that, there will be a hiatus (but not a year this time) before True Justice: Trouble in Paradise starts. If you had questions from reviews, PM me and I'll answer what I can. On we go!
Chapter 21: A Black Cat Crosses Your Path
Approaching Syrup Island – Present Day
A prevailing wind caught the sails of the Inquisitor as they made all haste towards Syrup Island. The innocent under siege, pirates running amok in the East Blue of all seas? It was enough to light a fire in the intrepid marine crew. Without a hint of slacking, the discipline on board was fierce. Never before had Zoro felt his students' attention so intently. Never before had stimulants and supplies been ferried towards the lookouts with such zeal. The medical ward was scrubbed spotless and the stations at the ready.
As they approached the island from the south to avoid being spotted for as long as possible, the four original members of the Inspector Corps grew rigid. The feeling in the air was almost tangible, and with their Observation Haki in use, it brought back memories of a darker yet necessary moment in their training.
Marineford Detention Facility – Two Years Ago
Garp strode the halls of the prison with a grim countenance. He paced endlessly down the hall while waiting for his youthful charges. His latest iteration was halted as the door swung open, admitting Issho and the four candidates. Luffy looked around curious as to his new surroundings with the others swiftly following suit. Garp noticed with an inner smirk that Nami and Nojiko immediately scouted exit points while Makino zeroed in on a fortifiable position to lay down fire if needed. "Their instincts are improving. That bastard Akainu would be up in arms seeing them do that in a Marine base, but with what they are going to do, they need to treat every room as a possible battlefield."
Drawing himself to a commanding loom, "At ease, cadets. We are slightly behind schedule. By now, the four of you should have rudimentary control over your Observation Haki. Luffy, Makino, I know you received training previously, so you are a bit ahead. That's fine. One thing you have not had to deal with yet, however, is one of the negative aspects of Observation Haki. I wish you could go your entire career without experiencing it, yet it is often unavoidable, and as such we are going to train you to not be thrown off by it should it occur."
Garp looked down at the cadets and saw their curiosity etched on their faces. Sighing, he continued, "Issho described Observation to you as hearing the 'voice of things'. Today… Today you will experience and become acclimated to those voices going silent."
The four cadets each pale in turn as they deciphered the meaning behind Garp's words. Luffy's eyes narrowed as he stood toe to toe with his grandfather. "Are you executing people simply to teach us this lesson?"
The admiral blinked before sadly laughing, "Nah. These guys were on the docket for execution for months now. They razed a few villages and got caught. We did, however, schedule it for a time when their miserable lives might gain some meaning. Don't waste your sympathy on them. They face justice for their crimes. Nothing more, nothing less."
Luffy peered into Garp's face before nodding, "Alright then." He turned to face Makino, Nojiko, and Nami. "Let's get this done."
With uncharacteristic gentleness, Garp guided them to their seats in the room. "You are currently in the waiting room beneath the execution platform. I want the four of you to activate your Haki and hold it for as long as you can. There is no shame in dropping it if it grows to be too much. I only ask that once you get your bearings again, you reactivate it." He nods to a marine waiting by the door, then leans against the wall.
Drawing in a deep breath, Luffy closed his eyes and focused. "So many people around. Makino, Nami, Nojiko, Gramps, Issho…" He extends his senses. "That's the marine that just left, he's talking to that other guy. Now they're going to that big group." He 'saw' them drag one prisoner up to the platform. "That must be the first…" The figure kneels, then a wave of pain and terror before the 'voice' goes quiet. Luffy's eyes snapped open to see a shaken Nami with tears streaming down her face, Nojiko trembling slightly but remaining firm and Makino with her jaw clenched tight. He met Nami's gaze and gave her a soft, reassuring smile. Her breath stabilizing, she closed her eyes with Luffy following suit shortly after. Extending his senses, Luffy was immediately rewarded with another voice fading out. Gritting his teeth, he held firm as the afternoon progressed.
An hour later, Luffy opened his eyes as a warm hand engulfed his shoulder. "That was the last of them." Looking around at his team, a pang of sadness at a degree of innocence being lost filled his heart. Makino, her face lightly tear-streaked, sat resolutely, giving away little of her inner turmoil, although Luffy knew he would hear of it later. Nami's eyes were red with tears at the loss of life, but he noticed with pride that she sat straight and met his gaze fearlessly. Nojiko… her face was dry of tears, although he noticed blood streaking from her palms where her nails bit into her flesh.
Clearing his throat, Garp continued, "You did well. There are hardened marines who lost their lunches at what you endured. Now, I must ask you. If you were using your Haki in a combat situation, would that feeling throw you? Would you lose focus on your opponent and leave yourself open because someone died?"
Makino lifted her eyes and locked them on Garp. "No, sir. As unpleasant and distasteful as that was, it was important for us to experience."
Nodding slowly, the admiral turned to face her. "Next question then… Knowing what you now know, experiencing what you have experienced, will you be able to pull the trigger? Thrust the blade home and end a life, knowing that feeling is to follow?"
To his surprise, it was Nami who answered. Of the four, she was the most affected and thus the most likely to wash out of the program due to it. "Yes."
She lifted her face, her tortured eyes locking with his as if boring their painful knowledge into his soul, "We know the cost of a life, it's value. We know what is lost. Knowing this, we won't become callous and use death as a first resort as some might. Instead, it is to be dealt when no other options are available and without hesitation. Those feelings… are the price we must pay for taking something precious from the world but if it means saving another or many others from the same fate, it is our duty and responsibility to see it through. To take it upon ourselves so others don't have to."
Garp rocked back slightly, "Now that's a surprise. Belle, you have some good kids."
"Today is going to be different. There's something new in the air…" Usopp thought, changing the cold compress on Kaya's forehead. He stared intently at the concealed cave entrance. "I should take a look. There's something… different."
After making sure his beloved was properly bundled, he headed towards the entrance and carefully peered past the concealing brush and vines. He teared up at the glorious sight of a Marine vessel approaching from the south. Taking a risk, he slowly made his way through the obfuscade and, using his bandana, started to flag the ship.
Aboard the Inquisitor the five members of the corps stood at the railing, awaiting a time where they can spring into action. The group, minus Zoro who lacks the training, had been standing vigil since the island first came into view, their Haki active and scanning the area. Zoro's eyebrow arched as their faces grew grim.
Luffy clutched the haft of his hammer tightly, as he gritted his teeth. "So many voices… Who can justify this much loss?"
Makino's sharp eyes spotted the figure standing on the beach signaling their attention. "Captain Hina!" She drew her scope and examined the strange figure on the beach. As the captain approached, she handed the spyglass over. "I believe that is our contact. Orders?"
Hina nodded, "Hina agrees." She turned to the crew, "PREPARE THE LANDING CRAFT! WE BEGIN FERRYING A SQUADRON TO THE BEACH TO FORM A TEMPORARY BASE." She looked at Luffy, "Luffy, take your team and meet the contact. From there, it's your show."
Luffy nodded, "Right. Inspectors! Let's get moving." He grabbed Zoro's arm and proceeded to air walk to the coast with Zoro naught but a graceless banner yelling in the wind. Makino, Nami, and Nojiko followed suit, landing shortly afterward. The group's sudden arrival caused Usopp to yelp and fall backward in surprise, his stammering all but drowned out by Zoro cursing and spitting sand from where he landed.
With an evil glare, Zoro regarded his leader, "Never. Again. I will swim. I will walk along the bottom of the damned ocean. Never. Again."
Waving off his glare, Luffy shrugged, "You didn't know how yet. After we are done here, we'll start your lessons." The inspector regarded Usopp. "There's something familiar about you… What do you think, 'Kino?"
Tapping her chin, her eyes widened, and she snapped her fingers, "Your name Usopp?"
Scrambling back a few feet, Usopp cried out, "Ack! Witchcraft!"
With the sisters and swordsman snickering, Makino rolled her eyes at his proclamation, "Hardly. We know your dad, Yasopp."
Taking to his feet with a swiftness, he excitedly approached the group, "You know my dad?! Wait. You're Marines. How do you know my dad, the pirate?"
Luffy waved off the conversation. "Not important, though we did grow up on stories about you. Are you the one who sent the distress call?"
His face stricken, Usopp looks around, "Not here. I have a hideout…" A lone tear made its way down his face. "Some friends of mine used it to play 'Pirate.' We can't do that anymore…" He whispered, "Not anymore…" Plastering a smile on his face, he led the group through the tangled barricade and into the cave. "Kaya… My girl… my friend is resting. We don't know what is wrong with her. I barely got the two of us out before the pirates sacked her manor."
Luffy knelt by the sick woman's side. "Nojiko, you're somewhat versed on medicine. Thoughts?"
Peering closer, she took Kaya's pulse, checked her breathing, and on a whim smelled her breath. Her eyes narrowed, "She's not sick."
Usopp began to protest, pointing out her obvious symptoms. Nojiko raised her hand to interrupt him. "She's been poisoned. Probably over the span of years for it to become so concentrated in her system. Whoever did this had been planning this for years."
Anger flared in the young sniper's eyes, "Poison? That BASTARD! Her butler Klahadore. He's behind all of this."
Tapping his chin, Luffy asked, "Is there a remedy?"
Nojiko winced, "Yes and no. Yes, if it is caught soon enough. No… at this stage."
Usopp's eyes widen. "WHAT?!"
Sighing, Luffy reached out and took Kaya's hand. "I have to try…" He whispered to the unconscious girl, "My name is Luffy and I am here to help you." A golden light swirled around the two, causing Zoro and Usopp to step back in surprise. Nami and Nojiko's eyes widen in memory. Makino smiles softly, "You go, Lu…" "It is rare to find a heart unburdened by sin. Be cleansed of this taint, you are innocent."
Kaya's eyes shot open as she gasped for air. She stared in wonder at the glowing stranger beside her. "How? Who are you?"
The glow faded as he patted her hand. "Chief Inspector Monkey D. Luffy, Marine Inspector Corps." He smiled kindly as he wobbled and fell to the side. "Hey, 'Kino, look. Still conscious this time!"
Shaking her head, the green haired sniper chuckled, "Good thing, too. Sounds like we have a lot of work to do, and we can't have our Illustrious Chief slacking off on the job."
Dusting himself off, he rose unsteadily to his feet. "Right. So, from your initial distress call, we know that a pirate crew has sacked the village, and we can confirm they are still present." His eyes grow distant, "They are looking for something."
Kaya's voice threaded through his explanation, "They are looking for me." A solemn, yet overjoyed Usopp hovered protectively over her, helping her into a standing position. "Klahadore sought my wealth, and was going to kill me after I wrote him into my will."
Scratching his chin, Luffy pondered, "Well, I've never heard of this 'Klahadore' guy, but we're going to scour this place clean of their infestation. Usopp, since you know the terrain, we're going to need your knowledge of the land. Kaya, please remain here." His eyes glazed slightly, "Nojiko, get three of Zoro's trainees to come in here and guard Kaya. Everything is for naught if she is captured."
Nami's spine snapped straight as she gasped, a faint tear forming in her eye. Luffy caught its shimmer and nodded grimly. "Right now, other than the pirates, you two are the only survivors of this Island." He turned his kind yet determined eyes to the young couple. "I wish we could have gotten here sooner. Usopp, there is no easy way to put this. Your home has been desecrated." He extended his hand to the young sniper, "Will you join us and see Justice be done?"
Gritting his teeth and fighting back tears, Usopp gently kissed Kaya on the forehead, causing the young woman to blush furiously, and he turned to Luffy, "Just you watch, Luffy. I am Usopp, Brave Warrior of the Sea." He cinches a small bag to his waist and pulls a slingshot. "Just you watch."
Sneaking across the island, Luffy and his team stealthily scouted out the placement of the invading pirate crew. Finding an isolated spot to make plans, having finished their surveillance, Luffy drew a dagger and sketched in the soft earth, "Alright. They seem pretty cocky, raiding the homes and feasting on their food stores. Makino, what did you notice?"
Tilting her head, the green haired sniper pondered his question, "Their mark. I've seen it before, but I am having trouble placing it. How many cat-themed pirates are there?"
Nojiko arched an eyebrow, "Not many. Describe it?"
"Skull shaped like a cat's head with the standard crossed bones. Can you place it? It's been bugging me." Makino replied, irritation in her voice.
The bluenette thought for a moment, "Reminds me of a defunct jolly roger. When I was apprenticed to Vice Admiral Tsuru, a claim came through for the Black Cat Pirates. Their captain, Kuro, was supposedly apprehended and executed by Lieutenant Morgan. Though, from what we saw of that blowhard, rumors might be exaggerated."
Luffy nodded, "Extrapolating from that, provided this is the Black Cat Pirates and Morgan was a liar, then it wouldn't be a stretch to say 'Klahadore' is Kuro. This changes a few things. Kuro was known for being nearly prescient with his ability to plan. If it is him, then we have to be prepared for an ambush, and an ambush designed for those prepared for the initial ambush, and so on. Unpredictability is our greatest weapon."
Nami piped up, "He is likely set up in Kaya's manor."
Usopp's teeth grind, "That bastard…"
Leaning against a tree, Zoro snickered, "Chill out, Usopp. You go in pissed off, and you're likely to get gutted."
At the word 'gutted,' the long-nosed sniper gulped and turned green, "M-M-Maybe so, but a man has to draw a line somewhere."
Nodding to concede the point, Zoro chimed in, "Since they are still looking for Kaya and Usopp, we can probably thin out the group by ambushing them in the woods. I can take Nojiko and Usopp and take care of that. In the process, I'll get a feel for how the kid is in a fight."
Luffy thought for a moment, "Good plan. Alright, Nami and Makino, I want you two to seek out high ground. Try not to engage more than you have to. The fewer gunshots, the less likely we are going to be noticed. I am going to regroup with Hina and get her boys ready to sack the town. From there, it should draw out Kuro. Any questions?"
Hearing none, Luffy stood. "Let's get moving."
Getting frustrated with Nojiko and Usopp's herding, the perpetually lost swordsman began to grumble, "When are we going to get a fight?"
Nojiko arched an eyebrow and sighed, "In a minute or two. We are moving to an isolated group now."
Blinking in surprise, Usopp stammered, "H-How can you tell?"
Shrugging, she continued to press through the brush. "Haki. Zoro, you will start training once we depart. Usopp, depending on you and the Chief, you might be as well. Get ready, they are just past this curve."
The trio took cover as voices became audible. "I dunno, man. I think the Captain is a bit too focused on that girl and the brat to- URK!" The pirate's words cut off with a raspy gurgling as he clutched the dagger buried in his neck.
The remaining four pirates quickly went back to back as the brush erupted with what seemed to them a spirit of bloodshed and war. An apparition of violence clutching a sword in its very teeth, the figure tore into the pack with brutal efficiency. One broke away from the group and began to flee into town only to have his head become familiar with the size and shape of the lead ball bearing now denting his skull.
Having watched the last pirate collapse in an insensate heap, Nojiko appraised the young sniper. "I didn't hear the shot. Impressive."
With a trembling hand, Usopp lifted his trusty slingshot. "No powder."
Cutting off Zoro's rude remark about a child's weapon, Nojiko defended his choice, "It's a weapon of stealth. With the right ammunition, it can have tremendous versatility. If you join us, we'll see about designing you one with a bit more punch. Though the Chief will insist on you learn a melee weapon as well."
Standing a bit straighter, his pride satisfied, Usopp pulls a small hammer from his satchel. "It's not much, but I have this…"
Nodding with approval, Nojiko gestured for the trio to continue on. "We'll get you a better one on the ship later. The next group is up this way." With that, the trio continued their hunt.
After a careful three hours of systematic takedowns, Luffy smiled as he saw a red streamer arc over the town. "Alright, that's our signal. Hina, let's go introduce the leftovers to the good crew of the Inquisitor."
The marines streamed into the town ahead of Hina's imperious gesture towards the village. Sounds of startled combat, albeit one-sided, echoed through the town square. Idly defeating and capturing any pirate daring to get close to the Devil Fruit users, Luffy and Hina nodded approvingly at the swift capture of the town.
Their approval was short lived as a burning slash opened up across Luffy's back as he happened to lean forward to peer in the distance. A clinking sound of metal striking the cobblestones rang out from their right. A smartly dressed man in spectacles with long claw-like blades stared at the tiny manacles that slid from his claws. "Interesting. Power in constant use in a hostile situation. Conclusion: Relocate battle to more favorable ground." Bowing mockingly, he vanished from sight.
Grimacing in pain, Luffy growled, "Damnit. He doesn't show up on my Haki. How the hell did he manage that?"
Glaring at the ineffectual manacles on the ground, Hina postulated, "Kuro of the Thousand Plans was and is notorious for an almost instinctual ability to plan at a moment's notice. Without intent, Haki has nothing to read. Living so completely in the moment may even suppress his life force from detection. Hina doesn't know for sure." Probing his wound, she ran her finger lightly along the length, creating rudimentary surgical staples to hold his wound closed.
"Well, it sucks." He stretched with a wince, "Doesn't take a genius to think he's going to try to fight us on the beach or near a lot of water to counter you. Let's get my team and get him cornered. We'll hold you in reserve until you can move in for a trip to lock his legs. He doesn't quite use a proper high-speed movement, but it's damned close."
Luffy pulled out a flare pistol and sent up a green flare. Within seconds, Nami, Makino, and Nojiko were lined up in front, while Zoro and Usopp, who were dragged along by Nojiko, panted from the sudden changes in acceleration. Seeing Luffy in pain, Makino struggled to maintain discipline, but eventually settled with a grim expression on her face. Smiling softly, Luffy nodded at his team. "Alright, Kuro was here briefly. Took a pot shot at me and Hina. Fouled up his claws briefly and tagged me just as I was leaning over. Good thing, or we might be having a different conversation. He bugged out towards the water in an attempt to negate Hina's power long enough to kill her. He is invisible to Haki. Like... completely. It's rather rude. He uses a form of high speed movement slower than what we use, so we can negate that advantage. What I would like for this team to do, Makino and Usopp, find a high hide once we track him down. Lay down suppressing fire if he gets too uppity. Zoro, Nami, and Nojiko, keep him out of the water. While I know you can't properly see him when he's running, Zoro as you can't accelerate yourself quite yet, you have incredible instincts. Use them. It's how he stays hidden from us who can use Haki. Hina and I will harass him from the landward side. Ideally, Hina will be able to cage him, but if we must, put him down. Any questions?"
Seeing none, the group made their way to the nearest shore. Carefully creeping along, they heard the sounds of brief combat and a blood curdling scream. His eyes wide, Usopp charged ahead, "KAYA!"