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Hoofprints in the sand

Chapter Text

The first thing Max saw after coming to was the inside of a burlap sack.

In the movies he had seen, the poor victim always had time to scream. For him, the experience was the loss of light, then the tightening of a rope right around his neck. He flailed, his right hand coming into contact with someone's jaw, and pain spread into his knuckles almost immediately.

People screamed around him. Women, men and children. Explosions went off, the crackling of fire soon growing into a roar. And laughter. Some sick maniac was laughing in the middle of it all.

What's going on? Who are these people? What are they going to do wi-

A fist dug into his abdomen.

The hit drove him to his knees. The very first time in his life that someone had actually punched him. He would have rather kept up his good record. The point was, he was absolutely not prepared for it. It made him gasp, and the bag seemed to shrink around his face; the rope, to dig into his skin. The inhale, too short, sent him into full blown panic.

“Plea… please…” he wheezed through the ropes, barely above a whisper.

He shouldn't have. He was feeling light-headed. Not enough air. Not enough light. He couldn't see. He couldn't breath. People were laughing. Screaming. Dying.

Help me.

All the noise slowly faded out. His eyelids grew heavy. At some point, his legs gave out under him. And he knew no more.

 

 

--



When he awoke, he was still in the dark. Rough material clung to his kin, puffing only whenever he exhaled, then rushed back to meet his lips whenever he inhaled. The ground under him seemed flat, too flat to be natural. Then, it seemed to rise and lower, following a rhythm. Where was he?

What had happened to him? Who had taken him?

“This one's coming to,” some croaking voice said.

Max didn't have time to panic. Rough hands pulled him up, only for another to shove down on his head until he knelt.

Only then did the rope around his neck come apart. In a blur of fabric, the sack flew off his head, scraping his face and pulling his hair. It finally shed some light on his situation.

He almost wished it hadn't.

Surrounding him was the dirtiest, foulest-smelling, vicious-looking bunch of men he had ever seen. Most of them were hideous, covered in grim like they hadn't seen a bath or a toothbrush in years. In their hands or at their hips rested actual swords, and none of them looked like they would lose a wink of sleep if they skewered him. The tallest of them, all muscles and scars, towered over him, his black bandana shadowing his eyes.

“Don't move.”

Max stared at the blade pointed straight at his face and had only one thought.

I'm having a nightmare.

It was the only logical explanation. He'd been home just an hour before. Home! If he could call a small student dorm room his home. For the last two years, he had. And there was no possible way for him to have been wondering around the streets in the middle of some goddamned terrorist attack! Had he been hit on the head before? Had he gotten some short-term memory loss or something?

He couldn't possibly have been anywhere near pirates before today. Hell, he was living inland, far away from the nearest river. The hell was going on?!

The man closest to him grinned viciously, and Max had to bite down on a whimper of fear. Where the hell had those people come from? Why had they kidnapped him? He had practically no value as a hostage, he was a student, born of middle-class parents with three older brothers and sisters. What could they hope to accomplish with someone like that?

He must have been trembling too much or something. Pain erupted at the back of his head. Not enough to make him lose consciousness, but it was like the night sky had decided to drop half its stars right in front of his face.

His vision swam. His glasses had flown lose amongst the crowd, and he was certain he heard a crunching noise. Fuck. Fuckity fuck. What next?

I just asked that. In this situation, surrounded by bloodthirsty bastards, I just asked that. Brilliant.

Boots stopped in front of him. Richly decorated boots, made of good leather, lined with some metallic thread linked at the heels to cowboy spurs. Max's gaze followed the threads up to the ankles, to a pair of white pants, to a vibrant green vest worn over a frilly blouse. All the way up.

Right till he saw the man's face.

All his life, he had been taught not to judge a book by its cover. Appearances were only ever a facet of a thing, not its entirety. And yet, here and now, his entire being screamed that, just this once, he should make an exception. It wasn't quite the man's chin, triangular as it was, nor the sharp nose. Max himself had a slightly stronger nose than average, like most of his family on his mother's side. He'd even let the psychedelic-looking lime green hair go. Fashion choices and all.

It was the man's eyes that convinced him.

Those eyes glided over the men forced to kneel. They didn't see anyone. Just livestock.

“Listen up, maggots.”

The man had an oddly light voice. An alto. Each word had been almost cheerful, and that alone had made cold sweat run down Max's spine. He could already tell where this was going.

“I am Captain Beaudrille, owner of this vessel.”

One poor nervous wreck of a man made the mistake of moaning in fear. Eyes of a sickeningly bright green turned on him, and if the prisoner had been nervous before, he looked frankly on the verge of either emptying his bladder or throwing up.

Max counted himself lucky he was too numb to have done either.

“From now on, you will do everything I say.” Captain Beaudrille pushed the tip of his rapier against the man's Adam's apple. “Breath only when I saw. Sleep when I say. Move when I say. Talk when I say.”

“P-p-please…”

You idiot!

Beaudrille nonchalantly pushed the sword through the man's throat. Blood splattered over his face, to which he did not flinch in the slightest.

“I didn't say.”

Right then, Max thanked his lucky star he was on his knees, because otherwise he would have fallen on his ass and brought the madman's attention on himself. Madmen, the lot of them. And he didn't have a clue what to do.

Listen. Do whatever the fuck that Beaudrille asshole wants you to do. Do everything. Anything.

He would have liked to think he had some immense moral strength here. That he would never bow down to evil or some other fancy shit like that. One for the philosophers and the history books.

If I don't, I'll die.

Yeah, right. He was pretty sure few of those old bearded guys had written down their essays while surrounded by killers. It gave some fucking perspective.

The jingling of spurs started again, growing progressively stronger as Beaudrille walked up the line of shaking men. He, of course, stopped right in front of Max.

“Look at you.” The rapier poked his shirt. Pushed the flesh underneath until it became something like a sting. “Must have had a comfortable life before, huh? A real piggy, I bet.”

Max flinched, but said nothing. His lungs felt empty.

“Huh.” Beaudrille frowned at Max's attire, or, more specifically his jeans. “Never seen that material before.”

Never seen jeans before? What kind of backwater… nope, not gonna ask the actual kidnapping terrorist that dressed like a medieval period piece and dyed his hair neon green.

“You wouldn't happen to be rich, would you?”

“N-no,” – His voice cracked. – “sir, captain,” he tacked on at the end.

Beaudrille smirked. “Pity. But at least, you look smarter than that moron over there.”

He pointed one gloved-thumb to the corpse lying in a pool of its own blood, and the men laughed and wolf-whistled. Beaudrille himself only kept a mildly pleasant smile on his face.

Relief came crashing over Max when the captain pulled away from him and walked down the line of prisoners. He didn't single anyone else amongst the group, apparently satisfied with his little demonstration.

“Men.” He turned to the motley crew. “We're leaving port! To another successful raid of the Green Sword pirates!”

Cheers filled the air. Explosion followed as a handful shot their guns – weird old things – into the air, looking utterly proud of themselves. That was about the moment Max caught sight of the fire in the distance. Whatever town that was would soon be no more than a pile of ashes.

“Gibson,” Beaudrille said, and the bandana man from before stepped forward, “put them to good use.”

Gibson shot them all a sinister grin.

 

 

--



The first few hours at sea were the most intense of his life. No storm came to capsize their vessel, no enemy jumped on board, in fact, Max would bet his life it was the calmest start to a journey most of that crew had seen. No, what made it intense was the pressure on the back of their heads. At any given moment, they could all feel the gaze of Captain Beaudrille or his first mate drilling into their skin. Every gesture was scrutinized.

Take care of the chickens and the cow – not what I would have expected to see on a pirate ship –, don't touch the rum, don't touch the food or the water, in fact, touch nothing that could be better served in a more valuable crewmember's stomach. Above all, do not touch the medicine cabinet. Forget it even exists.

Slave every second that you're awake, because that is one more second alive.

If I don't, I will die.


He'd made it his mantra. Whenever he threatened to go inside his head, he repeated that to himself until the urge passed.

And most of all, he was careful.

At the end of those first two hours of touring the ship, they were told to wash the deck of the blood. Wouldn't want someone to slip at the wrong moment, after all. Five minutes in, a man no older than Max knocked over his bucket of water.

It spilled over the deck, and captain Beaudrille's boots.

Whatever words of apologies the poor man had intended to say, they were drowned out by a thunderous bang.

“Do get back to work, maggots. I believe your workload just increased, and I want this boat spotless by sundown.”

The remaining cabin boys started swiping with the strength of ten men.

And though he barely saw the others' faces, Max knew they all had had the same thought. I'm going to die here!

Chapter Text

When the pistol went off, Max barely even flinched. Nor was he surprised to hear the sound of a body hitting the deck. It had been terrifying the first few times. Now it had moved into a sort of muted terror.

The man was getting off on it. It wasn't possible otherwise.

A worrying thought if there ever was one.

“Piggy!”

Piggy. His official name on the crew. The pinnacle of wit, as shown by their captain. They hadn't bothered to ask, and Max hadn't been stupid enough to correct them. Answering to that name was second-nature now, even if his belly had slimmed down considerably.

He immediately turned to acknowledge Gibson's call. “Aye, sir?”

Politeness was key, but using big words was sure to flare up resentments amongst the crew. It made him look like a well-off kid. And they had just shot the most well-off kid on board.

“Go clean up the mess. The body's gonna stink if you don't deal with it soon.”

He nodded and brought his swab with him. Hopefully, it wouldn't be needed for more than just cleaning out blood and brains, but… Well. Patch had been unfortunate to deal with the effect of a slow cleaning earlier.

The layers of gross were just piling on, weren't they? No time. Numb yourself. Go.

Mocking low voices rose from the men pulling the sails. “Think he's gonna cry like blondie?”

The nearest guy, red bandana, let out a loud laugh. “Nah, pigs don't cry. They oink. Right, Piggy?”

He proceeded to oink.

God, they were morons. Complete morons, yes, but complete morons with guns and swords.

Being able to hold his tongue had never been a more essential skill. Well, that and learning quickly. He would guess that the latest victim hadn't.

Max climbed the stairs quickly and carefully avoided eye contact with the captain. Beaudrille was cleaning his gun with a handkerchief, looking far more inconvenienced by that minor esthetic detail than having lost a member of his crew. Then again, he was the one to kill the guy.

An average-looking teenager with a mop of black hair on his head and two blue eyes opened wide with shock and fear.

Yup, that was another dead body. A fresh, dead body. Probably would be warm.

For a split second, he wanted nothing to do with the wide-eyed corpse.

If I don't, I'm next.

First, lifting the corpse, then throwing it overboard. He had a bit of trouble with the first part. And with the second part. Bodies were distressingly limp before rigor mortis, like a fat cat minus the fluff and an extra serving of quiet horror. On his first attempt, he had held the corpse like an actual person. The corpse rolled back from the railing, and Max had to go on his knees to catch it before it splayed uselessly on the deck.

Instead of getting a bullet to the head for his incompetence, Max heard a loud alto laugh.

Well, that was a lucky break. The former cabin boy probably hadn't really annoyed Beaudrille. Just mildly irritated him, and the bastard had had his fill pulling the trigger then seeing 'Piggy' fail to handle the corpse with any dignity.

Proving his point about sadism. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

“Anything else, captain?” he asked once he had both thrown the corpse into the sea and mopped the deck of blood and brains (and nothing else, thank God).

“Back to work with you. I can see where you haven't cleaned yet.” And the underlying threat there undid any impression of goodwill the laugh could have created.

Max acquiesced and hurried back down. Well, that was one more encounter survived. He was learning.

Every second of every minute, he had his eyes wide open. His glasses had been destroyed during the kidnapping itself. His myopia wasn't debilitating, but it had brought down a headache after the first two days without glasses. Now, he was forced to adapt.

He was feeling like a sponge. Soak everything, even the grimiest, because that was now his purpose in life. He had never been a terrible student in school. In fact, he'd often been near the top of his classes. Very little of that applied here.

God! He had had to learn what pirates considered a left side and a right side. How to tie the knots that would hold the sails. How to polish a deck without having his hands crushed by every boot passing by. They wouldn't look where they were stepping. As a matter of fact, they actively played at stomping on their fingers. The trick was to only let the captain or the first mate do it.

Yet in the end, survival came down to a matter of luck.

He wasn't near Beaudrille or Gibson whenever he had a minor screw-up. And whenever by some ungodly chance, he did make a mistake, Max would work like a man on death row for the next hour. So far, it had only gotten him a grunt of approval and nothing else. Like a bullet to the head.

He was grateful.

--

The waves slammed themselves on the sides of the boat, sloshing and breaking against the wood. From his corner near the hubs, he could only see the seafoam as it broke apart in the boat's wake. Moonlight alone illuminated the waters enough to distinguish sea and sky. Dark blue on black.

Max had never had strong thoughts about boats. He'd gotten on some a handful of times, but they had always been small tourist tours, mostly on lakes and rivers. He had always been able to see the shore.

It made a difference he hadn't realized before. Subconsciously, he had been thinking that if the boat capsized or he was thrown off, he might just swim his way to the shore. He had gone to swimming classes in his youth, he'd make it.

But in the open seas… where would he go? Which way led to land and which one led to death? All his efforts might just be the thing to doom him to drown.

He was trapped here.

He had read somewhere that people lost at sea generally survived up to fifteen minutes before they drowned. Most of it due to the hypothermia. He had had cold water splash on his body enough to tell. They weren't sailing on a warm ocean current. He wouldn't have risked it regardless, but it was nice knowing he was only a toss-up overboard away from death.

And then, there were the monsters.

Yeah! Monsters!

Long, slithering shadows that sometimes slid over the waves just enough for him to see colorful scales. He hoped that was just hallucinations. He'd had nothing to drink but watered-down wine and beer since he had been drafted. He hadn't been a heavy drinker before, now he could say he'd lived off nothing but beer, salted meat and stale bread. Maybe the shadows were just bad sanitation, or some trick of the light brought about by the loss of his glasses, and the wine. Everything tasted like wine. He'd be an alcoholic if he ever got off this hellhole.

For now however, he let his head rest against the ship's wall, pretending not to remember the shadows in the sea. Hallucinations. Tricks of the light. He had to believe that.

--

On his seventh day on Beaudrille's ship, that hope turned to ashes. For a lack of better term, it was mutilated, then brutally assassinated, then doused in rum and lit aflame.

Max, at the time, was swabbing the deck. Of all the tasks, it might be the one he had had most practice with. The only one with a resemblance to his old life's. That moment of normalcy, as small as it was, would not last.

“Seaking!”

Once. Just once. Someone – no one could tell who – shouted 'Seaking!' and war erupted on the Seafarer.

Every single person began running around with frantic energy, every taskmaster shouting themselves hoarse, whips snapping in the air. Max didn't even needed to see the seaking to get the message. The fear in all the veterans' eyes was plenty enough. No need to waste precious few seconds gawking.

“Below deck! With the powder monkeys!” shouted Gibson, and none of them were in the mood to question it. On s tarboard, a large shadow rose from the depths, waves sliding off its sides.

Max didn't look.

It was big, full of teeth, and intent on eating its fill. He didn't need to know details .

He was just barreling down the stairs, almost tripping on the way, and rushing to the men pushing the cannons toward the hubs on s tarboard. All the cabin boys converted into whatever role they were given, wholeheartedly helping whoever needed helping. Godspeed!

“Cannonball!” shouted one, and Max was sprinting with a handful.

“Another match!” and he was grabbing one of the freaking torches.

“I'm running out of powder over here!”

“More cannonball!”

“POWDER!”

“Don't stop shooting!”

Then, above the continuous thunder of the cannons came a sundering. The Seafarer itself seemed to moan out in pain as its insides caved in. Planks and splinters shot in a volley, a man right next to Max falling to the ground holding his bleeding arm. The vessel shook.

“ARGH! Help me!”

And that one time, Max froze. A large canine paw pinned down one of the men. Poor guy was stabbing at the monster's appendage with all his strength, again and again, but the dagger barely pierced through the scales covering the paw.

“Brody!” shouted the nearest buccaneer.

With a warcry, the man came to his friend's rescue. Or tried. Just as he was slashing his saber, the whole limb quivered, then retracted with stunning speed. Brody's body followed, having all the agency of a ragdoll tossed around.

The man’s screaming cut short with a splash. Shouldn't it have sounded comical? In movies, that was always played for comedy, wasn't it? A man helplessly flailing before falling into a large body of water. Harmless. Funny.

“Brody! BRODY!”

His friend was halfway through the hole in the wall, eyes bugged out.

“Are you crazy?” Another ran to grab him by the waist. “He's dead! Do you want the seadog to get you too!?”

Seadog. What bullshit was this…? Seadog . He knew those men probably had the education level of toddlers, but surely there was another name for a monstrosity attacking the ship and threatening all their lives.

“You!” A hand roughly pulled at his shoulder, effectively shutting up his disgusted mental rant. “You hand me the cannonballs! Hurry. It's going to strike again!”

“Aye, sir!”

He bent, picked a projectile and loaded it into the mouth of the cannon. An explosion of powder, a ringing in his ears.

“Again! Faster.”

Again, faster. Cannonball, loading, fire. Loading, fire. Loading. Loading, loading, loading.

“More cannonballs! More powder!”

A sprint, taking whatever that powder monkey held, then kneeling next to the cannon.

“Fire!”

Noises dulled. They hit Max's body more as vibrations than sounds, like a punch to his guts every time the cannon rolled back, and the air filled in with the smell of ashes and dust. The buccaneer's orders were read rather than heard. Max was seeing and feeling out of his own body. Like a cog in a machine. Loading. Fire. More powder. Loading. Fire. 'Kill that son of a bitch!' Fire.

Until finally, an ungodly roar shook the vessel's very frame.

“It's retreating!”

Distantly, Max gazed through the hub. The tail end of a gigantic fish was sinking below the surface.

For a few moments, he gave in to the feeling of elation. They had successfully defended their lifeline against some sort of gigantic beast. They had done this, with sweat and blood, and they were alive at the end of the day to tell the tale. For a few moments, Max did feel it, the exaltation, the rush, the song in his blood at the thought of being alive.

But it faded. The cheering died down, and they had to look at the damage, at the shattered beams and the hole that needed fixing. They were alive, and now reality was settling down again. Max's reality settled down again, and it wasn't the same as before the attack.

A sea monster. An actual, unheard of, weird mammalian sea monster.

He wasn't on Earth. That much he now knew for absolute certain. He couldn't be.

Chapter Text

Max was going to die on this ship.

He had become convinced of it. Maybe not on today, or the day after, or the one after that… but one day, he would slip and Beaudrille would just whip out his pistol and shoot his brains out. At the rhythm things were going, it could be years from now on. Years on this ship… Their travels already felt like years. They seemed to stretch on forever, only stopping briefly to let the crew torch any town with the bad idea of having been built in Beaudrille's way.

After the seadog's attack, it was as if the sea had decided to flip a switch and enter the realm of the fantastical and absurd.

They'd made it through two blizzards, one storm, and one boiling sea . That last one had almost been enough for him to throw the towel. He had grown in a place where blizzards were a common occurrence in winter. He could deal with that, but the steaming heat had seen him discard everything but his hole-ridden jeans. When disaster hit, no one cared for positions except first mate and captain. Everyone else was giving and giving and giving until they had nothing left, and then gave some more. Anything less, and they would all die.

Sometimes, Max felt like he had become a pirate in more than name. The Seafarer was losing its mystics every day. It was becoming familiar. Ever since the battle with the seadog – that son of a bitch was a literal insult –, he couldn't help see the wooden frames as the only safe place in this hostile world. The ship was growing on him. He was forgetting what it was like to walk on ground that did not tilt every so often. He was covered in his own sweat most days, and he knew he stank as badly as the lot of them.

Would his family recognize him if they saw him that very second?

What fat he had had before this 'adventure' had all but melted right off his bones. Every morning he woke up hungry and went to bed hungry. From dawn to late in the night, they had to work under the gaze of the first mate, Gibson. Unlike the captain, he didn't shoot someone who slacked off. He beat them down.

The pirates had mocked him in the beginning for his larger-than-average belly, but Max had a feeling it might have been the only thing that had allowed him to last this long. Another man from the batch Max had been part of had collapsed the other day, and he hadn't been allowed to stand up. Judging by how thin the man's limbs were, it wouldn't have made much of a difference. His strength would have failed him again.

They were down to four cabin boys. Four men, working themselves to the bone in the hope of surviving even a day longer. Four men, sleeping when they were told, eating when they were told, pissing when they were told. Beaudrille's words had all but come true. Amazing, the depths one could debase themselves, just to keep on living.

But at least, they were alive, unlike every other poor sap that Beaudrille had drafted from the last town over. They hadn't lasted long. One had even tried to bargain for his release.

Beaudrille had had his example for the initiation. And then some. Turned out, the man's hobby was torture. Or at least, he had enough interest in the matter to pass for a professional. Because it couldn't get any worse, could it?

The man didn't smile often. But every time they spotted a town, he smiled.

Today was no different.

Max kept to his work, scrubbing the rails with a rag whilst the rest of the crew stood at attention.

“The usual, Captain?” asked Gibson in his customary low growl. How anyone understood the guy was a mystery for the ages.

“No, no, let's not tip our hand too early, Gibson.” Beaudrille signed for them to stand down. “Those people have no reason to fear us, do they?”

Bloodthirsty grins flourished amongst the crew. Max, on the other hand, was rather confused. They… weren't going to attack the town? What the hell? It'd be a first since he had been kidnapped. Last three towns had been short raids filled with laughter and death. Eh, maybe he wouldn't have nightmares tonight. Who knew?

Beaudrille turned away from his first mate and greeted his men with wide open arms. “Men! Tonight, we enjoy ourselves like civilized people. Do as you wish, as long as it doesn't get the population to alert the marines early. We wouldn't them to spoil our leaving gift.”

Max's stomach turned. Well, there goes another town. No surprise there. He hadn't been hoping very hard.

One by one, the pirates filtered off the boat, laughing and jeering like the harmless rambunctious bunch they were pretending to be. On the docks, most people gave them a wide berth, but none had raised the alarm yet. They probably wouldn't.

This is going to be a massacre.

“Gibson,” Beaudrille said calmly, his rapier held in the way of the hulking man, “you will watch the ship tonight. You know how that goes.”

Gibson's jaw worked tightly, but clearly the man was intelligent enough not to voice his thoughts.

“Aye aye, Captain Beaudrille.”

Beaudrille's gaze turned a touch warmer, which still left in the vicinity of below freezing. The smug smile should have helped in some way, but even that part was false. Only the prospect of a raid got a true smile out of the captain. And Gibson, despite being nearly a head taller, gulped.

“I wish you a good evening, Gibson.” On that, Beaudrille left the ship to join back with the men.

Veins on the hulking man's neck twitched, and Max suddenly felt his survival rates plummet.

“The ship better be spotless when Captain comes back!”

They scampered across the deck to obey. The decision to execute someone generally rested solely with Beaudrille, but in his absence, that meant nothing. None of them doubted that Gibson would see them dead to pass his nerves if they gave him an excuse. Not like anyone would mourn.

 

--

 

The familiar ache of an evening of frantic work left his arms limp as he laid down in his corner. As always, Max was resting his head against the wall, his folded shirt acting as a makeshift pillow. His eyelids were slowly closing, and only the vague fear that Gibson would march into the ship's hold kept him from falling into a deep sleep.

When noises did come to tickled his ears, Max's blurry sight immediately focused. Through the dark bowels of the ship, that meant little but seeing shapes in the shadows of the few torches still alight. There, on the other side of the room, he could see one of his 'colleagues' slinking between the hammocks and the mattresses.

For the few seconds he was in the light of the torches, his eyes darted around feverishly. He kept on going swiftly, as much as he dared, it seemed. Sometimes, he stopped, and listened.

Once, he overextended, and his foot bumped into something.

Namely, something that let out a yelp of surprise. In the hold's darkness, that could have been a shout. For the span of a few heartbeats, absolutely no one moved. All their gazes were on the ceiling. Gibson was somewhere close, and they couldn't hear any snoring.

“What are you doing?” the one still on the floor hissed.

“I'm leaving. I don't know about you, but I'm not staying a second longer on this hellhole of a ship. I'm getting out of here while that sadistic green bastard isn't around. First mate should be asleep by now. Or dozing off, at least.”

Max felt as if struck by lightning. The sneak was right! If the pirates had been raiding, they would have returned too early for any of them to escape. But surely, there would be some of the crew that would be drinking and screwing prostitutes tonight. The ship was nearly deserted.

It might be their best chance.

The second cabin boy joined in the first, and the both of them silently made their way across the hold.

After a minute, Max stood up. He moved through the rows of hammocks, his gaze on the other two. They were almost huddled close together, as if they found their courage in the proximity of an accomplice. Max's heart yearned to join in. His head, however, warned against making himself part of a larger target.

They'd reached the deck itself before he was at the bottom of the staircase. The war inside his mind was growing wilder. What if he missed his window of opportunity? What if Beaudrille was just waiting on the deck to test them? He felt as if his body and mind were acting at different speeds, pushing when one was pulling. Waning, waxing. What if?

His foot hit the underside of a stair. He went splaying on the steps, biting his cheeks and the reflexive cry of pain that almost came out.

For a few seconds, his sight was blurred. Then, the shock of what had happened sent a spike of adrenaline into his veins. Max jolted and crouched into a kneeling position, his eyes fixed to the night sky filtering through the trapdoor. He dared not even breath.

He listened, every second marked by his blood pulsing in his temples. The evening was almost quiet. Vaguely in the distance, one could hear people laughing and singing. But closer…

The hushed whispering from before had grown louder, and more frantic. Someone knocked an object over, loud enough for it to resonate through the deck.

The wood over Max's head creaked.

“Hey, where do you two think you're going?!”

Two bangs. Two thuds.

Bodies hitting the floor.

There goes that idea.

Steps grew louder. Dust fell in small clouds from the ceiling and Max knew what was coming. He rushed back to his corner, picked up his shirt and let his head rest against it.

Not a moment too soon. Gibson's heavy stomps made every step in the stairs moan. When they stopped, Max blinked, as if coming awake slowly, then jumped to his feet.

“S-sir?”

Gibson stared.

Despite the chill night air, sweat rolled down Max's back. Somewhere nearby, he could hear Patch pulling himself up, struggling not to swear out loud. His own belated 'sir?' came in a second later.

Gibson's knuckles whitened around the grip of his old pistol. His expression was unreadable.

“There's cleanup for you maggots.”

Max could have collapsed in sheer relief.

 

--

 

“Anything to signal, Gibson?”

“Two cabin boys tried to escape.”

Beaudrille let out a lighthearted laugh. “It's a good thing we collected more in the town then.”

The pirates chuckled as they pushed forth five men, each of them forced to wear the same burlap sack Max had seen on his first day in hell.

“We'll break them in in just a minute. But first…” Beaudrille's expression twisted in something meant to be a smile. His fingers fiddled with the handle of his sword as he stepped in front of Patch. “Gibson tells me two of you tried to leave. I imagine you know what happened to them.”

Max nodded. In the corner of his eyes, he saw Patch do the same.

The one-eyed guy shivered as Beaudrille's gloved hand lifted his chin. “Are you going to try and escape too?”

Not to be left feeling unattended, Max got his turn. Beaudrille's skin wrinkled around his eyes. His smile was almost warm. Human.

“Good. You know your place, don't you?”

A few dazed nods.

“Of course you do,” Beaudrille intoned, satisfied as a cat before an injured bird. “It's your nature. You were born to be under my heels. You understand that, don't you?”

Of course he did, why else would he have been taken away from everything he had loved to be enslaved by a pirate? If it were happenstance, chance, ill luck… it would just be too cruel.

“Aye, captain, I do,” he heard himself say, his voice hoarse from disuse.

Beaudrille laid a hand on Max's shoulder, who had to fight off the revulsion. He would have preferred to touch a snake.

“Now then, how about you watch your new friends get their welcoming party?”

It wasn't a question.

Max and Patch stood behind Gibson as Beaudrille walked down the line and began his sadistic little game. One death. There was always one dead man in that line. It set up expectations. Maintained a healthy amount of respect amongst the men. Satisfied the captain's sadism. Quite efficient, Max had thought, once he got past the waste of a working man.

Maybe a father, or a friend, or a loved son. A nice baker. A dignified official. The town's clown. Someone.

Max felt nothing more than numbness as he hefted the corpse overboard.

It could have been me.

It wasn't.

He worked on untying the sails, unnoticed by the captain and the first mate behind him.

“Any news, captain?”

Beaudrille scoffed and laughed. “Of course there are. New bounties, more warning for the good population to stay away from the dangerous criminals. Nothing original. My bounty is the same as before, fifty millions. Frankly, we need not worry. The marines have other things to worry about.”

“I heard the men talking. Something big.”

Beaudrille made an irritated sound, and Max imagined he must have waved it off dismissively. “It's the morons that attacked Enies Lobby. With that many bellies on their heads, they're gonna burn up in no time. Complete rookies. Think they can take anything. You know how that goes, I believe, Gibson.”

Max didn't get to see the first mate's face, but the noise he made almost resembled a growl.

“Good,” Beaudrille added. “That won't happen with me, Gibson. Smart men don't make waves. They ride under them, unseen until the moment they strike. That's the way to get ahead in this world.”

Bounties? Enies Lobby? Damn it, hearing about that rang a bell. He just knew he had heard of something like that some time ago, but he didn't remember from where .

 

--



“Look, Zoro. A mermaid!”

“… Cool. First time meeting one.”

“He erased it! He erased old lady Kokoro from his memories!”

Usopp thought back on the sight of nightmares, then shuddered. “I envy him.”

Chapter Text

Their next time seeing land wasn't nearly as traumatic. The fact that it looked like a deserted tropical island probably accounted for that.

He'd caught the word, floating abuzz between the pirates. Careening. Max hadn't the faintest idea what it was supposed to be. He was simply given a barrel and told to put it in a row boat. Wash, rinse and repeat. Ad infinitum.

“Piggy,” one seriously stinking pirate with rotting teeth called him.

“Aye?”

“Get on board. You're on unloading duty.”

“Aye.”

There. No punch in the face. The trick to surviving a pirate crew. One word responses whenever possible. None when allowed. And respectful ass-licking when Beaudrille was in one of his moods. Who needed self-respect when you were alive?

“In the boat!” they said, and in the boat, he went.

He was sure the island was very beautiful, but he kinda busy rowing.

Eh, it was probably one of those picture perfect sights that made it on postcards. Not worth losing his head over. But, as he was unloading the rowboat, he did notice an abundance of palm trees in the corner of his eyes.

After two hours of back and forth between the Seafarer and dry land, the beach now resembled a bazaar more than a deserted island's shores. Everything on the ship had been unloaded. Absolutely everything. The ship's insides had been laid bare. Cannons, barrels, booze, clothing, weapons, treasure chests full to bursting. Anything Max could have named that belonged on a pirate ship had been left there.

In a corner, set aside, were the captain's belongings. Well, Max assumed. Who else would have drapes in green silk, or a portrait of a woman that looked suspiciously similar to a vulture?

All that was left was the Seafarer itself, floating in very shallow waters. Were they going to beach it? Was that what careening meant? It seemed like a strange concept for pirates to obey…

Hey, he hadn't survived by asking questions. Listening to Beaudrille may be sapping his soul little by little, but he It just… wouldn't end…

Max shook his head. Dangerous thoughts. He better focus on the present.

Beaudrille remained standing right at the front of the row boat until it had reached the shore. Like a ship's figurehead. He was almost utterly motionless. When the boat was finally anchored to the beach, Beaudrille stepped out, nose slightly upturned. As if even grazing the sea was beneath his person.

“This took… two hours.” Beaudrille shoved his watch back in his pocket with a look of disdain. “You could be faster. Much faster!”

A snap of a whip punctuated his word.

On reflexes, Max and the other cabin boys shrunk on themselves, praying that the captain didn't make eye contact with any of them. This time however, most of the crew seemed to share the cabin boys' disposition toward fear. Beaudrille had a look to his eyes, something deeply wrong .

“It seems that you need motivation.”

Max's stomach sank. Shit. This was going to be bad.

“Oswald.” The crew gave the poor bastard a wide berth. “Oswald, come here. You will demonstrate.”

One didn't need to look at the man's shaking knees or the wide, darting eyes to understand he wanted to do anything but come closer to Beaudrille. Though, like a man walking to the gallows, he could not stop simply because he wanted to.

“What would you have me do, Captain?”

Beaudrille snapped his fingers.

The whip cracked again.

Except this time, someone fell to their knees. Poor Oswald's back was arched, a long red line now carved right across his shoulder blades to his lower back.

“Demonstrate. Which you have done rather well.” Beaudrille gently patted Oswald's back, precisely on top of the bleeding wound. “Now then, are you ready to work faster, Oswald?”

Oswald's mouth moved, but no sound came out. He tried. Oh, he desperately tried. Those watching cringed .

Beaudrille intoned, bored, “Gibson.”

Another mark scarred Oswald's back. He let out a choked sob, his face contorted in pain.

“I said: are you ready to work faster now, Oswald?”

“Yes… Captain…”

“Excellent. All of you, get to work.”

If Max would ever have to give a sincere compliment about the bastard that served as a captain, it would be something like 'knows how to motivate people to give it their all'. Was there any doubt that every single pirate on the crew worked like men possessed?

 

--

 

The Seafarer laid on its side like a dying beast.

They had done this. That was what 'careening' meant. To pull a ship on the beach to clean its underside.

But somewhere along the way, after they had shouted for the men to climb on, Max's breath got caught up in his throat, and he could only stare. Something about the sight resonated with him. Brought forth a sense of pity. That ship, it was only resting, but some of its brethren had met their ends like this, like beached whales.

It was… it was sad. Max had never really cared for ships before. Had never understood the fascination some had with them. But when you lived inside them, when they started to replace your mental image of 'home', some part of your own heart didn't belong to you anymore.

The thunderous crack of the whip snapped him out of it. He nearly jumped ten feet in the air at the blast of noise right next to his ears. It must have been pure luck that it hadn't grazed him.

“Piggy! Drag your fat ass over there and get to work!”

Fucking fuck! How had he been so stupid? He didn't have time to be distracted, not if he wanted to live!

Max hauled his ass over to the Seafarer's hull, a dark and tangled mess of green and black. Weeks of physical labor on a ship from dawn to late evening had considerably helped him develop some agility. It wasn't a hard task, though it was hardly a pleasant one. He was knee deep in seaweed. Pulling with both hands because who would be stupid enough to trust him with a knife? No, you had to earn your weapon privileges on the Seafarer. And if another ship attacked in the meantime, you better be good at hand-to-hand combat. They'd been lucky so far.

Max threw another chunk of seaweed onto the sand below, and flinched at the twitching black shells that had been hidden underneath. They seemed imbedded into the wood.

Clams? No, wait, I heard about this. In comics, it's on every ship's hull. They're barnacles.

The ugly barnacle. It was so ugly that everyone died. The End.

What he wouldn't give for that fucking barnacle to exist. He'd show it to Beaudrille first, then the rest of the crew. Of course, he would probably die himself afterward, but at least he'd have taken all those assholes down with him.

“Can't wait for tonight,” said the nearest guy, a middle-aged guy in a marine blue shirt.

On the other side of him, a blonde pirate grinned back. “Yeah. Been way too long.”

“Captain's a slavedriver.”

“Shut up,” blonde-guy hissed. “You want him to hear?!”

Marine blue paled, then shot a look to the piles of stuff that had been taken from the ship. Beaudrille's characteristic lime green hair was barely visible behind some series of barrels.

“It's fine, he's right ov- AAAAAARGH!” the man suddenly shouted, pulling his arms out of the mass of seaweed.

An oval-shaped sphere the size of a microwave was latching on his right arm. Everything up to his forearm had disappeared inside the thing's mouth.

“It's a Clamp Clam!” shouted one crewmember.

Blonde guy rushed to his friend. He grasped at the giant clam's shell with all his strengths, pushing and squeezing against two shards of shells held crossed from what would be the mollusk's back. Red in the face, Blondie met Max's gaze and shouted “Help me get it the fuck off!”

The dazed spell over Max broke at being addressed, and instincts beaten into him for the last few weeks overcame any hesitation.

Even with two men, they barely pried it apart enough for the middle-aged pirate's arm to slide through. Drained of his strength, he hadn't even been able to. Gravity pulled him down, off the sides of the ship, landing him right on his back in a cloud of dust and sand.

Roaring, Blonde guy span and hurled the clam as far as possible toward the sea.

With a splash barely even worthy of a human cannonball, the mollusk disappeared under the waves.

No one looked its way. Every gaze was on their companion screaming his head off.

The unfortunate man writhed in the sand, tears of anguish on his cheeks as he tried to hold his mangled, twisted arm. At his side, his friend was speaking frantically. The words themselves, Max could not hear, but the sting of fear in them was all too recognizable. They got even quieter as their captain appeared from behind the piles of treasures and furniture.

Beaudrille's run slowed down to a dispassionate walk when he realized what the source of the screams was. Only by looking closely would one notice the twitch of a vein on his neck.

“Leave him.” He aimed his pistol. “He'd be a waste of space now.”

“Captain, wait, I can-”

The explosive bang cut him mid-sentence.

Blood splattered the kneeling blonde. He didn't move. He didn't flinch when it dripped from his eyebrow into his eye.

“Let this be a lesson. Always be mindful of where you put your fingers. Not everything lies down and take it. Now, back to work.”

The crew went back. A certain somberness lingered, but they were pirates. Soon enough, they were back to normal, working and swearing loudly. Yet, Max at some point realized that Blonde guy was nowhere to be seen. The corpse in the sand was also gone, though there remained an imprint of wet sand caked in blood where he had been shot.

It occurred to Max that he had no idea what the man in blue had been called. It was stupid. He didn't know many of those pirates' names, just those that were immediately important. He didn't know Blonde guy either. One more raider that pillaged and raped every other port city they docked at.

He felt like he should have known the man in blue's name. Beaudrille probably hadn't either.

Why did it bother him now? He'd seen it plenty of times. He had learned to push every little human sentiment to the back of his head and just see it unfold like a camera. Like a machine. This way, he survived.

Was it because he had tried to help the man?

Was it the blank look in Blonde guy's eyes? The horror, the sorrow, the feeling of loss ? No, it had been the same for every other man Max had seen die. All of them must have had someone to mourn them. He just… he just hadn't seen them with his own eyes. It had been too easy, Max realized, to pretend that no death mattered when everyone else was acting the same. All it took was one person, and suddenly retreating into his head didn't work half as well. He couldn't stop seeing .

Max ripped a particularly well-anchored seaweed with an angry rasp. He shouldn't bother about that. Caring meant slipping. He couldn't afford that.

He tried his best not to look when Blondie returned a few moments later, a haggard air clinging to him. The pirate settled exactly where he stood before the death of his friend, and from then on, worked in complete silence.

What was that guy's name? Max probably would never know.

Some time later, Beaudrille glanced at the hull of the Seafarer and hummed. Pulling off one glove, he snapped his fingers. Gibson left his men to whatever task they were at on the beach to answer his captain's call. A few words were exchanged between the two, then Beaudrille opened his arms wide.

“Men! We've done well. The Green Sword pirates have amassed another large booty of gold and jewels! Our treasure will soon be legendary!”

Most men cheered loudly, their previous hours of gruesome work forgotten. Max pretended to join in. Best way not to die was to never stand out after all. Blonde guy though, he didn't make a sound as he raised his arms in the air, all the way in the back of the pack.

“Bring in the rum! The wine!” Beaudrille gestured for two men near the barrels to come. “Tonight, we party!”

A new energy filled the air. Men of the crew spoke, and loudly. Finally. About time. Couldn't have happened at a better moment. And all of them moved to make it happen, like a well-oiled machine. Motivation had been easy to find, it seemed. The promise of getting horribly drunk had held more appeal than any other siren call.

Max served as a midway man between the pirates digging through the provisions they'd made and the cook setting up camp near the limits between the beach and the forest.

“Bring the rum, and don't you fucking drink a drop of it, Piggy.”

Max almost wanted to roll his eyes. He'd never tried unless he was ordered. Not that he didn't need ALL of the alcohol he could get his hands on. But getting drunk on the Seafarer seemed to be the quickest way to make a fatal blunder. No thanks.

“Piggy! Come here.”

That was Beaudrille. Max all but dropped the barrel in the sand – in reality, placed it on the ground with a reasonable amount of care – and sprinted up to answer the call. Every other cabin boy alive had gathered around the captain and the first mate.

“You sure about that, Captain? It's their first time, 'cept for Patch.”

“Don't worry, Gibson. They are not that stupid,” he said with a fake smile that wouldn't have fooled a child. “They know their place. Didn't I tell you before? It's only ever a matter of time with them. They all break eventually.”

Sighing, the hulking man straightened then gazed upon Max and the others with a harsh glare. “You four are going to do a provision run. Grab one of the loot bags,” – he pointed at the pile of loot being looked upon by the treasurer – “and fill them with every edible thing you can find in there. If you're not here by nightfall…”

None of them needed to be told.

“Oh, Gibson, don't be dramatic. We'll simply send someone looking for you.”

With swords and guns. So, the usual.

 

--

 

If there was one thing Max hadn't been prepared for, it was how much torture looking at fresh ingredients could be. On the Seafarer, the food was either formless or tasteless, sometimes both. The water unfortunately didn't hold to these standards. No wonder some of the pirates got sick as dogs. The point was… Max never spent time fantasizing about his next meals when on the ship.

His fingers ran over the coconuts' white skin in amazement. It looked just ripe. Smelled just like the coconut-dusted cakes his mother used to make.

Max's stomach howled.

No! One fruit could mean the difference between life and death once he got back. What if he didn't find anything after this? No, he had to wait, at least until his bag was full and couldn't hold more. Then, it wouldn't matter if he ate or not.

His hands shaking, Max lowered the fruit into his bag. His foraging had only just begun, and with the dozen of coconuts lying on the forest floor, he was making some clear progress. Hopefully, he might fill his bag in the next hour or so. Right now, his bag looked almost halfway there, its bottom bulging with the coconuts he’d shoved in. Once he couldn’t find another on the ground or in the trees, Max left the small clearing behind.

He had never in his life imagined that his uncle's rambling about knowing how to find berries and edible plants would actually be the thing his life rode on. He would have to thank him, if he ever saw him again…

“Not the time,” he growled. It was no use. He was just imagining himself again, with his father and his uncle, on their knees in the moss, picking small fruits and setting them in those stupid white plastic buckets.

Tears threatened to spill from his eyes.

Max slapped his own cheeks. Hard. The stinging lingered longer than the tightness around his throat. So that was a success at least.

Max glanced at the contents of his bag again. Most of the coconuts had rolled to the bottom, the handful of bananas miraculously intact. He should probably-

Something slammed into his back. Max didn't have time to question what was happening that he lost his grip on his bag and went rolling down a hill. For a few seconds that felt much longer, branches broke under his weight and leaves slapped his face and

The impact stole his breath away.

Max laid on his back, groaning. Only for a second, for the chain of events replayed in his mind, and he felt his heart skip a beat. He'd been pushed.

Scrambling to his feet, Max swung behind a tree, waiting for the twang of a bow, or the whistling noise of a dart cutting through the air. Already, he had images in his head of hostile natives in body paints, wearing necklaces of bones and clothes made of leaves.

But not projectile came. With as much caution as he could muster, Max peeked around the tree trunk, up the hill he had rolled down.

They weren't hostile locals.

He knew all three of them, if only by name. Patch, Leon and Oswald. Poor saps that had been stuck in the exact same spot as him, though only Patch had been on the ship longer than him. Oswald still held himself tense, as if breathing just stretched the scarring wound on his back.

If this had been some other member of Beaudrille's crew, Max thought they would have been chuckling or laughing to themselves about their cleverness.

Those three… they just looked dead. As close to it while still moving.

Maybe it was this strange world. The odd coloring and depths. None of his tormentors' eyes reflected any light. Maybe that was what zombies looked like. Bodies without any sort of intent moving them, only despair.

It sparked something in Max's chest. Did he look like that? Was he just another one of those boney creatures?

“Hey!” he heard himself shout hoarsely, and all three startled. “What was that for?!”

Blinking, they exchanged uncertain looks. Patch opened his mouth, made some wheezing sound, then closed it again.

Weary, every word stretched out, Leon answered instead. “We're taking your stuff. Don't come back.”

Oswald upturned Max's half-full bag over the forest floor, each fruit like a punch to his stomach. Then, with an oddly stiff swing, threw the bag over the hill.

The three were gone by the time it had floated down to Max's level.

So this was it. Even amongst the lowest, there couldn't be any sort of solidarity. He hadn't expected much. It wasn't like Max had stuck out his neck for any of them, but he'd never went out of his way to screw anyone over either.

“Fuck!” He kicked a branch off the ground. “What am I supposed to do now?!”

Survive . Start again. No time to lose.

He had his bag.

He forced himself to walk forward. One foot in front of the other, eyes darting around in the hopes of getting lucky twice in a row. After the first ten minutes wondering about helplessly, his prospects were starting to look grim. Until his right foot bumped into something squishy.

He felt his gaze stop onto a fruit. He hoped it was a fruit. It certainly looked like one, vaguely shaped like a banana, but with both ends taking the form of square stubs. The fact that it was a bright red, covered in swirly patterns and apparently growing at ground-level cast a healthy level of suspicion on that theory.

His stomach howled at the sight.

His brain tried to fight off his body's impulse. It really did. But the pangs of hunger going through his body alone served as a counterargument. He had tried being reasonable, to be smart about it, but where had that gotten him? He might just die because of the stunt the three traitors had pulled. Even then, he wouldn't have lasted much longer at the rhythm decided by Beaudrille anyway. He needed food. This was food.

Or poison. He'd take either at this point.

He almost spit it out on the spot. The fruit's flesh was worse than he had dreaded, grey and pasty and instantly breaking down into sludge on his tongue. In any other situation, he would have thrown up from sheer disgust, and though he gagged, his jaw muscles tightened shut. Until the first bite had made it past his palate and began sliding down his throat.

Nauseous, he leaned heavily on his knees, the fruit still in one hand, and the other right over his mouth. Each breath was done with a clenched abdomen, expecting at any second for his body to reject the rancid fruit.

He took another bite.

His body had been telling him for weeks now. Beaudrille didn't feed them enough. Why would he? He'd just kidnap more people in the next port to replace the ones that died. He'd made that clear enough. And right now, Max knew he could only hope to last as long as possible.

He didn't want to die. His teeth closed over the fruit's stem. Every single parcel of fruit was gone now, and the taste was lingering in his mouth, the disgusting combination like a smell in his nose, and again he gagged.

With all his strength, Max's hands forced his lips shut. No matter how many times he gagged and sobbed, he wouldn't throw up the little amount of food he'd managed to find.

He wasn't going to die.

Finally, he dropped the chewed up stems to the ground, and leaned against a tree. Though the disgusting taste lingered, he could lay a hand over his stomach and feel some relief. It didn't last long.

His skin tingled. Like he'd rubbed his head against a balloon and was about to touch a doorknob. The static clung to the hairs on his arms, to the tip of his hair on his head.

“What the hell?” he grunted.

Was he going to be sick? The fruit had to have been rotting to taste that bad. If it did… then he might let it take him. If even his attempts to survive ended up with him in more suffering for less results, then he might as well…

His arms were covered in hair.

That wasn't being sick.

He didn't even feel pain. But his insides shifted, and his arms twisted and his spine gave in, and suddenly he was standing on all four. The cry of shock he let out became something else in the span of a few heartbeat. From low shock to a high pitched waving noise.

A whinny.

What's going on what's going on what's going on?

Then he saw himself.

Hooves.

Fluffy fetlocks.

Muzzle.

Dark brown hair. His dark brown hair. Only, it had decided that just the top of his head wasn't enough anymore. It covered him from head to toes (hooves). From muzzle to tail.

And a new sensation linked to his shoulder blades. Flesh he couldn't equate to before. It didn't have an equivalent.

Shaking, his sight blurring, Max turned his neck in a wider arc than he had ever done before, and rested his gaze on the new appendages.

Oh, those were wings .

He had spontaneously transformed into a giant winged horse.

That… He didn't know how to react to that? Panic? Panic sounded good. Reaaaal good. Maybe give this place a good thrashing, test this weird new body while completely losing his shit.

“What… what the hell?! What… what…” He let out a startled laugh. Something like a horse nickering. And there went the cold running up his spine, his different, inhuman spine. “Ha… haha, what the fuck? I turned into a horse. I ate a fruit and-”

He had eaten a terrible tasting fruit. And suddenly changed into a very different creature. Those two little seemingly unrelated facts actually made a clicking noise in the recesses of his mind. Though there was no logic to it, it just came to him in a flash of spiralling lines and pirates and sea monsters .

The words that came to his mind were 'devil fruit'. It all made sense. The pirates, the colors, the strange powers.

He was within the world of One Piece.

Suddenly, turning into a big fat horse didn't seem like that big of a deal. Without a word, Max fell to his rump, his hind legs just plain giving out under him.

“How the hell did I end up here?”

Here. A world of pirates and superpowers. A half-remembered anime – no, wait, manga – from his college years. He'd loved it. Really loved it. But at some point, he had become way too busy to watch animated shows, and Life had taken priority.

It had been years , since he had last given a look to that colorful, bizarre world of piracy. Nothing about this made sense, but he couldn't be in the real world. No denying it. The pirates and seakings were hint enough. But the disgusting fruit that turned him into a winged horse? He couldn't think of another fictional universe that had them.

Shit. Okay. Okay. That put things into perspective. What did he remember about One Piece?

Luffy… Luffy had just about beaten up with some sort of shark guy on the ocean floor. Fishman Island. If he remembered it right. Something about racial discrimination. Damn it! He had to try and jolt his memory. The pirates were going on some fire and ice island. He was pretty sure that was the farthest he got.

The crew had… nine members? Luffy, Zoro, the long-nosed guy, Nami, the cook… what was the cook's name again? San… Sanji! Okay, Sanji, then… Robin, weird cyborg guy and… and a talking skeleton.

… That was eight. Who else? He tried to picture the crew, all standing near the lion figurehead.

Chopper, of course. The darling of promotional material.

Sorry, little guy. Having trouble to think, you see?

Okay, world full of pirates, weird weather, sea monsters, devil fruits. Something about willpower in the later arcs too. The letter D was really important too. Did they ever say what it stood for, actually? Couldn't remember anything of the sort.

So, he was at sea… maybe on the Grand Line? There had been some freakish weather, so that was a point in that favor. On the other hand, pirates there were much stronger. And again, freak storms out of nowhere.

Max eyed his wings. He flapped them testily, but the simple motion seemed to resonate throughout his body and the air around him. A sense of weightlessness hit him for a fraction of a second, before he fell back to his hooves. So he was capable of flight. Probably easily.

“… Okay. I could do this.” He took a deep breath, readied his wings, and accidentally struck a tree.

The hit and the ensuing 'TONK' made him cringe. Right, trying to fly in a forest would likely be a bad idea, considering how huge his body was now. So, first, he should try to find a beach that was far enough from the ship, and then…

Then what?

Max's steps stopped. Once he had flown away, presuming that he managed, which direction did he head in? It had taken… six days at least to get to this little island from the last one. And he hadn't the faintest idea where the next one would be. It wasn't like he had a log pose, or an innate sense of direction (quite the opposite, in fact). Besides one devil fruit, he had only eaten one bowl of grub early this morning. He was still starving. How long could he fly? How long till he plummeted?

He couldn't leave.

Trembling, he breathed in and out, forcing himself to try and change back. If they could make a slave out of him as a frankly useless human being, he didn't want to know what they would make out of a rare mythical creature.

If he didn't come back in time, they'd sent the search party. Captain Beaudrille was many things, most terrible, but at the very least, he was a man of his word. They'd come. He had to go back , and something crumbled inside him at the very thought. He had been close , freedom had been just out of reach, calling for him. For now – those words the only thing to convince him to try. For now , he needed to be nothing more than a gutless cabin boy in their eyes.

Something new coiled inside his chest. A new sensation. Not cold, not hot, just some wispy, ghostly feeling inside his body. That was what he reached for.

It worked. His skin tingled once more, followed by a rush of cold where fur became but sparse human hair.

“Okay. Okay.” He sniffed. Wiped his eyes. Slapped himself. “I managed. Now, food. Then, a plan.”

 

--

 

Max returned to the beach as the sun touched the sea.

Not a moment too soon.

Patch, Leon and Oswald arrived just behind him, each carrying a reasonable bounty. Bigger than his, for sure, but at least, Max had managed to scrounge up something. It was frankly a miracle, considering the number of times he had tried not to spontaneously transform into a ginormous horse. Just being conscious of the power inside him had his mind drift toward it, always just on the verge of touching it.

At the very least, he knew for certain he hadn't hallucinated that first change.

“Right on time,” Beaudrille declared, folding his arms behind his back. “Like good cabin boys. Let's see…”

Beaudrille turned his sickly green eyes to him, to the almost full bag of coconuts and fruits Max held, and sniffed.

He didn't say anything. Probably sick of hearing excuses at that point. If someone hadn't shown, or if they hadn't gathered anything, Max knew the captain would have killed them right there and then. But as it was, he might just decide to wait for the next port. Make an example for the fresh meat. That was fine, Max would be gone by the time they docked at the next port.

Chapter Text

He'd have thought the hardest part of careening was to pull the ship back in the ocean, but actually, that was the easiest part. Loading the ship, however. Well, Max was putting what muscles he had developed to good use again. The back and forth was exhausting, but strangely enough, not quite as much as before. All of his brainpower might have been focused on completing the task to perfection, but there was something else at play.

Maybe it was the change in his body. Maybe becoming a zoan had gifted him with greater strength even in human form. It'd be a welcomed change, but Max thought perhaps it was actually having a plan that changed things. To have a goal in the end, and not just being like a living zombie on that ship.

The navigator was a bit of a blabbermouth. So were some of the crew. They had nothing else to do on long stretches of ocean. That, and playing dices and singing – horribly – bawdy songs. Someone usually let it slip whenever they got closer to land.

So, this time, Max would fly off the ship before the night before they docked. He would be able to tell, roughly, which way to go and make for some remote hiding place there. Beaudrille would think he had jumped overboard, which was tantamount to suicide in the Grand Line's waters.

Max pushed the barrel he was holding into Patch's hands. The one-eyed man struggled a little with it before settling and rolling the barrel to the back of the rowboat. Without waiting, Max moved through back through the lines of pirates and returned to the piles of material.

But as he knelt, a bundle of paper caught into the wind and smacked him right in the face.

He ignored the snickers around him. As his eyes caught sight of what was on the front page, he plain forgot about them.

Max held the article with trembling hands, but the words at the top didn't change.

Enies Lobby destroyed by pirates. Oh, he remembered that. Maybe the best arc, or the one he remembered the most since he had stopped reading the manga. The island of justice had been destroyed, because Monkey D. Luffy and his crew cared that damn much!

Just one more proof that he was currently an inhabitant of a fictional universe. But one that gave him something resembling hope. Not everyone on these seas was Beaudrille.

And it hit him like a freight train. They were real. This whole world… the weight of it all, someone had actually declared that they would shoulder it for the sake of a single friend. Because that was the kind of pirates they were. The kind that did what they fucking wanted.

The Pirate King is the person with the most freedom in the world.

So simple. Yet, it might be the most beautiful dream of all. Beyond most men and women, beyond their ability to imagine or realize. The whole world became your sandbox. All of it was at your disposal, right in the cusp of your hands.

Max's heart skipped a beat as he was seized by a violent need . The ghostly pull of his devil fruit coiled in his chest, like a snake preparing to snake, and Max had to bite down the urge to transform right there and then.

Quickly, he shoved the folded article under his belt, and picked up another barrel. One of the very last.

Gibson, further down the rows, cracked his whip. “Pick up the paces, vermin! We're going to need the high tides to get out of the lagoon!”

Within minutes, they had loaded up the last of the rowboats. Now, pirates were getting onto the boats en masse. They weren't waiting for anyone. Max tried to push his way through, only to feel his arms and legs slow down drastically.

Devil fruit users became paralyzed once submerged underwater.

As Max was learning, seawater up to his ankles was enough to have an impact, however small. His body felt sluggish, heavy. Most pirates were on board, and starting to row. The boats were moving deeper into the bay.

He reached forward, slowly – so slowly despite his panic and fear. He was moving an inch for every foot the boats moved. Some pirates were howling and jeering, having noticed his struggle to get on board.

“Come on, Piggy! Can't be tired already, can you?"

“Hey, Piggy! We should tell Captain you need a break!”

The words sent fire flaring down his veins. No! He wouldn't get shot by Beaudrille here. Not now. Not ever . He'd survived it. He'd survived them all!

A cry of rage building up in his throat, Max threw himself deeper into the sea. He was close. He could almost touch the boat's wooden frame…

A rough hand closed over his. Max's body lurched forward, his midsection catching against the rims of the boat.

Oswald?

Without a word, the pale-looking man pulled Max up into the rowboat. The change was almost instantaneous. Max could breathe again. Of course, on this crew, he never had the room for it. As soon as he was inside the boat, someone pushed him off their lap, and he stumbled a bit before sitting down next to the oars.

“Come on, vermin. Show's over. Put your back into it!” Gibson roared over their heads.

Max exchanged a glance with Oswald and nodded. The guy might have left him to die the day before, but it mustn't have been personal if he helped him now. And that much, Max knew he had no right to protest. Every corpse he had thrown overboard had been nothing personal too. Just another way of trying to survive the sadist that was Beaudrille.

 

--

 

Max forced himself to keep his eyes down as he brushed the Seafarer's railings. The clear blue sky above had grown fascinating in the last few hours. Too fascinating. He had found himself itching for the wisps of power curled inside his chest. He'd been tempted more than a few times already. And that was the whole danger. They'd only just begun this next leg of their journey on the Grand Line. It could take some time before they got anywhere close to an island. In the meantime, he ought to maintain his strength as much as possible.

He had wings as a horse right? It was more of a pegasus fruit than a horse one. He remembered obscure tidbits about that mythical creature, but the most obvious one was that it could fly . He could jump over the railing and take off.

Where to? Every daydream always came back to this. What was the next step? If he went ahead and left and ended up stranded in the middle of the ocean, carried only by his own physical strength, he might as well just dive into the sea right there and then. Save himself some time and effort.

Max sighed. Just a few more days. Maybe a week or two. He could do this. He could , so long as there was an end in sight. He only had to keep working and…

It was oddly quiet on deck. Sure, there was the basic skeleton crew needed on the lookout in case of a weather shift. Sure, Shift the musician plucking chords on his old guitar.

Max stopped.

Right in the middle of the melody, right as he had been humming along, Shift's chords had vibrated with an oddly deep twang. A complete misstep.

No one made missteps on Beaudrille's crew and survived long.

Now that he looked at him, Max could see a few droplets of sweat rolling on the musician's chin. Shift seemed oblivious to Max's glance. His face was pointedly not aimed toward Captain Beaudrille's cabin.

Something was wrong.

Max forced himself to pick up his brush and scrub the vomit stains out of the railing. He was losing his touch. He was supposed to keep working as usual to make sure no one suspected him until he could leave. It didn't matter. It didn't matter. No unless Gibson or Beaudrille said something. He had more work to do.

Once every surface he could see was clean enough to sparkle midday sun, Max wiped the sweat from his brows and headed for the hold. Next would have to be the cows and the chickens. Hopefully, Big Bessa wasn't in one of her moods. Last time, she'd actually bitt-

Cold metal pressed against his neck.

Max stayed very still.

A motley pirate with a large unshaven beard held his sword up, his eyes focused with an intensity Max hadn't thought a moron like that could have . More urgently, why would one member of the crew suddenly decide to threaten him? He hadn't pissed off anyone recently.

“Aye?” he asked, forcing himself to breath and not let panic set in. Worse came to pass, he transformed and hightailed out of there.

“Nothing personal.”

From the shadows of the deck suddenly moved one man, younger and an inch taller than bearded guy. Blondie. Bags under his eyes, the same air of anger as that day on the beach. Eyes naturally drifted to someone with that kind of aura. It screamed 'violence'. Danger.

The fact that he pulled out a pistol didn't even add to it.

Blondie put a hand on top of the sword, and forced it away from Max's throat. Despite his companion's best efforts.

“Don't,” the other pirate said. “He'll babble to Beaudrille just to stay in his good graces.”

Blondie turned to him with a hateful sneer. “Will you? Beaudrille'll like to hear about this, no shit. I bet he's going to be grateful if you try to scream for him right now.” He let out a humorless laugh. “Sure, you'll be dead by the time he gets there, but he'll have a thought for your corpse.”

Bearded guy groaned. “Why do you bother with Piggy anyway?”

“I hate Beaudrille,” Max cut in without wavering or hesitation. He said it like the absolute, unchangeable fact of life it had become. Max despised that captain. Loathed everything he represented. If this was a chance to be rid of him, he would gladly take it. With both hands. “I have imagined killing him more times than you can count, in more painful ways than the bastard likes to inflict. I'm in.”

Blondie pulled back his pistol's hammer with a 'click'.

“Get inside.” He gestured to his left, where Max saw a dozen of men staring in their direction. “We're talking about something important.”

They greeted him with the usual mockery, but it seriously lacked in sincerity. Might as well as said 'Hello, awkward guy whom I know' for all the impact it had. The feeling of unease grew within Max's guts. Yup. Things were shifting on the Seafarer.

Blondie shoved Max aside, not even remotely caring of where he threw the cabin boy before he took his place in the middle of the circle.

“This can't go on.”

He could have punched them in the face for a less shocking alternative. The pirates blinked, stared, gaped. Then, a hushed whisper built up in the hold. Was he…? Would he actually… ?

“He killed Avery yesterday. Avery!” Some hung their heads; one, older than most, raised up a cup of rum before downing it in one swing. “The guy's been with us for years. He was a good man. His arm would have healed, and he worked twice as hard as any other man on this ship anyway! He shouldn't have been killed!”

The whispers died down. In their stead was a weighty silence that chained them down like iron shackles. Glances were exchanged between the longer-lived members of the crew. Glances that carried entire conversations within a heartbeat.

One man, graying, pushed on his knees and stood. “Ben, is this about getting revenge for Avery? I like him as much as the next guy, but the captain's nuts. I'm not going against him just 'cause you're angry.”

“You're a moron, you know that, Gerond?” Ben hissed. “Didn't hear me, didja ? Avery had done nothing but get his arm fucked up for a bit. Captain's been getting worse. It's not just the cabin boys anymore. He gets off on it, I tell you.”

Well, thought Max with a raised eyebrow, it's good to know I'm not imagining that.

“What, exactly, are you suggesting we do?” drawled a bulkier black-haired pirate.

Ben let out a slow exhale, taking a second to glance at the men he had his back turned to, then glanced to the one who had spoken. “We… take care of the problem before we're all dead.”

One hand caressed his pistol as he raised it to eye level.

Max knew the word for that: mutiny. And for a split second, he thought it was the most beautiful, most sensual goddamned word in the entire English language.

Every single of his fantasies about breaking Beaudrille in half could come to life now. If he only had to choose one, today, on this boat, he'd beg for a shot at the splinters. And only because there was no sandpaper to rub the bastard's eyes out.

If the others agreed. If not, then Ben was a dead man walking. Or, more accurately, was a soon-to-be-tortured-and-THEN-killed man. And the men sitting around him would be the ones to deliver him, gift-wrapped to the captain.

Of course, if some guy spoke up against it now and he was the only one… well, at least, he wouldn't be tortured. Too much noise, it could ruin the whole thing.

So, Max could say without exaggeration that he thought he'd been transported into a field of statues. Creatures of stillness whose only living features were eyes that darted in every corner, searching, waiting for the words spoken that would break the dam and unleash a flood.

“Maybe…” Gerond said slowly, one hand going to his chin.

Every man leaned forward.

“Maybe… Ben has a point.”

Then, another man, more hesitant, “Captain's been working us to the bone. Can't remember the last time I enjoyed a day at sea. S'why I even became a pirate.”

Some nodded, because you didn't have to be a mutineer to acknowledge that. They were passing off their chores to the captain's toys for a reason. Max, standing by a column, carefully remained silent. Others picked up the slack.

“Anyone remember Frank?”

“Crazy bastard was drunk off his ass when he challenged Beaudrille to a game of dice!”

“Didn't stop him from winning!” crooned the pirate closest to Max.

Some goodhearted laughter came, but only for a moment.

“I'm in,” Gerond said.

“Me too. Captain's pushed it too far.”

Then, it was an avalanche. One after the other, pirates added their voices to the crowd. It seemed to build up as a chorus of resentment, growing and growing into a storm, something howling and hungry for blood.

And yet, they still heard the calm words cut right into it.

“Well, well, well, I hadn't expected to find traitors on my ship.”

Blood drained from the faces of every pirate in the hold. There was not a man on this ship that hadn't known whose voice had rang in the darkness.

Every men scampered as a broken body crashed in their midst. A bloodied guitar snapped in half followed. Only then did the silhouettes stepped into the light.

First, Gibson with five other lesser brutes. Pistol drawn, ready. And behind them, that bastard in green, whose crimson-colored face contrasted vividly with his clothing.

“I will give you all one chance. The first one that talk will get to live. Whose idea was it?”

If I don't, I'll - And for the first time since boarding the Seafarer, Max couldn't finish that thought. Lookout thought I would snitch to Beaudrille. That I wouldn't dare rise up against the bastard.

He might not die if he played it right. He hadn't brought any attention to himself before. Captain Beaudrille was not one to be moved by begging, but he had a hint of practical sense. He ruled his crew through intimidation and fear. He knew what buttons to push. Who to crush and who to spare, knowing they would be too spineless to rise up against him.

It's your nature. You were born to be under my heels. You understand that, don't you?”

Fuck.

That.

Noise.

“I'm the one that started it.”

Even the dead made more noise than the crew in that moment. The air stilled. The waves calmed. And then erupted an explosion of shouting. Most mutineers pointed emphatically at Max, repeating, confirming everything the cabin boy had said. Begging, afterward, to be spared. It wasn't fair, captain. They had been cornered, roped into this, not their fault. Please, captain, please. I was only pretending.

Max resisted the urge to transform as Gibson's enforcers pounced. Not here. Not now. He was surrounded. He wouldn't have a good shot lined up before they filled him with lead.

Surprisingly, they didn't punch his lights out. Beaudrille had said something that the ambient shouting had swallowed. What, however, became swiftly apparent when they brought him on the dock.

They tied him up to the mast, back laid bare, wrist bound together on the other side.

The men formed a wide circle around him and Beaudrille. Most of the mutineers looked just about ready to piss themselves in fear. Yet, in that crowd, Max felt as if he was alone with his bastard captain.

“So, you said you are the one that engineered the mutiny. Interesting. You see,” Beaudrille said as he circled Max. “There is a problem with that.”

His breath tickled the back of Max's neck.

“I don't believe you.”

Max grinned a grim smile. “Sorry to hear that, Captain.”

“Gibson, the whip.” He waited, one hand outstretched, palm up. He didn't have to wait for long. Heads would roll otherwise. “Now, you will tell me right this instant. Who was the real investigator of that mutinous talk?”

“What makes you think it wasn't me?” Max asked with more bravado than he felt. “I mean, I don't care about any of your men. I’m not going to defend them.”

The words glided over Beaudrille entirely. He unfolded the whip carefully. “True. I doubt you formed some special bond with any of the idiots pushing you around.” Beaudrille let the words hang in the air. A naive person might think the captain was pondering the truth of that statement. Someone more experienced knew it was just him stretching the wait.

One's imagination flared up in the seconds before the executioner's axe fell. Beaudrille knew that principle well.

His tone, previously friendly, took on a cold, sinister note. “They wouldn't follow a maggot like you. Who was it?”

Max had barely opened his mouth that white-hot pain seared across his back. His mind blanked out.

Whatever idea he had had seemed so puny in comparison to that pain. His imagination hadn't been nearly as potent as it should have been. Hell! He… he could hardly think. His body panted for him, his eyes tried to focus again on something concrete, solid. Wood. He was inches away from wood.

“Who was it?” he heard, and for a second, his body quivered at the thought of another hit.

He answered, as if possessed, “You… you don't know? Are you scared?”

Talon-like fingers dug into the skin of his back, stretching it just right. Max's throat made a noise like a dying cat.

“His name.”

Max forced himself to breath. To move his torso despite the stretching of his wounds. Droplets of sweat dripped from his brows. He squinted his eyes shut, forcing the words out loud and clear for the whole crew to hear. “What happens once I'm dead? You go through the crew one by one?”

Another crack of thunder.

More pain. More blood.

“If I have to.” Matter-of-factly. “But I won't. If not you, then the next one will talk.”

Panting, Max twisted his neck just enough to look back at the captain. His grin remained. “And if they lie? Can you tell?”

The third time the whip struck, the pain seemed both deeper, and shallower. It was there, right there at the front of his mind like a repressed scream, and he bit on his lips and swallowed it all. The crew was on the cusp of his hands, almost within reach now.

“His name.”

“It doesn't matter what they say, does it?” Max spat, and the air seemed to shift. The circle made by the crew became indistinct. “You'll just claim they deserved it for thinking of rebelling against you anyway.”

“They do!”

The cry resonated on the deck. It lingered, in echoes, then in thoughts. The men on the deck squirmed. Ben's knuckles clenched over his pistol.

Gibson cast a dark look to the crew. His biceps bulged as he unfolded his arms and closed his hands into fists.

One wrong move, one ill-thought action, and the Seafarer would be the host to a bloodbath.

“But!” Beaudrille spat the word with a disgust deeper than anything before, “I am a merciful man. Not all of them need to suffer. Only the ringleader.”

Merciful . Oh, that word, he had used that word. To a crew that had complained not an hour ago about him executing anyone that inconvenienced him, regardless of their loyalty to the crew.

Max thought of Ben's look on the beach, that blank stare that reflected no light, no life, whilst blood dripped from his brows. “You had it coming. A captain that doesn't care about his crew is no captain at all!”

The bounds around his wrist fell, cut too quickly for him to see. Before he got stagger his way to his feet, he got pulled up right into the face of a stone-cold Beaudrille, whose eyes simmered with fury.

“And what would you know, maggot?”

I know you . I know what you think and how you think. You're wondering if killing me will be the trigger. Your pride is hurting. You thought I was broken, and now you don't know if anyone else was pretending. You can't kill me until I tell you, otherwise everyone else will see it.

But what he said instead was aimed at the crew. “I know a captain that would challenge the whole world if it meant getting a member of his crew back.”

Max fumbled and reached under belt for the folded scraps of newspaper. They unfolded easily, and the whole crew had to look back at the dazzling, joyful grin of the pirate on the wanted poster.

Beaudrille's eyes narrowed. “Him?”

“Yes, him!” Max was shouting. He hadn't even known when he had started, but now he was and every pirate on the crew seemed to eye him with a bit more wariness. “Monkey D. Luffy! One of the supernovas! He's risen higher in under a year than you will in your entire life! He's the man worth three hundred millions bellies while you have barely breached fifty!”

Max was able to physically see the moment Beaudrille tipped into madness. Before he even howled and swung an arm, before he rushed forth in an uncoordinated dash, it was all in his eyes. They clouded over. Now, he was only listening to the thrumming rage in his veins. He would kill Max, and stomp on his corpse, consequences be damned. He was little better than an animal now.

Fitting, if one wanted to wax poetics about it.

Max's body grew in the blink of an eye. Digging his front hooves in the deck, he pulled back his hind legs toward his midsection.

His hooves slammed into Beaudrille's chest.

Beaudrille went flying .

And proceeded to crash straight through the walls of his own cabin. Dust and splinters obscured him from view, but the shock wave alone gave the pirates hope that Beaudrille wouldn't be left standing. With a rambunctious cry, the pirates broke ranks and charged Gibson's faction.

They were seconds away from impact, when a shadow rocketed out of the dust.

Sharp, burning pain slid right through Max's shoulder.

The crew, who had been on the verge of full-blown mutiny, had frozen right in its track. On all their faces, a nameless horror had replaced their fury. They stared, unable to do anything else, as Beaudrille retracted a scythe-like blade from Max's flesh. Without a word, Beaudrille brought the blade to his mouth – what passed as a mouth – mandibles, clicking things that reminded him of spiders – and licked the blood from it.

Max wasn't facing a human at all.

He only had a split second to realize his mistake, to take in the full measure of his naivety.

“So you're a zoan too, maggot?” the overgrown mantis hissed. “You've done well hiding that from me. You found it on the island, didn't you? Is that why you think you can challenge me? Because you got lucky to find some power placed in your lap?!”

In panic, Max reared, hoping to stomp him, but Beaudrille easily zipped beneath Max's wings. The next second, a burning line of pain zigzagged across Max's flanks.

You have one of the twenty fruits that grant flight?” Beaudrille threw back his head and laughed. “Oh, this is just perfect . Immobilize him!”

Their captain's transformation into a monster with swords for arms had horrified the mutinous sentiment right out of them. They surged from every corner of the deck with ropes, godspeed.

Max had seen this play out a dozen times in movie. It was all the more frightening that he couldn't fight his way out of it. The ropes came from all sides like a rain of serpents. One around his left hind leg pulled, and for that split second, Max was completely off balance. He couldn't dodge the rope that circled his neck. Then came his wings, his front legs… his hind legs… Soon, he was buried in ropes. Every one of his limbs was trapped, immobilized by five men at least. The rope around his neck was the loosest, held only by Beaudrille himself, and he looked nonchalant about the whole thing.

Like he had never lost his cool for a moment. What hope had flared up in Max's chest faltered, then flickered out.

Damn it! What had he been thinking?!

“I'm not going to kill you,” Beaudrille said with unnatural calm. “Unless you keep struggling.”

Just like that, Max's resolve broke. Why had he even… ? He couldn't do anything. He had lost control of his fate a long time ago.

“There you are, Piggy. That's a good Piggy. You remembered your place, didn't you?”

Max almost felt a flicker of hatred, but even that was only ashes in his heart. Everything had gone wrong. He could have left earlier, on the island. Fear had stayed his hands then. What was the difference now? Coward. A moment ago, he would have bitten the blade-like hand patting his head.

Now, Beaudrille was all but sitting on Max's sides, like a beast he'd slain in battle. “Why, all treachery aside, this has been a rather fruitful morning, I'd say.” Most pirates shuddered. Many pair of eyes flicked back to Ben. “With the power of flight on our side, we shall rise to even higher levels of infamy.”

Beaudrille crouched. In a flicker of light and wind, his arms became a pale green blur.

Ben fell to the floor, blood pouring from his neck, under the horrified screams of the crew. Some even shouted his name, and joined him on the deck. Ben’s eyes remained focused but an instant, and in that last moment before death, they focused entirely on Max. Two men fallen, one living, one dying. It was hard to tell which was which. Though the light dimmed, the fire within Ben's eyes hadn't.

It remained until the very last spurts of blood had dried up. Then, it was frozen, forever etched on a brave man's face.

Beaudrille's boot crashed into Ben's nose. It didn't change a thing.

“Yes,” the captain hummed, “I believe I shall celebrate by taking to the air. Show you are not defective.” He patted Max's head.

“Captain,” the first mate's voice rumbled.

“He is broken, Gibson. He was counting on that little ace in the hole to get the best of me. And now he knows how futile that was,” said Beaudrille, but lacking something from his usual voice.

Max didn't ponder it. What was the point? The ropes on him loosened. Max stood, briefly glancing at the open sky before feeling the pressure of blades against his jugular. Pretty clear as far as messages went. He didn't react when Beaudrille climbed onto his back, testing for a seat behind Max's wings. He was thinking of Ben's eyes.

Beaudrille's heels dug into his sides, right below his wings. “Onward!”

Captain's will be done .

He broke into a gallop, spreading his wings while men ducked or jumped on the railing to get out of the way. Beaudrille's laughing rang loud as Max felt the ground flee out of reach and the wind push under his wings. In but seconds, they flew over the Seafarer's railings, and over open waters.

It was almost instinctual. Not unlike a flight simulator, even. A thought was enough to twist some feathers to direct the wings around his body. Slower winds called for a faster wingbeat. Beaudrille pulling on his chin was a clear enough message on where to go. And so, Max began their ascent toward the clouds.

The one irony Max hadn't even had time to process in all this storm of whammies… he had been scared of heights. Always had felt the distance between himself and the lowest point of solid ground. It never took more than looking to get his brain started, to get him to imagine his body being whipped to the wind, spinning, spinning. And the inevitable crash.

Death.

He flapped his wings faster. Harder. Again. Again. It took Beaudrille yanking on his neck to even get him to realize he was doing it.

“What do you think you're trying to pull? You go where I tell you to go.”

He didn't bother arguing. The blades were almost directly at his throat. But Beaudrille's phrasing implied there actually was somewhere the man wanted to go.

As if sensing this, Beaudrille pulled back one blade and pointed right. “Starboard, Piggy! There should be a thieving den close.”

Max tilted right .

They should be seeing the next island soon, huh? I don't see any island .

His thoughts ground to a halt. He didn't see any island. He didn't see any lush green or rocky grays, no yellowing beach, no reddish cliffs. What he saw was a world of blue. Dark blues, pale blues, cerulean, turquoise, cyan, marine, aquamarines. He saw the waves roll and the mist linger. He saw flickers of an invisible brush painting the surface with lighter blues. He saw shadows so long the Seafarer wouldn't be a speck in comparison.

From the hubs, down in the hold, the sea never appeared more than a long horizon darker than the skies. A host of horrors. He had never expected to feel different about it.

Funny. He had taken the plane a handful of times before, most times at night. Six hours of sitting down? Nope, gonna sleep them all away. But at least once, he had been both awake, and by the windows on a clear day. He remembered the clouds, like plains of a white lighter than snow.

This time, there was no wall, no glass to separate him from the infinity of the sky.

The Straw Hats had seen a similar sight. They'd gone to some heavenly place. Islands in the skies, with angels everywhere and a crazy mad god.

Then, Luffy had pummeled said god into submission.

He had rung the golden bell in the sky and told a friend that his dream of saving his ancestor's reputation hadn't been pointless .

Why had Ben looked at him?

“Port now, cabin boy. We'll go back to the ship, and tell Gibson that this test run was a success. You might prove your worth yet.”

On Max's back, the mantis-man laughed. All Max heard was that one little sentence. “ We'll go back to the ship. ” And he would. Beaudrille's blades would slit his throat if he did anything else. He had to give up the sky. To forget the vastness of the world, and squeeze himself back on the Seafarer again. To pretend it was so petty a place again.

Do you think you can survive with the whole world as your enemy?”

YOU WANNA BET?!

Three hundred million bellies was the bounty on a man that would face the world to save his friend. Fifty was the one of a petty sadist that could only ever thrive under the waves.

If I go back under his thumb, I might as well be dead.

He pulled back his lips in a poor imitation of a grin, but the feeling was all there. For a split second, his heart seemed to thrum in his veins, and he was certain, absolutely certain. Fear had become a distant echo. Barely audible at all under an ocean of stillness. “Hey, Captain.”

“Quiet! Beasts of burden don't need to-”

“Ever heard the tale of the scorpion and the frog?”

And as he said it, Max felt something spark in his chest. Something cold and hard and strong, as icy and deadly as a blizzard.

“It's a story I hate, you know?” His wings flapped hard enough to push them through the clouds. White filled their sight, above and below, left and right, every corner was white, and the vapor clung to their skins. Max pushed further. “One day, a scorpion asks a frog to help it cross the river on its back.”

“Shut up!”

Limbs-like blade snapped right around the corner of Max's eyes, and slices of his skin fell off. Liquid froze in the wind before it could seep into his fur. More lines zigzagged across his body, some near his face, but none touching his wings or neck. Beaudrille understood.

The little hurts were mere stings, phantom things that he didn't need to care about.

“The frog says 'No way, you're going to sting me.' And the scorpion replies 'if I did, we'd both drown.' So the frog agrees. Because the frog thinks the scorpion isn't stupid. That it doesn't want to die.”

Max's wings stopped, and for a moment, only their momentum carried them forward. Slowly, they reached what would be the apex. The moment when their bodies almost came to a halt in the air.

The moment time froze for them both.

Max exhaled.

Then leaned forward. Slowly, inch by inch, the masses of white seemed to pull upward. Blood rushed to his face, making him lightheaded. Everything became laser focused. And they fell through the layer of clouds.

An infinity of blue spread beneath them.

“H-h-hey! What are you doing?!”

“Once the frog reaches the middle of the river, guess what the scorpion does.”

The wind howled in their ears, and sliced at them like blades. Beaudrille's paltry arms couldn't even compare. The pressure against his neck disappeared in a rush, Beaudrille screaming and cursing, heels digging into Max's sides. Then, two more slices into his shoulders, the effect of a papercut compared to the thrums of Max's heart.

“You don't have the guts! We're both gonna die. Like in your stupid story. Are you ready to die?!”

“Guess why the scorpion stings anyway, knowing it'll die.”

They could see the waves moving now.

“Stop! STOP!”

Little dots in the corner of their eyes were taking shapes now. One of them resembled a ship.

No matter, they were too far to save either of them.

Beaudrille's blades retracted into hands, both of which frantically pulled at Max's chin, as if that could force him to straighten up.

“It's in a scorpion's nature to sting.”

The world exploded in a rush of water.

Chapter Text

Devil fruits users cannot swim.

He had remembered that, if only because walking up to the row boat on the beach had left him feeling drained.

He had been counting on that actually.

But his imagination had failed to live up to it. How could it? How could he have truly understood what it was like to have his entire body unable to move? To see the shards of light on the surface grow ever fainter. Blurring as his mouth refused to close. Water licking the beginning of his throat, a taste of brine and blood overpowering his senses.

Black dots appearing before his eyes.

A slow heat building up in his lungs.

Maybe the crew would fish them out. Maybe they would remember his speech about… oh, who was he kidding? That bunch of assholes wouldn't bat an eye at letting him drown.

He was going to die, and there was nothing he could do about it.

Beaudrille's large insectoid body was already disappearing in the depths.

At least, I took down the bastard with me.

Shadows moved inside the depths. Along with them came great shifts in the currents, the water over his fur changing direction completely to the whims of the beasts. Darkness crept up on him. The burning in his lungs spread.

Huh. Maybe he would drown before they took the first bite. Just to spite them.

--

He came to awareness slowly, in a body that felt like molten iron. Opening his eyes was a futile goal at the moment. He could barely even twitch a finger. His thoughts were slow to come, memories of the depths almost overwhelming until he realized he could breathe.

“… concussion. They hit the water pretty hard.” For a second, Max felt himself falling under. The words blurred before becoming clearer again. “I'm surprised the damage wasn't more extensive… very lucky… the whiplashes on his back… not infected…”

Something about the voice bothered him. It didn't… it didn't fit the words. Almost like a child's voice, yet the content and tone were all professional. Well, there were stranger things on the Grand Line. A baby voice wouldn't shock him.

That moment was when he realized he was still breathing. He. Was. Breathing.

If he had had the strength, his eyes would have shot open and his body, upright. Alive?! He was alive ?! How?! The crew wouldn't have tried fishing him out. Hell, the bastards had to be fucking celebrating Beaudrille was gone. Unless… unless one of them thought a zoan would be useful. They would have another thing coming if they thought he would listen to any of them now!

Wait. No one had a voice like that doctor on the crew. Did they even have a doctor on the crew?

For a moment, Max managed to get out of his own head and listen to what was being said. Around him, the voices came into focus, becoming more than just blurs of noises and groaning.

“He is severely underfed, Luffy.”

Blubbering. Crying, but without the fear that he had heard for a month back on the Seafarer.

“Sanji!”

A slow exhale, the faintest crackling of flames. A harsh smell of smoke. “On it, captain.”

Max slipped back into darkness.

--

Some time later, liquid pearled at the corner of his lips. It dripped alongside the sides of a straw, or at least something that had its shape. He couldn't see. A moment, he feared it might be poison, before the sane part of him pointed out that a knife across the throat would be a lot less of a hassle right now. Hell, smothering him wouldn't even dirty the bed.

Fuck, he'd been messed up by the Seafarer, hadn't he?

When the liquid slid through his lips and dripped onto his tongue, Max decided he didn't care if it was poisoned or not.

The smoker had brought soup.

It was also the most delicious thing he had ever eaten. He only recognized the flavor as chicken, and everything else was lost as he damn near passed out from the pure joy that was real food again.

“Oi, Chopper! He's crying.”

He was, wasn't he? Ah, he couldn't even be embarrassed. On the Seafarer, he had been taught that food was far more precious than gold, but he had forgotten the blessing that was taste .

He'd tell his saviors that, if he could. One of them was screaming shrilly, and apparently rushed up to his bed. “Was the soup boiling hot?!”

“What?” The trickling of soup slowed to a stop. Life had just become unfair again. “Of course not! What kind of cook do you take me for?”

They didn't understand. No one had done anything wrong. It was just him. He really should tell them they misunderstood.

He fell back asleep before he could.

--

His next awakening was slower, but stronger as well. At first, he thought himself drifting in the darkness, alone. Yet within moments, his mind seemed to stretch toward a presence. Faintly, he recognized a rhythm, a back and forth of strings from half-remembered episodes. The music… was soothing.

Nothing was soothing in this world. The sheer wrongness yanked him out of his daze.

“Where… where am I?” he asked, stirring from his slumber. As best as he could manage, he pushed himself on his elbows and tried to look around. But really, he had to stop and stare right at his bedside.

A skeleton was playing the violin in the seat next to his bed.

It probably should have scared him more to realize he had died and was now sleeping next to the dearly departed. Was he also a skeleton? Not exactly his conception of the afterlife, but who was he to complain? The music was nice, more jolly than expected.

“You're on our ship,” the skeleton said with a soft, melodious voice.

Ship? Wait. Oh, right. One Piece. Pirates and weirdness forced to sit next to each other until they fused at the hip.

So he wasn't dead. That was just Brook. But, in all fairness, it actually was quite freaky to see a skeleton move so animatedly. Luckily, the afro and the grandfatherly tones dampened the effect for the most part. So, Max retained his mental faculties, to an extant.

“...How?”

Brook hummed, still playing his violin, but with softer notes now. “Our resident mermaid Camie rescued you.”

“Wait, really?” Shoot, there had been a mermaid on the crew? When was that again? Considering Brook was around…

“Indeed, my friend. Our sniper Usopp saw a rider fall from the sky. I could hardly believe my eyes either… because I don't have any eyes! SKULL JOKE! YOHOHOHOOOO!”

Max snickered. Really? Oh wow, they were even cornier in person. He felt bad for laughing. Mostly because it caused his body to actually ache all over. The joke itself was fun enough.

“Brook!” snapped a child's voice from outside the room. “You better not be joking to yourself! He needs rest! Rest!”

“Ah, no, no, Chopper, our guest is awake.”

“What?” The door slammed open, and in rushed a little reindeer standing on two legs. “Ah! It's true!”

“Thanks for taking care of me,” Max rasped. “I'm starting to feel better now. You're a great doctor.”

Seeing the little guy blush and do a dance to pretend he wasn't flattered was much funnier in person. “Don't think a compliment means I like you, bastard!”

“I wouldn't dream of it,” he assured Chopper. It was true as well. A few words of flattery wouldn't suffice to earn someone's trust. In the meantime, he glanced down at his bandaged chest. “How long was I out?”

“Two days. You were already wounded before falling in the water, and that kind of crazy dive didn't help. I couldn't find an injury on your wings before you shifted back though…”

Max flinched as he recalled the feeling of the wind clawing at his body, the rush of power that had come at hearing Beaudrille panic . And the cold of the water, grasping at him with invisible claws ready to drag him in the abyss. He hadn't expected to be saved.

“It wasn't an accident,” he said quietly, “I didn't lose control.”

There was a rush of rustling clothing as Brook suddenly towered over Max, his face half-shadowed by his afro and his hat . For a split second, Max thought he had offended his host somehow. White as the sheet he was lying on, he scrambled to bow his head.

Only to see stars when a frankly very solid skull ended up hitting him right atop his head.

They are gonna throw me overboard. They'll hate a murderer like me. The Straw Hats don't kill. How could I forget?

… They were a little slow to grab him though. He'd have expected something quick and painful. Tentatively, he opened up an eye, only to see Chopper's jaw somewhere down on the floor. Brook's entire body was in a similar situation, minus his butt hanging in the air. His head kissed the dirt, weighted down by two cartoonishly big bumps. Growing from what skin and tissue? Max would rather not question the logic, lest he went insane.

Besides, the origins of at least one bump was obvious enough. “AH! Brook!” Chopper yelled, his teeth sharpened by his anger. “You headbutted him! He already had head trauma!”

“My apologies…” Brook said shakingly. “I was too formal.”

“No, no, that was me,” Max said, not even registering his own words, “I hadn't realized you were going to bow and I placed my head in your path. Sorry, sorry.”

“Nonsense!” Brook was back on his feet, standing straight as a ramrod. Straighter even. He could give lessons to a ruler. “One does not blame a nail for being hit by a hammer!”

Max paled. “I wouldn't blame the tool for the wielder, if that's what you mean. But some things deserve a punishment. Not knowing any better isn't an excuse.” It never worked as an excuse. They begged forgiveness, promised to fix everything, just please, please, I didn't know, I have a family, please, I will do anything.

A click. A bang. A thud.

Max's hand jerked to his face. Always the same noises. His body tensed. Always the same sequence, then a smirk, sometimes a few chuckles from the onlookers. Max's eyes dart from Brook to Chopper, wondering whom had higher authority, which one could shoot him. They were going to.

He'd screwed up. He'd hurt a member of the crew.

“Breathe,” someone told him. Someone young.

There were no children on the Seafarer. Beaudrille would never tolerate them. Teenagers' voices cracked, often while they pleaded for their lives. The voice was too young. He didn't understand.

“Breathe. Listen to me.” Hands – not they weren't, who had hands like this?! – touched his shoulders. The voice continued. “Relax. You're okay. Breathe. Listen to my voice. Inhale.”

In.

“Exhale.”

Out.

Again. Breathe. All he had to do was breathe. Orders were absolute. Max had to breath.

His heartbeat slowed. The hands that were touching him shifted a little, and Max realized they were cloven. He wasn't on the Seafarer. Chopper was the one talking. How had he lost sight of that?

When had Brook started humming such a gentle song? Max hadn't noticed. Chopper was right in front of him, hooves digging into the mattress on Max's left side. Helpless, he sent a look to the little doctor.

“You were having a panic attack,” Chopper said.

“You seem quite tired,” Brook began, a phalanges against his chin. “Perhaps we should go and leave you to rest.”

“No! No, please. I don't want to sleep. I don't want to-” dream. To be back on the Seafarer, buried under ropes, blades at my neck. To see what marred the deck. To push another dead body. I don't want to go BACK .

Chopper's hooves pressed hard against the sides of his face. Max's train of thought derailed, for a lack of a better term, and crashed horribly. He stared at the little reindeer who demanded his full attention.

“Okay!” Then, much more calmly, “okay, you don't need to rest if it helps you feel better…?”

The trailing off was a clear invitation.

“Max.”

“Chopper,” said the reindeer.

“Brook,” said the skeleton.

Amusingly, a small part of Max snarked that he needed not be afraid of accidentally letting their names slip anymore. Hard to explain how a delirious man could have learned the names of complete strangers out of nowhere.

Then again… Enies Lobby had just happened, hadn't it? No, wait, Brook was around. They were probably just after Thriller Bark.

“Charmed,” Max said sincerely. “Though, now that we all know each other's names... Can I ask why you were suddenly 'formal', Brook?”

Tension thickened the air between the two crewmates. Funny how they were nothing alike, and yet both seemed to carry the same heaviness, the same hesitation.

“Unfortunate news, Max.”

Well, that was never good.

“Camie couldn't find your friend,” Chopper said. Seemed like the little doctor had learned the 'rip the bandaid' kind of approach. Considering his mentor… Yeah, he could see it.

Brook again was a picture of solemness, cane over his arm, hat held while he bowed – though not as deeply this time. “My deepest apologies about this. I am well-versed with that kind of loss, young man.”

Logic be damned, the sheer sorrow that exuded from Brook's voice and pose sufficed to make Max understand how a skeleton could cry.

And it was a cruel joke that it was wasted on such a piece of shit. “Thanks, but… no thanks. He wasn't my friend. He was my kidnapper. I dove in so he would drown. I… I killed him.”

Laughter bubbled inside him. No one had found him. Beaudrille was dead? Maybe there was some justice in this world. The bastard could have been eaten by a seaking for all Max cared, and he wasn't going to shed a single tear on this senseless loss of human life or whatever other bleeding heart sentiment he was supposed to feel.

Fuck it if that made him a horrible person. His tormentor was dead. And his day just couldn't get better.

“Well then,” Brook said after a pregnant pause. The words carried just enough hesitation that Max realized he had confessed to murder to a crew of people he knew avoided it even against mass murderers.

He could not read Brook's expression on his face. Damn Brook's lack of face! As for Chopper… the hat obscured most of his face as he looked down.

Max forced himself to breathe. He could tell he was close to another attack. His thoughts were starting to spiral out of control, just like the trails of strange thoughts before falling asleep. No, he was on the Sunny. He was there , in the present .

“W-w-well?” he prompted, his voice hoarse from fear.

“I would say that this calls for something joyful. Being freed is always an occasion.” He cleared his throat, uncaring of Max's jaw drop. “ Yohohohoooo. Yo-ho-ho-hooooo...

They… they didn't care? And as the realization struck him, another voice uttered but one word: 'pirates'.

Yohohohoooo. Yo-ho-ho-hooooo...

Gather up all of the crew, it's time to ship out Bink's brew.

Sea wind blows, to where who knows, the waves will be our guide

All across the oceans tide, rays of sunshine far and wide...

Max let his head lull to the melody of Brook's strings. Getting a live performance of the song, it felt incredibly gentle. Brook had a delicate touch, every string stroked with the care of an old friend, the violin letting out its singing like it would to a lover.

Luffy… Luffy had insisted upon getting a musician early on, hadn't he? It had been a bit of a gag, prioritizing something amusing rather than essential. But really, a performance like that was a vindication. In the weeks between islands, music wasn't just a luxury.

The door burst open right as the song entered its second verse. “Brook!” In came a teen younger than Max by a good couple of years, black-haired and scarred under one eye. The future Pirate King and the hat that had given him his title in this world. And he spoke with a complaint that bordered on whining. “You should have told me you were gonna sing!”

“Ah, my apologies, Captain, it simply felt appropriate for our guest.”

Luffy followed Brook's small gesture, and his gaze lit up as it fell on Max, still sitting in bed, stunned.

“Hey, you're awake, huh?” Luffy said with a wide grin. “Last time, you were snoring up a storm. And Chopper hit me for trying to wake you.”

“Huuuuuuuh,” Max replied intelligently.

“Oi, everyone!” Luffy whirled around and put his head through the open doorway. “The sleepyhead's awake! Come and see him!”

“Luffy! You can't bring this many people in a patient's room! He's still weak, he needs rest and quiet.”

“Come on, Chopper. Everyone's super curious about him!”

Chopper mulled it over, acting as if he didn't notice Luffy's insistent staring. “Fine, but just a few minutes.”

As if Chopper's assent was a signal, Robin stepped inside, her serene smile the first thing Max noticed about her. She did not hesitate to meet his gaze head on, and something about the depth of hers made him shudder. Luckily, there was no time to ponder the sentiment as Nami entered the next moment, followed immediately by a slightly wobbly Sanji.

And there, Max plain felt hit by a freight train. In place of his one visible eye was a pink, cartoonish eye pulsing to the cook's weak “Hehe, Nami-schwan”. It shouldn't have been weirder than Brook or Chopper, but the simple fact was, Max knew there existed no good reason for Sanji's eye to physically transform this way besides 'Rule of Funny'.

Though, he had to say, it wasn't that bad of a look on Sanji.

Zoro came in next, and Max shook his head to clear away that stray thought. Luffy's first mate had a much warier reaction than any of the others so far. Gauging, his eyes skidding over Max's form on the bed, doubtlessly trying to assess if Max could be a threat one way or another.

“Eh? He's woken up?” asked Usopp as he barged in, Franky right on his steps.

“Shishishi, sure he did,” Luffy said, sitting on the foot of the bed. Then, still grinning, “So, who are you?”

“Call me Max, and huh, I… I have to say…” He swallowed, rubbed his eyes. They were all looking at him curiously, waiting for him to speaking. It wasn't a dream. He was really sitting in a bed on the Thousand Sunny, surrounded by the crew of the future Pirate King. He hadn't died. He had survived the Seafarer. “For your help… for what you did… Thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you...”

He didn't know how many times he said it. He only knew that he hadn't said it often enough.

“Sheesh, we didn't do much.” Max thought it was Luffy's voice.

“Just saved him from drowning,” Sanji deadpanned. “You could stand to be a bit more grateful when we do it for you , Luffy.”

“Nah, you're my crew. That's normal.”

Max felt Chopper's hooves pat his shoulder. “Regardless, he is still emotional from what happened to him. Give him time to recover.” He aimed a glare at his captain. “This is exactly why I didn't want you to bring everyone in! Idiot!”

“Sorry,” Max said. “I'll… I promise not to be a bother.”

“Take as much time as you need to recover. Doctor's order!”

“Shouldn't be that long,” Zoro grunted, arms crossed.

“Just because you have a freakishly fast healing rate…” Nami growled.

“Nothing like that, witch. He's a zoan. They heal pretty well, don't they?”

Chopped nodded. “There's a notable increase in metabolism, including recovery.”

Almost at the same time, Sanji glared at the swordsman. “What did you call Nami-schwan?”

The melee started with those two, but in such a small room, you either participated or got out of the way. For reference, Usopp tried, but he stumbled against Franky's metal-hard torso. Nami successfully slipped past the men technically fighting about her and joined Robin who was watching, unflappable as always. Luffy joined in for the heck of it, and when Brook was tossed right across the room accidentally…

“Alright, that's enough! He needs rest, not yelling!” Chopper suddenly grew up five feet taller and roared. “Out, you bastards! Out! Out!”

--

It wasn't the last Max saw of them. There actually was one member of the Straw Hats next to his bed every day. Usually, Chopper only stayed around to check on his vitals, to change his bandages or to predict how much longer he'd been stuck in bed.

Sanji came for every meal, and personally made sure Max ate it all. Not that the bedridden man would have needed convincing. That food, its taste, it never wavered from the standard of that first godly soup. Only difference is he didn't need to be spoon-fed anymore.

Once, it had been Robin, and she had remained mostly silent, reading a large and ancient book. Max hadn't felt well enough to ask her about it.

The rest of the time, it was Brook. Luffy hadn't popped back in again. Chopper might have had something to do with it. They wanted him to recover, after all.

Two days in, Max had officially decided it couldn't be real. With the energetic tunes Brook played to fill in the air, the sound of snapping whips and bellowed orders were slowly fading. Not disappearing, but growing faint, background noises.

“And now, for my next piece…” Brook hummed, his boney fingers paused right over the strings of his violin. “Well, would you happen to have a preference, Max? I've gone through most of my repertoire, when it comes to joyful songs.”

One of the disadvantages about Brook's lack of a face proper was the constant poker face. Unless the man was acting overtly emotional, Max could not tell much about his thoughts. Despite knowing he had nothing to fear, it unnerved him.

Survival had been a matter of reading Beaudrille's features and doing it well.

“Whatever it is you're feeling like playing, Brook.” Max readjusted the pillow behind his back, then paused. “Though if you'd rather, you can go back with the others. It must be boring to stay in here all the time with me.”

“Nonsense,” Brook dismissed with a wave of his hand. Gently, he put down his violin and picked up his cup of tea. “While my crew is a ferociously alive bunch, I would not be caught dead leaving a recovering patient all on his own… even though I'M ALREADY DEAD! YOHOHOHOOO!”

Max pinched his lips. No. He had so little dignity left, he couldn't…

He snorted. In panic, he slammed a hand over his mouth, looking like a deer in headlight. Brook's eye sockets seemed aimed straight at him, and Max desperately looked away. Unfortunately, it was too late. The second time he snorted, it devolved into snickers, then wheezing laughter.

It was truly unfair. He normally managed not to laugh at that kind of jokes. His dad made them all the time, and he had perfected the art of a deadpan look while laughing on the inside years ago. Right now though, nothing could make him hold back any sort of happiness. It had been too long since he had been allowed.

A month in hell. A month of fear and frustrations and angers buried as deep under his skin as he had been able to. A month overdue of an emotional reaction.

“My, my,” said Brook as he observed Max struggling to breathe, “it is rather rare that someone laugh at my particular brand of humor.”

“Should have met my sister-in-law then,” Max replied through his tears.

His fingers froze right as he was wiping them. Was he even going to meet her again? His brothers? His sister? His parents? His friends?

His guts told him he w ouldn't.

“Max?” Brook asked, his boney hand suddenly over Max's arm. “Do you want me to go fetch Chopper?”

“No… no, it's nothing he can help with.” He pushed down the knots in his throat and let his head fall back on his pillow. “I was thinking of my family.”

Stillness fell over Brook. He seemed to know, without having been told, but Max had to air the thought. Had to make it real , else he would never be able to accept it.

“I think I might have lost them for good.”

Brook's next song wasn't anywhere near cheerful. The notes were longer, deeper, and Brook's own voice felt like a priest's at a funeral. Max couldn't tell if it ought to be one.

--

In total, it took a four days before he had the strength to get out of bed. A week of bed rest in a small cabin while he could only hear about the hijinks the freaking Straw Hats were getting up to on the deck. Yeah, he was feeling more than a little caged after this. He wouldn't have thought he could miss mopping a deck or carrying barrels around, but apparently, without anything to do, his body was begging for physical exertion.

He stood on shaky legs, a sharp pressure around the back of his knees every step he took. His body leaned on Brook's for support, who had volunteered in a fairly touching gesture.

Unfortunately, Brook's height was as disproportionate as is heart it seemed. Max barely reached Brook's humerus. In other words, Max's arm had to be around Brook's hips .

It was positively ridiculous. He felt like a little kid trying to hide behind his dad.

Then, as he stepped on the deck into the light and the sweet, sweet scent of salty sea air, Max saw the Straw Hats occupying different parts of the deck and he found himself wishing he could go back to his cabin.

On the railings, Chopper, Luffy and Usopp turned with curious looks on their faces. Ruining that perfectly good plan. Damn it .

“Hey Max! Feeling better?”

Max awkwardly scratched at the month-old beard on his face. Riiiight. He was supposed to talk to the Straw Hats. To have actual conversations with the protagonists of the story. Somehow, doing so while in bed, weak and malnourished hadn't been so daunting when it had been just Brook or Chopper. Even when they had all come around that one time, Chopper had been quick to start shoving people outside once things got out of control.

Out of control. That was a good way to describe what Max felt this would devolve into.

“Yeah. I can walk now,” said the guy needing a skeleton's help to stay standing.

“My, in that case, I believe I shall ask Sanji for a cup of tea.” Brook tipped his hat and, to Max's horror, expertly slipped out of the grip around him. Humming, he made his way up the stairs and toward the kitchen.

Max, meanwhile, was discovering that his knees could replicate the sound of castanets. A bit of wild flailing helped a lot when it came to standing upright.

“What are you doing?” Luffy frowned in intense concentration. “Are you dancing?”

Max bit down a deadpan 'Yes, practicing for a talent show' that the rubberman would undoubtedly take at face value. Instead, he settled for a “Nope. Trying not to fall over.”

Which, amazingly, he seemed to be getting better at. Maybe it was talking to Luffy. The distraction could have been just enough for him to stop focusing so much on the muscle atrophy he should have expected and feel just how his body was actually affected.

He's a zoan. They heal pretty well, don't they?

“The waves aren't bad,” Luffy said, bouncing a few times to test it. “Hey, Usopp? Is the Sunny tilting for you?”

“What, the Sunny is tilting?!” Usopp panicked. “Chopper! We have to do something!”

“What do we do, Usopp?!”

For such a smart doctor, Chopper could be endearingly naive, Max thought. Abandoning both their fishing rods, the duo sprinted toward the lower levels, a look of pure determination on Usopp's face. Max had no trouble believing the Sunny wouldn't be sinking anytime soon, judging by that look.

“Well, that answers that, I guess,” he said as he turned to Luffy.

“Meh, I don't get why they're freaking out. I was just asking a question.”

“Luffy! What's that I hear about us sinking?!” Nami shouted from the upper deck. Not a trace of fear in her. Rather, her scowl betrayed more than a little annoyance. “We're on a superbly peaceful stretch of ocean right now, and if you have any idea of how rare that is on the Grand Line, you will go down there and stop those two before they jinx us!”

Luffy snapped into a salute that his grandfather would surely be proud of, and even Max felt the irony hang in the air before Luffy dashed after Usopp and his impressionable acolyte.

“I swear, those three… ” Nami said just loud enough to be heard.

“I daresay it's probably stress-relief for them,” Robin commented, placing her book down on the table next to her long chair.

“So wise, Robin-schwan,” Sanji said with his usual lovestruck voice.

Brook chuckled under his breath.

The ropes around the mast suddenly tensed. Zoro climbed down from the crow's nest just in time to see Luffy pull a struggling Usopp and Chopper back to the deck. They were screeching about sinking ships and 'not another Merry!' It seemed to be the last straw for Nami.

“Shut up, you two! We're fine! We're on calm waters and there's not a seaking in sight. How could we even be sinking?”

“Are you trying to imply something about the Sunny?!” Franky called out, arms crossed.

Usopp began to point at Luffy, then probably realized that it would be the worst possible excuse to have. Instead, he wisely took the admonishment at face value and stopped struggling. Chopper followed suit.

With those three back, this meant the entire crew had accidentally gathered on deck to meet him again.

The only two he didn't recognized were the mermaid and the octopus guy . He only had a vague feeling of déjà vu.

While every pair of eyes once again began to scrutinize him, Max took the initiative. “Huh, excuse me? You're the ones that saved my life, aren't you?”

Without a moment's hesitation, he dropped down to his knees, and bowed till his forehead touched the Sunny's deck.

“Thank you so much. I am indebted to you.”

“Nyuu, nothing to think about,” the octopus fishman said, one of his many hands rubbing the back of his head. “Right, Camie?”

The mermaid smiled at him, then with some starry eyes, brought her hands under her chin in a supplicant pose. “How about you buy some takoyakis?”

Max blushed. “I don't have any money. Sorry.”

“WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAT?!”

The screech alone made him jump back five feet, a frantic apology on his lips. But the knot of fear already taking hold dissolved on the spot. Camie… Camie's face… her eyes, her jaw, her freaking tongue! That looked painful.

“… Are you okay? Did you have a heart attack or something?”

“Forget about her! No money! How are you going to repay us for our expenses?” Nami called out angrily, just before a sinister shadow covered her face. Belly signs replaced her eyes. Because why physics? “No matter. We're just going to keep a tab for you. With interest rates, of course, since we're the ones taking all the risks here.”

“Naturally.” Max nodded along.

Nami's evil planning ground to a halt, as she whipped her head back to Max with a moment of doubt .

What? He wasn't even being sarcastic. Sure, okay, charity, helping the needy, some common decency could be expected. Except common decency didn't pay the bills, and they were pirates. Not being brutally murdered was his bar for good treatment at this point.

“Well, that's a nice change of pace from the usual.” She eyed him suspiciously for a moment, before aiming a glare at Zoro and Usopp. “Just for that, I will make the interest rates 245% instead of 250.”

Zoro immediately rose to the bait and loudly shouted, “Witch, you gave me 300% on my first debt!”

Only a month of putting on the best poker face of his life allowed him not to react. “I'll take what I can get. Thanks.”

“She really never lets anything go, huh?” Usopp muttered to himself. No doubt worried that Nami would hear it and rise his debt's monthly payments to astronomical level. Like she had just done to Zoro. Poor Mr. Bushido.

Ignoring the various cries of 'witch', 'money-grubbing two-faced woman', 'brutish idiot', and 'money sinkhole' (which Max presumed was meant as an insult), Franky sat down on the railing next to him, a look of mild curiosity on his face.

“So, what's your story, huh? Not every other day you find someone falling from the sky.” To which Usopp and Luffy reacted with an 'eeeeeeh, kinda'.

Max flinched. For a second, he didn't reply. Sanji provided an admirable distraction when he noticed Zoro and Nami fighting, which prompted him to turned the argument into a mêlée-à-trois. “How dare you try to hurt Nami-schwan, Moss Head?!”

Alas, no one else batted an eye at the familiar scene. Even Max, who had had his first taste of it a few days ago.

“I… I was kidnapped about a month ago, probably more, I don't know. I lost count. Pirates attacked the town I was in and burned everything, then picked a handful of men to be their cabin boys for some… entertainment, I guess.”

The few smiles here and there died out. Utmost serious was on the Straw Hats' faces. They frowned. They glared. And if any had been turned to Max, he would have tried fleeing on the spot.

“Where is that ship now?”

It was Nami, and her tone sent shivers down his spine.

“I don't know. We left a small tropical island the day before you found me. We'd just careened the ship.”

Franky hit his open palm with his fist. “Oh, yeah, that reminds me, Nami!” He waited for their navigator to look his way. “About the careening, we probably won't need to do more than one every ten years, so no need to plan that for some time.”

A collective sigh of relief ensued.

“Adam Wood,” Franky added in response to Max's curious look.

“I'm a bit jealous now. Anyway, on the island, I found a devil fruit. Most disgusting thing I ever ate,” he said, and Luffy, Chopper, Robin and Brook all nodded. “I hid that little detail until what felt like the right moment to try and strike. Didn't quite work out. What you saw was plan B.”

“Taking him down with you,” Robin said, and the atmosphere on the Sunny shifted.

It wasn't hostility, but it carried a weight not dissimilar to that. Luffy in particular seemed a good deal bothered.

“Hu-uh,” Zoro drawled. “I can respect that. So what next?”

Max blinked.

“Oh, yeah, about that…”

All the careful speeches he had dreamed of the moment he had realized what universe he was stuck in. All those little thoughts, those lines specifically tailored to be as convincing as possible. Now that he stood before the actual people, he found it all vanishing from his memory.

What did he say?! How did he say it?!

“Can I join your crew?”

… He could blurt it out like that. Brilliant .

“Huh,” Usopp said, blinking. “Has that happened before?”

“Forgetting Robin-schwan, aren't you?”

“Oooooh, right.” Usopp struck his open hand with his fist. “She did that after Luffy saved her life against her will. It was a bit more her saying she was going to be part of the crew than asking though.”

Sanji's legs melted into black puddles. “So forceful, Robin-schwaaaan!”

“No.”

One could almost hear the record needle scratch. Every head turned toward their captain.

Grimacing , Luffy picked his nose. “You're too boring. I don't wanna.”

“That's what we had to do?!” shouted Sanji, Nami and Zoro in unison.

Max looked down, ignoring the outburst, trying to hide the disappointment. “Oh,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I… I guess I can be. Nevermind then. It was more of a pipe dream than anything anyway. I guess I just need to find a way to repay Nami then. Damn, that'll be hard while I'm away.”

Nami's shrilled screech came almost immediately. “LUFFY!”

Okay, that had been a bit mean, but it was also true. How did one repay anyone in a world full of sailing pirates and planet-wide oceans?

Luffy suddenly found himself running from an enraged she-demon navigator ranting about her lost profits. 245% percent of a chance encounter was a real steal! Did he not understand that? They would have to let him stay until the next island anyway, so why would he make it almost impossible for her to collect on his debts? Did he have any idea of how expensive it was to run a ship like the Sunny, huh?!

To which, Luffy just shouted, “I said I don't want him!” Ouch. But at least, Max could be comforted in the knowledge he wouldn't be imposing on his saviors. Small comforts were still comforts.

A few paces away, Sanji smirked a bit at the spectacle, then turned toward Max.

“Why do you want to be a Straw Hat anyway?” he asked, taking a drag out of his cigarette. “You want to be lumped in with this bunch?”

“HEY!” protested most everyone – read: except Robin – that had heard Sanji.

They needed not be annoyed. Max had heard the noise underneath the words. It was more of an interrogation than a casual question, and there was something wary in the depth of Sanji's gaze. Something ready to spring. Near the mast, Zoro's hand rested lazily on top of his swords.

Max had better choose his words carefully. “Because… because you guys are peace mains, aren't you?”

“Aaaaaaaaaah!” Chopper shouted, as if he had a sudden epiphany.

Then, the little reindeer looked at Usopp.

“What's a peace main?”

Sweat started dripping from the sides of the sniper's head. “T-that's easy! You see, during my travels, I came across many a peace main. They were sailing on a flying ship, two hundred meters long, fifty meters large! They had abducted the princess of the kingdom of Lonwinter, ready to ask for a ransom of a thousand fur pelt, which would have killed the Lonwinter economy! Luckily, they hadn't considered they would be coming across the great captain Usopp!”

“Eeeeeh! That's incredible, Usopp!”

“Don't lie to Chopper!” Nami surged out of nowhere and punched his lights out.

Her crew processed her reappearance with great serenity. Perhaps too much. From her vice grip hung a poor flailing Luffy. And no one seemed in too great of a hurry to free him.

On the other hand, he didn't seem to be suffering much, if at all.

“Usopp! You lied?!”

“Peace mains are one of the two types of pirates, Chopper,” Robin said softly, smiling at their naive doctor. “Peace mains are adventurers, people that sail to live on the sea rather than burn towns and kill civilians. Those that do these things are called morganeers.” She shot a curious look to Max. “They're not very commonly used terms though.”

“I… I was forced to stay on a morganeer crew before you rescued me. Never again.” Max held his head, trying to muffle the faint echoes of the screams from his nightmares. “I don't want to rape and pillage! I don't want to stay on one island either! I…”

With a yelp, Nami felt her arm be tugged aside. Not even her Greed Grip could hold her captain back for long.

With one arm stretched far behind him, Luffy stopped right in front of Max and tilted his head to the side, like Max was a puzzle of great complexity. Maybe eight pieces instead of four! Frowning in concentration, Luffy put a finger to his chin, leaning close enough for the zoan to pick up the smell of cooked meat on his breath. “So what do you want?”

It was like the planks under him had broken, and he was falling right into the sea again. Hearing those words… they struck him in the face with the force of a hammer. What did he want? He had crushed every desire he had had for more than a month, knowing that the slightest slip would result in his death. Every thought then had been about not dying. But now he was free.

What did he want?

“I want…”

To live? Is that it? No. He shook his head. No, it wasn't all he wanted. Right here and then, he was alive. Escaping Beaudrille had been one dream. But surviving couldn't be one. More than just living. Something else. The feeling that had seized him when he had decided to defy Beaudrille.

The sight of the endless sea, the canvas of clouds, something grand. Bigger than himself.

“I want to see this whole world with people that care! I want my life to have mattered in the end! If I die, I die, but I won't be forgotten! You don't want me, that's fine! I'll do it another way. I'll make my own path, and if we meet again, I'll be able to look you in the eyes and say I've had as good a life as I could get!”

Listening to an impulse, Max dropped down to his knees again and let his forehead touch the Sunny's lawn. Then, at the top of his lungs, he shouted:

“Thank you very much for saving me! I'll never forget it! Next island, I’ll get off the ship, and you’ll only see me to settle my debt with Nami!”

A fragile silence followed. One that so quickly and so easily broke when sandals moved across the deck.

“Shishishishi… I changed my mind, guys.”

Max froze where he had bowed, the words ringing in his ears. He could hear Zoro and Usopp calling out Luffy about it, Brook laughing softly, Chopper shouting in shock. He could hear them and feel their gazes on him, and he was scared to look up and realize that had been an hallucination.

But the rubber hand that was outstretched just up to his eye level was definitely real.

“Join my crew.”

Chapter Text

For the longest time, Max stared, his ears ringing with the words he had already given up hope to hear . Join my crew . He didn't even know what he'd done to deserve it. The hand Luffy offered was right in front of him. Just at eye level. He stared, unmoving, until he heard his own voice in the back of his mind screaming: What are you waiting for?!

Max grabbed Luffy's hand, squeezed and pulled himself up.

“Welcome to my crew, Max!” Luffy said with a grin.

He was going to say 'thanks', but his body reacted before he could. There was such a flood of relief and joy pumping through his veins that he only saw himself step forward and put his new captain in a bone-crushing hug. “Thank you!”

“Whoa!” Luffy said, but he didn't push him off. It probably helped that Luffy's body stretched and squished like a child's toy.

Funny that, Max's new captain had a scent of meat, salt, sweat and car tires. After a month or so with pirates that only vaguely knew of baths, that was nothing. It could even be bottled perfume at this point.

The rest of the crew came around with their congratulations and their words of welcome, though a few seemed a bit more deadpan and sarcastic than the occasion warranted.

Usopp, still patting Max's back, was the one to ask about the elephant in the room.

“So, what can you actually do?”

Chuckling, blushing, Max stepped away from Luffy and faced the crew.

“Well, I was a cabin boy on the last ship I was on.” Max kept his tone casual, blocking out the memories that came to mind. He attempted a smile, but even he could feel his lips shaking. “The captain was a vicious bastard that shot anyone that made a mistake, so the fact I survived must mean something.”

Luffy's glare sent chills down his spine. “Your last captain killed members of his crew?”

“A-ah, y-y-yes, he did. He's the one… the one I divebombed with.”

The dark look on Luffy's face didn't recede. In fact, its intensity spiked. Air around him trembled as the temperature around the deck suddenly dropped a few degrees too many.

“It's fine…” Max said, his voice shrinking, his body shaking, “really, it's fine… he's gone.”

“Knock it off!” Sanji shouted as he kicked his captain in the head.

“Ah! Sorry, didn't mean to scare you like that.” Luffy let out a laugh, holding on to his hat. “It just pisses me off. I'm gonna deck that guy if I ever meet him.”

Max ought to have seen that coming. Really. It was just the kind of man Luffy was. Pirates had so few rules, those they held sacred could not be so easily violated. Beaudrille might have had the right idea, when he said it was better for him to remain hidden. Max took a second to savor the fact that none of it mattered. Beaudrille had sunk.

“Anyway. Point was, I could be your cabin boy, if that's okay with you.”

To his surprise and that of most of the crew, Usopp suddenly pulled his captain aside. “Luffy, say yes, you have to say yes. Do you understand me? You have to. We should definitely get this guy as our cabin boy.”

“Well, those are a bit boring... but we don't have one...” Luffy looked up to the sky, one hand to his chin, lips pulled together. “Plus, Shanks said something about being one, I think. Does that mean you would have to become an Emperor later on?” Luffy's head turned red under the effort of pondering this deep philosophical question. “Fine. Max, you're our new cabin boy.”

“YEAH! NO MORE CHORES!” cheered Usopp and Chopper in unison.

“I DIDN'T THINK OF THAT!” Luffy immediately yelled.

Sanji and Zoro facepalmed. Then denied having had anything in common the next second.

While Luffy, Usopp and Chopper were now dancing like cabaret dancers from the wild west, all jumps and kicks, Max turned to the less excitable part of the crew.

“Soooo… what kind of cleaning supplies do you guys actually have?”

Strangely enough, Franky scoffed. “True men don't clean unless they have to!”

“That can't be healthy…”

“He is a cyborg,” Zoro deadpanned.

“Point taken.” Max nodded, arms crossed. “He probably doesn't have the same biology as normal humans at this point. And if he does, it's Chopper's problem.”

“Right now,” Robin pondered, “I believe our supplies are running low. Sanji, could you please show him?”

“Anything for you, Robin-schwaaaan!” Then, on the turn of a dime, “This way, shitty janitor.”

To be honest, it was hard to keep a straight face at that. He didn't mean to imply anything , but okay, Sanji sounded like he was overcompensating. But since Max liked his face as it was, he kept quiet and followed Sanji into the insides of the Sunny.

From that point on, even if he had wanted to say something, he would have first needed to pick up his jaw from the floor. It wasn't like he had never seen the insides of the Sunny before, but a TV show could hardly represent the real thing fairly. In a few short words, Max forgot he was on a pirate ship. The Seafarer had been a floating plank of wood, in comparison.

It started with Sanji's kitchen, which was a kitchen with modern-like appliances, with no disparity in technological level that Max could discern.

And space. Everything on a traveling vessel ought to be as minimalist as possible, to lessen the costs. Max had slept in between a cannon and a corner with his knees pulled toward his body for weeks. He appreciated the value of breathing room now.

The Sunny, for comparison, had a truly sick aquarium with seats and a view that an actual zoo would envy. It was the kind of things you found in a rich heir's penthouse in New York.

This is a 200 million bellies ship, isn’t it?

And the running coarse commentary made it all the more amusing.

“The place where we keep the fishes. There's some seats if you want to sit.”

Some part of him wanted to flinch, but Sanji's tone was so ridiculously short he could only snort in amusement.

“I hope the glass is solid,” he said mildly, having a sudden and vivid flashback to the second Jaw movie.

Sanji shrugged, unbothered. “Probably. It's not Luffy-proofed though, so don't let him punch it.”

Even with a great effort of imagination, Max hardly could picture himself able to stop Luffy from doing anything he wanted.

The library, Max had to admit, almost made him drool. He'd always been a fan of books, and in a world like this one, this might be the biggest collection he'd ever get to see. Though he’d have to find replacement glasses before he could really get down to it.

“Where Robin-scwhan like to spend time on rainy days,” Sanji said with hearts in his eyes. It only last a few seconds, before he went back to normal and pointed at both ladders. “Up is the bathroom, down are the workshops and the docking area. The cleaning closet is down as well.”

Max, again, marveled at the size of this place while he climbed down the ladder. Though he also questioned the concept. Surely, if either Usopp or Franky created something bulky, climbing a ladder with it would be troublesome, right? He didn't voice the thought.

At the very back of Franky's workshop was one unassuming door. Sanji opened it without hesitation, and Max entered after him. The first thing that struck him was the air. Drier than he expected on a ship, a bit heavier, with particles floating and reflecting the embers of Sanji's cigarette. Then, through that small lighting pierced the shadows of three rows of shelves in somewhat narrow proximity. A click brought about decent lighting, and Max confirmed that the Straw Hats had what looked like a good amount of cleaning supplies.

“This is going to be your responsibility from now on.” Sanji leaned against the wall and rasped his knuckles near a hanging clipboard. “We got a list of stuff that's needed on the ship, you have to keep up the numbers. You know how to count?”

“Yeah. Unless the numbers you show on bounties aren't your actual numerical system.”

Sanji looked at him with his only visible eyebrow raised. “Why would it be different?”

“Just asking.” With his luck…

Unsurprisingly, no matter what bottle he picked from the shelves, none of the products were known to him. Different world and all. However, Max startled at the sight of a bottle of bleach called Mr. Neat, depicting a familiar bald man and crossed arm, only with an eyepatch and pirate hat.

Trembling, he gave it a shake, only to feel the slightest jolt of liquid at the very bottom. Max glanced at the shelf, devoid of any other suitable product. Unless he wished to use paint solvent or scrapers, that was it.

On the Seafarer, they washed with seawater. It was enough. And though he could tell (smell) that no, the Straw Hats didn't actually waste all their drinking water on baths, they held to a higher standard than Beaudrille's crew. For one, he wasn't that likely to mistake any of them for a pigpen.

Alright. Alright. Thinking. What was his aunt's old recipe again? Organic cleaning. She always put up links to that stuff on the Internet. Ah!

“Sanji, do you have lemons and baking soda?”

Sanji scoffed. “What kind of cook do you take me for? Of course I have them.”

“Well, I'm going to need some. Last person that was supposed to check it apparently didn't look very hard. You're out of soap.” He squeezed the bottle for emphasis. Only a pitiful drop plopped out into the Max's hand.

“Give me a minute.”

“Just bring it on the deck.” Max grabbed a broom, a swat and a bucket. “Oh, and do you have a system for pulling seawater?”

Sanji's voice came muffled from Franky's workshop. “There's a faucet near the door.”

“Huh.”

Those kind of accommodations would take some time to get used to again.

A few minutes later, he was on the deck, squeezing the chopped lemons over a full bucket. Usopp was leaning over his shoulder, a hand on his chin. Wordlessly, he placed the baking soda in Max's outstretched hand, and began muttering to himself when the white powder dissolved inside the bucket.

“Smells okay,” Max said, sniffing. It had a fresh, citrus-y scent. The best damn thing he'd smell in weeks. He couldn't imagine anyone complaining about their ship smelling this freaking good.

“You're going to start now? You sure you're going to be okay?”

Max rolled his shoulders, smiling when all he felt was some slight soreness. “Chopper said I was well enough for the basic stuff. Hell, Zoro wasn't wrong saying I should heal faster than I did.” He held up a fist. “I've got the powers of a devil fruit. I'm good for some sweeping and mopping.”

“Still…”

“Also, every hour spent on the ship until I start working makes the interests on my debt jump five percent.”

Half the male members of the crew nodded, a look of pained understanding on their faces.

“Okay.” Max clapped and rubbed his hands together. “Time to get to work.”

 

--

 

In general, the Sunny was a much cleaner ship than the Seafarer, paradoxical as it may seem. Sure, it lacked cabin boys cleaning like their lives depended on it. However, the Straw Hats had a minimal amount of manner, and, more importantly, numbered at ten, newcomer included. It was hard to pile up as much grime as thirty uncaring pirates.

His first two hours of cleaning went by quickly, the spectacle of the Straw Hats' daily lives unfolding in the background to his amazement. Max felt as if he blazed through the chores unlike anything he did under Beaudrille.

When he got to their laundry room though, Max was faced with a dilemma. The lack of machinery didn't bother him. Nothing he hadn't seen coming. Cleaning everything by hand, well, it needed to be done regardless. However, he could see a small problem when it came to handling the clothes this way.

Max returned to the deck and scanned for their two female members.

“Nami, Robin.” He waved at them. “Could you please come here for a minute?”

Intrigued, both women stood from their seats and followed him inside the galley. Max led them past the kitchen, ignoring Sanji's lovestruck greeting as did Robin and Nami with practiced ease. When they were inside the laundry room, Max carefully closed the room and double-checked to make sure Sanji wasn't listening or eavesdropping.

“Is there really a need for such secrecy?” Robin asked, her expression carefully neutral.

“As the new cabin boy, I'm in charge of cleaning and chores in general.”

They nodded.

“Yeah. So?” Nami asked.

“Well, that includes the laundry.”

Robin's thoughtful expression gave way to a small smile. “Indeed. Is there any reason you felt the need to announce this?”

He couldn't blush here. It shouldn't be hard. Except he had to look at them in the eyes while he was saying it. “Well, that includes your underwear. Panties, bras. That stuff. Are you okay with me cleaning them?”

They didn't say a word.

Faster, “I don't want to dump one of my responsibilities, but I know it can be weird. Especially since you don't know me very well. I just…” He rubbed his neck, eyes darting between them, wishing, willing them to see his sincerity. “I don't want to make things awkward or uncomfortable. So, are you girls okay with me washing your clothes?”

Nami and Robin exchanged a pleasantly surprised look.

“I think we will be,” Robin said. “Thank you for asking, M. Pegasus.”

As they left, Max called out, “Is that my new nickname?”



--

 

Integrating himself to the crew was a challenge, even if they were the friendliest people he had ever met. Luffy, Usopp and Chopper in particular invited him every other moment to join in with whatever games they were playing. He knew he should have accepted, but he couldn't be slacking off this soon after somehow pulling a 'yes' out of Luffy. Somehow.

Rather, he tried to be as attentive as possible. One little thought at a time. Helping Usopp in his workshop, getting some tea for Brook, bringing Robin some books. It wasn't much, but he knew he wasn't a fighter. He might have a devil fruit now, but that would only carry him so far in a sea where every other pirate and marine had their own. Often much more powerful than just a zoan.

Once in a while, Max changed forms. Hybrid didn't quite do it for him though. So far, he was most comfortable with the full change. He stopped being a scrawny and tiny – by One Piece standards – man. He was a near three meters tall stallion with wings .

So his head was roughly on par with the top of Brook's afro before he changed back.

Damn those people were tall. And Brook wasn't even in the top percentage. How much giant blood had been diluted through the human population? He wasn't going to ask how it had diluted in the first place, thank you very much.

He was staring at Brook's spine and neck when his human ears ticked at the sounds coming off from the violin in his phalanges.

“Wait, Brook, what's that song's name again?”

Never stopping, Brook gave him a look Max would swear was amused. He hoped. In the light of torches, most of his skeletal body became even harder to read. “My, my, that is a surprise, Max. Here I thought that all pirates knew this song.”

Max blushed. “I… I haven't been a pirate very long. And I didn't grow up near the sea. But that's the one you played the most while I was in bed, isn't it?”

“Indeed. I daresay it is my favorite song amongst them all.” Brook's gaze lifted to the sky and the drifting clouds. “It is the song I promised to bring back to my old friend, Laboon.”

“Laboon?”

The name vaguely rang a bell. It must have been in the early parts of the manga. Though to whom it belonged, Max hadn't the faintest. It was already a miracle he had recognized it as something from his old life.

“Before I died, Max, I was part of another crew. All of them lovers of music. And before we departed for the Grand Line, we befriended a young whale.”

“AH!” Max exclaimed as he recalled with vivid clarity the sight of a giant whale blocking the Straw Hats path down Reverse Mountain.

“Max? What is the matter?”

“No, nothing. I just… you reminded me of something, but it's unrelated. So, that whale… it's still waiting for you?”

Brook nodded, the song's notes slowing, taking on a nostalgic tone. “Yes. Luffy and the others met him at Reverse Mountain, precisely where we left him.” Brook fell silent. Only the melody filled the air around them, and Max was caught between wanting to offer sympathy and not knowing if he had the right to. After the end of a verse, Brook's voice came again, more serious than ever before. “After fifty years of waiting… that patience won't be in vain. One day, after Luffy is Pirate King, I shall return to my old friend and promise my old crew's promise.”

It had been an embarrassment before, not to remember the lyrics. But now? Now, Max felt he could never be called a man again if he did not acknowledge the power of Brook's oath. From the back of his mind, he remembered the vision of Brook, Robin and Franky on that bridge of spider silk, and words more chilling than they had a right to be.

Death isn't an apology.

Max dropped to one knee, his mop held straight up as if it were a lance. “Can you teach me the words? I should have learned them already, but I was a bit out of it before. I'm sorry.”

“Certainly. It would not do if one of my friends couldn't sing with me, right?”

Max grinned. “No, it wouldn't. But fair warning, I have no ear for music.”

“So long as you have the heart,” Brook chuckled. “The song is called Bink's Brew, Max. Now, listen attentively. A one, a two, and a one two three…”

Yohohohoooo

 

--

 

He should have known better. Of course, asking Brook to teach him a song had resulted in Luffy hearing the music and deciding they had to party and celebrate their new crewmate. A party wasn't complete without alcohol. And thus, the first evening Max spent as a member of the Straw Hats was with him swaying and laughing to the point of tears at every joke he heard.

Which, frankly, was better than the alternative. Max had always been a bit… awkward at parties. He never had a clue where to stand, who to talk to. Unless he was drunk. Then, he just could not shut up for two seconds.

And then, there was the part where he was inevitably sick.

And because this was a pirate ship, everyone had been partying.

Max was the cabin boy. His role on the ship was to do the cleaning. Maths, do your thing!

Instead of nursing a hangover, he woke up at dawn with the first rays of the sun shining on his face, and willed himself to get to work. He couldn't make a bad impression so soon after being accepted. He had to be a model member of the crew.

That did little to change the fact that barf was still barf, even if it was the future Pirate King's barf. Same goes with the future greatest swordsman, or warrior of the sea, or… wait, what was Franky's dream again? He'd have to ask when he thought about it.

Max shook his head, then swiped the mop over the deck. It wasn't all that important. Right now, all he should be doing was thanking his lucky star that Nami had a stomach of steel and that Chopper was too young to drink. He wasn't going to thank anyone about Brook because the musician had actually been sick. The kind of sick that made your stomach turn upside down.

Oh, wait, Brook doesn't have a stomach. SKULL JOKE!

“Oh God,” he groaned. Now even his brain was doing this.

With slow, cautious movements, Max wrung a dubiously colored rag over an empty bucket. A less glorious job, at the moment, he could not imagine. At least, his stomach had settled enough that the sight did little to him.

Thus was the slow and methodical cleaning of the deck. Swipe, brush, wring. Throw overboard carefully. Then begin again, and daydream of last night with a fond smile.

He finally remembered why pirates liked drinking and partying so much. Drunk Usopp is a riot , he thought as he let the green and red inflatable castle deflate. All of the Straw Hats were fun drunk, actually. Though Robin had simply held what Max knew had to be the exact same glass of rum all evening long, laughing every so often at Luffy's and the others' antics. Was it her life before the Straw Hats that made her unwilling to get drunk? He'd imagined so. Having no one to turn to made people protective of their mental faculties. It might have been his first time completely unwinding since being sent to this universe.

Sighing and stretching, Max took a minute to relax at the top of the stairs. His head wasn’t spinning or anything, but he did have something of a headache at the moment. At least, he had plenty of fresh air. And, on the plus side, he was nearly done with the cleaning.

Just then, the door to the men's cabin burst open right as two excitable morons bolted out of it like rockets and kicked his bucket right in the air.

Max watched in despair as the bucket, carried by such powerful momentum, span in midair and sprayed the railings and the upper deck in more questionable matter. The sunlight hit it just right. It was majestic, what's with the rainbow that briefly appeared over the Sunny's lower deck.

It was too early for this shit

“I just cleaned this part, you idiots!”

And before he had even registered what he was doing, Max threw the (disgusting) mop straight at his captain' head. It landed with a wet flop, then fell on the grass.

For a split second, Max would have sworn he heard the snapping of a whip, and all his muscles tensed in anticipation. No, no, he had to be realistic. Luffy wouldn't use a whip. Heck, there probably wasn't even a whip on board.

Instead, he should be waiting to be pummeled into a mush of unrecognizable meat.

“Aaaaah! Max!” he shouted, rubbing his dirtied hair. “What did you do that for?”

… Or his captain could pout childishly.

It was so bizarre. Some part of him knew he should have expected that. Those volumes he had read so long ago, the episodes, all those half-remembered memories told him Luffy didn't have a mean bone in his body. Though he had one hell of a punch.

“I, huh, well, you… ” He pointed at the deck, his bucket, then the mop. Luffy and Usopp both tilted their heads at him, as if he was an obscure mystery wrapped in an even more obscure enigma. “I was cleaning. You spilled the bucket. I have to start all over again.”

“Oh. Sorry, Max!” Luffy said, and that was apparently that.

Least they could have done is return my mop.

“No need to be so nervous.” Sanji's voice rang from right behind him. “Luffy's not the kind of guy that cares about being yelled at.”

“What the?” Max span on himself, his heartbeat spiking up madly. “When did you get here?”

Sanji's cigarette flickered as he inhaled deep. Then, with a slow exhale, let out a large cloud of smoke. “A couple of minutes ago. Mellorine and Robin-swchan are still asleep and I needed a smoke.” As if to emphasize the point, Sanji paused his speech to inhale even deeper, sparks of red flickering at the end of his cancer stick. Does cancer even exist in the One Piece universe? “I really didn't need to see that. I'll scrub it out of my brain as soon as I'm done. But I don't think that's all that important right now. You looked about ready to beg for your life. Luffy's very whimsy, selfish, idiotic, but he's a good person all over. Didn't you want to join precisely because of that?”

Max smiled. “Yeah…”

It was silly. Luffy was nothing like Beaudrille. The fact that Max had even dared talk back to him spoke volume about the warmth of this crew.

“Part of me is still waiting for the other shoe to drop. I just feel it, down in my bones. Things can't be going this well. I'm gonna do something stupid, and then you'll throw me overboard.”

“You really don't know our captain if you can think that. I mean, he'd be the first to be thrown overboard if stupidity was a good reason.”

Right on cue, “Sanji! I'm hungry! Cook me some meat!”

Sanji's eye twitched. “Lunch is still cooking, bastard!”

“Sanjiiiiiii,” the infamous captain of the most insane rookie crew whined .

“Wait like everyone else! Half the crew is still sleeping!”

Luffy flopped on the stairs with all the energy of a dying slug. “But I'm hungry! And your food is sooooo good!”

“… I'll make you a snack.” And, with all the wisdom experience had given him, he whirled around before Luffy could cheer. “Then you shut up till lunch, you hear?”

While Sanji had his back to Luffy, that did not prevent Max from noticing the smallest smile on the cook's face.

 

--

 

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Sanji's food was delicious. Five-stars worthy, easily. Half the techniques he used to cook, Max hadn't even heard of. So, it stood to reason that even his garnishes would be mouthwatering. As for the proteins?

Max didn't know.

He hadn't said anything the first time. He hadn't really realized until some time into the meal that most other plates had some protein or another. His had had exquisite rice and sliced sweet potatoes in respectable quantity.

He hadn't had the guts to ask for more, and blandly pretended that he had of course eaten the sliced duck, freaking delicious, Sanji, really. He probably ate meat during the party, but that was a moot point. It had ended up on the Sunny's deck anyway.

Now, third meal in a row. He had to admit, he was getting a bit hungry again. He could deal with the feeling, but that didn't mean it didn't exist in the first place.

And it was ridiculous! He was there, staring at a plate with some gratin and glazed broccoli, his fork and knife untouched, while every other member of the crew were eating and chatting. Well, most of them, Luffy's mouth was so full he doubted any sound could escape it at this point.

Just ask. Just say something. Speak up.

But his body refused to move. Every instinct in his body had been trained to completely shut out that kind of urge. They wouldn't care, he repeated to himself. Maybe Luffy would, a bit, but not to the point of beating him up. Right. Right? He wouldn't…

Didn't I tell you before? It's only ever a matter of time with them. They all break eventually .”

Max gripped the table's edge, the ground under him shifting far too much for a calm sea.

Noise around the table died down entirely. They were staring. Curiously. In his direction. None of it was hostile, but Max felt as if every gaze seared a mark on his skin. Every eye, every thought, all on him, all wondering when he'd screw up and-

“Max?” He heard Nami's voice through the blurring. “Are you okay? You're greener than Zoro's hair.”

"HEY!”

Max's brain buckled on the casual, teasing chuckles that arose around the dining table. It wasn't the kind of noise one heard on a pirate ship, not while people served the grub. The formless, tasteless-

A shuddering breath filled his nose with the aroma of mellow spices.

Max blinked at his plate, a refined-looking circle of porcelain.

“Is there something you dislike in the food? Please tell me you're not allergic and you hid the fact.”

“Ah, no, I… I'm not allergic to anything, as far as I know. But I haven't eaten a lot on the Grand Line. I dunno if that changes anything. It's… It's not the point anyway. Don't worry about it.”

A proposal that went out the window when Usopp, his fork halfway through his mouth, stopped and stared at Max's plate.

“Wait, you already ate your lamb? I didn't even see you move.”

The words triggered some spark of understanding around the dining room. Max could feel the unraveling. He couldn't find an excuse quickly enough – should he? – and now the walls around his mind were falling apart piece by piece. His new crew was poking at the chinks in his armor. He had been keeping it under control!

Breathe. In. Out. Breathe.

“I didn't either,” Robin added.

As one man, the crew turned toward Luffy, whose cheeks were both puffed and slightly reddening. Sweat began dripping from the sides of his face as he averted his gaze.

“Oi, idiot!” Sanji cuffed Luffy on the head. “What were you thinking stealing food from someone who's been starved?! He said his captain didn't let him eat enough, didn't he?!”

“Don't,” Max heard himself say weakly.

Luffy would get angry. He was the captain. He could eat as much meat as he wanted, from wherever he found it from, and there was nothing no one could do about it.

That doesn't even sound like him…

That didn't sound like the rubber man-child rubbing the comically large bump on the back of his head, cheeks more puffed out than a squirrel gathering acorns for winter.

“We can't just let him get all scared like that. What if someone else tries to starve him and he doesn't say anything?”

A thoughtful silence followed.

Zoro and Sanji sighed at the same time, then glared at one another when they realized it.

Nami massaged her forehead. “This is one of those times when Luffy makes a strange amount of sense, isn't it?”

“It's manly, and straight to the point,” Franky nodded, hand on his chin.

Robin, ever the voice of reason, half-turned. “Chopper?”

Put on the spot, Chopper sweatdropped then eyed Max from head to toes. “I mean, exposure in a controlled environment is one way to fight trauma, sure… but really, it's more important for someone to work him through his panic attacks. Just reminding him he lives in the present, that he isn't back on that ship.”

“Shishishishi, that settles it. Sanji, cook some more meat! We have to fight meat with meat!”

Sanji rolled his eyes, but way his way to the stoves regardless. “Fire by fire, and it doesn't apply here.”

Luffy threw his arms in the air, a big cheery grin on his face as he called “More meat!”

Max blinked. Wait. What did they want him to do here?! And when had they moved on from 'what's wrong?' to 'shove meat in his plate till he outpaces Luffy'?

He probably should not have been so lost in thought when Sanji came back with a full cauldron and a pair of food pincers. Luffy certainly had been paying attention.

Robin smiled at him, leaning on one hand, “you must try and stop him, Mr. Pegasus. If you're not prepared, he will drag you into his rhythm.”

Max nodded. She probably wasn't talking about food anymore. Or if she was, then she was serenely serious about it. Robin did most things serenely, it seemed. Or with a much better poker face than his.

“Oi, at least try.” Sanji cuffed him on the head.

Damn this slippery rubberman. A snake had a slower reaction time than his noodle-like arms. It seemed that giving Luffy any sort of permission toward stealing meat made him drastically faster.

Every other member of the crew felt their eyes narrow. There might have been a tactical mistake somewhere down the line here.

“Sanji, another one,” Nami pointed at Max's still protein-free plate.

Sanji twirled his food pincers, picked a nice, juicy, no, glistening piece of roast and lowered it to Max's plate and-

Gone.

Max stared again, though without the feeling of nausea from before. In fact, the sentiment under his skin right now… it was much closer to anger. He hadn't even had time to smell this one!

Usopp and Franky snickered, Brook sipped from his cup, Chopper seemed to regret not having a notebook to write this down, Zoro smirked, Nami grumbled, Sanji gave him a warning look.

“Okay, this time, don't stare at it,” he growled. “I'm not going through our entire meat supply today.”

And as soon as the plate touched the table, Luffy swiped another delicious- looking roast from him.

Max didn't take the time to listen to his better impulse. He, in fact, did not think at all.

His hand was cupping his plate with one trembling hand before he realized what he was doing.

“You want food so bad?!” he yelled, startling half the Straw Hats. “HERE! EAT THOSE BROCCOLI!”

And Max leaped over the table, his meat-deprived plate in one hand as he crashed on top of a gawking Luffy. Who promptly regretted it as Max flipped the plate over the black hole that kept stealing his damn food and dropped in a generous portion of cooked broccoli straight on his tongue.

“Aaaaaaah! Stop it! I hate those!”

And before he could cough out the offending pieces of green, a low-demonic voice rang throughout the dining hall with a hatred to make the walls sweat. “Luffy, don't you dare spit my food out!”

Luffy made a strangled noise, eyes wide as he – and Max, to be fair – looked at a Sanji surrounded by burning hot air.

Then, Max saw, in the corner of his eyes, that some broccoli had remained stuck against the bottom of his plate. “Open up! There's still some left.”

“What?! No wa-”

His captain was so naive.

Max personally shoved the last few greens in his hands and rubbed them on Luffy's tongue. “They're good for you! We'll get you over your trauma of greens! Train you out of stealing our food! Two birds, one stone!”

Usopp jumped to his feet with a rallying cry. “He's right! Down with the meat stealer!”

“DOWN!” Chopper, Franky and Zoro chorused.

It became a melee right around that time. Usopp was half over him, half over Luffy, putting his weight on Luffy's inflated belly. Franky had thankfully opted to push down Luffy's legs to pin him in place. And Zoro, that brave warrior, had both hands shaking as he kept Luffy's mouth wide open for all this very serious psychological training. Add in some struggling from a man made of rubber and capable of stretching his body at will?

Well, the table did not survive, nor did their dignities. At least, Sanji was stopped before he could go biblical on their asses for wasting food or ruining his kitchen. His rage had transcended words and all they heard were evil noises. Robin, ever devious, had asked for dessert right as he was coming at them with his leg on fire.

After the fact, Max remembered thinking that being able to physically freeze in midair looked damned cool. Poor Sanji had fallen flat on his face, and spat blood after asking Robin if she was ready to wait just a short, blink-and-you'll-miss-it second.

Nami, who had been right on the verge of jumping in with her personalized version of the Fist of Love, paused at the mention of dessert. Mostly though, at Chopper's puppy eyes.

As with all mutinous attempts, the proper way for it to end was via captainly violence.

“Get off me, you jerks!” Luffy shouted at the top of his lungs before he inflated like a beach ball.

There was nothing they could do.

With all the grace of a bunch of potatoes, Max' green revolution therapy group flew in all directions. Max's face personally made acquaintance with a rather solid wall. Zoro and Franky collided in midair and fell together in a mass of tangled limbs and swords. Usopp, less lucky, had his whole body embedded into the ceiling up to his knees.

For a few seconds, Luffy stood in the middle of the destroyed kitchen, panting angrily.

What came next was neither an apology nor a berating.

Brook sipped his tea noisily, sitting unfazed before the scattered remains of what had been a table. Then, he chuckled.

Max laughed.

And the whole crew joined in.

 

--

 

For most of the remainder of the day, Luffy refused to let him keep working.

“What's the point of being a pirate if all you do is work?” he had asked, and Max had had no answer.

To him, being a pirate was slaving on a ship and attacking civilians and not caring that the people around you were killed. But, Luffy's wide grin had disabused him pretty quick of that notion. Pirates were about freedom.

So, instead of working on the ropes and the sails as he had planned, Luffy had forced him to fish with him, Usopp and Chopper. After an hour or so without a single bite on his line, Max had then been shoved towards Robin for a game of chess he lost miserably. Then, down in the bowels of the ship with Franky for some mad scientist grades of tinkering and playing with hammers. Then into an impromptu dance-off with Brook as the musician and Zoro as the judge. And finally, being roped into giving Luffy, Usopp and Chopper some rides in the air.

That one thing, he loved most of all. Flight… flight came to him so easily, it was unreal. He barely needed a thought to direct himself in the air, to realize how to ride one air current or avoid another. Every flap of his wings seemed to soften up any resistance before him, and all he needed to do, really, was to look and see the world stretching far and wide beneath him.

In all fairness though, it had been a little less majestic when Usopp and Chopper had almost strangled him during a loop. Luffy had spent that time laughing and whooping instead of helping Max. Friends. What were they for?

As soon as they had touched down on the deck, Luffy had solemnly declared, “You're on flying horse duty now. Forever.”

To which Max had stared blankly and raised an eyebrow. What exactly was 'flying horse duty', one might ask? Apparently, it was so self-evident to Luffy that nothing really needed to be explained. Not even when asked. 'Just horse stuff. Flying. You know.'

Before he had even noticed, the sun had set over the horizon again, and they were heading in for the night.

He had to admit, Robin had called it like it was. Luffy had been pretty damn quick to pull him into his rhythm. The incident over lunch had been all it had taken to break the ice, to begin to actually feel like a part of the crew. The fact none of them had even protested when Luffy had juggled him around the Sunny had more or less settled it.

“I'm not gonna say I'm beat,” – He dropped on a couch in the library with a smile, arms stretched over his head. – “but this has been the pleasant sort of workout.”

Franky and Usopp nodded.

“Yeah,” Nami said, fists on her hips, “well, you guys all smell like you've had a workout. Come on, it's your turns to take a bath.”

A bath? For a few scarce seconds, Max couldn't even remember what that was supposed to feel like. But as some old memories dripped back to the front of his mind, Max found himself yearning with all his heart for one.

The others stood with much less energy than he did. At first. Nami's was an excellent motivator. They snapped to attention with a salute, shouting 'aye, aye!' and marching like soldiers towards the ladder.

He chuckled at the sight, right until the moment he felt a pressure like fangs of ice sinking right at the base of his neck. Shuddering, he risked a glance in the direction of death and realized Nami had turned the look on him.

“Aye, aye!” he said, and went up the ladder obediently.

While he pulled himself through the trapdoor, Zoro, Sanji and Franky were hanging around the locker area, and Usopp's and Chopper's clothes were haphazardly thrown together in two square lockers.

For a moment, Max wasn't quite sure what to do. He'd already seen this place, obviously, but it hadn't occurred to him that there would be eight guys that needed to bath one after the other. So, basically, a crazier version of when I was little, huh?

Zoro, only wearing his dark green pants, his scarred torso rising with a fine shine of sweat, misinterpreted Max's dilemma.

“The toilet's is over there.” He pointed to the door in front of the lockers. “The bath's the other door.”

Without missing a beat, Franky twisted the swordsman's arms so that each pointed to where the other had been aimed at a second ago. “Other way around, Zoro. How do you do that in a place you go to everyday?”

“I don't know what you're talking about,” Zoro said without a hint of sarcasm.

“Of course, you don't.” Franky picked him up like one would a child. Then, unlike how one would handle a child, Franky span and threw a screaming Zoro right through the bathroom's door. “Get in there already.”

Max closed his eyes before he saw the impact. The explosive noise and the draft of air that stroked his hair was indicative enough. Max winced in sympathy. Note to self: do not piss off Franky .

Boiling with rage, lost in the steam of the bathroom, Zoro's voice roared: “Franky! As soon as you get here, you're dead!”

Hard to blame him, Max thought as he gave a curious and slightly accusing glance to his crewmate

“Only way he won't get lost,” Franky deadpanned. Hands on his hips, he surveyed his handiwork , then closed the door.

Max had exactly zero way to argue that point.

And luckily for him, he didn't have to.

“Luffy!” Nami screeched over indistinct whining from somewhere past the trapdoor. “It's only one bath a week, so you can be damned sure you won't skip it!”

Max could proudly say he didn't react when Nami busted in and pushed Luffy inside the locker room. It was actually a bit funny to see his captain manhandled like a child, and fairly reassuring at the same time. The same could be said about Luffy grumbling as he slid his way to the lockers like a boneless caterpillar.

“So, a bath a week, huh? How much water do you guys use up for this?”

Instead of being offended, Franky preened. “Ah, I see you're thinking of rationing water like on a regular pirate vessel, huh? Well, no need to worry about such a thing on a ship of my design. See those pipes over there? That's part of the Sunny's draining and filtering system. We pump and purify water as we sail, and by the end of the week, we have more than enough to fill in the bath thrice over. We can even use it as a last resort if we run out of barreled water.”

“Still sea water though, so I boil it before I cook, of course,” a naked Sanji said as he passed them by.

“Right, that makes a lot of sense actually,” Max said.

The words hung in the air for a few seconds.

Slowly, he turned around and saw that yes, a naked Sanji, one towel slung over his shoulder, was opening the door to the bathhouse. It wasn't some sort of apparition, because the nice, foggy steam only came after Max had gotten a good look .

Alarms screeched inside Max's head. Oh boy. This was going to be really bad. He had to find a way to avert the incoming disaster before every gain from today turned into a pile of smoldering ashes.

Slowly, he turned around, a very reasonable question on his lips. And it all crashed and burned right as he looked away from the bathroom.

He jumped at least ten feet in the air. “Franky!”

“What?” The cyborg said, placing his glasses on a small square locker. “I'm bathing too. I'm not going to rust or anything.”

Despite lacking his traditional speedo – and his Hawaiian shirt for that matter –, Franky turned to face Max like it was the most natural thing in the world. To be fair, this was the guy that had run without pants or underwear in his hometown without hesitation. But, still, what the hell?!

“Wait…” Max asked, his voice slightly faint, “is everyone taking a bath together ?”

“What? No,” Franky dismissed with a wave of his arm. Just as Max was going to let out a sigh of relief, Franky added, “Only the guys. The girls took theirs this morning.”

Max's sigh turned into a choked sob.

“Is there any way to not do that?”

They jumped as the trapdoor leading to the library strained on its hinges. “You're not skipping it either, Max!” Nami's head peaked out from the hole. “You stink!”

“Hey, it's not voluntary. I was bedridden. And the last ship didn't have nearly as much water capacity as the Sunny.”

“Of course not!” Franky laughed, striking his chest without a hint of shame in Nami's presence. “The Thousand Sunny is a man amongst ships!”

“A MAN AMONGST SHIPS!” repeated Luffy, Usopp and Chopper from the bathhouse.

Nami stared at the closed door dubiously, then sighed. “Look, Max, just get in there. I'm not dealing with another guy that thinks baths are for other people.”

“Oh, huh, I'll… I'll just wait until you're all finished. That's fine. I'm not in a hurry.”

Nami seemed to give up right here and then and instead directed her ire at Franky. Grumbling under her breath, she climbed down the ladder and disappeared from view.

“Soooo,” Franky asked, leaning casually against a locker, “what's with this fussing? You shy or something?”

Not that far off, but… “Well, you see, it's a cultural thing. Baths are something you take on your own back in my home country.”

“Eeeeeh?” Franky drawled, looking at him in confusion. “What's wrong with a little skinship between men? It's only your crewmates. And only the guys. Why should there be any sort of shame to letting your friends see the complete you?”

Max didn't even know where to begin with a question like that.

His lack of reaction incensed Franky, who decided to bring in the big guns.

Opening the door to the bathroom just a little, he called out into the steam, “Yo, little help with a reluctant maaaan here.”

The loud splashing that followed was the only warning Max got.

Equally smug and amused, Franky stood away from the door just in time to dodge its explosive opening. In charged a naked Luffy with a war cry. At that speed, Max had no chance to dodge. He was tackled to the ground with enough strength to make him see stars, and it dazed him to the point that he only half heard Luffy's determined declaration.

“If I'm bathing, every guy is bathing! More therapy for you!”

“Wait, Luffy, this isn't a therapy! What are you doing?!”

Stripping him. That was how Luffy had decided to solve the issue. A nonverbal way to say ' stop your whining ', more or less. Max couldn't say he didn't deserve it, but that did not stop him from screaming at Luffy regardless. “Luffy! Let me go! Don't touch my jeans! For fuck's sake, I'll do it myself, just-”

Too late. He was already naked, and flung right into the bathroom.

“Finally joining in, huh?” Zoro said, sitting under one of the shower heads in a meditative pose.

Next to him, in the exact same position, Brook snored openly, drool dripping from his jaw.

The rest were in the bathtub, or walking around the steamy room. Usopp and Chopper hadn't even noticed him yet, they were too occupied splashing each other with hot water.

Max, his ears ringing and burning, walked in a straight line toward the tub, shakily stepped over the edge, and dropped into the water with all the grace of a puppet with a steel rod shoved up its ass.

Besides the Westerner sensibilities toward bathing and semi-public nudity, there was one good reason why Max really didn't want to be surrounded by the naked, male members of his crew.

Namely, half of them were fine examples of sculpted, muscled hunks. Max wanted to say he had the perfect amount of willpower, and he of course didn't ogle, say, Zoro or Sanji's abs. His eyes were, ahem, not drawn by the curves of their battle scars or anything.

He definitely did not look lower than that either.

Well, fuck, I'm staying under the water for a little while then, he thought as his face burned.

Displaying some amount of willpower, Max leaned against the edges of the bath and let his gaze drift to the ceiling. With a sigh, he let himself relax a little. Awkwardness aside, this felt freaking amazing. He hadn't had a proper bath in nearly six weeks. He could just melt into a puddle right there.

Soap could wait a few minutes. He was just going to sink deeper and let the warmth work its way into his sore muscles. When the water reached his chest though, his arms started to feel a bit weak. Right, devil fruit, not too deep.

Up to his navel, he was fine. Sighing, he cupped some water in his hands and splashed his face a few times. God, he could feel the grease and the dirt slid off his skin. Fuck, that might have been even better than the sight of so many…

His lower half heated up with a warmth that wasn't the water.

Nope. Not quite better than that, but still. Satisfied for now, Max slid back against the bath's inner walls. Why had he protested against this again?

“You're red, Max.” A stretchy, rubbery hand pressed against Max's forehead. “Are you feeling too hot?”

Some people around here are too hot. He swallowed. Nope, don't worry about it, Luffy. I'm fine. It's been a while, that's all. It'll go down on its own.

… Was he trying to make innuendos? Or was he just that terrible at Life?

“Ah! You're bleeding!”

Max immediately looked down at his bandages. Who all looked damp but clean. “What?”

“Like Sanji.”

With a sudden feeling of dread, Max touched the skin above his lips, where he realized it wasn't sweat or water dripping over his lips. The tip of his fingers had become tainted red. Like Sanji indeed. Right in the middle of bathing with a bunch of pretty attractive guys.

He slapped his hands over his nose and truly did not care in the slightest about the flash of pain that went through his face.

How?! I'm not an anime character, people don't just have nosebleeds out of nowhere! It's a visual metaphor, a gag!

Yet, that was still his blood dripping through his fingers. He was rather surprised that he had this much blood left in his head, considering. In fact, he'd like it if Luffy moved back maybe a foot or two. The proximity wasn't helping. Good job hiding anything right now.

If anyone but Luffy noticed, he would be screwed. So thoroughly screwed an actual screw would envy how deeply screwed he'd be.

Max yelped as his nose spurted more blood.

Fuck this visual metaphor!

“I don't get it.” Luffy said, head tilted, wet fringe slapped against his forehead. “Nami and Robin aren't here.”

Could it be? Could a benevolent force up there finally take pity on him?

Now? Instead of when he was working on the Seafarer?

Max could feel the universe choke on its own laughter.

“Chop-?” Luffy tried to say, only to get one bloody hand slapped over his mouth.

“I'm fine. Absolutely, completely fine, Luffy.” Then, a bit horrified, “Sorry about the blood.”

Luffy dunked his head under water, but Max knew better than to think this a respite. The splash of water and the general hushed conversation caught the attention of one backstroking cyborg. Standing, he eyed Max, whose face grew hot enough that Sanji could use it as a stove.

Pulling their captain up, gathering the attention of pretty much everyone , Franky leaned closer.

“Oooooh,” Franky drawled, smirking. “Looks like it wasn't really a cultural thing, huh? You like those big guns, don'tcha ?”

Fuck me, he bemoaned. And because Franky decided to flex and puffed up his torso, Max felt mentally obligated to add, Not in the fun way.

“Luffy, if you care for my mental health, kill me now.”

The punch that struck him was painful but welcomed.

Max emerged from underwater sputtering, and praying that anyone else would mistake the blood on his face as a result of Luffy's violence. The fact that Luffy was the one pulling him out of the water with an angry snarl on his face would add to the impression.

“No way! Killing a member of your crew is the worst crime a pirate can commit!”

“Think of it as therapy! If I'm afraid of death, then the solution is to die.”

The second punch, he did not welcome as much, but it was arguably more deserved. “That's stupid!”

Fair.

“We had to get another moron like the ero-cook…” Zoro sighed.

Max wisely looked away before he witnessed those two fight in the nude. So many things he would like to see, but not here and now. Judging by how things were going, he'd be in need of a blood transfusion in a few minutes if he did.

“Ooooh.” Luffy struck his open palm with a fist, eyes lighting up with understanding. “You're like Sanji, but for guys!”

“Ooooh!” Usopp and Chopper imitated him perfectly.

“Well,” Max looked away, “not that bad.”

Usopp stared, then shrugged. “True.”

Well, at least, no one seemed to have freaked out. Sniffing, he tested to see if the accursed nosebleed had stopped. The good news was: it had. The bad was that it was – dare he think it? – kickstarted again via Sanji's foot sending him face first into the water.

Whelp, that was his new life. Life on a ship. It was pretty much official. He didn't think he could bear to stay on one island anymore. And if he could… he wouldn't know what to do with himself without those crazy bastards to make it more entertaining.

It was a pretty good life, all things considered. Now, if someone could pull him up before he drowned in three feet of water, that'd be just-

“SUPER!”

That.

Chapter Text

Max rolled in his bed. The others were all breathing softly, long since fallen asleep. The only empty bed was Usopp's who was on watch duty tonight.

After sleeping against hard wood for a month, the softness of a mattress felt almost alien. He just couldn't get into the right position. Couldn't get comfortable enough that he could relax and forget.

He loved the Straw Hats. He loved the brightness, the sheer energy that radiated from them, the friendliness. His every waking moments weren't spent on high alert. It was like being dropped in an entirely new universe. And that feeling alone had wormed its way into his heart.

Why had he been transported into a fictional universe in the first place? Why this one, amongst all others? He had been a fan, true, but not obsessively so. Most minor characters were faint blurs in his memories. Goodness, he'd forgotten about Camie before meeting her! So why?

Had he done something to deserve it?

As soon as the thought came, Max's hands clenched on his pillow with the strengths of ten men. A furious, hot feeling spread through him. Deserve it? He'd never been a bad person before. He'd never gone out of his way to actively harm anyone! Sometimes apathetic, that was true. But nothing anyone could have done would have earned them that place on the Seafarer! He knew it down to his bones.

The bigger question was if it had been willed or accidental. Had he died and reincarnated? Had he fallen through some hole in Reality? Had a higher power just decided to fuck with him? Could he go back?!

With a defeated sigh, Max let go and rolled on his back. Staring at the ceiling. Trying not to think. Pull a Luffy.

After a quiet, miserable chuckle, Max buried his head into his pillow and waited until his eyes closed on their own.

--

He wasn't sure if it was Nami's skills or just the Grand Line being tired at the moment, but the next day started with some annoyingly beautiful weather. Clear blue skies, mild ocean breeze, a scarce few clouds for shade. It made working on the deck pretty relaxing. The rest of the crew chatted up with Max or each other whilst he was doing some work on the Sunny.

So far, the ones he had seen the least on the boat were Camie and Hatchan. For the latter, he could understand. Nami probably couldn't stand the guy after the hell his crew had put her village through. Max would make himself discreet too, in Hatchan's shoes. The mermaid though…

Honestly, once you got past the jump scares with her shocked faces, she was excellent company. Nice, eager to please, sweet. Always trying to push sales for her takoyaki stand.

“Still no money, Camie,” Max said as he pulled on the ropes of the sails. “In fact, I'm in debt right now. Ask Nami.”

For a moment, Max mindlessly kept at his chores, humming under his breath the tune to Bink's Crew , before he realized that Camie had fallen completely silent.

Max's first thought upon seeing her was that she had been killed.

Her body lay frozen on the deck, curled up in fetal position, her eyes empty. However, once he looked more closely, he noticed the minute movement of her lips, and the aura of gloom that oozed from her general direction.

“I did, once,” the mermaid said with a faraway voice. “She took everything. All I got was this lousy T-shirt… It doesn't even fit.”

“Now, now,” he said, picking her up from her spot in shriveled dead grass. Stupid visual metaphors. “I say it works for you. Red goes well with green. As for Nami…” – he paused as Camie tensed with fear, tears in her eyes – “well, it was a learning experience. Never go against a loan shark.”

Camie nodded, but her face remained white clouded by blue shades. The holy fear put in her was not so easily vanquished.

Max smiled as sincerely as he could while he lowered he down in a sitting position. “Know what would cheer yourself up? Find yourself a good sucker and push your entire stock on them!”

“I didn't think of that!” The mermaid brought both her hands just before her chin in delight, eyes almost shining. With such a bright smile, she turned around on the deck and began to awkwardly hop around. “Luffyyyyyyyy?”

She said it, not me. And Luffy would bankrupt himself buying food. No two ways about it.

As Luffy began gulping handfuls of octopus meat under Nami's sudden screams of anger, Max lowered his eyes to the spot of dead grass caused by Camie's previous aura of gloom. He was starting to develop some severe annoyance towards those laws of the universe.

Though, not too annoyed, else he'd be likely to pop a vessel or some other such illogical thing.

“Franky?” he called as he saw the cyborg climb down the stairs to the kitchen. “You have a minute?”

“Sure.” Franky pulled his sunglasses up into his hair. “What do you need?”

“I was just wondering… Is this a real lawn?”

Max didn't blame Franky for looking at him as if he were stupid, but Max had to voice the thought that he hadn't really stopped long enough to get.

“The grass. Is that real, living grass? That grows over time?”

Franky crossed his arms over his chest. “It ain't flesh-eating grass from Ferlizer Island, if that's what you're asking.”

Max paused to digest that information. Lovely. There's an island he wouldn't be stepping on anytime soon.

“That's good. My point, however, was that living grass grows. How do you guys cut it?”

For a lot of things, Max could accept doing it by hand. But he drew the line at taking care of a lawn with his bare hands. So much finicking for a very average result. Even with his glasses, he would have only managed an uneven cut.

“You wouldn't happen to have a lawnmower?” he pressed.

“A what?”

“A machine that cuts grass. You push it on wheels, and a turning blade under the hood cuts the grass evenly. ” He mimicked pushing a small cart forward. “So, h ow do you guys cut it, usually?”

Wordlessly, Franky held out a hand flat. With the other, he took off a flesh colored glove, revealing the metallic fist underneath.

“Strong Right!”

With one swing, the chain and fist chopped the blades of grass in half. A strong breeze sufficed to make most of the residue float away.

Max did not want to touch the logic of this chain of events with a ten foot pole.

“...Right. Well. Can you invent a lawnmower? We're not doing this every two weeks. My sanity won't survive it.”

Franky shrugged. “If that's what you want.”

--

Besides certain crazed things that really shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with the source material, Max's stay on the ship so far sometimes led to awkwardness due to the more… mundane and understated aspect of pirate life at sea. For example…

Sanji had the… healthy libido of an eighteen something young man. Max was also the guy in charge of cleaning the laundry. He saw things. Most of which he didn't particularly care to. However, his first time washing what had been blood out of clothes had him panic and go on a search for Chopper. To be fair, the water in the bucket had taken a red tint, he hadn't realized which articles of clothing had had some blood on them. In his hands, he held a light, indistinct white shirt that was turning pinkish.

“Chopper!” he screamed as he charged into his crewmate's office. “Someone's injured!”

“What? Who is it?” Chopper jumped from his chair, arms flailing wildly. “What happened?!”

“There was blood in the water and…” He paused as he felt something slipped out of the crumpled shirt.

A pair of panties.

Chopper looked up, then affixed Max with a stare .

He had approximately two seconds to return to the galley, more embarrassed than he had been in years, before any member of the crew besides Chopper took notice. Of course. Magnificent. After all his talk about wanting the girls to be comfortable with him doing their laundry, he had been awfully quick to thoroughly screw it up.

Stiffly, he bent down, picked up the offending undergarment, carefully hid them in the shirt, and walked out of Chopper's office as would a robot. Not Franky. No, an actual robot with the natural grace of a one-legged cow.

He got strange looks from Brook and Robin when he passed them by, but neither called out to him. Well, actually, Franky did, but Max just ignored him and went straight past the workshop to the laundry room. He closed the door behind him and just hit the wall with his forehead.

“Max?”

Max jumped about ten feet in the air, letting out an undignified scream much too high-pitched for his comfort. Then, he turned around, put on his best winning smile and gave a trembling thumbs up to the little reindeer.

“It's fine, Chopper. Just panicked and moved without thinking.”

Silence.

Then, slightly uncomfortable, “Do I need to explain female human biology to you?”

“I said it's fine, Chopper!”

Chopper had meant it in perfect sincerity, with no hint of malice whatsoever, but Max wasn't going to be told by a child what menstruation were. He was in his early twenties, for freak's sake! The embarrassment would kill him.

And as if the universe wanted to make sure Max received a lethal dose, Luffy pulled his head in, followed by pretty much every other member of the crew. In a minute, Max was surrounded.

“What's wrong, Max? Chopper? We heard something about someone being hurt?”

Max didn't need to fake the blushing. “Oh, ah, sorry, I accidentally cut myself on something, the blood seeped in the water. I thought there were bloody clothes and someone was hiding their injuries.”

Every single member of the crew turned toward Zoro, who seemed oblivious to the unimpressed looks he was getting. “That'd be a stupid thing to do. Your body needs to heal properly before it can perform at its best. It's common sense.”

Zoro found himself the target of nine vicious glares.

“What's with you guys? What did I say?”

Usopp, Chopper and Luffy turned to Nami and courteously gestured toward Zoro. “All yours.”

“Thanks, guys,” she said with a bright smile, before yelling “YOU HYPOCRITE!” and throwing a punch that knocked him face first into a wall.

“We were saying?” Nami then asked, wiping her hands together.

“Something about Max getting injured.”

“Wait,” – Luffy's neck stretched forward – “where did you get hurt?”

Freaking Luffy had to point out the inconsistency.

“Chopper healed me.”

Luckily, his next reaction was much more in-character. “Ooooh. Good job, Chopper!”

“Aaaaw, don't think this pleases me or anything, bastard!”

Crisis averted. He wasn't going to die a painful death for screwing up stupidly. No one suspected a thing!

Robin looked at him with a twinkle of amusement in her eyes.

Correction: almost no one. Well, at least, it was the one most likely to keep it to herself. He could live with that. Once everyone left, he would profusely hit the wall with his head again, to remind himself to never act as stupidly as that under the effect of panic again. At least, it couldn't get much worse than that kind of total humiliation.

Which was an opinion he thoroughly denounced as hopelessly naive and optimistic the next day, somewhere in the middle of the afternoon.

Sanji dropped the saucer he had been using to stir his stew when the door to the kitchen slammed open.

Sweaty, miserable, and glaring like he hoped to psychically start a fire right on top of the cook’s head, Max stepped inside.

“Sanji.”

If one could maim with words – which was probably a devil fruit somewhere out there –, then surely the hateful way in which Max had pronounced that name would have sliced both of Sanji's legs off.

He was aware that the cook could kick his ass all the way to Tuesday next week if he so desired, but right now, Max could not care in the slightest. Heck, he could be standing up to Akainu for what horrors he had had to go through.

“Never cook spicy burritos again.”

Sanji blinked. “Wha-”

“Brook is old and apparently, it doesn't agree with Usopp's system either. Don't get me started on Franky, he locked himself in there for an hour. I swear to God if you cook that again, I will accidentally empty your locker in front of Nami and Robin. Yes, I know.”

The cook's back straightened like a ramrod, and the color of his skin suddenly resembled bleached paper. “You wouldn't dare, you shitty horse janitor,” he growled.

“Do you think I have anything to lose? My eyebrows burned when I opened that door.” Max shoved his face forward. “I'm not even kidding. Through the mystery of bullshit, their combined stench was like a kick of your Diable Jambe to my face! I came in here so you can have a secondhand appreciation of what I went through because of you.”

Sanji's nose wrinkled, and his face turned a pale shade of green.

Max's hauled Sanji off his feet with surprising strength. “No. More. Burritos!”

--

The next time they met, Max frantically apologized for blowing a fuse. Luffy laughed, Sanji looked embarrassed and grouchy, and Zoro smirked.

What else was new?

--

For the most part, life as a pirate on the Thousand Sunny was surprisingly… domestic. Sure, there was the occasional seaking – which made Max sweat and shake before the Monster Trio took care of it – and the freak weather every six or seven hours, but on the whole… the most excitement he got was either playing chess with Robin in the evening or dancing on the deck to Brook's songs.

Until the fifth day he spent working that is.

As he was swabbing the upper deck near the aquarium's trapdoor, a wooden sword clattered right at his fe et. Looking up, he saw Zoro, standing with his arms crossed, a few feet away.

“Zo ro?” he asked slowly, his mind flashing to another tall first mate with a bandana. Another man of few words, with a strong, stoic presence. “What… what are you doing?”

With just a twist of his neck, Zoro directed Max's gaze towards the crow's nest. Max put the swab against one of the railings and followed the first mate up the mast.

“So, what is this about?” he asked again once he had made it into the training room.

“My duty as the first mate,” Zoro said as he unsheathed his sword. “Luffy probably forgot. He only asked if you had the guts to be on his crew. He didn't test you for strength.”

Something cold and painful dropped inside Max's stomach.

“Zoro, I-”

“If the ship is attacked, will we need to babysit you?” Then, harsher, “Will you go cower in the Sunny's depths while your crew fight?”

Whatever fear and hesitation might have been in his veins before vanished entirely, like a candlelight blown by the wind. Would he?! Against the seadog, the whole crew had come into action together, for their survival. But he had never been a fighter, never had had the kind of desire for a fight. Well, almost never, he thought towards Beaudrille's corpse now lost under the waves.

He'd never been a fighter, but if he tried to imagine himself cowering during an attack, to be curled up in the cleaning closet while the Sunny shook under the assault of another ship… it only brought a bitter taste to his mouth. On the Seafarer? Yeah, he'd hide. But here? On the Sunny? For fuck's sake, he wanted to be a Straw Hat! He wanted to be part of the crew that would go to hell and back for its own. Being willing to do the same was part of the deal!

He had feared death, but he was growing to fear that cowardice far more.

Max was on four legs before he knew it, anger pumping through his whole body.

Zoro smirked. “That's not a bad look in your eyes. Come!”

Max charged.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Max stomped his way to Zoro with all the forethought of a raging bull. The wood beneath his hooves trembled under the weight of his steps, Zoro's body slid by a couple of inches from Max's wingbeat and the moment Max could see Zoro's irises beneath his bandana, he took a flying leap forward.

It quickly became apparent that Max didn't have the faintest idea on how to fight as a horse. Nor did he as a human, to be fair. He had never realized, for example, that his muzzle could be a blind spot until Zoro completely disappeared from view.

The sound of metal whistling as it cut through the air sent his heart in a frenzy.

Purely on instinct, Max reared, batting the air with his front legs, stopping only when the weight of a cannon hit him straight in the barrel. His sight flashed white before he found himself falling back on all four.

Ropes – can't move – serpents – under my heel – they all break

He was on his hooves, thrashing. His wings were flapping, some mats flying across the room and into the walls. Something was screaming. The floor was wincing.

Through the chaos, he heard a silence. It slid through the winds. Max didn't know how he knew, but his gaze suddenly came into focus as a thin white line sliced into the gales. The tempest broke in two halves.

The tip of a sword rested inches away from his muzzle.

“Really?” Zoro looked at him with raised eyebrows. “Is that it?”

Max's left wing swung forward like a club.

Zoro moved but one step left. The air pressure only forced his bandana up, green hair poking beneath, and Zoro's eyes were all but narrowed into thin slits.

Faster than Max could react, he shot forth, his swords dancing and slashing all across Max's right side. When Max twisted to give chase, Zoro broke his stance and rammed Kitetsu's hilt into the side of his face. When his hind legs sprung, Zoro ducked and threw a punch against his flank.

None of Zoro's attack drew blood. But Max felt his pride bleed out of every hit all the same. He had already known that he was no match for the crew's unofficial first mate. He had. Though now that he was fighting him, Max realized he had subconsciously thought he could at least touch him.

Shouldn't he have the strength? The speed? Zoro didn't even reach his head in terms of heights, but he didn't flinch when blocking any of Max's hits.

Of course not, the man could swing a sword hard enough to cut the air into a weapon. He could remain standing after being filled in with the fatigue and pain of his own captain. He bench pressed weight larger than Max's horse form.

Max never had a chance.

“Stay still!” he shouted, frustration boiling over. Rearing, he readied a stomp he was sure Zoro would effortlessly dodge.

There was a noise of clashing metal, and a pressure right at the sole of Max's hooves. He almost faltered for the split second his mind reeled, before he was pushing down with even greater strength. Putting all his weight on it. Willing the swords to give in.

It was all he had, all he could give to the Straw Hats. If even his strength failed him now-

Max was thrown back rearing, and he flapped his wings frantically to get his balance back. Skipping, he fell back on all four right next to Zoro, eyes wide. What freakish strength.

Zoro frowned at him, sheathing his swords. “You're weak.”

Panting, Max gritted his teeth. “I know.”

The look Zoro gave him pinned him in place. Beyond the anger and sternness, there was something hateful about his eyes. “I am barely able to move,” – he flexed his bandaged hands disdainfully – “and I can push you back so far it's a joke. You were trying to ram into me, but you couldn't commit. You tried to strike, but you were too slow and too clumsy. You fell, and you panicked. You're like an animal. Do you understand that?”

Max shrunk back into human form, eyes downcast, fists trembling. What was he supposed to say to that? He'd never been in a fight before. He'd never wanted to fight before. But those were just excuses, he knew. Max had asked to become a pirate. Nothing else really mattered. His decision, his grave to dig.

“Well, you got your answer. I won't be of any help if there's a fight,” Max said with as even a tone as he could manage. In truth, he wanted to sink into the ground, so strong was the shame. “I guess I ought to go back to cleaning.”

“The ship is already clean. It's the cleanest it's been in months.” He pointed to the spot on the mat. “Sit. Down.”

For a split second, Zoro gave off more of a killer vibe with that simple order than Beaudrille had ever managed with blades to Max's neck.

He wisely sat down.

“For such a big horse, you're really too soft. We'll start with that. Zoan fruits don't give you pure strength. They build up on what you already have. And you're weak.”

The spat words chipped at Max's facade. Practice let him keep a good poker face, but his hands clenched against his jeans.

“Does it bother you?” Zoro asked, his gaze locked on him with laser focus. “It better. The only way to become strong is to refuse to be weak.”

--

And that was the second week of his travels on the Thousand Sunny. Training from hell with Zoro for hours from noon to dusk. First, exercising with weight, stamina, then when Max's body was on fire and his heart was on the verge of exploding, they sparred.

Mornings were left alone, because Zoro was a heavy sleeper and Max could start his chores early. When Zoro inevitably woke up, refusing to leave things half-assed was a good enough excuse.

Though… Max suspected that Zoro made training even more hellish in retaliation.

Tough luck! Luffy had given him a job and he would damn well do it! He'd gotten used to being worked to the bone before. The real difference was that the people around him supported him enough that he wouldn't break down. He didn't mind wiping every surface of the Sunny clean when he could have a lazy evening sitting by Nami's tangerine trees, when he could doze off in a long chair listening to Brook's music, when every single one of Sanji's dishes was like a five-stars restaurant.

The one good thing about this training was that he was so hungry at every single meal that he defended it viciously against Luffy's ever expanding grasp. The crew had laughed and joked that it hadn't taken too long to break out of his fear.

Luffy and vegetables though? Not so much.

Max was strategizing with Sanji about the best way to finally go through with their bullheaded captain. From traps to ambushes to group assaults. They tried it all at least once. Without success so far, but one day, oh one beautiful day, they'd pay him back for the sweat, blood and tears. That day, animals all over the world would breathe a sigh of relief as their life expectancy drastically increased.

That day… but today was not that day.

Today was just one more grueling series of exercises with a sadist for a teacher. The crow's nest had long since became the part of the Sunny Max most despised, and he had to deal with the absolute pigpen that was Franky's workshop. How the man could work in that, Max would like to know. Some days, he could barely even dredge his way through the half-finished inventions between him and the cleaning closet.

Of course, the fact that he was often half-dead when he tried might have something to do with it.

“Zoro!” Chopper screamed as he popped his head through the hole in the ground. “Stop training and let your injuries heal already! Doctor's order! It's a miracle you're still alive!”

“I'm not the one training,” Zoro drawled with a smirk. “It’s him, and it’s only a hundred.”

Chopper paused as he looked between Zoro in a sitting position and Max doing push-ups with said bastard sitting on his shoulders. “Oh. Nevermind that then.”

“Chopper…”

“Wait!” Chopper popped out of the trapdoor with a cry. “He's still suffering from the effect of malnourishment!”

Max started to smile.

“So, make it fifty instead,” the little traitor said before disappearing again, this time for good.

The last of his hopes gone, Max just let despair sink its fangs into his heart and crumbled to the ground. No more. He'd say as much when the inside of his mouth wasn't just a dried-up husk and his lungs could take more than shallow burning gulps of air.

“You can't even do fifty push-ups?” the sadistic green bastard sneered.

“I… I just did five hundreds…” Max panted.

“Precisely, I was going easy on you, and you can't even do that much. This should be a piece of cake for a zoan like you.”

From that point forth, Max's dreams began to worryingly include training sessions from hell, as well as images of him beating Zoro's face in with a rusty icepick. He was entirely certain this was very unhealthy, both physically and mentally.

Didn’t stop him from doing it though.

Chapter Text

As the days blurred into a mess of violence, mostly peaceful dreams and insane antics, Max more or less forgot that they were aiming to get to land again. So, he was totally unprepared, both knees on deck as he scrubbed vigorously one of Usopp's dried ketchup stars, when Franky in the crow's nest shouted:

“LAND AHOY!”

Heads popped up on deck from every corner of the ship, Luffy and Chopper the most excited amongst them. Nami was quick on their heels, though with the usual determination that sharpened her features whenever she focused on navigation.

A squeal rose from the lower deck, where Max saw Camie holding onto the railing with stars in her eyes. “We're here! We're finally here!”

It finally seemed to register. The next island was in sight. The place of the next Straw Hat adventures was just ahead of them!

Dropping his brush, Max ran down the stairs, skipping every other one as he made it next to the crew. Only Robin noticed, the rest too busy staring at Nami, who was herself staring through a spyglass. Her slight frown inspired little confidence. Some clouds had gathered near that island, it seemed. Maybe not enough for a storm, but enough for caution . This was the Grand Line after all.

“Nothing good can come from this…” a new voice came from around Max's knee level.

An orange starfish with a Jamaican hat was shaking its head left and right in denial.

“Wait,” Max said, “where did you come from?”

“I've been here the whole time!” the starfish yelled, his head suddenly much larger. “Talking to you!”

Max blinked. “Oh. Sorry.”

The feeling doubled when the poor starfish fell face first, dark clouds shadowing him while he sobbed. Sheesh, Max really felt like an ass for not noticing sooner now. Maybe a better apology would be in order.

“Eh, you shouldn't let it get to you, I've been a bit overwhelmed these past few days, Mr… hmm…”

Veins popped on the back of the starfish's head.

Blushing slightly, Max discreetly leaned a bit closer to Robin and asked “Huh, Robin, what's his name again?”

“Pappug! My name is Pappug and I've been on this ship longer than you!”

Swallowing anxiously, Max stood straight as a ramrod. Could he please… stop screaming? No, really. Please? Please! “…Sorry. Don't scream at me.

“Oi, Fancy starfish!” Luffy yelled at the top of his lungs. “Stop screaming at my cabin boy!”

“Huh?” he blurted out, turning just in time to see a sandal, attached to a stretching rubber foot.

Which stomped through his face and sent him flying into the sick bay. Pappug landed flat on the wall with a wet splat. Despite Max's cartoonish expectations, Pappug didn't float down to the ground with all the thickness of a sheet of paper. Instead, after a few seconds of staring, the crew heard muffled groans from the starfish, well and truly stuck.

Chopper took one look at the guy in his office and sighed. “I want to be mad, but that was well-deserved.”

Whilst Chopper grabbed some scrapers lying on deck, Luffy landed right next to a stock still Max. “You okay?” he said. “Do you need screaming therapy?”

Max shuddered. Was that the fourth or fifth time Luffy had suggested a new form of 'therapy'? The attention was touching, but not everything needed to be shoved in his face till he had the subtlety of a raging bull. At this rhythm, he was just going to be doing every freaking little thing he wanted with no consideration for anyone.

Basically, he'd be another Luffy, but without the charisma to back it up.

“Eh, no thank you. That's a bit too much at a time.” He offered a shaking smile as he jabbed a thumb in Zoro's general direction. “Let's keep going with dying therapy with Zoro and food therapy with you for now.”

At the mention of food therapy, Luffy's friendly smile turned into a disgusted grimace. Both corners of his mouth were pulled down much farther than normal human biology should allow. But then again, he was a man made of rubber. Might as well use it to express his displeasure.

“Sanji's not allowed to buy greens when we get down,” he promised with a frightening intensity.

Well, maybe just frightening to Max. Robin and Nami chuckled at their captain's childishness.

“It's goooooood for youuuuu,” Usopp sang song from his spot on the railings.

“Shut up, bastard!” Luffy stretched his arms and grabbed the railings on both sides of Usopp, whose face turned pale as a corpse.

“Oi oi oi, Luffy, don't-”

“ROCKET!”

Max winced as Luffy impacted Usopp so hard the poor sniper's eyes bulged out of his skull, his face frozen in an expression of agony and terror. It did not change as the two toppled over the railing, Luffy screaming as he realized his mistake.

“Men overboard,” Brook announced calmly, then blinked and screeched. “Ah! We have to save them!” he shouted, pulling off his jacket as if he were going to jump after them himself.

Nami knocked him down with one fist. “You can't swim, moron!”

“Eh, Usopp can bring him up,” Zoro said, sitting against the railing, arms crossed behind his neck. “He was conscious when he fell, right?”

With a disgusted sigh, Sanji dove after their idiot captain and sniper.

He emerged less than a minute later, completely drenched.

It was only natural that Max offered all three of them towels. Whilst they dried, Chopper returned with a rescue victim of his own, this one massaging a heavily bandaged face, if one could call it that at this point.

“Urgh,” Pappug groaned, “I need to get away from this ship's insanity.”

“Perfect timing, Pappug!” Camie clasped her hands in front of her chin. “I was just going to do some scouting around Sabaody, see where they should dock their ship. Hatchan said he wasn't sure where to find Rayleigh.”

The starfish guy eyed her cautiously. “That's a bad idea, Camie…”

“Don't worry about me. Nothing's going to happen.”

Max frowned, picking the towels back from his crewmates. That's tempting Fate if I ever heard it.

“I'll go check things ahead of us!” Camie announced, jumping over the railings.

Right into the waiting jaws of a vicious-looking seaking.

“THAT'S NOT EVEN FUNNY!” Usopp, Nami and Max shouted in unison.

Losing no time, Luffy jumped onto the railing, one fist in the air, “Zoro! Cut her out of there!”

Another minute later, their mermaid friend was lying on the deck, breathing hard, dripping wet from both seawater and saliva. Pappug was on his back, eyes blanks from the experience. Under his breath, he seemed to be muttering something suspiciously similar to 'every single damned time...'

Max, for his own part, was swabbing the deck a few paces away. Sea creature guts had a tendency to taint stuff permanently, and those were neon blue pieces of intestines. Sanji said they were edible though, so he couldn't just throw them overboard. The, ahem, harvesting, however? He left it to the professional, thank you.

He had no desire to taste his lunch a second time, no matter how much he had enjoyed it the first time.

Urgh, not the thing to imagine , he thought as he forcefully looked away from the revolting mess on the Sunny's planks. Normally, he might have eyed Sanji a little, but seeing as the man was up to his biceps in 'fish' meat, he refrained. Besides, Nami's voice carried well.

“How about you don't run ahead to get yourself kidnapped or eaten?”

Camie twiddled her fingers sheepishly. “I guess I do that a lot.”

Something about that made Max's mind buckle. It wasn't anything particular, just the words, the casual way she reminded them how often she fell into all sorts of traps. It jolted his memory back to some black and white panels on a page. She was the kind to get in terrible troubles all the time, wasn't she? What was her role in the manga's plot again?

“You don't need to worry about it, we're almost there. See?” Pappug pointed at the horizon, where one could vaguely make out the shape of something green and bushy above the waves.

“Wait,” – Max squinted his eyes – “what's the island we're heading to?”

“Sabaody Archipelago,” Robin replied in passing.

“Oh, so that's how far along we are…”

He should have been paying more attention. He'd have realized where they were going otherwise, just by Camie's, Pappug's and Hatchan's presence on the ship. The archipelago, huh? What was this one again? The place with tree groves and bubbles and… Camie getting… kidnapped…

Oh… oh fuck!

The archipelago had been the last time the crew was together before the timeskip! They'd be separated. Torn apart one by one until they could be strong enough to face the New World together.

Max felt faint. His hands gripped the railing hard enough for the wood to wince. He'd… he'd only had three weeks with them, the first of those spent in a bed. Just when he finally got to join, to be part of the crew and start to remember what it was like to matter.. .

Two years. It'd be two years before he saw any of them again. If nothing was done, in the best case scenario, things would happen exactly as they had before. One crew member joining so little time before the archipelago shouldn't make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. No one but the crew itself knew he was a pirate now.

If Kuma had been planning exactly where each of them would go, then Max might be screwed. No, he realized a moment later, regardless of where he'd be sent, two years away… he'd just been accepted by the crew. He had only had a few weeks together, but they already felt like the best of his life. He'd accept whatever would be on the other end of that three days trip, if they would all return together.

He would… His fingers dug into the wood of the railing. He would accept it!

Eventually.

With a sigh, Max nearly slumped down in defeat.

After all, Luffy would go through an experience that would transform his understanding of his strength in this world. It would make him a much stronger captain, a far more solid candidate for the title of the Pirate King. He'd come out of it curbstomping every enemy here and in the beginning of the New World with ease. And all that was necessary for it to happen was…

Marineford.

Max's eyes darted to his happy-go-lucky captain, who was of course smiling. Completely unaware of the absolute hell he would soon face to save his brother.

To try to save his brother.

And Max felt a sudden fear seize his throat and squeeze . He had to say something. Danger might arise from that. Pushing things might end up with their lives on the line. He didn't…

Max didn't want to risk his crew's lives. If nothing was done, then they would be safe without question.

But would any of them care once he explained that the reason he hadn't said anything earlier was that he couldn't guarantee that they'd survive otherwise? That the reason their captain had to see his brother die in his arms was that Max had been scared to cause more troubles? Ah! Since when had Luffy ever cared about risks ?

There, leaning on the railing with half his body, Max let out a defeated laugh.

Shit, okay, what exactly did he tell Luffy? Did he explain everything right here and now, see how they reacted, see how much they trusted him? Best case scenario, they did, and the whole crew… did what? How could they even change the outcome of a war that even their captain's strength could barely influence? Maybe if they'd seen Ace before he fought Blackbeard. Maybe if it had happened earlier, they could have planned something together…

A hand fell on his shoulder, and Max's train of thoughts derailed and crashed.

“Huh?” He turned just enough to see blonde hair and the tip of a cigarette over his shoulder. “Sanji? Do… do you need something?”

“You looked like you'd gotten shocked back into your head again. Chopper said physical contact might help, so long as it's not rough.”

Max sighed. “Thanks.”

Straightening, he showed Sanji a grateful smile, which slipped a few seconds later. He wasn't in a good enough mood to keep up the pretense. Two years…

Sanji breathed out some smoke, then sat down on the railing.

Max would miss that kind of presence. Despite his rude behavior towards men, Sanji cared. All of them cared. They gave so easily… Max couldn't not give back just as much. He wanted them safe, happy, and he wanted to do it right .

Alright, first thing's first. Sanji would go to an island of transvestites madly in lust with him. It might have sounded funny, but holy hell, two years of being sexually harassed? Who the hell thought that could be deserved ? Short of beating up Kuma himself, Max had no idea how to change that. And really, him, beating a warlord when he struggled to touch a wounded Zoro? Yeah, right.

Next best thing, then.

“Hey, huh, you know,” Max said, stumbling a bit on the words he meant to say, “when I found myself stuck in hell… I only felt alive again when I found a goal to pursue. Thinking it'll get better eventually. Something to thrive for, you know?”

Sanji let nothing show on his face. He stared into the cloud of smoke he had exhaled, into the shapeless things it became over the ocean breeze. “Hmm. I can get that.”

“No matter how bad the moment gets, the future can always become bright. It's just a matter of powering through, and the reward'll be worth it. Best revenge is to live long enough to dance on their graves.”

Sanji's fist clenched so hard his cigarette became but a crumpled mess of paper cinders.

“Sanji?”

The cook exhaled another time, and more smoke than before came out of his mouth, as if his burning aura had turned within. “You're right. No horror last forever.”

Feeling like he had accidentally stumbled into something very delicate, Max held out a hand, wanting but not daring to touch his friend's shoulder. Sanji looked wound up enough to go ballistic, and Max didn't know why.

“Sanji, do you want to talk?”

It was like flipping a switch. The tension evaporated from Sanji's posture, him looking regretfully at his crushed cigarette with something close to a pout. “Isn't that what we're already doing?”

Nice deflection. “There's talking and then there's Talking .”

Smirking, Sanji stood up, giving Max a quick pat on the shoulder as he walked past. “You first then.”

That took the wind out of his sails. In terms of secret, he had a pretty big one on his mind right now. He shouldn't be talking about sharing if he wasn't willing to do the same.

Max grabbed onto the railings as the Sunny lurched in the bay. Franky's shouts echoed around as he jumped from the crow's nest and ran to take the wheel.

“Max, Sanji, Usopp, Zoro, begin tying the sails! We need to slow down a bit before mooring!”

As if he’d been slapped, Max lunged for the ropes on starboard and began pulling as fast as he could. Sanji, a few meters behind him, pulled the other set of ropes. On the other side of the boat, Usopp and Zoro were doing the same. Slowly but surely, the sails folded, the bottom lifting, crinkled. Sanji ended up grabbing Max’s ropes and tied the knot himself, then shouted something like “we’re done on our side, shitty swordsman!” Unfortunately, Zoro more or less shouted the same thing from his end at the same time.

“And nooooooow...” Franky crooned, raising a finger high in the air as if to guess where the wind was coming from. ' As if ' were the right words there. A manic gleam shone even through the cyborg's sunglasses. “ Un petit coup de vent!

The Sunny lifted under their feet, and Max struggled to remain standing even as his internal organs just shambled around like in an elevator that stopped too fast. Gripping the ropes with both hands, he looked starboard as the sea flew past them in a flurry of blues and whites. The crew's cheering mixed with his own. It was hard to describe the feeling, not quite like flight had been, but something about their jumping reminded him of sheer freedom of leaving Beaudrille's crew.

His heart might have skipped a beat or two when the trees of the archipelago grew bigger and bigger still ahead of them, with the Sunny showing no sign of stopping. But Franky's calculation had been perfect. A hundred meters away or so, the Sunny underside hit the water, and whilst Max and Usopp fell to the floor, they nonetheless felt the slowing pushes of the water below. As they neared to a complete halt, they hit the shore with a very soft 'thunk'.

Max jumped to his feet. “That was artistic !” he shouted to the amusement of the crew and the betterment of Franky's pride.

God, if they had had that on the Seafarer, his life would have been so much easier! Though, admittedly, he didn't want to imagine Beaudrille with an air pressure weapon built into his ship. But still, no need for an uncoordinated mess where the boat sometimes lurched back with the strength of the waves. No need for the crew to get on the tiny rowboats whilst the Seafarer waited in the bays.

For some of the cabin boys to pull it closer to shore.

With a startle, Max realized he hadn't prepared the rope to moor the Sunny. Screeches rang forth in his head as he resisted the urge to cuss and knelt next to the railing for one of the larger, more solid ropes. With fast, jerky movements, he fastened one end as a noose, and scanned the shore for a good mooring point.

Zoro pulled him back, just calmly enough that Max didn't panic. Instead, he nodded towards their captain, who was winding back his arms.

Gum gum … Hook!”

Luffy's right arm and hand stretched and reached the shore with ease. His fingers dug into the mossy ground, easily. As far as mooring went, that had been quite smooth.

“You know, for a ridiculous fruit, it's pretty damn useful when it wants to be, huh?”

Zoro shrugged. “Can't argue that.”

“Alright!” Luffy cheered. “Now, guys, get the ropes.”

“On second thought…” Max grumbled. “He's just showing off.”

Despite his annoyed mood, getting the Sunny docked and well-attached had been a fairly smooth operation. While the crew hadn't had many chances to do so with their new boats, they had moored the Merry enough to compensate. Soon, it was time to explore the Archipelago.

Something that both excited Max and made him want to throw up.

He hoped it didn't show on his face while the others talked about their choices. The plan, which Max had more or less completely forgotten, was to meet one of Hatchan's acquaintances – Rayleigh, of course – and get the coating to reach Fishman Island.

Eh, what would happen if we all got to Fishman Island early? We could probably still beat that crew of racist fishmen, but…

The image of Ace, lying on the ground, with a gaping hole in his chest flashed to his eyes.

Yeah, no way Luffy wouldn't turn back the moment he heard the news… If he heard it at all, a few thousands leagues under the sea… So many horror scenario. So much nope. I have to do it now.

“So, who's staying behind to guard the ship then?” Luffy asked.

Franky raised a hand. “I'm staying. I'm gonna inspect the Sunny, see how it liked its maiden voyage.”

“I'll help with that, Franky,” Usopp chimed in.

Luffy shrugged. “Eh, alright. Anyone else feels like staying?”

“What about you, Max?” Robin asked, her voice carrying a slight note of worry. Every head turned his way after that. “You have been cooped up on the ship for quite some time now.” Everyone could hear the but in that sentence.

“I don't know about this,” Pappug said, eying Luffy warily, “your pal's not doing so hot here, and Sabaody is… not a nice place to say the least.”

An exaggerated thinking pout on his face, Luffy turned to the resident expert. “Chopper?”

“I'd leave it to him. He's the one that can decide if he's up to it.”

Max nodded, only half hearing what was being said. He needed to… it was his chance… he had to…

“I'm staying behind,” was all he said.

There was a tacit approval to that. Some nods, some pats on his back. They didn't want him having some sort of nervous breakdown, obviously. Parts of Max felt relieved, but others… others wanted to prove them wrong. Zoro's gaze lingered only an instant, and it was to him that Max wanted to shout the most.

But… not now.

“Anyone else?” Luffy asked, hands on his hips.

With an impressively fake look of worry on her face, Nami deliberately glanced toward the ship's hold. “Oh, we need someone strong and brave to guard my treasure…”

Sanji appeared sliding on his knees into a courtly bow, the coolness of which was ruined by his heart-eyes and the drop of blood hanging from his nose. “Say no more, Mellorine. Your knight is here.”

“Shishishi, then I guess it's settled. Let's go!”

If I shut up now, nothing will change.

“Luffy, wait!”

“Huh?” Luffy bounded back, managing to look neither annoyed or surprised. “What's wrong, Max? Decided to come anyway?”

Max opened his mouth, then came to a halt.

What did he say?! Shit. He hadn't thought about that part at all. Marineford. Marineford. The War of the Best. When Blackbeard played everyone for fool to steal himself a crew and Whitebeard's powers. There was no way Luffy alone had the strength to change all that, even if their entire crew was spared from that cyborg warlord's teleportation stuff.

But… maybe…

One of the most vivid memories he had of the manga was a page of Luffy, screaming at the sky, crying, and two words. “I'M WEAK!”

Monkey D. Luffy should never be the man to say those words. He should never say them and be right.

“I… I have something to tell you.”

The entire crew was staring. Zoro's felt the heaviest of them all, a slight creak of his brows like a blaring sign in the night. Could Max truly blurt it all out? It wasn't a good time to have the others be suspicious of what he might say. Sanji already was…

What had been the lynchpin? The one thing that had made the rescue fail? He had to change the right thing, or else everything would collapse. The ripple effect could be disastrous, and if Luffy got caught in it…

He refused to believe his captain could die.

YOU CAN DO IT, STRAW HAT!

The memory struck him like a lightning bolt.

How long has he been screaming?

DON'T GIVE UP!”

I'm not a miracle worker! I help those that choose help themselves!”

Don't give up, don't give up, don't give up.

Max grabbed Luffy's shoulders and looked him straight in the eyes. “If you meet a poison user in a prison, run. Remember that. A poison user in a prison. Run. Don't fight. He's too strong. Better run and accomplish your goal another way. Can you promise me that?”

Luffy wasn't the only one confused. “Huh, I guess?” he said, pulling his straw hat back in place. “Why do you ask?”

The pressure of the gazes on his back only seemed to grow. “It's too weird to explain now. And I'm, well, I need to deal with it first. Please trust me?”

It didn't even take a second.

Luffy broke into a massive grin. “Of course I trust you, Max. You're part of my crew!”

That boundless energy seeped into Max's chest, untying the knots that had taken hold of him. Luffy… Luffy believed him. He didn't know if that was enough, but… he couldn't mention Ace now . Luffy needed someone like Hancock to give him access to the prison. They couldn't do it from Sabaody. But if Luffy could get down there in time, then…

Maybe there wouldn't be a War of the Best.

“Okay…” He nodded, he swallowed. His breathing, getting back under control. “Okay, then, I'll just wait for you guys here. Just… be careful. And remember that.”

Still shaken, both by this conversation and the relief crashing on him, Max stepped back and let himself fall sitting in the stairs. The rest of the crew, plus Camie, Hatchan and Pappug, looked at him with narrowed eyes or thoughtful frowns. What was going through their heads now, he could only imagine. The only one unaffected was Luffy.

“Poison guy, poison guy,” he sang song on his way off the Sunny. “Don't fight the poison guy!”

One by one, the rest of the expedition filtered down the plank, but more than once, Max caught the glances he was getting before they all made their way through the grove.

--

“Go fish!” Usopp called out with a triumphant laugh.

One that Max was fairly certain meant he was lying through his teeth. Normally, he would have called it out as it were, not like they were playing for cash or anything.

This time, Max just obediently bent over the barrel to pick one card from the pile. A seven. Right, what was supposed to be in Usopp's hand again?

Focus, focus… he told himself.

“Max?” Usopp waved a hand right in front of his eyes. “You heard me? I said: 'do you have fives?' You're not doing that head thing Chopper said, right?”

Max blinked. “N-no, sorry, just caught up in my thoughts.” And trying to avoid certain others.

With so few members of the crew on board, the Sunny felt strangely… lonely. On the Seafarer, the lack of people had brought a certain feeling of security, now, for the first time without most of the crew, everything seemed a bit empty. The knowledge that it would be this way for two years made him sick to his stomach.

At least, he had extracted a promise from his captain not to fight Magellan. Hopefully, the would let him reach Ace before he was taken to Marineford. From that point on, it would be entirely up to Luffy. Max had no clue how that would play out. With any luck, Ace wouldn't die.

Luffy won't…

I'M WEAK!”

“Go Fish!” Usopp told him again, this time with surefire confidence. Yup, no lie this time.

Hell, how many tall tales would he miss in two years? Hundreds? Thousands? How many, really, would he not hear?

He picked a card from the pile. Another seven. Enough to put the pile on the table. He didn't.

“This is just like the time I swindled my slingshot from the village elder in a poker game tournament! On the very last round, I bluffed so well that every single player dropped down even though I had absolutely nothing!”

“So, you're cheating right now?” Max asked, chin resting on his hand.

Usopp started sweating heavily. “N-no, not exactly like that, I mean… Huh…”

“Pirate,” he teased.

“Oi, oi, that's right!” He stood up, one foot on the barrel, cards flying everywhere. “I'm a brave pirate of the sea! And if you catch me cheating, that's just too bad for you! The Great Captain Usopp!”

How many? How many?!

He wasn't able to fake good cheers, he couldn't even play cards with Usopp properly. He had to get his mind off this. With an apology to Usopp, Max walked up to the upper deck and called, “Need me to do a supply run, Sanji?”

“That'd be helpful, yeah,” came his voice, muffled at first, then clearer when he stepped into view. “We're not hurting too badly for food and water right now, but taking care of it early can't hurt either.” Sanji frowned. “So long as you're okay with it too. You sure you'll be fine on your own?”

“I will be, promise,” he said, even as worse case scenarios started popping up in his mind.

He could be enslaved, for starters. Wouldn't that be a bummer? Ah… haha… wow, the thought alone had made his knees feel like gelatine. But the alternative was returning down in the hold and pretend it wouldn't be a ghost ship in the making.

Therapy, therapy , he remembered Luffy chanting. The most inaccurate bullshit possible, but the effects had actually began to show. It could be called facing his own fears. To learn how to live through them.

Usually, they are around for that very reason , the reasonable part of him said.

“I… I just feel a bit caged right now. I have to stretch my legs…”

“Better be two, then. I wouldn't mind the exercise.”

Max put his hands on Sanji's shoulders, trying not to shake. “No, you have a mission too. Remember what you said to Nami?”

You can't miss the snail call, otherwise things will start going really wrong.

Sanji seemed more hesitant than Max had expected. He pulled his lips together around his cigarette, averting his gaze. “I… You're right, I told Nami-swan I'd protect her treasures with my life. Shit. Maybe, we could ask Franky to-”

“Nah. I'll be fine. It's just a short supply run.” Just some way for me to stop thinking . “So, could you write down what you want me to get? I'll go double check the stuff we've got in the hold.”

“Alright. Oh, and before you leave, maybe avoid showing off if you can. A big horse is one thing, but a mythical zoan would immediately catch some attention.”

Made sense. Still, something about that kind of made him tick.

“What about Brook and Chopper?”

Max might not have been an expert about the frankly bizarre tolerance limits of the inhabitants of the Grand Line, but surely a walking skeleton or a talking reindeer might be noteworthy in their own right? Not to mention he was the only member of the crew without a bounty.

“What about them?” Sanji asked, his only visible eyebrow higher than usual.

Well, that answered that. “Forget it.”

It was just one of those things you had to roll with in the One Piece universe. You questioned it at your own risks and perils, and Max's life was already dangerous enough without the extra dose of madness such a line of thoughts would bring. Besides, he didn't actually want to get some attention. Wordlessly, he went back to the cleaning closet and began reading aloud the lists of products. He had memorized most of it already, but a refresher didn't hurt. About five minutes later, he had finished copying down the numbers and names of the products he needed.

On the deck, he met up with Sanji, and out of curiosity, checked out the list he was handed.

“That's a lot of greens,” Max deadpanned.

Sanji's smirk was something positively vicious. “Yup. We need a bit more than usual if we want to keep up with the usual therapy.”

“For the record, Luffy should be punching you.”

“Duly noted.” He shrugged and lit up a new cigarette. That was one thing with Sanji. He smoked like a chimney, but somehow kept his taste buds intact enough to be a five-stars chef.

Shooting a glance at the sky, Max sighed and readjusted the backpack he'd be using to bring back everything. “Well, anyway, I need to get going. I'll have to look for the stores in the first place, so this might take a while.”

“Well, they said the shopping district was in the groves thirties or so.”

“Awesome.” Max nodded and headed for the plank. “I'll start there then. Later, Sanji!”

“You know you can trust us, right?”

Max paused mid stride. “I know, fuck, Sanji, believe me, I know exactly how much I can trust you all!”

For a moment, the silence felt shrill to his ears. An outburst like that… he didn't need to look to know Sanji was staring, probably trying to analyze and figure out his deal.

Max blushed and scratched at his beard, sheepish. “I know I can. I… I read the articles, I saw what you guys will do for your own. But I, I just need a bit more time. I promise you, I will tell you guys about earlier.”

Hopefully, that wouldn't be another broken promise.

--

Deeper into the archipelago, the smell of bog and brine weakened. New perfumes floated in. Less salt, more frying oil, more sugar, sometimes, a nice, mouthwatering smell like grilled seafood. In busy streets, things like strong fruity and flowery perfumes became more frequent. But nothing ever quite overshadowed the smell of damp moss and stagnant water.

It was rather funny. Looking at all the bubbles, one might think of a bubble bath. But really, Max figured that only those that had never been to the archipelago could think that.

Not hard to see why, though.

In some streets, there was an air of festival hanging around, lingering between the joyful conversations and the laughter. In those streets, the bog-like atmosphere was the weakest, as if everyone was putting their energy into making the place as pleasant as possible. In some places, it worked. He was staring with wide eyes and a smile at the chains of bubbles hanging between the street posts, at the vibrant red or blue roller coasters visible in the background, at the big mascots dancing their ways through the crowds. It could have looked like a giant open air theme park!

Shame about all the slavery.

Perhaps it was his faulty memory, perhaps it was just a difference in perception between a manga and a reality… but he hadn't expected such a dark problem to be so overt . Around the corner of every other street, he saw a person wearing a collar, always hanging their heads and waiting behind someone with a leash . He saw not one fishman or fishwoman without both. Once, once , he thought one of the slaves had seemed smaller than most of the other adults around them, but Max had jumped into the first shop he saw, else he would… he would not be held responsible for what he did.

The shop he had entered had a strong, spicy air to it, and Max forced himself to focus on that little detail rather than the inhuman exploitation outside. Sanji's list had included spices. And on the few shelves around the shop, he could read names like 'cumin' or 'black saffron' or 'red garlic'. Red garlic was definitely on Sanji's list. So, he picked that up, and began reading the names on the other labels.

Breathing low, he let his mind wander on the memories of the dishes Sanji had made in the past few weeks. Damn, he'd miss that too. Hopefully, those things wouldn't spoil after that much time had passed. Probably not, right? He'd heard that dried spices could be kept for ages, so long as they were in a sealed bottle to keep the flavors in.

A chime rang through the small shop. In came a middle-aged woman, some wrinkles around her eyes, some gray in her hair, her cheeks gaunt and hollow. She moved quickly into the alleys between the shelves, her hands finding the right spices without hesitation. There seemed notable about her, nothing to really catch Max's attention, right until the moment he caught sight of some familiar red lines on her exposed back.

Phantom hands raked across his back, pulling at the scars just right. The air no longer had this smell of spices he'd found so welcoming. All he could smell now was sweat and blood. His hands were frozen, like they were bound together.

Gibson, the whip.”

The woman was looking his way.

Max rushed to the counter. He paid for his purchase with trembling hands, barely muttering a 'thank you' to the cashier, scrambled to pick his bags and walked-jogged-RAN out of the shop.

There, the air was back to this strange mixed scent of bog and sugar. So many people were in those streets, walking by, hiding him in a crowd of bodies. He could breath again. He could not…

Nobody is batting an eyelash. Don't be the one. He could not afford to stand out now. Zoro had more or less drilled into him that his best chances right now were sneak attacks and dirty fighting. Biting, kicking, backstabbing. Anything so long as he didn't have to engage in something more complex than a brute strength competition.

Be like them. Be cold , and stop caring. You were good at it before.

It was frighteningly easy. All he needed to do was look at others, and see that they barely noticed the slaves. He could do that. He could pretend that his eyes glided over them. Not looking, not seeing. Just walking by as a machine would.

If I don't-

That thought would have better served him if it had continued with 'look where I'm going', as Max's shoulder bumped into another man's.

Oh, fuck me.

The man in question dropped a slip of paper he'd been holding. A little rectangular piece of paper, whose ornamented drawing actually flashed by Max's eyes as he saw it float down to the ground, face-up. The motif on the card had both a number and a name written on it to accompany the image of a skeleton in a robe.

Thirteen. Death.

Sheesh, isn't that ominous? Or not. Because of his sister-in-law's interest for tarot and fortune-telling in general, Max had a passing knowledge of the card's meaning. Something like endings and transitions. A transformation.

He was on the Sabaody Archipelago with the Straw Hat crew right before the timeskip. Might as well have predicted sunny weather for the day.

“Oh, hm, 'scuse me,” Max said as he bowed his head in apology. Only for a second though. Knowing his luck, he'd just accidentally knocked into some dangerous pirate. And keeping his eyes on them might let him see it coming. “Didn't see you there. My bad.”

The man in question stared agape, his wide eyes stretching the tattoos on his forehead larger. The dozen or so of people accompanying him all gaped in much the same fashion.

“Did you see that?” one of them whispered.

“Yeah, he bumped into the captain.”

“That's never happened before. How is tha-”

The blonde guy – the captain, if Max had heard right – lifted one hand, and his crew shut up instantly. For some reason, he fished out a deck of cards out of his pockets.

The Death card on the moss rose up in the air, pushed by some plant's stem, it looked like.

Devil fruit powers. Definitely devil fruit powers. Shit, who was that guy again? He had to have been part of the manga or the anime. He had the strongest feeling of déjà vu now. It certainly would help if he could find out what were those weird strings. Looked like straw. Plant-based paramecia, maybe? Definitely a pirate captain. Chances were, the guy was a supernova.

Max resisted the urge to step back. That would be like dropping blood in a shark tank.

He was screwed. He was so screwed it wouldn't be funny.

“Your fate is strange, Maxime.”

Actual first name when most of his crew only used a nickname. A creepy start to an unfortunate meeting. Damn. Should he consider fighting Usopp for the title of most unlucky? Or was that Sanji?

Holding his bags just a little tighter, he tried to smile. “Okay.”

The man tilted his head, his hair turned the color of the tentacles holding the cards. “Okay?”

A strange pressure started building up at the back of Max's neck. It was like he was being scrutinized by a predator, and for the life of him, he couldn't tell if it came from the pirate captain or someone else. “I'm okay with my fate being weird. Better that than tragic. There's worse in this world than living a strange life. I could be a slave, for example. That's a bad fate. Worth worrying about.”

For a second, the man lacked any external reaction. Then, he lowered his gaze back to the cards still being held in midair. With a few swipes of his fingers, he rearranged their orders, his crew behind him making some 'oooh' noise, like a crowd of children before an entertainer.

“The cards change every time I try to draw your fortune.” His eyes flicked to one card slightly to the left. “More importantly, the cards say my fate changed.”

It clicked. His brain supplied him with one image, just one panel in a manga page, but it was enough to suddenly place him. The probability of death. Tarot cards. Strings that looked like straw.

“Hawkins,” he replied, frantically trying to recall more about the guy's attitude. He had always looked calm enough. He could be a peace main. Maybe. Just in case . “Do they tell you about a guy with a light logia fruit? I'd avoid him if I were you. There's maybe one person on this island that could take him on. Your dolls won't matter.”

Hawkins fixed a blank stare on Max. “You are a pirate.”

Max nodded. “Straw Hat Luffy's crew. I'm the cabin boy, and I apologize in advance for when you will meet my captain.”

“Straw Hat Luffy…” he heard Hawkins mutter under his breath. “He sounds worth keeping an eye on.”

Max just couldn't resist.

“Oh, you have no idea!”

Chapter Text

With most of his purchases in hand, Max only needed to head back to the Sunny for his supply run to be complete. While he could, the reason he hadn't done so yet wasn't entirely that he was lost. In good parts, yes, but it began with an actual desire to explore. After so much time spent aboard a ship, he couldn't deny the appeal of a nice walk around dry land.

And despite the horrifying aspects of it, Sabaody did have an ambiance not unlike an elaborate Disneyworld knock-off.

At the moment, he was walking in the commercial district, ducking and slipping through the crowd with his bags firmly grasped against his chest. He eyed every person that came a little too close, which, in a densely occupied street, meant most everyone.

The feeling was actually somewhat familiar, reminiscent of much more pleasant times when getting his wallet stolen was the worse he could imagine happening. The smell of sugar and oil was much stronger here, and he could actually hear some children laughing. Some. The street vendors were doing a good job of burying every other noise under their sales pitches.

Multi-rounded pistols! Fairy Floss! Fried beef jerky! Choker collars! Sparkling new chains! All at unbeatable prices, especially not by the guy at the neighboring stall, he sells overpriced crap. Come to mine, it's far better because I say so!

Some things never change , Max thought with an eyeroll.

“You, sir!” some blue-haired man called out from his stall. “Yes, you! You seem like a reasonable and well-prepared man. How about a Gunpowder Cache? It's perfect for all occasions!”

“No thanks,” he replied immediately and accelerated. The hollering followed him a few more seconds before the vendor got the hint and switched targets.

Yet Max couldn't relax. Being called out had ripped apart the feeling of being no one in a crowd. People saw him. Could single him out precisely. His hold on his bags tightened. The street didn't look as welcoming now. He felt a prickle on the back of his neck. Like he was being watched.

Shit, he never should have decided to explore slavery park on his own. No more walking around. He was going to get back to the Sunny now and–

“Need help carrying all those bags, sir?” Some shady looking guy grabbed his arm, his traits hidden under a black hood. And yet, Max clearly saw two red eyes staring at him. “We got some good 'workers' back there.”

Max didn't reply. He ran.

The hand that had gripped him had let go with barely a fight. He didn't stop to think about it. He didn't really think besides some alarms screeching at full volume in his head. Fuck if that wasn't the creepiest thing he ever saw. Max thanked the busy streets now, for he could slip through the groups in seconds, and the hooded guy disappeared out of sight in half that time. Even when he was certain, he kept going, till he was at the very end of the street. There, he paused to catch his breath, bags somehow still in hand after all this.

But a moment later, the thing he had been leaning out slid under his weight, and Max span on himself to catch the edge before it toppled. Heart still beating madly, he shot a glance at the owner, a little wrinkled woman who sat crossed legs, an expensive-looking cigar between her fingers.

“Sorry,” he mumbled.

“Interested in a vivre card, boy?” she asked, despite having certainly seen him stumble against her stall.

Max eyed the few pieces of slick white paper on the table with something of a revelation. A vivre card, now that's an idea! If he could get one for the crew, they wouldn't need to be separated – even if they desperately needed the time to train to acceptable levels. There would be something that would let them reunite if they ever wished it!

“Maybe,” he said. “How fast can you make one?”

Her face briefly disappeared behind a puff of smoke. She didn't glare, not exactly, but her dark grey eyes seemed to pierce him through.

“How much can you pay?” she rasped.

Max kept the grimace off his face. That was a surefire way to turn off the artisan, even if it didn't make his pockets any heavier. He had done the groceries with money to spare, but not that much.

“Eh,” – he shrugged – “depends on their prices.”

“Five million bellies.”

There goes that idea , Max thought dejectedly. He was already a poor haggler, trying to get that price down into his pay range would be an exercise in futility.

Still that would have been such a useful thing to have with them. Maybe some way to try and contact each other over the timeskip. No reason they couldn't have any contact at all…

“Would you happen to have… used ones? You know, old models.”

As his words fell out, the streets around them seemed to grow distant, every holler something indistinct and muffled. The old woman was staring at him, her lips pinched around her cigar. Then, she leaned forward, all five feet of her looming over her stall, and yet Max felt just about ready to present his most formal excuses and be on his merry way. Forever.

“Let me get this straight,” she said with a voice like dried sandpaper. “Vivre card are a piece of paper that can lead anyone straight to you, no matter how far they are. Only breaks if you are dying. Costs a pretty belly. And you think someone left me with an old piece of theirs?”

Max tried not to blush. “H-h-hey, you never know. What if that client was unpleasant and you decided to keep a piece to give to the marines, but finally decided against it long after they were gone?”

The old woman held her glare for an impressive time, more than enough to get Max to sweat. At first, it seemed as if he had insulted her and her craft so deeply that she would forgo elementary courtesy and just straight up shoot him in the face. Instead, she threw her head back and laughed.

“Have you been spying on me, kid?”

Max's eyebrows shot up to his hairline. “You're kidding, right? That was a desperate shot in the dark on my part!”

“Well,” she said, adjusting her cigarette back on her lips, “you have a peculiar aim, kid. As it so happens…”

Bending over to her left, the little old woman disappeared under her stall. Seconds later, she emerged back from the depth with a dusty, yellowing piece of paper in her right hand. At his skeptical look, she placed it into his open palm, and, sure enough, the paper jumped a few inches to the right in a way that was much too stilted and repetitive to be natural.

Not to be tricked, he made a half-turn, his back and hand forming a shield against any possible wind. Still, even with one hand covering it, the paper tugged in the exact same direction.

“Whose is this?”

“Good question.” The old lady shrugged. “I can't remember. This has been sitting in my toolbox for years now. Couldn't tell you.”

Max's eyes narrowed. Her dark pink lips had twitched as she had said it. Behind her half-moon spectacles, the twinkle in her eyes shone harder than ever. Oh, the hag definitely knew who this belonged to.

“What's wrong, boy?” she drawled. “Ain't feeling lucky?”

“No, I'm not feeling lucky, but my captain has the devil's luck. So let's gamble on that.” Max placed his groceries on the table right next to the vivre card. “How much do you want for it?”

She took a deep breath of her cigar, then smirked. “Let's say, five hundred thousands.”

Normally, he'd say the tenth of the price was more than fair. Normally. “No one else is going to buy an old vivre card, lady. You're never going to sell it.”

She barked out a laugh. “Ah! Finally some guts. Fine. Fifty thousand bellies.”

Max grinned. There you go.

He paid for it with about half of the money left from his shopping spray and pocketed the old vivre card. Once he met with the crew, they'd be able to determine the best use for it. Probably as last resort, emergency meeting point thing.

Right. The Sunny. He did need to find a way back. And he had sort of made a mad dash to get where he was.

...Where was he, actually?

The commercial street ended rather abruptly, a row of tall buildings staring Max in the face while he was at most twenty feet away from the old lady's stall. No one had any stalls in this street. Just green moss and some signs on the walls as far as he could see. Well, that's something at least. He had entered through the more suburban, quieter parts of the town, so this probably was the way to go.

Wait, from this angle, he could… Max squinted, his gaze on the largest tree in the distance, well in sight from the middle of the road.

Grove 24. Those were the words carved into the bark of the gigantic mangrove trees around this part of the island. He'd gotten pretty damn far from his original goal. They'd moored the ship somewhere on grove… forty something… was it forty or forty-one? Forty-seven?

Damn it…

Okay, worse case scenario, I get to one of these then transform and fly around the shore till I see the Sunny. I'm bound to see it eventually. Sounds like a pl-

Hands grabbed him roughly and pulled him to the ground. Shock prevented him from reacting in time, and, seconds later, he realized this might have been a miracle in itself. They didn't hold him down at all. They were on the same level as him, kneeling .

Eyes were turned to the further down the street. Vaguely, Max could make out the shape of people in pseudo-astronaut suits.

His insides turned freezing cold.

The Celestial Dragons! The fucking Celestial Dragons! Right here, around the corner. The waste of air and molecules that are about as likeable as dogshit on new shoes.

Slavers.

Known slavers, some human-shaped creatures that worshiped their own genes, as if that replaced actual merit. Bastards that would shoot you for not kneeling. Bastards that shot you for breathing the same air, for not showing the proper respect .

You were born to be under my heel. You understand that, don't you?”

Max's arms clenched and he lowered his head. If he provoked the world nobles early, there was a chance Kuma wouldn't show up in time. Maybe Luffy's group wouldn't meet Rayleigh before Borsalino rampaged through the mangroves.

It might mean the end of his friends. And that much, Max refused to risk it. Swallowing his rage and his fear, he felt himself slip back into that cold place. It was like seeing with someone else's eyes, like being there and not at the same time.

Nothing personal, he thought even as he started to hear the snap of whips and the screams. Nothing personal.

His feathers fluttered, as if they were itching, and a certain restlessness climbed up his limbs. He wanted – needed – to see the sky again. As soon… as soon as the world nobles were out of sight…

He didn't hear the click this time. Only the bang, and a feminine voice muffled by the distance.

Saint Sharlia or Shalula, or whatever. The daughter. The thing that had was apparently terrible at taking care of her slaves. That shot them for not giving in, for refusing the heel of her boots.

They all break eventually.”

Max felt his body change seamlessly. He thought there might have been a whoosh of air, but he didn't hear it. Some people shouted in shock or horror. Those he heard all too well, like they clung to his back. Like they had teeth .

He flew – A bang – and flew – Gibson, the whip. – and flew till he was lost in a field of bubbles. Wait, Captain, I can – Till he had forgotten what grove he was in – “We have some good workers in the back.” – what his goal had been. He flew until the moment his ears stopped ringing with screams.

And there, he felt himself shake in the near silence. Surrounded by nothing but the noise of bubbles popping and his own wing beat. He would like nothing more than to remain where he was, alone and away.

Max looked down. Someone had to be able to see him. He was a dark brown flying horse. Not exactly something for discretion. And if people could see him, that probably included her and her father.

With a careful flap of his wings, Max angled himself into a descent, in as oblique a path away from the nobles as he could manage. Some streets looked mostly calm, green rather than dark with people. He picked the first of those he saw, and dove.

His landing ended not with a cloud of dust, but with his hooves sinking deep in the moss. A muddy, wet substance climbed his fur up to his fetlocks, and Max pulled himself out with a disgusted shiver. Only after did he notice the people in the street giving him a wide berth, eyes curious and suspicious at his landing. One, a ratty man with a long scar on his cheek, stared with a hunger that made Max's skin tingled.

Max snorted, his head lowering as if he were readying to charge, and the man's expression changed from greed to fear. Nothing was quite as satisfying as seeing him scamper through a back alley. Most of the people on the street hurried along, probably thinking he was either a feral beast or a devil fruit user with a bad temper.

He wouldn't deny that the rush of power gave him a nice amount of pleasure.

“You know he was a small fry, right?” said a familiar voice.

Max's wings clamped against his sides as he jolted.

“Zoro?!” he called out, turning around. “What are you doing here?”

One eyebrow raised slightly higher than the other, he gave him a flat look and pulled a red bottle of booze away from his lips.

“Taking a walk, I told you guys before. What about you? I thought you said you were going to stay on the Sunny?”

It hadn't sounded entirely friendly.

Max understood the sentiment. “Yeah, but I was just getting too antsy on the Sunny. When Sanji and I realized we could do a supply run, he gave me a list of stuff to buy.”

“Yeah? And how's that turning out?” he asked, pointedly eying Max's lack of anything besides the clothes on his (furry) back.

Max muttered a series of curses under his breath. Oh, that was just super! He'd gotten himself half lost throughout slaveryland only to lose everything he'd bought to a panic attack. “I saw a Celestial Dragon, and… It's just… I had to fly away. What about you? How did you end up here?”

“I followed the signs.”

He pointed at the traffic signs around the corner, one of them being a warning about ambulance workers.

“To?”

Zoro shrugged.

That explains so much it's scary.

“Well, alright. Mind if I stick with you for a while? I think I'd feel better with someone like you around.”

Zoro took another swing of his bottle. “Like me?”

It wasn't exactly curiosity, nor a warning. Perhaps something in-between. Probably taught by experience with crewmates like Sanji, Usopp and Nami around.

Nothing like the wistful “Strong” Max said as he turned back into a man.

“Tch, it's up to you,” Zoro said, waving a hand to get him to follow.

Shameful as it was, Max let out a long sigh of relief at that. The gaze of others lost so much weight when he knew one of his crew had his back. He didn't have to wonder if the next time he succumbed to panic, he'd go catatonic instead of wild. Proof that his idea to get some time away from the Sunny had been stupid from the start. Hindsight and all that. At least, I forgot about the coming trouble for a few hours.

Right up to the moment Max caught sight of people kneeling in the corner of his eye.

HAVEN'T I SUFFERED ENOUGH TODAY?!

Alright. Alright. He remembered this one. Zoro plus a prissy noble. Yeah, a winning combination. Max glanced around, trying to find where Jewelry Bonney would be. Her diving save had prevented a catastrophe last time. Or at least delayed it. Problem was, he couldn’t find her. Without Bonney, Zoro would have just slashed, maybe killed the slaver bastard.

…It was a harder decision than he would have liked.

“Okay, Zoro, just go this way, down the alley. That's where you want to go.”

Zoro chose that moment to protest directions, the hypocritical dick . “Why would I want to go there?”

Through there, ” Max insisted, seeing some sort of procession growing closer. “There's a swords shop on the other side!”

The sad part was, it actually worked. Zoro let himself be pushed into the nearest dark alley, his bottle of booze swaying in hand while Max shot nervous look back to the street. He could hear pained grunts now, and the rattle of chains. “Keep going,” he whispered to Zoro.

He really shouldn't have looked back.

Right as he did, three men in black suit wearing sunglasses walked past the alley, scanning their surroundings with a hand on their guns. Then, seconds later, Max saw the source of both noises.

A beast. A lesser being moving on all four, all light gone from its eyes. It froze Max right in his track, suddenly unable to look away as the – human, he knew that man was human – slave tried to walk forward. Tried.

Panting, the man remained on the spot, his arms trembling violently, then swaying as a repulsive-looking man climbed down from his perch.

The noble's kick sent the man down to the ground.

Max pulled his hooves closer to his chest, fighting back the rage and the power held just behind the dam. He crouched to his knees. His limbs were twitching as they alternated between man and horse. It felt as if he transformed, he would go on a rampage.

He couldn't.

He couldn't risk his friends' safety and futures, not even for-

“What do you think you're doooooing?”

Max stared as the noble kicked a man off a stretcher and berated a small group of paramedics for not stopping and bowing on their way to a hospital.

His shirt winced as wings twice his height sprouted from his back.

The noble quieted down, leaning and leering toward the one nurse in the group.

I've decided. I shall make you my wife.”

Max didn't hear them. Not really. But his memory of this scene became so vivid he didn't need to. The words echoed around in his mind while the actors played their parts amongst the kneeling men and women.

Then, I shall begin the paperwork to have her brought to the Holy Land as wife number thirteen.”

Oh, I am tired of wives one to five, so you may return them to the lower classes.”

And another man, too passionate, too foolish for his own good, ran forward.

“Wait, please, that's my fiancée!”

Max had a sudden vision of what would happen with perfect clarity. For a split second, the man in the pseudo-astronaut suit seemed to have green hair, and the look of anger gave way to a mildly satisfied smirk.

Max ducked his head as the gunshot resonated throughout the street.

A click. A bang. A thud.

In that order.

And screams, a woman's screams of horror and panic. Her calling a name. Her begging for help, for mercy, for some human decency. And she screamed, again and again at the men and women on their knees, heads bowed before that piece of shit !

Max rose to his feet.

There was a feverish certainty to his thoughts. Speed and sharpness, every inch of him focused on the scene unfolding before him. On the bodyguards, on the doctors on the ground and their patients, on her and on him. His crew's faces came back to him, and it did not slow him down. It only hammered in the knowledge of what he was about to do.

Time to brush off my acting skills.

He did not hold back anything.

Max let out a bloodcurdling whinny, filled with fear and fury. Every little bit of rage at Beaudrille, at this disgusting place, at those disgusting people, he shoved into. Every moment of yearning and cowering. He screamed it all until no other noise could be heard for miles, and silence as thick and heavy as a mantle of lead weighted on their minds.

“What was that?” he heard the snooty, childish voice wonder.

Without fear, for he was that convinced of his own saintly invulnerability.

His eyes wild, drool dripping from his lips, Max charged in with all the appearances of a mad stallion.

Three meters tall, three thousand pounds of bestial fury charging straight in his direction. That shoved the fear of God back into him. Just an instant, just a flicker of it in his eyes. But it was there when the men in black shoved themselves in Max's path. Where it should have disappeared, instead it flared back to life as all three bodyguards fell to the ground in a heap of limbs and pain.

The nurse's screams cut short as Max's wing rammed into her midsection.

Just barely missing the 'saint'.

He had more important things to care about. Like the woman frantically hoping to slide off his wing.

“Grab on!” he hissed.

Her screams started anew, calling for help, but her pawing motions grabbed at nothing, and he felt her weight settle in against his shoulder more comfortably. Soon, both her arms were around his neck, her legs curled against his barrel.

One bullet flew by Max's right wing, brushing the tip.

“We're gonna fly,” he hissed again. “Climb on.”

She didn't move immediately at first, her face going white. Another bang rang to their ears, this one wildly missing, and she pulled herself up. The split second her body obscured Max's sight was just enough to make him ram into a stall.

The wood went flying with the merchant's scream. “My Sparkling Chains!” he cried out.

And behind them, the noble's voice: “Shoot that horse! What are you aiming at?!”

That was his cue. His wings extended to their full span, a thunderclap eclipsing even the gunshots. Max's hooves lost contact with the mossy ground, wind starting to whip at his face. The hands around his shoulders gripped harder, her screams breaking, far less scared and panicked.

Rooftops sped past them, then sank under the horizon of their gazes. Bubbles surrounded them, some popping just as he flew around them, some breaking whilst bullets tore through their surfaces.

Shouts of “Find her!” and “Find that beast's owners and kill them!” grew distant below.

Max put all his strength into this, beating his wings faster, harder, pulling the wind at the seams and shoving it back like it was water. Bubbles collided with his face and his chest twice every second. In other circumstances, he might have been reminded of evening spent driving through a snowstorm.

“What's ahead of us?” he shouted, hoping the nurse would have started to recover from her fright. “I can't see with all those bubbles in my face!”

The hands around his shoulders clenched. “We… the only thing ahead of us is a mangrove tree. It's still pretty far ahead.”

Swallowing, a slow heat spreading through his wings, Max blinked and looked down. His eyes stung, but not enough to blind him. Below, bubbles and houses and streets zoomed past them faster than he could make out their forms. But they were still too big to his liking.

With a couple more wingbeats, he rose in altitude, where the bubbles were mercifully sparser.

Ahead of them, the mangrove tree had never looked bigger.

For the span of a heartbeat, Max didn't know how to process the sight ahead of him. The letters “RO” seemed to stare back in defiance. The letters on the tree were taller than any house Max had been into. That one tree had grown taller and larger than a skyscraper.

“I never saw it like this before,” he heard the nurse breathe out.

Wonder was the word in his mind. The idea of something so special just waiting around the corner in this demented world. And he could see it in ways not even the natives of an island could. As they neared the tree, Max sent a silent thought of gratitude toward whatever had put the pegasus fruit in his path.

“Hold on,” he warned.

Slowly, Max tilted right. His wings stilled, he glided parallel to the humongous tree's bark.

“W-where are we going?” the passenger on his back finally asked.

“I was thinking of going around this tree to disappear from view. I bet there's one of them trying to figure out where I'm landing, probably making some snail calls to other people through the archipelago. I say we land as quickly as possible, then hide.”

“Alright.” Her voice was trembling, but there was determination within as well. “Grove 23 has some poorer areas. Lots of narrow alleys. Not advisable on a good day, but…”

“Perfect for us, huh?” Max smirked.

He almost didn't hear her reply. “Yes,” said softly, almost lost to the winds. Then, strongly, “Over there!”

In the corner of his eyes, he saw her arm over his head, pointing toward some grayer houses in the distance. It would take no time to reach.

Max almost hugged the rooftops, flying just low enough to be hard to see from a distance, yet high enough that people didn't hear the whoosh of air as he flew around. And true to her words, no one raised their heads when they did hear. No one stuck their nose where it didn't belong in one of those streets.

It made for an easy landing in a dank, spotty alley, with trash cans overturned and a considerable amount of rats running around. The kind of place Max would have avoided like the plague, before he'd been kidnapped.

As the nurse climbed down from his back and he changed into his human form, her first words to him were a stunned, “You're bleeding.”

Swallowing back the 'you're welcome' he had been planning on using, Max glanced down at himself, not really able to feel much pain at the moment. There was some, though muted and growing stronger with every passing moment. Belatedly, Max touched his left shoulder and flinched. With that, the flood broke the dam, and his brain began to shout alarm cries in his head.

Max carefully sat on top of a flipped trash can, his back against a wall.

“Well,” he said with a breathless laugh, “they were shooting in our general direction.”

“You should have said something sooner,” she berated, kneeling next to him, her eyes suddenly steely. “Gunshot wounds are no laughing matter.”

He winced. Wow, those were not words he wanted to make her say, not right after her fiancé had been shot before her eyes.

And yet, her hands were steady as they ran over his forehead and his neck, as they held in wrists with a look of concentration on her face. The fear and grief were there, but they did not affect her. “Pulse seems steady. So it probably didn't hit anything vital. Are you feeling dizzy?”

“Just a little, but that might be the adrenaline wearing off.”

“Well, let's not give you the time to collapse. How bad does it hurt?”

He honestly couldn't tell. It was painful. His muscles in his shoulder felt too tense. It was hard to say much beyond that. “I've had worse.”

“I bet,” she deadpanned, a small smile on her face as she reaching into her belt pouch. From it, she pulled out a roll of gauze and some sticky-looking paper. “You're a pirate, aren't you?”

Smiling, he nodded. I'm a pirate. Yes, yes, I am. I'm a freaking pirate! He couldn't stop grinning. It might have been the highest compliment he'd receive in this world. Zoro's words were close to his heart. He had known he was weak, but today… today proved that it didn't meant powerless.

If he had been truly weak, then this poor nurse would have been taken by a repulsive noble into some twisted form of sexual slavery.

His smile broke when he remembered what else the woman had lost today. Now, that was a sobering thought.

Gently, he cleared his throat, and held her gaze as well as he could. “I'm sorry about your fiancé.”

Her breath hitched up. “…It's fine,” she said, her voice trembling. “He was shot in the shoulder. That noble has a terrible aim. He's… he's got a chance.”

Max let out a little chuckle. “Well, if I do, he certainly does. Your coworkers were still on the scene, and the hospital was right there. If that Celestial Dragon tried to give chase, then they'd have a chance to help him while we were being followed.”

She smiled, but it didn't quite reach her eyes. “Thank you. For this. For what you did before. I can't thank you enough.”

Max's thoughts fled back to Chopper's office. To that small cabin with a bed where he'd say much the same words. And he grinned wider than before. “Yes, you can. You've already done it.”

She gave him a wry smile.

“Save it from when you are far away from this island. The Celestial Dragons have great reach in this place. We're not out of trouble yet. You need to find somewhere safe. We've wasted enough time in this place.”

Max nodded. “Point. Still, I'd change clothes if I were you. They're probably going to keep looking for a nurse.”

“You're right.” She brought her thumb to her lips, biting the tip, glancing at the ends of the alley. “But my house is on Grove 15, and this is Grove 23. And going there in my underwear is like begging some slavers to kidn-”

She stopped as Max held out his own, somewhat wrinkled black shirt. Without a word, she eyed him and his now naked torso. Her gaze flicked to the few scars that peeked from his sides and back. Then, she glanced back to the shirt offered.

“Sorry about the smell…” Max muttered, his cheeks flushed red. “Pirates usually don't waste too much water on hygiene when they're at sea.”

The nurse's lips twisted into a smirk. Without shame, she unbuttoned her blouse and discarded her hospital jacket. While Max's eyes widened, she easily grabbed the shirt and pulled it over her head. The next things to go were her belt pouch and her cap, both of which she left on a nearby garbage can.

“Please, I've treated patients with explosive diarrhea, both ways, patients that were rotting in their bed, some with gangrenous, some with teeth that were all black. I've been to the morgue every other week for the night shift. A little sweat and blood don't scare me.”

Max's nose wrinkled. Oh, yeah, he'd seen his fair share of these. Certain jobs had all the joys, huh?

The young woman let out a little laugh. “Why do you think I was going to marry a florist?”

“His winning personality?” he grinned, but unfortunately, his ill-timed joke made her look pensive and melancholic.

“Actually, that was the reason. Judi's just… he's always been a romantic, with all the grand gestures. One day, I got to work, and my desk was buried under a mountain of my favorite flowers. I was so mad, and at the same time...”

Max wore a knowing smile. “Couldn't stay mad at him, could you?”

“Never,” she whispered, her eyes wet.

Max opened up his arms, and she ran to him in a heartbeat. Regardless of his state of clothing – or hygiene –, she buried her face into his good shoulder and wept.

“Despite what you said, I really can't thank you enough for what you did. If not for you, I'd be…” Her whole body trembled under a shudder of horror and disgust. “Judi knew… he…”

The pain in her voice reached something deep in his chest. Something feral and burning. “I'm only sorry I didn't help out sooner. I should have.”

He had missed the noble on purpose. Too much had ridden on it, but that didn't make him feel any better. His hesitation might have cost her the love of her life.

“I'm sorry,” he told her again.

“No. I understand,” she said, her voice thick, her eyes red. “It's… no one can stand up to them. The best we can do is… survive them, I suppose.”

Finally, she broke apart from his embrace, looking small and mismatched with his black t-shirt on top of her white hospital skirt. So small. Defeated.

His hand squeezed her shoulder gently as he lifted her chin. “No, not just survive. You must live. You have to live with all your heart, you hear me? Till your chest feels full again and you have no regret. Till those bastards can't touch you no matter what they do. Can you make that promise? Can you live even if it's purely on spite?”

Her lips formed the words silently, testing them. Her brows furrowed together; her countenance less stunned, calculating again. “You're… different from the pirates I'm used to.”

“You should meet my captain then.” His smile slipped. “It's a big whole world of grey out there, and not all shades are darker. Pirates can be bastards and heroes just like marines, and even revolutionaries, I'd bet. Same with the World Government and the Celestial Dragons. They're as humans as everyone else. Don't pirates and marines bleed the same?”

At first, she remained silent, letting the words soak in. Then, closing her eyes, she mumbled something, a name if Max had to guess. When she looked back to him, her irises were full of steel. “You're right. Every human bleeds red.”

Max shuddered as if some monster had run ice cold claws down the length of his spine. She couldn't have Haki, could she? No, likely not, but the hatred that dripped from every syllable said would have sent some wild beast scampering.

Max thought of a man with green hair and a smug smile. “Well, I can understand the sentiment. I assure you, even the most untouchable people die someday. It's really a matter of when .”

She nodded, the burning emotions in her gaze dimming as she spoke more softly. “Thank you, again. I… I know what I will do now. As soon as I know if Judi is alright, I'll look into it.” With something like regret, she ran a hand over his and began to move towards the end of the alley. “I think I ought to go back on my own. Just in case.”

“Are you sure?” Max asked. “I'm not a great fighter, but I'm sure I can knock a few heads if they get too close.”

Her eyes were on the street now. She nodded, a faint smile on her lips. “It's fine. Sabaody is a hellhole, but it's my home. I know how to move through the streets without getting taken. If that noble's bodyguards don't recognize me, I'll be fine.”

“Alright. I guess I'll just go the other way, if you're sure.” She nodded. “Okay... Good luck. I hope your fiancé makes it just fine.”

And with that, he made his way to the other end of the alley.

“Wait!” she suddenly cried out.

Max froze, ready to transform at a moment's notice.

But there was no new threat on the horizon, no one but them in this damp, dark alley. The young woman was staring at him with something unknowable in her eyes. “Before you leave… can you tell me your name?”

He smiled. “Maxime, but you can call me Max. I'm a cabin boy under Monkey D. Luffy, the future Pirate King.”

For a moment, she said nothing, only looking at him intensely, as if she wanted to remember everything of him, then she nodded and disappeared into the street.

“Mary. We'll meet again, Max.”

Chapter Text

The island was swarming with marines.

For someone that wanted to go about his way unnoticed, Max found that little fact singularly crippling. Now, he had no doubt no one would have cared if it was the normal Sabaody. People's definition of normal meant that you looked away unless you were personally involved, and sometimes, not even then. At this point in time though, some streets were eerily empty. The rides in the background had stopped moving, the music was fading, and the only movement he could catch sight of were of shutters closing.

“Grove 34,” Max muttered under his breath. Alright, so he was not too far away from the Sunny, but that wasn't the issue. If the marines were flooding every possible grove with soldiers, it meant that something had happened with the Celestial Dragons.

He really hoped it wasn't his stunt with Mary that had brought them in early. He'd pointedly avoided touching that jackass, regardless of how tempting it had been. They wouldn't send an admiral over some world noble being annoyed by an animal, right?

Uncertainty twisted his insides in a knot. As far as he knew, the noble would ask. He just didn't know if the marines were petty enough to do it. Or if someone would realize that it had been a zoan doing it.

That last possibility was what made him sweat. By all means, he was pretty sure not a person outside the Straw Hats knew his face well-enough to recognize him as the pegasus zoan anyway… except for his old crew.

Max crouched in the alley, ignoring the cold that slid down his spine at the thought. He couldn't afford to lose track of the soldiers mowing through the empty streets. They were close. He could hear them pounding on the closed doors.

“Open up, in the name of the marines!”

Some doors opened. Others were broke down with explosives or plain punches.

Max eyed the towering beast of a woman that had just snapped a door in half with a light tap like she was the devil. The symbol for justice hung from the back of her white jacket. She ignored the residents' shouts and warnings and disappeared inside. Gunshots rang, but Max didn't hear any bodies falling to the ground.

The waves of soldiers were getting too close. Shit ! he thought as he stood up and ran. In just a few minutes, they'd be up to his level. He would have to be far away by then. And he couldn't fly without being seen. So, that left cutting through the damp alleys in the hope that no one noticed him. He had to chance it.

“Where did you escape from?”

Those were the words that made Max's world snap in half. His legs locked into place as he scrambled for balance. For a scant few seconds, his ears burned and the ground tilted. With a snap of his head, he whirled on the guy that had spoken, some unshaven, red-faced bastard swaying from the shadow of a dumpster.

Excuse me?” Max growled, his hands clenched into fists.

The man squinted, his nose twitching like a rat's sniffing for its food.

“Don't play dumb.” With no hesitation whatsoever, he pulled at one of the holes in Max's jeans. The rip widened by a few inches. “You're wearing rags and those are whip scars on your back.”

A dark oily feeling curled around Max's heart. His jaw set so tight it hurt. He couldn't open it just to speak when he wanted to punch the man in the face. Calm , don't make a scene, the marines aren't far .

“My mom had a strong disciplinarian streak,” he deadpanned. “Now, kindly put your hand away before I start using mine.”

Give me something , he heard himself thought over the heavy footsteps of a large number of people jogging through the next street. Give me a good reason .

“Oh?” said the man with a shit-eating grin, and a far too hungry glint to his eyes. “You were that kind of slave, huh? Maybe I won't report you, if you're real nice about it.”

Are you fucking insane?” the pirate had told his friend. “Beaudrille'll kill you for touching his toys.”

Regret mixed in with the darkening shadows in the eyes, while he pretended he hadn't seen either. He hadn't heard. He hadn't been about to be…

“Soooo…” he drawled, eyes darting to the nearest alleys. “You think I'm an escaped slave?”

“I know,” the disgusting bastard said, so smug it oozed from the pores of his skin. “The marines are real close. Want me to scream so they can come arrest you?”

That'd fuck up everything. Regardless of his status, he did have scars on his back. He did have some trauma over his time with Beaudrille. Anyone with eyes would see it. And if those marines were usually stationed at Sabaody, then they'd do exactly fuck all about either, except maybe search for a distressed slaver.

“P-please, don't,” he stuttered, his voice like a weird echo to his own ears. “I'll… I'll do it,” – he'd spoken to Beaudrille that way – “there, further down. You… you wouldn't want to be interrupted, right?”

He wasn't like that. He'd never been like that. If he'd been, if they had, he might not be alive anymore. He didn't, wouldn't, no.

No.

When the shadows covered his back with its cooling shade, Max turned and faced the man, who had started fumbling with his belt. That sight almost made him howl in rage, marines be damned. Almost. Almost .

Max picked the boiling hot emotion and held it tight in his hand. He let it radiate like burning heat, let it spread from his fist, to his arm and chest. To his heart, and the ghostly feeling of his devil fruit's powers. He didn't even feel the tingle over his skin this time. One moment, he was smaller; the next, he wasn't.

His right hand, he slapped over the man's mouth.

His fingers, now five iron-like hooves, gripped the man's jaw. Hard.

Pulling back his lips in a snarl, Max leaned in, hot air blowing out of his nostrils. “What exactly do you think I am again?”

His finger-hooves loosened just enough for a wheezing breath to slip past the man's lips. And he said, eyes wide and pupils shrunken: “M… monster!”

“That's much better.”

Then, pulling back in a wide arc, Max slung the man right into a wall. A resounding 'crack' made Max smirk. Without a word, the man slumped to the mossy ground and didn't stand up again.

He barely resisted the urge to kick him in the ribs. He'd already lost way too much time on this bullshit.

At least, this misadventure had taught him something. Without a shirt, he could pass off for an escaped slave.

A beast. A lesser being walking on all four – human, he knew that person was human .

He'd never seen the scars on his back. He just knew he had some. They felt like rugged patches of irregular skin to him. They felt like words oozing condescension. Mine. Piggy. Worm. You know your place. Mine. Under my heel. Mine.

Mine.

Max swallowed, his eyes distant. “Do you know the tale of the frog and the scorpion?”

The whispers faded.

“One day, a scorpion wanted to cross a river, so it asked a frog's help. But when the frog carried it, it stung and the frog sank. When asked why it would, knowing they would now both die, the scorpion replied: 'Oh, little frog, I can swim .'”

He could vaguely hear more shouting. Sometimes, gunshots.

“I can swim,” he told himself, looking at the unconscious man. Then, suddenly, he started chuckling. “I can swim? I can swim!”

What's the scorpion's nature? Asked the children. And what I ask them instead is 'What's the frog's?'

“Hmmm, Max? Why are you saying that you can swim? You ate a devil fruit, remember?”

Max jumped out of his skin. It was so jarring, like a slap in the face. The alleys' shadows blinked out of existence as he found himself looking up at some horse-sized fish hovering right above him. And further up, a familiar face and its long nose peeking from the fish's right side.

“Usopp?!” he blurted out, before shaking his head. “Wait, no, nevermind that! We have to go now and I can't fly without bringing a dozen squads on our heads. Room for one more on that fish?”

--

Nami would ask why her life had gone to a colorful yet stressful hell, but she had known the answers for about a year now. So, instead, she had begun making plans to extort the entity that had decided she liked getting heart attacks over heart attacks on every island she set foot on. And then some. Some nights, she had dreams of the veritable fortune she could swindle out of a cosmic being. Some mornings, she woke up feeling almost rejuvenated.

None of which helped her current predicament, dangling off one of Luffy's arm as he dragged both her, Chopper and Brook whilst they trained to slow him down.

“Camie!” he was shouting at the top of his lungs. “Ca- ACK!”

Bless Robin and her powers to sprout hands over Luffy's mouth. It wouldn't last for long, but maybe no one in the auction house would stop them.

Luffy rammed right through the first set of doors, throwing one off its hinges.

“Mmammmphsiie,” he repeated, considerably muffled.

“Luffy! Just wait a minute! We have to plan this out!” Nami pleaded, already anticipating another refusal.

Her body lurched forward at a sudden deceleration. She felt her heart skip a beat at the thought her captain might listen to reason. But she saw the pink arms pulling on both his shoulders, and Sanji on Luffy's other side grabbing his waist.

“Straw Hat! There will be Celestial Dragons in there! You can't defy them! If you piss them off, they'll call an admiral!”

Luffy hesitated. Sanji went in for the kill. “It's bad enough that the marines are searching the island, we can't bring more attention on us before we get the coating!”

The muscles in his legs twitched against her arms. She had to do something now .

“Luffy, listen to me now!”

To his credit, the rubberman noticed the anguish in his crewmate's voice and stopped. “Nami?”

“Do you remember seeing the slaves in the streets? They had a collar. When a slave tries to run away, it detonates. If we try anything, they'll kill Camie before we can get close. We have to play by their rules! It's the only way to save her.”

A series of high-strung emotions flashed across Luffy's face. Tightening of his lips. Reddening of his skin. Rubber crinkled at the lowering of his brows. Then nothing, a blank as he shoved it all back in the favor of saving Camie.

One by one, they let go of him, Chopper and Brook flopping down like fishes.

Slowly, she rose to her feet and pointed at the door at the end of the hallway. “Out there, there will be lots of people, despicable people. We can't fight them all off, not if we want to save Camie in time. We have to focus and wait till it's the right time to strike.”

“Nami,” Luffy said, eyes narrowed and fists trembling, “what do we do?”

He wouldn't restrain himself very long, she could tell. Her mind went into business mode. Everything was risk-and-reward-assessment. Right now, Luffy was a risk. This whole endeavor was a big risk. The reward, however, was worth all the dangers.

She led them towards the entrance to the auction room, flashing a pleasant smiles to the guards at the door. They let them all in without question, despite – or perhaps because – of the bounty on her captain's head.

“We buy her ourselves. We've brought all the money we had on board.” She bit her lips. “Our absolute limit is two hundred millions.”

The auction room reminded her of a theater. Every row filled to the brim, going down and down toward a simple stage surrounded by curtains. A blinding light shone upon the announcer, obscuring the spectators from view. As if to give them the illusion of privacy. Nami knew what they were doing. You didn't conduct shady business in broad daylight. Regardless of your chances of being caught, people hated the feeling that they could be seen breaking the law. It was psychological. Crimes were so much more frequent at night. And this auction house, it had the subtle little touches to make the potential buyers forget what it was they were paying for.

At least, she could recognize some pirates from the bounty posters at Shakky's place.

“Unless... we somehow team up with other people in exchange for something.”

“But do we have anything to offer?” Robin wondered, her eyes narrowing slightly. Give it to Robin to instantly recognize the problem Nami had thought of. What could they give in return?

“Great food?” Sanji offered with a small grimace.

“A private concert?” Brook pulled a few strings on his violin.

“My… my cotton candy?” Chopper asked, his eyes quivering with tears. “O-or a good medical checkup!”

“Those are all useless ideas!” Nami snapped. “This isn't a school's auction, guys. We need something that could plausibly be worth millions! Millions !”

“Our supply of meat?” Luffy immediately raised his hand, only to be struck down by a seething Nami. Not the time for those antics! They had to find something good, just in case they needed it!

As Luffy nursed the comically overgrown bump on his head, Franky pulled up his glasses. “What about ship repairs on par with what the Galley-La can offer.”

“That's…” Nami stopped mid-reprimand, suddenly thoughtful. “That's actually an excellent suggestion, Franky. How much would that be worth, if you had to do it quickly?”

“Depends on the repair. It could be anything from ten to one hundred millions bellies. Most pirates who miss Water Seven need really good shipwrights to survive through Fishman Island and the rest of the Grand Line.”

For a few seconds, the crew remained silent, their thoughts drifting to a funeral by fire, and the companion they couldn't save despite their best efforts. Worth millions indeed.

“Alright!” Nami clasped her hands together, then pointed a finger at her crew. “We do have a chance. Franky, Robin, Brook, you three try to sell Franky's skills to some of the supernovas around, prioritize the non-crazy ones. Robin, you're the judge of character of the trio. Go!”

No sooner had she given the order and her friends had taken off that two people move from behind the stage and pushed on a man in a pirate's garb onstage.

An unpleasant, oozing and echoing voice filled the air of the auction house. “So, for our sixteenth lot of the afternoon, a fearsome pirate straight from the Blues, Captain Laicuba. He has a solid physique from a lifetime of sailing through treacherous seas. His rampage led to him getting a seventeen millions bounties! For such a man, bids will begin at one million bellies.”

One million… she repeated to herself. She had a terrible feeling about this.

On the stage, the man in chains looked ready to pass out under the spotlight. Nami couldn't blame him. Well, technically she couldn’t, but she was still tempted. For her plan to work, it would be best if someone actually started bidding on that pirate, even if he seemed in precarious health. Her eyes flicked back to Franky's group, who seemed to have struck a conversation with a pirate with straw-like hair.

Nami bit her lips. If she'd been with them, she could have told them that this was a bust. The guy – one of the supernova, wasn't he? – had glanced in Luffy's direction twice now. Those weren't the eyes of someone interested in a deal. More like, idle curiosity.

“Sanji, tell them to look for someone else! Quick!” she hissed.

The love-cook melted like a puddle, only to straighten back instantly. “On it, Nami-swan!”

It was reassuring to hear Sanji taking off through the rows of bidders. People were too cautious right now. They didn't want to bid now and miss their chance for something unique later on. On one hand, the bidding war would be fierce if Camie was saved for last; on the other, right now, people were conservative enough with their money that some ally could still be found.

Right as she was about to search for one such ally in the crowd, she heard the screams.

Heart beating like a drum, Nami whipped her head around, and paled.

On the stage, the man's front was covered in blood. Judging by the announcer's panic, that was not part of the show. She couldn't call herself surprised when the slave fell to the ground and stopped moving.

Curtains hid the stage hastily, and Nami shot a worried look to her captain. His own gaze had grown that unyielding shade of black that only showed up in the most serious of moments. He couldn't read an auctioneer's mood like her, but Luffy had felt the shift in the air all the same.

“Sanji!” Nami called out desperately.

The announcer was too nervous. He was going to try and bring the mood up again. And for that, there were only so many ways…

Sanji arrived at her side in a boom, Franky, Brook and Robin with him.

Franky was the one to speak. “Nami, we got Trafalgar Law. He doesn't want repairs, but he'll agree to loan us up to 100 millions if we agree to do him a favor later.”

Immediately, her guts clenched with cold. No , her every instincts told her. This was a terrible deal. An unspecified favor at a later time of their partner's choosing. That was a sucker's bet.

“Okay,” Luffy said on the spot. “Tell him we'll help later if we save Camie.”

Nami swallowed her protests. This was a terrible deal, she knew, Franky, Sanji and Robin clearly knew as well, judging by their matching frowns, but Luffy was right. They couldn't let Camie be sold off. And, as the lights returned to the stage, Nami had to quiet all the doubts in her mind.

“Three hundred millions,” she told herself, and her crew, with a slow exhale. “I can work with that. I might need to bluff a bit, but we'll be fine.”

Luffy's mask of serious momentarily broke with a proud grin for her. Now that she said they could do it, her captain had lost any doubt he had before. It made her feel oddly confident.

“N-now, ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer began with a slight stutter, “our next lot is something very special.”

From backstage rose a noise like rusty wheels struggling on a rough surface. Slowly, the curtains curved toward the crowd. Every light in the auction house span to meet the next lot as it was pushed onstage.

Nami didn't hear the announcer's words.

Camie was on display in a fishbowl, her neck attached to a chain. She'd seen their mermaid friend in the Sunny's aquarium before, she'd seen her flop around the deck a few times when she lost her balance. Heck, she'd seen her do her shocked face so often it had lost its impact in the span of a few days.

She'd never seen something that had made a mermaid look so much like a fish before.

“That's right, folks! We have a mermaid !”

Excited whispers filled the crowd which almost made her falter. The crowd was interested. This one would be bloody. Nami allowed herself a small, ferocious grin. She had always been a spectacular haggler.

Wait for me, Camie. I'll save you.

“The starting bid will be seventy millions! Ready? Start!”

The bids started immediately.

People began shouting from every corner of the auction house, like a pack of wolves after a wounded deer. seventy million bellies, seventy five, eighty, eighty five, one hundred.

… and ten.

… and fifteen.

“One hundred and fifty millions!” Nami shouted at the top of her lungs, and to their satisfaction, she saw the announcer point her way and repeating her bid.

She'd jump just high enough to make some people shoot her wary looks. It was her first bid. Now they wondered how badly she wanted the mermaid on stage, how much she would

“One hundred and sixty!” came from the region near the right exit.

Damn it! They'd reset the atmosphere with that. A few more voices joined the chorus of offers, but most of them dropped off. A moment of silence followed the counteroffer.

Nami raised her hand high and shouted, “One hundred and eighty!”

A handful of paddles lowered below the benches. She could count the ones left on one hand. It was working! And that was for the best, because they were approaching the realm of that favor fast. The way things were going, they would definitely need it. With any luck though…

“One hundred and ninety million bellies!”

Nami frowned. That had been someone new. Some woman in the front rows, it looked like. Hard to tell in the darkness. She held her paddle in mid air, doing some quick calculations in her mind. She had already opened her mouth to put in another bid when someone overtook her.

“One hundred and nine-”

The shout died out in a strangled gasp. Most people turned in the direction of the man in silky clothing. Others turned to see what he was facing.

One by one, the voices quieted as awareness spread through the crowd. With green or white faces, the bidders all turned to stare at one particular spot in the stands. A spotless, luxurious spot.

An elderly man in a pseudo-astronaut suit had raised his own paddle.

“Seventy million bellies.”

Silence crashed on top of the auction house like a tidal wave.

Every head was turned toward the elderly man that had spoken, disappointment, horror and despair flicked through the many people gathered, but none of it voiced. Scowls twisted many mouth, mostly amongst the pirates. They were staring furiously, grinding their teeth, muttering curses, but no more.

The announcer on stage had his smirk frozen on his face, beads of sweat rolling down his temples as he clenched his mic with both hands. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down in twitches, as if the man wanted and couldn't make a sound.

“You are not counting,” said Saint Roswald, his voice curdled with disdain.

“Seventy million bellies. We…” He swallowed empty air like it was a devil fruit. “We have a… a bid of seventy million bellies. If there… there are no higher bidder,” – he cast a desperate look to the audience and to the crying mermaid in her bowl, – “none at all?”

Someone, somewhere lost in the stands, said with a shaking voice: “I retract my last bid.”

“Well, I'll do the countdown then. Seventy million bellies once…”

Nami could have felt a smidgen of pity for the man as his dreams of a good auction vanished into clouds of smoke. She could have, but in the circumstances, she leaned more toward numbness.

The Celestial Dragons. The World Nobles. Anyone that defied them risked having the wrath of the marines brought down on their heads. It had been demonstrated with an absolute certainty right in front of her eyes. The Worst Generation itself remained silent whilst some old man in a suit declared he would have the mermaid, and everyone let him.

What could she do against that? Camie was still wearing the collar. It didn't matter how much money they brought anymore. What could she do?!

The announcer sounded on the verge of tears himself, whilst Saint Roswald tapped his fingers against his suit, supremely satisfied.

“Nami, raise our bid,” Luffy said.

Her stomach clenched.

“Straw Hat, you can't,” Hatchan said in a panicked whisper. “You promised not to defy the Celestial Dragons. We… we can find some other way to free Camie.”

“Seventy million bellies twice,” rang through the auction house as most bidders lowered their gazes to their feet.

“Nami.”

Her captain's order was crystal clear.

Defy the Celestial Dragon.

And every word of warning they had been told before came back to her. She remembered the freezing cold, the panic of her most stoic friend, the complete powerlessness that came from seeing statues of ice where her captain and her friend used to be. She knew Luffy knew.

He'd given her an order.

Save our friend.

“Two… two hundred millions bellies!”

Whilst the silence had been reverent before, now it spoke of shock and outrage. And fear. Fear so thick it could smother a person, till death followed. Some people in the back snuck out of their seats and disappeared through one of the exits. A few in the lower stands shot them envious looks.

“My Lord?” the men in black all around the lounge asked.

The elderly noble didn't even look their way. Lips pinched, he aimed a glare at the announcer. “Peon, you have stopped counting. Seventy million bellies thrice.”

“Oi! Old man!” Luffy yelled. “We outbid you! Two hundred is bigger than seventy! Even I know how to count that much!”

So many cringed, but the pirates in the stands were now looking at her captain with something like curiosity. That Law guy, especially. He actually seemed amused.

“Straw Hat! You can't. They'll call the admirals!”

“I don't care!” Luffy screamed, breaking free from Hachi's grip with such strength the fishman flew backward.

Nami briefly caught sight of Hachi's hidden arms.

Saint Roswald snapped his fingers.

A gunshot followed a second later.

She saw Hachi flinched, and her friends all aimed shocked look at the downed fishman. Chopper let out a cry of panic, and jumped over Hachi to examine the wound gushing blood all over his clothes. “Sanji, Franky! Help me cut his shirt off! Quick!”

As if brought out of a daze, both shipwright and cook rushed to kneel next to Chopper and begin treating the wound as best as they could. Nami watched them as if she wasn't even in her own body.

Luffy wasn't moving either. His eyes bore into Hachi's with a frightening intensity. She could almost feel the air simmer with the rage just beneath his skin.

“Perhaps next time,” rang a snide voice, “you will know not to show yourself in the presence of a World Noble, you disgusting creature.”

Luffy turned far too slowly. She'd seen him before too often to know that. They could all see. Robin already looked like she was calculating their escape routes.

Don't, ” Hachi wheezed out. “I… I made the bid!” he forced out in a much louder voice. “She… she is my friend. Us fishes… stick together…”

Something snapped inside her chest. For a startling moment, Nami felt her sight blurred as liquid fire pumped through her veins. That man… Hachi had been trying… he wanted to take the blame. To apologize to her. That idiot!

She'd forgiven him! She'd allowed her crew to forgive him! Why would he bring down the noble's wrath on himself?! Why would he go so far with his own life when he didn’t need to?

“Hey, Nami, did you need a ride off the island?”

“No,” she had told him, as if she’d ever trust one of Arlong’s crew. “I already have my own transportation.”

“Alright then,” he had said, jolting his fishing rod out of the water, “take care, Nami.”

A boot stomped Hachi's mouth.

“Do you think I'm stupid, fish?” The old noble sneered. “I know which one spoke.”

And on that, he turned to face her outright. Though they had no physical feature in common, Nami suddenly saw Arlong standing right in front of her. The same disdain, the same begrudging approval, and above all, the feeling that she was suddenly reduced to a thing in someone's eyes.

“Hm, yes, I think you ought to serve my son for a few decades. Perhaps then you will understand the blasphemy you committed today.” His gloved hand lifted her chin, like he was examining her for physical defects. “Hmm, you're pretty enough. For a commoner. It'll make him forget about that nurse he was raving about earlier.”

Sanji shot forward, wisps of flames clinging to his legs.

A single rubbery hand stopped him right in his track. “Sanji,” said Luffy with a voice that brokered no argument.

Disappointment and shock briefly lingered on their faces. Perhaps for the span of a second. It didn't take longer for the steel-like expression on Luffy's face to register. As one, the Straw Hats settled in a line, Nami not even shaking anymore.

Saint Roswald spoke to his bodyguards as if he hadn't noticed such a lowly exchange. “Make the arrangements for my son's thirteenth wife. I believe you had already started anyway. It won't make much of a difference. One commoner or another.”

Luffy's voice was far too calm as he replaced his signature hat on his head. “Oi, old man…”

“What is it you want, you lowly worm? Do you expect compensations for taking this commoner woman from your group? Consider yourselves lucky I don't brand you all slaves and be done with it.”

There was a sound like a pump made out of rubber.

“Camie,” Luffy called out, “duck.”

There was no way the sound could have carried that far, through insulating glass that muffled even her screams. But somehow, Camie's face paled and she swam to the bottom of the bowl seconds before Luffy cocked his fist back.

Saint Roswald lacked the same initiative. A lifetime of other people scrambling out of his way had dulled his reflexes to nothingness. He stood completely frozen, complete disbelief etched onto his face. Then, what carved his face in was a pink, steaming hot fist.

Teeth flew hard enough to indent themselves in the nearest benches.

Blood shot from a nose shattered into a mess no surgeon would ever be able to fix.

And the top half of Camie's bowl exploded on contact with an octogenarian asshole going at near terminal velocity.

For the first few seconds after the dust had settled, none dared even squeak. The pressure of the silence had simply grown too great.

Then, the crowd moved . The impulse came to them like a whirlpool, panic riding them into a downward spiral. People seventy years of age scampered like they were children fleeing from the monster under their beds. People in finery so expensive they would have made her drool climbed through the stands like monkeys. People forgot their dignity and focused on their lives.

“Lord Father!” shouted a middle-aged woman in a similar suit, and her cry was hoarse with anguish. “ Father!

Amidst the flood of people came armed gunmen and swordsmen. Few belonged to the World Nobles in truth, but as Nami's crew was starting to understand, what belonged to a World Noble was what they claimed. None of those men would hesitate for a second to follow her orders.

The Straw Hats fell into combat stances.

Luffy's body suddenly deformed under the pressure of a bullet going through his abdomen.

The culprit held her smoking gun steady as her fingers pulled on the trigger again, and again, and again.

“Kill them!” Her veil had fallen off, its delicate beads strung along the stairs of the auction house. In her eyes was a sort of twitching madness. “ You hear me?! ” Her voice went so high it broke. “Open fire! Kill them all! Kill them! KILL THEM! KI-

All to her fury, the noblewoman had failed to notice the growing shadow that had covered her. The Straw Hats or the other pirates had , but they hadn't judged useful to shout a warning. It wasn't like she would have heard or listened if they had. That was the excuse Nami would have given if asked. As it was, no one did.

They instead enjoyed watching the foaming bitch be flattened by their sniper's ass.

Nami only wished she had had a camera with her. She'd have made copies. Sold all but one on the black market for a fortune, then framed the last one over her bed so she could forever have perfectly nice dreams. She could have kissed Usopp for his brilliant timing.

And, now that she was thinking about it, the bodyguards' faces were not bad either. Jaws touching the floor and eyes popped out of their socket was always a classic.

As discreet as a cat in the night, Nami swiped some men's feet from under them, then struck them with the electrified tip of her clima tact.

“Oh, hey Usopp!” Luffy said. “Did you find Max and Zoro?”

Their sniper rubbed his heroic behind as he slowly stood, one eye closed with his teeth gritted. That bubble popping couldn't have been comfortable, even if it had been an entertaining sight.

Well, she thought so, and knew her crew did the same.

Some of the rival supernovas, however, held their heads in their hands or were scowling, like they couldn't believe they had been made witness to such a spectacle. In particular, Law looked like he wanted to dissect them and observe what made them this insane. His smile wasn't all that reassuring anymore.

“Did he?” she heard Max's voice and his telltale slow wingbeat. Nothing moving that slow should be able to hover. But their newest crewmate was evidently an exception to that rule. Her skin prickled on the subtle changes she could feel in the air.

She would have to talk to him about it. There was potential to it, she just knew.

“Max! Zoro!” Luffy called out to them enthusiastically, nothing like the dead serious of a moment ago.

“Yo,” Zoro said, completely nonchalant where he sat atop the flying horse.

“Max, you bastard!” Usopp screeched, jumping to his feet. “Why'd you throw me off? I could have died!”

“Didn't you take like, a four tons metal bat to the face once? Your fall was at most two stories high. You're fine.”

Usopp blinked, as did Nami and Chopper. Max had a point. Even their sniper had grown pretty resistant during their travels, huh?

Something about Max's words made her instinct flare a warning though.

Unless it was just her feeling the air heat up in the auction house. “Sanji?”

He was a little frightening, teeth sharpened, flames flaring around him, his one visible eye narrowed like that.

“I'm fighting my instinct to beat up Usopp and Max for injuring a lady.”

Excuse me?! ” Nami growled, her knuckles white on her staff. “You'd fight on her behalf?”

The daughter of the man who would have forced her into marriage? The same woman who had been screaming for their deaths just a minute ago?!

Sanji flinched under her glare – and that of the rest of the crew. “No. But it's a subconscious thing. More like reflexes. I've been taught to never stand idle by while-”

“Sanji,” Luffy said, his tone flat. “Look the other way. Captain's order.”

Sanji settled. His lips mulled over his cigarette, but the angry look was fading with every passing second. Captain's order. Not even the shitty geezer's teachings could overrun that. Not at sea, not as a pirate.

He trusted his captain too much. They all did.

“Weren't we rescuing someone?” Zoro asked.

“Ah!” Luffy shouted, eyes bulging out of his skull. “Camie!”

This time, no one could stop him as he dashed toward the fishbowl on the stage.

“Oi, shithead!” Sanji shouted, taking off for the bowl as well. “Don't trigger her explosive necklace!”

Whilst they hurtled down the steps all the way to the stage, the rest of the crew gathered in tight formation around Hachi. Some of the guards were still shooting. They knew not a futile fight when they saw it. Zoro, Franky and Brook jumped into the fray.

Max knelt down to replace the latter near the fishman. “How bad is it?” he asked, a strange look in his eyes. Like… guilt?

Chopper remained entirely focused on cleaning the wound. “Hachi's wound need to be treated as soon as possible. Somewhere calm where I won't be interrupted. The bullet hasn't gone all the way through.”

“That's worse than if it had?” he asked, sounding like he was trying to remember. To be fair, Nami found herself trying to recall Bell-mère's answer to that.

Chopper opened his mouth to reply. Then closed it.

He was staring at the stage, and that was the moment she realized Luffy's and Sanji's bickering had quieted down to nothing. Both of them held wary stances while a man with silver hair wearing spotted shorts walked through the curtains, a bottle of alcohol in hand. Behind him, a giant stepped in cautiously.

“Well, sounds like I missed quite the party.” The old man scratched the back of his head, then stretched his neck. “Probably shouldn't have tried to nap before the auction.”

Still looking somewhat sleepy, rubbing his silver hair with one hand, he surveyed the auction house. None of the combatants moved, frozen by the immense presence they felt emanating from the old man.

He smirked.

Nami saw the air quiver, rushing towards them in a ripple. Faster than any of them could react. The only thing she could think was a brief ‘warm’ , before the sensation passed, and men all around her and her crew began falling to the ground, unconscious.

The few supernovas left in the auction house muttered curses and words of disbelief that illustrated her own thoughts very well. Who in the hell was that old guy?

Unaffected by all the eyes on him, he walked up to Camie's fishbowl, a friendly smile on his face. Somehow, that was all it took. Her captain let him go through, seemingly trusting. “Can you take it off?”

“Oh, one of those, huh?” He chuckled. “Don't worry. There's a trick to taking them off.”

His hand became a blur. It swung in an arc, passing just over Camie's neck. The afterimage remained burned in her brain afterward, even when the collar exploded harmlessly ten feet away from anyone else.

Sanji and Luffy rushed forward to pick up Camie whilst the old man rolled his shoulders. Mumbling something under his breath. Probably something about his stiff shoulders, if she read him correctly.

He stopped right as he was about to step off the stage. “Hachi?”

“Rayleigh…” Hachi struggled to say.

“Oi, oi, that's a serious wound, Hachi. Who did that to you?”

Unanimously, they pointed to the unconscious old bastard still lying in the shards of glass. Not one tear was shed.

Chopper took the moment of silence as an opportunity. “Sir, do you know somewhere I can treat him in peace?”

“Aye, I do know a place. Shakky's rip-off bar. You know?”

“We've been there earlier today,” Nami said. “We needed to meet you there anyway.”

“Huh. Look at that. Good. Let's go then.”

“Max,” Chopper said, “can you carry Hachi on your back?”

Max rolled his eyes. “I'm a draft horse pegasus. What do you think? Just show me the way.”

Rayleigh chuckled, suddenly right next to them. With one hand, he lifted Hachi and placed him across Max's back. “And in the meantime, one of you snot-nosed brat better take care of the marines outside. I'm not in the mood for another round with weaklings.”

Chapter Text

The atmosphere in the bar the second time around was far less welcoming. Well, that was Max's guess. He vaguely recalled Brook asking to see Shakky's panties and her responding with the actual color. This certainly wouldn't be happening with the way the bar owner's brows creased together. She was staring at Chopper as the little reindeer worked his magic on a pale-looking Hachi.

Camie hovered close, still shaken.

Max sank in one of the seats, rubbing his shoulders. Hachi had been easy enough to carry, but something had to be said about swiftly changing the way his joints worked. He didn't know how Chopper did it.

Just as he let out a content sigh, Nami said, “Where's your shirt?”

He'd have been a little self-conscious if the circumstances had been different. This time though, he was just thinking back on the steely look on Mary's face, and the promise they'd meet again some day. “Someone needed it more than me. I don't suppose you have some extra clothes in one of those bags, do you?”

Nami rolled her eyes, but bent down under the table to rummage through a bag. “As a matter of fact…”

She threw one bundle of folded fabric to him, one as orange as her hair.

“So, how come you just noticed?” he asked, pulling his head through the biggest hole. “I didn't have one at the auction house either.”

Nami shrugged. “Yeah, but when you turn into a horse, you only have clothes half the time.”

“Wait, really?”

“Yup,” Franky popped the last 'p', grinning like a madman. One of his barrel-sized forearm caught Max's around the shoulder. “For a guy that hates stripping in front of friends, you sure love doing that in the middle of a city.”

Max's face felt as if it had caught on fire, and he felt the telltale sting inside his nose that indicated a future nosebleed. Grabbing a handful of paper towels from the bar's counter, he forced himself out of Franky's embrace.

“I'm not doing it on purpose, Franky! And besides, horses have lots of hair to cover it up, and a tail, and a sheath. You'd have to look on purpose.”

“Except when you rear,” Franky chuckled.

Max dutifully ignored the screeches inside his head and instead decided to be productive with his time. Which involved ignoring his perverted, manly crewmate. He plopped down next to Chopper.

“Chopper, do you know why that happens?”

The little doctor looked up from Hachi's bedside, and blinked. “Huh? It's… Did Doctorine explain that to me? I'm pretty sure I asked. I think it had something to do with mastery of your devil fruit. Something about the powers reaching just a little further than your own skin. Like logias turning their clothes into their essence too instead of losing them every time.”

Devil fruit bullshit, got it. Max filed the question in a little drawer at the back of his head, then put on a lock. No way he was gonna lose his mind over what happened to his pants every time he changed.

Instead, he patted down the few pockets of air under his shirt, stretching the fabric just enough to see the motif. A pair of glistening oranges looked back, one of them cut right in the middle.

He gave Nami a thumbs up. “Fits perfect. Thank you.”

“Don't think I'm not making you pay for it!” she called, “but the rates will only be exorbitant instead of bleeding you dry.”

“I knew you still loved me, Nami.”

One rough hand slapped him upside the head. “Shut up, shitty horse janitor.”

Max didn't say 'you're just jealous'. He didn't need to. Usopp, Franky and Zoro – especially Zoro – said it word for word to a scowling Sanji. Blushing, he aimed a flying kick at the lazing swordsman.

And there we go again .

“Lively bunch, aren't they?” he heard Shakky ask, who was leaning over toward Rayleigh. “Reminds you of someone?”

“More than you'd know.”

“Oh, there's a story there.” Her smile grew a little wider, more complicit. “You know I love stories, Rayleigh.”

“He punched a Celestial Dragon in the face. Sent him flying straight into a giant fishbowl. Then the brat with the long nose fell on top of another World Noble.”

Shakky let out a low whistle, grinning. “The government must want their heads on a platter.”

“Falls on us old geezers to clean up their messes.” A sigh and more alcohol. “What I do for friends of friends,” he said gruffly, but not without good humor.

“Hey, hey, I did not jump. I was dropped! By a certain someone .”

“Lies and slander,” Max said absentmindedly.

He was too busy just picturing Saint Charloss again, the stupid snot-nosed bastard shooting Mary's fiancé, the disgusting lecher eying Mary, ready to make her a sex slave. And Luffy, walking up the steps, showing the world what it truly meant to be a pirate.

By punching a World Noble so hard he went flying.

If only he'd been around to witness it. But no, he'd only gotten to see the woman, Shalula or whatever, screaming in hysterics. Right until he had – maybe, no one could prove anything – made Usopp slip and get his moment of glory.

“Luffy! You couldn't have waited just a minute or two before punching him, could you?” he complained (no, not whined). “I've been wanting to see those bastards get their comeuppances since I knew they had slaves all the time. Did he at least lose a tooth?”

Luffy grinned and rolled his shoulder like he was ready to throw another punch. “All of them. The old bastard had it coming.”

“Nice!” Max cheered, punching the air. “A toast to our crazy captain!”

There were some cheering, but Max didn't quite get to hear them. A solid punch to the top of his head had made pain deafen him for a second. Blinking actual stars and singing ducks, Max felt his eyes slowly stop spinning. That had never happened before. He hoped it never happened again. He was getting nauseous from all tilting and blurring.

Stupid visual gags!

“Max, focus!” Nami berated, standing up on her feet. “We're going to have an admiral on our asses! This isn't the time to congratulate Luffy on one of his usual stunts!”

“Doesn't coating take a while anyway?”

The crew blinked at him, then turned as one towards Rayleigh.

“Your horseman is right. It'll take three days at best, and that's me working quickly.”

“Three days?!” Luffy shouted, dropping a whole roasted ham in shock.

Max stood up, rubbing the overgrown bump on his head. “So, you see, Nami? We still have time to cheer for Luffy… and Usopp, now that I think about it. That lady was a bitch.” He clapped a hand over his friend's back. “Good job, Usopp.”

Said crewmate blushed in pleasure, smiling wide. “Ahh, it was nothing. You know me, taking all the bad guys out in one hit!”

With his butt. Knowing Usopp, that would end up being one of his trickster moves. Max would certainly pay good money to see a 'sure kill: ass puuuunch!' used on certain pirates.

“Why, oh why, did I ever join a crew this crazy?” Nami lamented while Robin chuckled at her melodrama.

“Because we saved you from Arlong, witch,” Zoro drawled.

Chopper let out a startled yelp as some of Hachi's wounds spurted more blood. “Ah! Don't tense so much! You're making your wounds worse!”

“Oi, shut up, Zoro!” Luffy said, and Zoro had the decency to blush. And mumble under his breath that it was still the truth. “It doesn't matter why Nami joined. She's part of the crew and that's that.”

Now, Nami was grumbling too. Luffy's words had hit a little close to home, it seemed. Max decided to aim the conversation out of those dangerous waters and somewhere a bit more… canon.

“So, world noble punching...” Wait, what did they say about it in the episode again? … Fuck it. “Can you do that again sometimes? Preferably in front of a snail that could record it and show it to the whole world.”

“Shishishi, sure thing, Max. Just find a real bastard and I'mma punch him good.”

Max put on a calculating look. “Well, that shouldn't be too hard.”

The dope slap was well-expected, and more amusing than irritating at this point.

“Honestly, you guys aren't listening to me at all.”

“Yes, I am. But, really, Nami, what else did you want Luffy to do?”

She remained silent for merely a beat. “Nothing,” she sighed. “That bastard had it coming his whole life. He was threatening to take me as a replacement wife and enslave everyone. I'm just worried about our safety.”

Max blinked at the new information. He did not recall the noble talking to Nami at all before… So something had changed, huh? Well, not enough to alter the course of events, but still.

The events of canon hadn't gone completely off rail, right? Sure, Usopp had had to do a bit of a detour to find him instead of Brook and Chopper like the last time, but apparently, they'd manage to keep up with Luffy this time around. So everything had worked out. And after that, he'd gone with Usopp to find Zoro and bring him back to the auction house…

Wait… Now that he thought about it…

“Zoro?” he asked, gulping. “Did you meet a stupid looking guy with an irritating voice wearing a white, puffy suit and a bubble on his head?”

Zoro glanced his way. “Yeah, I was helping two guys get to a hospital. Walked right into them after getting out of that alley. Didn't find any swords shop though.”

“How, Zoro?! I had just pointed you in the other direction…”

“Well, the screaming made it hard to miss.”

Max stared and shut his mouth closed.

Zoro barely seemed to notice. “That guy you mentioned was there. Really trigger-happy too. Kept ranting about a horse that stole his wife or something. You had something to do with that?” – He didn't give Max time to protest the dozen of curious looks aimed at him. – “He gave me a weird look when I walked past him. Well, before he tried to shoot me a couple of times.”

Max wasn't sure if that was the universe trying to send him a message, or if Zoro just had that kind of luck. Both were fairly scary thoughts.

They were however both swiftly replaced by a much scarier one. Max had been waiting for a name or a person being mentioned. Someone with quick reflexes and a whole lot more common sense than the Straw Hat crew in her pinkie finger.

“Yeah… and then what happened? Met someone with pink hair, maybe?” Please?

“Huuuh?” Zoro exclaimed, browns knitted together. “No. Where did that question come from? I didn't see any pink-haired person there. I just slashed the guy and went on my way.”

“Zoro,” – Max took a deep breath, fear and vindication at war within himself – “did you kill a Celestial Dragon?”

Silence fell in the bar. For a few seconds, all that could be heard were Hachi's wheezing breathing and the soft humming of Shakky's fridge. Nami and Usopp were a whole three shades paler than the wounded fishman. And considering Hachi himself had paled at those words, that was saying something. In fact…

Max suddenly had flashbacks of ghouls and vampires. How could anyone, especially Usopp, be that pasty white color?

“A what? Those guys in the weird suits?” Zoro grunted, completely unaffected by all the staring. “I don't know. Unless he was really weak or something, he'd be fine after some time in the hospital. It was close by.”

Max swallowed a feeling of ice cold dread. “Huh. Wow. I'm kind of sorry everyone. I am one hundred percent sure that this is going to bite us in the ass so hard we'll wish we never had asses in the first place.”

“Why are you apologizing?” Chopper asked, blinking.

“I pointed Zoro in the opposite direction and left him alone for a moment.”

Sanji facepalmed. “That's practically pushing him in their path by anyone else's standards.”

“Sorry,” Max repeated, blushing.

“My sense of direction isn't that bad!” Zoro shouted, his face red for an entirely different reason. No embarrassment whatsoever could be heard in his voice. “It was the screaming, okay? The screaming !”

“Of course, Mr. Swordsman,” Robin readily agreed, like one did with an angry child.

“Can we please focus on the important part here?” Nami pushed herself between Zoro and Sanji. “You might have killed a Celestial Dragon. At least, Luffy was defending me and Hachi. What's your excuse?”

“He tried to shoot me.”

Nami's mouth opened and closed.

The rest of the crew pondered, chin on their fists.

“W-well,” she stumbled, “you should have just pretended to be hit in the first place. Those people are dangerous. They have the most obvious governmental protection in the world."

“What's done is done.” Sanji said, exhaling a small cloud of smoke. “No use complaining about it now. It doesn't change much anyway. We're being chased by the marines for attacking the Celestial Dragons regardless.”

“Now, that's proper pirate talk. You kids were starting to make me worry.” Rayleigh eyed Luffy's straw hat. “Shanks had never struck me as that big of a fool.”

“You knew Shanks?!” Luffy gasped.

And that was all the prompt needed to get the conversation going, more or less as Max remembered it. Reminiscing about the past, mentioning Buggy, the origin of Luffy's straw hat, even Robin's question about the void century. That part, he paid a bit more attention to.

An entire century of history lost to time and conspiracy. It had felt like a detail at first. Some piece of lore to spice up the background and flesh out Robin's passion for history. But now that Max was part of this world, that he knew looking at a history book would just give him a 404 Error, he found the concept immensely creepy.

He'd lie if he said he wasn't disappointed when Robin declined to hear more from Rayleigh, even if he understood her reasoning.

“So,” Sanji said, “if you were the first mate on Gol D. Roger's ship… how come you didn't get executed too? Wasn't Roger captured?”

“No. Roger gave himself up.”

To the others, this was new. Even Robin seemed surprised by the reply given. The World Government's lies had been accepted far and wide. To the common people, it was accepted that Gol D. Roger was eventually captured and executed in the town of his birth.

Max's memory provided him with an actual picture of Roger in his cell, speaking to Garp. Perhaps the true reason he had chosen to give himself up. To give his son a chance to live. Had he known about Rouge? About how far she would be able to go for their child?

He'd like to think Roger had. That he knew his lover held the true will of D just like him. Else why would he have made that request to his old rival? An unborn child has no sin, Garp.

Max's attention returned to the present as Rayleigh placed his glass back on the counter with a clink.

“Those were the last words he said to me.”

Something in his voice had been faint, weaker despite how steady he sounded. His constant smile lost nothing of its strength. It seemed almost stronger as he took in one more gulp of his rum. The last words said to him by Gol D. Roger…

Silence drew them all in. And Rayleigh, he didn't seem to realize he was doing it. He was looking at ghosts and phantoms, standing more with them than with a crew of rookies from East Blue.

“I won't die, partner.”

And those simple little words swept through the air with their sheer power.

I won't die, partner, echoed in his mind, their hold on him growing stronger. His imagination was flaring to life, sending thoughts and ideas together as the ghost of the Pirate King haunted Shakky's bar.

I won't die, he had said, and their meaning seemed to unfold. The world will never let my legacy die. I won't die. There will be no flame going out in the night. In its stead, I will lit a fire that will engulf the world. My execution? HA!

When I step on the scaffold, it will be to become immortal.

And words with a different voice. Max's own. “ I want my life to have mattered in the end! If I die, I die, but I won't be forgotten!

The want inside him turned violent. Right there and then, no matter how stupid and silly the idea sounded, Max wanted to be Pirate King. The thought remained fleeting, lingering until his eyes fell onto Luffy.

“I don't wanna conquer anything,” said Max's captain like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “The Pirate King is just the man with the most freedom in the world.”

Max grinned. He may have wanted it, but only someone of Luffy's caliber could ever be deserving of the title. He'd follow a man like that. Someone with both the strength to do it, and the unique selfish kindness that allowed him to sway every person to his way of thinking. After all, he'd gathered a crew of a higher caliber. Who else boasted having the future greatest swordsman with them? The one that would map out all the sea? That would find All Blue or the history of the world?

I'll be remembered. I just need to find out what for, Luffy. Then, I swear to you, I'll give it my all. I'll be worthy of your interest.

The atmosphere in the bar had grown more relaxed with Luffy's declaration. It had reminded them all what sort of men they were following. Max knew they were as proud as he was of that simple fact. Rayleigh himself seemed damn impressed.

“Good luck then, brat.” He stretched. “Hrn, I ought to get my stuff if I want to do your ship's coating. Besides, the marines probably recovered from your exhibition match with those other two brats.”

Usopp stood up suddenly, his tone reverent, and yet feverish with fast paced words and pauses. “Wait, before you leave, huh, Rayleigh sir, if you're the Pirate King's second-in-command, that means you've been to Raftel, right? Does that mean, One Piece… is it really-?”

USOPP!”

It was every inch of anger and desperation that Max had heard on the Seafarer. That same ugly, powerful, dominating power bearing down on their sniper. It demanded attention, it stole it outright. Max wasn't surprised to see Usopp fall back down, eyes wide and fearful. Max's knees would have folded too, if he'd been standing.

“I don't want to hear it! I don't want to know where the treasure is! I don't even want to know if it's real or not! If you ask him about One Piece, then I'll quit becoming Pirate King! I don't want to go on a boring adventure like that!”

Leaning against the wall, Zoro nodded in approval, as did Sanji, Brook and Franky. Robin smiled her mysterious smile whilst even Nami and Chopper looked swayed by the weight of Luffy's words.

“Ah, wait, no, I don't want to know either!” Usopp protested, sweating despite all traces of fear gone. Rather, he seemed a little embarrassed. “That was just a wild thought. But no, I don't wanna know anymore. You better not tell me, Rayleigh!”

“I wouldn't tell you even if you still did.” The old man chuckled. “I'm not gonna spoil Roger's fun or yours.”

Boring… Huh. Max was surprised how much he understood that. “I don't wanna. You're too boring.” Living? Not, it took so much more. Really, it was rather simple in the end. Spoilers. The name told it all. Spoiling the adventure, making it rotten and foul-tasting. The discovery, the path itself was so much more important. To have a dream, to try, to reach for it, you didn't need silly things like certainty.

Still…

Don't fight Magellan. The warden with the poison powers. It cost you twelve hours last time. Ace was transferred while you were fighting for your life.

Beyond that… beyond that, he'd let Luffy face the challenges head on. He probably should remind him of that before they were separated…

His insides tied themselves in a knot. Shit. He shouldn't have thought about it. In just a few moments, they'd leave the bar and face Kuma. Hopefully, everything would go roughly as they had in the manga and they'd be saved by the rogue warlord.

Hopefully. Max had stopped being an optimist roughly seven weeks ago. Things would definitely go wrong.

He shot a wary look through the shutters. The streets still were eerily empty. This time however, he heard not the thundering footsteps of dozens and hundreds of marines searching for someone.

“It would be a good occasion to do some shopping.”

Max blinked and had to whirl around to make sure he had really heard Nami say that . He'd obviously tuned out part of the conversation, but how exactly did one arrive to that conclusion?

Usopp shared the same opinion. Zoro didn't.

“She's right, you know. If we stay together, people will definitely come after us. In order to get off more smoothly, it'd be better for us to split up in town.”

“No…” Max muttered. “Even if we split up, there'll be people. Marines and bounty hunters. There might even be a kill on sight order out for us now.”

“Are we going to manage?” Usopp asked, glancing nervously at the windows himself. “They're going to send an admiral like Aokiji, right? How do we evade that?”

Without realizing it, Max half turned toward Robin. Hadn't she been evading the marines and bounty hunters for twenty years? Around him, his crewmates had similar thoughts, for even Luffy looked her way.

“The key to staying out of sight is to be as unremarkable as possible,” Robin told them. “Individuals generally attract less attention than large groups. Often, I separated from a group and hid away whilst my enemies captured people that thought numbers was a safety net.”

“So what?” Zoro drawled, arms crossed behind his head. “We randomly split in groups and get back together after Rayleigh's done?”

Sanji frowned at him. “And how do we actually signal each other if we're all separated? The marines will be trying to intercept all the snail calls on the archipelago.”

Rayleigh smirked again, and waved at Shakky. “You kept it, didn't you?”

It was her turn to smile, her cigarette twirling in her fingers. “Yeah, still there.” She turned to the crew. “Wait here. I have something that could help with that.”

'Something' turned out to be a piece of white paper. And just to make sure Max felt even more stupid, Shakky proceeded to explain in details that it indeed was a vivre card, followed by how it worked. Damn it. He'd completely forgotten about this part. He hadn't needed to buy another vivre card. What a waste of money.

Well, the rest of the grocery shopping had been done with the full knowledge that most of those ingredients would never be used. Except the honey, because that stuff was apparently immortal in a sealed bottle.

Max tore a small piece of the vivre card when it was held in his direction, staring, wondering if he ought to mention the old one in his pocket now. It wouldn't change much, would it? And he still had no clue who that old card might lead him to.

“Alright, let's get going, everyone!” Luffy said.

With a feeling of inevitability, Max followed his crew outside, adding his goodbyes to all the others. Hachi, Pappug and Camie all waved back at him.

The first step outside the bar felt like the beginning of the end. The first step toward an execution.

When I step on the scaffold, it will be to become immortal.

The uncertainty vanished. Like a soap bubble popped. Hesitations wouldn't serve him well. He walked till he was at the edge of the group, somewhere left of Brook and in front of Usopp.

“Max,” Luffy called with an unusually serious voice. “You're on flying horse duty. If things get too dangerous, you fly away with everyone around you.”

“Oh.” He blinked. That actually made a frightening amount of sense. With a thoughtful look on his face, he glanced at the rest of the crew. “Okay. Although it won't be everyone, no way you all fit on my back. And when it comes to weight, I don't have much doubts for most of the crew… Franky, how much do you weight?”

The cyborg smirked. “Straightforward, huh? Not gonna offer me a drink or anything?”

“I don't have nearly enough money to afford Shakky's prices,” Max deadpanned. “I'm going in dry.”

Franky laughed. “Three hundred pounds, give or take ten for the cola.”

Max took a deeper breath, glancing back to Luffy, who seemed amused by their exchange, if a bit confused. “Yeah, I can do flying horse duty. Even with Franky. Probably shouldn't be more than any three or four members of the crew though. You won't be able to sit with too many people.”

“Oi, oi, shitty horse, don't think we all need you to help us move,” Sanji said. His scowl then disappeared in favor of a lovestruck smile. “We should save those spots for Nami-swan and Robin-schwan! I should go too, to protect them.”

Usopp jumped in between Max and Sanji. “Don't just decide that by yourself! What about the rest of us?”

“Huuuh, guys?” Max would like to point out that he couldn't carry all the crew regardless of who got the spot.

Sanji's scowl returned ten fold. “You guys can walk.”

Feeling a vein twitch on his forehead, Max leaned in closer to Sanji, putting on the most lovestruck smile he could. “Yeah, you have to ride me, ~ Sanji-schwan. ~ I'll protect you.”

Sanji let out a girly shriek of horror, followed by a kick to the stomach that made Max fall to his knees. The raspy wheeze that came out of his lungs wasn't anywhere near human. Holy fuck… Sanji didn't have to hit that damn hard.

“Tch, pathetic, ero-cook,” Zoro sneered.

Even if it hurt, Max chuckled with the crew, because, kick or not, that shriek had just forever ruined his mental image of Sanji as a cool, manly guy. It did not, however, mean that Sanji didn't have a killer body.

A thought he would keep to himself in the future if that joke had earned him that kind of pain. Okay, shallow breaths for now, nothing too deep else he was gonna fold in half again. Just standing up and bluffing that he wasn't suffering immensely.

Fortunately, he got out of friendly scrutiny through sheer coincidence.

“We should leave, Luffy,” Robin said, her gaze cast over the empty streets. “It wouldn't do to be caught so close to the bar.”

“Yeah, you're right. Okay, everyone, we're leaving!”

“Don't shout it!” Chopper loudly shouted, causing Brook a few chuckles.

“Oops,” said Luffy without an ounce of remorse.

“You kids,” Rayleigh muttered fondly, watching them go.

Hadn't he… Max thought he had been supposed to leave before the Straw Hats. That was why he'd been able to stop Kizaru in time. Was he just imagining that? His memories of this scene had been fuzzy in the first place.

If he was right though… “Mister Rayleigh Sir?”

The Dark King snorted into his drink, coughing his booze as he chuckled. “Rayleigh. For fuck's sake, I'm a pirate, kid, not your school teacher.”

Max flinched. “Yeah, sorry.”

He turned to leave, awkwardly mumbling a goodbye under his breath, refusing to make eye contact with a man with the power to destroy Max's whole crew with little effort. The rebuke had set him on edge. He was better off leaving this place. Things would be fine.

That was it… the last few moments before the timeskip. Kuma would arrive. Would crush them all with cold, surgical precision. The experience would make them all realize how outclassed they were. Then, the War of the Best.

Luffy would face Marineford trying to… save…

Ace.

Max stopped dead in his track. A few of his memory of Luffy's childhood flashed back to his eyes, of the angry boy Ace had been. Then, much older, blood dripping from his lips, and from the gaping hole in his chest. “Thank you for loving me.”

“You…” Max heard himself say, voice distant to his own ears, “you know he had a son, right?”

Blades pressed against his throat. Max's breath hitched, his muscles tensing as he found himself paralyzed. His limbs felt weak, like he was back on the Seafarer after another day of exhaustive work. Like he was on his knees in that row of crying men, Beaudrille's steps coming closer. The click of a gun's hammer pulled back.

I'm going to d-

Max's body gasped, lurching forward with the sudden loosening of his chains. He stumbled through the street in front of Shakky's ripoff bar and fell to his knees in the moss.

“Careful about what you say, especially around here.” Around me , was unspoken.

The marines know! They have him!

But his tongue stayed stuck to his palate. His vocal chords squeezed together. He had too much preservation instincts to ever cross someone who'd given him that kind of warning.

“Max!” Luffy called out. “What are you waiting for? Are you coming or what?”

“Oh, yeah, o-o-of course,” he said, not daring to cast back a fearful glance at Rayleigh despite how incredibly tempting it was. He felt like a prey being stalked now. How had the encounter happened in the manga again? Or was it the anime? Had either been different actually?

Max frowned, trying to recall the details of a show he'd stopped watching a while ago, after some traumatic experience. Not for the first time, he cursed himself for not having somehow the foresight to binge on One Piece before being sent to the world of One Piece.

This'd be so much easier with a wiki, he thought, sighing.

“They're so dramatic,” Nami told him, apparently interpreting his annoyance with his memory as one similar to her own. “It's only three days.” She gestured to Chopper, Franky and Luffy bawling their eyes out, making silly promises to one another.

Max flinched. “…You should think of any parting like it'll be the last.” What was the last thing I told Mom? Dad? 'See you in July'? Fred? Pierre? Véro? 'I'll have so many stories to tell you.' “You… you don't know, Nami. You never know.”

She frowned slightly. “Are you okay, Max?”

“It's fine…” So not the time for drama. Every minute was ticking by so fast.

It seemed as if the moment he had blinked, they had left the inhabited part of the grove and all that surrounded them were bubbles and trees. There, Luffy called a halt. The crew was thus split in three groups, each led by a member of the 'Monster Trio'. Max himself was assigned to follow Zoro, whose expression was tenser than usual. Subtly, the swordsman's hand moved from the hilt of his swords to the bandaged wound on his chest.

“Yosh! Everyone, we are going to hide low until Rayleigh's done with the coating, then it's onward to Fishman Island! Shishishishi!”

“Well, that's it, huh?” Max's voice shook. “I'll miss you guys.”

And yet, as he said it, his eyes flicked to the canopy above. He had a bad feeling about this. And considering how he knew this arc ended, he felt entirely justified to indulge his paranoia.

“It's just three days, Max,” Brook said in passing. “Though of course, we will miss you and your uncanny ability to fix every little accidents that happen on the ship.”

Well, if he could be thankful for one thing about the Seafarer's hell, it was that it conditioned him to clean after everyone obsessively. Still… Little?! “I know that it's you or Usopp that sent the shelves in the library toppling,” he deadpanned, which sent his skeleton crewmate into a stuttering denial.

Usopp, for his part, feared for his life under Robin's glare.

Normally, Max would laugh just like Luffy was doing.

… It wasn't fair. He was too aware of the danger ready to leap out of nowhere. He knew that, any moment now, a robot copy of Kuma would attack his crew. His attention had split between his surroundings and his friends. He could barely look them in the eyes long enough to say it!

What if he shoots from a distance? They'd be able to dodge it, right? How fast does the beam go?

Zoro turned to him. “Max?"

A shadow leaped from the treetops.

“You!” Zoro snarled, immediately drawing his swords.

All but Luffy had similar reactions of hostility.

Or fright, or both. Max could perfectly understand the feeling. Though some of it may be unwarranted, he remembered as the cyborg – android? – raised its palm and they could see the end of a cannon.

“Ah, is that the guy you saw after I fell unconscious?!” Luffy shouted, taking a combative stance. “What's he doing?”

“Don't let that attack hit you!” Sanji shouted his warning. “It's a shock wave.”

Max blinked. Why would they thin-? Shit, they don't know yet. “No! It's a laser beam! This isn't Kuma!”

Luffy and Chopper momentarily swayed, eyes like stars. “Beaaaaaam,” they said together.

“Dodge!” he yelled.

Max felt no heat, no wind rushing past him. All he noticed as Luffy ducked and brought Chopper to the ground with him… was a flash. It could have been a camera flash for all it did, or a bolt of lightning striking so close it was blinding. The noise was nothing like thunder though. Just a whistling. Just air pierced straight through.

And an explosion not far in the distance.

“What was that? Nami asked.

“A BEAAAAAAM!” Franky and Usopp shouted with stars in their eyes.

Sanji pulled Luffy and Chopper up their feet while Zoro jumped at the machine, all swords blazing. “Max, what do you mean 'it's not Kuma'? We met him on Thriller Bark. Does he have a twin or something?”

“Look out!” Luffy threw a punch, just in time to redirect a beam aimed at Zoro. “Zoro, are you okay? You're moving weird!”

Max swallowed, his heart already like a beating drum. How bad was that going to affect things? No, no, he shouldn't think like that. Confusion in the middle of battle? That was the best way to get some of his friends killed.

“It's a robot! The World Government is mass-producing them. They call them Pacifista. Or Px something, I don't remember. It can't deflect your attacks like the original, but it can shoot laser beams based on what Admiral Kizaru can do.”

Robin's stance almost faltered, her face a few shades paler. Her eyes instantly narrowed as she crossed her arms over her chest. “Seis Fleur: Crutch!”

However briefly, the pacifista stalled, its neck held back just enough to hide Luffy, Zoro and Sanji all charging low. Their combined shouting obscured what they were actually shouting, but judging by the way the robot slid back ten meters, it had hit pretty hard.

Max tittered on the edge of the fight like most of the crew, torn between attacking or fleeing as Luffy had asked them to. Even Usopp, their prime cowardly lion, had his slingshot ready.

“How many of them are there?” Chopper was the one to ask, his eyes still on the fight.

And really, it was an awesome question that Max would gladly answer if he could. “I don't know. I think twenty or so in total.” There had been a row of them in Marineford. “And there's like half of dozen of these on the archipelago right now.”

Heads snapped towards him.

Oh right, that's fucking terrible news.

The next second, the time for lamenting “what ifs” vanished. In its stead, a bright light shone down upon them.

They scattered just in time.

A bang. A th-

No, not this. Not here. That was an explosion, not a gunshot. Fire, focus on the fire and the whistling of the beam.

Max shifted into horse form, briefly reveling in the sensation of strength going through his limbs.

“Shit. If it's anything like the original…” Sanji scowled and crushed his cigarette under his foot.

“They don't have his devil fruit, but they're probably as durable as he is,” Max stressed out. Those machines were far weaker than Kuma, but they weren't weak by any means. It could wipe out a pirate crew with ease. “We can beat it, but there will be more coming afterward. Electricity works well on them.”

That last bit, he aimed at Nami. Her eyes instantly narrowed in focus, and her grip around her staff stopped trembling. She nodded quickly and took a few steps to the back.

“Don't know how you know that,” Zoro said, a smirk on his face as he adjusted the sword in his mouth, “but I'm not complaining.”

Don't know how you talk with a sword in your mouth, but do you hear me complaining about it?

“Eh, you might not be the bastard that got us back then, but you look close enough,” Franky sneered, twisting his wrists and holding his palms straight at the machine. “Coup de Vent!”

The blast sent it rocketing through the air.

Losing not even an instant, Brook called out, “Luffy! If what Max said is true, then there's no point in beating that thing!”

Their captain nodded. “Everyone, go hide! Zoro, Sanji and me will distract that guy for a while.”

Max spread out his wings and took off. Not far ahead of him, Brook was leading the pack. The crew seemed to have subconsciously chosen to stay together until they could be sure danger had passed.

“Oi, Moss head, what's wrong with you?” he heard the shout.

“No-... nothing.” Zoro’s voice was too quiet, but every hint of his body language screamed dismissal. “Worry about yourself… ero-cook... ”

Will you go cower in the Sunny's depths while your crew fight?”

Max's flight took a sudden turn.

The pacifista didn’t notice. Its gaze was upon his crewmates, intent, focused on Zoro. There was something mechanical to it, just attacking the weaker link first, then working its way up. Luffy and Sanji were kept as secondary targets for now. Why would it think to look at the fleeing pirates? Why would it think to look behind?

“The only way to become strong is to refuse to be weak.”

It hurt more than he expected. It was like slamming into a brick wall, only the bricks were made of mithril and they made a noise like whirring machinery and steam. For a second, the machine didn't move, almost locked solidly into place. It hadn't been enough of an impact. Not enough of a push to get it off its feet.

Max's wingbeat picked up again, faster and stronger. Winds whirled behind him as his shoulder dig deeper in the pacifista's back. Its knees made a clicking noise, locked as it tried to keep its stance steady.

Then, on both sides, open palms pointed at Max.

Didn't think of that!

He was almost there, he couldn't just stop, he wouldn't have the time anyway!

Behind the blinding lights, petals fell. Hands grabbed the Pacifista's wrists, and twisted them.

Trees in the distance went up in flames.

Max howled, bringing down his wings with all his might. Twin currents of wind struck the ground and exploded. Max's body felt lifted, and a sinister crack reached his ears. No pain came however, only the feeling of a resistance breaking, and the more familiar one of weightlessness.

The Pacifista's legs were swiped from underneath, its whole body falling backward with a violent swing.

Max shot straight forward while half a dozen shouts came in simultaneously.

“Coup de Vent!”

“Diable Jambe, Poêle à Frire!”

“Firebird star!”

“Three swords style: 108 pounds canon!”

Suddenly, flying near the pacifista had become a very dangerous exercise. Max barely ducked out of the way of a flying slash, the cutting air inches away from the tip of his wings. If it hadn't been for Zoro calling out his attack, then Max would have been- Oh.

The answer to the eternal question: why announce your intentions by calling your attacks? Because you alert your allies to what you are doing. They'll know, but your enemies won't.

Max landed and turned around as quick as he could. Like he'd thought, the Pacifista wasn't staying down, though its clothing had taken some serious damage around the shoulder area. One could see the exposed metal joints shaking as it pumped more steam through the robot's limbs.

“Giant pistol!”

As the shout rang through the air, a growing shadow covered the Pacifista. It looked up just in time to see a fist far greater than it before it was crushed into the ground.

Max rose a wing to shield his face, as the shockwave alone sent gales and dust in every direction. That should have done the trick, right? How much more abuse could that thing take? They'd definitely beaten it the first time around…

Luffy plopped down on a tree root, looking far smaller than usual. Right. Gear Third had that side-effect. If the pacifista wasn't down by this point…

From the dust rose a shadow taller than any of them.

Damn it!

Max charged, without waiting or thinking. He went right into the heart of the dust cloud, and spun on his forelegs at the last second. His hind legs sprung like bullets, and the impact resonated up his legs to his croup. And yet, it didn't hurt much, less than he expected.

To his incredulity, the pacifista seemed to stagger within the dust cloud. Then out as it ignored him completely.

Blinking, Max stopped and stared. Huh… Oh, right, attack names! “Horsekick!” he said 'a few' seconds too late.

Usopp and Franky gave him disgusted looks. “Horsekick?”

“Shut up!” he yelled, his blush hidden beneath his fur. “I haven't had time to think of names, okay?!”

“You should at least make it 'SUPER horsekick'!”

Franky's lower half split in four, his legs halved from top to bottom in some bizarre, twisted contraption. He illustrated his point by pretending to buck the air, all the while shooting some cannonball at the pacifista.

I refuse to call that a centaur.

Usopp chuckled next to the cyborg, pulling his slingshot's strings back. “Or something like 'USOPP-P-P-P… SURE KILL KICK!'”

The pacifista's head turned to them, and even if it was a soulless machine, its unmoving features radiated disdain and hatred. Faster than a thing of its bulk should move, it aimed both its hands their ways and shot a series of lasers right at them.

By some miracle – or its circuitry being fried –, the pacifista's beams struck right at their feet instead of through their bodies. As a result, Max saw his life flash before his eyes in the explosion that lifted all three of them off their feet.

It was official. Max was going to beat them up if he got the chance. Even his mental conditioning wouldn't stop him.

“Will you morons take this seriously?!” Nami shouted from somewhere in the background.

Usopp, ass in the air, face covered in soot and mud, choked out a “sorry”. Franky and Max said nothing. Just as Max was pulling himself up to his hooves, he saw a bolt of lightning fly through the pacifista's body.

Smoke coming out of its mouth, it fell to its knee again, its head pulled back by a dozen hands.

Zoro and Sanji descended upon the cyborg with everything they got, raining hits upon hits. The pacifista's limbs jolted with every impact like a puppet without strings. When they finished, winded, their opponent fell on its knees.

Static electric ran across every bit of exposed circuitry. It did not move.

“Okay, we're done. We need to run before another comes along,” Max said out loud, and immediately regretted it.

Even in the 'real' world, that kind of remark would have been pushing it. His insolence toward Fate was rewarded by the sound of heavy footsteps stopping right behind them.

“You'd like that, wouldn't you?” someone predictably jumped on the fed line. It had been too good to pass up, of course.

Max cringed as he looked up into the shadow of another human-like robot. For a split second, he felt a shiver at the sight of another identical copy of the enemy they had fought. At his sides, Franky and Usopp were on their feet, but their stances were warier than before.

He knew they had had the same thought as him. They were too tired to take on a second Pacifista right away.

“Usopp, Franky…” he said as low as he could. “Climb on…”

Franky did away with the subtlety. He grabbed their sniper and pushed him onto Max's back, with little intent of doing the same. Instead, his fist shot through, chains unwinding, then winding back as he caught Nami and pulled her away from a laser.

“Thanks, Franky.”

“Just get on Max’s back. Quick!”

Nami grabbed Usopp’s hand and pulled herself up. Her weight was barely a burden for Max. He scanned their surroundings, pulling back from the marine and the machine, trying to see if anyone else needed transportation.

“Do you think any of you will escape?!” the marine bellowed. “From the man with the strongest defense, me, Sentomaru?”

Luffy's nostrils flared. “Sure I-”

“We can't fight them off! There could be more waiting for us!” Sanji yelled, jumping at just the right second with a flying kick to the face.

The sumo-like marine simply blocked with one open hand. He did not even flinch. “As if such a weak attack could pierce through my perfect defense!”

“Weak?!” Sanji growled.

As he pulled back his leg for another kick however, his opponent slid right into his defense. Despite the difference in size, Sentomaru had easily put himself far too close for Sanji to kick. With a single palm strike, he slapped Sanji down into the ground.

“As for more, PX units, do you really think I’d tell you how close they are to this position?”

Usopp wildly gestured from atop Max's back, digging his heels into his sides. “Come on, Max! Take off already!”

Max took off.

The pacifista opened its mouth, but instead of another laser, only sound came out. A distorted, even and unfeeling tone of voice. “Target identified: Sogeking. Active bounty.”

Its arms shot up like a string had been pulled. The cannon in its palm lit up.

Damn it, damn it, damn it! Max swerved at the last second, the pull so abrupt his passengers yelled out in shock or fury. Without paying them any heed, Max accelerated, pulling at the air like a swimmer, reaching, pushing it back, faster. Faster.

Light flashed before his eyes.

He didn't even think. Max dove.

Pain came searing across his flank, a line of burnt flesh before he had even registered a touch on his fur.

“Max!”

“Don't worry,” he said through gritted teeth. Either his nerves had been badly burnt, or it had been a grazing blow. For fuck's sake, he hoped that had only been a grazing blow. “Just hang on!”

He twisted again, this time shooting for the gigantic tree. He did as he had with Mary. He went as close as to touch the bark with his hooves, but faster, hoping to God neither Usopp or Nami would slip. In a minute that felt like hours, they'd disappeared out of view – and range, he prayed.

“Guys, get off, I have to go back.”

They both jumped, thankfully. But Usopp shook so bad he looked like he was getting an aneurysm. “Go back ?” his voice broke. “Are you kidding?! We have to run! Luffy told us to run!”

“Zoro can't run, Usopp! He's still hurt from Thriller Bark!” He threw behind his back. “You and Nami go!”

Half-flying, half-running, he went past the mangrove tree, only to see more fighting raging through the clearing.

“Target identified: Pirate Hunter Zoro. Active bounty.”

Another one.

“Target identified: Black Leg Sanji. Active bounty.”

… A third pacifista? No, ha, haha, no way, that – fuck – it was only supposed to be two!

“Target unidentified. Associates with known pirates. Proceeding with arrest.”

Max's head snapped around, and his mind went blank.

Four.

His crew was being attacked by four pacifistas at the same time.

And if things weren’t already going to hell…

A beam struck the ground near Zoro. It shouldn’t have gotten more attention than that. But this one had been different. Entirely different. He could hardly explain it, put it down in words. He hadn't been able to see it at all. It had felt both faster and more powerful. Something… something in the air made him think of fangs and eyes stalking him in the darkness.

Made him less than a man.

“Maaaan, rookies these days are such freaks.”

No wonder.

It was Admiral Kizaru.

Early.

“FUCK!”

His swearing caught the attention of his crew. Robin especially muttered something under her breath that might have been the exact same word. If not in sound, then in intent, as she shouted a warning to the crew.

“This is one of the admirals. He's on the same level as Kuzan!”

Whoever wasn't fighting for their lives probably gave some acknowledgment to that. The pacifistas especially. They seemed to differ to the man as well as any other marine in the force. Their movements slowed, some of their attacks withheld like they were waiting for a command.

From behind his blackened glasses, Kizaru glanced at his surroundings. “Ooooh, so you're the crew that I'm supposed to beat up, eh? Well, I could get to it, I suppose.”

Though Max hated to admit it… they were already so beat up it wasn't funny. Two of the pacifistas were easily pushing Robin, Franky and Chopper back while Brook did everything in his power to dodge the beams from the pacifista after him. Sanji's and Luffy's fight weren't anymore brilliant.

They were, for a lack of a better word, very, deeply, thoroughly screwed.

“Who are you guys again? The Straw Hats? Huuuuh, real troublemakers, aren't you?”

Max thought the man sounded either very drunk or very high. Honestly, neither thought were particularly reassuring when the man could kick a laser beam at someone's face. In fact, he hoped to God that Kizaru wasn't smashed. They'd be even more thoroughly fucked if that was the case.

The power of light, without restraints? Yeah, they could kiss their asses goodbye. Not that they would have the time . Maybe if they asked nicely… No, not even then.

Max stretched his wings, trying to think of what the hell he could do to delay Kizaru's rampage by even a few seconds.

Luffy got in front of the admiral, arms stretched so far back one could not make out the shape of his fist. In the blink of an eye, it shot forward like a bullet, air and steam exploding from the sheer acceleration of his strike.

“Wow,” Kizaru drawled, Luffy's fist trapped inside his own, “you're a bit on the slow side, huh?”

Max didn't see it. He couldn't see it. One moment, Kizaru was standing in front of Luffy, the next, his leg was hanging in the air, whilst Luffy slumped against one of the mangrove trees, more than a hundred meters away.

Just as he noticed his captain, Max was hit by the backlash of wind, then Usopp's body. Their sniper had been lifted off the ground by the blast of air. Had… had Nami been hit too?

“We're going to die here,” he wheezed, barely audible as his pupils shrunk into dots.

We won't. We can't. That isn't how the story goes. Kuma and Rayleigh will be here any second now.

How long was a second to a man made of light?

Without thinking, he pulled his right wing over Usopp, and hid him from view. It probably wouldn't work. But maybe Usopp would feel a little better. They all needed to be at their best to survive as long as possible.

“S'okay, Usopp. No one's gonna die today,” he whispered whilst hoping to Oda it was true. He didn't know what had triggered Rayleigh's return in the first place. Maybe he'd sensed Kizaru's presence with his observation haki.

Kizaru either didn't hear or care. He just pointed

“Which one of you is Zoro? I was told he needed to die first.”

Max chanced a look, and felt his heart sink. Zoro was barely able to stand, wounds seeping blood, beads of sweat rolling off the sides of his head.

“Waiiiit, that's you, isn't it?” He pointed another finger at the downed Zoro. “Man, that was lucky.”

Instead of trying to escape, Zoro collapsed.

Robin's hands popped from the ground and pushed him away. But it was only desperation, and the admiral could and easily did put an end to it with a single foot on Zoro's back.

Projectiles flew through Kizaru's head, unfazed. Even a stray bolt of lightning didn't do more than get the man to twitch.

The circle of light flashing down on Zoro remained unhampered, and Max had no idea what to do. He couldn't hit a logia. He couldn't stop an admiral.

He couldn't do anything. He was too WEAK !

Will you cower –

while your crew fights –

will you watch us die?”

“Hey, Kizaru!” he suddenly shouted. “Want to hear a joke?”

Men and women had been bowing then. On their knees, watching a slave lumber on all four, watching in silence as a woman was almost taken. He could have acted sooner. “All we can do is survive them.” No, not survive. Live, if out of spite.

Every human bleeds red.”

Weak, not powerless.

“Max, what are yo-?”

Max stepped forward, pushing Usopp back with one of his wings. His eyes, he kept firmly on the now curious admiral. He put on a grin, as mocking as he could muster.

“Stop me if you've heard this one before: the World Government trusting Blackbeard .”

The circle of light faded.

Slowly, unnervingly slowly, Kizaru lowered his foot to the ground, inches from Zoro's head. With a deliberate weight to it, he turned his head to look straight at Max. Though his glasses hid some of his expression, just enough light filtered for his gaze to resemble a glare.

“That hasn't been released to the public yet.” The tone was neither friendly or relaxed. “How did you know that?”

“A-animal instinct,” Max stuttered, fighting to push his grin back on.

Gonna die – “know your place” – if I don't – “Gibson, the whip” – If I – cower in fear – I might as well be dead!

The clearing was eerily silent as the Straw Hats stared in astonishment at their traumatized cabin boy.

“Sheesh?” he exhaled, trying not to be sick from fear. “N-not even a chuckle? Man, Borsalino, you struck me as a more laidback kind of person.”

The admiral, one of the three greatest military asset of the World Government, snorted and waved a hand. “Me? Noooo. I'm feeling kinda high strung. Beating up pirates though, now that's fun. Good stress relief. When they're worth the time, of course.”

Max resisted flaring his wings, only locking eyes with the admiral again. The feeling of fear grew hotter, like something burning. His grin turned into something uglier, sneering.

“Shame. Because really, it's hilarious . Blackbeard spent, what? Twenty years, planning to betray the World's Strongest Man. Ready to be placed on his shitlist. The guy clearly wasn't too scared, or sane. I'm curious about what was the reasoning when he was chosen? The guy betrayed his last boss, let's promote him before going into a war with a fucking Emperor?”

“I dunno. Protection from Whitebeard's wrath is my guess,” Kizaru shrugged, completely unfazed. “Have you met the guy? He is scaryyyyy.”

“Eh, sounds reasonable. I'm sure Blackbeard thought so too.” Max could hear someone scrambling around where Zoro had fallen, but he resisted the urge to look. If he so much hinted at it, Kizaru would finish the job before they could do anything. “It's like dominoes. Be a pirate, live under Whitebeard, get awesome opportunities, profit and betray Whitebeard. Become Warlord, get awesome opportunities, profit…”

Betray World Government.

THIS IS MY AGE!”

“Well, you do have a bit of imagination, right?” he added, feverish as his heart threatened to burst in his chest. “You really have to wonder what's his end goal, don't you? Are you the gambling type? Wait, what am I asking? Of course you are. You're going to war with Whitebeard. So, here's my bet: fifty to one that Blackbeard's end goal is the same as every pirate of worth out there.”

Kizaru raised a single finger. “You're a real paranoid little horse, aren't you? I probably should capture you for interrogation, but it's not like they'll know if I don't report it.”

Max couldn't have moved if he tried.

My hooves – bound like ropes – he'll kill me – the pistol aimed right between his eyes, held just a moment before the smirk – Kizaru's easy smile was gone, lips pinched.

Light right into his eyes.

Blinding.

Until he heard a clank of metal and a shadow twice as tall as Kizaru rammed into the admiral with stunning strength. The lightman dispersed like a terrible video game effect, a slight widening of his eyes the only expression Max had time to catch in that split second. And then the shadow became clearer, blurred but so clearly a pacifista.

It flew right past him, the violence of the gale making even a horse as large as Max slid an inch.

It flew till it hit the pacifista looming over Zoro, and both machines kept going.

By the time Max had blinked, a familiar man with silver hair was sprinting toward another enemy.

With one foot, he had kicked the pacifista's wrist aside and, with a flick of his arm, slashed his sword across its torso. He was upon the fourth and final pacifista the next instant, when his sword stopped in midair, held back by a blade of light.

“Oi, oi, you didn't think throwing one of those at me would do much? Did you?” Kizaru's drawl felt a bit more forced, more spat. “Now, that's just insulting.”

“Rayleigh!” Max shouted, as he heard his crewmates do the same.

“PX-One,” called out Sentomaru, “quick, while Uncle's holding the Dark King back!”

The machine's head turned to them, its gaze hidden behind its shining glasses. “Acknowledged.”

“Hmm,” Rayleigh grumbled, his knuckles turning white as he pushed back against the sword of light.

Once more, the Straw Hat crew got to experience first hand the power of will of the Dark King, barely, just touching on the surface. And it was something to send lesser men on their knees.

Rayleigh glared as the last pacifista stood standing, untouched.

“What did that old madman come up with this time?”

With a sound of clashing metal, the two figures disappeared. Wind rushed past Max as if pulled. Then, both men reappeared inches from the PX-One, in the same position as before, though a dark look had come upon the older fighter.

“Ah, no, can't let you do that, Dark King,” Kizaru said, his mouth twitching. “Even if it's just one left, that should be enough to clean up the rookies. Sentomaru…”

“I won't let them get away!” he replied.

With a leap, the marine jumped right down in front of Luffy, and with a kiai, he struck.

Luffy jumped out of the way like a monkey, his stretching arms pulling Robin and Chopper with him as he slingshotted out of range. Rolling, he half-turned, only for Sentomaru's palm to be right there.

The explosive noise of his captain crashing into a tree jolted Max out of his trance.

What was he doing?! Rayleigh was there, they couldn't afford to stay in the range of a battle between the Dark King and an admiral! His crew was already trying to disperse and yet remain together. Usopp was carrying Zoro, followed by Brook. Sanji was trying to distract the pacifista from the others. Where was Chopper, he'd been right next to Luffy, and Franky, in the back, with Nami close by, and the light, dots in his eyes, noise, so much noise, where were they, what was he doing there, he… he…

“EVERYONE!” – Luffy, steam around him, barely dodging a sumo strike. –“RUN!”

His hooves moved on his own. Run. Run.

Cower in fear.

Everyone, run.

“Right now… Right now, we can't win against all those guys! Run! We'll meet up again in three days!”

And they were running. Scampering. Scattering like dust on the wind. Max didn't even know which way he was running, only noting Usopp's group somewhere ahead of him. Knowing what should happen offered no more comfort. Everything had gone to hell. The marines had caught up with them early, and they'd already been on the verge of being exterminated.

He heard Usopp's scream first. He didn't even know what to think when two Kuma lookalikes stared at each other. He just pushed his legs harder, trying to catch up.

The pacifista disappeared with an absurdly cartoonish 'pop'.

Dread and relief warred within Max.

The real one. Kuma the Tyrant.

Shit, I hope he's not different too.

That one little thought wormed its way through Max's calm like Luffy in a meat buffet. He had no proof that the events of the manga would happen again. What if they'd been inaccurate? What if they had censored some of the worst parts to appeal to a wider audience?

Zoro was already on his knees, one sword stuck into the ground to help him stand even that little. His face had grown even paler. Even from afar, Max could see it.

He could see exactly how Kuma's leaned forward with the swing of his arm. He could see even the slight expression of displeasure on the cyborg's face. He could see every little detail like they would be carved into his memory forever.

“ZORO!” someone shouted.

Dust and wind lingered in the silhouette of their friend. Even with the knowledge of what it truly meant, Max couldn't fight off the wave of panic that surged through him. Zoro… Zoro was gone. Just like that, just a single touch from that man's hand, and they could sent miles and miles apart.

Three days, right?

Ice cold horror slid down Max's spine.

Three days without treatment, trapped in a bubble of air with no food or water, nothing to help ease the pain from his injuries.

“Max, move! Don't freeze!”

With a jolt, he looked up, only to see the shadow of the cyborg covering him, one hand already up in the air.

“Get down, shitty horse!” came Sanji's voice, right from behind him.

A red hot leg swung right above Max's head. The heat alone singed the tip of his mane.

“Sanji, don't!”

Pop.

Max started running again. It was happening. Two years. Everything crashing on top of them. His crew falling into panic as none of them could believe their eyes. They weren't losing. They weren't breaking apart.

“I'll protect you with my life, even if I'm alrea-”

Pop.

“Brook!”

Stuttered threats.

“Usopp!”

Roaring.

“Chopper!”

Pop. Pop. Pop. Every friend, every time, like a bubble being burst, the sentiment of invincibility that had carried around a man with the devil's luck lost. Only the terrible reality that none of them had any real power in this world. Not yet. They were all too weak .

Stop it! Leave my crew….” A choked noise. “Leave my crew alone!”

And it struck him right to the heart. Luffy… Luffy shouldn't be saying those words. It came upon him like a sense of wrongness, a nameless fear to break apart the last of his hope. Max knew, and yet it did nothing to ease the sheer terror of hearing Monkey D. Luffy plead with an enemy.

Max galloped right by Franky's and Nami's sides.

He had to do something. Anything. Anything at all!

“Hop on!” he yelled.

Franky glanced back to the fighting and a frown appeared on his face. With a wide swing, he grabbed Nami's arm and flung her at Max. He felt her hands frantically paw at his back and his wings for a grip. Her whispered swearing would have made him blushed in another situation.

Now though? “Just put your arms around my damn neck, Nami!” he said, pushing her up with his wing.

Right as she grabbed unto him, the air around them blurred, and the next second, Kuma was towering over all three of them. On reflexes alone, Max reared and narrowly avoided a head-on collision with the giant cyborg.

The arms around his neck tightened their grip.

“Take off!” Franky ordered as he pulled off the flesh glove over his right hand.

With one mighty beat of his wings, Max rocketed straight up, Nami screaming in his ears all the while. Sorry, but that's fucking Kuma down there. He had to put as much distance as possible between them, try to go at an angle that'd be awkward to shoot at.

Swerving, he twisted into a horizontal position just as they heard the telling noise of a bubble popping.

“FRANKY!” Luffy's scream reached them and clawed at their minds. Panic grew within them, like water rushing down rapids. That scream was so raw.

And then, Max did not have any more time to ponder the disaster striking them one after the other. Pain shot right through his left wing.

“Hold… hold on…” he grunted to a panicking Nami.

They were spiraling, falling, falling, every beat of his one good wing just sending them spinning further; every beat of his bad one, too painful, too weak. Nami's staff was spinning, hot air just swirling beneath them, but it wasn't strong enough. Not to carry them, not to stop the crash. The ground was rushing toward them.

“Brace yourself!”

He didn't close his eyes. For a split second, he was tempted, so very tempted, to pretend, to be childish and refuse to see it coming. Except… he was carrying Nami.

With one last flap of his wing, he righted himself up.

Not enough.

He sank into the moss up to his elbow, momentum carrying him forward. His chin slammed into the ground hard enough to make him see stars. Hard enough he didn't notice when Nami's weight had disappeared. Ahead of him, he saw a blob of orange and yellow, unmoving in front of a much larger and darker shape.

Max struggled to rise. His legs hurt. “I'm… I'm coming, Nami…”

Something pink stretched toward her, coming from the direction opposite of the giant dark figure.

“Help me. Plea-”

Another rustle of wind. And another hole in their crew.

It'll be okay it'll be okay it'll be okay it'll be okay.

NAMI!

They were going to be FINE! Kuma wasn't destroying their crew. Max had to believe that. Nothing had happened to change that event. He was just sending them away. He was just tearing them all apart while their captain watched .

Max's body grew hot with fury. Kuma… Kuma was torturing his captain. Toughen him up, make him wiser. All for the best. Who was he to judge Luffy that way? What gave him the right to torment Max's captain so?!

If he could lessen that pain, even just a bit… it'd be enough. To hell with the consequences. To hell with all that bullshit . That was his crew, his friends!

Max pushed himself to his hooves, blinked the stars away, his left wing hanging limply from his side. “Luffy! We're going to be fine! Don't worry about us! He's not our enemy! He's under your father's orders!”

Luffy and Robin weren't moving. Nami's disappearance might have been the tipping point. Everything past this point was just stabbing an open wound.

“Max…”

“Remember what I told you! Don't fight the poison guy. Save your brother instead!”

His words rippled through Luffy like a shock wave. “Ace?!”

“Impel Down! Level Six! Don't fight Magellan! The okamas are good allies if you show guts! Tell the Queen about the one you met in Loguetown.”

A large shadow covered Max's body entirely. Light reflected off the cyborg's glasses, like two slivers of malice to obscure Kuma's expression. All Max could see was an obscured figure ready to destroy him, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Kuma's voice was as soothingly calm as before, but the question was very different from the usual. “How do you know all this?”

Kuma's words charged the air with a heavy aura. Like Max was seconds away from being killed. It helped to remember that Kuma was a revolutionary. But damn if the man didn't have the intimidation factor down to a T. Max could just barely manage a small grin. “Does it really matter?”

The giant cyborg leaned in, palm at the ready. “No, I suppose not.”

Then everything Max could see was the blur of the wind.

Chapter Text

Since he had become a zoan, Max had flown about thirty times, more than half of that with a passenger on his back. Luffy, Usopp and Chopper had been especially fond of asking for a ride, and frankly, Max had liked doing it too. Those times where his crew's laughter and cheers rang to his ears were the times he felt the most like he belonged. Like he had a purpose in this crazed world.

Being sent flying by Kuma, however…

Max's wings slapped the walls of his wind prison and bounced off like they'd hit blocks of pure steel. One more twitch of panic added itself to the growing knot in his throat. Nothing he had tried seemed to work. And to be honest, he didn't even know if he ought to keep trying at this point.

Sabaody had shrunk into a green dot within seconds, then less than that in the following minute. Even for him, that was ludicrously fast. By Max's estimate, Kuma had sent him flying an hour ago. He had no idea where that left him now. If he broke the sphere, he might simply be stuck flying on his own in the middle of the Grand Line with no sense of direction.

And what would wait for him back in Sabaody? Kizaru? Slavers? His only option, it felt, was to trust that Kuma didn't want him dead for now.

So he kept on flying. Higher than he had ever reached before. Clouds slid past him, disappearing below the limited point of view Max had of his own torment. He'd only grazed the surface of it before. But now he kept going and going until he broke through the layer of white mist. From the White Sea toward the White White Sea itself.

Is he sending me to a Sky Island? Max wondered. There was no earth in sight, no structure, no people. Just one cloud kraken swimming lazily in the distance.

“That thing better not come closer,” he grumbled under his breath.

A second later, he realized just how fast the sea monster would have to swim to catch up. Clouds scrolled past him both up and down now. With some difficulty, Max stretched his neck back to get a glimpse of what was ahead. He didn't need help identifying it at all.

The Red Line.

His first reaction was to gawk and stare. There wasn't much else he could do in the face of a chain of blood red mountains that stretched into clouds. Awe mixed with fear. The peaks wouldn't scratch the air bubble, would they? If Kuma's power was conceptual…

Whites and grays obscured his sight. He'd broken into the White White Sea. His universe could be boiled down to lines of white sliding into the air bubble and out in a fascinating spectacle. White was dancing on the hems of his cage – sanctuary –, giving shape to Kuma's power with great clarity. He could see where the waves became twirls and the vapor broke off, he could see-

Black. Angular.

What was that? Max eyed the rapidly fleeing form in the veil of vapor. No, it wasn't anything. Just a trick of the light. And no, I'm not being a horror movie cliché right now! He was still moving at incredibly high speeds through a cloud. It'd be more worrying if he didn't see anything move.

Besides, what could he do? He was still one little – or not-so-little – pegasus guy trapped inside an air bubble. But just in case , Max kept his wings tucked safely against his sides. No hitting the wind barriers for a while.

You're weak.”

Max curled up on himself a bit more. He just wanted this stupid flying trip to be over already, and it hadn't even been a day, let alone half of one. What was he even supposed to do for three days all alone, flying through the air? Watch the world slip past him?

Actually…

Max stretched his neck just enough to see beneath him. He couldn't see any trace of red through the mass of clouds. It had only been a few minutes at most… Kuma's fruit was just fucking insane.

Well, if he was flying over the Red Lines, where exactly did Kuma mean for him to go?

It could be West Blue or… North? He thought that might be right. Luffy had started out in East, so… wait, no Reverse Mountain made that irrelevant. Darn. He really ought to have spent more time in Robin's library. There were so many cool books… most turning around history, cooking, medicine and engineering. Nami's charts were more accurate than the incomplete atlas he'd seen, so he'd skipped over a simple and crucial fact as to where the Blues stood in comparison to each other. Go figure.

Maybe Kuma was sending him to the New World.

In which case, Max wanted it on record that it would be a horrible idea. Then again, Kuma could want him dead. You never know. I did blow up his cover via shouting.

“…Where's the Revolutionaries' base hidden again?” he pondered out loud, trying and failing to reassure himself. “Right, hidden, but it would be fairly logical for it to be in the New World, which I might be headed toward.”

He shot a few futile looks around. Maybe a sugarplum fairy would be right there and fulfill all his wishes!

… God, the isolation was getting to him way too fucking fast.

“So, Luffy, I'm sorry. If I meet your dad first, I'll be sure to tell him cool stories about you.” If he doesn't decide I'm a threat.

--

As he stirred, Max knew something was wrong. As he blinked away sleep and let his sight come back into focus, his hoof rasped against soft, humid grass. Grass? I didn't land already, did I?

“You're one of us!” shouted the shadowed figure of a man.

He blinked.

A bright pink horse – mare, he somehow knew – was smiling down at him. “You love us! You're one of them, well, us!”

Blood rushed to his cheeks as he desperately looked for an excuse. “Wait, I, it's true I watched it, but that's-!”

“Oooooh,” cooed the candy pink mare, “we're going to be friends! I just know it!”

“One of us,” said dozens of unknown voices.

Blinking, Max twisted around, realizing he was surrounded by horses of various shapes and forms, and colors. Horses should not come in greens and purples, or cotton candy pink! “I'm flattered, really.”

“One of us,” they repeated.

“We're not even from the same universe!” he very reasonably pointed out.

“You're a pegasus!”

Max shot a panicked look down at himself. It was true! He had hooves, and a muzzle and fur and… and wings on his back! And as he struggled to find words to explain that no, really, he wasn't, light flashed upon his coat.

“Look, look!” the pink mare shouted in delight. “Your destiny!

My destiny? he thought, ideas and memories coming back to him in a daze. The talking mare had balloons on her flanks. That meant something, but what? On his flanks, a pair of chains had been tattooed.

“Oh my,” said a soft, gentle voice.

“Well,” a rasp voice said, nonchalant, “it doesn't lie. Bring the chains, girls! We gotta help him fulfill his destiny!”

And as one, the horses surrounding him charge. They toppled him over, their chant now a sinister cackling that did not even cover up the noise of chains rankling. Max couldn't move anymore. His body felt like it was submerged in molasses with only his muzzle above the surface. Your destiny.

“LUFFY, HELP ME!”

His eyes shot open to a sea of stars.

Oh. Just a nightmare. “… The fuck, subconscious-me? Trying to tell me something?”

Settling down, he wiped sweat off his forehead with a swipe of his wing. It didn't matter. Dreams didn't matter. Well, acid-trip dreams, not lifegoal dreams. Urgh. He was just a little shaken. That was all. Nothing more. He'd forget that dream in a minute or two anyway.

Your destiny!

For the reminder of that night, Max endured the chill in human form.

--

One thing he had never thought he would have to endure as a pirate was boredom this singularly mind-boggling. Sure, there were slow moments on the sea from time to time, but those were tampered by having actual crewmates or the fear of dying to keep it at bay.

Being stuck in an air bubble for hours on end with nothing to do but looking around was a hell of its own.

“Oh come on, Zeus, don't take it out on your little brother,” he said in the general direction of a massive thunderstorm raining lightning bolts strong enough to cleave sea currents in boiling halves.

Yes, he was reduced to naming weather phenomenon around the New World skies to keep himself from going insane with boredom. There were only so many theories and stories he could make up in his mind before he just had to hear someone's voice.

At the very least, the New World wasn't lacking in crazy spectacle. Just an hour after sunrise, he'd realized that the sun had actually been a giant bird with a disturbingly red body. He had realized that little tidbit of information when a mass of tentacles had sprung from the depths of some pitch black waters to snatch the sun out of the sky and drag it under the surface, without any loss of sunlight.

Then, there had been the iceberg belt around some floating island, the school of whales singing rock and heavy metal, the literal rainbow, and, his personal favorite, ice cream snowstorm.

That had hit the spot, even if he'd ended up covered in ice cream and nursing a brain freeze. He hadn't cared, because he'd eaten for the first time in a day and a half. So far, he'd only gotten some pitiful amount of water from the mist and clouds his bubble was tearing through. Not enough to do more than dampen the insides of his mouth for a couple of hours.

Really, this whole method of traveling lacked most importantly in basic vital facilities. If he had had any dignity left, it would have been dragged into the dirt. Some bodily functions didn't care about you being alone, in a private place, or flying through the sky in a transparent bubble.

Max had addressed a few prayers begging the twisted gods of this world to make it fall on a Celestial Dragon's head. It was only fair.

Time – minutes, hours, who cared? – passed slowly on Max's progressively darker fantasies of just what he would do, if left alone with one of those bastards. He fell asleep on them.

The second night was a dreamless moment of respite for which Max was grateful.

The third night's dream, in contrast, was the cruelest.

He dreamed of the Sunny. He dreamed of being on the deck, rubbing at some mammoth-sized ketchup stain while a somehow naked Franky and Brook tried to pull an elephant-headed seaking on deck to deck it in the face.

“Max!” he heard Luffy's voice coming from the crow's nest. “Come on! We wanna fly!”

“But, we're already flying, captain,” he told Luffy, then blinked.

He was standing in the air, wings folded. He wasn't in horse form, nor in hybrid. He just had wings, and he was flying above the Sunny's deck. Moving through the air, going over the railing, away from Luffy's calls for a ride on his back. Away from the Sunny.

Max's eyes shot open, and he stared wordlessly at the clear dark blue above him.

He was alone.

They'll be fine.

He was alone, stuck in his own little bubble above the oceans.

His crew would meet all the right people. They'd get strong. They would return from this trial stronger than ever before and ready to face the New World. It was fine. It was fine .

Tears filled his eyes and dried before they could fall. Too high. Too cold. Too much wind. He wanted… he wanted his crew back! He wanted his friends, Luffy's loud laughter or Sanji's cuisine or Franky's teasing or Brook's singing. Chopper's and Usopp's overreactions, Zoro's rough manners, Robin's knowing smiles. Nami's exasperated sigh!

He'd take any of it! Anything at all rather than being ALONE!

“I'll kill you, Kuma,” he swore there and then. “I'll slip in your room while you sleep, and I'll strap a bomb inside your mouth. I'll pour acid in your ears. I'll strap you to a table and lit a fire underneath.”

He knew he should have felt gratitude toward the warlord.

And yet, he still choked out a weak “I'll… I'll kill you… for taking my crew away from me…”

Soon however, his strength failed and he slipped back into unconsciousness.

--

The next time he opened his eyes was when his whole world became the center of a deafening explosion. For a split second, the very concept of rational thoughts fled from his mind. It was just a booming noise almost splitting his head in half and his heartbeat shooting through the roof and panicked glances around whilst his body experienced a brief moment of weightlessness.

Then hit the ground with a dull thud.

Wha- this- where – I'm, I, What?

Dirt. Ground. He was in the ground, in a crevice, or a-

No, he'd been in the bubble. Kuma's bubble. And he wasn't moving. The cloud overhead weren't moving. He wasn't moving he'd arrived he was…

“It's over,” Max said, closing his eyes in relief.

It's over. I'm here. This fucking trip is done. I can move again!

And he tried so, immediately, to the protest of his aching muscles. What did he care? He hadn't stretched properly in three days! He could damn well take standing up like a child. Slow and steady, pulling on his front legs first, then hind legs, then up .

“Oh God… that feels so good.”

He was aching all over, but just being able to move was like scratching an itch he had had for weeks. Just turning his head made some cringeworthy creaking noises.

So, this was…

Frankly, Max didn't have a fucking clue of where he was supposed to be. All he could tell was that it was a sunny, slightly breezy day, somewhere in the middle of a forest. And he had a pounding headache.

Dehydration. Awesome. His tongue felt like a paddle of wood, and breathing left his throat feeling like sandpaper. Because seriously, fuck Kuma sideways just a little bit.

“Couldn't send me to a luxury hotel with all expenses paid, huh? Maybe a place with lots of lakes? I swear, if I have to wait for rain till my next taste of water, someone is getting a buck to the face.”

All joking aside… he really needed to find some water. And stop talking. That actually hurt.

Tentatively, he unfolded his left wing. With slow motions, he extended it fully, then pulled back, like he'd have done if he'd had sore muscles in his arms. He hadn't really had had a chance to test the damage Kuma had done before, but it had been three days now.

Though his limbs were sore, he didn't feel much pain. He probably couldn't fly full speed, but he didn't seem in immediate danger right now.

Alright.

First thing first, taking to the air to find out where he was, and, if lucky, locate a source of drinking water.

Spreading his wings sent spasms running alongside his back. His whole body tense and as stiff as a steel rod, he tried to swallow and breathed deeply. No, maybe not flying. He was weaker than he had expected. He could put some faith in a zoan's constitution, but three days was a long time without food and little water.

Fortunately, after perhaps ten minutes of a quiet and slow trot, Max heard the telltale sound of water splashing about.

He sped up, his fatigue a thing of the past as he searched for the source of the noise. And soon, he found it.

A spring at the feet of a small rocky cliff, its waters a mirror of the clear sky above.

It was the most beautiful thing he'd seen since he left Sabaody, sunset over a glacier and a bunch of crystal turtles be damned. You couldn't clench your thirst with sunset! And though he almost sprinted the rest of the way, Max held himself in check, barely.

No one could spend any amount of time on the Grand Line and not learn to be wary of still waters. This might be a small pond in a forest, but that meant little. Everything living wanted water, predators included.

Making full use of his stronger ears and nose, Max tried to detect signs of other animals or humans around the spring. But everything considered, he couldn't find anything out of the ordinary. Just the same smells and noises he’d been hearing since his arrival. A bit more damp, maybe.

Still on high alert, he stopped right on the spring's shore and gave his surroundings another look. It was paranoid, sure, but paranoia had served him well on the Seafarer. He'd read somewhere that animals were at their most vigilant when they were eating or drinking. Smart things. He scrutinized the waters, only seeing into its depths up to midpoint. Past it, the waters were muddied and darker.

Heart inside his throat, a little voice at the back of his mind begging him to just drink already, Max lowered his head and pushed his lips through the surface.

He could have cried, such was the relief that washed through his mouth and throat at the taste of fresh, cool water. He sucked in more liquid greedily despite remembering the risks while dehydrated. It was too hard to care. He just wanted to forget for a moment about being reasonable and cautious and this broken little man. It would only be a few seconds, a minute.

If I space out, I will die.

Animals were at their most vigilante when eating or drinking. In his mind flashed the dozens upon dozens of scenes he'd seen on TV, of wildebeest snatched into the waters by crocodiles, of leaping orcas and sharks, of rippling water getting closer and closer to unsuspecting thirsty animals, of -

He had heard splashing water .

Max pulled his head back up like the water burned.

And the surface of the spring exploded outward, a reptilian maw stretching wide, two shining white fangs aimed at his head.

Max reared with a shrill whinny. The world shrank into focus. For the moment between one heartbeat and the next. It was him, front legs striking nothing, numbness spreading through his body, thoughts cascading onto one another. It was this predator, wide as a tree trunk, scales shining blue under the glint of water dripping off its side. Fangs. Green liquid pearling at their tips.

An impulse through his body.

Two wings with a length greater than the largest birds’ on Earth.

An impulse through the air.

And a force like a bullet train sending the snake flying .

The snake's head hit one of the rocks at resounding speeds, and its whole sinuous body went slack in the water. Despite his panic and revulsion, Max sped up toward the limp body. Into his mind flooded images of the snake jolting back to consciousness, of the maw opening toward his face again.

His hooves came down upon the snake's unmoving skull with a crack.

Not that he heard it. Max stomped again, moving into a full trample of the reptile's body, his thoughts growing erratic amongst which were ' so I wasn't imagining it ' and 'I hate this fucking world!' and, most prominently ' diediediediedieDIEDIEDIEDIE! '

It was dead.

Its brain and vertebrae were splattered across his hooves and fetlocks. You didn't get much deader than that. Sure, sure, the doctor from Thriller Bark could bring it back as a zombie, but then, Beaudrille's body might be brought back too, following this train of logic.

With a shiver of disgust and anger, Max stepped away from the corpse and scanned his surroundings. Vaguely, he thought some birds might have fled when the snake broke out of the pond. Silence had befallen the clearing. Only the sound of his own horse-like panting could be heard.

Max lowered his head to continue drinking, forcing himself to slow down. The water felt even cooler than before, like a balm sliding down his throat, washing off the sour taste on his tongue. And yet, before he knew it, his stomach felt bloated and he pulled away from the water. Away from the dead snake.

His eyes fell on the green around him. And though he'd drank his fill, he knew he'd better eat before doing anything else. A large predator like the snake would not have tolerated anything else on its territory. He ought to be safe, for a moment at least. He could eat. Grass.

Think of it as a salad.

It tasted like salad. Should make things easier on his imagination. Still, Max felt a strange sort of shame, having his head bowed as such when eating. Grass. He was eating grass like any other horse.

You've done far more degrading before. Remember the dancing? You, in a circle with two others, jumping wildly with the grace of drunken monkeys.

And harsher, still in his voice, no fucking daydreaming!

Something brushed against leaves.

His head snapped up. That hadn't been the wind. He knew it hadn't been the wind.

Instincts kicked into high gears. Without even thinking, Max stretched his wings and took off at full speed.

A quick glance over his shoulder gave him a glimpse of a shadowed figure running out of the bushes below. It held something – a branch, a rifle – and Max dove back toward the treetops.

It probably missed by a mile.

But he heard the gunshot like it had been inside his own head.

Someone was chasing him.

--

They weren't giving up.

From what Max could remember, predators that chased preys for a long time were rare. In fact, endurance hunting had been humanity's specialty before they civilization, and kept at it long after it had started. Granted, the world of One Piece could easily house some sort of freak of nature that would chase him for hours despite him taking off and landing on top of cliffs or hiding in the foliage or just plain going as far and as fast as he physically could. Regardless, the few glimpses he got didn't seem bestial at all, unless some humanoid monkey with a rifle lived on this island.

He wouldn't put it past this crazy world…

Inevitably, after some time had passed, Max would notice something getting closer. Sometimes no more than a faint brushing of leaves that could very well be the wind. Hints of an unknown scent in the air.

He wasn't going to risk it.

But after spending the entire day in-between fleeing and hiding, Max was just ready to tear someone's jugular open with his teeth.

Poachers or Revolutionaries? he thought, casting a look to the forest below. Past the small clearing he'd stop by, the terrain curved into a slope, the bottom of which was covered in trees looking no bigger than toothpick. A small trickling of water further into the woods fed a small river downhill. He'd drank what he could, ate until his stomach stopped growling and tried to rest as much as he could, but the sun was setting fast. Streaks of dark red and green were lightening the sky in some bizarre, otherworldly effect.

This had to be the New World. His guts told him it had to be the New World.

“Soooo,” he drawled, quietly, just to break the silence around him, “I'm dead tired, but I don't know where they are. Flying at night is a bad idea. Not like Franky will shine a spotlight this time. This… this place is good enough for a bit of rest, right?”

A bit cramped, perhaps, but far from his landing point and the pond with the snake. He could change back, Max thought for the upteenth time. And just as he had before, he hesitated. Somewhere out there, there was a stranger tracking him. Strangers, maybe. He hadn't gotten a good enough look.

As a pegasus, Max was tall and strong. He felt powerful, even if he knew he wasn't anything special on the Grand Line.

Being human didn't compare. It was as a human that he'd been enslaved. Pegasus form meant… flying – the wind whipping his face – the world stretching beneath him – panicked screams and arms at his neck – “ Do you know the tale of the scorpion and the frog?

He had begun to move away from that, a little, since he'd gotten on the Sunny. At least, he liked to think so. But here? Alone in a crevice, cold brushing against his fur, shadows making his heart stutter? He couldn't bring himself to change back anymore.

It'd be much easier to escape as a pegasus if they caught up with him, was what he told himself. No use losing precious seconds sprouting wings when he could simply keep them and always be ready to flee instead. No other reason. No trembling in his limbs as he went to sleep wondering what the next years would bring.

--

The next week alone proved to be a great challenge in itself. It passed in a mixture of low hanging flights and brief moments of respite to eat or drink or sleep. And moments that made him curse like the sailor he'd become.

For example: the second and third night were interrupted by packs of rabid wild wolves.

Max had never been more grateful that he could fly. Every single one of his childhood's nightmares foiled by the ability to go 'fucking NOPE' and taking off at speeds that would make a peregrine falcon green with jealousy. That he'd felt their breathes on his legs right as he sped through the foliage was a deciding factor. He hadn't even had the time to think of sending gusts of winds after the bastards.

The fourth night, he only dreamed about the wolves, so that technically counted as a win. The fact that he had been sleeping on a mountainside probably had something to do with it. Still, he'd woken up twice with his head just on the edge of a cliff, and he'd found himself muttering darkly.

“I'll enlist Chopper to make sure you survive as long as physically possible. I'm not going to let you die early on, Kuma.” His voice had been distorted by thirst and lack of sleep. “I'm sure Robin will have plenty of suggestions. She's always having morbid thoughts like that. And Franky could probably build a good custom iron maiden.”

Not to say all the fun happened at night. Oh no. He'd run from the pond snake's cousins-twice-removed and its cranky grandma, from predatory moles with punk hairdos, from some squealing boars easily as tall as he was and from some silver swan with the temperament of a honey badger.

So, when on the fifth day, Max heard gunfire, he'd almost found it reassuring.

Two shots, and some howling roar of pain.

Still after me then…

He was all but certain they were Revolutionaries. Nothing else seemed to fit. Kuma would have had the time to send a message back to Dragon, probably. Though, the breakout hadn't happened yet, so maybe they were short-staffed.

When was Luffy meant to go to Impel Down again? … Would he even follow Max's advice? He'd promised, but he might just forget until it was too late. Maybe it wouldn't be an option. Magellan was, after all, a terrifying foe, and not the kind to let a pirate escape him.

Don't fight him, he remembered saying. And all of a sudden, it wasn't enough! Really? That was all he had done to help Luffy? Tell him not to fight the Impel Down's warden?!

“I… I had weeks!”

The best weeks of your life, and you wanted to risk that ?

“Look where it got me?!” he shouted, hoarse, uncaring of whom might hear. “Lost on some island that could be in the New World, in a forest with some vicious animals and the One Piece equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition on my ass! For what difference? For what?! Is Ace going to live?! Is Luffy… is he…?”

His hooves came down with a dull thud against the ground. All the impact his anger had, just that, a thud in the grass. Twice. Thrice. Still none of the explosions he felt should have happened. Only a horse stomping the ground like it would change something. A swing of his wing – and a very distinct bellow of wind surging through the foliage. Nickering. Bucking against bark. Nothing. Nothing he did mattered!

When at last, he had no more anger to push through, Max settled down against the log.

It was foolish to stay right there, but at this point, he had stopped caring. If the Revolutionaries found him, then good for them. In the meantime, he was going to lie down and contemplate the mess his life had once more become. Listening to every noise, every cry through the night. Letting his ears swivel on top of his head toward the branches cracking or the crickets singing. He was just so tired of it all…

Sleep was slow to come, but it still came for him in the end.

--

“Urgh, Brook, it's too early for-”

Max jolted up to his hooves, fully alert, head snapping left and right to make sense of what he was hearing.

Music. And not even the normal, bad singing and playing pirate music. Actual, snazzy jazz singing.

In the middle of a forest.

Yeah… that was not normal at all. Blinking, he rubbed his eyes – well, tried , hooves obliged – and slowly stood up. As he did however, his right hoof slipped on a slab of mud, and his fetlocks sank into a puddle of water.

Max jolted, pulling his wet hoof back to his chest.

He stared.

He'd… fallen asleep next to a spring? How had he not noticed that before? He was practically sleeping on its shore. But it was there, undeniably. Clear water bubbling from a source right in the middle of the clearing. The sun's ray reflected right through it and lit up half the trees, and Max's face.

Growling, he hid his face behind one wing. Just one more instance proving a long standing theory that the sun was, in fact, evil.

Sighing, he lowered his head and drank his fill. His mood lifted up considerably at that. The water was clear and fresh , somehow cooler than room temperature on an island where everything felt like it was just on the verge of 'too hot'. Cherry on top? No giant snake trying to eat him hiding in the water. He'd count his blessings for once.

Well, to a point. He still kept both ears open whilst he grazed to start the day, but the gloom and doom that had seemed to follow him for the past few days was fading. The Jazz music made it hard to stay completely depressed.

Max trotted up to the edge of the slope, his eyes scanning the forest below. There, on his right, a mile away at most, wisps of smoke rose from the treeline. If he had to hazard a guess, he'd say that was the only plausible choice. Now, it would probably be a bit stupid to check out the music… More than 'probably'. It would definitely be really stupid. If it's not a trap, it's someone stupid enough to announce their presence in a forest full of dangerous critters.

“Well,” he said out loud to no one in particular, “I could keep trying to fly away with no clue as to who is chasing me in the hopes that they either give up or I find a way to permanently escape them. That's an option too.”

Oh yeah, another week or so of this rhythm. If he didn't get captured first, he'd snap.

Put that way… Max began the slow descent down the slope.

--

He encountered a bear. A great hulking black beast half covered in moss. A good gust of wind sent it scurrying away.

Max wasn't sure how he had done it. Just that, for a moment, he hadn't been afraid. His every thoughts had been so focused ahead, on wild theories on the jazz player's identity, that he hadn't seen it coming. The roar had come out of nowhere, and his reaction had been pure instinct. Rearing. Kicking. Flapping.

And wind had come rushing through the trees with such strength the bear's roar had turned into a whimper and it had fled.

Like the snake. Like some of the wolves.

Definitely one of the pegasus' powers. I'll need to get better at controlling it.

He could do something with Nami. Probably. Dealing with air currents was one of her specialties after all. He was sure she would have plenty of suggestions on how to use this kind of power in a fight.

Another glance upward confirmed that the small column of smoke was closer than ever. If he willed it, would the line of smoke twist? Would it coil like a snake or turn into letters? How exactly did his powers work? If he could control the air around him, did that extend to sound? To smells? He could faintly detect charcoal and smoke in the air, and something else that made him uncomfortable.

Max slowed down. His wonder could wait. Far more cautious, he broke through a pair of bushes and stepped onto a path. Dirt, solid, but not commonly used it looked. The rain had done a number on it. He turned his head left in the direction of the smoke and froze.

His hoof dug in the ground while his eyes darted to his surroundings. Suddenly, it wasn't a cautious but relaxed trot toward an unknown jazz music player.

The smoke had been only the remnants of a dying campfire.

It likely had been a decent size before, but now only the embers and ashes remained. An iron pot had been left on top, half tilted over with its content long gone. Max couldn't quite tell what the smell lingering was meant to be. Another overpowered it.

He took a hesitant step around the campfire, careful not to step on a foot whilst he got a better look.

Some sort of morbid fascination kept him from looking away. One couldn't tell from the brown-bearded man's surprised look that he'd been bisected. Right around his midsection. A little above the waist, Max would say.

Same as his two companions.

Sliced through, without any resistance. Like they'd been blocks of heated butter.

Realistically, he should be freaking out right this instant. He was standing in front of three corpses, or six body parts, depending on how you wanted to put it.

Honestly though, he'd just gone numb. Back to his little head space he retreated to whenever he thought of the Seafarer.

Yes, yes, that was blood and a little something else under his hooves, those were dead bodies. But really, how could they harm him? Sure, he could be worried about who did that, but they clearly weren't anywhere nearby. He thought. Just to be sure, Max glanced around, his ears twisting on top of his head. No, not even the faintest noise. So, yeah, their killers likely left this clearing some time ago.

Or…

Max frowned, his gaze on the hoofprints left in the dust. Then on the blank road around the campsite.

They'd never been near the three victims. That chilled Max's bones well enough. It changed quite a few things. His wings started twitching now, his body knowing exactly what he longed to do.

Not yet. I have to know.

Now in human form, he knelt next to the brown-bearded guy's top half and slipped his hand into the pockets of the guy's vest.

Most possession, he left where they were. This forest seemingly hosted some Revolutionaries. Being seen with what belonged to their dead comrades might as well be declaring himself an enemy. Besides, he didn't need new clothes, and he'd never replace Nami's gift. The pistols were tempting, but he couldn't use them as a horse, and he'd rather be able to fly than shoot bullets. Money, he took. No use not doing it, and he was honestly surprised any of them still had some.

Rummaging further, he pulled out some rolls of papers. Now, things were getting interesting. The first one only held a series of numbers. Probably coordinates. Or a snailphone number? Discarding it, he went through the second and third without finding anything of particular interest. Not that he had expected a birth certificate or anything in this universe, but…

The second corpse didn't yield better results. The third however carried a shredded slip of paper that he had almost missed. On it were scribbled a few words that confirmed his thoughts.

“Capture target and interrogate. If innocent, bring back to headquarters. If not, eliminate.”

Yeah, Revolutionaries are totally the good guys here, he thought snidely. Yeah, yeah, revolutions, total bastards in power. And like everyone knew, no revolution on Earth had ever gone badly. No rebel leader sat on a throne and found it a comfortable seat. Okay, a son of freaking Garp probably wouldn't.

Moot point regardless, seeing as the agents after him had been brutally murdered.

So, he wasn't going to be tortured or trained – or both, knowing this crazy ass world. Good to know. Wait, no. Correction: he wasn't going to be trained. But if whoever had killed those men was still around, his own well-being might only be temporary.

He almost went into cardiac arrest when he realized the thumping noise he heard wasn't his own throbbing heartbeat.

Hovering two feet above the ground, twisting on himself to look in every possible direction, Max kept going until he began to feel dizzy. Then, as he landed, he noticed a bump in one of the deceases' pockets. Leaning closer, he realized it wasn't quite thumping so much as someone imitating thumping with their mouths.

“Okay, the hell…” He breathed in deeply. “Here goes nothing.”

Without hesitating, he pushed the bump out of the pocket. The thing bounced off twice before rolling into the dirt with an all too human shriek.

A transponder snail.

A freaking out transponder snail, to be more precise. Its big round eyes twitching and its pupils following Max's feet like they were going to stomp it.

“Shhh, shhh, s'okay. Not gonna kill you, lil' guy, or gal? Or both, right, snail.” Swallowing, he shook his head. Wasn't the time to ramble. “Don't be scared. I never could stomach the idea of eating escargot, go figures, huh? Bet you can't tell me what happened here, huh? Or where they went? Nah, that'd be convenient.”

No answer. Or acknowledgment. Just the same bubbling, incoherent muttering.

Whilst it kept up its babbling, Max dug through the bag and pulled out a small pouch with a snail symbol on top. Pulling at the strings, he peered inside and… yep. Snail food. He poured some for the poor thing shaking in its shell.

“There you go.”

Without waiting, the transponder snail inched closer to the pile of food, then opened its mouth wide. It bit down on the pile of food with surprising voracity, more than half the food disappearing in the blink of an eye. As it happened, Max blinked twice.

Burping, the snail looked up at him, something strange in its eyes. Well, Max wasn't an expert in snail facial expression, less so the freaky One Piece ones, but those weren't eyes begging for food. The stems of its eyes swooned a little, then went ramrod straight. The snail broke into a wide, sincere smile, eyelids narrowing together. Then, with a voice raspier and softer than Max expected from a snail, it sang.

~ I see skies of blues and clouds of white – the bright blessed day… ~

Max flinched. He knew those lyrics. No, not even that, just the feeling of the melody suddenly echoing from the snail's shell. Why would it…?

“The music from earlier?” he asked, and the snail stopped short.

Okay, part of the mystery solved. Music had been played by the killers. Why though? Had they decided to party after a raid well-done? They hadn't looted anything though. Lack of time maybe?

Pressure tugged at his jeans, and Max blinked out of his thoughts. The snail was lightly biting him, trying to get his attention. Oh, yeah, no one else was around.

I wouldn't know what to do with it though. How do you even use those? Not like there's a button on the shell…

Carefully, Max unhooked the snail from the apparatus. Some of it. The handset was actually part of the shell, as were half the wires.

The little thing blinked at him, completely unresponsive. Sighing, he shifted back into pegasus form, glancing around to their surroundings.

“Go on.” He lightly nudged it with his hoof. “You're free to do whatever it is snails do. Like eating plants and hiding in your shell.”

With all the swiftness of an actual snail, it made its way to a patch of grass, leaving behind a trail of slime.

Oh yeah, that would have been a pain to deal with too.

“I guess that's my good deed on the day.” Then, with a frown, “Really hope it doesn't get eaten.”

Max paused, looking around. Surely, any second now, some beast with a sense of irony would jump out of nowhere and swallow the snail in one bite. Any second now…

The snail shot Max a curious look as it peacefully chewed on some fallen leaves.

“What? Like you wouldn't have thought that,” he scoffed. Really? The one time he was prepared for some stupidly cruel joke to fall on his head, the universe gave him a break? No, he wasn't buying it, no sir! It proba-

A high pitched squeal rang through forest, followed by hundreds more .

“There you go!” Max shouted, equal part triumphant and scared. Ah, the New World, such a nice predictable place.

With a few wingbeats, he lifted himself over the treetops and listened.

There were voices. Human voices, shouting.

At the end of the path, past a twist in the road and running for their lives, a group of people on the verge of a cliff.

“Jump!” called out the one at the front.

The entire group started jumping, some into diving positions, others while shouting prayers. One notable guy yelled “So long, suckers!”

Instead of falling, they stopped. The image that came to mind was someone not noticing a glass door in time and running straight into that. Except it had been flat on the ground and a good five guys were stopped using their faces. Ouch.

Max stifled a chuckle. They were already standing up, fear for their lives was a good motivator after all.

“How are those people running in the air?” he wondered.

He was willing to chalk it up to devil fruit bullshit, but at the same time… that was like fifteen guys sprinting for their lives and shouting indistinct words. The tone alone was more confused and afraid than confident.

Then, a horde of the island's vicious animals followed, in the air. And no, he did not mean vicious birds or vicious giant bats. No, no, what Max could see and hear was a whole sounder of boars running through the air beyond the side of a cliff. Which confirmed that it was either a moron wielding a devil fruit, or an entirely different kind of bullshit. His money (what little he had pilfered) was on the second option. This looked entirely too much like the typical atypical One Piece weather phenomenon.

For a moment, Max was uncertain. The bodies on the ground would likely be devoured sooner than later, and indeed the smell of blood around him was beginning to make him sweat. The people running away from the boars might just be the ones that had eliminated the Revolutionaries too.

Well, if my pursuers are dead, what am I to do? Live on this island for two years? Why should I stay here?

With a growl of disgust, Max shot one last look at the corpses in case he had missed something, then, satisfied, he made his way over to the end of the path. It looked rather absurd. A path of dirt that cut through a forest, only to end on the edge of a cliff. And a tall one at that. Swirling waves crashed onto rocks far down below, he assumed. It looked like blurry white on black breaking down against dark brown.

If I get the chance, I have to get myself some new glasses. He'd managed so far, but hoping for more lucky breaks was a fool's gambit. Right now though… he stepped forward, testing for a foothold. Tense like he expected to tumble over, he lowered his hoof until he could no longer do it.

It looked like he was just holding it in the air. “This is weird,” he said to no one. “Feels like a cheap special effect.”

What kind of air current was that? Solid air? But if he pushed a little, then his hoof sank into it, like a cushion. It tickled at the sole of his hooves, it moved.

He glanced at his surroundings again. Nothing. Only him, alone while he stood beyond the edge of a cliff.

Max tested it again, feeling the tingle go up to the tip of his wings, and grinned.

Chapter Text

Max had to revise his previous estimation. He had not been sent to an island. He had been sent to an archipelago. The wind path didn't circle back to the same island. It meshed together with a dozen other in some sort of invisible maze above the sea. And to each end, an island much like the one he had crashed into.

Not for the first time, Max thanked his lucky stars that his devil fruit had come equipped with wings.

On the path to his right, a group of three boars squealed angrily in Max's general direction. They however were smart enough not to launched themselves in the air, and subsequently, into the raging sea below.

Wait, no , Max thought, brows furrowing together. A man in rags was running barely above the waves themselves. Water splashed on his path, like they'd crashed into a perfectly clean glass window.

Wind.

Max unfolded his wings, testing the feeling of the air on each feather as he walked. The longer he listened, the more he heard. A faint but distinct song. A twitch of his wings added pitch, or lowered it, lengthened the note past what the living could do.

There was a song to the wind. And this place's song was so solid dozens of boars could run on top of it.

His next step lifted him up off the path. Then, back on solid 'ground'. He didn't really notice that he had changed path. He wasn't really looking ahead of him.

What can you do? he asked his wings.

What was his power? The Pegasus in Greek mythology hadn't really had any power on its own. Not like this. It was a steed for heroes or gods. Unfortunately, his own memory of the myths were tainted by such interference as, ahem, TV shows and Disney movies. One thing he did remember was that Pegasus had carried Zeus' lightning at some point.

… He hoped. Honestly, he could be mistaken. And I'm about to test that theory probably never, he mentally noted as he noticed some thick, black clouds in the distance. Getting struck by lightning most likely would be the height of stupidity.

“I'd share something with Luffy though,” Max said to himself, grinning. “And Brook. Brook did that crazy lightning armored slingshot stuff. And then there's Nami, using her climat tact to deflect electricity.”

His crew had enough people to deal with lightning without needing him to endanger his life as a theory. No, he already had something to develop a bit more fully. What can I do with the very air at my beck and call?

He had a few ideas. It all depended on how precise was his control, how much power he could put into it. So far, he hadn't been able to use it without flapping his wings. It might be the trigger. Not a mental dominion, but a physical one? It might make some tricks impossible, especially making people choke to death from a distance.

And yet… “Definitely worth looking into,” he said with a glance at the tip of his wings. Less lethal to test too.

For the time being though, he probably ought to shadow the man below. He was running like a man possessed, so it wasn't a big surprise he hadn't noticed Max yet. With any luck, he'd lead him back to civilization. Or another pirate ship.

If it was a morganeer crew though, Max was going to scream. And if he could, sink their boat.

**

The man did lead him to civilization in the form of a bunch of human constructions on top of a cliff.

Calling it a town would have been inaccurate. A place with that walls that high, with stakes all over, with cannons on the towers, with trenches wider than even his pegasus forms leading up to it? No, no, the proper word for that was a fortress. Perhaps an orc burrow would be an acceptable substitute.

The man, whoever he'd been, had disappeared within a thin opening of the gates some half an hour ago. Max, sitting by the cover of the tall grass, was… contemplating.

“On the one hand, this really screams like the lair of a supervillain. And if we go by One Piece rule, that supervillain would be an insanely dangerous person, probably implicated in something like sex slave trading or the building of a superweapon in the shape of a tiger.

Thus, as a sane person, he should try to learn a bit more about this place before blindly walking into a deathtrap. Surely, staring from a distance without his glasses would help him distinguish key features besides the whole fortress overlooking a wickedly high cliff side?

“There could be a bed somewhere in there,” he said, and even as he said it, Max fought back a violent wave of self-loathing. Why had he allowed himself to think of a bed?

Of the soft pillow they'd placed beneath his head, of the gentle humming over the violin's strings, of the faint snoring from the men's hammocks.

“Wow, not for life or glory,” he said with a laugh, “but I would sell myself for a nice bed.

He could pretend, but with literally no one around to fool, he'd rather cut the crap. With a simple exhale, Max shifted back into his human form and stretched. Resting had been necessary, but damn if it didn't make his muscles sore.

“Luckily,” he hummed, playing with a few coins inside his pockets, “I won't need to do that.” I hope.

Then, with a harsher echo, he growled I won't!

Taking a deep breath, Max broke through the cover of the trees and stepped forth on the dirt path leading to the fortress. It only took a second to feel like he was being watched. The urge to shift back into his stronger form rose, but he refused to touch the wisps of powers inside of him. There was no need to tip off his hand early. And if those were marines, appearing in the form he'd shown to Kizaru and the pacifistas would be a death sentence.

The path was just a few meters away, only noticeable by the hole it made in the endless grass all around him. Last chance to turn back. The moment he stepped on the path, people would know. A fortress like that would have dozens of sentries. Just one step. Just one, leaving the safety of his hiding spot, exposing himself.

Max broke through the waves of grass and shivered. He made a point to look at the towers on the wall directly. He wouldn't come as a thief in the dark. He lacked the skillset to pull it off. So, despite his slowly rising nausea, he made his way on the path, walking without pause, walking even when the walls of grass vanished in an open field that was clearly maintained through manpower. He walked till the sun disappeared behind the fortress, and he was walking into the shadows again. But this time, the shadows had eyes.

Max stopped a good distance from the doors. They stretched to a height he would think simply impractical if he were back on Earth. Clearly though, this place had been built to withstand a siege. If the fauna was anything like on the other island, then he could see the point here.

“Halt!” shouted some voice, even though Max was already immobile.

Some man in a leather armor was leaning half his body through a window three stories high.

“State your business!”

“I'm a sailor,” Max said, which seemed the safest bet. “My boat broke on the cliff side on the other side of the forest. I'm the only survivor. I was hoping to spend the night in some civilized place! Experience taught me to never trust the wilderness of the New World!”

The man disappeared back inside the walls. To talk with a superior, he hoped. A few seconds stretched into a minute, then two, and Max fought the urge to shift into his horse form. In the shadows, the wind had a much crueler bite.

“Do you have money?” called back the same man. “We're no charity!”

“I have a little bit of money, yeah! Most of my stuff was lost in the wreckage though. I probably won't stay long, sir. I've got… about twenty thousands bellies on me.”

Actually, more, but he wasn't going to mention that right away. Nami's ranting had taught him a few things. Tipping your hand early was a terribly stupid thing to do when dealing with strangers. Moreso with possibly hostile strangers.

The man on the wall disappeared a second time, and a few seconds later, Max jumped at a noise like tons of metal scrapping against tons of rock. And the black wall ahead of him split open, letting filter a line of light that spread larger and larger with every passing second.

Max waited till the doors had come to a halt, then stepped through.

Despite his best effort, he still startled when the noise picked up again. The doors' clanking together echoed in his head like chimes. Couldn't go back now.

Men and women of varying size came to greet him, 'greet' being used loosely. They had carried large weapons capable of beheading him if they so wished, and their bodies were covered in leather armors. Some had helmets, the kind Max imagined Vikings had worn. Metallic, round, horns on both side of their heads.

“Do not move!” one shouted, and Max complied.

Rough hands started patting him down, in search for what? He couldn't tell. But they were uncomfortably thorough, and he simply considered himself lucky they didn't ask him to drop his jeans to the ground.

“He seems clean,” a beefy blonde woman said to a large bearded man.

“Good. Bring him to the tower.”

Max finally looked away from his captors. In the distance, said tower cast its shadow over the streets of the fortress. Houses and forges and barracks littered every street, wooden stakes firmly planted in the ground at their feet and alongside the lengths of their walls. Two men of his captor's statute could hardly walk without being grazed by those stakes. As a pegasus, he could not share the street with anyone, lest he risk impaling his sides.

Rough hands pushed him forward. He followed. More details as these offered themselves on the way. The forge's facade had three racks with spears and javelins filling them. The barracks were brimming with people in a circle, surrounding two warriors in a wrestling match.

All little cogs in a machine of war.

War against what? he wondered with a shiver. What could they be facing in the New World? He'd already had a taste with the beasts of the previous island. Was it the same here? For a second, he thought of the pond and the blue scales, and he shivered. If he never had to deal with those again, he'd make a donation to the local church or institution of faith therein.

“Faster,” one ordered as they pushed him in the back.

Faster, piggy. Oh, is that the captain coming to inspect your work? Here, let me help.

His feet hurried along.

At some point, the bunkers and their shadows blended together. His focus narrowed on the leader's back. On the short-furred mantle that waved with his movement. On the clanks of the weapon's metal around him.

Then, they were stepping in the light again. A large plaza, big enough to host at least a few hundred people, awaited at the foot of the tower. Barriers had been built, corralling some animal they were trying to tame. The crowd was laughing. Cruel laughs.

Their group stopped at the tower's entrance, where two men who had to have giant ancestry waited with crossed axes. The leader of Max's group stepped forth to explain the situation, but Max's eyes caught sight of something too familiar, nailed to a large board.

Wanted Posters. Pictures of famous criminals, and rewards listed below to entice the greed of men. And women. He'd noticed a handful of them too, and they were not the delicate kind. At all. They carried spears that could easily skewer his pegasus form. And they had the muscle tone to use them.

He carefully kept his reaction in check when he recognized Luffy's and Zoro's pictures amongst the faces. A quick glance showed him the rest of the crew, scattered all over the wall. He found nothing that resembled him, or his pegasus form. That was unusually lucky.

He wouldn't spit on it, but he wouldn't quite believe it just yet.

As they neared the corner, Max distinctively heard whatever was in the corral ram into its side and let out a long cry of rage. A cry jumping in pitch and intensity.

A whinny.

Max gulped.

 

**

 

“So you're a sailor, Max?” asked the man behind the desk. “That's interesting.”

Max kept his breathing steady. He could feel the guards' gaze on the back of his head, as if they were waiting for him to do something stupid, like trying to stab a man that was easily four meters tall. No, really, his biceps were larger than Max's head.

“Is it?”

The man's smirk made his bright red beard wave slightly. “No, you're right. It isn't.” He stood, towering over every other person in the room, and walked briskly up to his window. “A sailor in the New World though? It's a different story. Not of lot of those regular folks in here. What were you doing?”

“Working,” Max said simply.

There was no visible change to the man's demeanor. He was still looking out the window, overlooking the rest of the fortress, one hand at his belt, and, Max realized, very close to the handle of a massive warhammer.

He spoke, with a smirk breaking through his stoic façade. “Do I seem the type of person that cares about pirates and marines?”

Obviously. Or maybe it was only the soldiers in this place that cared for the rewards, and he, great leader, couldn't care less. “I told you, sir. I am a sailor by trade. I've known no other sea than the Grand Line, but my last captain bit the dust, so I had to find someone else. Anyone else.”

There was a thoughtful hum. Nothing displeased yet.

Max swallowed. “I found someone. A merchant that wanted New World goods.”

Best he got. He wasn't going to pretend to be a marine. He wouldn't be shocked if this was affiliated with them, or even was just a giant front for the World Government.

“What kind of goods?” asked the man, not with an unfriendly tone.

It was the sort of question Beaudrille would ask to lead a cabin boy into an impasse.

“Don't know. I didn't ask.” He shrugged. “It wasn't anything living, I can tell you that. I wouldn't have been able to contribute much then. I'm no fighter, sir. There weren't any cages or tanning tools either.”

“Name of the vessel?”

“The Singing Mermaid. Had this bow sculpted like one, her hair like waves, nice pair of tits too.” He mimed the usual measurement for One Piece women. “Inspired the men.”

The redhaired man snorted. “Inspired your wet dreams, you mean?”

Max let out a chuckle, lowering his head. He hoped that passed for embarrassment. Not the first time he had this exact conversation, minus the threat to his life if he failed. For a reply, because it had been a question, he gave an innocent shrug. “Can't blame a man for that.”

The female guards in the room rolled their eyes so hard Max could feel it in the air. His interrogator probably did, as he offered them an apologetic nod. “Enough about this,” he told Max. “What was your position on the ship?”

“Cabin boy,” he said with a bitter smile. “Desperation is a great motivator.”

“So is greed,” was the even reply.

And there, Max felt a pinch into his chest. “No. Not as great.” He shouldn't be saying this. But he couldn't help it. “Desperation will keep weighting on you until you do something, or you break.”

The redhaired man looked him straight in the eyes, unmoved yet silent. Cogs turned behind that gaze, and Max could feel his fate being decided as the seconds ticked by. He didn't have a soldier's countenance. After a few seconds, the red started to fade into green, and old instincts made him look aside. Coincidentally, over a portrait well-protected.

“Wotan Bifrost. Our leader. Chief of the Seaguard Mercenaries.”

That answers that question.

“And, for the record, my father.”

Max's eyebrows shot up to his hairline. And that was the part he hadn't seen coming. Apparently, that Wotan guy's age had completely faded some blood red hair. Though… on a second look, if Max mentally discarded the wrinkles on Wotan's face, tried to imagine him a few decades younger…

Yeah, he could see it.

“Now, you brought a certain dilemma to my table. Certainly, I could take your money and let you stay two or three days, and then what? There's no ship coming here until the end of the month. That's when the next delivery happens.”

“Put me to work,” he said. “I'm desperate.”

Bifrost snorted.

“Bring him to Paul. He'll have something for our guest to do.”

Max didn't protest or struggle as the two women lifted him off his feet and carried him out of the office.

 

**

 

Work was work. Neither backbreaking nor cake-eating. He didn't particularly like it, and it made something in his chest pang with nostalgia, but it was better than being imprisoned or sold to the marines.

Amusingly enough, Paul, a round bald man, owned one of the few bars in the fortress. Max was made to serve mercenaries ale and other alcoholic beverages, clean up the tables, collect payment. The whole shenanigans.

Two days into it, he had gotten the hang of most tasks. Yet, he had to fight a nervous energy that was growing under his skin by the day. He wasn't sure when the Marineford War was supposed to happen, or if it already had. Would Luffy still…? No, he had cut that train of thoughts short every time. Luffy would definitely survive it. But Ace? Whitebeard? And then, if everything went right, were they still going to train for two years? And hell, if they did have the training time skip, what was he supposed to do in a mercenary fortress that hunted pirates?

… Well, okay, that last one, he could surely find one way or another to cheese it, but he doubted that Bifrost guy would care to have a stranger trained.

“Hang these up,” Paul told him as he slammed a giant pile of papers on the counter. “The pelican papers' just arrived.”

“Whe-” where, he'd begun to ask, but he suddenly realized what those papers were. What else did mercenaries care about?

Basil Hawkins, he recognized. The title given was “The Magician”. Remembering the deck of tarot cards that had spilled unto the ground, he nodded to himself. Yes, he could see that. The man made predictions about others.

Your fate is strange, Maxime.”

How? How was it strange? Maybe he ought to have asked. To be fair, he had been a little bit nervous about meeting more pirates. It wouldn't be a bad idea to read on which of the supernovas were morganeers and which were peace mains. He was fairly sure that the red-haired pirate, the one with the highest supernova bounty, had gotten his bounty through civilian massacres.

His hands itched with the desire to stomp on the pale-faced pirate. No. No stupid. He was miles away from anyone that needed pain, and he was surely too weak to administer sweet justice to one if he wasn't.

A large hand slapped his shoulder.

Max didn't react even as the mercenary's alcoholic breath washed over his side. “You got the long-armed man in there? Achoo or something?”

“W-what?” And, his brain screeching in panic, he pieced out the half-heard question together. “Oh, hum, yes, I think I have him in there. Just a second.”

He ran his finger through the pile until he caught glimpse of a man with piano keys for teeth. “Here. 'Roar of the Sea' Scratchmen Apoo.”

“Thanks, kid. Looks like the guy Matthew described the other day,” the mercenary said as he went to sit at the counter.

He's on the island.

Possible ally. A supernova. He knew of Luffy's crew and probably wanted to dethrone someone in the New World.

Is he a morganeer ?

“Hey, waiter! Service here!” someone called, and Max forgot all about his speculations for the time being. Work wouldn't wait. And neither would his boss.

“Three more, table seven!” he later repeated to Paul, three fingers held in the air.

And so it went with him losing sense of time besides the mumbling of some customers that wanted their drinks as soon as they had said the words.

Damn. The smell of all that beer and wine was actually making him feel nostalgic. He'd had so much of it at sea, both in Hell and Heaven. You'd think he wouldn't want anything to do with it, but now he had a pang of sheer want going through his spine.

“Oi, Newbie!” called out Paul's baritone. “I need you to take those barrels to the corral.”

“Okay. That's… that's the one by the tower, right?”

“Yeah, can't get lost. So, no excuse.”

 

**

 

Max arrived with three barrels piled on his back. Honestly, the hardest part was not losing his balance. Yeah, he was surprised too.

There was a crowd gathered, and shouts and cheers echoing in the air. Far more gleeful an atmosphere than he had predicted seeing the fortress from the outside. The mercenaries formed a wall between Max and whatever they were laughing at. For the most part, Max did not bother. Curiosity killed the cat, its mate, its litter and all its neighbors, or so the saying went. He was content just walking at the back of the crowd, calling out with a loud voice “Ale, beer, wine!”

Inevitably, most of the men and women would turn to him, eagerness on their faces, and he would start handing out mugs to whomever picked them up first. He didn't even need to remember what they asked for. They just picked the first thing he had in his grip.

“Who are you, kid?” someone asked, and Max had to blink back his shock.

“I'm new. I'm working at the tavern.”

“You'll be seeing this mangy lot every day then,” laughed a hulking black-haired woman. “Bunch of drunkards!”

“The warrior's rest, I say it's well-deserved,” Max put in with some fake cheer. It was joined by loud laughter.

Three more trips were needed to finish the task Paul had assigned to him. But by the third, the warriors looked both immensely drunk and immensely pleased to see him. He could kiss Paul for giving him that kind of job.

The trick to staying alive was to make himself if not loved, then appreciated. Sure, certain jobs were demeaning, but what did that matter to a corpse?

“Oi, did you take all the barrels already?”

Max felt a bead of sweat roll down the back of his neck. “Huuuh, yes?” The exits looked immensely tempting. If the bartender pulled out a gun, Max would bolt, and screw everything else.

Paul looked him up and down again, grumbling something lost in his beard. Then, he met Max's gaze, and a corner of his mouth rose a few inches. “Stronger than you look, aren't you?”

Max kept his embarrassed look steady, averting his gaze and rubbing the back of his head sheepishly. The hints of a blush was good. It added to the picture. Because now that the pictures of the feral horse was burned into his brain, he would never tell them he was a pegasus zoan.

 

**

 

On the fourth day, he got to see the corral again.

More importantly, he got to see the beast they were trying to tame.

He'd known, of course. It had been a thought in the back of his head. But the sight of the horse in that cage made his innards freeze over. Irrational as it was, that knowledge put him on edge. More cagey himself. He doubted his fears would come true. That did not make it any easier. Even the smiles that greeted him seemed more sinister. More cynical.

Max didn't look up when he noticed Bifrost's clothes nearby. He served as many drinks as they were empty hands stretched toward him.

And there were many. The horse was struggling today. It took longer between each cry of the crowd. On the first day he'd been there, it would only be five seconds at most. Now, most warriors stayed seated past twenty. And this one…

Max was compelled to look up. To see the horse before it had been stripped of itself. The animal was a grey spot in the middle of the corral, head hanging low, the man on its back calling for the crowd's cheering.

“Punrar!” roared a female voice.

The crowd went quiet. Heads turned, bodies moved, and on the other side of the corral, Max saw Bifrost breach through his soldiers' bodies. Half were taller than him, but none had his presence. Max's hands trembled. He could identify the man's power.

The mare bucked so hard that her handler went flying. Few had time to see where he landed, because the mare suddenly barreled forward, snarling and whinnying.

The crowd moved as one, a veritable wall of steel and wood standing inches away from the mare. Her breath came in harsh pants, black smoke licking at the blades in front of her snout.

Bifrost looked at her coolly. “Aye, I'll ride you next. We'll see what the Grayfang has to show.”

The mare's eyes came alight with a turmoil of triumph and despair and fury.

She was all pride.

“No, not today.” The man's red beard twisted around his grin. “You're exhausted. Barely able to stand at this point. No, no, no, I'm not going to ride you as you are. What victory would there be in this?”

One giant of a woman, as wide as she was tall, raised a vicious-looking axe overhead, and shouted “Yeah! We want a real fight! Break her, Captain Bifrost!”

“Break her!” jumped another warrior.

Empty mugs began to fly into the corral, raining upon the mare who snarled and spat thin clouds of smoke in the drunken warriors directions. But more often, she flinched away from the hard wood thrown at her flanks and her head. Every lashing out was only more fuel for laughter.

“Break her! Break her! Break her!” they were chanting.

It could have been a minute, or five. It kept going until one picked up a rock, and it hit her square in the chest.

Captain Bifrost's voice boomed. “Take her back to the stable. Let her rest, give her food and water as much as she wants.”

She fought the hardest when taken away from the red-haired warrior. Her neck pulled with such strength that she remained to eye level with him long enough for him to grin.

“Tomorrow, you and I will duel. Rest well, foe.”

The excitement died down. Without the promise of the mare's breaking, the corral's surroundings lost their appeals. Those men and women had come for battle and blood, and some had been sated, but most seemed dissatisied, and so they filtered through the fortress' streets, high on alcohol and lust. Fights would break out soon.

It was always this way on the Seafarer.

And, Max, Max who had been watching like he had not even been there, oh, he turned back to the bar, without a word, without anyone noticing, and in his eyes were storms.

 

**

 

The door opened silently under the moonlight. He chanced a few glances around, just in case, but the fortress was asleep. A few guards were patrolling, though they focused their efforts on the walls. There, Max could see the flickers of flame move alongside their lengths.

No one had stayed to guard the stables.

What was he doing? He'd have been the first to scoff at this before.

Then again, he hadn't been enslaved before, so he reserved the right to tell his past self to shut up and eat shit. Past-him didn't get to judge. If the horse could talk, then it could think and feel, and really, Max couldn't actually identify a true difference between letting that horse be sold and watching some bastards put an exploding collar on a person's neck. Especially not since Max himself could be either man or horse, depending on his mood.

Though they were called stables, Max was reminded more of a dungeon, where each cell was a bit further into the ground. Blocks carved into the flanks of the cliff itself.

From the very last one, he saw flashes of orange light brighten up the wall opposed to it. The cool of the night seemed lesser the further deep he went. Until he was just at the right angle to see into the cell.

The horse stood easily twice as tall as Max did in human form. Without a doubt, it could comfortably look his pegasus form in the eyes too. Not at the moment though. Right now, the gray mare was pulling at the chains attached to her hooves. All four had been nailed to the wall behind her. Food laid scattered across the floor of her cell, and there was a glint of madness in her eyes.

Max stayed hidden a little longer. The longer he looked, the harder it was not to see a reflection of himself.

Amongst the few differences he could see at a glance…

Well.

She had fangs.

Max startled the moment he noticed, but no, he wasn't hallucinating. The mare had razor sharp fangs in her mouth, and it might have been the freakiest thing he had seen in a while if she hadn't suddenly thrown her head back and breathed fire. That took the number one.

“Oh yeah, this is a good idea, Max,” he muttered under his breath. “Absolutely intelligent.”

“As is speaking out loud around a wild and angry warrior that can hear.”

He jolted and jumped back. The mare was glaring right at him. Foam dripped from the corner of her mouth, her jaws snapping and snipping as if she hungered for his blood. Fear grew strong in Max's mind. But a spark lit up in his chest, and he heard the voice and he saw the rubbery hand outstretched to him “Join my crew.

The only way to be strong is to refuse to be weak.

We can't just let him get all scared like that. What if someone else tries to starve him and he doesn't say anything?”

Max heard the click of a gun's hammer, one that he held steady, straight at the mare's head. He hardly remembered pulling it out of his belt. Just coming to and having it ready to sound the thunder again.

The mare stood very still.

Tension filled the air and gave it a weight like iron.

“I want to free you,” he said, hearing his own voice as if in a dream. “I will free you. I'm not leaving you to be their beast of burden. You talk, they say. They laugh about it, saying you nag and you scream like a whore. It's true, right? You can talk?

He did not lower the gun. Rather, his index hovered above the trigger. The cannon pointed straight at her head.

“Talk to me. Convince me.

She snorted flames, pawed at the ground.

“I'm not leaving this place with you still alive in this cage.” His heart was pounding in his chest. His eyes were flicking back to the stable's entrance. His hand was steady. “Choose.”

“Why?” rang the word. A rough, growled word, but one like a slap to the face.

The mercenaries hadn't lied, he hadn't misheard, or hallucinated. That mare could talk. She could understand. She was conscious and intelligent and could communicate with the mercenaries on this island. It wasn't taming. It was slavery.

“What do you want?” the mare asked, her eyes suspicious, trailing after the end of Max's gun. “Humans always want something.”

“I want to be able to sleep.” Max scoffed, the sound almost equine for a split second. Beast-like. Swallowing, he lowered the gun. A bitter smile split his face, and the tension draining from him made the room spin. “I can't close my eyes and not see it. I'm here. I know you're here. I want to be able to sleep. I'm not doing it for you. If you get something out of it, fine, but that's not my goal. I'm not a kind savior, if that's your concern. There's nothing I want from you. This is all selfishness.

His finger itched. He hated the feeling of power that was coming to him.

“Well, what is it going to be? Freedom or Life?”

Moments passed during which Max heard only the sound of his own heartbeat.

“You have a warrior's soul.”

The laugh came again, more bitter and quieter. “If by that you mean a broken mess of a person, then yes, yes I am.”

The mare forced on him a glare that made his resolve falter. “Soldiers fight until they break. Warriors fight past that.”

Max blinked. He'd never really thought of it like that. People back home, they made it a point to use a word like 'survivor'. Survivors of abuse. He hadn't really gotten it. Not in his guts. Now he did, and he hated looking in the mirror sometimes. Felt like looking at shards of glass.

… She really did look just like him, didn't she?

“I take it your choice is Life, then?”

“Open this gate. I have a duty still.”

He held her gaze. Slowly, he dug into his back pocket. People had already gotten used to him cleaning around. They hadn't noticed him taking the keys anymore than that man had noticed he lost his gun at Paul's bar.

The keys turned in the keyhold with an old rusty noise. He flinched, but no one seemed to be coming. And the door didn't bulge. Really? Now?

Sweat dripping from his brow, Max shifted into a midform. This time, the door gave way with a weak groan. Shifting back, he went to work on the locks on her hooves. It was not until all four laid inert on the ground that he looked back to the mare.

Her eyes narrowed, and something in her expression had shifted from shock and relief into a colder, darker feeling. “Half-breed,” she sneered.

“Human,” he snapped back. “Cursed or blessed, but I'm human.Not Half-breed, not piggy, not worm. I am human, I have never ceased to be human.

She nickered, flashing her fangs and pawing at the ground impatiently. “You would have been better off as a half-breed.” And by her dismissive tone, Max could believe her to be sincere.

That made it possible to rein in the heat flushing through his chest and his head. “I can guess why you think that. So I'm letting this time slide. It was also the last. Don't test my patience. I've already run out.”

“Warrior,” she said, this time with a laugh in her voice.

“Do you have a name? Something I could call you?” Before I start calling you disgraceful things?

“Persephone.”

Max, who had been about to shift into full pegasus form, hesitated. “You wouldn't happen to have a… mate called Hades, by any chance?”

“No. I have no mate.” She snorted. Then, with narrowed eyes, “And I'm not looking for one.”

If only you knew, Max thought with disgusted shudder. “ Thank fuck for that. Let's get out of here.

Chapter Text

The wind's lament chipped at the fortress' walls, but a wail in their shadows. Whispers that made the flames of the torches flicker.

Max could barely hear any of that whilst his heart hammered within his chest. He was doing this. Fuck, he was actually doing this. He was freeing the prisoner those mercenaries had captured. If they found him, he was dead. Or at least, in mortal danger.

Because improved ability to say the right thing to the right person at the right time or not, even he could not justify taking Persephone for a trot in the middle of the night. And she knew it.

Her blazing glare felt hot on his skin. He could not ignore the prickling sensation on the back of his neck. He had yet to change into his pegasus form, as the first step outside the stables had unveiled a problem he should have foreseen.

The mercenaries had been fighting Persephone's people for a time now. Hers, and other animals. They had built their fortress consequently, and the reason for the stakes lining up the walls of the barracks became readily apparent. He could walk just fine, but Persephone had only a narrow margin of error to move within. A short red line marred her right shoulder, fresh and still dripping blood, where she had made a mistake the first time.

The only path Persephone could hope to take led straight to the central plaza, precisely where Max had first seen her.

They'd yet to come across a patrol, but Max could have sworn the jingling of metal from a moment ago hadn't come from his belt.

“We are moving away from the gates, Persephone hissed in his ears, so quietly Max almost missed it.

He frantically gestured forward, failing to find the right words. But then again, what were the right words? He didn't have a plan. He really needed to start having plans before he went on another round of anti-slavery acts of war.

I mean, it's bound to get me killed viciously someday…

“We can just…” and he immediately trailed off, because there'd been a noise like loose metal on a belt.

Persephone stilled, looming just over Max's shoulder. Her hot breath washed over the right side of his face. Ahead, at a crossing, orange light slowly spread over the nearby walls.

Speaking of patrols, Max thought as his blood chilled. He had three seconds to think of something. Couldn't hide, Persephone was too large. Couldn't attack, too weak, gun made too much noise. Could-

“Who goes?” someone asked, an order, cold, harsh and promising metal.

The answer was a stream of flame searing into the night, enveloping the man from head to toes. The screams were suitably horrific. Agony-ridden, cracking and sobbing. Max blocked them out as he did most forms of pleading since the Seafarer. They didn't last long anyway. Lights started to appear behind the shutters of most windows, and he could hear the shuffling of dozens of feet stomping over wooden planks. That was worth paying attention to.

“Let's go!” he told Persephone, shifting into his full pegasus form.

He couldn't deploy his wings in such a narrow path, but he could run much faster as a horse than as a human. They went galloping as fast as they could, ignoring the little stings of the stakes scratching their fur and their skin. Frantic glances at crossroads showed shadowy human running to meet them, and paths too narrow to take. They pressed on at full gallop.

Within minutes, the stakes spaced out and their paths widened. No more barracks on both sides of them, but an open space, a large plaza covered in slates of stones and a corral ready to welcome one more beast to tame.

Max bifurcated towards the centerfold of the plaza, then slowed down as men and women armed to the teeth came pouring from every corner of the fortress. Spikes of metal came rearing their ugly heads through the crowd. Within seconds, both horses were surrounded by staked walls as before, though this one had greater blood thirst.

“Where did that stallion come from?” he heard amongst the jeering and the sneering.

“Bet he was sweet on her!”

“Ah! He wanted to tumble her in the hay! Couldn't hold it in,” laughed another, and louder still when a nearby man mock-whinnied.

“Who cares?!” shouted down some woman. “Skewer them both and make a pelt out of them.”

Max ignored the cold beads of sweat sliding through his fur. His eyes flicked to the walls and the spears in the mercenaries' hands. Twice, he pulled back from spears swung near his muzzle, and slapped them out of hands with a strike of his wings.

“A Warrior's end?” Persephone told him, her tone cheerful and tense. “I like that! Well,” – she pawed at the ground, snorting clouds of fume – “come, you cravens! Come and meet me without chains and a muzzle this time!”

Not quite, Max thought, and willed himself to change. His hips creaked and his back straightened, but the strength in his limbs remained the same. He stretched out into a standing position, eyes on the crowd. “Zoan!” some cried out, but he hadn't the luxury to wait and chat. As fast as he could he folded over Persephone, chest against her back and spread his wings.

The ugly laughs felt distinctly like the Seafarer.

“I said I don't want a mate, you cursed-”

“Not the time!” Max shouted over her, clamping his hands under her belly.

Persephone made a noise like 'oomph' as his wings lifted them ten feet in the air, both of Max's arms jerking straight into her belly.

“Warn me!” she wheezed out, her eyes likely burning as bright as the torches below. Just as weapon captured flashing lights upon their blades.

“Incoming!” Max shouted instead, flapping his wings harder still.

Fire caught the lances in midair and reduced them to ashes. But lashes of pain across his shoulders and his legs told him not all weapons had been incinerated. Persephone could only strike ahead of her, and they were surrounded. Blasting noises broke through the howlering, and another sharp burst of pain cut through Max's muscles. He was too familiar with it not to recognize gunshots. That, Persephone couldn't stop so easily.

Spears flew overhead, wildly, always at an angle to avoid her firebreathing. The mercenaries were creating a net.

Max gritted his teeth, and brought down his wings harder, catching the end of tailwinds and snatching it with feathers like claws. The night air and its cold swirled around his wings, dancing on the primaries, echoing the harsh panting from his mouth. Air. Wind. More weapons sliced into his flesh, but no sound came from his lips. Hear it, hear the song of the wind. Listen to the whispers in the night.

“We can't stay stationary!” Persephone rasped.

What is it saying? What does the wind want?

Rumbles shook the night skies. He felt it, away, far from the island and the mercenaries' noises. Below, the air breaking as metal burst from small cannons. Heavy breathing, chirping, lightning crackling on the head of his hammer. White casting a light over the shadows and revealing a tall redhead with hatred in his eyes glared their ways, his soldiers parting to make way for him.

Captain Bifrost roared out in fury. He swung the light.

Max's wings beat fast, lifting despite Persephone's weight. He contorted, putting himself between the mare and her sworn enemy. Even as he did, he thought it stupid. He was the one that could get them out of here. And he thought 'Freedom or Life?', her harsh laugh and the disbelief in her eyes, and he braced himself.

For pain. For charring through his flesh. For bones breaking and skin burning – the crackling died out. Petered out uselessly in the night. Silence came, a moment of stunned realization, and a leader suddenly unsure.

Did he miss? flashed through Max's mind, before he decided he had more important matters to care about.

The wind was howling.

And Max reached.

Invisible hands grasped the handles of a dozen lances flying and twisted. He spun. His wings swatted. And the spears rained back down to their owners.

Cries of pain rang to their ears.

Persephone leaned forward. Fire spilled out of her mouth and washed over the fighters.

Max's mind clicked. A split second in the middle of chaos. It was never more than that, and it was always so much more than that. They zipped through the empty air, flying past the crowd below and over the roofs of the barracks.

“Bet you're glad I can resemble a half-breed now, huh?” he said with a howling laugh that was more than a touch hysterical.

How he loved the feeling of being shot at. Though, to be precise, Max's love was for hearing gunshots that didn't make his brain splatter over the ground. Every crackle of thunder from those devil barrels just pounded at his heart, made his blood pump, made him feel alive, and breathing, and the feeling was as glorious as hearing Beaudrille beg.

“Hardly!” Persephone shouted over the wind. Her eyes, wide, focused on the crowd shrinking below them. “This is completely mad!”

“Well, yes, but I'm a straw hat, you know?”

“You've been kissed by folly, more-”

He heard the whistling noise seconds before it tore through his tail hair.

The ballista bolt imbedded itself in the fortress walls to their right so deep cracks like spiderwebs spread throughout the stone.

The chitchat would have to wait. He swerved up as another bolt tore into the space he'd occupied just before. Seriously? If only they weren't threatening his life, he'd try to introduce Usopp to them. They'd have plenty of stuff to talk about.

Someone figured they'd restrain their movements with more volleys of spears, but Persephone obligedly fried them all. The bouts of flame made them an easier target. More weaponry flew at them. It was a vicious cycle, and twists and turns in the air were all he could do to keep them alive and uplifted. He wouldn't say it, but his arms were starting to feel like stretched by a torture device.

Perhaps sensing the shift in his grip, Persephone shouted “I'll clear a path. Just go!”

Max wanted to ask how. He'd have, if it wasn't a waste of breath.

Persephone sucked in as much air as possible for all of three heartbeat. Then, lights and heat flashed before Max's eyes once more. Except it wasn't a long stream of fire this time. The flames came out condensed in a white-blue sphere that blackened all weapons before they got close. The projectile flew straight at the cracks on the walls, and Max barely closed his eyes in time. Still, pain flashed beneath his eyelids, and he heard many cries of pain from their pursuers.

“Quickly!” Persephone urged.

Max sped through the open hole, and flew over the bay. Here, the winds pushed back, angry howls unopposed by manmade shelters. The effort to push through grew, and Max became all too aware of the fatigue slowly weighting him. Ideally, he would bring Persephone over to another island entirely. Except a mare her size had to weight a ton or two at the lightest and even a zoan fruit boosted one's strength only so much. It was already good he had managed to fly at all.

“Well, how about I fulfill your earlier wishes and land somewhere nearby.”

He ignored her squawks of righteous anger and pushed the air beneath her. It eased the tension slightly, but not as much as he'd hoped. He found a spot at the edges of the cliff, near the forest. The fortress stood out in the night, its top seeming ablaze with the lights of torches, and on one side, Persephone's flames. At this distance, Max couldn't see much of the gates.

With any luck, the mercenaries had misjudged and gone for ships.

He let her go and landed, then, as quick as possible, he shifted again in his feral form. Already felt a bit more natural.

“Okay, this is better. At least now my arms will stop aching.” He rolled his shoulders to test. “I hope. Not quite used to carrying so much at once.”

Had he said it to another woman, said woman would have grown fangs to bite his head off. Luckily, Persephone already had fangs, and was a mare besides.

“It's pure muscle!” She rasped, her voice trembling, not with rage but exhaustion. “This is hardly the time. Stop being a foal and start acting like a real stallion!”

“Can't,” he deadpanned with a grin. “I'mma half-breed, remember?”

Persephone's eyes twitched violently. Her lips pulled back, and Max had only began to feel like he'd taken the backtalk a bit too far before her jaws rushed at startling speed. A loud clack a fangs boomed inches away from his left ear.

He blinked at the crumpled arrow shaft falling to the ground. Without thinking, he bolted, going straight for the sharp drop.

“We can lose them in the wind maze!” he shouted over his shoulder.

Persephone barely glimpsed back to the forest and headed towards the cliffside. Max appreciated the lack of questioning. That mare had to have gone through many a life and death situations. She jumped over the edge and landed on a path a few feet below, and he would have to ask her how she'd known, but later. Right now, he was trying to ignore the pain from his gunshot wounds. Grazing blows, yes, but many.

He had no time to focus on the pain. He could barely see ahead of himself from starlight alone. The path was invisible. They were being chased. Instincts alone allowed to survive this far. That, or the knowledge that a drop would inconvenience his pursuers far more than himself.

Or Persephone.

“You better have a plan, man,” she huffed, panting as she ran next to him. “They'll still see us even if we take a different path. They won't stop chasing that easily. That's how they got me the first time.”

Endurance hunting, huh? Max filed that information in the back of his mind and nodded to his partner in crime. He did not say 'don't worry'. In truth, he knew not if he had saved or condemned them both to a humiliating defeat. Not yet. While Max might be a terrible planner, he liked to think he was a reasonably inspired person.

So, yes, he had a plan. Granted, he had no clue if it would even work the way he envisioned, but no time like the present to find out.

Max looked back, and flinched as the blade of a lance barely nicked the hair on his muzzle. Dozens of back shapes pouring over the cliffside, running up and down, spreading like spiders on a web.

Captain Bifrost at the head of them, bathed in light, his hammer raised above his helmet and ready for a mortal throw. Maybe. Max had yet to understand why his lightning hit hadn't sniped them right out of the sky. Night time accuracy issues?

His right front hoof hit nothing but empty air.

He stumbled, wings flaring out and the next three steps and took whilst half-flying just behind Persephone. No time to look back anymore.

“Get them!” reached the faint echo of the mercenaries warcry.

“If you have a plan,” Persephone shouted, “now would be a good time!”

He knew what he had to do, and as he made his mind into steel, he almost froze, his mind showing him the source of his plan. It was childish, and it was immensely stupid, and a waste of time at a crucial moment, but this was also One Piece. And he thought, belatedly, that Luffy would tell him to seize the moment.

I will never in my life get a chance like this again.

So, he span on his hooves, facing the charging troops, their roars, their bloodlust. Words stumbling out of his mouth like he could cling to them. He was not Piggy. Not a worm, or a maggot, or a simple animal. He was more, and he chose to be more. And this, he could do. “I am a servant of the king-to-be, wielder of the fruit of rubber. Violence will not avail you, warriors of Midgards! Go back to your stone halls!”

But they heard not his challenge, heeded not his words, and he bellowed to them and to the sky above.

“YOU…”

He reared.

“SHALL NOT…”

He stomped.

“PASS!”

And brought his wings down with all his strength. The gust that came down swept over the path, picking up vapor and throwing off a few clouds the mercenaries way. Their leather shielded them from one, their arms parted the other. They charged on.

They were almost caught up.

They would never get past that 'almost'. Their boots sank into the path, to their ankles, to their knees and then they fell through. Every shadowed figure lost their footing as if it had never existed in the first place.

They fell, and fell, screaming, cursing, pleading, and still they fell into the raging sea below. Their crash only brought a few circles of foams up, all of them immediately swallowed by the tumultuous sea. Large shadows beneath the surface converged, and Max averted his gaze.

“Spear of the Gods!”

Bifrost.

Light flew into what seemed to be a lightning bolt, but the arc was wrong. It zipped from one falling body to another and snatched them forward at blistering speeds. In the time Max had blinked, six mercenaries had been nailed into the cliffside by their armor, like some demented brochette.

Another spear was thrown. Some more splashes. Screams he might only be imagining. A roar he knew he heard, and Bifrost diving into the sea.

Most probably won't be saved in time.

He had talked to those people. He'd shaken their hands and laughed at some of their jokes. They'd patted him on the back and wished him well. They'd stood and laughed and thrown stone at Persephone, and they hadn't cared that she could talk and reason just as well as them. They had seen nothing wrong with it. Just business. He wondered, briefly, what had been their stances on mermaids, on fishmen. Were they human enough?

Max stared. The wind howled and slapped his wet bangs into his face. Raindrops matted his fur.

Below, Captain Bifrost held onto a reef with one hand, the other lifting a dozen of his warriors just above sea level.

They were too far apart from Max to make anything of his face besides his hair, even with the light of his hammer. He needed not clarity to tell the captain wanted him dead and dismembered. If it were within the man's power, Max's wings would have been plucked out barehanded.

Max turned around and started galloping after Persephone. Now would be a terrible time to realize that the leader of those New World mercenaries knew that marine double-jump technique.

He galloped, hooves striking the invisible path, and his legs were heavier, too heavy. He galloped still. His breathing was wrong. The sea was screeching in his ears. He could not hear himself breath. How much air was he taking? Greedy intakes of air. Quick and burning despite the cool rain and the blowing wind. How much air? Beneath him? Under his hooves. Persephone! He couldn't. What if he did it, what if the path broke, how much air, how much could he take?

“Pers… Persephone…”

Her tail swished, black against grey. Grey. He should focus on that.

His hooves hurt.

Captain, help!

Felt like hitting steel.

Gray against black. Grey against black. Black against blue. Teeth in the seafoam. So many teeth.

Grab my hand!

Blood in the water.

So your name's Max, huh? Captain's feeling generous. He's like that. Likes taking in strays, show them the rope. Maybe I'll meet you on the training ground sometime.

“Persephone…”

Black against black.

 

**


Almost there, Luffy repeated to himself as he waited for the bone-in-meat to cook on the feeble embers they had going in their little hideout. If he hadn't lost count – and he was pretty sure he hadn't – they were on the fifth level. And if he had miscounted, well, he would just keep going down until he hit the bottom, obviously.

Weirdly enough though, this layer of Hell had built-in food supplies. Food supplies that viciously tried to eat him, sure, but that really just reminded him of the forest he and his brothers grew up in. Dawn Island lacked the kind of storms they were sheltering away from, but otherwise, this was pretty spot on.

“Oooh, Luffy dear, the wolf is ready!” Bon announced with a swirl.

Wolf legs spiced with crushed pine needles. He dug in immediately, and his tongue twitched with joy as the though meat gave way under his rubber teeth.

“How can you eat at a time like this?”

Luffy barely looked up from the wolf leg he was holding. “I'm hungry.”

What was so weird about that? He had to keep his strength up if he wanted to beat up all those guards on the way up too. They were the freaky one for not thinking about their stomachs. Then again, Buggy had always been a bit weird.

The clown-nosed pirate was crouching in his corner of their wax igloo, an aura of gloom right over his head as he decided to cultivate mushrooms or something. His voice was only a faint whisper, but Luffy had great ears. “I had taken off my shackles on Level One. I was almost there. I only needed to get past the security inspection. Why am I stuck here in Level Five?”

The sense of familiarity made his stomach twist. Damn it. Usopp would have said something like that, huh? His fist clench tighter until the bones creaked and gave out.

“We gotta find Ace. That's all. You didn't have to follow me, you know?”

Buggy's mouth grew fangs as his hands flew forth and gripped Luffy's neck. “I fell because of you! This is all your fault!”

Mr. Three's hands slapped them both upside the head. “Will you two quiet down?! Magellan is out there looking for us.”

Even Bon Clay's grinned faltered at that. Damn it, he knew he could deal with that big demon guy. Especially here. His weird poison goo was real slow for some reason, and it looked more like sharp spears then splashing blobs like it did on the fourth level. And it wasn't in the air like before!

But he had promised one of his crew.

He grabbed the rest of the wolf and shoved it into his mouth. Something weird was prickling at his skin. He wasn't sure, but he had a feeling that Magellan guy was getting closer. Three could say they couldn't be noticed under his wax houses in a snow field, but his guts told him the opposite.

Some of the bricks to his right crumbled.

Buggy screeched over Three's wail. Bon slid into his ballet poses.

Red slid through the cracks.

He pushed down on his legs. “Gear Second.”

Steam filled in the igloo.

“Grab onto me!” he shouted over the panic. "We're not getting caught till we're all the way down!"

Impel Down! Level Six!”

That's what Max had said.

“There's no sixth level!” wheezed out that Three guy. “Straw Hat, this is the lowest level. The Frozen Hell, there's nothing below.”

Buggy's disembodied hands squeezed Luffy's shoulders. “And even if there was a level below, we should get away from it! At this rate, we will never get out of Hell, Straw Hat!”

Not without Ace they wouldn't!

**


What had been but endless blackness decided to let slip through a smell like eggs rotting on a skunk's carcass, amidst a port of broiled fish.

Max's eyes opened as his body was wracked with a harsh retching. His body sole defensive measure against the revolting scent shoved in his face. Blindly, he slapped the cursed thing away, only to realize it was a delicate little flower, with petals like zebra stripes.

Gray hooves waited just inches away from his face. And all the way over them, a familiar face.

“Skunk seeds.” Persephone's smirk showed all her fangs. “Excellent cure against unconsciousness.” She looked thoughtful for a moment. “Or, in concentrated dose, against consciousness.”

Oh, right. He'd lost it after the…

Screams. Gurgling waters. Pleas. Lightning.

Right. He'd lost it. That was all. And Persephone had obliged in waking him up instead of leaving him alone like a pair of used socks. How kind. Her shit-eating grin obviously only existed because she was so happy he had woken up, right?

The feathers on his right wings only just twitched, and one could hardly notice, but the air around the black and white flower drifted specifically toward's Persephone's muzzle.

She sneezed fire into the morning glow. Orange light illuminated their surroundings for the briefest time, but Max had time to notice flat plains stretching away from the cliffside. The sort of vast emptiness he imagined when one talked of the Eurasian steppes.

This was the complete opposite of the first island he'd landed on. And if he were to hazard a guess, Persephone's home.

“You command the winds?” she growled.

“More complicated than that,” he replied, trying to convey just the sheer will of air currents. “It's… I can do stuff if I beat my wings. I'm not some sort of wizard.”

“I'm not certain what that is, but I will assume it's irrelevant.”

Max shrugged. “Yeah, pretty much.”

They stared at one another in silence, their faces shaded in the pale glow of the moon and the stars.

“Nonetheless,” she said, formal, her bearing that of a noble lady lowering her head, “you have saved my dignity, likely my life. For that, I am indebted to you.”

“So am I. Dunno if I would have gotten away without your reflexes. I do recall the arrows and the spears.”

“Any warrior would have done likewise. In battle, the time to count debts has passed. Battle is when every equine is a sister or a brother.”

Max's gaze went to the ground. He'd lost his family already. How long had it been by now? A month and a half? Two? He wasn't sure anymore, but he figured they'd be losing hope at this point. He knew he had.

“What are you going to do now?” he asked.

“I'll return to my herd. I'll go back to fighting.”

Max hummed, turning to the sea and the shimmering of the dawn over the waters. Okay. One good deed done and offset by a possibly horrendous one. Where to go afterwards though? He could always give a shot to flying away. He vaguely remembered the places his crew had ended up training on. With some luck, he could find one of them… who was he kidding? He had no idea what to do. His sole lead for some training had been wasted on his undying hatred of all forms of slavery.

“Come with me,” Persephone said, and at his weary look, she added “The herd will welcome you if you hide your human nature. You have potential, strength, willpower. You are not weak, but you lack finesse. I can teach you more.”

Too tired to say anything else, Max nodded.

 

**


The gates of Hell lacked a bit in imagery, if one asked his not so humble opinion. Sure, the iron gates drove home the part about it being a prison. But it was rather plain, even with it, huh? Big slabs of stone, right into the sides of a blank tower in the middle of a sea fortress. Didn't mean they lacked power. The priests all over loved to preach about brimstone and fire, and those fools kept missing the point.

Someone out there had to love fire!

“Zehahahahahaaaa!” he burst out into bellowing laughter, startling a handful of marine mooks.

“Oh, what are you laughing about, captain?” Laffite inquired, leaning forward a bit.

“Nothing, nothing,” he waved it off. Wasn't worth sharing when his navigator understood the point anyway. “Just thinking of something from back home.”

He stifled another laugh. Those higher-ups in the World Government knew their stuff. Impel Down might be the closest equivalent to a man-made hell, but it looked just the same as any other fortress. You didn't know what was in store for you, until they brought you into the chambers. The waiting killed you much better than the bullets. You had to have anticipated a life-or-death fight to understand. Death settled in when you couldn't see your own fate.

“Are you going to let us in or what?” Burges demanded, striking his knuckles together.

Some leather-clad lady in the back was whispering to a snail, never letting her eyes off them. Warlord or not, this was a bit unusual, huh? Well, that was bureaucracy for ya. All paper and petty powers. He hadn't given up his old commander for nothing, now had he?

Finally, the great doors opened just enough to let some thin, rugged man with sunglasses gestured to the skimpily clad lady. “Let him in, Sadi. It's for circumstances After all, I remember Hancock making the same request too.”

“Splendid,” Laffite exclaimed, covering Doc's muttering about good fortune.

The doors opened wider, letting them see the dreary, blank walls of Impel Down from within. What a sight. Stone and darkness. Lots of chain too, to give the right idea.

Teach led the way in, winking at that Sadi girl. Her hand slid down the length of her whip, which suddenly sprouted some vicious looking spikes dripping green goo. Zehahahaha! So feisty! He loved it!

“Really don't know why you made all that fuss about it,” Burges said in passing.

“Of course, she hadn't been the one to capture Firefist, so I suppose that's a little different.”

Burges stiffened, the tall bastard, grin just a touch wider. The rest of his crew was too smart to let show any irritation with the world government's officials so close to a pivotal part of his plans. Hopefully, Burges would reign it in. It'd be a shame to kill so many small fries right away.

Teach's glare made his wrestler flinch. He straightened, losing the gorilla stance for something a bit more civilized. Van Augur's muffled snort conveyed Teach's own feeling about it. Ya couldn't civilized Burges if you made a civilization of bloodthirsty apes!

Their little tour guide brought them right past the first glimpse of Hell. Laffite even started whistling. Must have felt right at home. So far, this was almost disappointing, but Teach wasn't that idealistic. They probably kept the million bounties and less in here.

“Usually, the Vice-Warden would greet you in person, but he is slightly busy at the moment.”

Teach fought not to let his smile grow. Wasn't that something? And what could keep some esteemed members of the Great Prison busy at a time like this, huh? “Shame! I'd have been curious to meet them too, zehahaha.”

The jailer kept a straight face and pushed opened a set of heavy wooden doors.

“You'll be searched here, in private. It's the normal procedure for all visitors.”

Sure, if they wanted to get close and personal with a darkness-man, he was all for it. The party had been delayed enough already!

The jailer put up a hand as Teach had been moving forward. “Your crew can wait here, Teach.”

“One at a time, huh? That's all right. You'll find I have nothing to hide, zehahahaaaa!”

He entered. The doors closed with an ominous clang. Within, no less than four soldiers had joined his guide, their looks all undisguised worry.

“Why,” he crooned, “this is quite the welcoming committee.”

The doors they'd just closed flung through the room into the opposite side wall.

“Oh, I wouldn't call me welcoming, Blackbeard,” said a relaxed voice.

For the first time since coming to Hell in the sea, Teach felt a slight sheen of sweat drip down his back.

Kizaru.

Oh, this was going to be something.

 
**


How much longer now? The guards never told them the time. They let it stretch and melt into the dark, just letting the sense of eternity wash over the prisoners. They had all been sentenced to eternity in Hell. It was all a fitting punishment, and a boring as shit one, if you asked, but who the fuck would ask the opinion of the Pirate King's son?

Today though, there had been guards coming to his cell, sneering assholes that liked to rub salt on wounds like it was their greatest pleasure in life. They'd whispered little things in Ace's ears. Stupid crap, for sure, but also the one thing he dreaded.

Public execution.

He'd asked Gramps to at least get it over with in here.

But, no, those pompous bastards in the World Government had to make a spectacle out of it. Had to make Ace into bait for Pops. And it would work too. Pops would never allow one of his sons to be executed publicly without splitting the sea in two to get him back. The entire fleet would come and wage war on the marines to get back a worthless son with cursed blood.

Why hadn't he listened to Pops? To Marco? They warned him that Teach hadn't been normal.

Even with the shackles on him, heat built up beneath his skin. The wisps of the devil's fruits sizzled around his heart. The images of that night always brought it back. Thatch's wide eyes stared back.

Ace had been the one to find his body. Had been the first to understand. To remember the nights of drinking with his division, with his crew and suddenly feel like he'd been swallowed by the inky depths of the abyss.

Zehahahahaa!

Teach had laughed! He had laughed all that time. He had helped the crew, he had fought for them. Ace had saved his life in battle once!

Yeah. That was it. He could not forgive himself for not seeing it sooner. For not letting Teach die when it was the time. If he hadn't been so trusting – oh, Sabo would have had a laughing fit if he had heard of Ace being too trusting – Thatch might still be alive.

He'd kill Blackbeard if he ever met again. He wouldn't get caught, he'd aim for his head and fried his brain into charcoal.

Then, the ceiling in front of his cell caved in.

Not just cracked, no, caved in completely, sending a rain of rubble down to the ground, obscuring everything from view in dust, and filling in the emptiness of the sixth level with incoherent shouts of surprise.

Okay, if this was a new way to torture, he had to give points on originality.

Luffy stepped out of the dust cloud.

And for a split second, Ace was back on Dawn Island, watching his idiot little brother get dragged into a river because he wouldn't let go of a giant fish.

“Oi! Luffy, what do you think you're doing down here?! And wait, is that Buggy?!”

The clown-like pirate struggled to his feet and took a theatrical pose, to the polite applause of a few inmates.

Luffy however was all focused on Ace. “Saving you, of course!” he shouted, grabbing the bars and slinking down to the ground like a weakened slug. “Also, yeah, that's Buggy, he said he wanted to save you.”

“I said I wanted to break out of this damned prison!” shouted the clown's detached mouth. “It was your idea to go all the way down first!”

For a moment, Ace felt slightly nonplussed. “Eh, I always knew you were a cool guy, Buggy,” he said, to the indignant protest of the clown-pirate. So modest. Besides, anyone that partied like that couldn't be an asshole, Blackbeard aside.

“Eh. He's been fun.” Luffy pulled a pout, a sort of 'what can you do' face that only rubber could properly convey. “Now, scissor-guy, get Ace out of that cell so we can get away.”

“I refuse!”

Rubber hands slammed into the bars of his cell. “I refuse your refusal.”

“This isn't the time to be stubborn, Luffy!” Ace shouted in a stunning display of hypocrisy. “Get the fuck out of Impel Down right this instant, you hear me?! Leave before Magellan catches you!”

“Poison guy?” Luffy tilted his head to the side. “Why does everyone want me to avoid that guy? I could take him. But hey, I promised a member of my crew. Anyway, I refuse your refusal to let me help, Ace!”

Screams of agony came from the hole in the ceiling, whilst the stone around them rumbled.

The purple-haired man in a dominatrix costume eyed the two brothers with a wicked smile. “Luffy boy, if you want this jailbreak to be a success, we can't waste time any longer.”

“Go!” Ace pushed himself at the ends of his chain. His little brother was right there. Right in front of him. And he could not be selfish now. He couldn't ask him to stay in Hell for him. “Just go right now!”

“You promised,” Luffy said suddenly, eyes lost in the shadow of his straw hat. “You promised, Ace.”

Ace's shout died on his lips. He remembered the noodle-like arms that had crushed him, the tears and snot dampening his shirt, his own bitter tears rolling on his cheeks. The memories, the sake and the stump. Grief he'd never known and never wanted to know again. He couldn't lose a brother again.

“Luffy, I…”

What could he say? His mind kept flashing back to the grave they'd built for Sabo, and another one, bigger, topped with Luffy's straw hat. The image left him feeling raw and cold, but he could not make the words come to properly explained why that little idiot needed to get the fuck out of Hell right this instant. And then, his mind supplied him with a different grave, one with his orange hat instead and Luffy, bawling his eyes out.

I can't, I can't I promised Luffy I promised I wouldn't die I have to-

“Okay, that's too long!” The okama pointed at one of his allies. “Inazuma, do your thing!”

Hands turned into scissors. Blades cut into rock.

And the bars in front of Ace fell to the ground with a thunderous shock.

His freedom stared him in the face. With the distinct face of his grinning little brother. And that of a few dozens inmates that clearly just wanted him to swallow his damn pride so they could all get away from Magellan's poison.

Fuck it.

“Just get those shackles off me, you brat.”

Chapter Text

Luffy's arms snapped back into place as he climbed through the hole, rolling right next to Ace. He probably couldn't have done anything else even if he had tried, and he pouted, just a bit. Ace was hovering again. Hadn't he gotten out of the habit the year before he left to become a pirate? Honestly, Ace really thought he was still just a crybaby like when they were little.

Maybe it was just the prison that was doing that. He'd obviously been into one of his mood. Luffy's arm slunk around his brother's neck. Oh well, since Ace had forgotten, it was up to him to remind him why he didn't care who Ace's dad had been.

Missed you too, Lu,” Ace whispered with a small smile.

Bon Clay quietly sniffed, delicately dabbing the corners of his eyes with a handkerchief that had been lying on one of the okama bar's tables. “Brothers, reunited in Hell, after fighting off demons and the elements themselves. I'm so touched. So happy for you, Luffy-swan.”

Thanks, Bon!”

The flow of prisoners and transvestite moving through the okama secret level continued as Luffy felt someone bump into him.

Hey! Look where you're going.”

Mr. Three and Buggy staggered past him, blue from the gloomy cloud over their heads.

We're going back into that frozen hellscape, huh?” Mr. Three sighed, getting Buggy to imitate him.

At least we're moving up this time around. To think we went through all the layers of Hell twice . What did I ever do to deserve that? I'm a right bastard. I entertain people before I rob them of everything they own. I throw great parties. I even helped the student of my most hated rival…”

Those two had to meet Usopp at some point. It'd be great.

Screams of agony rose from the hole in the ceiling of the okama kingdom, and Luffy’s grin dimmed. How many comrades had they lost to that poison guy at this point? Ivankov might be a bit weird – the good kind of weird – but those were his people out there. And he had joined them in the fight. Scissor-hands approached them and, with a twirl of his blades, made up another spiraling pathway up.

Do hurry. Our queen effort's will only delay Magellan. This is for the sake of the Revolution.”

Yeah, okay, let's go help Ivankov!” Luffy roused and took off running, immediately chased by Ace's 'not what he said, you damned idiot' . The familiar swearing made his grin widen.

In seconds, the two were on top of the staircase, and they jumped into the frozen forest. Unfortunately, he couldn't see any wolves around. Emergency meat supplies would have to be found elsewhere. Ivankov was dancing around the sluggish tentacles of a green slime-octopus.

Oh, Magellan, I haven't had a dance partner this determined to step on my feet in years!” The long arms lashed out and wrapped around a heel-wearing man that tripped onto a patch of ice. Ivankov's smile somehow turned dark. “You naughty man…”

I don't have time to play with you.”

So that's frozen hell?” Ace's voice came just behind Luffy. He was smirking, hands in his pockets. “Ain't so bad.”

Luffy's sandals sunk in just a little deeper into the snowbank, and he saw a few droplets drip from the branches of the pine trees. A look of wonder showed on half the prisoners' faces. Most of them had faces half covered in ice, and the ice was already melting away.

Oh. His big brother was so awesome!

Good to have you around, Ace,” Luffy told him with his trademark smile.

Oi, Lu, I'm not your personal heater.” Ace's hands tried to pull him off, but only managed in stretching him. “Go do your monkey cling to your okama friend over there.”

Luffy frowned. Ace hadn't managed to free himself. He always managed to free himself. Unless he was in one of his moods. Or he was really tired.

Straw Hat! demon guy roared, slapping Ivankov aside with a green slash. “ After I execute all the other ringleaders, I'll shove you in the deepest pit of Level Six!

There was a split second during which Luffy felt his skin burn, and his grip closing in on nothing. Only wisps of flames floating down on the snow. Right ahead, Ace howled, his body wreathed in red.

Fire fist!” he shouted, before throwing a punch that grew into an orange torrent.

Every other pirate shielded their eyes from the sheer glare of light, squinting to see past the shadow of Ace's silhouette within the inferno. Another, larger shadow aimed a strike where Ace's neck used to be.

DEATH WINK!” Invankov shouted, back on his feet.

A wave of air pressure crashed into Magellan, and the poison that had been clinging to his body lingered as a burnt purple cloud.

Careful not to breath the fumes!” the whale guy (Jimbei, right?) warned. “Some poisons remain active as gas!”

Crocodile's steel guy sneered and closed his mouth. With a gleaming slink, his fingers turned into blades. “Poison's not a problem for me.” He took one look at Crocodile's face and joined in the second his boss nodded.

Bon Clay and Three snarled. “It is for the rest of us, Mister One!”

Do we have anyone that can push back the poison cloud?” Jimbei called out.

Grunts of displeasure mixed in with the despairing shouts. Buggy's upper half floated up and he waved his arms lots. “Every guy that is gonna be useless, come with me! Don't interfere and become dead weight!”

Huh. Not bad thinking, Luffy surprised himself agreeing with the sour bastard. A whole bunch of prisoners followed Buggy as he made a break for the Level Four stairs on the other side of the plains.

A dark howl rose from where Ace's flames burned the brightest, and a purple dragon flew just a few meters in the escapees' direction before being vaporized. The distraction was working!

More purple clouds started to spread though. They really needed to be careful with those.

Nami could have taken care of it. His navigator would know just the right way to manipulate the air around them. She'd tell Zoro how to cut the cloud, and his swordsman would scoff at the lack of challenge. Or maybe she'd ask Max to do his flying horse stuff.

Flying had been so much fun. Usopp made all the best faces during the loops too.

The pang of longing in his chest hurt .

Fire pillar!” he heard, and a column of fire rose up to the ceiling.

He was gonna finish saving Ace, then find his crew all over again. It'd be like playing at starting his adventure from the start, except he already knew about his crew.

On his right, the big whale guy lifted a handful of snow in his palm, weighting it. “Hmph, this'll have to do.”

That hot-head is not making it any easier for us, Jimbei.” It was met with an unimpressive stare. “I'm going to pay Magellan back.” Crocodile grunted before taking off in a burst of sand. Jimbei rushed forth the next second.

Okay. If even that damn Crocodile joined in, there was no way Luffy was staying put. He could fight with Ace a hell lot better than Crocodile.

You can't, Luffy!” Bon Clay twirled right into his path. “Magellan's body is coated in poison. If you touch him, you'll die!”

Don't fight Magellan. Please trust me.

His knuckles turned white. He'd promised. Couldn't fight someone he'd promised one of his crew not to. Max must have known about that demon guy's strength. Must have been worried. Same he had when the robots all appeared on Sabaody. Luffy frowned, lips pinched. Max hadn't seen him win before. Only seen him goof off on the Sunny. Play around deck. Have an awesome party or two. Max was such a scaredy cat too. Did his cabin boy trust him?

A wide grin split his face. Eh, that was fine. He knew how to earn trust. T'was so easy he never got how people had so much trouble with it. He'd show Max how to rely on his captain. And he'd start by showing him that Monkey D. Luffy always kept his promise. So, he couldn't touch that Magellan dude. Couldn't even get close without getting poisoned. Except that wasn't true. He just needed to think of it sideways. Gloves, maybe?

His mind flashes to an awesome battle armor.

Quick as Gramp's eating habits, Luffy glanced around, looking for the super curvy haircut above the heads. Damn it! Three had already left with Buggy? The last of the group looked no bigger than a bug in the distance.

Gear… Second.”

Ten kicks.

The crowd of prisoners ran on, determined like they were going for the last piece of meat in the fridge, and none of them noticed him zooming above them. Where? Come on, Ace could need help! Where?

Something tingled at the back of his neck, and listening to his instinct, Luffy turned his head left just a little.

He grinned.

And kicked them both back near Bon Clay. His crossdressing friend only tilted his head, watching his former crewmate with a skeptical look behind his make-up. “Galdino?”

What just…” Three startled. “Ah! Straw Hat! Why did you bring me back here?!”

Luffy proudly pointed at his chest. “Wax me.”

Bon and Three blinked.

Sheesh. They kinda looked stupid like that. Makino did say he should be nice when someone didn't get it, even if it was really obvious. “Like your big armor you did on Little Garden. I can't touch Magellan, so I won't touch him.”

That's-” Three began, his mouth doing funny twitchy things before he wildly pointed in Ace and the others' direction. “My wax melts in the heat, did you forget already?!”

Luffy's enthusiasm plummeted. Right. An armor of dripping hot wax on his fists sounded painful. “Aaaaaaaaaaaaah! Then what should I do?!”

How should we know?!” they replied.

We have to do something! Ace's too tired and the other guy is Crocodile!”

He's doing fine! Him, Jimbei, Mr. One and Mr Zero. They are all spectacular fighters! They're alright.”

Precisely where Mr. Three was pointing, the flames parted, pushed aside by a large glob of grey goo that fell right next to Ace, sizzling.

His big brother mouthed a ' Shit! ' that would have made Makino scold him.

Magellan stepped through the wall of flames, blocking a bladed strike from Crocodile's crewmate. His body gleamed the same grey color as the blob on the ground, and by the look of tension spreading through Ace's shoulder, Luffy figured things were not going to stay alright.

Three,” Luffy said, suddenly dead serious. “The big pumpkin tower from before…”

It's gonna melt too.”

That's fine. Just prepare as much wax as you can.” He looked to Bon. “Kick down all the trees you can find, except two, sorta close by. Okay?”

He wasn't their captain. If anything, Crocodile kinda was. But right now, Luffy's patience had finally been all used up. It showed on his face. Both the former agents got to work as fast as they could, whilst Luffy spread his legs apart and put his fist to the ground. He slowed his breathing. Focused on the muscles in his legs. On the part of him that was a ten years old friend.

He grabbed two trees, his gaze still on the fighting ahead of them. Steam hissed from the melting snow around his feet.

Ace dodged the maws of a blob-like snake. Barely.

Gear Second…”

Bentham, hurry up!”

He pulled back, as far as he could without breaking the two trees.

Bon pirouetted in the air, then screaming something about ballet or okamas, kicked more than a dozen giant tree trunks right in his path.

Mr. Three had a second's hesitation, then pulled a smile. “Eh, no wonder I lost to a monkey like you. Candle Festival!”

White submerged every tree. Swallowing them. Covering, until all that was left was a spiked ball the size of a sea cow. Awesome. Just what he wanted.

JET BOMBER!

Luffy's sandals hit the white surface between two heartbeats, then, the rest of him followed between the next two. Bon and Three vanished in a blur of rushing wind. His arms snapped back into place only to start stretching again and pull at his shoulders. His fingers dug into bark. Deep. It wasn't a rocket. Not this time. He'd promised.

His feet left the spikeball's surface. It kept going.

Small globs of wax shaved off the surface as it neared Ace's flames, but the trees remained steady. Shining in the light of the roaring inferno.

Magellan only had time to cross his arms in front of his face before the spike ball slammed straight into him, and carried him off his feet, into a wall. His entire body disappeared beneath the broken shards of wood and the half melted wax.

Ace's flames blinked out. Either from surprise or a stroke of genius. Hard to tell with him. But the wax rapidly turned solid with the warden still stuck under it.

Luffy? Was that your plan?” His face was a mixture of disbelief and pride.

Shishishi, sure was, Ace,” Luffy replied, settling his hat back on his head while Bon and Three joined them.

Crocodile scoffed for some reason.

Jimbei however looked pensive. “Let's get out of here. This should at least slow him down.”

They heard the cracks when the last of Jimbei's voice faded. On the wax mess, red dots appeared, growing larger and cracking through the steel-like substance. First, a red hand broke through the trap. Then, horns, and a face that truly deserved the 'demon' title. His frown had grown into a full-blown glare. Bloodlust rolled off from him in waves. Luffy's guts told him with absolute certainty that this guy was a mortal enemy about to strike.

Through the wax, enough red poison seeped that it gathered above the warden's head and took on the shape of a skull-faced monster. One giant fist posed to smash them.

But the ground beneath them shook before it could strike, and the warden's eyes widened in shock. An ominous rumbling took hold of the wall near him.

Wait. Luffy's neck tingled. There's someone outside?!

Bricks went flying as water came pouring through a hole in the wall.

Luffy barely saw the glimpse of blue-furred in the torrent before the waves of water crashed into him, into the others. For a second, his limbs went numb, his mind in a frenzy. He could barely move his fingers, but a cool webbed-palm grabbed the back of his shirt, and Luffy suddenly spluttered, spitting water as he rolled onto soft snow.

Ace crashed right next to him with a grunt.

This is bad,” he heard Jimbei's muttered.

Yup. He doubted even Zoro could dive deep enough to catch him if he sank outside this place.

A breach!” shrieked one prisoner running towards, his eyes wide, his voice cracking. “There's a breach! Level Five is being flooded!”

WHAAAAAAAAAAT?!” Ace and him shouted with their eyes popping out of their skulls, and their jaws hanging unhinged.

Crocodile's slowly stood up, and really? Jimbei could have left him to drown. Taught him not to hurt his friends. “Sounds like we grew a bit too frightening for the marines to handle.” He spat some blood in the snow at his feet. “Bunch of cowards.”

Who authorized this?!” the demon guy yelled at the gorillas.

For sole reply, one of them held out a transponder snail with a lazy face. Whatever the snail's answer was, the guy's frown deepened. He also didn't start shouting again, looking put upon, like having to do chores or telling Gramps he wasn't gonna be a marine.

He held out a hand and let a single drop of red poison fall into the stream. The water took on a bloodish taint.

The gorillas waited for a nod, then grabbed Magellan on both sides and swam up the water current. Under the astonished eyes of Luffy's group, their opponents vanished into the ocean.

There anything you can do, Jimbei?” Ace asked, looking everywhere for something to block the flow of water. A snowbank wouldn't last very long. It seemed to falter under them already.

Not with that much pressure!” Jimbei shouted back. “We're too deep underwater to slow it down! At best, I can take a few people through at a time and out of the prison. Magellan's poison will be too diluted on the other side. But the blugoris are certainly going to be watching and trying to separate me from any prisoner I'd be carrying.”

Those blue gorillas things were weak though. Surely, it wouldn't take too much effort…

And that's assuming the Sea Kings don't attack either.”

Oh yeah. Hancock had said something like that before. Well, he wasn't scared. Though, he would be underwater, and he wouldn't be able to move, maybe if he created a bubble by breathing really hard first… His forehead started to heat up. Why was this so complicated?

Well, if we don't do something right away, we're all gonna drown,” Crocodile growled.

CANDLE WALL!”

Luffy span on himself at the exact moment his big brother did, and they both saw the flooding white wax rush against the flow of water and push until it covered the hole entirely.

For such a shit power, you really can be useful, huh?” Ace asked, smirking. “Nice one!”

Three's face fell while Bon patted his back.

I might spare you yet, Mr. Three.”

I'd kick your ass first, Croc,” Luffy smile showed all his teeth.

--

"They've plugged another breach,” a black capped jailor reported. “It appears they have some pirate able to create a sticky substance as solid as steel. The blugoris can't break the plugs they made. Even our explosives aren't quite strong enough, without threatening the structural integrity of Impel Down, of course.”

Oooh,” Kizaru drawled. “That's so troublesome.” He put his chin in his hands. “You sure you don't want to help for a bit, Blackbeard? It's your prisoner and former friend that's trying to break out, you know?”

Teach's chest throbbed where the flames lances had hit. Oh yeah. They had had a nice reunion. Unfortunately, he couldn't afford another one just yet. Maybe once things had fallen into place. “Now, now, you are the ones that put those cuffs on me. Don't complain if I can't fight for you right now.”

Not that he would mind having a go at Straw Hat if he could. Little brat seemed to be made of the right stuff for pirates.

Hmmm, but who knows what you would do without them?” That seemed to be that.

Besides, Kizaru might have been sitting down in a long chair, sipping on a cold glass of water, but his attention was anything but relaxed. Pressure the likes of which crushed ships into splinters was bearing down on the back of Teach's neck.

The bastard extended half his observation haki just to make sure a poor warlord couldn't even twiddle his thumbs. The second he hinted at his gambit, there'd be a lightspeed kick aimed at his head. He dared not wipe the sweat off his brows. Damn. Even the climatized office in this fire and brimstone nightmare were hot as balls.

Fate chose not to lie in his bed tonight, huh? Cold bitch. He was gonna have to cajole her back. Passable ale, some cherry pie, and a good dose of audacity. His recipe for seduction.

Zehaha, don't worry, don't worry,” he patted the nearest jailor's back. “Warden Magellan's the strongest in Impel Down, isn't he?”

The woman flinched away from his touch, but readjusted her glasses and kept her composure. “The only one that comes close would be former Warden Shiliew of the Rain. But…” her head dipped down.

Kizaru plucked a grape from a nearby plate, his eyes hidden behind his shades. “Hmhmm, Shiliew? Brings me back years. That's right, he was a decent swordsman back then, wasn't he? Why isn't he here then?”

Now, the rest of the jailors shifted uncomfortably. One raised a finger. “He… huh, Warden Magellan had him imprisoned for excessive brutality towards the prisoners.”

Kizaru slowly blinked, and Teach had to agree with the admiral on that one. “You know this is Impel Down, right?”

Teach kept himself from grinning. Even the demon running Hell could have a soft heart. Wasn't that something? The world really was chock-full of surprises. Good thing he was expanding his horizons.

W-well, he was disobeying Warden Magellan's direct orders. Some prisoners died before their full sentences could be carried out.”

Aaaah, well, why didn't you open up with that?” Kizaru waved a dismissive hand. “Anyway, just get him out. Gotta have all hands on deck to deal with this, huh? It’s not worth holding grudges at a time like this.”

A-are you certain?” Mook must have had a death wish. “Ex-Warden Shiliew was somewhat difficult to work with. And he's down in Level Six, past the prisoners' uprising.”

Send the blugoris swimming down. Tell them to bring Ex-Warden Shiliew back to the first level to receive his sword back.”

Sir,” the guard's voice came again , and Teach barely hid his snort in time, “with all due respect, Warden Magellan would want to be inf-”

He cut short with a gasp of pain, falling to his knees, holding the gaping hole in his shoulder. Behind him, a portion of the wall exploded.

Kizaru lowered his pointed finger, rolling his eyes. “Insubordination in the middle of a crisis can cause real damage, y'know? Just get me a transponder snail.”

There was a noticeable increase in the reaction time of the jailors after that. No more questions either.

What a monster , Teach thought, chuckling.

--

Grumbling and restlessness floated above the heads of every prisoner still stuck in Level Five.

Some had already wandered off, and Jimbei had sailed long enough to know it would be useless to try and convince any of them to remain where they were. Besides the obvious issue of the flood only being temporarily stopped, none of them had sworn any loyalty to the cause. Pirates that desperate would sell their brothers and sisters-in-arms in a heartbeat if it meant escaping Hell on the Seas.

With half a dozen pirates worthy of Level Six sitting in circle though, the risks were not coming from the ragtag bunch.

It was a nice try, Straw Hat,” Crocodile drawled, his right-hand man at his side. Really? thought Jimbei. The man had no concept of teamwork, it seemed.

Which was a problem when dealing with someone like Monkey D. Luffy or Portgas D. Ace. Together? Eh, Jimbei had his hands full with both youngsters just dying to punch the former warlord in the face. He understood the sentiment. He truly did.

Fortunately, Ivankov delicately coughed in his hand, and Crocodile's face went pale. “We're all friends here, aren't we?”

A handless Buggy stared uneasily at the okama queen. Ivankov was the unknown, Jimbei guessed. Anyone that could intimidate a warlord should be on everyone's radar. Apparently, the clown had never so much as heard of Ivankov before.

Buggy huddled a bit closer to Straw Hat and glanced North, the last place they had sent Mr. Three to plug a breach. The marines' strategy wasn't working, but it made them expend some effort.

Captain Buggy!” a pirate with three missing teeth shouted, hand clenched around a ringing transponder snail. “Magellan's snail is getting a call.”

Why are you bringing it to me?!” The clown pulled a panicked face, arms splitting in pieces.

Jimbei, however, frowned. When had the prisoners started calling him 'Captain'?

Eh, give it,” Luffy said, extending his hand to pull the cord off. “Yo.”

Is this Straw Hat?” the snail asked casually, irregardless of the blood chilling spell it cast on Jimbei and the others. Straw Hat alone looked immune.

Oi, are you the light monkey guy?! The admiral?”

You sound angry. That's not good for your heart. Sheesh. I didn’t even kill your swordsman.”

The young pirate sputtered, his face twisted into an expression of pure rage. Dealing with Kizaru had often left Jimbei with a headache, obviously, but this look, the sheer anger beneath the boy's skin spoke of a more personal experience. Of a wound left raw.

I thought Kuma had gotten rid of you. Oooooh well, I guess a pirate is always a pirate, deep down. Eh, Jimbei? Getting yourself sent to Impel Down… Was that your plan to infiltrate? To get inside in time to help Portgas escape?”

Then, then the snail's eyes shifted around, looking through the crowd and stopping right on the clown-nosed pirate. Who squeaked and whose legs tensed exactly the way they should before a mad dash for the hills.

I suppose I shouldn't forget to give you credit as well, Buggy the Clown.”

Through the incoherent high pitch screaming, Jimbei vaguely understood something like 'Why meeee?!'

You were thought to be just a small-time pirate, but you pulled one right under our noses, huh? I'm almost impressed. Captured on the Grand Line right after Portgas, hid your devil fruit from the guards and thrown on the first level like common trash.” The snail's smile took on a grim, menacing turn. Jimbei could feel the danger rising from where he stood. “It's the sort of thing your old captain would do, right?”

You know about Roger?!” The clown leaned closer, eyes popping out of his skull and head splitting from his body. Then, as if a light bulb had gone off over his head, he waved his hands frantically in front of the snail. “I m-m-mean, who? I have no idea what you are talking about!”

The snail rolled its eyes. “Gold Roger. Former King of the Pirates. Your old captain, some twenty years ago.” It hummed. “A comrade to Red Hair too. Geez. I'll have to get some inspector sent here after this mess blows over. Who ever took care of your record?”

Someone shifted to Jimbei's left. A man three heads taller than him stared with his jaw hanging wide open. It took a second to digest the news himself, but he could shake it off fairly well. Every crew had that one boisterous weakling. It figured not even the Pirate King could escape that fate. Though… having heard of the man, maybe he had looked for one to bring to his crew on purpose.

Crocodile scoffed. “What a joke.”

The clown's teeth turned into fangs. “Fine! Captain Roger would have told me to just laugh it up anyway! I did. I planned to one-up the old lion and sully his legacy. He broke himself out of the unbreakable prison?! Well, I will empty Impel Down!

And with a shaking fist, the clown slammed the receiver so hard on the snail's back, the inveterate squealed and disappeared into its shell. Then, Buggy's face slowly turned as blue as his hair, and his knees began shaking to the rhythm of a popular shanty.

Unaware that more or less every other pirate in hearing range had gone still.

Wait, what?” Ace broke the silence, choking on some wolf leg. “Buggy's actually really strong?!”

Eeeeeh, not really. I fought him a while ago.” Straw Hat shrugged, slapping Ace’s back. “He lost easily.”

As luck would have it, Buggy's head whirled up to them and yelled “I nearly killed you twice, you moron!”

Naaah,” Monkey D. Luffy waved it off, pushing down a glowering Ace. “Maybe a bit the second time.”

For whatever reason, Buggy paused, his eyes searching the super-rookie's face and grin. Like he was seeing a ghost. Jimbei could not make out the words he whispered. Only the intent behind, and the shift in the man's posture.

Crocodile scoffed. “As if some third-rate scum like him would amount to anything…”

Third-rate scum?!” Buggy's voice jumped so high it broke.

Jimbei did not facepalm. He had too much bearing for that, but it was so so tempting. He resigned himself to stand in a moment and prevent bloodshed and division in the middle of their escape attempt.

I'm third-rate scum? Eh? Eh?! Coming from the failed rogue agent, Crocodile? From the fool that played around a civil war when all he needed was to step into a royal basement from the front door?! Oh, I forget, that's not your way, huh? Too much guts for someone like you, right?”

A twitch in Crocodile's mouth told Jimbei he would have snapped a cigar in half, had he been smoking. “Do you even have a bounty?” he said, calmly, because getting a rise out of you easily was a poor showing for any leader. “I've never even heard of you and I headed an organization that scouted every bounty on the Grand Line.”

Neither had Jimbei, to be honest. He was inclined to believe Luffy's retelling. Buggy's haki felt underdeveloped.

What have I done? Where have I sailed?!” The clown's voice turned into a high-pitched shriek. I walked on Raftel's shore, you plain cigar-sucking fuck!”

Jimbei’s breath got caught in his gills.

I was a pirate on the Oro fucking Jackson! I worked alongside that bastard Red-Hair, that slavedriver of a Dark King and the most amazing man to have braved the seas, The Pirate King himself! And you dare question my credentials?!”

It could not be a coincidence that Ivankov gasped so dramatically as to draw Crocodile's eyes his way. The revolutionary's poker face was excellent on its own, but under his make-up, Jimbei could barely sense more than a vague smugness from the okama.

Crocodile's steel subordinate got up to his feet.

You were so scared of the marines that you joined them! ‘Aaaah, protect me, admiral-sama!’ What a joke, and I’m the genius jester!”

A bunch of angry veins popped up on Crocodile's forehead.

Jimbei's palm subtly caught some of the droplets dripping off the pines. He could feel his fellow warlord's irritation, and there was always a limit to one's self-control. Buggy's, for example, had barely any.

Mister One hands sliced through the distance between them.

But the metal fingers struck only air, two halves of Buggy's head floating aside Mister One's attack. Unfettered. They came back together just out of range, and the aura from the lowly East Blue captain was one eerily reminiscent of a red-haired pirate. From one who had met both, as Jimbei had, the resemblance struck like thunder.

Glaring, Buggy the Clown loomed over the mercenary, and despite the differences in strength, it was not the weaker man that stepped back.

You hear what I'm saying, little pirate?” Buggy hissed to the warlord.

He heard. Every escaped convict hear, and they were enraptured. For those of Hell that had only fading dreams as comfort in the dark of night, they heard, and their hearts beat in unison with the clown's words.

I. Saw. ONE PIECE!”

The droplets of melting snow hit the ground like thunder in the silence that was. Jimbei could not have stop staring if he wanted. His mind had gone back to the footage of the execution, the statement of the World Government that had been stolen by a man on the scaffold.

I left it all in One Piece.

One Piece was real.

Jimbei had been a pirate, before he had become a warlord to save his fellow fishmen. Perhaps Kizaru had the truth of it. You could not taste the freedom of the sea and throw it away. And every pirate had a piece of the dream, once, in their lives, they all had dreamed of being the Pirate King.

For a fleeting moment, Buggy looked flustered, shocked at his own boldness, and it was only a passing fancy, for his traits hardened and his snarl resembled a downturned grin.

There’s one of them, under the desert kingdom, huh? A poneglyph. Well, they’re dimes a dozen along the sea, you plain fool! And you called me a small-time red-nosed bastard?! I don’t need them. The only reason the age of piracy came was because of my captain and I respect the old bastard too much to ever betray that!”

Those claims, Jimbei thought too far-fetched, but others around him didn't share his point of view. Perhaps they'd never come close to a Road Poneglyph, or perhaps he himself was mistaken. Jimbei admitted with no small amount of discomfort that the clown's countenance had a swaying power. Empty boasts only lost their powers when people knew for certain they were empty, and no one had stepped anywhere near the shores of the legendary island but that man. Shanks, Rayleigh… it seemed too bizarre to think of them anywhere in the mental vicinity of Buggy the Clown . But they had no choice now.

Crocodile ground out: “You have no idea of the power hidden in those texts.”

Fine logic. But cold. Pressing, calculating. It didn’t sway the way Buggy’s fire did.

Don't look down on me, you government bitch !”

Hundreds of admiring gazes turned into vicious glares aimed at the former warlord.

Oh. He was a cunning one. A coward too, but there was a source of strength in that as well.

This could turn ugly. They might not be an individual match for a warlord, but there were hundreds of them, and none of them would squeak away from turning this into a bloodbath. Kizaru's snail call had been a mistake. Their ragtag bunch had been united by the hope of a legendary – or soon-to-be legendary – pirate in their midst to pull them out of hell.

Enough,” Jimbei rumbled, stepping between Crocodile and the scowling prisoners. “Infighting is the last thing we need. We're still stuck in the Fifth Level.”

Pass me the seasoning, Lu,” someone fake whispered through a mouthful.

Where and how had Ace and Luffy gotten a roasting spike to cook snacks on during all this? The brothers watched, sitting side by side and sprinkling grounded pine needles on their lunch over an open fire. Piles of bones led next to both, though Ace's remained a head taller.

Even if this fails, the wardens will have to import new arctic wolves once this is over .

Though, in all seriousness, he was hoping Straw Hat might remember that this was still a rescue mission and that there was an admiral upstairs.

He's right.” Buggy turned around, all smiles where he had been screeching insults moments ago. “Don't be so close-minded, guys. That's the mark of a petty man! Come with me instead. Dream higher! Dream of the sky and all we will do when we shed our shackles! Do you guys remember the sea? The wind in your sails and the treasures in your coffers? Do you? Set aside your grudges, boys and girls, today, we break the marines' strongest prison! To freedom!”

The ensuing roar shook the last snow off their trees.

And Buggy jumped at the center, arms wide open in invitation. “Who's with me?!”

Jimbei suddenly got an inkling he knew what Roger and Red-Hair had seen in the clown. He had a talent and the lack of conscience to get it going. Dumb luck as well. What a day when fools made dangerous foes.

**

Ace sneezed and shrugged off the feeling he should be offended on Luffy's behalf.

The whole group had become feverish with energy. Bloodlust. Greed for freedom and the thorny kiss of the Grand Line. Every pirate seemed to be running around, finding something to use as a weapon, whilst Ace just watched. He was his own best weapon.

But something nagged at him.

He shoved four pirates to the side and stopped right in front of Buggy.

You knew Gol D. Roger.”

Buggy waved a hand, his face the very expression of pleased false modesty. “Eeeeh, I don't like using my old captain's name or anything. But yeah. I was almost his right-hand man. Would have been without ol' Rayleigh around.” -- A flash of fangs and anger. -- “Definitely above that red haired menace!” -- And as quick as it had appeared, replaced with a more content, sincere look. -- “He was a right bastard, and the best man I ever knew.”

Ace did not notice his fists clenching until his nails had dug into the skin of his palms.

Buggy's head split from his neck and floated up and down around Ace's face. “Huh. Can't believe I didn't notice before. You've got Rouge's freckles, you know?”

The words felt like a punch to the guts. He… he did? Garp had never… he always said he had not known her much. First met her on her deathbed at Roger's request.

Could…” Ace trailed off, unable to push the request through.

Ace! Come on, we're going to use Ivankov's giant head to break through the ceiling. That'll show that stupid admiral for threatening my crew.”

Years and years of experience let him put up with that sentence without giving up on logic. But as he ran after his brother, fond, his thought drifted back to the clown's smirk. Her freckles, huh? The ladies did always think it was his best feature.

--

Magellan really had no reason to be annoyed, in Borsalino's humble opinion. The breaches might not have worked, but they certainly stalled the prisoners long enough to give the blugoris time to free Shiliew. Depending on performance, Borsalino would even write him a recommendation for a pardon.

Magellan's subordinates put the towels he'd use in a biohazard bin and waited a few seconds to pull the gas masks off their faces.

Admiral Kizaru.” The warden nodded, perfectly polite despite the annoyance Kizaru could sense with his Observation. “Apologies for the mess. It should soon be over. I'll head down the stairs in a moment and kill any who resist.”

It's good to know our jailors are so serious, eh, Blackbeard?” Borsalino threw over his shoulder. “I never could stomach this place. So many screams. Such scary tortures.”

Teach's muffled chuckling made one or two low-level officers sweat. Ah, rookies.

Anyway, don't be so formal. I've got your former partner out to help you deal with them. With both of you, this whole riot thing ought to be over soon, right?”

The corner of Magellan's lips turned down. “Yes,” he said roughly. “It will speed up the process, at least.”

Some imp-like jailor struck down the desk he was at, calling frantically for an answer.

Magellan quickly grabbed the receiver. “Why isn't Vice-Warden Hannyabal responding?” The mumbled reply made Magellan's fist clench. With a cross-look, he turned to his subordinate. “Where did you send Shiliew?”

First floor, to get his sword.”

After all this work not to be bothered…

Borsalino stood slowly. “Well, go take a look.” He shrugged. “I'll take care of the pirates if they come this way.”

Magellan took off sprinting, moving faster than Borsalino had ever seen from the man before. He did have a few levels to climb up, after all. For a minute or so, only the imp's attempts at communication filled in the silence, only getting hissing from the abused snail.

Chief Saldeath, they turned on us!” the snail suddenly screamed. “Ex-Warden Shiliew freed the-ARGH!”

The click of keys turning was a sound much too familiar for a marine to ever forget.

A fly's words came back to him. Become Warlord, get awesome opportunities, profit…”

Blackhole!

Chapter Text

“Onto Level One, you motley crew!” Buggy screamed at the top of his lung, safe in the middle of the pack.

“Yes, Captain Buggy!” replied the crowd with adoring, excited voices.

Every obstacle, they crushed with the strength of pirates possessed by greed, by hunger. They were blazing through the underwater prison. Breaking every door, every lock, swelling their ranks larger and larger. From the very bottom of the prison had risen the tides of a crew, a real crew from every Blue. Every man and woman, boiled down to their basest form. Pirates.

The freest of all people. Come together.

Eh. Sorta, Luffy thought better, a few seconds later. Too many chains on them all. Three had not accepted to make copies for every manacles he encountered. It'd kill him, he had insisted.

And well, Luffy glanced at his big brother at his sides, Three came through. There was a debt there. No one was killing Three on his watch, not even himself! Besides, there were plenty of keys lying around. Mostly from the waists of jailers that had not evacuated quickly enough. That thought they could stop any of them.

Past the corpses of the fallen beasts were isolated stragglers, hiding in their niches, begging for mercy from people that would give none. More than simple cheers punctuated their breakthrough.

It rattled. But Luffy was not naive. You didn't break out of a prison without harming anyone. And, some of the prisoners' revenge seemed oddly… personal. Blades in very specific places. Torches to the face from burnt men. Bludgeoning from women with no teeth.

His gaze lingered on one of Ace's new scars. On the reddish lines that marred his back, carefully digging into his tattoo. You didn't get that sort of injury in the middle of a fight. Unless your opponent was playing with you.

More pleas rose around him, and Luffy strode forward without looking back.

“I can see the stairs to Level One,” someone shouted, and the cry was repeated a hundred times.

If they had been frantic before, it was nothing compared to this. Men and women alike sped past Luffy, their gaze lit with a fire that shone of desperation and desire. 'Let me through', most said. The crowd tightened around them. Didn't hurt, really, just squeezed his body and made squeaky noises. Luffy inhaled, inflated and shoved back a handful, but the second he deflated, the gap was filled again.

Ace dropkicked the one that threatened to run over them both. “Morons,” he spat under his breath. “They all forgot about Kizaru and Magellan.”

Luffy hadn't. But his guts told him neither were that close. And he trusted his guts. That was where all the meat went. They'd never failed him before.

“Onwards, onwards!” encouraged Buggy's floating head near the staff's staircase.

The squeezing got worse. He bit no less than three people in less than a minute. Knees and elbows dug into him, and some prisoners could actually take a punch to the face!

They carefully did not retaliate though. Instead striking at unaffiliated bastards to vent some frustration.

“I'll burn the first one to push me again!”

Luffy scowled. Hard. No big mystery there. In an already stuffy, crowded, messy staircase, the little flares of Ace's powers pushed things into downright unpleasant. It would hardly slow down the flow of people, when they were already tight as sardines in a staircase. Luffy's foot had hit two or three people lying down at this point.

It felt like the hour before lunch. Like the moment he had to wait in anticipation, looking at the light ahead of them, and being unable to reach without losing sight of Ace.

And then, all at once, air, space, people spreading out desperately.

Luffy sprang to his right, one hand around Ace's waist, the other grabbing a cell's bars away from the crowd. His arm snapped into place neatly, and he took a second to breath. Lifting his eyes back up, he noticed Ace's tense stance.

Prisoners still poured from the entrance, as frantic as before, but those that were at the front had stopped to stare. Ivankov's purple hair stood out at the head of his subjects, the furthest into the rows of broken cells.

“What happened here?” Buggy's floating head asked.

“I think…” Mr. Three swallowed nervously. “Someone got here before us.”

Oh yeah. That was the easy guess. Walls had broken down. Holes littered the ceilings and floors. Bars had caved in, distorted into their cells, some impaling unlucky prisoners. A handful of unluckier ones crawled on the floor, hoping to stem the blood flow.

Yet…

Light flooded the formerly dark and foreboding first level of Impel Down. Halos cut right through the dreary atmosphere that had plagued every level of the prison.

Some staggered forward, uncaring of the possible dangers.

“Is that…?” A man twice as wide as Luffy was tall frantically grabbed another inmate and pointed above their heads. Tears rolled down his cheeks, his lips wobbly. “Is that the sky?”

Overwhelmed, his friend put a hand over his mouth and nodded frantically.

“Six years,” he choked out, laughing through his ugly crying. “It's the first time in six goddamned years… it's blue. I'd… I'd fucking forgotten how blue it is.”

Luffy watched, unease settling around his stomach. Most of the strongest prisoners had the same sincere look of joy on their faces, their entire bodies shining. He vaguely heard the ringing of bells and the chirping of birds.

He looked a little further up, to the cage full of overweight parrots and the giant bells hanging from their necklaces. The labels read something like 'chimera feed'.

“So… beautiful…” A woman with a mop of messy hair going down to her heels muttered. Eyes red.

So very red, she fell on her back, clutching them in pain.

“Stared at the sun too long.” Ace shrugged, kicking the fallen prisoner a few times to prompt them to stand up.

“Come on, you beautiful morons!” Buggy floated up and whipped his arms around. “You can't stop when you're staring at the finish lines! That's how you lose a rigged race! We're almost there! Go, go, go!”

Sluggishly, the ecstatic prisoners rose to their feet, beatified expression firmly in places. First, a few steps, like infants aiming for that cushion or that parent's arms.

“The light… it's like it's raining down on us. It feels so… warm…”

A beam of light struck a trio of prisoners, bathing their figures in hallowed grace.

Then exploded.

Jimbei and Ace facepalmed.

“Oi, oi, don't turn yourselves into targets, boys and gals!” Buggy screeched, wildly attempting to dislodge a handful of beefy prisoners hiding behind his back. “We gotta keep moving or Kizaru's gonna blast our, your asses!”

They started running in earnest, hearts floating above their heads. “Captain Buggy is so considerate.”

What a bunch of gullible idiots.

The entire first level suddenly shook down to its foundations. The thick stone-walls did nothing to dampen the noise of multiple explosions. Blocks bigger than Ivankov's giant head fell. And bounced back, a 'boing' sound effect like his own rubbery antics. Someone had thrown a great white blanket right over their group's heads.

Luffy's eyes followed after the blocks' trajectory, which only crashed into a herd of panicking blue-monkey-things. Nice shot.

For a split second, the light that had blessed the escapees' lives vanished. The change was so instantaneous that it drowned out their cries of anguish. But not the sudden rush of heat from his left side.

Ace's knees folded, crouching as if he were going to jump and scale the ruins.

Luffy's fist was faster.

“Ace!” He grabbed both his stunned brother's shoulders and pinned him to a wall. “I didn't get to fight Magellan 'cause you were more important. You don't get to jump into a bad fight 'causes you're pissed!”

“You did involve yourself in my fight with Magellan, brat,” Ace grumbled, adjusting his shorts and a few strands of his hair.

“Sideways,” Luffy insisted, arms crossed over his chest. “So it didn't count.”

“Ah?” Ace loomed over him, poking his cheeks. “It totally did, Lu. You threw a giant projectile at Magellan's face. You hurt him.”

Luffy scowled. “No. I didn't.” He looked away, Max's words ringing in his head. Don't fight him. “He stood up just fine. It didn't count.”

“Tche,” Ace scoffed, then chuckled. “Isn't that even worse?”

“Oh, candyboys!” Ivankov called, sing-song. “You're getting left behiiiiiind!”

They blinked. They glanced around. Then, eyes popping out of their skulls, they took off after the sea of prisoners. A few bounds put them close to the front of the pack. Honestly, he was getting annoyed at all the pit stops those guys were doing. At least, if it were about meat, Luffy could understand – and strongly approve – but this…?

The security offices were thrown open, the transponder snail snatched from their wiring, cutting off the frantic calls. The weapon racks were emptied. Some uniforms were stolen. Any personal effects found were retaken.

All the while Luffy could feel his neck tingle at the presence of the people fighting on the roof. Light bastard was there. It killed him to admit it, but Luffy just couldn't beat him. Yet. Couldn't protect Robin from Ice Dude either…

Ace. He would protect Ace. Sometimes, you weren't meant to fight.

“We're almost at the lobby, you glorious rascals!” Buggy praised, pumping his arms in the air. “Push it, guys!”

A pair of giant half-closed doors laid in their paths, filtering a brightly colored future.

Buggy stumbled chest first into Jimbei's hand. Buggy's teeth kept going, and landed somewhere in a puddle of greenish slime.

“W-wa wa dat fo, Jim-ei?!” The tone was angry, the words, incomprehensible, but the shifty eyes spilled with gratitude, where no one else could see.

Then how do I know? Luffy scratched the top of his head. His guts were really getting mouthy today. Couldn't shut up about everything around him…

Jimbei calmly replied: “Nothing much, Captain Buggy. I just thought we shouldn't rush too quickly, lest one of our weaker comrades die.”

“Big Bro Jimbei is so cool!” exclaimed the prisoners.

Buggy carefully reassembled his mouth, minus the teeth dripping with poison. “Right, right, got a bit carried away. Thanks, you flashy fishman, you.” He cleared his throat. “Now, open the gates!”

At his call, a bunch of prisoners rushed and pulled and pulled and the light flooded the hallway, its glare blinding until…

Bodies were strewn over the railings and the floor; a few, wearing prisoners' uniforms. Some, weirdly, half-covered by burnt-off remains of marine jackets. None breathing.

The walls, Luffy remembered, had been just a boring, straight-edged show. Lined-up perfectly, with no grip, no variation, just uniformly blank. Dark. The battle had transformed them. Made them something like… like the insides of the giant snake, back in Skypiea. Fleshy. Reddish.

Covered in acidic slime.

Luffy placed a hand over his mouth. The smell was also like the inside of a giant beast. Rotting flesh. Stinking and stinging.

“Hmph,” Crocodile snorted, striding into the lobby with ease, walking over corpses without a care for his surroundings. Mr. One followed.

Slowly, with muted enthusiasm, the prisoners turned to Buggy and, for some reason, Mr. Three. They shrugged.

Dead eyes stared at them as they made their way to the lobby and the destroyed admission desk.

Luffy actually jumped forward to find out, but ran into his older brother's arm. He folded in half and both his upper and lower halves stretched before snapping him back into Jimbei.

“Oi, Ace!” Luffy said. “That guy is not gonna wake up.”

“Straw Hat is right. Magellan's dead."

Lesser men and women cheered. Hooted and jeered. Ace's and Crocodile's fists put a stop to that.

Jimbei stepped back from the big demon-like corpse and glanced at a form, only a few feet away. Luffy couldn't even tell if it was a dude or not, just that it had been on a horse. The rest… well, most of the slime in the room could be found in the same corner. Well, what one would loosely described as a corner, given that it was slowly sinking in the depth, stone and metal melting alike.

“And so is his last opponent, it seems.”

“Look out, Luffy!”

Luffy's head turned so fast his neck twisted like a corkscrew, only to find Bon Clay's outstretched legs kicking a spear out of the air.

A whip snapped, snatching the weapon back towards a pale, blood-covered man with the sort of headdress Luffy had seen in Alabasta.

“Oi! Bastard, what do you think you're doing?” Ace yelled.

“The warden…” the demon guy panted, swiping a trail of blood off his eyebrows. “Following the… the demise… of the previous warden…” His grip on the wall tightened enough to crack it. “I, Hannyabal, Vice-Warden of Impel Down, will stop this breakout! I will not let you terrorize the innocent people of the world!”

His other hand slammed the butt of his spear into the ground, and the shockwave seemed infused with the man's very determination. His clouded eyes had cleared. His stance solid. He would do it, flashed the thought in Luffy's mind, he would face the entire army of prisoners on his own. And a piece of him respected that.

“Com-” blood splattered from his mouth.

He looked down, slowly, to find a knife sticking through his ribs. Attached to a hand floating in the air.

With a rasp exhale, he fell to the ground, eyes rolled back.

“Fools that waste time babbling end up dead,” Buggy said, his smile as wide as his face.

“Captain Buggy!” resonated the hundreds of admiring voices. “That was amazing!”

Luffy's teeth ground together, squeaking like a bunch of balloons. Ace shook his head. Not the time. And that dude had been an enemy anyway. You had to pick your battle. A subtle jab of Ace's chin pointed at Crocodile, who looked plain disgusted.

“That rule unfortunately seems to have a glaring exception,” the former warlord said under his breath.

If looks could kill – and hadn't Shanks almost done that once? –, Buggy's head would have exploded. Twice.

“Onwards!” he said, white as some laser beams passed over their heads. “O-o-o-onwards, fools!”

***

If seeing the Light – and incidentally surviving seeing the Light – had made them joyful before, the roll of the waves and the splashes of the water on their faces made them fall to their knees. Hysterics all around. Hitting the ground with their fists. Crying tears of joy. Kissing Buggy's feet. Complete loss of human dignity in the favor of regaining half their souls as people of the sea.

Luffy himself could hardly stop smiling at the sight of the sea.

Then, a pair of jaws much larger than a battleship surged out of the water to snap at the low-hanging seagulls.

Some prisoners picked up their jaws from the floor, and those of their neighbors.

“Oh, right, the seaking Hancock talked about!” Luffy said, striking his open palm with his fist. Of course. He'd completely forgotten that.

Big whale guy stared into the water, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “I could call some friends… We could board one of the marines' battleships and escape through the Gates.”

“Hold that thought, Jimbei.” Ace's wicked grin made his freckles dance on his cheeks. “Lu, remember Gramps' Oversized Iron Ball?”

“Huh?” Luffy blinked. Gramp's freakish attack throwing a giant iron ball at his ship? What did that have to do with anything?

Ace knelt. And grabbed Luffy's ankles. “Just don't let go of the ship till it's back here.”

“Ace…?”

He was suddenly hefted straight up. Luffy batted his arms in the air to regain some balance. His protest died soon after, as Ace twisted on himself and started spinning. Luffy's legs were already stretching on their own, and his face came within inches of a prisoner that hadn't ducked quickly enough.

The glint in Ace's gaze awakened a primal, instinctual fear that made goosebumps run up and down Luffy's arms, then up and down again thrice for good measure. The very second Ace opened his mouth, Luffy's fears were very much vindicated.

“SHITTY GRAMPS HOMAGE!”

“AAAAAAAAH, ACE, THAT IS A STUPID IDEA!”

Ace's boots skidded on the stone.

LITTLE BROTHER FASTBALL SPECIAL!

And then, weightlessness. Like pulling off his own rocket attack, with an added pressure around his ankles.

Wind whipped at his face, pushing against his shoulders, trying to stop him from stretching. The ships were fast approaching. Growing bigger by the seconds. He could see their faces, and they were amazing. The kind his crew pulled around some awesome Grand Line stuff. The kind that made his heart beat just a little faster.

His fists closed around wood.

Ignoring the marines running around the deck, Luffy snaked his arms around the railings and the four masts. His shoulders shook from the sheer effort not to snap himself back into a single shape. The TWANG that flashed through his body made the battleship lurch ominously.

“Gotcha!”

***

Whilst two warlords and a several dozens other level six and five prisoners held on to Portgas D. Ace as a way of pulling back Luffy, Mr. Three cleared his throat from a 'safe' distance.

“Ah, far from me the idea to be contrarian, but I foresee a slight problem with Ace's cunning plan.”

The mass of grunting escapees made a noise of acknowledgment, which was already much better than Buggy, basking in the adoration of prematurely celebrating fools. It was probably as good as it was gonna get.

“Now, forget me if I get the science of this wrong, but… wasn't it said that the larger the mass, the harder it is to slow down?”

He saw the white-out shock discolor them all. In itself, a feat. After all, he managed that under the roaring of the displaced water and the shadow of the battleship bloating the sky.

***

“Bon Clay?”

The okama winked, swirling in circle.

“Ah! Fooled them. The control towers bought it. They thought I was the Vice-Warden.”

Ivankov, alongside most of the other okamas and prisoners missing a teeth or twelve, showed a big thumbs up, then slumped back on the deck of their slightly battered vessel.

Buggy's unconscious body somehow cheered weakly. His soul was ascending to the heavens, surrounded by the prayers of his pious followers-slash-victims.

“I really don't see the big deal,” Ace grumbled, nursing a few giant bumps on his head, rolled-up tissue up his bleeding nose and a black eye taking up the left side of his face. “It worked, didn't it?”

“Let's not dwell on our past mistakes so close to our goal,” Jimbei added. His eyes were focused on the random burst of light and darkness sprouting from Impel Down's roof.

He'd gathered just enough water moisture to block a stray hit. Never hurt to be too careful.

“Yeah!” Luffy burst out laughing. He showed no sign of injury whatsoever. “That was fun!”

With a grumbling like a thousand thunders, the Gates of Justice opened.

***

It was all he could not to open the floodgates and let his nerves take control of him. He had known this was coming. He had been able to smell it from miles away. Been transported right back to the rodeos he had gone to with his dad. Pictured the carriages. And the horses…

There were so many.

Eight legged horses, zebras with candy cane colors, mules with the backs of goats, even a smaller herd of two-headed horses that made Max queasy.

Okay. Okay, that was a lot of horses, but he could deal with that, right? He simply had to follow Persephone and not bring attention to himself. He was just another horse right now, nothing suspicious, certainly not a human like those that had been capturing and breaking their friends to sell them oversee.

Haha, nope. Just a regular horse-

A pair of stilts whisked past Max's muzzle, missing it by inches.

Said stilt actually were legs so long they carried some form of body way up in the air, near the heights of a three or four stories house. From what he could tell, yeah, that was supposed to be a horse, though a thin, stretchy one with a neck so long it closely resembled a giraffe. Yet not quite tall enough to overshadow the fortress' walls. Probably intentional on the mercenaries' part.

“Wow there,” he squeaked.

“You should look up before crossing the paths, Pegasus,” Persephone chimed in.

Max glared, then stared helplessly at the… colorful variety of equine species gathered in those fields.

“… I'd have taken Equestria over this.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I suppose that is also meant to fly over my head?”

“Yup,” he popped the 'p' as much as possible, softly whinnying. Too many strangers. He just knew somepony would kick him in the face eventually, possibly followed by a good trample. He wanted to go home. To sit in the grass and let his head lull to Brook's melody. To let the crazy mingle with the affection and smile at Sanji's lovestruck calls of 'Nami-swaaaaan' or 'Robin-schwaaaaaaaaan'. He could almost-

He did. The same tone of voice, but lost amongst dozens of others, and the rumbling of four times that many hooves.

Amongst the shrieking, he made out “He's here!” and “Jeff is here!”. He'd have shoved that to the back of his mind if not for the strange stillness that had washed over Persephone.

“… Are you okay?” She couldn't be feeling the exhaustion from their nightly adventures, right? Come on, they were almost there! She could last a few more minutes, right? Oh please, for all that is Holy, may Persephone not faint dead and leave him to navigate this place on his own!

Persephone stiffly turned to follow the sounds of mass hysteria. Mares – and a handful of stallions – of all sizes and bulks were pushing and squirming in some indistinct colored barrier of flesh. Their attentions were all focused on some horse just trotting by, as far as Max could tell. Jeff, if he hadn't misheard.

“What's so special about that dude?” Max belatedly asked out loud.

One grumpy black-furred stallion nickered furiously and stomped away. “Always the same thing with that bucking unicorn.”

“A unicorn?”

And just then, the sea of admirers parted to let Jeff through.

It… it had a horn alright. It was even on its head. Only… it wasn't on its forehead, no, the horn, a curvy, spiral-marked thing, laid at the very end of its muzzle. Almost like a rhinoceros' horn.

“That… you call that a unicorn?”

Noticing Max's and Persephone's attention, the, ahem, unicorn flicked its head, its blonde and silver mane sparkling in the weak sunlight. It gave them both an intense, heated look, and winked before going on its way with a swaying strut. The crowd followed.

“He's so…” Persephone began.

“Unique,” Max conceded. Who ever said he couldn't be diplomatic?

“Yeah, I know. Isn't he just so masculine?” the mare fanned her face with a hoof, her tail flicking to the side. “So… majestic?”

“Persephone?” he asked, gently putting a hoof on her shoulder.

He wouldn't say it out loud for fear of a vicious buck, but he was a bit worried. Persephone was acting like a fangirl. Max was the first to be able to appreciate the male form, sure, except this was just bizarre. That – what kind of deranged evolution took place on this island? – unicorn had a grin like a perverted giant crab.

“I want to have his foals,” Persephone said breathlessly, shivering. “The Great Mother would be pleased by their strengths. She'd bless them and have them become strong leaders of the herd.”

Clearly, horses had different standards of beauty.

For a moment, Max tried to imagine the resulting monstrosity that would be born out of a fire-breathing man-eating mare and that. However, that way led to a descent into madness and his mind instead latched to some innocuous details of Persephone's insane announcement.

“The Great Mother?” he said, stopping to let another Long Long Horse trot right in front of them.

Persephone blinked, regaining her bearings and the fiercely proud look he preferred on her face. “Oh. Of course you wouldn't know. Those humans raised you away from Her. I'll introduce you.”

Max resisted the urge to explain that this was normal, as he remained, despite current appearances, human. He half-thought her words were all a show to deceive the other horses around them. So he'd defer to her authority on what he ought to reveal to them.

“She's some sort of matriarch?” he hazarded asking.

However, before Persephone could answer, a martial looking mare, face covered in markings made of red mud, came forward and stopped right in their paths.

“Persephone. This stallion is known to no one within our ranks.” The glare she sent Max could have boiled water. “You cannot be bringing outsiders to the Great Mother. Not without consulting anyone.”

Persephone pawed at the ground, eyes narrowed. “I cannot? Be mindful of your tongue, Artemis. This stallion's first feat was to rescue me from the humans where you all either failed to succeed, or attempt,” and that last word, she hissed, smoke from between her fangs.

Artemis stepped aside, and no more horses dared put themselves in Persephone's path.

She ignored them all, throwing over her shoulder “It is an immense honor, Pegasus. Consider it repayment for helping me escape the human's den.”

He'd gathered as much, yeah. Damn. He appreciated the sentiment, but he'd have appreciated it even more if Persephone had given him time to prepare, or told him how to act, what not to do, just the general gist on how not to mortally offend this obviously sacred leader.

Knowing his luck, he'd stumble on just the wrong thing to say and be torn apart by a bunch of mad mares. Could he pass himself as mute? Who was he kidding? Faced with that, Beaudrille's reaction would be to shoot him in the groin, just to force some screams out of him.

Ants climbed up his legs. He shouldn't have thought about Beaudrille. The nervous energy he'd been keeping at bay was just starting to spill over. His tail flicked a few times, right until the point Persephone shot him a death glare. Message received.

As they progressed, the movement of the herd slowed. Few horses moved, watching their procession with a formal weight to settled nicely on Max's back. He saw few, if any foals around, only adults, solemn-faced.

At last, they broke through the ranks, no more equines standing in their way but a single snow white mare, covered in mud-drawn runes. Persephone locked her legs a few paces away, staring at the cliffside without a word. Max remained two steps behind.

The white mare raised her muzzle, and her voice boomed like the heralds of old. “Presenting Commander Persephone, freed from imprisonment, and her companion. Bow before Epona, Mother of Horsekind.”

Instincts well cultivated had him bowing instantly, even faster than Persephone. He folded one of his front knees, drawing from what spectacles with trained horses he could recall from Earth. His eyes remained on the spot of dirt just a step ahead of him.

No mare seemed to move. To present herself as the matriarch of the biggest herd of horses he had ever seen. He hadn't seen a cave under the hill. They'd brought him here, and he still didn't smell or hear or feel anything different from before.

Max thus realized his mistake.

It was not a hill.

What he'd thought of as cliffs was flesh. What had seem to be tall grass was hair, wines were strands of mane, and the jagged rocks, a long muzzle looming over an assembly of hundreds.

The Great Mother indeed.

The mare was to them what a seaking was to a fish. On a different scale entirely.

She turned her head, and Max's wings nearly flared at the shifting air. Her eyes, great big circles spheres of a steel-like grey, twitched and lowered to his form. And out came a rumbling like the slow grind of tectonic plates. “What manner of foal are you, stranger?”

Max struggled to form a coherent thought. His tongue stuck to his palate, his mind ran for excuses. He could hardly remember the little things Persephone had revealed to him so far, and the growing impatience he saw rising amongst the watchers only quickened his heartbeat.

The immense face showed not a hint of impatience. Oh no, that was taken care of by the various guards and onlookers all around them.

“You have wings like a bird and you speak the tongue of humans. And you know little of our customs.”

He clung to the idea like it was a lifeline thrown in the sea. “I was raised amongst humans!” he half-shouted.

Which was a gamble, as far as backstories went. Some would likely show him disdain for that, if only because of the animosity he had witnessed between horses and humans on this archipelago. But, maybe it wouldn't be enough to get kicked out.

Emphasis on 'kicked'.

Predictably, horses all around him nickered and stomped, the throes of their angers plain visible in the evening air.

“Another son stolen!”

“Humans' hunger is never satisfied.”

A bad time for his pride to rear up its ugly head. Down. Let his head down, focus on his fur, his hooves, his wings. He wasn't human right now, was he? Didn't need to be offended on behalf of people that weren't around.

Plus, on a strictly technical level, that was an accurate description of Luffy.

Hunger for adventures. Hunger for fun. Hunger for meat. Never satisfied. Always only kept at bay.

And that was the man to become Pirate King.

“Yet,” Epona called out, snapping Max back to full attention, “you saved my daughter from your former masters…”

“I could not let her be broken!” he shouted in near desperation. “I was taken from elsewhere. From a land too far from here. I don't… I don't know the way home.”

The ground beneath Max's hooves shook, and cold sweat slid down his neck as he noticed the Great Mother's legs moving under her.

“Yes. I recognize you now. Humans have taken mine wherever they found them, from the lowest of my descendants to my flesh itself, they have longed for it. They have come to the cradle of equines.” Hundreds of crawling plants broke, their dying cry muffled by the titanic strikes of the mare's hooves pulling her up. “The strong rule the weak, I understand, but this is offense I will not let slid. To take back those of my children that have been stolen, I birthed children stronger than men, able to prey on them, able to face their fire and their metal. The humans came to this island one hundred years ago, and I have felt agony for every one of my children taken.”

Persephone's eyes glinted with a faint sheen of tears. “I apologize for my weakness, Mother.”

Epona's breath washed over Max. “My pain compares not to the joy of seeing you well. I had feared the worst when they brought you to their stone dens.”

“I… I received help from this stallion, Mother.” Persephone nodded at him. “He snuck into Corneheld and broke me free. I owe him a great debt.”

Irises larger than a house shifted and nailed Max into place. “That debt will not remain unpaid, child.”

“Oh, it's huh, it was an honor, Great Mother.” He'd always been ill at ease with compliments said to his face. “You don't really need to…” Unless this was spitting in the face of their efforts and their tradition. “I mean. I was simply in the right place to do it. I know your warriors have courageous hearts. They would have freed Persephone in other circumstances. My talents happened to be useful. And well, you can't win against fortified positions with pure cavalry.”

An eerie silence fell down upon the gathering. Max's blood drained from his face. Fuck me sideways with a poleaxe. He hadn't just said that out loud, right? To the group fighting said war. Who lost friends and family to battles and enslavement. In terms of shoving of foot inside one's mouth, he had reached his own stomach.

Max readied his wings, waiting, just waiting for the first horse to break the silence.

“How else would you lure them out of their den?” Persephone's hoarse voice snapped from his right.

“You saw the streets in that place, didn't you?” he yelled back, his heart hammering in his chest. “They had stakes all over in order to stop you from using your biggest advantages: your speed and your size! I bet you a whiff of a skunk flower that they dug drenches with pikes at the bottom all around their camps!”

Persephone's eyes widened in shock, and Max took notice of the muttering spreading through the crowd. His feathers suddenly tingled, and he looked up as the air shifted with Epona's very movement. Shadow covered him and Persephone as her muzzle obscured the sun.

For the light within her ancient eyes carried too familiar a glint. A harsh need, a black-hearted thirst, and Max's feathers rustled beyond his control.

“They did dig pits and trenches. Traps for my children to skewer themselves on. You know of human battles, don't you?”

Max blinked back the image of Kuma looming over him. “No, well, yes, somewhat. It's not something I was taught, but I still know a thing or two about it. Like the way to fight a siege is to cut through supply lines or to use siege engines. But, okay, I guess some cities are built with ports, though this one is on a cliff too, which leaves… damn, this is going to be a challenge, isn't it?”

Max glanced around, just now realizing that the horses around him were staring hopefully. Some, suspiciously.

“Will you teach my children what you know?”

Epona might have phrased it as a question, but Max wasn't that naive. He nodded, because otherwise, he might not live through the morning.

A little voice in the back of his head laughed at the sense of familiarity taking hold in his heart.

***

They were out. Out of Hell. Out of the grasps of the warden. Out, out, out, at sea with the wind in their sails and so much laughter in their bellies most couldn't stop.

The drinking and feasting had already begun. The meat was flowing, mostly directly into Luffy's and Ace's mouths. Mostly. Couldn't steal all of it when there were hundreds of pirates on board of a giant marine vessel, but, hey, they tried and that was what mattered!

By Luffy's drowsy count, they had eaten half the pantry already. Maybe. He couldn't see Jimbei from behind the pile of bones. Nor Crocodile, but that was a bonus. As soon as Ace was definitely safe, he'd… decide if he had to kick his ass again or not.

In the lull of celebration, the eager voice of an inmate caught the brothers' notice.

“Captain Buggy! Captain Buggy!” He held out a yellow snail with a blue and white striped shell. “I found a-!”

“Give me that!” Ace punched the prisoner holding the transponder snail and snatched the inveterate before it could hit the ground. “I've got a call to make.”

A few inmates tensed, sharing nervous glances. How many people could Firefist Ace be contacting besides the obvious? Only a few of the worst amongst them had ever gotten close to seeing that man. THE man, the one that had cast the shadow of the old era on this new sea. This was it.

Whitebeard.

Ace's head hit the mast, a massive snot bubble growing and shrinking from his nose.

“He fell asleep?!” They shouted, arms in the air.

The bubble popped. “I better not be too late,” Ace grabbed the receiver and punched a number through the dial. “Come on, come on, there's no time to lose!”

His head slumped and hit the snail's receiver.

Half the escapees facefaulted. “He's asleep again!”

“Shishishishi! That's Ace's mystery illness. No, wait, condition. Makino said it was a condition. Yeah. He just falls asleep all the time.”

A guy with a face like a seaking had chewed it carefully pried at Ace's fingers. “Oh, in that case, let's just call for-”

Ace's fist buried itself deep into the man's nose, leaving him half as hideous as before.

“Hands off that! I'm using it!”

“Make up your mind already!” the audience shouted.

“Huh?” Ace looked around. “Oh, yeah, I was calling Pops!”

Bon Clay helplessly turned to his idol, emperor and queen. Ivankov shrugged, his face the very picture of 'what can you do?' Someone had clearly spent a lot of time amongst the natural enemies of God.

The snail morphed its face, wrinkling its eyes and pushing flesh over its lips to imitate the most famous 'beard' in the world. “Hmmm? Who is this?”

“Pops! It's Ace. My little brother came and broke me out of my cell! We're in the triangle on a battleship heading towards' Marineford!”

Most startled when they heard the booming “Gurararara! Seems like that brat's worth all the gushing you did, son.”

Ace's blush hid his freckles. “Oi, oi, Pops, I don't gush or anything!” He rubbed the back of his head, glaring at Luffy to dare him to laugh. “But I can't wait for you to meet him! You'll love him too!”

“I already do, Ace. We're coming.” The snail smirked under its mimicked moustache. “Don't go anywhere in the meantime, son.”

The look on Ace's face was all warmth and faked annoyance. He put his hands on his hips, staring bemusedly at the slumping snail. “And where did he want me to go, huh?”

“We can't stay here…” Mr. Three wheezed out, gnawing his fingernails.

Okay. How did Buggy's hair go from blue to white? Neat trick. “Yooooooo, there's an ex-navigator amongst you motley ragtag bunch?” It didn't even sound that mortally terrified.

Ace raised an eyebrow. “Eh. We could always use one. Anyone knows our exact location? Could always be good to sent more info to Pops.”

“Oh, I believe I may answer that question,” someone said from within the crowd.

A few of the former prisoners shifted in place, looking behind them. Some barely bulged, as if they were being pushed in an attempt to break through and get closer to Ace and the others. And that particular attempt was a spectacular failure in itself.

Ace tapped his foot on the deck, arms crossed.

Finally, like the corkscrew Sanji used to open up good bottles, a loud 'pop' rang, and a frail figure went flying up. Then crashed head first into the deck.

“If that was the guy that knew our location, I'm gonna punch someone in the balls!” Ace growled.

Stomping like he did as a child, Ace grabbed the pair of half-eaten shoes poking out of the deck and pulled. Through a concert of ripping and tearing, a bone-thin man with chalk white hair emerged. Muttering thanks under his breath, he replaced his skewered glasses on his nose and dusted off his eyebrows, which seemed to have fused with his sideburns and his beard.

“Okay. Who are you?” Ace asked, and a few prisoners coughed, shuffling their feet.

The old man, dipped his head, and cleared his throat. “Oldisk Whickerson. Former head of the World Government Institute of Oceanology.”

“Not my balls!” shrieked some prisoners who promptly made a break for it.

Unfortunately, he ran into Luffy. Oh well. Big brother promises were practically his own promises.

Eager to forget that tragic incident, Mr. Three asked: “What was a big wig like you doing in Impel Down, huh?”

Oldisk Whickerson, moving so smoothly as to leave three trailing afterimages, turned in the general direction of the former Baroque Work agent.

“Being tortured.”

The crushing logic in that made everyone nod knowingly. Even Luffy who had only caught glimpses of said torture down there.

“In any case, my good fellow, to answer Mister Fist over there,” he pointed solemnly to Ace, “we are in the artificially created sea current between the three great marines strongholds in the Grand Line. Also known as the Tub Current! So says I, Oldisk Whickerson.”

Polite applause followed. One or two 'oooh' and 'ah' and one 'Of course! It makes so much sense!'

Ace stared. “We already knew that.”

Oldisk Whickerson pushed his glasses further up on his nose, hiding his eyes behind their glare. “Well then,” he said, quite reasonably, “you should not have asked that question, should you?”

“Yeah, Ace, that was silly!” Luffy laughed.

Oldisk Whickerson's expression of contempt remained even after Ace's fist sent him flying straight through the cabin's door.

“Well, that's just perfect. We don't even know if the Marines will try to pull something.”

“Nonsense,” said a voice from behind Ace's shoulders. “The current is pulling our vessel towards Marineford. They have no reason to disturb the order of things.”

“Wait, you're still alive?” Buggy asked.

Oldisk Whickerson ignored him. “Not to mention, even if the gates had been opened, it would take hours for the effect to reach us. No, no, if the marines want to reach us, they will tread the lesser adjacent currents straddling the Tub Current's triangle. Each of them describes a long spiral motion that gathers surrounding waters and pushes it into the Tub. It is normally a trap, but in this case, it will make catching up to our vessel much easier.”

Ace rolled his eyes and went to lie down next to the mast. Others were not nearly as calm.

“They will come.” The old rasp had an ominous ring to it now. “Be certain of that. Our fate will be determined by Time, and Time alone.”

Chapter Text

How in the world did this become my life?” mumbled Mr. Three as he stood rigid in his new ordained robes. Said robes consisted of badly sewn together sails that had been found in the hull.

Oh, don't be so down on yourself, Galdino!” Mr. Two was spinning on his toes in his classic ballerina pose. “I think Mrs. Opara did a splendid job on ours robes, considering the circumstances!”

A few feet away, a near-skeletal man wearing three layers of makeup gave the two a thumbs up.

Mr. Three sighed. He should have never left home. He could have been a famous art critique. Opened up his own gallery and welcomed the highest nobles for some soirées with delicious yet unsustainable hors d'oeuvres.

But no, he had thought he could make something of himself as a bounty hunter. And now? Now he had to listen up to this sort of madness.

Now, repeat after me!” Buggy pointed at a blackboard with a broken rapier. On it were etched scrawls so ineligibles chicken-scratches would be insulted. “Plain is sin!”

Plain is sin!” repeated near a hundred pirates.

Flashy is moral!”

Flashy is moral!”

Buggy grabbed a pair of cannons and held each under one arm. “Be memorable! Be in-your-face! Subtlety is for suckers!”

The blowback of cannon fire pushed Buggy back a single feet.

Subtlety is for suckers!” cheered the pirates.

Mr. Three dared not look for some isolated isles of sanity amongst the few remaining non-convert. Chief amongst them was Crocodile, and one did not need psychic power to know that anyone approaching him would be subsequently killed for bothering him. Knowing his approach to failure helped calm any desire to find sane conversation.

Instead, he watched as Buggy bought so into his own hype that he demonstrated his talent for juggling knives. Granted, every blade described a perfect arc, spinning until it caught the light. The split second glare almost made them look as if they disappeared and reappeared in Buggy's waiting hands.

- matter of balance, really. Anyone can do it if they try. And that, boys and gals, is the basis of the Great Captain Buggy's life philosophy. Any questions?”

Where does murdering, rampaging and pillaging go into this?”

Murder is neither good or bad, boy!” Buggy facepalmed. “Did they deserve it? More importantly, did you just stab them in the back whilst dancing on their corpses or did you utterly humiliate them in battle? Did you clash on top of an erupting volcano while surrounded by a tribe of natives ready to sacrifice you to their seaking gods? See, the details matter here!”

Amongst the 'Oooooh' and the 'amazing!', one called out “You fought on top of a volcano, Captain Buggy?”

Nah, that was Roger.” Sparkles surrounded Buggy's sly grin. “I was the one giving moral support.”

Meaning you were cowering in a corner somewhere away from all the fighting, thought both former Baroque Work agents. At least in this, Mr. Two was of a similar mind to him.

"Now, stealing treasures is by definition almost always an act of great morality. The only better thing is to spend it all on party supplies.”

I can see how someone with your resume ended up a small-time captain.

Remember, boys and gals, it's not where your life ends up that matters, it's how much fun you had till you got there! What's the use of living if you don't live, huh?”

Mr. Three's internal commentary came up short. For a second, there, he wondered, if that too had come from the Pirate King's ship. Rumors about Red Hair more or less confirmed that the Emperor had a mind for parties as well. He was, by all accounts, jovial and mellow, until provoked. Buggy, the mirror image of that, a second away from exploding at the slightest offense, with a smooth demeanor asserting itself as soon as a situation became too serious.

Mr. Three glanced overboard at the rolling seas. There might only be an hour or so of freedom left in their lives for all they knew. Maybe…

Well, maybe he could see where life led him side-by-side with such a man.

Ships on starboard!”

***

Luffy bounced to his feet, rushing to the side of the boat, Ace hot on his heels. Dozens more, flooding both sides, then pushing their backs. It was too tight a squeeze, and maybe, he punched out a few. Right as a cry of pain rang over his head, a tattered seeing-eye flipped right over the rail and Luffy stretched an arm to catch it.

Through the lens, the ships looked sleek, sharp like a shark's nose. He could see masts, but not sails. Yet, they were gaining on them, fast. Taking the front rows of the miniature armada were two ships, just begging to be noticed in the midst of standardized, militarized designs. Neither ocean blue and white. One with a dog head for the prowl, and vaguely spot-like blots of black on a white background. The imagery was pretty obvious.

It wasn't his place to judge others if they loved cows that much. Luffy, as a person, thought they were extremely useful and tasty animals, after all. It just didn't strike him as a marine kinda thing to do.

The second ship, was gloomier, thus instantly less interesting. Purple-ish with black masts and some strange weapons opening their arms to the sky. Kinda like a spider dying on its back.

Shit,” said some grey-haired man on his left. “Onigumo's here.”

Luffy felt the gloom of the long ship hit their deck. Not as an attack or anything, but it felt like there was suddenly a hundred Usopps around instead of one.

Some pirate further left said: “What is he doing here?” And somehow, Luffy figured there had to be an unspoken part to that sentence. Hell if he knew what, though.

Those are marine striker ships!” Bentham's voice rang in from the upper levels. “They're going to anchor us in place.”

Huh. Are you sure?” That didn't sound like a marine thing to do. In his experience, marines either punched your head in or your hull through.

Of course,” Bentham crooned, fluffing up the bird heads on his recovered outfit. “I infiltrated plenty of marine bases in my time, Luffy-swan.”

Hmm,” Crocodile scoffed. “Leave Onigumo to me.” His hook glinted in a sparse hole in the fog. “I have some scores to settle with him.”

The steel guy shadowed after him, and a handful of wary pirates followed as Crocodile stepped towards port. According to the crow's eye, the strikers were gaining on them.

Some people around Luffy however were turning to Buggy for guidance once again. While, okay, the guy could be a funny jerk once in a while, he really didn't get why people were so impressed by the clown. He hadn't fought all that much during the jailbreak, though neither had Luffy because…

A spike of thrill went through his body as he realized that his promise only applied to the warden. And he'd already been killed. These guys, he could fight. He hadn't promised anything about them. It made his cheeks stretch wide. Oh, he couldn't wait to show Max he'd done it. Monkey D. Luffy was a man of his word, and a captain worth his name. That Baudruche or whatever his name didn't deserve even breathing the same air as his cabin boy!

Oi, Lu,” Ace said, friendly, but with a vein or two popping on his forehead, “you ain't thinking about fighting a vice-admiral or three, right?”

Luffy didn't shudder at the mention of Gramps' own rank in the marines. Not even a little. Rather, he scowled darkly at his suffocating big brother. “So what if I am?” He crossed his arms over his chest. “I can fight them.”

Like hell you wi-” Abrupt snoring stole the wind from his sails.

Luffy paused for just a second, pulling away. Gramps used to do that crap. Pretend to fall asleep and then, when his awesome grandkids tried to get some obviously well-earned revenge, he would stand up and shout that it was only a ruse! Especially that time where he mumbled about rice crackers through his teeth! That one had had the clarity of obvious truth. Gramps had literally beat it into their heads. To this day, Luffy would definitely swear that his Gramps didn't sleep. Ever.

Ace, however, did. Despite being draped over a somewhat awkward Jimbei, he slept soundly. Ace didn’t sleep well. Tossed a lot at night. Dropped like a rock at any point of the day, morning or evening. Said the stupidest thing when he woke up or put his lead pipe on top of the roof instead of in his belt.

They'd drawn on his face a lot, 'cause he was always taking himself so seriously, and him and Sabo thought…

Luffy startled. He hadn't thought of Sabo in years now. Without a second's hesitation, he slapped both his hands against his cheeks with a rubbery 'flap'.

Yosh!” he cried out, raising a fist in the air. “Now's my chance! Take care of him, Bon, Ivankov.”

He vaguely recalled the okama's words about his dad, about Ace being his brother. He didn't see how those two things might be linked, but if Ivankov believed it did, then all the better. People fought strongly for their belief. He would know.

Death to the marines!” cried Buggy, his chant reprised by many.

Death!” Louder. “DEATH!” Breaking eardrums. “ DEATH!

And then, there was the rush. People crying for blood. Him crying for meat – which was roughly in the same vicinity. Weapons were gathered, distributed or stolen from the closest hands. Some fingers were lost, as well as teeth and a couple of eyes.

The strikers pulled on either side of the battleship, dodging cannon fire as if they didn't even notice them. With a creaking like a hundred joints grinding together, the striker's sides unfolded and revealed cannons big enough to fit the Merry. Eyes popped out of their sockets as panicked orders rang over the deck, but it was too late. Two anchors the size of small boats shot from the strikers and crashed through the battleship's flanks.

Are they trying to sink us?!” screeched Buggy over the yelling.

No, they're trying to escort us somewhere,” Jimbei replied.

Well, don't just let them tell us what to do! Are you pirates or what?!”

Luffy kicked him into Mr. Three. “I don't want to hear that from you!”

A webbed palm restrained him gently. “Not the time, Straw Hat.”

"Whatever,” he grumbled.

Luffy grabbed a line, shimmied up its lengths, caterpillar-style. Just beneath him, a scarred woman with a nose like a potato climbed close enough he felt the warmth of her skin just under his sandals. For a split second, his memory flashed him back to his time in the jungle, when he was practicing doing exactly that, so he could be a powder monkey for Shanks the next time he came to shore.

Send those scurvy dogs back to the abyss!”

Wind rushed past him. On each side of him, two ropes carrying a dozen pirates each swung by. The striker was growing bigger, closer. It was always risky, swinging unto another deck, though this time, the anchor in the battleship's sides worked in their favor.

He dropped and rolled onto his feet, throwing a punch to the first private he came across. There were marines all over the deck, though most lacked any sort of mantle. Most, for there was one in a green suit, his head morphing into the top half of a dog's. The man had rendered two pirates unconscious already. He was aiming for a third.

No time to waste.

Gear second!”

His fist sprang forth, faster than the eye could see, air around his shoulder booming from the shockwave, as always.

And its sprang back, itching, whilst the vice-admiral stood stoic, his green suit smoking at the point of impact. As the smoke cleared out, Luffy caught a glimpse of inky black fading away.

Straw Hat Luffy,” the man called out, his eyes narrowing. “It was a mistake coming here.”

Like Hell it was a mistake to come save Ace.

Whip!

A dozen marines thrown overboard. But not even a brush on the vice-admiral.

Just like Sandersonia!

He almost saw the snake-woman in the marine's shadow, a ghost preparing to strike hard exactly where it needed to to make even a rubber-man wince. The hit came, and came fast.

The vice-admiral stared, eyes slightly wider, at the pure white cake that swayed and shrugged off his powerful attack. The swaying increased, the structure becoming indistinct and ghostly with its speed, until it swung violently, and struck the vice-admiral in the face.

Behbehbeh,” snickered a bullish man surrounded in fluffy white clouds. “How's the power of my wool-wool fruit, huh, Dalmatian?”

'Alchemist' Baphermeth,” bit out the vice-admiral, blood dripping from his nose.

In lieu of reply, a shadow covered him, and he only had time to look up that a massive wool cow dropped on top of him. Like a sock with a string pulled, the animal unraveled, turning into a wave of wool that washed over the deck.

Oooh, this stuff's pretty springy,” Luffy said, pulling at the white substance. It felt just like Chopper's fur after being hard dried by Nami's weather balls. Or in defense point.

Baphermet's eyes twinkled with assurance. “Its amazing softness and elasticity means that it'll reflect any attack back to you. Now then, time to settle our little fight back in the days, huh, Dalmatian? Wool wool stampede!”

From his hands came forth a gorilla, a buffalo and seven sheep, all howling like monsters. Every animal pronked forward, with the ferocious gait of the antelope, and the power of a bungee rope about to snap.

Finger Pistol, Automatic!” Dalmatian shouted, surging to punch holes into the animals with his claws. And while the blows deformed the animals' shapes, they sprang back, good as new, and pushed back the vice-admiral a few feet.

Behbehbeh, you can't pierce my ultimate defense.” Baphermet's chest covered itself in thick, white fur. “Give up!”

Dalmatian disappeared in a blur, and Luffy scowled at the familiar move. Baphermet loudly cursed as the vice-admiral reappeared under his guard and the wool over his hands faded away. Pirate and marine began ducking it out in earnest, punches and kicks creating small shockwaves at every collision point.

Once, the marine's face slammed into the deck. Twice, the pirate's crashed into a loose cannon. Thrice, his knees shook mid-clash.

Luffy's brows ticked. Too tired. Baphermet's fist swung in too wide a motion, almost clumsily. The ex-prisoner only had time to utter a curse before his opponent jumped in the opening and slammed both knees into his chin. Baphermet's body followed the motion, tilting backward, slowly, and hitting the deck with a thud.

Peh.” Dalmatian spat a glob of blood. “Just another criminal.”

Luffy's fist punched through empty air, right where the vice-admiral's chest had been.

Don't be so hasty, Straw Hat. I'll get to you in a second.”

The man turned, his face darkened in shadows, and for a split second, Luffy had the sensation of being prey . That he was the kid staring at the King of the Mountain, back in Goa. That he was running away from his grandfather under a moonless night.

Come.” Luffy struck his open palm, glaring through the steam produced by his skin. “I'll kick your ass in less than that.”

He punched and his fist met Dalmatian's. He kicked, and the other jumped, then thrice more to avoid every other hit coming his way. A blink, and the pressure bore down on his back, so Luffy dove between a bunch of barrels and threw them one after another.

There wasn't time to feel much. Every movement triggered the next, and his opponent knew just where to go to make the most of the smallest opportunity. Soon, there were wounds on his arms and legs, where sharp claws and cutting winds had grazed him.

Luffy wiped his chin off the sweat that poured despite the steam. Damn it. Harder than expected.

The deck lurched forward under their feet. The pull was so sudden Luffy grasped the railings on both sides of the ship.

The battleship they had stolen, easily ten times taller than the vice-admiral's dinky barge, flared bright, and from the stern a roar of flames erupted. The battleship’s front lifted from the acceleration, and the strikers had no choice but to drift closer to the brasier. Its light tainted the sea and the ships with a hellish glow. Fitting, considering where they'd escaped from just a couple of hours earlier.

Just that, just that split second of thinking, and the dog bastard was in the air with both airs ready to come down in a devastating blow. Frantically, Luffy brought his arms straight over his face to block.

Not that it mattered.

A line of fire slid off the tail and cut right in the space between them. Within, one almost could see a hissing snake before it dissipated. The vice-admiral pulled back with another kick in the air, and reassessed the situation with a quick glance to the battleship's stern.

Damn it, Ace! I'm okay on my own!”

And he was . That was the best part. Sure, some hits hurt like a bitch – or just dog, who could tell with zoans? –, but he had had worse. He'd been bitten and scratched and clawed and punched and stabbed, and they were painful, always stinging with fire. But none of it ever compared to the stuttered words Dogra had barely managed then. To the sight of blood pouring out of Nami's tattoo. To the popping noise of Kuma's devil fruit.

You should be thanking him, Straw Hat,” growled the dog-faced bastard. “If not for his intervention, your head would be rolling at my feet. You underestimate the strength of the marines' vice-admirals.”

Vice-admiral. Same title as Gramps.

A shudder blasted through his spine, and a childhood of reflexes ingrained into him made Luffy duck far below the next blow. The marine's bark of frustration was clear as day. And the next blow came hard and fast, somehow, somehow having him blink away a burst of pain.

But Luffy grinned. Same title, but a world of difference between them. He could deal with tha -

A closed fist buried itself in his stomach, and actually hurt . What the he- ? Another, moving toward his face, and Luffy hugged the floor, then rolled on the side to avoid a descending foot. No time for him to think. And in most fights, Luffy really didn't care about thinking. Talking. His fists did that for him.

Except, this time, maybe he could use a little brainpower.

He jumped back, stretching to cast the mast and getting on the higher levels, near the wheel. It only took a couple of seconds, and the vice-admiral was bearing down on him, relentless and eerily close to what Gramps looked like, wearing his favorite hat.

Luffy's face scrunched up, relaxing every muscle in his body, the numbness spreading upward from his feet to his waist, his shoulders, his mouth…

-space-out.”

The words, mere reflexes, as a slow daze washed upon him. His focus, narrowed on the man with a dog head. On the claws going for his chest.

Pull.

A flash of torn wind.

Sway.

Disappearance. Tickling on the back of his neck. A rush of air.

Duck.

A bark of anger, a widening stance. Two fists. Pushing air.

Pushing back without contact.

Eyes wider, mouth gawking.

You can use Paper Art?!”

Luffy, if he had more braincells to use at the moment, would have laughed. What was so weird about that? Or hard? It was just not thinking. Just seeing and hearing and knowing .

Slowly though, the scent of the sea air turned sharper, his surroundings, clearer. His movements turned a half-step too slow, and he hit his back against the mast. His mind clicked back into place, just in time to avoid a kick that separated the mast in half.

Wowowow, that was close!” he said, scampering like a monkey.

Do you think you can win a war without ever going on the offense?!” the vice-admiral barked after him.

Luffy shrugged. He'd never fought a war. But Vivi would have said 'yes'. His princess friend could be a bit fussy about the real world, but, well, she'd reminded him how to bow. When to remember that pride was trash in comparison to crew. “Dunno. But I'm gonna beat your face in,” he said as claws swiped the air right next to him.

How did you… ?”

Luffy's grin showed all his teeth. “Muscle memory!” he shouted proudly. “Chopper said it's the thing that makes your body react before you think about it. So I dodged lots, now I'm better!”

That's not remotely close to how this works!”

Luffy shrugged again, flipping back from a vicious Finger Pistol. Worked for him, at least. Though, privately, he did know there was one thing about the marine's rant that was right. They were on a bit of a time limit, and Ace couldn't drag the strikers indefinitely. Ending this would require a good clean hit.

He couldn't use Gear Third. There would be more marines soon if the other pirates lost. The worst thing to do was to make himself useless right when Ace needed protecting the most. Damn it! Why wasn't this working?!

The Era of Dreams is over. You're a disgrace of a pirate!

Dog-bastard tilted just enough to dodge, as if the fist had never been there.

Do I know how to throw a punch?

He’d beaten warlords, fishmen, marines, and even a god -- a puny, stupid one at that -- with his fists before.

So why was his fist so… light?

He could break a boulder in half or carved some idiot's face in. But that didn't make your fist heavy. Not the way it mattered. You could punch your way through the Grand Line, but if you ended up on your own, then you really never had strength in the first place.

Don't fight the warden. Because, Luffy had known all along, it meant that Max was sure he would lose. He would be poisoned, and this whole crap would have gone into Hell number two, Megahell, Hell Without Meat. Max had doubted him, and that hurt.

He hadn't needed a fist to save Max. Just an open hand. Just an order to Sogeking, to save Robin. Just a hat, to save Nami.

Right now, he needed his fists to be heavy .

His fingers tingled.

It wasn't just wanting to hurt something. It was knowing. Knowing that you would hurt the other. That your hits were going to reach past all their defenses. That every bit of strength you put there would carve deeper into their flesh then a mere fist.

He was not going to let Ace die.

There was space between the two of them. They were on opposite sides of the ship. It would only take a second to cross it, and less than that for the other to counter.

Dalmatian's fists were both curled in front of him, in something that brought him straight back to his fight against Lucci.

SIX KING GUNS!”

Pure muscle power burst through the circle of the marine's fists. Rips and tears in the air flew towards him, screaming with a muted whistling. The bare edges of a mast exploded, as did the railings in front of Luffy. It was the exact same feeling of dread that caught him, when his CP9 opponent had used it the second time, with only one difference.

Rob Lucci had used his tail to pin Luffy in place.

Luffy rocketed up the length of the mast, one fist cocked back, one hand aiming for the patch of white in the chaos.

Jet Pistol.

The vice-admiral tilted his head left, slightly. Just enough to let Luffy's fist graze his fur. “Paradise hasn't toughened you up much, has i-”

The man's mouth shut closed right on top of his tongue, spilling blood down his chin. Eyes rolled back into his skull, his stance swaying from left to right in a desperate attempt to remain upright. A particularly bad stagger showed the imprint of a fist on the back of his head.

Luffy's arm snapped back into place. He blew the smoke off.

How?” was gritted through a clouding pain. “How did you…?”

The vice-admiral fell to his knee, leaning heavily on a shaking paw.

Baphermet slunk close, stretching a big sheet of wool between his fingers. “Wool wool,” he drawled, smirking at the fallen man, “blanket.”

Then, like waves stretching into swells of foam, the wool between Baphermet's fingers hooked itself onto the vice-admiral's shins. With a hulking grunt, Baphermet swung. The vice-admiral's body flew, headfirst into a mast. There were no more attempts at standing up.

That should take care of that, Straw Hat,” said Baphermet, staggering.

Yeah. Let's go see how Jimbei's doing!”

***

All in all, not as well as Luffy and Baphermet's team. The vice-admiral on their side had sprouted a bunch of arms at the last second and managed to break through. Last second reinforcements had forced Ivankov to retreat, which success had owed a lot to the presence of a fishman of Jimbei's caliber.

But hey, that didn't change the fact that one striker class ship had been captured, and with it, its commander, chained to the mast. The rest, in the lower parts of the ship. Marines in marines' cells, Luffy knew there was a word for that.

You may think you've escaped, but you are playing into our hands,” the dog-man growled. “The only way to get out of the triangle is to open the Gates of Justice. And we will. The sea itself will deliver Fire Fist to Marineford, along with the rest of the prisoners that engineered this escape. Nothing you've accomplished today matters!”

Bark-like laughter burst from the marine's lips, unscathed from the murderous glares his captors sent him.

Oh, yes, that is inevitable.”

The vice-admiral briefly lost his glare to tilt his head at the old scientist. “Who are you?”

Oldisk Whickerson pushed his broken glasses further up on the ridge of his nose. Their glare shone ominously, and the man's wrinkled lips pulled taut. “Form-”

A detached floating hand suddenly slammed into Oldisk Whickerson's head. “No one cares about that right now!” Buggy screeched.

Puzzled, the old man looked around and stroke his beard. “Why, how kind of you, Captain Buggy. That did not hurt at all.”

Of course!” Buggy crossed his arms, snot slowly inching down his nose. “I-I-I am NOT in the habit of injuring the elderly and the invalids!”

So noble, Captain Buggy!”

Well, you know me, guys, I'm just so full of-”

Shit!” was shouted from atop the mast, followed by an increasingly intense string of swearword. Seriously, Nami would be impressed. And, just as the echoes died down, the rat-faced man on watch poked his head over the railing of the watch and pointed wildly starboard. “I see Akainu!”

Words which only vaguely formed an idea in Luffy's brain. Half of it, just thinking of the dog he had owned on Thriller Bark. Not well-trained, but with a firm hand, it could have been great. The other half, he scowled whilst massaging his forehead, was that it reminded him of Robin's voice in particular.

They are the marines' greatest military power.

Fuck.” And Luffy repressed the urge to gulp. Last time he heard Ace swear had been right before Makino's manners lessons.

This was gonna be a tough fight. He cracked his knuckles, blowing air out of his nose. Let that dog-guy come. He could be practice for when he got his revenge on the light bastard!

Do we have anything that could delay him?” Jimbei asked and scanned the numbers of prisoners, exchanging glances with Ivankov. “Anyone that could slow him down?”

Just slow him down? We can do more than that!”

Well,” sighed Ivankov, “you are as much as a damned fool as your father, that's for sure. Straw Hat boy, I love you, but read the mood a little.”

You don't even know who Akainu is, right?” Bon Clay guessed.

It matters not, criminals,” the vice-admiral spat out, reminding them all of his presence. “Admiral Akainu will exterminate you like the rats that you are! The only thing left of this vessel will be your ashes!”

You’re going to die too!” Mr. Three grabbed the man and shook him. “You and all your men we took prisoners.”

It doesn’t matter. We are soldiers and we will all gladly give our lives to see your flesh melt off your bones!”

One prisoner let out a bloodcurdling scream and jumped straight overboard. His screams of 'he won't get me he won't get me he won't get me' continued even after the splash of water came from the sea. The words themselves settled on prisoners' faces, grimmer, more nervous. Okamas huddled together and looked pleadingly at their leader. Baphermet played with a small ball of yarn. Mr. One scratched the uniform of another prisoner. Crocodile, in his corner, appeared unflappable, and in fact, unaffected, if not for the small beads of sweat trickling down his scalp.

Don't succumb to fear, my comrades!” shouted a grandiose voice, carried by a tall man with marginally less bad smell than his fellow and accompanied by a smaller man with a book in hand. The cover of said book had a crudely drawn clown on it.

Luffy frowned. “Who are you?”

The hapless fools grinned, like people privy to juicy secrets and only too happy to share them . “Mere disciples that have seen the light.”

One man and a woman holding transponder snails struck poses, whispering off random words like 'you are a leopard' and 'someone pulled out your braids' to someone hidden behind the two fools. Both of which acted as if nothing was happening. Flashes of camera came periodically.

Do we have someone capable of delaying the red dog of the marines?”

Oldisk Whickerson sniffed. “That is statistically improbable. After all, why would they have remained prisoner for so-”

Admiral Ripper?” cut in some face from the crowd, with a palm strike that pulverized the old man's nose.

Magma Madman?” added another.

Old Man Genocide?”

There was a slight lull in enthusiasm, and the first two fools half-turned.

I thought that was Shiki?”

What?” furiously hissed some unwashed gray-haired man. “No, the Golden Lion never succeeded in his plans of exterminating Roger's legacy.”

Heat suddenly washed over their skins as the flames roared louder. Luffy grabbed onto the mast, feeling the ship tilt with the abrupt acceleration. A handful of pirates cheered as they saw the shape of Akainu's ship on the horizon shrink slightly. Luffy, walking up the stairs to the stern, didn't.

Hey, Ace,” he called, one finger deeply prodding his left ear for the wax he could feel melting.

Ace grunted, his face scrunched up like he used to do as a kid. It was all Luffy could do not to scowl viciously. Yup. Another one of his moods. Sometimes – rare sometimes, when he stopped to think about it –, Luffy's imagination of the Pirate King had this… this filter over it. He had been the freest man in the world,

and he had left Ace.

Roger was dying, replied Old Man Rayleigh's voice. That didn't help. Honestly, he just wanted Ace to stop caring. So what if idiots and bastards didn't like him? He loved Ace, and he had a crew that loved him too. That was fine. Words were words. Pieces of sound. They shouldn't hurt that bad.

But words, he thought with a scowl, were tricky.

So, instead, Luffy plopped down on the railing next to his big brother, humming in the heat. “I kicked his ass, y'know?”

Ace blinked. At the ends of his fists, flames sputtered out into sparks, then died quietly. The ocean reclaimed its right, and cool, salty air swelled between them both, light fog and steam mingling over the deck. It only served to make Luffy's brother look more still, his muscles taut while the white swirled around him.

BWAHAHAHAHA!”

Luffy damn near fell off the ship, his trusty sandals only just catching the edge of the railing. He screamed, a little, because that looked a long way down the sides of a battleship, and also because he hated Ace's laugh as much as he absolutely adored hearing Ace's laugh. Shitty gramps alerting instincts were not pleased, especially after his first one earlier on the striker ship. Twice was one time too many plus one (and three was the magic number that made your worst fear appear right behind your back).

Don't laugh!” Luffy shouted, teeth turning into fangs. “He tried to steal a member of my crew!”

What an old loser.” Ace threw his head back, slapping his tight with his free hand. “Bwaha… bwahahahaaaa!”

Veins on Luffy's forehead popped.“You assho-!”

A pair of strong arms brought him straight up against Ace's chest. That alone wouldn't have stopped him from screaming Ace's head off. But he had bumped into a new wound, and his brother had hissed sharply. He, at once, wanted to find Chopper.

Thanks, Lu,” was whispered in his ears.

I'm gonna beat you up, once you're better.”

Eh,” – with a bit more heat, a bit more Ace – “ you can try, brat.”

Oiiiii!” Buggy's voice suddenly cut through. “What's going on, Ace? Don't just swing the lead!”

A vein popped on Ace's forehead.

Hair shaped like a number three peaked from the main deck. “Weren't we trying to put some distance between us and our pursuers?”

Well, guys, I'm spent.” Ace dramatically sighed, slumping against Luffy's shoulders. “We've got no choice but to fight.”

Jimbei's brows lowered, his eyes squinted in suspicion. Like he thought something Ace said hadn't made a lick of meat of sense. The weariness in his voice, however, couldn't be feigned, even as he glared at the crow slowly encroaching on the stern. “That is, if we even have anyone capable of holding off Akainu.”

Luffy snarled, fists itching. Of course we do!

Of course we do!” shouted someone that wasn't him.

Huh?

A trio of starved, scarred and smashed prisoners triumphantly pulled on the curtains they had been carrying. “Captain Buggy!”

And there he was, bleached white, swaying in the wind.

Meanwhile, Buggy's soul slowly escaped his body through his mouth. Somehow oblivious to this, the horde of former prisoners carried his lifeless carcass up to the ship's bow, chanting his name. They dropped him, and he fell face first. With a yelp, Buggy seemed to come back to sea. His frantic glances for an escape went entirely unnoticed by hundreds. Pupils shrunken, he twitched and twisted and raised a shaking fist in the air.

Without either speaking or mouthing, the clown managed to scream out in distress.

The crowd parting must have rang with heavenly chimes.

Right up until it revealed the sand bastard.

Oh, yes, protect us from the marines, Buggy-sama,” Crocodile drawled, inhaling the cheap cigars he'd found like they were made by the gods themselves. His foot tapped impatiently against the battleship's deck. “None of us are capable of your courage. We have only fought vice-admirals.”

Okay, thought Luffy, it had been fun, but he wasn't going to let them sink just 'cause everyone around him was brain dead. Luffy started running toward the mast. He kept at it, even when Ace's fingers closed on his wrist. Maybe they could use the cannons. Lots and lots of cannons. Why couldn't they have escaped on the – Merry Sunny?!

Wait.”

We're screwed if we don't do something, Ace!”

The hand didn't let go.

And the twinkle in his eyes was the light of mischief he had missed most of all.

Luffy crossed his arms over his chest, ears ticking. “Do you have a plan?”

Yup.” The 'p' popped mockingly. “You gotta open up your ears wide.”

Huh?” He was too surprised to react when the fingers dug in his earlobe and pulled. “Ouch, ouch, ouch, this feels weird. Let go!” Ace's snickering sounded twice as loud. And it was twice as stupid! “Let go!”

It was the same. The same as every other noise the water made. Currents moving and scratching at the surface, splashing when they broke free. The push of fins and tails, the weight of sea kings, the bubbles that floated out of a drowning creature. It was always the same. The call of the sea that every pirate knew by heart.

So what did jump out to him this time?

Unthinkingly, Luffy pulled himself up to the stern. His left ear slapped itself back against his head, all teasing gone from Ace. His brother leaned on the rail, grinning, as if saying ' Yup, you got it, little brother. ' Except Luffy didn't really got it.

The waves were still a great blue. Alluring like sirens, Sanji would say. But there was something.

Incoming!”

Luffy snapped away from the lure, and turned in time to see growing red dots on the horizon. Ascending and growing.

Brace yourself,” Ace muttered, his voice hard.

The dots became boulders in the sky. As many as a dozen, more, but Luffy couldn't count them at a glance. Akainu's ship appeared the only point of black in a spreading patch of crimson. Trails of it followed the boulders, and there was no mistaking their trajectories.

He slung himself around Ace and the mast, wide as possible.

They were not boulders. He could see where that admiral had gotten the nickname.

"Captain Buggy! Protect us!”

Buggy waved his walking stick – where had he even…? – as if it would create a hurricane and swept away all dangers. Or, as if he were swatting a particularly fat fly.

Ivankov-sama! Use your Universal Wink, please!” shouted the okamas, while said Empress pumped more and more head growth hormone into herself.

This is the end!” cried Mr. Three, hugging Bentham for dear life.

The hellhounds' mangy jaws snapped thin air, as if anticipating the moments they would sink into wood, and bring it down into the depths.

Down .

Luffy's eyes moved. He saw the shadow of the ship. The dark blue waters below. Larger than any battleship had a right to be. Then, between the lances of foam broken on the hull, gray.

Teeth.

Water rose. Broke. Scales pink as cherry blossoms parted the waves, displacing so much water the ship almost went vertical. Only the fact that he had been hanging on well in advance prepared him for the shift. And so he saw the massive wall of flesh ascending in a single leap, a bottlenose poking the sky as if it wanted to play with the sun.

Luffy laughed, pale cream scales mere arms' lengths away, slick with water and alga. The sea king's tail brushed the hull, not even a love tap, and the creaking of the wood would have made anyone else wince.

He kinda loved it. The sea was just an awesome place. Who could ever have wanted to live on land?

And then the lava hit.

Blazing red poured onto pink skin, splattering crimson, raining charred black down into the sea. The shadow over the ship tinged with an orange glow, while a shrill cry rang through the air. Hitching and gasping, with every hit. Again. Deeper, till the beast's scales itself seemed outlined in light. And at last, one long solemn note, the mourning of the sea's child, and thus, the great dolphin fell, the surface broken into steam.

The battleship, itself, was miraculously intact amongst isles of volcanic rock.

Ohohohooooh,” Buggy made a stringy, high-pitch noise that resembled a weird rich lady's laugh. Probably 'cause his knees were shaking so bad he left an afterimage on each sides of him. “B-B-B-Buggy Junior! My favorite red-nosed Lon Lon dolphin!”

For the next three heartbeats, the dead produced more noise than the former prisoners of Impel Down. And in the following three, their shouts outrang the thunder.

That's your pet, Captain Buggy?!”

Whyyyyyyy ofcourseITIS Tha-ack-aaaack!” Buggy wheezed and coughed, his voice so high it might have transcended this plane of existence.

Thank you so much, Thack Buggy Junior!” shouted the mob in various states of hysteria and ecstasy.

In its dying spasms, the newly dubbed Thack hit the water with its tail and send a veritable tidal wave their ways. Before Buggy could jump off his perch, he was flushed out, and screeched all the way to the mast. His movement halted with a solid 'GONG' that might or might not have been his face breaking in half.

Wow,” Luffy deadpanned, pulling his wet sandals off his feet. “He's kind of an idiot, huh?”

That startled a laugh or two out of Ace.

Below them, the prisoners lied face down, possibly drowning, or crawled towards their messiah figure. Once they managed to reach him, they, in some freedom-drunken fervor, hauled him on their shoulders and paraded his dazed self with a weak “hail Captain Buggy!” Reprised by a few weaker “hail” amongst those of weaker constitution.

Say, Mister Two…” Three began, his body and hair limp, “do you believe in some higher power?”

Bon winked and pointed at Ivankov, who preened under the compliment.

Three's face reddened, thus becoming slightly less corpse-like. “I meant, besides your okama-crush on that ma… wom… individual!” He took a few seconds to breath deeply. “Something like… like a goddess of fortune, pure and beautiful, looking down favorably on blue-haired red-nosed clowns?”

There were a few blinks. “Not that exact image, no.”

Two former Baroque agents who had spent years chasing colorful pirates of all ilks contemplated the twitching, but living and unmutilated body of Buggy the Clown. Then, the fuming, dead remains of the Lon Lon Dolphin.

Then again…” Bon Clay conceded. He had seen many things, both as a bounty hunter and an okama in Hell, but nothing quite as outrageous as a clown basking in the aftermath of a sea king's lava-induced demise.

Buggy leaned forward, grin stretching from ear to ear, his eyes like upside-down smiles themselves, and his face covered in tracks of blood. “Aren't you glad you came under my protection, Crocodiiiiiiiileeeeeee?”

The poisoned ends of his hook would have skewered Buggy's body, if not for a simple fact.

The sea split open between their battleship and Akainu's, spitting out blue fire till the red skies turned purple. Understandably, heads turned to watch that show.

It wasn't an angrier, bluer relative of Thack. Or, if it was, it looked a lot more wooden, a little smaller and entirely whiter. Less nose. More of a mouth, but not a toothy one like Laboon. It was a whale with a smile, a smirk, really. One that said it was ready to screw you over, and it wouldn't be trying very hard.

Right there and then, Luffy got a strange tingly feeling inside his chest. Like seeing some stranger steal away the best piece of meat on the table.

So they did reach us in time,” Jimbei said.

We're saved!” echoed the cheers.

Ah, you shouldn't have worried so bad, guys,” Ace said, his eyes strangely shiny. “It was never really a race, after all.”

Luffy turned. “Huh? Why?”

His brother rubbed his nose and chuckled. “Because the Moby Dick is the king of ships.”