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“I hate you. So much.”

The statement lacked bite, sitting in the Thousand Sunny’s kitchen in her tattered wedding gown, drinking the blackest, bitterest, most delicious tea she’d ever tasted, but not saying it felt too much like she was conceding… something. Pudding couldn’t put her finger on what.

“You’re a pervert. And a moron. And—will you stop giving me food?!”

Sanji paused, plate in hand. “I’m sorry. You don’t like pasties?”

“Why are you being nice to me?” She snatched a pasty off the plate, shaking it in his face. “I tried to kill you!”

“That happens a lot,” Sanji said, casually enough that Pudding knew it was true. “Besides, you helped us get out.”

Pudding scowled; she couldn’t explain to herself anymore than she could to the Strawhats why she’d guided them out of Totto Land, or why she hadn’t disembarked when they’d passed Cacao Island. Once they’d passed the last Tarte, Luffy had just stared at her, nodded, and declared her third eye “soooo coooooool” before demanding meat, and that was that.

It felt way too easy.

“I don’t want your pity,” she said.

Sanji blinked. “You never had it.”

It was so simple, so earnest, and Pudding panicked and shoved the whole pasty in her mouth so she wouldn’t have to respond. Sanji flushed, his face taking on what she recognized as his ‘You are the cutest, most wonderful woman in the world’ expression, before he shook himself and gestured to the tray he’d been arranging.

“I’m going to give Nami-swan, Carrot-chan, and those other assholes their snacks. Let me know if there’s anything you’d like.” And he was out of the kitchen, his steps maybe a touch more hurried than usual.

Pudding sank into a chair at the dining table, her heart fluttering. Somehow, knowing that he knew what she was and was still completely sincere… she didn’t know how to handle him anymore.

I want you to go away and stop making me feel things.

Heat

May. 8th, 2017 01:29 pm
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A tickle of heat against his hip woke Sanji, idly circling his hipbone. He shifted to his stomach, burying his face in the pillow. The heat paused for a moment, glided slowly across his side, and started tracing patterns on his back.

He turned his head enough to speak clearly. “Why’re you up?”

Ace’s fingers stilled. “Couldn’t sleep.” At Sanji’s disbelieving snort, he added, “It happens.” He continued running his fingers across Sanji’s back and bit at his shoulder. “You’re not asleep, either.”

“I was.” But it lacked venom, and Ace just pressed an unrepentant grin into his neck. The heat spread lower as he moved his hand.

Sanji only opened his eyes when Ace nuzzled against his cheek, lips sliding across his jaw. Twisting slightly to meet for a lazy kiss, Sanji saw, before black hair blocked his vision, fingers of flame stroking his skin.

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Nami studied her wine suspiciously, wondering who had spiked her drink and what, exactly, it had been spiked with. It was the only explanation for what she was seeing. Luffy was not staring at his plate, which had only moments before been piled with steaks rather than celery, and whimpering dejectedly. Chopper was not alternating between listening to Usopp’s story about an entire island of flying rabbits who had declared him their leader and sparkling at the new arrival. Sanji was not muttering a recipe for hasenpfeffer under his breath. Zoro was not ignoring his crewmates and the… thing in their midst to take a nap—no, wait, he was doing that. No imagination could produce snoring that loud.

Nami closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. “There is not a rabbit in a superhero costume. It is not real. It is a hallucination.”

“Do I look like a hallucination?” the creature demanded, straightening to its full height and ignoring Nami’s nod. “It is I, Captain Vegetable!”

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For as long as she could remember, she would sneak out to watch her guardians spar late at night. Most times Igaram or Terracotta would catch her and send her back to bed. When she did slip past, she always curled up on the edge of the balcony overlooking the courtyard they met in, watching the two soldiers below match each other speed for speed, strike for strike. She may not have understood why they would go out each night, but she did recognize a type of beauty in their motions.

Now, after two years with Baroque Works, Vivi thought she understood.

Unable to sleep, she wandered back out to that balcony; the courtyard was empty. She leaned on the railing, images of feathers and fur and fluttering robes mixing with memories of peacock slashers and baseball bats and instruments-cum-guns, all geared towards the same goal—not perfection, or even becoming the best, but just to be strong enough. Strong enough to leave home, to become an Agent, to save a country.

Strong enough to die.

Her body reacted before her brain, squatting into the shadow of the railing as she caught movement below.

Pell limped into the courtyard, Chaka easily matching his pace. They both looked better, Vivi noticed; Pell was not leaning as heavily against his crutch, and Chaka had lost the drawn look he’d worn the past few days. She watched as Pell laid aside his crutch and faced Chaka for a moment before throwing a soft punch.

It was nowhere near the ease Vivi remembered, but still they matched speed for speed, strike for strike. And when Pell’s leg twisted from under him, Chaka met him before he fell.

More than strong enough.


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Relic

May. 8th, 2017 01:20 pm
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Cobra ran his hand over the rim of the stone ring. It seemed like an obvious question, since he’d never seen it before, but he hadn’t been in the condition to notice any extra statuary when Crocodile and Ms. All Sunday brought him down here. “And it was sealed off until this morning?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” The foreman motioned to where a support beam held up a crumbling section of ceiling. “We’d never have found the room if the ceiling hadn’t brought part of the wall down.”

Behind them, Igaram cleared his throat. “To that end, Your Majesty, is it safe for you to be down here?”

Cobra glanced back at him, then through the open wall to the bustling activity in the tomb proper. It had seemed pointless to hide its existence after Crocodile’s defeat, particularly given the gaping hole leading up to the Square. Now a miniature army of workers scurried through the space, clearing rubble and adding supports to keep the tomb from collapsing any further. Announcing the tomb’s existence was a small price to pay to keep it from bringing the city down in a slow collapse. “If it weren’t safe, these men would not be down here, Igaram.” He turned back to study the towering structure, walking through the ring to look over the other side. “Have you any idea what it is?”

“No, Your Majesty. Strange thing, though. There’s no way they could have brought this down after the tomb was built; they must have built around it.”

“Hmm.” He ran his fingers over the closest symbol one more time, a circle hovering above a bottomless triangle, before dropping his hand and stepping away.

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Milk Run

May. 8th, 2017 01:18 pm
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It was a milk run, the simplest of missions to ease CP9 back into work once they finished recuperating from the events—not defeat, never within hearing distance of Lucci, whose hearing was sharp enough to pick up someone thinking the word—at Enies Lobby. Five targets, guilty of funding the rebellion, all taking a liner between islands; security was as minimum as the Grand Line would allow, and, as intelligence reported, no one with devil fruit abilities was anywhere near the liner. Kaku almost felt insulted; command may have considered it a gift, but it would never take three members of CP9 to take out five middle-age merchants with more fluff around their middles than brains in their heads.

It took less than an hour to recheck security, find their staterooms, search their belongings for any information or items helpful to the government, and find a discrete place to hide the bodies until nightfall, leaving five more days to relax.

At least, that was the idea; Kaku hadn’t felt tenser since before the Water7 mission, pinned down as he was at his table. Granted, it wasn’t anything his tablemate was doing but Kalifa’s cool look and Lucci’s glare from across the room that was setting him on edge.

“Your colleagues seem perturbed by my presence,” Mihawk stated, never looking up from his wine glass. Kaku, deciding ‘pissed off and murderous’ could count as ‘perturbed’, nodded.

“If you don’t mind me saying so, I was under the impression you had your own means of traveling.”

Mihawk considered for a moment, swishing the wine around in the glass. “I find that, on occasion, a change in routine can have beneficial results.” The golden eyes flicked up, the interest in them pinning Kaku against his chair. “More wine?"

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Make UP

May. 8th, 2017 01:15 pm
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“Are you sure you’re up for this?”

“Yes, Chaka,” Pell said, studying his face in the mirror. He rarely bothered to cover his markings, but the effect was usually worth it. Somehow, no one ever recognized him without the black lines. “It’s been two months. I can handle a patrol through the marketplace.”

“I’d still feel better if one of the other officers went instead,” Chaka said, meeting Pell’s eyes in the mirror. “They need the experience.”

“And I need the exercise.” He did not say that they’d had experience; this wasn’t the first time since the revolution they’d heard rumors of Baroque Works members within Alubarna. It was just the first time Pell had volunteered to blend with the crowds while the royal family was outside the palace. With at least three pairs of Frontier agents still unaccounted for along with the remaining Millions and Billions, some paranoia was warranted.

Giving his reflection a satisfied nod, Pell turned around. “How do I look?”

Chaka stared at him for a second, taking in the pants, jacket, and makeup before giving an aggravated sigh. “Unrecognizable.”

“Good. And I don’t know why you’re grumbling so much.” He wrapped his arms around Chaka’s waist, pushing onto his toes to kiss the taller man’s jaw. “After all, you’re the one touring Yuba with Vivi-sama, with barely healed stab wounds I might add, while I’m here under Dr. Ooh’s watchful eyes.” He dropped another kiss at the corner of Chaka’s mouth. “I’ll be worried.”

“You’ll be careful.” It wasn’t a question.

“Swear on my grave.”

Chaka shot him a dark look but turned towards the door. “I’ll let Igaram-san know we’re ready then.”

“Chaka?” Pell gave him a bright smile when he turned. “You might want to wipe the kiss marks off your face first.”

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It did make sense, Kaku decided, laying on the roof of the judicial tower, to use capture the flag as a training exercise. It was easy enough to rile up the competitive spirit of a bunch of eleven- and twelve-year-old boys.

Competitive boys got creative very, very fast. Some of the strategies his classmates had come up with to hide and find the flags had been impressive.

And violent; the infirmary was already half-filled with injuries caused by careless—or, he added, allowing himself a grin, careful—rankyaku or shigan.

Still, when looked at the right way, Capture the Flag was a good, basic mission:  identify and locate the target, work with team to create plan, eliminate obstacles as necessary, eliminate target. If the instructors were lucky, the trainees would remember something from this later on. It was almost perfect.

“There he is!”

It made sense, Kaku repeated, jumping off the tower, his classmates in fast pursuit, but he hated being the flag.

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It has been far too long, Chaka realized, nuzzling Pell’s neck as he eased his partner back onto the makeshift blanket of their robes on the sand. Hands clawed at his back, teeth sunk into his shoulder, and Chaka reached for their pack, fingers groping to find something, anything, to make this go smoother.

—only to bump into a package he knew for certain hadn’t been there when they left their rooms.

“Someone’s been into the pack.”

Pell pulled away instantly, eyeing the pack warily. If something was planted by a rogue Baroque Works member or a stubborn rebel, it certainly wouldn’t be the first nor the best hidden. Strangely certain that anyone trying to kill them would be slightly smarter than to hide something within their… personal effects like this, Chaka pulled the paper-wrapped package out.

It wasn’t lightweight, or particularly large; tucked into one end was note, which Pell plucked off. He blanched, coughed uncomfortably, and read, “‘For the occasions I missed.—Vivi’.”

“Ah.” Both stared at the package for another moment before the paper was tossed aside and the box opened. There was a horrified silence, then it was Chaka’s turn to cough.

“She is certainly… practical.”

“Yes…. Oh, look, a book.” Paper rustled, and Pell placed it down carefully. “With pictures.”

They studiously looked past each other.

“She was being thoughtful.”

“Yes.”

“But it would probably be best to dissuade her from giving us another gift like this.”

“Yes.”

“Or at least,” and here Chaka glanced over, catching the faint twitching at the corner of Pell’s mouth, “keep her from buying books we already own.”

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Shovel Talk

May. 8th, 2017 12:54 pm
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Silence reigned in the living room, occasionally broken by the rustle of paper when Mihawk turned the page of the newspaper. The rebuilding of Mariejoa was going swimmingly, according to the reports; perhaps he should travel that way when he left the island…

The door made a muffled sound as it opened. A surprising courtesy, that. He peered over the top of the paper and allowed an eyebrow to rise at the sight of Lucci standing in the center of the room, the glower he usually wore around Mihawk tempered to something that could almost be seen in polite company. Granted, he still looked at Mihawk like the swordsman was something to be scraped off the bottom of his shoe, but it was mildly less hostile than usual.

Mihawk wondered if the other man was feeling all right.

Lucci didn’t say anything. He simply stared at Mihawk for a moment before shifting his gaze to the pair of tickets sitting on the table.

“The concert’s at seven,” Mihawk said, his attention still partly on the newspaper.

The silence took on a more pointed tone. It would have been irritating, coming from any other member of the group. But it was Lucci.

“I’ll have him back early.”

There was a cough from the doorway. “Are you done trying to safeguard my virtue?” Kaku asked, pulling on a jacket as he leaned against the doorframe.  “I can come in again if you need a minute.”

Lucci snorted in response, but his face smoothed into impassivity and he strode out of the room. Kaku echoed his snort, looking bemused.

“Does he do that often?” Mihawk asked, standing and setting aside the paper.

Kaku shrugged. “He’s mellowed.”

“I see.” And, as he started the odd bend-and-twist that allowed them to kiss without Kaku’s nose getting in the way, there was a flurry of wings. Hattori landed on Kaku’s shoulder, a bowtie snug around his neck.

“I’m going to accompany you,” he announced, glaring at Mihawk as well as he could (surprisingly well, actually, or not so surprisingly considering his owner).

There was a pause, then Kaku pushed away, his smile taking a distinct plastic quality. “I’ll be right back,” he said, and disappeared out the door. Mihawk sighed and picked up the paper again, resigning himself to being late to the concert. Again.

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Reunion

May. 8th, 2017 12:53 pm
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He’d been on the wall, inspecting both the rebuilding and the soldiers with Igaram, when the messenger came. He remembered a glimpse of Igaram’s shocked face before the city was a blur, splashing through puddles and wind making his eyes water was he ran through Alubarna at full speed.

That was hours ago. Now, he sat by the bed in his—their—room, patiently reading a book he’d been meaning to finish for some time now. It was a little difficult to turn the pages at times, between the constant ache in his chest and shoulder where his stitches had pulled and the necessity of using only his left hand.

The pulse beating slow and steady in the hand grasped in his right hand was too important to let go of for even a second. So Chaka sat and read and listened to the rain, only looking up when he felt eyes upon him. He set the book aside and looked into tired copper eyes.

“Sleep well?” Chaka asked, reaching forward to brush a stray lock of hair from Pell’s face. Pell made a small sound of affirmation, turning his head to nuzzle Chaka’s fingers.

“Come t’ bed,” he mumbled, eyes already drooping shut again.

Chaka blew out the reading lamp, performed the stretches needed to reach the other side of the bed without letting go of Pell’s hand, and wrapped his arms around his friend. He buried his face in Pell’s hair, tenseness washing away with the smell of feathers and medicine.

“I’m home,” Pell said through a yawn, shifting closer to the jackal.

“Welcome back,” Chaka answered.

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