Chapter 1: .01
Shichibukai Incarcerated in Impel Down
-Grand Line associated press This week former shichibukai Crocodile is being transported under armed escort to Impel Down after an attempted coup on Alabasta’s monarchy. Following his defeat and capture by Captain Smoker of the navy, Crocodile was briefly held on marine base G-3 before being moved to Enies Lobby for sentencing. Captain Smoker wasn’t available for comment but the official word from marine headquarters points to a life sentence for Crocodile and a promotion for the captain.
News on the Grand Line moves almost as fast as political spin and nothing, no matter how important, stays in the headlines for long, not even when there’s a rogue shichibukai involved.
He knows two weeks of front page spreads and a single paragraph follow-up on the second page could have been a lot worse. He does. It could have dragged out for months if the trial hadn’t been cut and dried; could have meant more attention on him and his crew than there already has been.
He got off easy, damn it, but seeing his name attached to the incident is still almost enough to ruin the taste of his cigars.
Actually, it’s more than enough. Grimacing, he stubs them out and tosses the newspaper down on the table. There’s nothing in there he doesn’t already know. Nothing in it or in any of the recent dispatches to tell him where he should be sailing next.
And nothing much else for him to do on a docked, mostly empty ship but lean back in his chair and stare at the sky.
On this stretch of the Line there’s cloud cover even on the sunniest days, thick cumulus banks heavy with possible storms. They’re calm enough for now, though, leaving him free to lace his fingers together behind his head and watch them drift.
The White Sea. Inaccessible except to the people who live there and those government agencies that know the trick of getting up there without killing themselves. And apparently, the Straw Hat pirates.
If his target was anyone else he’d be tempted to write his job off as already done. But it’s Straw Hat. And there’s that damned D.
He should probably be trying to estimate where the kid and his crew will come down, but Straw Hat is about as predictable as a summer squall and Smoker’s pretty sure he’s not going to catch up to them anywhere near here. The next time he hears about them they’re going to be ten islands away in god knows which direction getting into some kind of new, stupidly dangerous trouble.
And he’ll be back to chasing them again, sailing through the aftermath of yet another political and social upheaval. At least he won’t have to see the results of whatever happens overhead, although knowing it’s going to happen is almost as bad.
He’s idly speculating on how long the clouds will stay calm with Straw Hat up there in them when a low, amused voice says, “Afternoon, Captain. Hope I’m not disturbing you.”
He deserves the surprise he feels. It’s what he gets for ignoring sensory input. Even if the voice wasn’t already imprinted on the annoyance centers of his brain, his smoke has been telling him who’s sitting on the gunwale – ankles hooked together, elbows on his knees, like he’s relaxing on a beach instead of an enemy ship – for a least a minute.
Fire that clean doesn’t happen anywhere else that he knows of. There’s always some kind of impurity, fuel and ash masking the pure burn of it, but Portgas is fire. He’s his own ignition, and Smoker would know. He’s been up close and personal with the results.
He’s closer to them now than he wants to be and his jitte is propped against the bulkhead behind him. Portgas will be gone if he so much as looks at it.
Which isn’t a bad idea, but he swore loyalty to the navy almost twenty years ago. He has a duty to at least attempt to bring in every pirate he can.
Or maybe his curiosity is getting the better of him. Portgas was just a pirate – albeit an extremely dangerous one – before Alabasta. Now he’s Straw Hat’s brother and yet another question mark that needs an answer.
Smoker hates unanswered questions almost as much as he does pirates and following orders. He’s willing to bet Portgas likes them as little as he does, and since the kid’s question is still unanswered, and for the moment they’re both willing to play the game, he says, “Depends,” and sits the rest of the way up, sticking a new pair of cigars between his teeth. “You here to let me arrest you?”
Portgas’s laugh is as low and easy on the ears as his speaking voice. And just as annoying. “I think we’ve had this conversation. My end of it hasn’t changed.”
Smoker takes his time getting to his feet, moving farther away from the jitte as he does. Flicks open his lighter but before he can lift it the ends of his cigars flare red. For a moment he thinks about tossing them at Portgas; he decides momentary satisfaction isn’t worth two fresh cigars and possible burn marks on his deck.
Doesn’t mean he can’t stall a while longer. Suck in smoke on a slow breath, blow it out just as slowly; see if he can’t throw some return annoyance Portgas’s way.
He tracks the trail of his smoke over Portgas’s head; the wind’s blowing from the north, strong gusts buffeting the ship, raising choppy swells. The clouds are moving faster, too, which could mean an approaching storm. Or it could just be Straw Hat.
It’s a reminder he doesn’t need. He snaps his lighter shut, sticks it in his pocket and looks at his unwanted guest.
Portgas isn’t really smiling. That half smirk, half grin seems to be his default expression for dealing with people he doesn’t care for. It’s the same one he had on his face in Nanohana—the rest of him seems about the same as well, attitude included.
“How’d you get past the watch?” He can think of a few ways, but he’d like to know who to come down on later.
Portgas shrugs it off. “It’s a pretty day and you’re in port. What do you think?” Easy roll of shoulders, arms and hands out in a casual gesture he's seen before, and it's more than enough to piss him off if he wasn’t there already. “Your people are all over town, including that nice sergeant major. That’s how I knew you were here.”
His people are about to have a close encounter with a roving series of emergency drills, and Portgas… but he guesses it’s just as well to know who’s sharing his patch of ocean and why.
“If you’re looking for your brother he’s already gone,” he says shortly. “Up there.” He jerks his thumb at the sky. “With any luck he won’t come back down.” Not that he believes that’ll happen. He’s not a D—doesn’t have that kind of luck.
Portgas tips his hat back and his eyes flicker, partly amused, but the rest… “Yeah, I got that from a couple of salvagers.” His grin relaxes, widens into something more real. “Knock Up Stream. That’s Luffy for you. He’s never had an ounce of sense, but he does all right all the same. He’ll be back down, you can count on it.”
Portgas is still turned toward Smoker, facing him; Smoker doesn’t think he sees him anymore. His eyes are distant, looking through Smoker, and his smirk is gone, leaving behind a soft curve.
Smoker almost reaches for the jitte. Bad enough that Portgas is here at all, but he’s damned if he’s going to let him sit there smiling like an idiot without a pair of seastone shackles attached to him. He says, “Portgas,” the same way he says Tashigi’s name when she’s talking to him while facing someone else, and the kid blinks.
His eyes clear and he blinks again like he’s not sure where he is. Then he looks at Smoker and seems to find his focus; if Smoker was anyone or anything but who and what he is, now would be the time to start running.
“Why do you want Luffy so bad, anyway?”
There’s nothing more than curiosity in his voice, but Nanohana is a near memory and Smoker knows there’s an edge under Portgas’s mild tone, even if he can’t hear it. The question itself is loaded and as annoying as its subject. Maybe because Smoker hasn’t yet come up with an answer he likes. “He’s a pirate. I’m a marine. Do I need another reason?”
When Portgas laughs his eyes narrow away to nothing and his mouth opens wide. He looks like the idiot he is. He looks too much like his kid brother for comfort.
“Not according to the government,” he says when he stops laughing long enough. “But it’s still a dumb reason. Probably about as true, too.”
He thumbs his hat up and his expression… Smoker can’t read it. Isn’t sure he wants to.
“It’d be enough for most marines,” Portgas says softly. “Why am I so sure it’s not enough for you?”
“Don’t ask me how your brain works. I’m not sure you have one.”
“Now, that’s not real polite.”
The kid’s look is all injured innocence but the heat radiating from him is growing stronger. More intense. Flame licks across his shoulders, ripples down his chest and abdomen and arms. Stops clean at his wrists.
Palms flat on the gunwale, and his hands are still flesh, as real and solid as his meaning. He can’t burn the ship down, but he can make a substantial dent in it before Smoker can put the fire out.
And that damned smirk is back and Portgas is still watching him, head tip-tilted like a kid watching a circus act. It’s Smoker’s choice and there’s currently more tobacco in his mouth than smoke. He stops chewing on his cigars and crosses his arms. “What do you want?”
Flame flickers and settles. Dwindles, absorbed back into unmarked skin. “I’m looking for someone,” Portgas says.
Smoker snorts. “You do that a lot.”
“He’s calling himself Blackbeard right now,” Portgas continues as though he didn’t hear. “His real name’s Teach. I heard he was on this island, but he left before I got here. I don’t suppose you’ve got any idea where he went?”
Neither name is new to him. They’ve been circulating through marine communications for four months, every connected incident worse than the last.
“If you talked to those salvagers,” he says, “you know a ship with the right markings went down.”
The kid’s mouth kicks up on one side. “I think I did hear something like that. I figure I’m lucky, but not that lucky.”
It’s a weird echo of his own thoughts, skewed by the middle initial Portgas shares with his brother. “Goddamned Ds,” Smoker growls, and Portgas throws his head back, laughs like it’s the funniest thing he’s heard in months, and Smoker takes his chance even though he knows he’s going to lose.
He lashes out with both arms, smoke simultaneously curling around his jitte and punching through the space Portgas just was but isn’t in anymore.
“Holding hands on the second date? That’s sweet of you, Captain, but I think we went past third base first time out.” Fire slides up his smoke arms, flickers through them, and he swears and goes the rest of the way smoke. Portgas is already sliding free of him, though, half flame, half flesh, laughter trailing him over the side of the ship.
“I guess that’s a no, then,” his voice floats up, crackling undertones echoing oddly, riding the edge between fire and laughter. “That’s all I wanted to know.”
Smoker is gripping the gunwale, scanning ships and sea and docks, but Portgas is gone, even the burn of him thinned out by the wind. Smoker can’t see him or his skiff, but he hears the turbine start up somewhere close. And although Portgas is too far away for him to hear anything else, he doesn’t need to hear to know the kid is laughing again.
I’m sorry about this, Captain. Really I am, but I’m going to go ahead and assume you didn’t give me much choice. Between borrowing without asking and seastone, I mean.
It’s an anomaly on his desk, heavier and several shades darker than the cheap den-den fax sheets HQ provides. Folded in neat quarters, unsealed, Whitebeard’s mark scrawled across it in smudged strokes.
He wonders if that’s Portgas’s idea of a joke, or if he’s just trying to piss him off.
Actually, that’s not really accurate. I am going to ask—or I’ve already asked, or something like that—damn, this is weird. Writing about stuff I haven’t done before I do it. But you already know what happened so I guess you’ll understand what I’m trying to say.
Does he know? He thought he did. He’s not so sure anymore.
Anyway, about the asking thing. I will because it’s the polite thing to do and I wasn’t raised in a barn, as someone used to tell me (although it was kind of close). And it doesn’t hurt to try! You might even say yes. Have said yes. But probably not, which is why I’m writing this. I like to cover my bases.
He has to think out the mechanics of unclenching his hand before it will. Then he has to straighten out the wrinkles before he can read the rest. Idiot pirate. Thinks he can walk onto a marine ship and ask for—
Cover your bases. That’s a weird saying, you know? I never heard it before the Grand Line. Baseball isn’t an East Blue pastime. I guess you’d know that, though, seeing as how you grew up there too.
Part of him is filing away a piece of intel that isn’t in the navy’s dossier, but most of him just wants to go find Portgas and ram his stupid letter with its stupid saying down his stupid throat.
But I’m kind of losing the thread here and (I’m pretty sure) annoying the hell out of you. Which you’ll probably pass on to your crew, which will suck for them, so I’ll just get to the point.
Like the idiot ever had one to begin with.
I’m borrowing your files on Blackbeard, and by the way, you really need to get some kind of organizational system going in here. Do you know how long it took me to find this shit? Or where I found it? I wish I didn’t.
Also, just so you know? Your desk is the black hole of office furniture. Try opening your mail once in a while. Or burning it. That’s what I do. Usually after I read it, but in your case extreme measures are called for.
About the files. I’ll give them back as soon as I can—probably not as soon as I read them because it may be a while before I find you again. And I think I’ll give you some time to cool off first, anyway.
Ten years won’t be long enough. Ten decades.
Ha, like that’s really going to help. But I figure even you can’t stay mad for weeks on end.
“Don’t count on it,” he snarls, tossing the letter away from him. It lands on the pile of faxes he picked it up off of and he glares at it while he chews on his cigars. Thinks about setting it on fire, seeing Portgas’s flippant words eaten up by his own medium.
Extends a tendril of smoke and picks it back up.
So I guess I’ll see you when I see you. Or not if I can find someone who’ll give these back to you for me. I could ask the guys on G-2, I guess, but I already torched a couple of their ships. They might be tempted to burn your stuff because it was me asking.
So yeah, it’s safer for me to just give them to you myself. Well, maybe not safer for me – this is you – but safer for everyone else. And that’s good enough for me.
Be seeing you, Captain.
It’s unsigned. Portgas must have figured the mark and the wording would be enough. And they are, which is just one more log on the bonfire he’d light under the kid’s ass if he wasn’t already fire. Also, “G-2? What the fuck, Portgas?”
There’s a light rap on his door; it opens a crack before he can say anything. “Sir?” Tashigi’s voice is muffled. He can see the tip of her nose and one lens through the crack. “Is there a problem?”
Several, but none that she needs to know about. “No,” he says. “Carry on. No, belay that.”
The crack is almost gone. “Sir?”
“Knock then wait for permission to enter.” He doesn’t care, but he’s not everyone. It’s a habit worth breaking now, before—
“Yes, sir.” He can almost hear her flush, and then the door closes fully and he does hear her stumble over something. Catches herself on the bulkhead and swears quietly before her footsteps move away. When he can’t hear her anymore he balls the letter up, drops it in the ashtray and presses the ends of his cigars to crumpled paper.
Watching Portgas’s letter shrivel and turn black isn’t anywhere near as satisfying as seeing him in seastone or even punching him in the jaw would be. But it helps.
And if he tells himself that a few hundred more times maybe he’ll start believing it. Sometime next century.
Chapter 2: .02
The barkeep pours out a long amber stream, filling the glass half full before pushing both it and the bottle over. “Thanks,” Smoker says as he reaches for the glass. Another hand gets there first.
It’s possible, if you listen hard enough, to hear someone swallowing. And regretting it afterward. “Ugh,” Portgas says. “How can you drink this shit?”
“I can’t,” Smoker says. “Not with you around.” He takes the glass out of Portgas’s hand and tosses off what’s left. Sets it down on the bar and pours himself another.
He doesn’t know why he’s surprised. This makes the second time since Jaya that Portgas has shown up somewhere he also happens to be, although it is the first time he’s done it in a public place. He’s stuck to the deck of Smoker’s ship before now, but if any pirate is stupid and reckless enough to sit down next to a marine and strike up a public conversation, it’s Portgas.
Fortunately for everyone else in the bar—mostly merchantmen and job sailors—conversation seems to be all he’s interested in. He says, “At least let me buy you something worth drinking,” leans forward and waves a hand at the barkeep. “Oi, take that away and bring us a bottle of your best East Blue rum.” He’s grinning at Smoker. “The captain and I both hail from there.”
Back of his throat derision is automatic, but Smoker doesn’t protest when the barkeep removes the offending bottle and disappears into his storeroom. He does finish what’s in his glass before he says, “You’d better pay for that upfront. I’ve already shelled out twice when you and your brother ate and ran. I’m not doing it again.”
“Really not feeling the trust here.” And now the kid’s grin is just this side of unholy. “You don’t mean Alabasta by any chance?”
Smoker just looks at him. Portgas starts laughing. By the time the barkeep gets back with the bottle his forehead and palms are flat on the bar. He keeps slapping the wood and making weird noises, “Luf—na—f—”
And then he chokes himself off and starts laughing again.
The barkeep stops and stares at him, mouth open. Stays like that until Smoker leans forward and takes the new bottle out of his hand and jerks his thumb at Portgas, “He’s paying.”
He fills his glass to just beneath the rim—he has a feeling he’s going to need it—and drinks in silence, looking at but not really seeing shelves full of cheap liquor and badly washed glasses. It would be pointless to start something he can’t finish, so he’s not going to start anything. He counts bottles and glasses instead, ignores Portgas as well as he can with his laughter ringing in his ears, and drinks rum.
Apparently Portgas’s taste is all in his mouth, not that that’s much of a surprise. It’s damned good rum. Too bad he’s too busy being an idiot to drink it. When Smoker lifts the bottle again he’s still snickering weakly. Still face down on the bar.
“Man,” he groans. “Fuck. I’m going to feel that in my abs for a while.” Out of the corner of his eye, Smoker sees him roll his head to one side and look up at him. “Thanks for that,” Portgas says, head still on the bar. “I needed the laugh.”
“Now that you’ve had it, leave. I’m not taking you down in here. You’ve burned up enough people’s lives this week.”
The Lazy Oar doesn’t have many patrons; he chose the place for that reason. There are just enough of them to fill in the edges of his silence with the clink of glass on wood and low conversation. Enough to leave him the privacy of his thoughts if he wants them. Or the privacy of someone else’s.
Portgas sits up slowly, the last of the laughter fading from his face. “I guess that means the marines know.”
Two islands up in flames, no survivors. It’d be hard not to know. “You here to turn yourself in?”
Something ripples across Portgas’s face; not flame, but it’s as swift and hot with the potential for violence as fire. He’s beginning to think he might actually have to do something, but Portgas’s eyes narrow and then the rest of him relaxes as fast as it tensed up.
The slouch of him over the stool and bar is fluid. Easy. His arm moves like unhurried water, reaching past Smoker and pulling the bottle towards him. Carrying it to his mouth. He smiles at Smoker, lazy and peaceful, and then he closes his eyes and takes a long drink, his throat working in slow swallows.
Smoker watches him lower the bottle. His eyes are still closed and his mouth is wet, painted in rum; he wipes the runoff away with the back of his hand.
“If you really thought I’d done it,” he says, setting the bottle down with a decisive thump, “we wouldn’t be sitting here.” His eyes drift open, looking across into Smoker’s. “Would we?”
Smoker thinks about pouring himself another drink. He bites into a new pair of cigars instead. Says, “God damn it,” because the kid just lit his fucking cigars and he’s also right. Portgas is right.
He’d believe Portgas left behind that kind of death as soon as he’d believe it of his brother, which he wouldn’t without a damned good reason. He knows that’s not their way like he knows his ship and his crew and his own abilities. Hates his certainty almost as much as he hates that goddamned rubber brat for making him acknowledge it, and Portgas makes a handy target.
He’s more than willing to take his anger with Straw Hat out on the brat’s brother. Portgas is not only handy, he’s an equally annoying substitute. But the kid is sitting over there watching him, half smiling and knowing him; looking at him like his head’s made of glass, like he can see every thought passing through it.
He can’t decide if he’s being provoked or not, and that’s enough to keep him on his stool.
Portgas hooks an elbow over the low back of his own stool; one hand turns the bottle around and around in circles on top of the bar. “Don’t take it so hard, Captain. There’s a base on this island isn’t there? If it’ll make you feel better I’ll go blow up the powder magazine.”
“Shut the fuck up and make your point.”
He stops rotating the bottle and tips it to one side, eyeing the fluid level thoughtfully. “That’s more of an or than an and. I can get to the point or I can shut the fuck up. Can’t really do both at the same time, you know?”
There’s still some rum left in the bottom of Smoker’s glass. If he picked it up he’d shatter it. “Portgas.”
Lifting the bottle in a mocking salute, the kid says, “Right you are, Captain. You want Jane Grey and her crew. She’s based on Black Lock Island for the moment.” He takes another drink.
His satisfied hum rubs Smoker’s ears exactly the wrong way.
“See now, this—” Portgas waves the bottle, chasing a stray drop off his lower lip with his thumb. “This is the good stuff. Don’t know why you’d bother with anything else.”
“I’m not going to bother with anything but seastone if you don’t say something I want to hear soon.”
“Just trying to be sociable. But if that’s the way you want it…” His shrug is as lazy as the rest of him, and then Smoker has to wait through another long swallow.
“You probably know she was one of ours,” Portgas says when his mouth is finally empty. “Split off a year ago after Pops called her out for using extreme measures when she didn’t need to. She wasn’t real happy about it—she left instead of reining it in.”
Smoker shifts in place. Not much. Enough.
Portgas flushes. “The old man doesn’t kill people just because they disagree with him.”
He swivels his stool around so he’s facing Portgas, watching the kid’s face. Looking for truth. “Why are you giving her up? Whitebeard doesn’t sit back and let his people get taken.”
“Was ours. She’s not anymore, and she’s carrying a grudge.” Flame flickers behind Portgas’s eyes. “She wants to hurt Pops and she’s willing to use me to do it. I’m not real happy about that.”
“Pirates going after pirates. Give me a reason to care.”
It’s more than a flicker this time, more like the start of a blaze. “How about more burned out islands? She got her hands on a zoan fruit sometime within the last couple of months. Mythical creature class, dragon. I think she figures if she torches enough islands, doesn’t leave anyone behind to say who did it, the government will think I’m doing it and go after Pops.”
If it wasn’t for the collateral damage, he’d call it a win-win. “Worried about your reputation?”
Portgas’s mouth tightens. “A lot of people died and may still die because we fucked up. I’m just doing my job. Same as you.” His hand tightens around the bottle. The rum inside is starting to boil.
“Shut it down,” Smoker growls and Portgas starts like someone coming out of a trance. He looks at the bottle, frowns, and sets it down. His hand slips down the side to rest against the bar.
Smoker doesn’t smell anything he shouldn’t so he lets it go. “Waste of good rum,” he says, signaling the barkeep. “Another bottle. Same kind. You’re paying for this one, too,” he tells Portgas as the man hurries off.
Some of the tension leaks out of the kid’s shoulders, curls up into half a smile. “I carry money, it’s just—” the smile widens— “The principle of the thing. Childhood allergy of mine, handing good money over to snooty restaurants.”
“This place shouldn’t be a problem then.” He picks up the new bottle the barkeep just put down and pours out. “I’m still missing a couple of files.”
“Damn,” Portgas says mildly, “I knew I forgot something.”
“Sure you did,” Smoker drawls. He sets his cigars in the ashtray and picks up his glass. “If that’s all, we’re done. Pay up and get lost.”
Portgas props his elbow on the bar and rests his chin on his palm. “In a hurry to get rid of me?”
“There’s this thing called fraternization,” he says dryly. “Maybe you’ve heard of it.”
“Yep.” Portgas leans in, eyes full of fire and trouble. Stage-whispers out of the corner of his mouth, “That’s why I’m wearing a shirt.”
Smoker examines the shirt in question. It’s dull yellow with bright orange palm trees all over it. The sleeves are barely long enough to cover the tattoo on Portgas’s arm and it’s unbuttoned, displaying the kid’s eye-catching knife and the A on his belt. His usual hat is hanging down his back and his shorts and boots are the same ones he’s worn every time Smoker’s seen him. “Convincing.”
“You have no appreciation for the fine art of disguise,” Portgas sighs and reaches for the bottle. Smoker moves it out of his reach.
“Money or nothing.”
He sighs again but he pulls a roll of soft out of the pouch on his shorts. Peels off a few bills and slaps them on the bar. “That’s a whole evening’s worth for you, Captain.”
“Good. Now go the fuck away.”
Portgas grins and pulls his hat up by its string, settling it on his head. “Well, since you ask so nicely…” Planting both hands on the bar, he pushes to his feet. Smoker clamps a hand over his wrist.
Portgas’s eyes are more curious than anything else but Smoker still lets go as soon as he has his attention. It’s stupid wanting to know. Being curious about his targets, although he guesses he could always file it under knowledge being power. He knows himself better than that, though, and he’s never been good at self delusion.
He says, “Why’d you bring this to me?” And he knows he’s asking for himself, not potential information.
Portgas stares at him, the skin around his eyes and mouth drawing tight, and for a long moment Smoker doesn’t think he’ll answer. Then he picks up Smoker’s glass, drains it and sets it down. Slumps back down on his stool. “How many people were there on Mardun and Tuklala? Best estimate.”
He reaches for his cigars. They’ve gone out but they light of their own accord as he lifts them, and he sucks in, keeping the burn going. “Around ten thousand total. They weren’t heavily populated.”
This time Portgas’s laugh has nothing to do with amusement. “Yeah. Not—” The hand on the bar clenches into a fist; his eyes look past Smoker’s shoulder at something that isn’t there. “The only thing worse than being trapped in a fire,” he says, strange and distant, “is being trapped in a fire with someone who trusts you to get them out safe.”
Smoker pours another two fingers into his glass. He pushes it across the bar, shoves it up against Portgas’s fist, and Portgas comes back from wherever he just went.
His gaze drifts down from Smoker’s face to the glass. His mouth is a thin, hard line but his hand uncurls, one finger at a time, grips the glass and raises it. “Yeah,” he says again, and swallows until the rum is gone.
He sets the glass back down so carefully it might as well be heirloom crystal instead of cheap barware. “I can’t do anything about those people,” he says, still looking at the glass. “I could kill Grey, but if I do it’ll just be one pirate killing another pirate.” He shrugs. “It’s different for a marine. I’d say cleaner, but that’s not it, really.”
Portgas raises his head and gives him that grin that’s half knowing and half understanding. “Some things need to be done in the light. Others—” he thumbs his hat up. “That’s what I’m for. I’ll be there. Not with you, but if I’m around to provide a little distraction, I don’t think anybody’s going to care. You can leave me out of your report.”
“Don’t think I won’t.” The kid laughs and Smoker leans past him to stub his cigars out; he let them sit too long. The taste isn’t right anymore. “Not like I’ll file one any time soon,” he mutters. He looks back up at a small, choked sound and Portgas’s face is lit up with amusement.
“I guess they don’t call you the navy’s loose cannon for nothing,” he says as he gets to his feet. “Nice talking to you, Captain. Enjoy the rum.”
He should stay silent, use his mouth for drinking instead of asking. Shut down his curious streak and forget Portgas was ever here. Should. He hates that word.
“Don’t tell me you couldn’t find some way to haul her in yourself. Grey’s bounty is half of yours.”
Out of the corner of his eye he sees Portgas stop walking and half turn, a loose-limbed tangle of lines and angles in dim light. His hand is on his hat. His face is in shadow. All except for his smile. “I’m a pirate. I wouldn’t waste time trying to bring any of them in. Daylight, Captain,” he says, and leaves.
The Grey pirates don’t go down easy but they do go down. Eventually and at the cost of two seastone bullets and three men’s lives.
Four others are in the infirmary, two of them not expected to live. Smoker makes sure Prashant has everything she needs and gets out of her way.
He’s filthy, his skin caked in dried mud made from sweat and ash and other people’s blood, but he stops by the brig before he goes to his cabin. Half of his crew is on the Lady Jane and most of her crew are incarcerated over there. Only Grey and her lieutenants are here, two of them seastone cuffed alongside their captain.
Grey is unconscious, the bullet wounds in her thigh and side field-dressed and seeping, but her commanders are awake and aware, staring at Smoker with hate in their eyes. Nothing he’s not used to. Not anything he needs to see.
As he turns to leave, Grey’s second stands and shuffles over to the bars, chains rattling around him. “Oi. Marine pig. You fuckers hit Captain pretty bad. You gonna just let her bleed out?”
“She’ll get her turn.” His cigars went out a while ago. He pulls out his lighter. “You got something to say to me, Mercado?”
Mercado spits, the thick wad of phlegm and saliva hitting the deck outside the bars. “Not to you. Fucking marine. Got a message for Whitebeard’s puta pequeña.”
“Then you’ve got nothing I need to hear.” He finishes lighting his cigars. Watches Mercado’s knuckles turn white clenching seastone bars. When he turns around this time he keeps walking.
“Tell Portgas he’s a dead man,” Mercado shouts after him. “Him and the old bastard. Tell him Captain’s gonna rip the old man’s head off and eat his heart while he watches!”
“At least he doesn’t talk in clichés,” Smoker says and lets the port seal shut behind him.
Tashigi is waiting for him just outside. “Sir.” Her hands are clenched tight around Shigure. “We lost Takahara.” Her throat moves, swallowing dry enough to be audible. “Prashant.” Another swallow. “She says Myung will make it if he’s still… if he’s still here. In the morning.”
There’s something he should be saying. Or doing. He doesn’t know what. Maybe other commanders do, Hina or even Garp. All these years and he still doesn’t have any kind of idea; he can only make himself nod. Let his hand rest on her shoulder in the moment before he passes her.
There’s no one on deck but the reduced second shift, and the ship feels quiet, abnormally still after the frenzied rush of the last few hours. When the officer on deck comes to attention as he goes by, he acknowledges Kim’s salute then almost tells him to go find something noisy to do.
Of course he doesn’t. He walks to his cabin and stands in front of the door with his hand on the latch, glaring at it because he can see what’s inside so clearly in his mind he might as well be able to see through wood.
He knows the kid is in there, just like he knew most of the fire today wasn’t Grey’s. Portgas kept his word. Didn’t show his face or announce his presence, but he burned his way through a good third of Grey’s crew before they surrendered.
Why he’s here now instead of out on the open sea is anyone’s guess; Smoker doesn’t pretend to understand how the kid’s screwy thought process works. But it only takes four hours for a log pose to set here, probably why Grey was using it as a base. Portgas should be gone.
He’s still here, though, sitting in Smoker’s chair. Boots propped on Smoker’s desk, his hat in Smoker’s in-box, and his eyes are closed and his mouth is open, light snores whistling out of it.
Smoker bangs the door shut, knocks Portgas’s boots off his desk on his way past. “Keep your feet off my intel or I put you through the bulkhead.”
The snores stopped when he knocked Portgas’s feet off the desk; the kid’s voice bends around a yawn, “Don’t know why you’re so worried about this mess. You never do anything with it. I don’t think you’ve moved a thing since the last time I was in here.”
It’s the suggestion of laughter—that damned smile he can hear in Portgas’s voice that stops him. Makes him turn just as Portgas gets up and comes out from behind his desk. Smiling.
Two brothers, two pirates. Always laughing, smirking, smiling when there’s not a damn thing to smile about.
He should back off. Get a handle on his reactions and the situation before he decides how he wants this to go. If Portgas hadn’t been there today the casualty list would have been much longer, but right now all he can see is a pirate, a prime example of everything that’s wrong in this world, everything he wants to excise from it the same way Prashant would excise a tumor.
His jitte is out of its loop and in his hand, Portgas pinned to the deck beneath the point before he even knows he’s going to do it. And he’s breathing quick and heavy, too loud, too obvious to be anything but anger; he can feel the shallow lift and fall of Portgas’s throat under the jitte.
Portgas’s breathing is slow and even. His eyes—
Emotions flicker on the fringe of fire color: anger, impatience, others Smoker can’t parse. Then it’s all gone, all but one, and before Portgas looks away he sees something closer to understanding than anything else. It pisses him off more than everything else combined.
He leans in hard, has the satisfaction of Portgas’s choked gasp, and it’s no kind of satisfaction he wants. “Give me one reason not to throw you in there with her.”
Portgas isn’t looking at him. Smiling at the deckhead, arms out, palms up, not fucking caring. Smoker digs the jitte in a little deeper. Hates the choppy jerk of Portgas’s throat and chest.
He says, “Portgas,” and he doesn’t ease off at all, and Portgas says, “No.”
Just no, and finally, he looks at Smoker. He says, “You don’t get off that easy,” his voice choked, stifled, and Smoker can see bruises when his throat moves and he’s still smiling like a haki punch. “Whatever you’re going to do, do it. I won’t do it for you.”
He feels something in his jaw give; there’s red in front of his eyes and this feeling, this is what he remembers—red and grey pushing out, smashing up against each other, no win.
There was no clear win. Not then. And not here. “I don’t need some snot-nosed punk doing anything for me,” he says, and pulls the jitte away.
He turns his back on Portgas. Walks the few steps to the open porthole and stops, watching smoke stream out, twisted, thrown away by the wind.
Slide and drag, boots clumping and a thump, “Ow.” Portgas knocking into the bulkhead, maybe. Probably. “Damn.” Hoarse and strained, close to damaged, and still managing to be amused, “You’re faster than you look.”
And Portgas is good at pointing out the obvious. He’s also moving, the scrape of his boots uneven on the deck. His voice is closer than it was when he says, “Not all of us operate the way she does.”
“You’re still pirates.” It’s easier to answer the kid than look at him, see his own treason and failure.
Easier to stare at the sea, fill his lungs with more of what he is and say, “Even if you take from other pirates, they already took from someone else who probably couldn’t spare it, maybe killed them to do it. It’s an unequal exchange. Justice isn’t served.”
His cigars are damp and mangled. He pitches what’s left through the porthole and then Portgas says, “Tell me something, Smoker. What part of justice are the tenryubito?” And there’s nothing left in his mind but the kid’s voice and words, made worse by the fact that it’s not a new thought, his thought coming out of a pirate’s mouth.
It brings his head around. Turns him around, and he’s staring at Portgas, who’s never called him anything but captain to date.
He’s slouched against the desk, hands in his pockets. His head is bent, turning his already low voice lower. “Is protecting whoever’s got enough money to pay for it and ignoring the rest justice?”
His head lifts and he meets Smoker’s eyes, his own eyes dark and expressionless except for the red burn around black pupils. “Or maybe it’s hunting down and killing kids for things their parents did before they were even born.”
The bruise on his throat is an ugly purple. Maybe that’s why his voice is still hoarse. Maybe.
“Marine justice,” Portgas says, and it could be laughter chasing words spat out like rancid water. “It’s a contradiction in terms.”
If it wasn’t at least partly true it wouldn’t stick in the back of his throat going down. “Better that than raising a skull and crossbones and killing for sport.”
Portgas pushes away from the desk, shoulders rounded in, head tilted back. “Must be nice being able to think in black and white. I was never much good at it.” The half smile is back; he turns it on Smoker like a weapon. “If your system was so perfect that flag wouldn’t be the closest thing to freedom there is.”
The kid’s eyes say he’s looking for a fight, but his stance is off and Smoker isn’t a twenty year old hothead. Not anymore.
His crew is at half complement; the usual noise level is down by that much. But he can still hear them. Creaks, voices, boots moving across the decks of his ship. They’re Portgas’s hostages, and it’s his own damn fault for making deals with pirates—even deals where he’s not even sure what the deal was.
And Portgas is still watching him. Waiting for him to get stupider than he already has been. He’s not really looking at Smoker, though, and Smoker follows his gaze down to the jitte—Smoker raised it halfway sometime within the last few minutes without realizing it.
He lets the point drop. Braces it against the deck and makes one more deal with himself. The last one. “Get off my ship. Come back and I’ll put you in seastone.”
Portgas hooks his finger through his hat’s string, lifting it out of Smoker’s in-box and putting it on. Thumbs the brim up, but the smile that usually goes with the gesture isn’t there. “Only if I let you,” he says, and it’s nothing but truth and that’s—
Leather creaks, strains, and Smoker can’t make his hand relax. He can’t let go of the jitte, but he won’t raise it again. He won’t watch Portgas walk past, the unnatural heat of him nothing more or less than the hell Smoker’s going to be paying his conscience for the foreseeable future.
“You know,” Portgas says, and stops. Speaking or moving. Smoker can just see the outline of him in the light coming through the portholes. He moves slightly, blurring the lines, and the shadows move across his face when he says, “There will be another pirate king one of these days.”
Pride is taking the brand held out to him in both hands even though he knows it’s going to burn him. It’s turning his head and looking into Portgas’s flickering red orange black eyes.
“Or Luffy.” He grins as though he can hear Smoker’s teeth grinding off another layer of enamel as clearly as Smoker can feel it happening, but he sobers fast, grin fading, eyes serious. “Even if that doesn’t happen, Dragon’s out there. Which side will you and your justice be on when the world government falls?” he asks quietly.
They’re still standing there; still staring at each other and not saying a damned thing; still stalemated when Tashigi raps once, lightly, and opens the door.
“Captain Smo—” she stops, frozen in the open port, light from the fading sun streaming in around her.
They must look like a prize bunch of idiots, Tashigi with her open mouth, Portgas looking like he’s about to start laughing, and Smoker… “I told you to wait after you knock, Ensign,” he says, not looking away from Portgas.
“Y-yes, sir.” She clears her throat and shuffles her feet. “You did.”
“You do that,” he says. “Now.”
“Yes, sir.” Her eyes flicker between him and Portgas; she starts to open her mouth, looks at him and closes it again, and then she’s backing out of the room, closing the door behind her.
“I meant what I said,” Smoker says almost before he hears the click of the latch. “I’d deal with you now if I could.”
“I know.” Portgas’s face is a blank. His eyes are empty, not even a glint of red. “I’m—” he shakes his head sharply, cuts off whatever he was going to say.
He wants to say it. Wants to badly enough that he’s still here, fire rising along his edges in his impatience to be gone. Mouth parted, and his face is alive with flame and frustration and something else, something—
Smoker lunges, a wordless growl crawling up out of his throat, jitte raised. It pierces empty air; his boots scrape the deck as he skids to a stop in front of the porthole. He can almost taste the burn in the air, hot and clean. Hands steady, he lowers the jitte, lets it touch the deck. Stands listening to his pulse pounding in his ears and throat, everything else dull, muted until he hears the turbine whine to life.
Sound comes back in a rush, gulls and the sea and boots on wood. Someone knocks and doesn’t open the door. “Come ahead,” Smoker says, and Tashigi slips in, pulling the door shut behind her.
She stands just inside the cabin, staring at the deck, or maybe her own clasped hands. “Sir, Prashant has requested that we get underway as soon as possible. The sooner Riggs and Longbow get to a burn unit, the better chance they have of full recovery.”
“Understood.” He props the jitte against the bulkhead and starts peeling off his coat. Bits and pieces of dried grit and burned skin peel off with it. He didn’t make it out unscathed, but unlike Riggs or Longbow or Myung, he’ll be all but healed by morning.
He knows it is but he asks out of habit, “The pose set?”
“Hours ago, sir.”
“Very well.” He drops the coat in the corner; it’ll have to be cleaned. “Notify the Lady Jane and get us underway.”
“Yes, sir.” She starts to turn, reaching for the latch, hair swinging forward into her face. And stops, hand shaking, pushing her glasses back into place. Lower lip bitten white. “Sir. If… if you—”
“Let it go, Ensign,” he says. “Won’t be the first time. Not for either of us.”
Her shoulders hunch, head bowing as though she expects a blow. Another one. “Sir.” Not a yes or a no, it’s every officer’s way of protesting an order they don’t like.
Smoker lets her get away with it. “You have your orders.” He turns his back to her, crouching down to unlace his boots; hears her gasp and remembers why he put his jacket back on before he came aboard.
“Sir! You should let someone dress those!”
“No need.” He glances at her over his shoulder. “Get moving, marine.”
One last, unhappy look at his back. She says, “Aye, sir,” and, mouth set in disapproving lines, leaves, closing the door with emphasis. Smoker pulls his boots and jeans off, leaving them on the deck, and goes to get clean.
Cold salt water showers are the norm at sea; today they’re also his penance. Grey slime sloughs away from his shoulders and chest when he steps under the showerhead. He scrubs it all away, rakes it off with his nails when ash is embedded too deep for the sponge to do any good.
When he’s sure the blood is out of his hair, he turns, gritting his teeth, and lets the water pour down his back. Feels charred skin peel away under scouring salt, and he reaches back, scrubbing and welcoming the pain, until he bleeds clean. He stays in until the water runs clean and he’s numb to his core.
The smell of Portgas’s clean burn is gone when he gets out. All that’s left is the acrid stink of scorched flesh and dragon ash.
Chapter 3: .03
Brick, waterfront. It flashes through his mind but his boot is caught and he’s already falling, pitching forward—
Slamming the jitte down, punching his fist into the nearest wall and blinking, clearing out the red haze behind his eyes while the hole in his shoulder aches and throbs and he tries not to pass out.
Unsteady is… a word for what he is. Good one. He’s barely hanging on to the jitte, but he’s still standing. Standing and swallowing, swallowing again, making what’s in his stomach stay there for now.
He shouldn’t be standing here, making a target of himself, but he doesn’t have much choice. He has to stay still until his head stops buzzing and his eyes clear enough that he can see the brick under his feet… and he’s so goddamn stupid. Concrete pavement turns into uneven brick three streets up from the docks. He knows that, should’ve remembered before he lost his already shitty balance.
Only reason he’s not dead yet. He knows the town better than they do, and he should’ve remembered—
It’s blood loss, that and the seastone. Slowing him down, making him cold and stupid and blowing his reaction time to hell when there’s no time for reaction—he can hear them coming. Hauls himself up and pain blossoms out from the hole in his shoulder, filling his gut and throat with sick red and his ears and head with buzzing black.
He grits his teeth against pain he knows is coming, tries for balance, but this time he’s going down, falling into the wall. Jarring his shoulder again and it’s enough to double him over, make him retch his guts up, splashing already slimy brick with another layer of filth.
Another wave, red and black and rising, and he grunts as his knees connect with the pavement. Landing wrenches his shoulder and it hurts like a bitch, but his shoulder’s not his main problem. The hole in his back, the one he can’t feel anymore—
Scratchy, thin noise, almost beyond hearing—could be rats. Could be, is, but there are all kinds of rats in these streets and he needs to keep moving. Has to… get up.
One hand around his jitte, the other braced against the ground. Lights going off in his temples and behind his eyes. He spits bile, tastes blood hot and metallic in the back of his throat, and he’s seeing red again, but no white. Orange and gold and red pooling just outside his range of vision, spreading, hot eddies rippling outward.
“Stay down, you stubborn son of a bitch.”
He closes his eyes against the bright, hot flare of flame. Shuts his ears when the screaming starts and does what Portgas told him to do. He stays down.
Pistol fire, sharp successive cracks and the kid needs to know… something. Brain’s too sluggish, moving too slow— “Seastone.” Not even close to the shout it needs to be and he’s coughing again, coughing up the crap lining his throat— “Portgas, seastone!”
“No shit,” Portgas says from somewhere overhead, closer than he expected. Close enough to smell the pure burn that’s almost enough to mask the spreading reek of charred skin and hair. His hearing is working again. He almost wishes it wasn’t.
Starts to push himself up and there’s a thump behind him, footfalls coming toward him—stopping. He feels the heat of Portgas at his shoulder and then the kid’s crouched down in front of him, looking him over.
“See,” Portgas says, “this is what happens when I leave you alone for a week. You do your best to get your ass shot off.” Amused on the face of it, but there’s something under amusement. Something that isn’t anywhere close to amused.
He leans forward and Smoker’s reaction time is battered but apparently still functional—he jerks back. Portgas settles back on his haunches, loose-limbed and fight ready. His face is empty. Blank slate. “You want to bleed out in this alley? Suck it up, Captain.” He holds out a hand.
Smoker almost doesn’t take it. Almost tells him to get lost. But he’s the stubborn son of a bitch Portgas called him and he’s not going to die tonight and do someone a favor.
Portgas’s palm is hot enough to burn; his hands are weirdly careful. It hurts when he pulls Smoker up onto his knees, but right now even breathing hurts. Staying still hurts more and he sways and Portgas grabs a handful of his jeans, steadying him; his other hand brushes Smoker’s lower back and he hisses, jerking away. “Tell me you’ve got a doctor on your ship.”
One jerk of his chin and his head feels like it’s coming off. “Just get me—” coughing again, hands tightening around his jitte and on Portgas’s shoulder, and the metallic, back of his throat taste surges, filling his mouth. He spits it out, saliva and blood spattering brick, and Portgas’s hands support him while he breathes his way out the other side of nausea.
“Fuck,” Portgas says, and he sounds— “I’ll get you to your ship, just tell me—”
He misses the rest of it because he’s coughing again and then Portgas is swearing and there’s nothing else to hear. Portgas pulls Smoker’s good arm over his shoulder and pain lances Smoker’s back; he takes it as a good sign. If he can still feel that—
“Come on, Captain, work with me.” Portgas starts to rise, pulling Smoker up with him, and Smoker’s brain wants him to move but his legs aren’t cooperating.
“Off your ass and on your feet, marine,” Portgas’s voice bypasses his ears, goes straight down his spine to his legs. They move and Portgas’s hand clamps down on his waistband, hauling him the rest of the way up. “Damn it, I sound like Gramps,” Portgas mutters in his ear. “I’m going to hurt you a lot for that later.”
“Already did,” he grits through clenched teeth while he concentrates on moving and staying conscious and upright at the same time. Wonders why it’s so hard; he can’t remember having to think about it before.
Portgas is still yapping in his ear. “—just got here,” he’s saying. “Can’t say I think much of their welcome wagon, but it was pretty quiet up until five minutes ago.” He hikes Smoker’s arm higher over his shoulder and Smoker bites down on a shout, bites the inside of his cheek bloody. “Who’d you piss off, the mayor?”
On top of standing and walking, talking is next to impossible. He’s good at impossible. “Outsiders. Think… hired.” Breathing, standing, walking… talking. “Dead?”
Portgas laughs, wild tearing crazy. “Think so. Not sure. What the hell does it matter?”
There’s a reason. He tries to remember what it is and trips over slippery brick and Portgas is swearing viciously, keeping him on his feet— “Just like you to waste energy on stupid shit. Fucking suicidal marine.”
He spits it like it tastes bad, like it’s the worst epithet of all. Smoker would laugh if he could.
“Now look what you’ve done. Gone and made me be rude. Ha, no, made me be you—”
He must be almost dead. If he wasn’t he wouldn't hear himself say, “Like it… better.”
Another laugh and Portgas’s arm is tightening around his waist. Too tight. Smoker sees black this time, red blooming out around the edges—
He comes out of it with Portgas swearing again, “Fuck, fuck, come on old man, snap out of it and tell me where you’re moored.”
Not enough air. He’s panting, he can hear himself; every in-out gasp is another throb from his shoulder and he can’t get enough oxygen to spit out the words he needs to.
Portgas seems to realize that but he doesn’t stop moving. Won’t let Smoker stop. “Gotta keep going, you’re leaking like a sieve—what the hell did they put in you? Don’t answer that, rhetorical question, just fucking move it. Might be more of them and there’s so much seastone in you I’d have one hell of a time lighting up.”
It comes out easy, maybe because some, most of him means it, “Take you down with me.” And for whatever screwed up reason, he can breathe again. “Dock ten.”
Portgas is laughing again; he’s always laughing and now Smoker is sure he’s almost dead. He must be if he’s thinking there are worse ways to die than listening to Portgas making an idiot of himself. Not many, but some.
“Dock ten,” Portgas mutters. “You would have to park halfway across the waterfront, wouldn’t you?” But he turns himself and Smoker around and points them in the right direction, keeping up a running stream of complaint all the way.
Later, that’s all Smoker remembers of the walk across the docks, aside from intermittent lamplight and the spreading numbness in his arms and legs. Portgas’s whine in his ear, as insistent and annoying as a summer fly, bitching away.
Time moves strangely, stops then starts up again, leaving him farther away from the last place he remembers being than his brain says he should be. He’s aware enough for the time skips to register as a matter for concern; he’s too disconnected for concern to grow beyond awareness. He drifts, reality flickering in and out on the ebb and flow of Portgas’s voice, only jerked back to full consciousness by a fresh stab of pain in his shoulder and Portgas, cursing him for being a lousy fucking quitter.
“God damn it, Smoker, don’t you dare check out on me. You said you’d throw me in your brig if I ever showed up again. Who’s gonna do that if you die?”
“Oh hell no. You’re not copping out. You want to see me in your brig so bad, you keep breathing.”
Keep breathing. Keep walking. Keep his eyes on his feet so he doesn’t trip over the goddamn things. He moves one foot after the other, does it again and finally there are lights shining in his eyes and shouts he can barely hear Portgas over, “Get Sergeant Tashigi. Just get her, you idi—Sergeant!”
Running footfalls, hard on the deck, and Tashigi’s shouting, “Stand down and let them through! Let them through!”
New hands he knows are hers touch his arm, his chest. “Careful,” Portgas says, “that’s his bad side, if you can call one worse than the other. Where’s your infirmary?”
“Here,” she says. “This—this way.” She sounds breathless, like she can’t get enough air. He wants to tell her she’s got two functioning lungs, so use them, but he can’t make his own lungs and throat and mouth work well enough to do it.
He knows he’s on his ship—right sounds, right smells—and he knows how many steps it takes to get from the gangway to the infirmary. It feels like twice as many before Tashigi darts forward and pushes open the port, before Portgas maneuvers him through and Prashant says, “Dear god in heaven.”
Portgas’s hands slide away, other hands taking their place, and he wants to shake them off, tell whoever they belong to that they’re not hot enough, get Portgas back. But it doesn’t even make sense in his head and the hands are moving him, pushing him face down onto something that gives beneath him.
He can still hear Portgas in the background. “Just get the shit out of him,” he’s saying. When Prashant tries to answer he interrupts her, “No, damn it, he’s logia. Get it out and I’ll take care of the rest. Hear that old man?” Heat’s back, five fingers and a palm, radiating fire across his good shoulder. “You hang on,” Portgas says fiercely against his ear. “Think about how good I’ll look seastone cuffed in your brig.”
And then the pain really starts. He wonders why he was so worried about going numb.
After, there are three things he remembers. Too-hot hands gripping his, letting him grip back. Other hands, busy hands digging around inside him, and Portgas’s low voice, hoarse and under his breath like he doesn't even know he's talking, “Out, get it out, out, just get it out,” over and over like a playback den-den stuck on repeat.
He doesn’t remember feeling the last of the seastone being pulled out of him. He thinks he passed out before. A mercy.
When full consciousness comes back he’s pissed and confused and he’s not in the infirmary. He’s not even on the ship, hovering over it, and he’s not flesh anymore. He’s smoke. And he’s full of fire.
Confusion goes away.
He’s been here before, already knows how this is going to go, smoke (human pieces patched back together) and fire (twisted up around), and fire against smoke.
He doesn’t know anything. Hasn’t been anywhere near this in his life. Ignition, acceleration, his frayed edges knitting back together at a speed alien to everything his smoke knows should be possible, but the fire—
What’s left of his humanity knows the fire is Portgas, that Portgas and the flame feeding, fueling his smoke are one and the same. The smoke only knows satisfaction. Takes without thought or hesitation, curling greedy tendrils around the healing burn.
Fire gives. As much as smoke can take and it’s (too much) got to end somewhere, but he can’t tell anymore what’s smoke or fire, doesn’t know how to separate.
Fear of dissolution, loss of self, is sharp and cold—other. Fire flickers up against, recoils from it. Becomes something else (Portgas), and he's (Smoker)… he is.
Half smoke, half flesh, and he’s touching more (other) flesh. Portgas, voice crackling at the edges, “Feeling better?”
His own voice is just as strange. Almost hollow. “What the hell did you do?”
Something about the way fire flares and shakes suggests a shrug. “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you, which would kind of defeat the purpose, don’t you think?”
Fucking Portgas. Can’t leave well enough alone even after adding insult to injury by way of saving Smoker’s ass. Can’t keep his smart mouth shut for five fucking minutes together, and on top of everything else it’s just too goddamn much. Smoke billows out and up, grey-white fingers reaching, never quite touching the flame dancing just outside its reach.
“Ah-ah-ah, Captain,” Portgas says before Smoker can push his fury out through the smoke hollow of his throat, “You’re not a hundred percent yet. Don’t go undoing all my hard work, hmn? I’d hate to have you die after all that. Also,” what might be a hand lifts toward the fiery outline of a hat, “if you’re all better now, do you think you can get back down by yourself? Wouldn’t think someone made of smoke would be such a lead ass, but there you go.”
He’ll give the kid full points for effort, but Portgas’s flip tone can’t mask the exhaustion beneath forced amusement. Smoker snarls and pulls free, spiraling away from him down to the deck.
It takes more out of him to get there than he likes. Reforming is harder than it has been in a long time.
“Sir!” Tashigi is hovering a few feet away, hands empty and held out as though she wants to make physically sure he’s there, but knows better than to touch.
Smoker keeps his gaze on her face. He doesn’t look up. Refuses to feel guilt or gratitude, or acknowledge flash heat, an echo of fire-laced laughter. There’s nothing left to see, anyway, even if he did look. “Sergeant, report.”
She comes to attention, arms rigid at her sides. “Two details out looking for the perpetrators, sir. Three bodies found, Prashant says death by burning.” She’s not looking up either. “No one living, as yet.”
“There should be one more. Tell them to keep looking.” He glances down at what’s left of his jeans in disgust verging on repulsion. “I’m going to get clean.”
“Sir, are you sure you should? Your—the damage is still… new.”
“I’m aware of that, Sergeant.” His shoulder and lower back are masses of raw scar tissue, the burning pull of them immediate every time he moves. He’s not likely to forget them any time soon. “Tell Prashant I’ll meet her in the infirmary in ten minutes. She can do whatever she feels necessary then.”
“Ten minutes.” If he falls on his face and tears himself back open it’ll be his own damn fault. Just like it’ll be his responsibility to pick his own ass up off the shower floor, not Tashigi’s or Prashant’s.
Definitely not Portgas’s.
Contrary to what Tashigi and Prashant seem to think, he’s steady enough to make it through a lukewarm fresh water shower and into a pair of jeans without incident. Actually, standing under water then pulling on jeans hurts a hell of a lot less than letting Prashant poke and prod and cover him in too many bandages.
“That’s enough,” he growls, trying to pull away. She says, calmly, “Sit still, sir,” and continues mummifying him.
Smoker chews on his unlit cigars and sits rigidly, waiting for her to finish her rope torture. As soon as she cuts the last piece and tucks the ends in he’s on his feet. He’d be out the door as well, but Tashigi is in front of him, something clutched in her hand and a reproachful look on her face. “Prashant is right to worry, sir. It was—it was really close. There were so many of these. I lost count.” She uncurls her fingers and holds out her hand.
He lifts the shard she hands him, squinting at it in the infirmary’s bright, artificial light.
“I don’t know how many I took out of you,” Prashant says from her work station. “I had to use a magnifier to see half of them. Most were too small to preserve.”
He lowers it and looks at her, turning the shard over between his fingers; it’s small enough that he can’t feel even a hint of it through his glove. “You got all of them. I wouldn’t be standing here otherwise.” He hates that he doesn’t know how to sound anything but grudging. “Thanks.”
She laughs, rinsing off another instrument and dropping it in sterilizing fluid. “Just doing my job. Thank that kid if you want to thank the person who saved your life.”
It’s too much even for grudging. Smoker grunts noncommittally and looks back down at the shard.
It’s Gohandru seastone, light blue with silver striations, the kind usually used to make bullets. And since the new hollow point bullets don’t look any different from their predecessors, it could have come from any bullet, out of any gun.
The difference is the result, not appearance. The old bullets acted as any other bullet would, aside from being ridiculously expensive and used only for dealing with devil fruit users. The new ones explode, fragmenting on impact and driving tiny shards of seastone deeper into devil fruit-altered flesh.
Their designer must have been one hell of an evil-minded little shit. A scared, evil-minded little shit who sold the exclusive rights to the world government then disappeared, one way or another, back into same the obscurity she’d briefly come out of.
The only part of that Smoker cares about is the supposed exclusivity. It should mean the bullets aren’t available to anyone but marines and members of other government agencies. Which means they’ve either made the black market or a bunch of pirates took a munitions frigate.
Or whoever shot him is working for the government. In that case he’s even more screwed than he already thought he was.
You don’t shoot someone with the new bullets unless you want them dead; it’s why he doesn’t use them. And he’d be dead now if he wasn’t such a suspicious bastard, if they hadn’t come after him somewhere he…
Somewhere, anywhere, it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d lived there most of his life, and it’s been a long time since he’s allowed himself the luxury of mental bullshit. It’s a bad habit the same way Tashigi opening a door without waiting is a bad habit; it’s what’s on the other side of both the bullshit and the door that makes them bad habits.
His hand clenches around the shard, crushing seastone the way he can’t crush hard knowledge. Because he can rationalize all night and it’ll still be so much bullshit.
Truth is what happened, not what he’ll put in the report he probably won’t write, and what’s true is he’d be dead if Portgas hadn’t been around. And if Portgas wasn’t fire.
That’s truer than anything else.
“Where is he?” He turns when Tashigi doesn’t answer immediately. “He’s still here.” Knows, and he doesn’t want to think about how he knows. “Where?”
Her gaze skitters sideways toward Prashant, over by the sink with her back to them, then back up to his face. She coughs once, lightly, “I didn’t… see where he went, sir.”
“Not the brig?” She stares at him, confusion on her face; wasn’t much of a joke, and an inside one at that. “Forget it. He’ll show up. Have someone feed him when he does.” He looks down at his glove. It’s covered in seastone dust. He’ll have to brush it off into the water.
Right now sounds good.
Pausing in the open hatch, he looks back at Tashigi over his shoulder. “What?”
She clears her throat. “Where—” Clears it again and starts over. “Are you going… back out?” Her gaze flickers between his face and the bandages on his chest, the question on her own face obvious. Is that wise, sir?
Probably not, but thanks to Portgas he’s healed up enough to do it. He’s not going to give possible survivors time to get lost. “You coming or what?” he says.
Naval officers have no business smiling like that. Or, he thinks as he listens to the slightly clumsy sound of her following footsteps, maybe they do. Hell, Hancock’s been doing something like it for years.
If Tashigi can figure out how to level a ship full of pirates with a smile, he’s not going to complain.
When he drops a charred medium-rare assassin off at the brig an hour later Portgas isn’t in there, not that he really expected him to be. He doesn’t expect him to be snoring on the deck of his cabin, either, but that’s where Portgas is, chin to his chest, empty plates piled around him. Fork still in his hand.
Smoker tosses his jacket over him, props his jitte against the bulkhead and eases down into his chair with more care than usual. Stares at the piles of paper on his desk while he lights his cigars.
Portgas was right; he never opens anything and he’s three months behind on paperwork. Might as well take the edge off now as later. File a few reports. He can start with the attempted assassination of a naval officer and the subsequent death and/or capture of that officer’s assailants.
Or he can sit here and ignore the way his body aches whenever he moves while he listens to Portgas snore.
And stops snoring, breath catching then almost immediately starting up again. There’s a clatter and then a thump. Smoker leans forward, ignoring the warning twinges beneath his bandages, enough to see over the edge of his in-box. Looks like Portgas finally dropped the fork. It’s on the deck, probably stuck to it, a bite of meat still attached. Portgas is on his side, curled in under Smoker’s coat. Still snoring.
Smoker pushes his chair away from the desk. Props his feet up and rests his head against the chair back and closes his eyes. When he opens them again there’s enough sunlight coming through the portholes for midmorning. He doesn’t remember putting out his cigars but he must have. They’re in the ashtray.
His coat is lying on the berth. The starboard porthole is open and his breathing is the only sound in the room not coming from outside.
Getting up isn’t the easiest thing he’s ever done, but his cigars are attached to his coat and his coat is across the room. And he could use his smoke, but if he doesn’t move now he’ll have a hell of a time doing it later. It’s as good an excuse as any.
Ignoring the spare packets in the drawer, he rounds the desk, glancing at the deck as he does. The fork and plates are still there. Portgas isn’t.
He picks up his coat, automatically feeling for his cigars while he scans the deck and his desk. Again. There’s still no stray piece of paper that shouldn’t be there. Not this time.
He can’t decide if that’s good or bad. It's just one more thing not to think about.
Chapter 4: .04
“The billion belli question everyone wants to ask but no one will because they’re all scared shitless,” Portgas says from somewhere behind him. “Why two?”
Smoker pulls the cigars out of his mouth and looks at them. It’s been so long he can’t remember when, much less why. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.” He bites back down on them. Leans his elbows on the gunwale and watches starlight shatter over liquid ripples. “Why am I still alive?”
“It seemed like a good—”
It sounds like a sigh—annoyance? Probably closer to exasperation. Fabric slither-scrapes finished wood and Portgas’s boot soles hit the deck, wandering in Smoker’s direction. Heat pulses, drifts across his back, and then Portgas is beside him, planting bony elbows next to his on the gunwale.
Close, but not too close. Smoker chews on his cigars and stays where he is, and it's quiet enough for him to hear the stupid cow skull choker knock against wood as Portgas leans in, head tilted back, looking up at the sky. “It used to weird me out how bright it is out here on a clear night, even without a moon. And I grew up in the middle of nowhere.” He laughs, huffed breath burning Smoker’s skin. “You wouldn’t think the sea would be so different, but it is.”
Smoker glances at him sidelong, catching the almost wistful curve of his mouth before it flattens.
Portgas says, “You always want the hard answers.” He pushes his hat back and off and turns his head, pupils huge, almost wide enough to swallow the red burn around them. Almost. “Is alive not good enough for you?”
“What do you think?”
Another laugh, no humor, and that’s right in all the wrong ways. “You know, I love that about you. You’ve got a non-answer for everything.”
“I like to know what I’m dealing with.”
“Sometimes you don’t get to. Some things don’t need explanations, they just are.” Portgas looks away, chewing on his lower lip. His hands and fingers are restless, drawing fire shapes in the air. Flicking them out to die over the water.
Smoker draws in smoke. Blows it out to mingle with fading sparks and waits the kid out. Portgas came to him; eventually he’ll either spit out an answer or go away. It’s a tossup as to which outcome is preferable, but it’s also a cool clear night a day’s sail away from a summer island. The air feels good on his skin and Portgas’s heat is chasing away what little spring chill there is. He’s got nothing but time.
Portgas throws another flaming star into the air. It flickers and flares, turning lingering smoke into red haze before it dies. “You want the truth?”
Obviously, or he wouldn’t have asked. Portgas isn’t looking for an answer, though. He’s not even looking at Smoker.
The next shape isn’t a shape, more like a dying spiral; it sizzles when it hits the water. Portgas grips the gunwale with both hands. “I don’t know. I just… don’t.” Sullen, set defiance—defying who or what is a question for someone who isn’t Smoker.
Belowdecks a door closes. Not a slam, Smoker won’t stand for that, but the sound is sharp, distinct against the sea’s continuous murmur.
“It’s not—” Portgas cuts himself off as abruptly as he starts, and he’s starting over again, “There aren’t enough decent human beings around.” Laughter, soft enough to be an echo. “It’s not in me to let one die because he’s also a marine idiot. Although—” he cocks his head, eyes lit with his own flame— “Marine and idiot—that’s a little redundant, if you ask me.”
He laughs again, louder, throwing his head back, arching himself into his amusement, and he keeps stretching even after he stops laughing, bending back almost far enough to touch the deck before arcing forward and resting his chin on arms folded on top of the gunwale. His hat settles against his back, bright colors washed out by dim light; it’s a clear shape, the only part of him that is; the rest of him is a boneless slump and he seems to content to stay that way. He doesn’t say anything else and Smoker doesn’t have anything he wants to say. It’s almost—
Comfortable. Not almost, it is comfortable. Having Portgas’s heat and presence without his smart mouth open and spoiling things. But this is a ship, Smoker’s ship. A marine ship. There are… concerns. “That raft better not be scraping a hole in my hull.”
Portgas hums. His eyes are closed and his voice is blurry, relaxed, “Mmn, nope. Give me some credit. Pirate, not a landlubber. Which reminds me.” He tips his head to the side, pressing his cheek against his arm and looking up at Smoker. “What’s up with the watch?”
“What about it?”
“Well,” Portgas drawls, “when a pirate approaches a marine vessel there’s usually some kind of reaction. Like a cannon ball. I didn’t even rate a verbal cease and desist. So I figure,” he continues before Smoker can get a word in edgewise, “either your people are slacking off—and since this is you, I’m going to go with no—or they have standing orders to let me through.” He smiles guilelessly.
“Tashigi,” Smoker grunts. Tobacco crackles under the pressure of his teeth. “Stubborn woman.”
Portgas is laughing again, now, always. “She’ll get over it. Pirates don’t rest easy on pedestals.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
He expects exactly that. For Portgas to tell him something he doesn’t know, probably shouldn’t, and definitely wouldn’t want to if he had a choice. He’s sure he’ll get a flip remark followed by an annoying laugh. But Portgas is silent and there’s something—
Uneasy. Wrong. He isn’t relaxed anymore, the tension pouring off him thick enough to raise gooseflesh on Smoker’s skin.
“Those guys,” he says, and he’s water to Smoker’s eyes, cool and fluid, cheek still resting on his outflung arm. Smoker thinks touching him would be like touching heated rock. “They weren’t pirates.”
“Govies.” It’s not a question. Smoker looks sharply at him, but Portgas’s eyes are closed again. “You think I don’t know a Pol job when I see one? We heard about the new bullets—pretty sure I’m the first to see what they do. It's weird that the target was a marine, though, you know? I'd understand better if they were after me.” He’s uncurling as he says it, straightening and turning, one hand still on the gunwale, and then he's facing Smoker with his eyes all the way open, red flaring around black.
Smoker sees it coming; knowing doesn’t make him any happier when Portgas says, “Why do they want you dead? I’ve never heard of them taking down one of their own devil fruit weapons.”
Debts. He hates them and he owes them to too many to people who matter, Hina, Tashigi, Kuzan.
And two others who matter in ways they shouldn’t. A couple of damned pirates. Straw Hat by himself was bad enough; Portgas is intolerable. Feeling like he owes him an answer is worse, but Portgas pulled his ass out of that bonfire. So maybe he does owe him some kind of answer.
It doesn’t have to be direct.
“The navy didn’t give me my fruit.”
Brief silence. Then, “You must’ve been pretty young when you ate it.”
Thirteen, almost fourteen—nearly two months after he elbowed halfway through the mass of stinking humanity in the square and heard the blades strike.
They say Roger smiled on the platform. He believes them, even though he didn’t see it himself; he was too short and too far away. He saw it in the street. That was enough.
Smelled the salt of the ocean blending with the salt sweat soaking his shirt and everyone around him, and the tang of blood that came after, heavy and metallic in the air. He heard Roger’s words and voice, and even then he thought what was in his voice was more important than the words. It was the first time Smoker felt the force of D moving through the world, pushing, pummeling it into a new shape—the first, but not the last.
The next time he felt it he was in a naval training yard getting the shit pounded out of him by a guy three times his age. He’d been logia four years and he still couldn’t lay a hand on him, smoke or otherwise.
Monkey D. Garp. Monkey D. Luffy. Portgas D. Ace. It doesn’t take half a brain to connect the dots and he likes to think he has at least three quarters of one most days.
I sound like Gramps. I’m going to hurt you a lot for that later.
“He’s your grandfather.”
Portgas’s smile is quizzical; he pushes away from the hull, hooking his thumbs in his pockets and rocking back on his heels. “That was kind of out there.”
And Kuzan is a bad influence. “Garp,” Smoker says. “On Alkesh. You talked about him.”
Something slides across Portgas’s face and away, leaving an easy grin behind. Ripples like his fire, wavering and so fast Smoker would have missed it if he hadn’t been looking for it. But he was looking. He saw.
That’s what he’s going to keep telling himself. Because if he didn’t see, if that split second reaction wasn’t really there, then he’s been around the kid enough to know which way he’s going to jump and when. And that’s—
“That’s what I get for thinking you were too dead to catch on.”
Unacceptable. All of it, Portgas included, and he looks like he’s halfway to agreement, head turned, frowning past Smoker at the sea. “Maybe I was his grandkid. The wanted poster put a damper on things.” He shrugs, but whatever it is Smoker has—understanding, knowledge, some kind of logia-induced insanity—is still working.
Awkwardness in place of casual ease. Tight shoulders hunched as though in expectation of a punch.
“Oi,” Portgas says, fake as an eight belli bill. “Don’t spread it around, all right? It’s not like it’ll hurt him, but—” his glance doesn’t quite reach Smoker’s face. “He’s already got enough to put up with without me and Luffy adding to it.”
Smoker doesn’t say anything. He flicks his cigar butts over the gunwale, pushes his hands into his pockets and waits.
Eventually Portgas says, half laughs, “You are damned good at derailment.” His snort sounds a lot like his grandfather’s. “How’d we get from you getting assassinated to Gramps?”
“You like to ask stupid questions.”
“I guess that’s telling me. But there’s always the other billion belli question nobody’s ever going to ask.” He grins and it’s close, but no cigar. Not for either of them. “Nobody but me, because I’m stupid like that. Were you Smoker before or after?”
Both. Neither. Either, or.
Insolent brat. You’re lucky I didn’t have you drowned. No one gives a damn what happens to a dead whore’s get.
Nicks, appellations, labels. Epithets. Names are funny things.
Oi, bring that back you little punk, I’ll put the guarda on you!
There’s nothing immutable about them, they’re fluid, shifting—
—get you for this you white-haired freak. We’re gonna make you pay.
They change with perspective. When you don’t know someone’s name, you call them like you see them—at some point or other all books get judged by their covers and first impressions always count.
Boss! Boss, they got Cranberry. What do we do now?
Hina is the only boss of Hina, Smoker-kun.
Cycle and recycle.
You insubordinate punk, drop and give me two hundred! One hand, with Ooloo sitting on you. And Gent. And Chevvy. Oi, you three lazy greenheads get over here!
They matter more than they should when no one takes the time to give you one to begin with. At first. Then they don’t matter at all.
Hina was the first to use it. She wasn’t the last, but he was past thirty before the nameless brat running through the maze of streets in his head merged with Captain Smoker of the marines. Call someone something long enough, they might even start to believe it.
“Some idiot threw it at me a long time ago,” is what he says now, and that’s true enough. “It stuck.”
Portgas is looking up at the sky again. The danger prickle is gone from the back of Smoker’s neck.
“Your fruit?” Portgas says.
His cigars are in his cabin with his coat. He didn’t come out here expecting anything but a quiet smoke and his empty mouth is one more grudge to hold against Portgas. He crosses his arms, curls restless fingers in, and frowns at him. “Like I said. Stupid questions.”
Portgas’s chin drops; his eyes narrow, mouth flattening into a stubborn line. “I’ve got my reasons. What do you think I’m going to do, spread it around every grog shop on the Line?”
Actually, he doesn’t. Portgas is surprisingly close-mouthed for someone who talks a never ending stream of bullshit. And maybe Smoker just wants to see the look on his face when he says, “I took the fruit off the first pirate I killed. I was thirteen. Started smoking afterwards. Cigarettes,” he adds. “One at a time.”
Portgas’s expression is worth every grudging word. “You…” One hand out, like he’s reaching for something he can’t grasp, doesn’t know how to make it happen… and then his face breaks up around laughter, melts wide into his real smile. “You are really something else, Captain,” he says, and then he laughs for a long time.
Smoker leans against the hull, watching him and wishing he had at least one cigar. It’s not a matter of addiction; he doesn’t think that’s even possible. Cigarettes were his fake out, sometimes his cover back when his hold on the smoke was still tenuous. After—
Just a habit, another bad one. But he likes the taste.
Heat flares off to the right, moving toward him, and he turns his head, tracking the source. “You done asking stupid questions?”
Portgas boosts himself up onto the gunwale and crouches there, elbows resting on his knees. “That depends on what you consider stupid.”
“Me,” he mutters, because there’s a lump in his back pocket digging into his ass, two forgotten cigars he put there earlier, and it’s fucking habit that had him forgetting they were there, squashed but still serviceable.
He rolls them into shape between his fingers before he bites down; they don’t taste any different for their rough treatment. Out of the corner of his eye he sees flame flare up and says, “Don’t.”
A breath of laughter gusts aborted fire down the side of his face. “Why do you hate that so much?”
“Dumbest one yet.”
Wood creaks as Portgas shifts, settling. “Then you ask something,” he says. “I’m not just carrying this conversation, I’m hauling it up a cliff in the middle of a blizzard.”
“Your problem.” Portgas is… close. He can feel his heat the length of his bare spine; if he turned, he’d be right there. “I don’t recall issuing any invitations.”
“In fact,” Portgas says in a contemplative tone, “if I’m remembering right, you said you’d put me in seastone if I ever came back. That’s why I’m here.”
He jerks his head around, glaring at Portgas across the too-short space between them. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“I honor my bargains.” Portgas's hands are held out, wrists together. He meets Smoker’s eyes, amusement flaring somewhere behind the fire. “Told you I’d let you put me in your brig if you lived. Well,” he shrugs, “you lived. Here I am.”
Mad dog. One of those evolving names used by people on both sides of the line he walks, it’s never felt like it belonged to him, whatever assholes like Crocodile think. But it could. Times like this he owns it, snarling fury turning his mind dull, killing red, showing him—
Nothing. Mindless fury is mindless, incapable of anything but reaction. He outgrew unthinking reaction the day he ate his fruit—no. That happened the first time he let another street kid call him boss.
He controls what he does or doesn’t do; he decides what’s allowed or not. He’s not allowed to drag his people along for his own personal ride. He’s not allowed to let a fire logia goad him into taking a swing on a ship in the middle of the ocean.
His hand clenches, trying to grip the handle that isn’t there. He makes himself open it, makes himself stay where he is. Keeps his eyes on his target.
“You moronic, shit for brains pirate.” Spits it, too pissed to care that shipboard quarters are tight, that the watch doesn’t fall asleep on his ship if they know what’s good for them, that someone is going to hear him conversing with a pirate. “You think I give a damn about any of that? You—”
There’s no word or combination of words bad enough. There might be a question, though he’s damned if he can see any kind of rational answer in the offing. “Why the fuck do you keep coming back?”
He’s right in front Portgas when he says it, glaring at him, and this time—
He’s not imagining the flinch or the fleeting expression that comes after it. And Portgas… if he didn’t know better he’d call the shadows on the kid’s cheeks a flush.
Portgas mutters something indistinct. “You want to speak up,” Smoker says and steps back on the receding edge of his anger.
It’s going as fast as it came, and that’s as unusual as the quick burn. He likes his grudges; enjoys giving them plenty of time to mature before he gets his own back.
“Stupid,” Portgas says, louder than before. “Really stupid. And shut up,” he says, chin jerking up, eyes red through, “I know you already said it, so don’t—”
He stares at Smoker, mouth parted, full of whatever it is he’s trying to push out of it. Then he says, “Fuck,” and drops his forehead down on his crossed arms.
He throws a strange shadow, hunched in on himself as he is, perched on the gunwale like some kind of overgrown gull. He looks like a stiff breeze would blow him off; like one push would topple him over.
Smoker could almost feel sorry for whoever tried. He’s sorrier for himself; he’s the one stuck here listening to something he’s sure he doesn’t want to hear.
Portgas looks like he wants to talk about it as much as Smoker wants to listen, but he’s doing it. “The smoke.” He sounds like he’s going to choke on whatever he’s trying to say before he gets it out, “It—I don’t know. It’s like being inside the burn even when I’m not.”
Smoker glances at him; if he wasn’t as nauseated as the kid looks, if he didn’t have cigars in his mouth, he’d laugh. Because for once Portgas doesn’t look like he’s anywhere close to laughter. He swallows once, opens his mouth again—
“Like I could burn everything. Boil the ocean down to sand and I wouldn’t even be breathing hard after.” Smoker stays silent but Portgas still grimaces and says, as though in response, “Yeah, I know how stupid it sounds but I don’t know how else to say it.”
The damned thing is, he thinks he does know. Not how to say it—he wouldn’t even try. But he knows what Portgas means. He wishes he didn’t.
“It was there at Nanohana,” Portgas keeps going, words coming faster, easier, like he can’t push them out and away from him fast enough. Like he wants to dump them on Smoker, jump on his skiff and put a few hundred leagues between them. “That’s why—”
“Jaya,” Smoker cuts him off when he’s had enough. He doesn’t need an explanation, and Portgas’s next breath sounds like relief.
“I wanted to know if I was right,” he says. “Guess I was.” And if he hadn’t been, Smoker would be dead. God damn it. “Will they come after you again?”
They buried the fourth body three days ago at sea; the man was badly burned. He never came out of the coma, died before Smoker could question him, but Smoker didn’t need confirmation for what he already knew.
He contacted HQ directly afterward. He knows what a Pol job looks like better than Portgas does, and he wanted them to know he’s… aware. If they try again, they won’t try the same way. If.
Kuzan sounded almost annoyed. For anyone else, that would mean pissed off, so Smoker’s not that worried about backlash from Mariejois. But the Pols sometimes operate at their own discretion and they’re just smart enough to be dangerous and too stupid to know when to back off.
The next couple of months should be interesting. Not that he’s going to tell Portgas.
“If they do I’ll deal with it,” he says shortly; it jerks half a laugh out of Portgas; the other half is some other sound, sharper, ripping at the air and Smoker’s eardrums.
“Damn,” Portgas says, something like admiration in his voice. "You are a gold plated, brass-balled bastard." He reaches back, lifting his hat and settling it on his head. Then he braces his hands on his thighs and pushes himself up until he’s standing on the gunwale, looking down at Smoker. “You ever wonder what it would be like if we were on the same side?”
“No.” It’s mostly true, and Portgas is grinning like he knew the answer before he asked. Maybe he did.
“Never change, Captain.” He curls one hand around the strap of his pack and cocks his head. “This is where you give me the seastone, brig, never darken my porthole again speech,” he says helpfully.
Smoker takes a swipe at him, growling, wordless and only partly pissed off. And Portgas is laughing, dodging, sliding along the gunwale as though it’s a sidewalk on a crowded street instead of a foot and a half-wide band of slippery wood fifteen feet above certain death. He looks stupidly happy to be doing what he is where he is; Smoker wishes one or both of them had eaten any other kind of devil fruits than the ones they did.
“Your aim needs work,” Portgas calls down from the rigging. He scrambled up there after Smoker almost yanked his legs out from under him with his smoke and now he’s hanging off it, as boneless as his brother.
The watch must be laughing their asses off up in the crow’s nest. “Get down from there before I knock you down,” Smoker snarls.
Portgas rips off a messy salute. “Aye-aye, sir—oh yeah, almost forgot.” He lands both feet solidly on the gunwale and crouches down again, pulling his pack off his shoulder and rooting through it— “I know I brought—heh. I did.” He pulls something out, holds it out to Smoker. “Here.”
Three ragged folders might at one point have been a set of case files. Maybe.
“Ah, sorry about the stains. They got dunked in salt water when my pack fell off. And this guy in a grog shop spilled ale on one of them. And—”
“Shut up,” Smoker says and hears his cigars tear. “I don’t want to hear it, I don’t want those, and I don’t want you to light my damn cigars.” He digs out his lighter and lights them himself while he glares at Portgas, who’s stuffing the files back into his pack and snickering. “I’m going to have a look at the new dispatches. I get done, I don’t want to see you anywhere.”
“You’ll see me tomorrow unless you’ve got an eternal pose and a burning need to get to wherever it’s pointing.” The kid’s hand is on his hat, tipping it back. He’s grinning like a loon. “You’re a day out from Luna Dome and we’re locked onto the same pose track. But I figured you already knew that.”
Before he met Portgas and Straw Hat, Smoker hadn’t realized how closely related horror and fascination could be. Now he lives with the combined sensation taking up space in his gut. If he wasn’t smoke he’d have at least one hole in his stomach lining.
“I’ll save you some dinner,” Portgas grins and steps backward off the gunwale. “If I don’t get hungry and eat it first,” his voice echoes up, followed by a sharp thud.
Smoker blows a cloud of smoke and leans against the hull, watching the horizon. He feels the slight jerk when Portgas unhitches his skiff and then the turbine starts up.
The little raft is fast, he’ll give the kid that. And that’s all he’ll give him; that and a few more seconds—he wants to know if he’s right.
He is. Portgas’s craft shoots forward on a burst of speed before arcing sharply around, coming back. Circling around to starboard and pulling even with Smoker's ship, matching its pace. Portgas tips his hat back; Smoker can’t see his face clearly, but it doesn’t matter; he knows he’s laughing.
“Oi, Captain! How good are you at catching gators? They’ve got big ones where we’re going!”
He leans out over the gunwale, hands braced on the edge. “Get out of here before I capsize your pirate ass!”
“Cranky old bastard!” Portgas calls back, cupping his hands around his mouth. “Pull that jitte out of your ass and loosen up or I won’t share my gators with you!”
Portgas’s raft is faster than his smoke. Just.
Chapter 5: .05
“Smoke.” He doesn’t need the binoculars to see it, either, so he hands them off to Tashigi. Narrows his eyes against the hazy glare of sunlight off water made hazier by the grey column rising in the distance.
Tashigi raises the binoculars, pushing her glasses up and fiddling with the focus before she points herself in the right direction. She makes a strange, strangled noise, but when he looks at her she just lowers the binoculars and says, “I don’t think it’s, ah, pirates. But the, um… inhabitants seem somewhat restless.”
As of last night he’s trying to cut down on his smoking; he crosses his arms instead of reaching for his cigars. “Are you trying to be funny, Sergeant?”
“No, sir, I was assessing the situation.” And that isn’t a very small smile. It just wants to be.
He changes his mind. “Nothing.” Just like the last three times he started to ask, because if he follows through he’ll probably hear something he doesn’t want to hear. And then both of them will be in a position of absolute knowledge, as opposed to knowing without really knowing.
It’s not his usual method, but under the circumstances he thinks he can deal with not knowing. Mostly because there’s nothing usual about Portgas, but also because it would be just like him to suborn the best second Smoker’s ever had—and that in itself is enough to make him rethink his silence.
“You’re aware of the penalty for fraternization.” He’s scowling at the smoke—the column is thicker and darker than it was even ten seconds ago.
“So are you, sir,” Tashigi says.
He looks sharply at her, but like he was, she’s staring at the smoke. Changing his mind one more time he says, “What kind of intel do we have on this place?”
There can’t be much. As far as he remembers, and that’s not far, the native population is small, insular and non-seafaring.
“There isn’t very much,” Tashigi confirms his hazy recollection. “Estimated population five thousand, no known foreign trade, no known outside contacts. The people here live in large tree systems,” she lays the binoculars on the table and pushes her glasses back into place, “Banyans. According to the file they had a small coastal outpost at one time, then after repeated trouble with pirates they destroyed it themselves and moved their other towns farther inland.
“But,” she’s still frowning at the smoke, “tree dwelling makes sense, in this case, since the land is more marsh than anything else. Three freshwater rivers spring from the rock dome at the center of the island and the effect is something like a constant, low grade flood.”
And it’s a summer island. He’s going to be stuck in an overheated swamp with Portgas. Wonderful. “Landing?”
“No beaches. Riverbanks,” she says. “And those aren’t very stable. It would probably be best to follow one of the rivers inland a little way and anchor near one of the groves instead.” Her smile is apologetic. “There’s a lot of quicksand.”
Smoker sticks a pair of cigars in his mouth. He’ll cut down some other time when he’s not about to drop anchor in a quicksand ridden swamp complete with fire logia running around somewhere in the vicinity. His gaze involuntarily follows the line of his thoughts; he doesn’t want to look, but the smoke trail draws his eyes the way the next island’s magnetic pull will the pose’s needle in two days’ time.
“Implement landing procedures at your discretion,” he says, watching it spiral upward, smudged grey lines scrawled across otherwise clear blue. It’s not Whitebeard’s mark but it is a signature of a sort. “You’ve read up on the place.”
“Yes, sir.” Her salute is centered somewhere between his shoulder blades—he can feel it. Hears her footsteps retreat down the steps to the lower deck, then her voice, speaking to Kim.
He’s still watching the smoke. Trying to pinpoint its origin this far out is pointless, but he’s still doing it. Still chasing impossible scenarios back and forth in his head, each one crazier and stupider than the last.
“What the hell did you do this time, kid?”
“I take it you didn’t come with that boy?” says Luna Dome’s governor. She tilts her head to one side and laces her fingers together, one thin green eyebrow raised.
She’s obviously waiting, probably for some kind of explanation. Smoker is wishing he’d thrown Portgas in his brig when he had the chance.
“No,” he says, and he’s not going to ask, up until he does. “What did he do?”
The other eyebrow goes up. “You know him, then.”
“He’s a pirate,” he says shortly, folding his arms over his chest. “I’m familiar with his bounty and his record. What did he do?” he repeats.
“He made an error in judgment,” she says dryly, and leans forward, resting her forearms on the edge of her desk, fingers still joined. “I’d appreciate it if, in your capacity as an officer of the world government’s joint military and peacekeeping forces—” there’s about a thousand leagues’ worth of irony in her voice, “you would remove him from this island as soon as possible.”
His cigars are in his mouth, unlit. He’d light up if he wasn’t unsure of the protocols involved in introducing open flame into a building built into and in and around a living tree. “He’s passing through,” he tells her. “He’ll be gone as soon as his pose sets.”
Her brows draw in. “Is there some reason you’re unable to apprehend him now? You are a marine, are you not?”
Hell with protocol. He starts digging for his lighter. “You know what a devil fruit is?” He pulls it out and looks back up in time to see her mouth curve and her hand lift.
Vines shoot like arrows from her fingers and palm straight towards Smoker before he can so much as twitch; they stop a few inches short of his face, frozen midair.
“I would have dealt with your pirate myself, but there’s no seastone on this island and plant matter doesn’t fare well against fire.” A vine dips down, plucks his open lighter from his fingers and, keeping well away from the flame, ignites it and holds it under his cigars. “He is logia, as, I think, are you. They call you Hunter, yes?”
“Yes.” He grinds it out with the grind of his teeth around his cigars. Pulls smoke in, trying to watch her face and vines at the same time. The one holding his lighter closes it and drops it down onto his palm before withdrawing along with the rest, disappearing back into her skin. She leans back in her chair, still smiling faintly.
“You have a logia power and seastone. Capturing the second division commander of the Whitebeard pirates so soon after Crocodile would in all likelihood put you two ranks up from your captaincy.”
He clamps down on the quick spurt of anger; reminds himself that isolated doesn’t mean ignorant or uninformed—the news coos go everywhere—and shoves his hands into his coat pockets.
“I’m smoke,” he says. “He’s fire. I’ve fought him to a draw before, but that was over sand. Unless you want your island burned down to the water line, taking him on here is one of the stupidest things I could do.”
“I see,” she says after a long moment, and he gets the feeling she means more than just his point. “You and your men will also be leaving after your own pose sets?”
She taps one long, blue-nailed finger on the blotter, an annoying counterpoint to the clock ticking on the wall behind her. He can’t snarl at her to knock it off like he’d do with a green seaman, so he ignores the repetitive clicking, staring over her head out the glass doors behind her.
The view is spectacular, dull greens and blues splashed with brighter color; moss and vines and brilliant flowers draped over and around fantastic trees grown into each other, into unbelievable sizes and improbable shapes, and the living city woven through their roots and branches and trunks.
The effect is beautiful and weird and unexpectedly sophisticated—tree dwelling is a deceptive phrase—and most of his crew seems fascinated by it. From here, he can see a number of them moving along suspended bridges, marine white interwoven with the local dress.
Tashigi says they’re all looking forward to a two day reprieve after the last few weeks. Smoker wishes he was two days away from now, back out on the open sea.
“Very well.” The governor’s voice pulls his attention away from the confusing tangle of swamp and civilization in time for him to watch as she uncoils, rising unhurried from her chair; he’s not sure he’d have made the word association if he hadn’t seen her vines. “You are at liberty to draw from our wells,” she says, “and for the next two days Xenobia’s marketplace will be open to you.”
So stay the hell out of the rest of my country.
It’s implied if not stated, and Smoker has no inclination to cross her line. He nods once, curtly, and some of the tension leaks out of the room.
“You are of course free to hunt for yourselves if you prefer,” she says after a moment, “everything but the black xhal—the white ones are fair game. And river eels here are large and their meat is considered good. An adult will feed twenty for a week,” she adds. Smoker is still stuck on the unfamiliar word.
“Your word for them is alligator,” she says, and then she says something else, but Smoker isn’t listening.
He doesn’t have to go back far—it’s a new memory. Oi, Captain! How good are you at catching gators? They’ve got big ones where we’re going!
He focuses on the governor. She’s smiling again, one of those annoying, goddess-of-all type things Hina gives him when she’s feeling more superior than usual. He does the same thing he does when it’s Hina on the other end of the expression: pretends he doesn’t see it. “What’s wrong with the black ones?”
“Nothing,” she replies easily. “But they are considered sacred by one religious sect here, and we practice tolerance when we can.”
Which probably doesn’t extend to pirates who kill and eat sacred animals. Smoker is cursing Portgas silently and extensively when she says, “If that’s all, Captain,” and extends her hand.
Tan, green-tinged skin and dark blue nails cut short on thin, callused fingers. Smoker steps forward and takes them, feels his own fingers gripped firmly. He says, “Thanks,” and knows it to be as grudgingly given as it sounds.
Her smile says she knows exactly how much give is in him. Out loud she says, “You’ll be gone in two days’ time and I have no reason to pick a quarrel with the marines,” and lets go of his hand. “You have a saying, I think. The lesser of two evils.” Her smile widens. “We like to say one xhal is much the same as the next, but some are smaller than others.”
“Six of one,” Smoker says, and turns away.
He stops in front of the door. Clenches his hand, but he’s still turning back around, scowling at the woman standing behind her desk. She tilts her head, curiosity and amusement clear in her eyes, her expression disturbingly reminiscent of Portgas. “Yes?”
He has to unclench his teeth before he can say, “On the way in we saw smoke.”
“I’m sure you did.” It’s closer to a smirk than a smile; even closer to Portgas’s expression than it was, and twice as disturbing. “Some dry brush, no cause for alarm.”
Dry brush in a swamp. Right. But if she’s not making an issue of the incident, it’s probably about as relevant as the sensation loosening his fists and the tight coil in his gut. Not relief, it’s… interest. And maybe some concern.
Some. Not much, which is disturbing in its own way. He should be concerned about a pirate worth three quarters of a billion belli. And there’s that damned word again.
He consigns should to the same mental trash heap he dumped protocol in, defiantly sucking in a mouthful of smoke. The governor clears her throat, the soft cough of sound telling him the interview, and maybe her patience as well, is at an end.
“If there’s nothing else?” she says, sliding back down into the chair and reaching for the pen lying on the blotter.
“Nothing,” and this time he’s really going. It’s that or strangle her, and it says more than he likes about both of them that he’s not sure he could manage it.
“If you need someone to show you the way out—”
“I don’t.” He looks back over his shoulder at her, his hand on the door. She’s still smiling like she knows something he doesn’t. And she probably does—a lot of things; he’d just rather none of them had anything to do with him.
“I’ll say good afternoon, then,” she says. “I won’t say it was a pleasure, but… instructive, I think.”
“Likewise,” Smoker says, and pushes through the door. He wants to slam it shut behind him. That’s why he doesn’t.
Kim may as well be a pennant, a white contrast to green and brown, waving at him from the bank.
“Go ahead, sir,” he calls, and Smoker shifts the rest of casks from the deck to the muddy bank before pulling his smoke back in and dropping down next to Tashigi.
“That’s the last of them?” she says.
“Yes.” He looks across the clearing to the line of seamen coming and going, some retrieving empty casks and leaving; others on their way back to the ship with filled ones.
“Leave them,” Smoker says when a newly returned group heads for the gangway. “Get the rest filled. I’ll move them myself.” Not waiting to see if they follow through—they will—he looks back down at Tashigi. “Who’s in charge of supplies?”
The sun is sinking toward the water line, but the air is thick and muggy with damp heat; Tashigi’s glasses are sliding down a nose slick with sweat. She pushes them up on top of her head and swipes a hand over her forehead. “Kim and myself. Unless—” she looks the question at him.
“It’s fine.” He glances at the casks; there are no empty ones remaining and the clearing is clear of everyone but the three of them. “I don’t like the situation here,” he says. “Shore leave is restricted to groups of six every four hours until I find out—” He shuts his mouth on the last of it, not wanting to give the kid even that much.
She meets his eyes, something rueful in her expression. “Understood, sir.” She hesitates. “Did you want me to assign someone to hunting detail?”
“I’ll take care of it tomorrow.” He narrows his eyes at the sun’s position; they’ve got an hour or two of light left. “Get as much done tonight as you can,” he tells Tashigi. “The less contact we have with these people, the better.”
She’s nodding, fastening Shigure to her belt. “They’re not exactly friendly. Not overtly hostile, but…” she clears her throat. “Did you find out where the smoke, um, originated?”
There’s a faint line of red across her cheekbones and the bridge of her nose. Smoker gets busy lighting the cigars in his mouth and pretends he doesn’t see anything he doesn’t need to see. “Not an issue,” he says, hoping she’ll leave it there.
She doesn’t. Even though his tone is a dismissal she lingers, hovering next to him like some damned bird over its chick.
The mental image is almost as bad as picturing Portgas’s reaction to it. “I don’t need a bodyguard or a chaperone,” he growls. “Get moving.”
The stifled noise she makes could be any number of things; he’s pretty damn sure it’s a laugh. “Yes, Captain Smoker,” she says. “Moving now, sir.”
He turns his head, but as she said, she’s already moving. She’s halfway across the clearing, stumbling over a root and calling for Kim to follow. Smoker watches until he can’t see them anymore. Then he turns and stalks toward the casks, whipping his smoke out in front of him. Surrounding them in thick white billows.
They’re aluminum lined, but he still drops them down on the deck too hard; he knows that. He doesn’t need someone to tell him. Doesn’t need some punk making smartass comments about anything, much less his own actions, but since he left Loguetown what he needs and what he gets are usually two different things.
“Oi, oi, go easy on those things. You break it, you buy it. Or you bought it, maybe.”
Portgas, of course. He always shows up when Smoker’s finally stopped expecting him, stopped thinking about him, and is starting to hope he’s gone for good. Like hell. He’s somewhere close—the sound of his voice puts him within a few yards—but he’s not immediately visible. Smoker looks up.
The kid is stretched out on his side across a thick branch about ten feet up; the ticking noise Smoker’s been hearing, the one he thought was a bird or maybe an insect, is the bone toothpick he’s chewing on.
That bone is the last nail in Portgas’s coffin. There’s no doubt left in Smoker’s mind, if there was any in the first place. Portgas really screwed up this time.
“You ate their sacred alligator.”
The bone stops moving. Portgas blinks at him. “Sorry, Captain, maybe I didn’t hear you right. I did what, again?”
“You pissed off the whole damned island!”
“Well, yeah,” the bone starts moving again, “but I’m damned if I know why. I stayed away from the towns—figured you’d like that better,” he slants a sideways grin at Smoker. “I was just minding my own business, cooking my lunch when this bunch of weirdos in freaky robes showed up and tried to jump me.”
It’s hard to tell if he’s being deliberately annoying or deliberately stupid, but this is Portgas—with him there’s usually not much difference between the two and Smoker isn’t interested in trying to parse possible subtleties. It’s Portgas. There aren’t any.
“And that didn’t tell you you’d fucked up?” he says harshly.
Portgas pushes himself up, hands braced on the branch, legs dangling down—his feet are bare, streaked with dried mud, and Smoker has enough time to wonder what happened to the boots before he says, “Maybe.”
He frowns thoughtfully at the air over Smoker’s head. “It’s just… guys in robes.” He traces a circle in the air next to his ear. “Half the time they’re not really all there, if you know what I mean.”
Smoker resists the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. “The black alligators are… sacred,” he says, choking out the last word.
The bone pauses again for a second, then Portgas shifts it to the other side of his mouth and, “That would explain it,” he says cheerfully. “I did think the pink bow on its tail was pretty weird, now that you mention it, but—”
“If you don’t shut up and get down here—”
“Oi, relax,” hands held up and open, but Portgas looks more gleeful than conciliating and Smoker is two days away from calm. “See? I’m coming down, already, so don’t start blowing… smoke.”
He slips down off the branch like ten feet is nothing, landing in a crouch, his already dirty feet sinking into soil and grass draped damp and loose over tightly packed roots. He stays there, smirking up at Smoker, elbows propped on his knees—he’s doing everything but verbally daring Smoker to come after him.
Stressed leather creaks; Smoker doesn’t even try to relax his hands. He’d just wrap them around Portgas’s skinny, smartass neck. “You said you’d been here before.”
If it sounds like an accusation, that’s because it is, but Portgas is shaking his head.
“No I didn’t. I said they had big gators.” Still smirking he pushes himself to his feet. Hooks his thumbs into his pockets and tips his head back even though he doesn’t need to—he’s not wearing his hat.
“Shame on you for making assumptions, Captain. And shame on me for not asking for the whole story in the first place. Should’ve known Tha—the guy who came through here wouldn’t tell me everything. Someday,” he says, a weird smile on his face, “I’ll get him good for that.”
“You know,” he interrupts, “you should go get your crew some fresh meat tonight. There’s—” he rocks back on his heels, squinting at the sky— “at least an hour of light left and knowing you, you’re curtailing shore leave on account of, heh, me.” He looks back over at Smoker, eyebrows raised. “This month has sucked for everyone and good food and good booze is good for morale.”
“That’s my concern, not yours,” Smoker says curtly.
Portgas wasn’t the first to tell him he moves faster than he looks like he should; Portgas himself looks exactly as fast as he is. He’s standing across from Smoker, thumbs in his pockets, until he isn’t; Smoker’s jitte is in its harness and then it isn’t.
The handle is in Portgas’s hand and the shaft is propped against Portgas’s shoulder. Portgas, who’s back in front of Smoker, head tipped to one side, studying the jitte.
“It’s not my old pipe,” he says, jiggling it a slow back and forth, “but it’ll work.” His mouth isn’t smiling, but when he looks back up at Smoker his eyes are. “I’ll bring back enough for everybody.”
He’s strolling away, jitte over his shoulder, his free hand in his pocket, and Smoker hasn’t even opened his damned mouth.
“You should come with,” Portgas calls without turning. “If you don’t, I might whack the wrong kind of gator.”
“Portgas!” How many times has he said or shouted that today? He’s starting to think he’s forgotten how to say anything else.
“Get a move on, Captain—you’re wasting light.” The tip of the jitte—the seastone tip—is briefly white and bright against surrounding foliage. Then it’s gone, disappearing into the tree line along with Portgas.
Smoker says, “God damn it,” and goes smoke.
It’s faster than running.
They end up with an eel instead of a gator, mostly because they don’t have much choice: it tried to eat them first and maybe the one thing they have in common, logia aside, is a constitutional disinclination to get eaten.
Smoker hauls Portgas, drenched and pissed off, out of the water—the eel knocked him in with its tail before either of them realized it was there. Then he coils his smoke around the long, thick body and squeezes.
“Hurry up,” he grits out, muscles and teeth clenched with the strain of controlling the thrashing eel, but Portgas is already there, steam rising from his fast drying body. He’s already launching himself at the thing, lips drawn back in a silent snarl, jitte raised.
Smoker’s a little surprised the kid knows what to do with the jitte; he has enough time to judge his technique as decent (overhand works better on a bo) and then the jitte cracks down between the eel’s eyes.
The loud crunch is almost drowned out by Portgas’s vindictive growl; blood spurts from the eel’s eyes and nostrils and mouth; it thrashes wildly in Smoker’s grip before sagging, slumping down onto the bank, tongue hanging from its slack mouth.
Portgas prods it with the jitte—it twitches, shuddering, and he cracks it again for good measure.
“That,” he says when the last shudder dies away, “is a big snake.” He props the jitte on the muddy bank and himself on the jitte and surveys twenty-something feet of dinner.
Half of it is on land, visible. The rest is still under water. Smoker snaps his lighter shut and blows a cloud at Portgas. “Not a snake. Eel.”
“Huh. Just like back home.” Portgas blinks then shrugs. “Whatever, it’s a big sucker. That enough to cover your crew?”
“Depends. Are you eating?”
The kid laughs so hard Smoker could probably have him in cuffs before he knew what hit him. Probably. If he had a pair on him.
Just as well he doesn’t have them. He’s unsure enough of the outcome not to want to find out that he couldn’t.
“Sergeant,” Portgas calls. “We brought you a present. Sorry, it was too big to wrap, but you should see the rest of it!”
Tashigi stops halfway down gangway, trips over her own feet and slides the rest of the way down. She catches herself on a stack of crates and peers shortsightedly at them.
“Put your glasses on,” Smoker growls, unwinding his smoke from around his half of the chunk of eel. It hits the ground with a muffled thud, the only sound in the clearing. Smoker can see several of his crew in his peripheral vision, frozen in place, mouths open wide. Looks like another month’s worth of surprise drills is in order.
Tashigi is still groping for her glasses. “They’re on top of your head,” he tells her.
“Yes, sir.” She fumbles them into place and pushes herself away from the crates, blinking at the eel and Portgas. “Com-Commander?”
“It’s just Ace,” Portgas says with a grin. He already lowered his end and now he prods it with the jitte. “Think your cook can do something with this?”
She begins haltingly, “I suppose—” just as Smoker says, “Give me that.” He jerks the jitte out of Portgas’s hand with his smoke and glares at Tashigi. “Is his rank naval?”
“No sir. But I—”
“Then you don’t use it,” Smoker interrupts, turning his glare back on Portgas, who’s much more deserving of it, and also grinning like the idiot he is. “He’s Portgas or hey you or pirate, not commander. You—”
He points the jitte at Portgas. Something disgusting drips off the end of it. “You,” he says again through clenched teeth, “clean this. I’m going to find my damned cigars.”
He throws the jitte back at Portgas, not waiting to see if he catches it, and he knows he’s stomping up the gangway—he can hear himself doing it. He can hear his crew scrambling to get out of his way.
Stupid, immature thing to do but Portgas has that effect on him. He can almost feel himself losing brain cells and years just being around him.
Somewhere near where his common sense usually lives Hina’s telling him he doesn’t need Portgas for that. He snarls, “Get out of my head, woman,” and she laughs at him then disappears before he can mentally strangle her with his smoke.
He ignores the looks and wide berth his crew is giving him while he jerks his gloves off. Jerks his cabin door open and throws the gloves at the bunk as he slams the door behind him the way he doesn’t allow his men to slam them. The way he didn’t slam the governor’s, earlier.
He barely stops himself from slamming his fist into the bulkhead.
Looks down at his hand, watching his fingers uncurl like they belong to someone else. Then he looks at his cabin.
It’s the same as it was when he left Loguetown, aside from the higher piles of paper on the anchored desk. He had the desk made that way, fixed to the floor instead of built into the wall. He doesn’t give anyone but Tashigi his back if he can help it, not even his own crew on his own ship.
But he did today. He walked in front of Portgas—in front of Portgas armed with a seastone weapon—all the way back to the ship. He didn’t even think about not doing it.
He let Portgas take the jitte. Same way Portgas let him use the same jitte to put him on the deck of this cabin; let him stick the thing halfway through his goddamn throat.
His cabin. His space. Everything in its place, everything kept the same, always. Same dark blue blanket tucked into the bunk’s edges, same untouched piles of paper. Same burn scar on the deck where he dropped his cigars when Tashigi walked in on him without knocking the first time. It’s unchanging in a world where change is the rule rather than the exception—a known quantity.
And now it’s unknown. Unfamiliar. His space isn’t just his anymore.
Because Portgas is somewhere outside, probably with an arm around Tashigi’s shoulders, grinning his idiot grin. He’s sitting in Smoker’s chair with his feet on the desk. He’s asleep on the deck, Smoker’s jacket pulled tight around him, even though the jacket is right there, hanging off the back of the chair.
Portgas is everywhere he looks; he can’t move with stepping on him, and he can almost hear the kid laughing at him for it.
He feels more than hears the sound he’s making, not even close to a laugh, and this more than anything else is what Portgas does to him. Makes him something less human even than his logia does, reduces him to animal reaction. Pushes him back down the line of his own years, making him remember things he forgot forever ago on purpose.
The starboard porthole is closed. From where he’s standing he can see the burn marks on it. Four of them, shaped like four fingers.
Smoker chokes down his growl. Keeping his fingers well away from the burns, he pushes the porthole open and leaves the best way available.
Time means nothing to the smoke. It rises, hovers and observes. Waits as long or as short as it has to, and when Smoker allows himself to be the smoke instead of using it time isn’t much more than a nagging memory, attenuated out with the rest of his human concerns into grey and white threads.
Incurious, he passes over settlements, animal and human, without stopping. He could, distance means even less than time to him now, but they’re nothing to him. Not part of his hunt.
He follows the river from over the treetops, spreading himself out like mist. Pauses when he reaches the white rock dome rising from the center of the island like a ripe moon, hovering just above the geyser spewing down smooth stone in three streams.
He stays there, and the part of him that’s still Smoker and nothing else knows he’s waiting. It takes longer to figure out what he’s waiting for or why he stopped here instead of down below, but longer is all he knows. He could have been here hours or less than a minute for all the smoke knows or cares.
It knows the fire is out there. Banked, coiled in on itself and waiting like the smoke is waiting. Waiting on opposite sides of the same thing and the smoke is roiling now, restless against its nature. His impatience and anger, his humanity is winning out, and if smoke could snarl, he would. He goes back down instead.
Down to the ground, weaving through the trees this time, seeing everything he missed on the way to the dome.
They don’t burn fuel for energy on this island. Glossy green panels made of living plant matter collect the sun’s energy—that’s what Tashigi told him. Makes no sense to him but he’ll take her word for it, and not only because the smoke can’t sense any fire anywhere but one place.
If his sense of direction was as bad as Roronoa’s he might have cause to be thankful for that. As it is it’s just one more thing to resent.
And he does resent it. Hates how easy it is to let the burn pull him back to the clearing, now redolent with the smells of burning kelp, roasting eel and yeasty hops. Someone decided to broach a keg. He doesn’t have to ask to know who.
He has to reform to truly hear, but the sound of conversation interspersed with laughter and the occasional shout, the crackle of fire underlying everything else comes as no surprise.
At least someone had enough caution and sense to post sentries. Normally he’d say Tashigi, but he can see her, sitting close to the tree line with Kim, Prashant and Portgas in a small circle off from the main body of his crew. Her glasses are on top of her head, her face is flushed with heat and laughter, and she’s smiling at Portgas.
Smoker circles around to the other side of the clearing. The western sentry jerks to attention when he pushes from between two tall, flowering plants, looking guilty for no apparent reason. “Sir!”
He peels a clinging tendril away from his arm and pauses next to the man while he lights the cigars in his mouth. “Clover, right?”
“None on this side.”
He snaps his lighter shut. “How long have you been on duty?”
Clover’s eyes flicker briefly toward the fire. “Four hours, sir.”
Clover shakes his head.
“I’ll send someone to relieve you,” Smoker says and steps past him. The path is new, worn through shrubs and hanging vines by repeated use; the scent of bruised plant life is thick even with the other smells hanging in the air.
The fumes can’t do anything to him, but at the moment he has as much inclination for breathing in cloying flora as he does for conversation. Which is none. He’s not going aboard ship yet, though. Not with Portgas sitting over there.
He pauses again at the foot of the path, scanning the clearing, and sees a jumble of crates stacked near the gangway—Tashigi’s supplies, probably. Keeping to the tree line, he circles back around, avoiding the notice of his crew.
Most of his crew. As expected, Tashigi spots him immediately. She starts to rise but he jerks his head once, a sharp negative, and she settles slowly back down. He pauses behind her as he passes, “Get someone out to relieve Clover and Dune.”
She says, “Yes, sir,” flushed and flustered, but he keeps walking.
Portgas never looks up. His back stays turned while Smoker passes them; he doesn’t even glance sideways as Smoker pulls a crate out from the rest and settles on it, facing the largest group of seamen. He’s just there, a blurry collection of orange and black lines in Smoker’s peripheral vision.
Good enough, and Smoker bends forward, resting his forearms on his knees. Blurring the lines even more.
Fire crackles, spits sparks out to die hissing against the damp ground. It spurts angry plumes of red and gold, flares up… gets up and walks in his direction, footsteps soft, muffled.
Portgas’s feet are still bare. His shorts slap his legs, still damp from getting knocked into the river.
Smoker turns his head. “Don’t you have any other clothes?” he says.
Portgas looks down at himself then back up at Smoker. “You mean these?” He plucks at the shorts, grinning ruefully. “I’ve got others but they’re dirty. I was planning on doing some laundry while I was here. Haven’t really had the time.”
He leans forward, holding a mug out to Smoker. Smoker doesn’t take it. He stares at Portgas, keeps staring until he straightens, lowering his arm.
“Still got that jitte jammed up in there pretty good, I see,” he says quietly. He sets the mug down on the ground next to Smoker then he turns, looking around— “Your company manners suck, by the way.” He grabs another crate and pulls it out. Sits down cross-legged on it facing Smoker and takes a drink from his own mug.
“You’ll crack that glass house of yours yourself if you’re not careful,” he says, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He gestures with his mug at Smoker. “If those aren’t the same jeans you were wearing in Nanohana, you’ve got ten identical pairs.”
“What do you want?” Smoker says.
“For one, I don’t want to be here any more than you want me here,” Portgas retorts. “If you don’t interfere I’ll take care of Teach and be off the Line and out of your hair as fast as I can. Even faster if you share intel.”
He drinks again, meeting Smoker’s eyes over the rim of the mug. “It’s just coffee, you suspicious bastard. I’m not trying to get you drunk.” Mouth twitching, jerking up, “Not this time.”
He knows. He could smell the thick black roast when Portgas held the other mug out. Doesn’t mean he’s going to pick it up. “What do you want?”
“Call it a temporary truce,” Portgas says, mug still raised, shadowing his mouth. Still watching Smoker over the top of it, and Smoker can’t say he didn’t see this coming. Can’t even say he wasn’t ready for it.
He sits up instead of playing the bullshit game with himself. Pushes to his feet, boots sinking into spongy, loose loam, and stands chewing on his cigars. Frowning at Portgas.
The kid’s mouth glistens, coffee wet. His tongue flicks out, swiping it clean, and he tips his head back obligingly. Tips his face up to the light, baring it, and Smoker thinks he must have more than one smirk. Because although Portgas smirks at him all the time, he hasn’t seen this smirk—the Nanohana one—since Jaya.
“Until Teach,” he says, and Portgas inclines his head enough to constitute agreement.
“Until Teach,” he repeats, his mouth as sober as the coffee in his mug.
He finishes it as Smoker watches, swallowing the last and setting the mug down next to him on the crate with a thunk that echoes oddly off the corners of Smoker’s memory.
“If…” He starts out sure of his ground. It doesn’t last. He can’t make himself finish, can’t decide if he needs to say it or not, but it doesn’t matter. Portgas is nodding.
“I get it, believe me,” he says. “Same goes for you if it’s Luffy.” He uncurls like some kind of weird, human anemone, sliding off his crate and straightening up. In his bare feet and without his hat, he’s at least three inches shorter than Smoker. That doesn’t matter either.
“Don’t worry, Captain,” he says, no trace of a smile in sight. “I won’t make you choose.” Flame chases itself across his face. Flickers around the edges of his hair. “See you in the morning.”
Fire arcs upwards, curving out over the furled sails, then down towards the water. Smoker counts to five before he hears the turbine start up. Portgas must’ve anchored the raft to the ship again. He’s going to have words with him about that sometime.
With any luck Portgas will get done with Teach before he has to.
He watches until the glow is gone from the river bend; when he finally turns his head he finds himself looking straight into Tashigi’s eyes. For once she’s wearing her glasses.
He looks away first. Throws away his cigar butts, shoves his hands into his pockets and walks up the gangway.
The jitte is in his cabin, leaning against the bulkhead supporting his bunk. It’s very clean.
He moves it, propping it against the bulkhead behind his desk. Then he sits down in his chair with his back to it and lights a fresh pair of cigars while he frowns at the mess on his desk.
An envelope catches his eye. It’s from HQ, marked urgent. Dated two weeks ago.
Maybe it’s curiosity. Maybe it’s that he hates letting Portgas be right about anything. Whatever it is, it makes him pick up the letter and open it.
There are two paragraphs, undersigned by Sengoku. Two paragraphs, seven sentences between them, and less than a minute to read and understand what he just read.
He lets go of the paper. Lets it drift back down to the desk. It lands without disturbing the piles even a little; Smoker feels like someone just dropped a ten ton weight on his back.
The shape of the world is changing again and there’s not a damned thing he can do about it. Knowing that maybe Portgas can is a hot, sick ball of anger in his gut.
Outside, the party around the bonfire is going strong. He can hear it. If he concentrates, combined sound is enough to drown out the voice he doesn’t want to listen for; the one that’s not there anymore. It’s enough to drown out his own thoughts.
After a while his cigars are burned down to butts. He stubs them out. And lights two more.