There were few things better than a good night’s sleep on dry land. No movement, no risk of seasickness, waking up to sunlight and the crowing of birds. Feeling refreshed, and stepping onto the floor of your own bedroom, ready to face the day. Truly, an experience like no other.
He really wished he’d get to have it again someday.
As it was, he woke to the impact of his face against the floor as he was dumped out of his hammock. The world was a blur of shouting and nausea, and he’d have been disoriented even if it weren’t pitch black apart from a few sputtering lanterns.
“Lieutenant Commander!” a voice shouted. He’d known the man’s name at one point, but it’d been a while since he’d referred to anyone by anything other than their rank- and he certainly wasn’t going to remember it now, fighting to keep himself from throwing up.
“W-what?!” he said, getting to his feet. If this wasn’t important, he was going to have Coby put whoever dumped him out of bed on latrine duty for the next forever.
“There’s been- there’s a- Captain Coby is-”
He perked up. “What? What happened to the captain?”
The officer floundered. “He’s- uh- he’s… stuck? Trapped? But that’s not the-”
Another officer interrupted, handing Helmeppo his coat and visor. “Doctor Fishbonen is dead, sir! Captain Coby is out of commission! We need your orders, sir!”
Helmeppo froze. Fishbonen was dead? The kid was- out of commission? What did that even mean?
“I- I want a status report!” he shouted, putting on his most imperious commander voice while he put on his uniform. This was the first time anything like this had happened- Captain Nerdbag had never been unavailable in an emergency. Helmeppo’s place in the chain of command was practically a formality, since the kid was a workaholic who refused to take time off.
“That was the status report, sir,” one of the officers said. “We found the body a few minutes ago. Then we went for the captain, but we found him immobilized by one of Lieutenant Mineda’s bombs, and… we went straight to you, sir.”
“After raising the alarm,” the other said.
“Yeah,” the first confirmed. “Which means the other crew is up and about, too, and that other captain…”
“He’s stomping around giving orders to everyone,” a third officer- an ensign- said. “We need you to stabilize the situation, sir!”
Oh god. Seriously? He’d have to challenge that guy’s authority?
It’d been early in the evening last night when the WMS Sublimity had sailed into view. It was waving distress flags, and its hull had been torn up and pockmarked by some terrifying attack. Coby hadn’t entertained for a moment the idea that it was a trap set by pirates- or if he had, he was so confident he could drive off a pirate ambush that preparing for one would’ve felt redundant. It was that combination of earnest good-heartedness and unshakeable confidence that made the kid catch Garp’s eye. He’d immediately ordered the crew to prepare to aid a ship in need of assistance.
It wasn’t a pirate ambush, but it might as well’ve been.
The captain of the WMS Sublimity was a man whose name was- and he wasn’t sure whether it was a chosen name or if the man’s parents were at fault- Very Good. He had something of a reputation as a black ops type- he and his crew worked closely with Cipher Pol, doing shady government coverup-type stuff. He’d never risen through the ranks, despite the resources invested in crewing his ship, because it suited the higher-ups more to keep the man on a tight leash.
The reason for the leash was clear. Very Good wasn’t interested in keeping the peace, or running a fleet, or anything like that. He was one of the thugs, the petty tyrants who used Marine authority as an excuse to take what they wanted from the people.
Kind of like dad, that way. Kind of like how he might’ve been.
And- and his name was Very Good! People called him that! All the brutality and shady doings aside, that was his actual name! That bothered Helmeppo more that just about anything else.
It really should’ve been the hostile takeover of the WMS Ten Thousand Stars that got his goat. Coby had been prepared to offer his full assistance to Very Good and his crew, but that hadn’t been good enough for that creep. He hadn’t even seemed to realize that Coby was voluntarily offering to assist- he’d just boarded while ignoring the captain’s questions about the damage and the injured, barking orders to the crew as if Coby didn’t exist. Very Good wasn’t interested in doing anything at all that wasn’t his own idea.
Well, unless the giant masked man in the cloak told him to do it. When the giant masked man in the cloak said to do something, Very Good would scowl and then rephrase it to his men as if he’d been the one to come up with it. This had been incredibly suspicious, but the man’s identity was just one more question Very Good didn’t feel like acknowledging.
What Helmeppo had been able to piece together (from interrogating the Sublimity’s crew, not from talking to Very Good,) was that they’d had a run-in with the Strawhat Pirates. They’d been restocking on the nearby Long Tooth Island, and… well, it wasn’t exactly clear who’d started the fight. What was clear was that the Strawhats, despite being scattered and uncoordinated, had more or less mopped the floor with Very Good and his crew, forcing a retreat.
More or less. The “less” was that Very Good’s toady, Lieutenant Nawawana, had restrained and kidnapped the Strawhats’ doctor, Tony Tony Chopper. A Devil Fruit power, the Rope Rope fruit, let the old man come apart at the joints like a marionette and fling his limbs around with prehensile cords, which he’d used to tie up the little raccoon thing and escape before the Strawhats’ giant death robot was able to finish destroying the Sublimity with an artillery bombardment.
(This was evidenced by a pattern of cannonball holes on one side of the ship, reading “SUPEP”.)
Since arriving, Very Good had done his best to turn the ship into his own personal pleasure cruise. His own wounded were tossed in the sickbay for Dr. Fishbonen to treat, but rather than order the Ten Thousand Stars’ crew to begin repairs on the Sublimity, he’d set everyone to cooking a giant feast- which would leave them short on rations for several weeks, but that was none of Very Good’s concern.
When Very Good had decided to commandeer the bunks in the officers’ quarters, rather than sleep on his own ship, that’s when Coby had stopped putting up with his nonsense.
Or, tried. Very Good had made a quick turnaround from tyrant to slimeball as soon as Coby showed the slightest sign of opposition. The kid just didn’t have the weight to throw around. Admiral Akainu had a special grudge against Coby from his insubordination during the Marineford incident, and the only thing keeping him from being discharged was Garp’s insistence. Getting into a fight with another captain less than a month after being given command of his own ship… it’d be exactly the sort of excuse Akainu needed to get rid of Coby once and for all. Very Good knew that all too well, and he’d taken full advantage of it to bully Coby into submission.
So Helmeppo and the kid had been kicked out of their bunks in the officers’ quarters, in favor of Very Good and Nawawana. It’s why he’d woken up being flung out of an uncomfortable hammock in the crew berths, rather than being shaken out of a marginally less uncomfortable cot in the officers’ quarters.
“I want every man on this ship lined up in front of me!” Very Good yelled. “I’ll look each and every one of you sorry balls of bilge in the eye, until I know who did it!”
“L-lined up how, sir? Where? There’s over two hundred-”
“FIGURE IT OUT,” he roared. The word “marine” tattooed on his chin contorted when his jaw unhinged. It was a freaky bonus of his Berry Berry Fruit power- his body could come apart into a bunch of floating orbs, which he could sort of telekinetically control. Made it impossible to just hit the guy- and dodging would be tough, too, since you’d have to deal with any part of his body attacking from any angle.
But… okay. This wasn’t ideal, but he could manage. He’d use the same approach Coby had gone with- staying in the background, quietly giving orders where Very Good couldn’t hear. Running damage control.
Helmeppo flipped down his visor. He was meant to act as Captain Nerdbag’s support, since the infrared vision could make out heat signatures behind cover and spot potential threats. Ever since the kid had developed that Observation Haki, though, all the visor did was help him keep up with Coby’s freaky aura-vision.
It highlighted a few things in the sickbay.
First, the dozen-odd wounded marines occupying the beds. 11 of the 24 beds were empty, as the people there had apparently recovered enough to be woken by Very Good’s shouting and had been pressed into miscellaneous tasks. He could tell, since the beds they’d vacated were still giving off a little heat. They’d been battered beyond belief not a few hours ago- Fishbonen worked fast.
...Had worked fast.
Of the thirteen remaining marines, ten appeared to be in stable condition. Their wounds and lost limbs were bandaged, and Dr. Fishbonen’s medicine was keeping them asleep.
“Nailing” Isuka, an ensign under Very Good, wasn’t doing quite as well. She’d received a concussion and several broken bones in a fight with Black Leg Sanji. He’d heard the story from one of Very Good’s crewmen- apparently she and a dozen other marines had been grouped up when he did some sort of impossibly fast whirlwind kick, and she’d been knocked out. Then, Black Leg had suffered some sort of panic attack when he noticed he’d kicked her. He’d tried to resuscitate her, failing and breaking a few of her ribs in the process. When that didn’t work, he’d given her some kind of spinal damage with an improperly executed fireman’s carry, taking her to the Strawhats’ doctor for treatment.
Reports conflicted on what had transpired from there, but it’d evidently been the point where Nawawana had captured Tony Tony Chopper- on top of rescuing the other battered marines who Black Leg hadn’t been quite so remorseful about hurting. No one was quite sure why she’d been singled out, but the glaring fact that she’d been a woman and the other twelve were not women… that said about all it needed to say.
Isuka was still in bad condition. Her bones had been set, but her body was struggling to keep up with the injuries. He could see her body temperature was below average, and her breathing was irregular.
There were two more marines of interest. One was Fullbody, a former lieutenant who’d been demoted to Seaman over some sort of scandal in the East Blue. Ironically, only half of his body was working- he’d suffered a spinal fracture in the fight, and only his upper body was functioning. From his breathing, it looked like he was asleep.
From the other guy’s breathing, it was obvious he was pretending to be asleep. Jango had been a personnel transfer to the Sublimity from Rear Admiral Hina’s crew, along with Fullbody. From his body temperature and breathing, he was clearly wide awake, but he was keeping very still- probably to avoid having to deal with Very Good’s orders.
And then there was one more person in the room. Helmeppo hadn’t seen him at first, since he was on the floor, and wasn’t giving off a heat signature.
Dr. Fishbonen was dead.
“YOU!” Very Good shouted, and Helmeppo hoped it wasn’t directed at- “Lieutenant Commander! What’re you doing just standing around?”
He took a deep breath. “I’m investigating the scene of the crime.”
“The scene of the crime, sir,” Very Good corrected. “Since your captain’s out of commission, that means I’m in charge here. Only one captain on this boat right now!”
That wasn’t remotely how the chain of command worked.
“That is not remotely how the chain of command works,” he said, his mouth moving in spite of everything his brain was screaming about what not to say.
“...Say what, blondie?” There was exactly as much menace in Very Good’s voice as he’d been expecting.
“With Captain Coby unavailable, I am next in the chain of command on this vessel,” Helmeppo’s mouth insubordinately continued. “I will be assuming the duties of captain until he is able to give orders.”
Very Good’s face contorted into a sneer. “Is that so? Let me tell you something about the chain of command,” he said. He rolled up one sleeve, and took a step towards Helmeppo. The situation couldn’t possibly scream “Helmeppo was about to get punched” any louder.
Helmeppo was paralyzed with fear. Or, he should have been. That’s what his brain was saying to be, anyway. The part of him that was dead-set on defending Captain Nerdbag’s honor, though, was drawing a kukri from his belt.
The situation, mercifully, ended when a giant looming black shadow in the doorway behind Very Good reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Let’s not,” the shadow said.
Very Good’s throat worked. Helmeppo was very familiar with that sort of fury. It was common to big men like him- and like Morgan, and even sometimes like Garp. The bottled rage of a physical powerhouse being told what to do, and being unable to cause a ruckus to get their way.
“...You want Admiral Akainu to hear about this, kid?” Very Good eventually spat out.
Helmeppo shrugged. “I doubt he even knows my name. It’s Coby who has to worry about him. Personally, I don’t see any reason I ought to let you run my ship.”
That had been such a stupid thing to say, so stupid, Very Good was going to snap and call his bluff and break his nose, and-
Very Good froze, and then relaxed and laughed. “All right then, captain! How ‘bout you go check on your superior officer, then? Get him out of that jam he’s stuck in, heh heh.”
Oh. Well, okay. That was fine. It was a really obvious ruse to try and put Coby back “in charge”, so Very Good could have the run of the ship again… but that seemed like so much less of a priority than not having his face smashed in. As soon as Coby was back, Very Good would officially no longer be Helmeppo’s problem.
Nawawana was stationed by the door to Coby’s office. Officially, he was “keeping watch”, but apparently the old man was actually “being asleep”, leaning against the wall and snoring.
The person who actually greeted him at the door was the person who Nawawana had tied up, coiled tightly and bound with his left leg. Nawawana had been using his prisoner as a sort of peg leg, while his actual lower leg was incorporated into the knot keeping the bonds in place.
“Is that… hey! Are you Helmeppo?” the peg leg’s head said. Or, whispered.
“Oh! ...Hello,” Helmeppo said to Tony Tony Chopper, who’d worked his head free of the rope cocoon.
“What’s happening here? After I got kidnapped… is this Vice-Admiral Garp’s ship?”
“The term is “arrested”, not “kidnapped,” Helmeppo pointed out, “and… not quite. No. It’s Coby’s ship, but it’s mostly the same design. Just a little smaller.”
“...Okay,” Chopper said. He seemed a little sad about the “arrested” comment.
“Do you know anything about the murder?” Helmeppo asked. Maybe Chopper had noticed something, from inside Nawawana’s rope leg.
Chopper’s eyes went wide. “M-murder?! There was a- there was a murder?!”
“Everyone has been shouting about it for a while now,” he said. “Is that rope trap thing soundproof?”
Chopper shook his head. “No, I can hear what’s going on around me… I just haven’t heard anything about- wait, who died?!”
Helmeppo sighed. “Fishbonen. Our ship’s doctor.”
If it was possible, Chopper’s expression grew even more despondent. “W-wait! Emilio Fishbonen? From ‘New Techniques in Motor Nerve Therapy for Ostealgia’?”
...That was his name, but he had no idea the doctor had a book.
“I’m… afraid so. We don’t know who did it, and I’m conducting an investigation now. You don’t know anything?”
Chopper shook his head, a look of frozen horror on his face. “I- I don’t know. But- but I want to help! I- I can’t forgive whoever did this!”
...Was the raccoon a big fan of Fishbonen? What was up with that?
“If you want to help… I need to know you’re not going to try and run away.”
Chopper looked unimpressed. “Run away to where? I’m a Devil Fruit user, remember? It’s not like I could swim away.”
Oh, no. He wasn’t that gullible. He knew what Tony Tony Chopper was all about. “You couldn’t… take some of your special medicine, and turn into some kind of flying form? Or hulk out, overpower everyone, and steal a ship? There’s absolutely no risk of you escaping and getting me demoted?”
“That’s not the point!” Chopper shouted. “I want to get justice for Dr. Fishbonen! That’s all! I- I promise! I’ll let you tie me up again after we solve it!”
...Wait. “Why should we untie you at all? You can help solve a mystery while you’re tied up, right?”
Chopper looked a little bit sheepish. “Uh… oh. Right.”
“So, nice try. I hate to say it, but we’ve brought you in fair and square.”
He grimaced. “Well… fine! But I still want to help! Tied up or not!”
They’d stopped whispering their conversation somewhere in the middle of that, and as a consequence, Nawawana was starting to wake up.
“...Eh? What’s- tickles- huh?”
Crap. He had to think fast. ...Right? Did he have to think fast? It probably wasn’t the end of the world if Nawawana knew they were talking. He’d have to know they were talking, if Chopper was going to help investigate from inside the man’s leg.
“Lieutenant Nawawana,” Helmeppo said, snapping the man out of his sleepy stupor.
“I am Lieutenant Commander Helmeppo of the WMS Ten Thousand Stars,” he said, hoping he sounded official enough to impress the old-timer. “I’m told that Captain Coby is somehow incapacitated inside this room?”
Chopper, for his part, had taken the rope he’d dislodged and quickly piled it up around his head, trying to feign captivity.
“...Oh. You. The, eh… the boss wants you lookin’ around in here?”
He nodded, trying his best to maintain an imposing and dignified posture.
“Have at it, then,” Nawawana said, yawning. “Just inside the door.”
Helmeppo opened the door to the captain’s study, and was met with a mass of purple foam.
It filled a good portion of the room, centered on where Coby’s chair was supposed to be. It was sort of shaped like that, too- and he could see a shoe sticking out of part of it near the bottom. Coby was almost certainly inside, anchored to his own chair and writing desk by a stiff, sort of gooey foam that completely blocked his vision, hearing, and ability to move. His olfactory senses were likewise blocked- not by the foam, which was porous enough to breathe through- but by the strong grape-scented smell it gave off.
He knew exactly what the foam was. It was the effect of the Grape Grape Fruit, a power that belonged to Lieutenant “Jelly” Mineda, one of his direct subordinates. Coby had picked her for his crew based on the description of her ability, which he’d thought was perfect for nonlethally disabling enemy combatants. Her hair was a sort of gooey purple substance that clumped up into balls which could be plucked from her head. In their ordinary form, they were just sort of sticky- but when squeezed in one hand, they could be primed as bombs. A few seconds after unsqueezing, the bombs would undergo a chemical reaction and rapidly expand into a foam, which would quickly harden and trap anything caught in the blast radius.
Coby had not picked her for his crew based on an evaluation of her personality and disciplinary record. He probably hadn’t even looked at that information before hiring her. He’d never have gone for it, otherwise. She was, in Helmeppo’s opinion, an utter lecherous creep. She’d joined the marines so that she could be surrounded by “hunky dudes” all the time, and he’d have reported her for sexual harassment many times over if the marines actually had rules against that sort of thing.
Anyway, her power had apparently been used to trap the captain in grape-scented foam, and it wouldn’t dissolve for at least another 18 hours. He would have to go it alone.
...Or, not alone.
“Lieutenant Nawawana? I’d like you to join me in the sickbay to assist in the investigation.”
“Eh? Is that an order?”
“...From Very Good, yes,” he lied. “There’s not much point in guarding the captain here- he’s not going anywhere.”
“Well, all right, sonny. If the boss says so.”
Of course, it wasn’t Nawawana’s help he was expecting. He snuck a glance at Nawawana’s peg leg, which had developed a pair of eyeholes.