“So…how do we do this?” Nami asked as Marco stretched his arms.
“Do what?” Ace asked.
“Well he’s going to turn into the Phoenix. How do we, you know…” Nami rubbed the back of her head. “Get on?”
Ace’s eyes widened, “Oh. Yeah, going to be a bit tricky with a passenger…I mean one that’s not me, I can get on fine…”
“You two ready?” Marco asked, adjusting his bag so it hung around his neck. He’d changed into long pants that went to his ankles and an additional shirt underneath his usual jacket. A shirt he’d left unbuttoned wide open to show his tattoo.
“Give me a sec,” Ace said. He’d dug out most of his old gear from the last time he was in Alabasta, though he too had caved into longer pants…which he did not own, leading to him stealing some of Zoro’s when it turned out Sabo owned no cargo pants.
Ace needed to talk to him about his wardrobe choices.
Nami meanwhile had donned her old Alabasta robe over her usual jeans and bikini top. After some convincing from Robin and Koala, she’d swapped her high heeled sandals for low heeled boots. “Stilettos sink in sand dunes” Robin had said with the air of someone who had found that out before the hard way.
“So…” Marco said, sighing, folding his arms, and tapping his foot. “Any time now.”
“Since when are you impatient?” Ace asked. “Yeah okay, do it the normal way, I’ll get Nami on.”
“I find it very suspicious you’re not telling me what you have planned,” Nami said as Marco changed forms, his duffel bag now acting almost like a collar.
“Uh-huh,” Ace said, shifting her satchel forward. “Hold this.”
Nami frowned as he passed her his bag. “Why what are you going to—hey!”
“Don’t squirm, this is hard to do one handed!” Ace said, cradling her as he took a running start and jumped, flames from his feet and other hand giving him a massive boost.
“Then why not use both to hold me?” Nami shrieked as they rocketed upwards.
“Two people. Needed more lift!” Ace laughed as the dropped, landing on Marco’s back as he flew up to meet them. “See, worked fine—ow! How the hell do you do that without Haki?
“Want another?” Nami demanded, hauling her hand back for another slap.
Marco rolled his eyes. This was going to be a long flight. He angled himself towards the Red Line and started raising their altitude little by little. With any luck they’d be in Alabasta in three days…assuming Ace didn’t eat all the food, making them stop for more.
So probably four days.
“How long until the ships are ready behind us?” Ace asked Nami.
“I’d give them a day or two to get started. Even with using Coup de Burst multiple times to cross long distances, I’d say they reach Alabasta weeks after we do. We’re going to be on our own for a long while,” Nami said.
“What’s the backup plan? In case we have to leave Alabasta altogether?” Marco asked.
“Ah! How do you talk like that?” Nami yelped, almost slipping off before Ace steadied her. “A beak should not be able to talk like that!”
Marco rolled his eyes. Not feeling like answering, he refocused on flying.
Nami huffed at him. “Anyway, the plan is we’ll go to Water 7 and get Iceburg to contact the others for us. I don’t think it’ll come to that. Even if we have to leave the palace, hell, the capital city, Alabasta is on a pretty big island. We can hide out for quite a while.”
“Plus the desert plays to my strengths,” Ace said. “Heat and lots of it!”
“Oh no, we’re in for so many heat related puns, aren’t we?” Nami asked Marco in despair.
Marco chuckled ruefully. He’d known Ace longer than she had and had already heard all the puns over many years of snail calls.
Hearing them all again would be torture.
“Here,” Sanji said, giving Law a plate of grilled fish and rice balls.
“Thanks,” Law said quietly.
Zoro watched him pick at the food, eating it very slowly. Sanji had given him a slightly larger portion than normal, since Law hadn’t been eating much lately. Probably why Sanji was usually giving him his favorite foods, too.
Zoro hoped Law would be all right. Reiju’s poisoning had clearly done a number on his head. He was more withdrawn than usual, and even Luffy looked worried about him sometimes.
And when Luffy was worried enough to actually look it, something was wrong.
Still, not much Zoro could think to do. He couldn’t challenge Law to a spar to try and rev him up a bit—the surgeon’s energy was clearly still on the low side so no Rooms and Zoro could easily whup his ass if they were just using swords.
Zoro would talk with Law like Law did for him, but frankly he could be even more shit with words than Law was so that probably was a bad idea.
But Law was his friend. “How’d you sleep, Dr. Heartstealer?”
“Adequately,” Law said.
Bullshit. Law’s eye bags normally just looked like he used eyeliner. Right now he was nearing raccoon status. Then again, Law was like Zoro. Zoro knew he’d never admit to having trouble sleeping…except maybe to Sanji. Which he’d kind of have to do since they slept in the same bed…
“So what have you been working on in the labs?” he asked. He had no real idea what Law did in there when no one needed patching up. Luffy insisted it was mad science but the rooms were nothing like the Punk Hazard labs, which were Zoro’s new mad science standard.
“Not working. Cleaning.”
Even Luffy looked a little surprised at that. Sure Law had a few neat freak tendencies but spending a few days cleaning the same rooms?
“Want some help? Maybe some extra muscle will help you get done faster.”
“Oh yeah, hey! Traffy, I can help too!”
Law’s disinterested mask slipped for a moment as he blanched, “I am not trying to supervise both of you in my operating rooms.”
Luffy shrugged, “Fine, I’ll help you clean and Zoro can help Sanji clean the kitchen!”
“Wait, what?” Zoro asked Luffy. That hadn’t been where he was going with this…then again, Law was more likely to talk to Luffy about his problems, right?
Sanji smirked, “What, Zoro, you don’t want to help out your boyfriend?”
“You’re all terrible people,” Zoro said. Offer to do one chore, get roped into a totally different one…
“Pirates,” Law pointed out dryly.
They’d decided to land far enough away from the capital city of Aluburna so as to not be seen. Despite their high bounties, none of them had particularly distinctive features once Ace and Marco’s tattoos were covered, and so they’d simply added a day of travel and walked to the city.
Which meant Nami was too tense to even get the code phrase out once they reached the gate guards. Marco passed it along instead, “Delivering some special birds and tangerines for Princess Vivi.”
They were instantly hustled inside the walls and escorted towards the palace. Ace didn’t like it. It felt like a less lethal march to the scaffold on Marinford. Then again he’d never liked guards.
Nami on the other hand buzzed with nervous energy. The guards clearly didn’t seem worried so nothing had happened to Vivi yet. That meant they could find her, plan, and…whatever else they needed to do!
Both of them instantly had their nervousness transform to joy as the princess of Alabasta rushed down the hall and threw her arms around them.
“Vivi!” Nami cheered as Ace laughed, got a good grip on both girls, and lifted them off the ground in an even tighter hug. “Oh, Ace put us down you lug! Vivi I’m so glad you’re all right!”
“Well you did send us a pretty good warning,” Vivi said. “We had one attempt but it was pretty weak. My father and I both think it may have been a false flag—lure us into a sense of security with a shoddy assassin and then send a good one.”
“Given they’ve already had someone sneak in and get a bit of your hair, no shit they could do that,” Ace said.
“Don’t remind me,” Vivi said, shuddering. “How did you get here so fast?”
“Ah, that would be Marco’s doing. Marco, Princess Vivi. Vivi, my boyfriend Phoenix Marco,” Ace said, introducing the two.
“Pleasure, yoi,” Marco said shaking her hand when she offered it.
“I’ve heard so much about you! Ace bragged,” Vivi said.
“Did he now…?” Marco asked, smirking as Ace blushed. “Heard quite a bit about you too. Your crew misses you a lot.”
“I miss them too,” Vivi said, smiling at Nami when the navigator reached over and grabbed her hand. “Alabasta needed me to help it recover after Crocodile.”
“And with you held in such high esteem for helping with that recovery, your death could be a massive disaster for the country,” Nami noted. “Don’t worry. We’re here to keep you safe. And when the others show up, we’ll root out the Vinsmokes plan and crush it so much that they never do this again.”
“How much longer until we reach the Red Line?” Sanji asked.
“About another day,” Bepo said. “Then if we follow the maps and log pose correctly and Coup de Burst lands us right all three times, two and a half weeks until we get Alabasta. It’s easier and faster when you know where you’re going, that’s for sure!”
“And when the ships can fly,” Zoro chuckled.
“That too,” Bepo admitted, rubbing the back of his head. “I’m sure the others have everything under control.”
“I should have gone. This is my fault,” Sanji sighed.
“It’s the Vinsmoke’s stupid fault, not yours,” Zoro said. “And we’re going to make sure they learn not to do this again.”
Sanji nodded, looking out over the sea. “I’m sure Sweet Nami is happy, seeing our Lovely Vivi again.”
“Yeah. Can’t wait to see Vivi myself. Think she’s gotten stronger?” Zoro asked eagerly.
“Always the fighting with you,” Sanji said, rolling his eyes.
“Well…yeah,” Zoro admitted. Bepo and Sanji both groaned.
“Kind of like a vacation instead of a mission,” Marco noted on the morning of their fourth day at the palace.
Ace nodded. They’d updated the guards with all they knew of the Vinsmokes and he, Marco, and Nami had all poked around with their Observation Haki, but so far not much had really happened.
King Cobra had been all too happy to greet his daughter’s friends, pirates or not, but they’d preferred to stay out of the way instead of deal with all the royal guest treatment’s trappings. Nami could handle it just fine, but Ace and Marco were already feeling a bit cooped up.
On the upside, a swanky palace had nice toiletries, Ace mused as he shaved.
“Not going for your dad’s permanent five o’clock shadow look?” Marco asked.
“Don’t like how I look with facial hair,” Ace said. “Plus it’s kind of itchy.”
“Oi!” Marco complained, rubbing his own scruffy chin fuzz.
“Well, mine is, yours is fine,” Ace said, looking at himself in the mirror.
Shanks had one of his captain’s old wanted posters in his room. Ace had always taken pride in the fact that he didn’t look much like Roger—Shanks claiming he took after Rouge. But as he was getting older, he wasn’t so sure that was true anymore. To be fair, he didn’t have any pictures of his mother to compare with…
He smirked, running a finger over his upper lip. At least he wouldn’t have a weirdo-mustache. Seriously, what had Roger been thinking with that thing?
“Something up?” Marco asked, rolling over on the bed and resting his chin on his arms.
“…Hey, Marco? You…remember when you said I reminded you of Roger? When I killed Weevil?” Ace asked.
“Yeah,” Marco said, looking a bit guilty.
“Do I really look that much like him?”
Marco laughed, “Not really. Got the same coloring but that’s about it. Assume you got your looks from Mom. It was your actions that reminded me, not the guy in the mirror, Ace.”
Ace frowned, glancing at his reflection. He was pretty sure Marco wouldn’t lie to him…unless he was really trying to make him feel better. There weren’t exactly many images of what Roger looked like at Ace’s age.
“He’s not the dad you look like anyway,” Marco said, standing up. Birdbrain was such a mind-reader.
“What?” Ace asked.
Marco smiled, picking Ace’s hair tie up off the table, “Let me.”
Ace usually wore his ponytail high at the back of his head, but Marco instead tied it off at the base of his skull. Marco then looped a finger through some hair by his forehead, freeing a lock that the blonde twisted around his finger idly before letting drop to hang in Ace’s face
“There you go. Dead ringer when you get the hair right.”
Ace chuckled. Despite Marco’s insistence he knew he didn’t look exactly like Benn used to, even with the same hairstyle. Benn’s face had squarer features and lacked freckles, but…it was nice to think he looked a little like him, all the same. “Guess there’s a bit of a similarity. Hope I don’t go gray as soon as he did, though.”
“Well he’s with Shanks, that’s got to be stressful. I’m not so hard on the nerves,” Marco joked.
“Unless you’re getting stalked and almost killed by a Warlord, that is,” Ace muttered.
Marco frowned, “You’re really blaming me for that?”
“Blame you for not calling soon enough,” Ace shot back.
“Ace, I didn’t know Weevil was with the Happo Navy,” Marco sighed.
“I can’t keep you safe if you don’t call me!”
Marco’s eyes narrowed, “Ace, you might have finally realized you’re pretty damn powerful, but I could put you on your ass and we both know it. Keeping me safe is not your job, yoi.”
Ace flinched and Marco sighed. He usually didn’t get snappish and defensive but damn it he wasn’t someone Ace should see as needing protecting, he was Ace’s partner, not…
“This isn’t even about me, you idiot. You’re still mad at Luffy.”
Ace groaned, flopping facedown on the bed, “Why do you have to be so freaking perfect?”
“I’m not perfect, dumbass, I’m a big brother like you are. Almost all my crew are my little siblings, even the ones who are older than me. Which, yeah, head trip, but I make do.”
“…Why didn’t he call me?” Ace asked softly.
“We couldn’t have gotten there in time, yoi,” Marco said. “The fight was going to start in less than an hour when they knew they couldn’t slip away. So you’d have been freaking out and unable to act on it.”
“…I kind of hate that he doesn’t need me so much anymore,” Ace said.
“They’ll always need you,” Marco said. “People change when they get older, I won’t lie…but the people we care about? We always need them.”
“Did you change?” Ace asked.
“Yeah. I was more of a troublemaker as a kid. But as I got older, as I took on more responsibility…I stopped getting in as much trouble. Unless it found me,” Marco said. “First Mate. Had to set an example.”
“And I’m sure the crewmembers who knew you as a kid had serious head-trips.”
“Did they ever, yoi,” Marco said.
“…I just can’t imagine Luffy changing,” Ace said.
“Some people change less than others. It’s why Pops always loved messing with your dad—deep down, Shanks is still the same hot blooded cabin boy who needed Silvers Rayleigh to grab him by the collar and haul him back to the ship.”
“…You ever actually see something like that?” Ace asked eagerly.
Marco smirked, “You really want to know?”
“How long do you think you three can keep laying low here?” Vivi asked.
“Oh, a while longer if things keep going like they are,” Nami said. “Ace might be a trouble magnet but Marco and I can keep him contained if we have to. I think he likes having some time to be just them…”
“Well we certainly know the horrors of the long distance relationship. Though you really need to thank Marco for coming up with transponder sex.”
“Rule one: don’t look at the snail, you’ll die laughing,” Nami snickered.
“Exactly!” Vivi said.
“I’m glad you’re all right,” Nami said. “When Reiju had your hair…”
“I’m sure that was quite a shock,” Vivi said.
“It was nightmarish,” Nami said. “We were so worried. I thought they might have already had you and we just didn’t know because of how crazy things had been lately.”
“It sounded like it. That forgetting thing sounded horrifying. I’m sure I forgot Ace too but there weren’t any immediate reasons to be thinking about him like there were for his parents,” Vivi said. “I just…never would have known.”
She chuckled, “And then he went and beat up a Warlord.”
“Yeah. And he helped in kicking Doflamingo’s ass too,” Nami said. “Observation Haki has only made him more of a pain for opponents.”
“I’ve been trying to train up my Haki a bit but it’s slow going,” Vivi said. “I don’t want to get blindsided by a logia reforming again.”
“We could probably teach you. Marco especially, he’s been in the New World his whole life and is super used to Haki,” Nami said.
“The New World sounds so amazing whenever you tell me about it,” Vivi sighed. “I miss you guys so much. Miss the sea.”
“Offer’s always open to come back,” Nami said, running a hand through Vivi’s hair. “We miss you too. And hey, we’re not the only girls anymore, there’s Robin, Perona, and Koala now!”
“It’s tempting,” Vivi admitted. “Maybe once this assassin business is over—did you hear that?”
“Yeah,” Nami said grimly, grabbing the Clima Tact. “Let’s move.”
Vivi stuffed some Peacock Slashers into hidden pockets in her dress and followed Nami to the window. “Marco and Ace’s room should be three windows down.”
“Okay, princesses people are trying to assassinate first,” Nami said, helping Vivi out onto the molding along the sides of the palace. Vivi carefully shuffled along the narrow ledge.
Right as she was about to tap on the boys’ window it opened.
She and Marco stared at each other. Marco recovered first, “Was about to come and get you, yoi.”
“We heard it too,” she said as he helped her inside and reached back out for Nami.
“Three people,” Ace said from the door. His ear was pressed against it. “Guns. Think they might have knocked out a guard and that was the noise.”
“Three people? That’s lame,” Nami said. “Vivi, how hot do you think this tile can get?”
“It’s baked at more than two thousand degrees,” Vivi said.
“Ace!” Nami said and the logia nodded, dropping to his knees.
“Superheating the floor?” Vivi guessed.
“Well under two thousand degrees isn’t all that super but yeah,” Ace said. “I’ll trip them up, Nami can shock them, and then you, Marco, and I can beat them up.”
“Tell us when they get right in front of the door, Ace,” Marco said, getting ready to kick it open.
They waited for the longest six seconds of their lives before Ace said, “Now!”
Marco kicked the door open and Ace shot flames along the floor tiles.
The door clipped one assassin, sending him off balance. He was still caught in the lighting that Nami called from the Clima Tact, and his poleaxe was cut down by Vivi’s Peacock Slashers. The other two, another man and a woman, were cornered by Ace and Marco. Ace grabbed both their guns and superheated them. The guns exploded, sending the assassins flying back. Before they could get up a very angry Phoenix pinned them down.
“Talk,” Nami told the man with the axe.
He said nothing. Ace growled, stepping forward as his eyes blazed into angry embers, “The lady said talk.”
The man winced, but said nothing.
“You’re here for me, aren’t you?” Vivi asked. “Aren’t you!”
The man nodded once. He still said nothing.
“He’s well trained,” Vivi commented.
“Ace, set his pants on fire,” Nami said.
“Yeah, okay,” Ace said.
“We were acting alone!” the man squawked before Ace could.
“Like hell you were,” Vivi said.
“We’re not stupid,” Marco added, still pinning the other two.
“Oh my god that bird talked!”
The pirates and princess turned to see the castle guards, including the captain who had yelled in shock at seeing the phoenix speak. Marco groaned.
“Still nothing?” Vivi asked her father.
“Two days of interrogation and no results,” Cobra sighed. “Several attempts at martyring themselves, but no information.”
“Sanji said Germa 66 troops are fanatically loyal,” Nami said. “We may get nothing.”
“Maybe we should go for the backup plan after all,” Ace said. “Hide out with Franky’s brother.”
“They’re still not sending very good assassins so I don’t see why,” Vivi said.
“Vivi, people are trying to kill you!” Nami said.
“And admittedly failing quite hard,” Marco noted, wincing as Nami glared at him. He’d learned over the last week and a half how scary she could be.
“Thank you!” Vivi said. “Can we please get back to breakfast now?”
“I suppose that’s for the best,” Cobra agreed before one of his aides rushed in. “What is it?”
“Urgent missive from the World Government! A diplomatic visit from North Blue!” the man said, bowing.
North Blue. The five at the table shared wary looks. Cobra took the letter and read it. Then he scowled and read it again.
“Father?” Vivi asked.
“Nami, remind me of the name of the head of this organization after us?” Cobra asked.
“Judge. Judge Vinsmoke,” she said.
“And he is a…king?” Cobra asked.
“Oh no,” Vivi said. “He’s coming here?”
“As a freaking diplomat?” Ace groaned.
“Worse, a diplomat with the blessing of the World Government?” Vivi added.
Cobra nodded, passing her the letter. “This changes things. If he is under their protection, we will have to alter out tactics.”
“I’ll say,” Marco said. “What the hell is going on that he can do this?”
“And he’s bringing an ‘entourage’ oh joy. More assassins, probably better ones,” Nami sighed as she read over Vivi’s shoulder.
“We only prepared for them to come as assassins,” Cobra said. “There’s not much we can do when they come officially.”
“Crap,” Nami muttered “This things says they’ll be here in two days, too…”
“I can’t just accuse another king, who I’ve never met even, of wanting to kill my daughter,” Cobra said. “Especially since King Judge seems to have some pull with the World Government.”
“…You don’t have to,” Vivi said.
“Well good because he just said he can’t—ow!” Ace said as Nami smacked him upside the head.
“Vivi, we can’t just let him come here and get close to you,” Nami said firmly. “We have no idea what he’s capable of!”
“We won’t,” Vivi said.
“All right, now I’m interested. What’s the plan, princess?” Marco asked, leaning on the table.
“King Vinsmoke will come here and will be…entertained diplomatically,” Vivi said. “But he will not be introduced to the princess.”
“Not introducing a fellow king to my heir would not be considered diplomatic, Vivi,” Cobra said.
Vivi grinned and pretended to swoon, “But how can you introduce me to the King from North Blue…when I’ve been tragically abducted by pirates?”