Rating: PG15 for language.
Pairing: Pairings free!
Timeline: In the mythical 'after the series' time period.
This crack-fic had three essential ingredients:
1) I'm rewatching OP again and I've just hit the Baratie episodes.
2) My remark awhile back that we'll see CP9 return in the manga cover stories, finding redemption by holding down a taco stand.
3) Squidlet teething, leading Mal to not having any mental defences left against the Crack Fic Bunnies O' Doom.
Customer Service in the Food Industry
They were starving. That was reason enough for Zeff to open the Baratie's doors and feed them, whoever the hell they were.
They were lost beyond the reach of map and compass. Good reason for Zeff, who'd tasted unseasoned despair before, to feel sorry for them. Though he kept that feeling to himself because he had his tough-and-crusty-chef front to uphold, and because showing pity to people like that could be hazardous to your health.
They'd been adrift for weeks and needed a place to stay awhile; however, that was not the reason why Zeff offered them jobs. The collapse of the World Government and the crowning of the new Pirate King had sent seismic waves through the Grand Line, which had disgorged hundreds of pirates and discontented rebel Marines into the various Blues. The Baratie, only a stone's throw from Reverse Mountain and the bad things that might come over it, had quickly felt the change. They still had plenty of customers, but their current run of patrons made Don Krieg look like a pre-schooler. The waiters had jumped ship the second the weather took to stormy, as was pretty much expected of them, but by now Zeff had kicked most of his cooks off the boat as well (with hefty severance pay to help them set up their own business somewhere safer) because it was better to look at their pitiful hangdog expressions on the ferry out of there than to bury them at sea. The unseen protection of Sanji, sea-cook of the Pirate King, would only stretch so far, and it might bring trouble down with it.
Zeff was now looking at the possible closure of his restaurant, his life's work, so yeah, he could use the help of some tough cookies who wouldn't intimidate easily, and he wasn't going to be too particular about their résumés beyond that. That's how he pitched it, carefully omitting any condescending 'you could use a place to hole up for awhile' since he wanted them to at least consider his offer.
For the first time since he'd met them, the small group stopped their endless backbiting and fell silent, all eyes on him.
"Well," muttered one of them after that silence had grown as heavy as one of Patti's angelfood cakes, "we've fallen so low we might as well start flipping burgers."
Then they looked to the one who wasn't officially their leader but was anyway; the man with the perpetually burning eyes who was as lost as the rest of them and considerably not at home with the feeling.
They all relaxed when he shrugged minimally. "Might as well. We could use a place to-..." lips twitched in a silent snarl as he looked for a better word than 'lay low'. "...regroup."
"Hmf, okay, that does get me out of a bit of a jam," said Zeff, trying to hide his surprise; he'd not expected them to unbend enough to accept. "But before we talk salaries, though, let's get one thing straight. I'm the boss on this boat. My word is law. Got that?"
"It's your ship," was the quiet answer. This had apparently been understood and factored into their decision before Zeff even mentioned it.
The way they were looking at him...'my word is law' seemed to echo around the dining room in a way that had nothing to do with the sound-proofing or the chandeliers. Laws. Orders. Maybe that was what they'd lost. How long they'd stay here would be anyone's guess. In the meantime, Zeff rolled up his sleeves, forging right past the feeling he'd gotten more than he'd bargained for. "Fine then, I'll show you the works. There's a handy amount of chores to do to start with. Oh, yeah, just one more thing. The bloody pigeon stays out of the kitchen. Make folk sick."
Crocodile directed his scowl at the East Blue. It'd been pretty much his only facial expression since the jailbreak that had gotten him out of his safe and somewhat comfortable cell, not entirely of his own accord.
His scowl deepened as something in flamboyant pink feathers swaggered up to him.
"This is it," Donquixote Doflamingo declared, chin tilted arrogantly at the sea around them. "Forget the Grand Line. This is where the New Era will start."
"Right," said Crocodile, not bothering to keep the sneer from his voice.
"And there specifically is where we'll make our mark," Doflamingo added, ignoring his fellow ex-Shichibukai's tone.
"...We're going to make our mark on a fish-shaped boat."
"You're missing a crucial speck of information, my friend," was the answer in that arrogant manner that made Crocodile want to sink his hook deep into intestines and pull. "Do you know what that humble place is?"
"A fish-shaped boat."
"It's the Restaurant-ship Baratie, and it is the home base - you could even say the only home - of one of the Pirate King's closest friends."
Crocodile tried to keep the twitch from showing. Doflamingo's barbed smirk informed him he'd failed. Doflamingo had been cut loose by the backlash of the government's fall and the new Republic's link with the New World pirates, so he'd never actually had to face the relentless rubber menace in person. Crocodile was at the point of wishing his 'colleague' could have the privilege of meeting the cause of Crocodile's downfall; then maybe the flash bastard would stop with the underhand jibes and slurs, assuming he was still sucking oxygen at that point.
"Bellamy," Doflamingo said over his shoulder. His captain came running up like an extremely ugly dog on springs. Bellamy had been reinstated on the condition he never wear a shirt over the mass of scar tissue on his chest; a sort of walking memo to Doflaming's men to remind them what happened to those who disgraced their master. Doflamingo had the curs well and thoroughly whipped, Crocodile had to give him that. "Dock us. Pick a few of your best and come with us. Tell the other asswipes on our ships to stay put and not start any trouble until they get my signal, or they'll answer to me."
Bellamy looked like he was about to ask a question, but then wisely changed his mind and ran off again.
Crocodile wasn't one of the lickspittles though, and as far as he was concerned, he owed Doflamingo nothing; the latter had only sprung him from the joint because he could use a Logia with an organization stretching to the East Blue. "What the hell are we doing here exactly?"
Doflamingo smiled. "We're eating out, my friend, we're eating out. I hear the food here is fine, and the head chef is a personal friend of someone famous. I'm dying to meet him. Aren't you?"
Crocodile shook his head. Doflamingo was too smart by half and Crocodile just wished he had his top numbers with him to teach this grinning string bean and his pitiful crew what real power was about. But those...those traitors had run off to manage a café of all things, leaving Crocodile alone and with a furious desire to take out his ire on the first eatery that crossed his path. This place looked ripe for a bloody plunder. Just a bunch of cooks and waiters and guests. Easy pickings.
Doflamingo looked around the landing area. "Nice," he said, his sneer solid enough to peel the paint off the woodwork.
Crocodile judged the place at a glance. It was pretty much a fish-shaped restaurant. There was someone lounging by the door, fast asleep in a lawn chair. His snores rocked the landing, but a scarred eye popped open as soon as Doflamingo's shadow reached him. He glanced at the landing party, then took another, insolent look at Doflamingo's outfit. The amount of 'impressed' he generated could have fit into a walnut.
"Table for six?" he grunted.
Doflamingo gave him that crescent-shaped smile that said, 'You will be among the first to die.' "Yeah."
"Hey!" the lout bellowed. "Table for six!" Then he shifted his long ponytail so it spilled over the top of the lawn chair, put his hands behind his head and closed his eyes.
"Fantastic service," commented Doflamingo, in appearance to Crocodile. The only answer he got from his intended target was a raucous snore. "Yes, I've been to many restaurants where the service was-...not as..."
Even Doflamingo dried up when he saw what loomed in the doorway.
"Table for six, right this way!" the hideously rotund thing chirped in a high-pitched voice that was all the more ludicrous for his bulk. He didn’t seem to mind the ogles and turned with surprising nimbleness to lead them through the dining room. "So, where are you from? The Grand Line? We've had many pirates come through. I recognize that flag. Haven't seen it in awhile! Not in active service anyway, chapapapa! Did you travel far? Are you on the run? There's a sort of general truce holding in this restaurant, so don't mind those Marines in the corner. We've had loads of them come through here, and even a vice-admiral! Vice-admiral Momongo. Chapapa, he liked the fish. We have fish today too. We have fish most of the time, that's what happens in a sea-going restaurant. At least it's fresh, though you don't want the one Patti cooks, he picks at his nose hairs all the time. So, what are you having?"
"You haven't even given us the menus yet," Crocodile started to say, but Doflamingo swung one foot onto the table with a loud thud that interrupted everything.
"Hey, beachball, call the manager over here," he said, grabbing a roll from the bread basket and tearing it apart.
The round man looked at him with a humongous grin on his zippered face. If he was in any way upset at the moniker, he didn't show it. "Can do, chapapapa!"
"What wine do you have?" Crocodile asked before the waiter could bounce off. If he was going to get dragged into this, he was going to get something to drink first.
"I'll get our wine steward to bring you a list, sir!"
"Interesting place," said Doflamingo, when the waiter had rolled away. "Right, boys?"
Bellamy, Sarquiss and the two toughs they'd brought acquiesced and tried to outdo each other with scornful remarks. Crocodile ignored the question entirely.
"I think they need to fumigate this joint," Sarquiss was saying, giving some nearby Marines an insolent look. They glanced at Doflamingo and wisely ignored the insult, but Crocodile saw fists tightening on cutlery. "The roaches here are the size of- heeellooooo. Now that's one dish I'll dig into."
The stunning woman in the short dress marched right up to them. "I'm the manager," she said, pushing up her glasses and giving Doflamingo's foot on the table a scathing look. "What can I do for you?"
The group glanced at each other. "You're the manager? What about Red Leg Zeff?" Doflamingo said, lifting his second foot and putting it on the table too. "I know he's in this pit somewhere."
"Head Chef Zeff is the owner," the blonde rapped out. "I'm his manager and accountant. Men are useless with figures."
Something in the way she said that made Crocodile feel a very, very faint surge of pity for this Zeff character. Crocodile had worked with a number of gorgeous women, and he'd learned to look past the bust line to the dragon beneath.
Sarquiss, of course, didn't have a bloody clue. "Hey, doll, how much do they pay you in this two-bit diner and how much more do I have to cough up to convince you to sit on my lap and wiggle?"
Most waitresses would have handled that by ignoring it, but it seemed this was not how managers and accountants did things. The blonde's glasses glinted as she tilted them towards Sarquiss. "That's sexual harassment."
"Man, I sure hope so."
Crocodile lost track of the exchange when he realized someone was standing right behind his left shoulder. He tensed, chair scraping back against the carpet.
"You wanted to view our wine list? May I make a recommendation?" The question came from a lugubrious face beneath handlebar hairdo. What is this, wondered Crocodile, a restaurant or a freak show? And how did he creep up on me so quietly?
"Yeah. Yeah, why not," he said, but Doflamingo had run out of patience. He swung his feet to the ground and stood up, his thin height and stoop like that of a vulture about to feast rather than a fancy flamingo.
"Enough of this shit. Crocodile, come with me. If Zeff won't come out to play, we’ll go look for him. Bellamy, Sarquiss and you other two, Fido and Pluto or whatever your names are: Mess this place up."
"With pleasure," said Sarquiss, eyeing the blonde. Bellamy got to his feet, his hyena grin hideous on his scarred face.
Crocodile shoved the wine steward out of the way. The man looked unperturbed. Probably in shock. Nobody else in the packed dining room moved.
Then the waiter materialized out of nowhere. Tiny eyes skipped over Doflamingo and Crocodile, and his grin widened. "If you're looking for Head Chef Zeff, he's in the kitchen, chapapapa!"
"And relishing the loyalty of his staff, no doubt," said Doflamingo, heading towards the double doors at the end of the dining room. Crocodile followed, wondering why there wasn't more panic. The restaurant was silent apart from the crash of Bellamy breaking the table in two and a sharp "I hope you have the money to pay for that," from the manager.
Doflamingo kicked his way into the kitchen area. There were only five people there. Five people and one octopus, doing the dishes. Both Shichibukai did a double take.
On closer observation, the octopus turned out to be some huge guy doing the dishes with his highly prehensile hair while singing a Nagauta chant to himself. Which still rated a double take as far as Crocodile was concerned. The creature paid no mind to the sound of the door crashing open, and kept right on wailing and washing with equal enthusiasm.
A small mountain of a cake was getting the final touches applied by two nobodies in white aprons, up on stepladders to reach the higher tiers. They gave the intruders aggressive looks. Further along, two other line cooks were side by side at their stations. One was chopping up fish and meat, the other vegetables, both at very high speeds. The blades were mere blurs; mounds of meat and veg were pilling up beside them, cut with a certain amount of flair and perhaps a smidgeon of competitiveness as to the size of the piles. If that was typical cooking aboard the Baratie, then Crocodile understood how everybody in the room behind him was getting served in a reasonable delay despite the limited number of cooks.
"Please, honoured customers," said one of the pastry chefs, a burly looking cook with big arms, "can you dog turds go back to the dining room? Only staff allowed in the kitchen, idiotic bastards. Thank you for visiting."
"Yeah, get the fuck out," barked the other one, taking an aggressive step towards them and putting his foot in the cake as he got down from the ladder. He glanced back with a scowl, used his fingers to pat icing over the hole, and took up a fighting stance. Crocodile made a mental note not to eat anything here, assuming he'd have time before they sank the joint.
The pair glanced over their shoulder. One of the line cooks, the one cutting the veg, cleaned his knife with a quick flick of the wrist and slipped it in his apron belt. "Leave them to us. A couple of ex-Shichibukai may be a bit out of your league."
"Huh?! Oh...er, okay, sure, you know, they probably weren't worth our time and anyway we need to finish this cake. Right."
"Oh-hooo, it looks like we have a hero here," said Doflamingo. "A dreamer. Are you dreaming you can take us out, you long-nosed loser?"
"Oh, I think I'll give it a try," said the cook with a disarming smile and eyes like his chopping knives, clean and deadly. But then he looked over his shoulder towards the back of the kitchen and added, "If that's alright with you, Head Chef?"
A thick-set older man stood there, his stance wide on his peg leg, tending to a sauce that was sending mouth-watering scents throughout the whole kitchen. Zeff of the Red Leg didn't bother to turn around. "I don't care what the hell you two do as long as you don't mess up this restaurant," he said.
The cook who'd been cutting the meat put down his knife and turned around. The pigeon on his shoulder, in a tiny chef's toque and apron, chuckled and hopped onto a shelf full of pots and pans. The cook eyed the intruders like they were more meat to be chopped, yet with a crooked smile that suggested he was really happy to see them.
That's when Crocodile started to get a bad feeling about this. He'd learned at his cost not to underestimate his opponents. What's more, these two had recognized him and Doflamingo, meaning they had the advantage of knowledge; an advantage that was going to count, because a cautious Crocodile could see that the long-nosed one had his eyes fixed on Doflamingo's hands, ready for the latter's special move. That...was not good. Not good at all. Crocodile glanced over his shoulder for their backup. Let those pitiful New Age pirates attack first, and allow Crocodile to get a measure of these opponents.
The dining room was quite a picture. The wine steward had Bellamy by the feet and was shaking him up and down, seemingly curious about the way the pirate's legs stretched and allowed his head to smack on the floor. The Baratie's manager had Sarquiss flat on his back and apologizing for his rudeness to her and every other woman he'd ever insulted, which was going to take awhile; a confession encouraged by her well-placed high heel. Fido and Pluto were unconscious, downed by the waiter with the wide, zippered grin, and through the doorway Crocodile could see that the bouncer who'd been lounging outside was now destroying their ships in a sickeningly systematic way. A few of the customers had left their seats to watch. Most of them went right on eating and drinking.
"Wait-" Crocodile took a step back, but it was far too late.
Zeff wiped his hands on his apron, watching the sauce come to a perfect simmer. Most important job in any restaurant, and one that belonged to the Head Chef by rights. Other distractions such as kicking out rowdy customers was what the hired help was for. Speaking of which...
"Did you bust anything up?"
"No, sir, nothing we can't fix in a jiffy. Kumadori, if you've finished with the dishes, there's a lot of pirates bobbing around in the drink outside. Go fish them out, stick them in their lifeboats and scare them away. We don't want them drowning and stinking up the seas around us."
"Yoyoooiiiii! I will do my best!"
Lucci didn't say anything as he returned to his chopping board, moving with the contented tread of a cat which had just been fed. Hattori settled back on its master's shoulder as he picked up his knife. Zeff's word had indeed proven law, in all but that. No matter; Zeff rather pitied the health inspector who tried to make a deal out of it. He was a little more concerned about Sanji and co showing up unannounced...but if the brats and the staff couldn't come to terms or abide by the truce on Zeff's boat, then they could go beat each other up on the first available island and get it out of their system. As long as they got back in time for the dinner shift.
The kitchen soon filled with the sounds of chopping and stirring once more.
Sequel produced by popular demand: When Sanji and co get back....