Maldoror (maldoror_gw) wrote,
Maldoror
maldoror_gw

One Piece Fic: Loose Ends

Title: Loose Ends
Rating: PG15 for violence, sexual situations, and screwing with Paulie's head
Pairing: Lucci/Paulie

Timeline: Nearly a year after Water 7, and a little time after the mythical 'end of the series' where Luffy finds the One Piece.

AN: A fic of many false starts. I started it back in December, but it's finally finished! It's not crack, but it's still mighty bizarre, and I think the weirdness is what broke my writer's block ^_^;





Loose Ends

****


Paulie knows he's drunk, so that means he's still doing okay. Being so stupidly drunk you think you're sober, now that's embarrassing...But this is a good drunk, it keeps his whole mind busy trying to figure out just how smashed he is exactly, leaving no room for anything other than the complex mathematics of getting back to his digs and into his bed.

With the kind of attention used for making dovetail joins, Paulie fits the key in the lock on the second try. He grins as he pushes open the door, takes a few seconds leaning against the jamb to avoid falling face first into his flat, and then weaves towards the bed by the light of the streetlamp outside the window. There's a clink as he drops his jacket on the chair (and misses, but you can't win them all). Payday today, and this time Mikey's cards were kind to him and left him richer than he was at noon. A few more nights at the Card And Cue will rectify that, but for now the taste of triumph is sweet.

The next thing he knows, Paulie is tasting wall.

The grip on the back of his neck threatens to break his spine. It grinds his face into the cheap paintjob and then relinquishes its hold and leaves Paulie's neck with a caress of fingertips that's worse than the blow that preceded it.

Paulie turns around and slides to the floor in one graceless movement. The door's open - had he closed it? The owner of the hand that hammered him into the wall is nowhere to be seen. Paulie knows who it is, though. There's a familiar scent hanging in the air, there's familiar scratch marks on the back of his neck, there's a familiar rotten feeling in the pit of his stomach. Paulie staggers to the door, and then has to make a break for the wastebasket near his desk to throw up.

Bile still stings his mouth as he pelts through empty streets. Water 7 feels like its sinking all around him. Iceburg-san is still working on his plans to keep it afloat, his plans, his hopes, Paulie's too. Each thud of Paulie's boot on stone rings out No! No! No! No! -

He hammers on the heavy oak door, a second away from kicking it down when it opens. Iceburg stands there in pajamas and an old worn robe, a sleepy Rex on his shoulder. Paulie almost passes out with relief.

"Paulie? What happened?! What's the matter?"

The time it takes for Paulie to catch his breath isn't long enough to make any kind of rational decision, so it's an irrational one that makes him say: "Nothing. Sorry, sir, I was walking around outside - midnight stroll - and thought I saw something. Someone. You know. I kinda flipped, but it was nothing."

Iceburg fails to look reassured as he examines Paulie. "You're injured."

Paulie hoists a stupid grin onto his face and wipes his bleeding nose on his sleeve. "Yeah, I stumbled on the way over here. Left a print of my face on a wall. I'm a bit drunk." A handy excuse, though Paulie isn't drunk anymore. Nothing like having death grab you by the collar and give you a shake to sober a man up.

Iceburg gives him the sad look Paulie's been getting from a lot of his friends lately, and insists his foreman come in for some coffee and sandwiches even though it's one in the morning. The offer of a kip on the couch is hanging around in the wings. Paulie falls over himself to accept; it's either that or spend the night patrolling the garden outside Iceburg's window, just in case.



Paulie doesn't bother trying to convince himself that last night's incident was a drunken nightmare. He knows deep in his gut that the devil is back to claim his due. Why Paulie and Iceburg are still sucking air when they are both marked men and the marksman is back in town is something Paulie doesn't understand, he's just thankful he's got a chance to fight back.

He works all day with grim efficiency and makes sure his chief assistant knows where everything is and what orders to take care of first, in case Paulie doesn't show up for his shift tomorrow, or ever. By nightfall he's sitting, stone cold sober, at his kitchenette table.

He doesn't have to wait long. One moment he's looking at the floor in his dinky one-room loft, the next he's staring at a pair of legs.

It's the Lucci that haunts his nightmares, dressed in black with the cruel twist to his lips and the predator gaze. No pigeon though. That's the first good surprise in twenty four hours then. Paulie is likely going to die in the next few minutes, and he doesn't want that stupid fowl to be the last thing he sees on this earth.

"Hello, Paulie," says the voice Paulie has only heard once and which is nonetheless carved into his psyche.

Paulie's rope shoots from his sleeve and spears the stationary target - which is no longer there.

"Did you think you could actually wing me?" says a voice in Paulie's ear. It sounds bored, as if going over a formality.

Paulie whips around, elbow jabbing out, but he only bats air above the kitchen range. Then a steel grip yanks him around and slams his back against the wall so hard he's ready to swear the whole house shakes.

"I repeat my question. Did you think you could actually wing me?" Lucci asks, his hand fastened around Paulie's throat.

"Ungf," replies Paulie, trying to get his lungs working again.

"That's right, the answer is no. Only an idiot starts a fight he can't win if the opponent looks ready to talk. It's basic strategy to wait for better odds while you can. Besides, saying 'Hello, Lucci' would have been common courtesy, don't you think? But tell you what," Lucci adds, head tilted to one side, watching Paulie turn purple with the air of a connoisseur, "I'll forgive you if you say you're sorry."

Paulie can't decide, in that dazed second, which is worse, what the arrogant bastard is saying - bastard! - or the hand squeezing his windpipe so he can't even come up with a squeak, much less a 'fuck you'.

Through the growing fog of Paulie's vision, he sees Lucci's face like the close-up of too many nightmares. A finger - he can kill with that! Drill a hole right through me- traces a sensual line down Paulie's cheek to his jaw. Then Lucci rubs two fingers and thumb together, the handsome features twisting into a sneer. "You need a bath. And a shave. But at least you're sober. Try to stay that way, Paulie. This is just starting."

The hand on Paulie's throat heaves him away from the wall and throws him across the room. Paulie staggers but cannot stop his forward momentum until his desk does it for him. He clutches at the wood, scattering papers, pens and blueprints, but he can't stay his slow collapse to the floor.

Paulie stares at a bit of dirt on the carpet as he heaves air in and out of his bruised body. The rattle of his breathing is the only noise in the loft. When he glances up, he's all alone. He didn't hear the door close, but this being a professional creep, that's not surprising, and Paulie is ready to bet Lucci isn't hiding from him in his closet.

He doesn't run to check on Iceburg this time. Lucci is not here for Water 7's mayor, at least not yet.

A sharp rat-a-tat-tat and a vinegary "Paulie-san!" drags Paulie from a maelstrom of bleak thoughts. He gets to his feet and limps towards the door. His landlady is on the spot where Paulie does not have a welcome mat, her hand lifted to knock again. Her sour expression twitches into a wide-eyed boggle when she sees him.

Paulie wipes his mouth on his wrist. "I'm moving out," he says before she can evict him. "I'll give you two week's rent." And he closes the door in her face.





"You want to move into Shed Three? You mean, live there?" Iceburg looks blank for a second, then understanding dawns, the understanding of a friend. "Paulie, are you in trouble with your debt collectors again?"

"No, no. I just...my landlady and I had an argument. She dresses indecently, you know," Paulie adds.

"...Ms Wilkinson?"

"Yup."

"Is this the Ms Wilkinson I met on your landing the other day?"

"There aren't two of them in the building."

"The portly lady of sixty odd years with white hair and a black gown down to her ankles?"

"That's the one."

"Paulie..." Iceburg searches Paulie's face (but Paulie's put on a polo neck to hide the bruises, and at least that bastard Lucci didn't punch him in the kisser). "I have to ask, what would it take for a woman to be decently dressed in your book? A full suit of armor?"

"The shed's been unused since we rebuilt the shipyard, and I might as well save on my rent, right?" Paulie hustles past his boss, leaving the sharp 'Hey, are you limping?' behind him unanswered. Kit slung over one shoulder and a sleeping bag under one arm, he heads towards Shed Three, empty of anything breakable, with plenty of room to swing a rope and nowhere for a bloody shadow to hide.

It doesn't help.

The shipyard clock strikes eleven, fraying Paulie's nerves a little more as he stands dead center of the large space, and the voice speaks in his ear just as the last toll sounds. "Moving into this dump isn't your idea of trying to hide from me, is it?"

With a massive surge of willpower, Paulie doesn’t give the bastard the satisfaction of seeing him jump out of his skin. That answers that question, then: the motherfucker is keeping tabs on Paulie's movements. He really is here for Paulie.

"You sure do like creeping up on people," says Paulie, unclenching the teeth that bit right through his cigar butt. "S'it come from being a backstabbing government hitman or is it a character defect you were born with?" He is not taking Lucci's advice of keeping his opponent talking, no, but if he can goad Lucci into attacking him from the front instead of sticking to his rear, Paulie might actually stand a chance.

There's a non-sound that brushes Paulie's ear with a breath of air, a short, silent chuckle. It makes his skin crawl. Paulie is moving before he can start to wonder if this is a good idea, arm swinging up and over. Rope spools out to snag the creep as he dodges away.

But it's the rope that's snagged instead. Paulie's arm is wrenched around and damn near out of its socket. Momentum sends him spinning and stumbling across half the length of the shed before he hits the concrete floor with a thud and rolls.

When the walls stop doing the conga, Paulie focuses on Lucci standing above him.

"You understand, don't you, Paulie. Wherever you go, I will find you. But you can stay here if you like it that much," adds Lucci, giving Shed Three an unimpressed glance. "Who knows, it might save the life of your ever-so-nice landlady."

Then he looks down, and Paulie is suddenly and acutely aware that he's ended up sprawled on his sleeping bag. There's a smile on Lucci's mug as he studies Paulie stretched out on a bed that says he's seen this a few times before and never gets tired of it. Paulie's shudder is right up there with the worst case of DTs. All those memories he tried to drown in booze gang up on him; those nights he wasn't alone on the bed, when he opened his arms and groaned and cried out and murmured words he's since then burned from his mind, words that would end in a mock wrestle with Paulie striving for dominance or just a kiss, yeah, just a kiss...He's not the sappy, kissy type, and Lucci had made it abundantly clear that neither was he, but Paulie'd just wanted something intimate, something he'd get out of Lucci's mouth that hadn't gone through a bloody pigeon first...

Between the nausea and the flashbacks, it takes Paulie a minute to realize he's alone once more. After another minute of waiting, unable to believe in another reprieve, he drops the rope he was gripping hard enough to bloody his fingernails and goes to take a shower in the foremen's bathroom. He feels dirty. As he soaps himself, trying not to shrink away from his own touch, he wonders why Lucci doesn't just try to take what he's apparently still interested in, and suspects that it'd be just too easy for him to do that. Lucci knows he can have it whenever he wants and that Paulie can't stop him, and Lucci knows Paulie knows it too, and so the fucking bastard's deliberately holding off for the purposes of doing Paulie's head in. He probably gets more jollies that way.




The same thing happens the following night, except this time Lucci saunters in openly through the cargo entrance and Paulie's a little more ready. His ropes are fastened to his forearms with a quick-release system that will not snag him if they're caught and jerked, and he's stored the sleeping bag away. Lucci doesn't comment. He doesn’t say anything at all. Paulie does his thing, or tries to, and then takes four blows - two to the gut, one to the kidney and one to the leg that would have splintered his kneecap if Lucci hadn't pulled the kick. Paulie grimly defends and aches. The pain's not all courtesy of Lucci. Somewhere in Paulie's system, the last drop of alcohol has run out sometime over the past three days and it's starting to really hurt. Paulie hadn't realized how much he's been drinking until his liver starts telling him. Then he measures how much one of his once-harmless habits has increased these past months and why his friends are giving him worried looks - and why the hell did he not see this before? He's almost glad Lucci beats him up, it saves him the hassle of doing it himself.

The next night, he feels better. When Lucci opens his mouth and then has to duck a well-aimed rope instead of saying something that will grind against Paulie's soul, Paulie feels great. Unfortunately that's the high point of the evening. Paulie is a distance fighter, but he can't keep Lucci away, it's like trying to hit a leaf in hurricane winds. The next thing he knows, Lucci is right in front of him with a scornful look in his eyes that's worse than the punch he doesn't bother to throw.

Paulie leaps back. All sorts of joints and muscles pull in his body. He's a shipwright who knows how to fight, not a professional creep and killer like some, but he manages, he's cleared the length of the shed in one jump and his ropes are a barrier all around him once more-

- shit! He's lost sight of the rabid wildcat!

There's a sound of amusement near the back of his neck and a hand curls around Paulie's waist, a caress that triggers a traumatic flashback on par with pigeons and the smell of burning carpet.

"Gah!" Paulie does a totally unmanly squirm away and spins around. "What the fuck do you want?!"

Lucci steps away and lifts an eyebrow. Paulie wonders why he hasn't thought to ask this question before.

"If you want to kill me, get it over with already! If not- just-"

"Kill you?" Lucci looks down his nose, an expression Paulie is very familiar with. "If my mission here was to eliminate you, you'd have been dead long before we got to 'Hello Paulie' and it would have looked like the world's most innocent and unfortunate accident."

"Then what are you doing here?" Paulie grates, still backing away.

"Nothing much. I was on a mission, yes, but it's finished now and I'm in transit. I thought I'd stop by Water 7 on my way. Tie up some loose ends."

"Tie this up," Paulie advises, sending the special rope he prepared this afternoon whistling towards Lucci's head. Lucci dodges - and then quickly falls back, eyes narrowing. Paulie grins in triumph and twists the rope as he pulls it in, whipping it back in a curve-...but there's nothing but a shimmer where the target should be.

Paulie doesn't see him move, but Lucci is now only six feet away, gripping the rope and looking at it curiously.

"I see. You’ve weighed it down with ball bearings in the braiding. That's new."

Paulie turns and puts his whole body weight into a heave on the rope. He doesn't think Lucci will be dragged forward and into range of Paulie's fists, but it'll at least give the bastard rope burns.

The rope comes easily and smacks Paulie in the legs. Figures.

"So you're capable of innovation when pressed. But I'm sure you can do better. I advise you to do better." The cold voice is coming from somewhere up near the rafters. "Goodnight, Paulie. I'll see you tomorrow."

Paulie's goodnight is one whole minute of swearing at the roof of Shed Three.





Paulie manages to avoid the other shipwrights during his first fortnight of bruise-flavored insomnia by dint of finding a lot of work that needs doing in hard-to-reach locations around the yard, but the nature of employ is that it's hard to avoid one's boss. When Iceburg marches into Shed Three after the shift ends, closes the door behind him and demands that his chief foreman tell him what the hell is going on, Paulie can't wiggle out of answering. Lying would have been an option, but Paulie doesn’t like it much, and it's hard to lie to a guy you were tied up with in a blazing inferno, seconds away from death. Besides, he has the obscure feeling that if Lucci gets bored and bumps him off, the murderous creep might come after Iceburg next, and Paulie wants his mentor forewarned.

"God in heaven, you are not serious." But Iceburg's protests are weak. He's staring at the bruises on Paulie's arms now that Paulie's finally removed the jacket.

"'Fraid so."

"But why didn't you say anything?!"

Paulie shrugs, uncomfortable for reasons he can't explain. "I didn't want anybody else in the line of fire. There's not much we can do."

"Paulie-..." Iceburg chews over his objections to that without voicing them. "We'll see about that. Did he say what he wanted specifically, other than bruising you black and blue all over?"

"It's not that bad, I can defend myself," Paulie grumbles, knowing that in fact he's damn lucky that bruising is all that Lucci seems to have in mind for now. That and the snatched caresses, the scratches like mocking love bites, and the whispered words in Paulie's ear starting with 'Remember when we-' whenever Paulie's aggression seems to flag. But Paulie will be shark bait before he mentions that to Iceburg or anyone. "As for why he's here, he's...from what he said, he's..." Paulie lights the cigar he's been toying with even though Iceburg doesn’t like smoke, because he needs the burn of nicotine to dilute the taste of the words that follow. "As far as I can tell, he's here on a fucking vacation."

Iceburg's dark lips are pressed into thin hard lines. Paulie has rarely seen his friend and mentor this angry before, but when Iceburg speaks, his voice is level and measured. "I see. I'm surprised - nmaaa, amazed - that he'd dare, but then again the man is a sociopath."

Paulie doesn't disagree with Iceburg-san out loud, but he knows that Lucci isn't crazy. No, far from it. If he was crazy, Paulie might not hate him for what he is quite so much.

"When does he show up?" Iceburg adds, glancing at his watch.

"Depends, at any point between ten PM and two in the morning so far. Even murderous pussycats can't keep a precise schedule when sneaking around a big town like this one, I guess. But you might want to leave now, sir. I don't want this to be the night he shows up early."

"I have absolutely no intention of leaving," says Iceburg, pulling up Paulie's only chair and sitting on it. "I am going to talk to him."

"Talk to- Talk to him?! Talk to him?!"

"No need to shout, Paulie. Nmaaa, I'm not going to put up with this, and I'm surprised you think I would. We're far from helpless. His own government protects us now. That was part of the deal they made to stop me from going public about their pet killers. Powerful people have it in their interest to keep us quiet - and I don't mean quiet in a 'concrete boots and the sea' way, since I've taken steps to insure the truth will be out in the open in that case. Lucci must be deranged to do this, but he's not stupid, and he and his bosses have bigger things to worry about. The rebels won a decisive victory last month, they're getting closer to Mariejoie, and the Pirate King is only a few weeks sailing away from Water 7. Yes, that's right," he adds, catching Paulie's look of surprise. "The government's trying to keep it quiet, but this is no time to provoke the civilian population. And Lucci knows we have ties with Luffy. Maybe you and I can't defeat him, but we know Straw Hat can, and, nmaaa, Lucci knows it too."

Iceburg-san is the smartest person Paulie knows, and his words ring clear and convincing in Shed Three's bright light, but Paulie has been fighting with the angel of death for the past fortnight and he knows better. This is not a matter of politics or reason. This is about blood and sinew, strength and defeat and, if Iceburg is here when Lucci shows up, it will be about quick, silent death as well.

"I am very, very, very sorry about this, sir," Paulie says for the fifth time as he carefully closes the door of the workshop's tool room behind them. Then he drags Iceburg-san and the chair - tied together with a mass of ropes - to the center of the room, out of any drafts. "Here, you should be okay here. Um, I am really sorry, okay, but please don't look for us. Seriously. I'll come free you as soon as I can. Otherwise the guys are bound to find you tomorrow morning."

Iceburg-san makes a noise, half pleading and half a protest, behind the bandanna Paulie stuffed into his mouth. Paulie nearly apologizes again, but it's beginning to sound ridiculous, so he locks the door and leaves at a dead run for Shed Three. Lucci isn't there. It's only nine o' clock, night has just fallen, it's still an hour or two before the killer is due to show, but Paulie can't wait, and he can't fight here. Somebody might find Iceburg - messengers from City Hall are always popping in to talk to the mayor - and once freed, he'll come charging to Shed Three.

Paulie scrambles onto the corrugated tin roof and bellows into the night: "Hey, you pussy! Come and get me, loser!"

That should do it. He hasn't spotted any suspicious shadow hanging around him this past week, however hard he's looked, but he knows Lucci is keeping tabs on him. Paulie takes a running jump onto the roof of the next shed, then up to the wall around Dock One. He hurls himself into darkness and lands on the tiles of a sail maker's shop, nearly knocking over the chimney pot. With a noise like a bull in a ceramics factory, he charges to the eaves and leaps out across the narrow street. He has no idea where he's going, but these are his streets, he grew up among these winding alleys and canals, he won't run himself into a dead end.

Someone else might do so for him, though.

No sound of pursuit, but his hearing is overloaded with his breathing, the thundering of his heart, the crashing sound of his boots hitting tiles or thudding on high walls and aqueducts. This being Lucci, there'd be nothing to hear anyway.

A large canal up ahead. Paulie hurls one of his ropes towards a distant cornice and swings across. In that moment of silence with only the wind whistling past his ears, he thinks he hears the sound of something heavy scratch score marks into a balcony's plaster railing as it vaults through the air after him.

He dodges, he weaves- he knows Lucci is on his heels now. Still no sighting, but the primitive ape inside Paulie knows in his gut that the big cat is after him, and adds an extra five miles per hour to his speed with a hand-out of adrenaline. Paulie's boots plow up the dirt in a rooftop garden, upsetting an azalea as he suddenly changes direction and heads towards the sea wall. At this speed he's not five minutes away, assuming he doesn't keel over from a heart attack-

Something catches him mid-leap and lands on his back like a ton of bad intentions. Paulie is too breathless to cry out as he hurtles three meters through the air. The rough stone of an aqueduct give him a wallop and a nice case of concrete burn as he slides to a stunned stop.

Paulie gives a heartfelt "Ugh", gets his skinned hands beneath him and, after a wobble and a false start, heaves himself onto his knees. Crouched on the parapet before him is a cat in pants. It's a pity Paulie doesn't have enough breath to mock that like it deserves. The animal arches, stretches its spine and forelegs, shaking itself, and then there's Lucci, bare-chested, crouched in the same pose, staring at Paulie with eyes that glow brighter than the yellow streetlamps.

"That was amusing." Cat pupils narrow. "Do it again."

Paulie picks himself up with a snarl, a rope hurtling towards the target. Put that way, he's not running another inch if his life depends on it.





Iceburg is still bound and gagged when his foreman limps back an hour later, but he's so relieved to see Paulie alive that he forgets to be cross about it.

"Stop apologizing," he sighs once the gag is removed. He rubs some circulation back into his arms and then tries to slick his hairdo back into a semblance of order. "Did you at least think to tell him what I told you?"

"I mentioned it, yeah," Paulie mutters, though he just hurled it as a taunt at Lucci in a hope to destabilize him. Lucci hadn't looked impressed with political fallout and actually snickered at the mention of Luffy's wrath. "This...this is sort of between the two of us, Iceburg-san. On the plus side, he's not going to harm you or sabotage anything. Not unless we provoke him."

"On the downside, he's hurting you!"

"Not too badly. Um, I sort of did this myself," Paulie adds when he catches Iceburg's stare at the mess left by his slide on the tiles, like an attack by a giant cheese grater. "Seriously, its better this way. I don't want him hurting any of the others." Or you.

"Do you think any of us will be happy with you being a- a decoy?"

Paulie scratches his chin. "With all due respect, Iceburg-san, but coming from you, that's going to make me laugh." And he does, just to drive his point home.

Iceburg looks like he wants to argue, but he must realize he's not in a position to win that one after the whole Blueprint Fiasco. "But what if he kills you?"

"If he was gonna, he'd have done it already," declares Paulie, very far from sure of that since everyone knows a cat likes to toy with a mouse before horking it down, tail and all. But he doesn't want Iceburg to worry or intervene. "Look, he's trying to get to me, sure, but he's not killed me or done any real damage. He must be worried about politics, like you said. So I just got to hang in there, and he'll soon get tired of it and hop along to his bloody masters to get his next set of orders."

Iceburg-san looks at him, a long stare that goes from Paulie's eyes, over his bruises and all the way down to his boots. Once Iceburg-san's given the floor at Paulie's feet a good seeing to, he says: "Just promise me that you'll come to see me-...afterwards, and let me help you with your injuries. If all I can do is watch him hurt you..."

"Sure, sure, I promise," says Paulie, relieved. He expected more of a fight. When he gets a glimpse of Iceburg's expression, he's not entirely sure he trusts this turn of events. Iceburg has the look of a man plotting something as he bandages Paulie's chest. Paulie decides that Lucci will get his chase tomorrow night after all, and the night after that as well. Shed Three is no longer a safe place to have this out.





"You're still weak," sneers Lucci from twenty feet away, the distance he just tossed Paulie over his shoulder like a bridal bouquet. Paulie was a hair's breadth from falling off a bloody high aqueduct down to cobbled stone ten stories below, but fortunately the safety railing caught him. "You don't really think you can protect yourself, Water 7 or anyone when your form is this pathetic, do you?"

Paulie wheezes against the hard stone. Damn, he wants a cigar...but these breathers only last a few minutes, and he can't waste any on nicotine. That's the way Paulie's nights go now; an extended no-holds-barred sparring match that lasts an hour or two on average, until Lucci gets bored or Paulie passes out, whichever comes first. The bursts of violence are punctuated by pauses when Paulie has to stop, his body cashing in its chips and demanding payment for all this pounding and exertion with an insistence that rivals the worst loan sharks.

Lucci doesn't kick him when he's down; that can't be much fun. Instead, Lucci talks. About Justice with a capital J, about peacekeeping and the world order. About the art of murder and deceit, and the ways Lucci fooled them all to infiltrate Galley-la, and what Paulie should have done these last years to spot a rat and failed to do because he's such a gullible patsy. Eventually Paulie pushes his body harder than he thought possible, past its limits and beyond, to get up and throw a punch to shut...the motherfucker...up!

This past week, the time spent fighting has grown longer and the downtimes shorter. Paulie almost hates himself for the conclusion that, however painful and humiliating this is, it's good practice. Maybe Lucci is waiting for Paulie to get up to speed and offer him a good fight before finishing him off. A cheery thought. Paulie has been trying not to think too much these days, it gets in the way of his instincts.





The moon is full tonight. Its light splashes into the fountains crowning Water 7 like a tiara. Paulie's always loved it up here, but he's got other concerns tonight than the décor, and possibly concussion as well. He shakes his head to clear it, but that only makes the ringing in his ears worse. When violence incarnate fails to capitalize on his daze, Paulie picks himself up and makes his way over to the nearest basin. He plunges his head in and the shock of cold water does wonders.

When Paulie wipes the water from his eyes, Lucci is standing on the fountain's rim ten feet away, looking out over the city. "Nice night, isn't it," he says, and goddamn he can make even that sound like an insult to Paulie's mom.

Paulie's fingers clench on the fountain's brim, but he holds in his rage. Patience. He's learning to let Lucci talk. If the bastard wants to flap his lips, it gives Paulie a few more minutes to recover, hoarding his stamina like a miser, waiting for that single instant he knows will come when Lucci gets so caught up in his jawing that he'll let his guard down enough for Paulie to get in a good blow and shut that mouth for good. At this rate, Paulie expects it to happen any time in the next year.

Instead of answering Lucci, he takes a big gulp of water from his cupped hands, swallowing some of it and spitting the rest out along with a bit of blood and what feels suspiciously like chips of enamel. Lucci avoids hitting him in the face for reasons Paulie has decided not to speculate about, but Paulie's been getting his edge back (he refuses point blank to believe he's actually gotten better from all this) and even Lucci is not infallible. The blow was aimed at Paulie's chest but caught him in the jaw instead. He's gonna have to take the day off tomorrow, no way will the guys miss a paw print like that all over his face.

Fresh water flows from troughs and smaller waterworks, but the massive fountain at the top of the city is seawater and it fills the circular canal around them, two tiers below; a ring of fire for a Devil Fruit user. It gives Paulie a chance and Lucci a thrill, or so Paulie supposes. It's Paulie's destination when he takes off running through the streets every night, and he's allowed to get there when he's given Lucci a good chase. Otherwise he ends up on a roof with leopard paws on his back and tile marks down his front.

Paulie's made it to the fountain every night for the past five nights.

"You're usually out boozing and gambling on a night like this," says Lucci, still looking around as if Paulie standing within rope-strike range doesn't worry him. "Rumor has it that your habits have gotten even worse since we left."

"You mean, after Enies Lobby burned around your ears and we got away scott free?" Paulie counters.

"Precisely," says Lucci, refusing to be baited.

"Yeah well..." Paulie isn't sure where this is going, and that's usually a bad thing with Lucci. Even his words have fangs. "Don't pretend my bad habits can hold a candle up to your vices, Lucci, 'cause the irony of that will sink Water 7 and you can't fucking well swim, can you."

"No, I can't," says Lucci with a faint smile like that's some sort of personal joke to him. Bloody contrary bastard.

...Paulie was sober and focused last year during the reconstruction of Water 7. He'd seen Enies Lobby get torched, helped give the government a black eye and fired the traitors. Paulie, Lulu and Tilestone were kept busy fixing tidal wave damage and realized halfway through that debts had been settled and turncoats weren't worth losing sleep over. Paulie wasn't ever going to forgive Kaku, Kalifa or Blueno, but they could go to hell in a hand basket and he wouldn't give a damn either way.

Unfortunately, Lucci proved harder to boot out of his consciousness. Paulie spent too many nights staring at the ceiling of his loft remembering other nights spent in that room...he should have moved out before now, but he didn't like to admit that Lucci still bugged him when he'd put the others behind him. The card games distracted him during nights that got too long and empty; a few drams helped him sleep without dreams. That's how it started again. Now whenever somebody tries to tell him he should slow down, it sounds like Lucci's old nagging and Paulie tends to accelerate instead.

"You don't have the fucking right to preach anymore, Lucci. Hell, it's not like you gave a shit in the first place, I don't know why you ever bothered fighting with me and lecturing me on my habits. I-"

"Because you loved to fight with me, Paulie. You loved it when I put aside my reserve and paid you that kind of attention. I remember hiding from a particularly persistent collector of yours in an alley one night. You gave me that stupid, goofy grin of yours and said, "You go on saving me from myself, Lucci, 'cause that way I know you care." And then you tried to kiss me, missed and got saliva all over my t-shirt."

They stare at each other over the ten feet of space separating them, Paulie in mortification as he remembers what happened next in the alley that night and Lucci as if he expects Paulie to understand something pertinent. Eventually Lucci shakes his head, rubs the arch of his nose and sighs; it's the most unaffected gesture a startled Paulie has ever seen him make. "Paulie, do you even know what an enabler is?"

"Huh?"

"Never mind. Just think about this. We knew Iceburg would need help moving the blueprints out once the government put the pressure on, we knew he'd most likely ask one of his faithful foremen to do it, and who do you think he'd trust first? A reliable sober worker, or a drunken sot with gambling debts all over town?"

"You mean-" Paulie doesn't want to think too hard about what Lucci means. He takes the meaning that he can handle. "You mean Iceburg was supposed to trust you?"

"Of course. We'd have rather not killed him, since it would have left an almighty mess any way you cut it. I don't mean he was supposed to trust me specifically. Kaku was the one he was supposed to have confided in. You can't get more innocent than Kaku. Innocent-looking," Lucci corrects himself with a smirk.

Paulie stares down at the moon broken into the basin's water. "I was the one he trusted," he whispers.

"Yes," says the bastard with the bloody cat-like hearing. "Apparently Iceburg had better instincts than we gave him credit for. Though in final analysis what he trusted you with was a bunch of fakes that almost got you killed a couple of times."

Paulie's stamina informs him that it's recovered now, he's ready to pick up the fight where they left off, and by a happy coincidence, he's got this burning urge to hurt Lucci really, really badly right now.

But Lucci's words wind their way around and around the confines of Paulie's skull, turning years of friendship and involvement even further on their head. Paulie loses the fight badly that night. Iceburg hisses and makes other worried sounds as he bandages his foreman up in his mansion's elegant bathroom. Paulie's been getting off pretty lightly these past few nights. It makes tonight's beating hurt even more, but that's okay. The pain distracts him from thinking and he rather likes that right now.



"Hey, Paulie, I'm glad I ran into you."

Paulie frowns. His instincts have been honed to a fine edge by having a monster cat track him every night, and they were telling him Mikey's been following him for a whole block. Why's the idiot stopping him now? Night's falling, and Paulie has to get well away from the shipyard. After last night's drubbing, he's worried Iceburg might try to intervene again.

"Haven't seen you in the Card And Cue for awhile. Everything okay?"

"Fine," says Paulie and turns to go.

Mikey catches him by the sleeve. "Just a minute, Paulie. It's okay if you don't want to come back to my card table, man, but you left the joint with your credit in the red, remember? We put it off since it looked like you were back on a winning streak and you might make something of it," says Mikey with a barracuda smile he probably thinks is winsome and trustworthy, "but if you're not coming back, then I hope you'll square your debt. A guy like you, hero of Water 7 and all."

Night is falling, it's Friday, and there's throngs of citizens in the street looking for a good time on the town tonight. Paulie sees Mikey's little play-acting in a harsh, cold focus he'd never get from the bottom of a bottle. Loan sharks haven't been hassling him for ages now, not since he'd come back from Enies Lobby. Galley-la's foremen hit an all-time popular high during the reconstruction, and Mikey is not stupid. However, the cardsharp does want Paulie's money, so he's talking about it loudly in the middle of a crowded street - people are already stopping to listen - and he counts on Paulie not wanting to tarnish his reputation. It's that reputation, after all, that's earned Paulie a lot of forbearance from his co-workers and fellow citizens for his drinking and gambling. Paulie sees their patience this past year in a new light, and it burns. If Lucci's caught this exchange, he must be laughing fit to cough up a hairball.

Mikey stutters to a stop. He's staring at Paulie's expression and suddenly looking nervous.

"But of course, that's not a problem, we're buddies, right? Tell you what, why don't you come by the bar tomorrow night and play-"

Paulie digs out all the money he has in his pockets - a lot of it is left over from that night he dropped his jacket on a chair before tasting wall, and hasn't been touched since - and shoves it into Mikey's hands. Mikey drops most of it, he's shaking now and he can't seem to look away from Paulie's face. Paulie turns and walks away, leaving people to murmur behind him.




The cat and mouse game continues. It's become a constant in Paulie's life, like nightfall, the taste of coffee in the morning and Iceburg's concern. It astonishes Paulie when he looks at a receipt date for lumber and realizes that only twenty two days have gone by since it started.

Paulie's weighted rope shoots out, wraps around a cornice, and the marlinspike tied to the end comes at Lucci at an angle even he couldn't have calculated. The killer has to use that creepy Soru to hop well out of the way, and Paulie smirks. He's won himself another breather, another few moments where Lucci is going to have to work to get in close to him before using him as a chew toy.

A heave on the rope wrenches the embedded pike out of the masonry. Paulie makes a mental note to come back with some spackle in the morning and fix the hole.

"You're a little stronger with the alcohol out of your system," says Lucci, hands in his pocket on top of an ornamental railing some thirty yards away.

Paulie winds in his rope and waits for another chance to score. "Yeah, I got the monkey off my back. So have you by the looks of it, though in your case it was that stupid pigeon. Did having something you care about slow you down, Lucci? Did it cop it in one of your battles or did you wring its neck yourself?"

Lucci's face goes dead neutral and Paulie knows he's struck a real blow.

"Hattori couldn't come with me on this trip," Lucci says, trying to make it sound like that moment hadn't happened but Paulie knows, he knows. Then Lucci glances over an empty shoulder as if looking for something out over the ocean. "Kaku's taking care of him."

Paulie doesn't give a rat's arse about Hattori, or about reminders that these two traitors actually have a shred of affection in them, even if it's for a feathered speck of nothing much. His grip is tight on the rope, there's an opening there-...but no, not even against Lucci. That'd be sinking to his level.

Lucci looks back at him and sneers like he can see every thought in Paulie's head.

"You're still too weak, Paulie, especially where it counts."

"Yeah, well, that kind of strength you can keep," says Paulie, and even though the night ends predictably - Iceburg makes worried noises about cracked ribs as he tapes up Paulie's chest - Paulie knows he's won something important tonight, and he barely feels the contusions.





Paulie spots Lulu talking to a hotel manager near Dock One the next morning. Then later that afternoon he sees Tilestone standing on top of the highest crane, examining the surrounding roofs. Damn, the ribs have pushed Iceburg over the edge and he's roped in some help. Paulie was afraid of that. He knows they're wasting their time; he looked for Lucci's hideout weeks ago and found nothing. It's hard to believe Lucci can operate in a town full of people who know him by sight without causing an outcry, but the bloody spook manages it. Whatever else he can say about Lucci (and Paulie can go on for hours on the subject until the air around him smells scorched), he has to give him his due: the asshole is undeniably good at his job.

That night, when Paulie takes off, two sets of footsteps trail him at fifty yards, trying to be discreet. Paulie is ready and outdistances them easily. They're good friends, the best a man could have, they care about him and it makes them fast. But Paulie has Lucci on his heels and that makes him a hell of a lot faster; it's a matter of incentive. But damn, this can't go on. Sooner or later, Lucci is going to bump into someone he knows and kill them.





Paulie grunts as he takes the punch on his reinforced jacket sleeve. He doesn’t try to strike back, not at this range. He's waiting for a break where he can leap down to the next fountain tier and get some room in which to swing his ropes. His speed has increased, he's caught Lucci a few times, though unfortunately hurling Lucci against the fountain's ornamental stonework has so far injured only the fountain. Lucci never lets Paulie fling him into the drink, he won't go down that easily. But neither will Paulie. It's been a week since he's picked up any serious bruises, in part because he's now back in a shape he hasn't seen since he was eighteen and in part because the infuriating motherfucker is still trying not to kill him and has to pull his punches to avoid striking into Paulie's momentum and annihilating him. Paulie can measure the distance left between their strengths and it makes him want to beat his head against Water 7's reinforced sea wall, but he knows he's getting somewhere; Lucci's put away the verbal taunts for the most part, and he's stopped the maddening, insulting touches. The groping really had been to prick Paulie into fighting back, it seems Lucci doesn't actually want anything else from the foreman anymore. Paulie tries not to think about that, but when he does, he feels both relieved and irrationally offended.

Paulie finally makes his getaway and vaults the equivalent of three stories down to the next tier, rope already unfurling. Lucci joins him a second later, landing out of reach of the scything hawser.

"You just don't know when to give up," he says as he circles Paulie like a cat looking for a new way into the mouse hole. "It's one of your few qualities. The others couldn't believe you followed us all the way to Enies Lobby on a wild train, but I wasn't surprised."

Paulie grimly waits, but a cutting follow through fails to materialize. Its absence distracts him for the smallest fraction of a second and Lucci is suddenly in his face. Paulie tries to jump away but he's snagged by the collar. Water 7 whirls around him and the pedestal of a statue rears up and bludgeons him in the back.

"Listen up, Paulie," says Lucci, as if Paulie has any choice in the matter now that he's pinned against stonework and the monster cat's got him by the lapels. "There's a war coming."

Paulie snarls and tries to break Lucci's grip. As far as he's concerned, the war is already well under way. Son of a bitch isn't giving him an inch-

"Paulie."

Lucci's expression is the same mute neutral as when Paulie taunted him about Hattori, but only for the second it takes a trickle of water to break the moonlight and then the lips curve up into a fiendish smile. "I'm glad to see you've gotten stronger. Weakness is a sin, a greater one than any I've committed."

"You're insane," Paulie spits, and sends a whale of a kick into Lucci's knee. The target fails to even blink, so Paulie tries again, angling to get higher up. "You- murderous-"

"You’re tougher than you look, I'll give you that. You lived through fire, water and a Buster Call, and that's what I want you to do now: I want you to live. You're going to survive the coming chaos, and you will not dare fall at the hands of some second-rate loser. You see, you are my victim, Paulie, and mine alone."

That's gone from Lucci's usual creepy all the way to cryptic, and Paulie opens his mouth to inform him of this.

The kiss stops his words, his thoughts, everything. Lucci's mouth tastes like seawater, sharp and salty, it invades Paulie's mouth, his tongue, his body. It's not one of Lucci's insulting taunts, it's as intimate as it is violent. Paulie, pinned by that kiss like a bug pinned to corkboard, bucks helplessly and their bodies clash together in a way that's different yet not entirely unlike what they've been doing this past month.

The time it takes for the shudder to run down Paulie's back and up again, Lucci breaks the kiss. His breath is harsh and fast as he speaks against Paulie's lips. "This is where you tell me to go to hell, Paulie."

Paulie still can't think. His lips shape the words because Lucci has asked him to. "G-...go to-..."

Lucci starts to laugh.

"Go to hell!" Paulie shouts, shoving him away, and the laughter picks up as Lucci takes a step back. It's not mocking at all, no; it's complicit, like an in-joke between friends and more-than-friends after a hard day's work together. It's the first genuine laughter Paulie has ever heard from Lucci and yet it's strange, he always knew what it would sound like.

And then Lucci is gone. Paulie leans down and braces himself against his knees, trying to stop shaking to the beat of that laughter. There's been no adieu, but Paulie knows, somehow, that he is never going to see the man again. What he doesn't know is how he feels about that, and that shakes him to the core.





He doesn't go to Iceburg-san for his dose of band aids and comfort this time; he's uninjured and too shaken. But he shows up the next day to reassure his boss and to let him know that as far as he can tell, they're both off the hook.

"Hey, sir, sorry I didn't show last night, but-...holy shit, no wonder the bastard left."

There are three people in Iceburg-san's office, the man himself and two Straw Hats: Roronoa Zoro and the rotund little beastie with the large hat and antlers. And if these two are here, Monkey D Luffy himself must not be far off.

"Did you guys just get here this morning? Man, am I ever glad you stopped by! We're gonna party like last time, and I'm paying! Does the Sunny need repairs? Say the word and the whole shipyard is yours for the duration."

Paulie notices he's talking into a stillness and silence that would be more appropriate to a wax museum. Why are they looking at him like that?

"Hi, Paulie," says Zoro finally. "Your boss sent us a message a couple of weeks back. Luffy made us sail like we were back on Rocketman to get here."

"I had to do something," Iceburg says, but he's talking like he can barely remember what the problem is anymore. He looks stunned. "Um...Paulie...they came this morning, and they say-...they said that-..."

Zoro hooks a thumb at Iceburg in a way that would have been lacking in respect for anyone other than Zoro. "He says you got attacked by Rob Lucci. You sure it was him?"

"Sure it was who? What, you mean- of course I'm sure it's Lucci! I've got cause enough to know the bastard. What kind of question is that?"

"When did he show up here?" Behind Zoro, Iceburg and the critter share looks of what can only be concern.

"When?" Five years ago. Forever. Too long. But not long enough for Paulie to improve to the point where he could kick that ass like it deserves to be kicked. Why the fuck did Lucci kiss him, was it another mindjob? Why is Paulie even asking himself the question? "Uh, what day are we today? Oh, it was a month ago. He showed up on my last payday, and we're getting our envelopes tomorrow, so a month minus a day. Why?"

Iceburg suddenly stirs. "Roronoa, maybe I should be the one to tell him-"

"Because he's dead, that's why."

Five years of treason, regrets, memories of happiness that are now torture and a month of fighting and hating; Paulie reels as they suddenly fall out from under him. "Wh-what? But- but-...You mean, you found him this morning when you arrived and you-..."

"Nah, he copped it weeks ago, far away from here, right off the Redline."

"What?!"

"The government is getting desperate," says the fuzzy critter - Chopper, his name is Chopper and he saved Paulie and Iceburg-san's life, Paulie remembers in the sudden chaotic rearranging of thoughts. Chopper is speaking gently in a voice like a child's and looks embarrassed at Paulie's confusion. "They sent him to assassinate Luffy."

"Like that'd work," Zoro snorts in an aside.

"If they killed the Pirate King, it might break the momentum of the revolution. It was a desperate measure, really. Lucci had to know what his chances were...But he didn't try to be all that sneaky, he just got Luffy alone and attacked him. We got there right as Luffy won."

"It was quite a dust-up. Boss Cat's not lost his punch, but Luffy got the better of him and sent him flying again. Except this time it was into the ocean." Zoro shrugs, indifferent. "Luffy made me jump in after the bastard for some reason. It's not the first time that's happened, I don't even ask why anymore. But Devil Fruit and seawater don't mix. He was dead as a doornail by the time I fished him out."

By now Paulie has gotten over shock and is cruising at top speed towards denial, and with good reason. "No, no, this is bullshit, you got the wrong guy, it was some other government stooge - he- goddamn it, he's been beating the shit out of me for the past month! Are you guys nuts?! Is this some kind of joke?!"

Chopper looks up from where he's been studying his hooves, all traces of embarrassment gone and a keen, professional look in its stead. "Beating? Are you injured, Paulie-san?"

"Huh? Uh, no, he's, um, he's not scored one on me for awhile. That is, I'm the one who's been getting better at defending, it's not like he was trying to take it easier on me."

His audience glance at each other and even Paulie's devastated common sense has to agree with their unvoiced consensus: if Lucci wants to bruise a guy, that guy is bruised, even if he's made out of rubber and willpower. Paulie feels his face go brick red.

"Iceburg-san! You saw me afterwards, right? You bandaged me up!"

"Of course," says Iceburg immediately, though he looks troubled. "Paulie was covered in bruises and scratches over a period of weeks."

"Could they have been self-inflicted?" Chopper asks.

Stunned silence and the beastie looks mortified. "Oh! I didn't mean- I'm so sorry! It's just, the mind can do amazing things, and I think mentally you really wanted to fight him, Paulie-san, and well, um- But maybe somebody else did attack you. Another government agent who looks and dresses like him- and then your mind- yes, I'm sure that's what happened. Um...but it couldn't have been him. The man Zoro pulled out of the sea was Lucci, I recognized his scent, and he was dead, I examined him myself."

His words don't make any sense. Paulie won't let them make sense. A month of that asshole kicking Paulie all over Water 7 and fucking with his head and now this?! No! It wasn't true! Lucci was here! It'd been his cologne floating in the air, his touch, his cruelty and his smile and- and- his bloody tortuous plans that nobody could understand-

I want you to live...you are my victim, Paulie, and mine alone.

The critter is still prattling about tricks the mind can play. Zoro is cleaning out an ear with his finger, waiting for his nakama to finish. Iceburg-san is the only one who notices the look on Paulie's face. He crosses the room in three swift strides, hand outstretched as if to catch his friend tottering on the edge of a precipice. But Paulie turns on his heels and is out the door before his mentor can reach him.





"They're worried about you," says Zoro in a tone that implies he's only mentioning this to announce his presence and that if Paulie has a good and manly reason to be hiding up on a roof sulking for hours, then he, Zoro, isn't one to interfere with it.

Paulie says nothing. He's not been here that long, he spent the rest of the afternoon going over every inch of his city, specifically the bits where he's bled this past month, looking for the proof that he knows must be there because he can't begin to contemplate the alternative. He's found a lot of damage done to Water 7's skyline, but of course no bloody paw print or anything corroborative. He's ended up on the flat roof of his former apartment where Lucci first attacked him and without a clue what he believes anymore.

Zoro sits down on the parapet besides Paulie and doesn't say anything for ten minutes, for which Paulie is eternally grateful. Paulie needs silence to drown out the sound of laughter ringing through his noggin...

"You want to hear something interesting?" Zoro finally says out of the blue.

"Your pet tanuki thinks I’m nuts?"

"I did the math. Lucci died a month ago today. The day before he showed up here."

Paulie fishes a cigar out of his pocket with a jerky motion. "What the bloody hell am I supposed to make of that?"

The hiss of a sword being drawn nearly gives him an aneurysm. He's on edge, reflexes honed after a month of fighting, whatever anyone else believes.

Zoro ignores Paulie's wild glance and twanging nerves. He's looking at the blade he's holding. "You can make of it what you want. All I know is that there are times when I catch the scent of crushed grass when I draw this sword, and there's another hand than mine on the hilt."

They both stare at the sword until Zoro sheathes it with a prosaic gesture. "Not today, though. It comes and goes. Usually when I need strength, or a reminder of why I'm fighting in the first place." He doesn't explain what this is about, but by the same token he doesn't ask Paulie any probing questions about Lucci, and Paulie remembers why he liked and respected this guy back when they were fighting together.

"You ever think you might be imagining it?" Paulie can't help but ask.

"No."

"...I envy you..."

"Hmm."

"But...okay, if that was, uh, Lucci, in some shape or form, then what did he want?"

"Knowing him," says Zoro, "nothing good whatsoever."

Which would be right in character. Yeah, one last mindjob for Lucci's favorite patsy. Only Paulie has the sneaking suspicion that if that's what Lucci wanted, he could have done a hell of a better job than that, in the spirit or the flesh. He could have left Paulie a basket case rather than sober, fitter than he's been for years and with a bright, bitter and somehow cleaner hatred for traitors and killer cats than before.

There's a war coming...you're going to survive the coming chaos...I want you to live...

...There's another explanation for Lucci's actions, and it makes the 'self-delusional masochist' theory look good in comparison. Ah, but maybe that's the mindjob! Yeah, plots within plots, all wrapped around Paulie's neck like a leash. Lucci's last words...was the operative term 'victim' or was it 'mine'? Knowing Lucci, it could well be both, but- ugh. If only Paulie had that bastard under his hands right now, hands armed with the world's heaviest rope-...

But he doesn't. And he never will. And maybe the operative term here is just 'go to hell.'

"He really is dead, isn't he," Paulie says abruptly.

"Yep."

Paulie remembers nights spent running his hands over a body the gods had dreamed of. Fingers tracing scars with a sense of wonder. Cupping Lucci's face, looking into unreadable eyes and trying to pierce mysteries that lead to a place no honest, straight-shootin' shipwright should go...Five years of love and friendship that were a lie. One month of hard-knuckled truths. Was that month supposed to compensate for the five years somehow? Or just really drive them home? That's what Paulie can't figure out for the life of him, and won't until he can get into the twisted psyche of a government killer. And why the hell would he want to do that? If Paulie has any say in the matter, these are five years and one month he'll be putting behind him for good, and he's now got a Lucci-free lifetime to do just that.

The setting sun glows off a nearby rooftop greenhouse like a cheesy special effect to Paulie's epiphany, and Zoro stirs.

"I gotta go. We got things to do and Luffy to catch. I bet he's still going around town looking for 'Pigeon Guy'." Zoro rolls his eyes at Paulie's undoubtedly comical expression of befuddlement. "Before you ask, yeah, Luffy knows Lucci's dead. And he knows with the same iron certainty that you're not lying. And so he knows - with the same brain, mind you - that the dead Lucci we buried back on the Redline is here and that he hurt you, and Luffy is now looking for him to kick his ass. This is the reason I follow the guy, believe it or not. You're not the only one who needs his head examined, if that's what you think you need. See you later."

He takes one step off the roof and lands in a graceful crouch five stories below. A fishmonger in a nearby stall drops a crate of shrimp in amazement that it's raining green-haired bad-ass swordsmen. That fishmonger must lead a really simple life if that's all it takes to startle him. Paulie chews his cigar - the fifth he's smoked this afternoon, hello heartburn - and tries to suppress a feeling of envy.

He squints into the blaze from the greenhouse. The sun is setting, but tonight there's no fight waiting for him...

"I wonder if Mikey's game is hopping this evening. Shit, I could use a drink..."

He says it out loud like the echo of an old bad habit, but he knows he's not going there. Nope. He's got better things to do with the rest of his life.

"Hey, Roronoa!"

Zoro, a few yards away, glances back up at the roof.

"I hear the Pirate King is amassing an armada."

Zoro scoffs. "Does that sound like Luffy to you? Nah, we just got a whole bunch of pirates who decided it'd be a kick to follow us back to the Old World and give it a good shake." Paulie, with an awareness of the world he'd not had a few weeks ago, suspects this shake might bring down more than dust and cobwebs. It might shake up the entire world order.

Paulie looks up in time to see the sun send one last wave of light wash over Water 7 like the tide, and damn, he's going to miss this place, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's his home after all, and he'll be back one day, once he's protected it a little more proactively than being a punching bag for nightmares.

"Any of those pirates got room for a shipwright on board?"

Zoro looks at him appraisingly and then grins in a way that warms Paulie's tattered ego. "With Luffy at the helm of the whole thing? Are you kidding? It's lucky we've not all sunk yet. We need all the help we can get."

Paulie's jump off the roof is not quite as light as Zoro's, but it does the trick. "Then I'll tag along. I'm not a dedicated fighter like you and Straw Hat, but I can fix a ship and kick ass when it matters. I think I can help."

They stand there. Paulie waits. But Zoro is waiting too, looking at Paulie with the air of one who expects something. Paulie scowls.

"I know what's going through your mind. Am I doing this because it's what Lucci wanted me to do, or is it because it's what he didn't want me to do? Is that it? Hell if I know what that bastard wanted even now, and in final analysis, I don't give an anchor-weighed shit. It's what I want. I'm sick and tired of the government turning my life and Water 7 upside down. I know Iceburg-san made deals for our safety, but why the hell should we trust the rats, and why should we have to make deals in the first place? That sticks in my craw. The government's dicked me around too much, especially CP-bloody-9. I've either been hounded to the point of insanity or haunted past the grave, I still can't figure out which, but I do know that's way beyond the pale either way. A bunch of pirates can't fix everything. It'd be a mistake to even try. But if there's a war coming, I know which side I'm on. That good enough for you?"

Zoro shrugs. "That's fine, but I was just waiting for you to show me the way to the docks. This place is a bloody maze."

Paulie stares at him, then turns to look at the harbor which is visible as a flicker of sunlit water a mile of straight road away- at which point he remembers who he's dealing with. "Oh. Right. This way," he says, and leads them both down to where the ships are waiting.



END



Very curious about opinions on this odd piece, and please flag me any typos or tense errors I probably made by the dozen ^_^;


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