The Straw Hat Pirates are cornered, with nowhere to run and bad odds of fighting, when aid arrives from an unexpected source.
So far Nami's navigational prowess and Usopp's superb gunnery had kept the marines at arm's length, but that wasn't going to last. The marines were closing in, and they were rapidly running out of places to run.
"Nami, get us out of here!" Luffy shouted in frustration.
"I can't!" Nami shouted back. "Even if the Marines were to stop shooting at us, there'd still be nowhere to sail between them!"
"Then let's fight!" Luffy shouted. This game of cat and mouse wasn't sitting well with him. He wanted to either escape or to get within striking distance of something he could punch.
"Captain," Zoro said while casually halving a cannonball that would have split the mainmast in two, "we're outnumbered and outgunned. If we try to fight like this we'll be boarded again. And I think we all remember what happened the last time that happened."
Luffy bit his lip hard, and stared across the expanse of ocean towards the marine flagship. He did remember what happened. The men aboard that ship had beaten them easily, and they'd only escaped thanks to the Thousand Sunny's extraordinary abilities. Luffy was itching for a rematch, but even he had to admit that now was not the time or place for that.
Luffy could only watch as the net closed around them.
Cluracan the Red watched the proceedings with a grin. Everything was going according to plan. Soon his ship would close on the Straw Hat's, and then the fight would begin again. The last time they fought, Luffy had escaped, but not this time. This time there was no way out.
He turned towards the men assembled behind them. Each of them had been carefully selected from all five oceans to be part of this task force, designed specifically to track down and capture Straw Hat Luffy and his companions. Each one was a powerful fighter, and with an ability designed to counteract one of the Straw Hat Pirate's fighting styles.
"By my estimation, within half an hour's time we will have cornered and boarded the Straw Hats' ship," he said, pacing back and forth as he addressed them. "I want to see a quick, clean takedown this time. None of the sloppyness that let them escape last time. Do not toy with them, do not play, do not get clever. Take them out as quickly and cleanly as possible. Am I understood?"
"Of course, sir," his second-in-command Eric Bloodheart said, polishing his blade. Cluracan nodded.
"Whatever you do, steer clear of Straw Hat Luffy. Only I am equipped to take him down."
His men nodded, but there was an edge of sullenness to it. Each of them was used to being the strongest one around. They didn't work well with other people of similar power. Cluracan looked forward to the day he could dissolve this task force with no small amount of anticipation.
If everything goes according to plan, that will be very soon indeed, he thought, looking out at the Thousand Sunny once more. Everything was going perfectly. Soon, very soon...
"Sir!" cried out a voice from the crow's nest, interrupting his reverie, "Unidentified ships approaching from the rear!"
Cluracan's head snapped to attention. "What? But I thought all our ships were accounted for."
"They're not ours, sir!"
Cluracan moved quickly to the ship's aft, snapped open a telescope and peered at the horizon.
"What the hell?" he asked aloud, throughly puzzled.
The ships were flying the colors of the Alabasta Royal Navy.
Sanji was just kicking another cannonball away when they heard a voice call out from a loudspeaker aboard the flagship. It took them a moment to realize that it was not just another demand of surrender.
"Unidentified Alabastan fleet, you are about to enter a combat zone. Please alter your course immediately!"
A female voice responded.
"Negative. We will not alter our course."
The crew of the Thousand Sunny stopped what they were doing to stare at the source of the voices. There was something familiar about the second voice...
"Unidentified Alabastan fleet, this is Commander Cluracan the Red. I am under direct orders from the head of the World Government to apprehend these criminals. I am empowered by the highest authority in the world! You will stand down and alter course."
"The people of Alabasta no longer recognize the authority of the World Government," the female voice responded. "We are a sovereign state, and will not answer to you. We are here under the orders of King Nefartari Cobra the First to give aid to Captain Monkey D. Luffy and his crew. Call off your attack or we will be forced to intervene."
"Vivi?" Nami asked quietly, to nobody in particular. As though the answer was suddenly put in front of them, the rest of the crew began recognizing the voice.
"It is her! It's Vivi!" Chopper cried, sliding down the rigging to watch over the railing.
"Vivi? What's Vivi doing here?" Luffy asked, bemused.
"Who the hell is Vivi?" Franky asked, looking up from his repairwork.
"I will not withdraw!" Cluracan blustered. "If you will not stand down, then come and be destroyed! I will not tolerate treason and sedition!"
"Crawl back to your masters, and tell them to consider this as Alabasta's official notice of secession. Luffy, if you can hear me, I'm coming back to you, and this time to stay!"
"Quaaaaaaack!" came another sound through the loudspeaker.
"All Alabastan ships, open fire on the marine fleet!" ordered a third voice, one that the Straw Hats immediately identified as Igaram's. The sound of cannonfire echoed through the bay as a line of Alabastan ships fired their forward chasers at the rear of the marine armada.
"Your orders, Captain?" Zoro asked, with an enormous grin on his face. Luffy burst into joyful laughter.
"Change course! Head straight for the marine fleet! We'll cut right through them and meet Vivi in the middle!"
"Aye-aye, Captain!" Nami exclaimed happily. "Sanji-kun, turn us about thirty degrees to starboard. Chopper, Zoro, unfurl those sails! We'll need as much speed as we can get."
"Aye, Nami-swan!" Sanji shouted as all three set about their appointed duties.
"Ship's guns are ready for action, captain," Usopp said from his position at the Gunnery Station.
"All holes patched," Franky said, grinning and cracking his knuckles in anticipation.
"Set sail!" Luffy called out, his face split by an enormous smile, clinging onto his treasured hat with one hand and pointing towards the marines with his other.
"Squadrons three and four, turn about and engage the Alabastans," Cluracan ordered, striding along the deck. "The rest of the ships are with me. Sail forward with as quickly as possible and engage the primary target!"
But even as he gave the orders, he could see it was too late. Although his own forces far outnumbered the Alabastans, the newcomers were attacking from the rear, and had the wind and tide to their advantage. They would tear right through his flank long before they could turn to face the threat properly.
There was a falcon's cry from up above, and then suddenly something fell out of the sky and landed with a heavy thump upon the deck. Cluracan whirled to face it, and saw an enormous cross between a man and a jackal, laying about left and right with a sword. A Zoan user, he thought with a grimace. I hate Zoan users.
An enormous bird swept down from up above, with a blue-haired woman on its back. As it landed, it morphed into a pale, robed man wielding a sword. The blue-haired woman lashed out with strings of tiny blades. Cluracan's men were taken by surprise, scattering before this new, unexpected assault. Across the water, he could see the Straw Hat pirate ship altering course to engage his boat. Within minutes, Monkey D. Luffy and his crew would be upon them. He could see his plan unravelling before his eyes.
Cluracan surged forward to join the fray, but even as he did he knew that the battle had already been lost.
"I'll miss her," Pell said, gazing across the water at Thousand Sunny's departing form. If you looked very closely, you could still see Princess Nefartari Vivi waving goodbye at them.
"We all will," Chaka said, leaning on the railing next to him. "When she was young, if you'd told me she would grow up to sail as a pirate, I'd have laughed in your face."
"I'd have thought I was crazy," Pell said, settling down on the railing as well.
"And Igaram would have given us both a half-hour lecture about not saying such foolish nonsense around the young princess," Chaka said, and both burst into laughter.
"And it wouldn't have done either of you incorrigible rogues any good at all," Igaram said, appearing behind them. Both of them jumped visibly and turned around slowly, highly embarrassed. Fortunately for them, Igaram's expression was one of good humor, rather than a stern glare. "Nor would it have stopped Princess Vivi from going with him, I think."
"Did you see the look on her face as they welcomed her aboard?" Chaka asked with a wistful smile. "I can't think of a time I've seen her that happy. I think she worked as hard as she did to rebuild the country just so that she could come back to them."
"She'll make us all proud," Pell said.
"Of course she will," Igaram said, crossing his arms and watching as the Thousand Sunny slipped over the horizon, "She's sailing with a king."