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Charybdis

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There was a silence like he’d never known.

It didn’t come creeping, like the cold and the fog, both ushered in by the sea, stroking the hull with the soft, rocking hush of an attentive lover, begging weary limbs. This was a silence that struck — that slammed down, a deafening weight that jarred his bones and left his ears ringing from the impact. And it took him a whole, starved second to understand that it hadn’t been a physical blow that had been dealt, too quick for even him to catch and deflect.

Shanks felt it in his whole body. It was the silence of the sea when a drowning man stopped fighting the currents; the silence that lingered on battlefields once the soil had soaked up the last of the lifeblood spilled across it, that hid in the hollows of wide, unblinking eyes, and the unnatural angles of unmoving limbs. It was the silence that was twin to Death, but nowhere near as kind.

But if the silence was cruel, the realisation that followed was even worse.

It might have been kinder; a physical wound. A single, fatal blow, and his life surrendered with a guttering rasp, his blood feeding the planks, poured back into the veins of his ship. It might have left something of him, legs to stand or lungs to breathe, watching the small figure dragged into view, not the shadow she’d been at the edge of his vision for weeks, a ghost of herself; a walking, unendurable memory of fleeting touches and soft laughter.

This was no spectre, Shanks knew, even as denial found him right at its heels, quick to fill the yawning void and tempting his wits away as disbelief seized him in a cold, unyielding grip.

It wasn’t her. It was someone else, someone who looked like her — who had those eyes, bottomless waters that brimmed with laughter when she smiled. It was someone else with those slender shoulders that he still felt the echo of under his fingers; the curve that had been made with the cup of his palm in mind. It was someone else with that delicate jawline, fine bird-bones arranged to perfection, ivory under marble, and that carried a stronger will than the fragile shape of it suggested.

It wasn’t her.

It couldn’t be her.

Then she raised her eyes, and denial fled, although he’d barely been holding on to it, because he’d know her anywhere — would know her blind from more than grief and anger, and even lost with nothing left of himself, he’d know her halfway into death and find the wits to turn back. And he knew her, every line of her face and her body, and even if every part of him was recoiling from the truth, the heart he hadn’t been able to piece together yet protecting itself, selfish from grieving, he couldn’t deny what he was seeing.

Recognition wasn’t any kinder than realisation, but the worst by far was what came next, as Shanks got a good look at her — her clothes in tatters and her long hair shorn, gathering at her jaw like he hadn’t seen since she’d been twenty.

And with her eyes swallowing up her face, seeming larger than they’d ever been, deep-hollow shadows rather than dark waters, she looked like the girl he’d left once, the one who hadn’t been his wife, or the mother of his child; the one who hadn’t known anything of the world, but who’d known him, and finding her eyes now, he had enough sense left to wonder if he hadn’t conjured this whole encounter. That the tired, grieving heart he’d dredged back up from the depths of his despair hadn't broken his mind, too.

But if the physical truth wasn’t enough to convince him, the fact that he could feel her was — the echo of her presence that he’d felt stepping out on deck, but that he’d dismissed as his mind playing tricks, seeking familiar comforts with what lay before him. But he felt her now, her presence seeming almost to solidify, as though he could reach out to touch it and find it warm, like trailing the tips of his fingers through still waters, depths endless but the surface warmed by the sun.

He couldn’t feel anything else — felt blind in truth now, to the world, and the sea, to his crew around him and the one on the ship across the water; blind to everything but the dark eyes staring back, seeming to have latched on as though to a lifeline.

Shanks,” Makino said then, the rough, tear-clogged quality of his name reaching towards him, sounding suddenly loud where it lanced through the quiet, and he might as well have been run through in truth for how her voice struck him, harder than the silence, and he jerked back like he’d been shot.

Her voice sounded hoarse, but ripe with something that allowed it to pierce the quiet, through the whispering mist and the labouring groans of the ships where they waited in the water, like great, shackled beasts ready to pounce. But it wasn’t relief that coloured it so sharply, and it wasn’t relief he found on her face but a mirror to his own anguish, his own disbelief, and the sweep of her eyes across him carried the expression across her whole face, marring it, and—

Her face.

There was an unnatural stillness within him as his gaze dragged itself loose of her grip, to fix on the right side of her face. And he saw then how the smooth skin of her cheek was darkened, blue and purple bruises blooming along the line of her jaw and cheekbone, the discolouration standing out as sharply as her eyes, her dark hair, seeming to greedily swallow up his attention.

His brows knit together, still not fully understanding what he was looking at, before it hit him, but not like a gunshot this time.

Cuts. Four altogether, stitched with precision but still in vivid contrast to the bruised skin around them, to her white skin, a perfect measure of a single finger-width between each where they spanned the delicate, curving slope from her cheekbone to her jaw. And he didn’t even need a full second to realise what manner of weapon had made them, because he knew — had spent half his life looking at their twins, staring back from his reflection. He only had three; one of the blades had been broken when Blackbeard had dealt them to him, but there was no mistaking their shape, like there was no denying the wicked deliberateness behind their placement. A vicious mirror opposite to his own.

His whole crew stood as though trapped in the stunned quiet, their earlier aggression gone, evaporated like the thinning mist, the beast slack in its chains, and Shanks couldn’t have dredged up the voice to speak if forced to — couldn’t even drag his eyes away from the cuts, to meet Makino’s.

Seeming to have realised what they were all staring at, Shanks saw Makino incline her head sharply, the marred side of her face turned away, as though in embarrassment, and her eyes clenched shut.

It was what physically yanked him loose of the shock, enough to regain some control of himself, to see beyond the cuts, bared as they were. And he noticed then, the bandages wrapped around her right arm, hanging limp at her side, the other still held in an uncompromising grip by the pirate who’d dragged her out on deck.

“I’ll kill him,” Yasopp breathed, somehow managing the voice to do so, but Shanks could barely register the words, still watching Makino, who had her eyes turned away from them now, and he might have begged her to look at him if he could have mustered the voice to say anything at all.

“Nice of you to join us, nee-chan,” Blackbeard said then, the loud declaration seeming to jolt the still-stunned quiet, and Shanks watched Makino flinch, but she didn’t raise her eyes to look at him, even as Blackbeard added, musingly, “We were just talking about you.”

The pirate gripping her arm gave a sharp tug, and he saw as pain contorted her features, the choked sound that caught on the air slipping between his ribs so quickly and so sharply it took his breath. His grip clenched tight around the pommel of his sword, feeling it digging into his palm, shock and disbelief giving way to a fury that surged up without warning, and that was worse that anything he’d felt over the past few weeks, even the one he’d welcomed, that he’d steeled his conviction in.

His fingers shook, watching the one holding her, and the silent suggestion in the grip around her upper arm — watching Makino, and he couldn’t take the anger, or the resurgence of grief as it rippled across his whole body, swelling and tossing and seeming to split him at the seams, a hurt that had no equal in anything he’d ever felt, including losing her.

Makino still wasn’t looking at Blackbeard, and when she lifted her eyes and they sought his, Shanks thought his knees might have given out from the expression on her face. He saw the way her gaze shifted across his own, and the furious disbelief that coloured the tops of her cheeks. And he could count the times he’d seen her angry on his only hand and still have fingers left to spare, but it was what he found now, grief and fury that gathered with tears in her lashes. She always cried when she was angry.

The small and familiar intimacy found him, and so forcefully he nearly did lose his footing, because what followed was the full, unbridled realisation that she was alive.

He lost himself a little, in that moment, the unrelenting grip he’d kept on himself slipping, nearly dragging the whole of him under, and only Ben’s silent reminder in the hand that cinched around his shoulder was what pulled him back, and so sharply he was left reeling from the momentum.

Shanks felt Makino's gaze releasing his, the quick sweep of it seeming to consider the ships, and the drop to the water between them, but before her intention could dawn on him fully—

“Let me guess,” Blackbeard mused, and she started. “You’re wondering if you can make the jump. Might break a leg, but it’d be worth it, right? Bet you’re even considering the water.” He paused, a long second of amused deliberation, before his smile turned suddenly knowing.

“I’ll take Blondie’s devil fruit,” he told her, and Shanks saw Makino flinch back as though struck, and this time she raised her eyes to Blackbeard for the first time since they’d dragged her out.

Panic had wiped the grief right off her face, but had left the anger, as Blackbeard continued, undeterred by the sight, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but Straw-Hat only has one brother left, right? There isn't another somewhere that’s gonna come crawling out of the woodwork if I kill this one?”

The words came to settle with some confusion, but Makino didn’t appear confused, Shanks saw, as realisation took its place between the anger and the grief, and Blackbeard let out a pleased-sounding guffaw.

“Bet you wondered why I hadn’t already,” he said, grin wide and revealing his missing teeth. “But if you want things to go a certain way, you’ve got to learn who you’re dealing with, and what they’re willing to give—and for what price.”

At that, he cast a fleeting look at Shanks, before his gaze swivelled back to Makino. “I’d teach you a thing or two about leverage,” Blackbeard told her, still grinning, “but given what I’ve seen of you so far, I don’t think I have to. You might not be from this world, but you sure as hell learned to work it to your advantage. Hey, no need to look so upset—you did good! Most people in your shoes would have just given up, but you...” There was a wicked softness to the laugh that left him, sounding half-marvelling. “You bartered yourself. D’you really think I wouldn’t have a contingency plan in place, after watching that display? Unlike Dragon, I don’t underestimate people.”

Makino still hadn’t spoken, but she didn’t have to for her thoughts to be clear — had never been able to hide them, but she seemed wholly unconcerned about it now, every inch of her face wrought with such a terrible emotion that there was a split second where Shanks wondered if she’d physically reach out to strike Blackbeard, from the way her fingers had curled to fists.

It was still taking everything he had to keep his grip on himself, the truth put before him and without mercy, and barely allowing him to catch up. And he didn’t know what to do — still couldn’t find the voice to shape the words, watching her, on an enemy ship and surrounded on all sides, the hem of her skirt ripped and the thin straps of her slip seeming only to emphasise it; the softness that had been made for quiet ports, not this sea. Next to Blackbeard, she looked unbearably small, and the comparison was one he’d hoped to never see — was one he’d never imagined he would have to, but even outnumbered and at such a disadvantage, she wasn’t cowering.

The pirate holding her tightened his grip on her arm, as though having sensed the same, and there was a fleeting moment where Blackbeard’s grin wavered, before it was back full force. Shanks saw him give a sharp nod of his head, before the pirate released her, half shoving her forward, but she caught herself before she could tumble to the deck.

It left her standing between them all, ostensibly freed. And it was a keenly telling gesture, one that said plainly just how certain Blackbeard was that she wouldn’t try anything, and from the defeated look on her face, Makino had realised the same.

“We had a bargain, sweetheart,” Blackbeard crooned, and Shanks watched as she clenched her eyes shut, the tight press of her lips trembling, although he couldn’t tell if it was from grief or anger this time. And he didn’t know what kind of deal had been struck between them, but found it was the least important fact put before him, eyes glancing off the cuts again, and Blackbeard’s gleeful smile.

He wondered for a second where Ace was, but shoved the thought away before he could consider it further. He was still recovering from finding Makino alive; he didn’t know if he could bear another truth, whatever it was, especially with hope reasserting itself now, despite his better judgement, and without apology. He couldn’t take it, when the whole of him seemed one nudge away from coming apart, but at the same time, he couldn’t stop looking at the cuts on her face, and to wonder where their son was — and in what condition.

He felt sick to his stomach from the rage where it ate at his insides, stripping off flesh and bone until there was enough space to contain it, even as it yearned for more, straining against his ribs, his veins and his skin.

“Heeey, why the angry face, Shanks?” Blackbeard laughed then, the words flung out across the distance, to toll amidst the ships. He did a broad sweep of his hand, indicating Makino. “She’s not dead! Isn’t this where you’re supposed to fall to your knees with relief? I wouldn't say no to some good old-fashioned begging, either." He looked at Makino, his expression suddenly put-upon. "I’m getting the feeling I expected too much out of this reunion. Reality never is as good as fiction, is it?”

But in looking at her, her eyes open and glaring back, Shanks watched as his grin curved, seeming suddenly pleased. “Then again, you’ve got the most expressive face I’ve ever seen. Guess it’s not a total loss.” Another glance at Shanks, and the next look he levelled at her had the knowing edge of a private joke. “Sure you want him back now that you've had a good look? Grief didn’t exactly do him any favours, and it wasn’t like he had a lot to go on.”

If she’d looked ready to strike him before, she looked ready to tear out his throat now, the expression on her face so unfamiliar Shanks almost didn’t recognise her. But he was lucid enough to recognise that striking Blackbeard, or even attempting to, would not go over well. It didn’t take much to stoke that temper, Shanks knew, and given her state, Teach had already demonstrated that he had little mercy to offer.

He didn’t look at her face, forcing his eyes instead to find refuge in hers, and to not wander further. He couldn’t look at what had been done to her, or even think about it, the things her visible wounds didn’t speak of, or he would do something reckless, something that was only likely to put her in more danger. And he’d failed to keep her safe once.

He wouldn’t fail her a second time.

“What do you want, Teach?”

The words were out of his mouth, shrapnel on his tongue, cutting his cheeks, cutting the air, the metallic taste of blood biting like the sharp edges where they caught on his teeth, and he knew he didn’t sound like himself from the way she reacted to the sound, like she’d been gutted.

For his part, Blackbeard seemed entirely unconcerned by the question, whet with a sharp, violent promise. Rather, he seemed pleased to have found it, as though it was what he’d been waiting for.

And turning to Shanks, “I’ve got a proposition,” he declared, with all the bombast of a theatrical announcement, and accompanied by the sweep of his arms, as wide as the grin on his face, before he allowed them to lower, and the smile eased into a self-assured quirk of the lips.

“I’m not too keen on this whole power sharing of ours, all of us sitting pretty in our corners,” he continued. “This sea wasn’t made to be split four ways, it was made to be ruled, one and all. I don’t know why the hell Roger gave up his throne, but it doesn’t really matter. I’m here to claim it. Thing is though, it’s gonna take a hell of a lot of manpower to topple all three of you. Kaidou’s got his army, and Big Mom’s got so many kids I can’t keep track of ‘em all. Sheesh, what a fucked up family tree that is.” He shook his head, and a rumble of laughter from behind him punctuated his crew’s agreement.

His grin widened then, a chilling glee in it. “I’ll give her this, though—Big Mom probably wouldn’t bat an eye if I tried to use one of her brats for leverage. Well, depends on the brat, I guess, but I’m not about to waste time trying to figure out which hell-spawn in that brood is Mommy’s favourite. But you’re a different story, Shanks.”

The fog hadn’t fully let up, obscuring the sea where it whispered between the ships, but the first glare of a bloody morning sun was seeping through the grey, an old omen that Shanks felt deep in his gut, as Blackbeard said, “So here’s my offer—your cut of the cake, for your wife. I’ll hand her over, a little worse for wear but let’s be real, that’s more than you were counting on, and in return, you hand yourself over to the Government.” He grinned. “Sounds like a fair deal to me.”

The complete lack of surprise on Makino’s face told Shanks she’d already known this was coming, the heartbreak in her expression telling enough about what she thought, and watching her, Shanks wasn’t surprised that this had been Blackbeard’s plan. People had long discredited him for being reckless, but Shanks knew that cunning, and that it wasn’t to be taken lightly.

“Of course, if you don’t agree…” Blackbeard said, turning the words over, weighed like coins as he made a show of considering their worth, before his gaze settled on Shanks and he added, unsmiling and without inflection, “I’ll kill her.”

As though the verbal threat wasn’t enough, Shanks saw him drawing something out, the dull gleam of the cold dawn catching in familiar blades as Blackbeard slid them over his wrist.

Makino’s reaction was instantaneous, jerking back, only to be halted by a hand clamping down on her shoulder, keeping her in place, although Blackbeard hadn’t even raised it towards her, still watching Shanks, and it took every ounce of strength he possessed to hold himself back.

Released of their earlier shock, he felt the clanging echo of his response in his crew, the shackles tightening again, although no one had moved so much as a step, the threat of the exposed blades loud and clear. But he sensed it — not just a rising agitation now but something much darker.

At any other time, he would have looked to Ben for wisdom, but Ben hadn’t even glanced his way, and stood, spine rigid and knuckles bleeding white, and his face as unreadable as Shanks had ever seen it — nothing calculating about his silence, just a hard, unforgiving calm, as though he had no mind for strategy, and it was all he could do just keeping himself in check.

Or,” Blackbeard said then, tone once more considering as he tapped the blunt sides of the blades against his palm. “Maybe I’ll hand her over.”

Silence forked through the air, like a sheet of ice cracking under pressure, and Shanks saw Makino look to Blackbeard, startled. And she hadn’t known about this, he realised.

Seeming wholly aware of the fact, and pleased the declaration had caused the reaction it had, Blackbeard threw her a sidelong grin, before turning his gaze back to Shanks. “The Government isn’t too happy with me at the moment, but I bet that bastard Akainu would jump at the chance of having some kind of leverage on you, after how you humiliated him in Marineford.” He snorted, before adding, “That guy holds a grudge like you wouldn’t believe.”

He paused a moment, as though allowing the words to settle, to seep into the quiet, before he said, “Then again, I don’t know if he’d even care about the leverage. He might just execute her to set an example. He’s pretty ruthless, and shit, you know that’s true when I’m the one saying it.” His smile crooked with amusement, before satisfaction sharpened the curve of it further.

“So, what’ll it be?” Blackbeard asked, arms spread in a wide arc, as though indicating the ships, the sea, the whole world in the distance between his palms, everything at his feet and his throne atop it already a given as he asked, grinning—

“You on that execution platform, or her?”

 

 

The question hooked itself somewhere deep in her chest, and it was taking everything she had to keep standing.

No one spoke, and the weary creak of the ship's timbers seemed suddenly loud in her ears, making it difficult to think past it, but in hearing it, Makino felt keenly the contrast; Blackbeard’s fleet, and Red Force, a lone sentinel, and it would have been a desperately welcome sight if it hadn’t been for the fact that she could do nothing, only stand there and watch the crew on deck — and Shanks, who she almost couldn’t bear looking at, even as she couldn’t have made herself look away if forced to.

She’d never felt so helpless. She’d thought she had, aboard Dragon’s ship, and in the brig of Blackbeard’s, but standing on deck now, it was an entirely new kind of helplessness that claimed her, that cinched so tight around her chest she couldn’t breathe, so close she could see him, could feel him, but she might as well have been on a completely different ocean for all the good it did her.

And it hurt more than anything, watching him, the sight of him at first so unfamiliar it had taken her a moment to realise who she’d been looking at, to recognise him beyond his presence, the one she would have known in her sleep, now so sharp with hurt it recoiled from her touch. This wasn’t the man who’d left her on the Fuschia docks, happy and well-fed after months with her cooking, and half a year in a quiet, sunny port having left its tender marks, his skin darker and his cheeks lined with laughter from smiling, and long afternoons on the seaside having bled copper from his hair.

His hair was the first she’d noticed, a little longer than it had been, but that wasn’t the biggest difference. And she’d teased him once at the odd strand of silver she’d found, carding her fingers through it to seek hidden veins, but now the memory had her heart constricting, finding so much grey that it was hard to make out what remained of the red.

And he looked harder — looked harrowed, his cheekbones standing out and the cut of his jaw sharper than she remembered, his beard darker, heightening the severe angles. She knew his face better than she knew her own, and knew what it looked like when he smiled better than anything, the way his cheeks curved upwards and the lines that would gather at the corners of his mouth, by his eyes and between his brows, but she didn’t recognise the expression on his face now, and couldn’t have named it if asked, although she suspected it wasn’t far from what her own looked like.

The deep grooves of the scars stood out, the grey in his hair seeming to emphasise them, and she felt the damning truth of the resemblance in the flick of his eyes to the side of her face, to her right cheek. Like the rest of him, his eyes were hard, and from a distance she couldn’t make out their colour — the grey that was like the sea after a storm, sometimes yielding green when the light hit them. There was nothing familiar in them, no smile in their depths or at their corners, and she wanted to weep from the sight.

She hadn’t touched him in six months. She’d never in her life wanted anything as much as that now, and she thought she might have screamed if she’d had the strength to manage it.

The others were watching her, every gaze on deck trained on her face, anger and disbelief marring their own features, and Makino barely recognised them, the crew she'd only ever known as smiling. It took effort not to turn her head away again, and to look away from them, from Yasopp and Lucky, and Ben. Doc, and every other pair of eyes she knew, and could pin a name to with a single breath. She'd never felt so achingly aware of how she appeared, in her fraying slip and torn skirt, and her hair, even as she knew what held their attentions more than anything else.

She felt the shame as it flooded her skin, scalding her, the rush of humiliation so great it took effort to force the keening sob back down where it clawed up her throat. She’d made it so far, and for what? To be displayed at her weakest, at her most hurt and with barely any strength left to stand, in front of the people she considered her family?

She fixed her eyes on Shanks, even as it felt like the hardest thing she’d ever had to do. It felt like baring herself, and it didn’t matter that it was to someone who’d seen every inch of her, body and soul, and she hated how she quailed against it, the attention of the one person she trusted more than anyone in the world.

Shanks hadn’t spoken, and Makino felt suddenly starved for the sound of his voice, even as she didn’t want him to speak, because she already knew what his answer would be. But then—

“I have a counter-offer,” he said, and her heart stuttered to a halt in her chest.

Beside her, Blackbeard let loose a snort. “You’re not really in a position to be cutting deals here.”

Shanks still hadn’t taken his eyes off hers. When he spoke, Makino felt his voice in her chest, in her gut; in her whole, broken body. “Will you hear it or not?”

She didn’t want to hear it. Even if she hadn’t expected him to try and find a way around Blackbeard’s offer, Makino didn’t want to know what the alternative was, because she could see it on his face that it would be worse. Not for her, but for him, but he would choose that — would do it in a heartbeat if he thought it might benefit her in some way.

“Okay,” Blackbeard said then, the barest hint of intrigue lacing the word. “I’ll bite. What’s your counter?”

Makino shook her head, a pitiful resistance, but she had nothing to back it up, and it had no effect; Shanks' grave expression stayed the same. “You and me,” he said, and only now did his eyes leave hers, to seek Blackbeard's. She felt the release of them physically. “One on one, to one of us is left standing. No outside interference. No rules.”

The words sank claws into her chest, seeming to take up the hollow space there, filling it with dread, until it felt like she couldn’t breathe, that there was no room for it, or for anything else, not even shame, just the helpless realisation of what Shanks was suggesting.

“The last time we fought,” Shanks continued, before Blackbeard could respond, “you couldn’t beat me.”

Blackbeard’s grin hardened, although it didn’t disappear, Makino saw.

And she remembered the story. Teach had been losing, but instead of forfeiting the match honourably, had feigned a surrender, and delivered a parting blow that had nearly cost Shanks his eye. It had been a dirty move, executed without apology, and the scars of which still remained, almost twenty years later. Old wounds didn’t always heal right, and Shanks wasn’t the only one who’d walked away from that battle with a hurt pride.

She realised suddenly what he was doing.

“If you still think that’s the case,” Shanks said, allowing the words to settle, and to make room for themselves. He'd barely raised his voice, but the blade's edge of authority in it didn't waver, nor did it need the loud volume that Blackbeard put behind every remark, to make an impression. “If you think that even now, you still can’t best me in a fight…I’ll hand myself over, and we’ll both know the reason. But if you think you can defeat me...”

Makino’s heart sank, as he added calmly, “You can do the honours of dragging me to that execution platform yourself.”

The memory found her without warning — of Ace on his execution day. And she knew the reason for his capture, knew it was Luffy's life that had made his decision, and she found the same determination on Shanks’ face now. The price would be paid, but on his own terms.

“Fine,” Blackbeard said, and her heart lurched in her throat, but before she could even open her mouth, he’d added, “But I have conditions.”

She saw Shanks’ gaze harden, but Blackbeard didn’t seem inclined to drag the words out to let the suspension build, theatrics shucked in favour of a rough, almost ruthless sort of practicality that seemed at odds with everything she'd learned about him.

Shanks had hit a nerve, she realised then, and knew that what was coming would be an attempt to regain some of his balance — thought that it would involve her in some way, but couldn’t be bothered to fear what it might be. What could he possibly do that would hurt her more than he already had?

But even with that cold resignation, nothing could have prepared her for what Blackbeard proceeded to say.

“I’ll fight you, and we’ll settle that old-assed score once and for all. I’ll give you a shot. Call it a...show of goodwill. Then when you lose, I’ll kill you and let her go." The hard edge to his smile eased off as he added, “but before I do, your crew will meet your fate. Every last one, and willingly.”

Her heart plummeted into her stomach.

“Those are my conditions,” Blackbeard said. “It’s either that or my first offer. So which is it? A chance to take me on, at the potential cost of your crew, or a public execution and everyone else get off scot-free?” He considered the men on the ship below. "You willing to risk all their lives on the off chance that you can beat me? It's a captain's prerogative, but it seems a little ruthless for you, Shanks. No offence."

Shanks’ expression contorted, regret writ with deep lines and furrows. And he wouldn't agree to that, Makino knew, and felt a small measure of relief, but before he could say anything—

“Deal,” Ben said, the lone word not wavering a fraction, as unshakable as the conviction pulled tight across his features, and it had barely disrupted the quiet before it was echoed throughout the whole crew, each voice raised a little louder than the last but not a shred of hesitation in any one of them, and Makino could only watch, horror replacing her earlier helplessness.

Shanks looked ready to protest, to shut down the small insubordination, but Ben’s expression remained unyielding. He didn’t even glance at his captain. “We agree to your terms,” he told Blackbeard.

Blackbeard smiled. The words when he spoke them thrummed with gratification. “Then it’s a deal.”

NO!”

The protest was out of her mouth before she could stop it, the sound of it ringing out between the ships, her voice no longer a weak rasp but a shout that carried, and before she could think about what she was doing she’d stepped forward—

Something connected with her ribs, so fast and so hard it felt like she’d been shot, agony erupting from the base of her ribcage to seize her whole body.

She hit the planks hard, pain surging up her arm when she reached out to catch her fall, but it barely registered, her ribs hurting so much it stole all her attention, all her air, like knives sinking into her skin, and for a moment it blinded her to everything around her, crippling her so much she couldn’t even draw breath. Dark spots danced at the edges of her vision, and the planks seemed to pull her down, an unforgiving embrace. She thought she was going to pass out.

She felt Shanks reacting, the familiar weight of his haki slamming down, and the planks under her cheek groaned their protest, even as Makino welcomed it.

“Hey!” Blackbeard's voice, sounding genuinely put-off, even as it struggled to reach her where she lay gasping for breath at his feet. “Easy, jeez. That looked like it broke a rib.”

A heavy thunk sounded next to her ear, the tremor reverberating throughout the planks beneath her. Blinking her eyes open, Makino found her vision blurring with tears, slipping down her nose and cheeks, but through the grey veil she caught the end of a black cane rooted to the deck before her, a quiet warning in its presence.

“Nothing broken,” the man named Lafitte said, somewhere above her, the remark breezy and touched with cool amusement. “Just nearly.”

Still clinging to consciousness, Makino dragged in a breath, then sobbed when she forced it back out, the pain seeming to come from her entire ribcage all at once. She heaved for air, fighting past the pressure on her chest, on her arm; her cheek where it was flattened against the deck.

The ship groaned again, a louder warning this time, the planks beneath her shooting cracks, but she sought his presence greedily, numb fingers grasping for a lifeline, even as the pain threatened to drag her under. She could barely think past it, and the whimper that left her was a plea so faint it was swallowed whole by the rising lament of the timbers straining under the pressure bearing down on them. She thought, deliriously, that she would have welcomed passing out now.

“You pull that trigger, Dreadlocks, and I’ll do more than break a few bones,” she heard Blackbeard saying then, the words cracking like a whip, splitting the clamour in half, but it was an effort extracting meaning from them, as though squeezing water from a rock, the sharp edges digging into her mind, but before she could wrap her head around what was happening—

“And shove a lid on your goddamn haki, Red-Hair, or I’ll render our bargain void,” Blackbeard snapped. Where he had sounded pleased at the display before, he now sounded irritated. “You think her face looks bad now? I’ll make it worse. And I’ll make you watch this time.”

Makino felt Shanks' haki yielding, the weight of it seeming to physically lift off her body, although with considerable effort, and she swallowed the plea that rose in her chest, chasing it — needing it, because without it what did that leave her?

Released of it, the world seemed to heave for breath, but Makino felt none of the relief, and the emptiness it left only seemed to emphasise how alone she was, and how little she could do.

She didn’t know what Shanks had to be feeling. She couldn’t even imagine being in his position, or what it would have done to her, finding him alive after believing him dead for so long. But even if she couldn’t imagine it, she knew what believing it had done to him, had seen the evidence on his face, the wounds as deep as her own, if not as explicit.

Something like defiance fought back within her then, shoving right past the pain, remembering his hair, and his face drawn and emaciated; that sensual mouth that was made for smiling too hard for that now, and the laughter leached from features she’d always thought looked like they’d been shaped from the sound.

Blackbeard had done that.

Purpose claimed her, left her half-wild from the sudden surge where it churned like a whirlpool, dragging all the pain and humiliation into her depths where she couldn’t reach them, as Makino shakily pushed back to her feet. The tears hadn’t stopped running, gathering at her jaw and dripping thickly onto the deck. The cuts in her cheek stung, and her arm and her ribcage. Her whole body hurt, but defiance wasn’t a crutch; she didn’t lean on it, but embraced it whole, absorbed every last shred as she rose, ribs still aching from the blow she’d been dealt, but she shoved past it, until it didn’t even faze her.

“You got anything more to say?” Blackbeard asked her, gaze flicking to her cheek when she raised her own to his; to the cuts she could feel, burrowing into her skin. “Disagreeing hasn’t worked out too well for you so far.”

She thought she might have cowered at that, once — that he might have expected her to do that, to shrink back and quail under the promise of a worse retribution than he’d already delivered. But she thought of Shanks, alive but not looking it, and Ace, who she still had no idea if she would ever see again; who, if he was even alive, was all alone on that cold, broken island.

Blackbeard could have raised his hand to her again, weapon at the ready, but Makino didn’t think she would have flinched.

And so she just looked at him — lifted her chin and looked, every limb trembling but not from fear this time. She felt too much for fear, anger and that strange wildness coiling and twisting within her, something at once so calm and so reckless that she thought, detached, that if she allowed herself she might have pounced on him.

The sharp glint in his eyes told her he’d caught it on her face, but it wasn’t glee she found in the dip of his brows now.

Then, his upper lip curling in a sneer, “You don’t have a voice in this negotiation, sweetheart,” he bit off the words, and with a wave to someone behind her, snapped, “Put her back in the brig.”

She felt them moving in on her, and her anger fled, evaporated like the mist under the bleeding sun, and she barely had time to throw a panicked glance at Shanks before there were arms around her, a meaty forearm wrapping tight around her waist as she was hoisted up, her feet leaving the deck. A hand clamped over her mouth, suffocating the startled sound that leaped up her throat, and the pain in her ribcage spread, until she felt the echo of it resounding throughout her limbs.

She saw Ben reacting — a single step forward before he halted, and she didn't know if she wanted to shout for him to stay put or the opposite, fear overtaking her now, freezing the blood in her veins. It was all she could do not to gag against the hand covering her mouth.

“On second thought,” Blackbeard said then, before they could haul her off, and the pirate holding her stopped. Her startled glance caught his grin, a leering taunt, as he added, “Put her in my quarters. I don’t need her riling up Blondie more than he already is, next thing you know he’ll spontaneously combust and take half my fleet with him. Just make sure she stays put until we’re done. Knock her out if you have to.”

He turned away from her then, towards Red Force across the water. “Then she can welcome me back when I'm done with you,” he called to Shanks. “Grieving widows always make for a good fuck. They usually don’t have much fight left in them, and I like ‘em pliant.”

A new fury reared up within her before the words were even fully out of his mouth, a reaction so visceral Makino felt tears pricking against her eyes again, and any fear she'd felt she forgot, driven beyond reason by the casual remark, the threat he’d been holding over her head since she’d first stepped aboard his ship, and she was so angry she felt out of breath, felt out of her mind with it and nearly outside of herself.

And she might not have a word in the negotiations, but Blackbeard was wrong — she had a voice.

In a last, desperate act of resistance, she bit down on the hand over her mouth with all she had, teeth sinking into tender flesh, and satisfaction found her even as bile rose in her throat at the taste, the grime and the foul sweat of skin, but she didn’t allow herself to think about it, and as the pirate pulled his hand back with an oath, Makino drew air into her lungs and screamed

He doesn’t have him!”

She was relieved when her voice rang clear, right past the sob trapped at the bottom of her throat, to pierce the shroud of mist clinging between the ships. “Ace!” she shouted, her chest heaving and her voice breaking over the name. And she still had no way of knowing if he was safe, or even alive, but if she could give Shanks this, this one assurance that she had to believe in, she couldn’t bear anything else but to believe it, then she would. “Shanks, he doesn’t—”

The hand clamped down over her mouth again, shoving the words back, and she muffled a scream against the sweaty palm, the rank smell of it clogging her nostrils, cutting off her air, and she trashed against the vice of the arms around her as she was half dragged, half carried back across the deck.

She didn’t get another glance at Shanks, didn't even get a last glimpse of Red Force as they hauled her off, and the next sound muffled by the hand over her mouth was a sob, followed by another, and another, but she didn’t care that they saw her crying now. With her heart breaking in her chest and the rest of her ready to follow suit, the hairline fracture widening, shattering the last shred of hope she'd stubbornly retained in spite of everything, Makino didn’t have it in herself to do anything else.

 

 

The quiet that remained after they’d dragged her away came to settle like it had come to stay. Ben felt it in the air, in every single presence on deck, but most of all in their captain, back ramrod straight and his hand gripping the pommel of his sword. He hadn’t moved an inch.

Regret burned like bile in his throat. She’d been alive. He’d known something hadn’t been right, that he’d been missing something crucial, but he still hadn’t been able to put the pieces together, and all this time she’d been alive. With Blackbeard.

“Ben,” Shanks said, gaze still trained on the ship across the water. Their deal brokered, Blackbeard had retreated, a show of getting ready that was at odds with his confidence, and that was likely meant as nothing more than subtle mockery.

Shanks still hadn’t turned around, but Ben was listening as he said, his voice entirely level, “You won’t interfere. Whatever happens to me, you’ll stay out of this fight. That’s an order.”

Ben said nothing, but his agreement was implicit — was expected, as unusual as that was for a captain who took nothing for granted, least of all loyalty.

“And I don’t care what terms you agreed to,” Shanks continued then, the words sharper now, although he hadn't raised his voice. It wasn't a tone that suited a man who'd never been anything but cheerfully loud, but Ben didn't like thinking about how much remained of that man now, as Shanks said, “When this is over, whatever the outcome…” He turned, making for his cabin, but met Ben’s gaze before he strode past, the whole of him a razor's edge, from the line of his shoulders to the order that fell, the words bitten off, and with an air of command harder than anything Ben had heard from him in twenty years—

“You get her off that ship.”

Then he was gone, the rustle of his cloak the only thing that lingered with the crew that remained.

None of them had moved. They’d been prepared for a battle, had steeled themselves for it, win or lose, but the shock of seeing Makino seemed to have gutted them one and all, carving out that long-festering fury and leaving something none of them knew what to do with. Even Ben didn’t know how to proceed. For the first time in his life he had all the game pieces before him, but couldn’t align them for a strategy that would get them all out of this.

But remembering Makino’s face, and the hurt that had run deeper than her visible injuries, Ben found it didn’t matter if he didn't make it, so long that she did. He’d make sure of that, if nothing else. For the woman he’d let down, and the family he hadn’t been able to protect. For his captain perhaps most of all. And he wasn't alone in thinking that, he knew. Their faith in Shanks wasn't misplaced; they hadn't put forth their own lives as collateral on a whim, but if Blackbeard's price had been all their lives for hers, and no duel thrown into the bargain, he doubted there was a soul on their ship that would have hesitated a single second to pay it.

He looked to Yasopp, and was glad when he found anger on his face, not indecision. And seeing it, his own conviction firmed, an agreement struck between them in silence, a single nod to punctuate the deal. Neither of them trusted Blackbeard to uphold his end of the bargain, regardless of the outcome of that fight. Shanks had been right to suspect the same. They’d been caught unawares once; they wouldn’t be a second time. If they were, the one who would suffer would be Makino.

His own life was forfeit; Ben had already accepted that. But it wasn’t to Blackbeard he’d offered it, forgiveness begged with a coward’s surrender. No, he’d made his decision the moment they’d dragged Makino out on deck, and he’d known with that entirely calm certainty, the one that was his earmark but that he hadn't felt once in the weeks following Fuschia's destruction, that if he was giving his life to anyone, it was her.

Let that be his absolution, if he had any right to seek it.

 

 

The location for their fight was decided — an uninhabited island, one of the many in the New World where the local wildlife didn’t invite settlers. It was technically part of Whitebeard’s old turf, although it straddled the implied border that they all knew not to cross. Or they had known, anyway; Blackbeard had been pushing his luck with all of them, claiming smaller islands that boasted no towns or villages. The others had let him be, likely seeing no use in squabbling over scraps, but Shanks had been waiting for Teach to claim something bigger; had been waiting to see which of them he would go for first.

In the end, he’d been waiting for the wrong thing — had been busy looking elsewhere, while Blackbeard had laid out the pieces of his own game, rearranging them to suit his needs.

The slap of the water against the boat marked a steady rhythm, but nothing was said between them as Lucky worked the oars, the even pulls made without so much as a hitch of strain in his breath, and Shanks welcomed the quiet like he welcomed the company, both offered without being asked for, but then that was Lucky.

The island was drawing nearer, a pale beach dusting the shoreline, from which a dense forest crawled inland. Blackbeard’s first mate had coolly presented the location, with a tone that suggested it wasn’t up for debate, but Shanks hadn’t been about to argue the matter. A devil fruit user, Blackbeard would have been at a greater disadvantage on the water, but so would Shanks, and he had no intention of going all out with Makino anywhere in the vicinity.

The thought of her made his chest constrict, his heart like a clenched fist behind his ribcage. It still hurt, accepting it — the fact that she was alive, and that she had been all this time. It distracted his thoughts, tugging them this way and that, but not kindly, and yet he couldn’t stop thinking about it; couldn’t stop imagining what she’d gone through, even as he tried to channel his focus back to that sharp point.

He thought of her wounds, and the long hair she'd loved so much, crudely shorn. Blackbeard’s callous suggestion of what he'd do if Shanks lost. And it was difficult reining in his anger to something he could manage when the image of her kept fleeting before his eyes, and the sound of her voice kept coming back to him, the broken syllable of his name seeming to have imprinted itself on his memory, an ugly scar that had come to stay. His ugliest yet.

His fingers shook around Gryphon's sheath, seeking a familiar foothold, but it took effort anchoring himself as they drew nearer to the island, and further away from Blackbeard's ship — from Makino, somewhere on it.

The dinghy was rowed ashore, and Shanks stepped out, the sandy beach sinking under his feet in tender welcome, even as the shallow water cut, cold as ice around his ankles. The sky above was darkening, the red dawn come and gone like a fading bruise, a thick cover of clouds promising something worse than rain ushered in by its departure, but he had no mind to worry about the weather, or the things out of his control. The only thing he could control was himself, and it had never been more crucial that he did, and that he walked out of this fight as he walked into it, on his own two feet.

He would be going back to her; he couldn't believe anything else. He’d bought himself an opportunity, appealing to Teach’s ego. What would happen in the aftermath, Shanks didn’t know, but if he had a chance of making it out of this, and to get his family back…

He would give everything for that.

Lifting his eyes to the horizon, he could spot Red Force in the far distance, her sails a white pearl against the charcoal sky. Blackbeard’s fleet was idling beside it, a silent stand-off that prevailed, even with their respective captains gone. But Ben had his orders, if Blackbeard’s crew tried anything, and Shanks didn't for a second doubt the decision of relieving the seat of command to his first mate. If there was one person in the world he trusted with the life of the one he held dearest, it was Ben. Nothing had changed in that regard.

Turning to the boat, he found Lucky looking at him, large hands worrying the oars awkwardly and his expression wrought. “Boss…” he trailed off, and whatever he’d meant to say, he seemed at a loss of how to say it, but Shanks only nodded, hearing it for what it was.

“Orders?” Lucky asked instead.

Shanks shook his head. “No orders,” he said. “A request.”

Lucky just looked at him, and if he could have managed one, Shanks would have smiled, but hoped his gratitude conveyed regardless, as he said, “Take care of them, if I don’t make it out of this.”

It was a request that implied more than just the aftermath of their fight, but he didn’t doubt that Lucky understood, like he didn’t doubt that there would be someone to help her, if he couldn’t defeat Teach. But his first priority was getting her back, whatever it took.

He didn’t trust Blackbeard to let her go, when all was said and done. Teach didn’t play by the rules, and so Shanks wouldn't, either; he knew better than that. He’d underestimated him once, when he’d been young and brash and high on himself, and he still bore the scars from his mistake. And then he’d done it a second time, older and with no excuse to make for his shortsightedness, and now Makino was the one who bore the evidence of his failure.

He would never forgive himself for that. If there was one thing Shanks was certain of, it was that.

Lips pressed together, Lucky only nodded. Shanks didn’t ask him to look for Ace, knowing the request was redundant. And he had no idea where their son was, or in what state, but he wasn’t on Blackbeard’s ship, and Makino’s words had suggested he was still alive.

And it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t nearly enough, and as long as he didn’t have both of them within arm’s reach it never would be, but it was so much more than he’d had just a few hours ago, he would take it, and gladly.

Helping Lucky push the boat back in the water, he made his way from the shore inland, seeking the presence he could feel somewhere in the forest ahead, the dark, twisting mass of it seeming to beckon him forward, and he felt his anger rising — welcomed it, and greedily. He wasn’t keeping himself in check now, like he’d been forced to earlier, and he allowed Teach to feel it. They weren’t boys anymore, and this wasn’t a battle to stoke their respective egos. Or perhaps it was in part for Blackbeard, but Shanks had no mind for pride, or for his territory at stake; his title, with all the cursed glory it held.

This was about his family — the wife and son he’d mourned and buried, and there was a part of him that would never recover from that, Shanks knew, but he’d be damned if he let it defeat him now.

The forest was entirely still, an eerie hush preceding him that didn’t stir so much as a single leaf. There was no sign of life, no skitter of animals or birds in the underbrush, as though they'd all retreated, and the whole island was holding its breath in anticipation. The trees closed in around him, hulking beasts that sagged towards the loamy ground, their great backs hunched like old creatures carrying an even older weight. Moss crawled along the sinewy limbs of twisting trunks, seeming trapped in the earth.

There were no man-made paths to follow, but he didn’t need it, ducking under low-hanging branches with ease, and his steps certain as he made his way through the thickening underwood. It was unbearably humid, the air ripened with moisture, thick as tree-sap where it ran between his shoulder blades, crawled along his skull and down his temples and his neck, curling his hair and gathering in his beard, but he had no mind to pay to himself, or the scenery around him.

At last, a clearing opened up ahead, yawning like a giant maw, the sagging branches giving way with reluctance as Shanks stepped through and out from between the trees.

Blackbeard was already waiting, none of his crew in sight, and at least there he seemed intent on holding up his end of the bargain, but then Shanks had already suspected he would. He’d taken offence to the suggestion that he would lose, and would be seeking to set the record straight. Shanks didn’t doubt that he’d be fighting dirty to achieve it, but Teach would be fighting him alone, if only to prove that he could. Or rather, it wasn’t so much that he needed to show that he could defeat him, as it was a demonstration that he would. It wasn’t reckless overconfidence so much that it was simple hubris, although that made it all the more dangerous. Teach didn’t just believe he would win; he knew it.

“Shit. This almost makes me a little nostalgic,” Blackbeard said, flicking his eyes to the forest around them, the sliver of dark sky visible through the dense canopy above, before turning them back to Shanks. “You ready to settle this?”

Shanks said nothing, but then Blackbeard didn’t seem to be waiting for a response, as he made to tighten the fastenings of the blades around his wrist. Flexing his fingers, his grin cut, a vicious forewarning. “Mind if I use this?” he asked, tilting the weapon languidly. Beads of moisture had gathered on the long blades. “For old time’s sake.”

If he was expecting a reaction, Shanks didn’t give him one. He’d already anticipated that he would use the weapon, and had prepared himself to bear whatever remarks accompanied the gesture, all seeking weaknesses in his composure, the words blades of their own to sink under his skin.

When neither had any effect, Blackbeard’s expression hardened. “What?” he asked, tone jeering. “You’re the chattiest damn person I’ve ever met. Hell, last time we fought you couldn't shut up. Nothing to say now? Maybe I should have my guys bring nee-chan over, see if you’d have more to say then.” His mouth curled. “Nothing like a captive audience.”

“If your crew lays a hand on her,” Shanks said, voice carefully even but harder than he'd ever heard it, and he saw from the quirk of Teach's brows that the vow carried across, “I will make you wish I’d killed you when I had the chance, twenty years ago.”

Blackbeard’s grin only widened. “A little late for that threat,” he said, tapping the blunt sides of the blades against his palm, as though for emphasis. Shanks didn't look them, but held his gaze, unflinching.

“Real shame about her face,” Teach mused, eyes gleaming; beads as black as a crow’s. "She really was something else." He cocked his head, his expression contemplative, but the wild grin ruined his show of pondering. “She could have dodged it, you know. If you’d bothered to train her. A damn waste of an observation user, if you ask me. To tell you the truth, I was a little disappointed.”

Shanks clenched his jaw. When he spoke, his voice didn’t sound like himself, pale with barely-contained fury, “It was a test?”

Teach just shrugged. “Observation prodigies don’t come a dime a dozen. I wanted to see what she could do. She also pissed me off, so I guess there's that. But hey, it could have been worse.” The corner of his mouth jutted upwards, carving a deep groove in his face, his laugh-lines as cruel as the rest of him. “I could have taken out an eye, but she’s got good reflexes. Well—good enough.”

He had to keep himself under control. He couldn’t lose himself now, even as he felt himself slipping, his anger not an anchor but a churning sea, rushing hot through his veins, clogging his nose, his throat, and he felt like he was drowning in it, his legs locked and his chest aching like his ribs were breaking.

“A lot of things could have turned out differently,” Blackbeard continued, before Shanks could fully gather himself. “I took one hell of a gamble on her, but it paid off in the end. I don't have any virtues, but if I did, it'd be patience. Still, if she’d been quicker, she might have reached you before I got her.”

The heaving sea stilled within him, and all of his anger bled out of him in a single breath. “What?”

Blackbeard’s grin widened. “Oh, right,” he laughed, as though just now realising something. “You don’t know.” He threw his head back, as though delighted by the realisation.

He looked at Shanks then, eyes glittering. “I didn’t take her off that island. She came to the New World by her own means.” And before Shanks could speak, or even wrap his head around the information as he'd been given it, “I just caught up with her a few days ago,” Blackbeard added, and Shanks’ heart stopped.

Teach made a low noise of consideration, running his fingers along the blades. “She came pretty close, too. I’m a little impressed. I respect an opportunist.”

It was difficult breathing, but for a whole other reason than anger this time, although Shanks thought he might have welcomed drowning, for how he felt now.

“I wasn’t kidding when I said she was something else,” Blackbeard said then, seeming unperturbed by his lack of response. Then, “Hey,” he added, curiously. “Is she as good as she looks? For a fuck, that is. It's been a while, and I could really use one. You know what, never mind. I’ll find out once I finish up with you, so do you mind if we get down to it?”

The remark was what brought him back — was what physically shoved him back into awareness, his control regained between one breath and the next, and settling with a quiet that he knew Blackbeard felt, from the way his brow slanted in a slight frown.

Anger wouldn’t anchor him. It was too volatile a feeling for that; it didn’t easily allow itself to be shackled, and Blackbeard would seek to tug at the chains whichever way he could. No, anger wouldn’t see him through this fight, Shanks knew. It wouldn’t secure his victory.

She would.

Gryphon sat in its sheath, the familiar weight of it on his hip offering a silent affirmation, and curling his fingers around the hilt, Shanks slid it out, the soft sheek seeming to sit on the air, the humidity thick enough to slice in half, but he didn’t allow the discomfort to faze him as he drew his blade.

He allowed the memory to find him when it prodded with gentle fingers; a late afternoon, and honeyed sunlight dancing off the blade, newly polished and the rag still in his hand. Her curiosity had been endearing, and the touch of her fingers light and seeking, skirting the curved handle with quiet reverence, tracing the delicate metalwork like the arched spine of a favourite book.

Gryphon, hmm?

He’d laughed at the clever twinkle in her eye. What?

She’d shaken her head, her eyes still on the unsheathed blade. It’s fitting. I’m just surprised. Given what you named your ship, I was expecting something equally ridiculous.

Hey! He’d touched a hand to his heart, but her smile had only stretched wider. Ouch! You know, it would hurt less if you actually used the sword.

Her laughter had turned that soft, throaty lilt that suggested pleasure, but, I can’t picture myself with a sword, Makino had said, even as she tested the weight of it, her palms flat under the blade, kinder callouses than his brushing against the polished metal.

Shanks had had no such trouble, especially given how she’d looked, the gleam of the blade reflected in the depths of her eyes; the green in the hilt invoking the sea-glass in her hair. No?

When she’d raised them to his, her eyes had been laughing. She was terrible at hiding when she was pleased. Can you?

He’d grinned, delighted by the image, but he’d been serious when he’d told her, Yeah. A small one, though. One that’s better suited your size. With practice, I imagine you’d be very graceful. It’s distracting just thinking about it, I hope you realise what kind of images you’ve put in my head.

She’d sighed fondly. You’re always blaming me for that, but I think you do just fine putting them into your own head.

Makino had fallen quiet then, observing the blade laid out in her lap. It’s a nice fantasy, she’d acquiesced after a pause, her smile small and secret, the way it looked when she dreamed herself off in her books. You’re right, though—it would have to be a small one. Not like yours. It’s too big.

Shanks had looked at her, deadpan. If it weren't for the look on your face, I’d think you were being suggestive, he’d told her, then with a grin, had quipped, But you’re right. It is. Big. As you’re well aware.

She’d whacked him with the sheath for that, but the delight had remained, bright in her eyes, and when he’d waggled his brows she hadn’t been able to hold back her laughter.

He thought of her as he raised his sword, and watched Blackbeard root his heels in the ground, eyes wild and his grin as terrible as the laughter that rose from his chest, but when the darkness began closing in around him, seeming to pour out of the very air, Shanks let his haki loose and pushed back, fingers clenching around the hilt as he steeled himself — as he channelled his whole focus towards a single point, to Makino, but not how she’d been on Blackbeard's ship. Instead he thought of how she’d been that day, laughing herself to tears and cheekily evading his kisses, small hands pressed over his mouth, and her laughter catching on a snort when he nipped at her fingers.

He didn’t remember what laughing felt like, but he remembered loving her, and their son; didn’t think he could ever forget that, no matter how much of himself he lost.

And if Blackbeard thought it was a weakness to be exploited, Shanks had a mind to demonstrate just how wrong he was.

 

 

The recruits were bickering on deck, but Garp had tuned them out an hour ago, an old trick perfected over years of training newbies who were all more bark than bite, although the quiet of his own mind offered no more respite than his empty quarters.

They were growing restless, he knew. They’d been idling in the same port for a few days now, his orders vague, and that wasn’t anything new for his division, but several days of squatting in a small marine base without an apparent purpose was beginning to wear on the youngest ones.

A voice rose above the din then, calm tones sharpened but not to cutting — Coby, snapping gently at the freshest in their batch to straighten up and to stop complaining ("you represent the navy, so tuck in your shirt!"), and despite himself, a small smile nudged the corner of his mouth upward, before it fell again.

He was tired. He’d been feeling it for years, wearing away his bones, older than he pretended they were, and he’d always shrugged off his struggles and pushed forward, but recent events seemed to have taken the last of his strength. He didn’t feel like there was any fight left in him — that there was anything left to fight for, on a sea that he no longer recognised.

What world did you leave us, Roger?

The question kept coming back, considering the past two decades, each year weighing heavier than the one before it, and all of them on his back. Maybe he’d outlived his life a long time ago. He didn’t understand it, how the world could let an old failure keep living, and in the same breath take the ones who deserved a long life, and the freedom to live it, no matter their choices.

I love him, Makino had told him, twenty years old and too young to know anything of the world, but her decision already made. It seemed a cruel foreshadowing now, thinking back on it; the way she’d been, standing in the bar that had been hers for just a year, but a different girl already than the one who’d hesitantly stumbled into her responsibilities after her mother’s passing, her chin lifted and her mouth pursed as she’d declared, that wild heart entirely unconcerned with Garp’s opinion on the matter—

And I’d risk my life for that.

He thought about the photograph he’d given Red-Hair. It was the only thing he’d had left of her, the girl who’d never been his, but who he remembered holding like she had been, the day he’d brought her to Fuschia, barely a few weeks old, swaddled snugly and dozing in his arms. He remembered Em’s reluctantly accepting glare when he’d handed her over, but there’d been no withstanding those eyes, even for a heart as hard as her mother’s had been. Garp had learned that lesson before anyone else.

And she might not have been his girl, but she’d had no one else to claim the title of father, and so he’d been the closest thing; had made himself that, whatever way he could. He’d known squat about raising a girl, but she’d always brought out a strange kind of gentleness, and for someone who’d been told all his life he was too brash for fragile things, it was something of a feat.

But he’d been gentle with her, the way her mother hadn’t been. And she’d been shaped from that, Garp thought; that unbearable kindness hewn from hands used to delivering punches, not wiping tears, but that had wiped them anyway, and the firm direction of a woman who’d never once been called maternal, at least not without taking it as an insult. She’d thrived under it, had grown up, gentle and stubborn and with a heart that hadn’t been afraid of love, when it found her.

And she'd shared with him things she hadn't shared with her mother. She would tell him about her books; those ratty old volumes she had squirrelled away that her mother would have tossed in with the firewood in the hearth if she’d caught her reading them. Exaggerated sentimental stories, but the way they lit up her face, Garp couldn’t have called them ridiculous if he’d wanted to.

The good king died of grief, she’d explained once, a new book in her keeping, a hundred pages lovingly dog-eared and her expression full of genuine empathy. She’d just received a scolding from her old lady for caring about trivial things, but Garp had asked her about it anyway, huddled in that cramped storeroom with his legs pulled up and the girl sitting among the crates across from him wiping her tears on her apron. She might have cared about trivial things, but she’d never had a trivial heart.

People lose people they love, he’d told her, too old and already too many losses on his back to remember what it felt like, to not know that kind of burden. But he did remember, those large, dark eyes staring at him from between barrels and bottles, and the thought that had struck him; that if he could have his way, she’d never have to carry it.

They still keep going, he’d said, knowing it wouldn't do her any favours thinking otherwise. Nothing romantic about dying.

He’d expected her to fight it, and to deny the accusation of cowardice — to say that it was romantic, and that it was all part of what love was and should be.

But—No, Makino had agreed, worrying a dog-eared corner. I wish he would have lived. His wife would have wanted that. But he didn’t have anyone to fight for him. His people…they just let him die.

“Not on my watch,” Garp grumbled, the old memory surrendering to the quiet of his cabin, but the thought of her lingered; twelve years old, eyes too large for her face and that wild, faithful heart too big for the world she’d been born into.

He could give her this, he thought. He didn’t know what he could have done differently that would have changed things from turning out the way they had, but he knew what he could do now — knew what Makino would have wanted, if she could have asked anything of him. For her crook of a husband to live.

And Garp couldn’t teach Red-Hair how to want to keep living, but he’d damn well make sure he was alive to figure it out, even if it meant physically dragging him back from the beyond, if Blackbeard proved too great a challenge.

He considered the empty tumbler on his desk, the dregs at the bottom untouched and the glass distorting the map spread out beneath it. From where they were docked, it wouldn’t take him long to reach Blackbeard’s fleet. He hadn’t shared his plans with anyone, and figured his actions would secure him a dishonourable discharge, although he couldn’t really dredge up the mind to give two shits. He’d been retired since the war; the position he retained was mostly as a glorified babysitter.

He might have felt some regret for his recruits, but they’d be in good hands. He’d trained Coby himself, after all. Garp wouldn’t be leaving them leaderless.

A strangled shriek sounded from outside his cabin, ripe with genuine fear, and he frowned at the door, before he recognised the presence, and snorted.

“You have your mother’s timing,” he muttered, although couldn’t quite help the grip of old fondness as he pushed to his feet, joints aching, but he ignored the pain as he made for the door, shouldering through it and into the morning air, chilled with the promise of rain and the skies in the distance holding unshed tears.

Just at the cusp of dawn, the blood on the horizon held a foreboding promise, and although Garp had never been one for sailor’s superstition, he wondered if there might be something to it, taking in the two figures standing on the deck of his ship like they’d been personally invited.

“Brat,” Garp said, voice carefully level.

His son regarded him calmly from where he stood, wholly unconcerned by the recruits that had scrambled towards the railing on either side, their weapons raised and fingers trembling on the triggers. It was a few years since Garp had seen him last, but he hadn't changed much, his dark hair pulled back severely and his eyes keen beneath the heavy weight of his brow.

He had half a mind to point out the ridiculously dramatic cloak, but curbed the impulse.

“Old man,” Dragon greeted, that low timbre that revealed nothing he didn't want it to, and from anyone else Garp might have called it damn cheeky, but his expression remained carefully unreadable. He didn’t have that from his mother.

“My,” said the woman at his side, the word a soft musing, and nothing unreadable about that. Then again, subtlety wasn't a word Garp had ever associated with her. “All this tension will give a girl ideas.” Her eyes gleamed like the butt of the cigarette perched between her fingers, and a single sweep of her gaze had the two recruits standing closest to her falling over themselves in their hurry to get back.

Her mouth curved, a thing of old teasing. In it, Garp saw a long-ago life. A bar that had always been more than it seemed, and Roger laughing.

“You’re a long way from your web, Spider,” Garp told her.

Shakky’s smile didn’t budge. If anything, she seemed pleased at the designation. “You know me, Monkey-chan. I can’t resist when there’s trouble afoot. And it’s been years since we last teamed up." Her eyes flicked to Dragon beside her, an old humour winking in them. "And your family boasts a...unique persuasiveness. Who was I to refuse?”

Garp crooked a brow. The way her eyes tilted like that promised nothing good, and part of him knew better than to ask, but, “Teamed up?”

“I would put it a little differently,” Dragon said, dryly. “No alliance, Father. I only request a moment of your time.” He paused, considering, before adding, “Something tells me you will want to give it.”

At that, Garp snorted. “One moment, huh? I’m too old to fall for that. There’s always a catch where you’re concerned, boy, and I don’t deal with insurgents.” He turned to make for his cabin, when Dragon’s voice stopped him in his tracks.

“You’ve lingered in these parts for some time now.”

There was nothing in his tone that suggested anything but simple curiosity, but the fact that he'd said it at all said enough. His son didn’t bring things up without a damn good reason.

“I’m retired,” Garp shot back. “I can do whatever the hell I want.”

“So it has nothing to do with what is about to go down between Red-Hair and Blackbeard?”

A shiver of surprised murmurs swept across the recruits on deck, several heads turning his way, although most of them were still nervously watching Dragon, rifles at the ready. Standing at the head of one group, smaller than even some of the younger recruits but still seeming intent to physically shield them, Garp caught Coby’s frown, the downwards tilt of his brows speaking of wariness, rather than the open worry he found on the faces of the others.

Damn you, brat. “A coincidence,” Garp said. “I don’t meddle with Emperors.”

“You know, then?” Dragon asked.

Jaw clenched tight, Garp wasn’t about to tell him he’d damn near instigated it himself, and simply stared back. “What about it?”

That response earned him more than one startled glance, and even Coby looked concerned now, but didn’t ask him to explain, although the demand for one sat in their rigid muscles, and their low mutters where they slipped under the quiet.

Garp felt the sudden and acute need of a strong drink.

Dragon cocked his head, expression entirely blank but for the sharp look in his eyes. For the briefest of moments, Garp saw his mother; that shrewdness was no one else’s. “It’s interesting that you haven’t notified your superiors. This being a potentially world-altering event.”

The recruits were all looking at him now, their eyes wide and full of questions, but Garp didn’t answer. He didn’t know what game his son was playing, or how Shakuyaku featured into it, but he knew them both well enough to realise he wanted no part in any of it.

“I heard my son is in the vicinity,” Dragon said then, bypassing Garp’s lack of response with an ease that rankled, and that reminded him of the too-clever teenager he had been, who’d always had the uncanny ability to shift the course of a conversation to his advantage. “I suspect he will seek to interfere.”

“Luffy does what he wants,” Garp countered. “I’m not going to try and stop him.” His brow furrowed, and he didn’t bother softening the accusatory edge to the words as he said, “I’m surprised you care. Last time you showed any interest in that boy, he wasn’t even walking yet.”

“I have my priorities,” Dragon said simply.

“Yeah,” Garp snorted. “Priorities.” But the word didn’t sit with ease on his tongue. And he knew why — he couldn’t really point fingers, after all. The charge for the same crime was his to bear.

“But,” Dragon said then, and Garp was surprised to find the corner of his mouth lifting a fraction. Not a smile, but something startlingly close. “I have been told that I should reevaluate said priorities.” When Garp only frowned, he elaborated, “Exceptions can be made. This sea sometimes demands it.”

Then, and with that same, almost dry quality, "And sometimes it's not the sea that makes demands, although I'm loath to call this any less effective," Dragon said.

“Do you have a point that you’re planning to reach any time soon?” Garp asked, irritation sparking, old and familiar. Whatever he’d come to discuss, Dragon was taking his time easing him into it, but Garp didn’t have any patience left for circumventing whatever trouble his son's presence heralded. “Because I’m not getting any younger.”

Dragon’s expression remained untouched. “I owe someone a debt,” he said. Another fleeting smile grazed the corner of his mouth, lingering a little longer this time, and Garp blinked. “I tried to pay it back, but my efforts were not appreciated. She did not consider it just retribution. In hindsight, I don’t fault her.”

“Her?” Garp asked, despite himself. He hated admitting to curiosity, especially if it gave his son the upper hand, but something about Dragon’s demeanour struck him as odd. And he didn’t know how any of the things he was saying connected to Red-Hair or Blackbeard, but he had a feeling he was about to find out; whether he’d like it remained to be seen. There was already enough grief wrapped up in his particular feud, and Garp didn’t need any more.

“Emiko’s girl,” Dragon said then, and Garp heart seized, but he wasn’t given the chance to recover from the declaration, before Dragon added,

“Are you ready to hear what I have to say now?”

 

 

She woke on the floor of Blackbeard’s quarters.

It didn’t take her as long to come to as it had the last time she’d woken, in the brig with Sabo and Koala, and with a breath she’d sat up, and so fast the whole cabin pitched along with her. Her head reeled from the sudden motion, the sensation so jarring it drew a startled shout from between her clenched teeth, and she pressed the heel of her hand to her brow, as though to shove the pain back into her skull.

It took a second of blinking through the blur, but with her head clearing, so did her thoughts, and before she'd even regained the rest of herself Makino was shoving to her feet, distress quick in reasserting itself when she realised where she was, but more importantly, that she had no idea how long she’d been out.

He’d removed the rug she’d thrown up on, the oiled planks stripped bare, but the rest was the same, although something felt different — it felt lighter somehow, the shadows softer, not as hungry as they had been, and even the looming desk didn’t seem so imposing. Dust motes danced in the air where the wan light crept through the portholes, but they yielded nothing else when she ran towards them to peer outside — not a hint of what was going on, or what had happened while she’d been out. The only thing she could see were clouds curdling along the horizon in the distance, not a blush left of the bloody dawn. A few droplets had wet the glass, fogging from the cold.

Frantic, she scrambled for the door, but found it locked, or barred from the outside, and nothing she did would budge it. Even hammering on it got her no response, not so much as a footstep on the other side. All she could hear was her own voice, and her fists pounding against the hard surface.

Panic made her bold, made her forget where she was and what resistance had already earned her, but she didn’t care, slamming her clenched fists against the ornately carved door, again and again and again, until her skin was raw from the onslaught, her wrists aching, and her throat hoarse from shouting. Her right arm shook, it hurt just keeping it elevated, and the jolt of pain shooting through it every time her fist connected with the wood made her feel like she was about to throw up again.

The uncompromising silence sapped what little remained of her strength, and Makino sank to her knees, hands flat and shaking on the door, unyielding despite her efforts, and the sob that dragged loose of her was an ugly, guttural sound, but she swallowed it with a hoarse shout that startled the quiet into retreating, just for a second, and in it she found a flicker of hope — that they would hear her, and deal with her, whatever it entailed. She didn't care; she just needed to be heard.

But then it was back, creeping in from all sides, hungrier than the grey shadows where it ate up the air, draped like the heavy curtains and caging her in, pressing her down against the planks where she kneeled, her brow to the door, prostrated like a beggar, but she didn’t care what it took, if it was all she had left to offer. She would beg, and plead, although not for her own life — but for his she’d do anything.

But if anyone cared to listen, the sea or some greater deity above or beneath it, or something even more terrible than either, there was no answer, and the door didn’t budge, not from her side or the other. No one came, although she could feel them still, Blackbeard’s crew, but when she reached beyond them, away from the ship, seeking the one that had been across the water earlier and the crew in her hold, Ben or Yasopp—Shanks—there was nothing reaching back for her.

She didn’t know what it meant, if they were nearby but not near enough for her to sense, or if it meant something worse, something she couldn’t even bear to consider, remembering the bargain that had been struck for her life. And she’d sworn she wouldn't be the cause of anyone else's loss or grief; that no one else's fate would change because of her.

“No more,” she begged, the plea cracking, glass shattering on her tongue along with her voice. She tasted blood, and her tears where they blurred the world, salting the still-throbbing cuts in her cheek. “No more, please.”

But there was no answer this time either, and her sobs caught in her throat as she surrendered all her grief, the force of them wracking her body, and her fingers digging into the wood, willing it to yield even as she knew that it wouldn't.

And then, when it seemed like her despair couldn’t be any greater, the torn vivre card in her pocket began to burn.