Chapter 33

Midshipman.

In a way it's not a real rank. It exists only for those in a 'currently being trained' status. An ambiguous transitory state for a member of the navy who's seen as higher than an enlisted but without a doubt far lower than any actual officer. Still, it is -in the strictest of technical senses- higher than that of Master Chief.

Mori braced himself as he stood before the imposing door. 'Well it was nice while it lasted.' He knocked twice and sucked in his breath. "Request to enter as ordered!"

"Enter as ordered." the eternally gruff voice of his newest Commanding Officer sounded back.

With a twist of the knob he enters the dreaded office, the office where so many of his fellow Ensign candidates have been screamed and berated at...and then tenses further when he realizes there isn't just the ever angry Captain Marmot present.

There's a Rear Admiral in the room. 'Slayer of a Thousand Men' Yukimura if he's not mistaken. Long brown hair? An orange-hilted katana at his waist? Yes, Mori doubts he's wrong..

The names and faces of every single member of the Admiralty is just one of the many many things the recruits have had beaten into their skulls these past few weeks.

His urge to remain professional stops him from sighing. 'So I was right. This IS going to be about my association with Jack.'. Well..that sucks. He'd had a pit in his stomach that this meeting might be coming ever since a copy of the bounty poster somehow slipped into the barracks a few nights ago. Still, even if his brief journey on the road to officer is at an end, he can at least end it with dignity.

He closes the door behind him and then roots himself to attention. The absolute picture of military bearing.

He shall not speak until spoken to.

"At ease sailor," Marmot smiles. Smiles. Actual amusement from the crotchety old prick. He doubts any of his barracks-mates will believe him. "This isn't a disciplinary summons."

Mori's back unstiffens and his head tilts. "Sir?" There's a question in his voice.

"Why the perplexment sailor?" Marmot asks. "Were you expecting the nature of this meeting to be punitive?" the old man grins nastily. A stubby brown cigar angles up near the corner of his mouth. "Do you know something I don't Midshipman Mori? Have you done something that requires correction?"

Well that's a fucking verbal trap if he's ever heard one. "Sir, I do not sir!"

"Excellent. I didn't think so." The Captain moves on. "Remind me Midshipman. How many Ensign candidates were in your division at the start of this program six weeks ago?"

Internally Mori blinks at the unexpected question. There's no doubt Marmot knows the answer to that. Is it possible this isn't about Jack? Regardless of the minor mental blip though, Mori's still a good sailor. He answers the question promptly. Loud and proud. "Sir, there were 35 of us sir!"

Marmot looks disinterestedly at his nails. "And how many of those have been failed out because they couldn't handle it?"

"11 sir!"

"Which leaves..?"

"24 sir!"

"Correct Midshipman. Two dozen hopefuls that just might have the stones required to wear this coat." he gestures to the golden epaulet on his shoulder. "What is your prize for graduating this program Midshipman?"

Mori straightens. He knows this line. It's the first question asked to them every day at 0500 reveille. The required answer is always the same. "Sir! Graduation of this program grants one the privilege of wearing the rank of Marine Ensign! Of dawning the coat of 'Justice' and upholding the ideals inherent within!"

"And is that true for every graduate Midshipman Mori?"

"Sir, it is not sir! If a candidate proves himself hardworking, hardfighting, and sufficiently meritorious he or she can be honored with an immediate advancement to the position of Lieutenant Junior Grade!"

Marmot sounds bored. "And how commonly do we hand out that level of prestige here Midshipman?"

Mori's answer this time is less immediate. The recruits don't have access to those records. "Sir… the rumor is an average of one or two per class sir!"

"Do you think you'll be one of them Midshipman Mori?"

Now Mori really is puzzled. His doubts that this is somehow related to Jack are growing with each line spoken. "Sir?" he settles for as a reply.

Marmot picks up a personnel file from his desk. "Age: 34. Height: 6' 2''. Married. One child, second on the way. Reached the rank of Chief Petty Officer quickly in his career before stagnating there for more than a decade. Recently ranked up to Master Chief less than a year ago for 'assisting' in the capture of corrupt marine." he lowers the file and hits Mori with a distinctly unimpressed eye. "Midshipman Mori. This is not the profile of someone I would expect to see in this program. I'm sure you've noticed the average age of your fellows is more around the 18-22 range. They're young and hotblooded. Ready to go fight or fuck the world. You on the other hand are a little older and a good deal more mature."

Marmot plopped the folder down and stroked at his chin hairs. "To be honest, I was dismissive of your file when you got recommended to come here. I looked at this profile and all I saw was a man who found a cozy little spot just above the bottom of our ranks and stayed there. A man with no ambition. Your maturity is worth something so I decided to accept the recommendation submitted and let you at least try. There's rarely anything wrong with just letting someone try. Still, I thought all the youngins would be running circles around you in the physical department."

Marmot's gaze turns serious. "Instead. To my great surprise. To all the staff's surprise really. You're crushing them. You're always at the front when running laps. You push yourself harder and more vigorously than any candidate I've seen in a good eight or nine years. This is not the behavior of a man with no ambition. So Midshipman Mori I have one question for you. And unlike the others I asked, I don't already know the answer this time. Direct order, you shall answer this honestly. What. Changed?"

"I just.." Mori paused in his words as he frowned in consternation. "After the battle against Hornigold's fleet..well more during it really..I just felt so... dissatisfied with where I was. I think you're misreading me when you talk about ambition. I don't have a burning dream to command a base or lead a fleet into battle." he briefly looked to Read Admiral Yukimura who's still been silently lurking in the corner. "Nor do I have aspirations of ever attaining a rank as lofty as yours sir." he turns back to Marmot. "I just..I know I can be better than I currently am. And I feel that that dissatisfaction won't disappear until I've found whatever my actual limit is. Sir." he adds the last word as an afterthought.

Marmot taps his finger along his desk as he digests the answer. Silently the cigar smoker turns to Yukimura who gives a tiny nod of acceptance. "Midshipman Mori." Marmot announces as he swivels back around. "The rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade isn't the only opportunity a cadet can earn here for performing well. On occasion, not every class, but on occasion, a particularly impressive candidate can be recruited for one of the governments special assignments. The details of which are always kept on a strictly need-to-know basis and I…" Marmot abruptly stands up. "...do not need-to-know."

The Captain walks around his desk and heads for the door. "I'll be outside when you both are done. So long as there's no screaming the room should be adequately soundproofed." he opens the door. "Admiral." he speaks in farewell before shutting the exit behind him.

"Midshipman Mori!" Read Admiral Yukimura suddenly speaks with a deep authority, jolting the ex-Master Chief back at attention. "On the assumption that you graduate you have been selected to serve in a junior staff position supporting one of the most important task forces the Marines currently have ongoing. Should you join you will be exposed to highly confidential material. Do you understand what I am saying?"

"Yes sir!" Mori sounded back.

"You will not be able to talk with most of your colleagues about what you do or the information you handle. Do you understand?"

"Yes sir!"

"You will not be able to discuss specifics with anyone outside of a pre-approved list. Not even your wife. Do you understand?"

"Yes sir!"

"Should you accept these stringent conditions and then purposefully violate them, you open yourself up to the severest levels of court-martial. Do you understand?"

"Yes sir!"

Rear Admiral Yukimura smiled and walked over to pat the man on his shoulder. "You're untested Mori, but we like what we see. One of my staff will be present at your graduation. You may provide him with your final answer. Until then, act as though this conversation simply never happened. As far as your fellow Ensign hopefuls are concerned, you were called to the Captains office to be berated over the state of your uniform. Say your boots weren't adequately shined or something."

Yukimura reaches for the door. "Oh and Mori," he turns for a final comment. "Perhaps it's a bit premature for me to say but.." The Rear Admiral smiled. "Welcome to SWORD lieutenant."


Kivuruk Island, South Blue

The oars splash against the water and Barker grumbles something unkind under his breath.

"What was that, boy?" Guilford asks caustically. "Something you'd care to say louder you angsty little shit?"

"I said fuck you and your freaky super hearing you blind prick." the teenager bites back. His words are punctuated by the sounds of the ocean sloshing along by their little rowboat. "Now tell me again, why are we visiting this damn rock?"

Guilford grins softly behind his matted unkempt hair and stereotypical black sunglasses. Petty insults and slightly barbed words is just how the two of them communicate. There's no real malice behind it. "Perhaps if you can summon the brain power to listen the first time around I wouldn't have to repeat myself. I already told you," he looks with his aura sight off to their destination. "There's something weird over there. Now keep rowing."

"...stupid vague fuckin' answers.." the once street punk grumbled to himself again. "..why am I always the one stuck carting your blind ass around..' He didn't quite get how this 'aura' stuff worked that the ex-bounty hunter was always referencing or going on about. Jack seemed to know something about it. Jack always seemed to know a lot of things really. Even if he mostly kept them to himself. Barker had overheard a snippet of him and Guilford talking about it once. He called it color of… color of ob...well he can't remember what Jack called it. Some word with an 'O' followed by one with an 'H' he thinks. 'Mantra', that's a word from the conversation he remembers.

'Maybe the papers weren't lying when they said he's rogue Cipher Pol..' It felt like a traitorous thought to admit but it would at least somewhat explain the way Jack behaved. Why he was always a bit cagey about his past before washing ashore and joining the village. Why he knew about this magic 'aura' crap. Why he was so strong.

Strong enough for Barker to look up to.

The teenager sighs as he gives another heavy stroke of the oars. Anyway...back to this 'seeing while blind' shit, he may not understand it, -because really? How does it make any sense?- but he did recognize that however this aura crap worked, Guilford was good at it.

He once told Barker there was exactly one thousand and three birds on the island. He knew because he had spent the afternoon counting them.

What? Just...What? How does someone do that without even leaving their house?

And now the crazy coot has them rowing out to...to where exactly? One of the baby little islets that exist around Kivuruk? Why? Some of them are just patches of sand with not enough room even for a hut. Yes, the one they're heading for is slightly bigger...it's got some patches of wild flowers he thinks. A few scraps of typical island brush. Two or three mulberry trees. But that's it. A whole lotta nuthin'. It can't even support any animals.

The rowboat crests onto the tiny beach and Barker still isn't done complaining. "If you 'saw' something weird over here then why are we only coming to look now?"

Guilford steps out of the boat and immediately sets off on foot. "Because I obviously couldn't see this distance until recently you dunce. Now keep up."

Annoyed brat and bitter cripple march in tandem until they come to the base of one of those 'two or three' mulberry trees and the blind man looks up.

"Well," the latter speaks. "You gonna stand here gawkin' next to me or are you gonna go get it? Get climbing boy."


Mariejois, Commander in Chief Kong's Office

"Oh Sengoku.." A weathered hand rubbed over his eyes. "..you fool child. What exactly is your best case scenario here?"

Trading a warlord position to someone for capturing 'Fire Fist' Ace? Not the worst deal. He might have made it himself at one point. They've certainly given away those titles for less.

Keeping Ace's capture quiet? Escorting him to Impel Down without so much as a blip about it in the papers? Smart. Best to just lock the hooligan up and toss the key. That breed of pragmatic no-nonsense thinking is why he recommended Sengoku as his replacement for Fleet Admiral all those years ago in the first place.

But now... he looked again at the papers strewn over his desk.

All these fleet movements. These recall lists. Pulling some of the navy's best and brightest from around the globe. His successor was preparing Marineford to become a warzone. But why? If they play this right the government could remain free of Whitebeard retaliation. Portgas D. Ace has been operating independently of the rest of his crew for months. He was even spotted all the way in Alabasta. If the brat simply...disappeared..then Edward Newgate might not commit to any strong action. Who's to say what happened to the lad? The world's a dangerous place to travel alone in. He could be anywhere.

So Kong called his one-time student, to see exactly what the man was thinking.

The answer..didn't sit well with him.

A public execution. A plan to announce it to the world a few days before it happens. A follow up to reveal the boys heritage right before the executioners blade comes down.

War would come. A war that even if they won would see them weakened and vulnerable to any other powers that choose to move in the aftermath. Kaido. Big Mom. Red Hair or the Revolutionaries. If any them suddenly jumped for a power play...

Kong didn't like it. Sengoku was risking real loss for symbolic victory.

So concerned was he with all the details and potential aftereffects of these coming events, that all of the other small matters he had intent of addressing were temporarily swept aside. Put on a secondary desk for him to deal with later.

Not the least of which in the unruly pile was a slip of brown paper with a bounty hunters face on it.


Revolutionary Ship, East Blue

With gentle taps I used the small mallet to pound the wooden peg into place. Once it was slotted I paused in my work to bring the device to eye level. My gaze moved over it slow, centimeter by centimeter, as I searched for any imperfections. Satisfied with what I'm seeing I set down the spine and move on to the next piece with a smile.

I haven't slept yet since Tomato left. I've been working all night. All morning. All day. There's no issue though. I slept plenty during the day prior and to be honest while I will always be someone who enjoys sleep, I don't strictly need it as much as I once did. Between the anime world biology and my VIT I could last days if I absolutely had too. Mix in power naps and I could go even longer.

I grab one of the tools from the whittling kit with one hand and a small offshoot branch from Kowalik's shattered treefolk suit in the other. [Carpentry]'s never been a [Skill] I've used a lot. I've fiddled with it to get a few levels in the past. Rebuilding furniture on Kivuruk, carving little doodads and whatnot some other times. But no real complicated projects.

That's why I had to scrap my first attempt around 2:45 in the morning.

And my second one just after breakfast.

The loss of good lumber wasn't pointless though. I learned some pretty easy mistakes to avoid for the third try. Even got a +1 to that [Carpentry] [Skill].

Also I dumped a 100 of my points into INT.

So that probably helped.

Round three we're using Adam Wood and we don't have enough of it to be wasteful. We're gonna do this methodical. We're gonna do this right.

I've been thinking a lot over the conversation that occurred between myself and Tomato. Analyzing every word and sentence he spoke. There's a few things that have stood out.

1. "Even if Panda's methods are only ever to act indirectly through others." Only ever. I'm not sure what the full breadth of Panda's abilities is. I can guess from his many many appearances in the manga that there's at least a power to have others not notice him in a crowd. Something that makes a person's gaze just gloss right over him. Otherwise a man with a Panda head and heart nipples would have the whole street staring.

But Tomato's words do make me think that Panda has an ability to influence others. At least somewhat. I'm doubtful of full mind control. That sounds a bit much. But perhaps something weaker like planting 'suggestions'? Maybe even from a distance? Make his target think to go with Option B rather than Option A? That one doesn't sound so impossible.

2. "Best I figure it...it was probably the time-reversal involving Eustass Kid that first alerted him to your presence." Some type of monitoring power. That much is clear... but I also don't think it's perfect. He didn't know about me when I fought Eustass's First Mate on Baterilla. Nor when I started killing his crew when I chased down the Victoria Punk. If Panda was always watching, he'd have known there was a new player well before that time-reversal. But he didn't.

Tomato laughed at the idea of me calling him a god. He wasn't omniscient or omnipotent. Not even close. Which means Panda isn't those things either. He can't always be watching. And if Thriller Bark is currently ongoing and the bastard thinks me freshly neutralized by his nudge... then I'm willing to gamble that he isn't watching me now.

'Which means he can be caught off guard. All one has to do is act quickly. Move decisively.' I loop the rope through the last of the brass rings and get it nice and tight. Good and sturdy.

3. "Even at your novice level that shit is not a toy." Wary. Tomato hid it well. When he subtly reared back at my outburst that is. It was cloaked under concern -concern that I appreciated, truly- but the fact remains...a wariness of Haki was there. Maybe not mine specifically. But at the concept.

'Haki can bridge the gap. Higher rung of the ladder or no.'

At the thought I pause in my work to try and bring it forth over my hand. It responds.. but its sloppy and and sluggish. Small splotches of it darken and then lighten over the skin seemingly at random. Without the anger present I just can't hold it yet.

And I'm not angry right now. In fact, I'm as calm and content as I've ever been.

It's a simple calm. The calm of a motivated man who simply understands what he needs to do now.

I look down at my newest tool and watch it point unerringly to the southeast.

I was surprised. When I took out a world map and actually looked that is. That fateful destination where all the Supernova's gather is surprisingly close to the edges of the Calm Belt. The East Blue section of the Calm Belt. Sailing in the direction of Tequila Wolf actually gets us really damn close if you consider things on a global scale.

It's not a journey a normal ship can make. Only a select few specially made government battleships can cross those doldrums. No wind, no currents, nothing but hyper-massive Sea Kings nesting, ready to snap up anything they detect on the water's surface.

So the first problem a man must solve presents itself. How does one get across the Calm Belt? Well.. by air of course! Anyone can see that.

The second problem is of course the trickier one. The Grand Line. I knew Kiwi could get me past the first issue, but this is the one where doubts crept in. The nonsense magnetic fields. The unpredictable storms. Who knows what other shit? It left me greatly concerned about being able to fly a straight line to any target or destination.

But with Jack Sparrow's Compass in my possession all a man need do is follow that arrow.

I finish the second wing and stand up from my worksite. It's not the prettiest creation. I'll probably paint it later. Maybe commission an artist better than myself to emblazon a sparrow over its canvas. But in the meantime it's robust, it's sturdy, and it will work.

Only one thing left to do before we go. I open the window I've still got minimized. I'm sure this has nothing to do with Panda. It's almost certainly a reference to the World Nobles. But I like the symbolism.

[Enemy of The Gods] selected.

Congratulations! You have become Jack D. Parker.

Hmm.

Well I can honestly say I haven't any idea what that did.

I certainly don't feel any different.

No matter.

I hoist the bastard offspring of a hang glider and Aang's airbender staff up and turn to the revolutionaries who have been silently watching me work for the past few hours.

"I'll be back in a week. Maybe two. Your general still owes me that favor."

With near twenty [Geppo]'s one after another I put myself and my creation high high above the ship to where it looks like just a toy sitting in an oversized tub. A full-powered MAX Lv. use of the [Skill] provides the forward momentum and soon enough I'm leaving the ship well and far behind.

'Pandaman wants to preserve canon so bad that he's willing to kill my bird? Well challenge fucking accepted then.' I bank slightly left as my compass shifts by about two degrees.

'I hope you're having a nice dinner Eustass. You don't have many left.'


A/N: Man, some of you whiners just have no faith in me at all. How could so many think Jack was gonna tuck his tail in and stay away like a good little boy? Like, what would even be the point of the story if I went that route?

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