Chapter 38

Sengoku POV

The Fleet Admiral loosed a breath, letting his shoulders subtly relax. A knot in his back eased up and the man once again felt all 77 years of his age. 'What a disaster…' The objective had been accomplished. Roger's bloodline was successfully eliminated, killing that surefire threat before it could blossom into maturity. Edward Newgate, the man closest to becoming the second Pirate King, was removed from the board as well. Even now the news of the Marine's Victory is ringing out across the airwaves. Towns will be cheering, villages celebrating, 'Whitebeard's Era' is officially at a close.

'But was it worth it..' The doubt rankled at him. Newgate's last words would echo out just as strongly as Marineford's triumph would. Piracy, which as a whole was finally on the downtrend after 20 years, would be revitalized and potentially surge back up to Roger Era numbers. Not only that, with the unprecedented prison escape from Impel Down -which should have been impossible-, much of the good work Marines had fought and bled for over those two decades had effectively been undone. 'Still no report on if Magellan is even still alive.' If it turns out he perished then that would be a sizable loss. The warden was more capable than the majority of his Vice-Admirals. 'And we came so close to it almost being for nothing.'

Some of Roger's old crewmates had attacked the convoy. Even after the event was over there was still no explanation. How did they know where to be? How did they time it so well? Why only four men and not more? Are others going to come out of retirement? That was an unsettling thought. How were they even aware of Portgas D. Ace's parentage? To Sengoku's best intel, before the 'Fire Fist' was imprisoned, there were perhaps only five people in the world who knew that secret. 'If I hadn't ordered Kizaru to intervene when I did..If we'd responded to the report of the attack just a minute or two slower...'

Sengoku suppressed a grimace at the hypothetical. What would they have done then? They'd already publicly announced the execution. They'd rallied their elites and challenged an Emperor to war. What could they have done? Stand down in what would be the biggest embarrassment in the World Government's history? Push forward with a last-minute body double and cross their fingers that Whitebeard doesn't notice? How long could a ruse like that last? Would Newgate even engage in the first place?

'And finally, there's Teach.' His eyes glance over to where the self-proclaimed 'Blackbeard' had retreated from after Red Hair's arrival. How did they get so blindsided by this new threat? Two months ago, he hadn't even heard of the man. Yet now, on top of achieving what no person has ever done before by subjugating more than one Devil Fruit, he's made a public mockery of the Warlord system and recruited a monstrous coterie of Level Six escapees to his side. Each one so sadistic and vile that the government had done their best to wipe all public records of them ever being unchecked.

His gaze briefly flickers to the downed Vasco Shot, as if just to check that the corpse is still there. 'Well at least one is taken care of. Small mercies.' Sengoku sighs as the first of the recovery and medical teams start to swarm out from the ruined fortress that is Marine HQ. 'I really should just retire. Let the younger generation handle this nonsense. Aokiji will make a better leader than I would for the troubles ahead.'

A crunch of gravel has him turn his head slightly left where a man dressed in brown is calmly approaching.

"I want to bargain."

I'll admit it's not my greatest opener, though it's sufficiently brazen enough for my purposes. The Fleet Admiral gives me a side-eye. The mildest glance that he's listening despite most of his focus still being on the whole of Marineford. Special attention no doubt being given to the directions Shanks and Blackbeard left in. I think he's more surprised at my cheek than anything. That or the fact I didn't slink off during the last few minutes. I certainly had the chance to, what between Red Hair's arrival and the withdrawing Teach. It would have been easy to slip out unmolested. He grunts, "And what exactly would a rogue element -a renegade agent such as yourself- have to discuss?"

I resist the urge to scoff. Mostly. "Tch. Please Admiral, can we not waste time on that story? You know just as well as I that I've never been Cipher Pol. That was just the most convenient fiction you big wigs could come up with."

His eyebrows narrow further, and I feel his gaze sharpen on me just slightly. 'Interesting. Either he's a hell of an actor or he didn't actually know that...well, we'll ponder that later. Press forward.' "That annoying bounty you lot placed on my head is a problem for me. I don't desire getting into conflicts with the Navy every time we'll be coming across each other. If I'm going to continue my work unencumbered, then I need it removed. Or at the very least suspended."

Sengoku's jaw works over at the last word. Removing bounties? Now that is rare. Under this World Government, rarer than you can imagine. They'd sooner cut off their own foot than print a retraction. But suspension? Now there is a precedent for that. One that everyone in every village around the globe knows about.

After any given time...there's always Seven of them.

Eventually though the Fleet Admiral does respond, to the earlier part of my comment at least. "What work exactly would that be?"

My eyes darken. "To do the exact same thing to the Grand Line that I did for South Blue obviously." I gesture to the bodies of Vasco Shot and Doc Q. "Consider that my official application for the post. Plus, I'm sure you got a report of what happened to Eustass Kid on Sabaody. Apologies on breaking the Pacifista by the way. It kept getting in the way."

Sengoku stares at me. It's somewhat..unnerving actually. I can't actually tell what he's I press on. "If you were truly honest with yourself Admiral, how many of the current Shichibukai would you say you actually have a handle over? Four? Three-and-a-half? Two and three-quarters maybe? I'm offering to fill a seat with someone that will hunt down raiders with such zealotry and prejudice that I'll get a thumbs up from Akainu. So long as you accept I'm here to work with you and not under you then you'll find I'll be the best decision you've ever made. Hell, I'll even do if for cheap."

I pull Kugizume's hilt from the [Inventory], inspecting the shattered thing in the sunlight. "Bounty payouts don't mean much to me anymore. Them and any reclaimed plunder I might come across from hunting targets the Marines can repossess without a squeak of objection from me. But I lost my best weapon taking out two of Blackbeard's ilk. If I'm going to get the rest, I'll need something better."

"...your cheek really has gotten the best of you." The man growled out lowly. "Do you really think it's that simple? That just because you've culled four or five noteworthy names along with a horde of small-timers that you can just waltz in and we'd jump at giving you a chair? You killed the King of a nation! A man slotted to attend the next Reverie! Do you have any idea what's happening in Yateron right now! The instability you introduced!"

My eyes narrow at the challenge. "Spare me the propaganda bullshit Admiral. Leave that fake outrage for the papers, not for here. How many times has the decision been made to ignore what's good for one Kingdom in favor of what's good for the World? Besides, we're discussing the future right now Admiral, not the past. If you and your superiors couldn't look beyond someone's history, then the entire Warlord system wouldn't exist in the first place. And just to go on record. No. I'm not sorry I killed that tyrant."

Sengoku scowls as he mulls over the idea. I can see it on his face. Weighing pros of someone like me actually getting results versus cons of public backlash. No doubt Blackbeard is still fresh on his mind, the last person whom they bartered a Warlord position with. Technically Marshall D. Teach did exactly as he promised too before suddenly he didn't.

Watching him think I realize this is another opportunity to throw a perfect curveball at canon's precious plan.

"I have a sweetener. Something just for you, regardless of whether or not you give me the chair."

The Fleet Admiral regards me with suspicion, likely not appreciating the connotation of bribery.

"Before I give it to you though, I thought you might like to know that in the fight against Hornigold -defending your hometown by the way. You're welcome.- that I ended the pirate known as 'Fumori'. I thought you'd appreciate that."

Sengoku's suspicion gets halfway replaced with disinterest. "I don't know who that is."

"He was the scum who ended up with Rosinante's Devil Fruit."

The Admiral's eyes blaze at the name dropping of his adoptive son. Tightly controlled Haki seems to roll off him in droves. The Marine's focus turns completely on me and I steel myself not to flinch. To stare ahead and push on with this gambit even as death seems to stare me in the face.

Fleet Admiral Sengoku 'The Buddha', Lv. 249

It's terrifying. Nearly 78 years old and still hanging out in the mid 200's. I can't imagine even what he was like in his prime. Plus this is only his base form. It's possible his divine state crests even higher. "You claim to have never been Cipher Pol," His voice is low. The most dangerous thing I've ever heard. "yet speak a name you shouldn't possibly know."

I stare ahead. "I also know the name of the Marine who sold him out on the day he died. Doflamingo's executive plant in your ranks. The original 'Corazón'."

"If you are lying to me about this Parker I will invent a seventh level of Impel Down just for you."

"'Demon Bamboo' Vergo. He was a Captain at the time. I'm unsure of his rank right now."

The feeling of death disappears as three of Sengoku's fingers go to pinch at the bridge of his nose. The Fleet Admiral casts his face downward and...oh..he's tearing up a little. "Get out of my sight Parker." he orders with eyes tightly shut. "We will contact you later with an answer."

Just as Sengoku predicted, the effects of Marineford's Victory and Newgate's last words rippled out over the sea's, galvanizing all those who heard the news.

Pirates not allied with Whitebeard immediately unfurled their sails, setting course for prime territories that no longer had any dominion of protection.

Marine's in North, East, South, and West Blue all drank and cheered, dreaming of glory and resolutely declared that they would be next. They will be the next one to be recognized by Navy HQ! To take the fight to the Grand Line! To bring order to the world!

Doubters, those men of the high-sea that never thought Roger's words at the gallows were anything but a joke, started daydreaming about 'The One Piece'. About what unimaginable treasures it might contain. About what they could do if they were the ones who found it. What they could achieve.

And for a number of men, those ne'er-do-wells who were already plotting, who were already gearing up to stake their claim on history, it provided the final push for them to go out and do something absolutely... Stupid.

Heizo laughed to himself -an ugly poisonous type of snicker- as the shoreline grew closer with each second. Already he could make out the white foam washing up onto the beach. Today would be the day. All his preparations coming to fruition. While the Marines were all hungover, while everyone was still celebrating, he would do it. His first raid in what should be a long and prosperous career of piracy.

Not that this would be his first foray into the occupation. Oh no. He'd already had four years of tutelage in the art while serving as one of several thousand under Hornigold's flag. It was a rewarding experience but also one that was a bit stifling. Distinguishing yourself for the bosses when among so many other faces was difficult. Especially when you often weren't even on the same ship as those officers you needed to impress.

'Well look at me now boys.' Most of the idiots he'd had to compete for recognition against were captured by Marines. A good number of them killed and reduced to fish food. If they'd had any brains at all, like him, they would have seen which way the wind was blowing and slip away once it was clear old Cap'n Hornigold wanted to fight the whole ocean. 'Still, I can at least do a toast in ol' Sponge-face's name by doing this.'

Kivuruk Island.

Word going around the taverns -before Whitebeard and Marineford dominated the news that is- was that this quaint little spot was where Jack Sparrow originally came from. It's kind've poetic in way. Not that Heizo gave one-fifth of a rat's ass about poetry. To do his first raid on the home of the man rumored to have killed his previous CO.

As a bonus, Heizo didn't even fear retribution. They were flying merchant colors, not a black flag -Which had nothing at all to do with the design not being finished yet! Nothing!-, the 16 scoundrels he'd gathered up under his command would all be hooded, and most importantly the taverns had also been saying alleged sightings of Sparrow had been growing sparser. Some even suggested that he had moved to other waters.

His selection for First Mate slides up next to him. Amaan, a scarred, rough looking corsair who already possessed an impressive bounty of 3,000,000 Beri's. Earned for cutting the throats of some unfortunate fools who'd gotten in his way. The brute had originally demanded Heizo be his subordinate instead of vice-versa but...he quickly put the beast-like man in his place. He may not have a bounty of his own yet but Heizo would be damned before he chose to be a follower again.

Their ship crested onto the sandy shore and with one wide motion, he swung his legs over the side and felt the satisfying crunch of boots on land. The first dozen of his men all followed suit, forming up behind him, while palming their weapons in their sheathes -Mostly scimitars. It was a good deal, he swears! Buy four curvy swords, get one free! It was a good deal!-.

Heizo strolls up the first hill.. and then almost bursts into laughter right there. It seems his boys would get an appetizer before the feast! A little pre-dinner fun! There was a teenager and some scraggy blind chap posted up on a log bench just waiting for them. What morons! Even if they thought it really was a merchant ship, that's just too careless!

With assured footsteps he approaches the duo, getting the frowning teen's eyes to tighten, and points his blade straight at the handicapped man in need of a shave. "Evening gents. How are we-"

"...finally." The blind man speaks, interrupting the pirate with exasperation. "What were you doing approaching at half-sail? You've kept us waiting for over an hour. Goddamn amateurs."

Heizo's jaw opens up, amusement and incredulity both on his face as he gathers a response. He almost wants to applaud the codger for his audacity. Though he supposes the man really has no idea there's a sword in his face. "You know-"

"Pfeh, whatever." the blind man cuts him off again. "I don't really care. The malicious intent leaking off your whole group is practically miasmic. Just being near you makes me want to take a bath. Kid, you want this one?"

Barker looks over the gathered men and cracks his knuckles. "Gladly."

Okay. Now it's too much. Heizo's men start to laugh behind him and the infectious giggling infects their captain as well. Even the eternally sour Amaan is enjoying the joke. He'll be remembering these two comedians for quite some time! It's almost sad he has to kill them. That's just the way it has to be though. Can't start his saga by showing mer-

A fist crunches Heizo's nose in. It's source, a pale mannequin-like figure that's halfway emerged from the teenager's upper torso. The pirate's free hand cradles his face, blood running down in thin red lines between his fingers. He stares up at the bizarre puppet-thing that just came from nowhere and his eyes widen. "Dev-Devil Fru- Kill him! Kill the boy!"

Bodies rush forward, a chorus of blades and battle cries filling in what is in truth a fairly short distance, yet the newest user of the Doppel-Doppel Fruit matches them limb for limb. Body for body. Pale fakes with wooden expressions manifest from their user one after another, leaping from the original and straight into combat with manufactured aggression.

Two men go down. Five men go down. Amaan goes down.'Oh fuck this.' Heizo scrambles to his feet and begins bolting back towards the ship. Sticking to his true nature that when things get tough it's to time to get outta there.

There's a blur in front of him and suddenly the scowling kid is there. The real one.'Shitshit.' It's just like the rumors said! They said Sparrow could move so fast he'd just appear in front of people too!Heizo's arms fail as he starts to fall backward on his ass, pure panic on his face. He never quite makes it though as another bare-knuckled punch signals lights out, and his unconscious body ragdolls over the sand.

After a bead of silence Guilford strolls up to the still glowering Barker and taps his cane chidingly against the younger boy's leg. "Don't get so heated. Not over this pathetic lot. We knew someone was bound to come here eventually. It's the world we live in. Now come on, let's phone the local branch. If you're lucky, maybe one of these idiots will turn out to be your first bounty. That's something to cheer for right?"

Barker puts up a weak smile. "Yeah, I suppose so." The teenager turns to his...friend? Colleague? Second mentor? "Hey Guilford," The blind man grunts a 'hmm'. "You think I could ever do what Jack did? Not with the what the newspapers claimed and stuff. Before all that. When he just went around cleaning up trash like these guys?"

Guilford hummed. "Well I'd remind you it's not all fun games and glory." he adjusted his sunglasses, briefly showcasing his ruined eyes. "For bounty hunters things seldom end cleanly. All things considered I'm actually one of the luckier ones." He looses a bundle of rope from his waist and haphazardly tosses it at his junior's chest. "But I suppose anything's possible. Now get tying. I don't want to be waiting here all night."

I read over the 500 INT [Perk] yet again with a critical eye, making absolutely sure I understood it fully. It'd been a while since I'd experienced a pop-up with multiple [Note]'s of clarification. Getting to the end of the text once more I nodded my head and pressed my finger down over [ACCEPT].

[Oftentimes Better,]

You're guilty of saying it yourself in the past. "Jack of all Trades. Master of none. Though oftentimes better than a Master of One." Why not put your money where your mouth is and do a little practicing of what you preach? Upon selection of this [Perk] you will then designate it to a [Skill] among the list of those that are eligible. Once a week, so long as the [Skill]'s level is lower than [Your Current INT/25], that [Skill] will advance in proficiency.

Note: Due to having previously selected the [Perk] [Prodigy's Shadow] you will advance three levels in the selected [Skill] every week rather than only one.

Note 2: Unlike with the [Perk] [Natural Growth], this [Skill] selection is not permanent and can be reassigned at any time.

Note 3: [Skill]'s you currently have that are eligible for this [Perk] are as follows: [Anatomy], [Bartering], [Bladed Weapon Mastery], [Carpentry], [Cooking], [Cybernetics], [First Aid], [Navigation], [Sailing], [Tracking], [Trainer], [Unarmed Combat], and [Zoology].

'500 INT points divided by 25 equals any [Skill] present or future can be raised at least to Lv. 20.' Letting my eyes roam over the eligible items once more I made my first pick. 'It's a shame [Bladed Weapon Mastery] is already too high to benefit right now, but we can always add more INT later to raise the [Perk]'s cap. [Unarmed Combat] is at (19/50) currently so we'll at least get one level if we spend a week on it. Seems low priority though. For now it's definitely gotta be this one.'

[Cybernetics] selected!

The [Skillbook] I'd won off defeating PX-3 had been an unexpected gain. I've never been the kind of guy who would consider replacing his own flesh with machine parts. To be frank it gives me a bit of the heebie-jeebies. Perhaps that's a little silly but it is what it is. Plus in a setting like One Piece where the natural body doesn't really seem to have an upper limit it sounds like a path where you could unintentionally hamstring yourself down the road.

Regardless of my personal aversion to the self-modification route though, obtaining the [Skillbook] still put a certain type of childlike giddiness into me. Franky's in the top three for my favorite Straw Hat and remembering all of the bonkers ways Queen somehow modified each of his Zoan states independently of each other still gets a head shake and a wispy smile out of me. The absolute One Piece-ness of it all is just too perfect. Finally -and this one's probably the most important- the [Skill] sounded like one of the key pieces I'd need in order to save Bartholomew Kuma and complete my longest outstanding [Quest].

Which made it somewhat of a hiccup when I started at (1/100) in the subject and realized I have no idea where to even start. Unlike many of my other [Skill]'s, [Cybernetics] isn't something that would just level up 'along the way' while adventuring. It's the type of thing that requires focus, a dedicated time commitment, and lots of experimentation. Both with and without subjects.


I could just cheat.

With all that to consider, the new INT [Perk] was an easy pick for me. It's not always about what's most immediately useful. Sometimes you have to consider the long game. And this [Perk] will undoubtedly pull it's weight in that regard. 'Plus, having some more incentive to actually invest points in INT isn't the worst decision.'

On the subject matter of points there's mild developments in other categories as well. Today marks yet another week complete for [Natural Growth] which raised STR from (530) → (540). The leftover hundred and change points I'd had after getting the new [Perk] I decided to dump all into WIS, raising the trait from (167) → (272). Finally, this one less in my control, were some minor gains to LUK.

Five points a pop for brokering with Sengoku meeting with Kizaru.

Admittedly that latter one is a rather hollow consolation prize.

It's been about 32 maybe 33 hours since my proposal to the Fleet Admiral and I've been replaying it in my head almost constantly. Things I could've done worse, things I could've done better. Was it too much to push for a new sword? Was it too impulsive to mention Vergo? It has the positive of throwing ripples in canon's pond but has the negative of casting me in a suspicious light. Especially since not a minute prior I had put the idea in his head that I wasn't a super-secret rogue spy man.

I sigh and lean back against the edge of the battlement that's built into the mountainside. I'm reasonably out of the way but I know that they know I'm up here. Turning my head to the side I overlook Marineford's main plaza. More than a day passed, and they haven't even made a dent in picking up rubble. Then again, I suppose priority is being given to the bodies.

Glancing back out to the sea I wonder if I should go flying again. I've spent most of my time this past day on a little outcropping about four miles northwest of here. Basically just a barren rock in the middle of the sea. I'm only parking on Marineford for 30 minutes at a time every few hours, just visually reminding them that I'm waiting on an answer.

I did do a flyover of where I'd left Sunbell. I thought maybe I could do something for him. At least make it so his body wasn't munched by a Sea King. By the time I got there though, the Roger pirate was already gone. Not as in passed on as I expected but rather, he just simply wasn't there. The driftwood was still intact, floating exactly as I left it, just minus one fatally injured fishman.

To be honest I don't really know what to make of that.

A presence appears in my Observation's range. One that's not immediately familiar as someone from one of the recovery teams running about below me. It's strength though so I don't grow too alarmed as it heads straight for me at a casual pace. If the upper brass were going to choose aggressive action as their response to my words, this isn't who they would send.

He comes casually strolling from across the east side of the battlement. A nigh perfect posture beneath an immaculate white suit. As he approaches, both dread and excitement bubble up inside me with equal measure. I realize I've encountered this man -this actual Cipher Pol agent- once prior. The stone-cold pure business demeanor beneath his white hat is instantly recognizable.

As is the Den-Den-Mushi with Kong's visage that he's carrying.

"You know kid," a voice grunts out from the snail. "You never called me back." The agent sets the animal on a small platform in front of me."So let's talk."