Chapter XIII B-Side: Fiddler's Green
Hanley stared at the ceiling of the cell she was tossed in, mind racing but unable to concentrate through it all. Her wrists were bound behind her back by a pair of rather sturdy manacles (the rings and chain made out of some stone called kairo-something or other; Hanley had other things to worry about at the time). The ship rolled and bucked beneath her despite its size—the storm must have been truly fierce, not that she could see it. She had no idea where Natsuhiko went; she had only awakened a short time ago and he was nowhere to be seen at that point. Hanley sighed and adjusted herself on the mattress, trying to get comfortable.
Right now, she simply didn't know what to do. She had no idea where she was, where everyone else was...why? Why did this happen? If only she had some warning...
Hanley frowned and flipped onto her side so she could see her magatama. It lay there inconspicuously, as if it really was some mere jewel instead of...
"Why didn't you warn me? You were just fine at Kokoyashi, weren't you? ...Shouldn't you have warned me like you usually do?"
"I imagine it's because I truly meant you no harm."
Hanley flinched and glared when Natsuhiko appeared before her cell and simply walked through the bars.
"What the fuck do you want?"
"I was just answering your question." Natsuhiko nodded towards her necklace. "I remember you getting that...on that day. It really is beautiful."
Hanley focused her eyes on the far wall, pointedly ignoring him. Natsuhiko sighed and held up a ring of keys.
"If you promise to be good, I can take those cuff s off you? I can get you a nice room and get you settled. Hopefully the storm won't last for too much longer—"
"How the hell can you stand there and talk to me as if everything is okay, Nagano?"
Natsuhiko's face shuttered and he sighed in exasperation.
"So now it's just my family name. I'm saving you."
"You have an odd way of saving me. And what can I expect if you want to hurt me?"
Natsuhiko pulled up a chair.
"I'm trying to be patient, but you always make it so difficult, Han-chan."
"And don't call me that, either."
"How can you not see? I'm not the enemy, here. I am working for something better."
Hanley gave a rather unattractive snort, showing just how much of that she believed. Natsuhiko rolled his eyes.
"Like I also said, I would never lie to you. Here, let me take care of those shackles at least so we can have a civilized conversation." He reached around to do so when he paused. He hissed softly and stood in irritation. "Cassius!"
Mere moments later a man larger than both Natsuhiko and Hanley appeared by the cell door. Hanley shuddered as she stared in his blank, black eyes.
"Don't mind him," Natsuhiko assured her when he noticed her unease, "That's Clay Cassius, he's harmless. Well, up until he has orders. Cassius, whose bright idea was it to use kairoseki on her? Find out who did it so I can speak with them."
Cassius nodded mechanically and exited with an odd, loping walk. Natsuhiko clicked his tongue against his teeth.
"Honestly, I expect so much better. Well, my gloves should be enough protection..."
"What does it do?" Hanley asked, unable to contain her curiosity.
"Among other things, it's one of the few ways to restrain devil's fruit users. It has something to do with emitting the same frequency as the sea."
"Yes, oh. And don't get any bright ideas. I didn't get as far as I did on devil fruit ability alone. Now," he settled back in his chair, "we have some things we need to discuss."
"No kidding. Since when are you in the habit of gross understatements?"
"Funny. I know you must be angry at me right now, Han-chan. And seeing how rough I was with you, you have every right to be. But can you hear me out for just a bit? Just enough to hear where I'm coming from?"
"Will you let me go back to the Going Merry?"
"Then I'm not going to like you very much."
Hanley watched him sigh again before turning her attention to her surroundings. It was certainly a far more comfortable jail cell than she would have figured. It was rather large, meant to hold many prisoners, but Natsuhiko had apparently furnished it with a small bed to turn it into some sort of bedroom. Hanley mentally calculated her chances of slipping past him to escape; she didn't much like them. Hanley grunted in irritation at the situation she found herself in. Then, she had a sudden thought.
"Do you miss Makoto-jisan?"
"Yes, your father."
"...My father has nothing to do with this—"
"He'd kick your ass for treating a lady this way and you know it, regardless of your reasons."
Hanley couldn't read the emotions flitting across Natsuhiko's face before it settled into that damnable blankness.
"Yeah, yeah he would. But he couldn't protect me here."
"Natsuhiko...please." Perhaps if she switched tactics? "Tell me what happened to you."
He shrugged and crossed his arms, brown eyes defensive.
"I was a slave, okay? You know about the Tenryuubito?"
'Yeah...Ishamon-sensei said his daughters were...before they died...' Feeling a little ill, Hanley nodded.
"We'll leave it at that, won't we? I got lucky one day and ate my devil's fruit when my master got careless. With it I managed to...escape. But the world was just as cruel outside. If not for the Marines...well, like I said before, they could use some work, but I won't be forgetting the chance they have given me. And I was good at it, Hanley! Can you imagine, for someone like me—I was no one special in Hakube! I wasn't smart like Eriko, beautiful like Daisuke, popular like Hitomi, and the only girl I liked didn't notice me! I was the third son of a fisherman whose family has been fishing since the dawn of time! And then I was a slave. But...I was so good at my job, and they recognized it. Do you realize how many people have reached the Admiral rank at my age? Not fucking many, I'll tell you that; so, please, spare me the self-righteousness."
Hanley opened her mouth to reply but found it dry. What could one say to that?
"I am working hard to change things, just you wait and see. I'll help you, too. You're not weak, but you just didn't have the difficulties I did. We can work on that together, yeah? You have to admit Luffy is too much of a loose cannon. He has no plan, and sooner or later that luck of his is going to run out."
'Oh my god...' Hanley was still trying to process all the implications of what Natsuhiko told her. It gave her an ugly, ugly picture.
"I can see you are troubled, Han-chan. That's alright, I was troubled, too. I had no direction, only anger. But I'm different now and I can help you, too. Do you honestly think...do you honestly think we can go home? What will we do there? We're twenty goddamned years old with elementary school education! Who knows how it progressed while we were gone! They would have called the search off years ago—"
"Shut up, Natsuhiko!" Hanley screamed, knowing he was telling the truth but not wanting to hear it so plainly stated. The truth she had been ruminating on all those long years.
"I didn't like it either but I had to consider it...and so should you. So, after that, I had to think about my future. But this place wasn't like I thought. It had always seemed to fun, so free. When Shanks spoke about his romantic dream I dreamed, too. Sadly, slavery has a way of dispelling such childish delusions. However, with the right plan and resources...I can make something happen. I can make this world safe for us to live in, make it into the One Piece it should have been."
Hanley stared into his eyes, her hands twisting the blankets beneath her. It...wasn't a bad dream, but something about it just didn't seem right, even after going over each word. If he could be trusted when he told her that he would never lie...what wasn't he saying? After a few moments, and seeing that there wasn't a hint of madness in his eyes even though he would have been allowed just a bit after his crappy experiences, Hanley dropped the line of thought for later inspection. It could be she was being paranoid—after everything that happened it was natural. Still, the feeling persisted...that had never happened before.
Then something else occurred to her.
"Natsuhiko...I'm glad you've gotten power and resources...but I don't suppose you looked for the others, have you?"
Natsuhiko's lips pursed in thought.
"I...yes. But as you can see they aren't here with us."
Hanley slumped a bit in disappointment.
"No...I guess not."
"I know, I understand. I didn't even find you until I saw the wanted poster."
"Yeah...if they're living quietly then that makes it...I had hoped, though."
"I've felt the same way myself. Now, don't you find this cell tiresome? Let's go up to the dining room. I have a world class chef ready to make anything you want."
'I want Sanji's food and nothing else...' Hanley thought as she nodded and stood to follow him. She just needed to bide her time and look for a way to escape. All she needed to do was find a way to get overboard. He didn't know about her abilities yet—strange he didn't ask, though.
'Well, he probably thinks I ate a devil fruit of some kind. I mean, look at me.'
Hanley followed him down the corridor, trying to memorize anything she could to make a possible escape easier. As she feared, the ship was rather massive. Countless marines were scurrying around, shouting orders as the storm raged around them. Unlike other Marine vessels she had seen, this one actually seemed to be made primarily of wood. She followed him up two sets of ladders before he pushed open the door leading to the dining area.
"I'm going to be keeping a close eye on you, so please don't do anything foolish, okay?" Natsuhiko pulled out a chair for her at one of the tables. "Besides, your old crew won't be able to follow us for long."
"What do you mean? You better not attack them or I'll—" Fucking do something that she didn't know quite yet.
"Of course I won't attack them...I won't need to. All you need do is take a look at that map to understand." He nodded his head towards the large map of East Blue on the wall. North, South, and West Blue had their own displays as well, but Hanley focused on their approximate location right now. She found Loguetown without any issue, seeing as it was a major stopping point, and she focused on the area where Red Line and Grand Line intercepted. She saw something called Reverse Mountain, but her attention was immediately drawn to the area around Grand Line.
"Hey, what's the Calm Belt?"
"It's a very unique phenomenon. It borders Grand Line on both sides, as you can see. But what's really amazing is that the waters in the Calm Belt don't move. At all. There is no wind that blows through there as well."
"...No wind?" Hanley murmured, quickly realizing just how significant that was.
"And it's also a nesting area for Sea Kings. Marine ships have a special coating of kairoseki on the bottom to ensure the Sea Kings don't attack our vessels, however, so we won't run into any problems. I imagine we're approaching the area as we speak. They won't be able to follow you, Han-chan, and you won't be able to escape—and once we're in Grand Line it would be in your best interest to stick with me."
Hanley's hands tightened into fists and she bit her lip. If they tried to follow they'd get killed.
Natsuhiko finished her sentence, "for your own good. I'm sorry. Just trust me when I say I know what's best."
"I'm not a child, goddammit, stop treating me like one!"
"Yes you are. You know what's best? We're the same fucking age! Hell, I'm actually three months older, stop insulting my intelligence!"
"I'm not doing that! But you have to admit that I might know a bit more about this place than you do. Once you learn more then you're welcome to make all the informed decisions you want."
"You're doing it again. Just...stop. I can appreciate the sentiment even if your methods fucking suck."
"What was I supposed to do? You wouldn't come with me otherwise!"
"You could just let me think for myself! One would think that slavery would teach you better!"
Natsuhiko's mouth snapped shut and Hanley cringed. Goddammit. The ensuing silence was thick and awkward, and to make it worse the dining room was getting colder as if to reflect the mood. It made her skin prickle uncomfortably and she rubbed her arms to warm them. It took Hanley several long moments to speak once more.
"I...that was really uncalled for. I'm sorry."
Natsuhiko huffed and shook his head.
"You're the worst damsel in distress, even if I think you're the prettiest."
Hanley blushed slightly.
"Whatever. Stop playing around. I'm still pissed at you."
"Let's get you some food." Natsuhiko turned to call one of the cooks over while Hanley stared out the window. The sky was practically pitch black, illuminated occasionally by a white flash of lightning. The waves were heavy and violent, and Hanley could only imagine how much worse it would be in a smaller vessel like the Going Merry. It practically looked like a typhoon out there; at the very least Natsuhiko's galleon was made with greater stability in mind. Hanley had never tried to swim out in such awful conditions, but she was sure she would be fine if Natsuhiko let down his guard. Once they hit that Calm Belt she would be stuck.
It hurt to think about leaving him, especially when it was obvious he was so unhappy. It hurt that after wanting something for so long it just didn't...it just wasn't what she thought it was. She had finally reunited with someone from her past, yet the only thing she could think about was her nakama. Natsuhiko would be fine—perhaps if she found some way to keep in touch...surely if she got one of those phone snails or wrote or something? Hanley continued staring out at the roiling sea, vaguely aware of Natsuhiko speaking with one of his subordinates and someone must have turned on a gramophone of some kind, as the sound of a violin filled the air, although the music was strangely muffled. And apparently the storm wasn't going to let up anytime soon, but the navigator assured they'd hit the Calm Belt before too long, effectively leaving the inclement weather behind anyway.
She didn't have much time left.
Hanley was considering smashing through the thick, tempered glass when something caught her eye on the horizon. Hanley stood and moved closer to the portal, peering out at the distance. It looked as if the storm had suddenly stopped, and for a second Hanley feared that the Calm Belt was just ahead and there would be no time to do anything. But, that wasn't quite right either, she didn't think. She grew more uncomfortable as the temperature continued to steadily decrease to the point where she could see her breath.
'This is weird, something's wrong...what am I feeling? What...what am I even looking...'
If it was the Calm Belt, wouldn't they have said something about it being this close?
"You alright, Hanley? Hurry up and eat before it gets cold." Natsuhiko waved off one of his officers and settled down for his meal. He didn't seem to notice the air at all—none of the men did. Hanley wondered if she had finally gone crazy. It was bound to happen sometime, after all. Why not suffer from hallucinations? Obviously her life had taken the turn to worst, her mind couldn't handle the stress, and it snapped. It wasn't clear, and it was just one area in the ocean that seemed to be...fuzzy. Like part of an image that was unfocused in spite of the surrounding clarity.
"...Turn the ship around."
Natsuhiko paused with his fork halfway to his mouth. The pasta began sliding off but he didn't pay it any mind.
"Sorry? Look, you're not going to change my mind, Han-chan."
"Turn. The ship around."
Something about her tone must have gotten through to him, as he put down his fork with a clatter and quickly moved to join her.
"Sir, what is it?" asked one of the petty officers.
Natsuhiko ignored him and stared out at the sea.
"Han-chan, are you feeling okay? What do see?"
Hanley nearly shrieked at him, "You don't see that?"
"No...?" answered Natsuhiko, clearly wondering if he should call for the ship's doctor. "You can't be scared of the storm. Besides, once we're in the Calm Belt it won't matter."
"Natsuhiko, I am dead serious. We're about to sail into...I don't know! We're running out of sea!"
"Running out of..." he trailed off, taking another look.
The feeling of dread was hard to even think about, getting worse as they moved forward. It was as if the world had ended, like it was flat instead of round and they were about to sail right off the edge. It could have been an illusion of some kind; all she knew was they shouldn't be sailing towards it.
"Please. Trust me."
Natsuhiko stared at her before nodding and marching towards the row of large, brass speaking tubes affixed on the wall. Natsuhiko stopped at the one on the far right and leaned down to speak into the cone.
"Bridge, this is Rear Admiral Karlo. Turn the ship around."
Hanley was gratified he was listening to her, even though it was tempered by the growing feeling of dread in her belly. There was a moment of silence before he received a response. She could see an Ensign frowning at her, suspicious and unhappy that his commander was acting strangely. Hanley glared right back and turned back to the window to see if it would make a difference. Unlike the Going Merry, the ship was just too big even if they did make a cut and run at this point. All she did was delay the inevitable.
'We can't abandon ship in this storm, I don't think even Natsuhiko would go that far for me without visual proof...am I crazy?'
"Just do it. Tell the navigator to chart a new course."
"Aye-aye, sir. And lookout reports a small vessel half a league astern."
Natsuhiko's brows furrowed although he looked unsurprised.
"That close, huh? Caravel, right?"
Hanley gasped softly and whipped her head around. They really were following her! No, of course Luffy would—he'd follow to the ends of the earth (which was looking to be a very literal statement). Happiness filled her at the thought before another look into the gaping maw ahead caused those same warm feelings to stutter and die.
"No matter, it cannot engage us directly right now. Just follow my orders. Does that help?" Natsuhiko directed the last part towards her. Hanley ignored him in favor of panicking as they drew closer to the end. There was no way this galleon was going to turn around in such heavy winds and water with enough time. Natsuhiko placed a hand on her shoulder, seemingly worried.
"Han-chan? What do you see? I can promise you there's nothing dangerous here." Natsuhiko started to pull her closer, only to stagger when the ship bucked violently. Everyone seemed to freeze, then chaos broke out when the entire ship gave a mighty heave and started tipping to the port side. The tables were bolted, thankfully, but the loose furniture and Natsuhiko's men practically flew across the room. One sailor crashed into her back—Hanley's face slammed into the glass with a loud crack, stunning her momentarily.
"What was that?"
"Are we capsizing?"
"Someone get me the Bridge, what the fuck is going on?"
Natsuhiko grabbed her as they rolled across the windows, face a sickly white.
"Hanley! What the fuck did you see?"
Hanley started to answer as best she could, but was forced to cover her head instead when debris continued to crash around them. Natushiko's body simply absorbed the blows; if it were any other situation the sight of a whisk sticking out of the side of his neck might even be somewhat amusing.
"I don't wanna die!"
"Hanley, wake up!"
The second time she came to that day was infinitely more comfortable than the first. She was lying on soft, sweet smelling grass with the sun beating down on her—not too bright, not too hot. She half forgot who she was and where she was beforehand, only concerned with going back to sleep. The peacefulness was nice, and it settled down into her bones. There was even music playing, softly; violin and accordion...a sea song? It really sounded like one. Hanley hummed softly and nearly fell back asleep, idly wondering where she heard that tune before.
'Oh, right...it was playing in the mess hall before...'
Hanley's eyes shot open and she suddenly sat up.
'It was playing before we...!' Hanley took a deep breath and looked around. She was surrounded by green fields and there were gently rolling hills in the far distance. There were no trees, only that soft, sweet grass that reminded her strongly of the grasslands outside Fuschia before the ground turned rocky as the elevation rose. The view was gorgeous, to be sure, but what really concerned her was the fact that she was now nowhere near the ocean. It didn't even look like she had washed up somewhere.
Hanley slowly stood and turned in a circle, trying to find some landmark or...some kind of clue. She brushed her bangs from her face, noting that even the wind was perfect, just the right amount of warmth and speed.
"Did I...die?" She certainly didn't feel dead—yep, there was her pulse. Hanley huffed a bit in confusion and started to reach up to play with her necklace when she realized it was gone. She quickly felt around her neck as if she had somehow missed it the first time and practically fell to her knees to search the ground around her.
"No, no...where is it? I can't have lost it!"
Hanley searched, desperate, before sitting back on her heels in defeat. It was gone. Near tears and cursing violently enough to make a sailor blush and give pause, Hanley cobbled together a makeshift plan. She had no idea where she was, nor did she know how she got there. In times such as those she would have no choice but to enact Bullshit Plan A: walk around like a fucking moron and hope for the best. She and Luffy had perfected that plan after years of getting lost and being unable to navigate their way out of a paper bag.
Ace frequently laughed himself sick at the both of them.
Hanley stood and started walking, following the music and taking in the idyllic scenery. It was almost too perfect, and that freaked her out more than being lost. The wind made it difficult to pinpoint the direction of the music; surely once she found the source she'd find people. Hanley trooped along until she reached what looked to be the coast. The beaches were a pristine white (unsurprisingly), and the water was crystal clear and a rather beautiful shade of turquoise. Unfortunately it was just as lifeless and gave her no hint as to where she ended up.
'Maybe...maybe I somehow ended up in the Calm Belt? It's certainly calm enough...' Hanley briefly considered going into the water, but she chose to wait. If it was the Calm Belt it would be her luck if she became a Sea King's lunch. No doubt they'd find her tough and stringy, but that would be poor consolation after the mauling. With that in mind she stuck to the beach, idly digging her toes in the fine sand and water (and there went another pair of shoes—at least she kept her shorts this time). Hanley had no idea how much time as passed; strangely, was it just her or was the sun not moving? She eyed it suspiciously for a bit before shrugging. That was the least of her problems.
Thankfully her travels turned up something in the distance. She could just make out a long pier jutting out into the water, and at the end sat a lone figure with what appeared to be a fishing rod. Relieved, Hanley picked up her speed until she was in a full sprint, quickly covering the distance.
"Hey there!" she called, waving her hands. Coming closer she could see that it was a rather giant, muscular man, simply dressed in a black tank and long, black trousers. Hanley jumped onto the wooden pier, slowing with shock as she approached him. He was dark skinned and covered in indigo scales situated in a pattern that was far too familiar. Hanley pushed up her sleeve to check her own dark blue ones as if to verify the observation. The man's back was to her, his black hair was thick and long and gnarled as if he hadn't combed it in days and threaded with colored beads; the red bandana he wore on his head was well-worn and faded.
He didn't seem to notice her approach, humming along to the sea song still playing in the air.
"...O were you down in Fuller Bay?/ D'you lie with her upon the hay?/ That bonnie lass with eyes of blue/ and ruffled dress and flaxen hair?/ O were you ever in Darby's Shore/ binding twine upon the moor?/ Lost five gold I've gambled away/ I then returned to Fuller Bay./ From betwixt the reeds to open sea/ I've not found a lovelier girl than she./ That bonnie lass with eyes of blue/ and ruffled dress and flaxen hair."
"Hello?" asked Hanley, almost loathe to interrupt. The man abruptly stopped singing and tilted his head to the side.
"...Ah." He set his rod aside and raised a hand, motioning her closer. Hanley hesitated (he was rather large...bigger than Arlong even) before moving forward to stand beside him. The man peered up at her, gold eyes partially hidden by his jet black hair. She had a hard time pinning his age, made all the more difficult with his mustache and the patch of hair on his chin. His smile was friendly enough, however, even if he looked two seconds away from curling up for an afternoon nap.
"Hello." Hanley offered once more, shyly. The skin around man's eyes crinkled as he smiled more widely, clearly pleased.
His gaze was affectionate as he patted the spot beside him. Strangely enough, Hanley felt oddly affectionate towards him as well; she was sure she had never met him, but...
"Please, sit. I'm glad we could meet like this," he said as he lifted the rod once more and cast his lure into the water. Hanley watched him silently for a few moments before clearing her throat.
"Er, how's it biting?" she asked, at a loss for what to say.
"It isn't. There are no fish in this area."
'Okay...what the fuck...'
"If there aren't any fish here, then—"
"I simply find the action relaxing." He smiled and carefully scratched his beard. "I've been wanting to talk to you for quite some time, love. Didn't think it'd be here, though."
Hanley swung her legs, like a child sitting in a too-big chair, her feet barely touching the water.
"Where is here?"
The man hummed again, softly.
"Have you ever heard of a place called Fiddler's Green?"
"Fiddler's..." Hanley cast her mind back to the pubs of Green Harbor, sure she had heard of it before. The passing sailors often sang songs about it, but the memories just slipped her by.
"Now Fiddler's Green is a place I've heard tell/ Where the fishermen go if they don't go to hell..."
Hanley sucked in her breath, sharply.
"Then...then I am...?"
The man laughed softly then, but it wasn't mocking. He lifted a large hand and placed it carefully on the crown of her head.
"No, love, you don't have to be dead to visit Fiddler's Green...but you will become dead if you stay too long, so unfortunately we do not have much time."
"Then...how did I get here?"
"The entranceway to Fiddler's Green pops up randomly, ev'ry fifty years or so, give or take a season. It can't be seen by normal people, so oft'times a crew will suddenly find themselves in paradise and never leave. But to you...it appeared like a hellish, gaping maw in the sea, did it not? Wouldn't serve much purpose if people could see...they'd avoid it, wouldn't they?"
She froze in shock before she pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes, moaning in pain. Why? She knew her life wouldn't be uneventful, but even she was hoping for something less goddamned weird!
"I...would rather not be that special."
Another deep, bark of laughter and he ran his fingers through her hair. It honestly should have bothered her, but it didn't.
"Can't help but be that special, love. Your blood wouldn't let it be otherwise. Now, what to say..." he rolled his shoulders and sighed. "I've been imagining this for a while, you know, but now I can't seem to find the words..."
Hanley ran a loose thread from Sanji's shirt between her forefinger and thumb, thinking of something to say, herself.
"Let's start at the beginning. You know my name...Krut Hanley."
"Yes, a good start. My name is Kadru Wadatsumi."
And once again the warmth in her heart stuttered and died.
"Yes, that Arlong has such an ugly, big mouth." His gold eyes were still half-lidded, lazily blinking despite the nasty snarl. The tone didn't suit him at all, and Hanley bit her lip, not sure what to do. This was the man that was with Handerson...they even shared the same family name. A relative of some kind, then? He must have been—the scales put him as the same race at the very least.
"So you worked with her, then?"
"It was complicated, Hanley. Times have gotten increasingly complicated—the explosion in the human population, the alliance and formation of the World Government, and later, the age of piracy. Still, I am not proud of the me, then. Handerson had me wrapped around her little finger, although that's no excuse."
"So, what, were you married at one point? Siblings?"
"Ha! No, not even. Distant cousins...very, very distant. All snakes are named Kadru, and Wadatsumi is a religious title left over from history. But we don't have time for all that."
"Well, I'd still kinda like to know."
Wadatsumi grunted, "Unfortunately, we do not. I wanted to warn you that hard times are coming, Hanley, and Handerson must be avoided at all costs."
Hanley rolled her eyes.
"Kinda got that point, Master Thai told me about it."
Wadatsumi's eyes narrowed and his snarl returned.
"Oh, yes, that miserable bastard. I was so disappointed to see that he was still alive, even though I knew he was your best chance for surviving at that time."
Hanley blinked in surprise.
"So...you were watching me, then?"
"For a long time, love. And I...wish I could keep watching you." His gold eyes suddenly became more intense, and Hanley sat, transfixed upon them.
"...Why do you hate him so much?"
"He left Lotus to die. As a father, as her lover, that is something I cannot abide."
"His daughter. The name of your mother. I loved her very much; she was the only person I did love until she was pregnant with you."
Hanley couldn't claim to be a genius, not by a very long shot, but even she could pick up on the not so subtle clues. At first she didn't know what to think or how to react. The similarities between them were now kinda blatant, and it explained the odd sense of familiarity and affection even though they had, in all technicality, never met. Should she hug him? Cry? Scream at him? Was he here the whole time, what should she—?
"You," Hanley finally settled on croaking out some kind of response, "are my...then this really is the afterlife..."
"As I said, Fiddler's Green is a special sort of anomaly. I don't really belong here, but its nature allows me to manifest for a short time." Wadatsumi sighed heavily. "I'm in danger of fading out."
"Then...my magatama, what was that, then?"
"If you must ask that question then you must have some idea."
'Ugh, can't just tell me, can you? Guess it's not in the Mysterious Mentor job description.'
Hanley thoughtfully scratched her chin, putting everything together. It was difficult—it had been a very rough day. Was it even the same day anymore?
"It was a gift left by my father...that's what my adoptive grandparents..." A crazy thought occurred to her then; good thing she was near full up on crazy. "It's you? How can you be an inanimate object?"
"Come now, love. You knew it was sentient, up to a point, at least."
"Aware enough to warn you of impending danger; aware enough to get angry at you. Is it so surprising, then?"
Wadatsumi gently ruffled her short hair before continued.
"Magatama are a physical representation of what could be called 'soul', although what exactly makes up a soul is really up for philosophical debate. I was dying, Lotus was dying and in the midst of a very painful, difficult labor. My magatama was...the best I could do for the both of you."
Hanley swallowed and turned back to watch the still, turquoise waters.
Wadatsumi sighed, looking unsettled rather than half asleep for the first time since they began their conversation.
"Snakes are...let me put it this way: there is an energy within everyone. There are two broad ways this energy can manifest. A select few can access a third, but as you lack the character for it you do not possess it, so I won't spend any time on that right now. There have been many names for this energy, but what's important that you know is that snakes are quite good at using it. The best users can combine it, play with it...all in all, you could say it's our talent."
Hanley nodded, showing she was listening. Was this what Kuroobi meant earlier when they fought? Now that she thought about it, he seemed genuinely surprised she couldn't use any techniques of her family. Wadatsumi seemed to know what she was thinking about and continued.
"Yes, that's exactly it. The creation of 'magatama' is a unique application of this energy. Using the first form we 'perceive' the soul. Using the second form we compact the soul into something more tangible. Every magatama is different as every soul is different. Handerson made a past time of collecting them because she could."
'How unsurprising, the sadist.'
"But...it sounds horrible! Taking someone's soul like that...why?"
"Power, what else? With the proper creativity, magatama can fuel all sorts of endeavors. Outside of its prison of flesh, the soul becomes quite the powerful thing. And that sort of power is the height of temptation. But I do not think that is something you would do."
"Of course not!"
"But I ask you this, and only because I know this is something far more applicable. You have a hard time letting things go, daughter. You are like both your grandparents in that regard. If someone you loved was dying, would you be able to resist taking them with you, even in that form?"
'Would I do that?...if someone I loved...'
Luffy, Ace, Master Thai...and she was caring more for Zoro, Sanji, Nami, and Usopp everyday. Could she do that to them? The thought of them ever being injured to that point was something she didn't want to consider, anyway—but giving them a half life? Hanley stared at her hands, thoughtful.
"Did she make yours, then? Is that why you died?"
"No, she was only responsible for mortally wounding me. I wasn't going to survive, so I created my own magatama and sent it with your mother out to sea. That's what really finished me off."
Hanley was floored—and ashamed she had ever once thought he never cared for either her or her mother. He all but killed himself for them, to give them a chance at survival that probably wasn't guaranteed. Hanley was rather surprised she didn't cry at the revelation...instead, she felt fierce pride. He didn't regret it, so she won't sob all over him for it.
It was difficult, however, especially when she remembered what he said earlier.
"You said you were fading. So a soul can only last so long outside of the underworld or something?"
"It depends on the circumstances, person, and the strength of the individual, really. Normally, I'd have lasted far longer, centuries even, but I expended quite a bit of my strength a couple of times recently."
'How? If he was already weakening it would explain his rather delayed reactions lately...if he reacted at all...'
"You're the one that brought me here!" Hanley jumped up and pointed at him accusingly. Wadatsumi shrugged in agreement. Judging from his attitude, crossing dimensions was, apparently, something he did as a matter of course. Stumbling headfirst into some kind of portal to the after life due to horrible luck was one thing, but actually ripping open the wormhole itself?
"I had to send your mother away twenty years ago...and I had to bring you back. This is your home."
"But that was my life! And my friends could have died! Hell, other than Natsuhiko they probably are dead! Do you have any idea what I've been through because of you?"
"I wish I could tell you that they all survived. I, myself, do not know. And I am not sorry for doing what I could to protect you. I'd have still brought you here even if the entire village of Hakube was with you...women, children, and all. And don't tell me you seriously think you would have been better off. If I could have figured out how to do it, best believe Handerson would have. But we are once more getting off track, love." Wadatsumi's tone and expression became serious. "Let's go back to before: you saw the entrance to Fiddler's Green."
Hanley pursed her lips angrily but was forced to concede. It was rather a moot point now.
"It wasn't all that clear, but, yeah...like you said, gaping maw in the middle of the ocean—hard to miss." Hanley plopped back down into a sitting position on the pier. "A part of that energy? But..."
"You've probably also noticed your body changing. They may have even been confusing changes—"
"I know you're my dad and all, but Makino-san already covered this several years ago."
It was rather gratifying when Wadatsumi laughed even if Hanley didn't think the statement was all that funny; still, it took him quite a while to bring himself back under control.
"I'm not speaking of that. But don't you ever remember a time where something strange happened?"
Hanley then snapped her fingers. "Krieg! I poisoned him, bit him...did something."
"Indeed. Honestly, you surprised me. You must have very strong feelings for that boy for you to change prematurely and without training."
Well, when he put it like that...Hanley felt strangely...strange. Embarrassed? She colored and settled for glaring out towards the sea, willing her stomach to calm. There was nothing wrong with it...
"Ever since that time you've probably felt things...not quite precognitive, but bits of intuition that you could not explain."
"I...guess? How can I tell the difference? I mean, people get 'feelings' all the time."
"Eh, sadly I'm not the best person to ask about that. That form of energy...I was never good at it. I'm surprised I even managed my magatama at all, much less whilst half dead and in pain. That is something that you'll have to figure out and work with it. But quick lesson: trust those instincts, they'll surprise you. On the other hand, be careful. You're very sensitive it looks like, as you were able to see Fiddler's Green, at least somewhat. You could end up confusing yourself, going crazy. The lines between worlds can be tenuous. Handerson is just as sensitive, so I suspect it didn't help."
"Oh, great." That didn't bode well for her at all. She already looked like the woman.
"I want you to meditate and do the best you can in controlling that other side of yourself. It worked out fine, before. The man you killed deserved it, but that might not always be the case. For now, you will be on your own in training it. It's not fair, but it's what we have."
"Okay." Hanley took this to heart and memory as best she could. If he was fading, this was probably the only instruction she was ever going to get. She highly doubted Handerson would drop on by and suddenly gain some maternal instincts. Hell, it sounded like Handerson was directly responsible for her own daughter's death, if Master Thai had an indirect part in it.
Hanley just hoped she didn't go crazy like her maternal grandmother did. Wasn't that kind of shit hereditary? Talk about being doomed.
"But you are my daughter. I believe...I know you will pull through." Wadatsumi paused and tilted his head as he listened for something on the wind. "Our time is up. We need to get you and your friends out of here."
"My friends...they're here, too?"
"Naturally. They followed you. You...have wonderful nakama. I'm relieved. I confess, I was worried when you became close with those two boys. People with D...they always live such turbulent lives."
"Nothing. Come, the longer we dally the more dangerous it becomes. But before it's too late, I am very proud, Hanley." He hugged her tightly, briefly, before standing with a soft groan.
Hanley couldn't help but beam at him, feeling as if she were ten again. This was...this was such a wonderful feeling. She vowed to keep it close.
"I...love you, too. Oyaji."
Wadatsumi made an odd, rumbling sound deep in his chest in response, then he carefully took both her hands in his. They easily dwarfed hers, even though she was already taller than the average human. Just how big was she going to get, now that she thought about it?
"Before we go, I have this one last, important thing to tell you. If nothing else, this will be the most important thing I tell you. Will you heed me?"
'This must be serious, considering what he already said...' What was he going to tell her—another warning about her family? Some hint to make sure she wasn't a danger to anyone? More information about that special energy?
"Of course, Oyaji."
Wadatsumi took a deep breath. Hanley held hers.
"...Never trust men."
Hanley could feel her brain process the words for interpretation, but somehow they still did not click.
"... … … ...I'm sorry?"
"Never trust men. Now, I know you're twenty, but you've been isolated and I don't think that asshole Thai was strict enough. I don't mind your choice in husband, in fact, I'm rather glad. The boy's an idiot, he won't do anything. That Ace kid, though, you watch yourself. And I don't like the way that Sanji looks at you—best watch him, too."
"...and always keep yourself covered. Handerson was a little too free in that aspect, liked walking around naked. Don't do that, seriously. I don't suppose you could stop wearing those bikinis? Maybe a one piece suit? Because men really cannot be trusted, and they will look at you. Also, try not to kick too much, that's un-ladylike."
"Sports bras are the best, really. Push ups lead to carnal sin, your mother can attest to that—"
And to think, the day had started out so well.
"Sanji-kun, are you done?" Nami called, her voice barely heard over the howling wind and crashing waves. Sanji pushed his bangs from his eyes, although it was a rather futile gesture in this weather. He double checked his knots before calling down to her on the deck below.
Sanji swooned a bit, then cursed when the ship bucked and nearly sent him flying overboard. It was rather amazing that Nami predicted the storm suddenly forming, but that didn't make it any easier to deal with. He was completely and totally drenched and the bones in his hands ached from fighting with the thick ropes to secure the sails. Of course, he was damned if he would complain when dear Nami needed his help.
The rain stung his eyes as he jumped nimbly down to the main deck. He was the last to enter the cabin/galley/mess hall area; the others were just as wet and miserable, while Nami was busying herself with trying to chart a course through the inclement weather that would let them, at the very least, keep up with the Rear Admiral's massive galleon. The smaller caravel simply couldn't cut through the waves like it could, despite being more maneuverable.
What sort of man treated a woman that way? It was beyond shameful! Thinking about it got his blood boiling, and he had to busy himself with trying to salvage the damp pack of cigarettes in his pocket. Sanji managed to find one dry enough to ignite, which he did so with relish.
"What are we going to do?" Usopp hadn't really stopped screaming since he, Zoro, and Luffy jumped on board and they all but raced out of port.
Sanji took a deep drag from his cigarette and leaned back in his chair.
"What else? We will save Hanley-sama!" Sanji cheerfully ignored Usopp's disgusted look, too busy imagining his daring rescue. It involved explosions and artfully ripped clothing. There really was something about a woman wearing a man's shirt...
"That goes without saying." Zoro commented from his usual spot on the floor by the starboard portal. Luffy didn't provide any sort of answer, which was strange in and of itself. Sanji hadn't been on the crew all that long, but he quickly figured out that you could always count on Luffy to have his hand in something.
Luffy couldn't even manage to be completely silent whilst sleeping.
But he was certainly silent now; grim, even, if Sanji had to pinpoint it. His pupils were dilated, there were veins throbbing in his temple and he seemed determined to grind his teeth down to the roots.
"Right, this is bad...if we can't catch up soon, we'll..." Nami started.
"What's the problem? We catch up to them and cut them to pieces." It wasn't often that Sanji would agree with Marimo—only he would substitute cutting for tap dancing on that shitty marine's face.
Nami sighed and rubbed her forehead.
"The problem is the time frame we're working with. Catching up to a ship that size is doable if we're smart about it, but we're not going to have a big window to do it in. If I'm right, they're heading for a very dangerous area. If they reach the Calm Belt it's over."
'Calm Belt...?' Sanji thought. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but for the life of him Sanji couldn't really recall what that meant.
"It's a place where there is no wind," Nami continued to explain, not expecting them to know, "that is a problem for ships such as ours, but the worst of it is that it's where Sea Kings nest."
"S-Sea Kings...?" whimpered Usopp.
'Oh, that's right—didn't the old man mention something about that?'
"Huh, that could be a problem," Zoro commented.
"That's more than a problem! Maybe the Marines won't go that way?"
Nami could only shrug.
"I can only assume the Marines have a way of passing through unimpeded. Grand Line is beyond the Calm Belt."
Sanji leaned further back in his chair, to the point that he was putting all his weight on the back two legs.
"So what should we do, Nami-san?"
"Well, in all probability...we won't catch up in time. All we can do is hope they don't actually enter the Calm Belt." Nami's reply was blunt, although she looked to be thoroughly unhappy with saying so.
Luffy stood abruptly, fists clenched and clearly furious.
"I don't care where they're going! I'm not going to let such a little thing stop me! We're going to chase them all through Grand Line if we have to!"
Nami smiled brightly and nodded.
"I thought so. Let me worry about getting us close! They won't be getting away from me!"
Not to be outdone, Sanji shot up as well.
"I'll protect you with my body, Nami-swaaan!"
"Ha, I don't want to see what would happen if she finds out we didn't run ourselves ragged." Zoro heaved himself to his feet and went outside to help as well. "It'll be a lot of work navigating through this storm—if you couldn't do at least this much, you've no business being navigator."
"Don't you dare insult Nami-san, you damn—" Sanji didn't have the chance to give the man the kick he deserved; Nami was dragging him back outside to adjust the rigging on the main sail.
The next few hours were long and seemed to do nothing more than drag on slowly across his consciousness. Sanji was proud to say he stood by Nami through it all, only moving back inside when she did to warm herself and check her charts. Sanji figured out earlier on that she had pretty much memorized them already, but she had to do something productive with her hands. It was going to be a close thing, not counting boarding the ship and fighting through who knows how many marines. Sanji himself paced a bit to keep his feet from freezing and going completely numb. Luffy stubbornly stayed outside through it all—he didn't even look cold, just angry. They could just make out the lantern on the galleon's sterncastle most of the time; they weren't losing them, but they also weren't gaining on them, either.
Usopp was gamely hanging on in the crow's nest, looking ahead with his spyglass. Sanji wasn't one to care for men, but he was sympathetic that the high position aggravated Usopp's stomach to the point of sea sickness. After he heaved for the third time Sanji was even considering taking over briefly when his panicked shout cried out over the pouring rain and wind.
"We're in trouble, they disappeared!"
"WHAT?" the rest of them cried out in shock, joining Luffy by the prow.
It was true: the galleon had simply vanished in mid-air as if it had never been there to begin with. Sanji chewed on the butt of his sodden cigarette, distressed.
"I don't understand..." Nami muttered as she looked skyward to gauge the windspeed. "They couldn't have turned that quickly, or suddenly gained enough speed for us to lose them..."
Luffy, agitated, swung up to Usopp's position to get a better look himself. He perched on the side of the nest and peered out into the sea.
"It really is gone! What'd that bastard do?"
"How did you lose them? They weren't even a league away," asked Zoro, the calmest out of all of them.
"I didn't, I swear! It really was there a minute ago!" Usopp's protests fell on largely deaf ears as they stared outward. Sanji idly wondered if the galleon would appear if they simply willed it hard enough.
"Maybe...maybe we veered off course somewhere. Let me check the charts one more time..." Nami shook her head and started to head back into the cabin.
Sanji immediately rushed to her side. How could he not, when her face looked so sad? Wasn't it now, during times of strife, that a man's true character was revealed?
"Don't fret, Nami-san! You'll figure it out!"
Nami's lips twitched and nodded.
"Of course. Still, let me check...it's just...weird...No ship vanishes without good reason."
"Monsters?" Zoro suggested.
"Don't even joke like that! Argh!"
In any case, they didn't have long to worry over the issue. The Going Merry was steadily sailing along one moment, the next it was pitching forward as if it was riding down a steep, mountain river. Sanji managed to grab Nami as they slid forward across the main deck. Zoro quickly grabbed one of the lines that had gone loose and tossed the excess length their way. Sanji wrapped one arm around it; he wasn't able to enjoy holding Nami, sadly, not with them in danger of capsizing. He shouted when Luffy was thrown clear off the crow's nest towards the sea. A quick stretch of the arm saved him before he hit the water as he grabbed one of the figurehead's horns.
"W-W-What's going on? Why are we falling?" Usopp shrieked as he clung to the main mast.
"How should I know?" Sanji had never seen anything like it. The sea was there, but they were definitely being sucked into something they couldn't even see. Poor Nami was screaming wildly.
"Whoo! Maybe Hanley's down here!" Luffy was the only one enjoying himself. His rubber body swayed in the wind without a care as they plummeted to their possible deaths. Sanji was started to notice a disturbing pattern about his captain that probably didn't bode well for future health.
He rather hoped not, he'd yet to enjoy, er, manly things.
"We're going to die!"
'Well said, Usopp.'
The world was inexplicably collapsing in on itself with no rhyme or reason. Sanji knew how vast the sea was, how impossible things could, suddenly, become possible which stretched even the most brilliant of imaginations. Sanji knew this, but it was quite another thing to see it. After pitching downward to the point of near sickness the Going Merry started to tilt sideways as if it was now in a true free-fall. The sea seemed to reach up to swallow them, then they were covered in darkness. Sanji's ears popped as they spun around and then—
The sky was a deep, gorgeous blue and the sea was the clearest he had ever seen. Sanji slowly sat up, gazing around him in wonder...and no small bit of confusion. There were no waves, so the Going Merry sat in the shallows peacefully with no visible damage to its hull despite their seeming...plummet? Nami was trembling, and Sanji quite enjoyed having his arm around her shoulders until she shoved him off.
'Ah, she is so forceful! This is the Nami-san I admire!'
Usopp groaned from his position by the mast. He was leaning against it, completely traumatized.
"So this is it...we died. We are now in heaven."
Zoro scratched his head.
"Doubt it. Or if we are there really isn't any justice in the world." He jerked his thumb to their port side. Several meters away the Rear Admiral's galleon was anchored. It was completely silent expect for the occasional sound of shifting, creaking wood.
"Hanley!" Luffy swung his arms back and then forward, stretching across the distance. He managed to reach the ship's gunwale and grabbed hold.
"Luffy, wait—" Nami started to stand, but he ignored her and shot over to the galleon. They watched as he landed and promptly vanished below deck. "Argh! This is too dangerous! We have to go after him!"
It took some doing to get Usopp back on his feet, but soon they were leaping over the side into the shallows. Sanji paused as they ran over, taking in the unending green fields that made up the inland.
'Where the hell are we? Is this...the Calm Belt? Are we stranded?' He shook his head and easily caught up to the rest of his crew. It took him two leaps to get aboard and toss down the rope ladder for Nami and Usopp to use. The galleon itself was an, admittedly, beautiful vessel. It was old-fashioned and the scroll work on the dark wood was ornate and decorative. While that Rear Admiral bastard didn't seem to command a particularly large fleet, he certainly found a way to flaunt his status using other means.
But, that didn't explain why it was so silent.
"Luffy!...where are you?" Usopp called as the others looked around. It looked as if the crew had suddenly decided to abandon their posts and leave it to rot. Sanji tried to mentally calculate just how many men it would take to man a vessel this large, when Nami's high-pitched scream pierced through the air.
"She's this way!" Zoro and Sanji practically fought each other to get down to the lower deck, with Usopp following distantly behind. Nami wasn't far from the stairs, collapsed on the ground beside a body. As Sanji grew closer he immediately saw the issue.
"What the hell is that?"
Nami turned to them shakily.
"I...I saw him lying there so I touched his arm to see if...but it suddenly fell off!"
The hapless crewman was slumped over a cart, his limbs hanging limply over the sides...well, what was left of them. Sanji could see the right arm she must have touched lying on the ground, misshapen as if it were beginning to melt. The disturbance seemed to set off a chain reaction, causing the rest of his flesh to melt under his uniform. Usopp took one look at the sight and fainted.
Nami quickly turned to revive him, eager for an excuse not to look at the corpse. Sanji hummed and knelt by the body, examining it.
"What do you think happened?"
Zoro scratched his chin before kneeling as well. He promptly stuck two fingers in the goo, causing Nami and Usopp to retch.
"As I thought," he muttered as he rubbed the substance between his fingers and thumb. "This is clay."
"Clay? Didn't that asshole say he ate the Dose Dose no Mi?"
"Aa. I'm not liking this at all. He made this guy...who knows how much of his crew was the same?"
"A golem, then?" Nami looked relieved as she took a second look. "But it's so realistic..."
It was too realistic. It may just be a practical explanation as to why he was in the habit of appropriating the pirate crews he had captured as his own, but something about this wasn't right. At all.
It made Sanji wonder just how he kept those pirates in line. It made him wonder just how many golems he could make. It would seem they were lucky the ship was seemingly deserted—on top of being intangible, the bastard was capable of making clay soldiers that would probably never tire nor feel pain. Zoro's scowl deepened as he wiped his fingers off on his pants. As the group passed countless other golems in various stages of decomposition (those that were actually still relatively whole...there were quite a few with missing body parts), it was starting to look more and more like a murder scene. All one had to do was substitute the brown clay for bright red blood and it'd be right out of one of his mystery novels that he totally didn't indulge in every evening by candlelight.
Usopp stepped carefully over what used to be someone's torso with a grimace.
"This is terrifying...and Luffy is nowhere to be found...what if Hanley—"
"Hanley-sama wouldn't die from a little thing like this!" Sanji protested. But Usopp raised a good point. Oh, what to do! His enchanting maiden of the sea!
"Dismembered bodies aren't little things!"
Sanji ignored him in favor of examining the corridors. They had reached a fork, and who knows how the paths diverged beyond that. The galleon was truly far larger than what he was used to.
"We'll never find either of them this way," Zoro groused, "we should split up. Let's meet back here in twenty minutes."
Usopp looked both horrified and resigned. Nami didn't look too enthusiastic either, but they were getting nowhere and it really was worrisome that they hadn't run into Luffy yet. The galleon was large, but not that large.
Sanji, however, saw an opportunity.
"I'll protect you, Nami-swaaaan!"
Nami blinked slowly before turning down a corridor.
"No, thank you."
Zoro chose to back track from where they came, leaving Sanji with Usopp. Usopp slowly shook his head and sighed.
"Well, guess I've lived a good life."
Sanji left Usopp to take what was left of this level and headed deeper below deck.
The chaos was even worse below. The floors were covered with debris, colored gems, and wet clay. Sanji made a face as his rather nice leather boots sunk into the mess. How disgusting. He wandered for a little longer and nearly decided to turn back when he caught the faint strains of music coming from deeper in the ship.
'Hm, that's weird.'
He'd be late to meet back, but it could be worth checking out. Sanji traced the music down to the fourth level—the holding cells. He passed the first two cells, empty, before reaching the last. It had a single bed and chair, and unlike the other two it was occupied. The man there was slender, wearing all black with overcoat, tunic, trousers, and sash. His gloved hands were playing a rapid little tune on the concertina in his lap. The man's back was to him, so Sanji cleared his throat to get his attention.
"Oi. Are you a prisoner?" Sanji asked, before taking note of the clay staining the man's fingers and shoes. "Hey, were you the one who did—"
"It's not as if they were actually real...well, in the sense that matters. Shame, really." The reply was soft, and Sanji had to strain to hear it.
Sensing that this man was more than he seemed (dangerous), Sanji briefly considered his approach. He liked fighting just as much as the next man, but he preferred discretion when possible.
"Who are you supposed to be?"
"I'm not supposed to be anyone. You are the ones who came to my island."
"Oh? And where is your island?" Sanji's eyes examined their surroundings once more. He wasn't really enjoying this shitty ass place, so let this guy have at it.
The man played a few more notes before shrugging. Sanji grit his teeth in irritation and crossed his arms.
"I'll ask again: who are you?"
The man turned his way and Sanji...had a hard time looking at his face. It wasn't as if his face was hideous, but it was the strangest sensation of his eyes simply being unable to focus on the man's countenance.
"You are interesting."
"I'm not into men."
"Hm." The concertina player shrugged. "I was looking for a young woman. I don't get many people that perceptive in this place and I wanted to use her."
'Young woman—could it be?'
"You'll get Hanley-sama over my dead body!"
"You'll be dead in an hour anyway. I merely want her to look for something for me." Sanji grit his teeth at the rather dismissive tone. Before he could answer, however, the man continued, "They call me 'Fiddler' but, it is so shameful to admit, I am without my violin."
"So?" Although Sanji did note it didn't really make sense to have such a name and yet play a small accordion.
Fiddler sighed softly and continued as if Sanji hadn't spoken,
"It was a beautiful instrument...made of the finest gold. The best grade collected from the treasures of ships I have caught in my waters. But then that man hid it from me, tricked me into letting him and his damnable crew go...ah, well. I will find her. And you and yours will make a wonderful part of my collection."
Sanji growled and opened his mouth to retort, but was interrupted by the Fiddler suddenly standing and pushing his chair back. The concertina, to Sanji's surprise, disappeared from his grasp.
'Where the hell did we end up...?'
"Still, you are interesting. I suppose it wouldn't be fair if I didn't give you a sporting chance."
Sanji could feel the hair on the back of his neck rise and he tensed.
'I can't let him get a hold of Hanley-sama! I didn't run into Luffy, either.
...This is going to be tough.'
After years of Honor Zeff kicking at his head, Sanji well knew when someone was trying to knock his block off. He dove to the side when Fidder surged forward with blinding speed (through the iron bars, what the hell?), barely missing a sharp kick to the neck. The leg sweep was quickly followed up by another, which was easier to dodge, thankfully. Judging from the way it sliced off a few of his hairs, Sanji figured that was a good thing.
"Damn!" Sanji hissed as he slid across the deck. It was wet with water and clay, although the Fiddler didn't seem to be having nearly as much trouble. Indeed, he seemed to be easily rolling with his momentum. Sanji quickly stood and lifted his right leg to block the next swirling kick, only to dive to the side again when the Fiddler suddenly shifted his weight and aimed a high kick to his left side.
'What sort of fighting style is this? Is he dancing?' The man kept moving from side to side, making him a rather difficult target to hit. It seemed to be primarily kicked based, but...it was definitely different than Zeff's. Sanji grit his teeth as he slid again, covering his once clean suit with sticky clay. Oh, he was going to kill this asshole.
"What is wrong?" Fiddler asked, sounding genuinely surprised. "I know you are better. Perhaps I should attack your women—will that get a response?"
'Right, to hell with this.'
"Shut your mouth, Shit-face!" Argh he was so annoying! The rhythm kept changing, but Sanji was slowly learning. Sanji ducked and performed a quick leg sweep when his opponent was in mid-cartwheel, only to have Fiddler balance on one hand, moving his other out of harm's way. His counterattack was quick but brutal, foot slamming into Sanji's back.
Sanji grunted when he smacked face first on the deck, but Zeff's training had him rolling out of the way before the Fiddler could finish him off with a powerful drop kick. Sanji paused long enough to wipe the mud off his face, clearing his vision.
"What kind of crazy fighting style..."
"If you think this crazy, you have not seen much."
It was still an exercise in frustration, as Fiddler was in constant movement, his basic stance easily evaded Sanji's attacks while giving him the best position to launch his own offense. Sanji didn't know what was more galling—the fact that he had yet to land a solid hit, or that the Fiddler was clearly toying with him. Sanji hadn't been so badly outmatched since sparring with Zeff with his goddamned one leg.
Finally, he had enough.
Sanji feinted to the left then right in a move that blatantly copied the Fidder's constantly shifting stance, surprised at how easy it was to incorporate it into his own movements. He managed to squeak past the Fiddler and dashed down a side passage. He needed to get this monster away from his crew.
'My crew...this is the first time I really thought of it that way.'
Zeff was a father-figure (not that he'd ever voice it) and the others at Baratie fellow chefs and companions. But nakama? That was a new feeling. Especially since it included his male crewmates (practically unheard of, really, surprised even himself).
'Heh...listen to me go on like this...' Still, he liked it.
Sanji charged headfirst down the passage, looking for a way to climb up to the main deck. With the Fiddler close on his heels, he didn't have much of an opportunity to stop and consider his route.
"Come on...keep following me, you faceless asshole..."
"Trying to lead me away?" Mother fucker didn't even have the decency to sound winded. "This is the second time someone tried this with me. Companionship is a beautiful thing."
"As if you would know!" Sanji punctuated his sentence with a powerful rear kick. Naturally, it just missed its target, but he wasn't really expecting it to connect anyway.
"You are...too stiff."
"Armada." Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the Fiddler's attack. Sanji crossed his arms over his chest just in time to avoid a heel to the gut, which was the only good thing about being kicked through a thick wooden wall. Sanji cursed and gasped for breath as he slammed into his back and went into yet another wall before stopping. He picked himself out of the debris, hissing softly.
'This is...too shameful...' Save for Zeff, he was the best fighter Baratie had...was this all he could do? This pathetic display? At this rate Fiddler will stomp him into paste and go after dear Nami-san and Hanley-sama! Unacceptable!
Sanji glared at the now motionless Fiddler, who was watching him from the large hole he'd created. It was too weird, not being able to focus on someone's face. Why was that? Just where the hell did they end up?
"You are too stiff," Fiddler repeated. "For your age and experience, your strength is good, your technique is better...but you do not flow with your attacks."
"What is this..." Was he actually being taught? What a strange fucking thing! "Why?"
The Fiddler shrugged and rolled his shoulders, tilting his head as if listening for something in the distance.
"You dream of that place."
'That place? All Blue? What does...' Sanji was torn out of his thoughts when the other man continued.
"What is All Blue? Do you truly know?"
Sanji frowned thoughtfully, unsure as to why they were even having this conversation. Of course, how that guy knew about his dream in the first place...
"The place where all seas meet, where there is enough bounty for a chef like myself to last an entire life time. What more need there be?" Sanji answered.
"Quite right. Sometimes...a simple reason is all anyone needs. For you, that place is paradise. I am interested in paradise—I can create whatever heaven you desire. If I can make it so that the resources of All Blue were at your disposal, would you still care to visit it, then? Your journey could end quite soon with no risk."
"Paradise can soon be yours—"
"Shut up, Shit-Face! Like I would take such a weak offer from you! I will find All Blue and see it with my own eyes!"
"So it is not such a simple reason, then...good...you are as interesting as I thought. You believe it truly exists?"
"I know it exists."
"Then rejoice! For I can confirm that it does. But I wonder if your heart is stout enough? It is a cursed place."
Sanji shifted in place, eyes looking for a good escape route. While it was all well and good to converse with the man who spent the past few minutes kicking him around, he wasn't doing himself any favors by remaining here. He spotted a ladder that led to a higher deck—where, specifically, he did not know, but he would have to take the chance.
"I do not care."
"The way is difficult."
"Only because I have not tried before."
"Some would consider that arrogance."
"Not if I'm the one speaking it."
Sanji had the strangest sensation that Fiddler was smiling at him.
"All Blue," he said at last, "is the place where the four seas meet as one on Grand Line. The rich, wonderful bounties of every ocean in one place. But have you ever thought of what else may be there? If the good has flowed from these oceans, then would it not stand that the bad will be there as well? All the death, the ill will, congregated in one, lone spot. It is the spot of great disaster, this is the truth that I have seen. You are good, but as you are now, Sanji—"
"How do know my—"
"You and your crew would never survive. If I told you All Blue was Hell, would you still go?"
Sanji huffed in irritation.
"You talk too much."
"I see. Then let me bring you paradise now so you won't suffer in the future."
If that wasn't a cue Sanji didn't know what was.
However, he was ready. He kicked off the ground using the strength he had been quietly building in his legs. It also served to enhance his speed, as Fiddler was demolishing his resting place all but a second later. Screw the ladder, Sanji was making his own way out. He twisted and kicked the ceiling above him, demolishing it. He ignored the splintered wood and other carnage as he grabbed a makeshift ledge and flipped up to the next level. He didn't stop there, jumping again to give the ceiling above him sharp, powerful kick to open up another exit. This time, he had finally lucked out—he was on the main deck. Sanji grunted as he landed by what had to be the quarter deck on the massive galleon.
Sanji jumped slightly and looked overboard. He saw Usopp and Nami standing in the shallows, looking no worse for the wear. Sanji smiled broadly.
"HEY!" Usopp crossed his arms and sighed. "What's going on? We heard some kind of racket!"
"That's right..." Sanji muttered.
Nami added, "We lost Luffy and Zoro never came back to the rendezvous point!"
"Marimo never came back?"
Nami gave a bone deep sigh of torment.
"That man has no sense of direction. I forgot in all the excitement."
"T-This is awful, we're dropping like flies..." whimpered Usopp. Sanji had to admit this was quickly turning out like one of his suspense light novels that he also never indulged in by candlelight, perish the thought. Then he shook his head—he had to focus.
"Usopp! Take Nami-san somewhere safe and hide! There's a really powerful guy here!"
"I thank you for your compliment."
Sanji was unable to dodge this time as a foot came crashing down on his back, driving him through the gunwale. The edge of the deck dug into his abdomen and he scarcely avoided smashing his head against the hull.
"S-Shit..." Sanji coughed as he tried to regain his breath.
Usopp's and Nami's screams seemed to only go higher in pitch and volume as Fiddler ground his heel in Sanji's back.
"Dear God have mercy. Save us from this monster, dear God have mercy—" Usopp chanted as Nami grabbed the back of his overalls and started to drag him away towards the shoreline.
"We're going, Sanji-kun!"
Fiddler sighed as he watched them try to escape.
"Shall I bring that woman paradise?"
Sanji was moving before his mind had even processed pushing off the deck and spinning his legs around. The Fiddler jumped back to evade but was caught in the ribs with a hard heel kick.
"Côtelette!" Sanji spun on his hands to bring his other foot around and landed a blow on the Fiddler's lower back. "Sélle!"
The Fiddler flew forwards across the deck, rolling twice before he dug his gloved fingers into the deck wood, thoroughly gouging it but quickly bringing himself to a stop.
"My my...you're one of those annoying types on top of everything else. Fighters that suddenly grow in strength mid-fight are irritating."
Sanji didn't speak, far too angry to do so and still trying to catch his breath around the fierce aching in his diaphragm.
"Well then, if you survive my next attacks I'll tell you about that cursed All Blue. It won't matter, in the long run, as you'll probably never leave this place. Still, it's a good deal for you."
The Fiddler slowly straightened and brushed the wood dust and splinters off his coat as his legs were suddenly engulfed in purple fire.
"Know that this is your doing—you had the chance to achieve paradise."
"The songs say that Fiddler's Green is a paradise for old sea dogs: unlimited booze, food, and music. And, technically, it's not that far off." Wadatsumi had led her further inland where they finally came across a thick, black forest. He seemed to know his way—perhaps it was more of that intuition he spoke of earlier. Hanley could hear the sound of a violin even more clearly, not that she was sure what it meant. What was also strange (well, aside the fact she was tromping through the afterlife with her dead father-turned-magatama-turned-spectre) was the speed in which the sun was setting. At first it was high in the sky, then it started dipping low as if time was moving forward at an ever increasing speed.
Hanley turned her attention back to her father.
"Why do I get the feeling that there's a 'but' in there?"
"Paradise is a tricky thing. Some find the descriptions of it to be stagnant. Others would prefer something closer to hell if simply for the stimulation. Fiddler's Green can be a paradise...but more than that, it is a collection."
"A collection?" Hanley ducked under a branch and slowed when they came to a large clearing. There was a humble two story, brick with light green roof and wrap around porch. What caught her eye was the massive collection of bottles carefully arranged on the grass. Hanley bent and peered into one, in awe of the life like models.
"I'll say," Hanley murmured, "look at the details of this port town...with sailing ships...and... ...moving... ...people..."
Hanley's eyes snapped up to Wadatsumi in horror.
"Once the Fiddler adds you to his collection, you are dead. And you will never be able to leave after nightfall."
"So this Fiddler...he's a bad guy?"
"Depends. Besides, I don't know him so I can't say much about it. If he was once human, he is certainly not that anymore. Not with his life span or abilities. And morality is a slippery slope that I don't really feel up to debate."
"So, what is he, then?"
"He is no god or devil, if that's what you mean. He's not really anything—not even a bodhisattva for all his desire to bring paradise to others. All you need worry about is getting off this island before time runs out."
"Ah, right, but that's!..." Hanley sprang to her feet. "We have maybe an hour! Oh fuck, how big is this place—"
"So that's what these bottles mean..."
Hanley frowned when the door opened and Natsuhiko stepped into fading sunlight, shadowed by his massive boxer companion. He was holding one such bottle in his hand, looking contemplative as he turned it over to examine it. Hanley was glad he was alive...but pissed as this was his goddamn fault in the first place.
"Lookie here, it's Rear Admiral Douche—"
"You can be so hurtful, Han-chan."
"I've heard that before. Look, we have to get out of here. Help me find the others—"
"I've no interest in that. You heard the man." Natsuhiko's eyes raked over Wadatsumi in interest. "You're a new face."
"You've a lot of nerve bullying my daughter, boy. Know your place," Wadatsumi replied lazily. Natsuhiko's eyes narrowed shrewdly as he glanced at Hanley's neck.
"...I see. Are you going to interfere?"
Wadatsumi looked amused, as if Natsuhiko were a child, and shook his head.
"My daughter's grown up, I don't really need to." He winked at her. "She's outgrown me; inevitable, since she'll be the best lady pirate."
Natsuhiko's expression became unreadable. Hanley didn't know if it was her insistence on piracy, or that she was refusing to play wilting flower for him. He said he wanted her to become strong, but Hanley knew...knew it was a strength on his terms, that only he approved of.
"Is that how it's going to be, Han-chan?"
"Natsuhiko...you are my friend. I've learned since I came here that real friends are rare and time nor distance will come between that. I'm sorry your life was hard, but I've got my own ambitions, too. I'm not as strong as I'd like to be, but I'm not that flake you once knew, either. I wish you the best; however, if you insist on acting so stupidly then I will find a way to tie you up and keelhaul your sorry ass stem to stern."
"Heh," Natsuhiko rolled his shoulders and tossed the bottle away. It landed with a crash and liquid spread across the wooden porch. Hanley blinked at the careless consideration for the humans inside. "So, we're done? Are Luffy and Ace that good? They own you now or what?"
Hanley ignored the more racy implications of that statement and smiled fiercely instead.
"You've got it backwards, Natsuhiko: they belong to me."
Wadatsumi cough, "Oi oi..."
"Er, sorry Oyaji."
"Maybe it is hereditary..." Wadatsumi mumbled as he rubbed the back of his neck. Hanley choked and sputtered before kicking at him.
"I don't want to know that!"
"Violent, too. Alas, blood will tell. Well, your spirit is strong, daughter, so it's not a bad thing."
'My spirit...if that's not a hint I don't know what is.'
Natsuhiko actually looked sorrowful before holding up his hand.
"I'll make this quick. Clay Cannon."
'What's holding me back wasn't lack of strength or skill.' Hanley dodged the straightforward attack easily, wincing slightly when it crashed into various bottles. Seriously, no consideration at all! 'It was my lack of confidence, my weak heart, my weak will...'
Hanley pushed herself into Soru, uncaring if her knees would appreciate the strain or not. For once she really, truly, didn't care about the pain anymore. She'd avoid it if she could—that was only good tactics, after all, but she wouldn't let her subconscious aversion interfere. Natsuhiko engaged the technique as well and they tore across the clearing.
'My weak heart distracted me, got me captured and dragged us to this possible hell! I won't be strong off and on when it's most convenient...I'll raise my spirit all the time!' Running on the instinct that was battered into her after ten years of hardship, Hanley ran towards the house and kicked off the house at a wide angle. She could feel Natsuhiko on her heels, knew he was going to push off as well to follow her. Hanley deliberately spread her limbs to slow her speed mid-air and twisted out of Natsuhiko's reach. She saw his face twist into a brief flicker of surprise as she curled up and chambered her legs for a kick once his momentum caused him to pass under her. That same feeling came over her senses from when she bit Krieg even if the experience was a little different. Hanley had the fierce urge to bite him, to punish him, but quickly
"Sky Dragon Kick!"
Somehow her heels connected with his back. Hanley briefly wondered about that as he grunted in pain when he crashed into the ground beneath him. Hanley landed on his back and raised her claws—huh, when did her nails grow—but suddenly an image of Cassius practically knocking her head off with a powerful left straight punch caused her to abort the attack and lunge forward to roll into a defensive position three meters away.
Hanley wasn't surprised to see the large man standing over Natsuhiko but a second later, arm extended.
'So you must have concentration and a strong heart to use spirit...' The only other circumstance seemed to be near death, evidenced from when she bit Krieg after he nearly blew her up. It'd be handy when someone else would feel the need to smash her face in, but all the same she'd rather not let herself get into that state. Hanley hissed softly when she felt her body reverting back to its normal state. Seems like she couldn't hold it quite yet. But she'd figure something out.
Hanley spat the remnants of the poison from her mouth as Natsuhiko let out a laugh and hopped to his feet, no worse for the wear but pleasantly surprised.
"Wow, that was...I'm more in love than ever."
"You're a masochist. Why am I always meeting masochists—did you just say love?"
Natsuhiko hummed in amusement.
"I always have, obviously. I told you earlier the girl I liked never noticed me."
"B-But I always thought you liked what's-her-fucking-face! You were always staring in class!"
"Han-chan, you sat behind her."
"...Okay, and? I don't follow."
Natsuhiko huffed and straightened his suit.
"I never imagined you would get that technique so early. You're sequence breaking, for shame."
"What? What technique?"
"The ability to hit Logia users...the specifics didn't come until much later or never at all. But I guess..." he trailed off at the sound of heavy footsteps crashing through the bush. Wadatsumi was gone, which greatly disappointed her.
Hanley blinked when Zoro stumbled into the clearing, looking irritated. He scratched his head and looked around.
"Hn...this isn't the ship."
Hanley stared. Natsuhiko blinked. Cassius continued to gaze blankly into nothingness.
Hanley knew she didn't want to ask, would regret it once she did, but she simply had to.
"Mr. Zoro...are you lost?"
Zoro didn't answer (oh god he really was lost!), instead choosing to focus on Natsuhiko and Cassius.
"Hah, knew you'd be just fine, woman. Looks like I found you."
'Looks like you stumbled across me without meaning to.'
"Yeah...amazing." It was amazing...it truly was beyond belief and she had no words for it. "You gonna just stand there and look pretty or are you gonna use those brand new swords at your hip?"
Zoro raised an eyebrow and peered at her. Whatever he saw he must have approved of, as he nodded and unsheathed his weapons.
"I'm thinking I want to show my appreciation for these bastards making us chase them all over the damn place."
Natsuhiko idly adjusted his sleeves before making his response.
"Cassius...put a stop to this."
The boxer nodded slowly and held up his hands in a standard guard. Zoro grinned, resembling a shark circling in on a kill.
"You're strong," Zoro complimented, "that's good. I need strong opponents."
Cassius didn't answer, unsurprisingly, before blurring into action. Zoro crossed his swords to block the punch, but he grunted when the blow sent him skidding backwards.
"Mr. Zoro, you okay?" Hanley asked.
"Ha, what brute strength!..." Zoro rolled his shoulders as if to get the sensation back into his limbs. Cassius resumed his ready position. "Fine, I'll come to you!"
"Useless! Cassius's Kami-e is unparalleled!"
Hanley frowned and said, "Did you just say..."
"But-ter-fly," Cassius intoned as Zoro began swinging. The change was immediate as his muscles relaxed and he easily evaded Zoro's attacks. His body and movements were incredibly smooth as he swayed and danced with ease.
'He's practically floating...so this is Kami-e...'
Zoro growled, but didn't lose patience as he failed to connect. Then, suddenly, Cassius changed his rhythm. His muscles were still quite flexible, but his switch to offense was near instantaneous.
"Bee." He fell into a series of rapid fire jabs and punches that threatened to overwhelm the swordsman. Honestly, even with his unusual demeanor he didn't seem to be trying...putting the least amount of effort needed to succeed. Hanley trusted Zoro's strength, but it wouldn't do to ignore the very real threat before them. Various bottles crunched beneath their feet as they fought; it made Hanley very nervous to see it.
"Gomu Gomu no Pistol!"
Natsuhiko twitched in annoyance when the fist sunk into his chest but didn't move otherwise. Hanley could feel the smile stretching across her face when she saw Luffy rocket into the clearing. "Leave some for me, Zoro!"
"Ha, don't be so slow, then!" came the retort.
'As if you did this on purpose...' Hanley stood as Luffy pulled back his arm and landed in a crouch beside her.
"Ugh," he grumbled, shaking his fist. Hanley was a little surprised when he didn't cheerfully greet her with his typical, "Hi, Hanley!" She was surprised when he didn't sigh and comment sadly on her laziness that led to her getting carted off by a Marine, or why hadn't she beaten him up yet? Her mind cast about for an explanation until it finally, obviously, hit her.
Luffy was angry; really and truly angry.
This was new. He was, mostly, of a generally happy disposition. He wasn't quick to anger like Ace was, and sometimes she swore Ace enjoyed blowing his top—they'd certainly squabbled enough for her to suspect it. She had seen Luffy annoyed, irritated, exasperated, hold grudges, and all those other nifty little synonyms, but those moods were quick to pass even if they did occur slightly more often, rare as they were. It was just that Luffy was too...special...for it to really last long or be a bother. The closest to true rage she had seen him was recently on Sirop with Kuro and then Arlong's despicable treatment of Nami. He was painfully straightforward, more determined than most, and like his devil's fruit he bounced back without fail. It was one of the things Hanley really liked about him, no matter how exasperating his "specialness" got.
But he rarely got this angry. Thinking more on it, she hadn't even seen him get this angry. And Hanley only had to glance at his face and note his teeth grinding silence that he'd managed to work himself past anger, speed right through rage, and settle on a quiet, uncharacteristic fury. She had no idea he was capable of it; well, now she knew better, and now she sort of felt like a naughty child who was about to get their ass sent into time out for gross stupidity.
She had no clue how to handle an truly furious Luffy. Ace was easy—he went off like a firecracker but it quickly burnt out. She should say something, seeing as it was her fault, but...
Natsuhiko smirked at him.
"You look as if you want to say something—"
"Why?" Luffy snapped, surprising Hanley further. Luffy usually wasn't the "why" type. But then...
"Why? Weren't you paying attention? Han-chan and I are from the same village, before she knew you. You weakling, who do you think you can protect? One day, you'll find out just how weak you are, and I won't let Hanley die because of your foolishness!"
'Yeah...still kinda here.
...Being a damsel sucks. Never again.'
Luffy scowled and retorted angrily, "She won't die!"
"Naive. I won't hear such talk from someone like you! You really have no idea—this is all just a game to you, you little hedonist!"
As Hanley thought, this was more than just whatever feelings he may have for her...or the idea of her, at least.
Luffy fell silent before adjusting his stance. Natsuhiko sneered slightly.
"Nothing to say to that? But you're still determined? We'll see how long that luck of yours last, Monkey D. Luffy." Natsuhiko's face was carefully blank as he held up his hands. Clay fell from his hands and began piling up. It quickly shaped itself into two rather mean looking soldiers.
The now solid clay soldiers twirled their lances and lunged forward with surprising speed. Luffy jumped over one and kicked the right one in the side of the head. As that one stumbled, he grabbed the other and twisted mid-air, throwing it into its brother.
"Bastard! I want to fight you!"
Natsuhiko simply made more soldiers.
"You delay the inevitable! And when the sun sets you will be left here to rot in the Fiddler's collection. But you're so stupid you probably won't know the difference."
They had to pause when Zoro and Cassius got in the way. Zoro was panting slightly while Cassius still looked fresh.
"Damn it..." Zoro cursed.
"I've had enough of you annoyances. Han-chan, why are you being so stubborn?"
He made it sound like she was the one being unreasonable!
"Why are you, Natsuhiko? This is insanity!" Hanley cried.
"Fine, then. But I will not let you die here. Come."
"Actually," a cold voice cut through the air, freezing all combatants, "you will all die."
'This feeling...' It was enough, alone, to make her want to bite off her own tongue—which she barely avoided. She didn't have to turn to guess who was speaking. Hanley took a deep breath to steady herself. Wadatsumi warned her of her sensitivity.
The grass rustled as the man approached.
"What are you children doing to my house? I put a lot of work in my collection...it will take ages to sort through this mess..." He stopped by her side and Hanley forced herself to keep her eyes on his feet.
'This is not good. The Fiddler must be pissed—we'll be lucky to get out of here alive...'
"Oh, is this your house? Sorry." Luffy didn't sound all that sorry. Hanley sighed and slapped her forehead. Yeah, of course. The Fiddler was silent for a long stretch of time before speaking.
"What a curious child...he reminds me of...well, that's not important. Your time is nearly up, foolish children. Must you squabble like this?"
Natsuhiko swallowed, wisely dispelling his terracotta soldiers.
Luffy blinked once before turning and punching Natsuhiko in the face, once more knocking his head off.
"H-Hanuman!" Hanley shrieked when the two of them began fighting again.
Natsuhiko quickly reformed his head and swung his arm, creating a whip made out of clay. Luffy rolled out of the way and retaliated with Gomu Gomu no Gatling Gun.
"That's it, I'm going to fucking kill you!" Natsuhiko snarled, wild eyed. His skin started to turn a dark brown and his body began to grow in size.
"Not if I get you first!" Luffy drew back his fist for another punch. The Fiddler growled and suddenly kicked his right leg, sending out a blast of air. Luffy pulled back just in time to avoid losing an arm even as Natushiko lost both his. The Fiddler sighed in exasperation as his house and property were damaged even further.
"Are you quite finished? Stop that before I end both your lives." He paused to see if he was going to be obeyed before continuing, "I've been looking for you, girl. You can be of great help to me. I'm looking for my violin."
Zoro's eyes narrowed.
"Who are you supposed to be?"
"That's the second time I've been asked that today..." Hanley watched as his legs circled around to stand before her. "You can hear it, can't you?"
Hanley shrugged, finally looking at his face. Her eyes promptly bugged out.
"You look just like—!"
"Now, now, that's not important. How troublesome of you to see it. Why don't you answer my question instead?"
"I...yes, ever since I got here. It sounds like it's close."
The Fiddler stroked his chin thoughtfully, considering his options. Hanley tried not to stare, but it was a difficult thing with such a familiar visage before her.
"Good." The Fiddler finally answered, putting his hands in his pockets. "I thought so. It's easy to tell which ones are sensitive." Hanley watched as he gestured for her to stand. "A troublesome young man barely out of boyhood hid it away, and my sight is not what it used to be."
Perhaps she could work with this. Maybe...
"If I find your fiddle, we get to leave," Hanley stated boldly. They weren't going to get stuck here because of hers and Natsuhiko's issues. She had to make sure her nakama got free at the very least.
"Who is this guy?" Luffy asked, slightly less furious.
"I'll explain later." The sun was setting and Hanley didn't want to waste any more time. The sound of the music had gotten louder before she was distracted by the fight. "Luffy, I want you and Zoro get ready to run."
"I'm not running."
'Oh, right. I totally forgot who I'm talking to.'
The Fiddler cleared his throat.
"I'm still here, and your lack of trust is hurtful. Still, you're in no position to demand anything. If you do not do as I say, I'll simply destroy them like I did that other young man."
'Other young man? The only other young man it could be...'
"What'd you do to Sanji?" Hanley shouted angrily, fearing the worst. The Fiddler muttered something under his breath and shrugged.
"Was I not clear? But then, he rather insisted on trying to delay me as much as possible to prevent me from coming after you. In that sense, it's rather his own fault."
Hanley bit her lip as her hands curled into her fists. She already knew this was her doing, but did he have to put it like that, even if it were true?
"Well? Any ideas Rear Admiral?" Hanley drawled sarcastically, trying to keep her voice from shaking.
Natsuhiko's eyes narrowed and he hissed, "This never happened!"
The Fiddler seemed to finally reach the end of his patience when he started to reach for her arm.
"Do as I say, girl."
Luffy quickly snapped his arm out in a quick jab.
The Fiddler easily jumped back to evade, only to flip away when a black blur crashed down just where he was standing.
"What the hell?" Zoro knocked a bottle away with his sheath before it smacked into his face. Hanley was more concerned keeping the dirt from her eyes.
"More trouble?..." she wondered as the dust began to settle.
"You really don't know when to roll over and die, do you?" The Fiddler asked as he straightened the cuffs on his coat. As the dust cleared, Hanley found herself smiling in relief.
"Like I thought," Sanji said, "I knew you would lead me right to the others..." He swayed a bit, but stubbornly locked his knees to remain upright. Hanley cringed at the horrible shape he was in. His suit was ripped and he looked badly burned—far worse than when he fought against Pearl back at Baratie—to say nothing of the blood and bruising.
"He's really beat up," Luffy observed quietly.
"Y-Yeah..." Hanley agreed while Zoro snorted.
"Ha! So I guess that guy is all talk?"
"Zoro!" Hanley began, but it seemed that was exactly what Sanji needed to hear as he shot forward despite his injuries to release a flurry of spinning kicks.
"I don't want to hear that crap from you, Marimo!" Sanji snapped as his kick smashed through two trees.
"He'll be fine."
Hanley grabbed Luffy's vest and Zoro's haramaki and started dragging them away from the vicious fight.
"Come on, then! We have to go!" In all the excitement she had forgotten about the quickly vanishing sunlight. Natsuhiko appeared to notice as well as he motioned for Cassius to follow.
"We'll have to put this on hold, Han-chan."
Zoro struggled against her grip.
"Not again, woman!"
"We have to leave, Mr. Zoro, and frankly I don't trust you to follow a straight line."
Despite his protests she lead them through the tangled underbrush, pausing occasionally to get her bearings. Finally, Natushiko spoke up.
"Han-chan, the ships're that way."
"I'm not looking for the ships, I'm...ah ha!" Hanley dropped her cargo and jogged ahead to a fallen stone pillar. She pressed her ear against the carved rock and listened intently.
"I kinda wanna ask...but I'd hate to disturb her."
Zoro pointed a katana at him.
"What the hell are you talking about all of a sudden, you—"
"Yes!" Hanley took a step back before breaking the stone pillar into more manageable pieces with a powerful elbow strike. She brushed the debris aside and pulled out a tattered violin case from its hiding place. Once in her hands the music finally seemed to fade. She turned it over before carefully cracking it open.
"Holy shit..." she murmured as the others (save Cassius) crowded around her. The Fiddler wasn't kidding when he said the instrument was made out of the purest, highest grade of gold. It sparkled in the low sunlight, and yet was so light to barely weigh a thing at all.
"This is what he was looking for, huh," Natsuhiko murmured thoughtfully. "Well, fine, but we need to leave. Follow me...unless you trust those two to get you back."
Hanley glared at him but sighed as she looked at Zoro and Luffy. Zoro raised an eyebrow while Luffy was still preoccupied with gazing at the shiny violin in her arms. Hanley sighed once more before reluctantly nodding.
"I have no choice, do I?" she muttered as she closed the case with a snap.
Natsuhiko smirked triumphantly.
They turned when there was a loud crash not too far away from where they were standing.
"Well, lead the way, then."
"Please follow me."
Hanley stumbled as they were finally free from the tangled woods. It was practically nightfall, with twilight vanishing every second. She cursed and took off running in the direction Natsuhiko pointed at. She had to hope they made it; she had to hope Sanji wouldn't be left behind, although from the sounds of it he and the Fiddler were keeping close. All Hanley knew was she was quite sick of this little adventure. She wanted her bed and her sleep!
They dashed across the sloping, green hills until Hanley could see the coastline—and the Going Merry—in the distance. Hanley chanced a look back and gaped when she saw Sanji go flying to the air.
Luffy looked to where she pointed and nodded.
"I got 'im!" He stretched one arm and snagged the lapel of Sanji's now tattered suit jacket before promptly tossing him further towards the Going Merry. Hanley slapped her forehead when she saw Nami and Usopp run screaming before he slammed into them.
"Monkey D. Luffy!"
"What? He's on the ship, now."
'Why do I even bother?'
Natushiko and Cassius broke away to head to their own ship. There was only a miniscule amount of light left on the horizon when Hanley sped ahead and leaped onto Going Merry's main deck.
"You're alive!" Usopp cheered (or sobbed, rather). Hanley patted his shoulder as she knelt by Sanji's side.
"Sanji-kun, you okay?" she asked, setting the case down. Sanji's groan was downright pitiful, but he managed to give her a thumbs up. At the very least he was aware.
Nami busied herself by making preparations to depart.
"Hurry up you two, we have to raise the sail!"
"Okay!" Luffy answered, grabbing Zoro next and tossing him on board. Hanley sighed and moved to the side just as Zoro came crashing down.
"Mr. Zoro, raise the sail, won't you?"
"I'm going to kill you all."
"That's nice. Grab the rope."
The sail billowed as it caught a strong gust of wind coming from land. The ship creaked and slowly began to pull away from shore.
"We're really cutting it close..." Hanley worried as she went to the prow. She could see the Fiddler's figure in the distance, slowly walking towards the coast. She moved back to Sanji's side—he had somehow managed to take off his jacket without assistance, but looked unable to do much else for the time being. Hanley felt enormously guilty at the state he was in, but she couldn't spare him any attention at the moment. She grabbed the violin case and held it up for the Fiddler to see.
"Oi, here's what you wanted, right?"
Hanley drew back her arm and threw the vase as hard as she could. Despite its awkward shape it flew a good distance right into the Fiddler's outstretched hand. He turned it over in his hands before opening the case.
"There, that should..." She trailed off when he held up the case towards her, showing it was empty. "What the fuck? Where did it..."
"Ah, forgive me, Hanley-sama...but I couldn't leave without avenging myself." Sanji propped himself up and held up golden violin. Hanley's eyes bugged out.
"Faceless shit-head pissed me off..." Sanji tiredly sank to the deck.
"Faceless? What do you mean?"
"What do you think it means?" Usopp gasped as he ran past, "That monster has no face! I nearly died..."
'But...his face looks a lot like...' Hanley shook her head, dismissing the thought for now to help the others. They were finally out in open ocean, the small island vanishing quickly in the distance. Natsuhiko's galleon was keeping pace easily, despite the fact she couldn't see any crew. Strange, there were plenty when she was last on the ship...well, it didn't matter now. It would seem, despite everything and Sanji's theft, they were going to be free.
"Oh my, oh my...that kid is really annoying." He dropped the now useless case and shoved his hands deep in his pockets. Both ships were making good time—they would be free of his space just in time, even with his meddling.
Still, this was the most fun he had had in years. Most of the time, the sailors trapped weren't really worth much. That didn't stop him from bringing them salvation by adding them to his collection, but it got boring after several centuries. The last time he was so excited was when he had managed to capture a fledging pirate and his nakama all those years ago.
'It really is remarkable...that one boy even had the same straw hat...'
"You are still here?" Fiddler asked, suddenly, glancing to the side. Wadatsumi smiled softly and slowly lowered himself to the ground with a deep sigh. Even seated his height was nearly comparable with the Fiddler's.
"Am I not allowed?"
"Oh, there's nothing about that," the Fiddler replied casually, "it's just that I thought you would be with her."
"I will be, but now...only in the smallest of senses. I'm all tapped out—still, I can't bring myself to go to hell just quite yet."
"Hoh? After you spent the better part of the day toying with that one kid? You could have killed him without trouble; however, not only did you train him, you told him about All Blue and let him make off with your treasure. Any particular reason?"
The Fiddler was silent for several long moments.
"... ...I suppose I have become sentimental myself. But times are rapidly changing, no? To have nothing for so long...and yet, suddenly, there is so much turmoil in recent history. It is the same as that ancient time."
"Indeed. It is the same feeling...something is building."
"Careful, you'll end up interacting with the outside world again if you keep that up." Wadatsumi's voice was teasing.
The Fiddler grunted.
"Enough, away with you. Hurry up and die peacefully."
Wadatsumi laughed softly as he slowly disappeared. The Fiddler turned his gaze skyward and watched as stars began to dot the sky.
"Over eight hundred years...no one should live that long."
"I'll be leaving you here for now." Natsuhiko called down as he leaned against the railing of his ship. Hanley's eyes narrowed and she crossed her arms angrily. He made it sound as if he was doing them a favor.
It was galling to admit, but he really was.
Natsuhiko spoke once more, "I'll be going this way across the Calm Belt. You'd best hurry to Reverse Mountain before it gets too hot for you in East Blue. Captain Smoker will no doubt be close behind you."
"Alright," Hanley answered, "now get the hell out of here."
Natsuhiko smiled at her.
"Mean as always. But don't think this will be the last you'll see me. I can promise that. Oh, and Monkey? I'll be killing you, first."
"How dare you—"
Luffy interrupted her, thoroughly unconcerned.
"If you say so. You're not killing anybody."
"Hm." To Hanley's surprise, Natsuhiko smiled at that before raising his hand. "Beat it, before I change my mind."
"That guy really pisses me off..." Zoro growled as they watched him depart for Calm Belt.
"Forget him for now. We do need to leave, and soon." Nami shielded her eyes as she studied the horizon. "Ah...we're heading right into rain as well."
Hanley nodded in agreement from her position by the prow. They had only escaped the storm due to their unusual side trip. Judging from the map she saw on the galleon, they would have to head northwest from what she could figure. The trip was only a few hours, but they couldn't afford to waste any more time. She dug into her pocket and pulled out the ragged armband she picked off of one of Natsuhiko's marines. She examined the mon as she turned it over between her fingers.
"Whatcha holdin'?" Luffy asked, dropping onto the bow spirit. Hanley jumped and pressed her hand against her chest.
"Fuck, don't do that!"
Hanley sighed, "Nevermind..." She held up the armband for him to see. "You see this, right? It's how I knew Natsuhiko was here. It's...how I found him. See this? This is the flag from our country, a red dot in the middle of a white background. It represents the sun. And these characters spell 'Summer Boy,' his name. He drew it in class one day about 12 years ago...said he was going to put it on his ship when he saved up enough to buy one."
"He really knew you?"
"Hmm..." Luffy swung his legs around so that he was facing her. Hanley tucked the armband back into her pocket and leaned back against the curved piece of wood.
"I just don't understand him, not completely. Why he went to so much trouble...why he did that." Hanley paused, taking a deep breath. Luffy seemed content to let her talk at him for the time being. "He wasn't like that before, you know? He was so much fun. Exasperating, hyper, but fun. We used to talk all the time, fight all time...sorta like me, you, and Ace used to before we had to go and get all old."
Luffy puffed his cheeks out indignantly.
"Who's old? You and Ace will be all rickety long before me! But that's okay, I'll look after you."
"Oh? Why thank you! It's nice to know my husband is so reliable."
"He was going to be a fisherman with his own, huge boat...even more successful than his father. He was going to take me places, too. But now that he has his own ship, and that he really can take me all over the world he's not the same. And it's my fault, sort of, that he was treated so badly. He would have never been separated from his family if not for me—that's just the truth of it. I feel responsible for him, kinda, since that's the case."
"Well..." Luffy slid off the bowspirit and placed his hands behind his head as he considered his thoughts (which was...amazing, but there it was). "I don't know much, but everything he did is because of what he wanted to do."
"Thanks for trying to make me feel better. It's just...the worst of it was he liked me. And he still does, but I never knew. So now he wants to kill you and—"
"He won't, I won't let him so don't worry so much. I'm strong."
Hanley nodded and laughed softly.
"So he won't! But..." Luffy trailed off, and once again, for just a moment, Hanley saw that same something that was in his expression before when he faced Arlong.
"But?" she asked, watching him.
"He made me really angry."
Hanley coughed, shifting uncomfortably. She remembered that, and she still felt bad for making him worry so much.
"I saw. Er, if you want to yell at me..."
"Oh, well, I went to him in the first place. If I didn't do that—"
"You wanted to see a friend. I won't get mad for you wanting to do that." Luffy smiled. "Hanley gets mad enough for the both of us."
'Oh, well... ... ...thank you?'
"Haha, you're too kind."
Luffy gave a sharp nod.
"And because he used to be Hanley's friend, I'll only beat him up instead of kill him."
"Oh!" Luffy lightly tapped a fist into the open palm of his hand. "That's right, I was supposed to get you—we're having a real early breakfast."
"O-Okay... ...were you seriously trying to kill him?"
"Yeah, of course."
'Of course he says.' Then Hanley had another thought.
"Er, you're not going to tell your brother, are you?"
Luffy gave her an odd look. Hanley wondered how it got to the point where Luffy was looking at her as if she were cracked.
"Why wouldn't I?"
"You know why! He's a total hot head! He'd take it way out of proportion!"
"I guess he'd try to kill him, too...are you sure you just don't want him to yell at you?"
It was a rather insightful comment for him, but Hanley found herself snarling just thinking about Ace's attitude.
"He always yells at me! He can be so unreasonable!"
"You yell a lot, too."
"I don't not!" Hanley shouted, proving his point quite effectively. "Ooh, now just thinking about him pisses me off! You just wait until I see him again, I've got some words for that inconsiderate—"
"Oi!" Zoro called, opening the cabin door. "What's taking you two so long?"
"Did Mr. Zoro miss me that much?" Hanley sassed. "That really warms my heart!"
She snickered as he shook his head and grumbled under his breath, retreating back into the kitchen. She was a little worried when she didn't hear Sanji comment on the exchange—he typically would have.
"Hanuman? Is Sanji-kun...?"
"He made breakfast, but he left after."
'He didn't even stop to flirt with Tsunami...this is serious.'
"I see...well, let's enjoy his cooking and rest a bit. We'll be in Grand Line later on today if it works out well."
Luffy pumped his fists and jumped into the air.
"Yosh! That's right!"
Hanley trailed behind as he ran ahead into the combined cabin/galley, lost in thought. She had a lot to consider, not in the least Wadatsumi and Natsuhiko. Still...
'I won't lose.'
"Ara, Sanji-kun, here you are!"
Sanji jumped and dropped the small, worn paperback he was reading, wincing when he jarred his body too roughly. Hanley opened the door completely and stepped inside the hold, frowning in concern.
"Are you alright? You shouldn't move so abruptly." She pulled up a small crate and joined him at the small table. She glanced around the small cargo area. He had a pretty nice set up here, given that he had little to work with. The table was small and worn, but stable, and he had a decent supply of lantern oil and candles. He kept the area pretty spotless as well.
"I'm fine, Hanley-sama!" he said, smiling brightly. "I'm so moved at your concern for me!"
"I think something is wrong...you don't have to force yourself, you know." She must have been close to the mark when he jerked slightly and scratched his cheek.
"Ah, Hanley-sama is so insightful!"
'Er...well, he hasn't changed all that much...'
Hanley held up her parcel.
"I have the first aid kit. I don't know much, only enough to keep someone from dying outright, but Tsunami said that this was good for burns, and I just..." Hanley sighed and bowed slightly to him. "I have an idea of what you did for me, so...thanks."
"Now, now...I just want to show how grateful I am. Anyway, before we get to the first aid I want to do something first, so...take it off," ordered Hanley, gesturing towards him.
Sanji gaped at her for so long she wondered if she said something wrong.
Hanley tried once more, "Sanji-kun?"
He coughed and suddenly seemed to find the bulkhead a source of great interest.
"It's alright, I'm not that inept, I've had lots of practice. Well, I'm not a professional—" She trailed off when Sanji suddenly choked.
"I never thought such a thing, Hanley-sama."
"Right... ...anyway! I do know what I'm doing, though. Well, after being with Luffy so long—are you sure you're okay?" Hanley asked again when he made an unusual noise deep in his throat.
"Fine," he croaked.
"Hm...too many cigarettes, I bet. Anyway, I'll be gentle, just..."
"H-Hanley-sama, really, your concern is more than enough!"
"Don't be so silly. Now take off your shirt or I'll do it for you!" She reached forward then and managed to grab a sleeve and his shirt tail, but Sanji proved to be quite agile even while sore.
"Oh for goodness' sake, just let me...ha!" A quick nudge to the back of his right knee was enough to get him back down on his seat, but not enough to get him out of his garment.
"Hanley-sama—" Sanji began, but was cut off when she accidentally yanked too hard, causing his collar to ride up into his neck.
"Shit, I'm sorry, hold on," she reached down to undo his tie so he didn't choke to death from her assistance, only to freeze when the door opened.
"I think it's in—ah." Nami raised an eyebrow and smiled. Hanley could feel herself beginning to sweat and smiled weakly.
"I'm not one to judge," Nami said (and how kindly she sounded!). Hanley sighed when the other young woman directed Zoro to pick up a large barrel. Sanji couldn't speak at all, not that Hanley could exactly blame him. Nami gave a short wave as she left, without further comment. Zoro paused just as he was closing the door.
"This isn't really my business," he began, "but men shouldn't do that too much, it weakens them."
The sound of the door shutting seemed to echo in the small area. Hanley sighed as she finished loosening his tie, scowling slightly.
"I think I get it, now. I was just going to look at your burns, you know."
"A-Ah..." Sanji mumbled. Hanley smiled and lightly gave his shoulder a pat.
"Oh, it's fine. I'm just surprised at how shy you were." Hanley narrowed her eyes teasingly. "So it's like that, hm? Under that flirtatious exterior you wouldn't know what to do if a woman truly reciprocated. I think you'd die of shock...and happiness."
Sanji grinned, looking bashful. Hanley nodded.
"Anyway, stay still so these wounds aren't even more aggravated than they already are."
Sanji smiled softly, allowing her to do her work.
"Not at all."
It was silent for several long moments as Hanley concentrated on her task. She didn't think she could fuck it up at this point, but she didn't want to take a chance. Once she was done wrapping his shoulder, she decided to speak.
"Sanji-kun, is there really something wrong?"
"That man, he told me some unsettling things."
"Oh?" she said as she wiped the burn paste from her fingertips.
"Mm," he murmured, seemingly lost in his own world. "He told me about All Blue."
"So it really exists? That's good, right?"
"It is good, only..."
Hanley watched him straighten and shake his head.
"It's been my dream to find All Blue my entire life. It's hard to explain the...need I have to go there. That man said he would tell me about All Blue if I could survive his attacks. And he said...he said that it was the site of some great disaster that happened centuries ago; that it is the gathering place of all treasures of the four Blues, but it collects the evil as well. It's a cursed sea and that I would be inviting disaster to go after it."
"So, you've decided not to pursue it?"
"How can I quit now, when I'm so much closer than I've ever been? I think I'm so out of sorts is because of that man. He made it sound like he was there. For a while, I thought he was teaching me the same way Honor Zeff used to; but if that's the case, then why?"
"I...who knows? I don't think the Fiddler's motives can be understood. I do know that he's been alive for quite some time, apparently..." Hanley tied off the bandage going around his middle. "The question is, is this really going to change your goals?"
"No," came the firm reply. Hanley grinned.
"So...as Hanuman would tell me...don't worry about it. If there's a curse, and it's some natural disaster waiting to happen, then that's just the way it is."
"...You're right." He pulled a cigarette from the tattered pack lying on the table and dug out a lighter from his pocket. He lit it with practiced ease and took a few, short puffs. "That's just the way it is."
To be continued...