AN: So I've shaken off my writer's block, and this right here is the proof! You can all then rest assured that the last chapter was not a fluke, and that this story is officially back on track. And on that note, thank you so much for your continued feedback and support! It's been so lovely to hear from all of you who've been waiting so patiently for this fic to continue. If ever there was a reason to write anything at all, it's wonderful readers like you.


Chapter XII

The day had been going so well.

Clutching her skirts to keep from tripping over her own feet, Makino hurtled down the street, the wind whipping about her face sending her fringe into complete disarray. With her heart lodged firmly at the base her throat, she almost choked on her own air as she pushed herself to run faster.

She should have seen it coming – should have suspected that something would happen, after the incident at the bar all those weeks ago. It wasn't often bandits came down from the hills, but with the tavern full of pirates she hadn't thought much about it; hadn't considered the possible consequences. And despite Shanks' attempt at diplomacy, she knew full well that if things were to have escalated to something serious, he wouldn't have taken it quite so lightly. But like he'd said, it hadn't been more than spilled sake. So when the same bandits had showed up that morning, drunk off their imagined superiority, Makino had been more than prepared to follow his example, in order to keep the peace. Without the Red-Haired pirates she could do little else, after all, without putting herself and Luffy in danger.

Of course, she should have realized Luffy wouldn't see it that way.

Please don't let me be too late. The mayor's cottage was right ahead of her now, and she sprinted the last few steps. Out of breath and with her heart hammering against her ribcage, she threw the door open, not even bothering to knock to announce her arrival, as was proper.

"Chief!" So out of breath was she, that she couldn't seem to get out another word, but she forced them out despite the fact that she felt like choking. "Something's happened!"

Woop Slap blinked, taken aback by her brash entrance. "Makino? What's all the fuss about?"

"Luffy–" She inhaled, feeling her lungs constrict, before letting it out, along with the words, "The bandits took Luffy!"

"What?!"

He nearly dropped his mug in surprise, eyes wide in his odd face, and Makino leaned against the door, still catching her breath. He looked like he was halfway between believing her and chalking it up to something out of her imagination – in a village as quiet as Fuschia, nothing serious ever really happened. That first arrival of the Red-Haired pirates had been the only event of note in years.

But knowing Luffy's easily ignited temper and penchant for getting into trouble, he recovered quickly, and Makino felt a spark of hope as he scrambled to his feet. And when he passed her in the doorway, she followed. "Where, my girl?"

"Outside the bar," she said, worry gnawing at her gut. She didn't know what had transpired in the time she'd been gone, but she hoped they hadn't hurt him – she didn't know what she'd do if anything happened to the boy.

She followed him down the street in the direction she'd come from, and wondered what he planned to do. To be honest, she hadn't really considered what she'd done, running to him, but he was the only one she knew in Fuschia with enough sense and righteousness to do something. Thinking back to how the rest of the village had reacted the day Shanks' crew had first docked, she doubted any of them would so much as lift a finger now, with hostile bandits causing trouble. Part of her wished desperately that Garp hadn't left for Headquarters so soon, but she pushed the thought away as she followed Woop Slap towards the bar. There was no use dwelling on it, not with the situation being what it was. They'd find out what the bandits wanted, and try to get Luffy back unharmed.

They heard the voices long before they'd even rounded the corner, and when they did, the small gathering of rag-tag criminals gathered outside her bar made Makino suddenly furious – an anger not unlike the one she'd felt at the crew of pirates who'd showed up at Party's on her very first day – but when her eyes landed on the small, writhing shape pressed to the ground by a heavy boot, the anger was doused by another wave of worry, preventing her from doing something brash.

She hadn't a clue of how to handle the situation, but thankfully, Woop Slap was a step ahead of her. "Let the boy go!" he bellowed suddenly, voice cleaving through the air and alerting the men gathered around their leader. Several heads turned their way, and Makino resisted the urge to grimace at a suggestive leer directed her way in particular.

"Please," Woop Slap added, although she doubted it would do much good, pleading with men like that.

Then he surprised her by falling to his knees before them. "I don't know what the boy did, and I don't want to argue with you, but I'm willing to pay," he said, voice clear and level despite the fact that she could see him shaking like a leaf. She felt a surge of sympathy for the man at the unexpected display. "So please, let him go!"

Luffy echoed her awe verbally. "Chief!"

The leader of the pack seemed amused. "Like you'd expect, it's the elders that know how to deal with the situation." Makino's heart sank at his words, because she could tell by his tone what was coming. "But I'm afraid it's too late, old man – you can't save the brat," he continued, anger marring his features. "He really pissed me off."

Something dark seemed to pass over his features, and before Makino could react he'd slammed the heel of his boot into Luffy's back. "When weaklings insult me, it makes me so angry–!"

"It's your fault!" Luffy snapped back, seeming entirely unperturbed by the fact that he was being forcibly held down, and Makino wished desperately that he wouldn't make the situation worse. "You wild baboon!"

The leader growled under his breath. "That's it," he ground out, and Makino could only look on helplessly as he drew his sword. "I'm not gonna sell you, after all – I'll kill you instead."

"Luffy!" she called, not knowing what else to do. If she made a run for it, could she catch him in time? But even if she managed to grab him, what would she do – run for the hills and hope she shook them off somehow?

The familiar presence washed over her then, before the sound of his voice reached her ears, and her breath caught in her throat at the sudden warmth at her back.

"I was wondering why there was no one to welcome us at the docks," came the amused rumble, and she stepped to the side, eyes wide at the unexpected appearance, and relief pushed up her throat–

"Captain!"

Shanks flashed her a grin, eyes holding hers for the span of a single breath, before turning his attention back to the spectacle in front of them. Makino felt a reassuring touch to her shoulder, his hand warm through the fabric of her shirt, before he took a step past her, angling himself until she was shielded completely. It was the barest of gestures, but profound in its simplicity, and the implication enough to drag the air from her lungs. The sunlight danced off his hair and cloak, and his broad back tossed her completely in shadow. Ben came to stand on her left – Yasopp on her right, effectively and discreetly caging her in.

"You're the bandits from the other day," Shanks said then, amicably, as though finding nothing amiss with the situation. Makino relaxed a little, finding a strange comfort in the weight of his presence, and the knowledge that if anyone knew the best course of action when dealing with men like those before her, it was him.

"Luffy, what's wrong?" he called then, laughter in his voice. "Isn't your punch as strong as a pistol?" He seemed genuinely humoured, and Makino tried not to let her eyes linger on the bandit's sword, still unsheathed and angled towards the boy.

It was hard getting a good look from her vantage point, but she saw Luffy squirm, clearly agitated. "Shut up!"

The bandit leader turned a lazy eye on Shanks. "Pirate. Why are you still here? Planning on cleaning up the whole town this time?" He smiled at his own joke, and the smug tone of his voice sent anger leaping wildly against her ribcage. "I suggest you get going" he said then, reeking of self-assurance.

Shanks didn't seem to have heard him, and was making his way towards the bandits. The reprieve of his shadow was a palpable thing, leaving her reeling, and – oh that can't be normal, she thought absently, brows furrowing. She felt strangely light-headed, as though she'd been on the verge of passing out. Beside her, Ben uncrossed his arms, but didn't reach towards her, although the gesture itself was assurance enough, and Makino couldn't for the life of her understand why it would be necessary. Was he expecting her to keel over?

The bandit leader shifted in his stance. "If you get any closer I might have to open fire," he warned, before an ugly grin split his face. "Coward."

Shanks seemed even less perturbed than before, but before Makino could take another breath, there was a gun at his temple, and her heart leapt into her throat. The bandit holding the weapon laughed. "Didn't you hear? You were told to not go any closer! D'ya want to get shot or something?" he asked, laughter punctuating his words, before it rippled through the rest of the group. Makino seethed softly, hands clenching against her sides.

Shanks heaved a sigh. "Oh, well. Since you pulled your gun," he began. "I guess we'll have to fight."

The bandit frowned. "Huh?"

Shanks turned his head, almost lazily, towards the weapon. "I said," he emphasised, as though speaking to someone exceedingly slow. "Don't draw your weapon just to scare people."

The gunshot rang out across the street before she'd had the change to so much as blink, and her hands flew to her mouth as a strangled sound forced its way past her lips.

It wasn't Shanks who fell forward however, but the bandit, slumping against the ground as his gun clattered down beside him. And next to the captain stood Lucky, gun in one hand and a piece of meat in the other, and if Makino hadn't been so busy trying to remember how to breathe, she would have found the scene almost morbidly amusing.

A chorus of angry voices tore across the group of criminals, and Makino could only watch in amazement as several of Shanks' crew-mates stepped past her to join him. Ben gave her a nod as he followed, stopping next to Lucky and blocking most of her view of the group. "Dirty?" he spoke up then, to an accusation thrown their way. "Don't make us laugh. Do we look like saints to you?"

Shanks smiled at that – she caught the sharp curve of his mouth from where he'd angled his head slightly. "The people standing in front of you are pirates," he declared, as he stepped up to the very front.

One of the bandits growled. "Shaddup! This ain't none of yer business!"

Shanks barely seemed to have heard him. "Listen up, bandits, and listen well," he continued, and there was something in his tone that had the hairs on Makino's neck stand up. "You can throw food or sake at me, or even spit at me, and I'll laugh it off." He shrugged his shoulders, as though to emphasise his point. "But," he snapped suddenly, startling her and the bandits before him. "I don't care what reasons you have – I won't forgive anyone who lays a hand on my friends!"

Makino's breath caught, and she could only stare in amazement at the back of the cloaked figure standing at the head of the group of pirates boxing her in. She hadn't witnessed this side of him before – the captain and leader she knew existed beneath all the smiles and the easy laughter. And it was both fascinating and terrifying all at once, because behind his words was a surge of something powerful – something almost tangible on the air, and her next breath felt heavy, somehow, leaving her dizzy.

The leader of the bandits burst into incredulous laughter. "You won't forgive me?" he spat. "You, a bunch of pirates who float around on your ship all day – you want to challenge us?"

She bristled visibly at the remark, and caught a smile from Lucky out of the corner of her eye, but didn't blush. Instead she squared her shoulders defiantly.

"We will destroy you," Higuma called out then, to an answering chorus of agreement from his lackeys as they drew their weapons.

To Makino's surprise it was Ben who stepped forward, with what looked like bored detachment. "Let me handle this, Boss," he said. "I can take care of them myself."

Coming from anyone else, she would have called the declaration foolhardy, but her eyes grew wide as she watched him make quick work of the bandits charging towards him, felling one by one seemingly without effort. She could only gape in astonishment – she'd known he was Shanks' first mate for a reason, but the implication had always been that it was because he was the most responsible of the crew, and Shanks' closest friend. Her mistake, then, for not having realized he was far more dangerous than his quiet nature suggested.

When he was done, Ben lit himself another cigarette, aiming his gun calmly as he regarded the bandit leader, who still had Luffy caught under the heel of his boot. "Don't overestimate yourselves," he said simply, a small smirk on his perpetually amused face. "If you really want to fight us, I suggest getting a fleet of marines to back you up."

Turning her attention back to Higuma, Makino wondered what he would do next. He was vastly outnumbered, and Ben's display alone should have been enough to send most men running for the hills.

He gaped. "But– the brat messed with us first!" he exclaimed, like a child having been caught in a scuffle.

Shanks only shrugged. "It doesn't matter. And even if he did, there's a reward on your head." He let the threat hang in the air, and Makino resisted the urge to smile.

But she should have known he wouldn't give up so easily. In his panic, he drew something from his pocket before any of them had a chance to stop him, and threw it to the ground in front of him. The pirates were quick on the uptake though, and before Makino could so much as shield her eyes from the blast there were two large shapes in front of her, shielding her before the smoke was even released.

"Smoke bomb!" came the shout, and she squeezed her eyes shut, and tried not to breathe. There was a flurry of movement around her, and the furious shout of many voices, and when she finally opened her eyes, the two pirates who'd stepped in front of her had turned to check if she was alright. She nodded absently at their questions, straining to see past their towering shapes towards the place where Higuma had been–

"Luffy!"

It was Shanks' incredulous call that drew her attention from the open space before them, just in time to watch him exclaim, "BAH, we got careless! They took Luffy! What do we do?!"

The uncharacteristic display of unrestrained panic left her blinking in surprise, but the pirates in front of her only chuckled, as though the occurrence was far from uncommon.

Ben sighed, shaking his head. "I swear, that guy..." Turning to Makino, he offered a nod. "Don't worry. We'll find him," he said simply, before heading off, letting slip an order to spread out that had the rest of the pirates scattering in all directions.

Makino watched him go, eyes still stinging from the smoke, and unsure of what to do with herself. But before she could gather her wits completely, Shanks was in front of her, a hand on her shoulder and concern in his eyes. "Are you hurt?"

She shook her head. "I'm fine, but Luffy–"

The corner of his mouth lifted in a familiar smile, warming his expression. "He'll be alright. He can't have gotten far. Go wait at the bar in the meanwhile, my girl," he said, and from his tone, she had the distinct feeling it was more for his own peace of mind than hers. "Knowing the kid, he'll be hungry after the day's events," he added, and didn't put into words what she could read, clear in his gaze – a desire for her to be safe, more than anything else.

But before she could respond he'd taken a step closer, and it wasn't an embrace but as good as one, what with his full length pressed against hers, and, "Sorry about this. I promise we'll have a better reunion later," he murmured against her ear, punctuating the words with a squeeze of her hand.

Then he was walking past her, and with a nod at Woop Slap, who was too shaken to glare back, he made to follow Ben. "We'll check the docks, see if he's taken a boat," she heard him say, before they were both walking away, the urgency in their steps betraying their calm.

Makino drew a shuddering breath, and startled when the mayor stepped up beside her. "I don't like the look of this," he muttered under his breath. She shook her head, eyes lingering on the road leading towards the docks. She felt inclined to agree.

Brushing trembling hands against her skirt, she made her way inside the bar, determined to calm her nerves. She'd make a meal – something with meat, for Luffy when they brought him back. Because they would – she didn't doubt that. And so with her heart still in her throat, she set about preparing a feast, not just for Luffy, but for the entire crew. It gave her something to do; to occupy both her mind and her shaking hands.

It was better than doing nothing, after all.


In the end, her food went untouched.

Fingers tightening against her sides, Makino leaned her back against one of the stacked crates, sliding down until she was seated on the rough planking. Around her the night lay, like a draped hush across the wharf, and aside from the soft lap of the waves against the docks, there were no other sounds to break the terrible silence.

Closing her eyes, she dragged a deep breath through her nose, before letting it out and allowing herself to sink against the planks. Hidden away in the shadow of the crates, she felt strangely comforted – a feeling she latched on to with vigour, in light of the day's hectic events.

She'd just finished preparing the food, wordlessly fretting over the state of Luffy's well-being as she worked, when the doors to the bar had been thrown open and one of Shanks' swabbies had come rushing in. And he'd barely taken a step inside before the news had tumbled off his tongue, and Makino had almost dropped what she'd had in her hands as the reality of his words had struck her with all the force of a physical slap.

Because whatever she'd feared would happen during their search for Luffy, a grapple with the local sea king had not been on the list.

She'd pushed past him before he'd even gotten to the part where Shanks had had his arm torn off – she hadn't needed to hear more, at the time. His urgency had been enough to tell her that whatever had transpired at the docks, it wasn't good – the fact that he'd come with the explicit purpose to fetch her was something she didn't want to consider; it felt too final, somehow, the on-your-deathbed sort of finality she'd read about one too many times – and she hadn't even stopped to let him catch up as she'd hurtled towards the port. When she'd arrived, the wharf had been a chaotic convergence of pirates of high and low rank, and if she hadn't already known that something had gone horribly wrong, their frantic murmurs would have been enough to alert her.

Regardless of the turmoil, she'd located Luffy amongst the throng of people, and pushed her way past them until she'd reached him. The boy had been shivering, drenched to the bone, and his red-rimmed eyes had been starting out at nothing.

That was when she'd noticed the blood.

It had covered most of the docks, like a grotesque scene out of one of her more gory novels. It was like a slaughter ship had stopped by to unload, the red so staggeringly vivid against the planks, she'd almost emptied her stomach at the sight. She hadn't even had the chance to ask the whats and the whys yet, but when she'd gathered her wits enough to focus clearly, she'd noticed that Luffy, too, was covered in it, the colour stark against the white of his shirt.

And since there wasn't a scratch on the boy, it could only mean one thing. And there was no way Luffy would have shed tears for the bandit.

Placing a hand in front of her eyes, Makino drew another breath, willing herself to remain calm. Ben had been at her shoulder then, telling her Doc had stopped the bleeding but that the captain had lost consciousness when they'd brought him ashore, spouting jokes until his eyes had rolled back into his head – the latter note added for her benefit, Makino knew, and she'd latched onto that detail, because if he could joke about it, it meant it wasn't too bad. It meant it wasn't lethal.

But for all her attempts at reassuring herself, she knew that losing an arm to the jaws of a sea king was, in fact, very bad. And very lethal.

She'd stayed at the wharf after that, with the exception of taking Luffy back to the bar. But after cleaning him up and putting him to bed, along with the assurance that she'd bring back news when she got them, she'd gone back down to the port. Lucky had taken her to the galley when the sun had dipped below the horizon and it had become too cold to stay outside, but she hadn't been able to sit still for long, and had gone back out to get some air.

Now the shadows shrouded her from sight, but peace was as elusive as it had been inside the galley.

Breathe. In. Out. You're fine.

"You'll catch a cold out here," a voice spoke up suddenly, and she startled in her seat, eyes flying up, to the shadow she hadn't seen join the one that hid her from view.

"Ben," she breathed, and she caught his smile as he stepped into the sliver of light from the moon hanging overhead. It was a wry quirk of the lips, so very unlike his usual amusement, and the implication made her heart drop into her stomach.

"No," she croaked. "Don't tell me–"

He shook his head, cutting her off before she could speak the words. "He's fine," he said, and she let out a strangled breath. "Doc's got it under control."

"And–?"

"He'll live."

She closed her eyes, relief washing over her. "Oh, thank goodness."

Ben said nothing to that, but she heard him light a cigarette. A curl of smoke reached her nose, and she welcomed it with a deep breath, as it drove away the pungent smell of blood that still clung to the docks and her nose, although they'd long since scrubbed the former clean.

When she met his gaze, Ben smirked, reading her question on her face. "He's awake. Been asking for you, as it is. That's why I came to see where you'd gone off to." He snorted then, and now his smile was truly amused, despite the shadows clinging to his features. "He's mistaken me for you twice now," he muttered. "I don't know if he really thought I was you, or if he only did it to annoy me. Hard to tell with him sometimes."

Her answering laugh sounded more like a sob. "It is, isn't it?"

Ben nodded towards the ship, bobbing gently by the wharf. "You'd better get up there before he starts wooing Doc. Considering the fact that he's been working since noon, I don't think he'll be very receptive to the captain's attempts, however flattering."

Rising to her feet, Makino brushed her palms against her skirt, hoping Ben wouldn't notice how badly her hands shook, although by the way he averted his gaze when she straightened, she suspected he'd caught it.

Breathe. In. Out. You're fine.

He's fine.

Their walk up the gangway to the ship was made in silence, and once she stepped onto the deck, Lucky and Yasopp were there, keeping watch outside the galley. Upon catching sight of her, they nodded, and she attempted a smile that felt so forced she had to drop it.

Ben nodded towards the captain's cabin. "Call us if you need us to restrain him. Doc's meds tend to make him a little frisky," he said, deadpan as usual, and despite herself, Makino felt a genuine smile replace the forced one.

"I'll keep that in mind," she murmured, before making her way towards the cabin door. Inhaling deeply, she pushed it open, lingering only a moment before stepping across the threshold.

Upon her entry, the crew's doctor rose from his seat. "There ya are," he said, voice gruff. "Was beginnin' to think you'd finally gotten some sense and left his sorry arse behind." But beneath the words, she caught the underlying gratitude, and smiled as he made his way past her.

"Oye, Doc," drawled a tired voice from the bed shoved against the far wall, and her gaze shifted to meet Shanks'. His grin was tired, but no less genuine than usual. "What did I tell you about bad-mouthing me in front of pretty ladies? Ben's become a bad influence on you."

Doc snorted, and nodded to Makino as he made for the door. "If he starts acting up, give me a call," he grumbled, much like Ben had, although there was enough concern in that phrase to let Makino know he wasn't talking about the captain's wandering hands.

"Will do."

When the door closed behind him, she turned towards the shape on the bed, brows furrowed with concern. From the distinct lack of blood, they'd changed his shirt, the left sleeve having been cut off completely, and her heart constricted at the sight of the bandaged stump. The rest of the bandage was wrapped around his shoulder and upper torso, and it peeked out from beneath the familiar fabric.

"Quite the sight, eh?"

She didn't know whether to laugh or cry, and settled for something in-between as she made to take a seat in the chair Doc had left by the bed. "You foolish man," she breathed.

Shanks grinned. "What? I heard girls get weak in the knees at the sight of battle scars. Figured this had to top the ones I already have," he quipped tiredly, dark eyes gleaming beneath the damp strands of hair clinging to his brow. She reached out to brush it away from his face, a sob caught in her throat that she refused to let fall, but that made her voice thick with grief when she spoke, ruining her attempted levity.

"Should have consulted me first," she tried, but the tears sprung to her eyes despite her attempts at keeping them at bay.

His gaze softened at that, and some of the humour drained from his eyes. "I'm sorry. I didn't really stop to think."

She shook her head. "You saved Luffy's life," she said. "Don't be sorry about that."

That made him smile. "Kid alright?"

"A little shaken, but he'll be fine," she said. "I put him to bed a little while ago. He was exhausted."

Shanks chuckled, the sound from deep in his throat. "A lot of excitement for one day. Surprised the village could handle it."

Makino wiped at her eyes, a humourless laugh pulling free of her lips. "Yeah, well. We're getting better at that."

His expression softened, and when he lifted his right arm – his remaining arm, and gods, but she still hadn't fully wrapped her mind around it – Makino felt rough fingers grasp her trembling ones. "How are you holding up?"

She made a disbelieving noise. "You're asking me?"

His grin was a self-assured quirk of the lips, and familiar enough to chase some of the tension from her shoulders. "Gotta stay tough. You know how it is."

She shook her head. "You strange man, I am fine. Worried about you, if anything. Are you in pain?"

He snorted. "After what Doc's been feeding me? Can't feel my left arm anymore. Oh, wait," he laughed, but his smile fell at the look on her face. "What, too soon?"

She sighed, but a smile tugged at her lips. "Sorry, Captain. Please, joke as much as you'd like. It's better than the alternative."

"Which is?"

She gave him a sharp look, and he shrugged, then winced. "Ah, maybe I can feel it after all," he wheezed, and her eyes widened in alarm, but when she was about to rise from her seat, he tugged her back down. "Hey now, let the man rest. He's been at it since they brought me in."

"But–"

"My dear," he cut her off. "What I need isn't more medicine. I've had enough of that to last me a lifetime, I think."

She inhaled deeply. "Then what to you need?"

The look he gave her was such that she momentarily forgot how to breathe, and for a moment Makino thought she knew what would follow – that single-syllable word that she felt more than heard in the brush of his gaze – you – but instead his gaze turned towards the desk propped against the wall opposite. "Top drawer," he said. "There's a parcel. Get it for me?"

She frowned, but did as she was asked, and retrieved a flat, rectangular package wrapped in coarse brown paper. As she sat down, she raised a questioning brow. "And now?"

He grinned, nudging her gently. "Open it. It's for you."

She blinked. "For me?"

His smile was wry. "Yes, you. It's a gift."

She looked down at the parcel, then back up at him. When he nodded, she set to unwrapping it, and despite the situation, her eyes widened in appreciation at the sight of the leather-bound book. Running her hands over the cover, she nearly cooed at the smooth texture. Quality paper, and real gilded edges – actual gold leafing on the front, and waves crashing against a ship's hull etched into the leather by expert hands.

When she looked at him next, Shanks was grinning, clearly pleased with himself. "Went to a lot of trouble for that, you know. It's a first edition. And rare, too. Headquarters would throw a fit if they knew I had it."

Makino balked. "You stole it?!"

He grinned, unperturbed by her undignified outburst. "Not exactly. I...liberated it from a guy who'd robbed a Government ship a few weeks back. It was carrying antiques, one of which was your new novel."

She looked at it, eyes wide. "Mine? This isn't mine, Captain – and Government ship?" She was almost afraid to keep holding it, as though there'd be marines storming in at any moment, ready to lock her up just for looking at it.

Shanks tried to wave it off. "Last time I checked, the Government had more important things to occupy its time than preserving old books. You're a much worthier keeper."

Makino knew she still looked dubious, and he raised his brows innocently. "You don't like it?"

She tried to glare at him, but failed, so she settled for shaking her head. "You're a scoundrel."

"Why, thank you."

She huffed a laugh, and caught herself, but he was grinning now. "There it is! I was wondering what it would take." He ignored the look she gave him, and nodded towards the book. "I haven't read it yet, and I don't know what it's about. But since I'm not really cut out to do much else at the moment..."

"Would you like me to read to you, Captain?"

His smile was decidedly charming, and she knew what was coming even before he spoke the words. "Unless you have other ideas. Although I don't think Doc would approve of that, my condition being what it is. We could try, though – I'm always up for a challenge."

She slapped his uninjured arm with the flat side of the book. "Listen to you! We're past the point where you can make me blush, you know," she declared.

"Oh, really now? Care to bet?"

"You're incorrigible."

"And you're full of compliments today," he mused.

"Only you would take those as compliments, Captain."

"I'll take that as another compliment."

She sighed, but it was an undeniably fond sound. It was soothing to her frayed nerves that he was making light of things, although she wondered how much of his behaviour was the result of potent drugs, and how much was due to his general, light-hearted attitude. Pushing the thought to the back of her mind, she opened the book in her lap, and turned a few pages until the start of the first chapter, marvelling silently at the elaborate writing and the decorative edges. "Are you sure you want me to read? Wouldn't you rather sleep?"

He shook his head, although he'd closed his eyes, Makino noted. "Right now," he drawled, exhaustion heavy in his voice, "I'd like to listen to your voice. I've missed it."

The honest admission made her heart flutter against her ribcage, and a soft smile settled on her face as she looked at him, sweat coating his skin and his bright hair clinging to his forehead. It wasn't the reunion she'd looked forward to, but she'd take it. She'd grab hold with both hands and never let go, because the alternative was unthinkable. She'd long since reconciled herself with the thought of him leaving her, because she knew in the roots of her heart that he'd come back someday, and that despite being oceans apart, he'd be alive and well. It was a truth she knew she'd live by for the rest of her days. She hadn't even considered losing him before today, because although his heart belonged to the sea, Makino knew She would one day give him back.

Death was a much crueller Mistress.

Forcing her attention away from that particular line of thought, Makino focused on the soft intakes of breath from the bed beside her, and the steady rise and fall of his bandaged chest. He was asleep already, but she didn't mind; she'd said she would read to him, and so she would. It would give her something to do, anyway, and keep her from losing her mind with worry in the long hours that was sure to follow. There would be no sleep for her tonight.

And so, seated on an uncomfortable chair in a stuffy cabin and with a priceless piece of loot in her possession; Shanks sleeping beside her and relief filling her with each new breath taken, Makino began to read.

"At the outermost edges of the ocean, in a realm rarely travelled by men, and where sirens danced upon the waves, singing the lulling song of the depths, there sailed a pirate ship..."


AN: For those of you who've been hinting at it, you're right – I am angling this towards the cover of chapter 614, but that's all I'll say on that matter, hoho~ If it does turn out to be Shanks' though, I will laugh myself into a stupor.