Chapter XXI

She stared at him. The Yami Yami no Mi? She had read about that fruit. A cursed thing, that one was. More so than the rest.

Regardless, she motioned him inside the Records Cabin and they sat down at the bench in front of the two encyclopedias, and the huge stack of papers Lazue had been writing on as pages in her new book.

It took her only a few minutes to locate the fruit Teach wanted.

"It's an ugly thing, isn't it?" Lazue brushed her fingers over the hasty drawing. "It almost looks as though the original artist made it out to be the ugliest of all the Devil Fruits."

Teach chuckled. "Perhaps it is. Have you read about it, Lazue?"

"I have. It's horrible. The black hole of the Devil Fruits. It sucks up everything in its path."

"Like a vortex," Teach agreed. "It has a brilliant ability to control gravity too. And I suppose you know about how it can nullify another's Devil Fruit powers by absorbing them?"

"Yeah, I know," she said. Where was Marshall D. Teach going with this? "So, what's up? Why did you want to see the encyclopedia?"

"Because, I think something needs to be recorded in it. I heard something else about that fruit, and I think you'd be interested in hearing about it." He smiled, his rotted yellow teeth gleaming. "It's something not in the books. A rumour I heard But maybe it would be good if it was."

And then Teach leaned in to whisper a tale of horrors into her ear, and she just knew that what he had to tell her would haunt her conscience until she wrote it down. But even then, long after he'd left her to her tasks, it was too terrible to hold a pen to.

She didn't sleep that night. Then again, she found it hard to sleep in a cold room with Ace far away any night.

They sat on deck in the sun. Lazue was sitting a good few feet away from the rail, where she had keeled over this morning with a case of seasickness, and Mabel sat behind her, braiding her hair. The braiding was beginning to get irritating, but Mabel's presence temporarily drove away the loneliness that had prevailed ever since Ace left, so she tolerated it. Besides, it was interesting to hear Mabel gossip about the others on the ship.

"I heard Hannah used to be the surgeon on Marco's ship before he joined Whitebeard. Apparently they were quite the pair. Then they had a momentous fight that ended, naturally, with Marco flying off. Or so I've heard. They say Hannah's the only one in the world Marco's afraid of, because she stirs up emotional stuff, of course." Mabel shrugged. "And don't we all know how men get when emotions come into play."

A frown crossed Lazue's face. "Marco? I thought he was relatively young. And Mabel's old and wrinkly now."

There was a gleam in Mabel's eyes as she leaned in to whisper, "Rumour has it that Marco's twice the age of Whitebeard. Speculation though, speculation…but maybe you can solve that one by using the Devil Fruit encyclopaedia. Does it say the phoenix lives forever?"

"I haven't gotten that far with the entries in this ship's book, but in mine there isn't anything about age in relation to Marco's fruit. Well, nothing that I remember, anyway."

"He's mysterious," Mabel said, sitting back on her hands and staring up at the sails billowing overhead. "Still, I kind of want to solve that mystery. Let's go check Whitebeard's book!"

It was kind of hard to deny Mabel anything when she seemed enthused to the point of pissing herself with excitement, so Lazue merely followed in her stead as they went below deck to the Records Cabin. The searched through the book, but Marco hadn't written too many specifics down under his own fruit. They then set out to question the source, Marco himself. Their search led them to the bowsprit, where Marco perched above the water, staring into the horizon.

"Commander Marco!" Mabel cried. "We want to interrogate you about your Devil Fruit!"

He peered back at them from over his shoulder. Even from twenty feet away the subtle smile he wore was clear in Lazue's eyes. "Hello, girlies."

"Way to tell him exactly what we're trying to get out of him," Lazue muttered. It didn't matter if Mabel heard her or not, the girl was already trying to climb out onto the relatively thin log that was their bowsprit. She was having trouble. In fact, Lazue wouldn't put it past her to fall off the log and land on the figurehead, or the waves in front of the ship far below.

"Mabel, wait a second!" Lazue exclaimed, trying to reach out to grab the girl's shirt and pull her back to safety.

"Hold up, I've got her."

Thatch, materializing out of thin air as he often did, jumped up onto the wooden beam and walked a few paces down it, then hunched over and grabbed the runaway by her waist. She thrashed, and began to fall off the bowsprit, but his strength made sure she went over his shoulder instead.

"Hey! Put me down! Put me do – oh, C-Commander Thatch!"

He deposited her next to Lazue with a grin. Lazue was mighty curious how the man had such good balance, but attributed it to the fact he was a swordsman aboard the Moby Dick. That had to count for something, right?

While Mabel blushed and tried explaining herself and her rash actions, Marco joined them, displaying the same skill as Thatch. The perfect balance, that was. "You two have questions you want answered, or what?"

All of a sudden, Mabel went rather meek. Lazue figured it was the hand still cradling her wrist – Thatch's concerned touch – that immobilized her. She almost laughed, but decided she would try to help her friend out instead.

"Is your ankle okay?" Lazue asked, dropping to her knees next to Mabel. She purposely angled her face away from the two men to give Mabel a look. "I thought I saw you twist it!"

Mabel stared at her incredulously for about half a second, then her act went on. "Oh! Oh, yes, it does hurt!" Lazue moved her hand down Mabel's leg and squeezed her ankle, digging her nails in out of sight. She twisted the limb slightly. In response to the sudden pinching, Mabel yelped.

"Are you badly hurt?" Thatch asked. There was no doubt in his voice. Perfect. Now he too leaned down to take a look at Mabel's ankle. The effect almost made Mabel swoon.

Not just yet, girl, Lazue thought with just a hint of gleeful mirth. "Hey, Thatch, why don't you take her to get checked out by the nurses? Just in case it's sprained."

"That's a good idea," Thatch agreed. "Here, I'll carry you."

And just like that, Lazue had managed to give Mabel some along time with her apparent love.

"I'm not fooled," Marco said as he watched Thatch carry the girl off. "But hey, you did good, girlie. Thatch is so gullible when it comes to the ladies."

"Is it true that you and Hannah were once together, or is that just a silly rumour?"

She had blurted it out before thinking too much about the effect it could have one the First Division Commander. Based on the sour look on Marco's face she could conclude the head nurse was a touchy subject.

"It's not something I want to talk about," Marco said simply. "Let's just say we have always been at each others' throats, and something happened that neither of us forgive the other for. Maybe I'll tell you some day. Likely not, though."

And with that, Marco stalked off, but before he could get out of earshot Lazue shouted, "Marco! Is it true that you can live forever?"

He turned around to face her, and commenced walking backwards. "Wouldn't you like to know that too, girlie?"

She cursed and stomped back to her room for a nap. She needed it after being awake for so long. But first she would have to get something to eat, because her stomach was acting up again. Craving pies, of all things.

Damn stomach.

At first she hadn't believed the man who'd told her Ace had returned, but when the cheers filtered down through the planks of wood overhead she had raced up to the deck to see that it was true. The Porpoise was docked alongside the Moby Dick and men were bringing across supplies. The whole place was in an uproar, many voices talking at once. And laughing. There was always a lot of laughter aboard the Moby Dick.

She saw Mabel standing with some of the other nurses and waved to her. Mabel saluted her back and pointed towards the snow brig that shuddered in the breeze. She continued to look, dodging men with crates and shimmying her way closer.

Finally, she saw him.

He was frowning until he caught sight of her, and then his face morphed into a goofy grin and he ignored the man trying to talk to him in favour of rushing over to her.

Her elation when he secured his arms around her was immediate and all consuming. Even with Marco, Thatch, and Mabel around, Ace was the only one that had seen what she'd seen, the only one who she knew for sure she could trust with everything. He had seen her at her worst, and perhaps never at her best, but still found it in himself to embrace her. And that counted not for something, but for everything.

"You won't believe it. I have something for you," Ace whispered into her brown hair that the wind swept into his eyes.

"Oh? You bought me something, perhaps?"

"Well, not really," he admitted.

She laughed and gave his shoulder a squeeze. "I should have guessed you'd steal it without giving a penny to the other guy. You are a pirate, after all."

This time, he laughed, the deep baritone tremors caressing her cheek. "No, it was a gift from a young lady. Quite a ghostly thing, she was. Ambushed me in a bookstore."

"And I suppose she ambushed you to give these," she pressed her fingers to his lips, "a quick kiss."

He chuckled and kissed her fingers before pulling them away to speak. "Sadly, I never get ambushed for kisses. Most people stay well clear of me with this mark on my back. Except for you. You chased me down."

"Not for your kiss, though," she said, jabbing him in the stomach. Like hitting Marco on the shoulder, jabbing Ace's abdomen left her finger sore. It was like poking a rock.

Someone called Ace away before he could tell her what he'd brought back to the Moby Dick.

Ace was required to finish his duties, report to Whitebeard, and then and only then could he relax and spend time with Lazue. He hurried to wipe his slate clean, and Lazue went back to their shared room near the ship's stern to wait for him to return. Before they parted again, Ace told her that the item he had brought back was something he wanted only her and Whitebeard to know about for the time being. This had intrigued her, and she bided her time waiting by going through Rouge's letters once more.

When Ace finally got back to their cabin, he seemed sullen and ready to drop dead at any moment. His earlier euphoria had worn off and in its place was an expression filled with fatigued creases, and eyes that watered slightly. He suffered from a lack of sleep, she quickly deduced.

Just as she did.

But when he lowered to the ground this horridly patterned, watermelon-like rucksack, a genuine grin graced his features and Lazue knelt beside him. Without further words, he withdrew two objects from the pack, both books, Lazue noted.

"That isn't…"

"It is. Another one. The fun never seems to end, does it?" Ace said with a hesitant laugh.

Lazue didn't laugh. Instead she was mighty concerned. "Where did you get this?"

"A winter island I sometimes do trade on for Pops'. They fly our flag. I went into this shop looking for…well, something to get you," his cheeks coloured and she caressed his cheek, touched by the gesture. "But instead, this woman who had consumed the Blend Blend no Mi handed me off this thing," he hefted the encyclopedia bound in a dark brown skin, "and this," he lifted the other book, a little black one not so different from the one Rouge had kept in her possession. It was a lot less worn around the edges, but roughly the same size.

"So now I have three encyclopedias, that all look the same. Somehow this whole thing just got a lot more interesting. Still, Jaunis' encyclopedia had a lot of information about that Devil Fruit. I suppose she looked like a ghostly old woman, right?"

"Ghostly, yes. Old, no, not so much."

Lazue furrowed her brow. "Well, one can't trust appearances. The Blend Blend no Mi is a fruit that creates a chameleon out of its user. So really, they could have been anything and you wouldn't have known." She picked up the encyclopedia and flipped through some of the pages with him, pausing every once and a while to remark upon a strange Devil Fruit neither of them had ever seen. New World Devil Fruit.

When the first inklings of a headache began to press at her consciousness, Lazue closed the encyclopedia and picked up the black book, intending to set it aside with Rouge's letters on the nightstand next to the bed where she usually kept everything of importance to her. But as she thumbed through the pages, noting how empty of ink they were, her thumb grazed over an uneven bump in the pages. She flipped back, and as she was doing so a tiny piece of folded paper slipped from the book's grasp and floated down to the floor.

Ace stared at it but made no move to get it. He always showed a hint of hesitation to handle anything paper, since it was so easily burnt.

With a sigh, Lazue picked it up, opened it, and scanned the handwriting, reading a few of the words and expecting just some misplaced love letter or something equally silly. Her heart began to beat fiercely in her chest and she forced herself to go back to the beginning, read it from the start.


Inside this book contains the secrets of the divine organisms known as the Devil Fruits. You know this. It is the knowledge that years were spent gathering. But, between this book, a deeper secret lurks. Seek it out, but do not expect to make sense of it with only a few lines of the code in your possession.

Knowledge is fathomless power.

- Portgas D. Jaunis

Lazue gapped. Even dead that old woman continued to haunt her. First in her dreams, now in her living reality. She sank to the deck, dimly aware that she had dropped the note back on the floor and that Ace was leaning down to read it. When she lifted her eyes to gauge his reaction, she saw a distant, misty cloud in his eyes. So, the woman troubled him, too.

"She left you something to find, it seems," Ace said at last, thumbing the musty cover of the newest encyclopedia to join the pile. "But…how is it that she knew I was going to show up on that winter island…and go to that bookstore?"

"Maybe she could see the future. Maybe she knew it was a place Whitebeard often visited. Maybe she had a den den mushi connected to that women on that island and warned her to track us down eventually, and it was chance that you ran into her. Maybe–"

"Maybe, maybe, maybe," Ace muttered, interrupting her by placing his arm around her shoulders and pulling her body against his. She skittered across the floor and ended up in an awkward position, half in his lap and half pined to his side by a bulky arm.

"Ace…" she whispered, trailing off as he ran the fingers of his other hand through her hair. A wild and irrational look had come about his face. He was a weird mix of worried and angry, his mouth quivering and his eyes alight. "Ace…"

"I really hope nothing too strange is about to happen," he said. His voice had tightened as if a serpent had wrapped itself around his neck and was giving a firm squeeze. "This is all kind of bizarre. The New World…I put nothing past this sea. There's no doubt in my mind now – Jaunis has been here too. And she knows more about it that either of us do."

"Do you think she's trying to warn us?" Lazue asked. "Well, not that the letter was really addressed to us in particular. But still, that knowledge is power thing had to have meant something more. She said that same line to me before…but I didn't get what she truly meant. I still don't know, actually. But I feel like we're closer than ever before to figuring out why these books are so damn important."

Lazue snatched up the black book and leafed through it again, hoping to find more clues. She felt like that crazy old woman was trying to communicate to her, but to say what she hadn't the foggiest idea. She wrote blandly, yet she wrote intricate riddles.

There had to be something more. Something else to point her in the right direction.

Ace grew tired of the book, taking up a post on the bed where he faced the wall and focussed on breathing, trying to remember everything that old woman had said. Lazue found that she was beginning to hear the heartbeats of people bouncing about in her mind. That alone signalled how late it had gotten. Her sea spectrum, which she faithfully took in the morning, wore off at dusk.

She dug out the jar from her bag for the second time today and hesitated. She had used a layer of the stuff already, yet there were still a million days to go before she would run out, if ever. Still, she didn't like the idea of wasting one just to get to bed and screwing up her schedule. Besides, taking more than one at once could kill her. She didn't know how long it actually stayed in her system. Furthermore, she figured she was exhausted enough to fall asleep eventually, even with a bit of rhythmic thumping in the background.

She sighed and crawled into bed with him, shoving against his back so he'd move over and give her at least a few more inches of room. Instead he rolled onto his back and stuck his tongue out at her, weary of acting serious. An unspoken thought passed between them. They wouldn't discuss Jaunis and the problems she'd left behind any more tonight.

Since Ace wasn't intent on giving her another inch of room, she draped herself half on top of him and secured a grip in his hair to keep her body steady. She thought this would irritate him, but he snickered before dozing off, flicking the candles they had lit around the room out with a raised finger.

As Ace's breathing grew calmer in her ears, she listened to the slight nuances in the heartbeats of his crewmembers and eventually drifted off, too.