Chapter 44: (Yeah so guess what I suck and it's been forever since I last wrote anything and I didn't respond to any reviews cuz I suck and cuz finals have been swallowing my soul. Seriously. So yeah. Apologies, and I hope you enjoy the chapter.

(oh and on a side note a few chapters ago I said we were going to be wrapping up in 10 or so chapters and I was wrong. There's still a good deal more, and having reevaluated how I'm going to tell it and how much the plot generally progresses in a chapter, we've got a good deal more than that.)


(This chapter comes with a little extra warning that yes it's pretty fucking weird. I apologize if I weird you out with this chapter.)


Thatch stared at Marco, eyes wide with disbelief. He felt raw emotion swelling in his chest, and his gaze hardened.

"…What did you just say?" he said, voice quiet. Marco turned wide eyes to Thatch.

"We can't bring Ace back. Not that we couldn't, Thatch. We shouldn't. You don't get it, you don't understand, there's something down here and if we bring Ace back it'll come back too-" Marco buried his face in his hands. "And I didn't understand before, but now I do. We can't kill Mr. Savage, Thatch. We can't do it. No one can. Not even Ace. He's an idea, a thought, a feeling. The metaphysical can't die, they can only be made to grin like death-"

The punch sent Marco sprawling to the floor, Thatch's glare hard with rage.

"You listen to me. I don't care what you think you saw or what one of these assholes down here told you, Ace is your little brother. So what if we can't kill Mr. Savage? So. Fucking. What. We still have to try, you pathetic bastard!" He grabbed Marco by the shoulders, forcing him to meet his eyes. "You look me in the face and you tell me that all the times Ace laughed with us, all the times he fought alongside us, all the times he smiled and sang and lived with us, you tell me that was a lie. You tell me the Ace that we came down here to save isn't real." Marco stared, wide-eyed, at Thatch. "I swear to God, if they convinced you of that, then you're the one who's beyond saving, Marco." Marco started, then grabbed Thatch's shoulders.

"That's right! You can't bring me back either!" He shook Thatch, eyes hard, nearly desperate. Thatch stared back in mixed horror and shock. That response hadn't been the one he expected. "Thatch you have to-" Marco cut off, almost like the other words stuck in his throat, like he couldn't make himself say them. He stared at Thatch for a moment longer, then blinked, once, twice, rapidly. And when he did, his eyes seemed to focus, and his pupils dilated, his eyes seeming to shine with more light than before. He shuddered in Thatch's grip, raising a hand to press against his head. He licked his lips, his eyes casting to the floor.

"…My God. Why would I…?" His voice was rough, like the enunciation of each syllable took massive effort. He looked back up to Thatch, gaze confused. "I…I don't even know what to say. Something came over me- I don't-" He lifted his other hand, studying it closely. Slowly he allowed it to fall back by his side, shifting his gaze to Thatch's face. "…You're right." His voice and eyes were serious. "…You're absolutely right. Ace is worth saving. And we're going to be the ones that do it. We're going to save our brother." Thatch met his eyes squarely, and seeing nothing but resolve in Marco's eyes, allowed his gaze to soften.

"Damn straight." He clapped Marco on the shoulder. "Glad you snapped out of whatever the hell that was." He stood, pulling Marco to his feet before turning towards the corridor stretching in front of them. "Now let's get a move on. Time waits for no man, as they say, and I'm ready to get out of this damned place." Marco stared after him for a moment, then a triumphant grin split his face and he nodded briskly.

"Yeah. Let's go."

There was only one white space between the pieces and the edge of the board.

One. White. Space.

Whitebeard, without the Mannequin's disapproval, moved both pieces simultaneously onto that square. This was it. The last move of the game Whitebeard didn't pretend to understand. He was glad it had been expedited, though, although thinking about what repercussions that apparent 'stroke of good luck' had had soured the impending victory. What had it cost him? Nothing down here was for free. He couldn't trust that this had just happened, no, someone had willed it, had made it to be so, and Whitebeard knew it wasn't for his agenda.

One white space.

And then Caterpillar.

And then Queen.

And then Ace.

And then home.

He was alternately terrified and excited. Excited to see his family again, terrified to see what state the ravages of Wonderland had left them in. They wouldn't be whole, as he'd left them, that much was for certain. That knowledge poisoned his heart like lead. According to the Mannequin, at least four of his children were gone forever.

Part of him wanted to blame Ace.

Part of him wanted to blame Ace really badly.

But he's not doing this on purpose. It's not his fault he's like this, Whitebeard tried to rationalize. And that led him to the true, deserving target of his anger.

Edward Hare.

Whitebeard would scour the world to find him. And he'd teach him what it meant to hurt anyone under Whitebeard's protection. What it meant to scar one of his children to such an extent as this. Whitebeard felt his heart ache, thinking of all Ace had been through. And why hadn't he told them? All that pain – what good did keeping it bottled up do? Ace should have known that Whitebeard would help him find and get revenge on Hare if that was what he wanted. As a general rule, Whitebeard found revenge to be the wrong course of action, but this was undoubtedly an exception. Why had Ace hidden this? Shame? Whitebeard could understand that, if it were Ace's motivation, but didn't Ace know he'd find nothing but sympathy from his comrades, his family? Something there didn't add up. He'd been willing to tell Whitebeard that he was Roger's son of his own free will, and Whitebeard knew Ace kept that secret closer than all others.

Except apparently not.

Maybe Ace had just wanted to forget it? Leave it all in the past and just try not to think about it again? Plausible, but Whitebeard couldn't help but feel there must be something more. There was one last piece to this, and when it fell into place he'd understand, but right now he was left grasping at straws. But that had to wait. Because right now he should only concentrate on one thing.

One. White. Square.

The corridor wasn't as long as the last, and it was better lit. Doors lined the walls, but upon testing the handles they were all found to be locked. The stone was more evenly cut here, fewer random niches or ledges ridging the walls and floors. Thatch was walking fairly fast, but he could hear Marco's footsteps following just behind him, keeping pace. They tested each door they passed, but none opened.

"…Hey, Marco?" Thatch asked, curious and slightly uneasy.


"…What was it you saw or that happened to you that freaked you out so much?" Thatch's voice was quiet, reverent. Looking back, the whole experience was bizarre. He'd never seen Marco like that before. Desperate, terrified. Hell, the most one usually saw from Marco as far as fear went was slight trepidation. It took a lot to get Marco worked up.

Marco was silent for a long moment, seeming to consider his words. They kept walking down the hallway as they talked, testing doors as they went. Thatch heard Marco's breath catch in his throat as if he'd been about to say something then stopped himself. After a moment he started again. "…I couldn't explain it to you if I tried, Thatch." Marco's voice had that same rough quality it had taken on before. "There was- It was some kind of creature. I couldn't see, it was too dark, but it was like it was in my mind. And it…it whispered things, and when they were in my own head they seemed true…" he trailed off. "And even after I managed to get away, I could still hear it. It wasn't until a little 'direct recalibration' that my head started working the way it should again." Marco chuckled lightly. Thatch winced slightly, but laughed too. He'd punched Marco hard. Almost anyone else would have been knocked unconscious from the combined blows of the punch and then having their head collide with a stone floor.

"You don't have a concussion, do you?" Thatch asked, a little belatedly. Marco chuckled again.

"No, I don't think so. Not sure it's even possible to get a concussion down here-" Marco cut off as he stumbled through the door that he hadn't expected to open. Unlike all the others, this one wasn't locked. Thatch was instantly beside him, peering into the room.

The chamber was moderately sized, containing a bed, dresser, nightstand, and another door leading off to a connecting room. The furniture was simple, but almost nice in that way. It was…almost like a hotel room. The furniture was standard enough that there could be hundreds exactly like it. The room seemed to have no occupant. Nonetheless, Thatch felt like they shouldn't go in. It felt…sick in there. Something in the air made Thatch's heart clench.

"…Marco I think we should keep moving," Thatch said quietly. Marco glanced back at him, smiling slightly.

"The first unlocked door in the whole hall and you want to just pass it by? Where's your curiosity?" Marco's voice still had that odd roughness to it. "And besides, don't you think it's important to experience as much of Wonderland as we can? It'll help us to better understand Ace when we get back out. If we can find all the problems while we're down here, we'll be one step closer to fixing them in the real world. Maybe Ace is trying to show us something by leaving this door open." Marco stepped forward, not waiting for Thatch.

"Marco!" Thatch hissed, but Marco was already passed the threshold, looking about the room, opening the drawers of the dresser, searching the nightstand. Thatch followed hesitantly, stepping lightly. The place had the air of a tomb, and by even entering Thatch felt he was desecrating, breaking some kind of huge, unspoken taboo. "Marco we should leave," he said breathlessly. This wasn't right. Thatch didn't like this place. Hated it. His heart felt tight and clenched in his chest, and he breathed shallowly. Marco turned back to Thatch, grinning slightly.

"No, not yet. There's something in here we need to see." He turned, finally, to the connecting door, and when he gripped the handle Thatch nearly felt nauseous. They weren't supposed to be here. Thatch could tell. Marco turned the handle, pulling the door open.

On the other side was a bathroom, carrying the same simplicity of the bedroom. A simple clawfoot tub rested against one wall, and watery, pale light filtered through an opaque window on the wall above it, illuminating the whole room. There shouldn't be natural light down here, Thatch thought. We're underground. A good ways underground. That light isn't right. The floor was white tile, the walls a soft blue, the wallpaper old and slightly faded but still intact. A basin and metallic pitcher rested on a small table against the wall directly across from the door.

The only exception to the inexpensive simplicity of the room was the floor length mirror in its dark wood fame, in the front right corner of the room.

The Estrella stood before it. In profile. Naked.

The pale, human hands were resting on its low belly, stroking over the smooth skin there, and its eyes, via the reflection of the mirror, were fixed on its stomach.

It was a hermaphrodite.

The breasts on its chest marked it female, but the penis and testicles clearly said otherwise. It seemed to be aware of their presence, but uncaring, and unabashed of its nudity. Its hands still continued their slow tracing of its low stomach. "I'll start showing soon," it said quietly, hands coming to rest on its stomach, over the place the uterus would be in a female. "The baby…" It smiled, eyes never leaving its reflected stomach. "It won't be long now." Slowly it bent, picking up something from the ground. "I have to make sure to keep these nearby…" it said faintly. It seemed to be talking more to itself than to Marco or Thatch.

The old scissors reflected the watery light dully as the Estrella turned them about in one hand.

"…The baby needs a way out, after all. Should I cut it out of my stomach or make a vagina?" it asked itself. It was still smiling faintly. "Should have been born a girl…" it whisper-sung to itself. It seemed to go nearly pensive. "Boys don't fuck boys. So…I'm a girl. Obviously." Its smile returned, its eyes going nearly dreamy.

"Hare loves me, you know." For the first time, its eyes were focused on Marco and Thatch via the mirror. "He does. That's why he made love to me. He wanted me to have his baby." It pressed its free hand against its stomach gently, eyes closing in bliss. "And now I am so he'll love me even more." Its eyes reopened, returning to Thatch and Marco. "What should I name the baby, do you think? I suppose it depends if it's a boy or a girl…" Its eyes turned back to its own reflection in the mirror, smiling quietly down at its stomach. "He's going to be so happy. With the baby, with me…" It started to hum quietly to itself, regaining that former careless unfocus.

Thatch didn't even know what to say.

Thatch didn't even know what to think.

"Pretty fucked up, isn't it?" Thatch turned to the source of the voice, near the door to the bedroom, still too much in shock, in horror, to even formulate a response.

The figure was petite, no taller than Thatch's shoulder, and appeared to be about 17. Dressed in a loose shirt, which hung to its mid-thigh, it was impossible to tell its gender. Ace's black, tousled hair doused its head, but hung longer than it did on Ace. Nearly effeminate, but not quite enough to be gender specific. It had Ace's eyes, but they were slightly larger. It shared Ace's mouth shape as well, but its lips were a little fuller, a little darker. Freckles spattered its face artistically, like each one was carefully placed for beauty and symmetry. Its loose smock hung off one of its shoulders, accentuating its long, elegant neck, and it leaned against the doorframe, one leg crossed over the other, showing a scandalous amount of thigh.

It was an extremely sexualized, teenage Ace. Except Thatch couldn't tell if it was a boy or a girl.

Its eyes were focused on the Estrella and it held equal parts pity and anger in its gaze. Slowly, it shifted its attention back to Thatch. "That shouldn't exist. But there's no way to unmake it. And it's why Ace is so scared of me." It stepped forward, placing a hand gently on Thatch's shoulder, the other on Marco's. Its gaze shifted between the two with sympathy. "There's nothing you can do to fix this one. Leave it be. Disgusting and repulsive as it may be, it is harmless." It applied gentle pressure to Thatch's shoulder, steering him away from the bathroom, back into the bedroom, then finally out into the hall. Once they were passed the door, the newcomer shut it before locking it with a key pulled from a necklace about its neck. Thatch's mouth was still dry, the image, the words still seared into his mind. Marco didn't look much better, pale, a hand pressed loosely over his mouth, eyes wide.

The stranger put a cool, smooth hand on Thatch's cheek and he flinched slightly, eyes snapping from the door to its face. "It's okay," it said. "It's my fault. I was supposed to keep that door locked. I wasn't expecting you two so soon." Thatch, with something between a gasp and a sob, inhaled a lungful of air, and though he still couldn't begin to comprehend what he'd seen, he tried to get his mind working again.

"What…What was that in there?" he choked. The stranger allowed its hand to fall from Thatch's face, fingertips brushing once against his throat. It sighed, sounding almost sad.

"…I suppose…a kind of fucked up Stockholm's Syndrome. Plus Ace's – the 10-year-old Ace's – confusion and miscomprehension about what Hare and those other men did to him." It smiled at Thatch, even though the expression was weak. "It's…part of him now. My antithesis." It extended a hand in introduction, smiling almost lewdly. "I'm the Duchness." Thatch shook its hand and its eyes remained focused on him, slipping its hand away almost reluctantly. It turned to Marco, repeating the process. Marco was staring at it curiously.

"…You're not…?" The Duchness chuckled, one hand darting up to flit at its mouth for a moment.

"…Dead? Indeed not," the Duchness said lightly. It turned, beginning to head down the hallway. "Come on. We'll talk more but it's not comfortable out here." Thatch glanced at Marco, and, still feeling like a good pound of lead sat in his stomach, followed.

The Duchness led them to a room near the very end of the hallway. When he? She? (Thatch still couldn't deduce which) Opened the door, the room revealed bore resemblance to the Estrella's. There was a little more ornamentation in this room, though, and it was lit by a hanging lamp in the center of the ceiling as well as a few odd smelling candles on the bedside table and dresser. A bit more furniture (an armchair and a small couch gathered about a little table) decorated the center of this slightly larger room, and a thick rug dominated the majority of the floor.

Upon entering the room, the Duchness instantly flung him/herself on the bed, grabbing fistfuls of the satiny sheet atop it and burrowing his/her face into the material. The mixed sigh and groan of satisfaction he/she made should have been illegal it was so suggestive. He/she rolled over on the bed so that he/she was facing Marco and Thatch, lying on his/her back, a little tangled in the sheet and hair mussed. "I take it you won't be wanting tea?" Jesus. Thatch was no expert, but he was pretty sure a tone of voice that sultry shouldn't be used for a question like that.

"No, thank you," Marco said, a little stiffly. It seemed he found this just as strange a mix of incredibly awkward and bizarre as Thatch did. The Duchness smiled, looking amused. He/she slid to his/her feet, padding over, smirking at Marco, letting some of his/her hair fall in his/her face. He/she stepped close to Marco, not touching, but far closer than personal space generally allowed. He/she looked up into Marco's face, still smirking.

"Oh, my, Marco! Are you nervous?" The Duchness cocked his/her head slightly, face mere breaths from Marco's.

"What are you?" Marco said, voice neutral. "Why aren't you dead like everyone else?" The Duchness pouted, stepping back.

"You're no fun, Marco." He/she turned to Thatch, smiling at him conspiratorially. "What about you? Will you play with me?" He/she stepped closer to Thatch, placing a hand, feather light, against Thatch's chest.

"Ah, um, n-no." Holy shit this was really fucking weird. The Duchness' smile instantly fell, hand drawing away.

"Aaaaugh you guys are so boring," he/she groaned in melodramatic despair, turning away from Thatch and Marco to collapse back on the bed. "And here I thought maybe, just maybe I could finally have some fun…" he/she mumbled to him/herself.

"Answer my question," Marco said firmly, visibly more relaxed now that the Duchness had stepped away. The Duchness rolled over so he/she could see them, still pouty.

"Alright fine. But really it should be obvious." The smile returned to his/her face, still as sultry and lewd as before. "I'm twenty years of lust crammed in a box and expected to behave. I'm all of Ace's sexual desire, the natural human pleasure-seeking instinct. Target or method or sentiment doesn't matter to me, I'm pretty fucking desperate after all this time. As for why I'm not dead, that's simple enough. I'm a cause of fear for Ace. Fear can't warp me because I'm already what he's afraid of. He's scared of sexual interaction of any kind and scared of what I represent because he doesn't want to go through the same agony Hare put him through before or inflict it on anyone else. But it sucks to be me because he keeps me trapped down here and let me tell you, that's not healthy." The Duchness began to pout again, voice shifting to a whine. "I'm a natural part of every person, why can't I be allowed to express myself? It's not fair." The Duchness pushed him/herself up, half kneeling, fingers twined in the sheets. "I'm lonely and bored and repressed and all I want is one fucking night but noooooooooo, I'm too 'scary'." The Duchness' indignation was nearly childish in nature, all pouty lips and whining voice. "And it's all Hare's and that God damned fucking Estrella's fault! If Ace weren't just such a fucking baby and had just accepted what happened for what it was-"

"Rape isn't something anyone should have to accept, Duchness. It's cruel and loveless and inhumane." Thatch's voice was cold, and his gaze was steely hard. The Duchness' eyes snapped to him, and he practically leapt off the bed, slamming Thatch into the wall, no more than an inch of air separating their faces.

"Don't you get it?" The Duchness leaned in, licking up the length of Thatch's neck once."I don't care about any of that! Love has nothing to do with me, hell, gender doesn't even matter! I'm lust I'm sex I'm the fucking whore. So what if those men didn't love Ace? So what if they were the same gender? So. Fucking. What?" The Duchness smiled, cold and beautiful and furious. "And don't get all fucking high and mighty with me, Thatch. How many women have you slept with? You can't claim every one-night-stand was lovemaking. Consent is purely conditional and love is nothing more than glorified desire, a word poets use to justify fucking like rabbits." The Duchness' face softened slightly, but he/she still held Thatch pressed against the wall. "Do I think Ace needs to grow the fuck up? Yes. But that's because I don't attach any sentimentality or meaning to the fact that 12 men fucked him without his consent. You and I disagree because you operate on emotion and attachment. I'm pure viscerality. You'll never change me and I'll never change you, so move on with your life." The Duchness dropped his/her voice to a whisper. "And you better count yourself damn lucky Ace left specific instructions about you or I'd have had you both on this rug begging for me." His/her face morphed to a smile. "Regardless of whether you necessarily wanted me to or not." And with that, the Duchness withdrew, releasing Thatch's shirt and turning away. A moment of silence fell.

"…Any more questions before you go see Caterpillar?" The Duchness finally asked.

"I assume you can't outright tell us who Mr. Savage is?" Marco asked. The Duchess gave a bark of laughter.

"I like my entrails where they are right now, thanks. Just because I can't die doesn't mean I'm immune from pain. Anything else?" Marco smirked.

"Which way do we go?" The Duchness smiled back lewdly, eyes raking over Marco once.

"Go back out in the hallway and turn right from my door. The tunnel will start to widen. Pops will be waiting for you beyond there." Marco nodded once and turned away, and Thatch followed suit. Thatch, being closer to the door, made it out first, Marco a good six feet behind. Before Marco reached the door, the Duchness stepped up behind him. "Come back and visit me sometime, oka-" He/she had raised her hands to place them flush against Marco's back, but as soon as they made contact, Marco whipped around. A mere moment later he had the Duchness pinned against the wall, hands pressed against the wall on either side, caging him/her in. The Duchness stared up at him with wide eyes, jaw loose, breath tight.

"You- You're-!" the Duchness stuttered, heart hammering in his/her ears.

Marco smiled slightly, raising one hand to press one finger against his lips in a gesture of silence.

(A/N: Sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo…yeah. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to those who don't celebrate Christmas! Here's your present. Last year it was a suicide attempt, this year its Stockholm's Syndrome, emotional scarring, and Ace's libido. Woohoo. Sooo…hope I didn't scare you away with some of the images in this chapter. Next chapter will be Caterpillar and the reunion of Thatch, Marco, and Whitebeard. After that is Queen. The Queen section is going to be damn fun to write, I have a pretty cool thing planned out. Something I don't think you'll be expecting. ;)

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this chapter, for all its bizarreness. And again, apologies for not responding to reviews. I love hearing from you guys, and each and every comment means the world to me, but responding takes as much time as writing a chapter does, and I thought you'd prefer the chapter before Christmas, because after it I won't have any time to write at all. And you've waited, like, a month for it.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed, and I'll see you all next chapter! ~Mountain97)