(Chapter 46: I'm a lazy fucker with no time who was up until 4 in the morning. So this is the extent of the author's notes.

Review replies: Pending. I'm fuck out of time right now, but I'll get to them when I can.

This chapter has been rated T+ for SWEARING, VIOLENCE, and DISTURBING IMAGERY.

Hope you like it! And there's something kind of sort of important in the bottom Author's Notes, so I'd appreciate it if you took the time to read it! Thanks. c:

And now, ON WITH THE CHAPTER.)


Fuck the Red Palace was quiet.

As they walked, the silence weighed on Thatch like a shroud. They'd clambered and ducked through the tangled mess that the Rose Gardens had become, had come upon the great, leering, oppressive façade of the front of the caste, had pushed their way through the heavy, dense wood doors.

In retrospect, Thatch realized he should have been expecting what he saw on the other side.

The palace looked as immaculate as a tomb, the bone white marble of the floors and walls offset by gilt frames on vast, imposing paintings, heavy crimson drapery lining windows and alcoves. It was provocative contrast, the whole place feeling noble and regal, authoritative and commanding respect. It was immaculately clean, not a mote of dust to be found in the air or on any surface. The light of the rising sun shafted pale gold through the windowpanes, setting the gilt ornamentation alight. But the sun was rising faster, had already risen to an angle Thatch would associate with about ten in the morning in the real world.

Time had changed, somehow. Thatch couldn't say how he knew but he did. The ratio of time between Wonderland and up above had shifted.

Why Ace was changing it Thatch had no clue.

The chamber they had immediately found upon entering the Red Palace was everything that could be expected from the entrance hall of a castle. The marble floor practically shone it was so polished, the crystal and gold chandelier hanging currently lightless, but glowing in the morning light from the enormous, gothic style window above the main door. Side halls branched off to either side at the other end of the chamber, maybe fifty feet away. Directly across from them was another set of grand doors, though not quite as elaborate as those on the frontal façade.

Thatch figured straight ahead was their best bet.

As they crossed the entrance hall, their footsteps echoed alarmingly loud. Thatch didn't want to attract attention, wanted to avoid doing so in any way humanly possible, and yet with every step they took the whole chamber seemed to nearly ring. It might have just been paranoia heightening the amount of sound, but even so. To disturb this place at all felt dangerous. Whitebeard walked in front, eyes traveling the room warily, Thatch slightly behind him and to the left, Marco on the right. By mutual silent consensus they didn't speak, settling for trepid quiet.

As they passed a large painting on Thatch's left, he felt his eyes drawn to it. It seemed…familiar. He knew he'd seen it somewhere before. His brows furrowed slightly in contemplation.

The painting portrayed an island in the full throes of fall. The whole island wasn't visible, but the point of reference was wide enough that it took in the majority of what lay upon it, with particular focus upon the marine base at the island's peak. In the painting, the base stood gaunt and silhouetted against the sky, nearly nothing more than a black hulking mass against the brightness of the blue and sun behind it. It looked more like a photograph than a painting, to be entirely honest.

"Hey," Thatch murmured, only loud enough for him to be just heard by Marco and Whitebeard. Their attention instantly snapped to him, Marco even tensing slightly in surprise. Thatch's gaze didn't shift from the painting, his face still bent lightly in consternation. He nodded at the painting, directing their attention towards it. "Why do I recognize this?" He felt Whitebeard draw up beside him, his eyes sweeping over the painting as well.

Marco, as opposed to staring long at the painting, approached it. He had seen the small plaque embedded in the base of the frame. As he drew nearer, he could see three lines of words engraved in an elegant, simple hand on the brass material of the plaque, and he read aloud. "October 17th. Oliver Ryan Thompson. Verdict: Guilty…" his voice trailed off on the third line, deep thought lacing his tone. His eyes roved over the painting, looking more in depth this time. That name was familiar. He searched his memory for any time he'd heard or read the name 'Thompson' in the last 10 years. And October 17th… He stared at the painting with intensity, trying to piece it together.

Thompson.

Thompson.

Thompson.

"I think it was somewhere between Thompson and White."

Marco's eyes snapped wide and he almost fell over where he stood. Thompson. Hare had said his name. Had named him as one of the men that raped Ace. Marco could still almost hear the cruel leer in Hare's voice. Another memory, this one from two years ago, pressed into his conscious.

October 17th

UNKNOWN ATTACKER INFILTRATES MARINE BASE. PIRATES OR REVOLUTIONARIES? GOVERNMENT LEFT CLUELESS.

It was only in the early hours of this morning that the government became aware of the situation at the Marine base on the island of Greyre, a fall island near the beginning of the Grand Line. Central headquarters received a Den Den Mushi transmission from one Rear Admiral Oliver Thompson, the commanding officer of the base. The government hasn't disclosed what exactly was said, only that it was not the Rear Admiral speaking. Investigators from a nearby base, dispatched by central headquarters upon this strange occurrence, found a grisly scene when they arrived twelve hours later. The Rear Admiral had been brutally murdered-

The news article was ripped harshly from Marco's mind, shut back in dim recesses and held there. That's quite enough of that, thank you. But Marco had remembered enough.

The painting was the photograph that had appeared on the front page of the newspaper, under that headline. It had been in black and white in the daily news.

Marco could only stare at the full color, real image of it, face slack, eyes wide. He scrabbled desperately to recall the news article, to remember the rest of it, but it was held back from him. I said that's enough, Marco.

What did Ace do?! Marco asked desperately. He turned to Whitebeard and Thatch. One of them would remember the article, surely? Thatch had already recognized the picture-

"Tattle-tale, tattle-tale

All the birdies heard you wail

Did you think I wouldn't see

While I was busy taking tea?"

No. He had to do this. They had to know and this was an opportunity. They could see. He opened his mouth to speak-

"TATTLE-TALE, TATTLE-TALE

NOW HANGS FROM THE GALLOWS' RAIL.

RUMORS BREED LIKE HARES YOU KNOW,

Shut them up before they grow."

But who says it's you I'll have to hang, Marco? Marco felt himself go very cold. I don't want to have to take control again, Marco. So let's be discreet, shall we? Outside of his own control, Marco felt his body straighten and turn away from the painting, back towards the others. Say something. Brush it off. Lie for me. Marco tried to fight back, tried to reclaim control. He could feel the amused patronization of the other at his efforts. Awww, the little Phoenix thinks he can fight back. Too bad he's been a puppet for his whole life and doesn't even know what it means to exist outside the will of another. Marco tried desperately to give one final push, one surge of strength, to somehow expel the voice from his mind.

And a force so strong it knocked the air from his lungs cinched down upon his conscious like a vice.

I'm tired of this game, Marco. The voice was no longer light and amused, merely dark. We can go around this bush as many times as you like. You'll never win. The force in his mind tightened until he felt himself beginning to black out, until he could barely even process a single thought. His body was still breathing, but Marco felt as if he were suffocating. His thought process was crushed to the barest excuse for thinking, could do no more than scream single-word ideas like death and dying and stop and hurts.

He was weak.

Compared to this, compared to this single, focused force, he couldn't fight back. Couldn't even begin to.

Lie. To. Them. For. Me. If you can't, I'll have to change the game again. I only need one of you to save Ace. And you're a good obedient puppet. So unless you want to see your companions' guts, DO IT. And all at once, as if he'd shoved Marco away, the force was gone from his mind. Marco was himself again. He took a deep breath, blinking repeatedly several times.

"What about you, Marco? Do you know what this painting is?" Thatch and Whitebeard had apparently been in discussion about the image but had yet to realize its significance. Marco blinked once at him, then forced his face back into its usual expression of detachment, eyes half-lidded, mouth relaxed.

"…It doesn't seem familiar to me, no," he said, keeping his voice from being too inflective. "The name sounds familiar, but I don't know the location." It's mostly true, Marco tried to reason with himself. He'd promised he'd never lie to Whitebeard. He'd promised. But this was undoubtedly a special case. Thatch crossed his arms, still staring intently at the painting.

"I swear I've seen this before. And I've heard that name, too." Marco. Get them away. Marco hated having to just listen, but the threat on his family still stood and it concerned him more than dishonesty.

"If you can't remember it can't be that important. We should move on, I don't want to stay too long in one place. We still don't know where Queen is, and that'd be a pretty nasty surprise." Marco began walking away, towards the door at the end of the room. Whitebeard considered it for a moment, then nodded, following suit. Thatch lingered a bit more, eyes sweeping over the painting once more in confusion, then turned away.

"…All right, if you say so." He resisted the urge to glance over his shoulder again.


As it turned out, the whole castle was chock full of paintings. They were currently walking down a short, broad hallway, and every flat surface that wasn't a window sported some kind of painting. Thatch found himself becoming more and more curious about them. Some were vaguely familiar to him, others entirely foreign.

He only stopped when he saw one he undoubtedly recognized.

His eyes searched the painting confusedly. It was a battlefield. One of the first times Ace had fought as a Whitebeard pirate. In the image, the chaos was already over. Instead, the corpses of the contestants littered the field. Thatch remembered it had been a battle against a group of particularly fierce bandits that had begun terrorizing the population on one of the islands under Whitebeard's protection. Since it was something that important, Thatch and a good portion of his division had been dispatched, Whitebeard sending Ace too as a chance to learn how they handled things like this. Thatch's eyes darted to the plaque at the bottom.

January 8th

Battle of Rensaire

Verdict: Guilty

What was up with the plaques? The 'verdict'? Thatch's eyes traveled to another painting, this one even more familiar, so much so his eyes widened in surprise.

It was Marco and himself in the crow's nest, as if drawn from Ace's perspective. The day Ace had told them the 'truth' about his past. Seeing the memories had of course debunked what Ace had said that day, but at the time Thatch had pretty much believed it…until he'd heard what Serpent said moments after their leaving.

December 23rd

Lying to Friends

Verdict: Guilty

Thatch's face furrowed, understanding beginning to grow. His eyes traveled to the next painting, this one of a dead marine, a hand extending into the frame as if it were a first person perspective, holding a locket, a picture of the man and a beautiful women holding a baby clasped in the painted gold.

February 13th

Loving Husband and Father…

Verdict: Guilty

Thatch's face went slack in understanding. "They're all crimes," he nearly whispered. Whitebeard didn't seem to have heard but Marco's eyes instantly snapped to him. "All of them. Things Ace has done." Thatch was trying to put it all in place, trying to figure out what this meant, what this said about Queen, what this told them about what they were dealing with. His finger traced lightly over the last word on the plaque, the one on every plaque. "…But what does this have to do with Queen? Isn't Queen the force that allows Ace to do these things? So why…guilty?" He had Whitebeard's attention by now.

"…It might have something to do with whatever Queen has become," Whitebeard said. "I'm not pretending to actually know. But Hatter said Queen had a different kind of death than all the others, and maybe this is a byproduct."

"But I thought Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum were Ace's conscience?" Thatch asked. Whitebeard shook his head.

"As I said, I don't know. At this point I'm just hoping to pass through unhindered and get Ace back without ever encountering Queen. We've spent enough time as it is down here, and I'm certain they need us back in reality as soon as possible."

"I think I might have the answer," Marco said quietly, approaching a picture. His fingers reached out and delicately traced the engraved letters. "…It's not really a matter of conscience in this case. Conscience is what helps you make a decision in the instant of deciding. This is something that only happens…after. I think…" Marco finished tracing the letters and looked up at the painting itself, this one of an island he didn't recognize.

"…I think it's self-loathing," he finished. Thatch stared at him, dumbstruck.

"…Self-loathing?" he repeated a little breathlessly. Marco nodded.

"Everything he's ever done, or things he didn't do… Everything that didn't turn out the way he thought it would… He blames himself for them. Thinks of them as his fault specifically. And he hates himself for being responsible, even if he's really not…" Marco's gaze had shifted to another painting, this one again from a first person perspective, hands stretched out in front of him, pinned to a familiar wooden floor by a scalpel.

Exact date unknown

Lust

Verdict: Guilty

"…But this isn't something we can fix from down here. So we should keep moving," he concluded, closing his eyes for a moment. He swallowed thickly, taking a moment to recollect his thoughts. I'm impressed you still pity us.

I pity him. Not you.

The voice only laughed.

"No more distractions, then. I am honestly seriously concerned for what's been happening on the Moby Dick, so I'd appreciate it if we'd really do our best to hurry up," Whitebeard said. And with that, he pressed open the door to the next room.

The throne room.

And all three of them froze simultaneously.

The ceiling of this room rose higher than any previously, and as such the sunlight was able to make it through the crimson glass of the rose window above the door. It stained part of the marble floor, a little off center towards the left, deep red, part of it overlapping the red of the long carpet that led from the door to the slightly raised dais the throne rested on.

The walls rose high, denoted with no windows, the sole exception being the one above the door. The walls, about a third of the way up, slanted back into sort of steps, lines of seats across the walls, staggered and spaced almost like a theater. After a while, the walls resumed their vertical climb, leaving this strange kind of balcony seating. As if some kind of spectator sport took place here. The seats were all empty, however. Altogether there were maybe 200 across both walls.

In the center aisle, three fourths of the way to the throne, was a headsman's block.

It was simple enough, made out of some kind of smooth, polished, dark grey stone. No axe or other method of beheading rested nearby, but from the depth of the chips in the stone, whatever weapon accompanied this grisly thing, it was heavy. Or wielded with a monstrous amount of force. And to have that kind of speed even after passing through a neck…

The user would have to be quite talented with the weapon.

Thatch felt a little queasy, seeing the array of the room. Public executions. Like it's entertainment.

The throne was large, high-backed, and by far the most ornate thing in the room. The cushions were of red velvet, the frame looking made of solid gold. It was intricately formed, gothic flora patterns twining vines and leaves over the legs and arms, mythical creatures like griffins, chimera, and manticore leering out of molded gold.

It was empty.

None of this was what had caused the three pirates to freeze, however.

No, it had far more to do with the corpses littering the floor, the blood spattered and smeared across the white marble floors and walls. Each figure was dressed as the Royal Court from the original Wonderland had been, the women in their beautiful ball gowns, the men in tailcoats and tuxedos, class and wealth denoted in every piece of fabric and jewelry.

All were strewn across the floor, heinously murdered.

Some were in the center of the floor, but more seemed to have tried to flee their attacker, slumped against walls or behind the throne. The man nearest Thatch had lost his whole right arm, chopped off cleanly as if with a very powerful weapon. The next blow he'd received had landed straight up and down his back, parallel to his spine, so forceful the blade had protruded from the other side of his chest, as evidenced by the smear of blood trailing behind him from where he'd skidded face down on the tile. A single word was written on the floor beside him in rough letters, his blood used like finger paint. GUILTY.

The next was a woman in a formerly sea green dress. Everything above her lower jaw was missing. As in, Thatch couldn't even see it anywhere in the room. Beside her prone form as well, now partially concealed in the pool of blood that had expanded from her destroyed head, was the same word. GUILTY.

Another woman slumped against a wall to Thatch's left, the bloody smear above her evidencing her attempt to scrabble up or somehow through the wall, her hands red with blood from trying to stop the bleeding from a slice across her throat that would have taken a painful amount of time to kill her. Written on her forehead as if drawn with a single finger, one word. GUILTY.

All across the room similarly brutal death reigned. Dismemberment, decapitation, disemboweling. It was like someone had just gone nuts. And all of these people hadn't been enough to stop it. There wasn't much evidence that they'd tried and they weren't armed, but even so.

Had it been one attacker? Or some kind of group?

GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY

It was smeared near or on each and every corpse, varying in size but always the same handwriting. Blood pooled near each in their varying stages of destruction, so the writer hadn't wanted for 'ink.'

"Who…?" Thatch breathed.

"Do you really have to ask?" Whitebeard said, voice and gaze hard as he scanned the bodies. No one stepped forward to check for survivors. They knew there wouldn't be any.

"Queen," Thatch murmured. He swallowed. "…You know, I think you might have been onto something with that whole 'avoid him at all costs' thing…"

(Ah. Guests. My favorite. Please, right this way. I've been dying to meet you.)

Thatch raised a hand to rub at the back of his neck, looking around anxiously. "…Anyone else feel like we're being watched…?" he asked, voice intentionally low.

"We should keep moving," Marco murmured, voice equally soft, posture equally wary. "…I don't think it's safe to linger too long."

The throne room seemed to possess only one door, the one they came in by. It had swung silently shut behind them upon their entry, even the click of the catch somehow inaudible. Perhaps it had been the shock of the scene that had led Thatch to miss it. In the silence, he would have thought it would sound like a gunshot, but no. He reached out, seizing the handle. It was cold.

He pushed it open- Didn't Oyaji push it to go into the throne room? –the creak seeming foreign and unfamiliar.

Stairs led down.

"The fuck?" Thatch asked, tilting his head slightly.

(My domain. My rules.)

Thatch's gaze, unsure, shifted to Whitebeard, seeking guidance. Whitebeard's mouth was set in a grim line, his eyes hard as he gazed down the stairwell.

"…It's our only option," he said. Thatch gave a determined nod, turning back towards the stairwell. He stepped forward cautiously, the sound seeming bizarrely dead for all the walls were pure white marble now, not a tapestry, painting, or curtain in sight.

The feeling of being watched was getting stronger.

Thatch felt the hairs on the back of his neck and arms rising, his chest instinctively tightening. Fight or flight. You need assess the situation and decide if you're prey or predator. But…as far as he could see, there was nothing to flee or fight. He couldn't make a call on a nonexistent threat. His eyes darted over every surface of the staircase, the floor, the bare walls, the wide, barely arched ceiling. Nothing but pale stone glared back. Every instinct told him something was coming. His fingers itched for the familiar texture of his sword hilts, and for the first time since entering Wonderland he was painfully aware of being weaponless.

The bottom of the stairs was approaching. Thatch's hyper-aware state had made it seem endless, but in reality it couldn't have been more than 30 stairs. At the bottom of the staircase, the corridor abruptly widened, but the walls, floors, and ceiling remained as austere as before. Except for one thing.

The walls were lined with doors.

Heavy, steel, lockable doors.

They had a single, horizontal slot a bit below eye level, wide enough for small objects to be passed through. The lock wasn't so much a lock as it was a bar, a thick steel rod resting in a cradle, from which it could be shoved into the waiting slot in the doorframe. The steel was black, almost like-

"…Is that-" Thatch started.

"Ace's armament Haki? I think so," Whitebeard finished. Thatch supposed it made sense. This place was a representation of Ace's mind. Of course his Haki could be implemented in it. These doors meant business, then. As if 2-inch thick steel wasn't enough, with Haki tacked on too, that stuff would be damn near unbreakable. Most of the doors stood open, swinging into the rooms beyond.

…Well. The word 'room' might have been a bit generous.

They were cells.

If Thatch had to guess at the dimensions, he'd say they were 6' by 10', the wider side parallel to the hall. White walls and floors. No ornamentation or furniture. It wasn't dank like a lot of the prisons Thatch had seen in his time, but by sheer force of emptiness was crushingly oppressive.

"H-Hello…?" Thatch, Whitebeard, and Marco froze at the breathy voice. "Who's there…?" it asked quietly, sounding anxious.

Thatch knew that voice anywhere, his attention instantly honing in on the source.

The closed door.

"Thatch? Whitebeard?" There was a slight pause. "Oh God please let that actually be you." He didn't just sound anxious.

He sounded terrified.

"Ace?!" Thatch felt as if he crossed the passage in an instant, drawing up right before the closed door, Whitebeard and Marco by his side.

"Son can you hear me?" Whitebeard asked, worry plain in every syllable. "What happened? Are you all right?"

Ace's 10-year-old face was pressed near the slot, his left eye staring up at them wide, his skin pale, freckles standing out in near harsh contrast. He had to have been on tiptoe to reach the slot. Whitebeard crouched so he could see better. Upon seeing his face, Ace's eyes closed and he sighed audibly with relief.

"Oh thank God. For a second I thought you were…" Ace trailed off, leaning his forehead against the door with an audible thump. Whitebeard's gaze darkened.

"Who? Queen? Is he the one that locked you up? Did he hurt you?" Ace shook his head, eyes reopening.

"No, not Queen. It was-" he cut off, swallowing thickly, fear rekindling in his eyes. "…Mr. Savage," he whispered. He became tense and frightened all over again, staring up at Whitebeard desperately. "Please, I don't know when he'll be back. You have to get me out of here! Please!"

"Hey, it's okay, you're going to be all right. No need to panic. Just breathe, okay?" Thatch tried to make his voice as soothing and friendly as possible. Ace's petrified gaze shifted to him.

"No you don't understand if he comes back he'll-" Ace cut off, shuddering, eyes squeezing shut. "Please!" he begged, voice no more than a whisper. "There's no time! I-" All expression dropped from Ace's face, and if possible he went even paler. "Oh God," he murmured. "Oh God." His gaze darted between Thatch and Whitebeard, visible eye even wider than before. He started to shake gently. "I can hear him coming down the stairs," he whispered, mind-crushing terror plain in every word.

Well that was enough for Whitebeard. Seeing the terror on Ace's face, he didn't hesitate to seize the handle of the Haki-enforced bar and, in a burst of strength, haul it aside. He couldn't hear whatever Ace said he heard, but that terror was all he needed to see before he couldn't resist action any longer. None of his children should ever have to endure something like that.

Silence reigned.

Then Ace started to laugh. It was quiet, no more than a chuckle really. "You are so fucking stupid, you know that?" Whitebeard's eyes widened and he reached again for the handle of the bar, but it was too late.

With one resounding strike, the door was blown off its hinges, striking Whitebeard squarely and carrying him with it to collide into the opposite wall.

"Oyaji!" Marco shouted, staring after his father.

"Ah ah ah. Might want to pay attention to other things just now." It was by a mere hair's breadth that Marco was able to dodge the blow, the axe colliding hard enough with the marble to crack it. He instantly backed off, putting far more distance between himself and the emerging figure. Marco's eyes hardened in recognition.

"…You were the one that appeared to Shanks in the memories. The one in the mirror." Queen grinned and cocked his head, the movement jostling some sickly black sludge from his right eye socket.

"Nice memory you got there. But I wonder how many fucking times it would take of everyone saying I'm the only one down here who can lie before you'd remember that. Daddy's probably hurt now, oops. Those doors can be so heavy, you know. I do hope his spine's not broken!" Queen began laughing, throwing his head back, hair falling away from his face.

"Marco, keep him busy I'm going to check on Pops!" Thatch ordered, Marco's eyes never once leaving Queen as he nodded assent.

"Try to make it quick I don't want to fight him alone," Marco said calmly. After that first near-deadly attack Marco knew that on his own he wouldn't be able to defeat Queen. Hold him off maybe, but not actually win against. "Queen listen. We have no quarrel with you. Can't you just-"

"Sorry, Queen's not here right now, I can be sure to deliver a message, if you'd like." Queen's face only grinned all the wider, the long black worms wriggling in his eye socket. He hefted the long, deadly headsman's axe, leaning it against one shoulder as if it weighed no more than a twig. "Well then. It seems your sin isn't hubris. So tell me, Marco, what are you guilty of?" Marco was given no time to answer as Queen lashed forward again, swinging the pole arm with one hand effortlessly, using its length to his advantage. Marco ducked under the blow, but in an instant Queen was there. Marco's eyes widened and he dropped further still, slamming his head back as far as it would go to dodge the grab Queen made for his face.

Someone who could throw a steel door across a hallway could undoubtedly crush his skull.

As he dropped to nearly laying down, Marco went offensive for the first time, trying to deliver a sweeping kick that would knock Queen off his feet. He swung his full bodyweight onto his hands, shifting his legs in an arc to build up the momentum necessary to make the blow more damaging-

And instead of meeting with Queen's wide-open, defenseless right leg, he found his ankle trapped in a grip like steel, Queen staring at him through one hugely widened eye. Queen's mouth was totally flat, devoid of any emotion at all. His grip on Marco's ankle tightened and he fought not to cry out, feeling the bones nearly grinding together. Queen was bent, his face even with Marco's.

"Uh oh," he said, voice dead. "Seems like you aren't too good at protecting the people you care about." Queen's grip tightened further still, eliciting a pained gasp from Marco.

And then flung him against a wall about 20 feet away hard enough that he tasted blood.

Fuck shit shit shit I really hope I didn't break a rib and pierce my lung… Marco fought, clinging to spinning consciousness with all the strength he had. His everything hurt. His whole back felt like it had been repeatedly beaten with hammers, his spine nothing more than one column of pain down his back. His head throbbed, his vision pulsing. Come on pull it together you need to be back on your feet by the time Queen gets over he-

Oh shit. Queen wasn't coming over here.

He was heading for Thatch.

Marco's eyes widened and he struggled to rise to his feet to make a move, anything. But his body, stunned and abused as it was, denied him. He tried to shout warning, but his voice emerged as little more than a croak.

"Thatch!" he mustered all the volume he could, his chest shooting with pain at the effort. "Look out!"

"Aw, that's cute, trying to warn him. I wonder if he'd do the same for you?" Thatch stiffened, turning to face Queen, eyes wide. "Never thought they'd know, did you? Why not have story time, then, hmmmmmmm?"

He darted down the corridor towards them, faster than blinking, aiming for Thatch. He grabbed him and, with more force than the chest-high figure should logically have, slammed him into the wall. Thatch, the breath having been knocked out of his lungs, gasped, stunned. Queen smiled up at him.

"You clever, clever bastard. Your sin is eloquence. When you stole from those nobles, they could truly do without and your family needed. Necessity saves you from that. But when the marines kicked down your family's door, did you confess? No. Your life was more important. So you watched your brother hang for your crime." Queen laughed.

"You try to spare yourself guilt any way you can. You claim it was a spur-of-the moment decision, that you'd change everything if you could go back, but then, why would you hide the gold in his room, if you didn't plan to throw him to the wolves if things got bad? The guards asked questions, and all it took was some fake tears, a quivering lip, and an invented story about your brother's drug addiction, how he needed to pay off big bills, how he said he was gonna get the money soon. And then you watched him swing. Fancy rope necklace he got, for a crime he didn't even know happened." Queen leered at him, smile turning almost to a snarl.

"You traitorous dog, you never even wept for him, did you? You went to his execution and you watched. Stood there, silent, guilty, alive. Tell me, did you feel even a twinge of guilt, the most instantaneous pang of regret when you saw him up there, weeping, pleading, begging to see your mother one more time? No. You didn't. And then he dropped. But there was no painless snap, no quick death for him. He dangled like a hooked fish, writhing for…what? Seven minutes? Less? And when he was in his last moment what did he do?" A cruel smile came to Queen's face. "He looked over and he saw you. His little brother. No older than twelve. By that point, he was only adrenaline and survival instinct and he begged you with his eyes, he begged you to save him. You had enough money for a ship. For a clean getaway. But what did you do? Nothing." All expression dropped from Queen's face.

"I find you quite guilty, Thatch."

Queen, in one fluid movement, slammed his open palm against Thatch's chest. The blow wasn't hard enough to knock the air from his lungs, and it did no physical damage. But then Queen released him and when he stumbled forward to catch himself…

…he wasn't in the Palace anymore.

Thatch's head instantly snapped up when his foot landed not on stone, but dirt. Instead of the dark corridor, his eyes were met with blue skies, tall grass, and the humble houses of his hometown. It was dead silent, and the whole place had a strange saturation to it, almost sepia. But it was so subtle it could barely be distinguished, merely gave the scene an inherent…wrongness. Thatch recognized this place. This specific location. His stomach felt like it was made of lead. He turned slowly, eyes coming to meet what he knew would be there.

The gallows.

It was on the very outskirts of the town, an ancient, dead tree behind it. The leafless, black branches of that tree stood against the sky like bones. The gallows itself was a fairly old construction, the wood dark with exposure to the elements. Thatch took a shuddering breath, feeling his heart chugging in his ears.

The body of a boy, no more than a child, swung grimly from the rope.

Thatch swallowed thickly, feeling his chest tighten. It can't be. You can't be. You're buried in the cemetery behind the little black church. He felt as if he couldn't breathe, as if there were some crushing weight, the whole ocean, upon his shoulders.

Something drew him, and he approached the gallows.

It wasn't a conscious decision, it more just…happened. One moment he was standing, staring, the next he was approaching. It was almost dreamlike in its simplicity and suddenness. Thatch, mind swimming with dread, found himself climbing the steps. They seemed far more than he remembered, closer to 30 as opposed to the mere 10 of his memory. When he reached the top, the strange compulsion left him, and he stood there, motionless, breathless.

The corpse, still hanging from the rope, turned to face him slowly.

Thatch couldn't scream, couldn't breathe, couldn't move. He remained bound in place as the body raised its dull, lifeless eyes to him. Cloudy. Empty. Dead.

"Come here, otouto. I've been so terribly lonely since you abandoned me." Thatch could feel himself beginning to go dizzy from the lack of oxygen and took a great, gasping breath, filling his lungs with the acrid stench of death and the much, much more familiar, too familiar scent.

Potato soup and flowering grass.

Brother.

It was a scent Thatch hadn't encountered in years, yet it was as familiar to him as his reflection. Thatch choked on the air, feeling raw, unhealed grief.

And guilt. Guilt beyond imagining.

"Come here." He hadn't aged at all. Still the same tousled tawny hair, the same sharp nose and strong jaw. He looked exactly as he had on the day Thatch had seen him die. A boy. Sixteen years old, and hanging. Thatch approached him, an emotional torrent but mental void. He couldn't think. He drew up next to the corpse, which continued to lifelessly regard him from its position.

"Thatch…can you tell me something?" The voice was hoarse, as if the throat had suffered a great deal of damage. Indeed it had, and as it still hung by the neck it was a wonder it could talk at all. Thatch made no response and it continued. "…Why did I deserve to die?" Thatch swallowed, feeling his chest constrict again.

"You didn't."

"Then why am I dead?" Thatch felt tears welling in his eyes, felt like his heart had stopped beating. He wanted it to. He didn't deserve to be alive.

"Because I'm a bad brother." Bad brother? He was a bad human.

"…Don't you want to come home? You left me here alone, and it's cold in the ground." Thatch fell to his knees, sobbing, guilt and regret and grief tightening his chest. "…You know, I wanted to get married some day. To Lizzy Ryan. But I don't think she'll say yes. She threw rocks at me while I was hanging." Thatch wept, tears streaming down his face. "I gave you everything, otouto. The only thing I kept my own was my life, but you've taken that now too. I had a future. I had everything. But now I'm alone…" Thatch stumbled to his feet, tears blurring his vision.

"I'm sorry." He choked between sobs. "It's my fault."

"Those guards wouldn't believe a word I said after your testimony. You always had the quicker wit. The sharper tongue." Thatch stumbled across the wooden planking of the gallows, approaching his brother.

"I'm sorry. I'm so, so, so sorry."

"Then tell the truth you failed to tell then."

"Who are you?" This voice was different, authoritative. Familiar, but with an unfamiliar rage to it. Thatch fought to speak through his tears.

"Fourth Division Commander of the Whitebeard Pirates Marcus James Thatch." He nearly choked on his own sobbing, but continued speaking regardless.

"What is your crime?"

"The murder of my older brother through treachery." The last word felt like a knife to his heart, reopening wounds from long ago.

"Do you confess?"

"Yes. Oh God, yes." Thatch fell once more to his knees, leaning forward, extending his neck, resting his chin on the cool, dark grey stone. He didn't know when it had appeared but it hardly mattered. He could still see his brother hanging a scant few feet away. "I did it. I did it. I killed my brother." This was it. This was right. This was the punishment he deserved for the crimes he committed.

"I find you irrevocably responsible for the premeditated murder of your brother, as confessed before me, judge, jury, and law. You. Are. Guilty." Yes. Yes.

"Off with your head."

Queen had the axe raised above high in preparation for the blow. His eye was cold, fierce, and angry. His grip tightened and he began to bring the axe down-

Marco tackled him, arms wrapping around his tiny waist, carrying them both to the floor. Queen screeched in frustration, sliding along the marble with Marco's momentum. The polished marble floor left them with little to no friction, and they slid until they collided with one of the corpses littering the floor.

Marco grappled fiercely with Queen, trying to tear the axe from his grip. He was kneeling, the majority of his body weight keeping Queen pinned to the floor, pulling with everything he had to try to get the axe away. Queen shrieked a battle cry, slamming up with his left hand and driving the handle of the axe into the side of Marco's head. Marco grunted, instantaneously stunned, and Queen continued pushing until he flipped their positions, himself straddling Marco's chest, now fighting to push the axe to Marco's throat.

Marco pushed back with all his might, face a grimace of effort, but the axe handle steadily grew closer to his throat. It finally met skin, but the pressure continued until breathing became a struggle. Queen leaned down, face inches from Marco.

"You," he whispered, sludge dripping from the infested eye socket. The worms poked out curiously, reaching out as if to brush against Marco's face. "Where do I even start with you." Marco could do no more than make choked noises, fighting for air. He didn't know if Thatch was up out of whatever Queen had done to him. He couldn't count on Thatch to necessarily come to the rescue. He needed to find a way out on his own. But Queen's strength was unyielding, and the pressure on his neck was growing even stronger. "All that wrath, Marco. Tsk." One of the worms brushed against his cheek and he felt an involuntary shudder run down the length of his spine. "And that's not even the worst, is it?" He was losing strength in his arms from lack of oxygen. This was going from bad to worse really, really fast. Queen smiled at him, Ace's youthful, freckled face bending into something that should have looked friendly. "Your real sin, I thi-" All at once, he leapt back, releasing Marco, landing in a crouch on the floor.

"Thatch, what do you think you're doing?!" Queen screeched.

Tears still stained Thatch's face, but he was up and moving. His breath, too, still came in shuddering near-sobs.

"I won't lose another brother," he choked, voice catching in his throat but strong, "because he tried to save me." Queen straightened. He didn't turn towards Thatch, merely continuing to stare at Marco. For a moment, Queen was silent. Then he began to laugh. Marco and Thatch stared at him warily.

"I figured it out, Marco. I found your deadly sin." Queen's arms hung limply at his sides, his left hand still holding the axe loosely. His eyes focused on Marco and he grinned, eye huge. "Sloth. You just can't be bothered, can you, to save those you care about?"

With one hand, he threw the axe horizontally at an impossible speed, dodging beyond possibility.

It spun only once before burying itself in the meat of Thatch's stomach.

The momentum and weight carried Thatch to the floor, the surprise too great for him even to scream. He lay on his back, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. For a moment, Marco didn't believe it.

And then the blood began to flow.

"THATCH!" Marco practically flew across the floor, ignoring Queen entirely, dropping to a crouch and skidding the last few paces to Thatch's side. He stared at Thatch, horrified, terrified. Already the blood was beginning to trickle down to the stone below, Queen's axe still embedded in his stomach. Marco's hands hovered helplessly, the direness of the situation rendering him blind with panic.

Thatch was still breathing.

Marco could see him fighting to breathe normally through the pain, could see the way adrenaline had widened his pupils. "W-Well that went exactly ac-according to plan," Thatch choked, a tiny trail of blood passing the corner of his mouth. Marco swallowed thickly.

"You idiot. You big fucking idiot. You're going to be fine. You're going to be just fine. Keep breathing. Look at me, focus on my face." Marco's eyes were still flying over Thatch's form, trying to think of something.

Marco could hear Queen's footsteps again, but couldn't bring himself to tear his eyes away from Thatch, desperately searching for a way to save him. As Queen drew nearer, he didn't even slow down.

He seized the handle of the axe once more, and with one pull ripped it out of Thatch.

Thatch screamed, and the bleeding increased exponentially. Queen didn't even pause, just continued walking, bloodied axe in hand, heading for the doors. "Too slow to act, Marco. Always too damn slow," he said, not glancing over his shoulder. Marco had scrambled, desperately pressing his hands to the injury, but already could see Thatch was practically beyond help.

Marco's eyes flew back to Thatch's face. "Thatch. Thatch!" Thatch's eyes were already beginning to go out of focus and Marco's hands weren't doing much of anything to stop the bleeding. "Look at me. Look at me." Thatch's eyes slowly roved to his face, his breathing shallow and quick. Marco knew he couldn't fix this. Even with Metamorphosis. If it had been an injury to his own body he could have fixed it, but there wasn't a doubt in Marco's mind that Thatch's internal organs had been heinously damaged, and he couldn't fix something that complex on someone else.

There was nothing he could do.

Nothing.

He was already too late.

All that was left was to watch Thatch die.

Some of his emotions and thoughts must have shown on his face, because Thatch spoke, voice broken and strained. "Marco get out of here. Queen's going for Oyaji and-" He coughed, a few drops of blood spewing from his mouth. Marco could see how much pain he was in. Thatch nodded minutely, a small, weak smile forming on his face. "You two can take him. You got this. It's fine. Just go help Oyaji. He…He needs you more than I do."

"Shut up. Shut up. It's fine, you're going to be fine, we're going to save you!" Marco snapped, hands drenched in Thatch's blood. Thatch's eyes looked almost pitying.

"How? I know you want to help, Marco. But you and I both know there's nothing left to be done. So go do what you still can." Thatch chuckled quietly. "Dammit Ace. Couldn't you have given me at least one of my swords? I might have at least stood a chance against these nightmares." Marco's eyes snapped wide.

"Thatch," he said slowly, the idea still forming in his mind. "I need you to listen to me very carefully." Thatch's unfocused eyes seemed to settle more firmly on Marco's face, a bit more attention in them. Marco licked his lips. "…This is a dream." Thatch blinked at him, mild confusion on his face.

"What? No it's not. This is Wonderland, this is Ace's mi-"

"No. No it's not. You're dreaming right now. This is your dream. None of this is real. You're lying in your bed asleep right now and your overactive imagination has conjured up this shit. It's a dream. It's three in the morning right now in the waking world." Marco could see the confusion still on Thatch's face, but shock made him more susceptible to persuasion. "What the hell would a pipe-smoking caterpillar or bloodthirsty tyrant be doing in a 10-year-old's mind? This is all you, Thatch. Your dream. You're sleeping right now. Fast asleep. Right back home in your bed on the Moby. This is all a dream." And you can't die in your own dreams.

You just wake up right before you do.

Marco really, really hoped this was actually going to work.

"I have a pretty fucked up imagination…" Thatch murmured, breathing growing fainter still, eyes half closed. Marco forced a laugh.

"You bet you do. What kind of freak gets himself hurt in his own dreams?" The bleeding was becoming more sluggish as Thatch's heart rate began decreasing. He had less than 20 seconds.

Marco had never been a man of faith, but in this moment he found himself praying with every scrap of will he possessed.

"This has been really fucked up. When I wake up I hope I have time to hopefully get a better dream…" Thatch said, voice now barely audible. "All this Wonderland bullshit. Maybe I should-" Thatch never got to finish that sentence.

He disappeared.

Poof.

Just gone.

Marco stared at the place he'd been laying just a moment before, feeling his heart stop in his chest. He wouldn't know. He had no way of knowing until he got out of here, until this whole ordeal was over.

He had no way of knowing if, in that moment, Thatch had just snapped awake or died.


"Oh daddy deeeaaarrreeesssttt!" Queen sang, practically leaping down the stairs.

Whitebeard had struggled to his feet by now, face a grimace of pain, blood streaming down his face. His right leg wouldn't take his full weight, and he knew he'd broken at least four ribs. He was unarmed. Not exactly prime fighting condition.

Nonetheless, it wasn't fear for himself that sent a cold spear of dread down his spine upon seeing Queen.

If Queen was here and Marco and Thatch weren't, Queen must have incapacitated them.

"What did you do," Whitebeard growled. It was hardly even a question the way he said it. Queen giggled.

"Ooooooooh, daddy's not one to be taken lightly!" His eyes darkened, but the challenging smile remained. "All right, then. No games. I won't toy with you."

Queen crossed the hall in an instant, standing just before Whitebeard, staring up into his face. "But tell me, why do you care what I did?" he lilted. Whitebeard tried to attack but Queen dodged seemingly effortlessly, leaping aside as if the blow were slow. He giggled.

"You're so…simple, daddy dearest. You're the easiest to figure out of all three." This time it was Queen's turn to attack, Whitebeard narrowly avoiding the blow, forcing him back a pace. He twirled the axe effortlessly, pressing on the offensive. He was damn fast. Faster than Whitebeard could consistently dodge.

Dodging had never really had a place in his fighting style.

But having no devil fruit and no weapon had Whitebeard at far more of a disadvantage than he'd care to admit. He knew hand-to-hand combat and could claim proficiency, but he was no master and compared to Queen, whose blade was clearly as familiar to him as his pulse, he wouldn't be able to keep up for long.

"Your sin is hubris." Queen swung again, and this time the blow glanced off, nicking Whitebeard's right arm. "You're so overconfident. Prideful." Another swing. Near miss. Another step back. "You think you can fix everyone, don't you?" This time a feint, the first yet and blindingly fast, and the unexpected move landed Whitebeard a blow to the shoulder. "You think your little utopia with its fresh start can fix whatever baggage people are carrying from their pasts." The horizontal swipe grazed his forearm. "You're so pompous as to believe that just by association, by just being near you people will recover, will change, that whatever has happened to them or shaped them into wrong and bad and evil will just melt away." Whitebeard took another step back, dodging another blow, trying to throw in a parry but having to draw back further when Queen instantly retaliated. "Just like you did with Ace. I saw it happen through his eyes. I helped keep him fighting. But that bitch just gave up eventually. How dare you even think you can save him. How dare you convince him to believe you." Queen was snarling in fury by this point. He threw one last blow, Whitebeard having to actually leap backwards to dodge this one, then smiled victoriously.

And slammed the cell door in Whitebeard's face.

Whitebeard's eyes widened, and he instantly threw himself against the door, trying to throw it open before Queen could lock it.

He was too late.

Queen's face appeared near the slot in the door. "Oh daddy. So easily manipulated. So…dumb. How should I do it, I wonder? How should I take off your head?" Queen grinned. "Of course there's the classic, literal definition. But with you I think we'll go more metaphorical." The grin fell from Queen's face. "I'm going to make you scream until your ears bleed." Queen's head turned, looked down the hallway, seeing something Whitebeard couldn't. His grin returned though, tenfold. He barked out a laugh of surprise and unexpected glee. "Perfect timing!" he crowed. "And here I thought we were going to have to wait for Ace to finally give me the chance to stretch my legs. I have to say, I've been dying to explore 'reality'." Whitebeard could feel a strange kind of pull at his consciousness, seeming to tug him towards whatever Queen had looked at, almost like a kind of gentle suction. Queen leaned forward further still. "Wanna know how I'm gonna do it? How I'm gonna unmake you?" He cackled, pressing his palms against the door. "You thought you could save them. You. Were. Wrong. They're all gonna die because of you~!" Whitebeard felt dread pooling in his stomach. Queen began dragging his nails down the surface of the door, eliciting a hideous squealing noise. And he began to sing, voice steeped in victory and elation.

"Ladybird ladybird

fly away home.

Your house is on fire,

your children all alone!"


(A/N: THE PLOT FUCKIN' THICKENS ALL UP IN HERE. Sorry. That cliffhanger though. Do you guys get it? I tried to make it clear but it's remarkably early in the morning. So this author's notes is going to be short.

AND HERE'S THE KINDA IMPORTANT THING YOU SHOULD READ: I am going to a con the weekend of February 28th. Wasabi Con. So for one thing, I won't have any writing time next week. For another, if any of you are also going, feel free to look for me! On Friday my sister and I are cosplaying Liz and Patty (I'm Patty) from Soul Eater. On Saturday we're post timeskip Nami and fem!Zoro (I'm Zoro). On Sunday We're pre timeskip Ace and Luffy (I'm Luffy). So if you find us, feel free to come say hi!

Oh, this is probably me just being weird and dumb and whatever, but did you guys not really like the last chapter? I didn't get as many reviews on it as I usually do. Hopefully this one was better! It certainly had more action in it.

Well anyway, have a nice rest of your weekend, and I'll see you next time (or maybe at Wasabi! c;) ~Mountain97)