There are things that last forever.
“Are you still crying?”
An impressive frown, its attempted severity ruined only by the wobbling of his lower lip, before Luffy ducks his head. “Shut up! I’m not crying.”
“There’s snot running down your chin.”
A sniffle — a loud, wet sound. “No there isn’t.”
Ace sighs. “Jeez. It’s just a scratch. Makino-san even put a band-aid on it.” Then, under his breath, “Not that it was really necessary—it’s not like you were bleeding to death.”
Hands wrapped protectively around his knee, as though contesting the necessity of the band-aid was understood as a declaration to remove it, “It still hurts!”
“Life hurts. And you’ll get worse injuries than that if you want to go out to sea. You can’t go running back to Makino-san for band-aids then.”
Luffy turns his nose up. “I’ll get a good doctor.”
“Yeah? To patch your knees?”
“Stop crying and I might.”
“Seriously,” Sabo sighs, drawing their attentions. “I’ve been gone five minutes.” A look at Luffy then, and with his brows knitting, “Are you still crying, Luffy?”
Ace sticks his tongue out, grinning. “Told you.”
Hands still wrapped around his knee, Luffy levels a glare at them both. “I’m not crying.”
Sabo tilts his head. “There’s snot all over your shirt.”
Ace’s laughter punctuates his point, and when Luffy pouts, he reaches out to ruffle his hair, pushing the straw hat back and out of his eyes. “Idiot,” he says, but it lacks bite. The band-aid on his knee is coming loose, and Ace rubs one corner until it sticks. “We won’t be around to take care of you forever, you know.”
Luffy wipes his nose — lifts it, defiant. “I know.”
“So you better learn to take care of yourself.”
“And stop crying.”
“And to put on your own band-aids, like a big boy.”
That does it. Luffy pounces, and they both go down, rolling across the dirt. Observing the scuffle, Sabo sighs, ever the long-suffering, but points are counted, and redacted, and comments on form are offered, unasked-for (“you really need to improve your aim, Luffy”, and “Ace, you’re suffocating him. Ace—”). Makino’s band-aid comes off, and Ace gets a mouthful of dirt for his trouble — gives one in turn, along with a grinning headlock that has Sabo stifling a sigh with his palm.
But Luffy stops crying, and by the time they’ve reached a truce (Ace wins, he always does, and he never lets him forget it), the cut on his knee is forgotten, and instead of tears it’s laughter that colours the air, bright like the dappled sunlight dripping through the branches.
Because a big brother has his means, his small ways, and they always, always work.
There are things that last forever. The memory of dirt in his mouth, and the sun through the canopy, warming his back. Blond curls. Patched knees. An old, worn straw hat. Sabo laughing; Luffy crying.
Years pass. His life shifts, twists and turns and tides changing, but he remembers all those things. He is a captain, and then someone becomes his; like he had a father once, and then he chooses another. But he doesn’t forget — he never forgets, Dadan’s rough hands, and Makino’s softer ones. A cabin full of bandits. Sabo. Luffy.
And what it means to be someone’s brother.
It all happens so fast, it doesn’t register at first.
He makes the decision. It doesn’t take him long, not even a full second, and he knows it’s going to be his last, but he doesn’t care, because it’s his little brother, and he would be his first choice, and his last. That has never changed — would never change, if he lived to make the same choice again.
He won’t, Ace knows, but it’s okay. He hadn’t counted on living beyond today, anyway. That he has been given a little more time is more than he’d expected, and he’ll use it for this; the very last of his strength and conviction.
It’s okay, Ace thinks.
This is okay.
The heat at his back singes the air, hotter than his own. He catches the shock where it erupts across Luffy’s face, and knows his brother — knows there will be tears.
There’s some comfort in that, he finds. A small, familiar thing.
But then, between breaths, the ones he’d thought would be his very last, a gloved hand grips his shoulder, shoving him back, and suddenly his vision is filled with curls — bright, blond, bouncy curls, and there’s something about the sight that makes him want to laugh, so at odds with the fire and the blood, and like Luffy’s tears, that’s familiar, too, almost like—
Shit, your hair is something else. Every time I look at it I think it can’t get any curlier, but then it does.
I can’t help what it is.
You’re so pretty, Sabo-kun~!
He wonders for a moment if he’s dead; that it happened so fast he didn’t even feel it, and that this is some twisted version of the afterlife; fire and brimstone and the ghosts of long dead brothers.
“Made it in time!” a voice shouts then, a voice he knows, although it’s different. Older, and rougher around the edges, but it’s unmistakable, even if the sound of it defies what he knows to be possible. What should be possible.
And he’s not dead, Ace realises. The battlefield is still there, and Akainu. His old man is still standing, and the crew, and Luffy, and—
And, “You’re dead,” he croaks, at the shape standing two steps from him, and — blond curls, he sees, and for a moment he can’t seem to focus on anything else.
The figure turns his head, a smile flashing beneath the dark brim of his hat (and he knows that hat—has made fun of that hat, has pulled it down, has stolen it, has dusted it off and plopped it back onto those ridiculous, bouncy curls), confident on the surface, but the crooked lilt tells a different truth.
“So were you supposed to be,” Sabo says—Sabo, Ace thinks, disbelieving. “This is your execution, isn’t it?”
The laugh that claws its way up his throat sounds winded, broken. It doesn’t really sound like a laugh at all, but then he doesn’t think it’s supposed to be one – doesn’t know what he’s feeling, if he’s feeling anything at all, or if what he’s seeing is even real. He doesn’t know if he’s still alive, or if he really did die, and the rest of him just hasn’t caught up.
For his part, Luffy looks like he’s feeling everything. Ace watches his mouth working, his voice quavering, the shape of the name on his tongue cleaved in half just after the first syllable, as though speaking both is too much. “Sa—”
“First things first. Let’s get out of here,” Sabo says—their brother, who shouldn’t be alive to say anything. And yet the same could be said for Ace, and maybe that’s what allows him to snap out of the daze, and to accept, even if he doesn’t yet understand — even if he doesn’t yet believe. “I’ll explain later.”
Ace tries to find the things that will prove it’s impossible; that it’s someone else who’s come to their aid in the nick of time, even as he can’t stop finding things he knows (that chin, that nose, the edge of that smile, blond curls—)
Luffy—always quicker to accept, always quicker to believe—looks like he’s about to burst into tears, and it doesn’t help the fist-sized lump pushing up his own throat, although Ace doesn’t know if it’s tears or laughter that’s threatening to rip him apart.
With a glance at Luffy, openly crying now, “Glad to see some things haven’t changed,” Sabo says, laughing, but there’s a hard edge to the sound, and Akainu is still there. There’s still a war, and his crew, dying around him.
They haven’t bought time, they’ve stolen it, pilfered with a pirate’s sleight of hand, but not for keeping. There’s a window, if they want to do this, and it doesn’t leave them room for explanations.
Luffy and Sabo take off running, no further words offered or needed, and Ace sees in their backs memories over ten years old; for a single instant, the battlefield becomes hard-packed earth and the skies exchanged with thick forest canopies, sun-dappled grass and curling, twisting footpaths, and he almost, almost follows.
His brothers are alive, both of them, and for the first time in ten years. It’s not an illusion, and it’s not the canopies of the past but the wide-open sky of the present.
But it’s still a war. It’s his war, and his crew is dying, and for his sake, and so Ace hesitates.
It’s a mistake.
“Ace!” Luffy shouts. He turns, stops running. Up ahead, Sabo follows suit, coattails whipping around his legs. And Ace watches alarm shift across his features, but it’s too late, they’re out of time, and then there’s Luffy’s voice, still shouting, “Ace, come on—”
Akainu moves — he feels it, and Ace draws a breath to call out; shapes the words on his tongue, but there’s no time, and he would have made the same choice again in a heartbeat, but there’s no time—
The blow doesn’t hit its mark, not completely. Instead there’s a large shape shoving his brother out of the way, and for a single second, his heart leaps, hope elevating it, before it plummets back down.
The fall from hope is always the longest, and the hardest. Ace knows that better than most.
He’s making for Luffy before he’s had the chance to drag in enough breath to shout.
He’s caught him before he hits the ground, but the damage is already done. And he’s heavier than he should be, the kind of heaviness that tells Ace he’s lost consciousness, even before the weight has fully sunk into his arms. And then he’s scrambling for a pulse, because he can’t be dead — he can’t have lived through his own execution and had one brother returned, only to lose another in the same breath.
His voice is broken when it finally manages to tear itself loose. “Luffy!”
His brother doesn’t respond, doesn’t move, which itself spells wrongness in every fibre of Ace’s being, because Luffy wasn’t made for being still, in any sense of the word.
And he’s small—gods, was he always this small—too-thin, all arms and legs, but there’s none of the restless, wound-up energy there should be in them now, slack in Ace’s grip. The smell of burning flesh hits his nose, a foul, bile-inducing scent, and one he’s intimately familiar with, but for the first time in years it makes him physically recoil.
A shape above him then, shadow thrown large across the broken ground, and, “Jinbei,” Ace manages, recognition registering through the white noise keening in his head, seeming to drown out everything else. And there’s gratitude pushing against his chest, like it wants to break his ribs, but it’s a twisted, ugly thing that refuses to shape into words, and he finds it reflected in the regret on Jinbei’s face, expression contorted with pain.
“Ace!” The shout from above draws both their gazes, and there’s Marco, wings sweeping across the sky, blue fire lapping at the edges of his vision. “Take your brother and get out of here! We’ll catch up with you later!”
A hand grips his shoulder, and Sabo is there, and he still hasn’t had the chance to wrap his mind around that, and even now he isn’t allowed, because there’s no time.
But there are hands helping him lift their little brother, and, “Come on,” Sabo says, and this time, Ace doesn’t hesitate.
And then they’re running.
They always seem to be, in some way or another. In all his memories, they’re running, but there’s no dappled sunlight here, or dirt under his feet; and it’s not laughter filling his chest, filling the air, relishing in the freedom of choosing your own life, your own family, your own destiny. It had once meant the world to him, that freedom.
But he’d trade all the freedom in the whole damn world for the life of the little brother in his arms.
It’s a while before Sabo allows himself to breathe.
It feels like a luxury he’s been denying himself, ever since the front page of that newspaper, and waking three days later, only to discover that the nightmare wasn’t the world he’d left behind in sleep, but the one he’d woken to. It had been a scramble for time, and he hadn’t had a second to lose, not even to draw breath.
Koala will give him an earful later, for taking off from Marineford without a word, but he’s too high-strung to feel regret, or to feel anything at all beyond the worry that’s coiled so tight in his gut, he feels like throwing up, just for a spell of relief.
The submarine pitches — tilts unpleasantly, but he manages to keep his balance, if only barely. He hasn’t stopped to ask where they’re going, or even if it’s right to trust who they’re going with. The only thing that had mattered had been to get away from Marineford; anything else they can deal with later, once their brother is safe.
Sabo has always been good at thinking on his feet. It’s when he stops moving that the uncertainty creeps in, and is given time to fester.
They’d rushed Luffy into surgery, the one who’d declared himself a doctor, and who Sabo wouldn’t have trusted in a second on any other day, but his hands had been steady, and their brother had been dying in their arms, and there hadn’t been time for distrust, or to ask for an explanation.
Now there’s time, and too much of it. And it almost makes him want to laugh, that it’s come to this, after so many close calls, so many near-misses. There’s nothing else for them to do now but wait.
From across the cramped space, Ace is looking at him—Ace, who hadn’t been this tall; who’d been all skin and bones and freckles. And the freckles are there, if duller than they should be, his complexion too pale for what Sabo remembers, and it’s old memories and new impressions stumbling over each other in his head and before his eyes, so fast he can’t keep up, until he’s dizzy just from trying.
“You were dead,” Ace rasps, after a lull has passed. A heavy heartbeat, like a pulse leaping between them; one that’s been idle for ten years. Not gone—never gone, because Sabo hadn’t been, even though he sort-of had, and there are so many things that need saying where that’s concerned, he doesn’t know where to start.
He thinks of the newspaper headline, the execution announcement that had kick-started his memory, and so forcefully he still hasn’t recovered fully. It keeps coming back, in broken bits and pieces; a great, jagged puzzle, like his whole being came apart with a breath and he’s been holding himself together at the seams ever since.
“There’s an explanation,” Sabo begins, and finds it dying on his tongue. But he tries, anyway. “I know you’re probably wondering where I’ve been, and why I didn’t come back, or say anythi—”
Arms around him, an embrace so unapologetically brutal he’s hard pressed to decide if he’s being hugged or if he’s being held in a pretty convincing wrestling grip. But he knows his brother — knows his tells, his tricks and favoured moves, all of them coming back to him now, and this isn’t one of them.
“You crashed my execution,” Ace says then, voice thick, and Sabo’s laugh caves him in half.
“You went and got one scheduled, you ass. What was I supposed to do?” He doesn’t mention the newspaper; that he hadn’t known, hadn’t remembered before he’d read the headline.
But Ace doesn’t ask. He doesn’t demand he explain, and Sabo wonders if it even matters. “You always had to one-up me,” Ace says instead.
His hands find purchase, gripping him back until it hurts to breathe. The words feel too large, clogging his throat. “Yeah, well. If I ever land myself on an execution platform, you’ll have the opportunity to pay me back.” A beat, and then, softer, “Although I think Luffy will still have us both beat.”
The arms around him tighten, an embrace too hard to be tender, but then his brother was never that, but, “Yeah,” Ace says, roughly. “Can’t beat a warship falling from the sky. I’ll give him this one.”
“He’ll never let us forget that, if you do. We’ve never let him win.”
He hears the laugh that follows, sharp and short, but even as it rings hollow, there’s a comfort in it, old and familiar. And maybe humour is the only way to deal with this; the only thing that’s keeping them from crumbling completely, save the fact that they’re practically carrying each other’s weight.
Speaking of. “Shit, you got tall,” Sabo says. “And what’s up with the guns? And the tattoos?”
The arms around him cinch tight, as though in retaliation. “You’re one to talk—you’re built like a damn tree. Compensating for something?”
“You’re not exactly being discreet, running around without a shirt.”
“Don’t blame me just because you don’t have the confidence to pull it off, cravat boy.”
He doesn’t know what hurts the most, breathing or laughing, or if there’s any relief in either. And he’s still trying to piece things together—to connect the memories in his head to the brother in his arms (everything is longer, arms, legs, hair, his freckles dulled but the scar on his shoulder is still there, the one that kind of looks like a warship, and he’s warmer than he should be, almost feverish; the devil fruit’s doing, and that’s new, too).
Then, “What the hell is this?” Ace sobs around a laugh, tugging at a lock of hair, curling at his nape; as though he’s taking stock, too. Sabo bats his hand away, but his grin comes, wide and full of tears. “Growing your hair out, goldilocks? I don’t think it’s going to make it any better.”
“Shut up,” Sabo laughs, but it’s hard to speak past the tears; is hard to see, but he doesn’t need to see to know, the too-long limbs and the bony shoulders and the scar that kind of looks like a warship.
And they’re both crying, and it’s wrong, because it’s not usually like this. They’re not the ones who resort to tears first, and maybe it’s in lieu of their brother, an attempt to fill the last, remaining space that the world seems intent on keeping empty, one way or another; as though it can’t bear to have all three of them at once.
“He’ll make it,” Ace says, voice sharp-edged with the kind of conviction that bids the world go fuck itself, and Sabo has nothing better to offer than a laugh that’s not quite that, but that tries to be, anyway.
They keep vigil into the night, Luffy’s heart-monitor chirping; a loud, steady beat.
Sabo talks; tells him everything. Fills the long hours with ten years of seas crossed and training endured, victories and close calls, battles and wars and the quiet, mundane moments in-between. He tells him of Koala, and Iva-chan. Hack and Inazuma. Dragon. It’s not an explanation, because Ace didn’t ask for one — finds it’s the least important thing in the world, when the only thing he really needs to know is that he’s alive, not how.
“You talk differently,” Sabo remarks, hours into the oppressive half-quiet that isn’t allowed to be truly still, by that jarring, curiously rhythmic beep (- - beep - - beep - - beep, it continues, relentless, but Ace dares it to stop, he fucking dares it).
“You’re—politer,” he continues, head tilted curiously. He’s removed his hat and coat and loosened the cravat at his collar; Ace spies the burn scars climbing up his throat from under his shirt.
One brow raised, “I can’t say the same for you,” Ace offers back.
He gets a grin for that; a quick, clever thing, the edge dulled by exhaustion. He’s lost track of how long they’ve been awake, waiting. “You won’t bring about the revolution by being polite.”
His own smile crooking, “Fair point,” Ace concedes.
There’s a beat. It slips between one beep and another, and, “It wasn’t supposed to be him,” Sabo says, eyes on Luffy now.
Ace’s gaze fixes on the straw hat, sitting on their brother’s chest — seeks the soft rise and fall of it. “No,” he says at length, the word sharp. Then, because it smacks of regret, that sharpness, and he won’t regret his brother’s efforts, not now, not ever, “Technically, it was supposed to be me,” Ace says, tone dry, and pretending at an ease he doesn’t feel. “So much for that.”
The corner of Sabo’s mouth lifts. “You can’t always have the spotlight, Pirate Prince,” he says, and Ace flips him off. But the tension lifts, if only a fraction. Enough to breathe past, although it’s still a feat, managing that.
“It can’t be the two of us left, after everything,” Sabo says then, after the quiet has settled, and found its place again, between the steady chirping of the heart-monitor. “It should be him.”
“It will be,” Ace says. “He doesn’t stay down for long. Never did know how.”
“Yeah,” Sabo sighs, scrubbing a hand over his face. A tired laugh falls between his fingers. “He always was the best at taking a beating.”
“Cried like a baby, but he knew how to take a punch,” Ace agrees, and finds a smile; a startled, pained thing. Everything about him cuts, breath and smiles and laughter, all of them too sharp, for ease or mirth.
But it helps, a little, remembering. Even if this isn’t the same as a childhood scuffle, it helps, believing that he’ll pull through, kicking and screaming. Crying, like he always does.
It’s probably a coincidence, because they’ve been there for hours, and the conversation always circles back to Luffy, one way or another. But as though compelled by the words, the monitor yields a change — a single, erratic pause, and Ace has shot up in his seat so fast the chair clatters to the floor.
Across the room rises a word of warning, from the eerie doctor with his feet propped up on the surgical table, ostensibly asleep, but, “Ace,” Luffy mumbles, the word muffled by the oxygen mask, and Ace has no mind to spare the surgeon or the chair, because Luffy’s eyes are blinking awake, unfocused and bloodshot, before they find his.
Relief follows, unbridled like all his feelings are wont to be, although it settles with agony across his brother’s face. But a stubborn smile still breaks through, fogging the oxygen mask. “Saved you…?”
Something twists in his chest, and he can’t tell if it’s relief or gratitude or a sob or a laugh, but, “Yeah,” Ace says, voice rough with all of them, hand reaching out to push his brother’s hair out of his face. It’s shaking, and flattening his palm over Luffy’s brow doesn’t really help. “It’s a first, but I’ll give you this one.”
A tired grin, wide and toothy, if a tinge delirious. “Told you.”
His smile hurts; his own relief is almost too much to bear. His gratitude, too. “I’d give you all the credit, but it was a joint effort,” Ace says.
Luffy’s brows draw together at that, and realisation is slow in coming, but when it does, Ace has to push him back down to keep him from pulling loose of the medical equipment.
Two more hands come to join his on Luffy’s shoulders, and, “Jeez, Luffy,” Sabo says then, before Ace can snap at him to stay still. “You need to be more careful. This isn’t just a band-aid you can rip off.”
Luffy goes still, and there’s a second where Ace wonders if he’s lost consciousness again, but then, “Sabo,” comes the sob, the syllables muffled by the mask and choked with tears.
And he’s crying now, tears soaking the bandages, running down his cheeks into his hair, and he always was a messy crier.
“You’re still such a crybaby,” Ace tells him, to Sabo’s laughing agreement, but Luffy doesn’t protest, only cries harder.
And he doesn’t ask. Not about the ten missing years, or where their brother has been or what he’s been up to. Instead he just cries, and cries, great, howling sobs that echo off the submarine’s walls, and Ace is smiling so hard his whole face hurts.
“Hey,” comes the voice from across the cramped room. “Would it kill you three to keep it down? I’m trying to sleep off the surgery.”
There’s a part of him—a young, reckless, cheeky part that’s pushed its way to the surface along with his relief—that’s tempted to point out that he looks like a whole year of sleep wouldn’t do the trick with the rings under his eyes, but he keeps the glib remark to himself.
“No,” Ace says instead, with a glance at Sabo, grinning through his own tears. All of them crybabies, all of them far too old to be that, and all of them alive—
“It’ll take a whole lot more to manage that.”
The war ends, but with lasting repercussions.
They hear the news — the Blackbeard Pirates’ arrival, and Red-Hair, of all people. Ace doesn’t know what to make of half of it, but it all pales in comparison to what follows.
His old man is dead, and the world perches on the edge of its seat, awaiting the inevitable.
His old man is dead.
His old man is dead.
It’s a loss that echoes; that tolls within that great, hollowed-out space inside him that had belonged to his brother, that now belongs to his father, and he can’t bear it all, the relief and the happiness and the loss and the grief, all of it piling on top of him, until his heart threatens to shatter from the abuse.
Luffy sleeps. Heals, little by little. And he should be with his crew, Ace knows. He should be with his family, but—
But this is his family, too, and he doesn’t know what to do, torn between decisions. He wants to laugh, suddenly, at the thought that there’d ever been a time in his life where he’d believed he’d had no one.
“We’ll go,” Sabo says, in answer to a question that hasn’t been asked. “To wherever they’re burying him. All of us, together.”
He thinks of his old man, grinning. A man who’d had a hundred sons, and who’d always had room for more. He knows what he’d say.
Funerals are for the dead. The living should celebrate the living.
And, that grin stretching, wide, laughing, knowing, forgiving—
No good father would hold it against his son for being a little late.
“Yeah,” Ace says, his father gone and both his brothers within arm’s reach, and tries not to hate himself for feeling so happy.
Their brother’s recovery is about as difficult as expected, but not for the most obvious reason.
“I need to get stronger,” Luffy declares, staring at his hands, wrapped with bandages. They’re shaking, and Ace watches the curl of his fingers into his palms. “I need—ow!”
Ace draws his hand back from where he’d flicked him between the brows. “Idiot,” he sighs. “Take it easy for five minutes.”
“I don’t have five minutes! My crew—”
“We’ll find a way to reach them,” Ace cuts him off, firmly but not unkindly. “And you’ll find them when you’ve recovered enough to actually walk a straight line. How did you imagine you were going to get back to them? By rowing back to Sabaody?”
His attempt at easing the frown between Luffy’s eyes doesn’t succeed. Shaking his head, a stubborn denial defying even life-threatening injuries, “I shouldn’t have lost them,” Luffy says, voice rough. Pained. “I wasn’t strong enough to protect them. I—”
“Then you’ll get stronger,” Sabo says. Seated on the other side of Luffy’s bed, he’s got his arms crossed, and something like determination shifts across his face, pulling at his features — the latter older, but the former familiar, invoking sunny days of boyish mischief, and dreams reaching far beyond Dawn Island’s shores.
The smile that follows tugs at the burn scar, and flicking his eyes to Ace, he knows what he’s about to say, even before Sabo announces, “We’ll help you.”
Luffy blinks. “Help me?”
Sabo’s grin has stretched now, wide with promise. Ace feels his own echo the gesture. “I’m one of the best haki users in the Revolutionary Army,” Sabo declares, as though by way of answer. Another glance at Ace, his eyes gleaming, “Ace probably has some skills, too.”
Luffy looks at them, bandages bright against his skin, his eyes wide. Ace is struck by a sudden sense of familiarity.
Then, “It’ll be like it was?” Luffy asks, and his voice sounds smaller than it should be. Their brother doesn’t have a voice made to be small. “Before?”
Leaning back in his chair, Ace grins. “Yeah. But no crying this time, when you lose.”
Sniffling, Luffy doesn’t bother wiping at his eyes. “I won’t lose.”
“You’re still crying,” Ace points out.
“Yeah,” Luffy says, grinning. Proudly defiant.
“Some things will never change,” Sabo muses, laughter in his voice, and Ace smiles, a silent agreement offered in the shake of his head.
And he takes stock then, of the things that have changed. Heights and scars and tattoos; affiliations and goals.
And then, the things that haven’t, and that he doubts ever will. Things that will last forever, and then some. Blond curls. A worn straw hat. Luffy crying; Sabo laughing.
And what it means to be a brother.