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Stranger Families Than This

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It was nice having noise in her bar—not usually a problem with the crew she called hers, but this was a different kind of tumult; the three boys who hadn’t been together under her roof in twelve years. And they were too old to be called boys with ease now, Makino conceded, but looking at them seated at her bar, she had to blink her eyes to banish the recurring glimpses of what-had-been (gap-toothed smiles not yet sharpened with age, and eyes written without lines; their cheeks dirty and leaves in their hair, Luffy’s black and Sabo’s gold, and Ace’s, bleeding copper tones in the sun), and it was all too easy mistaking it with what-had-become, watching the grins that promised trouble without even a hint of sheepish shame to soften them, the newly crowned Pirate King wearing the widest of the lot.

They’d been surprised to find the Red-Hair Pirates there when they’d arrived, a homecoming entirely without announcement but then she’d hardly expected anything else. And it was a strange convergence of all of her worlds—her bar, her crew, her boys, all marking different seasons of her life but all of them coming together now, a curiously comfortable collision.

Well—at least up until a certain discovery.

“You got married?”

The surprised exclamation was echoed three ways, three voices pitched in varying degrees of incredulity, and the same expression looking back at her from three different faces, mapped with scars and freckles and sharper cheekbones, all of them older than she remembered but their shock wholly, wonderfully boyish.

“It’s a little while ago now,” Makino said—and saw that it was the wrong thing to say a second too late, as three pairs of eyes swivelled sideways, fixing accusingly on the fourth figure seated beside them at the bar.

Shanks quirked a brow, taking in their offended expressions. “What?”

“Oi, Makino,” Ace said, looking at her, his thumb hooked in Shanks’ direction. “You sure this is who you want to spend the rest of your life with?”

Shanks spluttered, “Hey—”

“I know it’s slim pickings in Fuschia, but did you even look around first?” Sabo asked.

Shanks was gaping. “What is this coordinated pile-on suddenly? Two minutes ago you were elated to meet me!” And to Ace with a pout, “You called me Master Red-Hair.”

“When I was thanking you for saving my brother,” Ace said, before pointing a finger at Makino, who blinked. “Completely different situation.”

“Yeah,” Sabo agreed, before Makino could gently interject. “Don’t mistake gratitude for approval.”

Approval,” Shanks muttered, just as Ace asked Makino, “Does gramps know?”

She fought to stifle her burgeoning smile. It was hard keeping her expression appropriately sympathetic when he was looking at her so seriously. “He does.”

“I bet he doesn’t approve, either,” Sabo said.

“He doesn’t,” Shanks supplied. “But speaking of approval I wasn’t aware I needed—”

“When did this start?” Sabo asked Makino then, breezing right past him.

“Oh, we’re ignoring me now?” Shanks asked, and shook his head at the smile she slipped him. “Okay then.” He looked to Luffy. “You’ve always liked me—why are you taking offence?”

“Principle,” Luffy said simply, with a nod.

Shanks just stared at him. Then, “Did you eat a dictionary?”

Sabo was grinning, and nudged his shoulder approvingly. “Stick to your principles, little brother.”

“A good thing someone is,” Ace remarked, lifting his glass to his lips, and with a meaningful glance at Shanks, “since certain principles of basic decency have been ignored.”

Shanks met the look with an unimpressed brow, before turning to Makino. “You know, I have a feeling this would have gone over differently if I’d seduced and married Dadan instead.”

Ace choked on his drink, and Shanks was subjected to three matching looks of disgust.

“What?” he asked. “You’d have a problem with that, too?”

Yes!” they all exclaimed loudly, in perfect unison, Ace still coughing up the dregs of his drink.

“I think Dadan would have had a problem with that,” Yasopp called from across the room, to which someone let slip a laughing hoot. Shanks cheerfully flipped them off, and proceeded to ignore the mortified looks still trained on him from the three seated beside him at the bar.

“It’s sweet that you’re looking out for me,” Makino told them, heart alight with fondness as she shifted her eyes to Shanks, who matched her warm look with such a dryly enduring expression that it made it hard keeping her smile from showing just how amused she was, “but I’m quite happy with my choice.”

Head cocked to the side, Luffy gave her a considering look, his expression unreadable. Then with a smile, nodded once and declared simply, “Okay.”

“Just like that?” Shanks asked. “What happened to your principles, Anchor?”

Luffy just shrugged, and said, like it was the easiest truth in the world, “Happiness is more important.”

Her heart constricted, the reaction so startled her smile slipped from her mouth, but when Luffy looked at her, his own remained firmly in place, seeming to require no effort, as comfortable on his face as the years that had settled there since she’d seen him off on the docks, the day he’d set out to sea.

And she saw then, not the king who was but the little prince who’d been; who’d kept her happy the ten years she’d waited for her own king to come home.

She had no words for the feeling that trembled in her hands, crooked around the forgotten dish-towel; something deeper than gratitude, but from the brilliant smile he flashed her, Makino didn’t think Luffy needed telling—knew it wouldn’t have changed the truth either way. And it was a painfully simple truth, but there was nothing simple about the heart that offered it.

Ace wasn’t so easily convinced; Makino saw him considering Shanks, his eyes squinted. “Aren’t you a little old for her?” he asked then.

“We’ve been telling him that for twelve years!” someone shouted from the back of the room, prompting a round of laugher, and several voices raised in agreement.

Ignoring them all, “Excuse me,” Shanks said, affronted. “I’m just seven years older!”

“So you were seven when she was born,” Ace pointed out. “And when you were legal, she was eleven. Wow.”

“That logic doesn’t hold water,” Shanks told him. “She was legal when we met.”

“Barely,” Ace countered, not missing a beat. “And you were almost thirty.”

“We—ell,” Sabo interjected, dragging out the word.

Ace turned in his seat to look at him. “What?”

“Nothing,” Sabo said mildly—but then with a barely-suppressed smile, “I hate to call you a hypocrite, but you did have an embarrassingly huge crush on her,” he reminded him. “And she’s ten years older than you.”

That caught Shanks’ attention, seized it almost physically, and he looked to Ace, brows raised with intrigue and what looked like the beginnings of vindication. “Oh really now?”

“Beside the point,” Ace brushed them off, cheeks flushed under his freckles as he drove his elbow sharply into his brother’s side, startling loose a laughing wheeze.

“Oh yeah?” Shanks asked. “Beside the point, huh?” He shook his head, and said to Makino, “I’ve joked before that you’ll leave me for a younger man. I’m not sure I find it funny anymore.”

She wasn’t even trying to hold back her smile now. “You’re young at heart, my love. That’s what matters.”

Gaping, Shanks looked too startled for offence. “Wh—you’re supposed to vehemently deny even the mere suggestion! Also, young at heart?” The look he gave her would have been convincingly hurt, if it hadn’t been for the way his eyes gleamed. “I have done nothing but love and adore you, and this is what I get?”

Ace was grinning now. “You did marry a younger woman. Reap what you sow, Master Red-Hair.”

“Hey,” Shanks said, pointing. “You cheeky kid. First of all, mind what phrases you throw around because I can tell you a thing or two about what kind of sowing I’ve been doing. In fact, I have a whole ledger full of farming-related euphemisms that would scar you for life, and only half of them revolve around melons. And you want to talk age difference? Because your old man had passed fifty when he sired you, and I’m pretty sure your mother wasn’t even close.”

Luffy looked to Makino. “What does ‘sired’ mean?”

“Don’t,” Ace and Sabo told her in unison—along with Luffy’s navigator, who shouted it from across the room. Luffy blinked.

“You don’t want to think about it,” Sabo advised him. “No one wants to think about their parents that way.”

Luffy frowned. “What way?”

“Boning,” Zoro spoke up, stopping by the bar for a refill. Then to Makino, “No offence.”

“Dude,” Sabo and Ace deadpanned, looking at him. “Full offence.”

Luffy was looking between Shanks and Makino now, his formerly cheerful expression wiped clean off his face, replaced with sudden realisation—and something mildly horrified. “Ew!

“What did you think being married meant, Luffy?” Ace asked.

“I don’t know! Not that!”

“Didn’t we have that talk with you when you were seven?” Sabo asked. “I even drew you a visual.”

“He fell asleep halfway through,” Ace reminded him. “And in hindsight, that visual could have been better—you can’t draw genitals for shit, Sabo. You couldn’t even tell they were doing it. And I’m pretty sure that position wouldn’t work in real life.”

“Never stopped me,” Shanks sing-songed, cheerfully vindictive now, and lifting his brows suggestively at Makino, who hid her face behind her palm.

Luffy had his hands shoved over his ears. “Stop talking about it!”

Laughter was filling up the room, a rapid tide of good-natured mirth, but then, above the din—a smaller noise, muffled but unmistakable; a tiny, trembling wail growing in volume, from somewhere above their heads.

“Speaking of implausible positions and the results thereof,” Shanks chirped, with a grin thrown in Makino’s direction. The three no-longer-boys seated at her bar had gone curiously still, their eyes turned to the ceiling.

“Someone’s awake,” Makino said, a silent question asked with a glance at Shanks, who made to rise from his seat.

Their collective realisation seemed a beat belated, before it found them and was vocalised, a good pitch louder than any other sound in the room, even her son’s cries from upstairs.

“You had a kid?!”

Shanks pressed a kiss to her temple in passing. “You want to fill in the details on this one? I think it was that time on the beach that did it. Feel free to be as explicit as you want—they’re asking for it, serving all that cheek.”

“I think I’m good,” Makino laughed, fondly embarrassed as he flashed her an adoring grin, before he made for the stairs to collect their son, who was crying in earnest now.

Luffy had his arms wrapped around his head, an attempt to block out what they were saying. Makino didn’t blame him.

Sabo patted his shoulder. “I feel you. I walked in on my parents once.”

Ace raised a brow. “Are you trying to make it better?”

“Hey, at least he only has to hear about it. Some of us haven’t been that lucky.”

“He almost wasn’t,” Yasopp spoke up suddenly, having come up behind them. “Count your blessings, kid,” he told Luffy brightly, clapping him on the back. “It was a close call.”

Lifting his head, Luffy just stared at him, before turning wide eyes to Makino, as though for an explanation, although the look on his face said he wasn’t sure he wanted it.

She sighed. “You were six,” she told him, with a firm look at Yasopp, who met it with an innocent grin. “You probably don’t even remember.”

He was just looking at her, confusion written across his whole face. Sabo was nodding his head in sympathy. “I learned my lesson to stay away from my parents’ bedroom,” he said.

Ducking his head between them to collect his refilled glass, “Who said it was the bedroom?” Yasopp asked, brows raised meaningfully, before he turned, sauntering back across the common room to his table. Makino kept herself from chucking the dish-towel at the back of his head.

“Wait,” Sabo said then, frowning. “If it wasn’t the bedroom—”

It got very quiet. And then the whole room was looking at Makino, standing behind the bar.

Horrified understanding washed across Ace and Sabo’s faces, three whole seconds before Luffy followed suit, and she resisted the urge to bury her face in the dish-towel.

Shanks descended the stairs then, the baby on his arm, hiccuping cries having been soothed into sniffles but his lashes still wet with fat, sleepy tears.

He came to a stop at the bottom of the steps, taking in the unusually quiet room—and the people at the bar, faces arranged in something between disbelief and mortified understanding, and, “I can’t believe you told them!” Makino exclaimed shrilly, just as Ace and Sabo chorused, “The bar?”

“I was gone two minutes,” Shanks told the baby, who’d claimed the room’s attention now, head buried in his father’s throat, endearingly shy under the collective weight of all their gazes but sneaking a peek from behind the protective cover of Shanks’ cloak, one corner of the fabric stuffed in his mouth with his thumb.

Shanks tucked a kiss to the crown of his head, and Makino’s embarrassment fled at the sheepish grin he shot her, but, “Don’t be cute,” she warned him, as he stepped up to the bar, bouncing their son gently.

“Me?” he asked, the question offered with a wholly unconvincing look of guileless innocence, his cheek pressed to the baby’s head. “But I’m always cute—I can’t turn it off.”

The cheeky smile sitting at the corner of that unfairly attractive mouth told her he knew exactly what he was doing, and she huffed fondly, and silently dreaded the day their son would learn how to use that smile to his advantage.

Ace was watching the baby now, Makino saw, something unreadable in his expression, his brows drawn together pensively above eyes that seemed suddenly far away.

Seeing it, Shanks stepped around the counter. “Here,” he said, and didn’t give Ace a chance to protest as he handed the baby over, the collar of his cloak still gripped between sticky little fingers before his son let it go, a noise of delight escaping at the sudden discovery of the bright red beads around Ace’s neck.

“The fruits of my labour,” Shanks said, as the baby changed hands—and with a dirty grin in Makino’s direction, quipped, “And my loins.”

She sighed, but even cupped behind her palm, couldn’t hold back her laughter from blurting out.

Cooing adorably, the baby had his hands around the necklace, and was trying to stuff one of the beads in his mouth. “O-oi,” Ace told him, reaching up to pull it out and throwing a half-panicked glance at Shanks, as though for assistance.

“Don’t worry, he’s just at that age where he tries to shove everything in his mouth,” Shanks said.

“You sure he’s not just taking after his old man?” someone called from the common room, followed by a lewd cat-call, and more laughter. Shanks grinned, delighted.

“Hey, we’ve never considered that,” he told Makino, who tossed the dish-towel at this face, mouth pursed to suffocate her traitorous smile. He caught it easily, and stuck his tongue out at her, eyes twinkling.

Ace was looking between them. The baby had relinquished the beaded necklace to reach for the strings of the hat hanging around his neck, the bone-medallion tempting thieving fingers. From beside him, Luffy reached out to experimentally poke a chubby thigh, capturing his attention and prompting a nearly toothless smile as the baby curled his fingers towards the straw hat on his head, a babble of wordless excitement escaping him, before lifting into a happy little shriek.

Makino watched them, an old-but-new feeling swelling behind her breast; old, because they’d been a little hers, all three of them, but also new, because she’d only recently learned what it meant to be mother in truth. It was another collision of worlds, but looking at them now, she didn’t see what had been or even what they’d become, but rather what could be.

“You know,” she told them, smiling. “He doesn’t have any siblings yet.”

“Not for lack of trying on our part,” Shanks murmured, and grinned when she shot him a look of playful warning.

Ace’s smile had softened, a different kind of understanding in it, recognising where she was headed, but when he spoke there was a genuine question there, sounding almost too fragile for the confidence that he wore so comfortably now. “Yeah?”

Makino cast her eyes to the room at their backs, and the smiling faces looking back at her from the full tables. “He has a lot of uncles, but no brothers,” she said, looking at them; they were all watching her now. “Think you might be up for it?”

Ace’s smile was still that careful thing, but Sabo wore a full-blown grin. “A little early to exchange sake cups, but we’ll figure something out. What do you say, Luffy?”

Luffy had once again stolen the baby’s attention—and a very tiny sock. Like Sabo, his grin was eating up his face, no mortification in sight, forgotten under the spell of the bottomless dark eyes watching him back, and the little smile widening at his antics. “Yeah!”

Ace turned his eyes to the baby sitting on his arm. He’d shoved his fingers into his mouth, along with half of the bone medallion. “Another little brother, huh? Something tells me you’ll be trouble.”

A gummy smile stretched, wide and drooling around the medallion, muffling a giggle, and Ace’s smile looked startled. “Yeah,” he laughed softly, as though in answer. “I figured. With your parentage, you’re bound to be a handful.” But he didn’t sound upset by the fact—just the opposite.

Shanks was observing the exchange, smile too gentle for teasing now. “Is that reluctant approval I sense? Also, don’t think I didn’t catch the subtle amputee quip.”

Ace’s new smile hadn’t budged, but, “Not yet,” he said, shifting his grip on the baby, although he wasn’t even bothering to hide his faltering act of resistance. “It’s getting there.”

Shanks looked at Makino. “Eh, I’ll take it. It’s better than what Garp offered, which was cheerful disembowelment.”

“He’s yet to make good on that,” she reminded him primly.

Yet, she says. That glibness won’t warm your bed when I’m dead, I hope you know.”

“I hope for your sake that being there to warm her bed isn’t the defence you’ll go with when gramps comes for your head,” Ace said, and Makino snorted into her hand. Shanks couldn’t convincingly pull of his look of betrayal, his grin too wide and startled.

The baby gurgled happily, pulling on the strings of his hat. Ace looked a little more comfortable holding him, shoulders relieved of their startled tension from the sudden exchange earlier (“it’s not a hissing cat, Ace, loosen up a little”), and Luffy was tugging impatiently on his elbow now, asking when it was his turn, to which Sabo was quick to counter with a protest about seniority (“age trumps calling dibs—you’ll have your turn later, Luffy”), the good-natured bickering cushioned with laughter.

Makino watched them, and the baby in their midsts, wide-dark eyes shifting between them, too much attention offered to take it all in at once. And he was too young to understand what they were arguing about, but he’d remember that, she thought—the feeling of being adored, quickly and fiercely and without question. Growing up, he’d have more love than he’d know what to do with, and she’d never been happier knowing anything in her life.

“So,” Shanks asked her, smiling as he leaned across the counter, his voice easing under the growing din; the laughter filling their bar like a glass brimming, always on the verge of spilling over—

“Does this mean we have four kids now?”