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(two) small mercies

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“Sail ho!”

Ace turns towards the starboard of the ship, eyes searching out a vessel. Since his father passed away, dozens of ships have challenged the remaining Whitebeard pirates for their flag, which has become one of the most sought-after trophies in the New World. Though irritating at times, Ace generally likes the fights; it gives him an appropriate space to exercise out his frustrations and unresolved emotions.

After catching sight of the other ship, Ace blinks before a wide smile spreads across his face.

“That’s my brother’s flag!” he cries happily. Several of the other members on deck gather at the railing to see the galleon approach the Moby Dick.

From beside him, Marco lets out a low whistle, impressed.

“Your brother got his hands on a nice ship,” Thatch says, joining him on his other side.

“Apparently he has a cyborg for a shipwright,” Ace says, and the grin hasn’t left his face. The other two commanders look at him sideways, but Ace doesn’t care to elaborate. They’re going to meet them eminently. A visit from his little brother will be a nice break from the constant battles.

“Permission to come aboard?” a voice calls as they near.

Ace barely remembers to look to Marco for permission, and after receiving an amused nod, he yells an assent back.

“It’ll be interesting to get to know your crazy brother when we aren’t in a warzone,” Thatch says.

Ace shoves the small pang of sadness down and responds with a grin. “You know, I’m not entirely sure if that’s the craziest thing he’s ever done.”

Marco and Ace both laugh at Thatch’s expression.

It takes way too long for them to line up and lower the boarding platforms. The last time Ace saw his little brother, Luffy was still recovering. Seeing him whole and well again will be a relief. Once they’re all lined up, Ace blinks in confusion.

He sees Robin, Zoro, and Usopp on deck, but not his brother.

“Where’s Luffy?” he asks.

“Hello to you too, Ace.” A much stronger, more confident Usopp grins.

“Ah, I’m sorry. It’s a pleasure to see all of you again, I hope you’re well. Now, where is my brother?”

“We had a... I don’t even know what to call it.” Usopp shakes his head.

“A situation,” Robin puts forth.

“A situation?!” Ace echoes loudly.

“Calm down,” one of his crewmates says.

“Since this is the brother that declared war on the world government, I think Ace has a right to be worried,” Marco says dryly.

“What happened?” Ace presses again, more calmly this time.

“Well, we were visiting Ivankonov—“

That’s when the door to the galley slams open.

“ACE!”

A small figure runs across the deck before jumping onto the railing and leaping over the gap to reach Ace.

Only reflexes let Ace catch the figure, and once he does, he holds it out at arm’s length and stares blankly.

A smiling, giggling seven-year-old is in his hands. And there isn’t a question in his mind that it’s Luffy. He knows his brother’s smile from anywhere. Not to mention he matches up perfectly with the figure Ace remembers as a child, the stupid little kid always tagging along and smiling... But this shouldn’t be possible, right? Because unless somebody cloned him, this is his brother.

“Luffy?!” he asks. Murmurs and exclamations come from behind Ace’s eyes are glued to the little kid squirming in his grasp.

“Ace!”

“This is the situation I guess?” Marco asks, rhetorically. The rest of the Straw Hat pirates exit from the galley, smiling with amusement and fondness at the sight of their shrunken captain.

Nami steps forward. “We were hoping to explain it to you beforehand, but Luffy...”

She shakes her head, and Ace automatically understands what she’s saying.

“Ace! I’m so happy to see you! I woke up and there was a cyborg and these ladies and guys and stuff and they told me that I was actually a captain and nineteen or something. But I didn’t believe them ‘cause I’m not gullible anymore. But they’re really nice and cool— the doctor’s a reindeer and he can get super big really fast and there’s this skeleton who’s like the coolest thing ever, and he’s a musician too— so I kinda said a lot, but please don’t get mad!” Luffy gushes.

“I’m not mad?” Ace utters, bewildered. He carefully sets his brother down on the deck. There’s a long pause while the second commander tries to come to grips with what he’s seeing right now. All the while, Luffy just stares. Then the boy starts and points.

“You’re big!” Luffy exclaims, eyes bulging with surprise.

“So dense!” everyone shouts.

“Why are you so big? Did you eat Dadan? Does that mean we can have her house?”

Ace gives a choked laugh before shaking his head. “No, I didn’t eat Dadan. And what did I tell you about cannibalism, Luffy?”

“Not to unless we’re really, really hungry.”

“No! Not to do it ever!” Ace corrects with shark teeth.

“Oh yeah,” Luffy says.

Ace turns to the laughing Straw Hats and stares at them speculatively.

“Does someone want to tell me why my little brother is seven again?”

“Seven and a half!” Luffy corrects.

“Iva apparently nailed him with his hormones,” Usopp tells him. “He’s been like this since yesterday.”

“Luffy doesn’t trust any of us. He kept threatening to run away unless we took him to ‘Ace nii-chan.’” Nami smirks as Ace flushes at the words.

“Oh, Ace nii-chan, we’re going to use that from now on,” Thatch calls.

“Shut up!” Ace snaps at the grinning fourth commander.

“Little idiot jumped off the deck twice trying to figure a way off the boat to get to you,” Sanji tells him.

Luffy laughs like it’s hilarious and Ace sighs.

“Don’t do that again,” he says perfunctorily.

“I won’t! ‘Cause I found you and you’re here so why would I want to leave?” Luffy says. And wow, Ace completely forgot how adorable his little brother was as a child. Well, he likely overlooked it; Ace was a tad more self-centered as a child.

“If there’s a cool alligator or octopus I might try catching it though,” his brother adds on, ruining the sweet moment.

“Moron,” Ace says, smiling slightly. “You won’t find many alligators on the sea.”

“Is this, uh, permanent?” Thatch asks, and Ace looks to him, startled.

“We don’t really know,” Nami admits.

“What?!” Ace exclaims.

“We met up with Ivankov at the last island and partied a little. He and Luffy had a conversation right before him and the rest of his creepy okama left.” Sanji shifts and mutters. “Anyways, we didn’t actually see it and Ivankov was already gone by the time Luffy changed and we puzzled out what happened.”

“I gave him a full body exam and ran diagnostics to see if I could figure it out, but I don’t fully understand the mechanics of Ivankov’s hormone therapy,” Chopper says. “He’s completely healthy at least.”

“So what do we do now?” Marco asks.

“Well, we left a message with one of his revolutionary contacts.” Franky sighs. “The guy told us he’d get back to us in a couple days. With Luffy-bro threatening to jump off the bow again, we figured it would be best to just meet up with you all for a while.”

“I’m amazed you found us,” Marco remarks.

“Well, you all have been in the newspapers a lot recently,” Nami says. Ace doesn’t doubt it. With the rate of challengers they’ve had lately, he knows the White Beard crew makes at least the second page, if not the first, of the newspaper every few days.

“I do hope our visit is no imposition,” Brook says (Ace assumes it’s Brook. Luffy said he had a skeleton for a musician, so Ace feels pretty comfortable with his guess).

“It doesn’t seem like there’s much of a choice with this one having no self-preservation,” Marco says, looking to Luffy. The first commander is smiling though, and Ace knows they are completely welcome.

“You can say that again,” Zoro says, speaking up for the first time.

“Ace, I’m bored. Can we eat something?” Luffy asks. “Can I eat Magra and Dogra?”

“Luffy, again with the cannibalism.” Ace rubs his forehead.

“Okay... you can have Dogra if you want,” Luffy offers.

“That isn’t the problem! And wait, he’s the smaller one!”

“You two are similar.” Thatch leads the chorus of laughter.

Displeased at being ignored, Luffy scrambles up Ace’s back and hangs off the second commander’s neck.

“Ace, I’m hungry,” Luffy whines. Ace snorts at the behavior, but he loops Luffy’s thin little legs through his arms to make a proper piggy-back. Luffy giggles against his neck.

“I fed you an hour ago,” Sanji says irritably.

“That was an hour ago,” Luffy shoots back.

“It is almost dinner time,” Thatch intervenes. “You can have a little something, yeah?”

“Might as well just feed him a second dinner.” Sanji sighs and lights a cigarette. “There’s no helping it.”

“I think he’ll be able to eat it,” Nami says, smirking. “His appetite hasn’t shrunken that much.”

“You’re going to love the food.” Ace smiles and starts heading towards the galley, making a motion to the rest of the Straw Hats to join if they want to. “We have the best food on the sea. Thatch helps out in the kitchen every now and then. He’s—”

“Liar!” Luffy says.

Ace pauses in his walking at the vehemence of his brother’s words. Even the others are slightly startled by the sudden shift in emotion.

“What do you mean, Lu?” Ace asks, turning his head to look at his brother who’s resting his chin on Ace’s shoulder with a cross look.

“I had Sanji’s food and it was like the best thing I’ve ever eaten! Except for Makino’s stuff, you know,” Luffy says. “And if he’s my chef in the future, then I know he’s the best on all the seas! So we have the best food.”

From the side Sanji lets out an exhale of smoke, smiling. All of the Straw Hats look pleased with their captain’s words, none more than Sanji.

“Can’t argue with that logic,” the Straw Hat chef says. “And I’ll excuse the Makino comment because that sounds like the name of a beautiful woman~”

Ace shakes his head and starts heading towards the galley again.

“Makino’s pretty!” Luffy giggles. “She makes super good food too, right, Ace?”

Ace smiles softly. He hasn’t thought about Makino’s cooking in a long time. She was talented, and he would certainly place her cooking as one of his favorites, but it wasn’t necessarily gourmet. Ace isn’t certain if her cooking always tasted the best because of the food itself or because she was the first person who cooked food specifically for Ace. She asked what he liked and didn’t like. She was also the first person to make him cake on his birthday.

“Yeah,” Ace says. “Especially her cake.”

Luffy laughs again. “When she made a cake for Ace’s birthday, Ace got all red in the face.”

Even now, the memory makes his face flush a little at the awkward interactions of not understanding how to express his emotion. It didn’t help that she was so patient and nice with him. People didn’t treat Ace like that. Ace could explain Luffy’s behavior, figuring that he was too stupid to understand Ace was really bad when it came down to it. But Makino was gentle and fond, even when he slipped up and snapped or swore.

“He’s blushing even now,” Thatch says, grinning, deciding to tag-along to the galley. Ace isn’t surprised. What is surprising is that more crewmembers don’t follow.

“Shut up,” Ace says as they enter the galley. Everyone already seated looks towards him, Luffy, and the Straw Hats curiously as they claim one of the emptier benches in front of the long tables. Ace is glad that most of the other commanders are dong raids and intelligence gathering. Only Izou, Marco, and Thatch are left on the Moby Dick. Speaking of, Izou enters the galley suddenly, scanning the tables until he spies theirs. Well, now Ace knows that the information is in circulation now. Despite the awkwardness, it does save him from having to explain to everyone.

“Ace, I just heard,” Izou says by way of greeting. He blinks as Luffy stares at him inquisitively from his seat beside Ace. “I suppose this is him.”

“No, this is the other seven-year-old we found on the ship today.” Ace grins when Izou shoots him an unamused look. The other commander takes a seat at their table nonetheless. Nami sits on the other side of Luffy, and most of the rest of the Straw Hats settle on the other side of the table. Their eyes all gravitate towards Luffy every other moment, even as they take in the sight of the huge galley of the Moby Dick. Ace is glad that his little brother has such a good crew looking out for him. Marco, Thatch, and Izou are on Ace’s other side. Despite the fact that no one else has come to sit at the table, Ace isn’t naïve enough to think they aren’t listening. He rolls his eyes inwardly.

Three of the chefs start wheeling out long carts of food. They deposit massive platters of food on the table, most all of them centered around Ace, who grins. The moment the food’s set out, Luffy quits staring around and instead concentrates on pushing as much food into his mouth as he can. Everyone else starts eating too, but at a much more sedate pace.

“So it’s a lifetime habit,” Robin notes with amused eyes.

That’s when Luffy reaches to punch Ace.

“Calm down, Lu.” Ace catches one of his brother’s hands. “No one’s going to try to take your food.”

“Did you two fight over food a lot?” Brook asks.

“Dinner was generally a free-for-all at our ‘home.’” Ace’s nearly sarcastic emphasis on ‘home’ makes almost all of them blink. “But, if we fought over food like we did back then, Luffy wouldn’t get any. So I’m going to try and hold myself back a bit.”

Ace’s crewmates are torn between laughter and shock, and the faces they make are funny enough to make Ace chuckle.

“I gotta see this,” Thatch says.

“I can control myself.”

Luffy just stares distrustfully at him.

Ace rolls his eyes. “No, this is not a trick. I won’t take your food. Here.” He moves two of his meat shanks to Luffy’s plate. “See? I’m serious.”

Instead of calming Luffy, it seems to set him off balance further.

“Ace, are you sick? You’re being really nice.” Luffy’s face is borderline disturbed.

There’s a small pause before laughter erupts all over the table.

“What the hell were you like when you were younger?” Thatch asks, chuckling.

Ace hedges. “I wasn’t the nicest person as a kid.”

“You weren’t the nicest person when you joined the crew.” Marco snorts, and the other two commanders laugh in agreement.

“Believe it or not, but I was worse back then.” They really have no idea, Ace thinks to himself.

Marco blinks.

“Seriously?” Thatch asks dubiously.

“I was incredibly cruel and violent.” His hand rests on Luffy’s dark hair. His younger brother starts eating again. As no one challenges or even touches his grabby hands, Luffy calms down and focuses entirely on shoving as much food as possible into his mouth.

“That’s a little hard to picture,” Nami says bluntly.

“You’re probably the politest pirate I’ve ever met,” Usopp adds in before pausing. “Aside from Brook.”

The musician in question laughs merrily. “I am from a different time; that’s truly all there is to it. Though your opinion does me great kindness.”

“I’m not lying when I say I am drastically different,” Ace says to Usopp. “I was really mean to Luffy.”

“Everyone’s mean to their younger siblings.” Nami waves her hand dismissively. “My sister was pretty rude as a kid, always hiding my things and calling me names. It’s kid stuff.”

And maybe it’s because of that comparison. Maybe that’s why Ace feels the need to speak up. Because it wasn’t all just childish competition and selfishness. It was also his hateful, nihilistic point of view. There was a time where Ace didn’t care if Luffy lived or died, and that is something he can never seem to forget or let go. Agreeing with Nami would be a betrayal of all the things he’s done, and the difference between him and his younger self.

“I tried to kill Luffy twice when we first met,” he admits quietly, eyes distant. There’s a short beat of silence before everyone reacts with shock.

“Wh—what?!”

“Are you serious?!” Usopp asks, expression extremely exaggerated.

“I wouldn’t lie about something like that,” Ace says.

“But— you—“ Nami starts and stops a few times.

“Why would you do that?!” Izou finally demands.

“He was annoying.” Ace shrugs, uncomfortable both with himself and their stares. “I didn’t respect life as a child.”

And even now he isn’t able to tell the whole story.

Ace was eight when he first killed someone. It wasn’t on purpose. But there was a bar fight he started, one among dozens, after someone told him their opinions on what it would be like if Rogers had a son. Ace’s swing was too strong, and the angle was wrong. After the fact, someone’s brain was on the ground. And Ace realized people died (just like his mother he kills people just like he killed his mother—). Ace figured that if his own life didn’t matter, then other lives could mean nothing too. He was pretty messed up as a kid...

“How old were you when Luffy and you met?” Marco asks.

“I was ten.”

“That’s really... harsh,” Thatch manages eventually.

Ace sighs. “I wasn’t kidding when I said I wasn’t a good person back then.”

“Shut up!” Luffy shouts, drawing more eyes to their table and conversation.

“Luffy...” Ace trails off, guilt clear in his eyes.

“Ace is good,” Luffy asserts.

“I know,” Ace says lightly. “I didn’t do good things though, I was bad then because I hurt you.” It appears like Luffy sees through his placation.

“You’re good!” Luffy shouts again, before continuing on, quieter. “You were just lonely. And that hurts. So it’s okay.”

Ace’s eyes widen, and then almost overflow with emotion. He grabs his little brother and pulls him into a hug on his lap.

“I almost forgot. You said that so long ago... being lonely is more painful than getting hurt, didn’t you?” he says quietly.

Luffy nods firmly. “Exactly. And then you weren’t as lonely, so it hurt less, and you were nicer. But it’s okay. And now you aren’t lonely at all, so I guess that’s why you’re so nice now.”

Everyone at the table stares with quiet amazement, but Ace doesn’t care he just tries to put the strength of his emotions into Luffy’s small body through a hug, the way he was too proud and confused and reluctant to when he was ten.

“Your brother is adorable,” Izou utters when Ace pulls back some.

“Am not,” Luffy protests. But as he speaks he settles more against Ace’s chest, clearly relishing the familial contact. Which is even cuter.

“Sorry Luffy, but it’s the truth.” Nami winks.

Ace won’t mess with his brother anymore, but it really is.

 

+

 

After a very enlightening dinner, Luffy immediately challenges Ace to a fight.

Marco watches with no small amount of amusement as Ace teases his very young brother.

“Why should I? I could beat you down no problem when we were both young, now it wouldn’t even be fair.” Though Ace’s words are of course true, the condescending playful tone belies the truth that he knows exactly what he’s doing to Luffy.

“Nu-uh! I bet I can beat you when I’m older and stuff. And even now I’m super strong! My fist is like a pistol!” Luffy asserts.

“A water pistol.” Ace smirks, before dodging a clumsy punch that the elder was clearly expecting.

Marco shakes his head and settles against the banister of the ship to watch with Izou and most of the Straw Hats, Thatch having reluctantly joined the galley staff to clean the dishes since he didn’t help them cook lunch or breakfast. All of them are enjoying seeing the two brothers play around like this. The last time they’d been together had been under circumstances so dire that Marco almost feels his throat closing up at the thought of them. He shakes himself before nausea can set in; it’s a practiced gesture. After all this time, he’s getting better at coping. (Sadly, it isn’t that he’s overcoming the frankly traumatizing war, but rather that he’s become so good at distracting himself...)

Thankfully, Ace and Luffy provide a prime distraction. Even the other men on deck who are managing the sails glance over repeatedly to watch the exposition of lightheartedness.

Ace dips around his brother and pulls his cheek, stretching the rubber out beyond natural limits. Luffy lashes out, but the movements are so slow compared to the swift motions of the older brother, and Ace easily side-steps.

Blatantly smirking, Ace proceeds to do it a few more times, laughing all the while as Luffy gets angier and angrier.

“Leave me alone!” Luffy eventually shouts, petulant.

“Huh? I thought you were so strong you could beat me up,” Ace teases.

“Shut up!” Luffy retorts. Many of the Straw Hats are smiling softly and widely.

Watching Ace wind up the seven-year-old is pretty funny. Marco gets the feeling that these are arguments the two had in their childhood regularly, and the insight is an interesting one.

“It’s hard when you’re weak,” Ace says lightly.

“Am not! My fist is like a bullet!”

“You can’t even aim straight.” Ace ducks around the wide punch and pulls his brother’s cheek again. “I told you rubber’s a silly power.”

“Is not!” Luffy protests. “Tell him, Sabo! It’s much stronger already, and soon I’ll—“

Luffy screeches to a halt, and Ace’s face has gone as white as a sheet. Ace lets go of his brother’s cheek and it snaps back too loudly. The sudden silence is jarring.

Luffy’s face screws up, and it’s evident to everyone that the boy is trying to stop himself from crying. Water hovers on the edge of his eyes, and his lips are pressed so tightly together not a sound can escape. Marco, like many others, is incredibly bewildered.

“What happened?” Nami asks with concern.

Izou’s brow furrows as he looks at the second commander. “Are you alright?”

Ace pays no mind to his words. Instead, he stares at his younger brother, blank with upset and sadness. The only sound for the longest time is Luffy’s suppressed whimpers.

“What’s with the tears, Luffy-bro?” Franky asks.

“I— I’m n-not crying.” Luffy sniffs. “Men don’t cry.”

The Straw Hats blink, evidently never having heard Luffy ever say that before.

“Luffy, it’s okay to cry,” Ace says, slowly regaining himself. He kneels beside the younger brother and tentatively puts his hand on Luffy’s shoulder.

“But you said men—“

“I was messing with you.”

“That’s not nice.” Luffy frowns and sighs. “Sabo was so nice.”

“Yes.” Ace looks incredibly weary suddenly. He assumes a determined expression and turns his brother to face him.

“Luffy, how long ago was the fire?”

What fire, Marco wonders.

Luffy seems to understand perfectly if the increase of water on his eyelids is anything to go by.

“It was a week ago.”

Ace jerks back like he’s been punched.

“A—a week ago?!”

Shockingly, Ace looks about ready to cry too. Instead, he just grabs his brother for a tight hug and starts carding a hand through his hair.

“Luffy. Luffy, are you okay? I— I’m sorry, I didn’t realize it was so soon for you, I should’ve asked, I should’ve realized—“ the second commander rambles for a moment.

“It’s fine. I’m okay,” Luffy lies unconvincingly. “I’m not crying, see, I’m a man.”

“Luffy, I already told you that what I said was a lie.”

“Oh.” Luffy reaches forward and touches Ace’s face which has a single tear running down it.

“I believe you,” Luffy says, and then thick, fat tears spill from Luffy’s eyes, revealing the boy’s true upset.

“I’m sorry,” Ace utters quietly, clutching him tightly against his chest.

They stay like that for a long moment before Ace seems to realize where they are. He makes brief eye-contact with Marco and a few of his crewmembers before looking away.

“We should go lie down for a bit. I think I feel a fit of narcolepsy coming on,” Ace murmurs before walking to the lower deck, Luffy still in his grasp.

Any of the levity the two brothers’ created through their spar has leadened in the air, drowned by worry and uncertainty.

“What happened?” Usopp utters, summing up the entire situation incredibly well.

Nami’s expression is tense. “Should we—“

“Let’s give them some space,” Marco decides. Izou nods, though he doesn’t look remotely happy with his decision. The Straw Hats are clearly on the same page. Without their captain, the small crew seems to pull into themselves, creating a tight-knit of people. Zoro, Brook, Nami, Usopp, and Chopper are all discussing the issue too quietly for Marco to hear, with Robin and Franky adding a bit here and there. Their unity is nice to see in this sudden moment of unpleasantness. Of course, that closeness was likely bred from the trauma at Marine Ford.

Looking at his own crew, Marco sees the same phenomena.

Marco wonders if the effects of that battle will ever truly fade.


+

 

Ace enters his cabin quickly and shuts the door behind him, as though to create a barrier between the rest of the world and Luffy and him. Because Ace feels raw, raw in a way he hasn’t felt in a long time. The war of Marine Ford was destructive and so, so pointless. The loss of his father still hurts. But Sabo, Sabo was a loss he thought he had surpassed. To have his thin plasters ripped off so suddenly leaves him unpleasantly bare. Ace just wasn’t expecting to hear Luffy say that. The pair of them became masters at avoiding that painful, painful name. Even Ace’s mind learned to circumvent their brother when reminders came up. He was utterly blindsided by the sudden blatant mention.

But it isn’t time for him to be breaking down, not when Luffy finally seems to be letting all of these emotions out.

Carefully, Ace deposits his younger brother on the bed and covers him with the red blanket. Luffy curls up, but never loses his grip on Ace’s arm. That ekes a wan smile from the older brother. Luffy really was incredibly clingy at this age. After kicking off his boots, Ace allows himself to rest beside his brother as all the snot and tears and sadness come pouring out.

To hear that Luffy lost Sabo so recently is painful. They found out about Sabo a day after the fire, and Ace spent the next three subsequent days tied to a tree. Meanwhile, Luffy was in full mourning mode, emotionally a mess, and not even eating, according to Dogra. Luffy and he had their very important talk on the fifth day. If Luffy said it was a week, he’s only had two days to regain equilibrium after everything that happened. No wonder he forgot.

It took them a month or two to stop calling out to their brother who wasn’t there anymore.

It’s close to dusk already, so when Luffy’s sniffles pitter out into light snores, Ace isn’t surprised. Sleep eludes the older brother though, and he can’t help but dwell on thoughts about Sabo for a little longer. Ace never forgot Sabo, not ever. The tattoo on his arm is proof of that. But he never realized how much he avoided thinking about him. A mix of ambivalent emotion rises up within him that he finds himself seriously ill-equipped to deal with.

Ace takes a deep breath and lets out a long sigh. As ever, when he was similarly conflicted about Sabo as a child, his eyes find his silly little brother, snoring away in the dark. Even through their dangerous childhood, through their abusive grandfather, through a war— Luffy is still safe and Luffy is still Luffy. Ace is as imperfect as a person can get, but he takes some solace that he hasn’t messed up so badly that his brother lost the two things most key. Seeing him so tiny gives Ace a simultaneous realization about how much Luffy has changed and how much he has really stayed the same. Somehow, it’s both to a very extreme degree. Luffy never does do things in a logical way. With another sigh, more exasperated than anything, Ace lets his mind start to drift into unconsciousness.

 

+

 

Ace is woken by the sound of knocks on his door. His eyes slowly open and he finds himself looking at the peculiar sight of his little brother in the bed next to him— peculiar because his little brother is especially little at the moment. It hits him a couple seconds later. Then he finds himself sighing.

“Ace?” It’s Izou. “Are you awake?”

Ace sits up slowly.

“Yeah, I’m awake. I’ll be right out.”

“Good. We have some updates on the revolutionaries. Check in with Marco, I’m leading a supply run.”

Ace rouses himself more from that. Footsteps move away from the door before Ace can ask exactly what’s going with the revolutionaries, so he instead focuses on shaking his brother awake. Looking out the window, he sees the sun is about to rise. He’s impressed Luffy is still asleep. They must have gotten almost twelve hours in last night. Then again, Luffy tends to wear out from over-exerting himself mentally or emotionally more than physically.

Luffy stirs and rubs his eyes. Upon seeing Ace, he smiles.

“Hi, big-Ace!”

“Don’t call me that,” Ace says.

“M’kay.” Luffy puts his too-large hat on. “What’s for breakfast? Can we have bear?”

Ace smiles and tugs on his boots. “Neither of us is cooking or hunting this morning. We have a cook on the ship, remember, Thatch? You met him yesterday.”

“Right, the pompadour man! He makes breakfast for you every day? That’s so cool!” Luffy exclaims. “Can he make bear and alligator?”

Ace shakes his head as the two walk out of Ace’s cabin.

“Probably not, but I’m sure there’s bacon, sausage, octopus, maybe some eel and tuna.”

Luffy starts walking faster. “That works!”

Ace laughs.

They pass by some of Ace’s crewmates as they make their way to the galley. Luffy attracts some stares of disbelief and surprise, but no real confusion, so Ace trusts the story has been well-circulated. Most say ‘hello,’ and he gets a couple deferential head tilts as they go. It reminds Ace that he still has to keep on top of his work-load even if Luffy is here. Whitebeard may be gone, but his presence in the water is by no means similarly absent. As such, Ace has been putting in extra hours and effort to make sure that his division more efficient and powerful than ever before to deserve the title of being a part of the strongest crew on the Grand Line.

Plus, he also tries to ease the burden placed on Marco. As a captain stepping into the literal shoes of a giant, Ace can only imagine the pressure on him. Thankfully, all of the division leaders have pulled together to help Marco out so the strain isn’t too terrible. Personally, Ace thinks the shift has been pretty smooth all things considered.

Upon entering the galley, Ace has no difficulty finding Luffy’s crew. They’ve all set up against the back wall, with many of their eyes trained on Ace and Luffy the moment they enter. Marco’s sitting there as well, so Ace heads right over.

Luffy’s crew greets him loudly and warmly. Luffy soaks up the attention like a sponge but doesn’t stray that far from Ace’s side. Ace supposes the completely bewildering situation has Luffy clinging to the bit of familiarity he has. Ace doesn’t mind, though he does hope they’ll be able to sort this out sooner rather than later.

There’s already food set out, so Luffy sits right down and proceeds to stuff his face.

“Good morning. Izou told me there was news about the revolutionaries?” Ace asks as he starts putting food on his plate.

“They finally responded with a Den Den Mushi,” Nami tells him as she sips some green tea. She may be speaking to Ace but her eyes are trained on Luffy. “Iva should be here sometime today to see if he can reverse what happened to Luffy.”

Ace exhales. “That’s a relief.”

“For a moment I thought this might be a long-term issue. I don’t mind hosting you all for a bit, but I think we all have places we’d rather be exploring,” Marco says.

“Exploring?!” Luffy asks through a mouth of octopus and bacon.

“Don’t get any ideas,” Zoro says. “We’re not taking you ashore anywhere.”

“What?! Zoro’s mean!” Luffy shouts.

Sanji laughs, and when Zoro sneers and glares at the blond. It just makes the chef chuckle more.

“We aren’t close to an island right now, Luffy,” Robin interjects calmly.

“Oh. That sucks.” Luffy sighs. A small metal hand pats Luffy’s head. Ace almost starts when he sees it’s extended from a small opening in Franky’s actual huge palm.

“Once you’re back to normal, we’ll find the most amazing island ever. The enemies will be so fierce that even I, the masterful Usopp, will almost strain from the effort of beating them. I’ll protect you though, so don’t worry.” Usopp’s voice has the unique quality of always seeming to be declarative even when the volume is low and tone light.

“I don’t need you to protect me!” Luffy says. “I’m really strong!”

“Yes, you are.” Brook smiles. “Very much so.”

Usopp thumps his chest. “I’m strongest on board though! Did I ever tell you about the time I fought the cannibalistic shirt of, uh, Closet Island?”

“What? Really?!” Luffy asks.

Usopp goes on to tell the ridiculous saga of Closet Island and explores the complex world of man v. clothes. Ace tunes him out but does notice a conspicuous absence from the regular pattern of his brash storytelling.

“Where’s Chopper?” Ace asks. Everyone else is present, but he missed the presence of the small doctor.

“Chopper’s arranging all his research right now for when Iva comes. He’s got some questions to ask about the hormone therapy for future incidents. Because of course there’ll be more.” Nami sighs.

Ace can’t help but think Chopper’s got the right idea.

“…As the shoelaces were tightening around my neck, I almost thought it was too late, but sure enough, I had my handy hot-sauce nearby and melted it right off!”

“Wow! Hey, Nami, can we go to Closet Island?” Luffy asks.

Nami snorts. “Not likely unless we find the Sea of Lies and Delusion first.”

Luffy tilts his head. “Is that far?”

Franky laughs heartily at that.

“Almost impossible for you to find, Luffy-bro.”

Luffy immediately starts to complain and protest, but Ace thinks Franky hit it on the head.

“Though Closet Island may not be as accessible, I’m certain we’ll discover islands as, if not more, interesting than Closet Island once we set off again,” Brook assures him.

“I can’t wait!” Luffy shifts in his seat. “Hey, when are those people gonna come again?”

Marco says, “Sometime today. They’re coming from the west though, so you can keep an eye out if you want.”

“Let’s go, Ace!” Luffy says as he stands and starts insistently pulling Ace towards the door. All he really manages to do is stretch his own arm out, but Ace obliges him and walks out with him. He does grab a couple more meat-shanks before leaving though.

Ace hears shuffling as the Straw Hats follow after.

Luffy leads them out the side-doors and onto the main deck. He looks left, then right, then at Ace.

Ace chuckles and pulls him to the port side of the ship so they can look out at the water. Luffy runs up to the banister and starts jumping onto the edge. The Straw Hats follow along and most of them settle against the wood, complacent to merely be near their captain.

“You’re pretty eager,” Ace says as he quickly finishes of the meat shanks. He’s keeping a careful eye on his brother’s precarious balance.

“I have to see those revolution people before I can go on an adventure again. And I really want to adventure.”

Franky cracks a smile. “Well, I better make sure the Sunny’s in tip-top shape so we can set sail right away!”

Luffy gives a cheer as they cyborg walks back to the Thousand Sunny which is astride the Moby Dick on the starboard of the ship.

“Do excuse me,” Brook says, following Franky.

The other Straw Hats stay right where they are, gazes on Luffy whose eyes are focused on the sea. He looks very pensive, surprisingly. Ace wants to use this down moment to catch up on some paperwork and check in with some of his crewmates, but he also doesn’t want to leave his little brother on the edge of the ship like this. The choice is made for him when Luffy tilts forward a bit and is immediately corrected by Zoro, who doesn’t even open his eyes from his meditative stance.

Ace huffs a small breath and he excuses himself to take care of some work. He heads to the main office to see what’s in his box for notices and memos. They are one organized, bureaucratic ship, he thinks. A long time ago, before Whitebeard because as famous as he now is today, one of his crew members was an ex-bureaucrat from the Government. His meticulous methods of organization were used when Whitebeard began expanding and have stuck ever since.

Ace takes out the papers from his box and settles at one of the desks. They don’t have assigned places, so he just takes the one closest to the window to keep an eye on his brother, who hasn’t moved positions.

He’s just finished writing a missive when he hears a violin. Ace looks out the window to see Brook swaying as he plays a cheerful pirate tune.

Ace grins and finishes signing his name on the last few papers and puts them in Marco’s box before heading out the door. Some of his own crewmates seem a little surprised by the suddenness of the song, but most are smiling as they continue working to maintain the deck and sails.

Ace sees Sanji twirl back onto the ship from the Thousand Sunny with a silver platter. He hands a book to Robin and a plate with a parfait to Nami.

Zoro says something Ace can’t hear. Ace blinks, and then Sanji and Zoro are fighting.

Ace chuckles and starts speaking with some of his crewmates to check in with them. Most of the conversations he has end up being redirected to him and Luffy. Eventually, he gives up on having productive meetings and instead heads back over to Luffy, who divides his attention between keeping his eyes on the horizon and watching his crewmates with curiosity. Ace carefully steps between Nami and Zoro before taking a seat beside Luffy on the banister.

He hears some sarcastic remarks to not fall in, which Ace blows off.

“Your crew is pretty impressive, huh?” Ace asks Luffy quietly.

His little brother nods his head.

“Yeah, they are.” Luffy smiles and laughs.

If Luffy was turned the other way, he might notice that no face on his crew is without at least a hint of a smile.

A handful of Ace’s crewmates, including Thatch, come over and join the group to discuss their adventures and different interests. Ace is pleased to find out everyone gets along pretty well.

Luffy interrupts about nine different conversations when he asks,

“What’re resolute-canaries?”

Laughter springs up.

“Revolutionaries,” Nami corrects.

Luffy agrees. “Right. Them.”

“Revolutionaries are a group of rebels who have risen up to oppose the World Government and the nobles,” Robin says.

“Oh.” Luffy pauses. He starts again, voice solemn. “Like the Tenryuubito.”

His words earn him some curious looks from his crew, but Ace is the only one who really gets why Luffy knows about them and to what effect.

“Yes, like the Tenryuubito and other nobles,” Ace says, pushing a level of calm into his voice. Luffy’s expression seems linked to Ace’s tone the way he relaxes. Considering how much Ace used to rant about the nobles, the Tenryuubito, and the government to Luffy, it’s no wonder he was a bit on edge. Ace nudges his brother’s shoulder to prove that he really is calm about this.

“The main goal of the Revolutionaries is opposition against the World Government for allowing the nobles free-reign.” Robin finishes the explanation.

Luffy nods. “Ace talks about the nobles and the government people a lot. You call ‘em cunt-sucking horse-fucking sons of bitches.”

Ace blinks at the sudden reminder and then buries his face in his hands to wait for everyone else to stop staring.

“You said what?!” Thatch asks, torn between shock and delight.

Ace looks up and glares. “I swore a lot when I was ten!”

“What else did he say?” Gerrit, Ace’s definitely not-favorite crewmember right now, asks.

“Well, he calls nobles—“

Ace puts his hand over his brother’s mouth. “Thaaaaat’s enough, Luffy.”

Luffy just pushes it away, glare on his face.

“I don’t wanna stop. I’m still angry at you because you never explained what a carpet muncher was, even though you promised!”

“Holy shit,” Thatch utters.

“How the hell does a ten-year-old know something like carpet munching?!” Samson, one of the Whitebeard navigators, asks. More people are gathered on the edges now, laughing and staring with surprise in equal measure.

“I was eleven,” Ace corrects petulantly.

His words earn him a round of deadpan stares.

Ace goes on, “I spent a lot of time around bars, alright?!”

“You were a bad influence!” Thatch says, voice more incredulous than accusing.

“It didn’t do any long-term damage, did it?” Ace defends.

“Somehow…” Gerrit mutters.

“Besides, I don’t speak like that anymore, do I?” Ace asks.

“No, you don’t.” Thatch smirks.

“We’re just surprised by your… repertoire as a child,” Brook puts forward.

“It pissed our shitty grandfather off.” Ace shrugs. “It was worth learning.”

“Your grandfather?” Thatch asks. “Was he a hardass or something?”

Ace hides a wince from the mere mention. He’s going to sluff the comment off when he hears the Straw Hats making a small din.

“Was Garp the Fist a hardass,” Nami asks. “Gee, I wonder.” Ace almost forgot they had a run in at Water 7 he was blessedly absent for.

“Wait, Garp the Fist?! The vice-admiral?!” Gerrit’s eyes look ready to burst from his head.

“Jiji’s scary.” Luffy shivers.

“Shh, it’s alright, Lu,” Ace says, even though he looks perturbed.

Thatch’s mouth opens. “At the executioner’s platform…"

Now Ace flinches. He’s not surprised no one understood that he and Garp had the lengthy history that they do. He knows that they also won’t understand the measure of comfort and bitterness his grandfather’s presence granted him even as he stared death in the face.

“Execution?” Luffy asks.

Any and all further questions freeze before anyone can ask them. There’s no way to explain a good reason for Ace being at or near an executioner’s platform. Even as a seven-year-old, Luffy knows that.

Ace is beginning to assemble a fib so stupid it’s on par with his brother’s typical lies when Johnson at the bird-nest interrupts.

“Sail ho!”

All of them turn their eyes back to the horizon to see the small, colorful approaching ship.

“Is that them? Is it the Eva person?” Luffy asks.

“That’s Ivankov’s ship,” Sanji answers, tone strained.

Ace really wants to figure out the story behind Sanji’s slight trembling and dread, but the impending arrival is more important now. When Luffy’s back to normal, Ace will ask his brother so they can both laugh about what Ace is certain will be an entertaining story.

“Prepare to be boarded,” Marco announces as he exits the main cabin. ‘Ayes’ ring out from every section of the deck. Ace figures he’s probably on Luffy-duty though, so he grabs his pipsqueak brother by the stomach and pulls him off the banister, ignoring the complaints and weak punches as he does. Chopper exits the Sunny with his arms full of papers as he jogs up to Ace and Luffy.

The unquestionably gaudy ship approaches and the younger brother’s protests fade in favor of blatant staring as the large, equally gaudy head of Emperio Ivankov comes into view.

Luffy’s eyes grow wider and wider as Ivankov’s head gets bigger and bigger on approach. By the time Ivankov is close enough to board, Luffy’s jaw is on the deck.

“So big! She’s so cool!” Luffy rambles.

Ivankov dismounts from his ship in a single leap and lands dramatically on the Moby Dick.

Vi am a male!” Ivankov declares. He then blinks as his eyes land on Luffy. “Mugiwara-boy. You really are a boy now, hmm?”

Ivankov walks around Luffy curiously and Luffy stares back with just as much fascination.

“What happened to him?” Zoro pushes forward from the small crowd.

“I suppose I nailed him with some hormones,” Ivankov coughs. “Vi have the most wretched head cold. With all the sneezing and coughing, Vi must have gotten him by accident. It happens.”

“No shit!” a chorus of crewmembers from Ivankov’s ship shout.

Ace supposes that explains why Ivankov’s crew looks even more peculiar than usual, many looking uncommonly busty, tall, hairy or any combination of the three.

“Is there anything you can do?” Nami asks.

“No.”

“But he is stable, correct?” Chopper asks. “This particular cocktail, well, I was worried. Its effects are a little extreme to alter a mental state as well as physical. I wanted to make sure everything was alright. Because I was checking the chemicals and found—“

Ivankov scoffs. “It’s fine.”

There’s a beat.

Usopp sighs. “Well, that was a waste.”

“Like Dadan!” Luffy exclaims suddenly. “He’s like Dadan!”

Ace looks at Ivankov for a moment before choking with laughter.

“Ace, you get it, right? ‘Cause Dadan looks like a really ugly man but she’s a girl, and Ivankov looks like a—“

“Shh, I get it, Luffy,” Ace says, carefully sliding between the okama-queen and Luffy.

Ivankov’s large eyes are narrow. “What were you saying, Mugiwara-boy?”

“I—“ Luffy starts.

Ace covers it with a loud laugh as he subtly tugs his brother away from the angry okama. “He doesn’t know. Luffy couldn’t speak all that well at this age.”

Ivankov sniffs but relents. “Very well. If that’s all, Vi must depart. Dragon is expecting—“

Ivankov suddenly gives a huge sneeze. In the violence of the action, his arm shoots forward and nails Ace in the shoulder.

There’s a long silence. The sound of Ivankov removing his extended fingernails is like a gunshot.

“Apologies.” Ivankov blows his nose on a lacy handkerchief.

“Someone tell me that didn’t just happen,” Ace begs even as he feels the throb of a mild stab wound.

No one indulges him. Instead, Marco steps forward and pins Ivankov with a piercing look.

“What did you just inject him with?” Marco presses.

“Not your gender changing hormones, I hope,” Sanji says.

All of them wince.

“Well, at least Ace would have to wear a shirt then,” Gerrit murmurs.

“Doubt he would.” Thatch snorts.

There’s a half-beat of silence.

“That might not be so ba—“

“Get your heads out of the gutter!” Marco says. Ace stares at all of them darkly, promising to beat them black and blue the next time they spar.

Ivankov sniffs the ends of his fingernails. Ace gulps as he waits for the verdict.

“No, it’s the same thing Vi used on Straw Hat. Vi was examining it before we arrived to see if Vi could find an easy reversal hormone.”

“You’re kidding?!” Ace exclaims. That really isn’t much better than the sex-changing injection…

“Can’t you reverse it?” Thatch asks.

“Yeah, give me some like aging pheromones or something!” Ace says.

“And overload your body?!” Ivankov demands. “Certainly not! Vi have more class than that!”

Sanji is the only one with the gumption to snort, and he receives roundhouse kick in the gut for his trouble.

Ivankov ignores Sanji’s low whine from a pile of wood by the rail that used to be barrels as he continues, “Even if Vi could, there would be no way of making sure you got back to the same age. Vi might overshoot by a few decades, and unlike youth, it doesn’t spring back nearly as elastically.”

Ace shivers at the thought. “Never mind then.”

“If that’s all, then we shall depart. Dragon won’t wait.” Ivankov gives the Straw Hats winks and fake kisses before returning to his ship and quickly setting off.

There’s a silence left after Ivankov’s departure. Naturally, Luffy doesn’t sense the tension, so he just breaks it.

“Ace, Ace, does this mean you’re gonna be small again too?” Luffy asks eagerly.

Ace makes a small sound of pain, disbelief, and exasperation. He then takes a deep breath in and out.

“I guess so…”

“I’m— I’m going to get you a pair of my pants. That way you won’t have to… Yes. I’ll be right back.” Chopper hastily goes to the Thousand Sunny.

Ace doesn’t bother asking, instead, he looks around at his other crewmates.

“This is seriously happening, isn’t it?” Ace sighs.

“Seems so,” Thatch says, managing to look sympathetic. “Sorry.”

Chopper returns with a tiny pair of shorts and everyone stares at him dubiously.

“I’m a scientist,” he says before handing them to Ace. “They’ll change with your size, believe me.”

Ace pulls against the dark red fabric, and the shorts shift appropriately. With a gusty sigh, he goes to his cabin to change. He divests and looks uncertainly at Chopper’s clothes. He tentatively starts pulling them on and is pleasantly surprised by how they reform easily around his body.

Ace finally emerges back on deck. He’s not entirely comfortable in the red shorts, but at least they fit. Strangely enough, instead of being skin tight, they seem almost as loose on Ace as his previous shorts, making everyone stare and compliment Chopper who immediately sluffs them off with insults and a bashful smile.

“I can’t wait to see Ace again!” Luffy chirps. “My Ace, I mean. This Ace is awesome, and so cool, and so nice and everything. But.” He hums to himself in excitement.

“Alright, Lu, get over here.” Ace gestures to his little brother.

“What? What?” Luffy asks with an eager smile as he trots up to his brother.

Ace kneels down and looks at him sternly. “Don’t let me walk all over you, alright?”

“Ace doesn’t do that!” Luffy pauses. “Well, he does sometimes. But it isn’t really bad.”

“You are too nice.” Ace rubs Luffy’s hair, making the younger brother smile.

“Stop worrying, I’m sure it won’t be too terrible,” Marco assures.

“Besides now we get to see what you were like as a brat.” Thatch grins.

Ace’s eyes widen. “Oh shit. Please, don’t take anything I say seriously, and keep any metal pipes away from me, I— urgh!”

Steam is rising from his skin, and Ace feels a sharp pain in his body. He quickly pushes Luffy away from him as the steam pours out faster and faster until it’s thick as smoke. The last thing Ace sees are the blurred shapes of his family’s faces behind a cloud of smoke.

 

+

 

Marco grits his teeth as Ace is covered by smoke. Just because they have Luffy as proof that it isn’t a life-threatening process doesn’t mean it isn’t at least a little nerve-wracking. Marco is careful to keep his expression as calm as possible for the rest of the crew. It isn’t that Marco doesn’t understand. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into saving Ace from the claws of the Government. If something atrocious happened to him in front of their very eyes, well…

Thankfully, there’s really no reason to freak out.

As the steam and smoke clear, they see a small, dazed-looking ten-year-old sitting on the deck, staring at everyone with an utterly bewildered look on his face. There’s no question about who it is. Not only are the features similar, but the spread of freckles is identical. In Marco’s opinion, the freckles seem only more fitting on his childish, somewhat cherubic face.

Ace stares at them blankly for a long time, looking vulnerable and lost.

A couple Whitebeard pirates step forward, Marco included. That earns them a reaction.

Ace immediately jumps to his feet, unsteady as he is, and pulls his fists up. Everyone stops where they are.

Marco makes a short gesture and everyone stops moving. It’s not too hard to understand how startling this is for Ace. What is surprising is the way Ace is scanning them. It’s an assessing look Marco is familiar with. It means Ace is trying to figure out what order he should take them out.

Thatch huffs a small laugh, clearly recognizing it for what it is, but Marco is more intent on calming their now-young commander down. Before he can say anything, Luffy is running over the deck.

“Ace!” Luffy flings himself at the other boy. Seemingly reflexively, Ace blocks the hug, holding Luffy away from him.

“L—Luffy?!” Ace exclaims. His voice is much higher than before.

“I’m glad to see you! There was this older you who was really nice and I liked him but you’re my Ace so I’m happy you’re here now and—“

“Shut up!” Ace snaps. His eyes dart around the ship. “Where the hell are we?”

“These people are cool! They’re our crewmembers from the future!” Luffy beams.

Ace turns his gaze away from Luffy and slowly moves in front of the younger brother.

“Why did you take us?! Where the hell are we?! And who the fuck are you assholes supposed to be?!” Ace demands.

“Oh my god, he wasn’t kidding,” Thatch utters in surprise.

The split-second of amusement that comes from the affirmation of Ace’s dirty mouth fades when Marco sees how distressed his now-young friend is.

“Don’t ignore me!” Ace shouts. Marco holds his hands up peacefully and is pleased to say most of his crew echoes that.

“I told you Ace, they’re crewmates, they’re nakama!” Luffy crows from behind Ace’s shoulder. Ace brusquely pushes him further back.

“What did you tell Luffy?”

“Calm down,” Marco speaks slowly.

“Don’t tell me to calm down when you kidnapped me and my brother!” Ace spits.

“If you’ll let us talk we can explain some things,” Thatch says, with maybe too much amusement because Ace only bristles further. “You don’t need to shout at us that much, we aren’t scary.”

“Shut up.” Ace glares at them coldly. “I’ve killed men bigger and older than you. I’m not afraid.”

Marco doesn’t think any of them have seen Ace so antagonistic in the past, even when he was making daily attempts on Oyaji’s life. The last statement is the icing on a very strange, otherworldly cake. This is due in part to the fact that Marco can tell Ace isn’t lying. What the hell happened to Ace as a child…?

“Ace…” Luffy whines. Ace’s sharp gaze shifts to Luffy. Marco finds the lack of blatant fondness eerie. This is a glance into what Ace was talking about yesterday, about how he treated Luffy. It’s deeper than just behavior, his whole regard has changed, he’s blanker, colder.

“What?” Ace asks.

“They haven’t hurt me. Or you,” Luffy says.

“You’re too stupid to know any better!” Ace snaps. “Is this Bluejam again?” A bristle runs over his body, and while they know nothing about Bluejam, they can tell Bluejam isn’t anything good. “If you had some agreement with him, it isn’t any good. I left your boss to burn in the fire after I cracked his skull open. You won’t get any money from the dead.”

Thatch lets out a small choked-off sound and Marco’s eyes widen. It’s wishful thinking to hope Ace was a teller of tall tales at this age. But anyone who has killed someone has a look in their eyes, something irretrievable lost, innocence gone, and Ace has and bears the emptiness like a thorny badge.

“It isn’t Bluejam,” Luffy asserts, moving in front of Ace a little. “I’ve been here like… a week I think.” Marco blinks at the inaccurate measure and he sees a few Straw Hat members shaking their heads. “If it was Bluejam they woulda already tried to kill me, right? But they didn’t they fed me and got me to you, so they can’t be.” Luffy’s hand finds the brim of his straw hat and he starts worrying it. “Besides, like you said, they all had to have burned alive in the… you know. He didn’t let any of them leave.”

There’s so much context Marco is missing. Every piece is getting carefully filed away for further examination at a later date. For now, he’s marginally pleased to see Ace seems to be taking the information in… if slowly.

“Aaace,” Luffy whines again, this time more pressing. “I gotta tell you everything that happened!”

Marco is formulating a better, more quiet way of explaining things in a way that hopefully won’t incite Ace’s ire too much more when Ace leaps on top of the railing of the ship. Many of his crewmates immediately lurch forward on habit, but Ace’s footing is sure, and Marco knows Ace didn’t have his Devil’s Fruit at this age anyways.

Ace scans them over, still unamused. He hisses for Luffy to stay where he is, and then he runs across the railing to the rigging of the Moby Dick and scrambles atop it with light, agile movements.

“What is he…” Thatch starts to say as Ace’s body is obscured by sun-glare. Then, Johnson lets out a scream and comes hurting down several dozen meters from the crow’s nest where he was keeping watch. It’s a rough landing, not too serious, but most of them are too agape at what happened to help, except Chopped who immediately starts checking for a concussion.

“Oi, Luffy! Get up here,” Ace calls from his newly commandeered crow’s nest. Luffy shouts his assent and then starts his own, clumsier climb to the crow’s nest.

Marco holds out a hand when Gerrit and Thatch roll up their sleeves to follow.

“No, leave them alone.” Marco takes their disagreeing looks and raises them an unimpressed eyebrow arch. “Ace feels threatened and out of control right now. This is him getting a safe place to discuss things, I think.”

Chopper nods his head frantically from where he’s looking over Johnson. “Psychologically speaking, Ace is under a lot of stress at the moment, and if he is already more abrasive, then cornering him will only cause more lashing out, and rejection of the current situation. For both Ace and Luffy’s sake, it’s imperative we leave them be until they reach some kind of accord where Ace can accept this new reality, temporary though it may be.” Having said his piece, Chopper starts tucking himself behind Franky’s bulky body as they stare.

“I’m just saying, if he’s planning a mutiny, I for one won’t be surprised!” Thatch says, throwing his hands up.

“But really, you’re just worried about the food,” Marco says lightly.

“How am I supposed to know how much to cook without a sure ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for Ace and Luffy?” Thatch asks.

“Bank on yes,” Sanji says, pulling out a cigarette.

Marco furrows a brow. “And if what he and Luffy said last night about how they ate, then we should maybe get them a space away from the mess hall.”

“Ah. Right.” Marco runs a hand through his hair. “Damn. This is going to be a mess.”

Thatch waits a polite beat. “I cannot believe the mouth Ace had on him as a kid!”

The other Whitebeard pirates commune and talk over the event. Marco round them all up and sends them into the galley so he can make a ship-wide announcement of what’s going on.

He spares one last upward glance at the crow’s nest before he goes into the galley, well aware of the Straw Hats also looking on, helpless, at the sight in the sky hidden from their view.

 

+

 

Thatch can’t help the sigh of relief that escapes him when Ace and Luffy descend about halfway through dinner. He worried they wouldn’t come, and honestly he’s surprised they’re coming down after the fit Ace pitched. It might have had to do with Marco’s suggestion of barbeque out on the deck, with the doors to galley open but most of the crew sitting inside. Thatch certainly thinks it’s a good idea. The smells of smoked meat and vegetables wafting through the air…

Both boys are quiet on their way down. If the crew was a bunch of civilians, or maybe low-ranking marines or pirates, they likely wouldn’t have even noticed. Considering they’re some of the strongest on the sea who also have all had their senses covertly trained on the crow’s nest for the last three or four hours, all of them are aware when the two brothers come down.

Luffy is the one pulling Ace along, but Ace is somehow putting himself between them and Luffy as the pair approaches the entrance of the galley where Thatch, Sanji, and the rest of the chef staff are tending to the grills.

Thatch turns a few shish-kabobs, spins a shank, and flips a burger, not looking at Ace and Luffy, but totally looking at them.

Marco’s announcement earlier can be boiled down to one main message; leave Ace alone. He seems to be temperamental at this age. How much? No one knows. But he isn’t the same brother they had before and he needs his space. For those who were on the crew when Ace joined, it’s easier to remedy, considering his brashness and aggression. Thatch can’t say he’s really surprised, it’s just… eerie, and incredibly sad to see it in someone so young. He thinks about what Ace said about killing someone, leaving someone to burn alive… he wonders how the hell Ace got into those situations to begin with.

Ace stops a good three meters from the rest of the party, eyes darting about the ship.

“Hey, hey! Pompadour-man! Do you have some of that for us?!” Luffy asks, jumping to be seen over his older brother’s shoulder. At least one of the two has kept the same. Thatch snorts and resists the urge to give Luffy some ribbing for the shitty nickname. Marco said not to direct any antagonistic comments at Luffy, but its hard… he makes such good little brother material.

“We thought maybe you’d like to eat on a blanket over here,” Robin steps in smoothly. She and Nami are just finishing the touches on a small picnic-like setup with food for a family of twenty tucked a little further down on upper deck. Considering Ace’s reaction to the men, the two crews are investigating his reactions to women, seeing if they’re milder for later instances.

Ace’s eyes are still wary, but he does let his little brother pull him away to the picnic blanket, where Robin and Nami add a few more things for them before leaving. That’s good to know.

Everyone seems to hold a communal breath to see whether or not Ace will actually eat the food they set aside— if he doesn’t, then they have a problem. He seems reluctant, but when Luffy slugs him in his effort to shove a rack of ribs down his throat, Ace retaliates with equal force. It’s messy and practically feral, but he’s eating.

As Thatch watches Ace smash a plate over Luffy’s head and laugh at the elastic snap-back, he wishes that Ace could unwind like that around them. He wants his brother laughing with them over here, not shut away and paranoid in the corner.

Thatch isn’t the captain though, and he sees Marco keeping an eye on the two of them with a somewhat content expression at the turn of events.

After eating and leaving a stack of dishes behind (the entire area pretty much spotless from them vacuuming up all the food), Ace takes the blanket up with them to the crow’s nest, which the rest of the crew hasn’t yet touched on captain’s orders. They’re relying on the Straw Hats and their cabin-like crow’s nest to keep watch because the boys don’t seem to notice them on the other side.

“Idiot!”

Thatch looks up to see Luffy falling back off the ropes to the crow’s nest. At least ten people jump forward, but Ace is already there, grabbing a rubbery arm and jerking his brother back onto the rail where they perch. He then smacks the younger on the head.

“Don’t fall asleep while climbing, you idiot!”

“Ouch, Ace!” Luffy whines and rubs his head. He doesn’t say anything else as Ace crouches over. Luffy crawls atop his back, quickly devolving into snores, and the two gradually ascend to the crow’s nest.

Ah, Thatch thinks he sees it now, that brotherly love hidden beneath so many layers…

Ace really had no idea what a complex he’d get later in life, did he?

 

+

 

In the morning, Izou docks after a quick visit to a nearby island and hears about the catastrophic gaps in his knowledge. So much happened in a day. Izou has the misfortune of not being present for Ivankov’s visit, but he catches on pretty quickly after a squeal bursts from his chest upon seeing Ace.

“You’re just the cutest— Gak!” Izou can only dodge as Ace spins a haymaker much faster than any child should be able to manage. It’s easy enough to dodge, but surprising enough that Izou grants Ace the space he’s desperately asking for. It’s hard though. Those little freckled cheeks… it’s enough blackmail to set Izou up for years!

Marco tugs him by the shoulder and starts to explain a little about Ivankov, and some of what Ace has said since arriving. It’s enough for Izou to calm down and really examine the strain in Ace’s eyes as they dart from Izou to their crew, their nakama, the harshness of his breaths, sheer panic… It’s disheartening, to say the least. Izou accepts the necessity of his distance even though his heart cries that its abandonment.

Izou clutches his fan and strikes a few dramatic poses. He feels better afterward. Marco interrupts him with a stack of paperwork that should have been Ace’s. Needs must, Izou supposes.

He does his and Ace’s time pending paperwork in the desk cabin with Thatch, who fills him in on little tidbits here and there about little Luffy and Ace.

The general consensus at the moment is that Ace is mostly convinced this is the future, or at least that they aren’t completely lying. That’s what Luffy had half a chance to say this morning over breakfast before his brother pulled him up to the crow’s nest by the scruff of his neck. Which is good. Perhaps, they won’t have to deal with the two boys trying to abandon ship.

“Also, Garp is apparently Ace’s adopted grandpa.”

Izou chokes. That line alone without context is enough to send him spiraling into dramatics. But then he remembers.

“At Marineford…”

Thatch mutters a small curse and nods.

Izou clutches his quill tight enough it snaps. Ink drips over his kimono. He carelessly wipes his hands on the fine cloth and moves the paperwork out of the way of the spill.

“He never mentioned anything,” Izou says.

“Not much space to,” Thatch says, rolls his shoulders which have a new tension in them. “Turns out there’s a lot he hasn’t said.”

Izou shuffles the paperwork, reads Ace’s name scrawled in the margin where Marco made it out a few days ago. Not a lot of Pirates use their actual full names, Izou included. Some are just trying to distance themselves from where they came from, those so-humble beginnings. Izou was leaving behind a father who disapproved of everything Izou was and did to a point where he wouldn’t let Izou leave the island with his name, and Izou hadn’t wanted to take it with him by that point. Portgas D. Ace is a fabricated name, the whole world now knows, but no one will ever call out the thousands of pirates who have done just the same for their own reasons, for their own escape and a clean break, unlike they do for Ace.

Seeing Ace now, it’s clear why he left behind what he did, for however numerous the reasons, that damage done by himself and others is plain to see.

So stupid, what four letters have done to a child.

“I need to take a break.” Izou yawns and pushes his chair back.

“Marco’ll have your head about those,” Thatch comments.

“His fault for dumping the extra work on the one commander actually pulling their weight.” Izou aims a look at Thatch who winces and laughs.

“If you were around, you’d be just as distracted.”

The two exit the cabin just in time to see a rogue foot, extended meters past normal reach, sail over their heads from the crows next.

The fight explodes on deck, marked by Ace dancing out of the way of Luffy’s gum-gum fist. Izou leans against the wall to watch. Ace is effective at this age, using his smaller size to avoid Luffy’s multitude of attacks. But what Luffy lacks in general coordination, he makes up for in energy. Luffy tries again, and Ace’s eyes widen with surprise as he barely dodges a fist. Luffy grins... before his hands snap back and slams into his own face.

Ace starts laughing along with many of the crew, Izou and Thatch included. The Straw Hats are gathered near the boarding dock for their boat, all eyes attuned to their captain.

Idiot!” Ace grins. “Like you could ever beat me!”

“I almost got close!”

“Nu-uh! I could have dodged that in my sleep!”

“No way, that was so fast!”

“In my sleep! With Dadan snoring in my ear!

“Shut up!”

Both of them pause and growl at each other before snapping to the side as one.

“You’re too soft on him, Sabo!”

“See, Sabo thinks I’m getting str—“

And like with the other battle, things utterly stop. This time both of them bite their lips and fight the tears.

Izou’s at a loss, just like every other adult on the deck. Ace’s reaction is much more violent than last time when he was playing the soothing, calmer older brother.

Luffy lets a couple tears fall and Ace whirls on him angrily.

“Stop it! I told you that men don’t cry!”

“Bigger-you told me that you were lying!” Luffy protests.

“You believe that idiot over me?!” Ace accuses.

“But he’s you!”

“I don’t believe that,” he says.

“He seemed like he was telling the truth.”

“Well listen to me now. Men don’t cry!”

Luffy bites his lips, but the water won’t stop.

“Weakling!” Ace crosses his arms and looks firmly away.

Luffy visibly curls in on himself as he tries to fight off the tears from something no one else on the boat but Ace knows about.

Nami comes and places a hand on Luffy’s shoulders and softly says to him. “It’s okay to cry. Ace— the older Ace meant it,” she promises.

Luffy leans into the touch and nods.

Ace lets out an angry huff and stalks over to the railing.

“Why don’t we go to the Galley on the Thousand Sunny?” Robin suggests. “I’m sure our wonderful chef won’t mind making you a snack.”

Sanji twirls. “Whatever you say, Robin-schwan!~”

How Izou longs to provide the same comfort to his brother, but he knows it won’t be well-received, and if anything, will make Ace more angry and anxious. Izou glances at Ace and hopes this whole thing wears off soon. He has a lot of comfort love and support he wants to shove at Ace in a million ways so subtle that Ace won’t even see it coming.

The navigator gently nudges Luffy towards their ship as everyone heads over, but Luffy resists. His eyes are glued to the solitary figure of his brother as he wipes his tears away. He looks up at them before shrugging out of Nami’s hands and running over the deck to Ace.

Izou watches them talking, only catching one of Ace’s exclamations and Luffy’s protests, but after a few minutes, it seems they’ve largely made up. Izou’s reminded of what Luffy said the first day, about Ace being lonely...

“Never thought I’d see Luffy turn down food like that,” Sanji comments, watching the brothers interact from afar like the rest of them.

“Why don’t you make the two of them something anyways?” Robin asks.

“I’ll do anything you ask, Robin-schwan!”

Later in the evening, Izou has the night watch and thus has to deal with sitting on the top of the upper deck, since the crow’s nest is taken.

With the only the sounds of gentle wind and the consistent lap, lap of the tepid sea, Izou hears snippets of the brother’s conversations.

“Stop talking about food, Luffy! We need to figure out how to escape.” Even if Ace isn’t the best at deception and infiltration as an adult, Izou is pleased to say he has gained the capacity to actually whisper, instead of this hissing thing he does which is so easy to hear.

Luffy doesn’t even bother whispering, which, okay, typical.

“But it’s the future and these are our nakama. Where would we go?” Luffy makes a surprisingly good point. Marco locked up all the escape boats and kept them strictly to the open water. They have nowhere to escape to.

“They’re not nakama,” Ace growls.

“And I like everyone on the ship. Even if they are pretty weird.”

Izou huffs. Weird, as if Luffy can talk.

“You’re too trusting, idiot!”

There’s a strange sound of blunt impact that makes Izou think Ace has hit his brother again.

Luffy whines.

“Older you was nice,” Luffy sniffs.

“So you wish he was here instead of me?! You wish I was gone, don’t you?!”

“I didn’t say that!” Luffy whimpers and wheedles. “I like both Aces.”

“Whatever.”

Izou glances up at the crow’s nest and the figures hidden from the angle. He hears snores develop and shakes his head. Their relationship is perfect in that it succeeds because the two of them are in it. Any other people would have successfully killed each other by now. Instead, Izou knows it blooms and grows into something so warm and fond they’ll face death to save one another…

 

+

 

Sanji is dreaming about feeding three beautiful mellorine~ a pistachio sorbet he made himself and hearing them lathe him with praise and constructive criticism about the presentation when a scream startles him awake.

Sanji makes it out of the bunk he shares with the rest of the men of the crew and on deck in time to witness young Ace scramble down the mast of the crow’s nest like it was on fire.

Nami makes a confused sound from the doorway of the ladies’ room when he hears a cheerful shishishi, and a hand stretches from the crows next to the top of the Thousand Sunny and a fully grown Luffy descends among them in his red shorts, shirt nowhere to be seen.

“Hi! Where are we? Why are we here? Is that the Moby Dick? Is that pineapple guy here? Is breakfast soon? Can I have extra meat for breakfast? When’s breakfast?”

“YOU IDIOT!” All of them scream in a practiced chorus. When they all calm down, Sanji pretends not to notice the water in Nami’s eyes even as he offers her a handkerchief. She smiles brilliantly, but its all for Luffy and Sanji understands it. Despite having him nearby, Sanji has missed his captain that exists for his crew, sees them with familiar warmth garnered by hundreds of hardships borne together and just as many moments of inconsequential happiness.

Luffy twitches and glances over at the railing of the Moby Dick as if guided by some sixth brotherly sense… or by Haki, perhaps.

Ace’s eyes hover right above the railing, staring at Luffy with wide disbelief. He ducks when Luffy’s eyes find his.

“Ace!” Luffy crows, slingshotting right over Ace’s head.

Luffy’s babbling about breakfast to Ace who has backed far enough into the railing that another step would send him into the ocean. Luffy pauses when the crew of the Moby Dick gathers on deck.

“YOU’RE SMALL!” Luffy says, pointing a finger.

“So dense!” Ace chants back, and then recoils, as though he didn’t mean to.

Sanji sees the confusion and feels sympathetic. He lights a cigarette and walks with the rest of his crew to the other ship’s deck.

“So Luffy’s grown up, I see,” Marco comments, brow betraying his worry for Ace, even as Luffy giggles and crouches down so they’re eye-level.

“And you’re so short!” Luffy chants.

“As grown up as he’ll get, I figure,” Sanji quips, exhaling.

“Which isn’t much,” Nami says, smirking.

“Oh, my.” Robin covers her mild smile with a hand.

“Iva got you with his nails,” Zoro says, filling Luffy in. “You got shrunk just like Ace. No, not like when you use third gear.”

Luffy shuts his mouth, evidently having been preempted.

“Do you remember anything?” Nami asks.

“Everything,” Luffy says and proceeds to ruffle a confused looking Ace’s hair.

“Then why were you surprised when you saw Ace?” Sanji demands.

“I’m impressed at how much taller I am than him!” Luffy says, beaming.

Luffy has been around long enough that the Whitebeard crew has started facepalming with the rest of the Straw Hats.

“Luffy?” Ace says, and not in the rude, impatient way he usually says Luffy’s name these days.

“Hm?” he says, eyes so wide and receptive that Ace can only bite his lip.

“You are Luffy,” Ace says still uncertain.

“Yup!”

“Your chest…”

Where every other person on the crew falters, looks to the side, can’t stare at the near-death experience seared over Luffy’s chest, only alive because of their father’s sacrifice— Luffy stands tall, smiles, touches it like a warm thing.

“Yeah,” Luffy says. “I left home at seventeen just like you! And I went on an adventure! Oh, and I found the best nakama ever. You did too. I told you we were with nakama, but nooo, Ace doesn’t believe me!”

Ace looks around the ship with a raised eyebrow, seems to regain some of his bluster because he crosses his arms.

“You say so much stupid shit, how am I supposed to know what to take seriously?”

He seems startled when Luffy doesn’t respond with anger, instead just laughs like Ace didn’t just insult him, and Sanji figures things are going to be okay for the next little bit until Ace also changes back. So he puts himself to work in the Whitebeard kitchen where he can be helpful.

 

+

 

Nami has to cover her mouth as they all settle against the railing to watch the brother’s sparring. Whereas before, Ace had a distinct advantage, now Luffy toys with Ace. Her captain is a surprisingly good sport about it, not being as childishly vengeful as he can often be. Instead there’s something nurturing, and it takes her a moment to place the expression as similar to Ace’s the first day when he’d been his regular size and Luffy had been small.

Luffy teases him but is willing to take a hit and let Ace vent a little anger before it ever boils over. He accepts the taunts and smacks with a grace that makes Nami realize with some mixed feelings why he’s always been so durable.

It’s… not her place to weigh in about their relationship. Considering all she’s heard about them these past couple days, she realizes there’s a lot she doesn’t know, and that information fills the ocean between crew and family in a way she’s trying to make sense of without prying.

Because Luffy doesn’t pry. He only learns about their backgrounds when they want to (or need to, as it sadly often happens) talk about it. And then they work together to move beyond the past and into the future. How can any of them do less for their beloved captain?

Ace reluctantly lets Luffy guide him into the galley for lunch, even though he looks twitchy and pulls angrily at Luffy’s cheeks in revenge.

Still, when, Luffy sits Ace on his lap to free up space for Franky to sit, the most phenomenal blush spreads over Ace’s face. Nami sees Izou smile like the cat with the cream, but he thankfully doesn’t make a comment. It would take less than that for Ace to scatter, he already looks so embarrassed but also oddly pleased.

Nami just wishes she could save the image. After how argumentative and aggressive he’s been, this Ace is a pleasant break. Because they’re sitting against the wall (so Ace can keep his eye in the whole room, Nami’s sure) the rest of the galley can surreptitiously sneak glances, and from the relaxing of their shoulders, she knows that they’re pleased by what they see.

Ace is more relazed than he’s been this whole time, and it might have something to do with the protective ring Luffy’s arms form around him.

Then food gets served and Nami’s captain’s arms are everywhere.

Ace and Luffy eat like utter animals, but Luffy’s attacks are always directed at the cutlery, and never at the person behind the plate, so Nami supposes he has grown with age. He weathers Ace’s attacks as well as he always does, and the two brothers look sated by the end.

Nami’s rather full, so she throws her chicken skewer at the two. It doesn’t even come down from the apex of her toss before Ace has cleaned it, licking his lips.

Luffy frowns.

“You always get the last bite,” he whines.

“Why does the last bite matter?” Sanji asks.

“It’s the best bite,” Luffy says solemnly. Then stops, seems to think. “But actually the first bite is pretty good. And the second.”

“What about the fifth?” Franky asks, grinning. “I’ve found the sixth to be especially su-per.”

“Moron,” Ace snorts. “Besides, complain to Sabo, he’s the one who always gets the last word—”

Ace stops, freezes. He’s tense in Luffy’s lap. Gritting himself against the absence that no one on the ship can do anything about.

Except Luffy—

“That’s so true! He always got the last word! And the last piece of food. How did he do that? Was it like a super power, do you think?”

Ace unwinds a millimeter.

“What a stupid superpower.”

Usopp twitches, licks his lips, and Nami sees the moment that he can’t stop himself—

“Luffy, who is Sabo?”

Nami kicks him in the shin and he yelps.

Ace is already reeling back like a huge wave gathering its strength before crashing onto the shore.

“That’s none of your—“

“Sabo is our other brother.”

Things are silent.

“Your brother?” Marco says, eyes growing concerned. Nami empathizes. What is up with this family? How complicated can such simple-seeming boys be?

“Shut up, Luffy! You can’t just tell people about that! Sabo is—” Ace cuts himself off, seemingly unable to even say his chastisement about the mysterious Sabo aloud.

“These are our nakama,” Luffy says. “You can trust them. I trust them.”

Trust them?” Ace scoffs, bitterness welling in his eyes.

He kicks his way off Luffy’s lap and scrambles out of the galley. Nami’s captain watches but doesn’t follow, instead preferring to sigh and lick the remaining shreds of chicken off his plate.

Izou follows Ace, footsteps already becoming so soft Ace probably won’t notice the shadow keeping an eye on him.

Apropos of nothing, Luffy goes on.

“Sabo was trying to be free. He was more restricted than us and had to set sail early, before seventeen like we agreed.”

“So he left?” Marco asks.

“He died,” Luffy corrects.

“How...”

“He was ten. He tried to leave on a boat, but that was the day a Tenryuubito came to visit the island. His ship crossed theirs, and they blew him out of the water.”

The moment comes back with startling clarity with this new information to contextualize things. The angriest she’s ever seen her captain, the auction house. The tenryuubito, calling Camie and Hachi inhuman. Luffy’s utter, thunderous ire… There’s so much Nami still can’t understand, but this little fragment of the story already adds so many more questions even as it explains a lot.

“Luffy...”

“This is less than a week after Sabo died, so it’s a little fresh.” Luffy shrugs. “We don’t talk about it usually, but it took some time to adjust to him being gone. We kept forgetting and thinking he was there when he wasn’t.”

Trying not to cry less than a week after losing a brother. Not even talking about him. These two need help.

Seemingly ignorant of the distress of those around him, Luffy smiles a brilliant gleaming smile.

“Sabo was a great brother!”

 

+

 

Stupid Luffy with his stupid height and his stupid talking about Sabo.

He knows better than that. Sure he and Ace had never explicitly said that no one could talk about Sabo anymore, but they didn’t have to. The fact that his supposed crew clearly has never heard Sabo’s name before, only means that he still thinks that even as an adult.

Trust them, Luffy says.

Ace rolls his eyes. As if.

An idea comes to mind, and he knows what to do to prove he’s right, even though it fills him with a wrenching displeasure. They’ve been nice to him… but what does it matter when he knows how to show their true colors? That’s all that really matters.

He waits the afternoon out in the crows nest, listening to the general hubbub of the galley and tracking the presence of the crew. Luffy tries to join him a couple times, but he kicks his big-little brother down the mast until Luffy surrenders and plays a loud game of hide-and-seek with crew members from both ships.

When night sets in and Izou, Thatch, and Marco head into the main desk area, Ace silently descends the crow’s nest and approaches the door.

He thinks about knocking but ends up just going in and shoving it shut behind him.

“Ace,” Marco says in surprise.

“You’re talking to us one on one,” Thatch says, a smile spreading across his mouth. “I told Luffy we were growing on you.”

“As if,” Ace says, looks at the room, sees a window he can escape through if he needs. Sees a stool he could probably crack over one of their heads if push comes to shove. That’s the best he can do with such short notice.

“What do you think about Gol D. Rogers having a child?”

All three blink in surprise at his question. His fists clench preemptively. He can do this.

“That I never knew he had a wife,” Thatch says, smirking. Ace flushes.

“What do you think about the kid?!” he demands.

Marco holds up his hand to stop Thatch from another glib reply. Izou sighs and leans against a table, sliding his glittery eyes over Ace like he’s no threat. Ace will show them.

Marco catches his attention though with the slow and steady way he meets Ace’s gaze, the hint of something in his eyes that Ace doesn’t get. Marco runs his hand over his hair.

“He probably had a rough go of it.”

Ace waits, but Marco just stares at Ace patiently, waiting for his response. Ace can’t help the angry blush.

“That’s it?!”

“That’s it,” Marco confirms.

When Ace doesn’t say anything else, Marco starts shuffling papers and makes some opening statement about the crew’s financials and balancing the budget across the ships because don’t think he hasn’t noticed that some of the food funds have been unevenly spent on alcohol these past weeks like he hasn’t gone against everything Ace has always understood about himself—

“No! You aren’t supposed to say that! You’re supposed to say that he was never supposed to be born! That it wasn’t good that he had a child!” Ace snaps, punching at a nearby desk and breaking the table leg. “That it isn’t good I was born!”

He takes a startled breath when he realizes what he’s said, steps back, ready to flee because hypotheticals are one thing, but the confession is a whole nother—

“Ace…” Izou says, eyes filled with sympathy and pity and Ace doesn’t understand!

“I’ll never say that,” Marco says. “Because that will never be true. Thank you for being born, Ace.”

“No.”

“Thank you for being born, Ace.”

“Stop it.”

“We appreciate you, so thank you—”

“Stop! Just shut up, shut up!”

Where did this water come from? Ace hasn’t cried since he heard Sabo died. He feels so numb with shock that by the time he realizes the waterfall running over his face, his shirt is soaked.

“What do you know, anyway?” Ace asks.

“We travel the world together, you, me, Izou, Thatch and the rest. We trek the Grand Line, looking for adventure. We’ve gotten in and out of more messes than I can count. We’ve… lost people along the way. But never once, never once, Ace, have I thought that I didn’t want to meet you. Never once have I been anything less than grateful to know you, in every way.”

More tears are falling, and not just from him now.

Ace sniffs and wipes his eyes, sees Izou blow his nose into a handkerchief and Thatch blubbering, and realizes.

“You already knew. Who my father is.”

The warm smiles in the room tell him enough, and it makes Ace want to hide and bare himself at the same time.

They knew. He trusted them enough to tell them, and they came through, still look at him with that stupid look of affection on their faces like there couldn’t be anything else there…

It’s too much.

He wipes his hand over his eyes.

“Whatever.”

The door opens, and Ace jumps to the side in surprise, embarrassment already building, before he sees its Luffy— who else would enter without knocking, now that he thinks about it.

“Yo! Ace, I built a pillow fort in big-you’s room!” Luffy blinks when he finally, belatedly, realizes the tension in the room. But Luffy’s great in that he doesn’t comment.

“Let’s see this shitty fort.” Ace is ready to not be with these weirdos.

“Sleep well, Ace,” Marco says.

“I guess… you assholes are alright,” he mutters, as he and Luffy leave. For their sake, he pretends not to hear the teary laughter that rings after the door shuts.

Ace lets Luffy take him to the bowels of the ship, where sure enough there’s a small sequestered room with a half-assed blanket fort. The fort is as shitty as Ace expects, considering the concentration required to build a proper one isn’t something Luffy has. Ace doesn’t either. It was always Sabo…

He still lets Luffy pull him underneath the precarious blanket canopy and arrange them facing each other.

“They’re not the worst,” Ace concedes. He’s still trying to wrap his mind around the idea, resists it in some parts of his mind, even as he struggles under the smothering warmth of their regard for him. What did he ever do that was so great to excuse all that he is—

Luffy stops those thoughts with his soft giggle.

“Ace, you are loved.” Luffy smiles against the pillow. His grin is bright and honest. And Ace discovers that he can find it in himself to trust that it might be true. Maybe, somewhere out there, somewhere here, he is loved.

Maybe it was good that he was born.

“Shut the fuck up.”

 

+

 

Ace wakes up with a killer headache, worse than the time he and Thatch tried to keep up drink-for-drink with Pops one boring dead-wind day.

He frowns when he sees the blanket hanging over his head. Something warm in his arms… he looks down and sees his little brother, but not as little as he’s been recently and everything comes back.

He bites his fist as he remembers what he said to Thatch, Marco, and Izou last night. How embarrassing. Not to mention all the swearing and threats. Shit. He has some very formal, very proper apologies to make now that he’s the right size again.

Luffy shifts in his arms, and maybe Ace can let the apologies rest for a second because it’s been a while since they’ve been close like this. Probably since their last heartache at Marineford. That had been… a rough time. They’d only had a day together before they had to split, get under protection— Ace with his mourning crew and Luffy with Silvers Rayleigh. It’s been two years since…

He realizes, with slow dismay, that while losing Pops had been so hard, he and his crew worked past it. They talked about him often, quoted and mocked his seriousness just as often as they cried about it. They shared stories over rum that degraded into simple moments of comfort before they moved on and faced what was ahead. What they didn’t do, was avoid talking about Pops. That has most to do with Marco’s method of dealing with loss than with Ace’s because even though he carries Sabo’s name on his arm, the extent that he’s erased his brother from his mind horrifies him.

He has to change that. Maybe not all at once, the edges of his memories with Sabo still burn from where he cauterized the pain as a child, but working up slowly to telling his crew about his brother. He was so good. He deserves to be talked about.

Luffy stirs, smiles and opens an eye.

“Do you remember that alarm clock Sabo tried to make with the crickets?” Ace whispers, just between them.

“It worked until the birds came and ate all the crickets,” Luffy remembers.

“That’s what he got for trying to wake up early.”

Luffy giggles and something scarred over starts to breathe.

 

+

 

Marco watches with a smile as Ace and Luffy tap their forearms together and smile.

“See you.”

“Yeah.”

Then Luffy walks onto the Thousand Sunny and they sail away. For Marco, it seems almost anti-climactic considering how close he now knows the brothers are. But the look on Ace’s face is extremely content. It’s a look none of them have seen since the battle at Marineford.

After the past few hellish days, there are two things that have absolutely solidified for Marco’s. The first is that he will never understand the unorthodox relationship between Ace and his brother. The second is that the two love each other. With those things in mind, their departure makes more sense.

And regardless, everyone’s chests are a little lighter, smiles brighter, and laughter free.

Ace turns to Marco and their crew, smiles widely.

“Where to next?”