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Unsinkable

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His first memories are of warmth, of the blurred view of sunlight speckling above on the water’s surface.

All around him is his mother. He knows she’s there, in the life thrumming beneath the waves like the blood coursing beneath his skin.

He can’t remember the sound of her voice, not exactly. But there are things that remind him: the quiet rise and fall of tides along the beach, the warm breeze sifting through tall stems of sea oats, the whisper of ocean currents when he dunks his head below the surf.

She spoke to him once, when she lifted him from the cradle of the sea and first felt the sun against his skin. He hadn’t understood her words back then, but he still remembers.

“Live well, my love. I will never be far from you.”

Luffy doesn't know how to swim, but he doesn't quite sink, either. The couple of times Shanks has seen him playing in the water, the boy kind of just floats without much effort, legs kicking lazily and arms slowly fanning around him with hardly a care in the world.

Is he just… particularly buoyant? Is that normal for kids?

Shanks doesn't know, but he doesn't think too much of it. The fact is, Luffy looks natural in the sea, at home in the embrace of the waves, and Shanks thinks it'll serve him well as an aspiring pirate.

This in mind, Luffy isn't exactly an Anchor, but Shanks just likes to tease him. The fond nickname has already stuck, and in the time they've been merrymaking in Foosha Village, the rest of the Red-Hair Pirates have also adopted little Luffy as their own.

They'll have to leave soon, but Shanks knows that he'll be keeping an eye out for his Anchor in the coming years. Being such a determined, adventurous kid with a heart of gold, Luffy will surely make waves when he finally sets out into the world.

However, a few days after the incident of Luffy accidentally eating that rubber Devil Fruit, Shanks and his crew are hanging around the bar when a worried Makino approaches them to ask, “Have any of you seen Luffy? He might've snuck out to the beach again, and with those bandits hanging about lately…”

The bandits haven't been sighted again since the confrontation in the bar, and Shanks isn't too concerned about them. What he is concerned about, though, is the idea of a tiny Devil Fruit user spontaneously deciding to go for a swim. Alone.

To his horror, the Anchor nickname may end up being more accurate than he intended.

With an undignified squawk, Shanks dives out of his seat and is out the door in no time, hightailing it down to the beach.

Thankfully, he spots Luffy in one of his usual haunts, a secluded spot of beach just over a sandy hill dotted with tall, wispy grasses. To his alarm, Luffy is in fact in the water, and the boy seems to be wading out even further from the shoreline.

Shanks opens his mouth to shout, but something makes his voice catch in this throat.

It may just be a trick of the light, but Shanks thinks for a moment that he sees the figure of a woman standing in the surf with Luffy, her form blurred at the edges like mist. But when he blinks, she’s gone, and it’s just Luffy looking back at him with a cheery wave.

Though, all thoughts of some mysterious woman disappear when he again registers what’s actually in front of him. That is, Luffy standing in the surf. In the ocean. A child who ate a Devil Fruit, in the water.

“Anchor!” he exclaims with alarm, hastening forward into the shallow waves and grabbing Luffy’s hands to keep him upright. “You’re a Devil Fruit user now, you can’t just go into the ocean anymore! You can’t swim, and you’ll sink like a rock! Even just a bit of water can be… dangerous…?”

Luffy just looks up at him with a questioning tilt of the head, not at all concerned about being up to his knees in seawater. He seems completely normal. Shanks stares at him, at the waves lapping at their legs, and he’s flabbergasted.

He asks tentatively, “Are… are you not tired at all, Anchor?”

“Nope!” the boy replies, popping the ‘p.’ He then wrinkles his nose in protest. “I’m not tired! I don’t wanna go to bed, it’s not dark out!”

“No, no, it’s not your bedtime yet,” Shanks agrees faintly, still shocked by this new development. By all means, after being exposed this long to water… Luffy should be extremely lethargic by now, if not already passed out.

But here he is, still wide awake. He’s even kicking his legs to splash around from where he’s being suspended in the pirate’s hold.

In Shanks’ experience, some longtime Devil Fruit users may be able to build up a temporary tolerance to water. Though even in those cases, it’s hardly long at all, and they’re left limp and exhausted in the aftermath. But Luffy is just a child, one who ate his fruit only days ago. This is impossible—or, it should be impossible.

Anchor just continues to be full of surprises. For all the extraordinary things he’s seen in his life, Shanks can think of no possible explanation for this, and he can’t help but let out a disbelieving laugh.

Luffy laughs, too, but it’s because he’s still playing in the waves.

Shanks lets him, though he keeps one of the boy’s little hands held protectively in his own, ready to pull him out of the water just in case. Smiling but wary, he watches as Luffy proceeds to completely drench himself in his play, continuing to be his energetic self with none of the telltale signs of fatigue. Shanks reaches out to pinch his wet cheek, stretching it out to an unnatural length before letting it snap back into place.

Luffy pauses in his splashing to pout up at him through his dripping fringe. “What was that for?”

“Just checking to make sure you’re still made of rubber. I guess you’re not as much of an anchor as I thought,” Shanks chuckles as he begins to nudge him back up the shore. It only then registers that he’s still wearing his boots—ah, oops. Shanks sighs, and ignoring his waterlogged shoes for the moment, he begins to explain to his young friend, “Y’see, when a Devil Fruit user is normally in the ocean...”

Luffy gets kidnapped by Higuma, who brings them out into the bay only to be faced with the King of the Coast. The tiny boat gets capsized, the bandit gets eaten, and the Sea King soon turns its gaze on a terrified Luffy—who is far too close to the beast to make it out of there unscathed if no one does something right now.

For Shanks, the choice is easily made. He dives into the ocean and makes a beeline to the scene, putting himself between Luffy and the Sea King. Luffy desperately reaches for him, and Shanks holds the little boy tight to his chest. Heart hammering in his ribcage, he braces for impact.

He’s expecting pain. But instead, there’s nothing.

Shanks looks up, and his eyes meet the Sea King’s. The eel-like creature is completely still, looking as surprised as Shanks is himself. But a split second later, the sea around it is rippling like shock waves, and the beast shakes itself from its stupor to quickly retreat back beneath the water.

The dark shape practically flies away from the shoreline until its presence disappears into the distance. And then, as if nothing had happened at all, the ocean returns to normal.

Meanwhile, Shanks’ jaw is hanging open.

Well. He’d been planning on using Haki if things went pear-shaped, but it looks like he doesn’t need to after all.

“Sh-Shanks? Are you okay?”

The pirate snaps out of his shock to look down at Luffy, who is clinging tightly to his wet shirt with big tears rolling down his cheeks. Shanks’ gaze softens, and he can’t help but chuckle a little, holding the boy close as he begins to swim them back to shore.

“I should be asking you that,” he murmurs fondly. “But I’m just fine, Anchor. Don’t you worry about me.”

Luffy buries his face into his shoulder. Muffled, he says in a tiny, tremulous voice, “Thank you for saving me.”

To be honest, Shanks isn’t entirely sure he did anything. The Sea King had just turned around and left without even attempting to harm either of them. Not that he’s ungrateful for it, but the mysteries just keep piling up.

First the Luffy-in-water enigma (along with that weird mirage lady he still doesn’t know he really saw), and now this. Their time in Foosha has certainly been more eventful than anticipated.

But, for now, he’s just glad that Luffy is alright. Even without this unexpected bout of good luck, Shanks knows he’d risk a lot more to keep this boy safe.

What he tells Luffy in response is, “I’ll help you whenever you need it. That’s what friends are for, right?”

As they near the beach where the Red-Hairs, Makino, and several townspeople are frantically fretting in the sand, a teary-eyed Luffy gives him a wide grin and brightly agrees, “Right!”

After Luffy gains two brothers, the two older boys take it upon themselves to teach him how to swim. Avoiding the crocodile-infested rivers of Mt. Colubo, the three children adopt the occasional tradition of coming down the mountain, visiting Makino at the bar, and then heading to the beach.

Luffy happily drags his brothers around his favorite spots. He points out the places with the prettiest shells, the palms that give the best shade on hot days, and where tiny clams bury themselves in the sand, before he jumps into the water with a loud yell.

Ace and Sabo follow soon after, and then they’re swimming. At this point, Luffy has graduated to a passable doggy paddle without needing anyone to hold on to, and he happily splashes around in circles under their watchful eye.

Then, as Ace is demonstrating how to backstroke, Luffy suddenly mentions, “Shanks said that people with Devil Fruits are supposed to sink in the ocean.”

Leaving off the lesson for now, Ace treads water and ponders this new information. Luffy’s the only person he knows that has eaten a Devil Fruit, so there’s no one else to compare him to. Even before teaching him how to swim, Luffy could float without any help, and Ace has always thought that it’s something Luffy just naturally does.

But apparently, he’s supposed to sink, but he doesn’t. Ace doesn’t know what to make of it. Though, Luffy has talked their ears off about this Shanks before, and Ace begrudgingly admits that the guy sounds pretty cool. He’s a pirate and well-traveled, so he probably knows what he’s talking about, right?

“Huh,” Ace says. “If that’s true, then why can you swim?”

Luffy grins and blurts out like it explains everything, “‘Cause my mom is the ocean, she won't let me sink!”

Ace shares a dubious look with Sabo. They already know that Luffy’s a weird kid. By now, this is just icing on the cake. The only blood family of Luffy’s that they know of is their shitty Gramps, and he’s certainly never said anything about either of Luffy’s parents.

Eventually, Sabo just shrugs.

“Well,” he says as Luffy paddles over to cling to him like a wet baby monkey, “it's good that we don't have to worry about him drowning on top of everything else, I guess?”

Ace thinks about it before nodding. What was that saying? Count your blessings or whatever.

With a trouble-prone little brother like Luffy, he’ll take what he can get.

“So, you’re just lucky you can swim at all,” he concludes, poking at Luffy’s forehead. “In that case, you gotta learn to swim better if you wanna be a good pirate! You still haven’t beaten me or Sabo in a race, y’know. Or in a fight.”

Luffy puffs up, indignant and determined. “I will someday! You’ll see!”

Sabo sneaks Ace a grin, and they both shoot off into the waves. Luffy yells and paddles vigorously after them, and the beach soon fills with laughter.

At the time, Ace simply accepts Luffy’s ability to swim as just another quirk of his little brother. It won’t be until years later, when he’s out at sea and crossing paths with all sorts of Devil Fruit users—as well as becoming one himself—that he realizes just how remarkable that ability actually is.

The Gray Terminal is bleak after its burning. The raging fires have gone out, but they leave behind smoldering embers and ashy ruin in their wake. The heavy smell of smoke is still prevalent in the air.

With the aid of his Revolutionaries, Dragon has been directing the evacuation of the refugees onto the Army’s ships waiting out by the coastline. The initial terror and panic coming from the refugees is palpable, but Dragon’s people have kept order, their visages calm to make boarding as swift as possible before the nearby kingdom realizes they’re there.

As the last few passengers are helped on board, Dragon turns his sharp gaze to pristine Goa, his lips tightening to a thin line. To order the deaths of so many innocents… These nobles have no empathy, no value of life.

And for something so heinous to occur this close to Foosha... It makes his stomach churn with anger and unease.

But he must push forward. For their world to change in a way that matters, then he will turn those feelings into action.

Suddenly, there’s a loud noise in the distance. It sounds like a blast of cannon fire.

“What was that?” he hears Ivankov ask from next to him, just as a second shot echoes out.

The sounds have come from a fair distance away, so Dragon is reasonably certain that they’re not under attack and are still safe from discovery. However, it concerns him that the cannon fire seems to have come from the direction of Goa’s docks.

The nobles should be tucked away in their glittering city, gazes willfully turned from the massacre at their borders. The only event the Revolutionaries are aware of is the coming of a Celestial Dragon. Is it possible they’ve already arrived? Are the sounds they heard simply welcoming blasts of a cannon, waving a Saint into port?

Somehow, Dragon knows that this is not the case.

The boat suddenly shifts on the water, and there are several cries of alarm when their ship—and only their ship—begins moving westward.

“Hey, what are you guys doing?!” Ivankov exclaims as the crew in charge of steering and navigation scramble to find the cause of their movement.

“It’s not us, sir! Something’s moving the ship from under us!”

Ivankov is about to say something else, but he stops when he turns to look at Dragon. He squints at him, and after a moment of uncanny examination, he says, “You know what’s going on, don’t you?”

Dragon breathes in the ocean air tinged with the smell of burning and replies, “Not exactly. But let the ship go where it will. There will be something we need to see at the end of it.”

Ivankov huffs, “Well, if you say so,” before turning back to the crew and relaying his orders. The other ships remain where they are, and theirs proceeds to a destination unknown.

As they seem to move nearer and nearer towards Goa, Dragon glances down at the sea urging them forward and murmurs, “What is it you want to show me?”

The ocean winds blow past to whisper in his ears. There are no words, but he still understands.

Just before coming into sight of Goa’s port, the ship stops next to a smoldering wreckage floating in the water. It looks like the remains of a small boat, burnt and splintered wood strewn along the water’s surface, blown apart by a considerable force.

“So that’s the target of those two shots,” Ivankov says quietly. “But what—”

He’s cut off by a sudden movement. Dragon hears some of his followers let out a gasp.

From the wreckage appears an otherworldly sight: a wide sheet of water rising above the ocean’s surface, easily breaking apart the burnt wood to fill out into a more substantial, column-like shape.

With a mind of its own, the living water slowly moves with purpose towards the ship. At the top of the column, cradled in its gentle hold like a pair of cupped hands, is the small body of a human child.

Calming the rage bubbling within him at the injustice of it all, Dragon exhales slowly. He steps forward to the ship’s railing without fear.

The water rises up before him, and he’s presented with a young boy with numerous burns, one spread viciously across the left side of his face. To Dragon’s shock, he recognizes that this is the child he’d met at Goa’s gates, the one who cried in shame of his noble blood.

Despite his injuries, the boy is still breathing, his small chest expanding and compressing with the occasional concerning stutter.

He’s not much older than their son.

Dragon reaches out and carefully takes the child into his arms, and the water flows over his hands like a caress. He watches it fall back into the ocean with a soft splash, and then all is still again.

“I hear you,” he says into the open air, breathing in smoke and salt. “I hear you.”

Then, with the boy held securely in his arms, he swiftly leaves the railing to call out for medical. His shell-shocked team dutifully shake themselves of their stupor, and everyone bursts into action.

It rains for ages afterward. The sound of rain pattering on the rooftop has always been a comfort for Luffy, but he can't escape the feeling that something is… different. Like the world has shifted on its axis without him being there to see it.

Ace and Dadan return, worse for wear but alive, and for a moment Luffy thinks that maybe his gut feeling is wrong after all.

But then a red-eyed and weary Dogra arrives. And he delivers news none of them want to hear.

Sabo is gone. Shot down and burned without a chance to say goodbye. He'll never see his big brother again, and Luffy chokes on a sob as the rain falls from the dark, heavy clouds above.

He holds onto Ace with all he has, and his brother holds him back just as tightly. It's the first time he's ever seen Ace cry.

When they will someday return to the beach as two instead of three, Luffy somehow knows that it will be raining again.

Chapter Text

Zoro doesn’t know what to make of his new captain. Or… maybe he does.

Luffy is a weird guy. Exuberant, loud. Eats a lot. Not afraid of a fight. Says what he means, and means the things that he does. And perhaps more perceptive than he lets on.

There’s something about Luffy that tells Zoro that he will be worth following in the end. Zoro has a dream he will do everything in his power to achieve, a dream he will either make reality or die trying, and he can tell that Luffy is the same. Although the two of them are very different people, Zoro sees a like-minded man. He can’t help but want to see what the future holds for this guy, and now Zoro’s going to be right there beside him.

In the short time they’ve known each other, Zoro has been convinced to join a newbie pirate crew of two, when he’s already denied the invitations of so many larger and more powerful organizations. He’s always believed they would only hold him back.

But somehow, he’s got a good feeling that Luffy won’t. Monkey D. Luffy has got some powerful charisma, that much is certain.

Still, they’re only at the starting line. At the moment, their so-called pirate ship is pretty much a little dinghy just barely big enough for them both, and they’re floating out on the open ocean to who knows where.

“Hey, Luffy,” Zoro calls out over the side of the boat. “Where are we supposed to be heading next?”

From where he’s been doing laps around the dinghy, Luffy slows as he swims up to where Zoro’s leaning. Wet hair plastered to his forehead, he has a thoughtful look on his face, fanning his arms through the water as he responds, “Eh, I dunno. But I’m sure we’ll get to where we need to be soon enough!”

Luffy is a free spirit to his core, it seems.

“But next, we’re gonna need a navigator,” his captain decides. With a splash, he kicks up his feet to float on his back, one hand stretched to anchor himself to the bow as they drift along in the waves. “I dunno much about navigating. What about you?”

Zoro shrugs. “I usually just hitch a ride on merchant ships.”

“So we need a navigator,” Luffy repeats absentmindedly. He’s looking up at the sky, so Zoro looks up too. The sun is bright above them, and there aren’t any birds he can see. He’s heard before that when seagulls are around, land should be nearby. Eventually, he hears Luffy ask, “Hey, Zoro, how are you at swimming?”

Zoro glances over to him again. “Well enough. Why, you wanna race?”

Luffy grins at the suggestion, but he shakes his head. “Maybe later. But if we get any more Devil Fruit users on the crew, we have to keep them out of the ocean. And if they fall in, we’re gonna have to be ready to dive in and save them, okay?”

“... Uh, sure?” Brows furrowed, he stares at Luffy, who is very clearly in the water and had definitely been swimming around just moments before. He asks, “Why, though? Do people with Devil Fruit powers usually just don’t bother learning to swim or something? Seems stupid.”

“It’s not that,” Luffy denies. “After you eat a Devil Fruit, you can't swim anymore. And if you end up in water, you can't use your powers ‘cause you get weaker and weaker, until you just sink like a rock. That’s what’s supposed to happen, anyway.”

So that’s the price of a Devil Fruit ability. Zoro absorbs that information, filing it away for later use. They’ll surely run into more people with Devil Fruits in the future, and with how wacky just Luffy’s power has proven to be, this may prove useful someday.

He looks at where Luffy’s hand is gripping the boat, to his arm stretching out much further than a human arm should, to Luffy floating on the water’s surface and very much not sinking.

He takes the plunge and questions, “So, if that’s what normally happens… What’s the deal with you, then?”

Luffy lets out a shishishi laugh. “I’ve always been able to do this. It’s my mystery power!”

“Uh-huh,” Zoro says, unconvinced. To be the exception of such a hard rule, there must be more to it than that, but Luffy clearly isn’t up to sharing just yet.

Zoro can be patient. After all, they’ve only just set out. There will be plenty of opportunities to learn more about this trick of Luffy’s, he’s sure.

Just then, Luffy’s eyes go wide, and he splashes himself upright to point up at the blue sky.

“Zoro, look! A bird!”

The next time Luffy’s uncanny abilities come into play, Nami is gone, along with Merry and the other Straw Hats, and it's Luffy going toe-to-toe with Don Krieg. And he's winning.

“This is the true strength of a man,” Zeff says while Sanji stares at the battle, transfixed. “Not in numbers, or weapons. But in determination. Willpower. To move forward without hesitation.”

Sanji sees it in how Luffy fights. He just keeps going, meeting Krieg hit for hit despite the man’s dirty tricks. There's a fire blazing behind his eyes, one lit after watching a remorseful Gin succumb to his own captain’s poison, an iron-clad will moved by another’s sacrifice.

Before, Luffy had asked him to join his crew. Sanji had thought of him as something of an idiot at the time, but now he sees something different.

Despite Sanji’s misgivings and self-made obligations, a new path is suddenly opening up before him, revealing itself more and more with every passing second. But he still doesn't know if he can walk it.

With one final blow, Krieg is down, and Luffy is falling into the ocean while still entangled in Krieg’s net.

Zeff lets out a shout of alarm. “The boy’s got a Devil Fruit, he can’t swim—!”

There’s a loud splash, and Sanji’s body is moving on its own, sprinting across the broken deck and diving into the sea.

As he breaks the surface, his hearing instantly becomes muffled with water, and his eyes squint through the sting of salt and the riot of bubbles obscuring his vision. He spots a dark mass struggling in the depths, and Sanji swiftly kicks his legs to propel himself closer.

Thankfully, the shape soon turns into Luffy, squirming around in an attempt to untangle himself from the net and somehow looking more annoyed than scared. Sanji doesn’t have time to think on it. Patting down his pockets, he fishes out a paring knife he usually uses for skinning fruit and grabs at the net, hacking away until there’s a hole big enough for Luffy to escape from.

Thinking Luffy won’t be able to swim on his own, Sanji is about to reach in and pull him out. But in one fluid, oddly graceful motion, Luffy slips through the hole in the net and grabs onto him instead.

As his lungs feel that telltale burn for air, Sanji feels a strange pressure building beneath them from the ocean’s depths. He has just a moment to latch onto Luffy before that pressure seems to pop, and they’re sent shooting up towards the surface.

Sanji would scream if he could, but his mouth just fills with seawater.

Upon breaching the surface, he’s sputtering and coughing, and he can hear Luffy noisily taking in huge lungfuls of air beside him. Treading in place, he and Sanji then stare at each other, Sanji gripping Luffy’s waterlogged vest in one fist and water dripping from both their hair.

Before Sanji can fully process what just happened, Luffy breaks the silence between them.

“I can swim, actually! But thanks for cutting that net, it was super annoying,” he says with a big grin. “You’re a really cool guy, Sanji. Join my crew?”

Sanji gapes at him in disbelief before cursing under his breath and lugging them both back onto a sizable piece of the deck. Luffy flops onto the cracked wood paneling like a dying fish, while Sanji heaves himself up with a grunt.

“Absolutely not,” he mutters in reply.

Even so, Sanji soon finds himself leaving the Baratie to join Luffy, fruitlessly rubbing at the tears flowing from his eyes as he leaves the first place he’s ever willingly called home. This new path is calling to him, and in response, he takes the first step.

“The All Blue, huh?”

As they sail away, Luffy turns to him with a confident smile and a twinkle in his eyes, bright under the midday sun.

Stating it like it’s already fact, like he's writing it into the stars with his words alone, Luffy simply tells him, “You’re gonna find it someday, Sanji. I know it.”

And just from that alone, Sanji thinks so, too.

Nami takes in the joy and excitement of her village, finally free of Arlong’s tyranny, and her heart feels fuller than it’s ever been. There’s a communal party going on in full swing, tired and weathered people she’s known her entire life able to honestly smile and relax at last.

Her eyes roam through the upbeat gathering, and she quickly picks out the forms of her crewmates—and she can truly call them her crewmates, now, as unbelievable as it sounds. Though still recovering from their wounds, Usopp is loudly regaling an enthusiastic crowd of onlookers with one of his famous tall tales, Sanji is helping out those tasked with cooking for the event, and Zoro is lounging on the porch of a nearby house, looking on with a bottle in hand and a relaxed smile on his face.

The only one she can’t find is their hyperactive captain. He’d been there only a moment ago, scarfing down all the food he could get his hands on, but Nami doesn’t see him anywhere now.

Seeing as he’s the only one currently unoccupied, Nami decides to approach Zoro. His swathes of bandages have thankfully stopped bleeding through after getting his wound from Mihawk restitched by the village doctor, but Nami dubiously eyes the quickly-emptying bottle he’s yet to let go of.

“Are you even allowed to drink right now?” she asks as she leans against the porch railing.

The swordsman just shrugs his uninjured shoulder, taking another deep swig in stubborn defiance. “I’m not dead yet.”

“Just wait until we get our own doctor,” Nami mutters, rolling her eyes. She then decides to get to the chase. “Have you seen Luffy? I could’ve sworn he was here a moment ago, but I don’t see him anywhere.”

“He went down to the beach.”

Nami’s expression is confused. “Why? Did he leave something in the boat?”

“No, it’s…” Zoro makes a face like he’s not sure what to say. Eventually, he just gestures down the road that leads towards the shore and says, “He… went for a soak.”

“A soak?”

“It’s easier to explain if you see it for yourself,” he tells her, shrugging again.

Nami gives him a doubtful look, but she does as suggested and heads down to Cocoyasi’s beach.

As the path transitions from grass and dirt to off-white sand spotted with tiny pieces of broken shells, she spots Luffy laying on his back on the sloping shore. He’s far enough down that he’s submerged in the sea to about waist-level, with the rest of his upper half laying in the wet sand and rhythmically getting washed by the waves that come and go.

Luffy’s eyes are closed as if he’s sleeping, but the normal rate of the rise and fall of his chest tells her that he’s still awake. Nami slips off her sandals and carries them in one hand, stepping across the beach towards him. She places the sandals next to his discarded shirt, walks down the shore to stand next to him, and waits.

Soon enough, Luffy blinks his eyes open. When he sees it’s her standing there, he immediately smiles.

“Hey, Nami,” he happily greets, as welcoming as he’s ever been, and it warms her to the core.

“Hey, you knucklehead,” she replies fondly. “Zoro told me I’d find you here. What’re you up to?”

“I’m soaking,” Luffy informs her, confirming the swordsman’s earlier words. Nami sighs a little, because it’s still not much of an explanation.

“Yeah, I can see that. Any particular reason why, though?”

Luffy reaches down and pokes at his bandaged side, and Nami notices that the wrappings—including the ones around his forearm—have been completely soaked through with seawater. Some have a slight red tinge to them, which worries her.

But then Luffy actually begins to unwrap the bandages. Before Nami can say anything, though, he goes on, “Arlong sure had some sharp teeth. The bites were bugging me, so I'm soaking for them to heal up faster.”

Nami is in the middle of saying, “But how would that help—” but is immediately struck silent when the bandages fall away to reveal Luffy’s midsection. She quickly kneels down next to him for a closer look, not even noticing as the coming waves rush over her feet and shins.

After the battle, she clearly remembers seeing deep bite marks in his side and arm, jagged rows of bleeding puncture wounds left by Arlong’s sharp, serrated teeth. It had looked painful, and Luffy had impatiently sat through having them sterilized and stitched, complaining that he’d heal on his own. At the time, Nami thought he was just being a brat, but she now realizes that this may be the reason why.

The concerning wounds left by the bite in his side are now almost completely healed, as if they’ve already had weeks to recover. There are now just faint, silvery markings left behind on Luffy’s skin, damp with seawater and dotted with flecks of sand.

“... You’re going to need to get your stitches out,” Nami says faintly, still shocked.

“I told the doc I didn’t need ‘em,” Luffy grumbles with a small frown, pinching his fingers to tug out a few stitches himself. As the next incoming waves wash over his midsection, the remaining marks seem to disappear before Nami’s eyes, until they’re gone completely. Luffy proceeds to do this for each puncture wound, telling her, “I found out a while ago that I heal a lot faster when I’ve got water from the ocean. Other kinds of water don’t really work, though.”

“... Huh.” Nami has a million questions and doesn’t even know where to begin asking them.

From the time she’s already spent with Luffy and the others, Nami has known about Luffy’s peculiar ability to swim despite having a Devil Fruit for some time now. She's watched Luffy race Zoro plenty of times, seen him and Usopp play fight in the waves and splash each other like little kids, so Luffy being in water is a normal sight for her.

But this… This is something new. Just a short while ago, she’d thought Devil Fruits were only myths—and now, here’s a whole new mystery before her.

But maybe it’s not as shocking as it may have been, if it had been anyone else. Luffy is a force of nature, an unpredictable wildcard, an unbelievable person always pulling out another miracle like he does it every day.

And isn’t that just it? Just look at what he’s done for Nami and her village, done both selflessly and gladly. It’s because it’s Luffy, and he just defies all explanation and reason.

Nami stays quiet as her captain sorts out his stitches, occasionally reaching over to help with the more hard to reach ones. The ocean water, cold when she first stepped in, is now warm against her skin as she sits next to Luffy on the shoreline. Nami digs her toes in the wet sand, feels the sea breeze on her face, and realizes just how long it’s been since she’s simply existed without having to worry about her next move.

Now, she can just be.

Bellemere, she thinks, looking up at the cloudless blue sky. Can you see me now?

Eventually, Luffy finishes with his stitches, and he tosses a wad of thread and wet bandages over to where his shirt lays. Nami makes a grossed-out face when he nearly hits her sandals, and he laughs before returning to rest with his back on the sand.

They both stare out into the horizon, the dappled sunlight dancing on the sea, before Nami breaks the silence.

“You know… my mother named me after the ocean,” she whispers. “I haven't thought of that in ages. After everything… I never had the time.”

“It was a good choice, ‘cause the ocean is great. You’re great, too, Nami,” Luffy says so easily. He turns his head to grin up at her. “So don’t worry. You have time now.”

Her lips can’t help but curve into a smile. Luffy can be an idiot, and the things he says can sound too simple or weird to be taken seriously… And yet, he also has a talent of saying just what she needs to hear.

Nami doesn’t say anything in response. She just watches the waves roll onto the shore, listens to the cries of gulls soaring above them, smells the familiar scent of tangerines ever-lingering in the air of her hometown.

And for the first time in so many years, Nami feels at peace.

There's a storm brewing over Loguetown.

After escaping the execution platform and getting rescued from Smoker by some stranger, Luffy is trying to find his way back to the docks. He's just ducked into a narrow alleyway when a voice calls out from behind him.

“Monkey D. Luffy.”

He skids to a stop on the wet stone underfoot and turns around. It’s that same stranger from before, the man in the dark cloak who made even Smoker back off. Luffy notices the sharp red tattoos criss-crossing over the left side of his face, and although he’s confident he’s never seen such a thing before, there’s something familiar about the man’s presence.

Luffy doesn’t remember ever meeting this person, but he still recognizes him. He knows him by instinct, like how he knows the ocean. But unlike her tranquil calm, this man feels more like a tropical storm, like dark clouds and thunder and roiling winds over a wild, churning sea.

The pieces click into place, and Luffy grins.

“Hi, Dad.”

The stoic expression wavers, and there’s a momentary pause. Like being in the eye of a hurricane.

“So you know me,” his father says. He examines Luffy silently, an evaluation and acknowledgment in one. “You’ve grown much, my son. Tell me, what is it that you desire most in this world?”

The wind is whirling around them, bringing with it the mingling scents of sea and ozone.

“I want to be the Pirate King,” Luffy doesn’t hesitate to reply, “so that I’ll have the most freedom in the world! I'll live my life without regrets!”

He sees the corner of his father’s mouth curl into a smile. Over the howling gusts and the crashing waves against the docks, he hears him say, “A worthy goal for a child of the sea. Go, now—the wind is with you.”

Luffy grins at him before turning and running back to the Merry and his crew. He can feel his father’s weighty gaze on his back until Luffy is out of sight.

The eye of the storm passes, and the hurricane rages on.

Chapter Text

Currently, Usopp is in his usual state whenever he finds himself in a pinch: he is panicking.

Really, all he wanted was a drink of water. But he and his crew end up running for their lives from a bunch of Baroque Works goons stationed all around Rainbase. And now he—along with Luffy, Zoro, and Nami—have fallen into a trap set by Crocodile himself.

As in, literally falling. Through a trapdoor. Because of course they have.

To top it all off, there is also a Marine stuck in the cage with them. A big, scary Marine who glares at everyone and everything like he’s ready to gut them with his jitte at any moment. An intimidated Usopp keeps close to his crewmates and stays as far away from the guy as possible, but luckily Smoker seems to keep to himself, sitting at the other end of the cage with his arms crossed while glowering at Crocodile.

Meanwhile, they all look on while the treacherous Warlord taunts Vivi with his plans and tosses the key to the cage into the bananadiles’ pit. He and Miss All-Sunday take their leave, and suddenly they have a one hour time limit before the room fills with water.

They all wait until Crocodile’s laughter fades away in the distance. After a moment more, they decide it’s safe to speak freely.

“W-Well,” Usopp says, his voice shaking as water immediately begins to pour onto the floor to start the flooding. “At least Chopper didn’t end up in here with us.”

Beside him, Zoro smirks. “Besides the Marine, Crocodile only captured swimmers. I’m sure he expected to get better use out of his fancy cage.”

Usopp notices Smoker staring at them with evident confusion at those words, his eyes darting over to Luffy. And, yeah, if this had been the first time Usopp saw the Straw Hats in action, he’d be confused, too.

He has to admit, it is a little fun. Having a “we know something you don’t know!” secret from both the Marines and their current enemy. Crocodile can’t exactly be blamed for overlooking something that is supposed to be impossible, but Usopp doesn’t feel at all guilty for striking while his back is turned.

For all the things he’s done to Vivi and to Alabasta, he deserves what’s coming to him.

“It’s okay, Vivi!” Nami calls out to the princess, who looks up at her with tears of powerlessness in her eyes. “We’ll get out of here soon, and we’ll make it to Alubarna! You’ll see!”

The navigator then turns to Luffy and gives him a meaningful nod. Luffy grins and steps up to the cage—apparently made of a metal called seastone, which Crocodile claims has the same effects on Devil Fruit users as seawater.

Luckily for them, this isn’t a problem.

“If Zoro can’t cut the bars, then I don’t think I’ll be able to punch through it,” Luffy says, examining the cage. “Guess I’ll just squeeze through, then. Vivi, come pull me out!”

He twists his arms together and sticks them through a hole between the bars, where Vivi rushes over and begins pulling him through like a rope. Usopp and the others watch in morbid fascination as Luffy goes full rubber mode, contorting his body to an elastic, putty-like consistency to fit through the small gap. With Vivi tugging from the outside and Zoro soon reaching over to mash Luffy the rest of the way through, their captain is soon outside the cage and snapping right back into his normal form.

From behind them, Smoker has since bolted to his feet, staring at Luffy with a comically slack-jawed expression. He demands, “How the hell did you do that?!”

Luffy stares back at him, smiling cheekily. “Do what?”

Smoker’s grip is tight on his jitte as he bites out, “This cage is made of seastone! How are you still able to use your Devil Fruit abilities?!”

“Well, if seastone comes from the ocean, then it makes sense that it doesn’t do anything to me.”

Despite Smoker technically being their enemy, Usopp feels a little sorry for him. The guy looks like he's about to have a coronary.

How does that make any sense—”

“Hey, uh, Luffy! Can you please stop teasing the Marine? We’ve got other things to do, remember?!” Usopp blurts out, anxiously tugging at the cloth of his hat. The water is now pooling around everyone’s ankles. “Let’s get out of here already!”

“Ah, right!” Back on track, Luffy turns to Vivi and says, “Okay, point out which of those crocs has the key! I’ve beat up and eaten plenty of crocodiles as a kid, this'll be no problem!”

“... Eaten?" Usopp whispers in mild horror as Zoro and Nami share a mystified look. Even Smoker seems to have resigned himself to the madness, simply waiting while keeping himself out of the rising water as much as possible.

Vivi takes Luffy over to the trapdoor to show him the bananadile enclosure, and after being shown which of the beasts to go after, Luffy jumps right in, rubber fists cutting effortlessly through the water. The bananadiles are making a cacophony of alarmed noises, and though he can’t see what’s happening, Usopp is sure Luffy’s making short work of them.

“... Just what on earth is up with that kid? How is this possible?” Smoker mutters, looking more and more fatigued every second from contact with the water. As intimidating as the Marine is, he seems like he’s tired enough to fall over at any moment. Usopp thanks his lucky stars that Luffy’s got his mystery powers, or they’d be in a lot more trouble right now.

All the Straw Hats know what’s supposed to happen to a Devil Fruit user in water, but it’s another thing to see the effects for real. Usopp feels a sudden surge of protectiveness for little Chopper; he doesn’t at all like the idea of their newest addition being rendered so vulnerable.

So this is what Luffy means when he tells them to be ready to dive in for a rescue. Usopp vows to be more on alert from now on, especially if any more people with Devil Fruits join them one day.

Despite Smoker’s protests, Zoro comes over to sling one of his arms over his shoulders to carry him out once the cage is open. The Marine’s jitte drops from his slackened fingers with a curse, but Usopp catches it before it can fall into the water. He only then notices that part of the weapon is also made of seastone, the tip the same color and texture as the cage.

“You should probably just forget you saw anything,” Nami offhandedly suggests from where she’s standing at the bars with Vivi. “It’s not like anyone’s gonna believe you, anyway.”

Slung across Zoro’s shoulder, Smoker grumbles, “Why do I have the bad feeling that a pirate is right for once?”

From below, they all hear Luffy let out a triumphant yell, and it’s time to move.

When all is said and done, Smoker and Tashigi leave them be despite how easy it would be to capture them, the Straw Hats all wounded and weary from dealing with the last dying throes of Baroque Works.

No one knows what to make of it, but the growing pirate crew decides to simply be glad that they are free to continue on their adventure.

The White Sea and the White-White Sea are beautiful, and they entertain Luffy to no end. So used to the flow of liquid water, the airy fluff of the clouds is a fun novelty, as are the strange creatures that swim across the horizon like they do in the depths of the ocean. Even so high up from the world he knows, even here Luffy can feel the ocean thrumming through him, and it makes him feel at ease instantly.

At first, staying at Angel Island feels like a vacation. His crew all find interesting things to occupy themselves with: Usopp discovers Dials, Nami takes a Waver out for a spin, while Luffy goes for a swim through the clouds to say he’s done it at least once. He wishes Chopper and Robin could come swim with him too, but it can’t be helped.

Luffy floats as he always does, this time through the sky instead of the sea, and he absentmindedly wonders if this counts as flying.

Of course, not everything is as it seems. The darker side of this paradise soon reveals itself in the form of a man who calls himself God, and in the unending wars that have plagued these people ever since he first appeared.

When Luffy comes to face this Enel himself, he measures him with a single look and knows in an instant that Enel is no god at all. His presence is that of a man, his form is of flesh and blood, and he embodies nothing.

Arrogance and pride, maybe. But he stirs no awe, no inspiration from those around him. Enel only drives fear of his cruelty, and Luffy does not understand why.

Luffy has known all his life that there are things bigger than himself. He knows he is small, just a drop in the ocean—and yet, the voice of the sea reaches even here, reverberating across the cloudy horizon. Luffy thinks of the loving words left to him so long ago, thinks of his crew and the kind people they’ve met who struggle and endure and overcome, and he can't believe that Enel thinks himself greater than all that.

When Luffy rests in the sea, he feels the hum of life beneath the waves. When he is struck by Enel’s thunder, he feels nothing.

“You're not a god. You're just a person,” Luffy tells him—reminds him. “And I'm gonna prove it by kicking your ass!”

Chopper is fretting. He's the doctor of the Straw Hat Pirates, is glad and proud to be so, but the job comes with a whole lot of fretting once he's done all that he can for his patients.

He's only just stabilized poor Robin, her temperature finally returning to safe levels after being frozen solid by Admiral Aokiji. After the initial frantic defrosting, Chopper and Nami have now gotten her dry and tucked away on one of the cots in the makeshift infirmary, blankets upon blankets to keep her warm and heat packs being replaced regularly. Thankfully, Robin will make a full recovery in time, and he's left Nami and a hovering Sanji to monitor her condition as he leaves to go check on Luffy.

He exits the infirmary and hurriedly clops down Merry’s gangplank with one of his medical bags haphazardly thrown over his shoulder. The others had earlier returned with a frozen Luffy in tow, and in the chaos, it was determined that Sanji and Usopp would be the ones running back and forth to keep needed materials flowing. Meanwhile, Zoro would stay with their captain down at the beach, where the ocean water would likely do more for him than they could with Chopper occupied with Robin.

It's been some time since then, and the worried Zoan has no idea what he will find. No one has called him for an emergency, and he hopes this means Luffy is alright.

Chopper quickly spots his crewmates standing in the sea at about a waist-high depth. Zoro is keeping a firm hold on Luffy to prevent him from floating away while Usopp, brandishing a bucket, repeatedly scoops and tips seawater over Luffy’s head. Their captain is laying slack in Zoro’s arms, though he thankfully looks entirely defrosted.

Zoro is the one who notices Chopper arrive on the beach. He has Usopp take hold of Luffy as he wades up the shore.

“He's awake. Mostly,” the first mate tells Chopper as he picks him up, settling him in one arm before making his way back into the sea. “How's Robin?”

“Stable,” Chopper sighs. “Nami and Sanji are keeping an eye on her. If she'd stayed frozen any longer, though…”

A slightly taller wave washes past them, and Zoro hikes him higher to keep the small doctor from getting splashed.

“She's still hiding something. That Admiral going after her is proof enough,” Zoro says under his breath. Then his gaze returns to Luffy, who has fought so hard for them all, and he eventually amends, “... But Robin is a part of this crew. If she can't do it herself, we’ll just have to work harder to protect her.”

The first mate keeps an eye on them all, it's just what he does. And where the captain leads, they all will follow. Luffy fights to protect, and so will they.

This herd takes care of each other; they don't leave anyone behind. He's thought it many times before, but Chopper is glad to be with them.

At Zoro’s words, he nods without comment. When they reach Luffy and Usopp, the first thing out of Luffy’s mouth is a slightly dazed, “Robin?”

“Sleeping. She'll make a full recovery,” Chopper informs him. Zoro leans down a little to let him examine Luffy closer, and Chopper feels his still-chilled skin and gets out a thermometer.

“Oh, good,” Luffy breathes, a smile spreading across his face. “I was worried.”

“Y-you two had us all worried, stupid,” Usopp says from where he's keeping Luffy anchored in place, his voice suspiciously wobbly.

“Ha ha, sorry, Usopp.”

Chopper checks the thermometer readout and frowns. “Your temperature is lower than I'd like, but I'm not sure how much of it is because of your mystery powers. Can you move all your limbs? Do you feel any numbness or pain?”

With Usopp bracing him in the waves, Luffy demonstrates moving different parts of his body, lifting his arms and legs from the water one by one and bending them without difficulty. He says, “It hurt a bit before, but I feel fine now that I've soaked for a while.”

As the crew’s doctor, Chopper feels frustrated that he still doesn't understand the mechanism behind Luffy’s water-based recovery method. Since joining them, Luffy's allowed him to poke and prod all he likes, but Chopper has still come up empty. Physically, Luffy is by all means a normal human—albeit one with a Devil Fruit that turns his body to rubber, which only further complicates things—but Chopper can't find a scientific explanation to why he heals so well while in contact with seawater.

He's Luffy's doctor. He's supposed to know how his patient’s body works, so he will best know how to treat him whenever he gets sick or hurt. It's a responsibility Chopper takes seriously, because he knows very well that it can mean life or death.

He'll just have to keep trying. Keeping Luffy healthy to the best of his ability is all he can do for now.

Breaking away from his thoughts, Chopper decidedly nods. “I think it's alright to move you to the Merry, now. I want to do another examination, but I'd rather do it where I can walk.”

That's their cue to head back up the shore. Zoro keeps Chopper in his arms, while Usopp helps their captain up and throws an arm over his shoulders to keep Luffy steady as they all wade through the water.

“Will strong guys like that keep showing up from now on?” Usopp asks, sounding anxious. “Are we really gonna be okay? We barely got out intact this time…”

“But we survived,” Zoro cuts in, his eyes looking ever forward. “We're alive, and we're already stronger for having faced an Admiral-level threat and lived.”

“We'll keep getting stronger,” Luffy echoes the sentiment, and Chopper hears Usopp let out a sigh in acknowledgment.

Chopper, too, wants to keep trying. He wants to get stronger in his own ways.

It's all they can do for now.

As the Rocket Man hurtles its way across the water to catch up with the Puffing Tom, Nami hears Luffy murmur, “The sea can be pretty dangerous, huh?”

She glances over to her captain, and Luffy is peering out one of the train windows, where wind, rain, and sea spray pound furiously against the glass. Nami knows he’d much rather be outside, to watch the raging ocean go by and feel the rain on his skin. But with the wind blowing as hard as it is, it’s better for everyone involved to keep him inside with everybody else.

She goes over to stand next to him, replying, “We’re pirates, Luffy. I would’ve thought you’d know that by now.”

“Well, yeah. It’s just that I’ve never seen a storm like this before,” he says, his gaze transfixed on the deluge outside. “Is the Aqua Laguna a regular thing?”

“According to the locals, it happens every year. And this year’s Aqua Laguna is supposed to be the strongest one so far.”

Luffy hums, nodding to himself. “I’m used to the ocean being calm, so when I see something like this… I remember just how strong she is. It’s really cool.”

Nami gives him a questioning look, and she opens her mouth to ask what he means. But she’s interrupted by one of the Franky Family members bursting into the train car, sopping wet and looking absolutely frantic.

“There’s a huge wave coming right at us! If we get hit, we’re gonna die!”

Hearing this, Luffy’s eyes go wide. “A huge wave?! I wanna see!”

And of course Luffy is the one who gets excited about a giant wave that may just kill them all. He darts out the door, and Zoro goes to follow him.

As her baby Transponder Snail rings and Nami takes a call from Sanji on the Puffing Tom, letting him know about the new things they’ve found out about Robin’s situation, she can hear some heavy footfalls and muffled yelling through the train’s thick walls. Then, the yells seem to escalate into screaming as the world outside the windows suddenly goes dark.

Nami looks up with concern, but a second later, the view outside has already returned to pounding rain and stormy sea.

The voices break off into yelling again, sounding even more frantic than before. That’s when a disgruntled-looking Zoro ducks back into the train car with a grinning Luffy at his heels, both of them dripping wet. Similarly soaked, Paulie follows them in, the Galley-La shipwright looking astonished and even a little shaken.

Nami frowns, covering the transponder mouthpiece against her hand. “What happened out there? I thought I heard screaming!”

“... I have no idea what that was,” Paulie says, wide eyes darting toward Luffy, “but it sure as hell wasn’t natural.”

“We got through the huge wave okay!” is all Luffy tells them, and from beside Nami she hears an inebriated Kokoro let out a bark of laughter.

“Even the Aqua Laguna is no match for you lot, huh?” the old woman cackles. “At this rate, maybe you really will be able to get your friends back.”

“Of course we will!” Luffy insists, because it’s never been a question to begin with.

Zoro moves to sit down, and Nami turns to him to again ask, “So, what happened?”

Wringing the water from his shirt, Zoro grumbles something about a literal tunnel opening in the middle of the enormous wave, conveniently right in the path of the speeding Rocket Man—and the train went right through without a problem. The hole had then closed behind them, and the wave continued on its course as if nothing happened at all.

Apparently, the earlier screaming had been their allies freaking out as the train shot through the water tunnel, held open by some otherworldly force that no one could explain.

After all this, Zoro just complains, “That wave looked powerful. I wanted to test my blades against it.”

“Of course you did,” she quips, and the swordsman shoots her a sour look. She smirks at him before lifting the transponder mouthpiece back up, informing Sanji that they are all on their way.

To be honest, Nami isn’t even all that shocked. She lifts her eyes to see Paulie grilling her captain for answers, and as is expected, Luffy gives him nothing helpful.

Maybe it’s because she didn’t see it herself. But after sailing with her crew for all this time, a hole inexplicably opening in a tidal wave isn't the weirdest thing Nami’s ever experienced.

They've been to a literal city in the sky. The Grand Line is just completely ridiculous sometimes, and a navigator learns to take these things into stride.

“Luffy, get over here!” she calls out. Her captain breaks away from Paulie to approach her, and she hands him the Transponder Snail. “Sanji’s on the line.”

“Oh, Sanji?! You’re on the other train, right? What’s going on over there?”

The Straw Hat Pirates don’t abandon their friends. They will go through hell and high water for them, sail an endless sea and brave the harshest storms, even break down the gates of Hell itself if it means the safe return of someone they care about.

It takes a long time for Robin to learn that. It takes the Straw Hats doing all that and more, all for her sake, that she finally learns what it means to be their friend.

After being on the run for so long, on this relentless chase for her lifetime goal… Meeting these brave, wild, endlessly kind people has always felt like a dream she will soon wake up from; how loving and being loved by them, despite everything she is, will always have an expiration date no matter how much she fervently wishes for it to be forever.

Robin’s lived her life on borrowed time. Any happiness she finds will inevitably be ripped away, but when she looks at her crew, she hears the echo of Saul’s last words and feels that forgotten feeling of hope blooming from deep within.

No one is born in this world alone. Robin is reminded of this when her friends come to Enies Lobby for her, when they throw everything aside to fight for her, when they shed blood and bruise their knuckles and choose to defy the whole world for her

And when she is returned to the embrace of their arms, safe at last, Robin realizes for the first time that she’s finally come home.

The Straw Hat Pirates don’t abandon their friends. She knows that now.

Even the Going Merry, battered and broken beyond repair, has returned to save them, and with it she’s paid the final price. Robin quietly stands with her crew, listening to the loud roar of flames rising up before them, billows of smoke turning the blue sky a solemn gray.

But against the dark smoke, falling gently from above, it begins to snow.

Sobs muffled from under his mask, Usopp stands strong by their side. Even after his falling out with the crew, he too refused to abandon Robin, refused to let them fight their battles alone. He knows what it means to be a Straw Hat, and Robin hopes that he will soon realize how much they all love him, just as she’s realized it for herself.

Compared to the others, Robin hasn’t known Merry for very long at all. But they have sailed together through adventures of their own, and it was on Merry’s deck that Robin finally found her family.

Robin watches the ship burn and can only think to tell her, “Thank you.”

As Merry’s last remnants sink beneath the ocean’s surface, Luffy crouches down to dip his hand into the water. Although he sees nothing below the waves, he can feel a gentle hand clasp around his. He gives it a squeeze.

Tears falling from his eyes, Luffy whispers, “Please take care of her.” The hand comfortingly squeezes his in return before slipping away without a word.

The snow falls quietly around them, and Merry finds her rest in the embrace of the sea.

Shortly after their return to Water 7, the recovering crew is given the shock of a lifetime when they are unceremoniously introduced to Vice Admiral Monkey D. Garp, who bursts into their room via the wall and immediately punches their sleeping captain awake.

What follows is a flurry of events, which include: a new ship gets constructed, a wild party is thrown, Franky officially joins the crew with some additional persuasion, and the Straw Hats make their escape from the city while being relentlessly lobbed at with oversized cannonballs.

In all the chaos, a tearful Usopp returns to them with his head bowed to the ground and apologies on his lips, and he's finally pulled aboard where he belongs.

Franky activates a ship-wide Coup De Burst that thankfully puts Vice Admiral Garp out of sight and, more importantly, out of range. As the Thousand Sunny is safely sailing away on her maiden voyage, only then do multiple pairs of incredulous eyes turn to land on Luffy.

“So, uh, let me get this straight,” Usopp, having been absent for the initial introduction, says in a high voice. “That guy who just tried to sink us. Garp the Fist. The Marine hero. He’s your grandfather?!”

Apparently already recovered from the harrowing experience, Luffy laughs and nods. “Don’t worry, he’s always been like that! His punches only hurt if he catches you!”

“How is that supposed to make me not worry?!”

“So. We met your brother back in Alabasta. Ace is Whitebeard’s Second Division Commander, right? So in the count of Luffy’s family, we’ve got a Marine hero and a top commander of an Emperor,” Nami says, counting on her fingers. She eyes Luffy with a raised brow and meaningfully adds, “And apparently, there’s also the leader of the Revolutionary Army?”

“I didn’t know about that until Gramps said so,” Luffy replies with a frown. But it quickly turns back into a sunny smile when he continues, “But I met Dad back in Loguetown! He saved me from Smokey.”

“What?!”

Unhelpfully, he adds, “I didn’t know his name back then, but I do now! Dragon is a really cool name, huh?”

It’s Franky, Usopp, and Chopper who chorus in agreement, “Yeah, it is,” while Nami just sighs.

Smiling at their antics, Robin gives a light laugh. “Any more surprises, Captain?”

“Yeah! Any long-lost relatives we should be on the lookout for?” Usopp pipes up again, half-joking. “Say, what about your mother? Is she around, or...”

He trails off, belatedly realizing the awkwardness of the question, but Luffy just grins at him. “Yup, she’s around!”

Their captain then turns to the railing of the ship and throws his arms out, gesturing to the endless expanse of sea around them.

With complete sincerity, he replies, “The ocean is my mother!”

At those words, a couple of them let out sighs of relief, taking it as a figure of speech. They’re pirates, after all. For once, it’s not a completely bonkers thing for Luffy to say.

The top prize still goes to him declaring war on the World Government at Enies Lobby. Though it was admittedly more of a symbolic act than actual words. Still, in all honesty, they wouldn’t have Luffy any other way.

Where their captain goes, they will follow. For all his impulsive mishaps, Luffy hasn't led them astray.

Discussion over for the time being, Sanji breaks off towards the galley, saying, “Well, then, I’m gonna give my new kitchen a spin. Any requests?”

Luffy’s eyes widen, immediately yelling, “Meat!”

And for now, that’s that.

Chapter Text

Zoro has just had a brush with death, and Luffy’s crew isn't telling him how.

Not all of them know the details. Sanji does—he can't quite meet Luffy’s eyes. Robin probably does, because she knows everything. And possibly Chopper too, since he may be able to infer what happened from the swordsman’s wounds alone.

As the Straw Hats and Rolling Pirates celebrate their survival of Thriller Bark, Luffy periodically returns to Zoro’s bedside, sometimes brandishing a drink as though the smell of alcohol might rouse him into waking. Still, he remains unresponsive.

Chopper has been hovering by his patient throughout the impromptu party. He assures Luffy that although Zoro has sustained multiple, life-threatening injuries, he’s on the road to recovery despite everything.

Luffy is glad to hear it. He feels fine himself, but he has the slightest suspicion that his condition and Zoro’s are related somehow. Luffy knows that he had been far more injured before falling unconscious, the kind of injured that urges him back into the ocean for a few hours, but no one will tell him what happened afterward.

Though… as long as Zoro is alive, it doesn’t really matter, does it? He supposes that some things are fated to remain mysteries.

His belly full of food, Luffy lays his head by Zoro’s shoulder. His first mate remains quiet and still, sleeping right through the loud talking and laughter around them. Luffy can still hear the playful notes of Brook’s piano clear over the cacophony, and he wonders if Zoro can hear it, too.

“We’ve finally got a musician,” he quietly informs him, reaching up to poke at his cheek. “You missed our crew’s first song together, you know.”

Zoro doesn’t respond. His heavily bandaged torso slowly moves up and down as he breathes, and Luffy closes his eyes to listen to the reassuring sound.

He wants to carry Zoro down to the ocean and lay him in the comforting waves, to let him feel the ocean seep back in and heal all his hurts, but Luffy already knows that it doesn't work that way for anyone else.

He'll put his faith in Chopper’s skill, in Zoro’s indomitable spirit, in their crew’s shared will to see their dreams to the end. With a certainty that slips past his ribs and curls up tight in his chest, Luffy knows that his faith won't be misplaced.

“Hey, Zoro,” he whispers to his unconscious swordsman, like he’s sharing a secret. “I’ll save you some booze for when you wake up. So get better soon, okay?”

Hatchan senses that there's something different about Monkey D. Luffy. He’s sensed it before, way back at Arlong Park when the young pirate captain had burst into the compound on Nami’s behalf. Along with the other Fishmen, even Arlong himself had paused for a moment, feeling something just slightly off about the small human demanding to fight them.

At the time, Hatchan had no time to think on it further, his attention redirected to his duel with the Straw Hats’ first mate. And after escaping and finding his feet again by becoming a takoyaki salesman, Hatchan would rather like to forget the whole incident altogether.

But fate has brought him and the Straw Hats back into each other’s orbit. Despite everything he’s done, they rescue him and Camie from Duval and even welcome him on board their ship. Hatchan can only bow his head to Nami’s cold looks and dish out as much takoyaki as possible to the hungry pirates, endlessly grateful to them for their help.

Forgiveness may be out of his reach, but he can still try to make up for it the best he can.

However, Hatchan’s gaze keeps returning to Luffy. He doesn’t know how to explain the feeling he gets when Luffy passes next to him, or simply exists nearby. It’s almost like Hatchan’s just dunked his head into the sea, or just been splashed with water, or just felt a cool mist of seaspray against his face after being in the hot sun all day.

The longer he spends in the presence of Straw Hat Luffy… it’s akin to standing in the shallows and gradually easing his way into the waves for a long-awaited swim. It’s disarmingly nice, as well as rather startling to feel in the first place, but Hatchan can’t figure out why.

There's a certain aura he gets from other Fishmen and Merfolk, as well as other aquatic beings: it's the sensation of being submerged in the ocean, feeling the vibrations of life clear through the water all around him. One creature of the sea recognizes another, even on land. Somehow, he gets an eerily similar-but-not-quite vibe from Luffy… and he knows that it just doesn't make sense.

As far as Hatchan is aware, Luffy is just a human with no Fishman or Merfolk heritage to speak of. In fact, Hatchan’s met people with partial heritage, and they don't feel like Luffy does. His instincts are insisting that there’s something else he’s not seeing, something more that he just can’t name.

Camie and Pappug seem to sense something, too. Camie in particular seems to gravitate towards Luffy, though she does it unknowingly: as they spend more time with the Straw Hats, she’s begun to be always within a few feet of the captain, even when not directly speaking to him. Hatchan sees that the more canny members of Luffy’s crew have also noticed, but since Luffy himself seems unconcerned by Camie’s hovering, no one comments on it.

Hatchan is kind of glad that they don’t. It’s very hard to explain a feeling he can’t find the right words for.

However, no one gets a chance to ask the questions on their minds once they’re all caught up in the events of Sabaody Archipelago. Camie gets kidnapped by slavers, and in the mad scramble to save her before it’s too late, they end up crashing the auction on the back of a Flying Fish.

In an attempt to keep Luffy from causing an incident, Hatchan grabs for him and accidentally reveals all his arms, and people begin to scream derogatory names and words of disgust. He tries to tune it out, tells himself he doesn’t care, that the only thing that matters is getting Camie out of this horrible place—

And then he’s shot. The world suddenly zeroes in to the blood escaping from his chest, and Luffy rushing over to his side.

Oddly enough, as Luffy silently presses a hand against his aching wound, Hatchan swears he can feel the sea breeze against his skin, can hear the familiar sound of ocean waves murmuring in his ears. In the haze of pain, it’s soothing.

Still, Hatchan tries to keep the pirate captain from retaliating. As Luffy gets up to face the Celestial Dragon that shot him, Hatchan chokes out, “I wanted to make up for the terrible things I’ve done, even a little… But I just got in the way. I’m sorry.”

It’s to be expected! I deserve this, you don’t need to fight for me!

He tries to tell him so, stammering, “P-please, Luffy, it’s okay—”

When Luffy turns back to look at him, Hatchan is struck silent by the protective rage burning behind his eyes. He can only watch as Luffy stalks forward to meet the blubbering noble, danger radiating from every pore of his being.

This time, Hatchan knows what he sees. Before him is a wild sea in all its fury, an unforgiving monsoon that will leave only destruction in its wake. As Luffy draws his arm back, his shooter unknowingly stands in the shadow of a tsunami, already doomed to its wrath, and he’s about to be wiped away in the flood.

Oh, so this is it, he thinks as Luffy’s fist meets Saint Charloss’ face with a powerful, satisfying crack.

So this is why you're different from the rest.

Later, when the Straw Hats are long gone from the Archipelago, Hatchan is changing the bandages around his gunshot wound with Camie’s help.

When the bandages are removed, a wide-eyed Camie gasps. Hatchan goes completely still, now realizing why he hasn't been in pain in the past few hours.

His wound is already healed. All that’s left is a small, circular scar that looks like sea glass against his skin.

Camie places a trembling hand to the place where he bled, whispering, “I never got to thank him.”

Without a word, Hatchan reaches out to hug her, and his friend clutches him back tightly with tears in her eyes. In the long silence that follows, Hatchan swears he can still hear the ocean waves in his ears.

Luffy can only feel powerless. In the end, he isn’t able to save even one of his crewmates, and now he is alone.

Of course, there’s now Hancock, her sisters, and the rest of the Kuja here on Amazon Lily, but none of them are a part of his crew. None of them are his.

Luffy is the captain of the Straw Hat Pirates, and every member is his to protect. And now, despite every declaration that they’ll get through anything together, despite every vow he’s made to get stronger… He’s failed them.

He remembers the shock, the helplessness as each of his crew disappeared one by one under Bartholomew Kuma’s hand—that horrible, chilling realization when there were barely any of them left—and those last, fleeting moments of looking at each other and thinking this is it, there is nowhere to run, this is where we meet our defeat.

He remembers Robin, his last remaining crewmate, her eyes wide with fear and her lips forming the shape of his name before she too was taken from him. Luffy had promised himself back at Enies Lobby that she would never have to feel so scared ever again, but he thinks of the terror he’d seen on her face and hates the powerlessness that wells within him.

His only consolation is that none of them are dead, and that’s the one thread Luffy clings to like a lifeline, what keeps him from falling into despair. Because as long as his crew is still alive, as long as they’re all still out there somewhere in the world, this will not be the end. Not by a long shot.

He still has the Vivre Card given to him by Shakky, the one that will lead him back to Sabaody, back to the Sunny and his crew. Luffy is sure that once his friends have recovered from their injuries, they too will find their way back as soon as possible. Although it’s only been a few days, he already can’t wait to see them.

And then, once they’ve all found each other, Luffy won’t let something like this happen again. He can't. He swears it.

However, all of his plans of returning to Sabaody get completely derailed when Elder Nyon tells him what’s been happening in the news. And Luffy’s mind goes blank.

“The Marines and the Whitebeard Pirates are going to war, and it’s because the World Government has announced the public execution of Whitebeard’s Second Division Commander, Fire Fist Ace.”

Nyon says more—that Ace was turned in by Blackbeard, that the execution will be held at a place called Marineford, that there are only six days left until the scheduled date. Luffy turns the information over and over in his head, his thoughts racing and heart pounding.

He takes out Ace’s still-burning Vivre Card, and it’s already so small. He knows Ace would tell him not to come, wants to believe that the Whitebeards will be enough to rescue him, wants to trust that Ace can take care of himself…

But. There’s still that broken voice inside him, that little boy who’s already lost one big brother, who looks at Ace’s smiling photo in the paper and sees the word execution and cries out, “I’m not going to lose him, too!”

Luffy feels the ache of his recent failures down to his very bones, but even so, he shoots to his feet because he can’t stay here. He has to do something before it’s too late.

The name of the prison where Ace is being held is Impel Down. Hancock has access to a Marine ship that can take Luffy there within the ever-shortening time limit. Luffy sees a clear path to take, and he silently apologizes to Ace for going against his wishes.

His mind is made up. His friends are already gone, scattered to the winds and too far away for him to help. But there is one person within his reach whom he can still save.

Luffy turns on his heel and immediately goes to find Hancock, Nyon hobbling along behind him. He doesn't have a real plan, and he may not even have the power, but it doesn't matter.

He only has one brother left, and his life is too important to ignore.

With that determined gleam returning to his eyes, Luffy says with everything he has, “Hold on, Ace! I'm coming to save you!”

Dragon’s son really is something else.

Well. Before all this, Ivankov’s had no idea that Dragon even has a son. Or is it sons? Luffy claims that Portgas D. Ace is his brother, so that may be the case. If Ivankov squints, he can probably pick out a resemblance somewhere.

Between Whitebeard and Dragon, the Marines have quite the mess on their hands, if all this is true. Two angry, high-profile fathers with considerable forces at both their respective commands are certainly not to be underestimated. And the Marines are about to have an even bigger mess on their hands once their group of escaped prisoners reaches Marineford.

Ivankov glances around the stolen Marine battleship, taking stock of the others who are coming with them on their quest to rescue Fire Fist. Along with an injured Inazuma and the rest of Ivankov’s own Candies, there’s Crocodile with Daz Bones, a reluctant Buggy and his budding inmate fan club, the soon to be ex-Warlord Jinbe, and of course Straw Hat Luffy—who is looking worse for wear but is clearly fighting to stay alert.

Frankly, Ivankov is shocked that he’s stayed conscious for this long. After defying the odds and recovering from his fatal poisoning in record time, Luffy has not had a single moment of true rest. Right now, he’s running on fumes and Ivankov’s energy hormones, and at this rate, he’s not going to last very long at Marineford.

But he knows that this will not deter Luffy in the slightest. He’s not going to rest until his brother is safe, and while Ivankov is concerned for the boy’s health, he is also in awe of his loyalty, his tenacity, that incredible strength of will to live.

Anyone else would have rolled over, succumbed to Magellan’s poison, died back in the depths of Impel Down without ever seeing the sun again. But this child, who just continues to get up and fight on and just won’t stay down…

He truly is one of a kind.

Although Ivankov has never known about him until now, he can see how Luffy is the child of Dragon the Revolutionary. The Will of D truly does produce some extraordinary people, and that will is especially strong in this particular father and son pair.

Though, it makes him wonder: just who is the boy’s mother?

… And, well, isn't that the question of the century. He has an idea, but it’s not a very sound one. For starters, he doesn’t know how that would even work.

But a long time ago, Ivankov remembers crossing paths with someone who should not have existed. There was once a woman who came and went with the tides, who blew past like the ocean wind and had a smile like sunshine.

Ivankov didn’t know her, not really. He’d seen her a few times in Dragon’s company, and always by the sea. Though Ivankov never got her name or even heard her voice, he always had the feeling that she was more than she seemed—that hindbrain instinct that says there is something unseen that needs to be noticed.

Without a word spoken, there was always a deeper mystery about her. She was a living enigma with a fathomless ocean reflected in her eyes, and secrets upon secrets hiding behind smiling lips.

And then, one day, she was gone. Like a whisper blown away in the wind.

Dragon never gave any explanation to who that woman was or where she went. But Ivankov recalls catching him staring out across the horizon, an internal beacon always pointing his gaze towards eastern waters. He remembers him disappearing for short periods of time only to find him on the shores of Baltigo, standing silently by the sea and listening to something only he could hear.

Ivankov isn’t privy to his leader’s personal life, nor can he prove anything for certain. It's a crazy idea to even consider. But like many of the people in this world, he knows this to be true:

The ocean can't be controlled, and she both takes and gives life as she pleases. Nature proceeds with its course, a storm will take its due, and only a fool thinks that he can tame the sea.

He wonders nowadays, when Dragon thinks of what true freedom must be like, if he still thinks of her.

Ivankov turns to again look at Luffy, who embodies that untamable spirit and so much more. He thinks that if his theory is true, then Luffy truly is a good mix of both of them—a wild maelstrom of wind and sea just barely contained in the form of a boy.

Dragon will be pleased when he hears of his son’s latest exploits, he's sure. Ivankov’s never met the other one, Ace, but if he's anything like the others in his family, then he must be just as untamable, just as unconquerable.

It bodes well for their current mission, Ivankov considers optimistically. None of them are going to let that fire die, least of all Luffy.

Walking across the deck, he approaches the young captain, sparing a curious glance at Jinbe. The lauded Knight of the Sea seems to have appointed himself as Luffy’s bodyguard, hovering just behind his shoulder, and he hasn't actually left the boy’s side since they've made their escape from Impel Down. Luffy has left quite an impression on him, it seems.

Ivankov asks, “Will you be able to fight any more, Strawboy? We had a rough exit from the prison. My energy hormones may not be enough to keep you going for very long.”

Luffy has a stubborn, determined jut to his chin as he responds, “I'm going to keep fighting no matter what. Ace needs help.”

“We'll save him,” Jinbe echoes solemnly. “We'll join Whitebeard’s forces on the battlefield, and we'll take Ace back.”

Luffy hums in agreement, and after a moment of thought, he seems to visibly perk up.

The two older men look down at him in surprise when he suddenly blurts out, “Do we have a rope or something? I need to get down to the ocean while we still have time!”

Ivankov has a flash of Dragon standing vigil by the sea, and he can't help but inquire, “Why is that?”

Luffy quickly responds, “I recover really fast in the water! If I can heal up a bit while we're still on our way, then I'll have more energy to save Ace when we get there!”

The people around them stop and stare, and Ivankov doesn't blame them for doing so. His mind has gone momentarily blank just from processing those words. Did he hear that right?

He tentatively asks, “Ah… but won't you sink?”

Luffy shakes his head, replying like it’s nothing, “No, I can swim!”

Understandably, this sparks quite a lot of confusion, shock, and outright disbelief from the others on deck who overhear their conversation. There's a lot of “That's impossible!” and “But you have a Devil Fruit!” and “There's no way the ocean actually heals you!”

“That's the rule!” Buggy vehemently insists. “You eat a Devil Fruit, you sink in the sea! Being able to heal in water is one thing, but on top of a Devil Fruit ability? You’ve gotta be lying, kid.”

Luffy turns and looks him directly in the eyes, shortly saying, “No, I'm really not.”

At his stony expression, Buggy stiffens. As he quickly backs off, so do the other inmates. Meanwhile, Crocodile vaguely looks like he's on the cusp of a disturbing realization.

Feeling rightly concerned, Ivankov says, “You're sure, then, Strawboy? We've come this far; if something were to happen to you now, I wouldn't be able to face your father ever again!”

Even though he's tired and clearly fading fast, Luffy still finds the energy to give him a wide smile that looks like sunshine.

“Don't worry, Iva, I'll always be safe in the ocean! And if we don't have a rope I can tie around me… Um, I guess I'll just swim.”

Jinbe then steps forward. He puts a hand on Luffy’s shoulder and says, “You can't swim fast enough to keep up with the ship. I'll take you.”

Luffy blinks up at the Fishman, but his eyes soon widen at the offer. “Oh, really? Thanks, Jinbe!”

Jinbe lets Luffy clamber up onto his back, and they make their way to the side of the ship where Jinbe jumps off without warning. Everyone rushes over to cling to the railings, looking down at the water to see whether or not Luffy had been speaking the truth.

Ivankov peers over to take a look himself, and… Yes, despite all odds, it's actually true. As Jinbe keeps pace with the ship, Luffy definitely isn't getting weakened by the water. In fact, the more time he's spending in it, he seems to be recovering his spent strength at a frankly alarming speed. In all his days, Ivankov has never seen anything like it.

The ex-inmates are yelling and exclaiming at the sight, frantically pointing and fervently insisting that there's no way this can be real. Buggy’s eyes are doing an impressive job of bugging out from their sockets, and Crocodile just seems incredibly irked. Meanwhile, an already livelier-looking Luffy waves up at Ivankov, and an amused Ivankov waves back.

Though, as he watches the boy in the water… He contemplates the impossible and wonders just how many mysteries in this world have yet to be explained.

He thinks of a woman who once faded away like mist come morning, and he can't help but wonder what it's like to be so loved by the sea herself.

Ace can do nothing as a war is waged on his behalf.

His fire contained and his energy sapped by the seastone cuffs bound tightly around his wrists, Ace silently awaits his fate, whatever it may be. His head is bowed, and his eyes stay fixed on the wood panels of the platform beneath him.

In the courtyard down below, he can hear the yelling of hundreds of voices, the clanging of blades, orders being given and feet running to comply. Cries of pain, bodies falling, even more surging forward to replace them.

It’s the sound of war. And Ace can do nothing but listen and wait.

His crew is out there—his father at the helm, his brothers and sisters in formation, their friends all gladly providing support.

And then there's Luffy. Little Luffy, his dumb baby brother, falling from the sky and forcing his way to the execution platform and screaming to him over and over.

Ace I'm here, I'm going to save you, you're my brother and I won't let you die!

Helpless, he can only listen. Luffy isn't supposed to be here. He's supposed to be out in the world having his own grand adventure, enjoying life and being free. He shouldn’t be in this hell with him, doing everything he can to get caught up in Ace’s messes.

So many people are standing in Luffy’s way: strong, experienced people who are stronger and more experienced than him, who will kill him without a second thought. And yet, with the help of their allies on the battlefield, Luffy dodges death again and again, just keeps pressing forward until suddenly he's the one everyone is rallying behind. Despite all odds, Luffy is the one leading the way up to the platform—up to where Ace is.

Ace bows his head to the floor with tears falling from his eyes.

His life isn’t worth this. His entire existence is cursed, he's not worth the trouble, but they’ve all come anyway. His family, his friends, his brother… They are all fighting for him, and the selfish part of Ace can't help but feel happy and so very, very grateful.

“Ace!”

He hears Luffy calling to him as he knocks their Gramps off the ramp with one swing and charges on. Sengoku is barking out orders to stop him while Whitebeard is bellowing orders to help him, and Luffy is so close now.

Some people look at Luffy and see a fellow pirate, a rival, an ally, a friend. Others see a nuisance, an obstacle to overcome. And now, after today, many see a future threat that must be eliminated.

Meanwhile, Ace just sees his little brother. This is the person he's spent years protecting and raising when they were together, thinking of and worrying over while they’ve been apart. But when he finally lifts his head to find Luffy landing on the platform, the first out of everyone to finally reach him…

He sees that his brother has grown while he hasn't been looking. Luffy is bruised and battered to all hell, but he's still standing firm, focused and unwavering in willful defiance of a world that wants them both dead.

And Ace can't help but swell with pride at how strong Luffy has become.

“Ace, I made it!” he declares with a wide grin. “I'm here to save you!”

Blinking his tears away, Ace grins back. “I see you, Luffy. So get over here and save me already.”

Once they've gotten out of Sengoku’s range, Luffy manages to get Ace free of the seastone cuffs, jamming a wax key into the slot until there’s a small click. They clatter to the ground, and Ace swiftly kicks them away, casually commenting to his brother, “These wouldn’t even hold you, would they?”

Luffy laughs, relief audible in his voice now that Ace is in the fight. “No way in hell!”

In the distance, Ace hears an uproar of cheering from his crew, who quickly notice his newfound freedom.

He and his brother share a grin. This is it—they can do this.

They jump into the fray together. Ace lets his flames engulf him, lets them go wild and free, and the end of this war is only a mad dash across a bloody battlefield away.

The two of them bat aside the Marine cannon fodder who attempt to stop them. Friends and allies step in to help, and they plow through enemy line after enemy line. Luffy’s rubber fists go flying, and Ace’s flames roar forth to clear the way. The paddle Moby Dick is just ahead, and Ace can already see members of his crew waving them over to make their escape.

Ace’s heart is pounding in his chest, winded yet exhilarated. It feels like an eternity since he and Luffy have teamed up in a fight like this. With his brother by his side, Ace feels unstoppable.

Jinbe ushers them forward, Whitebeard covers their retreat, and Ace’s crew mobilizes to finally get them all out of Marineford.

But then, from behind them, he hears Admiral Akainu speak words dripping with poison.

“Cowards, these Whitebeard Pirates,” the man jeers. “Running away as soon as you’ve got Fire Fist back. But I suppose it’s to be expected. After all, their captain is just a relic of a bygone era—absolutely useless.”

And like a magnet, Ace turns around to confront him.

His rage is like an inferno, white-hot and burning and billowing inside him. Akainu doesn’t know a thing about his captain. Whitebeard is a good man, the best Ace has ever known, the unwavering pillar of a proud, self-made family. He is Ace’s true father, the only man Ace will ever claim as his father, and the searing fury within him vehemently demands to prove all this to Akainu by force.

He gave me a place to belong. He gave all of us a home. You don’t understand anything about him!

Ace attacks the Admiral, only to be knocked aside by a magma-coated hand. His arm is burning, but Ace grits his teeth and ignores the pain as he rolls back onto his feet to continue the fight. From only a few feet away, he hears Luffy cry out his name.

Ace thinks Akainu will surely come at him again. Instead, Akainu’s fist bubbles with magma as he suddenly pivots towards Luffy, and Ace’s hot blood turns to ice.

His body just moves on its own. And the instant it does, unknown to him in the moment, the courtyard begins to quake.

He barely registers Luffy’s horrified expression as Ace puts himself between his brother and certain death. In those split seconds, he can feel the encroaching, suffocating heat against his back, and there’s no time to think of another way.

Instead, he keeps his eyes on Luffy. He wants the last thing he sees to be his little brother.

The waves out in the bay thrash wildly. The thunderous rumbling beneath their feet sharply crescendos, shaking the very foundations of the Marine base. People are shouting in alarm as an unseen force ripples beneath the courtyard, several hairline fissures breaking the stone apart from below.

Then, just as the heat begins to blister against Ace’s skin, there's a sharp, unmistakable crack. Metal screeches and concrete splits.

The ground explodes from under them in a geyser of seawater.

Knocked off his feet by the sudden eruption, Ace is thrown forward, his body rapidly weakening from the rush of water shooting out from the ground. He can hear the loud, loud hiss of hot steam screeching into the sky, a garbled bellow of rage from Akainu that quickly dies off into the roaring water and shattering stone around them.

In all the confusion, Ace feels another body collide with his, lanky arms he recognizes as Luffy’s latching desperately around his middle. Ace can’t find the strength to even grab him back.

A wave crashes over them, and he and his brother are sucked down, down, down into the depths of the sea.

...

They’re moving through the water like a bullet through air, pulled along by a rapid current. Ace is completely limp, disoriented and unable to move, but he can feel Luffy still clinging to him.

Ace thinks he’s hallucinating. When he opens his stinging eyes in the water, there’s a shimmering image of a woman smiling at him in the deep blue. That smile seems familiar, and yet her features are amorphous, ever-changing, and Ace’s mind tries but fails to comprehend her.

Even so, her arms come around him and Luffy in a protective embrace, like a mother holding her children. At her touch, Ace feels like the breath has been knocked from his lungs.

Clear even through the rushing water, there’s a voice murmuring in his ear, soft like a wave rolling onto a gently sloping shore.

“How very loved you are, Portgas D. Ace.”

He screws his eyes shut, and the tears that come only join the salt of the sea. The last thing he thinks before everything goes dark is:

I know.

Chapter Text

“Oh! So, you're Luffy’s older brother! That's wonderful! You and your crew should come join us tonight, we'll have a party!”

“Thank you, we will! Though, Shanks, there was one thing I always wanted to ask you about, if I ever got to meet you.”

“Hm? And what’s that?”

“... Do you know why Luffy can swim?”

“Hahaha! Well, call me crazy, but I've cooked up a certain theory over the years. Come, sit here with me by the fire. Let’s chat.”

Ace muddles his way back to consciousness to the sounds of low, quiet voices murmuring nearby.

He blearily opens his eyes, blinking several times in the dim light filtering in from the nearby porthole. He’s on a ship, that much he’s certain of; the wood grain seems familiar, and he can feel a gentle, telltale rocking motion of being on the open sea. Ace realizes that he’s laid out on a cabin bed, and when he looks over to his left, he sees that Izo and Jozu are sitting and talking quietly by his bedside.

He must have made a noise in reaction to seeing them, because their conversation abruptly ends, and they both turn their heads to look at him with wide eyes.

“Ace!”

“Ace, how do you feel? Are you alright?!”

Ace just stares at his crewmates, none of their questions registering at the moment. Izo is probably the most unkempt he’s ever seen him, his normally pristine hair thoroughly disheveled and his immaculate kimono now dirtied and rumpled. His makeup is smudged all over the place, and Ace knows it’s a dire situation if Izo hasn’t even attempted to fix it yet. And then there’s Jozu…

“Shit, Jozu,” Ace breathes, staring at his crewmate’s tightly bandaged right shoulder. “What…?”

“Oh, this?” Jozu glances down to where his right arm is glaringly missing. He shrugs with his other shoulder and briefly explains, “Got hit by Aokiji’s ice while I was distracted. I’m still alive, so it’s no big deal. My balance is shot to hell, though.”

Ace is shocked by how calm he seems, and Izo reassures him, “He got medical attention as soon as we left Marineford, Ace. We’re heading to one of our Paradise safe islands now, to lay low and recover.”

“After everything that happened, we’re more worried about you,” Jozu adds. “You’ve been completely out for nearly a day.”

“A day…” Ace echoes, before his eyes widen and he struggles to get up. His heart racing from a sudden spike of dread, he blurts out, “I—where’s Luffy?! What happened to him?!”

Izo urges him back down, telling him gently, “Your little brother is fine. Though, he's rather stubborn; we only just managed to convince him to go find one of the nurses a little while ago for his own wounds. He’s been worrying over you this entire time, and he refused to leave your side without knowing you would be alright.”

At that news, Ace rubs the heel of his palm over his eyes with a tired, relieved sigh.

Luffy’s okay. He’s alive. Neglecting to get medical treatment, apparently, but alive. Ace remembers the sight of Akainu’s fist hurtling towards his little brother, and his insides feel like they’re being twisted in a vice grip. Ace himself didn’t escape that encounter unscathed: he notices that his forearm is bandaged, and he can feel the tight, stinging pain of a substantial burn beneath the cloth. The skin between his shoulder blades has a painful pull to it, too.

It's been a long time since he's been burned. He won’t be surprised if he ends up with some nasty scars after this.

Trying to recall the details of the battle, Ace’s thoughts then veer to his captain. Whitebeard had pledged himself to covering their retreat even at the cost of his own life, and Ace’s heart rate picks up again.

Fearing the worst, he asks, “And… where’s Pops? Is he…?”

“Alive,” Jozu informs him, looking quite pleased to say so as Ace lets out another breath of relief. “Pops got roughed up a bit during the battle, but nothing worse happened to him after you passed out. He’s resting in his rooms right now, with Marco hovering nearby as per usual. Although…”

Ace doesn’t like the sound of that pause. “Although what?”

“Ah, it’s not that serious, Ace, don’t worry. There’s a non-allied crew tagging along with us right now. Their captain was the one who got Pops sorted out,” his crewmate elaborates. “You know Trafalgar Law, that ‘Surgeon of Death’ guy? It was him and his crew. We were all a little leery when they showed up, but Marco allowed it, and it’s worked out so far.”

“Though they’re a rival crew, the Heart Pirates have undoubtedly been a help to us,” Izo says with a considering tilt of his head. “It would make sense if they wish to gain our favor, but other possible motives are unclear for now. In any case, they have many experienced medics among them, so they came at a good time.”

Ace vaguely remembers Trafalgar Law being one of those rookie pirates people have been calling the Eleven Supernovas. Luffy and his first mate are a part of that group, too. Though after Ace’s capture and incarceration, he doesn’t know much more than that.

If Trafalgar is helping, then that’s fine. With Luffy and Whitebeard’s safety confirmed, Ace is more concerned about his own crew.

“So, after everything… how are we doing, then? Overall.”

“Our allies are still counting up damages, but even with the loss of the Moby Dick, we didn’t lose as much as was estimated,” Izo summarizes, his voice quiet. “We’ll be stuck on the Mini Moby for the foreseeable future, but our deaths were few. For those we did lose… We’ll hold a proper memorial once the crew is mostly recovered.”

They’re all silent for a moment. Ace stares up at the ceiling of the cabin, his fingers twisting into the sheets.

His crew has sacrificed so much for his sake. He knows that in relative terms that they’ve won this battle against the Marines and the government, successfully completed the objective of getting him out of Marineford alive, but there are still deaths and injuries that could’ve been avoided if Ace had only just listened.

He glances again at Jozu’s armless shoulder, and he feels a deep pang of regret.

His brothers and sisters went to war for him, and they’ve suffered. Their captain nearly sacrificed himself to ensure their escape. God, Luffy must have gone through hell at Impel Down, and then he'd fought at Marineford, too. If his little brother had died because of him, Ace wouldn’t have been able to live with himself.

There is consolation in the fact that the majority of them have made it out alive, that they’re out on the sea again to live and fight another day. Ace is all too aware that it could have been so much worse, that he himself could have been dead right now, and he silently vows to do his best to give back to the people who have given him this second chance.

Ace is unbelievably fortunate to be alive. He knows that very well. And it brings to mind just how fortunate he’s actually been.

Suddenly, he gets a flash of rushing water. A memory resurfaces, one of a figure of light smiling at him against the dark of the ocean, of an otherworldly voice that seeped right through his body to grasp at his very soul... and Ace goes completely still.

That’s right. He almost forgot that. Was… was it all just a dream?

He realizes that he doesn’t actually know what happened to him and Luffy. Being pulled underwater, seeing that phantom-like woman beneath the waves, hearing that voice… It just seems too unreal. Too unbelievable. For all he can assume, his exhausted and panicked mind made up the entire thing.

In a halting, hesitating voice, he turns his head back to Izo and Jozu and asks, “What… what happened with Akainu? I remember he went after Luffy, and I tried to stop him, but after that… How did we all escape?”

His crewmates glance at each other with a shared look of concern, and it doesn't exactly fill Ace with confidence.

“Well?”

Izo runs a hand through his tangled hair, saying with audible hesitation, “It's… going to sound pretty unbelievable. Just so you know, we wouldn't lie to you about this.”

Ace's brows raise, a little worried. “I know you wouldn't. So what happened?”

“You went to intercept Akainu’s attack. And the moment you did, there was something like an earthquake beneath the base. The entire courtyard was rumbling and cracking under our feet in an instant.”

“At the time, we thought it was Pops using his Devil Fruit ability,” Jozu supplies, “but he told us later that it wasn't him.”

“A huge geyser burst from the ground, right between you and Akainu. Do you remember that?” After Ace gives a short nod, Izo continues, “The water hit you both directly, though there was something strange about it… It was hard to see from where we were, but it looked like the geyser curved to keep Akainu pinned under the spray of seawater. Just a constant blast, as if he were under a waterfall. He kept trying to get up, but he couldn't.”

Ace’s eyes are wide. He certainly hadn't seen that.

He tells them, “I got knocked into Luffy, and he grabbed onto me. I thought… I might have just passed out and dreamt it, but I thought we got pulled underwater by a wave or something?”

This time, Jozu leans forward and soberly responds, “That's because you did. I don’t know how to explain it, but a part of the geyser seemed to break off… and it grabbed the two of you, pulled you under the base, then rose out of the goddamn sea to plop you both onto the deck of the Mini Moby.”

Ace stares at him, speechless.

Izo sighs, “Told you it was unbelievable.”

“No, I…” Ace shakes his head, murmuring, “I remember passing out in the ocean, but I wasn't sure if that was even real.”

Izo confirms, “You were definitely underwater. We all thought you and your brother would drown—at least until that wave brought you both up again. But... that's not everything,” and Ace suddenly senses that this is only the tip of the iceberg.

“Once you guys were on board, Pops ordered the retreat,” Jozu continues. “As we all made for the ships, more geysers burst out of the ground. Just explosions of seawater all around us. But the pattern they showed up in… They blocked the Marines from reaching us. Even the Warlords and the other Admirals couldn't get in another attack.”

“A wall of water towers, popping up one after another,” Izo whispers with a far-away look. “Whoever orchestrated it all, they separated us from our enemies and gave us a clear path to the ships, all in one fell swoop. I'd never seen anything like it.”

“None of us knew what was happening, but there were no complaints. Though we all looked like soaked rats by the time we piled on board,” Jozu says, cracking a smile. “We got out of there in record time, though it seems we were helped again by our unknown friend. It was like a new current formed beneath the ships, and it pulled us right out of the bay and pushed us out into the open ocean. No one could even give chase. So, we set sail, ran into the Heart Pirates, and now here we are.”

Ace's mouth has been agape for most of the explanation, and he slowly closes it as he processes this new information.

Jozu and Izo are looking at him expectantly, as if he can shed any light on what actually happened. Ace thinks that it's a little absurd for him to know anything, since he'd been unconscious and all, but then he pauses.

He slowly asks, “Have there been any leads on who helped us?”

They both shake their heads. Izo then volunteers, “I'm sure Pops will want to call a commander meeting later, once things have settled down. An ally with the power and coordination to give us such a clean escape from Marineford would be a powerful ally indeed, if we can find out who they are.”

Jozu leans back in his chair and heaves a heavy sigh, rubbing at his shoulder. “Whoever it was, they can work some magic with water. Weird shit happens on the Grand Line, but that? That was… supernatural.”

Ace can’t help but agree. He thinks of that shimmering woman with the enigmatic smile. He remembers that unearthly energy that flowed through him at her touch, recalls the words she whispered to him in a voice that echoed through the sea… and a chill runs down his spine.

It's not necessarily a bad chill. It's more of dawning realization, puzzle pieces slowly slotting into place, a new understanding that he's witnessed something human eyes do not normally see.

Who are you, he silently wonders. And of course, he receives no answer.

He considers telling Jozu and Izo about the woman, trying to come up with a way to phrase it so it won't sound too out there, but they're interrupted by a knocking sound from outside the room. The door opens, and when all three of them turn to look, they see that it's Marco poking his head into the doorway.

The First Division Commander’s eyes immediately land on Ace, and they brighten with relief.

“Ace,” he greets with a widening smile. “Good to have you back with us. How are you feeling?”

“Like a billion berries,” Ace deadpans from his prone position on the bed, but there's an answering smile at the corners of his mouth. He remembers that Marco had gotten cuffed with seastone during the battle, but he's out of them now and seems to have healed himself of his wounds. Their first mate is the most reliable of them all, and it's reassuring to see him well after everything that's happened.

With the two chairs in the room already taken by Izo and Jozu, Marco comes over to sit on the corner of the bed. He asks Ace in a light tone, “Do I need to get a nurse in here?”

“Don't,” he groans. “I'm fine. Others in the crew need it more than I do.”

Ace isn't looking at him directly, but he can tell that Marco is exchanging silent looks with Izo and Jozu. Whatever Marco gets from the wordless conversation, he's apparently satisfied with it because he doesn't press the issue further. Instead, he asks with more seriousness, “So, you've been filled in with what happened? I understand if it's… not what you expected to hear.”

“That's a way of putting it,” Ace snorts. But he nods. “Yeah, Jozu and Izo told me. It must've been one hell of a thing to see firsthand.”

“To be honest, I'm still not sure I saw it myself. But with our entire fleet as fellow witnesses, I can't brush it off so easily.” Marco’s expression flickers, likely remembering the event, before quickly refocusing to inform them, “We'll be making landfall at our safe island in a few days. There will be a meeting once we're back on our feet. Whoever helped us hasn't shown themselves yet, but we need to be ready in the event that they do.”

All of them nod in acknowledgment. Ace thinks back to their mysterious benefactor and suddenly wonders if Luffy saw anything. He resolves to find and ask him at the next available opportunity.

“How's Pops?” Izo asks.

“Doing alright. We hid all of the booze on board, and he's not complaining about it for once,” Marco responds with a pleased expression. “Trafalgar doesn't know that Pops likes to drink during recovery, and the nurses were all up in arms trying to save face in front of the guest doctor. They threatened to throw all alcohol overboard to keep Pops from touching it.”

Jozu chuckles. “That'd do it.”

“He's finally taking them seriously, though not for the right reasons,” Marco says with a fond sigh. He then glances back at Ace and tacks on, “Oh, Ace, I just remembered. I saw your brother before coming here. I just wanted to ask… is there any reason he would be submerged in seawater right now?”

Ace blinks at the sudden subject change. “What?”

Marco elaborates, “When I was out on deck, I spotted Luffy down by the Heart Pirates’ submarine, just… hanging out in the water. For some reason, he hasn’t passed out yet. Trafalgar is keeping an eye on him, but I think it’s more out of curiosity than anything else.”

“Oh...” Ace lets out a breath, realizing that his brother must be doing his ‘soaking’ thing. To anyone who hasn't seen it before, it must look really strange. And stupidly dangerous. He tells Marco, “Yeah, Luffy will be okay. He won’t drown.”

He raises a brow, and Ace understands his skepticism. “Won’t he?”

“He won’t,” Ace confirms, closing his eyes and leaning back into his pillow. “Luffy’s just weird like that. He’s pretty much unsinkable.”

After a moment, Marco mutters something resigned under his breath like, “This may as well happen on top of everything else,” before sighing again. Ace then feels him lean over and give his shoulder a warm squeeze, saying, “Well, for now, just take it easy, alright? Our family is back together, and we'll handle things together like we always do. So, welcome home, Ace.”

Eyes still closed, Ace’s lips curve into a small smile. Despite all odds, he's back where he belongs, out on the open sea and surrounded by his crew, with his father and Luffy both safe and only a holler away.

Frankly, it's a miracle things turned out so well in their favor. Ace had been fully prepared to die on that execution stand, to die in exchange for his brother’s life right afterward, but maybe… Maybe, after everything, it's about time he’s been given a miracle.

Does he deserve it? Ace doesn't feel like he does. But it only amplifies the fact that he's just so damn grateful.

That woman’s words again reverberate through his head. He doubts he will forget them anytime soon.

How very loved you are.

“Yeah,” Ace whispers, ignoring the tremor in his voice. “It's good to be back.”

Law doesn’t know what possessed him to come. One moment, he and his crew are watching the execution of Fire Fist Ace on a snail projector, simply curious to what the war’s outcome will be. The next, Law’s already on his feet, ordering the Polar Tang to ship out and to get the operating rooms ready for patients.

And ever since they’ve caught up with the Mini Moby and the rest of the Whitebeard fleet, the Heart Pirates have certainly been kept busy. Though they’re received with vague suspicion, no one is willing to turn away an experienced doctor and his well-equipped crew. Law scans his eyes across the many wounded on board the main ship alone, and he knows he’s in for a long day.

Even with the help of the Whitebeard medical team and those of their allies all working in tandem, seeing to an entire fleet’s worth of injured pirates is long, grueling work.

In a frankly surreal experience, Law even has the pleasure of being the one to try and convince Whitebeard himself to stop fretting over his crew and get on the damn table already, you have multiple serious stab wounds and several bullet wounds, you’re going to die for real if I don’t start surgery now.

Luckily, Marco the Phoenix swoops in to his aid, and together they manage to finally corral the heavily-injured Emperor into Law’s own operating room on board the Tang.

There are several close calls, not helped by the man’s age and pre-existing medical history, but Law, his team, and a number of Whitebeard’s personal nurses are able to get him stable and on the way to recovery.

“He’s not going to be the same after this,” he warns Marco once the surgery’s over.

Being one of the few Whitebeards both available and uninjured, the First Division Commander has stationed himself outside of the operating room to wait on his captain’s status, surrounded by Transponder Snails to send and receive constant updates throughout the fleet.

“I suspected as much,” Marco says quietly, reaching up to wearily rub at his temple. Still, he smiles at Law, even giving him a deep bow. “Even so. Thank you for saving him, and all the others you and your crew have helped. We won’t forget this.”

Law doesn’t say anything, suddenly feeling a little out of place. So he just gives a brief nod and returns to the operating room to prepare for the next patient. Outside, Marco proceeds to make several calls to his crew and their allies to let them know that Whitebeard will be alright.

After all this, one thing is for certain. This is not the way Law expected he’d ever meet one of the Four Emperors. He’s always thought he’d be wielding his sword, and not a scalpel.

Hours later—he’s not entirely sure exactly how long it’s been, it might not even be the same day, he’s just been doing one surgery after another with hardly a break in between—Law emerges onto the front deck of the submarine, slumping against the railing with an exhausted sigh.

The most serious and time-sensitive procedures have been dealt with, and Whitebeard’s people are more than capable of taking it from here. Most of Law’s own crew have all gone to take a much-needed rest; the others have gone to lend a hand to the doctors on the other ships.

Really, none of this is any of their business. The Hearts could have easily taken advantage of the war and quietly slipped into the New World without opposition. But once they were faced with countless patients who needed their help, it didn’t matter if they were technically rivals. It became their business.

It gives Law a sense of pride for his crew, all talented and dedicated people. No matter what happens from here on out, the Hearts have surely played a crucial part in history today.

Strongly considering a nap and wondering where Bepo has gone off to, Law almost doesn’t notice something strange at the corner of his eye. He cranes his neck to look to his left, the side of the submarine bordered by the Mini Moby, and his gaze is drawn to a singular object.

There’s a red-ribboned straw hat sitting on the deck, just beside the railing.

Law recognizes it instantly, and he almost wishes he hadn’t. Earlier, he’d seen Straw Hat Luffy only in passing when the Hearts first arrived, but the younger Supernova was much too concerned with an unconscious Fire Fist to pay them any mind. Law hasn’t seen him since then, but with that hat somehow finding its way onto his submarine, he’s got a strong feeling that he’s about to.

Next to the hat, there’s something latched onto the side of the sub. Brows furrowed and more than a little wary, Law slowly approaches it.

There’s… a hand. Actually, two of them. Holding onto the bottom of the railing bars.

Law follows the arms attached to the hands, and they lead into the ocean. Under the surface of the water is the dark shape of a body, completely motionless.

Letting out a loud curse, a shocked Law internally prays to whatever deities are out there that he’s not going to see what he’s expecting to see. He hasn’t just saved Whitebeard only to get immediately killed by him and Fire Fist and probably this entire fleet for finding the body of Straw Hat Luffy next to his sub.

He opens up a Room and quickly switches out the body for a stray piece of seaweed nearby.

Sure enough, a waterlogged Monkey D. Luffy lands on the deck next to him with a wet plop. But Law is shocked yet again when Straw Hat proves to actually be awake, pushing himself up from the floor to look at Law with big, round eyes.

“Woah,” Straw Hat marvels, glancing between him and the water he’d just been submerged in. “How’d you do that?!”

“... My Devil Fruit ability,” Law slowly replies, still trying to process what’s in front of him and coming up short. “You’ve seen it before.”

“I have?”

“... Yes. At Sabaody Archipelago. In front of the auction house, when the Marines came. I’m Trafalgar Law.”

“Oh, right! You’re that Traffy guy!” Straw Hat realizes, heaving himself up to sit with his legs crossed in front of him. Before Law can protest the butchering of his name, he continues, “I didn’t recognize you without the fluffy hat! Or the fluffy bear.”

Law realizes just then that he’s left his hat inside. And, yes, he silently agrees that Bepo is fluffy.

But he’s more concerned with the matter at hand.

“Straw Hat,” he says. “What the hell were you doing in the water?”

Law doesn’t know what he’s expecting to hear, but what comes out of the other captain’s mouth definitely isn’t it.

Like the very concept isn’t completely mad, Straw Hat explains, “I was soaking! I heal really fast in the ocean. Everyone was so busy already, so I thought I’d just heal myself.”

“... By dunking yourself in the sea next to my sub?”

“Yeah! The old man’s ship is too tall. I guess I could’ve stretched to hang onto something while I soaked, but it’s not as comfortable as just hanging off the railing here, ‘cause it’s right next to the water.”

So. His use of his Devil Fruit ability is unaffected by seawater, then. Okay.

Reigning in the urge to blurt out something undignified, Law glances back at the railing and comments as smoothly as he can, “I’m surprised you had the energy to grab the bars and keep yourself from sinking, then.”

“No, that was to make sure I didn’t float away.” At Law’s long stare, he adds, “I can swim! People don’t usually believe me, but I can!”

Considering Straw Hat’s earnest face carefully, Law purses his lips and determines that he doesn’t seem to be lying. The younger captain is still dripping with seawater and is showing no signs of fatigue despite having been submerged in the water for who knows how long.

Law then recalls seeing his earlier injuries, only hours before, and that kind of battle damage is not the kind that can disappear within a single day. As Law examines him closer, he suddenly realizes that Straw Hat is, in fact, already completely healed. As if storming Impel Down and fighting a war at Marineford never even happened.

He can’t help but again think that this is completely mad. It’s also incredibly, distressingly interesting.

He’s never heard of such a thing before. A Devil Fruit user who can swim, and has a rapidly increased healing factor in water? Law can hardly believe it.

And yet, there’s a young man in front of him who is just that.

His curiosity getting the better of him, Law can’t help but ask, “How does that work, exactly?”

Straw Hat immediately brightens, seeming happy that Law believes him.

“You should talk to my doctor, Chopper! He’s—” He seems to deflate a little, but he quickly bounces back to say, “Well, Chopper’s not here right now, but I’m sure he’d be happy to talk to you someday. He’s been studying this ever since he found out about it!”

Law can see why. He’s sure the notes of the Straw Hats’ doctor must be fascinating, if he’s made any leeway on his captain’s strange condition.

Wanting to see for himself and already too interested, Law decides to forego his nap for the time being and asks, “If you don’t mind, could you give another demonstration?”

An enthusiastic “Sure!” is all the warning he gets before Straw Hat just hurls himself off the side of the submarine with a large splash, and Law narrowly avoids getting soaked himself.

The Marines have just suffered a great defeat. The newspapers will surely frame it more in their favor, but each person who had been there knows the truth.

A bonafide miracle has happened, and it wasn’t for them.

The cleanup of Marineford has been postponed for the time being, due to an investigation into what exactly happened at the tail end of the battle. The main area of interest is the courtyard, now riddled with web-like cracks and numerous holes that lead straight down to the ocean below the base.

At the moment, Garp is walking across the broken courtyard and silently taking in the considerable damage, trailing along behind Sengoku and Kuzan.

Borsalino is with his nephew, and Garp’s not quite sure where Sakazuki is. He doesn’t really care. He just knows that the sight of a thoroughly-drenched Sakazuki bristling like a wet cat is going to be a fond memory for years to come.

Meanwhile, the three Marines come to a stop at one of the bigger holes in the entire courtyard, its diameter at least four meters across and its edge bordered by chunks of wet, broken concrete. Garp and Sengoku peer down into the gap, and the only thing visible in its depths is the shadowed sea passing beneath the base. The dull roar of the waves echoes up to the surface, and it’s an eerie, haunting sound.

Sengoku’s expression is a mix of frustration and worry. Meanwhile, Kuzan comes to stand by his shoulder, staring down into the chasm with a furrow to his brow.

“This concrete is several meters thick, reinforced by steel bars,” the cold-based Admiral summarizes out loud, frowning in thought. “The attack came from below, from beneath the courtyard itself. The kind of force needed to break through all those layers, and with such concentrated precision… Is it some kind of new submersible weapon?”

Sengoku’s mouth is a tight line. “Perhaps, but… You two saw it, didn’t you? That water… it didn’t behave like normal water should have.”

They all go silent. After the initial mayhem of that first geyser bursting from the ground, they did see it—that wave that engulfed Ace and Luffy and dragged them down into the sea beneath the base… only to rise up in the bay near the Whitebeards’ paddle ship, depositing them safely onto the deck.

Everyone had been completely shock still, just staring at the incredible sight. Out of anyone in that moment, Sakazuki would have surely pursued them, but he had still been pinned by the ongoing blast of seawater from the geyser.

And then there were the next ones.

“The places where the geysers erupted… Every time anyone tried to go after any of the pirates, one would pop up to block the path,” Sengoku says, glancing over his shoulder at the other holes scattered throughout the courtyard. “Someone was watching the battlefield, who could coordinate the attacks coming from below.”

With a tired sigh, Kuzan comments, “Whoever it was, they sure had the element of surprise—and they knew who to target. They managed to hit Borsalino and I with seawater right as Sakazuki went down. The Warlords being mostly Devil Fruit users didn’t help, either.”

Garp stays silent as Sengoku clicks his tongue in thought. “Whoever orchestrated this, they must have some powerful observation haki. You didn’t sense the attack coming, Kuzan? Not at all?”

He shakes his head, responding, “No, sir. Borsalino confirms the same. Sakazuki… Well, I haven't spoken to him about it, but he isn't one to get taken off-guard like that.”

“Agreed. This is… most worrisome.”

With all three Admirals considerably weakened and unable to take pursuit, Whitebeard had seen the opportunity for what it was and ordered an immediate retreat back to the ships. His crew and allies had shaken themselves of their stupor and rushed to obey, bewildered but unquestioning despite the bizarre turn of events.

The remaining Marines did what they could to stop them… But with those geysers continuously bursting from the ground to intercept any would-be attackers, each placed always one step ahead like an instant barricade, the pirates were given a clear path out to the bay.

With both Ace and Luffy already on board and the dawning realization of their victory, Whitebeard’s people promptly boarded their ships and prepared to set sail with ecstatic enthusiasm.

From where he had been standing up near the ruins of the execution platform, Garp clearly recalls seeing the paddle Moby Dick and the other pirate ships then being pulled backwards through the water—pushed clear past the Gates of Justice, and let loose out in the open sea to make their final getaway.

Only then did the geysers in the courtyard begin to die down, until all that remained were several large holes, cracked stone, and deep puddles of seawater. For the Marines, many of them soaking wet and a number of their Devil Fruit users unconscious altogether, it was a shocking defeat that left each one of them thinking the same thing in the aftermath:

What the hell just happened?

Now, as the Marines are taking inventory of their damages, the worst those geysers did in the physical sense is wreck the courtyard. The earlier fighting had done worse to the base as a whole. As for their personnel, there’s bumps and bruises from being knocked aside by strong blasts of water, but no serious injuries occurred during the end of the battle.

Ace and Luffy were the nearest casualties. Sakazuki would have killed at least Ace—Garp remembers his older grandson stepping in front of the attack meant for his brother, and Garp’s going to keep seeing it in his nightmares, he knows it—if not for that first geyser. It saved them both.

His heart feels like it’s stopped far too many times today. Frankly, this entire incident is nothing short of a miracle, as if the sea itself had been aiding his grandsons’ escape.

And at that thought, Garp suddenly pauses.

Ah.

So that’s how it is. It must be; there’s no other explanation.

Outside of Garp’s new understanding of these strange events, Sengoku is still musing aloud.

“If it had been explosions alone, a weapon fired from a submersible might have been possible,” the Fleet Admiral considers. “But the wave that took Fire Fist and Straw Hat, these mysterious geysers… They almost seemed sentient in a way, or at least like they were being actively controlled by an outside force. Whitebeard and his allies seemed just as surprised as we were, so this may be the act of another ally even they were unaware of.”

Or by someone who wants those kids to live, Garp thinks to himself, chuckling.

Hearing him, Sengoku shoots him a look, one more annoyed than usual. Given the circumstances, that's understandable.

“Anything you want to share, Garp?”

“Nah, nah, it’s nothing important,” he waves him off carelessly with a grin. “Just remembered something funny, is all.”

His old friend’s expression is doubtful, but he nevertheless turns back to Kuzan, ruminating over whether the existence of a water-based Devil Fruit is actually possible and if an unknown ally of Whitebeard has somehow gotten hold of it. Meanwhile, Garp tunes out the discussion and instead looks out to the sea beyond the bay, the horizon reddening as evening falls on what's left of Marineford.

There’s an old Marine song about the sea, a funeral dirge to send off their fallen soldiers. Garp has been to many Marine funerals in his day, but the words always resonate with him without fail.

“The sea watches us quietly, guiding us through our death and our birth.”

Of all battles, this time that he will hear it feels the most appropriate.

It’s been so many years. Roger and Rouge are long gone, Dragon is away on his crusade, and Garp’s hands remain tied between family and duty. But relief fills him with the knowledge that Ace and Luffy are alive, and that someone is able to look after those brats.

After all this time, it seems like she’s still out there, watching over them. Garp can only look to the sea and silently give his apologies... and his deep gratitude.

After a restful nap, a lot of food, and a follow-up with the nurses, Ace returns from the infirmary to find his little brother waiting for him in his commander quarters, sitting cross-legged on the bed and absently tapping out a random tune with his fingers against the headboard.

The moment he steps through the door, Luffy’s head jerks up. He immediately springs from the bed to full-on tackle Ace into a hug, rubber arms winding around his torso several times in his excitement.

Ace!” he yells into his ear. “You’re okay!”

“Ah, Luffy! Careful with the back,” Ace says with a wince as the burn between his shoulder blades stretches painfully, and Luffy quickly loosens his grip.

“Oh! Sorry!”

Once Luffy’s calmed down a bit, only then does Ace pull him into a proper hug. He ruffles his brother’s hair with one hand and holds him as tightly as he can.

“So stupid,” he mutters, resting his chin on the top of Luffy’s head so his little brother can’t see the emotions welling up on his face. “What the hell were you thinking, coming after me like that? You could’ve died!”

You could’ve died,” Luffy shoots back, though his voice is muffled from where he’s buried his face into Ace’s shoulder. “You’re my brother! I wasn’t gonna let them kill you!”

I’m the one who’s supposed to protect you. That’s just how it works.”

“Don’t care. I can do what I want, so I did.” He feels Luffy let out a disgruntled huff of breath before he pulls away a little to look Ace in the eyes. In an uncharacteristically solemn tone, he tells him, “I’m glad you’re alive. If you get captured again, then I’m going to come rescue you. So if you don’t want me to do it again, then from now on, don’t ever, ever get caught. Okay, Ace?”

It’s Luffy’s way of saying be careful. Ace feels a tiny smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, happiness and regret and gratitude mixing within him all at once.

He squeezes his brother one more time before letting him go, saying, “I hear you, Lu. But you know that anything can happen at sea.”

Luffy nods, turning back to flop onto the bed. Now flat on his back, he agrees, “I know. But I like knowing that you won’t go without a fight.”

Ace lets a smirk spread onto his lips as he plops down next to him, conceding, “That, I can certainly do. Now, fill me in with what I’ve missed since I was locked up. We didn’t exactly get newspapers down in Level Six, so I haven’t heard about the latest Straw Hat hijinks.”

And what hijinks there are. Ace can barely follow Luffy’s rambling explanation of somehow acquiring a literal living skeleton as a crewmate and the mention of fighting some weird guy who stole his shadow (does he mean Gekko Moriah? Like, the Warlord? Moriah did seem to recognize Luffy at Marineford, now that he thinks about it), before Luffy switches topics to saving a Mermaid, his crew reaching Sabaody Archipelago, and having to save the same Mermaid again from a slave auction house.

He then casually drops in that he punched a Celestial Dragon in the face. Like punching Celestial Dragons is something people just normally do.

Through a sudden coughing fit, Ace manages to choke out, “Holy shit, Luffy!”

“That guy hurt Hachi, and he was gonna take Camie away!” Luffy says, completely unapologetic. “I know I wasn’t supposed to do it, but he was an asshole! He deserved it.”

“Yeah, he sure did,” Ace agrees, and he’s practically bursting with worry from his little brother’s apparent lack of self-preservation instinct… and overwhelming, giddy pride.

If anyone was going to break that stupid societal rule—if there is one person in the entire world who would willingly put themselves so at risk just to help their friends—of course it ends up being Luffy.

Ace finds himself thinking, not for the first time and certainly not the last: God, would you be proud of him, Sabo!

Luffy has grown up a lot in these past few years. Ace had already thought so back when they first met again in Alabasta, but after all this… It really brings to light just how much his little brother has come into his own. How he stays true to himself in the face of all these forces that want to silence him.

However, the good mood over them dampens when Luffy comes to admit his current circumstances: that his crew has been separated, scattered throughout the world with no idea where any of them are. Luffy himself had ended up at Amazon Lily and somehow befriended Empress Boa Hancock, which boggles Ace’s mind already, but his voice gets caught in his throat as Luffy continues speaking.

“We promised to meet again in three days, but it’s way past that time already,” he tells him, his voice subdued in the silence of the room. “They… they probably got sent pretty far. I was gonna go meet them in Sabaody as soon as I could, but when I heard what was gonna happen to you… I couldn’t sit there and do nothing.”

Ace, I’m going to save you!

Luffy was without his crew when he made that choice, Ace realizes. He’d decided to push ahead alone for Ace’s sake, with or without anyone to watch his back. He’d broken into a highly-guarded Marine prison, crashed a war that had nothing to do with him, suffered and bled and still kept on fighting… All to make sure Ace stayed alive.

When his thoughts take a dark turn and become pinned beneath the weight of his doubts, Ace forgets sometimes how much his brother cares. But Luffy doesn’t really need to say anything. His actions alone say more than enough.

He feels like he’s cried too much already, but Ace’s eyes are still a bit watery as he mutters, “You are completely ridiculous.”

Luffy turns on his side to face him, his signature grin reappearing on his face. “I did what I said I’d do, right? You’re here, so we won!”

“I guess you’re right,” Ace replies, letting a smile form on his lips. He reaches over and squeezes Luffy’s arm. “... Thank you, Luffy.”

“It’s what brothers do,” he says matter-of-factly. “I know you'd do the same for me, if I was ever in trouble.”

“Of course.” It’s the easiest answer Ace has ever given. After everything that's happened, especially since Luffy will be targeted even more from here on out, Ace is willing to do all that and more to keep his brother safe.

In part, it’s also what got him into this mess—throwing himself into Teach’s path to keep him from getting to Luffy, rushing after Teach in the first place without thinking, deafening himself to the better judgment of Pops and the rest of the crew to rush headlong into danger. But Ace can’t let it happen again. He vows that he won’t make the same mistakes twice. He needs to do better, be better, because his crew is counting on him, because he’s Luffy’s older brother.

Because it took a literal miracle to keep Ace alive this time. And miracles rarely happen twice.

Just then, the earlier conversation he’d had with Izo and Jozu comes back to him, and Ace suddenly sits upright with a start.

Remembering what he’s been meaning to ask Luffy this entire time, he finally mentions, “Luffy, about the end of the battle… Do you know what happened? Did you… see anything strange?”

Still laying on his side, his brother blinks up at him and responds, “You don't remember? The ocean saved us.”

He says it so easily, and Ace can only stare at him. He can tell that Luffy doesn’t mean it in the metaphorical, god-fearing sense, like a sailor or fellow pirate might. Luffy has never been the superstitious type, believing most in what he sees and in the actions people do, so it doesn’t make sense for him to say such a thing.

Unless he means it literally. And that makes the cogs in Ace’s head begin to turn.

“What do you mean, exactly?” he asks, trying to find that last thread of connection but not quite grasping it. “You say that like the ocean is a person.”

“She’s not like us, but she’s still real,” Luffy replies with a small frown. “The ocean’s got feelings and stuff, like any other person. She wanted to save you, too. Didn’t you hear her, when we were underwater?”

Ace’s eyes are wide. He finds that he suddenly can’t speak, and he can still see that woman smiling at him through the water and saying the words that still echo through his head.

As he stares at Luffy, her face seems to overlap with his. And as different as the two are, Ace suddenly realizes why it was her smile that seemed so familiar.

He’s already seen it on his brother.

“You know her, don’t you?” he asks. “That glowing woman in the water. You know who she is.”

Luffy just replies with evident cheer, “That was my mom! You know, the ocean! She saw we were in trouble, so she came to help.”

Ace gapes at him. Helplessly, he echoes, “Your… mom. So you mean that woman who helped us was the ocean? Like, the ocean? And she’s your literal mother?”

His brother nods enthusiastically, like he’s pleased that Ace finally understands. “Yeah!”

Ace can only slump against the headboard, his mind racing. It’s… unbelievable. Crazy, even.

And yet… it makes so much sense.

The events of Marineford, unexplainable by anything else. The two of them, snatched from the jaws of death at the last possible moment by the most inexplicable means.

Luffy’s ability to swim despite having eaten a Devil Fruit. His resistance to seawater and seastone, and his incredible healing factor. The fact that he floats and doesn’t sink, and why he’s been able to do that from the very start.

How he bends the very laws of nature—like it’s been built into his physical being.

He can’t even demand why Luffy hadn’t told him sooner, because an old memory returns to Ace in that moment: children’s laughter in ocean waves, sun and sea breeze warm against skin. A time when their third brother was still smiling by their side.

Bobbing along in the waves, a seven-year-old Luffy had happily proclaimed to them, “My mom is the ocean!”

From the very beginning… Ace has had the answer this entire time, but never even realized it. Back then, he’d just put those words out of mind, dismissing it as just another case of Luffy’s childlike silliness… But now, with all the things Ace has heard and seen since that day, he can finally put the pieces together and see the truth.

He's been traveling the seas for a while now, and a solid answer to explain Luffy’s abilities seemed to always be out of reach. Ace has been with the Whitebeard Pirates for years, an Emperor’s own experienced crew, and he’s more than once prodded his more knowledgeable siblings with supposed hypotheticals.

“Is there any way a person can still swim after eating a Devil Fruit?”

Beyond flotation devices and getting carried by someone else, the answers he’s received have all been the same: it should be impossible.

Once, though, in the time before he joined… Ace has only ever asked one person about Luffy. A person who knew Luffy personally before and after eating his Devil Fruit, and someone who very likely knows more than he's letting on.

Although it's been years since their conversation around the fire, Ace still remembers Red-Haired Shanks’ cryptic answer.

“Have you ever heard of the Maiden?”

And of course he has. All pirates know of the Maiden, because she is the life and blood of their livelihoods, the one who is with them always, who never fails to draw awe and is the inspiration of generations.

She is the ocean—beautiful, dangerous, and the freest of them all.

Legends and songs have always surrounded her. Stories say that the Maiden might appear to people, like to lost sailors and children playing on the beach and such, but of course they’re just stories. Unless… they're actually not.

Ace recalls one of his Pops’ favorite sayings, one that’s brought Ace comfort from the very first time he heard it.

We are all children of the sea.

For seafarers like them, lost people who have made their home with each other on the open waters, the Whitebeards know this saying to their very souls. Although, in Luffy’s case… Just this once, it may be more literal than Pops has ever intended it to be.

Ace glances at Luffy again, and although his brother hasn’t physically changed in the few seconds after this unexpected revelation, it feels like Ace is looking at him for the first time.

If the Maiden really is Luffy’s mother somehow, then he is the child of a real-life, literal goddess. An actual deity of the seas. So that makes Luffy, Ace’s own baby brother… a probable demigod, born of the sea herself.

It makes him want to laugh hysterically, or bang his head into the wall, or maybe both. If the government or the Marines found out—hell, if anyone outside of Luffy and Ace’s trusted circles found out—they’d instantly be clamoring to get their hands on him. Especially after what happened at Marineford.

Ace suddenly wonders just how many people have seen Luffy swimming already, and he may just bang his head into a wall anyway.

And here he thought his parentage was complicated.

But then, if all this is true… There's still one thing he can't quite wrap his head around.

“That Revolutionary guy is your dad, right?” After Luffy nods in confirmation, Ace thinks for a moment and then makes a face. “But if your mom is the ocean, then how the hell…?”

He stares at his brother, who looks back at him with a completely oblivious expression. Inwardly, Ace supposes that of all the impossibilities in this world, of course one would result in the existence of Monkey D. Luffy.

One answer only spawns more questions. When it comes to his troublesome little brother, of course it does.

All of this is making his head hurt. At the very least, he’s glad that Luffy is here with him now, safe and sound and where he can see him, ensconced in the heart of the Whitebeard Fleet to be protected from anyone who may wish him harm.

The Maiden must be watching over them as well, quiet yet ever-present in her domain of the open sea. The very idea of an ocean goddess keeping a silent watch over Luffy and all those close to him, including Ace himself…

It's terrifying. And humbling. And if he's honest with himself, actually kind of a comforting reassurance. It's an idea that'll take some getting used to, that's for sure.

For now, putting to rest an age-old mystery that he's always wondered about is enough. He'll worry about the rest later, before he gets a headache and the nurses start fussing over him again.

Ace shakes his head, switching gears to say, “You know what, never mind. Have you been to the galley for lunch yet?”

Luffy immediately perks up, bouncing to his feet. “Yeah, but I could go again!”

“Same. Let's go.”