Unfortunately, having his brother onboard meant that Ace got his own special Luffy wake-up call at an ungodly hour of the morning.
There were few things more aggravating than waking to Luffy's monster-voice as he bounced excitedly on your bed. At an ungodly hour of the morning.
Ace kicked him.
Harder than he meant to because – whoops. Ah well, he would fix that later.
"That's why I told you not to wake people up!" Someone – Zoro, Ace thought – growled from outside his cabin. If Luffy had dragged his entire crew to come wake Ace up for breakfast he was going to have words with his brother.
And words would have to be had, because there they all were – except Sanji, who, if Ace had learned anything about the cook over the past seven days, was probably glorying in his newfound status as a Person Allowed to Touch Things in Marjane's Kitchen.
Experience had taught him to never get between Luffy and food, or delay Luffy from food… or to interfere with Luffy and food in any way, so Ace allowed his brother to drag him to the mess hall earlier than he would have liked. Although maybe Luffy had had the right idea of it, because by the time they had settled themselves at a table, Ace's stomach was growling.
Apparently René never wanted to face Luffy's appetite again if he could help it, and several of the kitchen staff were of a similar mindset, so it was Sanji – still looking smug about being proved right concerning Luffy's monstrous ability to consume food – who brought them their breakfast. Ace and Luffy put conversation aside for the moment as they fell into their time-tested routine of inhaling everything in sight; Luffy eating at inhuman speed and stealing off everyone's plate but Ace's (Ace having painstakingly taught his brother years ago to not touch his food. Ever).
Eventually Luffy was sated enough to start talking while he stuffed his face with food, but Ace and the Strawhats ignored him, leaving the ogling to the fascinated and slightly revolted members of Ace's crew, some of whom seemed to have been put off their breakfast. As they had for the seven years they lived together, Ace and his brother finished eating at the same time, and Luffy finally noticed their audience. He waved at the other tables cheerfully and then grinned impossibly as something entertaining occurred to him. Ace braced himself.
"Roooobiiin! Show them the Chopper thing!"
Robin put aside the book she had been reading at the table and crossed her arms: two hands sprouted from Luffy's head… like antlers.
Usopp and Chopper immediately burst into laughter – two teenagers enjoying the antics of a third; Ace and the other Strawhats laughed at the expressions on everyone's faces.
Luffy's laughter rang over everyone else's, delighted and amused. Then two arms sprouted from his stomach and began tickling him. He collapsed to the floor, nearly shrieking with mirth. Usopp and Chopper joined him a moment later.
Robin turned back to the table and her book, smiling like she knew exactly how precious and special Luffy was.
Then Luffy decided that he had had enough of the mess hall and bounced out in search of new adventures on the ship, nakama in tow. Ace stayed behind a little longer to catch up with crewmates and field questions concerning Luffy's intelligence and sanity. Then he sat on deck and watched his own nakama's sanity strain under the effects of Luffy's… Luffyness.
Luffy was slightly clingier than Ace remembered him, always remaining, through accident or design, within arms' reach of one of his nakama (although, this being Luffy, within "arms' reach" was sometimes halfway across the ship). Whether this was a change wrought over the three years they had spent apart or a result of whatever incident had apparently separated the Strawhats, Ace couldn't tell.
His brother's nakama didn't act as though anything were different, so maybe it was simply one of the hundred of subtle and insignificant changes that had taken Luffy from the chopsticks-up-the-nose kid to captain of a world-renowned pirate crew. Although, seeing Luffy interact with Ace's own crew, he supposed that Luffy would probably always be the chopsticks-up-the-nose kid.
They all somehow ended up around Brook's borrowed piano. Robin half-reading a book in a lawn-chair while Nami sipped whatever Sanji had abandoned the kitchen to give her, as the cook hovered and paid her a thousand compliments. Zoro was settling himself for a nap against one of the piano's legs and Franky, sitting on the deck and leaning against Robin's chair, was scribbling something on a piece of paper. Luffy, Chopper and Usopp lay sprawled in a heap after their latest game of something-teenage-boy-and-stupid.
Luffy heaved a deep, contented sigh and said happily: "Ah, I really missed you guys."
Chopper burst into tears. "That doesn't make me happy you bastard! I didn't miss you at all!" He might have been more convincing if he weren't clinging to Luffy and grinning like an idiot.
By now, Chopper's reaction didn't particularly surprise Ace. The fact that most of the Strawhats were pretending like they weren't surreptitiously wiping their eyes did.
"Just how did you all get separated?"
"That stupid bear-looking guy!"
"Luffy." Zoro said, a hint of warning in his voice, and Luffy pouted.
"Okay, he got us away from the freaky Light-guy, but he didn't have to split us up did he? That wasn't nice! I needed you!"
Nami sighed. "I can't believe you attacked Impel Down without us."
Not thinking of Luffy in Impel Down. Not thinking of Luffy in Impel Down
"I wanted you guys with me! But I didn't have time to wait for everyone to meet me back at Shabondy. And Zoro would have got lost."
"I would not."
He wasn't going to think about the way Luffy had collapsed after their escape from Marinford either.
"What. Were you thinking?" Ace only realized after the fact that he was the one who'd spoken. "Impel Down, Luffy. Impel Down! You idiot! People don't invade Impel Down!"
Shit shit shit. He had already decided they weren't going to have this conversation. Had decided to let it go and…enjoy his brother's company, enjoy being home. But now that Ace had started speaking, he couldn't stop.
"Alone! Just you, against the thousands guarding the most impregnable prison in the world!" He was standing now, fists clenched, voice rising uncontrollably. Dammit.
"Not that it would have mattered if you brought an army because– Did you even look around when you were there? Or did you miss all the warships? The tens of thousands of Marines guarding the prison?!" Ace took a deep breath. "No. You know what, forget it. Never mind." He turned around and walked away, too upset to even speak to his brother; too sick to his stomach with that remembered terror to remain in Luffy's presence for a second longer.
He needed space and quiet and to not be around other people right now. If only he had his little Logia-run skiff; he could be out on the ocean, just him, the water, and the wind, burning off some of his frustration. His helplessness and shame.
But the skiff was gone, so Ace headed for the solitude of his cabin; it would not make him feel better, would not alleviate his nauseating sense of being boxed in. But Ace was not fit for company right now, and at least this way he wouldn't lash out at anyone else.
To his relief he reached the safety of his cabin without anyone stopping him on his half-run through the ship. He collapsed onto his bunk and tried hard to banish the very vivid impression that he was in another cage.
He had a minute to feel well and truly claustrophobic before Luffy opened the door.
They stared at each other in silence across the room. Luffy looked resigned, determined and concerned. In another situation Ace might have felt touched that his brother had come after him, but now Luffy had trapped Ace in his own space, in his own room, and after that burst of temper it was nearly unbearable.
"I did see them, the warships." Luffy said softly, "And the monsters and the traps. I know it was dangerous." He was using his gentle voice, the one Ace had only ever heard once: when Ace been sick with seapox and Dadan had forbidden Luffy to see him, in case he got sick too. Luffy had snuck into his room anyway, to keep Ace company with whispered songs and stories that Ace, delirious with fever, had only half-understood. He had kicked Luffy's ass for that, after he got better and realized what his idiot little brother had risked.
The memory did nothing for his temper.
"But you still thought it was a good idea to– to walk into the most secure prison in the world and pick a fight with the guards!?!"
"No, that was an accident."
"An accide– was Marinford an accident!?!! What, had you not filled your quota of stupidity for the day, you had to challenge the goddamn world?!" Ace picked Luffy up by his vest and shook him. "You're a rookie – a child – do you have any idea, any idea, how dangerous that was? You could have been crushed – you nearly were, you blockheaded, reckless dumbass!"
"'Like an ant in a raging storm.'" Luffy remarked.
Ace was used to his brother absorbing blows like they were nothing, but Luffy was still not fully healed, and he winced slightly when Ace slammed him against the wall. He dropped Luffy immediately, aghast; feeling somehow so much worse than he had when he first fled to his cabin.
"Please get out."
Luffy gave him a level, appraisingly look. Then he inclined his head slightly and left, closing the door behind him.
Ace sank to his knees, shattered.
"I knew you were going to be angry." Luffy's voice, from the other side of the door. And Ace was an idiot: he had told Luffy to get out, not go away. Trust the blockhead to follow his orders to the letter when it suited him.
"Incidentally, he was concerned you might be angry with him."
"I know you're strong, stronger than me, even! But Ace, they were going to execute you and you couldn't have escaped on your own!"
Ace said nothing. He was out of energy, out of words.
"You're my brother! I couldn't just stand by and do nothing."
"It was my own stupid mistake. And it was bad enough my crew came but you–"
"I'm glad they came! I would have had a hard time rescuing you on my own." And that was all that mattered to Luffy, wasn't it? He would have taken on the assembled forces at Marinford whether Whitebeard had shown up or not. The thought was terrifying.
But this talking through the door was stupid – Luffy wasn't going to go away until they'd sorted this out and Ace had been an idiot to even think he would. He dragged himself up and opened the door – which Luffy must not have expected because he tumbled onto the floor, a look of surprise on his face.
"Oh! Hi." Luffy's grin faded when Ace didn't respond, and picked himself off the floor. "You would have done the same thing," he said quietly.
"I–" he would have, no power in the world could have kept him away. But the thought of their positions reversed was devastating; Luffy in chains… He pulled his brother into a rough hug and tried to push the nightmarish vision away. "I wouldn't have done it–" alone? Like he hadn't gone after Teach alone? "–so stupidly," Ace finished lamely, hands fisted in the back of Luffy's vest.
Surprisingly, Luffy took offence to this. "That was Buggy's fault! I promised Hancock I wasn't going to cause a scene and then he ran into me with a bunch of blue guys!"
He didn't want to know how his brother had come to be on first-name terms with a Shichibukai, he really, really didn't. "You don't get it. Luffy if you'd d–" he tightened his grip on his brother, "if you'd died I… Shit, Luffy, that would have been worse than anything they could have done to me."
He felt sick, and guilty, and wrung out. And then Luffy wrapped his arms around Ace and squeezed back reassuringly.
"I'm sorry I worried you. But we made a promise, to never regret anything. Ace, if I hadn't been there I'd have regretted it forever."
"We have to live our lives so we never have any regrets."
"I don't think I held up my end very well."
Luffy looked up at him, bemused. "Why? You have a great crew. And the old man is bossy, but he's pretty cool."
"The old man is my captain, so show some respect!" But, despite himself, Ace smiled a bit as he squished his brother closer. He still had…so many regrets from the past few months, and he couldn't imagine they would ever go away: his recklessness, just how close he had come to dragging everyone he loved into disaster. And yet–
Luffy was right. Ace was…blessed. He had loyal, insane, loving nakama. He had Whitebeard – captain leader mentor father. He had Luffy. Stupid, happy, vibrant, irrepressible Luffy, the best little brother anyone could ever hope for.
"You think I'm going to allow the humiliation of being rescued by my weakling little brother?!"
"I'm sorry." Ace mumbled into Luffy's hair.
"For yelling at you. Today and… that day. I shouldn't have. I–"
"No, it's not, actually. I said some really horrible things to you; you're not a child anymore, or weak, or…"
Luffy's laughter vibrated through Ace and warmed him from the inside out. "Hey, I bet I could beat you now!"
Ace was trying to apologize to his brother, and all Luffy cared about was the possibility he might get Ace back for seven years of one-sided trouncing.
He had missed his brother.
"I'd kick your ass."
"Hmm? Why are we kicking Luffy's ass?" Marco strolled into view and leaned against the doorway, all casual nonchalance, as if he hadn't heard that Ace had flipped and come around for damage control.
"He has delusions of grandeur," Ace said mock-solemnly over Luffy's head. "He thinks he can beat me in a fight." Both Luffy and Marco started laughing at the same time and Ace felt lingering tension bleed away, leaving him warm and light and happy. He nudged Luffy with his shoulder, "Go back to your nakama, they probably miss you. And maybe tell them your brother isn't always this crazy."
"Nah, they like you." But Luffy disentangled himself from Ace and headed off. "See you later, Bird-Guy!"
Marco snorted and watched Luffy bounce off, an amused smirk teasing at the corner of his mouth. Then he turned to Ace and grinned. "Alright, so it's possible – just possible, mind – that he's as special as you always said he was."
Ace couldn't help beaming back at him. "Please! Everyone on this ship has already adopted him and you know it."
Marco laughed. "Yeah, it's funny isn't it?"
"Thanks for…looking out for him back at– during the battle."
"Well, he was kind of fun, I thought we might like to keep him around a little longer. Plus, you know, Captain's orders." So Whitebeard had made a point to keep an eye out for Luffy. That was comforting, even after the fact.
Marco shot Ace a sideways look. "You okay?"
"Yeah. I guess…listen, Marco about Marin–"
"Before you finish that sentence, I want you to think long and hard. I want you to think of how offended you were when Anne tried to thank you after you sailed your little skiff into that whirlpool to pull her out. I want you to think about what you said to Luc when he tried to apologize for the Rackham fiasco. I want you to remember a young captain who challenged a Yonkou, and then stood his ground so his crew could get away safely."
The feigned indifference was gone, and Marco stared Ace down, eyes serious and steady. "You're ours, idiot, and the only person allowed to beat on you is our old man." Then he grinned, "and your brother."
There wasn't much he could say to that. Yes, he had been afraid for his family, he had felt guilty, but – they were okay. They were alright.
Ace smiled. "We should probably get back to everyone before Luffy breaks their brains."
"You mean you don't want to miss the show." Marco swung an arm around Ace's shoulders – and if he didn't usually ruffle Ace's hair, well, Ace's family had been scared for him too.
When they got back to the main deck they found Luffy sitting with his arms tangled around most of his nakama, the whole group singing Bink's Sake at the top of their lungs while Brook played the piano. Luffy was trying to engage Ace's crewmates in the song and having limited success; everyone was too self-conscious. That wouldn't last long though – Luffy's party spirit was irresistible.
The Strawhats smiled when they saw Ace. It was their Luffy smile: the slightly gentle, amused look they all wore when discussing their captain's antics. The warm, affectionate expression, wrapped up in trust and faith and as much irreverence as respect. They knew, that smile told him, what Luffy had said to him, even if they never heard the actual words.
Luffy had chosen a good crew.
There was some shuffling in the human rubber knot as the Strawhats indicated he should join them, Luffy cheerfully oblivious to the movement around him as he continued to encourage everyone on deck to sing. Ace settled himself next to his brother's nakama, while Marco went to tease the rookies into joining the singing. A rubber arm twisted around his shoulders and pulled him closer into the group.
Ace took his worries, his frustrations, his guilt and fears, and let them go.