Ace is the first one back.
In his heart and hands, he still feels Luffy’s warm body in his hands, his shaking shoulder under Ace’s chin. Feels an emptiness in his chest where he was punched through by Akainu. Still feels the smile he died with, thankful beyond anything in existence to have been loved by so many precious, amazing people.
Thankful for his one and only family.
Slowly, the world enters Ace’s senses to wake him from his peaceful and endlessly dark sleep. Pain creeps up his shoulders and his spine, his head beginning to throb violently.
Well, Ace thinks, this sure is a shitty afterlife.
He was never one to believe in a life after death in the first place, so he supposes it’s fitting.
“Ace! Ace! Look, he’s moving!”
A loud yell cuts through the ache in his head, and Ace forces his eyes to open at the sound of what can only be Luffy’s voice. Because it can’t be right, it can’t be possible that Ace is dead and Luffy is here with him - because the whole point of Ace taking that attack was to make sure Luffy lived, and because there is no point in any world where Luffy isn’t alive. Ace would rather spent an eternity dying every day than even think of Luffy dying.
“Ace? Ace, can you hear me?”
Blinking blearily, Ace does his best to narrow his eyes on the figure in front of him wearing that same, signature straw hat with a falling heart.
“Luffy?” Ace mouths, ignoring the ache screaming throughout his entire body to try and sit up.
“Brat! You shouldn’t be moving yet!” Large, rough hands come up to his shoulder to push him down, but they set him down on the bed surprisingly gently.
“Dadan! Look, he woke up! He’s okay now, right?” Luffy is asking, and Ace-
-Ace is lost.
Dadan? Inhaling shakily he coughs and convulses around his chest from the shooting pain it sends everywhere. “Fuck!”
Panting heavily, Ace just barely manages to catch a clear glimpse of Luffy’s small, childish face full of worry before he passes out.
When he wakes up again, the pain has receded to a more manageable level, and he doesn’t feel like breathing is only slightly better than a kick to the balls. His left hand is strangely hot, and it takes Ace a full minute to turn his head and realize it’s because two much smaller hands are wrapped around them, a familiar straw hat covering the head the arms lead to.
He wants to speak up, but his throat is so dry that all he can do is start coughing again.
“Oi! I hope you’re not trying to get up again, you shitty brat!”
Stunned, Ace can only stare as none other than Curly Dadan walks through the door with blood-stained bandages in her hands.
His lips move as he tries to say something, anything, and she scoffs at him.
“You’ve been knocked out for a month! Of course you can’t talk,” she says with a rough swipe across her eyes as if to wipe sweat away. Setting the bandages down in a basin of water for washing, she walks over to pour him a glass of water from the nightstand. “Here. Drink slowly!”
Helpless, Ace can only swallow as she tilts the water into his mouth for him, her broad hand supporting his head.
“W-What…what happened?” Ace finally asks, unable to formulate any other kind of question. Where is he? Why the hell is Dadan here? He couldn’t have possibly survived that punch, he knows it. Felt it, when it tore through his chest and over half of his organs were melted into ash. And even if he had somehow miraculously made it past that, none of this makes any sense.
“What happened? WHAT HAPPENED?!” Enraged, she slams the cup back onto the nightstand and stands up to wave her fingers threateningly at him. “You’re an idiot, THAT’S what happened! You fell asleep god knows where and somehow got your entire chest BURNED, you PIECE OF SHIT-”
But Ace doesn’t have the time to process what she’s saying after she bursts into tears because the straw hat on the bed starts moving, and the small black eyes peering from underneath its brim immediately grow wet.
Immediately, rubber arms stretch around him twice, thrice, to wrap him in a hug and send Luffy into his lap.
For a short second, Ace’s brain short-circuits from pain and he wheezes, unable to think properly.
“I thought….I thought you w-weren’t gonna wake u-up!” Luffy blubbers, his tears streaming down his face and onto Ace’s bandages. “Your heart s-stopped, and you were c-cold, and Doc said it didn’t m-make sense-”
Wailing, Luffy tightens his grip on Ace and continues to suffocate even as Dadan tries to yank him off with threats of starvation.
What the fuck?
“What the fuck?” Ace says out loud, voice weak. Dadan almost yells at him again while she tugs at Luffy’s arms, but even she loses her anger when faced with the absolute helplessness she sees in him.
Ten minutes and a slow explanation later, Ace is still flabbergasted. This is either some weird, fucked up afterlife, or Ace is currently under the effects of a Devil Fruit he doesn’t understand. Considering the faint burn of his lungs as he breathes and the throbbing in his head that doesn’t seem to disappear, the second option is much more likely. He doesn’t quite understand the point, though, when it’s clear he’s dying. Even if this fake alternate universe, or illusion, or whatever it is, he can still feel the pain of his chest being obliterated by a fistfull of lava.
Fake-Luffy is still sniffling by the bed, his eyes red as he tries to wipe away his tears. Ace doesn’t know what someone could possibly gain from trapping him in a place like this, but his wounds prevent him from finding out. He can hardly move at all, and every time he tries, Fake-Luffy and Fake-Dadan do everything possible to restrict him to the bed. Regardless of whether they’re just manipulated memories or something else, Ace doesn’t have it in his heart to hurt them and leave by force.
Not to a Luffy of any kind, after what’s happened at Marineford.
Dadan’s big ass head covers his wound from view when she leans in to check on the damage from Luffy’s wailing, but he can tell from the way the cold air hits him after it's unwrapped that it’s bad. Not as bad as the real thing, of course, but probably as realistically close as it can be to pretend it’s healing.
“Looks like he didn’t mess up too much,” she grunts, shooting a dark look to a chagrined Luffy as he fists his hands into his shorts. “But it’s still looking pretty bad. We still can’t figure out how it got this bad...it’s like you roasted yourself on a fucking spit, but that doesn’t make sense since we found you on the beach.”
Of course it does. Akainu put his entire fucking fist through Ace, after all. It seems pointless to bring that up, though, considering this is just a dying hallucination forced upon him by the Navy or their dogs. For what? Information on Luffy? On his no-show dad, Dragon? Whatever it is they’re looking for, they’re not gonna find anything.
“D-Doc said, the burns were really bad,” Little Luffy interrupts his thoughts, peering at Ace again from under his straw hat with guilt written all over him. “B-But not bad enough to make you sleep for that long, without m-medicine.”
“Yeah,” Dadan says, her voice low. “You kept falling in and out of a fever, and nothing would wake you up. We were starting to think you might not make it.”
“But he did! Ace is the strongest! Something like this won’t take out Ace,” Luffy says stubbornly, glaring at her.
“You’re the one who was crying all over him five minutes ago,” Dadan points out angrily, knocking him on the head.
“That’s because! Because...being awake and being dead are two different things,” Luffy whines, clutching at his hat while her fists rain down on him for being cheeky.
Ace barely hears the lecture pouring out of her mouth, still deciding whether he should ignore this illusory world until he dies or make the most of it. If it’s all fake, made from his memories, what’s the worst that could happen? If it was a punishment made to use the worst memories of his childhood instead of reconnaissance, it certainly wouldn’t be something like this.
No, it would probably be-
Immediately, Ace looks at Luffy again and narrows his eyes like he can figure out his exact age just by looking.
“Oi, Luffy,” Ace calls out, frowning at the itch in his throat when he speaks. “Where’s Sabo?”
Amidst the sudden silence that threatens to swallow the entire fort whole, Luffy’s round eyes swell with tears once more, his face screwing up.
There it is - the answer.
“It’s okay, Lu,” Ace sighs, lying back down with a tangled mess of emotions. “I remember, I just-”
Wondered. If maybe he’d be here too, in this world where reality and illusion mixed.
“You can’t see him!” Luffy yells all of a sudden, shocking Dadan, Ace, and the rest of the gang lingering behind the door uneasily. “You’re not allowed! You promised me you won’t die!”
Punching Ace on the arm conveniently not covered in any wounds, Luffy takes in a deep breath and scrubs his eyes.
“Stupid Ace,” Luffy grumbles, his voice cracking, “you can’t leave me alone. Don’t even think about it! S-Sabo might be a little lonely all by himself, but I! I’ll be even lonelier with both of you gone!”
Oh, Ace thinks. This...This might be worse than losing Sabo.
Because having to relive that would suck, but nothing would make Ace feel like a bigger piece of shit than having to watch Luffy mourn him in person after all that his little brother went through to free him at Marineford.
For Ace. Because against all odds, against all reason, Luffy loved him enough to fight the entire world for him. And Ace knows that Luffy’s crew will be enough to keep him going, enough to prevent him from ever being lonely, but the fact is that he made a promise to his little brother and couldn’t keep it. His one and only, goofy, kind, foolish and reckless, amazing little brother that he swore to never let go of.
Wordlessly, Ace covers his eyes with an arm to hide the growing wetness on his lashes, his lungs stuttering the slightest bit.
“Sorry,” he whispers, a lump in his throat. “I broke my promise.”
“No! Y-You scared me, and you slept for a really long time, but! You woke up, and you’re alive. So you d-didn’t break the promise,” Luffy sniffs, voice trembling.
Ace can hear quiet footsteps as Dadan walks out of the room, the multiple eyes watching them vanishing to leave them alone. Good. Ace has something to say, and it would only be harder if anyone else was around.
“Luffy,” Ace croaks, drawing his little brother’s attention. “Thank you.”
For being my little brother. For loving me. For fighting for me when I couldn’t. For being one of the reasons my life was worth living.
He’s said part of it in real Luffy’s arms, but he can’t help the need to say it once more.
Rubbing his snot on his shirt sleeve, Luffy sniffs one last time and replies with no small amount of uncertainty, “You’re welcome?”
Ace doesn’t need to open his eyes to see the smile on Luffy’s face, and he can’t help but laugh under his breath.
Drifting off into sleep once more, Ace wonders if this is where the illusion ends. Bittersweet as it is, he thinks it makes a nice parting gift.
But despite these thoughts, he wakes up. Again and again, he wakes up, startled by how powerful the Devil Fruit being used on him is. The feel of the sun, the sting of the burns, the warmth of Luffy’s skin against his when they sleep - all of it feels so real. It’s ridiculous, the way it can capture all these things down to the littlest details when even Ace’s own memory can’t cobble them together from his childhood.
After a few days, Ace realizes it might be the kind of ability that can only be broken by force; he has no energy to fight this peaceful lie, and with his death nearing there’s no need. Dying in the depths of his mind with people he loves...it’s not bad at all. He’s been restricted to bed rest strictly due to the concerningly “slow” healing of his wound compared to any other, and Ace almost laughs every time they fret over it. It’s too funny to think that even in this made-up world made for him to die in, he’s able to witness the care they all have for him.
So Ace listens. He doesn’t start fights, and he stays in bed without issues, much to their horror. Dogra sobs that he drank too much seawater and damaged his brain before they found him, and Ace rolls his eyes at the tears in everyone’s eyes when they imagine a plethora of issues he might face in the future with brain injuries.
In any case, it’s not like he’d be able to step outside and find Pops or the others. With the massive amount of attention poured into recreating Dadan’s fort and everyone inside, it’s highly unlikely a world outside this place even exists. To create such a large space with so much detail requires power and concentration beyond words, and limiting the area to a single mountain house is much easier to control finer details in than an entire island.
Strangely enough, the injury on his chest does seem to be healing bit by bit as time passes instead of getting worse like Ace expects it to. Breathing doesn’t hurt anymore, and neither does getting up and moving around. He can barely even remember the excruciating pain that ran through him constantly when he first woke up in this world. He tries to pass it off as a sign that his death is only a short time away, but he can’t keep up with that when the bandages come off.
“Alright, arms up,” Dadan orders, eye twitching when Ace lifts them without making a fuss. She - and Dogra, Magra, and Luffy too - seem unable to handle his suddenly docile personality. Luffy has even been convinced that stomach wounds can cause personality changes, and has bravely offered more meat these past few days to Ace in an attempt to make him recover sooner. Ace had stared at the leg of meat for an entire minute before he split in half, grinning at the shine in Luffy’s eye when they shared it.
“Clear!” she declares, and resounding cheers rise from all over the fort.
“Huh?” Confused, Ace takes a peek at his body and blinks at the freshly pink, knotted scar on his chest right between his ribs and stomach. Poking it, grey eyes blink again.
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?” Dadan yells as Ace starts poking even more forcefully. “Are you trying to make it worse again?!”
“It’s really healed,” Ace says incredulously by way of explanation, and she clicks her tongue at him.
“Of course it is! You’re too much of a devil for something like that to take you down. It’s been almost two weeks since you woke up.”
“Two weeks?” Ace repeats, his head buzzing. Two weeks? Has he truly been here that long?
“And a whole MONTH in that damn coma,” she adds, her lips struggling not to twitch into a smile as she takes in the sight of him able to move around without any wounds. “Normally, you would’ve been up and running around within a week. Your body is probably sick and tired of the shit you put it through all the time! You also scared the hell out of us, always saying Luffy’s name...we thought he drowned with you before Makino dropped him off!”
Slowly, Ace looks up to meet her eyes, head still buzzing while he tries to figure out what’s going on. “I was calling Luffy?”
“Luffy this, Luffy that,” Dadan rants, packing away the medical kit with a huff. “And something about Garp and a red dog? You were out of your mind. Hell, I thought it was finally time we were gonna be rid of a brat like you.”
“Red dog….Akainu?” Eyes widening while blood surges through his veins like ice, Ace shoots to his feet instantly.
“Mm, something like that,” she nods, barely paying attention. “Oi, if you guys get a new pet, NO bringing it back here! We already have enough to worry about with you two little demons running around-”
His rapid heartbeat drowns out her next words entirely, his mind going haywire as it tries to process everything at once.
There’s no way - it’s not possible, he tells himself. It’s not, and that’s why he’s known all this time that it’s a Devil Fruit power.
But for them to hear something like that before he even woke up in this world, for him to wake up with severe burns all over his chest and watch them get better little by little - it’s just too much of a coincidence.
“Where’s Luffy?” Ace asks, hardly recognizing his own voice.
“Ah? He went down to the village to grab some food from Makino,” Dadan says, “he promised to bring you some, remember?”
For the first time since waking up here, Ace stands up and makes his way to the door, bile lingering at the back of his throat when his hand lands on the doorknob. It’s impossible, Ace knows. But even so, he cannot help but hope. That there exists a fortress behind this door, on top of a mountain, on an island in the middle of the wide, bright and beautiful East Blue. That if he opens this door and sees Luffy, his little brother won’t be a Devil Fruit induced memory or hallucination, and that he’ll be real.
“I’m going out,” Ace says, forcing his shaking hand to twist the knob slowly.
The floor creaks under him when he steps out of the room, sunlight filtering in through the windows on the right where a bunch of the Family are talking. Left, right, and straight down, the front door groans just like the one from his memories, and beyond that-
-lies the forest of his childhood, trees rustling in the gentle wind that brings the taste of sea with it.
Ace’s heart thumps so loudly he can barely think, his eyes turning to the only thing that can possibly answer the question lingering inside.
“Oh, Ace! You’re up! Makino and I brought food,” Luffy greets him enthusiastically on his way up the path with Makino, a wide beam on his face.
He ignores Luffy to solve the most pressing issue first, taking off without a second look towards the sea. His lungs burn as he runs through the forest, chest heaving and arms swinging wildly from tree to tree over water until he reaches the last hill by the shoreline. Sweat streaking down his skin, Ace gives himself only a moment to think on this twice before he throws himself into the sea’s embrace.
Say that a Fruit-user strong enough to imitate half of an entire island does exist, and they managed to make it believable enough that Ace can’t find any incongruencies - there would be only one way to find out the truth. Devil Fruits can do many, many miracles, but everyone knows there’s one opponent no Devil Fruit user can ever defeat; the ocean and her seas are merciless in their hatred, and no fruit-user will ever have the power to defy them.
So, if by any chance this is all real and not the effect of a Devil Fruit - if, by some miracle, Ace has woken up in a different world or different time and this is not simply a complex lie built upon that which he misses, he’ll be able to float.
And if it isn’t, he’ll drown.
Water rushes past his ears and over his head, surrounding him in the sea’s chillingly cold embrace as he sinks down.
One, two, three, Ace counts, waiting for his answer. Will he float to the surface? Will he sink to the bottom of the sea floor? Will this be his final death instead of in Luffy’s shaking arms?
And with a gasp, his first breath out of the water is refreshingly clear.
“I’m alive,” Ace whispers, water dripping down his face and into the water.
Choking on a sob as the past two weeks flashes by his eyes, Ace takes deep breaths one after another, brine in his mouth and tears streaming down his face.
“I’M ALIVE!” he yells into the sky, grief, regret, and unholy joy swirling inside him like a hurricane. Despite being detained for execution, despite the World Government, despite the hatred against his father weighing upon his shoulders, and despite a burning fist crashing through his chest - he’s alive.
It hurts so, so much, in the best way. The sun on his skin, the swell of the sea around him, the call of seagulls above him - these everyday things he thought he would never get to have again, things he never cherished. Couldn’t cherish, because his own life never felt like it was worth anything. It took too many years and too many lives for Ace to realize that he doesn't want to die, and it’s a desire he cannot forget anymore.
When he kneeled there on that execution platform and watched as his family and all their friends fought to the last breath for him, he realized that his worthless, blood-stained life meant something to them. That this life he gave away so carelessly was loved beyond words because of who Ace was, and not because of anything else.
I want to live, Ace had said with tears in his eyes, and his wish was granted through a miracle that he will never be able to explain.
“AAAACEEEE!” Luffy screams, his head just barely visible from the mountain as he leans over and panics. “ARE YOU OKAY?!”
Turning around, he catches sight of Luffy and feels his heart stop. One Luffy becomes three while his eyes blur with tears again, and Ace moves.
“LUFFY!” he screams back, swimming back to shore as fast as he can. “OI, LUFFY!”
Luffy jumps down from the mountain slopes and onto the same hill Ace was on just seconds ago, his short legs working desperately to make it to Ace as fast as possible.
Filled with the desire to see Luffy, touch him, talk to him, Ace puts even more power into his breaststroke. Luffy, Luffy, Luffy-
-his stupid, stupid little brother, the brother who broke into the world’s most dangerous prison for him, the brother who came crashing into his life and his execution like a present from heaven itself, the brother who grew up from a crybaby into a strong man who fought against the entire world for those he loved-
Staggering to his feet once he hits sand, Ace yells at the top of his lungs, “LUFFY, COME HERE!”
Panicked, muddled, and worried, Luffy stretches his arms out across the beach to sling himself towards Ace at the summons.
“Ace, I’m coming!”
As if possessed, Ace raises his arms and stretches them outwards to catch Luffy directly, the force sending them both flat into the sand.
“A-Ace?” Luffy asks, lost at the obvious hug his older brother has him in.
“You’re alive,” Ace says, startling Luffy with his nonsensical behavior. “You’re alive, and so am I. All of this is real, and we’re both alive!”
Raising his head to look at Ace with a mixture of confusion and relief, Luffy sits up on his stomach with a grin. “Un, we’re both alive!”
Knocking his head back into the sand with a laugh that shakes his very bones, Ace grins. “I’m glad.”
Laughing hysterically, Luffy beams back at Ace with the sun above them throwing him into shadow under the straw hat.
“Well, of course you are!”
Salt water drips from into his mouth as they lay there, but all Ace can taste is an unexpected, gentle sweetness that melts on his tongue instead of salt.
It takes him a while to process the entire thing. In his heart, he understands that all of it is real, but his head can’t even begin to start. To go from dying in the midst of a war, Luffy’s shoulder under his as his brothers and sisters fight for him to - to this, it’s too much.
In the first place, Ace has no idea how to act anymore. He doesn’t know if this is a different time or a different world, and what his actions might change in the future. And yeah, maybe changing the future is the whole point, but how is he supposed to know how to make sure that future is better than the one he lived through?
The nights are long and restless, but Ace doesn’t mind. Sleep seems like a waste in the face of everything, and even more like a trap to steal him away from this and send Ace to his death. Clearly, this world can only be real - but he doesn’t know for how long, and how much of it is the same as the one he knows. The first night is spent by Luffy’s side, just taking in the sight of him snoring and sleep-talking to ground Ace to this unbelievable present. Silent tears stream down his face: for Whitebeard, for Thatch, for dying and living again in another life without the grandfather who swore to watch his last moments with the regret that he couldn’t change Ace’s future, for the brother who was willing to die for and with him. By the time Ace meets the rest of them, neither he or they will be the people they were when he last saw them. They’ll be alive and in better shape, but he’ll never be able to properly apologize for his actions to them the way he wishes he could.
He’s glad he was able to apologize to Luffy before he left. He meant every last word, and knows his final regret rang with truth. It would have come true, Luffy’s dream to become Pirate King. It will, Ace knows for sure the same way he knows the sun rises and night will fall. The Luffy he left behind and the Luffy before him - Luffy of every world and time was born to be free, and nothing is more free to him than the Pirate King. Wiping his tears away as reddish gold light breaks through the night to fill the sky, Ace laughs to himself and swears to see that dream come true with his own eyes no matter what this time.
Ace regains the energy he used to have and no longer sits around doing as everyone wishes, but even Luffy with his meat-filled brain can tell something is different. He’s not sure what’s changed, but he sits cross-legged in front of Ace in their treehouse one morning and takes a deep breath.
“Sorry,” Luffy says, his eyes closed like he expects Ace to hit him. “E-Even though men aren’t supposed to cry, I cried.”
And he’s so little, this Luffy, all baby cheeks and fine hair, his hands so small that Ace could wrap both of them in his with spare room for another. Small, and weak, and so very, very precious.
“It’s okay,” Ace says hoarsely, afraid he might start crying just by looking at him. “You can cry if you want to.”
“Huh? But, you told me before that,” Luffy starts, bewildered, forced to stop when Ace pats him on the head.
“Yeah, I said that,” Ace clears his throat, looking away. “But I changed my mind. You can cry, sometimes. Some things are worth crying over. Because...if I lost you, I’d cry too.”
And Luffy almost lost Ace twice if you counted the inexplicable coma he fell into before opening his eyes here. Forget two, even a hundred lifetimes will never be enough to make up for what Ace had to make Luffy go through.
Luffy sniffs like he’s crying again, but when Ace looks up at him there’s no tears to be found.
“Really?” Luffy asks, eyes wide and gleaming. The image of his older self, cheeky and skinny as a stick as he runs through a battlefield of Navy soldiers and pirates alike to reach Ace overlaps with the little round face in front of him, and a gentle smile comes to his lips unbidden.
“Of course, idiot,” Ace can’t help but say, pinching Luffy’s cheek. “You’re my little brother, after all. Not that I’ll ever let anything happen to you in the first place.”
“Hmph!” Crossing his arms, Luffy’s grin stretches his rubber cheeks even further. “I’m strong too, you know! Since I’m gonna be the Pirate King, I’ll be the strongest ever! Just wait, Ace.”
Laugh helplessly fond, Ace lets his cheek snap back and nods. “You’ll have to be able to beat me first!”
Tacking Luffy to the floor and tickling him, Ace throws aside the uncertainties that have been on his mind for the past week. Regardless of what the world turns out to be when he sets out to sea, he already knows what he knows what to do. If he doesn’t like what the world is like, then all he has to do is be strong enough that he can change anything the way he wants, right?
After gaining his bearings and stealing a newspaper from the village, Ace finds out it’s only been a little over a year since Sabo.
“Which means I’m 12,” he realizes, chuckling to himself as he pictures Luffy’s young face. “And Luffy’s turning nine.”
Furrowing his brow, Ace looks at the date on the newspaper and calculates how long he’s been here. If they’re halfway through February and his accident was a little month and a half ago, that means it happened…
...on his birthday.
Considering his birthday is January 1st, it could have nothing to do with him and more to do with whatever brought him back, but it’s still a shock.
Shaking his head, Ace reads the rest of the newspaper to see if anything big has happened recently that differs from his memories.
“Ace! Whatcha doing?” Luffy yells from the floor, looking up at the tree Ace is sitting in.
“Reading?” Luffy repeats, jaw dropping. “You hate reading!”
“Yeah, but I gotta keep up with what’s happening,” he responds, flipping the page distractedly.
Rubber arms stretch out to reach for the thick branch Ace is currently sitting on, Luffy propelling himself a little too far and almost falling to the floor again before Ace catches him by the back of his shirt and sets him on the tree properly.
“Thanks!” Leaning over to look at the newspaper curiously, Luffy asks, “So what’s happening?”
With a sigh, Ace folds the newspaper and says, “Nothing.”
“Heeeh? Boring,” Luffy’s face contorts in disappointment, “why were you reading it then?”
“In case something happened,” Ace explains, grinning. “Come on, let’s go!”
It’s hard, Ace learns, to be yourself and not. He’s so different from who he used to be, and he can’t - and won’t - pretend to be the way he was as a child. Can’t be that same, angry and bitter kid whose jagged edges only rounded out with age. Ace grew up, learned so much, and met so many people who changed him into an entirely different person, and those times are far beyond him now. Granted, he’s already learned his manners from Makino now and has become less of a spitfire - but even that hadn’t shaken off his regular character back then. Dadan, Magra, Dogra, Makino, the mayor, all the bandits, they can’t get used to him. He’s just a little too collected, too calm, too unsettling in the way that he looks at them all compared to before.
But he’s undoubtedly Ace, and somehow that will always be enough for Luffy.
“Makino told me that sometimes hitting your head can change your personality, or make your memories disappear! It can even make you never wake up ever again, even though you’re still breathing! That would have been the worst. But even though you were confused for a little, you remember everything. You still like meat, you can still beat everyone up, and you’re still my older brother!”
Taking a huge bite of alligator leg, Luffy grins through his food with meat juice all over his face. “So it doesn’t matter! Because you’re Ace, after all. Just an Ace who’s nicer than before, hehehe.”
“What, so you didn’t like me before?” Ace taunts, chest twisting with emotions he isn’t brave enough to name.
“Haah?! Of course I did! I just like a liiiiittle more now,” Luffy huffs, slinging himself across the fire to his brother’s side. “Before I couldn’t do things like this when you’re awake, but now I can!”
Biting down on a smile as Luffy settles himself between Ace’s legs, he ruffles Luffy’s hair and sighs.
“You’re too simple, you know that?” Ace says ruefully, Luffy’s head tilting back to meet his gaze. “What if I was an imposter?”
“But you’re not,” Luffy garbles through a mouthful of food. “You’re Ace.”
Stupid, Ace thinks with a squeeze of his heart. There’s no helping it, though. Luffy’s always been like that.
Snatching the meat in Luffy’s hands, Ace swallows it whole and spits out the bone.
“AAAAHH! My meat!”
“Come on, Luffy! Time to train your senses!”
“WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH MY MEAT?!”
With Luffy’s unconditional trust in him, things slowly return to normal. Ace might not cuss out anyone and everyone, might not go out of his way to get into fights every day, and isn’t as aggressive, but he still fights with everyone at the fort, steals food as he pleases, and won’t back down from any fight he can find himself in. Other than the strangely docile way he behaved when he first woke up, the only real difference is that he seems less angry. It doesn’t surround him the way it used to, like an ever-present cloak of violence and despair.
“I don’t know if he’s actually less angry,” Dadan says one day, swirling the alcohol in her glass with a solemn face. “Maybe he just got better at hiding it...but I do know he’s much more expressive with Luffy.”
“Ah, I noticed the same thing,” Makino gasps, hands coming over her mouth as she smiles happily. “Ace-kun really is nicer to Luffy than before, isn’t he? I saw him teaching Luffy how to fight earlier without even yelling.”
Snorting, Dadan one-shots her whiskey and slams the glass back down with a heavy sound. “Hmph! Little brat! He falls into a coma after being foolish like always and all of a sudden it’s like he can’t take his eyes off Luffy. You’d think we were all out to get them! God only knows how he got hurt in the first place.”
Grinning at the circular scar on his chest, Ace makes his way out of the house while Makino pours another glass of whiskey for Dadan with a giggle. He was going to ask Makino a question, but he can always ask her later.
Geez. If they want him to be nicer, they should try being as lovable as Luffy in the first place.
“Luffy! Ten more laps around the mountain!” Ace orders when he finds Luffy practicing punches on a tree outside.
“Ah?! But we just did 20,” Luffy whines, his long arms falling to the floor in disappointment. “I wanna practice my punches!”
“The more muscle you have, the harder you’ll hit when you finally land a punch,” Ace retorts, hooking his pipe into Luffy’s shirt and dragging him away from the tree. “Just like with Naguri! Come on.”
Watching Luffy whine and flail his limbs, Ace ruffles his hair. “Come on, Luffy. I’ll let you have a whole alligator if you can finish them faster than me!”
“Really?!” Brightening up immediately, Luffy sticks his tongue out and yells, “It’s a promise! I’ll beat you today, Ace!”
“We’ll see about that,” Ace retorts, taking off at full speed and leaving him in the dust.
“No fair! That’s cheating,” Luffy screams, running desperately after him.
Ace beats him, of course, but that’s to be expected. After a week just to process the fact that had survived something that should have killed him, Ace has spent every night training his body to its limits. He wants so badly to rush out to sea as he is, to find his pops and see his crew again as they used to be before everything - to warn them and get rid of Teach as soon as possible, but he knows better than that.
He’s only twelve right now. Even with extra training and knowledge of the future, Ace is nowhere near ready to set sail and do all that without dying. No one would believe a random stranger who started spouting about knowing the future and claiming to be part of the crew, and Pops would never take in anyone this young. Moreover, setting sail earlier than scheduled means Ace won’t meet Deuce and eat the Flame-Flame Fruit...while he might be able to encounter them both separately on his own, there’s no guarantee. Going to sea without either of them isn’t an option.
Not to him.
On top of that...eyes sliding over to Luffy’s sleeping face as he hauls himself up for another pull up on the edge of their treehouse, Ace grits his teeth past the burn.
He can’t break his promise to Luffy, either, and leave him all alone just because Ace is desperate for revenge. He has to be stronger, smarter, and more careful, because if the last life taught him anything, it’s that too many people find his life precious enough to die for.
And Ace is never going to let anyone else die for him ever again.
Fighting in this body is weird because of how much smaller and weaker it is compared to his adult form. He’s more than capable of fighting anyone on this side of the island should push come to shove, but his movements are too either too small or too large when he mistakes his reach; the force behind his attacks are inconsistent too because he can’t tell how much damage this body can deal anymore.
Slowly but surely, the constant physical training to build up muscle - and muscle memory - makes Ace much more comfortable in his twelve year-old body. His arms are firmer, legs thicker, and he can run basic drills all around the mountain with no problem. Luffy’s made a lot of progress too, he notices with a small sense of pride. Training with Naguri improved his ability to keep his arms straight in a punch, but now Luffy can also manage to hit the proper target six out of ten times instead of his previous three.
It’s much more than Luffy was able to do when he was this age before, and Ace is glad that his efforts in dragging the eight year-old into stricter training has improved his brother’s abilities. The biggest drawback of Luffy’s Devil Fruit is that it requires a lot of physical strength to maintain balance and force, and Luffy had to train for multiple years before he was able to reach that stage on his own. There’s still a very long time before Luffy reaches the level he used to be at when Ace met him in Alabasta, but sure enough his work is paying off.
Before he knows it, spring is already in full bloom and winter has long gone by. He and Luffy have both grown a few centimeters taller, and Ace is slowly becoming accustomed to this new version of his old life.
“Luffy, it’s your birthday soon, isn’t it? Is there anything you want?” Makino asks during her monthly visit as she strokes Luffy’s hair, her smile just as gentle and kind as it always is.
Startled, Ace and Luffy both look up from their food and stare at her.
“I almost forgot!” Ace slaps a hand to his forehead in frustration.
“Me too,” Luffy laughs, swinging his legs from the chair with cheer. “Meat! I want tons of Makino’s delicious cooking, shishishi.”
Having a birthday on Children’s Day means people have a tendency to forget the difference when it comes to kids, but Ace knows he only forgot Luffy’s upcoming birthday because he’s been so busy training them both. In the first place, he never used to care about any other kids growing up - as far as he was concerned, May 5th only ever mattered because it was Luffy’s birthday. There was no one to give Ace presents or toys on Children’s Day, and there was none he would have wanted anyways. Gramps wasn’t - isn’t - the type to bring them presents of any kind either if they don’t come in the form of a cuff to the head.
Ace catches Makino on her way out, shifting awkwardly at her surprise.
“Ace-kun? Do you need something from me?”
“Well, that’s,” making a face, Ace leans up and whispers in her ear, his face flushed when she giggles.
“I see,” she nods, beaming. “That sounds like a wonderful idea. Leave it to me, Ace-kun.”
Relieved, Ace thanks her with a bow of his head and runs off before Luffy can spot them talking together. Okay! Birthday present, check.
Luffy’s always pretty easy to please, but that doesn’t mean Ace can’t try and do a little more to make his birthdays special. He’s had loads of birthdays he didn’t get to celebrate with Luffy, so there’s no harm in pretending, just to himself, that this is in return for those.
But most of his plans get shot straight to hell when Ace wakes up on May 1st and Luffy doesn’t.
He can tell the moment he wakes up that something is wrong, and the sight of a pale, clammy Luffy moaning under his breath only affirms his intuition.
“Luffy! Luffy!” Scrambling to his feet and checking his little brother over, Ace hisses when he touches Luffy’s skin and feels a searing heat.
“Oh, god, you’re burning up,” Ace whispers, horrified. This isn’t a regular fever, but he has no idea what could possibly be doing this to Luffy. They’ve eaten, drank, and gone to all the same places this entire week, which means that if something is happening to Luffy it should be happening to Ace too.
Doctor. They need a doctor!
“Sorry, Lu,” Ace mutters while he hikes his hands under Luffy to carry him on his back. “I’m getting help right now, okay? Just be patient a little longer.”
Morning is over an hour away, but Ace can’t keep Luffy waiting any longer; with his arms secured around his brother, Ace takes off for the fort as fast as he can.
“OI! WAKE UP!” Screaming as loudly as possible when it comes into sight, Ace kicks down the front door and raises hell. “I SAID WAKE UP!”
“BRAT! What the HELL do you want so early in the mor-”
Catching sight of Ace’s panicked face and Luffy’s head lolling over his shoulder weakly, Dadan drops her club.
“We need a doctor,” Ace says, voice thick with desperation.
Taking off her sleep mask, Dadan picks up where he left off. “OI! WAKE UP!”
Magra goes off to find Makino and a proper doctor while they get Luffy in a proper bed, wiping down his body with wet towels and changing his clothes.
“Did he eat something weird?”
“Drink something weird?”
“Touch something weir-”
“No! I’ve been watching him, and he didn’t do anything! He just got sick all of sudden,” Ace scowls, frustration pouring out of him in waves. “I woke up and he was like this. I came straight here, too.”
“Shit,” Dadan says with feeling, and Ace agrees.
“What the hell is taking Magra so long?” he asks, tempted to kick something over.
“Probably trying to find a doctor who’ll actually come up here,” Dadan mutters, brows furrowed. “You know the villagers don’t like us. The mayor’s the one who took you to town before and brought you back, since they can’t know about you.”
Ace doesn’t really care about having to hide his identity from the people on Dawn Island, but he does hate the fact that it makes things like serious medical issues a bitch to handle. In his original life, there’d never been any reason to need it when he and Luffy healed so quickly - but now, in this life, there’s already been serious emergencies twice. His burns and ensuant coma, and now Luffy’s fever. To make things worse, lying in an ice bath to bring down the fever might have unexpected consequences on Luffy because he’s a Devil Fruit User. It might cool him off, but soaking in water may also slow his regeneration enough to cause more trouble on top of the fever depending on what the hell is going on.
“If they won’t come up here, I’ll just take him down,” Ace says grimly, stalking towards the bed.
“Hey! You might make things worse if you keep dragging him around the island,” Dadan scolds him, standing in his way.
“I’ll take that chance over waiting hours for a doctor to come here because he’s afraid of the Family,” Ace retorts, moving around her and picking up Luffy with gentle hands. “Just going up and down Mt. Columbo takes a normal person two hours, and I’m not gonna put Luffy at risk.”
Clenching her teeth, Dadan snaps out, “Fine! But be careful with him.”
“He’s my brother,” Ace says by way of explanation before taking off.
Of course he’ll be careful.
Doing his best not to jostle Luffy while he runs down the mountain towards Fuusha Village, Ace manages to get there within half an hour; panting heavily, he looks around for the bar Makino runs while the sun begins its slow ascent into the sky above.
“Makino! I brought Luffy,” Ace announces when he rushes through the door, startling Magra and Makino in the middle of their pleas with a man holding a briefcase - the doctor they’re trying to convince, he assumes.
“Oh!” Worried, Makino hurriedly places her hand across Luffy’s forehead and goes pale. “Oh, Luffy...what a terrible fever!”
“Is this the patient you were talking about? Ah, this is Luffy!” The doctor notices, frowning. “He lives on the mountain now? How did he get this fever?”
“It came out of nowhere,” Ace tries to explain, but Magra rushes over to hide him from sight and lightly pushes him backwards.
“Come on, get out of here! Garp’ll be pissed if he finds out people saw you,” Magra whispers, softening at the expression on Ace’s face. “I’ll take care of things here, I promise. But you have to go.”
It’s for everyone’s best interests, he knows. If he was ever discovered and the Navy found out the islanders had known Ace personally, they’d kill them all by association under charges of harboring a criminal. Baterilla was just an example of how far they would go to rid the world of anything even slightly related to Gol D. Roger.
But knowing that doesn’t make having to leave any easier when Luffy’s struggling gasps fall on his neck weakly.
Reluctantly handing Luffy over to Magra, Ace takes a step backward and then another. The bad feeling in his gut that woke him up is still going strong, and it’s only gotten worse with every minute that goes by. Gritting his teeth, he makes up his mind and heads for the roof while they all cluster around Luffy to keep watch. There’s a spot near the back that’s still under repair from the latest storm, and it’s easy enough to hide himself amongst the stacked roof tiles so no one can notice him.
“It’s fine as long as no one sees me, isn’t it,” he grunts, conveniently close to an open window in the second floor where they’ve moved Luffy into Makino’s room. Muscles taught with concern and a growing sense of fear, Ace sits there through the doctor’s examination and their efforts to reduce Luffy’s fever.
“He’s always been a tough kid,” the doctor sighs with a shake of his head. “Something like a regular infection or bacteria wouldn’t be able to do this to him.”
“You mean...you don’t know what’s wrong with him?” Makino asks in horror, her eyes wet.
Freezing up on the roof, Ace thinks: god, no.
Because this is why his gut can’t stop churning; he knows that anything that can make Luffy so badly sick can’t be normal, and that the doctors here might not know enough to be able to help him.
“I’m going to put him on some antibiotics just in case, but I don’t know that they’ll work,” is all the doctor can say, Makino’s sobs startlingly loud as she realizes the severity of the situation. “Unless I can figure out why this is happening, all we can do is try and reduce his fever. If his temperature doesn’t go down within a few hours, we’ll have to cover him in as much ice as we can get our hands on. Make sure someone is with him 24/7.”
“Where are you going?” Makino asks him when he starts to leave, her hands clutched in her apron.
“To try and see if Dr. Yamino can help,” he answers solemnly, tipping his hat towards her before walking out.
Fuck, Ace thinks, fuck fuck fuck fuck. Fuck!
What is he supposed to do? Something like this has never happened before, and he has no idea how to fix this. A doctor from Goa would never make the trip here to treat Luffy, and Ace has no intention of carrying his brother across the island in this state. Being on an island in a distant corner of the East Blue limits their options, and there’s no way to contact someone on another island without going there personally first. The only people with Transponder Snails around here are nobles, which means they’re stuck with the two doctors that live here in Fuusha.
“Come on, Luffy,” Ace says fervently, closing his eyes in a prayer. “You can beat this. It’s just a fever.”
Makino closes the bar for the day, and plenty of villagers drop by out of concern for the little troublemaker who’d moved after those strange pirates left the island. The gentle morning slowly swelters with heat as the sun rises higher, and Ace sits there with his hands clasped together and his heart in his throat the entire time. He hopes Dr. Yamino, whoever the hell they are, knows something. That they can figure out what’s wrong with Luffy, and this will all go away by tomorrow.
“Have you seen Ace?” Magra asks Makino after returning from Mt. Columbo. “He never came back, they said.”
“No, I haven’t,” Makino replies, wringing the water out of a new cold towel for Luffy to use. “Are you sure he’s not hiding in the mountain somewhere?”
“Maybe,” Magra frowns, looking into the distance while Ace sits only twenty feet above him. “I’ll keep looking for him, then.”
It’s been two days since Luffy fell sick, and nothing’s changed. They’ve covered him in ice over and over again to stop him from burning up, but the fever has yet to break. Ace hasn’t moved from the roof since he got there, and he doesn’t plan to. Not until Luffy is okay.
Somewhere between Makino’s sobs as Luffy cried out in pain and the joint effort between her and the doctor to dunk him in a bath full of ice-water, Ace realized this might be his fault. That he has to pay a price for coming back alive instead of dying like he was supposed to, and that maybe that price will be his brother.
“I’m sorry, Luffy,” Ace whispers over and over again, fraught with guilt at the very idea. “Oh, God, please, please, please, whoever it is that brought me back, don’t take Luffy. I don’t need my life, I swear, don’t take his for mine.”
Ace can pay any price in the world except for his family - they’re the one thing that he cannot give up in any world and any life.
“Ace-kun,” Makino calls out quietly from the balcony. “I know you’re here.”
Frozen, Ace stops his back and forth rocking and darts his eyes to the green head of hair appearing below.
“You want to see Luffy, right? Come in,” she says to the empty night, her back towards him. “Everyone else is gone.”
Joints aching from staying in the same position on the roof for so long, he winces at the pop in his knees and slowly clambers down.
“I made dinner,” Makino smiles, her eyes heavy with bags from staying up through the night tending to Luffy. She looks tired in more ways than one, and he swallows the gratitude and shame that threatens to overcome him when he notices how weak she is.
After a moment of hesitation, Ace puts a hand on her back for support and uses the other one to guide her to a nearby chair.
“You can rest,” he says, looking over at Luffy. “I can take care of him tonight.”
“It’s okay, Ace-kun,” Makino begins, but he cuts her off with a shake of his head.
“Luffy would be upset if he woke up and saw you like this,” Ace mutters, draping a nearby shawl over her. “He’ll be fine. He always is.”
It’s something he says for both their sakes, and she can tell.
With a heavy heart, Ace takes in the IV leading up to Luffy’s arms, the quiet drip echoing in the silent room. Even asleep, Luffy is always full of energy. Seeing him lay on the bed so quietly still feels wrong, and he hates it. Biting down on his tongue fiercely, Ace reaches for the water basin and soaks a new towel to replace the lukewarm one on his brother’s forehead for when he’s done wiping down the sweat on his body.
“It’s so strange,” Makino sighs, “that you and Luffy went through something so similar right after each other.”
Gently swiping a cool towel over Luffy’s back, Ace turns his head in question.
“Your coma,” she reminds him, looking all the more exhausted just by mentioning it. “You wouldn’t wake up no matter what, even though your wounds weren’t life-threatening. We were so sure we prevented infections, but you kept falling in and out of a fever. In your case, we knew it was because you got a serious burn, though. At that time, Luffy was the one wiping you down to cool you off.”
“Well,” she says with a little more energy, “he wasn’t as good as you, of course. But he worked really hard!”
“My coma...it was this bad?” Ace asks, staring at the scar on the cheek in front of him.
“Luffy and the others were really worried,” Makino says gently, closing her eyes. “He never left your side either. Jeez, you brothers are just so similar!”
Cracking a small smile, Ace brushes sweaty black bangs aside with a nearly unbearable fondness. “He’s much more troublesome than me, though.”
“Really? I think he would say it’s the other way around,” Makino laughs, earning an amused huff in return.
“Sorry, Luffy,” Ace whispers, unruly bangs falling to cover his eyes. “Looks like I made you worry a lot. This time and last time too. I’m an annoying older brother, huh?”
Ace stays by his side until the sun rises, barely remembering to eat the dinner Makino put aside for him before leaving through the window again just in time to avoid the mayor’s arrival. Wobbling a bit on his feet at the lack of sleep, Ace grimaces and stabilizes himself using the chimney top before spotting something out of the corner of his eye. Wrinkling his brows and standing up to get a better view, grey eyes widen incredulously.
“Isn’t that-” A maelstrom of emotions bloom inside his chest, nearly sending him on his ass. Guilt, sorrow, frustration, and gratefulness - it’s a wicked, wicked pot that threatens to boil over, but then a startling realization breaks through it all to send energy coursing through his veins.
Punching his legs to make them firm up, Ace staggers to straighten up before jumping off the roof and heading to the port as fast as these short legs can take him.
“OI!” Completely ignoring the fact that he could wake the rest of the village up, Ace hopes his voice carries across the wind and shouts with all the air in his lungs. “GRAMPS!”
He has only five seconds to prepare for the incoming danger when he notices Garp’s eyes widen and then narrow, digging his feet into the dirt to hold his ground when the hulking figure jumps off the ship and aims a sharp punch at Ace’s head.
“YOU BRAT! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING OFF THE MOUNTAIN?!” Garp bellows, eyes glinting with fury.
“Shut up!” Ace snaps back, just barely pushing down the instinct to apologize even though he knows this isn’t the same Gramps who sat there on the execution platform with him. “Doctor! Is there a doctor on that ship? Answer me!”
“HAH?!” Veins pop out of Garp’s forehead at Ace’s attempt to change the subject, his arm pulling back for another Fist of Love.
“I SAID, IS THERE A DOCTOR?” Ace screams, the anger from waiting around uselessly finally bursting out of him as he slams his head into Garp’s chin. Grabbing a hold of his Gramps’ collar, Ace lets bad habits slip back in, “Listen to me, shitty Gramps! Luffy’s sick, and we need a goddamn doctor who can tell what’s wrong with him! So did you or did you not bring a fucking doctor on that ship?!”
Startled, Garp’s arm falls flat by his side, his jaw loose in astonishment. “Luffy’s sick?”
Any other day, Ace would have laughed at the absolute disbelief in the words if only because the idea that Luffy could ever get seriously ill before this week was just as ridiculous for him to imagine.
But today is not that day, because Ace is getting tired of waiting for people to figure out what in the damn hell is hurting his little brother.
Garp takes in the bags under his grandson’s eyes and the trembling of his hands before his old face settles into something grim.
“Yeah,” he answers, chest rumbling, “I’ve got a doctor.”
Throwing the Hawaiian shirt he’s wearing over Ace’s head to cover him from view, he picks Ace up and turns to the boat where his subordinates are still yelling.
“BOGARD!” Garp commands, eyes like flint. “GET ME USHIRO!”
Immediately, the guy Ace remembers as his Gramp’s right-hand man snaps a salute before running into the cabins.
“Where’s Luffy?” Garp asks, looking more like the Vice-Admiral he is in a white tank top than full Navy regalia.
Wordless, Ace points to Makino’s bar.
With a nod, Garp stalks into the bar and up the stairs without any care for all the stares from the villagers until he reaches the bedroom.
“Garp-san!” Makino stands up to greet him, the towel in her hands falling out of surprise.
“No,” Gramps stops her, “don’t mind me.”
He has only a minute to frown at Luffy’s clammy, red face before a marine with a medical kit rushes in behind them, panting.
“Vice-Admiral Garp!” Saluting quickly, he squeaks when Garp turns dark eyes to him slowly.
“Do you not see the patient in front of you?” he asks the doctor - Ushiro - threateningly.
“Yes, sir, I’m sorry, sir! I’ll look at him right away!” Fumbling to open his kit, Ushiro takes Makino’s now empty seat to begin his examination while Ace fists his hands into Garp’s tank.
“SO?” Gramps barks when he’s finished, eyes narrowing at the unpleasant expression Ushiro turns around with.
“Well, you see…” Hesitating, he winces when both Ace and Garp glare at him. “There’s no obvious cause for his fever. I’d need to take him to a hospital to run better tests, and-”
“Then TAKE HIM TO A HOSPITAL,” Gramps yells, his body vibrating against Ace’s with a building fury.
“Yes, sir! Understood! But, what should I tell them-”
“I DON’T CARE! QUICKLY!”
Gramp’s fedora friend Bogard steps up, taking out a Transponder and making the necessary calls while Ace jumps out of his grandfather’s arms to wait by Luffy’s side.
“I won’t take it off,” Ace says before he can get lectured, clinging tightly to the floral shirt preventing anyone from seeing too much of him.
Letting it go, Garp sighs and moves closer so he can grab the straw hat resting by Luffy’s head and put it on Ace forcefully.
“How long has he been like this?” Gramps asks, Ace gritting his teeth out of frustration.
“Today’s the third day,” he mutters, clasping onto the hat to ground himself before he shrugs on the huge shirt and buttons it up past his chin. “I found him like this when I woke up, and he hasn’t gotten up since.”
“He’ll be okay,” Gramps says, so certain that it makes Ace look up at him. “The only way a grandson of mine will go down is in a good fight.”
“I have no sympathy for criminals, but I do for my family.”
“What should I do?” Broken, haunted.
“You should have become a Marine like I told you to,” he says, tears brimming his eyes. The wrinkles on his face are suddenly filled with a pain so sad that even his laugh lines seem heavy. Vice-Admiral Monkey D. Garp, heartbroken and forced to watch both his grandsons line up for death on a battlefield beyond all help.
With quivering shoulders, Ace laughs through the tears that break through without his permission.
“Yeah,” he agrees, hyper-aware of the scar sitting just above his stomach. “I guess you’re right.”
“I’m always right,” Gramps huffs, gently knocking his knuckles against the straw hat hiding Ace’s face.
Ace doesn’t know what they told the hospital, but he doesn’t care. They manage to get Luffy a single room on the top floor within the hour, nurses and doctors running around to run tests and check on him while Gramps stands in the room like a fierce statue. Ace knows better than to throw a fit and walk in with him, so he follows them in secret and climbs up the admittedly much taller roof. Gramps notices him for sure, but all he does is crack open a window in the room and drag a chair there to sit on.
Ace doesn’t trick himself into believing that’s an open pass to walk in, so he waits with bated breath while they run their tests.
“Run some more tests! There has to be something we’re missing,” the head doctor orders, sweat running down his back as the heavy pressure behind him grows stronger.
Ace nearly bites his own finger off from frustration, unable to understand how even a big hospital in the middle of Goa can be like this. It’s not like someone can fall sick without a reason, right?! They’re just not looking hard enough.
There has to be a solid, medical reason for Luffy’s fever - because if there isn’t, Ace can only believe that whatever gave him his life back is taking Luffy’s away in return. After all his tears, all his promises, they might take away the person who made Ace realize he was glad to have lived.
The straw hat slides off his head and around his neck when he leans forward with both hands pressed in prayer against aching temples, doing his best to remain calm.
The tests are nearly endless, and with every result that comes out, the doctors become more and more afraid. Regardless of who this random kid is, the point is that none other than Vice-Admiral Garp, the hero of the Navy, wants them to treat him! And if they can’t, they might lose their lives! Visiting hours have long been over, but no one’s had the courage to kick him out when he sits there staring them down menacingly.
“I-I’m sorry,” the head doctor apologizes bravely, Garp’s palpable fury bringing him down to his knees. “We’ve r-run all the tests we can, but we can’t figure out w-what’s causing his fever. We’ve checked for diseases and disorders, but h-he doesn’t have any symptoms other than the fever. There’s no swelling in his joints, no b-bruising, no reactions that suggest an immune-disorder, nothing but a small mineral deficiency from not eating enough v-vegetables!”
“Hah?” A vein pops on Garp’s forehead, his crossed arms suddenly much larger than they appeared before. “You’re telling me that there’s nothing wrong with him?! DON’T PLAY AROUND WITH ME!”
“No, sir, that’s n-not what I m-meant at all!” Backing away with his hands flailing in the air, the head doctor pushes up his glasses and mumbles, “it’s just that...we can’t f-find out what made him s-sick.”
Ace hears the crash of glass and metal as his Gramps undoubtedly destroys something out of rage, and he wishes he could break something too.
“THEN RUN MORE TESTS UNTIL YOU DO, YOU SHITTY DOCTOR!”
Settling down on his chair when his command sends them all scrambling out of the room with shrieks of acquiescence, Garp scoffs.
“Useless doctors,” he bites out under his breath. “Bogard! Bring me dinner.”
“Yes, sir,” Bogard answers respectfully, tipping his fedora and walking out of the room as he wishes. Fifteen minutes later, he wheels in a cart piled with food and leaves with another tip of his hat.
The smell of the food drifts through the window and into the air above, enticing Ace.
“I’m closing my eyes for ten minutes,” Garp announces to the empty room, arms still crossed. “And when I open them, all this food should be gone!”
Grey eyes widen over faint freckles, and Ace doesn’t know whether to roll his eyes or smile at the gruff show of concern from his stubborn Gramps. Choosing a roll of his eyes, he throws himself off the roof and onto the window ledge, a little dizzy from dehydration after so long camping on roofs without proper meals. There’s two pairs of utensils on the cart, Ace realizes, thinking of Bogard with a frown.
He needs to get better at hiding his presence, and soon. Reaching out for the nearest plate, Ace starts scarfing down the food, washing it down directly from the pitcher of water before he kicks the cart over to his Gramps.
“Ah?” Gramps asks, brows rising despite his closed eyes.
“You eat too,” Ace says awkwardly, his ears a bit pink. Gramps is Gramps, but that doesn’t mean Ace is comfortable being affectionate with him. He might appreciate him a little more, but understanding his Gramp’s point of view and being affectionate are totally different things.
“Didn’t you hear me? I said that when I open my eyes, all the food in this room should be gone!”
“So eat with your eyes closed,” Ace snaps back self-consciously, climbing back onto the ledge. “I don’t steal from old people.”
Before Gramps can throw a Fist of Love at him in retribution for his cheek, he’s already on the roof again.
Inside the room, Garp grins and picks up a plate to eat the food without ever opening his eyes.
The IV in Luffy’s arms gets replaced more times than they count, an almost constant drip echoing through the room while the doctors run around the hospital consulting one another. Plenty of people try to meet with Gramps and ask who Luffy is once morning comes, but they’re all blocked by Bogard.
Right as the sun sets over the fancy, clean buildings of Goa’s high streets in stunning shades of orange and red, Ace’s young body gives up on him. He’s been awake and wired for too long, and it takes a toll on this body. His narcolepsy won’t seriously kick in for another two years, but narcolepsy has nothing to do with the way Ace collapses on the roof in a deep sleep, the stars rising to watch over his dreams.
Eyes drifting up to the ceiling when he hears a small thunk, Garp grabs the small blanket the nurses offered him and jumps onto the roof in a single movement.
“What’s a brat like you trying so hard to be an adult for?” he mutters with irritation, gently draping the blanket over Ace’s sleeping form. “You’ll never grow into a strong man like this.”
The stars twinkle like they’re laughing at him, and Ace dreams of the sea.
When he wakes up again, Luffy’s fever has finally broken.
“See? You guys just weren’t looking hard enough before,” Gramps laughs, the thick cloud of anger around him dispersing.
No one points out the multiple threats he made over the past two days or the fact that Luffy broke through the fever on his own without their help for fear of their poor lives. Wiping sweat off their foreheads and thanking every God out there for creating this miracle, the medical staff crowding the room laugh politely before vanishing to avoid any more time in his presence.
Kneeling by the window, relief at hearing the news rushes through Ace so quickly and forcefully that his knees almost give out while an incredulous laugh escaping his dry mouth. Leave it to Luffy to cause a storm and take care of it by himself with in one fell swoop.
“If he misses his birthday, he’ll be pissed,” Ace realizes, snickering to himself while he splays his jellied limbs across the roof to soak in the setting sun. Goa doesn’t look too bad, he thinks, giddy with joy now that the worst is behind them.
Inside the room, Gramps laughs and slaps his knee. “Stinky little brat! Serves him right for taking such a long nap.”
The danger zone is far out of sight now, and they both slowly relax all the tension that had built up while waiting for good news. Spring brings forth a gentle breeze like she can sense their cheer, her winds kissing Ace's cheeks playfully. His world is no longer at a standstill, and Ace closes his eyes to take another nap with the confidence that Luffy would never be able to wake up without causing a commotion.
When an incontrollable surge of Conqueror's Haki bursts out of the hospital room twenty minutes later and knocks out everyone within three blocks, Ace is proven right.