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romance dawn:reflection

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Rewind:

Thirty minutes ago, the doctors confirmed Luffy’s condition and cleared him. Twenty minutes ago, Ace settled down for a solid nap thinking that everything would be fine. Fifteen minutes ago, Gramps complained about being pent up and went out for a walk. Ten seconds ago, an immense pressure not unlike the power of an Emperor broke out of the hospital room Ace’s little brother is sleeping in.

It’s Conqueror’s Haki, he knows, but how? Breaking through the nearest window instead of trying to make it for the one that’s open on the far left, he gapes at the doctors collapsed on the floor surrounding the bed and is stunned by what he sees. The source of the haki is none other than Luffy! But even Ace wasn't able to use Conqueror's Haki in his older body purposefully, much less one as oppressive as this.

So how the hell is this overwhelming aura pouring out of a nine year-old Luffy right now?

In one, smooth movement that’s too graceful for the little monkey he knows his brother to be, Luffy sits up with a gaze so fierce Ace almost takes a step back, fight-or-flight instinct itching at his skin. It’s more than obvious that Luffy isn’t actually seeing anything, his eyes blank even as an eerie red haze colors over their normal black, and Ace suddenly wants to reach out and shake him back to his senses.

But then he blinks red eyes once, and the haki disappears in an instant.

“Oh?” Luffy wonders with a slow yawn as the black returns to his pupils. “What the heck is this place?”

Legs finally buckling from a combination of exhaustion and relief, Ace falls on his knees and pants for breath, sweat drenching his shirt.

“What the fuck,” Ace wheezes, his head wiped clean of anything but shock.

“A-Ace?” Luffy asks, just noticing him. His wide eyes grow ridiculously wider, taking in the sight of his brother with a joy so bright it cannot be contained; a smile grows from ear to ear on his face, and Luffy laughs.

“Ah, I got it! It’s a dream,” Luffy says cheerfully, making absolutely no fucking sense. “It’s been a while since I had a dream like this!”

“Luffy,” Ace wonders on the verge of insanity, “how did you do that?”

And the boy sitting in front of him in a stag beetle t-shirt and a familiar grin can only be Luffy, but Ace hasn’t known a Luffy in any life capable of using haki like that. Even when he’d used it unconsciously at Marineford, it wasn’t nearly this strong. It’s Luffy, but it’s a Luffy who does things Luffy can’t possibly do, and Ace has no idea what it means.

“Do what?”

Wordless, Ace gestures to all the people littering the floor around them, Luffy’s neck stretching out to see them all with his mouth in a perfect ‘O’.

“I did? When?”

“J-Just now,” Ace grimaces, pulling himself to his feet using a nearby stand. “When you woke up.”

“Really? My bad, shishishi,” Luffy rubs his head sheepishly, “Didn’t mean to. I was surprised, you know! Wait...what was I doing again?”

Humming in thought with a hand on his chin, the nine year-old's mouth falls in a flat line while he tries his best to remember what he was doing before waking up.

"We were on the Sunny," Luffy begins, brows furrowing comically deeper. "And then…and then…AH!"

Slamming a fist onto the flat of his palm in understanding, Luffy beams at Ace.

"I got it! We were landing on Laugh Tale! Then, Ace is here to congratulate me, right?"

No, Luffy, Ace would just like to know what the hell is goin-

Wait.

“Laugh Tale?” Ace asks, his voice cracking. “Did you just say Laugh Tale?”

Ace knows that name, of course. Knows that Pops met with Roger before his death, and knows that Roger himself named the final island no one else had ever been before. He doesn't know the entire story, but what he does know is that for some reason Roger would have never made it there without Whitebeard's help, and it's a point that some of the older commanders grumble about every so often when they're irritated. It's a running joke on the Moby Dick that the Pirate King was so greedy he even stole a crewmate of theirs, though Marco always laughs and admits it's only because the person at hand was willing to go in the first place.

However, it doesn't make sense that Luffy knows that name. Not when he's nine years old on a bed in the middle of backwater Dawn Island in the East Blue, and not even when he was a seventeen year old pirate with his own bounty and crew. Raftel, everyone calls the final island. Only the people who met Roger himself know that it's not Raftel, but Laugh Tale.

Considering the fact that Luffy only set sail at seventeen and that Roger's crew long disbanded, there's very few avenues he could have learned it from.

"Yeah," Luffy nods, stretching his arms out over his head with a pleased expression. "Man, it took so long! Even with the Poneglyphs, it sure was hard trying to find it. Jinbei saved us in that final stretch! Nami and Franky couldn't stop crying over him, shishishi."

Throughout all that confounding talk, Ace manages to hone in on the most important parts:

Poneglyphs. Jinbei. Nami.

Ace knows those names too.

“Hey, Luffy,” Ace begins, his throat dry as he works up the courage to ask. In his mind, images flash by. A red sun, fluffy hair, steely determination. Alabasta, orange hair, a quick temper. People he entrusted Luffy to, grateful. “How old are you?”

Because if by some miracle Ace managed to cheat death and end up here, then maybe, just maybe, it’s possible that he’s not the only one. Because all the signs - the fever, the haki, the names of people he shouldn’t know yet, the way he took one look at Ace and assumed this was a dream, and god if Ace is right that one is going to hurt forever - point to one reasonable explanation for Luffy’s behavior, even if it’s one that would never occur to someone else.

“Hah? I’m twenty,” Luffy answers matter-of-factly, blinking innocent black eyes.

“Fuck,” Ace chokes out, head going white. Twenty? Ace was the same age when Marineford happened, which means that it’s already been three years for Luffy. “Oh, fuck.”

The world is fading around him, and his lungs are stuttering helplessly while he tries to remember how to breathe. Ace was perfectly okay with dying for Luffy, but having to witness a Luffy who lived past him with his own eyes is simultaneously one of the most awful and amazing experiences in existence to parse through.

Awful, because it leaves Ace no choice but to acknowledge once more that Luffy watched his own death before his very eyes and had to carry that with him for years, and amazing because one of the first things out of his mouth was how he accomplished what no one other than the Pirate King had.

His little brother made it to Laugh Tale.

Eyes shifting to the tears suddenly streaming down a freckled face, Luffy panics. “Ace? Why are you crying? Hey, what kind of weird dream is this?!”

“It’s not a dream,” Ace forces out, his left arm red where he's been pinching himself for an entire minute. Reassuring himself, he digs his nails in again and laughs weakly at the tingling pain. "Luffy, you crazy son of a bitch. How in the world did you travel through time after becoming the King of Pirates?"

"Time-travel? What are you going on about?" Frowning at Ace like he's the crazy one, Luffy folds his arms crossly. "Oi, Dream-Ace! You're being super weird right now, you know? Geez, and I thought you were gonna praise me."

And Ace knows firsthand how ridiculous it seems when time-travel is suggested because he spent an entire two weeks here before he let himself entertain the idea at all. Luffy, especially, will be hard to convince considering he didn't die and wake up with wounds from his last moments.

Taking his shirt off without a word, Ace steps closer to his little brother - they're the same age now, technically, and isn't that insane - with deep breaths rattling his lungs.

"This," Ace tells him with a calm that he doesn't feel in the slightest, "is where Akainu got me."

Lifting Luffy's small arms, he places them directly over the ugly scar on his chest.

"And this," Ace presses on, doing his best to ignore the expression on Luffy's face so that he can finish this properly, "is what I owe you."

Wrapping his arms around Luffy's head, Ace brings them flush to whisper,

"Congratulations, Luffy. You did it."

The small body in the circle of his arms is shaking imperceptibly, black eyes still stuck on the pink, round scar that's rough to the touch.

Ace can feel Luffy's hands mapping it out, something wet dripping onto his pants.

"H-Hey," Luffy chokes, hands curling into balls. "This is a dream, r-right? A strange, stupid dream that I'm gonna forget when I wake up. Right, Dream-Ace? This isn't real."

"For someone who does the impossible all the time," Ace chuckles wetly, "you really don't act like it. The guy who fought CP-9 for a friend, broke into the impenetrable Impel Down, and made three Warlords help him break me out doesn't believe in time-travel?"

"No," Luffy says vehemently, shaking his head left and right. "I asked, I asked and Kin'emon said you can only go to the FUTURE and not the PAST-"

"I don't know who Kin'emon is," Ace interrupts him, setting aside his questions for later. Travelling to the future? "But I'm 20 years old, the 2nd Division Commander of the Whitebeard Pirates, Portgas D. Ace. And I wouldn't have regretted the last decision I made to give up my life for yours even if I never woke up again."

Grinning through the tear tracks on his face, Ace pats Luffy's head with pride. "Because I got to help my little brother's dream come true!"

Slowly raising his head, weepy round eyes meet Ace's.

"A-A-A-ACEEEEEE," Luffy blubbers, snot dripping all over his face when he tackles his older brother to the floor. "IT'S REALLY YOU? YOU CAME BACK?!"

"Geez," Ace grumbles, unable to hide the curve of his lips. "You'll always be a crybaby, huh? Well, since it's my fault this time, I'll let it go."

When Gramps comes crashing through the wall from the outside exactly one minute later looking ready for a fight, the scene he's met with is his youngest grandson bawling on the floor with the kind of grief he's only seen in the aftermath of battle. The depth to Luffy's sorrow is unnatural, and the sound of it raises goosebumps on his skin. A sound like that should never come out of any child's mouth, much less a child like Luffy. They're heart-wrenching wails that signify years of grief, and yet they're coming out of his own grandson's mouth.

For many reasons, it's a sight Garp's not likely to forget for a long, long time.

Hands falling to his side, he stares blankly at Ace and Luffy with an uncertainty that doesn't suit him. For a moment, he debates getting closer and reaching out - but just for a moment. None of them have ever been particularly good at comfort, and Garp wouldn't know what to do if he ended up making things worse. Wordless, he stands by the hole he blasted into the room earlier and waits.

Most likely because his body is still recovering, Luffy ends up passing out on Ace before either of them can talk to him again; his cheeks shine with fallen tears, arms fisted into Ace's shirt so tightly that he can't pry them off.

"I didn't ask because Luffy was too upset earlier," Gramps finally says, leaning against the wall with his head down. "However…"

"The one who knocked all these people out was Luffy. Isn't that right, Ace?"

Hands tensing around Luffy, Ace's mind races while he tries to figure out an explanation for everything: the haki, the sobbing, the overwhelming anguish Luffy had cried with.

"Yeah," he answers, throat thick. Deciding to stick to the truth as much as possible, Ace pats Luffy's head again and sighs.

"Luffy," Ace murmurs, grey eyes seeing into a gone future, "had a very, very long dream while he was asleep."

Hands clasped in one another, Garp looks up. At this moment, he is both their grandfather and Monkey D. Garp, crowned hero of the Navy, and if Ace says anything he can't accept...they'll have a hard time moving past this.

"A dream where he went through hell to save me from something, and I died in his arms."

Garp's left eye twitches dangerously, a strange tension seeping into the room.

"A dream that was so awful that his body collapsed into a five day fever he couldn't wake up from until it was over."

Brushing sweat-soaked bangs off his little brother's forehead, Ace observes the stains on his cheeks with no small amount of guilt.

"A dream…" Clicking his tongue, Gramp's voice fills the entire room. "Huh."

"And when he woke up from this dream," Gramps rumbles deeply, "his will to live brought forth a power he couldn't control."

It's not a question.

Goosebumps rise all over his skin, but Ace doesn't let himself look back. The second Luffy's haki spread out over the town, he knew that their Gramps would be asking questions they might not be able to answer - even more so when Ace found out that Luffy came back like he did. The truth is that there's no simple way out of this situation, and their lives might become totally different from before.

Garp could take them back as chore boys to keep watch 24/7, or send them to a different island. He might even separate them, if he thinks there's enough reason to. With this weak body of his, neither Ace nor Luffy would be able to fight against the decision he makes until they're much older. Blood fills his mouth when he bites down on his tongue too hard, the sharp sting only heightening his anxiety.

Straightening his posture, Garp sighs so heavily that Ace shivers, holding onto Luffy tightly.

"I'm leaving him to you," Gramps announces solemnly, startling Ace with a firm hand on his head.

"W-What?" Turning around to catch him walking out of the door, Ace stammers, "That's it?"

"Of course. You might not be telling the whole truth, but you're not lying either," Garp smirks, the room lightening up considerably. "What kind of grandfather would I be if I can't take care of my own grandkids when they're in trouble?"

Controlling the urge to do something stupid like cry - because he's done way too much of that in the past hour and he'll be damned if he ever cries in front of his grandfather - Ace jerks his head to the side to avoid being seen.

"There's no point in acting cool," he mutters, hoping his voice doesn't give him away by cracking. "Once a shitty Gramps, always a shitty Gramps."

The Fist of Love that comment earns is a given, but it also hurts less than Ace recalls.

Neither of them bother hiding the grins on their faces when Garp leaves.

"Saved by a thread," he tells Luffy, poking his scarred cheek with faux-consternation. "Just like always, troublemaker. One of these days, that isn't gonna cut it."

It leaves his mouth before he can think twice and Ace winces automatically at his own stupidity. Thankfully Luffy isn't awake to hear the words, but he needs to be more careful with what he says.

Ace of all people shouldn't be saying things like that to Luffy.

Rubber arms only stretch out across the room when Ace tries to pull Luffy's hands out of his shirt, so he gives up and checks Luffy's forehead for any lasting signs of a high temperature.

A regular temperature, no sweating or swelling, and no heavy breathing either. Figuring that's good enough, Ace glances around the room at the collapsed doctors and makes a decision: they're leaving. No matter how Gramps takes care of this, he's still gonna let them do a basic investigation to prevent people too high up from looking into this - and when they do, it's best that Ace and Luffy are nowhere to be found.

Tucking Luffy's head into the crook of his neck, Ace hauls him off the bed and tightens his grip around rubber legs.

"Come on, Lu," Ace grunts. "Let's get the hell out of here."

Running through the streets with Luffy on his back would attract too much attention, so through the back streets it is. For a split-second, Ace wonders if he remembers the city well enough to find his way home unseen, but before he knows it his body is already doing all the work for him. Muscle memory, maybe?

Either way, it works out for him!

Carrying Luffy on his front instead of his back is more troublesome than Ace would have thought; gravity pulls at him since he faces upwards, and of course that means Luffy's limbs end up stretching all over the place.

"Jeez," Ace complains like he isn't capable of throwing Luffy over his shoulder and cutting this short. "How are you still so heavy? You haven't eaten in five days."

Completely oblivious to their surroundings, Luffy nuzzles closer and snores loudly in response.

Making it out of Goa and up the mountain to their treehouse is a bit harder than Ace would have liked it to be, but it can't be helped. He hasn't been taking proper care of himself lately, so he has to pay the price. To be honest, Ace wishes the trip would be much harder so that he wouldn't be able to think.

Hearing the words from Luffy's mouth earlier and knowing his little brother travelled in time alongside him is a miracle, but it makes all the things Ace has been avoiding brew at the front of his mind all the more strongly.

What happened after the war, Ace wonders. To Pops' body. To his crewmates, and all the allies that came to help. To Luffy, who survived and became a person capable of using Conqueror’s Haki like an Emperor of the Sea. To Gramps, who was unable to hide the tears on his face while Ace kneeled on that execution platform in chains.

To Blackbeard, that twisted, vile son of a bitch who deserved - deserves - to rot in hell.

He wants to know and at the same time, he doesn't. He's not sure that he's ready to hear the prices paid for the war fought with Ace at the foundations. And before, he wouldn't have had to be ready...but Luffy coming back means that Ace is going to have to, and that's an entirely new problem that he hadn't planned for before now.

Time-travel hardly seemed like it was a viable answer not just once, but twice.

And yet.

"I don't know how," Ace grunts while climbing up their treehouse, "but this is definitely your fault."

Ace knows diddly-squat about time-travel, but apparently Luffy knows enough to ask about how it works - and if that isn't a sign this is Luffy's spectacular ability to do the impossible at work, then what is?

Almost as if he can read Ace's mind, Luffy wakes up so suddenly that it sends Ace tripping over a blanket in surprise.

"ACE!" Luffy shouts, legs stretching so that they can wrap around his entire torso.

"Hey, Luffy, be careful," Ace protests, preventing a fall to the floor with a smooth roll. "You could have hit your head!"

Before he can sit them down for what's sure to be an awkward reunion, Ace is startled by the hands that yank his shirt up immediately to find the scar from before.

"It...wasn't a dream," Luffy whispers, his voice filled with so much fragile joy that Ace loses his voice entirely.

Pinching his own cheeks and letting them snap back for a pain check, Luffy quickly unwinds his legs from around his brother and asks, "How old are you? What's your favorite food? When's your birthday, and do you like it?! Do you know who I am?! ANSWER ME!"

His face leans into Ace's with extreme focus, flustering the twelve year-old.

"Calm down, calm down! You're asking too many questions, goofball." Scratching his cheek, Ace tries to remember the quickfire selection of questions Luffy just asked. "I'm twenty years old, but this body is twelve. For my favorite food, meat'll do the trick, but aglio olio with peperoncino is definitely the best! My birthday is January 1st, and I don't really care."

"As for who you are…"

Ruffling Luffy's hair with a fond grin, Ace declares, "Of course, you're the man who's going to become Pirate King!"

Tearing up again, Luffy tries to sniff back the snot dripping out of his nose. "YOU'RE THE R-REAL ACE!"

Knowing how he himself had felt when he first arrived here and realized the truth, Ace lets Luffy sob as he pleases, ears pink under all the attention. "Yeah, yeah, it's me. Men shouldn't cry so much, you know."

"B-But," Luffy chokes, a wobbly smile spreading across his lips, "you're crying too!"

"Am not!" Ace denies, turning his head to the side with flushed cheeks. "My eyes are just a little wet, that's all."

Giggling, Luffy buries his face in the crook of his older brother's neck and breathes in deeply, absorbing his scent.

"Ace," he says, "I'm sorry! I'm sorry for being weak, and I'm sorry for being such a troublesome little brother, and I'm sorry-"

"Shut up!" Pinching Luffy's ear sharply, Ace cuts him off before he can say another word. "I don't want to hear it! You don't owe me an apology."

Pulling back so that he can meet Luffy's eyes, Ace leaves no room for doubt.

"You and I swore to live a life with no regrets," he reminds Luffy, hands firm on his little brother's shoulders. "And I've never once regretted any decision involving you. I'm glad you're my brother, I'm glad you came that day even though it was stupid and reckless, and I'm glad that I was the one who took that last attack. Because just like you would have regretted not fighting for me, I would have regretted not fighting for you."

Lips wobbling even more dramatically, Luffy says something that blindsides him.

"Ace," he warbles, "I love you."

And it's ridiculous, that three simple words can knock Ace off his feet and short-circuit him so completely, but suddenly in that moment it feels like the entire world stops in that little treehouse for them.

"I regretted not saying it," Luffy continues, scrubbing at his face. "Because you knew it, I know you knew it - but I should have said it anyways. Always and always, I loved you. I...every day for two years I wanted to say it to you just once! Because I didn't understand before that you needed it, and I didn't realize these things have to be said too sometimes. I'm not good with words, but I thought for a long time about how to say it so you can understand me!"

Meeting grey eyes with a stunningly clear resolution, Luffy knocks all the air out Ace's lungs with the unabashed sincerity that he's always had in spades.

"Ace! There might be plenty of things I don't know, and plenty of things that I'll never be able to understand, but what I do know is this. Me, Sabo, Old Man Whitebeard, Pineapple-head, Gramps, Roger, your mom and all your friends too - we were all happy you were born! From the bottom of our hearts, all of us were really, truly, super duper grateful that you were alive! So, so…"

Summoning a smile so warm and bright that it outshines the sun, Luffy says, "Thank you! For being ours! And for being alive!"

The sound of his voice carries through the trees and into the sky, the wind blowing past them. Luffy is so very warm pressed against him, his lashes still wet and his smile the kind that makes Ace's heart twist with an endless, deep affection that no one else can ever manage to garner from him, and there is nothing he can ever say or do that will be good enough for this moment. Face crumpling with tears not unlike in his final moments what seems like forever ago, he brings Luffy into his arms and says something he's never said before:

"Yeah…I'm so glad I was born!"

"Do I deserve to live?" Ace had asked over and over again. Does someone like him, the son of the most hated man in the world, deserve to have been born? Should he have atoned for his birth by rolling over and dying the second he found out, or by becoming a Marine like Gramps wanted? Was his life worth the hundreds of innocents killed on Baterilla under the vaguest chance they might have been related to Gol D. Roger while his mother prayed for just a little more time every day? Was someone like him, whose very existence meant the loss of thousands of lives, worthy of living regardless of their circumstances?

Until the moment he found the answer to that question, he was determined not to die...and he got that answer the day of his execution. Or he thought he did; assumed, when he was handed over to the Navy and saw the vitriol in their eyes, that the answer was no.

But he learned that was the wrong answer, because what else did it mean if they had all come for him? For Ace to be so loved, so cared for, so precious, regardless of what the World Government and Navy said, regardless of their own grudges and the words of random people in the streets-

-they believed that he had to live no matter what.

Nodding desperately over the twelve year old's shoulder in agreement, Luffy repeats himself. "Thank you!"

It's so Luffy, really, to come out of nowhere and leave Ace flat on his ass this way. To understand nothing and everything all at once and bulldoze straight to the heart of it all in that genuine, foolhardy manner of his that leaves no door locked and no stone unturned. He attracts trouble like moths to a light, he can't read a room for the life of him, he barely pays attention to his surroundings, he has no common sense, he's easily distracted and filled with flights of fancy - but once you've got him, you have all of him. Luffy's heart, his soul, his kindness and strength, it'll all be yours until the end of time. He is an endless well of affection and joy, completely incapable of believing in a world with no hope. Despite everything about him that should be annoying, he reaches out to your heart and finds a place to stay as if he's never belonged anywhere else. Luffy had needed someone, but Ace had needed him and Sabo just as badly.

He's Ace's little brother, and if there were ever a world where he lived without Luffy by his side, he knows it would have been a world that was truly and wholly miserable.

And just like Luffy, these are words he's never said out loud before, but they come out so easily now that it makes Ace wonder why it seemed so strange before.

"I love you too."

His little brother's laugh echoes off the walls and filters into the forest, and Ace feels like he's been reborn as an entirely new person.

"It wasn't on purpose," Luffy tells him an hour later, tearing into a shank of meat voraciously. After five days of no food, Ace is surprised he waited until the meat was halfway cooked instead of just eating it raw. "Not for me, anyways! We were all docked on the boat together, so I don't know what happened."

"Laugh Tale?" Ace double-checks, unable to hide the pride swelling in his chest like a tsunami.

"Yeah! It took SO long," Luffy grins with his cheeks full of food. "But we did it! So it was worth it, shishishi."

Becoming Pirate King at twenty when you set sail at seventeen? Jeez, Luffy. Talk about unrealistic standards. Laughing, Ace gives him a noogie and scolds him.

"It took SOOO long? You brat, it's taken people their whole lives just to get to the New World, and you went and found the One Piece in three years!"

"If I was still there instead of here, I'd be 21, though," Luffy mentions, startling Ace.

"Wait, so you're older tha-"

"AAAAAHHHHH!! DAMN IT!" Standing up all of a sudden in tears, Luffy drops his meat with an anguished wail, "ACE! I NEVER SAW THE ONE PIECE! I DIDN'T GET TO GO ON THE ISLAAAAAAAAAAAND-"

Interrupted mid-sentence, Ace can only watch Luffy beat his fists on the floor in frustration.

"I WAS SO CLOSE," he screeches, hiccuping. "IT WAS RIGHT THEEEREEE! LAUGH TALE!! BUT WE NEVER GOT OFF THE B-BOAT."

At first, it's just a snort. Then a snicker, and then a full on laugh that sends him rolling on the floor clutching his ribs.

"Y-You got to the final island," Ace manages, "after all that, and then you traveled through time ten minutes before you became Pirate King?!"

Defeated, Luffy curls into a ball so he can rock back and forth. "Laugh Tale…..the last island…..so close…...UWAAAH!"

Bursting into upset tears again, Luffy looks as if he's having a one-way trip to the afterlife. Breathless and in pain from laughing so hard, Ace finally straightens up and clears his throat delicately.

"Well, think of it this way," Ace tries, his lips still twitching, "you got to the island and no one else did, so it's basically the same thing!"

Hollow eyes stare at him in silence.

"At least you know the way there now?" Ace tries a different approach, belatedly comprehending that might make things worse.

"THAT TAKES THE ADVENTURE OUT OF IT!" Luffy screams, tearing his hair out. "WHYYYYYYYYYYY-"

Freezing all of a sudden, Luffy screws his brows together and thinks for a moment.

"Wait," he exclaims, eyes widening. "I-I can't remember! I can't remember it AT ALL!"

"Remember what?" Ace asks, already eating again. Luffy's a one-man show, and nothing makes food as tasty as entertainment.

"The way to Laugh Tale! I remember getting the Poneglyphs and Robin reading them, and I remember making it to Lodestar, and I even remember reaching Laugh Tale! But I don't remember anything about either of the islands. It's all empty."

Jerking himself up to sit cross-legged, Luffy puts a hand on his chin and hums in concentration with increasing volume. Amused and a little concerned, Ace watches him carefully.

"Nope! Nothing! I met your dad's sword and all, but I can't remember much," he realizes, his words completely flying over Ace's head.

"Met my who's what?" Ace asks, confounded. "No, wait, first-"

Drawing Luffy's attention to him again, Ace declares something he should have to his little brother long ago. "Listen, Luffy. The only person I'll ever think of as my father is Whitebeard. So, about that guy…"

"Ah, okay," Luffy replies easily, changing his words. "I met Roger's sword, and it had the same name as you! Me and Momo hung out with it for a while, but even though I remember that I can't tell what I was doing before or after! That's weird, isn't it? I feel like that's weird. Hmmm."

Typical.

Ace sighs again, though much more fondly than before. How very like his little brother to move on without a care. He doesn't know what the heck Luffy is talking about, but he figures that if it's important it'll come up again eventually.

Giving Luffy plenty of time to hem and haw, Ace rotates the meat so it'll cook evenly and waits until he's done thinking - that was the plan, at least, until Luffy starts muttering something about Sabo coming onto his ship.

Sabo? Their Sabo? Boarding Luffy's ship? This doesn't sound good.

Ace is about to reach over and make sure Luffy's temperature hasn't risen all of a sudden again, worried that maybe different circumstances have transferred Luffy to this time with more serious consequences than a scar when Luffy shoots to his feet with another cry.

"AH! I FORGOT!"

"Yeah," Ace teases, palm reaching a wide forehead. "You've been saying that for a while now. Lu, stand still, I'm trying to see if you have a fever again."

Slapping his hand away, Luffy turns to Ace with a dazzling beam. "No, no, Ace, LISTEN! I have something SUPER important to tell you! I forgot until just now, but then I remembered!"

Tugging on Ace's shirt and giggling happily at whatever he's thinking about, Luffy looks so excited that for a split-second Ace really thinks he's nine years-old again, sheer delight written all over his face. Waiting with a growing anticipation, Ace flicks his forehead to make him stop giggling and spit it out already.

"Sabo's alive too!" is probably the last thing he would have ever expected. In fact, on the list of unrealistic things Ace could have never expected, Sabo being alive is ranked higher than time-travel. It's something that's never passed him in any way as a possibility, while he's at least heard myths on Whitebeard's ship of people with strange relationships with time. People might be able to travel through time, but the dead stay dead. It's only more obvious that's true when he thinks about how the miracle that saved him took Ace to a different time rather than heal his wounds. Sabo's memory has been with him, always, tattooed across Ace's bicep as a constant reminder to live with no regrets. It doesn't hurt to talk about him the way it used to, but the nostalgia is as bitter as it is sweet on the occasions he spends too long thinking alone. Being told that he's alive is like someone saying that Gramps quit being a marine. Technically, it's possible in the way that anything is possible in this crazy world - but it's never going to happen, and he's sure no miracle could ever make it so.

"He didn't die on the ship! My dad found him and rescued him, but he got amnesia so he didn't remember us and then BAM he saw us in the papers and he got his memories back and he found me-"

Slowing down after a deep breath, Luffy figures he should just repeat the important parts. "Sabo didn't die, and he has amnesia! He's strong, and he missed us a lot, so we need to put our faces in the newspaper as much as we can to make him remember faster this time!"

Throat thick with emotions Ace thought he would never have to face again, he lets out a shuddering breath. "He's alive?"

Nodding up and down energetically, Luffy answers, "Yeah! We're all alive! All three of us, and we're not gonna lose each other again!"

Laughing, Ace brings Luffy in to knock their heads together. "Of course not!"

He still can't believe it, but he knows it's true. Luffy can't and wouldn't lie about this, and Ace himself has now seen not one but two people travel through time.

If he was allowed a second chance at life, why not Sabo too?

"Even though it's your birthday, it feels like I'm the only one who keeps getting presents," Ace whispers, squeezing his eyes shut and tightening his grip on Luffy.

"What are you talking about?" Luffy guffaws. "Ace is already the best birthday present I could ever get!"

If Ace's eyes keep leaking without his permission, they're gonna have a problem.

 

_

 

It’s strange, talking about a world after his and Pops’ death. Even stranger to hear how so much changed just because of Ace’s measly little life on the line that day in Marineford. But absolutely none of that can compare to Luffy and Sabo, and he soaks in all of Luffy’s energetic, haphazardly told stories with wide eyes and blooming pride in his brothers.

“Jinbei joined your crew?” Ace asks, jaw dropping. “But he has his own crew!”

“Mm! After the war, Jinbei was a big help,” Luffy grins, hands on his crossed ankles. “I wasn’t able to think straight, and he reminded me that I still had a lot to fight for. Jinbei, Tra-guy, your crew...they all saved me, and I owed them a lot!”

Hearing how Luffy coped with losing him - that Luffy had to live a life without Ace, and that he couldn’t have done it without the people around him - hurts more than the final blow that killed him. If Ace hadn’t already managed to cry himself out, he would be crying now just listening to how the people important to him had to struggle to move on after they lost him. The words are a reminder that Ace cannot let it happen again, and he swears to himself while Luffy chatters on about his training with Rayleigh that he won’t.

A lot happened during Luffy’s two years of training, too. New Warlords, the dissolution of his crew after that bastard Blackbeard made a move on their territory that broke him through to Emperor, and Akainu’s promotion to Fleet Admiral after Sengoku’s retirement. Luffy’s reunion with his crew - which apparently included Nico Robin, a cyborg shipwright, and a talking skeleton for a musician - stuns him, and the knowledge that a Fruit like Brook's exists makes him feel conflicted. It turns out that the ability to cheat death isn't so impossible...shaking off thoughts of how a Devil-Fruit like that might have changed so much, Ace listens eagerly to their journey. Their arrival at Fishman Island, Luffy's run-in with the legendary Mermaid Princess, and his request for Jinbei to join his crew after the final battle.

“Never a boring day with you!" Ace chuckles, throwing more wood into the fire. "I feel bad for Jinbei, having to deal with you in a situation like that. So he joined you after that, huh…"

"Nope! He had to go tell Big Mom first, and he joined us right when we were gonna fight Kaido!"

He's so relaxed, he might as well be talking about the damn weather.

"HUH?!"

“It went like this: I felt bad because I ate all the cake they made for Big Mom, but she wouldn’t listen to me and kept getting mad! So she and I were like, 'let's fight in the New World!' but then she kidnapped Sanji to marry Pudding after I beat Mingo and it turned out Jinbei joined her crew so he had to tell her he was leaving and then there was a big fight,” ballooning his cheeks with a deep breath, Luffy keeps going despite the confused daze he's sent Ace into, "and we had to go so I told him that he definitely had to meet us in Wano no matter what! And he came back just in time for the fight with Kaido! Then we beat Kaido and Big Mom afterwards."

With an innocent smile, Luffy announces, "And that's how Jinbei joined my crew!"

Ace is in desperate need of a drink right now.

Trying to ward off the building headache throbbing behind his temples while he tries to keep up with his younger brother's lackluster story-telling skills, he reacts to the last part a little too late with a jump.

"YOU BEAT KAIDO AND BIG MOM?!"

“Of course,” Luffy says, head tilting to the side in confusion. “Being Pirate King means I have to beat all Four Emperors eventually, you know?”

“Ah, that’s true,” Ace nods after thinking, sitting back down. “Of course you do. Sorry for being surprised.”

“NO, WAIT! THAT’S STILL SURPRISING!”

Clutching his ribs and laughing, Luffy ignores Ace’s steaming head when he tries to picture the skinny seventeen year-old from his memories defeating those two hulking giants. Ace himself has long been raring to fight Kaido, but...Luffy? The last time Ace saw his little brother, he was still unable to use haki. Even though he knows now that Luffy spent two years training for that purpose, it's still difficult to grasp that in reality.

"So you defeated all four Emperors?" Shanks...and Teach, too, are on that list.

"I didn't fight Shanks yet," Luffy shakes his head, his smile falling a bit. "I have to become Pirate King before I see him, after all! But Blackbeard, that guy, he pissed off someone he shouldn't have."

"Who'd he piss off?" Ace furrows his brows, intrigued. If he was strong enough to become an Emperor, there aren't many people who could have been that much stronger than him to pick fights with in the first place. The Four Emperors were balanced out by both the Seven Warlords and the Navy's Admirals - it's not a title handed over easily.

With a click of his tongue, Luffy says something Ace would have never guessed. "Sabo and my dad!"

"He went after the Revolutionary Army? Why?" Incredulous, Ace nearly burns himself when he leans too far over the fire for an answer. "They have nothing to do with each other!"

"That guy was collecting Devil Fruits," Luffy tells him, unnaturally grim. "His crew chased down every Devil Fruit user they could. After the war…"

"What?"

It's more than obvious that his little brother is trying not to upset him too much, but Teach will always be a sore spot. Even if Ace gets to kill him with his own hands in this life, the rage he feels towards that piece of garbage will never fade. Thatch was just the beginning, and Ace knows that Pops wasn't the end by a longshot.

"He did something," Luffy says quietly, the light of the flames flickering over his face. "No one knows how, but Blackbeard stole your Old Man's power after he died. And by killing other Fruit users, he managed to get his hands on their Fruits too. Me, Sabo, the people in the Revolutionary Army - he wanted to kill us so he could get our powers."

It's like a lightning strike, instant wrath rising under his skin until everything inside of him is boiling with it. If Ace wasn't a normal human right now, he'd be bursting into flames from head to toe.

"That three-headed fucking SNAKE," he snarls, kicking over the logs in front of him and sending ashes flying. "I'll strangle him with my own bare hands the next time I see him, I SWEAR-"

Cutting himself off, Ace tries to regain a semblance of calm. Everything about this rankles him, burrowing under his skin and lighting him up from the inside out. Those damned Devil Fruits - not only did Blackbeard kill one of their brothers for them, he bit the hand that fed him by killing Pops and then had the audacity to steal his Fruit powers on top of that? As if those crimes weren't enough, he planned to do the same to Luffy and Sabo?

All of his crew is family. The second he tattooed that mark on his back, Ace had accepted it with his whole heart. Whitebeard was the man he acknowledged as his father, and all those under him became Ace's enormous and affectionate family. He'd fight and die for any one of them without a second thought, and not once did he ever regret joining the Whitebeard Pirates. Even if the person who died that day wasn't Thatch, Ace would have still taken it as a grave offence and hunted down Blackbeard with a passion.

But Luffy and Sabo are something there are no words for. They're the first and last, and some part of Ace knows that they're his bottom-most line. It’s the same way that Gramps is family, but there’s a difference between him and Luffy.

Just seeing Luffy lay on the ground in Marineford, unconscious after Kizaru's attack, had made him so violently ill that his vision blurred. If it had been him who died in that situation at Teach's hands, Ace isn't sure anyone would have been able to stop him from losing his sanity at that moment.

Not even Pops.

Because Luffy is and always will be his crybaby little brother, and Sabo was - is - Ace's first and foremost best friend. They loved him before he ever knew what love was, and they were the only things that prevented every day from being a living hell.

Losing Sabo was awful - it chewed him up and spit him out, bleeding and beat up, and Luffy had been the only thing that got him through it without his mind falling apart. But Sabo was lost, long enough for Ace to have accepted and moved on with his brother's name on his skin, and it won't feel real that he's alive until Ace sees him with his own eyes. Luffy...is an entirely different story. It took Sabo's death for Ace to understand what they both truly meant to him, and how precious that made Luffy. Their crazy, foolish, bull-headed little brother - the boy who would have given up his life for them without a second thought even after they planned to kill him, the boy who lived as if every day was his last, the boy who bounced back and back from the worst of things with a smile on his face after crying his heart out - whose greatest fear was being lonely.

Luffy is Ace's rock. Like the North Star, Ace can always find his way in this confusing world as long as he remembers his brother. As pirates with their own dreams and goals, they'll of course go down different paths and face their own dangers - but fights his brother picks to fulfill his goals and fights that others pick for him are two different things.

The only way Luffy can die is after becoming Pirate King, and Ace won't accept anything less.

So the fucking nerve of Teach to hunt down Ace's family one by one for his own twisted plans despite being a coward who couldn't fight anyone face-to-face before he ate his Fruit is astounding, and Ace knows in this moment that even a thousand deaths wouldn't be enough to pay Marshall D. Teach back for his treachery.

Pausing, Ace realizes he missed something in all his rage. “Sabo ate a Devil Fruit too?”

After the two spent so many years laughing at Luffy’s powers, they’d pretty much agreed never to eat one on purpose if only because losing the ability to swim seemed damning as people who wanted to live as pirates. Ace’s own situation was a bit special, considering he and Deuce had been starving at the time, but Sabo hardly seems like he’d be the same as Ace or Luffy if he grew up with Revolutionaries to watch over him.

"Yeah, he ate yours," Luffy explains, blinking. "Did I forget to say that? Shoot, I didn't talk about Dressrossa yet. Oops!"

A strange sound leaves the twelve year-old's throat, his rage replaced by more complex thoughts. "Sabo...ate the Flame-Flame fruit?"

"Of course! We couldn't just let someone else have it," the nine year-old declares with his chest puffed up. "Blackbeard, Mingo, the Navy - I didn't want a single one of them to touch it! I can’t eat two and no one in my crew wanted it, but thankfully Sabo came in time to get it himself.”

Eyes falling onto the fire crackling in front of them, Luffy’s grin becomes softer at the corners. “I didn’t tell him, but sometimes he looked like you when he was fighting.”

Ace doesn’t know what to do with the storm crashing through him, his throat itchy. “M-Me?”

“Mm, I don’t know how to explain it? Just, when he used his powers, it felt like...you were right there with him!” His laugh carries into the wind over the island, bright and sweet. “Sabo thought so too!”

“I was,” Ace says without thinking, his voice small. “I’ve always been with you two.”

A little regretfully, “I wish I could have seen it. You, your crew, Sabo with the Flame-Flame Fruit.”

“You will,” Luffy says matter-of-factly. “Because we’re all alive! Ah, but Sabo won’t have powers if you eat the Flame-Flame Fruit, so that’s impossible to see this time. I don’t think Sabo would eat a Fruit if it wasn’t one of ours, shishishi.”

“Probably not,” Ace agrees, laughing alongside him.

The night is nowhere near long enough for all that they want to say, but they try their best. Wano, in particular, is a tale that he pays special attention to. Amidst his regret at being unable to fulfill his promises to Tama and Yamato, he’s filled with a deep satisfaction to know that Luffy made up for his mistake. Yamato joined his crew, as did someone called Carrot - he still hasn’t explained to Ace where she came in, but he’ll figure it out eventually - and his little brother seems genuinely happy when he speaks about them.

He barely remembers most of it by the time it's over, though at least half of the blame lies on Luffy’s entertainingly awful storytelling skills. It doesn’t matter to him because he can always hear them over and over again whenever he wants now, but unlike Ace’s startlingly clear last moments there are gaps at the ends of Luffy’s memories where he can recall information but no memories to back them up. He remembers doing things, but can’t remember when or how or even why often. Ace believes it’s because Luffy was alive when he traveled back whereas he had truly died and come back to life in a younger body.

“I definitely wasn’t dead,” Luffy assures him assertively. “Whatever happened, it didn’t kill me.”

Considering there’s so little they know about any of this, the memory loss doesn’t feel like it matters when what they do from now on will end up changing the future regardless. In the first place, Ace wasn’t planning to rely on a memory as faulty as Luffy’s even before they found out about his mysterious amnesia.

“But...what if the future changes for the worse because of us?” Ace mutters, staring at a knot in the floor of the treehouse. “Should we really be doing whatever we want? No matter what, there’s going to be a war coming soon.”

It was one thing when it was just Ace alone, but Luffy being here too changes everything. Truth be told, the now twelve year-old’s plans were straightforward: prevent Thatch’s death, kill Blackbeard, and don’t get caught by the Navy or anyone else. Beyond that seemed too far away to start thinking about yet, but with his new knowledge from Luffy’s stories, things have become much more complicated.

Both of them will end up changing past events, and Ace doesn’t know what the consequences will be for affecting the world so drastically. Yamato...when they met in Wano, he said that for 800 years the world was waiting for a figure to change everything. That there was a promise made, and to keep that promise to bring about a new world, a war was inevitable.

But what if they ruined that with their own hands by being reckless?

Luffy alone has brought the rise and fall of multiple kingdoms, and there’s no telling what will happen if he’s released into the world as he is. What happens to those countries when he acts upon a different timeline, and how is it going to affect the final war? Will there still be people to save if the both of them choose to move forward on different paths than before even if they have the same end goals?

Speaking of end goals, he understands now that Pops never wanted to become Pirate King. The way he never cared about the Poneglyphs or the other Emperors, and Sengoku’s words are all clear signs that it was never about that. All of a sudden, Ace is faced with the overwhelming epiphany that the goals he chased throughout his life are no longer his path forward. The answer to the question he wanted all his life has been answered, and there’s no point in fighting for something that doesn’t matter to Pops.

Is there...nothing left for him to do with this life of his after he gets his revenge?

“TOO MUCH THINKING!” Sitting up, Luffy pouts at his older brother and crosses his arms. “ISN'T IT FINE! Let’s just do whatever we want, like always.”

“Listen to me, would you! What I’m trying to say is, what if doing that makes things worse and hurts other people?” Smacking his little brother over the head in frustration, Ace sighs heavily. “Even one difference can change everything, you know. Just because we’re from the future doesn’t mean we know everything, Luffy.”

“Huh?” Making a face, Luffy declares, “I don’t care about something like that! If things change, they change. I’m still me, and you’re still you. If I don’t like how things are, I’ll make them change again until I do just like always! Besides…”

Grinning from ear to ear with unbridled enthusiasm, he says, “...the not knowing is what makes it an adventure! More importantly, I have something to say.”

“You know, I met Roger’s sword,” Luffy tells him, strangely eager. “And Momo can hear things talk even if they’re not alive, and the sword told us lots of stories! It also said that Old Man Whitebeard never wanted to become Pirate King, so if you’re not gonna make him King…”

With twinkling eyes, he spreads his arms with a shout, “...JOIN MY CREW!”

And just like that, all of Ace’s doubts and worries are blown away.

Suddenly, he feels stupid for thinking so hard. Just like Luffy said - he decided before this, too, that he would become strong enough to change the world as he wishes if he didn’t accept it. If Pops doesn’t want to become Pirate King, so be it. Ace’s love for him won’t change because of a reason as simple as that. When he’s finally completed his mission of protecting his crew by getting rid of Teach, Ace’ll figure out for himself what it is he wants to do with the rest of his life. And maybe when that time comes...helping a certain someone else fulfill their dream will be that answer.

With a slow grin, Ace pokes his little brother square in the forehead. “I’ll think about it!”

Jaw dropping to the floor, Luffy shoots to his feet out of joy. “REALLY? YOU SWEAR?!”

“No promises,” he tells Luffy cheekily. “I’m a Whitebeard pirate, you know. Even if Pops dies, we’ll still be a family. But, maybe, if I’m not busy, I’ll come help you out. Who knows?”

Luffy hops all around the treehouse, overcome with delight. “I CAN’T WAIT! ACE IS GOING TO BE PART OF MY CREW!”

“Hey! I never said that,” Ace protests, sticking a leg out to trip him. “I said MAYBE, okay, MAYBE!”

“That’s what everyone says,” Luffy replies nonsensically from the floor, sticking his tongue out and giggling. “Oh, Sabo is gonna be SO jealous. I wish we could hurry up and grow up already!”

Around an hour later, all the excitement catches up to their young bodies and sends them into a deep sleep; it’s a sign of their indomitable will that they both managed to last so long after the week they’ve just had. Curled up together in the middle of the room, neither one of them has the energy to notice the presence that climbs up the tree in the afternoon.

“Troublesome brats,” a sigh comes, knuckles brushing over their foreheads in a gentle reprimand. “How did I manage to have such annoying grandkids?”

Crouched over their sleeping forms, Garp takes in the view before him with a frown that speaks of deep troubles.

“What the heck are you two doing,” he mutters, “to be acting so grown-up when you’re just babies?”

By the time they wake up, he’s long been called into headquarters. Dadan complains that he tore her a new one because they got hurt while she was watching them, and she spends the next week cursing him with a doll that looks suspiciously familiar.

“He’s the one who took you to a hospital with a gas leak!” Hissing at the dinner table while peeling garlic, she continues, “Those stupid nobles have so much money but they can’t even take care of what they have. Do you know how many people passed out?”

Ah. So that’s how he covered it up, Ace notes when they drop by the fort. Luffy pops out of the room in the fresh shirt he desperately needed after a tumble into a mud pit, and they head off for the forest once again.

“Ace knows haki too, right?” Luffy asks when they start training later, his tone confident that the answer is yes.

“Uhhh,” Ace scratches his cheek sheepishly. “Sorta?”

“Huh?”

“Well, you know,” he hedges, avoiding Luffy’s confused expression. “I used it, occasionally. I think. That’s what they say, anyways.”

Question marks pop over the nine year-old’s head, his head tilted to the side in thought. “What’s that supposed to mean? Isn’t it just yes or no?”

“I never learned to use it,” Ace explains a bit awkwardly, “and no one ever taught me. Apparently I’ve used it in fights, but it wasn’t on purpose. So…”

Shit. This is so embarrassing! Covering a freckled face with his hands, Ace bemoans the sudden realization that Luffy grew up far more than him in the two years after his death and left him behind. Not only did he learn haki, but he became proficient in all three types! There aren’t many people in the world that can claim that, and Ace is far from being able to use even just one type consistently.

Or purposely, for that matter.

“WHAT? THAT’S SO COOL,” Luffy yells, scaring him out of his spiralling depression. “YOU USED HAKI WITHOUT BEING TAUGHT?!”

Pouting, Luffy kicks a nearby rock with full cheeks. “I only managed to do that with Conqueror’s Haki! No fair. How come you’re always better than me?!”

No, no, that’s not right at all. Just being able to say that is more than even the Navy’s Admirals can, you know? Isn’t Luffy completely missing the fact that he doesn’t actually use haki?

Unable to help the laugh that bursts out of him, Ace rotates his now light shoulders and picks up the nearby pipe.

“Because I’m your older brother, of course,” Ace teases, confidence back in full because of Luffy’s innocent envy. So what if he never learned haki! He can just start now, right? Haki seemed more annoying and difficult to train than his Devil Fruit powers, but. It turns out the words he used to hear so often actually rang true.

A cocky Logia is a dead Logia.

“Just wait until I’m used to this body,” Luffy declares, sticking his chest out. “I’ll kick your ass!”

“Go ahead and try,” Ace smirks, spinning the steel pipe through his fingers. “The scoreboard is right there.”

Luffy, despite his promise, is completely surprised when his body doesn’t work exactly as he expects it to. More than once, the rubber boy ends up on his ass trying to pull off attacks he used in the past and grits his teeth in annoyance.

“ANNOYING!” he yells, stomping his feet after the 63rd failed attempt. “Why can’t I do it yet? I’m so much stronger than I used to be when I was nine!”

Humming thoughtfully, Ace looks down at him from the tree he’s been sitting in to avoid accidentally getting hit by his brother’s unruly limbs. “You’re fighting like you’re bigger than you are. I did the same thing when I came back. You just have to keep practicing until you get it.”

In this case, Luffy’s rubber powers are both a positive and a negative. They allow him to extend his reach to compensate for whatever body mass he’s lost, but it also has him overestimating himself because he can’t stretch them as far or strongly as he used to. Well, Ace supposes that’s just one of the drawbacks of being a rubber human for so long.

Frown growing deeper and deeper by the second, Luffy finally stops to shout, “OKAY! TIME FOR HAKI TRAINING!”

“All of a sudden?” Startled, Ace jumps off the tree and joins his little brother on the way to the clearing where they spar.

“Yeah,” he replies, a strange glint in his eyes when a smile spreads across his cheeks. “It’ll make things easier.”

And just like that, he shoves Ace to the ground. He barely has any time to react before Luffy’s squishy hands wrangle a blindfold over his eyes, trying to pry the nine year-old off and failing because legs have wrapped around his chest four times.

“Wait, Luffy, wha-”

“Let’s start with Observation Haki!” Disentangling himself from Ace, the rubber boy snickers and picks up the steel pipe that fell on the floor in their scuffle. “Dodge THIS!”

“OW! OI, LUFFY, WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?!”

“Training! This is how Rayleigh taught me,” Luffy laughs mischievously, aiming another attack at his brother. “Come on, Ace! You gotta dodge me 100 times!”

Scrambling to his feet when he hears the whistle of the pipe through the air, Ace scowls underneath the blindfold. “You’re just making up an excuse to hit me.”

“Well, yeah,” he says like it’s obvious. “But this is really how Rayleigh trained me! I’m gonna be nicer, though, because he said I couldn’t eat food until I dodged 100 times. Don’t tell me you’re gonna be a chicken?”

Ace can feel the annoying grin his little brother has on, his brows twitching imperceptibly.

“There’s no way, right,” Luffy giggles, the little twerp, “that you’re afraid of getting beat up?”

Swearing under his breath at those words despite knowing it’s a trap, Ace spreads his feet and raises his fists. “BRING IT ON!”

When Makino sees them later for her regular visits later that day, she gasps at their swollen, bruised faces and hurriedly takes out a first aid kit.

“What happened?” she asks, gently cleaning their wounds with an antiseptic.

“Training!” Luffy swings his legs back and forth on the chair, just as happy-go-lucky as always. “I beat Ace, shishishi.”

“THAT DOESN’T COUNT,” Ace yells, slapping bandages on top of his own injuries. “Whoever gets to 100 first is the winner!”

“That’s still gonna be me,” Luffy sticks his tongue out at his brother and earns a bottle to the head, dodging it with ease. “See!”

“You two…” Seeing Makino’s pout and the air around her darkening slightly, the both of them straighten in their seats and pretend to behave.

“Geez! You two should be more careful,” she sighs, packing up the kit after she’s checked on Ace as well. “Are you guys really getting along?”

“Huh? Of course we are,” they answer in unison, perplexed by her question.

Restraining a laugh at the identical looks of confusion on their awful faces, Makino smiles. “I’ll trust you, then. But be careful!”

“This is nothing,” Luffy declares confidently, jumping off his chair and showing off his muscles. “I’ve gotten blasted by a dragon before and fought Giants! They didn’t even leave a scar, hehe.”

Makino is about to giggle at the tall-tale coming out of his mouth when she notices Ace’s proud expression.

“As expected of my little brother,” he grins, meeting black eyes and shooting him a thumbs up.

Sweat beading her back, Makino looks at the two with a growing sense of unease. There’s no way they actually fought a dragon, right? No, dragons don’t even exist! And everyone knows Giants don’t leave Elbaf. Of course they couldn’t have. But, somehow...she doesn’t think they’re joking around.

“Oh, dear,” she whispers, suddenly feeling tired.

“Eh? Makino, are ya feeling alright?” Luffy asks immediately, Ace’s head swiveling her way to make sure she’s okay.

“I think I could use a glass of water,” she says weakly, blinking in surprise when the twelve year-old climbs the table and pours a cup for her at once.

“Here, Makino! Drink lots!” Luffy says, passing it over from Ace with his signature wide, innocent smile.

Well. Whether it’s a joke or not, they’re both here in front of her totally un-

Erm, just a bit hurt.

Ruffling Luffy’s soft black hair, she thanks them both and decides to make an extra delicious meal today.

Deep in the mountains of Dawn Island, time passes by in a flash. Luffy’s body is still soft and squishy compared to Ace, but he figures it’s both his youth and rubber body at work. Summer is blossoming across their little home once again, heat rising from the firm ground and encompassing Mt. Colubo. Ace’s birthday passed long ago without much fanfare just the way he likes it, with Luffy’s birthday present being the only thing to catch him off guard.

Birthday presents aren’t exactly conventional when it comes to their family, but Ace has never cared enough for his birthday to want anything other than whatever gift Luffy managed to scrounge up around the island for him. In fact, the only one that lasted long enough to matter was the cowboy hat Luffy got him for his seventeenth birthday to commemorate the beginning of his adventure out on sea.

It’s a bit lonely not to have it resting on his head anymore, and he feels off-kilter without it. Ace kind of understands how upset Luffy gets without his straw hat now.

But again, birthdays for Ace are usually lowkey and minimal. Meat, a cool beetle, and a hug are the usual norms he’s prepared for. What he was not prepared for was the sudden tradition Luffy seemed set on starting for a birthday present from now on.

“HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ACE! I love you!” With a beam, Luffy threw himself at his older brother and rubbed their cheeks together affectionately, ignoring the way Ace froze in his arms from shock.

“H-Hey, wait,” he said belatedly, trying to pull the nine year-old off with blood rushing to his head. “What the heck are you doing all of a sudden?”

“I’m reminding you that I love you!” Luffy exclaimed like this was normal, giggling. “This way, whenever your birthday comes you’ll always remember it!”

“What the heck is that?! I don’t need something like that,” Ace freaked out, flustered. “Luffy, get off of me!”

“Don’t wanna,” Luffy hummed like the cheeky brat he is. “Love you! And you can’t do anything about it.”

Trying to at least hide his face from view, Ace turned away in embarrassment. “What do you mean, do anything about it...it’s not like I hate it, or something. You don’t have to say it every year, it’s weird!”

Pretending he couldn't see the red flush covering Ace from head to toe, Luffy’s beam grew larger. “Un!”

But right now winter is long gone, and spring is edging into summer when he finally gets to return the favor to his little brother.

“Makino! Is it ready?” Running up to her before the birthday party, Ace waits eagerly for her response.

“Of course! I’m sure he’ll love it,” she answers, giggling at his bright expression. “It’s a shame we didn’t get to celebrate Luffy’s birthday properly last year, but we’ll make up for it today.”

Pleased, Ace helps her bring in the food in her hands and carry it up to the Dadan Family fort, exchanging small talk with her in a way that would have been impossible for the him in the past when he was actually this age.

“What’s going on?” Luffy asks dumbly when he’s dragged into the fort. “I thought we were gonna go to High Town today!”

Rolling his eyes, Ace continues to drag him further in. “As if. We’re eating here today!”

Before he can ask more questions, Ace shoves him into the main room with a grin.

“Happy birthday!” Confetti pops out and drifts to the floor, surprising the now ten year-old little boy. “Congratulations on becoming ten, Luffy!”

“WOAH!” Running up to the table groaning under the weight of the feast laid upon it, Luffy’s eyes grow shiny with excitement. “SO MUCH FOOD!”

Licking his lips, he misses the first plate of food by an inch when he’s pulled back by his brother.

“Say thank you, at least!” Ace scolds him half-heartedly.

“Oh, you’re right.” Turning around, Luffy screams, “THANKS FOR THE FOOD!”

There’s scoffs and laughs all around, and with a clink of their mugs, the party begins.

There’s new clothes, the yearly straw-hat maintenance on top of plenty of fun to be had, and Luffy soaks it all up eagerly. He bounces around every corner of the fort, clinking glasses and stealing food where he can. Dadan threatens to tie him up and throw him outside, but everyone knows she’s never meant a thing she’s said.

“Ah, I wish this was sake,” Luffy sighs longingly after a long swig of his juice, making Ace choke on his food from laughter.

“Sake? You’re too young for sake!” Hands on her hips, Makino wags a finger at him. “Luffy, no alcohol until you’re an adult, okay?”

Avoiding her eyes, he starts whistling and tries to escape.

“Don’t tell me...you’ve already had alcohol?! Luffy, that’s no good! It might ruin your body, you know. Promise me you won’t drink anything until you’re old enough.”

Considering the fact that they drank sake for the first time even before they became adults in their last lives, Ace can’t stop the snicker that escapes him.

“Ace-kun! You have to promise too,” Makino turns to him, his back immediately straightening when he feels her attention fall on him. “No drinking, and make sure Luffy doesn’t either.”

“Yes, ma’am!” he answers instinctively, saluting her. A split-second later, he flushes at the wondrous looks on everyone’s faces and hurriedly pulls Luffy out of the fort.

Thanks for everything Luffy say thanks goodbye,” he blurts on the way out, Luffy waving goodbye and shouting his final thanks good-naturedly.

Grabbing a bag by the front door and rushing off, Ace only lets off when they’re out of sight from the fort.

“What’s that?” Luffy garbles curiously around his last shank of meat.

“This?” Grinning, Ace lifts his brother onto his sandalled feet and jerks his head towards the treehouse. “It’s your birthday present. Come on, Lu, get climbing.”

“OH? You got me a present?!” Eager, Luffy slingshots himself to the top of the tree easily and jumps around. “Hurry, hurry! I wanna see it already!”

Chuckling under his breath, Ace opens the bag once he’s next to Luffy and unfolds the cloth inside.

“So?” he asks, taking in Luffy’s wide, glowing eyes with satisfaction. “How is it?”

Hands trembling, the ten year-old reaches out to touch it. “This…”

“This is the BEST PRESENT EVER,” Luffy yells, spreading the Jolly Roger with a familiar straw hat painted on it. “YOU GOT ME MY FLAG! Ah, no, you were my present last year, so this is the SECOND best present ever.”

Hugging it, Luffy beams. “I’m gonna hang it up right now!”

Climbing to the mast of their treehouse, Luffy carefully hangs the Jolly Roger under the tattered remains of the first one they ever made all together, the three letters on it fluttering in the wind alongside his straw hat.

“It looks nice,” Ace compliments, smile soft as Luffy circles it over and over again with happiness. “I’m glad I left the painting to Makino.”

Neither he nor Luffy are very good artists - that was always Sabo’s job. The Jolly Roger was originally just a shirt Ace had asked Makino to make, but after Luffy’s return he thought that a flag might be much more fitting. Truthfully, Ace has been worried that Luffy might be lonelier than he seems without his crew. Even if they set sail at seventeen and meet all their comrades, they won’t have the same memories as Ace or Luffy, and it’s been a long time since his little brother wasn’t surrounded by people constantly.

The Jolly Roger was a good idea, he thinks.

“I can’t wait to see everyone again,” Luffy shouts, whirling around the roof with too much energy. “They’re gonna look totally different, shishishi.”

Thinking of his own crew, Ace tries to remember what they all looked like when he first began his journey. Three years...they all changed appearances over those three years, but they were still the same people at heart.

Suddenly, Luffy jerks in place as if he’s been struck by lightning, startling Ace.

“Luffy, what’s wrong?”

“I’m ten,” he whispers with realization, something dawning over him. “Shit.”

Standing up and pacing around, he racks his head anxiously while thinking.

“Then, then, Nami is...eleven? Arlong! Shit, I can’t fight him right now. What do I do? Ace, what should I do?”

Lost, Ace takes in the frazzled panic written all over his little brother and calms him down by placing hands on his small shoulders. “Hey, hey. I’ll help out, so tell me what’s wrong. What happened to Nami?”

“There’s this asshole, a Fishman who hates humans, and he...his entire crew made her life hell.” Luffy’s eyes are red with fury, his fists clenched by his sides while Ace listens patiently. “I’ll never forgive him! But.”

Looking down at his hands, Luffy’s anger morphs into frustration. “I can’t fight him in a body like this, and even if I start training right now, I don’t know how to get to her island.”

“I see,” Ace responds quietly, the fear that had been buzzing at his own skin slowly transforming into helplessness. “I didn’t know.”

Arlong. The East Blue is never taken seriously because of how weak it is, but even Ace knows how Luffy got his first bounty. Had gotten multiple copies and plastered them everywhere he could, pleased by his baby brother’s growing fame after defeating multiple people that sank Navy ships all over the East.

But what can they do? Neither he nor Luffy have any idea how to navigate, and despite how strong they are for kids they won’t be able to do much against an entire group of adult Fishmen. Ace isn’t afraid to fight with his life on the line, and he knows Luffy isn’t either - but there’s a difference between taking risks and sending yourself to death’s door. There’s more than just one problem at hand here to prevent them from doing anything immediately. Even so, despite all that-

-Nami is Luffy’s, and Luffy is Ace’s, and that means they have to do everything they can to protect her.

“Damn it,” Ace curses, mind racing in a desperate search for a solution. “Isn’t there someone we can ask for help? Maybe we can find someone who’ll know the way to her island, or we can try reporting it to Navy since he isn’t that strong yet-”

Pausing, he notices that Luffy’s gone still in front of him. “Luffy?”

“There is,” Luffy says out of nowhere, confusing him. “Someone I can ask for help.”

Taking a deep breath, the ten year-old uncurls his fists and meets his older brother’s gaze. “The Navy there is no good, but there is someone I can ask for help. The only thing is...I’ll have to wait until he gets here.”

Letting go of Luffy’s arms, Ace studies him seriously. “You mean…”

“Mm. I want to do it myself, but...” Gritting his teeth, Luffy looks off at the sea glimmering in the distance. “...I can’t let her suffer any longer than she has. I know Jinbei wanted to be the one who took him down if he ever got out of control, but I’ll have to apologize to him later on.”

“You might have to pay for it,” Ace sighs, exhausted just from thinking about it.

“Don’t worry,” Luffy reassures him, lips quirking upwards. “I have a plan. Besides, Nami’s worth it!”

Raising an eyebrow at the dead calm oozing out of his brother now that he’s come to a decision, Ace thinks he can see the man Luffy grew into after his death.

The Monkey D. Luffy who defeated everyone in his way to became Pirate King.

“Alright,” Ace resolves, “I’ll make sure he helps too no matter what!”

Six months later, the news that Vice-Admiral Garp of the Navy captured a traitor who took bribes from pirates and freed multiple islands under said pirates’ tyranny runs the front page of the newspaper.