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romance dawn:reflection

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Finishing the cold cream stew that Nojiko left out earlier with relish, Nami looks out the front window and sees the moon high among the stars. Drawing and recording everything from her memories took a lot longer than she expected, but it works out in her favor now. Now that the Marines are gone, it’s time for her to make her move - and a thief always works best in the dark.

Quietly setting her plate into the sink, the navigator debates taking a jacket because of the cold front approaching the island and then decides against it since it would wake Nojiko up. Grabbing the supplies she packed earlier, Nami slips out of the house in the dead of night without so much as a note. If anyone is awake, they certainly won’t be hanging around her house so late, and it gives her the perfect cover to sneak into Arlong Park while no one is around. The trek is a bit long for her short legs, but she doesn’t mind. The entire place is covered in rubble from the fight, causing Nami to take care not so that she doesn’t accidentally send any sliding around and wake someone up with the commotion. Tip-toeing through all the rebar, chunks of cement, and broken bits of furniture, she finally reaches what would have been the first floor of Arlong Park.

“Alright!” Finding the dusty blue carpet she’s looking for, Nami’s grin glows with glee. “Found it!”

Kicking the carpet away reveals a door to the secret basement of the building, but the handle is broken from rubble that landed on the carpet during the destruction. Glad she prepared for this beforehand, Nami pulls out a crowbar from her handy dandy tool bag and puts her back into opening the door.

“M-Maybe I should have asked Gen-san for help from t-the beginning after all,” she groans, regretting the decision to wait before bringing him in. “Ugh..!”

Physics sends her flying back when the door finally opens, and she coughs at the dust clouding the air from her crash into the pile furniture.

“Dang it,” she whines, looking at her scraped elbows. “That stings.”

With an irritated sigh, the orange-haired little girl lifts herself to her feet and heads back to the basement entrance. The staircase below is steep and covered in shadow, but there are candles all along the wall. Glad she doesn't have to light her own torch, Nami lights the candles she can reach and slowly shuffles her way down the stairs.

“Just two locks and a fingerprint?” Cracking her knuckles, Nami smirks. “Something like this is easy as pie for me, you know.”

She’s been picking locks since she was actually eight years old, forget twenty-two turned eleven. Fingerprints might be a concern if things were as advanced as when she was an adult, but fingerprint scanners have only been released to non-government facilities for two years around now. Arlong might have thought it was the best form of protection that money could afford for his precious treasury since this is just the East Blue, but touch technology still has plenty of issues; all it takes is some well-placed tape and delicate finger work to get into the safe after the locks are cleared. Climbing down the broken chair she dragged down to the basement in order to reach the scanner, Nami lugs the heavy steel door open.

“Let’s see exactly how much you have lying around, you bastard,” she grunts, brown eyes cold. “I’ll rob you fucking blind while you rot in prison!”

Despite her determined gaze, even Nami is shocked when she sees the piles of money and treasure filling the room behind the door.

“HOLY SHIT!”

Scrambling forward, Nami pinches herself to make sure she’s not hallucinating. “Oh my god...this…this…”

A high-pitched laugh escapes her throat, her shoulders trembling with a mix of rage and awe. “Unbelievable.”

It’s all she can manage to say without screaming or breaking something. Knowing about the tributes and seeing them totalled in person is totally different - lives cannot compare with numbers, and yet Nami is seeing the value of the Conomi Archipelago’s citizens in the form of the money before her. Just looking at it is enough to know that it totals well into hundreds of millions, and she’s sick just thinking about the people who died and lived by just a hair in order for this money to fall into Arlong’s hands.

In her original life, this place was emptied long ago and used as a weapons storeroom. Hatchi often had her run errands with him when she was released from her room as a kid, though Nami only realized when she was older that it was his way of keeping an eye on her to make sure she didn’t get into too much trouble with the others.

“This place used to be a safe for all our money, but Arlong moved it a couple of years ago,” Hatchi said, opening the door and walking in. “Now, all our weapons are here! If you help me organize all this, I’ll let you take one.”

So Hatchi got out of messing up his assignment, and Nami got her first proper bo out of it. She never knew why or where they moved the money, but she thinks she understands now.

“There’s no way this small ass room would be able to fit years worth of tributes,” she laughs hoarsely, fists clenched by her sides. “Just one and a half years of our pain gave him this much.”

Inhaling deeply, Nami regains her calm and looks for the ledger she knows must be here. Arlong might not have been one for administrative tasks, but he always personally kept the account books in order to check the flow of money - enjoyed it, even, smiling with his sharp teeth as he wrote in those familiar bound books that she used to see the first of every month. Had censuses conducted every year, kept track of every single name, every death and birth, and made his crew punish anyone who had the courage to lie so that they could protect their loved ones. Cocoyashi Village was saved from many unfortunate deaths because of Gen-san running point on all things Arlong and making sure they could survive, but not everyone else was so lucky. Arlong had shown her the report from him once, laughing.

"This idiot still writes your name down after all this time. Well, I guess he's being careful so that we don't gut him for lying."

Sure enough, there’s a box of familiar leather notebooks to the near right. The top most ledgers are the crew’s expenditures, and the other books are labelled individually by island. Setting aside the expenses for a moment, Nami opens another notebook. Names by family, age, twelve boxes with months written at the top of the page, and check marks for each square; it’s easy enough for even someone like Hatchi to understand, and Nami strokes the names with lines through them gently. Despite the losses of the people crossed out and those who never even got to be written in, she’s glad that the numerous lives that would have been destroyed by seven more years under Arlong are now safe thanks to Luffy and Garp.

Settling on the floor, Nami pulls out all the ledgers and organizes them into piles before tearing out a few empty pages to use for herself. Counting how much money there is would take way too long, so she plans on calculating the total sums earned and then just subtracting what's in the expenses books. Flipping to the last page with ink on it, Nami freezes in place at the stark black numbers that look up at her from the book.

Hands shaking, she chokes out, “A billion? No, even more. From the past sixteen months, he’s definitely made over a billion.”

225,000,000 bellies, the ink reads from July’s annual records. From one island alone, that bastard managed to make over 200 million bellies in the past year. Nami's always known that 100,000 bellies for every adult and 50,000 for every kid per month was highway robbery, but she's never really understood how many people lived in this archipelago. After all, she'd simply cared about her home. Something like saving everyone was a thought too stupid and naive to consider for even a moment, and 100,000,000 bellies was hard enough to get for a single village, forget twelve or twenty or whatever the number of villages in all the islands is.

The thing is, though…that over half the people in these books were dead by the time Luffy came. The people who tried to rebel, the villages that banded together and refused to pay like Goa, the people who couldn't afford medical care after paying the fees, and the people who killed themselves so that their families could afford their own lives - all of them were lost over the next seven years. Cocoyashi Village had the most survivors out of anyone because of Gen-san's hard work, but they were still whittled down by time just like the others. Arlong definitely wouldn't have made as much money later on as he did now, since he killed so many citizens.

Surprised by the tears lining her eyes, Nami hurriedly wipes them away and pulls herself out of dark thoughts. The future that she remembers will never happen again, and all those people will get to live freely the way they were meant to in the first place. Luffy made sure of that, and now it's Nami's turn to make sure they get back everything they lost to the Arlong Pirates.

Pulling the totals out of every notebook, she compares the $1.5 billion bellies earned from fees to the money spent on building Arlong Park, buying weapons, paying Nezumi's bribes, and general day-to-day costs amassed during their residence here. If it weren't for the free labor Arlong got from the islanders with his threats, building the Park would have cost almost twice as much. In fact, Nezumi's bribes end up totaling way more than the $40 million it took to build this place. But strangely enough, there’s an anomaly in the expense ledger that she can’t understand.

“What are all these symbols?” she frowns, turning the page over and noticing a strange mark somewhat similar to a diamond next to a majority of the purchases. “Instead of proper numbers, there’s just this mark...but there’s no way Arlong’s detailed enough to put work into everything else and then leave this ledger a mess. This has to represent something of value, but it doesn’t look like a currency I know about.”

Tapping at the book in thought, the little girl blinks and turns around. “Wait, is that maybe-”

Scrambling to her feet, she goes searching through the room and beams when she spots a specific corner full of precious jewels and gold coins.

Treasure,” Nami breathes, pleased as punch. “It’s the treasure they got from diving and killing other pirates!”

There’s no logs anywhere in the books about the treasure, but she figures it’s because none of the Fishmen were trained enough to be able to tell how much any of them are valued at. If, by some miracle, there’s enough treasure here from looting pirates, Nami will be able to avoid working with a deficit! Hell, if there’s enough treasure, she might just be able to take any leftovers herself. Sufficiently energized by the idea, she crosses out the purchases with the treasure symbol next to them and starts doing the math.

As long as someone in the family is alive, all the money paid by them and their late loved ones will go back to them - but if there’s no one in the family left whatsoever to give the money to, it’ll be put aside for Nami’s own pockets. It might not seem fair to others, but who the hell will know after she’s done with her work here? In the first place, no one would be getting anything back at all if she didn't know about this hidden basement.

Besides, dead people have no use for money.

It takes over two hours for her to finish the calculations and organize the papers, but she feels more energetic than ever when she stands up and brushes dirt off her knees.

“Okay! Time to pack it up,” she cheers, tying her hair back and looking towards the piles of cash to her left. Nojiko’s 750,000 bellies is almost tripled with the added leftovers, and Nami plans on bringing home their money first before anyone can touch it and then asking Gen-san to take over as sheriff so he can redistribute the rest to the people it belongs to on the other islands as well. She might be just as smart and wily as any adult, but she’s in the body of an eleven year-old; besides, why do all the work when she can just hand it to someone else trustworthy?

Choosing to use cash since the denominations are much bigger than coins and much lighter, Nami pulls out the burlap sacks she packed into her tool bag and starts filling them one by one. Tying all the bags onto a stick, she lugs it across her back and uses the stick as a balance beam to carry everything with this childish body of hers. Heading out of the room, Nami sighs when she spots the staircase.

“Right. I forgot about that.” Cussing under her breath, the navigator turns sideways and slowly makes it up the narrow stairs one by one until the stars are peeking out over her orange hair once again. “Time to go home!”

Exhausted beyond all belief by the trek home with all the money over her shoulders, Nami just barely avoids falling face-first into the dirt of the orchard when she hears a voice speak up from behind out of nowhere.

“Wanna tell me where you went in the middle of the night?” Nojiko asks, arms crossed and brows raised while she stands there in her pajamas.

"DON'T SCARE ME LIKE THAT!" Nami screams, clutching at her rabitting heart. "W-What are you doing awake?"

"I woke up to use the bathroom and decided to check if you went to bed properly or not," Nojiko says flatly, obviously unhappy with her little sister's sudden disappearance. "But I know you're not crazy enough to run away after what happened today, so I've been waiting for you."

"Ah, well, you see," inching backwards, Nami nearly trips over the bags she dropped earlier from fright, "I-"

Windmilling to stabilize before she falls, the navigator sighs in relief when a tan hand reaches out to grab her.

"So?" Nojiko asks, staring her down.

"I got it," Nami groans, pouting, "I'll tell you! I was planning on telling you in the first place - I just wanted to make sure I handled most of it first."

Grinning, Nojiko hauls her up and pinches her cheek roughly. "You should have just told me from the beginning, idiot."

"Come on," Nami tells her, gesturing to the bags on the ground. "Help me move this into the shed first."

Figuring she'll know what the bags are full of soon enough, Nojiko agrees.

"Oh. I forgot to tell you because you were so busy with your maps," Nojiko recalls, blinking green eyes innocently with one hand on the shed's door. "But that Marine with the fedora dropped this off yesterday morning while you were at the port."

"Dropped what o-" Freezing in place as the door creaks open, Nami drops the bags again and raises trembling hands to her face.

"M-M-MONEY!" The scream tears out of her throat before she can help it, and she slaps her mouth shut before checking around the house for any eavesdroppers.

"What?! Why? HOW?" Mind spinning, Nami immediately throws all the bags inside the cramped toolshed and slams the door shut behind the two of them.

Shrugging, Nojiko holds back the amused grin tugging at her lips. "There's a note."

Rushing over to the cart in the toolshed that's barely holding on under all the neat boxes filled with straight cash, Nami looks high and low for the note. Spotting a white square in the middle, she climbs over one box and stretches to reach it.

Traitors don't need money in prison. Do whatever you want with it, shrimp.

Wide-eyed, Nami waves the note in front of Nojiko's face and pinches her shoulder when all Nojiko does is snicker at her.

"I haven't counted it yet, but it seems like there's more than enough for everyone to get back what we paid in fees," Nojiko hums, her smile growing wider when Nami bursts out into laughter.

Clutching at her aching ribs, Nami laughs so hard that tears sprout at the corner of her eyes. "Don't worry about that."

Smile falling, Nojiko tilts her head in confusion. "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying, they don't need the money. It's all ours!" Glee fills every inch of her tiny eleven year-old body, and Nami laughs again because of the sheer happiness coursing through her. "WE'RE FUCKING RICH!"

Rolling green eyes, Nojiko says, "Oi, Nami, we're not keeping all this money for our-"

Ignoring her sister, Nami climbs down the cart and yanks open one of the burlap sacks she filled in the basement.

"Holy shit," Nojiko interrupts herself, eyes wide. "Where did you get that?!"

"Arlong didn't use all the money he got from us," Nami tells her, her voice shaking with excitement. "It's right there in the Park, in the basement! I went and made sure of it tonight! I'm gonna tell Gen-san tomorrow and have him give it back to everyone. So, that's why…"

Grasping her sister's hands, Nami whispers, "...they don't need any of that! We can keep all of this money!"

"Holy SHIT," Nojiko repeats, mouth open in astonishment. "You crazy, sneaky little brat. Then, is the money there is everything I paid? You brought it back?"

"All sixteen months of fees and everything left over," Nami laughs, slowly becoming delirious at the thought of all this falling into her lap without any effort. "This is the best day EVER!"

Reminding herself to give Luffy a big kiss on the cheek next time for both him and his grandpa, Nami moves back to bribes confiscated from Nezumi and tries to recall how much he got paid every month.

"10%? Or was it 10% and a base fee? Whatever, I'll just count it!" Humming under her breath, Nami begins organizing the toolshed to create more space for her to get started. “Oh, Nojiko, take this.”

Grabbing the shovel Nami throws at her, Nojiko raises a brow at her. “And what exactly am I supposed to do with this?”

“We’ve gotta hide all this money somewhere when we’re done counting, don’t we?” Nami asks matter-of-factly, happily rubbing her face against a stack of thousand belly bills. “You hate math, I hate sweating, it’s perfect!”

“You mean you’re leaving all the hard work to me,” Nojiko scoffs, tugging on orange locks and earning an ‘ouch!’ before she acquiesces. “But you’re right that I’d rather go out there and dig than sit in this tiny ass shed and be an accountant. If I’m not done by the time you finish, you come help me.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Nami nods, barely paying attention.

Laughing helplessly, Nojiko heads into the house to change out of her pajamas and into a pair of overalls since she’ll be getting dirty while digging. On her way, she brings two more candles and leaves them by Nami since the one lamp in the shed won’t be enough.

“It’s a relief to only have to count cash,” Nami mutters, flipping through a wad of bills with numbers running in her head. “Counting 100,000,000 bellies by change would suck.”

She would still do it, obviously, but it would be much more of a pain in the ass. Stacking all those tiny coins would wreck both her hands and take all week, but all cash currency is in the thousands; busy with their own tasks, both sisters do their best to finish as quickly as possible before the sun rises. The only person who drops by their house on the hill is Gen-san, but they can’t just leave all this money out in the open for anyone to see.

Wiping sweat off her brow, Nojiko lifts another shovel full of dirt and tosses it outside the hole she’s currently standing in before dropping it out of shock when she hears a cut-off scream. Climbing up the hole urgently, she runs into the shed and throws the door open.

“Nami, what’s wro-”

Taken aback by the tears in the brown eyes before her, Nojiko’s heart flips at memory of that same face in tears on the road only a few months ago, swearing to free them all and escape Arlong’s hands.

But this Nami is not that Nami, and the tears in her eyes aren’t full of loathing.

“...75,432,109 bellies,” Nami chokes out, turning to Nojiko woodenly.

Stunned, Nojiko almost falls forward the way Nami did when she first saw the money, her dirt-smeared face loose with astonishment.

Holding back another scream, the navigator gestures to the cash surrounding her in a circle. “It’s - it’s 75 million bellies.”

“Oh my fucking god,” Nojiko breathes out, knees weak. “A-Are you sure?”

“I counted twice,” Nami tells her, unsure what to do with the high she’s been running on all night. Her head is spinning, the air in her lungs is thin, and she thinks she can see belly signs flashing in neon green in front of her eyes.

Two seconds later, she passes out.

“NAMI!” Rushing forward, Nojiko places an orange head into her lap and slaps her sister’s cheeks to wake her up.

“I’M OKAY!” Nami shouts, shooting up to sit straight immediately. “I’m okay! It was just too much for me to handle for a minute.”

Holding onto her throbbing head, Nami takes in a deep breath and stands up shakily. “Right. 75 million bellies...haha, hahahahaha!”

“Listen, Nojiko,” she says, spinning on her heels and facing her sister with a serious expression. “The money I brought back from Arlong is 2 million bellies-”

“What?” Nojiko blurts out.

“-and you can have all of it! I won’t touch a cent! So in return, let me have all this,” Nami continues, pointing to the boxes the bribes were delivered in.

Heart in her throat, Nami holds her ground and meets green eyes firmly.

“...There’s enough for everyone back in the Park, right?” Nojiko asks after a long pause.

“Exactly enough for everyone in the entire archipelago,” Nami answers, confident in her calculations. “I only took the stuff that didn’t belong to anyone else.”

“Okay,” Nojiko agrees without another thought, blindsiding her little sister.

“EH?! JUST LIKE THAT?”

“It’s for that guy who saved us, right?” Nojiko figures, rendering Nami wordless all of a sudden. “I’m not an idiot, you know.”

Thinking of her crew and the Sunny, Nami’s fists clench instinctively.

“It’s one thing if we had a bunch of money and left everyone else to rot, but we’re not,” Nojiko points out, one hand resting on cocked hips. “You two got that Vice-Admiral to get rid of Arlong, so that money’s yours, and I get 2 million fricking bellies. Of course, just because we’re rich all of a sudden doesn’t mean you can get out of taking care of the orchard properly. Being a farmer might be hard on a bookworm like you who spent all year inside, but you’ll have to get used to it. If you don’t put 120% into our tangerines, I’ll make sure you become someone who can’t use that money anymore, got it?”

“I finished digging the hole, so hurry up and put everything except my portion inside,” Nojiko tells her while shedding her dirty gloves and stretching tired arms. “The trees are ripening, which means we have a lot of work to do when we wake up.”

Left alone with all the money and a twist in her chest, Nami blinks rapidly.

“What the heck,” she mutters, hiding her face from the light. “She always acts like such a know-it-all. What does she mean, bookworm? I’m a pirate, for god’s sake!”

Scrubbing her face momentarily, Nami starts placing the money back in boxes and wrapping them in burlap sacks again for hiding.

Hours later when Genzo drops by their house to check in on them, the dirt in the yard looks the same as always, and the two of them are curled around each other on a bed startlingly big for two little girls.

“Sheesh,” he sighs, noticing the dishes in the sink and the small candle stumps littering the table that signify their late-night in. “Kids should go to bed by curfew or they won’t grow properly.”

Lifting the blanket that Nami kicked off in her sleep over them gently, he’s in the middle of tucking them in when a blue head shoots up from the bed and knocks into him.

“What time issit?” Nojiko asks, her words slurring together.

Wincing at the throb in his head from their collision, Genzo scowls at her. “It’s already noon, sleepyhead.”

Making a face, Nojiko looks as if she’s debating whether or not to go back to sleep before she shakes Nami awake.

“Hey, wake up! Gen-san’s here,” she tells her, yawning. “We gotta do it now, or it’ll be annoying later.”

“Ah?” Rolling over, Nami groans and tries to ignore them both. “Shaddup.”

Pinching her side, Nojiko reminds her, “Arlong. Money. Gen-san!”

“Can’t he just find it himself?” Nami whines uncharacteristically, the lack of sleep since arriving here catching up to her now that all her concerns are taken care of.

“What the hell are you two talking about?” Genzo asks, hands on his hips. “What do you mean, Arlong and money and me?”

With a deep sigh, Nami sits up and rubs her tired eyes. “Alright, alright, let’s just get this over with.”

Slipping out of the bed, she grabs a jacket from a coat hook nearby and throws it over her pajamas carelessly. “You’re not busy, right?”

“Huh? No,” he replies, watching her leave the room with confusion before blinking at Nojiko’s gesture to follow her. “Wait, where are you going?”

“Arlong Park,” Nami tells him, her voice hoarse from sleep. “There’s something we need your help with.”

His anger and confusion at their secrecy is completely wiped out half an hour later, and Nami leaves him in the basement after a pat on the back and a reminder to distribute everything according to her notes in the books.

“B-But - that’s - no, in the first place, h-”

“I’ll be leaving it to you, Gen-san!” she answers with a wink and a salute before making her escape.

Time to go back to sleep, she thinks with a happy yawn. How nice to leave the annoying work to someone else again!

 

_

 

 

“GARP!

Bursting through the door with a manila file in hand, Sengoku storms into his old friend’s office and only finds himself more irritated when Garp beams at him.

“OH, SENNY! Come here, I wanna show you something,” he beckons, shoving the rice crackers on his desk away and searching for something.

“I’M NOT HERE FOR FUN!” Holding onto his throbbing temples when Garp makes a face that says, ‘so what?’ and keeps doing as he pleases, Sengoku tries to calm himself with a deep breath.

Technically speaking, Garp isn’t exactly wrong for what he did - but damn it all if he didn’t choose the worst way to handle the situation!

“You...what were you thinking, killing Saw-Tooth Arlong?” Sengoku asks, flopping onto a chair in front of Garp’s desk and searching his face for an answer.

“Huh? He was being a nuisance, so I fought him,” Garp answers like Sengoku’s dumb for asking without even looking up, and Sengoku just barely shoves down the urge to strangle himself with his own beard. “Since he was under Fisher Tiger and that Jinbei kid, I figured he’d be strong enough to take a single punch.”

“A punch from you?” Scoffing, Sengoku sets the report file aside and levels a displeased stare at the Vice-Admiral. “In the first place, if you knew he was close to Son of the Sea Jinbei, you should have controlled yourself! One of the reasons that man became a Warlord was to set Arlong free and claim him as a subordinate, fool!”

“So? I’M A MARINE,” Garp answers, uncaring as he pulls a flat brown package out of his desk. “There was a pirate killing people, taking slaves, and stealing money. IT’S MY JOB TO TAKE PEOPLE LIKE THAT DOWN NO MATTER WHO THEY ARE!”

Pausing at the new information that wasn’t in the incident report, Sengoku leans forward. “He took slaves?”

A slave,” Garp corrects, his lips tilting downwards into a frown as he recalls the sight of the little girl whose hands were covered in her own blood and open sores from writing so much. If taking a child away from their home for labor with their life on the line isn't slavery, what is it?

Taking in the glint that runs through his friend’s eyes, Sengoku sighs. Yes, that would certainly do it. To the Garp that hates the values and lifestyle of the Celestial Dragons, someone doing the exact same things as them would hit every wrong note with him. Conquering land, establishing himself as their ruler, killing them if they can’t pay tribute and even taking in a slave to do his bidding - it’s no wonder Garp didn’t hold back his strength the way he normally does. If it were any other situation, he’d be able to lecture him more, but Sengoku can’t bring himself to utter the words when he knows they’ve reached a line that shouldn’t be crossed when it comes to this man.

There’s a lot of things the new generation doesn't know about Monkey D. Garp, but one of the most important is that he’s a man who dislikes useless deaths.

He’s not against beating criminals to a pulp or killing someone if push comes to shove in order to protect innocents and do his job, but nearly all his missions are finished with prisoners brought in alive. In a way, Sengoku understands the reasoning: death is too simple an escape, and it cannot punish some people the way living in torment will. But sometimes life is a kindness undeserved, and he wishes the Vice-Admiral would see things his own way.

If he ever had to describe Garp with his truest thoughts, he would probably say that Garp is a man of rock-hard resolve for a warm future. He’s wild, brute strength and domination, but he also deeply centers all that around his desire to bring peace and justice to people. Unfortunately, those people sometimes include those it shouldn’t, and he doesn’t really think about how to bring about that peace, and it makes Sengoku’s job twice as hard as it needs to be.

He’d known the second he saw the report that there had to be a reason, but he still wanted to confirm for himself why Garp did what he did despite surely knowing the consequences.

“Well,” the Fleet Admiral mutters finally, lacing broad hands together. “Either way, we’ll have to deal with the consequences now. First Son of the Sea Jinbei has heard what happened, and he’s asked to meet with you. They said it will take around a month to reach Marineford from where they are now, so be ready."

“UGH,” Garp makes a face of disgust, sending Sengoku’s ire rising again. “DON’T WANNA!”

“YOU DON’T HAVE A CHOICE, IDIOT!” Automatically jumping to his feet and yelling at Garp, the man called Sengoku the Buddha wonders how decades of knowing this man has done nothing but horrors to his blood pressure and closes his eyes behind his glasses frustratedly. “You went and KILLED SOMEONE who was like A BROTHER TO HIM, so now you’ll SIT DOWN and MEET WITH HIM so that he doesn’t make things even worse! LUCKILY, he’s one of the more reasonable Warlords, but we also haven’t given him a reason NOT to be yet. Just-”

Shaking a fist at Garp, Sengoku glares fiercely. “-stay still and let me do the talking, got it?”

“You should go by yourself instead of with me,” he mutters in response, picking at his ears. “You’ll just get mad at me again when it ends up being a fight.”

“Like I SAID,” Sengoku reiterates, the tick of anger on his forehead growing twice in size, “the entire reason we’re doing this is so that it DOESN’T end up in a fight! More importantly, THIS!”

Picking up the report and waving it around, he slams it down on Garp’s desk over the half-torn brown wrapping paper that the Vice-Admiral was working on.

“Your source of information about this guy was an anonymous tip?” Raising a single brow with meaning, Sengoku leans in and forces them to meet eyes. “Where exactly did this anonymous tip come from while you were on vacation, hmm? I'd like to hear exactly who told you about Saw-Tooth Arlong and his dealings with the local Navy branch."

“It wasn’t a tip,” Garp huffs, flicking the file off to a corner. “It was a PROMISE, MAN TO MAN! Nothing needs any more than that."

"Needing more than that is EXACTLY WHY I'M ASKING," Sengoku screams, stealing away the rice crackers that Garp's fingers are inching towards. "IF YOU HAVE TIME TO EAT SNACKS, TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED PROPERLY!"

"You've been doing strange things one after another," he snaps, crushing the bag and its contents into a ball. "Taking more time off, pulling rank at a hospital - and I let your gas leak story fly because they really found traces in the air - but now you're suddenly taking tips from anonymous strangers while on vacation about pirates that are related to Government-approved criminals?! What the hell is going on, Garp?"

Truthfully speaking, Sengoku doesn't give a shit what the Warlords think of the Navy or the Government. As far as he's concerned, a criminal will always be a criminal; the day they give a reason to overturn their status, he'll make sure they're treated as such. The Warlords are necessary to keep the balance, yes, but with some time and care they can be replaced. The Seven are both a way to check the Four Emperors and the pirates affiliated with the Government themselves, but getting rid of one or two won't be an issue as long as someone new fills in for them. Of course, any pirate raising to a high enough level that they could be considered a Warlord candidate is an issue in and of itself, but it’s not like they’ve always had seven of them since the birth of the position. His own beliefs refuse to allow criminals to go unpunished for their crimes, and all that protects the Warlords is a single law that has its own loopholes. If he had any issues, it would be that the First Son of the Sea is one of their less worrisome Warlords, and having to replace him would be a headache.

Garp's erratic behavior, on the other hand, is becoming a much more pressing issue than a possible feud with Jinbei.

They're the only two left from the original era, and Sengoku has always had faith in Garp's character. This broad, strong, stupid old man before him, regardless of anything that happens, can only be a Marine. It's a part of both of them to forge a path to justice in a way that very few can understand, and he's never doubted that.

But the Garp who's been the same his entire life is changing, and Sengoku is afraid of what that means for the future.

"I was reminded of the reason I became a Marine," Garp tells him calmly, the last piece of wrapping paper falling off of the item in his hands. Looking down at it instinctively, Sengoku freezes in place.

In the small rectangular picture frame beneath him, a small boy who can't possibly be older than ten at most is grinning over his shoulder with his hands in a peace sign. He's got unruly black hair, a scar under his left eye, a swollen face, and a grin that Sengoku's seen thousands of times on Garp's face. There's a straw hat tied to his neck that strikes Sengoku as familiar for a fleeting moment, and another young boy with longer black hair has his face hidden from view while he bends over to check the wounds. He, too, is covered in all sorts of injuries. To the right, a young woman with green hair is wrapping one of the straw-hat boy’s arms in bandages with a fretful expression.

Incredulously, Sengoku opens his mouth. "Is this…your grandson?"

He and Garp don’t talk much about private affairs, but being the only ones left from a long gone era and growing through the ranks together means that if anyone in the Navy can be said to know the most about them, it would be each other. There might have been a single exception to Sengoku’s case a few years ago, but the man who could have bested Garp in such a contest has long since passed under a name that was never really his. In any case, the sheer joy and giggling that Garp couldn’t stop after walking into HQ around a decade ago and his long, frequent vacations that left him with a pep in his step around the base was a clear indication that he was visiting someone specific.

Garp lost his wife decades ago, and Sengoku knows no other woman would or will ever be able to take her place by his side; if it wasn’t a woman, and it wasn’t his estranged son’s return - because it’s been clear to Sengoku for a long time now who Garp’s rebellious son is - then it could only be a grandchild. He could see it in the glitter of his old friend’s eyes, more than familiar with the pride and joy that could only come from raising a child.

Sengoku used to know that joy too, once.

Granted, Garp had also started taking more frequent breaks after Roger’s death, but that day changed the entire world, and not just the two of them. There was occasionally a peaceful air about him in those first few years after Roger’s passing, but nothing like the sheer delight he tends to carry about him now. In those days, Sengoku assumed he’d finally hit a place in life that made him more introspective about his life and let it pass.

"BWAHAHAHAHA! THAT'S RIGHT! THE RESEMBLANCE IS OBVIOUS, ISN'T IT?" Laughing uproariously, Garp doesn't bother hiding the fond grin that erupts on his wrinkled face. "My good little grandson came and asked me for training specially, SO I GAVE IT TO HIM GOOD! HE’S GONNA BE A GREAT MARINE, HAHAHAHAHA!"

Lips twitching with a combination of helplessness and pity, Sengoku shakes his head and feels his anger melt away. "God help us all when that day comes."

The look on that child's face alone means he's going to be trouble.

"AHHH, YOU'RE JUST BEING DRAMATIC! What's the fun in life without some SPUNK?" Setting the picture frame to stand at a corner of his desk with pride, Garp turns back to his long-time comrade and grins.

"You know, Senny, I just can't be a Marine who looks the other way when I'm asked for a favor, man to man. Otherwise, HOW COULD I SET AN EXAMPLE FOR MY GRANDSON!"

Placing the crushed bag of rice crackers down, the Fleet Admiral picks up the manila file from earlier in return. "I'll make sure you pay for this later, Garp."

It's hardly a warning so much as it is acceptance, and they both know it.

Whatever the story is, however and from whomever he got the information doesn't matter - not even if it causes bad blood between the Navy and a Warlord. Their image has become even more positive in the eyes of the public, and Garp is being praised as a hero once more throughout the seas for his ability to see past a traitor's deception to help innocents in need. The only person who cares about learning the truth is Sengoku, and he'll just make do from here on out with his own conjectures as always.

Ah, shoot. That Warlord Jinbei, too.

"RIGHT! YOU SHOULD COME BY LATER AND LISTEN TO WHAT HAPPENED ON MY TRIP!" Chuckling, Garp invites him over to brag about his grandson as if they have nothing better to do with their time than sit around and share inane stories.

"LIKE HELL I WILL!"

"Aw, come on, don't be like that! SINCE YOU'RE THE ONLY ONE I CAN TELL THESE STORIES TO, HAHAHA!"

Eyes rolling behind his glasses while he recites calming mantras mentally, Sengoku closes the door behind him and stalks forward.

Verbalizing the bittersweet nostalgia that lingers at the thought of a child who was once precious to him and stewing in jealousy as Garp coos over his grandson for hours hardly sounds like the definition of a good time when he has a long list of things to handle as Fleet Admiral.

"Sir? Sir?"

Snapping out of his thoughts, Sengoku focuses his attention on the secretary attempting to arrange his schedule for the day.

"Yes?"

"I was asking if you already met with Vice-Admiral Garp for your strategy meeting, sir," the secretary states, referring to the strategy they're supposed to come up with for handling First Son of the Sea Jinbei.

Knowing full-well that Garp will either ignore or completely forget any plan they come up with, Sengoku sighs and decides to wave it off.

"Schedule it right before lunch," is what his mouth says instead, a shock in and of itself. "It'll probably run long."

"Understood, sir." With a salute, the officer leaves and goes to make the necessary arrangements.

Damn it.

It looks like the rest of Sengoku’s day is going to be wasted on stories of a little brat too much like his annoying grandfather instead of work.

 

_

 

 

"98, 99...100!"

Rolling on his side to dodge the last attack, Ace bounces up to his feet and screams, "I WIN!"

Throwing the pipe to the floor with a pout, Luffy whines, "Aw, man! I was at 90!"

"TAKE THAT, LUFFY!" Grabbing his little brother in a chokehold excitedly, Ace smushes his fist against Luffy's head in a noogie. "I beat you by a whole TEN."

"Ow, ow, ow," Luffy complains within his arms even though his rubber body prevents him from actually feeling hurt. "I GOT IT, I got it, so let go of me!"

"But I'm the winner," Ace points out, grinning wide with delight. "And losers don't get to be choosers!"

Tackling him to the floor, Ace sends them tumbling all over the place while he enjoys annoying Luffy in return for all the pain he's suffered these past few months.

After his little brother's insane request for training from Gramps, they were both kept on their toes for three days and two nights while the old man took them on happily.

"ARE YOU DUMB?! WHY WOULD YOU ASK THAT CRAZY OLD GEEZER TO TRAIN US! DON'T YOU REMEMBER WHAT HE'S LIKE?!" Having dragged Luffy to a corner and checking him for brain damage, Ace couldn't help the yell that escaped him.

"Ace, I remembered something important!" Grinning, Luffy placed a hand on his hat and stood straight despite the panic whirling through his brother. "One of the things Rayleigh taught me is that the BEST WAY to train your haki is in a battle! I thought knowing how it feels is enough, but only my mind knows and not my body. So even though in MY HEAD I'm going 'WHOOSH WHOOSH HAKI BAM' my body doesn't get it."

Throwing out a few punches as examples during his explanation, Luffy added, "That's why we've gotta fight someone STRONG. If we do, we'll be able to get MUUUCH BETTER than before! Ace knows too, right?"

"That the best way to get stronger is in a tough fight!"

Warring with the knowledge that Luffy was right and the horror of willingly training with Gramps, Ace stood there with an increasingly large scowl before he screamed in frustration.

"FUCK! Fine! Let's just do it, dammit." Stomping his foot, Ace walked out of Dadan's Country and ignored Luffy's cheerful laugh. "OI, GRAMPS!"

"I KNEW YOU'D JOIN US!" Smirking, Garp grinned in a way that suggested wicked plans previously unheard of were brewing in that head of his for their training.

"Yeah, yeah, so listen. We're not gonna do any of that weird shit you always come up with, alright?! It's a fight, plain and simple! The both of us against you."

"Oh? THAT SURE SOUNDS FUN," the old man laughed, cracking his neck. "At this level, neither of you will be able to touch me, though?"

"We'll see about that," Ace scoffed despite the doubt clamoring at the back of his head. They might not be able to land a proper hit, but they should at least be capable of touching him, right?

No - even if I can't right now, I'll make it so that I can before he leaves.

"We should go up the mountain!" Popping in between them without a care for the atmosphere, Luffy pointed to the range above. "We're gonna need a lot of space, hehehe."

"Mm, sounds good," Garp agreed, looking pleased. "ALRIGHT, BOYS! PART ONE OF YOUR SPECIAL, LOVEY DOVEY TRAINING WITH GRANDPA!"

Shivers ran up Ace's spine, and the blood in his veins ran cold with the instinctive knowledge that he was in danger.

Bright, cold eyes were gleaming on the old man's face like the eyes of a great wolf observing his prey, and the air became stifling under his dominating gaze. The sheer pressure of a predator unlike any of the beasts on this island came crashing down on their small bodies, and a smile curled under a white mustache.

"Don't get caught," Garp said, his voice deep and low while he crouched down in preparation for what could only be called a hunt.

Hands tight around his metal pipe, Ace flinched before gritting his teeth and setting off into a desperate sprint.

"O-Oi," Luffy panted, running beside him with fear splayed all across his face, "WHAT THE HELL IS UP WITH GRAMPS?! HE'S ACTING TOTALLY DIFFERENT!"

Cursing under his breath, Ace gasped, "HELL IF I KNOW, JUST - RUN!"

Hearing a loud boom from behind, Ace realized that their grandfather had started to move.

"Oh shi-"

They both looked up at the black mass falling in front of them with panic, their fight or flight instincts awakening with an unholy screech.

"BWAHAHAHAHA! LOOKS LIKE THIS WON'T BE MUCH OF A CHASE!"

Challenged by his teasing remark, Ace and Luffy veered in opposite directions to avoid being hit and put even more strength into their legs. Gramps never said when this would end, which meant they just had to keep going until he said game over. Nodding at each other, the brothers began using the environment to their advantage; the trees, their roots, the rocks and pits that fill this forest - each and every one of them was something they adapted to after years of living here, and Gramps wouldn’t be able to move like they do with his hulking body. Anything he tried to use here would probably crumble under his strength, but Ace and Luffy had the advantage of being more agile due to their smaller bodies.

Using the metal pipe as a fulcrum when Gramps’ hands rushed towards him, Ace swung under a tree branch and propelled himself to a different tree. There was only a two second gap between his feet touching the wood and Gramps’ next attack, but he jumped onto a higher branch and tried to catch sight of Garp.

“Going higher won’t do much,” a voice said from below, and Ace looked down immediately to find Garp punching the trunk of the tree he was still in.

“Damn you,” Ace hissed, catching hold of an outstretched rubber hand that drew him by Luffy’s side to escape.

“Ace!” Luffy said, brows furrowed. “Gramps is-”

“Yeah, I know,” he muttered, shivering again when Garp turned to narrow his eyes at them. “He’s not playing around. Be careful, Luffy! That guy...there’s no telling what he’ll do to us if we get caught.”

“Got it,” Luffy nodded, taking his warning seriously. “W-”

Chucking Luffy to the ground when he spotted an incoming fist, Ace sent them rolling under a bush with scratches all over their arms from its thorns.

“NO TIME TO TALK! WE NEED TO KEEP HIM BUSY,” he shouted, glaring at Gramps. “I’ll go low, you go high!”

Without another word, they split up again and put their newly contrived strategy to the test. Ducking through foliage, rolling around in the dirt, jumping through trees and using Luffy’s rubbery body as a slingshot to avoid falling too far behind; with every second that passed, they struggled desperately to avoid being caught by their grandfather. The fear of a punishment as simple as a regular beating had long been overshadowed by the instinctive fear that rose when being hunted down by something profoundly stronger than you, and they both knew that whatever punishment came after being caught, it was going to be much worse than any Gramps had ever given before.

The sun slowly began setting over the island, dying it all in warm orange hues, but none of its beauty fell into their eyes because of their fight to survive.

“Damn it,” Ace panted angrily, crouched below a large tree root to catch his breath. “Why the hell does he keep coming after me?”

Because it’s obvious now after all these hours that Garp’s primary target is, in fact, Ace. In the handful of hours they’ve been running, he’s gunned straight for Ace instead of Luffy over and over again and only thrown a few stray shots toward the rubber boy. He didn’t know if it was because he pissed Gramps off or what with that conversation from before, but Ace was getting tired of the single-minded focus and in dire need of something that could change this up. It was easier in the beginning, but as soon as the two boys separated it was as if Gramps never even took Luffy into his eyes.

Hearing the crunch of twigs under firm feet, Ace immediately took off in the opposite direction. On his way past, he grabbed a few berries from a nearby bush that were safe to eat and crammed them into his mouth despite the sour taste that made his tongue tingle. There was another type of berry nearby that was much more delicious, but it was known for giving stomach issues to anyone who ate them. After so many years out here chowing down whatever seemed yummy enough, he and Luffy were of course more or less capable of eating them without the same problems - but even their stomachs would undoubtedly make noise afterwards, and he couldn’t risk giving away his position due to that.

There was no time to hunt down an animal, much less skin and cook it for a meal; if Ace even paused to think about something else while Gramps was prowling around, that would be the end of him. On top of that, lighting a fire would make him a thousand times easier to spot, especially now that night was setting in. The smell of smoke and meat on top of the light?

Needless to say, berries were the only way to go.

Freezing in his tracks when he heard a strange sound echo throughout the forest, Ace slowly turned his confused eyes towards the left. What the heck was that? It wasn’t an animal, that’s for sure, and he’s pretty sure Gramps was a little off to the right. So what could that sound have been?

The sound appeared once again, and then a guffaw from behind. Holding in a swear with the thought that he might get found out, Ace tried to blend in with the surrounding plants when he heard movement from Gramps so that he could conserve energy for the imminent chase.

“MAKING SO MUCH NOISE EVEN WHEN I TOLD YOU NOT TO GET CAUGHT,” Gramps bellowed, making Ace wince, “IS THAT A DECLARATION OF WAR?”

Furrowing his brows, Ace wondered what the heck Gramps was talking about before grey eyes fell on a small pile of fallen fruit in front of him and the epiphany hit.

Luffy!

That idiot ate the other berries! The instinctive desire to yell at his little brother fought against the certain fear that Garp would change targets because of Luffy’s stupidity, and Ace nearly bit his tongue. From a guy who used haki on his own kid grandson even when he wasn’t pissed...what kind of hell would Luffy face if he got caught right now because of this stupid stomach?

Spiralling into worry and struggling to figure out a plan to save him while observing his surroundings, Ace was brought out of his thoughts when a shout answered the question from earlier.

“OF COURSE IT IS! YOU’RE NOT EVEN TAKING ME SERIOUSLY, GRAMPS! STOP CHASING ACE AND COME AFTER ME, DAMMIT,” Luffy yelled, his voice filled with indignation. “I’VE BEEN WAITING ALL THIS TIME FOR YOU! ALSO...I WAS HUNGRY.”

Ace’s small laugh is overshadowed by their grandfather’s booming one, and they both unknowingly have the same smile on their faces at Luffy’s words.

“I SEE,” Gramps replied, grinning widely. “SORRY ABOUT THAT, LUFFY! I’LL MAKE SURE TO HURRY AND CATCH YOU FIRST TO MAKE UP FOR THAT.”

BLEEEH! GO AHEAD AND TRY!”

Holding back another laugh at what could only be the sound of Luffy sticking his tongue out at their grandfather, Ace relaxed his tense muscles and sat down properly. It’s his fault for not realizing earlier that being ignored would have obviously made Luffy angry, and he needed the distraction in the first place. Trusting Luffy to be able to handle Gramps for ten to fifteen minutes at the minimum, Ace decided to let his body rest and think of a plan that allowed them both to survive until the end of this hunt. Making Gramps chase them individually would only work for so long, and Ace had a feeling this wouldn’t end at least until morning arrived again.

In that case, the best strategy was one that used the mountain environment to their advantage by finding an area that would allow them to hide well enough to not be found and simultaneously be easy enough to run from while causing trouble for their Gramps. Hiding in trees and behind boulders wouldn’t do much for them because of that geezer’s immense strength, and camouflaging in foliage would only work for the parts of the forest filled with small shrubs. If they could hit Gramps back while they were at it, it would be even better!

Wiping sweat away from his forehead, Ace did his best to remember the entire mountain forest as best as he could to formulate a good plan for them both. Plans were always more Sabo’s things than his, but Ace definitely couldn’t rely on Luffy to come up with one. If he asked…

“Don’t we just have to run?” is what he’d say, cocking his head in confusion.

Besides, if there was anything Thatch taught him, it was how to best utilize everything he had in hand in a serious fight. Ace has never been a stranger to charging in without thinking, but he’s also learned how to take command of others and strategize - even if he’s not necessarily the best at it.

Spotting a brown, rabbit-like animal scampering away ten feet from him, Ace slowly began to grin.

Got it.

Certain that Luffy would guide Gramps up the mountain like they’d originally wanted, Ace started his own ascent and set up the last of the requirements for the plan he’d come up with.

Twenty minutes after Garp switched targets from Ace to Luffy, both Monkeys made it to the area Ace laid in wait.

“I...JUST THINK...THAT ALLIGATOR TASTES BETTER!” Huffing while he jumped across the river in front, Luffy was firm in his opinion even as Garp made a face of ridicule.

“DON’T BE DUMB! THE MOUNTAIN LION HERE OBVIOUSLY TASTES THE BEST!” Gramps argued back, their nonsensical conversation raising question marks over Ace’s head. Forget how the hell this topic came to be - the answer was clearly alligator meat. Mountain lions were definitely delicious, but their muscles were much more painstakingly chewy than alligator meat, and obviously the meat with more marbled fat was the best!

If they’re talking about the best meat out there, though, the answer could only be one thing - hippos. Being both marbled with fat and hefty in muscle, hippos were undoubtedly the easiest meat to make taste extremely delicious. Cooking it over an open fire would make it wonderfully juicy even without adding anything else because of all the fat melting into the meat and coating it in flavor. Remembering the mouthwatering, juicy steaks that Thatch had carved out of one after a visit to an island teeming with them, Ace wiped away his drool and tried to regain focus.

He had to be careful, or Luffy would get caught up in his plan instead of Gramps! Granted, neither of them would be hurt much by it, but it's still a matter of principle: if Luffy doesn't need to get hurt, why the hell should he?

That's what he has big brothers for, after all.

Mouth dry and palms sweaty while he laid in wait for the right timing, the thirteen year-old did his best to remain invisible to their senses. The river was only a short distance away, and he didn't have many chances to do this properly. Despite the itch at his skin from the sweat and bugs, the heat glaring down at him from above, and the protest of his muscles from being tense for too long, and despite the scant distance that remained between Gramps' fingertips and Luffy's neck, Ace only moved at the very last second.

"LUFFY, UP!" Shouting with his entire chest, Ace's words knocked Gramps off his rhythm just long enough for Luffy to immediately stretch his arms out to a tree just in front as his older brother ordered.

"NOT SO QUICK!"

Jumping after Luffy with his hands outstretched, Garp was forced to swerve left at the unexpected log swinging towards his face and then spin on his heels after noticing the trap net on the ground. The log he dodged earlier began swinging backwards in an arc, and he growled before destroying it with a single punch.

Not one to waste time, Ace threw himself into the fray with a heavy blow aimed straight for Gramps' head.

"FIGHTING BACK? GOOD! A STRONG MAN ALWAYS STANDS HIS GROUND," Garp shouted, pleased by Ace's initiative. "BUT THIS MUCH IS NOTHING!"

"I...already knew that!" Ace gritted out when his pipe lodged itself into a tree after Gramps' quick escape. Yanking it out with a huff, the boy rolled to the right and double-checked if he was in the right spot to continue his plan.

"Luffy, stay in the trees!" Ace called out as he ran forward, leaving a stunned little brother behind.

"EH? WHY?!"

"JUST DO IT!" he screamed, knowing there was no time for explanations.

"Switching around can only last for so long," Gramps teased, passing by Luffy to follow Ace as expected.

Tch! Crazy old man. Sure enough, he would prioritize grabbing Ace over Luffy if he had to choose between them.

“If you had a problem with me, you should have just punched me right then and there!” Ace yelled, irritated by his grandfather’s unusually roundabout behavior. “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?!”

“OF COURSE, IT’S YOUR PUNISHMENT!” Gramps roared, hand forming a claw as if to grab the boy by the head. “IF I DON’T BEAT YOU TO A PULP FOR PULLING SOMETHING AS CHEEKY AS THAT, I CAN’T BE CALLED YOUR GRANDFATHER ANYMORE!”

Speeding up, Ace ran straight for the tree in front of him and began running up the tall trunk to build force for his next attack. Coarse hands missed him by just a centimeter, but he paid it no attention as he ran to the best of his ability before gravity could best him.

“TAKE THIS, DAMMIT!” Letting the velocity carry his feet in the air and flip him facing down, Ace raised his pipe for the final blow. Garp came to a halt and raised both hands over his face to block against it, and the ground partly gave way beneath him because of the force of the attack.

Shit, Ace thought, realizing that the ground was still somewhat firm despite his best efforts. He’d thought that with the help from running up the tree and his grandfather’s naturally bulky stature, he’d be able to put enough power in to make things work.

Meeting grey eyes head on, Gramps smiled at him viciously. “Is this how you plan on protecting Luffy, brat?”

Sight going red at the provocation and his own weakness, Ace bit his tongue until it bled. Just a little more...just a LITTLE more, and it would have worked!

He was more sensitive than ever about his own lack of strength after learning about the future from Luffy, and for a split-second it felt as if all his hard work in the past two years amounted to nothing once again in the face of someone whom Ace was still struggling to process his own feelings about. To have asked, been told to grow strong, and then be mocked like this - it was something Gramps would have never done before, and yet deemed only right to do now.

It was as if Garp had said, You dare to speak so bravely when this is all you can do?

Grabbing a hold of Ace by the throat, Garp slammed him against the tree and leaned in aggressively.

“YOUR FUTURE, YOUR LIFE, AND THE PEOPLE IMPORTANT TO YOU - THIS IS HOW YOU PLAN TO PROTECT THEM? WITH THE STRENGTH OF SOMEONE WHO CAN’T EVEN PROTECT HIMSELF?”

He scratched at the hand choking him desperately, but there was nothing he could do to break free. Ace lost all momentum the second he paid more attention to his grandfather’s taunts rather than his next move, and he knew that being caught like this meant the game was over. Even so, he didn’t resign himself to the punch that was undoubtedly coming as Garp raised a strong, hulking fist.

Unable to speak because of the constriction, Ace simply glared with all his might, undeterred.

I’ll protect them, those eyes said, a fire that couldn’t be put out blazing within them. I’ll protect each and every one of them, no matter what!

A loss was a loss, but this wasn’t the end. He’d take this beating and grow stronger, and next time would be his win! He didn’t regret his conversation with Gramps earlier, and he’d regret facing him face-to-face like this instead of running endlessly even less. He’d done it to prove to the both of them that Ace was neither ashamed nor a coward, and the boy had made his point by trying to turn the tables around on Garp regardless of whether or not it worked. Their family communicated best with their fists, and that’s exactly what this was - a discussion of whether or not Ace could back up his words.

“GEAR: SECOND!”

As Garp’s knuckles came ever so close to Ace’s face, both of them staring straight into each other’s firm eyes, a strangely pink and flesh-like arm stretched between them, steam pouring off it in little wisps.

“GOMU GOMU NO PISTOL!”

That small, pink fist at the bottom of the arm reached Garp’s, and two pairs of eyes widened at the sudden intrusion that they weren’t expecting.

“I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE HELL YOU TWO ARE TALKING ABOUT,” Luffy yelled from above, his face set with determination, “BUT IT’S ALL STUPID!”

Ace wanted to call out his name, but all he could do was stare at the sight of his brother high in the air using a technique that he hadn’t seen since they were on a battlefield covered in ice.

“IF ACE CAN’T PROTECT HIMSELF AND THE THINGS IMPORTANT TO HIM, THEN I’LL DO IT MYSELF!”

With a surprising strength, his outstretched fist managed to send Gramps’ punch away from his brother and down towards the ground instead.

Having completely forgotten about Luffy because he caught Ace, Garps could only let it happen so that he didn’t lose control of his strength and cause debilitating damage to his older grandson in the process of the misdirection. And just like that, both punches faced downwards and obliterated the ground within six feet.

“THIS TIME, IT’S MY TURN TO PROTECT ACE!” Luffy declared, his words echoing through their heads incredulously.

“LUFF-”

His voice was cut off because of the desperate gasp he had to inhale after being choked, but Ace had no chance to finish what he wanted to say even after that because of the floor giving away underneath and leaving him to fall.

“ACE AND I WILL NEVER LET ANYTHING BE TAKEN FROM U-HUH?” Realizing too late that something strange was happening, Luffy could only fall forward because of the lack of solid ground to rebound his punch from. In just a few seconds, Garp, Ace, and Luffy all fell into the deep pit that appeared all of a sudden, dust rising into the air as they hit the bottom.

Accidentally knocking his head against Gramps’ in the fall, Ace was sandwiched between Luffy's falling body and his grandfather. With a disturbingly sharp sound, all three of their hard heads ran into one another like dominoes.

OW!” The two boys screamed in unison, clutching their throbbing temples. Grunting beneath them, Gramps coughed at the sudden intrusion of elbows and knees into his gust following the headshots.

Choking on the dust, Ace waved away the rising cloud of dirt in the air and tried to see either one of his family members through squinting eyes.

“What the heck - BLEGH - was THAT?” Spitting out the rock that somehow got into his mouth, Luffy groaned weakly and rolled off to the side.

“My plan,” Ace coughed, making a face. “Didn’t really go the way I wanted it to, though.”

Two seconds later, he and Luffy were both sent flying into the walls of the pit by their grandfather’s excited stretch.

“BWAHAHAHA! THAT WAS A TRAP?! WELL, WELL, WELL,” he boomed, his gleaming teeth the only clean part left of him. “NOT BAD AT ALL!”

“EH? WHEN DID YOU MAKE THIS?” Bouncing back to his feet without any care for the bruise forming on his stomach from Garp’s hands, Luffy looked towards his older brother with displeasure from being left out. “I DIDN’T KNOW ANYTHING!”

“It wasn’t me,” Ace wheezed, almost jealous of Luffy’s immunity to blunt force outside of haki. “It’s a digbit house.”

“Huh? I thought those things were all dead,” Luffy responded, both brothers completely ignoring Garp’s happy plans to make them Marines in the background.

“Nope,” Ace shook his head with a grin, pleased despite the strange turn things took. “That hasn’t happened yet, remember?”

‘Digbits’ were what he, Sabo, and Luffy called a specific animal that lived in the upper forest between the rocks and the trees. They were actually called digger rabbits by the locals, but Luffy and his terrible memory with names had slowly made ‘digbits’ a more common word in their household instead.

The reason they were called digger rabbits was because they had the tendency to make elaborate, deep tunnels underground for their homes and, unlike regular rabbits, were omnivorous; using their large teeth and sharp claws, they caught prey by digging pits all over the mountain-top. It made sense that Luffy didn’t really remember them - a year or two from now, some upstart noble and his merchant were escorted up the mountain to find a specific lumber that was starting to become popular in High Town, and instead they fell into one of those pits. Furious, the noble paid for the extermination of every digbit on the mountain, and he sold their fur as specialty clothing instead of the wood they came looking for.

Ace had only realized they were still alive when he saw one in those bushes earlier, and he figured that if he could find a place where multiple lived in the same home, there would be plenty of tunnels - and a nearby trap - just under the ground that would give way under his Gramps’ weight and some extra force on his part. For multiple reasons, this hunt was more a battle between him and Gramps than about training, and he wanted to prove that he wasn’t some stupid little brat just because he couldn’t take Garp down yet. Before Gramps caught him, he’d been determined to catch Gramps instead; as it turned out, the one who sent the old man flying into this pit was none other than Luffy.

“This a digbit?” Gramps asked at that moment, holding onto a squirmy little brown digger rabbit that had come to investigate the collapse of its home. He poked at it curiously and started rolling it around in his hands like a toy.

“Yup,” Ace sighed, standing up and eyeing the distance between the entrance and the floor of this hole. “Luffy, can you get us out of here?”

“Can’t,” Luffy answered plaintively, and when Ace turned to look at him he was shocked by the melting pile of rubber two feet away.

“WOAH! WHAT HAPPENED?”

“I used too much strength punching Gramps,” Luffy grinned, sheepish. “It’s the first time I’ve used Second Gear here! I can probably climb with my mouth, though?”

“OH? IS THAT WHAT YOUR PUNCH WAS CALLED? YOU’VE BEEN TRAINING HARD WHILE I WAS GONE,” Gramps praised, whacking him over the head anyways. “BUT YOU’RE A MILLION YEARS TOO EARLY TO BEAT ME, LUFFY!”

Torn between anger and the desire to crush him in a hug for doing something so reckless when it could have ruined Luffy’s young body, Ace cleared his throat and hurriedly hid the silly, trembling grin on his face.

“It’s okay,” he shrugged, “I can get us both out instead.”

Crouching down to lift his little brother onto his back, Ace blinked when a large hand grabbed him by the collar instead.

“Just leave it to your lovely GRANDPA!” Raising a child in each hand without a care, the Vice-Admiral threw them out of the pit and into the sky.

“AAAAAHHHH!”

“YOU CRAZY OLD MA-”

Chuckling to himself at their screams, Garp jumped out and started making his way to the nearby mountain-top. “I’LL BE WAITING FOR YOU AT THE TOP! TRAINING’S NOT DONE YET, BOYS.”

Groaning weakly from on top of the tree branches that had broken their fall, they met one another’s eyes with helplessness.

There truly was no such thing as being too old to ‘play’ with your grandpa.

After the hunt, only two training sessions remained: one where they attempted to make Garp move out of place from whatever they could think of, and one where they were forced to fight him within a set area lest they be punished by what Gramps called a proper beating.

Even though it was a miserable, miserable few days, the nightmarish boot camp really did help them. It was almost as if there was a barrier between the two of them and the next step of their training, and going up against Gramps managed to break it and allow them to move on.

After coming back to this time, neither of them had ever been truly scared for their lives. The beasts here were tough to deal with, but nothing they didn’t know how to handle. With knowledge of the future and what they knew how to do best, it was just a simple matter of dividing and conquering. Compared to a Warlord or an Emperor, what was a simple tiger or bear to the two of them? Sure, the animals might be huge and have plenty of strength, but the last animal Luffy had fought against was a dragon.

It’s pretty hard to beat a record like that with regular fangs and claws, you know.

Through Gramps’ unnatural, vicious bloodlust, they remembered what it meant to fight for their lives again. That there was an entire world of people that had to be taken seriously at the cost of their own lives, and that they refuse to be dominated by anyone else, no matter who it is! In the months since then, their Observation Haki and physical abilities have grown exponentially, and they’re continuing to improve as time goes on.

Today, Ace wins by reaching 100 dodged strikes before Luffy, and it marks a milestone that they’d waited months for. It doesn’t mean that Ace had achieved the level of Observation Haki that Luffy did after Rayleigh’s training since Rayleigh is obviously much stronger, swifter, and capable of hiding his presence than either of the little boys; they’ve grown, but not enough to compare to someone like Rayleigh so quickly.

Of course, it doesn’t mean nothing either. Being able to dodge all 100 strikes means that Ace is getting a much stronger handle on Observation Haki, and he’s starting to understand it as the battle sense that Thatch had once helped him hone in all those fights against Pops. He’d never realized before that it was a type of Haki, but the day he figured it out, he’d smiled.

It turns out Ace owes Thatch much more than he thought he did, and that someone did train him in haki after all.

As it is now, no one on this island stands a chance against the two brothers. Ace is even confident that they’d be able to take on anyone who comes at them without haki or a Devil Fruit power regardless of who they are.

“JUST WAIT! I’LL HURRY AND CATCH UP TO YOU, I SWEAR!” Scowling, Luffy immediately sits down on the floor and ties the blindfold around his eyes. “My turn!”

“Ace-kun! Luffy!”

Pausing, Luffy takes off his blindfold and they both turn to look at the path that leads to Dadan’s house.

“Makino! I hope she brought food, too,” Luffy cheers, jumping up to his feet and completely forgetting about their contest.

“Geez,” Ace shakes his head as his little brother runs off to meet her. “He only thinks with his stomach.”

“WOAAAAH, IS THAT CAKE?!”

“HUH? HEY, LUFFY, WAIT FOR ME!”

Taking off so that everything isn’t gone by the time they get to the fort, Ace leaves behind the pipe in his hands by a wooden stake.

In the same moment that the two boys sit down to eat cake with Makino and the mayor, billowing sails with a bright red, blazing sun across them that couldn’t be any more familiar to the Straw Hat Pirates are raised to enter Nami’s hometown of Cocoyashi Village.