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romance dawn:reflection

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Ace is the first one back. 

In his heart and hands, he still feels Luffy’s warm body in his hands, his shaking shoulder under Ace’s chin. Feels an emptiness in his chest where he was punched through by Akainu. Still feels the smile he died with, thankful beyond anything in existence to have been loved by so many precious, amazing people. 

Thankful for his one and only family. 

Slowly, the world enters Ace’s senses to wake him from his peaceful and endlessly dark sleep. Pain creeps up his shoulders and his spine, his head beginning to throb violently. 

Well, Ace thinks, this sure is a shitty afterlife. 

He was never one to believe in a life after death in the first place, so he supposes it’s fitting. 

“Ace! Ace! Look, he’s moving!” 

A loud yell cuts through the ache in his head, and Ace forces his eyes to open at the sound of what can only be Luffy’s voice. Because it can’t be right, it can’t be possible that Ace is dead and Luffy is here with him - because the whole point of Ace taking that attack was to make sure Luffy lived, and because there is no point in any world where Luffy isn’t alive. Ace would rather spent an eternity dying every day than even think of Luffy dying. 

“Ace? Ace, can you hear me?” 

Blinking blearily, Ace does his best to narrow his eyes on the figure in front of him wearing that same, signature straw hat with a falling heart. 

“Luffy?” Ace mouths, ignoring the ache screaming throughout his entire body to try and sit up. 

“Brat! You shouldn’t be moving yet!” Large, rough hands come up to his shoulder to push him down, but they set him down on the bed surprisingly gently. 

“Dadan! Look, he woke up! He’s okay now, right?” Luffy is asking, and Ace- 

-Ace is lost. 

Dadan? Inhaling shakily he coughs and convulses around his chest from the shooting pain it sends everywhere. “Fuck!” 

Panting heavily, Ace just barely manages to catch a clear glimpse of Luffy’s small, childish face full of worry before he passes out. 

When he wakes up again, the pain has receded to a more manageable level, and he doesn’t feel like breathing is only slightly better than a kick to the balls. His left hand is strangely hot, and it takes Ace a full minute to turn his head and realize it’s because two much smaller hands are wrapped around them, a familiar straw hat covering the head the arms lead to. 

He wants to speak up, but his throat is so dry that all he can do is start coughing again. 

“Oi! I hope you’re not trying to get up again, you shitty brat!” 

Stunned, Ace can only stare as none other than Curly Dadan walks through the door with blood-stained bandages in her hands. 

His lips move as he tries to say something, anything, and she scoffs at him. 

“You’ve been knocked out for a month! Of course you can’t talk,” she says with a rough swipe across her eyes as if to wipe sweat away. Setting the bandages down in a basin of water for washing, she walks over to pour him a glass of water from the nightstand. “Here. Drink slowly!” 

Helpless, Ace can only swallow as she tilts the water into his mouth for him, her broad hand supporting his head. 

“W-What…what happened?” Ace finally asks, unable to formulate any other kind of question. Where is he? Why the hell is Dadan here? He couldn’t have possibly survived that punch, he knows it. Felt it, when it tore through his chest and over half of his organs were melted into ash. And even if he had somehow miraculously made it past that, none of this makes any sense.

“What happened? WHAT HAPPENED?!” Enraged, she slams the cup back onto the nightstand and stands up to wave her fingers threateningly at him. “You’re an idiot, THAT’S what happened! You fell asleep god knows where and somehow got your entire chest BURNED, you PIECE OF SHIT-”

But Ace doesn’t have the time to process what she’s saying after she bursts into tears because the straw hat on the bed starts moving, and the small black eyes peering from underneath its brim immediately grow wet. 

“AAACEE!” 

Immediately, rubber arms stretch around him twice, thrice, to wrap him in a hug and send Luffy into his lap. 

For a short second, Ace’s brain short-circuits from pain and he wheezes, unable to think properly. 

“I thought….I thought you w-weren’t gonna wake u-up!” Luffy blubbers, his tears streaming down his face and onto Ace’s bandages. “Your heart s-stopped, and you were c-cold, and Doc said it didn’t m-make sense-” 

Wailing, Luffy tightens his grip on Ace and continues to suffocate even as Dadan tries to yank him off with threats of starvation. 

What the fuck? 

“What the fuck?” Ace says out loud, voice weak. Dadan almost yells at him again while she tugs at Luffy’s arms, but even she loses her anger when faced with the absolute helplessness she sees in him. 

Ten minutes and a slow explanation later, Ace is still flabbergasted. This is either some weird, fucked up afterlife, or Ace is currently under the effects of a Devil Fruit he doesn’t understand. Considering the faint burn of his lungs as he breathes and the throbbing in his head that doesn’t seem to disappear, the second option is much more likely. He doesn’t quite understand the point, though, when it’s clear he’s dying. Even if this fake alternate universe, or illusion, or whatever it is, he can still feel the pain of his chest being obliterated by a fistfull of lava.  

Fake-Luffy is still sniffling by the bed, his eyes red as he tries to wipe away his tears. Ace doesn’t know what someone could possibly gain from trapping him in a place like this, but his wounds prevent him from finding out. He can hardly move at all, and every time he tries, Fake-Luffy and Fake-Dadan do everything possible to restrict him to the bed. Regardless of whether they’re just manipulated memories or something else, Ace doesn’t have it in his heart to hurt them and leave by force. 

Not to a Luffy of any kind, after what’s happened at Marineford. 

Dadan’s big ass head covers his wound from view when she leans in to check on the damage from Luffy’s wailing, but he can tell from the way the cold air hits him after it's unwrapped that it’s bad. Not as bad as the real thing, of course, but probably as realistically close as it can be to pretend it’s healing. 

“Looks like he didn’t mess up too much,” she grunts, shooting a dark look to a chagrined Luffy as he fists his hands into his shorts. “But it’s still looking pretty bad. We still can’t figure out how it got this bad...it’s like you roasted yourself on a fucking spit, but that doesn’t make sense since we found you on the beach.” 

Of course it does. Akainu put his entire fucking fist through Ace, after all. It seems pointless to bring that up, though, considering this is just a dying hallucination forced upon him by the Navy or their dogs. For what? Information on Luffy? On his no-show dad, Dragon? Whatever it is they’re looking for, they’re not gonna find anything. 

“D-Doc said, the burns were really bad,” Little Luffy interrupts his thoughts, peering at Ace again from under his straw hat with guilt written all over him. “B-But not bad enough to make you sleep for that long, without m-medicine.”

“Yeah,” Dadan says, her voice low. “You kept falling in and out of a fever, and nothing would wake you up. We were starting to think you might not make it.” 

“But he did! Ace is the strongest! Something like this won’t take out Ace,” Luffy says stubbornly, glaring at her. 

You’re the one who was crying all over him five minutes ago,” Dadan points out angrily, knocking him on the head. 

“That’s because! Because...being awake and being dead are two different things,” Luffy whines, clutching at his hat while her fists rain down on him for being cheeky. 

Ace barely hears the lecture pouring out of her mouth, still deciding whether he should ignore this illusory world until he dies or make the most of it. If it’s all fake, made from his memories, what’s the worst that could happen? If it was a punishment made to use the worst memories of his childhood instead of reconnaissance, it certainly wouldn’t be something like this

No, it would probably be- 

Immediately, Ace looks at Luffy again and narrows his eyes like he can figure out his exact age just by looking. 

“Oi, Luffy,” Ace calls out, frowning at the itch in his throat when he speaks. “Where’s Sabo?” 

Amidst the sudden silence that threatens to swallow the entire fort whole, Luffy’s round eyes swell with tears once more, his face screwing up. 

There it is - the answer. 

“It’s okay, Lu,” Ace sighs, lying back down with a tangled mess of emotions. “I remember, I just-” 

Wondered. If maybe he’d be here too, in this world where reality and illusion mixed. 

“You can’t see him!” Luffy yells all of a sudden, shocking Dadan, Ace, and the rest of the gang lingering behind the door uneasily. “You’re not allowed! You promised me you won’t die!” 

Punching Ace on the arm conveniently not covered in any wounds, Luffy takes in a deep breath and scrubs his eyes. 

“Stupid Ace,” Luffy grumbles, his voice cracking, “you can’t leave me alone. Don’t even think about it! S-Sabo might be a little lonely all by himself, but I! I’ll be even lonelier with both of you gone!”

Oh, Ace thinks. This...This might be worse than losing Sabo. 

Because having to relive that would suck, but nothing would make Ace feel like a bigger piece of shit than having to watch Luffy mourn him in person after all that his little brother went through to free him at Marineford.

For Ace. Because against all odds, against all reason, Luffy loved him enough to fight the entire world for him. And Ace knows that Luffy’s crew will be enough to keep him going, enough to prevent him from ever being lonely, but the fact is that he made a promise to his little brother and couldn’t keep it. His one and only, goofy, kind, foolish and reckless, amazing little brother that he swore to never let go of. 

Wordlessly, Ace covers his eyes with an arm to hide the growing wetness on his lashes, his lungs stuttering the slightest bit. 

“Sorry,” he whispers, a lump in his throat. “I broke my promise.” 

“No! Y-You scared me, and you slept for a really long time, but! You woke up, and you’re alive. So you d-didn’t break the promise,” Luffy sniffs, voice trembling. 

Ace can hear quiet footsteps as Dadan walks out of the room, the multiple eyes watching them vanishing to leave them alone. Good. Ace has something to say, and it would only be harder if anyone else was around. 

“Luffy,” Ace croaks, drawing his little brother’s attention. “Thank you.” 

“Huh?”

“Just...thanks.” 

For being my little brother. For loving me. For fighting for me when I couldn’t. For being one of the reasons my life was worth living. 

He’s said part of it in real Luffy’s arms, but he can’t help the need to say it once more. 

Rubbing his snot on his shirt sleeve, Luffy sniffs one last time and replies with no small amount of uncertainty, “You’re welcome?” 

Ace doesn’t need to open his eyes to see the smile on Luffy’s face, and he can’t help but laugh under his breath. 

Drifting off into sleep once more, Ace wonders if this is where the illusion ends. Bittersweet as it is, he thinks it makes a nice parting gift. 

But despite these thoughts, he wakes up. Again and again, he wakes up, startled by how powerful the Devil Fruit being used on him is. The feel of the sun, the sting of the burns, the warmth of Luffy’s skin against his when they sleep - all of it feels so real. It’s ridiculous, the way it can capture all these things down to the littlest details when even Ace’s own memory can’t cobble them together from his childhood. 

After a few days, Ace realizes it might be the kind of ability that can only be broken by force; he has no energy to fight this peaceful lie, and with his death nearing there’s no need. Dying in the depths of his mind with people he loves...it’s not bad at all. He’s been restricted to bed rest strictly due to the concerningly “slow” healing of his wound compared to any other, and Ace almost laughs every time they fret over it. It’s too funny to think that even in this made-up world made for him to die in, he’s able to witness the care they all have for him.

So Ace listens. He doesn’t start fights, and he stays in bed without issues, much to their horror. Dogra sobs that he drank too much seawater and damaged his brain before they found him, and Ace rolls his eyes at the tears in everyone’s eyes when they imagine a plethora of issues he might face in the future with brain injuries. 

In any case, it’s not like he’d be able to step outside and find Pops or the others. With the massive amount of attention poured into recreating Dadan’s fort and everyone inside, it’s highly unlikely a world outside this place even exists. To create such a large space with so much detail requires power and concentration beyond words, and limiting the area to a single mountain house is much easier to control finer details in than an entire island. 

Strangely enough, the injury on his chest does seem to be healing bit by bit as time passes instead of getting worse like Ace expects it to. Breathing doesn’t hurt anymore, and neither does getting up and moving around. He can barely even remember the excruciating pain that ran through him constantly when he first woke up in this world. He tries to pass it off as a sign that his death is only a short time away, but he can’t keep up with that when the bandages come off. 

“Alright, arms up,” Dadan orders, eye twitching when Ace lifts them without making a fuss. She - and Dogra, Magra, and Luffy too - seem unable to handle his suddenly docile personality. Luffy has even been convinced that stomach wounds can cause personality changes, and has bravely offered more meat these past few days to Ace in an attempt to make him recover sooner. Ace had stared at the leg of meat for an entire minute before he split in half, grinning at the shine in Luffy’s eye when they shared it. 

“Clear!” she declares, and resounding cheers rise from all over the fort. 

“Huh?” Confused, Ace takes a peek at his body and blinks at the freshly pink, knotted scar on his chest right between his ribs and stomach. Poking it, grey eyes blink again. 

“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?” Dadan yells as Ace starts poking even more forcefully. “Are you trying to make it worse again?!”

“It’s really healed,” Ace says incredulously by way of explanation, and she clicks her tongue at him. 

“Of course it is! You’re too much of a devil for something like that to take you down. It’s been almost two weeks since you woke up.” 

“Two weeks?” Ace repeats, his head buzzing. Two weeks? Has he truly been here that long? 

“And a whole MONTH in that damn coma,” she adds, her lips struggling not to twitch into a smile as she takes in the sight of him able to move around without any wounds. “Normally, you would’ve been up and running around within a week. Your body is probably sick and tired of the shit you put it through all the time! You also scared the hell out of us, always saying Luffy’s name...we thought he drowned with you before Makino dropped him off!” 

Slowly, Ace looks up to meet her eyes, head still buzzing while he tries to figure out what’s going on. “I was calling Luffy?”

“Luffy this, Luffy that,” Dadan rants, packing away the medical kit with a huff. “And something about Garp and a red dog? You were out of your mind. Hell, I thought it was finally time we were gonna be rid of a brat like you.” 

“Red dog….Akainu?” Eyes widening while blood surges through his veins like ice, Ace shoots to his feet instantly. 

“Mm, something like that,” she nods, barely paying attention. “Oi, if you guys get a new pet, NO bringing it back here! We already have enough to worry about with you two little demons running around-”

His rapid heartbeat drowns out her next words entirely, his mind going haywire as it tries to process everything at once. 

There’s no way - it’s not possible, he tells himself. It’s not, and that’s why he’s known all this time that it’s a Devil Fruit power. 

But for them to hear something like that before he even woke up in this world, for him to wake up with severe burns all over his chest and watch them get better little by little - it’s just too much of a coincidence. 

“Where’s Luffy?” Ace asks, hardly recognizing his own voice. 

“Ah? He went down to the village to grab some food from Makino,” Dadan says, “he promised to bring you some, remember?” 

For the first time since waking up here, Ace stands up and makes his way to the door, bile lingering at the back of his throat when his hand lands on the doorknob. It’s impossible, Ace knows. But even so, he cannot help but hope. That there exists a fortress behind this door, on top of a mountain, on an island in the middle of the wide, bright and beautiful East Blue. That if he opens this door and sees Luffy, his little brother won’t be a Devil Fruit induced memory or hallucination, and that he’ll be real. 

“I’m going out,” Ace says, forcing his shaking hand to twist the knob slowly. 

Click. 

The floor creaks under him when he steps out of the room, sunlight filtering in through the windows on the right where a bunch of the Family are talking. Left, right, and straight down, the front door groans just like the one from his memories, and beyond that-

-lies the forest of his childhood, trees rustling in the gentle wind that brings the taste of sea with it. 

Ace’s heart thumps so loudly he can barely think, his eyes turning to the only thing that can possibly answer the question lingering inside. 

“Oh, Ace! You’re up! Makino and I brought food,” Luffy greets him enthusiastically on his way up the path with Makino, a wide beam on his face. 

He ignores Luffy to solve the most pressing issue first, taking off without a second look towards the sea. His lungs burn as he runs through the forest, chest heaving and arms swinging wildly from tree to tree over water until he reaches the last hill by the shoreline. Sweat streaking down his skin, Ace gives himself only a moment to think on this twice before he throws himself into the sea’s embrace. 

Say that a Fruit-user strong enough to imitate half of an entire island does exist, and they managed to make it believable enough that Ace can’t find any incongruencies - there would be only one way to find out the truth. Devil Fruits can do many, many miracles, but everyone knows there’s one opponent no Devil Fruit user can ever defeat; the ocean and her seas are merciless in their hatred, and no fruit-user will ever have the power to defy them.

So, if by any chance this is all real and not the effect of a Devil Fruit - if, by some miracle, Ace has woken up in a different world or different time and this is not simply a complex lie built upon that which he misses, he’ll be able to float. 

And if it isn’t, he’ll drown. 

Water rushes past his ears and over his head, surrounding him in the sea’s chillingly cold embrace as he sinks down. 

One, two, three, Ace counts, waiting for his answer. Will he float to the surface? Will he sink to the bottom of the sea floor? Will this be his final death instead of in Luffy’s shaking arms? 

And with a gasp, his first breath out of the water is refreshingly clear. 

“I’m alive,” Ace whispers, water dripping down his face and into the water. 

Choking on a sob as the past two weeks flashes by his eyes, Ace takes deep breaths one after another, brine in his mouth and tears streaming down his face. 

“I’M ALIVE!” he yells into the sky, grief, regret, and unholy joy swirling inside him like a hurricane. Despite being detained for execution, despite the World Government, despite the hatred against his father weighing upon his shoulders, and despite a burning fist crashing through his chest - he’s alive. 

It hurts so, so much, in the best way. The sun on his skin, the swell of the sea around him, the call of seagulls above him - these everyday things he thought he would never get to have again, things he never cherished. Couldn’t cherish, because his own life never felt like it was worth anything. It took too many years and too many lives for Ace to realize that he doesn't want to die, and it’s a desire he cannot forget anymore. 

When he kneeled there on that execution platform and watched as his family and all their friends fought to the last breath for him, he realized that his worthless, blood-stained life meant something to them. That this life he gave away so carelessly was loved beyond words because of who Ace was, and not because of anything else. 

I want to live, Ace had said with tears in his eyes, and his wish was granted through a miracle that he will never be able to explain.

“AAAACEEEE!” Luffy screams, his head just barely visible from the mountain as he leans over and panics. “ARE YOU OKAY?!” 

Turning around, he catches sight of Luffy and feels his heart stop. One Luffy becomes three while his eyes blur with tears again, and Ace moves. 

“LUFFY!” he screams back, swimming back to shore as fast as he can. “OI, LUFFY!” 

Luffy jumps down from the mountain slopes and onto the same hill Ace was on just seconds ago, his short legs working desperately to make it to Ace as fast as possible. 

Filled with the desire to see Luffy, touch him, talk to him, Ace puts even more power into his breaststroke. Luffy, Luffy, Luffy-

-his stupid, stupid little brother, the brother who broke into the world’s most dangerous prison for him, the brother who came crashing into his life and his execution like a present from heaven itself, the brother who grew up from a crybaby into a strong man who fought against the entire world for those he loved-

Staggering to his feet once he hits sand, Ace yells at the top of his lungs, “LUFFY, COME HERE!”

Panicked, muddled, and worried, Luffy stretches his arms out across the beach to sling himself towards Ace at the summons. 

“Ace, I’m coming!” 

As if possessed, Ace raises his arms and stretches them outwards to catch Luffy directly, the force sending them both flat into the sand. 

“A-Ace?” Luffy asks, lost at the obvious hug his older brother has him in. 

“You’re alive,” Ace says, startling Luffy with his nonsensical behavior. “You’re alive, and so am I. All of this is real, and we’re both alive!” 

Raising his head to look at Ace with a mixture of confusion and relief, Luffy sits up on his stomach with a grin. “Un, we’re both alive!” 

Knocking his head back into the sand with a laugh that shakes his very bones, Ace grins. “I’m glad.” 

Laughing hysterically, Luffy beams back at Ace with the sun above them throwing him into shadow under the straw hat. 

“Well, of course you are!” 

Salt water drips from into his mouth as they lay there, but all Ace can taste is an unexpected, gentle sweetness that melts on his tongue instead of salt. 

 

_

 

It takes him a while to process the entire thing. In his heart, he understands that all of it is real, but his head can’t even begin to start. To go from dying in the midst of a war, Luffy’s shoulder under his as his brothers and sisters fight for him to - to this, it’s too much. 

In the first place, Ace has no idea how to act anymore. He doesn’t know if this is a different time or a different world, and what his actions might change in the future. And yeah, maybe changing the future is the whole point, but how is he supposed to know how to make sure that future is better than the one he lived through?

The nights are long and restless, but Ace doesn’t mind. Sleep seems like a waste in the face of everything, and even more like a trap to steal him away from this and send Ace to his death. Clearly, this world can only be real - but he doesn’t know for how long, and how much of it is the same as the one he knows. The first night is spent by Luffy’s side, just taking in the sight of him snoring and sleep-talking to ground Ace to this unbelievable present. Silent tears stream down his face: for Whitebeard, for Thatch, for dying and living again in another life without the grandfather who swore to watch his last moments with the regret that he couldn’t change Ace’s future, for the brother who was willing to die for and with him. By the time Ace meets the rest of them, neither he or they will be the people they were when he last saw them. They’ll be alive and in better shape, but he’ll never be able to properly apologize for his actions to them the way he wishes he could. 

He’s glad he was able to apologize to Luffy before he left. He meant every last word, and knows his final regret rang with truth. It would have come true, Luffy’s dream to become Pirate King. It will, Ace knows for sure the same way he knows the sun rises and night will fall. The Luffy he left behind and the Luffy before him - Luffy of every world and time was born to be free, and nothing is more free to him than the Pirate King. Wiping his tears away as reddish gold light breaks through the night to fill the sky, Ace laughs to himself and swears to see that dream come true with his own eyes no matter what this time. 

Ace regains the energy he used to have and no longer sits around doing as everyone wishes, but even Luffy with his meat-filled brain can tell something is different. He’s not sure what’s changed, but he sits cross-legged in front of Ace in their treehouse one morning and takes a deep breath. 

“Sorry,” Luffy says, his eyes closed like he expects Ace to hit him. “E-Even though men aren’t supposed to cry, I cried.” 

And he’s so little, this Luffy, all baby cheeks and fine hair, his hands so small that Ace could wrap both of them in his with spare room for another. Small, and weak, and so very, very precious. 

“It’s okay,” Ace says hoarsely, afraid he might start crying just by looking at him. “You can cry if you want to.”

“Huh? But, you told me before that,” Luffy starts, bewildered, forced to stop when Ace pats him on the head. 

“Yeah, I said that,” Ace clears his throat, looking away. “But I changed my mind. You can cry, sometimes. Some things are worth crying over. Because...if I lost you, I’d cry too.” 

And Luffy almost lost Ace twice if you counted the inexplicable coma he fell into before opening his eyes here. Forget two, even a hundred lifetimes will never be enough to make up for what Ace had to make Luffy go through.  

Luffy sniffs like he’s crying again, but when Ace looks up at him there’s no tears to be found. 

“Really?” Luffy asks, eyes wide and gleaming. The image of his older self, cheeky and skinny as a stick as he runs through a battlefield of Navy soldiers and pirates alike to reach Ace overlaps with the little round face in front of him, and a gentle smile comes to his lips unbidden.

“Of course, idiot,” Ace can’t help but say, pinching Luffy’s cheek. “You’re my little brother, after all. Not that I’ll ever let anything happen to you in the first place.” 

“Hmph!” Crossing his arms, Luffy’s grin stretches his rubber cheeks even further. “I’m strong too, you know! Since I’m gonna be the Pirate King, I’ll be the strongest ever! Just wait, Ace.” 

Laugh helplessly fond, Ace lets his cheek snap back and nods. “You’ll have to be able to beat me first!” 

Tacking Luffy to the floor and tickling him, Ace throws aside the uncertainties that have been on his mind for the past week. Regardless of what the world turns out to be when he sets out to sea, he already knows what he knows what to do. If he doesn’t like what the world is like, then all he has to do is be strong enough that he can change anything the way he wants, right?

After gaining his bearings and stealing a newspaper from the village, Ace finds out it’s only been a little over a year since Sabo. 

“Which means I’m 12,” he realizes, chuckling to himself as he pictures Luffy’s young face. “And Luffy’s turning nine.”

Furrowing his brow, Ace looks at the date on the newspaper and calculates how long he’s been here. If they’re halfway through February and his accident was a little month and a half ago, that means it happened…

...on his birthday. 

Considering his birthday is January 1st, it could have nothing to do with him and more to do with whatever brought him back, but it’s still a shock. 

Shaking his head, Ace reads the rest of the newspaper to see if anything big has happened recently that differs from his memories. 

“Ace! Whatcha doing?” Luffy yells from the floor, looking up at the tree Ace is sitting in. 

“Reading.”

“Reading?” Luffy repeats, jaw dropping. “You hate reading!” 

“Yeah, but I gotta keep up with what’s happening,” he responds, flipping the page distractedly. 

Rubber arms stretch out to reach for the thick branch Ace is currently sitting on, Luffy propelling himself a little too far and almost falling to the floor again before Ace catches him by the back of his shirt and sets him on the tree properly. 

“Thanks!” Leaning over to look at the newspaper curiously, Luffy asks, “So what’s happening?” 

With a sigh, Ace folds the newspaper and says, “Nothing.” 

“Heeeh? Boring,” Luffy’s face contorts in disappointment, “why were you reading it then?” 

“In case something happened,” Ace explains, grinning. “Come on, let’s go!” 

“Okay!” 

It’s hard, Ace learns, to be yourself and not. He’s so different from who he used to be, and he can’t - and won’t - pretend to be the way he was as a child. Can’t be that same, angry and bitter kid whose jagged edges only rounded out with age. Ace grew up, learned so much, and met so many people who changed him into an entirely different person, and those times are far beyond him now. Granted, he’s already learned his manners from Makino now and has become less of a spitfire - but even that hadn’t shaken off his regular character back then. Dadan, Magra, Dogra, Makino, the mayor, all the bandits, they can’t get used to him. He’s just a little too collected, too calm, too unsettling in the way that he looks at them all compared to before. 

But he’s undoubtedly Ace, and somehow that will always be enough for Luffy. 

“Makino told me that sometimes hitting your head can change your personality, or make your memories disappear! It can even make you never wake up ever again, even though you’re still breathing! That would have been the worst. But even though you were confused for a little, you remember everything. You still like meat, you can still beat everyone up, and you’re still my older brother!” 

Taking a huge bite of alligator leg, Luffy grins through his food with meat juice all over his face. “So it doesn’t matter! Because you’re Ace, after all. Just an Ace who’s nicer than before, hehehe.” 

“What, so you didn’t like me before?” Ace taunts, chest twisting with emotions he isn’t brave enough to name. 

“Haah?! Of course I did! I just like a liiiiittle more now,” Luffy huffs, slinging himself across the fire to his brother’s side. “Before I couldn’t do things like this when you’re awake, but now I can!” 

Biting down on a smile as Luffy settles himself between Ace’s legs, he ruffles Luffy’s hair and sighs. 

“You’re too simple, you know that?” Ace says ruefully, Luffy’s head tilting back to meet his gaze. “What if I was an imposter?” 

“But you’re not,” Luffy garbles through a mouthful of food. “You’re Ace.”

Stupid, Ace thinks with a squeeze of his heart. There’s no helping it, though. Luffy’s always been like that. 

Snatching the meat in Luffy’s hands, Ace swallows it whole and spits out the bone. 

“AAAAHH! My meat!” 

“Come on, Luffy! Time to train your senses!” 

“WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH MY MEAT?!” 

With Luffy’s unconditional trust in him, things slowly return to normal. Ace might not cuss out anyone and everyone, might not go out of his way to get into fights every day, and isn’t as aggressive, but he still fights with everyone at the fort, steals food as he pleases, and won’t back down from any fight he can find himself in. Other than the strangely docile way he behaved when he first woke up, the only real difference is that he seems less angry. It doesn’t surround him the way it used to, like an ever-present cloak of violence and despair. 

“I don’t know if he’s actually less angry,” Dadan says one day, swirling the alcohol in her glass with a solemn face. “Maybe he just got better at hiding it...but I do know he’s much more expressive with Luffy.” 

“Ah, I noticed the same thing,” Makino gasps, hands coming over her mouth as she smiles happily. “Ace-kun really is nicer to Luffy than before, isn’t he? I saw him teaching Luffy how to fight earlier without even yelling.” 

Snorting, Dadan one-shots her whiskey and slams the glass back down with a heavy sound. “Hmph! Little brat! He falls into a coma after being foolish like always and all of a sudden it’s like he can’t take his eyes off Luffy. You’d think we were all out to get them! God only knows how he got hurt in the first place.” 

Grinning at the circular scar on his chest, Ace makes his way out of the house while Makino pours another glass of whiskey for Dadan with a giggle. He was going to ask Makino a question, but he can always ask her later. 

Geez. If they want him to be nicer, they should try being as lovable as Luffy in the first place. 

“Luffy! Ten more laps around the mountain!” Ace orders when he finds Luffy practicing punches on a tree outside. 

“Ah?! But we just did 20,” Luffy whines, his long arms falling to the floor in disappointment. “I wanna practice my punches!” 

“The more muscle you have, the harder you’ll hit when you finally land a punch,” Ace retorts, hooking his pipe into Luffy’s shirt and dragging him away from the tree. “Just like with Naguri! Come on.” 

Watching Luffy whine and flail his limbs, Ace ruffles his hair. “Come on, Luffy. I’ll let you have a whole alligator if you can finish them faster than me!” 

“Really?!” Brightening up immediately, Luffy sticks his tongue out and yells, “It’s a promise! I’ll beat you today, Ace!” 

“We’ll see about that,” Ace retorts, taking off at full speed and leaving him in the dust. 

“No fair! That’s cheating,” Luffy screams, running desperately after him. 

Ace beats him, of course, but that’s to be expected. After a week just to process the fact that had survived something that should have killed him, Ace has spent every night training his body to its limits. He wants so badly to rush out to sea as he is, to find his pops and see his crew again as they used to be before everything - to warn them and get rid of Teach as soon as possible, but he knows better than that. 

He’s only twelve right now. Even with extra training and knowledge of the future, Ace is nowhere near ready to set sail and do all that without dying. No one would believe a random stranger who started spouting about knowing the future and claiming to be part of the crew, and Pops would never take in anyone this young. Moreover, setting sail earlier than scheduled means Ace won’t meet Deuce and eat the Flame-Flame Fruit...while he might be able to encounter them both separately on his own, there’s no guarantee. Going to sea without either of them isn’t an option. 

Not to him. 

On top of that...eyes sliding over to Luffy’s sleeping face as he hauls himself up for another pull up on the edge of their treehouse, Ace grits his teeth past the burn. 

He can’t break his promise to Luffy, either, and leave him all alone just because Ace is desperate for revenge. He has to be stronger, smarter, and more careful, because if the last life taught him anything, it’s that too many people find his life precious enough to die for. 

And Ace is never going to let anyone else die for him ever again. 

Fighting in this body is weird because of how much smaller and weaker it is compared to his adult form. He’s more than capable of fighting anyone on this side of the island should push come to shove, but his movements are too either too small or too large when he mistakes his reach; the force behind his attacks are inconsistent too because he can’t tell how much damage this body can deal anymore. 

Slowly but surely, the constant physical training to build up muscle - and muscle memory - makes Ace much more comfortable in his twelve year-old body. His arms are firmer, legs thicker, and he can run basic drills all around the mountain with no problem. Luffy’s made a lot of progress too, he notices with a small sense of pride. Training with Naguri improved his ability to keep his arms straight in a punch, but now Luffy can also manage to hit the proper target six out of ten times instead of his previous three. 

It’s much more than Luffy was able to do when he was this age before, and Ace is glad that his efforts in dragging the eight year-old into stricter training has improved his brother’s abilities. The biggest drawback of Luffy’s Devil Fruit is that it requires a lot of physical strength to maintain balance and force, and Luffy had to train for multiple years before he was able to reach that stage on his own. There’s still a very long time before Luffy reaches the level he used to be at when Ace met him in Alabasta, but sure enough his work is paying off. 

Before he knows it, spring is already in full bloom and winter has long gone by. He and Luffy have both grown a few centimeters taller, and Ace is slowly becoming accustomed to this new version of his old life. 

“Luffy, it’s your birthday soon, isn’t it? Is there anything you want?” Makino asks during her monthly visit as she strokes Luffy’s hair, her smile just as gentle and kind as it always is. 

Startled, Ace and Luffy both look up from their food and stare at her. 

“I almost forgot!” Ace slaps a hand to his forehead in frustration. 

“Me too,” Luffy laughs, swinging his legs from the chair with cheer. “Meat! I want tons of Makino’s delicious cooking, shishishi.” 

Having a birthday on Children’s Day means people have a tendency to forget the difference when it comes to kids, but Ace knows he only forgot Luffy’s upcoming birthday because he’s been so busy training them both. In the first place, he never used to care about any other kids growing up - as far as he was concerned, May 5th only ever mattered because it was Luffy’s birthday. There was no one to give Ace presents or toys on Children’s Day, and there was none he would have wanted anyways. Gramps wasn’t - isn’t - the type to bring them presents of any kind either if they don’t come in the form of a cuff to the head. 

Ace catches Makino on her way out, shifting awkwardly at her surprise. 

“Ace-kun? Do you need something from me?” 

“Well, that’s,” making a face, Ace leans up and whispers in her ear, his face flushed when she giggles. 

“I see,” she nods, beaming. “That sounds like a wonderful idea. Leave it to me, Ace-kun.” 

Relieved, Ace thanks her with a bow of his head and runs off before Luffy can spot them talking together. Okay! Birthday present, check. 

Luffy’s always pretty easy to please, but that doesn’t mean Ace can’t try and do a little more to make his birthdays special. He’s had loads of birthdays he didn’t get to celebrate with Luffy, so there’s no harm in pretending, just to himself, that this is in return for those. 

But most of his plans get shot straight to hell when Ace wakes up on May 1st and Luffy doesn’t. 

He can tell the moment he wakes up that something is wrong, and the sight of a pale, clammy Luffy moaning under his breath only affirms his intuition. 

“Luffy! Luffy!” Scrambling to his feet and checking his little brother over, Ace hisses when he touches Luffy’s skin and feels a searing heat. 

“Oh, god, you’re burning up,” Ace whispers, horrified. This isn’t a regular fever, but he has no idea what could possibly be doing this to Luffy. They’ve eaten, drank, and gone to all the same places this entire week, which means that if something is happening to Luffy it should be happening to Ace too. 

Doctor. They need a doctor! 

“Sorry, Lu,” Ace mutters while he hikes his hands under Luffy to carry him on his back. “I’m getting help right now, okay? Just be patient a little longer.” 

Morning is over an hour away, but Ace can’t keep Luffy waiting any longer; with his arms secured around his brother, Ace takes off for the fort as fast as he can. 

“OI! WAKE UP!” Screaming as loudly as possible when it comes into sight, Ace kicks down the front door and raises hell. “I SAID WAKE UP!” 

“BRAT! What the HELL do you want so early in the mor-”

Catching sight of Ace’s panicked face and Luffy’s head lolling over his shoulder weakly, Dadan drops her club. 

“We need a doctor,” Ace says, voice thick with desperation. 

Taking off her sleep mask, Dadan picks up where he left off. “OI! WAKE UP!” 

Magra goes off to find Makino and a proper doctor while they get Luffy in a proper bed, wiping down his body with wet towels and changing his clothes. 

“Did he eat something weird?” 

“No.” 

“Drink something weird?” 

“No!” 

“Touch something weir-”

No! I’ve been watching him, and he didn’t do anything! He just got sick all of sudden,” Ace scowls, frustration pouring out of him in waves. “I woke up and he was like this. I came straight here, too.” 

“Shit,” Dadan says with feeling, and Ace agrees. 

“What the hell is taking Magra so long?” he asks, tempted to kick something over. 

“Probably trying to find a doctor who’ll actually come up here,” Dadan mutters, brows furrowed. “You know the villagers don’t like us. The mayor’s the one who took you to town before and brought you back, since they can’t know about you.” 

Ace doesn’t really care about having to hide his identity from the people on Dawn Island, but he does hate the fact that it makes things like serious medical issues a bitch to handle. In his original life, there’d never been any reason to need it when he and Luffy healed so quickly - but now, in this life, there’s already been serious emergencies twice. His burns and ensuant coma, and now Luffy’s fever. To make things worse, lying in an ice bath to bring down the fever might have unexpected consequences on Luffy because he’s a Devil Fruit User. It might cool him off, but soaking in water may also slow his regeneration enough to cause more trouble on top of the fever depending on what the hell is going on. 

“If they won’t come up here, I’ll just take him down,” Ace says grimly, stalking towards the bed. 

“Hey! You might make things worse if you keep dragging him around the island,” Dadan scolds him, standing in his way. 

“I’ll take that chance over waiting hours for a doctor to come here because he’s afraid of the Family,” Ace retorts, moving around her and picking up Luffy with gentle hands. “Just going up and down Mt. Columbo takes a normal person two hours, and I’m not gonna put Luffy at risk.” 

Clenching her teeth, Dadan snaps out, “Fine! But be careful with him.” 

“He’s my brother,” Ace says by way of explanation before taking off. 

Of course he’ll be careful. 

Doing his best not to jostle Luffy while he runs down the mountain towards Fuusha Village, Ace manages to get there within half an hour; panting heavily, he looks around for the bar Makino runs while the sun begins its slow ascent into the sky above. 

“Makino! I brought Luffy,” Ace announces when he rushes through the door, startling Magra and Makino in the middle of their pleas with a man holding a briefcase - the doctor they’re trying to convince, he assumes. 

“Oh!” Worried, Makino hurriedly places her hand across Luffy’s forehead and goes pale. “Oh, Luffy...what a terrible fever!”

“Is this the patient you were talking about? Ah, this is Luffy!” The doctor notices, frowning. “He lives on the mountain now? How did he get this fever?” 

“It came out of nowhere,” Ace tries to explain, but Magra rushes over to hide him from sight and lightly pushes him backwards. 

“Come on, get out of here! Garp’ll be pissed if he finds out people saw you,” Magra whispers, softening at the expression on Ace’s face. “I’ll take care of things here, I promise. But you have to go.” 

It’s for everyone’s best interests, he knows. If he was ever discovered and the Navy found out the islanders had known Ace personally, they’d kill them all by association under charges of harboring a criminal. Baterilla was just an example of how far they would go to rid the world of anything even slightly related to Gol D. Roger. 

But knowing that doesn’t make having to leave any easier when Luffy’s struggling gasps fall on his neck weakly. 

Reluctantly handing Luffy over to Magra, Ace takes a step backward and then another. The bad feeling in his gut that woke him up is still going strong, and it’s only gotten worse with every minute that goes by. Gritting his teeth, he makes up his mind and heads for the roof while they all cluster around Luffy to keep watch. There’s a spot near the back that’s still under repair from the latest storm, and it’s easy enough to hide himself amongst the stacked roof tiles so no one can notice him. 

“It’s fine as long as no one sees me, isn’t it,” he grunts, conveniently close to an open window in the second floor where they’ve moved Luffy into Makino’s room. Muscles taught with concern and a growing sense of fear, Ace sits there through the doctor’s examination and their efforts to reduce Luffy’s fever. 

“He’s always been a tough kid,” the doctor sighs with a shake of his head. “Something like a regular infection or bacteria wouldn’t be able to do this to him.” 

“You mean...you don’t know what’s wrong with him?” Makino asks in horror, her eyes wet. 

Freezing up on the roof, Ace thinks: god, no

Because this is why his gut can’t stop churning; he knows that anything that can make Luffy so badly sick can’t be normal, and that the doctors here might not know enough to be able to help him. 

“I’m going to put him on some antibiotics just in case, but I don’t know that they’ll work,” is all the doctor can say, Makino’s sobs startlingly loud as she realizes the severity of the situation. “Unless I can figure out why this is happening, all we can do is try and reduce his fever. If his temperature doesn’t go down within a few hours, we’ll have to cover him in as much ice as we can get our hands on. Make sure someone is with him 24/7.” 

“Where are you going?” Makino asks him when he starts to leave, her hands clutched in her apron. 

“To try and see if Dr. Yamino can help,” he answers solemnly, tipping his hat towards her before walking out. 

Fuck, Ace thinks, fuck fuck fuck fuck. Fuck!

What is he supposed to do? Something like this has never happened before, and he has no idea how to fix this. A doctor from Goa would never make the trip here to treat Luffy, and Ace has no intention of carrying his brother across the island in this state. Being on an island in a distant corner of the East Blue limits their options, and there’s no way to contact someone on another island without going there personally first. The only people with Transponder Snails around here are nobles, which means they’re stuck with the two doctors that live here in Fuusha. 

“Come on, Luffy,” Ace says fervently, closing his eyes in a prayer. “You can beat this. It’s just a fever.” 

Makino closes the bar for the day, and plenty of villagers drop by out of concern for the little troublemaker who’d moved after those strange pirates left the island. The gentle morning slowly swelters with heat as the sun rises higher, and Ace sits there with his hands clasped together and his heart in his throat the entire time. He hopes Dr. Yamino, whoever the hell they are, knows something. That they can figure out what’s wrong with Luffy, and this will all go away by tomorrow. 

“Have you seen Ace?” Magra asks Makino after returning from Mt. Columbo. “He never came back, they said.” 

“No, I haven’t,” Makino replies, wringing the water out of a new cold towel for Luffy to use. “Are you sure he’s not hiding in the mountain somewhere?” 

“Maybe,” Magra frowns, looking into the distance while Ace sits only twenty feet above him. “I’ll keep looking for him, then.”

 

_

 

It’s been two days since Luffy fell sick, and nothing’s changed. They’ve covered him in ice over and over again to stop him from burning up, but the fever has yet to break. Ace hasn’t moved from the roof since he got there, and he doesn’t plan to. Not until Luffy is okay. 

Somewhere between Makino’s sobs as Luffy cried out in pain and the joint effort between her and the doctor to dunk him in a bath full of ice-water, Ace realized this might be his fault. That he has to pay a price for coming back alive instead of dying like he was supposed to, and that maybe that price will be his brother. 

“I’m sorry, Luffy,” Ace whispers over and over again, fraught with guilt at the very idea. “Oh, God, please, please, please, whoever it is that brought me back, don’t take Luffy. I don’t need my life, I swear, don’t take his for mine.” 

Ace can pay any price in the world except for his family - they’re the one thing that he cannot give up in any world and any life. 

“Ace-kun,” Makino calls out quietly from the balcony. “I know you’re here.” 

Frozen, Ace stops his back and forth rocking and darts his eyes to the green head of hair appearing below. 

“You want to see Luffy, right? Come in,” she says to the empty night, her back towards him. “Everyone else is gone.” 

Joints aching from staying in the same position on the roof for so long, he winces at the pop in his knees and slowly clambers down. 

“I made dinner,” Makino smiles, her eyes heavy with bags from staying up through the night tending to Luffy. She looks tired in more ways than one, and he swallows the gratitude and shame that threatens to overcome him when he notices how weak she is. 

After a moment of hesitation, Ace puts a hand on her back for support and uses the other one to guide her to a nearby chair. 

“You can rest,” he says, looking over at Luffy. “I can take care of him tonight.” 

“It’s okay, Ace-kun,” Makino begins, but he cuts her off with a shake of his head. 

“Luffy would be upset if he woke up and saw you like this,” Ace mutters, draping a nearby shawl over her. “He’ll be fine. He always is.” 

It’s something he says for both their sakes, and she can tell. 

With a heavy heart, Ace takes in the IV leading up to Luffy’s arms, the quiet drip echoing in the silent room. Even asleep, Luffy is always full of energy. Seeing him lay on the bed so quietly still feels wrong, and he hates it. Biting down on his tongue fiercely, Ace reaches for the water basin and soaks a new towel to replace the lukewarm one on his brother’s forehead for when he’s done wiping down the sweat on his body. 

“It’s so strange,” Makino sighs, “that you and Luffy went through something so similar right after each other.” 

Gently swiping a cool towel over Luffy’s back, Ace turns his head in question. 

“Your coma,” she reminds him, looking all the more exhausted just by mentioning it. “You wouldn’t wake up no matter what, even though your wounds weren’t life-threatening. We were so sure we prevented infections, but you kept falling in and out of a fever. In your case, we knew it was because you got a serious burn, though. At that time, Luffy was the one wiping you down to cool you off.” 

“Well,” she says with a little more energy, “he wasn’t as good as you, of course. But he worked really hard!” 

“My coma...it was this bad?” Ace asks, staring at the scar on the cheek in front of him. 

“Luffy and the others were really worried,” Makino says gently, closing her eyes. “He never left your side either. Jeez, you brothers are just so similar!” 

Cracking a small smile, Ace brushes sweaty black bangs aside with a nearly unbearable fondness. “He’s much more troublesome than me, though.” 

“Really? I think he would say it’s the other way around,” Makino laughs, earning an amused huff in return. 

“Sorry, Luffy,” Ace whispers, unruly bangs falling to cover his eyes. “Looks like I made you worry a lot. This time and last time too. I’m an annoying older brother, huh?” 

Ace stays by his side until the sun rises, barely remembering to eat the dinner Makino put aside for him before leaving through the window again just in time to avoid the mayor’s arrival. Wobbling a bit on his feet at the lack of sleep, Ace grimaces and stabilizes himself using the chimney top before spotting something out of the corner of his eye. Wrinkling his brows and standing up to get a better view, grey eyes widen incredulously.  

“Isn’t that-” A maelstrom of emotions bloom inside his chest, nearly sending him on his ass. Guilt, sorrow, frustration, and gratefulness - it’s a wicked, wicked pot that threatens to boil over, but then a startling realization breaks through it all to send energy coursing through his veins. 

Punching his legs to make them firm up, Ace staggers to straighten up before jumping off the roof and heading to the port as fast as these short legs can take him. 

“OI!” Completely ignoring the fact that he could wake the rest of the village up, Ace hopes his voice carries across the wind and shouts with all the air in his lungs. “GRAMPS!” 

He has only five seconds to prepare for the incoming danger when he notices Garp’s eyes widen and then narrow, digging his feet into the dirt to hold his ground when the hulking figure jumps off the ship and aims a sharp punch at Ace’s head. 

“YOU BRAT! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING OFF THE MOUNTAIN?!” Garp bellows, eyes glinting with fury. 

“Shut up!” Ace snaps back, just barely pushing down the instinct to apologize even though he knows this isn’t the same Gramps who sat there on the execution platform with him. “Doctor! Is there a doctor on that ship? Answer me!” 

“HAH?!” Veins pop out of Garp’s forehead at Ace’s attempt to change the subject, his arm pulling back for another Fist of Love. 

“I SAID, IS THERE A DOCTOR?” Ace screams, the anger from waiting around uselessly finally bursting out of him as he slams his head into Garp’s chin. Grabbing a hold of his Gramps’ collar, Ace lets bad habits slip back in, “Listen to me, shitty Gramps! Luffy’s sick, and we need a goddamn doctor who can tell what’s wrong with him! So did you or did you not bring a fucking doctor on that ship?!” 

Startled, Garp’s arm falls flat by his side, his jaw loose in astonishment. “Luffy’s sick?” 

Any other day, Ace would have laughed at the absolute disbelief in the words if only because the idea that Luffy could ever get seriously ill before this week was just as ridiculous for him to imagine. 

But today is not that day, because Ace is getting tired of waiting for people to figure out what in the damn hell is hurting his little brother. 

Garp takes in the bags under his grandson’s eyes and the trembling of his hands before his old face settles into something grim. 

“Yeah,” he answers, chest rumbling, “I’ve got a doctor.” 

Throwing the Hawaiian shirt he’s wearing over Ace’s head to cover him from view, he picks Ace up and turns to the boat where his subordinates are still yelling. 

“BOGARD!” Garp commands, eyes like flint. “GET ME USHIRO!” 

Immediately, the guy Ace remembers as his Gramp’s right-hand man snaps a salute before running into the cabins. 

“Where’s Luffy?” Garp asks, looking more like the Vice-Admiral he is in a white tank top than full Navy regalia. 

Wordless, Ace points to Makino’s bar. 

With a nod, Garp stalks into the bar and up the stairs without any care for all the stares from the villagers until he reaches the bedroom. 

“Garp-san!” Makino stands up to greet him, the towel in her hands falling out of surprise. 

“No,” Gramps stops her, “don’t mind me.” 

He has only a minute to frown at Luffy’s clammy, red face before a marine with a medical kit rushes in behind them, panting. 

“Vice-Admiral Garp!” Saluting quickly, he squeaks when Garp turns dark eyes to him slowly. 

“Do you not see the patient in front of you?” he asks the doctor - Ushiro - threateningly. 

“Yes, sir, I’m sorry, sir! I’ll look at him right away!” Fumbling to open his kit, Ushiro takes Makino’s now empty seat to begin his examination while Ace fists his hands into Garp’s tank. 

“SO?” Gramps barks when he’s finished, eyes narrowing at the unpleasant expression Ushiro turns around with. 

“Well, you see…” Hesitating, he winces when both Ace and Garp glare at him. “There’s no obvious cause for his fever. I’d need to take him to a hospital to run better tests, and-”

“Then TAKE HIM TO A HOSPITAL,” Gramps yells, his body vibrating against Ace’s with a building fury. 

“Yes, sir! Understood! But, what should I tell them-”

“I DON’T CARE! QUICKLY!”

Gramp’s fedora friend Bogard steps up, taking out a Transponder and making the necessary calls while Ace jumps out of his grandfather’s arms to wait by Luffy’s side. 

“I won’t take it off,” Ace says before he can get lectured, clinging tightly to the floral shirt preventing anyone from seeing too much of him. 

Letting it go, Garp sighs and moves closer so he can grab the straw hat resting by Luffy’s head and put it on Ace forcefully. 

“How long has he been like this?” Gramps asks, Ace gritting his teeth out of frustration. 

“Today’s the third day,” he mutters, clasping onto the hat to ground himself before he shrugs on the huge shirt and buttons it up past his chin. “I found him like this when I woke up, and he hasn’t gotten up since.” 

“He’ll be okay,” Gramps says, so certain that it makes Ace look up at him. “The only way a grandson of mine will go down is in a good fight.” 

“I have no sympathy for criminals, but I do for my family.” 

“What should I do?” Broken, haunted. 

“You should have become a Marine like I told you to,” he says, tears brimming his eyes. The wrinkles on his face are suddenly filled with a pain so sad that even his laugh lines seem heavy. Vice-Admiral Monkey D. Garp, heartbroken and forced to watch both his grandsons line up for death on a battlefield beyond all help. 

With quivering shoulders, Ace laughs through the tears that break through without his permission. 

“Yeah,” he agrees, hyper-aware of the scar sitting just above his stomach. “I guess you’re right.” 

“I’m always right,” Gramps huffs, gently knocking his knuckles against the straw hat hiding Ace’s face. 

Ace doesn’t know what they told the hospital, but he doesn’t care. They manage to get Luffy a single room on the top floor within the hour, nurses and doctors running around to run tests and check on him while Gramps stands in the room like a fierce statue. Ace knows better than to throw a fit and walk in with him, so he follows them in secret and climbs up the admittedly much taller roof. Gramps notices him for sure, but all he does is crack open a window in the room and drag a chair there to sit on. 

Ace doesn’t trick himself into believing that’s an open pass to walk in, so he waits with bated breath while they run their tests. 

“No wounds!”

“No infection!” 

“No viruses!” 

“Run some more tests! There has to be something we’re missing,” the head doctor orders, sweat running down his back as the heavy pressure behind him grows stronger. 

Ace nearly bites his own finger off from frustration, unable to understand how even a big hospital in the middle of Goa can be like this. It’s not like someone can fall sick without a reason, right?! They’re just not looking hard enough. 

There has to be a solid, medical reason for Luffy’s fever - because if there isn’t, Ace can only believe that whatever gave him his life back is taking Luffy’s away in return. After all his tears, all his promises, they might take away the person who made Ace realize he was glad to have lived. 

The straw hat slides off his head and around his neck when he leans forward with both hands pressed in prayer against aching temples, doing his best to remain calm. 

The tests are nearly endless, and with every result that comes out, the doctors become more and more afraid. Regardless of who this random kid is, the point is that none other than Vice-Admiral Garp, the hero of the Navy, wants them to treat him! And if they can’t, they might lose their lives! Visiting hours have long been over, but no one’s had the courage to kick him out when he sits there staring them down menacingly. 

“I-I’m sorry,” the head doctor apologizes bravely, Garp’s palpable fury bringing him down to his knees. “We’ve r-run all the tests we can, but we can’t figure out w-what’s causing his fever. We’ve checked for diseases and disorders, but h-he doesn’t have any symptoms other than the fever. There’s no swelling in his joints, no b-bruising, no reactions that suggest an immune-disorder, nothing but a small mineral deficiency from not eating enough v-vegetables!” 

“Hah?” A vein pops on Garp’s forehead, his crossed arms suddenly much larger than they appeared before. “You’re telling me that there’s nothing wrong with him?! DON’T PLAY AROUND WITH ME!” 

“No, sir, that’s n-not what I m-meant at all!” Backing away with his hands flailing in the air, the head doctor pushes up his glasses and mumbles, “it’s just that...we can’t f-find out what made him s-sick.” 

Ace hears the crash of glass and metal as his Gramps undoubtedly destroys something out of rage, and he wishes he could break something too. 

“THEN RUN MORE TESTS UNTIL YOU DO, YOU SHITTY DOCTOR!” 

Settling down on his chair when his command sends them all scrambling out of the room with shrieks of acquiescence, Garp scoffs. 

“Useless doctors,” he bites out under his breath. “Bogard! Bring me dinner.” 

“Yes, sir,” Bogard answers respectfully, tipping his fedora and walking out of the room as he wishes. Fifteen minutes later, he wheels in a cart piled with food and leaves with another tip of his hat. 

The smell of the food drifts through the window and into the air above, enticing Ace. 

“I’m closing my eyes for ten minutes,” Garp announces to the empty room, arms still crossed. “And when I open them, all this food should be gone!” 

Grey eyes widen over faint freckles, and Ace doesn’t know whether to roll his eyes or smile at the gruff show of concern from his stubborn Gramps. Choosing a roll of his eyes, he throws himself off the roof and onto the window ledge, a little dizzy from dehydration after so long camping on roofs without proper meals. There’s two pairs of utensils on the cart, Ace realizes, thinking of Bogard with a frown.

He needs to get better at hiding his presence, and soon. Reaching out for the nearest plate, Ace starts scarfing down the food, washing it down directly from the pitcher of water before he kicks the cart over to his Gramps. 

“Ah?” Gramps asks, brows rising despite his closed eyes. 

“You eat too,” Ace says awkwardly, his ears a bit pink. Gramps is Gramps, but that doesn’t mean Ace is comfortable being affectionate with him. He might appreciate him a little more, but understanding his Gramp’s point of view and being affectionate are totally different things. 

“Didn’t you hear me? I said that when I open my eyes, all the food in this room should be gone!” 

“So eat with your eyes closed,” Ace snaps back self-consciously, climbing back onto the ledge. “I don’t steal from old people.” 

Before Gramps can throw a Fist of Love at him in retribution for his cheek, he’s already on the roof again. 

Inside the room, Garp grins and picks up a plate to eat the food without ever opening his eyes. 

The IV in Luffy’s arms gets replaced more times than they count, an almost constant drip echoing through the room while the doctors run around the hospital consulting one another. Plenty of people try to meet with Gramps and ask who Luffy is once morning comes, but they’re all blocked by Bogard. 

Right as the sun sets over the fancy, clean buildings of Goa’s high streets in stunning shades of orange and red, Ace’s young body gives up on him. He’s been awake and wired for too long, and it takes a toll on this body. His narcolepsy won’t seriously kick in for another two years, but narcolepsy has nothing to do with the way Ace collapses on the roof in a deep sleep, the stars rising to watch over his dreams. 

Eyes drifting up to the ceiling when he hears a small thunk, Garp grabs the small blanket the nurses offered him and jumps onto the roof in a single movement. 

“What’s a brat like you trying so hard to be an adult for?” he mutters with irritation, gently draping the blanket over Ace’s sleeping form. “You’ll never grow into a strong man like this.” 

The stars twinkle like they’re laughing at him, and Ace dreams of the sea. 

When he wakes up again, Luffy’s fever has finally broken.

“See? You guys just weren’t looking hard enough before,” Gramps laughs, the thick cloud of anger around him dispersing. 

No one points out the multiple threats he made over the past two days or the fact that Luffy broke through the fever on his own without their help for fear of their poor lives. Wiping sweat off their foreheads and thanking every God out there for creating this miracle, the medical staff crowding the room laugh politely before vanishing to avoid any more time in his presence. 

Kneeling by the window, relief at hearing the news rushes through Ace so quickly and forcefully that his knees almost give out while an incredulous laugh escaping his dry mouth. Leave it to Luffy to cause a storm and take care of it by himself with in one fell swoop.  

“If he misses his birthday, he’ll be pissed,” Ace realizes, snickering to himself while he splays his jellied limbs across the roof to soak in the setting sun. Goa doesn’t look too bad, he thinks, giddy with joy now that the worst is behind them. 

Inside the room, Gramps laughs and slaps his knee. “Stinky little brat! Serves him right for taking such a long nap.” 

The danger zone is far out of sight now, and they both slowly relax all the tension that had built up while waiting for good news. Spring brings forth a gentle breeze like she can sense their cheer, her winds kissing Ace's cheeks playfully. His world is no longer at a standstill, and Ace closes his eyes to take another nap with the confidence that Luffy would never be able to wake up without causing a commotion.

When an incontrollable surge of Conqueror's Haki bursts out of the hospital room twenty minutes later and knocks out everyone within three blocks, Ace is proven right. 

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

When Nami gets out of here, she’s going to personally kill the person who shoved her into this nightmare.

Everything about this is unreal. Waking up in this body, in that damned room that swallowed her blood and tears and wrung her out with a tattoo she’d long replaced sitting stark against her shoulder…

“What kind of hell is this?” she’d thought that day, pale-faced and tiny.

She’s grown up from the little girl who lost her mother and couldn’t trust anyone but her sister, desperately fighting each and every day for their future. Hasn’t forgotten her crew, or their experiences on the bright blue ocean that’s fascinated her throughout her entire life. Every single one of them was real, and nothing will ever be able to make her doubt that. The entire world might be able to change overnight, but her life as a Straw Hat Pirate never will.

But she has to doubt something, and that means that whatever the hell is happening here is what’s fake instead.

As awful as it was, Nami thought it would disappear eventually. That waking up in a place like this with a fever was a sign that it was an illusion, or hallucination, or some kind of Devil Fruit power she just didn’t know about. Obviously, she’s still on the Thousand Sunny surrounded by her friends, and this place is just a trap meant to break her.

So she fought back. Through her muddled head, she refused to draw the maps a long dead man demanded of her, and she got beat for her rebellion. Even so, she refused! The times Nami spent in this place are all too clear no matter how old she gets, but those walls that suffocated her as a child were broken down four years ago by her captain. They still loom oppressively over this small, childish body like a threat, but Nami knows that these walls are not indestructible, that the sky is just above, and that they will not be her forever.

And the pain felt real when she was getting kicked around by jeering Fishmen three times her size, real enough that she hesitated - but not real enough to make her lose confidence in her beliefs. Nami tried over and over to get out by herself: she stabbed her own shoulder in the hopes of awakening through pain, dived into the water to see if it would cancel out the Devil Fruit’s powers, and even stood up to the man that made her life hell for eight years.

“I’m not afraid of you,” she declared boldly, her hands shaking with rage as he sneered. “You’re not real - and even if you were, I wouldn’t be. You’re not my greatest fear...you’re just its face.”

Nami’s greatest fear, even back then, was never being killed by Arlong.

It was that her every breath, her every step, was out of her control. That if she was ever brave enough to move past the fear of death, it wasn’t her own death that awaited her but the death of all that she loved: Nojiko, Gen-san, everyone in the village, and the entire island. It was the idea that she might, once again, be the reason something she cherished was lost.

But this Arlong can’t kill her and he can’t kill anyone else either because this world isn’t real, and everything she cares about is far out of his webbed hands. Nami spent eight years in that hellhole, but she’s old enough now that her years of freedom outnumber and outweigh that number.

“I’ll let your attitude go this time, human,” Arlong hissed after smacking her around, her hair fisted in his grip. “Only because you’re sick and your puny little brain must have been fried by all that heat. Either way, I only need you to be able to make maps.”

Throwing her across the room, he left with a warning. “Two days, and then it’s back to drawing.”

His opinion of her seems much lower than it used to be, though that’s probably because she’s been causing trouble on another level since waking up here.

“Why,” Nami sniffed, her lungs stuttering through the pain. “Why isn’t it going away? Why am I still here?!”

She’d tried everything, truly. She didn’t know what else to do. If it was something that fed on her fears, she’d already confronted them. If it was something that could be broken through by keeping calm or inflicting a massive amount of pain, she’d done it! But nothing worked, and pain felt so real here that it was slowly wearing her out.

“Jeez,” she sighs while drifting back to the present, the rising moon a sign that she fell asleep after being thrown at the wall. “I give up! It’s your turn now, you guys.”

If this is a place she can’t break out of by herself, she just has to wait for him to come save her. Because he will. Luffy. And not just him - Zoro, Sanji, Usopp, Chopper, Franky, Robin, Jinbei, Carrot, Yamato...they’ll come for her. Even if Nami is too weak to escape by herself, she isn’t alone anymore. They’ll come for her, definitely.

And until they do, she has to stay alive.

Gritting her teeth against the beating she just went through, she stands up on shaky legs and supports herself using the wall. “I’m waiting, Luffy. So…”

Tears rimming her fierce eyes, she whispers, “...come quickly.”

And every last part of it itches at her like a wildfire, but if dying in this place means dying in reality, then she can’t take chances; swallowing her pride, she follows the rules. Despite the sneers, the shitty food, the acid that lingers in the back of her throat constantly and the pain that throbs all over her body, she survives. Nami lived through all this and worse, and she’s already seen the stunning world waiting for her past these walls with the people who taught her that she was worth fighting for.

At eleven, at fifteen, at eighteen, and even at nineteen this might have been enough to break her will...but at twenty-two, this much is hardly anything.

She won’t - can’t - forget what happened here. Won’t forget Bellemere or the long years of torture this entire island faced under Arlong’s rule, or the sweat and blood she shed to break free of his jaws, but she’s not that same little girl anymore. She’s Cat Burglar Nami, navigator of the future Pirate King, and she’s the woman who’s going to draw a map of the entire world with her own hands! She’s fought in battles against the Emperors of the Sea and the World Government, and Arlong of the Arlong Pirates is nothing compared to either of them.

No matter how awful things may seem, her life won’t end here. Not until she accomplishes her goals.

“They’ll come,” she whispers every night, filled with certainty from head to toe. It’s not a question or a hope - it’s a promise.

And Straw Hats don’t break promises.

Of course, she’s exactly right; just three months after her arrival here, someone does come to save her.

It’s just not the person she was expecting.

“Oh? Are you the kid he was talking about?” Monkey D. Garp asks, eating a bag of rice crackers while he stands through the remains of the wall in front of her. “Hmm...top left, right?”

“W-W-What,” she stutters, falling out of her chair in shock. Luffy’s grandfather?

He takes in the room slowly, absorbing all the drying charts and the nosebleed she was in the middle of wiping away before he came crashing in. Crushing the empty bag in his hands, he nods.

“Got it,” he says, eyes growing dark. “Looks like I have to bring down this whole place myself.”

And just like that, he picks her up and throws her outside without another word.

“WAIT, WHAT ARE YOU-” screaming as she falls through the air, Nami feels her lungs collapse when she’s caught by firm arms instead of the concrete she’d thought would kill her. “Huh?”

“You just watch from there!” Laughing, Garp jumps to the roof of the building as Arlong’s crew comes rushing out at the sudden attack; seeing the destruction of their brand new base that was only completed last season, their rage rises sharply.

“WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?!” Arlong screams, his eyes going red with anger. “This is my territory, you human garbage!”

“Ah? I’m just a grandpa doing a favor for my cute grandson,” Garp drawls, picking his nose without a care. “I’ll come take care of you in a minute, so just wait your turn.”

Raising his fist, he lowers it right down the center of the roof and smashes Arlong Park straight into two, collapsing halves before everyone’s eyes. Watching his figure, Nami’s memories of Luffy’s leg doing the same thing overlap with the scene before her, and a dawning realization breaks through the disbelief clouding her mind.

“Oh,” she sobs, tears pouring down her face. “Oh, Luffy.”

The Marine holding her in his arms looks down in panic at her cries, but she pays him no mind. Hands covering her mouth, she stifles her sobs and continues to watch without blinking. The top floors are crumbling, debris splashing into the pools and ground as her charts flutter through the air just like that day so long ago.

The day she saw her freedom with her own eyes for the first time and knew what it meant.

Almost instinctively, Nami searches for the straw hat she wore all those years ago and pauses when she realizes it’s not on her head. Smile wobbly, she fists her hands into her dress instead.

“Now, then,” Garp announces, “time to take out the trash. MEN!”

“Yes, sir!” Immediately, his men snap a salute from their positions surrounding the park, including the one holding Nami.

“STAY AWAY FROM THE WATER AND TAKE THEM DOWN!” Looking down at the group of Fishmen, he snorts. “Leave the big one to me.”

The fight that seemed to stretch out forever when it had been Luffy, Zoro, Sanji, and Usopp on the battlefield is mind-bogglingly short when it comes to Garp. The Marine holding her stays back to protect her in his arms securely, but all the others rush forward at the command from their superior. A man in a fedora takes care of the higher-level members that regular soldiers might struggle with quickly by himself, and Garp makes his way directly to Arlong without paying attention to the chaos around them.

Arlong is violently still, his face twitching and body trembling with a silent rage that’s also all too familiar to her. With a single punch and a few words, Luffy’s grandpa has ruined nearly all his work and disgraced his name; roaring loudly, Arlong dashes forward to bite off the Vice-Admiral’s neck with all his strength.

Before Nami can even gasp, there’s a fist going through his stomach, blood splashing to the floor.

“Oh,” Garp notes, displeased. “I used too much strength. And here I thought someone from The First Son of the Sea’s old crew would be stronger. Well, it’s fine.”

Pulling his hand out and letting the Fishman’s body collapse, he shakes off the blood and turns to Bogard.

“SO?”

“We’ve taken in all the soldiers at the base into custody for aiding and abetting a criminal as well as accepting bribes,” he answers in utmost respect. “Awaiting commands, sir.”

“Damn traitors,” Garp mutters viciously, clicking his tongue. “LOCK THEM UP AND PUT THEM ON THE SHIP FOR TRIAL! We don’t need useless bastards like them in the Navy.”

Certain that the battle is over, Nami slips through the soldier’s arms despite his best attempts to catch her and throws herself at Garp.

“L-Luffy sent you, right?” she asks, hope and expectation twisting in her chest. “Right?”

Throwing his head back and laughing, Garp pats her head and nods. “THAT’S RIGHT!”

Smiling through the new wave of tears that rushes forth, Nami shakes with laughter that contains indescribable glee. “I knew it! I knew it.”

There could only be one reason to explain the appearance of a man who had no relationship with her otherwise in either life. The fact that it was him that came instead of her crew, and that he hadn’t recognized her at first sight meant-

-this isn’t a dream. Not a dream, not an illusion, but reality. A reality that she might have had to go through for another seven years until her captain came to save her. But instead of her captain, it was Garp.

Which can only further mean that beyond all belief, she and her captain travelled through time. Garp mentioned doing a favor for his grandson, and who else could know about Nami’s room other than Luffy? In her bones, she knows now that they’ve all come back; the Straw Hat Pirates aren’t normal enough to be separated by something as ridiculous as time travel.

This world was never fake, but it never became the reality she remembers either, and that’s because even now she’s not alone.

Beaming, she squeezes her arms around Luffy’s grandfather tightly and whispers a shaky, “Thank you, old man.”

“OF COURSE! It’s my job,” he announces proudly, chest puffed with pride. “And thanks to this, I got a nice present from my grandson!”

Laughing happily to himself, he pats her head again. “I’m sorry, kiddo.”

“Eh?” Rubbing her eyes, Nami’s mouth falls open at the newest surprise he’s given her - an apology. “Why?”

“For showing you a trash-like Navy until now,” he tells her, referring to Nezumi.

Smile unbidden, Nami shrugs. “It’s okay. I’ve never relied on the Navy for anything in the first place. But, I guess you’re special since you’re Luffy’s grandpa after all!”

Guffawing, he lifts her onto his shoulders and holds onto her legs securely. “WELL, WELL! YOU SURE LIKE MY RASCAL OF A GRANDSON, DON’T YOU!”

A little delirious with all the sudden emotions swirling through her, Nami lets the euphoria take control first and foremost. “Mm, you see, he’s annoying, and stupid, and a troublemaker who never thinks things through!”

“But,” she drops her frown to lean over his head and meet Garp’s eyes with a grin, “even so, I still love him!”

“THAT’S GOOD!” Entertained, Garp continues to laugh as he carries her through the battlefield into the village again. “He sure does have a way of being lovable even though he’s like that! AS EXPECTED OF MY GRANDSON.”

“But, I thought you two didn’t get along right now?” Nami asks curiously, surprised at how cheerful he is. “You said Luffy gave you a present?”

What could Luffy have possibly done to make his strict, angry Grandpa give in without a complaint like this? The two of them had definitely gotten closer after that incident, but asking a favor even then from one another seems a bit far-fetched.

No way. Luffy couldn’t possibly have...lied and said he would become a Marine or something?

Turning pale just at the thought of it, Nami is brought out of her terrible imagination by Garp’s answer.

Snickering to himself with satisfaction, he nods. “That’s right, that’s right! That uncute, annoying, stupid troublemaker you just mentioned asked me for a favor so nicely that I couldn’t refuse! BWAHAHAHA!”

Nami never does find out exactly what Luffy did to bribe Garp into this because the next second, she spots Nojiko amongst a crowd of villagers trying to push through a man-made barrier of Marines on the path to Arlong Park.

“NAMI!” Struggling amongst all the adults in the crowd when she notices her sister atop the man’s shoulders, Nojiko screams frantically. “Nami, are you okay?!”

Eyes wet again, Nami summons the biggest smile she can. “Un!”

Before anyone else can cause an even bigger ruckus, Nami cups her hands around her mouth and takes a deep breath.

“ARLONG PARK IS GONE!”

Almost immediately, everyone freezes in place at her words. Anger, grief, suspicion, frustration, hope - it’s all over their faces when they turn to her as one, and she laughs. “WE’RE FREE!”

A small, shrill sound escapes someone on the right, and the floodgates burst open with the sound of sobs and cheers.

Turning back to her sister, Nami curls her hands into two thumbs-ups.

Dark green eyes grow wet with tears of their own, and Nojiko falls to the floor in a way Nami has never seen before.

“Thank you...Thank you! Thank you,” she says over and over again, scrubbing at her tear-stained face. “Thank you, God!”

Gently poking Garp’s shoulder, Nami gestures to be let down. With a grunt, he crouches and lets her jump off to run to her sister with a grin of his own.

“It wasn’t God,” Nami whispers into her older sister’s ears, arms pulling her into a firm hug. “It was Luffy, Nojiko!”

“L-Luffy? Who’s Luffy?” Nojiko hiccups, confused eyes drifting over to Garp by mistake.

“Luffy...is my friend! He’s the man who’s going to become Pirate King!” And perhaps it’s too much too early when they’ve just escaped the clutches of pirates and she’s been gone for a year for this Nojiko to hear these words, but Nami can’t help it.

Really, how else can you introduce him? It’s true, after all.

“Luffy’s my friend,” Nami repeats louder, beaming. “And he sent someone to save us!”

It doesn’t matter if no one else knows, but Nami wants at least Nojiko to know the truth. Not about the terrible, terrible future that awaited them or that they were set free not once but twice by a rubber boy with a heart too big and head too stupid to know better, but that at the very least - it wasn’t the Navy. It never was.

It’s always been Luffy.

“Mm,” Garp sighs too deeply for the obvious grin on his face, “it looks like I owe him one too for this, since he helped me do my job. HE’LL BE A GREAT MARINE, I JUST KNOW IT! BWAHAHAHAHAHA!”

Sweating littering her temples, Nami laughs awkwardly and prays once again that Luffy didn’t make a stupid promise he can’t keep.

But, well.

Even if he did, she supposes she’ll forgive him.

 

_

 

 

Three weeks ago, Dawn Island.

“Man, I’m beat!” Collapsing onto the ground drenched in sweat, Luffy wheezes out a sigh. “Haki sure is difficult in this body. Ugh.”

Still trying to picture the flow of energy Luffy had described to him before, Ace punches his fist outwards and tries to see if it does anything. “Well, it took you two years last time, didn’t it?”

“Yeah, but I know how it works now! It should be easier this time,” the ten year-old whines, rolling around in the dirt with a pout. “I don’t get it. My Conqueror’s Haki is the same, but my Armament Haki and Observation Haki aren’t getting better no matter what!”

Wiping sweat off his forehead and sitting down on a nearby tree stump, Ace hums in thought and looks down at Luffy’s dirt-streaked face. “Maybe your body isn’t ready for it yet.”

“I don’t think that’s how it works,” Luffy replies, scrunching up his face.

“How the hell should I know, Lu? You’re the Haki expert here.” Kicking his brother in reminder, Ace snickers when Luffy rolls over to dodge it and runs his head into the stump.

“OW! Ace, I’m trying to think!”

Gasping, Ace raises a hand over his mouth the way Makino does when she’s in shock. “You? Thinking? Are you sure your head doesn’t just hurt?”

One might think that with both of them being grown adults simply placed in the bodies of children, they’d fight much less and be more mature - but that goes right out the window for these two brothers, as does most common sense. Even though Ace didn’t tease Luffy nearly this much in Alabasta after they’d grown up, he finds it comforting to be able to get a rise out of him; this Luffy is so much older, grew much stronger, and part of his little brother feels out of reach sometimes when he talks about things Ace has never heard or expected. But with just a few words, he’s the same little crybaby brother from before - it’s a bit shameful for him to admit out loud, but Ace likes the confirmation. It doesn’t hurt that it manages to knock down Luffy’s ego from time to time when he gets too happy about his Haki developing faster than Ace’s.

In Luffy’s simple head, the physical affection his older brother is much looser and kinder with more than makes up for it, and he hardly cares out of the moment.

Ace supposes that’s just another one of his foolish charms.

“I CAN THINK! Tra-guy hooked me up to a machine to prove it!”

The next taunt to leave his mouth is stuffed back in, laughter shaking the thirteen year-old’s body. They hooked Luffy up to a machine to prove he has a brain capable of thinking?

Ace definitely has to meet Tra-guy.

The laugh that weakens his knees is cut short by a growing awareness of something that shouldn’t exist drifting over to the island. Almost immediately, both of their heads swivel to the seashore.

“Hey, Luffy, that…” Clenching his fists solemnly, Ace states, “...that’s a person, right? A strong one?”

He’s not always sure where the line between good senses and Observation Haki is, but the way he’s able to feel that presence like a flame on the horizon is too distinct to mistake as any regular sense. The ecstatic laugh that leaves his little brother’s mouth is an answer in and of itself, and Ace is pleased to understand Observation Haki a little more than before.

“Yeah! That’s Gramps,” Luffy tells him, rubbing his nose with a smile.

“That’s GRAMPS?” Shocked, Ace narrows his eyes at the blazing fire that he finds docked right at Fuusha’s port. “He’s never felt like that before!”

He means to ask Luffy another question, but the words are lost to a sigh when he notices the distinct lack of rubber boy by his side and dashing up Mt. Colubo instead.

They’ve been training on the other side of the mountain lately to avoid ruining their normal sparring area, which means that by the time they run up and reach the fort, Garp is already ambling his way towards them in the signature floral shirts he loves to wear while off-duty.

“OIIIIIIIII,” Luffy screams happily, waving his arms to and fro. “GRAMPS!”

Slowing down behind his little brother, Ace raises a brow. Saving Nami is one thing, but does it really call for that much excitement? The instinct to run away from Gramps has long been ingrained into their bones, which makes the way Luffy is running towards him all the more strange. The thirteen year-old knows time can change a lot, but even time shouldn’t be able to defeat the years of torture they both had to deal with whenever Garp was around.

As if he can hear Ace’s thoughts, Luffy does something that makes both of his family members skid to a stop in shock.

“GRAMPS! I MISSED YOU!” Stretching rubber arms wide, he attaches himself to Gramps with a delighted laugh and nuzzles their cheeks together.

And just like that, Portgas D. Ace and Monkey D. Garp are brought down to their knees in one blow.

“HUH?!” Eyes popping out of his head, Ace swoons backwards. “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!”

“Ah? I’m hugging Gramps,” Luffy answers, his innocent face completely at war with the fact that is more unnatural than time-travel or dead people coming back to life.

“EXACTLY! WHY THE HELL ARE YOU HUGGING THAT OLD GEEZER?” Whatever conflicted feelings may linger inside him, Ace would never treat that damn old man like this. Just the mere sight of it is enough to make him want to barf!

“Cuz I missed him,” Luffy says, only serving to make the nausea in his older brother’s stomach much worse.

“HAHAHAHAHA,” laughing uproariously, Garp pulls himself together and rubs Luffy’s head with unparalleled joy. “YOU MISSED ME, HUH? WHAT A NICE SURPRISE!”

“Mm! Listen, Gramps - WOAH, YOU HAVE TWO ARMS! I FORGOT ABOUT THAT!” Completely distracted by the presence of an arm he apparently wasn’t expecting - and Ace is gonna ask about that later, because what the hell do you mean Gramps lost an arm? - Luffy climbs onto broad shoulders and starts poking at it with interest. “You should take care of it properly, Gramps. You made us all upset last time!”

“ARE YOU TRYING TO JINX ME INTO LOSING AN ARM, YA LITTLE IMP?” Angry at once at the very thought, Garp smacks a large hand against Luffy’s head and nearly sends him flying off in the other direction.

“THAT’S NOT WHAT I SAID AT ALL!” Angry, Luffy bites his grandfather’s ear and wraps extended legs around a thick throat twice. “I SAID TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF, ASSHOLE!”

A small piece of Ace’s disturbed soul settles down at the familiarity of the situation; that’s right, this is how it should be! Violence and cussing each other out, that’s what they should be like around Gramps. None of this...this weird, gross stuff Luffy was just doing!

“You’re worried about your grandpa? WHAT A GOOD GRANDSON,” Garp booms, switching moods just as quickly as he did when getting angry. Jeez, it’s because he’s always like this that nobody likes him.

Except, apparently and very mysteriously, Luffy.

“Listen, Gramps! I have something to say,” he continues after wiping his mouth free of old man cooties. “I need to ask you a favor!”

“OH? WHAT KIND OF FAVOR?” Garp rumbles, securing Luffy onto his shoulders. It’s clear to see with one look that he’s never been in a better mood, delight spreading his lips from ear to ear in a grin. “YOU WANT ME TO TEACH YOU HOW TO BE A STRONG MARINE?”

“THAT’S WHAT YOU WANT, NOT ME!”

They’ve already made their way to Dadan’s Country once again, bandits having long crowded around the front door from the moment Luffy started screaming.

“I-Is that?” Trembling, Dadan held onto the door for dear life while she took in the view before her. “That CAN’T be Luffy, right? W-With Garp?”

Ace sorely relates to the mixture of disgust and horror written all over her face.

Hugging Gramps, nuzzling cheeks with him, being friendly? Ace would rather drown himself in the ocean than even think about it, much less do it himself. Luffy...something happened to him in the future. Something impossible and scarier than dying changed his little brother, and it's with utmost sorrow that Ace lights a candle on the table for his brother's tortured soul.

Of course, Garp is just overwhelmed with delight at the warm, fuzzy aura that’s magically sprouting behind his little grandson now that he’s acting so sweetly. Being tackled into a hug the second he arrives, an “I MISSED YOU, GRAMPS!” for a greeting, and the physical affection that’s normally impossible to earn from either of his grandsons falling into his lap in spades via Luffy - it would be even more ridiculous if he didn’t start flying from happiness into the sky after all that!

“Never,” the thirteen year-old swears to himself in the candle's light, his skin tinged with green. “Never ever ever, nope! I’ll go to hell before I ever do that for the Old Man!”

But as horrible as it is to watch, Ace knows that all of this means that their Gramps will do just about anything Luffy asks for now.

If Luffy ever figures out how not to get himself killed asking for it, anyways.

“I need you to beat someone up!” Luffy announces, his words striking the room like a crack of thunder while the bandits crowd a corner of the living room in fear.

Forehead twitching, Garp tightens his grip around Luffy’s legs and jumps high, their heads smashing through the wooden ceiling. “DO I LOOK LIKE A THUG TO YOU, DAMNED BRAT?! I’M A MARINE!”

“OWWWWW! YOU DIDN’T LET ME FINISH,” Luffy whines, rubbing at his sore head and scowling. “It’s a PIRATE, a PIRATE! I WANT YOU TO BEAT UP A PIRATE!”

“Oh,” Gramps says easily, his anger vanishing. “Well, why didn’t you just say so?”

Ace bangs his head against the wall and begs any god out there listening for salvation from these two.

“I TRIED! SHITTY OLD MAN!” Yelling at Garp only earns Luffy another head wound, his dizzied head nearly tumbling to the floor from impact.

“TREAT ME WITH RESPECT, TWERP! I’M YOUR GRANDFATHER!”

“On top of that, for there to be a pirate around these parts bugging my grandkids…” Turning his gaze to the stunned huddle of bandits to the right, he demands to know, “What are you FOOLS doing?!”

“Ah, it’s not here,” Luffy tells him after pulling his head back in place and leaning over to block Gramps' view. “It’s on Cocomushi Island!”

“Cocomushi Island?” Brows furrowed, Garp tried to think of any such place. “THAT DOESN’T EXIST!”

“EH?! It does! ACE, TELL HIM!”

Weakly, Ace covers his head with his hands and hides his face in his knees to avoid looking at them. “...it’s the Conomi Islands, Lu.”

“Oh, I see. Gramps, it’s Cocomushi Village on Conomi Island!”

For a split-second he opens his mouth to correct the ten year-old one more time, but figures there’s no point in getting between these two idiots’ conversation.

"You….how the hell do you know about a pirate on the Conomi Islands?" Garp’s eyes narrow in on his youngest grandson, a storm brewing within their depths.

“Because my friend lives there! And that ASSHOLE is making her life miserable,” Luffy declares, brows set and eyes unwavering. “The Navy base there’s a sellout, and I’m not strong enough to beat him up yet, but you are! That’s why, Gramps…”

The little boy jumps off his grandfather’s shoulders and meets his eyes bravely. “...I’m asking you a favor, man to man. So that she doesn’t have to wait for me, and she can be happy!”

And Ace isn’t like Gramps - he’s traveled back in time too, knows what his brother becomes in the future and has seen the foundations of the Monkey D. Luffy that stands before them today - but even he can't help but stare at his little brother with a ticklish fondness that makes smiling unavoidable.

“Man to man?” A slow grin emerging on his wrinkled face, Garp crouches down so that they were on the same eye level. “You’ll have to pay me back, you know.”

“I know! I already decided long ago,” Luffy nods with confidence, hands on his hips. “Since it’s a special favor, I’m gonna give you something you wanted forever!”

“YOU’RE GONNA JOIN THE NAV-”

“HAH?! NO! I’M GONNA BECOME THE PIRATE KING!” Luffy yells, red-faced with irritation. “I WAS GONNA SAY I LOVE YOU, YOU OLD MAN!”

Pausing, Luffy blinks twice in realization. “Ah, shit. I said it too early.”

Stunned, Ace feels a delirious laugh bubble inside his throat, his entire body trembling. He knows that if he looks at Gramps right now, it'll definitely come out - and yet, the temptation is too much to resist. Turning his head, he witnesses a sight that may possibly have never existed in the world before this moment.

Monkey D. Garp, hero of the Navy, Vice-Admiral with numerous battles and awards under his belt frozen in place as his eyes grow wet. Luffy's declaration to become Pirate King has completely flown over him after his next words came, locking Gramps in place with lines on his face that seemed strangely deep for his age and a tremble to his lips.

On the other side of the house, most of the bandits have already fainted from sheer shock; the only one left standing with a gaping mouth is Dadan.

“Gramps, you okay? You look like you’re about to croak,” Luffy notices, frowning. “I thought this was supposed to make you happy? Don’t tell me...YOU NEED MORE THAN THIS? SHIT, I REALLY THOUGHT THAT WOULD WORK! ACE, ACE, WHAT DO WE DO?! I WON’T BECOME A MARINE, NO MATTER WHAT!”

Instead of answering him, he bursts into laughter, tears sprouting out of the corner of grey eyes.

“It’s not your imagination,” Ace tells their grandfather, still laughing. “He said it! That crazy little bastard, he really said it!”

Because if anyone knows what it feels like to be told “I love you!” by Monkey D. Luffy after knowing that troublemaker his entire life, it's Ace. Truth be told, if Ace wasn't been so amused and sympathetic to the situation at hand, he'd be barfing into a trash can already at the idea of admitting those words out loud for their grandpa to hear - but Luffy is a different beast altogether because of god-knows-what in the future, and part of that apparently means that things like this are going to happen more often. That Luffy, in all his rough, idiotic glory, will just be going around saying these things as if they're normal.

Ace has only seen their grandpa truly cry once in his entire life, but he thinks at that moment that perhaps he’ll be able to see it twice.

Tackling him to the ground, Garp pulls at Luffy’s skin all over as if to make sure it isn't an imposter before the old man pinches his own cheeks to double-check.

“OW! What’s that for?” Scowling, Luffy rubs at his sore face before blanking at the dark mass that towers over him. “H-Hey, Gramps, w-what are you-”

Shoving his face so close that their noses brush, Garp commands, “Say it again.”

“Well, sure, but can’t you move your face aw-”

“SAY IT AGAIN, BRAT!”

“I GOT IT, I GOT IT, I’LL SAY IT AGAIN! I LOVE YOU! JEEZ.” Grown on the inside or not, Luffy is still cowed by the hulking presence of his grandfather when he's about to blow. Nothing good has ever come out of messing with Monkey D. Garp, especially not for these two brothers.

“BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! AGAIN! SAY IT AGAIN!” The laugh echoes through the house like thunder, chasing out all silence in mere seconds.

“EH? DON’T WANNA! YOU DIDN’T PROMISE YET!”

“I’LL DO IT!” Standing tall, Garp peers down on his baby grandson with a beam so wide and full of satisfaction that it might break his face into two. “Since I got my reward already, OF COURSE I’m gonna do it! It’s just beating up some pirates, isn’t it? I CAN DO THAT IN MY SLEEP, HAHAHAHA!”

“Seriously?” Eyes wide, Luffy jumps back on top of Garp and rubs their cheeks together again. “YOU’RE THE BEST! THANKS, GRAMPS!”

Chest tight, Ace leaves them alone to grab some fresh air. Glad as he is for Luffy, he doesn't want anyone to be able to see his face until he can control his expressions again. Hearing Luffy’s easy confessions of love, witnessing his Gramps receive them in real-time - it reminds Ace once more of how much he’d missed after death.

Sabo lived, Luffy was a step away from Pirate King, and there was apparently a battle so fierce that even the untouchable Gramps he knew lost an arm. Luffy has a tendency to talk about things as if they’re nothing serious, but Ace has always been able to tell when something is actually serious or not by the look in his black eyes.

"You made us all upset," is Luffy-speak for, "Don't do it ever again."

On top of that, Luffy’s now become capable of saying even more emotional words as easily as breathing; in their family, where everything is left unspoken until needs must, it’s a delicate, strange thing. Jarring, even, to be told that you’re loved even when you know you are, and Ace wonders if he'll ever be capable of saying that to someone else the same way.

Wonders if maybe the way he had needed Luffy to say it out loud, their grandfather has needed it in the same way. Not because they doubt it but because despite their brash, awkward love, they're all just people who define their lives by those they love and those that love them, and having it said out loud helps bring a clarity they didn’t have before.

Honestly speaking, was there ever anyone who had said those three words to either of them? Those three, simple, genuine words to Ace, or Gramps, or even Luffy himself?

“He’s changed,” Gramps says in lieu of a hello when he walks over to Ace under the moonlight a few hours later.

Ace hums in reply, peering up at the stars in between the trees.

“You know,” Gramps began, snickering, “I thought him becoming a Marine was much more likely than hearing that.”

Unable to stop the accompanying snicker that escapes him, Ace somewhat agrees. It had seemed much more likely before, that's for sure.

“He said.” Pausing, Ace wonders if it's okay to admit this when they've already given away so much. “He said that even though someone might know you love them, saying it is important. So that even in your last moments, there are no regrets. Not because they didn’t know, but because everyone deserves to hear it at least once.”

Grin helplessly adoring, he adds, “If you’re unlucky, he won’t stop saying it either.”

Gramps scoffs, but there's no bite to it. “All of this because of a bad dream?”

He's talking about the excuse Ace gave him in the hospital half a year ago.

The twelve year-old only speaks after a long silence, his voice quiet. “For him, it wasn’t a dream.”

There’s no response to that.

“Hey, Gramps? Promise me something.”

“Hah? Why the hell do I have to promise an ungrateful rascal like you anything? You’re not even as cute as your brother.”

Facing him properly for the first time since his arrival on the island, Ace says, “Don’t die. No matter what, no matter how - don’t die. Until the day Luffy fulfills his dream, stay alive. He’ll be too lonely if we leave before that.”

Clicking his tongue, Garp thumps a gentle fist on top of his grandson’s head. “As if I need a troublemaker like you to tell me that.”

"Not just that. If...if there ever comes a time you have to choose between your job and Luffy," Ace shuts his eyes, "choose Luffy."

Startled by the sudden desperation and the words coming out of Ace's mouth, Garp frowns deeply. "What?"

"It's okay not to do it for me," Ace continues, grey eyes absolutely clear when he opens them again, "but do it for Luffy. He's different from me - no matter what his parents did or who they are, he doesn't deserve to be punished for it. In the first place, you never liked the Celestial Dragons either. So, no matter what, choose Luffy."

"Because I won't care if it's my life on the line, but I'll never be able to forgive you if it's his."

It's obvious that he's taken Gramps completely by surprise, but it's something that's been on Ace's mind long before he traveled to this time. Since the day he learned that Luffy's blood made him just as hateful as a child of Gol D. Roger, he's thought about it - and especially so since returning.

He isn't lying either. Ace doesn't blame Garp for what he did that day in the slightest, because if there's one thing he and Luffy respect it's the determination to accomplish your goals and be free from the expectations of others. Gramps genuinely loves being a Marine, and he believes that the world he wants to see can only be achieved by being a part of the Navy; it may not be an ideal shared among the family, but that doesn't mean it's any less valid. Being a Marine is to Gramps what being Pirate King is to Luffy, and Ace would never ask anyone else to give up a part of who they are to satisfy his selfish desires this way.

But he's asking it of his grandfather for Luffy. For the one thing that Ace cannot and will not ever budge on - his little brother's life.

"If Luffy has to pay for that guy's sins," Ace tells him, the rustling breeze accompanying his voice, "then so do you. Not with your life, but with your position."

Ace was the only person the world could blame for Roger's actions, and no matter how much it pisses him off he understands why. Despite his best efforts to prove otherwise, the world simply saw him as another Gol D. Roger in the making and clamored for his death. His life was just a drop in the bucket for all those who had lost something to Roger along the way.

But Luffy isn’t Ace, and Dragon isn’t Roger.

As much as he may dislike Luffy’s no-show, irresponsible father for having a son despite knowing what the world would do to him, Ace will always be grateful that he did it anyway because that decision gave him the little brother he can no longer live without. Furthermore, being old enough to understand the Revolutionary agenda now means that Ace finds himself a little more reluctantly approving of that man. Even with the knowledge that Sabo is alive, the desire to see the Celestial Dragons toppled and brought to their knees still burns strongly, and he doesn’t blame anyone pissed off enough to try it. Which means that as far as Ace is concerned, Monkey D. Dragon is leagues better than that damned Roger - and that Luffy should never, ever have to face consequences for who he is the way Ace does.

Even if the war hadn’t happened, Ace would still be okay with his grandfather’s choice not to interfere. It was by his own choice that he’d handed himself over to Blackbeard in return for Luffy’s continued safety, and it was by his own choice that he kneeled on that platform. Gramps respected his decision to die as a pirate even through his tears, and Ace respected his desire to stay true to himself as a Marine.

But if there’s ever a situation where Luffy’s life is on the line and they don’t act despite being able to change things, it won’t be nearly the same. Call him an asshole, call him a hypocrite, call him whatever the hell you want - he doesn’t fucking care. To him, Luffy’s life is worth more than his pride, his honor, his life, or his dreams. From the very day that bear attacked him while Ace watched carelessly to the day that Luffy landed onto that battlefield of ice with the intent to save him, he knew. That even if Luffy ever decided he wanted to die, Ace wouldn’t let him. Becoming Pirate King is the only way Luffy is ever allowed to die, but he knows in his soul that Luffy would never die on that path.

Which means that in the end, Ace refuses to let his brother die in any way, shape, or form for any reason whatsoever. Because he’s Luffy’s older brother, and because he will not allow a world without Monkey D. Luffy to exist as long as he breathes. Even if Luffy is on that execution platform one day because of his own actions and not that of his father’s, his older brother won’t allow it to happen. And if their grandfather ever does, regardless of the situation…

...Ace will make sure they both pay the price for it.

Maybe Gramps would have acted differently if it was Luffy in chains that day - but maybe isn’t good enough. Not when Ace has died and come back, and found a little brother that hadn’t lost him and then a little brother that did.

It’s selfish, it’s cruel, and it’s beyond brave to ask this of his grandfather, but it doesn’t matter to him anymore. It's not a question of if Luffy is more important to him than Gramps, Pops, or people like Marco and Deuce - if all their lives were in danger, Ace would put his heart and soul into protecting every single one of them without fail. Something like Luffy versus Pops or Luffy versus anyone else is a stupid fucking scenario, because Ace will always choose to save them both.

But if the question isn't whose life is most important to you and instead whose death would kill you too there's only one answer.

If Ace is an amalgamation of all those he loves, Sabo and Luffy would be his lungs. They gave him the ability to breathe in the suffocating, dark world that surrounded him, and the air was clean and light in his chest with them by his side. When Sabo died, one of those lungs disappeared; the air was too thick and too thin all at once, and breathing suddenly went from something instinctive to something that took every inch of him. Every minute felt like a struggle, and he couldn’t bear the sudden loss of something that he’d gotten used to thinking was only natural in his life.

But he still had Luffy, and every weak breath that entered this lonely little lung reminded Ace that he was still alive. That there was still a way to breathe, and that if he just tried a little harder he would still be able to go on even without the ease that he used to. Pops, his other siblings on the Moby Dick, and all his friends would be more comparable to limbs - losing them, living without them, it would be horrible. He’d be handicapped without them by his side, struggling to become accustomed to a world where he no longer got to live with the ease or freedom that he did with these arms and legs before.

Even so - even if he lost all four of them, struggling to do the most basic tasks without help, limited in his freedom, he would still be alive. He’d still be able to pick himself back up and move forward, regardless of what held him back. If Ace had two lungs, losing one wouldn’t bring him down either. But he doesn’t.

Ace is a lot of things, but first and foremost he will always be an older brother.

Long before Portgas D. Ace the pirate came to be, he was Sabo and Luffy's Ace. It's an integral part of him that cannot be separated from his identity in any way. One brother, one lung - because the grief was still real, still sharp even if it turned out Sabo was alive somewhere across the world - was already too much to lose.

Live without regrets…to live like that, Ace will do anything to make sure everything within his hands is untouched.

In this life, Ace is giving up all the things that held him back - his grief, his fears, his sins, and any useless pride that interferes with his goals. In the past, he would have never been able to ask this of Garp because he didn't feel it was his right, but it's not about who is right or wrong, who is weak or strong; Ace cannot and will not lose anything precious to him ever again, and this is simply one way to make that happen. Furthermore, the person he's asking for this favor isn't just anyone.

He's their grandpa. He's an ugly, twisted bastard who deserves a solid beating for all the shit he's put the two of them through, but. He's their grandpa, and Ace wants to believe that means he'll help when they ask for it.

Gramps looks at him - really, truly looks at him from top to bottom, his grim face barely visible as clouds cover the moon’s light.

“What the fuck happened to you two?” he asks, a swear that almost never leaves his mouth making an appearance.

Biting down on his tongue a little too hard to regain control of himself, Ace lets the sound of Luffy’s loud laughter from inside the fort wash over him.

“I almost lost him,” he says through the sting, painfully calm, “and he almost lost me."

I’m tired of losing things.

Luffy did lose Ace, in the end, and would have continued to be without him if they hadn’t both traveled back to this time.

“I should have known,” Garp sighs, a surprising fondness laced in between all the weariness and frustration. “Your parents were exactly the same. All of you, down to the last, stubborn and so goddamn overprotective over the people you love. I guess it’s my fault for putting you two together.”

Jerking his head to the side immediately, Ace feels nausea climb back up his throat at the possible threat of separation. “What are you talki-”

“You’ll never forgive me?” With a scoff, he stands up and glares at the boy sitting next to him fiercely. “You should make sure you’re strong enough to back up words like that before you say them, damn BRAT!”

Before Ace can scowl and shoot forward to kick him for that, he’s stunned by the next words out of Garp’s mouth.

“STRONG ENOUGH THAT NEITHER ONE OF YOU EVER HAS TO RELY ON ME!”

Whacking the boy by his temples and ignoring the wince of pain on his grandson’s face when it sends him reeling, Gramps continues to press forward. “Strong enough that it doesn’t matter WHO hates you or WHY, strong enough that you NEVER have to worry about losing each other again! Stronger than me, stronger than Roger, stronger than anyone else! BACK UP ALL YOUR WORDS WITH STRENGTH SO THAT NO ONE CAN TAKE AWAY WHAT’S IMPORTANT TO YOU.”

“If you can’t even become stronger than me or him, what was the point of training you for your whole life?”

Holding onto the side of his head with damp eyes, Ace stares wordlessly at Garp with a sudden lump in his throat.

“And if you both obediently became Marines just like me, you’d be able to make that decision YOURSELF,” Gramps yells crossly, twisting Ace’s ears in punishment for his audacity in talking so disrespectfully.

“OW! Ow, let go!” Hurriedly yanking himself out of touch, Ace skids back two feet and puts his fists up in self-defense. “Screw that! I’m never becoming a Marine, and neither is Luffy! Luffy...Luffy’s going to become the Pirate King, you shitty old man!”

“HAH?!” Temples throbbing with anger, Garp raises both hands high in the air and brings them whistling down faster than he can dodge.

Shit,” Ace swears, closing his eyes and bracing for impact.

To his surprise, the pain he’s expecting never comes. Even after what seems like eternity passes by, there’s no blow to his head or shoulders that knocks him flat on his ass, and he cracks an eye open to see what the hell is happening.

Standing in front of Ace with his hands paused a mere centimeter above his head, Gramps asks suddenly, “Did he answer your question?”

"Do I deserve to live?"

"I don't know. That's something you'll have to find out for yourself."

Small hands clench instinctively, black bangs falling forward to cover a freckled-face from view. “Yeah. He did.”

“So? What was the answer?”

And it’s ridiculous, really, to talk about this with a Garp that hasn’t witnessed him slated for death as the son of the King of Pirates, but he figures they would have had this conversation eventually.

“The son of Gol D. Roger might not deserve to live,” Ace tells him, trembling from head to toe despite his firm voice, “but Luffy and Sabo’s brother, and even the grandson of a crazy geezer like you-”

-Second Commander of the Whitebeard Pirates, Whitebeard's son, he continues in his heart-

“-definitely does.”

The curled fists open to broad palms, and they wrap around his shoulders with warmth that startles him.

“Mm.” Nodding, Gramps pats him. “That’s a good answer.”

Against his wishes, a tear slips past his defenses and over freckled cheeks too quickly for anyone to see.

“You won’t hear something like before from me,” Ace warns him in reference to Luffy’s declaration of love, still trembling. “Luffy’s just a weirdo who’s messed up in the head. He doesn’t know any better.”

Cackling, Gramps cuffs him by the ear and grins. “I didn’t expect it from either one of you in the first place! HAHAHAHAHA!”

“But,” Ace hesitates, ears flushed from the blood rushing to his head, “I’m not. Ungrateful. F-For taking me in, and Sabo, and for Luffy...thanks.”

Unable to stay there a single second longer in embarrassment, Ace runs back into the house before he can be punished with the beating Garp surely has waiting for him.

For a long, long moment, the only sound in the forest is the laugh of an old man who feels his years catching up to him. But even that doesn’t last long when he’s interrupted by the silly little grandson that started this all.

“Oh! Gramps! There you are. I was looking for you,” Luffy grins, black eyes twinkling the way they always do when he’s got a new idea. “Before you leave, make sure to fight me, okay!”

 

_

 

 

Present day, Cocoyashi Village.

The entire island is seeing off the Marines as they leave, the boats being loaded with supplies and ensigns running around to make sure everything is taken care of in time. After three days, all the traitors under Nezumi as well as any straggling members of the Arlong Pirates who’d been out on dives have all been captured. With no more left to do, it’s time for them to leave with their prisoners and return to Navy HQ.

“Hey, Mister!”

“Oh? IF IT ISN’T THE SHRIMP FROM BEFORE!” Grinning, Garp bends down to meet Nami’s eyes at the lip of the port. “What is it?”

A little flustered by the “shrimp” comment, Nami puts it aside to ask her question before he’s called away by his subordinates again. “Um, about Luffy-”

“That’s right,” Garp recalls, interrupting her midway. “I FORGOT!”

Digging through his coat for something while she sighs, well used to the way Luffy’s family works, he finally finds what he was looking for and pulls it out with an “AHA!”

“He told me to give this to you if you asked about him,” Garp explains, pinky finger digging into his ear. “BWAHAHAHA! I HOPE IT’S NOT A LOVE LETTER!”

Sweating under the suddenly sharp glint in his eyes, Nami hurriedly denies the accusation. “NO! NEVER! Definitely, seriously, 100% never happening! We’re just friends!”

“GOOD! He’s too young to be distracted from his training by girls,” Garp huffs, grin returning.

Instinctively, Nami waves her hand from side to side with a straight face. “No, I don’t think you have to worry about him being distracted by girls at all. Food and adventure take up too much space, after all.”

Can you be attracted to food? That’s probably a thing. Spiralling into thoughts of Luffy creating offspring made of meat like Big Mom’s Homies and then the fear that it might induce cannibalism in him, Nami shakes her head free of them and takes the folded paper in Garp’s hands.

The Vice-Admiral watches with a budding interest as she laughs after reading it, the sound carrying over the wind and into the sea.

Hands clenching around the single sheet of paper, Nami feels her lips stretch wide. "I got it...I understand, Luffy!"

Wiping away the wetness from her eyes, she ignores Gen-san's call of her name to bow shallowly in front of Garp.

"I don’t really like the Navy," she reiterates, standing straight again with a proud expression. "But, for raising Luffy and listening to his selfish whims, thank you! Please continue to take care of him from now on as well."

Luffy complained about his grandfather multiple times, but not a single one of his crew members ever doubted that he loves this old man. If by chance there had been any doubts on the relationship between those two, they were all blown out of the water the day that Garp lost his arm.

As pissed as he'd been about the injury, nothing had been able to wipe the pride on Luffy's face whenever he remembered what it was lost to protect.

The bright, helplessly fond and sweet grin on her face says much more than her mouth does to Garp, but she probably doesn't realize how much. A retired Marine for a mom, a good head on her shoulders, and the will to put up with one of his grandsons, huh?

"Not bad," he comments, raising a brow. With another signature laugh, he turns his back to her and begins boarding the ship.

"Nami! I've been looking for you everywhere," Genzo pants, finally spotting her at the very front of the crowd. "What are you doing here?"

"I was saying thanks!" Folding the note carefully and tucking it into her pocket, Nami watches as the anchors are pulled out of the water and huffs. "Geez, though. Seven years sure is a long time."

"Seven years? What are you talking about?" Confused, the sheriff starts in surprise when Nami turns big brown eyes on him.

"Hey, Gen-san," she begins, jutting her lower lip out, "can I have some paper?"

"Paper? You know you don't have to ask for something like that." Walking her back to the house without another look at the ships, he scratches at his scars absently. "How much do you want?"

"Mm," finger tapping over her mouth in thought, Nami grins. "About this much?

Gaping at the hand that rises just an inch over her head, he double-checks the distance between the ground and her hand.

"HUH?"

"Hurry, I need it asap!" Pushing him forward, she remembers something important. "Oh, and pencils! Lots and lots! I'm counting on you, Gen-san."

"Wait, Nami, what the heck do you need all that f-"

Leaving him in her dust when she rushes off to the house, Nami begins planning for the future carefully with the note crinkling slightly every step in her pocket.

"I need to draw all the maps from scratch," she mutters, running past Nojiko and into her old bedroom. "I'll need a box and a lock, too, for all the notes…"

Digging through her room for everything she might need, Nami doesn't even notice her sister standing at the doorway.

"Nami, one of those guys came earlier and - Nami?" Concerned, Nojiko steps a bit closer to observe the way she's throwing things around. "Are you okay?"

Pausing at the excited smile on her little sister's face, Nojiko sighs before a similar one crosses her own lips. Whatever it is that Nami's doing, she's doing it because it makes her happy.

When Arlong was here, it felt like that happiness would be out of her little sister's hands for a lifetime.

"Anything I can help with?" Nojiko asks loudly, knocking on the open door to draw attention.

"Nojiko! Have you seen my ruler? I found all my other stuff, but my ruler's missing," Nami explains, gesturing to the pile of cartography supplies in front of her.

"You're drawing a map?" Raising a brow, Nojiko walks inside the room and stretches her arm out to the very back of the desk they're searching. "I thought you'd be sick of drawing maps by now."

"Yeah," Nami replies, lighting up when her sister reaches the missing ruler and hands it over to her. "for Arlong, that is. Thanks, Nojiko!"

"For Arlong?" Nojiko repeats, leaning against the desk while Nami organizes the tools. "Who's this map for, then?"

Blinking brown eyes at the obvious question, her answer is, "For me. Who else?"

"For you?!"

Before Nojiko can open her mouth for more questions, Nami continues her explanation.

"I've got to draw the maps while I still remember them," she huffs, tugging over a chest she used to hide her "treasures" in. "I think I had a lock and key somewhere here…"

"No, hold on a minute there," the blue-haired girl says flatly, smacking the lid closed before Nami can rifle through its contents. "I'm gonna need more than that, missy. I know you're not just drawing this for fun, so where are you planning on going all of a sudden?"

Taking in her sister's shaky hands and twisted lips, she comes to the realization that she hasn't explained anything at all. Inside, Nami is twenty-two - but here, to everyone who looks at her, she's just eleven. An eleven year old who spent the past year in the hands of pirates who made her slave away day and night, and who had her plans of saving the village by saving money dashed all of a sudden by the unexpected arrival of a fricking Vice-Admiral that was sent to save her from someone none of them have ever heard of.

An eleven year old who just got her family and home back, and is already talking about leaving them behind.

Sitting down on her bed, Nami pats the sheets and waits for her sister to join her.

"Nojiko," she starts, a bit hesitant. "I have something to tell you."

It's hard to know exactly what to say when you're a time-traveling pirate, but Nami tries her best. They deserve to hear it properly, and the wounds are no longer so raw that it’s impossible to admit out loud.

"I want to be a map-maker. Even though I hated drawing them for Arlong, I still like maps just as much as before. I like exploring, and I want to sail on the ocean myself to see the world these papers contain."

Smiling softly, she reaches out and takes warm hands into her own. "With these hands, I want to be the first person to ever draw a map of the entire world!"

"Nami…" Taken aback by the sincerity in her brown eyes, Nojiko's mouth hangs open.

"And not just that! I want to sail with someone specific," the eleven year-old continues, smile growing even wider. "His name is Luffy."

"That's the name you said before, too," Nojiko mutters, thinking back. "But they said that the Vice-Admiral was named Garp, and I couldn't find any soldiers with that name either. You said something about him being a pirate, but I figured I heard you wrong."

"That's right. The Vice-Admiral who came is Luffy's grandpa," Nami informs her amusedly. The pirate part can wait a little longer, she thinks. "Luffy sent him to save us because he's too young to come do it himself. And, Nojiko, I…"

Inhaling deeply, Nami tightens her grip around her sister and raises their hands high. "...I'm gonna be his navigator! He's a really stupid person, you see, and if I'm not by his side that goofball won't be able to get anywhere. But if I'm with him, I'll definitely get to see everything there is out there! Treasure, adventure, people, and all sorts of new seas and islands...they're just waiting for me."

Excitement and something that almost seems like nostalgia is written all over her face, and Nojiko can tell that this truly is important to her little sister. It’s totally different from the tear-stricken face that had greeted her on the wet road that day, a brand on her shoulder that she couldn’t stand and a wild plan to buy the village back in the makings. The Nami that had seemed as if she would collapse without her older sister’s reassurances is nowhere to be found now, and instead it’s as if this incident has filled her with a glowing confidence.

"But I'm not crazy enough to leave right now," Nami giggles, dispelling her fears. "I'm eleven! Even if I start preparing early and visiting nearby islands, I'll have to be at least thirteen to man a small boat by myself. And now, because of Luffy, we don't have to worry about Arlong anymore. We can all do whatever we want! Right now, I want to stay here with you guys."

"So, Nojiko, Gen-san," she asks, startling Genzo from where he's hiding in the hallway. "Until I'm eighteen, is it okay to ask you to put up with my selfishness?"

Grinning, Nojiko pulls her close by their joined hands and bumps their foreheads together. "Of course it is. Who else would put up with you if not us?"

"That's right! Until you're eighteen, don't even think about anything else! We've got an entire orchard here you have to take care of," Genzo scolds her, stepping into the room and crossing his arms. "If you really want to visit other islands, you can make yourself useful by selling tangerines there."

Tackling her sister into a hug, Nami nods eagerly. "Fine by me!"

Glad to have set things straight, the navigator moves onto what she does best: planning for the journey ahead. They have to recycle some old flyers and notices in order to get all the paper she needs, but within an hour she’s got enough to manage things for now.

While the Straw Hat Pirates may be known for their strength and battle prowess, there is one more thing that propels them farther than others can ever expect: knowledge. Luffy is able to get away with acting recklessly without thinking because of the members in his crew that do it for him. They've got a teenage doctor with unparalleled medical knowledge, a one-and-only scholar who quite literally studies things no one else in the entire world can understand, and a weapons genius with admittedly perverted taste - and that's just when you take into account their specialties. Between Nami, Robin, and Chopper, the average IQ of the Thousand Sunny is raised by a good 30 points. Franky and Usopp would count if only they didn't have...significant mental barriers. Of course, the average was higher before Yamato, but Carrot and Jinbei thankfully maintained it instead of sending it careening into either extreme.

Which means that despite not being a genius by most people's definition, Nami is still more than capable of retaining massive amounts of information and organizing it as needed. It’s been years since she’s had to draw a map of the world outside of the Grand Line herself, but the times she spent studying the world’s waters and skies have ingrained most of it into her brain. Even after leaving Weatheria, she made sure to study her maps every day and add details wherever they sailed to better refine them.

There might be a few mistakes here and there, but she’s confident that none of them would be detrimental for regular sailors, much less her crew. East, West, North, and South Blue - what she remembers of them, that is - all bloom into existence across her desk with the sweep of a pencil, and Nami moves onto the Grand Line. They’ll need a Log Pose by then of course, but as someone who plans on drawing a map of the whole world it’s a given to chart the seas there anyways. Nami also notes the names of the islands everyone landed on in their two years of training, just in case, and fills out what she remembers being told about the surrounding waters.

The smell of cream stew fills the house while the sun sets, but the eleven year-old girl hardly notices it as she continues to scribble away with her pencil.

“Nami, it’s dinner time!” Frowning when there’s no response, Nojiko wipes a wet hand on her apron and walks to her sister’s room. “Nami, did you hear me?”

Smiling helplessly as the sight she finds, green eyes soften. “Really?”

With a sigh, she grabs a candle from the dresser in the living room and places it on a drip guard before laying it next to Nami’s restless hands. “The sun is setting, you know. You could have at least gotten one of these.”

“Huh? Woah, I didn’t even notice it’s this late,” Nami gasps, looking out the window and noticing the orange hues spreading over the island. “I gotta hurry! Thanks, Nojiko!”

Hurriedly lighting the candle, the navigator organizes the maps she’s finished and places them to the side without hearing anything else, and Nojiko laughs. Seeing her so wrapped up in her work with a wide smile on her face is a gift in and of itself, and she figures that she’ll forgive Nami for being so self-absorbed just for today.

By tomorrow, though, she’ll have to start doing things like eat on time and help around the house the way normal people do.

“I’ll leave dinner on the table for you,” she calls out, already heading back into the kitchen. “Don’t forget!”

Nami mumbles out an answer distractedly before fixing a smudge on the sheet in front of her. “Okay! Maps, done. Now…”

Hauling the stack of paper she set aside for this purpose, she frowns in thought. “Time to write the diary.”

If she’s being honest, time-travel isn’t necessarily the only answer for their situation. This could be a - a parallel world, or a world that’s so opposite to the one she remembers that parallel doesn’t even begin to cover it. If the number of astounding, impossible things she’s seen on the sea are any proof, there’s no end to the possibilities here. Either way, she’ll need to have something to compare this world against in the future, so that means writing a journal filled with all that she can remember from before.

In order to organize her memories properly, Nami begins the journal by listing all the places they’ve been to from the very beginning. Orange Town, where she met Luffy and Zoro for the first time. Then Syrup Island with Usopp, the Baratie with Sanji, and back to Cocoyashi afterwards where they all saved her from Arlong. Giggling slightly, she thinks of her crew with fond smiles and hopes she can see them soon.

The list goes on and on, with a note here and there where she adds the member’s arrivals one by one. Tapping the end of the pencil against her lips, Nami then moves on to listing important events that occurred during their stay in those areas and decides to add specific details once she’s done with the overall timeline.

After that, of course, is a crew-specific timeline from what she can recall from everyone’s past. Luffy, of course, set sail at seventeen and met Zoro before her, but those two hardly ever mention their childhood. That guy with shit sense of direction was always going to be the hardest to find, anyways. Sighing, she puts it off and moves onto those with clearer pasts. Usopp, Chopper, Franky, Carrot, and Yamato are all easy - they were born and raised in the same place before joining the Straw Hats, so there’s no worry about losing them. Syrup, Drum, Water 7, Zou, and Wano…after second thought, the navigator adds the islands they visited during their two years of training next to their names as well.

“Next, Sanji-kun. I’m pretty sure he said he met Zeff when he was ten? If I’m eleven, then he’s twelve. Okay!”

Baratie, it reads next to his name, and then: Momoiro Island.

“That just leaves Robin, Brook, and Jinbei,” Nami sighs, pushing back a stray lock of hair blocking her view.

Robin’s past has always been a bit of a mystery, and none of them had dug much past Ohara. Whatever she did to survive, wherever she went never mattered to them. As far as they were concerned, all that did matter was that she lived to become theirs. There were times she’d mention an island she visited or a sight she’d seen, but none of that built a concrete history that Nami can use to locate her right now. The only confirmed place she can put Robin in is Alabasta, and that’s seven years from now. As for Brook, he’s no doubt floating in the Florian Triangle somewhere. When they met, his shadow had already been stolen for five years.

Doing the math quickly, she realizes that means he’ll reach Thriller Bark in just two years from now. As long as his shadow is on that island in Moria’s hands, Brook won’t be too far. It’ll be a bit difficult finding the skeleton if he gains his memories and leaves his ship, but he definitely won’t be able to leave the Florian Triangle by himself.

Jinbei doesn’t even warrant thinking; as a Warlord, he’s in the news more often than not. It’ll be easy enough to track his path if she keeps watch on the papers from now on, and Nami reminds herself to check the week’s papers for him when she’s done with this. Now that all she has left to do is bind it into a book later, she organizes the pages in the order she wrote them and pauses.

Staring at the conspicuous blank space she left between Sabaody and Weatheria, Nami resolutely places the journal into a chest and locks it without hesitation.

There’s no need to mention the war.

The events that happened that day will never happen again, after all.

Chapter Text

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.