"The choices we make, that's what defines us."
The Red-Hair Pirates had a great party going in their favorite bar of Foosha Village. While one table was howling a pirate song with their drunken, slurring voices, another still had a drinking contest going while the rest of the crew cheered for the last two participants.
Their captain, however, was missing from all the singing and drinking action this time. He stood at a corner, his outstretched arm resting on the wall above Makino's shoulder. The barmaid had her back against the wall and she blushed as the redhead whispered something into her ear.
Suddenly a wave of overpowering will rolled through, making even Shanks' hair stand at end. Makino instantly went limp, and the redhead captain swiftly scooped her body into his arms before she hit the floor. Shanks quickly scanned the bar in alarm. His men collapsed one after another, spilling their rum mugs all over the place. The sudden silence was deafening in his ears.
"Benn?!" Shanks called.
"Still awake!" came the answer and a moment later the first mate strolled into his captain's line of sight with a worried and confused frown on his face.
"What happened?" Yasopp wondered out loud, checking on his table neighbor and scowling at the foam streaming from his mouth.
"Haki…" Lucky Roo replied, wiping off the sweat bead from his forehead.
Shanks scanned the bar one more time and confirmed that the rest of his crew got knocked out. The magnitude of this Conqueror's Haki was definitely not common, even on the Grand Line. There was only one person who could have had such power in this part of the world and he wouldn't have done it without a good reason.
Shanks swiftly brushed off the foam from Makino's face with his thumb and gently laid her down on the floor. "Benn, you're with me. Yasopp, Lucky Roo, take care of the crew," he ordered with a stern tone, not even waiting for confirmation and already moving towards the doors.
Benn fell into step with his captain. "Something must have happened to Luffy for him to use Haki like that," he muttered, looking around as they exited Partys bar.
An eerie silence shrouded the village like a heavy blanket. There were bodies as far as two pirates could see – people collapsed in the middle of streets or on the benches next to their houses. Unconscious birds were still falling from the sky with a dull 'thud' sound every time they'd hit the ground.
Shanks' scowl deepened. The longer he thought about it, the more he came to a conclusion that this was a berserk burst of Haki rather than a conscious one. His stomach churned as his mind went through the list of reasons why a boy like Luffy would go into berserk mode. None of them were particularly good, the next always worse than the previous one.
The redhead pointed at the Mt. Colubo in the distance. "Corazon said that they're now living on that mountain," he said to his first mate. "We should hurry. I have a bad feeling about this."
"Aye, captain," Benn agreed.
The two men promptly started to run. They soon found a path leading up the mountain and started following it without any delay. The forest around them was unnaturally quiet – a devastating blast of Conqueror's Haki rendering all the wildlife unconscious. A few times, the pirates came upon such animals which only redoubled their uneasiness.
Soon enough they reached the clearing with a hut in a middle of it. Without a word, the pirates entered. They both ignored the unfamiliar men, lying all around the first room, and separated to save time on checking the building.
Shanks was checking what looked like a kitchen, when he heard Benn calling him, "Captain, found them!" He rushed to the room where his first mate was, but before he could even ask, Benn already replied, "Luffy is not here."
The black-haired man was squatting next to Law and shaking him gently by his shoulder, trying to wake him up. Shanks looked at unconscious Bepo but decided to leave him be. He walked over slumped form of Corazon and shook him.
"Wha…? Benn-ya?" Law's sleepy voice rang in a silent house. He shuddered as he felt the chill settling in his whole body. "What happened?"
Corazon also stirred. He groaned and brought a hand to his face.
"Where's Luffy?" Shanks put forward a question. Every minute they delayed could have had horrible consequences.
Law knitted his brow in a frown. "I… I don't know." He looked around and his eyes widened when they fell on Bepo. "Bepo!"
"He's fine, Law-kun, don't worry," Benn assured. "Luffy's Haki simply knocked him out."
The boy's attention was now fully on the pirate in front of him. "Luffy's Haki? Why would he use it on us?"
"Something must have happened, that's why we need to find him," Shanks said, an urge underlying his tone.
Corazon sat up unsteadily. "I think I saw him outside with Sabo and Ace earlier," he informed.
Shanks was up and out of the room in a mere second. As soon as he exited the hut, the redhead surveyed the surroundings. He walked around the building and spotted a child in blue clothes on the ground.
It took a minute for him to arouse from his Haki induced sleep, but the boy's eyes finally fluttered open and he blinked a few times. Shanks felt the kid's body tense up in his arms as those blue orbs focused on him. The blonde instantly wiggled from his hold and went into a defensive stance, although he was still somewhat unsteady on his feet.
"Who are you?" the boy demanded.
"Relax, Sabo, they are our friends," Law explained as he, Benn, and Corazon approached from behind Shanks.
"Oh." The blonde lowered his fists and now stared at the two unfamiliar adults curiously.
"Where's Luffy?" the redhead asked.
"He followed Ace after…" Sabo trailed off, hurt flashing through his eyes. "Why? What's going on? Why I was on the ground, unconscious? And why are you all looking for Luffy? Is he in trouble?" The whole situation apparently was catching up with him pretty fast with every inquiry he put forward.
Shanks was starting to get impatient. "Do you know where they went?"
The blond boy thought for a moment. "The Gray Terminal probably," he replied.
"Can you guide us there?"
Sabo held out a hand and pointed at some direction. "That way."
Shanks sprung forward. The blond boy let out a short scream in alarm as the man grabbed him as he passed by and tucked him under his arm. Benn once again fell into step with his captain, running right next to him. Corazon with Law in his arms was not far behind them, surprisingly agile for the usually extremely clumsy man.
After few more pointers from Sabo, Shanks could finally feel it. He glanced at his first mate, and the latter nodded – he felt it too.
It felt wrong. Chaotic, furious, despaired. Nothing like a bright ball of sunshine they'd came to associate Luffy with.
The group emerged from the forest to the outskirts of the Gray Terminal and everyone froze, the sight in front of their eyes causing their minds screeched to a halt.
More than twenty bodies of men were lying around, probably knocked out by the burst of Conqueror's Haki. But that was not what made Sabo jump from the redhead's arms and to throw up as soon as his feet touched the ground. The men were unharmed, they could see that clearly.
But the whole area was covered by blood which definitely came from one person, because there was only one pair of each limb, scattered far from each other. The rest of the person was unrecognizable mush in the middle of a bloody circle.
Blood also covered Luffy who was kneeling next to the gory remains with Ace's lifeless body in his arms. He pressed Ace to his chest, hugging him tightly, but not too strong. The kid's head was bowed, his forehead gently touching the forehead of the older boy as the tears dripped from Luffy's nose on the pale freckled cheeks. The straw hat was resting peacefully nearby, the only bright and clean thing in the whole gruesome picture.
"Luffy!" Law exclaimed.
Luffy's head snapped up. Dark eyes glinted dangerously as the boy glared at them, his gaze more of a madman's than that of a sane person's.
Law frowned at that, but still bravely stepped forward only to be stopped by Shanks. "Wait, kid, I'll go first," he said in a tone which hadn't left any room for disobedience.
The preteen simply nodded. He understood that Luffy might have been dangerous in his current state, regardless of his own urge to check him for injuries. The priority, however, was Ace. Something had happened to him to push Luffy over the edge. Law wasn't that attached to the freckled raven, but concern for his life still pricked at his heart hard.
Shanks walked carefully towards Luffy who kept his eyes on him all the time. As the pirate stopped only a step away, the boy tightened his arms around Ace protectively. "Luffy, it's me, Shanks. Can you hear me?" the redhead started softly.
Recognition flashed in those dark orbs. Luffy blinked as, though, seeing a man in front of him for the first time. "Shanks?" he asked in a small voice.
"That's right, Luffy." Shanks took the last step and squatted down.
"Shanks, Ace is… Ace is…"
"I know, Luffy, but you need to let him go, so that the others could help him," the red-haired captain soothed, slowly prying off the kid's hands from the other boy, noting that the latter's skin wasn't yet deathly cold. Perhaps, they weren't too late.
Shanks lifted Luffy up, pulling him into a tight embrace, and the boy in return grabbed his shirt into a death grip. The pirate also picked the straw hat from the ground.
Law was next to Ace in a flash, quickly checking him for life signs.
Sabo was still retching, unable to suppress shivers shaking his body. It was the first time he saw so much blood and… He absentmindedly wondered how Law wasn't affected by it. The boy flinched when a gentle hand landed on his back. He turned his head and met warm brown-reddish eyes of Corazon. "Ace…?" he whispered, not trusting himself to say more than the name of his best friend.
"He's alive!" a shout from Law rang sharply, instantly lifting the extreme tightness in the air. The preteen smiled briefly as he felt a heartbeat pulsing under his fingers. Pretty strong at that, considering that Ace had a gunshot wound just an inch from his heart. Stubborn idiot. "We need to bring him back home, I can't do anything out here. Benn-ya, can you help me?"
"You heard that?" Shanks asked quietly, but Luffy was still rather unresponsive in his arms. When they eyes met, the pirate nodded to his first mate. The latter had picked up the injured kid and together with the young doctor disappeared into the forest. Then his eyes met Corazon's and he nodded again. The blonde with another boy followed after the first two, leaving them alone.
"I killed him…" Shanks heard Luffy whisper. "I killed Ace… again."
The redhead frowned slightly at his words as he also started walking back, much slower, though. "Luffy, Ace is alive."
That gave a desirable effect, because the boy suddenly lifted his head and looked straight into his eyes. "Really?" His voice was so full of hope, but still sounded so broken that Shanks felt his heart ache for this child.
"Yeah. Law will take care of him," the pirate assured.
"Law? Yeah… Yeah. I trust Law. He saved me so many times."
"So, you see? Your friend is in good hands."
"Yeah," Luffy said, a tiny smile ghosting his lips. "Thanks, Shanks."
Shanks looked at the boy. Despite all his overwhelming power and his old, scarred mind of the Pirate King, Luffy was still a child now. A child with heavier than the world burden on his shoulders.
Shanks smirked good-heartedly and ruffled Luffy's hair, ignoring all the grime in it. "Anytime, little anchor."
The corridor next to the door, leading into the room where Law and Benn had been taking care of Ace, was packed.
Dadan, Dogra, and Magra loitered about at the side of the corridor. They were briefed on what had happened earlier by Shanks and Corazon and now were shooting uncertain glances towards the youngest child from time to time.
Still covered in blood and dirt, Luffy refused to leave his spot before he got news about the condition of Ace. He was seating on the floor, leaning against the wall, right in front of the door with his knees to his chest and arms around them, but his eyes were fixed on the door. Sometimes it seemed that the boy hadn't even blinked in all the time he waited there patiently.
Bepo was next to him, lost on what to do. His eyes darted from the raven to Sabo at his other side, but the bear didn't know how to comfort his friends, so he resolved to simply keep them company in silence.
Shanks leaned on the opposite wall, a small scowl marring his scarred face and his arms crossed tightly over his chest as he clenched the straw hat in one of his hands. Corazon also was seated on the floor. There was a cigarette in his mouth and he blankly observed the white smoke slowly curving up in the air from it.
An uneasy calmness which had settled among them was nerve-wracking. It wasn't a surprise that when the door finally opened, everyone leaped to their feet, with the exception of Corazon who slipped and plunked back down.
Law halted in the doorway as the eight pairs of anxious eyes were suddenly staring at him. A small tired smile graced his lips as he announced, "He'll be fine."
The relief that washed everyone in the corridor was downright heavenly. The bandits sagged down with a huge sigh; Shanks and Corazon both laughed; Sabo grinned and hugged Bepo, squeezing him tight.
"Can I see him?" Luffy asked.
Law glanced back at the room and frowned. Benn appeared behind him. "Not right now, the kid needs to rest," he said with a smile. "And you need to bath, Luffy."
The boy blinked and looked over himself, a confused expression on his face.
"Dahahahaha!" Shanks laughed. "Come, I'll help you." He put a hand on the small of Luffy's back and gently guided him along the corridor. "We don't want you to drown now, eh, anchor?"
Luffy's eyebrow twitched at the old nickname. "Don't call me that… stupid ossan!"
"Don't call me ossan, you brat! I'm not that old!"
Bickering back and forth, the two walked out of sight.
Law turned his attention to the rest of the group. "I need someone to go to Goa and collect some medicine supplies. Does anyone have a paper and a pen?"
"I can do it. I need to take a breather, anyways," Sabo volunteered. "But… I don't have any money."
"I do, so I'll accompany you," said Benn. "What supplies do you need, Law-kun?"
The preteen finished scribbling the list on the paper given to him by Dogra and extended it to Benn.
"Alright." The pirate took the list. "Let's go, Sabo."
"Thanks, uh, mister…?" The boy looked up at the adult in question as they walked in the different direction than Shanks and Luffy.
Benn chuckled. "Name's Benn Beckman, the first mate of the Red-Hair pirates."
Sabo's eyes almost popped out of their sockets. "You're a pirate?!" he exclaimed in awe.
"That I am," the man confirmed, grinning.
Law glanced back into the room again. "The rest of you will have to help me clean the room before Luffy and Sabo come back."
Sabo was absolutely shocked.
Benn and he were walking along the street in the Goa Kingdom towards their destination. The whole city was eerily silent. There was no sound of people chattering, no random barking of dogs or mewing of cats, not even chirping of birds. It was completely silent, almost like every living being just up and vanished leaving behind an empty ghost town.
But bodies were sprawled all over the place. Sabo knew that they were alive, he got knocked out like that himself. Although, he pondered how come he woke up so quickly and these people were still out of it even after a couple of hours.
"So, all that is Luffy's doing?" Sabo asked in disbelief of the man walking next to him.
"Yeah," Benn answered, taking a drag of his cigarette. "The village on the other side of the island is in the same condition."
The first mate of the Red-Hair pirates was actually quite surprised to see that the whole Goa Kingdom succumbed to the little kid's Conqueror's Haki. The blast was so much more powerful that he'd imagined at first. Even his captain probably wouldn't be able to knock out so many people at once, Benn mused, and in such an enormous territory.
An amused smirk appeared on the pirate's lips. "That kid is extraordinary," he said more to himself than to Sabo, a slight awe underlying his voice. "I'm interested to see what future he'll bring to us."
The blonde frowned, but then he noticed a pharmacy they'd been walking to. He smiled and skipped forward, eager to collect medicine for his best friend. "This way, Benn-san!"
Ace woke up in the late evening.
At first, he was extremely confused, staring at the shadowed wooden ceiling above him and unable to remember where he was or even what happened to him. Ace grimaced, willing his brain to recall anything. A memory of the pirate, Bluejam, grinning at him smugly and leveling a pistol at him slowly slipped back in, and his body tensed, fight or flee instinct kicking in.
Ace shot into a sitting position and instantly almost blacked out as pain surged throughout his body.
Ace registered several alarmed voices ringing from both his sides. As the pain subsided, he blinked several times, clearing his vision, and looked around. He was in an empty dark room, illuminated only by a couple of oil lamps, casting strange shadows on the walls. Sabo was sitting at his right. Behind him, Ace noticed Corazon slumped in the corner. From the position of the man's head and closed eyes, it was obvious that he was sleeping.
"Ace, are you alright?"
The question drew his attention to his left side where he met obsidian orbs of that annoying little brat as the latter stared at him, a small frown pulling his eyebrows together. He seemed scared, uncertain, and concerned. For him, Ace realized with a start.
"You should drink," Bepo said to Ace, shoving a glass of water for him to take. "Law said that you'll need to drink a lot, because you lost a lot of blood."
The freckled boy took the glass and gulped it down, thankful for the water as it did a miracle to his sore and dry throat. "What happened?" he finally spoke for the first time, giving the glass back to the bear. "Where am I?"
"Back at Dadan's," Sabo replied. "Ace, you… you almost died. You–" his voice cracked and tears appeared in his bright blue eyes. "You got shot… and if not for Luffy and Law, you'd be dead!" Tears now were rolling down his cheeks, and the blonde angrily tried to whip them away.
Ace just stared at his friend, his brain drawing a blank, because Sabo was crying. He'd never seen him cry, ever.
"What were you thinking, idiot?" It was supposed to be an angry question, but Sabo almost whispered it out, unable to keep his voice from shaking. "I know that you don't see me as your friend anymore, but–"
Ace paled, feeling those words like a stab directly into his heart. "I'm sorry!" he blurted in a hurry, interrupting his friend. "I'm sorry," he repeated softly once he caught the gaze of Sabo and held it. "I shouldn't have said all that. You're my friend. The best friend. Nothing could change that."
There was a sound of a choked sob at his left. Ace turned and glowered at Luffy who was sobbing under his oversized straw hat. "Ah, stop it! I hate crybabies like that!" he suddenly yelled as his temper flared. But as soon as his words left his mouth, Ace felt like a complete scumbag. These boys were worried sick for him, even he could see that.
Sabo simply laughed, brushing last tears from his eyes. "Yeah, you would hate that."
Luffy, though, flinched from his words. He lowered his head so that the shadow from the hat would hide his face fully and sniffled. "Hate me if you want," he said, just loud enough for them to hear, "but please don't die. Please, Ace… I want you to live."
Bepo who was sitting next to the youngest suddenly pulled him into a hug. Luffy wound his arms around the bear, snuggling closer for the so needed comfort.
Those words felt like a punch to Ace's gut. After all that he put that kid through, Luffy still bore absolutely no ill will towards him. He felt like an even bigger scumbag, although, he couldn't stop the pleased feeling to wash over him from hearing such words.
"Well, I'm alive, aren't I?" Ace pointed out softly, the usual heat from his words and eyes gone without a trace.
"An inch to the leftand you wouldn't be here."
Law's voice startled Ace and he glanced at the door to see preteen standing there with a bunch of blankets in his arms. "What do you mean?"
Law closed the door and quickly walked over to him. "This," he said, extending his hand as if giving something.
The freckled raven frowned and held his hand out. A small, but rather heavy, slightly deformed lead ball fell into his palm. "What's this?" he asked, narrowing his eyes at the ball.
"The bullet from your chest," the preteen deadpanned, crossing the room and putting one blanket over sleeping form of Corazon.
Ace stared at the ball, words 'An inch to the left and you wouldn't be here' echoing in his mind. His other hand unconsciously drifted to his chest.
Law noticed that as he passed his bedding. "It will probably leave a scar," he informed dryly, then crouched down beside Bepo and asked quietly, "Luffy fell asleep?" The cub nodded, causing the preteen smile. "Exhausted himself completely, little idiot," he murmured, covering the younger boy with a blanket. "You should sleep too, Bepo."
Ace was still staring at the bullet in his palm. Suddenly another hand landed on it breaking the line of sight. The boy looked up and blinked at his best friend.
"I was asking how're you feeling?" Sabo repeated.
"Let me see your wound," Law requested, coming around Ace's bed and dropping a blanket on Sabo's head, eliciting an annoyed 'Oi!' from him.
Ace's temper flared again, but this time he squished it, keeping his mouth shut as the preteen leaned closer to check on him. "Why is Corazon here?" he inquired instead.
Law hummed under his breath, busy with a check-up, and it was Sabo who replied, "Cora-san was also worried."
"Why would that man be worried about me?"
Sabo shot him an incredulous stare, the question 'Are you really that stupid?' written in his blue eyes.
Law chuckled as he finished and leaned away. "Cora-san worries about everybody," he said, glancing briefly at the tall blonde. "His heart is too big for his own good. Are you hungry?"
Ace started at such a sudden topic change. "Not really."
The preteen nodded and pulled closer a tray with various medicine supplies and a jug of water. He took several different pills, filled the glass with water and offered both to the injured boy. "Take this and go to sleep."
Ace grimaced but didn't object. He threw pills into his mouth and washed it down with the water. Then he lay down, feeling bone-deep fatigue gnawing at every inch of his body.
Satisfied, Law turned to Sabo. "You, too."
"You really like to boss us around…" the blonde grumbled, narrowing his eyes at the preteen. He hadn't even imagined that the latter had such a 'mother hen' mode.
Law plucked one of the several pillows from Ace's bedding. "I'm the eldest," he deadpanned, throwing the pillow at Sabo. It smacked right into his face, and the preteen smirked in victory. The blond boy glared at him, opened his mouth to retort something, but Law added, "And a doctor. It was an exhaustive day for everyone, we need to rest."
Sabo's mouth clamped up. That was a fair reasoning he couldn't challenge. "Fine!" The blonde pushed the pillow on the floor and collapsed on it with the tired 'oof', cocooning himself into the blanket. "Hey, Law?"
"M?" the preteen hummed in reply, draping his own blanket over his shoulders.
"For saving Ace."
Law looked at him and just stared for a bit. Finally, he sighed and muttered, "Just sleep, idiot."
Sabo simply grinned at him.
Corazon was sulking.
Earlier this morning he actually got a smack from Law for trying to lit a cigarette in the room where Ace was sleeping, and then had been scolded for smoking altogether. He was too dazed to object. It melted Corazon's heart that his boy cared so much about him, but he wanted a smoke, dammit!
So when Ace opened his eyes that morning, that's how he found the man – still sulking and chewing on a carrot, of all things, as he perused something on the newspaper.
"Good morning, Ace," Corazon greeted, putting newspaper at the side and flashing one of those crazily wide grins of his.
The boy scanned the room. Luffy and Bepo were still sleeping at the same spot as yesterday, yet Sabo and Law were missing. "Where's Sabo?" he asked.
"Sabo went to find something for you to eat," the blonde informed. "And I sent Law to sleep. He stayed up all night to make sure you were okay."
Ace frowned. He fiddled with the corner of this blanket before finally asking, "Corazon?"
Truthfully, Ace was a bit scared of asking. He never admitted it out loud or showed it in any way, but he thought that Corazon was rather a cool guy for an adult. The raven didn't trust grown-ups, because even Dadan, his supposed caretaker, called him 'a demon'. He actually really preferred not hear that from this man, but he needed to know. With a sigh, steeling himself for any kind of answer, Ace put forward a question.
"What would you say if you met the Gold Roger's son?"
Corazon blinked owlishly, completely baffled by such strange and random question. "Uh…" He scratched the back of his head, a bit unnerved by the intensity of the stare he was receiving from the kid. "What I would say if I met… Probably, 'hello'."
Ace recoiled from surprise. "…What? 'Hello'?" he echoed in absolute disbelief. "You would say 'Hello' to the son of Gold Roger?"
"Well, isn't that what people say when they meet each other?" Corazon answered, smiling again.
Ace simply gawked at him, shocked into silence. He pondered on what was wrong with this man. As much as he wanted to believe that Corazon was mocking or tricking him, he could see only pure honesty on his face.
"What would you say to him?" the blonde wondered in return.
"That he is a child of the devil who didn't deserve to live and it would have been better if he hadn't been born in the first place," Ace recited without skipping a beat.
A deep scowl creased Corazon's face, anger flaring in his eyes. "And why would you say that?! You can't tell such things to a person you don't know!"
"He's the son of Gold Roger!"
"So?" When Corazon didn't hear any arguments, he sighed. His thoughts veered towards his own parents and brother. "Look, Ace," he started. "Sometimes a very bad person can be born from very gentle and loving parents. And sometimes an extremely good person can be a child born from a devil." He paused. "What we do, how we do it and what choices we make, that's what defines us, not our parentage."
Ace didn't reply anything. He stared intently at the wall in front of him, as if the answers he was looking for were, somehow, written there. A soft shuffling drew his attention to the left.
A disheveled mop of black popped from under the blanket, and Luffy blearily looked around. "Ace…?" he mumbled while lazily rubbing his eye.
"Good morning, Luffy," Corazon greeted him.
"Mornin'…" the boy slurred, still too drowsy. "Is Ace okay?"
Ace's shoulders relaxed in defeat. His wall which he'd build to protect himself cracked and crumbled as Luffy's words from yesterday emerged in his mind: 'Hate me if you want, but please don't die. Please, Ace… I want you to live.' These people were crazy and strange, but Ace suddenly felt safe and needed.
Ace swiftly slipped a hand under his pillow and grabbed a bullet Law gave him yesterday. It would work as a reminder for him that his life actually mattered, regardless what the rest of the world had been telling him all this time.
"Ace, are you okay?" Luffy repeated, once his gaze focused on the older raven.
Ace folded his arms in front of his chest. "I'm fine," he huffed. "Ask me that again and I'm gonna punch you."
The grin he received from the kid was so impossibly bright that it made the sun appear bleak and dim.
Ace was a patient person and was able to sit calmly in one place if he wanted to. Or when a creepy teen-doctor said so.
It was the evening of the second day after Ace had been shot. He was feeling just fine! But Law ordered not to overstrain, said it was his honor as a doctor to keep the patient from hurting himself and threatened to hide his head if he wouldn't listen. Both Ace and Sabo laughed at that.
They were so naïve.
Law immediately suggested showing them a demonstration. Luffy, of course, volunteered.
To put it mildly, the boys certainly hadn't appreciated the sight of evilly smirking Law with maniacally laughing Luffy's head in his hand while his headless body was running around and bumping into trees.
So, Ace was patient and listened to his doctor's orders while the others went into the forest to collect firewood and hunt. Corazon was left behind to look after him.
Earlier that day, Sabo told Ace everything what had happened, what Luffy did after he had been shot, and about two pirates who helped them. He was shocked, to say the least, once he learned that Luffy knocked the whole island unconscious. Soon after that, Shanks visited their place to see how the brats were doing. To celebrate Ace's ongoing recovery, they had decided to have a night out and camp outside.
That's what they were doing now. Once the boys were back with enough firewood to last them a whole winter and maybe enough meat to feed Luffy and the rest of them, no time was wasted to start a feast. They didn't even wait for Shanks.
As everything had already been eaten and the bonfire was dancing merrily, the boys settled in their beddings for story time. Luffy was seated in the middle, Ace at his right and Law at his left with Sabo and Bepo at their other sides respectively. Corazon was right in front of them across the bonfire.
"I hope we're not intruding," a female voice suddenly spoke from the darkness of the forest, and shortly after Makino and Shanks entered the lighted area.
"Sorry for being late." Shanks grinned. "It's all Makino's fault." The woman smacked him playfully for that remark, causing him to grin even wider.
"Makino! Shanks!" Luffy exclaimed, greeting them with a toothy grin. "You've made it!"
The barmaid returned the smile. "Hello, boys, Corazon." She put a wicker basket in front of the kids. "I heard that one of Luffy's friends got hurt, so I've baked some sweets."
Luffy sucked in a drool already accumulating at the corner of his mouth. "Makino's sweets are the best!" he cheered.
"It smells delicious!" Sabo agreed.
The kids leaned forward, eagerly peeking inside as Ace uncovered the content. There was a lot of 'ooh' and 'ahh' for the next minute as they all marveled at the different shapes and icing of the cookies.
The moment they were ready to dig in, a stern "Boys!" stopped them. Five pairs of confused eyes looked up to stare at their blond guardian.
"What do you need to say first?"
The adults could literally see question marks appear above the kids' heads.
"Time to eat?" Luffy tried, cocking his head to the side.
Shanks burst into laughter, and Makino giggled beside him. "No, Luffy," she said. "You need to say 'thank you'."
"Oh." The straw-hatted boy paused. "Ooooh," he drawled as understanding finally dawned on him. He grinned from ear to ear. "Thanks, Makino!"
Slightly embarrassed, Law mumbled, "Thank you, Makino-ya."
Bepo bowed his head. "Thank you… and sorry!"
Sabo sheepishly rubbed the back of his neck with a smile on his face. "Thank you!"
"Thanks…" Ace muttered, not even looking at the woman.
And then for the next half an hour there was only sounds of munching, and crunching, and slapping Luffy's rubbery appendages away.
When all cookies had been eaten, Luffy giggled all of a sudden. "Ne, Shanks," he said with his usual sunny grin. "Tell us a story about Gold Roger!"
The pleased expression on Ace's features instantly transformed into a grimace. He started to stand up, but rubbery arms suddenly wrapped around his middle and yanked him down.
"No!" Luffy said before the older boy could even open his mouth to shout at him. "You'll sit and listen how awesome your dad is!"
Shanks' eyes widened at Luffy's words for a moment, and then he smiled fondly at the raven. They all heard of the search arranged by the World Government, of so many babies killed or vanishing without a trace. It was a real miracle to meet his captain's son alive and well.
Corazon choked on the smoke of his cigarette the moment those words sunk into his mind. Now it was clear why Ace asked that question in the morning, though, recalling the boy's own answer to the same question broke the man's heart.
"I don't want to!" Ace yelled and bonked Luffy on his head. "And don't shout who my father is so loud, dumbass!"
"I don't see you screaming who your own father is! Now, get off of me!"
Luffy blinked at him. "Shishishishi," he snickered quietly and then loudly announced, "My dad is the Revolutionary Dragon!"
Corazon choked again, this time on the sake he decided to drink to ease the slight discomfort in his throat from the previous news, while Shanks simply bellowed with laughter.
"Who's Dragon?" Bepo whispered to Law.
Law thought for a moment. "I think I heard him being called 'The most wanted person in the world'," he replied.
The bear's black rimmed lips formed 'O' as he glanced at his youngest friend.
"Ace, I was a cabin boy on Roger's ship," Shanks told him, and the boy stilled, looking at him with a mix of surprise, curiosity, and hate. "Rouge, right? Your mother's name."
"You knew my mother?"
"Yeah," Shanks answered. "She was a very kind and loving woman. The story behind how we met her is not known to many. Want to hear it?"
Ace was curious about his mother, but agreeing meant that he would need to hear how his father met her and he didn't want to hear anything about him. But this pirate might be his only chance to hear anything about her from a person who actually knew her…
Ace felt his head spin from trying to decide on what to say. He was saved from it when Shanks started his story without waiting for his assent.
"We were sailing across the Grand Line, trying to reach the next island when a sudden storm caught us by surprise. While storms on the Grand Line are usually fierce and sudden, this one was definitely on the different level. Roger and Rayleigh, the first mate of Roger pirates, decided that… "
Ace simply relaxed in his sitting position, listening intently, with Luffy still wrapped around him. The straw-hatted boy let out a silent giggle and Ace absentmindedly hit him over his head again, shushing him.
The story went for a couple of hours. No one even noticed how Shanks from Rouge jumped to telling them about the adventures they had. At some point, Makino ended up nestling up against the pirate, her head on his shoulder while his arm rested on her back.
Luffy was the first one to fall asleep. He was still hugging Ace, but his arms had shrunk into their normal length sometime during the story.
Bepo was the second, soon followed by Law who used him as his pillow.
Sabo was nodding repeatedly from drowsiness, trying to stay awake, but finally succumbed to the sleep, slumping on Ace's shoulder.
Ace was still awake and alert. He was so engrossed in listening to the story, that he hadn't even noticed others dozing off. He stared wide-eyed at Shanks because Roger just now managed to beat his opponent and free his crew.
"And then?" he asked, eagerness shining in his whole presence.
Shanks smiled. "I was hurt but tried to put a brave face. Captain saw through my lies, simply scooped me up and carried me to the ship princess style. It was so embarrassing! But after all that we had had the biggest party ever!"
Ace grinned. At that moment, Sabo slid from his shoulder and fell into his bedding with a loud snore. The freckled raven looked at one side, then at another. "When did they all fall asleep?"
The adults burst into laughter, causing the boy glower at them.
"You should go to sleep too, Ace," Corazon urged softly.
Now, that he thought about it, Ace felt tired. He rubbed his eyes and yawned. "Yeah, sleep sounds good right about now…" he agreed, untangling Luffy off himself and laying down.
Makino was smiling at the kids. "They are so cute…" she whispered as Ace's breath evened out, indicating him also falling asleep.
"Dahahahaha! Those little monsters?" Shanks asked teasingly and received an elbow to his side.
"Shhh!" Corazon shushed him. "Calm." He snapped his fingers over the sleeping boys, enveloping them in an invisible sound-proof bubble.
"But, really, Corazon, I praise your bravery for deciding to become a father to these kids," the pirate said, opening his sake bottle he just now had a chance to start drinking.
The blonde blushed, suddenly embarrassed. "I'm… I didn't become their father! I'm just looking after them!"
"Yeah, and it's called becoming a parent," Shanks argued.
"I think you'll be a great father to them," Makino added.
Corazon's blush intensified. His gaze darted to the boys and he sighed. "No, no, I don't think the kids would ever think of me like that."
"If you ever need help, Corazon, you know where to find me," Makino offered.
"Thank you, Makino."
"Well, I also don't envy you. With two Ds among them…" the redhead drawled amused. "You'll have your hands full."
"Three Ds among them," Corazon specified with a sigh. "Law is also one of them."
"Oh?" Shanks glanced at the eldest and laughed again. "As I said – don't envy you."
The blonde's eyebrows furrowed slightly. "They are good kids."
"I don't doubt that, but do you know the saying about the D? 'D will surely bring a storm upon the world'. With three Ds at one place, especially with Luffy among them," he motioned at the youngest who, at this point, managed to snuggle back up to Ace's side, "they'll stir the biggest storm ever seen in this world, for better or for worse. Be ready for that, papa Corazon," Shanks finished with a teasing smirk and mischievous sparks twinkling in his eyes.
Corazon's tattooed face instantly flushed bright pink again.
"I think you'd make a good father, too, Shanks," Makino said, tilting her head slightly and peering straight into the pirate's eyes with a small smile.
"Oh, really?" Shanks replied, looking at her. "Well, my dear lady, you'd make a wonderful mother yourself."
The barmaid's smile grew wider and she leaned forward to catch the man's lips with her own.
Corazon awkwardly turned his gaze from the couple and chose better to watch the sleeping kids. Luffy had shifted in his position and now was lying on his stomach with both arms draped over the other boys almost protectively.
With everything those kids had gone through, Corazon didn't have any illusions on being called a father by them. It was enough for him to be their friend and simply look after them when needed. They were pretty self-dependent, after all.
Corazon chuckled thinking that it was rather funny how he, the former top executive of Donquixote Pirates, known for his hatred for children, ended up raising a whole five of them.
Life was full of irony.
Shanks and Yasopp traversed through the forest in a hurry.
It had been a few days after the captain of the Red-Hair pirates spent the night with the kids, Corazon, and Makino at the bonfire. He had planned to do some business for a week or longer up North of the East Blue, but due to some unexpected circumstances they'd turned around and came back to Dawn Island.
Shanks needed to find Luffy as soon as possible.
Two pirates entered the small clearing and stopped, their gazes falling on three of the five kids. Sabo and Bepo were sitting on the ground, blindfolded, while Ace whacked them with a wooden stick.
Shanks smiled in amusement. "Haki training, huh?"
Ace looked up at the direction of a sudden voice. Sabo lifted a blindfold from one of his eyes and peeked at the men. "Shanks-san? What are you doing here so soon?"
"I'm looking for Luffy."
A loud creak drew everyone's attention to the other side of the clearing. One of the Mt. Colubo trees suddenly toppled over and tumbled down, scattering a flock of birds and shaking the earth.
A familiar merry laughter rang from the forest and soon two boys appeared in the clearing.
"Almost got it, Traffy!" Luffy cheered, putting his hands behind his head nonchalantly.
Law's mouth twitched into a smirk. "Yeah, thanks to you."
"Shishishishi." The straw-hatted boy noticed the pirates and came to a halt. His eyebrows drew into a frown as though sensing something bad, and his arms fell back at his sides. "Shanks?"
"Luffy, I bring news."
"What kind of news?"
"Your little outburst caught the World Government's attention," Shanks told him, his tone serious. "They are sending a team to investigate the reason behind the incident."
Luffy's eyes widened as the realization settled in. "How bad?" he inquired in a hushed voice.
"We spotted a ship half a day from here with a Cipher Pol's sails," Yasopp informed, speaking for the first time.
The youngest bit his lower lip. "Crap," he muttered. "Which number is coming?"
Luffy visibly relaxed. "At least it's not Zero or Nine," he exhaled with a sigh.
"It's probably the nearest Cipher Pol's team they had," the redhead mused loudly.
The other boys could only stare at the exchange as they had no idea what the pirates were talking with their friend.
"What's a Cipher Pol?" Sabo asked.
"It's an Intelligence Agency, working directly under the employ of the World Government," Shanks explained.
"They are bad news," Luffy mumbled, already berating himself for losing control like that. He stared at Ace, making him shift on his feet uncomfortably. "If they find us, they might found out who Ace and I are." His gaze jumped on the eldest boy. "Not to mention, that we can't let them see Cora-san or Traffy," he said and Law frowned, understanding the implication of those words.
"You should all leave the island for a while," Shanks suggested. "If need be, I'll take responsibility for what happened here."
Luffy was startled by his words and he whipped his head instantly to stare at his friend with frightened and concerned eyes.
Shanks only grinned at him. "I meant it when I said that the Red-Hair pirates will be your ally, our chibi Pirate King." He reached to ruffle the boy's hair, the latter's straw hat hanging on a rope around his neck. "And allies always help each other in trouble."
Luffy beamed at him. "Thanks, Shanks! You're the best!"
"Dahahahaha! Of course, I am!"
"You should decide where you'll go quickly," Yasopp urged. "You have less than an hour to leave before they'll be too close for you to go unnoticed."
"Oh, I know where we'll go. It's not too far from here, but far enough that they wouldn't come investigating." The straw-hatted boy smirked. "The Syrup Village!"
The sniper blinked a few times before squeezing out a surprised, "Eh?"
"Dahahahaha!" the redhead burst into laughter again, clapping his crewmate over his shoulder. "Aren't you a lucky bastard? Alright, Luffy. We'll come as soon as those Government's dogs leave."
Luffy grinned wide and bright. "I bet Usopp will be thrilled to see his dad!"