The sea is sleeping. The steely morning smooths its billows to gentle ripples lapping at the beach. The moon has faded, but the sun is still shivering out of sight, waiting for the sky to warm.
Ace's sandaled feet hit the cold surf with a splash. He shoots a glare at the white sail pinned in the gray halfway between the shore and the horizon. Typical of the old man, finding an excuse to hurry off somewhere far away at the last moment.
It's not that Ace can't push the small boat to lodge firmly in the sand by himself. But when he eyes his work critically, he thinks that it's a waste - even using all his strength, he will be forced to leave it where the tide will just sweep it back out.
Oh, well. As long as Ace can fish the contents out first - the Marines can stand to lose a skiff or two. He wipes his brow, and leans over the bundle inside.
His frown cracks, replaced by a helpless grin at his little brother's stupid sleeping face under that mop of salt-tangled hair. They're headed for an unknown place, but Luffy is being Luffy - still sleeping like a log, not a care in the world. Ace considers waking him - it's not hard, once you know how.
Luffy chooses that moment to snuffle contentedly, lulled by the drowsy clucking of waves lapping around the stern. Ace stays his hand, because Luffy really is very quiet like this, and at the moment, Ace has decided that he likes quiet.
With a practiced gesture, he scoops the unresisting bundle of snoring little brother into his arms, and shifts it over to his back. Now with Luffy's short arms around his neck, he reaches down for the cloth-wrapped parcel that is all their grandfather left for them, resenting its weight as he ties it to his belt.
Ace knows he can find their way, even though the old man didn't bother to give him a map or anything. He caught a glimpse of the real harbor before they landed on the beach, and he's already found a trail between the green fields and the sea.
He follows the path, looking curiously at the sleepy cows and unmoving windmills dotting the rolling hills. He doesn't have to look at the vast expanse of East Blue to know that it's still there, waiting. He can taste it on the air, its melody the same as on the ship.
Seagulls are calling to each other, crowing with delight as they swoop through the clear air to snatch an early breakfast from the placid waves. Ace's stomach grumbles. It doesn't help that he knows that fish aren't at all that tasty when they're raw, no matter what the seagulls seem to think. He's still hungry, and it's not like the old man packed them any food.
Ace smells it at the same time as Luffy's small hands in his twitch once, twice, and then --
"HEY!" The enthusiastic greeting kills all silence for miles.
Luffy hits the ground bouncing when Ace shrugs him off. "Food! Ace, it's time for breakfast!"
"Good morning, Luffy," he says, too amused to put any effort into imparting manners to his hopeless little brother.
"Come on, let's go!" Luffy bounds down the path on stubby legs, following the same delicious smell that Ace has honed in on - and then he stops.
They've reached the highest point of the road, on a cliff above the sea. They can see the village below, nestled peacefully by a curving harbor. But Luffy isn't looking at any of that. He's looking at something high above the shining sea, in the sky shifting between glowing hues of pink and blue.
Ace follows his gaze, and sees a single star still sparkling brightly. It's beautiful, but - fragile. When the burning sun comes out, it will fade away. Ace's thoughts are spiraling around the words, and he's putting meaning into them that the cold sky never intended, lost in memories until there's a tug at the hem of his shirt.
"Is it a candy?" Luffy is looking at him with his eyes wide. "Is that what smells good?"
Ace rests a hand on the spikes of Luffy's messy head. "No, you idiot. It's pancakes." Ace turns Luffy's head around, pointing it at the houses below. "And it's from down there."
"Oh!" And with that, the little bundle of (very hungry) energy takes off again, eyes glued to the village.
Ace easily keeps pace with him, because it really wouldn't do to have Luffy barge in on some poor unsuspecting family around their breakfast table. There are a couple of close calls, but he manages to herd Luffy away from closed doors. It helps that Ace can tell that none of them are the place from which the delicious aroma of hot pancakes, melted butter, and warm syrup is coming from.
The mouthwatering smell comes to a crescendo outside a low building with saloon doors. Ace has been following his nose more than anything else, and slowly deciphering the sign makes him crack up in a huge grin. "Patty's Bar". Lucky! Maybe the old man wasn't lying about having made arrangements for them here after all.
Luffy ducks under the doors without as much as a 'pardon me', and Ace shakes his head and dives in after.
There is a bar disk at the end of the room, ladened with hot pancakes, and everything a boy could ever want on top of them besides. Ace catches Luffy by the scruff of his neck, right before his little brother plunges headlong into that sweet bounty.
"We're sorry for barging in on you," he says to the young woman who is standing behind the bar, a pitcher of milk in her hands. She has a pretty, green scarf wrapped around her dark hair, and she smiles at them both.
"I was expecting you this morning," she says, and Ace grudgingly acknowledges that their grandfather wasn't all full of nonsense - even though he did made a strategic retreat before coming face to face with the people he was ditching his grandsons on. "I am Makino."
"Pancakes!" Luffy chirps.
"We are very pleased to meet you," Ace says, and thwacks Luffy's head into a semblance of a bow, though it's a far cry from the one he gives himself.
"Yep! You have pancakes." Luffy is going to start drooling on them at any moment now, so Ace sighs, and sets him loose.
Not three full seconds later, Luffy is saying "Thank you for the meal!" around a huge mouthful of syrup-dripping pancakes. Oh, well. At least he remembered to say a proper thanks, even though his timing needs work.
Ace is still standing, shuffling a little awkwardly, but Miss Makino is smiling at the spectacle. "Such fine young men you are. You must be Monkey D. Luffy!"
Luffy nods enthusiastically, mouth too full and head too empty to even attempt any social niceties.
Makino stifles a giggle, and turns to Ace. "Which makes you Monkey D. --"
"Portgas," Ace interrupts, before he remembers his manners. "I'm sorry, miss."
For a moment, he sees that Miss Makino's eyes have gone wide. Then she blinks, and smiles, but Ace thinks that there is something about it that means that she should be crying.
"Portgas," she repeats, and she sounds as if she has just caught her breath.
"Portgas D. Ace," he confirms, and bows smartly. "Thank you for taking us into your care."
This time, Miss Makino's smile is real - one of the most brilliant smiles Ace has ever seen. "It's my pleasure," she says.
Ace thinks that he should ask what the name he spoke means to her, but then Luffy is waving a fork in his face, and Miss Makino is laughing delightedly at his little brother's exclamation of "So yummy!"
"I'm glad!" She gestures for Ace to sit. "Come, let's have breakfast."
Ace does, digging in in with the same enthusiasm as his brother. The first rays of the morning sun are warm on his back, and outside, he can hear the sea calling. But what's really important is the the taste of butter and syrup melting on his tongue, and the way Luffy laughs as Miss Makino gives him another helping.
The questions he had fade with the rising heat of the sun, and the wonderful food in his belly, and as he nods off, Ace thinks that he will like it here.