"Don't expect us to feed you, brat! You're going to be taking care of your own needs! Do you have anything to say?"
Ten year old Monkey D. Luffy beamed. "Yup! I hate bandits!"
"Hi, I'm Luffy! I'm a rubber boy! Shhee?" The end was punctuated by an unnatural stretching of his cheek, followed by a rather painful-sounding thwack as he let it go.
The freckled boy crossed his arms, unimpressed. "What kind of stupid power is rubber?"
"I'm not sure yet, but I'm gonna make it cool!" Luffy grinned at him, completely unaffected by his coldness. "Anyway, you're Ace, aren't you? You can be my little brother!"
Ace twitched. "Who'd be your little brother, you idiot!" Growling, he landed a solid kick on the older boy's forehead. It was rather unsatisfying that an imprint didn't form at the impact, the skin yielding weirdly. Rubber, Ace recalled.
Irritation growing, he stomped as hard as he could on the other's foot (it didn't look like it hurt at all, damn it!) before streaking off deeper into the jungle.
It had been a week since the crazy older boy had arrived at the mountain hideout, and he was proving to be an absolute nuisance to the youngest resident.
The younger boy balked, increasing his pace. "Argh! Leave me alone!"
Luffy's extended arm latched onto a branch that he had just passed. "Don't wanna, shishishi! Gomu Gomu no Slingshot!"
"GYAAAH!" Ace yelped as a solid body crashed into him from behind, sending them both tumbling into the underbrush.
"Shishishi, I caught you, Ace."
A rock collided with his face. "Leave me alone!"
Dogra shook his head as he took in Luffy's battered appearance, contrasting to Ace's mutinous expression as he stomped into the hut.
"You really don't know when to give up, do you?"
"Nope! I'm gonna get Ace to like me, and we'll be friends! No, better than friends, he'll be my brother." Luffy beamed, heedless of how the mix of dried blood and dirt on his forehead cracked away. "I've always wanted a brother!"
"Acceee! Acccccceeeee!" Luffy picked his way over the mountains of rotting trash and debris that littered the place. "What is this place? It stinks!" Luffy looked around. "Where did Ace go?"
His face lit up when he heard Ace's voice nearby, talking to an unfamiliar boyish voice. A new friend! And what they were talking about…
"Pirate ship!? You guys want to be pirates!? Me too!" Grinning, he scaled the tree easily, unheeding of the two younger boys' stunned and aggravated expressions. He beamed at the blond boy.
"Hi, I'm Luffy, Ace is my little brother! Are you Ace's friend? We can be brothers too!"
"Who's your little brother!?" the freckled boy yelled, a vein popping out of his forehead in annoyance.
"Ace?" The blond shot a wary sideways look to his friend, asking for confirmation on what to do.
Ace narrowed his eyes coldly. "Let's kill him."
Sabo shifted his stance. "Agreed."
Luffy pouted. "That's not nice, you know." The two boys ignored him as they kicked him off the tree as one, intent on knocking him out then tying him up. Unluckily for them, Luffy's rubber properties made him practically immune to the fall, and eventually he was the one who trapped both of them together in the rubbery vice of his stretched arms.
"GYAAAHH! GO AWAY!"
Luffy grinned. "Don't wanna."
"Hey, I hear voices! Childrens' voices!"
Three pairs of eyes collectively widened. Luffy just had enough time to throw his two captives into the nearest foliage before a bunch of men rounded a heap of rubbish and caught sight of him. He froze, determined not to make any sort of movement that would reveal the younger boys' location. Thankfully, the pair made no sound even as he was hauled up by the back of his t-shirt.
"Huh, it's a different brat."
"I'm sure I heard that damn kid Ace's voice just now!"
The man holding him, presumably the leader, narrowed his eyes at him. "Hey kid, why don't you tell us what you know? You know them, don't you?"
"Don't play stupid! About those brats! Ace and Sabo!"
"What's a Sabo? Is it a kind of food? Is it yummy?"
A vein throbbed in Porchemy's forehead. "Are you taking us for idiots?"
Luffy dug a finger into his nostril. "I dunno. Am I?"
The pirate's face was turning puce. "You asked for it, brat!" Without warning, he flung Luffy to the ground and slammed an enormous hammer down onto him, flattening him to the ground. "HAHA! Not so good now, are you?"
In the bushes, Ace clapped a hand over Sabo's mouth before his gasp could be heard. His eyes watched the scene sharply, feeling uneasy even though he knew of Luffy's abilities. That attack looked really powerful… He let out the breath he was unconsciously holding when the hammer lifted to reveal a completely unharmed Luffy.
Wait, why was he worrying about that clingy idiot!? He should be happier if he was gone!
A yell broke into his thoughts, and he looked back at the scene to see Porchemy carrying a struggling Luffy away.
Once he determined that the pirates were out of earshot, he stood and ran towards the tree. "Hey, come on! We should move our treasure before those bastards find it. That idiot's gonna spill sooner or later! We can't let the past two years go to waste!"
Sabo followed, but shot Ace a serious look. "Are you sure, Ace?"
Ace paused for a moment, but quashed down the niggling of guilt stirring in his gut. "I'm sure."
The black-haired boy looked down from the new tree they had found to see his best friend streaking towards him. "Sabo! What is it? Did they come looking for the money over there?"
Sabo set his hands on his knees, breathing heavily. "No… They didn't! That Luffy… That son of a bitch… He hasn't said a word!"
Sabo looked at him, determination burning in his gaze. "Let's go and get him."
The three collapsed into a panting heap once they felt that they had finally lost their chasers. Sabo was the first to recover, pushing himself up by his arms to glare at the oldest boy. "Are you stupid!? Why didn't you say anything? They would have killed you!"
Luffy flopped onto his back, grinning at the blond despite the blood decorating his whole body. "Didn't I say so before? You're my little brother too now. It's the job of the big brother to protect his little brothers, shishishishi."
…One thing led to another, and it looks like I'll be setting sail ahead of you guys…
…Once all three of us have become pirates with more freedom than anyone in the world, let's meet again someday. Somewhere out there in the wide, open sea, I know I'll see you both again!…
…When you catch up with me, I'm gonna be strong enough so that you won't have to protect me anymore, Luffy…
…I'm not sure if I've said this before, but this bond of ours is my greatest treasure…
…Thanks for being my brothers.
"Idiot… Idiot… That idiot!" For the first time since they heard about Sabo's death, tears escaped from Ace's eyes as he huddled to the ground. Luffy wrapped his arms around Ace tightly, the tears pouring down his face mixing with his brother's.
"Sabo…! I… I can't even protect my little brother… I'm weak! Weak… I'M SO WEAK!"
Two figures stood at the shore of a small island in East Blue. The taller of the two had one foot on the bow of his boat. The wide brim of his straw hat casting his face into shadow did nothing to lessen the blinding grin that he was sporting. The younger teen couldn't help but grin back, even with the slight heaviness of his heart, as his older brother hopped onto the little sailing boat.
"Well then, I'm heading off first, Ace!"
"I'll definitely catch up to you, just you wait!"
"Shishishi, I look forward to it," Luffy laughed as he released the sails, allowing them to snap open in the steady breeze. As he got further away from the island, he caught sight of the port that was the village he grew up in. Grinning broadly as he recognized Makino and the other villagers standing at the jetty, he started waving madly. He could just see Makino's smile as she raised her arm to wave back.
A ripple in the surface of the sea beside his boat caught his attention and prepared him for what was to come. His teeth gleamed in the bright sun as he turned to face the rearing Lord of the Coast.
"I've been waiting for you, sea monster! Today's your unlucky day! I'll show you what I've learned in the past 7 years!"
"Take this! GOMU GOMU NOOOO…PISTOL!"
He waved cheekily back at the now tiny figure of Ace as the sea monster fell. With that, Luffy turned his back to the island that had been his world, looking out to the wide horizon. He pushed his hat down firmly as a breeze swept by, and raised his fists in the air victoriously.
"I'M GOING TO BE THE STRONGEST IN THE WORLD!"
"FOOOOODD! MEAT! I WANT MEAT!" he shot into the empty bar right onto a barstool and started banging his palms on the table. "GIMME MEAT!"
The dark-haired woman wiping glasses behind the counter looked at him unimpressed. She let the rag fall back onto the bottom shelf and inhaled languidly on her thin cigarette. "That's no way to ask for food, young man. Try again."
"Ehhh!? Erm…" Luffy racked his brain for some of Makino's old lessons. "May I have meat? …Please?" he tacked on for good measure.
"Very good. Here you go." There was a hint of laughter in her voice as she fetched a heaping dish from the kitchen, Luffy's eyes following the food eagerly. The dark-haired woman steepled her fingers together on the smooth counter as she watched him dig in with gusto, a secretive smile playing about her lips. "Now what brings you to these parts, Straw Hat Luffy?"
Luffy looked up. "You know me?"
"In a way. You're famous around these parts, Luffy-chan."
"Really? Cool." Luffy looked thoughtful as he contemplated her question, or at least as thoughtful one can be while still stuffing his face. "I want to go to the New World. I heard there's a lot of strong people there," he said simply. "I want to become stronger than all of them."
The barkeeper hummed in encouragement. "And why is that?"
Luffy tilted his head at her curiously, wondering why she was so interested. But there was something about her that reminded him of Makino, and so when he finally spoke, and there was complete sincerity in his voice. "When I was small, I was saved by someone I really respected. I told him that I would become stronger than him, to prove myself. That hasn't changed, but now I have a new reason to fight. I want to be become stronger than anyone else; strong enough to protect everyone I care about, including Shanks. I want to be able to protect him just like he protected me back then."
The barkeeper smirked around her cigarette as she tilted her head towards the shaded staircase. "Heard enough now?"
Sandaled feet clicked against the wood, revealing a white-haired man who came to sit on the stool beside the young pirate.
Luffy blinked. "Who are you, ossan?" Another thought pressed to the forefront of his mind. "Are you strong?"
The stranger chuckled lowly. "I certainly like to think so."
Shakky rolled her eyes. "Don't mind him, he's just trying to be dramatic. This is Silvers Rayleigh, Luffy-chan. Former first mate to the Pirate King."
Luffy's eyes popped out of his sockets, food spraying everywhere. "YOU SAILED WITH THE PIRATE KING!?" Shakky hid her chuckle behind a hand.
Rayleigh's eyes twinkled with amusement. "I've heard a lot about you from Shanks. It looks like he wasn't off the mark."
"Hmm, you know Shanks, ossan?"
"Oh didn't you know? He was an apprentice on our ship."
"SHANKS SAILED WITH THE PIRATE KING!?"
"Are you hard on hearing?"
Luffy closed his mouth and swallowed with difficulty. His face turned serious as he met the white-haired man's gaze squarely. "I want to be strong. Train me, ossan!"
Rayleigh smiled. "You really do remind me of him. Alright, I'll train you. But be warned, boy, I'm not an easy taskmaster."
"Shishishishi, I wouldn't want it any other way."
"And it's Rayleigh-sensei to you."
"I want to meet Whitebeard!" The fire in Luffy's eyes had cowed many a lesser man.
The stocky fishman however stood firm and unfazed. "I'm afraid I cannot let you pass. Young ones like you are too often daggers. I cannot let a dangerous boy like you meet the old man. Return to the seas and do not seek him again."
Jimbei shifted into an offensive stance. "Then you leave me with no choice. I am not a member of the Whitebeard Pirates, but I am grateful to him… and so I will face you in their stead. Come!"
"Which of you said he wished to meet me?" a booming voice carried over the battered plain. "Here's your chance! I can fight my own battles." The earth shuddered as the great man stepped forward. His eyes were like flint as he surveyed the hunched bloodied figure on the ground.
As beat up as the youth was, he still struggled to his feet instantly at the challenge and to everyone's surprise, beamed at the older man. "So you're Whitebeard! I heard that you're the strongest man in the world, ossan!"
Whitebeard threw back his head in a rumbling laugh, sharp eyes still fixed coolly on the boy. "Gurarara! So what if I am, brat?"
Silence fell. The surrounding Whitebeard Pirates looked on with surprise and growing interest, their formerly menacing auras lessening just a little. That was new. Usually all the young upstarts who came to challenge their Oyaji were in pursue of fame, not to learn from him. The youth wasn't done yet, it would seem, for he stared Whitebeard fearlessly in the eye, determination etched into his face.
"I want to become stronger than anyone else! My name is Monkey D. Luffy, and I will be the strongest man in the world!"
"Are you suggesting that I take under my wing a brat who ultimately wants to defeat me and take my title?"
Whitebeard erupted in genuine laughter this time. "Gurarara! I like you, brat. Take my mark on your back, and become a son of mine!"
Luffy grinned back. "No can do, ossan! I'm my own man, I swore that I would never stay below someone else." The brunette tilted his head to the side in thought for a moment, before his smile returned at full force. "But I can be your son if you want! As long as I don't have to join your crew."
A glimmer of approval entered Whitebeard's eyes. This kid had spunk, and he could respect him for his independence.
"Welcome then, brat. You can start by calling me Oyaji like everyone else."
Rubbery fingers stretched to clasp the big hand without hesitation. "Okay, Oyaji! And I'm not brat, I'm Luffy!"
Whitebeard snorted. "You'll be a brat until you show that you can beat me. I said I'll train you, boy, but you've got to prove yourself first. Defeat all my commanders, and we'll see about me teaching you personally."
Luffy listened to the rules with interest. He could deal with that. And it sounded like good fun too! He bounced on the balls of his heels, cracking his knuckles excitedly. "So! Who's first?"
"Oh no you don't! You're coming with me to the infirmary to treat your wounds right this moment!" A firm hand clamped onto the rubber boy's ear and proceeded to drag him away.
"Aww… Spoilsport," the crew heard the boy whine dejectedly as he let himself be towed away and couldn't help but laugh.
Things were going to get interesting with this one onboard.
"OYAJIIII! Fight me!"
"Gurararara, you're still a thousand years too early to think about challenging me, brat."
"GOMU GOMU NO JET BAZOOKA!"
A leg intercepted his punch with no apparent strain. Blue flames entered his vision as he met half-lidded grey eyes. The First Division Commander smirked.
"Don't get ahead of yourself, Luffy! There's still me, yoi!"
Luffy laid splayed out flat on the deck like a human starfish, almost giving an appearance of melting onto the wood. The crew chuckled as they weaved around him.
Suddenly he perked up and sprung upright.
Thatch laughed, holding the plate out of reach. Though reach was a relative term, for a rubbery arm stretched and snaked up. He swatted it away. "Down, boy."
"Don't look at me like that. Anyway the food is for you, but just let me settle down first."
The youth flopped back down on the deck, eyes never leaving the heaped dish. The cook chuckled again and handed the plate over. Luffy was already on his third drumstick by the time Thatch found a comfortable position.
The swordsman nicked a piece of chicken from the plate as well. "Having trouble with Marco?" he commented amusedly.
Luffy gave a little put-out whine as he inhaled his midafternoon snack, but the light in his eyes told that he was more excited by the prospect than disappointed. "Pineapple-ossan is really strong!"
Thatch chuckled. "That he is. You've done quite a feat by actually managing to beat the rest of us, but that doesn't mean that you'll be of match to Marco. Marco's stronger than any of us, second to only Oyaji himself. He's been with Oyaji the longest, you see."
Luffy blinked, tilting his head to the side to contemplate that piece of new information. "How old is pineapple-ossan?"
Thatch shook his head, eyes twinkling. "No one knows for sure. And I wouldn't ask him if I were you."
The brunette dusted his pants off as he stood, hand falling to the twin swords hanging from his hip. "Well now, fancy a rematch? I have some reputation to keep up, you know, can't just let it lie." He pulled a face teasingly, looking mock-regretful. "Goodness, I shouldn't have fed you! Now all you've got is more energy! But I won't let you beat me this time!"
Luffy grinned back as he bounced to his feet. "Shishishishi, you're on."
"Hey, how old are you, pineapple-ossan!?"
The crew winced at the crash that followed. That kid just didn't have any sense of self-preservation.
Ace awoke to buzzing mutterings about desert strawberries and poison or something to that effect. He yawned and lifted his head from his lunch, wiping his face free of bits of scrambled egg. "Ah damn, I fell asleep."
"YOU FELL ASLEEP!?" the room collectively spluttered.
He shot the people around him an uninterested look as he shoved a piece of meat into his mouth. "What's got you all so worked up?"
When they gave no coherent reply, Ace shrugged and continued digging into the huge plate of food in front of him with gusto, heedless of the incredulous looks the other customers were shooting him. It wasn't as good as Lucky's food, but hey, food was food and exploring Nanohana made him hungry! He didn't look up even when the door swung open with a bang and heavy boots thudded to a stop behind him.
"You have some nerve eating out in public, pirate. I came here looking for Straw Hat, but you'll do for now, Portgas D. Ace!"
Ace blinked as he swiveled in his chair to face the Marine. "Who are you?" he asked, but given how his mouth was stuffed full, it came out more like 'Ooh ah ooh?'
A vein in the Marine's forehead twitched violently. "Yes, you'll do very well indeed. You remind me entirely too much of him."
Quickly stuffing a few more pieces of chicken into his mouth, Ace took that as his cue to hightail it out of there. He got perhaps five steps away before a stream of smoke cuffed around him like a straitjacket. Instinctively he brought his flames to the surface in retaliation and the smoke loosened enough for him to slip out and continue his sprint to freedom.
The Marine tackled him a step away from the door and they crashed through the brittle wood together, elicited an aggrieved moan from the owner and startled shrieks from passersby as they wrestled on the dusty street in a blaze of fire and smoke. Ace released the hottest fire he could muster, aided by the already hot desert climate, forcing the Marine to let go.
He didn't see his opponent draw the pronged weapon strapped to his back until it slammed him to the ground. Instantly he felt his strength draining, the loss of fire leaving him suddenly chilled.
"Urgh." Ace squirmed as the tip of the jitte dug painfully into his back. His logia powers weren't working at all, no matter how hard he tried to draw them to the surface again. Damn seastone!
The Marine Vice Admiral grunted grumpily, hand falling heavily on his shoulder to haul him away. "It's your unlucky day, Fire Fist, to have run into me here. Now–"
"FOOOOOODDD! Gomu Gomu noooo SLINGSHOT!"
With a startled yell the Marine above him was thrown a good ten meters away, back through the back of the already battered restaurant. The owner swooned into a dead faint.
Ace winced. He remembered the feeling of getting hit by that exact move.
But more importantly…
"Heya, Ace!" The straw hat-wearing youth waved brightly as he bounced back to his feet.
The Marine let out an animalistic growl as he shot back upright and charged back out into the open. "STRAW HAT!" he roared.
"Oh it's you, Smokey! I didn't see you there!"
Ace could hear the Marine gnashing his teeth. "I've been looking for you, Straw Hat! I'll just have to take both of you in, then!"
Ace let his flames come up to the surface as a stream of smoke shot in his direction, but it never reached him. An arm coated in inky black shot out to deflect the smoke, grasping it with an iron grip that turned it back to flesh. Ace stared as Luffy's face changed instantly to uncharacteristic seriousness. He swallowed. His brother had grown strong in the three years they had been parted. Dark eyes stared down the furious Vice Admiral. "Your opponent is me, Smokey! Ace, get back to your ship, I'll meet you there!"
"O-Okay!" Ace yelled back and sprinted away, gesturing for his crew to go ahead of him. Turning, he set the road on fire to keep the remaining Marines from chasing after them.
Smoker narrowed his eyes at Luffy. "You know Fire Fist?"
Luffy's face was split by a grin. "Of course I know him! He's my beloved little brother!"
"That was completely stupid! You could have been killed! We told you not to draw attention to yourself, but you managed to get into a fight with a Vice Admiral!"
Ace puffed out his cheeks petulantly as his unofficial first mate and resident swordswoman lectured him. "But I wasn't even the one who started it!"
"You just be quiet!"
"By the way, who was that back there?" Lucky Jumper spoke up, taking pity on their sulking captain.
Ace beamed. "Oh, that was-"
His audience wasn't listening to him anymore, however. The gazes of the crew had all focused with visible confusion and slight alarm at a single point in the distance. Kaya pointed rather uncertainly. "Erm, Ace, behind you…"
The crew watched with varying levels of shock and amusement as their captain got mowed down by a speeding projectile that quickly revealed itself as a grinning person. The stranger wrapped his arms more times than should be humanly possible around Ace. He nuzzled his cheek against the younger's. "I missed you, Ace!"
"Gah Luffy get off me!"
The stranger pouted. "But I missed you~" he whined.
Ace grumbled and tried to pry the clingy youth off him to no avail. Finally he sighed and gave a genuine smile, wrapping his arms tightly around the other. "I missed you too, Luffy."
Nojiko thought it appropriate to interrupt at that point. "…Ace? Who is this?"
"Oh!" Ace's eyes widened, spinning round to face his crew, no doubt having forgotten that they were still there. "Guys, this is my older brother Luffy! Luffy, meet my crew! This is Kuina, and Kaya, Nojiko, Lucky, Gin, Kohza," he introduced, gesturing to each in turn.
They found themselves being looked over with serious dark eyes, before a bright smile took over the older youth's face.
"Shishishishi, thank you for taking care of my little brother!"
Each crewmember found their hand being shaken vigorously by the other in turn, going from one to the next at lightning speed. Goodness, this man was even more hyper than their captain!
"So, what are you doing here, Luffy?" Ace asked when the necessary greetings had been exchanged.
The brunette's face darkened instantly, an expression they hadn't expected from the happy rubber-man. "I'm looking for someone. His name is Blackbeard. Avoid him, okay, Ace? He's a bad person." His expression cleared when Ace nodded rather bemusedly in acknowledgement, smiling widely again. "Then I heard that you were nearby, Ace, and had to come visit my little brother, of course!" Luffy's eyes gleamed with interest. "And by the way, what's this I've been hearing about you and fire?"
Ace couldn't help but show off for a bit, letting flames dance over his shoulders. Luffy clapped vigorously, obviously impressed. "Ooh, that's cool."
"Cooler than rubber, definitely," he teased as he extinguished them.
"I bet I can still beat you, shishishi."
Thinking back on how he had countered that Smoke Logia Marine move for move, Ace had no doubt that he could. He still didn't want to admit it out loud, though.
"So what have you been doing for the past three years?"
"Training! I've been sailing with Oyaji for a while. He won't train me until I can beat Marco. Meanie." Luffy's mouth turned down in a pout for a moment. "But they're really cool! And Thatch makes yum-" He cut himself off, something pained flashing in his eyes. "Oh, and before that, I trained with Rayleigh! Shishishi." All of them detected the abrupt change in topic and the slightly forced laughter.
"Oyaji?" Kaya questioned to lessen the heavy atmosphere when Ace seemed too distracted by something to respond. "Your father is a pirate as well?"
Luffy laughed again, this time naturally. "No, my dad isn't a pirate, but Oyaji is! Oyaji is Oyaji! Oh, we all call him that, but people know him as Whitebeard."
The Spades had their eyes almost popping out of their sockets. "Whitebeard? As in the Emperor!? The strongest man in the world?"
Gin piped up incredulously. "And when you said Rayleigh, you didn't mean Silvers Rayleigh did you?"
"Hmm? That's right. Rayleigh's a real cool old man! Oh yeah, Ace, he said he wants to meet you."
The brothers exchanged a loaded look that the crew couldn't quite decipher as they looked from one to the other.
Ace's eyes narrowed, arms crossing in front of his chest. "…Maybe."
That seemed to satisfy Luffy, for he didn't press further. Instead, he started rummaging about the pockets of his denim shorts, looking victorious as he finally fished something out.
"Hey Ace, I got something for you."
Ace looked at the blank piece of paper his brother had handed to him curiously. "What is it?"
"A mystery paper," Luffy said cheerfully.
When the entire crew including Ace sent him baffled (and more than a little skeptical, as if they were doubting his sanity) looks, the older youth laughed.
"It'll let us meet again! What, you don't want it?" A rubbery hand teasingly extended as if to take it back. Ace clutched it to his chest protectively.
"No, of course I want it!"
"Shishishi." The hand came up to ruffle Ace's hair instead. He swatted it away in mock annoyance, but a grin decorated his face as well.
The others couldn't help but smile as they watched the exchange. It was rare to see Ace completely relaxed like that.
A commotion from the shore drew their attention to the warships approaching. "STRAW HAT!" someone roared, audible even with the distance.
Luffy glanced over at the fuming Marine standing at the bow of the foremost ship.
"Geh, it's Smokey again." He pulled a face.
The Spade Pirates instantly launched into a frenzy. "Let's get out of here!" "Shit! They're coming too fast, we won't get away in time!"
Luffy pressed his straw hat firmer onto his head as he strode towards the stern of the Going Merry. "I'll take care of them, so don't worry."
"You're going against five warships on your own!? Are you crazy?" Gin yelled as he released the sails.
"Shishishishi." Was the only reply they got as Luffy set a sandaled foot on the railing and stretched his arms back in preparation. As he threw his hand out, the straw-hat wearing youth turned back to his wide-eyed brother with a grin, eyes bright. "Ace! Don't forget our promise! I'll see you again, at the top!"
With that, his arm snapped taunt and he shot away.
Ace rushed forward with a gasp, hands coming to up clutch the railings as his eyes followed his brother's increasingly small figure. The strong sea breeze whipped Ace's already messy hair as they picked up speed. He chuckled rather helplessly as he watched the chaos that they were leaving behind. He could still just see that red-vested figure swinging from mast to mast, and hear the panicked yelling of the Marines. He still had a long way to go before he got anywhere near his older brother's level. His grip tightened and he sucked in a deep breath.
"WATCH ME, LUFFY! I'M GONNA BE THE PIRATE KING!" he yelled.
And somehow over the explosions and rushing wind, he felt that Luffy heard him.
Just a small note: You would have noticed that I decided to keep Smoker as Luffy's personal nemesis, rather than switching him over to Ace - it simply felt more right that way. As such, most of the Smoker-Luffy confrontations (excepting Alabasta) would have occurred three years early. Therefore Ace wouldn't have met Smoker in Loguetown, and Alabasta would have been their first meeting. I based older-brother!Luffy's abilities loosely on post-timeskip!Luffy, and subsequently promoted Smoker to post-timeskip rank as well to match. I'm just rather sad that I didn't manage to squeeze in a cameo of Tashigi's counterpart, a bespectacled Zoro-lookalike named Dashi (character design courtesy of Tonko haha).
Comments and kudos are always appreciated!
(Next chapter - Marineford)
Chapter 2: Marineford (Version 1)
Back then I ran a poll asking whether readers would prefer to see a canon-compliant Marineford chapter or an AU one where everyone escapes. Thanks to popular demand and the votes being pretty much equal, I have decided to write both the (semi) canon-compliant and escaped versions of Marineford. I won't spoil which one this is for you, so read on and I hope you enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
A lone figure strode through the ghost town, teeth gritting around two thick cigars as a chill raised the hairs on his skin. There was something unsettling about the wreckage… Or perhaps the lack of wreckage in certain parts, as if whole buildings had been sucked away, leaving only an empty crater behind.
Booted feet came to a stop in front of a dusty object lying fallen on the ground. Bending, Smoker picked up the familiar straw hat, mouth twisted into a deep frown.
"Are they mad!? With this, we will be challenging not just Whitebeard, but the Revolutionary Army and possibly even Red Hair as well!" Tsuru snapped in a rare display of anger.
The Fleet Admiral frowned heavily as he sat behind his desk, the document that would seal their fates lying innocently against the wood. All that remained to be added was his signature, but they would be foolish to think that it was anything more than a mere formality. The Gorosei had spoken, and they had no power to disagree. "We can no longer have doubt, Tsuru. If even we are unsure, what will become of the Marines?"
Sengoku's grim gaze turned to the couch where his old friend sat, bent over with his face in his hands. "…Garp."
The Hero of the Marines closed his eyes, looking for all the world the weary old man that he was. They had grown old, all three of them, too old. "Do as you must."
With that, the Fleet Admiral of the Marines picked up his pen to sign authorization for the impending execution of the pirate Straw Hat Monkey D. Luffy.
[6 weeks left till execution]
The figure in the dark cell lifted his head at the sound of footsteps, eyes lighting up with interest as he recognized his visitor.
"Shishishishi. This reminds me of a story Gramps told me, about how he visited Roger in his cell before his execution. I wonder if he looked as you do now, Smokey."
Smoker said nothing, puffing heavily on his cigars. The imprisoned pirate just chuckled again as he leant back against the cold stone wall. But his eyes were serious, bright orbs in the half shadow never leaving Smoker's hard grey ones. Silence fell between the two rivals, broken only by the scuffle of a small animal in the dark.
Finally Luffy's gaze went to the straw hat the Marine held under one arm, relief flooding his heart. He had thought it lost in the battle, vanished into the dark vortex of Teach's madness. But he couldn't keep it now; they would doubtlessly take it away from him.
"Hey, Smokey, hold on to that for me, alright?" He grinned, but it was a little tired. "And if I really die like this, give it to my little brother. I'll trust you with it."
Smoker let out a disgruntled noise, teeth gnashing irritably over his cigars, but gave no rejection, which made Luffy smile broadly.
Seemingly having finished what he had come for, the Vice Admiral turned on his heel to leave the dank prison that held his greatest nemesis. Just before the doorway he paused. "Don't you dare die like this, damn Straw Hat," he snapped. "I'm the only one who has the right to defeat you." With that he swept out of the room, leaving behind the faint whiff of tobacco smoke.
And for the first time since he had been captured, Straw Hat Luffy let out a loud, genuine laugh.
[5 weeks left till execution]
'On order by the World Government, we require your presence at the Marine Headquarters Marineford in four weeks to attend a Shichibukai meeting, to receive a briefing on roles during the execution of Monkey D. Luffy.'
"Elder Nyon, are you sure about this? Hebihime-sama would never agree to their summons, especially not in regards to this matter."
The Kuja elder frowned. "We shall cross that river when we reach it. But for now, we cannot let rashness endanger our people! Send this message to Marine Headquarters!"
As the girl left, letter in hand, the elder stared pensively at the grains of wood on the wall. How were they to get out of this muddle?
'I shall comply with the summons forthwith.'
Jinbe tore the summons to pieces and scattered the pieces to the floor. His dark eyes were cold like the blackest depths of the sea as he stared down the Marine Vice Admiral.
[4 weeks left till execution]
Dragon steepled his fingers, sharp gaze sweeping across the room at the Revolutionary leaders gathered around the meeting table. The inner turmoil he was experiencing did not surface at all to mar the stoic expression he wore. For better or worse, this would be a turning point for all of them. He gave them all a moment to peruse the printed sheets of paper set before them before beginning to speak.
"Yesterday, we received yet-unreleased information from our contacts within the government. The execution of Straw Hat Luffy is scheduled three weeks from today, by order of the Gorosei themselves."
He slid another sheet of paper onto the center of the table. Murmurs rose at the sight of the wanted poster their leader displayed to them. The grinning youth in the photo looked barely more than a child.
"According to their sources, it is the government's intention to make it a public event, to be held at Marine Headquarters itself and broadcasted to the nearby islands."
Hack frowned. "But why? What's so special about this pirate, for the Marines to go to such lengths? I mean, his bounty is definitely an impressive one for his age, and he's been known to be sailing with Whitebeard of late, but otherwise he hardly stands out with the Golden Age of Pirates still going strong. It hardly seems logical for the Marines to openly declare war on Whitebeard for no apparent reason."
"No…" Terry looked thoughtful. "There must be more to this than meets the eye. Monkey D. Luffy… I remember hearing something a while back – isn't he the grandson of Vice Admiral Monkey D. Garp?"
"The Hero of the Marines…" Joe frowned. "To send his own flesh and blood to the gallows…"
"It is true that Straw Hat Luffy is directly related to Garp. It is, however, not the reason for the government's actions." All eyes in the room turned to him at that. Dragon drew himself a little straighter in his seat. "There is one other connection that is not public knowledge, and in fact is only known to a handful of individuals in the world. That I was born Monkey D. Dragon, and this Monkey D. Luffy is my son."
Shocked silence fell across the room. Dragon's gaze swept through the room, seeing surprised faces and dawning comprehension on many as they quickly made the connections that it implied. And soon after that came the wide-eyed anticipation as they realized what this meant for him, for them.
He looked around seriously, meeting each gaze in turn. "I do not ask that you fight my wars for me. Perhaps this is born of my selfish desire to be a father. I do not deny it. But I believe that this is the opportunity we have been waiting for all these years. With this level of publicity, the Marines will have no chance to back off from our retaliation. We shall defeat them at their very own base which they have invited us into, before the eyes of the world. So I ask you this – will you take arms?"
The Revolutionary leaders glanced at each other. Finally Joe turned back to him and gave voice to everyone's feelings. "We go wherever you do, Dragon-san."
Dragon looked around, seeing no hesitation. "Thank you," he said sincerely, genuinely touched by his comrades' loyalty. "We will begin preparations at once. The world is waiting for our move, and this is where we shall take it!"
As the leaders dispersed to spread the plans to their respective teams, Dragon's gaze fell on a figure who had unexpectedly remained standing by the conference table, eyes locked unblinkingly on the bounty poster that had been left on its surface. He frowned. His young protégé was breathing heavily, face worryingly pale and pupils dilated as he scrunched up his eyes as if in response to a migraine. Concerned, Dragon strode around the table but the youth collapsed before he could reach him, drawing the shocked attention of everyone in the room.
[3 weeks left till execution]
In the New World, a newspaper was crumpled in one hand as the captain ran his gaze disbelievingly over the headlines. Surrounding him loosely in a circle, the oldest crew members were pale-faced and furious.
Shanks stared out, instinctively, at the direction the Red Line laid. "…Luffy!"
Elsewhere in the New World, the Whitebeards prepared for war.
[2 weeks to execution]
"Where is Garp!?"
"The Vice Admiral has gone for a visit to Impel Down, sir!"
Sengoku stilled for a moment, clenching his fist. "Damn him! At a time like this! That free spirit…!" The men were already wavering in their trust of him regarding this matter, and he still does whatever he likes! But could they really blame him? The Fleet Admiral turned sharply, gritting his teeth. "…It's fine. Let him be."
It was at that moment that a lower ranked Marine sprinted into the office, purple-faced and panting as he saluted sharply.
"Sir! We've lost contact with the Marine fleet tailing Whitebeard, and the one following Red Hair as well!"
"Dear me… This is a fine state you've landed yourself into… Are you still breathing? Luffy..."
The bloodied figure in the dim cell lifted his head at the address. The youth's grin was visible even in the half-light. "Gramps!"
Garp sighed and sat down heavily before the bars. Honestly, this child. "…Why, Luffy? You could have become the world's strongest as a Marine. Why did you have to choose to be a pirate?"
A flash of white teeth. "Shishishi. Because I knew that only pirates are free."
Garp slammed his hand against the stone floor, the crack echoing around the prison cell. "Free! Would you call yourself free now!?"
"Yes." The shrewd light in the boy's eyes pierced Garp's heart. "Freer than you are, Gramps."
[10 days left till execution]
"What does a Government dog want with me?"
"I am Vice Admiral Momonga of the Marine Headquarters! Royal Shichibukai "Pirate Empress" Boa Hancock! I have come here to greet you!"
"I do not know nor care what you are here for. Return to where you came from." With that she whipped her hair back to return to her chambers.
Unwilling to give up with just a rebuke, the Vice Admiral threw something at them, which turned out to be a newspaper. "The time and place have been set for the public execution of Straw Hat Monkey D. Luffy! There is no going back now!"
The Pirate Empress Boa Hancock froze mid-turn. Some would later swear that she shook as she took her next breath. "What did you say!?"
"The execution is to take place precisely one week from today. On that day, in the plaza of Marineford, Straw Hat Luffy's life shall come to an end. This compulsory assembly of the Shichibukai is an absolute order of the World Government! If you refuse to attend, the treaty is void! Your Shichibukai status will be revoked!"
"Sister!" Marigold hissed. "You must think of our people!"
Hancock took a deep breath, and stepped forward. Her inner turmoil was once again hidden completely behind the haughty sway of her hips. She landed lightly on the railings of the Marine ship, facing the Vice Admiral.
"I enjoy my position as Shichibukai. I would not want it revoked… However I detest the World Government. I refuse to comply with their orders. What say you to this…? The Marines who were sent to rendezvous with me… met a mysterious accident at sea, and were eliminated completely, their bodies turned to stone… Mero Mero Merrow!"
As the Kuja ship sailed away from the Marine ship whose crew had been reduced to one, Vice Admiral Momonga clutched the railings. "Boa Hancock! I will wait as long as I must. I will not go back empty-handed. If you do not return with the next two days, the treaty is void."
[7 days till execution]
"Hebihime-sama, we have discovered a man on the island!"
"Shall we kill him?"
Hancock stared down coldly at the dark-haired youth who had been cast at her feet, held down by her warriors. She raised her hand to tell them to dispose of him, yet there was something about him that nagged at her mind. She lowered her hand and stepped closer with narrowed eyes, much to the watching crowd's surprise.
"Oh, those snake-ladies are your little sisters? That's nice. I'm a big brother too!"
"You. Do you have any brothers?"
The youth glared up at her distrustfully.
Ran dug a heel into his back. "Hebihime-sama asked you a question."
The intruder remained stubbornly silent. As Ran pressed down harder in warning, instead of having blood well up fire licked the underside of her shoe, forcing her to let up the pressure or be burned. The atmosphere tensed at the sign of his ability, bows being instantly drawn in defense. Suddenly a figure pushed her way through the crowd.
"Please wait! This man, I do believe I know of him!"
"Marguerite, you idiot!" Sweetpea hissed under her breath, cursing her friend's ever-incurable rashness.
Hancock held up her hand as a sign for them to stay their attacks. The warriors lowered their bows obediently.
Marguerite bowed hastily. "Y-Yes, Hebihime-sama. I simply recalled a picture of his brother that Luffy showed us the last time he visited. The man in the picture resembles this person greatly."
"That would be correct. I do believe that this man is none other than the rookie pirate known as Fire Fist," a scratchy voice interrupted.
The old woman hobbled to a stop in front of the youth, who was looking around at them with some confusion. "Your name is Ace, is it not? Brother to one Monkey D. Luffy."
"My little brother's name is Ace! See, this is his bounty poster! Fire Fist Ace… He's really grown up now, shishishishi."
Ace's eyes widened. "You know Luffy?" Well, it wasn't all that much a surprise, honestly. Luffy had a tendency of getting into all sort of scrapes and worming his way into your heart as a seemingly natural part of the process. He had personal experience with it himself. Still, what was with this weird place, why were there only women?
"Ah I see, you're Luffy's brother?"
Ace gaped as the formerly aloof Pirate Empress blushed profusely at the mention of his older brother. Girls were so weird. (He had long since learnt that if one found Kuina in an inexplicably homicidal mood, one would do well to watch one's way around her for the next few days as well. And don't even get him started on Kaya – that girl was usually the sweetest darling but when she got mad she was even scarier than Kuina. One did not want to find out what she could do with scalpels.)
On a bright note, the women warriors surrounding him were looking a lot less antagonistic now. Some were even smiling warmly at him. The circle around him loosened to let him stand. He immediately bowed, lessons drilled into him by Makino taking precedence. "I apologize for the trouble. My name is Portgas D. Ace."
The crowd tittered, a few giggles here and there. "What a polite young man," an older lady murmured with an approving smile. But after a while, several of them glanced at each other with concerned looks, recalling the event from two days ago.
Finally, it was Elder Nyon who voiced their thoughts. "Boy… Have you heard from your brother recently?"
Ace blinked. "I met him in Alabasta a few months back, but not since then." He took in their grim faces, heart sinking. "Is there something wrong?"
The Kuja warriors glanced at each other again. Marguerite sighed. "We were out at sea for quite a while, so we only found out recently ourselves, but Luffy was captured by the Marines about a month ago." She bit her lip. "His execution is to be held five days from now, at Marine Headquarters Marineford."
"WHAT!? Dammit, Luffy has always attracted trouble, but execution… That's a whole different matter altogether!"
Ace frantically dug around the brim of his hat until he found a small piece of paper, worryingly fraying at the edges. The elder's brows furrowed at the sight. "Does that vivre card belong to your brother? It is as I feared. The vivre card is also known as the "paper of life"… It indicates the direction and life-force of its owner. For it to be deteriorating like that…"
Ace cast his gaze around desperately, clutching the paper like a lifeline. "I need to save him! Please, lend me a ship!"
Ran shook her head. "You'll never reach there in time! It takes at least a week to reach the gaol by ship, and that's assuming smooth sailing! It'll be even longer to reach Marine Headquarters."
"I've still got to try! I can't just sit here and do nothing!"
The next interruption came from an unexpected source.
"No, there is one other way."
"By Marine battleship, the trip will take only four days." The Pirate Empress, who had stayed stonily silent until then, finally spoke in an unusually quiet voice. Clenching her fingers, she drew herself up. "I will bring you to Luffy."
[5 days left till execution]
"This is as far as I can bring you."
Ace hopped down and bowed politely. "It's already a lot further than I expected. I can't thank you enough for your help."
As he pressed his ear against the door to see if anyone was nearby, her voice stilled him.
"You will save him." It was phrased neither like an order nor a statement nor even a question… It told volumes about how uncertain they all felt about this situation, and the blind hope they were putting into it.
Ace swallowed. Did he dare give a promise? "I will," he told himself as much as her.
He slipped out of the room as Hancock removed the petrification on Domino and the snail, careful to avoid those in the corridor. He had gotten a fair bit down the hall before he heard footsteps that sounded way too near for comfort, making him shoot through the nearest door, fingers crossed for it to be empty. As the footsteps passed outside, his eyes swept the room and lit up with glee at his luck.
He had found the quartermaster's storeroom.
[30 hours till execution]
"A prisoner has escaped from his cell and is running loose in Level 1! Reports indicate that he is a Devil Fruit user, so stay on guard!"
Ace deftly joined the line of prison guards thundering down the hallway, blending in perfectly with his standard-issue grey uniform and cap. Another stroke of good luck! He could take advantage of this chaos to find Luffy. From what Elder Nyon had told him, a high profile prisoner like Luffy wouldn't be kept along with the masses, but he still gave the packed cells a cursory glance as he passed. A commotion from ahead told that the guards had found their target.
Wait a minute, he recognized that runaway.
The red-nose's yelp was muffled by a hand clamped over his mouth. He found his torso being unceremoniously dragged into a shadowed corner. Upon being released, he spun round indignantly to blast his unwitting captor to the high heavens, only to stop short at the unexpected sight that he encountered.
"You're…! Fire Fist! What, you got caught and sent here too!? Or wait, did you hear of the great me's capture and came to rescue me?"
"Like hell I did! I'm here to save my older brother! I need to get to Luffy before they take him away! Do you know where they would keep him?"
"Luffy? Wait, as in Straw Hat!?" Buggy's eyes almost popped out of their sockets. "Straw Hat is your brother!?"
"Oh, you know Luffy personally?"
"Your brother is one hell of an irritating guy, you know! Dammit, I knew you looked flashily familiar when I first met you, it must be because of that flashy bastard!"
"Anyway Buggy, you're going to help me find Luffy!"
Chief Magellan coughed, waving towards the cell. "This is the prisoner, Straw Hat Luffy."
It stabbed Hancock's heart to see her beloved hanging limply from those accursed seastone shackles that bound him. She was almost tempted to attack the guards around her and break Luffy out of there herself, but she had made a promise.
She was disgusted by the jeering and leering eyes of the prisoners, but knew that she could use it to her advantage. The Kuja empress cast her eyes innocently at the Chief Warden. "Oh, Chief Warden, I am so afraid!"
She hid her smirk behind a hand as the Chief Warden blew up in adoration and then rage. Men were so very predictable and even easier to manipulate, and the famed protector of Impel Down was no different.
At the sound of her voice, Luffy lifted his head, his eyes widening.
Using the pandemonium that erupted as a cover, Hancock leaned forward to hurriedly whisper. "Luffy, are you alright?"
Luffy brought a bright smile to his face. "Yeah, no problem! But what are you doing here? You can't break me out, you know. It'll be bad for you and everybody on the island."
'He's concerned about me! Could this be… marriage!?'
Luffy tilted his head. "Hancock?"
Seriousness returned to the Kuja empress' eyes. There were other matters at hand. "Luffy, darling, as much as I want to stay by your side, I am only here to give you a message."
"Sir, we've located the escapee Buggy the Clown! The guards are chasing him down in Sector B of Level 1! There're… two figures?"
"Sir, it would appear that aside from the prisoner Buggy the Clown, there is one other individual running loose in the hallways!"
[29 hours left till execution]
"GARP!" Sengoku raged.
The Marine Hero simply laughed until tears came to his eyes. "Bwahahaha! That boy! No matter what he says, he has his father's blood flowing in him, no doubt about it!"
As Sengoku stormed away, Garp's laughter quietened down as he stared out the window at the deceptively sunny day outside. But the tears still ran.
"Go, and do what I cannot," he whispered.
[27 hours left till execution]
Jinbe looked on upon his friend's pale-faced turmoil with worry. "Luffy-kun, can we really trust that that woman was telling the truth? What if it was a lie meant to unsettle you?"
Luffy shook his head without any doubt. "Hancock wouldn't lie to me! She's my friend! If she says Ace is here, then…" Luffy closed his eyes in frustration. "Dammit Ace! I'm supposed to be the one protecting you!"
"We have uncovered Fire Fist's motive! Fleet Admiral Sengoku says there's no doubt about it! The intruder Portgas D Ace and the prisoner we currently have in maximum security Monkey D Luffy are brothers! The intruder is here to free his brother, and has already breached Level 3!"
"Let them come, they will have no way to escape. I will personally be waiting for them here on Level 4."
"Chief Warden Magellan!"
"What was that explosion!?"
"Gyahhh, it hurts!"
"He set fire to the Chief Warden's poison and took the chance to escape! But he must have been hit as well! Send out a search party at once! He couldn't have gotten far!"
"The intruder Fire Fist Ace appears to have completely disappeared!"
Ace's fading eyesight struggled to focus in the dim surroundings as he stumbled through the narrow passageway. Even the flame he had lit in his hand to guide his way didn't do much to dispel the pitch black that stretched on ahead. It was eerily silent in here, cut off from the bustle of Impel Down, and significantly cooler than the scorching heat of the prison level he had left behind.
He coughed, grimacing as warm dampness stained his hand. He had inhaled too much of Magellan's toxic fumes. The poison had hit him harder than he initially thought, and he hadn't been able to completely avoid the flaming projectiles his engineered explosion had caused. He'd used the mess to run, and had hit upon this location through an unseen door in the wall. The door had swung close automatically behind him, leaving him alone in the darkness.
Attention blurring for a moment, he yelped as he stubbed his toe on a slab of stone that sat higher than the floor. Lifting his torch up, he saw that it was a flight of stairs leading upwards. So this passageway was manmade after all. To the right of the stairs, the inky hallway continued on. It was strange that no guards appeared to be looking for him in here, however. Any sound of footsteps must surely echo through the passage from a great distance away, but he hadn't heard anything but his own movements since coming in here. But if the Impel Down staff didn't know of this, then who had made this?
Considering the passage, he decided to continue on to the right. He was trying to get down, after all, so there was no point heading up. There ought to be some stairs leading downwards at some point. His suspicions were proven correct a short while later as he found what he was looking for.
The passage got progressively colder as he winded down the long spiral staircase. Normally his fire would keep him warm against the chill, but he was finding it harder to control his powers with every passing moment. The flame in his hand flickered unstably every now and then, along with his vision.
Ace bit his lip. He couldn't pass out now, especially not when he was getting so close to his destination. He stumbled on the last step, cursing as his torch went out at the shock. Shakily he relit it and ploughed on to find either an exit or a way to go further down. Judging from the length of the stairs it was likely he had already reached Level 5, but it was hard to tell.
The fire in his hand flickered once, twice, and went out altogether. As his vision swam before blacking out altogether, his body slumping to the cold stone floor, he wondered if it was his imagination that he saw a faint light in the distance.
[25 hours till execution]
Ace awoke to the sound of chatter. As his vision slowly cleared, he blinked blearily at the rough stone ceiling that hung overhead. Where was he?
"He has awoken, Iva-sama."
Ace turned his head to come face to face with the most enormous face he had ever seen, standing right at his bedside. With a yelp he bolted upright and away, and would have fallen off the other side if not for a steadying hand on his shoulder. Looking up, he found that person to be quite as strange a sight as the other, with a clear color split of bright orange on one side and white on the other.
Shaking his head in bafflement, he turned his attention back to the oversized head (which he found to be connected to a disproportionately small body dressed in an open-neck leotard and fish-net stockings) when the vision started speaking with a little huff. (It was then he decided that this whole situation was part of a poison-induced hallucination. Wait, poison…?)
"That's no vay to treat your benefactors now, is it, candy-boy? Ve found you collapsed in our hallvays. That poison did quite a number on your body, you're lucky it didn't hit anyvhere nearer to the heart. You've been sleeping for twelve hours now."
Poison. Magellan. Impel Down. Twelve hours. Luffy.
"Twelve hours!?" Quick as a flash, he vaulted off the bed and streaked towards the door, heedless that he had no idea where he was, let alone how to get to where his brother was. "Luffy! I've got to find Luffy!"
Bursting through the wooden door, the sound of voices multiplied exponentially and he found himself in a bustling room filled with color. And okama. His jaw dropped at the dizzying sight, even as some of the crowd quietened and turned to look at him curiously. Was he even in Impel Down anymore? How had he gotten to this place?
"Vait, Ace-boy!" The strange head had caught up to him, squeezing through the doorway.
"I need to get to Luffy! How do I get to where he is?" he demanded.
The okama frowned. "I'm afraid I can't let you go to him just yet, Ace-boy."
Ace growled, flames flickering involuntarily in his impatience. "Why not?" he snapped. "Who the hell are you anyway?"
"How impertinent, speaking to Iva-sama in that manner!"
"Show some respect, you uncouth brat!"
The blue-haired man waved a hand at the crowd. "Be calm, my lovelies. His anger is understandable, since ve have yet to give him an explanation." Turning back to Ace, he fixed him with a serious look. "Ve have been vatching your actions vithin this gaol, Ace-boy. You vish to save your brother, who is being held here, do you not? Ve too have the same intention. My name is Emporio Ivankov, a commander of the Revolutionary Army. I am a comrade of your father, our leader Dragon! Ve have received instruction from Dragon, to break Monkey D. Luffy from Impel Down."
Ace frowned a little at the reference to his 'father', but didn't bother correcting them. They had obviously assumed that he and Luffy were blood-related. But did this mean that Luffy's father was The Revolutionary himself!? That must be why the Marines were so adamant about a public execution! Still, what did that matter in the present moment? Luffy's life was at stake, and they were just standing here talking.
"Then what are you waiting for!? We've got to get him out of here now!"
"You do not understand, Ace-boy. This is a matter of great delicacy. Right now, Impel Down is under strict surveillance by both its guards and the Marines. They are afraid of Whitebeard, and of our own forces. I have no doubt that they are avare of my disappearance from the cells they placed me in, and are even now vary of an attack. Seventeen Marine battleships sit outside this gaol, headed by no less than five Marine Vice Admirals, prepared for an attack from outside as much as the guards are prepared for an attack from vithin. Impel Down is a fortress, boy, even without this additional lockdown. I may have been able to create this land here vithin it, but even I cannot easily escape this place. Our only chance is to have a simultaneous infiltration from both inside and outside. And therefore I avait the sign of our comrades' arrival."
"So what do we do now?" Ace couldn't help the bite of impatience in his voice, even though he knew that what the older man had said made sense.
"Now, Ace-boy, ve vait."
[13 hours left till execution]
With a muffled gurgle the last officer dropped to the ground, leaving only four figures standing in the control room. Or at least three stood, with the last pressed against the wall.
"Yes, everything is fine here, sir!" the tallest figure barked into the receiver as his dark-haired companion surveyed the elaborate controls with scholarly interest, and their third comrade smiled sweetly at their shivering captive.
"Why don't you be a good boy and teach us how the controls work?"
[11 hours left till execution]
Ivankov's eyes were fixed on the monitors showing various parts of Impel Down. Suddenly his eyes snapped to one at the left, and following his gaze Ace saw a shadow flit over a corner. A small glint alerted him to something that fell to the ground within the viewing range of the monitor. It was a coin? Not quite, but a round piece of metal nevertheless. Squinting, he could make out a rough etching of a snake-like pattern on its surface, curling into a circle. No, it wasn't a snake, he realized with a jolt. It was a dragon. A dragon, the symbol of the Revolutionary Army.
Swiveling back to the large okama, he saw a vicious smirk blossom as Ivankov turned to the expectant crowd.
"Candies! The time has come! Do not worry about being seen, and trust that our comrades have disrupted surveillance from the path we vish to take. We must make our way downwards to Level 6 as swiftly as we can, and take out all guards before they can set up the alarm. Now," he paused, danger glinting in his eye. "Ve move."
[9 hours left till execution]
The older youth's eyes went impossibly wide. "A-Ace!?" his gaze darted around the room, sighting one unfamiliar face after another. "Who are-" Luffy paused to gape at the largest okama even as Inazuma stepped forward to remove his bonds. "Wow, your head's really huge, ossan!"
The surrounding Newkama-land residents almost fainted. "Ossan!?"
Ace couldn't help a weak chuckling laugh. Looks like Luffy was fine.
"So this is Luffy-kun's younger brother. But what a strange group of friends he has…" Jinbe murmured with interest.
"I am Emporio Ivankov, one of your father's comrades. Ve are here to free you, Straw Hat-boy."
Ace moved closer as the last of the chains fell away under Inazuma's scissors. He had intended to help his brother up, but the moment he came into reach, Luffy's fingers shot out to catch and pull mercilessly at Ace's cheeks, stretching them out.
"Ow, what the hell, Luffy!? I'm not rubber like you, that bloody hurts!" And for that matter, how was Luffy keeping a hold on him even despite his best attempts to escape using his powers?
The older male pouted disapprovingly, pulling a little harder. "That's for making me worry." The next moment, Luffy threw himself onto Ace in a tight hug. "But thanks for coming for me. Shishishishi, I never thought the day would come that I would get saved by my little brother."
"Hey, I'm strong now!" Ace protested, but he smiled and hugged back just as warmly.
Luffy perked up suddenly in thought. "Ah right, Jinbe! Iva-chan, can you free him as well? He got thrown in here because he didn't want to fight Oyaji, he's a really good guy!"
A shake of the Shichibukai's head stopped them. "No, Luffy-kun. I thank you for your concern, but it would be best if I stayed. I could not willingly go to battle against the old man, but with this turn of events, it is enough for me to know that you are safe. There are others protected by my position as Shichibukai, and so if I forfeit my position, I would be endangering more than myself and I could not do that to them. You need not worry about my wellbeing, Luffy-kun. The government will presently release me after the danger of war has passed."
Luffy nodded, expression uncharacteristically serious. "I understand. I'll see you in Fishman Island, then," he still insisted, eyes seeking out a promise.
Jinbe smiled, familiar with his friend's stubbornness. "Indeed. Now go, Luffy-kun."
Hands on hips, Ivankov drew himself up to his full height, determination glinting in his eyes. "Let us be on our vay! Ve'll leave this hell behind!"
"Iva-san! Over here!"
They dashed out of the front doors to be greeted by the sight of a smiling young woman seemingly floating on the surface of the water. A slight movement of the water however revealed that she was crouching on a large raft-like structure.
She waved. "It's good to see you, Iva-san!"
"Oh, you've become so beautiful, candy!" Koala smiled and hugged the okama. "Where is Sa-boy? He did not come vith you?"
"He did, he's just being silly. He's with the others preparing the ship. Anyway we've got to hurry, especially if we want to get everyone across onto the ship before the guards catch on to us," she urged as she waved them onto the raft. When everyone had scrambled aboard, the Revolutionary rapped a sharp rhythm onto the wood to signal to those below. "Take us away, Hack!"
She turned to the others, eyes bright and wearing a wide fearless grin. "Hold on tight, guys! It's gonna be a bit of a wild ride!"
That was all the warning they got before the raft started streaking its way across the water, powered by the fishmen pulling it along underneath. They reached the marine battleship in less than a minute, and immediately set upon the numerous ropes left hanging for them to use.
A cannon ball landing just to the side of the ship rocked the water, causing those waiting to climb the ropes to cry out in shock at the jarring motion. "They're onto us already!"
"The escaped prisoners are onboard that vessel! Open fire and corner them! As long as we do not open the Gates, they have nowhere to run!" Vice Admiral Onigumo yelled out to his subordinates, who immediately set off to carry out the order.
Koala bit her lip. This was what they had been worried about. The battleships packed an enormous amount of firepower by themselves, but the true danger was from the Vice Admirals who had been stationed here, each of them seasoned fighters. If any of them got within range of their ship, it may as well spell the end for them. Onigumo was the one currently nearest to them, but she had no doubt that the other four were fast on their way from their stations around the gaol.
Making up her mind, she tossed her post-boy cap to the nearest person. Good thing she had the forethought to wear her wetsuit today.
"You all get on the ship as fast as you can! I'm going in to help them!"
Before they had any chance to process what she meant, Koala dove straight into the water.
"What the hell is with that water spout!? It's like it's alive!" One Marine yelled as he and the surrounding sailors scrambled to get out of the way as it crashed into deck, causing a gaping hole in the wood.
"The gunpowder's getting soaked!"
"Watch out, they just keep coming!"
"Fishmen! There are fishmen attacking us from the water!"
"Incoming cannon ball!" someone yelled from above deck.
"No problem, I've got this!" Luffy returned before puffing up and bouncing the ball straight where it came from.
"Hiken!" Ace yelled out as he set fire to the sails of the battleships on their tail. It caused some panic amongst the Marines onboard but he frowned as he realized it didn't do much against their approaching speed, as they were all utilizing the back-paddles in this windless sea. Turning to glance behind him, his eyes widened as a huge steel structure loomed before their vessel.
Several others had realized their impending problem as well, crying out. "The Gates!"
"Don't worry! We've got it covered!" one of the Revolutionaries who had been stationed on the ship yelled as he ran past. Several of them were preparing to release the sails, helped by a few of the former Newkama-land residents.
And crouched on the ground with her arms crossed and eyes closed in concentration was a familiar figure the fire-wielder had not expected to see.
"Miss All-Sunday!?" Ace yelped.
Nico Robin smiled secretively as she relaxed her hands and stood. "It's nice to see you again, Fire Fist-san."
In front of them, the Gates creaked open.
"What the hell!? Why are the Gates opening!?"
"Keep firing! Don't let them escape! They cannot be allowed to escape!"
"What are those damn guards playing at!? Connect me to the generator room at once!"
"Sir! We are unable to contact them at all! Chief Warden Magellan is heading there personally himself to check!"
Vice Admiral Onigumo gritted his teeth. "He won't make it in time!"
At the signal, the two fishmen and one girl shot up simultaneously from the water to land on the ship, spraying seawater across the deck. Koala shook her short wet hair out of her eyes, grinning victoriously.
"Alright, Robin-san, close the Gates now!"
Everyone watched with baited breath as the great steel doors slid close behind them, just before the first of their chasers reached it. The wind picked up the moment they entered the current, and it didn't take long for them to leave them Gates further and further behind.
Silence fell for a long moment as the reality of it registered in their brains, before one escapee sank to his knees in strength-sapping relief. "We made it," he whispered. "We actually did it! We've escaped from Impel Down!"
The former prisoners burst into excited murmurs that soon rose out into a full out celebration as they hugged and cried.
Luffy stood watching the Gates of Justice shrink slowly into the horizon. A warm hand curled around his and he squeezed back, knowing that it was his brother.
"I still can't believe that you saved me," he teased.
Ace made a face, equally playful. "I bet I could even beat you now!"
"Shishishi, in your dreams."
Footsteps sounded behind them, the slow click-tap of boots on wood, and he felt Ace turn but he still couldn't remove his gaze from the misty Gates. It was only when he heard Ace gasp and his hand slip from his in shock that he finally twisted around.
The man who stood before him was familiar yet unfamiliar.
He was tall now, no longer the gap-toothed child he remembered, already a little taller than Luffy and likely to grow taller. But even though the burn scar over one eye was foreign, the quiet firmness in those blue orbs was unmistakable.
Luffy took a half-step forward then paused, eyes raking over the other disbelievingly. To his left, Ace was in a similar state of speechlessness, working his jaw up and down until he finally managed to croak out, "S-Sabo?"
Sabo shuffled his feet awkwardly. "Hey guys…" A moment later he was knocked straight over by two uncontrollable projectiles, the three of them falling with a thump onto the wooden deck.
Sabo bit his lip to keep the emotions at bay, but finally gave in to the same tears that streamed down his brothers' faces, hugging back tightly.
"I'm sorry for not keeping contact."
Sabo spread a map on the deck in front of them, waving the other two to shift into a small circle. He glanced at them. "Have you heard of the Tarai Current?"
"That's where we are right now, aren't we? The Kujas explained it to me," Ace contributed. "It's a whirlpool current which connects Impel Down, Enies Lobby and Marine HQ that can only be used by the Marines?"
Luffy nodded sagely. "So it's a mystery current."
"…Right." Sabo sweatdropped as Ace chuckled, but a fond smile quirked the corner of his mouth. His older brother didn't seem to have changed at all. "Anyway, the reason the Tarai current is classified as Marines-only is because it can only be accessed from three points – the Gates of Justice at the three respective locations it connects, which is both an advantage and a potential danger for us. We've bought some time by closing the Gates at Impel Down, so the Marine ships cannot immediately give chase. Ideally we want to exit at Enies Lobby, which ought to be the least guarded of the three locations in the present time. We have arranged for my comrades from the Revolutionary Army will meet us there."
Ace frowned, brow furrowing. "Wait… If I remember correctly though, doesn't the current from Impel Down send us past Marine Headquarters first? Isn't that dangerous?"
Sabo nodded. "That was exactly our biggest concern about using this route. Due to the predetermined route of the current, we have no choice but to pass by the Marineford Gates to reach Enies Lobby. This means that there's a very high possibility of an attack from Marineford as we near it. And that's why we've enlisted the help of a certain group with rather similar intentions to ours, to provide for us some protection against the Marines."
"That's right, so you don't have to worry. You can leave Marineford to us," a new voice added as he approached.
Luffy's eyes widened as they alighted upon the familiar figure of the shark fishman. "Namur!?"
"Namur-san was helping Hack with ferrying you guys over just now," Sabo clarified.
The Whitebeard commander grinned toothily. "It's good to see you, Luffy."
The youth's eyes enlarged further as he realized what this meant. "Then, Oyaji and the others too…?"
It was Sabo who answered, with a small, vicious smile. "The Marines won't know what hit them."
At Marineford, the tension was already running high even as the sun slowly moved across the sky. Suddenly a few of them jolted, watchful gazes sighting something.
"There's movement in the distance!"
"Stand at guard! They're here! It's a whole fleet!"
"It's the Whitebeard Pirates!"
"Dammit, where did they come from!?"
"Reporting, sir! In addition to Whitebeard's own fleet, we've counted a total of 43 pirate ships, all New World pirate captains with known affiliations to Whitebeard! They have surrounded us completely!"
"Fleet Admiral, sir! We have urgent correspondence from Impel Down! The prisoner Straw Hat Luffy has been broken out from prison and has entered the Tarai Current in a stole Marine ship! Reports indicate that this is the doings of the Revolutionaries! In addition to the imprisoned Revolutionary leader Emporio Ivankov, the intruder Fire Fist Ace was also spotted with them, along with Whitebeard's commander Namur!"
"Sir, he's not making any moves! Whitebeard is just waiting!"
Sengoku grit his teeth as the reports swept in one after another.
Tsuru's brow furrowed, lips twisting into a frustrated frown. "He knows," she said, and he already knew without a doubt that she was correct.
The Fleet Admiral's eyes swept across the pirate ships surrounding them. The Moby Dick sat proudly right at the mouth of the bay, their allies spread across in a circle around Marineford. This was not an offensive formation… It was a plan to seal them in, and prevent them from chasing after the escaped prisoners!
It had been a risky business since the beginning, inciting both Whitebeard and Dragon into action. But now that it had become clear that they were working together…
Things were looking very, very bad.
"Then we reached a sky island that had these huuuuge…"
The two brothers blinked as their third brother face-planted onto the deck. "Ace?"
Both Luffy and Sabo let out relieved sighs as the sound of slow steady breathing reached their ears. They looked at each other with fond grins.
"He's just sleeping. Here, I'll take him to the cabins. You should rest too, Luffy. It'll take another two hours to reach Marineford," Sabo told the older youth as he hoisted the now-snoring Ace onto his back.
"Yup, let's take a nap together!"
He really should have expected this as he felt his older brother's hand curl several times around his wrist. He hesitated, his mind and heart warring with each other. He really wanted to spend as much time as he could with them, but he had his duties as the leader of this mission.
"Luffy, I have-"
"Go with them, Sabo-kun. Like you said yourself, it'll be a few hours yet before we pass Marineford. You've hardly gotten any sleep yourself these past few days. Robin-san and I can deal with anything that comes in the meantime."
"No buts!" Koala crossed her arms resolutely.
"Oh, you're Sabo's nakama, aren't you? I like you!" Luffy said with a grin, his face extending in his rubbery fashion into her physical space. "My little brother has been in your care! I know that he can be stubborn and works himself too hard a lot of the time, so thanks for taking care of him!"
Koala grinned at the rubberman. "I expect to hear lots of stories about Sabo-kun as a kid later, mind!"
"Hey Koala, not you too!" Sabo spluttered as his older brother and best friend laughed together at his expense.
"Now shoo, we'll wake you guys when we're about to reach."
Over at Sabaody, unease and speculation were starting to disrupt the gathered crowd as they watched the live footage broadcasted from Marineford. More than one reporter chewed nervously on his bottom lip, checking his watch every other minute.
"Whitebeard has arrived…!"
Finally one person dared to voice what everyone was thinking. "But where is the prisoner?"
Rakuyo couldn't help the wild grin that spread across his lips. "We've got this. They're stuck, and they don't have Luffy."
Something stirred uneasily in Marco's mind, however, and he scanned the rows of Marines repeatedly, trying to pinpoint what was setting his instincts off. It was hard to tell from this distance, but he finally realized what was wrong and dread pooled in the pit of his stomach.
"No..." He was already pushing away from the railing, eyes wide as his body moved automatically. "Shit, they've one-upped us, yoi. The Admirals! The three Admirals are not there!"
The three brothers stumbled onto the deck, having been awakened by Robin. Or to be exact, several of Robin's limbs sprouting out of the wall. (To which Sabo was entirely too used to, Ace was slightly freaked out, and Luffy wanted to recruit the "mystery arms" until Sabo reminded him that they belonged to Robin and Robin was a Revolutionary. That said, he wasn't sure his brother had entirely given up yet).
"Koala, what's the situation?" the blond barked out, taking his place at the helm.
"We're approaching the Marineford Gates! Estimated to reach in ten minutes!"
The blond's expression was grim. "Everyone, stay on your guard. Whitebeard and his allies may be keeping the battleships in, but the Marines may surprise us yet." His worry deepened at the sight of the wide-open Gates.
"Shit! The water! The water beyond the Gates is freezing up!"
Sabo cursed. "Aokiji!" He raised his head to shout. "Watch out, they've sent the Admi-" An explosion overhead cut him off and almost threw him off-balance as the foremost mast burst into flames. The unseen projectile slammed through the other two masts as well, rendering them useless. "Kizaru…" he hissed. This was bad. And he knew it could only get worse…
"We've got to get off this ship, fast!" he yelled, heart thumping madly as he just managed to avoid a magma fist then another as he streaked across the deck. He had switched the ship's engine to full power and steered the course of the ship towards the Gates, but the ship was failing before their eyes and they were still too far…
Sabo gasped as the entire battleship lurched forward out of the current into the calmer waters surrounding Marineford. They landed near to one of Whitebeard's allies' ships, whose crew immediately threw ropes to those who had dived overboard to escape the flames.
Sabo coughed, trying to find his brothers through the smoke. But even as he ducked between the flames, his body felt strangely cold. He was… No! It wasn't the same, it wasn't, he was supposed to be over this already, but he could feel pain lacing across his skin that had nothing to do with the fire that surrounded him now…
"SABO!" a hand shot out to grab his forearm through the flames and he raised his eyes to meet Ace's relieved ones. Something must have shown in his eyes, for his brother's grip tightened. "Come on, let's get out of here. Luffy, I've found him!"
Almost in a daze he followed Ace's guiding hand to where their eldest brother stood at the edge of the deck. They didn't bother slowing down even as they neared him, for the flames were already licking at their backs, and Luffy seamlessly wrapped one arm firmly around them, the other stretching out to the neighboring ship's mast.
With a twang the arm went taut and they shot across the sea even as the battleship with a final explosion sank to the bottom of the sea.
The captain of the ship immediately set up a cry to the others. "We've got Luffy-chan! Set sail!"
With victorious cheers the crew burst into motion, as did the surrounding pirate ships.
Luffy grinned widely as the captain turned to them. "Whitey!"
Whitey Bay smiled at the energetic youth. "You've stirred up quite a bit of trouble this time, Luffy-chan."
A crackling sound filled the air as the sea around them froze into ice. A martial light entered Whitey's eye. "Trying to lock us down with ice, are they? But they've underestimated us if they think this will work. My ship can cut through any ice, Admiral-made or not. Just wait, Luffy-chan, I'll get you to Oyaji in no time."
As the captain said, they made good progress, but glancing back Ace noticed that the other ally ships were still stuck in the ice. Suddenly, a boom resounded through the air and all the ice splintered as the sea rocked with waves. The sound of his older brother chuckling delightedly made him swivel his gaze back to the front. Ahead, an enormous whale-shaped white ship sat right in the center facing the Marines, and on its bow a tall man stood proudly.
His mouth went dry. So that was Whitebeard.
Beside him, his brother's grin was blinding as he dashed to the railing. Luffy sucked in a long breath. "OYAJI!" he yelled, the call bouncing over the waves.
Even from the distance, he saw the sunlight glint on the old man's smile.
Luffy turned back to his brothers, still beaming. "Come on, you're coming with me to meet Oyaji!" Luffy declared with cheerful absoluteness.
They barely had time to register the meaning of that sentence before he had looped his arm around both of them together, stretching the other out to the Moby Dick.
"Just wait a minute-"
Any protests they would have made was cut off by the air rushing past their ears as they rocketed towards the Whitebeard Pirate's flagship.
A bright light to their right made Sabo squint his eyes, cursing the sun before he realized with a sinking heart that the sun ought to be in the other direction. Shit, Kizaru! They'd been too careless, thinking that they would be safe! Ace's curse and Luffy's arm tightening protectively around them told that they had also realized their problem.
A flash of blue streaked across their vision. The Admiral and Whitebeard's first division commander solidified in a clash that sent shockwaves across the field.
"Whoops," Luffy said as the wind sent them off course and they crashed straight into the mast.
Ace and Sabo swatted him simultaneously over the head. "What do you mean, 'whoops'!?"
Luffy pouted. "It's not my fault…"
"Like hell it isn't!"
Before Luffy could come out with any more ingenious excuses, a booming laugh swept over them. "Gurararara!"
Luffy's mouth split in a grin. "Oyaji!" he greeted as he bounced over. Rubbery arms towed the two of them along with him. "These are my little brothers!"
As the shrewd eyes of the old man swept over them, they both bowed in synchrony. "It's nice to meet you, sir."
"Gurararara!" Whitebeard chortled, very much amused by the display of politeness so unlike their brother. "You're very welcome on this ship. Any family of my sons is my family as well."
A crash reminded them of the fierce battle still ongoing nearby. The two fighters in the air were clashing at such speed that Ace had trouble following their movements. He bit back a tight grin. So this was the level of the New World, was it? Kizaru, who had defeated his whole crew so easily back at Sabaody, was being matched move for move by the blue-flamed phoenix.
"Oyaji, they're setting battleships after us!" someone yelled from the crow's nest, punctuated by the sound of multiple cannons firing.
Before the pirates could take action, a strong gust of wind swept the cannon balls off-course, the sea becoming choppy with rolling waves. The Marines cried out as they struggled to keep their balance.
In the distance, a ship approached through the mist. Murmurs erupted as many instantly recognized the infamous dragon-shaped ship, even before their gazes alighted on the cloaked figure standing upon the bow.
Upon on the empty platform, Sengoku gritted his teeth. "Dragon!"
A moment later, the heavens opened up to send a torrent of rain down on them, obscuring their vision and ruining their gunpowder.
By the time the rain let up, their targets were all long gone.
On this day, Impel Down suffered its most crippling defeat to date, with the escape of maximum security prisoner Monkey D. Luffy along with 26 other prisoners. Later in the day, they would be faced with another even more devastating breakout orchestrated by Blackbeard Teach. At Marineford, faced with the combined forces of Whitebeard and the Revolutionary Army, the Marines had been unable to recover the escaped prisoners.
For some it was a relief to come away from the event without the major casualties on both sides many had predicted. But to some others, whose hearts stewed with rage and wounded pride, it was quite simply put, a disaster of the worse kind.
A sharp gust of wind was all the warning they got, but it appeared to be enough for their older brother. Seemingly by reflex Luffy bent over backwards, just avoiding the sandaled foot that shot out in an arch towards him.
"Marco, he's injured dammit!" the doctor shrieked.
The blond responded by applying a punishing punch to the top of Luffy's head, this one which he took without dodging.
But instead of bouncing right back up again, the rubber man let his head hang the way it had fallen. His hair, a little longer than he usually wore it, draped over his face and shadowed it. Marco crossed his arms, expression unreadable as his eyes never left the younger man.
Even the incensed medic quietened to just watch the face-off between the two.
"Do you understand why I hit you, Luffy?" Marco asked in a firm yet gentle voice.
Still not looking up, the youth slowly shook his head, but they could see his teeth bite down on his lower lip in an effort to keep his emotions at bay.
Marco sighed, stepping closer. He placed a hand on the boy's head.
"You gave us a real scare back there. Don't do that again, alright?" Softly, he swept his hand across to lift Luffy's fringe away from his face, to reveal over-bright eyes that stared desperately at him.
Turning his head, Luffy looked around at all his friends and family who surrounded him, watching him with such kindness. They had come all the way here, not caring about the dangers they would face, just to save him.
"I…I'm sorry!" All his bottled-up emotions, all the uncertainty he had been feeling for the past few weeks, bubbled to the surface in tears that spilled down his cheeks. "And… And…A-and…" he rubbed at his face futilely, finally giving up as he dissolved into a blubbering mess. "THANK YOU, EVERYONE!"
Ace and Sabo traded helpless smiles, shrugging fondly as the crowd swept around their brother. Somehow they ended up in the center and a pair of rubbery arms came around to hold them tightly. And they held on just as tightly, because it still felt like he could disappear.
Ace grumbled, flopping backwards onto the wooden floor of the crow's nest. "Luffy was the one who wanted to watch the moon together, and he's the one who's late!"
"Well it wouldn't be Luffy if he didn't do things like this, would he?" Sabo returned with a soft laugh.
Ace chuckled. "Well that's true."
Sabo leaned back as well, staring up at the sparkling cloudless night sky. The merry-making still continued below them, likely to go on until daybreak and beyond, but Luffy had told them to meet him in the crow's nest before disappearing somewhere.
Sabo glanced sideways at his brother. "So, what are your plans after this?"
The fire user sighed. "I need to get back to my crew, we promised to meet in Sabaody, I'm a few days late already. As for after that…" Ace chewed thoughtfully on his bottom lip. "After seeing what I have over the past couple of days, I think it would be better for us not to head to the New World so soon. There's just still so much out there that we can't even begin to imagine… I'm thinking that we should get stronger before crossing that border."
"You can come sail with us, you know," a familiar voice cut in.
The two brothers bolted upright. "Luffy!" "You're late," Ace added in a scolding tone.
"Shishishishi. Anyway, how about it, Ace? You can train with Marco! His Devil Fruit has flames just like yours."
Ace's eyes widened. Train with the Whitebeard Pirates?
"Oh, that's actually a pretty good idea, you know. And not just Marco the Phoenix, it'll be good for you to train with some other Logias too," Sabo, who had been listening interestedly until then, contributed.
"Yeah, like Jozu!"
"But my crew…"
Sabo gave a thoughtful hum. "About that, Dragon-san might be able to point you towards where each of them are." At his brothers' questioning looks, he clarified, "You said the Shichibukai Kuma was the one who separated you, right? It's not common knowledge, but Kuma is a member of the Revolutionary Army. It is likely he reported to Dragon-san after the incident."
"Shishishishi, it's decided, then!"
Sabo started chuckling at Ace's baffled expression, which set Luffy off as well until even Ace couldn't keep up his sulky look and joined in.
Sabo glanced up at their older brother. "Anyway, Luffy, what took you so long?"
A bottle was set down with a thump between them in lieu of an answer. They turned to see Luffy's wide smile as he flopped down to sit between them, three sake cups held in his other hand.
"Hey, have you guys heard?" Luffy quipped as he poured the sake out into each cup.
"If you exchange drinks," Ace continued without missing a beat.
"You can become brothers," Sabo finished, eyes blurring a little.
Luffy grinned at them as they each took one cup. "Ten years ago, we exchanged drinks and became brothers. We may all be part of different crews now, but the bond of brotherhood we share will never die! No matter where we are, or what we do… This is one bond we can never break!"
Their eyes shone as they looked at each other. They clinked their cups together, identical goofy grins on their faces. "To freedom!"
1) Shanks - Some of you may be wondering, where is he? Just like in canon, he was held up by Kaidou. And while he was affected by the news of Luffy's impending execution, he resolved not to actively come participate in the war to honor his promise with Luffy.
2) Hancock is very obviously in love with Luffy, and helped Ace get to Impel Down entirely for Luffy's sake. Luffy ended up on Amazon Lily by chance about two years ago while he was sailing alone through the Grand Line. A similar sequence to the canon Amazon Lily arc occurred, resulting in the current situation. Luffy comes to visit once in a while, the most recent time being when he was chasing Blackbeard in Paradise, and it was also then that he showed off Ace's wanted posters to the Kujas. In this timeline, Marguerite has also started sailing with the Kuja Pirates, just like in post-timeskip.
3) Sabo is a member of the Revolutionary Army, but he is not yet at this point of time the Chief of Staff. He is also, while strong in his own right, by no means anywhere as powerful as his post-timeskip self. If I would make a comparison of power, Luffy would be at post-timeskip level, while Ace and Sabo would both be at a similar level to pre-timeskip Luffy. (PS - This fic was originally written before the information about Sabo's amnesia came out, but has since then been edited to account for that)
Next up we'll take a short diversion to a bonus chapter to see what the (not!)Straw Hats are up to in this verse, and then finally, the last chapter - Marineford (Version 2). Stay tuned!
Chapter 3: Bonus Chapter: Another Story
Perhaps in a different world, things would have been different. But in this world, for a certain eight individuals, this is their reality.
This is their story.
Chapter 1: The Greatest Swordsman
In the half-light of dawn, a figure could be seen kneeling before a grave, head bowed in respect. A thin sliver of smoke rose up from the incense offering, dispersing the woody fragrance into the air. The first few gentle rays danced across the pure white sheath of the katana that hung from that person's sash, caressing the grey marble of the gravestone, but the figure paid it no mind, eyes closed and palms pressed together in prayer.
Finally, as the sun warmed the air, deep brown eyes opened, revealing the calm fire that burned within, proof of a promise made many years ago and never forgotten.
Taking in a deep breath, Kuina stood. She gently traced her fingers over the name etched into the gravestone for one last time, before letting her hand fall back on the hilt of Wado Ichimonji. "I'm going now, Zoro. Watch over me."
Chapter 2: The Brave Warrior of the Sea
Looks like he wasn't coming after all. Kaya worried her lower lip but resolved not to feel sad about it. They had said their goodbyes the day before, after all, and Usopp had never been good with partings. It was just that she had still hoped that he would come see them off today…
Kaya gasped as her gaze alighted on a familiar bandana-wearing figure streaking down toward the beach. She lunged towards the railing, trying to decrease their distance even as the Merry sailed away from the shore. "Usopp!"
And there was Usopp, skidding to a stop and dropping an enormous rucksack onto the beach. It took him several pants to get back his voice, but when he did he sucked in a huge breath to yell. "I won't lose to you, Kaya! I'm going to become a brave warrior of the sea on my own strength!" He punched a fist into the air. "The Great Captain Usopp yields to no one!"
Kaya's returning smile was half tears and all joy as she also punched her fist in the air. "I'll be waiting!" Kaya called back, her pose dissolving into frantic waving until the already-tiny figure faded out of sight.
Usopp couldn't stop grinning even as he finally let his arm fall. "I'll see you soon, Kaya," he said to the blowing wind.
Chapter 3: The Chef of the Sea
"So you're going with them, are you?"
Gin tapped the final nail into the railing and straightened to admire his handiwork. The Baratie staff was busy with repairs, and he'd instantly offered to help. It was partially his fault, anyway, so this was the least he could do. His companion offered him a cigarette, which he accepted and let the other light before he answered.
Sanji smiled round his own cigarette. "Good. That shitty bastard Krieg was never worth your loyalty any day." The cook's demeanor shifted suddenly. "Ah, I envy you so much to be able to sail with such lovely ladies! Ah, my beautiful Nami-swan! And of course Kaya-chwan and Kuina-swan as well~" Sanji dreamily puffed out a heart-shaped smoke ring, which soon shattered with a sudden memory. "That damn Mihawk, hurting a lady like that! If not for the fact that we had another problem at hand, I would have fought him myself for making lovely Kuina-san bleed!"
As Sanji fumed, Gin pondered on how to approach the topic.
"…Hey Sanji, have you ever thought about setting sail yourself? You could come with us, you know. From what I've seen, Ace has taken a liking to you."
"Yup, that's right," came a voice out of seemingly nowhere.
As the two talking men jumped in shock, Ace leapt nimbly to crouch on the railing next to Sanji, staring at him bright-eyed. "So how about it? Come be our cook, Sanji? We'll be heading for the Grand Line, you have something you want to find there too, don't you?"
Sanji was silent for a while, taking a thoughtful drag on his cigarette and letting it out as a long stream of smoke. When he turned back to Ace they knew he had come to a decision. "As attractive an offer as that sounds, I'm going to have to stay no. I'm gonna stay here and be a cook, until the day that damn geezer acknowledges my cooking." Sanji leaned against the railing, looking out at the vast sea. "I still want to find All Blue someday, but protecting this place has become even more important to me. The old geezer, those shitty bastards… They're family." He looked at them with a bright grin, and they knew this was what he really wanted. "This place is home, and I don't think I'm ready to leave just yet."
Chapter 4: The Mapmaker
Nami wrapped her arms tightly around her sister. "Stay safe. And remember to write lots!"
Nojiko hugged back, but then pulled back to look searchingly into the redhead's eyes. "Nami, are you sure-" She was cut off by an eye-roll.
"Don't be silly. You were never meant to be tied down to one place. As for me, I've done more than my share of travelling, I'd rather settle down. But you? You would always ask me about the places I've been, the things I've seen. But stories are never enough. You've got to experience them for yourself. And what better time than now?" she glanced with a small smile at where Ace lounged against the fence, looking rather overwhelmed by the villagers' doting attention but making the effort to respond to their chatter. "He's a good captain, you know."
Nojiko smiled back. "I know." Impulsively she caught her sister in another tight hug. "I'm going to miss you."
"But you're going to have lots of fun," Nami said with a wink.
Nojiko shifted the sling of her shotgun so that it rested more comfortably on her shoulder. It was the same one that had belonged to Bellemere. She wondered for a moment what Bellemere would think of her going off to be a pirate, but a voice in her mind that sounded so much like her adopted mother scoffed and told her she was being silly. And she saw in Nami's smile that it was the truth.
She grinned, bright and true. "That I am."
Chapter 5: The Doctor
Kureha smiled with rare kindness as the young reindeer skittled awkwardly closer. "You're a special one, aren't you?" she murmured with sympathy as she took in his blue nose. He must have been ostracized from his herd, the poor child. Normally reindeers wouldn't venture so close to human-populated areas on their own, but she could tell that this one had nowhere else to go.
"Hey, how about I give you a job to do, and in exchange you can stay with me? I'm of course as young as I ever was, but I'd like to have someone to pull my sleigh for me. Saves me some work and time. So how about it?"
Seeming to be able to understand her words, Chopper gave a happy little neigh.
Chapter 6: The Historian
"Did he really have to set the whole desert on fire?" The speaker sighed, casting a disparaging look at the charred sand that surrounded them. Thankfully the blaze had mostly burnt out, only a few persistent embers here and there, but it still made the already sweltering Alabasta climate downright unbearable. The girl grumbled, tucking a sweaty lock of short hair behind her ear. "While it's good that Fire Fist got rid of Crocodile for us, he clearly overdid it."
"Says the girl who karates rocks just for fun."
"Hey, I'm not the one who wrecked the training room last week!"
"I was practicing a new move!"
Miss All-Sunday watched the pair of youths from her hiding place in the shadows with wary amusement. She'd come back to see if any material could be salvaged from the fallen ruins but had been unexpectedly met with these two instead. She had no choice but to wait for them to leave, then.
"That said… Miss Nico, would you mind coming out to talk?" the copper-haired girl commented sweetly.
Robin stiffened, eyes already darting around for an escape. A dull clank made her glance back at the pair, all senses on overdrive.
"We really just want to talk, Miss Nico." The blond youth had dropped the steel pipe he'd been carrying onto the ground, hands held up to show that he was unarmed. Not that it made much of a difference, really, for Robin had no doubt that both of them were skilled hand-to-hand fighters. Still, they seemed sincere about not wanting to harm her, and it wasn't like she had much choice in the matter given that they had already discovered her presence. She might as well listen to what they wanted.
The man's smile widened genuinely as she stepped out into the open. He doffed his top hat at her politely. "We've been searching for you for a long time, Miss Nico Robin. My name is Sabo, and this is my comrade Koala. We represent the Revolutionary Army and the will of our leader Dragon in approaching you here today."
Chapter 7: The Shipbuilder
"Boys, tea time!"
"Tea time! Tea time! With cakes and cookies!"
"Thank you, Kokoro-san, Chimney," Iceburg smiled as he took a caramel cookie from the plate the little girl held up to him. Franky was still wiggling, which was making the child laugh.
"Chimney and I are heading back to the station tomorrow, someone needs to take care of it after all. It's good that you boys work hard, but don't forget to take breaks now and then, alright?"
"Yes, Kokoro-san," they chorused, feeling nostalgic of the good old days when they had just been young apprentices under the greatest man they had ever known and would ever know. Those days were over, but they were determined to take up Tom's legacy.
Franky struck a pose. "Ow! I'm all recharged! Let's do this, Baka-burg! We're going to make this city float with a DON!"
"Nma, for once Franky, I couldn't have said it better myself."
Chapter 8: The Musician
"Yohohoho, Yohoho~ Yohohoho, Yohoho~ Delivering Bink's Sake~" the voice carried merrily over the water and Crocus straightened, lowering his newspaper to allow his eyes to scan the seas for the source of the singing.
From beneath the waves, the island whale surfaced to look around wide-eyed. "Buoh?"
A small boat drifted into view, guided by the smooth wind blowing in its sails. A figure sat upon the prow, violin in hand.
"Yohohoho, Yohoho~ Laboon~~~ I'm back~!"
"Buuoooohhhh!" with that bellowing exclamation Laboon swept towards the tiny vessel, confirming Crocus' suspicions. The lighthouse keeper let his newspaper drop completely, hurrying to the shore to get a closer view.
The figure laughed cheerfully as the waves rocked the boat, and then reached out a hand to touch the whale's side. An exchange of some sort seemed to occur between sailor and whale, for a moment later Laboon lifted the boat onto his head and swam towards the lighthouse.
Crocus was not by nature a man who was easy to surprise. But his jaw dropped nonetheless at the sight of the skeleton that leapt nimbly onto the shore.
"Ah, Crocus-san, it is good to see you well!"
The apparition tipped his little hat at him.
"You are of the Rumbar Pirates?" His gaze catalogued the distinctive afro that crowned the skeleton's skull, along with the violin he held at his side. His eyes widened in realization as he ventured, "Brook?"
"Yohohoho! Indeed I am! I have returned!" The skeleton – no, Brook – made a bow.
Crocus' face broke into a smile, coming up to clasp the other's bony hand. "Goodness, it's good to see you again, old friend!"
From the water, Laboon watched them teary-eyed. "Buoooh," he whined.
Brook laughed, turning back to the island whale. "Yes, yes, Laboon!" He lifted his violin back up and started fiddling a cheery tune, much to the whale's delight. Crocus smiled and went in to make some tea.
In a different world, things would have been different. But in this world, these were the choices made, these were the fates played.
In this world, this is their story.
Chapter 4: Marineford (Version 2)
Thank you for loving me.
On Sabaody Archipelago, a commotion rustled through the crowd that had gathered before the screens as they craned to get a better look over the heads of those before them, alerted by the whispers of those nearest. "It's Straw Hat!" "Straw Hat Luffy has appeared!"
The spectators stared as the visual den den mushi zoomed in on the prisoner being led up to the execution stand. It was something that would stay imprinted in their minds even as they recalled it years later, and brought back memories in those who had witnessed or heard tales of another legendary execution.
For even though Monkey D. Luffy was being led to his death… never did his smile waver.
"Garp… I'm going to tell them everything."
"Do as you like. I'll be down below."
Tsuru watched Garp shrewdly as he joined her below the stands, but said nothing. Garp felt the weight of her gaze, however, and sighed heavily. "At this point, it's not like it's going to make any difference. Labels can't hurt him anymore, not at this point. Especially now that he has become a notorious outlaw himself." The veteran Marine hardened his jaw. "He's made his choice, and he has to live it." Or die for it, went unsaid. Tsuru turned her gaze back to the horizon, allowing her old friend his privacy.
Overhead, Sengoku picked up the broadcasting Den Den Mushi. "Everyone, I have something crucial to tell you all. Something about the true meaning of Monkey D. Luffy meeting his end here today."
"Gurararara! My beloved son had better be safe and sound!"
"Whitebeard!" Sengoku grit his teeth. His eyes swept across the crescent-moon formation made by Whitebeard's allies around the bay. The way the pirates had them surrounded was worrying in itself, but there was one point that especially caught his attention. Right in the center, at the mouth of the bay, there was a gap large enough for another ship to pass. It couldn't be…! But of course, it could. They had known of this possibility the moment they made the decision.
In answer to his suspicions, the figure of another ship appeared, shrouded by mist and slowly becoming clearer to the eye. That unmistakable dragon figurehead entered first into their view as the Revolutionaries' flagship sailed fearlessly into the bay, to take its place beside the Moby Dick. Garp's eyes narrowed at the green-cloaked figure that stood at the bow. "…Dragon!"
Sengoku's hands clenched at his sides. Only the Heavens knew how the outcome of this battle would be.
"'Melt a little of the ice and we'll slide right down', my foot!"
"I'm sorry, it was an accident!"
"We're going to dieeeeeee! It's solid ice down there!"
"Oh wait! If it's ice I can melt it! HIKEN!"
"Now we're going to drooooowwwwwnnnnn!"
"These Devil Fruit users…"
"Right! Sabo, I'll be counting on you!"
Everyone's jaw dropped open as an entire battleship fell from the sky, along with what appeared to be a whole battalion of escaped prisoners.
Grumbling, Sabo tossed Ace onto the ice. The fire user shot upright the moment he was free of numbing seawater, scrambling to his feet unheeding of the slippery surface.
"WE'RE HERE TO SAVE YOU!" Ace yelled. Without ceremony he seized Sabo under one arm in a vice grip, heedless of his protests. "THIS IDIOT IS HERE TOO!"
For a moment Sabo hesitated, but the sight of that painfully figure familiar dispelled all uncertainty. He straightened, shaking off Ace's arm to call out as well. "LUFFY!"
Sengoku's eyes narrowed. "Garp. Who is that boy with Fire Fist!?" he snapped.
Garp was stunned. "There's only one person I can think of, but they said he died years ago."
But a whisper from the chained prisoner confirmed it. "Sabo…?" There was disbelief in his voice, but not a sliver of doubt. "Sa… SABO!" Luffy cried, tears streaming down his face.
Sabo smiled wryly. "He's the oldest, but he's still as much a crybaby as ever."
"That's never gonna change."
The brothers shared a glance, fond exasperation staying for a moment before seriousness retook their expressions. Both knew how much was as stake here. Wordlessly, Ace's eyebrows raised a fraction in question, and Sabo inclined his head barely perceptibly.
But that almost unseen exchange was clearly enough for the two of them, for Ace immediately broke into a full-out sprint. Without missing a beat, Sabo kept at his side, matching his speed perfectly. Slowly, matching grins grew on their faces despite the situation. This was familiar, this was good, and they were going to get their brother back to complete it.
"Don't get left behind, Sabo! You've ten years of training to catch up on!" Ace teased as he shot off a barrage of flaming fists.
Sabo's grin just grew wider, drawing the metal pipe strapped to his back. An inky black spread across it as he coated the weapon with Haki. He slammed the long end of the pipe into the nearest Marine's midriff, sending him barreling into those following him. "Tell that to yourself, Ace! Try to keep up!"
"Luffy! We're coming to get you!"
The Revolutionary leader turned slightly to glance at the man who had landed on the deck with a grace that belied his size. A hint of a smile graced his lips, dispelling the worry in his eyes for a moment at the sight of an old friend. "Welcome back, Iva."
"Fufufufu, it is my honor to fight by your side once more. I only vish that it wasn't under such a perilous situation as this. There is one thing you ought to know if you have not heard yet, which ve heard on a Marine channel on our vay here. They're planning to execute Straw Hat-boy ahead of schedule."
Luffy closed his eyes briefly, then opened them again. "STAY AWAY! ACE, SABO! I'M YOUR BIG BROTHER, I'M—"
"DAMMIT LUFFY IT'S OUR TURN TO PROTECT YOU NOW!" Ace roared, cutting him off, followed by a sharp kick in the gut with a flaming boot towards a Marine who had gotten in his way.
"WHAT HE SAID!" Sabo's staff was coated black with Haki, and was proving extremely effective in clearing the path.
Luffy reeled back, eyes wide as his brothers cut a swath through the Marines as they fought to get to the execution platform.
Eyes narrowing, Sengoku snapped up the receiver of the broadcasting Den Den Mushi. "Cut those men down without hesitation! Fire Fist Ace is another danger for the future! Not only was he raised together with Luffy, he is also the son of the late Pirate King, Gold Roger!"
Ace grit his teeth as shocked exclamations erupted across the battlefield. He hated that it matter even in a time like this, especially in a time like this. He hated the eyes that were drawn to him from all over the battlefield, now that they knew. But even so…
Over the fallen form of a Marine officer, Sabo met his eyes. "Luffy comes first."
"Ace, you go ahead! You've got to get to Luffy! I'll hold these guys off!"
Ace dashed without hesitation onto the path Inazuma had made, trusting in his brother's ability to take care of himself. Luffy was the one most at risk here, they'd already tried to execute him early, he had to get there before the Marines attempted anything else!
An all-too-familiar figure landed in the middle of the path, crumbling the stone as if it were made of sand.
Ace's eyes widened. Crap! "Gramps!"
Garp reared up. "If you want to get past, you're going to have to kill me first!"
"Dammit Gramps, I can't! Get out of the way!" They may not be related by blood, but he owed his life to this man. And for all his faults, Garp had been a good grandfather. But he couldn't stop here, not when he'd gotten so far!
"Then Luffy will die!"
"I can't let that happen either! Gramps! Let me through!"
"You are my enemy, Fire Fist Ace!"
With wide eyes he saw the fist lifted against him, but then his gaze narrowed with determination. Luffy came first. He had to do this.
Still it came as a shock even to himself as his bare fist collided with the side of Garp's face, sending the Vice Admiral tumbling down below. Ace swallowed with difficulty as continued running towards Luffy. Gramps had let him win, he knew. There was no way he would have been taken down so easily. Knowing that; knowing that the expectations of so many lay on him for this, he could not fail.
Taking a deep breath, he took that final step onto the platform.
"Do you call this being free!?"
"Freer than you are, Gramps."
Sabo's head snapped towards the platform, eyes locking on his falling brothers. Ace appeared to be struggling with Luffy's handcuffs still. If he didn't make it in time…
Suddenly a huge balloon-like figure expanded, catching all the cannonballs and flinging them back helter-skelter. Yells erupted around as everyone did their best to avoid the falling ammunition, explosions flaming up.
Luffy and Ace landed next to him. "Sabo!"
His grin made his cheeks ache, but he was finally home. "Let's get out of here!"
Vista whistled, impressed. "Just look at them go!"
If anyone had thought that the teamwork between the youngest two had been fluid, this team-up was borderline flawless. The three brothers fell seamlessly into a pattern that they seemed to instinctively know, filling in any gaps that the other two left open.
"Shishishi, I missed this."
A single shockwave of Conqueror's Haki from Luffy sent about half the Marines in their path tumbling to the ground and the few woozy ones left were easily scattered by a lightning-quick Gatling. Behind him, Ace and Sabo stood back to back, taking care of those who attempted to charge in from other directions.
Luffy tilted to one side, expertly ducking away from the trajectory of a seastone-tipped jitte.
"Sorry Smokey, I'm not letting you catch me here! Gear Second!"
Smoker grit his teeth as a haki-coated fist slammed into his midriff.
"Vice Admiral!" Dashi ran up to help Smoker up, sword sheath clinking at his side, but the older man held up a hand to wave the Captain back to his position as he watched the three brothers move further and further away.
It was better this way.
At Sabaody Archipelago, a tall man stood watching the broadcast.
"You're trouble as always, Mugiwara-ya! Bepo, we're setting sail!"
"Aye aye, captain!"
"Torao! Torao!" "You're my friend!"
The Moby Dick was burning.
Luffy stilled, looking towards the back of that great man, standing strong despite the wounds that littered his body. "…Oyaji!"
"Listen well, Whitebeard Pirates! This is my last captain's order! You and I are parting ways here! Get back to the New World in one piece!"
"Oyaji!?" "No, Oyaji, don't leave us!" "Oyaji!"
Whitebeard glanced at the young man who had approached, a small smile curling his bloodied lips. "I never did give you that match you wanted, Luffy, did I? Gurararara. I hope you will forgive an old man's oversight."
"You're really not going with us, Oyaji?"
"I'm a remnant of my era. There's no ship that will bring me into the new one. The world belongs to you young people now."
The usually cheerful rubber youth's face was unerringly serious. "I see."
The great man chuckled. "Good boy. Help out Marco sometime, alright? You know how he overworks himself. Now go."
Luffy nodded. "Come on, Ace, Sabo!" The pair was immediately at his side.
"Luffy, let's get to the Revolutionaries' ship. Dragon-san is waiting for us."
They started running, even as the world burned around them. Behind them, Marineford shook from the sheer force of Whitebeard's power. But Sabo only had eyes for his brothers, and their destination where that man stood. They would be safe, they just had to reach that ship…
"Look out, it's Akainu!"
Magma exploded right next to his feet, sending him stumbling over the ice. He tried to scramble back to his feet, but it was too late. Sabo could only sit there frozen as the fist of magma descended upon him. He had cheated the flames last time but it seemed like this was still the way he was going to die...
He let his eyes slide close. He could only wish that his brothers would get out of this unharmed.
'I'm sorry, Luffy, Ace, looks like it's goodbye for real this time.'
But instead of burning pain, a warm body enveloped him. All his breath left his body. No… No, it couldn't be…
Fingers tightened in their grip on his shirt, fire singeing the fabric as the element slipped from its user's control.
It only took the sound of Ace's shattered whisper for him to know what had happened. Or no, he actually already knew, he just didn't want to believe that the smell that filled his nostrils was one of burnt flesh and rubber. And even though he knew that he didn't want to see what faced him, he still forced himself to open his eyes.
Above him was Ace, but he turned with equally wide eyes and Sabo could only watch numbly as their older brother fell into their arms. Because it couldn't be happening, could it? But it was. And that was blood that was leaking between his fingers, and he was no stranger to blood but this was his brother's blood spilling from a burning hole through his chest.
"Shishishi… This time I… protected both of you."
"Dammit Luffy why, my devil fruit's a Logia, I could have–" Ace croaked out, voice raspy with anguish. A gentle hand came up to caress the side of his face, brushing damp hair away.
"No Ace, your fire wouldn't have been able to stand up to this." Another hand came to touch Sabo's cheek, and he wordlessly leaned into it. "You've got to take care of each other, okay? You're my beloved little brothers. Sabo… I'm really happy you're alive. Ace, thank you for existing."
"…Luffy!" Ace choked. Sabo swallowed past his tears, unable to speak.
Luffy just smiled. "Tell Shanks I'm sorry I won't be able to return his hat to him myself." His gaze turned up to look towards the endless blue sky. "Oyaji… You guys… Gramps too… And Ace, Sabo… Hey, if you happen to run into Dadan and Makino and the others, will you tell them for me too? Shanks and the rest of them also." Luffy's grin widened. "Everyone… I love you! Shishishishi!"
With that last laugh, his eyes slipped close.
"Garp. What are you doing?"
Garp clenched his teeth, tears leaking from his eyes. "Hold me down properly, Sengoku. Because if you don't, I'm gonna kill that Sakazuki."
A Haki-coated hand, curled into a claw, shot out to meet the magma that descended.
"So you can show fury as well, Dragon!" Sakazuki sneered, pushing against the arm that held him at bay. Both sides shook with the exertion but Dragon held firm, his usually calm façade abandoned to eyes that burned with undisguisable hatred. But Sakazuki refused to be delayed. Vermin still remained, in the form of Gold Roger's son. That bloodline could not be allowed to live any longer.
"Admiral Sakazuki! Behind you!"
Sakazuki cursed as Whitebeard's bisento came slicing down at him, forcing him to release the standstill with Dragon. His eyes narrowed as the pair placed themselves resolutely between him and his targets, whose half-conscious forms were being hustled away by the enemy.
With an enraged yell, he charged in for battle.
He would not be thwarted here. Absolute Justice must be upheld.
Cool grey eyes swept across the battlefield, cataloguing the situation. They checked briefly on that fallen form, smile seen even from afar, before landing firmly on a retreating group holding the two who claimed to be Straw Hat's brothers. "You there! Bring both of them to my submarine!"
"The hell, who are you?"
"I'm a doctor! Mugiwara-ya is…was my friend. Let me help!"
Coby's entire body was shaking, but he gritted his teeth and forced himself to stay put. He had said what he wanted to say and if he was going to die for it, then so be it.
"Can't you feel it!? Those lives disappearing one after another! We've already completed our goal! Chasing after pirates who have no will to fight, abandoning Marines who could be saved if tended to! And just piling more sacrifices on top of them! WHY CAN'T WE JUST STOP ALREADY!?"
"Well said, young man."
All eyes went to the captain as he stepped onto the icy shore, backed by his crew. With the way they stood, no one would have thought that the Red Hair Pirates had engaged another Yonko just the day previous.
"We're here to stop the war."
It took one step away from the blood-soaked battlefield for Shanks' façade to crumble completely.
Benn caught him as he stumbled, turning him so that the captain's head rested against his shoulder. He could feel him trembling, Shanks' one remaining hand coming up to grab at him like a lifeline.
Face gaunt and eyes only for his captain, Yasopp took a half-step forward, but a tiny shake of the head from Benn had the sniper stepping back. His gaze found his old friend's, and he knew he could not do anything here, but there was something else he could do in turn. Nodding in acknowledgment, he returned above deck to organize the crew.
Benn let his body fall against the wall, Shanks following the motion and pressing even closer. He gently smoothed down the other's red hair, remembering the youth with the too-bright smile and lonely eyes that he had met, so many years ago.
"Why… Why do they have to die?"
It felt like he was walking through a haze.
Slowly, Dragon lifted the limp body of his son into his arms, cradling him so tenderly. The last time he had held Luffy like this… it had been but mere days after he had been born. How could it be that the second time would be in death?
And a boy this child still was, cheeks still round and childish, not at all looking his twenty years. All who had known him would have told of the inextinguishable delight he had in everything in the world. Of the happiness and hope he brought to everyone he met. Yet… Yet, all that was left of that joy was the remnants of a smile across cold lips.
To the masses, it would appear as if Dragon's expression never wavered the slightest. The press would later describe the man as a cold-hearted one, and speak of the terrifying poise he held as the Revolutionary strode across the battle-torn bay with his son in his arms.
But to those who knew him well, it was clear that his mask had well and truly cracked. It was apparent in the lines of his body, tensed like a string about to snap, but at the same time slumped like something had already broken. And it was most apparent in his eyes, those eyes which for as long as they had known him had pierced and inspired and burned, those eyes which were now hollow.
Had his hands been free, they would be clenching so hard they would drip blood, but as it was he held the boy in his arms with gentleness few knew him capable of.
The father had lost the son he had barely gotten to know, and perhaps that was the greatest injustice.
Garp sat there for a long time, even after all the injured officers had been escorted to the infirmary. After all the bodies of their men had been carried away by their solemn comrades.
They had long since given up on trying to coax him back inside. Not that there was much 'inside' left, Marineford was a wreck in more ways than one.
The heavens had opened up to a torrent of rain about an hour back, but Garp welcomed it, because it matched the numbness of his heart. But at the same time he resented it, for it washed away the blood that soaked the land, replacing it with clear running water. It cleansed the earth, and threatened to cleanse memories; and he knew it would, for human memory was so very short. In days, or perhaps even in hours, newspapers would blare out a story different from the tragedy that had played out today, and the world would believe it. And because the world believed it they would soon come to believe it as well, and forget.
Forget that a young boy had once been the brightest point of his life; that a youth had caused him both frustration and a hidden pride; that a man who had loved the world had died here with a smile on his face.
And what hurt the most was that even with everything had happened, even with how Garp had tried to stop Ace, how Garp had chosen Justice over family… in the end Luffy had still said that he loved him.
Luffy had forgiven him for what he had done. But he was sure he couldn't forgive himself.
"Let go of me at once! How dare you restrain me in this fashion!?" Hancock screeched. "Marigold! Sandersonia!"
The two younger women looked away shamefully, but the snakes coiled around her body didn't loosen the slightest.
Her ire increased with every passing moment. "Release me!"
Sandersonia worried her lip in distress. "We cannot, sister."
Hancock's glare could have turned them to stone if she could use her powers. Her voice was low with cold threat. "Sandersonia." The youngest flinched. "Marigold." The redhead looked to the side guiltily. "If you release this very moment, I may still forgive you for this impertinence."
"If you will never forgive us, then so be it. This is for your own good," a new voice entered, the voice of their elder.
The Snake Princess' rage turned towards the old woman, but the elder met her smoldering gaze without outward emotion.
After a while Hancock's eyes turned back to the ceiling, and Nyon quietly waved for the two youngest sisters to leave the room. They did, but not without a lingering worried glance at their sister.
Silence filled the room as Nyon stood waiting. It was a long time before Hancock spoke, but when she did enough grief filled her voice to drown a soul.
"Elder…" Hancock choked. "What is this feeling, Elder Nyon? How can I make the pain go away?"
The older woman gave no answer, staying achingly silent.
Hancock stared sightlessly at the ceiling. But his smile still danced before her eyes in the pattern on the wood, his laugh still whispered in her ear in the silence of the room.
"There was once I thought that I no longer had a heart. Then he showed me that I did," she whispered. "And I thought that if he dies, it would die with him." She scrunched up her eyes against the flood of tears that would not stop. "But why is this heart still in my chest!?"
"Coby…" Helmeppo looked worriedly at his friend from the doorway. They had both grieved for Luffy's death, but Coby had always been much closer to the straw-hat wearing youth and it showed in his slumped posture.
"I thought that if I became a Marine, I could protect the world from evil. That I would be able to fight for what I believe in. I trained so hard so that I could become strong and he would acknowledge me. But I'm still weak, aren't I?"
Silence fell for a long while, Coby choking back the sobs that threatened to return. But finally his fists clenched, and when he opened his eyes again they were still over-bright but shining with determination.
"Hey Helmeppo… I promised Luffy-san that I would become an Admiral someday. I'm not going to stop until I reach that. I'm going to change this rotten order from the inside."
A ghost of a smile returning to his lips at his friend's resolve, Helmeppo saluted sharply. "I'll follow you to the end, sir."
A young man sat on a fallen log, newspaper in hand. But the paper was never opened, for its reader's gaze was stuck on the first page, reading, rereading, as if he couldn't believe what laid before his eyes.
At his side, a custom-made slingshot lay forgotten, as were the new traps he had been eager to test out until the News Coo had dropped the newspaper onto his head.
"Usoppun? Is something the matter?"
Usopp cast one last look at the headlines before casting the paper aside and picking up Kabuto. "No, it's nothing," he lied.
'Hey, hey, you're Usopp, aren't you? Yasopp's son? Your dad told me loads of stories about you! I'm Luffy, nice ta meet you!"
Crocus looked sadly at the wailing giant whale, heedless to Brook's attempts to placate him. The newspaper that had brought that terrible fate to him still hung loosely in one hand.
"I felt it best to tell him," he told Brook later, after Laboon had cried himself to slumber. "It would be crueler to let him hold the false hope that Luffy would return one day."
The musician took a pensive sip of tea. "This Luffy-san, I daresay you've told me of him before?"
"Yes indeed, he was the one who painted that picture on Laboon. It's all thanks to him that Laboon recovered his spirits in recent years."
"I see. It is to him that I owe a debt. I wish I could have met him, he sounds like an amazing person."
The two old pirates lapsed into silence, but both had the same thought on their minds.
Why do the good men die young?
Dragon stood before the grave of his son.
His senses told him of the man who had come to stand beside him, equally silent.
"I heard that you saved my son's life once before. I thank you."
Shanks sucked in a slow, ragged breath. "I wish I could have done more."
The grave was painfully small in the shadow of Whitebeard's coat. They had been unable to find the boy's beloved straw hat anywhere and he'd always had few belongings; so they decorated his grave with strips of cloth red and yellow, because that would be how they would always remember him, bold and bright like the sun.
In a little village in East Blue, the residents grieved for their sunshine. No one questioned the bandits that came from the mountains to drown their sorrows amidst them in Makino's bar. No one questioned when Makino's lip trembled and she would disappear for an hour before returning. No one questioned the cloaked man who landed on their docks, who Makino finally cried to, who bowed his head to the mountain bandits, who some of them remembered in a quiet young boy from decades ago.
But inwardly they all had questions about when, how, why.
Because like so many others, Foosha had lost its sun.
Law shot an unreadable glance at the blond who had come to sit at the shore beside the Heart Pirates' little camp. "You know Hiken-ya is awake now," he commented flatly, eyes watching the younger like a hawk.
"Yeah," the other replied without inflection, also revealing nothing. There was the issue that the blond was resolutely looking anywhere but Law, though. Normally he would have left well alone, but these were Mugiwara-ya's brothers, and since he had decided to pick them up, he felt a tiny bit responsible for them. Curse that rubber idiot for rubbing off some of his overfriendliness on him.
Looking up from the anatomy book he had been reading, Law decided to be blunt. "Why, then, are you avoiding him?"
"I'm not!" Sabo instinctively denied, eyes snapping towards him, but Law's unimpressed stare made him wilt. "I'm not…" he still muttered.
"Right." Law's tone was drier than the Alabastan desert during a drought.
The doctor returned his gaze to a detailed sketch of a brain inflammation, letting the younger man stew over it on his own. No good would come out of pushing too hard, he had to come to terms with it himself, and if he needed a listening ear he knew Law would still be there. It was strange, to be a party that one would confide in, but it wasn't all bad a feeling.
After a while, the youth stress-rigid posture slumped, uncertainty twisting his face. "I… It's just that… I, I can't face Ace. I mean- I left them for ten years! Ten years that they thought I was dead! And I came back to save him, but Luffy- he died saving me instead! I don't even have a right to grieve!"
"Idiot… So you've been thinking that way all this while?"
Sabo whipped around, heart thumping madly as he swallowed down the lump that leapt to his throat as he met the familiar yet unfamiliar form of his brother. He scarcely noticed Law moving quietly away to allow them their privacy. "A-Ace…"
"You know Luffy wouldn't have wanted you to blame yourself." There was still heavy pain in his voice, but the brunette still cracked a wavering smile. "He always was going on about how… how we little brothers should just let him protect us."
Sabo's eyes stung as he tried to match Ace's effort. "He was, wasn't he?"
The two brothers stared at each other for a long moment, black eyes into blue. The war had aged them both, had taken away that most important person…but it had also pulled them back together.
Ace was the first to move, tackling the other in a hug. "Damn you, don't you dare disappear on me again."
Sabo smiled through the wetness that ran down his cheeks even as he tightened the hold. "I'm back for good."
And even though countless tears had already been shed, this was the first time since they left that accursed battlefield that their hearts lightened just a tiny bit. They stayed like that even as the sun slanted down towards the horizon, until Ace spoke in a mumble, not taking his face off Sabo's shoulder.
"Rayleigh offered to train me."
Sabo blinked. "Silvers Rayleigh?"
Ace nodded into the crook of his brother's neck.
The blond considered it for a moment, and what it meant for Ace. "Are you going to accept?"
Ace finally pulled away enough to meet Sabo's eyes, and while there was still doubt there was determination as well. "I think I will. I want to become stronger, and Rayleigh gave me the idea of training for two years before meeting back up with my crew. I think that's what we need."
Sabo steeled his resolve. He wanted to do this, this was the way it should have been. "I'll-"
"Sabo, you want to go back to the Revolutionaries, don't you? You should."
Sabo glanced sharply at Ace, surprised. He had been prepared to give up the Revolution to stay with Ace, but now… It seemed that Ace would never fail to throw him into a loop.
Ace spoke first, already knowing what he was thinking. "You have a place with them. I could see that they are to you what my crew is to me. They're family, aren't they?"
Sabo thought of Koala, who wouldn't be sure if he was coming back or not, but would wait anyway; of Dragon, who had become a father and a mentor to him; of all the others, who had accepted a fire-scarred child to their midst.
Tears threatened once more, and he blinked them away. "They are."
"Then you must go back to them. They'll be waiting."
"Ace…!" Sabo swallowed the tears in his throat, rubbing away the moisture that slipped. This time when he met his brother's eyes again, resolution shone within. "Let's make a promise, Ace. When we next meet, we're going to be much stronger than we are now. We never did settle that tie, did we? Let's have our next fight be the tiebreaker."
Ace's smile matched his as they bumped fists, the seal on a promise. "I'll hold you to it."
Heavy booted feet thumped on the old wooden boards of the building. The only patron of the bar turned with a secretive smile. Hazy sunlight glinted off round spectacles as he threw back a glass of scotch. The glass was set back down on the wooden bar with a thud.
"Well, well, well. What can I do for you today, Vice Admiral?"
Shakky chuckled, chin resting in a slim hand. "I can't say I expected that. For the justice-driven White Hunter to have kept it for so long, let alone come to us like this."
Rayleigh laughed fondly as well, but his gaze was a bit moist.
"He had a knack for making friends in the most unlikely places, just like Roger."
Another one who had gone much too soon.
"What, I'm the first one here?"
"Second, huh. So Kuina got here first, that's just like her."
"Ah well, I'll go check up on the Sunny then. Got to make sure she's in top form."
"Is Ace-san here yet?"
"Jeez, it's not nice to keep a lady waiting, you know!"
"Haha, I bet he fell asleep somewhere."
"It's Ace-chan after all! Un, deux, trois!"
"Well, normally I'd be worried that he's gonna be late, but for this…"
Eight different voices, at eight different times, one same belief… "He'll be here."
Ace grinned widely. "Rayleigh!" he greeted, waving at the man who stood at the top of the hill even as he fled from his pursuers. The Marines gaped.
"Holy shit, it's Dark King Rayleigh!"
"Wait, didn't they say that Fire Fist is Gold Roger's son?"
"So they really were working together!"
An attack that slashed open the very earth itself made them all freeze.
"Ace was born of Roger's blood, that is true. But the man who he had become has nothing to do with Roger's. He is his own person. And he is my apprentice, so I advise that you do not cross that line." The Marines gulped as they eyed the line in question, wary of the man who had come to stand before them. Sunlight glinted off Rayleigh's glasses as he gave them a deceptively amiable smile. No one dared to step forward.
Ace swallowed past the emotion that lodged in his throat. Those words coming for this man in particular… "RAYLEIGH! Thanks for everything these past two years!"
"No need for such formalities. You've already grown past what I taught you. There's just one more thing before you leave…"
Something floated towards him, tossed to him by Rayleigh and carried by the wind, and he caught it in surprise. Looking at the object in his hand, his eyes widened. The old man smiled, his usual smirk soft and wistful. "He wanted you to have it. Now go! Set sail!"
His heart firming with resolve, Ace placed the straw hat upon his head, and with it took on the will of those before him.
"Watch over me, Luffy," he said quietly before tilting the brim back and taking in a deep breath. "I'M GONNA BE THE PIRATE KING!"