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They call him in because the kid’s like you, I think, hasn’t said a word and we even hit him, twice.

It doesn’t take any more than that to have Rocinante on his feet and out the door, headed for the room housing his brother’s throne. Fitting, he always thinks, that their outpost is in the garbage dump; Donquixote Doflamingo king of all that he surveys, smokestacks belching soot into the sky and refuse in the street.

His brother isn’t there himself when he arrives, only Trébol and Diamante sprawled together on the couch. The subject of the Diamante’s demand is standing near the door, very small and very still, all tattered clothes and a hat covering his eyes.

It doesn’t hide the burgeoning bruise over his cheekbone.

“Ah,” says Diamante, “Corazón! How good of you to come and help us out.”

It’s only the force of many years of practice that keeps him from erupting at Diamante, demanding an explanation for what’s happened here. (Diamante understands signing, if he can be bothered to pay attention to it: they all do. It's making them bother that's the challenge.) It’s clear enough, regardless, and as Dofi’s second showing empathy isn’t in his repertoire.

On the chalkboard he keeps on a string around his neck, his concession to those who can't understand him otherwise (or refuse, as Diamante does), he writes, what do you want me to do about him?, lets it drop. For effect, he arches a brow at Diamante while he digs through his pockets for cigarettes.

“Deal with him,” says Diamante, “get his name, see if there’s any point in keeping him around. He’s determined not to leave, so he’s probably here to join up, only he’s dumb as a mouse. Worse. Won’t even make a peep.” Trébol snickers from his place beside him, his repulsive body dripping over the furniture and onto the cobbles of the floor.

Rocinante lights his located cigarette, presses it between his lips. fine, he writes, and turns from the two to stride over to the kid; gets a better look at him at last, not just in passing.

The eyes that meet his from underneath the hat brim are bloodshot dark, and his gaze is fury, unmistakable. The boy’s fists are clenched, Rocinante sees, jaw set and locked; aside from the newly-set bruise he’s covered in cuts and scrapes and filth from head to toe, well-stitched shirt hanging shredded around his emaciated form.

He doesn’t look like a street rat, nor like a runaway. To Rocinante he looks like a spectre, bones and empty eyes patched together in the semblance of a boy.

There’s a sudden sinking in his stomach when he spots the white splotch at the hinge of the boy’s jaw, plaster-white and rough, and there’s the pieces clicking into place, an explanation for everything about him. Death warmed over; death walking free.

It takes him only an instant to turn back to Diamante and write FREVANCE, underlined for emphasis. The expression that crosses Diamante's face is something Rocinante might have treasured, under better circumstances.

Trébol’s chortle, aborted, is overridden by Diamante’s “What?

Rocinante erases his chalkboard with his sleeve, writes: I’ll deal with him. Utilitarian; betraying nothing, none of the way his heart is dropping like a stone.

“Fine,” says Diamante, “fine, just get him out of here until you’ve figured out what he wants.” He’s wiping his left hand on his trouser leg, Rocinante notices: the hand he struck the boy with, probably, rubbing it against the seam. As though that would help, were the White City's plague contagious.

Erasing the board again, Rocinante crouches before the boy—who is still glaring, defiant, eyes ablaze—and writes, your name? before pulling the string over his head and holding the chalkboard out, chalk rolled against the edge.

He almost expects the boy to refuse to unclench his fist to do it, but he doesn’t; he reaches out and takes the offered chalk, writes in a few harsh and shaky strokes: LAW.

Rocinante takes back the board. For a moment, he isn’t sure what to write, where to start. To begin with the interrogation Diamante wants is so inappropriate as to be criminal, anything like smalltalk equally so.

In the end, he starts simple.

hello, law.

*

Lying underneath the spreading shadow of the Birdcage, hands bound, Trafalgar Law is twenty-six and yet thirteen again: thirteen and helpless, thirteen and once again alone.

It’s a vivid thing, thirteen in screaming color. He can hear it all, knows the moment when he loses still another, loses everything. It takes the breath out of him like a blow to the solar plexus, downs him as the seastone shackles and the bullets don’t.

Memory alone is enough to bind him. There is blood on his hands—stark over the snow— gunfire an echo; the smell of gunpowder and cigarettes acrid in his nose.

Snow is falling on his face, and that under the sunny sky of Dressrosa his rational brain knows this to be false is little consolation. It’s only a little voice, lost under the roar of panic, under the pounding in his ears.

He’s thirteen and silent, thirteen and still deserted by his words and voice; not even a scream left in him, no tears to shed over the corpse that lies frost-rimed and still.

Just leaden suffocation, like a weight caught in his throat. Pressing down and down, gravitic, into silence absolute.

*

The boy doesn’t so much open up once away from Diamante as he does spit out pent-up communication, all at once: clutching at Rocinante’s chalkboard he writes out everything, starting with I want to kill everyone I can and ending with I’m here to join you. His hands shake the entire time, and Rocinante hardly wants to imagine how long it must have been since Law’s last meal: doesn’t know how to begin helping him, knowing where he’s from.

That the boy’s voice is gone is perhaps the least surprising thing about him. That he’s here, standing (swaying) in Spidermiles rather than burning in the mass graves ringing the White City—

With the board proffered suddenly back at him, Law’s glare turned insistent, Rocinante’s forced to end his deliberations. you can join us, he writes, but you might not last. At the boy’s fierce headshake, he takes the risk and adds, how long do you have to live?

Law holds up three fingers; when Rocinante writes years? he nods, then holds up two. Three years, two months, Rocinante interprets this; at a guess, the boy is maybe ten. It makes Rocinante’s heart sink all the more, his knowing so precisely.

More precisely than he could have known for his family, now surely lost, whether to disease or troops Rocinante doesn’t dare to guess.

Thinking hard, Rocinante writes, you don’t talk. It’s not a question, only it is, sort of; sometimes the asking matters, with these things. He himself hasn’t spoken a word in the last dozen years, but for him it matters, all the same.

NO, writes Law, big and final on the small chalkboard.

could you before? Rocinante writes back underneath, wiping the word away. His cigarette hangs forgotten in his mouth, tasting of damp paper.

Law only looks away, the lack of answer an answer in itself.

No chance that the boy’s already learned how to sign, then. A good starting point, Rocinante thinks, for after Law’s been fed at least scraps from the table. (And curse his role in the family being so close to Dofi; damn not being able to do what’s right, what’s needed, to save this boy from what's to come.) No, he decides: under the circumstances, a good starting point right now, before the boy comes under fire.

On the chalkboard, he writes, I can teach you to talk like I do. with my hands.

The expression on Law’s face when Rocinante glances back up at him is hollowly determined, and there is no need for further answer.

*

It’s Strawhat’s face that swims into view above him, blocking the Birdcage, Strawhat’s hand that grasps at his and squeezes. It’s not enough, not then; Strawhat’s talking but he can’t hear a word, too far gone in fouler things to think.

That’s when Strawhat surprises him, again; for his mouth stops moving, and he gestures instead in front of his chest, hands flat, away from himself and in again.

Breathe.

That this gets through—when everything else is far away, when the blood roaring in his ears feels deafening—perhaps ought to be classed a miracle. Breathe, Strawhat signs again, then turns his hand, points up, repeats the motion. Just breathe.

Law’s astonishment must show, because the next thing he sees him sign is My brother couldn’t hear. He follows it with Breathe, again, face worried and intent.

The familiar motions reach something in him that words and touch could not. Grasping for sanity, feeling as though he’s falling far short, Law gasps for air, inhales at last.

Good! signs Strawhat, and somehow Law can see the exclamation as Strawhat brings his right hand to his lips and then down to his left palm: his signing’s just as expressive as his voice, self-assured and clear. Keep breathing. Look at me.

Of all the things that stayed with him from those early years, signing is the easiest, the longest-used. Gladius’ swordsmanship contends, perhaps, but even that isn’t so essential; Law doesn’t know if Strawhat remembers or just guesses, but Law still prefers to sign at his crew rather than shout, still swallows his voice when it isn’t needed. Watching Strawhat make gestures that he knows by heart steadies him, pulls him out of his head enough for the past to start to recede. He breathes, in and out, in, out, one breath after another. Just breathe.

When he’s no longer so immobile, the air in his lungs less novel, he pulls his arms forward—the seastone heavy around his wrists, dragging them down—signs back with shaky hands: I’m fine. Speaking aloud, just then, would be too much: this feels safer, easier, ingrained. I’m fine.

Strawhat’s response is quick, right hand drawn sideways at his collarbone, then down in a diagonal that brings his hands apart. Liar.

It’s a true distinction, now and always, but Law signs I’m fine again, insistent. I will be. We have to keep going.

This, at least, Strawhat doesn’t deny. He looks away, over his shoulder, and Law can see the swordsman prowling along the ledge on which they’ve fallen, guarding the border. “Zoro,” Strawhat says, “two minutes.”

The swordsman nods back, and Law keeps breathing: two minutes is better than no, better than longer. If he stays here too long he fears he might become so bogged down in memory as to never move again, not even Strawhat’s unexpected skill enough to rouse him.

That Strawhat knows how to speak with his hands, just like Corazón, just as readily—it’s a comforting thing, for all that it’s surprising. There is no home left to Law, no physical place and no people; but there’s the little things, there’s this, pieces of family that he can still hold onto.

Just within sight, Strawhat signs, Two minutes, just in case. Like it’s habitual, repeating what he says aloud. Law supposes it would be, if Firefist Ace had been deaf.

Hands steadied, Law signs back. I’ll be ready.