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Those Who Favour Fire

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(In which Portgas D Ace wakes up.)

        Portgas D Ace had never expected to open his eyes again. The infamous D luck had finally run out for him. All of his crimes and failures catching up to him at last in the form of a magma fist through his torso. His only lingering regret was that Luffy would carry the memory of Ace's death. Ace would rather have spared his precious baby brother that pain.

        A flicker of gold light, like a single candle flame striving to drive back the cursed darkness.

        Ace did not remember opening his eyes, but he reached out for that tiny flame despite his disorientation. It responded eagerly to his will, just like every other flame since Ace had discovered and eaten the Flame Flame Devil Fruit. Those scant sparks grew, and spread, blanketing the surface of the dark, rippling sea that rose and fell in gentle swells under his bare feet with a thousand licks of fire. The light raced over the water, like dawn raced the stars, clinging and climbing over sand-crusted bare feet and skirts that swirled like sea foam.

        She wore seashells in her wavy hair, skin tanned dark by the sun, and teeth salt white against a crimson smile. She was his mother and his mistress, his first and forever love. The Goddess of the Sea frowned in unfeigned disappointment, eying the cut-short string that hung limp from Ace's ring finger. Fate ignored her sister-goddess' displeasure as she packed away her golden shears. A fraying, flame-coloured thread was pulled loose from another nearby weave and offered up for consideration. Ace swallowed, caught between a new destiny and the deep blue sea. His string of fate was ragged and grey, his flame flickering lower with every swiftly passing eternity. He was dead, yes, but he was a D, and nothing could deny the true will of D. Not even death.

"YOU PROMISED! ACE!"

        In the end, it was the chance to see his brother again that helped Ace make his final choice. Decided, Ace reached out and plucked the offered fruit from the Goddess' hands.

        It burned like embers against his lips, and tasted like freedom on his tongue.

/.../

        Ace licked the juice from his lips, tasting fish oil and salt, and had to fight back a surge of nausea. He forced his eyes open with a frown, gaze skittering around the circular room he both did and did not recognize. It was the tree house from his childhood, only not, and large enough for an adult to stand in. Ace slid out of bed, a simple affair made of a mattress resting on stacked wooden pallets, limbs weak and shaky as the fiercest hunger he could remember experiencing clawed at his guts.

A sniffle and a choked whimper pulled Ace over to the door. He thought he was ready for what lay on the other side of the canvas drape. Eventually the Universe would tire of proving all his preconceptions wrong. (Probably. Maybe. Never.)

'Tiny.' Was Ace's first, stunned thought.

'Too thin.' Was the second.

Ace's mouth was dry, his lips cracked. The flame logia was uniquely familiar with the symptoms of dehydration, but the way every movement ground what felt like tiny glass shards into his muscles and bones was a new and highly unpleasant experience.

"Lu... Luffy?" Ace's knees hit the rough wood planks hard enough to leave bruises. The straw hat adorned head whipped around, and wide black eyes were full of tears and shocked desperation as they locked on Ace's freckled face.

"Ace? Ace!" His little brother's rubbery body rocketed into his chest, fresh tears smearing over the raw, open mess of badly-bandaged wounds. Ace shoved the pain into a far corner of his mind to deal with later. Later, because right now Luffy's voice was cracked and broken and wrong as Ace clamped his arms around his baby brother, wrapping the younger D up in a protective hold as Luffy wailed. "I thought Ace was dead! I thought I'd be alone again forever! Ace, I was so scared!"

"Hey, Luffy, hey… c'mon, don't cry. I promised you, eh? I'll never die." Ace did not know how it was possible, but Luffy was seven again. The same age he had been when Garp forced the younger of his grandsons into Dadan's resentful care. It was like travelling through time, because Ace was still in his twenty-one year old body, and Luffy hardly weighed anything at all even with the unnatural weakness weighing down Ace’s limbs. "It's gonna be okay, little brother. Your big brother's right here."

Ace let Luffy cry himself out without commenting on it. This led to Ace holding a sleeping Luffy in his arms, staring up through the branches at the stars above Dawn Island while Luffy sniffled and dozed. There were clumsy bandages wrapped around Luffy's chest. A match for the cloth binding the wounds Ace could feel pulling in his torso as he carried the little boy back into the tree house. Ace frowned at the damage he could see staining the wraps on his younger brother. The older D had his own share of aches and pains. Not the least of which was the ragged sunburst of burned tissue that tunnelled through Ace's chest.

'Sakazuki.' Ace's lips twisted into a snarl that no small number of corrupted Marines and Morganeer pirates would run screaming at the sight of.

Things were wrong. Luffy was so young, and Ace was too old to still be in East Blue (eleven years too young, four years too old) but Ace knew where his new scar had come from. Luffy's madcap scramble to rescue Ace from execution had left its own marks on the rubber boy, and somehow this smaller Luffy had acquired the same wounds. At least superficially. The Luffy that Ace had died to protect had pushed himself so far over the edge he had gone hurtling over brand new ones. Hopefully this tinier (weaker, more fragile) Luffy had not gone quite that crazy.

'Conqueror’s Haki.' Ace mused, smoothing antibiotic cream over the deep gouges that crossed over each other to form a giant X on Luffy's chest. The wounds went from the boy's collarbone to the bottom of his ribcage on the opposite side, almost perfectly symmetrical. Ace pulled a fresh roll of bandages out of the over-sized (D sized) first aid kit Makino had put together for Luffy (and Ace and Sabo) and refreshed every time she came to visit. Shaking his head to knock unwelcome thoughts loose, Ace wrapped Luffy's now-cleaned wounds properly.

The logia user scowled at the amount of skin covered by sterile white. Luffy was in bad shape. Not quite bad enough for Ace to panic and hunt down a real doctor like a rabid hellhound, but bad enough that Ace was going to rip anyone who looked cross-eyed at his brother (his tiny, adorable, squishy little baby brother) into shreds and then cremate the pieces. The over-protective big-brother reflex Ace had on a normal day was bad enough (Smoker was damned lucky he was as honest and honourable as his reputation labelled him. Otherwise Ace would have smashed him into paste for hunting his brother.) After seeing Luffy almost die for him, having memories of Sabo's death dragged up, and now with Luffy so small and vulnerable... well.

Ace knew his own issues well enough to anticipate how savage he was going to be for a while. Ace would get over it eventually. Probably. Maybe. He would be able to hide it better by the time Luffy turned seventeen again at least. Which brought Ace's thoughts circling around to the main point again as he treated his own wounds. (Worse than Luffy's, borderline-actually fatal, but he could feel the power of his logia erasing the heat damage and burns even as he cleaned them out.)

Ace watched Luffy sleeping peacefully in the flickering light of a single lamp. 'Luffy can use Conqueror’s Haki. I'm going to have to train him.'

Conqueror's Haki was not as rare as the Marines wanted to believe. Ace could use it. So could Whitebeard, and Shanks, and a few of the stronger Shichibukai. Sighing quietly, a pang of sorrow wrenched at Ace's bruised and scalded heart at the thought of Whitebeard and his crew. Ace had not gathered enough courage to check, but he had the feeling that his back was bare of Whitebeard's mark. (So strange to have his logia abilities in East Blue but not his tattoos. Sabo's memorial was the same, but he had gotten that one done before leaving home.)

Luffy had not been surprised by Ace's age in contrast to his own, which meant that Luffy was expecting Ace to be so much older than him. 'This isn't the world I'm used to. I died back there and now... I've truly lost everything… everyone… except Luffy... this Luffy. My Luffy is gone now too...'

Scoffing at his own dramatic melancholy, Ace slid into the pallet next to his snoring baby brother and curled defensively around Luffy’s so-much smaller form. 'If Luffy's seven, then he's just eaten his fruit this year. That means Shanks is on his way back to the New World to stay, once he recovers from losing his arm. Of course, that's assuming that Luffy's timeline hasn't been changed. There's so much I don't understand...'

Why was Luffy so young? How had they been injured so badly on Dawn Island? Ace and Luffy had reached the top of the local food chain before they hit puberty. How was Ace still alive? (Alive again, maybe?)

Exhausted by the questions whirling around and around in his head without answers, Ace snuffed out the lantern without moving. Thoughts a confused jumble of trailing threads, Ace looked at the tiny flame he had drawn over to his palm. Sleep had never looked more attractive. Ace closed his fist, dousing the flame. He shut his eyes, determined to sleep and avoid thinking for a while no matter what his chronic insomnia had to say about it.

/.../

(Marines? What the fuck are Marines doing here? Shitty-Gramps is the only one who bothers to come this far East of the main shipping lines and he was just here a few months ago. Whatever, at least it's not my job to deal with them. Poor old Whoop-slap.)

It's my fault...

(What the fuck? Why? Why the hell would they shoot Whoop-slap? He hates us! Hates bandits and pirates and fuck, I know he was a rude old bastard to everyone but that wasn't a reason to kill him! Oh shit. Shit! LUFFY!)

They died because of me...

(Quiet, Luffy. You have to stay quiet. For big brother, okay? I know you're worried about Miss Makino, but if the Marine's know we're here they'll hurt more people. They'll hurt Miss Makino for not being on their team. You don't want Miss Makino to get in trouble, right? So just stay here and be super quiet, okay?)

Just because I was born...

(No. No! Let him go! He's not important, just some brat who follows me around. Wants to be a forester, so I let him tag along when I go hunting. I don't even know who his parents are.)

Luffy, I'm so sorry...

(Yeah. I'll go quietly.)

I never should have trusted them...

(Everyone. They killed everyone. Why? Why? None of them knew who my father was! Fuck you, you jackass, I'm just a fur trader! I want nothing to do with my fucking father or his fucking legacy! You shit-heads are worse than the fucking pirates! At least they'll admit to being goddamned murderers!)

Whoop-slap. Dadan. Makino... just because I was here. Luffy... why didn't you run?

(No. No, no, NO! Not Luffy! GET AWAY FROM HIM!)

... Thank you for loving me, little brother...

/.../

Ace looked up at the shadowy figure looming over him, edges barely illuminated by starlight. A few absentminded sparks made the picture clearer, but no less confusing than his dream (nightmare.) Younger by three or four years (seventeen. He was, had been, only seventeen.) Paler from a life spent under a canopy of trees rather than years on the deck of a ship. Different scars. A few inches shorter and a dozen pounds of muscle lighter. No tattoos except for Sabo's memorial. No hat. The eyes and the freckles and the burning anger at the world's bullshit, though... that much was still the same.

"So, are you why I'm here?" Ace sat up and stared at his ghostly doppelganger. "Or are you just here for Luffy?"

"It was my fault." The spectre looked pained in a way that had nothing to do with the bloody ruin of his chest, his grey eyes locked on the little boy curled into Ace's hip. "If I'd left on my birthday like I promised Sabo... if I hadn't stayed..."

"The Marines want to kill Luffy for who his father is too, you know." Ace's smile was more of a grimace. "If you hadn't been there you know that the little idiot would’ve started screaming about being the Pirate King. Combine that with being Revolutionary Dragon's son and I don't think even Gramps could've kept them from issuing the kill order."

The ghost blinked in surprise, then looked at Luffy with refreshed worry. "So that's why they looked for him. I thought it was me, but... I can't protect him anymore."

"That's why I'm here, isn't it?" Ace grinned with all the fierce joy he had learned from Luffy as a child, from his ship-brothers and crew and Pop's lessons as a free man of the ocean. "To do what you can't. I'm a pirate, kiddo. I've been to the New World and I've almost mastered Haki. Just watch, I'll turn the brat into a monster that will terrify the world."

"I was offered a choice." The faint smile was outlined in silver, and Ace could see that his counterpart had lived a far sadder life than he had. This kid had died long before he realized that he had the right to live and be happy about being alive. "I chose Luffy. I will always choose Luffy... and you understand that. You're stronger than me. Happier. You'll be able to help him reach his dream. I was too angry. Too blinded by the poison in other people's words. You were able to overcome that legacy of hate so... I made a trade."

Ace saw the sorrow, the love, the barely checked violence born in anger and hopelessness. "You would've done fine if you'd stuck around and had the chance to grow up a little. Luffy loves you, and that's all the proof you need."

"Luffy didn't… he doesn't have the time to wait for me to get my shit together. So. I traded my life, and made a gamble with Fate." The younger Ace swallowed, fresh pain in his eyes as he reached for his little brother and was unable to touch him, fingertips blurring into mist against the bandages. "My life, in exchange for your power. My memories, to bind your mind to my body. I'm sorry in advance about the nightmares but there are worse prices we could have paid for your resurrection."

"I'm used to bad nights, don't worry about it." Ace sighed and pulled the threadbare blanket up higher around Luffy's shoulders. "So are you going to be sticking around, or...?”

The spirit shrugged. "I can't move on while my body's still alive. I thought I'd just... sleep. Until it's our time again."

"Stick around." Ace knew the grin he was wearing was more than a little mad and terrifying, but this was awesome. No one else Ace knew had a ghost! "Two heads are better than one, and four eyes are better than two. Especially with a little brother like Luffy to look after. You want to see him grow up, eh? You can help me, since our memories are different."

"You want me to haunt you?" The ghost looked confused, but his eyes drifted back to Luffy again, and his gaze softened. "... He is a handful, isn't he? Alright. I'll stick around to help. I don't know what you think I'll be able to do, but I'll stay."

"Awesome." Ace yawned and lay back down. "Keep watch, would you, brother? We'll plan some more in the morning."

The ghost's laugh was bitter and joyless and hurt to hear. "Go to sleep, idiot."

'Gonna have to fix that.' Ace yawned again and rolled over to curl around Luffy. 'Brothers aren't supposed to leave brothers hurting like that...'

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Chapter Text

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(In which Ace has the first day of the rest of his life.)

Luffy was too weak to move much in the morning after Ace's resurrection, so Ace just sighed and less-than-reluctantly sacrificed one of his shirts to make a harness. (It was a better fate than the shirt deserved. Horrible things, shirts.)

They needed to find out who had survived the Marine purge, and how much of the island was damaged, but Ace refused to leave Luffy vulnerable and undefended. There was no telling if all their enemies had left the island or if there were still some Cipher Pol agents hanging around. Ace needed to keep Luffy close if he wanted to keep his little brother safe. Ace’s flames roiled under his skin while dark worries plagued his thoughts, speeding along his already impressive healing. (The dead Ace had not been a fire logia, so Sakazuki had not bothered to use Haki in addition to his magma ability. The scabbed over tunnel of burns still hurt, but they were not deadly to the fire logia... not any more at least. The strike to his torso was placed lower and further to the right side than the deathblow Ace remembered dying from. Sakazuki had wanted this Ace to die slow and in agony. There was no other explanation for missing lungs, heart, and spine when the Ace here had been East Blue weak and mostly self-trained.)

"... He dragged our body here alone after the Marines left." Ace looked at his ghost-self in surprise. It was the first thing the younger Ace had said that morning. The spectre looked like he very much wanted to kill something with extreme bloody prejudice. "He had to hide under our corpse as it cooled, while the Marines laughed. He hasn't eaten since before the attack and... it took… it took a full night and day for the deal to go through. We had to wait for the green flash to make the exchange."

"Damn. Oi, Luffy." Ace looked over his shoulder at his sleepy-eyed little brother. "Are you hungry?"

"Un! Starving!" Luffy nosed at Ace's shoulder with insistent little head butts. "Can we have meat?"

"Of course!" Ace laughed, leaping down from the tree house. The lofty hut was better made and better hidden than the one Ace had grown up in, which was probably why the Marines had missed it. They were in a different part of the forest too, higher up the mountain than the Bandit camp, far from any established trails... The other Ace had probably built the new tree house when Luffy showed up, given how the tree house was closer to Foosha Village than Grey Terminal.

Ace had thought about doing that himself, once upon a time. The first tree house had been too small for three growing boys, but after Sabo was gone Ace had not been able to bear the thought of leaving behind the house Sabo had helped him build. The extra years must have helped the other Ace be rational, rather than trapped in place by sentiment. Ace grinned and struck out into the forest after getting his bearings. It had been four years since he had last walked these woods, but he still knew exactly where he was. "You'll get lots of meat, baby brother! How else are you supposed to heal and get stronger?"

"Yay! Meat!" Luffy, assured that he would get his preferred meal, promptly began to chant one of his enharmonic made-up-on-the-spot songs. This one, naturally, focusing on the awesome powers of meat and big brothers. Ace tried not to feel flattered, but it was so innocently charming that the pirate was hard pressed to resist the urge to suffocate his baby brother with cuddles.

'So cute.' Ace whined to himself, steeling his will to stay strong. Shaking his head at his own ridiculousness (but to be fair, he had forgotten how goddamned adorable tiny Luffy was) and headed out for the closest hunting spot. 'I can hear the brother complex jokes already.'

/.../

Once Luffy had consumed twice his own body weight in meat, the rubber boy passed out, snoring gently against Ace's back. His own nearly crippling hunger pangs finally silenced, the older D smiled and buried what little remained of their kills. (Usually he did not bother, trusting the scavengers to clean up after them in due time, but right now there was still the lingering concern that the Marines had stuck around.) Clean up finished, the fire logia set off for the bandit camp, dreading what he would find and wanting to get the worst over with before Luffy woke up.

The bandit camp was far too still and far too quiet for comfort. Ace sat high in a tree, examining what he could see of bullet holes, the gouges caused by blades, the broken windows and wrecked doors. The ground was burned around lumps of glassy rock. Magma, cooled down enough to revert back to stone. Some of the lumps were unnervingly human-shaped. Stretching his Observation Haki as far as it could go, and Ace narrowed his eyes at the lack of results. Ace glanced at his ghost. "How far away from me can you get?"

"... I'm not sure." The ghost tilted his head with a faint smile. "Should we find out?"

"Check for baby transponder snails. The Marines may have left the place watched just in case of survivors." Ace scowled at the bandit camp. They may have been horrible at child rearing, but they had been the only parental force Ace had known during his childhood, and it broke something inside Ace to know that he would never see them again, leaving his mind disquieted. "The longer the Marines think we’re dead, the better off we'll be."

"On it." The spectre flickered as he flowed away, more and more like a heat mirage the further from Ace he got. Ace remained crouched and still on his arboreal perch. The air next to him cooled after a few minutes, and Ace cocked an eyebrow at his doppelganger. (Ace fought back a surge of anger. He was just a kid, still lean to the point of scrawny without the muscle Ace had started packing on at twenty, and nowhere near his full growth. The Marines had murdered him!) The spirit shook his head. "I don't think the Marines left anything behind, but they wrecked the place so I'm not sure..."

"You don't have my experience with what to look for, but you'll learn." Ace grinned and shook a finger at his younger self. "Follow along. I'll just be careful for now, but I think we'll have to risk it."

Ace crept into the silent camp, every sense alert for danger. Softly, Ace murmured to his ghost-self, pointing out places where traps and spying equipment were likely to be. Even after he found the first body, Ace did not stop. Even when he found Dadan's body (what was left of Dadan's body) he did not stop.

"... Are you going to bury them?" The spectre’s face was blank as he stared down at the pitiful remains of the dreadful bandit leader who had kept them alive during their most vulnerable years.

Hindsight granted clarity. If Dadan had really hated him, why had she raised him through infancy? Yes, she had violently encouraged him to be self sufficient, but she had never let him starve. Ace had seen the weakness that plagued people who had suffered prolonged malnutrition in infancy, and that was never one of Ace's problems. Dadan may have lacked overt affection, but she had never stinted him of her care. Not the mother Ace had wanted, fuck no, but certainly the mother he had needed to get strong enough to survive in Paradise after being left orphaned.

"No. Moving the bodies would tell someone that we've been here." Ace collected what he could use from the bandit camp, including the contents of the hidden treasury. Once he and Luffy set out to sea they would need the funds, and the dead had no use for belli. "I can't just leave them to rot, either. Not only would Dadan probably haunt me, but human bodies cause sickness in the living if they aren't properly taken care of."

"So what are you going to do?" The ghost watched as Ace headed for the forge where the bandits had made the bullets for their guns.

"Pirates are given back to the sea, but Dadan was a bandit, a fighter… and warriors deserve a pyre. I'm going to burn them." After a moment of consideration, Ace kicked in the side of the brick forge. The flame logia ignored the cascade of embers that pooled around his feet. Instead, Ace walked away, fire flaring to hungry life in his wake. It did not take much coaxing from Ace to spread the fire through the whole camp. The pirate let the flames rage as he moved his collection of scavenged goods and valuables to a storage cave near the tree house.

Luffy was starting to stir from his food-and-healing coma by the time Ace was done, so the older D checked to be certain the burning camp would not threaten their section of the woods before hunting down lunch. Ace managed to convince Luffy to eat a few wild vegetables with his meat this time. The younger D fell straight back into a doze once he was done eating, and Ace recognized the pattern. Luffy would sleep and eat in repeating cycles until he had healed a bit more. Truly, the D constitution was a wondrous thing, and Ace would be doing the same if not for the pressing need to get off Dawn Island. The elder brother felt a bit bad for being relieved by the situation, but Luffy being quiet and still made it easier for Ace to gather the things they needed in order to escape East Blue.

"Hm... we should check the village now." Ace looked over at his ghostly double's pained expression and bit his lip. Going back to the scene of your death had to be hard. Thank fuck Ace had a valid reason to avoid the ever loving hell out of Marineford. "I'm sorry."

"It needs to be done." The spectre looked away. "Go. Before Luffy wakes up."

/.../

Foosha village was worse than the bandit camp had been. Maybe it was because Ace could tell that the bandits had fought back against their killers. The villagers were civilians, used to the Marines trained under Garp's rough, idiotic honesty and Fist of Love. Sakazuki's men had slaughtered them like sheep. Ace tried to avoid looking at the bodies. Tried to avoid seeing the familiar faces. Tried to avoid noticing when the crumpled forms were smaller than even Luffy. 'Like shooting fish in a barrel. They didn't even have a chance to run.'

The Party Time Bar had been reduced to rubble, small fires still burning throughout the village from kitchen stoves left unattended and knocked over oil lamps. Ace's gaze flickered over the damage, and he sighed. 'Canon fire. They shot at the village. Two more Admirals and they'd have made it a Buster Call.'

Swallowing hard, Ace circled around the bar. He needed to check the docks for an intact skiff. If Ace could not find a ship in one piece, he would need to find some way to pull up one that could be repaired enough to get them to the next island. Hopefully it would not come to that, because Ace and Luffy needed to get off Dawn Island (and hopefully out of East Blue) unnoticed.

A ping against his Haki, like a fingernail flicking a crystal glass to check for flaws. Ace froze and stretched his Observation Haki to the limit. She was hidden, and still hiding, but not from him. Not from him. Boots skidding over shattered brick and charred timber, Ace bolted for the well house behind the bar. 'Not in, but near enough to access the water… The bootlegger closet!'

Ace heaved the remains of a tiled roof aside, digging until he found the hidden door. The lock and hinges burned away from the cracked wood under the flames focused into knives from the tips of his fingers, and Ace hauled the door aside with a wide grin, reaching down into the dark hole as ash-smudged and blood-stained hands reached up for him in return. "Makino!"

"... Ace?" The bartender's eyes went wide and filled with relieved tears. "You're alive! Oh, thank god! I saw what they did... oh, thank god! You're alive!"

"So're you." Ace choked on a laugh and hauled the woman up out of her hiding spot and into a relieved hug. "How bad are you hurt?"

"Nothing serious. A few grazes, mostly. Some bruises and little burns." Makino's gaze locked onto the bandages wrapped around Ace's otherwise-bare chest as she pulled back enough to look the young man over. "I saw what that man did to you, Ace. How..."

"I'm tough, and Marines have bad aim." Ace grinned and ignored the pull in his chest that told him to slow the fuck down and stop overextending himself. Right now Ace was held together by bandage tape, Armament Haki, and fervent prayers. Even without considering the time he had spent mostly dead, or taking the side effects of magical cross-dimensional resurrections into account, Ace needed to rest and heal as much as Luffy did after the massive blood loss and major organ damage he had suffered, but there was no time. "Luffy's going to go nuts once he wakes up and sees that you're okay."

"Luffy?" Makino's eyes followed Ace's thumb to where the boy rested on his brother's back. "Is he alright?"

"He was scared, and he got hurt, and he saw things that... well. You know what he saw. But he's healing, and he's Luffy." Ace smiled at the bartender's look of worry. "He's Luffy, Makino. As long as he has us, he'll be okay. For now, though, we need to focus on getting off of this island. Gramps can't protect us any longer. For now, the Marines think that Luffy and I are dead. They probably don't care much about you, but if they come back while Luffy and I are still here, or if someone from Goa ratted you out..."

"I know." Makino swallowed harshly and looked at the ruins of the village. "I knew that there were different types of pirates. I didn't think that the Marines were the same way. At least Morganeers and Peace Mains call themselves different things."

Ace was silent, allowing the bartender time to gather her thoughts. Makino had taught a younger Ace a lot about manners and tolerance and forgiveness. Ace did not think Makino would be forgiving this.

"They burned the harbour." Makino slid her hand into Ace's grip as they turned away, offering the young man a wan smile. "But I have a small ship hidden up the coast. I don't think the Marines would have found it. It should be big enough to fit the three of us."

"... I didn't think you ever left the island." Ace tilted his head to look at Makino as they set off along the path that led away from the destroyed village.

"I bought it when Luffy first came to live with me." Makino's lips thinned in disapproval. "I hid it away when Mr. Garp moved Luffy into Ms. Dadan's care. I've kept it dry-docked ever since, but it's otherwise ready for immediate voyage."

"So..." Ace helped Makino over a fallen tree and wordlessly handed her a knife so she could hack off the ragged remains of the skirt that tangled around her legs. Ace cleared his throat and looked up at the trees until she was done. "Did you ever trust Shitty-Gramps to keep him safe?"

"No." Skirt trimmed to just above her knees, Makino handed back Ace's knife, her eyes hard. "Especially not when I found out about you. He should never have exposed your parentage to anyone if he truly wanted to pass you off as his grandson, but especially not to bandits."

"I thought you liked Dadan?" Ace kept his voice mild, hiding his surprise. This was a side of Makino that Ace had never seen before. Angry, critical, but still protective of Luffy and Ace.

"I'm a bartender, Ace. That means that I never turn away customers, and I'm very good at faking a pleasant face." Makino sighed and gave Ace a rueful smile, leading the way down the coastline with firm strides despite the ugly black-and-blue bruising that covered most of her right leg. "I'm afraid that I'm not a good enough person to mourn a woman who can abandon the child entrusted into her care in the woods."

"She protected us, in her own way." Ace looked at his ghost self, seeing the wrecked expression on the younger version of his own face. Ace recalled his nightmare, and remembered a bandit hoard diving into fire to save some stupid-ass little punks trying to fight adult pirates. "None of the bandits gave us up to the Marines. It got them all killed, trying to buy us time."

"I know, Ace, I know. But this and that are two very different things." Makino turned and led Ace towards the water. "I can be thankful that she fought to protect you while still being angry at her for not taking proper care of you."

"... That sounds confusing." Ace mused aloud, listening to his invisible double mutter about headaches and crazy women as Ace followed Makino into a cave located in a shallow cove. The mouth of Makino’s cave was hidden behind a landslide, but Ace could clear that away easily.

As Makino had said, the ship was small. It was a pincke meant to be crewed by only two or three people, although one person could get away with crewing solo if the day was calm or it was an emergency. It was well maintained, designed for Blue Ocean travel, and fully stocked with all a person could want during an emergency evacuation. Not a ship meant to move fast or fight, but the shallow draft meant they could escape up rivers when they wanted to anchor out of sight. A good ship for being sneaky and avoiding notice. Ace handed Luffy over to Makino and started going over the ship for trouble spots. Makino watched in amusement, not bothering to ask where Ace had learned so much about ship safety.

"Well?" Makino raised a brow as Ace jumped down from the deck.

"We should probably reseal the hull before we leave, just as a precaution." Ace dusted off his hands and grinned at Makino. "We can use the curing time to hunt meat and move our stores on to the ship. Luffy can use the time to heal before we set out, too."

"When shall we leave then, Ace?" Makino smiled at Ace's enthusiasm.

"A week, maybe a few days more, it depends on the weather." Ace shrugged one shoulder and took his little brother back from the bartender. "We can stay in the tree house until then."

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Chapter Text

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(In which Ace gets his hat back!)

The week it took to re-seal the pincke's hull passed quickly. Makino scavenged the village for clothes and other useful items. Things like fishing gear meant for the open sea, weapons, unspoiled medicines, and anything they could trade or sell once they reached a safe port. Until they reached the New World, they would not be able to fly their colours openly. Not if they wanted to avoid government notice, and posing as merchants would be a good cover story.

Ace moved the treasure he and Luffy had put aside for when they set sail on to the ship along with the money and other things Ace had taken from the bandit camp. Makino packed up the tree house with Luffy's help, and managed to salvage a few of her own personal possessions from the wreckage of the bar before the first scavengers from Grey Terminal started approaching Foosha's borders.

Unwilling to take the chance that someone might recognize them, Ace set the Village aflame just as he had the Bandit Camp. Seated in one of the Mount Courvo’s giant trees, Ace held Makino and Luffy tight as they screamed their sorrow into his chest. Despite never having called the Village home, Ace’s face was wet as he watched the windmills burn.

/…/

(SaboDadanThatchSaboThatchSABO. Deaddeaddead they were DEAD because of who his father was because Ace was the son of that man. Blood tells and blood matters and blood for blood THEY WOULD PAY FOR THIS!)

(STOP. Breathe. There were more important things to take care of right now. This is no time to be indulging in weakness. Stand up. Walk on.)

/…/

Unlike the last time (the first time) he had set sail, there was nowhere to leave their personal things that would remain safe once they were gone (and no one left alive to hold on to those things.) Anything they wanted to keep would have to come along with them, this time.

On his part, Ace hunted the biggest animals he could find, preserving the meat under Makino's direction and tanning the hides with his ghost's helpful commentary. The resultant furs ended up piled on top of the money chests, hiding their funds in addition to forming a surprisingly comfortable nest. Seeing as it was Luffy’s favourite meat, Ace ended up with a ridiculously large pile of crocodile skins. Which were not nearly as useful as the furs that made up their bedding. The amount was honestly a little excessive, but the hide was waterproof enough to make excellent raincoats, and Ace could appreciate a snazzy pair of boots as well as the next pirate.

As much as he hated shirts, the alligator hide vest was needed to mask the scar left by Sakazuki’s death-blow, so Ace would put up with it until the wound healed enough to tattoo it over. At least his outfit looked somewhat coordinated, if a little tacky. (Whatever. It was still better than Gramps horrendous vacation wear.)

The night before they set sail they camped in the cave, the pincke moored in the shallows of the cove. Luffy wriggled in excitement, almost back to his previous levels of energy despite the lingering ache from his deeper wounds.

"The brat's up to something." Ace looked at his ghost before turning to Luffy with a grin. The poor kid was so, so bad at hiding things.

"Luffy." The younger D looked up at his brother with a wide grin. "Time for bed."

"Aww! But it's still early!" Luffy pouted and crossed his arms. "Meany, Ace! We have to have a party. A party!"

"Tough luck, brat." Ace laughed and scooped Luffy up for a cuddle, his brother was adorable. Holy shit, how had he forgotten how cute tiny Luffy had been? "We're setting sail really, really early tomorrow morning. So we need to sleep, not party."

"Boo! Stingy, Ace, stingy!" Luffy kicked his feet and grinned as he dangled from Ace's hands. "We're gonna be pirates! It's an adventure! We need to party! Tell big brother, Makino!"

"She's not telling me nothing, brat! If we're pirates, then I'm Captain." Ace hauled Luffy in for another hug, unable to resist the urge to squish that little rubber face. "And Captain says... time for bed!"

"NO WAY! I'm the Captain! I'm gonna be the Pirate King!" Luffy squirmed and flopped in protest as Ace carried him over to where the bed rolls were laid out. "Meany, Ace!"

"Sorry, brat, but no Captains under the age of seventeen allowed, remember?" Ace laughed as Luffy whined, black eyes wide and pleading. How was Ace supposed to resist his baser urges with such a cute little brother? Hugs! So many hugs. All the hugs. "Okay, okay. Tell you what, you can be the Junior Captain."

"Really? Yay! Ace is the best!" Luffy giggled and threw his arms around Ace's neck.

"I'm still the big brother though, and Big Brother's orders are... bedtime!" Ace dropped Luffy onto the blankets and sighed in resignation as the rubber boy bounced back up and scrambled away. "Luffy! Stop being a brat and go to sleep!"

"No!" Luffy shrieked in glee and bolted, Ace charging close on his heels. "Makino, help!"

The bartender just laughed as Luffy dodged Ace's lunge with a screech of pure excited joy. The D brothers began a loudly energetic game of tag, wherein Luffy bounced around the cave like a super ball and Ace tried to bear hug his little brother into submission.

Makino watched with bright eyes, beholding the grins on both faces with something like wonder uncurling in her chest. Luffy had recovered as quickly as she had expected. As long as she and Ace were there, Luffy would be fine. Ace though... Makino's expression turned thoughtful. Makino had only spoken to Ace a grand total of twice after Garp had taken Luffy away from the village. The angry boy she had barely known before the Marine attack would have been blaming himself, but the young man who had pulled Makino from the wreckage... he smiled, and he laughed, and he stood tall.

The attack had aged Ace, had lent him a new maturity. Something had happened during the Marine attack and its aftermath. Something that had changed Ace down to his core. Something that made Ace lift his head, square his shoulders, and bare a challenging grin at the world. The Ace she had known before had been weighted down by invisible chains, resentful of his existence and bitter with it. Only Luffy had been granted a place in Ace's heart.

This new Ace was warmer, had a bigger presence, and had broken free of old restraints. The rusted shackles of hate and resentment that had poisoned Ace’s heart were gone. Makino did not know what had done it, but she was so happy, so very glad and relieved to have her own share of Ace's affection. Makino knew Ace respected her, but she had not expected this new openness. This willingness to care for her in addition to Luffy.

The tears were beyond her ability to stop.

"Makino?" Ace crouched down in front of her, Luffy tucked under his arm like a rugby ball. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine. I just…" Makino wiped the tears away with the heel of her hand and smiled at the worried frowns directed at her from both boys. "I'm just so glad our family is still together."

It was the truth, but it was also partly a test. Ace had not flown into a rage at the mention of becoming a pirate, but that could simply be a reflection of his new hatred of the Marines. There was a good chance that Ace would still reject any overtures of affection or mentions of family from her now that the shock had faded. Ace's smile was gentle and understanding. "I'm glad too, Sis. Don't worry anymore, okay? We're all going to be fine."

"Eh?" Luffy's head twisted around like an owl to look up at Ace. "Is Makino our sister now?"

"Yep." Ace laughed as Makino gasped, hand flying up to cover her mouth as fresh tears flowed down her cheeks. "Aw, Makino, don't do that. What sort of fearsome Pirate Captain turns into a dishrag when his big sister cries, huh? You want us to have a sissy reputation?"

"I can fix it!" Luffy shouted before twisting out of Ace's hold and scrambling over to the corner of the cave he had taken to hiding seashells and shiny rocks and large beetles over the course of the week. The boy came racing back with a pair of only slightly misshapen boxes, both topped with a tangle of ribbon that might resembled a bow if you were drunk, standing on your head, and squinting at it from exactly the right angle. "Here! Open them! Open them!"

"Luffy?" Makino took the box Luffy pushed at her, surprised out of her tears. "What's this?"

"Present!" Luffy proclaimed grandly, and then started pulling down on Ace's shorts until the older boy sat down and took his own box from Luffy. "Open them!"

Déjà vu struck Ace, suddenly four years in the past and a world away, getting ready to set sail for the first time. Luffy had given him a box just like this one back then too. His ghost leaned in over his shoulder, a scowl doing a bad job of hiding his concern. "Hey, what's wrong with you?"

"... I guess Luffy is still Luffy after all." Ace chuckled, and ripped open the box with unfeigned eagerness. A familiar orange cowboy hat was revealed. An orange hat with blue faces on the band and a skull-faced medallion on the cinch and a necklace of red beads. Ace wasted no time at all. The hat settled onto his head like it had always been there, and Ace grinned as the jangling sense of wrong he had pushed to the back of his mind faded away once the hat, once Ace's hat, was in place. Ace ruffled Luffy's hair. "Thanks, Luffy! It's perfect!"

"I agree." Makino beamed at them from underneath a black tricorn, crimson feathers spilling over the back. "These are well chosen, Luffy-kun."

"Shishishi! Now we all have hats!" Luffy cheered, and then yawned once before toppling into his brother's scarred chest already snoring.

"Pfft!" Ace did his best to smother the giggles that wanted to escape. Luffy was hilarious and adorable and Ace had his hat back and he was setting out to sea with his first family. The only thing that could make this moment better would be if... if Pops and Ace's crew (and Sabo) were there to share the moment with him. Marco would never roll his eyes at a Luffy story again once he came face to tiny face with the rubber squishy.

'Soon.' Ace assured himself as he tucked Luffy in and crawled under the blankets with his baby brother, Makino bedding down on Luffy's other side. There were three hats set in a careful row above their heads, and Makino smiled at him over the snoring lump of rubber held safe and sung between them. Ace grinned back and tucked his face into Luffy's hair. 'I met them once, and I'll meet them again. I'll find Luffy's crewmates for him too, and kick Sakazuki's ass if he tries to come after us again.'

It was a good plan, Ace thought, and for the first time since Thatch died Ace fell asleep holding hope for the future in his heart.

/.../

SorrysorryI’msosorry. Oh seas please don’t hurt him don’t touch him I’m sorry for being born just don’t take MY BROTHERS!

/…/

They set sail on the morning tide in the dark, quiet hours before dawn. Not a single one of them looked back. Everything important to them was on the small ship with them. Only the local sea monster took note of the pincke, and when the massive razor toothed maw rose up out of the water, Luffy snarled. The weight of the boy's will turned the air faintly blue and hammered down on the very surprised looking Sea King, and Ace blinked.

"Gum-gum Pistol!" The mighty serpent went flying in a spray of blood and scales. Luffy raised his arms above his head and crowed in victory. "I'm gonna be the King of Pirates!"

Makino laughed and cheered, then had to chase Luffy down when the little boy noticed the shredded skin on his knuckles. Yes, the teeth were a very shiny target, but they hit back... which Luffy should have known! Luffy drooped and whined as Makino cleaned the cuts. Ace grinned at the show, arms draped over the wheel of the helm.

"He's stronger than I remember." Ace murmured to the ghost beside him. "My Luffy didn't perfect the Pistol until he was nine or so."

"I worked on it with him, over the year I had with him." The spirit looked proud and pained as they watched the child climb the main mast and shout. "He told me about Shanks losing his arm, and I could see how guilty it made him feel. So I figured... train him. Make him strong enough not to need rescuing anymore and maybe he wouldn't cry so much."

"You did a good job." Ace tilted his head back to eye the fading stars. "You've only had him for a year, and he's already stupidly attached... is that why you didn't leave?"

"No, I... I decided a long time ago that I was never going to become a pirate. I was just going to live out my life in the forest." The spectre shook his head. "After Sabo died I was alone... it was easy to give up my dream without anyone to share it with... and then Luffy came along. I thought it would be funny to raise him into a strong pirate. Just the thought of the look on Gramps' face when the kid got a monster bounty would make it worth it. But then..."

"Luffy's Luffy, and you love him even when he pisses you off so much you can't see straight." Ace chuckled at his doppelganger’s resigned nod. "You brought that on yourself by willingly spending time with him, and... he was strong enough to survive Sakazuki's attack. You did a better job than I did."

The ghost watched his living double for a long silent moment before a sad smile touched his lips. They gazed out at the horizon together, side by side and a world apart. Only one person could hear the spirit, but the words were spoken quietly anyway. "... Thank you... for loving him..."

=/=

Chapter Text

=/=

(In which Free Will meets Destiny to create the beginning of a Legend.)

"Luffy!" Makino screamed and lunged, but the barrel with Luffy trapped inside went overboard. "No!"

"Idiot!" Ace watched as the barrel containing his little brother (his laughing like a loon little brother, and how had Luffy managed to seal himself inside the fucking barrel-) was dragged down into the current of a whirlpool. Ace could not swim, and was stuck fighting with the rudder trying to keep the rest of the ship clear of the danger besides, and Makino was not strong enough. It was times like this that Ace missed his crewmates. If Namur were here, or even Luffy's cook, then this situation would not be a problem. Ace sighed and looked at his doppelganger. "Follow him and let me know where he turns up."

"Sure." The ghost flickered away just as the barrel stopped bobbing and disappeared under the water. Heart in his throat, Ace concentrated on his Observation Haki.

"Don't worry, Makino." Ace could feel his doppelganger, like a candle flame bending to a draft, and Ace could follow that feeling more accurately than any log pose or vivre card. A deep current must have caught Luffy's barrel, because the sense of presence was shooting away like a cork out of a shaken bottle of champagne. Ace locked the rudder and leapt up to trim the sails. Tacking around the whirlpool would cost them some time, but they would catch up to Luffy soon enough. Luffy may only be seven, but they were still in East Blue. The kid was a monster for his age even by Paradise standards. Luffy would be fine until Ace got there, even though Makino would probably strangle Luffy for causing her stress. The bartender ran up the stairs to the wheelhouse, releasing the lock and spinning the wheel with a furious scowl. Ace laughed because otherwise he would start cursing. Why? Why was his little brother such a disaster? "Don't worry! Luffy will be fine. We'll catch up soon."

/.../

"Who's the ugly old biddy?" Jaws dropped around the deck as the tiny boy in the red vest insulted the dreaded pirate Captain, Iron Mace Alvida. Head tilted forty-five degrees to the right, Luffy squinted as he tried to think. "Are you a crossdresser like Dadan?"

"M-m-m-my Lady! Mercy, please!" Coby's mouth went dry with terror and Luffy pushed back his too-big straw hat and laughed at their horrified expressions. "H-he's just a child! He doesn't know what he's saying!"

Luffy just kept giggling as an iron mace was swung at his head. Coby lunged, dragging the little boy away from the looming shadow of death that fell over his head. The Pirate Captain snarled, her voice nasal and grating in her fury. "You get only one more chance boys! Answer the question! Who is the most beautiful woman to sail the seas?"

"Big sister Makino!" Luffy threw his hands up with a bright grin as the men on deck went white with fear.

Coby's scream escaped as a whimper, too terrified to reach any sort of respectable volume. His shaking knees did not want to support him but... Coby wanted so very badly to be a good Marine and that meant upholding Justice. Defending the innocent. So Coby shoved Luffy behind him in a futile gesture of protection and braced for impact. They were both going to die, but maybe, maybe Coby could buy the child enough time to hide!

What happened next was impossible, unbelievable, and dramatic enough to inspire a lifetime of dreams.

The iron mace hit Coby, knocked him back, left the pink haired boy winded, head ringing and blinking in shock at his unharmed state. Luffy bounced forward to catch the second swing (Coby was too stunned to summon up the focus of Will he needed to use untrained Armament Haki a second time) and the iron mace shattered like bad pottery. With the proper application of force, momentum, and leverage (despite Ace's best efforts, Luffy maintained that physics was a mystery subject... but solving for X when X told him how far he could send someone flying was better than being told no dessert) the seven-year-old would-be Pirate King sent the first of many black-hearted Pirates flying.

"Give us a boat!" Luffy snarled at the few members of Alvida's crew that remained standing in his best imitation of a freshly woken Ace before coffee. It was a decent attempt, judging by the way the adult pirates went milk-white under the boy’s glare as they scrambled to follow Luffy's order. "Coby's gonna join the Marines and be a Hero! He can't be caught here with you bastards!"

/.../

"... So they got away from the Marine ships in the dinghy, and now Luffy and that pink-haired shrimp are headed for Shell town and the Marine base there." The ghost snarled in frustration and Ace slapped a hand to his forehead with a groan. Why? Whyyyyy was his little brother determined to destroy Ace's last nerve? This was so much easier to handle when they were both kids and too inexperienced to know how close to death they had skirted. Damn maturity. Also, fuck fucking perspective! The spectre shook his head, knuckles white as he clenched his hands into tense fists. "I don't know who's in charge at Shell Town, but if Red Dog spread our descriptions around..."

"No, that not something we need to worry about. Sakazuki wouldn't have done that. Not if he wanted to get away with his mission without Gramps going after him." Ace sighed and dropped his hand from his face. "He came to assassinate us, not execute us. Exactly who our fathers are... the Elder Stars want to keep that information quiet. The infant killings while Mom was pregnant with us ruined the Marine’s reputation in South Blue. East Blue may be the weakest Sea, but it's also the most heavily populated. The government won't risk it. The only reason it was Sakazuki who came instead of just Cipher Pol is so that if the information on our murders does leak out, and I wouldn't put it past the Revolutionary Army to find out what happened and use it against the Government, especially since Luffy's only seven, and Dragon's son besides, the Marines can claim it was a proper execution performed within the bounds of the Law. Given Sakazuki’s rank and without any witnesses to say otherwise, they'll get away with it. So we just need to hurry and get to Luffy before he starts shouting his full name and life goals at the Marines."

/.../

"Hi!" Dark green eyes looked up, blinking away fresh blood from where the skinny blond teenager's blow had reopened the slice over his eye. The wide, crescent-moon grin exposed far too many teeth under the shade of a straw hat. "Shishishi! The two of you are pretty cool! Wanna join my pirate crew?"

The dark haired girl tied to the other side of the cross at his back rolled her head to stare at the boy. Black hair, black eyes, the afore mentioned straw hat and wide grin, younger than her by at least three years and she blinked dust away from plum-coloured eyes as the silent moment stretched on. "... We're bounty hunters. My brother-in-law is the White Chase. We can't be pirates."

"Eeehhh? Says who?" The boy's head tilted one hundred-eighty degrees the other way (and how did that not break his neck?) The shining grin stretched impossibly wider. "He sounds cool! He can join if Ace likes him. But I like you! If I untie you, will you join my crew then?"

"No." Sharp green eyes narrowed in a glare made no less frightening by the nine year old face it came from. "We made a bet with the useless son. Two more days and we win."

"We aren't so weak as to need rescuing by a stranger, no matter how selfish your intentions." The eleven year old girl sounded much older than she actually was as she closed her eyes and tipped her head back. "Now please leave us alone. You disturbed my mediation."

"Shishishi. You're really stupid, aren't you?" The boy tipped his straw hat down until all they could see of his face was the bared teeth of his grin. There was something dark under that bright smile, like the shadows of sharks under sunset waters, and the two bound children stared in surprise. "You really think Marines will keep their promise? They'll kill you, and you'll die, and they'll make sure to hurt you first. And nobody's going to care. Idiots."

"Hey!" The older boy growled as the smaller child turned around and headed back for the wall he had come over. "Where are you going?"

"I changed my mind." The black haired boy laced his fingers together behind his head and strolled away. "I don't want idiots like you in my crew after all."

"Well then, before you go..." The girl opened her eyes and looked at the smashed rice ball lying in the dust by the smaller child's sandals. "Could you pick that up for us?"

"This?" The mangled food was lifted between pinched fingers, more dirt than rice at this point. "It's all gross!"

"Doesn't matter." The tied up boy snarled. "Just split it in half."

"Then give it to us." The girl continued her companion's thought without pause. "And then you can go on your way."

"Shishishi! I was right!" The boy in the straw hat watched the two older children force themselves to choke down the muddy scraps of rice ball, grinning the whole time. "The two of you are really cool! Even if you are idiots."

"We don't need to hear that from you!" They screamed together at his retreating back, his fading laughter the only response their ire earned.

/.../

"So if I get their swords back they'll have to join my crew!" Leaving the café and his pile of empty dishes behind, Luffy grinned in delight at his new plan, head tilted back to gaze up at the towering Marine base. Loathing gleamed in black eyes as the little boy stared at the seagull icon, lip curling in something closer to a snarl than a smile. "Hmm. I don't wanna hafta spend a lot of time in there with the stinky Marines... I should start at the top!"

/.../

"Ace..." The worry and fear were easy to hear in Makino's voice as she eyed the blue-striped tower of the Marine base that rose above Shell Town in trepidation. "Are you certain this is the right port? Why would Luffy come here? He knows we need to avoid the Marines!"

"Luffy's an adventure loving idiot. Yes, I'm sure he's here." Even from the bay, the thunderous crash of several tonnes of breaking stone was clear. Makino and Ace stared at the rising column of dust that now obscured the Marine logo painted on the tower. Ace sighed and pulled his hat down lower. "What a troublesome little brother. Wait here, Makino, and keep your hat on. I'll go fetch him."

"Be careful, Ace." Makino swallowed hard as she secured their ship with a quick-release knot. "If your face becomes known..."

"I'll keep my hat on too, Makino." Ace promised as he leapt onto the dock. "Be right back."

"He does love to cause his older brother worry." The ghost sighed in Ace's ear. "I'll scout ahead for Marine patrols."

/.../

"The first one who moves… dies!" That sort of threat coming from a nine year old should not have worked as well as it did. To be fair, the lower ranked Marines were having a bad run of things lately. Terrorized by Axe-hand Morgan's psychotic version of Justice, his fatal take on discipline, and being party to the abuse of the town's civilians. That was not even taking into account how they had allowed Morgan's son Helmeppo to abuse the authority of his father's position to attain a position of power the boy had no right to claim, and how that situation had led to the starvation and torture of a pair of children who had acted as the Marines should have done in defence of the townspeople. So when the green haired boy made his threat, a sword in each hand and one in his teeth, backed up by the girl with her white-hilted katana and tanto... not a man among them could move, weighed down by guilt and the sin of their previous inaction.

Then the base was exploding in flames and Morgan's axe-hand was flying one way while the man himself went another and Helmeppo was slammed into the ground hard enough to leave a crater and the rank-and-file Marines were trying to figure out what was happening (and did they still need to shoot themselves in the head?) Smoke was pouring out of the base and reflexes born of constant drills and merciless boot-camp sergeants had the Marines scrambling to make bucket-chains. The children and their erstwhile victims were left largely forgotten (aside from a few enterprising souls slapping Morgan and Helmeppo into chains and attaching them to posts in the prison yard.)

"Luffy! Let's go, you little rubber idiot!" A hand materialized out of a blaze of flame and hoisted Luffy up by the back of his red vest. "You're never allowed out of my sight again! Picking fights with the motherfucking Marines! Idiot!"

"Yay! Ace is here!" Luffy cheered as he was carted away like a sack of rice over his brother’s shoulder and waved a rubber arm at his new accomplices in chaos. "Let’s go, you guys! Time to set sail!"

"Aye, Captain!" The twin cries followed in Ace's wake.

The fire logia blinked at the sound and turned to run backwards for a few seconds, just to make sure that he was not hearing things. A pint sized Roronoa Zoro was pelting after them, side-by-side with a girl Ace did not recognize on sight, but she was carrying a sword on her back that he did know at a glance. Twisting around to face forward again, Ace flipped his brother over and frowned down at Luffy's grinning face. "Alright. Who the hell are they?"

"Shishishi! Silly, Ace! They're part of my pirate crew!" Luffy pumped a fist in the air to more clearly demonstrate his victory. "Shanks said I needed a swordsman. Now I've got two! Ace's losing!"

"... Eh?" Ace did his best not to laugh hysterically, but... what were the odds that Luffy would find Zoro and pressgang him into piracy a second time? There was no doubt in Ace's mind that it was fate. Luffy and his merry band of monsters were destined to find each other. There was no escaping it. The irony was killing him. "Only you, Luffy. Only you."

/.../

Only once the burning Marine base was out of sight and they were certain that they had escaped notice did Makino notice the extra two children. (Thank the sea gods for Observation Haki. Ace was abusing the fuck out of that skill. He was very, very sorry he had neglected training it in his first life like Marco had told him to. Haki was a hell of a lot more subtle than towering columns of flame, and Ace needed to rely on Haki a lot more in order to keep Luffy corralled. Marco had hammered the basics into Ace's head once he made Commander, and now Ace was putting those lessons to good use. The kids were going to hate him once training started but Ace was determined to make the once-and-future Straw-hats into the single most terrifying pirate crew on the seas. Preferably before they finished puberty.) Satisfied that there was no pursuit (yay, Haki) Ace and Makino finally relaxed enough to make introductions.

"I'm Makino." The bartender-turned-secret-pirate smiled at the new children. "I'm Luffy and Captain Ace's big sister, and the quartermaster for this crew. You may call me Miss Makino or just Makino if that's what you're more comfortable with."

"My name is Ace, and I'm not going to tell you the rest of my name because the Marines will kill you if they hear you say it. For now just call me Captain, Fire Fist, or just Ace. Whatever you’re comfortable with." Ace tilted his hack back with a flame-tipped finger and smirked at the new kids. Zoro, at least, would not be put off by Ace's warnings, but he had no idea about the girl. She did look faintly familiar in a way that nagged at Ace’s attention though. Had he seen her older face in one of Haruta's reports? "I ate the Devil Fruit called the Flame Flame Fruit, so I'm the fire logia user. A fire man. The Marines want to kill me and Luffy because of who our parents are, so it may be dangerous for you to stay with us. Right now they think we're dead though, and we want to keep it that way. If you can't keep a secret I'll throw you overboard right now."

"If sailing with you is so dangerous then why is she with you?" Tiny Zoro jabbed a finger in Makino's direction. Sea and Stone, just look at those skinny little arms. It was hard to believe the Straw-hat's powerhouse First Mate had ever been so scrawny.

"My husband is a pirate." Makino explained cheerfully before Ace could say anything. The fire logia blinked. Since when was Makino married? Was this one of the things that had changed, like Luffy's age? The only other adult on the ship tilted her head with a smile. "I also had the responsibility of caring for Captain Ace and Luffy in the past. The Marines would not be pleased to learn that I was still alive to tell tales."

"Oh. I'm Roronoa Zoro." The pocket-sized swordsman tapped his chest. Seriously, he was small. The Zoro who Ace remembered was no giant, but the idea that this little boy would grow into that terrifying figure of bladed death seemed impossible from this vantage point. Ignorant of Ace’s less than flattering thoughts, Zoro waved a hand at the girl sitting next to him. That was another thing, why did she carry Zoro's precious Wadou Ichimonji? Zoro yawned, still oblivious to Ace's racing thoughts. "This is my partner, Kuina."

"The Marines arrested my father and seized our family dojo after one of the students became a well known pirate." Kuina's grip on her sword tightened. "We have no love for the Marines. My brother-in-law and older sister left them in order to take care of us. That's why we're bounty hunters."

"I'm Luffy! I'm the Junior Captain!" Grinning, Luffy leapt to his feet and threw his arms in the air. "When I'm seventeen I'm gonna get my own ship and have adventures and become the King of Pirates!"

"Kuina and I are going to become the greatest swordsmen in the world." Zoro eyes glinted with the steel his older self had become so well known for. Another group might have found it more than a little disturbing to see that sort of fanaticism on a child's face. Except Ace and Makino were used to Luffy, and really, that was all that needed to be said. "Kuina’s going to prove that girls are just as strong as boys, and I'm going to make Three Sword Style known all over the world."

"We're going to become so strong that no one will ever dare shut down our dojo again." Kuina had the look of a girl who had once known proper behaviour… and then thrown it out the window in favour of baring a savage grin and sharp steel at the world in challenge. "My sister and her husband are bounty hunters too. They quit the Marines to take care of us. Zoro and I decided that doing the same would give us the chance to face strong opponents."

"Being pirates sounds better." Zoro folded his arms and looked over at Kuina. "Fewer rules, and we won't have to listen to the Marines. We could fight whoever we wanted to. Pirates and Marines both."

"We accept Junior Captain Luffy's kind invitation to join your crew." Kuina bobbed her head in a small bow. "Please treat us kindly from now on."

Makino coughed, trying to stifle her laugher as Ace slapped a palm to his face. "Right. Okay. Luffy is the junior Captain. Just be aware that my orders trump his."

"Of course, Senior Captain Ace!" Kuina giggled, Zoro smirked, and Makino lost her fight against her own amusement.

"Where to now, Senior-Captain?" A drolly amused ghost murmured in the flame user’s ear.

"Senior Captain, huh?" Ace looked up at the sky with a grin. "I can live with that. Now let's see where the wind takes us next, on our journey towards Paradise."

=/=

Chapter Text

=/=

(In which Ace begins to realize that Destiny is a bullshit cheater.)

Two extra mouths to feed, even as small and as welcome as they were, had put a strain on their food reserves. So, to both of the D's exceedingly vocal despair, Makino had them all on strictly rationed portion sizes. This produced predicable reactions in the two brothers D.

Ace terrified Zoro and Kuina with a narcoleptic attack that toppled him off the boom and sent him crashing into the deck. Where he proceeded to snore for the next hour and a half no matter how hard Zoro kicked him.

On his part, Luffy got whinier and whinier and really, both Makino and Ace should have seen it coming. There was a bird. There was a bored, hungry Luffy. Then Luffy saw the bird. The rest of the action sequence was Gum-Gum Rocket history.

To be fair to Luffy, the bird had looked smaller from a distance, but that did not stop it from taking Luffy in its beak and soaring off into the distance.

"Who did I kill in a past life to deserve such a troublesome little brother?" Ace's mournful question hung in the air as they all stared at the rapidly vanishing dot that was Luffy and his would-be dinner turned captor. With a sigh that spoke odes of his fraternal longsuffering, Ace walked to the stern and boosted himself over the railing. "Zoro, Kuina, furl the sails and hang on to the ropes. Makino, take the wheel please."

Confused, Zoro and Kuina did as they were told. Brow furrowed, Zoro tied up his half of the sail and looked up at the horizon again. "How are we supposed to catch up without sails?"

"Here we go..." Ace was glad that the pincke was a shallow-draft ship as his legs became a whirling vortex of flame. "Don't blame me if you fall off!"

The small ship was still a fair bit bigger than Ace's old (future) Striker, but the impulse principle remained the same. The pincke blasted forward after Luffy and his runaway meal, pushed along at higher than normal speeds by Ace's flames.

/.../

There was a mid-sea rescue, and a story about a thieving sea-witch disguised as a harmless little girl. There was an attempted hijacking that left three men beaten black-and-blue and dangled overboard at sword point. Ace did not remember Makino ever being quite so merciless, while Zoro and his partner were born pirates, taking to the mentality with ease. Which probably should have disturbed Ace more than it did, but Ace had not had to stop and Luffy was still in range of Ace's Observation Haki and his ghost was grumbling about Luffy's idiocy instead of panicking. All was well that ended well, even if something about the men's story struck Ace as familiar.

... Oh well. He would remember it later if it was anything important.

/.../

"I hate pirates more than anything!" The orange haired little girl snarled, hand clamping down hard enough to bruise on her left shoulder as her blue-haired older sister looked on with a worried frown. "Pirates are the worst!"

"Pirates are free." The boy in the straw hat sat on the edge of the roof and swung his sandaled feet over the street with a grin for the two girls. "You can be good, or bad, or anything else you want. Pirates get to follow their dreams!"

"I don't need to be a pirate to follow my dream." A stubborn lift of the chin, and the younger sister glared into the distance. Brown eyes saw more than just the merge of sea and sky at the horizon. "I'm going to steal enough belli to hire an army and buy a village!"

"Shishishi! I like you!" The boy jumped down from the roof and grinned at the older girl's surprised face when he bounced instead of breaking bones. "You're smart! You should join my crew and be my navigator. Your sister can come too!"

"Idiot!" An angry fist lodged itself in a rubber stomach. "I refuse!"

/.../

"Huh." Ace frowned as his Haki picked up on a semi-familiar presence. Encountered only briefly in Impel Down and at his execution. "Oh... it's that clown guy."

Ace climbed over the railing, letting the pincke slow to normal cruising speeds and walking up to where Makino stood at the helm. They both peered into the distance at the barely visible ship painted to look like a circus tent. "We should anchor out of sight of the harbour. That guy likes his cannon a bit too much."

"Of course, Captain." Makino steered the ship into the shallows near the coast, careful to break the line of sight between both the pirate ship and the town. Makino did not ask Ace how he knew about the pirate crew's reputation, and Ace was thankful for that. Makino really was the best crewmate. It was her. "What now, Captain?"

"Mm?" Ace swayed, and toppled backwards. Short rations and prolonged use of his abilities knocking him right off his feet and straight into a narcoleptic fit.

"Oh dear." Makino looked at where her snoring Captain was sprawled out at her feet, then at their prisoners, then over in the direction of the town... and then she sighed. "Now what shall we do?"

"Luffy's over there, right?" Zoro gathered up his swords and looked at Kuina as she stepped up next to him. "We can go ahead."

"You wait for Captain Ace to wake up, Miss Makino." Kuina nodded at her partner and secured her katana. "We'll go and make sure that Luffy isn't making trouble again."

"Ah." Makino beamed and dropped the anchor overboard as Zoro and Kuina climbed into the dinghy. "What helpful children you are. Be careful now!"

/.../

"Zoro, Kuina, run!" The brat in the cage grinned, and his two little friends bolted forward... so that they could flip the giant cannon over on its mounting so that it faced the wrong way. One massive explosion later, Buggy's ship was half destroyed and all five brats had disappeared, cage included.

"Find them!" Buggy roared, so pissed off he was nearly frothing at the mouth. "Kill those brats! No one makes a mockery of Buggy the Clown!"

Thirty minutes of hectic mayhem followed.

Mayhem which had included dogs, lions, acrobats, knife tricks, far too many swords to be either safe or sane, dirty tricks, confiscated maps, flying bags of money, pickpocket tricks, and unsolicited tickle attacks.

A newly awakened Ace and serenely amused Makino strolled into town just in time to see a clown made of nothing but head, hands, and feet go flying off over the horizon.

"Oh my, we seem to have missed all the excitement, Captain." Makino pursed her lips. "... Should we not have put those men away?"

"Eh, we couldn't have them running around loose to talk about us, Makino." Ace eyed the former bartender with wary amusement. Makino had dosed their would-be hijackers with a concoction that she claimed would destroy their memories of the last two or three days, and they had dumped the men in an alley next to a bar at the edge of town. The more Ace learned about the bartender, the more subtly terrifying she became.

"... This woman was my go-to babysitter." The ghost hanging over Ace's shoulder muttered, looking conflicted. "I had no clue at all, did I? I was blind, my whole life..."

"We all have our failings." Ace murmured, then picked up his pace with a grin. "Hey! Luffy!"

"Aaaaaaaace!" Luffy wailed, face blotchy with fading anger and rising tears. "Ace, my haaaaat!"

"Aw, hells." Ace scooped up his baby brother and cuddled him close. There were three huge slices through the dome of the old straw hat, and Ace winced at the destruction done to Luffy's treasure. (Not to mention a D family heirloom.) "Shit, that looks bad. Makino, can you...?"

"Don't worry, Captain." Makino gently took the hat from Luffy with a reassuring smile. "I can fix it, so you don't need to cry, Luffy."

"Really?" Luffy sniffed, gave Makino a wobbly smile, and then buried his face in Ace's shoulder. "Yay, Makino's the best!"

"Aye, aye." Ace hitched Luffy up higher and patted his back. "Alright then, crew. We need to resupply. Makino, if you and the brats can gather everything together at the end of the pier, I'll be back soon with the ship."

"Of course, Captain." Makino beamed and turned to direct her miniature minions in resource acquisition. A high pitched voice Ace did not recognize was exclaiming something about treasure, but Ace was holding his treasure in his arms. So he ignored the little voice for now in favour of retrieving their ship.

/.../

Ace blinked at the orange haired girl who scowled up at him from the dock. "I'm Nami, I like money and mikan and Nojiko and I hate pirates! I'm joining you for now, as long as you remember that my treasure is mine!"

"... I should've expected this, really." Ace mused, ignoring Makino's curious look. Perhaps Ace should have paid more attention to the various details from the stories about Luffy gathering his crew when he had met up with the Straw-hat crew in Alabasta. However, that did not change the fact that Ace now had the travel sized bundle of rage that would grow up to the Straw-hat Pirate's navigator sulking on top of the pile of goods they had loaded into her small one-sail sloop. Nami’s older sister Nojiko was less aggressively loud, but she was still glaring at them suspiciously from just in front of her little sister, quietly protective in the way most older siblings tended to be. Ace grinned helplessly. "It would be un-gentlemanly to take a lady's treasure."

"Well... good!" Nami huffed and stuck her nose in the air in an attempt to make it look like her idea rather than Luffy managing to shanghai her and Nojiko into joining them. She really lived up to the 'cat' part of her future moniker. Ace giggled to himself as the two ships sailed away from the demolished town.

=/=

Chapter Text

=/=

(The more things change, the more they stay the same.)

"Pirates! Pirates are coming!" The curly haired boy raced through town, screaming at the top of his lungs until he reached the small house on the edge of the village. One look over his shoulder had him bolting for the forest. "Ahh! Angry mob! An angry mob is coming!"

"That's some boy you got there." The man seated next to Bachina's sickbed picked up an apple and started to peel it. "Always causin' a ruckus. Lyin' alla time. Suppose he must take after his old man that way, hm?"

Bachina winced, turning her head to the side to look out the window.

"Ah well, what else can ya expect from pirate spawn." The peeled apple was put on a plate, and the knife was lodged point down in the tabletop. "Now then, Mrs. Soge... let's try this again. Where is your husband?"

Tears in her eyes, Bachina shook her head, knowing what her silence would cost her but resisting anyway. "... I told you. I haven't seen Yassop in over five years."

"Still tellin' that old story, hey?" The man stood up, motioning for the doctor to take his place. "Let's see if another dose'll make ya more talkative."

Struggling to hold back her sobs as the doctor and his horrible needle approached, Bachina turned her eyes to the sky visible through her window. "... Usopp."

/.../

"Why do you let him get away with that?" Ace raised an eyebrow at the innkeeper as a gangly Usopp led a pack of pre-pubescent children on a screaming rampage through the middle of town. "What happens when an actual pirate crew shows up and you're all convinced it's a lie until it's too late?"

"T’be honest we're all hoping it won't last that long." The innkeeper sighed, putting a full plate down in front of Ace and wiping his hands on a towel. "His ma's in a bad way right now, so we're letting him distract himself. Poor kid hasn’t got anyone else. His da's a pirate, y’see, and left Bachina here ta raise Usopp alone when the kid was just barely toddling."

"What a cad." Ace felt his lip curl. Salt and curses but he hated it when people ditched their responsibilities to go play games. "What sort of sorry bastard just abandons his wife and kid?"

"Now, Ace, perhaps the man had a good reason." Makino laid a calming hand on Ace's forearm, but it was obvious from the tightness around her eyes that Makino could remember Yassop's 'the sea was calling me' bullshit as well as Ace could.

"Hey. We have a problem." The ghost leaned over Ace's shoulder with a fierce scowl. "It’s Usopp's mom. I checked in on her and Bachina's being poisoned by her doctor. I think he's being bribed by a bounty hunter. They keep asking her about where Yassop is."

"... Fuck." Ace shovelled the rest of his food into his mouth and stood up. He ignored Makino's concerned expression. "I'm going for a walk, Makino. I'll be back later."

As much as Ace missed Whitebeard and the rest of his crewmates, he had to admit that the lack of notoriety made it much easier to sneak around. Following Bachina's doctor was laughably simple. When the clinic was locked up and empty, Ace slid inside through the upstairs window. Keeping part of his attention on his Observation Haki, Ace started searching.

"Aw, double fuck." Ace looked down at the Cipher Pol file he had dug out of the hidden safe. Frowning, the pirate grabbed the information detailing the side effects and cures for the solution the Cipher Pol agent was dosing Bachina with. The rest Ace left alone. The last thing they needed was a pair of trigger happy World Government employed secret agents breaking cover because they got paranoid and realized that they had been made. "Time for us to get out of this town."

/.../

“You think you can just do whatever you want? Kill your crewmates? Kill kids? You think I’m just going to stand here and let you get away with this?” Ace snarled, heat building under his skin as Black Cat Kuro smirked at him. Kaya was bloody and weeping, huddled close to an even bloodier Usopp at the edge of the forest. At the top of the hill Makino had a boot to the throat of the Cipher Pol agent that had been poisoning Bachina, glass flasks held by the necks between her fingers as she stood protectively between the cutthroat pirate crew and the children they had targeted.

Luffy and the rest of the kiddie crew were scattered up the slope behind Ace, all of them sporting bleeding slices from a pirate crew that had taken their so-called ‘Captain’s sadism to heart. Fucking Morganeers. Flame whipped up in a cyclone around Ace, a hurricane of roaring fury given visible form. Kuro’s face blanched, shock and fear replacing smug superiority. Ace was sorry for the trauma this would cause the more sensitive of the kids, but none of these assholes would live to pass on their descriptions. “Die in fire, you bastard, HIKEN!

The world was fire, and rage, and screaming. The ship was scuttled, hull cored by hungry flame. Kuro fell, a red-hot dagger buried in his heart. The Cipher Pol agent asphyxiated, smoke inhalation, what a shame. The rest of the Black Cat Pirates were left concussed and burned and riddled with shrapnel when the fire reached the black powder stores for the canons, delirious with raging fevers from the combination of poor hygiene and open wounds. The doctor would be found in his clinic the morning after, dead of a stroke. (All medicines are poisons, Makino carefully tucked a glass phial into the padded transport crate with a calm smile.)

From her seat by the badly wounded Merry’s bedside, Bachina looked through the mansion window at the horizon that blazed bright as sunrise came for a second time that morning.

/…/

Kaya hugged Merry hard, tears in her eyes that the sheep-faced chamberlain wiped away with a gentle thumb. "Are you sure you won't come with us, Merry?"

"I cannot, Miss Kaya. My place is here, so that I might try to clear your good name." The servant pushed the girl back far enough to kneel down and look her in the eye. "I will take care of your inheritance, Miss Kaya. That churl Kuro was after you because your parents left you everything... The Marines may say what they like, but we know that Kuro caused the accident that killed them. As long as you are free the government cannot touch your parent's fortune. Now, you must go with Bachina and Usopp. I know that the three of you will take care of each other, and you will have Captain Ace's crew to help."

"Thank you for everything, Merry!" Kaya hugged the man around the neck, burying her face in his shoulder. The chamberlain let the girl cry. She was not even able to stay for her parent's funeral if she wanted to escape safely. "I promise to take care of the Going Merry, and I'll become a great doctor! You'll see!"

"I look forward to it, Miss Kaya." Merry smiled and patted the girl's slender back until the tears slowed. "Now, up you go."

Ace eyed the caravel from sheep-headed prow to stern. The flame logia was not sure he was entirely comfortable being the Captain of what he considered Luffy's ship, but they needed to get off Syrup Island fast. Once the remains of Kuro and his crew were discovered the Marines would show up here in force. The Going Merry was the only ship in town big enough to hold all of them. The pincke and Nami's skiff had been broken down and attached to port and starboard as lifeboats, all their cargo but for the two emergency supply kits stored in the smaller boats packed into the Going Merry's hold.

"Thank you for this." Ace held out his hand, relieved when Merry shook it. He almost wished the old chamberlain was coming with them, if only to have another adult around to watch the kids.

"Without you and your brother, Miss Kaya and I would be dead at Kuro's hand." Merry sighed and released Ace's hand. "And the government would have seen Bachina and Usopp dead for their relation to a known pirate. The least I can do in the face of such injustice is see to it that you all go on your way in comfort. Please, take care."

"We will." Ace bowed in farewell and jumped up into the caravel, smiling at the sight of seven children exploring the small ship. Damn, Ace hoped they found some adults worth recruiting soon. Seven kids to three adults was not a ratio that filled Ace with confidence. "Alright, crew, prepare to cast off!"

"Aye, Captain!" Kaya and Usopp squealed excitedly, giving clumsy assistance under their new crewmate's more practiced guidance.

As the Going Merry's sails caught the wind and pulled the caravel forward, Ace glanced back at the beach. Kaya and Usopp were hanging over the railing, waving goodbye as Merry's thin figure receded into the distance. Ace hoped that the girl would be okay. Ace knew that Usopp was strong enough to make it, but Kaya came across as... fragile.

The way the blonde girl had screamed when Kuro tried to turn her in to the Cipher Pol agents as the one who had killed her parents was going to haunt Ace for a long time. He still was not entirely clear on how all the events leading up to the battle at the shoreline had gone down, but Bachina was swiftly recovering from her poisoning thanks to Makino’s knowledgeable assistance, Usopp was safe from being used as bait for Yassop, and Kaya had been rescued from taking the fall for Black Cat Kuro’s crimes on Syrup.

Too bad Kaya had been accused of collaborating with pirates and was, just like everyone else on the Going Merry, wanted dead or alive by the Marines.

Their luck, such as it was, sucked. With a sigh, Ace swung up into the crow’s nest for his watch. The last thing they needed was to get spotted. The lack of pirate colours should keep them safe for now, but Marines were not known for their intelligence.

Back against the mast, Ace primed his Observation Haki and tipped his hat down over his eyes. The snores started less than three seconds later.

=/=

(Change is nonetheless inevitable. Accept with grace the things you cannot change. Save your strength for that which must be changed.)

The smell of wet paint pulled Ace out of nightmare-filled sleep. (Dadan being killed an inch at a time by slowly rising magma, stubbornly refusing to say anything to the Red Dog that did not involve the suggestion that the Marine go fuck himself with a Sea-stone harpoon.) Ace shook his head, shoving the images (memories) to the back of his mind and forgetting about (ignoring) them.

"It's perfect! Usopp's the best!" Luffy's cheer prompted Ace to wake up properly and check out what had made Luffy so gleeful this time. Ace got to his feet and leaned over the rail to look down at the deck. Blinking, the pirate once known as Fire Fist tilted his head to one side.

The mainsail was much more colourful now, proudly displaying a skull and crossbones wearing a familiar straw hat. Ace had almost been expecting that, but the Ace of Spades tucked in the band and the spade-shaped flames outlining the whole thing were new. As were the steer horns sprouting from the skull, where the hell had… oh. It was the face of the medallion attached to Ace’s hat strings, wearing Luffy’s hat. Cute.

Something knife-sharp and bittersweet twisted in Ace' chest. How would their mix-matched crew be known now? How long could Ace protect them from the World Government? How long did he have to train the children up into the monsters they would need to be if they wanted to survive? Circumstances (Sakazuki's unrepentant glee at the thought of being the one to kill the sons of Gold Roger and Revolutionary Dragon, never mind that Ace was never going to leave Dawn Island and Luffy was only seven, the sadistic bastard) had made it so that Luffy and Ace could set out for the Grand Line together. The world even seemed to be arranging events so that Luffy could gather the Straw-hat Pirates, but Ace had not seen so much as a single whisper of his Spade Pirate crewmembers.

What else had he expected though? Ace had been in a bad place, emotionally speaking, the first time he had been seventeen. Without Luffy around to ease his heart, Ace's thoughts had grown darker and darker. That was why it had been so surprising to learn that his crew had kept coming back for him despite the threat of Whitebeard. The Spade Pirates had all tried to transfer into the Second Division as soon as Ace's promotion had been announced. Half of those idiots had never really managed to stop calling him Captain.

/…/

"Pops is Pops, and Captain is Captain. I don't care what Commander Marco thinks I should be calling you." Ace just stared at Deuce as the other pirate huffed and turned back to the blade he was sharpening, East Blue stubborn to the core.

"Give it up already, Cap’n." Jack's lazy drawl was rife with amusement, and Ace glared at the older man. Jack just smirked and took a long pull of rum from the bottle in his hand. The multi-coloured beads and baubles in Jack's hair clattered together as the man grinned and laughed. "We're pirates, ducks. That means we do as we like as we like it, and if we want to call you Captain you ain't much chancing to stop us."

"Don't be stupid about this, Captain." Queene shook her head and swung her feet up on to a nearby crate. An admonishing finger pointed at Ace's disgruntled face, and Queene clicked her tongue. "You are our captain, Captain. It doesn't matter if you've found a captain of your own."

Eyebrow twitching, Ace glared at the three idiots who had followed him from East Blue to the New World and into the Whitebeard Pirates. "Are you even listening to yourselves? I didn't hear you calling Jack your captain after I took over your old Pearl Pirates crew!"

"Ah... well, y'see, Cap’n... there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for that..." Jack's voice trailed away as he avoided Ace's eyes, gaze firmly directed up that the low ceiling as Jack hummed and drank some more rum. Queene and Deuce were stifling some rather un-pirate-like snickers as the oldest of their trio hemmed and hawed until Ace was snarling and emitting small showers of red-gold sparks. Jack coughed and shrugged one shoulder. "My being captain weren't a thing we'd gone and planned, y'see. Was more of an accident, b'like. Was actually rather relieved when you up and took over, Cap’n."

"Then you went and made him your Navigator, and me your First Mate." Deuce snorted and started slipping his freshly sharpened collection of knives back into place, a grin dancing on his lips. "He just about started crying he was so happy not to be in charge anymore."

/…/

Sea and sky, Ace missed them, walking enticements of chaos or not. Jack never went in a straight line when circles would do, while Deuce and Queene followed cheerfully along behind like a pair of drunk ducklings, escalating the situation to a ridiculous degree nine times out of ten. Ace had not found any trouble in believing that Jack had become a pirate captain entirely by accident while trying to purchase a pet turtle for his mother's birthday. The crazy man had actually been relieved by his demotion to just Navigator. Apparently Captaincy had been giving him ulcers.

Ace had not given it much thought before, but... without Ace as their captain, the Pearl-turned-Spade Pirates would never come to Whitebeard's attention. When Ace saw Pops and his ship-brothers again... there were going to be people missing. People that had come with Ace, or because of Ace, and that meant that they may end up on different crews now, or even on an enemy crew...

Ace snarled and shook his head. Luffy had somehow managed to add the Devil Child Nico Robin to his crew, and Ace knew that she had started out as a member of Baroque Works. If Luffy could take on a woman famous for betrayal and make her a crewmate, then Ace could do no less. It was long passed the time for Ace to embrace the Will of D. The D was a legacy Ace had inherited from both of his parents, and Ace was ready to own that now. His blood meant nothing. The circumstances of his birth meant nothing. The only thing that mattered in his life was what Ace chose to do.

There had been a dream, and a question... and Ace had chosen to live.

"Aaaaaaaace!" Luffy waved his arms, covered in paint and beaming up at his elder brother from the deck of the Going Merry. "Ace! Look at what we did! Now we're real pirates!"

"Oh-ho?" Ace jumped down from the crow's nest, amused by the way Usopp and Kaya screeched. Luffy laughed as his big brother scooped him up and spun him around, straw hat held in place solely by the virtue of the string tie. Wiggling baby brother clasped to his chest, Ace examined the pirate flag spread out on the deck and raised a curious eyebrow. "So these are our colours then? Who came up with the design?"

"Me!" Luffy cheered right in Ace's ear, one hand flailing in the direction of the flag. "See? That's my hat, and that's Ace! So there's two promises on our flag to make it super powerful!"

"Promises, aye?" Ace cocked his head and looked at the old straw hat that had passed from Gol D Roger to Red-haired Shanks to Monkey D Luffy. The hat was a symbol for a dream that seemed much too big for a child like Luffy, but... that was only if you had never met Luffy. Ace shook his head and grinned, ruffling his brother's hair. "When did you learn about symbolism, little brother?"

"Aw, Ace, stop it! I dunno anything about symbology." Luffy huffed and rolled his eyes. "Ace is being stupid. Hat means becoming King of Pirates, and Ace is on my team! We're gonna be Pirate King!"

"What, the both of us?" Ace was bemused, staring at his baby brother's stubborn little rubber face and struck all over again by the strangeness of this new lease on life that he had been unexpectedly granted. "How’s that supposed to work? I thought you made a promise to Shanks."

"Ace is pretty dumb, huh?" Luffy giggled, and Ace could not resist the urge to nuzzle that adorable stretchy mug. Grinning in his signature, impossibly wide manner, Luffy pressed his forehead to his brother's as he stared into Ace's eyes. "I told Shanks I’d become a super awesome pirate, but Ace is the best, and he's going to be the strongest! When I'm strong enough to beat Ace, then it'll be my turn to be Pirate King. Ace and me are going to be Pirate King together! We'll have the most freedom in the world, and no one will ever, ever, ever be able to kill us again!"

"Aw, bless your little rubber heart!" Ace cuddled his baby brother with a complete lack of shame or concern for what his rampant brother complex was going to do to his fledgling reputation. After all, Luffy had just proven (again) that he loved Ace even more that his dream (even though Ace had broken his word, twice. Had the other Luffy, the Luffy Ace had left behind, left alone, had that Luffy forgiven Ace for dying like this one had, or was Ace’s broken promise still haunting him?) Luffy deserved so many hugs, all the hugs, for being too adorable for words. "How are you so cute?"

Makino was laughing at them again, and the new kids were giving Ace some funny looks, but who cared about that? Ace was happy. Luffy was happy. The D brothers were going to take their pirate crew all the way to the top. To Raftel, to becoming Pirate King, to ruling the Grand Line, and maybe they would even make time to topple the World Government while they were at it. Dragon would be tickled pink to see them following in his footsteps as well as Roger’s.

The aneurism Garp was going to have over their actions was just a bonus, really.

Everyone except for Makino edged away in mild terror as Ace's cackling gained an edge of evil glee. Eyes wide, a single thought united the fledgling crew. 'Scary! The Captain is scary!'

=/=

Chapter Text

=/=

(First impressions sometimes come long before first meetings.)

LOCATION: Somewhere on the Grand Line, New World, Whitebeard Pirate's Territory, The Moby Dick I

TIME: Approximately eight months after Ace sets out to sea after turning seventeen

“Hey, Pops. We just got a call from Jimbe.” Marco walked out onto the deck, looking amused. “He says not to worry. He’ll deal with the upstart rookie.”

Lowering his sake jug, Whitebeard frowned at his son in honest puzzlement. “What upstart rookie?”

“This one.” Having anticipated the question, Marco handed over the bounty poster he had dug up from their files when Jimbe called. “Apparently he’s after your head. How the Marines got wind of his challenge before us is a mystery, but Jimbe took offense.”

“Such an impulsive son.” Whitebeard chuckled, examining the image on the bounty poster in his hand. “Marco, set a new course. I think I’d like to meet this upstart rookie.”

Marco blinked, head tilting. “Pops?”

“I like the look in his eyes.” Whitebeard sat back, nodding at the poster. “This Fire Fist brat, he’s got potential. If he doesn’t get killed first.”

Raising an incredulous brow, Marco looked at the bounty image again, and wondered what his father had seen in the angry teen shown there that Marco had not.

/…/

LOCATION: Somewhere on the Grand Line, New World, Whitebeard Pirate's Territory, The Moby Dick I

TIME: Approximately eight months after Ace sets out to sea after his execution and the destruction of Windmill Village

“So Shanks has gone and lost it.” Haruta dropped a stack of notes onto the meeting room table before taking his seat. “No one can get an answer for why out of him, but about a month ago he came back from East Blue and started smashing Marine Bases instead of partying.”

“… Instead of?” Marco sat up straighter, his slouch disappearing in his surprise. The only thing that had kept Red Hair from being officially deemed Roger’s true heir was the man’s total lack of ambition. For all his strength, Shanks had preferred to sail from party to party instead of taking part in the usual contests of strength. Hells, Red Hair had become one of the Four Emperors by accident. Was the only one of the four without a solid territory. Was the only one of the four who kept all of his official forces on a single ship and had never expanded his crew into an army. Oh, Shanks had plenty of friends and allied crews, but the Red Force was the only ship that sailed under Shanks’ flag. Yet Shanks was still a threat on par with the other three Emperors.

“Yeah. Instead of. The Marines are shitting themselves. And I think I’ve found out why.” Haruta pulled out a file and slid it over to Marco. “Jimbe sent us that through the emergency channels. You remember how about a year ago when Shanks lost his arm and all he’d say about how was that he’d ‘bet it on the future’? Turns out the Marines tracked him through the East Blue, and the last island Shanks stopped at was called Dawn.”

Marco had a bad feeling. A random island in the weakest of the Blues should not sound familiar to him. That itching familiarity, plus the fact that the report in his hands about a successful execution. “Was?”

“About eight months back a ‘fire’ destroyed most of the settlements on the island… except for the Goa Kingdom. Around the same time Admiral Sakazuki reports that he had apprehended and executed two criminals. Those executions took place on the site of capture, which was Dawn.” Haruta shook his head. “Gold Roger’s son, and Revolutionary Dragon’s son were living there, and they were killed by the Marines.”

A frozen silence fell over the gathered Commanders. They all knew who Shanks’ Captain had been. They all knew how important his crew and his family were to Shanks.

Whitebeard held out a hand for the report. Marco handed it over, fury building as his mind raced. “The Marines didn’t make an announcement about it. It’s been almost a year and we’re just finding out about this now?”

“Considering how Shanks has reacted so far? The Marines were probably hoping to keep it quiet.” Haruta sneered, slamming a fist into the top of the table. “And they had no cause! Neither of those boys had ever left their island. The closest either of them ever got to breaking the law was talking to Shanks. And even that’s pure conjecture! There’s no proof, no witnesses to them ever being in contact!”

“They were killed… just for being born as their father’s sons.” The air rumbled as Whitebeard strove to reign in his temper before it could hurt any of his sons. “No. The red haired brat has the right of it this time. Haruta.”

“Pops?” The Intelligence Division Commander looked up at his Captain.

“Send a copy of this report to Linlin.” Grim certainty was a harsh sight on their father’s usually smiling face. “Include Kaido just for completions sake, but Linlin should know that the Marine’s are after our children.”

Haruta sucked in a sharp breath and nodded. “Right.”

Whitebeard sat back in his chair as his sons started murmuring to one another, coming up with plans and contingences to deal with this new slant to the usual threat posed by the Marines. If the World Government wanted to put any of Whitebeard’s sons on the chopping block the rest of the family would come for them, and they would destroy everything that stood in their way.

Closing his eyes, Whitebeard mourned a pair of boys that he had never known. That his old friend Roger had managed to hide his son away, had managed to keep the boy alive after the frenzy caused in reaction to Roger’s execution, only for the boy to be killed so violently in his own home… no wonder Red Hair was on a rampage. To have found his Captain’s son, only for that meeting to be the reason the Marines looked at Dawn Island closely enough to find the boy… combine Red Hair’s justified rage with Dragon’s revenge once the Revolutionary Leader found out what had happened to his child…

Fear of the potential those two boys had to cause trouble had driven the Marines into hasty action. The Five Elder Stars should have been more cautious. When the news got out… well. Many a pirate’s child who had been living peacefully despite their parent’s occupation until now would doubtlessly be driven to take action, even if only out of a sense of self-preservation.

Opening his eyes, Whitebeard looked at his sons, fierce protectiveness kindling in his chest. He would never learn the men Gol D Ace and Monkey D Luffy could have become. The Marines had robbed them of that chance to meet.

Edward Newgate would not allow the Marines to steal his son’s futures in such a way.

=/=

(Certain considerations must be taken when one is fully aware of the truths pertaining to the existence of certain Higher Powers that have taken explicit interest in ones continued vitality.)

LOCATION: Somewhere in the East Blue

TIME: Approximately one month after Ace sets out to sea after his execution and the destruction go Windmill Village

“You little idiots!” Ace reinforced his fist with Armament to make sure Luffy felt the bop. “What part of ‘hiding from the Marines’ made painting a Jolly Roger on every single sail we have seem like a good idea? Idiots!”

“Ow! Ace, that hurt!” Luffy clutched his head, eyes bugging out in shock. “Ehh? Aah! Ace’s turning into Gramps! No, Ace, I don’t want the Fist of Love!”

“I’m not turning into the shitty old man!” Ace waved a threatening fist and was immediately mollified when Luffy and Usopp cringed back. Those two were definitely the ringleaders behind this latest dumb-ass stunt. The other kids had been smart enough not to get involved, although Nami had probably egged the boys on like the instigating little witch she was. “You were training in Armament Haki this morning, Luffy! Armament bypassing Devil Fruit abilities is not new information.”

“… Ah. Ace has mystery strength.” Luffy nodded sagely, and Ace slapped a palm to his face. Pouting, Luffy straightened up, hands dropping away from the top of his head in tightly clenched fists. “That’s why we need the flag, Ace! The flag! It’s a pirate’s pride, and we’re real pirates now! I won’t let the stinky Marines take away Ace’s freedom! I won’t let them stomp on Ace’s pride! So we’ve gotta show them, Ace! We’ve gotta prove we won’t die just because they say we should! I’m glad Ace was born! I don’t want anyone else to be my big brother!”

“… Godsdammit, Luffy.” Ace pulled his hat down so the brim hid his burning face as he tried not to let Luffy’s words get to him. The argument was just so Luffy. (So much like what Ace’s baby brother had told him a decade and a world and an ocean away in a future that had never and would never be.)

Forget logic. Forget playing it safe. Forget biding their time and pretending to be dead for as long as they could get away without being unrecognized by anyone working for the World Government. In Luffy’s mind it was that simple. They were a Pirate crew. Pirate crews flew their Jolly Roger. End consideration.

That was not even the worst part. The blatant attempt at emotional manipulation Ace could deal with. The pride that had worn his Pop’s symbol on his back for all to see was a different story. The worst part was how Ace wanted to give in. Ace wanted to fly their colours for all to see. Wanted to spit in Sakazuki’s eye and laugh at Sengoku’s headache. Wanted to dare the World Government to come after them again.

Come on, you bastards, just try it!

Ace was a pirate. Had been born a pirate’s son, and had died a pirate’s son. Had grown as a pirate’s brother, and lived as a pirate’s brother. There was a part of Ace that has just felt wrong, felt lacking, while sailing without a skull-and-crossed-bones on his flag. Luffy was more right than he truly knew about that particular point.

Pirates needed their flags. The Jolly Roger told pirates where home was. Told them where they belonged to and among. Ace had never not flown his family’s colours. ASL. Spade. Whitebeard… Whoever they were going to become in this strange, mixed up new now.

Ace had not argued when he first noticed the new Jolly Roger painted on their sails and flying from the main mast because that nagging itch at the back of his mind that had been plaguing him since they left Dawn Island had finally shut up. Their pirate crew had a black flag. All was once again right with the world.

Except now if any of the Marines knew their faces, heard their names, or somehow otherwise learned that Ace and Luffy and maybe even Makino were alive… all the World Government would have to do is track down their flag. Could Ace really risk it? Could Ace really justify the danger to the crew, to the kids, to Makino, to Luffy, just to sooth his misplaced pride? The same bull-headed useless stubborn pride that had gotten Ace killed for nothing last time? That had gotten Pops killed? Had put Luffy in the Red Dog’s reach? Did Ace really need this flag, or was that just the childish selfishness Ace had never really outgrown talking?

Ace did not know the answer.

There were many superstitions about pirates and their flags and what happened to those who flew false colours. After the way Ace had been personally brought back to life by an irritated Sea Goddess and was now being haunted by the ghost of his murdered younger self Ace straight up refused to dismiss any of it out of hand.

So it came down to which option presented the greater danger to them now. Paint a target on their backs for the Marines, or risk pissing off the reality warping Sea Goddess who had already brought Ace back to life once before and probably would not appreciate any disrespectful treatment. So it was the choice between maybe facing off against a Marine fleet, versus certain divine wrath.

… Right. Stupid question.

“Fine, Luffy.” Ace sighed and pushed his hat back up to sit properly so his little brother could see how serious Ace was about what he was saying. “The flag can stay. But! You need to promise big brother that you won’t tell anyone your name, or ever let the Marines see your face! Do you understand, Luffy? We need to be sneaky until we get to the Grand Line. We need to be a secret until we get stronger.”

“Yep. We’re a mystery crew!” Luffy clapped his hands and laughed. Ace supposed that was as good as it was going to get. A long-term planner Luffy was not. Ace had never been the best at it either, (that had always been Sabo’s job, even after their middle brother was gone) but Ace had at least tried. Luffy grabbed his older brother’s hand and tugged, grinning cheerfully up at Ace’s cranky face. “Come on, Ace! Teach us more about the mystery power so we can beat up Marines!”

“Aye, aye.” Ace shook Luffy loose and smirked at the chorus of yelps that arose when the rubber boy went tumbling into the other kids. Served them right for hiding behind Luffy like that would let them escape punishment for this stunt. “Now I know you all had something to do with this. Captain’s orders were to lay low and you all helped paint a giant flaming demon skull on everything we own! So now we’re going to train Observation Haki. Go put your blindfolds on, kids!”

The children scattered in the face of their Captain’s demonic grin. That expression meant nothing good.

The next few hours were filled with a great deal of screaming. By the time the dinner hour rolled around the kids were piled in a dazed heap and swearing to never ever piss off the Captain ever again ever.

Ace was pleased that the lesson had sunk in. Even Luffy was nursing his bruises and promising that he would listen to Ace better. They had at least a week until the little shits started acting up again.

=/=