Chapter rewritten in February 2023, betaed by The Patient One.

Chapter 2. Free as the Pirate King

"Should we get something to eat?" Ace asked. One of his hands still wrapped around his little brother, pressing him closer, while the other rested on his shoulder, thumb moving up and down soothingly.

He was careful not to get too close to the center of Luffy's back, where the burned mark was hidden under the t-shirt. It was old and healed, the boy wouldn't have felt pain even if he touched it, yet instincts told Ace that he should refrain.

No reply came. Ace looked down, wondering if his brother had fallen asleep. "Luffy?"

Luffy shifted, arms unwrapping from around the teen, and finally sat up, curling his legs underneath him. "Will you come back?" he asked.

It felt wrong. All of this. Luffy's quiet voice, stiff posture, expressionless face, and that he wasn't even mentioning food, much less demanding itafter sleeping for so long.

Ace took a beat longer than necessary to answer, and Luffy's knuckles turned white where he grasped the edge of his t-shirt. "Just to the door," the teen mumbled, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder at the exit. "I won't leave the room; I'll just call Dadan to bring food here." Ace watched those white fingers uncurl as his little brother nodded. He stood up, but the sudden silence suffocated him, so he began blabbing to fill it. "The bandits will be so happy to know you woke up. Everyone was so worried, you know. I swear, they should just stop being bandits already and officially become nannies."

Before opening the door, Ace flashed a cheeky grin at Luffy, and his heart fluttered when he got a small smile in return. Just a tiny quirk of the lips, but it was infinitely better than that vacant and unreadable expression from before.

"Anyone's there?!" Ace yelled into the hallway.

In an instant, Dogra popped up from around the corner. "Everything alright?"

"Luffy woke up," Ace said. "We need food."

The man's face lit up, concern giving way to happiness. He swiveled on his heel and ran off, shouting, "Guys! Luffy woke up!"

Ace shook his head with a smile. He left the door open and moved to sit by Luffy's side. A couple of minutes later, the bandits jammed the hallway outside the room, talking over each other and radiating worrycareexcitment—

Ace was about to slam the door into their annoying mugs, but one glance at Luffy changed his mind. Whatever was going on inside the boy's head, his expression brightened considerably as he listened to the ruckus the bandits were making.

Ace smirked. Nannies, the lot of them.

"Move, you morons!" Dadan's voice rang throughout the hallway, and the bandits parted, letting her and Magra enter the room with trays of food and drinks. Dogra snuck in after them and closed the door before anyone else could tumble in.

Luffy's demeanor changed from content exhaustion to tense weariness with more people in the room. Ace instinctively patted his brother on his knee, and the subtle reassurance worked, if only slightly.

"How are you feeling, brat?" Dadan asked, putting food trays in front of the two boys.

Magra kneeled beside Luffy with the med kit in his lap. "Ma, ma, Luffy, your bandages have loosened up," he cautioned, reaching out toward the boy's neck. "Let me—"

Luffy flinched away from his hand. While he didn't move from his spot, he turned his body away and was purposefully not looking at Magra. Ace winced when steely fingers suddenly wrapped around his wrist in a death grip.

One would need to be blind not to realize that Luffy was deeply uncomfortable with the man's presence.

Magra dropped his hand, not sure how to proceed. "You don't want me to touch you?" he asked finally.

There was a tense, silent moment before Luffy made a tentative head shake.

Magra sighed, fiddling with the med kit. "Will you let Ace do it?"

Luffy's head snapped up to look at his older brother, eyes pleading.

Ace frowned, not quite understanding what exactly his brother wanted. "You want me to do it?"

Luffy nodded.

Anxiety settled deep in Ace's stomach like a bad dinner. He wasn't good at that, his hands might tremble, and Luffy couldn't afford to get his medical care all messed up because his brother was so useless. He was hurt enough without Ace screwing something up and—

"You're not."

Hushed words cut Ace's thoughts off, halting every nasty thing eating at his mind. 'Useless' was something Luffy didn't say, but it was definitely there.

You're not useless.

Any retort Ace might have had got stuck in his throat when Luffy's grip on his wrist tightened to a point of pain. The boy stared at him, a disapproving scowl plastered across his face.

After a second to collect himself, Ace bit out, "Fine," before snatching the med kit from Magra. Damn it all, it wasn't him who needed comfort, but Luffy ended up comforting him instead anyway. The least he could do for his long-lost baby brother was to take care of his injuries.

Ace redid the bandages on Luffy's neck with some pointers from Magra. Once he finished, Luffy gave him a fond smile, still small and shy yet stunningly genuine, and suddenly all of this became worth his best efforts.

Ace pushed Luffy's straw hat down on his eyes and grinned at an indignant yelp.

"Get some food into yourselves," Dadan ordered. She and Dogra had been watching them the whole time, and she sounded the same as always, but there was undeniable concern underlying her rough voice. "And then sleep. You both need it. Yeah, including you, Ace."

Ace clicked his tongue before he leaned forward and pulled both trays closer. "We don't need babysitters to watch us eat," he muttered, making a little shooing gesture.

Dadan scoffed and turned to leave, the other two bandits following suit. At the door, she paused. "Luffy, welcome back home," she said. They could hear a quiet sniffle from her direction, and Luffy tilted his head to the side, staring at her. "I-It's not like I was worried or anything, but… I'm glad you're okay."

Luffy smiled again, a little wider than before. "Thanks, Dadan," he said. "Magra and Dogra, too."

Dadan whipped out a handkerchief from her pocket and blew her nose into it, tears streaming down her cheeks freely now.

"Ma, Ma, Boss, calm down, don't cry."

"Shut up! Who's crying!" she yelled through tears as she yanked the door open and stomped out.

Magra heaved a sigh. "Get some rest, Luffy. You too, Ace," he instructed and then walked out, shooing the bandits still crowding the hallway away.

Dogra wiped the happy tears. "Welcome home, Luffy," he said before exiting and closing the door behind him.

Ace rubbed his temple, mumbling, "Annoying as always…" under his breath. His head whipped to look at Luffy when he heard a soft 'shishishishi'.

"They haven't changed at all," Luffy commented. He seemed to hesitate after reaching for a piece of meat but then grabbed it and bit into it, eyes closing in bliss.

Ace harrumphed around the mouthful of his own meat. "Dunno if that's a good thing or bad."

"It's good," Luffy replied, nibbling at his food.

There was a knock, and one of the bandits poked his head in. Grinning annoyingly, he waved, pushed a futon with a blanket in, and hurried to flee because Ace was glaring daggers at him.

No one disturbed them after that, and they could eat in peace. Until Luffy pushed his plate away, indicating that he was done.

Ace's brow furrowed, shooting a glance down. His brother barely ate a third of an already relatively small portion. It made alarm bells ring inside his head. "Luffy," he called. "Eat more."

Luffy sent the untouched food a longing stare. "I can't," he murmured, tearing his gaze away with a sharp jerk. "It's been a while. If I ate more, it'd make me sick. I don't want to be sick."

Ace's mind stuttered momentarily, and every cell in his body went on hold while his thoughts tried to catch up with everything he heard.

It's been a while.

A while since Luffy ate.

Ace's appetite vanished, leaving his stomach churning. He forced down the bite inside his mouth and put the unfinished piece he still held back onto the plate.

"Hey, Luffy?" he called again, jumping to his feet and collecting both trays. "Remember that time we three snuck into the ramen restaurant?"

Luffy's forlorn stare at the food Ace carried to the door transformed into a bright-eyed stare at his brother. "Yeah," he said, another smile tugging at his lips at what was a happy memory.

"I can't believe those idiots didn't notice something was wrong until the ninth order." Ace shook his head in disbelief, unrolling the futon next to Luffy's.

"Good thing they didn't," Luffy responded. "Ramen was great."

"It sure was!" Blanket in hands, Ace padded to the corner and kicked the pillow, aiming to land it on his futon, but it flew over it and hit Luffy instead. "Ah, sorr—" The same pillow smacked him straight into his face. "—oof."

Luffy laughed.

Free and honest and breathless in the way that left Ace stunned.

Still far from his usual laughter, loud and jubilant and ringing in the ears for minutes after, but it lingered in his eyes, in the lines of his features, brightening them up with relaxed joy.

In a face of such unrestrained happiness, Ace couldn't help but grin. Sacrificing a little bit of his pride to lighten up the mood and make his little brother laugh was a fair trade.

"Reminds me of the pillow fight we had once on the tree house," Ace reminisced as he dropped the pillow on the futon and laid down himself, draping a blanket over himself.

Luffy followed his lead, sliding under his own blanket. "You and Sabo were both so mean, ganging up on me," he muttered.

Ace barked out a laugh.

They spent the next few hours recalling adventures and fun times from when all three lived together and got in trouble together. The light gradually drained from the room as the sun set, leaving only shadows.

They were lying on their sides, facing each other. Luffy kept talking, half-asleep, his hand resting on the brim of the straw hat he placed beside his pillow. Occasionally he brushed his fingers across the straws as if to reassure himself that it was still there.

Ace was still wide awake despite feeling exhaustion deep in his bones. Extending his arm, he touched the side of his brother's face. His alive brother's face. "You should get some sleep, Luffy," he murmured, stroking the boy's black strands gently and soothingly.

Luffy blinked slowly. "I don't want to." He would have sounded almost petulant if he wasn't so sleepy.

"Why not?"

In the dim moonlight spilling through the window, Luffy looked sad and sorrowful but mostly defeated when his gaze locked on Ace's face. "I don't want to wake up from this dream."

"Dream—Luffy, this isn't a dream," Ace said as he cupped his hand around the boy's head and carefully pulled him closer until their foreheads touched. "I'm here. You're here. And neither of us is going anywhere."

Luffy huffed. "You and Sabo always say that in my dreams."

The dread made Ace's blood run cold in his veins. "Luffy, I—" A hand on his face cut him off. A thumb brushed the tears from his eye that he didn't feel gathering.

"That's okay, Ace. Don't cry," Luffy whispered. "It's not the first time. I'm glad you didn't send me back in this dream." His lips curled into a wistful smile. "I had fun. I missed you… so… much…" As he spoke, his eyelids started to flutter closed. Eventually, he lost his fight against exhaustion, voice trailing off into silence.

Ace caught Luffy's limp hand into his own and squeezed it, promising to never let it go again.

He was going to fix this. He was going to protect Luffy this time. Even if it cost him his life.

Ace woke up. He blinked at the ceiling, not quite sure what exactly disturbed his sleep. Clouds must have covered the moon, and the sun was yet to rise, so the room was covered in murky darkness, filled with shadows and barely distinguishable shapes.

Ace rubbed his eyes. Sighed. He felt so tired. He turned his head to the side to look at Luffy, to make sure he was okay. Squinting, he tried to make out his brother's silhouette in the bed next to his, and his breathing hitched when he realized that all he could see was only a pillow.

Ace shot up, panic rising, but before it could fully set in, he finally made out a sitting shape on the futon. Relief flooded his veins, despite his heart still trying to pound violently out of his chest. "Luffy?" he called out quietly. "What are y—"

Ace's back hit the floor with a startling force and, for a split second, the impact robbed his breath away. He had no time to comprehend what was happening when a weight settled on top of him, pinning him down. Steely fingers wrapped around his throat, strong enough that he felt them there but not hard enough to choke him.

Clouds parted, and the moonlight poured through the window.

Luffy stared at him, face void of emotions, yet danger glinted in his eyes like smoldering coal. Muscles tense and ready, his posture held an overwhelmingly unnerving intensity. His presence seemed to be filling the room up to the point of being nearly suffocating.

Ace felt like prey being pinned down by a huge predator. The feeling built along his skin, setting his hair on end. A feeling that he would have never thought to associate with his clumsy, lovable baby brother. And for one terrifying moment, Ace thought that Luffy would strangle him.

But then Luffy blinked. Recognition flickered across his features, and the phantom pressure let up. "…Ace?" he whispered in utter disbelief. He shifted his hand from Ace's throat to his face, feeling around his cheek, nose bridge, and eye. It was such a gentle action. As if he was touching something fragile, something that might disappear on contact. His expression was startled and scared and maybe a little bit hopeful. "I-I thought… you were just another dream."

Something hot pressed against the back of Ace's eyes. He gulped in a breath, then another, desperate to keep his shit together so he could fix this somehow. "It's not a dream, Luffy," he choked out. "I'm real. You're real. And you're back home with me."

Didn't seem that those words found a perch in Luffy's mind, the boy's focus moving from Ace's face to his hands. He curled fingers around one of his wrists and rubbed it a few times, repeating the same thing with the other one and eventually his neck. What started with a gentle patting around his throat turned into scratching until he all but clawed at the bandages, lips pulled into a sneer and eyes glaring at something that wasn't there.

"Luffy!" Ace cried out in alarm. "Look at me, Luffy!" His arms shot up to catch his brother's face and draw his attention to himself. "Stop it! Don't hurt yourself!"

Luffy froze, slowly blinking back into reality. "There are no shackles, Ace," he whispered, his tone tinged with bewilderment and awe. "No collar either."

Ace couldn't will away tears this time. His brother went through so much, and he really, really didn't know what to do to make everything better. He felt weak and so very pathetic, that it made him sick. Taking a deep breath, he pushed through it.

"No shackles, Luffy. And no collar," he said as firmly as he could.

"No them?"

"That's right, no them." Ace carefully pushed away from the floor, arms sliding around his little brother until he was safely tucked against his chest. Luffy didn't refuse, so he counted it as a win. "They aren't here. No one's going to hurt you anymore." He didn't know who 'they' were, but God forbid they would return to take Luffy away from him. He would sooner burn the whole world before allowing it to happen again.

A few silent minutes passed as Luffy gathered himself. Ace gave him time to build himself back slowly, being the patient and steady support his brother needed so he wouldn't drown in horrible memories.

After what seemed like an eternity, Luffy's arms finally came around Ace into a desperate hug. "Sorry," he whispered as he hid his face in the crook of Ace's neck, arms tightening around him.

"That's okay," Ace murmured. "You're safe. You're with me. I won't let anything happen to you. You'll be fine." He kept muttering reassurances to the point where he didn't know if it was to convince Luffy or himself. Probably both.

"Where's Sabo?"

An unexpected question made Ace stiffen. Only briefly, because he forced his body to relax. "He—He's with his parents," he lied.

"Can we go visit him?"

"I don't think so, he's pretty busy. You know how those nobles are."

Ace instantly cursed himself when he felt Luffy flinch. But there was no way he would tell the truth about Sabo's death now when his brother was in this state.


Luffy's breath was warm against his neck as he said it, and Ace's heart might as well have stopped beating.

"Sabo's not a noble. He ran away. He's our brother now."

Ace sucked in a breath as his heart restarted despite the guilt spearing it through. "Yeah," he exhaled. "Sabo's our brother. Nothing's going to change that."

The next time Ace woke up was to the sun rays shining through the window and early bird songs filtering in. He lifted his head from the pillow, licking his lips. He didn't even know when he fell asleep or how he ended up back on his futon. The last thing he remembered was sitting with Luffy on his lap and—

His head whipped to look at Luffy's futon. Finding it empty, he swept the room.

His brother stood at the window, clutching its windowsill as he stared outside. He stood completely motionless, not even blinking.

Ace relaxed. "What are you doing, Luffy?" he wondered, absent-mindedly scratching his belly.

The boy jumped, startled, and immediately stepped away from the window.

Ace raised his eyebrow.

Luffy's toes curled under him as he clutched his straw hat, tugging it down. "Can I go outside?" he asked under his breath.

"Huh? Why wouldn't you be able to go outside?"

One of Luffy's shoulders rose and dropped in a dejected shrug.

There are no shackles, Ace.

Ace almost facepalmed at his stupidity. Luffy always needed freedom like he needed air and had probably been shackled for years. Of course, he would want to feel free now that he was rescued from those bastards.

Ace clenched his fist.

He was going to murder those who did this to his baby brother. Rip them into shreds.

Luffy tensed, pulling his hat down harder.

Ace pushed all the air out of his lungs in an explosive sigh, letting his anger leave with it. "Yeah, we can go outside," he finally said, heaving himself up.

Luffy's head snapped up, eyes big and bright, and gave a small yet heart-wrenchingly beautiful smile that Ace thought put all his large and toothy ones to shame.

They tiptoed to the exit, careful not to wake the bandits up. Luffy raced through the door first, and Ace followed at a slower pace, stifling a yawn.

It was still early in the morning. On one side, the sky was the dark blue and purple of twilight. On another, the sun bloomed on the horizon, golden petals bright amid the rich blue. It illuminated the forest and the dew-laden grassy field before the hut. Night chill still lingered in the air, but the daybreak was quickly bringing glimmers of warmth with it.

Luffy stopped at the line where the growing grass replaced the naked dirt. He made a hesitant step forward, placing his bare feet into the grass, then another, and stood there, moving only his toes and savoring the refreshing coldness of the dew.

Ace instantly smothered the thought that Luffy acted like it was the first time he felt the dewy grass in years. It might have been true, but he didn't want to think about it now. Not when the wide grin was spreading across his brother's face.

Soft laughter escaped him, and Luffy sprinted across the field, leaving imprints of his feet in the grass.

Ace sat down on the old tree trunk at the edge of the field, watching the kid running around and chasing butterflies. The buzz of happiness and the warm sunlight must have lulled him into sleep because the next thing he knew was Luffy jumping on his back and almost bringing them both down into the grass.

"Luffy," he grumbled, adjusting his sitting position to accommodate the additional weight on his back.

"Shishishishi," Luffy giggled into his ear. "I'm glad this isn't a dream." His voice grew quieter, softer. "Thank you for waiting for me, Ace."

Ace's cheeks burned. "Idiot," he muttered, but the insult didn't carry any heat behind it, only endless fondness. "Thanks for coming back, Luffy."

Luffy grinned. With the last squeeze, he unwrapped himself from Ace and plopped down, sprawling in the grass.

Ace moved so that he could see his brother. "Do you know who brought you back?" It was something he hadn't had time to think about until now, but was immensely curious.

Luffy stared at the sky, at the sunbeams eating away the remains of the night. "No," he uttered finally. "But…" He closed his eyes as the gust swept across the field. "There was someone who felt like the wind. Fast, ruthless… Unrestrained."

Ace scowled. Luffy's words made no sense. He tapped his finger on his knee, thinking. Whoever it was didn't want to show themselves, but at the same time, he must have known Luffy or at least where he was from. The mystery gave him a headache, but all he could do was hope that bringing Luffy back home wouldn't come with some kind of price later.

"Ne, Ace."


"How old am I?"

"How old—" Ace gawked in sheer shock. Luffy might be an idiot, but he certainly knew how to count. The fact that he didn't know how old he was meant that he didn't know how long he had spent in that horrible place. "Twelve, Luffy. You're already twelve."

Luffy hummed. "A bit over four years, huh…"

They lapsed into another silence. Ace stewed in his thoughts, and Luffy basked in the sunlight.

"Ace?" Luffy asked again.


"Where's Sabo?"

Ace stiffened, the conversation they had in the middle of the night rushing to the forefront of his mind. He gulped down the guilt and opened his mouth—

"Don't lie."

Luffy's black eyes bored into Ace, stripping layers of skin and flesh until there was nothing but his rotten soul bared to the elements. He had no idea how, but Luffy knew he lied.

Ace took a shuddering breath in, hands shaking and eyes fixed on his lap, and blurted it out, "Sabo died." He never voiced it out loud himself. Avoided saying it even in the privacy of his head. Not when Luffy was gone, and he was so utterly alone.

In the deathly silence that followed, Ace didn't dare to look at Luffy, to see what kind of expression he made after hearing such news.

There was a rustle as Luffy sat up. "How did he die?"

"The day before you disappeared from the hideout, Sabo sailed off to the sea to escape his parents. He accidentally crossed an incoming ship, and some asshole shot his boat. They never found his body, but after a direct hit and explosion…" Ace ran his trembling hand through his hair. "Dogra saw everything."

Silence. No crying, no denials, nothing.

"Incoming ship? The only ship that could have come that day…" Luffy trailed off. "I see. So Sabo was killed by them."

He sounded wrong somehow. Too deep, too serious. Not angry, rather uncharacteristically calm. Cold even, unforgiving.

Ace glanced up and went rigid.

Luffy's dark eyes had become bottomless black pits glaring at something unseen in the distance. Ace immediately recognized the emotion on his brother's face, being intimately familiar with it.

Hate. Pure, raw hate. Luffy had never before shown hate. Anger, of course, but never hate. But there it was.

And suddenly, it felt like Luffy, his Luffy, was slipping away into some darkness where Ace would never be able to reach him. He wanted to do something. Maybe shout to not leave him alone again. Or grab him and never let go before his careless little brother faded away completely.

Ace's shaky arms were uselessly heavy, and he couldn't get the words out. They tangled up, tripping over whatever was lodged inside his chest.

Then, just like during the night, Luffy blinked, and whatever demons tormented him retreated. He fell back into the grass with a weary sigh, looking sad now, mournful. Peaceful in his grief. Lifting his hand, he reached for the sky. "Sabo always wanted to be free," he murmured. "We have to be free, Ace." The sky was so high above, seemingly unattainable, but Luffy's fist closed as if he grabbed onto whatever he had been reaching for. "Freer than anyone else so we could show Sabo what it truly means."

"Yeah," Ace managed tightly.

Luffy looked at him, brow furrowing. Wordlessly, he stood up and placed his straw hat on Ace's head. When the teen looked up, surprised by his action, he slipped his hand into Ace's and said, "I want to see the sea, Ace," as he tugged him to move.

"Right." Ace shook himself from his stupor, returned the straw hat to its rightful spot atop Luffy's head, and smiled. "Let's go see the sea then."

His little brother beamed, pulling him into the forest path leading to their favorite cliff, and it was the best medicine in the world for Ace's mangled heart.

That same day, the boys moved to the tree house, despite the protests from the bandits. Luffy wanted to spend as much time outside as possible, and Ace indulged him. And while nights were plagued by recurring nightmares and night terrors, fresh air, the ability to always see the sky, and, most importantly, Ace's presence and the straw hat always helped Luffy to calm down and come back from whatever hell he had been stuck in.

Sometimes those demons followed Luffy from his dreams and haunted his reality, so the two brothers made a habit of watching the sunrise together. Most of the time, they stayed in the tree house, but sometimes walked to their favorite cliff and sat there until Luffy smiled, then laughed, and in the end, tackled Ace into a hug.

Ace always had a hard time expressing emotions other than anger, never being one to express his affection through touch nor accepting such shows of affection from his brothers. Now he had to learn to do both. Luffy ambushed him with hugs several times per day without any apparent reason and let go only when Ace gulped down his embarrassment and ruffled his hair.

He even got used to sleeping with his little brother curled beside him or tucked protectively into his embrace, hoping against all hope that he would become a titanium wall between his baby brother and the demons, at least for a single night.

And just like that, three weeks passed by.

Luffy's physical wounds healed, leaving only the scars marrying his young body as a harrowing reminder of his past. However, under the watchful care of Ace and the bandits, his mental health also started to improve. The road to healing was long and arduous, but it was a start.

The two of them were sitting on the cliff after yet another restless night when Ace noticed Luffy absentmindedly scratching at his neck again. His stomach flipped at seeing that terrible persisting tic, acid burning at the back of his throat.

Luffy had been shackled and collared for years.

Ace simply could not wrap his head around how someone could do such a thing to his little brother. Or any kid. Or anyone, really.

This was probably the best time for the small gift Ace had prepared. He pulled something out of his shorts pocket. Luffy didn't notice, too absorbed in admiring the sunrise, so the teen took a moment to ponder if he wanted to proceed with this idea. His brother might have an unexpected, perhaps even violent, reaction to his gift—it was, after all, a bandana to tie around his neck. Like a collar. But Ace only wanted to cover the scar on the left side, which seemed to bother Luffy every time he caught sight of it, and hopefully prevent him from hurting himself.

"I got something for you, Luffy," Ace said before he changed his mind.

Luffy turned, eyes flicking down a moment later to see what his brother had in his hands.

"It's, um," Ace hesitated, but then just shoved it to him, "a bandana to tie around your neck."

Luffy picked up the bandana, unfolded it. Holding it up against the sun, he stared at it. It was completely black, sewn from the soft though sturdy material. Ace made sure that Dogra picked the best one.

"You can paint a Jolly Roger on it, and it'll look like a pirate flag," Ace pointed out.

Luffy tilted his head as he continued to stare at the bandana. Perhaps trying to imagine the Jolly Roger painted on it. Gradually, his mouth stretched into a grin. "So cool!" he exclaimed, tying it around his neck. "Thanks, Ace!"

Ace grinned back at him. With relief warming his heart and the sun warming his skin, he started getting sleepy.

Then the trees behind them exploded. Both boys were up on their feet and ready for a fight in a blink of an eye. They expected a beast to come crashing through the trees, but it was their grandfather who suddenly came bursting out from the forest.

Both sides stared at each other for a few seconds, momentarily stunned.

"Luffy…" The name from Garp's mouth flowed out with a worn-out softness, smooth with tiredness. "You've returned."

Luffy took a step back.

It set Ace on high alert. They were too close to the cliff's edge, the image of his brother flinging himself toward that edge still too fresh in his memory. One look and Ace's heart twisted.

Luffy was shaking, pale and small and absolutely terrified.

Ace's blood boiled in fury. A slow, burning, volcanic fury that would level everything in sight when it finally erupted. He positioned himself between Luffy and Garp, teeth bared and eyes blazing. "Don't get any closer, you damn geezer!"

But Garp didn't try to come closer. He stood there, staring. Not moving and not saying a word. Just staring.

Ace felt Luffy's fingers fisting into the fabric of his t-shirt, and a second later, he asked, "Are you gonna take me back there, Grandpa?"

Garp reeled back as if those soft-spoken words physically hurt him. "No, Luffy, that's not it. I—" He paused, straining to find a combination of words that could even begin to express his feelings.

"No one's taking you anywhere, Luffy," Ace growled.

Garp rubbed at his eyes, looking so, so tired now. "I just wanted to see you."

Luffy's fist tightened around the handful of Ace's t-shirt. Not letting it go, he stepped from behind the older boy. Straightening his spine, he drew himself up, pinning his grandfather with a cold glare. "I'm not going back there," he hissed. Defiant, if not provocative in his refusal. "I'd rather die than go back there!" Sheer resolve resonated in his declaration, Luffy's posture and expression almost daring the old man to try and force him.

"I'd never force you back into that place," Garp murmured, weighted down with all the emotions welling inside him. There was no small amount of shame in his voice. "No, Luffy… You think I'd do that to my own grandson?"

Luffy studied the man with sharp, pensive eyes. The moment seemed to stretch into eternity before Luffy's grip on Ace's shirt eased up. After another moment, just as long, he let go entirely and pushed his straw hat more securely on his head. "I believe you," he said, looking back at his grandfather. Previous hostility and fear were gone, though some of the weariness remained. "I missed you, Grandpa."

"I missed you too, Luffy," Garp responded quietly. Truthfully. "Give me a moment while I speak with Ace, alright?" He motioned to the teen to follow, but didn't wait for him and walked into the forest.

Ace scowled after him. With a sigh, he let the tension bleed out of his posture. There were a few things he wanted to ask Garp as well. Turning to his brother, he squeezed the latter's shoulders. "You alright?"

Luffy nodded.

"I'll be just beyond those trees, okay?"

Another nod.

"Stay here, I'll be right back." With a pat on Luffy's head, Ace spun around and walked into the forest.

He stopped behind Garp who was sitting on the stump, facing the other direction. All the teen could see was the man's back.

Ace crossed his arms. "You know who did this to Luffy." It wasn't even a question, but a statement that sounded almost accusatory.

Instead of answering, Garp asked, "How's he doing?"

Ace tapped his feet. "You're not going to tell me who's responsible, are you, geezer? Just like with Sabo." He tsked when only silence met his words. "I'll find out eventually." He sneered. "I'll make sure to find out."

Garp didn't answer.

A minute passed in silence.

"Physically, he's fine now. Despite the scars all over his body," Ace said eventually, voice clipped. "He has nightmares every night. Some are rather violent." No response. His jaw tightened. "Luffy's strong, he'll be alright. But I won't forgive those who did this to him. And I won't forgive you," he snarled. "I'll find out who, and I—"

A barely audible sniffle reached his ears.

Ace paused in his blind fury, and his eyes widened when the realization hit him like a punch to his guts—Garp was crying. It immediately took the wind out of his sails, and he sighed, scrubbing his face with both hands.

He gave the old man a few minutes to collect himself.

"How did you know that Luffy was back?"

Garp made a dismissing wave. "Don't worry about it."

Ace narrowed his eyes. "Is he safe here?"

"Yeah." There was no doubt in Garp's reply. He stood up. "Ace, you'll look after your younger brother, right?"

"You don't need to tell me that, old geezer!" Ace snapped. "Better tell me who did this to Luffy!"

Garp clasped Ace's shoulder, staring toward the cliff where he could see Luffy waiting for them. "You'll find out someday," he murmured, "but all I can tell you right now is that this world has a dark side that no one can breach."

Ace's lips thinned, and he glared at nothing in particular. He couldn't forgive Garp for not telling, but in some part of his mind, he understood why the man kept it away from him. He followed Garp back to the cliff, slipping past him and to Luffy's side as soon as they left the forest.

"I'm really glad you're back safe, Luffy." Garp reached to pat his grandson's head, but the boy flinched away before he could as much as touch him. The old man's expression crumbled, his arm dropping back to his side. He forced out an uncertain smile. "If I'd known, I would have done something. I hope you can believe that."

Luffy stared into his face, searching, judging. Whatever he was looking for, he must have found it. He responded with a nod.

Garp's smile widened. "I'll be going now, have something to take care of," he said. "But I'll visit again soon."

Ace grimaced. "Please, don't."

"What did you say, you brat?!"

Ace yelped when Garp suddenly yanked him off his feet and into a chokehold before ruffling his hair. "Wh-wha-what are you doing, you shitty old man?!" He flailed his arms and kicked out with his legs to no avail. "Let me go!"



Garp froze. Ace used that opportunity and wrestled himself out of the man's hold, immediately retreating to a safe distance.

"I'll become the Pirate King," Luffy declared, peering at his grandfather with eyes that spoke volumes of what they had seen. The eyes that had the darkness of this world seared into them forever. "The freest person in the world."

And for once, Garp couldn't do more than nod.

Next Chapter: The Straw Hat of Promises