English is not my first language. Betaread by Checkmate-13!
Chapter 2. Free as the Pirate King
Luffy refused to be left alone in the room, so Ace just opened the door and yelled out to bring them food because they were starving. Luffy chuckled behind him. Ace smirked.
His little brother was alive. Wounded and scarred, but alive nonetheless. Importantly, he was smiling and laughing already. It was still a wary shadow of the smile and laughter of the past, but Ace was sure Luffy would be back to his old self in no time.
Magra and Dadan brought in the food, a big pile of delicious meat and a jug of water, without any complains. Dogra snuck in after them and closed the door before any of the other bandits could tumble in.
"Eat, brats!" ordered the curly haired boss. "There's more if needed."
"Thanks, Dadan!" Luffy grinned shyly at her.
The woman stared at his happy face for a moment, before suddenly turning around and exclaiming "I-It's not like I'm worried about you or anything!"
"Shishishishi," Luffy giggled and threw his arms into air like he was trying to hug them all. "I missed you guys!"
Dogra and Magra smiled happily and brushed tears from their eyes. Dadan grabbed a handkerchief from her pocket and tried to wipe tears of her own, but it was to no avail.
"I'm not crying, dammit!" she assured them.
Ace watched the exchange with a small smile curved on his lips. He fondly observed Luffy and noticed that the boy touched his hat several times. As long as Luffy had his straw hat he should be fine.
After dinner, the bandits left the brothers alone. Magra dragged Ace's futon to the room they used for the time being, and they both laid down and started to recall adventures from the time they lived together as three brothers.
Luffy was happy, so Ace was happy too. Until night came.
Ace was woken by restless thrashing and mumbling. He opened his eyes slowly, not sure what all the noise was about. Ace was still tired from the series of sleepless nights worrying about his little brother. He glanced at Luffy. At that moment, a painful scream pierced his ears. It sent chills down Ace's spine as he leapt from his bed and stared at the boy.
Luffy was sitting up, looking around with wild eyes. His whole body was trembling and it seemed that he was having trouble breathing, his breaths coming out shallow and uneven.
"Luffy?" Ace called, still quite confused.
The boy instantly turned to look at him, his eyes full of pain and fear. His body tensed up, ready to flee.
Ace silently cursed and before Luffy could run away, he gripped his wrist and pulled him into a tight hug, wrapping his arms around the youngster. Luffy flailed and screamed again.
"Luffy! It's me, Ace! You are safe. Luffy! Luffy, can you hear me?"
"NO! Let me go! I will not go back!" the boy screamed, still trying to free himself. "I'd rather die than go back!"
Ace clenched his teeth. He didn't like that. He hated that. He couldn't bear to hear such words from his little brother.
"Ace!" Luffy suddenly exclaimed, desperation seeping out of his shout. "Where are you, Ace!?"
The teen tightened his grip on his brother. "I'm here, you idiot! Right here!"
As he suspected, Luffy didn't recognize his voice nor his presence as he still tried his hardest to escape. And geez, the boy was strong; Ace had to use all of his strength just to keep Luffy from hitting him with his flailing arms. With his arms constricted, Luffy resorted to biting his forearm, but Ace ignored the pain.
After a moment Luffy let go his arm and yelled, "Sabo, help me!"
Ace was at a loss at what to do, how to make Luffy realize where he was and that he was safe. It was becoming unbearable to listen to his little brother's screams and pleas.
The straw hat.
He swept the room. The hat was peacefully resting on the floor within arm's reach. Ace grabbed it and jammed it on the boy's head. The result was instantaneous, Luffy stopped squirming as he grasped the hat's rim and took a deep shaky breath.
"Are you awake now, Luffy?"
The youngster was still trembling, but he nodded. "Sorry, Ace."
"It's okay," the teen heaved a sigh of relief. "You're safe with me. You will be okay."
Ace pulled Luffy closer to his chest and rested his chin on the straw hat. His heartbeat finally subsided, but his mind was in total chaos with lots of thoughts spinning around. He hated his own helplessness. Ace wanted to help, wanted to know what exactly happened, but he dreaded even thinking of asking Luffy about it. No, it had to be Luffy that decided to tell him, he would definitely not push him to relive those four years.
"You will be fine," repeated Ace, more for himself than for anyone else.
"Ace, where is Sabo?"
Ace stiffened. "He… he's with his parents."
"Can we go visit him?"
"He's pretty busy, Luffy. You know how those nobles are."
Luffy flinched, and Ace cursed himself. He was lying through his teeth, but it was better than telling the truth. At least for now.
Luffy got too anxious during the second day in the room, so Ace agreed to bring him outside.
It was a warm and sunny day. Luffy just sat on the grass in the sunshine with a small content smile on his lips for hours. After that, he refused to go back into the house, so they had to settle and sleep outside. Ace was worried at first, but apparently the fresh air helped Luffy relax more and his nightmares and night terrors got less intense with every passing night.
A week passed quickly. Ace was always within arm's reach, not for a mere moment leaving his kid brother alone. So when Luffy claimed that he wanted to watch the sunset at the cliff, he led him there without complains.
They both were sitting on the edge of the cliff and watching the sun go down in silent. Blue sea waters splashed with red, orange and yellow colors, soothing them. Ace softly smiled.
"Ace, what really happened to Sabo?"
Ace's smile fell. The sudden question was like a slap to the face. Luffy asked like he knew that he was lying.
"I already told you, he's…"
"Tell me the truth," interrupted Luffy, eyes firmly fixed on the older boy.
After a moment, Ace sighed. "Sabo died."
Luffy gasped. The teen closed his eyes, not wanting to see the grief on his baby brother's face, but still ready to comfort him at the first sound of distress. But there was no crying, just another question.
Should he lie again? No, it was better to come clean. "The day before you left the hideout and disappeared."
Luffy narrowed his eyes. "How?"
"He sailed to the sea as a pirate and some asshole shot his boat. It caught on fire." Ace ran his hand through his hair nervously. "Dogra saw everything."
Silence. No crying, no denials, nothing. Ace shifted a little, still not looking at the boy next to him. "Look, Luffy–"
"Ohhh," said Luffy quietly, "so Sabo was killed by them."
Ace could swear that he heard amusement in Luffy's voice. He glanced at his little brother and froze.
He saw hate. Pure, raw hate. Ace recognized it in Luffy's eyes. He himself was consumed by hate until he met his brothers. Until he met the happy-go-lucky boy who kept chasing him even when he tried to dispose of him countless times. Luffy never showed hate before, anger yes, but never hate. But there it was, in its purest form.
Ace's eyes widened as he suddenly felt like Luffy, his Luffy, was slipping away, into some darkness where he would never be able to reach him. His heart was racing like crazy; he took one deep breath and without even thinking, grabbed Luffy by his hand and pulled him into a hug before his careless little brother faded away completely.
"I-I already lost Sabo," Ace exhaled finally, voice shaky. "I don't want to lose you too, Luffy. Not again."
The boy in his arms shifted slightly, wrapping his own arms around his older brother and whispered, "Sorry."
After a moment, Luffy tilted his head and glanced at the teen. He frowned when he saw tears running down Ace's cheeks. Unknowingly, he touched the straw hat and an idea popped into his head. Luffy smiled, took the hat off, and placed it on Ace's head. His smile widened when his older brother looked at him, surprised.
"I will never leave you alone again, so don't cry, Ace."
After couple of weeks, Luffy's neck wound finally healed, so he removed the bandages. As Ace had surmised, it left a scar. A pinkish line ran across the left side of his neck, easily visible juxtaposed against his darker skin. It didn't bother Luffy much, for a while at least. After he caught his older brother staring at the scar with a grim face he started to bandage it again.
Ace said nothing about it, but he was relieved. Every time his gaze fell on the scar, it stirred fury, frustration, and helplessness in him. Like a mocking reminder that he couldn't protect the one he loved the most.
The boys moved back to their tree house after the bandits nagging about their sleeping arrangements became unbearable, and Ace decided that Luffy was healthy enough. Physically. His mental health made the teen worried sick, so he did everything in his power to help Luffy.
Ace always had a hard time expressing his emotions, excluding anger. He never was a person to show his affection by touch, unless it was bonking a certain idiot's head in the past. He also never received much affection, not even from his brothers. Even if they wanted to do it, Ace would have probably punched them first and then asked what the hell they were trying to do.
Now, Luffy ambushed him with hugs several times per day without any apparent reason. He just clung on for a couple minutes with a huge grin plastered on his face, until Ace gulped down his embarrassment and ruffled the raven black hair of the smaller boy. He even got used to sleeping with his little brother curled beside him as it helped with whatever horrors plagued Luffy's dreams.
The straw hat also assisted holding the night terrors at bay. In his mind, Ace dubbed it 'Luffy's bridge to reality'. The hat was irreplaceable, successfully pulling its master out of the darkness every time he was balancing on the thin line between nightmares and reality.
Lately, after particularly intense nightmares, Luffy requested Ace accompany him to watch sunrises on their favorite sea cliff. Luffy would just sit there with a blank face and empty eyes until a serene smile would bloom on his face, then grow into a content grin. Finally a lively "shishishishi" would crown it all and Ace would find himself tackled into a hug.
This morning was no exception. Luffy merrily giggled while still holding his older brother who just smiled leniently, when suddenly trees behind them exploded. They both jumped up alarmed.
"Bwahahahaha!" a loud laugh broke through trees. "Where is my lovely grandson?"
Ace paled. Luffy grinned from ear to ear.
Garp finally stepped from the forest. "Ah, here you…" he fell silent when he took notice of the second boy. His eyes widened and he gasped. "Luffy?"
"Grandpa!" exclaimed the boy happily. Moments later he was already hugging the old man. "I missed you!"
"You're back!" Garp narrowed his eyes, lifting his hand and clenching it into a fist. "You ungrateful brat! Where have you been all this time?! Hiding from me, or what? You will get four years' worth of my Fist of Love! Bwahahaha!"
Luffy gasped and stepped back. Grandpa's punches always hurt. He paled. It will hurt a lot! It will be painful! No, no, he didn't want to be hurt again!
Luffy cowered, clasping his head in his arms protectively. His body tensed, ready to be punished. But pain never came.
"Don't you dare touch Luffy, bastard geezer!" growled Ace after punching away Garp's fist. Now he stood between Luffy and their grandfather and glared at the latter ferociously. "He finally came back after four years, I will not let you or anyone hurt him anymore!"
Garp was stunned. Firstly, his younger grandson looked terrified. He always was somehow afraid of his own grandpa, but this was different. Luffy never responded to the Fist of Love with such wild fear. Secondly, the older grandson glared at him with a ferocity that Garp had never seen before. He was being treated like an enemy.
Seeing the old geezer so perplexed, Ace turned around. "Luffy," he called gently, "it's alright. No one's gonna hurt you." He grimaced, then noticed that his little brother was shaking. The teen threw an accusatory glare towards Garp before peeling Luffy's hands from his head and putting on his straw hat, which dangled on a string around Luffy's neck. Luffy looked at Ace, and he smiled. "I'll protect you, don't you worry, little brother."
"Ace, can we talk?" said Garp quietly, turned around and walked away.
The teen glared after him, then sighed and put his hand on Luffy's shoulder. "Stay here." The boy nodded, and Ace followed the old man.
"What happened?" asked Garp in serious tone, once they were out of Luffy's earshot.
"I found Luffy about month ago on this cliff, he was hurt and… delirious." Ace scowled and rubbed his forehead, Garp shifted uncomfortably. "He has scars all over his body, a burn mark on his back, recurring nightm– "
"A burn mark?" interrupted the marine hero. "Does it have a shape?"
Ace narrowed his eyes. "Yeah," he answered carefully. "It's a circle with what looks like three triangles above and one under."
Garp's eyes widened for a moment before he closed them. He swept his hand across his face and with a low growl sat down on the ground. Suddenly he looked so old and tired. "No wonder I couldn't find him…" he sighed wearily.
Ace crossed his arms and eyed his grandfather suspiciously. "You know something?"
"It's… He's…" Garp rubbed his neck absent-mindedly. "It's complicated, and…" he trailed off.
The old man was lost. How could he explain to his young grandson that he was powerless? That mark on his little brother's back was the mark of the World Nobles. Luffy had spent four years in hell as a slave. They were probably the same World Nobles that murdered his other brother.
Ace was too hotheaded to hear any of this. Luffy was definitely traumatized greatly, and Garp realized how his actions probably made it even worse. But apparently Ace did amazing job to soothe the kid.
"How is he doing?" Garp finally asked.
"You're not going to tell me who're responsible, are you, old geezer? Just like with Sabo." Ace stated bitterly. "I will find out eventually."
The marine didn't answer. He stared at his youngest grandson who was observing a caterpillar on his palm with great interest.
Ace sighed. "Physically he's fine, but he has nightmares every night. Some of it is rather violent, but he's doing better already. Luffy is strong, he will be alright after some time."
"Did he tell you anything?"
"It's better if you don't ask then." Garp stood up. "Ace, you will look after your younger brother, right?"
"You don't need to tell me that, old geezer!"
The marine just smiled faintly. Ace followed him back to Luffy while keeping a close watch.
Luffy grinned at them both.
"I'm glad you're back, Luffy," smiled Garp warmly and patted his grandson on his straw hat, gently.
Luffy's grin grew even more. "Thanks!"
"I need to take care of something, so I can't stay, but I will visit you again soon. Bwahahaha!"
"Please, don't," muttered Ace.
"What did you say, you ungrateful brat?!" The marine hero bonked Ace on the head with an unusually light Fist of Love and laughed again. "Bwahahaha! Be sure to be ready to become great marines next time I come!"
"Grandpa." Luffy's voice was uncharacteristically cold and serious, so much so that both men before him actually flinched. "I will not be a marine."
The boy peered right into the old man's eyes, and his gaze said everything. They were not the eyes of a young child. A storm of emotion raged within them. Determination. Pain. Longing. And hate. So much hate that Garp was taken aback.
"I will become a pirate." Luffy smirked, "No, more than that. I will become a Pirate King. I will be freest person in the world!"
And for once, Garp couldn't do more than just nod.
Next Chapter: The Straw Hat of Promises
I know the story is pretty angsty so far but! it's important for my Luffy character development. He's rather messed up still. Ace is too actually. So they need some brotherly bonding.
Also, there is no such thing as too much of huggy Luffy and overprotective Ace! ^^