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


Chapter 3. The Straw Hat of Promises


Ace tore through the forest, slipping on grassy patches, entangling in vines, and nearly tripping over tree roots.

Where was he?!

He jumped on the fallen tree and stopped at the top for a moment to scan the surroundings, chest heaving. When he didn't notice anything, he couldn't keep the panic away anymore.

Where was his little brother?!

Ace hopped down and started running again, wildly looking around as he darted around the trees and boulders.

Where the hell was Luffy?!

It was his entire fault. If he hadn't chased after that boar when it suddenly took off, he wouldn't have lost sight of Luffy in the middle of Mt. Colubo forest.

The kid was still recovering, even after two months since coming back home. Ace allowed him to do whatever he wished and didn't force anything on him, despite some of those things being highly concerning. Like Luffy's refusal to participate in hunts. He would tag along, not wanting to stay alone, but always remained on the sideline. And then there was his expression after Ace delivered a finishing blow. As if the killing pained him somehow.

So, of course, Ace couldn't leave the kid alone in the place that was swarming with beasts only waiting to pounce on unsuspecting prey.

"Shit!" Ace cursed before he looked up. Maybe he should climb the—

The sound of something big crashing through the forest on his left drew his attention. A cloud of dust spread through the trees a second later, and Ace made a sharp turn to check it out. When a fierce roar reached his ears, fear seized him by the throat. When he spotted a huge striped body moving around where the crash had come from, Ace's stomach dropped.

A tiger—one of the biggest and most ferocious beasts in these woods—fighting against something. He just hoped it wasn't someone.

Ace braked when another cloud of dust rolled through the forest and covered his face to protect himself.

The tiger roared.

Ace peeked from behind his arms just to see Luffy come sliding from the direction of the tiger.

"You damn cat," the boy muttered under his breath a moment before a smirk curled on his lips. "You asked for this…" His rubbery arms shot forward, grabbing at the two trees ahead as he himself backed off even further.

"Luffy!" Ace shouted in equal parts of surprise and panic.

Luffy's head whirled toward him. "Ace! Here you are!" A happy exclamation was topped with a wide, teeth-flashing grin.

The teen could see his little brother's plan, and he didn't like it. His anxiety spiked, but before he could give it voice—

Luffy flew off with a cheery, "Gimme a moment!" His small rubber body slammed into the tiger's side and blasted it through the trees.

Ace's jaw dropped. It must have been mind-boggling momentum that his little brother managed to reach to lift that massive mountain of pure muscles off the ground and send it flying.

Luffy immediately sprinted after the tiger, stretching one of his arms behind him. "Gomu Gomu no…" Just as the tiger was about to stand up, Luffy threw his fist, "…Pistol!" and hit it directly into his jaw.

The tiger's head snapped to the side, blood dripping from his muzzle. With a furious roar, it leaped to its feet and swiped its paw at the quickly approaching human.

Ace's heart missed a beat.

Luffy moved out of the way and, at the same time, his arm shot out to wrap around the tree. The beast lunged, the ground splitting under the impact of his paws, but the boy wasn't in that spot anymore. He allowed his rubbery arm to pull his body away from harm's way at the last possible moment, and then swung around the tree and back into the tiger. This time he slammed into its paw, pushing it from under the tiger's body.

The feline crashed down muzzle first, but Luffy caught hold of the tail and was tossed up into the sky as it flicked up. He let go of it, sending himself even higher. "…Bazooka!" Both his palms slammed into the nape of the tiger and flattened it against the ground, but Luffy wasn't done yet. He grabbed onto its ears and sent his body soaring into it like a rocket from the heavens.

The giant beast gargled, its body spasmed several times and eventually stilled, dead.

Ace's mouth was open all this time. What… what the… what the hell just happened?! Despite witnessing this fight, he could hardly believe his own eyes.

Luffy slid down from the tiger's body and beamed at his brother. "Look, Ace! I got us dinner!"

That finally snapped Ace out of his daze. He clenched his fists and stomped over to his brother. Luffy's smile fell, and he flinched visibly when he approached, but Ace was too furious to stop now. "What the hell were you thinking?! You could have died or gotten injured! But you—" His anger lost its momentum the second his brain processed the pale face in front of him. "I'm sorry for shouting… But you got me really worried, Luffy."

Luffy fidgeted. "Sorry…"

The boy sounded so small, Ace almost punched himself. He was such an idiot. He really couldn't let his hot temper get the better of him now, not when his brother was so skittish. Sighing, he shook lingering rage like he would shake the water from his hands and scanned the kid up and down to make sure he was unhurt. "Luffy, just…" He looked straight into Luffy's eyes, conveying all his worry and concern for his wellbeing. "Don't fight alone. Let me help you next time, okay?"

Luffy gave a tiny nod.

Ace pulled the straw hat back on Luffy's head as he straightened up. No matter how he felt about this situation, one thing was obvious. "You were amazing!" he said in awe, sizing up the dead tiger. Now that he was closer to the beast, he realized that this might have been one of the mountain lords. "I don't think I could beat this thing so swiftly! I didn't know you could fight like this."

"I had to learn fast if I wanted to survive," Luffy murmured, frowning at the tiger. "Ne, Ace, do you enjoy fighting?"

Pushing past the sudden horror at what he had just heard, Ace stored that piece of information to ponder on a later date and instead focused on Luffy's question. Scratching the back of his head, he replied, "I think so? It's useful, makes me stronger, and we couldn't survive if we didn't fight. Besides, some people need a beating. In those cases, it's satisfying."

"So it's okay to fight if you want to? Or not to fight if you don't?"

Such a weird question, Ace had no idea what was going on in his little brother's head. The intensity of the stare he was receiving also unnerved him. "Of course. That's how it should be," he replied before adding sternly, "But if you don't want to fight, then run. Don't let anyone hurt you."

Luffy grinned. "Okay!"

"Still…" Ace looked up at the dead tiger again. "I can't believe you beat it so easily."

"I told you my Devil Fruit's awesome!"

"Okay, I'll give you that." Ace smirked mischievously. "But I bet you still can't win against me."

"Oh, yeah?" Luffy met the challenge with a confident grin. "Want to spar with me? Just like old times."

"A hundred fights per day?"

"A hundred fights per day," Luffy agreed. "But first, food!"


Ace's back hit the ground and he stayed there, sprawled across the grassy field, dazedly staring at the clouds floating above in the sky. His chin still stung, quite a lot actually, and he couldn't quite figure out how it happened.

He lost.

Luffy totally kicked his ass.

Damn.

Of course, it was only the first match. He didn't put all of his strength behind his attacks, not wanting to accidentally hurt his brother. Not that it mattered when he couldn't land a hit. Not a single one! Luffy kept avoiding and sidestepping anything Ace threw at him, dancing around the attacks without much effort. Like a gust of wind.

Ace got slightly frustrated, and he might have swung his last punch with everything he got. It never connected and an uppercut to his jaw had sent Ace flying. That was how he ended up on the ground in a daze.

Ace's chest swelled with pride. He also grinned like an idiot.

This was his little brother!

Luffy's head popped up into his line of vision, tilted in confusion. "You alright, Ace?"

"That was amazing!" Ace exclaimed, pushing himself up. "It seemed like you knew what my next attack would be! How did you do that?"

"I don't know," Luffy replied with an unconcerned shrug. "I just do."

Ace rubbed his still-stinging chin, thinking. "Instinct?" he wondered. "Or maybe some kind of mystery power?"

Luffy blinked. "Mystery power?" He paused, rolling that statement inside his head. "I guess it is. Shishishishi! Having mystery power is so cool!"

"That's not fair, you cheater!" Ace suddenly grabbed the other boy by his arm and tugged him down into his arms. "Take this! Wild hair attack!" he yelled as he began ruffling Luffy's hair in strong, rough motions.

"Ace!" Luffy whined, trying to push him away. "Stop it! Aaaaaaace!"

The teen threw his arms up in a whoop of victory. "And that's my win!" he bellowed as he fell back into the grass, bursting out into a merry laughter.

Luffy put his hat back on, cheeks puffed in an indignant pout. "I need to be focused if I want to sense your moves," he muttered, "otherwise it doesn't work."

Ace folded his arms behind his head with a huff. "Seems like a pain in the ass power to deal with as your opponent." He stared at the clouds again. "I'm glad you have it, though. With it, you'll get less hurt."

"Ace, we need to get stronger," Luffy said, his tone serious and determined, "and stronger, and stronger, and stronger, and stronger, and stronger, and stronger, and stronger, and stronger, and stronger, and then even stronger than that! So that we can be truly free and never have to bow to anyone!"

Ace smiled softly. "And so that we can protect our loved ones and never lose anyone again."

Luffy nodded. He put his hand on top of his straw hat and held it there, vowing, "That's a promise."

Ace sat up, reaching out and placing his own hand over Luffy's. "That's a promise!"


Ace smirked, dark amusement settling upon his features. These thugs were a complete joke. He couldn't even call them a warm-up anymore. "Well, come on, losers," he taunted, beckoning the adults in front of him with his finger.

The men snarled but didn't dare to make any moves against Ace which only amused him further.

It seemed that the Grey Terminal thugs finally learned not to underestimate the two raven-haired teenagers who had popped up out of nowhere a couple of months ago. These guys were new residents in the Grey Terminal, and, because the old populace had either died in the fire or escaped and never returned, they never had a chance to hear about the original three demon brothers.

Ace wasn't a frequent visitor during the years after the fire. Even if he came here, he didn't bother anyone, mostly wandering around and searching for clues. When his little brother came back, there was no reason for him to come here at all, especially with Luffy's obvious reluctance to approach the Goa Kingdom.

At first, Ace couldn't fathom why, but then it clicked—his little brother had been taken in that place. The fact that he found the straw hat in the trash thrown out of the city and some slip-ups from Luffy confirmed this theory.

After almost a year since his return, Luffy finally felt comfortable enough to visit the Grey Terminal without freezing in fear the moment Goa Kingdom's wall came into view. And so two brothers wreaked havoc on the outskirts of that place regularly from then on. The thugs were less than thrilled when they became punching bags for two bored kids.

Ace cracked his knuckles, grinning wide and sharp and more than slightly unsettling, and took a single step forward. To match this, the thugs took one step back before turning around and fleeing.

Ace cackled. "Did you see that, Luffy?" he asked, observing the runaways with a cocky smirk. "They ran like–"

A scream in pain behind interrupted his boasting. Ace immediately spun around, ready to rip anyone into shreds if they touched even a single strand of hair on his little brother's—

A man was lying on the ground, his leg bent at an unnatural angle, a bloody bone sticking out. Luffy straightened up, twisting his metal Bo staff around his back and into his other hand as he stepped closer to the downed thug.

With a sneer, the man lifted a pistol and aimed at Luffy.

Ace's breathing hitched.

A shot rang out.

Luffy jerked his head slightly to the side, letting the bullet graze only the tip of his hair. He spun his staff and plunged its end straight into the thug's chest.

Blood splattered. The man clutched at the place where the staff pierced his chest, blood seeping between his fingers. After a moment, he made a gurgling sound, his arms fell limply to his sides, and light left his eyes. Luffy yanked his staff out, quickly moving away to avoid blood spurting on him.

And he did all that with a composed, detached face, cold and remorseless eyes, and with no hesitation in his smooth movements.

Ace's blood ran cold as his brain processed what he had seen.

His little brother killed a man.

Luffy blinked when he noticed the other teen staring. "What's wrong?" he asked, clearly confused by Ace's reaction.

Ace's heart shuddered. Maybe this wasn't even Luffy's first kill, signs sure pointed at it.

Angry shouts came from behind and Ace turned instinctively to look. The guys who ran away previously were returning with their friends in tow. He tsked, grabbed Luffy by his hand, and led him back to the forest, acutely aware that he didn't respond to his brother yet.

Luffy followed without complaint. Ace could feel his eyes drilling into the back of his head.

"Is this about that guy?"

Ace stopped walking. All he could think about was the image of the dead man and Luffy standing next to him with a completely empty face and dead eyes. He wasn't naïve. He knew that becoming a pirate meant that sometimes they would need to kill, but this picture was wrong on so many levels.

"Luffy," Ace turned around, meeting Luffy's wary gaze, "you killed a human."

His little brother was way too young to know what it meant to kill another human. Should have been too young.

"He had a gun, Ace, and aimed it at you first. I had to stop him," Luffy said. Cautiously, but not less unremorseful.

"I'm not angry, I'm worried." Ace put his hands on the younger boy's shoulder and tried to ignore the flinch from the touch. Luffy didn't move away and so he didn't let go. No matter how much he didn't want to know, he had to ask. "Luffy, did you… Did you, perhaps, have to kill someone before?"

The silence that followed screamed louder than any voice could.

"Luffy…" Ace's throat constricted.

Luffy shifted, looked down. "They made me do things…"


"Come on, my little pet, you know what to do."

The voice sounded so soft, it was cloying and terrifying. A hand petting his hair felt wrong and he wanted it gone.

"Kill it. Or die."

Luffy flinched when nails dug into his scalp, just for a brief moment, before the hand continued to gently stroke his head again.

"You don't want to die, do you? If you die, you'll die as my pet. You'll never be free. You'll never see your family again."

Luffy wanted to live. He wanted to see his brothers again. But his hands kept shaking and he couldn't muster enough strength in them.

"Do you want to be my pet forever? Of course, you don't. You were quite vocal about it before your lessons on manners."

The kid he was pinning down to the floor stared at him with those empty, dead eyes. He didn't even fight when Luffy wrapped his fingers around his neck.

"Come on, little pet. You can do it. I believe in you and you want me to keep believing in you, right?"

The hand kept petting him and that sweet voice kept urging him. Tears smeared the kid's face and as Luffy blinked more dropped down.

"Kill it, little pet. Who knows, I might let you go one day if I'll be satisfied with your performance. Think about your family. They must be missing you."

Luffy clenched his teeth. If… If he could be free one day, go home, and see Ace and Sabo again… He wanted it. He wanted to be free. He had to do anything to survive to that day.

"That's it, pet. That's how you do it."

Luffy blinked the last tears from his eyes and tightened his grasp on the other boy's throat.

"Good boy."


Luffy couldn't stop the sneer from twisting his features at the memory. He already swore to live his life to the fullest in the stead of those he killed and eventually achieve his dream. It was his way to honor them, even if he couldn't remember everyone anymore.

The first one, however, haunted him every time he closed his eyes.

Ace was still staring. The mix of overwhelming sadness, fury, and guilt numbed Luffy's senses. Some of it still seeped through his skin and curled inside him, making his chest feel hollow.

"Is it bad to kill someone if you want to survive?" he asked in a voice barely above the whisper. "Or to protect a person you care about?"

"No." The word seemed to be punched out of Ace. Luffy didn't protest when his brother pulled him for a hug. "I'd do the same. You're more important to me than anything else, even my own life."

Luffy pushed away slightly from Ace, just enough that he could glare at him. "Don't talk like that! You can't die, Ace. You've got to promise me," he insisted. He already lost one brother, he wasn't sure he would be able to keep going if he lost Ace too. "Promise me that you will never die."

Ace gently smacked Luffy's head. "Idiot," he scolded, but it was soft and affectionate. "How could I leave my little brother all on his own? Remember this, Luffy: I'm not going to die!" He pinned Luffy with a stern gaze. "You should worry about yourself. I'm stronger than you, after all."

"You're not!" the boy shot back immediately.

Ace's expression soured and Luffy couldn't help but smirk. He went through hell, but at least he could kick Ace's ass now.

The teen huffed in indignation. "Says the cheater with the Devil Fruit and his mystery power," he grumbled. "While I," he emphasized as he dramatically pointed at himself, "am only a normal person."

"Uh-huh." Luffy rolled his eyes. "Says the loser."

"You little shit!" Ace growled, trying to sound angry, but there was a smile on his face that he failed to keep out of his tone. He pulled his brother in for a daily dose of hair ruffles.

Luffy laughed, fighting to free himself, but not putting much effort to make it happen.

Ace let him go after a thorough treatment. "Come, let's get something to eat," he said. "And we can spar some more after that."

Luffy grinned with contentment. "Sure!"


It was almost two months past Ace's 17th birthday and Luffy was about to pull his hair out.

Ace wasn't leaving for his adventure!

Whenever Luffy started speaking about it, his brother dodged the topic with the same extreme persistence reserved for dodging Grandpa's Fists of Love. He suddenly needed to go hunting, or pick something from the bandits, or visit Makino, or anything else, but not discuss it.

Trying to talk to Ace had gotten him nowhere so far, so Luffy decided to confront him during their daily spar session. Ace's pride would prevent him from fleeing in the middle of the battle, so that seemed like his only option.

Luffy let a few fights pass, winning some and losing some, but frustration finally won over, and he decked his brother, pointed at him, and said, "You need to leave, Ace!"

"Huh?" Ace blinked at him from the ground, rubbing at his abused nose. After checking if it wasn't broken, he sat up and scowled. "You want to get rid of me?"

"You need to set sail and start your adventure!" Luffy practically shouted it out. His brother was insufferable! "All three of us agreed to leave this island on our seventeenth birthday. You're already late!"

"Sabo left when he was almost eleven," Ace argued. "So why can't I—"

"No!"

Two teens glared at each other, unyielding determination on both sides. Neither of them wanted to back down, but someone had to.

Luffy sighed. "Sabo wanted to be free. That's why he set sail earlier. After—" he paused, unconsciously moving his hand over the scar hidden underneath the bandana. He wasn't clawing at his throat anymore, but even now, he could sometimes still feel the weight of the cold collar around his neck. But the scar was still there, and it meant he had been saved, no matter how his actions back then bothered him now. "I know what it means to lose your freedom, so I'm gonna set sail to live as the freest person in the world. But how should I feel when I'm standing between my brother and his freedom?"

Ace clicked his tongue and stood up, brushing dust off of himself. His posture was stiff as a board, radiating great displeasure with every little move he made.

"All three of us dreamed about it. About our own ship, nakama, adventure," Luffy continued. "What are you planning to do? To set sail together with me? I'll be the captain then." He smirked when Ace's face twitched, and the glare he received said more about what he thought of this idea than his brother would have probably liked. "That's what I thought."

It ruffled Ace's feathers. "It might even work out. You don't know that," he grumbled out just for the sake of arguing. They both knew that neither of them could work under the other nor give up the position of captain.

"I know you want to go, Ace. Your heart is screaming for the sea." A small smile softened Luffy's expression. "I'll be okay. Don't worry about me, and go."

Ace's shoulders sagged, fight draining out of him. "But, Luffy, your nightmares…"

"I'll be fine," the boy insisted firmly. He touched the straw hat and added, "I have Shanks's hat to help me."

Ace scoffed. "You're choosing that old, battered, worn-out thing instead of your brother, huh."

"Don't insult my hat!"

Ace smirked at successfully riling his baby brother up. "Don't get angry, I have an important promise placed on it, so this hat is significant to me too." He tipped the straw hat down on Luffy's face and smiled wider when the latter spluttered. "I'll make sure to thank Shanks for giving it to you."

"Say 'hi' to him from me," Luffy mumbled as he fixed his hat, trying not to pout.

"Will do."

Luffy couldn't lie to himself—he didn't want Ace to leave. The mere thought of staying all alone for three years until he also turned 17 and started his own adventure scared him. But he swore to live through it! He couldn't let those people and what they did to him destroy his brother's dream, too. "And so that we can protect our loved ones." That's right. It was also part of the promise they made that day.

Ace looked at the sun. It was already past noon, but there was still enough time to get ready for his journey. "I guess I'll set sail in a couple of days," he muttered.

Luffy was unable to hold it in any longer, and he tackled his brother into a hug. "I'll miss you," he murmured into his chest. "I love you, Ace."

And just like always, Ace's presence blossomed with all the warm emotions. Luffy allowed those emotions to envelop him, basking in their radiance. He liked this feeling, that's why he did it. And his brother needed to hear it more often too. Despite knowing that it always made Ace embarrassed and bright red in the face.

"Sh-Shut up!"

"Shishishishi."


Next Chapter: The Pirate in the Barrel