A/N ~ Chapter 2 just for youuu! I can't believe the following this has gotten; 32 follows, 27 faves?! Guys, I love y'all! Thank you so much, I hope I don't let you down!
On with the chapter! I OWN NOTHING!
Lost in the rock and roll
Got lost in a promise of a love I never know.
"What – what on earth are these little…rats you've brought us this time, Captain?"
"Your majesty, if I may - I know they might not look like much to an eye as keen for detail and finery as yours, but these three rats have quite a reputation in the East Blue, y'see. They're capable fighters, strong, smarter than they look, and more importantly, they're dependable, durable. They'll work hard, given the right motivation, and they won't need breaks. They won't cry or complain or want for anything. Perfect additions to your collection, wouldn't you say?"
"Hmm…I see. Well, say what you will, but they still look like wild animals, more likely to eat off the floor or chew the furniture than the dogs are. If what you say is true, how on earth do you expect my guards and servants to break them like the rest?"
"My husband is correct. Look at them! They're positively filthy, and that one looks like he'll bite my fingers off! I don't want such – such savage little beasts in my castle!"
"Oh, but mother, look at the little one with the brown eyes! It's so adorable! Look at it, it's shivering like a chihuahua! I want it as a pet! I promise I'll take care of it this time, I promise!"
"If I may, your majesty, you won't find good slaves like these anywhere else, and certainly not at the price I'll gladly sell them to you for; you pay for two, and I throw in the runt free of charge! A once in a lifetime opportunity if I do say so myself. What say you, King Serge?"
"…oh, very well, then. I'll take them. Magdalene, you may have the little one as a pet for now, but when it gets too big it'll have to go back to the cells with the others."
"Oh thank you, father! Teeheehee, it's so cute, even for a dirty little slave!"
"Thank you for your business as always, your highness."
"Likewise, Captain, likewise. Let's see how long it takes for our new little pets to break, shall we?"
Ace jolts awake at a sudden impact that rocks the boat to a halt.
He swallows hard, his breaths short and shallow, and he sits up, wiping off the sheen of sweat collecting along his brow with his hand. Quickly, he scans the dark storage hold for two bodies, but when his eyes fail to catch them in the dark, his other sense flares before he can fall into a panic and seizes two, familiar presences. They're still fast asleep, entangled in each other; Luffy, tucked close to Sabo's chest, Sabo's arms locked around Luffy's tiny frame.
They're safe. They're safe, unharmed, and free.
Ace lets out a long breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, shoulders sagging. He swallows again, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hand. Despite the scare, he feels somewhat rested. He hasn't slept this good since he was ten. And considering they're in the belly of a boat, surrounded by crates, sacks and barrels of food, and sleeping on wooden floors, that's saying quite a lot.
His dreams, unfortunately, weren't quite as pleasant. They never are. But this...
Those memories. It'll take more than one night's rest to banish them, banish everything spanning the last five years from their minds, bodies, souls…that is, if they'll ever go away at all. Maybe they'll stay, forever, chaining them to that place and them despite having escaped the very island.
Ace grits his teeth, shaking his head.
No. We'll get over it. We'll be free, freer than anyone else, and live with no regrets, no chains, no brands – nothing but the wind, the sea, and each other.
Movement, footsteps and voices from overhead makes him jump a second time, reminding him where they are, what they must do. Quickly but quietly, he moves over to wake his brothers, shaking them firmly. "Lu, Bo, wake up," he whispers, just loud enough. Sabo is the first to jump awake, followed shortly after by a drowsier Luffy, who sits up and rubs his eyes with the heel of his palm with a soft yawn. Both of them have mussed up bed hair sticking up and out in all directions, and Ace takes a precious moment to note how wretchedly adorable they look before urging them into action. "I think they've reached the main ship. They'll be down here any minute, hop in the barrels and don't make a sound," he says.
"Like you need to tell us," Sabo huffs, belying the undercurrent of trepidation and urgency Ace can feel radiating off the blond as he helps Luffy clamber inside a barrel half full of apples, just enough for the twelve-year-old to squeeze into. He offers Luffy a smile, ruffling his already fluffy spikes of hair before climbing into another barrel full of grains nearby.
Ace pricks his ears; the pirates sound like they're about ready to unload the supplies. He needs to hide, but not until he's sure his brothers are comfortable and safe, a routine they've never strayed from once. He goes over to Luffy once he's settled in among the apples that will no doubt disappear by the time they've boarded the ship, taking the boy's face between his hands and grinning. "You'll be good, right Luffy?" he prompts, earning a cheeky snicker that makes no promises and a quick 'yes' gesture from his baby brother. Ace chuckles, rubbing their noses together briefly to get a giggle out of Luffy before leaning back, picking up the cover of the barrel and sealing it carefully over Luffy's head.
Immediately, he hears muffled munching sounds, and he shakes his head, a fond smile quirking his lips. Bottomless pit 'till the very end.
"Sap," Sabo teases from his barrel as Ace moves over to him next, grabbing the cover off the floor. "You never used to be like this with him back home. I thought you had a 'reputation' to uphold."
Ace shrugs, unrepentant. "If it keeps him calm and quiet, what do I care. And what's it to you?" He grins, leaning in close as Sabo leans away in mock disgust. "Are you jealous? You want a kiss on the cheek too, little brother?"
"Shut your ugly face," Sabo mutters, but he's smiling, really smiling. Ace counts it as a win, right up until the smile fades and concern takes over. "You really think they won't find us down here?" he asks, fingers gripping the splintered rim of the barrel tight. "It can't be that easy. They're not washed up pirates from East Blue like Bluejam, remember."
Ace frowns, nodding slowly. The thought of Bluejam, after all these years, compared to what they've seen out here on the Grand Line's unpredictable seas...it's laughable, really, that he was ever considered a 'true' pirate in their eyes, that they'd ever been afraid of him at all. "I remember," he replies. "And don't worry, if they discover us, I'll fight them off while you and Luffy get away safe."
Sabo groans, exasperated. "Ace –"
There's no time for arguments, especially not this one, so Ace cuts him off by pressing a brief but firm kiss into his brothers' hair, startling him into silence. "Just trust me, Sabo," he whispers as he draws back. "I know what I'm doing."
Mismatched eyes stare up at him long and hard for a moment, and then Sabo relents with a huff. "Fine. And you're still a sap."
"Love you, too," Ace chimes brightly, and then half slams the cover over Sabo's head, muffling the blonde's indignant yelp as he seals it.
"Ass," he hears from the depths of the barrel, and Ace chuckles as he hops into his, securing the lid and preparing to wait. He loves his brothers, more than anything, flaws, quirks and all. And regardless of Sabo's words or his thoughts on the matter, no matter how selfish that may sound, he'll do whatever it takes to keep them alive, live the dream they'd birthed as children running wild in the jungles of Goa.
If it means they'll live, happy and free from worry, sadness, pain, bondage, fear…
He clenches a fist, listening as the footsteps and voices become louder, closer. He closes his eyes.
I'd take on a horde of pirates for them. I'd gladly die for them.
A familiar flare of Haki and an excited yell is Marco's only warning, and suddenly his arms are full of Thatch as the taller man barrels into him from the gangplank, his pointed chin digging into Marco's shoulder as he clings on tight like a koala to a tree. Marco just chuckles and hugs his brother and best friend back, barely ruffled from the enthusiastic leap. It's only been a day or two, but Thatch rarely leaves the ship these days for anything other than stock runs, and his presence among the commanders has been sorely missed by many. No one but Pops, Vista and possibly Kingdew would openly admit it, but it was clear on their faces.
"Hey, buddy," he says as they draw away, clapping the taller man on the shoulder. "Good to have you back in one piece. How'd everything go for you guys, yoi?"
Thatch grins at him, wrapping one arm around Marco's shoulder and waving his free arm at the load they've brought aboard with the help of their eager siblings awaiting their arrival. "Not bad at all, as you can see, oh astute, bird-brained brother of mine," he boasts, and Marco just rolls his eyes at his theatrics and the unnecessary insults he just seems to spew whenever he so much as looks at Marco. "Haruta says we should be set 'till we reach the next island, god willing. But, ah…" He rubs the back of his head, biting his lip.
'Dumbass Brother' senses going off immediately, Marco narrows his eyes, ducking under Thatch's arm and folding his own over his tattooed chest. "What did you do, yoi?" he drones, already feeling a headache on the horizon. "We're already on not-so-good terms with the islands' locals as it is –"
"I know, I know!" Thatch defends, holding up his hands in surrender under Marco's scrutinizing glare, "and we didn't do anything, honest! It's just – well, there was an incident last night involving the rulers, so we kinda had to dash before the marines could point fingers."
Marco quirks a brow, tilting his head. "What incident exactly?"
"Nothing we need to really be concerned about, if I'm honest. Just a bunch of slaves broke free and started a riot, setting fire to the whole castle."
Marco's eyes go wide. "Seriously? The whole castle?" he repeats, feeling a surge of pride and grim satisfaction within him at the mention of the nobles having received their comeuppance in full at the hands of those they thought they could use, those they treated like nothing. Brings back good old memories of earthquakes, a toppled kingdom and a dethroned king, a smile wider than the seas and warmer than the suns rays, a solemn promise and an offer he could never refuse, not if he relived a thousand lives.
Thatch must see it in his eyes, for his smile is a shade warmer despite the morbid nature of the incident. "Yep. Didn't stick around to see the show or hear the list of casualties. Hoping most of the slaves got away though, poor things. Anyway, where's Pops? Gotta ask him about something real quick. Nothing really important, just a small thing."
Marco accepts the swift change of subject and Thatch's blatant dismissal of something that's obviously bothering him, cocking his head to the side. "In his quarters, yoi, shifting through the papers, I believe. He heard a report on Red Hair tearing apart another government funded auction house in the New World. I swear, in all my years sailing these seas I've never seen that man act as recklessly as he has been, yoi."
"Another one?" Thatch gawks, following Marco as they head to the captain's quarters together, weaving through the small crowd of gathering shipmates. "Damn, you ain't kidding. These last few years, all I hear about the guy is him wreaking havoc every time he crosses one of those places. I mean, I know he's not that much of an asshole to just ignore a place like that, but I've never pegged him as a saint that goes around freeing slaves or anything."
Marco hums in agreement, ignoring Namur and Jiru complaining about the weight of two barrels as the crew begins the process of putting their newly acquired stock away. "Though it's not uncommon for pirates to destroy auction houses, I don't recall Red Hair getting too much involved with the slave trade in any way. I said the same to Pops, yoi. But he says he doesn't think Red Hair's doing this for a cause one might think."
"Hm? What d'you mean?"
"If you've been following the reports, there's a connection to every single auction house he takes down, yoi. They're funded, accepted or deliberately ignored by the Marines and the World Government in general, and have made routes from Paradise to East Blue in the past few years. He's only been going after these for about five years or so. Pops has a theory that he's looking for someone that might've been taken within that five-year span."
Thatch blinks, surprised. "You're sayin' that maybe a member of his crew got kidnapped and sold off or something?"
Marco shrugs. "Possibly, yoi."
"But they're the Red Hair Pirates!" Thatch exclaims, waving his arms about like he's about to take flight (and no, this is not the pot calling the kettle black, thank you). "I mean, they're on par with us for cryin' out loud, pirates that some Admirals don't even wanna cross! Who would be dumb enough to think they could get away with touching one of his guys without getting wiped the hell off the face of the earth?"
Chuckling, though Thatch's words aren't too far off the mark, Marco shrugs again. "What can I say, it's a big world out there; you'll always find someone dumbass enough to try anything. Just look at Roger, yoi."
"Yeah, I guess that's true. Still, there's gotta be a limit to the dumbassery –"
"What the –?!"
The two commanders pause, turning on their heels in unison to see Haruta staring, wide-eyed and slack jawed, into one of the barrels they've brought aboard. Fossa joins him, and a second later his cigar falls from his gaping maw, bouncing to the floor, and his eyes pop from their sockets.
"What's the matter, yoi?" Marco calls as other curious pirates start to gather and murmur among them. Thatch quirks a brow, folding his arms behind his head, relaxed but interested.
Fossa and Haruta share a truly bewildered, if not somewhat disturbed, glance before turning to their first division commander. "M-Marco," Haruta stammers, and with Fossa's help he spins the barrel to show what lies inside…or what used to, Marco realizes with no shortage of shock.
Thatch quickly looses what nonchalance he had, releasing what can only be a strangled garble of incoherent words before he screeches – "Who the hell ate all the apples?!"
Indeed, what had once been a barrel full of fresh apples ready to eat, has now been reduced to a barrel full of apple cores. Judging by how many cores are left, however, implies that the culprit had eaten their way through a good hundred or so apples plus the cores, but didn't have much room for the rest.
It should be hilarious. It is hilarious, actually, because someone had eaten their way through an entire barrel of apples in one sitting. But at the same time, someone had eaten their way through an entire barrel of apples in one sitting, and not one of the commanders present on the deck had noticed anything in the short time it had taken for them to be brought aboard.
"You think it could've been those rats you found when we set off from port?" Jozu asks, plucking a core from the barrel and inspecting it. Thatch dashes over, glaring inside the barrel and mourning the loss of their provisions. Marco follows his distraught brother at a more leisure pace, but he doesn't dawdle either. As First Mate of the Moby Dick, he'll need to report this to the captain and look into it, even if they are just apples.
"Can't be," Haruta replies with a shake of his head, eying the barrel like the suspect in question might jump out from the otherwise empty barrel. "Not even rats can go through this much in one go. And Namur was just complaining over how heavy it was a few seconds ago, that thing was full when we brought it up, I promise you."
"I wasn't complaining," Namur mutters, fooling no one, but the fishman does look wrong-footed as he follows Haruta's gaze. "Still, I could've sworn…"
"Wait, look at this."
All eyes fall on Jozu once more, and the large man leans down, displaying the apple core he'd been scrutinizing. Marcos peers into Jozu's larger hand, a brow raised. "I don't think rats did this after all," the third commander says. "Look at the bite-marks."
And after a moment of inspection, Marco finds that he's right. Rats didn't do this. Because these bite-marks are distinctly human.
Ace shuts the door behind them carefully but firmly, shoving the heaviest thing he can find – which happens to be a cannonball, which his back will not allow him to pick up, so he results to rolling it – against the door to dissuade anyone that might try to come in and snoop. However, judging by the room itself and its size and lack of natural or florescent light, he can't imagine anyone needing to be down here any time soon. It appears to the sort of room one would just dump something in when they're being lazy and/or don't know where something is supposed to go, and so leave it here until they can remember or even be bothered to.
Kind of like what we were, back at the castle, a horrible little voice oily whispers in the back of Ace's mind, a sadistic purr right in his ear, and he shakes it away violently. Instead, he focuses on relaxing, or trying his best, knowing that he and his brothers are safe and out of sight, for now. With all the pirate's attention being drawn elsewhere, it was an almost simple task creeping from their barrels and vanishing below decks, deeper and deeper, until they reached the very bowels of this massive ship they call the Moby Dick. A few close calls along the way, including a very large, very white, very curious dog with the weirdest freaking mustache under its nose (much like the skull on their flag), but they made it in one piece. They weren't spotted once, or impeded in any way.
Well, almost. Which reminds him…
A little groan echoes from behind, and Ace turns to where Sabo hovers over Luffy, the boy curled up on his side with his fingers clutching his stomach, brows pinched and lips down-turned in a pained grimace as he whines softly. The eldest of the trio sighs, walking over and sitting on Luffy's other side by his head, crossing his legs. "How is he?" he asks Sabo.
Rubbing soothing circles along Luffy's back, Sabo meets Ace's eyes, lips taut in a rueful smirk. He shrugs a shoulder. "Could be better. You saw how much he puked up there," he says, and then he frowns. "That's…probably gonna give us away, isn't it?"
Ace winces through his teeth. "It might."
Luffy opens his eyes, looking every bit as miserable as he undoubtedly must feel, lifting his hands off his belly to sluggishly raise his arms. 'I'm sorry,' he signs, his movements lethargic and sloppy. Tears prick at the corners of his eyes and lip wobbles, much to Ace's horror. 'I was really hungry. I didn't think the apples would make me sick.'
"Shh, Luffy, it's okay," Ace soothes, running a hand through the twelve-year-old's hair, wiping a stray tear away with his other hand. "It's alright, it's not your fault." Luffy leans into his touch in an instant, though his frown remains, unhappy and full of guilt as he sniffs once. Ace fights the urge to curl his hand into a fist and growl like a beast at the sight.
Though it's true the pool of vomit they'd left behind might work to their detriment, it's not like they'd left a trail of it. No one will find them. And if they do, it certainly won't be the fault of a starving child barely into his teens who just wanted to eat. Luffy cannot be allowed to think that, not for a moment.
"First of all, you're not rubber right now, so your belly can't stretch like a balloon and hold food the way it used to," Ace adds with a smile, one that Luffy finally returns, no doubt remembering just how big his belly could get after a hefty meal thanks to the work of his devil fruit. "And you're not used to eating as much food anymore anyways because of...well, you know. For a little while, you'll have to pace yourself so you don't get sick again, which means smaller meals and easier foods to swallow, alright?"
The look Luffy gives him might imply that Ace has just killed an innocent puppy right in front of him as he suddenly sits up, nearly knocking into Sabo's head, wide awake. 'What?!' he signs, utterly distraught. Sabo laughs softly as Luffy's gestures become too desperate and too fast for either of them to translate, and all Ace can do is grab his hands and hold them still before he breaks his arms.
"Alright, alright, that's enough," he appeases, chuckling when Luffy pouts up at him and glares through his bangs. "It's been a long day, and you need to rest. You threw up half your intestines back there, so just lie back down for now, that's it." He eases Luffy back down on his back with a hand splayed across his chest, and the boy goes willingly. Ace boops him on the nose once with a finger, and the phony glare vanishes from Luffy's face, replaced with a grin so bright its blinding. Much better.
Sabo stands and creeps over to a box stacked with what look like spare blankets; old, a little torn in some places, but more than enough and thick enough to ward off the chill. With a satisfied nod, Sabo spreads the blanket over Luffy's tiny body, making a show of tucking the boy in, "so you can't escape," he teases, and Luffy squirms and giggles uncontrollably; it's infectious, for soon Sabo joins him, trying and failing to shush the younger boy when he can't stop grinning. Luffy sticks out his tongue, which of course Sabo takes as a challenge, and so he grabs the boy's face between his hands and blows a raspberry into his cheek, earning a squeak of protest as a scuffle ensues, tangling the two in the blanket.
Ace watches them go at it like a pair of lion cubs, shaking his head, but his smile is wide and real, and full of love and wonder.
Wonder for how Luffy can still laugh and giggle the way he does, when even now he's too afraid to speak, how he can still love so completely, how the light shines ever brighter in those impossibly dark eyes that have seen so much of the worst this world has to offer. Wonder for how Sabo can even smile, burns ascending the length of his left side, marring his face and encumbering his vision on the worst of days, how there's still fight left in him, enough to growl and scream and claw at the guard that had aided them in their escape with his inevitable death.
Wonder for how someone like Ace, with the devils' blood in his veins and darkness in his heart, could even hope to deserve such wonderful, endlessly loving and strong little brothers in the face of the very demons they'd fought to be free from since they knew what it meant to be caged at all.
Sabo notices Ace's lingering gaze once the giggles and playful fracases have subsided, and he shoots Ace a look of his own as he tucks Luffy back in again. "Ace? You alright?" he asks. Luffy's enormous and curious eyes peek over the edge of the blanket that's swallowing him whole.
"What? Yeah, yeah, I'm good," Ace says quickly, shuffling closer to bump his shoulder against Sabo's and reach for Luffy again, running a hand through his hair. It really needs a wash – hell, they all do, no wonder the dog kept trying to follow them, they must stink – but cleanliness can be dealt with later. "I bet you're both starving, even after this little idiot decided to eat a whole barrel of apples," he directs a teasing grin at a bashful Luffy. Sabo snickers. "We'll steal some food when it gets darker. I think I heard of one them mention something about a party tonight to welcome back the guys we came with."
Sabo kisses his teeth in frustration. "Jeez, seriously?"
"I know, perfect timing, right?" Ace rolls his eyes. "Regardless, we need food and fresh water, enough to tide us over for another day or so if this is where we're gonna stay 'till we reach land. Here's hoping they'll be drunk enough not to notice me when I go up there."
At that, Sabo arches a brow. "Why you?" he asks. "You need rest as much as Lu and me. I'll go up, I'm better at sneaking around than you guys anyway –"
"First of all, shut the hell up, I'm great at sneaking. Second of all, this isn't up for discussion. With this cuff on my foot, I'm no use to anyone, least of all Luffy, if someone comes in and attacks us, with or without my devil fruit powers." He knows he's winning this when Sabo, frustration in his eyes and the set of his tense shoulders, looks away. Sighing, Ace puts a hand on Sabo's shoulder and squeezes. "You're best off staying here with Luffy for now, Sabo. Find something to pick these cuffs off somewhere in here in the meantime, okay?"
Luffy's big eyes dart between him and Sabo, watching them both and waiting, hugging the folds of the blanket to his chest. Sabo's jaw locks, mismatched eyes burning holes in the opposite walls. The blond never used to give in so easily before. Not since they were taken, and obedience became less of an option and instead a means of survival.
Five years ago, Sabo would've bitten the hand off anyone who told him to stay behind, to behave, submit, do as you're told. Hell, even Ace telling him to do something got him a scowl and roll of the eyes. Now, it scares Ace just how quickly Sabo acquiesces. It scares him, knowing that this…this obedience, this version of his brother who is as quick to surrender as he is to protect and shield, is what might become of Sabo until the day he dies.
No. I won't let it. I won't let them keep your freedom, Sabo.
Eventually, Ace is relieved and disappointed when Sabo does inevitably concede with a sigh from his very soul. He reaches up to plop his hand atop Ace's hair, fingers digging lightly into the scalp before their gazes meet. "Just don't get caught," he says, almost pleading. He leans forward, and Ace's forehead meets his halfway.
Ace shuts his eyes. "Course I will. Idiot."
Sabo's hold tightens, just a little. He's worried, of course he is. And he's scared. Who wouldn't be? They're on a ship full of pirates who'd sooner slit their throats than let them hitch a ride. And it's true, Sabo is better at sneaking; he'd run away from home, undetected, at five-years-old, and is half the reason they'd managed as well as they did when their daily routines involved picking pockets from High Town nobility. But now…things are different. Out of the three of them, Sabo has the best chance at fending off threats. Sea stone weakens devil fruit users, and with two out of commission…
Hell, going out on deck with sea stone, surrounded by pirates, some of which are undoubtedly unimpeded devil fruit eaters, is suicide. But Ace has never been one for making the most sensible decisions, and when it comes to his brothers, their health and well-being, nothing short of death itself will deter him.
He can do this. It's a simple food run, another dine-and-dash, just like old times. All he has to do is not get caught, not die, and come back with food and water to last them for a few hours at least. Easy as pie.
"Also, don't get drunk," Sabo adds with a smirk Ace can hear and then see when he opens his eyes to give the cheeky bastard a look. Sabo carries right on, "no talking to strangers, look both ways before crossing the ship, remember that men are pigs and are only after –"
"Dude, stop talking," Ace laughs, shoving Sabo away with a hand over his face. He yelps as he topples on top of Luffy, who lets out another squeak at the added weight. Tension successfully lifted, Ace allows himself to relax as much as he can, leaning back on his hands to watch Sabo curse and heft himself up again, shooting Ace a petulant glare until his attention is drawn to Luffy, who gestures eagerly for a story before he goes to sleep. Complying, ever the soft soul, Sabo grins and settles Luffy's head on his lap, fingers carding through his unruly hair as he delves into a wonderful story that even Ace can't help but listen to with rapt attention.
It's a story about pirates and dragons, of a trio of brothers as strong and fierce as the seas, and free as the blowing wind that charts their course on the grandest adventure of all.
(It's a story Ace is willing to do anything to make a reality, one day.)
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