A/N~

Hey there hi there ho there! It's been a hot minute, hasn't it? I'm gonna be real with you, I've been up to my eyeballs in stress, anxiety and depression these last few weeks, so much that it's only now that I've had time to myself to do the things I want to do. So I'm sorry for the slow updates, but here's a chapter! XD

I struggled a little with this - again, anxiety is a wretch - and I'm not 100 percent happy with it, but I hope you enjoy it nonetheless!

A few mentions before we begin:

ksumikuna - thanks for the wholesome review of my story so far XD

Peace reader - thanks dear, hope your inner Thatch is appeased!

MerryLittleMiss - there is a sequel in the works, don't you worry! Thanks for the review!

CheshirePirates - AFSFGDHGFJHGJH I KNOW! Also, for reference, I used both Robin's dance from the Z movie, and the music from Lucy's dance in Fairytale... though that dance is nice, I loathe the outfit with a passion. Thanks for the review!

Andy - Andy, my dude, my guy/gal/non-binary pal, YOUR REVIEWS ARE MY FIRE! I really hope you like this one, even though it's not my best work XD

That's all I have time for right now, I'm exhausted XD But anyways, thank you all SO MUCH, I read everything you guys leave me and I eat them like breadcrumbs!

On with the chapter!

I OWN NOTHING. IF I DID YADDA YADDA YADDA ACE DOESN'T DIE

Enjoy :)


Chapter 37

It wasn't long after boarding the Moby that Sabo started to dream of Luffy speaking.

Part of him had laughingly thought that the first words out of his little brother's mouth would be "meat!", a swearword, or anything just as outlandish. It wouldn't be surprising; they live among pirates, some of which bear the filthiest mouths Sabo has ever heard, and Luffy has never been one to play by the expectations of others if he can help it, a whirlwind of wonderful, endearing entropy bundled in the rubber body of a scrawny twelve-year-old.

Other times, his dreams would haunt him with a far more gruesome image. Luffy's words ripped from his lungs with a shriek of terror, their names on his lips as he watches all that he loves perish before his eyes, their failure leaving him alone, surrendered to the world that had caged them once and would eagerly do so again.

He dare not think of the times when he's the one cradling Luffy's tiny body in his arms, knee-deep in white snow splattered vibrant red, as he wheezes his last through smiling, bloodied lips before going limp, eyes vacant—

Those dreams wouldn't come true. Not while Sabo and Ace still have breath in their lungs.

A part of him fears that Luffy will never speak. He'd prepared for it, even, as the days and weeks rolled by with little change. But that's fine. It's fine. Luffy can spend the rest of his life Signing, never a whisper to leave his lips again, and that would be alright.

(Sabo misses Luffy's endless chatter, misses his voice. He barely remembers the sound of it, now. But far be it for him to make another choice away from his little brother. As long as he's safe, alive, happy, there's little more Sabo can hope to ask for.)

And then, in the sanctuary of their cabin, Luffy takes his hand, takes Ace's hand, and holds them in a bruising grip. He meets their eyes, his smile wobbly but wide, warm and tender as a heartbeat. He takes a breath—

"... Ace... Sabo... thank you."

And the world stops.

what.

Sabo stares at Luffy. Ace stiffens. Luffy's hands start to shake.

What?

Sabo blinks once. Twice. The scene doesn't change. The voice—the voice—rough with disuse, pronunciation clumsy and awkward, barely above a whisper, echoes so loud in his ears they may just as well have been screamed.

Did he—?

Barely aware of himself or the new tears springing in his eyes, Sabo slowly retracts his hand from Luffy's shaking grip. It's as he steps closer, leaning down to cup Luffy's face carefully between his palms, that he realizes he's shaking, too.

"... Luffy," he croaks, swallows thickly, and tries again. "What—what did you say...?"

Please don't let it be a dream, please, please don't let this be a dream—

Luffy's shoulders twitch, lips twisting, throat bobbing like he's swallowing down a fit of sobs even as his eyes well up and spill over like an overflowing dam over Sabo's fingers. Luffy reaches up to gently wrap his fingers around his wrists. He smiles. It teeters on the edge of a grimace, tight and crooked with fear and joy and a bravery a lion would envy—

"... Th-thank... thank you."

Ace's breath hitches on a ragged gasp. Sabo's heart lurches.

It's not a dream.

"... Thank you," Luffy says again. He loses the battle for his smile and ducks his head in Sabo's grip, shutting his eyes, but the tears don't stop. If anything, they fall faster, harder.

Sabo can barely see through his own.

Luffy spoke.

"Thank you," Luffy says again through his sobs and wet gasps for breath, his nose running, legs quaking, knees knocking together until they can't hold him up. Sabo follows him to his knees on the floor. "Thank you, thank you, A-Ace, S-Sa-ab-b-bo, thank you—"

Luffy's talking. He's talking, he's talking

A sob wrenching itself out of Ace is Sabo's only warning, before their older brother slams into the from the side with the force of a bull, locking his arms around them both hard enough to hurt, burying his face into Luffy's dark mane, his whole frame shaking with his cries. Luffy's words—his words, god on high he spoke he's talking again—dissolve into blubbers as he curls up against Ace, against Sabo, all but wailing.

They must look a mess, teary and snotty and blubbering on their knees in the middle of their cabin. Kotatsu must think so as he rushes from his lair under the bed to paw at them, purring and meowing in what Sabo can only assume is alarm. But amid the cries lies all the joy one can muster in a body, all the pride and love Sabo can hope to give as he squeezes Luffy tight and tighter still.

Thank you, god. Thank you, thank you so much, Luffy, you're so brave, you did it, Luffy, YOU did—

He doesn't know how long they sit here, crying in a huddle on the floor of their room with a yowling feline butting his head against their backs for attention, crushing each other in a grip that might leave bruises, faces hot a wet with too many emotions. Could have been minutes, hours, but Sabo blinks, and Ace has managed to shuffle them over to the nearest wall, collapsing against it with a sigh that shudders from the soul. His eyes are red and puffy, freckled cheeks streaked with tears, but his grin is as broad and bright as it had been on stage—perhaps even brighter.

"Luffy," Ace gasps once he's able to breathe again, sniffing, pinning that grin at their snivelling, brave little brother. He laughs wetly, bumping their foreheads together. "God, I'm—I'm so freaking proud of you, little brother, but—damn it, give a guy a little warning, holy shit—"

"Shishishi!" Luffy snickers, rubbing their foreheads roughly until they're both giggling, tears streaking their cheeks now red from crying. It feels like that's all they've been doing these last few weeks, months, years. But at least these tears are joyful.

Sabo watches them with a stupid grin of his own, scrubbing his face with his arm. "Gonna—gonna have to agree with Ace on that one, bud," he rasps, letting his arm flop back to his lap. "Swear to god. First Ace pulls that crap with the Whitebeard's in front of the Captain, and then you—you—dammit, between the two of you, I'll have a heart attack before I'm thirty—I'm not even twenty yet, you bastards!"

Luffy and Ace cease their scuffle long enough to pin him with identical, unapologetic grins. Luffy's hands are still shaking—with joy, adrenaline or lingering fear, it's hard to tell—so Sabo scoops them up and holds them fast between his own, smoothing his thumbs over calloused knuckles. Blue and grey meet wide baby browns, and Sabo forces down the urge to burst into tears again at the shine in his little brother's eyes, one he hasn't seen in five long years.

"But it's true," he says softly. "We're so, so proud of you, Luffy. So freaking proud. You... you didn't have to do this, you could have—we wouldn't have—"

Luffy's hands twitch in Sabo's as if to pull away to Sign. He freezes, stares at his fingers for a moment. He shakes his head with a tiny smile and lifts his eyes again to meet theirs.

"... Had... had to," Luffy croaks, and god does it hurt to hold the tears back, god how he's missed his voice—it's clumsy, quiet and deeper now than it was, but it's still Luffy's voice, he's speaking.

"Had to," he repeats, slowly, careful as one might tread on broken glass or a river under a layer of thin ice, one step away from falling in. "... can't let... let them w-w-win. W-w-won't... back down again. F-From a-anyth-th-thing. Ever."

Sabo stares. Ace stares, eyes wide with an understanding that aches. "Luffy..."

The boy shakes his head, slipping his hands from Sabo's slack grip and willing shaking legs to stand. Sabo and Ace are quick to follow. On instinct Sabo reaches to steady Luffy, but the boy waves him off. He reaches for the straw hat that had slipped off to his shoulders during the scuffle of tears and laughter and sets it back on his head. He squares his shoulders, sturdy and strong for the first time since they entered the room, and lifts his chin.

(For a moment, Sabo sees a flicker of the future—the beginning of a young prince's journey to the throne of a King—and it leaves him breathless.)

"I'm... I'm n-not af-fraid... anymore," Luffy says. Each word comes out stronger than the last as little by little his confidence grows, even as fear clings to the fridges of his voice, unused to the exertion. "W-Won't be afraid. Won't b-be quiet. I'm... free now, j-just li-ike S-Sabo, like A-Ace, like Marco... I'm free."

And then, with a deep breath that inflates his chest like a balloon, Luffy throws up his hands and clenches them into determined fists, beaming for all he's worth, bright and sure as a rising sun—

"I'm M-Monkey D. Luffy!" he cries. "And—And I don't b-belong t-to anybody. I-I'm—I'm free!"

Something sparks along Sabo's body like a burst of static, raising the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck. A breath shudders out of Ace, and Kotatsu paws at his muzzle, agitated.

His Haki...

A brief silence lingers. Luffy stands undaunted before them, his grin a blinding slash across his scarred face—and Sabo sees the King to be and the little boy that was, before the pain, the chains and the collar that had silenced him. Those chains lay broken now at his feet, forgotten and left to rust, joining Ace and Sabo's in the ashes of that place, never to be worn again.

Sabo's heart swells and threatens to burst.

Luffy is free.

Ace chuckles—it catches on another sob, and he grabs Luffy by the collar of his shirt to yank him to his chest, crushing him in his arms. Luffy's arms snap around his waist in an instant.

"Yeah. That's right, Lu," Ace croaks wetly. "You're free, now, little brother. You're free. We're all free."

Ace is free.

Sabo joins the second group hug right as Luffy nestles himself under Ace's chin, and he giggles with tearful delight as Sabo squeezes them as much as he can, burying his grin against the old straw hat. Kotatsu, beyond confused but willing to roll with the emotional punches as always, winds himself around their legs like the oversized house-cat he pretends to be, purring and chuffing in time to their bouts of loud, unrestrained laughter.

I'm free.

In the dim light of their cosy cabin, a crew of pirates scrambling above them in a mad torrent of elation, drunken delight and indignation, three brothers, once broken and now whole once more, embrace each other with all their might.

The final link in the chain breaks and crumbles at their feet, forgotten.

We're finally free.


0o0o0


Edward has half a mind to throw the cheeky brat overboard for his little stunt. The other half wants to dance, sing and cry with elation he hasn't felt since the day Marco looked him in the eye and called him 'Pops' for the first time.

Because Portgas D. Ace had called him Pops. Portgas D. Ace, a boy so scared and so unsure of his right to belong, to live, to exist, wants to join his crew.

Portgas D. Ace wants to become Edward's son.

And it's small miracles like these, young men and women like the unruly louts he calls his own—young men like Ace, Sabo and Luffy, beaten down by an unjust life yet brave enough to see it through—that remind Edward how truly wonderful this world, with all its darkness and cruelties, can be.

(That night, once the party winds down enough to allow the drunkards to sleep off the booze, he vows to Rodger, vows to Rouge, to take care of this boy. To protect him, to love him and his brothers till his dying day, however near or far that may be. He thanks them for the sacrifices they made, the price they'd paid in full for the chance that their boy could exist in this world at all.

And later he thanks Rayleigh, the boys' would-be uncle, for the blessing given only with a smile and a nod.)

Ace's performance and declaration is the talk of the ship, with theories as to where he'll put his mark, which Division he'll join and why begin to spiral. Each Division wants the boy for their own reasons, though everyone had collectively voted against allowing him anywhere near Thatch or Haruta's Division; just the image of the anarchy that would ensue nearly gave Marco a conniption.

It's about this time that Edward wonders where the boy in question is at. He hasn't seen head nor hides of the trio since they made their dramatic exit. As breakfast comes and goes without a peep from the young ones, their absence on deck brews a stir among the Commanders. A brief sweep of the ship with Edward's Haki assures him they're still aboard, at least.

Still, it's unlike them to skip one meal, never mind two. It's unlike Luffy to skip anything involving food.

"You don't think we scared 'em off last night, do ya?" Rakuyo mutters into his tankard, shoulder to shoulder with Namur and the rest of the Commanders at their table. Thatch is bustling about with the last few plates when he catches the tail-end of Rakuyo's concern, and he slaps him heartily on the back.

"Nah, they're fine," he assures, dodging Rakuyo's lazy swipe and rounding the table to squeeze onto the seat between Marco and Izo. The two shift to accommodate him. "Pups are probably sleeping off the excitement. God knows we still haven't. Speaking of, I hope you all realize now that Ace is officially joining the crew—called it, by the way—I cannot and will not make any promises to not assimilate him into whichever fire-based shenanigans that may or may not ensue—"

"For the love of God," Vista groans, earning a chorus of chuckles from the table. "It's things like that that are the reason you're the first one overboard at the slightest inconvenience, regardless of whether or not you're at all responsible."

Thatch gasps, hand splayed over his chest as he rears back. "Incon—you would dare call my delicious, masterful pranks, a 'slight inconvenience?' Good sir, I am offended—"

"Die mad about it," Izo mutters around a mouthful of chicken, usual table manners damned with the rest of his appearance—from making Ace's beautiful outfit (an endeavour that should have taken half a day accomplished within mere hours) to then drinking himself nigh to oblivion in celebration has left the poor man haggard, dishevelled in a way he would never usually allow. He downs his drink in one go, ignoring Thatch's dismayed screech and the hooting of his fellow Commanders.

At the head of the table, Edward deigns to keep silent, hiding his grin behind his tankard. Puzzling absences and the nefarious plans for flame-based pranks aside, Edward's not worried. Whatever the three scamps are up to, it won't be long before they rear their heads to bless the crew with their presence once more—

"Top of the mornin' everyone!"

Edward nearly chokes on his ale. The noise in the galley drops for half a beat.

Damn. Maybe I should've been a prophet.

All eyes fall on the three figures just as they step through the mouth of the galley; Ace with one arm raised in a jaunty wave, his grin wider than Edward has ever seen it, Sabo with a bounce in his step, hands clasped behind him and his smirk a permanent, prideful fact on his scarred face, and Luffy skipping between them, blinding anyone who so much as looks at him with his smile.

Edward blinks. He feels more than hears Marco shift beside him. He doesn't take his eyes off the boys as they traverse across the galley, now exploding with cheers, whistles and playful jibes—"The hell was that, kid?! Can't just hit 'n run like that, you little—!" "I'mma get you for that, you wait, damn near killed me—!" "Welcome to the circus, kiddo, best put on your clown makeup!"—all of which they take in cheerful stride. Ace replies to some with high-fives or finger guns, Sabo flips off others and Luffy—

Luffy looks around the galley, at his brother's backs, at the pirates gathered about him with brown eyes soft, warm and content. His Haki is a gentle but excited buzz against Edward's senses.

Something has changed.

Edward smiles, drains the last of his ale quickly, and gets comfortable. He's got the feeling he's in for another show.

Ace catches his gaze and brightens, making a beeline for their table. "Morning, Commanders!" he greets with another wave, to which the entire table returns (save for Izo, who's still half-dead on his feet and offers two fingers in salute).

Ace's gaze softens slightly when he faces Edward, silver eyes vibrant with emotions so tentative and new yet whole and real. "Morning, Pops."

Half of Edward's sons clutch their chests and crumble with melodramatic groans—Thatch goes the extra mile and hits the floor—while the rest beam for all they're worth. Marco rolls his eyes, but his gentle smile could light up a city.

The warmth and love Edward feels welling up in his belly threatens to overwhelm him, eyes pricking. He fights them off with a laugh that shakes the room (literally). "Good morning, my boys!" he goes ahead and bellows, raising his empty tankard high. "I'd wondered where you three had gone after causing such a commotion. You missed breakfast."

Ace shrugs, a careless thing, and plops himself down on the empty seat beside Marco as Thatch has yet to get off the floor. "Figured we'd wait for the excitement to die down before we made our grand entrance," he replies. Marco gives in to the urge to ruffle the boy's hair, and Ace lets him with a giggle—an actual giggle, seas help him.

"Sound reasoning," Edward chuckles. He watches as Sabo seems to debate whether or not to step on Thatch's stomach on his way over to Namur's side before hopping over the man, sparing him. Luffy foregoes the table completely and bounces onto Edward's knee instead, swinging his legs and grinning up at Edward. Edward grins back. "Hello, rubber brat. I'm surprised you of all people decided against eating with us this morning. It's out of character for you to purposefully miss a meal."

Much like his brother, Luffy offers a carefree shrug. His hands are clasped on his knees, unmoving.

"We were busy," Sabo answers for him, squeezing between Namur and Rakuyo and stealing a slice of ham from the latter's plate in the same breath, ignoring the half-hearted protest. "Also, I'd rather not have to listen to the lot of you whine about hangovers the whole morning: you dug your grave, be a man and lie in it."

"Oof, kid!" Haruta says with a bark of laughter, "I'd watch it if I were you! Wait 'till you're old enough to drink, we'll see who's laughing then!"

Sabo raises one unimpressed brow. "Bold of you to assume I'd ever drink within five feet of your light-weighted ass, Haruta."

"Oh, bitch!" Thatch hollers over the torrent of startled laughter, scrambling to his feet to wrap an arm around Sabo's shoulders and shake him, "way to go for the balls, Sabo!"

The boy grins and tips his hat at the chef. Ace leans against Marco, whose shoulders quake with mirth, and cackles until he's wheezing. Haruta gapes, for once, struck silent.

Edward would laugh along—he should, really—but Luffy's peaceful silence has him wholly captivated as he regards the lad perched on his knee, legs swinging lazily. He doesn't ask for food nor does he go to snatch anyone else's; his hands don't leave his lap, and the smile remains small and soft, his gaze on his older brothers as they banter with the Commanders and wheedle an ever indulgent Thatch for food.

Curious. Not unwelcome, but curious. Different. A sort of calm Edward seldom sees from the youngest of the trio, the youngest on the Moby.

Gently tapping the brim of his straw hat with one giant finger, Edward draws the boys attention from the table to him, spinning on his rear to look up (and up) at the old captain. Edward arches a brow. "Got something on your mind, boy?" he asks, low enough that it doesn't garner the ears of the galley. "I'm more than willing to lend an ear—or in this case, a pair of eyes, should you need it," he adds with a wink.

Luffy snickers back, shaking his head enough to tip the hat off his head. He doesn't reach for it, and by now his knuckles are pale from the force of the grip on his knees. Edward looks at them, looks at Luffy. His brows furrow.

Then it clicks.

Wait. Don't tell me...

He fights the grin that yearns desperately to split his face in two as hope and joy bubble and threaten to burst from his chest.

(One can only hope for a single miracle in their lifetime; a moment where everything, after months or years of strife, falls into place and finally, they might find peace, happiness, glory, whatever it is they might seek. Edward has been blessed with many in his long life, too many to count on one hand, too many to keep on one ship.

But to have not one, but two within hours of each other...

Someone up there must truly love these boys.)

Luffy's smile grows wider, warmer, and he knows that Edward knows. This time, Edward lets himself beam.

"Well?" he prompts, just a touch louder, and a few heads turn, curious. In the corner of his eye, he sees Ace lift his head from his plate, sees Sabo incline his to the side. Marco meets Edward's gaze and holds it for a heartbeat. They're smiling, pride and love in every line.

"Got something to say, brat?"

It's as much a challenge as it is a gentle beckoning, an offering should the boy choose to take it.

And Luffy, brave and wonderful and fearless thing that he is, does just that.

He takes a breath. Edward holds his. Marco sits up straighter, and others start to notice just as Luffy opens his mouth—

"G—Good morning, Whitebeard!"

Several plates shatter as they hit the ground, slipping from Thatch's slack hands. There's choking and spluttering as some inhale their ale and lunch in shock, but the rest of the galley falls into the same deathly silence that had claimed them last night, all eyes round and wide as they stare at the back of Luffy's head. All save for Ace and Sabo, who share soft looks of pride with a hint of cheek.

Marco's gleaming eyes fill up with tears.

Edward stares at Luffy—at Monkey D. Luffy, son of Dragon, grandson of Garp, the little prince that was born to be a king, the young man that holds the hearts and hopes of all who meet him in the palm of his yet tiny hands. Luffy stares back, unwavering, unafraid, and beams.

These boys...

Edward breaks the silence with a booming laugh that shakes the Moby and her very foundations, scooping the boy up into an embrace that's just short of crushing (though he needn't worry; Luffy's rubber body can take it). His laughter breaks the spell of silence, and the ship rocks with the force of the crew and their cries of unbridled joy. Some are dancing on the tables, arms or hands linked, some are crushing each other in embraces and end up in dog piles. Others, like Thatch, like Marco, Izo and Namur, bow their heads and let the tears flow.

Because this is more than just a boy finding his dream or finding his home, realizing that he's loved and wanted and safe. This is all of that and breaking free from every chain that ever dared bind him.

Edward lets a tear or two slip down his cheeks as Luffy's rubbery arms reach to encircle the giant of a man, his giggles wet yet delighted against the captain's scarred chest. And then his arms are full of laughing, tearful teenagers as Ace and Sabo throw all caution to the wind and clamber up Edward's chair to burrow against him, clinging tight for all they're worth. And gods know they're worth so much, he thinks as he bundles them all close.

"Well done, boys," he says lowly, for their ears alone as the rest of his children rejoice around them. They look up to meet his eyes. He smiles. "I'm so proud of you, my sons."

His sons smile back.

They're free, now. My boys are free.


0o0o0


"Sounds like they're gearing up for another one, doesn't it?"

Rayleigh looks up from his drink to his wife briefly before canting his head to where the Moby is moored some few feet from their comfortable perch on a bubbly hill, a blanket and a basket of fruits and bread between them.

The Moby seems alive with the sound of bellowing cheers, frantic shouts and curses that would have Akainu blushing to his volcanic roots; the waves are still, yet she rocks with her crew as though celebrating with them, dancing with joy.

Rayleigh smiles. "Certainly seems that way. I'd wager Luffy has something to do with it."

Shakky cocks a brow. Smoke drifts lazily from the cigarette between her fingers. "Oh? What makes you say that?"

"Don't play dumb. Shanks wouldn't give that kid Roger's hat for nothin'. Figured it was only a matter of time before he made his mind up about the kind of pirate—the kind of King—he's gonna be." He takes another quick swig, then pops a cherry from the plate in his mouth. "All he needed was an extra push."

Shakky smiles, then, and turns to watch the ship with him, taking a drag. "Well, I'm proud of him. All of them," she says. "They're good boys. Bet they'll be great men in a few years. I certainly can't wait to see what they'll do to this world once they make their mark."

Spitting out the pit, Rayleigh chuckles. Indeed, D's or otherwise, those boys were born to be rebels, adventurers... the waves in the tides of change. Now that their chains are broken, the world is at their mercy, unaware of the raging storm heading its way.

Portgas D. Ace, bastard son of Gol D. Roger. Monkey D. Luffy, son of Monkey D. Dragon. Sabo, disgraced son of a noble.

The world will never know what it dared to unleash.

"Still," Shakky says, leaning back on her hands to watch the bubbles float into the clouds, "I wish we could've warned them."

Rayleigh blinks at her. "Hm? About what?"

Shakky smiles. It sits wicked and delighted on her face, and Rayleigh is grinning back before she opens her mouth:

"About who's waiting for them at Fishman Island."

Rayleigh throws his head back and cackles.

(Oh yeah. He'd forgotten all about that call.)


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