There was laughter ringing in his ears as Thatch slowly emerged from unconsciousness, the enticing smell of food tugging him toward wakefulness as his stomach rumbled. He opened his eyes and blinked owlishly.

The first thing he saw was the ceiling, which was wholly unremarkable. The second thing he saw as he turned his head to the side was Whitebeard. The Yonko was propped up in a gigantic hospital bed, with Ace sprawled out on his right leg, half covered in a pile of blankets.

"I think you should get it on your face." Luffy said, perched on the edge of Whitebeard's bed. His back was resting against Whitebeard's leg, close to where Ace was lounging comfortably.

"I'm not getting it on my face, Luffy." Ace grunted, shifting further under the covers. He looked more content and relaxed than Thatch could ever remember seeing him.

"Think about it though! If you got it on your forehead, you wouldn't have to worry about the shirt problem." Luffy argued, munching on a large bowl of meat.

"Well—that is true." Ace admitted grudgingly, reaching out a hand to absently stroke Luffy's unruly mop of hair.

"Son," Whitebeard chuckled, a low, tired rumble. He seemed just as content as Ace, which was somewhat strange considering how much Whitebeard hated being stuck in the infirmary. "Please don't get your tattoo on your face."

Ace snickered and grinned up at him and it was then that Thatch decided that he must be dreaming. He'd never seen Ace's brightest grin directed at anyone but his brothers.

"Hey, look! Thatch is awake again." Dream Ace said with another brilliant smile that rivaled even Luffy's.

Thatch decided that he really wasn't quite ready to wake up yet, but his eyes closed of their own accord. "I like this dream." He mumbled.

The last thing he heard before he fell asleep was the sound of Whitebeard's laughter.

"Hey, he's waking up again!"

"Give him some space, Luffy. You'll scare him, yoi."

Thatch opened his eyes and let out a muffled curse and jerked backwards. An inch away from his face was Luffy, chopsticks stuck in his nose and mouth, looking for all intents and purposes like a deformed walrus.

"Thatch, take it easy! Luffy, back off, yoi!" Marco snapped, grabbing the back of the boy's t-shirt and dragging him away.

Panting heavily, Thatch pressed a hand to his chest and grimaced. He flopped back down with a pained grunt, heart racing and wounds protest protesting the sudden movement loudly. He closed his eyes briefly and tried to sort through his hazy memories to figure out what had happened.

"Thatch is awake! Yay!" Luffy exclaimed, words garbled by the chopsticks still protruding from his nose and mouth.

"How are you feeling?" Marco asked him quietly, adjusting his blankets and pillows so that he was more comfortable. "Take those out, Luffy. It's disturbing, yoi."

Pouting, Luffy complied with a huff and tossed them aside. Without another word he crawled up onto Whitebeard's bed and propped himself up against the Yonko's side.

The memory came back abruptly and had him scrambling upright again, expression frantic. "The boys' cabin! There was someone messing with it-"

"Calm down! They're right over there, see?" Marco gestured over to Whitebeard's bed and shoved him back down onto his own. "They're perfectly fine, yoi."

Thatch stared in shock. Sprawled out on the bed with Whitebeard was Ace and Sabo. They were pressed against one another by the crook of Whitebeard's elbow, snoring away without a care in the world. He honestly couldn't remember seeing Ace so at peace, except for in his dream—

"Did Ace join?!" Thatch practically shouted, voice cracking slightly. He accepted the cup of water Marco pressed into his hand and downed it in two big gulps, staring up at his brother desperately for confirmation.

Marco smiled and ruffled his hair, which was limp and unruly. "He did. You missed quite a bit, yoi. You've been unconscious for four days."

Blinking in surprise, Thatch stared at Marco's face for a moment before his eyes drifted back to the sleeping pirates and Luffy, who was watching the conversation in mild disinterest. "What happened?"

He listened to the explanation with wide eyes. His gaze kept darting to Ace, and he noticed for the first time the numerous bruises, his heavily bandaged torso and the cast and sling on his right arm. But despite the terrible betrayal that had almost cost him and Ace their lives, the teen was snoozing away next to his newly adopted father without a care in the world. Thatch couldn't help but feel slightly in awe that somehow, despite everything the teen had gone through just days before, a miracle had happened.

They owed a large part of that to Shanks. If he hadn't come to stop Kaido and proceeded to drive him away from the ailing Moby Dick… it didn't bear thinking about. They owed him a great debt and Thatch knew it couldn't easily be repaid. They hadn't even had the chance to thank him; he had left shortly after defeating Kaido without saying even a word to them, though he'd lurked around the area until Jinbei and Squard arrived with reinforcements. Stopping Kaido was risky enough. He couldn't be seen as allying himself with Whitebeard any more than he already had.

"Ace really joined?" Thatch asked quietly, still struggling to process everything.

"He did," Marco glanced over at the three brothers and smiled fondly. "I've never seen him so happy. I haven't seen Pops so happy in a long time."

Ace had found a special niche in his heart- in all their hearts, really, but Whitebeard's especially.

"I still can't believe… after all this time, that Teach could just…" Thatch shook his head.

It wasn't like he and Teach had been very close, but they'd fought together, bleed together, laughed and cried and shared adventures together for over twenty years. They'd been brothers.

Whitebeard had given them a place in a world where they were outcasts, the unwanted, the unloved, and the forgotten. Calling him 'Pops' wasn't just a nickname, or a joke to them. If there was ever a man who deserved to be called 'father' it was him. Betraying Pops after everything he had done for them… it was unthinkable.

He glanced over to the huge bed that Whitebeard and the ASL trio were currently sleeping in. Luffy had dozed off almost as soon as Marco had started to explain everything, a big contented smile on his face as he snored in almost perfect harmony with his brothers.

"A lot of the crew is still in shock. We captured a few of the Blackbeard pirates and apparently Teach wanted to turn Ace over to the marines to become a Warlord. He wanted access to Impel Down to break out some of the worst criminals in there- the ones that even we would consider too evil to run rampant. And that was just the beginning, apparently. He was far more cunning and ambitious than we ever realized, yoi." Marco sighed and ran a hand through his hair.

Thatch wondered how much sleep he'd gotten in the past four days. Not much, if the dark circles under his eyes was any indication.

"How's Pops taking it?" Thatch asked softly, grimacing slightly as he shifted into a more comfortable position.

Marco was silent for a moment, contemplating. "Teach almost killed you, severely damaged the Moby Dick, and kidnapped, injured, and threatened Ace. The moment he did those things, he was no longer our brother, no longer Pops' son. But…"

"It must have been painful for him." Thatch murmured, shaking his head.

"No one is mourning Teach, but this whole situation is… complicated. We barely had a chance to process what had happened before we were going into battle," Marco shook his head. "Teach was dead before everyone even had a chance to hear that he'd betrayed us, yoi."

"Enough talk of him," Whitebeard said, surprising both of the division commanders. They hadn't noticed him wake up. "Teach made his choice. He was never truly one of us, for he was duplicitous from the start. His threat is over and all that he tried to destroy has been restored. Now we must simply lick our wounds and let time do its magic."

Thatch and Marco both nodded.

"How are you, Pops?" Thatch asked, struggling not to worry about how pale he looked.

"Stomach wounds are never easy to recover from, but I'll be fine. Although I've been completely banned from alcohol for at least three for months," Whitebeard said, glancing down at the three sleeping teens curled up at his side. "Possibly longer if the doctors have their way." He finished with a deep sigh and a grimace.

"You've been needing to cut back anyways," Marco said with a slight smile. His lips twitched into a smirk. "You don't want to set a bad example for your newest son, after all."

"That's a low blow, Marco," Whitebeard rumbled lowly, but his eyes were twinkling with mirth. "Drinking is bad for his narcolepsy anyways, so he doesn't partake except on special occasions. I doubt he'd change just to follow my example."

"I don't know, Pops," Thatch eyed Ace thoughtfully, eyes sparkling mischievously. "I think Ace is just the type to follow your example and end up adopting unwanted misfits left and right."

Marco laughed, nodding in agreement. "I can see that! One day, when he's older."

When he's older. Such a simple statement, yet it was still very possible that Ace would be deprived of his someday, in a world that despised him for something that was beyond his control. The three veteran pirates glanced at Ace and knew that they'd do everything in their power to give Ace a chance at a future.

"Really Luffy is the one who adopts misfits," Whitebeard said thoughtfully. "I'm very much looking forward to seeing what kind of crew he gathers, gurarara!"

"Can't be any stranger than yours," Marco's lips twitched in amusement, sharing a knowing look with Whitebeard. "I'd be very impressed if he actually managed to find a bunch weirdos stranger than some of our brothers."

Thatch shuddered. "Don't say it like that. What if he actually does?"

They exchanged glances and burst out laughing.

Ace was held in the infirmary for almost a week because of his ribs and concussion, but remarkably didn't put up much of a fuss so he could stay near Whitebeard and Thatch. The infirmary had a constant stream of visitors for all three of them, keeping them entertained for the most part. Marco and the rest of the former ASL pirates were almost permanent fixtures, spending every free moment available with them.

Repairs were under way, but the damage from the explosions, the reject dials, and the battle itself had taken a heavy toll on the ship. There was also still some minor leakage from the sections of the hull that had been damaged worst and the crew was struggling to keep it under control.

It had been a huge relief to all of them when the keel of the ship was pronounced unharmed. The Moby Dick was not beyond saving, although it needed at least a month or two of repairs before it would be ready for battle again.

The Maelstrom pirates and the Sun pirates had arrived after the battle had already ended, but they stay to escort them to one of the islands under their protection, where they had a shipyard big enough to accommodate the Moby Dick. With the ship in such bad shape they hadn't wanted to take any chances.

Whitebeard was up early going over the most recent reports about the damages to their fleet and the islands under their protection with Marco, when Fossa, Curial, Izo and Vista came storming in with the newspaper.

"Pops, Marco, you won't believe this! Akainu survived!" Curial shouted, with a stack of newspapers in his arms, eyes flashing with fury.

"What?!" Thatch screeched, carefully sitting up abruptly with a grunt. "Someone actually pulled him out?"

"He is an admiral," Sabo said with a frown. "It shouldn't be that surprising that someone fished him out."

"I can't say I'm really that surprised," Ace grunted from his position on the edge of Thatch's bed. "He just won't die."

"There's more. He was kicked out of the marines!" Fossa exclaimed, eyes wide with disbelief.

"What?!" Ace's mouth dropped, stunned.

Marco snatched one of the newspapers out of Curial's hand without a word. He quickly read the article, forehead wrinkling in confusion, before passing the newspaper to Whitebeard, who's expression was carefully schooled. "This doesn't make any sense, yoi."

"The official statement is that Akainu was forced to resign after disobeying orders and losing his entire fleet, but he's done worse than that before without even getting a slap on the wrist. Something else is going on." Izo said shrewdly, exchanging worried glances with Marco.

Ace glanced at Sabo, who was strangely silent and frowned at him.

"I'm sure there's some chatter either from the Underworld or the marines. I've already asked some of our informants to investigate. We'll be monitoring Akainu's movements closely in the meantime." Izo brushed a stray strand of hair out of his face and sighed.

"He will come after us. That much is certain, yoi," Marco stared down at the paper and scowled at one of the articles. "It looks like they're having a field day with Teach's death. They're saying that we betrayed him."

"We've already contacted our allies and let them know what happened." Fossa said, stroking his mustache thoughtfully."

"I doubt Akainu will be eager to face us again soon. He's no fool; he won't be able to come at us head on now that he no longer has the weight of the marines behind him," Whitebeard murmured, shaking his head. "He's a wildcard now."

"Who knows what he'll do next, yoi." Marco agreed, mind whirling.

"I can't believe he's still alive after Marco almost died stopping him," Thatch shook his head and slammed a fist down on his mattress. "That's it! I'm forming an 'I hate Akainu' club! Who's with me?!"

"I am!" Fossa, Vista, Curial, Ace and Luffy all exclaimed with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Marco just sighed and shook his head.

"I say we gather the rest of the division commanders and go pay the former admiral a little visit." Izo smiled thinly, and Sabo and Ace both shuddered at the chilling expression on the commander's face. They never, ever wanted to be on the receiving end of that look.

"Curb the bloodlust," Whitebeard ordered, accidentally ripping part of the newspaper when he tried to turn the page. "You're scaring the children."

"Luffy looks perfectly fine." Curial commented wryly, watching as the boy growled at Akainu's face in the newspaper with amusement. He curiously folded the newspaper to hide the picture and Luffy stopped growling instantly, expression turning neutral.

Amusement growing exponentially, Curial unfolded it and laughed loudly when Luffy resumed growling, looking like he was moments away from attacking the newspaper and Curial's hand in the process.

"Stop it," Ace snatched the newspaper from Curial's hands and threw the newspaper into a nearby trashcan. "Luffy, calm down."

"We'll have another shot at Akainu sooner rather than later," Marco exchanged tired glances with Whitebeard. "So let's focus on repairing the ship and preparing as best we can in the meantime, yoi."

"I seriously doubt we'll have to go to Akainu," Ace agreed, drumming his fingers on his cast distractedly. "As long as I'm around he'll keep coming after all of you."

"All of us, Ace," Thatch gingerly leaned forward and ruffled the teen's hair. "You're our brother now, so it's 'all of us.' Your problems are our problems now, and vice versa."

Ace smiled and some of the tension from his shoulders drained away. He grinned impishly and Marco dimly wondered what they'd just unleashed upon the crew. "Really Thatch? So does that mean that the next time you put dye in Marco's food and turn his teeth pink it's my problem too when he finds out?"

Thatch's eyes widened in horror and he darted a desperate glance at Marco. "Traitor! I'm still confined to bed, I can't run! You're supposed to be on my side anyways!"

"You what?! When was this—Thatch!" Marco sputtered incoherently when he realized that Thatch must have somehow bribed one of the cooks to put the dye in his breakfast, because everyone present had burst out laughing. He covered his mouth with a hand and glared murderously at Whitebeard, Sabo and Ace. "One of you could have said something sooner!"

"You mean you didn't make your teeth pink on purpose?" Luffy asked innocently, earning several snickers.

Marco stormed out of the infirmary, but not before promising swift vengeance on Thatch the moment he was released from the infirmary.

"And then, Ace sneezed and he set the sails on fire!" Luffy exclaimed with a laugh, earning a round of laughter from his audience.

Ace blinked awake and sat up abruptly, overgrown hair sticking up messily in all directions. "Wha—I didn't mean to set the bathroom on fire." He muttered, blinking drowsily and wiping his eyes.

Three pairs of eyes stared at him in exasperation, softened by the obvious fondness and amusement in their eyes.

"Please, please, explain that sentence!" Thatch demanded eagerly, leaning forward to ruffle Ace's hair.

"Stop it!" Ace leaned back in his chair a little too far and would have toppled over if Jinbei hadn't managed to grab hold of the chair's back, almost getting slapped in the face by Ace's good arm for his effort. "Jinbei! I heard you were here, but I kept missing you."

Jinbei chuckled and patted Ace on the shoulder. "Yes, my timing has been quite awful. Every time I came to visit you were asleep. How are you injuries?"

"Better," Ace answered with a rueful grin, motioning at the sling that his right arm was in. "My arm's out of commission for a while, but it's finally starting to get easier to breath."

"I doubt sleeping like that was helping your ribs any," Jinbei eyed him with concern, noting the darkening bruises, numerous bandages, and pale complexion. "Should you even be out of your bed yet?"

"Jules has only complained about me being out of bed five times today, so I guess it's okay." Ace shrugged.

Jinbei dragged a chair over by the foot of Whitebeard's bed and sat down. "So, what was that about setting things on fire?" he asked, watching in amusement as Ace's cheeks turned red.

"We were telling funny stories," Thatch explained gleefully. "Like the time Luffy tried to eat Marco."

"Luffy… tried to eat Marco?" He repeated in disbelief, eyebrows twitching.

"He was in his bird form! How was I supposed to know that it was Marco?" Luffy huffed, brow pinched together unhappily.

"It doesn't matter what excuse you use, Luffy. It won't change the fact that you wanted to eat him," Ace said, shaking his head.

"I thought he was a turkey," Luffy responded defensively, turning away from Thatch and pouting. "He looked so delicious, too."

Thatch lost it, laughing until he was crying and gasping. "T-turky," He gasped, holding his side. "I'm so glad you're staying Luffy! This is going to be amazing!"

"It's not that funny, yoi," Marco scolded, folding his arms over his chest. He was still miffed with Thatch about his teeth. He'd spent twenty minutes brushing and they were still a very light pink, so he'd been spending most of the day quietly stewing in irritation, hunched over his paperwork. He smirked. "I can think of a few of your more embarrassing moments that are much funnier."

"Ooh, do tell." Ace grinned widely and scooted his chair a little closer to him.

"If I may interrupt," Jinbei interrupted, not wanting to be distracted from his purpose in coming. "I've come to take my leave for the time being. I didn't get the opportunity to say goodbye to you boys last time, so I wanted to make sure I got the chance now."

"Already?" Luffy asked with a pout as he bounced off the edge of Thatch's bed and sprang over to him.

"I'm afraid so. Squard will escort you the rest of the way. I've pushed my luck enough already," Jinbei said with a heavy sigh. "I can't risk my position as a warlord any further at the moment. But I will come back in a few months to visit again… you will be here, won't you?" he asked, glancing at Ace and Luffy expectantly.

"Yep!" Ace answered with a bright grin.

"I'm planning on joining the Revolutionaries soon, but Luffy will be here," Sabo added. "I'm sure I'll see you around though."

Jinbei nodded, obviously pleased that Ace was joining the Whitebeards. "Are you going to join, Luffy?"

"Nope! I have to be the captain," Luffy grinned widely and puffed out his chest. "After all, I'm the man who'll be the next pirate king!"

Everyone laughed, but it wasn't mocking or condescending.

"Come visit again soon!" Thatch said, waving goodbye.

"I will," Jinbei walked over to Whitebeard's side and clasped his hand. "Try not to overdo it."

"I'll do my best," Whitebeard promised. "Stay safe."

"See you later, Jinbei," Sabo grinned. "Maybe next time you come back we can have a spar."

"And we can have a rematch!" Ace exclaimed excitedly.

Jinbei chuckled ruefully and shook his head. "A sparing match, perhaps. I won't have time for another five day battle anytime soon."

"I'll look forward to it!" Ace smiled broadly and slapped Jinbei's shoulder.

"Hey, Jinbei," Luffy stepped closer to him, a gleam in his eyes and an strange edge to his smile. "I'm going to ask you to join my crew someday, when I'm a captain worthy of having you on my crew."

Jinbei's eyes widened in surprise, but after a moment he smiled. "I will look forward to that day then, Luffy." He answered, surprising Ace, Sabo, Marco and Thatch that he didn't dismiss the promised offer out of hand.

Whitebeard didn't look surprised at all.

"I will see all of you soon." Jinbei promised, walking out of the infirmary with a smile firmly planted on his face.

The rest of the day passed peacefully. The somber air that had struck the ship upon hearing that Akainu had survived wasn't enough to overwhelm the joy everyone felt that Thatch was alive and Ace had joined the crew. It was almost impossible for them to stay in a sour mood for long.

Word of Thatch's prank spread quickly through the crew and did a great deal to raise everyone's spirits, as if that small action made everything right in the world. If Thatch was well enough to pull a prank on Marco from his hospital bed then a full recovery was certainly in his future.

Sabo hovered close to Whitebeard's side for most of the day, waiting for the opportunity to talk to him in private. Thatch, being the social butterfly that he was, did better when he was around others—meaning that there was always at least two or three people sitting with him while he was awake.

His chance finally came when Ace was finally officially released from the infirmary a few hours before dinner. He hung back as Ace, Luffy, Bam Bam, Wendy, and Haru all headed off to dinner.

"Make sure you spy on the kitchen and bring me back a full report on the food!" Thatch exclaimed, settling back in the bed to sleep.

"Yeah, yeah," Ace said with a wave, shoulders shaking with laughter. "I promise if I see so much as a one unwashed pair of hands or one hair in my food I'll let you know."

"Unwashed hands… a hair?!" Thatch wheezed, looking like he was ready to roll out of bed and crawl to the kitchen if he had to. "Don't even joke, Ace. Why would you even say that?" He looked genuinely hurt that Ace would suggest such a thing.

"Would you relax? You run a tighter ship in that kitchen than Marco—don't tell him I said that," Ace rolled his eyes. "I seriously doubt I'll find even a fork out of place. Coming, Sabo?"

"Actually, there's something I wanted to talk to Whitebeard about," Sabo answered, glancing up at the Yonko for confirmation. "I'll join you later."

Luffy and Ace glanced at him curiously, but their stomachs both growled. Food overruled curiosity almost every time.

"Don't take too long or Luffy will eat your share," Ace teased, turning and walking out of the infirmary. "I'll sneak back with some dessert for you, Thatch! Pops, do you want anything?"

"I'm good, thank you, son." Whitebeard said with a grin, and if it was a little sappy, no one commented.

"Well, I'm going to take a little nap," Thatch announced, sensing that Sabo needed to talk to his captain alone. "If I start snoring too loud just hit me with a pillow or something. Gently, please."

Sabo waited until he was sure that Thatch was out for the count before silently climbing onto Whitebeard's bed. "I wanted to talk to you now that everything has settled down a little."

The old captain nodded solemnly, but stayed silent and waited.

"I didn't honestly think they'd throw Akainu out," Sabo said, running a hand through his hair. "At least, not right away."

He'd assumed that they'd try assassinating him first or at least try to threaten him into backing down one more time. But with Ace and Luffy safely in Whitebeard's protective care, they had nothing to threaten him with, at least for the time being.

"I was surprised as well," Whitebeard murmured, expression turning thoughtful. "But I doubt they've truly severed ties with him."

That was exactly what Sabo hadn't wanted to hear, but he knew it was true. Having Akainu kicked out of the marines wasn't part of his original plan, even with all of the incriminating evidence he possessed. It had been a spur of the moment idea in response to Sengoku being 'unable' to recall Akainu's ships.

"I might have made things worse." Sabo admitted reluctantly, fiddling with a loose thread on his shirt.

Whitebeard was quiet for a while, carefully measuring his words before speaking. "The idea of Akainu as a free agent is unsettling, I'll admit. But as a single individual, the avenues in which he can face us become extremely limited, even if the marines secretly support him. I doubt his time in disgrace will last very long though. It depends on how serious they take your threat and the measures they take to eliminate you and anyone who might be working with you."

"Which means that they'll be sending Cipher Pol after you." Sabo murmured with a grimace.

"At the moment I doubt we're at the top of their priorities, thanks to you," Wry amusement warned for concern in Whitebeard's eyes. "They'll be after you with everything they have."

Sabo shrugged somewhat carelessly. "I won't be here for long, assuming the Revolutionaries still want me—and I'll be in disguise. Plus, it's not like I haven't dealt with them before."

"Don't underestimate them. If they had truly focused all their attention on the three of you before, you wouldn't be here," Whitebeard said bluntly. "Dealing with Ace was high up in their priorities, but at the moment you're at least number two or number three on their list."

"I won't," Sabo promised earnestly. "Are you going to let the commanders go after Akainu?"

Whitebeard sighed heavily. "No. We're going to be monitoring him closely. For the moment that should suffice."

Not entirely convinced, Sabo nodded. "Thank you. For not stopping me."

"You probably saved the lives of my children, Sabo," Whitebeard gently patted Sabo's head. "There is nothing you wouldn't do to protect your family and I could never, ever fault you for that."

Whitebeard fell silent and Sabo could tell that he was carefully considering what he wanted to say next. "How far are you willing to go? What will you do if they decide to ignore your threat?" Whitebeard asked at last, leaning forward and eyeing Sabo intently.

It was a question he'd been asking himself long before he'd even started seriously considering his plan. What was he willing to risk to protect his brothers? His principles, deeply ingrained in his early childhood and reinforced by everything he had seen and learned since setting out to sea? The world and the very people that he wanted to liberate from the oppression, slavery, and cruelty of the World Government?

There was a line that he could not cross without losing himself and everything he cared about completely, but he didn't know where exactly the line fell. How far was too far? And would it even be enough to save Ace and Luffy in the end?

"I hope I don't have to find out." He murmured, gritting his teeth.

"So do I," Whitebeard agreed, easily guessing what was going through Sabo's mind. "So do I.

Ace took a detour after dinner to go visit the ship's resident tattoo artist, Ellie. He'd been sketching his mark the entire time he'd been stuck in the infirmary, so he had a fair idea of what he wanted.

"The scar won't be an issue, right?" Ace asked anxiously, squirming slightly as the tattoo artist touched it thoughtfully.

"Of course not. This should actually cover it quite nicely," Ellie answered, stepping away from him and motioning for Ace to put his shirt back on. "It'll take more than one session since it's so big."

"That's fine. When can we get started?" Ace pulled his shirt back on and grinned eagerly.

"Give me a day or two to firm up the design and go over it with you," She glanced at the sketch again. "I'll get something back to you by tomorrow afternoon."

Smiling wider, Ace stood. "Thanks, big sis!"

Chuckling in surprise, Ellie grinned and ruffled Ace's hair. "Anytime, little bro."

The next day Whitebeard finally revolted against the medical staff and returned to the quarter deck and the fresh, clean ocean air.

The only reason he hadn't left sooner was because Thatch had needed the company and Ace had only stayed so long without trying to escape because of Edward. It was incredibly endearing how much Ace enjoyed his company.

But the change of scenery wasn't just because he was tired of being cooped up in the infirmary for so long; he needed to clear his head and make some difficult decisions.

He'd mulled it over and over and over, but it didn't settle well with him to send any of his children after Akainu, at least not immediately. As great a risk as Akainu was, Kaido and Big Mom presented an even more urgent danger. Kaido had already attacked them and would do so again as soon as he was sufficiently recovered from his battle with Shanks. Big Mom on the other hand, would undoubtedly take advantage of the losses both Edward and Kaido had experienced, though which of the two emperors she'd go after was anyone's guess.

Sabo was the other reason he was sitting on the deck of his ailing ship, lost in thought on a fine spring day in the New World. Sabo's plan would keep Ace and Luffy safe—for a few years. Long enough for them to grow even stronger and be ready for whatever the world threw at them.

The same couldn't be said about Sabo.

The risk he had taken was beyond anything Whitebeard could have imagined if he hadn't witnessed it himself. Sabo wasn't the type that wanted to watch the world burn, but the plan would never have work if he wasn't willing to actually go through with a good portion of his threat.

The world would burn, if all the information he had gathered was released. War was inevitable, but this wasn't war they were talking about. It was Armageddon.

Still… Whitebeard knew that the battle to save Ace would have gone very differently if Sabo hadn't managed to force the marines to turn most of their fleet back. The losses would have been far greater and they would have lost the Moby Dick. They might not have been in time to save Ace.

But even with Sabo's intervention, the World Government wouldn't stop coming after Ace and Luffy, even if it meant going through the Whitebeards to get to them. They just wouldn't be able to attack them directly. It was a mess. But what worried him most was Sabo. The moment he stepped foot off the ship and left the Whitebeards' he would be killed if the World Government had their way.

Rubbing a hand over his face wearily, Whitebeard shut his eyes and allowed the familiar sound of the sea and the general din of his children hard at work to wash over him.

"Hey, Pops!" Ace's cheery voice drew Edward out of his dark thoughts and he opened his eyes to see his newest son beaming up at him. "I've got something to show you!"

Edward barely had time that to realize that Ace wasn't wearing a shirt before he spun around and showed him his back.

His eyes were instantly drawn to the large, freshly completed tattoo on Ace's back. The scar that had once marred his skin was gone, covered by Edward's mark for the entire world to see.

He was speechless for a moment, staring at Ace's back in wonder. If anyone had ever doubted that Ace truly trusted Edward and his children, they never would again. His tattoo was a sign of implicit trust and to have placed it on his back… It had a wealth of meaning. 'I trust them to have my back.' 'I trust them enough to allow myself to be vulnerable in front of them.' 'I trust that they won't betray me.' It was truly humbling.

"What do you think?" Ace turned around and jumped onto Edward's knee, watching him expectantly. "I think I could have had it a little bigger-"

"I think the size is just fine, son," Edward chuckled, recovering slightly. "No one will be able to miss it when you're not wearing a shirt."

Ace nodded. "It's a good thing I usually don't get cold thanks to my devil fruit. I won't have to wear a shirt very often!"

Shaking his head in amusement, Whitebeard watched as Ace sprang off his knee and ran off to tackle Marco to show off his tattoo. His eldest son smiled fondly at Ace's pure, childlike excitement, eyes crinkling in amusement as he ruffled the teen's hair.

Perhaps some things were worth risking the entire world, like family and a rare, carefree smile from a young man who had just found his home.

"Curial," Whitebeard called out, motioning him over. "Contact Rayleigh and tell him that he should come visit his wayward apprentices."

"Sure thing, Pops." Curial said with a grin, before jogging off to fulfill his mission.

Wishing desperately for a drink, Whitebeard watched Ace interact with his children and knew deep in his heart that he would go to any lengths to keep his children safe.

Including Sabo.

Rayleigh was getting too old for this sort of thing—getting shipwrecked was something that should happen to young men, not experienced sailors who were in their seventies.

He climbed aboard the Moby Dick without much difficulty thanks to one of the young scalawags on night duty throwing down a rope ladder. Apparently Whitebeard had been kind enough to let the crew know he was expected.

He was escorted to Whitebeard's room and ushered in without further ado, leaving a trail of water in his wake to mark his passage. The night air was slightly chilly, but he merely felt invigorated after his long swim.

Whitebeard looked well, all things considered. He was hooked up to a large variety of medical equipment, but that was nothing new for him. Despite pale skin and the bandages covering his chest, it was clear he was on the mend.

"I see rumors of you being on your death bed are greatly exaggerated," Rayleigh grinned wryly and gratefully accepted a towel from the same boy who had thrown down the ladder. "You've been busy this year. I've heard more about you in the last three months than I have in the last two years."

"What can I say," Whitbeard chuckled, but there was a note of solemnity that could not be banished from his continence even by the rumble of his laughter. "My newest son is quite the trouble maker."

Rayleigh's smile broadened and he threw his head back and laughed, all of the worry he'd felt when Whitebeard had contacted him draining away. "Ace joined? That's the best news I've heard in years."

"Got his mark finished today," Whitebeard shook his head, eyes twinkling with amusement and slight resignation. "If he had a choice I think he'd never wear a shirt again."

"He got it on his back?" Rayleigh couldn't help feeling surprised. The last time he'd seen Ace, the boy had reluctantly revealed what had happened on Glass Island after Rayleigh had asked why they didn't have a doctor on in their crew, considering how injury prone the three brothers were. For Ace to choose to place Whitebeard's mark there… "That kid really trusts you."

"That's why I asked you to come here," Whitebeard sighed and finally gave in and poured himself a drink as well. The nursing staff would have his head, but he'd deal with them in the morning. "Sabo has taken action to keep the World Government off Ace and Luffy's back for a few years."

"Ah," Rayleigh helped himself to more sake and flung his dripping cloak onto the floor before sitting down on the edge of Whitebeard's bed. A heavy weight fell on his shoulders. "He said he was working on something, but he didn't give me any specifics."

"I'm not surprised. His plan was… risky, to put it mildly," Whitebeard took a drink and winced as it burned going down, both painful and unsettling as it hit his stomach. "He collected evidence to blackmail the World Government into leaving Ace and Luffy alone. He threatened war—the war."

Rayleigh shut his eyes. Shakky had come to him several months ago and expressed concerns about what Sabo was planning. It seemed her suspicions had been right on the money, not that he was surprised. But to think that Sabo actually went through with it… He sighed and ran a hand over his face. "What happened?"

"They accepted his terms," Whitebeard responded, setting his cup aside. "For now."

"Hmmpth. I'm not surprised he pulled it off… smart kid," Rayleigh set his cup down on the small table beside Whitebeard's bed and grabbed the whole bottle. "I had hoped… well. It hardly matters now. Is he going to join you too?" He asked somewhat hopefully.

"I offered, but he intends to join the Revolutionaries," Whitebeard said, resting a hand on his stomach and wincing. "We expect to hear from them with a rendezvous point any day now."

Rayleigh blew out a breath. While he had no doubt that the Revolutionaries would do what they could to protect Sabo, what they did was dangerous. Sabo wouldn't be under the same level of protection as he would if he stayed with Whitebeard. "I can't say I'm surprised about that either. Sabo's always seen the world differently from his brothers. He'll fit in perfectly with the Revolutionaries."

Whitebeard rubbed a hand over his bandanna and fixed his piercing gaze on Rayleigh. "I agree, which is why I want to do what I can to ensure that he stays alive."

"Oh?" Rayleigh arched an eyebrow. "I wouldn't think that there's much you could do at the moment."

"Maybe not," Whitebeard conceded. "But, I was thinking of giving a call to Sengoku to tell him to congratulate me on my new sons."

"Ah, I see," Rayleigh grinned, seeing where Whitebeard was going. "I wouldn't have thought you'd lie about something like that."

"I'm a pirate," The Yonko responded somewhat defensively. "And I do consider Sabo a son, even if he isn't going to join the crew. It will buy him time if nothing else. Especially since he'll be spotted on the Moby Dick next to his brothers."

Grinning wider, Rayleigh laughed and shook his head. "That will only work if you don't have a Cipher Pol agent-"

"We don't," Whitebeard stated firmly, looking down right offended. "We're checking to be sure, but if Cipher Pol had someone in the crew they would have acted already. We were too vulnerable for them to pass up taking some action against us."

"Why did you ask me here?" Rayleigh asked, knowing that Whitebeard hadn't truly asked him all the way to the New World just for a light chat. "It seems you have everything sorted."

He was excited at the prospect of seeing Ace, Luffy and Sabo of course, but he knew Whitebeard hadn't just asked him to come just so he could visit them.

"I thought it'd be good for the boys if you did a little training with them before Sabo leaves," Whitebeard said, sniffing his cup of sake regretfully setting it aside. "I'm sure they'll be happy to see you as well."

Rayleigh leaned back in his seat and grinned. If Whitebeard couldn't protect Sabo himself, he'd make sure that the boy was as prepared as possible to face the consequences of his actions. "Ah. I'm sure I still have a few tricks up my sleeves that I can teach them."

"The division commanders will be training them as well, but you'll have as much time with them as you want." Whitebeard said, smiling back.

"We'll start tomorrow. Now that business has been taken care of…" Rayleigh shoved his glasses up and poured himself another drink. "How hard was it to convince Ace to join?"

"I haven't had such a challenge since Marco," Whitebeard admitted with a fond grin. "He didn't think I was even including him when I invited him and the rest of the ASL pirates to join."

They talked through most of the night, catching Rayleigh up on everything that had happened since the Whitebeards' had first encountered the ASL pirates to the battle with Teach and Akainu. Once Rayleigh was up to speed on everything they began swapping stories of the three brothers. Some lighthearted, others from the darker period of their lives after Dawn Island had been attacked.

"I'm beginning to think that Ace has imprinted on Marco," Whitebeard chuckled, imagining the first division commander's reaction if he used the euphemism in front of him. He rarely indulged in torturing Marco with bird jokes, but when he did, the reaction never failed to entertain. "He's been following Marco around for the last two days."

Rayleigh laughed and shook his head. "I've missed those boys."

He'd missed them more than he'd ever expected, just as he'd grown to love them more than he'd ever believed possible. Even knowing that Ace was Roger's son hadn't prepared him.

"They'll be happy to see you," Whitebeard said, leaning back in his bed and rubbing his eyes tiredly. "Marco's waiting outside to take you to your room. I'm sure he'll be able to help you change into something dry."

Rayleigh sprang off the bed and absently patted the damp spot he'd left. "I'm surprised we made it this entire time without you mentioning that I was dripping water all over your bed sheets."

"I've known you long enough to guess what happened," Whitebeard shook his head. "Shipwrecked again."

"Indeed," Rayleigh sighed. "My luck hasn't changed since I was a kid running wild with Roger in the early years."

"Is it true that you sunk the first ship you and Roger ever had?" Whitebeard asked, tossing one of the top blankets to the floor that Rayleigh had soaked through.

Barking out a laugh, Rayleigh shook his head. "He would blame it on me. He destroyed the mast and cracking the ship almost in half during a fight, did he tell you that? My accidentally ramming the ship into rocks was just the final straw."

"Gurarara!" Whitebeard grinned fondly. "Tell me the full story over breakfast. Ace doesn't object to hearing about Roger if someone else asks about him."

"Really?" Rayleigh's eyes widened with interest. "That's new. Good for him! I've always thought that Ace would have loved Roger—Luffy's painfully similar to him, after all."

"Yes," Whitebeard said slowly, eyes growing distant. "I've noticed. Quite a time to be alive, eh, Rayleigh?"

The idea of Ace, Luffy and Sabo actually getting the chance to live long enough to become the movers and shakers of the next era made his blood boil in excitement just thinking about it. Watching them grow was a joy. He would do everything in his power to ensure that the next generation got their chance, and he knew that Whitebeard felt the same. "Yes, it is. Makes an old man want to stick around for five or ten more years to see where things go, doesn't it?"

Whitebeard's gaze grew distant once more, as if looking upon something that was just out of reach. "Yes. It does."

Ace, Sabo and Luffy were all half asleep when they entered the mess hall that day, which was why it took them a full ten seconds to process that Rayleigh was sitting with Whitebeard and a handful of the other division commanders eating breakfast.

The moment they did, they almost tripped over each other in their excitement to reach him.

"Rayleigh!" Luffy predictably reached the old man first, flying over Marco's head and tackling Rayleigh to the ground.

"Miss me?" Rayleigh grinned, glasses knocked eschew as he reciprocated Luffy's hug just as tightly.

"Of course! Wait till you see my new attacks!" Luffy untangled himself from Rayleigh and allowed the old man to use his shoulder to shove himself to his feet with a grunt.

"Maybe you can finally talk him out of yelling the names of all his attacks," Ace said as he and Sabo reached Rayleigh's side, ducking his head in embarrassment when Rayleigh hugged him and ruffled his hair affectionately. "Not that I have much hope."

"It's cool!" Luffy protested, crossing his arms and frowning up at Ace. "You should do it too."

"Anyways," Sabo drawled, jamming an elbow into Ace's side. It was a losing battle and they all knew it. "It's really good to see you, Rayleigh."

"Good to see you too, Sabo." Rayleigh hugged him and playfully knocked his hat eschew.

"What are you doing here?" Luffy asked, stretching out a hand to try and sneak food off Marco's plate, only to have his hand smacked away.

"To see my wayward apprentices of course," Rayleigh said vaguely, casting a significant glance in Sabo's direction. "What's this I hear about you joining the Whitebeards, Ace?"

Grinning, Ace twisted around to show off Whitebeard's mark, glowing with pride. "I'm going to be in the second division!"

"Good for you! Room for promotion in that division, from what I understand," Rayleigh smiled and squeezed Ace's shoulder. "I'm surprised that position hasn't been filled yet."

"Whoever becomes the second division commander will eventually become Marco's first mate," Whitebeard explained, startling all of the division commanders and Ace at the announcement. "We're waiting for someone special to come along."

Marco glanced at Ace thoughtfully. "We won't have to worry about that for a while, will we, yoi?" he asked, already knowing the answer.

"No, there's no hurry," Whitebeard allowed his gaze to shift to Ace, who was utterly clueless at the significant glances being cast in his direction by everyone but Luffy. "Why don't you take Luffy up on deck with Rayleigh, Ace? I need to have a quick conversation with Sabo."

"Sure," Ace flung an arm around Rayleigh's shoulder and smiled. "I finally got my flame commandment attack perfected! If you can stick around long enough for us to get to the island we're traveling to I can show you."

"I'll be here for a few weeks at least," Rayleigh slung his free arm around Luffy and together they walked out of the mess hall. "My ship sunk on the way here."

"Again?" Luffy threw his head back and laughed. "You're a terrible sailor, old man."

"Luffy!" Ace scolded, glare completely ineffective because he was snickering into his palm. "He's not terrible; he's one of the most experienced pirates alive. Say it right this time."

Tilting his head sideways, Luffy considered it for a moment, brow furrowing. "You're the worst." Luffy said with a bright grin.

"You of all people don't get to say that! You'll wreck your ship five minutes after you set out!" Ace snapped, lunging forward. Luffy managed to slip past him and dart toward the nearest door, Ace hot on his heels.

Sabo watched them go and settled at one of the abandoned plates at the table and dug in. "So, you're going to have Ace become the second division commander?"

"It's very likely, assuming Marco approves," Whitebeard responded lightly, finishing his meal and belching loudly. "Excuse me."

"Why not one of you guys? I mean, if the second division commander is the one who's going to become Marco's first mate eventually…" Sabo trailed off and winced.

"The divisions aren't decided by who is the strongest. Each division has its own specific role and Jozu and the others aren't interested in becoming first mate," Marco responded quietly, exchanging glances with Jozu and Fossa. "They would if they had to, but all of them are happy with their current positions."

"Ace, huh?" Sabo chewed the cold, half eaten omelet thoughtfully. It wasn't easy to imagine Marco as captain, simply because it was difficult, not to mention painful to think of Whitebeard dying. But it was surprising easy to picture Ace and Marco working together.

"He's young. He'll grow into the role and it will be a good experience for him if he ever decides to form his own crew again." Whitebeard glanced up at the ceiling, staring at something only he could see.

"You've put quite a bit of thought into this, yoi." Marco shot his captain a look that Sabo couldn't quite decipher, eyes troubled.

"Perhaps I'm growing sentimental in my old age," Whitebeard shrugged. "It pleases this old man to think of the future of his children."

"You've always been sentimental." Marco rolled his eyes and stood up to chase after Ace and Luffy to make sure they didn't destroy the ship or set it on fire.

This chapter was actually two chapters, which is why it took so long to edit it lol. I think this is the first time I skipped a month, so sorry about that. Originally, Sabo would have enacted his blackmail plan in this chapter, but I realized it didn't add anything to the story if I had him blackmail the World Government after the battle.

The next chapter is the last one! We're almost there.

Thank you for all of the AMAZING reviews for the last chapter! You guys are awesome and I loved hearing from all of you.

Hope you enjoyed this chapter!