Chapter Twenty Six

A week Rayleigh arrived, Sabo received a call from the Revolutionaries. By the end of the five-minute telephone conversation, Sabo had a date, time, and location where he and Bam Bam were supposed to meet the Revolutionaries in ten days' time.

Melancholy hit the three brothers hard upon realizing that Sabo would be leaving soon. Even the excitement of being trained by Rayleigh and the division commanders couldn't fully lift the somber mood that had hit them.

It was strange. After all the years of being inseparable, their time together was coming to an end in ten short days.

Most of that time was spent training. Rayleigh and the division commanders pushed them to the brink of collapse every day, both physically and mentally. Each of the division commanders had their own area that they specialized in, such as disguise, strategy, emergency first aid, code breaking, stealth training, weapons, and more. Ace and Sabo enjoyed the 'extracurricular' lessons for the most part, but it was questionable how much Luffy was retaining, not to mention his general ineptitude at anything other than fighting.

Ace learned more about Roger in those ten days than he had his entire life. Rayleigh and Whitebeard would commiserate together almost everything night after dinner about the old days, when Roger had been young and roaming the seas, desiring only freedom and adventure.

At first, Ace only listened because he was curious to know how Whitebeard felt about his old enemy. It hadn't taken long to realize that Whitebeard didn't regard Roger as an enemy at all—more like a beloved rival, or an old friend.

Later though… later Ace listened because he couldn't help it. All his life, he'd had a very clear image of the cruel, monstrous man that had shaken the world to its core. But that was not the man that Rayleigh and Whitebeard had known.

Rayleigh had told Ace once that Luffy reminded him of Roger. Ace would never have believed him if it weren't for some of the stories the two old pirates swapped. Roger had rougher edges than Luffy and had been perhaps a little more blood thirsty, but they shared the same core- the same fierce desire for freedom and the same unbreakable resolve to protect their friends and crew.

It gave Ace a lot to think about. He listened and watched Rayleigh's face as he talked about his old captain and for the first time in his life realized that Roger probably had experienced the same slander and lies from the World Government and the newspapers as he had.

It made him wonder about a lot of things. He listened every night and tucked away their stories in his heart, struggling to view Roger fair-mindedly. He was only partially successful, but something took root his mind, something other than hate and resentment. And with that tiny, fragile realization, he suddenly wondered if his blood rally was cursed.

If Roger was just a man, not a monster… if he had been a pirate with a love for adventure, who set out not for conquest, but for freedom…

It gave Ace a lot to think about.

Time passed too quickly as they hurtled closer and closer to the date when Sabo would be leaving. Every other second they had that wasn't with Rayleigh, Whitebeard or the division commanders was spent with just the three of them, or with Wendy, Haru and Bam Bam.

They arrived on the island where they were going to repair the Moby Dick three days before the rendezvous. As soon as the ship entered the dry dock the division commanders became much busier as repairs began in earnest, leaving them training solely with Rayleigh.

Far too soon, it was the day Sabo was scheduled to meet with the Revolutionaries.

"We're not training today?" Ace asked in surprise, wiping absently at his nose and stifling a yawn. Beside him, Luffy was falling asleep standing up, leaning heavily against Ace's shoulder and snoring loudly. They'd just finished eating breakfast and were about to walk out of the mess hall when Rayleigh told them they were taking the day off.

"You've earned a break. Besides, Sabo's leaving today. You should spend the time you have left together," Rayleigh chuckled as Sabo blinked drowsily and flopped onto Ace's free shoulder, half asleep. "Tomorrow there will be a meteor shower over the island that only occurs once every fifty years. You should watch it."

"You watched it before?" Ace asked, rubbing his eyes tiredly and sagging under the weight of his brothers.

"Yes, with Roger," Rayleigh glanced away for a moment, smile turning wistful. "You should enjoy it if you can."

"Okay." Ace said, promptly falling face forward onto the floor, fast asleep. With the only thing propping them upright gone, Luffy and Sabo collapsed half on top of Ace. None of them even twitched.

"They're blocking the doorway!" One of the Whitebeards complained loudly.

"I think we might have pushed them a little too hard…" Jozu remarked dryly, walking over and poking Sabo in the side. The teen didn't so as much as twitch.

"They needed it," Rayleigh answered, watching them thoughtfully. It was still astonishing to see them so trusting that they'd let themselves fall asleep in a room with so many people around. He hoped Sabo would be able to find such trustworthy companions. "They won't be able to watch each other's backs for much longer."

Laying a hand on Rayleigh's shoulder, Izo smiled. "That's what their crewmates will be for."

Smile broadening, Rayleigh nodded, remembering the crewmates who had watched his back once upon a time and the ones that he'd watched in return. "Help me take them back to their quarters?"

Izo nodded with a long suffering sigh and wordlessly picked up Ace, as Jozu hefted Sabo up into his arms. "They'll sleep the whole day away at this rate."

Picking up Luffy, who instantly nuzzled his head into the crook of his neck, Rayleigh laughed. "They'll sleep until they're hungry." He said, momentarily unable to take his eyes off Luffy, who was smiling even in his sleep.

It was a miracle. They were alive. They were safe. They had people that cared for them and loved them—a family that would fight and die for them. It was more than he had ever dared to hope for.

"Let's get them to bed." Rayleigh said, turning and moving aside so Izo could lead the way.

Blinking awake, Ace rubbed his eyes and yawned, every muscle in his body aching as he stretched out his cramping right leg. Training with Rayleigh and the commanders was rough. He'd almost forgotten how hard the old man pushed them, and the division commanders had taken far too much pleasure in working them till they dropped.

Sitting up slightly, Ace shoved Luffy's head off his chest and grimaced at the wet patch on his t-shirt. He glanced to the side and jerked when he spotted Sabo sitting in one of the worn leather arm chairs they'd been given for their room, staring at them. "Sabo, what have we said about being a creeper while we're sleeping?"

"Do it?" Sabo grinned as he offered a typical Luffy response to such a question. "I'm just… I'm leaving today."

Flopping back down on the mattress, Ace flung an arm over his eyes. "I know." He said, voice coming out more sullen than he had intended.

"It's just… it's weird, right?" Sabo asked, trying to fix his bed hair with a little huff.

Twelve years. He'd known Sabo for twelve years and had seen him almost every single day of that time span. They'd spent the last seven years fighting for their lives, protecting, defending, and depending on each other with unwavering loyalty and trust. They'd fought, bled, laughed, and cried together. Sabo and Luffy had seen Ace at his very worst. They'd seen him reach rock bottom in ways he never would've imagined reaching and stuck with him, as unwavering as the unbreakable bond of brotherhood that tied them together.

And suddenly, they were going their separate ways. Ace knew it was inevitable, but that didn't do anything to soothe the dull ache inside at the thought of Sabo suddenly not being there. The knowledge that Luffy would be setting out in a few years only made the feeling worse.

"Yeah," Ace sighed and ran a hand through his unruly hair. "It's weird."

Suddenly realizing that this was possibly the last chance he'd have Sabo to himself for who knew how long, Ace sat up and stared at him intently. "Sabo… I just want to say I'm sorry."

"Sorry for what?" Sabo blinked in bewilderment. "If this is about setting my coat on fire yesterday-"

"No, no, no, not that—though I am sorry about it," Ace scratched his head, nose wrinkling as he struggled to grasp the right words. "When we were about to set sail after Rayleigh left… I wanted to leave you behind."

Face suddenly going suspiciously blank, Sabo glanced away, shoulders hunching forward unconsciously.

"I was scared of losing you and I was being selfish. All I could think about was that if something happened to you it would be my fault and it was my fault that Dawn Island was destroyed and Mak—everyone died. I couldn't take anymore guilt. I couldn't lose you, Sabo," Ace shrugged helplessly, voice thickening with emotion. "I couldn't let you die because of someone like… someone like me."

"Ace… I know it's hard for you to understand, but I value you and Luffy over everything else, even my own life," Sabo smiled wearily. "I'd gladly die for either one of you. You're my brothers and I love you two idiots."

Cheeks burning, Ace rubbed the back of his neck and looked everywhere but at Sabo. "I—I know. Me too." He said somewhat awkwardly and incredibly embarrassed.

"It was my choice to go with you. And that's why—that's why I was so upset when you just announced that you were leaving without me. You didn't even give me a choice," Sabo sighed. "That… wasn't one of our best moments."

The fight, both verbal and physical, had been the worst they'd ever had. Even though they'd made up and Ace had apologized, it had taken them weeks to get back to normal. It hadn't been until they'd stolen the Romance Dawn that they had finally managed to put it past them.

But even though they hadn't talked about it, Ace knew that it still bothered Sabo. He'd seen it in the way he'd responded to Garp, when the old man had expressed regret that Sabo had been dragged into the whole mess with Ace and Luffy.

"I'm sorry," Ace said earnestly, leaning forward to catch Sabo's wandering gaze. "I never should have tried to leave you behind. I-I let my fear get the better of me. I was so afraid. But I realize now that we wouldn't have made it without you."

"True," Sabo's lips quirked upwards. "You didn't need to apologize again, Ace. I forgave you a long time ago."

"I know," Ace shrugged again. "You're leaving and it's just… even though the Whitebeards are my family now too, I just want you to know that no one could ever replace you. You-you were my first friend in the whole world. If it weren't for you… I can honestly say I wouldn't be here… And it doesn't have anything to do about the whole mess with the marines."

Ace had been in a dark place when he'd met Sabo. He honestly didn't know if he would have gotten through it if Sabo hadn't chased him down and insisted that they become friends, almost as stubbornly as Luffy had. Sabo's friendship had been like rain in a desert; it had revived a part of him that had been slowly withering away from neglect and absence.

Head tilted sideways, Sabo nodded. "You were mine too, you know—my very first friend."

They both fell silent for a moment.

"I've been thinking…" Ace glanced down at the blanket Luffy was hogging and tugged it over his legs. "I think we should go with Luffy to Dawn Island before his birthday and be with him when he sets out."

"We could do that…" Sabo said, mentally calculating when they would have to set out and how long it would take to reach East Blue.

"No one else will be there to cheer him on as he sets out, so we should go," Ace said, absently picking at a loose thread on the blanket. "Besides, I want to see it for myself. Gramps said that it wasn't completely destroyed, so maybe… at least Dogra and Magra survived."

"We can go see, but don't get your hopes up too much, Ace," Sabo cautioned. "I like the idea though. And even if I can't travel with the two of you I can at least meet you there."

"Meet us where?" Luffy mumbled, yawning and sitting up.

"We're going to go with you to Dawn Island and be there when you set out." Ace said, poking Luffy's cheek and mussing his hair.

"Really?!" Luffy glanced between his brothers, a huge smile stretching across his face. "That would be awesome!"

"It's decided then!" Ace grinned and slapped Luffy's shoulder. "You and I will set out for Dawn Island and Sabo will either meet us either on the way or once we get there."

"Yes!" Luffy threw his arms up in the air, almost hitting Ace on the head.

"Watch it!" Ace swatted at Luffy and accidentally knocked him off the bed. His stomach rumbled. "I need food." He grunted, holding his stomach with one hand and fending off the pillow Luffy threw at him with the other.

"Me too! Let's go!" Luffy sprang to his feet, grabbed his hat from the bed post, and dashed to the door.

Following at a more sedate pace, Ace and Sabo exchanged amused glances and shook their heads. Some things never changed.

Rayleigh sat with them while they ate in the mess hall. They'd missed the regular lunch by several hours, but Thatch had left food for them, knowing that they'd wake up starving.

"I'm going to miss Thatch's cooking," Rayleigh leaned back in his chair and loosened his belt with a contented smile. He stared at Luffy for a moment, something obviously weighing on his mind. "When you set out on your own you'll start from East Blue?"

Luffy nodded, brightening unconsciously. "Ace and Sabo will be coming with me to Dawn Island to send me off!"

"Really?" Rayleigh glanced at them in surprise. He'd thought they'd never want to go back, Ace especially, but he could understand the desire to see what had become of their former home. And who had survived. "I'm glad that you won't be on your own. Someone should there to bear witness."

Ace and Sabo both nodded solemnly.

"You plan to find your first crew members in East Blue then." Rayleigh said carefully, earning curious looks from Ace and Sabo.

"Of course!" Luffy grinned.

"Then I want you to keep this in mind—East Blue is the weakest of all the oceans. Even once you enter the Grand Line, most of the people you're likely to meet will still have a considerable gap in strength from those who are in the New World," Rayleigh leaned forward and fixed a stare of great intensity on Luffy. "You probably already outclass all of the opponents you might face in East Blue, but your crew will struggle. If you rush through East Blue and the first half of the Grand Line too quickly your crew will suffer. You might even lose someone, either by an enemy's hand or by an unwillingness to endanger themselves and their crewmates by staying. To advance quickly through the Grand Line with a rookie crew could prove to be deadly."

Luffy for once was perfectly still in his chair, expression grim. "You're saying that I shouldn't plan to head into the New World until they're ready."

"No one is ever truly ready for the New World," Rayleigh said honestly. "We weren't. When we entered the New World the first time, we had heavy losses—far too many."

Rayleigh fell silent for a moment, eyes growing distant. He stirred after a moment and rubbed his eyes tiredly. "We were so confident we were ready, but the New World defies all logic. Even the sea is stronger and more treacherous. Your experience and strength in both Paradise and the New World will give you a great advantage, but if you're not careful it could be a double edged sword. As a captain, you have to consider your crew's strengths and weaknesses and carefully chose what dangers you lead them into. You might be able to handle it, but if they can't…"

"I think I understand." Luffy said gravely, absently planting a hand on his hat.

"Good," Rayleigh smiled and reached over to pat him on the shoulder. "You'll be a good captain, Luffy."

"Was Roger a good captain?" Ace asked, wondering what it had been like to enter the New World all those years ago when it had been even more unknown and unexplored.

"He had his flaws," Rayleigh said quietly. "He had a terrible temper and he never backed down from a fight, no matter how much we might have wanted him to. But he was a great captain. He cared about his crew and inspired loyalty in the most unexpected places. We'd have followed him to hell and back, because we all knew he'd go even further for us. He had honor. Roger never would have been able to earn Whitebeard's respect if he hadn't. Even Garp respected him, in a grudging sort of way. He was many things Ace, but he was never the monster the world thought he was. No pirate is a saint, but Roger was a good man. We loved him dearly."

Ace huffed and stared down at the table, conflicting emotions flashing across his face. He honestly didn't know what to believe anymore.

"Why don't the two of you come and help me finish packing? Then we can go play cards or something until sunset." Sabo suggested after the silence dragged on for a minute and Ace continued to stare distractedly at the worn table.

Rayleigh nodded and stood to his feet. "I'll see you tonight then."

Swallowing hard, Sabo nodded and shoved himself to his feet. "Tonight." He murmured, as they walked back in a somewhat depressed silence to their room.

"So, are we going to watch the meteor shower? We still have a few hours before I need to leave to meet with the Revolutionaries." Sabo said, not glancing up from his cards.

It was almost dusk. They were sitting in a semi-circle by the Moby Dick's figure head playing cards, squinting to see in the growing darkness. They'd been at it for an hour and Sabo was winning, partly because half of Luffy's cards were turned the wrong way and partly because Ace had accidentally had set a winning hand on fire when he'd sneezed earlier.

Peering up at the cloudless sky, Ace nodded. "If Rayleigh suggested it then it has to pretty cool, right?"

"We should go to that hill on the island!" Luffy exclaimed, standing up and stepping on the cards in his excitement and pointing.

"Hey!" Sabo slapped Luffy's leg and shoved him away, but it was too late. The pile of cards was in hopeless shambles. "Gah… I give up. We should get going soon if we're going to watch it."

"We should get a blanket—oooh, and a picnic basket!" Luffy laughed in delight at the prospect and peeled a card off the sole of one of his sandals.

"We just ate—oh, never mind," Sabo rolled his eyes, collected all of the cards and shoved them into one of his pockets. "I'll go take care of that."

"Hey," Ace glanced at his brothers thoughtfully. "Can I take Pops with us?"

Sabo frowned. "Wasn't he grounded by the nurses for drinking?" The alcohol had irritated his stomach wound just as the nurses had predicted and they had given him strict orders to stay in bed until further notice.

"We could sneak him out!" Ace scowled at the disbelieving expression on Sabo's face. "We could!"

"Well, I don't mind. It'd be interesting to see you try at any rate," Sabo glanced at Luffy. "Do you mind?"

Placing both hands on the back of his head, Luffy rocked back on his heels and laughed. "Nope!"

"I'll go get him then!" Ace grinned and dashed off for Whitebeard's room.

He barely bothered to knock before barreling into Whitebeard's cabin, a bright grin plastered on his face. "Pops!" he exclaimed, a feeling of giddiness flashing through him at the word and the way Whitebeard smiled down at him fondly.

"Son," Whitebeard put down the book he'd been reading and motioned for Ace to come closer. "What are you up to?" he asked in amusement as Ace poked his head out the door to check if the coast was clear.

"We're going to the island to watch the meteor shower and I wanted to see if you'd like to come with us." Ace explained animatedly.

"I would love to, but I'm not supposed to leave the bed." Whitebeard said with a grimace.

"We could push your bed!" Ace chuckled at the skeptical expression on Whitebeard's face. The bed had wheels, but it had taken ten nurses just to move it over a few inches the day they'd finally enforced bed rest on the old pirate. "We're strong."

"Well… if you think you're up to it-"

"Let's go!" Ace waited just long enough to check what medical equipment they needed to bring and load it into the bed before carefully tugging it through the door and out onto the deck. "The coast is clear."

Whitebeard struggled to suppress a smile as Ace 'stealthily' wheeled his bed out onto the deck and toward the gangplank. "I'm impressed that you're able to move me by yourself, Ace."

Flashing Whitebeard a pleased grin, Ace peered up at the crow's nest as he slowed to a stop in front of the wide gangplank. "Luffy!" He hissed, glancing around in confusion when he didn't see either of his brothers on the deck.

"We brought food!" Luffy exclaimed as he burst out onto the deck with a huge sack of food that was almost bigger than he was. Sabo was right on his heels with a large blanket, the backpack he had with everything he was going to bring with him when he left with the Revolutionaries, and his pipe.

"Shhh! We're sneaking out of here, remember?" Ace snapped, voice pitched a little too loudly to be considered quiet.

Someone in the crow's nest snickered, almost in synch with the deep chuckle that escaped from Whitebeard. Ace shot Whitebeard a baleful glance and the Yonko stifled his laughter for the most part, offering his newest son a sheepish smile.

"Come on! Let's get him down before the nurses come to check on him." Sabo said, plopping the blanket he was carrying on the side of Whitebeard's bed and moving to help push it down the gangplank, with Ace pulling from the front.

The gangplank was thankfully wide and extremely sturdy, allowing them to move the bed safely onto the dock and roll him as quickly as possible out of the town and into the forest.

Pulling the bed through the uneven forest floor was much more challenging, but they managed to get him up the hill with relative ease, all things considered. They were still out of breath and exhausted by the end of it, though.

"You're heavy, old man." Luffy collapsed on the top of the hill, panting heavily.

"Get up," Sabo kicked Luffy's side with one foot as he unfolded the blanket. When he didn't budge at all, Sabo simply laid the blanket down on top of him, covering him completely. "Luffy-"

Before Sabo could say anything else, Ace flopped down on the Luffy shaped lump. "Hmmm… I think there's a rock here or something, Sabo. This isn't comfortable at all." He wiggled around until he was lying fully on top of Luffy.

"Ahcff! Gerrttooffffgh!" Words garbled and almost incomprehensible, Luffy kicked and struggled to dislodge Ace without success.

"This is actually kind of comfortable—oof!" Ace rolled off Luffy instantly when Luffy's knee connected with his spine.

"Ahh!" Luffy crawled out from under the blanket as fast as he could, gulping in a huge breath of air. "Ha! Serves you right, Ace!"

Without a word, Ace lunged forward and tackled Luffy to the ground, sending them rolling down the hill as they kicked and punched each other. They slammed into a tree with enough force to almost topple it and continued fighting, twin smiles widening across their faces as they slammed into each other.

Chuckling at their antics, Sabo unloaded everything they'd piled on Whitebeard's bed and finished spreading out the blanket. He wiped sweat from his brow and drank in the scene in front of him.

The view from the hill was one of the most stunning sights he had ever seen. Beyond the forest, the dimly lit village, and the bright lights radiating from the Moby Dick was the ocean; its velvet depths reflected the sky so perfectly it was almost hard to tell where the sea ended and the sky began.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Whitebeard murmured, staring out at the sea as some would stare at an old lover.

"Yes," Sabo agreed, settling down comfortably on the blanket. "Have you seen the meteor shower before?"

"Yes. This will be my second time," There was something distant in Whitebeard's voice that made Sabo glance up at him curiously. "Have you said all of your goodbyes?"

"Not to everyone, but if I tried I'd be here for the next ten years," Sabo chuckled to himself. "I just want to say… thank you. For taking in Ace and Luffy, for going along with my plan… everything you've done to protect us. Meeting you is probably the best thing that could have happened to us."

"Everything that I have done has been my privilege. I don't take the trust that you boys have placed in me and my crew lightly," Whitebeard paused and turned his gaze back out to the ocean. "You boys truly amaze me. Your resilience, the mercy you have shown, the fact that you still have the ability to trust after all of the betrayals you've experienced… I could not be more proud of you."

Swallowing thickly, Sabo glanced away from him. "That means a lot coming from you," More than you know, Sabo thought somewhat wistfully. "If things were a little different, I probably would have joined the crew too, but I can't just sit back and do nothing. I've seen too much. All of the evidence I found… things have to change. But still, even if it was just for a little while, I've loved being a part of your crew." Your family, he thought but didn't bother to say aloud. He knew that Whitebeard would understand, somehow.

"Sabo," Whitebeard motioned for Sabo to come closer to him. He waited until Sabo was settled on the bed by his elbow before continuing, gazing down at him earnestly. "You might not be joining my crew, but that doesn't mean that you're not my son. Understand?"

Biting his lip, Sabo stared at Whitebeard in surprise a moment, eyes stinging. He smiled, albeit a little wobbly. "Got it, Pops."

They sat together watching as Ace and Luffy rapidly lost steam, finally collapsing in exhaustion as the first meteor streaked across the sky and disappeared into the horizon.

Running back over to them, Ace and Luffy joined Sabo on Whitebeard's bed and covered themselves a blanket they'd brought with them just as two more meteors lit up the sky and disappeared into the ocean.

They'd seen a meteor shower before on Dawn Island, but this was the Grand Line. This was the New World. It didn't even begin to compare. There were no words.

It started out as two or three streaks illuminating the dark sky as they raced past, but then it was ten, fifteen, thirty- until the entire sky was alight with the meteors, bathing the sky and the world below in brilliant white light. The meteors' trails remained in the sky long after they disappeared, almost blocking out the stars as the shower reached its zenith. It was mesmerizing, more dazzling than fireworks or anything they'd ever seen.

The haunting sound of a bird trilling in the distance caught their attention and they spotted Marco flying toward them in his Phoenix form, cobalt and gold a stark contrast to the brilliant white flashes. He swooped down gracefully and mussed Ace's hair with the tip of one wing before landing on the edge of the bed and settling down.

"Here to join us, son?" Whitebeard asked in amusement. "Or did the nurses send you?"

Marco craned his neck around to shoot Whitebeard a baleful glare in answer. He turned his attention back to the sky, feathers ruffling a bit when Ace carefully placed a hand on his back.

"How is he not setting fire to the bed?" Ace wondered aloud, fingers gently stroking the flaming feathers in fascination.

"Hush." Whitebeard murmured, reaching out a finger to ruffle Ace's hair.

Glancing around him, Sabo shared a look with Ace and knew that he was thinking the same thing, the look of contentment on his face foreign, but absolutely wonderful.

It really doesn't get any better than this.

Wendy, Bam Bam, Haru, and Rayleigh were waiting for them at the bottom of the hill when the meteor shower finally ended two hours later. Judging by the duffle bag slung from Bam Bam's shoulders and Wendy's red, puffy eyes, they'd already said their goodbyes.

"Do you have to go already?" Luffy wrapped his arms around Sabo, just managing to keep the whininess in his voice to a minimum.

"I'm afraid so," Sabo returned the hug tightly and swallowed hard. "I'll come back to visit whenever I can. And I'll definitely be there when you set out."

"It's a promise!" Luffy squeezed him one more time before reluctantly letting go.

"Try not to do anything too stupid without us, okay?" Ace tried to grin, but failed miserably. "Take care of yourself."

"You too, Ace," Sabo hugged him tightly, the reality that he was leaving finally truly hitting him. "I'm going to miss you both so much." He choked out, eyes growing misty.

Flinging his arms around both of his brothers, Luffy hugged him again. "Now who's the crybaby?"

"I-I'm not crying, stupid." Ace grit out, wiping his face absently.

Sabo laughed and somehow managed to gather the willpower to pull away from his brothers. "See you soon," He promised, and turned to Marco and Whitebeard. "Thank you for everything."

"Be careful out there, Sabo," Marco said, tugging him into a quick hug. "We're going to miss having you around."

"Stay safe, son." Whitebeard said, placing a huge hand on his shoulders and squeezing gently.

Turning to Rayleigh, Sabo smiled gratefully at him. No words were necessary between them, but he still said: "Thank you so much, Rayleigh. For everything."

Rayleigh placed a hand on Sabo's head and smiled down at him. "I'm proud of you. Take care of yourself and come visit me when you can."

Ace and Luffy hugged Bam Bam and then hugged Sabo again. They were quickly joined by Wendy and Haru, wrapping their arms around each other tightly and leaning their heads forward so that they were pressed against each other. The only ones not crying were Marco and Whitebeard.

"Well… we better go before this gets even harder." Sabo pulled away from his brothers, his family, and motioned for Bam Bam to follow him. Together they walked back up the hill, pausing just long enough at the top to wave goodbye before disappearing down the other side.

They could still hear the shouts of farewell as they walked away from the Moby Dick and the family they had found and forward to an unknown future.

The Revolutionaries were already there when they reached the other side of the island, four shadowy, hooded figures waiting for them on the beach. Behind them was a large ship with a dragon figure head. Sabo could faintly make out more people watching them from its deck, all eyes fixed on him and Bam Bam.

Approaching them silently, Sabo struggled to suppress a grin as they drew closer and he realized that he knew at least two of the cloaked figures waiting for them. He refrained from saying anything and instead shifted his attention back to the man standing in the middle, shivering at the suppressed power he felt emanating from him.

The man pulled his hood back to reveal none other than Dragon himself, intense gaze fixated on Sabo. "I've heard a great deal about you, Sabo. Your plan to blackmail the World Government seems to be working, at least for now. They're going to remove Luffy's bounty tomorrow."

Resisting the urge to squirm, Sabo nodded and sighed in relief. The removal of the bounty would be a huge help to Luffy once he set sail. "He's here if you wanted to meet him…?"

Dragon let out a small snort, lips curling upwards in amusement. "Would he care if he met me or not?"

That would be a no. Luffy had known about Dragon for years and not once had he ever expressed much interest in meeting him. The answer must have shown on his face because Dragon snorted again and glanced at the person on his right. "I'll meet him someday, but we're pressed for time just now."

"Honestly Sabo, what on earth did you threaten them with? What we talked about wouldn't have been enough to actually make them listen to you." Koala tugged her own hood back a little so her face showed, but didn't bother taking it off.

Shrugging carefully, Sabo offered her a small grin. "You really don't want to know."

"Probably not." Koala huffed and crossed her arms over her chest.

"We can discuss that later in a safer location," Dragon said, eyeing Sabo a moment more before turning around and heading back to his ship with a sweep of his cloak. "Your arrival is timely. I've been needing a new chief of staff."

"Wait, what?" Sabo stared at Dragon's retreating back in disbelief and hurried after him.

"That's only after you've gone through the proper training and gone through a probationary period," Koala warned, automatically falling into stride with Sabo. "We're glad to have you with us too, Bam Bam. We'll want to debrief you as soon as possible about everything you know about the inner workings of Cipher Pol."

Bam Bam nodded and fell into step with her.

"You and Hack will be his partners for now," Dragon announced as he boarded the ship. "Show him the ropes after we're done with the debrief."

"What?!" Koala slapped her face, visions of all the headaches Sabo would undoubtedly cause her flashing through her mind. "I don't want to be partnered with someone as selfish as him!"

"I told you we'd make a good team!" Sabo grinned, incredibly pleased that he'd get to work with Koala and Hack. "Please take care of me. I'll try not to cause you too much trouble."

"You've already caused me trouble!" Koala snapped, glaring at Hack as a quiet chuckle escaped him.

"I think we're going to fit right in, Bam Bam." Sabo shared a grin with her and followed Dragon into the ship for his first debrief.

Excitement coursed through his veins as the wind picked up and the sails of the ship were unfurled. He had a feeling that he'd have a lot of things to tell Ace and Luffy when he saw them again and even more things that he'd have to keep secret.

It was a good beginning, he thought as he cast one final look out at the island before following Dragon below deck.

Three Years Later…

"Hey, Luffy! Hurry up; we were supposed to set sail twenty minutes ago." Ace shouted, stomping into their room impatiently.

"But Sabo isn't here yet." Luffy protested, legs kicking back and forth restlessly from where he was sitting on his bed.

"We can't wait any longer. I want to get us into the Calm Belt by nightfall," Ace shoved his hat back and brushed his hair back in frustration, but his expression softened when he caught sight of Luffy's slumped shoulders. "He'll meet us there. He promised, remember?"

"Yeah," Standing, Luffy straightened and grabbed his hat from his bedpost. He slapped it on his head and followed Ace out of their room for the past three years. He paused just for a moment to double check that he had everything and smiling faintly. He'd always have good memories of this room. "Coming."

The room had changed considerably since it had been given to them, but it still had three beds with blue, red and orange quilts, despite the fact that Sabo hadn't stayed in the room for almost a year, when they had seen him last. It was strangely empty, even with all of the knickknacks that they'd collected over the years.

It was Ace's room now. Even if Luffy and Sabo came back to the Moby Dick, it would never be truly theirs again.

"Let's go." Ace looped an arm around Luffy's shoulder and shut the door behind them, before leading Luffy away.

Everyone was waiting for them by the small ship that they'd had built for this very journey. It was similar to Ace's ship Striker, but it was a little bigger and had a kitchen and sleeping quarters for extended trips and could comfortably accommodate three. Tied up securely to it was the ship was the small boat that Luffy would be using when he set sail.

It took them a while to make their way across the deck to the ship, the New Dawn. Everyone wanted to say goodbye and wish Luffy good luck, or give him tips on what to do first once he set sail. By the time they finally reached where Whitebeard and the other division commanders were waiting, Ace was at the end of his rope. He was practically vibrating with impatience.

"I would have had us leave yesterday if I had known it would take this long just to say goodbye." Ace grumbled to himself, wincing when Jozu smacked his head.

"We'll have you gone before lunchtime, brat." The third division commander rumbled, watching in amusement as Luffy tackle-hugged Thatch when the cook presented him with six extra 'pirate lunch boxes.'

"The boat is going to sink from the extra weight from the food at this rate." Fossa chuckled shaking his head ruefully.

"With the way those two eat their supplies will be halfway depleted by tomorrow." Izo retorted, grinning at the glare he got from Ace.

"It won't be a problem," Ace grinned suddenly, enjoying the immediate nervousness that flashed in Izo and Fossa's eyes. They knew him too well. "We have a ride."

"A ride…?" Haruta questioned.

Ace whistled and a sea king emerged from the ocean, showering them with water. She was young and small for a sea king, but still very large. Her large brown eyes landed on Luffy and Ace and she mooed happily.

"Cow-chan!" Luffy laughed and sprang over to the railing. "You've gotten so big!"

"That's your ride?" Thatch asked in amazement, staring at Cow-chan in disbelief. "How is that even going to work?"

"We're old friends now," Ace grinned and slapped Thatch's shoulder. "Try not to have too much fun without me."

"I'll have a slew of pranks planned and ready for when you get back." Thatch promised, dragging Ace into a hug.

"Pops, I'll be back soon!" Ace said with a cheery grin, staring up at his adopted father.

"Be safe, son," Whitebeard grinned back and turned toward Luffy. He was silent for a moment, before solemnly intoning, "We'll meet again when you reach the top, Luffy."

"Yeah. The next time we meet, I'll be a great pirate!" Luffy grinned, echoing the familiar words of long ago. The words echoed with promise, as they had that day with Shanks. Another reason to grow as strong as he possibly could, another reunion to look forward to.

"You two take care and try not to cause too much trouble, yoi," Marco smirked and reached out to ruffle Ace's hair. "We want you back in one piece."

"I'll be back soon!" Ace slapped Marco on the shoulder and jumped onto the New Dawn. "Come on, Luffy, we're leaving!"

Springing down onto the ship, Luffy turned back to look at them, expression surprising serious. He tugged his hat down slightly, smiled, and threw his arms out. "I'm going to be the King of the Pirates!"

"Get out of here already!" Vista shouted, chuckling to himself.

"Set sail! Next stop, Dawn Island!" Luffy grinned and hopped to the front of the ship as Cow-chan opened her gigantic mouth and swallowed them whole.

Ace really wished he could have seen the faces of the Whitebeards. If the shouting they could faintly hear was any indication, it would have been something to remember.

"So, Cow-chan is going to let us out at the edge of the Calm Belt. From there, we'll head to East Blue on our own. It shouldn't be that difficult for us to cross it with our haki," Ace paused, mentally calculating how long it would take them to cross the Calm Belt and then travel to Dawn Island once they entered East Blue. Thankfully the lack of wind was no problem; the New Dawn was basically a larger, more comfortable version of the Striker and could be propelled by his flames. He held up his fist and lit it on fire for light. "We'll get there a week ahead of time, more or less."

"Mhmm… do you feel something?" Luffy asked frowning and glancing around. A moment later his face brightened.

"In here?" Ace asked, and then shut his eyes as well to concentrate. His whole face lit up the second he realized what he was sensing. "Sa-"

Something crashed into the side of the ship, sending them stumbling sideways. Ace whirled around and smiled. "Sabo! How did you-"

"I have my ways," Sabo tipped his top hat back and grinned broadly. "I promised I'd be here, didn't I?"

Head tilted sideways, Ace scrutinized him for a moment before a slow smirk spread across his face. "She ate you, didn't she?"

Grimacing, Sabo nodded. "I was on my way to meet you when she came out of nowhere and swallowed me. I don't know if she didn't hear me or if she was just ignoring me, but she wouldn't let me out."

Ace shook his head, shoulders shaking with laughter.

Luffy waited just long enough for Sabo to tie the two ships together before flinging himself at him. "I missed you! How's Bam Bam?"

Grunting from the weight of his not so little brother, Sabo silently marveled at how much Luffy had grown in a year. "I missed you too. Bam Bam is doing fine as far as I know. She's been on assignment for six months so I haven't seen her recently."

"I want to hear everything!" Luffy untangled himself from Sabo and settled cross-legged with his back to the Dawn's mast.

"Well, considering almost everything I do is supposed to be a secret, it won't take very long to catch up on my end. I'm more interested in hearing about Ace's fight with Boa Hancock." Sabo glanced at Ace expectantly and sat down on the railing.

"She's crazy! She kept saying that she loves Luffy and that he's her husband!" Ace scowled at the memory and shook his head.

"So it was a fight to protect Luffy's honor?" Sabo snickered at the pained expression on Ace's face.

"She kept calling me brother in law and insisting that Luffy was her beloved," Ace sighed and leaned back against the door that led to the tiny living area. "It was a mess. The Whitebeards just laughed the entire time."

Sabo chuckled, wishing he had been there.

"Come on Sabo, tell us a story!" Luffy demanded eagerly as he scooted a little closer to him.

"Alright, fine. Let me think…" Sabo placed his head on his hand and mentally ran down the stories he could tell Luffy without revealing sensitive information. "I saw a ghost in the Florian Triangle."

"A ghost?! Sooo cool! What happened?" Luffy was almost quivering with excitement, eyes sparkling in anticipation for a good story.

"Well, we were passing through it and all of a sudden we heard the sound of a violin playing in the distance. It kept playing Binks' Sake over and over. And then… I saw it," Sabo paused for dramatic effect, barely containing a smile when Ace shifted closer to him with poorly veiled interest. He glanced back at Luffy and could almost see stars shining in his eyes. "A derelict ship drifting off our starboard side. It must have been abandoned for at least fifty or sixty years. And on it… just for a moment as the fog cleared, I swear I saw a skeleton playing the violin. No one else saw it, not even Koala and she was standing next to me but facing the wrong way. I thought I heard as we passed it by, 'Can I see your panties?' uttered softly over the creaking of the ship and the haunting refrain of the violin."

Silence for a moment, then: "That's it! That's who my musician will be!"

"No, no, no, no! Sabo, tell him it wasn't real!" Ace despaired when Sabo only shrugged helplessly. "Don't recruit a creepy pervert ghost onto your crew, Luffy!"

"It's decided!" Luffy nodded decisively to himself. "Another story!"

"No!" Ace shook his head vehemently. "Tell Sabo about how you almost got us executed for kidnapping a princess."

"She asked me to take her." Luffy responded somewhat defensively, before launching into a rather convoluted tale about their last visit to Fishman Island.

Sitting on the small boat, swapping stories and unsuccessfully trying to get Luffy to forget about the ghost, it was as if they'd seen each other yesterday instead of spending a year apart.

They sailed past the molten remains of High Town first; the once pristine city was reduced to nothing but ash and rubble. There was no smoke in the air, but they could still smell the sulfur and taste the ash on their tongues. They passed by without stopping.

The dock that Shanks had once frequented for an entire year was in disrepair when they finally arrived, but still sound enough for them to use. They tied up their boats and simply stood on the dock for a long moment, staring out at the husk of Fuusha village.

Most of the buildings had burnt down, the blackened skeleton of the frames and foundations the only thing left standing. There were a few houses still somewhat intact far away from where Party's Bar should have been, but they had obviously not been lived in or repaired in almost a decade.

There were no graves and they found no bodies. The marines had either burned the bodies till nothing was left, or the survivors had taken the dead somewhere else to bury.

It was a warm, sunny day, but chills ran down Ace's spine and it was as if the world had been drained of color. He could remember the screams, the smell of smoke and burning flesh, the pleading eyes of a young woman ordering him to leave her and run-

"Ace," Luffy placed a hand on his shoulder, jerking him back to the present. "Let's go."

Swallowing hard and nodding, Ace walked through the village with his brothers at his side and couldn't help but think that at least it hadn't been for nothing. They were alive. They'd survived despite all of the odds and they were thriving.

"Watch us, Makino. Watch us." Ace murmured, forcing himself not to look at the spot where she had fallen for the last time.

They strode out of the remains of the village toward the beckoning arms of the forest, following the trail of volcanic earth that scared the ground like the uneven footsteps of a terrible monster. The edge of the forest had grown back with a vengeance, the foliage thick and untamed.

The familiar paths they had once known like the back of their hand were gone, swallowed up by the foliage, but they picked their way through the forest with ease. A few animals tried to approach them, but a quick glance from Ace sent them scurrying away.

They stopped at the tree house first and froze, grinning for the first time since they had arrived.

It was as if they had never left—actually, it looked better than the last time they'd seen it. All of the damage from the storm had been repaired. Tattered and worn, but still flying proudly atop of the tree house was the original ASL pirate flag.

"I can't believe it." Ace breathed, dashing forward and climbing up. He didn't have to glance behind him to know that his brothers were hot on his heels.

He had to bend over to fit inside, but that did nothing to dampen the delighted smile spreading across his face. It was as if they hadn't left, except for the thick layer of dust covering everything. He turned, heart pounding in excitement and couldn't help the gasp that escaped his lips when he saw them; three red cups in a worn, thinly knitted sack.

"Are those…?" Sabo stared in astonishment from where he was dangling from the edge of the tree house. It was too cramped with Ace and Luffy inside for him to fit.

"Our cups," Ace smiled and turned to show them. "Hand me your napkin, Sabo."

"It's a cravat, not a napkin." Sabo retorted with a glare, tugging it off and tossing it to Ace.

Wrapping the cups up carefully in the cravat, Ace stuffed them in his pockets and glanced around the tree house again. "If you say so."

"I can't believe we used to all fit in here," Luffy murmured, twisting his neck around to stare at the ceiling. "We were so small."

"Dogra and Magra must have survived. They're the only ones that knew where our treehouse was besides Dadan." Sabo said thoughtfully.

"We should go find them. We can come back here later." Ace said at last, motioning for Luffy to climb down ahead of him.

They climbed down wordlessly and stopped to stare at the treehouse in amazement, before slowly making their way to where Dadan's hideout used to be. Seeing the treehouse still intact did wonders to improve their mood, but it quickly grew solemn and downcast as they drew closer.

None of them had any idea what to expect, but it certainly wasn't the little village that they found. Around Dadan's hideout trees that had once kept the bandit hideout secluded had been torn down for tiny houses, not unlike the ones that had once filled Fuusha village. At least half a dozen had been built and they could see even from afar people walking back and forth.

"Maybe the survivors from Fuusha and the Grey Terminal came here to live?" Sabo wondered aloud as they stopped just short of the first house on the edge of the makeshift village.

"They're going to hate us." Ace murmured to himself, plopping his hat back on his head and tilting it down over his face.

"Even if they do, what happened wasn't your fault." Sabo stated firmly, reaching out to squeeze Ace on the shoulder.

Luffy pressed in closer to Ace protectively. "They won't be mad at us." He said with a confidence that even Sabo wasn't feeling.

"Come on," Ace strode forward before he had the chance to change his mind. "If Dadan's hide out is still there, then that must mean at least a few of the bandits survived, right?"

They entered the little village wordlessly, drawing the attention of everyone standing outside as they walked down the main path to Dadan's former hideout. All of the activity ceased and people came out of the houses to watch them.

Spine straightening reflexively and shoulders tensing until his back and neck ached, Ace kept his head held high as he began to recognize some of the people gaping at them. He recognized a few from Fuusha, half a dozen from the Grey Terminal, and one or two from High Town.

"It's the owner from the ramen place we dined and dashed at!" Ace hissed suddenly, watching as the man crossed his arms and glared at them.

"Oooh, do you think he'll cook for us?" Luffy asked eagerly, the volume of his voice making his brothers wince. "It doesn't hurt to ask." He added more quietly, rubbing the back of his head where Sabo had smacked him.

"We can repay him or whatever later. Right now I just want to find-" Ace abruptly stopped as they came into full view of the old hideout, causing his brothers to slam into his back.

Opening his mouth to ask Ace why he had stopped, Sabo glanced at the hideout and froze.

"Brats," Dadan stepped out of the shadow of the old familiar doorway, skin pale and body frighteningly skinny, but alive and free and staring at them with tears shining in her eyes. "Stop standing there gawking and get over here."

Ace dashed forward before he even realized that his feet were moving, but he faltered as he got closer to her and saw the toll the years in prison had taken on her body. Uncertainty, along with all of the old insecurities and guilt hit him like a sea train. "Do you hate me?" he blurted, his voice hitching.

Without a word, Dadan dropped her cigarette and crushed it with her foot. She stepped forward slowly, as if one wrong move would spook him and cause him to run away, before reaching out and dragging Ace into a bone crushing hug. "You idiot. As if I could ever hate you."

Tears dripped onto his neck as he wrapped his arms around her and held her just as tightly. Her body felt strangely small in his arms, but her grip was strong, and she still smelled like he remembered as a child— cigarette smoke, booze, and gunpowder.

"Don't just stand there gawking, you idiots! Get over here!" Dadan snapped, managing to shoot Sabo and Luffy a glare despite the fact that she was crying.

They complied instantly and came along either side of Ace, wrapping their arms around her and pressing their heads against hers. They all sank to their knees, not relinquishing their grip on each other for an instant.

"You idiots. You idiots," Dadan murmured, uncaring of the tears streaming down her face as she pressed a sloppy kiss on Ace's forehead. "If the three of you had died I would have killed you. I can't believe some of the stupid stunts you've pulled! Don't think I don't know!"

Ace laughed, a weight that had lingered on his shoulders ever since that horrible night lifted from him. "You have plenty of time to scold us now."

Pressing kisses to Luffy's forehead and Sabo's cheek, Dadan pulled back from them suddenly and pointed behind them.

Glancing back, Ace saw her. He felt like the floor had been ripped out from under him. He forgot how to breathe. His brain stuttered to a halt as he struggled to process what he was seeing. A sob escaped his lips, his body reacting to what his brain was struggling to come to grip with. He started crying in earnest, shoulders shaking from the force of his sobs. His vision blurred until it was hard to see and his eyes were burning, but it was her. It was her.

Makino. Makino was standing there. She dropped the apples she had been carrying in the fold of her skirt, tears dripping down her cheeks as she clamped a hand over her mouth.

Her face, neck, arms, and legs were all badly scarred, but she was alive. Despite the scars, she hadn't changed much. Her clothes were in the same style as before and she still wore a bandanna, but her hair was much longer, falling almost past her waist.

Despite the horrific burns scars covering most of her body, in that moment none of them had ever seen anything more beautiful than her living and breathing and standing in front of them.

Wiping tears from her face, Makino smiled at them and it was just like they remembered, sweet, gentle, and warm like the sun. "I told you I'd be here waiting for you." She said, voice trembling.

Without another word she knelt down beside them and wrapped her arms around them, pulling them close. They clung to her and Dadan and to each other, switching between laughing and crying.

Makino laughed joyfully as Luffy and Ace showered her with kisses on her cheeks and forehead. She couldn't bring herself to look away from them, intent on memorizing every nook, cranny of their faces.

It was a long time before they stopped crying.

"How—how-" Ace wasn't sure what he wanted to ask first, how Dadan had gotten out of prison or how Makino had survived. He sniffed and wiped uselessly at his face.

"One of Dragon's people saved me. Ivanokov," Makino pulled out a handkerchief and blew her nose. "I would have sent word to you or Shanks or even Garp, but we were afraid that the marines would intercept any message we sent and come back to kill everyone who had survived. We've been living here in hiding ever since then."

"Things were like this when I got back here," Dadan wiped her face on her sleeve and leaned against the doorframe, physically drained. "I've been trying to get rid of them, but they just won't leave."

"How did you get out of Impel Down?" Luffy asked, rubbing his face on Sabo's sleeve and earning a punch on the top of his head for it. He was still attached to Makino's side and showed no interest in letting go anytime soon.

"They released me three years ago," Dadan replied, pulling out a cigarette. Ace lit it for her without a word and she took a long drag before continuing. "No explanation of why- just warnings to never mention Impel Down to anyone and to never contact you. At first, I thought it was some type of trap for the three of you, but then Luffy's bounty was removed and Akainu was kicked out of the marines… the three of you were careful coming here, right?" she asked with concern.

"No one could have followed us," Sabo said slowly, expression strangely tight as if he wanted to say something, but couldn't. "I doubt the marines know we're here."

"Whatever the reason might have been, we're grateful to have Dadan back," Makino said, ignoring the grunt Dadan made. "And I'm so, so happy the three of you are here. Just in time for Luffy's birthday, right?"

"Yes! It's less than a week away." Luffy sniffled and tugged his hat back atop his head.

"Wonderful! We'll have plenty of time together before you set sail, then," Makino clapped her hands together in excitement and gracefully rose to her feet. "Come on, I'm sure you must be hungry."

"What about the Mayor? Did he survive too?" Luffy asked, following Makino inside Dadan's place.

Makino glanced away from him. "He… didn't make it."

The three boys glanced away and Dadan smacked Ace on the head. "It wasn't your fault and no one blames you or hates you. Stop being an idiot and blaming yourself—there was nothing you could have done and it wasn't your fault. It wasn't, you hear me?"

Sighing heavily, Ace nodded.

"Now, tell me all about that tattoo on your back. We don't get the news anymore." Dadan leaned against a wall and sat down as Makino began cooking in the kitchen that had been added on at some point. She eyed the red beaded necklace around Ace's neck and shook her head. "The Whitebeards, huh?"

"Yeah," Ace grinned and sat across from her. "Let me tell you about Pops."

Five days. Five days of telling Makino, Dadan, Dogra, and Magra everything that had happened, exploring the forests and the remains of the Grey Terminal. Five days of giving and receiving the most hugs any of them had ever received their entire lives. Even Dadan was shockingly clingy and affectionate, not that any of them minded.

They hunted for the village, competing to see who could bring back the biggest haul and they visited all their old haunts. On the second to last day, they spent the entire day crammed into the tree house snacking and swapping stories from their time apart, just the three of them.

All too soon, they stocked Luffy's ship with as much food as it could hold without sinking it and spent the better part of the afternoon going over sailing and navigation. Luffy looked like his head would explode with everything Ace and Sabo had tried to cram into it, brows pinched together and expression unhappy. By the end of the evening, he'd already forgotten half of what they had taught him and they were all tired and frustrated.

"It'll work out!" Luffy had declared, expression reverting back to his usual carefree cheerfulness the moment they sat down to dinner.

On the morning of Luffy's birthday, they woke as the first rays of the sun started spilling over the horizon and entered the forest for the last time. They walked along an old, familiar path deep into the forest, snacking on fruit and nuts they found along the way until they reached a small clearing with a lone tree stump.

The air was still and calm as Ace sat down an old bottle of sake and three red cups on that stump, the same stump that they had gathered around ten years ago to swear an oath.

Ace poured sake into the cups and stared down at them, lost in thought for a moment. "We're really going our separate ways this time."

"Yeah," Luffy nodded, touching the brim of his hat with one hand. "You could always join my crew."

"I could say the same thing," Ace shot back, stifling a chuckle. "But I know what you'd say."

They fell silent, ten years' worth of memories flashing before their eyes. So many precious memories, mixed together with pain and heartache. Ten years felt like forever and no time at all.

"Say something, Ace," Sabo said suddenly, turning toward him. "You were the one to last time."

"Have you heard? When you exchange cups of sake, you become brothers!"

Ace picked up his cup and stared down for a long moment, sorting through the swirl of emotions he was feeling. He cleared his throat. "There's no telling when we'll meet again or how. Luffy and I might even end up fighting since we're on different crews. But none of that matters. You're my brothers… and I know nothing can break the bond between us. Not the world, not death, not anything."

If everything they had been through after leaving Dawn Island couldn't tear them apart, nothing could. It was one of the few things Ace was concretely certain of, like the sun rising every morning and the love and affection of his crew and captain. "There are no words... I can't-Our brotherhood is my precious treasure. I-I love you both so much. So, here's to our brotherhood and ten more years—" He drew in a quick breath and laughed a little. Ten more years was a lot longer than a day. But for the first time in his short life, he was looking forward to the future. He had more than a day to live for, now. "We'll toast again when we've all reached our goals! But for now, to brothers!"

"Brothers!" Sabo and Luffy exclaimed, toasting their small cups against Ace's and drinking.

They laughed as Luffy coughed and sputtered as he had all those years ago, the words that had been spoken that day reverbing in their minds as if it had been just yesterday.

"With this, starting from today, we're brothers!"

The next time they toasted, they would be a pirate king and a government toppler. Ace had no clear picture of what he would be, but it didn't matter. He had plenty of time to figure it out.

They had a much larger crowd than they'd expected with them as they traveled to the dilapidated docks of Fuusha village. The survivors of Fuusha had all come, returning to their former home for the first time since Akainu had destroyed it all those years ago. Accompanying them were some of the former residents of the Grey Terminal and High Town who still remembered them, all to watch Luffy's official departure.

Makino mournfully walked through the ashen remains of Party's Bar, running a hand along what was left of the bar that Shanks had once sat at habitually. She managed to collect a few half burnt knickknacks, but there wasn't much left to salvage.

She wasn't the only former member of Fuusha to be teary eyed long before Luffy was ready to say his goodbyes.

"Be careful, Luffy." Makino murmured, hugging him tightly.

"You want me to go over the map with you again, Luffy?" Sabo asked, watching as Luffy sprang into the small ship they'd brought just for him.

"I'll figure it out." Luffy said with a laugh that was not at all reassuring.

"Just try to find a navigator as soon as possible, okay?" Sabo sighed. He'd tried his best to help prepare Luffy to set sail on his own, but it had been a losing battle.

"Of course! Right after I get my cook." Luffy nodded to himself and began unfurling the sail.

Ace groaned and pressed a hand to his forehead. "As long as you get a navigator before you leave for the Grand Line."

"I will! Don't worry about me," Luffy untied the boat from the dock and turned one last time to face his brothers, Makino and Dadan. "Ace, Sabo! Watch me! I'll catch up with you soon!"

"We'll be waiting for you at the top!" Ace said, crossing his arms and smiling broadly.

"See you later, Luffy!" Sabo shouted. Then, because Luffy was going to die lost at sea if left to his own devices, "Find a navigator!"

"Be careful you idiot!" Dadan shouted, eyes growing misty as she watched him sail away.

He didn't make it very far before it emerged, the lord of the coast. Gasps and worried shouts rippled through the crowd, Makino shouting desperately for Luffy to watch out.

Ace and Sabo merely watched calmly as Luffy stared up at the sea king, one hand pressed to his straw hat. He stared up at the creature and caught it's eye, freezing the creature in place.

A hush fell on the docks. A contained burst of Conqueror's haki burst forth, rippling through the air. The creature stared at him in terror for a moment before disappearing back into the ocean, sending water raining down on Luffy.

The crowd fell deathly still, those that had lived in Fuusha undoubtedly remembering another man with a straw hat performing the same feat all those years ago.

"Just like Shanks…!" Makino whispered in astonishment, one hand clapped to her mouth in surprise.

"I'm going to be," Luffy took a deep breath and threw his arms up into the air. "KING OF THE PIRATES!"

They cheered for him and shouted goodbyes until he was long out of earshot. Slowly but surely, the gathered crowd dissipated and began the long hike back to their new home in Dadan's country, leaving only Ace, Sabo, Makino, Dada,. and a Magra and Dogra watching the ocean even after Luffy was long gone.

"He's going to get lost, isn't he?" Makino murmured quietly, voice a mixture of amusement and exasperation.

"Yep." Sabo said, knowing that all his navigation lessons were basically for naught.

"Definitely going to get lost," Ace chuckled at the thought and tried to imagine what kind of ridiculous crew Luffy would end up with. "He'll be fine though."

"Do you two really have to leave right now?" Makino asked, staring at the two other ships that were still tied up to the dock waiting for them.

"Yeah," Ace said regretfully, gaze drifted from her back to the ocean. "There's one more thing I want to do before I go back to the Grand Line."

The square was deserted as he slowly walked to the execution platform, a bottle of rum in one hand and a bouquet of flowers in the other.

He stopped a few feet away from the platform and stared up for a moment, before sitting down in front of it.

Pulling out two shot glasses, he uncorked the bottle and poured. Setting the glasses and the small bundle of pink hibiscus flowers down in front of him, Ace tilted his head back and stared up at the platform where the Pirate King had been executed.

"I bet you never thought I'd come here," He murmured, shifting his gaze back down to the cups. "I heard this was your favorite rum from Rayleigh. I didn't ask him or anything! He just mentioned it one day."

He glared at the platform as if daring it to contradict his statement for a second, before sighing and running a hand through his hair, dislodging his hat in the process. "I honestly don't really know why I had to come here, but… since neither of you have a grave—that I know of, at any rate, I figured… I figured I'd come and pay my respects."

The idea of paying his respects to him of all people still grated at him, but he pushed through the feeling and focused on what he had come to say. No one had ever said that making your peace with someone was easy.

"The flowers are supposed to be your favorite, Mom," Ace shifted slightly so he was settled cross-legged in front of the execution platform. "I came to say… I understand now. Why you gave your life for me. Before, I couldn't even fathom why you'd die for a worthless monster like me- someone who should never have been born in the first place. But then, I met Sabo and Luffy. And suddenly I wasn't alone anymore and it didn't seem quite so bad, that I was alive. But I still didn't understand why you'd die for me. I thought you must have died hating me. I didn't get it until the day that Pops came for me… suddenly everything clicked and I understood."

She'd chosen him over her own life, bearing him through an impossible pregnancy to ensure that he had the chance to live. It hadn't been until he saw Whitebeard on the beach that day and recognized the light shining in the old pirate's eyes that he finally, finally understood. "You wouldn't have given your life to keep me safe and make sure I was born if you didn't… didn't love me."

Brushing his fingers across one of the petals, Ace wished he could have met his mother, more than he ever had in his entire life.

"It's strange, how you can miss someone you've never met…" Ace trailed off momentarily, trying to picture her from what Rayleigh and Shanks had told him, but all he could see was a vague outline. He supposed he'd never know what she looked like and it hurt more than he'd thought possible.

"And as for you-" Ace glanced over at the rum bottle and scowled. "You've caused me a lot of problems, you know."

He got no answer, but he could just picture Roger laughing and shrugging ruefully, but unrepentantly. He hated how he could picture him so easily, but not his mother. "I hated you for so, so long. In a way, I still do, but—stupid Rayleigh! He compared you to Luffy and suddenly—suddenly I could see you. I could your stupid smile and understand your rage when someone threatened your crew and your desire for freedom. I could see you."

He'd fought the gradual shift like a rabid animal, wild and desperate in his efforts to hold on to the old picture of Roger that had been ingrained in his head as a child. But all his struggles were ultimately useless. Suddenly, he was seeing Roger through a Luffy shaped filter and his entire worldview changed. Suddenly, where he'd only seen a terrible monster, whose taint ran through his blood, he'd seen Luffy; a rougher, angrier Luffy with sharp, sharp edges and a love for adventure and freedom above all else. The monster that haunted his every step had a grin and a personality that like his little brother.

It was like everything he knew of Roger was suddenly put into perspective. Luffy was different from Roger in so many ways, but at their very core, the same heartbeat.

"I kept trying to hate you for so long, but…" Ace grit his teeth for a moment, before releasing a breath and laughing. "I could never hate anyone like Luffy. Not really."

Ace still had largely mixed feelings about Roger. There was still hurt and resentment and anger—so much anger he honestly didn't know what to do with it or even where it came from. But maybe it didn't matter, in the end. All he could do was move forward and live as he'd promised himself and his brothers.

"I'm going to live my life without regrets," Ace said, staring up once again at the execution platform, expression grave. "So, I came to say goodbye. And… I forgive you. I'm not sure you deserve it, but… I think I can understand now why you did what you did."

He wasn't going to let his parentage hold him down anymore. It didn't matter who his father was, or what the world said about him. He had Pops, his crew, and his brothers. He was going to live his life to the fullest and nothing, not even the blood that ran through his veins, would hold him back.

"Don't think this suddenly means I like you or that I'm not angry with you," Ace warned sternly. "It just means that… I'm not going to be holding anything against you, anymore. You lived your life as best you could, the way you wanted to, and now I'm going to do the same thing. I'm ready to stop living for just today. I'm really… I'm-"

Ace pictured his brothers. The family and the father he had waiting for him back on the Moby Dick. Tears streamed down his face, but all he could feel was joy. He had his answer. He had his answer for the only question he'd ever asked. "I'm so happy I was born!"

The wind picked up and rustled his hair as he slowly rose to his feet. He grinned suddenly. "Mom… Dad…" Ace bowed low in front of the execution platform, the pink hibiscus flowers, and the bottle of rum and smiled. "Thank you for loving me."

He straightened as the wind suddenly increased and something shoved him from behind. Whirling around, Ace saw nothing, but he could have sworn he had felt someone touch him. He glanced back at the execution platform and grinned, bright and carefree. He flung his fists into the air and laughed. "Mom! Dad! Watch me! I'm going now."

Ace turned and walked away, not turning around once as he made his way back to where Sabo was waiting for him at the far edge of Loguetown's center.

He felt free. Truly free, for the first time in his life.

"All done?" Sabo asked as he approached, straightening and stepping away from the wall he'd been leaning on.

"Yeah. Any trouble?" Ace asked, surprised that he didn't see any unconscious marines nearby. There was no one in the square or on the streets either.

"Nope! Apparently having the Revolutionary chief of staff and the second division commander of the Whitebeards was more trouble than even that Smoker guy was willing to handle. He actually took our warning and evacuated the town. We should get out of here now before reinforcements arrive though." Sabo said cheerily, hooking his arm around Ace's and leaning into him hard enough to make him stumble.

"Do you have to go back right away?" Ace questioned as they made their way back to their boats.

"No, I still have a few weeks before I have to head back," Sabo answered, grunting as Ace shoved him sideways. "Why?"

Glancing at the ocean stretching out as far as the eye could see, Ace grinned. "I was thinking it'd be fun if we could meet him in the Grand Line. He probably won't wait very long to head there."

"Assuming he finds a navigator," Sabo muttered ruefully, shaking his head. "Alright. It'll be fun. I'm curious to see what kind of crew he finds."

Laughing, Ace shook his head. "They'll be great, don't you think?"

"Yeah," Sabo agreed, giving Ace one last shove that sent him sprawling to the ground. "Race you back to the ship! The loser has to catch dinner!"

"Wait! Sabo, you cheater!" Ace sprang to his feet and ran after him as fast as he could. "Get back here!"

They raced all the way to the dock and sailed away, leaving behind the burden and insecurities since Ace had first learned who his father was.

He was free. And for once, the future was bright and his for the taking.

Ace couldn't remember the last time he'd ever felt this restless. The moment he had entered the New World, he had barely been able to force himself to sit still as he followed the vivre card back to the Moby Dick.

The paper in his palm leaped excitedly forward and he knew that he was close, anticipation building in his gut to the point where he could hardly contain himself.

He wondered what had happened while he was gone. Wondered if they had missed him or what crazy pranks Thatch had done to Marco.

Ace was so lost in thought he almost didn't see her right away—the most beautiful ship in the world. The Moby Dick was already heading towards him when he finally spotted her, his heart leaping excitedly in his chest. He sped up without thinking about it.

The crew was shouting and cheering wildly as he came alongside the ship and tossed up a rope for someone to grab. He barely waited until they had his boat secured before jumping up, almost knocking Haruta over in his haste to get on board.

"Ace! Welcome home!" They shouted, instantly crowding him.

"Ace! Finally! Take this, Jozu!" Thatch leaped for joy and threw a water balloon filled with paint at Jozu and ran away as fast as he could.

"Thatch! Get back here!" Jozu shouted, chasing after him.

It took him a while to make his way to Pops' chair with everyone crowding him, but he was rewarded for the effort it took by a hand ruffling his hair and a big smile from Marco. "Welcome home, yoi."

"Ace! Welcome home son." Whitebeard said, beaming down at him.

Swallowing thickly, Ace glanced around at his family and smiled. "I'm home."


And that's a wrap! I can't believe it's over.

I hope all of you enjoyed this as much as I enjoyed writing this. The final word count is 144,384. The longest story I've ever written and the first thing I ever finished!

I've known from the start that Makino was actually alive. She really would have died if Ivankov hadn't been there.

Thank you for all of the amazing feedback! I've loved hearing from all of you. Reading what you had to say has really encouraged me.

I do have ideas for a sequel, but it's still in the development stage. I also plan on writing a couple of one shots and shorter stories eventually, but right now I'm going to be trying to focus on an idea I have for an original novel.

Eventually I want to work on editing and rewriting this. The rewriting process has always terrified and confused me, so I thought it'd be good practice to work on this, lol.

Thank you again! Until next time.