Disclaimer: Not mine, obviously.

Warnings: Likely to be future romances/relationships including het, slash and possibly femslash; these won't be the focus of the story. No Ace/Luffy. Odd pairings will likely abound, as well as OCs. Swearing, violence, AU, and eventual character deaths (including major characters). The plot is not set in stone, and is liable to change at a moment's notice on the basis of 'I realised there was a plothole' or 'I got bored and thought of something more interesting'. That's probably all.

ADDED NOTE: Congrats to Ffesthe for noticing the end line of last chapter – I wondered whether anyone would notice that! Just to point out that I do quite like fluff, I'm just atrocious at writing it (though apparently I managed to pull it off last chapter?). In any case, this is an interlude because I got massive writer's block. It also skips about quite a bit, mostly because that's how I wrote it, and partly to confuse you.

There's currently a poll up in my profile for a small matter. It's not hugely important, but there you go.

xxxxx

Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum

INTERLUDE: In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant.

xxxxx

Five weeks into term, Numa visits. He says it's to see how Ace is getting on, but Ace knows the staff will be writing careful reports about him and sending them to HQ – it's more likely because Numa is bored and wants to annoy Ace, whom he seems to regard as a favoured pet.

He brings the chess-set Ace has admired for so many years and sets it up in a side-room, dragging Ace in during his free time and demanding a game. "It's been too long," he insists, and chooses white as always, making the first move.

Ace responds as best he can, and four years of play carries him through for a while before Numa picks up the pace, stops holding back, and thrashes him soundly. "Stupid move near the middle. Good game, though!" He won't explain which move he's referring to, and it takes Ace a week of replaying the game until he realises the stupid move was Numa's, not his own, that the Rear-Admiral gave him an opening he didn't see at the time.

For now, they play two games, Ace frowning at the board and Numa moving his pieces with elegant ease, his turns over almost as soon as they begin, while Ace studies the board and takes what feels like hours to decide his own.

"You haven't asked me anything," Ace says suddenly, as he tries to work out whether one of Numa's knights is really the threat it appears. "Aren't you meant to be checking up on me?"

Numa shrugs casually and takes another mouthful of sake from his bowl, not bothering to look at the board. "Mah, should I be?"

"You should at least pretend that's what you're here for." He gives in, goes with instinct, and surprises himself by playing a fairly good move.

"Oh. Well, I can pretend if it makes you feel better, Shorty." Click-click, and Numa takes another of Ace's pawns, even as he focuses on pouring himself another drink. "How are you doing? Lessons going well? Any hot girls in training?"

Ace twitches, almost violently. "I'm twelve."

"That's no excuse. You're meant to be a prodigy, aren't you?" The man only laughs when Ace snarls and throws a bishop at his head, which turns out to be a bad idea, because he counts it as Ace's move and won't let him put the bishop back on the board.

xxxxx

Four years before that, Ace was bundled on a boat from Marineford to Mariejois, escorted by a twitchy Commodore, filled with anticipation and a cruel hope that Sengoku would make Garp suffer, though the meeting after he left wasn't quite what he would have wanted.

"What do you think?"

Sengoku didn't look up at the voice. He'd been vaguely aware of the presence for several minutes – few would have believed the interloper capable of silence or patience, but the two men knew each other far better than mere rumours and reputation. He focused on his paperwork – an uprising in West Blue that was threatening to get out of hand, a few nobles in the Erloupe island chain that had decided to hike taxes up above their legal limits. "I think many things."

The Vice-Admiral scoffed and thudded into the seat opposite the desk, not even bothering to plaster a grin across his face. "You're taking my grandson away."

"He doesn't think of himself as your grandson," Sengoku pointed out boredly, wondering which one of the four likely responses Garp would give.

"Doesn't change the fact that he is." Stubborn refusal, as Sengoku had expected. Almost word for word the same as the reply he'd judged most likely. "You're sending him to Mariejois. To those shit-heads. What the hell is he meant to learn there?"

The Fleet-Admiral looked up at that, expression still carefully neutral. "The things you never bothered to learn. Politics. Manners. Reality. When to keep his mouth shut. How to show people what they want to see." He scrawled a quick note across the bottom of one file and dropped it onto a separate pile. "In case you'd forgotten, they're our superiors. With Portgas there, they feel safer – in their opinion, Mariejois and everything in it is completely under their control. They'd wonder who or what he was being influenced by, elsewhere."

"That's not the only reason."

"Of course not. But it's a good one, isn't it?" The fact that Garp hadn't attempted to eat or drink anything was annoying. It meant he was too involved in the conversation. "Not pleasant enough for public consumption, just manipulative enough that they'll swallow it without digging any further." He smiled dryly. "Small manipulations here and there. That's what people expect of me."

Garp didn't smile back. "So what's the real reason?"

"There's a few. They're all either classified, or I simply don't want to tell you them."

"So you don't trust me?"

Another note written and signed. "I trust you just as much as you trusted me, when I had to find out about the Pirate King's son eight years after you saved his life." He didn't bother watching Garp's reaction at that, nor wait for the response. "Kong was Fleet-Admiral the time. Not me."

"Just because it was him that gave the order..." Garp shrugged, somewhat defensively, leaning back in the chair. "You agreed with it."

"I didn't disagree out loud. Sometimes the deaths of innocents are necessary, when their continued existence can cause problems-" 'like the Demon of Ohara' went unspoken, "- but I've never killed anyone when the potential gain from their life outweighed the risks. You know that."

Garp's face twisted, and Sengoku was unsurprised to find he didn't care. The man would get over his anger in a day or week, as he always did when Sengoku said something he found repulsive. Mental instability, certainly. Repression, perhaps. If he made an in-depth study of Garp's psychology, he'd go insane, or at least have a breakdown like the four psychologists Garp had been assigned in his younger days. "Politics," the Vice-Admiral spat, as if it were a curse.

"Everything's politics. It was politics that would have killed the boy under one man's orders, and it's politics that's keeping him alive under my orders."

"I didn't spare him for politics."

That was true. "You spared him because you're a fool," which they both knew was Sengoku's way of saying 'you're too soft-hearted for your own good, and it'll kill you one day', "and you hardly did what was best for him. Mountain bandits? Were you trying to turn him into a criminal?"

He had the decency to sound a little embarrassed at that, at least. "I didn't have a lot of options!"

Sengoku winced briefly, raising a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. "Of all the people who owe you favours. Of all the ex-Marines, childless couples and civilised villages that would have been happy to accept a child from you, without asking a single question... I notice you didn't leave your biological grandson with a group of criminal trash?"

Silence, and Sengoku sighed. "For all your so-called love, you have stupid ways of showing it."

"Don't make him like that other kid," Garp said abruptly. "Rob Lucci. I don't want Ace being... a murdering, psychopathic child-soldier. He's a kid."

"He'll be a Marine, not an assassin. Besides, there's no public coup in gaining the son of the Pirate King if we have to keep him secret," came the voice of reason, and then the words that were complete truth, but not the way Garp expected them to be. "He'll be a teenager before he becomes a Marine or kills for the first time. I promise."

Garp nodded, relieved, and Sengoku appreciated that trust even as he knew he was going to abuse it for the good of everyone. Garp thought it meant 'I won't let him be a Marine until he reaches the normal age of enlistment'. Sengoku knew it to mean, 'He's going to graduate right on time to become a Marine as soon as he reaches his teenage years', and contractually – if verbal agreements had meant anything, which they didn't – he was keeping his word.

They couldn't wait until he hit seventeen. Not with the state the world was in, with Dragon taking control of the Revolutionaries and turning them from small, separate groups of inefficient idealists to a single well-trained network, an army of saboteurs and agitators. Not with pirates becoming more of a menace instead of less.

"It's for the best," Sengoku said, knowing this was true, and Garp nodded again because his friend was right – and even if Ace hated him (his grandfather, whatever the boy said), he'd be safe and successful. Sengoku's brain could find a thousand ways of stopping Ace turning to crime besides the stupid, cruel, obvious solution of death.

"I trust you," he allowed. Sengoku raised an eyebrow as if this should be obvious, called him an idiot, and told him to make some damn coffee before he died of withdrawal; which led onto the regular tea versus coffee debate and took Garp's mind firmly away from young boys growing up surrounded by arrogance, slavery and the expectation they'd grow up to kill hundreds or thousands of men and women in the name of Duty and Justice.

xxxxx

It was fourteen months before Ace saw Garp again, and he found himself not caring; partly because he was still in shock, partly because it seemed so unimportant.

He'd survived, hidden, when two of his tutors had dragged him down into one of the wine cellars with a few of the other children, keeping them silent and cowering in the darkness for nearly a day, while Fisher Tiger's men slaughtered and pillaged, and Ace's home burned above their heads.

"This is why we keep them as slaves," one of the tutors whispered to the stricken children, just loud enough for the others to hear. "Give them freedom, and they'll use it to destroy everything they can."

Ace wanted to say he was fairly sure this came with the pirate territory rather than the fact that they're fishmen, but the teachers were smart – he knew Sengoku picked them specifically for him – so he kept silent. If there was one thing over a year of hard study had taught him, it was that he didn't know everything, even if he was confused over how fishman blood could make someone evil when pirate blood was still redeemable.

By the time they came up, the slaves and pirates were either dead or gone, except for a few slaves still remaining who had been brought up in Mariejois and had been terrified to leave the Holy City. Two children he'd played with were dead, one of them a Tenryuubito, and even though the girl had regarded Ace as a curiosity more than a friend, he still found the sight of her curled-up body unpleasant enough to turn away and vomit what little was left in his stomach after a day of hiding.

The Marines were already there, grim-faced, and Ace would have liked to find one of them – Sengoku or Aokiji, who had often visited him, or even Akainu who – while hardly comforting – certainly would have made Ace feel better simply by stating his intentions to bring the pirates to Justice (which would, Ace knew, mean slaughtering them in this instance, or making a show of their executions in the worst manner possible, the thought of which filled him with considerable pleasure).

They were all busy though; he wasn't stupid enough to interrupt their urgent meetings or distract them from their tasks, so he wandered the rubble with the lower-ranked Marines, helping search for survivors and put out fires, saving as much as they could from the destruction. He'd stopped dry-vomiting after the third body he found, the badly-charred corpse of one of the cooks who'd always given the leftover bread to the songbirds in the aviary, also now dead.

"You shouldn't be here," some Commodore had said finally, two hours after Ace had started, his big hand resting on the boy's shoulder. Ace had wanted to turn around and slap his hand away, but he'd learned some self-control over the past year. "Go get some food and sleep, hm?"

"I'm not hungry," Ace lied.

The man had looked amused at that. "Oh? And I bet you're not tired, either?"

"No." He'd learned stubbornness long before self-control. "I'm busy." He'd glared up at the man, daring him to force Ace away from the collapsed walls and roofs of what had once been a library, and the Marine had only grinned lazily back.

"Okay. I guess you can sleep sooner if we get this done faster, right?" he'd said, before tossing his coat off – over Ace's head, in fact – and stepping forwards to start digging at the rubble.

Numa, Ace found, only got more annoying over the years. Especially once his interest had been caught.