Hello everybody!

I was going to have this out earlier, but it turned out longer than expected. Longest chapter so far actually. So yay for that! I was going to write other things, but your reviews were just really motivating. So. Another chapter of Learning Freedom. :D

To my Guest Reviewers:

Guest(1): I'm glad you enjoy it! :)

Guest(2): FREEDOM! Woooo! You are very welcome! I'm just happy you like reading this as much as I like writing it!

Guest(3): I'm sorry for the hiatus! I'll try not to do it again!

anonymous: I did! And now I'm doing it again! :P Our boys will be meeting Whitebeard in this chapter, but only for a brief moment. They get more interaction with him later after all of the excitement has died down some.


Soooooooooooooooo, time for the chapter.

Warnings: hints of past physical and sexual abuse (nothing graphic)

Disclaimer: I do not own One Piece. I do own the story. Anyone who says otherwise will be sold to the Tenryubito as a slave and I will NOT send the Whitebeard Pirates to rescue you. That is all.


~Learning Freedom~

Chapter 6

The Scars We Bear

A hush fell over the crew as Ace torched the incoming marine ships. Marco tilted his head slightly to the side, contemplative. Ace seemed transfixed by what he had just done, but there wasn't a single line of regret in his body language. Turning slightly, Marco glanced at Luffy.

The boy hadn't moved from where Ace had placed him and he watched as the flames grew higher and the marines' screams began to die away with a level of comprehension that he shouldn't have. Though, if he thought about it, Marco realized that this wasn't really anything out of the norm for him. This boy had to have been made a slave young; it was possible he didn't even remember what it was to be free.

Looking back at Ace, Marco watched as the younger man seemed to force himself to turn away. And when he saw Ace's eyes, he wasn't surprised. There was no remorse or regret. And he stood there daring them to say what he did was wrong. Marco absently wondered if the kid realized that since they were pirates, Ace's actions would be celebrated rather than feared. That wasn't to say it wasn't brutal. Because it was. But the Phoenix knew that Ace would see it as mercy. If what he had seen back in the ballroom was any indication, Ace had been hardened by circumstance. And not in any way that many others before him had.

Most everyone else would adapt to the treatment, the abuse. That was easy. But Ace had hardened himself against people. While most would have fled the second they were free of their chains, Ace lashed out. Ace killed. And he didn't care. Because human life didn't matter anymore. It was insignificant in the grand scheme of things. All that mattered in Ace's world was survival.

So when Ace's eyes met his, he nodded in acknowledgement.

Ace's scars were deep, deeper than most men that were three times his age. He was so young and had already seen firsthand the darkest depths of the world.

"Well that was quite the show," Thatch said as Ace ignored all of them and walked back to Luffy.

The boy lifted his arms, asking without words to be picked up. Ace complied and carried the boy over to the other side of the ship, away from the rest of the crew.

"So, why did you pick that kid up?" Thatch asked softly, tone unusually serious.

Marco crossed his arms over his chest as he contemplated his answer. It wasn't really something he could put into words. There was just something about Ace that caught his attention.

After a long moment, he answered, "His eyes."

Thatch nodded absently before his usual humor returned. "Wow, Marco, I know you swing both ways but – "

Marco cuffed him upside the head before he could even finish.

"At least I know the rumors are true now."

The two commanders turned to see Ricky standing next to them, watching the two former slaves. Ricky was a little worse for wear, sporting bandages on his arms and neck. He looked tired, but determined to see his men home.

"What rumors?" Thatch asked curiously.

Ricky shrugged, wincing slightly. "Apparently slaves gossip," he said, "Ace has a reputation for being rebellious. But he almost always followed the rules while doing it. His eyes scared the crap out of the guards. You could always hear them muttering about the 'Eyes of the Demon' or something like that."

Thatch nudged Marco in the side. "His eyes, huh?" he teased with a smirk.

Marco just rolled his eyes. "Shut up," he said, tone bored, "Did you ever talk to them?"

Ricky shook his head. "Ace and Luffy never talk to anyone but each other," he replied.

"What, not ever?" Thatch asked.

"Nope. Rumor has it that Luffy can't talk at all; no one's ever heard his voice. He's never even screamed, not that anyone could hear anyway."

"But he's just a kid!" Thatch protested.

Ricky shrugged again, shallowly this time so as not to pull at his wounds. "Luffy's…strange," he said, pointing and the commanders turned to see the boy smiling wide and free as he looked out at the sea with wonder, "He's always been able to smile even though he was practically raised in hell. The others called him 'The Angel' because he always seemed so carefree despite his situation."

Marco let his gaze wander up, away from Luffy's breathless smile, to rest on Ace's face. The kid's eyes were soft and there was a barely-there, shadow of a smile on his face.

"And Ace is his guard," Marco murmured under his breath.

Luffy didn't know how long he sat there in Ace arms watching the sea. He felt like he could have stayed there forever. He had finally seen the sea. And he liked it. Liked the way it moved and smelled and sang. He didn't want to look away, scared that if he did it would disappear.

What he didn't expect was for the waves to part and a ship to emerge from the depths.

His mouth fell open and his eyes widened as he pressed himself back into Ace's chest. He felt Ace back away from the rail, body tense. This ship was big, much bigger than the one they were on. He was so focused on the huge ship he didn't notice Marco approaching until he was already beside them.

"Keep calm," the blond said softly, "They're with us, they aren't an enemy."

Ace relaxed slightly and Luffy turned in his arms so that he could see the others. Thatch had come up to stand by Marco, followed by some men that Luffy had seen in cells before. Maybe Marco freed them too? They were all grinning and waving their arms and screaming. But he didn't understand why. They didn't sound hurt or upset; they sounded happy. Why would they be screaming if they were happy?

Luffy didn't understand.

There was a lot he didn't understand. He knew now why Ace had a hard time talking to him sometimes; there were just so many things in the world and not nearly enough words to describe them. It was all very confusing. Everything was so different outside his cage.

This new ship pulled close to theirs and several long ropes were thrown down. Luffy's never seen ropes like these before. There were two long parts with many shorter parts between them connecting them. Luffy tilted his head to the side; how was anyone supposed to tie anything with such an odd rope? His eyes widened as some of the men jumped over the rail and grabbed onto the ropes, placing their feet on the shorter parts and pulling themselves up to the deck of the bigger ship.

"Come on," Marco said, pointing towards the ship and the strange rope, startling Luffy, "You guys too."

The boy felt the tension in Ace's body as they followed Marco. Ace was coiled tight, ready to spring at any moment. Luffy gripped him tightly as Ace climbed onto the rope and started climbing up. Even though it hurt, Luffy wrapped his legs around his brother and his hands clung to Ace's shoulders. The older boy kept a calming hand on his back, holding him in place as he pulled himself up and over the rail. Marco followed after them, climbing on board and then gesturing for them to follow him.

Ace did so, though Luffy could tell that he was not happy about it. And Luffy knew why. Ace didn't really like people. He was very closed off, and Luffy had noticed that his older brother only showed his true self to him. He couldn't fault Ace because he did the same thing; new people were scary. Especially right now, when his world was suddenly so big and bright and he didn't know anything in it except Ace. So he kept close to his brother, but kept his eyes on everything else. Because he knew Ace already. Everything else was new, not just the people.

And Luffy wanted to know.

He wanted to know who Marco was and why he helped them and what the mark on his chest meant. He wanted to know if the sky and the sea ever touched or if they just stretched on forever, always reaching out, but never quite closing the distance between them. He wanted to know what the strange rope they had climbed up was called.

He just wanted to know.

Ace kept his guard up as he followed Marco across the deck of the ship.

This ship was huge. The biggest that Ace had ever seen. And the crew was just as large. There were people everywhere, running this way and that, greeting each other like old friends or long lost family. It made Ace feel out of place. He had forgotten what it was like to hold such relationships and even before his capture, he had never been on the receiving end of such open affection. Oddly enough, it wasn't really until he'd met Luffy that he was treated like he mattered. Or at least, treated like he mattered without having to worry about alternative motives.

So he wasn't really sure how to deal with all of these people. Because none of them could be trusted.

His grip on Luffy tightened unconsciously.

"You don't need to be so tense," Marco murmured next to him. Ace glared at him defiantly. Much to his irritation, Marco only shrugged and gave him a small smirk. "Have it your way then."

The blond suddenly came to a stop. "Oi, Oyaji! We're back."

There was a loud rumbling chuckle and Ace turned forward to see a giant of a man sitting on an equally large chair. He had a captain's jacket thrown over his shoulders and was hooked up to various pieces of medical equipment. If Ace had been a normal person, he might have backed away in shock at the size of the man. Or maybe he would feel pity. The man was clearly old and the medical equipment gave the impression of a serious illness. But Ace was not a normal person. The man was old yes, but he was strong. Ace could see it in his eyes. The air around him was heavier, denser. It reeked of power. But it was also gentle in a way that threw Ace off. People with power didn't feel like that. People with power were dark and cold and greedy. But no matter how hard he tried, Ace couldn't find a trace of that darkness in this man. Still, he knew better than to let his guard down. This man was not someone to trifle with. He was stronger than Marco and that made him wary because Marco had freed him so easily. If he could do that, this old man could just as easily put them back in their shackles.

"Welcome home, son," the giant man said in a deep, rumbling voice, "I see you've retrieved your siblings."

A man that Ace vaguely recognized from the cells but didn't know by name walked forward with a grin. "It's good to be back, Oyaji," he said, "Sorry to cause so much trouble."

'Oyaji' hummed. "Just glad that you and the others are back safe, son," he paused, raising an eyebrow, "You are all back?"

The man nodded. "Some of us are a little worse for wear, but all of us are still in one piece."

"Good to hear!" the old man boomed, shaking the very air, "Now," he said, turning his attention towards Ace and Luffy, "Who do we have here?"

Ace felt Luffy press closer to him and his tiny fingers dug painfully into his shoulders. Ace kept his face blank, though his eyes were fiery as he stared straight back at the man, unflinchingly defiant.

"This is Ace and Luffy," Marco supplied, "They helped us escape."

"Is that so?" Oyaji hummed thoughtfully.

"Marco wants to keep them!" Thatch piped in cheerfully.

Ace went completely ridged. He didn't register the teasing tone in Thatch's voice nor did he understand it. He only heard keep them. He and Luffy were back to being nothing more than pets. Luffy started trembling in his arms. It was only something one would notice if they cared to look; after all, showing fear could get you in trouble and Luffy had always been good at putting on a smile to hide everything inside. But Ace saw the way his eyes widened in fear and the way his lips parted in a soundless gasp. He felt his fire press against his skin begging for release. He wasn't going back. Luffy wasn't going back. He would rather die than –

"Shut up, Thatch," Marco said coldly.

His tone startled Ace out of his rage. The blond's voice was hard and unyielding, holding an authority that had previously been absent. His blue eyes blazed and Ace realized that the man before him was angry, though he couldn't really tell where that anger was directed.

Thatch flinched at the tone of voice, clearly startled before his eyes wandered over Ace and Luffy. He blinked before paling and stuttering out, "I-I didn't mean it like that!"

"Enough," Oyaji cut in, "Marco, take them down to Selma and have her look them over. I don't want anyone getting sick on my ship."

Marco nodded. "Yes, Oyaji," he said, glancing at Ace.

Ace looked back at him, dark eyes filled with equal parts anger and fear. Marco nodded his head in the direction of a door that Ace knew would probably lead them below deck. He hesitated. He knew Marco couldn't be trusted, especially after what Thatch had said. But could he really afford to stay on deck with the others? Marco stepped closer and Ace forced himself not to back away though he felt Luffy press closer to him.

"You have nothing to fear from us, Ace," Marco said, standing directly in front of him but making no move to touch him or force him to move, "I swear on our flag that I won't let anyone harm you or Luffy."

Unintentionally, Ace's eyes moved to the flag waving at the top of the main mast of the ship. A skull and crossbones similar to the mark displayed on Marco's chest. A pirate flag was a pirate's life. It was a pledge. One that he never had the chance to make but knew more than enough about. Slowly, he turned back to Marco. The older man met his eyes unflinchingly, eyes solemn and serious. For a long moment, Ace just held his gaze.

Then, without breaking eye contact, he gave short nod.

Marco nodded in return and led him below deck. Ace could feel eyes following them but he paid them no mind. The door closing blocked their gazes anyway. They walked in silence, Ace keeping his gaze on the blond in front of him. He couldn't understand Marco. And that bothered him because Marco seemed to understand him.

"Thatch didn't mean what he said," Marco said softly, breaking the silence, looking at Ace over his shoulder.

Ace narrowed his eyes, glaring.

Marco rolled his shoulders in a shrug and turned forward again. "Believe what you want to, Ace. We aren't here to fight you. But we can't help you if you won't let us."

Ace fought the growl that was building up in the back of his throat. Small fingers brushed his jaw and he looked down into Luffy's worried eyes. His anger left him in a rush as he brushed a hand reassuringly across the small boy's back. He needed to think of Luffy. He couldn't let his anger get the better of him, couldn't let his freedom go to his head. He needed to be careful around these people.

Marco pulled open a door and stepped in, gesturing Ace to follow.

The room was lined with beds and smelled sterile. Several women were moving back and forth between the beds, tending to injured men that had been on the other ship with them.

"Oi, Selma!" Marco called into the busy room.

"The hell you want, Marco?" A short woman yelled over the din, walking towards them, "I'm busy!"

"Oyaji wants you to take a look at these two," Marco said, unfazed by the woman's apparent annoyance.

Selma frowned, arms crossed. "A couple of strangers? How the hell'd they get here? And one of em's still a brat!"

"They're both brats," Marco drawled, tucking his hands into his pockets.

Ace shot him a glare which he ignored.

Selma snorted. "Yeah, well, everyone's a brat to you except Oyaji."

"That's because everyone except Oyaji annoys me," Marco shot back without missing a beat.

The woman sighed in exasperation. "Men," she rolled her eyes, "Alright, then. Let's get you two looked after," she said, reaching out to place a hand on Ace arm to guide him towards a bed.

Ace's reaction was instant. He jerked away and a low snarl passed his lips. Selma stared at him, wide eyed, hand still raised. She didn't look scared, but he had definitely startled her.

"Selma," Marco called.

The woman turned to him and the two shared a look, silent words passing between them.

Ace mentally cursed, clutching Luffy tightly. He had reacted out of instinct. Luffy dug his fingers into Ace's skin, knowing exactly what Ace's actions meant. Had he been back in his cage, he'd know what to expect. A beating at least, or maybe a whipping. It all depended on his master's mood. Here, he had no idea what they would do. Without realizing it, he'd begun to back away.

But then Marco was there, hand raised to his shoulder, not touching him, but stopping his retreat.

"Ace," he said calmly, breaking through Ace's slowly building panic, "It's fine."

Ace blinked, startled, eyes falling to Marco's hand hovering at his shoulder in an almost touch.

"I apologize, Ace," Selma said calmly, causing Ace to turn to her, "I didn't mean to startle you. Why don't you just follow me?" she asked, walking towards one of the empty beds.

After a moment of hesitation, Ace followed after her, eyes flickering between her and Marco, looking for any sign of anger at his outburst. Luffy remained tense in his arms, his eyes dark as he clutched at the older male. As much as they wanted to believe there wouldn't be any punishment, it had been engrained in them that there was always punishment. And if it didn't come immediately, it would come later.

Selma had him sit on the bed as she rummaged around some nearby drawers of equipment while Marco drew the curtain around the bed closed to give them some semblance of privacy. Ace settled Luffy into his lap as Selma came back with various tools and a clipboard.

"Alright," Selma said, facing him, "I'm going to give you both a standard checkup. We need to know the exact condition of your bodies so that we can start your healing process. Okay?"

Ace blinked and fought to keep the confusion off of his face. Why was she explaining what she was going to do?

"I'm going to check your eyes, nose, mouth, and ears first, alright?" Selma continued, unaware of Ace's confusion. She then paused in front of him and looked him straight in the eye. "Is it alright if I touch you?"

Ace was completely baffled. She was asking permission from him? Little Luffy looked just as confused.

"You are allowed to say no if something makes you uncomfortable, Ace," Marco said from where he was leaning against the wall watching them, "Same for you, Luffy." The boy startled slightly at the direct address and turned to face Marco. "If you don't like something, you can tell Selma to stop."

"And I will," Selma said firmly, "I won't do anything that you aren't comfortable with. We aren't them, kid, and we never will be."

Ace stared at her for a long moment. Logically speaking, he knew that he had the right to refuse anything he didn't want. But after so long of having his own wishes brushed aside…he didn't really know how to deal with it. Slowly, Ace nodded.

Selma stepped forward and began to examine him, her touch firm and sure, but gentle. Luffy watch on curiously, having never had any real experience with a doctor before. The only one he had ever seen only treated wounds to make sure they could still work. Luckily, neither Ace nor Luffy ever fell ill because that doctor would not have treated them for illness.

Selma pulled back and jotted down some notes. "Can you stand up?" she asked, "Just put Luffy on the bed." At Ace's hard glare and Luffy's suddenly fearful eyes, she continued, "I'm not going to separate you, I just need to take your measurements."

Ace looked down at Luffy. The boy looked back with those trusting eyes. The older sighed mentally, this was harder than he thought it would be. He put his little brother down on the bed. Selma had him step up on a scale to measure his weight and then measured his height, humming slightly under her breath as she wrote everything down.

"Would you be okay removing your clothes?" Selma asked.

Ace froze.

He was not going back to that. Not ever. He wasn't going to be a play thing for anyone. But Selma's eyes were steady and without heat.

"You don't have to, Ace," Marco said softly, cutting through his thoughts.

Ace glanced at him before looking back at Selma. Slowly, watching her eyes carefully, he began to strip. Selma's didn't wander or linger and they remained cool. A quick look showed that Marco's eyes had slipped shut so that he could not see anything. It was strange; they were acting like they weren't interested in his body. Not that way at least. It was…odd.

"Is it alright if I touch you?" Selma asked again, unfazed by his state of undress, continuing on just as she had before.

He gave a jerky nod and Selma stepped closer to continue her examination. Her touch remained sure and gentle. There was no heat and her hands never lingered. He tensed when she went around to his back; she could see his brand now. She would know that he was less than human. Would her touch change?

But her hand just ran down his spine and felt his ribs, completely ignoring the mark. He twitched when her touch fell on the scarred skin, but it didn't linger longer than any of her other touches and the feel of her hands on his skin didn't change. Cautiously, Ace glanced over his shoulder at her. Her brows were furrowed in concentration as she placed a hand on each of his shoulder blades, fingers feeling along the grooves and ridges of muscle and bone. She hummed softly before removing her hands and writing something down, a frown tugging at her lips. She sighed and ran a hand down his back. This touch was different. It wasn't what he was expecting though. Rather than the lust he was waiting for, it was…sad.

"How the hell are you still standing, kid?" she whispered, glancing up at him.

Ace didn't say anything. He wasn't going to acknowledge how heavy he felt. The adrenalin had long since worn off, leaving him standing through strength of will. He wasn't going to tell her that it was getting harder to stay standing, harder to keep his eyes open. He wasn't going to tell her that his vision was starting to gray at the edges. He wasn't going to tell her that he just wanted to curl into a ball and sleep.

She sighed and shook her head, walking back around to his front. "You're something else, kid," she said, pulling on some gloves. She placed a hand on his hip and looked up into his eyes. "Is it alright if I touch you down here?"

Ace went rigid for all of five seconds before hiding everything behind his mask.

To his surprise, Selma reached up and poked his cheek. "You need to stop doing that kid," she said, "I need you to work with me, not hide."

Ace glared at her.

"Don't look at me like that," she said with a dull glare of her own, looking decidedly unimpressed, "And don't act like that's not what you're doing. Now," she gave his hip a slight squeeze, "Are you comfortable with this or not? You can say no and I will listen to you."

He pressed his lips into a thin line and gave her short, slow nod, keeping his eyes on hers.

"If you want me to stop at any time, just say the word and I will," Selma said, dropping down, her hands cupping his thighs.

Ace kept his eyes on her hands as she touched him. Where heat and lust and rough had been before there was now gentle and soft. Selma did not express any interest with her touch or her eyes. Hadn't the entire time even though he was standing before her in naught but his skin. She kept glancing up at him, her eyes asking if every touch was okay as she moved between his legs. He tried not to show his apprehension; Selma was the first person he was letting touch him. But she was also the first person to give him a choice.

He flinched involuntarily when her gloved fingers reached his backside. Selma paused and looked up at him.

"Ace? You okay with this?" she asked.

He took a shaky breath and nodded.

Selma reached out and put his hands on her shoulders. "You can squeeze all you want, or just push me away," she said calmly, "Relax, I just want to feel. That's all, nothing else."

Ace dug his fingers into her shoulders briefly before relaxing with practiced ease. Selma placed a hand on his knee, giving him a reassuring squeeze as she started to move her other hand. Ace focused on the hand on his knee and soon enough, Selma was pulling away from him and standing up, removing her gloves.

"Done," she said, grabbing her clipboard and jotting down some more notes, "You can go ahead and put your clothes back on."

Ace did as he was told feeling oddly relieved. Selma had kept her word. He sank down on the bed next to Luffy, trying not to look relieved at being able to sit. Luffy placed a hand on his and looked up at him worriedly and Ace knew that the small boy could tell he was tired. But he was going to stay awake as long as he needed to; he smiled with his eyes and ran a hand through Luffy's dark hair. He glanced over his shoulder and met Marco's calm eyes. The blond tilted his head to the side question and raised an eyebrow. Ace glared at him before turning away. He heard Marco chuckle softly.

"Alright," Selma said looking up from her clipboard, "That's about it, for you Ace. Just one question: how old are you?"

Ace blinked, head tilted to the side ever so slightly. He thought he was twenty two. He was pretty sure at least. He'd know for sure if he knew the date. But after what he was guessing was seven years of being locked away it was kind of hard to keep track of such things when you were more focused on living until tomorrow.

Face blank, Ace extended a hand toward Selma. She stared at it for a moment, confused, before realization crossed her eyes and she handed him the clipboard and the pen. Luffy leaned into him to get a look at it and Ace saw the confusion and curiosity swimming in his eyes. His lips twitched slightly in a suppressed smile; maybe he could start teaching Luffy to read and write now. He wrote down a date on the paper and handed it back to Selma.

She glanced at it. "Date of birth?" she asked and Ace nodded, "Then you're twenty two, kid."

Huh. So he had managed to keep track of time after all.

"Right," Selma said, shuffling the papers on her clipboard around, "Now it's Luffy's turn." Luffy looked up at his name, looking equal parts curious and nervous. "It's the same as with Ace, alright? If you don't like anything, just say so and I'll stop, okay?"

Luffy glanced at Ace, who smiled ever so slightly in reassurance, before turning back to Selma and nodding.

Luffy sat very still as Selma's hands felt his face.

Her touch was soft and that confused him. Wasn't she supposed to be pulling at his skin to see how far it stretched? Or hitting him to see if it would hurt? He stared at her with blank eyes and every so often she would glance up at him and give him a small smile. He didn't understand. No one had ever acted like this around him except Ace. But Ace was Ace and this person was a stranger.

Selma gently coaxed him into opening his mouth and his fingers clenched tightly around the fabric underneath him. He didn't want some nasty liquid shoved down his throat again. He didn't want to be forced to sleep or be sick or whatever else they had in mind. But to his surprise, Selma just looked inside his lips and poked and prodded him a little with her tools and then let him shut his mouth. He started up at her, trying not to let the hitch in his breath be heard. He felt a familiar, warm hand rest on his back and he looked up into Ace's reassuring eyes. He relaxed some. Ace was here. Ace wouldn't let anything happen to him.

"Alright, Luffy, I'm going to measure your height and weight now," Selma said with a small smile on her face.

Luffy wasn't really sure what that meant, but he saw the way Ace's lips turned down ever so slightly. At first he didn't really know what was wrong but then he remembered that when Selma said that to Ace, he had stood up. Luffy would have to stand up. He felt fear begin to churn in his stomach; he could still feel the pain in his back and knew that he wouldn't be able to stand. There was no way his legs would hold his weight. But he couldn't admit to such a weakness he would be punished. He shuddered, eyes squeezed shut as memories of his last punishment flashed through his mind.

"About that," Marco suddenly spoke up, "Something's wrong with his legs, they won't hold his weight."

Selma's brow furrowed. "His legs?" she mumbled before saying, "Alright. You can just sit on the scale then and I'll take a look at your legs, okay?"

Luffy nodded slightly, but his brow was furrowed ever so slightly in confusion. His legs weren't what hurt, he knew what was wrong with him because Ace had explained it to him. But why would she care that he hurt? Was she going to hurt him more? Or was she just curious about what caused him pain?

Selma reached out for him before hesitating. "Do you want me to carry you or would you be more comfortable if Ace did it?" she asked, glancing briefly at his brother.

Luffy turned and held his arms out to Ace without hesitation. Ace's lips twitched ever so slightly, letting Luffy in on his secret smile. His brother's arms wrapped around him and hefted him up as he stood. He felt Ace's body falter slightly before it locked in place. Luffy looked up with wide eyes and pressed his fingers to Ace jaw. Ace turned and smiled into his hand reassuringly before placing him down on a hard, flat surface. Ace had stood on it earlier, but he didn't really know what it was for. Selma fiddled with it before humming softly and making strange lines on the flat board in her hand with a stick.

"I guess we can measure your height lying down since you can't stand," Selma said as Ace carried him back to the soft cushion. He liked the soft cushion, it was comfortable and made him sleepy and he felt his eyes start to droop and Ace laid him out flat. Selma took a thin, flat rope-like thing and held it against him before scribbling something down with her stick.

"Is it alright if I take your shorts and underwear off, Luffy?" she asked.

Luffy just blinked at her for a moment before nodding. He was sleepy; it was getting harder to keep his eyes open. But he wasn't allowed to sleep yet. He didn't have permission.

Selma gently striped him down, her brow furrowing as she carefully pushed his legs apart. He twitched as he felt pain lace up his spine as the movement and felt Ace's hand tangle in his hair to anchor him. He felt slender fingers trace over muscles and joints, carefully prodding. It was strange. This was how Ace touched him when he was looking for injuries – though Ace's hands were always warm; Selma's were a little cold.

The woman's voice pulled him out of his wandering thoughts. "Luffy, can you roll over for me?"

Half asleep, he complied, rolling onto his stomach. He didn't realize his mistake until he felt Selma's hands on his thighs again, pushing them apart making that sharp pain shoot up his spine again. He sucked in a silent breath, eyes blown wide as all thoughts of sleep fled his mind and his fingers curled into the cloth beneath him in a knuckle white grip. He felt fingers pressing into his thighs, but they were no longer cool and slender and calloused. They were rough and sharp and they burned when they pressed into his skin. He felt them travel up and his breath began to come in short gasps and his eyes stung as blinding terror pooled in his stomach. The fingers were suddenly pushing into him, stretching and tearing and burning and there was so much pain and he just wanted everything to stop because it hurt and he felt like he was being ripped in two but his voice was lodged in his throat as the hands pulled and pushed and tried to bruise and hurt and it all just stopstopstopstopstopSTOP

"Luffy!" Selma's panicked voice pierced through his terrified haze, but he barely registered it. He just wanted the hands to go away, to stop touching him, to stop pulling at him, to stop existing. "Luffy, you need to calm down. Whatever you're seeing, it's not real. It isn't happening. I promise that no one is hurting you."

She was lying. It hurt. It hurt so much.

Suddenly, there was warmth on his back and he felt familiar lips brush against his ear before a voice that made him want to breakdown and cry whispered to him, "Luffy. Luffy, it's okay. You're alright. I need you to breath with me, Lu."


Ace was safe.

Ace never lied.

He said that it was okay.

Luffy took a shaky breath and held it for a moment before releasing. He blinked the haze from his eyes and there was Ace, eyes just as warm as they'd always been. Luffy relaxed under his hand, reaching out to touch that familiar face, to feel Ace skin against his own. Ace was real. Ace was safe. He was safe.

Everything was fine.

He felt his eyelids droop and fought to keep them open. He couldn't sleep yet. Not yet. If he fell asleep without permission, he'd get in trouble. But then Ace carded a gentle hand through his hair and gave him a small smile and Luffy couldn't help himself. His eyes closed and his hearing faded out as his body grew heavy.

But that was okay.

Because Ace was here. And Ace would keep him safe. Ace always kept him safe.

So he let go and surrendered himself to sleep.

Ta-da! I thought this came out pretty good. And more Luffy POV! Yay!

Fair warning for you guys: My semester is getting ready to start up again, so updates may slow down a bit. I'm going to try and be more diligent with them, but I can never really predict how things will go during the school year.

Also, I may or may not have accidentally, kinda sorta been sucked into Attack on Titan. I didn't mean for it to happen, I swear! (Seriously, this anime/manga is nothing but pain. BEWARE.) But, yeah, it's been kind distracting my inner muse. Trying to get it under control.

Until next time,