Hello readers mine!

I am so so so SO sorry for how long it's taken me to get this out! School makes everything difficult and working makes everything even more difficult. But I am not giving up on my fics so please be patient with me.

To my guest reviewers:

Guest(1): I updated! *eats cherry* :)

Guest(2): I am soooooooooo sorry for not updating! Please don't be sad! Look, it's a brand new chapter! All sparkly and everything! Please don't cry! DX

Guest(3): This is what happens next. :P

Anonymous: Yes, I am aware of that fact. I can't quite believe it's real, but I am aware of it. Thank you for the well wishes! Here is the next part! :D

The lxoxo: *hands you tissue* ...Sorry. But here is the next part so you can know what happens!

Guest(4): I updated!

poogle: Thank you for the review!

Guest(5): You are very welcome, friend! Thank you for the luck! :D

Guest(6): I updated! Please don't die!

Guest(7): Thanks! Here is more!

Guest(8): Hello! I'm glad you like my fic enough to read it over again! Here's some new material for you! :)

Guest(9): Thank you!

Guest(10): Yeah...Luffy goes through a lot. This chapter is better though, promise.

anonymous: Luffy's got it tough. It's gonna take a lot for him to realize that things are different now and he won't get punished for everything he does. Ace on the other hand...I don't really think he'll ever stop being a protective big brother. Or an overprotective big brother. He is always going to be there for Lu whether he needs it or not. :P

Guest(11): Glad you liked it! :)

Guest(12): I'm back! Sorry for the delay!

And again that's a lot of reviews! Some how this fic reached 300 reviews without me noticing! Can you guys believe that?!

Anywho, moving on.

Warnings: mentions of starvation, abuse (nothing graphic), and past slavery

Disclaimer: Story belongs to Elri even if the characters do not.


~Learning Freedom~

Chapter 7

Lingering on the Pain

Marco watched as Ace lurched forward when Luffy started hyperventilating, glaring darkly at Selma.

"He's having a panic attack," Selma announced as she uselessly tried to calm the boy, "Luffy! 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."

The words didn't reach the boy. His little body was rigid, muscles locked tight with tension, eyes wide and unseeing. Calmly, Ace placed a hand on Luffy's back. The boy sucked in a sharp breath and stilled. Marco watched as Ace leaned over Luffy's small form and murmured something into the boy's ear. He caught the boy's name and the word 'alright' but that was about it. It had the desired effect though; Luffy went still, all of the tension draining out of his body. His eyes slid shut and his breathing calmed. He was asleep.

Ace didn't relax though. He looked up at them warily, body curled protectively over Luffy's.

"Ace,"Semla said calmly, "Luffy just had a panic attack. I'm not entirely sure what happened, but something I did must have triggered it. Reminded him of something bad that happened. I didn't do it on purpose."

Ace watched her for a long moment, eye narrowed before pulling back slightly.

"I'm going to finish his exam," Selma continued, "He'll be fine since he's asleep. I'm almost done and then I'll need you to answer a few questions and then you can sleep."

Marco watched as confusion blossomed in Ace's brown eyes. He glanced at Luffy and then back at Selma before nodding slowly, though he looked like he didn't really understand what was going on. Ace kept a careful eye on Selma as she worked and when she paused, her face becoming a mask of horror before becoming blank again. Ace froze.

She looked up at both of them with barely concealed rage. "Please tell me someone killed the bastard that owned this kid."

Marco gave a short nod. "Ace did."

Selma turned to Ace. He stared back defiantly, and looked ready to fight over the point of how right or wrong it was when Selma firmly said, "Good."

Ace blinked, almost looking perplexed and Marco had to suppress a chuckle. This kid really didn't understand that they had no love for the Nobles. It's hard to believe anyone actually had genuine love for them besides themselves. Which makes it all the more ridiculous that they still have so much power because without the Marines backing them they have no might, no force behind them. But Marco didn't put much faith in that happening anytime soon; people had long since lost the ability to think for themselves.

Selma quickly and efficiently finished Luffy's exams and asked Ace the appropriate questions, letting the kid write down the answers since he didn't seem inclined to talk.

"Done," Selma announced as she took her clipboard back from Ace, "Now, I want you to rest – Ah!" she exclaimed, halting Ace's protests, "Don't think I can't see the way your eyes are going hazy. You're dead on your feet, kid. Take a page from your little friend's book and go to sleep; we'll worry about the other stuff later."

Ace's eye flicked between the two of them, then to the curtain, then back to them. Marco took that as his cue.

"No one will bother you, Ace," he said patiently, "It's safe for you to rest here."

Still, Ace said nothing. But he did lay down, body curling protectively around Luffy. His eyes remained open though, staring at them unflinchingly. Untrusting.

It wasn't surprising.

So Marco just took Selma's elbow and guided her through the curtains surrounding the bed, leaving the now free kids to rest.

They stood in one of the many meeting rooms on the ship, the Captain and all of his commanders as they listened to Selma give her report on the condition of their returned nakama. It was bad. Still, given whose care they were in for an extended period of time, it could have been worse. So much worse.

Marco felt like he was able to breathe for the first time in weeks. Maybe Thatch was right, he really did worry too much.

"And what of the two brats?" Whitebeard asked.

Selma grimaced. "If ours are bad, they're worse," she said bluntly, "Given their condition, I'm surprised they weren't dragged on board unconscious."

Izo raised an eyebrow. "Then what does it mean that they weren't?"

"That they are ridiculously stubborn," Selma said as she began flipping through her charts, "Both of them are severely malnourished; they are very underweight and have muscle atrophy. In Luffy's case, his development has been seriously hindered. He's no where near the recommended height and weight brackets for his estimated age."

"How old is he?" Thatch asked, brow furrowed.

"Ace guesses about ten, but even he isn't completely sure," Selma replied.

Haruta's jaw dropped. "You're kidding!" she exclaimed, "He doesn't look older than six! Seven if we're pushing it!"

Selma's lips pressed together in a thin line and while she wasn't showing much emotion outwardly, Marco knew that motion meant she was seething on the inside. Their head doctor sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose.

"Look, the two of them have been slaves for years," Selma said, "They are seriously messed up from that, both physically and mentally. To be honest, I'm surprised either one of them is still breathing."

"It can't be that bad, can it?" Rakuyo asked.

Jozu grunted. "These are the Tenryubito, of course it's that bad."

"Selma," Whitebeard called, stopping the murmurs that Marco didn't doubt would have escalated into an argument.

Selma sighed. "Right," she said as she flipped though some of her papers, "Luffy's malnourishment will take time to fix, and even then it's entirely likely that he will never be the correct size for his age. Ace's growth has been stunted as well, though not to the same degree. From what I've managed to coax out of Ace, he was already a teenager by the time he was sold. While not ideal, the development the body goes though during the teens is not as critical as the development during the first five years of life."

"Are you saying that the kid was a slave at age five?" Namur asked, stunned.

Selma nodded. "In all likelihood, Luffy was probably made a slave much younger than that if his scars are anything to go by."

"Can you tell how long the scars have been there?" Marco asked.

"Some of them," Selma replied, "There are some that could have been gotten doing any simple chore, but Ace's torso is covered in whip lashes if you look close enough. They're faint and old and, surprisingly enough, they received proper treatment so they weren't too obvious unless you knew to look for them. I'd guess maybe five to seven years for some of them."

The commanders grimaced at the thought. Seven years. That was a long time to be in the hands of the Tenryubito.

"Luffy has several scars as well," Selma continued, "The one just below his eye is eight years old at least and the one on his chest I would guess to be about five or six."

Marco pressed his lips into a thin line. He'd seen that scar. He wasn't as good as Selma, but he could tell that scar had been there for a long time. It was huge, taking up most of the small boy's torso, the skin red and shiny and damaged. Though he hadn't shown it and would only admit it to a select few, seeing such a mark on such a young child had disturbed him. And he'd seen a lot in his life.

"Thatch, I'd like to talk to you and Joseph about a diet for the two of them," Selma said, handing over a chart to the Fourth Division Commander, "Here's the results of the blood tests. We're going to need something vitamin rich and preferably find a way to incorporate some protein sooner rather than later to counteract the atrophy."

Thatch's eyes skimmed over the paper in his hand and he let out a low whistle. "Damn," he said, tone both horrified and awed, rubbing the back of his neck, "We should probably start them off with some broth, maybe some bread, just to see what they can handle," he murmured half to himself, half to Selma, a look of concentration on his face.

"Their diet is going to have to be monitored for a long time," Selma informed him, "Probably for years after this. And even that won't correct all of the damage done. Ace has a better chance, but Luffy is so young that I doubt he will ever be the correct size for his age."

"And what would you recommend?" Whitebeard asked, voice grim.

Selma sighed, running a hand through her hair. "Normally, I'd say dump them at the next island and let them sort themselves out," she said, frowning, "But…" she shrugged helplessly, turning troubled eyes to Marco.

He took that has his cue to speak. "But that probably won't work with these two," Marco said, "Luffy knows nothing outside of the world he's just escaped and Ace can't trust anyone enough to let them help."

"Surely he trusts you, Marco," Kingdew spoke, brow furrowed, "You freed him."

Marco shook his head. "He doesn't," he said simply, "Ace is smart. Observant. He knows that if I was strong enough to break him out, I'm strong enough to put him back in. That's the only reason he's listened to anything I've said."

"But we wouldn't do that," Haruta said, looking sick, "I wouldn't wish such a fate on anyone, even my enemies."

There were murmurs of agreement around the room, but Marco stood firm.

"Ace doesn't know that," he said, "He has no reason to trust anything we say or do."

"This shouldn't surprise anyone," Selma said, speaking up again, "These two have been stuck in hell for years. Why should they trust the word of a stranger just because he has the key to their cage?"

No one had a good answer.

Whitebeard broke the heavy silence. "For now they shall remain here," he announced, "We will work to repair the damage done to them as best we can. If they feel the desire to leave, we will let them."

Selma looked startled. "But Oyaji, that damage will take years to correct. Are you really suggesting that –"

"They need to make the choice for themselves," Whitebeard interrupted softly, a gentle reprimand in his tone, "They have to learn to make their own choices. Deciding such things for them will only hurt them more."

Marco crossed his arms. "We're going to have to teach them how to live."

When Luffy woke, he was surrounded by warmth on all sides. He didn't need to open his eyes to know what the warmth was, but he did so anyway, tilting his head back slightly to look at the face above his.


Luffy smiled and snuggled closer into his brother's chest. Ace's warmth was nice. It was good. The only good that he had ever known. He peaked out of the safety of Ace's body to look at his surroundings. He recognized it as the room he was in when he fell asleep, but it was unfamiliar. Everything was different now. Everything except Ace.

He sank back into Ace's hold and the older male unconsciously curled tighter around him. As curious as he was, he knew getting up to look would be a bad idea. He wasn't allowed to leave this room. Or at least, he didn't think he was. Besides, Ace was still sleeping and he wasn't going to go anywhere without Ace. Nor was he going to wake him up just to have him explain to him what everything in this strange room was – because even with his limited knowledge he could at least tell the difference between a cell and a not-cell – Ace was tired. Luffy could see the way he had been trying to stay awake when that lady was talking to him. Ace needed his sleep. He had pushed so hard because Luffy was too small and too hurt to do anything on his own.

Luffy frowned at that thought. It wasn't fair. If only he were bigger; then he could protect Ace. Or at the very least protect himself so that Ace wouldn't have to. He wanted to be strong. Strong enough that Ace wouldn't have to hurt for him again. Strong enough so that Ace wouldn't have to hurt at all. He didn't like it when Ace was hurt.

A rustling sound snapped him out of his thoughts and he turned ever so slightly towards the sound, tensing in fear of what he would see. Only to blink when he saw blond hair, blue eyes, and a mark he still didn't understand the meaning of.


Luffy turned a little more to get a better look at the man. He still wasn't really sure what to think of him. Ace was wary of him, always tense when he was around, but Marco didn't feel bad to Luffy. Not the same way that their Masters did. Marco was…not kind exactly, but he wasn't twisted. He could tell. He was strong. Very strong. But that strength did not mean he was good. Luffy did not really know what goodness was, but this man was not it. Nor was he bad. He was…neither. The in between.

"You're awake then," Marco said, drawing the boy out of his musings.

Luffy blinked up at him, startled by the sudden and direct address. And Luffy knew – even with his very limited knowledge – that's what it was. Marco was talking to him. This was different. Before, it was only Ace. Everyone else would just talk at him. There was a difference. It didn't seem like much, but it was. Marco was looking at him, not through him, and his eyes were warm. It was…odd. Luffy didn't understand.

"Are you hungry?" Marco asked, head tilting to the side, something Luffy recognized from his own movements. Marco was curious. But that didn't help with his understanding of the question. Of course he was hungry. He was always hungry. Always. Even when Ace gave Luffy part of his share and pretended that he wasn't just as hungry. It was never enough.

But Luffy knew better than to admit that out loud to someone who wasn't Ace. Admitting hunger was a weakness and weaknesses were not acceptable. Because they invited the pain. And the torment. And the cruelty. Luffy didn't want any of that. He knew that if he answered the question, it would hurt. If he said no, he would get nothing. But if he said yes, it would be worse. So, so, so much worse. It always was. So Luffy said nothing.

Marco sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "You're allowed to be hungry, ya know."

Luffy blinked. How could he tell? How could he know that Luffy was starving?

"You and your friend haven't eaten in a while," Marco continued, his eyes never leaving Luffy's face, "It's around dinner time anyway, so you might as well eat something." He paused for a moment and Luffy saw a flash of amusement cross his eyes. "And you can tell Ace he can stop pretending to be asleep."

Luffy startled and glanced up at Ace's face. Sure enough, Ace's eyes slid open and he glared at Marco. Luffy stared. He had been so focused on Marco, he hadn't felt Ace wake up. That had never happened before.

Marco chuckled. "Now, now, no need for that," he said, "It's time to eat. Are you getting up?"

Ace shifted and sat up, clutching Luffy to his chest. Luffy kept his eyes on Marco. He didn't understand. Everything was so out of place. He didn't know how he was supposed to act anymore, didn't know what to say anymore.

"You're allowed to be hungry," Marco said so suddenly it made Luffy jump.

Luffy caught Marco's eyes and stared into them long and hard. He wasn't lying. Whatever this man might have been, he was not lying. So Luffy reached up and lightly pressed his fingertips into his brother's tense jaw. Ace glance down at him, eyes questioning. Luffy just looked back, knowing that Ace would understand. Ace always understood.

His brother looked up to Marco and nodded.

Yay! Another chapter done! I am actually pretty proud of myself. I managed to finished this thing. *pats self on back* Go me. X3

Anyways, tell me what you guys think!

Until next time,