When Ace looks back on this day, weeks or months or years later, the first thing he will remember is powerful, powerful fear.
The second thing is pride.
Sitting on that execution platform, separate from all who love him (except his grandfather, who, for all of his faults, truly does love him, Ace knows), is the most painful experience of Ace's life.
Seeing his family die in front of him, for him, and he can't do anything to help them, sends blood running down his chin from his bitten lip and pain shooting up from his sore knees caused by leaning too far forward onto them.
And, when Luffy falls from the sky, Ace's never been more afraid in his life.
(He’s relieved, of course.
The last Ace had heard of his little brother, he’d been stuck in Level 6 of the most dangerous prison in the world, trapped.
Ace doesn’t know how Luffy escaped, but the wave of powerful, powerful relief that crashed onto Ace as he saw his little brother stand next to his father is unparalleled.
He’s at a war.)
Ace's little brother, who he swore to protect and take care of and never let die, is fighting for Ace's life in a war that has nothing to do with him.
(Why, why why why does Luffy always treasure Ace's life over his own?
Doesn't he know that without Luffy, Ace is nothing?)
Watching Luffy get stabbed and punched and kicked and not being able to do anything is the hardest thing Ace has ever done.
As Luffy nears the platform, as he gets knocked down again and again and again and keeps getting up, as he uses the very Haki that Ace rejected – refused to use (his father's left enough marks on Ace's legacy without some king-borne power), the fear hasn't lessened.
Ace has never been so proud in his life.
Luffy, Ace's little brother, the boy who followed in Ace's footsteps, tripping and stumbling and laughing all the way; Luffy, who Ace's never lost to in a fight but also never beaten in spirit; Luffy, who saw Ace – a lonely, angry, hateful child – and saw someone worth loving; Luffy-
Luffy's gotten strong.
He’s stronger than Ace's ever seen him.
Even through his powerful, all-encompassing fear, Ace's chest wells up in pure, undiluted pride.
And, when Luffy touches down on the platform, having knocked out their grandfather (who really didn't fight at all, which makes something both ache and warm inside of Ace), Ace can't keep an expression of pure awe off of his face.
(Luffy did it.
He did it.)
And when Ace is finally free, hand wrapped in Luffy’s shirt to keep him safe and near him, fire wrapping around them, a shield and blanket of safety both, Ace can’t keep a proud, wild grin off his face.
Luffy never changes.
Ace hopes he never does.
(The pure, undiluted joy that sings in Luffy’s cry of Ace’s name – Ace doesn’t think he’ll ever forget the sense of warmth and home that washed over him at that.)
They’re still at a war, though.
Ace can’t let himself lose focus through the pride that still wells in Ace’s chest and makes him want to smile like there’s no tomorrow.
They land, and Luffy stumbles. Ace steadies him without thinking, gripping his upper forearm until Luffy’s able to stand on his own, and then shifts into a fighting stance. “Can you still fight, Luffy?” Ace asks, glancing at him out of the corner of his eye as he absentmindedly spreads fire around them, keeping the marines from blindsiding them on their weak side.
(Even now, they leave a spot open for Sabo.
Ace knows it’s not the brightest move, leaving their backs open, but he can’t bring himself to change it.
It’s one of the only things they have left of their blonde brother.)
Luffy pants, and says between huffs, “Of course!”
Worry coils in Ace’s stomach, but he lets a little bit of his pride show on his face, a small smile tugging at his lips. “I never dreamed I’d see the day,” Ace says, batting away a marine and side-eyeing Luffy, “When you had to save me. Thanks, Luffy.”
“Shishishishi!” Luffy grins, rubbing under his nose, and the familiarity causes something to clench in Ace, warmth flooding through him. “I couldn’t have done it without that Whitebeard guy’s help!”
Ace snorts, and then his grin falls away as shots blow through his head, stretching his brother and leaving Ace intangible.
Rolling his eyes, Ace crouches, sweeping the legs out from under the marines stupid enough to come close enough range for Ace to do so, and then hops up, sprinting towards Luffy, who has two marines converging on him.
Like hell he’s going to let them attack his brother like that.
Ace easily leaps up and balances on Luffy’s head, smirking cockily at the Marines as they gape in shock, their swords cutting harmlessly through Ace’s fire. “He’s my little brother. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t hurt him!”
The Marines gape at him.
Their mistake, Ace thinks as he clears the way for them with a powerful Fire Fist.
Luffy falls back to Ace’s side, and Ace grins, cutting and sharp, as they cut their way through the Marines with ease.
(Ace had missed this.
Fighting with his crew is great, but it’s not the same as fighting side-by-side with the one person who knows Ace better than Ace knows himself.)
(The only thing that would be better would be if their third could be here, too.)
“You’ve gotten a lot stronger, Luffy!” Ace calls, grinning over his shoulder.
Luffy grins back, saying, “I’ll surpass you one of these days, Ace!”
Ace shakes his head fondly, but before he can shoot a comeback at his little brother (who’s definitely never going to surpass Ace, that’s just not going to happen), a sheet of ice barrels towards them.
Ace shifts in front of Luffy, and says, “Then I should be the one protecting you, for now! Stand back, Luffy!”
Then, he shouts, “Mirror Flame!” and counters Aokiji’s attack.
Aokiji’s face twists in annoyance, and Ace grins.
He may be tired and sore and in all sorts of pain, but he can take this admiral, at least.
He’s not going to let his brother get hurt.
They trade a few blows, neither gaining ground on the other. There’s some commotion raging behind Ace, but Ace keeps his focus on Aokiji – if he loses focus, Aokiji could go after his brother, and Ace won’t stand for that.
“And now these…are my final orders as your Captain!”
Ace’s father’s voice rings above all others, and Ace freezes.
(Aokiji does, too, but Ace isn’t focused on that.)
Luffy’s shoulder brushes against his, as Ace slowly turns towards where his Pops is standing.
His father stands next to their last remaining ship, hand holding it in place. He’s even more bloody, bruised, broken than he had been before, and what did Ace miss?
“Listen carefully, Whitebeard Pirates!”
There’s a tone of finality in his father’s voice, and no, no, no, no, nononono-
Ace can’t lose him.
“Pops!” Ace screams, voice cracking, and his knees feel weak. He can’t lose his father. He can’t.
Whitebeard yells, sounding as strong as he did the day Ace first met him, “It’s time for us to part ways! You all must survive and return to the New World!”
The blood freezes in Ace’s veins, and his heart climbs into his throat.
His father prepares to crack the very air itself, and bellows, “I’m a relic of the bygone era! No ship can carry me into the new age!”
His following roar shakes the very foundations of Marineford itself.
“GET AWAY FROM HERE, MY CHILDREN!”
Shouts and protests erupt all around Ace, but the cries of his siblings fade into the background as he stares at his father, standing tall, even with a hole burned into his chest. Luffy shouts, “Old man!” and even Luffy sounds upset.
But, nothing can compare to the grief and despair clawing at Ace’s heart.
“Pops!” Ace shouts once more, desperately hoping that what he said wasn’t true, that his father isn’t going to leave them, that his father isn’t going to die here.
Because of Ace.
(Why? Why, why, why?
Why is everyone intent on dying for Ace?
He’s not worth it!)
The protests only rise in volume, the desperation Ace feels echoed in his family’s cries, but his father’s decision is firm as he shouts, “You can’t follow your Captain’s orders?! Get away from here, you lousy brats!”
Ace closes his eyes briefly, warring with himself, before he reopens them.
Tears prick at the corners of them as he starts walking towards his father.
He’ll accept his father’s last wishes.
But, he’s not going to leave without saying thank you.
“Ace!” Luffy calls, and Ace pauses, just for a moment. His brother continues, “We have to go! Don’t let the old man’s sacrifice go to waste!”
Ace stares ahead, and says steadily, “Don’t worry. I won’t.”
A swarm of marines descend upon him, and he growls, sending a wave of fire their way. “Get out of my way!” He yells, sprinting through the gap that opens up.
Then, he drops to his knees.
There’s a silence between them for a moment, and Ace glances up, meeting his father’s eyes briefly as he stands, strong and steady, in the middle of the chaos.
As Ace bows his head again, his father says, “I have little use for soft words, but tell me one thing, Ace…”
Whitebeard has never been tender, not really, but there’s a sort of fondness in his tone that makes Ace’s breath catch in his throat and his eyes burn.
“Were you happy with me as your father?”
Flashes of Whitebeard smacking him out of the sky as he tried attacking him, of his one hundred days of trying to kill him, of him finally accepting his crew, of being accepted by his father despite the cursed blood flowing through his veins, of being loved even though he still doesn’t understand why-
-as if he’d ever answer differently.
His father lets out a laugh, and he sounds purely happy, and Ace blinks back the tears, swallows, and turns back to rejoin his brother.
Jinbe pushes him forward as he rejoins them, and says, “Ace, Luffy, get in front! They’re specifically targeting you! It’s Pops’ last wish that his children get away alive!”
Someone yells something about a battleship being commandeered, then, and Ace veers over towards it, absently grabbing Luffy’s arm and directing him towards the ship. He keeps running, sending fire every which way, forcing his tears and emotion down, but…
He doesn’t notice Luffy falling behind slightly.
Luffy stumbles and falls.
And doesn’t get up.
“Shi- Luffy!” Ace curses, hurriedly sending a wave of fire towards those in front of him and sprinting back to Luffy.
His little brother’s collapsed on the ground, gasping for breath and staring blankly at Ace as he comes over. He seems completely exhausted, and goddammit.
He should’ve known that Luffy was flagging, he should’ve realized, he shouldn’t’ve-
Ace vowed to live a life without regrets, and he could never regret saying goodbye to his father.
Still, as Ace crouches on the ground beside Luffy, Jinbe guarding his back, he can’t help but beat himself up for not realizing that Luffy was this exhausted.
(It’s more than just exhaustion Ace can see, now.
Luffy’s thinner than he’s ever been, with cuts all over and enough bruises and scrapes to match. He’s never looked worse in his life (including the Porchemy incident, which is saying something).
Ace should have noticed.)
Luffy groans, then, shifting slightly in what Ace can only assume is an attempt to stand up. “I can…keep fighting…” he gasps out, and Ace scoffs.
“Luffy, you can’t even get yourself up,” Ace says, not bothering to hide the worry from his tone. He shares a grim look with Jinbe over his shoulder, and makes up his mind.
He gently, incessantly, wedges his arms under Luffy, slinging him across his back and holding him firmly against himself.
It’s a testament to how exhausted Luffy is that he simply sinks into Ace, burying his face in the crook of Ace’s neck, and doesn’t protest beyond a token, “I could’ve kept going.”
“Shut up, Luffy,” Ace says firmly. Luffy lets out a faint laugh at Ace’s typical bluntness, and Ace just shakes his head in response, a wry grin unwillingly tugging at his lips.
(Luffy then murmurs something along the lines of, “I missed this…” and emotion knots in Ace’s throat at the sheer trust in his little brother’s voice and the way his arms around Ace’s neck tighten slightly.
Ace isn’t sure he’ll ever understand what he did to deserve his brother’s unconditional faith.)
“Let’s go, Ace-san,” Jinbe says determinedly as Ace stands up, and Ace nods back.
And then, they’re running.
It seems almost too easy, getting through – Luffy’s haki knocked out a fair number of soldiers and Ace’s crew has been hard at work clearing a way for them.
(Blood is soaking into Ace’s skin; Luffy’s heartbeat sluggish against his back.
Ace needs to get Luffy to help.)
It rankles Ace a little bit, not being able to fight; running from a fight, but Luffy’s more important than that. He shoves it down.
They make it a surprising distance without any interference, the admirals sucked into dealing with others of Ace’s crewmates. However, Ace assumes it’s only a matter of time before one steps in.
“You free Ace then turn tail, huh? The Whitebeard Pirates are a bunch of cowards.”
Ace freezes, along with the blood in his veins.
His grip loosens on Luffy, just a bit.
“But considering who your leader is, that’s no surprise! Whitebeard is a loser from a bygone era!”
Whitebeard. The man who gave Ace a home, who saved him, who loved him, despite the cursed blood flowing in his veins.
Who is being insulted by the bastard behind Ace.
“Ace!” Jinbe shouts, tugging at Ace’s arm, but Ace ignores him.
Akainu insulted Ace’s father.
He won’t stand for that.
Luffy groans softly into Ace’s ear, and Ace freezes, again.
Ace’s little brother is on his back, a breath away from passing out.
He needs help.
(Ace wakes from his anger, and realizes what awful, awful decision he was about to make.)
Akainu is spitting vile, vile things about Ace's father, the one who saved him, but Ace's little brother is hanging off of his back, breathing labored and heartbeat sluggish against Ace's tattoo, and Ace needs to make a choice.
He could fight Akainu, but his brother-
Sabo’s voice echoes in Ace’s ears.
(Luffy may be weak and a crybaby, but he's still our little brother.
Take care of him.
Ace promised Sabo.
He promised himself.
He’s not breaking those promises.)
And, in the end, it really isn't a choice at all.
Ace grips tighter to Luffy's legs, locks eyes with Jinbe, who still holds Ace’s forearm, and runs.
(Something inside him aches, but the time for regrets is not now, and Ace's little brother is behind him.
And, this time, he can't fight for him.
He needs to run for him.)
Everything after that moment blurs together for Ace. He remembers Luffy’s grip slowly becoming more and more slack as they approached the ship, his brothers surrounding them and protecting them as they ran. He remembers Akainu swearing when Ace turned and ran, and his brothers quickly covering his back so that Ace could continue to run. He remembers running, running, running, fear clawing deeper into his heart as his brother’s breathing grew fainter and blood kept soaking sluggishly into Ace’s back.
(He remembers hearing his siblings’ growls and shouts of anger as the traitor showed up, and their sobs as their father finally died, standing and proud after shouting the message that Ace knows will spark another age – a great one, but not one that’ll surpass that of his father.
His father’s age is the one that they’ll remember.
He wants, so, so bad to confront the traitor, to kill him for daring to attack his family, but he can’t.
Luffy’s on his back, bleeding and dying.
Ace needs to get him to safety.)
Eventually, they get onto the ship. Ace nearly collapses with relief as he steps onto the deck of the ship. His siblings surround him, giving him hugs and shouting with joy, and all Ace can do is smile tiredly back at them.
His knees buckle under him.
His vision goes black.
It’s all he can do to fall forward instead of backwards, so as to protect his precious little brother still clinging onto his back.
And the last thing he’s aware of is his chest hitting the cold, wooden, unfamiliar deck.
Ace wakes up, and groans as the soreness in his limbs (and chest, and shoulders, and head…) hits him all at once. His brain’s foggy; he can’t quite make out…what…happened…
Cutting, sharp pain in his wrists. A lack of energy. Family coming for him. Fighting, blood, crying, screaming, so, so much screaming.
“Luffy!” Ace gasps, sitting up. Where’s Luffy? Where’s his little brother? Last Ace had seen him, Luffy was…
He was hurt. And dying.
Ace needs to see him.
Something in Ace relaxes, just a little bit, as Marco enters his vision from the side. Relief shines in his eyes, and even though his eyes are raw and he doesn’t look like he’s slept in days, Marco sounds so, so happy when he says, “You’re awake!”
“Where’s Luffy?” Ace asks, fear a cold rock in his stomach.
Marco pins him down as he tries to stand, and crouches so as to meet his eyes. “Ace. Listen to me. Your brother is fine.” Ace’s breathing slows down slightly, and Marco continues, slow and clear. “We’re on one of the Super Rookie’s ships. I don’t know why he was here, really, but he offered to take care of you and your brother, and we were in no shape to provide the medical care you needed.”
“Luffy’s…Luffy’s okay,” Ace breathes out, and Marco nods, a small smile on his face. A tsunami of relief crashes over Ace, and he allows himself to relax slightly, closing his eyes.
His little brother’s okay.
“And now these…are my final orders as your Captain!”
Ace scrunches his eyes shut against the memories, biting his lip. Hard. “Pops…” Ace whispers, heart twisting painfully at the memory of his father standing, tall and strong as he did in life, but dead, dead, dead.
“I’m sorry.” Ace bows his head, tears welling up, and goddamnit, why did he have to be so stupid?
Ace’s father is dead, and it’s Ace’s fault.
“You dumbass!” Marco bonks him on the head, then, and Ace yelps at the sudden pain flaring in his forehead. Ace jerks his head up in shock, and Marco’s arms are crossed as he glares at Ace. “We came to save you,” Marco says firmly. Ace’s eyes catch on Marco’s own, red and raw, and guilt wells up even more at the clear grief his brother is feeling.
Marco shakes his head, and continues, “Pops went ready to sacrifice himself for you.” Marco’s voice cracks on the word Pops, and more pain flares in Ace. Marco grips his shoulders, then, and says fiercely, “Listen, Ace. Pops wanted for you to live, more than anything. For all of us to live.”
Ace bows his head, and subtly wipes at his eyes, and Marco says softly, “He’d just be overjoyed you’re okay, Ace. I know I am.”
(Ace’s father. The man who saw Ace, an angry, violent, cruel rookie and decided he wanted him. The man who was attacked by Ace day after day, Ace doing his best to kill him, and decided to keep him. The man who knows- knew Ace’s worst sin; who knew whose blood he carries in his veins, and still loved him.
The man who saved Ace.
Tears well up in Ace’s eyes, and he lets out a quiet sob, choking out, “I miss him.” Marco sighs, worn and weary, and draws Ace into a hug. Ace, for once, just lets himself be held.
“I do, too,” Marco whispers, and lets Ace soak his shirt with his tears.
Marco holds him until Ace’s throat feels rough, tears run dry and eyes rawer than they’ve been in a long time.
(Rawer than they’ve been since Sabo died.)
(He misses his blonde brother.)
Thinking of Sabo reminds him of the brother he has left.
Ace opens his eyes, quickly swiping the tears away, and tells Marco, “I want to see Luffy.”
Marco stares at him for a moment, before sighing. “I’m not going to be able to stop you, am I,” he mutters, before saying, “Alright, alright.” He helps Ace up, and leads him over to a bed on the opposite side of the room that Ace somehow hadn’t noticed before now.
Luffy lays there, and-
He looks completely destroyed. His skin is sallow, and bandages cover every inch of his chest and most of his arms and legs. Ace collapses by his side into a seat that he belatedly realizes Marco must have pulled up for him, and gently grabs onto Luffy’s hand.
And then he waits.
It’s two days later when Ace’s brother finally wakes up.
Ace’s collapsed over Luffy’s bed, hand in Luffy’s and drifting in and out of sleep when his brother’s monitors start beeping nonstop. Ace blinks his eyes open, staring blearily at Luffy’s face, before what the beeping means processes in his brain.
Then, he jerks up, and leans closer to his brother. “C’mon, Lu,” Ace mutters, clenching his hand tighter around Luffy’s.
Finally, after a few moments of rapid eye movement beneath his eyelids and way too much beeping by the monitors, Luffy blinks his eyes open.
Before he can stop himself, Ace crushes his brother in a tight hug, holding him close for a moment before leaning back, meeting his little brother’s eyes.
“You dumbass,” Ace chokes out, emotion suddenly overwhelming him.
Luffy’s okay now, but his brother could’ve easily died.
Died for Ace.
And Luffy’s still recovering from injuries that could have easily killed him, and Ace can’t-
(If Ace had lost Luffy, he doesn’t know what he would’ve done.)
Luffy stares at him for a moment, confusion clear in his eyes, before he brightens. “Ace!” Luffy says joyfully, and something about the pure happiness in his little brother’s voice makes Ace want to sob.
Why? Why does his little brother care so much?
Ace would be nothing without Luffy. Why doesn’t he see that?
Luffy’s eyes narrow, face going blank as Ace continues, voice shaky, “Why would you do that for me? You could’ve died.”
Ace knocks his forehead against Luffy’s shoulder, and chokes out, “I can’t lose you, Luffy. I can’t.”
“I can’t lose you, either!” Luffy sits up, dislodging Ace off of his shoulder. Ace jerks up, eyes wide at the total vehemence in Luffy’s voice. Luffy’s glaring at him, his lack of energy seemingly forgotten (or ignored- actually, it’s Luffy. He’s definitely ignoring it). Luffy continues, voice rising, “You’re my big brother! Like hell I was going to let you die there! I’d rather die!”
“My job is to protect you, Luffy!” Ace snaps, knot in his throat forming.
Luffy shakes his head sharply. “You were going to die,” Luffy snaps firmly. “I’m. Your. Brother. I’ll always come for you!”
Ace stares at Luffy for a moment, before he chuckles wetly and brushes Luffy’s hair back.
He’s never going to understand just what Luffy sees in him.
But, just this once…
Ace will allow himself to show the gratitude he feels.
“You’re a dumbass,” Ace says, infinitely fond. Luffy laughs, shishishishishi, and Ace wonders how he ever, once upon a time, lived without this sunlight in his life.
Without Luffy in his life, well…
Ace doesn’t like to think about who he’d be without Luffy.
Emotion tugging at his heart again, Ace closes his eyes against the tears pricking at the corners of them. He presses his forehead against Luffy’s, brushing his hair away, and lets the pride he’s been overwhelmed with since he saw Luffy appear from the sky finally shine through. He breathes, “I’m proud of you, Luffy.”
Ace opens his eyes and meets Luffy’s, wide with something that looks a little like shock, and says thickly, “Thank you. Thank you, Luffy.”
Thank you for allowing me to keep my promise. Thank you for allowing me to live; to not drag the sacrifices of my siblings through the mud. Thank you for not letting my father’s sacrifice be made in vain.
Thank you for loving me.
Luffy laughs, and it’s worn and tired, but it’s as happy as Ace’s ever heard him, and says, “Of course! You’re my big brother!”
Warmth spreads through Ace, then, and he gives Luffy a smile, small and fond. Luffy grins back, which is interrupted by a big, loud yawn. Luffy blinks, seemingly shocked at himself.
Ace snickers, and starts gently pushing down on Luffy’s shoulders. “Looks like you need some more sleep, little brother,” Ace teases, and Luffy looks like he’s about to protest before another yawn interrupts him.
“…Fine,” Luffy says mulishly. Ace chuckles, and pulls the blanket back around Luffy’s shoulders as he reluctantly lays back down. Ace settles back in his chair, content to wait and watch over his brother for as long as it takes for him to wake up again.
Luffy seems to have other plans, though.
His little brother tugs at Ace’s arm, then, and mumbles, “Get down here.”
Bemused, Ace does so, laying down on the bed beside Luffy. Luffy immediately curls into Ace’s side, throwing an arm over him and sighing happily. “I missed this,” Luffy whispers, and he instantly falls back asleep, his last action to nuzzle just a little further into Ace’s chest.
Warmth wells up in Ace’s chest, and Ace sneaks an arm under Luffy’s shoulders, pulling him closer. “Stupid little brother,” Ace says, fondness all he knows.
Then, he succumbs to his own exhaustion, the familiar warmth of his brother breathing against his side enough to lull him to a gentle sleep.
“Luffy, stop,” Ace says exasperatedly, pushing Luffy back down onto the bed. Luffy glares at Ace, straining violently against him.
He says fiercely, “I wanna see the sea! I’ve been down here for too long! It’s boring!”
“Luffy, you just broke into the most secure prison in the world and fought in a war. Let yourself rest!”
Ace glares at Luffy for a moment, but Luffy just meets his gaze, glaring just as fiercely. Ace can tell that his entirely too stubborn little brother isn’t going to give in.
“Fine.” Luffy brightens immediately, and before he can get too excited, Ace states firmly, “You’re not walking, though.”
Luffy’s eyes furrow in confusion, before his eyes light up. “Shoulder ride?” He asks excitedly, and Ace pauses.
“…I was going to just do a piggy-back ride, but sure, I guess.”
“If you bonk your head on the ceiling and break something or knock anything over, I’m throwing you two into the ocean, devil fruits be damned!” The doctor that apparently looked over the two of them yells from another room, and Ace rolls his eyes.
“I’d like to see you try!” He yells back.
The man may have saved his little brother, but he’s still an ass. Ace’s still going to mess with him.
Luffy snickers at Ace’s retort, and Ace gives him a grin before scooping Luffy up by the armpits and depositing him onto his shoulders. Luffy giggles and threads his fingers through Ace’s hair, gripping it tightly to keep himself from tipping. Ace winces, but allows his brother to keep holding on.
They don’t end up hitting anything on their way outside, which is good, Ace guesses, and soon enough, Ace’s standing at the railing. The sea breeze brushes against their faces, and Luffy laughs, leaning forward eagerly, and Ace smiles.
He may have lost his father, and it hurts. But, he’s with his brother, and somehow, someway, Luffy always makes things feel alright.
They stand there for a long time, until Ace’s legs are starting to go numb from holding his brother up there and the breeze is starting to grow cold. Ace is just about to suggest they go back inside for food, when-
A soft thunk on the deck behind them.
Ace twists slightly, eyes landing on a tall, vaguely noble-like figure.
His outfit tugs at Ace’s heartstrings.
Ace pushes it away with well-practiced ease.
The stranger chuckles, and says, “Just like old times, huh?” There’s a sort of fondness Ace hasn’t heard in a long time in his voice, as well as a strange sort of relief that Ace can’t quite parse. Ace’s shoulders tense gradually, fire flaring just under the surface as the stranger starts walking closer.
(He almost sounds familiar.
No. Ace won’t allow himself to hope.)
The stranger keeps walking slowly towards them, hands innocently by his sides. His eyes dance over Ace and Luffy’s bodies, lingering on the bandages that cover almost all of them, and something pained twists into his expression for a moment before his face clears once again.
Ace quickly lifts Luffy off of his shoulders, placing him down and stepping a half-step in front of him, glaring at the stranger. “What the hell do you mean?” Ace asks incredulously, not a little bit of anger steeling his tone. Ace used to give Luffy shoulder-rides, sure, but no one should know about that.
(No one alive, that is.)
S- The stranger raises an eyebrow, and says, “I was there, Ace.” He says Ace’s name with a type of familiarity that Ace hasn’t heard in years (in a decade), and Ace needs to stop hoping.
(His stupid hat’s the same. His stupid goggle combination is the same. His stupid noble’s coat and outfit are the same.
Even the stupid napkin is the same.
It can’t be…)
Pushing Luffy further behind him and ignoring his whining, Ace snarls, “Who the fuck are you?”
The stranger’s smile gains a cheeky edge, then, and he says teasingly, “What, you don’t recognize your own brother?”
Ace growls, anger spiking. “Only two people have the right to call me that,” Ace states, glaring at the asshole as he takes off his…top…hat…
Blonde hair is revealed, along with a softening of the stranger’s smile.
He looks exactly like-
The person who might possibly be Sabo smiles gently, and it’s a smile that Ace has seen far too many times, when Ace was feeling insecure and Sabo was honest, for once, or Luffy got hurt, or they found a baby animal that needed help, or-
It’s a smile Ace hasn’t seen in a decade.
Ace stalks forward, ignoring his brother’s sound of confusion, and maybe-Sabo braces himself in a manner that Ace has seen so many times – a slight tensing of his arms, lowering of his head so his eyes are less visible, a twist to present his strong side-
“You asshole,” Ace spits out, and punches Sabo in the face.
Sabo doesn’t even try to block it, and goes down hard.
Luffy gasps, then, something finally clicking in his brain. “S-Sabo?!” He says disbelievingly, tears already streaming down his cheeks, and if Ace weren’t so damn shocked, he’d probably tease his brother.
Instead, he roughly grabs a hand and drags the bastard up, and pulls him into a tight, probably-uncomfortable hug. “Where the hell have you been, you bastard?” Ace chokes out, finally allowing his emotion to show.
Ace’s brother is alive.
Sabo (Sabo!) lets out a rough, tear-filled laugh, and wraps his arms just as tightly around Ace. “It’s a long story,” he breathes out, and Ace allows himself to laugh, haltingly and choked-off, but still real.
(It doesn’t matter.
All that matters is that Sabo’s here, in Ace’s arms, where he belongs.
“We have time,” he says, starting to grin.
Unfortunately, that’s when their little brother (and it’s been a long time since Ace’s been able to use that pronoun) comes back to his senses and tackles them into the ground.
“SABO!” Luffy cries out, wrapping arms around them both, and Ace laughs.
Sabo’s eyes seem suspiciously bright, but all he does is smile and free an arm from the tight embrace to gently run his fingers through Luffy’s hair. “Hey, Lu,” he says softly, and Luffy just cries louder, burying his face in Sabo’s chest.
(Sabo’s the one who first started calling Luffy Lu, Ace remembers.
Ace wouldn’t be surprised if ever since then, Luffy’s always associated that nickname with Sabo.)
Luffy sniffles and chokes out Sabo’s name again, and Sabo smiles, so, so fond, and Ace grins along with him.
He still wants to know what the hell is going on – why Sabo looks so damn guilty, and what the hell happened with him, why he never came back – but he can demand answers later.
Right now, all Ace wants is Sabo’s breathing against the crown of his head as he rests his head on his chest; Luffy’s tight hold as he continues sobbing all over Sabo’s stomach.
Ace is home, for the first time in a long, long time.
Sabo nods, swallowing heavily as Ace gently traces over the scars set deep into Sabo’s face, the worst of it centered around his eye but trailing down, down, down along his neck and under his clothes. “Yeah,” Sabo answers verbally, and Ace hates the forced smile Sabo paints on his face and the slight shakiness in his voice despite what Sabo aims to portray.
“No wonder you weren’t able to come back,” Ace says, trying to make his tone light, but Sabo just closes his eyes, pain twisting his expression, fake smile falling away. Ace frowns, and Sabo withdraws from them, just a little.
Guilt is creased into his face, and he refuses to meet their eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Sabo finally says, and Ace narrows his eyes.
What the hell is he apologizing for?
Sabo looks down, and starts twisting gloved hands together. “I should’ve been there. I should’ve remembered. But I didn’t. And you almost died- I thought you were dead, for a little while. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
There are tears welling up in Sabo’s eyes, and Ace doesn’t know what to do with this.
Sabo’s guilt is stupid, he didn’t even remember until now-
“Thought we were dead?” Ace inquires as gently as he can, confusion swirling in his gut. Sabo clenches his fists, staring down at his hands.
Sabo says quietly, “There was a picture of Luffy on the ground in the newspaper and a headline that you were dead. I dunno how they got it, but I only knew you weren’t dead when Iva-san called and told us. You could’ve so easily died, and I did nothing!”
Sabo’s voice trails off, and he digs his nails into his hand. Ace reaches out, not quite knowing what to do.
(He’s never seen Sabo this downtrodden, this guilt-ridden.)
“I only remembered when I thought one of you was dead,” Sabo says cuttingly, but instead of his cutting manner of speaking being aimed at others, it’s aimed totally and completely inwards. Like he’s cutting himself to pieces.
Like he wants them to blame him.
“What kind of brother does it make me if I didn’t even remember?”
Ace readies a punch, or a hug, or something, because like hell he’s going to let Sabo continue to blame himself for what happened.
It wasn’t his fault.
Luffy tilts his head to the side. “But Sabo’s here now, right?” He asks. “That’s all that matters!”
Sabo jerks his head up at him in shock, an almost awed expression crossing his face as well as disbelief, and Ace chuckles. “Yeah, it is,” Ace says, and before Sabo can get all down on himself again, Ace roughly noogies him, startling a yelp from his brother.
“Stop being guilty and just be happy you’re here, dumbass,” Ace grins, hooking an arm firmly around Sabo’s shoulder and continuing to noogie him until Sabo’s glaring at him out of annoyance instead of looking at him guiltily.
Sabo knocks his arm away, and snaps, “Knock it off.”
Ace just snickers at him, and Luffy decides he needs their attention immediately and jumps on top of them both, rubbery arms trapping them in a tight, warmly familiar hug.
They both grunt, Luffy laughing at their pain, and soon enough, they’re all laughing again. Luffy leans back so that he can look at Sabo’s face, and says, “Hey, Sabo, tell us about your family!”
Sabo stares for a moment, before an utterly fond grin forms on his face. “Well, I suppose I should start with Koala if I’m going to talk about my family...” Sabo begins. Luffy leans forward excitedly as Sabo starts telling his story.
Warmth filling all that he is, Ace relaxes against his brothers, hugs them just a little bit closer, and smiles.
Ace is with his family again, and things have never looked brighter.