"Whitebeard is the one that opened this era of pirates!"
"Don't insult our savior!"
"The name of this era is called 'Whitebeard'!"
Molten orange and liquid red and boiling heat and burning rubber.
He screams, the sound wretched from his throat bloodied and raw and wild and broken as he fights howling for an enemy that isn't there with a hatred that burns so much that his own heart is engulfed in the heat of its very flames because hecan'tescapeit'stoomuchtoomuch.
He could make out shouts around him but it sounds distant and the burning won't stop, won't cease. It eats him alive and he wants to rip out his own heart and tear his own skin off because myfaultmyfaultMYFAULT.
He claws and bites and snarls and howls against the forces holding him down and he wants to tear and rip and kill, wants to blame and hate and rage and tear himself apart because he doesn't want to ache and guilt and cry and beg anymore. He wants
The scream rips itself from his throat full of useless apologies and enough grief and bottomless sorrow to swallow him whole and tears that could fill whole oceans and make the heavens cry with him.
He was so stupid! He was so stupid!
Was it worth it for his fucking pride and indignation? WAS IT?
WHAT HAD HE BEEN TRYING TO PROTECT BY DOING THAT? WHAT WAS HE TRYING TO PROVE?
He screams and screams and screams and
He blacks but it isn't for long and he numbly wonders why he even bothers waking up anyway to a reality far worse than death ever could be and infinitely more painful.
He stares blankly at the wooden ceiling, his thoughts nothing but a blissful buzz in his head.
He hears a creak of wood beside him but he doesn't care and if the person sitting beside him knows what was right, they shouldn't care either because
"Awake now are you?"
He's too tired and wrung out to answer but Marco understands anyway and sits vigil beside him and he knows he doesn't deserve it because he killed pops and murdered his precious—
He jolts upright and Marco is there in a flash.
"Ace, you should rest. You're still injured."
But he doesn't listen as he stares vacantly at his hands stained red even when he cannot feel that sticky, sickening warmth of red smeared across his skin like a stain of accusation.
He feels Marco put a gentle hand on his shoulder to push him back down and he let him because he sees a young boy with a too-big straw hat run to him full of nothing but smiles and hope and dreams and all that is good in the world and the hole opens a little wider beneath him as he chokes.
"I should've been the one who died."
Marco doesn't answer and the silence closes its jaws around him.
Empty promises and empty hopes, he is alive but the cost is too high. Much too high.
He is quiet and leaden, the dark marks beneath his eyes a testament to his nights full of horror. The dreams where Luffy hadn't died were the worst of them all.
The crew is respectful and he hates it but not as much as he hates himself because they are all grieving too and he doesn't deserve their care.
The weight of the war crushes him until it gets so hard to breathe sometimes that he feels nauseous and claustrophobic. He wants to escape and run because though he may be alive and the restraints on his wrists gone, he thinks he's the world's most shackled man and wasn't it ironic that he had once upon a time promised his little brother that they would be the freest people in the world? And just as he also promised, he didn't die. He is alive. But what did it mean to be alive if the very embodiment of his freedom had been taken away from him?
Ace wants to take Luffy back home because it didn't really fit him to lie beside pops. That seemed to imply that Luffy was somehow under his command and anyone who knew Luffy knew that he himself was the only one Luffy took commands from.
But "back home" didn't seem to suit Luffy either. It was the land that had come to symbolize the very oppression they had sought to free themselves ever since Sabo's death and while it will always hold a special place in their hearts as their origin, it wasn't "home."
The sea was what was their home; the waves and wind their constant companions; and their crew, their family.
And that was just it.
Luffy had left behind something much bigger than himself; a future of joy and excitement and adventure, a dream as grand as the ocean itself, and a family who loved him more than their very lives.
The news must have reached them by now. With a war as big as this, it was impossible.
As the sole reason for Luffy's death, he, at the very least, owed them the right to know what happened and the right to decide Luffy's final resting place because he deserved nothing less than to watch everything his little brother had built crumble before his very eyes.
He decides to go alone because it didn't feel right to deliver the news riding on Whitebeard's old legacy with the sons he left behind. It was a personal journey and it was his own cross to bear.
Before he leaves, however, Marco holds up something yellow and round and heartbreakingly familiar.
He stares as Marco says quietly, "Red-Haired Shanks decided to leave this with Luffy because they technically never met for him to give it back. He thinks it'll be better if you had it."
He takes it with shaking hands and clenches his fingers around the prickly straw of the hat, worn and sun-bleached but so very well-loved.
He doesn't know what Shanks was thinking but…
He nods and jumps down into his striker. He doesn't look back as he starts it and speeds across the waters.
The first nakama he finds is the cook because Ivankov had contacted him shortly after his arrival back home to inform him that one of the Straw Hat crew might potentially be on his island. He wasn't sure because the wanted poster's image didn't exactly match the cook's profile but ever since the news of Luffy's death, he had been going ballistic demanding a boat.
Ace arrives on the island in record time and Ivankov greets him as he leads him to where the cook—Sanji—is being kept tied up to prevent damage to himself and to others.
The blonde is a sight to behold, his hair a mess of tangles, his suit dirtied and tattered, and a wild look of such livid desperation that his anguish is palpable to anyone who sees him.
"Oi you shitheads! Let me go! I don't have TIME FOR THIS! LET ME GO!" he roars, struggling madly against his binds and kicking out every which way but rather fruitlessly as he is tied suspended from a tree.
"Here he iz," Ivankov announces. "Ve tied him up so he vould stop doing damage."
Sanji's seething look momentarily abates in favor of surprise upon catching sight of him before a hard look takes over once again as he demands, "You're Ace right? You were there right? TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED!"
And this is the hard part; telling each and every member of Luffy's family that their captain had died for his pride and foolishness but it's something he must do. It's the only way he knew to give back even if doing so made it feel as though he was turning himself inside out.
"Luffy broke in just as I was about to be executed. He freed me but I fell for Akainu's taunts. I turned to face him but I was overwhelmed. He was about to finish me but Luffy… protected… me…" he grits from between clenched teeth, the words like barbed wire being torn from his throat because it was wrongwrongwrong all wrong. He was supposed to be the one protecting Luffy not… not the other way around.
There is silence and it sounds resigned.
His heart clenches.
"Did he go with a smile?" is the question, quiet as the breeze but still heavy as lead.
He swallows hard and dips his head. "Yeah," he whispers because nothing could beat that smile and that shine out of his baby brother's face. Nothing.
Sanji's bowed head nods stiffly, the motion barely visible. "Good. That's…" he chokes. "Good…"
He doesn't speak again for another five minutes before he says softly, "You can let me go now. I won't try to destroy anything anymore."
At Ivankov's orders, the okama cut him down and Sanji lands albeit unsteadily on his feet.
After his arms and hands are free, he takes out a box of cigarettes from the inner pocket of his ruined suit and fishes out a stick of tobacco but his hands are trembling too much for him to hold onto it for long and he drops it with a quiet curse after which he gives up, instead falling to sit on the floor and raking shaking fingers through his hair.
"I'm going back," he mutters.
He stares questioningly at Sanji and the man sighs. "I'm going back to Sabaody and our ship. It was… It was where we were planning to meet up before Kuma happened. It's probably where everyone else is headed towards right now."
Ace nods and asks Ivankov for a ship.
The okama king obliges and produces a small vessel for the two to set sail on, seeing them off at the pier after sufficient supplies were loaded and everything is ready.
They're silent as they ride the waves in the direction of Sabaody. Sanji doesn't question his sense of direction but Ace figures he has much bigger things in mind anyway such as coming to terms with his captain's death.
Sanji's meals are delicious but they still taste like ash and bitter regret all the same. It was food that Luffy would never eat and enjoy again and something tells Ace that Sanji knows this as well in the way he woodenly makes his way around the kitchen, making more than is needed for the two of them, and the way he almost sets up more plates than necessary before he realizes what he's doing. He utters a growl and swipes the plates almost violently off the table again, all but throwing them back into their cupboard.
They save up the remainders in silence before they escape to bed but Ace doesn't sleep. He couldn't do that anymore without seeing his little brother's face (and that's what Luffy will always be, his little brother) and it doesn't matter if it's scrunched up in pain or smiling in graceful death, it hurts the same way, empty and all-consuming.
So he gets up again and walks onto the deck and he isn't quite surprised to find Sanji up as well, sitting cross-legged up by the bow and smoking a cigarette, gaze skyward as smoke drifts around his head before disappearing with the wind.
He hesitates for a split second before he walks up to the man who had been the cook of Luffy's ship. He doesn't doubt the headaches this man must have endured in his futile quest of filling Luffy's bottomless stomach as well as keeping him from devouring the whole ship's rations within the first day and the thought is almost enough to make him want to smile again.
"Hey," Sanji speaks from his whiff of smoke and Ace's attention directs itself towards him. "I always wanted to know but I never asked because it didn't really matter at the time and now I can never ask him myself so I'll ask you instead."
Ace waits as Sanji takes another puff of his cigarette before he continues, a deliberate pause to keep himself together before he asks, "How did he get that scar anyway?"
Ace can't say he's too surprised Sanji asks this either. It was only natural to want to keep a personal piece of the boy who had come to engulf his entire world for himself so Ace sits beside him and recounts the story he heard from Shanks when he had went up that mountain in a blizzard just to thank the man for saving his little brother's life because Luffy had meant that much and so much more to him. Traipsing through a blizzard to thank the one who had saved his happiness seemed even too little for everything Luffy had given him.
"He was six when he got it…" and he begins the incredulous tale of one of many of Luffy's crazy exploits, so utterly stupid yet so like him that neither of them could keep the fond smiles from their voices and the exasperated shakes of their heads.
"That's Luffy for you, jumping into something headfirst and then figure out the rest later," Sanji chuckles from around his cigarette.
"Sounds like it's caused you a fair share of trouble too. Well, I guess I should know that as well. Luffy can't keep out of trouble to save his life," Ace comments with a smile. And that was literal in every way too.
"You can't even believe," Sanji sighs and he too begins to tell about Luffy's various ridiculous feats including how he had to set up traps around the fridge just to keep Luffy from eating the ship dry and it sounds so much like his little brother that Ace could actually see it in his head; and the image makes it feel as though he had never really missed out on a day of Luffy's life after all.
A storm catches them both in its grip before either of them realizes it and when it finally ends, they're blown far off course.
Sanji spots an island and they decide to sail there to restock and repair any damage to the ship before attempting to reorient themselves towards Sabaody.
The island they approach is gray, dark, and all gloom and doom. It's dubious if anyone could possibly be living there but they land nonetheless on shadowed sand and misted ground. The place is eerie in its silence punctuated only by the far off screams of something inhuman.
Sanji decides to stay back and check the ship while Ace heads out for provisions and maybe an idea as to where they are as well as some directions. He wanders the landscape the very epitome of destruction and ruin when he hears what sounds like shrill yelling in the far distance. It sounds human so he makes his way towards the shrieking until he comes across a silhouette of a prone figure on the ground and another silhouette of something floating through the thick fog.
As he approaches them, the figures resolve themselves more and more into the shape of humans until he could finally make the prone person out to be… Pirate Hunter Roronoa Zoro. He isn't alone either, it seems. A floating girl with pink pigtails dressed in Goth is hovering over him, looking agitated as she continues to berate the swordsman who seems to be heavily injured yet still trying to stand.
His presence makes itself known and the girl immediately hushes as she turns to him, glaring at him suspiciously.
Just as she opens her mouth, Zoro interrupts her by saying gruffly, "Ace huh? Got a ship?"
The swordsman doesn't even bother with niceties nor does he bother to act surprised at seeing him here. He gets right to the point and he does it without questioning everything; a man who knows his priorities.
Ace nods. "Yeah. I picked up Sanji as well. We're heading to Sabaody right now. We got blown off course but I suppose it's all good if we managed to find you here."
Zoro simply grunts as he painstakingly moves towards him, unmindful of the girl's shrieks of annoyed protest at his pigheadedness.
"Fine! See if I care if you drop dead!" the girl finally screeches but Ace stops her before she flies away.
"Wait. Do you know the direction Sabaody Archipelago is?"
After a bit more moaning and groaning, Ace finally gets the relevant information from her and he thanks her as she floats away in a huff.
They make their way back to the ship. Sanji raises his brow when he sees Zoro with him but he doesn't comment, only informs them that the ship is still sound and ready to go.
They both board and they are immediately off again.
Zoro is just as quiet as Sanji but his silence is more stoic and hardened. He's tense and that's the only thing that gives away the fact that something was even wrong in the first place. When he speaks, it's brief and to-the-point except for the occasional snipes with Sanji but even that was half-hearted at best.
Most days he sits on the deck against the mast, eyes closed and arms crossed but Ace knows for a fact that sleep never comes to him.
From his initial assessment of the crew on Alabasta, he could tell that Zoro most had what it takes to keep his little brother and the crew both in line as well as the capacity to lead and protect when push comes to shove.
He didn't think there was a rank amongst the motley pirate group but Zoro no doubt held some sort of seniority and authority over all the other crewmembers and it was with this thought that he approaches the swordsman one day.
Zoro opens one eye as he draws nearer in silent acknowledgement and Ace asks him, "What will you do now?"
"Luffy's death changes nothing," Zoro says with fierce conviction and a certain assuredness that makes Ace see just why he had become the unspoken first mate. "We still have our dreams and our futures. It's insulting to our captain to stop now."
And Ace understands in the way he clenches his hands that though Zoro hid it well, he still hurts, wondering why he wasn't by his captain's side in one of his most trying moments of life as his first mate and friend, wondering why he wasn't stronger but at the same time, he knows there's nothing left for him to do anymore for Luffy except finish what his captain had expected of him all along. For now it was pulling together his scattered crewmates so that they can grieve and move on.
"What about you?" Zoro asks in turn, staring up at him with steely eyes and Ace gets the feeling that Zoro understands more than the surface question he is asking.
It's a very good question though, one Ace hadn't really thought about until now because he couldn't bear living more than just moments at a time but he had to start thinking about his future again eventually.
He had wanted to be Pirate King when he had set sail at first but then he had aspired to make Whitebeard the King. Now, he knew if he were to pursue his original dream, it would only feel empty. Somewhere along the way, it had become something he never really wanted for himself and besides which, that had always been Luffy's dream and it didn't feel right to live his little brother's dream for him. With Whitebeard gone and the Whitebeard Pirates slowly but surely disbanding… what was left?
He frowns. "I'm not sure."
And they leave it at that.
The next island they come across is a tropical paradise with literal food growing on trees from meat to fruits to even candy and Ace thinks bitterly how much Luffy would have loved this island and from the looks of his two companions' faces, they agree.
At least they don't have to worry about food supplies but the creatures that live here are tough and they don't want to stick around long enough for one of them to destroy the ship.
After a brief scuffle between Zoro and Sanji about keeping Zoro onboard to keep watch of the ship because the idiot couldn't even find his way up a straight line, Sanji disappears into the forest while Ace wanders elsewhere to gather supplies.
The island is full of strange plants in addition to its monstrous creatures that leave him wary. The New World has things nastier than this but he still didn't want to be caught in one of these plants' tangles.
When he returns with his own bag of supplies, Sanji has yet to return and Zoro confirms it so he drops off the things he found into the hold and they wait.
It isn't until another five hours later that Sanji resurfaces with a large bag over his shoulder and a tight look on his face but he's surprised to find a rather chubby man with a tanned complexion, long nose, bushy black hair, and crying uncontrollably in tow.
They climb aboard but the Straw Hat sniper—Usopp—is near inconsolable as he continues to weep, blubbering incomprehensively but Ace could still make out the words "What was I doing?" and "Of course he needed me" and "Not there."
Usopp is a lot bigger than he was when he last saw him and there could be no doubt what had happened. The island was a virtual paradise, a paradise that one could live in comfort for the rest of their lives and Usopp had fallen for it but while he was languishing in the easy life, Luffy… was on the last legs of his battle.
The streams that run down Usopp's face weren't just tears of grief. They were liquid shame.
It takes a whole two days for him to calm down again but even so, he still breaks out into the occasional sob.
"I'mb zo zorry, Acze," Usopp sniffles wretchedly to him a week later when he finally gathers the courage to so much as even look at him. "You muzt rezent me zo much."
Ace shakes his head. "No… I don't."
He didn't think he even had any hate left in him at the moment, too drained and aching to muster even a vague dislike as it is and the last time he had allowed his temper to reign over his actions had cost him dearly.
"Do you hate uz now?"
He looks questioningly at the sniper.
"We failed to protect Luffy even though… even though…" Usopp chokes but he forces the next few words off a heavy tongue. "H-he waz our c-captain and y-you t-trusted y-y-your p-precious l-little br-brother to u-uz a-a-a-and w-we f-f-failed! WE FAILED TO PROTECT LUFFY!"
He breaks down all over again and Ace can tell the other two are watching him with carefully blank expressions on their faces for his reaction because they too felt guilty for the exact same thing.
Heat much hotter than even his own flames.
The smell of burning rubber.
He turns away so that they won't see the regret heavy in his eyes.
"Ace is… safe."
"… Have no right to judge you on what you failed to protect."
"Thank… goodness… Shishishi."
After all, the biggest failure is with himself.
It's been a little over a month since their initial departure, their journey complicated by the usual danger the Grand Line posed such as its utter unpredictability and the usual enemy ships, a lack of a meteorologist on board to warn of incoming storms, and a professional navigator. Though Ace is relatively sufficient, he was only just skilled enough to allow travel on the seas.
Conversation has returned to the ship during this time, however, usually hushed and light but it was conversation nonetheless. Sometimes, they would simply sit around the table after dinner was cleared with cups of warm tea between their hands and soft words in the air.
Nothing they say is blatantly dawdling but nonetheless, they're careful and Ace knows it's him they're careful around. At the same time, they don't try to skate over the issue as though trying to pretend Luffy's death hadn't happened. They simply recognize that they each need to approach this at their own pace on their own terms and that out of all of them, he was the one who hurts the most so while they don't exactly baby him, their insight is evident in their quiet company around him and though they had met him for only a fleeting glance of time back in Alabasta, he was already absorbed within their arms as though he had been travelling with them all along.
When they finally land surreptitiously at Sabaody all of what little heart they had managed to slowly regain over the course of their journey instantly vanishes again as if it were nothing but a dream that had overstayed its visit and they grimly make their way towards where the Thousand Sunny was waiting.
"Sanji! Zoro! Usopp!" cries a young voice as what looks like a miniature reindeer on two legs rushes up to them, tears pearling in his wide eyes. He blinks up at him when he notices that he too is among the ranks of his usual crewmates. "A-and Ace too?"
"Yeah. He was the one who picked us up from our islands," Sanji answers in a wisp of smoke.
Chopper the reindeer doctor looks up at Ace with large, pleading eyes and at that moment, Ace's stomach turns to stone. He knows what's to come next.
"Hey… It's not true is it? Luffy can't be… He just can't be… Luffy isn't dead right?" Chopper wails loudly.
Behind the young reindeer, a woman slowly approaches them with an expressionless face. He hadn't seen her before the last time he saw Luffy's crew but she wasn't entirely unfamiliar.
He refocuses his attention on the crew's doctor, however, and he steels himself for what he's about to say because denying Luffy's death won't do anyone any favors even if it shreds them to pieces.
"No. He's definitely dead. Akainu's attack went… went right through him a-and burned all his internal organs… there was…" He swallows but his mouth remains dry. "There was nothing that could've saved him. I know because I saw it happen before my eyes," he manages to squeeze out from his suddenly breathless lungs.
Chopper begins to bawl and the woman—Nico Robin—immediately kneels to scoop him up in her arms, running her fingers through his fur as she closes her eyes and for long moments, there is no other sound and Ace needs to remind himself to breathe again.
The rest of the group hangs their heads, trying to let the information sink in, trying not to let the dam break, trying not to let the what-ifs drive them mad with regret.
"So it's true then," a quivering voice finally asks, hairline cracks close to breaking. "Luffy's dead."
They turn to see a redheaded girl standing behind them, head bowed and hands fisted by her sides as her thin shoulders shake in her vain efforts to keep in her overflowing emotions.
"Nami…" Usopp voices helplessly amongst his own tears, unsure what to say to make his sister figure feel better again.
But Nami had already made her way up to him and before anyone could so much as blink, she slaps him, the sharp reverberating sound as harsh as the sting.
"WHERE WERE YOU WHEN HE DIED? WHY DIDN'T YOU PROTECT HIM? YOU'RE HIS OLDER BROTHER AREN'T YOU? YOU WERE RIGHT THERE WEREN'T YOU? WHAT WERE YOU DOING?" Nami screams through her tears as she shakes him forcibly by the shoulders.
He lets her but doesn't reply because he doesn't know the answer himself.
"ANSWER ME! YOU…!"
Before she could strike him again, her wrist is seized midair and she stops, blinking grief-filled eyes towards Zoro, who had caught her.
"Zoro! Let me g—"
"That's enough," Zoro says in the quiet rumble of his voice, firm and unyielding but his grip loosens and he allows the hand to drop back by the navigator's side, limp and boneless, sapped of all energy.
Nami hangs her head as her shoulders begin to shake again in heaving sobs, sinking to the ground and wetting the ground with her tears.
"Luffy…" she whimpers softly, a palm against her eye and fingers clutching her hair. Sanji moves silently to kneel beside her and put an arm around her.
She turns and cries into the comfort of Sanji's shoulder and the cook holds her there, face stony but no less sorrowful.
"I'm sorry," he apologizes sincerely to them all because these people were as much Luffy's family as he was, "adopted" the same way he was adopted: by sheer force of will, faith, dedication, and unconditional love.
For a long moment, there is nothing but heartache in the air so thick that it feels as though it would never go away, almost as though they can never be happy ever again and he was the one who did this, who was the fool who hurt them this way.
When they calm again, Nami is the one who suggests in a deadened voice that they should probably go rest now. None of them feel particularly hungry so they head over towards the ship stiffly and almost mechanically.
They show Ace the necessary parts of the ship and welcome him to anything onboard before they each drift their own ways. Some gravitate to each other for comfort in their pain while others choose the comfort of solitude to sooth their wounds.
Ace simply sits and stares at the sky.
Breakfast the next day is a solemn affair. It didn't fit them at all.
He isn't the only one with that sentiment, it seems, in the tense way everyone sits eating their food, hyperaware of something missing in their midst.
No more indignant shouting as food is snatched from plates. No more demands for more. No more noisy laughter. No more Lu—
"I'm done," Nami announces as she pushes her chair back, having finished her plate in record time and wanting to escape the stifling atmosphere of what can never be again.
"Me too," Usopp says as he too gets up even though his plate is still full and untouched.
Sanji doesn't say anything to that; only takes it and saves it up for another time. He already knows that Usopp's remorse still sits too heavy for him to look at food without feeling like it was betrayal.
Usopp hesitates by the door and asks behind him tentatively, "Does anyone want to help me build something?" in an attempt to help alleviate if even a small bit of the pain in his family's heart.
"I think that is a great idea," Robin agrees quietly with a small smile and Ace marvels at her ability to be able to muster such strength for the sake of her friends. "Why don't we all help?"
"Okay, Robin," Chopper says, sounding so small and young as he slides out of his chair and walks towards Usopp.
"I'll be out in a minute," Sanji says as he begins to clear the table.
Zoro doesn't say anything but he moves out all the same.
Ace offers to help Sanji with the table.
This time the cook consents.
The last two crewmates of Luffy's are unfamiliar and they introduce themselves to him as Franky the shipwright and Brook the musician.
They are unusual but he supposes it's to be expected.
With the crew fully assembled, it was finally time to get to the heart of things, no matter how painful it is.
There is silence at first, the sound of bubbles popping all around them like explosions in their ears, but the topic must be broached.
They all must know what happened at Marineford. They all have a duty to.
So upon their unspoken looks of askance, Ace recounts the war as well as he can without falling apart but even so, he can still hear the apology in every word he utters.
The crew doesn't interrupt him and waits patiently during the parts where he must pause to keep himself together long enough to at least finish the story.
There is a small comfort in the way they sit through it with him but he still wants their forgiveness even if he may never forgive himself, even if they don't think there's anything to forgive.
When he finishes, Chopper, Nami, Usopp, and Franky are each openly shedding tears. Robin sits and rubs Nami's back as she cries, eyes dipped in deep sorrow while Brook sits beside her, rigid. Zoro and Sanji sit stolid on their spots but their faces are drawn and weary.
"Luffy…" Nami cries piteously. "I'm sorry, Luffy. I'm sorry."
"This doesn't feel real," Brook murmurs, running phalanges across his cane. "Luffy-san always seemed so… indestructible, bigger than life sometimes. With him gone… It's a bit surreal."
Ace knows what he means.
A few more minutes pass by in mourning before Zoro speaks, bringing everyone's attention to him, wide-eyed and tired.
"We'll still continue," he says shortly. "Even if Luffy is dead, it still doesn't change anything. We'll continue to the New World."
Everyone trades glances with one another but Ace sees no uncertainty in those gazes.
"You're right. It doesn't change anything. Luffy…" Nami trails off but clears her throat and continues. "Luffy wouldn't have wanted us to stop," she finishes somewhat firmly, stubbornly.
"I agree with Nami-san," Sanji says, with a cigarette to his lips. "It'll be a disservice to the shitty captain if we just decided to let off when we've gotten so far."
"Y-yeah! W-we'll always be the St-Straw Hat Pirates," Usopp stutters amongst voices of agreement.
And it is incredible how strong the crew is and if Ace was a poetic person, he would relate what is happening before his eyes to a blooming flower after winter.
As expected of his little brother. Nothing but the best of the best.
They aren't done grieving just yet. It would take time for such a deep scar to heal, to adjust, but seeing the crew pull themselves together like this makes something deep within him relax and he allows himself a faint smile.
He doesn't know if it's relief but...
"Do… Do you want to come with us?"
The tentative question comes from Usopp and Ace gives pause before shaking his head. "No. I don't have a dream yet like you all do. I'll have to find it again."
"That's fine. We can help you find it together," Franky responds, blinking as if asking why it should even matter.
For a moment, Ace doesn't answer. He doesn't know if he could bear to travel with the people Luffy left behind, whether it's even right to do so as though he could ever even begin to act as some sorry fill-in to a now vacant hole left in his little brother's wake.
"I… do have something," Ace says slowly instead. "It's not exactly a dream but… I remember when Luffy and I were kids, we promised each other we would be the freest people in the world."
He could see recognition lighting a few of the people sitting before him as realization dawns upon them. Sanji, Franky, Nami, Robin, and Usopp all exchange looks as Ace wonders about the strange reaction.
"What is it?"
They jolt back to attention and Nami waves a hand to assure him it's nothing serious.
"No, it's just that… when we first arrived at Sabaody, we went to a place called Shakky's Bar and Luffy said something to Silvers Rayleigh that kind of reminded us of that promise you made with Luffy. Rayleigh asked Luffy if he could really conquer the Grand Line but Luffy just laughed and said that he didn't want to conquer anything; just that the one who has the most freedom is called the Pirate King."
Ace's eyes widen at that.
He remembers now and he wonders how he could have possibly forgotten, let such an important lesson go.
Sabo's death was caused by the opposite of freedom; the world, the government, and the Marines who had all come to represent the world's oppression and corruption.
Pirates were supposed to symbolize the opposite, doing what one pleased wherever and whenever with nothing to hold them down. And if pirates were freedom then the King of Pirates were those who could have the strength to fly the freest even in the face of the ones who wish to tie them down.
He allows a single breathless laugh to escape him.
Of course. Luffy had figured it all out. His dumb little brother was so smart in so many other ways.
And it was funny. Even when dead… his little brother still manages to save him.
Everyone is staring at him now, wondering after his sudden burst of good humor and he gives a sedated smile of apology.
"Sorry, sorry, no. I was just… Heh… Luffy is a lot smarter than we give him credit for," he explains, shrugging helplessly and he is gratified by the answering smiles and faint chuckles.
If he wasn't sure before, he certainly is now.
And he thinks he's ready.
"I have one other thing," he says to the group at large who turns to him curiously.
He knows the crew is strong enough for this, possibly even stronger than he could ever be as he presents them with two items.
One is the very hat their crew is named after and the other is a small, nondescript red urn.
There are a few gasps as they spot the hat but turn uncertain eyes at the object next to it.
Ace is certain the hat is self-explanatory so he explains the urn.
"This," he says, picking it up carefully in his hands and their eyes follow its motion, "is Luffy's ashes."
Eyes widen as the words sink in and a few exclamations of shock follow.
"L-L-Luffy's ashes?" Chopper squeaks.
Ace nods. "I thought it wouldn't be right for only me to decide where his final resting place should be."
It had sickened him at first to cremate his little brother considering the way he had died but there was no other choice and he had the support of his crew and Marco, who put things in perspective by pointing out how much better it is to be surrounded by the warmth his own brother's flame rather than allowing the foul mark of Akainu's heat to remain so that in this way, it was like a healing fire.
There is collective silence as the group stares at the urn in no small amount of wonder and heartbreaking longing.
"I don't think Luffy is fit to be buried anywhere I mean, can you see it? Being stuck in the ground in one place? He could barely even stay put on his own ship," Nami finally half giggles, half hiccups.
"I think you're right in that," Franky mutters, shaking his head. "It doesn't fit Luffy to be buried."
"So? Scatter his ashes?" Sanji suggests.
"That sounds like the most suitable way to let him go," Robin agrees calmly.
Ace thought they would think this way as well.
Zoro eyes him as he says, "You should do it."
Ace blinks at him and Zoro shrugs and simply says, "Luffy went through hell to save you. Should only be right."
But it's not an accusation. It's a statement.
You're his most beloved brother.
Ace looks down at the urn between his hands and it feels warm.
"Yeah," he murmurs. "I'll do it."
They sail a distance away from Sabaody where the sun is warm and the waves are gentle. The sky high above is the blue of promise, the clouds white and dreamy, and it was all fine and perfect.
He stands on the figurehead. The Straw Hats stand behind him.
The wind is cool and it brings in the smell of the sea.
Ace breathes it in deeply and savors it. It is the wind that will carry Luffy to all corners of the globe, to all the adventures he could possibly ever want.
He opens the urn and scatters Luffy's ashes into the rushes of the world so that he can be everywhere and everything at once, freedom even in death; freer, perhaps, than them all.
Sorry if the transitions seem a bit rough but I hope you enjoyed!