Part VI

The Whitebeard Pirates had an entire wall of the mess hall of the Moby Dick covered with the wanted posters of every member of the crew and ally who had a price on their head. Ace had seen it the first time he had entered the room, and later that day had spent a good half an hour looking at the bounties. Some were stuck in a pile, one on top of another, and those piles contained the different upgrades of a person's bounty. Ace hadn't been surprised to discover than the ones with the most pages were Marco's and Whitebeard's.

Aside from that, when Vista had overheard Luffy regretting he couldn't show Ace his crew, Ace had learned that they also kept a sort of archive with every wanted poster, of anyone and from anywhere, that came out.

Right now, Ace was looking at the picture of an incredibly cute yet unidentifiable animal —Luffy claimed it was a reindeer— who apparently was the Strawhat Pirates' doctor.

"Hey, old man!" Everybody in hearing range turned at this to see Luffy standing in front of Whitebeard's chair. Marco grinned, amused, at the reactions this earned. It seemed his brothers and sisters still hadn't understood that Luffy just didn't respect someone based on their reputation, much less fear them. Marco wasn't sure Luffy even knew how to express what most people would call 'proper' respect, even when it came to someone he truly respected.

"What do you want?" Pops asked, looking at him over the edge of his bottle of sake. He seemed as amused as Marco was.

"Can you take me to Sabaody?"

Yesterday, when Bon-chan had finally woke up, Ivankov and his people had taken the last remaining marine battleship and had left after a very loud and tearful goodbye, leaving Luffy as the only non-Whitebeard Pirate left with the crew.

"Ask Marco, he's in charge of the route," Pops said, as if they hadn't already decided they would drop him off wherever he wanted to go, and as if they didn't have to go to Sabaody to get their ships coated either way.

Luffy turned big and hopeful eyes on Marco. He opened his mouth.

"We'll go there," Marco said before he could ask, and threw an annoyed look at an amused Pops.

Luffy grinned.

"Why do you want to go there, anyway?" Izo, who was sitting in a chair before a folding table doing his nails, asked.

"I agreed to meet my friends there. They're probably waiting for me already."

"Wait, so it was true?" Vista asked, looking at Luffy. More people turned to him, and there were more than one set of widened eyes. Marco had the feeling he was missing something, and he didn't like that.

"What was true?" he asked.

"Oh, right, you'd already left. The day after Ace's execution was announced, there was a story in the newspaper saying how this crazy guy," Vista pointed at Luffy, "had punched a Tenryuubito."

"That guy hurt Hatchan!" Luffy argued, as if that explained it all. For them, it did, but for almost everybody else in the world it would be a stupid as hell reason and a plainly suicidal move.

That Luffy saw defending a friend as reason enough for punching a Tenryuubito had many people around them nodding in approval.

"The article also said your crew had been defeated," Vista continued. "I'm guessing that's not exactly true."

A shadow crossed Luffy's face, and it was by far the most serious expression Marco had seen on him.

"We lost, but then this bear guy sent us all flying away, and the marines didn't catch us."

"Bear guy?" Izo asked.

"Yeah," Luffy nodded. "He was a Shichibukai."

"Another Shichibukai?" Ace asked, in an incredulous voice that made Marco think Crocodile wasn't the only other Shichibukai Ace was thinking about that Luffy had fought. Maybe he should ask about it.

"Kuma?" Vista asked. "I've heard some stories about that guy's powers."

It hadn't been even two hours since they had decided to head for Sabaody when they spotted the boat heading for them. The occupant of the boat was identified soon by the senior members of the crew, which created a bit of a stir in the crew —if, by stir, one understood panicked younger members and misunderstandings that a fight was about to occur.

Whitebeard had to yell for everybody to just shut the fuck up, which attracted the attention of those who hadn't already caught on to the nervousness. Mainly, the two brothers that had been once more talking on the ship's figurehead.

"What's going on?" Ace asked, approaching Whitebeard's seat with Luffy in tow.

"Silvers Rayleigh is heading our way," Jozu told them.

"The Dark King?" Ace asked, eyes widening.

"Old man Rayleigh?!" Luffy asked at the same time, a wide grin taking up his face.

Ace turned to him.

"You know him?"

"Yeah! He helped us with the marines, and is coating the Sunny." Luffy searched in his pockets and took out a vivre card. "He gave us this, too."

Marco, who had gone to wait by the railing as soon as they had spotted him, pulled up the rope they had thrown to help Rayleigh up, and he climbed on board the ship.

"I don't need help, you know," Rayleigh told Marco lightly.

"Oh? And here I thought old age would have affected you."

"Hey, old man!" Luffy greeted happily, earning himself more astonished looks that he ignored as easily as the previous ones.

"Ah, Luffy-kun, it's good to see you again," Rayleigh grinned. "Whitebeard," he nodded to the captain.

"Rayleigh. It's been a long time. You wanna fight or something?"

"Nah. Maybe later. Actually, I wanted to talk to Luffy-kun."

Silence had fallen after Rayleigh had explained his reasoning. He was right, anyone with experience fighting in the New World could tell as much. Luffy was strong, and he would be able to survive in the New World, but he was nowhere strong enough to go up against the most powerful people there, and that was precisely the sort of people he would have to go up against if he really wanted a chance at becoming the Pirate King.

"What do you propose?" Marco asked, because Luffy still looked mostly pensive. "He will have to warn his crew somehow if they are going to take a break." Rayleigh had told them that, by the time he had left Sabaody a couple of days ago —his vivre card was with Shakky now— none of Luffy's crewmembers had returned yet.

Rayleigh smiled.

"Luffy-kun has earned a lot of attention after appearing with you lot at Impel Down," the way he said it made it clear he knew there was more to the story, "and Sabaody is still crawling with reporters waiting for any news on it. After what happened at Grove 1," here he looked at Luffy, "that auction house is closed, but the Tenryuubito are back with their shopping trips to Sabaody."

"What are you suggesting?" Ace asked suspiciously. He had made a point not to talk directly to Rayleigh since he had arrived, but it seemed that, seeing how seriously Luffy was taking this, Ace had decided to overlook any suspicion he might be feeling towards Rayleigh for his relationship with Roger.

Rayleigh grinned and turned to Luffy.

"What do you say about punching some more Tenryuubito?"

"I can't believe Luffy has agreed to this," Ace muttered later that day, but in a way that made it clear he could believe it. He was simply annoyed, Marco was sure, because everybody had agreed that it wouldn't be a good idea for Ace to accompany Luffy in this. The objective was to draw the reporters' attention to Luffy; Rayleigh's presence with him would distract them enough, but if Ace was there he would probably attract all their attention.

After some talking, Pops had decided they would help —Marco knew he had decided it the moment Rayleigh had showed up, but had announced it to ensure nobody had any doubts about it. They would go to Sabaody and wait some distance away from the archipelago while Luffy and Rayleigh headed there with the latter's boat. According to Rayleigh, the Tenryuubito visited the place very often, and it wouldn't be long —maybe a week at most— before one or two showed up.

Luffy had now a temporary henna tattoo on his right arm that showed a scratched out 3D, followed by a 2Y, a message for his crew. Luffy would punch a Tenryuubito with that arm when there were some reporters around. No reporter who valued themselves would resist taking a picture of someone crazy enough to attack a Tenryuubito, much less if that said someone was accompanied by the Dark King himself. The government, they all agreed, would jump at the chance of publishing any news that would distract the population from the whole fiasco at Impel Down —which still occupied a good part of the newspapers— and they were counting on it.

There were even some bets around the crew —and outside of the crew, because Rayleigh had joined in— trying to guess what sort of reason the reporters would come up with for Luffy's attack —the most common option was a statement the sort of 'we haven't been defeated' regarding his crew.

Once the attack was over, Luffy and Rayleigh would take the boat again and head for the Moby Dick, and from there they would go to an island next to Amazon Lily that Rayleigh thought would be a good place to train. Luffy had said he wanted to stop at Amazon Lily to thank Hancock for all her help, and most of the crew had supported the idea, though for much less innocent reasons —nobody had even thought of asking what Luffy had to thank Hancock for, too busy fantasizing about the infamous Isle of Women. Marco had been forced to agree to go there, but under the condition that no one was to set foot on the island without express permission from the empress herself. They didn't need any trouble.

Right now, Luffy and Rayleigh had just left, and Marco and Ace —along with many others— were watching as the boat grew smaller on the horizon. Luffy was still waving wildly. A lot of people were still waving back at him, too.

"I'm going to be worried sick until he comes back," Ace said.

"He'll be fine," Marco assured him. "I know you don't like Rayleigh much, but he's strong."

"Yeah, I know, but still…" Ace trailed off. He didn't have to say it, Marco understood. As the unofficial older brother of the Whitebeard Pirates, he knew just fine what it felt to worry constantly about reckless little brothers.

"If you want to forget about it for a while," Marco started, cautiously because he wasn't sure how Ace would respond in the current circumstances, "I seem to remember I owe you something."

Ace turned to him, a surprised expression on his face. He grinned.

"I was starting to think you'd forgotten."

This was the first time Ace was in Marco's cabin. It was not how he had expected it to be. Maybe it was because of Marco's usually calm demeanor, or perhaps it was his position of authority, but Ace had expected order: a neatly organized desk, a bookcase with some books and trinkets and the bed made. There was a desk, but it was littered with scattered papers, pens and pencils —there might even be an inkwell thrown in somewhere— and the bookcase held books, papers and small boxes stacked on the shelves, and many of the books weren't even in a vertical position or a straight pile. The bed was unmade, the sheets thrown to the side and fallen halfway to the floor, and there were some clothes thrown over the back of the chair.

The place felt lived in and comfy, and Ace decided he liked it.

"Are you still sure about this?" Marco asked from behind him, where he still stood next to the now closed door.

Ace rolled his eyes and turned around.

"Are you seriously asking? Man, you're a pirate, aren't you supposed to just take whatever you want?"

Marco's lips quirked into a half smile.

"True, how inconsiderate of me to ask. It won't happen again."

"Good." Ace nodded solemnly, or would have if his lips hadn't been caught mid-nod in a hungry kiss.

Oh, well, he didn't mind. He was getting better at this. He gave as good as he got.

Marco's hands on his shoulders started to guide him backwards towards the bed, but Ace had no intention of falling there while still dressed. He pushed Marco's shirt off his shoulders, and, open as it was, it slid down easily. Marco let go of him to allow the garment to fall and, having caught on, he did the same to the shirt Ace was wearing.

Before Ace could reach for Marco's lower body he heard a thump, and when his hands found Marco's waistband, there were no sash or belt in the way.

Marco broke the kiss and leaned down to trace his mouth over Ace's neck, lips, tongue and the occasional brush of teeth making him gasp and sigh.

He hadn't noticed his hand had stopped halfway through unzipping Marco's pants until his own slipped from his hips and fell to the floor. He hadn't even realized his belt was gone.

Determined not to stay as a passive party here, he made quick work of Marco's pants and took his sizable erection in one hand. Marco was fully erect, but so was Ace. In fact, this was the fastest he could remember ever getting hard.

"Can we move to the bed now?" Marco asked against his shoulder, sounding slightly amused. Annoyed, Ace squeezed his cock in a way that made Marco groan.

"Don't mock me."

Marco straightened and looked him right in the eye.

"I never would." He said it with such earnestness that Ace had to kiss him. It was that —continuing with what they were doing— or having a deep conversation. He wasn't ready for another one of those so soon. Besides, he really wanted to do this.

This time he let himself be walked backwards to the bed, and once he was on it he kicked his boots off and scooted further on the mattress, so his whole body was on it, and Marco moved to kneel between his parted legs. Ace absentmindedly noticed Marco was barefoot, and thought it must have required a great deal of skill to kick those sandals off.

He wasn't expecting Marco to trap one of his nipples with his mouth. He gasped when Marco sucked on it, because it was a more sensitive area than Ace would have believed. He wondered what other parts of his body were more sensitive than he thought, and he wanted Marco to explore his body to find them. But not now. Ace knew himself, he had always —when the need had been too strong to resist— masturbated as quickly and silently as possible. Marco had told him the other day that he wanted to hear him moan, and Ace could do that, but —as had been proved the other day as well— he knew he wouldn't last long. Maybe with time.

He stopped Marco before he could start kissing a trail down his chest.

"Oh, come on," he complained, using his best petulant voice, "get on with it."

The way Marco looked at him told Ace he could see right through his façade, but he nodded and sat up all the same.

Marco reached for the nightstand's top drawer, and Ace wondered for half a second what he was doing before he remembered a common aspect he had heard about in most consensual relationships between two guys: lube. That thought reminded him of something else, the position he had heard so often about and that seemed to be a favorite. He moved to turn around and get on all fours, but Marco stopped him with a hand on his hip before he could so much as twist around.

"No. Stay as you are." Ace tilted his head in confusion. "I want to see your face." Ace could understand that. He remembered Marco's face when he had come in Ace's hand a couple of days ago in the shower and decided that he wanted to be able to see Marco, too.

Now holding a small bottle in his left hand, Marco settled back between Ace's parted legs. He left the bottle on the sheets and hooked both hands on the underside of Ace's knees, making him part his legs a bit more and bend his knees further, leaving his ass more exposed. Ace shivered, and wondered when he had come to trust Marco so much that he didn't mind being in such a vulnerable position before him.

"Now, I know you probably won't listen," Marco said, taking the bottle and pouring a small amount of its contents on his hand. He spread the translucent substance over three fingers, "but if it hurts too much or you want to stop for any reason, tell me and I'll stop."

Ace scoffed. He had been to Impel Down, he may not have been regularly tortured like other prisoners —he refused to think about the reason the guards hadn't dared to touch him in this situation— but he had been there and he knew pain. A little sting in the ass was nothing in comparison.

Marco shook his head and leaned forward, looking down between Ace's parted legs. Ace didn't have much time to think how strange it was to have his ass regarded with such rapt attention before he felt the tip of a finger press against his hole. Then it pushed slowly in, through the tight ring of muscles, and Ace's body tensed up involuntarily. This was something he had never dared to try on himself, no matter how curious he might have been, and the finger fit in much more snuggly than he had expected it would. Nevertheless, it didn't hurt, and Ace forced his body to relax.

Marco had stopped, and was looking at him.

"I'm fine," he assured him, "it's just weird. Keep going."

He did. Marco leaned down, pressed his lips to the back of Ace's ear and pushed his finger in deeper. Then, his mouth once again tracing patterns over Ace's neck, sucking and biting shallowly on his skin, he started to pull his finger out and then push it back in, a little deeper each time. Ace let out a loud gasp when in one of those occasions two fingers entered him instead of one, and he tensed up again. Marco stilled his hand.

"Are you alright?"

"Y-Yes." It didn't hurt, not really, it was just an unexpected sensation. "This will take some getting used to."

Marco chuckled, and his fingers started to move again inside of Ace in a sort of circling pattern that stretched him further. Marco held himself up with his free hand to look down at Ace's face.

"You'll get used to it. You just need practice."

"Oh, okay." With the distraction of the fingers in his ass, it took Ace a moment to realize one of the possible implications of Marco's words. "Have you ever bottomed?" he asked, curious and somewhat disbelieving.

"Of course." Ace inhaled sharply when Marco added the third finger, but glared at him right away to make it clear he didn't want him to stop. Marco kept going. "Would you like to fuck me too?" he asked with a smirk.

Ace breathed deeply.

"Ye-FUCK!" A pleasurable, toe-curling sensation ran through his body when Marco's fingers touched something inside of him. Marco did it again, and Ace groaned.

"Then," Marco said, leaning closer to brush his lips against Ace's, "pay attention and next round I'm yours."

Ace nodded. Yes, he would love that.

Marco went back to his original kneeling position between Ace's legs and pulled his fingers out. Ace was surprised to realize he missed their presence, his ass now feeling strangely empty without them.

He didn't say anything, and instead watched in fascination as Marco coated his erection with a generous amount of lube.

Marco shifted closer and took hold of Ace's legs, hooking both of them over his elbows.

"Keep them there for now," Marco told him, and Ace nodded. "This might hurt."

A hand held his hip, and Ace kept his eyes on Marco's other hand, the one directing his cock to Ace's ass.

He felt the tip against his hole, and when it breached him, there was much more pressure than there had been with the first finger. Ace pressed his lips together, but refused to close his eyes.

"Keep moving," he told Marco when he realized he had stilled.

Marco did, pushing in at a slow and torturous pace that breached Ace open more than his fingers had managed to do earlier. Ace considered telling him to push all the way in with a single thrust, but he was pretty sure that way there was a risk of hurting him more than the burning ache he was now feeling and that Marco would refuse.

Once he was completely in, Marco closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and Ace was sure he was controlling himself not to start moving yet. Ace wondered how it must feel for him, being inside Ace.

The ache had started to fade.

"Marco..." Ace panted out, and didn't need to say anything else.

Marco started to move, panting slightly as well himself, his hips rocking against Ace's, cock sliding partially out of him before coming back in. Ace moved as well, doing his best to follow the pace with his hips, but whenever he caught up Marco quickened the rhythm and depth of his thrusts until his cock came all the way out only to slam back into Ace.

Ace moaned loudly when in one of those thrusts Marco hit again that spot from before, and, above him, Marco smirked. He aimed there from then on, and hit it often enough to have Ace moaning and groaning almost constantly.

Ace grabbed Marco's hand when it moved to wrap around his cock.

"No..." he said, "I want to last."

He knew he wouldn't last much either way, but he tried to force himself not to come for as long as possible, and, when he finally couldn't hold back any longer, he came with a loud groan, coating both their bellies with his cum. It wasn't long, maybe a few thrust Ace's muddled brain couldn't bother to keep track of, when he felt a warm liquid filling him, his name moaned into his neck.

Marco fell to the side, pulling Ace with him until he was lying on Marco's chest, his cock sliding out of Ace with the movement.

"And you said I would regret it," Ace said when he could breathe normally.

Marco chuckled.

"In prison. I said you might regret it if we did it in prison."

"Well, I don't," Ace stated, turning his head up to look at Marco's grinning face, "and I'm taking you up on that offer for a second round. Just let me recover a little."

"Oh?" Marco raised an eyebrow and smirked at him. "You need time to recover? I don't need any time to recover, but if you can't keep up with an old man, then by all means take your time."

Ace frowned. He had known that old man comment would come back to bite him in the ass.

"Not all of us have freakish regeneration powers."

"That's a nice excuse," Marco said in a fake understanding tone that made Ace grit his teeth, "but maybe you should have thought about that before throwing that challenge at me."

That was it, and judging by Marco's smirk he was aware of it.

Ace moved to straddle his lap and frowned down at him, hands taking Marco by both sides of his face.

"I never back off from a challenge."

"Prove it."

Ace leaned down and kissed him in a way that could be called almost violent. Marco seemed perfectly content with it.

As a kid, Ace had never cared much about the news. He didn't read the newspapers, and everything he knew was learned either through Dadan, Sabo or whatever he overheard both in the Gray Terminal and Goa Kingdom itself. Now, however, after so many years of isolation with scarce possibilities of learning what was going on in the world —those being limited to things Gramps might say during his visits and whatever he overheard the guards and the new prisoners talking about— Ace felt the need to just know about the world.

That's why, during the days they waited for Luffy's return, he spent a good part of his time sitting somewhere on deck reading over old newspapers that Marco had lent him. Many people approached him during these times, and he ended up spending more time talking than reading —not that he minded, as this way he got to know his new crew— but he did learn some interesting information. Like how Dragon, Gramps' son and Luffy's dad, was now the most wanted man in the world. Gramps had ranted sometimes about him, but never in enough depth for Ace to know just how dangerous Dragon was past the fact of him being a wanted criminal.

He had only covered a couple of years by the time Luffy and Rayleigh returned, both of them perfectly fine because they had fled the island before an admiral could reach it. Luffy seemed to be in a great mood now that he had sent his message. They were going to wait until tomorrow's paper came out before heading for the calm belt —Marco had explained the whole plan again later the first day after Luffy left, because during the actual planning Ace had been too worried to pay much attention to the details— but would sail away from Sabaody to avoid any confrontation with the marines.

That night, for no real reason, there was a smaller version of the party at the island, with only the Whitebeard Pirates, Luffy and Rayleigh. Ace was more careful about the food this time —he still stuffed himself, and was a bit more used to it because he had been eating regularly there past few days, but this time he paid attention to his stomach and stopped at the first twinge of protest— and had his first experience with alcohol since the day he became brothers with Sabo and Luffy.

As was bound to happen his first time, Ace got drunk ridiculously soon. It turned out Ace was a weird drunk. He didn't stick to one mood, be it depressed or overly joyous, instead switching from one to another. He clung to Luffy, claiming how glad he was to have him back in his life, he challenged Rayleigh to a fight —which he lost spectacularly— and joined in all the singing even though he didn't know any of the songs.

When he jumped Marco in the middle of the deck, Marco decided he had had enough and dragged him away from the party.

Ace remembered everything of it the next morning, it turned out he wasn't even one of those drunks who didn't remember what they had done, and was teased mercilessly for his actions that night. He endured the teasing because he could tell there was no ill intent behind it. He didn't like it, though, but he figured it was something he would have to get used to.

He got the feeling people knew when to stop, because no one went so far that Ace had to beat them.

A week later, the Whitebeard Pirates and the Kuja Pirates stood at one of the shores of Rusukaina Island, an island northwest of Amazon Lily in the Calm Belt. The two crews stood separate, as the women from the Kuja Pirates were wary of all the men from the Whitebeard Pirates, and Marco had threatened hell to anybody from his family who tried anything stupid.

Talking to Luffy were both Ace and Hancock. Hancock had tried to offer to bring all sorts of things for Luffy, which Rayleigh had vetoed with good reason, because they were here to train, not on vacation. It had been amusing to Marco —and massively baffling and a source of envy for most everyone else— to realize the reason Hancock had helped Luffy was because she had a massive crush on him. Everybody was still too disconcerted or too distracted to even wonder how Luffy knew Hancock or why she was here. Even if they asked and were told, Pops had promised Hancock the World Government wouldn't learn of her role in aiding Luffy from anyone of their crew, and that had seemed to work. She may hate men in general —Luffy and Rayleigh were an exception, and Ace seemed to be to some extent on behalf of being Luffy's brother— but she was not stupid, and knew Whitebeard's word wasn't to be taken lightly.

Now Ace and Luffy were saying their goodbyes, and promising to meet in the New World in two years, when Luffy set sail again. He had told anybody who would listen about his crew, and everybody was curious to meet the people crazy enough to follow this insane and incredible kid. It hadn't been spoken out loud, but Marco knew they all agreed with the idea of meeting the Strawhat Pirates in two years' time. They were even eager about it.

When the time to depart came, the Kuja Pirates left first, Hancock still blushing and looking a mix of worried and proud of Luffy.

Marco was one of the last to board their ships, waiting for Ace. Luffy walked with Ace all the way to the ship, and as Luffy approached his eyes met Marco's. There was a serious look in them that Marco knew was strange, and he didn't need any words to understand what Luffy was trying to tell him. He nodded minutely. Of course he was going to make sure Ace would be alright.

Luffy grinned when they reached him.

"See ya, Marco," he said, chuckling, and Marco grinned back.

"Have fun training, Luffy," he told him. Which would be true, somewhat, even if he knew Rayleigh was going to be one hell of a stern teacher.

"Don't do anything too stupid," Ace said in a way that implied this wasn't the first time he said it and he didn't really expect Luffy to listen to him.

Luffy laughed again and then, with a somewhat more serious grin, said:

"You just wait, Ace, next time we meet I'll be stronger than you."

"Like hell you will!" Ace exclaimed. "You think you're the only one who's gonna be training?"

As they finally left, Ace waved at Luffy for as long as the island was visible, the same way Luffy was doing while Marco could still make his silhouette out in the distance.

Once they couldn't see the island anymore, he placed a hand on Ace's shoulder.

"You mentioned training?"

Portgas D. Ace woke up with the sun shining on his face. It was late by now, and the bed was empty, the cold sheets signaling Marco had been gone for some time now. It was part of Ace's morning routine, to wake up alone most days. Once he had gotten used to sleeping on a bed, he had taken the habit of sleeping in —he thought it was to make up for all the lost time without a bed to sleep on— and Marco, who needed to sleep even less time than even an average person, let him stay in bed for as long as he wanted, with two exceptions: if there was an attack, Ace was woken up like anybody else, whatever the time —it wasn't like he would want to miss the fun, either way— and, if they were about to reach an island, Marco made sure Ace was awake by the time they reached the port, because Ace liked to take as much advantage as possible of every visit to land.

Today, however, was a normal day, and a look at the clock on the nightstand told him breakfast wasn't over yet. It wouldn't have mattered even if breakfast time had been over, because there was always food waiting for him in the mess hall when he woke up.

Ace got dressed —he didn't put a shirt on, because he had his jolly roger tattoo on his back and avoided covering it unless the weather demanded it— and left the cabin.

It had been two years now since he had joined the Whitebeard Pirates, and sometimes he felt like he had never even been in Impel Down. He had gained some weight and his ribs could no longer be counted just by looking at him, had developed a good amount of muscles —and Marco made sure on a daily basis that he knew just how much he loved them— and had a tan to his skin as a result of being exposed to the sun so often.

Things had grown tense in the crew not long after Ace had joined, when Marshal D. Teach, who now called himself Blackbeard, had resurfaced. He had captured one of the Eleven Supernovas, a woman by the name of Jewelry Bonney, and occupied one of the vacant posts as a Shichibukai —there had been two, Crocodile's and Moria's, who had mysteriously 'disappeared' not long after the Whitebeard Pirates' assault on Impel Down. Teach had stayed at Mariejois for two weeks after becoming a Shichibukai, unreachable to them unless they decided to attack one of the most protected places in the world —which even they would rather avoid doing again unless there was no other choice— before deciding to launch his own assault on Impel Down. The marines' reaction had been too slow, because Sakazuki —the new Fleet Admiral now that Sengoku had resigned after the Whitebeard Pirates' attack on Impel Down— had decided to move Marine Headquarters to the New World, to the base that had previously been G-1, and G-1, now at Marineford, didn't have the necessary power to stop the attack. With his power, Blackbeard had neutralized Magellan —miraculously alive after his fight with Marco— in no time, and his crew had taken care of the rest of the guards. By the time the ships from G-5 had arrived, level six was in an uproar, and it was a massacre. The Blackbeard Pirates had doubled their number with some of the most dangerous prisoners in level six —Shiliew included— and many prisoners from level six had managed to escape even though they hadn't joined the crew. That second fact hadn't been revealed to the public —the first one was unavoidable, because the first thing Blackbeard did afterwards was attack and destroy a nearby island to announce his presence and his intention of becoming one of the most dangerous pirates to the world— but anybody with access to the underworld could learn about the breakout easily enough.

Blackbeard's actions had made killing him more difficult. Not only had he gained some very powerful members to his crew, but many pirates had gone to join him as well, either assimilating into his crew or becoming his allies. As a result, though not a Yonko by name, Blackbeard was thought by many as being just as dangerous and as powerful as one. He was even conquering islands in the New World that weren't under the protection of a Yonko. There were even some rumors around, unconfirmed so far, that he had a way of stealing devil fruit powers, and could use them himself. Marco had told Ace that Teach had a strange body structure, and it might not be entirely crazy to think he could have more than one devil fruit power without dying as anybody else would.

Because of this, instead of attacking, the Whitebeard Pirates had been preparing for war all this time. Because there would be war, the confrontation was unavoidable, but instead of seeking it they would wait, prepare, and, when it happened, they would be as ready to win as they could.

Ace was much stronger now, so strong, in fact, that he had been offered the position of Second Division Commander a few months after joining the crew, and he had accepted it. Before that, there had been jokes about how he was fucking his superior —it had taken Ace some time to really accept that there was no ill intent behind the jokes in the crew, contrary to all the mocking from level six, and now he was very comfortable with them— and there had been some fake complaints about how he was taking away the crew's fun now that he was a commander like Marco.

About a year ago, Ace had had a very uncomfortable encounter with Gramps, who had showed up out of nowhere on the island they had been staying at. He had been expecting to be beaten to an inch of his life —or until Pops or the other commanders managed to take Gramps down— but there had been no fight. Gramps had reluctantly admitted he never thought he would be glad about having a criminal in the family, and had told him to never get caught again. Then he had sat down with them and they had all gotten drunk together. It had been the best day Ace had had with Gramps since leaving Dawn Island.

Ace entered the mess hall, his stomach already growling at the smells assaulting his nose, and he made a beeline for the food, piling as much as possible on his trays —over the years he had perfected the art of carrying one balanced on the top of his head so he could carry three trays at once— and went to sit next to Marco.

He had been so distracted by the food that he hadn't noticed how the volume in the room had decreased and most eyes were on him until all three trays were on the table before him.

"What?" he asked, dropping down on the bench next to Marco.

Marco grinned and handed him a newspaper.

Ace's mouth fell open. There, occupying the entire first page, were pictures of the entire Strawhat Pirates crew under the title 'THE STRAWHAT PIRATES ARE BACK!' Their bounties were underneath the pictures, and a short text spoke about them next to each of their images. Beneath Luffy's —the largest of the crew's images— was even a small picture of Ace. And, better yet, some of the images weren't the ones from the wanted posters, but instead pictures that had been taken yesterday. Luffy himself appeared running, a wide grin taking over the lower half of his face, and Ace himself grinned at seeing he looked so happy.

"Do you want to hang it?" Marco asked him, and Ace nodded enthusiastically.

Ever since Impel Down, the Whitebeard Pirates had considered Luffy an ally —even though they hadn't talked about it with him while he had been with them— and by extension the whole crew was their ally. As with all their other allies, Luffy's crew had a section on the bounties' wall, and now Ace walked to it, took two thumbtacks from the bowl on the small table next to it, and pinned the newspaper above the wanted posters from two years ago.

Marco came up next to him and looked at the wall as well.

"We're too far to meet them at Fishman Island, but we could catch up with them in a few days if we can find any more news about them.

Ace grinned, because there was no way Luffy would stay long without making it back to the newspaper. He turned to Marco.

"Sounds like a plan to me."

The End

Well, here you go :D I'd really love it if you told me what you think of the story ^^