Thank you for your favourites, follows, and reviews! I'd sing all of you praises but I fear you'd tire of me.
Though this isn't a continuation of Chapter 13, I'll probably continue that in the next chapter or the one after that. I'm glad many of you liked it enough to want it to continue. :)
This chapter will focus on Ace (of course!), Thatch, and Marco (not really the central figure this time). The other characters won't be as prominent here.
That said, do enjoy this chapter too!
Disclaimer: I do not own One Piece or any of its characters.
Chapter 14: When Ace loses it
"Bridge Island?" Izo asked curiously, hand held out in silent request for the report in Marco's hands. The first commander handed it over after setting his plate of food on the table.
Unlike the past few weeks, there have been increasing reports of attacks against Whitebeard territories. Intel indicated that Big Mom's were facing the same issue, with over six islands almost ravaged beyond recognition. Some islanders had seen fit to protest and riot against the female Yonko – rumours had it that many of their children had been forcefully taken for slavery – and Big Mom's response had been to retaliate against the rival pirates and the rebelling civilians with a brutality that made even the hardest of pirates sick. Though the Whitebeards had no intention to emulate after the Yonko, they planned to move against the suspecting rival pirates. Or marines. They weren't picky.
"It's the island near the edge of New World, yoi," Marco explained once he had seated himself next to an oblivious Ace. He shot the teen a glance, hardly surprised at the way the latter was devouring his meal. "Oyaji suspects the intruders to be new in this part of the Grand Line, and may be unaware of our flag on the island." He took a sip of coffee. "Not that it matters. More than half the island has been ravaged, although it is pleasing to know that the islanders have escaped to the hills on its northeastern side."
Izo raised an eyebrow at the papers he was flipping through. "The Red Strands Pirates? Is that an attempt to imitate Red Hair's epithet?"
The other commanders at the table had looked up by that point.
"What? Really?" Rakuyo asked incredulously.
Marco shrugged. "Who knows, yoi? The rookies seem to adopt a new brand of crazy these days." At his words, most of them turned to their resident youngest fire-user. Some of them snorted when the subject of their attention didn't even look up.
"What's Oyaji's plan?" Vista asked.
"We're sending out the Mini Moby first thing this afternoon to stop the attacks quickly. We're not sure how long the islanders can keep themselves hidden and it's not a risk we are willing to take." The blonde frowned in thought then. "The team should get there by tonight, though our priority lies with keeping the islanders safe from harm. Ideally, we'd take on the pirates in the morning, yoi."
None of them questioned his statement of a morning attack. It wasn't in their interest to hide their flag under the night's darkness in their retaliation. It was imperative that they showed the world their strength and their promise to hunt down those who harmed the ones they had sworn to protect. The islanders may not be family, but they were under their wing. And who knows? One of them might grow up to be their brother or sister one day.
Fossa leaned forward in interest. "Who will you be sending out?"
Marco didn't miss the way they turned to him in hopeful excitement. He sighed. "Before I reveal that," he said slowly, "you should know that all of us will be heading to the island. Our ship is about a day's sail away, and Oyaji figures we might as well all show up and remind them that we aren't just some name on the seas."
Izo nodded in understanding. "So whoever is on the Mini Moby is tasked to keep guard the islanders while the others head over."
"That's right, yoi," the Phoenix agreed. "As for who's in the team… We'll be sending Thatch. He has the choice to pick eight others to bring with him to the island. He's with Oyaji now to discuss the plan."
At that statement, the other commanders stilled to give the first mate their fullest attention. Izo narrowed his eyes. He didn't have to turn to know the others were just as surprised as he was.
"Thatch?" he prompted in annoyance when the blonde seemed content to watch their baffled reactions.
The corners of Marco's lips quirked into a smile of amusement. "He's a commander too, you know."
Vista snorted. "Of course we remember that."
Haruta nudged at him playfully. "Marco never said we forgot. He just reminded us."
The fifth commander looked affronted. "What's the difference?" he demanded. "He reminded us because he assumed we forgot!"
"Boys," Izo cut in, shooting them a sharp glare. He narrowed his eyes until he was sure they would back down before he turned back to their eldest brother. "Go on."
Marco took a leisure sip at his coffee and seemed unfazed at his brothers' attention. He rested his chin on the top of his closed fist and finally acquiesced the request. "Come off it, yoi. All of us knos how long Thatch has been on the ship. Whenever he does go inland, it's for resupplying or he goes in with many of us. Both Oyaji and I feel it's about time we let him loose on his own, without us commanders backing him up."
Silence met his words. The last time their head chef had left for his own mission had been years ago. They also knew their brother had been left wanting to head off leading his own team, but had stayed at their unspoken insistence.
"Will he be okay?" Haruta asked worriedly.
Namur reached out and ruffled the younger commander's brown hair as his shoulders shook with silent laughter. "You mean you're not worried we'd starve without him instead?"
It was at that moment that the one particular pirate in their midst stilled. At this, Izo had to hide a smirk that their conversation finally seemed to catch their youngest's attention.
"Starve?" Ace suddenly said. He looked up at his older brothers, and then towards his almost empty plate. He bit his lip. "Am I eating too much?" he asked, his complete obliviousness to the subject of the conversation apparent from the slight – but very real – concern tangible in his words.
Almost all at once the pirates at the table burst into laughter.
"That's what got your attention?" Vista snorted as he slapped at the table.
Rakuyo grinned. "I don't even know why I'm surprised."
"Honestly," Izo murmured to himself, his fingers lifting his mug to hide his smile.
"W-what?" Ace demanded at the laughter began to die down. "I heard someone say we're going to starve!" When they continued to look at him in fond exasperation, he huffed and turned to the brother they knew would give in to him.
As expected, Marco was soon faced with confused, wide grey eyes. To his credit, he seemed thoroughly amused at the sudden attention by his youngest brother. Not at all like the flustered what-do-I-do behaviour he had adopted when Ace had marked him as his favourite when he first joined their ranks.
"We're sending Thatch out as the first on-the-ground team at Bridge Island, yoi," he explained. "He'll be away from us for a maximum of twelve hours. Your brothers are just being overdramatic as always because the head chef would be away." He gently pushed at the freckled pirate's head towards his leftover food. "Eat."
Ace looked uncertain. "But if I'm…" he trailed off.
"We can survive without Thatch for a quite a while, Ace. We have done it before, yoi."
The teen seemed about to say something more, but after a quick flick over his audience, he scowled. He muttered something under his breath. As if in a show of defiance, he picked up his spoon and chucked the rest of his food into his mouth, swallowing it in one gulp. "There? Happy?"
Marco smirked. "Very." He patted the younger's head. "Well done."
Izo simply looked disgusted at the display.
Ace rolled his eyes. "What's the big deal about Thatch going on a mission anyway? You speak like you're about to send one of you newer recruits out."
He glared at the snickers that broke out at that statement. They all remembered the ruckus they had made when Ace had first clinched his first job, alone. It was a nightmare that they, especially him, would be hard-pressed to forget.
"If someone had paid attention, we wouldn't have to repeat it again," Namur commented.
The first commander muttered, "I was the one explaining."
"Fine," the kimono-clad pirate cut in. "I'll explain, seeing as we'd get to it in a month if you kids start arguing." He ignored their snorts. He turned to Ace, though he was unable to suppress the wince at the mess the latter had made of his meal. "You see, little brother, we don't often send out the fourth division for missions like this. Thatch's division mainly focuses on food supplies, parties, and of course, feeding our family. It might seem simple enough, but we have over a thousand people on board. The risk of, for instance, causing an allergic reaction in one of our siblings is an everyday risk that his division constantly looks out for. Though they liaise with our doctors and nurses, an allergic reaction on the seas can be fatal. It's even harder when a lot of us may be unaware of that we have allergies in the first place.
"And keeping track of birthdays and favourite foods, and setting aside soft foods for our siblings who fall sick; all of this falls under the fourth division's duties. It's an everyday job that demands consistent vigilance by everyone involved. You can imagine how bad the fallout could be if there's even a slight misunderstanding in communicating important messages." Izo's dark eyes seemed to drift for a moment, as if remembering something unpleasant. Vista, who sat next to him, gave him a light nudge, nodding when the sixteenth commander smiled softly. "With that in mind, it's not in our best interests to send Thatch out for long missions. He's one of the rare few who remembers all the allergies we need to look out for, and can attach them to the individuals who suffer from them. He knows the side-effects, and the remedies for them as well. Everything we need to know to handle his division, Thatch knows it all."
Izo bit his lip at Ace's awed expression and the corners of his lips curled upwards. "So you see, Ace, our head chef may appear a moron most days, but there is a reason he's a commander. I'm frankly surprised he has time to spread chaos and keep his division running at the same time."
"Wow," the freckled pirate breathed. "I didn't know he was that busy. Or that his job was that hard." He looked at his surrounding ship-siblings, his eyebrows lifting at their thoughtful expressions, as if they too were taking a moment to appreciate their fellow mischievous commander's efforts. "Are your jobs that hard too?"
"In different ways, yoi," Marco answered him. "Our posts were given to us in accordance to our own strengths, so we may stand stronger as we are, and not weakened by our new responsibilities."
Then, as if in dawning realisation, an expression unlike discomfort crossed the teen's features. He rubbed at the tattoo on his left arm, his forefinger pressing against the crossed-out S. The present commanders had to drag their attention from focusing on the movement. "But…that would mean Thatch has to stay on the ship all the time," he said slowly.
As if he understood the sudden weight of the conversation, the blonde commander locked gazes with the fire-user, seeming to take extra care in his next words. "Not all the time," he corrected. "If you remember, we have gone to missions together, though they are brief in nature."
Ace continued to look troubled. "And he's okay with that? And why now? Why send him to the Brind Island now?"
Marco and Izo exchanged a look. "Bridge Island," the latter said absent-mindedly. "And that's something you'd have to ask Thatch personally, Ace. As for 'why now'…" He turned to give the first commander a meaningful glance.
Marco did not disappoint. "Beyond everything, he is a commander, yoi. He needs to keep his skills sharpened by the experience of going against enemy pirates, and with the full knowledge that he'd be backed by the physical back-up of only a few of his lower-ranked siblings, of whom he would be responsible for. Thatch is not, by any means, weak, Ace," he stressed. "But he lacks the heady and heavy rush of battle experiences a commander needs. The ones he does have are few and far between."
It was a given that, as the commander who was constantly on board the Moby Dick, it was their active duty to protect the ship whenever rival pirates attacked. But few dared to approach the Moby Dick even on the roughest of days, their fear of the strongest man in the world too strong to convince them to sail into their path.
And with the mounting attacks against their territories, Marco thought, it wouldn't do for them not to step up their game and bite back. That was how they protected themselves.
Ace appeared to mull over the information. "Okay," he said finally. He ducked his head to play with the leftover crumbs on his – judging by his forlorn expression – woefully empty plate. "I'll ask him later when I see him."
Marco narrowed his eyes at the teenager. He leaned forward and nudged at the younger's shoulder. "Ace," he said aloud.
The teen stiffened, but slowly looked up to meet blue eyes. "Yes, Marco?" he said innocently.
The blonde commander smirked when the kid squirmed under his stare. "Go on, yoi. I heard Thatch saved some pie for you today."
As expected, the freckled pirate brightened and fled presumably to the kitchens after a quick thank you! The remaining pirates watched him duck out the door.
"He's going to ask Thatch if he can come along the mission, isn't he?" Namur commented.
"If you have to ask, you clearly haven't been paying enough attention to him," Izo remarked offhandedly. He rose from his seat with a grace none of his brothers would admit they envied, and patted off the imaginary dust on his lap. "I'm just glad it'd be Thatch's problem to handle and not mine."
Marco felt his lips curl into a smirk. "We live in exciting times, yoi."
Ace paced around his room, his mind a whirlwind, as he grabbed at random stuff to stow inside his green bag.
He wasn't even sure what he was looking for anymore, but he needed to keep moving. Or he'd go crazy thinking over his ship-siblings' words about the head chef.
It was inevitable that he began to care for this crew, and he foresaw that he'd eventually slot a few of them into his family, but Ace valued freedom over almost everything. If-if one day the Whitebeards way of living conflicted with his own…
He rubbed at his forehead tiredly. He already bore their mark. He had made his choice, so why was he obsessing over one of his many ship-brother's lifestyle?
Because you have a promise to fulfil.
He shoved another snack into his bag as he walked around the room again. Anything useful, edible- no. Who was he kidding? All he had were the clothes on his back, a few extras to tide him through the weeks, his log pose, his bead necklace and his hat. He stopped and took a moment to look his sparse room through and tried not to let it get to him. He had only been with them for a few months, not counting the initial 100 days, and there'd be a day he was sure his quarters would house more personal items that marked the place as his.
He walked over to his wardrobe to brush his fingers against the soft material of his shorts. They had been a gift from Marco. Mild amusement washed away his concerns for the moment. Though, he thought, maybe it was a gift made necessary when the blonde had finally been exasperated enough to get them for him. Apparently the older man wasn't very fond of the teen's habitual routine of waiting out his clothes to dry.
"What...are you doing, yoi?"
Ace turned his head to see the first division commander gaping – or as close to gaping as the man could get – at him from the door to the laundry room. He grinned in welcome and gestured the blonde forward, who seemed to take the invitation suspiciously, if the robotic way he stepped forward meant anything.
"I'm drying my clothes," the teen answered brightly. "Isn't it obvious?"
The Phoenix eyed the scene before him, whilst Ace looked on proudly. The ex-Captain had dragged four chairs over, stacking them two by two at either side of him to act as supports for his makeshift clothes rack. His shorts and yellow button-up hung on the poles. At the corner was his trademark cowboy hat. But what really caught the older man's attention was how his younger brother, dressed only in his boxers, was laid out on the benches below the clothes, and steadily fanning the small flames that licked across his toned stomach and legs.
Marco finally seemed to find the words to choke out an answer. "Drying?" He couldn't keep the incredulity from his voice. "You're cooking your clothes!"
Ace lifted an eyebrow at the accusation. He shifted his arms slightly, as if to adjust the way he rested his head against his palms. "No, I'm not. I'm just accelerating the drying process. This way, the water will dry out in 20 minutes tops."
The blonde pressed his forefinger and thumb against the bridge of his nose. "Or you could dry your clothes like everyone else and not heat up the laundry room like a sauna."
Surprise flitted through the younger pirate at that statement, and he inclined his head to look around the room for evidence of other life forms. "Huh. I chased everyone out?" His bottom lip jutted out. "Could have told me I was too hot," he mumbled under his breath.
A sigh. "Ace, you didn't chase them out, yoi. The heat is just a little uncomfortable. I only came by because my Devil Fruit makes me a little more sensitive to differences in temperature. And this" – he pointed at his brother – "is not room temperature."
"But you want me to stop."
Marco folded his arms. "I know waiting for your clothes to dry can be a trying process – and no, I'm not being sarcastic – because helping to run the ship is exhausting as it is without our own personal chores getting in the way. I understand wanting to just lie in instead of picking up your laundry or your meals at times. But," he said sternly, "if your method of shortening the process is not working, you shouldn't keep at it, yoi."
Ace looked affronted. "Who says it's not working?" He pointed at his clothes in offense. "It's working right in front of you!"
The commander tugged at the hanging pair of shorts, his hands reaching higher to pat the material on top. "Your shorts are extremely dry here, and damp at the top. If you keep doing this, part of the material will melt, and fray quickly." He stepped back to allow the younger a full view of his frown. "And isn't it uncomfortable wearing clothes like that?"
The freckled pirate shrugged. "Is it supposed to be? I'm not bothered by it. And how else can I go about the ship when my clothes are drying, anyway? You won't like it if I walk around like this, but I don't want to stay here for hours either," he complained.
"Hours, yoi? Why would yo-" Marco cut himself off. To the younger's amusement, the blonde looked upwards, as if begging for patience. "Please, please tell me you do not only own this pair of shorts, and that you have several more in your room."
"Well…," Ace dragged the word out. "I'd say that but I'd be lying."
Marco glared at him. "Why didn't you tell us? You've been with us for months!"
"Only a little over a month! The first three months was me trying to make you hate me!" the other pirate defended.
"That's not the point." A brief pause, and blue eyes narrowed. "Hate you?" he repeated.
As if seeing his mistake, Ace hastened to try jump back to the original topic. "There's nothing you can do about it anyway," he said quickly. "We won't reach another island until the middle of next week, and that is if the winds are favourable."
Marco regarded him for a long moment but, to the teen's relief, acquiesced his unspoken request to change the subject. "I could have gotten Izo to make you a few new pairs to tide you till the next island, yoi. Or, at worst, I could have looked around for those willing enough to spare you a few shorts. And, really, the only thing stopping them is if their size don't match yours, or if they too have a head too stubborn for their own good," he said dryly, keeping sure to pin the other fire-user with a flat stare.
Ace withdrew his flames and sat up. His features pulled into a frown. "You don't have to do that, Marco. I'm fine. It's just until the next island. If I have to, I'll just stay here till my clothes dry, and I won't do it like this anymore if you don't like it," he offered. He tried to keep his face straight. It wouldn't do to let his brother think he was unhappy about having to stick in one room, where no one stayed for longer than to hang their clothes. He could train. Or even use the time to write a letter to Luffy. Or both. Clothes took a long time to dry.
He must have failed miserably, for despite his valiant attempts to appear unbothered, Marco's eyebrows had furrowed in a manner indicative of deep thought. There was a displeased look in his eyes, and his lips were pursed. Worst was how…sad the older man suddenly appeared to be. Even the frown couldn't conceal it completely.
Nevertheless, Ace had found a heap of clothes at the door of his room by the end of the day.
The fire-user had to struggle to keep his smile down. No one was looking, but he couldn't erase the silliness of the act. Smiling to himself in his own room. How crazy was that?
He zipped up his bag and quickly headed to the kitchens, where he knew the fourth commander would be. He had already been given permission to join his brother's team – after Thatch had laughed his sheepish request to be chosen off and accepted him straight away – but there was something he wanted to discuss with the older man before they took off with the others.
Luckily for him, the commander was right where he thought he'd be, currently engaged in ordering the cooks under him to work just as hard in his absence. Ace lingered by the kitchen entrance. He wasn't fooled into thinking his presence had gone unnoticed, but he tried his best to remain silent. The fourth division's job was serious and hard, after all. He didn't want to get into the way of that.
"So," Thatch said as he finally emerged from his lair. He ruffled at Ace's messy black locks. "I knew you were going to miss me enough to want to come along, but to come all the way here just to see me again? You're gonna make me blush, kiddo."
Ace squirmed under his hand. "T-that's not why!" As if in afterthought, he tacked on, "And I'm not a kid!"
The commander laughed. He steered the fire-user towards his rooms, though the younger man had to quicken his pace to match the former's long strides. "Do you have everything packed already?" he asked as he eyed the green bag hanging off Ace's shoulder.
"Yeah. The bag's almost empty though, and we are going to be inland for only a few hours."
"True," Thatch agreed. "But that's only for our primary mission of protecting the islanders. We'd have to engage the pirates in battle in the morning, and then help the islanders rebuild part of what was destroyed in our absence. At least, that's the plan."
Ace couldn't help the sharp tug of concern. "Marco said…" he began, a little uncertain. "No, the commanders said you weren't used to having missions as a lone commander."
Contrary to the offense the fire-user had worried he'd cause, the chef lifted an eyebrow at that. He didn't seem surprised at the sudden subject change. A moment later and realisation dawned on the brunette, and he laughed out loud. "Are you worried about me, little brother?" He grinned. "No worries, Ace. I may not always be on the field, but I can pack a mean punch. In fact, I remember you haven't defeated me once yet."
The ex-Captain scowled. "That's not the point!" he defended. He glared at the still chuckling commander and huffed. "I just…" He kicked at a non-existing rock. "You know what? It's nothing. I'll just head back on deck and wait with everyone else."
A hand grabbed at his left shoulder firmly before he could turn. The weight was heavy and left a warm imprint on his already heated body. He chanced a look at his older brother (and wasn't that a weird thought still?) and drew back at the solemn expression on the other's face.
"Ace, what is it?" Thatch asked, the seriousness in his voice a far cry from its usual joviality. His hand didn't fall. "You can tell me."
"It's n-nothing," the teen tried but faltered at the brunette's determined look. His shoulders rose and fell as he let out a deep breath. "It's nothing," he repeated. "It's just, the others said you don't really go out for missions like this. That most times you stay on the ship because of your position as fourth commander. I just wondered how you feel about that."
Silence met his words. The commander looked as if he was mulling over the unspoken question. Ace wished he'd drop the severe expression in the meantime though. He never realised how fierce the man could look, or how out of place he seemed when he looked ready to defend something- his damaged pride most likely, the teen mentally sneered at him.
"You wonder if I resent who I am to the family, and if I resent my choice to remain that person," Thatch said almost casually, as if he had not just read the younger's mind. His features softened when he chuckled at Ace's surprise. "I'm the head chef, kiddo," he reminded. "I need really good observation skills to keep my division running."
Before the teen could answer, he gestured at them to walk. He went on, scratching at his head, "There's really not much to say. I guess, sometimes, sometimes I wish I could just be part of this family and help run the ship without this weight on my shoulders," he admitted. "But our family is large and they need all the help they can get. I guess what I'm trying to say is, is that I don't resent anyone for my job. I never could." Ace blinked at the forming smile on the chef's features. "There is no treasure, no adventure out there that could possibly be more important than our family."
He lowered his voice. "In fact," he said, "I am so grateful to be part of this." Ace felt his cheeks warm at the tender look the brunette shot him. "And I'm glad you're now part of it too."
Ace spluttered, "S-shut up!"
The older man winked. "Besides," he went on cheerfully, "though I'm flattered you think I have the hardest job on the ship, you're doing both Oyaji and Marco a disservice. Well, Marco, really. Whitebeard knows how hard he has it. He just won't admit it. And Oyaji won't say it either," he tacked on. "Because we all know how much Marco likes to boss us all around."
The teen rolled his eyes. "All of you are bullies."
"Awww! Look at you, our littlest brother defending our big brother Marco."
"Shut up! I am not!"
"Okay, hush now. Marco will kill me if he knows I upset you and w-ow ow ow!"
Ace turned to make a quick escape. "I'll see you in half an hour!" he called over his shoulder.
"Half an hour? I only have half an hour?!"
Thatch had to struggle to keep from telling his youngest brother to keep quiet. Did the kid not know what being stealthy meant?
Their group had split into pairs – and of course he had taken the little squirt with him – and their plan was to zero in on the suspected clearing where the islanders had most likely hidden themselves.
The island was, for lack of a better word, full of traps and surprises. It was no doubt a contingency plan put in place to protect them from visiting pirates, what's with their position so close to Paradise. But for them to hide away so far from the shore? Even they hadn't anticipated it.
It was a miracle they hadn't set off too many traps and alerted the rival crew to their presence on the island. A miracle, he sighed to himself, they'd be hard-pressed to keep if the little idiot won't keep falling all over himself.
"Ace," he hissed from his perch behind a tree. "Can you quieten down?"
The said pirate threw him a wounded look. "I am! It's not my fault they practically littered the ground with their stupid traps! How are we supposed to protect them if we can't even get to them?"
"I'm not even going to go into your first point. And we're pirates. It's not that hard keeping from stepping into a covered hole in the ground!" And wasn't Ace just lucky he was a Logia. The commander could still feel his heart thudding loudly in his chest at the startled cry, and then almost falling over his feet to peer into some poorly concealed hole to see one sheepish fire-user. Oh no, what almost gave him a heart attack was seeing holes inside his brother where the spikes were, where orange flames licked the sharp instruments almost in glee.
He glared at the freckled pirate when he had the nerve to pout. "I didn't see it," Ace muttered sullenly.
Thatch shook his head. "Come on. The faster we get to the islanders the faster I can sit you down and look you over."
"What? I'm fine!"
"That wasn't the only trap you set off," the brunette retorted. "If it bothers you so much, take it as punishment for nearly giving me a heart attack."
The fire-user mumbled something indistinct under his breath, but the commander was sure "big baby" was one of them. He inwardly snorted. Is this what Marco dealt with on a daily basis? Darn, the lucky bird. While it was mildly infuriating at times, the childishness on that kid made him want to run over and smother him in a hug.
"Hey! Is that what I think it is?" Ace said excitedly.
The teen whispered loudly, a light flush on his cheeks, "Oh, right. Oops, sorry."
Thatch threw him a look of warning before directing his attention to a cluster of trees ahead. He narrowed his eyes. There was something odd about it. The trees were too close together, and the darkness between the gaps were too dark, not with the moon right above their heads.
"Follow me slowly," he ordered.
"Sure, sure-oh hey!"
Thatch whipped around to see a blur of orange whip past him, followed by a brush of air as his brother darted past in an effort to reach his hat.
Quickly following, his eyes tracked the- ah, a thin string attached to a hook had gotten hold of the hat.
"Ace! Stop running and stay back!" he shouted.
The teen gave a leap and his fingers curled around the cursed head covering just as a line of people emerged from the strange trees he had been inspecting. His widened at the arsenal of weapons in their hands.
One of the islanders yelled, "Shoot them!"
Thatch waved at them helplessly. "Hold your fire!"
Before he could do any more than step forward, a huge wall of fire burst before his eyes, protecting him from the onslaught of bullets. Thatch had to rub at his eyes to clear the brightness in his vision.
"The fourth division commander of the Whitebeard pirates has ordered you to hold your fire," a cold voice then interrupted the sudden silence of the clearing.
Whispers broke out.
Thatch slowly raised his head to see his little brother standing before him, his stance defensive. Flames licked along bare shoulders. Across from him were a row of wide-eyed villagers. Their weapons – from guns to pitchforks to hammers – were gripped tightly in their arms.
Ace raised his hand and when it promptly burst into flames, they flinched. "Drop your weapons."
"N-no! How do we know you're-"
A woman hushed the man silent. "That's the chef from Whitebeard!" she whispered loudly.
Horror bloomed across the islanders' hardened features at the dawning realisation of their mistake.
"Drop your weapons," Ace snarled. His upper body hunched, as if about to launch himself at them, and that was when the fourth commander decided it was enough.
He brushed past his younger brother and held his hands out in the universal sign of peace. "Well," he began cheerily. "This is awkward."
Thatch had to sigh what could have been the millionth time when the islanders skirted around him and his brother from their spot near the entrance.
They had been welcomed into their temporary shelter – an impressive barricade that used the glamour of the forest trees to hide their location – after they had shown their marks. It did nothing, however, to dissuade the people from being wary of them. Or, at least, of one of them.
He glanced at the fire-user, frowning when the teen glared heatedly at one villager that he deemed was coming too close to their spots.
"Ace," he finally said when the approaching man had scampered away. "Stop scaring them. It wasn't their fault."
The freckled pirate shifted his glare to the commander. "I know that," he snapped.
"Then stop scaring them," Thatch repeated.
"It's not my fault they are wimps."
"That's not the point and you know it."
Silence met his words and the brunette sighed.
He eyed the puzzle that was his newest brother. Ace was turned away from, though he wondered if the purposeful way he held himself had more to do with hiding away from him, or if it was to keep an eye on the islanders.
Their other siblings on the team had reached shortly after they had. Their welcome had enviously been more pleasant. Or, he thought wryly, as pleasant as they could be with a furious fire-user glaring hotly at their backs.
"I'm not mad at them, you know," Ace interrupted his thoughts. The teen brought hugged his legs close.
"No," Thatch agreed. "You're mad at me."
Ace swivelled round as if something in him had snap. Dark grey eyes glowered at him. "I just don't understand why you didn't even try to defend yourself! Their bullets would have killed you!" he burst out.
The commander regarded the younger pirate solemnly. Ah. So that was the reason. His fists clenched at the accusation in the other's eyes. "I would have dodged, or infused myself with haki. You shouldn't have to worry about me, Ace. It's my job to worry about you," he said seriously.
Something in his words must have struck a chord for grey eyes widened before narrowing. Ace scowled.
"I'm going to wait outside," he bit out. "Signal to attack should come within the hour."
He left the safety of the hideout without a look back.
"You got into an argument with Ace?" Marco said incredulously.
He could almost imagine Thatch scratching the back of his head sheepishly. "Well," the den-den mushi carried across to him, "I wouldn't say argument. He didn't agree with something I did and is now standing vigil outside."
The Phoenix shared an exasperated look with Izo. "We figured something had happened, yoi. You can tell us later. Whatever it is, we caught a flare of flames near the hills earlier. I presume that was Ace?"
Another bout of strained laughter. "Yeah, that was him."
"Idiots," the kimono-clad pirate muttered under his breath.
Marco only sighed. "We're ditching the plan," he informed Thatch. "And are going in as soon as I hang up the call."
"And maybe," Izo interrupted in annoyance, "next time try not to act like a beacon to your enemies."
The speaker crackled. "Sure, sure. I'm going to let my team know. I'll see you guys in a bit." He hung up.
The blonde lifted an eyebrow at the silence.
"Must have been quite the disagreement," Izo remarked. He smoothed the front of his robes and headed out. "Let's move in."
Ace didn't say a word when Thatch stood next to him. He folded his arms and stared into the distance.
"Be on alert," the commander said quietly. "Marco warned us that the Red Strands most likely know we're here. Our family is moving in now."
The fire-user frowned, then let out a breath. "I gave up our location, didn't I?"
Thatch grinned at him. "It's alright. Plans don't always work the way we want them to. Otherwise Akainu'd be dead and Garp would be Fleet Admiral."
Ace choked. Garp? He voiced his thoughts. "Are you crazy?"
The older man shrugged. "Better than that beard-braiding Marine pretending he's sitting on a throne. Frankly, I'm surprised Garp hasn't thrown him of a cliff already."
A sigh. The teen regarded the man from the corner of his eyes. He remembered the startling clarity of guns and bullets and shouts and all of them directed at him – at his brother. A flash of blonde hair, blue eyes and a stupidly large top hat filled his mind's eye. His body had reacted instantly, sending a wave of fire into the air to act as a shield to his ship-brother.
Ace remembered the anger that had thrummed in his blood. The same fury that raced through him even now. He wanted to hurt them, anyone, who dared touch what was his.
They shouldn't be allowed near because he knew all too well how easily a life could be taken. Less than a second and everything about that special person was lost to him forever.
"I'm sorry," he muttered. "I lost control."
A large hand ruffled at his hair. Although so many of his ship-siblings did that, the teen felt his insides clench. "It's alright, Ace. We all have our days."
Ace took a deep breath. He tried to calm the part of him that still panicked at the sight of the commander being attacked. And the other larger part of him that wanted to explode when said pirate hadn't budged an inch to protect himself.
He offered the brunette a forced smile. "Thank you."
Thatch returned the smile warmly. However, in that moment, the smile turned strained, something that the freckled pirate wouldn't have noticed had he not known the man for months.
"Remember, your primary objective is to protect the islanders." His hands inched towards the hilt of his swords. He lunged towards the other end of the clearing before Ace could answer, already engaging with a black-haired pirate that had burst from the other side.
Ace cursed and scrambled to his feet. His hands burst into flames as he took on the sudden onslaught of pirates. His body naturally fell into the natural instinct of battle as he kicked, punched and shot blasts of fire at the intruders. Adrenaline pumped through him and he brought down another man with a snarl.
Throughout the battle, he made sure he kept his eye trained on Thatch as much as he could. The Red Strands must be a fairly large crew and, judging by the number streaming after those who had fallen, they must have already been nearby and had bidden their time.
As if two Whitebeards could be taken down so easily!
"Curse you Whitebeards!" one pirate howled when Ace blasted him into a tree.
"Thanks," the ex-Captain said shortly. "I'm proud of the mark on my back, but you can call me Fire Fist."
Another one shouted at him, "Nobody cares who you are!"
A cold smirk pulled at the fire-user's lips. "No," he said as he upped the temperature in his fist. "Nobody cares who you are."
He punched the pirate in the face.
A shout caught his attention. He turned and swore when he saw a Red Strain lunging for one of the islanders. He skidded on his feet and dashed forward to intercept the attack.
He mentally calculated the distance between them and he cursed again. He wouldn't make it. His hand reached out and he shot a ball of fire at the pirate to make up for the space he couldn't cross in time.
The man screamed and fell when the flames hit, flailing frantically to put it out.
"Ace, look out!"
The freckled pirate whipped around at the shout to see a dagger flying straight for him. He frowned, unable to see the danger. Thatch, apparently having already predicted this, had already thrown himself at his younger brother, pushing him out of the way just as the sharp instrument embedded itself into his back.
Ace hardly felt the rocks digging into his bare back as his ship-brother's weight fell into him. He clutched at the man's shoulders and roughly pulled him up.
"Thatch?" He froze when he caught the sight of the knife. His heart began to pound. The dagger was stuck at the commander's lower back. Blood was quickly seeping through the wound, the chef uniform already streaked with iridescent red.
"Thatch!" Ace cried. He shook the limp body in his arms. A loud ringing began in his ears to beat in time with his racing heart. There was a faint shout above him and he snarled at the still conscious – the still alive pirates.
Something inside him tugged at him, a pull that dragged forcefully at his consciousness. It demanded his entire attention even though his world had currently been reduced to the unconscious brunette whom he held tightly to his chest.
Fury battered through him. They were still alive. The rage tore down his inhibitions and Ace felt his body shudder at the intensity. If he didn't control it, he'd explode. He'd hurt Thatch even more. But if he didn't move, they'd kill Thatch.
His grey eyes dilated. They'd kill his brother.
As if a dam had opened, Ace screamed. The tugging at his gut seemed to compress tightly before whipping out in a sharp lash that had him fall over for a moment. He heard several thuds above the roar in his ears but he couldn't make sense of it. Couldn't make sense of the suddenly unconscious bodies around him.
His upper body swayed slightly as he grasped at Thatch's unmoving body, not bothered at all the way his vision swam. "Thatch," he whispered.
Ace reached out to shakily cover the wound. "Thatch. Please be okay," he begged. "You'll be okay, okay? You'll be fine, Thatch. I'll get you help."
A pair of warm, familiar hands encircled his chest and pulled. Ace's eyes widened in panic and he let loose another frantic cry.
Marco almost felt his heart stop when he heard the agonised scream from ahead of them. From the twitches around him, he knew he wasn't the only one discomforted by the voice of their brother. All of them sped up, but he jumped and took to the air.
With his speed, he was easily within a short distance of the clearing Thatch had identified. He furled his wings close to his sides and dove as fast and as steeply as he dared towards the location of agreement.
As he neared, the Phoenix felt his heart skip another beat just in time as he caught Ace clutching at their downed commander. The rival pirates around him were all unconscious and were lying in odd heaps on the ground, as if they had fallen where they stood without an enemy to cut them down.
He landed in two quick steps. He didn't pause to gain momentum and rushed towards his brothers.
A dagger, the Phoenix inside him trilled furiously. They had stabbed his brother!
Marco forced his instincts for vengeance down and kneeled next to the two Whitebeards. Thatch was frighteningly pale. There weren't any other visible injuries save the knife in his back, which was angled towards Ace's chest.
"What happened, yoi?" he demanded.
He received no answer. His gaze shot up from the pale commander to the fire-user and almost had to take a double-take. The freckled pirate's pale skin almost rivalled Thatch's, making his freckles more pronounced against his cheeks. His hair was dishevelled with dirt and grime. But what made the blonde's gut clench in slowly rising fear was the glazed, wide-eyed look the younger man sported. The grey orbs looked haunted.
He watched, his throat dry, as Ace mechanically put trembling fingers against the wound in the chef's side. "Thatch," the teen was whispering, a shaky breath that the blonde barely caught. "Please be okay. You'll be okay, okay?"
"Ace, yoi," Marco called carefully. Nearby, he sensed his other siblings' approach.
The freckled pirate didn't seem to hear him. "You'll be fine, Thatch," he breathed. "I'll get you help."
The Phoenix got to his feet. When his movement went unnoticed, he warned Izo and his other siblings away for a moment. He gestured at the sixteenth commander, and then at the head chef. Izo quickly concealed the brief show of sick horror and nodded grimly.
Marco stood behind Ace and prepared himself. There was no time to waste. Ace needed to calm down and Thatch needed help right now.
He embraced the kid tightly and pulled. The blonde tried not to let it get to him when the teen's first instinct was to cry out in alarm. The kid flailed wildly in his arms and bucked against him to be let go.
"Let go of me!" Ace shouted. He tried to kick at the commander. His struggles were renewed when Izo darted in to gently pull Thatch away.
"No!" the teen cried out. His arms reached for Thatch desperately, a move that had most of the present Whitebeards looking away. "I won't let you hurt him anymore!"
"Calm down, yoi," Marco said into his ear. "It's alright. We'll get him home safe."
The teenager refused to listen to reason. "Let me go! Please!" he begged. "He's my brother! I have to keep him safe!"
The Phoenix had to breathe in deeply to calm the stabbing ache that clawed at his heart. He tried to channel all the warmth he had into the embrace. "He'll be fine, Ace," he soothed. "You need to calm down."
He exchanged a worried look with Izo when all that did was incite another bout of valiant struggle.
"Let me GO! Let me go let me go let me go!"
Marco's words died in his throat when Ace released a wave of Conqueror's haki. He felt his legs shake. The only other person in the clearing who hadn't bowed down to the pressure to kneel was Izo.
The sixteenth commander covered his lips in shock. "Oh my."
The blonde shook himself. "Get Thatch to the Moby Dick now," he snapped. "I'll handle Ace. Go!"
Izo snapped to attention and nodded. He supposed they were lucky Thatch had been stabbed in the back. It would be easier for them to piggyback him down.
Once the two pirates had left the clearing, Marco let go of the teen and quickly spun him around. A furious Ace snarled at his face and the next moment both of them were ablaze. His own blue flames come to the surface to push back the destructive fire that was Ace's.
"Ace!" he shouted above the roar of the mini-inferno. "It's me, Marco! It's alright, I promise, yoi. It's Marco. I'm here and both of us are fine. You need to calm down!"
He swore when his words didn't seem to reach the pirate at all. He tightened his grip on the teen and continued to voice his assurances to the frantic pirate.
"Calm yourself, yoi," Marco urged. It wasn't working, he realised. Whatever the heck state of mind his sibling was in, he couldn't reach him.
He leaned forward to rest his forehead against Ace's, his eyes slipping close. "Come back to your brother, please." His voice shook slightly.
After what seemed like ages, the fire began to die down. Marco opened his eyes to see a pair of wild grey eyes lock on his.
"Ace," he breathed.
"Yes, yoi." Marco took a risk and allowed his grip to change. His fingers rubbed at the teen's back in an attempt to soothe him.
Some form of reason seemed to return to the ex-Captain, but he still looked crazed about the edges. "Thatch?" he demanded. He pushed against the commander to find the missing pirate. "Where is he?!"
"Izo is bringing him to the infirmary," the blonde answered gently. "He'll be fine. He'll be okay."
Ace shook his head frantically. "No, no, you don't get it," he gasped. "It's my fault. I wasn't looking and he took the hit. My fault. All my fault!"
Marco had to breathe to calm himself down when his brother continued to blame himself. The kids' back was slick with sweat and he knew it wasn't the heat that caused it.
"Ace," he said firmly. "You aren't helping him like this, yoi. I don't care whose fault it is. Calm yourself!"
The teenager froze in his arms. Ace looked up at him and the commander made the mistake of looking into his eyes. His eyes were a stormy grey, where something dark and clouded lurked in his gaze. A film of tears gathered beneath the haunted orbs.
"I'm sorry," Ace mumbled. His body heaved as if repressing a deep shudder – or a sob. "I'm sorry," he repeated. A drop of water streaked down his cheek. "I'm so, so sorry."
Marco immediately locked his arms around his brother. He hugged the kid close. When he felt the trembling, he gently lowered them to the floor, unheeding of the unconscious bodies littered around them. He wouldn't look, he decided, in case that would set off his inner Phoenix to burn them to ashes.
"It's alright, brother," he soothed. "You're alright."
He held the weighty feel of the younger pirate leaning into him with care. The teen seemed small in his arms. It felt like hugging a child, if he knew how it felt like. Marco rubbed his nose into the top of messy black locks. Thatch would be alright, he told himself as he worked to calm the pounding of his heart. Both his brothers would be alright.
Ace shifted in his grip. "Will it hurt?" he asked quietly, the whisper achingly sad.
Marco tried to look down at the face currently hidden at his shoulder. Before he could answer, his brother spoke again. "I hurt him," he whispered. "It's the rule."
The commander had to recoil when realisation struck him like a punch to the face. He gaped and, for a moment, he was at a loss for words. "Why would you say that?"
The freckled child looked away, eyes downcast and dripping tears.
The struggle to keep the building horror from his face was one of the hardest battles Marco had had to fight. Even then, he wasn't sure how successful he was. "Ace, no," he tried helplessly. "I may not know what happened, yoi, but I know whatever did was not the result of any of your intentions." He lifted the younger's chin with a finger, trying hard to ignore how wet the teen's face was. "We're your family," he added. He didn't know what else he could say.
Somehow, he must have done something right – or incredibly wrong, he thought at that precise moment – for Ace began scrabbling at his chest in earnest. Sobs racked his body. His tears continued to flow.
Marco bit his lip as he held the boy close. He whispered his assurances, rubbed at the younger's back, and inwardly willed all the calm he had into his brother, but inside, he knew he could only sit there and wait for Ace to find himself again.
When Marco returned to the Moby Dick with Ace on his back, he was met with the grim faces of his family. Whitebeard was standing erect at the forefront of the group, a couple of his siblings by his left, while at his right was part of their army of doctors and nurses who already had their gazes zeroed in on the child on his back.
And a child Ace truly was, if the earlier incident was any indication. Marco sometimes forgot how painfully young his newest brother was.
He kept his features impassive as he jogged over to them. He shook his head when they moved to grab the currently exhausted teen.
"I'll bring him to the infirmary, yoi," he said quietly. He could feel his father's watchful gaze bearing on his back as the nurses pushed ushered him towards their ship.
"How is Thatch?" he asked as they neared the infirmary.
One of the nurses answered, "In surgery. The blade was made of sea stone, but it was a clean cut, a little deep, but nothing we can't fix. And Ace?"
Marco let out a breath in relief. That eased the worry in his chest. "I think he was in shock, yoi. I'm not sure what happened, but he was panicked and, I think he lost himself for a bit there." He paused. "Rapid pulse, pale skin, and he threw up when I tried to first lift him up onto my back."
The nurse nodded. "Alright," he said. "Might have been a panic attack. I take it he just exhausted himself till he passed out?"
"Almost. He only fell asleep when we neared the Moby Dick."
"Got it. Lay him on the bed. We'll drop updates on Thatch and Ace when we have them."
Marco wasn't sure what it was he expected when he walked into the infirmary to see his two brothers. He had briefly considered several outcomes, many of which included a lot of time by Ace's side and repeated efforts to keep both troublemakers in bed. While he was spot on with a whiny Thatch on his hands, he hadn't thought the freckled pirate would defy his expectations in this and pretend nothing had happened.
Although, he mused as he watched Ace playfully stealing some of the chef's food, he supposed losing it in front of a crew he had just joined would be faintly embarrassing. Even for someone as headstrong as the fire-user.
Ace hadn't looked at him once beyond flushing a bright crimson when he had entered the room. To the kid's credit, he did speak to the blonde, though the lack of eye contact somewhat softened the effect.
Marco was under no delusion that Thatch hadn't noticed. If anything, the chef had turned a blind eye, going as far as to humour his youngest brother's pathetic attempts to take his food, and then acting ignorant when the teen 'secretly' replaced the stolen bits with bigger parts.
"You took almost the entire crew out by yourself," Thatch was saying proudly. He faked wiping a tear. "I can't believe how fast you kids grow."
Ace rolled his eyes. "I'm not a kid," he complained. "Besides, someone had to pull their weight after you went and passed out like a princess."
A moment later and the kid's young features darkened into a deep shade of red again. The Phoenix just knew the kid had remembered that he too had passed out on the safety of his back. He raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything when the freckled pirate darted a quick glance at him.
"Speaking of fainting princesses," he said, pretending he didn't see the look of alarm, "you aren't allowed out of bed for two weeks, Thatch. As for you, yoi," he directed at Ace, "you are free to leave once you're clear. That should be around noon today."
Ace pumped a fist into the air while the chef groaned into his hands.
"What about my kitchens?" he demanded. "How will you guys survive without my supervision? They might burn the onions or, Whitebeard forbid, mess up my signature curry specialty!"
"They've been celebrating the absence of your continued hovering for the past two days," Marco said impassively. From Thatch's thoroughly wounded look, he knew the man had seen through his blatant lie. He didn't feel bad at all.
Ace had perked up. "Curry? I didn't know you make curry."
"Of course I make curry! I made it last week for lunch!"
"I didn't get any!"
"That's because you fell asleep on the crow's nest, yoi," the blonde snorted. He knew the kid couldn't feel the scorching heat, but he could never fully calm the alarm at seeing his brother sprawled under the afternoon sun. It made his skin crawl.
The teen's lower lip jutted out. "Could have woken me," he muttered.
Marco levelled a glare at him. "I did. How do you think I knew that you were there?"
Ace drummed his forefinger against his chin, as if in deep thought. "I don't know," he said finally. He shrugged. "Maybe because you have this strange superpower in knowing where everyone is at any time."
Thatch snickered in agreement.
The first commander rolled his eyes. He was bullied even in the infirmary. This was his life, apparently.
He reached over to whack the chef's head out the way to ruffle at the fire-user's messy black tresses. The kid stiffened at his touch but didn't move to stop it.
"Not a kid," the kid muttered.
"Behave yourselves," Marco instructed as he got up to leave.
"What?" Thatch said in surprise. "Where are you going? You just got here."
The blonde threw him a dry look. "I've been here for almost an hour. I actually have more important things to do than babysit the two of you, yoi."
Both pirates returned the comment with a dirty look. "Hey!" they exclaimed indignantly.
"And now they are speaking in tandem," Marco muttered as he shook his head. He glared at them. "Behave," he repeated sternly.
He told himself he didn't see the way the two exchanged a glance full of promise as he left. It was the better alternative to having Ace dwelling in that head of his, at least. It would no doubt take time for him to collect himself after such a display.
The Phoenix stuck his hands into his jacket pockets. His brother wasn't ready to speak, and that was alright. Maybe he was in a bad place at the moment. Maybe all he needed was some fresh air. Perhaps, just maybe, he needed to clear his head before making the smart decision to get some support if he felt he needed it.
Whatever it was, Marco couldn't force Ace into accepting help. He himself remembered those earlier dark years of his life, when he had turned against himself until Oyaji had retrieved him from that hellhole. He wouldn't wish that darkness or pain of that forced isolation on anyone – even the thought of it made him shudder – much less his brother.
Life was joy, pleasure, contentment and the heady sense of thrill and adventure. But life was also anger, pain, loneliness, and sorrow.
Both were needed for one to truly live.
And sometimes he needed it to remind himself he was alive.
All of them had demons inside. He just hoped the ones inside Ace wasn't enough to eventually break him down.
On the topic of Conquerer's Haki on the other hand…
Thatch dutifully closed his eyes and readied himself to fall into sleep, knowing that Ace wanted a break from pretending he was fine and not seconds away from losing control.
He didn't know what had happened after he had been stabbed. But judging from Marco's silence and the teen's refusal to talk to the blonde commander much, the kid probably had freaked out enough to keep any potential teasing at bay.
He faked the deep breathing patterns associated with sleep. He should train more, he thought as he began to nod off. That way, Ace could have the luxury to be more playful and reckless and act his darn age more.
The kid had the entire world at his fingertips, after all.
Ace's shoulder slumped when Thatch finally gave in and retired to sleep. He relaxed into his own bed, his right leg slung over his left.
The infirmary was eerily quiet in the wake of their earlier chatter, but his mind was rapidly filled with plans and scrapped ideas. The rush of frenzied emotions he had forced aside fought to take hold of his mind but he defiantly kept them locked and stored away. Instead, he welcomed the iron-clad will of determination to claw into him with relish.
Ace bit his lip so hard he felt a trickle of blood on his chin. He remembered the flash of a knife and his subsequent loss of control.
Stronger. He had to get stronger.
So I'll never lose anyone ever again!
He flicked a glance at the sleeping chef.
He would train harder than he ever had. Break down his limits and go beyond whatever he had marked as his best so he would never, never have to suffer the pain of losing another brother.
Contrary to popular belief, Ace wasn't naïve enough to think the Whitebeards to be infallible. The commanders were crazy strong, but they weren't impossible to defeat. This recent incident just proved that. Carelessness, complacency, anything could be thrown into the mix and then someone he cared for could die.
Just like that. No forewarning. Just another life extinguished as if that person had been nothing more than a speck of existence, and not someone he had relied upon and loved for so long.
Ace ignored the way his heart twisted. It was alright. He couldn't change the world but he could change himself. He would become so strong that the world would fear even insulting those he cared about. He'd fight against the sea currents himself if it meant he became more powerful.
He would protect his family. He had to. His fists clenched. Because no one else would.
There it is! I've had this idea for a while and I finally got it out. Nothing particularly special but we all need that one oneshot once in a while with all the fluff, yeah? Or a little drop of fluff.
Do review and let me know what you think!
P.S. Any ideas for the next chapters? Other than the continuation of Chapter 13, I'm almost out of any inspirations.