Ten Years Difference - Chapter 11
The bandit named Tracks looked more like a bandit then any of them, Ace mused. Dressed in dark brown and green pants that helped him blend into the forest, and a similarly-coloured short-sleeved shirt, with a brown headband covering long brown hair.
There was lots of brown. Even his skin was a richly tanned brown that spoke of even more years than Ace had being out in the sun. His cloak was brown with leaves stuck to it – Ace had a passing urge to ask if he had glued them on or what – and dark brown boots that covered his pants to the knee.
Dadan chucked another empty bottle over her shoulder, sending a cluster of bandits scurrying out of firing range. "Well?"
Tracks nodded his head respectfully at the head of the bandits, which made Ace gape silently. "I found Swipe and we were able to locate Sabo's home. His family name is Outlook; his father runs an import/export business set up in the port. His mother is your typical noble socialite, looking to better their status by marrying their son off to the highest bidder. They have a 'spare' in reserve – apparently when they couldn't find Sabo, they adopted a new son from a lesser noble family. Stelly was apparently in line to marry the princess until Outlook recognized Sabo and arranged for him to be brought home."
"You mean, threatened him until he went back," Ace muttered spitefully.
Tracks shrugged. "Regardless, Sabo is now being kept in the East Wing of their home on the Diamond Thoroughfare, and is only allowed out on supervised walks with Stelly."
"Regular?" Dogra asked.
"Morning and afternoon," Tracks confirmed. "Swipe follows at a distance and has confirmed the two routes they take. Stelly does not have the stamina for longer walks and refuses to let Sabo deviate from them." He shot Ace an apologetic look. "He uses his father's threat of killing you to keep Sabo in line."
Ace clenched his fists tightly.
"There is an additional threat Swipe was able to notify me of," Tracks continued. "Apparently there is a Celestial Dragon coming for a visit next week, and the nobles wish to put their best foot forward and show them that Goa is indeed the cleanest kingdom in the East. They plan on burning the Grey Terminal."
Ace blinked in shock; Dadan growled and slammed a meaty palm to the ground. "Keep Swipe there," she snapped. "We'll need more details. But Tracks, take a group – your choice – and go through the terminal, make sure people know to escape to Edge City or along the coast until everything dies down."
"You're gonna help save everyone?" Ace goggled at her.
Dadan rolled her eyes. "You think this is the first time they've ever burnt down the Terminal? Granted, last time was about ten or twelve years ago-"
"-and that damned Garp was the one who made us act like marines under his control, telling us to guide those losers out. Like we wanted to risk our skins!" Dadan scowled at a random bandit who ran and got her a fresh bottle of rum. "And now we gotta do it again. This is no life for a decent bandit, I swear."
Ace had no response to that.
Tracks shrugged. "Anything else?"
Dadan was busy guzzling down her new drink. She kicked her foot out and hit Dogra's shin, making the short man jump. "Have Swipe determine the best way to arrange for Sabo's 'death'," he said. "Would be difficult during a walk in broad daylight though. What about his seclusion?"
Tracks tilted his head. "It would not be difficult for Sabo to escape," he said slowly. "The room has several large windows with locks Ace was capable of picking when he was six. The jump to the ground is less then what they do to escape that tree house of theirs."
"It would need to be a quiet escape with a public demise," Dadan rasped, wiping her forearm over her mouth to mop up the last dregs of rum clinging to her chin. "The best time for a public spectacle would be when the damn Dragon arrives."
Mogra nodded. "It'd be dangerous, but even if we failed, Sabo's parents would disavow any knowledge of him being related to them. They wouldn't want the nobles to know that it was their son disrupting the festivities."
"Talk to Swipe about feasibility," Dadan ordered Tracks. "And don't forget to warn the losers. If I have to leave my nice, safe mountain because some idiots thought they knew more than I did, I will be chasing them onto the shore myself with my rifle. They will be wishing for the damn fire."
Tracks bowed and left, Dogra once again slipping after him muttering about 'cover' and 'security'. Two other bandits followed as he waved them after him.
Ace took a deep breath. "Swipe will find out if Sabo can escape during the Dragon's visit? And if he can, you'll plan some sort of fake death where everyone can see it?"
Dadan snorted. "I'll be damned. You might make a decent bandit yet."
"The hell I will. I'm gonna be a pirate." Ace's eyes flashed with anger for a second, and then he fisted his hands on his thighs. "Thanks, Dadan."
Dadan froze in the middle of raising her rum bottle. "Huh?"
"Fucks sakes, not again," another bandit moaned and chucked an empty bottle at Ace, who dodged with a smirk. "You froze her, you get to reset her!"
Ace upped the edge of his smirk. "Like hell."
"Why do you keep doing this?" Sabo muttered crossly as he roughly swabbed a cut on Ace's back. A flying bottle had shattered against a table and Ace had rolled across it to escape a drunken punch. The drunk had driven his fist into most of the shards that hadn't attached themselves to Ace as he made his move – thankfully none of the glass had embedded itself into Ace's skin this time. "You're going to get yourself killed. Is that what you want?"
Ace didn't say anything as he sat there, hunched over, staring blankly at the ground.
Sabo sighed and pressed a plaster against the smaller cut. The other one would be covered with the rest when he wrapped Ace in bandages. "Ace, talk to me?"
There was silence for another moment, before Ace gave a low, shuddering sigh. "It's not important."
"Obviously it is," Sabo retorted. "Raise your arms." Ace obediently lifted his arms, and Sabo began wrapping the bandages around his chest. "Why do you keep going to these places? What are you trying to find out?" He taped the last loop of bandage into place.
Ace shuddered again.
No... Sabo blinked. Ace was... Ace was trembling. Sabo raised a tentative hand and carefully touched Ace's shoulder – only to freeze as Ace flinched.
"If I told you, you'd hate me too, just like everyone else does," Ace rasped, and he looked up at Sabo with such haunted, dead eyes that the blonde took a step back in shock. "But I'm selfish, Sabo."
"S-selfish?" Sabo repeated numbly.
Ace nodded. "I don't want you to hate me too." His eyes were still flat and dead, and there wasn't even a hint of embarrassment in his tone even though Ace had never been able to say anything remotely nice to him without blushing and getting worked up over it.
Sabo swallowed and crouched down in front of Ace, watching him carefully. "I could never hate you, Ace," he said slowly, clearly, wanting Ace to hear and understand him. "I know we don't really say it, but we're friends, aren't we? I could never hate my friend."
Ace merely blinked at him and then looked at the ground.
Sabo growled and reached out gripping Ace's chin roughly and yanking his head up. "Listen to me, Portgas D Ace!" he snapped. "You are my best friend. You can tell me anything. I won't hate you."
Ace stared at Sabo, and Sabo waited him out, meeting his gaze firmly. Ace licked his lips once, nerves showing, and then whispered. "...Gol."
Sabo frowned. "What?"
"...My name. It's Gol D Ace."
"What do you-" And then suddenly Sabo understood.
Across a sea famous for being known as a paradise for those who had escaped the perils of the New World, a flock of crows was flying over the clear blue-green waters. They flew high enough over Sea Kings that occasionally looked up and tried to bite at that only to realize they were out of reach. The inky black shadows spread over the line that divided the Grand Line and the Calm Belt in a seemingly endless cloud of birds.
Their rider was stretched out over the largest one who led the flock save for the scouts when he awoke with a gasp and sat up, straddling the feathered neck. "Fuck."
The crow chuckled. "Bad dream?"
Outlook Sabo, known as the Blue Gentleman, flexed his gloved hands and gave a small smile. "Bad memory. But it eventually had a happy continuance."
"Not an ending?"
"Not anytime soon, if I can help it." Sabo pushed himself up a bit, settling into a more comfortable seated position, legs crossed. "And I will help it. Whether it wants it or not."
The crow chortled. "Is it still happy?"
Sabo smiled and gazed ahead at the red rock wall that signified the Red Line. "I guess we'll find out eventually."
"My real name is Gol D Ace. My father is...was... Gol D Roger."
Ace had hurled those words at Marco, a verbal bomb intended to cause the Phoenix to erupt and explode and prove himself right. It almost worked – kinda.
Marco could have erupted all right – but with blatant surprise and curiosity, not anger and hatred.
...Huh. The Phoenix inhaled sharply, eyes wide with surprise. Of all the things he thought Ace might reveal to him, this certainly wasn't on his list, and a part of his mind was automatically running dates and numbers in his head against what he knew Ace's age to be while the rest of it kept its attention on the volatile young spitfire in front of him. "You... you're..."
"The son of the Pirate King," the fire user hissed. "Born with the blood of a demon. A living sin in this world that shouldn't exist."
Marco didn't know what to say to that exactly. Something twinged in his chest at the sight of the despairing young teen so obviously hurting deep inside. This was what Pops had sensed inside of Ace – this was what he wanted to heal. This was what was screaming so loudly inside the young man, even when his face was a mask of frigid detachment or flaring annoyance – well, with everyone except Luffy, of course. His father must have guessed, maybe had seen a similarity in Ace that he'd seen in Roger, and decided that was reason enough.
Marco couldn't argue. Now that he knew, he wanted to help.
He watched the kid's chest heave as he contemplated what he'd just learned. He certainly didn't think Ace's blood was any more demonic than his own, but apparently Ace had been told differently – the sheer rage, the desperation in his tone spoke volumes. One didn't have that tone, that feeling of acute desperation and hopelessness, unless you were drowning in it. Unless you were having those words thrown at you; thrown, stomped on and ground in until you couldn't imagine a time when you'd ever been free from them.
Marco's mind whirled feverishly as his mind connected a few of the dots that had been dangling in his mind about the kid. His relationship with Luffy suddenly made a lot more sense – obviously, the little boy, having been raised by him, must have been one of the only people in Ace's life to show him unconditional love. His desperation – his willingness to hold back what at times seemed to be a monster temper; his inability to let Luffy out of his sight, even after the Whitebeard's had proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the child was safe with them – losing Luffy would likely all but kill the young man standing in front of him, fists and teeth clenched, eyes narrowed into feral slits.
The sight didn't produce fear. Rather, it brought out a protective feeling inside him – similar to what he felt for all his siblings, as well as something a little bit deeper. His brothers were more used to the harsh cruelty of the world. They were older. They had seen more of the world, had seen past its beauty to the horrors that lay speckled within it. They could still be surprised by new horrors, but it took a lot to add to the scars they already bore.
But this? This was an agonized, tormented teenager barely at the start of his life.
It made the Phoenix want to brutally peck out the eyes of everyone who had told the young man that he was a sin upon the earth. "Ace..."
"Should never have been born," Ace continued raspily, head lowered, eyes finally covered, one hand clutching the brim of his hat with white-knuckled fingers. "Should never-"
He couldn't listen anymore.
"Ace, stop," Marco commanded softly but with a touch of his commander's tone he tended to use on uncooperative crew mates. The last thing he wanted to do was enforce his will on the younger, especially when he was as vulnerable as he was, but he absolutely would not allow him to say those horrible words again. "Luffy wouldn't like hearing you say that, right? It's okay, yoi..."
The fiery teen gave a harsh laugh at that as he slid down the rails to the floor. "...okay, he says..." Marco's own words were uttered in a low and pained voice, hands dropping to his sides, as though he were giving up. Giving up what though, Marco didn't know - nor did he want to.
It made Marco's heart ache.
"It doesn't matter who your father is," Marco said carefully. Ace was still avoiding his gaze, eyes hidden by the brim of his cowboy hat. His fists were clenched, and his body was shaking. Fear? Marco took another slow step towards the younger man, dropping to one knee to bring him to the younger one's level, attempting to look him in the eye. "Ace is Ace. That's all that matters."
Marco froze in place, not wanting to startle the distraught man. "How what, yoi?"
Ace lifted his head then, finally, and Marco's heart clenched in his chest at the sheer pain and misery spilling from his eyes. "How can you say it doesn't matter? It always matters!"
The youth stood and took a step backward and Marco silently pleaded with him to see he didn't need to run, not from him, raising one hand in silent supplication. As far as Marco and most of the ship was concerned, Ace was already their little brother whether he knew it or not, and Marco would do anything to help family.
Surely Ace had to know that, somewhere inside, or else he would have abandoned ship with Luffy in hand weeks ago.
Something must have gotten through; Ace stopped after one step. But his shaking grew even more pronounced. "All my life I've heard people curse that man and say that I shouldn't have been born, that I had no right to exist because of what he was!" His right hand slowly lifted and then clutched his left forearm where a faint but jagged scar marred tan flesh. Then his hand travelled to his side where it absently covered another one.
Marco swallowed as he realized what Ace was unconsciously doing.
All those scars, the faint marks he'd noticed in passing on Ace, the ones Ace always ignored Thatch's questions about – were those scars from people attacking him as a child? A punishment for simply existing - for being the child of Gol D Roger? He'd thought they were scars one would pick up normally through the life a being a pirate but were they...?
Marco genuinely believed he could feel his heart breaking. "Ace..."
"You can't tell me it doesn't matter," Ace hissed. Flames erupted around him, wrapping around him like a living cloak. Shouts and murmurs went up around the deck as people noticed the fire and began running towards them. "Can't tell me that when I'd be killed by the Marines for that reason alone, no matter my bounty. Can't tell me Ace matters at all when the son of the devil is the blood they want gone forever."
At the sound of the approaching crew, Ace's eyes widened – in terror, Marco realized in a flash, watching tanned skin pale considerably more. The fire cloak seemed to flash in response, and Marco winced as he felt the heat pick up, brushing against his skin with more force.
"Ace!" Luffy had finally noticed both his brother's situation, the fear on Ace's face, and the fire that was starting to spread. He dropped the drumstick he'd been gnawing on, and bounced over the table, neatly avoiding Haruta and Vista's grasping arms with a quick little flip, and easily dodging around and through the legs of anyone who tried to stop him. Mere seconds later, he was barrelling into his sibling's arms, wrapping his own around Ace three times over for good measure.
Ace was only able to raise his forearms, but he did so, and leaned his head down to press his forehead against his baby brother's. His fire spit and crackled but didn't burn the younger boy, who had shown no fear, absolutely no trace of hesitation when he'd jumped at the living fire that was Portgas D Ace.
The force he'd felt moments ago seemed to fade a bit, and Marco felt his own powers - that had been lingering just under his skin, eager to be let out to heal whatever damage Marco had been dealt - fade away.
Stepping back to give them a bit more breathing room, Marco turned and glared at the crew members sidling their way, trying to see what was going on. He met their eyes plainly and raised his voice. "Everyone who is not me, Luffy or Ace – get. LOST."
He didn't use that tone with his brothers and sisters very often, so it was a good thing they obeyed it when he did. The majority instantly reversed course and headed back to the tables they had abandoned. Vista hesitated a moment before shrugging and going back to the party that was still in full swing, leading an obviously reluctant Haruta as he did so.
Izou shrugged and turned his back to stare out at the sea. It was obvious that while he would not step in, he wasn't about to leave Marco alone with a potentially volatile situation. A few metres away, Jozu did the same thing, turning to stare at the ocean, leaving his hands folded behind him as neatly as a Marine in standard parade rest. The remaining commanders shot Marco concerned looks but ultimately followed his order.
Across the wide expanse of the deck, Whitebeard was watching. He hadn't even made a move to stand up. He obviously was not concerned about Ace's behaviour. Marco met his father's eyes, and Whitebeard nodded – and then winked, before raising his ever-present sake jug to his lips. Had his father already known about Ace's secret?
Marco turned back to Ace. The fire was still flickering around him but Marco saw that the fire wasn't burning the wood of the deck they were standing on, nor was it hurting the delicate skin of the young child still wrapped around the young man.
The fire was not being aggressive. It was being protective. Ace was trying to protect himself. Whether he knew it or not was another thing altogether, but Marco breathed an inner sigh of relief.
An aggressive fire-user on a wooden ship was a dangerous thing, and while Marco desperately wanted to help what he knew and believed would be his newest sibling, he had to take into account the lives of everyone else on board the ship as well. He had already shown the dangerous power of his flames back when he'd been barely lucid and under the impression that Luffy had been taken from him. But, as long as Ace could keep this confined, Marco could continue to take this step by step. Luffy still wasn't flinching, so the heat obviously wasn't there anymore.
"No one here is going to hurt you, yoi," he said softly, keeping his hands out where Ace could see them. "Even if you don't see yourself as one of us yet, at the very least you are a guest on our ship. You are safe here, I promise."
Ace's eyes flickered around the deck, like he didn't believe Marco's words could be true and at any moment someone would spring forward in an attempt to knock him overboard. His grip on Luffy tightened but the rubber boy didn't even flinch. "It's never safe," he growled through the flames still keeping a barrier between himself and the first commander. "I've learned that the hard way."
Marco nodded slowly. "You're right. Your secret is not safe for you, and it does matter. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that when I meant it an entirely different way."
And he did. He meant it completely when he said it didn't matter – to him. To Oyaji. To the Whitebeard family. And of course, to the Spade crew as well. Their over-protectiveness was suddenly making a hell of a lot more sense now.
But to the marines, to the world, to Ace himself? It very much did matter and Marco was now mentally kicking himself for saying those words to what he now saw behind the anger and the hostility to be a traumatized and terrified teenager whose only survival in this life must have been due to secrecy, hiding and pain, leaving him with a huge fucking case full of abandonment and abuse issues, if those marks and his mental state were any indication of how he'd grown up.
Based on their ages and what Ace had reluctantly informed him of, Marco knew Ace hadn't found Luffy until he was ten. How badly had his formative years been if this was the result? If the only person the teenager could be comforted by or even trust was a decade younger than him?
Ace's fire dimmed slightly as the young man apparently took in his words and processed them as being a positive thing. His eyes were still dark and suspicious, but the trembling that had been running though his lean frame the moment Marco had thoughtlessly spoken was dying down. His hand, still alternately gripping and rubbing the various marks on his skin underneath Luffy's rubbery grasp, fell to his side.
Marco let out a slow breath. The kid was finally calming down. Now, if he could just keep him that way. "Can I try this again?"
Ace stared at him warily for a long moment; silver eyes narrowed and still flicking to Jozu – who hadn't moved – and to where other members of the Moby Dick were no doubt waiting behind cabins and walls, waiting to see if they needed to rush to their commander's aid.
Marco was tempted to roll his eyes at the thought but that would mean moving his gaze from Ace's. After another long minute, Ace slowly nodded. His fires began to ebb out, lowering themselves until they vanished into puffs of smoke against the deck. Luffy was still clutching Ace tight, but his eyes were slitted, narrowed in on Marco with a warning not to harm his precious older brother.
Marco smiled. "Thank you. I'm sorry for this, Ace. This wasn't what I intended, believe it or not."
A minute, and then the fiery teen reluctantly snorted. There was amusement there, Marco was happy to detect. Trace amounts to be sure, and mixed in with a fair amount of scepticism, but still there. "I guess I can believe that," was the wary response.
Marco breathed a sigh of relief, and his smile grew.
Now was the time to really get to know Portgas D Ace.
to be continued
Yeah, so, there ya go. That should hold you for a bit. This took a while to get out because I had to plan it out and make sure it meshed with what I originally wanted to do. Which you'll find out about eventually.
So yeah, feedback be the source of life and I could desperately use a little bit of extra life. Please?