Hey all,

Short story. Should be capped, at max, 5 chapters! Hope you guys like it!

Disclaimer: I do not own One Piece or any of its characters.

Chapter 1: 78 days

78 days, Marco counted in his head. 78 days since his capture – and yes, he admitted grudgingly to himself, that that was exactly what had occurred – and with it came 78 daily assassination attempts. He looked on as the new kid crashed into a railing, before proceeding to bounce off it to fall over the other side. He saw the kid flail about to grasp at something, only to fail to begin his descent towards the waters. A loud splash followed in his wake. The blonde didn't have to look to know one of his poor brothers had gone after the kid, if the second splash was of any indication.

He held back a snort. The kid may be an idiot, but he had guts, at least. The commander turned away from the now all too common scene. It had been entertaining at first, seeing the super rookie get thrown about after charging at his father. Though it had made some of his newer brothers and sisters uneasy to have such a hothead on board their home and out for their father's blood, most of them hadn't worried. Whitebeard could take care of himself. And so could they. But the constant 'fights' had eventually lost its appeal.

Though Ace might try to hide it, he wasn't a bad kid. 78 days, Marco thought again. The teen may have secluded himself away from the crew for 78 days, but they were still confined together on a ship. Ace couldn't hide how he strayed away from the weaker members of their crew, and when he couldn't, he'd refuse to engage them, chalking up the excuse that fighting them would be the equivalent of fighting a wall. He'd steal from their food storages, but wouldn't attempt to poison them with a concoction one of his brothers had accidentally dropped. When confronted, he had simply attributed it to his desire to see them die a more painful death. That, and several other incidents, and Marco was convinced the kid was just an arrogant brat who had misguided beliefs.

Try as he might, the kid couldn't hide the better- the good part of himself from them, not when so many of them were sea-hardened sailors who have long learnt the importance of keen observation on those around them. It showed all the more when the kid was tired, and hungry. Which, he thought unhappily, was nearly every moment of every day.

And knowing his family, he wasn't the only one to have noticed.

78 days.

The commander turned towards the kitchens. Some of his brothers ran past him, huge, large (and fluffy) towels in hand.

"Just dump it on him, yoi," he said mildly.

His siblings barely nodded in acknowledgement as they headed to the deck. Everyone had learnt the hard way that, between offering and forcing help on the new kid, which was the more effective option. And they would rather the kid resent them for a little longer than fall terribly sick (like that incident he refused to forget but didn't want to remember either a few weeks back).

With everything he had gathered about Ace, he – and everyone else – had slowly found his every assassination attempt another incident to get over with before he gave in and joined their ranks. He could no longer bring himself to enjoy even the slightest entertainment each failure brought, could no longer stop himself from worrying when the teen grew more haggard and exhausted around the edges.

Ace had begun to withdraw even more, no doubt beginning to realise the futility of his actions. No doubt beginning to look at his alternatives. To be free, and alone? Or to be free under their flag, with a family ready to rally at his side at a moment's notice? Marco sometimes wondered if the kid even realised the weight of their sincerity towards family. That that idea of family was ready to be embraced by him at any time.

He strode into the kitchens and headed for the basket of freshly baked bread and soup. He would have frowned, but then vaguely recalled Thatch mumbling about heavy food and "bad for an empty stomach" the other day. Before the commander left, basket in hand, some of the older and grim chefs slipped past and dropped something into his load. A quick glance confirmed it as a glass of milk. He shot his brother a look of thanks, only to be brushed aside with slight grumbling for him to get out.

He inwardly smiled. They were all just soft-hearted morons, really.

As Marco made his way back to the secluded and out of the way area Ace always ran to after another failed attempt, he wondered if the kid was slowly giving up. The fire devil fruit user had started to adapt to assassination attempts that struck at the same hour each day now, and spent the rest of the day sulking or simply resting till the sun set. It's like the kid was slowly losing fuel to keep fighting.

Marco only hoped, when he finally came to the end of that journey of self-deprivation, he'd see that they had been by his side for a long time now.

After all, it had already been 78 days.

Ace dumped the dry (and really fluffy) towels into a hidden compartment he had found by accident a few weeks back. He slid the panels back into place, careful to keep the wood from screeching in protest. Guess his bed would be a little softer tonight.

He sighed. He hadn't meant to fall into the sea. He had already fallen overboard so many times the past 78 days that the sensation of numbness and freezing cold had begun to haunt at his every nerve even when he was dry and warm on the Moby Dick. You'd think you'd be more used to it, he thought bitterly. That maybe it wouldn't bother you anymore. But, of course it has to have the opposite effect.

He hated falling into the sea now. It hadn't been terrible before this whole kidnapping incident. Sure, he had fallen overboard multiple times, with his crew never failing to come after him (to be followed by a stern talking to by each and every member), but the experience had merely remained unpleasant. The first time he was thrown off this stupid whale ship he had been terrified. Afraid that he'd die choking on the waters that was supposed to send him to freedom, with his every thought forced to slow until his consciousness blinked out of existence. Frantic that the last real feeling he'd remember was the rawness in his throat. Scared that the last thing he'd see wasn't his brother, or even the vast blue sky, but that of a distant glare that dulled with every passing second. Most of all, he was stricken with the thought that Luffy would never know the fate that had befallen his older brother.

The feeling only exacerbated with each subsequent dive. Helpless. Cold. Alone.

Now that he thought of it, it all seemed silly. The Whitebeards, for some reason or other, never failed to save him. It had, he had grudgingly realised, come to a point where he knew they'd save him. He had begun to develop a sort of aversion (never fear, he told himself) towards the water, and tried to ensure when – if – he was thrown back, he'd hit solid ground instead. But sometimes, like today, he would miscalculate.

He shuddered at the brief reminder of water gliding over his body, as it sapped at his strength. It didn't matter now. The deed had been done. At least now…

At least now he had other things to think about. Like how the Whitebeards were being kinder to him. Not that they had been particularly mean to him in the first place. He still remembered how they had laughed at his pathetic attempts to off their father at first. Jokingly told him to knock it off, he recalled. Now, they only appeared sombre when he did fail, as if quietly demanding him to get his task over and done with. But Ace knew that was the petty part of him talking. They weren't happy about something, and it had something to do with his attacks on their Captain. But…he had the feeling it wasn't really what he did that had them upset. Something was worrying them, and he was involved.

He heaved a deep sigh. Maybe they were finally getting sick of him and wanted him to leave without giving them reason to feel bad. He refused to think why that left an ache in his chest.

A deep, but lilting voice interrupted his thoughts. "There you are."

Ace startled out of his reverie and looked up, eyes wide. Next to him, a few steps away, was the sixteenth commander (he thought, at least. His mind seemed hazy sometimes these days). The older pirate was leaning against the handrail, one of his hands resting on his hip. Ace would never admit it, but he struggled to keep his attention from slipping to focus on the way the kimono the other man donned flared in a gentle wave about him. The pirate was dangerous, he knew, but he was also really pretty.

The other man seemed to wait until Ace zeroed and willed his attention on him. If the fire-user was willing to trick himself into further self-loathing, he would even say the commander had looked a tad concerned for a while there.

"What do you want?" he snapped. He turned his body to face the unwelcome visitor (was he really unwelcome? What was the worst that could happen, anyway?), flames sputtering feebly at his shoulders. He made for a pathetic threat, but it was better than giving up, right?

"My name is Izo," the older pirate finally said. "I must apologise. I hadn't realise you didn't know my name until today. I would have-"

"I don't care what your name is," Ace sneered. "Just do whatever it is you want and leave."

The Whitebeard didn't appear at all bothered by the interruption. "I would have introduced myself earlier. But I didn't want to overwhelm you, what's with the sheer size of my family." His eyes remained unreadable, though Ace didn't miss how they rested so heavily on him. "I hope you're not offended by my late introduction."

The fire-user inwardly rolled his eyes. Why wouldn't the man leave already? He was tired, exhausted, wrung out- everything that meant he just wanted to lay down and rest. He wondered how worth it it was to keep up his image of hostility. Would Izo (that was the name, right?) be alarmed if he just dropped in a heap and slept? "Yeah, well, I don't care. I just want you to go away." He made it a point to narrow his eyes.

Izo inclined his head. "I am glad you aren't offended," he said, purposely ignoring his intended message. He reached into his kimono and pulled out…an orange thing- a pillow? It was small and square, the width roughly the length from his shoulder to shoulder. How had Ace missed the bulk of it hiding in the guy's clothing?

While the fire-user silently berated himself, the Whitebeard deftly grabbed at his arm and shoved the offending thing into his grasp. Ace remained frozen at the unexpected touch (and it was so, so warm) and watched, his senses somewhat dulled (he thought maybe the water was affecting him still), as the kimono-clad pirate stepped away. The earlier look of concern (fake, his mind screamed) reappeared and the man seemed to have to hold back from…doing something.

"I hope your rest will go better with this, Ace," Izo said. His lips tugged into a gentle smile. He gestured at the pillow and looked pleased when Ace held it closer (he hadn't realised he did). "Marco will be along soon with your lunch. You could just settle down until he gets here."

The fire-user clamped his mouth shut when an automatic "okay" almost slipped past his tongue. He remained quiet, his gaze suspicious, as the commander nodded at him and left.

When the last of the man's fabrics escaped his line of sight and disappeared around the corner, he felt his insides clench in familiar pain. He hunkered down on himself then, the pillow clutched tightly in his arms.

He didn't know how long more he could go on like this.

His guess was…only for a while more. Right now, all he wanted to do was curl up, sleep, and while away the hours doing nothing. He wanted to go back home.

Ace let out a heavy breath.

It had already been 78 days, after all.

Sandaled feet came to a stop in front a hunched figure, the latter curled up so tightly as if to impersonate a ball, except this one breathed and was, at one side, plastered against several wooden crates. Above them was an arch that shadowed much of the silent teen. It casted spidery shadows over his lithe (but thinning) form. For whatever reason, he seemed even younger than his 18 year (at least, that's how old they thought he were).

Marco carefully sidestepped the loose floorboard he knew was next to him and lowered the basketful of food to the floor. Briefly contemplating the perks and not-so-good perks of staying put till Ace woke, he took the time to eye the kid up and down, his blue eyes sharpening to see through the darkened area for any sign of injury or illness. Other than the customary bruises and cuts, he couldn't spot anything too worrying, though he failed to banish the possibility of internal injury. Goodness knows the brat wouldn't volunteer the information.

Part of him urged him to leave. Routine had proven the kid would rail against him before giving in to eat. The look in the grey eyes admitted a tiredness that understood the futility of fighting back, and it grew more pronounced with each passing day. But, like the stubborn D. carrier he was, Ace never failed to at least raise his hackles.

The Phoenix rubbed the bridge of his nose. Then again, his earlier meeting with Izo had reinforced his suspicions that Ace's mental health was deteriorating. And quickly.

"Marco," Izo greeted quietly. A frown marred the commander's features, an odd look on the usually graceful pirate. It was one of the reasons Izo hated to frown or be angered.

"Izo," the Phoenix responded almost in reflex. He raised an eyebrow. "What is it, yoi?"

The sixteenth commander eyed the basket in his arms, then returned his attention to his older brother. "You were right. There is something about Ace that worries me."

Marco blinked. "But I hadn't said anything to you…?" he trailed off.

The other man simply looked unimpressed. "I've known you long enough to tell you already have your suspicions, brother." He waved the subject away. "I went to see Ace earlier to introduce myself. He was exhausted. And confused. I don't think he really understood what was going on."

It was the blonde's turn to frown. "He already knows who you are, yoi," he said slowly. Ugly realisation crept onto him. "You mean he was in such poor state of mind he forgot he already knew?"

"Like I said, confused. It worries me. He hadn't put much of a fight when I gave him the pillow I made either."

"You mean he hadn't put up a fight at all," Marco said. At the other's blink, he rolled his eyes. "I know you too." He sighed. "It's worse than I thought, yoi. I'll make sure he doesn't starve himself and see what I can do from there." He continued towards the deck. "Get the others to tone down their treatment of him," he called over his shoulder. "Goodness knows they weigh him down."

Marco started when the teen shifted. The kid must have realised he was no longer alone, for he immediately tensed. The blonde worked to keep his features impassive when grey eyes met his.

"I brought you your lunch, yoi," he said, pointing at the basket.

Ace's gaze darted towards the proffered food. As if in answer, his stomach grumbled loudly, and Marco could see faint blotches of colour redden the teen's cheeks. He offered a small smile, careful not to appear mocking.

"Just in time," he said casually. "Mind if I join you?"

The freckled pirate seemed to snap out of it then and glared at the commander. "Yes," he hissed. "I don't want company." Then, as if in afterthought, and as if it pained him greatly to say it, he forced out through gritted teeth, "And I don't want your stupid food."

"If you don't eat it, we'd have to throw it out," Marco pointed out reasonably. "Thatch cooked it with you in mind. The doctors said your body should take in soft foods to facilitate easier digestion, yoi."

He was met with a scowl. "I don't need your consideration," he said, voice cold and glacial. "You say he made it just for me? Easier to poison me too, I'm sure."

"If we wanted to off you by poison, you'd be dead by now." The blonde tilted his head, as if deep in thought. "Besides, making the poison would have been too troublesome."

Ace rose to his feet. To the commander's surprise, the kid held the orange pillow that must have been from Izo close to his chest. He was careful not to look at it. He didn't want to risk the kid throwing it away. "Stop making fun of me!" the fire-user was saying. "I must be fucking hilarious to you people. Stuck here, on your stupid ship, forced to eat your stupid food, with-with all of you making fun of me!"

Marco would normally expect Ace now to throw a punch or two before going on to explicitly express his displeasure with them for their hospitality. Instead, he stiffened when he caught an odd glimmer in the other's eyes.

"Ace, yoi," he said carefully, gently. "We are not making fun of you." He worked to keep his gaze off the moisture that seemed to fill the younger's eyes. "I'm sorry we made you feel that way."

"I don't care if you're sorry!" Ace burst out. An expression not unlike despair flashed across his countenance, clear even as his boyish features frowned in attempted aggravation. "I don't- I- I just want-"

Calm. "What is it that you want?"

The teen breathed heavily. "I want you to leave me alone!"

The commander lifted his arms, palms out, in a gesture of peace. He inclined his head. "I understand," he said after a moment. He paused again. "Are you alright?"

Silence met his question. He wasn't quite sure what he expected, but it certainly wasn't the way the fire-user started, only to stare at him with widened grey orbs. The tears that had gathered dropped onto his cheeks. It left a wet, dark patch in its wake, and for some reason, the commander couldn't pull his gaze away.

A soft voice snapped him out of it. "78 days," the teen said quietly.

78 days.

"Of course I'm alright."

A shuttered look met his.

"It's only been 78 days."

Ace hated himself.

If he had known he was going to cry like a baby, he'd have thrown himself into the sea (he knew he wouldn't have; that wasn't the way he wanted to die) and get himself far, far away from the Whitebeard pirates. But then, there wasn't a place he could think of that wasn't too near. His mind conjured up an image of the Moby Dick venturing into East Blue in an attempt to find their runaway stowaway. Not to recruit him anymore, he was sure, but to set an example of him. That was how the Whitebeards worked, didn't they? They punished those who tarnished their name or hurt one of their own so only the foolish would dare to incur their wrath. That was how the crew protected themselves.

The fire-user pressed the back of his fingers into his eyes, hard, silently berating himself for that moment of slipped weakness. Oh, how far he had fallen.

Just almost a year back and he was off sailing for the adventure he had been preparing for all his life. Now, he was caged in, alone. No one was going to find him and drag him, probably kicking and screaming the whole way still, out. Like it's always been, a voice whispered in his head. The faint brushes of determination tugged at his insides, and he remembered with certain clarity how he had once resolved to take Whitebeard down or die trying. Now that same resolve flickered and wavered weakly.

He wasn't quite sure what to do now.

The teen knew, deep down, that he couldn't go on like this. It had been 78 days since his last real interaction with his crew. And after 7 years with Luffy, he wasn't used to long periods of isolation anymore. Especially on board a ship where he was the odd one out, where everyone else was supposed to be an enemy.

Now, even the slightest hint of warmth made his heart ache with longing. Heck, the Phoenix's simple question (Are you alright?) was almost enough to send him into hysterics. And when the pirate in the kimono had touched his arm, Ace thought he was ready to bawl. It didn't help that the other members of the crew seemed to fall over themselves to "help him out".

And crazy though he was, the 17-year-old knew his reactions to their stupid smiles and invitations were very, very bad.

He hunched further into himself. Get your shit together, Ace.

Maybe it was time he seriously began to think of other ways to get off this ship.

"78 days," Whitebeard mused. "I didn't realise it had been that long."

The commanders were scattered across his room. Haruta sat at his feet, chin pillowed on his hands, his elbows tucked between his knees. Jozu was beside him, and, now and then, reaching out to ruffle the younger pirate's brown locks. Vista and Namur stood by the door, Izo next to Thatch on Whitebeard's left, and Marco had made himself comfortable in the plush purple arm chair (he had ignored the looks when he had gone straight for it, knowing his siblings believed he liked it for its colour), reading glasses on his nose and a notebook in hand. Any commanders absent had been too busy to attend.

The flames by the fire place flickered, sending dark, spidery shadows across the dimly lit room. Coupled with the faint scent of vanilla flowers and almonds, the Captain's sleeping quarters gave an air of cosiness that none of them seemed to achieve in their own private spaces.

The Phoenix flipped a page, the crinkling of paper loud and deliberate. "Yes, yoi," he said after a small pause. "It appears we have waited too long."

The Yonko raised an eyebrow. "Too long?"

"Yes." A tired look pulled at the first commander's drawn features. "Ace looks exhausted. I don't think he foresaw how his challenge to you would go."

"I don't think anyone thought their challenge would be met with the offer of adoption," Jozu muttered.

A few snorts met his comment. Marco, on the other hand, remained impassive.

"You think we should let him go," Thatch said quietly.

At once, a huge din broke out as the other commanders, sans Izo, broke in to protest. When Marco simply moved to rub the bridge of his nose, the Yonko raised his hand. In moments, the chaos quietened.

"Why do you feel this way, son?"

The blonde shrugged. "It's..." He tried to find the right words. "There is a tiredness about him that worries me. With how things are going, I think it will only grow worse."

"You said he was exhausted, right?" Vista cut in. "Maybe he just needs a lot of rest to recover his energy."

"Yeah!" Haruta agreed. "Sure, he's been behaving oddly the past few days, but maybe he's just not in the right state of mind to be thinking right."

Namur. "Who knows? He might be considering to join our ranks seriously this time."

"Which is why –" the Phoenix said over their voices "- it is all the more important we consider this carefully, yoi." He frowned at them, and there must have been something in his expression they didn't like, for his siblings backed down without another word. "Even if he does join our family, if he does so in this state of mind, as you have described, Haruta, there is the chance he may regret his decision when he is all well again."

There was a moment of brief silence. The crackle of the flames permeated the tense air as each pirate contemplated the weight of his words, their downturned faces tinted the colour of tarnished gold under the dim light.

The Yonko was the first to speak. "You believe," he said slowly, "that we have pushed Ace to the extent he cannot cope well. With how stubborn the brat is, you feel he'd sooner kill himself off than allow himself the reprieve of being one of us."

A slight, hollowed-out feeling took root in the zoan's chest. He flipped his book close, as if trying to conceal the list of odd actions on the kid's part he had noted down over the weeks, and nodded. "Yes."

"Why now?"

"Ace has been accepting Thatch's offerings of food lately. I had thought he was becoming more receptive to the idea of staying, yoi." He lifted a hand to brush his hair back. "Today, he refused to accept anything from us. He had a…" he trailed off, unable to think of the right words to say. "He had a slight breakdown today when I came with lunch."

"He didn't appear to remember who I was when I approached him today," Izo said.

Thatch sighed, and looked pained when he spoke up, "No one has been stealing from the food storages for the past few days." He glanced at the first commander, his normally cheerful countenance, twisted into a frown. "And apparently he's now rejecting food we bring to him too."

"But aren't we giving up too early?" Haruta protested. "I just spoke with him last week and he hadn't tried to set me on fire like the many times before!"

"Haruta is right. These changes are only recent. If we turn him away now, he will never join us," Namur said.

"I don't want to turn him away, yoi," Marco said tersely. He tried to calm the immediate defensives that ruffled his inner feathers. He leaned back to eye look of his sibling in the eye. "You know what awaits him in the New World. The kid is insanely strong for his age, I give him that. But there are much more stronger players out there, and they won't be as nice as we have been. And his crew? They are nowhere near their Captain's strength. They can't protect him the way we can.

"And we haven't even factored in their shaken faith in the Captain who's supposed to protect them. And Ace's state of mind. If he decides to keep his streak of going after the bigger players, what are the odds he'd always emerge victorious?" He threw a sharp look at Vista, who immediately snapped his mouth shut. "Yes, yoi, the ocean is vast. And yet, he bumped into us. Kaido's and that fat lady's men are all over the New World."

Thatch nodded slowly. "And I can bet my dinner the other Yonkos would have realised by now Ace's disappearance, what's with his loud demands to take on Oyaji. If he reappears with only his crew…"

Namur said in sick realisation, "They are bound to go after him to dig dirt on us."

The others looked disgusted at the thought.

"But then, why would you say we let him go?" Haruta burst out. "We'd be sending him to his death!"

Marco's fists clenched. "That's not what I-"

"That's enough," Whitebeard cut in, voice stern. His heavy gaze swept over his sons. His words were sombre. "If Marco has suggested it despite all his misgivings, then there must be a good reason for it." He turned to his oldest son in silent expectation.

The blond had to take a moment to calm himself. He was reminded of Ace's despaired features, the way the kid had looked trapped and helpless, as if he had lost sight of purpose. He remembered the distinct lack of fire which he himself had been attracted to from the beginning. Marco loved his family. His family was large and it required a man who was capable of hoarding a lot of love and compassion and understanding to reach the top ranks. How could he continue watching this boy, who was to be his brother, suffer and let it be for his own family's selfish wants? At the very least, this would protect them, he told himself. His heart ached for the suffering they were putting the kid through, regardless of their reasons. He didn't want to imagine how he'd feel if he already saw Ace as family.

"We have to let him go, yoi. It's his right," he said firmly. He ignored the way his brothers tensed. "Of course, I'm not saying we just leave him on some island." Here, his cerulean eyes gleamed. He turned to the head chef, who raised an eyebrow at the attention. "I was thinking…"


Ace reeled back in what appeared to be shock. Or, dare he say it, hurt. For a moment, Thatch questioned if this was the right thing to do, but he steeled his resolve when the teen covered up his lapse with a fierce glower.

"Had enough of your entertainment, I see," he hissed through gritted teeth. "Going to kick me out the first chance you get."

The head chef restrained from frowning. "You do realise you are trying to kill our dad, right?" he said, his tone light. Then, in a more seriously, he added, "We don't want to hurt you anymore. You don't want to join us. We don't want you hurt. Someone has to give."

A dark red flush coloured the fire-user's cheeks at the comment. "H-hurt me?" He spluttered. His shoulders flickered with flames. "You're not hurting me!"

"Oh?" Oh, the chef was going to miss the kid if he did leave. He allowed a small smile to grace his features. "So you wanna join our family?"

The crimson spots deepened. "No!"

Thatch laughed. "Thought so."

With deliberate steps, he moved forward to ruffled the teen's messy black locks. He kept his gaze locked with the kid throughout, watching as the other tensed at his approach. Grey eyes looked up at him in uncertainty as he slowly reached out to lay his palm, gently, on his head. Ah. So Marco was right. The kid stiffened even further, but made no move to set him ablaze. Most interestingly, he noted, was the way the kid seemed to lean into his touch, as if that small surface of connection was the only thing that kept him grounded.

"No worries, though," he said as he pulled away, filing the way the kid looked at his feet (in disappointment? Rage?) away. "We are in the more dangerous waters now, so I'll keep you company till you're out of the danger zone."

Ace's attention shot back up to him. A scatter of emotions flashed through his countenance, and the kid seemed to settle on disbelief and…annoyance? "What?" he demanded. "Wha-" He lifted his arms then, as if realising the futility of it. "I don't even know what to say anymore. You're kicking me out, and now you're telling me you're escorting me out?"

Thatch looked thoughtful. "Huh. Now that you say it like that, I am escorting you out."

Ace looked enraged. "I am not weak!"

"Of course you're not. You're a Captain who made it into the New World." The fire-user appeared to simmer down when he realised the commander was being sincere. "But," the chef went on, his dark eyes focused on the teen's, "to be fair, all we've seen of you these past 78 days were of you getting soundly thrown about by Oyaji. I hope you'd excuse us for worrying."

"S-shut up!" Ace's handsome features twisted into a cold, cold glare. "Not that I believe you, but I don't care what you feel. You want me out? Fine. You can just leave me at the nearest island and I'd figure things out from there. I don't need you – any of you! – holding my hand like a baby."

The chef shook his head. "I can't do that, Ace. Whatever you feel about it, I have my orders. And that is to keep you safe till you're in safer waters." He jerked his chin in the direction of the crowd of men at the other side of the ship. "They are preparing our ship as we speak." He raised a hand when the kid opened his mouth into a would-be snarl, he was sure. "It's a pretty small ship, but it's fast. So it'll just be the two of us. You don't have to worry about anyone else."

Perhaps the fire-user was finally realising that he had no choice but to go along with it, or perhaps he finally saw the respire he must have desired all this while, but the kid's body slumped. He directed his gaze to the floor, his lips pursed. His eyes were covered from the sun's glare by the brim of his hat, casting his features into shadow. Not for the first time, Thatch felt another tendril of pity for the kid. Ace…would have been a great addition to the crew. A brother who would have been their youngest for them to freely dote on and care for.

Goodness knows everyone on board were already so old, he thought wryly.

"Fine," Ace finally spat. "Do whatever you want. It's not like my opinion matters anyway." He turned to stomp away.

"I'll wait for you near the figurehead in two hours," Thatch called after him.

He inwardly sighed when the fire-user left his sight. It had only been 78 days, but he so wished the kid had decided to stay.

That evening, both fire-user and fourth commander left.

Due to Captain's orders, most of the crew had stayed clear of the deck, with only a select few of the commanders staying put to bid farewell to the teen. For Ace's part, he had refused to look at them, and had moved directly towards the small ship, his meagre belongings slung across his back.

"Take care of yourself, son," Whitebeard had said as he walked past.

No one had missed the way the teen's steps faltered, or how the he wouldn't look any of them in the eye. In the end, he continued on and disappeared into the other sea vessel, his back a little hunched.

It sank in, then, that Portgas D. Ace left their ship after a short 78 days.

It was also on the 78th day, three hours after their departure and minutes before the hour turned midnight, that the ship both pirates were on disappeared.

Rather anticlimactic, huh? Do leave a review. :)