The glaring sunlight peeked past the green, leafy trees and shone on to the face of a grown man. His brown freckles lit up under the bright sun and, slowly, he began to open his eyes to the unfamiliar place. Except, as he sat up and studied his surroundings, he realised that this was no new place. Ace had been here before. Many times.
Stumbling to get up, he looked for the trunk of a nearby tree for support and managed to stand. When he was finally fully awake and comprehensive of where he was, Ace widened his eyes at the tree in front of him. If he wasn't wrong, it was the exact tree he used to climb on. The big fat branch on the left had been the reason - it was perfect him and his brothers to climb on to.
The overwhelming reality made his knees buckle and his mouth open slightly. There was no way he could be back here, Foosha Village. Ace hadn't been here since he left when he was seventeen, leaving his home in search for his own life. Yet, even now, he still knew the forest like the back of his hand. It had been his training arena, before Ace had met the real world.
"I'm home..." Ace whispered to himself in disbelief. "Hang on, why am I not dead?"
The memory of his death and Luffy's broken expression flashed in his mind and Ace felt his heart physically crack. He had let his brother down, he had let everyone down and Ace knew it. It had hurt like hell, leaving the world where he had finally found family and purpose. Ace had just begun loving life and part of him wanted to fight with death. It felt unfair. "It can't be changed," Ace murmured quietly to himself as he leaned down and picked up his hat, putting it on his head.
He started to turn around, subconsciously working out where his old home was. Ace had decided that it was useless trying to work out how he had gotten here and whether he was alive or not, but if he had to guess, this was probably his last moment on Earth, before he went into a full state of death. Perhaps the universe was giving him one last chance to cherish life and remember his first home and family. Though, he knew that this wasn't really home if Luffy and Sabo were not here.
Suddenly, three combined shouts came from behind Ace and he turned around, astonished. He knew those voices too well. "Oi! You stranger! You're intruding on our territory! Tell us your name and your purpose here!" said the angry kids. Ace faced them and blinked.
"What... Hahaha... Am I seeing things?" Ace laughed in disbelief, but then this turned to a loud, genuine, guffaw. "AHAHAAHHAHAH! ARE YOU KIDDING ME RIGHT NOW?"
"HEY! Don't ignore us! Answer Ace!" the youngest black-haired boy shouted at him furiously.
"Luffy... Sabo... And you," Ace pointed at each of them, stating their names. "So this is the past."
"What are you talking about?! Stop confusing us! How do you know our names?" Sabo raised an eyebrow at the grown man. "You're very suspicious. We may have to beat some sense into you."
Ace grinned at them. "Ah, don't worry. I'm not going to do anything to you. Please, continue with your hunt. You're looking for that bear that's always chasing Sabo and his fluffy hair, right?" He remembered when he used to do that.
There was a pause as the brothers looked at each other with uncertainty. Of course, why wouldn't they be confused? Ace knew that his younger self used to be much too cautious than he was now. The fear of people's resentment used to burden him, even if Ace hadn't realised it then.
Ace knelt down to the ground and smiled at them, "Don't you recognise me?"
"You look like Ace. Are you his dad?" Luffy asked.
Younger Ace glared at Luffy, "Idiot! This guy isn't my dad!" But Ace didn't miss the tense look in his younger self's eyes. Mentions of his dad used to make his stomach churn because Ace had hated his heritage as a child. It had haunted him until his adulthood.
"Luffy's right... this guy looks a lot like you. Maybe he's your future self, ha!" Sabo joked with a grin. "I don't think he's a bad person though." He twirled his famous steel stick with one hand and Ace couldn't help but stare.
This was really Sabo, his other brother whom he had missed for so long. Ace used to ache at the fact that his brother had died, and still did. Now, he was right in front of him. Looking just like he used to. Unable to hold in the tears, Ace's eyes stung with tears. The wall he had put up for so long, collapsed.
Since he was really given the chance right now, Ace was going to take it and say the last words he never could.
"Sabo... I've missed you so much," his voice cracked and Ace wrapped his arms around Sabo, bringing him into a tight hug. The young boy stood still, stunned, but he didn't move away. As if reading the situation, Sabo's arms wrapped around Ace too, patting his bare back lightly. "I'm so sorry," Ace sobbed uncontrollably, tears streaming down his face. "I've just missed you so much. I loved you like a brother, Sabo. I'm so sorry I couldn't help you. Please, please, forgive me Sabo." Ace buried his face with his hair and tears as he clutched Sabo tightly and cried. "I've missed you, so, so, so much." His voice was soft, broken, mourning.
Sabo didn't know this man, yet, he felt a strange connection to him. The connection was exactly like the man had described it - a brother's love, despite the unfamiliarity. He wanted to hug him too, comfort him. Something told Sabo that this man had gone through so much that it could only be expressed in the tears that was soaking his shoulder. "It's okay," was all young Sabo could say.
Finally, Ace forced himself to let go of Sabo. He was just glad that he could see Sabo before he died. Slowly, he twisted his heels and turned to Luffy, who was on the other side of his younger self. Ace still could not get over seeing a version of himself that seemed almost unfamiliar.
Before Ace could even speak, young Luffy grinned widely at him and leaped on to Ace, hugging him tightly. "You wanted a hug from me too, didn't you?" Luffy said. "I'm beginning to think that you're also Ace."
Ace felt himself melt into tears again as he returned Luffy's hug, holding the small boy carefully in his firm embrace. "Luffy, my brother," Ace whispered, crying. "Thank you, for everything. You saved me Luffy, thank you so much. I'll always love you as my brother. Never forget me. You're going to be the Pirate King one day, you know that? Don't give up your dream." Ace couldn't stop the sobbing and tears. Luffy had been there with him through the worst.
Luffy only smiled brighter and laughed as the two let go. "Thanks! How did you know I wanted to be the Pirate King? Anyway, I'll definitely become the Pirate King for you now, Big Ace! Just watch me! Also, I don't know what you're talking about with all the saving and stuff, but just know that I will always save you!" Luffy whacked the younger Ace on the back, "And you too! I'll always save you too! No matter what!"
Young Ace did not reply, instead, he stared at his older self strangely. "What about me? Do you have anything to say to me?"
Immediately, Ace hugged his younger self tightly. "I'm you in the future, you know," Ace whispered hoarsely, his voice thick with tears. "You need to listen to me. Live life to the fullest and always remember these brothers you have - they're going to help you through the hardest times. Don't think your life is a waste or that you should never have been born. In the future, you're going to find that life is worth living. Go out to sea, find your purpose, be happy. You're not worthless, you're not trash, you're not a criminal. You're loved in this world, Ace. Always remember that."
In his arms, Ace felt his smaller self shake. He could hear the soft tears, tumbling from young Ace's cheeks. His young self had heard what he needed to hear, Ace knew that. That's all that he needed to do to for the young boy. "Gol D. Ace was not a mistake," he whispered but didn't let go. He knew that little Ace would never have wanted to let his brothers see him cry, and so he let him cry secretly in his arms. Letting all the silent, heartbroken tears out.
"So you really are me from the future?" young Ace spoke quietly above his own tears.
"Is my life good?"
"... That's good."
I think... I'm done. Finally, Ace left the world.