A/N: All characters are the property of Oda-sensei, I'm just a fangirl that buys his stuff.
It had been a good, solid lead. One worth Smoker's personal attention. A report that had been passed up with two very important items. Blackbeard and Mera Mera. The island chain where the informant had pinpointed was little more than a way stop for travelers on the Grand Line, another solid plus. His navigator gave a three week sail plan, which had given him plenty of time to work over the tricky problem of subduing Portgas D. Ace. He'd even come up with a fairly good operation.
Too bad almost nothing was right. Oh, the island group was nicely secluded, perfect for pirates to hide away in. The few small towns were scattered and lightly built to suit the Summer Island climate. But there was no sign of any of Blackbeard's crew and the Mera Mera user was not Portgas.
Because, outlaw and pirate he was, Smoker knew that Whitebeard's most valuable crewman and Straw Hat's brother would never have done this. Village after village burned to the ground, residents charred in the roads where they had tried to flee. Docks and ships fired to the waterlines.
Finding the culprit hadn't been hard, he was steadily burning his way through a fourth island. Stopping him was proving impossible. The devil-fruit killer had buffered himself in a miles long swath of wildfire, using the energy to feed and protect himself. There had been six towns left on the island when Smoker and his Marines arrived, after two bitter engagements, there were now only four. Both times, Smoker had been able to stall the insane man, but he had been forced to rely entirely on his own powers to do so. There was no way he could fight this with his normal sea stone laced gear, he needed every scrap of strength just to hold the other at bay long enough for a successful evacuation.
Smoker already knew that the island was lost. The only thing he could do was wait until the fuel ran out and the arsonist lost his protective cover. He had already sent Tashigi on to the next village, to organize the next set of evacuations and oversee the digging of several fire breaks. Delay, delay, delay. It was a bitter pill for him to choke down.
This town was already half empty and the fire wasn't due to reach here until the next mid-afternoon. So once the hastily scraped together evening meal was done and a last walk through his troops ensuring the continued flow of evacuees, Smoker picked out a left behind bed and collapsed. Despite his desire to constantly oversee everything, he desperately needed the rest before the next battle.
Morning came all too quickly, but instead of the expected wake up call from one of his own men, something impudent binked his nose. "Good morning, you crabby old bastard! Did you know that you snore just like my little brother when he's overeaten?"
Smoker's eyes snapped open to see a calloused finger waving just off his nose, ready for another tap. Smoker made a snatch for the offending digit, but it was pulled away. A tanned, freckled face grinned at him, far too cheery for both the hour and the location.
"Portgas," he growled, pushing his way up to a sitting position. "What in the seven hells are you doing here?"
Ace leaned back, squatting at the edge of the bed, powerful arms crossed to provide a perch for his chin. "Same as you most likely. Tracking Blackbeard. Got to Deepport yesterday and heard all then news, so I came over to take a look."
Smoker scowled at the younger man. Deepport was a good four days away down the chain and it was an unpleasant reminder that Portgas could make that sort of speed with his crazy little board. "I don't have the time to deal with you, brat. Blackbeard isn't here and if you still are in five minutes…"
"You're right, you don't have any time." The amused expression vanished off Ace's face like a snuffed candle. "Before I came looking for you, I went to go look at the fire. That fellow in there isn't happy about you ruining his fun and he sure as the depths was pissed to see me. He's heading this way right now."
"What?" Smoker was lunging off the bed now, a heavy hand wrapped around the smaller pirate's shoulder, pinning him abruptly to the floor. "What the hell have you done?" His jitte was in his free hand now and he was quite ready to kill the interfering upstart.
"What I've done, old man, is maybe given us a shot at taking him down!"
"Explain." The word was as cold as the sea stone weapon hovering at Ace's navel.
"He's not pushing the fire ahead of him anymore, he's dragging it along with him." Ace began, holding up a hand before the Marine could explode with frustration. "He'll be at the forefront and before you say it, that can make a difference. I think I can separate him from the real fire, but I need you to open a clearing when that happens so he doesn't get a chance to rejoin it. Once I've got him in the open, feel free to stick your jitte right through him." Ace arched a brow. "And try not to hit me while you're at it."
"That bastard is drawing an immense amount of power from those flames. Do you really think you can take him from them?"
"For three minutes taisa… he's got a lot of strength, but for three minutes, I can hold him."
Ace let out a slow breath as the Marine retracted his sea stone weapon. He could see the gears turning rapidly in Smoker's head, the weight of necessity steadily pushing away the trained reflex to absolutely arrest anyone with a jolly roger. There was a moment then, when Smoker shuddered, eyes momentarily shutting, when Ace knew he had won this decision. The older man had stepped back for a moment from his unconditional worldview to make the right choice.
"Get out, Portgas. I'll be dressed and with you in a minute." Smoker pulled away, stalking over to where he had deposited his clothes last night. Ace swallowed the impulse to make a crack at the Marine being modest now, after pinning Ace to the floor with nothing on but a pair of briefs and a deadly weapon… but they just didn't have the time for the fight that would have resulted.
So, Ace slipped outside, pressing his back against the morning-cool boards of the house and watched the slowly growing light dawning in the north. There were still people running around, fearful villagers cramming whatever they could into carts and tense Marines cajoling them onwards. The entire place smacked of despair and it left a cold pit inside of Ace.
He loved the power that burned inside him, the joyous thrill of flicker and movement and heat. He loved the thrill of feeding the turbine on the back of his board, screaming across the endless blue in a headlong flash. He loved dancing along that fine line between human and elemental fury, riding the Rush.
His brief encounter with the other Mera Mera user was painful. The other man was lost inside his own Rush, caring nothing now for anything but the desire to burn. Ace had made an attempt to push him out of the wildfire only to have the other turn and try to drag his own flames into the mix. Ace had heard the stories of this happening to the eaters of the Logia varieties of the devil-fruits. An ever burning flame, a fog that whispered and wailed in the night, shifting sands with a hunger and cunning more vile than the desert's wont.
The White Hunter came storming out the door, breaking into Ace's thoughts. Smoker in full hound mode was pure unrelenting focus, ashy clouds tendrilling alongside him. "Let's go, Portgas."
Ace's own power surged in response, tiny flickers playing across his skin. Ace pushed off the wall, falling into step beside the other man. Smoker's eyes darted briefly at Ace's move, the older man wasn't used to having someone walking there. Always it had been either prey in front, fleeing him, or a subordinate properly behind him. Never at his shoulder, never one who thought he was an equal.
It was barely fifteen minutes outside of the village when the glow of fire resolved into fast moving flames. Smoker eyed the new line. It was possible. If Ace could pull off what he claimed, the fire was thin enough at this point for Smoker to smother as much as necessary to give him a clear shot at the renegade.
"Three minutes, old man." Ace pulled a small golden ball out from his pocket, popped it in his mouth and bit hard.
Several months earlier - the Alabasta desert
His brother had certainly assembled the strangest crew Ace had ever seen and that was saying a lot for the Grand Line. Whitebeard's crew had passed stories of various pirates and Red-leg Zeff had been noted in a few. From the skills his protégé demonstrated, it wasn't just rum-fueled exaggerations. The green-haired swordsman who had faced off against Mihawk, lost and yet lived was a building legend all on his own and neither of these two men were even devil-fruit modified. …and the reindeer.
The damned thing was cute. Brow furrowed under the brilliant top hat, small half-cloven hands carefully working mortar and pestle and a high, young voice softly murmuring remembered instructions to itself - himself? Whatever the little doctor was doing, it looked terribly complex.
"Is that medicine?" He finally asked, leaning over the fire for a better look. The reindeer, Chopper his name had been, glanced up and nearly leapt out of his shorts.
"I! I! You! Fire!" A frantic hoof waved and Chopper grabbed at Ace's arm.
"Hmm?" Ace looked down. Oh. He rolled once, torso clearing the small campfire. "Sorry, forgot that sometimes people tend to get freaked about that." He waited until Chopper stopped hyperventilating and asked again, "So is that medicine?"
"I… uh no." The devil-fruit altered reindeer looked down into the mixture. "I'm making some more Rumble Balls."
That sounded interesting. "So what's that?" He grinned at the curiously eager expression crossing the doctor's furry face. The long explanation left him blinking.
"So, it enhances your power, right?" Ace was impressed. He'd never even heard of anyone improving on the devil-fruits. "Just yours, or anyone's?"
"I don't know." Chopper admitted. "I never had a chance to get to know Dalton and Luffy doesn't seem to need them."
While Ace did have a madcap sense of adventure like his brother, he did have a touch of caution that tempered him every once in a while. But this sounded so interesting…"Do you think I can try?"
The idea of experimentation grabbed Chopper's interest. "Just a little sample at first? Just to make sure there aren't any ill effects?"
It had been a small drop, but the sudden surge of heat had been intense, the flames brilliant and hot for a handful of seconds. Ace's eyes were practically crossed. Chopper ran a quick series of tests. "You've got an elevated heart rate and well, that may be your normal temperature. How are you feeling?"
Like he wanted to rut with every single available body in the camp, including the reindeer, the camel and his own brother. "Energized." He managed to squeak out.
"Oh." Chopper hummed thoughtfully, tapping a lip and seemingly oblivious to the squirming pirate. "Well, it is designed for use in a fight, so there are stimulants involved. If there aren't any further side effects by morning, it may be safe for your use."
Ace nodded carefully and slowly rose. His shorts chafed miserably at his near-fully hard erection and the freckled pirate aimed for the first tent in his path. The fact that it was occupied, a pair of heads jerking apart at his sudden entrance didn't deter him one bit. If truth be told, the sight of clothes half strewn about the floor was just what he was hoping for. "Oh, don't stop on my account," he purred darkly, letting the tent flap fall behind him.
Chopper had given Ace two of his freshly made Rumble Balls with a final admonishment to remember that they only worked for three minutes. The thin shell shattered between his teeth and the honey flavored liquid was absorbed almost instantly. Flames exploded across his body, no longer the rich red-gold of his normal blaze, but the blue-white flare of a far more volatile combustion. Dimly, Ace heard Smoker's startled shout, but his goal was in front of him and Ace was riding the very crest of the Rush.
Ace smashed into the leading edge of the wild fire, diving and searching for the other, his foe, his prey. Dimly he wondered if this was the same feeling that Smoker got when he had brought an elusive quarry to bay, that his own hunt with Blackbeard would give him the same resolution. Because it was powerful, heady, adding into the Rush. He struck at the heart, his flames slashing through the dimmer red flickers. Cut it off as it tried to slither away, gripping the twisting, hissing core and ripped it forward, his own voice rising through the roaring in a matching battle cry.
Somewhere near him, he could feel the smoke sweeping, beating down the lesser flames. The other shrieked, trying to lunge towards the retreating line and a part of Ace wanted to follow as well. No. He didn't need them, those embers would not sustain his power. He spread his own fire, mantling furiously at his coiling prey, continuing to hold it clear.
When the Ball wore off, it was instantaneous and caught him by surprise. He was suddenly so very weak. His prey, no longer helpless in the face of those burning white talons, lunged forward, battering at him now, desperate to escape to the body of the fire. Had Ace been alone, the other might have succeeded. But smoke poured into the battle now, pushing the two apart for one split second. And the jitte struck.
A young man, younger than even Luffy sudden coalesced, shrieking in agony as the weapon dug deep into his chest. Smoker, almost completely solid now, bore down with a crunching twist and the boy shuddered and kicked as blood frothed. What was left of his voice was rising in a final desperate plea.
"For your crimes, I judge you guilty and sentence you to death." There was no pity or remorse in the dark gaze, simply the implacable Hunter staring down at prey finally caught.
Ace stayed where Smoker had pushed him, watching the execution with an almost disinterested air. Coming down out of his battle-high had never been so difficult before, his body still craved more of that glorious power. Idly, his gaze turned towards the fire line; now that the dead Mera Mera user was no longer fueling it with his will, parts of it were breaking up. You could use that. Get back the power. Ace shivered in the sweltering air.
No. He didn't need it. He knew that. He was tired, that was all. He'd never felt so frayed in his life and the fire looked so tempting. So what if his control was slipping a little? He could call it back, he could…
"Taisa…" Smoker looked up from where he was watching the last dregs of life slip away from the killer. He was damned if he was going to remove his jitte until there was no chance of revival. The Portgas brat was swaying, his skin gray and shivering.
"What, Portgas?" he snarled.
"I think… I think you had better stop me… oh fuck… the fire, Smoker. Can you hear it?" Portgas took a hesitant step forwards, flickers arcing over his skin, faint but slowly growing. "I want it… the Rush, I…" Ace bit down on a lip that was rapidly becoming overtaken by his rising flames.
Smoker moved. The cuffs were in his hands as he reached the pirates side and he withstood the heat for the moment necessary to lock the sea stone laced restraint onto a dissolving limb. Ace solidified instantly, his skin going even paler, ghastly under his normal tan. Then the young man's eyes rolled up and he collapsed without even a whimper.
Smoker caught him on the way down and locked the second cuff just above the first. He let the arm fall free, feeling the protective screen of his smoke pushing way the heat of the fire-blasted battleground. Well, if they stayed here, Portgas would probably die from the aftereffects of his fight. And while one part of him shrugged and said, well he was going to be killed sooner or later the part of him where his honor rested flat out insisted that the boy not be abandoned here. He needed treatment and in a place not currently blasted bare and half melted. Finally, there was the other reason he needed Portgas alive.
What in the watery depths of hell had the pirate done? That little ball, it had kicked Portgas into such a high level of power it had nearly blasted him apart with just the back draft of his flame. There had never been even a hint of this thing before. Smoker needed that information badly. So, he shrugged out of his heavy leather coat and bundled Ace's limp body into it. He lifted the pirate onto his shoulder effortlessly and walked over to the body. There were the remnants of pants on the killer, Smoker used that to grip the body and drag it with the jitte still firmly stuck.
"You cause me so much trouble, boy."
He was tired. So very very tired. He wanted nothing more than to relax into the blackness of sleep, but things kept nipping at him. The cold. It had been years since he had been cold, and this was laced with the unforgiving weight of the depths. It left him achy and pummeled, he needed so much to find warmth. The voice. It was keeping him from true slumber as well, constantly goading at him, talking to him, telling him to drink, asking him questions he wasn't sure of the answers to. The memory of the Rush. He had lost it there, he remembered. There was a part of him that still wondered if he was still lost in it, was burning uncontrollably like that other… he whimpered, trying feebly to claw his way back.
"Relax," the voice came again. "Stop fighting so hard." A touch, warm and solid and he pressed towards it, seeking the warmth. There was something against his lip. "Drink it Portgas. You need the nourishment." A taste, warm and rich, broth. He couldn't remember what kind. The cup was removed and he cried out at it's loss, the loss of the warm. The sea rose up to drag him down again.
If Smoker had kept carpeting in his cabin, he'd have worn a hole straight through it with his pacing. He ought to be pleased. The killer was stopped, the fires now almost under control and he had one of the biggest prizes of the Grand Line. Headquarters had been terribly pleased with his report on the handling of the rogue Mera Mera and for once had not immediately ordered him back, allowing him to continue to lead the recovery efforts.
But he had yet to mention Portgas D. Ace save for the fact that the lead had been false, that the devil-fruit eater he had killed was not Fire-fist. Is this how it starts? That road of corruption that so many other Marines have fallen to? The young man was not in one of his cells, nor was he in the secure area of the infirmary. Smoker looked over to the low cot next to his desk. No, Portgas was here because Smoker needed to interrogate him during the rare semi-lucid moments the pirate had. It was convenient to keep him here and there was no real need to send a partial report to Headquarters.
And you're making excuses, Hunter. You're lying.
There had been nothing that Portgas had needed on this series of islands. But once the pirate had proof that his own leads were false, he hadn't left. He had done the honorable thing, something that Smoker would have rewarded any of his Marines for doing.
"What the hell is wrong with you and your damned brother boy?" Smoker snarled at the limp form. "Why…" Why aren't you fitting in your slots? Why do I look at you and see you doing all the things I want to be able to do? He stared at the sagging arm with the sea stone shackles binding Portgas down, robbing the boy of his strength and keeping his recovery at a standstill. Allowed his gaze to drift up to the oddly misspelled tattoo gracing the lean arm. There was a story there, he knew, most likely a funny one.
Smoker eyed the keys on the surface of his desk. If he was going to get anything useful out of Portgas, the pirate needed to be far more lucid. Other than the mumbling that the ball was made by the magic deer and good for your sex life. His hand hovered above the key.
Is this how it starts?
Ace's eyes snapped open. The familiar thrum of power was back, filling him with it's comforting heat. He was in a dark room, a ship by the faint motion and creak of planks in a calm harbor. There was a strange lax stiffness to his body, it had been a while since he'd moved. Slowly he eased himself up, hissing softly as his muscles protested. There was an answering shift behind him and he twisted on the narrow cot.
Smoker looked back at him impassively, sprawled in his chair, the familiar twin glowing coals being tapped into an ash tray. "Tell me about the ball, Portgas. Tell me what that thing did to you."
Ace rubbed the back of his head, blinking at the odd tone in Smoker's voice. "It's Chopper's. Luffy's doctor makes them. Thought it was neat, thought I could handle one, so I asked him for some." he sighed, allowing flames to flicker along his fingers, watching the play of familiar red-gold. "I don't think I ever want to use one again unless I had no other choice. It pushed me right into the Rush."
"Does anyone else know?" The voice was insistent.
"Don't think so, old man. It's Chopper's creation. Why are you asking me?"
"If you thought Dance Powder was bad… imagine what a few of your less savory cutthroats could do with that ball. That little doctor will have a price on his head so large, it will make Straw Hat's bounty look like pocket change."
"Smoker…" alarm began to course though Ace's veins. Was he going to have to burn the ship and kill the Marine to protect Luffy and his crew?
"But as you said, right now no one but the Straw Hats, you and I know." Heavy limbs shifted and the cigars rose back up to Smoker's lips.
"So what happens now?" Ace's voice was soft.
"Now?" There was a heavy trace of resigned irony. "Now, it's dark and I can't see a thing. Tripped over that damned bag of yours twice under the port hole."
"And my board?" There was something breaking loose in Ace's chest, a grin stretching from ear to ear.
"Securely tied to the side of the ship where I can keep an eye on it. Do you think I'd want a valuable prisoner like yourself to escape without me knowing?" There was a heavy snort with the final statement. Ace felt the smoky tendrils wrap around his body, flickering alongside his own flames.
"No, no I guess you wouldn't." Ace slipped from the bed, saw his shoes and hat lying next to the bag.
"It will be dawn soon. My vision's very good in the light." Not much more than a low snarl that voice now.
Ace could feel his reckless side pleading with him now, mixing with the sensible suggestion to get the hell out now, while the getting was good. Felt like recklessness wanted one good swing first. He crossed to the desk in a fast hop, dropping his arms to either side of the startled Marine's head.
"Dawn. I'll remember that." He leaned forward and took the other man's lips under his. As first kisses went, it wasn't the best, but the surprised shudder that ran through Smoker and the response of his power told Ace everything he wanted to know. He skipped back just ahead of the billowing smoke, grabbing his satchel. "See you around old man!"
And he was gone. There was the brief hum of the fire-fueled turbine and a splash as the speedy board left the side of the ship, but Fire-fist was gone.
"So, this is how it starts."