Disclaimer: One Piece is © Eiichiro Oda. No profit is being made from this work.

Author's Notes: Spoilers for the Ace and Blackbeard situation; AU from that point on. The second of a three-chapter fic. Written for 101 ficlets: theme 038; falter.


Fragments
Picking up the pieces.


Fifteen months. And finally, a body has turned up.

Five of them, in fact.

There's a part of Smoker that's snarlingly, viciously enraged that he didn't get there first—he's not a fool, after all. He'd known who to look for. The other part, though, knows that Strawhat deserved the kill more than Smoker, and that's not even hard to admit. Strawhat may be a pirate, but he loved his brother, and Smoker understands that. Blood and family. There are things that can't ever be forgiven or forgotten.

When he sets foot on the next island, he sees the symbol from that too-familiar sail, painted onto a small white cloth that's tied to a pole and stuck in the ground like a flag. It's far too obvious to be missed, especially by someone who knows it so well. It disturbs him, because this is one of the few islands where the Log Pose takes only a scant few hours to set. Strawhat knows that Smoker is right behind him, and should have been long gone by now.

Smoker was counting on it.

But it's a call if there ever was one, and Smoker is now aware that Strawhat knows damned well why Smoker has been so closely following the same route he has over the past year and three months, and that it had nothing to do with trying to catch him.

He sure as hell doesn't want to heed the call, but there had been nothing left of Blackbeard's ship save for splinters and bodies he hadn't bothered checking because if Ace's corpse had not already been lost to the sea months ago, Strawhat never would have left his brother's body to sink beneath the waves.

Smoker knows. Logically, he knows that Ace is dead, that he has to be dead, but he needs to hear it. He needs to be able to stop watching the horizon for a sail he'll never again see.

Aware of the stir the Buster Call made, he uses his smoke to pick up the flag with Strawhat's mark and throw it far out onto the ocean. No need to give those less inclined to wait for complete information a reason to attack after the pirates are long gone.

The townspeople are mostly scarce; likely having recognized Strawhat's sail and known enough to get the hell out of the way once a marine ship appeared on the horizon, obviously in pursuit of the pirates their island is currently harbouring. Nonetheless, he receives an answer, however warily given, when he asks where the pirates have docked their ship. Apparently, on the opposite side of the island, there is another harbour. He's also told that it cleared out rather quickly when Strawhat made berth there.

He heads toward it with only the slightest hesitation, walking through the narrow streets on a strange sort of autopilot. There's an odd sensation in his gut that feels too close to dread for his tastes, clawing at his chest and kept at bay only by the numbness that holds steady within him.

As he turns out of an alleyway, finally reaching the otherwise deserted south docks, he comes face-to-face with the Strawhat pirate crew.

There is dead silence, and none of them—neither Smoker nor the Strawhats—move. The pirates' stances are wary ones, especially that of the newest member—Franky, a vaguely detached part of his mind remembers from the reports—who has likely been told who they're waiting for, and what he's capable of. Roronoa's looking more threatening than wary, though, placing himself a few feet ahead of his captain with one hand on the hilt of his white katana.

It doesn't matter. Smoker isn't looking at—isn't interested in—any of them. The clawing in his chest has become a steel band, constricting his lungs so that he can't breathe.

It is Strawhat who moves first, putting a hand to his namesake and tipping it over his eyes, casting them in shadow. There is a new mark on the back of his right hand; a deep, jagged scar, barely half-healed.

Without a word, Strawhat turns abruptly and walks back to his ship. His crew follows, just as silent, though a few look back quickly; the redheaded navigator, her eyes reflecting uncharacteristic compassion before she walks up the gang plank; the reindeer, nervous but not afraid; the cook, with a warning glance that, on any other day, would have caused Smoker to grind his teeth.

One after another, until only one of them remains.

He looks like he's been to hell and back, a few times. Scars, some old, some still in the process of healing, litter his chest and arms – and, Smoker presumes, his back. All are deep. There are ones at his throat, too – smaller, thinner, and shallow. After years as a marine, Smoker recognizes that it's the kind of wound gained from being held down at knifepoint.

Ace.

Smoker notes with a strange sort of detachment that his wild black hair is too long, a little bit past his shoulders now, and scraggly at the ends. He's thinner than Smoker remembers; the sharp planes of his body more pronounced, the points and edges of bone more obvious, and there's a marked loss of tone to his muscles. And despite all of that, Smoker knows that Ace likely looks a thousand times better now than he would have when Strawhat found him.

Ace licks his lips, and it occurs to Smoker that there's something in Ace's gaze that has never been turned on him before.

Wariness.

"Hey," Ace says. His voice is quiet, but it carries across the way to Smoker as easily as if he's yelling. "Sorry I took so long. Between fucking up my mission and the fun I was having with knives, I was a bit preoccupied." He tilts his head to the side, a strange smile on his face. "I was going to go right to you, once Chopper stopped having a stroke every time I so much as breathed wrong, but..." He waves one hand, as if that can possibly express all the things he so obviously isn't saying—doesn't yet want to say. "Luffy said you were following him still anyway, so I thought I'd just wait here. Didn't expect him to stay with me, but I guess I shouldn't have mentioned that you're not exactly the 'wait forever' type. Not... not that he thought you were going to attack me, considering I look like shit and you're not an asshole, but..."

He's pausing and hesitating a great deal, which is unusual and a little unsettling, but he hasn't yet stopped talking long enough to let Smoker speak. It's a constant stream of babble, not his usual string of wit and teasing, and that's almost as disturbing as the pauses.

Smoker wants to know, just as badly as he never wants to know, just what it was that allowed Blackbeard to break Ace so badly; still can't wrap his mind around the idea that Blackbeard broke Ace at all.

"It's been a while," Ace continues, finally saying what he so obviously wanted to avoid. His tone is calm, but there's something in his voice that reminds Smoker of broken glass; sharp and uneven. "A year and three months is... is a long time for someone to go missing out here. It wouldn't be weird if after a few months you'd just assumed... that I..." He stops again. "And moved on."

Smoker is about say something – anything – he doesn't know what, harsh or sharp; anything to make something flare to life in those dull eyes, but a tremor passes through Ace's body and he speaks again:

"He didn't come for me."

And just like that, everything clicks into place. It wasn't Blackbeard who broke Ace down, in the end; as if that piece of shit ever could have. It was the realization that someone he trusted, had devoted himself to, knew where he was, knew what was likely happening to him... and didn't think he warranted the effort it would take to free him.

Ace suddenly laughs, quietly, and it's a laugh that makes Smoker want to kill something.

"I shouldn't really have expected it, you know. That was... stupid, really. It was my mission. I failed." He's still stopping and starting, but not nearly long enough to have let Smoker get a word in edgewise since Ace first opened his mouth. "So, anyway. Bridges burned and all that. Just thought I'd... I don't know, let you know that I'm still alive. Just in case you... were wondering, but you—"

"Ace," Smoker snaps, and Ace shuts up immediately, either from the shock of Smoker finally saying something or using his given name. It doesn't really matter why. "I can't wait here all fucking day," Smoker tells him sharply. "If you keep yapping at me, I'm going to run out of excuses to not arrest your brother right now, and with you looking like that I can't imagine you'd be much use to him." Ace is staring at him, his blatant confusion an unfamiliar expression on his face. Smoker narrows his eyes. "Are you getting on my damn ship or not?"

Just like that, a little of the blankness in Ace's dark eyes clears. It isn't a big change, but it's a start; proof that however far Ace has fallen, he's still capable of fighting tooth and nail to get back to where he was. A shudder passes through the pirate's form, and Ace half-turns back to the Thousand Sunny to seek out his younger brother.

Strawhat is sitting cross-legged at the top of the gang plank, his arms folded over his chest and his hat shadowing his eyes. None of the other pirates are in sight, but Smoker knows damned well that they're all nearby.

"Thanks for the lift, little brother," Ace says, raising a hand in farewell. "I'll see you soon."

There's a beat of silence and stillness, but when Strawhat raises his head, he's grinning Gold Roger's grin; the same grin that looked death in the face, and laughed.

"Yep!" he replies simply. His attention is on Ace for only a few moments, though, before his gaze abruptly lands on Smoker, meeting the marine's eyes without any of the flight reflex Strawhat has displayed in the past.

Smoker had been expecting some kind of silent threat or warning, and it throws him off-balance when he doesn't receive one. Instead, there's an understanding; an acknowledgement of a mutual protectiveness and relief. It's startling to realize that there's a certain trust, there, too, because Strawhat is leaving Ace in his hands without hesitation or doubt.

Abruptly, Smoker breaks the pirate's gaze and turns away, intent on heading back to his own ship and knowing Ace will follow.

Strawhat is an idiot who sees far too much.

&

It's surreal sensation, Ace's presence beside him. It's almost like a waking dream—or perhaps a nightmare, because for all its illusory feeling, this feels real enough that Smoker knows that if he wakes up from this it will stab and twist deeper than any blade ever could.

Ace makes no move to touch him as they make their way back; doesn't say anything, and doesn't look at him, either. Smoker feels like their rolls have been reversed; it's Ace who is silent, withdrawn, and Smoker is the one who wants to reach out. Say anything. Strange how that, more than anything, unsettles him.

Frustration makes him grit his teeth until his jaw aches, grinding the ends of his cigars to almost nothing. From the scars alone, he has an idea of what Ace suffered during the year and a bit he spent a prisoner.

After nearly a minute of this silence bullshit, Smoker shrugs off his jacket and flicks out a coil of smoke, dropping it in Ace's arms. The pirate nearly doesn't catch it, his reflexes slow, which is troubling.

"You're going to scare Tashigi like that," Smoker says gruffly, partly because it's true, and partly because he doesn't what the hell else to say that doesn't involve murdering someone.

Ace stares blankly at the jacket for a moment before slowly slipping it on, burying his nose in the fur collar. A strange expression flickers across his face, somewhere between agony and something Smoker can't name, and then Ace abruptly drops into a crouch, his arms wrapped around himself and his eyes closed. His breathing is too slow and deep to be anything other than an attempt to calm himself down.

Smoker doesn't know what the hell to do, so he lights two new cigars and waits, grateful for the calming effect of the nicotine. Apparently, this is the right decision, because after a few moments Ace steadies himself and stands.

He looks at Smoker now, meeting his eyes without flinching, and there's a quirk at the corner of his mouth that could almost be called the beginnings of a smile.

"Don't be put off by my being fucked-up," he says, his voice hoarse with repression, but there's a hint of that old teasing that takes some of the sting out of the words. "You'll be cursing at me soon enough."

"I don't doubt that," Smoker snorts, but it's a habitual response more than anything, even after so long. Ace doesn't answer, just holding his gaze, and Smoker gets the feeling that he's searching for something.

Wordlessly, Smoker steps forward to reach out a hand and lightly push at Ace's shoulder, urging him toward the ship and retaining contact maybe a little longer than necessary. Unexpectedly, Ace reaches up and catches Smoker's fingers for just a bare instant before letting them slip away, but it's contact that Ace willingly made.

Some of the tightness in Smoker's chest eases, making it a little easier to breathe.

&

Tashigi's reaction to Ace's reappearance is nothing short of hysterical, in Smoker's opinion. When Smoker first steps back onto his ship, none of the crew gives him a second glance, assuming the worst and wanting to give him some semblance of privacy – but then they take notice of the young man who steps up beside him, and everything goes quiet. Not one person of the regular crew moves.

Tashigi, on the other hand, throws herself – or trips; Smoker isn't quite certain which – at Ace, hugging him tightly and nearly bowling him over. She's making soft noises that sound suspiciously like crying, and if all of this emotional display keeps up, Smoker's going to seriously consider smoking a third cigar.

"Hey, hey," Ace says, some of the distance in his eyes startled away by her reaction to him. He hugs her back, a little hesitantly, still-strong arms encircling her trembling shoulders. "I'm alive, marine girl. Still going to irritate your captain."

"Commodore," Smoker growls at him. Ace blinks at him, taken aback.

"You're not serious."

"He is," Tashigi replies in a muffled voice, half-incoherent, as her face is still buried in his chest and there are tears running down her face.

Ace looks down at her, then up at the rest of the crew. They've converged on the deck, no matter where they're actually supposed to be—even some of the ones who are supposed to be below deck—though they're all keeping some distance away, glancing at Smoker hesitantly.

"Go ahead, you idiots," Smoker snaps, rubbing the bridge of his nose to hide the flush that's forming there, and the crew immediately surges forward, surrounding the pirate and bombarding him with their concern and relief all at once. After four years, most of them had gotten to know Ace well enough that his year of absence hit hard, and those who hadn't were affected by the mood of the rest.

With obvious reluctance, Tashigi finally lets Ace go, wiping her eyes and stepping back an inch or two to give him some room. Her eyes trace the multitude of scars that mark Ace's once-smooth skin, concern and anger apparent in her gaze. It's just as well that Ace is wearing the damn jacket; at least she can only see the lesions on his chest, but even those are obviously upsetting her terribly.

All in all, despicable behaviour for marines.

After a minute or two, Ace gives up on trying to verbally answer any of the crew. They've quieted a bit, just a few of those who know him best speaking while the rest listen, but they still resemble a mob more than anything. Ace is trying to smile, and somewhat succeeding, but there's an echo of panic somewhere behind his eyes and his hands are trembling faintly.

It's too much, all at once. Ace, of all people, is not coping with a crowd. The realization is as sudden as it is sickening.

Smoker plants his heavy hand on Ace's head, scruffing the too-long black hair and lightly shoving him forward.

"Below deck, pirate," he says gruffly. He doesn't know what else to say to give Ace an easy reason to leave the crew without making it look like what it is: a retreat. It's Tashigi, her eyes still red, who saves face for both of them.

"Smoker-san, I think there are some leftovers from lunch." She glances at the head cook, who nods. "If you're hungry, Ace-san..."

"Yes," Ace says, dredging up a smile that's at least half-real, and that's enough. "Thank you."

He climbs down below deck almost immediately with a quick wave to the crew on deck. The lot of them watch him leave, and almost immediately, excited, hushed conversation begins among them; all of them steal a glance at Smoker at least once. He resists the urge to exhale sharply in exasperation; do they really think he can't hear them?

"Get back to your posts," Smoker growls at them, sending them scurrying, but they're livelier than they've been in a while—fifteen months, to be exact. There's a larger volume of chatter, voices too excited and movements too eager, and there's a cheerfulness to the lot of them that hasn't been present for too long.

&

Smoker doesn't even bother considering the galley when he drops below deck, instead heading straight for his quarters despite the fact that the door is shut, just as he left it. He pushes the door open, and isn't surprised to find Ace standing silently beside the entrance and just... looking at the room he hasn't set foot inside in over a year.

Smoker closes the door behind himself. His logia rises from his hands, curling slowly around the pirate's body in faint wisps almost without Smoker's conscious direction, brushing Ace's face and sifting through his hair. Ace shudders, closing his eyes and leaning a bit toward Smoker. After a moment, he opens them again, and speaks.

"I wanted to see you again," he says softly. He glances up at Smoker, and it's a bit of a surprise, how composed Ace's expression is. "You and Luffy. I really did think I was going to die, and that didn't bother me so much—there were times I wanted it to happen a hell of a lot quicker than it was, but dying happens to everyone. That wasn't..." Ace takes a deep breath and exhales slowly, steadying himself. "It bothered the hell out of me that I failed, mostly. That pissed me off. But more than anything, I wanted to see you one more time." A small, self-deprecating smirk flickers across his face for a brief moment as he meets Smoker's eyes fully. "Dying makes you sentimental, apparently. Who knew?"

There really isn't anything Smoker can say to that, so he doesn't. He's not sure he could have even if there was something to say. For the second time today, it feels like the breath has been knocked out of him, and it takes him a moment to remember how to breathe.

"Oh, christ," Ace says, when the silence drags on. The smirk Smoker gets is forced, but the sentiment behind it is real. "Don't be nice to me just because I went off and got myself tortured; you'll give yourself a stroke." Smoker scowls, though he does mean to say something this time, but Ace continues, "I didn't know what might've changed, when Luffy dragged me out of the brig. A year passes on the Grand Line... hell, a day passes on the Grand Line and everything changes. Luffy has a new ship and another nakama. You went and got yourself promoted. I don't think I want to know how the hell that happened."

"Alabasta," Smoker answers shortly, entirely unable to keep the irritation out of his voice—the decision and reason for promoting him still rankles him deeply. Ace doesn't seem to have heard him, though; not really. He's walking slowly around the room, fingers lightly trailing across Smoker's desk, the bulkhead, the bed sheets. Smoker watches him silently, stubbing out his cigars in the ashtray but not yet lighting new ones.

"I was gone for over a year," Ace says finally, his voice a little shaky but with a familiar hint of amusement that feels like the sun after a long, cold night. "Over a year, and nothing else is the same—but you still haven't changed a damn thing in here?"

"I didn't want to listen to your bitching when you decided to show up again," Smoker retorts, finally drawing out two fresh cigars and sticking them in his mouth. He reaches for his lighter, but the ends of his cigars suddenly spark with flame. He draws in a breath, and the tiny flame vanishes, leaving only the normal faint red glow.

Smoker glances up sharply, meeting Ace's eyes, and the corner of the pirate's mouth twitches into a smirk.

It's faint and fleeting, but real.